We all woke up extremely hung over. The boys were worse off then even I was, having stayed out far later. I made them some coffee and we sat in the cockpit. We moaned collectively. Puddy jumped passed us (he knew he would be grabbed) and entered Cuba for the first time. I paused, seeing what he would do. If I knew my cat… Sure enough he took one look around, sniffed and jumped back on the boat like something was chasing him. He would be more brave next time, and I would have to follow him into the bushes where he somehow would already be engaged in a hissing fight with another gato he found in there.
We spent a long morning that way. Horizontal, talking about the state of the world.
Eventually we decided to go to the beach. It wasn’t miles of white sandy beach but it was very pretty none-the-less. We took pictures of each other and goofed off in the sea riding each other like turtles. We sat drying on the sand and watched windsurfers fall and sail along the water. Someone would tell us later that they knew a person that windsurfed all the way to America from Cuba. Ninety miles of the extreme weather we sailed through to get there, essentially doing one long heinous pull up.
On the way home I smiled at an elderly man. At this his face grew angry and he looked away. I am so unused to this. Not all, but more then anywhere else I have been, people in Cuba looked at us as though we are privileged. I do not judge them for this, we are privileged. Their lives are much harder then ours. But who said that easier is better? The easier we make things, the more miserable everyone gets, the more we pull into ourselves, the more antidepressants we pass out. Here they run and play with their neighbors instead of locking themselves up tight in their own perfectly cooled little boxes. I wish Cubans could see the goodness in their lives. Their resourcefulness, born of necessity, is a huge gift to a vastly resource-stretched planet. They take pride in their things, and they take care of them. They have to make them last. I went to into a store in Havana once. There were fifteen men, in little cubicles, fixing watches. Each had a bucket of tiny parts next to him or her and glasses on with huge magnifying lenses that made them look like mad scientists. They peered up at me curiously, blinking their giant eyes, wondering what I was doing there. Cubans don’t throw everything away the second it errs once and buy a new piece of junk from China to replace it with in the vicious cycle that is becoming synonymous with America. They know how to fix anything. Another sailor told us of a man who made a rubber seal for him, on a lathe, out of an old tire. The guy said he had been through many store bought and plastic packaged rubber rings made specifically for his purpose, but they kept breaking, he has had the Cuban one for years.
The cars are a great example of this. Their cars are old, they never have the original parts. We rode in a ford, with a Mercedes engine, and a Toyota dashboard. We Americans love those cars, we talk about them at length, They have become a REASON TO GO TO CUBA. But then, like good Americans, we go out and buy the latest piece of shit that won’t last ten years(Well we don’t, but you get my drift).
Sadly, it started to get to the point where I wouldn’t smile at anyone on the streets. Because if they actually did smile back they would probably be gearing up to ask us for something.
A tiny old lady with a round head, made more round by her perfectly beach ball shaped gray hair and big glasses, had an arm-full of groceries, eggs perched precariously on top. She bee-lined straight towards us, with a huge smile on her face, when she saw us across the street in Havana one day. She spoke rapidly in Spanish and kept making weird motions with her one free hand. She grabbed Bill by the arm and dragged him over the massive chuck missing in the street and into the nearest shop. She walked quickly around the store and then expressed to us (somehow) that the store didn’t have whatever it was she wanted us to buy her and we would go to another store a few blocks away. Polite as we could we apologized and moved on. This kind of thing happened over and over.
It is really at establishments where we get to see the Cuban people shine. They can’t ask us for anything or hate us or fear us for being tourists and I don’t think they would anyway because they get to be exposed to us more often. They see that we can be bad but we can also be good, just as they can be. We get to see who they are as people in the establishments, and it is beautiful. It’s Yasmeen with her big teeth and her happy eyes. It’s Neil and his deep love of his country despite being more aware of it’s problems then the average person. It’s Javier who is charming and doesn’t want to leave his country at all but wants to stay and improve upon it. It’s Collette with her perfect makeup and her pressed suit and her big smile for us despite our annoying and persistent questions.
The kids in Cuba are taught early to ask white people for things. They yell “peso” or “caramel” at us as we walk by. It is a learned trait, but it is not who they are. They are colorful and beautiful and tough. We struggle with this. We talk about white privilege a lot when we travel.
We walked along, on sidewalks, when there was one, stepping over the Banyon trees, which pucker the concrete every ten feet.
When we got back to the marina, there was a boat party for the girls who sailed from Key West, twenty deep, in the regatta. While walking there we ran into Cynthia, the gorgeous blond who had serenaded the group from the night before. She had been invited by the ladies to perform at their party that night. When we ran into her she had just come from the guards who had made it very clear she was not to touch or enter any boats. This clearly embarrassed her. We decided to move the whole party off the boats so she could be with us. The girls on the sailboats weren’t ready yet so she and her guitarist, Whicho, a man with very few teeth and an awesome sense of humor, who spoke no English and who could play any song, even if he had never heard it before, set up outside one of the big motor yachts down the way. To my chagrin the group sat on the boat to listen. It seemed rude to me, her on the ground singing up to a group of wealthy, drunk Americans perched high on their motor yacht and telling her after every single song, what song they wanted to hear next. Indeed shouting drunkenly at her what song she was to perform next for their pleasure and stopping her if they didn’t like one she had started. She played through like a champ. For every song she gave her all. A performer at her core. “I love singing more then anything in the world”, she told me later.
