Forbid me to go somewhere and… I probably won’t go. It’s not sheep mentality, but cheap mentality. Getting caught traveling to Cuba can land you a fine up to $65,000 if you are an American citizen… and that would probably be the most expensive tan you’d ever get!
The next best thing would have to be Miami’s Little Havana (New Jersey’s Union City also boasts a large Cuban immigrant population but Havana On The Hudson lacks beach proximity and a modicum of exoticism.) I could already imagine myself walking down the colorful streets, surrounded by bustling Americano Cubaneros smoking big cigars, and in the background, the Buena Vista Social Club musicians (the ones that escaped) playing on the sidewalk.
Unfortunately, it seems I had picked the wrong day. There were about two people on Calle Ocho and the guy in the top photograph was one of them.
No music either! Just a Julio Iglesias astral mark of adoration on the Walkway of the Stars. Sigh. Of all people…
The party was only on the walls. Where was everybody? I stopped in a store to inquire.
Newsflash: no one speaks English in the neighborhood. It’s exactly like Japan! I asked: “Donde esta el mondo por favor?” but I could not understand the shopkeeper’s reply. Probably because I had asked him where “the clean one was” instead of asking him where everybody was. I think it may also mean “Where is the world?” but that would not make any sense, would it? I thought he was just a happy fellow but, with hindsight, I think he was totally laughing at me.
I tried my luck at a small sidewalk eatery. Perched on a bar stool, I ate a multitude of pollo croquettas and drank seven cafecitos which I loved very very much. Cuban food rocks. I was up all night and I think my eyes pretty much bulged out of my head but it was totally worth it.
Noticing that I was way over my cabeza (and probably under the charm of a customer that ate like 10 people), the waitress walked me close by to a small enclave… next to the McDonald. It was the Maximo Gomez Park, the famed domino park. That’s exactly where all “el mondo” was!
The park was briefly closed in the eighties for restorations. The shopkeepers of the neighborhood attempted to make this shutdown permanent because of vagrants and drug dealers congregating in the park. When it reopened despite their best effort, no one under 55 years old was allowed on premise! They seemed to have relaxed those rules since then because they willingly granted me access (either that or I had a really bad face day!)
The park consists of a bunch of domino and chess tables protected from the elements by an overhead striped canvas. There were no unoccupied tables. All the guys and the one woman (whose colorful bling is displayed in the above picture) were concentrating very very hard. This was obviously serious business and serious business is difficult to photograph.
No one was smiling at me. No one was looking at me. I took that as an implicit ok and so I proceeded.
I will tell you that, fashion wise, hats are very much the trend this year in the Cuban community.
Men waited patiently on the side lines for a table to open. Sometimes, they glanced at me with not a discernible ounce of friendliness. I am insecure. When people do not show me love, I think they hate me. I was not feeling very comfortable.
Perhaps it’s the pain of being away from their native country… At least, since April 14, 2009, Cuban Americans can go back to visiting their relatives once a year instead of once every three years, one of President Bush’ policies enforced since 2004. I’d probably have a long face too if I was precluded from traveling to Belgium to see my friends and family (except my sister who I think should move to Cuba, like now.)
After about an hour, a little guy wearing a dark suit pointed at me and gestured exaggeratedly towards the exit. I realized I may have had overstayed my welcome. I called a cab and hung out not too far from the security guard (the park rules state that bringing a firearm on premise as well as using bad words will get you suspended from park activities from two to four weeks – I guess someone needs to be there to enforce that.)
An ancient Cuban grabbed my arm and tried to get me to go with him. He was cooing and doing a not so good job at wooing me (I’ve never been crazy about the forceful arm grab.) Then the dude with the cigar from the photo above showed up and asked me if I had taken his photograph. He did not seem very happy. Quite the opposite actually. I saw my cab, disengaged my arm, ran towards the car, jumped in it, and, like in a gangster movie, told the driver to roll out of there.
Some of the domino players appeared actually quite friendly but they sure did not make up for the ones that eyed me suspiciously or the one that was just a nasty meanie. I was denied the red hot Cuban love I was hoping for so dearly. Yes, I did get some love from the eighty-nine year old dude with the golden teeth who attempted to kidnap me in broad day light but, sincerely, I was expecting something quite different. As in younger and with real teeth.
Calle Ocho is probably a more interesting place to visit the last Friday of each month when the Cubans hold their Viernes Culturales fair.
To close the chapter on Pequena Habana, I saw the dead over there. Playing dominoes. Very amusing.
Cuban Anthony Quinn, undead version.
Astonishing, isn’t it? Or is it just me fantasizing again?
note: my friend Dorin saw the Quinn photo and thinks I’m smoking crack. Whatever.