Let­ters from Cuba

Here and there in old Ha­vana

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holiday Reading Special - PICO IYER

WE had met barely five min­utes be­fore, and al­ready, in­so­far as I could tell, the bright-eyed young woman with whom I was walking through the leafy streets of Vedado in Ha­vana was propos­ing mar­riage. This had noth­ing to do with me, I knew; I’d re­ceived sev­eral other pro­pos­als — propo­si­tions for life, in ef­fect — al­ready that week.

Soon (I’d agreed to take this friend of a friend to a dol­lar store, tech­ni­cally open only to for­eign­ers) this highly el­i­gi­ble woman was telling me how she was go­ing to set sail the next week for Mi­ami; some friends of hers were about to oust Fidel —‘‘You know the CIA?’’ — and things were go­ing to be dif­fer­ent, very dif­fer­ent, soon. But I shouldn’t tell a soul. I couldn’t, in any case, be­cause a man was ap­proach­ing us now — we were near the Male­con — and ask­ing if I wanted to buy a tur­tle.

Fic­tion was im­pos­si­ble in rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cuba, I quickly came to feel; even more than in Haiti, or In­dia, or other tu­mul­tuous places of ev­ery­day chaos that I knew. So much was hap­pen­ing, so loudly, at ev­ery minute, both on the streets and in the over­heated minds all around, that it stretched credulity in ev­ery di­rec­tion. In part, this was a reg­is­ter of frus­tra­tion, of course; the is­land had been con­demned to 30 years at that point of strut­ting in place. In part, it was a func­tion of need. Peo­ple had to have dra­mas, ru­mours and fan­tasies be­cause they were not al­lowed much in the way of real lives.

But as much as any­thing, it was a re­flec­tion of a passionate, the­atri­cal, over- the- top cul­ture where strangers on ev­ery side were sob­bing and shout­ing and laugh­ing in the streets, at all hours of the day and night, with op­er­atic vir­tu­os­ity, while also re­mind­ing me, un­der their breath, that my best friend here was prob­a­bly an informer, and I should be care­ful of Lour­des, who would report even her sis­ter to the neigh­bour­hood com­mit­tee, and the pro­posal I’d just re­ceived had come from some­one whose mo­tives could not en­tirely be trusted.

As I be­gan re­turn­ing to the coun­try, year af­ter year, in the late 1980s, I re­alised that even a tran­script of a typ­i­cal day’s ac­tiv­i­ties — where a friend in prison came out to greet me with a smile (he had three guar­an­teed meals a day here, he told me, and se­cu­rity and quiet, ev­ery­thing he couldn’t get at home); where the phone calls I was asked to make to loved ones who’d made it to the US ended in static or sto­ries of gang killings — would beg­gar a reader’s be­lief.

One day I was sit­ting in an apart­ment on Calle 23. The top 40 count­down was coming in from some ra­dio sta­tion in Florida, and copies of Sartre and Dos­to­evsky were all around us. A rooster called Rea­gan, in hon­our of its squawk­ing, was cluck­ing across the rooftop out­side. And in­side, thanks to our con­ver­sa­tion, I might have been in an apart­ment in the 5th ar­rondisse­ment of Paris or one of the loftier quar­ters in Madrid. The stu­dents around me seemed to know far more about many as­pects of the world than I did.

‘‘Where do you come from?’’ one asked, in­evitably. I knew the an­swer; I’d been to Cuba sev­eral times be­fore.

‘‘Cal­i­for­nia,’’ I said (though there were many other places I could have named). Cal­i­for­nia was the place th­ese kids oc­cu­pied as squat­ters in their heads; it was ev­ery­thing Cuba was not, as they saw it, and many had sis­ters, un­cles, even wives who’d made it there, so that one part of their lives was now sit­u­ated in Gar­dena — or Daly City — though out of reach, it might seem, for­ever.

‘‘I have a brother in Cal­i­for­nia,’’ one of the world­ly­wise stu­dents said, not un­ex­pect­edly. ‘‘He lives in this place called Ta­mal. You know it?’’ I didn’t.

‘‘In this big house. He’s got swim­ming pools and ten­nis courts. Four or five cars, I think.’’

I didn’t need to hear what came next: please, please, please could I take a let­ter to the brother (the postal ser­vice be­tween the neigh­bour­ing en­e­mies sel­dom worked, and email had not really ar­rived in 1989) so that he could get the stranded pris­oner now talk­ing to me out of Ha­vana?

I said yes, of course, though ear­lier trips to Ha­vana and 10 or 20 let­ters col­lected on each one had made me sad about the likely out­come. The let­ters came back to me un­opened, or dis­ap­peared into some black hole con­tain­ing Cubans who, hav­ing left Cuba, no longer wanted to think of it or were no longer alive. I had to take the let­ter, but I was scep­ti­cal about the value of com­mit­ting it to the heavens.

I was wrong. As I was about nearly ev­ery­thing in Cuba. Barely a week passed and a let­ter was in my mailbox in Santa Bar­bara from this town, Ta­mal, I’d never heard of.

He was so happy to hear from his brother, the brother in Cal­i­for­nia wrote; he couldn’t tell me how he missed Cuba. But did his brother know that he was in San Quentin prison now? On­death row? Could his brother in Cuba do some­thing — any­thing at all — to get him out and back to the Cuba he missed so much?

This was a big build­ing, and it had all kinds of fa­cil­i­ties, but he would rather live with noth­ing in Ha­vana, free, than amid all th­ese locked cars and barred recre­ational fa­cil­i­ties.

I con­veyed the mes­sage to the brother in Ha­vana, though the mail be­tween the two coun­tries was so un­cer­tain, I couldn’t be sure my let­ter ever reached him; I looked for him the next time I flew down, but he, like so many, seemed to have dis­ap­peared into the ever-shift­ing anar­chy that was daily life in Ha­vana. Per­haps he’d even made it to Amer­ica by then.

I made con­tact with the brother on death row, too, and then re­alised I should go no fur­ther; I was al­ready out of my depth and any sub­se­quent let­ter I sent would only ex­cite hopes that could prob­a­bly never be ful­filled. I came to think, too, how my very trips to Cuba likely did the same, which is maybe one rea­son why, not long there­after, I stopped go­ing down there. This is an edited ex­tract from Bet­ter Than Fic­tion, edited by Don Ge­orge (Lonely Planet, $24.95).

THINKSTOCK

Dra­mas, ru­mours and fan­tasies coloured the streets of old Ha­vana

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