Mything Cuba

Mything Cuba

“Imagine there’s no heaven,” sings John Lennon over the loudspeaker. “It’s easy if you try.” 
I am known for my imagination, but nothing prepared me for this surreal moment: over six hundred Semester at Sea students, faculty and staff climbing the eighty-eight steps to theUniversity of Havana on a sunny, windy late morning in November 2014. We didn’t know yet that we would be the last official educational trip scheduled to visitCuba before President Obama reestablished US-Cuba relations several months later. As we disembarked, that possibility was in the future, but the pungent smells, the sultry music blazing the ripped-up roads, and the sweet heat of the people of Havana were very real and the observations below capture my first impressions of Cuba in the betweenthat rare moment before the future seizes a place and transforms it forever. 
A dozen photographers snapped our photos as we descended the gangway of the MVExplorer, our home for past 108 days, giving most of us our first taste of paparazzi. A police escort accompanied us from the port to the University of Havana, where the rector of the university urged peace between the US and Cuba. This is my third Semester at Sea voyage as a faculty member teaching Travel Writing and Creative Writing, and I’ve left pieces of my heart in many cities around the world, but this heartfelt welcome to Havana brings me to tears, nearly making me miss the enormous banner draped over the entrance to the university: The Cuban 5.
 Not to worry. The moustached faces of the Cuban 5accused of espionage against theUSare plastered around the city, and nearly every tour sponsored for us manages to bring it up.I don’t want to debate whether or not they were unjustly imprisoned, but I do know that two of the 5 were released and are home with their families. One even shows up to speak to the students at a basketball game organised between our students and the University of Havana team.
But this is still Day One of our visit to Havana, and after lectures, entertainment and music at the university, we file into a small theatre in Vieja Havana where La Colmenita (TheLittle Beehive) a children’s theatre group (aged five to fourteen) will put on a special performance for us. “In English, just for you,” cries Tim, the gray-moustached manager/director of the troupe. “With love for you! Enjoy!” He blows kisses to his enchanted audience. 
I settle in my chair and watch the children perform a play. They are talented and adorable, especially a tiny girl wearing large glasses, and dressed in a jaunty Peter Pan cap and tights. But wait … what’s this? In the middle of the play, a public service announcement withDanny Glover exhorting us to free the Cuban 5? And video footage of the 5 tenderly playing with their children or teasing their mothers? Ah, I see, this isn’t a play at all. It’s propaganda
masquerading as art, slogans pretending to be dialogueuttered by wide-eyed, earnest children.My stomach coils tighter than when the ship sailed through a typhoon. 
You’re in Cuba, I remind myself. Did you expect a frothy Disney concoction with singing, dancing little bees? 
Yes, I admit. Cuba is more than politics and myths of revolution. It’s a tropical paradise of faded glamour, mojitos and daiquiris, hot salsa that starts in the soul and travels to the feet,and warm, generous people.
It is also a country of old men. Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Ernest Hemingway, a Holy Triad who never age and remain frozen in myths as colourful as the 50s cars sailing down the roads, and whose photos loom over the entire city. 
There is Fidel, of course, rumpled and bearded, smiling with Khrushchev and Hemingway, though he is overshadowed by strikingly handsome Che. With his fierce glare and beret, Che remains as charismatic as he was in the late 60s and 70sa hero of the hippie movement and eternal symbol of revolucion. His face adorns book covers, posters, T-shirts, keychains, ashtrays, and aprons, and at night, on a building near Plaza de la Revolucion, his face lights up. There is even a Che Guevara cologne. 
An ironic story a Cuban friend told me: after Cuba, Che went to Bolivia to offer his services as revolutionary, but when they saw himbalding and wearing glasses, with a middle-aged paunch—they didn’t want him. 
But in Cuba, Che will never age, not as long as the myth is perpetuated. Neither will Fidel, who is now eighty-eight, retired and in poor health, while his nephew Raul Castro rules the country. But we don’t see images of Raul. Instead we return to the heady days of bearded rebels and revolucion. 
Hemingway is the third member of the Holy Triad. He loved the Cubans, and they loved him back. I did my pilgrimage to his haunts, beginning with the wild coast of Cojimar, the fishing village where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. At the seaside café, La Terraza, his favourite corner table is roped off and set. Back in Vieja Havana, I peek into his room in the pinkHotel Ambos Mundos, and see his typewriter and a shelf of books he wrote while living at the hotel ($3/night during the low season, $5 during high season). Around the corner at La Bodegitadel Medio, a cozy neighbourhood bar that serves up mojitos and cigars, and wonderful music, I toast him with a mojito. I follow his path down the walking street of Obispo, lined with cafes,shops, churro stands, and music playing everywhere, to the swirling neon sign of El Floridita, the delightfully retro bar known for its daiquiris. I sit next to his virile, smiling bronze buston his favourite stool, his back to the walland over a daiquiri named for him, I ask him what he thinks of this country of old men who remain forever young. Fidel eavesdrops from the wall, where he is trapped in his own mythic ageless photo. 
I believe that Hemingway, a great myth-maker himself, would agree that myth trumps reality.   
On my last evening in Havana, I explore the streets beyond the carefully circumscribed tourist centres. The instant you step off Obispo and Mercederes, you stumble into torn-up roads,crumbling buildings, markets with nearly empty shelves, clothes hanging from balconies, people talking, smoking, eating, and laughing on the street. They don’t eat at the tourist restaurants a
few blocks away. There are two different currenciesone for the tourists (Cuban ConvertiblePesos, or CUCs), and one for the Cubans (pesos). US dollars are not officially supposed to be exchanged, but for ten US dollars, you get eight CUCs. The average monthly salary for a doctor is fifteen CUCs. A daiquiri at El Floridita costs six CUCs. Health care and education are taken care of, but it is incredibly difficult to live, day to day. When I ask a Cuban friend how he survives on a salary of thirteen CUCs, he shrugs. “Black market. Extra jobs. Tips.” 
As the sky darkens, I return to the port along the Malecon, a five-mile walkway along the sea, foaming waves flinging against the seawall. In the distance I glimpse the lights of our ship,the MV Explorer. Havana is our last port, and in less than a week we’ll return home to theUnited States. Ive fallen in love with this citythe tropical promise and warmth, and even the underlying shadows beneath every ray of sun. I understand that desperate people eat myths for survival, but the revolucion was fifty-five years ago, Che was executed, Fidel has a successor,and two members of the Cuban 5 are home. 
Maybe it’s time to imagine new stories, ones that haven’t been written because they haven’t been lived yet.
As John Lennon says, “Imagine all the people living in peace …. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
Maybe today, the Cubans can imagine a new reality for themselves. 
Maybe we can, too.

Ruth

About RUTH SETTON

Born in Morocco, Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel, The Road to Fez, and the recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, PEN, and Writer’s Digest. Her poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Writer’s Digest, The Jerusalem Post, The Literary Traveler, Arts & Letters, Jewish Fiction, Women Writing Desire, Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female, Best Contemporary Jewish Writing, Nimrod, Tiferet, With Signs and Wonders: Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and The North American Review. She teaches Creative Writing at Lehigh University and on Semester at Sea.

Born in Morocco, Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel, The Road to Fez, and the recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, PEN, and Writer’s Digest. Her poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Writer’s Digest, The Jerusalem Post, The Literary Traveler, Arts & Letters, Jewish Fiction, Women Writing Desire, Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female, Best Contemporary Jewish Writing, Nimrod, Tiferet, With Signs and Wonders: Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and The North American Review. She teaches Creative Writing at Lehigh University and on Semester at Sea.

Leave a Comment