Along the Malecón

The wrought iron windows and the crumbling colonial facades of Havana were in the clamp of a September sun. I strolled through the calles devoid of heavy traffic, littered instead with a loose limbed public, leaning in the crevices, cat-calling to and from balconies. They bantered with me; where was I from, what thoughts had I of Cuba, did I need a guide, a meal, a cigar, a taxi, a friend? I walked passed the white domed Capitolio, the grandest building in Havana. At the foot of a hundred stairs American cars from the fifties lined the taxi ranks. I ambled down Calle Obispo, an old-world of tiendas and flamboyant pharmacies where ceramic pill bottles were precisely stacked on wooden shelves. In the grey stoned mall the Cubans paced with a hip swinging swagger, salsa in the way they sauntered.

When in Havana, Hemingway stayed in the Ambos Mundos Hotel. His room on the third floor is still as he kept it, his typewriter on a stool, fishing photos on the wall, a view to the wooden brick road at Plaza del Armas, where son bands strum in the nearby cafés. The modest room was also, crucially, close to his two favourite bars. I drifted down to the Floridita where red coated waiters took orders while the barman worked alongside a mountain of daiquiri glasses. Customers at round tables puffed thick cigars the waiter lit in a surging flame and circular wrist rigmarole. Plush red velvet curtains hung over the doorway to the restaurant and a five piece, singer, tres, trumpet, guitar and upright bass, played furiously. The songs were familiar, Guantanamera, Chan Chan, Quizas, Quizas, Quizas. The menu had eighteen choices of daiquiris. I ordered the Papa Hemingway, a shot of rum, tequila, grapefruit juice, and sat back listening to the music, toying with my drink on the white tablecloth, watching patrons doing the three-forward, three-back, pause-in-the-middle, salsa shuffle. Absorbed in the skill of the manoeuvre, I was interrupted by a man and a woman, leaning over me.

Las sillas estan libre?” the man asked with a garlic breath.

“What?” I replied.

“Are these seats free?” he repeated, in English.

They sat down and studied the menu. The woman was having trouble deciding on a drink.

“The Papa is good,” I said to her, sipping mine.

“I want to try one,” she smiled at me. “But I can’t resist a coconut daiquiri.”

“Order them both,” the man said, further from me then, but still smelling of garlic.

I smiled, thinking he was joking. But she did exactly as he suggested. I could see thirst in their eyes as they stared after the waiter.

“Is it your first time?” I tried to be friendly.

“We often drink daiquiris,” she said.

“And in Cuba?”

“I’ll drink them anywhere.”

“Okay,” I tried to smile. “Have you been in Cuba before?”

For a moment I thought that the man was going to tell me to shut up. He might have been smirking. Under a thick moustache greying at the edges, I wasn’t sure

“Why?” the woman said to me. “Is it your first time?”

She was attractive. I thought she must have been stunning at some point in her life. Her hair was long, brown, straight, healthy, her nose petite.

“Yeah,” I said as their drinks were delivered from a tray to the table.

They asked me what I was doing in Cuba and I said I was there to see the haunts of Hemingway. A great chunk of his life had been spent in Cuba and I was inspired by his stories. But I hadn’t only come to Cuba for Hemingway; that would be absurd. I needed a holiday. And Cuban beaches were famous. They listened to me, saying little, drinking. We ordered another two rounds until sleep, or perhaps the effect of the daiquiris, began dragging itself over my eyelids. I excused myself, claimed jet lag was taking its toll. I didn’t know their names and they didn’t seem interested in mine.

I walked along the Malecón. A thick stone wall held the midnight black waters of the Caribbean from flooding the streets of Havana. Under bright stars and a half moon, men drank beer, fishing from the rocks. An hour later, I was going up to the 2nd floor of my hotel. A commotion at the end of the hall seized my attention. It was them, the couple from La Floridita. I fumbled for my key but they saw me.

“Are you guys okay,” I asked, cautiously approaching them out of courtesy.

“We’ve been locked out of the room,” he snarled.

“Really?”

“Door is jammed.”

“And no one will help us,” she added.

“Why don’t you go down to the lobby and …..”

