Chapter 20: Here a Che, There a Che, Everywhere a Che Che

On our way out the grand palace and back to Machete's taxi we pass through a makeshift souvenir room.

We should be hurrying, with so much still to see and do, but I drag my feet a little and really look what is for sale.

I am fascinated to be one of the first people to see cracks in history through which tourist souvenir shops exist on a communist island.

Beyond that, I am fixated by what is for sale on this island of so few consumer delights and extras like spaghetti and vending machines.

What they have, what they sell, is pictures of Che Guevara, patron saint and hyper-photogenic comandante of revolutionary violence.

Here  is a line of postcards -- is the picture where he is sulking;  the picture where he is looking up; the one where he leans out while Castro is speaking.

Hanging up there are t-shirts with screens of Che making his scary comandante face, the one that's also on billboards here and there around Cienfuegos, taking up spaces that airline and radio ads occupy in civilized countries like the 1-95 corridor.

I've seen all of Che's rugged looks, and even if I saw a new one I'm not sure I would buy it and spend my hard foreign currency to promote his image.

 A bit of me wonders if they put Che up all over the place intentionally to offend Cuban-Americans, almost like an alternate Germany where pictures of dead Hitler loomed to menace from death the people he terrorized in life.  Maybe.

Mom's ready to go, and I take a last look around, to see if I can see it a little different before I let it go and move on to the next place.

I stopped seeing Che here, Che there, Che Che everywhere and behind those images I saw what I ironically didn't see.

Nowhere in Cuba had I seen a single picture of Fidel Castro.

No Island is an Island - Chapter 19: Me, Marti and the Rosetta Stone in My Bra

We leave the modern hotel and I think we are heading back to the car with Machete, and I'm looking in that direction.  Mom points the other way.  I stop in my tracks.


Across the parking lot is a .... palace? castle? A gingerbread house? 


I would have stopped and stared for much longer but we had so much to see still.  Mom pulled me and our cousin to follow her. We went past lions, up stairs and into an entry way. 


Mom pays, which is great because she let me pay at the last place and I didn't understand currency exchange and almost gave a tip big enough for the waiter to buy a flat screen TV.


We follow a turning wide wooden carved staircase up up and pass a bust of Jose Marti.


 I can't help myself. I hug the statue and take a picture of myself with him, then kiss his cold forehead and tell him I love Cuba, too, that he can rest knowing other people love it too,


I try to catch up to my Mom and her cousin but I'm stopped in my tracks by a pattern that runs across the wall across the woodwork, repeating.


 It's almost like my sign, almost what I saw in the cemetery and the city and no its here.


There might have been an official tour path through this palace but we didn't take it. Instead we dodged into a room stacked high with chairs. The pattern in the wall looks baroque. 


 In the next room, the one with the dust and no chairs, the wall pattern seems  Byzantine.  


Our cousin explains this place was built by a wealthy sugar baron who never lived here, that it was always under construction.  All this craftsmanship, all these details, I can see why. It feels like places we went on field trips as kids like Vizacaya.


I walk into a narrow hall. There, on the ground, is the pattern, again. Almost.  And there, again, something like it, a little. Each time a little different, evolving like Darwin's finches, shifting from room to room. 


I follow the row, follow the pattern to the next room where it seems more gothic. There it is, almost. And there, almost, kinda.  

I'm sure I'm going to find the answer, and I take a picture of this, that and that over there. 

Then I think I know it.  I'm thinking I stumbled on the architectural Rosetta Stone that will tell my answer.

Maybe not, it can't be? 

Maybe not, so I walk out to a balcony and look back onto the outside plaster work. 

It's not there, not exactly, but almost. 

And almost there in the woodwork, and aqain for sure there it is in the stained glass above the tall walls.  

I'm terribly and passionately and incurably in love with this gothic moorish mixmash of a palace.  Its so eclectic it could be America. It could totally be in America, I think again, and then decided that the owner was American in his heart unless Cubans and Americans are this much alike in which case the water that separates us is just thick vapor and fog.

A thin hall leads to a tight spiral staircase. I follow Mom and our cousin up there, to what turns out to be a lookout bar, full of tourists, probably the tourists who passed us on bikes earlier. 

They can't be American; they are took quiet, too still. They whisper to each other but I'm sure it's not English. Judging by their black socks and short shorts, I'd guess they're from Germany or Sweden. 

Our cousin has to go to the bathroom and figures out where the line is.  Right there, waiting is someone else, dark young muscled and very happy.

