Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

No Such Thing As a Free Gift

No Such Thing As a Free Gift

Photograph via Flickr by flippinyank

It is illegal, in Cuba, to host a foreigner unless you are registered with the government as a casa particular, an apartment specifically intended to lodge tourists at a fixed rate of $25 per person. That’s in American dollars, which are used in Cuba in most places where tourists are expected to go: museums, hotels, State-run restaurants. If you’re a foreigner, it’s very difficult to get ahold of Cuban pesos, and even if you manage to, you will be at a loss to know where to use them, unless you know of local markets or take advantage of the city’s labyrinthine public bus system.

When I prepared to travel to Cuba, I knew none of this. I was twenty-four, about to begin my graduate studies in anthropology in New York City, and determined to have one last adventure before the advent of my academic career. I also hoped that my trip to Cuba would one day become the basis for my doctoral dissertation. I didn’t know then that my future professors would roll their eyes at my seemingly old-fashioned interest in revolutionaries, State socialism, and the Cuban black market.

I arrived in Cuba in July 2008 for an 11-day stay from Guatemala City, where I had spent three weeks backpacking with a friend, carrying a few notebooks, and a copy of the Marx-Engels Reader, rendered dog-eared from rigorously studying the Communist Manifesto and the Gundrisse. Passing through customs at Havana’s airport, I told the official, in fluent Spanish, that I preferred that he not stamp my American passport, and I was handed a piece of paper as my entry into the island, without so much as a raised eyebrow. Every year, thousands of Americans travel to Cuba like this—without a trace. Some, like me, are adventurers and unauthorized researchers. Some are men who are reliving Havana’s history as a playground for wealthy Americans, searching for beautiful women who can be bought. One hears, too, of women coming for the same purpose.

A month before my trip, I had reached out to a guy named David, whom I’d found through, a social network for people who want to host or be hosted, internationally, for free. There were not many options in Cuba, where the Internet is effectively prohibited and can be legally accessed only in expensive tourist hotels. David had a profile, though: he was thirty-six, and his photo showed him as a smiling, light-skinned black man, with dreadlocks and oval-shaped glasses, hanging out on a beach. He was the only person I’d contacted via CouchSurfing.

[pullquote_right]I gave my host the three packets of baby wipes he had requested for his eight-month-old child.[/pullquote_right]

As the trip grew closer, David and I emailed. He was excited for my arrival and promised that we would get together. I thought this was confusing; hadn’t he agreed to host me? Actually, he wrote to me, because of his government’s laws I could not stay with him and would have to stay at a casa particular. (It’s fairly common on CouchSurfing for people to maintain profiles even if they cannot host, for the sake of meeting interesting travelers). I was still in Guatemala, so I reserved a casa particular on the Internet, one located on the outskirts of Habana Vieja, the colonial-era Old City.

While taking a taxi there from the airport, I noted, alongside the iconic images of Che and Fidel, numerous murals pronouncing the American government as Cuba’s enemy—“70% de los cubanos nacidos bajo el bloqueo” (“70 percent of Cubans born under the blockage”)—or proclaiming “Viva la revoluction!” or similar platitudes:

“Revolucion energetic es: AHORRO, RACIONALIDAD, Y EFICIENCIA.”
“Energetic revolution is: SAVING, RATIONALITY, AND EFFICIENCY.”

“Esta revolucion es hija de la cultura y las ideas.”
“This revolution is daughter of culture and ideas.”

“Fieles a nuestra historia.”
“Faithful to our history.”

The neighborhood of the casa particular consisted of old, dilapidated Fords and crumbling architecture. My host was bald, tall, moderately attractive, and white. When we met, I gave him the three packets of baby wipes he had requested for his eight-month-old child. There are many things that Cubans cannot get on the island, or that are too expensive to procure with local currency. Once he had the wipes, he handed me the apartment keys and left. That night, I went out in Habana Vieja with an Australian backpacker I’d met on the plane over; we drank wine and listened to a Cuban son band, and then walked around town with the band, strumming a guitar and telling stories.

