I wake up before dawn has had a chance to crack with a song from The Great Comet stuck in my head. Goodbye, my gypsy lovers. / All my revels here are over. A quick breakfast is scarfed and suitcase reorg accomplished. Mas cafe, por favor. Alden and I duck back over to Parque Central for cafe con leche. Sweet. The appointed driver appears at 10:30, escorting Linda and me to the airport for our 1:35 flight. In the terminal, members of our genial group come and go, waiting or milling or boarding, as does an apocalyptically black downpour. And then we’re aloft. The flight is asshole-free. Customs at JFK consists of a lot of walking, but no hassles. I bid Linda a dulce adios. She’s going into Manhattan and I to a Hooters in Queens to catch the jitney to Greenport.
Hey! Today we will board the Chinese Bus to the Bay of Goddamn Pigs, because no one ever wants to go swimming again. Ever. ‘Sea nettles’ are really sea lice, the larval stage of some fucking jellyfish. Really. They bob along the surface of the water like invertebrates and sting like motherfuckers. In our group, this menace manifested in a garland of raised red welts from chin to mid torso, however the folks who floated on the bosom of the Caribbean had to contend with a flare of private welts. This is grim. Michael Ruhlman and Nancy Ashkin have particularly grievous cases.
So, Bay of Pigs it is. Stopping at the Bay of Pigs is a chance to place an overlay of reality on the anxieties I had when I was ten, eleven, and twelve. This ill-fated invasion and the construction of the Berlin Wall, followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and doomsday the following year, was the hottest the Cold War would get.
The landing site for the CIA-backed band of 1,500 Cuban exiles is Playa Giron. The paramilitary brigade chose this beach because it is one of maybe only two on the Caribbean side with a straight shot at Havana. Much of the Caribbean shore in Cuba is just mile after mile of limestone bluffs. In the Museo Giron we watch an astonishing ten-minute b/w propaganda film about the invasion. It is a remarkable piece of film. Images of dead children and women and the haggard, desperate faces on the captured invaders will stick with me. Nowhere is the US mentioned: the invaders are called Yankee imperialists. A hundred yards away is the Soviet-era Playa Giron Resort. We stroll on the beach in a cove protected by a disintegrating, still formidable, concrete barrier that stretches across to prevent any further incursions by Yankee imperialists.
Earlier on the bus ride heading toward Playa Giron, Orelvis draws our attention to men with rakes spreading something over the right lane of the road for many yards, a long carpet of gold. This is rice drying.
Further up the Bay of Pigs, in the town of Playa Larga, we stop at Casa ZunZun, where the Zunzuncito Whisperer lives, a guy who charms bee hummingbirds outta the trees. The Zunzuncito is the smallest bird in the world, two and a half inches from head to tail. True dis. Playa Larga is also the home to Café Don Alexis. It’s a very plain aquamarine space, part prep room, part kitchen, part dining area, every inch inscribed with ‘Kilroy-style’ graffiti. The thatched roof does not meet the walls, allowing a fan-augmented breeze through. Everything is ultra fresh. The fish we’ll eat came swimming up to the table. The man preparing it has to handle two small cats leaning down the wall above him from opening under the roof. Every once and a while, he tosses them a chunk of flesh. Alexis himself is merry and enthusiastic about feeding this drop-in multitude. He presents each dish with the single word – “More!” There are many head-scratching mysteries in Cuba and here it’s the sink housing perhaps a half dozen large turtles. The rather pertinent question ‘Why?’ was never asked. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Don Alexis has cooked us a feast, our best meal. From here, it’s a straight shot to Hotel Telegrafo.
We will enter Havana from the east, so Tim detours us to La Cabana, the ‘cañonazo’ fort, before we tunnel under the harbor to the city. The most complete rum-and-cigar store is there. A looming, life-size statue of a man who rolled cigars at a little table at one side until he died scares the bejesus out of me. We’ve not been there five minutes when a busload of hideous people led by a screechy, vaping guide-ess fills the fucking place with pink flesh and covetousness. Time to hit the highway. Everyone of our group who needs to has bought their booty of sin. Our rooms in Hotel Telegrafo are ready and I am ready to shower. Before I step in, I mutter a prayer for water pressure.
