By Luke Maguire Armstrong
“So, why Cuba, mate?” asks the Australian beside me. My thoughts scuttle to form a cohesive answer for him, for me.
“Because I’m not really supposed to go,” I finally say. “And because my grandma died. Well, I would have probably gone anyway. I like to travel. And Hemingway had something to do with it. Well, my grandma really had something to do with Hemingway. I don’t know. Lots of reasons.”
The Aussie raises his eyebrows and disregards me for the rest of the flight. These are not the stock answers he was looking for: beaches, resorts, women. But it doesn’t matter. For over a decade, I have sought Cuba, and, finally, in December 2008, I’m about to land in Havana. There will be plenty of time to figure out exactly why I’m here.
“Why have you come to Cuba?” Apparently, it does matter to the Cuban airport official, who takes me away to a private interrogation room. He dumps the contents of my backpack onto a metal table.
The room looks straight out of a CSI episode, and I’m enthralled—until I remember that worry would be a better choice of emotion. He asks again, “Why have you come to Cuba?” Civil disobedience? A dead grandmother? Hemingway? None of these seem like acceptable grounds. I’d harbored a vague conviction that the Cubans would greet me with gusto for daring to coming here. Now, Cuba seems a party to which I’ve been uninvited.
“Tourism!” I finally say, after what seems like an eternity of silence. Of course! I’m here for tourism!
“Where are you staying?” he shoots back. I’d planned on landing and taking it from there. Maybe hitchhiking. I’d read that hitchhiking abounds in Cuba. But his face is stern, and I remind myself that my dream of Cuba is at risk of being modified to a dream of visiting José Martí International Airport. I take out my guidebook and point to the first hotel listing in Havana. He accepts this with a grunt and writes down the address.
Then he picks through my backpack. “Why do you have fifteen copies of the same book?” He wields a handful of my grandmother’s poetry books, and I know the word “propaganda” is turning around in his head.
“No sé,” I tell him weakly. I don’t know? This is the wrong answer, but the truth is so complicated. I search for any plausible reason. Finally, I marshal an unconvincing one: “They’re gifts I bought in Mexico to bring to Guatemala, where I live.”
He skeptically flips through one of the thin tomes, examining its contents. Not finding anything incriminating, he moves on to other suspicious items. “Why do you have this flashlight?”
“To see in the dark.”
He grabs my notebook, stopping on one page as if he’s finally found something he could use to lock me away forever. “Where did you get this information?” He points to where I’ve scribbled an incomplete timeline of significant dates in Cuban history: Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1961. Cuban missile crisis, 1963. Che Guevara killed by CIA in Bolivia, 1967.
I tell him it’s from the Internet.
He puffs up his chest, his body language implying that he’s about to punch me in the face. “You know, there are perspectives out there other than yours!”
He sets down the notebook, snatches my passport, and leaves the room. I’d read somewhere that under no circumstance does an official have the right to separate you from your passport and that if any attempt is ever made, you must demand its return. I consider mentioning this, but the door he slams behind him convinces me that my best bet is to sit quietly.
After five minutes of imagining what a Cuban prison is like, I’m amazed when the official returns smiling and hands me my passport. “Sorry for the bother. Have a great stay in Cuba. We welcome you!”
• • •
Thinking back on the road from childhood to adulthood, with its numerous indistinct crossroads and dim markers, Cuba stands out. At age 12, I realized, remorsefully, that I knew nothing about politics and thus had no political opinions. My older brother was filled with them.
Then, on my 13th birthday, my grandma gave me a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Accustomed to Disney endings, I thought it would have been better if Santiago’s fish had not been lost to sharks. But I liked the book, and it made me think about Cuba. My brother, who knew most everything, told me that Cuba was communist. That’s it, I thought, feeling my first political certainty. Cuba should be free!
After 13 squandered years, I finally had an opinion, that electrical charge I knew was needed to jump-start adulthood. Adulthood—when I was allowed to feel a certain way about things that had no immediacy in my own life!
While I eventually discarded many things from this period (Spice Girls obsession, Gameboy, mushroom hairdo, my inability to talk to girls), Cuba continued to cast its spell. At 22, I gave up ordering rum and cokes and settled on the much more sophisticated Cuba libres. After explaining to bartenders what the drink comprised, I could usually guess their thoughts: “Why can’t he just call it a rum and coke?”
Since our country’s founding, plenty of other Americans have had their eyes on Cuba. John Quincy Adams thought Cuba was an “object of transcendental importance to the commercial and political interests of our union” and assumed that, “through the laws of political gravitation,” Cuba would simply fall into our hands. His predecessor, Jefferson, was less patient. He would have grabbed it green and annexed the island. For many presidents between Jefferson and Kennedy, it was often not what we could do for Cuba, but rather what Cuba could do for us.
