In 2005, my boyfriend at the time and I had stayed at one of Cuba’s fabulous all-inclusive resorts. After several days of drinking rum and Cokes from breakfast to midnight, and lounging about in the most beautiful turquoise water anywhere outside of Bora Bora and Fiji, we got an itch to do what Canadians traveling to Cuba rarely do—leave the resort.
We rented a tiny car directly from our concierge, Ermano, who told us that his name means Noble Soldier. It might even have been his car, but we didn’t ask.
When Ermano handed us the keys, he said with a smile and a slight accent, “There is a curfew for tourists to return back to the property. I will get in trouble. Just be back by sunset and everything will be okay. Okay?”
With that, and without understanding anything about the country, apart from the friendly service we had received in the buffet line, we set out to squeeze seven hours of daylight in Fidel’s Cuba.
After miles of grass and countryside and wild cows, many of them pure white, we rolled up to our first Cuban town and soon an alternate reality showed itself.
The homes were packed tightly together, rowing the street. They were made of concrete blocks, cheerfully painted in blue or yellow or lavender. Each was a simple one-room structure with a rudimentary opening for an entrance. There were no doors and we could see inside: dirt floors and mismatched beds.
Every dwelling had a knee-high fence around twenty feet squared of front lawn where women were busy cooking on rusty grills on open fire pits. And although it wasn’t under roof, I understood that this was the kitchen of the house.
An old man slept in the gutter of the road. A dusty dog slept beside him. Both were baked brown in the afternoon heat. Children ran outside, squealing and playing, joyfully unaware of a bigger world that they would never know.
We parked Ermano’s car and wandered into a bar, drawn in by the sound of slow plucking on a Spanish guitar and a man singing something that sounded like both a romance and a great sorrow at the same time.
It was a genuine saloon, with swinging half-doors and all, and it was dark enough to dim what our rose colored glasses could no longer. We took two stools and ordered rum, straight up.
The bartender was a happy oldtimer and introduced himself as Johnny. He asked us where we were from and where we were staying and how we liked Cuba. And we asked him about his family and his job, and learned that he played the drums at night in another club down the street.
“My wife Analena is a housekeeper there at your hotel, a maid.” He leaned over the bar towards us and lowered his voice, “Sometimes she brings home soap from that hotel. Not the new soap. The pieces that are left once the guests leave. You know, our government gives us soap and shampoo and things like that. Free. But, it’s just one per month for each family. The soap Analena brings home is good.”
I thought about how Canadian travelers to Cuba are in the habit of purposefully leaving clothes behind for the maids. In fact, I had packed with it in mind, choosing dresses and products that I didn’t need, knowing that’s what we do for people who don’t have much, but not fully understanding why.
We bought Johnny a shot and he knocked it back quickly and put the glass out of sight. He was pleased to tell us much about the Cuban culture and society and lifestyle. The hours skipped by with ease, as if dancing to the elegant beats and percussion.
Then, we noticed the light from outside begin to turn pink and blush with the sun setting. We knew our time was narrowing, so we asked him one final line, “What do you think about Fidel Castro?”
Johnny’s eyes said much, but with his lips he only whispered this, “Cuban people are, by nature, full of life and love. Fidel fears many things, and when you fear so much, you cannot love at the same time. But he doesn’t have a fear of death. No, because he can control the death of many. And he does. What he fears the most is the people themselves. Fidel has a fear of life.”