Our celebratory and bittersweet final meal takes place at San Cristobal, one of Havana’s best and most memorable paladars. We’re seated at a long table in a narrow two or three story covered courtyard. A thunderstorm breaks over our heads with a crash. There is enough of a roof overhead to keep the usual elements at bay, but this rain comes down with such force that a light and misty veil of precip descends upon us and we are glad.
Will Smith does not show up.
They offer us a postprandial shot of rum and a cigar, which they won’t light for us, because we’d be f-o-r-e-v-e-r and they have a business to run.
A daylong excursion has been planned which means boarding Chinese Bus #5050 promptly after my casa particular breakfast. First, I’m served a daunting fruita plate with a pineapple smiley face, however, the coffee’s pretty decent even though the eggs, in crepe form, come with a side of ‘Disk o’ Spam’.
Our first stop is the Atkins plantation, Soledad. Until La Revolucion, this place had been the island’s largest sugar grower and processor. Despite its derelict condition, Soledad tells a long story of ‘enlightened’ exploitation. Cuba’s complex relations with capitalism, colonialism, slavery, America, and a host of smaller, fascinating, but no less important, issues contribute to the feeling that Soledad is still somehow inhabited by ghosts. The woman who shows us through the main house seems to have singlehandedly taken on the project of preserving the plantation and telling its story. This is an enormous undertaking against ridiculous bureaucratic and cultural odds. The story she tells just compounds the inescapable time-machine qualities of this visit.
The Escambray mountains are piled to the left of us as we travel through their foothills. Our destination is a government resort, Villa Guajimico. It’s a bungalow colony essentially, perched on the limestone cliffs that gird most of Cuba’s Caribbean coastline. After lunch, Tim leads most of us off on a hike to a snorkeling lagoon. I do not feel like it, so I find a breezy table under a thatched cabana and type away while hydrating. Ann Hood displays a similar reluctance to tromp through the tropical dry forest for the sake of decorative fish. We are snarkelers. Secluded al fresco napping is also possible. I feel like I’m resting in big hand. The walkers and snorkelers return from their hike complaining of being bitten by something they call ‘sea nettles’. Many have unhappy welts about their necks and chests.
We’re supposed to eat dinner at our casa particular, but since I’m solo in my casa, I feel disinclined to dine alone. I complain my way into eating with Brandon at his casa particular, on the second floor terrace with visible sea over both shoulders. This may be one the best meals of the trip so far. We just keep ticking them off. Certainly the cutest chef.
At eight o’clock we rendezvous at our headquarters, Angel y Isabel, for student readings. We have three minutes apiece. I read ‘Up N. Monroe St.’ and ‘Enchantment under the Sea’, two new poems. Brandon records the evening, ostensibly for his podcast. My peers praise my set of burlesque tercets.
Following a brief and boring breakfast, we once again cluster in the lobby of the Telegrafo poised for travel. Chinese Bus #5050 is all set to transport us to Cienfuegos, a three-hour road trip. I’m looking forward to Cienfuegos. We chug along the highway while Orelvis holds a call-and-response discussion for about an hour on current conditions in Cuba. Many questions are answered and many pieces of the Great Cuban Puzzle fall into place. Particularly intriguing is the Special Period, the time of great stress following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its long-term subsidy.
Of course, upon entry into Cienfuegos we must immediately attend a cultural event – Orquesta de Guitarras, an ensemble of eight musicians, six attractive young men and women and two old guys, their ‘dear teachers.’ The concert takes place on the roof of the Hotel Union, which provides a splendid vista of the roofs of Cienfuegos. All the players received their first twelve years of education at the Beny Moré School where we stopped last year. Beny Moré was a famous Cuban musician in the 50s and 60s and his name is now attached to one of the finest schools of music and art in the country. They’re masterful and self-possessed to the point of leading some of us in a spirited line dance. I buy the CD.
Just as I’m about to descend into the black hole of peckishness, we arrive at Café Lagarto on the bay, our lunch destination. Their specialty is roast pork and the restaurant is tarted up with all kinds of semi-tacky, theme-parkish statuary created from found objects, however, it sits right on the bay and is thus susceptible to breezes. There will be no time to relax into unconsciousness, for we’re due back in Cienfuegos’ main square to visit Vladimir Rodriguez’s art gallery. He is still charming and his English is idiomatic and almost accent-free. Also there, are two Cuban writers who offer their impressions of their genres, poetry and YA, and the literary vocation, and the Cuban literary community.