I spent my second day in Cuba ambling around downtown Havana, near the Malecón, the sea wall, where people gather at all times of day and night. There was a parade of some sort, with people waving the Cuban flag and dancing with their children. It began raining, and people danced harder, welcoming the coolness. The heat in Cuba was like a soggy blanket cast over everything, and people constantly fanned themselves and looked for shade to stand under while waiting for a bus or in line at the market. It felt oppressive to me, and I was conscious of constantly sweating. I also worried about my wilted appearance—the ragged mountain clothes that I’d worn in Guatemala—while walking the style-conscious streets of Havana, where button-down shirts, bright-colored dresses, and proper shoes are standard attire.

On my way back to my casa particular after the parade, I was approached by a well-dressed black man who spoke extremely good English. He told me that he knew of a room I could rent in the area. I thanked him and walked away, recalling the anecdotes I had read about how locals called jineteros scammed tourists by leading them to lodging and then demanding money.

I found dinner somewhere and then returned to the apartment. I was getting ready to go to sleep in the quiet, sparse, modern apartment when a short woman, not much older than me, wearing a tight dress and heels, walked out of one of the bedrooms. Following her was my host (the one I’d gotten diapers for), who threw me a sheepish glance as he zipped up his pants. And so I met briefly with the Cuban reality of prostitution.

Prostitution has long been part of Cuba’s informal economy, most notably when Cuba was a playground for wealthy American men, in the 1930s and ’40s (the days when Hemingway drank mojitos and sailed a fishing boat around the island). Girls in Cuba, even those bound for university, begin courting the attention of foreign men in their teenage years, often exchanging sexual favors for new clothes or fancy meals, in addition to cash. Some Cubans I met in Havana spoke of a kind of feminist perspective that exists toward sex work, in which women who sell their bodies proudly come home to their Cuban families with cash. In a sort of twisted logic, because of the constraints of the socialist government, the ability to generate money in any way empowers them.

This long-established business has become more prevalent since the ’91 collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to the end of Soviet financial support (a major artery of the Cuban financial market since Castro declared it a socialist state in 1961). The significant loss of capital, coupled with the persistence of the ongoing near-total U.S. embargo against Cuba (which has been in effect since February 1962), led the island nation to enter what became known as the “Special Period,” a time of scarcity that forced the government to introduce some reforms to the country’s infrastructure, so as to use less oil, and to the socialist economy, so as to introduce a revenue stream. In order to bring cash to the island, in 1993 Cuba legalized the use of the American dollar, in the form of a dollar-based national currency called the convertible peso, or CUC. Since then, there has been  a “double economy,” where dollars and pesos are used in totally separate spheres of Cuban life: pesos in the street market, dollars in the tourist restaurants; pesos on the public bus system, dollars in the taxis.

Alongside this double economy came a doble moral, or “double morality,” where, on the one hand, Cubans are dedicated to their revolutionary values—supportive of economic equality and disapproving of racism—but, on the other hand, eager to get whatever they can for their own survival, and, when necessary, will let their revolutionary values slide. Thus it’s implicitly condoned, for example, when promising female university students sleep with men for money or nice clothing.

With the introduction of dollars, the informal economy, which is comprised of all unsanctioned private enterprise—mainly the selling of clothes, food, and services (including prostitution)—has grown stronger. It is everywhere in Cuba. People sell second-hand clothes out of their apartments and vend glasses of fresh juice to passersbys; old women give manicures on the sidewalk. In local parlance, this practice is called la lucha—the struggle. La lucha is an ongoing, widespread, and pervasive reaction to a system that has failed to provide people with what they believe they deserve. By describing the informal economy as a struggle, Cubans are identifying its place in everyday life: the hustle, the fight to survive, to make it through the hot days with enough food.

