We met Lester in line at the Havana airport waiting to get our passports not stamped to get into the country. The official simply stamped the desk. No mark was left on our American passports that we ever were in Cuba. Lester stood in line in front of us with a yoga mat strapped to a carry-on. I asked him if he was a yoga instructor, he returned a rapid-fire of Spanish for which my brain was not yet primed. It didn’t matter. We spoke in enthusiasm, gestures and mutual commitment to communicate. It was enough for me to create a story from the 5 words per sentences I actually caught and relay my version of the facts to Miles so he could participate as well. Lester was a ballet dancer, a known one, the star of the main ballet company in Havana. How lucky we were to be American, he said, with stars in his eyes. America! Land of Freedom! We could go anywhere in the world, as we wished. He considered himself one of the very lucky ones. He traveled for ballet. He had a passport – he proudly showed me the much-coveted small blue book. His dance company had paid for his passport – at 100 CUC (convertible pesos) the equivalent of about 5 months of average Cuban salary. As a dancer, he had traveled to Europe and South America. He loved being a dancer. When asked at the age of 4 which sport he wanted to practice, he said he wanted to dance. His way was paid from first ballerina shoes to major auditions that led to stardom. There is no incentive to be a doctor or a lawyer or a business man, if salaries are the same. There is no societal pressure to be anything else than what you wish to be. When he was not traveling, Lester lived with his aunt, in Havana. “Take my aunt’s number, ” he said, “in case you need help.” His turn to get stamped. A wave of goodbye. We never saw him again.
“Disculpe Senor! – Excuse me, Sir. Do you know where we might buy some rum?”
Gorge stopped in his track and turned to face us with what I thought was an exasperated look. “Yes. I do. Follow me.” He turned back to the street and immediately took off, swinging an umbrella in one hand and a briefcase in the other – “Did it rain?”, “No.”, he said “but it would if I didn’t carry it.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking. I trotted behind his fast gait, holding Miles’s hand for extra pull. We followed him from one street to the next, answering strange questions in the same rapid-fire Spanish, which my brain was beginning to decipher a little easier. “Where are you from?” “When did you get here?” “How long are you visiting?” “Do you love her?” – asking Miles, pointing to me – in the same breath. “I would not usually have stopped to talk to you.” he said. “So many tourists wander the streets of Havana, I prefer to avoid them …” He turned the corner of a street and cursed a curse I had not heard before – the store was closed. “I know another. Follow me .” He turned around and continued at the same pace in the opposite direction, “… But you asked so politely, so now I have to help you.” There was a sense of desperation in his voice. Because I had asked politely, I had indebted him. Strange. We sped across a very small park with a few benches. The place was packed with locals. All the other small streets had been empty. “Oh, this? Internet spot.” To get on the Internet in Cuba, one must buy Internet minutes. $10 for 100 minutes, but you have to stand in the Internet spot, underneath the tower. Most people have cell phones. They gather one family around one phone, buy phone minutes and delight in passing the phone to each family member. We took note of the address, and the method, and finally landed at a little counter cut in the wall. Cigarettes and rum – That’s all they sold. Gorge gave us a quick primer on what the different rums were, then handled the transaction for us. He threw in two small cartons of white rum. “This is my favorite. You need to try it.” He handed Miles one of the cartons as he opened the other for himself. In the time we each took a sip, he had already finished and crumpled his. “Thank you for the gift.” he said, “I must go home now.” His debt was paid. “You should keep this one too.” Miles said, and handed him the second, almost untouched, carton. “Really!?” “Of course!”. His face lit up as he disappeared into Miles’ bear hug. “You are good people!” he said, and he was gone.
Milton was leaning against a car, watching tourists walk by. “Hey, weryoufron?” It always seemed to be a one-word sentence, wheryoufron. At first, Miles thought to claim Canadanianship, because no one really like Americans, do they? But I feel that if all the good American travelers claim to be Canadian, then they take all the credit and we remain the ugly Americans, so I prefer to own it, to whatever end. “Ha! Americanos! I love, I love!” Milton said, pointing to the American baseball team logo on his cap. In Cuba, it turns out, being American was a real bonus. When we claimed to be Canadian – we tried – we received warm welcomes, but when we owned up to being American, excited conversations erupted. “Welcome back!” they yelled. Everybody in Cuba has a brother, a mother, an uncle in the US, usually Miami – family they have not seen since the mid-1990s. “It is too bad what happened with our countries. But now, with Obama, we will be friends again.” Milton shook Miles hand, and they hugged like two long-lost brothers. “Americans need to come back.” he said. “Look. This needs to change.” He pointed to the dilapidated buildings on both sides of the street. “There is no money to fix anything. This used to be the most beautiful city in the world, and look at it now. We live in ruins, and no one cares. No one earns enough to pay for the concrete or the paint. We all live in poverty. The government does nothing to help the people.” We had heard similar opinions from other Cubans in hushed tones, but Milton didn’t care. He said what he had to say loudly, and most local passersby glared at him or changed sidewalk. Milton had a lot to say. He spoke sufficient English to communicate with Miles directly. After a while, the political conversation lost my interest. Instead I observed him, his lanky body in that ragged shirt, his dirty jeans, the fire in his eyes, the 1950s car he was leaned against – just another vintage exhaust-making machine. What would it have been like in the 1950s? When Hemingway walked this street. The extravagant Havana high-life of the pre-Castro revolution. I then became fascinated with Miles’s patience. Milton’s complaints seemed cyclical – from poverty to the government to the buildings and back to poverty. I was ready to continue exploring Havana, but felt it would be rude to just walk away. That’s what tourists do, don’t they? So, I watched Miles and learned. Eventually the cycles waned, and we were able to exit the conversation gracefully. I never fully recovered from that encounter. All I saw of Havana before Milton was the beauty of the people, the cars, the cigars, the music … now I had seen the dilapidation and the poverty. And I could not unsee it.
next … Blanca.