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5 Days in Cienfuegos: Wednesday Part 4: La Venus Negra and Paella

After the kiss kiss kisses to Machete and then to Mila and Xavier, Mom and I entered the hotel lobby and discussed what to do next.

We quickly agreed neither of us needed to change our clothes or get anything from the room. The sun was quickly setting and we wanted to go to the rooftop bar restaurant - I'm pretty sure it's called the Black Venus.  We sat down and took the view in. 

I wrote a note to myself to look up what the Negra Venus was.  Last year I fell in love with a flower-shaped cross and found it brought me to the legend of Marilope, a half-Indian, half-Spanish pure soul who defied a pack of pirates.

Marilope Bar is very small part of this hotel; La Negra Venus is the huge rooftop place. 

She must be pretty important.  When I get home I start hunting for the story and this what I learn, mostly from Ana Mendieta,"La Negra Venus, Based on a Cuban Legend".
 In as much as some children are born deliberately by parents who REALLY want them, Cienfuegos was founded intentionally by a mother country who REALLY wanted another city.  After the demographic, economic and political chaos from the Haitian Revolution and the War of 1812, Spain wanted to fortify her last colonies with  a "particular" population in mind - whites.  A major investor in the colony that would become Cienfuegos was a sugar farmer from New Orleans, a town that bounced between empires much like Cuba did --  first Spanish, French, Spanish,English, America.  Around 1817, when Spanish colonists first set foot on the Cayo loco, a key off the south coast of Cuba near the city of Cienfuegos—they found only one person, a young black woman, nude except for necklace and bracelets of seeds and seashells, and so lovely that "the most demanding artist would have considered her an example of perfect feminine beauty."  History tells us that this woman was the sole survivor of innumerable generations of the Siboney Indians, but I wonder if she might have had another background, one that would've given her African parents. 
Living alone on the Cayo Loco, a woman was accompanied everywhere by a white dove and a blue heron.  At the sight of the Spaniards invading her home, this free happy woman ran. 
History remembers that the Spanish colonist caught her and discovered she was mute. I think maybe she was too terrified to talk to her captors.  They called her the Black Venus.When one of the colonists took her home with him, gave her food and clothing, he expected her to please him and to work for him in return. But taken from her island freedom, and unable to speak, she nestled in a corner, refusing to get up, work or eat. Finally, alarmed at the prospect of her death by starvation, they took her back to the Cayo Loco to live in freedom. From time to time over the years, the citizens of Cienfuegos tried again to "civilize" the Black Venus. But each time her passive protests forced them to return her to the key, where she reigned in solitude with the blue heron and the white dove her only subjects. The historian Pedro Modesto recalled that when he was a child, around 1876, an old Black woman, with hair like a huge white powder puff and naked except for a blue, red and white necklace, secretly entered his house. She refused clothing and was dressed only by physical force. She refused all the food offered her except for native products -yucca, bananas and sweet potatoes . The next morning she had disappeared, leaving the clothes behind. That was the last time she was seen. Today the Black Venus has become a legendary symbol against slavery. She represents affirmation of a free and natural being who refused to be colonized.

La Negra Venus fits this top floor bar; something about the freedom in the breeze and the view of kittens playing on nearby rooftops grounds me to the Cuba that the Spanish imagined, the frontier that brought workers and investors here in the early 19th century, before Cuba's bloody first war for independence in the 1860s and 1870s.

But it's been a long day and mom and I need to walk through our day and process it together.

The waiter from the other night is back and offers us a glass of red wine and a glass of white wine. 

I like my reds darker, warmer than what I've been served here, and join my mom in a glass of cold white wine.  Before he can bring the glasses we both decide we are STARVING after a day of eggs, rice and water. As the waiter places our glasses my Mom asks him what is really good.  "Don't say spaghetti!" I add, much wiser from my experience Monday night.

Without pausing the waitor says “paella.”

We both shrink back and giggle. For years we’d been making fun of relatives who each ordered their own bowl of paella at this hotel; we had this bias that paella was a dish for a family, a dish to be shared and anyway, how good could it be? so neither of us ordered it.

We aren’t sure we are hungry enough for an entire paella, but whatever, we give him the green light. Today the universe has been good to us, why wouldn’t the lucky streak continue?

Mom takes  a sip of her cold white wine. I take a sip of mine and then bend over like I’ve been stabbed, “Oh my GOD mom did I really snatch my iPhone from that man? Did I make Americans look bad? Oh, I can’t believe I actually did that!!”

Mom takes another sip. She is careful with her words. “Well, you took care of it, didn’t you?”
I look at my phone, still with me, and laugh.

We look up at the stars and then get up from the table to lean over the rooftop edge and spy on the pedestrians walking down below. 

A very young couple is making out on a bench on one side of the street; an old lady with a walking stick takes small, delicate steps down other side of the street.  Music pours out from the bar.

Where do you want to go tomorrow, Mom asks and I shrug and admit I’d like to go anywhere as long as it’s the two of us. 

She nods her head and asks if I could tell that her cousin really seemed to need to talk to her about something big.  I said yes, yes I saw it but her day to talk to my Mom wasn’t tomorrow. Tomorrow is ours. 

We go back to table to toast the idea that tomorrow is ours just as the bowl of paella with two spoons and two forks arrives. 

I take a bite and find my mouth bursting with salty spices, lobster tail and ham. M

om takes a bite and stops eating in shock.  This paella isn’t just good, it’s great. It’s the best thing either of us has eaten during any of our visits to Cuba.  

