I'm sitting in a lumpy chair in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional, chatting with three Cuban journalists, the shortest of whom can't stop asking me if I know Cameron Diaz. I tell him I do not know La Diaz, yet he presses on, certain I am concealing the truth.
Every time he says her name, his eyebrows twitch like some half-squashed caterpillar, and the broken-English mantra begins: "I like, heh heh, I like, heh heh, I like . . .
"If you see her, eh, tell her to come to Cuba," says the journalist, Jorge Smith Mesa.
I shrug, imagining that I would never wish Cuba upon anyone, especially Cameron Diaz.
See, I was groped on my morning walk by two different men this same day, and as I sat on the sea wall resting, was approached by yet another man with his pants around his ankles and his hands upon his, um, pride and joy. I reported him to three police officers; one stared at my chest, the other told me I shouldn't wear shorts on the street if I didn't want to be bothered (it was 97 degrees); the third laughed. None made an attempt to catch the man who was by then running down the street, buttoning up.
Moments later, I watched as a group of eight boys beat a helpless crab to death with sticks and rocks.
Thought: Cuba, isolated for almost 40 years, has become a gigantic stage production of "Lord of the Flies," and the men here have gone insane.
The male journalists I tell of my experiences look at me incredulously and say things like, "I've been coming to Cuba for 10 years, and I've never heard anything like that. . . . Are you sure this happened to you? . . . I've got lots of Cuban women friends, they never say anything like that."
Well, duh. First of all, Cuban women are no longer shocked by this behavior. "Men will be men," my cousin Odalys, who lives here, told me. And second, beer-swilling American male journalists are not attacked by the generally shorter, smaller Cuban men, who find them quite intimidating. Most gringa-looking women are untouchable. But me and La Diaz, half-Cuban hybrids who understand every sick come-on? Yeah.
Cameron, if you're reading: Don't come here.
I watch the elevators and stairs, waiting for one of the participants in the "Music Bridges" program to appear. I'm here to cover this program of artistic diplomacy, which last week brought together 48 American and 45 Cuban musicians for a week of joint songwriting in Havana. (It has been illegal for Cuban and American musicians to write original songs together for nearly 40 years.)
Bonnie Raitt, Burt Bacharach, Mick Fleetwood and Jimmy Buffett, among others, are here. I want to grill them on their collaboration, so they can tell me how "beautiful" they think the "Cuban people" are. (So far, they have all said this, in exactly this good-white-liberal-speak.) I want to ask Raitt if she, too, found cockroaches in her breakfast cereal like I did the day before.
Suddenly, he's there. Woody Harrelson. The most unlikely invitee, the most unmusical of the musicians slung here from the States. Even the Cuban journalists, oozing with admiration, can't bring themselves to call him a guitarist or singer. "Look," says Mesa, jumping up, "it's the North American . . . actor, Woody Harledsam."
The Cubans, with their huge and ancient film equipment, give chase as "Senor Harledsam" makes his way toward the exit, where an extraordinarily well-groomed employee opens the heavy wooden door, eyeing Woody's thin, yellowed knee socks and knobby white knees with a mixture of disgust and confusion.
I stay in my chair, watching the Cubans communicate through sign language with a goofily grinning Harrelson, who nods and nods. Mesa calls out for me to join them. "He's going to a gym to work out," he cries as they head out the door and down the stairs to a waiting cab. "Come on."
INTERPRETATIONS OF WOODY
Before I know it, I am scrunched in the back of a small, red Hyundai with the Diaz fan and the North American . . . actor smashed in the middle, who is wholly unaware that I am a reporter for his hometown newspaper. (Aside from Santa Monica, Calif., he also has a home in Costa Rica.) Harrelson eats fistfuls of peanuts and chews with his mouth open. His teeth are yellow and snaggled, like a dinosaur's. The cameraman jumps into the front passenger seat, and the driver asks, "Where to?"
Woody is not sure where he's going. He has been there before, but he can't really remember how they got there or where it is.
"It's where the Cuban junior boxing team practices," Harrelson says. "It's near a swimming pool. And a basketball court."
Population of Havana: 3 million.
The Cubans begin to debate in raised voices where exactly he is talking about, and decide it is in old Havana. Harrelson smiles and watches the sidewalks. For every female form in a skirt, his head snaps around and bits of peanut dribble out of his mouth. No wonder he can't remember how he got there.
I introduce myself, and Harrelson ceases to make direct eye contact with me. I imagine he is thinking something like, "Damn paparazzi!" I'm not particularly thrilled with making eye contact with him, either. He is wearing ill-fitting shorts and a stained T-shirt, and is thinner and balder than I would imagine. I serve mostly as a translator from this point on.
The cab winds through a narrow street in old Havana. Sad, short-legged dogs dodge the wheels. The driver rolls down his window and asks some old men for directions to a gym. They begin pointing and shouting, arguing with each other about the location. Then Harrelson perks up. "This isn't it," he says. "It's out in the country somewhere."
I relay this message to the driver and Cuban reporters, and they give a collective "Ah . . ." -- certain now that the actor is talking about the buildings constructed in West Havana in 1991 for the Pan American Games. The cameraman turns to look at Harrelson and says, "Too-nell, too-nell," over and over. Harrelson looks over his shoulder, then looks back at the cameraman and shrugs.
"What's he saying?" he asks me.
"I haven't a clue," I answer.
Within seconds, we are going through a tunnel.
"Tunnel," Harrelson says. The cameraman bounces in his seat like a happy little boy, and repeats, "Too-nell."
Suddenly, Harrelson has encountered something unpleasant in his mouth. He leans over the Diaz fan and spits out the window, toward the tunnel wall. The only problem is that we are in a moving vehicle, and the peanut paste ends up sprayed across the Cuban journalist's eyeglasses.
