BENNINGTON WRITERS – Cuba Writers Program
Monday, August 22nd – 6pm
Please join tonight’s readers, Alden Jones, Dona Bolding, Katrina Woznicki, Beatrice Hill, John Hill, and V. Hansmann.
BENNINGTON WRITERS – Cuba Writers Program
Monday, August 22nd – 6pm
Please join tonight’s readers, Alden Jones, Dona Bolding, Katrina Woznicki, Beatrice Hill, John Hill, and V. Hansmann.
Coffee has been promised in the lobby of the Ambos Mundos starting at 6:30. Bus 3794 will depart an hour later. We are taking our leave. My experience has been so eye-popping and jaw-dropping that the writing workshop seems almost beside the point. Two women, who have been relentlessly voluble throughout the trip, will not shut the fuck up. They talk across the aisle of the bus and I can barely resist the impulse to knock their heads together. I move further back where the chatter is more diffuse. It is time for me to go.
Then, airborne. Then, home.
Once more onto the bus, dear writers. I’ve stuffed my rolly suitcase with my remaining clean clothes and my keepsakes, sequestering all rank fabric in a makeshift laundry bag. We’re going to spend the morning in Cienfuegos. Our first stop is the Benny Moré School of Music and Art, an academy for kids age seven to fifteen. In addition to the usual subjects, they can concentrate on vocal or instrumental music, dance, or painting. The head of school ushers us into a large plain room for a recital, introducing disarming musicians, a clarinetist, a guitarist, a singer, and a violin player. They’re young, poised, and very accomplished, dressed in khaki pants or skirts and a white shirt. Evidently, the audition process adheres to the old Soviet model, where each child is assigned an instrument according to their physical characteristics. Graduates of Benny Moré fill many positions in Cuba’s music establishment.
Our final stop will be the most memorable of the trip, Tim promises. Cienfuegos supports an arts center in a fine, restored 19th century building. In the courtyard, a crafts fair bustles colorfully. We climb a beautiful divided staircase to the second floor, where freestanding mahogany spiral stairs continue to the third floor. We have gathered for a performance by Cantores de Cienfuegos, the Cienfuegos Singers, a sixteen-member a cappella chorus led by an engaging woman, Honey Moreira. She also transcribes all the music. I stand behind the back row so I can hear and see better. With power and sweetness, they raise the roof. A pair of American spirituals bracket a half dozen Latin American songs and madrigals. Their new tenor has a remarkable voice with a distinctive Cuban swing. The harmonies they bring to Down to the River to Pray make those remaining hairs on the back of my neck stand up. For an encore, the group gets us on our feet for a crypto-Macarena. I’m game, but, oh, I fail at this. My hands are on my head when they should be on my hips. I buy the CD.
Soon enough, we’re trundling our luggage through Plaza de Armas to Ambos Mundos. This time, I get a room on the third floor. I can’t wait to shower. We have our farewell dinner at San Cristobal, one of Havana’s best restaurants. It is pre-Revolutionary, with memorabilia and knickknacks covering every inch of wall space. Curiously, clocks play a prominent role in the décor. The Emerson girls are seated at the round table in the room where the Obama family ate. This small room features photographic evidence of Beyoncé, as well. Then late in the meal, a party with Sigourney Weaver in tow takes a table near us. I’m feeling the capitalist hegemony. At the end of the meal, our cute waiter pours shots for the table from a bottle of 151 proof rum called Edmundo Dantes. It is a beverage that plots revenge.
How hot is it? It is fucking hot, it is. Too hot to use an active verb. Though it has been exceedingly warm since we arrived, this is our first exposure to ‘beastly’. We’ve got a field trip planned to the city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back on the bus, writers: hats and sunblock all around.
Tim leads us to a shady courtyard where we listen to Nancy Benitez, the former head of Trinidad’s department of historic preservation, describe the vicissitudes of funding a restoration project of this magnitude in a country this complex. The city was a third municipality established by the Spanish in the 16th century and long thrived as a center of the sugar industry. Numerous factors led to its decline and, by the 19th century, its complete isolation from the rest of the island. As a result, Trinidad contains one of the largest repositories of vernacular earthen Caribbean architecture in the world. This brings busloads of tourists, whose impact is a mixed blessing.