Mom asks him, directly, Hello, are you a baseball player?

She has quite an eye. He was, from the Cienfuegos team. I take my picture with him. He calls a "more famous" player over. More pictures. Another one comes, and while they keep talking, I step away for a minute to the edge of the walkway and look out.

Now I can finally put it together. Over there are mountains. And more mountains the other way. Lush mountains, tall green and sharp. In the middle is the part of Cienfuegos where our hotel is. I know where I am. 

I take pictures of the landscape and then turn to my other iPhone  camera so it takes pictures towards me. There. A picture of me, windblown and laughing. 

I look back at the architecture and then down at the tiles below me. There, there it is. Again. 

The wind blows hard against me like a happy puppy.  I hold my ground and keep looking. What is it, that it would be here, there, everywhere, evolving?

A thought, and answer
 comes to me like lightning. Of course, of course thats what it
But what else WOULD it be? Of course. Of course.

I know it, just like you'd know it if I told you right now and you'd shake your head and laugh with me.

I know I'm right, I know I have decoded it. for certain, of course I know what it is. Then I take a few more pictures and laugh because of course that's what it is, it must be. I decide I know, I decide I know the answer, for now, at least.

We are thirsty and ask for water. No. No water.

We ask for wine.

No. No Wine.

We ask for diet coke, for Perrier.

No. No. All they have is Rum and Coke, or at least the kind of Coke they sell in Cuba in "Cuba Libres."  

I get creative and ask for rum and orange juice. He offers a juice box and I mix the two, happily.

The wind pushes us back, towards the spiral staircase, towards the rooms.  I finish my drink then brave the downward journey.

Again we weave into the rooms that are under construction. I see a piece of plaster on the ground stamped with a pattern. I'm sure it fell down or was scraped down as part of the rebuilding, of part of the future, I'm sure its trash.

But I can't help myself. I want a piece of the palace, a piece of the Rosetta Stone. I think to put it in my purse, in my pocket, and then I think again, maybe I'll put it down my bra, close to my heart. This can't be stealing, of course, its just an act of love, taking a little something that no one will miss.

I think to slip it down into my bra, down where my phone used to hide, back when phones were small and less worldly.

In my head I imagine someone trying to stop me from taking a piece of historical litter, asking me "Hey, American Lady, is that the Rosetta Stone in your Bra?"

Then I shake it off.  I'm not doing anything wrong. 

All I want to do, fiercely and completely, is take a piece of this amazingly beautiful and complicated place home  and plant it like a seed. I promise in my heart to watch over it, to guard it and love it and  water it and pray for it and see how it grows. 





This is How You Remind Me

This semester I'm actually creating a form that says

" If there is something you need to remind me of -- to check a grade, to look for an exam, or to remember an email you sent me earlier in the semester, this your chance - you have my UNDIVIDED ATTENTION. Remind me now ......"





No Island is an Island ~ Chapter 17: Rapido Corren Los Carros Cargados de Azucar...



So there I was, on the bay, in this country of no spaghetti, where cats roam free.  The pizza arrives - we all ordered pizza - and my Mom has to get up for a minute.


My translator is gone. Here it is, the moment my Spanish teacher warned me about. 


I'm in Cuba, alone. Time to Speak Spanish.


In the pizza chewing silence, after a sip of wine (did I mention the wine glasses are tiny like thimbles? have they always been so small or is this another manifestation of communism?) I offer up to the table the tongue twisters my Spanish teacher made us learn, rolling each "rrr" a little more than I probably needed to...
R con R cigarro, R con R barril, rápido corren los carros cargados de azúcar al ferrocarril.
They nod and laugh, so I give them more.
Tres tristes tigres comían trigo en un trigal
Nods, nods, a little laughter. 


There is a loud blonde American at the table, telling them tongue twisters, what else could they do but eat their pizza and nod? 


 Mom rejoins us at the table and everyone exhales visibly. We can talk again. 


But I'm not done. I blurt "I have one more!'  in English then give them my best rendition of: 


Pancha plancha con cuatro planchas 
¿Con cuántas planchas plancha Pancha?


Machete leans back and crosses his arms, then half asks, half proclaims to me, in Spanish, but I understand perfectly, "Why in the world are you talking like a little girl?" 


He is right. My Spanish is "talk to my Abuela" Spanish, not "write a blog Spanish" or "ask for directions and understand them Spanish." Somehow I am able to explain that to him, in Spanish, and he seems to understand and forgive me. 