Last year, Tim and I were able to sneak away in the early evening to listen to an all-female string orchestra at Teatro Terry, Cienfuegos’ exquisite 19th century concert hall. An inquiry at the box office reveals no programming either Tuesday or Wednesday. Damn.
This year, our lodgings are scattered throughout the La Punta neighborhood of Cienfuegos; a species of accommodations called casas particular, the Cuban version of AirB&B. Casas particular were one of the first signs that the economy was adapting to private enterprise. I’m installed in Villa Tyta, a modest, pink house with a patio right on the bay that features a sandbox with Smurf statuary. I would love to put my head down on a pillow for twenty minutes, but there’s an insistent banging, the byproduct of the man of the house installing some new windows. Suddenly, time for our last fucking workshop, and I am Very Grumpy.
We dine as a group in at our main casa particular – Angel y Isabel. Before dinner, Michael Ruhlman, Ann Hood’s tall, handsome, and accomplished brand-new (married a week) husband, gives us an inspired talk on food writing and the writing life in general. I eat dinner with Ann and Michael and Brandon, the genial wiseguy who works for Great Courses. My attempt at an early snooze is disrupted by stealth mosquitoes. Thus, I am able to catch up on this journal thing, all the while fitfully scratching and fretting.
By 7:30am, we’re on the march to join the giant rally in La Plaza de la Revolucion marking May Day, the first since the death of Fidel. The whole thing will be over by 9:30 in acknowledgement of this ‘heat-of-the-day’ business. Tim’s gathered a bunch of Bicitaxis out front, we pile in and off we go. It’s a wild ride over rutted and potholed streets. They drop us at some intersection and we follow Tim single-file up a street as a solid, blue-red-and-white wall of people stream toward us from the opposite direction. The speeches must be over. In an effort to get as close as we can to exactly what we don’t know, Nancy and I manage to get separated from the others. Our forward momentum is soon stymied, compelling us to submit to the forces striving to expel us from the plaza. The two of us bob along diagonally hoping to reach the other side of the massive egress and, what do you know, I see our group. Eventually, we begin to move away from La Plaza de la Revolucion, down a long, inclined boulevard. When it levels out, there’s the big blue stadium where the Industriales baseball team plays. Tim inquires, but there are no t-shirts for sale today, everything’s closed. We walk and walk and walk. Now here’s that heat-of-the-day thing everyone tries their best to avoid. Even walking beneath the arcades feels demoralizingly steamy. I seem to have developed a blister or a wound of some kind on my right foot, due to flip-flops. Tim finds a Bicitaxi for Elle and Teri. And sure enough, one for Sarah and me. It turns out we’re not very far from the Capitolio and home. I shower forever.
In a brief window of free time, I finish my comments on today’s workshop pieces, then visit the Parque Central lobby to address the possibility of posting again to my website. No availio.
At one o’clock we climb into Chinese Bus #5050 for a trip to Cojimar, where a truly excellent lunch meal awaits us at small restaurant called the Adiaco Café. The room is open to the elements at the sides, while every inch of surface is covered with names, dates, and sentiments of former diners. Brandon is assigned to add – Cuba Writers Program – to a prominent spot on the roof. Nimble boy. This meal may be the best so far. Rain makes good on its former threat. A tropical deluge commences, causing the streets to run deep with agua. We’re informed that if the first rain in May wets your face, you will have good luck for the rest of the year. After standing out there like a dork in a downpour, I damply take a seat next to Teri on the bus, believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Bernie Sanders. We then stop at La Terraza, where Hemingway had his own table, to have our workshops in a private downstairs dining room. French doors open onto the harbor of Cojimar and below us ebbs a sea of detritus – fronds, plastic bottles, dead chickens, coconuts. No adjectives. No adverbs.
This rainy and brainy endeavor behind us, we segue into afternoon playfulness at the beach – Playa del Este, seaside playground for Habaneros. I don’t go in the water, though it looks infinitely inviting. The beach is covered with boozy debris. Scribblers frolic in the ocean, buoyant as ever. One writer seems to have brought along an extra-large inflatable created in the image of a pink, frosted, fucking doughnut. She blows it up right in front of us.