From there, we skitter through the scorching streets to a Santeria holy place, Templo Yemalla. The antechamber has cool whitewashed walls with blue lines and symbols. It is empty, except in the middle of the room sits a black doll in christening robes on a small chair. This is perplexing, spooky, and off-putting. Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religion that seems to nestle within Catholicism. Yoruba deities were carried by slaves from what is now Nigeria and given the trappings of Catholic saints, allowing their beliefs to hide in plain sight. The rituals and practices of Santeria align with the forces of nature. Five primary gods correspond to the natural elements.
Yemalla is the Great Mother. Yemalla shares many of the attributes of the Virgin Mary, however, she has power over the moon, the oceans, and fertility. In the corner of the next room, a shrine to Yemalla rises almost to the ceiling. A figure of a black woman wears flowing blue robes that drift down to the floor. Her symbols lay at her feet: an anchor, the phases of the moon, flowers, and water in crystal goblets. And in her hands, a white baby. Tim has arranged for the Templo’s santero to explain the precepts of Santeria. The two of them perform a captivating duet in Spanish and English, Cubano y Norte Americano. Any misgivings I might have had are laid to rest, yet despite the santero’s protestations, I know chicken sacrifice continues to play a significant role in Santeria.
Before lunch, there’s free time to wander the burning streets. I poke my head into a couple souvenir shops that all carry the same crap. Tourist tchotchkes never vary. I hear music. Around a corner, I spy Alden sitting under a tree next to a trio of heartbreakingly melodious musicians – guitar, maracas, strange sit-on bass – playing Yolanda. I buy the CD. This is where I confess to loathing Guantanamera. Cubans believe tourists never tire of it. Often, in restaurants, the house band will play this song in heavy rotation with itself. I am tempted to request Edelweiss or In the Year 2525.
Tim lures us, sweaty and cross-eyed, to yet another locale in Trinidad, a B&B whose owner has an interesting story. No one gives a shit. The one thing I remember is that he had two horses, one he kept as a house pet. I submit to bobble-headedness, while Dona dials it way way back from behind her Capitol One shades.
From there, we wobble to 3794. Airconditioning! Before we return to Rancho Luna, it is ordained we stop at a ruined sugar plantation. Dedicated Cubans from Cienfuegos are trying to restore the plantation to tell the story of sugar on the island. It was owned by a family of Bostonians, bulwarks of the Cuban-American sugar trade for seventy years. Sugarcane and its refining was the source of Cuba’s fantastic wealth for centuries until the Revolution brought the industry down. This plantation seems romantic and bygone even though it is a mere shell. Tim buys us all chocolate ice cream, which we squeeze and slurp and dribble spoonlessly from plastic cups while cooing with contentment. Intimations of refreshment.
We flee Rancho Luna’s restaurant yet again and, on our way to Cienfuegos, Bus 3794 stops to pick up a guy who’s organized what amounts to a local Little League. As we bounce along, he describes the state of the game in Cuba, baseball in Cienfuegos (its team is called the Elephants), and his own career. He’s got some hats and shirts from Cuban teams to sell and some of us, as instructed, have brought along batting mitts to help alleviate the grievous equipment shortage.
Our second-to-last meal is a pig roast and our destination, Palacio de Valle, is Moorish Castle cum restaurant that is as fabulous as anything Scheherazade might conjure up. A sugar potentate had built this for his wife. Its grounds are much compromised by a parking lot and a blocky hotel, but the mansion harkens back to a time of great extravagance. In the shaded patio, a pig turns on a spit. Roast pork, cracklins, and conversation – delicious.
We’ve spent a week with writing on the page, so, with Alden’s encouragement, we meet in a gazebo on the beach to give our short pieces a voice in the moonlight. This gathering is a perfect culmination to the workshop. I read my page-long description of the Lady Yeti’s performance at the Slipper Room. Buenas Noches, mis amigos.
We leave Havana like we’ve been shot from a cannon. It’s not dawn, but it sure feels like it. Our destination is Cienfuegos, 145 miles southeast on the Caribbean Sea. We motor along a divided four-lane highway with no traffic, none. At the midpoint, Rogelio pulls over at a fruit stand where all kinds of exotic fruit is available for sampling. I abstain, due to fear of stickiness and fruit in general.
