Bitter Two Week Love

Love on Roatan is easy. It comes and goes like the tides as simple as in and out in a given 12 hour cycle. The lack of clothing, supple sunshine and tropic heat encourages a sultry love filled with connected eyes and gentle casual touches. Friendships too, follow the same pattern as romantic love. Though not as emotionally charged -- painful and exciting just the same. How many have I connected with over a two week real world hiatus? How many best friends have I enjoyed during their yearly holiday in some tropical location, a beach outside of Caracas, a mountain lake in Guatemala, a youth hostel in Managua?

But, that's just it, you get two weeks if you're lucky, two days if you're not. Thus, pledges of eternal thoughts are made briefly after a first introduction or a second casual conversation. By the time, you're in love, a new name and a new face has replaced your latest muse. Your heart cracks a little with each ferry boat departure, with every fading smile from the minds eye and the soul's memory. E-mails, phone numbers, sweet notes of remembrance, these tokens of love quickly fade into the recesses of a pocket full of lempiras and are rarely if ever used again. Every once in a while however, something is triggered deep, a smell perhaps or a song, a similar sounding laugh or simply awaking from a pleasant dream where time and space are irrelevant. And that's when, your two day best friend or lover comes rushing back to the present here and now.

I awoke from just such a dream not long ago and remembered a special time where just such a connection was made. The time I fell in love in Havana. Prior to my Roatan days, I was traveling through Central America. 3 months, 3 thousand dollars and a dirty duffel bag full of dirtier clothes. I was traveling with a girlfriend who had a differing opinion on where our relationship was headed. Our differences of opinion came to a head in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city. I wanted to stay; she wanted to go, it was a commitment-question manifested on the logistical plane. She knew that it meant the end of us, I didn't. She left and I stayed. When I realized that my lover and best friend of eight years was gone -- out of my life with her exit disguised in practical terms of bus schedules and unfulfilled traveling plans, I was crushed. I couldn't stay in Guatemala, but I could hardly muster the energy to get out of bed. How would I continue traveling?

She was in Mexico, on an island, commonly called La isla, off of Playa Del Carmen. In my love sick state I chased her desperately. I flew to Cancun from Guatemala City. Then on to Playa Del Carmen. My resistance was low and I became very ill after eating two dirt cheap, street tacos. I spent three days sleeping and moaning in a hammock surrounded by other travelers and feeling completely alone. On the third day, I was able to sit on the beach and feel sorry for myself. I needed a transformation. I needed to get away. On the fourth day, I made a break with my love sick self. I vowed to stop feeling sorry for myself, to get it together and continue traveling. Ultimately to pick up my broken heart from the sandy beach and fall in love all over again, I went to Cuba.

I flew from Cancun to Havana. In '98 U.S citizens were not allowed to fly directly into Cuba -- a common political story starting with the fall of Batiste in '59 that I don't need to repeat here. Nevertheless from Cancun, flying into Havana was as easy as buying a ticket, getting on a plane and arriving in the humid dirty Havana airport.

On the plane, when the steward asked me what drink I would like, I replied with a "Cuba Libre, por su puesto" -- "Rum and Coke, of course". I felt witty, alive and ready for a new experience, a new chance for my broken heart. I had heard from other travelers that Cuba was the place for easy love. Americans especially, braving the illegality of restricted travel and the backing of a wallet full of dollars were sought out by potential lovers and friends.

When I arrived at the international airport in Havana, I exited the plane, proceeded through to the customs queue for processing. It seemed more formal than other country crossings with the presence of guards, dogs and guns, everyone in single file and a longer glance at your passport. I was excited and a little nervous and when nervous I chat. Mindless idle chatter. On the plane I sat next to an American who's father had fled Cuba in the summer of 1960. He was returning to see relatives and reconnect with his family's past. In the customs queue, this gentleman and myself continued our conversation; his Spanish superior to mine, when questioned by the customs officer in castro green, I turned and looked to my American comrade for guidance. "Momento," I casually said to the customs official, "mi amigo puede ayudarme (my friend can help me)." The American boldly stepped up and told the customs official, "this person is no friend. I've never spoken to him before."