• • •
By the time I arrive in the city of Havana, my delay at the airport has taken most of the daylight with it. In just a few minutes, the sun will escape behind the seventeenth-century architecture. The blazing sky and picturesque backdrop are stunning, and I want to absorb the moment so it can become a part of me forever. But I need to find a place to stay. It’s tourist season, and all the casas particulares (private homes that rent rooms) I come across are full.
As I search, people offer me other things: “Hey, you want a girl? Cheap girl?”
It seems unwise to ask the people offering me cheap girls if they know of a place I can rent. A taxi driver finds me a room after making several calls on his cell phone. The owner of the apartment, Frank, seems nervous as I drop my backpack on my bed. He warns me, “I’m not authorized by the government to rent this room, so you can’t tell anyone you’re staying here. I’ll lose my apartment and maybe go to jail if you do.” I assure him that I don’t know anyone in Havana, and this seems to pacify him.
“So, why have you come to Cuba?” he asks. I tell him for tourism.
• • •
I first knew my grandma simply as my grandma: an older woman carrying an aroma of strong perfume, who, unlike my mom, understood the importance of large amounts of candy in my life. But, over time, I began to grasp the full significance of the person she was. The lady signing the checks in my birthday cards was also a daughter and a mother, a friend of many, and, too often, someone frustrated by her failing body.
The more I saw her like that, the more I loved her. In her, I began to see parts of myself, passed down through her nature and nurture. I saw my own love of travel and passion for literature as a reflection of her mania—the best word to describe her itchy feet. She and my grandpa lived in 51 different houses in their 53 years of marriage. A self-described “hopeless expat” jumping from Guam to Greece, then Greece to Ireland, she traveled despite her declining health until her illnesses finally grounded her in her beloved Eugene, Oregon (as much a permanent residence as she ever had).
Most of my life, we lived states or countries apart but kept in touch through email. Connected through a modem, I conspired with her about my hopes and dreams. Often I told her how the book she’d given me years earlier had seeded my yearning to go to Cuba. She told me about how she, too, had always wanted to go there and see the Hemingway haunts in Havana.
Having suffered through several forms of cancer, she was often bedridden. “I fear my traveling days are now limited to the Starbucks on the corner,” she wrote to me once. “But if you ever make it to Cuba, and I imagine you will, promise you’ll have a Cuba libre for me.” I told her I would have several.
• • •
Aside from my incident at the airport, the Cubans live up to their friendly reputation. “Welcome, welcome,” a shirtless teenager tells me on my first morning spent strolling the streets. “You have nothing to worry about in Havana. We have two million people; one million are civilians, and one million are police.”
He is joking, but his humor rings with a timber of truth. Big Brother is looking over every Cuban’s shoulder. If the police in Havana see Cubans walking with foreigners, they can expect to be stopped and questioned. The government is afraid that association with outsiders will have a bad influence on Cubans. In my case, they probably have a point.
But the Cubans are proud of their country and are eager to ask foreigners how they like it. They smile like pleased parents when told how beautiful and wonderful their island is. But if you ask them how they themselves like Cuba, their faces darken a bit, and their eyes search dreamily for a way to explain their feelings.
Despite his reputation in the United States and his shortcomings, Fidel Castro is respected by most and even cherished by some. Regardless of future changes, he’ll always be their George Washington—the man who made Cuba a country for Cubans. The Cubans are proud that they were the first Latin American country to abolish illiteracy. They beam when they tell you how Cuba has more doctors volunteering abroad for humanitarian efforts than any other country in the world. They had racial and gender equality long before most Western countries, and they have some of the best health care on the planet.
But as they tell you about all of these accomplishments, they stare off pensively into the distance. It’s like looking into the fresh face of Dorian Gray, alluring, yet masking a secret.
• • •
I return home late my second night in Havana, and Frank and a friend are drinking rum in the living room of the apartment. They’re sitting arm-in-arm, and Frank hesitates before telling me he is gay. He asks if this offends me and laughs, relieved, when I say it doesn’t. He tells me not to worry, that the Cuban government allows people to be gay.
I join them for a small glass of rum. Frank introduces his partner, Carlos, and I tell them about the historic sites I saw that day. Then we start talking about Cuba, beginning with Frank and Carlos relaying all the great things about the country, the things the government boasts about on billboards across the island. After covering the free health care and education, Frank paints the darker part of the picture.
“Christmas is prohibited!” He assesses my reaction—suitable dismay—before proceeding. “They only pay us 12 U.S. dollars a month! I had to sell my TV just to get by!” He points to an empty TV stand. The VCR is still there, and I can’t help wondering why he didn’t sell that first.
After the three of us contemplate the empty stand, he continues. “We can’t travel like you. I don’t even know my own country, because no one can afford to travel inside it, and you need a special permit to travel outside it.” Frank is visibly upset; I can see him holding back tears. “The government takes an inventory of everything you have, and they don’t give you enough to live. There’s only one person who is allowed to have ideas!” Frank pantomimes a beard.
Carlos shushes him and shakes his head. “Things are difficult….” He trails off, looking for the right words to convey the complexity of the situation. He settles with gently repeating himself: “Things are difficult.”
