The park is only five blocks from Natalia’s house. It is a large 2-block square green space with many shade trees and flowering shrubs, pleasant paths and painted benches scattered throughout. In the center sits a large bronze abstract sculpture surrounded by a wide cement area that young boys and girls are using as a skate park. Two small trampolines and a line-up of child sized cars and trucks occupy one corner, along with a man and woman in orange T-shirts who seem to be in charge of collecting “entrance fees.”
But the most striking feature of the park are the dozens, sometimes probably more than a hundred people who sit, stand or move around to different locations holding various devices in their hands, talking at full volume to the video images that appear, or scrolling intently. At night the lights from the phones, tablets and laptops that dot the park make it look like an internet fairyland. For this is the WiFi park, one of many in Havana, that is the only way for most Cubans to access the world wide web, or at least a corner of it.
As soon as I enter the park, the vendors approach. Tarjeta, senora. Tarjeta.Whoever gets to me first will get my business as I buy a card that gives me one hour of access for 3 Convertible Pesos (the approximate equivalent of $2.90 US dollars in Cuba’s two-tier economy). Just scratch off the card to reveal your username and password, punch it in when the login appears and you are good to go. If only it were that simple. But how could it be, for this is Cuba after all?
As I wander around looking for a spot that will bring up the magical login screen, I begin to experience “WiFi” envy. Everyone else appears to be connected. I glimpse pixelated images on tablet screens as they communicate with family in far away places. Others are scrolling, never lifting their eyes from their screens. They must be connected. Why not me? I keep moving around until…at long last the magical portal to the universe appears.
I type the numbers in quickly as if it might vanish at any moment, open the “Imo” app that allows me to video chat at no cost (except for the $3 that I paid for the card) for as long as I want, and after a few rings there is Paulie’s face on my screen sitting in our beautiful corn yellow dining room, munching on a snack and smiling back at me. My heart sings!
In the early years when I visited Cuba I entered a “no contact” zone —no email, no internet (well to be fair these didn’t exist yet), no phone calls. In an emergency my family had a number they could call but the chances of getting through were slim. I could call from a hotel but it was very expensive and the connections were terrible with echoing voices having difficulty conveying even the simplest information. A letter could be sent with someone who was traveling back but not by mail because there was no direct mail service.
In 1996, when the Cubans shot 3 small planes from Brothers to the Rescue out of the sky because they had violated Cuban air space and it provoked a major diplomatic crisis, my family was desperate to reach me and kept calling off and on through all of one long and anxious Sunday. Of course, here in Havana we didn’t even know what had happened yet because there was only one station that reported the news, only once a day in the evening. No CNN with “breaking news” and banner headlines. Finally they got through and I was able to convince them that all was fine and I didn’t have to catch the next plane home. As I remember it, the conversation went something like this:
My mother: Are you sure, sure, sure you’re all right, all right, all right.
Me: I’m fine, fine, fine
My mother: Ok, Ok, Ok
Me: Don’t worry, worry, worry
Well, you get the idea. Now I have WiFi, Imo and a bench in a park under a tree with kids laughing on their trampoline and a gentle breeze cooling the night.