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Poking into the nation’s many corners, McFadden...
Poking into the nation’s many corners, McFadden offers a series of vignettes of the people, cities,villages, roads, and countryside of the island the author refers to as “the most famous little country in the world.” Warm and colourful, An Innocent in Cuba is a musical, sensuous, flirtatious, joyful tribute to the Cuban spirit in all its incarnations.
Saturday, February 14, 2004. From the nineteenth floor of the four-star Hotel Neptuno Tritón there’s a wide-angle view of the western-most limits of suburban Havana, the parklike area south of Miramar Beach — lightly industrial, lightly residential, agricultural hardly at all. Clusters of palm trees dot the tops of green hills on the southern horizon. The sky is baby blue and speckled with swirling little galaxylike clouds of baby pink. The lights on tall metal poles around the front of the hotel switch off at precisely seven o’clock. It’s a new day: two loud sharp clangs come from a tuneless bell way off in the distance and small groups of workers quicken their pace to the construction sites. Hotels are going up all around here, with fabulous neo—art deco lines and dazzling colour combinations.
On Cuban construction sites where workers are docked pay for being late or absent, there is much lateness and absenteeism. On jobs where one is not docked, workers will go out of their way to show up on time every day. That’s why workers aren’t getting docked these days. I’ve heard this twice already, so it must be true.
Ten years ago the view from the nineteenth floor would have been dominated by the neo-classical red-roof Iglesia Jesús de Miramar off in the distance, with its beautiful pearl-grey dome. It would have had a vast rural rolling landscape to itself, an opalescent island in a sea of emeralds. But now that church, still with all its attractions, has been rendered less significant, dwarfed by recently constructed hotels, the Havana Trade Center, and the beginnings of new residential neighbourhoods.
Traffic on the highway below seems light — a few speeding toy cars well spaced, now and then a toy lorry loaded with cement blocks. People will casually sidestep onto the sidewalk to avoid the occasional bus jammed with people. A former beauty queen from Venezuela is touting Reduce Fat Fast pills on the twenty-two-channel universe, and gives different numbers to call for different Latin American countries. Each country is listed on the screen, except for Cuba, where obesity is rare, beauty contests are considered moronic, and few people have credit cards.
Winter storms have paralyzed traffic in Istanbul, airports have been turned into dormitories in Athens, in Toronto it’s fifteen below — but in Cuba it looks like another fine day with hot sunshine. The only snow is on an old man’s beard and the only ice is in his first drink of the day.
The flight from Toronto was full of people from Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New York. They were a serious bunch, curious about Cuba rather than just wishing to sprawl mindlessly on the beach for a week. They were more interested in sizing up the island, sniffing out opportunities. A group of five had been corresponding with the Council of Cuban Churches and were now excitedly going over their maps and discussing their plans to visit every single one of the Protestant churches in Cuba — dispensing advice, no doubt. Nine out of ten such churches are said to be lacking pastors. Anti-abortion feeling is high among the faithful, and the more outspoken get thrown in jail. The non-Cuban world, including Amnesty International, calls these people dissenters. Most Cubans call them worse names. What seems clear is that there is a long-standing majority tradition in Cuba of considering a woman’s desire for a safe abortion to be inviolable.
At the José Martí Airport last night, it was like being trapped inside an ant’s eye. Every television monitor was showing a weary but passionate old Fidel giving yet another speech. We were in Toronto when he started and he’s still at it, with no notes, no teleprompter, and no wire in his ear feeding him lines by his brother Raúl. The speech is being delivered to the people who love him and understand him, and anyone else who wants to tune in. Passengers disembarking stare at the tv screens with an unconscious look of disdain, as if at the shock of actually seeing Fidel on the tube speaking, instead of being the invisible subject of unfriendly one-sided roundtable discussions on the U.S. networks. [Note: This was the speech in which Fidel said that President George W. Bush couldn’t debate a Cuban ninth grader, and that after four decades of economic blockade the Cuban economy is in better shape, in certain important ways, than the U.S. economy, which is hanging by a thread. Also, he said once again that Bush was actively plotting to have him assassinated and planning to invade Cuba. Cubans should get ready to defend their country with guerrilla tactics. He may even have mentioned bomb shelters.]
A. lives in Toronto and doesn’t travel much these days. She has been generous with her memories of her two-week urban ramble in Havana ten years ago, all the little details from beginning to end. For starters, she related how high-spirited schoolteachers from southern Ontario filled the plane with their crazed screams and sudden eruptions of funny noises and silly remarks. The pilot was careful not to break the law by flying the more direct route over the United States, which would have saved an hour of corny jokes. After the teachers staggered off the plane in Varadero, A. was the sole passenger to continue to Havana. She said she felt like a shadow. The one person on duty in the dimly lit customs shack had no desire to look at her shadowy passport, her shadowy bag, or to ask where she planned to stay. There were no taxis or buses waiting.
In the tropical night, gawking up at the full moon among the towering royal palms, she was approached by a friendly tall beanpole of an Afro-Cuban and his very short black wife, plump and with a sense of humour. They said they were driving into the city. They often drove out to the airport to watch the Canadians disembark, to see the joy on their faces as they feel their bones thawing, their allergies disappearing, their sex glands self-secreting. Did they actually say that about the sex glands? A. laughed and admitted she made that up. So, could they have the pleasure of her company? They would drive her into the city and help her find a hotel. Of course!