For an anthropologist, Cuba is uniquely frustrating, because it is designed to provide the visitor with an experience that specifically masks the realities of local life. Or, as I wrote in my journal, on August 4, 2008:

[quote]The DOUBLE ECONOMY makes tourists assume the ugly role of the BOURGEOIS visitor from a richer place. Even if you’d like nothing better than sitting in some crappy Cuban bar, eating fried pork and smoking a cigar alongside work-weary Cubans, you are still limited to your picture-perfect world of hotel patios and dollar-menu restaurants.[/quote]

When I wrote this, my head was filled with Marx and Engels’ prose on the merits of physical labor and industrialism. At that point, I had met hardly any Cubans, but I described them as if I were in charge of public relations for Castro’s government; to me, “work-weariness” sounded romantic and revolutionary.

One afternoon, on my third or fourth day in Havana, sitting outside of the ornate façade of the Hotel Inglaterra, a six-piece salsa band performed to placated, tea-drinking tourists and, I wrote, “A hoard of Cubans . . . huddled behind the band, just outside the borders of the patio, underneath the awning.” I compared the situation to Apartheid: tourists enjoying all the privileges their money could buy—including an elaborate display of Cuban culture—while everyday Cubans looked on, excluded.

“They probably think we’re all idiots because we’re just sitting here, drinking tea, instead of dancing like any decently soulful human being would do,” I wrote, even though I was sitting with the tourists. I saw myself as apart from them, as better, and yet I had been unable to get ahold of local currency; my use of dollars was inescapable. How could I learn anything about the Revolution, about socialism, by going only to the touristy spots curated by the government?

Upset by the division I saw at the café, and determined to find something that resembled my vision of authentic Cuban life, I patrolled the narrow streets of Habana Vieja. A meeting of Communist Party officials, a whorehouse, a cigar factory—anything! Just give me something besides a manufactured experience! But—though I did stumble on a harem—Habana Vieja offered only art galleries, museums, and bars, all for foreigners.

Later that night I found myself in another restaurant, again populated by “well-dressed tourists” now enjoying mojitos and steak dinners while listening to a trio performing Cuban classics. There was one table occupied by a group of Cubans heartily singing along to their national songs while drinking beer and eating sandwiches. (I had been told that only full dinner items could be ordered.) I looked on miserably, watching the two girls, dressed in tight T-shirts; one wore tiny shorts and a bandana, the other a hot pink bra with the straps showing. “I love them,” I wrote. “I love their drunkenness, their smoking, their casualness. They sit at that table like only they and the musicians exist. And outside, other Cubans sit on the stoop under the awning, waiting for the rain to quit.”

Habana Vieja was proving not to be my gateway to Cuban authenticity. After my encounter with the prostitute, I decided to leave the casa particular. I called my CouchSurfing contact David (who pronounced his name in the Anglo fashion, with neutrality, rather than Dav-id­, with the inflection over the last syllable, as it normally would be in Spanish), and we talked about meeting at his apartment in Vedado, a middle-class neighborhood in central Havana, where he lived with his girlfriend. A few days later, I went to their apartment. Vedado was quieter and more residential than the gritty, chaotic Habana Vieja. The apartment buildings were tall and modern, with exteriors painted in beach-y pastels.

David met me at the door to his apartment, shirtless and with a big hug, and offered me a mojito. His dark-haired girlfriend, Teresita, wore tiny boy-short underpants and a tank top, she also hugged me, then went into the kitchen to crush mint. A French college girl was there, too, with a duffel bag full of clothes. David and Teresita were hosting her as a CouchSurfer, even though they had told me they were legally prohibited from doing so.

Over the course of several rounds of mojitos, we spent a long evening getting to know each other, all of us sitting in the bedroom. David and I talked more than the others; we had been corresponding over email and now had a chance to flesh out our opinions and questions. I learned that David had rigged an Internet connection in his apartment and used CouchSurfing as a way to connect to the outside world and practice his English. He had recently met a woman from London and was making efforts to obtain a letter of permission from his government to go there and marry her, if only for the citizenship. As he told me this, I wondered what Teresita thought. Perhaps, Teresita saw David’s attempt to leave as part of la lucha: people doing what they need to get by. I never asked Teresita how she felt about this, or about David bringing people into their home via CouchSurfing. I didn’t ask Teresita much at all, but instead directed my attention toward David. He was the conversational one; also, I liked the intensity with which he looked at me.

