Watching Cuba Watching

May 3, 2011 | 26 19 min read

I am in Havana, sitting next to Pepé on the seawall of the Malecón. The news tells me that Cuba is changing, but the sun still looks like a tangerine soaked in blood. We watch it sinking fast into the ocean.

My traveling companion KC had asked Pepé to take our picture because he looks to be in his eighties, and we don’t think he will get the wrong idea. At twilight the Malecón, a sidewalk running between a busy boulevard and the sea, is where lovers stroll, teenagers fight and prostitutes prey. We have only been in Cuba for a few days and still don’t fully understand the dual currency system and public transportation, but we know the pervasive hiss of a Cuban man.  A hiss seems to mean anything from a catcall to a simple hello, yet it sounds menacing in our ears.

“Are you going to stay for the cannon show?” Pepé asks, after KC explains how to work her digital camera. “There is a cannon show at 9 p.m. every night.”

Pepé takes our photo and then sits between us. His face is tanned dark and is wrinkled like a raisin; his light blue eyes are filmy with cataracts. KC’s red curly hair and white freckled skin look exotic next to his. Our six legs dangle above the rocks and water. The night is warm, and we drink pineapple juice mixed with rum, tasting a little salt in each sip from the sweat on our lips.

Pepé tells us what the houses lining the Malecón used to look like before 1959. He braces himself on the seawall with one hand while sweeping the other across his body with a flourish. “They were beautiful,” he says. “They were the most beautiful!” I think I can imagine how they might have been, tall townhouses with ample porches and breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. But now the homes are hunched over, with sagging roofs, broken windows and peeling paint.

“Was it better back then?” I ask. I assume Pepé would have been around our age when Batista was still in power.

He shrugs his thin shoulders.

I still haven’t learned that questions like this make some people uncomfortable. I check KC’s watch. It’s forty-five minutes until the cannon show. Pepé’s loafers dangle higher than our flip-flopped feet; like his body has shrunk from too much heat in the dryer. My heels have been beating against the wall to a rhythm I can’t place. I will them to stop, to just dangle. I breathe in the salty air, in through my nose, out through my mouth.  I press my heels together, my ankles, my knees, my thighs, and release.

“I am retired, but before, I worked at a store,” Pepé says softly. His Spanish is hard to understand.  It comes out when he exhales, in phrases bunched into what sound like single words.  “When he came to power,” Pepé scratches his chin to make the sign of a beard, “I worked on the roads, construction.”  He pauses. “The roads are nice, si?”

We nod and know that scratching his chin signals that he is referring to Fidel. I had read about the thousands of neighborhood watch teams that Fidel employed, not to protect the streets from drug dealers or burglars, but from dissidents, counterrevolutionaries.

“But yes,” Pepé says quietly, “it was better before.”

We continue to sit, and I stretch my legs long, trying to touch my toes to the water. “Ten cuidado! Be careful!” Pepé says. “When I was a boy, I once saw a shark when I was swimming out there!”

“What kind of shark?”

“Do you think I waited around to see?!” Pepé cackles and slaps his knees.  He looks at KC’s watch.  “It is almost time.”

We sit up straight. It is dark now, but I get my camera out just in case.  I strain my ears to hear and my eyes to see.

A single cannon goes off, we hear it in the distance. Pepé swings his legs around the seawall. “I am going home.”

“Is it over?” we ask.

“Yes. And it is time for me to go to bed.”

I am sitting in a health clinic in Cienfuegos, a town off the southern coast of Cuba. Dr. Mario grasps the flabby underside of my right tricep and presses it to his face. “Do you know Gary Cooper?” he asks me in Spanish.


“You have never heard of him?”

“Is he an old movie star?” I guess, vaguely remembering my mom telling me that one of her girlfriends named her new Mini Cooper “Gary.”

“He was very famous,” Dr. Mario says. He speaks slowly and is easier to understand than most Cubans we have met, perhaps because the clinic I have come to is designated for tourists. “He came here once.”

It is stuffy in the clinic, and I’m feeling self-conscious about Dr. Mario’s face so close to my armpit. He looks to be in his forties, and I wonder if he knows his name reminds me of a Nintendo video game character.

My arm is covered in red welts that look like a topographical map of volcanos.  He raises my tricep to a 90-degree angle, and presses my elbow away from his face. I wince because this is the movement that makes my shoulder roll out of its socket.

