There was something banging on my door when I woke up. Then I heard a small child laughing and then something scurrying away. Then I head someone with a stern voice, and then I heard nothing. And then I heard it all over again. Weird way to wake up. I guess it was around noon at that point, and it took me a while to convince myself that getting my head off of that immaculate pillow was worth it. I grabbed some lunch down the street and found my way back to the house and up to their roof. From that height I could really see how terribly the cyclone had destroyed the city. Most of the roofs were ripped off and reconstruction hadn’t begun yet.
Right before I took a nap, I asked if my clothes could be washed, which they happily agreed to, and then after I woke up the professor let me know that two pairs of my underwear had lots of holes in the crotch area. Huh, I see. But not to worry! He told me that his wife was already working on sowing up the holes for me, no extra charge. I was about to tell him that I’d sooner throw them out, when I remembered that while The Barracuda and I were walking through the streets of Havana, we saw a guy in the street painting a fan cover. I had never seen that before because when a fan cover gets too old or is just ruined, we throw it away. Why paint it? Same with “distressed” boxers, I suppose, and as I sit here writing, I feel in my boxer-briefs a beautiful symbol for the resourcefulness of the Cuban people.
However, back to the rooftop. There is a sort of shack up there, but really just two cement walls with a roof attached; one open side is looking out over the houses, and the other side open to the water. Underneath the makeshift roof theres a lone chair and to the left of that chair is pile upon pile of literature that’s been ruined by the storm and then dried out. Old magazines, books of Cuban history, but mostly old newspapers lined the entire wall. I take a seat and open up David Copperfield. I’d been trying to blow through that book for all of my Malaysia/Singapore trip the month before but every single sentence in the book is just dripping with plot which makes 900 pages into 9,000. The professor’s wife appeared, starting to hang up my symbolic clothes to dry. She saw me and I got up to say hello, but she just gave a slight smile and waved me back down. This woman, this beautiful woman, with dark skin and sun kissed dark hair mixed with grey that went down her back, had a tank top and long skirt blowing in the wind. She started talking about what happened in the storm, and she would put her hand up to her face to block out the sun and stare forward overlooking the sea, just like David Copperfield did when Steelforth was grasping on to the mast in the middle of the raging storm as the ship was going down. She never smiled when she didn’t absolutely need to, and when I talked she looked me square in the eyes and waited for me to say something that was important enough to take her away from what she was doing. Oh, I loved that woman and all of her sincerity. And that’s how I passed the whole day, hours and hours up there on that roof, out of the sun, with all those damaged newspapers next to me, plowing through David Copperfield.
The next day I woke up early and after a delicious hot chocolate I started a trek to “El Yunque,” a mountain top that looks like an anvil, which is yunque in spanish. Obviously I got lost immediately but that was a great excuse to talk to the locals and at one point I walked alongside a tiny Cuban lady carrying tubs of water for at least a mile. By that point I was deep in the forest and she pointed me in the direction of a chocolate factory that was commissioned by Che after the war. Once again, there was that love of Che in her eyes, and in front of the factory was a huge mural dedicated to him. Deep into the mountain I encountered a group of seven women and one man who spotted my Brooklyn Winery T-shirt (what else?) and started up a conversation with me about home. They gave me sunscreen and water (“Oh please,” they said, “we’re moms!”) But it was a hell of a four hour hike in, and an equally beautiful four hour hike out.
When I got back to the professor’s house, I heard that same small voice that woke me up and snuck a peak in the kitchen. There was the professor’s wife, and a much, much, much younger . . . twin? Dark skin, sun kissed hair, but this couldn’t be. Oh goodness, it must be his daughter, and that must be his granddaughter. The daughter saw me stick my head in and then pull it out immediately and she called me back in. I was ordered to sit down and she proceeded to grill me about what my life was like in the United States. She wanted to know how big my apartment was, how much money I made, what my family did, and child support laws. The whole time she was swatting away the flies circling around her food and yelling at her daughter to be quiet. But whenever I stopped she told me to keep talking, she wanted to know more. It turns out that the father of her child had recently walked out to live with his mother claiming that it was all too much for him. Just like her mother, she looked into my eyes and waited for me to say something spectacular. Had I gotten lost and hiked into an alternate heavenly universe? I cannot say. But she told me that she worked at a bar down the street and I should come and get a mojito that night.