I take another bite. Mom follows suit. We sit quietly, shoveling it into our mouths, giggling at how awesome this moment is.

The waiter brings us more wine and in the small talk that ensues we both can’t believe we had spent the last years in Cuba so close to this treasure and not even knowing it was there.

After we finish our paella we head back to the room and Mom calls Dad to tell him we’ve arrived  safely and they have their usually lovey dovey talk.

Soon enough I’m in pajamas and Mom is in her bed reading. 

I flip through the channels and find HBO in Spanish.  The newest episode of GIRLS comes on, but when the title flashes a creepy voices says “Chicas.” I try to watch it but the voices are wrong, the inflection is wrong, everything about speaking Spanish on top of English seems wrong. 

I flip the channel to CNN and fall asleep.  

5 Days in Cuba: Wednesday Part 3: No, Gracias, Comrade!

A silence hit the table. My Mom explained a little, I added a little more and then I promised Charo "I'll write it all up for you."

I look forward to reading it, she said in her crisp and formal English, then patted my hand.

 I will write about it for you in the book 5 Days in Cuba, the second draft of all the stories you are reading now. In the book I'll also explain to you what happened to Mom at the airport. I didn't forget that you don't know; I'm making you wait to find out.

Back at the restaurant, our conversation moved on.

I picked my pen up and asked for this name, for that name.

 I ask if she has birth certificates or papers and she says no, she doesn't know where they would be.

Mom and I look at each other and shrug. Getting the gift from Abuela was enough, any other thing was icing.  It was worth a try. Somewhere out there I just know there is a stack of Spanish and Cuban birth certificates.  I know I will find it.

Meanwhile,  I fish for stories.

Charo isn't married but her ring fingers are punctuated with beautiful diamonds on delicate gold bands. Whose are these?  She points at one, this belonged my mother, Lilia.  She points at the other, the one with two diamonds dancing around each other, and this was my aunt Monina. She was only married for a year and he died and she wore black for the rest of her life. 

I lean back and hold my heart. Every picture I've seen of Monina my whole life has been a woman in black with thick eyebrows.  Now I understand. Even if my Abuela told me this before it didn't register. Now I see Monina differently in every family picture, I see her pain.

 I wonder how a single woman could survive in the Havana of the 1930s and 1940s.

 Charo tells me that her Mother and her Aunt ran a boarding house for singleladies near where Charo lived. I liked that, I like that they became business women in major sea port during pre-Communist era when Havana was more like Ibiza and Vegas. I write down "women's Havana boarding house - brothel? - idea for HBO series" in my notebook.

The conversation went back around in Spanish and and flan was ordered.  didn't order any but I wasn't going to be a flan martyr if a dish of it came my way and someone politely said "oh, oh, this is too rich, please take a bite."

The table next to us was a four-top pushed against the wall. A thin gray haired man sat with his back to us, and his lady friend sat to his right. They leaned in towards each other and whispered while they watched the parade of people funneling past the front of the restaurant. A bottle of red wine was propped up next to their table, and they sip from their glasses slowly as waiter brings out a series of dishes theyshare.  They are in a whole different Cuba than I am.

The entire lunch is right on budget. Mom pays and we retreat back across the cathedral square.

 I want to run my fingers along the rock walls and take in the architecture but that would be weird. Xavier wants a picture of himself by a statue of a dancing man. I take it and then he takes one of me.

We pass a group of teenagers who looked like they were on their Spring Trip from a posh boarding school.  They looked tired and said little, marching along with matching backpacks marking them as members of the same tribe.

I fall behind my group and take their picture. Xavier, Mila, Charo's neighbor, my mom, Charo.

We walk back down the narrow alley, past building after building walled off and "under construction" or "being excavated" (or maybe falling down?).

We make it back to the park where we are to meet Machete, but his minivan isn't there. Maybe he sees us and needs to wind around in traffic to pick us up.   Whatever, we are in no hurry, today is too short anyway.  Charo spots a bench to perch on, and everyone follows her.

 I stand back and decided to take a group picture for you with the new iPhone 5 that I bought the day before I left for Cuba.

They want me in the picture and I say no, that's OK, this camera is too confusing for anyone else to try.

 Xavier offers, OK, he begs to take the picture.

Fine, fine, OK, I need a picture of us here today in Havana. This is a big deal.

I show Xavier what to do, and he nods.

 I walk away unsure of what kind of picture we will end up with and take my seat at the end of the bench.

I look up to where Xavier is standing about 30 feet away, and see he is no longer holding my iPhone 5, the one I just bought Friday, just 5 days ago.

In the millisecond it takes for it to register that he has actually handed my phone to a complete khaki-wearing stranger, I am off the bench and sprint right to where they stand.

No, Gracias, I say as I fiercely try to SNATCH the pink-and-white phone from the scruffy looking stranger's hand hand.

I rise up with every bit of my 5'4 and repeat "No GRACIAS" but the man doesn't walk away and he isn't releasing the phone.

I am normally slow rile up but I have gone from zero to one hundred in two seconds and I am ready to ninja-chop this man  if he doesn't step back and give me my phone.

 I might be making a scene. I don't care.

He puffs up a little and says, I am Cuban! and my eyes go right to the red star on his green hat, the same hat, same sign, I've seen on Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

Is he implying that being Cuban means he won't take things from tourists and make his country look bad? Or that Cubans are communist so they live in communism and take nothing?

 That's crazy, communism takes everything.

I twist the phone away and say No GRACIAS, Comrade, and turn on my heels.

