A transforming glimpse of Cuba

I looked up from the table in time to see a face pressed against the window of the hotel coffee shop. The man was in his 20s, his hands in the pockets of a dark-blue baseball warm-up jacket. His eyes ran quickly around the room, over the wicker chairs and tropical vegetation, stopping on the foreigners in twos and threes or, like me, alone. When he finished, he dropped his eyes and merged back into the sidewalk traffic, his shoulders hunched as if he didn't want to be remembered. I finished a cup of tea and walked to the front of the hotel, where I signaled for a cab.

"Restaurante La Guarida, por favor," I said. The driver paused, then shook his head. He knew from my accent I didn't speak Spanish well, and he tried his halting English. "It is closed. The restaurant closed one year ago. It is not there."

"But I spoke to the owner yesterday. They are expecting me."

"No, it is closed. It does not exist. I do not know where it is."

I handed him the owner's business card, with a map on the back.

"See, here it is. On this map. Near El Capitolio."

He glanced at the card, then turned away. Other taxis were edging up behind. The hotel's door guard, whose job it is to make sure foreign guests aren't hassled by Cubans, started walking toward us. The driver slid his fingers back and forth along the rim of the steering wheel, then slowly reached down and turned the ignition.

We merged into traffic behind an old pale-yellow Chevy. Havana is a fascinating city, a veritable museum of the 1950s. Magnolia trees still grace white mansions. The sun and sea soften moods. But Cuba did not feel like a place to relax. We passed a policeman in a black beret and boots, fingering a notebook, inserting himself into a crowd of teenagers.

As we turned onto the Malecon - a famous mile-long oceanfront boardwalk that runs along the main downtown street - the wind whipped salt water into the air. Suddenly, a wave jumped the seawall and smashed against the driver's window. Startled, he moved the car toward the center of the road. We soon turned off onto a narrow street. The sun had barely set, but the street appeared already to have reached midnight.

Calle Escobar looked like Hollywood's idea of the year AD 3000, when human life has been sucked dry of beauty and compassion by some alien government. Almost every building had lost its paint and some part of its structure. The sidewalks were empty. All color seemed to have been drained from the landscape, leaving a deathly gray. We stopped in front of a doorway, and I half expected rats to come scurrying out. "La Guarida," the driver said, and motioned up.

I slowly entered the lobby and heard a television upstairs. On the second floor I noticed a family sitting on a single gray sofa, watching a program on an old black-and-white TV. There were no walls, only a curtain, as if they had created an apartment on the landing and were willing to have their life partly visible in exchange for a warm place to live.

I continued climbing. At the top was a large wooden door. There was no sign, but the door was sturdy and well constructed. I knocked.

As the door opened, yellow paint splashed my eyes. The room was crowded with couples engaged in conversation. Some were Cuban, some foreign. Then Enrique came to greet me. "Keith! You found us," he said. "Welcome!"

"The cab driver said you had closed," I said.

"They all say that. We won't pay them bribes. But people find us, as you can see."

The restaurant was crowded. In one room, a dozen American tourists had pushed tables together and were shouting jokes at each other. One of the walls held pictures from "Strawberry and Chocolate," a famous Cuban movie that had been filmed there. On another, Enrique and his wife, Ode, posed with various customers. I recognized the Queen of Spain.

"She heard about us," Enrique said. "When she visited Cuba, she insisted on coming here, even though the government wanted her to eat only in their restaurants."

We walked to a balcony overlooking the street, and I asked how he liked living here, considering the obvious problems in operating a private business like La Guarida.

"I love Cuba," he said. "It's my home." He laughed. "Besides, most of my friends have left, and there's not much competition for a good restaurant."

How did the government treat him?

"I have no complaints. Why would they shut us down?" he said. "The law allows 12 seats in a private restaurant, and we are bigger, but they need tourists, and La Guarida is famous. Besides, I pay all my taxes." He smiled. "I'm a good businessman."

Ode came out of the kitchen, and we shook hands. "Please," she said. "Come sit down. The fish is excellent today. Enrique was at the docks before the sun came up." I looked over at him, impressed.

"You have to be there when the fishing boats come in," he said. "That's the only way to compete against the government."

After dinner, when I stepped outside, I noticed children playing beneath the crumbling facades. Figures emerged from shadowy courtyards to talk quietly with each other. An old woman in a doorway showed me where to find a taxi.

Something about the street felt suddenly peaceful, as if I had seen a glimpse of the real Cuba inside, or at least a part of it, and now I was more aware of it outside, too.

When I arrived back at the hotel, I didn't want to go inside quite yet. I walked around, crossed the street to the park, and sat on a bench, listening to the rhythm of Cuban music coming from a car radio. Something to my right caught my eye. A policeman had tucked his notebook under his arm and was helping an old woman lift a heavy bag onto her shoulder.

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