We walk around for a few more minutes, and I pay the extra fee for us to climb the bell tower, the city spread before us. I look out past the terra-cotta-tiled roofs that appear as though they would simply crack off with a strong gust of wind.
“Are hurricanes bad here?” I ask. Growing up in South Florida, I am intimately familiar with the havoc storms can wreak.
“It can be hell,” he answers. “Often the buildings are in such a state of disrepair that even relatively mild weather can prove a problem.”
He keeps his voice low again, closing the distance between us. Even here, surrounded by tourists, it’s clear he’s afraid to speak his mind.
Across the water, there’s La Cabaña, the infamous prison Che Guevara ran after the revolution. The sight of it sends a chill down my spine when I think about the blood shed there, the lives lost. There’s a violence to our history that gets lost somewhere in the telling, buried beneath the beautiful scenery, the deceptively blue sea and sky, the palm trees swaying placidly in the breeze. It’s the sound of firing squads that echo in the wind.
“They’ve built shops there now, a restaurant,” Luis murmurs, his body tucked away from the tourists, his mouth hidden in the curve of my neck. “You can gawk at the world’s largest cigar in the site where we bled.”
There’s something so ironically vicious about that.
Luis stands patiently beside me as I take pictures of the landscape. I’ve blocked out the other tourists, but he seems faintly amused by the conversations around us; his English is quite good given his ability to understand the British family arguing over whether they’re going to return to their hotel or continue sightseeing.
Once I’ve finished snapping photos, we leave the church and meander through the streets, drifting from one landmark to the next. I stop occasionally to take more pictures, filling the pad with additional observations. Some journalists use electronics, but there’s something about the rhythm of putting pen to paper that I can’t resist. It adds to the spirit of my surroundings—I imagine Hemingway scribbling in old notebooks, the ink staining his fingers as he sips a mojito in the late Havana sun.
Havana lends itself to the romantic and idyllic even as the evidence to the contrary is everywhere I look. Perhaps that’s the double-edged sword to being Cuban—we are both pragmatic realists and consummate dreamers.
We walk on, the sun growing brighter, the heat increasing. My dress sticks to my skin, the air pregnant with humidity; it’s like being back in Florida again.
There are other landmarks to explore; the father of Cuban independence, José Martí, is everywhere—on statues and streets. We all claim him as ours, revolutionaries and exiles alike.
“Are you getting hungry for lunch?” Luis asks as we walk down the street.
“Yeah, I am.”
We walk a bit farther and leave Old Havana behind, the scenery changing to more run-down buildings, less antique charm. Dogs roam the sidewalk, others lounging in the available shade. The pedestrians on the sidewalks shift from European tourists to locals. I stand out here, my clothes setting me apart from those on the street, the unmistakable sense that I belong more with the tourists than I do in this Cuban neighborhood, a visitor in the country that should feel like home.
We buy tamales from a stand in Vedado. The cornmeal is warm and moist, perfect paired with the sweet soda I buy from the vendor as well.
I stumble on a crack in the sidewalk, and Luis is there at once, his hold on me steady and reassuring. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot the same two men from earlier at the church and the Hotel Nacional, except now that they’re removed from the tourist spaces it’s clear that they, like Luis, belong to this part of the city.
“Are you okay?” His hand wraps around my arm, his breath along my skin.
I nod, pulling away, shutting down the urge to lean into him, to relax my body against his. That’s the thing about desire—it creeps up on you at the most inconvenient times, too often with the most inconvenient people.
We continue walking, and this time I pay more attention to my surroundings. The vendors in this part of the city aren’t selling touristy items, but basic things Cubans can use in their everyday lives—fruits and vegetables, shoes, books. A few doors down, a queue of Cubans line up outside a building that looks similar to a convenience store, dogs hanging around here, too.
“They’re getting their food rations,” Luis answers when I ask about the line. “On average, your ration book entitles you to rice, sugar, cooking oil, eggs, pasta, and coffee every month. Protein—typically chicken—every ten days. A bread roll every day. Every few months you get salt. Young children and pregnant women receive milk.
“It’s never enough,” he adds, his voice low once again. “They run out all the time—milk? Forget it. You have to go all over town, standing in lines to get all your rations. It’s a job in and of itself. Literally.”
