Notes from Cancun - Mexico - February 7, 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
February 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
February 2011

Transitioning Back

Everyone in Havana makes some kind of complicated combinacion of transport to get where they are going each day—walking, hitching, the guagua or bus, the maquina. I am about to make a combinacion that will bring me home—back to the U.S., to New York City, to Brooklyn and to a life filled with its own complications. To ease the re-entry a bit, I have arranged to meet my partner Paul in Mexico—my parejo as I described him to Maria Julia one day setting off a ripple of laughter at my efforts to match gender in Spanish. Pareja, which can mean either “couple” or “partner” evidently has no masculine form, but is always pareja. Later, in Isla, Paul will send me into the same laughing state by referring to me as his pajaro or bird!

My combinacion, on the morning of my leave-taking in Havana, begins with Maria Julia’s neighbor Giovanni who she awakens in the early morning hours to help me drag my over packed and very heavy suitcase down the four flights of darkened stairs in her building. Next, a CubaTaxi arrives at the door—no belching maquina for me today—about 20 minutes after I called 855-5555 to summon it. If the maquinas are a Cuban version of the dollar vans that ferry people along avenues in Queens where bus service is scarce, then the CubaTaxi is more like Brooklyn’s livery cab service—definitely less well-appointed than the tourist taxis that cruise the hotel zone, but they do provide door-door delivery.

My cab driver this morning asks if this is my first trip to Cuba as we pull away from the curb, scattering the students at the school on the block who have already started to spread in small groups across the street. I tell him no—in fact my first trip was in 1971 with the Venceremos Brigade. “Ah!" he exclaims, looking me over more carefully in the rearview mirror, “before I was born.” We chat about Cuba and the U.S. as the cab, an old Russian made Lada, carries me away from Centro Habana, through the leafy streets of Vedado, past the towering monument in the Plaza de la Revolucion, past the ugly monolith of the Russian embassy, past the long lines at every bus stop, the small crowds gathered at cafeterias and rapidos, around the Fuente Illuminado and into Boyeros. As we draw closer to the airport, I can feel myself entering that strange in-between state that travel always provokes.

Como esta Cancun?” the driver asks me now. What is Cancun like? And I realize that at 35 or 36 years old he has probably never left this island. “No tenemos el derecho de viajar” he responds when I ask if he has traveled outside of Cuba. “We Cubans don’t have the right to travel.” He’s right of course. I know what it takes for Cubans to be approved for travel as I have jumped those hurdles after inviting members of the AIDS Prevention Group to participate in events in the U.S. The barriers on the U.S. side are daunting, but Cuba imposes its own restrictions—and even if they have an invitation with all expenses paid it can be difficult for Cubans to obtain a visa to travel. An ordinary Cuban, like my cab driver for example, cannot decide to save money for a vacation abroad and just buy a plane ticket and go. Travel is only allowed for a mission related to work, a family visit, or study. How would that feel, the traveler in me wonders, to have the world cut off from you, not simply due to a lack of financial resources (because certainly most of the world’s population cannot dream of travel) but by regulation? And it must be even more stifling, given the sophistication and education of the Cuban population. They certainly do know what they are missing.

We arrive at Terminal 3 at Jose Marti Airport, my heavy bags are unloaded, and I schlep them inside to begin the next leg of my journey. Terminal 3 is the international terminal, new since my last trip here ten years ago, and it has clearly been designed with tourists in mind---gleaming tile floors, soaring ceilings, tienditas or little stores displaying T-shirts, souvenirs, music CDs, rum, cigars—enticing tourists to spend their remaining convertible pesos before leaving the island. I even see a T-shirt that proclaims “Alguien que me quiere mucho fue a Cuba y me traje esta camiseta”—Someone who loves me very much went to Cuba and brought me this t-shirt. The world of corny T-shirt capitalism has arrived in Cuba!

