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Winging It In Cuba

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There was nothing special about the lobby of the Parque Central Hotel, but I returned there nonetheless the night I realized I was dead broke in Havana, Cuba. I had landed in the capital city 30 hours earlier with exactly one U.S. dollar in my wallet. My plan was to zip through customs, hit the nearest airport ATM and withdraw a wad of pesos. But that was when I had mis-categorized a country as complicated as Cuba, thinking it was like all the others—a society where U.S. banking is accepted. It would take a full day for me to realize that accessing my money from the States was completely prohibited. Once this realization sank in, my plan to experience the city like a local made me feel quite the opposite.

I had done zero planning for this trip—deliberate nonchalance I had imagined would make me feel less like a foreigner, unhampered by books or Google or social media cues telling me how to ‘do Cuba.’ For someone like me, who has had the good fortune to travel and to also think of these journeys as an extension of my identity, I admit there was a sense of arrogance behind my laxity. Add to this disposition a friendship tested by my whimsy, and my maiden voyage 90 miles south of America returned wisdom that only the gift of travel can bring.

It was late afternoon when I arrived at the José Martî International Airport (named in honor of the celebrated Cuban poet and journalist). I boarded a flight from New York earlier that morning as if I were taking the subway to work. Air travel had become routine commuting for me lately. On the leg to Miami, I paid for in-flight wifi, $5 for thirty minutes, and began wrapping up another magazine assignment. I drank bad coffee and raced the clock as I typed. A woman sitting next to me dozed off and as the time passed, I grew envious. I was craving sleep.

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A mojito made with Cuba's Havana Club rum at the Hotel Presidenté, a historic hotel in Havana.

I had plans to meet my friend Delilah (not her real name) on the layover in Miami where we’d secure our visas to Cuba. We had worked in the same newsroom years earlier and when Delilah had traveled on assignment to Afghanistan recently, she let me stay at her cozy Brooklyn flat. The transition from winter to spring had been harried for both of us. I was in the midst of resettling back in New York after an extended stint at Standing Rock covering NoDAPL, and Delilah had been racking up long hours at work. We both had writing and research interests in the Caribbean's largest island. If we could accomplish this together and make it less laborious, we might even have some fun.

Neither of us had discussed any plans beyond sipping rum and mint mojitos once we got situated in our AirBnB. The apartment that we rented was in a district steps away from the Paseo del Prado, a public tree-lined walkway that instantly reminded me of Barcelona’s famed La Rambla. Although not as long, congested or commercialized, for the next few days it became our path to the Parque Central Hotel where we would wrangle with Cuba’s restricted wifi over coffee in the morning and cocktails at night. The passageway would also lead us to the country’s most famous district, Havana’s Centro Historico, one of the few boroughs where vibrantly painted antique Chevys decorate what little Spanish colonial architecture has been preserved.

Mostly, though, the capital city is in decay, district by district. Worn and fragile buildings are representative of the even greater delicate circumstance where the majority of residents scramble to fulfill daily basic needs. When Fidel Castro stepped down as president in 2008, following nearly five decades of authoritarian rule, the transfer of power to his younger brother Raúl resulted in a wide range of economic reforms—changes that some say merely legalized what had otherwise been black market business dealings.

But the more I tried to grok Cuba— its national politics, its anachronisms, its state-subsidized rations—the more I confronted added layers in need of further interpretation. In a country where locals are mostly reluctant to criticize or even discuss their government openly, it made absorbing daily Cuban life somewhat of a mystery.

As an indigenous traveler what was abundantly clear, though, was Cuba’s detachment towards its first peoples, the Taíno, and before their arrival, the Siboney Indians. To be sure, the country’s name derives from the Taíno designation, coabana meaning ‘great place.’ But narratively speaking what has been taught in Cuban schools, according to one college professor at Havana’s Agrarian University, is a consistent history of indigenous extinction.

“While many American countries have indigenous movements demanding their cultural rights and civil dignity, Cuba has traditionally considered itself distanced from all of this,” wrote Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov in an article published last November in the Havana Times. “As everybody knows, Cuban Indians were wiped out.” But Prieto-Samsonov’s reference to this belief was meant, in the weakest sense, to debunk it.

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Antique cars that serve as taxis are parked in a lot at the Parque Central in Havana's central historic district.

I didn’t realize it, but I was headed straight for Taíno territory when, for many reasons, I had decided to ditch Delilah and journey on my own. The homelands were what I had marveled at from above as our plane dipped down below the clouds revealing patches of parched red earth, plots of bushy green crops neatly lined in rows, and a curious trail of smoke snaking towards the sky. As we descended into Havana, my instincts were to head to the rural east not knowing how or even why. I just knew that I felt its pull and even more so as my friendship was falling apart.

