Off Course in Cuba

Saying yes to bright-eyed strangers and no to Caribbean cliches rewarded a traveller with an atypical intrigue.  
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Live music in Havana’s many cafés and restaurants is a heady affair. Photo by: Lena Wurm/ shutterstock

I scanned through the paper and dialled the digits r had hastily scribbled on the night before. stalking him on social media was out of the question. “there’s no internet in cuba!”

—I’d heard returning visitors exaggerate, submitting to a quirk that lines up with a Marxist-Leninist socialist state. The truth is that Internet access has historically been limited to centralised public spaces in the country and it was sometime last year that the government extended access to Cuban homes, albeit selectively. In short, looking for R, whom I had known for about a day, felt like a riddle.

The dial tone gave up for the third time. R was not to be reached.

We had been drinking at a nondescript bar somewhere in Central Havana when he’d playfully handed me his cell number. A karaoke session unfolded in the background, the singers attempting American pop songs. Fidel Castro’s dictionary would probably chalk it up as ‘Yankee Imperialism.’ “I do not approve of gringos telling Latin American Caribbean stories,” a dear Colombian friend had once told me. “Oh and please do not click pictures of riding one of those old classic cars, puffing on cigars,” he’d added for good measure.

Cuba is as arcane as it is iconic, and it is shrouded in the biases of a mainstream Western gaze. What one chooses to show about the country is thus political when presented to a world that largely associates it with cigars and wildly chromatic cars, a repressive socialist state, or a frenzied Cuban immigrant in the U.S. who goes by the name of Tony Montana (Scarface). Half a century of U.S. embargo had tried to keep Cuba isolated and economically challenged, yet it could not dampen the island’s vitality. It is this vitality that my friend had wished for me to explore.

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From strangers weaving in and out of her story to music by the Malecón (top right), Havana (left, bottom right) for the author was a delirious dream in pop colours. Photos by: Anna Jedynak/Shutterstock (woman), Marcin Jucha/Shutterstock (musicians), Kamira/Shutterstock (street)

“You visit my country and you don’t even say hi?” Those were R’s first words to me.

No, I won’t. That’s not how we roll with strangers in India, or in my hometown Calcutta. And back in New York City, where I now live, you’d need a lot more than that smile of yours to break through my self-absorption. That city has undone my Calcutta warmth.

But that’s not what I said. Breaking away from set ways, I smiled back. R clicked his tongue, and behind him Havana shut up. Over the next many hours, we would take long walks, stopping to sip on mojitos he’d never drink.

El Malecon, in particular, was begging for us to walk its eight-kilometre-long majestic promenade chasing the Atlantic. Construction of the seaside esplanade began in 1901 during Cuba’s temporary U.S. military rule. The idea was to protect Havana from invasion by sea, but over the ages locals have lent this seawall an intimate grammar. Friends, lovers, vendors selling plastic flowers, and musicians crooning hearty renditions of Compay Segundo’s “Chan chan” throng as the sunset turns the Atlantic silver. Only the fishermen remain still, hands steady on their fishing rods. And on days when the tide is rough, walkers simmer down with sprays of water from a raving ocean that splish- splashes with no expected syntax.

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Cobbled streets and vibrant facades are quintessential of Trinidad. Photo by: Doleesi/Shutterstock

Even with R by my side, I was acutely aware of the old buildings in Moorish, Cuban baroque and Neoclassical styles that circle the streets opposite the promenade, whispering of Cuba’s colonial past. And against such grand indulgence, abstinent Soviet-style blocks stand as reminders of the revolution that followed. So later that night when R took me to a dive bar whose facade showed none of that architectural brilliance, I felt underwhelmed. But his company was golden and we made plans to see each other again, once I was back from Trinidad, a town 300 kilometres southeast of Havana. There was one more day in between, but that was for myself.

 

***

 

Come morning, I set out to explore the neighbourhood of Paseo Marti where Paseo Del Prado, an esplanade dividing Old Havana from Central Havana, struck me as particularly zippy. Open-air salsa classes and artists displaying their artwork occupy the thoroughfare. But all that dulled once a dozen kids came out to play, passing around a beaten white football, drunk on the game. For an average Calcuttan, this hit too close to home. Home is also what I found in Central Havana, where I felt the humidity, chatter, and frenzy of North Calcutta streets landing thick on my senses. The tall windows and the amber hues of buildings felt like a sepia-tinted throwback of the city I had left but never left behind.