Cienfuegos had been a center of sugar industry wealth in the 19th century and has the beautiful architecture to prove it. A collection of wonderful buildings rings the central square; the grand arcade that runs the length of the park opposite the domed municipal building, the church with its four-story bell tower, and Teatro Tomas Terry, an imposing provincial theater. Tim brings us to an artist’s studio, but I break away to explore the teatro.
It costs 2 CUC* to enter and look around. I pay at the almost invisible box office window. In the lobby, there’s a marble statue of Tomas and he is flanked by marble staircases that lead to arches closed off by a cascade of red velvet drapery. One that’s drawn aside a bit invites me in. The stage is lit. A dozen or more empty chairs form a semicircle. Two young women warm up, one on violin and the other on string bass.
As my eyes become accustomed to the modulated gloom, the teatro reveals itself . The scallop-shaped orchestra embraces curved rows of wooden seats. Four tiers ascend to the painted ceiling supported by slender metal columns. The louvered doors encircle the orchestra and the first tier boxes and admit slats of light. The textured glow and the metal filigree give the room the air of an enormous birdcage. A date, embossed in the proscenium, reads 1889. I hurry out to tell the other writers of this splendid room. When I return, the chairs on stage have been filled. A string orchestra of sixteen women tunes up.
Our bed for the next two nights is Rancho Luna (subtitled Hola Club), a sprawling seaside resort built and run by the state. At check-in, they adorn your wrist with a pink plastic wristband that entitles you to free beverages and food. The common areas loll under a vast shed open to the elements, giving the illusion of breezy coolness. False. It’s way fucking hot. Still, the blue Caribbean lies just steps away.
On the bus ride to our lodgings, Tim taps me on the shoulder, asking if I’d like to attend the concert at the Teatro Terry tonight. Oh, ya. It begins at five o’clock, so we’ll have just enough time to clean up and catch a cab into Cienfuegos.
Tickets are 10 CUC. Moments later, the lights dim and the women file in, followed by the diminutive conductor, Zenaida Romeu. Founded in Cuba twenty-two years ago as Latin America’s first all-female string orchestra, the Camerata Romeu fills the hall with sweet music. The program features seven or eight short pieces by composers from Americas North and South. Tim and I have seats in the front row, grand tier. From our vantage, we can see the entire audience fanning itself. The birdcage is full of butterflies. Afterwards, we stroll through Cienfuegos to tonight’s restaurant. Tim’s arranged for us to dine away from Rancho Luna, which has a heinous kitchen.
Returning from our evening meal, Rogelio stops the bus, steps out to pick a migratory crab off the road. He holds it by its pincers to show us. Apparently, the season approaches when thousands of crabs leave the sea, scuttling overland to spawn or die or buy souvenirs or something. This fellow is in the vanguard. Katrina requires a picture of this hapless crustacean so I wield her phone with equal pathos.
*The CUC (pronounced KOOK) is the second tier Cuban currency that has parity with the US dollar used primarily in the tourist economy, while the Cuban peso/dollar exchange rate is 26:1. Cubans pay 10 pesos for the concert; we pay 10 dollars.
After breakfast, I return to my room to attempt to look, or at least smell, my best. We are going to join a March Against Homophobia on the Malecon. I put on my mighty fine ‘TRANSGENRE’ t-shirt, pink letters emblazoned on black, the shirt our Bennington class had printed in the summer of 2011. I’m ready to sort of rock this. Over a thousand gay Cubans, some very colorful, prance in the growing heat or gather in the spotty shade. For instance, a man in a gold loincloth, a witch on a motorcycle, a towering woman made even taller by her unwieldy headdress. And many shiny, exquisite, young men. A reporter and cameraman from CCN point their tools at me and ask questions only because Tracy has pushed me into their field of vision. I fumble for platitudes, yet never manage to state that I, too, am a homosexual. The march will start when Mariela Castro, Raul’s daughter, arrives to lead the procession. This could conceivably be never.
