Dispatches from Havana

La Llegada (The Arrival)

Another trip to Cuba. I begin the crazy dance of preparation by ticking off items on the list of necessities I will distribute among friends (bandaids, antacids, socks and underwear, over the counter meds in huge bottles from Costco, coffee, chocolate syrup and hundreds of condoms—a random list of things that are not available in a country whose economy is stretched to the limit) and then trying to fit them all into one big suitcase. I pack and unpack, as I always do, weigh the bag, take things out and then pack and weigh again. The plastic toddler plate and bowl I’ve been trying to bring down for the last few trips for my goddaughter’s child gets left behind again. Adorable but not indispensable.

This is my first trip as a published author and I stuff a carry on with copies of Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba, my account of the time I spent training peer educators at the AIDS Sanitorium in Havana. I will launch the book at Cuba Libro, an English-language bookstore founded by a friend, and deliver it into the hands of some of the people whose stories I tell in the book. And I will be joined by family members, some visiting Cuba for the first time, which makes this trip even more significant.

JetBlue is still flying direct from JFK airport—but only one flight a day now in contrast to the 3 or 4 that left NYC for Havana after commercial flights were first opened up. Trump has clamped down on travel to Cuba and it is having an impact—a big drop in Americans visiting Cuba, no more cruise ships discharging 100’s at a time to spend their money in the shops of old Havana, a tense population wondering what’s next.

Jose Marti International Airport is almost empty when I arrive, yet another indication of the state of the tourist trade, and my partner Paul and I move quickly through immigration and customs into the waiting air-conditioned comfort of a yellow taxi. It’s only been five months since my last visit and the streets look the same––long lines at bus stops, older women with umbrellas shading them from the fierce mid-day sun ambling along broken sidewalks, streets with the clean, manicured look that comes from employing all the people needed to do the work. If only the NYC subways had that kind of manpower.

The cab driver helps us haul my heavy suitcases up the four flights of stairs to my airy apartment, which Paul is seeing in its finished state for the first time. It is the work of my god-daughter, a scenic designer in the theater, who has worked tirelessly to transform it into a  colorful, comfortable space for her ‘Tia Elena.’  Her daughter has grown as young children do so quickly into a completely new phase of life—she is a lively toddler, walking, trying out language, social and affectionate ––transferring to my waiting arms without the slightest hesitation.

I wonder, as I listen to the song of the sinsonte the first morning and watch the small, green mangoes on the tree outside my window blowing in the breeze—truly waking in Havana, as Paul reminds me––how this island, which I have loved for more than 40 years, will appear to my family. Will they succumb to its charms or be frustrated by its many challenges?

La Ceremonia de Las Llaves (The Ceremony of the Keys)

I select a key on the ring that my god-daughter has provided me and try to fit it in the lock of the wrought iron gate at the top of the 4th Floor stairs. Havana has always felt safe and secure to me. I walk through darkened streets late at night and don’t worry. But there are crimes of opportunity—petty theft (even the towels hanging out to dry have to be vigilados)—that have probably prompted the addition of several locking iron gates. The one at the bottom of the stairs from the street does not lock but gives the impression, but this new one that appears after I have huffed and puffed up four flights does indeed have a lock and I can’t find the right key. Thus begins what we have come to call The Ceremony of the Keys.

The ceremony starts with the wrought iron gate at the stairs, continues to the large wrought iron gate at the door to the apartment, the old wooden door, and onto the locked door of the closet in our bedroom where we will store our valuables, including Paul’s accordion.

I have never had much luck with keys—we have a similar iron gate on our 125- year- old brownstone in Brooklyn. Invariably I have to try each key before I get it right. In Cuba getting into the apartment sometimes requires a trip back down two flights to my family’s apartment to find someone to help. The keys are tricky, the doors are old, and I have a knack for getting locked out—in Havana and in Brooklyn.

On the second day I lock the bedroom closet—testing it out—and we can’t get back in. Paul’s passport and cash are inside, his accordion sits on the bedroom floor. Not an emergency but not something we can ignore for long. My god-daughter calls in a professional—a friend who opens the door with a card—and then spends an hour painstakingly labeling each key.

When we move to the casona, the large yellow house on busy 23rd St. where we will all gather together, the ceremony begins again––padlocked gate on the street, iron gate on the door, wooden door, back iron gate, back wooden door to the patio. By the time we end our sojourn in that house, I can open all the doors smoothly and speedily, in the dark, and imagine the openings as a kind of dance done to classical piano music. La Ceremonia de las Llaves.

Fragmentos y Impresiones (Fragments and Impressions)

There are more vegetables and fruit for sale on the street—even the elusive piña––but the prices are higher than most Cubans can afford easily. And in the agro near the apartment, the state-run farmer’s market, I find only platanos and acelga (chard).

Salaries were increased in December and will be increased again in a couple of months. A good thing, though no one can tell me by how much. My most cynical friends tell me it won’t help because the prices will go up too.

Ever since I first visited my friend Carlos in his home in Santos Suarez, a hilly neighborhood of many churches, his three dachshunds have greeted me enthusiastically at the top of the stairs. Today when I visit, Sachi and Roky are moping about looking decidedly sad…though don’t ask me to describe how a dachshund looks when it is sad. It seems that Moki, their only son—born with a harelip and other abnormalities but much loved by them and their humans, has died that very day. Mama, Carlos’s white-haired indomitable mother, tells me she heard them whimpering around noon, shouted at them to be quiet and returned to her lunch. Later she found them huddling together, their son still and silent between them. Cuba has many dogs––dachshunds seem a particular favorite breed––some cared for at home, many roaming the streets like weirdly blended Dr. Seuss characters with top knots and peculiar coloring. I will miss the trio at Carlos’s house, as I miss the large tank of salt-water fish at the top of the stairs and the beehives on the patio. “No hay tiempo,” he tells me in his busy life to look after fish and bees. But I know he will continue to lavish love on his two remaining perritos.



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