“We’ve been down there. They say someone is coming, but so far,” he threw his hands skywards. “Nothing.”

“You want a drink?” she said coming closer, offering me a hip flask that she pulled from her purse.

“No,” I said as politely as I could.

“You try the door,” he said, from behind her.

“Me?”

He nodded and I moved towards him. He handed me the key with a shrug. I stepped forward and slipped it into the lock but could not turn the knob. I had no idea why but I persevered, while they stood behind me and drank from their flask. Eventually, somehow, the door came open. I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.

“Give the boy a drink, Carla,” he said. “I’ll get us another room.”

Carla took me by the hand and began to move inside but I stood firm.

“No, I’m okay,” I said. “ I’ve had enough. ”

“Nonsense,” she replied. “ We’ve got plenty of rum. How do you like it? ”

Our arms were at full stretch and rather than make a scene I relented and followed her into the room, sitting on the undisturbed bed. She poured rum into two glasses with a splash, added soda, dimmed the lights and handed me a drink.

“Cheers,” she said.

I raised the glass and took a sip. We sat quietly for a long moment.

“I’m Carla,” she sighed.

“I’m Nester,” I replied.

Then he was at the door, fiddling with the lock.

“I figured it out,” he said. “You’re not supposed to push the button in.”

Testing his theory, he shut the door, locking himself out.

Carla raised her eyebrows at me. “That’s Marc,” she said, going to the door and letting him in.

I finished my drink hurriedly, excusing myself yet again, going quickly, before I could be stopped, straight to my room.

The next day I got up early, walked to town and waited patiently in a line for a camello, a truck with a carriage the size of two buses and crowded with a hundred people. Forty minutes later, I got off, crossed the road and wandered through palms and tall trees up to Finca Vigía, the house Hemingway had called home for twenty of his wildest years. Stairs led up to a terrace that surrounded the building. From under a pergola covered in vine, I could peer into the house. The main door led to the sala where lounge chairs and a long table stood on a floor of mustard tiles. The heads of stuffed African animals hung from the walls; buffalo, deer, springbok. A lion skin, head intact, lay on the floor of the study. Desks and tables were tidily laden with books and other paraphernalia. Empty bullets, magnifying glasses and photos under a sheet of glass were in his study. In the dining room the table setting was immaculate. There was an order of precision; of control, of meticulousness. In that ambience, a man would be able to find what he was looking for.

I caught the camello back into town, feeling like I knew more about the man. Back in my hotel room I set up my laptop so as I could type like Hemingway did, standing up to hammer out a story. I waited five minutes and nothing came. I took a break and returned; to nothing. I didn’t have a story. All I’d done was drink cocktails in Hemingway haunts, had a look at his house. What did I expect?

I’d planned a week on a beach to soak up the sun. Work was killing me. I was raking in enough money to fly to Cuba for a couple of weeks in the hope that Hemingway would give me something. But then I recognised I wasn’t there for that at all. I just needed a rest in order to regain the strength to go on with my incessant job. I had to go on with it. It was paying off my house, my car, my credit cards.

I went down to the Plaza of the Revolution where the white clad Santamaria ladies, long cigars slung from their mouths, told fortunes. I drank two beers and smoked a cigar as the bell towers of the stone Cathedral lit with the golden light of dusk. The other Hemingway haunt, La Bodeguita, the home of the mojito, was around the corner. On one wall was a Hemingway ditty– I get my margarita in La Floridita, my mojito in La Bodeguita. On the opposite wall was a photo of Hemingway and Fidel Castro shortly after the 1959 revolution and just before Hemingway left Cuba for the last time.

I sat in a corner of the bar watching the barman make twenty mojitos at once. He pounded mint, lime, sugar and ice, added sparkling mineral water and lots of rum. He ran the bottle along the glasses in one movement and then back along the bar again. I ordered a mojito, sat back and swallowed a large mouthful. A heavy hand fell on my shoulder. I turned to see Carla and Marc.

“Mind if we join you?” Carla smiled.

“Why not,” I responded.

They ordered mojitos and sat down.

Marc looked me in the eye. “You wouldn’t go to Egypt and not see the pyramids, would you?”