My free hand reaches to the top of Xavier's neck, where it stays as I walk him back to the bench, making it clear he has done something wrong and he's in trouble and he better go exactly where I tell him.

As we walk towards the bench I realize how unworldly he his and I need to tell him what just happened. It went something like this. Don't you ever hand my electronic or your electronic to a stranger. Ever. Don't hand your electronic to a friend either. But don't ever ever give it to a stranger. People take things, they break things. The more you have, the more you have to lose. 

I finish as we reach the bench.

 All the women there looked dumbfounded, like "What did you just do?"  but I couldn't give them an easy answer in Spanish so I asked my Mom, "You remember European Vacation right? Where the guy offers to take their picture with Chevy Chase's camera and just as the family poses the guy runs away with the camera? I couldn't take a chance."

Mom laughs.  We explain it briefly to the others, and they seem to have forgiven me for the outburst.

I give Xavier another chance with my phone. He takes this picture. As you can see, I'm ready to jump up again, if need be.

As Xvier walks back towards us to return my iPhone I ask my mom if I had acted like an ugly American and made Americans look mean and untrusting.

 She takes a second to answer, choosing her words carefully. "You certainly were more assertive than I would have expected" and with that, we let it go.

Machete picks us up and we return to Charos.

Charo gives me a gift. It's a mirror she tells me, and what she hands me is anything but a mirror.  Where the glass should be there is only a thin piece of old wood.

You can get a new mirror, she says and then explains, "It's Art Nouvea" as if I wasn't already drooling over the intricate details on the heavily tarnished frame that surrounds the mirror. A toga wearing lady, barefoot with cascading ringlets of hair, leaned on the frame.

It's a MUSE! I proclaim, and Charo smiles. Yes, a Muse. Write more books, I can't wait to read them.

I love it and I love her and I don't think for a minute that bringing this large metal object  through off alarms at the airport or that taking pieces of history or antiquities from Cuba might be illegal.

The trip to Havana is short because we want to make the 4 hour drive back to Cienfuegos while the sun is still up.  We settle back into the minivan, a little giddier from the trip.

On the way home I'm wide awake and make mental notes for you.  The road is two laned and if I didn't know better could imagine I'm in parts of Western Miami-Dade where small pastel houses dot overgrown landscapes.

 Machete weaves us through the 2 lane highway navigating obstacles, crossing between lanes before hitting oncoming traffic more times than I could count.

 To pass the time, I interrogated him.

 Remember in Four Days in Cienfuegos I told you that my dad warned me that  Machete was on his ninth wife and I was supposed to tell him when I met him that I wouldn't be his 10th wife.

I told him how if he had 9 wives in America he'd probably need 9 jobs to pay them all.

 He didn't understand, and I didn't know how he couldn't understand, so I asked him to explain divorce and alimony and how to split up property in Cuba.

He laughs. You like someone, you move in together, you are married.  You don't want to live together, someone moves out.

This sounds too simple, so I push him. People just move out?

 He shakes his head. Well, because of shortages in housing sometimes no one moves out.  She brings in her new man and he brings in his new woman and they raise the kids.   Because everyone pretty much makes the same, the courts don't order him to pay her or her to pay him. No one stays together because it would be too expensive to leave.

I see the revolution different now, and remember it unfolded just at the same time as the sexual revolution.

 Free love, equality of the sexes, universal access to birth control, non-punitive divorce laws and no divorce attorneys.

The car trip continues.

 We pass horse drawn carriages. We pass oversized military vehicles. We pass groves of mangos and fields of sugar cane.  We pass a crew of people cutting someone's yard with a machete.  We pass trucks filled with sad looking potatoes and sacks of rice. We pass patches of people standing by the road, hitchhiking.

Machete turns off the main highway and onto a narrower road that would take us to downtown Cienfuegos.  I see a small shirtless toddler sitting on the pillared porch of an ancient crumbling cement house, smoking a cigarette, or at least pretending so to smoke one perfectly it startled me.

We pull up to the hotel just at dusk.  The cab fare was more than $200, in the range of what Mom had budgeted.  Thank God we made it back safely;  travelling today the scariest part of the trip and none of the horrible things we imagined could go wrong went wrong.

Relieved and happy, we  kiss Xavier and Mila and send them home. Before she goes Mila wants to know what we are doing tomorrow and I answer "we don't know, we just don't know, but don't worry about us."

I do know what we will be doing tomorrow. I just don't want to tell her.


5 Days in Cuba: Wednesday Part 2: Treasure from Heaven

I am listening to Charo tell my Mom that she has something for her, something Abuela left behind in 1960 because she was afraid it would be confiscated from her at the airport.  I understood immediately.

For my whole life I've heard the many stories of how Cuban refugees smuggled a few valuables out with them. My great aunt sewed rings into the lining of her clothes. A man had a hole drilled in his glasses and filled it with a large diamond. Arriving in America with a little gold, some silver, something to either sell or pass on to children made refugees life sting just a tiny bit less.

Over the course of the Revolution, long after my Abuelo and Abuela left, Cuban police grew stricter and stricter on what could be brought out of the country - something like two shirts, one pair of pants, one pair of shoes, 3 sets of underwear. That's it.  Children trying to bring their favorite doll or  prized baseball glove had those treasures unceremonially stripped from them at the airport.

Charo is putting something around my mom's neck and turns to me and says in plain perfect English, "this is the necklace your grandfather gave your grandmother the day your mother was born."