Our first night in Havana, Delilah and I went to dinner with a woman traveling solo from the Dominican Republic. Her name was Daniela and I had met her perched on the curb outside a quiet colonial-style hotel, her cinnamon hued face glowing in the light of her smartphone. It was early evening and the sun was setting along the Malécon, Havana’s seaside promenade several blocks away. Daniela had already been in the capital city for two days. To me, it made her an “expert” on navigating the quirks of Cuba, starting with its Internet. “It’s expensive,” Daniela complained in her accented English. “At least where I come from.” I assured her that Americans loathed paying for wifi, period. I thought of the five dollars I had spent on the plane. Cuban rates were only slightly better.

Delilah and I mentioned nothing about our money issues to Daniela. Instead, we listened to her initial views on Cuba, including how impressed she said she was with the country’s literacy rate: 99 percent. It was another perplexing trait of Cuba’s socialist system where education is accessible for all of its citizens, similar to its infamous healthcare. Yet its economy was the real disruptor in this potential paradise. The CUC, or the term used for the Cuban convertible peso, was a currency first introduced when the U.S. dollar became obsolete on the island. Today, it’s widely seen as money reserved for tourists. Meanwhile, locals rely on another peso valued at almost 24 times less.

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A bartender in Havana documents the day’s sales in a ration book.

Those who have access to CUC’s prosper the most, Daniela explained. I thought of the older woman I followed down the jetway as we deplaned our flight from Miami. Dangling from her chubby hand was a giant bag filled with boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts. In that moment, I found it comical that in Cuba’s prolonged embargo with the U.S. that American delicacies like mass-produced pastries were top of mind for returning Cubans. But as I sat sipping a Chilean cabernet with Daniela, it occurred to me that perhaps those donuts were to be sold in secrecy for CUC’s. Daniela expressed little doubt. A corporate attorney for an American company, she had studied law at Sorbonne in Paris and was well-traveled but rooted in her simple upbringing. Her keen awareness of the world was obvious, but not in a pretentious way.

When I asked her if she was aware of Cuba’s Taíno peoples, though, she offered little more than shrugged shoulders. Not even she, a woman from the Caribbean, was aware of Taíno resiliency in the region.

That night as Delilah and I crossed the Paseo del Prado to our apartment, she complained about the food. She had been silent throughout most of dinner. An Arab-American who has passed as white all her life, she is one of my hardest working friends, raised under circumstances that I identified with— single moms, humble means, a fierce self-reliance. But her discontent about the fish, the rice, the beans—I found her criticism to be callous. After all, the majority of Cubans are rationed with the same meal each month, minus the fish. No ordinary Cuban ever saw fresh fish. We walked in silence and I thought of Daniela. She was the one who recommended the restaurant.

Obtaining Cuban pesos was not easy. After an entire day of walking bank to bank, Delilah and I eventually learned what we could have easily found out in a Google search (had we had consistent wifi, that is). In December 2016, U.S. banks were blocked from Cuba. American visitors to the island needed to arrive with their own stack of cash. Delilah arrived with $300 that she had converted into CUC’s at the airport. But not even she had planned for restricted access to her U.S. bank. I was worse off but I wasn’t stressed out about it the way that she was. Her slow-brewing sarcasm had soured by the time we wound up at the Parque Central Hotel that night to get online and work to solve our problem.

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A storefront selling items behind the sacred liturgies of the Afro-Carib-bean religions, including Santería, or Regla de Ocha.

“Someone has to keep tabs on my money,” Delilah said with a huff. She was responding to the waiter and his query on why, unlike me, she, too, wasn’t sipping on cocktails made with Cuba’s famous rum, Havana Club. She had ordered water instead, somehow thinking it was a more frugal choice—but it wasn’t. Persistent drought had made drinking water a precious commodity in Cuba, moreso than the gallons of local booze and imported wine and beer reserved for foreign visitors. But the point was clear. Delilah’s chiding was directed at me, a dependent on her supply of CUC’s.

We didn’t solve much that night but Delilah had made contact with a local through our professional network who agreed to meet us at the hotel the next morning. His name was Juan and he was more or less a stranger. A documentary producer from Spain, Juan had been living on the island for more than a decade.

The next morning, he met Delilah and me in the hotel lobby. He seemed like a likeable fellow and we instantly trusted him. Juan assured us that he had enough money in his bank account in Spain to make a withdrawal on our behalf. We just needed to transfer funds from our banks to him—and that was the difficult part. All of the modern vices that I had come to rely on when traveling abroad—a local SIM card, Skype, PayPal, steady wifi—were all compromised by Cuba’s controls.