“I guess not,” I replied.

He nodded gently, looked at the floor then back at me.

“And what are you going to see in Cuba?”

“I went to Hemingway’s house today.”

“But you didn’t come to Cuba to see Hemingway’s house, did you?”

“I came to go to the beach,” I said.

“Go to the beach?” Marc turned the corner of one lip. Maybe he was smiling.

“Where are you going after Havana?” Carla interrupted.

“I’m going out to the Cayes,” I said. “I haven’t a lot of time.”

“Why go there?” Marc asked.

“For a holiday.”

“A holiday?”

“Yeah,” I said, fiddling with the straw of my empty glass.

“Are you going to Santiago?”

Santiago?”

Santiago de Cuba.”

“No, I don’t have the time.”

“You don’t have the time not to,” Marc sneered. “Santiago is where the revolution started.”

“The revolution,” I said, looking up and meeting their staring eyes.

There was a pause. Carla and Marc took a long drink.

“Ready for another?” Marc leaned across the crowded bar.

“You do know about the revolution?” Carla asked, placing a flat palm above my knee.

“Of course I know about the revolution,” I said, slightly more indignantly than I’d wanted to.

“Then you’ll want to see where Granma landed?”

“Granma?”

She nodded. “The boat that brought Fidel, Camilo and Ché to Santiago Province, launching the revolution.”

“Granma?” I said. “Does that mean something in Spanish?”

“No, it means Granma, as in little old lady. They bought it from an American couple in Mexico.”

“Have you seen it?” Marc asked, clutching three mojitos.

“No,” I confessed. “Where is it?”

“Here in Havana, son. At the Museum of the Revolution. You should go.”

There was a long pause in conversation before Carla began to talk about their ambition to travel, in defiance of a consumer world gone rampant. Marc joined in when she talked about the shame of what they called the selling out of the governments of the western world; the lack of compassion, the emphasis on economy over education, health and general well being. We drank a few more mojitos before Carla excused herself. Marc turned the conversation back to me, and my intentions in Cuba.

“The Cayes,” he dargged out the pronunciation. “What the hell are you going to do out there?”

“Enjoy the sun,” I said.

“Is it the Caye with a game park where you can choose either to observe the animals or to shoot them?”

“Not that I know of,” I told him.

He shook his head slowly. “Cuba, such a land of contrasts.” He’d been leaning on the bar, but straightened up. “Do you understand the significance of where you are?”

I shrugged, looked for Carla, hoping she’d be back soon.

“The CIA killed Ché Guevara and it was the CIA that wanted to destroy Fidel Castro,” he added.

“I don’t know about that,” I said.

“There is only one thing to know,” Marc roared. “Castro’s still here.”

I took a swig on my mojito. Carla returned, smiling.

“The US took Cuba from Spain. It was Fidel who took it back,” Marc said. “Since then, Cuba has been the only country able to defy the tactics of dominance. You are missing the point of being in Cuba, if you don’t go first to Santa Clara and then to Santiago and the Moncada barracks.”

“I’m on holidays,” I begged.

But Marc didn’t stop. “Fidel freed the Cubans from the repression of a surrogate dictator,” he said.

“And now Castro is the dictator,” I countered.

Marc puffed out his chest, standing erect in what I thought was a threatening manner. But all he did was call for three more mojitos.

Carla joined in then. “Cuba fought the Spanish to free their slaves and the United States made a deal that left the Cubans without power. That betrayal is fresh in the minds of the people, not least of all Fidel.”

“Especially since,” Marc joined in. “The Americans bombed their own ship for an excuse to get into the conflict.”

“As if they’d do that,” I said.

“What do you do for a living son?” Marc asked.

“I’m in marketing,” I said, I admit, with a sense of pride. I was proud of what I’d achieved, how I’d risen to my current position against the odds.

“Okay,” Marc said and turned as if to leave.

Carla grabbed him by the arm. “Wait. I think it’s just naivety,” she said. She turned to me, “But it’s freedom we’re talking about.”

“Freedom,” I replied. “Not something well known in Cuba.”