I couldn't believe I was really hearing perfect English, it was delicious like cold water when you're really thirst. Abuela lived in the United States for over 40 years and not one day was her English half as precise and clear as Charo's.

Mom's face is all choked up and she holds her neck like her mother just jumped down from the sky and handed her treasure from heaven. Behind her hands I could see a thick gold band circling her neck, resting elegantly on the exact right spot on her collar bone.

After that moment, Charo takes us on a quick tour of her apartment. From the entry room we go past a bay windowed balcony covered with jalousy windows.

 Past that is a bedroom that has a huge ornately crafted wardrobe and a small black and white tv. Past that is the powder pink bathroom with a bathtub, shower and washing machine (no bidet, thank you very much, I remain terrified of them).

 I stayed in the bathroom for a second and took a picture of something funny I saw - a potion called Assy - and promised to the universe I will never take pictures in people's bathrooms again if it would just forgive me this one trespass.

After that was another bedroom and a hallway ending in a dining room and kitchen which were next to entry door.   Charo told us apologetically in English and Spanish that she just doesn't cook, that people bring her food.

 In my imaginary communist revolution there were no maids or cooks, everyone toils equally.

 Of course communism is imaginary and impossible,  so nevermind.

The dining room is lined with antique cups, saucers, prints. She points at them and explains who they're each from, but I need to know, what is here from Abuela's mother? The mother Abuela never knew?

 I just had a feeling that because Charo grew up with my Abuela's two older sisters as her mother and aunt, she would have more pieces of my great grandmother than anyone else would.

Do you have a picture? Anything? She didn't know why this was so important to me, but she could feel it.

Yes, Charo answered in crisp English, there is your great grandmother right there,  pointed to something hanging on the wall at waist level.

 It seemed more a mirror than a picture, and I had to move to just the right angle to see her and not myself in the image.

She had my high cheek bones, and Abuela's round eyes. Her her pale face was framed by heavy dark hair.

100 years ago "ladies" didn't smile for portraits, they posed for them, not sharing a glimmer of themselves with strangers (or the photographer) who might stare at their picture and have unauthorized ideas about about the lady.  I knew better than to try to learn anything about her from her body language.

I stared and stared until it was clear I had to follow everyone else out and go to lunch.

Machete picks us back up and takes us up two blocks to the Malecon, then turns right and takes us to historic downtown Havana.

A fat row of tour busses line a major street, sticking out like sore thumbs against crumbling buildings. I count 17, then stop counting because we have parked the van and need to get out.  Machete will be back in about two hours to pick us up from lunch and bring us back, we will wait for him here, in this car-lined circle next to a statue filled park.

I follow my Mom and Charo down the street that will take us to our restaurant.

 I'm struck with how narrow the street is, how fortified it feels with tall thick walls surrounding it.  I can feel that this has been a city under siege, attacked by the English, reconquered by the Spanish, and tousled around by Cubans themselves.

We continue around a corner that drops us in a square that is dominated by an deliciously lopsided baroque cathedral.

 I want desperately to follow the line of tourists and schoolchildren, but I can't, not today.

 Today my job is to learn everything I can about Charo and about my Abuela's mother.

We pass through the small square and end up at a small restaurant. Outside the building there are three large tables of tourists drinking beer and wine for lunch and speaking English, German, Spanish. They are in a different Cuba than I am.

We enter the restaurant and take our table. I know Mom has a certain amount of cash allocated for this adventure -- remember, none of our credit cards will work in Cuba, so the budget has no elasticity - and as we look at the offerings she leans into me and whispers, "lets go easy."  I hear her. She and I order the cheapest thing on the menu - fried eggs on white rice. Others at the table order steak and chicken and knowing how little the Cuban government gives them every month for food, I don't blame them one bit.

When the waiter asks for my drink order I almost ask for bottled water then push my luck and ask for cola dieta.  Diet Coke. Of course he'll say no, I'm sure he will. He smiles and says yes, and I get my first Diet Coke in Cuba, ever.

The bottle looks different -- it looks more like Coke Zero -- but the taste is plain old American, so I sip it slowly like it's treasure from heaven and take this picture for you.

Before the food comes I pull out my notebook. I want to ask Charo a hundred questions but I also want to let the conversation flow naturally and see what floats up.

 While Mom and Charo and Charo's neighbor - the one who is my age but wearing tight orange jeans and has a big hole cut out of her shirt showing three inches of bright white cleavage - talk about people I don't know,  I mentally check out and scan the restaurant.

The table by the wall has two people - a very white man and a very dark much younger woman.  He fiddles with his Galaxy (which clearly isn't working, this is Cuba, so basically our electronics are reduced to cameras here). She has a great deal of makeup on and fresh starched clothes and high heels but what stands out the most is how adoringly she  is staring at him.

 He looks tired and orders only coffee and a beer while she has a huge steak brought to her.

I check back on them over and over during lunch and see they don't speak at all, and I wonder if they even know each other or if this is a "special arrangement." By the way he looks at her he seems ready to leave, ready for whatever is coming next.

Charo snaps me out of my writer's haze - the glazed over look I get when I start narrating a story in my head -- and seems to be repeating a question. Melissa, it's true you weren't born in Cuba? You seem to be born in Cuba. 

I smile, take a deep breath and reply in English, "I died in Cuba, that should count for something."


5 Days in Cuba: Day #3 - La Habana

Wednesday was our third day in Cuba, the middle day, the day my Mom and I were both dreading and looking forward to.  I was completely OK with skipping our day-trip to Havana.

