ed : the copy below was written as an exercise in travel-writing before I went on assignment in Bulgaria for a Canadian national publication. This version of CUBA came in the vein of Vice, so I submitted it to them. Fingers crossed!
I’ve left the entire HAVANA section (which concludes the story) out of this post and there are 15+ more incredible photos from Arne (http://boardstars.com/?author=2) that were submitted which are being kept especially for the hopeful print feature.
The first city liberated in the Cuban revolution, where the people stated their independence from those fueled by ugly money. Santa Clara: where Che Guevara is on the fire station wall and goats are in the ditch. Monuments of Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Arafat are in the most obscure street corners and towering over their guarded graves. Santa Clara, where four year olds know the bold, libidinous steps of mambo, rumba, salsa… Ben Franklin is on my casa owner’s t-shirt and veils – while he talks about the coffee in happy bursts – a bold gut. Like all proud Santa Clara pots are and furthermore, most Cuban food stocks are proud to be of whatever size; there’s no ashamed skin. No one’s afraid to show it. ‘No proe-laym, no proe-laym’ he says when I ask for more coffee. Meanwhile, on his shirt is Franklin, under a crown of marijuana leaves, with eyes like a basset hound, in glittering gold old English script proclaiming that he “Can’t Feel The Crisis From Up Here!” A clock hangs moot on the wall; 3:30 at 9:47. 3:30 at 9:50. The head hangs heavy and a tsunami of acidity hits my sweaty intestines. There’s a wood carving in my bedroom corner that depicts a bald eagle snatching a fish. It’s so big that it comes up to my highest rib; a dog is on the roof, harmonizing with the church bell. ‘Feliz Navidad’ to the woman with holes in her house and no windows that rocks in her chair across the street. Surrounded by dust, she faces a morbidly dead antiqua TV like a psych patient with a thousand mile gaze and piles of wood with twisted nails and an unkempt stack of chipped bricks standing guard near the hole of her front door. There will be no light for her tonight beside the setting sun.
I’m crushed to sleep while considering her death. The next day I’m offered taxis while hanging from the window of a taxi. The driver never looks my way and has a gold watch. A fat woman weeps with on the side of the highway, with a space between her teeth and ‘BABY’ written across tits that rest on a flat tire; stranded with her man on the road side, he’s squat on a knee and hammers at a motorcycle’s dusty tail-pipe with his diamond-studded belt buckle, hailing fake zirconium rain on them both. She grieves for a convenience she never knew. Dump trucks are public transit, fence posts are equally sized sticks; mango trees are the most aesthetic foliage, followed by banana, coconut, sugarcane and cabbage. Tragedy is photogenic, and sun hats stare down at the crops while war-torn hands become as wooden as knobs atop rusty pitchfork handles. Kids hold toy guns and shoot tourists. Ditch grass catches fire. Toro saunter silently across the street and don’t respond to our cold driver’s honks, nor does the football game being played by boys in bare feet on a pitch made of toothpicks. The agricultural age precedes the industrial one and Soviets were solely to thank for the industry in Cuba until the ‘special period’ of the early 90′s when the Soviet Union fell and Cuba starved their way to independence. Or so ‘says me’ via the ‘Radio of Lips’ aka: the word on the street where goats and horses were doing rickshaw work. People, too. All types of energy are employed and Cuba trades oil for doctors with Venezuela. And Hugo Chavez is dying. ‘Viva Cuba Libre’ is painted on so many walls.
Between Kennedy’s quarantine, Eisenhower’s deadly, murderous spite for Castro mobilizing his own people, and all the other heat that made Cuba the nucleus of the cold war and punching bag for greedy imperialists: The countries main import partners are now, but not limited to: Venezuela at 37.6%, China at 9.9%, Spain at 8.5%, Brazil at 5.2% and Canada at 4.4%.
Walking to the hostel from Guevara’s underground grave that first day, crimson-brown families pick up hitchhikers in their wagons and the clopping of hoof to cobblestone sounds unmistakably Cubano now. Everyone watches everyone watching everyone from his or her window. Cars are repaired by shirtless hands, and horse’s reigns contain the remnants of bike chains.
In Trinidad I rode horses with a man named George.