Wow, I was no longer in easy Central America, this was the Communist regime of Cuba, even if only in our heads. The customs official asked me which hotel I would be staying in. I blankly stared at my passport, "uh..." In my best Spanish, I said that I would have to find one. He handed me an index card with the names and numbers of three options and pointed to a service phone guarded by a machine gun toting look-a-like. I left the line, my bags kept at the desk, and called the first number on the list. I reserved a room and returned to the customs desk, as everyone patiently waited. "Cual Hotel?" "El primero."

I wasn't sure if I would be accompanied by a spy from Castro's communist youth brigade or if I would be free to explore Havana on my own. Each step was a mystery. The customs officer, then did something very unexpected. He placed a little blue slip of paper in my passport, stamped it and very slowly explained in perfect English, "do not lose this, whatever you do." And with that, I entered the humid, dilapidated world of Cuba.

I was in a state of instant culture shock. 20 cabbies came at me at once. You see, in the 90's cab driving became one of the more lucrative career opportunities in Cuba, earning a higher wage than professional engineering or medical positions. This onslaught of cabbies clamoring over my one dirty duffel bag was only my first introduction to the island's infamous dual economy, an economy composed of real and imaginary money, dollars and pesos; and ultimately white and black markets. Stepping off the plane and into the not so friendly hands of the gruff customs official, I was entering the white market; i.e., I was forced to rent a hotel room at $90 American dollars per night. If I hadn't have made the reservation, I would not have been able to leave the airport.

Another shock, came moments later when a soldier informed the cab driver where I would be going. Not only did I not have a choice in which driver I would employ, I lacked the freedom to skip out on my commitment to actually follow through on renting the hotel room. My return flight wouldn't be leaving for a week, and at $90 a night, I would be broke in four days. I didn't have enough money. I had travelers checks -- $300 dollars worth -- left in my bag, but those were worthless in Cuba. Cash only for the communists. The paradox of the matter was that everyone around saw me as some gringo with the goods and I didn't even have enough money to survive for the week.

The cabby, dressed in a sky blue button down short sleeve shirt was a cliche among cliches. He drove slowly through the city with his stub of a cigar hanging out the window, slicked back hair, waving to friends casually. We arrived at the hotel and he opened my door as I couldn't from the inside. He held out his greedy palm for some good green cash as if I was in Vegas. I definitely didn't have enough to tip and gave him ten bucks. In English, he said thirty and looked me cold in the eyes. I took out a precious twenty. A bell hop took my bag from me and checked off my name from a list, he disappeared quickly through the hotel door and I tried to follow. A smartly dressed man caught me at the door and led me to a counter where I filled out paperwork and parted with more money. Then a beautiful, sexy girl led me to my room. She didn't come in, but smiled as if she wouldn't mind -- after all in her mind I was probably rich. Perhaps the novelty of being an American in Cuba was starting to go to my head.

Once the door closed however a slight tinge of panic overtook me. I had no idea what to do now that I had arrived. I didn't know how to get cigarettes, dinner or entertainment. I didn't have enough cash to stay in the hotel for the week and was scared to venture out. My pessimism drove me to bed, where I slept shirtless in sticky jeans under a moist sheet. Everything was damp as the humidity was more intense than in the rest of Central America. I was scared, but couldn't isolate my feelings and pin them on a specific entity. Was I scared of Castro? Was I scared of not being able to leave? I didn't know and slowly slipped into sleep.

