There are places where you realize that between ecstasy and nostalgia there is less than a single step, that the boundary between fascination and destruction vanishes like a lump of sugar melting in a Ron Collins cocktail.
Cuba is like this-life manifests itself from all sides, without leaving you much choice, hierarchy or whatever order. Cuba is like salsa, which, in turn, is like the heat- it follows you everywhere. Cuba is a young girl with wet eyes and wet hips, and a young man with wet hands; you never realize whether it is from the heat or from something else. Cuba is a country, where everything is authentic- poverty, Castro, the clouds, hospitality, even that La Terrasa restaurant in Kochemar (if you remember the beginning of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea). How you are going to spend your time there depends exclusively on yourself. You can leave Cuba enchanted, or even more furious with socialism, drunk to death with Cuba Libre, or convinced that the wildest party on the planet takes place there; happy, or unhappy; yourself or somebody else.
My first impression of Cuba is La Habana, as the Cubans call it. It is like a fiction-city. The more you think about it, the more you doubt you have ever been there. I was charmed by the art museums, by the salsa-clubs where you start to wonder who was that wretch who coined the word "depression", by the incredible, almost Babylon diversity of languages, spoken by a world that renounces de luxe, fashion and high prices. My eyes moved along La Floridita, where Hemingway's favorite daiquiri is served, along Fidel's tanks and along whole neighborhoods lacking windows and electricity, where old Cubans were sitting on wicker chairs, smoking their cigars in the hot evenings and discussing the weather and all those things, which boredom has turned into necessity.
Raul, a 30-year-old taxi driver, was the first one to show me around La Habana. In Cuba, there are almost no buses because of the great depression in the beginning of the 90s. Taxis, however, are everywhere and are extremely cheap. Raul speaks English just as badly as I speak Spanish. To let him judge the situation I recited the only words I remembered from my Spanish classes:
Me gusta la leche, me gusta el cafu
Pero mas me gustan los ojos de Usted
(I love milk, I love coffee,
but mostly I love your eyes)
Raul laughed, then looked me in the eyes and recited back a long poem.
I looked around the room in Palacio O'Farrill Hotel, holding the typing machine and mused for a while over the best spot to place it. It was nothing much of a room: the ordinary hotel type with a lot of light and no personality; the pastel-green curtains certainly added a shade of melancholy, the queen-sized bed doubled my loneliness and the dark-green marble bath promised relaxing moments, but none of these counted toward the personality of a home. I was already used to the rootless life I had designated for myself and when I finally put the machine in the window niche, I didn't care much if I had made the right choice: it would only be there for a couple of weeks. Just until I looked around in another hotel room, maybe on the other side of the world, searching for where to place the damn typing machine.
I decided that I would unpack later, because my head was slightly aching from the flight and all the hustle about check-in, and I needed my mind cleared with a cup of strong coffee. I thought I would probably meet some interesting people downstairs, and could possibly use them afterwards. I stepped in the bathroom to look in the well-lit mirror. Hm, could have been better, I murmured and ran trembling fingers through my long straight hair, finally deciding on tying it up in a bun. I took a close-up at my face. Undereye shadows, pale skin... well, no sleep explains everything, no one would bother to think about it; a nice stylish suit should perfectly capture the attention off my face. I went back to the room and nervously burrowed into the suitcase to find something decent. As I think over it, I don't believe I have a style of my own: I just travel and comply with the fashions I encounter, without considering them, without slaving to them. Colors and fabrics swirled under my hands until I came across a classic light-gray suit that would be just about what I'd been searching for. With my ashen-blonde hair and almost colorless eyes, light gray would definitely keep me out of attention, which was what I needed at the moment.