To show there's more to me than some tongue twisters, I break into song, "Guantanamera" with verses from Jose Marti.  My Mom has had enough and waves my nonsense away. 


I tell them I know more about Marti than that song, that I know his warning about the monster.


My friend with the cars on his tie nods. Jose Marti warned Cubans not to let the US help Cuba become independent from Spain because then the US might never leave. 


Marti knew this because he had "inside the monster" and knew "its entails." In other words, like many Cuba-loving Cubans, Marti spent most of his life OUTSIDE Cuba, notably in the US, who he refers to as the monster. 


I didn't mention this, I didn't mention that I thought and still think that if Jose Marti had lived, he too -- and maybe his kids and grandchildren -- would have ended up in Florida, stranded from a Cuba they knew they should love, if only they could understand her. 

I explain to them that my graduate work was studying Cuban refugees, exiles, immigrants, who went where, what they did, all that stuff. 


Honestly, I don't know what people in Cuba are taught about human geography in general, and I don't know how much they know about how Cuban immigrants have really fared in the US since 1959, so I lay it out for them, like I would (and I do) for my students. 


Thankfully Mom was there so I could say this all in English, two sentences at a time, pausing, waiting for translation, understanding, nods, continuing.


The 1959 Cuban Revolution, the "true" Revolution, definitely had an anti-US, very nationalistic part to it.  And in the Cold War context, the Soviets stepped in and literally bought up Cuba's sugar and kept her economy afloat. The Soviets didn't want Cuba for her sugar; they wanted her for her proximity to the US.

So when Cuba cozied up the Soviets, many people displaced by the growing violence and economic earthquake fled to the US, most expecting it would be just a short trip, just until things settle down. 

The US welcomed Cuban refugees not only because they brought connections and Human Capital with them, but also because "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" - every person who leaves Cuba votes against communism. 


Cuban refugees weren't just people leaving specific conditions in Cuba, they were leaving the global pandemic of communism. A much bigger deal. Get it?

They got it. I don't sound like a little girl any more. 


The pizza dishes are cleared, more drinks come, no one is any hurry to anywhere, so class continues. 


My dissertation is on Cuban Bankers, I explain. Imagine this. One day they are working in Havana at a US bank.  The next year they are working at that bank in New York or later in Miami, in charge of Latin American accounts. What an asset, right? The Cuban refugees win, the American companies win. 


The eyes at the table are huge. I take it as a cue to continue.


So Cuban refugees and exiles, in Miami for example, still knew each other and for example, if someone from Cienfuegos ran a great restaurant here and is in Miami and wants to open a restaurant, he could go to someone he knew and actually get that money. These handshake based "character loans" lead to the establishment of Cuban-owned, Cuban-serving businesses. And a big part of America is immigrants helping other immigrants. 


The nods at the table told me to continue, so I did, after we ordered another thimble of wine.

No Island is an Island Chapter 16: Right Before the Conversation Turns to Jose Marti



From there Machete drove us down surprisingly beachy looking streets. If I didn’t know better I could be in the Florida Keys, only the people looked less relaxed and it was so much quieter.

No hippies, no roars of cars, no jetskis, no trucks pulling boats, no tourists in rented convertibles driving slowly with their radios blaring. I notice what’s missing in Cuba, I see it almost more clearly than what’s actually here.

Mom tells me we are going to Milly’s house – the house my Mom’s little sister loves better than Tia Lourdes’ house, better than the dream house on Playa Alegre.

 We pull up to a white colonial house with a generous shady front porch. The fence in front of the house is locked. Machete honks the honk, honks and honks and honks it and I’m embarrassed but I sit quietly and roll with it.

Mom goes up to the fence and is ready to leave a package when a small lady – my age? younger? – comes out and invites us in.  Last year when Mom was visiting Cuba taking pictures of this house and met the people who lived there.  

Now that she’s returned we have presents for her, for her husband, for their son.

We take a quick tour through immaculate house.  The tall ceilings had molding and crownwork much like Tia Lourdes, but this young DIY couple painted and restored the art so vibrant yellow flowers grow off the wall and vines dance around corners. 

On our mini tour she shows me her son’s room and I can’t help but take a picture of his computer which looked just like Matthew Broderick’s in the 1983 movie, War Games.
 
She shows us her closet, the kitchen, the wall that separates what used to be the middle of the house (before The Revolution) from what is now another house and another house next to that.