So I found myself at a cafe in the middle of town, with an open courtyard and I sat down to read some more. The thing with Dickens is that he’ll describe something in so much detail that you basically become numb, a bit frustrated, and exhausted to the point where you want to scream, “Alright I get it! She’s wearing a fucking white shoe!!” And at that point he writes the perfect line. A perfect line of enormous poignancy and emotion, it hits you out of nowhere and breaks you down. It’s why I continue to plow on. But with this book, in that moment, he did it with an entire chapter. David Copperfield decides to embark on a journey, one that he takes by himself. The chapter was titled “Absence” and it describes him trekking to Switzerland and working with the locals for a few years. It was written with a pulled back point of view, no real daily details, just David realizing that his sadness was building for a while and he needed time to emotionally recoup. He hikes deep into the mountains and finds a place so beautiful that he finally breaks down over the death of his wife.
It is not in my power to retrace, one by one, all the weary phases of distress of mind through which I passed. There are some dreams that can only be imperfectly and vaguely described; and when I oblige myself to look back on this time of my life, I seem to be recalling such a dream. I see myself passing on among the novelties of foreign towns, palaces, cathedrals, temples, pictures, castles, tombs, fantastic streets—the old abiding places of History and Fancy—as a dreamer might; bearing my painful load through all, and hardly conscious of the objects as they fade before me. Listlessness to everything, but brooding sorrow, was the night that fell on my undisciplined heart. Let me look up from it—as at last I did, thank Heaven!—and from its long, sad, wretched dream, to dawn.
For many months I travelled with this ever–darkening cloud upon my mind. Some blind reasons that I had for not returning home—reasons then struggling within me, vainly, for more distinct expression—kept me on my pilgrimage. Sometimes, I had proceeded restlessly from place to place, stopping nowhere; sometimes, I had lingered long in one spot. I had had no purpose, no sustaining soul within me, anywhere.
Dickens writing a chapter about traveling while I’m in the most isolated part of Cuba with the rain pouring down through the open courtyard. . . . come on, can’t beat it.
Overwhelmed by Mr. Copperfield and the way the professor’s daughter’s curly hair fell on her face, I forgot what the name of the bar was and got lost for an hour trying to find it. I went back to the house defeated and asked the professor where his daughter worked. Well, he said he had no idea what it was called. Did his wife? Not a clue, but he thought he could find it by walking. So I walked through the dark streets of Baracoa with my future father-in-law to win the love of his family by buying mojitos. We walked through the door to an empty restaurant, his daughter saw me with her father and gave me such a confused reaction that I thought maybe I should have stayed at home. The professor asked for two mojitos and started into another tirade about the quality of water.
“It’s the purest quality in all of Cuba!” The bartender nodded along. “You can drink it right off the tap!”
The heavyset girl in the back with a low-cut shirt nodded along. The daughter nodded along.
“The chocolate! The rainforest!” They all nodded along.
The bartender came over and sat down at the table across from us. I asked why there wasn’t this quality water in the rest of the country. “Well!” They shrugged their shoulders and went into the differences in political structures here in Guantanamo and in the rest of the country. The girl in the back nodded along. I remarked how Che’s face was everywhere that I went and they smiled softly and talked about how he came at the end of the war and opened the chocolate factory to give everyone jobs.
“You don’t understand,” they said. “Before the revolution, Baracoa was the land of the poor. Nobody came to teach us, nobody came to offer us medical care. And Che, Che the doctor left his home to fight for us here in Cuba. He fought for people that weren’t his people.” Everyone nodded along.
The bartender started in, “You have to understand, that Che had everything he could want here, he was in charge of the military.”
“The central bank too,” said the girl in the back. “Yes, and the bank. And what did he do? He left. He left to fight against imperialism in other countries. He left the comforts to continue the fight. Because he believed that all people had the right to rule themselves.”
With all this love for Che, I asked if Cubans feel the same for Fidel? The bartender looked me dead in the eye and said, “Mas”.
“Mas?” I said.
“Mas”. Everyone nodded along. “Because Fidel stayed. Fidel and Raul stayed and put the proposals into action. You see, Che and Fidel had the same greater goals, but they differed in it’s implementation. And when Che left, well,” he trailed off. “Look,” the professor continued, “Fidel said he wanted to do something, and then he made it happen. If someone said something was impossible, Fidel did it anyway. When he said education for all, he meant education for all. If there was a child in the middle of the rainforest, like here in Baracoa,” at this he lifted up his index finger in front of him. “Fidel” a pause, “put a school on top of the child” and his other hand came down and covered the finger. “If there is a child in the middle of the desert,” finger up “Fidel put a school there” hand down. “Y la democracia?” I asked. “Poco poco,” he replied. Little by little. I was quite blown away by their knowledge of international affairs and their own political structure. The girl in the back, who I assume was a dishwasher, would always interrupt to correct dates and give an opinion. It seemed like everyone did have an incredible education.
But those mojitos had really moved through me and as I walked into the bathroom the daughter called out, “Wait! We don’t have any running water.”