Finally I knew my way around Cienfuegos, finally I felt like I understood who I came from and where they had lived and walked and dreamed. Havana seemed like a million miles away.

When we planned our trip we decided to visit Havana because that's where Charo lives.

 I can't tell you how many times I called my Abuela and asked how she was and all she could tell me was "oh I was talking to Charo...." and "Charo says Hi...." and "Charo was telling me..."

 I didn't know who Charo was, and didn't ask my Abuela, but I had my ideas. First of all, with a name like Charo she had to have big hair and big boobs, she had to wear tight clothes and sing and play guitar. Do a Google image search for "Charro", you'll see what I was thinking.

Abuela had two sisters and a brother, all of whom were much older than her; she was their mother's "surprise" late in life baby, the baby whose delivery killed their mother.  This much I know..

 I pieced together that Abuela's siblings-- Lilia and Monina and Pablo-- lead very different lives.  Monina married but never had kids.  Abuela's brother, Pablo, had one daughter, Milagro, who I fell in love with when I met her in Cienfuegos last year because she has my Abuela's eyes. Lilia married and had a son who came to the US and had several children.

Lilia's son came to the US and became a professor who had children who also became professors.
Lilia's a daughter, Charo, stayed in Cuba and still lives in Havana.

  In my heart I knew this woman would not be the spitting image of the Charo from TV, but I had my hopes up pretty high.

There were several ways to travel the 100-odd miles from Cienfuegos to Havana but we decided the most convenient and flexible thing to do would be to hire Machete and his minivan.  He didn't say how much this trip would cost, so Tita kept $200 in an envelope earmarked for the fare.

We woke up early (early for vacation time) on Wednesday and ran downstairs for our breakfast. Again there was food I would never dream of touching -- yogurts in pitchers, cookies that were hard like hocky pucks, bacon that looked boiled -- so we had our coffee and eggs and got back upstairs quickly.  By this point I knew to not call eggs huevos but huevecitos,  which translates roughly  to "cute little eggies." My Spanish was getting better by the hour.

We dressed comfortably (translated: I didn't wear spanx) and filled our bags with gifts for Charo, snacks for the road, and a bottle of precious water (aguacita).  Mom and I didn't know specifically but we had reason to understand that the four hour drive to Havana from Cienfuegos would entail no turnpike-like rest-stops, no fast food, no comforts we expect in Florida.

Finally ready we went downstairs to the lobby at Hotel L'Union and found Milagro and her grandson, Xavier waiting for us.  I asked why he was coming ("doesn't he have school?" "is he trying to get another steak?") and found out he'd never been to Havana before. OK, fine, no one asked my permission but OK he had my blessing. The four of us -- Mom, Milagro, Xavier and myself -- piled into Machete's CUBATAXI Kia minivan (evidence that South Korea trades with Cuba, might I point out?) and spread out.

Machete had to fill his gas tank first, and took us to this state run gas station. To our left was a huge green Soviet looking tank; to our right was something that looked like a Yugo.  I asked if people needed permission to buy gas and he said yes.  I let that go; of course on an island with food and water and clothing shortages there would also be socialized, control gasoline.

It's about this time that it hit me. Hard.  And by IT I mean something I can't explain. I felt rotten, like a mix of exhausted and nauseous and claustrophobic panic.  Mom reminded me that I'd broken a cardinal rule by drinking the wrong water yesterday, causing fears of cholera and dysentery to dance a tango through my head.

 Mom handed me a small white pill (I didn't ask what it was, I'm like Alice in Wonderland that way) and I took it quickly.

Ten minutes later, as we winded down the two lane road that became a two lane highway to Havana, I jumped over the van seats and laid down in the back row.  Normally I can't tolerate being so far from the air conditioning, so far from a quick exit out the door, but right now I'm just happy to sprawl. Waves of sleepiness come over me and while I watch the horse carriage  in front of us slow the major highway to a mere trot I nod off and wake up hours later, just on the outskirts of Havana.

I take a mint from my bag, a quick sip of water and check my makeup. Fine, all is good. I'm ready for my Havana Adventure.

The highway turns and tosses us off on a street that winds around and becomes the Malecon. If you've never seen it, imagine A1A with a sidewalk on the beach side. Now, imagine there is no beach, just rocks.

 I want to love this, and I absolutely do love that despite every historical and political obstacle I am HERE seeing this, I can't help but notice how much more awesome Miami is, like Miami with it's sweet beaches and barrier islands has become what Havana could never be.  Again, like I noticed last year, I think Cuba looks like Miami's sad worn down step-sister, like she was hit by a hurricane 60 years ago and barely recovered.

Machete promises he will take us back later to see this again, which is fine, Charo is expecting us soon.

We drive two blocks this way and three blocks that way and park the Kia infront of an apartment house. For a minute we ask each other, is this is? is this the right address? but of course it is.  One by one we exit the minivan, stretch and look around. I'm transfixed by a sign across the street for a restaurant that said PP's Teppanyaki.  I want to tell someone "Oh my GOD it's Japanese food! and CAPITALISM!" but I don't.

I want to fit in today, I try to be on my best behavior. I'm even wearing red, when last trip I refused to wear it in case I might accidentally look communist.

We ask Machete to join us, but he declines, saying he has a sister to visit. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. We see him hours later, but I'll get to that when we get there.

The entrance to the apartment building is defined by a tall wire fence that creates a narrow walkway to the front door.  Mom knows we need to go to the top floor so we pass three landings that each have two apartments each.