Back outside the house she takes us up a twisting iron staircase.

 I can see the bay, I can see houses and fields.
There is Maria Conchita Alonzo’s house.
There is where Mila’s mom lived, there is where Sonya and her sister, who everyone just called Sonya’s sister, lived.

Machete sits on a white iron 4 person swing on the front porchwaiting for us.  The lovely lady with the immaculate house and the manicured lawn and the warm heart tells us we are welcome any time.

In a gesture of amazing thoughtfulness and hospitality She cuts a white rose from the bush in her yard, and hands it to me before reminding us to take some pictures.

 I dutifully stand in front of the house holding my rose and really really wanting anything to drink but most especially a diet coke with American Ice.

Hug, hug, kiss, kiss, kiss and she waves at us and we slide back into the van.
When the door is closed I ask very nicely if lunch is coming soon. 
Mom says yes, we are on our way to a hotel to eat and not three minutes later we pull up into a parking lot filled with antique cars, Asian imports and that Big EuroBus.

My Mom’s cousin excuses herself for a few minutes and I follow Mom into a Very Modern Building that was all new and shiny and angular and mirrored and nothing at all like other places I’d seen on the island.  We walk through an open windy lobby where I couldn’t quite tell if I was inside or outside and out past an empty quiet pool and out to a deck area that faced the bay. 

A sunburned man wearing a red cross t-shirt lets us choose whether to eat outside or inside.  We pick outside. There are about ten white plastic tables each surrounded by white plastic chairs. A black and white skinny cat with red and pink scabs and sours sulks and begs hungrily around the only customers we can see. 

A minute later Machete joins us. The Red Cross Shirt guy knows Machete greets him warmly. 
Mom and I get wine, Machete orders something like Sprite and we order a Sprite for the missing cousin.

Before we could order a man in a starched suit comes to join us. Mom greets him warmly then turns to introduce the husband of the nice lady whose house we just left, the house that my Aunt Milly loves.  I’m happy to meet him.

He  accepts Mom’s offer and joins us for lunch.
Then my cousin, the one with Abuela’s eyes, comes back and brings me something like diet coke, the closest thing to diet coke I’ve had since the airport in Miami.  Today’s journey has shown me a world with no quick mass produced conveniences.  I want to marvel at the simplicity of life on this island but I can’t. I wish them better. I wish them slurpees and poptarts and takeout Chinese and delivery pizza and easy fast cheap transportation to wherever they want to go.

The one page menu looks exactly the same as the one in our hotel. Sandwiches. Italian dishes.  Pizza.
The man in the red cross tshirt (which make me wonder  - is he also a lifeguard? Would that even be a good idea?) comes back to take our order my Mom dares me to order spaghetti.

I try.
He laughs. No.
No? I shake my head, this is crazy.  In America, if someone knew that there was a spaghetti shortage going on, someone – SOMEONE – would be hand rolling pasta, drying it and selling it to restaurants. 
We have no choice, all of us at the table, all five of us, order cheese pizza.

Before the food comes we order more drinks. We are thirsty and the glasses are so tiny, so incredibly tiny,  but I mentioned that before.
My Mom catches our new guest up about where she has taken me on our trip, what I’ve seen, and where we are still going.  He looks pleased.

I notice his tie is a bunch of cars, lots and lots of little cars.  I like that. I decide it's a sign, a good sign. 

Then, before the pizza comes and the conversation takes a steep turn into politics, international banking and immigration policy, I stop listening to the rapid Spanish that swirls around the table and notice there are now two lawless scrawny cats prowling for food.

Two very preppy very sunburnt guys take a table even closer to the bay. The wind whips their hair and almost blows their drinks away.

 I decide then that I could probably sit quietly in Cuba for a very long time and just watch the wind, the water, the people.  I could do it today, I could do it another day. Maybe it’s being with just my Mom, no kids, no work, no worrying about Abuelo or email or texting.

Or maybe, more likely, there is something tangible in Cuba that enchants people, and I’m falling deeper under her spell by the hour. 

Grading. Gordon Ramsey and Atomic Cafe

...."The film is a great eye opener to the average person looking for information about the Cold War and American citizens pro stance to bombing other countries, using media and politicians to play on fear to have millions of dollars funneled into the military. The film is in some a few ways hilarious as it dives into utter nonsense, with a mix of politics and media scrambled throughout the film. I would compare this to a terribly organized restaurant menu that greatly needs a face lift. "

No Island is an Island: Chapter 15: Two Small Circles over a Big Circle




We get back in the Kia and a lightness settles between all of us as we leave the cemetery behind.   Mom and I share sips of water and for the first time I have a deep craving for diet coke.   There really are no Circle K’s or MiniMarts or vending machines or drive-thru-s other modern capitalistic comforts and conveniences. We have this bottle of water to last us as long is it can. Period. 

