In Cuba, the first thing I noticed was the advertising. As we drove from the airport to La Haban Veija, pictures of Fidel’s face popped up across the landscape like graffiti, haphazardly stenciled on the sides of buildings, oddly placed billboards, sometimes right onto the rocks themselves. There was always some quick, tight slogan in red beside it—Viva la Revolucion!
Perhaps it stood out to me because I was accustomed to American advertising, where each image barks some complex story at you. The stark bluntness of Fidel’s eyes, peeking up at us over the hilltops, felt almost refreshing.
Alden talked with our cab driver from the back seat. Alden had been my teacher in college. She also ran a writers retreat program to Cuba every year. She’d been inviting me to come along since sophomore year. After graduating, I decided to scrounge together the money and finally make it happen.
“Si, claro, claro,” Alden said.
The driver replied rapidly, tapping this finger against the window and the two broke out in laughter. I had assured Alden when signing up for the trip I knew some Spanish. Now I felt lost.
We were driving towards Havana, old Havana—a section of the city that had been mostly untouched since Spanish settlement in the early 1500s. La Habana Vieja (old Havana) sits in the heart of the capital city, bordering the original seaport that made Cuba such a contested hot spot for centuries. The architecture is grand, baroque even—European villas, French doors—even if the buildings themselves are falling apart. As we approached the Hotel Sevila, where we would be staying for the first week, I felt the sea. Its shimmer splintered across the cracked, old, wonderful, white rooftops.
A statue of a bald, Edgar Allen Poe type man rose up from a large, empty square bordered with palm trees. Huge and porcelain, the statue—very stoic like—shinned a bright reflection across the street. We idled on the road beside it, sending diesel motor glugging in the air.
“That’s Jose Marti,” Alden said. “He’s the national hero of Cuba. You’ll see him a lot.”
She was right. So far I’d been to the Jose Marti Airport, driven on a Jose Marti highway, and passed at least a dozen statues of this man—a poet, journalist, and essayists, who championed Cuba’s war of independence against the Spanish, dying in battle.
“Everywhere, everywhere,” the driver said, smiling with his eyes at me in the rearview mirror.
“I’ve seen a lot of Fidel too…” I said to Alden, hoping her reaction would signal if the country was a bit Orwellian, or I was just nauseatingly American.
“Oh yeah, Fidel loved to put his face on things,” she replied.
“Only of him young!” The driver added in.
“Che Guevara too?” I said, more as a talking point than a question. The driver sputtered something Spanish and Alden let out a snort.
“He said,” Alden translated, turning toward me, “Che is really just someone we print onto t-shirts to sell to tourists now.”
Orelvis, our tour guide, had the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. He was a tour guide, a newly engaged man, a constitutional lawyer, a sweetheart, and a walking encyclopedia. Like most people in Cuba (I would come to learn) he was a jack-of-all-trades. He only made about $40 a month from his law work, and (for comparison) on this trip alone, every person would tip him $60. But Orelvis never seemed bitter—not in the way I imagine an American would. He answered my steady stream of questions with enthusiasm and a smile.
“When did the Americans get here?”
“Is there general voting?”
“Did people actually like Fidel?”
“What if you want to start a restaurant?”
“Where do you go for food rations?” Do they ever run out?”
“Listen,” he replied, sighing. “There is only one thing you can count on in the Cuban government: everything changes. If there is a rule made at 10 a.m., by 10 p.m. it will be different.”
We walked around La Habana Vieja to get the lay of the land. Our hotel was on the end of the Prado, a promenade leading to the sea. It was short with slippery slate tiles; hordes of artists and young kids drinking beer hung out on the sides. It fed out to the Marecon, a huge brick wall bordering the ocean that acts as Havana’s stomping ground at night—one big conglomeration of strangers sharing drinks, cigarettes, radios, salsa dances, talks, evenings. But now, in the morning time, old fisherman were scattered about, throwing tiny catches into buckets, dirty feet swinging from the stone structure.
Orelvis led us past all this, down to to Plaza Vieja: a big, open square with a weird bronze statue of a naked woman on a chicken, and a fountain in the center, rusted and beautiful. Cafes and museums and cathedrals bordered the plaza. The buildings were made of wood and limestone, with dainty white trimming. Tourist groups scattered about them. The American ones stuck out—fanny packs, Oakely sunglasses, stomach rolls. I suddenly felt very aware of how I looked: pale skin, nerdy-hipster-glasses, shiny red hair, iPhone in hand, Steve Madden sandals.
I waded through the groups of tourists—certainly ruining some photos—and sat on the edge of the fountain, letting the metallic water mix with my sweat. In the extreme heat, the mist felt lovely. I’d been so desperate to escape the cold back home in Boston, and I championed myself on loving warm weather (I was raised as a jersey shore girl after all), but this sub-tropical heat knocked me on my ass. It was a thick, humid-heat that seemed to wrap against you like a blanket and made you lazy, tired. The whole country seemed effected. People, animals, even insects moved about in a haze.
Stray dogs and cats had congregated in a portion of the plaza covered with shade. They all slept, bodies limp and sprawled out from the humidity. They almost looked dead, but every once in awhile, one would wake up and bite at a fly on its skin.
There were hundreds of strays in Cuba, all of them mangy, flea-ridden, severely emaciated, loyal and adorable. Orelivs and the rest of our group sat down at a café near the fountain to get a quick coffee and do some writing. A tiny orange kitten crawled through the chair rungs and nuzzled against my shins. It licked my sweaty toes, rolled over on its side and passed out hard, so much so that I thought it dropped dead right at my feet. But I watched it’s small, orange belly rise up and down. Heat naps, I thought. Even animals can’t escape them.
A waiter came around our table. “Una te?” I asked, which always got a strange look (coffee was king here). But he shrugged and scribbled my order down on his notepad. A few minutes later he returned with steaming mugs and six icy bottles of Pellegrino. Someone at the table ordered a mojito. It seemed there was always one being drunken.
“So,” Orelivs said, getting our attention. “I want to step on Alden’s toes here and give you a writing prompt.” We all dived into our bags, retrieved manicured journals and cute pens, and looked at our kind tour guide with anticipation. “Okay,” he began, goofy smile spreading across his face. “What do you think is the meaning of the statue of the lady riding the chicken?”
Frances Donington-Ayad is a writer from New Jersey, currently living in Boston. Her essays and poems have been published in Hippocampus, The Bucket, Sun&Sandstone, Snapdragon Journal and more. Her essay "The Language of my Father" was selected to be read at GrubStreet's Tell-All reading series, along with featured reader Alex Marzano-Lesnevich. Frances graduated with a BFA from Emerson College and currently works as an Editor at Page Street Publishing.