Saturday, January 9, 2010

Once Upon a Time - in Cuba

“I don’t feel good,” our then two-year old daughter said as the bus approached the colonial city of Trinidad on Cuba’s southern shore.

Our four-hour trip from Havana, over empty super-highways and meandering two lane roads, was nearly finished. “It’s okay,” I said. “We’ll be there soon.”

“But I don’t feel good,” Allegra murmured weakly -- just before throwing up all over one of the two pairs of pants I had with me.

My wife likes to travel to places she thinks are about to change. She wanted to see Cuba while Castro was still in charge, and while the US embargo made McDonalds, Burger King, and the Gap illegal aliens. A week before our daughter turned two, the moment when she would evolve from a free-flying “lap-child” into a fare-paying passenger, we boarded a Grupo Taca flight from Toronto to Havana. As I swabbed my pants with a disposable wipe it occurred to me that a Gap or two in Cuba might not be such a bad thing.

We had gotten our first taste of Castro’s communism five days earlier at Havana’s gleaming, new Jose Marti International Airport. Half an hour after touching down we found ourselves watching David Copperfield on an overhead monitor, waiting, hoping, that he or some other higher power could magically make Allegra’s missing stroller appear on the empty baggage carousel -- which continued to rotate even though all the passengers had long departed, together with their luggage.

We needed Allegra’s stroller not only to transport her but also to carry the heavy shoulder bag of children’s books, the camera bag, diaper bag, laptop computer, briefcase, purse, video camera, and 120 disposable diapers we had brought to Cuba -- in addition to our two suitcases. Without her stroller we would be like Bedouins stranded in the desert with a dead camel.

At the baggage counter I explained that our cochecito had not arrived. An enormous Cuban woman took down our particulars while her colleagues began a well-practiced tirade about the Toronto-based Salvadoranean Mafia who they said regularly steals Cuba-bound luggage. The next Grupo Taca flight wouldn’t arrive for two days. In the unlikely event that the stroller had not been stolen by the Salvadoranean crooks - but simply mishandled - we could pick it up then.

“¿Y yo?” I said gesturing to the archipelago of luggage that surrounded me. “¿Que voy a hacer?” (“And me?” I asked. “What am I going to do?”)

A man came out from behind the counter. With the elegance of a toreador sweeping his cape away from the bull’s charge he threw open a set of double doors -- revealing what must have been several years of unclaimed luggage.

“Por favor,” he said as he handed me a stroller -- with someone else’s name on the tag.

“What if the owner shows up?” I asked. “We’ll need it for three weeks.”

“No te preocupes,” he said as gestured toward the treasure trove of unclaimed bags and tore off the old tags. “We have others.”

We arrived in Cuba on New Year’s Eve 1999 and quickly learned that it is among the loudest and most vibrant countries on earth. Music blasted from every window, every club, every doorstep, every car and pedicab. Our third night in town we stayed inside a former convent in old Havana with adobe walls three feet thick. Despite the sturdy construction, had Gloria Estefan and the entire Miami Sound Machine suddenly appeared in our room it could not have gotten any louder. When the music stopped around four in the morning, garbage collection began. In the streets of old Havana this was not a neat tidy process that lasted just a few minutes but some type of medieval enterprise that entailed not only lifting and dumping but various forms of pounding, smashing, and metal-working. Little did we suspect that this would count as one of our better nights of sleep in Cuba.

Like all first-time visitors to Havana we toured the city in complete awe of its former beauty and malignant decrepitude. Several blocks of old Havana had been beautifully restored, but much of the city was literally falling down. Buildings regularly were collapsing under their own corroding weight. Water of questionable origin ran in the streets. It dawned on us that bringing a two-year old thumb sucker to Castro’s island paradise was not among the best of our parental decisions. Every time we caught Allegra reaching down to inspect some particularly filthy curiosity on the street we swabbed her hands with a disposable, sterilizing wipe. After going through a dozen the first day, we realized that the 100 we brought to Cuba might not be enough.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the amputation of Cuba’s economic lifeline, Castro declared a “special economic period.” Homeowners were allowed to take foreigners into their homes and receive foreign currency in exchange. After we arrived in Trinidad it took the bus station manager 15 minutes to get through to the four-digit telephone number of the family guest house that had been recommended to us in Havana. Another ten minutes later, Rosa, Rogelio and their friend Tomás showed up in a two-car caravan consisting of a bright orange Soviet-made Fiat and a ‘57 Chevrolet.

Traveling as we usually do, without an itinerary or reservations, we had no idea that we had arrived in otherwise tranquil Trinidad during its annual music festival. Big bands --with large, loud brass sections -- were playing on many, many corners of the quaint sixteenth century colonial town. The music continued throughout the day and long, long into the night. There were so many musicians in Trinidad that frequently their audiences were far smaller than the bands themselves. On the deafeningly loud main stage next to the town square a continuous stream of women, none of whom showed any sign of caloric deprivation, shook their primary assets with a speed that I had previously associated only with industrial paint mixers. The entire scene was mesmerizing.