“Am I hurting you?” he asks, looking puzzled.  My shoulder has dislocated two other times I have traveled outside of the US.  When it springs from its socket, my tendons release and only a doctor is able to put it back in.  In Spain, I became fluent in ways to explain my shoulder in the sling.  But that was years ago, and I have forgotten the conjugation.

“A shoulder I have is bad,” I tell Dr. Mario.  “At times it hurts me.”

“Oh, I am sorry, I will be more careful.”

I smile and try to relax my shoulders to prove that I trust him.

“Does your arm itch when it is wet?” he asks.

“Yes.” After leaving the heat of the interior of Cuba, in Cienfuegos we had chosen a casa particular, a home with a license to rent bedrooms, near the water. We have been swimming in the ocean ever since we arrived.

“Does your arm itch when it is dry?”


“Would you say that this thing is spreading?” Dr. Mario asks.

“I think it’s spreading a little.”

“Have you seen Back to the Future III?”


“Did you like it more than the second one?”

“Not really.”

“It’s on TV right now.” Dr. Mario’s nurse turns the TV on. “Some Miami channels come in right here.” Dr. Mario’s nurse wears a tight white blouse that shows her deep cleavage, and her skirt ends a foot above her knees. She wears white fishnet hosiery and a little white hat with a red cross on it. My sister received the same outfit as a gift at her bachelorette party. We have found in Cuba this is not just the uniform for nurses though. Every woman in uniform, from teachers to policewomen to shopkeepers, wears a similar variation of short skirt, tight top and fishnets in eccentric patterns and colors.  KC and I call them the naughties and delight over pointing them out to each other.  The naughty nurse was earlier acting as a receptionist.  Now with her in the room with Dr. Mario, KC has wandered in too and is standing by the doorway.  The health clinic for tourists is otherwise empty.   I see KC fingering her camera in her pocket, dying to take a picture of the most perfect archetypal example of a naughty.

Dr. Mario and the naughty nurse have become engrossed in Back the Future III.

“I have noticed a bit of bumps on my side too,” I say to get their attention.

Dr. Mario turns back to me, puts on his glasses and looks again.  “I think it is a rash. Yes, it is a rash.  I’ll give you some cream.”  He gives me calamine lotion, the same stuff I have been using.  My visit is pointless, but it only costs $25 dollars, the same as Dr. Mario’s monthly salary, if he is lucky.

“Have you ever seen Platoon?” he asks as we walk out.


“It’s a good movie. You should see it.”

Tony instructs us to find big rocks.  He wants to place big rocks behind the tires of his tiny red car so it does not roll down the road.  The road is black asphalt which is cracked and frying under the mid-day sun.  The road goes straight up the side of a tree-covered mountain, and the mountain looks steeper than a black diamond ski run.  Tony is old and rusty like his car, but he’s squatting in a sprinters pose behind the bumper as if he’s about to spring off the blocks.  He has all 130 pounds of himself pushing against the car, waiting for KC and me to produce rocks.  For the first few minutes of rock hunting, we have avoided the woods running alongside both sides of the road, but now I am starting to panic; I am starting to envision Tony’s car flattening him, so I run into the woods even though the grass is as tall as I am and the snakes are waiting to eat me.  When we find four big enough rocks and bring them to Tony, he talks to God as he places each rock behind each tire. Tony tells us that he thinks it’s the caja de cambia that is broken in his car.  Caja de cambia means box of change and at first I think he means a piggy bank, but then I think harder. It has to be something with the gear shifter, the transmission?  I look to KC, who doesn’t understand very much Spanish, but has a penchant for memorizing bizarre vocabulary.  She shakes her head no; she doesn’t know what it means either.

Tony’s car is a red Russian Lada that was probably built in the 70’s.  The cars in Cuba are either American and built before 1962 when the full embargo started, or Ladas from the 70’s and 80’s when Cuba was on good terms with the Soviet Union.  Seeing old cars zoom through Cuban cities has made me feel like I am magically living in the past, but right now there is nothing supernatural about a car in the middle of nowhere that won’t start.

