Missing Havana

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Yesterday I was searching for some music to listen to. I was listening to Rodriguez, because I’m slow on the uptake of what’s cool and I’d only just heard the soundtrack to Searching for Sugar Man and loved it. I began poking around in different genres, and I stumbled across Buena Vista Social Club. I threw on their album, and sat still, amazed. Man, those guitars, those soft, complex nylon strings. Those soulful voices, those drums. Chan Chan. I knew that song, or I had once known it, somewhere far away. I’d heard it before, two years ago on the far side of the world. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes and I was there again.

The first night, the one that’s so abrupt and rushed and sparse in my diaries, it’ll only ever be words to you, but even after two hectic years and everything that’s happened, it remains a fire behind my eyes. The airport was run down and dirty, smelled of disinfectant and strange food. It was nearly midnight and there was a storm strafing the island, brilliant white lightning, but no thunder rolled and no rain fell. Baggage claim took an hour, and I sat alone, waiting and sweating in the stifling night time roar of heat.

Out the arrivals doors into a sea of foreign faces, all clad in oversized beige shirts and sandals. Nothing made any sense from the moment I left those doors until the moment I stepped back through them two weeks later. Rumbling across Havana down wet slick motorways that beamed back the moonlight and screamed with lightning. Looming architecture flung past the windows of the taxi

No.

No, this isn’t good enough. It doesn’t do it justice. I’m just describing it to you, and I’m doing a terrible job. I want you to feel it, really feel it, like I did on that strange first night. I’m holding back, because I know that if I let my mind run on I have a tendency to get too flowery and romantic and – what? Why do I censor myself? I’m not saying what I want to say because I’m too busy thinking about you, the reader, and what you might think of me. That’s no good to anyone. You’re not here to be lied to, are you? And I don’t want to lie to you. Let’s try again, and this time, I’ll be honest.

 

im thinking of cuba on this bright cold day in berlin

im thinking of the malecon, and rum, the girls whistling as they passed in gangs,

remembering running from the rain into shelter beneath a crumbling villa porch,

the fear of it all,

i’ll not rose tint it for you, there were times i was miserable and alone and alienated,

scared of the jineteros and the prostitutes, but

the history, the passion and the echoes of violence still felt from half a century ago, god, it captured me completely,

in a world of convenience and non-humans and the politics of fear and secrecy, raw hatred and callous indifference,

in Havana I saw courage,

the freedom to be different, it poured from every open doorway as I passed, just a sun burned half drunk white boy with white hair dressed like a know nothing tourist, craning my neck to see into the people’s lives, these people who stood solitary, suffering undeserving hatred from all the world,

these people were braver than any of us, every single day,

i peered inside their living rooms and kitchens and I saw dancing,

in a crumbling Havana suburb with football in the dust and limping stray dogs, I stood a while and watched a family,

the mother and sister sat on the sofa, clapping and laughing,

the father stood up, walking his son through a new salsa, cheering him on,

Fidel is dead. Che and Cienfuegos long gone. The Granma rests in a museum. Those easy smiles and berets are gone, the barbudos are dead and buried and the ideologies are fading. ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!

bullet holes in the cemetery wall,

all that confusion,

in Trinidad i lay rum drunk something fierce, alone on the cobbles, too timid to join the salsa, too stupid to know better, head lolling, eyes drooping, lying there with the mangy dogs looking up at orange clouds walled in by palms that yawned and stretched over me as they woke in the evening breeze, and the paint stripped belltower and its vultures rising enormous and silent on spiralling heat chimneys high above,

i never once knew what was happening, but the Cubans knew it all, they understood but were afeared to impart their hard won knowledge,

they all know something we don’t, and no foreigner will ever figure it out,

its enough to drive anyone into depression, leaving that place

the place where dancing isn’t reserved for the drunk, for the high, the music is enough, the joy of movement, of limbs and flesh and bone and hot blood coursing through,

they dance because dancing is free,

dancing is not free in berlin,

dancing is not free anywhere in the west, not if you’re sane,

buy drinks and buy tickets, pay for the music, inebriate yourself until you forget you’re afraid,

flies crawl over the banana carts, the donkeys ears twitch and bat them away,

Fidel, the last alive of his old friends, plastered the revolution still remembered on every billboard,

is it propaganda alone, or is it more? the boards and posters and slogans, the lament of a lost youth, distant glory, a dimmed passion, fading victory,

best friends, all gone,

Fidel grown old,

lonely.

the Castro’s are the last, all the chaos of their youth long passed, all the drama and excitement, those impetuous young men and women wading ashore,

all the bold words and the vitality of it all, the four hour speeches, the history will absolve me, the jungle firefights and the long slog for freedom, and that final hour when the tide turned, Batista fell, the barbudos rode into Havana to the ring of a hundred thousand cheers,

and for once, for once, good really did triumph,

it is in this bittersweet memory that Cuba sits enveloped, and this is the life we can all expect when the time comes for us to reflect back on our glory days,

once they’ve passed without us realising,

ill never forget moments when I was young when I would stumble upon my dad on a friday night drinking alone in the kitchen listening to records from his youth, staring into nothing,

id ask him a question and he wouldnt respond, just gone,

i live my life messy and hectic and i hurt people because that look, that empty stare, terrified me as a child,

i saw an unhappy man, and it broke my heart a hundred times, and i have promised myself i will avoid that same fate,

that empty, awful stare,

i think i understand, i think Cuba feels the same, the peeling posters on the walls of Havana are Fidel’s empty stare for what was,

back when it was all life or death, and things made sense.

in Santa Clara i stood at Che’s grave, before Fidel’s was dug,

i saw the uniform, the reading glasses, the mud spattered jackboots and yellowed diaries and guns and medicine boxes of this Argentinian doctor turned Cuban revolutionary,

if you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine, he said,

and ive never heard a sentence i loved more,

there are still places on this planet that haven’t been sold, not yet,

don’t misunderstand me, cuba is not perfect,

there is still progress to be made, so much to be done,

but don’t misunderstand cuba, either,

because i was happy there

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