Seven-fifteen in the morning and the fists start hitting the door loud enough to explode me out of dreams, and for two seconds I think that I've already arrived in Cuba and that La Policia
are trying to enter the room. This is a raid.
In my bleary state I'm out of bed and halfway across the room towards the window when I realize that, through the glass, I can see a cruise ship parked along the near coast, a bit of a church roof -- I'm in Nassau, the flight for Havana doesn't leave for five hours, and it's not the cops but my editor banging like SWAT on my bedroom door:
"Turn down that religion crap!" he yells.
I spin around the room, still getting my bearings. The flatscreen TV is off, the radio silent. I head for the connecting door, still thrumming from the impact of fists -- in time to hear a loud 'thump' on the other side. Then silence.
Turns out, my editor, on top of the alcohol consumed during the massive dinner last night, had popped two sleeping pills. At seven-fifteen, his room's radio alarm had burst to life with some sort of evangelist morning program -- and in his severely drugged state, he thought all the holy hollering had been coming from my side of the wall. Roughly fifteen seconds before he crashed back to sleep.
Not the most auspicious beginning to the trip, I think, as I head for the shower. Cuba Libre
Cuba -- crumbling beauty, the buildings along the coast road worn by decades of sea-air to the point where they look hit by artillery fire. On Brasil Street, a few blocks from the capitol, kids playing baseball in the dirty street, under the spray of a pipe burst two stories up. On the second day we fled our official government minder, paid a couple of kids six pesos to start up their rusty '59 Chevy and drive us into the oldest part of the city -- the kids having to pile out of their pornography-plastered ride at one point, tools in hand, after the antique motor died. Living off fried pork for days. The radio blaring government pronouncements about Baby Castro finally taking control.
There were no idle men on the street, an odd change from other third world cities. In your wake, people whisper, "Cigars, good price," hoping to sell you the rejects taken from some of the local factories. La Policia in their grey, keeping the citizens away from the tourists with a wave and an impatient tapping of a club against the back of the leg. Sipping espresso in the Old Square where the Spanish once sold slaves, watching an old man sharpen knives on a pedal-driven wheel for the local cooks. Drinking in Hemingway's old bar, Floridita, next to a life-size bronze statue of the man himself, and wondering what he would have thought of his city now -- the despair and the beauty of it. The government minders in their blue suits and open white shirts, smiling but reserved, their eyes watching you as you walk across the lobby of the hotel, where sunburned whoremongers and bleating tourists gather in clusters before being herded onto buses bound for the beaches, or the countryside.
At a state-sponsored dinner, gorgeous girls in purple slinky dresses swarming into the aisles between the tables, each of them bearing a box filled with the newest cigars, H. Upmann, Cohiba, etc. I am working, darting between tables, chatting people up, taking quotes, and all the while smoking or drinking whatever comes in range. Three cups of espresso, four cigars and five glasses of rum later, I stumble into the night along with the photographer, looking for a cab to escort us back to the hotel, our ears ringing from the cast-of-thousands stage-show complete with lounge singers and dancers -- a taste of old Havana, back when it was Gangster Land, before the Revolution came crashing down with its concrete-gray fists. Miami
My article subject sweeps a few crushed Marlboro packs from the passenger seat of his Porsche convertible and bids me enter, hands me a box of cigars signed by him as a token of appreciation for me doing a piece on him, and then guns the motor at 120 mph over the Causeway to Miami Beach, as we follow our long convoy of cars heading from the party at the Havana Club to the after-party at some steakhouse where the girls whisper it'll take us two hours to sit down, even with 10pm reservations. That last bit of intelligence proves to be true, the restaurant being a new hotspot, and we move down the street to Big Pink, where triple-decker portobello sandwiches and pitchers of terrible beer can be had, along with a seat, for the mere asking. Considering that my article subject had started gesturing wildly with both hands removed from the wheel as we barreled over the bridge at a healthy fraction of light speed, I am merely happy to be alive.
Two days after Havana and my body has some sort of delayed reaction, my system pushing everything through like an express train. I slump against the passenger door of yet another car, the next day, as I am driven down Collins Avenue past all the fabulous people whose entire lives consist of tanning, eating at expensive beachside restaurants, and exercising themselves into hardbodies. I think about how 90 miles across the ocean, old men with faces like crushed leather come up to you when Castro's police aren't looking, and hit you up for a mere peso. Santiago
Back in that smoggy basin; the Dominican Republic. On the last night there, we went to a party with Santiago's corpulent mayor, and stood around amused as his plainclothes security tried to keep the local citizens from infiltrating an outdoor event. When darkness came we were escorted into open horse-drawn carriages; cops stood at every intersection for a mile down the road, shutting down traffic in all directions as we clopped our way towards the city center, waving like dignitaries to sullen-faced people piling onto their balconies. A band dressed in white stood in a gazebo in the old square and played ancient tunes as the reassembled crowd drank and passed around business cards. My black suit smelled of two weeks' worth of cigarette smoke, its pockets filled with hastily scribbled story notes.Brooklyn
Words do not describe the pleasure I feel, after 16 days on the road, of being able to turn on my kitchen tap and drink whatever comes out of it without fear of some microbe partying through my digestive system as a result.