At the top floor we knock on the door and there she is, Charo. She has my Abuela's posture, her firm warm eyes and she welcomes us warmly.

This apartment is nothing like TiaLourdes grand old French Quarter-like house in Cienfuegos. It's compact and has a very 1940s vibe. Antique tables are lined with photos in silver frames.  Shelves hold cups and vases and fans. I almost fall to my knees when I see a bookcase filled with books -- mostly written in English -- published in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s.  Charo sees me and apologizes for the dust on the books, telling me her cleaning lady comes tomorrow.  I am completely giddy in love with her, I decide she is my soulmate.

Before our tour can continue, she has an announcement.

The last time she saw my Mom was in 1960, the night that Abuela and her three children stayed in Havana before catching a flight to New Orleans for a "vacation."

Before Abuela left for the US, she left something with Charo for safekeeping. And now, finally we are here and she wants to give that something to us.


5 Days in Cuba: Tuesday Part 4: Losing My Orgasm

Tuesday Part 4: Case of the Disappearing Orgasm

We agree to split up for a few minutes; Mom will go to the rooftop bar and I will take my Cuban cousin and aunt to our hotel room and give them the goodies we brought for them.

When we get to the room, I notice my sandal is broken (take notice! This will be on your exam!) and decide to quickly change out of a short dress and flats into a long maxidress and wedge heels while they wait. I feel more like myself, more like what I would wear anywhere in America.

Earlier Mom and I separated the gifts we brought. One bag went to TiaLourdes and another bag stayed here. Inside this bag we had gifts for Mila and her family, and gifts to bring to Havana on Wednesday. 

I wasn’t paying THAT much attention when Mom made the piles earlier but I knew which dresses and such I brought for Mayulis so I started pulling them out for her. Here is the gorgeous black and white sundress I love that (on me) shows wayyyyy too much cleavage. I entrust it to her and only her, knowing it will fit her perfectly. It is truly treasure. Here is the green print one. And here are the shirts and earrings and makeup palettes. 

She takes all I give her then tries on some of my shoes. I’m a size 10; she’s a size 6 and she looks like a kid sneaking in her mom’s heels.

We pack all the gifts to them – again, I thought I brought more, I wished I brought more, I wished I could take them shopping in Miami so they could buy what they wanted instead of taking what they’re given -  and head upstairs to the roof to meet Mom and her mystery guest.

The hot glass elevator takes us up quickly, and opens onto a breezy Spring evening.  

I see Mom at a round table surrounded by two beautiful women, neither of whom I had ever met.

As we approach the table Mila and Mayulis kiss kiss and hug hug the women at the table. I stand back a little, wondering if I have more Cuban relatives, but quite sure I don’t.

Mom introduces me to the lady next to her – a doctor – and the lady’s young 20something daughter, a history professor. I take a good look at the professor and see myself as a  graduate student years earlier.

She’s the first person I’ve seen in Cuba wearing a long sundress like mine – well, mine is blue with a watercolor splash print and hers is yellow and flowered – but still, our fashion sense unites us across the political and economic chasm.

We order drinks and a plate with cheese and salami. I still don’t know who these nice ladies really are or why they are here, but I’m more worried about Mayulis who suddenly needs to tend to a patient.

She has to go to the pharmacy and invites me to join her. I want to, and in another life I would roam these streets with her, but after being forcibly separated from my Mom at the airport for so many hours when we arrived yesterday, I was determined to keep my mom in sight as much as possible.

Mayulis left for a few minutes and the conversation went around in a circle. The lady was a doctor of energy healing and energetics. Her daughter confides in me in Spanglish that her mom swings crystals over people and we giggle a little.

It doesn’t take long for me to ask enough questions to find out if the daughter is a professor like I am (do you have a PhD? Do you teach college?) and it turns out she’s a graduate student who teaches cultural history of the Afro-Caribbean to rooms full of students who are more interested in math and science.

She sits back and takes a deep breath and then says in one long formal sentence that sounds like she must have written it down, memorized it and practiced it a few times.  I am very interested in comparing our pedagogy and approaches so that we can learn from each other. How do you keep your students engaged and interested?”

I shrug at her and say “I pay them. It works.”

Her eyes fly open and my mom laughs, and everyone else looks at each other wondering what they missed.

 As I’m explaining how I pay my students in class money that they can turn into points (implying yayyyyy for capitalism!! Yayyyy paying people who work hard more than people who slack!!!) Mayulis rejoins us, flustered.

She forgot her stamp, she proclaims then goes through her purse to find it. I’m on my second glass of wine and quite intrigued. I have NO idea what she’s talking about. What stamp? I lean across the table to my Mom and ask for some sort of a translation but Mom shakes her head and asks Mayulis, What stamp?

Her prescription stamp, she explains, then stamps her stamp on my napkin. It has her full name and her physician number on. I’m so proud of her, and I tuck the napkin into my purse to keep FOREVER.  

While she is gone I notice that Mila isn’t talking much. I still don’t know how everyone at the table knows each other, or if they really do know each other or just recognize each other. I imagine being on this small city on this island for all these years means that most people have at least glimpsed each other a few times.

Mayulis returns just as we order another round of drinks.  My lips suddenly feel dry so I   pull a beautiful pink-coral lipgloss out of my purse that Zoe bought me for Christmas, put some on and then pass it around. Look at the name, I say and everyone does.

