“You can do anything you want,” she said inside the Havana Club’s rum museum, “as long as you do the people-to-people. I’m not the police.”
Despite her consent, I felt like a truant for skipping out on the planned activities. Guilt squelched my independent streak. Resolved to behave, I pulled out the day’s events and started underlining.
What was on the list? A cigarmaker who rolled stogies (when not smoking his four a day) in a closet-size space heavy with smoke, and an organic farm outside Havana. Among bright green fields of mint, avocado and cabbage, I took away lessons on cooperative farming, plus a giant radish for an afternoon snack. Also: the Museum of the Revolution, whose collection of decrepit newspaper clippings, bullet-pocked tanks and display of the Granma, the fishing boat Fidel Castro sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956, converged in the former palace of fallen dictator Fulgencio Batista. And finally, for a sharp pinch of reality, a house call to an apartment complex (what HUD would call a project) on the outskirts of town (what we’d label the suburbs).
A family let us roam around the ground-level unit they’d recently moved into. The government had relocated them to the two-bedroom after their colonial domicile in Havana collapsed like a dollhouse made of dry crackers. The daughter’s boyfriend admitted that it was hard to live outside the city. The commute to the hospital where he worked was a drag, he said from his perch on the couch, but at least they didn’t have to pay rent.
Despite my fascination with the country, my enthusiasm did wane at times. And according to my diagnosis, it wasn’t a post-mojito sugar crash.
At the Museum of the City, which followed visits to Revolution Square, the Museum of the Revolution and the Christopher Columbus Cemetery, I swept glazed eyes over the Spanish armaments and the porcelain figurines of pudgy cupids and their victims. Beneath a portrait of Spain’s Queen Isabella, I was in a half-conscious state when a security guard approached me with a handful of U.S. currency. I shook my head, telling her that no, thank you, I didn’t need any cash. Then comprehension dawned. I was her black market.
The government exacts a 10 percent tax on currency exchanges from U.S. dollars to CUC, which Cubans need to purchase supplemental sundries at supermarkets and other stores that trade in the hard currency. By comparison, my unpublished rate was one-to-one, no commission. I emptied out the Cuban portion of my wallet and replenished the U.S. side.
“You can’t get more people-to-people than this,” Ludwig said to me outside the supermarket.
He was referring to the skinny man with a bruise-colored front tooth who had handed me a silver coin. He called it a “souvenir.” Suspicious of a gift of money, I returned the token. The stranger gave it back to me; I returned it to him; back to me; then I gave it to a woman with a baby who didn’t want it either. The man told me that he had a child who needed leche. I told him to take the coin and buy her milk. We were playing a game of hot potato with no clear goal in mind.
I was being scammed in a scheme that was so convoluted and misguided, I wondered whether I was being punked — if American reality TV programmers were allowed here. The idea was that the man would give me a coin and I would feel so touched by his generosity that I would repay him with high-value gratitude. Instead, I lost patience and flipped the evidence to the biggest guy on our trip, a kindly refrigerator from Charlotte named Dan. He made the coin, and the con man, disappear.
I added the hustler to the expanding party of people I’d met in Cuba. My list of characters had grown from a few individuals to a substantial group and now a sizable crowd. On my final night in Havana, I finally heard from the community.
In my hotel room at the Nacional, I flung open the windows that faced the Malecon, the broad esplanade that runs for more than four miles through Havana. It was Saturday night and packs of friends and sweethearts congregated on the seawall. They played guitar, swilled rum and kissed under the star-speckled sky.
I turned off the lights so that I could see the moon and listen without distraction to the voices of Cuba that drifted through the curtains and lulled me to sleep.
Cuba: How to travel there and tips for your journey