Thursday, December 18, 2014

5 Days in Cuba; Thursday Evening - Besame Mucho

The cab drive to Hotel Jagua is short, just straight up the Paseo del Prado towards Punta Gorda and the neighborhood Mom used to live in at Playa Allegre. On our ride our driver asked how long we might be and if he should stay -- we didn't have an answer, so he took that as a sign to leave us.  Se asked the cabdriver how we could go home and he said we should have the hotel staff flag down a Cubataxi.  Sounded easy enough.

 He asked where we were going and why, and the best we could explain was that I needed to see the sunset on the water. He understood.  I told him we might want to go to Palacio Valle after the sun set on the water, maybe and he looked very stern.  That isn't the right place for you two, not at night.

We took his advice, put in our purses and kept talking.

I asked if there were any women drivers in Cuba because I hadn't seen any yet. He took my question very serious. He said yes there were, and that he could name two.

  Wow, two, I said and nodded seriously. By then we were almost there.

The band is playing and Mom wants me to make a video. I want to make one too, but suddenly the fresh air and the water and the whole day have made me giddy and I can't get the right camera switched on.

We order wine and before it comes I keep getting video. There are more people in the band than the audience; the only other people are an older couple. The wife is dancing with a very dark man with a thin tshirt and low slung jeans who no doubt would answer to "flaco."

They are in a different Cuba than we are.

The band plays another song, then another, and then we are the only people there.   The singer comes to our table to offer to dance with my Mom, then with me.

No. Really, thanks, but no. We are polite but it's clear, we aren't here for THAT.

 He stays and talks and we take this picture.

Soon enough my Mom is telling him she's from here, and he talks about wanting to come to the US and he's giving her his agent's contact info.

I'm distracted by some people who are walking by, and I can't tell you how our conversation started, but I'm sure she started it.

A sunburned woman wearing khaki shorts on top of a one piece bathing suit is talking to me. She introduces her husband, a tall portly man with a huge camera slung around his neck.  She speaks English and she's from American and they're here with something about the National Trust.  I tell her I'm not on tour, I'm in a different Cuba, one with relatives and obligations and stories that are unfolding still.

She half whispers that she wants to get Cuban cigars but that they'd been warned there was like an $800 fine for each one they brought to the US.

I shake my head. They sell cigars in the gift shop at the airport, I tell her, on the  side you wait in after passing through Cuban customs on your way off of the island.  She winces at the idea and I tell her it's not that big of a deal. She gives me her email and asks me to send her cigars if I manage to get any home.

The sun is setting quickly. The band moves so that they aren't facing the glare. One more picture and we move tables.

The table we move under sits near a tall flowering tree. Mom is enchanted and gets up to pick a fluffy pink flower.  I've seen it before in a photo that lives on Abuelo's wall.  She explains that their house in Playa Allegre was built around one of these trees.  "

It was a rare specimen tree, known as Bella Carolina in Cuba, and English it was known as the "Shaving Brush."

 I imagine a sweaty Englishman visiting Cuba on a botanical expedition and coming across this flower. Clad in trousers, suspenders and a sweat stained undershirt he proclaims that the flower of this tree looks like  shaving brush. Yes, practical, obvious. He soon leaves the island and spends the rest of his short life drinking rum in cold parlors and boring second cousins with stories that roll in circles and fade to non-ending.

My imagination continues, as it is apt to do, and envisions another man, a Latin man of arts and sciences, seeing the flower and thinking it is so beautiful, it reminds him of his lover, Carolina. He brings the bloom to her and tells her it's Bella Carolina.  She blushes and accepts it and the camera fades to black.

Mom and I take pictures with Bella Carolina. These are for Abuela, who can't see them but she can see us, she can feel us laughing here, finding this.  These are for Abuelo, so he can know that some of the things he left haven't disappeared.

It's my idea to take the flower with us across the patio deck and towards the water.

All the sudden the sun was setting.  Mom holds up the flower and I take this picture.

I can't believe how beautiful the air is, how clear the water is, how perfect every color is.  

We are only a few dozen yards from Cienfuegos Yacht Club so I know this is the view my grandparents saw hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.  

Being here and just feeling it brought closure to an invisible circle that needed sealing and healing.  

The wind is blowing and I'm laughing and Mom grabs my phone and takes this picture.

Then I take this one. 

And then I take this last one, moments after the sun sinks into the sea, leaving the sky to turn itself indigo.

In a matter of minutes a darkness falls and Mom and start getting ourselves ready to return to our hotel. 

I go to the bathroom and (forgive me, again for taking a picture when it's not appropriate, but I did it for you, so that has to count for something) there is someone in a stall shouting and it goes something like this. 


If you look under the stall you'll see a single shoe of the person making that urgent toilet-call.

Mom settles the bill and we leave the Hotel Jagua and expect to see a line of taxis or something outside the hotel. 


It is dark and silent. 

I'm used to the streetlights and the parking lot lights of the modern world.  In the back of my head I hear a warning bell that this isn't the place to be -- no one knows where we are and to look for us. 

Mom and I cross the street to a shiny post-WW2 modern Jetsons-looking restaurant, Covadongas.  Legend has it that Castro and his junta ate here on their way to Havana. Since Cienfuegos fell to the Revolution in September 1957, long before the full 1/1/1959 Revolution, I wouldn't be surprised if Castro had been here. 

 A picture of Castro hugging Maria Covadonga is on the wall. 

 He looks young and happy and hungry; his fatigues look clean and shiny and starched.

