Before I left for this journey, I asked my father where we should meet this year, which country he would like to visit. He replied: "Cuba, before it changes". Everybody knows that what Cuba represents/is today is in danger of extinction; but what you lose if Cuba "transforms", I was not yet so aware of. Of Cuba's history, I only knew the last of the many revolutions and its difficult relationship with the USA.
After the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and due to diseases, forced labour and malnutrition introduced with colonisation, the Cuban indigenous population became completely extinct in a vary short time. As a consequence the conquering Spaniards, who built their power from landed property, had a need for manpower, something like a dozen million slaves were imported from Africa... Cuba had to fight for their independence from ever new "owners", who contributed to their present identity, for as long as 500 years. The question why Cuba was so sought after can only be answered superficially with a map of the world, also, sugar and tobacco were produced on the island, our addictions came from here long ago.
Around mid 1900, the state of the Caribbean island changed from exploited to excluded. Whether this is a blessing or a curse is determined by the mentality and the worldview of those who ask themselves this question.
For some reason, even as independent adults, when dealing with our parents, we return to being or behaving like a child. As soon as I land at the small Havana airport, I am surprised to discover that a second terminal exists. I have to get there to pick up my father, who is flying in from Switzerland... and realise that I don't have any cash with me. The taxi driver chatting to the lady at the information desk, decides to take over and answer my question: "The only solution is a taxi, 25 USD are charged for this route". A few small folded pieces of paper from my pocket are a pleasure to find, unfortunately these are only 60 MXN = 3 USD, they won’t change Chinese and Mongolian money. I ask the gentleman who is watching the long queue at the money exchange office if he has a colleague who works between the terminals and could give me a ride, he asks why and points to a stop a few hundred metres away. Probably no tourist has ever been seen on this bus, the driver charges 1 CUP = 0.037 USD. The passengers take care that I get off at the right place, meanwhile they all know that I pick up my papa and finally see him again after a long 6 months. They greet me warmly, the door closes in front of these smiling faces of daughters and sons: after all we are all someone's child.
We acclimatise before travelling around the island, with a few days in the capital and visiting the places that will teach us something about culture and history, just like responsible visitors do. But soon the combination of Pina Colada, Cohibas and a good place with a view become our favourite entertainment. A good view can be found everywhere in Havana, what our eyes see in the streets and squares stimulates storytelling and discussions. For my father many scenes are the starting point to show me what the world was like during his childhood, for me they are a concrete example to explain to him what I am melancholic about. We both enjoy the time we are given by this way of life: no internet, no traffic (as the old town is closed to it), the lack of diversionary advertising and the climate support our spontaneous decisions. In the evening we prefer the balconies of the Plaza Vieja or go to Ambos Mundos. In the place where the wilderness inspired Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote, there is now an as pragmatic as possible television... a different view of the world. There, on November 9th we could follow the election of President Donald Trump in generous company.
Diary excerpt, Havana:
We returned home at two o'clock in the morning, the voting was not yet finished, but with two calculations the result was clear. This morning I wake up in a world that has decided something I do not share, I do not agree with it, and I could not have agreed with the alternative either. But what makes me think or believe that there really is a choice? The concept of "majority" is too often enough to discourage individual thinking.
I also had the desire to see Cuba before it would transform, but my reasons were mainly aesthetic. Unlike my teenager friends, I never carried Che's face around - in general, politics was never a way of understanding the world for me, even when I had to study it. There has always been a more emotional aspect to my perception of its history - big difficulties when it was the Second World War, for example, the cause of my constant stumbling was a fundamental not understanding: "how can a person…?” - this incomprehensibility paired with the duty, may have sharpened my ability to express myself: the strict professors were brought to a state of empathy, by quoting the few things I knew with reflection and responsibility. A power, the ‘emotional speaking’, with which one can fascinate, convince but also deceive. Anyone who wants to, can possess it and use it. All who deal with media can recognise it. Everyone who becomes aware of its power is forced to think about what can be done with it. Rarely does this decision remain unconscious.
So I approached Cuba with the idea of a holiday of pleasure and enjoyment with my Pa: old cars (a passion we share), music and cigars... and it would have been such, if we had not come across events along the way that will actually be added to the history books.
Several acquaintances who visited Cuba before us told us that they could never trust the Cubans, who "always want something". They had never managed to get closer and feared they had never had an authentic conversation. The people we meet don't seem to be eager to please us either, if they do, it's a job, the tourism industry is also the only thing you can make money with. Very sympathetic couples spontaneously talked to us and then amicably suggested the "best cigar deal", immediately after the rejection we earned loudly expressed insults. In the beginning we were disappointed, then we learned to tell the approximating ones immediately that if being together is not sought for pure pleasure, it is a lost time, for them of course, but certainly for us as well. Their reluctance has nevertheless very understandable reasons for us.