Tony tells us to sit on the edge of the road and stop hovering.  KC gingerly extracts our water bottles and towels from the back seat.  The sun is directly overhead and her watch confirms that it is noon.  To cool down, we debate taking off our t-shirts and shorts and just being in swimsuits, but we decide that being hot is better than being sunburnt. We hide under our towels instead, marinating in our sweat.

We have hired Tony to take us to El Nicho, a set of waterfalls hidden in the forest 90 km inland from the southeast coast of Cuba. Public transportation and car services won’t go to El Nicho because too many vehicles break down going up and down the mountain and then can’t be rescued due to lack of traffic and portable phones.  Even though Raul Castro has just allowed Cubans to own cell phones, people are still without enough money for food.  Several Cubans we have stayed with have insinuated how they find the futile freedom insulting.

KC and I continue to sit under our towel tent as Tony continues to curse at his Lada and God.  There aren’t many cars to be had in Cuba and they are expensive to maintain because they’re so old.

The owner of our casa had arranged a ride for us yesterday.  When the driver arrived, KC left for a minute to buy more water.  The driver just saw me, a blonde wearing sunglasses, sneakers, a tank-top, and running shorts, waiting in a rocking chair with my bottled water, camera, novel, and sunscreen.  He turned his car around and left.  “That’s what I was afraid would happen,” our casa owner had said.  “You look too foreign.  Being caught driving a foreigner when you don’t have a license is a crime.  If caught, his fine could cost him many months salary.”  We hadn’t realized riding in a non-licensed taxi was a crime.  I felt embarrassed we had put him in that position, yet if car owners don’t get caught, their payoff is a small fortune.  This morning our casa owner called his friend Tony.  We are paying Tony $50 to take us to and from El Nicho, where we will get to swim in secret waterfalls at the top of a mountain, a magical experience we expect to talk about in tones of reverence for years to come.  For this trip Tony will receive the equivalent of almost five months’ salary.

Tony tells us the car is dead and KC and I confer as to whether he used the permanent or temporary verb form of to be.  “We will have to just sit here and wait for another one,” he tells us in Spanish.  And I want to tell him what a terrible idea this is.   Obviously no one will be driving by in this remote part of the country and even if they are, who will want to risk putting foreigners in their car, and how are we supposed to walk somewhere when Tony’s so old and it’s so hot and his caja de cambia, essentially his 401K, is broken, all because we wanted to swim in a waterfall and see places others can’t.

I say nothing and tilt my bottle of water his way.  He waves it off and says he will try the car one more time.

He turns the key, and the engine sounds like shoes in a washing machine, but at least it’s making noise. Tony yells for us to get in, “The car has started! Run!” He reaches over and opens the front passenger door, and we throw ourselves in.  We squish into this one seat, afraid to move, afraid to let one of our legs accidentally touch the gear shift.  We hold our breath and suck in our stomachs. From the way the car is bucking and inching up the hill, it looks like a low-rider with massive shocks.  I whisper that we are in a rap video, we are video vixens, and we start to laugh. Tony hears us laughing and he laughs too.  “Gracias Tony,” I say.

“Me? Thank Cuba!” he replies.  He starts to chant “Cuba.” Starting low and slow and getting faster, “Cooooooooooooobaaaaaa, cooooobbbbaaaaa, coooobbaaa!” he commands us to join. “Cooooobaaaa! Coooooooba! Cooooobbbaaaa!” we shout over and over, and the car doesn’t stop until we get to the waterfalls.

I am running in the sand shouting to a boy named Manny to pass his soccer ball “aqui, aqui! Here! Here!” My voice is loud and there is no inflection of a question in the words that come out of my mouth for I am feeling confident.

For three weeks, KC and I have been seeing boys play soccer in every city and town we visit, and I have watched with unfettered envy, having played soccer since I was five and desperately wanting to join but feeling too shy.  Besides, being foreign women traveling alone has created more attention than we have wanted or expected.  Playing soccer in the streets wouldn’t help our immersion. Yet the longer we are in Cuba, the more I have been fantasizing about a stray ball coming my way, and kicking it back with perfect precision and the eight-year-old boys cheering and begging me to join their team.

While KC and I are walking along the beach in the small town of Playa Siboney, the stray ball finally rolls my way. I kick the ball back firmly and with precision.  He kicks the ball back to me, and therefore I love him. Manny tells me in Spanish that he and his friends are seventeen and recently out of school for the summer holiday. He asks me if I am a professional soccer player and I am flattered, even though he only asks me this because girls in Cuba don’t play sports; he assumes I have to be.