I swayed down the stairs to the lobby bar. Accidentally I caught a glimpse of myself in a glass-case and was astounded by the apparent looseness with which the suit hung from my skinny shoulders. I felt myself floating like a ghost of no consistence. I shivered and hurried away from my vision toward a man who opened the massive glass-door of the bar for me. Another man showed me the way across the bar to a solitary table near the terrace. It was 7 p.m. and there weren't many guests at the bar; the staff was anxious to put everything in order for the upcoming evening. My steaming coffee came in an instant, together with a brochure, listing the visiting entertainers and the events that would take place tonight. I skipped through it with a world-weary fatigue and concentrated on the coffee. I picked up the small porcelain cup and stirred the thick cream, then closed my eyes and deeply inhaled the rich aroma. The first sip I kept in my mouth for a moment, being completely absorbed in the familiar, yet always exotic flavor of the hot drink. I love my little coffee ritual. It gives me a sense of security and coziness, no matter whether I'm in Alaska or in Cairo, in a group or all by myself.
In the past seven years I had toured most of Europe, parts of the United States, and several countries in South America. All in search of stories and characters. I had published two books out of my travel notes, and Sunset in Rio was definitely a success. That was all I was doing: travelling and writing about it. When I was nineteen, my mother went into a psychiatric clinic and the family fell apart. I was already quite aware of my choices, and exploring the world somehow won over taking care of my alcohol-addicted daddy and my three sisters in our dreary apartment in the North of Dublin. Without much encouragement I packed my typing machine, emptied my bank account and set off to the New World. I still remember the heavy rain pounding on the cab's roof, as it took me to the airport. That's a good sign, I thought.
I paid for the coffee and went out on the terrace. The heat hit me instantly, as if hot streams of air were shot at me under pressure. The suit uncomfortably stuck to my body and waving my hand to move the air around my face produced no result. I felt dizzy, my head spun, the scenery blurred before my eyes. I was on the verge of a collapse when I noticed a woman, leaning against the railings, slowly smoking and staring at me. She nodded. I pulled myself together and approached her in an unsteady pace, as if I was drunk.
"Good evening," I muttered hesitantly, not being quite sure in what language I should greet. For a moment, there was complete silence. The woman slowly exhaled the thick fragrant smoke of her cigar.
"Good evening," she said after a while in a deep, low voice with a strange, yet charming accent. I felt awkward, standing there, thinking of anything to start a conversation with. The woman wasn't helping me much: she stood still, gazing at the dusky city beneath. The hotel was situated in the old part of La Habana, and the authentic 19th Century neoclassical architectures around whispered about times long past. There was heavy, almost tangible silence hanging in the air. I settled by her side and rested my exhausted body upon the railings. Gravitation overwhelmed me: my sweating palms desperately gripped at the parapet, my eyes rolled into darkness. I was about to lose my balance, when a mighty hand clutched me by the arm and pulled me back out of the fit.
"Are you lonely?" the same low voice, followed by a small, floating cloud of smoke. I glanced at her in surprise, but she wasn't looking at me. In fact, she seemed so aloof that I doubted she had ever even opened her mouth. The silence extended through the heat and I speculated for a moment about my mind playing tricks on me. Just when I was starting to feel giddy again and was giving up any minute, among the interweaving ribbons of white smoke I heard the familiar throaty voice.
"You must be lonely," the woman concluded and mutely offered me a cigar. Cuba can't go without cigars, I thought and took it clumsily. She lit it for me and in the light of the flame, I could finally scan the contours of her face. She was in her twenties, with a profuse dark hair, waving down her back, pinned with jewels to her temples. Her lips were full and sensual, a bit pouted as if with caprice. Her long eyelashes delicately fluttered, covering her eyes from sight. The light went out and the image dimmed in the twilight. She doesn't belong here. No. She's just so, so, hmm... so ethereal? Speaks English, yet with an accent. Alone. Intriguing...
"You haven't smoked before, have you?" she broke my contemplation with a little laugh. I hadn't noticed her observing my amateur smoking skills and felt a bit embarrassed.
"No, not really," I mumbled, "I just... you know, it's Cuba. I'm a tourist and that's what tourists do, you know... taste countries."
"Speaking of that, I'm cloyed with Cuba already," she whispered confidentially, "And you are no tourist, I can see that."
.... There is more of this story ...