I am filled with the deepest amount of shame as I think of all the food I’ve taken for granted throughout my life, the Michelin-starred restaurants where I’ve dined.
“Some of the wealthier families hire someone to get their rations for them,” Luis explains. “And you used to not be able to buy certain items unless you had the tourists’ currency.”
“The Cuban convertible peso.”
He nods. “See why the paladares and businesses like the casas particulares where people transform their homes into hotels are so important? Things are slowly changing, and previously banned items are now available to Cubans who pay in regular pesos, but they’re so expensive hardly anyone can afford them. While our guests in the paladar dine on ropa vieja, many Cubans have never even tasted beef. Supply is an issue considering we import the vast majority of our food.”
“So where do people go to get the food they need when the government stores aren’t enough?”
“The black market.”
“What’s the penalty if you’re caught?”
“It depends on the scale of involvement in the black market, but it’s not unheard of for people to be sentenced to more than fifteen years in prison. You can serve a greater sentence for killing a cow than a person in Cuba.”
“—hasn’t been to Cuba in a very long time,” Luis replies.
Silence falls between us.
I’m at a loss for words. The life he describes is a far cry from mine, and I feel awkward around him, as though the things I could contribute to the conversation are frivolous and shallow in comparison. I spent so much time listening to my family’s stories about the revolution, and yet, I failed to consider how bad things were for those who remained. My family focused on the revolution and its effect on them, but less attention was paid to the current state of things.
Food rations and fear make up Luis’s Cuba, and my version of it is something else entirely, one that slips through my grasp more and more with each step I take down the Havana streets. I came here hoping to understand more about where I came from, but now I feel more lost than ever.
We walk toward a section Luis tells me is called La Rampa. Crowds of people stand around with their phones out, their gazes riveted by the mobile devices.
“Wi-Fi zone,” Luis explains. “One of a few in the city.”
We pass a cinema and what used to be known as the Havana Hilton, Fidel Castro’s onetime headquarters and home.
“You get more of a feel for how everyday Cubans live here,” Luis says. “Old Havana is great, but it caters to tourists. There’s a different ambiance here.”
Across the street he points out Coppelia—the ice cream shop Fidel made famous after the revolution.
“It’s always busy,” he answers when I comment on the size of the line. “Cubans do lines better than anyone. Lines for bread, lines for beans . . .” There’s good-natured humor in his voice; I guess if you can’t laugh about it then you just might cry.
“You probably don’t do much waiting,” he adds, and I can’t tell if he’s speaking generally about life or my family specifically.
Either way, he isn’t wrong. Our fortunes haven’t changed much since we left Cuba. Castro temporarily derailed them, but it wasn’t long before my great-grandfather had rebuilt his empire.
What would our life have been like if we’d stayed? Would I be here on the sidewalk, standing in line for food? Was staying even an option considering Castro’s regime targeted my family?
“Do you ever wonder what things would have been like if your family had left?” I ask Luis.
“When I was younger, I thought about it more than I do now. What’s the point? I wouldn’t be the person I am if I didn’t grow up here, in this time, in this place.”
Even though we share the same heritage, as hard as I search for commonalities between us, as much as I want to belong here, the differences are glaring.
I am Cuban, and yet, I am not. I don’t know where I fit here, in the land of my grandparents, attempting to recreate a Cuba that no longer exists in reality.
Perhaps we’re the dreamers in all of this. The hopeful ones. Dreaming of a Cuba we cannot see with our eyes, that we cannot touch, whose taste lingers on our palates, with the tang of memory.
The exiles are the historians, the memory keepers of a lost Cuba, one that’s nearly forgotten.
The day winds down with too much speed, the air turning cooler, the sun sinking lower and lower in the sky. I’m eager to return to the house and ask Ana the questions that have been running through my mind, but I’m also reluctant for the day to end. Luis is good company, and if I’m not mistaken, he’s enjoying himself, too. With each hour that passes, he seems more relaxed, his tongue loosening as he teaches me about Cuba.
And then there’s the part we don’t speak of—the manner in which our bodies shift with each second, the physical distance between us lessening with each breath. Awareness sparks within me, an electric, tingling feeling of anticipation and longing—that infinitesimal pause before lips touch for the first time, the beat when fingers link, the instant when you’re unwrapping a present and realize it is exactly what you wanted.