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I love Latin America. I’ve been traveling there as tourist, scholar, reporter, and guidebook writer for 30 years. I dedicated my absurdly expensive stint with higher education to its history and politics. I’ve visited almost every country and know many intimately. Each is different and captivating in its way, it goes without saying. But of all the countries south of ‘El Norte,’ none compares to Cuba.
I should know, I’ve been living here since 2002.
I speak Cuban and know the best scams. (You won’t learn ‘¡¿cuál es la mecánica asere?!‘ studying Spanish in Antigua, homestay or no). My family has a ration book and I commute to meetings in ’56 Buicks. I know where to buy condoms for a penny and procure black market gas. Like anywhere, such practicalities can be learned over time. But the charm of a place, the underlying magic that makes here thrum at a higher frequency than there, dwells within the people.
Bright and early Monday morning, I make my way in a tinny old Lada to the travel agency. Like everywhere in Latin America, errands are best run in the morning lest the lights go, the building springs a leak, or the workers take a 6-hour siesta. I’m not surprised to find the agency next to the Artificial Rain Augmentation office. Es Cuba, after all.
At 8:45 the small, windowless room is already packed – there are four times more people than chairs. As usual, it’s sweltering and the air conditioning is broken.
A bleach blond with two young girls in tow is ceded one of the coveted seats. Her daughters play tope, tope, tope while she chats with the agent. Purchasing a simple plane ticket here is a slow, inefficient process. There’s not a computer in sight, just a single phone, and tickets are written out by hand. Transactions are in cash, meaning at this moment there are of thousands of dollars secreted in bras, stuffed into envelopes, and tucked inside jackets all around me.
To pass the time, we talk about the weather, where to buy rice, and the new soap opera. Those keeping mum are either not Cuban or have been gone so long they’ve lost their local chops – talking to strangers while waiting is both hobby and sport here.
The dyed-blond mom isn’t having much luck today. Each time Inés María tries to ring the central office – where the computers live assumedly – the line is busy. She replaces the handset and asks Blondie what grade the girls are in. With each new client’s arrival, the office grows hotter. A woman wearing the agency’s colors enters at half past nine, proffering a tiny cup of sweet dark coffee to Ines María who immediately offers Blondie a sip.
‘It is so hot in here,’ Inés María says to everyone and no one. She picks up the phone, determined to resolve the problem.
‘Hola amor. This is your colleague in the sauna calling. Can you come check on this AC? It’s so hot I’m ready to take my clothes off in front of all these clients and it’s gonna go porno. It won’t be pretty!’
She signs off with kisses for Mr Fix It’s family and wishes his grandmother a quick recovery.
Blondie’s girls are getting restless. The older one says she has to go to the bathroom.
‘It’s right down the hall, sweetie,’ Inés María tells her.
Typically – for Cuba – the 8- and 6-year old leave without adult accompaniment to find the public bathroom. We resume talking about the weather. Suddenly the younger girl is back.
‘Mom, she needs toilet paper,’ she announces to the now overflowing office. ‘She has to poop.’
Needing a personal, portable supply of toilet paper; talking openly about bowel movements; sharing conversation and coffee with strangers while waiting a couple of hours to purchase a plane ticket: this is normal. This is Cuba.
*This post will appear in the forthcoming ebook anthology of top Latin American bloggers being edited and published by Steven Roll of travelojos. If you’d like to be notified when it’s released, drop me a line.