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essays | places


dysfunctional utopia


Shared cabs in Havana, Cuba

Havana / Cuba  · 2014   public cabs




   Inspired by nothing but Hemingwayan clichés, I started writing in that dark green, leather-bound, Venetian notebook during my Cuban days. I think it was passable even, much better than this here writing about the writing; but some pages in, a pickpocket snatched it from me on a bus. They probably had more use for it though and that notebook still had its best days ahead. I wonder if any other plots ever departed inside it, or maybe grocery lists, or fires. The reason I miss it today is that I can’t remember my Havanan host’s name and it was in there, and also our dialogues. His knowledge was beautiful, none of that tacky stuff. He knew life and love, not this and that. His wife had had a baby only days before I ran into him in front of their little house. I didn’t have a place to stay, and for someone with empty pockets it was all informal homestays in those last days before the Cuban thaw. My room was upstairs, small, windowless, medium dingy. It did the trick, if the trick was sleeping. Something with an O and/or a B perhaps? It was an unusual name and I’m afraid it’s buried under too many generic names I heard since. It won’t come to me in a million years. Ombebatu? One day I was leaning against the house, probably having a smoke, when a neighbor from across the street offered up her two adult daughters to me. One of them was breastfeeding a newborn baby. I politely declined. They were very casual about it and somehow I felt that I was more sad than they were. Ombebatu was always chipper, even when he lamented the bruises of Castro’s firm grip, and he always ended by shrugging it off with an “el Cubano inventa” – the Cuban comes up with something. Yes.


a glimpse

lines   EVERY OTHER DAY | When your everyday train only runs every other day, when the spotty schedule is connected by no more than a rough guideline, when there is no shortage of long delays, when the central train station is filled with emptiness, then you might be in Cuba.

passages   TALL TALES OF HAVANA | It's one of these tales that people tell in the streets of Havana: no building in the old town Habana Vieja must look down onto El Capitolio, the former seat of the government, and so it still stands out as the area's highest landmark. Funnily enough it resembles the Capitol in Washington, but trumps (no pun intended) the twin in height.


"The noble communist ideal seemed to delight the islanders’ hearts as much as its strict regalements tormented their souls, creating a collectively equivocal feeling."


La Habana, Havana / Cuba · 2014   lunching lady






places / stories

Cojímar & Playas del Este / Yellowed Postcards

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Cojímar / Cuba  · 2014   the outskirts of Utopia


It’s hard to follow someone like Hemingway into their world. He lived it and wrote it with so much ethos. Cojímar is said to have inspired the Old Man and the Sea, and the writer’s heavy bronze head rests on a pillar by the oceanfront, but to interpret the cluster of juxtaposing structures and buildings as a fishing village, one needed an avalanche of imagination or a time machine. An old fort sat hunched over by the sea, a few houses looked like they weren’t sure whether anyone still lived in them or not, and post-war block-architecture and shattered concrete made for the outskirts. A hurricane or two had passed through.



Cojímar / Cuba  · 2014   hurricane territory


Cojímar / Cuba  · 2014   the last bastion


After a quick dip that was more bath than swim, the four of us stretched out on a little meadow. Before long, Armando got up, sized up the nearest palm tree, jumped it, and climbed up with his bare hand and feet, nimble as a monkey, and casual as though he was getting coconuts from the corner store. They are always best with a bit of sweat and personal effort. He reached out to me after I’d left Cuba to get started with our collaboration on his finca ecológica. He’d dreamed that up out of thin air when our acquaintance was less than a day old, and while I’d tried to reign him in a little, his expectations were as tall as the palm trees he climbed. And I would have loved to help him as much as one can who can’t help much, but all I got back from the various replies I tried to send were a bunch of MAILER-DEMONS. Classic Cuba.



Playas del Este / Cuba  · 2014   yellowed postcard


Those postcards weren’t liars in the tightest sense, but they chose their selective truths carefully. As soon as a little cloud would come between the sun and your mood, the postcard would fade and yellow, and snow-white sand became sand and turquoise water water. Somehow, we were still awake, and it was one of life’s more awake moments at that, fooling around in the surf like childhood soulmates with a secret, this American deserter and I, after we’d talked away an entire long night and then hopped on a morning bus leaving Havana eastbound.


Havana / On the Cusp between Eras

sung patriotism & whispered criticism: torn in a changing nation


Transformation is a blurry wave, unlike the crisp ripple of a sudden revolutionary fist.



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