Sandwich vendors carved their way through stacks of whole roasted pigs. Soft ice cream sold for four cents a cone (vanilla only). Behind lop-sided Soviet built trucks long lines of men waited for lukewarm draft beer dispensed at five cents a mug. Around the corner kids raced antique toy cars at three cents a spin.

Allegra wanted a turn on a merry-go-round of the twirling spaceship type. There was no warning, no orange peligroso (danger) sign, next to the exposed 220-volt control panel. Nor was there a cutout cartoon character with an outstretched arm declaring that riders needed to be “this high.” We plopped Allegra in one of the rocket pods with a six-year old Cuban girl, paid the ten cents for both of them, and hoped they wouldn’t be electrocuted or launched into space.

All around the square drunken cowboys raced their horses over wet cobblestone streets from the 1500s. And not ten feet away from Allegra, sober and not so sober men and boys tested their aim at the shooting gallery. Throughout Trinidad there appeared to be nothing that, in United States, would not violate FDA, OSHA or ASPCA regulations, possibly all at the same time.

Roaming the streets of town, Allegra, chatting aimlessly in English, and with her conspicuous blonde hair, was our open sesame to every home. One stranger after another invited us in, showed us their homes (some of them beautifully preserved with interior courtyards, outdoor kitchens and fountains), and gave us coffee, tea, and cakes. Every household had a relative somewhere in the United States.

After a few hours of this Allegra grew tired, especially of being told not to suck her thumb. In Cuba, where medical care is the responsibility of the government, Allegra’s implanted digit evidently represented some type of crime against the state - or at least a challenge to Castro’s authority. Virtually every Cuban woman eventually got around to chastising Allegra (and, indirectly, us) by shaking her head and making beaver-like smacking sounds in our direction.

Back at Rosa and Rogelio’s house, Rosa, a dentist, pulled Allegra’s thumb from her mouth. Instantly Allegra fell to the floor. Holding her upper arm, she screamed inconsolably, “My arm, my arm, my arm.” For six hours she lay in bed refusing to move, saying her arm was broken.

Finally Rogelio, a neck and face surgeon, and parent of two grown children, quietly asked Allegra if he could examine her arm after which he concluded “Es psicologico Roberto.” Tapping his head he said, “Ella esta muy intelligente.” (“It’s psychological Robert. She’s very clever.”) Sure enough, the next morning she had miraculously recovered. Faking a broken arm was our two year old’s way of saying she had heard enough already about chupar su dedo -- sucking her thumb.

Compared to many Cubans, Rosa and Rogelio were quite well off. Their extended family owned a number of houses in Trinidad and family members were moved around like checkers to free up bedrooms for foreign guests. We quickly became immersed in the constant comings and goings. Dozens of friends and relatives dropped by at all hours. In our first 24 hours with them, Rosa and Rogelio had more visitors than we have in a year. Even more incredible was that as soon as anyone stopped by they would pick up a broom, start washing dishes, or help out with whatever housekeeping had not yet been attended to.

Our second day in Trinidad we hired Tomás to take us to the nearby beach. His ‘57 Chevy was pieced together from parts that clearly were not “genuine GMC.” Negotiating the slightest bends in the road had him spinning the wheel round and round, as though he were standing duty on the helm of the Bounty. Under the hood he had a special one-gallon gas tank mounted right next to the engine. Gas in Cuba was sometimes so hard to come by that if Tomás could only scavenge a gallon or two this was how he made sure it would reach the engine and not just slosh around in the bottom of the main tank. When I asked him what parts he could use if I were able to send some from the US he said anything from any General Motors car made anytime in the 1950s would be a big help. Anything at all.

The beach outside Trinidad was a long, pristine, and deserted expanse of soft white sand unadorned except by two large East German-style hotels. Old Chevies, Desotos, and Studebackers lazed under palm trees until the foreigners who had rented them were ready to return to town. Just as we arrived, two young boys walked out of the water. In each hand each held a freshly caught lobster. Incredibly, Tomás told us this was hardly one of Cuba’s finer beaches.

Moments after we stretched out on the sand Allegra said, “I don’t feel good.” Not wanting to push her after the bus and thumb-sucking episodes, we decided to head back to town. But not soon enough. Moments after getting in the car, she threw up all over Tomás’ lovingly maintained backseat.

That evening she continued to throw up and had the runs as well. All night long, as a dozen different big bands blasted our bedroom from every direction, her temperature fluctuated between 102° and 104°. Nothing we did would console her. Every hour someone from the family came in to ask if he or she could help us. They never made us feel as though we were a bother, that we were keeping them awake. Instead, they made our fears and concerns their own. At three in the morning Rosa’s sister, a psychiatrist visiting from Havana, came in and held Allegra for an hour.

