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March 30, 1999

Cuba: Into the City

(In November the author of this article and several other Mobilians visited Cuba on a trip arranged by the Mobile-Havana Sister City organization. A US government embargo prohibits most travel to and other relations with Cuba by American citizens. This is the fifth episode. Further tales of the journey will follow. Click here for the previous episode.)

by David Underhill

In that elusive virtual reality between deep sleep and fully awaking, the flicker and chatter of CNN from the TV left on overnight is a tether to known life. But glance around the room, through the windows, and the thread frays.

What is this palatial place, what city outside? Either I'm still in dreamville or I've been kidnapped. Then stark wakeful reality strikes. I'm in Cuba...this is the Havana Libre hotel...I don't know where the others from Mobile are...and this room knocked a near-lethal hole in my budget for the whole week ahead.

That thought works better than a gallon of coffee or a slap in the face to get you up and moving. In a cartoon flash I'm scrubbed, dressed, packed, and down in the lobby to check out before the cash register can take another bite of my wallet.

And there I find earthly salvation in the form of known faces. Yes, some of my shipmates are registered here, despite what the omniscient computer insisted last night. They are renewing their rooms, so I have a place to stash my luggage. And all the Mobilians were supposed to receive a 50% discount, so I get $65 back and feel, foolishly, like a rich gringo again.

This bonus is a courtesy attached to our eminence as the American delegation to some international solidarity fest with the city of Havana. I never inquired closely about how we attained this status and assumed it wouldn't amount to much. Maybe attending a reception to shake hands and smile at strangers speaking unknown tongues -- and raid the snack table, if any, to save on food we'd have to buy at cafes otherwise. After all, we were merely a gaggle of folks of no great note from a modest city in a state that stars fall on rather than shine on. But it turned out that we were people more stellar in Havana than back home in Mobile.

The opening session of the gathering where we would be the sole US representatives was scheduled this morning. It had been grandly named the Sixth Encounter for Cooperation and Solidarity of Ibero-American (i.e. Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking) Municipalities with Havana, Marking the 479th Anniversary of the City's Founding. I couldn't fathom how we, English-speaking US citizens with no official mandate from Mobile or anywhere else, fit this description. But the Mobilians at the Havana Libre hotel trooped aboard a cab van and plunged into the city to go do our duty.

Now I was in Cuba for the first time, despite having been here a day already. The marina where I'd finally been allowed ashore last night was a self-contained spaceport for the international yacht set. The ride downtown in the dark had revealed little. And the hotel was a sealed, guarded enclave where foreigners could revive between jaunts on new, air-conditioned busses to the famous beaches and other tourist magnets.

More than two million inhabit Havana and, as in any big city created before the car, the downtown streets swarmed even on this Saturday morning. The pedestrians shaded from blond to black, with every possible intermediate hue, and attire did not sort them into identifiable castes or classes. Nobody wore the dark, sleek suits of American execs or the finery of their women. No hustling, upward-bound yuppie professionals, male or female, with briefcases and cell phones were visible anywhere. Nor -- unlike American cities -- were any beggars, scavengers, bag ladies, crazies, drunks, dopers, or tattered, grimy, sickly street-dwellers in sight. None (on our first venture into Havana at least).

This absence of extremes does not mean that all were clad in a Cuban version of the proletarian uniform seen in photos of the Chinese masses during the era of Chairman Mao. Rather, the men wore a variety of plain, casual clothes. The women's attire ranged from dowdy to utilitarian, to tasteful, to dramatic, to skimpy.

Some combined the last two categories. Even in November the weather was warm and steamy, and little cover was required to ward off the elements. A few of these babes looked like they were going to a photo audition for a lingerie catalog. Not Victoria's Secret. Their outfits weren't that swank. More like a chic Wal-Mart edition. And local habits had obviously adapted long ago to these displays. Nobody paid much attention.

The only group discernible by garb was the police. But you had to scan patiently to spot them. Nowhere near as many were on patrol as in a typical US city -- not the uniformed law anyway. Nor did the advance tales prove true of armed soldiers posted at intersections or roaming in convoys. I saw no such sights on this day or any other.

Vehicles varied more than the people. I spotted no unicycles but almost everything else (even a mule wagon). Lots of bicycles. Some pedicabs: a hybrid mating the front half of a bicycle with a two-wheeled cart for passengers. Scooters and motorcycles. Cars of all sizes, ages, conditions, and sources -- including the deceased Soviet Union or its distracted remnant, Russia. How do the Cubans get spare parts to keep this fleet rolling?

The answer may be the same as for the many American museum pieces on the streets. These date from the 40s and 50s, before the embargo, and some showed it. Others, however, appeared nearly as sleek and shiny as the day they were born in Detroit, and they ran smooth. They are a tribute to ingenuity, care, and a mini-industry born of necessity to manufacture replacements for worn-out parts.

Some were a tribute to love. We passed a line of these evidently assembled for some kind of rally or exhibit. They were exquisitely preserved or restored gems. At an antique auto club meeting in the US they would provoke heart palpitations and a bidding riot.

Havana's trucks were similarly diverse. And the numerous busses ranged from rolling wrecks to splendid new Volvos and Mercedes. But the most striking were the locally devised camels, as they're nicknamed for their shape and color.

They are big metal boxes humped on both ends to clear the axles and wheels, slumped in the middle for doors. Standard trucks (many of them International Harvesters, embargo or not) chug through the city hauling these boxes stuffed to the windows with hundreds of passengers, it seemed.

Housing was equally surprising.

(to be continued)

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