I open my eyes to a dim room and feel the all-too-familiar sting in my throat. I can’t swallow. My muscles tense as I shift in bed and I close my eyes, hoping I might be able to fall back asleep and will it away. I can’t.
Across the room, my window opens to the courtyard of this building in Old Havana, and I hear the neighborhood waking up.
I went out dancing last night, but it’s not a hangover that’s debilitated me. It’s probably tonsillitis. I ask my friend to tell the lady downstairs that I’m unwell and ask which hospital I should go to.
Turns out, the lady downstairs has a different idea, and it appears I am in her hands. Cubans have their own way of "resolving" problems and getting things done in a country so short on resources for so long. These are the surprises of everyday life post-Fidel-Castro that go on behind the vibrant Instagram shots. And I’ve come to know firsthand these unexpected ways from the moment I arrived just over two weeks ago.
I watch the road and plug my nose to avoid inhaling the black cloud of smoke puffing from the car in front of us. Grass on either side of the highway from the airport to Havana is manicured, a detail that surprises me.
I’m in Cuba for dance workshops in Franco-Haitian, Afro-Cuban and Cuban Modern. Other dancers and I booked our tickets just weeks after Obama loosened travel restrictions for Americans. Having heard so much about this island, I can’t wait to see it for myself.
Traffic picks up as we get closer to the city. We stop at a corner in Central Havana and walk to our casa particular, past fruit stands on wheels and markets selling nothing but Pringles, saltines and a piece of hanging meat.
Pink, green and blue houses are crammed together between overhangs of crumbling building materials. Dogs saunter by, men sit on sidewalks and stare, children kick a soccer ball and the reverberating call of a pregón, or street vendor, echoes off the walls between us all.
I’ve come to Cuba to dance, but admittedly I’m just as keen to experience how Cubans have adapted to difficult times. It’s the ingenuity, the resourcefulness I want to see. The bittersweet romance between idealism and reality, and the creativity it brews.
To prepare, I’ve read Julia Cooke’s The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, a fascinating account of the result of five years of research she conducted with the last generation to grow up under Fidel Castro. I’m struck by her stories of ordinary people finding solutions. People fixed things like a broken toilet with a melted Bic pen.
That’s the Cuba I want to see. And without even searching, I do.
At a rest stop, I see a beer cap dug into soap to prevent it from sliding from the base into the sink. It’s a simple yet functional solution to the absence of a soap dish. A water pitcher at one of my casa particular is actually a washed-out French press, and I soon watch one of my taxi drivers rig the aircon by connecting what looks like two random loose wires.
Luis, a older gentlemen who runs a makeshift shooting range in Havana Vieja, shows me how he adds a piece of a tin can to the guns when the trigger stops up. He proves it with a flip of his palm, exposing healing scars from where the tin cut him.
The cars themselves, or otherwise referred to as museos andantes, walking museums, are the most obvious example of this Cuban ingenuity. Yes, there are plenty of classic car collectors in the United States who spend thousands in upkeep. The Cuban people don’t have that option, but somehow, they make them run.
But Julia Cooke doesn’t only talk about creativity. She also discusses the complex world of ‘resolver.’ She writes: “In the gulf between literal and colloquial meanings, to resolver implies questionably legal activities, since at least one step of nearly every solution to any problem in Havana today involves the black market, and always indicates an exchange of favors. Sentences in Havana would feel barren without resolver, for example, “I can resolver that for you” or “Resolviste?” meaning “Did you get---- sorted out?”
Late the next morning after an indulgent sleep, I come into the kitchen of my casa particular. Fruits, eggs, breakfast cakes, juice and coffee await in massive quantities. I hear the Univision presenter’s voice from the 36 inch flat screen above the table. The news she reports is from Miami.
I watch for a moment and turn back to the owner. “Is it legal to have channels from Miami here?” I blurt. I had thought Cuba only showed a handful of state-run channels.
Her eyes widen and she jolts up from the couch. She motions her head towards the open door of the house and crouches beside me. Her voice low, she explains that no, Miami channels aren’t exactly legal. She doesn’t know how, but somebody in the neighborhood rigged an antenna and now distributes the cable access to others. She pays $10/month. “If an official comes, we just turn it off real quick,” she says.
In classic Cuban style, she and her husband want to watch TV, so they found a way.
