Havana in the Rearview Mirror

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1994

Havana in the Rearview Mirror

A final, heartbreaking trip through la revolucion
By Randy Wayne White

Land, sea, or air, 90 miles is 90 miles, except when describing the water space between Havana and Key West, a distance protracted by a generation of despair. Lately, men and women have taken to launching inner tubes beyond the landfall beacon off Morro Castle and paddling north. Crossing the Florida Straits in a cruiser is one thing, but attempting it in a rubber doughnut, one's legs poking through the bright skin of the abyss, is a whole different proposition. In Cuba, desperation frames crazy optimism, or there is no optimism at all.

From my room on the seventh floor of the Hotel Nacional, I could look down on the Malecón, the avenue that traces Havana's waterfront. Beyond the flow of bicycles, pedestrians, and a few old cars, there was the sea, inflated with gray light. A streak of indigo marks the edge of the Gulf Stream--it sweeps in close to Havana Harbor--and there were men fishing the rim of it, as if fishing the bank of a river. There was no fuel for boats, so they floated out in inner tubes. Except in the tourist hotels there was very little food, so they fished. But there weren't many fish. A few weeks of living like that, and even I--not the bravest of men--would consider worming into an inner tube and paddling north toward Duval Street.

Sometimes distance has resonance. Maps are deceptive.

Even for a tourist, it's tough to get out of Havana. Oh, it's easy enough to stop in the hotel lobby and book a sight-seeing shuttle to the beaches of Santa María or the tobacco country of Pinar del Río, or a flight to the dive resort on the Isle of Pines (now called the Isle of Youth), or a cab to Cuba's vacation showplace, Varadero Beach. All it takes is money. American money. Lots and lots of American money, cash only. But what I wanted to do was rent a car and drive south to a remote place called the Zapata Peninsula, a great landmass shaped like a shoe and shown on the map as swamp. I had heard rumors that portions of this swamp were, biologically, a mirror of the Florida Everglades, a complex ecosystem commonly described as "unique." For more than 20 years I have lived in or near the Everglades. I have hiked it, boated it, camped it, slogged it, studied it, and written about it, convinced--perhaps naively so--that it was the only ecosystem of its kind in the world. And then I began hearing stories about another Everglades in Cuba...

Here's what happened on my first attempt to drive there: I landed at José Martí International Airport in the late afternoon and stopped at the government's reception booth, where I bought two pretty good maps. The workers there wanted to know if I needed a hotel in downtown Havana, 20 minutes away. Perhaps they could also arrange a tour for me?

No, I told them, I only needed a car. There were still a couple of hours of daylight left. I figured I could make it most of the way to the Zapata Peninsula by sunset. Besides, I had been to Havana in 1977 on a scuba trip to the Isle of Pines, then again in 1980 during the Mariel boat lift, when 120,000 Cubans fled the country. There were things I liked about Havana, but a city is a city, whereas a swamp is a good place to spend time.

The workers puzzled over my open maps. I am often disoriented when traveling and so tend to trust the advice of others. But these ladies seemed disoriented, too. I pointed to the village of Playa Larga, 112 miles southeast of Havana, on the Bay of Pigs at the eastern fringe of the Zapata Peninsula.

Impossible, said one of the workers. There was no place to stay at Playa Larga.

I pointed to Playa del Caimito, on the western fringe.

No place to stay there, either. Wouldn't it be better if they booked a tour for me to another area? That way I could stay at a nice hotel in Havana and ride the tour buses each day.

The harder they pushed for Havana, the more determined I was to avoid it. I didn't need a hotel, and I could provision myself from the small villages through which I passed--that was possible, wasn't it?

The workers still seemed disoriented, peering at the map from odd angles. Perhaps, they said.

The Cuban car-rental agency was in a building the size of a small shed. It was a popular place with the locals because it had air-conditioning. I attempted to negotiate for a car amid the noise and cigarette smoke. The man in charge was pleasant, but there was no negotiating: $53 a day for a small Nissan, 60 free miles, 50 cents a mile after that. Expensive, but there were no alternatives. The price, fixed by the government, would be the same no matter where I tried. The idlers inside watched me sign the contract. Among them was a prostitute named Evelina, a girl of about 19 who shadowed every move I made. She wore a red blouse and green spandex shorts. Her face was very pretty; everything else about her was old. When I ducked under the hood to check the car's oil, Evelina ducked with me. When I checked the spare tire in the trunk, she checked, too. I began to worry that Evelina came with the car, hired through a clause somewhere in the contract's fine print. She kept asking for a ride. When I said I was not going to Havana, she took the map and studied the marks I had made on it. Her expression was a mixture of fascination and confusion, a reaction parroted by every Cuban of whom I asked directions. No one seemed to know where he was. The map showed a world that was too big.

