Text and Photos by Margareta Turos
HAVANA TIMES – It’s morning in Havana. I open my balcony and breathe in the humid, warm air, the salty, caressing breath of the sea, the smell of vegetables, I just breathe in with my eyes closed.
I know I’m in Havana, yet suddenly I’m there on the porch, under the blue sky of my childhood in Rumania, hanging my feet out over an imaginary ocean, and I dream that I will reach somewhere far away, beyond the ocean.
The dictatorship of that time and place just laughs at the thought, but a child’s dreams are stronger than any dictatorship.
Now I open my eyes, and I’m back in Cuba. I look at the washed clothes spread out on the opposite balcony. They reveal who lives in the house. Lace tablecloths washed, bleached, loneliness of old women, maybe they will put them under the TV, bought with money from a granddaughter who lives in Miami. Bought after long hours in line at the dollar store, where tourists can go without waiting in line, because money talks.
Beni More, famous Cuban singer of the 40s and 50s, no longer sings on that TV. I look at his smiling picture on the wall of my room – the Cuba of the fifties in black and white, the scrapped American Cadillacs, the pride of the Capitolio. Then I go out on the balcony again. An old woman is watching TV; her grandson is going to school with a red bandana around his neck, symbol of an ideology.
But that TV is still good, better than looking out at the streets of sadness, at the shadows of decaying houses. There aren’t any avocados, there isn’t any bread, and the children don’t taste milk. A child growing up without milk is just one of many paradoxes. The dollar store or the hard-to-translate MLC only has rum, almost nothing else, like trying to create an alcoholic nation; although, to my surprise, I did find a Frida Kahlo painting and a reproduction of the Miracles of Jesus painting in the almost empty store. The painted image of Jesus was apparently not able to duplicate the miracle of the multiplying loaves, and bread did not appear in the store, despite the long hopeful lines outside.
The problem isn’t the rum, it’s the hunger and the music-less streets, the loneliness of the silent Malecon.
Where are the happy children jumping into the water as they did thirty years ago? Kids leaning their bikes against the rocks by the water, avoiding school, hiding among the stones; kids whose mothers are looking for them with a stick, because there’s no stronger being than the Cuban mother.
Where did that happy Cuba go?
Today, the water police intercepted people fleeing on a speedboat, according to a couple of repatriated women. The passengers were beaten, and a woman who had been hit on the head dropped her two-year-old daughter from her hands. The little one drowned and was swallowed by the huge ocean. Six other people also died.
How can this earth bear so much sadness? I want to tell you, my Cuban friend, that it will get better, but I can’t say anything, because you’ve been hearing this for such a long time. You are strong and desperate. Your eyes sparkle, you are beautiful and you don’t believe you are. You only know that I am the one who can go, and you are the one who stays. Love has faded around you, and Cuba is no longer the Cuba that is on my wall in black and white.
Can we bring our dreams back? Will we have the strength for it? Hold on tight to your child, Mother. When they hit you, don’t let go. And then time will turn back – music will play again on the Malecon, hunger will vanish, happy children will jump into the water, and on Friday night everyone puts out the loudspeakers and dances obliviously, including the policeman who hit that woman trying to escape. In Gato Tuerto, a beautiful Cuban woman sings in the night, accompanied by a double bass player. Comida is prepared in the houses, the grandmother dishes out the food, while her grandson practices a salsa dance, or plays soccer outside in the street. ”Aguacaaateeeees! Mangooooos!” shouts the seller.
It’s November 3, 2022. One and a half stories of a house just collapsed in front of me. I see a rocking chair, a lamp. Five police officers stand looking at the huge debris, no rescuers anywhere. Before long, a bulldozer comes to search the site. The police set up a yellow cordon, people watch the whole thing like it was on TV. I want to tear the cordon and run in there, thrust aside the heavy stones, because maybe there’s a child under that debris, like the five-year-old girl killed a week ago. Debris from a collapsed home also buried Adela Jimenez, 90-years-old, stooped, who went to stand in line for food with her small bag. She fought against Batista when she was young, then she became a nurse and a teacher. She believed in the revolution, she loved Fidel. Her husband died at the age of 43, and she never had children, no faithful son or daughter in Miami to send a package or a dollar. I wonder what her last thought was under the rubble.
It’s morning, give me your hand, my Cuban friend, let me take a little of your sadness!