“What are we going to do?” Nina whispered to me. Allegra continued to refuse the oral rehydration solution we had mixed up. When we tried to force it in her with a medicine dropper, she only screamed louder. Even though we had brought disposable needles and syringes with us, the last thing we wanted to think about was having to give her an IV.

“I don’t know,” I said to Nina while the drums and horns of the music festival raged around us and we were near to tears from worry and exhaustion. We were at least four hours by car from Havana. It was the height of the holiday season. Flights in and out of Cuba were completely booked.

“They must think we’re insane,” Nina whispered that night as we silently prayed and willed Allegra to recover. The following morning I told Rogelio that we thought maybe we were crazy to bring a two-year old to Cuba. “Si,” he replied.

Rogelio, who knew plenty about the consequences of dehydration from having served with the Cuban army in Africa, calmly told us to wait. Allegra would eat and drink when she was ready, he said. But the next morning, while Nina slept, he told me that for a tiny, 20 pound two-year old like Allegra, “tres vomitos y tanta diarrea es una cosa muy severa.” He’d already asked the intensive care pediatrician from the hospital to come over.

Cuba has long had a tradition of well-trained doctors. But since the Soviet collapse, medicine, even ordinary things like pediatric aspirin, had been in short supply. Idiotically, we bought only two packets of rehydration solution at REI before leaving, put off by the $4.50 price. By morning Allegra had begun taking it in little sips. But we had only enough to make up two quarts -- probably less fluid than she had lost. We never imagined that even this primary care basic -- one of the first things dispensed in any UNICEF emergency kit -- would be hard to find in Cuba. (At the time we didn’t know there was a special, foreigners-only pharmacy in Trinidad where hard to come-by medicines were sold for hard currency.)

Shortly after the doctor left Allegra had another explosive bout of diarrhea. We didn’t know what to do. If we left immediately for Havana we might not get a flight out for days. In Trinidad we were in a house with two doctors who were caring for Allegra -- and us -- like we hope our own parents would in similar circumstances. Rogelio gathered up Allegra’s overfilling diaper and left for the hospital lab. Ten minutes later he was back.

¿Que pasó? he asked, holding out the extra absorbent Huggie in wonderment. In the few minutes it took him to drive over to the hospital, the diaper’s space age chemicals had sucked up every drop of Allegra’s massive poop. Rogelio, never having seen a disposable diaper before, was completely mystified. Soon the entire household had gathered. Rosa wanted to know how we washed the Huggies. Several times I had to explain that they were disposable, that we used them only once and then threw them away. They couldn’t believe it. In resource-strapped Cuba, where almost every household had a long line of cotton diapers drying on the line, disposable diapers were simply incomprehensible.

The following day Allegra said she felt better and we again planned to go to the beach. Tomás wasn’t sure he could take us. Fidel, as everyone in Cuba calls Castro, had declared that only specially designated taxis would be allowed to carry foreigners.

More out of friendship than for the $10 we were paying him did Tomás agree to take us to the beach. Not wanting to draw any attention to himself, Tomás told me to take off my hat. He asked Nina to cover Allegra’s blonde hair. When we arrived the beach that had been crowded with foreigners a few days before was completely deserted. Tomás dropped us and parked half a mile away, well out of sight. It was a chilling testimony to Castro’s power.

“I’m hungry, daddy,” Allegra said soon after we had spread out on the sand. She hadn’t eaten for more than two days. We immediately headed up the beach to one of the hotel restaurants where we ordered pizza and finally felt some relief as Allegra ate slice after slice.

Back at Rosa and Rogelio’s that evening Allegra sat quietly on my lap as we watched television. At 8 o’clock every evening a cartoon in which two children are sprinkled with fairy dust and swept off to bed signals that it’s time for Cuba’s kids to go to sleep. Just at that moment, Allegra threw up all over my lap. Too stunned to move, I yelled out for Nina, “Mayday. Mayday.” As I turned Allegra around she spewed a pipeline of semi-digested pizza across my chest and down the inside of my shirt.

“What did you give her to eat?” Rogelio asked.

“Pizza,” I told him.

“¿Pizza? ¿Pizza?” he repeated. “⁄¿En que estabas pensando?!” - What were you thinking?! - he asked me before going on to say that cheese was among the worst thing we could have given her. It was about this time that both Nina and I began to wonder if we were not only idiots for bringing a two-year old to Cuba but if we were fit to be parents at all.

While Nina tended to Allegra I stepped, fully clothed, into the shower, looking more like Pizzaman, a revoltingly disfigured cartoon character who miraculously survived an explosion in Chef Boyardee’s kitchen, than anyone’s father.

