Cuba: an interpretive account

Reading Italo Calvino

Escrito por: Will Carter
Visuales de: Gabriela Molano


What does it mean when people ask if you “know” a city? Do I know a place if I can tell you which way is North or where the nearest subway station is? Which neighborhood I’m in just by the smell, or the sound of passing cars? Is it meeting a person or people, falling in love?

Best case scenario, it’s an amalgamation of these various skills and experiences, worst case, it’s unquantifiable, an illusion of familiarity. I fear it’s the latter. Because how, then, am I supposed to convey to you, the reader, a sense of knowing as I lead you through a fabulist runaround of my time in Cuba? If you’ll never be able to really know what it was like in Havana, August 2016, what can I do? So, I’d like to approach this differently, for the sake of art.

This is dedicated to my sister and indispensable travel partner, Alex Carter.

I. The Rain

5000 feet and dropping and we can see the Cuban countryside slick with tropical wetness and the clouds responsible masking a place we never imagined. 60 years later even the climate has decided we’re not welcome, as if it knows we routed through Mexico, that we have little history of the place or people, that we’re still, technically, forbidden (for now). A sheet of contact paper dropped into developer, the image slowly emerges, the country I mean, the more we descend into grayness and greenery. A little longer, longer, time for the stop bath—a fully developed airport, a sharp, rusted mill, palm fronds, flowering trees, a cab, the Vedado neighborhood, our antiquated-once-opulent-still-noteworthy lodging and its tiled floors, our mysterious hosts and a hallway of plants, a family squatting in the floor beneath us. It started to rain. If only there was another verb for “rain,” something more powerful and violent. “Storm” and “pour” don’t quite measure up. Can it “deluge” outside? It deluged. For many hours. No space between drops. And we slept our flight away. It would do this every day, the rain dropping developer over the city for a time. And with every rain came a clearer image, a sharper contrast.

“The city which cannot be expunged from the mind is like an armature, a honeycomb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember: names of famous men, virtues, numbers, vegetable and mineral classifications, dates of battles, constellations, parts of speech. Between each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity or contrast can be established, serving as an immediate aid to memory.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

II.  The Heat

You’re gonna love it, they said. But why are you going in August? they asked. It was the only time that worked for my sister, I said. Bring sunscreen, they said. So, we did. We carried sunscreen, rather than sufficient funds, and we sweat pounds away walking the streets, stepping over piles of rotting fruit and discarded government rations that had turned before they could be eaten, rather than riding in a cab, one of the new Chinese cabs with AC, but our skin never burned. This is hotter than Kenya, my sister said. More humid, thick, sensual, uncomfortable heat here in the Tropics, but equally eager to sap your energy. Less mosquitos though. Even Cubans were complaining. Even the tried and tested children of the revolution couldn’t believe how damning the heat felt. The Coppelia was a constant mob. As if they didn’t have enough to complain about. The fuel shortage had left many businesses and government facilities shuttered. Go outside, enjoy the summer, they said. The government, I mean, the Castro’s I mean. With what money? the people answered. After hours spent navigating the tight twists of downtown Havana, the sea breeze along the Malecón was so delicious I could have eaten it for dinner.

“What enhanced for Kublai every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words. The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


III. The Beach

I’m cold blooded—in the sense that cold, Maine sea water raised me. The Caribbean Sea failed to chill me. But anything to leave the city, anything to get out of that fume trap and the palpable insecurity of every Cuban wondering what to do with their unintended time off (Shortages, man). I’d say we fled, in all honesty, and nearly kissed the sand after the short bus ride to Playa Tropicoco (we couldn’t afford Varadero, the tourist haven). That is, until a sharp chicken bone attempted to pierce my toe, and empty bottles of rum, plastic utensils, and indistinguishable food items made themselves known as I kicked up beach—all endearing indicators of the atmosphere hanging around the city; this is my beach, this is my country, and i’ll get drunk, cook chicken, serve dinner, kiss my girlfriend, dance to reggaeton, play my trombone, fuck, and sleep wherever the hell I want. The attitude that often made daily life difficult for Americans is one well deserved, as indeed the beaches and streets are the few things local people can lay claim to. When no one owns land, I suppose everyone owns it, in the metaphorical sense. But I wonder if the umbrella man, the fair skinned one who’s digging holes and lugging beach chairs for tourists and rich Cubans, feels like he owns anything. I wonder if he can look past the blistering sunburn that’s causing his nose to appear as if it’s slipping off his face and embody the revolutionary spirit, stoically aiding his comrades and bettering the country in the process. I will say, he appeared to be in pain.

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

IV. Happy Birthday Fidel

Would you believe that Fidel turned 90 while we were there? Part of me thought he was dead, or had been replaced by an actor. I blame the Iron Curtain. Happy Birthday Fidel, if you can still hear me. Maybe he’s not lucid enough to sense the country’s ambivalence—similar to the way New Yorkers savor Presidents Day without actually celebrating or really caring why they have the day off. The start of Carnaval stole your thunder and lightning, Fidel, stagnation and inflation eclipsed your visage, Fidel. The Carnaval vendors stole your food and alcohol and sold it back to the parade goers, the costumed performers, the smoking teenagers, the sexiest dancers on Earth, the women happy not to cook for the next two weekends, all for a good price. The rain clouds from the day’s deluge were being swept out to sea, and when the floats began their slow march down the Malecón, distant and quiet flashes of lightning churned and stirred the dusk. The crowd of loose hips gyrated, summoning a supernatural light-show, displaying their defiant higher-power. Happy Birthday Fidel.

“In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

V. Plaza de la Revolución

I had higher hopes for modern Communism, we both admitted to each other, my sister and I. We hoped Cuban politics, like the stone tower that stands in Plaza de la Revolucíon across from the faces of Che, Fidel, and Camilo, would appear more appealing up close than it did at a distance. We hoped that the industrial, military, totalitarian aspects of the country would give way to something admirable and worth emulating, even in a minor way. It was, instead, a place of frustration and slow-going. A place where the Plaza de la Revolucíon was manicured and smooth but the neighborhoods, businesses, and general infrastructure were derelict and crumbling under the weight of isolation. A place where nearly every citizen can read and write, but only what they are told. A place where anyone can be treated for an illness free of charge, but where oil coats the harbor, where a refinery flame burns and heaves black smog into the horizon, where the heat can kill you quicker than most anything else. A place with a storied artistic history, but where you’d rather use the new wifi hotspots, talk to your family in Miami, learn about what’s happening in the world. A place where only military personnel carry weapons, but where people still manage to kill each other. Deprivation isn’t revolutionary. Corruption isn’t revolutionary. Disguised inequality isn’t revolutionary. They say you don’t know someone until you’ve seen them at their worst. But, Havana, I look forward to seeing you again, when you’re at your best, so I can really get to know you.

“‘Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,’ Polo said. ‘Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.’”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities



Will Carter

Will Carter is a writer and translator. He enjoys plants, graphic novels, free jazz, and Stanley Kubrick films.

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