“But we’re happy,” he quickly adds. “In spite of everything, we’re happy. We’re all generous and neighborly; if we ask for help from our neighbors, they’ll give it to us, even though they’re struggling, too. So we get by. It’s not like some countries. No one is starving. And the government wants what is best for us. They just need to know that what’s best for us is the freedom to do what we want. Because, without that freedom….” His voice trails off again as he tries to frame the reality of his life into a few sentences. “Without freedom….”
Frank takes his hand, and Carlos lets the unfinished thought disperse through the small living room, filling its corners with irresolution.
• • •
In the book my grandma gave me, Hemingway asks, “Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?”
I had two plane reservations in December. With the first, I would visit my grandma in Eugene, and then, two weeks later, I would fly from Guatemala to Cuba. With her health failing, I knew this would likely be a goodbye.
Before my plane left for Eugene, she departed for a sea vaster than Hemingway’s. I landed in time for her funeral.
• • •
Part of the reason I am in Cuba is to see it as it is right now. After idealizing the country for so long, reading scores of books on it from a myriad of political viewpoints, I simply needed to go. While I believe the travel restriction will be lifted soon, I know that the Cuba of today will hardly be recognizable afterward. I needed to see this Cuba before it is gone forever.
I find myself frequently contrasting Cuba with Guatemala, where I’ve spent the previous two years as a humanitarian worker.
In Guatemala, half of the children suffer from chronic malnourishment. I’ve held babies on the brink of death and felt the sadness of how broken things can be. In Cuba, homelessness is virtually nonexistent, and no one is dying from malnourishment. Most do not have a lot, but no one has nothing, and everyone seems more than willing to work together, while hopefully looking to a brighter future.
Guatemala can boast a democracy and free market but cannot currently be proud of the results of either. The rich are becoming richer, while the poor too often go unaided and exploited. On many days, cynicism trumps the people’s hope.
Contrasting these experiences with life in Cuba is troubling. How many people in the homeless shelter I worked at in Guatemala would trade some of their freedom for a system that does not ignore them into oblivion? So many of Guatemala’s malnourished infants will never live long enough to vote in the country’s free elections.
As an American, I’ve been raised to be a passionate proponent for freedom. And I am. But if this freedom comes at the cost of infants dying from hunger and the sick being turned away from hospitals because they can’t pay to save their lives, then what have we really accomplished?
• • •
I’m walking through Havana while children run about kicking soccer balls and old men sit smoking on curbs and in plastic chairs. Women are laughing, and lovers conspiring. I’ve set out today to do what amounts to the opposite of shoplifting.
I’m bypassing historical sights in search of bookshops, my backpack filled with the copies of my grandma’s book, A Life on Paper: Poems of Survival. In each shop, I secretly slip a copy onto a shelf. I’ve written inside each: To Cuba, with love. From Patricia Mees Armstrong via her loving grandson. Thanks for giving me the gift of Cuba.
Regardless of whatever brought me to Cuba, I’m now here to say goodbye to my grandma in a way I know she would approve. I smile when I imagine what will become of each paperback as it floats freely around the island. I’m happy that her poetry, the most palpable part of her, has made the journey here.
Hemingway once said, “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse.”
Hemingway will need to forgive me for the hopeful symbolism I now envision bursting from the heart of Cuba. In any case, he’s partly to blame.
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner, 1952).
- A Life on Paper: Poems of Survival by Patricia Mees Armstrong (Small Poetry Press, 2004).
- "The Recognition of Cuban Belligerency" by Amos S. Hershey, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May 1896.
- Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 27, 1809; Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
- Letter from Ernest Hemingway to Bernard Berenson, September 13, 1952; Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, edited by Carlos Baker (Scribner, 1981).
- “Havana Boat,” “Vintage Cars,” “Open-Air Bookstore,” and “Hemingway’s Sea” © Luke Maguire Armstrong; used by permission
Luke Maguire Armstrong was a baby, who became a boy, who became a man. After finishing degrees in philosophy and English abroad at La Catolica Pontificia University of Valparaiso, Luke did what any financially oblivious recent grad would do: took out a large student loan and planned to backpack from Chile to Alaska. He ended up stopping in Guatemala, where he spent four years as director of the social services programs of the educational development organization Nuestros Ahijados. These efforts were featured on the 2010 ABC News Global Health Special: Be the Change, Save a Life.
He is now back in the United States, traveling from coast to coast with his brother Tyler, playing music and promoting his second poetry collection, What Is Only Human: A Collection of Poetry and Awesomeness. Luke is a contributor to the online travel magazine, The Expeditioner and editor of the art and humor site Rabble Rabble Rouse the World. He continues to volunteer his time with various charities to promote human rights and education.
"To Cuba, With Love" was originally published in a different form in The Expeditioner's Guide to the World, edited by Matt Stabile, Luke Maguire Armstrong, and Jon Wick (CreateSpace, 2010).