Of course, taking a shower in Cuba is not like slipping into a warm Jacuzzi at some five-star spa. Residential hot water heaters appeared to be an unknown in Castro’s fiefdom. Most of the Cuban showers we used were equipped with instantaneous, electric heating elements -- kind of like attaching the innards of a steam iron to the water line. Each time I set the showerhead to 1200 watts and heard a thick bolt of current snap across the contacts I fully expected to be either scalded to death or electrocuted -- or maybe both.

Two days later, with Allegra gradually getting better but the music festival still blaring through the night, we decided to relocate to the hotel. We’d been in Cuba nearly two weeks and had yet to have a solid night’s sleep. At the hotel, thankfully, we all slept through the night two days running. The morning before we left I made a scuba dive in absolutely crystalline water a quarter mile off shore. Later Nina and I rented two horses for five bucks each. I plopped Allegra in the saddle in front of me and we went riding for an hour, across the dunes and through the surf -- just like in the travel ads that promote experiences one can never actually have. On our way back to the corral, we interrupted two lovers on an isolated stretch of sand. We saw no one else the entire time except a lone crab that must have been 14 inches across.

It was a tearful farewell when we stopped back at Rosa and Rogelio’s before returning to Havana. As much as anyone they turned a potential nightmare into a situation that we now look back on with tremendous fondness. During the week it took Allegra to get recover, we talked politics and culture and religion and grew very close over Rosa’s wonderful dinners of black beans, shrimp, and lobster -- all served on the “Made in Occupied Japan” china that Rosa used for everyday tableware. Rogelio and I smoked countless cigarettes, sipped dozens of cups of Cuban rum and coffee, and checked in daily on his fighting cocks, which he loved perhaps only slightly less than his children and Allegra.

Before leaving Cuba altogether we visited the beaches on the island’s northern shore. Two hundred yards out the tepid water held me only shoulder high. While men in white singlets slapped dominoes on card tables set up in the streets, we played mini-golf at a course where the only clubs they had were drivers. Back in Havana we took Allegra to an overcrowded, throbbing sweatbox of a jazz club coffee house where braided Rastafarians danced with her on top of the tables. We walked the streets of Havana until late, late at night, not once worried about being pick-pocketed or harassed.

“You know what’s too bad?” I said to Nina as we walked along the Malecón, the embankment that looks north, over the Caribbean, from Havana toward Key West.

“What?” she said.

“If the embargo ever ends, we’re going to ruin this place.”

“We who?” she asked.

“We Americans,” I answered.

At the airport the man who loaned us the stroller three weeks earlier was orchestrating the check-in. He had long forgotten us but when we reminded him he quickly exchanged the borrowed stroller for our own -- which had not fallen prey to the Salvadoranean Mafia after all.

On our way back to California, we stopped in Syracuse, New York, my hometown, to see my mother, and then again in Newark, New Jersey, to see where my father-in-law was born and raised.

A block and a half from my mother’s house, the five and dime where I bought comic books 35 years ago is boarded up. So is the barber shop, the delicatessen, and the butcher shop. The supermarket that I walked to alone as a kid was burned down more than 25 years ago. Dozens of young men, unemployed refugees of a large public housing complex built in the 1950s, loitered on the corners, dealing dope in front of the now shuttered stores of my youth.

In Newark it wasn’t much better. My father-in-law’s boyhood home together with his entire block had been bulldozed for a ten-lane, below-grade super-highway that bisects his old neighborhood. Like in Syracuse, lots of homes were boarded up, burned out, or simply abandoned. The streets, once teaming with first generation immigrants, were now home to nothing but idle inner-city men and boys who no one seemed to be offering anything better. When we came home to San Francisco, to North Beach, no one had proposed a new solution for the homeless despite the new billions that wash through City Hall. And, even after ten years in the same neighborhood, unlike everyone we met in Cuba, we hardly knew our neighbors.

Lately there’s been a lot of hoopla about Cuba and parenting, about family ties and material well-being, about Castro’s and our differing ideas of freedom. Well, for a short time I was a parent, a very worried and nervous parent, in Cuba. It was no picnic in a worker’s paradise. For a week we were worried sick and sleepless about our daughter’s health. But we were never once worried about our own safety. Never once worried about being shot by some fanatic overburdened with guns. Never once confronted by an incessant materialism that makes keeping up with the Jones’s the watchword of modern American faith.

Cuba is far from perfect. A lot of the place is falling apart. But unlike what we used to see in Syracuse or Newark or even parts of San Francisco there is a communal will to make the best of a difficult situation. The truth is that there are a lot worse places to raise a child than in Castro’s Cuba. And to what should be our enduring, common shame, some of them are just around the corner.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 8, 2000 issue of the San Francisco Sunday Examiner magazine. It was subsequently recognized by the Society of American Traveler Writers Foundation with the Lowell Thomas Gold award as one of the best travel stories of the year.

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