What Can I Tell You That You Don’t Already Know?

All photos by Nestor Nuñez

Text & Photos by Nestor Nuñez (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – An idea just struck me: I’m going to tell you about the most important things that have happened to me today. Picture me: sitting here on the sofa, sweating in the darkness, because after five hours without electricity, the rechargeable lamp has lost its charge. When I take a drag on my cigarette, a terrible taste fills my mouth. I had to ignite the lighter to see what the heck I was smoking. Nothing terrible – it turned out that I had lit the wrong end. I burst out laughing all by myself, thinking that’s how everything is here – backwards. That the situation is unsmokeable. In one fell swoop, I tossed out the cigarettes and brushed my teeth, although a persistent taste of cockroaches still persists in my throat.

Apart from that, nothing is new. I imagine you know all about the blackouts. I know you don’t have time for Facebook, but almost surely someone already told you about them on WhatsApp. They’re just the same as those you went through when you were here. Or maybe not. Do you remember that time that someone dared to bang their pots, and another turned up the volume and blasted that song: “I feel a drumbeat – baby are you calling me”?… Do you remember that hopeful sense of expectation, as we waited for other pots to sound in the neighborhood? Well, not even this is happening anymore.

Even the illusion of protest no longer exists. That illusion melted with the May heat, not to mention the years in prison under the tremendous sentences meted out to [the protestors] of July 11, 2021, and to those who livestreamed the demonstrations in Nuevitas. They have all of us ever more careful and afraid. What people want is for their parole to arrive [humanitarian parole allowing them to emigrate to the US] and not to get into trouble meanwhile. Other people want only to live a decent and upright life, whatever that means for each one. But that’s not what we have, I assure you. Anyhow, you already experienced all this. It’s just more of the same.

Sorry – I didn’t mean to bother you with this type of thing. Between learning the language, holding down two jobs to pay the rent and the bills, plus trying to enjoy and find sense in being all alone in that country – how do you see what’s happening over on this side? Is it better for you to forget about everything, or does that sensation of pain never go away? More than pain – is it rage you feel? Pity for this beautiful island? Nostalgia?

Forgive me, you don’t have to answer me. It’s that I can’t stop asking questions. I have so many questions in my head, and almost no answers. It’s like living in limbo, in the clouds, with no certainties. The firmest conviction that I have right now is that things here aren’t moving forward, much less towards somewhere good. Anyway, I’m going to change the subject, because I feel a kind of shame at complaining without doing anything to change things.

Let’s see – what else can I tell you? Ah, last week I spent five days in Havana, for a job I got over there. I stayed in El Vedado, in that little room of those old friends, on that mattress on the floor – you know. They’re still cooking the best food. It’s their moment of love, of surrender, of absolute pleasure. It’s not just “fill your stomach and done”. Even looking at the empty plates is a tremendous joy. That’s how every day is for them, whether they have visitors or not. I admire them for that.

One of those nights, we hit the vodka bottle, sitting on a bench on G street, and talking about nothing. Literally, hahaha. Instead of a minute of silence, we spent two hours that way, each of us sunk in their own thoughts. I was thinking about a kid who came up to me in front of one of those new, super expensive ice cream parlors, but not to ask me for money as I thought, but to sell me some Yugioh cards. Seventy pesos a card, I think, or six hundred the pack. I told him to find me one that would bring me luck, and he gave me this one that says “Frightful bear”. I haven’t the faintest idea what spell or magic it invokes, but I have it here in my wallet like a talisman, next to that two-dollar bill – remember?  The vodka turned my mind to thinking about when we kids played with those cards. What year was that? 2009? I thought how now one of them lives in Seattle and is a programmer for Google, and the other is traveling from Miami to Colombia, and in a few months will be a father. I thought about the pride I feel for what they’ve accomplished, the conversations and advice I’d give them, the desire I have to be there to see my granddaughter grow, the stab of fear I get when I think about leaving behind our other daughter who’s also growing up and is in love in a way that’s very mature for her age.

Vodka lends itself to talking about baseball or the war in Ukraine, but not to spontaneously letting loose with your emotions. Had I started talking while we lowered the level of liquid in the bottle, I swear I would have started babbling about early childhood in general, the future that awaits the little kids in this country, about how the schools are. I think it was for similar reasons that we were silent for such a long time. So as not to complain, not to start feeling sorry for ourselves, not talking about how it’s going for all of you, the ones who left, because it’s one thing what you tell us in passing there, and something else what you’re really feeling.

Let’s see – some other new things, or something important about those days in Havana… Ah, I went by the Curita Park and Old Havana. I’ll send you the pictures.  Look at what these people are selling. Or what they’re trying to sell – whatever item they find, who knows where.