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In the end, it would cost us nearly $200 to exchange roughly $1000 into CUC’s, not including an additional $100 or so that I racked up in roaming fees calling my contact in the states to help bail us out. The whole ordeal was dizzying and stressful but it didn’t have to be. For that, I blamed Delilah. As we sat on the patio of the Presidente, one of Havana’s most exclusive hotels, we sipped overpriced mojitos with our bland Cubano sandwiches and I felt a liberating wave of relief come over me. Those pesos in my pocketbook no longer made me feel reliant on Delilah. In our shared crisis, I had seen a side of my friend that turned me off; she had reminded me of people I had discarded in my past.

A butcher at work in Havana.

A butcher at work in Havana.

Two days later, I helped Delilah carry her suitcase down six flights of stairs to a cab that would take her to one of the most trafficked beaches on the island, Varadero. We exchanged a kind hug but I knew, for other reasons than just the money, it would be the last of our friendship. I packed up my things that morning to head east feeling both sad and confused.

In Trinidad, the streets are rocky and cobbled and require flat shoes to navigate, particularly at night. I had arrived by taxi around 9 p.m. to the faint clamor of a Catholic procession. It was Good Friday, a fairly recent holiday to be observed in Cuba ever since a papal visit from Pope Benedict in 2012. Until then, the pre-Easter commemoration of Jesus’s crucifixion had been banned since a government edict in the 1960’s.

That night, I had checked in to my casa particular, a room inside a peaceful home of a gentle couple living on the border of a dodgier side of town. I kept the pleasantries short, quickly changed my shoes, and grabbed my camera. Two blocks away, I encountered a parade-like advance of parishioners walking past restaurants, stores and homes. The faithful packed the streets as women kissed the tips of their candlewicks to share a flame and young boys gazed into the tiny fires they carried in their hands. Observers stood in doorways and peered behind skinny wrought iron bars of large sweeping windows. Some snapped photos as they marveled at the crowd.

I zig-zagged my way past quiet women with canes and lovers holding hands to the sound of jazzy brass horns oozing onto the streets of the Plaza Mayor. In front of the Church of the Holy Trinity frankincense wafted through the air as a group of muscle-toned men balanced a statue of the Virgin Mary on their sturdy shoulders. The music; its notes reminded me of New Orleans, but of course it was here where it all originated, sounds of the Afro-Caribbeans. It was also in this moment where I witnessed the devout who bowed to their knees to light candles and pray. I thought of the Catholic rituals practiced in my own pueblo in Laguna, New Mexico, an Indian reservation that was colonized by the Spanish not long after Columbus claimed Cuba from the Taíno. I found a connection in a way that I wondered if other foreigners had or could.

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Workers in Havana repair a cobblestone street in the capital city's central historic district.

On the way to Trinidad, I had shared a taxi with two American women who grew up in San Francisco. They didn’t speak Spanish but they assumed I did, and maybe because of the way I casually took over the front seat, or maybe because I’m brown, one of the women also determined I was Cuban.

“Have you always lived in Havana?” asked Sharon, a red-headed fundraiser for a Jewish nonprofit organization.

Her friend Miriam was already complaining of her susceptibility to car-sickness. We hadn’t even left Havana yet, and I worried about the next five hours with these two in the backseat. Kindly turning my attention away, I wondered to myself what they got out of traveling in Cuba? One glance at Sharon’s Lonely Planet guidebook and my private curiosity became clear. Its pages were highlighted like a proper academic text, marking recommended bars, restaurants, and places to stay. Delilah had the same book and had made plans by it, mostly without including me. I scanned the index for anything indigenous- related, including a keyword search for “Taíno” but I only came across a sad description for a cultural center in Baracoa, Cuba’s eastern-most harbor where the Taíno first encountered Columbus.

In my one week left on the island, I had planned to visit these original homelands based on a chat with a fruit vendor in Havana. The drive to Trinidad was the first leg. From there I would board a bus to Santiago, taxi again to Baracoa, head north towards the community of Playa Guardalavaca, the white beaches that the fruit vendor described. In between, I’d glean whatever details I could about Taíno culture and presence.

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A street mural near Havana’s Chinatown hints at an overlooked past.