That night, David asked me questions about my family, about George Bush and the Iraq War, about anthropology. He said he wanted to know me, ideologically. David and I essentially agreed that we didn’t like capitalist culture, its excesses and inequalities; but we also thought the Cuban government’s repressive policies were generating misery. David told me about a friend who had tried to make the boat ride to Florida years ago and was reported drowned at sea. Life in Cuba left much to be desired, David admitted, and yet he expressed pride in his country’s professed socialist values. At the same time, he was trying to marry a foreigner so he could leave.

But I didn’t reflect too much on David’s double morality, because I wanted to believe that the Revolution was somehow stronger than capitalism, stronger even than la lucha. And I felt that I had won David over (or, as anthropologists say, “established rapport”). It seemed that my diligent reading of Marx was paying off—the next morning, I called David from the phone and learned that he seemed comfortable enough with my political views (and with my ability to understand choppy Cuban Spanish) to let me stay in his sister’s home in another neighborhood in Havana, where there was more space than at his cramped apartment. This was what I wanted: to be as far off the tourist path as possible.

August 10, 2008.

Elements of Cuban life:

  • Waiting in long lines
  • Trying to stand or walk in shade
  • Figuring out public bus system
  • Men drinking rum all day
  • Figuring out how, when, and what to eat
  • Pollution and traffic and noise

I packed up my stuff and followed David’s instructions on how to take the public bus, which was disgustingly hot and crowded. David’s sister Dyrsa lived on a busy street in a neighborhood called Lauton, about a twenty-minute bus ride from Vedado. Dyrsa and her husband and two young sons had the upstairs flat of the house, and the downstairs was inhabited by a couple, Richel and Sonia. Richel was a mail carrier who made his real money, as I later learned, on the black market, selling second-hand clothes and marijuana. (Everyone in Cuba earns a standard salary of about $15 per month in local currency, so the black market is where people get the dollars they need to purchase extra food and clothes.) Lauton, in fact, is one of the city’s main venues for black market activity. Until the Revolution, it was a mostly working-class neighborhood with single-family homes. In the years after the Communist government took over, workers and peasants moved to Lauton from the countryside and inhabited houses that had been vacated by those who fled the country. Later, fifteen-story apartment buildings were built, making the neighborhood an architectural collage of pre-Revolutionary middle-class homes and mass housing projects.

Richel was excited to have me staying in his house, and right away he took me under his wing. Shortly after I arrived at Dyrsa’s, he popped upstairs to meet me and invite me down to his apartment. He was a tall, frighteningly skinny, frighteningly energetic man, no older than thirty, with a sweet-looking face and enormous brown eyes. His wife, Sonia, was heavyset around the waist and wore her thick, messy hair pulled back in a bun. While Sonia chain-smoked and fried up some eggs for me in the tiny kitchenette, Richel told me that a few years ago he had been thrown in jail for a year for violating Cuba’s requirement that all healthy citizens be employed. His eyes wide with excitement, he said that he had never fit into Cuban society, had let his hair grow long, loved listening to metal rock, and for these reasons was looked upon as a “counter-revolutionary.” Sonia stood and listened to our chatter, nodding, smiling, and smoking, but not saying much. Richel’s Dalmatian pranced around the kitchen.

[pullquote_right]Occasionally, during the mail route, he went into apartments and exchanged a little baggie of weed for a few pesos.[/pullquote_right]

I settled in and made Dyrsa’s house my home base, from which I went out to other parts of Havana to meet people and conduct interviews. One day, with the scorching sun high in the sky, Richel took me on his mail route. He gathered up about fifty copies of the official Party newspaper Granma, which he picked up from the post office every morning around six, and some letters, and put on a baseball cap. I took a few newspapers, finding it curious that he simply carried all the postage by hand. Shortly after we started walking, sweat dribbled down between my shoulder blades. Richel continually wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.