For a while now, I’ve noticed that there’s something a little wrong with me. For the work I did, some promotional videos for private businesses, they paid me 300 dollars. Of course, I was super happy about that. However – without any vodka as mediator – simply mentioning that amount makes me feel bad. At the current exchange rate, that’s over 115 thousand pesos – the salary that a regular worker earns in two or three years. How can I explain it to you? It’s like there’s a weight on my conscience because I have money, while so many other people are going without so many, many necessities. Clearly, there are others who are legally – or mostly legally, I suppose – earning thousands of dollars. I don’t have any problem with them, it seems normal to me, I’m happy that they’re progressing. However, when it’s a matter of me being the one to earn money – I don’t know. I imagine that the false notions of egalitarianism with which we grew up sank deeply into me, or maybe I didn’t assimilate very well that part about “to each according to their abilities.”

It’s true what they tell me: I’ve invested a lot of time learning a whole bunch of things. I’ve developed skills, and let’s say that in addition, I have a certain talent for some things, and the sum total of all that translates into opportunities that others don’t have. But even with all that, it’s hard for me to accept the abysmal differences that exist in our society. When we were growing up, they told us that was a typical feature of capitalism, but now we’ve come to view it as normal. I tell you, I wasn’t prepared to see it here, and I think that sensation won’t change while I live in this country.

Sometimes, I help someone who asks me for money. At the same time, I’ve learned to distinguish between who I give to and who I don’t. The elderly, absolutely. But the other day a guy of fifty-some years came up to me, and I turned him down with a resounding “I don’t have any money.” He was strong. If he doesn’t know how to do anything else, he can go collect cans to sell. They pay 80 pesos a kilo. I think I may already have told you that. There’s a teenager with Down Syndrome who asks for money outside the bars, and that’s given me more cause to doubt. I’ve seen nights when he leaves with a couple thousand pesos. I know another girl with the same condition, who knits items and sells them to artisans, who in turn sell them to tourists in Varadero. These are different attitudes and different families, and it’s all very complicated.

Similarly, I feel that distributing my money to specific individuals isn’t the best way I can help. The other day, I encountered a Brazilian photographer on Facebook, Brian Baldrati, who takes photos of unknown people on the street. But before doing so, he asks them to tell him their story. These are regular people, workers, humble people. The life stories I saw are super harsh, or beautiful – they hit my soul. That’s something I definitely want to do. Not to gain more followers or “likes”, but to tell, to document the stories of everyday Cubans in their own voice, something that’s being done very little. I need to buy a GoPro and a better microphone than the one I have. To see if this can go beyond just an idea, a plan in my head, the same as has happened with going to the gym, having a dentist check my teeth, and a whole mountain of similar things I’ve noted on some ten Post-its and in my telephone planner.

Not to make excuses, but here everything goes so slowly, there are so few changes, that you feel you have all the time in the world, that there’s no need at all to hurry for anything. So what you do is put everything off for later. Sure, because there’s very little stimulation. Most things get done, like, for love of art, or because you don’t have a choice anymore. You know – you lived this. In this chess game that’s been our lot, you can’t even think ahead more than two moves. You have to wait for them to turn the electricity back on, in order to cook, or wash, or be able to sleep. To wait without many hopes, I tell you. Wait for the bus, wait for an amnesty, wait for the first May rains to fall so the mangos will ripen, even though we’re never going to get to pick the low-hanging ones, not even while they’re green.

I’m going to change the tone of this, because things are bad here, but people find a way to keep going, and even to smile at times. Not too long ago, I saw a man sitting in the doorway of his house, cleaning the debris off the dried peas. In Havana, in the Cerro district, I saw some kids bathing in a big pothole in the middle of the street, that had filled with water from the leaks in the pipes. Here, in Matanzas, they continue jumping off the bridge into the river, even though it’s forbidden. It’s those little things that cheer you up: those who train their dogs for the canine competitions Sunday after Sunday; a girl who rescued a dehydrated cat behind the Capital building and took it home to take care of it; a little girl helping an old lady across the street. Personally, I bought a packet of La Llave brand coffee; I threw out the flip-flops I’d sewed together three times, so that I’d be forced to look for new ones; and today I smoked six cigarettes less, which doesn’t make me a better person, but, yes, healthier.

The young people from across the street are having a party. They’re playing dominoes, and sweating I imagine, because the electricity still hasn’t come on. Happily for the neighbors, and unfortunately for them, the batteries on their loudspeakers have died, putting an end to the Reggaeton music. In the middle of all this lethargy and somnolence, it’s admirable that someone would hold a party. Of course, they’re young and a relative has come to visit from abroad. You can’t blame them.

So, when do you think you might come for a visit. Do you want to? Would you want to risk it?

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

2 thoughts on “What Can I Tell You That You Don’t Already Know?

  • Heartbreaking pictures

  • Keep writing! Not only interesting but useful and very very valuable to document this time in history.

    ¡Seguir escribiendo! No sólo interesante sino también útil y muy, muy valioso para documentar este momento de la historia.

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