As Machete brings drives the narrow road to exit the gated cemetery a Soviet looking car turns in and almost crashes into us.  Machete held his ground and the smaller white car backed up and pulled over a little so we could exit.

 A parade of athletic Europeans wearing a rainbow of biking shorts and biking bras and biking helmets and other “gear” swooshes in front of us on light lean bikes. Their bus follows them. Neat arrangement. They are in a completely different Cuba than I am, one with mountains to bike up, friends to laugh with, tour guides to help you connect to “the people.”

Who ever they are I hope they love it and they come back, wherever they’re from.  When they do, I hope they wear a lot of sunscreen, especially that super white lady whose top was so small I’m not sure I can confirm she was wearing one.  

We pass a few tall thick Soviet-era apartment buildings with large bus stops in front. It’s hard to tell if the people sitting on the benches are waiting for to be picked up or if they’re just sitting in a cool shady spot. There are revolutionary slogans, socialism slogans, painted here and there cheering the residents on through hardships and shortages. My eyes are thirsty for a Billboard, for that lizard insurance thing, for someone selling me something.

A woman in a halter top and white shorts riding a fat wheeled bike pulls into traffic and settles into the middle of the lane but weaving erratically a little to the right, a little to the left, , completely blocking anyone from passing her.

Machete honks and rolls down the window to ask her to move, please.

She does, while giving us a huge dose of the stink eye as we pass.

I pray she never tries this in Miami.

If she does, I’m sure it’ll be on the news, and maybe there would be helicopters hovering over covering ever second of the saga.

I hope if she ever comes to the US someone will tell her something helpful along the lines of “forget what you heard about freedom, there are rules rules rules and lots of cameras watching all the time so behave.”

We drive towards the house my Mom’s family lived in for only a few years. It was Abuelo and Abuela’s dream house, the one on the point lot on the bay, the one Castro took and turned into a military installation because its view of the bay was unmarred and its amenities were so awesome. 
On the drive to this house we pass under an overgrown iron gate entrance which once said “Playa Alegre” and now only has a few vowels left. There are no gates blocking the way so we drive in Machete idles the minivan taxi in the little park that is right next to my Mom’s house which we can’t see because it has 8 foot tall opaque sharp thick hedges. 

Mom and her cousin sit on a bench in the park with their backs to the house and I pretend to be taking pictures of them but I’m really taking as many pictures as I can of the house behind them.
No armed uniformed men come out and protest or try to us away so we get bolder.

Mom walks to the water – which is right there, right at the end of the sidewalk, and then she keeps going and is officially on the “beach” behind her old house.

See these palm trees? Abuelo planted them.

They were waist high when we left. Now they are shade trees, sitting where they were left, not caring to whom they belonged.

See this sand? Abuelo had it brought here to make it their backyard beach.

I’ve seen my Abuela in pictures from here, always taking, always happy. That same wind is blowing through my hair now, here in her favorite backyard, and I let it bring me a piece of her happiness.
 I reach in and touch Cuba’s water for the first time. I dangle my fingers in bay and wiggle them like a toddler trying to figure the ocean out.  It feels warmer than I expected, and calmer. 

I see Mom is sitting under one of Abuelo’s palm trees and I take her picture. She is looking off into the wind, smiling.  Here, at this house, she is 10 again, she is 11 again, she is 12 again, she is safe again, or at least the safest she remembers feeling for a long time.

We get back into the car and as Machete passes the almost overgrown gates I get a peep at the architecture.

 I couldn’t have seen what I just saw. STOP! I have to get a picture, please, I beg in Spanglish and he  indulges me. 

Did you see THAT? I ask Mom, and she throws up her for real because I’ve been obsessed for hours with seeing that symbol, that sign, that whatever it is, over and over and no one can tell me what is or why its there or what its called but I need to know and I will find out and then I’ll explain it to everyone and until then I can’t rest. Got it?    

I hold up my iPhone, open the pictures up and show her.

You have to look hard because its green wrought iron with dark green hedge weaving through.
But there it is. Bingo.

