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Hard Times in Habana Town

There is only one other couple eating at present. Scandinavians. The prices are in CU, not in Cuban pesos, which means Cubans do not eat there.

By Lance Steagall - lgsteagall@gmail.com Photos ©Icarus Blake

Playa Habana Photo ©Icarus Blake

Twenty miles East of Habana there is a white sand beach. Playa Santa Maria del Mar. And although you should be conducting your research, fulfilling the obligations of your visa, today you will allow yourself to be convinced otherwise. Your companion, coy in the morning light, is persuasive and the night before begs an easy day on the water.

At the city center you will catch a bus for the Playas del Este, your concierge tells you. The bus only takes forty-five minutes or so, but the cost of a taxi ride is a luxury you can afford.

On the street stray dogs watch you expectantly. They follow you for a block or two before realizing you carry no food.

Revolucion Photo ©Icarus Blake

Men and women passersby approach you and motion to your wrist.

“You have the time?”

“Yes, it is noon.”

“You are from the United States?”

“Yes, New York.”

“New York!” They gush. They have relatives there. They have seen it on T.V. It is a very glamorous place.

Fidel Castro's Pistol Photo ©Icarus Blake

“It is a dangerous place?” They ask.

“No, not so dangerous as the movies you have seen.”

“You enjoy it here in Habana?”

“Yes. It’s very…” You pause.

They agree. “Yes, it is very…”

“But” they say, growing somber. “Times are hard for us. There is shortage. There is want. We can’t even buy leche for the kids.” they will extend an open palm.

But you have no coins. Only bills.

El Malecon Photo © Icarus Blake

Noel, your taxi driver, assures you that it is only a twenty minute ride to Playas del Este. Thirty tops. He compliments your Spanish as you watch boulevards lined with jacaranda trees turn to green fields. Men on bicycles with loads of firewood and bundles of thatches tied together with twine and strung across their backs flash past your window.

Noel has a joke for you:

“You have heard of Fidel and the turtle?”

“No, I have not.”

“Yes, he was gifted once a turtle by a delegation from the Galapagos Islands. He thanked the delegation very much, asked them about turtles—What do they eat? What do they drink? How does one care for them? How long do they live?

Cuban Chess Photo ©Icarus Blake

‘They typically live for one hundred years,’ says the delegation from the Galapagos Islands.

El Jefe’s face grows long. He tells them that he is very grateful, but he cannot possibly accept their gift.”

They are distraught. They ask him why he cannot accept the gift.

“I…” says Fidel. “… cannot accept because I would be too heartbroken when it died.”

Noel laughs robustly at his immortal ruler.

“That is good,” you say.

“Yes, we Cubans have a sense of humor. It is essential in hard times.”

American Frame (Russian Engine) Photo © Icarus Blake

On the beach it is a different etiquette practiced by the South American tourists. A Venezuelan mother beside you watches her daughters play topless in the surf as she takes her young son from his swim trunks and helps him to pee. Further down, older men sprawl indecently. One is unconscious—a bottle of rum lying next to him. His friends laugh in derision and build structures of sand upon him.

Police stand off to the side, occasionally stopping a passerby for questioning and eyeing your companion.

But you do not mind. The night before you had too much to drink and so you were not satisfied. But she was good to you. You lay in her cramped hotel room and told old jokes on the Soviets as she laughed and laughed. And in the bright morning with a view of El Malecon from her window you were satisfied. And here, in the water, in the sun, you are now feeling very close. The freedom of vacation permits an intimacy you do not permit yourself back home.

Beach Bikini Photo ©Icarus Blake

You pass idle hours in the sun.

Nearby there is a restaurant. There is only one other couple eating at present. Scandinavians. The prices are in CU, not in Cuban pesos, which means Cubans do not eat there. The Scandinavians agree that the fish is very fresh, which is not to say good, and the flies that buzz are bothersome, but not unbearably so.

“Back to Habana?” your waiter repeats your question. He points to the West. “Yes, you can walk a mile more or less in that direction. There is a hill on your left and at the top there is a bus stop.”

“The bus comes often?”

“Yes, often enough.”

Anti-imperialists Photo © Icarus Blake

Up the hill there is a stone bus stop with a bench. Your companion rests her head on your lap and smiles abstractedly. Your hand wanders over bronzed and salt-rimed flesh that still smells of coconut. Her breasts are small, but they are very nice.

You keep a one-eye watch for any headlights, unsure of the waiter’s instructions. But you are soon reassured by the arrival of others, who tarry a short distance down the road. There, there is a fallen tree one can sit upon.

The bus is very crowded. The men and women headed to the city for their Saturday night are excited. Your companion attracts the gaze of many, but she is not aware of it. She is drowsy and her head lists upon your shoulder. On the radio the songs are in English. Pop tunes from the ’90s. Prince, REM, Madonna, “Like a Virgin”.

The central Habana bus depot is in El Barrio Chino, and the streets are dark because in Cuba the times are hard. There is shortage. There are few streetlights, apartment windows are darkened, brick facades are faded and crumbling. Your companion is delighted by the night air and the exotic surroundings. She suggests you walk back to her hotel as you watch women watching you from their second and third-story balcones.

"Che" Photo ©Icarus Blake

On the walk your mind wanders among the dark shapes that line the streets before being pulled back by the sounds of a scuffle. A struggle. You turn and see two young men—boys, really—grabbing at your companion’s bag. You shout, shake your fists as you run at them. You assume the largest possible shape like one is advised to do when confronting a bear. But they want no quarrel. Only the bag, which they now have, and so they flee as you approach. You pursue and the street dogs do too. They nip at your heels, your calves. They break skin. Later, you will try to recall if they did so maliciously.

But now you are within an arm’s reach and you grab at the two boys, you try to… to what? Collar two young street toughs? Bloody two ten year olds while your companion waits alone two blocks back?

No.

The next day there is stiffness between you. The intimacy dissolved in a realization of—you’re not sure exactly what, but a sour note has been struck. You part ways with a word and a nod, but no contact. That night, at the cafe beside your hotel, you eat alone. Over a dinner of fried fish, red beans and rice, you consider failures—your own, your country’s, mankind’s.

After dinner you are laying wretched on the floor of your bathroom at the Hotel Vedado. Your sheets are in the tub, soiled and soaking. Your life forces flood from you at both ends in alternating currents.

"Capitan" Gregor Fuentes Photo ©Icarus Blake

You remember the bruise above your companion’s eye. The street dogs and the broken skin.

Now you are perched over the toilet like a cormorant stalking fish in a small lagoon.

You remember the dogs. The wound. You will try to recall a froth around their mouths—if their eyes had flashed, if their demeanor had suggested…

But no. In the morning you feel much improved. The flow has stopped. You can now hold down water.

“They had merely been excitable dogs,” you conclude. “The pescado frito is the true culprit—the breading and the spoiled fish it must have hid.”

This is Havana, after all, and times are hard. There is shortage.

And with a laugh, holding tenderly your still roiling stomach, you admit that, “No, it was not the dog. Nor the bite. It was not that at all. It was the fish, rather.

Yes, it was the fish.

It was only the fish.

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