In any event, we need to rendezvous in the Hotel Nationale by 11:30. This pile was built in the ‘30s, and until the Revolution, reigned as Havana’s grande hotel. Its stature as such remains intact, even after many years on hiatus. Our group finds shelter in deep chairs on the deep veranda. This is where I misplace my Weta hat, my precious New Zealand souvenir.
Thalia herds us to Bus 3794. Our destination is Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia, some miles to the south. No bus ride would be complete without lunch. We stop at La Terraza, in Cojimar, where Hemingway moored his boat, Pilar, and where he was, and still is, a folk hero to the local fishermen. We eat on the terrace, a choice of fish or fish. Hemingway’s great affection for Cuba is reciprocated. Everywhere he touched a shrine of some kind has been established.
Entering and leaving Cojimar, we pass an enormous, pink, derelict hotel, probably built a hundred years ago when sport fishing was becoming a lucrative business, back when men were men and marlin were marlin. It has elegant bones, definitely haunted.
We arrive at Finca Vigia, a modest villa on a hill. Visitors are kept outside the building because of the volume of traffic, yet this doesn’t matter in the least. All the windows are open and the house is a single story and small enough to allow light and air to pass through freely, so one gets a disconnected, yet intimate, feeling looking from the outside in. Books everywhere. Animal trophies everywhere. There’s a water buffalo or some such giant shaggy beast staring down at the master bed. Two notable elements in the bathroom – a three-shelf bookcase of bathroom reading and many wobbly columns of numbers scratched into the wall next to the scale, his weight. The finca’s great swimming pool is empty and its tennis court has been covered with a corrugated metal roof in order to provide shelter for the Pilar. It’s easy to imagine the boat full of half-drunk ‘cowboys’ hunting Nazis.
Rogelio guides us back to Plaza de Armas, where 3794 must always park since vehicular traffic is forbidden in Habana Vieja. I try to pull myself together for workshop, because today’s my turn. Workshop is always interesting. I learn something every time. The upshot is The Bitter Bitches needs work. I have the fleeting thought I could stayed home.
Dinner has been arranged at a rooftop restaurant. I sit at one end of the table with two of the five Emerson girls. The united front they usually present is fragmented for the moment, and they turn out to be genial, smart, neurotic undergrads. Who knew? Later, Tim has reserved a table at the club where the remaining members of the Buena Vista Social Club play. The music is remarkably satisfying, but I’m not in the mood. I stay to watch Mary, one of the Emerson students, cut a confident rug with one of the roving dance dudes. It does my heart good and I split. I hear there was a conga line.
Today’s Tim Talk provides mucho background on Ernest Hemingway, his work, and his status as an enduring cultural icon in Cuba. One of the takeaways for me is that Fidel was undoubtedly envious of Ernest’s beard. Or he should have been. Another is that some of EH’s novels are just terrible. However, his short stories about Cuba and its people possess indelible atmosphere, characters, and situations. For example, The Old Man and the Sea, which spends most of its time in the old fisherman’s head, may well be one of the most evocative depictions of the island. Hemingway’s exploits during World War II strain credulity in a cinematic way. He recruited a ragtag crew of hotshots to patrol the coast in search of German U-boats with the approval of the US Ambassador. Calling it a rogue outfit would be egregious underselling.
Afterwards, I retreat to my room at Ambos Mundos to take care of business and pay a visit to Room 511, EH’s room for seven years from 1932 to 1939. It’s light-filled and spacious, the perfect corner room.
Next up in the salon of the Hotel Florida, we have a guest, Nehanda Isoke Abiodun, a fugitive from American justice living in Cuba since 1990. She’s a wiry, animated African-American, who asks, right at the top, for a bottle of water and a shot of rum. She says she’s nervous talking about herself, but her story is mesmerizing. Raised in Harlem by a father in the Nation of Islam and a mother with an integrationist philosophy, she went to Columbia University and developed her own way of looking at the world. She’s born in 1950 like me, and experienced all the turbulence of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but for all intents and purposes, we were born in different countries.
