Gary handed me a CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso used by tourists) and motioned to the boy on the sidewalk. Candy bars were arrayed on his wheelchair tray table. He could have been fourteen or fifteen. I wondered why he wasn’t in school, and how he managed to get to that spot on the pavement. Continue reading
The artist who sketched my portrait was so fast that I didn’t know I was a subject. We had stopped to gaze at some of the rehabilitated buildings in Plaza Vieja, Old Havana, where they stand waiting for tourists to appreciate their splendorous arcades and sunshine color palette. (Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
Gary paid the artist and handed me my portrait. “Looks just like you,” Gary said.
“He gave me big boobs and took away part of my brain. Is that the trade-off?” I compared my caricature to the fine lines and love note on Gary’s picture.
The artists don’t ask. They just sketch and then hand you your likeness assuming you will pay.
The Cuban government pays all workers at the same rate — engineers, construction workers, and bus drivers all make the equivalent of $20 per month. With food ration cards and free health care, this may be just enough to get by, but not enough to live well. Cubans who work catering to tourists in hotels or in restaurants or with their 1950’s era cars they use as taxis can make more.
In Havana, all of our taxi cab drivers were engineers. Education, at all levels, is free in Cuba, but there are few engineering jobs. And, as one driver told us, “I can make more money driving than working as an engineer.”
“You’re an entrepreneur,” said someone in our tour group.
The cab driver looked over his shoulder. “What’s an entrepreneur?”
As we leave Santiago de Cuba, we see less and less cars. Except for the occasional horse drawn carts, some lone riders on horseback, and a couple of pedestrians, we have the highway to ourselves. We ride over long stretches covered with potholes. At some point, the bus makes a sudden stop for an ox to find his way to the grassy embankment on the other side of the road. We pass open fields, green sugar cane plants, and small shacks built with wood and cinder blocks. A lush, and for the most part, untouched landscape. In the distance, we see the Sierra Maestra mountains, where Castro hid out and plotted the revolution.
More than an hour after leaving Santiago, the road improves, and we enter Guantanamo. We are still in Cuba, a few miles from the U.S. military base. We drive through a residential neighborhood. Houses are in varying states of disrepair. Our bus stops in front of a house in better shape than its neighbors. The ornate columns and stucco façade are painted a color reminiscent of grasshopper pie. This is the synagogue. We climb a long flight of stairs to reach the sanctuary where we are greeted by people singing “Havenu Shalom Aleichem” (We bring peaceful greetings to you.) I don’t know who started the singing, our tour group or the congregants. Our voices join together in the language we share.
The leader boasts that this congregation is 86 years old. Once, there were 1200 Jews in Guantanamo. Most fled after the revolution. Now, there are 54 members of this congregation. The group survives with the help of Jewish communities from abroad. Not many Jewish tour groups make it this far east on the island. We bring them the bulk of our donations.
They give us sticky sweet treats of coconut and syrup wrapped in dried leaves. Does anyone know the name of these addictive concoctions?
A handful of the religious school students entertain us with Israeli dances. We stand watching. Their joy and vitality are contagious, and we join in.
Conversation is limited. My Spanish is poor, and none of the Cubans are fluent in English. We embrace before we leave. As I descend the stairs, I hear one of the woman say, “Esto es dios.” This is God
Cuba. Sounds like a fun, carefree vacation on a tropical island. Just grab your swimsuit and straw hat and be prepared to mambo the nights away. With Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro, we were ready for a rum and cigar filled trip. We wanted to go soon before the golden arches sprung up in the middle of Old Havana and Starbucks started serving their version of café con leche.
But a handshake is not an agreement. Americans can’t go as individual beach hugging tourists. You have to connect with a group, a group with a purpose – religious, cultural, people-to-people. We got lucky and hooked up with a group from a Brooklyn Heights synagogue. The itinerary included historical landmarks, cultural sites, and four Jewish communities in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo.
We were sent a list of gifts to bring. Medications, over-the-counter drugs, hygiene products, clothing, school supplies. And that left us with a lot of questions. What does it mean to have universal healthcare but a scarcity of resources? What is it like to be Jewish in Cuba? The revolution promised equality for all. But what does freedom mean for someone with disabilities? What does freedom mean to someone who can’t navigate the streets or get on a public bus?
About ten days before our trip, I developed a pain in my leg. Sciatica, I thought. Or, maybe I had pulled a muscle in yoga class. Then, a week before our trip, I was taking a shower. I looked down at my left leg. A cluster of rashes from my knee to my ankle. Shingles. I had taken the vaccine, but there are no guarantees. And my questions became more immediate and more personal.
Was I contagious? “No,” said the doctor.
Should I go? “That’s up to you,” said Gary.
Why now? On April 23, 2015 we were to meet the group from Brooklyn in Miami. April 23. Exactly eleven months after Ariela’s death. According to Jewish tradition, Kaddish, the prayer for mourning is recited for eleven months after the death of a relative. Like a lot of Jewish traditions, the timeline made no sense to me. How do you set a limit to mourning? I had felt numb after Ariela’s death. Eleven months later, I was only beginning to feel the pain, and my grief appeared in red ugly blotches on my leg.
I went because I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see a country on the verge of change. I suspect Cuba will not look the same in a year or even six months. I went because, wherever I am, Ariela is always with me. I see the world through the eyes of a young woman who sits in a chair and talks with a computer.
In truth, if she was still with us, we would not be able to go on this trip or any of the other trips we took in the last year. She was just too medically fragile to travel.
“Making up for lost time?” an acquaintance commented.
“No, we’re pretending to be Lucy and Desi.”
And with that we put on our straw hats and boarded the plane for Miami.
To be continued, amigos.