The next morning, I left my room, bag in hand and didn't check out. I simply split. I wasn't sure if I was allowed to vacate or not, so I thought it better to not ask. I was starving and the hotel had a small eatery attached with exorbitant prices and pitiful food. I felt like I was at an airport and with limited options ordered "huevos con pan", spending more than I should have. The eatery had a total of four tables, one server and was enclosed in glass walls. Located just off the lobby, one had the feeling of being constantly observed. Was I paranoid? The hotel was huge, commanding a max capacity of more than 100 rooms, however I didn't see a second guest the during my brief occupancy. Maybe they were more scared than I and simply stayed put in their damp overprice rooms. Maybe there were no other guests.

After eating, I grabbed my bag and exited through the main entrance. I wasn't sure how this worked; I had never before been in a communist country. Would someone follow me? Regardless of my questions, I didn't look back and began breathing deeply. I walked aimlessly, and after two blocks of nonchalantly trying to blend in with my red hair and gringo jeans defeating my weak attempt, three young men approached me with nervous looks. Once within five feet, they surrounded me and asked if there was anything I'd like. I declined. They offered a list of Cuban options for entertainment: mujeres, cigarros, cubanos, ... It became clear that I needed to buy something or the pestering would continue. Thus, I asked for accommodations. "Donde se puede alquilar un cuadro? (know where I could rent a room)" I asked attempting to remove the consonants. "Que?" I repeated my question this time with the consonants in place, making the gesture for sleeping with both my hands folded against my tilted head.

The center fellow smiled, fish on a hook. He indicated that he knew of somewhere I could stay. They asked me to follow, and the four of us walked down the street. We crossed back behind a tall apartment building, into a loading dock and up some stairs to a locked door. Smiley banged on the door, yelling some unintelligible vowels. The door opened and an old man in a blue button down shirt appeared with a box of cigars. There was a hand-off of cash for cigars and the leader or at least most aggressive of the three offered me the box. I opened and inside were a bundle of Cuban cigars. I don't remember the price offered, but I was intimidated and bought the box. I just wanted out of the stairwell. I was then allowed to leave, alone, with no accommodations lined up for the night.

I walked out of the loading dock, looking sheepish and green. And, that's when I ran into my fourth street hustler. Note this was all before 10 am East Coast time. He wanted to sell me some cigars as well. Oh man, how many boxes of these did I look like I could smoke? I asked him for a room to rent and he said no and looked the other way. At least this one didn't press on. I walked around the block. Surprisingly I was left alone for over a minute before the next group of street hustlers pinned me down. After the familiar !Que! we were on our way. I was brought about six blocks to a poor neighborhood filled with black faced stares. Segregation even in Cuba...

One of the hustlers knocked on a door covered in blue-green flaky paint. A small window in the door covered by miniature steel bars opened. "Di Me!" a lady's voice exited from the window. The conversation was too fast and colloquial for me to understand, but shortly thereafter the door opened and a sad faced thirty year old woman was looking at me. We made arrangements.I would stay a week and the hustler's left after receiving their commission - probably half of the total amount.

I entered a sparse two bedroom apartment. Inside a man named Ralph -- I think he just told me his name was Ralph -- wore an auto-grease smeared shirt and green slacks. He grabbed my hand, shaking with too much enthusiasm and gave me the brief, very brief tour of the residence. I would pay twenty dollars per night for my own room, a girl’s room belonging to my hosts’ only daughter who would have the pleasure of sleeping with mom and dad during my stay. The little girl, less than seven years old, hid behind her mother’s leg. I pulled a Guatemalan miniature bus from my bag, a child’s toy purchased as a novelty gift during an early Christmas shopping spree on Lake Atitlan. The daughter’s eyes grew big -- she wasn’t use to receiving gifts. This simple gesture won the trust of the girl, and her shyness vanished for the rest of the week.