But this airport, shiny and well-appointed though it appears now, reflects many of the contradictions of contemporary Cuban life. The parts and materials to build it were all sent from Canada, my friend Jorge explains, as we sip our overpriced colas and chat before my departure. About a year after the airport opened, they had to close it for repairs because every time it rained the beautiful soaring roof leaked. As with many other failed construction projects, theft of materials was primarily responsible. Indeed, the Cuban woman who was coordinating the importation process stayed in Canada. She had evidently been lining her pockets with profits and would have faced jail time in Cuba.

Before I board my plane, I am approached by two airport employees asking if I want to buy American dollars—the first being the man at the Cubana ticket counter. I am shocked by their boldness, as I am sure that this is against the rules if not the law, and somehow seems an indication of how deep the corruption of Cuban society has gone. At the same time, I get a taste of the solidarity and friendship that stands in stark contrast to this. Iraida, my new friend from GPSIDA, has worked at the airport for 18 years—right here in Terminal 3—and though she will not be at work today she has sent word ahead to her co-workers that I will be in the airport. Pedro, the tabaquero, who rolls cigars for tourists has been instructed to present me with a fat Cuban cigar as a going away present, and Julia invites me over to the coffee bar for a last cup of Cuban café. Then Jose escorts me to all of the stores selling guayaberas, a Cuban shirt I want to buy for Paul. His own little stand does not have the size I am looking for, so he takes me around until I find one. Iraida has asked her companeros to take care of me, and they do.


The flight from Havana to Cancun is less than an hour, but it has transported me to a different world. I feel the changes immediately—the sparkling airport, advertisements everywhere, and the hustle of taxi drivers and tour sellers that swirls around me. Where are the old cars, the intimacy and immediate friendship that Cubans offer, curiously combined with a kind of studied indifference to selling and service?

The lack of commerce and commercial advertising in Cuba is striking. No ads on TV, just occasional announcements of cultural events. No commercial billboards or advertisements in store windows. Watching old American TV series, like Fame, Felicity and even the Anatomia de Gris (which took me awhile to figure out after Nancy told me it was her favorite—you know the one with the doctors who are always going bed with each other, Anatomia de Gris) there is a brief blink where an ad would have been. Even the political billboards and signs that once seemed to take the place of advertising seem greatly diminished, as if to say “why bother?”

But in Cancun, advertising is everywhere—the assault begins with video ads on the bus that takes me from the plane to the airport. And the city sparkles…with white-washed walls, red tile roofs gleaming in the sun, and shiny new cars everywhere.

While I wait for Paul to arrive from New York, with my fingers crossed that his flight will not be delayed or cancelled due to bad weather, I have a bite to eat at an outdoor restaurant. The waitress arrives within minutes to seat me, my drink (a Diet Coke with ice!) is placed before me a few minutes later, and my order is taken efficiently. I am offered the choice to pay in American dollars, pesos or with my credit card and very shortly a crisp fresh salad with moist grilled chicken is on the table. Halfway through, I notice I am eating like someone who hasn’t had a good meal in days. I ate well in Cuba, relatively speaking, but the food is poor quality and therefore always heavily seasoned, often fried and heavy on starch—rice, malanga, yucca, rice, tostones, rice, mariquitas de platano, rice, beans…with a little chicken, pork, fish or canned meat thrown in for protein. My Cancun salad is fresh and delicious and the portion is huge—I leave half of it on the plate. The amount of chicken (breast meat!) is probably equivalent to what each Cuban gets with his or her ration card for one month.

Cooperation/Competition…to life!

We have been in Isla Mujeres, a laid back little fishing village off the coast of Cancun, for two days when I decide to open my email and send a promised message back to my Cuban friends, letting them know that I have arrived with no problem and my luna de miel or honeymoon (as my friend Anita insists on calling it) with Paul has begun.
For the first time in a month I have access to the Internet, to the whole world wide web. In Cuba, very few people (usually foreign residents, or people who need it for their work, journalists for example) have access to the Internet. Instead they browse a kind of Cuban Intranet, with access only to work sites, cultural sites, Wikipedia and the academic version of Google. I was able to google myself in Cuba, and all of my hits on the Internet appeared, but we couldn’t open any of them.