Carla smiled. “That’s a matter of opinion.”

“A matter of opinion?” I said. “People are denied the right to travel.”

Marc put a heavy hand on my shoulder. “What use is the right to travel if economic suppression makes it impossible?”

“Can denial of any right be justified?” I defied him.

“But the real question is,” he sighed. “Would Cubans be better off under a different system?”

“If they had a democracy,” I began.

“What good is a democracy,” Carla interrupted. “If the price to pay is illiteracy and hunger.”

“And a manipulating media,” Marc added.

“Choice allows progress,” I replied.

“That’s good, Nester,” Marc said.

I drank a splash of mojito. “I’m just holidaying,” I said, feeling the weight of their eyes on me. “ Maybe I should be travelling,” I added. “But I have so much work to do when I get back.”

“As long as that work doesn’t interfere with your choices.”

I looked at Marc. It was as if he knew that my choices had been on my mind.

I smiled then. I don’t know why, I just couldn’t help it. There was nothing to say.

I drank more of my mojito. I liked them, crazy as they seemed to be. Carla touched me gently on the arm.

“You know that they staged September 11, don’t you?”

“Who?” I burst out, incredulously.

“The Americans,” she said.

“Of course they didn’t,” I told her. “Americans died.”

A twisted smile hung beneath her raised eyebrow.

Three musicians wandered into the bar strumming guitars and playing castanets. The singer’s voice pierced the shadowy room and floated out into the dark sky. We stood silently and listened to three or four songs before I quickly said goodnight and left, not looking back to see the looks on the faces of Carla or Marc. I began walking back to the hotel, wandering along the Malecón amongst the lovers and the fishermen, happy when I finally got to my room. But I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning in my bed until the sun began to creep up over the Caribbean and in half light, I decided to leave for Santa Clara. It was, after all, on the way to the Cayes.

The train pulled into Santa Clara and I walked the dark streets until a man approached me with his business card, offering rooms. He led me to the house of his sister, a large woman with a bright smile who showed me a clean room. The next morning I ate a breakfast of toast and guayaba jam with coffee and sweetened milk. I set out for the Ché Guevara museum, walking through the main plaza where men sat smoking under trees and fifties Buicks and Chevrolets motored gently by. Fifteen minutes out of town armed soldiers guarded a bronze statue of Ché on a white column in battle fatigues and beret, the words – Hasta la victoria siempre (until forever victory) carved beneath him. Under the monument, on a tomb, plaques marked the names of thirty seven men who had fallen in Bolivia with Ché Guevara in 1967. The Bolivian army handed Ché over to the CIA, who executed him with a bullet to the head. There was a thick silence in the room. I stood there for a long while.

I left the museum and walked to another monument – train carriages, a yellow bulldozer and railway pylons sticking vertically out of the ground. Ché had been the mastermind behind the derailment of a convoy of soldiers sent by Batista on a last ditch attempt to halt the revolution. I walked to where Ché had surveyed the attack from a nearby hill; a commanding view of the otherwise flat land where coconut palms and a thousand trees lay throughout Santa Clara. Walking back into town, the smell of pigs, cigars and the varnishing of rocking chairs mixed with the stifling heat. I began to doubt that the Cayes would be as fascinating.

The next day I took the bus to Trinidad, a town of terracotta rooves, brightly coloured houses and a plaza full of palm trees that only the cathedral tower dwarfed. That night a band played a feverish salsa under the stars. I was mesmerised by a woman in a red dress, her black skin reflecting the faint lights of the night. She was all sharp steps and deft manoeuvres, elegant and fluid, full of allurement. She caught me looking at her and approached me, refusing to take no for an answer to her request for me to dance. I couldn’t do salsa, but it didn’t matter to her. The important thing was the effort. She let me go after one dance and I felt I’d been drained of life and left by the roadside. I drank mojitos; the mint and rum seeping into my pores.

