The city fell away quickly, replaced by a rich, uncomplicated greenness. We could feel at last, as our van sailed east toward Santa Clara, that we were in the Caribbean.
Havana, for all its humid decay, still seemed more like a major metropolis than an island capital. The countryside also had something of this grand scale: endless rows of sugar cane, men on horseback under a spacious sky, ranges instead of mere mountains. But there were familiar, tropical touches as well: straw hats, tiki huts, people with bundles waiting patiently for lifts, though often their numbers grew so high that they formed the equivalent of a big-city bus stop.
It was hard to place Cuba. When you arrived you saw the conditions and concluded that they were much worse than anything you'd seen in other socialist countries. Though that was in Europe. So you moved your field of comparison and decided: It's not so bad when you look at many other parts of the Caribbean.
But then you realized that this was not quite fair, either: Cuba is not just an island, it is a country the size of Florida. It once possessed a technologically sophisticated society, though one with a brutal divide between rich and poor. By the end of the 19th century, Cuba had more railroad lines, for its land mass, than any country in Latin America; in 1921 it also claimed more telephones per capita. As the '50s arrived, urban households gleamed with modern appliances. Wormold, the hero of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, sold vacuum cleaners on Lamparilla Street.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. It looked like the middle of nowhere, but a band appeared, with CDs for sale.
"I'm going to read your story," Ruth from Tamarac warned me. "And then I'm going to write to your editor and say that my impressions were completely different."
"I find the people very nice," someone commented. "Not depressed."
I took issue with the second part, mentioning my visit with Juan, the schoolteacher living with his son in a one-bedroom apartment.
"Well, he's doing better than me," Wanda said brusquely.
"Wanda," I said, "you're HERE! On VACATION! You paid over $2,000 for this trip!"
"You need to talk to a wider range of people," she said. "I think as a reporter you should get a more balanced view."
I remembered my care package -- aspirin, soaps, pens, shampoos, Band-aids, a couple baseballs. I had been saving it for Juan, but now I was tempted to give it to Wanda. "Wanda, I'm sorry, I didn't realize things were so bad for you in San Jose."
A light drizzle was falling when we stopped at the Vocational School for the Arts for a subdued performance by expressionless students in an auditorium smelling of gasoline.
Our hotel was just down the road, a leafy complex of thatch-roof bungalows reminiscent of a Yucatán resort. I ended up in one of the more modern dwellings, with a window looking out on dripping vegetation. I missed the Sturm und Drang view from the Hotel Presidente.
A kindly bus driver gave me a lift into town. It too reminded me of Mexico, with its low, faded buildings framing a central plaza. The door and windows of the library were open to the night, and you could see students sitting at large desks under harsh strip lighting and a portrait of Che.
In front of the Teatro La Caridad, I ran into Sonia, Ellen and Chip. We piled into La Marquesina bar next door and ordered beers. A weathered farmer offered us each a potato chip from his bag, and then recited a poem to Ellen. Outside she said:
"He told me I was the first American he had ever spoken to."
We washed a bad dinner down with delicious mojitos and then took a stroll. Popping into a bookstore, Sonia asked the young clerk if he had anything by Reinaldo Arenas. She had read Before Night Falls, and seen the movie. The clerk said he didn't know the name. I remembered that the Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman, on a visit in the '80s, had described Cuba as a country with 99 percent literacy and nothing worth reading. The flimsy daily Granma was an embarrassment even in the half-light world of party organs.
Just as we were about to look for a taxi, a Valentino appeared in a black leather jacket.
"Los Caneyes?" he asked, saying the name of our hotel.
His ancient Lada stalled three times before we reached the corner.
"My girlfriend," he said in Spanish, "she plays the violin at your hotel." He also said he had a brother in Miami. Then he pushed in a cassette; it was not the girlfriend, it was someone other than the Righteous Brothers doing Unchained Melody. And within two seconds we were all singing along, loudly, passionately, unabashedly. "Are you still miiiiiiiiiinne?"
It was totally spontaneous, and strangely beautiful, belting out this song from our youth in an antique Russian car driven by a black-haired Adonis in the Cuban interior. It was like a scene from a movie; an unexpected moment of lightness, and connecting, the first real one of the trip.
(Only later did it occur to me how fitting, from an exile's perspective, that song's lyrics are.)
"Cuban people don't like vegetables," Gustavo said.
"I can't imagine," said Tamara, "a whole country that doesn't like vegetables."
But when we arrived at the office of the model family practitioner the next morning, we were told that the biggest health problem in Cuba was hypertension, due to a poor lifestyle. We were enlightened regarding the successes in responding quickly to emergencies and in preventing teenage pregnancies. (The news that teenagers don't need parental permission to get contraceptives, which are free, won applause from the two ladies from Tamarac.)
Someone asked about AIDS. Silvia, interpreting, said that a person who tests positive for HIV is taken to a place, "a sanitarium, and is treated, and taught to be responsible. And when he is responsible, he leaves."
