HAVANA TIMES — “Folks, get a nose-full o’ this!” my friend Nene said, prompting the passengers that thronged at the front of the bus to laugh and nod their heads in agreement, while the group of Russians who had gotten on at the previous stop continued to talk with the driver and ask him something to do with the address they were heading to.
I didn’t know where the strong odor that had made my friend “holler” like that was coming from, because I was further inside the bus, near the center, sandwiched by the rest of the passengers in that rolling sausage used to transport Cuba’s working people.
I did find out, however, when those foreign technicians who had arrived from the “Red Motherland” to altruistically offer their services and solidary aid to the undisciplined Cuban people managed to shove their way near me.
Good heavens! That wasn’t merely a mix of armpit odor and the smell of garlic, onions, feet, socks and other pieces of underwear. It was a phenomenon of a different order: it had volume. Even though it wasn’t visible to the naked eye, one could sense that the odor gave the air a certain thickness and consistency. It was the highest expression of all things emetic and repugnant, it was a veritable human stink-bomb, a sudden revelation of how the Russians had defeated Napoleon and the Soviets crushed the German army. “Good heavens!,” I repeated.
I recall people in Havana tended to make jokes when in crowds (privately, Cubans are far more melancholic than people believe). Wittiness, hearty laughter, hyperbolic gestures reminiscent of people from Andalucia, the Canary Islands, Calabria or Naples were their most notable of social traits and, whenever anyone with any peculiar characteristic boarded a bus, there was almost always a joker who took the initiative and said something out loud meant as a funny remark or joke.
When a passenger deflates slightly, owing to an accidental emission of intestinal gas, everyone makes comments and these almost always allow the crowd to get through the fetid circumstances with roars of laughter. None of that, however, was even possible in the face of this significant group of Russians, who bombarded our means of collective transportation with fetid projectiles. We, who were already deserving of an award for the stoic endurance we showed before the daily ridicule and martyrdom we faced, did not find Nene’s comment very humorous. Perhaps, if we made a sincere effort to hold our breaths, we stood a chance of getting out of there without a deadly case of intoxication.
Despite all this, managing to find, board and take over another bus seemed so improbable that most passengers – not without silently weighing their options – ultimately decided to remain on the bus, harboring a faint hope that the God of the Urals would lend a hand, inviting his creatures to get off at any of the stops ahead.
We will forever be grateful to the Slavic deities that heard our prayers and made the driver tell the pungent innocents they had arrived at their destination two bus-stops later.
When we got off at the stop in Alamar, my friend Nene blurted out:
“Brother, next to those Russkies, you’re a bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo, a flask of perfume, a blooming orange tree!”
I must confess I was made a little uncomfortable by this precise and categorical portrayal of the delightful fragrance that my aversion to showering and predilection for bottled essences gave me.
At the time, I used to think that, forgetting about all things having to do with bravery, the inclination to work hard, the love of sacrifice and that dreadful and sudden interest in communist aesthetics, one of the few things I did share with my uncle Ernesto Che Guevara was that unscrupulous skirting of the day’s hygienic and sanitary sessions involving soap and water, in addition, of course, to my enjoyment of poetry and all things genuine.
It is perhaps because of this, more than anything, that the recent news that two original, bottled fragrances – one named Ernesto, after Che Guevara, the other Hugo, after Chavez – produced by a Cuban State company and of course aimed at the hard-currency market, had swelled the torrent of current, senseless attempts at flirting with the forbidden fruit of the market that Cuba is experiencing, enjoying or suffering, prompted such an instinctively negative reaction in me.
The Che Perfume
Was there anything as powerful as that outlandish invitation to be like Che Guevara, which we blurted out at Cuban primary schools every morning after we had saluted the flag?
For me, that chant, “pioneers of communism, we will be like Che!”, far from inviting children to become disciplined, obedient and decent individuals who would tell on their classmates – or lovers of soap, for that matter – actually incited primary schoolers to become the opposite. To be like Che was to be rebellious, disobedient, critical of power, original, free-thinking, independent – and, in issues of personal cleanliness, of course not at all fond of visiting the shower.
This got to me more than the fact that, every day, without asking for any apologies, without stepping down in acknowledgment of their blatant failures and the penuries they have subjected people to, they should come up with new clever ideas to concoct this brew, this terribly unjust cocktail that combines the worst of socialism and the worst of capitalism – that the same leadership, the same people, who for years had crushed with an iron fist any ideological deviation from the blinkered dogmatic principles imported from the cold and distant Russia of the forbidden armpits, that it should be them who today seek to market revolutionary imagery and fetishes.
It irritated me even more than the affront on good sense involved in comparing, in placing at the same level, on the same ideological line, the life, the class, the aims, the objectives and the way of operating of two people as distant from one another as Ernesto Guevara and Hugo Chavez. One is the most scathing and least populist and demagogical person of his times, the other could not be more superficial and devoid of content, of philosophical footing and foundation.
One was an intellectual and a man of action, the other a trickster of modern times, far more similar, in that sense, to Fidel – a witty man who loved exposure, who took the personality cult to its extremes, a man who came from the ranks of the army, who made a career out of obedience and obsequiousness, who shirked debate and discussion, a man who, paradoxically and unlike Ernesto Guevara, would later make good use of the voting boxes to secure power and, more than likely, as one would expect from the native of a warm country, a man who cleaned and washed himself, soaped up, ironed his clothes, combed his hair, a man as insipid and impersonal as any skin that has recently been deprived of its genuine pH with the scrub of a sponge.
The news irked me less than the abysmal differences between those renowned Latin Americans and the barefaced Cuban leadership, that has adapted to a form of dictatorial society a la China, where a handful of economic concessions are made while remaining completely intransigent when it comes to political power. What bothered me more than any of that was the fact that a daring and soulless official in some ministerial department had snatched from me one of the indisputable similarities that linked me to my uncle. I would have felt less offended if the ad for the cologne had read “if you’re like Che Guevara, neutralize the stench of your communist sweat with this cologne of great revolutionary tradition,” instead of baptizing the said essence with the name of “Ernesto”, in remembrance of the “good smell” that the renowned revolutionary must have had after traversing fields, jungles and government ministries.
However, I said to myself, there isn’t much cause for concern. One of the surprises that the passage of time has dealt me is the fact I have become a man fond of these eccentric and periodical soap-and-water sessions, though I must also admit that, when it comes to fragrances, I continue to prefer, as always, a French perfume.