I Wish I Were…
Tuesday night, we walked over to the Village Vanguard to listen to a new Cuban drummer. His name is Francisco Mela. What bliss! A kid, a thirty-year-old kid with cocoa colored skin, green eyes, and oh! the smile. When he plays with his sticks or sings son, those old Cuban love ballads, you sit back, sigh, and wish to God you were there. There where this stupendously sad but sensuous and joyous sound that is Cuba was born.
I was alone the first time I went to Cuba. An Italian friend had fallen desperately in love with a young girl and I flew down for the wedding. The second time, I went with my husband. Even the flight into Havana on Air Cuba was surreal, otherworldly. It’s not just that you’re onboard a Russian built, Ilyushin, a sliver of silver thinner than any American airliner. It’s the fog. The air-conditioning system is so antiquated, it shoots these wreaths of ghost-like mist into the cabin. You feel as if you’re flying inside a cloud.
Oddly enough, it’s the total absence of sound that startles you once you’ve arrived. All the noises one associates with big cities….Gone. No ambulance, no police, or fire sirens. No blaring of horns or revving of car engines. And the beauty. The unearthly beauty. All somehow, enhanced, made even more palpable, because, like Venice, one senses the very real possibility that it all might simply slip into the sea and disappear. Vanish.
Gone the wave washed, gently eroded Malecon, the boulevard that stretches along the sea where you can still dangle your feet in plunge pools carved from coral. (The pools were created to protect aristocratic Creole ladies, las Criollas, from sharks and the curious eyes of passersby. )Gone, too, the crumbling ruins of pastel-painted Baroque Spanish palaces and churches and the sprawling, ornately decorated but decrepit Art Deco mansions in Miramar that once belonged to the island’s sugar and coffee barons. Gone, perhaps, even the 19th century Opera House with its flocks of birds nesting in the cupola and its 30ft. teak bar where men, and only men, came to smoke cigars and sip neat, dark Bacardi rum. The civic landmark, Il Capitolio, still stands. An eerie replica of the U.S. Capital building, it’s deserted now, a symbol of the island’s shaky, short-lived dreams of democracy.
There are so many haunting reminders here of those who have come and gone. Of so many immense fortunes won and lost and promises made and brutally broken. The Spanish, the British, the French, the Americans, the Russians. What remains of their presence is a combination of the quaint and the corrupt: the flickering, sherbet-colored neon signs at the old Mob run hotels and casinos like the Sans Souci, the Deauville, the Tropicana. The bat that still flies on the spire of the Bacardi headquarters downtown, the flaky gold letters of an RCA logo. Especially the faded slogans on Soviet billboards: Revolucion de la Verdad, Para La Gloria de la Patria, and the larger-than-life red neon lit head of Che, gazing out at an empty Plaza de la Revolucion.
Maybe this is part of Cuba’s allure for tourists. This head-on collision with history. This proximity to the past. For those of us who embrace the future so frantically but who hunger for a glimpse of something that remains untouched, Cuba is intoxicating. Because it is both falling apart and intact. It is also faraway. When you live everyday in a wired world, a world so incestuously small and tightly knit, you forget what it feels like it to be this impossibly faraway. This remote…
More tomorrow. fuck!