Friday, August 23, 2013

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."