“No, I’m not a professional.” I laugh.

“You don’t play?”

“No. Well, yes, I do.”  There was the rec league I joined in NYC the previous year, where our forty-minute games revolved more around the post Happy Hour spot than the actual soccer.  “I am on a team, but it’s not professional.”

“So you’re a professional?”

“No.  I’m on a team of people my age and older, people who have jobs, so yes they are called professionals, but they are not professionals at soccer. Just professionals at work.”

“Jorge ven aqui!” Manny shouts to his friend.  “La rubia es un jugador professionale!” The blonde is a professional soccer player! He turns back to me.  “Are you here with your team?”

Deciding I love the sound of jugador professionale, I relent. “No, It’s off-season right now, so I’m on vacation.”

We decide to play an actual game with the boys but opt to go back to our casa particular first to change into t-shirts and shorts.  We tell the boys that we will  be back in five minutes, and Manny and Jorge tell us to put on shoes too because once out of the shade, the sand gets so hot that our feet will burn.  They show us pieces of cardboard duct-taped to the pads of their feet.

As we jog to our house, I thank KC for humoring me.  “It will be good practice,” she says, “for when you start your job.”   Before leaving for Cuba, I had accepted a coaching position in NYC that would entail coaching high school boys around the same age.

“I know! Maybe they can give me some ideas.”

After changing, we race back to the beach only to find that the boy who owns the soccer ball has left.

“Do you want to go swimming with us instead?” Manny asks.

We look at the ocean. “Swimming in the ocean” for Cuban teens involves throwing a bottle of rum from person to person, and couples groping each other underwater.  “No,” I say.  “I think we’ll just read.”

We settle down on our towels and open our books. Moments later six of the boys are back, making themselves comfortable in the sand next to our towels.  They speak in rapid-fire Spanish. We had been able to hold our own when it came to soccer, hot sand, and my professional status, but now, we struggle to understand.  For a while we ask them to slow down por favor or we simply nod, “Si, estoy de acuerdo.”  Yes, I agree with you—something we have picked up when the owners of our casa particulars vent about the Cuban economy.  Eventually, Manny stops and slowly repeats himself.

“So you want to buy me?”

“What?” I say.

“Buy me. For the night. Or one hour if you like.” He shrugs one shoulder. “But you might want two.” Manny’s skin is tanned dark, he has floppy brown hair and looks to be too thin for his age. I want to take him to get his hair trimmed so he can see better and then buy him ice cream.

“No! No! I don’t want to buy you.”

His face falls and I look to KC as I feel myself blushing and talking faster and faster.  “Thank you for the offer.  It’s just that I don’t buy people. I don’t need to buy people.  In the States,” I jab a finger toward the ocean, “We are doing just fine, you know, without buying people.” For once, it’s the boys who are looking confused as I continue to babble.  “We don’t buy people.  You are not for sale.”

I have read about the Cuban sex trade.  We have seen older European men with Cuban girls whose little bodies barely fill out their bikinis. But we have watched from a distance.  Seeing the girls had sickened and saddened me, but I still felt like I was the observer, a sociologist of sorts.

“Yes, we are for sale,” Manny restates.  “Older women like to buy younger boys.”  He speaks slowly and deliberately so nothing is lost in translation.  His friends, who all look to be even younger, nod. “We pleasure them, and they buy us presents.”

“Listen,” I try again. “We can’t buy you.  I taught boys your age in school about books, and grammar and poems—”

“We can teach you too.”

“No, no.” I am feeling flustered.  These boys who were jabbering about how to make shoes out of cardboard are now asking us to buy their bodies.  Maybe these boys were just joking with us, maybe they thought we were somehow their age too.

“How old are these women who buy you?”  I ask.

“All ages. Some 75, others younger.  They like us young boys. You would too, yo prometo, I promise.”

KC and I are wandering down the beach, looking for a hidden path.  That morning the couple we were staying with told us about a hidden path off the beach which led to a wooden bridge and across the bridge, there is a village, and somewhere outside the village, there is a road and off the road there is a section of jungle and through the jungle there is an underwater cave that sometimes people lead you to for a small price.  But seeing as I still got confused when people directed us to go straight, derecho, versus turning right, derecha, and the air in Baracoa smelled like chocolate no matter where we walked, I didn’t have my hopes up for finding the cave.