The color is “super orgasm” – a name that transcends language, apparently -- and its from the NARS orgasm collection, a set of colors that can be worn alone or layered (“multiple orgasms”) that really looks good on everyone and every skin tone.

The conversation turns from makeup to men, from work to sex as we sip wine and finish the small plate of food under the setting sun.

That’s when Mayulis starts to excuse herself from our fiesta. She has to work tomorrow, and says she needs to go home. Mila agrees and I walk the two of them with their large bag downstairs and give them $20 to take a cab. I’m not sure if they walked home or not, but I know the more I give, the richer I feel.

On my way back up to the rooftop, I go back to our hotel room and grab a copy of my book to give my new history friend.

I slip back into the glass elevator and push the number 4. The doors close and the elevator does nothing.

I stand there for a few seconds, then for a minute. I’ve never been stuck in an elevator before, but I’ve seen it happen in movies all the time.

This elevator is glass and dangles over an open courtyard. I’m sure someone will see me, I think, and do my best to keep calm.

I push this button, then another.


I push the emergency button.


Two minutes, three minutes go by and suddenly the glass elevator feels like sealed up steamy terrarium.

I think to use my iPhone to call my mom and let her know what’s up, but no, of course American iPhones don’t work in Cuba. I’m on the other side of the Berlin Wall, trapped.

If this really were a movie I’d be worried for me. But this is Cuba and from what I’ve seen so far, everyone here bends over backwards to take care of American visitors. Someone will help me, I think again and again but nothing happens.

I push this button, then that one again. Nothing.

I push a button and hold it while counting to 10. Nothing.

I have one more idea. I try to wedge my fingers between the doors and open them manually. First a finger gets in, then a hand. I push my foot in too, and then pull it apart.

A whoosh of cooler air greets me and I half throw myself out of the elevator, then triumphantly trot up three flights of stairs and rejoin the table.

My new friend in the long dress is delighted by my book, the one I wrote about my first trip to Cuba. She asks what it’s about and our conversation twists and turns through Cuban history and American history and ends with the two of us agreeing that the most important figure in world history – at least the history of our corner of the world – is Napoleon. Cuba might speak Spanish, but Cienfuegos was founded by creole Louisiana sugar planters after the War of 1812.

They both have to work the next day, and Mom and I have to get up early for a long day day-trip to Havana, so we say goodbyes and warn them to take the stairs instead of the elevator.

I’m not tired, Mom isn’t tired. After all this day of people and sights and stories we need a few minutes of peace together. And besides that, we’re hungry.

The waiter brings us a little more wine and a big plate of French fries which we devour happily. Within an hour we are back in the hotel room getting ready for bed. While Mom called Dad (again) I looked at pictures I’d taken.

Here is the Bishop’s house; here is the Casa de Leones; here’s me and Mayulis on the stairs of the Liceo, pretending to descend like royalty.

Oh, and here is one of a book I saw prominently displayed in the Liceo called “La Madre Negra de Marti.” I’m sure Jose Marti didn’t have a black mother, and wonder if some revisionist historian didn’t make some big jumps to write a history that would be more inviting to a multi-racial readership.

That’s when I suddenly remembered something.

I bolted up and went to my purse.

Where’s my orgasm?I said out loud but my mom didn’t answer, she was busy with my Dad.

I dug and dug in my tiny wallet-sized purse, but all I could find was my backup pinky peach lipgloss.

I don’t know where it went, or who is using it, but my orgasm disappeared in Cuba that night. 

5 Days in Cuba: Tuesday Part 3: Lions and the Liceo

So we leave the Archbishop’s house and walk past three doors back to TiaLourdes’ house on the Prado. When we get there we find it full of visitors including Mayulis’ mom, Mila. So much for meeting up at 4pm it isn’t even noon yet.

Olgita tells us lunch is ready, but she doesn’t look too happy because there are two extra people to feed. She can’t turn them away, but I’m sure her kindness to them is out of love for us. Not everyone in house is eating lunch; there is her doctor sister I never met, and an uncle too, who stay put and make no move towards the lunch.

 Two extra chairs are pulled up  for Mayulis and Mila around the table that my great-grandparents ate at and we share the chicken (or maybe it was pork), plantains, and rice.  Nothing tastes good, nothing tastes right, but I eat out of politeness. Olgita tells me to only drink this water from this cup, but I forgot and start drinking other water. Between her bites of food she notices this and takes the cup away. I feel protected and I’m not quite used to this.

Mayulis, seated across from me, keeps tilting her head towards the door, the universal signal for “lets ditch this place” but I can’t go, we can’t go, we just got here.  Our time in Cuba is short and precious; just like we divided our money into envelopes for each day and necessity, we also divided our time into pieces to be given out like candy and dollars.

This time, after lunch, I didn’t insult Olgita by trying to clear the table, trying to help wash or do anything in her precious kitchen. I join everyone back in TiaLourdes’ office and mom whispers to me that I should open the gusano and give out the stuff we brought for Olgita and her family. I completely forgot that we haven’t given anything out yet, and suddenly everyone converging on the house looks a little different to me, like they’re waiting politely but hungrily.

Tita gives TiaLourdes the gifts and treats from us and from her brother, my grandfather while I drag the rest of the bag into the long hallway, the one that still has my great grandmother’s turn of the century Singer sewing machine.

Olgita and her sister Cookie join me. What I have for them are clothes, piles of clothes in a range of sizes from me, from my neighbors and friends.  Here’s a long pink light sweater that flows like a cape when you walk. Here’s a shiny satiny white shirt. Then came more shirts, a dress, shoes and a pair of culottes.

