Memories of Cuba

26th November 2016

It is fully twenty years since I walked the streets of Havana.

I’m going to go there now, I said to myself. Before the old man dies. Before everything changes.

And so I went, and stayed with an Irish friend who had a house there, and we took her car and roamed the island, as well as spending hours upon hours rambling the crooked, dusty lanes of the capital.

Few places have left such a sensory trace as Cuba. I refer back to it often. To the colours I saw for the first time there; to my encounter with its healthcare system; to our meal in a local’s home during our road trip, to the vision of a man cracking coconuts with a machete, as I ambled by on a pony trail.

Arriving into ramshackle Havana airport, the first hint that one is in the land of a despot comes through poetry. The words of Jose Martí, revolutionary and wordsmith, were pasted on billboard upon billboard.

‘A grain of poetry suffices to season a century’.

And so it was.

Cuba was a place led by high ideals and questionable morals. This brought about a kind of beautiful suffering which I began to perceive, etched onto its run-down city blocks, its colourful 1950s vehicles replete with tail fins secured by rope and masking tape, and on the faces of its generous, poignant people.

It seemed to me that poetry was necessary to live so well amid such restrictions, surrounded, as they were, by so much just out of reach. And I am not here referring to the USA. Rather, to the great joy and peace that freedom of movement and thought affords us.

Rachel and I, with her two year old daughter Cosima, set out on a road trip, in a battered up car that actually worked.

It was hardly a trip impeded by congestion. I have a clear memory of us being the only vehicle on spectacularly over-speced roads, for kilometres and kilometres. The odd time, an overladen hay truck might arrive into view, spewing stalks and dust and black fumes as it trundled on.

The absence of fuel, not the lack of desire to get about, lay behind these wide-open roads. Cuba was a banquet fully prepared, with no cutlery available to enjoy its sumptuous delights.

We travelled west along the coast, into the vast agricultural quilt which defines the island’s agrarian economy. At one point, I recall standing on a promontory overlooking perhaps a 30km vista of flat, colourful, braided landscape. The land was clearly worked, cared for, and I could detect people going about their business in the late morning heat. And then I became aware of a detail. There was absolutely no sound. No machinery. No motors. Nothing that would need gasoline. This country was run on the sweat of its people and its livestock. And in silence.

And then, the beach. We spent the afternoon on a pristine, white strand, the reflection of which dazzled the eyes. But it is the sea and sky I remember most. They had a colour I had not seen before. A deep, dark violet hue, merging indivisibly one to the other. That colour, in an Irish context, I associate with impending storms. Yet no cloud traced the sky.

Looking around at the natural, spontaneous vegetation, I thought of Columbus. Was this what those first sailors encountered? Is this what they wrote of in their ships’ logs? And then the native Caribs; is this strand where they stood to spy vessels of strange magnitude and shape appear, where none were ever seen before?

That evening, my torso broke out in multiple tiny spots, like a kind of instant measles, accompanied by fever. I met a gentle Cuban doctor, and his consultation was immediate, unhurried and free of charge.

Heatstroke, he said. You need water and rest.

The diagnosis surprised me. I had taken off my t-shirt for less than one hour.

It was difficult to be a white male on the streets of Havana for many reasons, most of them unrelated to sun rays. Walking the famous promenade, el Malécon, became an annoyance. Every ten metres Someone would approach me with an offer. Of rum. Of cigars. Of sex.

I too had been objectified by Castro’s vision. His heroic pueblo were forced to see me not as a person, but as dollars. We were each diminished by the interchange, and I found myself staying away from those more obvious zones.

Leaving Rachel, her daughter and the island some two weeks later, I began a process which has lasted two decades, ruminating on the man that was everywhere in the ether, but nowhere to be seen. How was he feeling about his revolution now, I wondered? Was this the freedom and equality that he had sought? Did all of the beauty of his high ideals merit all of the sacrifice?

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