All over Cienfuegos I’ve seen the same pattern and I half hoped it would be here. 
No. 

Twisted into architecture of this house is a pattern I haven’t seen anywhere in Cienfuegos, but one that I knew in a heartbeat.

Two small circles over a larger circle. Repeating over and over.
See it? Two small circles over a large circle.

Do I need to draw it for you?

Can you draw it yourself?

Two small circles over a large circle.
See it now?

Mickey Mouse ears, that famous logo that you can spy woven into the architecture and intricacies throughout Walt Disney World, having been waiting at Mom’s house in Cuba, hiding in plain sight. Hidden Mickeys. Next time you go to visit WDW look around; there is a Hidden Mickey on the ground of Rock n' Roller Coaster, where the microphone cords roll casually into two small circles over a large circle.  Look inside the arches you walk through. Look on the bridges, look in the rides. Hidden Mickey's everywhere to keep you happy and busy and hunting.

 I tell my Mom this is a big deal, that this means something. She was destined to be an American, a Florida Disney Annual Passholder, right here, marked in her architecture. 

Hidden Mickeys. In Cuba.  A professor once taught us that the two most important people in Florida's history are Walt Disney and Fidel Castro, even though neither of them ever lived there. The more I think about it, the more right that man seems. 

I check my iPhone; its at 40% so I it off and save it because we still have four  more places to visit before dinner.  

No Island is an Island: Chapter 14: Monumental Discoveries


Without warning beyond “here it is” Machete turned the minivan through a heavy ironed gate into a park and there at the end of a lion-claw lined path was nothing you would expect.

Nothing I would expect.

Seriously, think, “I’m in Cuba, it’s the year 2012. I’m at a cemetery, what will I see? Hmmm…” and answer my question in your head before you even look further down this page.

I bet you think trees. You think statues. You think gardens. You think maybe a fountain and perhaps some flag poles.  
Right. Right. Right. 

That’s what I expected, that’s what I saw. 

But on top of that, there was something else, something my Liberal Arts education prepared me for because I recognize it.
There, in Cuba, like it was a totally normal place for her to be, was the Parthenon.

 I’m not sure what to do. It’s so quiet here, maybe no one knows who she is, maybe it’s a secret. Respectfully and also in shock by her massive size, I know right away I don’t want to go inside.  I don’t look through her massive windows, and instead pass laughingly and quickly under the porch and off to the graves more quickly than I wanted to but I had to. I was afraid to linger and admire and somehow give her away, to hug her democracy loving Doric columns and not let go.

How can she be here, I wonder, brazenly flaunting herself, the symbol of the height of achievement of classical Greece. Architecture tells stories, and this building says the people who paid for it admired Athens for her liberalism, beauty, balance.   

I just can’t believe no one told me about this.  

If I ever make it to California, I totally expect to see Sequoias so massive I can’t yet imagine. If I go to Paris I will see the Eiffel tower, and depending on where I stand it will look a lot like the one in Epcot, only it won’t be so close to Japan that you can hear the drums banging during five performances a day.

This was a good start, and for a few minutes I almost lost track of my obsession, that pattern I was seeing here and there.  I carried the flowers, Mom lead the way and our cousin with Abuela’s eyes followed us, taking care not to trip over the oak roots.  


The trees we passed between on the way to what we were looking for seemed ancient and trustworthy. Mom grabbed my hand and said shh, listen to the leaves and that’s when I heard them roaring overhead, swishing and twisting and smashing  into each other in the wind above. 

First we go to a big corner site, my great-grandfather’s site,  and look at the names. There it is, the symbol. And there, on that one. And on that one.   

I take a few pictures and my mom tells me that’s a great idea, to take pictures for our friends in the US whose family is buried here.  That’s not what I was doing but now I do that too. 

Flowers in hand, still, we walk far far away to a shaded end lot.

Here it is, Mom declares and she tears up. I try to take a picture but my iPhone is pointed towards me and I fumble and accidentally take a 3 second video tearfully repeating “Here?”


Mom lays the flowers down on the grave and hugs it a little. 


It’s her Abuelo, my Abuelo’s father, Tia Lourde’s father, a gentle and wonderful man.

It’s Abuela Emilita in there too, his wife, daughter of a lovely woman born in Spain whose favorite chair I was sitting on just yesterday.

We clear the dead leaves off the cement and take a few pictures.


A dry vine of yellow flowers climbs up the crypt a little; we try to fix it but we don't give it a drop of our precious water.