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Plaza Vieja (top) in Old Havana is a cornucopia of vintage architecture; Stopping to sip on local liquor (bottom right) cooled off the author’s hot pursuit of Central Havana’s bustling lanes, esplanades and even barber shops (bottom left). Photos by: Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock (plaza), Akturer/Shutterstock (men), Cdrin/Shutterstock (bottles)

I continued to walk until I walked straight into a bar inside a neighbourhood held together by narrow, serpentine lanes. The absence of cocktails on a menu scribbled across a wall told me that the joint doesn’t care for tourists. I cooled off with a beer that turned warm within minutes of arriving. Hinged to its side was a barber shop where a man worked expertly through his customer’s hair. The bar lady and I managed a few pleasantries through my barely-there Spanish and her broken English. Two men next to me were sharing some joke that I unwittingly smiled at, and they nodded at me having a good time. At this bar, in the neighbourhood I wish I remembered the name of, I felt good about taking a break from R’s company to roll solo. Sitting in the middle of nowhere, hearing a language I did not understand, I felt… endless.

It is only later when I started heading back towards the Malecon when it began, the pang. I hadn’t anticipated the heavy loneliness of dusk in Havana. My phone carrier had no roaming service so there I was at a fancy hotel in downtown Havana that I could not afford, but where the kind receptionist allowed me three trials on his desk phone.

But the dial tone gave up.

Retracing the spots R had taken me the previous night felt like the logical thing to do. I found myself back in the old town square, Plaza Vieja, nestled in the centre of Old Havana. Vintage buildings of the Cuban baroque and 20th century art-nouveau persuasions had been turned into cafes and restaurants. During the day older joints host live performances by local musicians and yes, the song “Guantanamera” is a staple. At night more upscale and modern cafes sometimes blast Taylor Swift on their stereos. I realised that this uneven entry of capitalism into a socialist state is what makes Havana a bundle of contradictions.

A few kilometres outside of Trinidad, vast fields of sugarcane outline either side of the road, a nod to Cuba’s agricultural economy and the town’s soft-pastel charm. My six-hour-long bus ride to the UNESCO World Heritage started to feel fruitful.

In Trinidad’s central square lies Casa De La Musica, where locals and tourists alike salsa to live music every night. Even with no chops, a stranger-turned-dance partner ensured that I felt invincible on the open floor. You will never not catch music in Trinidad, unless it’s the dead of the night. Nearly all its bars boast pavilions for jams laidback or electric. Three days went by in an instant, yet I found enough time for inaction, spending drowsy afternoons melting in the island’s heat after hearty meals of fried plantains, rice and peas, and the fresh catch of the day. I even tried my luck with Cuban pizza. A mobile stall cooked up a storm with dough, cheese, Jamon—cured ham—and chunks of pineapple. Sweet, sour and crunchy. The final result might have assaulted an Italian but my insides were euphoric.

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The sweet motion of local life (top) gives Trinidad (bottom) a soft-pastel charm. Photos by: Akturer/Shutterstock (boys), Doleesi/Shutterstock (horse cart)

I considered extending my stay in Trinidad but the logistics overwhelmed me. My mind drifted to R. Had he given me the wonky number on purpose? I never asked, but I saw R again. Exactly where we had first met, I found R waving at me when I returned to Havana. No last minute jitters or (failed) phone calls this time. We just met, and resumed our walk.

 

Epilogue

It is said that between 1992 and 1997 Cubans seen with tourists in the streets could be de facto outlawed by the state. Whether that was a system of social control or the state’s measure to protect tourists is a debate for another day.

For my part, I sauntered through the Museo de la Revolucion on my last day, learning and unlearning the history of the Cuban Revolution. Inside the museum, a dizzying multitude of photographs, ammunition, and secret letters retell a story that the West will never narrate.

By the Atlantic where I had first met R, I made two choices. To go where my instincts take me. And to not, despite those instincts, ride a classic Cuban car while puffing on a cigar—like my Colombian friend had asked of me.

 

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  • Mugdha Mahalanabish is a Mumbai-based writer who travels to learn about the parts of history that text books don't provide.

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