Tim has organized a May Day picnic for us at the Fortress of La Cabana on the eastern side of the harbor entrance. From Havana, these fortifications look like an extension of El Morro, the iconic fort that guards the city. From our vantage point at La Cabana, Havana City stretches out before us, grey in the overcast with many identifiable landmarks. Cracks in the weather appear at the horizon and Havana glows with magnificence as the sun sets. Our group has pitched its metaphorical tent between two cannon on a parapet and shares two bottles of rum and some cigarillos. Because the obvious necessity of plastic glasses was overlooked, the rum must be poured into empty water bottles, where, for the life of me, it looks like the evil sputum of tobacco-chewers. Orelvis and Frank bring us pizza, which is floppy but savory, and salad, which must be eaten with ones’ fingers.
Here is the story behind La Cabana. In 1762 under threat from England, stupid Spain barricaded Havana harbor with its navy inside, the theory being that with a chain across the mouth of the harbor, the English could neither take the town or the Spanish fleet. The English simply sailed several miles to the east, landing at Cojimar, took the hill overlooking the Fortress of El Morro to the north, and mercilessly bombarded it until the Spanish surrendered. A year later, England traded Cuba back to Spain for Florida.
I believe I caught the tiny green flash that putatively occurs when the sun sinks below the ocean horizon, though I could be full of shit. During this fade-out we are shocked at the expulsion into the twilight of a giant black cloud from a generating plant further south. It evidently burns dirty Venezuelan oil, a gift from Hugo Chavez that keeps on giving. The city lights begin to adorn Havana in magic.
At nine o’clock every night, following some “rigmarole”, Tim’s word, a cannon is fired, symbolic of the restoration of Cuba to Spain. This rigmarole, which is called the ‘cañonazo’, consists of modest pageantry – first, three dudes, a torchbearer crying out in indecipherable Spanish and two companions in white uniforms, then a dozen ‘soldiers’ marching in formation around and around, then back and forth. A significant crowd has gathered on the battlement on either side of the cannon, but for a CUC, one can climb a set of stairs to an even better battlement that offers a panorama of the city and the ceremony. That’s what we do. There is a lot of smart phone-related nonsense from the assembled, which is deeply annoying in the dark of night. And, finally, after a great deal of measured rigmarole, the fuse is lit. One big boom. Good night.
I share a genuine breakfast with Elle Johnson, a member of my workshop group. We get down to politics, which is sort of satisfying, yet sort of beside the point. She is wearing a navy blue t-shirt featuring a cat in a pussy hat. Still, Trump is far away, and our discussion, though righteous, feels flat. We’re in Cuba, fer fuck sake.
What we have here is a morning of free time. Linda and I amble off to find the Museo de Cuban Art. On the way, we stop to gaze up at the glorious Bacardi Building. Is it Deco? Maybe, but certainly not streamlined Moderne. It’s a sui generis world-class beauty. The museum doesn’t open until 10am, so, after acknowledging the ‘Granma’ (the yacht from which Fidel and crew began their ultimately successful revolution and, yes, named for the previous owner’s grandmother and the name of a Cuban province since the mid-70s), under glass in a park behind the Museo de la Revolucion (the former Presidential Palace), we find coffee in the courtyard of the Hotel Sevilla. A lovely woodwind trio – two clarinets and a bassoon – play pop songs and movements from Baroque trios. The music, though a room away, couldn’t have been more enchanting.
The Museo building dates from the 60s. Three floors of galleries surround a large courtyard with the typically afunctional fountain. Havana abounds in dry water features. A wide ramp leads upward. Linda and I decide to trek to the top and work our way down, Guggenheim-style. The first room we enter is devoted to Wilfredo Lam, a mid-century Cuban artist represented prominently in MoMA’s collection. His work owes a huge debt to Picasso, yet seems more graphic and kinetic (art crit word). Some pieces are truly striking. As we venture deeper into the galleries, the art becomes clunky and derivative, cribbed primarily from Diego Rivera. Our pace quickens. There’s a loft space that features works on paper and these are much more original and engaging. When we begin the descent to the second floor we catch Nancy and Sue on their way up. We continue to banter as a large group, betraying entourage-like adhesion, parts and flows around us. “Jesus, that looked like Will Smith,” I say. “It is Will Smith,” says a passing young woman who has caught our bafflement.
I leave Linda to examine the contemporary art on floor two and head back to Telegrafo, stopping at Museo of All Other Art. It’s on the Parque Central, like Hotel Telegrafo, and a big Beaux Arts pile with turrets and balconies and lampposts. The interior is just as complicated and entertaining, however, the great swooping central stairs are beset by grim scaffolding. I can’t get out of the rooms of Spanish painting quick enough. Cuba evidently was a dumping ground for fourth-rate portraits of over-dressed, over-varnished grandees. Later for France and England.