At some houses he threw the paper toward the door, and at others he passed by without doing anything. At a tall building, maybe sixty feet high, a woman near the top floor came onto her patio and threw down a rope, to which Richel tied a newspaper. Occasionally, he went into apartments, greeted people, and exchanged a little baggie of weed for a few pesos. He seemed to know who needed what, but his official job was clearly secondary to the other social and economic exchanges. At some point, smiling and wiping sweat from his brow, he turned to me and said that most people didn’t even read the newspaper. But they liked getting it, because it was free toilet paper.

After a long, hot day, Richel bought me a homemade popsicle from a boy in the street. We parted, and as I lay in bed, recovering from the sun, I replayed the day in my mind and convinced myself that I had seen Cuba from an insider’s perspective: the dutiful attitude toward labor, the pressing heat, the constant exchange of goods, the bonds between neighbors.

When evening set in, I stepped unannounced into Richel and Sonia’s house to see if Richel wanted to come to Vedado with me. I found him rifling through a bag of second-hand clothing with a man standing beside him. He looked up with a surprised, unguarded face that I didn’t know existed behind his performative, welcoming personality. I felt like I had violated Richel’s privacy, caught him in the act of la lucha. But then he smiled, and went into the bedroom with the man and the bag, leaving me standing there with the Dalmatian.

I spent about a week at Dyrsa’s house. Some nights, I would have dinner with her, her husband, and their sons, and then go down to Richel and Sonia’s house to talk and smoke cigarettes. Richel was always eager to see me, and Sonia was less enthusiastic but nevertheless hospitable and conversational. I was also going out on my own, finding markets, meeting Santeria priests in the street, and getting lost in the complex bus system.

Once, I visited David and asked him if he had any leads for my research. He sent me to the house of a Cuban anthropologist who had been documenting the conditions of Havana’s slums. He was an older, heavy-set man with thick-rimmed glasses. While chain-smoking, he told me about being sent to Angola to study anthropology and help with the guerrilla Socialist revolution there. He showed me a video of Cuba’s slums, with children wearing tattered clothing over their skeletal bodies.

I was visiting David and Teresita’s apartment nearly every day, always bringing fruit that I purchased on sidewalk stands—juicy, pink guayabas, mangos, pineapples. I liked hanging out with them. David was excited to talk politics with me, to challenge me to think critically about what I was doing in Cuba. And Teresita, like Sonia, was kind, gentle, and hospitable, preparing banana smoothies and mojitos and asking for updates about how my trip was going.

A few times, I was invited to stay for dinner. While Teresita did the dishes, David and I took walks in the coolness of night, watching the waves break against the Malecón. It was there that David revealed more about himself. He had studied biology at the University of Havana, an institution that carries much prestige in Cuba. He loved science, but he knew that if he wanted to make money, he needed a trade. So he taught himself how to use computers and the Internet, and had managed to hook up a private connection in his apartment. Clients with money—typically businessmen who worked in the black market—came to him for help creating websites or working on their computers. But his neighbors, David told me, couldn’t know about his work. If they did, they would snitch to the government. He could never let anybody see the modem or wires; he would hide them when visitors came.

One day, I was complaining about how I still felt somewhat lost in the hubbub of Havana, unable to grasp a certain kind of experience. David gave me a clever smile.

“I want to show you something,” he said, moving toward an old, grungy TV in his bedroom.

Sitting on David’s bed, we watched a DVD of some artists who lived outside Havana in a housing complex called Alamar. David said he knew them pretty well. The artists had funky hair and graffiti-painted T-shirts and were surrounded by sculptures made of trash and random objects.

The artists enthralled me. “Can we go meet them?”

We made plans to go the next day. I returned to Lauton wide-eyed and filled with excitement, and told Richel about the artists. He was almost as intrigued as I was, and asked if he could come. I said yes, of course.