Already the town of Baracoa had seemed mysterious, a city on Cuba’s easternmost tip— closer to Haiti than to Havana.  It was discovered by Columbus in 1492 but remained, essentially, only accessible by boat until 1964 when Che Guevara presided over the opening of a chocolate factory and a highway was built.

We spot the path and cross a river by walking across a bridge made of wooden beams.  Beside the bridge, shirtless men drag nets along the bottom of the river.  Small sail boats are tied to the edge of the river and on the other side is a village, just like we were told.   In the village we wander along a dirt road but then we don’t know what to look for.  Wandering has taken on a new meaning in Cuba; every day we wander, waiting for something to happen, hoping what happens will be good; it usually is.

An old woman beckons for us to enter her home off the dirt path. Her house is a small hut with an earthen floor.  Several rats as big as cats stare at us from the inside of two wire cages, while the woman cuts up mangos with a machete.  She hands pieces to each rat and to me and KC. She asks us if we have come to see the underwater cave.  She says, “We give tours for not much money.”

We see an old man sitting in a chair who looks to be the woman’s husband.  There are also two girls who look to be in their teens.  Each of the girls is breastfeeding an infant.  While the women speaks to us in Spanish about the underwater cave, the old man sits motionless in his wooden chair.  His chin rests against his concave chest and he appears to be sleeping.  The chair looks like it grew around him and if you cut him he would have rings of age too.  Yet when we agree to go on a tour to the cave, he quickly stands.  His puddle of wrinkles loosens and he looks younger, now maybe seventy years old instead of 1,000. Without speaking, he motions for us to follow him to the back yard.

Behind their house is a grove of very tall coconut trees.  A few giant hogs and a trail of piglets follow us through the grove and a younger man appears from behind one of the trees.  The younger man welcomes us and knocks coconuts down by throwing his machete at the high branches. He cuts the tops off the coconuts and gives them to us to drink.  When we are finished he tells us we can give our extras to the pigs.  “Are you ready to see the underwater cave?” the younger man asks.

The old man, still having not spoken is standing next to the younger man.  Again he motions for us to follow him. Then he starts to sprint, straight into the jungle.

KC and I run after the old man who is weaving through the jungle.  The path is narrow so we run in single file. While running I glance back at her while trying not to lose my footing.  She’s still there—she smiles.  The old man wears sandals and loose pants.  He sidesteps every tree branch, but they scrape across my face and when I look down I see that my arm is bleeding.  The blood looks burnt, and I wonder if my face is bleeding too, but I can’t stop because I can no longer see the coconut grove behind us, and we don’t know where we’re going.

After twenty minutes of weaving through the trees, the man stops abruptly in front of a tree with branches stretched like octopus tentacles.  I bend over and breathe hard, asking my heart not to explode. KC catches up, and we look at each other with big eyes. The man reaches for one of the branches and pulls down a rope ladder.  He mimes climbing and points at me to start.  My legs are shaky as I slowly move up the ladder.  At the top is a platform the size of home plate balanced between two branches. KC and I grasp the tree trunk between us with both hands as we both tentatively place our feet on the platform.

Wow, I try to say as I open my mouth wide, but no sound comes out.  It’s as if the man’s silence has rendered me mute.  I can see green mountains.  I can see El Yunque, a mountain with a flat top that Columbus had thought was a floating island over 500 years before. I lift to my tiptoes and I see the ocean; I think I see Haiti. We are on an island in the ocean, on a tree branch with an old man.  I look down the tree, and the old man has disappeared. Magical, I think. I am experiencing magic.

A moment later, I see that the old man has not ascended into heaven, the old man is removing rocks from his sandals.  He is breathing hard from running too, and I am looking at the top of his head.  When he looks up at me, I point out to the horizon, I point to our vista and call down the tree. “It’s amazing!” I say.  “Que bontia! What beauty! Is this all yours? Is this land in your family?”  He doesn’t answer.  Later that day, after we swim in the underwater cave, after more mango with his family, after holding the babies, I remember stupid, stupid, none of this is his.