I left Evelina standing on the curb, her face floating in the rearview mirror. I drove out into the late-afternoon bicycle traffic--Cuba is now a bicycle society and in this way resembles Asia. It is a wonderful feeling to be underway in an unfamiliar country, alone and on the move, and I would have felt great but for one thing: My car had no gas. I had paid $5 for five liters, slightly more than a gallon, at the agency, but the gauge read below empty.

I stopped at the first service station. It was closed. So was the second. The third had an attendant, but no gas. Same at the fourth. By now I was miles from the rental agency and facing the possibility--the probability, really--that I would have to push my $53-a-day car to Zapata.

I headed back to the rental agency, coasting when I could. I got my money back. Evelina seemed happy to see me, but not surprised. I left her and the rental car, and took a cab into Havana.

It's illegal for a U.S. citizen to spend money in Cuba unless he is a journalist or has relatives living there and gets a special dispensation from the U.S. Treasury Department. I had flown in on one of the common illegal routes, a Cubana Airlines flight from Nassau, but I was a journalist. And I was certainly spending money. A night in a simple room at the Hotel Nacional, the old Meyer Lansky brothel, cost $190, so it was while looking for a cheaper place that I met Monroe.

Monroe was a Canadian, a veteran, and a lawyer--an outlandish trinity that complemented his outlandish personality. Though a small man, he cut a swath in his white sportcoat, slicked-back hair, and neatly trimmed Cesar Romero mustache. When he walked, he sometimes limped. ("An old war wound," he said.) He was always firing off faxes. ("The damn publisher keeps asking for my book!") He smoked Cohiba cigars but preferred the Trinidads that he said were given to him by Castro himself. For the last year he had spent every other month in Havana, making business connections in preparation for the switch to free enterprise that he said was inevitable.

"It can't go on like this," he said to me. "And when it changes, I'll be ready and waiting. The money will flood in. I'll buy a mansion east of town, hire some servants, and winter here."

When Monroe was not hurrying off to meetings with high government officials, he could usually be found in the patio bar of the Havana Libre Hotel, entertaining Cuban foreign ministers or ogling the prostitutes that swarmed the place. Monroe was at ease with the dignitaries, but the prostitutes troubled him. Late one night he said, "I haven't been with one of those girls. You won't catch me paying 20 bucks and sneaking out to the swimming pool! I have a fiancée, for God's sake!" It was less a statement than a proclamation. He seemed to be trying to convince himself.

I don't know how much of what Monroe told me was true, but I liked him. He was smart, savvy, and I recognized his affectations and talking jags for what they were: The guy was homesick, hotel-weary, and half crazy from living as an expatriate in Havana--though it was certainly better to live in Havana as an expatriate than as a citizen. For us there was at least food to buy. Monroe knew the few bars and restaurants that were still open--all tourist places--and everyone at the bars and restaurants knew him. At La Floridita, a bronze bust of Ernest Hemingway watched us drink daiquiris. At La Bodeguita del Medio, we ate black beans and chewed the fresh mint leaves in our mojitos. Outside, the children begged for coins, the men begged us to buy black-market cigars, and the women winked and pressed their breasts against our arms.

Monroe would say, "This city is part museum, part whore. Don't the collapsed buildings remind you of Dresden? But all I have to do is stick it out. Do my work and keep to my routine. A month, after all, isn't very long. Havana is going to boom again, and when it does, I'll be rich."

Monroe, like everyone else in Havana, was waiting for something.

