By Kelly Knaub
I am in the middle of a strange dream – a collage of tropical flowers, ripe fruit and an oppressive sun that does not relent, even when the wind appears to greet me. This strange dream started when the airplane touched down in Havana.
Before I ascended the sky that carried me to this dream, I took a taxi in the middle of the night from my apartment in Spanish Harlem to the La Guardia airport in Queens. I could have flown directly from New York to Havana with the U.S. government license I received through my university to travel to Cuba, but it was more expensive and departures were limited, so I had stopovers in Miami and Nassau on the way.
When at last plane landed in Havana, an incredible peace came over me. “Estoy en Cuba,” I thought, looking out at the lush palm trees that welcomed me to this dream. “I’m in Cuba.”
In addition to the big deal that has been made by the Cuban government concerning mandatory health insurance for foreigners, the University of Havana, where I’m studying this summer, informed me that I would need to buy it in order to get an academic visa. I asked where I could purchase it at the immigration desk in the airport, but the agent assured me it wasn’t necessary.
Relived by this news, I walked to the money exchange desk to get some Cuban Convertible Pesos and a small amount of Cuban National Pesos. To avoid the 10 percent exchange fee imposed on American dollars, I brought Euros from the States. Then I walked out into the dense heat and climbed into a taxi with four other passengers. My initial impression of Cuba was that I walked into a sizzling-hot oven that wanted to roast me like a chicken. “Que calor!” I said to myself as we drove away. “What heat!”
On the way to the city, patriotic billboards lined the side of the road: “Cuban women are united through the homeland,” said one. Pictures of Ché and the “Cuban Five” adorned others.
When I arrived to Vedado, the neighborhood where I had arranged my stay, the señora of the house greeted me. “Soy tu mamá en Cuba,” she told me. “I’m your mother in Cuba.” The señora is 71 years old but appears much younger.
She excitedly tells me about what’s happening in all of the telenovelas (soap operas) and sometimes relates the daily struggles of living in Cuba, like the constant shortages of certain food or soap. “No es facil, mi hija,” she says. “It’s not easy, my child.” She’s convinced me that in order to stay healthy in Cuba, I must take a spoonful of honey with my breakfast each morning. “Te alimenta,” she says, dipping the spoon in the jar. “It nourishes you.”
So far the people I’ve encountered in the city have been as different as the varieties of fruit that grow on the island. When the shirt I was wearing ripped the other day in Old Havana, an old woman in the bathroom of a café pulled out a needle and thread that she had so I could fix it. The following afternoon, a taxi driver gave me the look of death when I shut the door of the old car too hard for his liking. “I didn’t do it hard,” I said, glaring back. I let him shut it when I exited.
I have slept six nights since I arrived but I still haven’t woken up from this dream. It is filled with blood-red papaya, ripe mangoes and pineapple, the rhythm of the clave sticks, sudden torrential rain, stories of the Orishas, rooftops under a starlit sky, crashing waves at the Malecón and the most sweltering, humid heat I have ever felt.
A Cuban who has lived here his entire life told me last night that even he doesn’t understand this place. I will consider myself lucky if I come to understand anything at all.