We all, the group growing as people heard her singing and came over, vied for her attention. There was something very special about this effervescent, resplendent, articulate, generous young woman. No one was immune, least of all me. I wanted to be her best friend, I wanted to talk to her forever, she spoke intelligently and magnanimously on any subject that was broached. Politics, the state of the world, and the rights of humans and animals. The latter being her passion. In fact it had been Cynthia who’s “big, sad, blinking eyes” had given away, the night before, to Bill, that Donald Trump would become our leader January twentieth.
We couldn’t help being sucked into her orbit. And we didn’t want to be. At one point I turned to Bill and said, “I love her.” “Ah.. yea.” he wholeheartedly agreed. Even my husband was more open and gregarious then normal around her. The more people that came, the less of her we got, so we made plans to take her to Vallejo, a mountain town we had heard was quite beautiful, two and a half hours away so we could have her to ourselves for a day. She happily agreed.
Eventually they released her from her duty of entertaining them and, while her dad set up a sound system to play music, and a projector to show the music videos on the side of the yacht, she was able to sit and have some wine with us. It didn’t last long. She bopped from group to group spending no more time with any one person then another. It became a heck of a party. We drank, we took pictures, we danced, we laughed, people came and went. The guards started doing shots with us. At some point after most of the girls from the regatta left, Cynthia decided she would teach us all to salsa. I kind of knew what I was doing so I didn’t participate for long, preferring to watch instead. It is remarkable what a beautiful, charming, twenty year old girl can get adult men to do. Six of them, ranging from a few gray hairs to a lot, most of whom would clearly never dance this way for their wives, crowded around Cynthia shaking their hips poorly and enthusiastically. She barked orders in her thick Cuban accent and pulled an elbow here and pushed a hip there where posture needed to be corrected. Sometimes, to their delight, grabbing them and getting in close showing them individually what to do with their hips. She was firm, but generous with praise, which they lapped up like dogs at a water dish. Her dad helped any ladies who wanted to participate, shaking his hips skillfully and exaggeratedly. At one point they showed us what it was all supposed to look like dancing together in a way I would not feel comfortable dancing with my own father.
There was another girl who was also more interested in watching then doing, so she and I gravitated toward each other. Her name was Hannah and I liked her immediately. She was as amused by the whole thing as I, we laughed easily and freely. Crewing on this yacht to Cuba had fallen into her lap unexpectedly, with a positivity and a faith I admired, she had said yes immediately, not knowing what it entailed, nor having ever been on a boat before. I thought about the sail over and gave her the appropriate kudos. She reminded me of myself.
“I’m twenty three.” She said wistfully, “pretty soon I’m going to have to get a job.” She took a sip of her beer and set it on her leg. She was wearing a long, navy blue and white stripped maxi dress. The earrings in her ears sparkled in the light from the boat and peeked out of her shiny, chocolate colored hair. “What would you prefer to do?” I asked mimicking her movements. We sat cross-legged on the top of the motor yacht watching the men, including my husband, stiffly mimicking Cynthia’s sensuous movements. “Travel.” She answered immediately, “I wish I could just travel.” Mid swig I turned to her with the bottle still raised to my lips…
I swallowed, put the beer down and said, “Funny story…”
She listened, rapt with attention, as I told her about my life. She asked good, interesting, smart questions that extended the time I should have talked about myself by a great deal. I was as caught up in it all as she was. From reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad after someone left it on a plane, to buying my first house, to the crashpads, to the duplexes, to the day Adam said he wanted to sail around the world, to retiring at 32 to travel exclusively, to sailing from Minnesota to Cuba, she hung on every word and for the first time in a while (we take advantage of everything don’t we?) I felt exceedingly, tangibly, corporeally grateful for my life.
When I was done and she had exhausted her questions, we sat for a minute looking at our beers, long empty. The men danced inexhaustibly below us. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her look over at me. She put her hand on my arm to make me look at her. She stared into my soul. Her eyes were wet.
“Josie,” She said deeply, “everyone I have ever said that to has said something like ‘Yea everyone wants to travel and not work” or “doesn’t work that way’ or ‘buck up and get a job'”. I felt the familiar tug of sadness I always feel for young people caused by sentences such as this one. She squeezed my arm, her big grateful eyes close to mine and said, “Thank you” to me in a way no one ever has. I set my hand on hers and squeezed, too moved to respond.