Mom explains that this is what Abuelo Vicente wanted, to be over here, in the shade, not crowded with his entire family.  I understand. 

What I didn’t understand was the dates. Not until then.  Abuelo’s father died in 1956.  The violence in Cienfuegos started September 5, 1957, and by 1961 Castro’s revolution had closed all private businesses (foreign and domestic) – banks, stores, insurance, restaurants, gas stations, everything. 
 
Now I get it. My poor Abuelo had to deal with losing so much – his home, his country, his business, his father – in a window of 5 years, all around the time he was the age I am now, the time when you feel like you’re finally getting somewhere in life.

And more, there, I see something that can’t be right. Abuelo’s mom died in the 1980s. The 1980s. I was in high school. I show Mom, is that right? And Mom nods.  For twenty years they wrote letters and sent pictures and waited for the revolution to end, for normal and regular travel between Cuba and the US to return, for families to come back together again.

Our cousin follows quietly. She helps Mom hunt for a crypt with fresh flowers where a family friend was buried only the week before. 


I see that symbol here, there and over there. It is in the ironwork surrounding that one, it is by the name on that one. 
A point comes where out of sheer concern for my iPhone battery and out of respect for the sights I have yet to see in my day that isn't even half over I turn off my iPhone.

Alone in the almost-empty cemetery I take the path that leads me to the monuments. First I am in front of tall painful monument to those who served in the Angola Conflict. I look around and something is missing. 


Across the path is the monument to those lost on the Cuban side of the Bay of Pigs. There, again, something is not where it is supposed to be, and I notice it, but I don't want to tell anyone, just in case it would embarass them and make me a bad guest. 


No Island is an Island: Chapter 13: Hail Mary: From Zero to Obsessed.


We are at the foot of the crypt that contains the remains of my Abuela’s mother.

There you are, I repeat back to my Mom, standing in front of tomb I decided immediately was the oldest and most interesting thing I’ve ever been related to and responsible for.

There is no time, no room, and no cadence here in my short love story for Cienfuegos to explain the intimate story I’ll tell you in the book. Trust me, that part you haven’t read and the part you have read will come together beautifully and on target like a Hail Mary pass right here in the story.

I look at the names as if I might recognize one. The markers show names and dates for a couple of people but I only really understand three -  Abuela’s mother, Abuela’s brother, Abuela's grandmother.

 I make a mental note to later research how her family landed her in Cuba, the Grand Central Station of the Caribbean.

For now, standing here is enough.    My eyes are thirsty for the art, for the view of the sky.

A touristy looking couple enters the cemetery. The matron tells them they only have five minutes, that they were there yesterday.

I giggle, wondering if she’s worried they will steal all the history.

Then something tugs at my eyes like a kid pulls on my hand or a trumpet blaring right in my ear.

What’s that, on that grave? I say this out loud but Mom is talking to her cousin and I’m really asking myself. 
I quietly continue to be pulled into the hunt.

Look, its there. And there, and over there on that one, just where the Fleur-de-lis would be, if this were a New Orleans cemetery. 

I ask my cousin, what’s that? But she doesn’t know. 

She’s lived on this island her whole life, how could she not have noticed it?

We get back in Machete’s taxi, ready for the next cemetery. 

This time, rolling back through the same neighborhood, I see graffiti “Patria o Muerte” in white on a rusted metal fence; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that picture in Google searches for “Cuban Revolution” but if not that exact signs, then other signs like it,  part of the revolutionary slogan, “Patria o Muerte, Venceremos – Fatherland or Death, We will Win.”

Fatherland or death. What a sham, what an empty threat. We all die anyway.

I look for more slogans about socialism’s grand (eventual) triumph and take a few pictures of them for you.

I also take pictures of a few delicious antique cars, but I miss more than I take because Machete was far more interested in dominating the traffic to cater to my photography whims.

To punish me for protesting missing taking a shot of an exceptionally gorgeous Eisenhower-era baby blue Cadillac Machete stopped his car RIGHT next to a pre-Missile Crisis car where a couple was sitting with the window down. 

He rolled my window down and told me to take my shot.

Inches away from my window the man in the other car (I only see men driving cars in Cuba; was it me or is this true?) looks right into my face like “what the hell?” and I duck down like a teenager that has been found stalking a crush.

After leaving the minivan taxi there just long enough to make me blush Machete pulls away and rolls my window up.

