I miss the language—the words, The speed of the conversation. I miss Cubans asking me where I’m from, and knowing that—maybe I can’t pass, but at least I don’t scream American. I miss the heavy weight of the air.
Havana is really dirty. It’s a hot mess. The streets are trashed. There are huge holes in the street. There are skinny dogs everywhere, and crumbling ruins of buildings where laundry hangs on the third floor balcony...But it’s also gloriously terrible.
I spent two days visiting family and ten days bringing aid in the form of money and supplies to a number of social service programs across the island. Programs like: individuals who started feeding seniors in their neighborhoods, and now make lunches for 50 people every day. Or like afterschool drama programs for at-risk kids. Or kids with Downs. Or courses in computer science or English, or business, or hair dressing or training barbers.
I visited a site where people were living huts made of straw with dirt floors. Emaciated dogs lie on the ground. They are building new homes, made of bricks. First they make the bricks. Then they build the houses. Spacious. Airy. Tin roofs. Kitchens and composting toilets. There are outlets for power if the power lines get run out that far. They’ll be ready.
My last day in Cuba, I spent the morning with my mother's cousin. She was part of the revolution. She told me that she and her group made molotov cocktails in my grandfathers factory. She dedicated her life to the revolution, and she still has no doubts. She lives on the 7th floor of a concrete Soviet style bunker type apartment building where she only has running water every other day. There is no electricity in the stairwell, and to climb the stairs, even in the middle of the day, it almost requires a flashlight. She is 75 years old. There may be many reasons that you might consider her fortunate and well-cared for. I was heart sick. I brought her family aspirin and vitamin C for the grandchildren. In Cuba, kids don’t get enough vitamin C.
The ancient cars that are there are beautiful. They run. They are fun to ride in. But they exist because that’s what was left behind. People keep them running because they have to. The catalogue shoots and architecture coffee table books that we have all seen, that we all love to page through—the photos of ruined crumbling buildings and gorgeous light—the broken facades—that’s not a few buildings. That’s every building. Every building. Every building. In a book, it’s comprehensible. You might even call it art. In person, its overwhelming. It’s a tidal wave of loss. My last day in Cuba, after having visited my cousin, and having walked through the ruin of Old Havana, I was seized with such a rage that I couldn’t control it. I decided that I wasn’t going to spend another dime on the island. No souvenirs. No postcards. No Che memorabilia (Che Guevara, who sat in his office and signed the death warrants of thousands of men in the Morro Prison just across the harbor.) I left Cuba in a hot rage, determined to never return.
I’m dying to go back.
I’m happy that you will get to visit Cuba if you want. But I don’t want to hear about the resort you stayed in. Please do me a favor, and do your research before you go. Bring boxes of granola bars to donate to a local school. Bring an extra suitcase full of soap and vitamins and adult diapers. And you know what? I’ll bring a box to my local homeless shelter. Because I know people are struggling everywhere.