One night I met Carlos Calvo, who claimed to be a right fielder on the national baseball team, and he invited me to his practice the next day. I took a cab to the sports center, the Ciudad Deportiva, where Carlos met me, explaining that his team hadn't shown up, that practice had apparently been canceled. He shrugged, adding, "This is Cuba. Who can say why?" Instead, the two of us sat and watched tryouts for the national 15- and 16-year-olds team: 30 skinny kids dressed in rags, no spikes, hitting without helmets, sharing their cheap Batos ball gloves, but playing like I have never seen kids play before. It wasn't so much the skill--though they certainly had skill--as it was the passion with which they played, a kind of controlled frenzy that made their otherwise aggressive coaches appear meek in comparison.

Carlos was unimpressed. Perhaps that kind of fervor was common in Cuban ballparks. Or perhaps one of these kids would someday try to take his job, so Carlos chose not to acknowledge them. He seemed more concerned with the condition of the field. The diamond was pitted with holes; weeds were knee-high in the outfield. "They used to mow it," he told me more than once. "I don't know why they don't mow it now."

That night, I found Monroe at his table in the patio bar. He was drinking daiquiris, which was unusual. Monroe drank very little, and never at night. It wasn't part of his routine. I joined him for a round, and he told me about his business dealings that day. Then, as I rose to leave, he said, "I never do this, but one more daiquiri and I'll be drunk--over the line." Naturally, I told the waiter to bring Monroe one more daiquiri before I headed off to bed.

At first light I was awakened by pounding at my door. It was a haggard, wild-eyed Monroe. "Where were you when I needed you?" he rasped. "I was almost killed last night. Electrocuted!"

I tried to calm him. He sat and explained that he had gotten very drunk and stumbled off past the hotel pool in search of a place to urinate and had brushed into some bare electrical wires. He showed me two black burns on his forearm that looked more like a vampire bite. The shock had knocked him unconscious, he said, but luckily one of the staff had found him and managed to revive him.

"I banged and banged on your door," he said. "I was having trouble breathing. I needed help, and the hospitals here are worthless!"

I hadn't heard any banging. And I was suspicious of Monroe's strange story. Why had he wandered outside to whiz when the hotel's restrooms were inside? I suggested he show me the bare electrical wires. He was reluctant, but I pressed the issue. We took the elevator to the pool, and I followed Monroe to a wooden gate.

"Right through there," he said.

The gate led to a cramped space, not more than a yard wide, behind a row of cabanas. There were water pipes and a jumble of spliced electrical wires. But for Monroe to have touched the wires with his forearm, he would have had to be lying down or kneeling.

I looked from the wires to Monroe. Monroe looked at the ground. "I know," he said finally. "I know." He sounded exhausted, deflated. "I shouldn't have lied to you, and I shouldn't have done it. But she was so beautiful. You've seen those girls in the bar. My God! And how many months have I been fighting it?"

It must have been an astonishing event: coition interrupted by a jolt of electricity and a shower of sparks. I found it hilarious--hilarious in a way that squeezes the heart--but Monroe would not be consoled. "I swore I'd never do anything like that," he moaned. "I'm here strictly on business. I have a routine! But this damn city does something to you. Believe me, Randy, it's this damn city!"

I had not given up on looking for the Cuban Everglades. I spent time talking to people in the bookstores near the University of Havana. It was extraordinary how little they knew of regions outside the city. I might as well have been asking them about the dark side of the moon. I did learn that there was a small resort on the Bay of Pigs at Playa Larga, but it was closed. "Broken," I was told. The hotel at Mariel Harbor was "broken," too, as were several others. I got the impression that the Cuban government was funneling its shrinking food supply into only the most expensive and popular resorts, and closing the rest.

Even so, when I finally did find a place to buy gas, I rented a Daihatsu, spent $47 to fill its small tank, and headed southeast on A-1, the country's main highway. I had slept in cars before, and I could provision along the way. Anything to get out of Havana.

I drove carefully, dodging Russian-made Ladas, bicycles, and a few donkey carts. If nothing else, Cuba is a great place to drive a car. The macadam roads are wide and fast. Soon the traffic disappeared; the city blurred, thinned, and finally vanished behind me. In the next hours I would see maybe two dozen cars on that six-lane highway, most of them 1950ish Chevys, though there were a few old Mercedeses and a tired Ford, too. The Chevys were cheerful things to see, for they were brightly painted and their mirrors were decorated as if to celebrate a religious holiday. I always waved at their drivers as I passed; they always smiled and waved back.

