Cuba…Cuba…Cuba…while here I must constantly remind myself that this place cannot and should not be compared to anything I have ever seen, smelled, or felt before. White is certainly the color of Cuba, and I don’t mean white skin. It is the color of Santeria-the afro Cuban answer to imposed Catholicism which proved a very effective way to continue honoring African gods and goddesses and to preserve culture through music, dance, ceremony. But this ever present, always immaculately clean white is noticeably dappled with every bright color you can imagine and highlighted with English words that hardly anyone knows the meaning of and rhinestones of all shapes and sizes, made in china of course. And despite the very daring, very fitted style of dress that Americans might consider far from classy, everyone always looks their best, no matter where they are going or what they are doing.
The air here in Habana is thick with exhaust from the old cars that still dominate the streets, scooping up passengers at every turn for a nominal fee, but every once in a while you catch a whiff of fresh ocean breeze, or a hint of gardenia wafting through the humidity and though sometimes I feel I can´t breathe I can´t help but love this city. My Cuban friends are constantly reminding me to walk slower, for life moves at a slower pace when the cars don’t go faster than 50 mph, and when less-than-minimum communist salaries have killed many Cubans´ incentives to finish things fast. Yet aside from the poverty I have very few other criticisms of communism as I see it played out here, for I have never encountered a more resourceful and entrepreneurial people in all my travels. Almost no one here depends on their ´real´ jobs to carry them through. Imagine getting paid $300 pesos nacionales a month and having to spend $20 just to get to the other side of the city, or better yet, $4 in pesos convertibles, (tourist money, and what everyone has to spend on everything but transportation, some entrances to clubs/bars, and fruit and veggies from local vendors) which is equal to $76 nacionales, just for a small bottle of rum.
Almost everyone I have met hustles something, embezzles something, or provides some sort of illegal service. Javier, my incredible host here in Habana who I was fortunate enough to get connected with through a friend by internet (which he has illegally in his house) before I came and who has been invaluable in teaching me how to navigate in this crazy system, is a welder by profession. As of this year he is legally allowed to charge for his services, but he has no legal access to materials. To get metal he must buy it on the black market from someone who works in a factory, steals it, and then sells it for a high price. The local policeman (every neighborhood has one but I have yet to notice his presence) knows exactly what Javier is doing, but hey, tomorrow he could just as well need Javier´s services as much as anyone else around, so he turns a blind eye. Emilio, Javier´s neighbor and very close friend of the family who is illegally putting me up in his extra apartment for very cheap, worked for the government and then for a big company for years, embezzled thousands of dollars, was given 3 houses (2 of which he left to his ex-wives…the man is quite the old womanizer: “every day I fall in love with love,” he jokes) and a car. He survives on savings and a little bit of income from renting out rooms and driving people around. So it is. Many people do actually go through the process of getting a license to charge for taxi services, room renting, etc. but the taxes on such licenses are so high that there is usually something illegal happening in the background to make it all worthwhile.
Yet despite the constant need to hustle and make a penny in any way you can (I have a habit of always picking up the ´lucky´ pennies that litter the ground in the States and am always on the lookout, but I have yet to see a centavo-worth less than a penny-on the ground here) Cubans are extremely generous with their time and resources. Everything is shared. Nothing gets wasted. Everyone seems pretty damn happy considering. Hmmm. I spent a lovely afternoon cooking and sharing stories with some close friends of Javier´s my first week here. I noticed that Ale had left the water from the beans sitting out on the table, covered as if it were precious. I asked what it was for and she said she just couldn’t bear to throw it out, “me da pena voltarlo,” and that she would certainly use it for something at some point. Later on, sitting amongst the herbs, cacti and flowers in the beautiful little garden on her roof, I further understood the need for her resourcefulness as she gently scolded the little girl who was playing with the plants for letting the dirt fall to the ground, ”Aqui en la ciudad la tierra es preciosa y no la podemos dejar caer al piso mi amor.” Here in this city of ancient houses and lively inhabitants every piece of earth, every drop of water, every penny, every moment, is precious.
Everyone I talk to who thinks about traveling to Cuba worries that they must do it soon or they will “miss it.” I guess it depends on what you´re looking for. I was looking for music and dancing, in the streets, in clubs, wherever I could find it. I was expecting Salsa, Timba, and Son to come exploding out of every turn in the road, and I can´t say I have found that. Most of my friends say it was never really like that, that yes, there used to be an abundance of traditional music that everyone knew how to dance to, but now the popular, mostly electronic reggaeton has taken over. The sad thing is most of the people who play it or go out to see it don’t really even like the heavy, repetitive beats and rap-inspired lyrics of reggaeton, but that’s where the money is in music now, and so they are “riding the wave.” So I guess in a sense I have missed what I was seeking. But I have found so much more than I knew to look for in this crazy double-sided system of dos and don’ts and don’t tells. I have been welcomed with open hearts into a beautiful society of all shapes, colors, sizes that seems to know very little crime, very little racism, and very little classism because everyone here is struggling, everyone has had their share of hardships, but everyone knows exactly what it takes to make their neighbor laugh, to get their friends up on their feet, dancing away their worries.