The Cuban census classifies its population into three categories: ‘Blancos’ (White), ‘Mestizos’ (Mixed) and ‘Negros’ (Black). Today, there is a growing movement to reclaim Cuba’s indigenous identity. It’s been only recently that talk of Taíno heritage has become an acceptable dialogue by government standards. The country long denied the fact that indigenous peoples survived colonization despite artifacts and oral histories chronicling an alternative narrative—that many Taíno fled from their Spanish captives and survived in the rural countryside that I had pegged to travel. Historical documents show the Taíno attempted land-claims settlements up until 1850, the last time on record such a claim was denied.

Joél our driver turned on Radio Taíno and cautiously drove us eastward out of Havana’s city limits. In my broken Spanish, I asked him whether the station that was blaring more talk than music was of the Taíno people. He somewhat laughed. “Taíno inidio?” he asked me. Despite its name, the station was mostly to boost tourism in the country, Joél said. It was one of the few acknowledgements the government had made of its original inhabitants.

As we approached the Autopista, Cuba’s main highway, Joél hinted that there may be indigenous ancestry in his family lineage. “Posiblemente,” he said, his dark eyes glistening against his dark skin. He was among the Cubans who identified as mestizo, neither black nor white, but an ethnicity that had yet to be fully claimed.

Joél was a kind man, a father of two and the husband of a beautiful dentist. We stopped at his pink two-story home in the small town of Rodas to fill up on gas. It was cheaper this way, he explained to me. Tucked behind his house was a carport that felt like home. A bunch of bananas hung in a nearby shed as chickens clucked nearby. By the backdoor was a cluttered table draped in brown satin. A half-dozen loose eggs sat next to a metal pot, a coffee mug and the latest edition of Juventud Rebelde, a newspaper targeting young communist Cubans. In English, its literal translation means Rebel Youth, and for years, the publication printed stories about such topics as sex, transgenderism and prostitution—issues otherwise censored by the government. He gave me a copy of the newspaper because he knew I was a journalist. “A souvenir,” he said, smiling. His 12-year-old son was nearby pouring fuel into the car from an antique gas can.

There were many stops made along the way, which at once annoyed the girls from San Francisco. They were in a hurry, they told me, when Joél stopped along the highway to help a fellow taxi driver whose car had broken down. We also paused at a rest stop just as the sun was setting near the seaside town of Yaguanabo. I climbed out of Joél’s aging Nissan Sentra and drifted towards a home lined with cacti. Nearby a windmill clicked in the quiet air as a goat greeted me with its baa-ing. The moment reminded me of the ranch I grew up on in New Mexico where my grandfather raised and sold cattle. These were traits of my travel experiences common to most if not all of my journeys, tapping into the familiar of my own indigenous past.

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A devout Catholic kneels and prays over lit candles during a Good Friday ceremony in Plaza Mayor, Trinidad, Cuba.

Sitting on the beach in Playa de Ancon the next day, I shared a plot of sand with a group of Italian tourists, all women, all laughing and enjoying their time together. They stood on the shore taking multiple selfies, ordering mojitos, and then taking more selfies. I thought of Delilah. We hadn’t even taken one photo together.

“Never go on trips with anyone you do not love,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in his memoirs from his trips around the world, including the twenty years he spent living in Cuba. I thought of Delilah and how I did have love for her but that perhaps she did not love me.

It was then that I decided to listen to my instincts and cut my trip short. Getting to the indigenous homelands of the Taíno was going to be, like Cuba, problematic. Airfare was cheap on the days I didn't want to fly back to Havana, and ten times as much on the days I preferred.

When I arrived back to Havana the night before my flight to New York, I passed a buzzing crowd of men, women and girls dressed in their finest attire outside the Gran Teatro de La Habana. It was a tame Sunday afternoon and people were lining up to see the ballet. A group of teenage girls dressed in spaghetti strapped dresses stood anxiously in wobbly high heels. Their friend was late. The doors were about to close. I had been standing by, hoping to get a ticket to the sold-out show. My conjuring succeeded. I purchased a ticket from one of the girls for 10 CUC’s, dramatically more than 1 local peso that she was asking. I saw her face beam. “No cambio,” I told her as we shuffled our way into the grand building. As I handed my ticket to the woman at the door, she stopped and sized me up. This show is for locals only, she told me. “Si, si,” I said and kept walking.

Being brown while traveling has often meant blending in for me. On this night, it came with the benefits of witnessing a moment of magic in a country oppressed by so many controls. Sitting in the dark theater, I studied the ballerinas and then the faces of the young girls that I had purchased the ticket from. Some were holding hands. Perhaps they were watching their dream play out on stage. I turned my gaze back to the dancers and allowed a tear to escape and roll down my cheek. Maybe I was swept up by the promise of hope and beauty in a land in ruins. Or maybe I was just missing my friend.

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Men play dominos on the streets of Trinidad.