HAVANA NIGHTS AND MORNINGS

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Dieciocho-trienta, dieciocho-trienta…….

The numbers drifted across my consciousness, muddling with rapid eye movement sleep. Dieciocho-trienta, dieciocho-trienta. There it was again. Was I dreaming? My eyes opened. A baby-faced cop -still adolescent- hovered above, speaking into his radio. The voice was real. Dieciocho-treinta, dieciocho-treinta (18-30, 18-30), ciudadano extranjero dormido en parque publico (foreign citizen asleep in public park). Saturday had just dawned.  It was a new way to start the day.

The previous day I had arrived in Havana from ostentatious Cancun in a Russian Yakolev jet. As I roared down the autopista from the airport towards the city in a cab, passing 50s Buicks and Fords, crumbling buildings and wide billboards promulgating socialist propaganda -´the party is not privilege, it is sacrifice´- it occurred to me that the Yakolev had not just been a mode of travelling through space but also of time – an ersatz time machine. I had arrived to Castro´s Cuba.

The dawn notice to move on turned out to be nothing more than a mild precursor. Late on Friday night (or was it very early on Saturday morning?) I took the innocent, inebriated decision to lie down to rest in a park not far from el capitolio building in central Havana. With my backpack under my weary head I slept through the thick humidity of the Havana night but the pleasure came to a sudden end when I awoke to the youthful police officer. He told me that I couldn´t sleep there and that I had better be on my way. He couldn´t have been nicer about it. In Cuba, tourists are a protected species.

Sixteen hours later I was back on the streets, wandering and looking up at decrepit buildings in the shadowy night. They reminded me of the ramshackle Victory Mansions, home to Orwell´s protagonist Winston in 1984.  I roamed the streets, drinking a beer here and there before I stopped in a nice little square and listened to a one-man band before police arrived and asked him to stop and move on. A nice lady sitting nearby told me that it was él día de martíres´ (the day of martyrs) and so no music was permitted – very strange for Cuba- and all the dance halls were closed as well to mark reverence for the fallen comrades of the revolution.

The hour neared midnight and after a long, sweaty day which started with that numerical wake up I was ready to finish the night and take a cab ride home. I wandered off into the streets but luck was against me. I never did end up in the cab I was looking for. Instead I found my way, unintentionally, to that famous Havana landmark stretching along the Caribbean sea – el malecón. All along the wall a party was in swing; shots of rum were going down, guitars were being strummed, lovers were of course loving and a gentle sea breeze blew in.  It was an opportunity not to be missed.

I walked along the concrete expanse and it wasn´t long before I struck up a conversation with a group of revelers and shortly after I found that there was a beer in my hand and a little bottle of rum in my pocket and then out and the liquid oro slid down my throat and the pyrotechnics started up in my belly and mind.  I had achieved my goal of immersing myself into the party. I would have been happy to linger and enjoy a quintessential rum-soaked Havana night looking out at the starry sky falling to the sea but one of my new ´friends´ suggested that we go back to his apartment to continue the night.

We climbed several flights of stairs to arrive at his sparse apartment and finally at the top and out-of-breath  I requested to use the bathroom but was directed to piss down a chimney-like hollow on the rooftop terrace that was apparently designed for the purpose in the absence of a regular john. The night went on in a drunken haze. A couple of the guys and one of the girls left, ostensibly for more rum. I was left with the remaining two; one guy already rum-conquered, who soon fell dead asleep and the other the most spectacular Afro-Cuban girl I had ever seen, dressed in a vivid purple dress that juxtaposed perfectly with her deep, dark complexion.

While el amigo cubano snored and muttered in his rough, rum induced slumber we moved out to the terrace to talk under the Havana moonlight. Her skin glistened in the pale light. Eventually, the others came back so we returned inside and more rum flowed. A shot of pure Cuban white rum (was it?) was promptly handed to me in a plastic cup. I downed it in one. The ´ Havana lost hours´were about to begin.

It was eight or nine in the morning when my eyes opened again.  The blurry vision of a police office greeted me again.  It would seem that I had formed a new habit. Evidently I had made my way down all those stairs and spat myself (or was spat) into the Havana night again but now it was day, it was light, my head was fuzzy and my throat was dry, gravelly and harsh. I peered around. I was in the waiting room of a Havana police station. I looked down to confirm my sensory suspicion. Yes, I was handcuffed. I mumbled fuck and other obscenities and called a police officer to attention to try to make sense of my situation. Had I been crumpled up dormant on some Havana street and taken in for my own protection? Or was there a more sinister explanation? The police officer shed no light but did free me from the manacles. This time I wasn´t asked  to move on but rather to sit and wait.