 She looks like he's been flirting with her, and she likes him more than she fears him, even though she can't quite figure out what might happen to restaurants in the tidal wave of Revolution that Castro tells her he will be bringing. 

No one is in the restaurant, and the man who is standing behind the bar (and who had been furiously cleaning it, for the record) welcomes us.  

 Mom tells him that she's Cuban and she has her daughter here from America, the history professor, and she's showing me so many things, but now it's dark and we need to get back to the hotel. Can he help?

He tucks his rag into his back pocket and springs into action.  Follow me, he says in Spanish and then in broken English that he takes pride in practicing. 

 He walks out of the place and stands in the darkness almost exactly where Mom and I had been standing, and waves into the abyss.

Out of nowhere a green car that looks right out of 1955 pulls up.  

Our friend from Covadongas walks to the driver and proclaims that we are his FRIENDS and could he PLEASE do the favor of driving us?  The driver hops out and greets us. 

 I'm pretty sure Mom gave the nice man a $5 when she said goodbye and thank you and hug kiss kiss to him.

The driver apologizes before he lets us into his car.  He has his girlfriend with him, and his grandson. The grandson seems to be a solid three years old, just at that point where he's stretching and thinking and wanting to have deep conversations.  We tell him of course, of course this is no problem.  Mom gets into the front seat and I hop into the back and off we go into the darkness. No one has seat belts, and the child is sitting on the woman's lap.  She's young and pretty and I'd say she can't be older than 25.  He looks to be in his late 50s. They seem happy. 

The ride is quick. He's glad to meet Americans, and we all agree that Obama has brought good changes between the US and Cuba.  At that, the ride is over and he parks in front of Hotel La Union. As we left the pre-Castro car we kiss kiss kissed the taxi driver, then kiss kiss kissed the taxi driver's wife and the toddler she held on her lap.  Wtthout coordinating a bit or consulting with each other, my Mom tipped the driver $10 for a 2 mile  $3 ride while I was slipping a $5 bill into the toddler's pockets. 

Then Mom and I walked under the starless dark sky and into the hotel entry. 

Before we could walk the ten yards past classical bronze statues of nude women reclining this way and that with their perpetually youthful bodies exposed by draping clothes that always seem to be falling off, someone called my name. Loudly.

I didn't think I heard right, and then I heard it  again, "Melissa Soldani!"

It was the woman behind the desk, the one with gorgeous tortoiseshell glasses and blonde hair.  

I look at her with a frown.

I think I'm in trouble; I always do. it's my first instinct.

 And after what happened at the airport on Monday and what almost happened in Havana on Wednesday I had a pretty good reason to  expect the worst.

Maybe they read my book about my trip to Cienfuegos last year and read the part where I put a tiny piece of a palace down my bra, hoping to bring it home, water it and grow a new palace.

 I knew I shouldn't have left that book up there on the book rack, among the approved communist literature.  Now I'm going to have to face the music. 

 That's probably it, I'm probably going to rot in a Cuban jail for years to pay for one second of ebullient love for this city and it's history.

I worry if there is clean water in prison, if I'd be cold or hot or have to sleep on stone.

A voice in my head is mocking me, reminding me I should never have come to Cuba and now I won't be able to sleep in a bed every again and I won't have toothpaste or Spanx or cute wedges to wear and I'll never see Kitchen Nightmares or any shows on HBO ever again. And of course there isn't lipgloss and hair conditioner or even blowdryers in Cuban jails, so this is it, my life ends here.

 Another thought pushed through my mind to join the rest of the chatter,  reminding me that  I just bought my iPhone 5 less than a week ago; I have 2 years left on the contract and I won't get to hang out with it ever again.

Siri, help me, I thought silently, knowing that Siri is powerless without the internet.

 I think to run back out of the hotel, back past the statues of frozen nudes and into the darkness but despite the weight of my stomach down in my knees I smiled broadly with pretend coolness and confidence and went straight to the desk.

She said my name, again, perfectly and loudly. I wasn't imagining this.

Melissa Soldani, THIS is for you.

I look at my Mom quizzically asking her with my eyes if she knew anything about this at all and she shook her head just a tiny bit.

The lady at the desk held out something small  towards me  and I instinctively opened my hand for her to put whatever it was in my palm

Oh my God. Oh, oh, wow, I said, staring at a huge flat emerald cut diamond that miraculous silently and effortlessly stalked me and found its way to me.

I told her thank you, numbly, without asking what events transpired to bring this diamond to me.

 I wanted to ask who was behind it and why but instead it clasped it tightly in my hand like this was completely normal and walked slowly away, challenging every bit of what  I'd seen and knew about Cuba.

Sometime during the day on Tuesday while we were out walking the streets of Cienfuegos, vising Tialourdes' house and the Casa de Leones and the Liceo, this fell off my sandals.  When I realized that late on Tuesday I shrugged it off.  They were from a discount big-box store, no big deal. 

But it is a big deal.  

Someone was following me, someone noticed, someone picked up this piece and was moved to get it back to me. 

In the United States if you were to stalk me down and say "here's a piece of faux jewelry from your cheap sandals" I would consider a restraining order. 

Here in Cuba, it's something else.  It's a sign.  That's what I take it to be.  I could think this means that someone's following me, but I let that go and let it be something else. 

It's a sign that the universe is an awesome place where nothing is lost, not for long, not forever.

I tuck it  the jewel into my pocket and we go upstairs to have our much awaited paella. It isn't as good as it was the night before, and the waiter explains there's a different chef.  

Still, it's good, and we devour it and soak in every bit of starlight on our last night in Cuba.