Where Is Cuba Going?

The New York Times has published an insightful essay on Cuba byJOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN. Here is an excerpt. Follow the link below for the original report.

On the plane, something odd but also vaguely magical-seeming happened: namely, nobody knew what time it was. Right before we landed, the flight attendant made an announcement, in English and Spanish, that although daylight saving time recently went into effect in the States, the island didn’t observe that custom. As a result, we had caught up — our time had passed into sync with Cuban time. You will not need to change your watches. Then, moments later, she came on again and apologized. She had been wrong, she said. The time in Cuba was different. She didn’t specify how many hours ahead. At that point, people around us looked at one another. How could the airline not know what time it is where we’re going? Another flight attendant, hurrying down the aisle, said loudly, “I just talked to some actual Cubans, in the back, and they say it’ll be the same time.” That settled it: we would be landing in ignorance. We knew our phones weren’t going to work because they were tied to a U.S. company that didn’t operate on the island.

The 6-year-old sat between us, looking back and forth at our faces. “Is something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” my wife, Mariana, said, “just funny.” But to me she did the eyebrows up and down.

“What?” I said.

“Nothing,” she said, “just — into the zone.”

Mi esposa travels to Cuba every so many years, to do movie-related research (she’s a film-studies professor) and to visit her mother’s family, a dwindling number of which, as death and emigration have surpassed the birthrate, still live in the same small inland town, a dusty, colonial-looking agricultural town, not a place anyone’s heard of. To them, even after half a century, it’s the querencia, an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like “the place where you are your most authentic self.” They won’t go on about Cuba around you in a magic-realist way. Nor do they dream of trying to reclaim their land when the Castros die. Destiny settled their branch of the family not in Florida, where, if you’re Cuban-American, your nostalgia and anger (and sense of community) are continually stoked, but in Carolina del Norte, where nobody cares. They tend to be fairly laid back about politics. But their memories stitch helplessly back to and through that town over generations, back to the ur-ancestors who came from a small village in the Canary Islands.

My wife’s 91-year-old Cuban grandmother, who lives with us much of the time, once drew for me on top of a white cake box a map of their hometown. It started out like something you would make to give someone directions but ended up as detailed in places as a highway atlas. More so, really, because it was personally annotated. Here is the corner where my father have the bodega. Here is the alley where the old man used to walk his grandson, in a white suit, and we always say, ‘Let’s go to watch it,’ because he have his pocket full of stones, and when the boy runs, the old man throw and hit him in the legs. She was remembering back through Castro and Batista, back through all of that, into the time of Machado, even back through him into her parents’ time, the years of mustachioed Gómez in his black frock coat. The night I met her, 18 years ago, she cooked me Turkish-delight-level black beans with Spanish olives, and flan in a coffee can. She said: “Mira, Yon, at this time” — she meant the early ’40s — “they make a census, all the teacher go to have a census in Cuba. We see places nobody know the name. I ride a small horse. One night there is a storm — we pass the storm under a palma. In one house is un enano. You know what is? A dwarf. He say, ‘I count half!’ ” Her stories are like that. You actually want them to go longer. This is no small thing for me, as my life has evolved by unforeseen paths such that I see more of this abuelita than of any other human being. Neither of us ever leaves the house, and during the day it’s the two of us. Those could be some paw-chewingly long hours in the kitchen, if she were talking to me about religion or something. Mostly she calls people in Miami and watches Univision at the same time, waiting for my wife and daughters to get home, after which she perks up.

Because my wife and her family have living relatives in Cuba, they can get a humanitarian exception that lets you fly direct from Miami. The legal loopholes combining to make that possible must fill hard drives. But you can in fact go that way, if you obtain one of these exceptions or are immediate family with someone who does. I first tagged along 12 years ago. It’s hands down the strangest way to travel to Cuba, which you might not expect, because technically it’s the simplest. But the airport bureaucracy in Miami was so heavy, at least back then, you had to show up the night before and stay in an airport hotel so you could wake up early and spend the day in a series of bewildering lines, getting things signed or stamped. That first time, the tedium was alleviated by a little cluster of Miami relatives who followed us to and through each line, standing slightly off to the side. I spoke hardly any Spanish then. My wife told me they were giving her all sorts of warnings about Havana and messages for various people in their town. Now and then one of them would rub my arm and smile warmly at me, gestures that I took to mean, “Words aren’t necessary to express the mutual understanding of familial connection that we now possess,” but that when I think about it now, would have been identical to those signaling, “You, simpleton.”

One line was for having your luggage wrapped in plastic. A couple of muscly Latin guys in shorts were waiting there. They lifted each suitcase or bag onto a little spinning platform, turned it blazingly fast to seal it in industrial-strength shrink-wrap from a roll that looked like it held a landfill’s worth and charged you for it. Their spinning was so energetic, it doubled as a feat of strength. Everyone watched. The reasons behind the plastic were not laid out. Later in the waiting area, a woman told us it was to discourage quick-fingered Cuban bag handlers on the other side. They took not gold and money, which few people were foolish enough to pack, but toothpaste and shampoo, necessities. This year, however, the plastic wrap was optional.

There were other post-Bush differences in the direct-to-Cuba zone. The lines had grown fewer and shorter. Most noticeable, the Cubans on our flight — a mixture of Cuban-Americans and returning Cuban nationals who had been in Florida or D.C. on visas of their own (some people do move back and forth) — weren’t carrying as much stuff. The crowd cast a fairly normal profile. Last time, people had multiple pairs of shoes tied around their necks by the laces. Thick gorgets of reading glasses. Men wearing 10 hats, several pairs of pants, everybody’s pockets bulging. Everybody wearing fanny packs. The rule was, if you could get it onto your body, you could bring it aboard. At least five people carried giant stuffed animals and other large toys. That’s one of the things in the Cuban-American community, in which going back is generally frowned upon — but if it’s to meet your nieto for the first time. . . .

For the rest of the (lengthy) article go to http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/magazine/where-is-cuba-going.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

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