Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Stars and Rain and Strawberry Ice Cream

Viva Fidel!
Socialism! Si!
Siempre el Revolucion!
Viva Cuba Libre!
Viva el 26!
Socialismo o Muerte!
Viva Raul!
Unidos con La Patria!
Patria o Muerte!

These are but a sampling of the slogans that are neatly painted in flowing cursive in black and red on buildings and billboards all over Cuba. Socialism or Death. Unity, Strength, Liberty. Everything for the Revolution. Revolution Always. And here I am, idealist American, proud teacher of Fidel´s Socialist Revolution, my heart breaking and spilling its blood all over this wide lonely world, full to bursting because of a rainstorm or a line in a book that I can´t stop underlining, and, not for the first time, my world has been shattered. Whew, how´s that for Cuban drama?

Cuba is most definitely not a capitalist country, and before you think my disillusionment runs too deep, there are some truly admirable things that I relish about it. No ads, for one. Imagine a world without commercials, without twenty brands of competing toothpaste, without billboards on the highways (except for revolution slogans). Refreshing as the afternoon rain. No marketing, no bowing to the unholy dollar, unambitious display cases. And gardens everywhere! Looking out the window of the Chinese bus, brown rivers slinking through groves of banana trees, and rows upon rows of produce grown without pesticides. Cows and chickens that are actually roaming free, never caged or penned. No trucks hauling food across the island; it´s every hippie´s sustainable dream! People bring their own containers to ice-cream shops and women get a year of paid maternity leave. And since stores and restaurants are state-run, prices are regulated, which means easy budgeting and no getting ripped off.

But, alas, there are the downsides that I just couldn´t have foreseen. Today, for instance, as M and I walked in the steamy sun after visiting the Moncada barracks (where Fidel launched his very first insurrection in 1953), we saw people walking with cups of heavenly strawberry ice cream, but when we located the stand, a line snaked the length of an unfurled racetrack. Ditto for banks, internet shops (I´ve been trying for days to get on a computer!), birthday party supply stores, pizzerias, markets of all kinds. Buying a bottle of water in a market is a highly regulated procedure, whereby you must first check your bag, make your purchase, and then show your receipt to a guard at the door, who then folds it in half and makes a rip.

Since most people seem to need money, people have taken to renting out rooms of their homes, which is where we stay. Great for us, who get an intimate, personal experience of Cuban cooking (heavy on the butter and carbs and absolutely delicious!), decor (a fondness for fake flowers prevails), architecture (courtyards in the middle of the home, so when it rains you´re right there with it), and attitude (friendly and honest-- our current host built a special two-story bedroom for him and his wife, which he is now forced to rent out for 25 dollars a night to people like us).

And there´s more, but as usual, the hourglass is nearly empty. Despite the contradictions and heartbreaks of a post-socialist country badly in need of inkpens and hair conditioner, M and I are having a splendid time hopping across the lush island. We spent a few days bonding with a sugar-sweet Swiss family, swimming with 9 year old Kaspar at the beach, pushing one year old Marilyn in her baby carriage down cobblestone streets, dancing to back-alley music with more soul than this island can contain, but contain it does. When the lines are short enough, we wait for a taste of the sublime strawberry ice cream and curse Fidel for not putting fans in the grimy ice-cream shops. We walk around on poorly-lit streets in the rain, we swim in the warm Caribbean, and we thank those hazy stars, night after night, for all that we have.

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