The next day David and I were on a bus full of sweaty passengers out to Alamar. A cool breeze mercifully wafted in through the bus windows from the ocean as we left Havana. When I’d left that morning, Richel had been out delivering the mail, so I left word with Sonia that I’d gone ahead. After a thirty-minute ride, David and I got off the bus and walked into a circle of six-story, Soviet-style red brick behemoths with staircases winding diagonally between the floors. Amidst the buildings, in an edifice that looked like it had once housed a small shop, were the artists of Alamar, who called themselves OMNI. Inside, the workshop was adorned with drawings, paintings, piles of art books, framed posters, and lots of stereo equipment.

A sinewy man with medium-length dreadlocks and caramel-colored skin greeted David with a hug. He was wearing an oversized white T-shirt decorated with spray painted question marks and random words. He told us that OMNI was working on building a recording studio in an apartment nearby. The task of the day was to bring gravel to the studio. As we loaded up a wheelbarrow with gravel just outside the workshop, I was already feeling thirsty, and nervous that I had forgotten to bring water. I agreed to go along, but I didn’t even ask what the gravel was for. Maybe, I thought, they were building a wall to soundproof the studio.

It was probably one hundred degrees. The dreadlocked artist led David and me, pushing the enormous barrel of gravel along a road that led into the housing complex. Alongside him, two of his OMNI mates took turns filming the three of us. The film was supposed to be an “art-as-life” project, recording the process of constructing a space for creativity. David took a turn pushing the barrel, then I did, but only for a short time, because I wasn’t able to make it go very far. We came to a little roadside market and purchased two bottles of fermented grape juice (they had no water), which we drank on the spot, passing the bottles between the four of us. I tied a bandanna over my head to defend myself against the sun. Having finished the juice, we made our way to the studio, where we unloaded the gravel.

By the time we made our way back to the OMNI workshop, I was lightheaded, dehydrated, and drunk. David turned to me, very excited, and explained that we were going to listen in on OMNI’s weekly critique session, where they discuss their ongoing projects. It would be the perfect place for me to get ethnographic data. I tried to seem pleased, but really I wanted to lie on the ground and pass out. I needed water, but nobody had a drop. Cuban bodies were more accustomed to the heat, and they could do without it for a while.

[pullquote_right]Nilo put his arm around me and told me that I could be his wife.[/pullquote_right]

Inside the workshop, the OMNI members took seats. Some of the guys we had seen earlier were still there, tinkering with typewriters that had been turned into musical instruments. A few new people had showed up—a couple, with a small child; a woman with long hair and a long skirt; and a tall black man named Nilo, who had a poofy Afro and a body that he could have modeled with. Nilo led the meeting, and each person took a turn, saying what his current artwork was about. These individuals were artwork themselves—aesthetically detailed with jewelry made of precious stones, big hair, lithe-limbed bodies, and fierce eyes. They were talking excitedly, but I began nodding off. I desperately wanted to sleep. I looked toward the door. If I could just get outside, could find water.

They were all looking at me. It was my turn to talk, to say what I was doing. I blinked and rubbed my face a bit. Nearby, David was cringing, embarrassed. I began explaining about anthropology, how I was planning to go to study in a master’s program, in New York City, that I wanted research political art in Cuba, that I was fascinated by their country. They nodded and asked me a lot of questions: which university was it? when would I be back? where had I learned to speak Spanish so well? I mumbled halfway-comprehendible, sleepy replies about The New School and New York City, fellowships I had to apply for, my undergraduate research in Chile and teaching English in Argentina.

The meeting ended. Nilo moved toward me, and my heart fluttered. He spoke with a slight lisp, and held my hand to his bare chest, telling me how happy he was that I had come. He showed me his drawings, Surrealist black ink illustrations depicting curvy figures with Spanish phrases describing dream worlds. He put his arm around me and told me that, if I ever wanted, I could stay with him in Alamar, and be his wife. I bought two of Nilo’s drawings with a wane smile, teetering on my heels, my vision blurry and my head pounding.

