Category Archives: Cuba

This One Time in Cienfuegos

800px-Street_in_Cienfuegos_(4482)Well, I remember this one time, I ate ants. They had been crawling in the bread, every day that we sat for breakfast on the back porch that overlooked a sad garden and a cracked paved street that followed the ocean. We could watch the sunset in the evening atop the house in ancient metal rocking chairs, and we could drink rum every night if we wanted.

During the first night in the new town, I did not touch the bread. I spat the bread onto my plate and wrapped the chewed bread in a napkin; ants crawled through the dry porous innards of the slices. By day four, I ate the ants—I could not be bothered by the extra protein, so small, squirmy black specks. I pressed the bread against the ceramic plates to suck up warm egg and then munch on the bread.

We could see the horizon from there, the sea crashing against the rocks, and lovers striding up and down the lines that divided the domestic from the wild.

 

Vignette: Cigarettes in the City

images (22)Everyone in the city smoked cigarettes, the orange-bright ends illuminating every stoop, park bench, and window. If we shut out the lights, cut the electrical lines, we might still be able to read by the glare of a million burning cigarettes, their ashes spilling into the crease between the pages. Many treated their cigarettes with ritual superstition—practicing traditions passed down from the Great War, from the Native Americans, and from the study-abroad semesters in Bulgaria. Each secreted upside down sticks in their packs—the lucky cigarette—absconding white lighters and lighting up with the ends of each others’ cigarettes. When finished, they tapped out the cigarettes in overflowing ash trays, some plastic, others glass.

The smoke, meanwhile, floated above their heads in lazy spirals—smoke took on a life of its own, an animated beast rising and swaying like a drunk ballerina in flats not yet broken in. The bearded man with glasses, reading Kant with a mix of pretentiousness and a sincere desire to understand, the freckled girl with a glinting nose ring—hell, the Catholic Father with his black shirt unbuttoned in the simmering summer heat. Here they sat, sharing communion: rather than a reminder of life, they acknowledged death, welcomed it into their lungs with breaths deep as love.

The priest took a drag on his cigarette, and I wonder why he smokes, if there is reason at all or if it seemed something to do when there was nothing else to do. Some of the people in the city, they rolled their cigarettes. The heathens of the Holy City smoked everything they could stuff into rolling papers, fitting their filters sloppily to the end.

Perhaps he liked smoking for its symbolism, its thematic properties. Cigarettes reflected the American desire for death, the necessity of it with our lives, because without death, we would not be able to justify our wasteful lives. If we were to live forever, then we would be forced to do something, but death had become our ultimate cop-out, our greatest excuse for failure. We could try, try to do something good and impactful, but then too late—you died too soon, oh well.

The embers died out, crackling like a campfire in the jumble of ash trays, and the city grew dark as the smokers fell one by one to sleep.

Poem: “Revolutionary”

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[A poem about a specific event in Cuba, though severely exaggerated. It had an interesting impact and summed up much of what I learned while I was in the country. I’ll post a live reading of it when I debut it at an open mic, which should be some time next week.]

On my final night in Cuba, while strolling home

from the Malecon, drunker than Hemingway

and more nostalgic than Buzz Aldrin during a full moon,

a boy spat on my shoes and screamed,

“Screw you, dirty American. You ruin everything!”

That is the edited version of his comment,

bleary-eyed and angry as he was.

My entire life I had grown up being called names:

Spazz, geek, twitch, space cadet, nerd, stupid face,

weirdo, pothead, loser, Southern boy, and usless.

But nothing hurt my pride more than

being called, a “dirty American.”

Which in Latin America is a strange insult:

they too are America, not just the United States,

which the US citizens tend to forget.

Without breaking a sweat, I turned about face

and stood in the place before him and said,

“Look, don’t you realize—don’t you see?

I love you!”

We stared each of us for a moment, tense,

and I said, “Look, man, we’ve got a war going on,

and we’re losing. Love is losing.

We’re being drowned in a sea of apathy

while our violence is anything but holy.

But we need to return to the sacred, to the human,

to the soul and to our passions.

We’re facing giants of oppression

and if we don’t learn our lesson, we’ll be done for.

So you and me, we gotta stick together.

We have to rally on the side same,

and what’s the point of shouting at each other on the street

when you’re little brother doesn’t have anything to eat?

Why would you want to fight like this

when you don’t own a toilet where you can take a piss?

So, I’m here for you, and I’ll always be here for you,

so don’t you dare talk to me that way.

I know, I know, you can only get drunk and forget your life

only because today was a good day.