I look at the house we are next to. There it is, that same thing I saw in the cemetery. I take a picture. And there, and there, and there too. So many I can’t take pictures.

I thought I came here to celebrate an answer and now a new riddle has found me.

I go from zero to obsessed.

 The day only gets better from there. 

No Island is and Island: Chapter 11: The Porcelain Iron Curtain and the Big Screen Idea

This morning I get up early and get dressed quietly in the square tall box of a bathroom.  There was a tub that looked borderline inviting if only because it was about three times deeper than the tub in my kids' bathroom.  I'm trying to be quiet and let my Mom rest so I think yes, maybe I'll take a bath this morning.

I miss radio and Pandora but I have songs on my iPhone, so it could become a happy little moment for me in Cuba, especially with no kids banging on the door.

There is no stopper for the bathtub. I hunt for a switch or anything like that but there was none.  I thought to use a handtowel, stuffed into the hole, to fill the bathtub.

No handtowel. The only bath linens were one towel and a floormat.   I wonder if they use so few linens to save water and laundry.  Probably. I wonder if they would even want me to waste their too-precious-for-spaghetti water on a bath. Probably not.

I take a shower standing up in the bathtub.

It isn't luxury, but it's interesting. They provided cute bottles of shampoo and conditioner.  I appreciate that. They also provide a survival pack of pads and a tampon, because those consumer disposable hygiene things are nearly impossible to obtain in Cuba and a tourist could have a miserable visit without a little discreet help.

 I make a mental note to remind myself and to tell anyone who cares to make sure to pack this stuff when going to  Cuba, and lots of little packs of kleenex and wipes because, well you'll see.

Turns out that all those times my whole live I've been to Subway and got all frustrated because they only gave me one napkin, I have been in training for Mission: Cuba.

Having gently depleted my share of Cienfuegos' water, I  turn off the water and to dry myself off with only one towel for my body and my hair.

This is a big hardship, but I face it with courage and patience.

The only obstacle I can't really face is the menacingly quiet shiny silver bidet. 

I've seen bidets hanging out next to the toilets all over Cuba making me believe that the bidet is the toilet's overseas mistress who isn't welcome in American bathrooms.

Don't ask me how to use it, don't ask me if it was a "good one" or whatever. I don't know.  I couldn't touch this one in the hotel bathroom or any of the other ones I saw the rest of the day.

You know how some people wince at the mere word "sushi" and will not come near it? I'm absolutely fine with drawing a porcelain iron curtain of a line between me and bidets worldwide.

When I emerge from the bathroom Mom is dressed; we pass each other uncaffeinated and sleepy and hug.

We go down to breakfast together. It is empty and quiet but I get the feeling there might have been a crowd there earlier.  We order our eggs the same way as yesterday, the same way we order the next morning too.  She has scrambled with ham. Mine are over easy.

They don't bring water to the table for either of us. Mom makes a Starbucks instant coffee with the hot water from the buffet. I took a sip of it the first day and almost spit it out. Today I ask for a cafecito - a little cup of Cuban coffee, and the nice man in the starched white shirt brings me one. 

Mom and I settle into a little bubble of privacy we rarely have. I live 8 hours away and even when I see her a few days now and then, we can't sit like this because there are kids and grandparents and cellphones and email and life between us.

The most memorable part of our quiet breakfast was listing and reviewing the places we would be going.  The old cemetery. The new cemetery.  Punta Gorda. Playa Allegre. There would be lunch.  I think she said more after that, but my mind was full and nothing sank in.

Besides that, I was absolutely fascinated by today's lack of flies. Yesterday the windows were open and flies flew recklessly, drunkly through air and danced on the food like they were claiming Cuba as their own Amsterdam or Las Vegas.

Yesterday at lunch I asked Tia Lourdes what she needed, what she REALLY needed.

She put down her fly swatter and pointed at the ceiling. Dangling from a pre-Revolutionary light fixture was a strip of flypaper.  She asks for different flypaper, because clearly the flies here don't like THIS flypaper.

I nod my had and decide to ask a guy at Ace Hardware or capitalist haven like that to find me the strongest, best flypaper ever made.

Then I realized she couldn't even imagine what she really needed because she's on an island that the Sears Catalog and Lowes and Pottery Barn forgot.

What she really needs -- and what this restaurant needs (besides spaghetti) --  is screens for her windows to keep the flies out. 

We finish our breakfast and go back up to the room to get things for the family we will be spending our day with -- flowers for the graves and gifts for the living.