Like a magnet, this tool that I have taken for granted for years, draws me in. First I check my email and find the usual combination of personal messages, event announcements and spam. Then it’s on to Facebook, which I find completely overwhelming after just couple of minutes. I decide to check my She Writes site to see how the blog looks. My daughter has been posting up my dispatches from Cuba for the past several weeks and I am eager to see it and to read the comments and responses that I hope I will find there.

The blog looks great, but there is only one comment, and it has not made it to the main page of She Writes. Didn’t all the agents tell me that I needed to create a blog for visibility if I want to get published? Have I blown it? All this work for nothing? I feel defeated, deflated….like a pricked balloon, slowly leaking all of the positive feelings from the past month in Cuba.

For a day I sit wrapped in this feeling of defeat…at the pool, on the soft sand by the ocean’s edge. What has happened? What accounts for this unexpected plunge into despair? I sort my feelings, observe them, until they begin to make some sense to me.

Despite all of its many problems and contradictions, Cuban society still retains a tremendous sense of solidarity and cooperation. Some of this is undoubtedly part of the Cuban culture and character, but it has been nurtured through 52 years of revolution, of the intent to create a social order based on collective well-being. There is something about this intention that survives through all of the distortions of the present moment. Come on, make a contribution, do it...Cuba seems to whisper to me…and I do. I roll up my sleeves and pitch in…and feel nourished and renewed by the effort. Without the self doubt that plagues me, without feelings of competition, without worries if what I have to offer will be good enough, because it is always accepted in the spirit in which it is offered. Proyecto Memorias, the Cuban quilt project, lives and does its powerful work despite all of the difficulties in bringing it to life. Carlos and Jorge work 12 hours a day to support their AIDS Prevention Group without any hope of personal comfort or glory. Anita walks the streets in old Havana and is recognized as a beloved actress who belongs to the people and lives daily life in Cuba with them.

There are certainly many examples of self-less, disinterested political and community work in the U.S. I have, at different times in my own life, participated in social movements and organizations, seeking to create social change, but it seems harder and harder to find that spirit in my life in New York City. My asthma education program was eliminated by the city because we weren’t training thousands of people, though we made an invaluable contribution to the communities most burdened by this disease. My little book about AIDS in Cuba may or may not find its way to a publisher depending on how “commercial” it is. In these swirling waters, I have always found it hard to swim with strong, sure strokes.

Finally, the blue sky, the strong sun on my skin, the soothing hiss of each wave as it breaks on the sand, begin to work their magic and to smooth out my tortured thoughts. I remember the last evening I spent in Havana…with my sobrinita Rocio. Rocio and I decided to make arroz con pollo together though neither one of us really knew how to make it in the electric pressure cooker that Maria Julia uses to do most of her cooking. I chopped the onions, pepper and garlic and cut up the chicken legs, while Rocio stayed on the phone with Tita who walked us through each step. How much rice, how much water, when do we add the tomato puree, how long do we cook it? In the end, we placed a beautiful, steaming platter of flavorful rice on the table and sat down to eat with Maria Julia, Anita and Jorge who had arrived after work to join us. After dinner, we all sat on Maria Julia’s small sofa to watch Vivir sin Limites…Living on the Edge…a documentary film about six people living with HIV/AIDS in Cuba. Maria Julia is one of the characters in the film. Over and over, after telling their stories of illness and regret in the early harsh years of the AIDS epidemic in Cuba, each person, in their own way, talks about learning to love life and to live it fully each day. I learned to love people in a whole new way..people I would not have loved or understood before.. I told myself I had to get up and walk and I did…I live in the unconditional love and support of my family…and finally, I am thankful for each breath I take, for each morning that I wake up alive.

I look around at this beautiful tranquil beach on this friendly island in Mexico where it is so easy to feel thankful and alive…alive in the natural world and at peace with myself. In Cuba, where daily life brings challenges and struggles, I found a way to rise each day, thankful for that experience and ready to meet each challenge. How can I bring that spirit back to my life of comfort and convenience? The question lingers, but the despairing thoughts have drifted away. In a few days I will board another plane, entering again for a few hours the in-between space of travel, holding tight to the energy I found in Cuba as I prepare to face the hectic, snowy streets of Brooklyn.

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