I am standing in a bus station trying to see Raul Castro.  He is on a small, dirty TV hanging from the ceiling. The TV is on mute, but I can still hear his voice projected by loudspeakers across the city.  I am in Santiago de Cuba and Raul is making his first public speech since being appointed president.  He is 300 yards from the bus station, but he is in a park surrounded by tall yellow walls that make it impossible to get inside.

We have been in Cuba for 22 days.  It is July 26th.  On this day in 1953, Fidel and a group of 82 revolutionaries attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.  The attack failed, but the group later reorganized in Mexico. On New Year’s Day in 1959, when Batista and his family boarded an early morning flight to flee Cuba, Fidel and his revolutionaries had officially overthrown their government. It is the failed Movimiento 26 de Julio that is  celebrated, however, because it marks the first act in the ultimately successful revolution–a pre-pre-triumph. For many years, this was the only holiday that Fidel allowed to be celebrated. This particular July 26th is being hailed as the 50th anniversary of the final victory of the revolution.

The TV shows me that Raul is wearing the same Army green hat and jacket that he and Fidel always wear in public.  But he looks nothing like Fidel, besides being old.  He is shorter than Fidel and wears glasses.  A moustache has replaced the beard.

The reception on the TV is bad and lines run through Raul’s face.  Also, the bus station smells like mold, so I leave and try to get closer to the voice.  It has grown dark while Raul has been speaking, and from the way the stage is lit, the yellow walls now appear gold. I am alone because KC has a stomach bug and is trying to get some sleep in the casa where we are staying.  Outside the walls, I still can’t see Raul, so I leave to check on KC. The hilly streets in Santiago de Cuba remind me of San Francisco.  From every angle, I can see the Sierra Maestra Mountain range looming over the city, the mountains which Fidel and his men hid in before their final triumphal entry.  There is a soft breeze tonight, and I am enjoying the solitude.  I decide to walk the long way and buy KC lemon soda for her stomach before returning home.

Our only plan for our time in Cuba was to be in Santiago de Cuba for July 26th.  We left the US on our day of independence and wanted to get, on time, to the city where Cuba celebrated theirs. Since the day we arrived in the city, we have been asking official looking people when Raul would speak.  What time? What place? But no one seemed to know or care.  “In the morning?” a policeman would say.  “Late at night,” another would answer.  Maria, the woman whose casa we were staying in, explained that people were not very excited about Raul.  “He’s just the same,” she had said in Spanish.

“But what about the DVD players he is allowing and the cell phones and how you can go to the hotels?” I asked.  Under Fidel, Cubans had not been allowed in any hotels. Fidel hadn’t wanted his tourist base to see the hunger of his people.  The people still couldn’t afford a hotel, but I thought that the added freedoms must be a step in the right direction.

“He is just the same,” Maria repeated. “They make promises they can’t keep.”

To celebrate the Movimiento 26 de Julio, there has been a weeklong carnival with parades every day and parties every night that have lasted until six in the morning.  But now as I walk to buy KC the soda, for the first time I have been in Cuba, or any city for that matter, the streets are empty.  The emptiness feels eerie, as if the city has been raptured to somewhere else.  I hear no hissing, no rubia, no questions of where I’m from, no begging, all I hear is Raul’s voice.

Even though I can’t understand what he is saying, I can hear the rhythms of his oration, the rise and fall of his speech and the volume growing softer and louder.  During my time in Cuba I have understood a large amount of Spanish, but the voice filtered through the loudspeakers, his thick accent, the night, I can’t comprehend a word he says—as if he’s only telling Cuba his secrets.

Houses line the streets and the windows and doors of every house are open to catch the breeze.  I can see inside the homes because they are lit by Raul’s face.  In each house, families, couples and friends are gathered, their faces also illuminated by Raul.  Some of the homes are nice by Cuban standards with a couch, tiled floor and a fish tank on display, whereas others have dirt floors and plastic chairs, but almost every home has a TV.

I walk slower, unnoticed.  I watch a city watching Raul on the night of the anniversary of the revolution.  I watch a nation with the potential for magic, broken but tied to an event so many years before.  I watch Cuba watching for its demise or its triumph, afraid to admit its hope.

(All photos copyright the author)

is a writer and teacher living in Saint Louis, Missouri. She has contributed to The Rumpus, The Faster Times, and