Before the dance workshops start, I take a brief trip to Trinidad, a four-hour drive from Havana. The British owner of the only vegan casa in town says she struggles to find ingredients. When guests make a booking, she’ll often ask them to bring her things like quinoa or chia. She “resolvered” how to run a vegan establishment even in pork-heavy Cuba.
Later, I probe my neighbor Richard about all of this. Richard says it a bit more plainly: “Aca todo es illegal.” Everything’s illegal here.
If you look a bit closer, past the Easter-egg-colored cars and the blur of mojitos, there’s a swirling wave of give and take, legal and illegal, where the lines between the two are thin and the desire for progress confronts a genuine pride of having defied the imperialism of the United States.
I go to the salsa club 1830, known as the place to be for salsa dancers. So, of course, also for tourists. It’s an open-air venue at the end of the Malecon with a live band and a swarm of beautiful men. I try to dance with a few partners, but I feel self-conscious of my very un-technical salsa style.
Feeling defeated, I leave the dance floor and squeeze past tables and groups of friends. I grab a water from the bar in the back. Turning back to watch the dancers, I’m in awe of the flow of bodies that float in a flawless rhythm. They seem to move almost haphazardly yet never out of place. The women follow so quickly, as if being telepathically notified of what the man is going to do next.
“Oye!” calls out a guy with ringlet curls that bounce as he approaches me. “Want to dance?”
I agree as long as he promises to be patient with me. He does. He pulls us to the side, where he starts with the basic front and back step and then guides me through a basic sequence of Cuban salsa. “Always step back with your right after a turn!” he corrects. “You have to look at your partner in the eye!” he advises. “No, the turn goes this way!” He’s helpful but not intimidating. I like this free lesson. When he’s not adjusting my arm or giving tips, we start to chat. I ask him what he does.
“I’m a school teacher by trade,” he says. I nod. He looks away, and with a shrug says, “But now I work on the black market.” He doesn’t go into much detail, but he tells me he does things like sell fruit and vegetables, distribute WiFi cards in public parks and recruit tourists to overpriced parties.
Almost as if he was ready for me to rebut with the narrative Americans are taught about Cuba, he begins a monologue about the merits of the Cuban system and why he’s proud. Healthcare in Cuba is free and top quality. There’s no homelessness, no one dies from hunger, and at 98%, the literacy rate is far higher than the U.S.
I follow my partner as he starts to do a side step. Moving perfectly to the rhythm, I’m finally feeling comfortable. He chuckles and says, “You look Latina!” Whether it was true or not, I’m flattered. I try to hide my gushing smile.
What a difference a few days can make.
I’m consumed with the full-body ache of a high fever, my throat is raw and feels like it’s closing. I wait for my friend to return with help from the lady downstairs.
I hear her climb the steep, uneven steps to our loft. Slightly hunched, she shuffles into the room and sits on the empty bed across from me. “Don’t go to the hospital,” she warns, “it’s $70 for foreigners.” Instead, she says she’ll call some doctor friends of hers. Happy to not be paying $70—I was running out of money—I say thank you. Prone to tonsillitis, I knew what I needed to do to get better. I hear the jingle of her bracelets as she shuffles back out of the apartment then I’m lulled back to sleep by the hum of the fan.
An hour later, I wake up to the woman and two doctors, a husband and wife. The woman sits on the bed clutching a stethoscope, the man propped in the doorway, sweaty from the relentless Havana heat and still huffing from the climb up.
She barely speaks, and as I explain my symptoms and what I think I need, she keeps glancing at the woman from downstairs for confirmation. She looks at me skeptically, but continues. She agrees I need antibiotics and tells him what to write on the prescription. I ask her what I owe.
“Whatever you think is fair,” she says. I’m not sure if I like being in the position to give “what’s fair,” but decide to pay her what I feel I can. I reach for my wallet and hand her a 20 CUC bill. She nods in agreement and wishes me well. This is as much as she makes in one month at the hospital.
In the three days I spend recovering, I miss a visit to the National Center for Sexual Education, something I’d been looking forward to for months. I don’t stop by the Orisha Museum or go out for another Sunday night of salsa at 1830, and I miss a day in Varadero, one of Cuba’s most famous beaches. Still, in a way, I instead have lived the "real Cuba." Just like millions of other Cubans, me resolvi.