On my trip in 1977, I had visited a few rural areas, and I was eager to get into the country again. At that time, in Cuba as in Central America, it was accepted behavior to stop at a house and offer money in exchange for a meal. Though very poor, the people usually had beans and fresh fish or turtle meat to spare and were glad for the cash and, perhaps, the company. In the early afternoon I decided to find a village and see about lunch. The map showed that I was near Güines, a dot off the main highway, so I turned south and banged my way along five miles of sugarcane until I came to a settlement of houses on a dirt road. The settlement was dominated by a packing plant made of corrugated metal. Two soldiers stood by the closed gate at the entrance. I asked them about a place to eat. There was none, they said. Down the road, an old man sitting in the shade suggested that I knock at the door of a building beside the factory. I knocked. The door opened a crack. The woman peering through told me she had no food. The door closed again.

I decided to try another village. Compared to Güines, San Nicolás was a metropolis. There were a few buildings of marble and coral. Judging from the rows of old houses and the sidewalk crowded with pedestrians, I guessed that it was home to perhaps 10,000 souls. There was what seemed to be a restaurant: an open place with tile floors and crowded tables. I went to the counter, smiling at the people who gawked at me. No tourist buses came to San Nicolás. My car was an oddity; I was a curiosity. An old woman stood at my elbow, staring so intensely that she seemed to doubt that I was real. I ordered food and a cold beer, then wondered why the woman behind the counter reacted with embarrassment. For the first time, I noticed what was on the tables of this crowded place: nothing.

"In the evening, we will have soup," the woman told me. "Only soup. But you must wait with the others."

The people outside weren't pedestrians, I realized. They were standing in line--and I had cut to the front.

I apologized, waved, and left. It would have been hugely presumptuous--cruel, in fact--to offer money for food when these people had to stand in line for hours just to get soup. I had a canteen of iodized water, and I had a car where I could sleep, if need be. I headed on toward the coast.

Cuba has an Everglades. I had to drive through burning sugarcane fields to get to the western boundary of it, but it was there. Beyond the village of Héctor Molina, not far from the Caribbean Sea, the blackened miles of agroindustry ended abruptly, abutting a lowland dike and road where the sawgrass began.

It was a relief to be in sawgrass. Unlike the cane fields, the sawgrass wasn't ablaze. It moved like wheat in the wind, carrying the familiar odors of muck and fresh water and cypress. More than once I stopped just to get out and feel the wind. On a tree, I found a Liguus snail, a kind of tree snail common in the Florida Everglades. It was yellow and white, beautifully banded. I watched four ibis flush from the grass, and hoped to see egrets and herons as well. But there were none. The only other birds I saw were two black vultures coasting on high thermals. Nothing else.

Even so, it was good to be away from the sugarcane. At one point on my route, the flames had blazed so close that heat radiated through the car, and I had floored the accelerator in panic even though I was unable to see because of the smoke. I was already dreading the trip back.

I had no idea how great an area the sawgrass covered. The Zapata Peninsula, at one point, stretches more than 60 miles. In the far distance I could see a rind of tree canopy, nothing more. Perhaps the best way to get to the interior of the swamp was to find a boat and explore up one of the mangrove creeks that this Everglades must certainly feed.

I drove on south to the coastal village of Playa del Caimito. It was a pretty place: whitewashed shacks with thatch roofs on a shoal-water bay. I parked the car, and a group of shy men materialized around me. I asked them about hiring one of the three small boats tied to the mangroves. No, it was impossible, they said. They did not have the authority, and besides, there was no fuel.

Who did have the authority? I wanted to know.

The men shrugged, clearly hoping that I wouldn't press it. I didn't. We stood around talking about fish and fishing. Yes, there had once been bonefish in the area, but no longer. There had been permit, too--but no longer. I didn't have to ask why. Stretching out from the shore were stop nets, fish traps hundreds of yards long. After generations of this, the village had been reduced to eating mostly salted shark meat, which lay on tables nearby, drying in the sun.

I didn't spend a lot of time in the village. I had brought a bunch of Little League uniforms and baseball equipment to give to children along the way, but I decided to leave the whole box in Playa del Caimito. While the women distributed the gear, I pulled out my map and asked one of the men about the size of the swamp that was his backyard. As always, the map framed confusion--apparently nothing blurs the world like the imperatives of subsistence. "ÁQuién sabe?" the man said finally. "Who knows?

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