Friday, August 23, 2013

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.