Habitual Locomotion : CUBA : Chapter Leak ft. photos by Arne Gutmann
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.
After waiting for my laundry and watching while the second casa owner stuffed clothespins into her bottomless bra: I said goodbye.
A Swedish family and I, who shared the fast American taxi, bumped, roared and passed horse carriages on the shoulder; four hours along the hot highway; we were lizards and scooted through Cinefuegos; the maquina driver who was taking us to Havana drove quickly and I was a reluctantly lazy dog. Ours was a ride you would try to sleep through or read throughout; a ride to ignore while watching the sea ignorantly. This was almost impossible as an Italian couple who fit into the front two seats yelled at us and took our picture. It was so noisy, jostling and insane. We ate Valium to forget about them. The man was a bird with a mole and a teacher who advertised photos that showed intimately, the beauty of his 15-year-old student’s breasts. He showed the family their homepages on his phone. I felt sick in places beside the small intestine and afterward, the taxi driver stopped to hand off rum at the town-guard’s post; we saw the red-struck sign for Galdo. A member of the merit-dawned council of chaps and chicks shook the cabbies hand, took the rum and laughed. Afar, a female smoked a cigarette in a short dress and fishnet stockings. Cuban military standard; on her break, she’s tanned out there in the shade. Smoking languidly, she looked thirsty: an attractive thirty.
Eventually, the Swedes and I arrived at an old square house in embassy town. It seemed like an old bordello. It had all the trappings: numerous rooms with numerous styles of oddly-positioned furniture and inconsistent interior decoration. Referred to as a revolutionary house, we never got receipts for our stay. Every other B&B took our passports and reported our presence immediately. It was ‘living off the grid’ of another sort, thanks to their heirlooms; handed down with Castro’s help, it was a strange place that acted rich and accommodating but quite obviously weren’t. The family was always urging us out and they had well-known beef next-door with the unusually ‘modern’ restaurant. Old vs. new. Odd, eh? The entrepreneurial ‘rebels’ beside the well-known socialist revolutionaries. Doesn’t pre-pubescence always try to find it’s own two feet away from the traditions of the parents?
Our B&B, or so called: ‘revolutionary house,’ with it’s soft porno of family members and 17th century colonial commissioned family portraits of five rich white folks looking regal, accented each other in the main room. It would all have been handed down to these Cubano and likely keep descending, too. All thanks to a rich farmer’s other house, which was given to the rebel cause and earned Grandpa the title of general back in ’58. These were the spoils and I was staying in them.
And all of this made the living Grandma famous. Ponce was sadly dead now. He shook hands with Castro in a thick dusty frame in a shut, untouched study. Grandma did the dishes and was sound asleep by 8:30pm. The maid wore daisy dukes and platform heels and was a sight to behold. She lived there and was around 50 years old and smoked cigarettes inside. I saw both her butt cheeks. The rooms were huge. Embassy and security were everywhere – gates, keys and cages, too – dogs, cabbage, mosquitoes.
The family and I woke together and ate fresh guava and papaya. We drank watered down coffee and talked post-modernism, the ‘then what’ of Foucault, the constraint of politico and people’s rights. We had a Christmas cactus. Afterward, the madness in the shop windows of ‘Tourist Cuba’ lured me along a long walk on the new side of Old Havana: an antique clock lingered dusty alongside canned food; mannequins with white wigs on and white plastic faces sat beside pale pink Tupperware; we got followed; it smelled like piss where kids were playing soccer with garbage in the street. Teen kids in belly shirts played soccer with garbage and rosary swung like cigar smoke in the rear-view mirrors of harassing taxi drivers.
In all of the Cuba behind me, was a country of hitchhikers and a transit crisis that may be ‘fixed with bikes?’ as was written on my notepad. A man drew my caricature while I drank a mojito in the sun, eating peanuts while a band played. I also wrote “maybe one day we’ll all have to learn to hitchhike?” while refusing his piece with my free hand. I then said, “No, thanks” out loud and “good luck, Amigo” internally. My convertible pesos will always be worth 25x his national currency, so he cursed me crudely before continuing on to caricature another gringo.
O’ Reilly Street in Old Havana, The Eye of The Hurricane. Leo D’Lazaro is a very prominent sculptor, painter, draftsman, designer, photographer and he is a member of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC). His father was an artist named Jose Delarra who happened to be the prime creator of the twenty-two foot, bronze Che Guevara monument that overlooks Santa Clara at 190 degrees (directly to South America with an eternal, concerted optimism of unity.) D’Lazaro changed his name for reasons beyond me and now he has a ‘community center,’ art studio, place of leisure and living museum of Old Havana’s petals and shedding skin in the shit show of a dilapidating city.
“I increasingly define myself as an archaeologist… as an excavator,” he said, in a recent Havana Times article. “It’s a concept that guides me in everything, in my way of living, which is the same thing as my creation. I live and I believe as an integral whole in relation to my being in my space and with all the people who surround me. This is based on the concept that I call the “archaeology of the present,” which consists of aging to the point of fossilizing everything that is very new, that is very current, to create a deeper vision of what surrounds us.”
Arriving rum drunk and in my panther singlet, his hired interpreter tells me that D’Lazaro prefers to blend into ‘The Eye of The Hurricane,’ his working and living space which “came from my desire to connect with the present, with day-to-dayness, by delving into society,” as he was quoted, still from the Havana Times. “What emerged was this way of sharing the creative process with everyone and everyone sharing it with me.”
D’Lazaro doesn’t look up from the foosball game that hangs crudely, strategically, wonderfully from cast iron on the ceiling, but I recognize him. I don’t look him in the eye for fear of creative damnation and admire his homemade pitch and everything else in the gallery for that matter with my rum and cigarillo both burning like a true ‘class tourist.’ Where are my sunglasses? I felt a sudden need to shield my eyes as once again, I found the crowd’s sandal-riddled innards.
Outside, a tour bus is let loose abreast of the cab loop and while all figures are trigger-happy, four women shoot photos of a stray dog shaking over a sewer grate in the hot afternoon sun. Its brown-white paw is across its face and they adjust their sun-hats while snapping digital pictures; it shudders from deadly fever, sprawls out, belly up. Parting the pale voyeurs like a strong yacht, I lay my hat down: upside down, beside the hound, for all to see and leave uneasily.