"Sorry," Harrelson says. The Diaz fan pretends not to know what Harrelson is talking about, and smiles graciously. A North American actor has spit on him, and he is too polite to wipe it off.
I ask Harrelson if he's ever been to Cuba before, and he shakes his head. "First time," he says. I ask him what he thinks. "I love it here," he says. I ask him why. "The people are so cool," he says. "They're really open and warm. Like these guys. I could sit and listen to them talk all day."
I ask Harrelson how his musical collaboration is going. He is teamed with Raitt and some Cuban musicians; he remembers only their first names. "It's going well," he says. He also says he will not be playing guitar at the closing Sunday night concert. "There are already three other guitar players, and, let's face it, I'm not, like, the world's best guitar player or anything," he admits, laughing.
We arrive at the athletic complex, but Harrelson says he is not sure his training partners will be here, as he is more than an hour late. "Tell the driver to just wait a minute so I can see if they're here." I tell the driver, who nods and keeps the meter running.
Harrelson exits the taxi, as do the Cuban journalists. Great packages of Cuban muscle in tight sweat pants walk past. Adonises. Several have jaws as square as they come. Harrelson looks like a pipsqueak in his knee socks. To top it off, no one seems to know who he is.
As feared, Harrelson has been abandoned. The room is locked, his comrades are gone. Determined to work out, however, he approaches the basketball court where a group of young, fit men play. If they had any suspicion that gringos can't jump, Harrelson was about to prove them waaaay right.
The driver and I watch from the car, parked on a rise above the court. The driver shakes his head in pity as Harrelson scrambles his way around the court, pulling moves he no doubt learned on the set of that basketball movie he did.
After five minutes, Harrelson removes his T-shirt, exposing his soft white underbelly. The driver pretends to shield his eyes. "Oh my God," he says. "What is he doing?" Harrelson's shorts hang down, and his butt crack shows.
HE GOT GAME
The answer to the driver's question is easy: He's trying to play basketball. The Cubans dribble and shoot with relative ease, even if they are freaked out by the presence of this strange North American . . . actor. With peanut breath.
"I don't think they know who he is," I tell the driver.
"Who is he?" the driver asks.
"He's a famous actor," I say.
"Yes, a millionaire."
The driver finds this hilarious.
"No way," he says. "He doesn't look like a millionaire."
"He is. You should charge a lot for the ride," I say.
The driver watches the game. "I'll charge a lot," he says. "But for two reasons: one, because of his wealth; and two, because of his athleticism."
We laugh. It is cruel. Harrelson spins, jumps and trips -- but does not fall.
"That's very sad," the driver says, his eyes flashing with the giggles. "He's probably going to make us wait until the sun sets."
"Charge him a lot," I repeat.
In fact, Harrelson plays until sunset. One by one, the Cubans grow bored and leave, until Harrelson is literally left playing by himself.
When the actor and Cuban journalists finally return to the cab, I ask if he had fun, and he nods.
The driver asks where to now, and Harrelson tries out his budding Spanish.
"Yo necesito un viejo," he says. The men in the car stare at him in disbelief, especially the older cameraman.
"You just told them you need an old man," I inform Harrelson.
Harrelson finally makes eye contact with me. "Really?" he asks, and starts laughing. "Tell them I need to go to old Havana," he says.
I explain this to the men, and they laugh, relieved.
"Rest easy, old man," Harrelson says, patting the cameraman on the shoulder.
As we go back through the "too-nell," Harrelson asks me to roll down my window. I fear he is about to spit on me, but he explains that he can't breathe, and the smog is killing him. I tell the Cubans that the air in Havana is filthy. The Cuban journalist looks shocked.
"We have no air pollution in Havana," he says, quite seriously. I translate for Harrelson, who can't believe what he's just heard. I can't believe it, either. Havana smells like a jar of Vaseline, and if you stand outside for more than 15 minutes, your skin gets coated with black goo.
"You tell my man that he just lost a whole lot of credibility as a journalist with me," Harrelson says. "You tell him he's un poco loco. This is the worst air I've ever seen."
I tell the Cuban. His response: "There is no industry here. And few cars." Across the bay, an oil refinery belches black smoke into the sky. The cars on the road, either old American jalopies or Soviet Ladas, do the same. When the sea comes splashing over the sea wall, it is oily and black.
"No pollution?" I ask.
"Look, this is the problem," the journalist says. "Woody is an environmentalist, and I am a beer-drinker. It's all in perspective."
I translate for Harrelson, who laughs. "If only he knew," he says.
We arrive at the restaurant in Old Havana where Harrelson is supposed to meet some friends. The Cuban journalists get out to accompany him. Harrelson looks at me with worried eyes.
"Do they think they're going to follow me all night?" he asks.
I ask them the same question, and they nod, gleefully.
"Do you want them to go away?" I ask Harrelson. He nods sheepishly, afraid to hurt their feelings. "Don't worry," I say. I tell the Cubans that Mr. Harrelson would like some privacy, and they apologize to him and climb back into the taxi. The driver charges Harrelson $24 for nearly three hours of service. Harrelson thanks me, then ambles down the street, enjoying the relative anonymity he has here.
We begin to drive back to the hotel.
"Do you think he knows Cameron Diaz?" the Cuban asks, eyebrows vibrating.
"Yes," I say.
"Do you think you can ask him to tell her to come to Cuba?"
CAPTION: Actor Woody Harrelson, enjoying his relative anonymity in old Havana.
CAPTION: In Havana's La Cecilia restaurant, Cubans dance the night away to the pulsating salsa beat emanating from the stage during the "Music Bridges" festival.