David and I were ready to head back to Havana. But the dreadlocked guy we had wheeled the gravel with told me there was one thing I had to do. Everyone who visited performed a song for the video camera. They collected these clips to remember the people. I nodded halfheartedly. There was only one song that came to mind, something I had taught myself to play on guitar in college. I faced the camera. Around me the OMNI members tidying up the workshop paused to watch.

I began singing Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” my a cappella voice ringing clear in the space. I snapped my fingers to keep the beat. In the second verse, Nilo picked up a piece of metal that was sitting on the floor and began rapping on a chair. Another guy moved over to a typewriter and began banging on it. David found a bongo drum; everybody else picked up something, too. I kept singing, and after the final verse, I let my voice merge with the percussion, and we went on like that for twenty minutes. My desperation for water faded, as did my shame at having fallen asleep when I was supposed to be presenting myself as a serious researcher. I gave in to Cuba and let go of the idea of controlling my experience there. It was too hot to control anything.

When I got back to Lauton that night, Richel was waiting for me at the kitchen table with a hard, angry face.

“You and David went without me,” he said firmly. “How could you do that? I was supposed to go with you.”

What could I say? True, I had known Richel wanted to go. But I’d also known that I couldn’t wait for him. Every day, every hour in Cuba was precious.

I expected Richel to be at least somewhat understanding. But he was absolutely crushed. Gone was the enormous smile that made his eyes widen over his brow. Again and again he said, “I can’t believe you went without me.” I found it odd that he had wanted so badly to visit the artists, because he was not one, but I apologized profusely, suddenly racked with guilt. Richel had been impossibly generous with his home and his time. It hadn’t occurred to me that he expected something in return, and that the thing would not be money but access to another kind of Cuban society, the world of arty intellectualism that David, educated and well connected, was part of, the one from which Richel was implicitly excluded.

Living in Lauton as the only foreigner in the neighborhood was the closest I could get to my vision of experiencing “authentic” Cuban life. The morning after my trip to Alamar, as I made tea in the kitchen, Dyrsa asked me, her face toward the stove, about my class background.

Y eres de la burgesa? De la clase alta?” Are you bourgeois? High class?

I told her I was from the clase media—the middle class. She smiled and nodded but didn’t seem to believe me. I didn’t push it. She went off to work, as a caretaker in a home for the elderly.

I was exhausted from the previous afternoon’s excursion, so I stayed in Lauton, checking out the little cinema down the road where Sonia worked, and getting a two-dollar manicure from an old woman on the sidewalk. I returned to Dyrsa’s house in the late afternoon to see her three boys playing basketball on the little terrace in front of their house. I joined them, and we were still shooting hoops an hour later, when David arrived. He was pleased to see us all hanging out, and put on loud reggaeton, which commenced a dance party that went well into the evening, with the boys trying to show me how to move my legs like they did, and Dyrsa and their father clapping their hands, and all of us laughing at my inability to keep up. When we stopped to catch our breath, David pulled me into the kitchen and poured out small glasses of rum. “Well, my gringa,” he said, our glasses clinking. “You’re practically a real Cuban now!” I laughed at his exaggeration, but secretly felt vindicated. I was not a real Cuban but I was, perhaps, a good anthropologist: increasingly I spoke Cuban Spanish, chopping off the ends of my words; I had learned to ride the buses; now I was spending a hot afternoon with regular Cubans, just living.

As the dinner hour neared, I tried to offer to go out and buy something, but Dyrsa only smiled, knowing how hard it would be for me to purchase food in their neighborhood. Food in Cuba can only be purchased with the national ration card or through the black market, if one has cash to spare. With the ration card, a typical family is allotted a small amount of rice, beans, flour, and household goods like toilet paper and bar soap—just enough to suffice. You show the ration card at a wholesale shop, and they mark off your items on your card. One of the boys went to the store, and I tagged along, watching him hand over the ration card to have items checked-off. We returned to the house with sacks of rice, eggs, and avocado. We all ate together, one happy family.

