The Cuban Chronicles, A True Tale of Rascals, Rogues, and Romance
by Wanda St.Hilaire
(Calgary, Alberta )
This is an excerpt from my new travel memoir. The book is based on a series of letters I wrote to a cherished friend in Paris. In the infancy of Cuba's tourism, I took a trip to the island and afterward, put myself on a long-standing travel embargo. I was too fond of Latin men to risk returning to a place swarming with hot, tropical men looking for an escape.Chapter ThreeDirty Dancing
When I was forced to cancel a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico in September of 2006 due to the political unrest, I found myself on a last minute flight to Cuba. Here in chapter three, I am in Havana and in spite of my resolve, agree to a date with charming Cuban journalist.
Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back; a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.-Anais Nin, Author
Byron, the hypnotherapist, once suggested I change my black and white view of the world to include shades of gray. It is hard to shift this perspective, because of the extremes of black or white in my experiences. The men I meet are either like Miguel and Kevin - detached, do not utter a word that is not well thought out, and hold underlying passion, but remain controlled and inhibited. The others are like Jean-François, Gabriel and Paulo - passionate and out of control, instantly intimate and gushing waterfalls of powerful words.
Yesterday offered me a full immersion into Cuban life, complete with a Cuban "mauling." The journalist did call and wake me at nine sharp, and immediately booked me for the day. Part one: church service. It was Sunday, after all. Paulo professes to be a staunch Catholic (of course, one can sin as long as one repents and pays a small penance in the world of Catholicism, as I well know, and his eyes spoke less than pious thoughts). It was no ordinary service; the Cardinal gave the mass, and afterward I was introduced to him. Paulo is working on a documentary of Santa Bárbara, an important deity to Cubans, and is counting on the Cardinal to approve the funding. He took me on a tour through the church, and then to the San Francisco de Asís church. I hope he wasn't trying to impress me with his religiosity, because I'm not buying it.
We toured Old Havana, and he was well versed on the intricate details of Havana's history. He told me that the cobblestone street in front of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales is actually not stone, but wood. Allegedly, the wife of a famed captain or king asked her husband to have the stones replaced with wood, so that the horses would not disturb her sleep.
There is nothing like a private tour with a handsome Latino, complete with handholding and exclamations of 'you are very pretty' between venues. It's much more entertaining than a solo day.
We sat in the lobby of the Hotel Sevilla and I asked to see a room, but it wasn't nearly as nice as mine. Paulo found this amusing and was surprised that they allowed me to do such a thing. Technically, he is not even allowed in the lobby of the hotel, and he had a story rehearsed in case he was asked for his identification. Imagine not being allowed the simple experience of sitting in a hotel lobby in your own country. His looks make it tricky to tell that he is Cuban. He said if he were black, he would immediately have been tossed out.
We walked through the backstreets of Old Havana and into rugged Central Havana and ended up in a shabby, old world taberna with incredibly inexpensive food. It was the first place I'd seen with prices listed both in CUC and moneda nacional, and there wasn't a tourist in sight in this area of the city. Casa de la Música, apparently the biggest and most popular dance house in all of Havana, has a matinée at a reduced entrance fee in the late afternoon, and we arrived for the first band of the day. They were gorgeous Cuban Backstreet Boy hunks of men who could dance like I've never seen.
Paulo danced Cuban style salsa at an easy pace, but not nearly as beautifully as some of the men in the club. Two of the really good dancers were, I'm sure, dancers for hire. They were both sharply dressed in all white and each looked every bit the gigolo. Two heavy-set white women were dancing with them, the only other foreigners in the club. They were learning and dancing timidly. I've been told that you can hire these men to dance with you and provide other services if so desired. I was glad to be with a man my age (yes, he is forty-four, not twenty-four) who does not look like a man-for-hire.