With my hands free I checked my pockets, certain that I must have been robbed and indeed my camera was missing. My wallet and money, however, were intact and my watch still clung to my wrist. I waited some more, pondering the broken pieces of an incongruous night. I soon grew eager to get out of that place so I rose to my uncertain feet and made a dash for the door only to be blocked by a wide and burly policewoman who told me to return to my seat. I meekly obeyed.

Defeated I dozed again but this time, soon after I awoke, I was told that I could leave. There was no paperwork to be done and no explanation given despite my inquiries. I was free to go and so with a huge sense of relief I exited into the outside world. Still in a daze I managed to hail a cab and set of to the casa particular where I was staying. I think it was around ten in the morning when I arrived.  I threw myself onto the bed and into a deep slumber.

When I awoke dusk was approaching. I feebly got up and made an inspection of my sorry state in a bedroom mirror. A swollen eye, cut and bloody nose and thickened lip stared back at me. It seemed I had been beaten up as well or had I fallen on my descent of all those stairs? I had no recollection of either. The anaesthetic rum had rendered me oblivious to it all.

To deal with all this there really was only one available option so I pulled myself together as best as I could, pulled on some clothes and gingerly sauntered up to the nearby juncture of main roads in Vedado, a neighbourhood where I had already found a bar to my kind of liking. My anatomical plexus was tangled and knotted with too many undesirable sentiments and for short-term relief the only antidote was to pull up a stool at that old man’s bar, where Fidel himself gazed down from a portrait right next to me with a baseball cap on his head -forever a man of the people- and call up a straight white rum with a can of beer to chase and when they were merged with my being, I mimicked John Lee Hooker and called out ‘Hey Mr Bartender, come here. I want another drink and I want it now’.

And so I sat up at the bar and slowly came back to some sense of equilibrium and realisation that another day had come and gone and I had survived. Baseball played on a little black and white tv screen perched high up in a corner of the bar. I realised that I was still there to keep batting on too- day by day- and that is what I resolved to do.

 

POSTSCRIPT: Over the next three weeks I had an excellent journey to many parts of Cuba. For the first week or so, as I recovered from the injuries referred to in the story, many friendly Cubans asked me what had happened to me. I didn´t want to leave anyone with the idea that I had a bad impression of Cuba so my stock response was to say that I had been beaten up and mugged in Mexico (sorry! Actually nothing of the kind has ever happened to me here).

Several Cubans said to me that it was not uncommon for Cubans to target foreigners and attempt to drug them, usually in bars. While I hadn´t initially considered this possibility, the more I thought about it the more it made sense. All the clues are in the story.  Or maybe I was just really fucking drunk. Either way it is clear that I will never know the truth of those Havana lost hours.  I have accepted that and I don´t regret them. I´ve told the story to friends and family and now I have it written down as well, recorded for posterity. I hope it made me a little wiser as well.

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14 comments

  1. I was also in Cuba very recently. I went to a baseball game in Bayamo, and had an unpleasant conversation with a Policia de Inmigracion which started because I was taking pictures of the players. He took a look at my notebook, and found the name Marta Beatriz Roque in it. He asked my why the name of a “contrarevolucionista” (he used that word with a straight face) was in my notebook. There was more to this, but he eventually made me sign a statement acknowledging that I was in Cuba on a tourist visa, not a journalist visa, and was not to practice journalism in Cuba.

    My point here is that tourists are not a protected species in Cuba. I could add that if this policeman was so concerned about “contrarevolucionistas”, he could do a lot more good for the revolution by cutting sugar cane in the fields, instead of harassing tourists.

  2. Propaganda dies hard. I expect to hear of “Incidents” with tourists in Cuba. Only time will tell if they will be straightened out or cause International Scandals. Just awaiting to hear about the first murder there or arrest for espionage.
    Also awaiting, (This will take more time) , the opening of a McDonalds and a plague of diabetes from Cocacola . Did you know there is no candy in Cuba? Thats because the sugar is all exported to pay the National debt. My wife took some lollipops when she went 20 years ago and she told me the people, even adults, ate them with great fervor. The Bay of Pigs invasion was unnecessary, give them Soda Pop. Say goodbye to slender Cubans, welcome Obese Cubans and Zumba classes. Capitalism shall overcome !!!

    1. I didn’t notice the absence of candy, but did notice ice cream. Saw a lot of obese people, same as in Mexico, and the reason is the same; eating the wrong types of food.

  3. A vivid, altogether terrific piece of reflective writing!

    I remember you mentioning this incident to me briefly in passing, but hearing the whole story makes for a interesting tale indeed. How fortunate that they didn’t touch your wallet; I’ll drink a Cuba libre to that!

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