Never been much of a strident anti-communist, but I found Havana creepy and sad, and compelling and dynamic, too. The flight attendants on Cubana flight said it all without words: an hour out they began stuffing everything that wasn’t nailed down or screwed into the bulkheads into their luggage. Piles of paper napkins. Plastic cutlery. Doggie bags of food. It was dark and wet when I stepped out of the airport, into a gypsy taxi running on three cylinders, belching oil and fumes, and without door handles. I don’t like to lose sight of my luggage but the driver insisted it had to be hidden in the trunk: “Policia!” he said. “Eleven million Cubans, five million police.”
And then suddenly, speeding down dark streets, an endless line of ghost-like people plodding along the pavement, the driver wanted his money up front. Now. “No,” I said. “I need gas,” he said. “No,” I said. “No money, no gas,” he said. “We won’t make it to the city.” Finally we agreed on half now, half when I got to my hotel. And sure enough, half went right into the tank a few miles later.
In this land of free health care and free education and Che and Fidel on every wall, the Cubans were hustling and bobbing and weaving around the system – and the police on every corner. Havana is a city seething with restlessness and want. “I teach Salsa,” said a sweet young thing named Martha. She was 21, could have been my daughter, was modestly dressed in running shoes and shorts and a t-shirt. Twenty minutes later her friend appeared out of the woodwork and worked hard to pimp Martha out. “We’re hungry,” they said. “Come on, fucky-fucky.” I bought them a plate of grilled fish. The friend rolled cigars – 100 a day – and earned 240 pesos a month - $10 at the official exchange rate. “America great,” they said. Yeah, I said, but you get free health care.
“Ha!” they said. “Nada free! You gotta give the doctor perfume, shampoo, souvenirs,” they said, “or else you’ll sit on a list for years. And the police earn 800 pesos a month, plus 40 convertible pesos.” They wanted more. “Mojitos! Shrimp cocktail! Fucky-fucky?”
I spent a night drinking with a Cuban in dreads named Orange and his girlfriend. Well, I bought them drinks – the bill was four months salary for Martha’s friend. Orange said there was a better bar around the corner. “Let’s go,” I said. “You go first and then we’ll meet you,” they said. “Huh?” I said. “Policia!” they said, eyeing the goons outside the bar. And just to be safe, they said, you better buy the cops a beer. Which I did.
Still, the Cubans are always in motion, always rocking. Huge crowds of men argue over baseball in the park. Couples dance salsa on the beach. Reggaeton and salsa blare from speakers and kids play stickball in the streets.
In Cuba I also realized the Lunatic Express isn’t just about movement; it’s also about ending up in places I never would have traveled to otherwise.