It all looked like so much more when I was packing it and carrying it, filled with hope and generosity and abundance, but here, now, it looks not nothing, like odds and ends, like not enough. Still, they look pleased and start to sort the clothes between them, what to keep, what to give to their other sisters.

I notice Mayulis sitting quietly in the other room and then remember I haven’t given her or her mother the clothes we brought for them.  Maybe that’s why they came here early, or maybe it was to see us. I knew better than to ask.

Now Mom is playing on the floor with Barbarita, the former toddler who was fascinated with my iPad last year. This year we brought her a play tea set, and she was pretending to cook for and feed my Mom.  I watched for a minute, maybe five, but that’s as long as my attention lasts because I have an idea and grab Mayulis by the wrist.

Come see, I tell her, in English then Spanish, and pull her to the dimly lit bathroom, the one with the bidet that terrifies me.  

I’ve brought all my makeup and makeup brushes with me; concealer, foundation, mascara, blush, and and eyeshadow palette. Her eyes light up and she lets me unleash on her face. This is fun; in another life we would have grown up doing this, but here we are, a professor and a doctor, giggling over shiny peaches and glittery coppers.

Then I pull out the eyelash curler. Mayulis winces; apparently no one in Cuba has seen such a majestic piece of engineering.  I teach her to curl first, THEN put on mascara and we practice catching her tiny lashes and then squeezing them until the stand up straight and proud. She is giddy, and so am I. I pull out my iphone and show her crazy effects. In another world, she would be my Facebook friend, and I would know what's really going on in her life.  For now we have to be the kind of cousins who play with makeup and giggle. 

A line presents itself outside the bathroom door; this one wants concealer for her circles, the next one demands long eyelashes. I do my best to represent the very best of our capitalistic free market, and happily dab, swish, squeeze and beautify until everyone is entertained and satified.

It’s now about the time that we planned on leaving TiaLourdes house and going with Mila and Mayulis to walk around and see the things that would be intimately familiar to me if I’d grown up in Cienfuegos.  

I’m ready, they’re ready, and the four of us – me, my mom, Mila and Mayulis – give our kiss kiss hugs and goodbyes. We have saved a slice of Friday for TiaLourdes, and promise to come back with stories.

We leave the huge door and head to the right, the opposite direction of the Obispado. We cross a street and arrive at Casa de los Leones, the huge colonial mansion where my great-great grandmother lived with her brother when she came to Cienfuegos from Spain. I had seen this house before in pictures and last year we drove by it, but I didn’t understand that it was mine, that this house was our house.

 The lions looked scary before, now they are familiar, protective, hungry to be noticed.

The four of us stand in front of an open doorway to the mansion and see there are many people, many strangers lingering there. I don’t want to go in, and no one else seems to want to push this. This is Cuba’s house, now, this is what a revolution does; turns things upside down. The house belongs to everyone so it belongs to no one and seems to be slowing falling apart after two centuries of Caribbean weather.

Above us the roof of the ancient porch is barely held up with long treetrunks shoved here and there.  Mom offers to take a picture of me with a statue lion but I decline and instead take ones of everyone else with the lions.  An old man in long stained green pants stares us. His face is unshaven and haggard, not unkind but not familiar or safe. I tell them I’ve seen enough, and ask what we will see next.

They take me across the traffic of the Prado and back down a block to the Liceo de Cienfuegos, a building our great grandfather helped found. I have heard one hundred times over many years that if there hadn’t been a communist revolution this is where my mother would have had her quincenera.

We are met at the entrance by two women whose job it is to take our purses, put them in boxes, and give us little numbers to keep as receipts. I don’t like this one bit, I know from college bookstores that things disappear from purses, but it’s not the time to bring it up. I take my iPhone out of the purse and leave the rest in the universe’s hands.

Right after the entrance a huge square staircase opens up in two directions.  We take pictures on the stairs, each pretending to be a bride, a princess, someone worthy of descending through this architecture. I’m not sure if our giggling was too much; no one hushed us.

Then we go to the second floor. I see a man copying words from an old newspaper onto yellow lined paper. He looks serious and annoyed. I want desperately to see what newspaper he has, and if it is from before 1960 but I’m a stranger to him and let it go.  At another table two teenage girls in short skirted uniforms appear to be working on a project, surrounded by books and colored pencils.  There are about ten short low aisles of books, all nearly empty. 

Next to that is a spiral staircase to what must be a cupola upstairs. 

We walk through that room and to a room that would havce been the actual party room for mom’s quincenera.  The floor and walls screamed Caribbean Art Noveau; patterned intricacies that came together to proclaim to the world this sugar port city had a robust and cultured genteel class.

Mom shows me the balcony window and I lean out and look up and down the Prado. There is Casa de los Leones; there is TiaLourdes house; there’s the Obispado. I take pictures of us leaning into the wind, the sun on our faces, eyelashes curled and ready for action.

This is the point where I start getting hungry. It hits me like a tidal wave and now I’m realizing all I’ve had in hours is half a glass of water and now I’m so thirsty I can’t even concentrated on anything else. Everyone else seems to feel the same way, so we gather our purses from the front of the building and walk around the block and up one street back to hotel.

As we walk into the building the woman at the front desk calls to my Mom (how does she know my Mom? How does everyone here know us?) that someone is waiting for her, upstairs at the rooftop bar.

I look at her shocked. Who are you meeting Mom?

She shakes her head and says she doesn’t know but I have a feeling there’s more going on than that.