Cuba had no cats. Not one! They’d disappeared, eaten by starving Cubans during the worst years (1991–1993) of the “Special Period,” given the draconian conditions imposed when the Cuban economy imploded following the collapse of the Soviet Union, upon which Cuba had entirely depended. It’s hard to imagine that today while walking the cobbled streets of Habana Vieja, with its fecund feral felines.
“The place was laced with intrigue. With sharp edges and tantalizingly sinister shadows. Even being picked up and questioned by secret police I found thrilling.“
Back in the nineties, I sweated along with the Cubans through daily blackouts —apagones— that lasted for hours. No gasoline meant no electricity. No tractors working the fields. No trucks to bring foodstuffs to cities in any event. Malnutrition, unknown since the 1959 Revolution, had reappeared. “¡No hay!” became a restaurant mantra. “There is none!”
Walking Havana’s darkened streets was a surreal, almost sadomasochistic experience. Gaunt jineteros (hustlers) hovered like a plague. “My fren! Cigars? Taxi? Wanna chica?” Every second guy seemed to be pimping his sister or cousin. No shortage of chicas were pimping themselves. “Pssst! Pssst!” Even mature, self-assured professional women (and not in that sense) loitered outside my hotel or provocatively brushed against me on the street in hopes of stirring my fancy. The U.S. dollar, not the CUC, was then the currency of choice. But coition was no less a coin of the realm. This tragic and sordid time was most poignantly captured by Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s lurid scratch-and-sniff autobiographical novel, Dirty Havana Trilogy (2001), heaving with sweaty sex in crumbling lean-tos and walk-up stairwells. Looking back almost 30 years, I can still sense strongly the tawdry demimonde saturating the air like intoxicating aromas of añejo rum. Far, far more than today, although Cuba is nothing if not still sensual and surreal (and, one could argue, still somewhat of a sadomasochistic experience).
Despite the island’s terrible moment-in-time anguish, my love affair with Cuba was instant. Its stage-set exoticism combined with an utterly intoxicating and hypnagogic complexity to invoke an exhilarating, life-changing feeling not unlike the heady dopamine-induced sensations of falling in love. I didn’t want to sleep for fear of missing a vital experience. The place was laced with intrigue. With sharp edges and tantalizingly sinister shadows. Even being picked up and questioned by secret police I found thrilling.
“I’ve never had any patience for visitors who see only this pathos and dishevelment and “poverty” (if you want true poverty, then travel to Jamaica or Haiti, or back in time to pre-revolutionary Cuba).”
I’d come to Cuba as a travel journalist. I was researching and photographing magazine stories, and soon enough my first of what would evolve to be five guidebooks on Cuba. Back then there were very few tourists: Cuba was still two decades away from becoming today’s destination du jour. In 1996, I still had the place to myself as I roamed more than 7,000 miles by motorcycle, touring the isle end to end. I was only 90 miles from the neon-lit malls and McDonalds of Florida, but I’d transported my BMW across an arcane threshold to discover an unexpectedly haunting realm full of eccentricity, eroticism, and enigma.
I’ve tried ever since, in my writing and photographs to show Cuba and the Cubans honestly. Or, at least as I see them. Neither black nor white, but an infinitesimal mosaic of grays full of mysteries and contradictions.
Thankfully, Cuba has changed immeasurably since my first visit. Cell phones…everywhere cell phones. Wifi! And an explosion of cuentapropistas (self-employed), world-class private restaurants, and cutting-edge culture. Economically, it’s night and day, for the better. Yet Cuba has lost none of its irresistible and intangible aura. Walking its streets, I still feel like I’m living inside a Fellini movie or one of Alejo Carpentier’s magical-realist novels. After more than two hundred visits, the place is still under my skin.
Much of Cuba’s unique Delphic allure, of course, is owed to its trapped-in-the-1950s, abandoned movie-set backdrop. The faded fifties Americana and revolutionary murals stained by the grime of centuries soldered into façades by the tropical heat and humidity. The “yank tanks” of yesteryear—Cadillacs, Buicks, and Chevy Impalas with fins sharp enough to draw blood—conjuring a sense of Twilight Zone incongruity that amplifies Cuba’s singular and enchanting mystique. A more captivating setting is hard to conceive…not least because much of Havana is corroded and crumbling. Like the battered American automobiles that rumble down the streets to the beat of reggaeton on the radio, many timeworn edifices are held up by makeshift wooden braces and look ready at any moment to collapse onto the rusting relics of Eisenhower-era ostentation sure to be parked outside.
“…if you can’t locate me at home, you’ll most likely find me in Cuba.”
I’ve never had any patience for visitors who see only this pathos and dishevelment and “poverty” (if you want true poverty, then travel to Jamaica or Haiti, or back in time to pre-revolutionary Cuba). Cuba is inordinately rich in spirit. A joyfulness combined with an uplifting community spirit born of Cubans’ capacity for endurance and their appreciation for the simple, and sensual, pleasures of life. Rich, above all, in the spirit of sharing. Uncommonly generous to a fault, their unself-conscious, non-judgmental treatment of others is personified by the gracious welcome they give all human beings.
“Why does your government not like us? They are too hard on us Cubans!” an elderly lady once scolded me before kissing my cheek and thrusting a bag of ripe tomatoes into my hand. It’s the same all over the island. Cubans —yes, even loyal Communists— you’ve met only moments before embrace you, call you amigo, and invite you into their homes. Rum and beer are passed around. The music is fired up until hot enough to cook the pork and you find yourself irresistibly dancing. It’s hard to believe that the U.S. government’s Trading with the Enemy Act is directed at these affable and vivacious people. A dignified, proud and passionate people, rejoicing despite hardship and struggle, wringing pleasure out of their paucity.
Streets pulsate with spontaneous evocations of sizzling salsa. They resound with the clack of dominoes and the laughter of joyful school kids playing stickball, or leaping among the waves splashing over the seafront Malecón boulevard as quinceañeras in sweetheart ball gowns sweep past in 1950s convertibles like Cinderella on her way to the ball. It’s hard to resist this tender side of such a hauntingly idiosyncratic and beautiful island. Anyone who has experienced this first hand will understand why, to echo Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, if you can’t locate me at home, you’ll most likely find me in Cuba.