Her chronology is hard to follow. She worked with the National Black Human Rights Coalition, and helped drug addicts recover through the Black Acupuncture Association of North America. And, because of her alleged involvement with Assata Shakur’s escape from prison in 1979 and other much murkier allegations, she was pursued by the FBI. This resulted in eight years underground, separation from her children, and eventual flight to Cuba. Nehanda’s sense of humor endears her to me. We are both sixty-six. Her favorite dance party happens on Wednesday night where only Motown and soul music are spun. I would dance with her all night.
The post-lunch pre-workshop speaker in Salon Florida is a Cuban science fiction writer, Michel Encinosa Fú. He offers a lot of insight into the writing life in Cuba and the publishing industry. The writers he most admires are the titans of 20th century American sci-fi. Ursula LeGuin is mentioned twice. His writing is very dark and often involves sexually fluid characters. He explains that the literary community in Cuba is quite small but growing, and becoming less and less insular, and publishers are less and less beholden to the government and/or status quo. I detect a yearning to be part of world literature.
Tonight’s another ‘Feed Yourself’ night. Dona and Tracy, her roomie, invite me to stroll along the Malecon. As the sun retreats, it throws its magic beams against the battlements opposite the harbor entry and turns them to gold. We fall into conversation with a Cuban foursome sitting on the parapet. America is good. Obama is great. The Cuban people are smart and beautiful and restless. Dona is my wife and Tracy (who is black) is our daughter. We are transparently full of shit, but everyone enjoys themselves. Trying to wend our way back to Habana Vieja, we find ourselves on the wrong side of the highway dodging De Sotos, then in the middle of a huge traffic circle with but one entrance/egress dodging soccer balls and martial artists. All the while, hunger gnaws. Tracy is getting peckish.
Down an unknown street, about to commit to dining at the hotel yet again, I see a sign for La Giraldilla, a paladar that my sister, Jane, recommended from her recent visit to Havana. A paladar is a private restaurant in someone’s home. Three long flights of stairs and we enter a small room with maybe six tables and one on each window balcony. Did we have a reservation? Oh, no. We sit gratefully and begin a lovely, tasty evening of gossiping and giggling.
The bunch of us piles into Bus 3794 for morning sights. The Partages cigar factory is a four-story building surrounding an atrium. Open walkways ring the atrium at each floor. We cannot cluster as is our custom, but straggle precipitously. The factory spokeswoman has our full attention, because to look down feels mighty perilous. Four hundred people, men and women, work at rows of tables in long, high ceiling spaces with shutters opened to the outside and to the atrium. Many fans keep the air circulating. Each person can roll about 125 cigars per day. Hanging from each workbench on makeshift hangers are their street clothes. Someone has been given the responsibility of reading the newspaper aloud to keep the workers occupied. Understandably, the soap opera section is the only time they pay attention.
The nearby cigar/rum store is packed sardine-wise with busloads of pink shoppers. I squeezed in and squeezed out, defeated. So, to kill time, we visit a statue of John Lennon, working class hero, in a small park. It’s an ugly thing that folks have no trouble cozying up to. “You’re still fucking peasants, as far as I can see.”
Habana Compás Dance is a dance company and school founded a dozen years ago to graft aspects of flamenco on to Afro-Cuban percussion rhythms. The directors and innovators operate on a shoestring from a formerly derelict building. They give several short performances every day as a way to generate hard currency. We sit on benches facing a colorful mural while participants set up a variety of drums and six painted wooden chairs. After a call-and-response-style Spanish to English intro, the troupe blows the roof off the place. With expert timing, total syncopation, and great big grins, ten young women and two guys perform seven short routines. Especially great is the one where they wail on the chairs. It’s all athletic and electric and very musical. These are highly trained and motivated kids and they shine. Such promise.
It would be hard to top this with anything other than lunch. Bus 3794 turns right and enters a community of single-story bungalows. Almost immediately, houses appear adorned with elaborate and colorful sculpture. Figures and flowers and symbols standing alone or connected by arches and gravity-defying curlicues covered with pieces of broken tile. Murals and phrases cover walls. This is Fusterlandia. The bus turns right again and stops at a delirious, three-story, tiled concoction, Casa/Estudio of José Fuster, el Picasso del Caribe. We enter the gate and stand agape amid a fantasia of color and motion. The influences of Gaudi and Picasso immediately come to mind, as well as the similarity to the Watts Towers. I forget I’m famished. Staircases, balconies, and pavilions fly through the air. That’s a small swimming pool with a sunken treadmill (?). Sr. Fuster’s son explains his father’s mission. It is incomprehensible. This place is glorious, totally nutty, and a joy to explore. Lunch is served beneath red tile canopy – rice and beans and chicken and fish. Then we all sing Happy Birthday to Aria, who’s just turned 21.
