When I learned that President Obama had eased restrictions on American travel to Cuba, I felt I needed to take him up on what I saw as a personal invitation. The impulse was strong within me, and in no time I had a ticket to Havana.
I stayed in the oldest, poorest neighborhood of Old Havana, on a street called Aguacate ("avocado"), where Jesús and María owned a casa particular, or private home, authorized by the government to rent rooms to foreigners. Simple, clean, bright, and with a charming inner courtyard, I felt immediately at ease and cared for. The second floor opened onto a terrace from which I could look down on Avocado Street and watch the passing parade.
On my first morning, I arose at 6. It was already hot, the air still, the sun brilliant. Havana is not whitewashed like many tropical island places, but rather dark and intimate without being claustrophobic. Avocado Street was typical of the narrow byways that transect the city. It was bordered by tall masonry apartments, many with small balconies draped with drying laundry, giving one the sense of living among the inhabitants, rather than observing them from a distance.
I leaned out over the railing of the terrace, watching Cubans alight from their doorways like actors coming onstage. A woman in shorts and halter top stepped into the street, brushing her hair. Three men, all shirtless, their bare chests glistening with sweat, maneuvered a concrete cistern into position for loading onto a truck. Another woman stood on the sidewalk, her hands on her hips and her head cocked upward, calling, in plaintive fashion, "Chino!" with a tone of hopelessness that Chino, whoever he was, would answer.
A bicitaxi – a foot-powered tricycle with a canopied passenger seat – glided down the street, the driver dexterously avoiding potholes, puddles, and pedestrians. Three little girls in flowered dresses followed their mother, like ducklings, going who knows where. And then, the icing on the cake: a 1956 Buick, seemingly in mint condition, putt-putted down Avocado Street like a motorboat, rolling slowly, majestically, demanding to be admired.
The woman was still waiting and wailing. María called me to breakfast, addressing me affectionately as mi vida ("my life"). She asked where I planned to go. I pointed to the door and answered, simply, afuera ("out there"). She nodded and smiled, then went about her business.
I set out onto Avocado Street, past the wailing woman, past the men struggling with the cistern, but the Buick was gone, replaced now by a thrumming 1950s-vintage Chevrolet Bel Air that bore the wounds of repeated patching and painting. As the day advanced, more Cubans appeared. Men, women, clutches of shirtless teenage boys, giggling huddles of teenage girls, and the ever-present ancient ones – slow-moving, deeply wrinkled and, sometimes, true-believing: One old man pressed a coin into my hand. It bore the image of the revolutionary Che Guevara and the words, "Patria o Muerte" (Fatherland or death). In Cuba there are martial and patriotic slogans to spare on billboards, monuments, and walls. "Onward to victory!" "The world capitalist crisis has arrived!" "Long live Latin American unity!"
But just as ubiquitous was music, an all-encompassing ether. On street corners, in the cantinas, and pouring from private homes. I paused to listen to a trio performing in a cantina. An elderly woman, shuffling along, stopped, put down her plastic bags of food, caught the beat, and rolled her shoulders girlishly before moving on.
Hot, crumbling, beaten-down, poor though it be, what struck me most about Havana was the almost total absence of advertising. It is vacant of neon tubes, department stores, and village-size parking lots. A pre-Wal-Mart culture.
One of my last visits was to a soaring white monolith at the Plaza of the Revolution, intended as an eternal memorial to Cuban ideals. I was not so much struck by the monument itself, but rather by the sight of buzzards circling the spire. Is Cuba, then, living on borrowed time?
On my last evening in Havana I went down to the Malecón, the long, broad promenade that stretches along Havana's waterfront. A young man selling trinkets identified me as an American. He wanted to know if Obama would change things. I assured him that he already had.
I was there, wasn't I?