I hung around the house for a couple of hours asking questions in my best Spanish, taking some time to play with the girl. In the afternoon, I ventured out. I walked up and down the boardwalk admiring the cars and buildings. After walking for a couple of hours, I came upon a couple enamored with each other, they smiled warmly and I sat down for a rest. As I looked out towards a couple of black boys playing on the ocean rocks below, then man struck up a conversation with me. He had some rum and offered me a drink. I accepted. He asked for a camel cigarette; unfortunately, I had none. A very pretty young girl walked up. She had pale skin and wore a tight tube top shirt and red shorts. She was slender and appeared to just barely have reached puberty. She danced in front of us, practicing her salsa or merengue moves over and over.

Her uncle offered me another drink of rum, again I accepted. "Queire compartir con ella? -- You want to party with her?" he asked. His girlfriend sat on his lap smiling at me as we talked about the possibility of my hooking up with his niece. It was completely nonchalant yet awkward. Here I was on the romantic, distressed boardwalk of Havana, the crown jewel of Cuba's cultural identity, talking to an old man who was attempting to get me drunk and pimp out his 14 year old relative. I like to have an open mind when I travel and thus, rules do bend, morality blows this way and that, but there is a code that I simply cannot defy. I cannot sleep with a 14 year old child prostitute. Nope, not even when I'm in Havana for a week with nothing better to do.

As awkward as the moment was, I stayed in the company of the dirty uncle, the girlfriend and the young girl for another half hour or so. The girl continued to shake her hips, locking eyes with me until I would turn away in embarrassment. They pressed on, how I could take her to a club, dance all night and spend the rest of my trip doing what other Cubans do -- engaging in a casual love affair. The uncle became somewhat pushy and so I took their number and promised to call. He promised to have her ready for me.

I continued my walk down the boardwalk. The whole incident left me a little jaded, but I was enjoying myself regardless. Another man stopped me as I strolled by. His fishing pole pointed to the dirty water beyond the ocean rock wall. He spoke to me in English a refreshing change to the lack of consonants and break-neck pace of Cuban Spanish. He warned me of the niggers. I was shocked that he knew the word more than I was shocked of his attitude. I guess Communism doesn't trump racism. Regardless, it had been at least 24 hours since I had spoken English and I was happy to entertain the bigot provided his bigotry was easy to understand. We chatted about all kinds of tidbits. He was old, I was young so naturally there was a lot to cover. I was finally able to sneak away and headed to my little family dwelling. I'm not the best with directions and soon realized I was lost. After walking around for a couple of hours, I finally recognized the street and then the apartment entrance. I was home.

Once inside the apartment, the mother asked where I had gone. I guess worrying is common to all moms. I lit up a cigarette and told the story of the uncle and the young girl. I mentioned that I was supposed to call this evening, with no intention of following through on the act. The uncle laughed and said that he would get me a better girl, someone I could really enjoy. He then yelled "Marisa!" and in walked the neighbor girl, overweight by at least 40 lbs but with a sweet smile. The dad repeated my story and told Marisa to "compartir" with me. She laughed and it all seemed like a joke. We chatted and chain smoked for an hour or so until I ran out of cigarettes. The dad then got up from his chair and told me to come with him outside.

We walked around the block and deja vu. We walked up a loading dock, met an old man and bought two packs of quality hand-rolled cigarettes. Then went back in the apartment for a small dinner of rice, tomatoes, and black beans. The next day I walked all over town. I didn't have an extra dollar between showing up broke, smoking two packs a day and twenty dollars a night in rent, but enjoyed the architecture and people watching.

I went to the Museo de la Revolucion, which in all reality is a giant edifice to Che Guevara. Che is the handsom figurehead of the Communist party. A stud of the revolution -- adored by the world but loved by Cuba -- his face plasters billboards and buildings all over Havana. However, in the communist party, he is and was only so loved. He fell into disfavor beginning in '63, touting economic and interventionist policy positions antagonistic to party lines. He left for Bolivia to carry on the revolution in '66 after resigning from his party obligations in '65. Nevertheless, Che's face leads the propaganda of the revolution and the ladies love him.