I took the next bus to Santiago de Cuba, the core of the revolution. The town was a hot bed of music. In a bookshop, a duo outpoured their hearts. Guitars and percussion soothed the coffee drinkers around Plaza Dolores. Trumpets blasted salsa across the Parque Cespedes. I walked to the Moncada Barracks, where Fidel Castro launched his failed first attack against the dictatorship. While Fidel was sent to jail, many of his men were castrated or had their eyes gouged out, swinging empathy behind the cause. After years in exile, Castro sailed the Granma to the Sierra Maestra to begin the revolution that eventually overthrew Batista. The bullet holes in the Moncada Barracks were regorged in memory of the fateful day of fifty three.

It was almost impossible to walk anywhere in Santiago without someone wanting to know where I was going or whether I wanted to visit their mother’s house for the best meal in Cuba. I made my way through a crowd gathering at the barred windows to the casa de la trova where son and salsa bands played three times a day. I had an icy beer, then felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see the grinning face of Marc.

“You’re not at your beach,” he said.

“No,” I replied.

“Come and join us. We’re over there,” he said, pointing.

I followed him to where Carla sat at a table next to a young guy with dreadlocks.

“Hi,” she said, getting up and greeting me with a kiss and a squeeze of my elbow.

“This is Winston.”

Hola,” he smiled.

We drank icy Cristal beer, the music swinging, the crowd stepping and swaying in time. The band took a break and Winston suggested we go to a more authentic club. We went down a long street, eventually coming to a house where an acoustic band were playing. We grabbed some beers and headed to a courtyard where Winston, a Cuban, talked about his desire to leave the island. He was profoundly upset that he hadn’t yet had the chance to travel. He began counting on his fingers.

“Camilo Cienfuego, Ché Guevara, Frank Pais and Abel Santamaria,” he said. “All the good men of the revolution died. And with them fell the hopes of Cuba.”

He led Carla back inside and they danced salsa to the final songs of the night before we walked back to Plaza Dolores. Winston disappeared into the night and Carla, Marc and I went to a bar. I felt that Winston had given me enough reasons to be critical of Fidel Castro and I said as much. Why hadn’t he changed and formed a democracy? Why had he become nothing more than what Batista had been?

“Under Castro they have no hope,” I said.

Marc lowered his head, then looked up again.

“I also wondered,” he started. “Why Castro didn’t initiate some form of democracy. But I believe it was out of respect for the men who died fighting for freedom. Freedom comes at a price.”

“All Castro ever wanted,” Carla added. “Was for Cuba to be run by Cubans.”

“But democracy,” I said. “Puts destiny in the hands of the people.”

There was a long pause.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Marc finally asked. “Why don’t you come out to Guantánamo Bay?”

“What for? You can’t go in, can you?”

“No, you just get to look out across the bay to where the American occupational forces are stationed.”

I shrugged. I didn’t really have the energy to say no. I told them where I was staying and said goodnight.

When I heard the banging on my door early the next day I answered with a towel around me. Carla kissed me good morning. Marc and Winston were downstairs in a taxi, engine running, waiting to take us to the bus station. A few hours later, we’d organised a guide and drove from a landscape of banana greenery to a barren tract of cacti and scrub where goats, cattle and agouti grazed in the driest portion of the entire island of Cuba. The guide, a man in his twenties, spoke a little English.

“The Americans,” he said, as we drove beyond a road block and followed two soldiers in a car up to a lookout. “They will never give up the Bahia Guantánamo. It is very deep and many ships can dock. They would not leave when Fidel Castro became president even though they were asked to. And they pay less than five thousand dollars each year for the lease.”

We drove over a rise to a sweeping arc of blue Caribbean and grey barren land. We climbed out of the car and walked to where a long telescope was set against a fence. Six kilometres away we could see the American buildings and the occasional car moving along the quiet streets.

“We can see everything from here,” the guide said. “Except Camp X-Ray. It is hidden by a hill to the east. There are six hundred prisoners being kept there.”

“Without charge and contrary to international law,” Carla added.

“How ironic,” Marc said. “That a country refuses to leave another sovereign state, and then they use the area to flaunt international human rights laws.”

“While claiming Cuba doesn’t recognise human rights,” Carla sneered irony.

“You don’t like Americans, do you?” I said.

“I don’t like injustice,” Marc replied.

We stood silently looking down on Guantánamo Bay.