Loosely speaking, at certain angles, Paulo reminds me of a Cuban version of George Clooney. His looks are a combination of salt and pepper hair with a contrasting youthful face that I find irresistible; he has medium coffee-colored skin and is over six feet tall. Having cavorted recently with short Miguel, I find Paulo's stature heady. His style is untucked-shirt casual, but appealing, and he looks put together. Upon close inspection, his large brown eyes and the shape of his nose reveal his mixed Turkish lineage. His English is better than my Spanish, and he kindly spoke English when possible. I am having one hell of a time understanding the Cuban accent and idioms. I wish I had Anna's command of languages right now. She speaks Portuguese, Spanish, French, some Italian, and English fluently. It must make traveling that much richer.
Paulo was cloyingly affectionate and had a perpetual erection while we danced. The muggy dance floor was a gyrating, pulsing beat of raw sexuality, with hot bodies simulating the act itself, and he thoroughly enjoyed taking dancing liberties. I felt like I'd almost had sex. There were no white bread Caucasian inhibitions on this dance floor. My indoctrination runs so deep that I don't know if my body is even capable of moving like this, yet somewhere inside this white girl is a Latina waiting to be liberated. I felt claustrophobic from the intensity of his attention; this is what I meant by a Cuban 'mauling,' but my body had other thoughts and involuntarily responded to it. If I thought I had been sweaty before, I didn't know what sweaty meant.
The neighborhood is probably safe but it is intimidating, so as much as I wanted to go dancing, I would not have gone alone. I was dizzy all day from the heat and at one point, thought I was going to faint on the street on the way back to the hotel. Although it was well out of his way, Paulo escorted me. I stood up the bandleader and agreed to meet up with Paulo again at 10:30; it's not my style to leave someone in the lurch, but there is a limit to how much one can juggle men within a few days.
Paulo called when he arrived at his casita to make certain I had not changed my mind and 'to hear your voice.' He is committed to ensuring I don't lose interest. What he doesn't know is I am already hooked; this is my favorite game and I want to play it out.
I had dinner at Al Medina, the only Arabic restaurant in Havana. It was not a true tagine, nor fattoush, and the food was over-salted in an attempt to give flavor, but it was sustenance. The waiter and manager were silent until I finished. Then the manager came to the table and leaned over, looking so deeply into my eyes that it made me blush. "I apologize, but I have to tell you that I can't believe how pretty your face is. I think you are beautiful."
No apology needed! When was the last time I heard that in Calgary, Alberta?
Paulo arrived freshly showered and looking handsome, his shirt damp from the long walk in the Havana heat. He presented me with a poem he'd just written. He was convinced that fate had played a part in our meeting, because the concert I wanted to attend was cancelled the night we met, his appointment with CNN was a no show, and he had taken an unusual route home. I think Jean-François has forever jaded the part of me that used to buy this program, although I do enjoy the thrill of the chase.
He wishes to introduce me to his sister (he has already told her about me), her husband and children and wants to make me dinner, but I made the excuse that his house is too far. He suggested that if we fell in love, I could come to Cuba many times in the year and stay with him, as Ashley does with her new husband. I'd forgotten how hastily the Latino male speaks of love. He claims to be taken with the fact that I write and paint, feeling that would make me a good match for a journalist. I gently steered him away from this train of thought.
Castro promised his people "bread and freedom without terror". Paulo has a university degree and makes between $15 and $40 per month as a professional journalist and has no freedom of speech whatsoever. Journalists are frequently thrown in jail for their writing content. Ration books that are issued for food and other basic necessities, such as soap, rarely last two weeks into the month. Although extremely poor, Paulo is proud. His briefcase was filled with pictures, articles, his current projects and his journalist's ID - the stuff of his profession and life to show me.
With our North American lives mostly devoid of sensuality and brazen passion, it is easy to see how we foreign women get swept into romance with these men. Maybe the repression and hard existence of daily life makes them so incredibly amorous; it may be all they have to give them happiness and life and it is the one thing they can control without Big Brother's interference.Ed. Note:
Wanda made this excerpt especially available to readers of Women on the Road. You can buy her book from her website at www.wandasthilaire.com.