But what about tomorrow?

When will we fight for tomorrow?

When will we wield our imaginations like swords?

I’ll charge into the battlefield mounted on a unicorn

There’s no time to squabble and there’s no time to mourn.

Because it’s bigger than us.”

I realized as he nodded his head

He didn’t understand a damned word I said

But he understood my voice and with what passion I spoke

and I guess he figured I was an alright bloke

He shook my hand and I went on my way

and we got drunker, because today had been a good day.

Sometimes, words won’t do, and sometimes

we fail ourselves—that’s evolutionary

But if we live and we love,

that act is revolutionary.

Adventure, Socialism, the Embargo, and Salsa: The Basics of My Recent Cuba Trip

A view of the Capitol building

A view of the Capitol building

To attempt to convey what I learned and experienced in the past few weeks would make my head explode, maybe yours as well, so I want to keep this post basic. I returned yesterday from Cuba, where I stayed for most of my days in La Habana, though I visited also Cienfeugos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara. Naturally, I must get the obvious out of way:

Yes, it was difficult to get there, and we needed special student visas.

Yes, Cuba is a very poor country, but the people and culture are immensely rich, and these people deserve a lot more of our attention. Most Americans, when thinking of Cuba, think only of Fidel Castro and the vague term of “Communism,” but Cuba might not be as foreign as we pretend, the people sharing some of the same intense passions as us (like baseball, rap music, and good beer).

Yes, the rum and cigars in Cuba were superb. If you go to Cuba and don’t try the rum and cigars, then what were the doing the entire time?

havana-city-2More importantly, however, are the questions that United Staters don’t ask when I tell them I just returned from Cuba. On its surface, its a land of bad gas mileage, a land of salsa, a land of making out in public. But the people transcend those stereotypes, like all people, expressing a deep love for each other. Most of Cuba’s population suffers from crippling poverty, and most don’t have cell phones or access to the internet because of this, but it brings people closer. They must build communities in a way most United Staters cannot.

Then comes other misinterpretations, like the inane idea that these people suffer because of the evils of “Communism.” Certainly not. They suffer because of the United States reaction to their socialist revolution, and they suffer because of their own government’s stubbornness to compromise their ideologies with neo-liberal policies. But when you see the track record for US corporations or IMF implementations in Latin American countries, who can blame Cuba for holding out from joining the system? (See: Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile)

The embargo certainly affects more than just Cuban-US relations which could be quite healthy if we did not cling to Cold War ideals and fears. We sanction other countries for even attempting to trade with our island neighbor, and this creates an isolated economy, struggling to reform but still adamant to resist joining the current world system. My opinion of this has change drastically.

What anyone must understand is that despite the poverty and the deteriorating buildings and smog choking Havana’s air, the people persevere. Each day, they find ways to survive, no matter how destitute or desperate the means. Some drive taxis, others sell rejected cigars to unknowing tourists; some go to university, but far more drop out of school to prostitute themselves in the streets, even kids as young as 13 or 14. And our self-made-man society, our American Dream culture, may scoff at that, call them lazy, call them whatever we like, but in the end, we’re the ones hurting them.

I will write more about Cuba in the following months, but I felt compelled to depict at least this much about it. What I’ve written in no way captures Cuban culture, and definitely, my experience could not capture the totality of Cuban culture. Even if I visited for a year, I doubt I could truly understand unless I had lived there, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to understand, from trying to understand. So, first, what must be said about Cuba is that our policies toward them are antiquated and, in the light of our relations with China, highly ridiculous.

I encourage anyone even slightly interested to study Cuban history and our relationship with them, and I challenge you to learn with an open mind and heart and to not emerge from this study disillusioned and indignant.

A view of the Melacon and of the Havana skyline in the distance.

A view of the Melacon and of the Havana skyline in the distance.

The trip include adventure, swimming in mountain pools under water falls, lunching with a German diplomat, studying museums, singing at the top of my lungs at the Melacon (Sea Wall), learning to salsa, going to concerts, meeting locals, and staying up till 6 am with philosophers discussing life. But despite the experience, I learned some practical things, things that will affect me and things I hope to fully believe six months from now. Though I learned hundreds of things, perhaps the most important lesson was the following idea, something simply conceived and so simply true I’m not sure why I had not considered it critically before.

The privileged of the world have the full power and ability to alleviate the suffering of the underprivileged, but only if they choose to surrender the comfort of privilege. Therefore, the only real choice anyone must make is whether to live for others or to live for oneself. Once that choice is made, the others come easy.