The Hearts and Souls of Havana

A foreigner explores the city, falls in love, and discovers the limits of hope

I had been staying at a friend's house, she lived at home with her family, and we had nowhere to go. So we spent our nights roaming the streets of Havana, spending time on broken park benches and salt-pitted sea walls. To get away -- and get together -- we took a trip to Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Varadero. In Cienfuegos the hotel did not want to give us a room because we were not married, but the desk clerk finally relented and said to Carmen, "You don't have the face of one of those," as she nodded toward the spandexed, dyed-blonde hookers sitting in the lobby. In Trinidad a twelve-year-old girl ran up to us as we walked on the cobblestones late at night and told Carmen, "I want to be just like you when I grow up." We were uncertain of her meaning until she turned to me and added, "This one you have is the best." In Varadero Carmen couldn't even get past a hotel doorman so we could eat in the restaurant. She was in tears with rage.

As we traveled back to Havana, she said sadly, "You have shown me what my country is." She had seen the discrimination against Cuban nationals, witnessed the perverted ambitions of little girls, and experienced what remained of Cuban dignity. It had been depressing in that way, but we had fallen in love.

I met her family and began to come around during my long walks through the city. Although they never spoke to me about my relationship with Carmen -- too complex with too many issues -- they never questioned our growing affection for each other. (Carmen's name and those of her family members have been changed to protect their identities.)

When I left, no conditions were imposed, no judgments made. Carmen handed me a note at the airport: "I do not want to ask you for a star or a phrase such as 'I will love you forever.' Instead a truth that will not separate us." I knew I would return.

The months back in the U.S. were fraught with phone calls to Cuba, desperate letters sent via third parties, and the investigation of exit options. Marriage seemed to hold the best hope for getting her out, but that approach was complicated by the fact that I am a resident alien in the United States, and my country of citizenship imposes restrictions I find unacceptable. With a foreign bride, for example, I would have to reside in my native country and guarantee my own employment for at least one year. American citizenship, for which I am eligible, seemed the only answer, and so I began the bureaucratic ballet of applications and interviews. Later would come the Cuban documents, the U.S. documents. And the waiting. It could be two years or more.

I smelled the cigarette smoke just as the dawn was creeping toward the city of darkness. It would be the first of many Carmen's mother would light up each day, even though her husband had died years ago from throat cancer. Then she would mix a little powdered milk with water and leave it on the stove for the rest of us to heat, assuming there was gas.

I could hear the mop being used on the floor. It consisted of an old sweatshirt with an image of Che Guevara. "Che has served me well," Carmen's mother once told me as she dragged the rag over the buckled tile. She would be gone for work before it was light outside.

Luis was already pedaling his crooked bike down the Cuban streets toward his daily destination. Carmen would be up in a while, feeling the best she would all day. The longer she stayed on her feet, the more painful became her inflammation. She would walk to the intersection and use her beauty to hitch a ride to work. "At least I'm lucky with that," she'd say. Yaelis would stay in bed till the last moment, wake up grumpy, curse Fidel, and then run off to her classes.

During this most recent visit, I spent my days exploring the further reaches of Havana, far from the well-traveled paths frequented by most tourists, who generally are well cloistered. The foreigner arrives, is picked up at the airport in an air-conditioned van, and taken to a newly restored hotel with a pool and entertainment. The result is that most tourists hardly ever see Cuba beyond the dollar-developed sites. They hang out in the dollar nightclubs, drink the Cuban rum, smoke the Cuban cigars, and sleep with the Cuban girls. They go home and say the rum, sex, and music were good.

To find a tourist deep in the city is confusing for some Cubans. One memorable example occurred last year, when a man called out to me from a doorway and said, "You must be a poor tourist." He noted that I didn't have any jewelry, sunglasses, nice clothes, or expensive shoes. Then he asked me how much my camera cost.

This day, after meandering through Havana's back streets for the better part of an afternoon (Luis had requisitioned an old bicycle for me), I returned to the apartment and decided to pick up the daily bread ration for the family. I knew the location of the distribution center, having been there with Carmen. Despite a sign warning that "unknown people" would not be issued bread, the woman behind the counter never looked up. She merely saw how many rolls the ration book allowed, collected the five Cuban cents per roll, and recorded the transaction.

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