Outside, Michael, the only member of our group fluent in Spanish, said: "The doctor was less clear on the leaving part."
We then traveled to the model policlinic. Four beds with scraped metal posts filled one room. Sheets were worn thin, and dotted with holes. A lone patient grimaced while his wife shooed a pesky fly from his face. The windows were open wide to the street.
Out in the corridor, Sonia whispered: "Tom, if anything happens to me on this trip, promise you'll make sure I get sent home."
Bernie said: "Very impressive. For a low-tech system, very impressive."
(After the trip, I got a message from Bernie informing me that he had sent the clinic some costly and badly needed equipment.)
In the afternoon, we visited the Che memorial and museum. (When I had told Juan that I was coming to Santa Clara, he said he'd been to the town, but had never visited either.) We parked to the side of an empty expanse fronting a large statue of the revolutionary. The words Hasta La Victoria Siempre (Ever Onwards to Victory) blazed underneath. It was in Santa Clara that rebels led by Che had won one of the last battles in the war against Batista.
From the memorial -- with its tablets to those killed with Che in Bolivia -- we entered the museum. Here captioned pictures stretched back to his seminal bicycle journey around South America, his medical school years, his comfortable, middle-class childhood in Argentina. There was an arresting photograph of him, shortly after the revolution, sitting with his mother and younger brother at José Martí airport, the three of them sharing a laugh as if in some student center during Parents' Weekend. Pale, soft, almost pudgy, he rarely resembled the iconic poster boy.
"Only two people could go in his office without knocking," Gustavo said. "Not Castro. Camilo and Ochoa." This, he explained, was the general convicted in the drug trafficking scandal in 1989 and executed. Wrongly, Gustavo thought. "He did some great things for the revolution."
We moved to a video of rebels singing a revolutionary song. Gustavo sang along softly; not for us, I sensed, but out of true conviction.
Alice, who had taken to wearing an "I Cuba" button, was red with tears.
Back in the van, Gustavo asked if we'd enjoyed the museum.
"Yes, it was very educational," said Wanda. "It's so nice to be in a place where you can learn about history. In our country they just want to keep everybody ignorant."
The tour was winding down. Evening rains held us captive at the hotel. I found Ellen and Tamara in the open-air bar drinking sodas with Gustavo.
"People think we hate the Cubans in Miami," he said. "But we have friends and family there." He claimed that, of his high school class, he was the only one still living in Cuba. "I have an uncle in Miami. He went over in a raft. He stole the car of a colonel and then used the engine for the raft."
He took a sip of his soda. "With the Soviet Union, we were spoiled. We lived in a glass bubble ... "
It was all so obvious, but somehow startling coming from our guide. "Cuba has to move forward," he said. "We have been the same ... while the rest of the world has moved on. We have to move, too."
He added that he had plans to start business school; he wanted to be prepared for whatever came next.
After dinner we dashed through the rain to the bar again. Cuban music was playing, and we watched Gustavo dance with the souvenir saleswoman. They looked like professionals, executing complicated footwork and synchronized spins. They were all grace and sensuousness. Then she left and American music came on. We got up, joining our guides, bumping and grinding, the smooth and sensual now reduced to the inane and suggestive. A few couples formed, youth with youth. It was the wet tropics, and the last night away from the capital ...
Friday, we returned to Havana for our farewell meeting, complete with hors d'oeuvres. (Of course -- the evening we had reservations at a paladar.) Carlos from the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples wanted to know our thoughts.
"First, I want to thank the guides and the drivers," Alice said. "This has been a wonderful tour. Let's hope that we can have peace in our world."
Carlos looked pleased, then asked what suggestions we had for improving the tour.
"More time at the Che museum," said Alice.
"It would be nice to stay with families," said Phyllis. "I don't like staying in fancy hotels in poor countries."
"I would like to meet musicians in the street," Michael said.
"See a nice small town," added his wife, "with a church."
"Meet Fidel," said Chip.
"I would like to meet Fidel," said Carlos. "I would like to shake his hand. But did you feel that you were hearing the truth?"
"Not everybody has answered us as truthfully as we would have liked," said Lois, Ruth's Tamarac friend. "Let them know that we know that they were not up-front with us."
"I felt that people were very up-front," said Alice. "I'm not a naive person. I worked in L.A. I think people were being polite."
"It's not a perfect world," said Chip.
"Chip the peacemaker," Sonia whispered to me. "It's beautiful."
"You're never going to get all the answers to your questions," he said. "That's why you go on."
Back at the hotel, after a lobster dinner, I packed my bags and stared out the window. Faint lights speckled a dark thicket of dwellings, while off to the right, a black void sent waves billowing over the seawall. At night, too, the city loomed like a ghostly vessel, fighting through squalls, and going nowhere.
Travel Editor Thomas Swick's column appears every other Sunday. Call him at 954-356-4731; or e-mail him at email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, CT Now