Bucket brigade

Flower vendors along the sides of Santa Clara's Parque Vidal. (Staff/Thomas Swick / April 15, 2002)

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 Yucat√°n 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.