My 11 days were ending, but it felt like I’d been there much longer. On my last morning, Richel made me a special breakfast of grapes, watermelon, and a slice of cake, with orange juice. He placed it all on the table and watched me eat, refusing to even sit down and join me, instead standing, antsy. We had become friends—he had forgiven me for my breach of his trust when I went without him to Alamar—and now I was leaving. I said I wanted to come back as a researcher with enough funding to stay for many months or a year, but Richel seemed skeptical that he would see me again. Sonia gave me a necklace of plastic beads as a parting gift. A year later, I would learn that they had separated and that Richel had gone off with his Dalmatian to live elsewhere.

David came and watched me pack up my suitcase. As the heat receded into evening, he and I set out for a walk into the hills, where we could see out over Havana, the lights of Vedado sparkling between where we stood and the cold darkness of the sea curving around the island. We found ourselves in a playground, and David became very emotional as we sat on a bench. He told me that I was very special, that he had never met an American like me, so open and willing to connect with strangers. He rubbed tears from underneath his glasses. I was moved by his words.

David grabbed me and hugged me tightly, holding me close, the rare kind of embrace that feels charged with unconditional love, as opposed to the obligatory hugs that friends give each other on parting. As minutes went by, David continued to hold me, and his hands began moving from my back to my sides, and he began massaging me. Then he moved his hands up to my neck, pulled my head away from his shoulder, and looked at me, before diving in to for a kiss.

After recovering from the shock, I pulled apart and looked at David. “Y Teresita?” I asked. She had been so kind to me. She lived with David. How could I do this to her? How could he do this to her?

David shook his head. In Cuba, small trysts were normal, he explained. People needed love—a lot of love—to keep them going, through the daily stress and hustle.

I looked into his eyes and relented. Yet I understood that it was me, not Teresita, who was being hustled. This was the completion of my sojourn into the “doble moral” of Cuba’s informal economy. People had taken me in with generosity and openness, but what were they getting out of it? Richel needed to confide in me and let me lead him into interesting situations. The artists needed a customer with dollars to spend. David needed a female companion with whom he could have intellectual conversations and establish a sexual connection that could one day get him off the Island. And the women? They seemed wary of me. It doesn’t take a social scientist to understand why female anthropologists have difficulty establishing rapport with other women. In Cuba, being female was threatening to women because it meant I could achieve trust and intimacy with their men and, if I wanted, steal them. I hadn’t wanted to recognize this, but here it was. And I shouldn’t have been surprised. Anthropological studies of gift economies have proven this truism: “there is no such thing as a free gift.”

Back in the States, right around the time I hung one of Nilo’s drawings on the wall of my New York apartment as my first semester of graduate school was getting underway, I received an email from David telling me how precious the visit had been, and how he would never forget me, and that he hoped I would return to do more research there. The email address had a government domain: “” The State’s department of culture. Suddenly, it all made sense: David’s profile on CouchSurfing, his cozyness with the Alamar artists, his Internet connection. In typical Cuban fashion, he had shown me what I wanted to see: a cultural revolutionary, transgressing against the establishment. But he actually worked for the government.

What was I to make of my friendship with David? He wanted me to trust him: if I’d known his relationship to the state, I might have been more tight-lipped about my views and interests. In that way, David was his own sort of anthropologist—and one who exposed my romantic vision of authenticity. My visit to Cuba was as much a mirage, a fantasy as the idea of Cuba socialism. I wanted to see Cubans as embodiments of an anti-capitalist world, and yet my experience was commoditized and packaged, by an expert nonetheless. I tried to salvage the trip’s scholarly validity, explaining to my professors—who rolled their eyes at my romanticism—that Cuban socialism held many universal lessons that could be studied. But perhaps the most important lesson was the one that David, in his sly way, tried to teach me: that relationships are both superficial and profound, and so necessarily contradictory—but that does not mean that they don’t matter, that the foundations they exist upon aren’t real, or that you won’t remember them, even the briefest ones, for the rest of your life.


Photo by Rachel Signer