I sorta hate to leave, but we’re here to workshop our prose, so back on the bus. Tim points out an unusual looking building to the left. A monolith of dreary concrete and black windows rises maybe ten stories when it narrows to a solid concrete shaft continuing another three or four. This is topped with a block of windows somewhat resembling an airport control tower. “It looks like a bottle of vodka, doesn’t it?” say Tim. It was the old Soviet embassy. That’s when I feel the chill of the totalitarian creepiness that lurks beneath socialismo tropicale.
Workshop passes with helpful commentary all around. I’m amazed I don’t drift or drowse. After ninety minutes, we scatter. There’s a free hour before we are to gather again for Tim’s talk on the Cuban Revolution. I take the opportunity to buy cigars. Five cohibas not for me. I pass by the ever-present booksellers at Plaza de Armas. The many booths have spread old trinkets on tables – figurines, coins, paper ephemera. I purchase an Esso map of Cuba. It’s satisfyingly worn, but I will frame it when I get home.
Phil and I have decided to skip the Tim Talk to track down the only English-speaking AA meeting on the island. Guess what! It’s in a church basement. Nuestra Senora del Carmen. Due to profound linguistic disability, I show a cabbie the written address. A Skoda takes us there. We’re quite early, so we loiter outside slowly developing a plan to uncover the location of the meeting room. I have precise directions in my pocket, yet trepidation yields stasis. Finally, we inquire and, after scowls and head shakes from a dour woman, we descend to find all the accoutrements of Alcoholics Anonymous arrayed in a corner of a vast, columned basement. At last a gent appears to set up the meeting, Martin from the Isle of Guernsey. We’re in the right place. Ultimately, there are five recovering guys, which makes a decent quorum. …and the wisdom to know the difference.
I have a room on the fifth floor. Above me on the sixth are the terrace restaurant and its kitchen. All night long I hear the random scraping of furniture on the tile floor and strange whirs and clatters, as I flop about in the clamminess of casual air conditioning. Breakfast happens on that very terrace which overlooks Old Havana to the sea. In the distance, a four-masted Spanish naval vessel begins its stately entry into Havana harbor with a cannon salute and the fort on the other side responds with booming shots. This is grand and nautical.
Sightseeing is scheduled for the morning. Tim shepherds us around the corner to a pedicab stand and we fill seven of them. I ride with lovely Tracy from Flint, Michigan. The driver plays anthemic pop from the ’90s as we hurtle along the cobblestones. Our first stop is one of Havana’s fresh produce markets. Everything looks beautiful and unblemished: perfect. Under the building’s arcade, flower sellers display their elaborate arrangements.
We pile back into our cabs and lurch down dusty streets. Overhead run enough wires and tubes to provide shade to the street below. The city’s great railway terminal is being cleaned and restored as the colossal generating station next to it spews terrible black smoke from a stumpy red and white stack. Tim next brings us to a dark hall he calls a ‘bodega’, where people pick up their monthly rations of cooking oil, flour, refined sugar, and other staples. A chalkboard displays today’s prices for the various commodities. Cuba’s economy is strictly regulated and thus is one where distinctions of wealth and class do not exist, sez Fidel.
We bid our drivers adios and they pose for a group picture. Thalia rejoins us along with an architecture student who walks with us, giving detailed descriptions to the sights in Old Havana as Thalia translates. We visit plazas and churches (now used for secular purposes) and absorb what information we can. Finally, we stop at Café El Escorial, a coffee shop. Sit. Drink. I purchase a kilo of coffee that takes forever to grind. Hot and footsore, lunch provides a happy distraction.
This afternoon we meet as a workshop for the first time. A cool, dark room, a bar, actually, has been secured for us in a neighboring hotel, Hotel Florida. We are eight, guided ably by Alden. Half the group consists of undergraduates, opinionated young women, from Emerson College where she teaches.