“You know,” Winston began in broken English. “Fidel Castro has never used the money the Americans have paid.”

“Never cashed a single cheque in over forty years,” Carla smiled proudly at me.

“Not one single cheque,” Marc added.

On the way back to Guantánamo town I sat next to Winston. He told me his grandfather was from Jamaica and that while he wanted to claim Jamaican residency the Cuban government opposed him.

“I say that I am Jamaican but saying something doesn’t make it true,” he said. “I was born in Cuba and I live in Cuba, therefore I am Cuban. I am who I am. Not what I prefer to be.”

Back in Guantánamo town we said goodbye to our guide and took a horse and carriage to the terminal where we climbed into a local bus that leaked rain through the roof the entire ride back to Santiago. We had a quick drink, still wet from the rain, then said our goodbyes.

The next day I caught the overnight train to Havana, my time in Cuba almost up. But I felt something drawing me back to Hemingway’s house. I was due to be working three days later in a job that earned me plenty of money. I had Europe on my doorstep, I could afford to do anything. But was it what I really wanted? Was it who I was, or who I preferred to be? At Hemingway’s house, I stood looking into his study, into the neatness, the clarity, the precision of everything in its place, of being exactly where it was meant to be. And somewhere I recognised a struggle between excess and scarcity, between effort and hope.

I walked down to the National Hotel where I knew on a Saturday I could still get money. I had time to kill, so I bought a mojito and sat in the garden, looking out over the Caribbean and down along the Malecón to the old grand architecture of Havana. Everyone agreed that when Castro went there would be a free for all on development. There were stories that US businessmen had already bought sites that would be turned into McDonald’s outlets.

I sipped a little more on my mojito and looked up to a commotion of cameramen gathered under an arch to the side of the lobby. And then I saw him. Through the crowd he was unmistakable in a grey suit matching his silvery beard. I walked to where other sightseers had gathered. Fidel Castro was clearly visible, walking along the path, looking healthy. He glanced to those of us gathered on the corner and waved. But the gesture was missed by most and Castro looked for a moment embarrassed, not a skerrick of arrogance or egotism evident, only humility and a dash of faraway hope. I had presumed his face would betray a stubborn man of power, a dogged repressor who quashed the rights of his people. But on a balmy Saturday morning in September, 2003, I saw a healthy man in his seventies, not one of arrogance but one of ideals. A fleeting view, a glance not more, had revealed all that to me.

I walked down along the Malecón, past the memorial to the 258 American sailors who died at the hands of unknown conspirators and brought the United States into the war against the Spanish. Could the theory be true that America had done that to their own men?

All I really knew was that I felt I had discovered an, until then, hidden desire – the liberty of knowing who I wanted to be. And what made me recognise it? Was it Fidel Castro, “Ché” Guevara or Ernest Hemingway? Or was it Carla and Marc?

I left my job after I left Cuba. But Cuba, to this day, has never left me.

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~ by Drifting, Rambling on April 28, 2008.

One Response to “Along the Malecón”

  1. Well told story however you seem to accept as fact many of the details that the Castro regime puts out there as fact. People like Marc and Carla eat that stuff up because it appeals to the latent anti-Americanism that exists in the world. For example, the CIA did track Che Guevara in Bolivia but it was the Bolivians who chose to execute him. He was trying to foment a civil war in a foreign country.

    Also the story of tren blindado which is today a sort of communist theme park is grossly exaggerated. I know, my grandfather was on that train. There were 400 soldiers and officers on that train. They were part of the corps of engineers. They were in Santa Clara to repair bridges and roads that had been destroyed by the rebels. Yet in the official Castroite version this was the counterattack that was going to defeat the rebels. How could 400 laborers and engineers do what 4,000 soldiers in the Santa Clara garrison couldn’t?

    Don’t be fooled by the communist propaganda. The Cuban people ought to have a right to decide for themselves the form of government they live under. That’s an inalienable right.

    I suggest you speak to several of the more than 2 million Cubans living in exile. They voted with their feet. If you come to Miami, I will buy you a mojito and introduce you to some people who tell a much different story about Fidel and Che Guevara, etc.

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