‘Hxor-hxay,’ he says, looking to the hills with his white hat inclined toward the sky; we insured our day with a lazy shake and convertible pesos. But under the pre-condition that the caballio were in a reasonable state: acceptable weight, no visible ribs. And the fur should kind of shine. Everything was fine. We tromped and I chomped on a Partacas mini. I am Che. Fuck. My gut spun from too much juice and fruit. I am not Che and I consequently hugged my horse like a jockey stocking speed for the home-stretch, albeit without the speed. Hxor-hay said Gallopee was a formula one car, “Formoola Wown!“; he said I was a professional. I felt like shit. He loudly shouted “AAAHhhhh-Choe!” Not ‘choo’: “CHOE! CHO!” And with a long squeaky kiss from his maroon, legitimate cowboy lips, my glass-eyed Gallopee then hit the gas and took off, kicking up rusty dust. Goddam, my gut.
For a moment his paycheck and I were both airborne in the Sancti Spiritus province of mid-western Cuba. The Sierra del Escambray – the Escambray Mountains – rose up eighteen hundred meters to the left and for a moment Gallopee and I were soaring with a stomach full of all natural acid and dead grass respectively. I packed a formidable amount of the former: enough to turn solid to solution it seemed. Where were we going? I wondered and spit out my mini before the horse slowed and subsequently trotted shoulder-deep into a river. He braced himself against the casual current and I soaked my Sperry boat shoes.
We passed a working hospital that looked like it had been bombed out. Cuba has a population of 11 million plus and there’s one doctor to every 170 people who gets paid as much as mechanics do. 99.8% of Cubano are literate. There’s so much to ponder on albeit I felt like shitting and quickly dismounted to do so while Hxor-hxay politely held my horse and looked away. Salamander’s shot between my legs like lighting. I moaned. Sun shone. A rooster roared in the distance and I was officially on the defensive.
We stopped at a ranchon surrounded by mango trees and drank pure sugarcane while a pig slowly circled on a spit. I uttered the words ‘Apocalypse sow’ and laughed manically. Hxor-hxay tipped the butt of his hat with a stubby thumb and took a long slug from his Cristal – the Nation’s beer – and spun a spur with the toe of his opposing boot. Morbidly, the pink thing grinned with a log through its entirety and in the incredible heat, a Cuban teen wearing a Washington Redskin’s SWEATER took a machete to fresh fruit. A toothless old man in inescapable leather did the slow rotations while pigskin sizzled in omni-sunshine of another the humid afternoon.
Packing up, I hit the saddle with a rusty trumpet. Sweat hit my open eyes and after reaching a imperceptibly awe-full waterfall I managed to swim and indulge in a makeshift espresso from a makeshift cafe made of four sticks and three stitched skirts. The beans came in a mason jar and the employee’s son sat on the lid with an emerald ring swinging loosely.
“Fuerte?” Strong? Yes. Flush the guts.
A baseball bat – but three times as thick – crushed just enough Arabica beans. The backcountry barista looked me dead in the eye while smashing them like the mint of an enormous mojito; the man had seemed to see my stomach’s sickness; he held his unwavering stare and then loosened it gently, as if to ask: why does the white man always destroy his own? I don’t nod or offer an excuse.
Then came the percolatory process and bubbling charcoal dark joe oozed and popped while my insides sent me squatting to a milk crate bar-side. The placemat was gaudy. The coffee could be called woody and deep with no nutty nuance; balistically bitten bark. It was like drinking a fantastic cup, the colour of a hockey puck, while deeply inhaling a piece of aromatic, Caribbean, earth. Other then amazing in my mouth, I found it painfully acidic.
On the way back, on horseback, chipping our way at the trip one hoof beat at a time, up a massive, up-sloping road, Hxor-Hxay laughed and said hello to a boy walking, lurching uphill. He was walking slower than our horses. We caught up quickly and the boy grabbed the tail of Hxor-Hay’s horse. Wrapping the hair around his fist like it was fishing rope; hitchhiking, he took strength from the help of the beast in his shit-stained boots. In Trinidad I also saw a cyclist skitching on a horse’s stirrup, cyclists holding mopeds for support, children rollerskating while holding bike seats, a car’s front bumper tethered with volley-ball net to another car’s rear-bumper and dogs were always manned with harnesses or dog-carriages for groceries etc – pending they weren’t strays.