After a quick pick-up lunch, I maneuver my boney/not boney ass to Plaza des Armas, our appointed afternoon rendezvous point. The group reassembles itself in a desultory way under the trees and we proceed down the Avenida del Puerto to listen to Michel Encinosa Fu, a Cuban science fiction writer. The air conditioning is brutal, but I snooze anyway. Sorry, Michel.
Back to Telegrafo for more aimless downtime. Soon another Tim Talk will begin, this time on the Cuban Revolucion and the island after. We fend for our dinner again, taking guidance from Brandon, who finds us a semi-okay paladar on Mercaderes. Tim’s secured a reservation for us to hear big Cuban music with remnants of the Buena Vista Social Club. Mojitos appear with relentless monotony and I soon amscray. In the meanwhile, there had been a downpour and the streets shimmer. I take a new way back to Telegrafo and don’t get lost! I am my own conga line.
This morning, Orelvis and Chinese Bus #5050 are waiting to take us to the Havana Compas Dance Company. This lovely ensemble creates magnetic dances that incorporate direct percussion with flamenco and tap flourishes. The troupe that danced for us was all young women. There are many seat-of-the-pants artistic enterprises like this throughout the island. They channel the island’s enormous creative energy. The arts are everywhere.
From there, we visit another vibrant community initiative called Muraleando that has created a community space from a derelict and garbage-impacted, hilltop water tank. They get many buses stopping by for a ‘people-to-people’ cultural exchange, the declared justification for our visit. Fanciful and weather-beaten art everywhere. Victor, the PR guy, i.e. the best English speaker, acts like a deranged social director insisting on universal fun and admiration. I ignore him fiercely. Lunch is tasty and al fresco, but the musical entertainment is tiresome. Some writers do dance and dance with gusto and grace.
From there, we’re bound for Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s hilltop villa. His third wife, Pauline, insisted that if they were going to live in Cuba they would live comfortably in a house: no more hotels. Finca Vigia lies fifteen miles outside Havana, with wide vistas and welcome breezes. The compound had a big and very deep swimming pool (see: naked, Ava Gardner), a tennis court, and a three-story tower with EH’s writing study at the top. The tin-roofed shed (née: tennis court) now acts as the permanent dry dock for Hemingway’s 38-foot boat, the Pilar. Visitors are not allowed inside the villa, but the house is compact and transparent enough that circling it and peering through the windows offers a delectably intimate impression of their life together, along with views of the other peerers on the other side of the house. Their stuff is all here, all of it arrayed artfully. How do the books and animal heads survive, open to the elements as they are?
Eventually, I wander down the slope to the gift shop to be uninspired and perhaps sit. A small segment of our small group can be found drinking some grim blue cocktail, probably called ‘The Sun Also Sets.’ Alden asks if I am up to hearing my personal post-workshop follow-up. Oh kay. Right at the top she acknowledges the rudeness of the damning participant. Whew and So Fucking What. The useful adage – Consider the Source – come fully into play here.
There’s some ‘down’ time after our return to Hotel Telegrafo. I write and nap and once again embark on the foolish quest for cyber-oneness. Telegrafo truly sucks. Maybe I’d have better luck back at Ambos Mundos, or the Parque Central a block away. Wandering through the Parque Central lobby, I chance upon Alden sipping cafe con leche and invite myself to sit across from her. Instead of fulfilling our intentions to write and annotate and send gay and pertinent emails to the worthy and unworthy, we gab and laugh. Soon enough, other group members mosey through the doors and my field of vision, then up the stairs to the mezzanine and a ‘boardroom’ for Tim’s lecture on Cuban history up to La Revolucion.
Tonight we must forage on our own. I shepherd seven of us to La Girardilla, where Dona and Tracy and I ate last year on the recommendation of Jane, my sunny sister. We stroll down the Prado, encountering a circle of hyper-energetic capoeira performers, then turn left on the Malecon (technically Avenida del Puerto). The breeze off the ocean is incredibly bracing. At the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, we shift inland a bit to La Girardilla. The seven of us take the last two tables. Because of this, service is extremely leisurely. Nevertheless, the meal is very mellow and genial. Gratitude all around.