We meet at six o’clock back at Hotel Florida for a talk by Tim on Cuban history which begins with Columbus’ landfall in 1492 and runs up to the Revolution in 1959. It is a rich and complex story with a heavy strain of the sorrow of exploitation. Spain ruled the island for four hundred years, but the twilight of empire was endless. This may account for the melancholy that I feel on the street.
Well, okay. I booked a room at the Miami International Airport Hotel, counting on the efficiency of being inside the airport itself at dawn’s crack. We’ve been told to gather at Terminal ‘G’ at 6am to begin a four-hour boarding process for the forty-five minute flight to Havana. There is no day or night in an airport, just the ebb and flow of travelers’ agita. I am reconnoitering goggle-eyed (Coffee? Coffee?), when I see Alden Jones coming towards me. “The Bitter Bitches of Bleecker Street,” she says, grinning. I grin back. That’s the title of the essay I’d submitted for the Cuba Writers Program. Alden’s one of our leaders on this adventure. She represents the literary angle, while Tim Weed supervises logistics.
I feel like I’m at square one at last, the trip’s beginning, no longer dawdling in a soup of plans and hypotheticals. She heads back to the hotel, but reassuringly aims me toward Terminal ‘G’. Writers accumulate. Pleasantries are exchanged. Judgments are made. I knew there’d be some youngsters, undergrads, judging from the stack of pieces I’ve read. Oh, yeah. They’re trying to slather hip chatter onto a layer cake of anxiety. Not buying it. I’ll stick with familiar faces. Besides Alden, there’s Dona, who I know from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and Phil, from Bennington. I’m cool.
We board flight 3141 under the banner of the resurrected Eastern Airlines, same color scheme, same logo. Banking over Miami, one by one I start to connect islands, at first easily confused with the shadows of clouds. These are the Keys, dangling off mainland Florida, a floating garland of dark green in an infinitely changeable palette of blues and greens. We’re over open ocean for just a few minutes when the captain relays the announcement to prepare for landing. Bump. Bump. Applause. A covered staircase is wheeled to the plane and we descend to the tarmac. The air is warm. A big orange metal building welcomes arrivals. The lines for passport control and customs go quickly and we follow one another to the parking lot and bus number 3794.
Tim welcomes us to Cuba by introducing our guide and driver for the week – Thalia and Rogelio. Thalia, the muse of drama, offers light and engaging banter on our way to Revolution Square, the epicenter of Havana and a shrine to José Marti, the island’s founding father. It’s a vasty pavement, prostrating before a tower of gray marble. Popes hold Mass there. The island’s famous sixty-five year-old American cars have lined up looking for passengers. They are dazzling and candy-colored, like someone spilled a big bag of Skittles. They submit to photographs willingly. The convertibles beg to be ridden in.
After lunch, we have time to kill before we can get into our rooms at Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana, so we stop at the Hotel Rivera on the Malecon, Havana’s corniche. The Rivera was built by Meyer Lansky in the ‘50s in an effort to make Havana compete with Las Vegas. It has been preserved by circumstance almost perfectly. The great terrazzo lobby stretches forever, flanked by public rooms, including the Copacabana nightclub. I wander through to the great blue swimming pool. A blue, tiered, diving tower, designed perhaps by Dr. Seuss, dominates the far end.
Then I wander back through the long gloom of the lobby and tug at the padded door to the Copa. It opens. Musty light confronts me. I step back and door closes quietly. I pull again and step inside. The club is upholstered in blues with blue velvet on the walls. Tiers of tables back up and away from the dance floor. Not a chair to be seen. Two dramatic platforms float on either side of the stage. I imagine two rows of naked showgirls in ostrich feather headdresses descending from the staircases. But instead of a glittery chorus line, a stack of mattresses, a dozen or more, fills the stage. Still, I can easily see Freddo Corleone sitting in the first row.
On the bus back to the hotel, Thalia points out a statue of José Marti holding a child pointing into the middle distance. The joke, she says, is that the kid is indicating the old US embassy and telling José – ‘That’s where the good toys come from.’