The next two days, I did more of the same, wondering around the streets aimlessly. It was getting old as I didn't know anyone and didn't have any money to spend. The conversations were all the same and could be broken down to:

"Where are you from?"
"The states."
"Wow, you got any money?"
"Oh, you don't like me?"
"Not at all -- I just don't have any money."
"Do you have any Camel Cigarettes?"
"Nope, but you can have one of my hand rolled Cuban cigarettes?"
"Why don't you like me?"...

Cuba had lost its appeal. I wanted to go to a civilized country where I could cash traveler's checks. I only had one more night. I had $40 bucks left and needed $20 to get to the airport. I expected a quiet night at home, but Ralph had called a cousin, who called another cousin, who had a girl on the side and wanted to party. So, Ralph, two cousins, an illicite girlfriend, myself and Marisa met at one of the cousin's broken down pre-castro era cars two blocks down the street from the apartment. The men in the group worked on the car for a bit and poured in gallon jugs of petrol. After an hour or so of standing around looking like an out-of-place bullseye, we all got in and drove off. We drove for half an hour or so, myself and one of the cousins cramped and sweaty in the back seat with the two girls sitting halfway on and halfway off our laps. We then arrived at the dump of the night, a worker's sandwich shop that served beers at night.

The one cousin ordered two sandwiches and two beers, one for his girl and one for him. Ralph ordered a beer, leaving myself, one broke cousin and poor Marisa without any thing to consume. Marisa, then turned to me and in a very cute voice threw her pitch. "Buy me a sandwich?" I then felt too bad for the cousin, and thus spent my last despensible $20 bucks on three sandwiches and 3 beers. Marisa, then put her hand on my leg and smiled. I spent the rest of the evening worrying about money, distracted and unable to follow the conversation. We then drove to the girlfriend's parents place, where the one cousin consummated his love affair, with the rest of us sitting silently in the car.

In one of the more particularily awkward silent moments, Marisa leaned over and put her lips next to my ear. She whispered, just loud enough for everyone to hear, "Queries quedar conmigo por la noche? (want to stay with me tonight?)" "Ok", I returned and with that her hand returned to my leg. Once home, I undressed and crawled into bed. She had to check on something at home, and returned after a few moments. She asked if I had a condom -- I did not, she left again. After ten minutes she knocked on the main apartment door. Naked, I hunched down and ran for the door as if ducking my head from oncoming fire. A voice, Ralph's, yelled from the darkness, "Jason, no!" I wasn't sure if he thought it was the police or he just wanted me to stay put, but I returned to my bed and didn't ask questions. I wasn't sure if Marisa would return or not. However in a moment she was by my side pulling her shirt over her head. I was so lonely, her touch burned my skin.

We made love and in the morning she was gone. I laid in bed with no reason to get up. Today was my last day in Cuba and I was excited to leave. About 10 am, she entered my room abrubtly and dropped the bomb. She spoke very quickly and curtly. I caught various words, but was unable to fully understand. "... dinero ... baby ... leche .... (money... baby ... milk ...)" She wanted money... I didn't have any.

She sat on the end of my bed as I floated above myself observing the two of us arguing about the amount I owed her. I watched myself helplessly breaking down, declaring how I thought she and I had shared a special moment, a night for fond memories. I watched myself come to the realization that I had infact slept with a prostitute and she wasn't even pretty. I watched her go through the pockets of my dirty jeans, searching for American green cash and finding none. I watched her go through my bag, as I rolled over and faced the wall. I watched Marissa become more and more desparate, leaving the room only to return with the mother of the house. I watched as the mom, pleaded with me for the baby's sake to give her some money. I watched as I reached through the pockets on my duffle bag and retrieved 30 Mexican pesos. I watched as both women realizing that this would be all they could get, took the money and left the room. I watched myself stay in bed until my 2 o'clock ride arrived.

I couldn't get out of Cuba fast enough. Well, at least I had worn a condom and still had those cigars. Maybe someday I'll return, track down Marisa and give her the money she deserved for that night. Then again, maybe not.


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