There is a reception in the seaside restaurant: ministers, leading lawyers, NATO representatives. They are poorly dressed and look tired. They’re not poor, but their faces are expressionless. When they see the immeasurable poverty on the street, or a hungry child playing ball, do they sometimes remember their own childhood, when they too kicked a ball there, maybe with that child’s parents or grandparents? If they are alone for a moment in the shadow of ideologies, do they see in the mirror that child who ran obliviously to the sounds of night music emanating from the houses in the streets and jumped into the water on the Malecon and hid among the rocks?
I walk the streets of Havana, in the middle of the road, because a balcony can come off at any time. Every second house is for sale. They sell it and go on the ten-thousand-dollar journey through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to the States, the land of opportunity. Human smugglers transport them across borders, pass them on to Mexico, where the cartel decides the route. The same cartel that rules in Mexico City. They cross the Rio Bravo – if they have a lot of money, in the better places. They must be very careful, because if they’re deported from the U.S., Mexico has a treaty with Cuba and they’ll be sent back to where the house is sold. They may even receive a prison sentence.
There are other ways besides selling houses to gather the money. Muscular young men attach themselves to richer, older foreign women: dance, sing, do anything, even love if necessary. Just get out of there! The young girls are slim and beautiful, exactly what old, rich American or European male tourists want. They could win an Oscar with their performance: they mime love, affection, devotion, anything. They leave their husbands who do not bring money and look for opportunities. Children have to eat, who can judge them?
A pink Cadillac passes by, with blonde, smiling, young American girls dressed in expensive clothes, shouting into the wind. The black, former ballerina holding her plastic market bag looks at them from the side of the road, on her way to the line where they’re arguing about whose number is the number, who is in front of whom…
Somewhere in the east, the trees are green in the jungle. Wonderful animals live there. Hummingbirds build tiny nests the size of golf ball; iguanas climb the trees. Waterfalls fall deep, and the air is clean and the water is crystal clear. To the south, mangrove forests adorn the landscape.
The water on the shores of Varadero is the most beautiful, and you can eat crawfish for the equivalent of ten dollars, a reasonable sum for tourists, but not for Cubans, where a doctor’s monthly salary is sixty dollars, a teacher’s is twenty-five.
The Hotel Inglaterra shines as splendidly as if nothing had happened since the Tainos. The palm trees turn green just as beautifully, the dome of the Capitolio curves romantically towards the sky, the wonderful unique blue of the sea and the smooth whiteness of the sand have been just as dizzying for centuries. This could be the most beautiful country in the world.
You can’t help but love this island, you can never forget Cuba, once you’ve been there. You’re attracted by the goodness of the people, the so-called Cubanism, the big brown eyes and especially beautiful smiles of the children, the wonderful mixture of music and dance, the kindness of old women when they call you my love, if you ask a stranger where a street is. The taste of a mojito, the colorful cars passing by on the beach, a memory, a feeling, a movement… The white, spotless clothes of the santeras melding African and Christian practices. White and black magic, ancient rituals and unwritten secrets passed from father to son. The secret alliance of the Abakuas, the conversation with the spirits, the incredible dances in Callejon de Hammel, which tells the story of slavery and the intercession of the gods.
This island is a miracle that bleeds from every wound
When I was a little girl and I dangled my legs on the porch and looked at the sky, there was only one hour of TV a day, and it featured Rumania Comrade Ceausescu’s lying speeches. The most important thing in the world to us was the pioneer necktie. There was no bread, milk, flour, only pale, sad faces in the lines, and a strange togetherness. We were cold in winter, we were hungry. There was no hope that there would ever be a better world.
Then we heard about people who went to prison because they dared to speak, about the disappearance of those fleeing across the water, and we were terrified. Until suddenly we were no longer afraid. Our wall also collapsed, but it was no longer the wall of the house, but the wall that separated us from everything and everyone. And we stepped over it.
My dear Cuban friend – you who sing in that kitchen, who save lives all night in a hospital and collapse from fatigue in the morning, who teach all day in a school even though your children are starving at home, you who watch all this in uniform. You know that when that toddler reaches the bottom of the ocean, somewhere a wall collapses. You will all cross it, the suffering will end. It will not make you happy, only free to go find the secret of tains and sibo nights, your lost smiles, and music on the shores of the Malecon, wherever you are.
I’ll be far away, hanging my feet on that porch, but I’ll smile with you.
This is how the ocean meets the child, the past meets the future, hope meets freedom.