Life here has a natural slow pace, simply because it takes time to do what you do. You notice this again when there are no machines to replace the work of heads, arms and legs. After work in the evening, everyone is outside and fills the streets with sounds and rhythms, be it loud speech or the omnipresent music. Couples in love dance on the Malecon in harmony with the colours of the sunset, being able to hear the silent music they follow requires serenity.
My father tells me that he is a little sad to leave Havana: "even this overflowing rubbish basket has its own poetry". The bus takes us through ever greener landscapes, we both love to enjoy the view, transport means is one of our favourite places, movement is an indispensable condition for both of us to feel good. Viñales is a cultural monument and over time it has become the most visited place in the province of Pinar del Rio, you can see that immediately. By bike you can enjoy the surroundings, we meet farm workers with oxen and ploughs, children who come back from school on foot, and we avoid running over chickens that walk freely. It is not a tobacco harvest time, on the contrary, it still has to grow. The small plants sit neatly on a bright red dirt, I am aware that this image will inevitably return to every cigar puff of my father from now on; cigars have accompanied him all his life, their smoke will have an extra shade from now on. In the evening, the people of Viñales sit on the veranda and rock themselves into the night on the ever present chair. If you walk down the remote streets in the dark, you can sometimes hear couples arguing - listening to the neighbourhood is also one of the elements that makes you rediscover the lost feeling of belonging to a society.
After many months of travelling I had the opportunity to get used to throwing the toilet paper not in the toilet but in the rubbish. For my 76 years old dad this was something new and still a bit unusual. His adaptability and irony constantly inspire me. He led a first-class life, but obviously did not forget the lessons of his origins in the countryside shortly after the war, during reconstruction.
To reach Cienfuegos we take a colectivo (shared taxi). At the rest stop the drivers decide to exchange us with other tourists... fits too, we don't refuse improvisation anymore and meanwhile we live in the flow. In the selected hotel we meet a fellow countryman, an Italian who has been living mainly in Cuba for the last 20 years. He shares his enthusiasm for the revolution and its protagonists. He offers us to go to Santa Clara together, in his passionate company we visit the mausoleum at Che and the "Monument of the Armoured Train". In the evening we join him to a club by the Plaza. While watching the dancing my father realises that to join a Salsa course he would need at least a year and a half of therapy to release the psychological blockades first. While I realise that the look of the Cuban men on the freely swinging flanks of the dancing women, which contains more gratitude than pleasure, gives me a liberating feeling. Beauty can be enjoyed without having to possess it - in this way one's own sensuality can be expressed without fear.
We continue on to Trinidad, the city that immediately enchants us. Beautiful, colourful, the alleys covered with pebbles. In the morning of November 25th I step out of the main door of our Casa Particular to catch up with my father at the café and find myself immersed in a dense atmosphere. I walk alone towards the square and find there only groups of pale bodies in short pants and my dad, who lifts his eyes from his mobile phone, looks at me and says: "Fidel has died". With his words I understand the physical sensation that preceded the information and to which a thrill is added: the awareness of experiencing a historical moment.
Diary excerpt, Trinidad:
In which place in the world does the atmosphere still show what is happening? This silence, these streets without faces, these suddenly closed doors, the empty chairs, a still time. Now all Cubans are again children of someone, like at the airport, but of the same man. The father of the nation has died, the grief is collective and tangible.
At a time like this, the Cubans have abandoned protective measures. They have suddenly been exposed to a fate they fear because they have lost the glue of an ideology which is difficult to respect already, as it requires so many sacrifices. Vulnerable because these sacrifices weigh now, and what appears on the plate on the other side of the scale frightens.
Now we were able to discover Cuba, both sceptics and passionate supporters had to deal with a fact. We interviewed young people, older people, fighters, passive spectators and entrepreneurs... loud for us, intimately for themselves, genuinely enough to perhaps even be surprised by what came out of their mouths, they spoke and shared with us the impulses of the moment.
Israel, the Babalocha of the Santería Yemayá in Trinidad tells us "For me it is like the death of my father because he was a spiritual leader. He taught us to love the fatherland and to preserve these great values that humans needs to live. He worked for us free schools, free hospitals, he taught us to be educated, engineers, doctors, intellectuals. I am a little sad about his loss, but I am calm because his legacy will last forever, he will live on in my mind and in the world, as the father of Cuba". Dalia says: "I learned everything thanks to him. When Fidel Castro's revolution won, I was 12.5 years old and illiterate, I could never go to school. I was poor, not miserable, but poor. My grandfather, who was the one with the most means (money), was against the revolution, he was a follower of the tyrant Batista, so I was illiterate, and so were my brothers", their children and nephews are called Vladimir, Camilo, Ernesto, Salvador (Allende), Fidel, Celia and Alejandro (war name of Fidel). Jose Luis, the least passionate and most critical of all, shows us his leg and tells us "This is another thing I have to thank the revolutionary government, I had to be operated 7 times and it didn't cost me a cent; here in Cuba there are poor people, but not poor like in other countries, who have to sleep on the streets; The Revolution has also organised places where the elderly people have breakfast and dinner for one Cuban Peso, 1 CUP; Here in Cuba you can be free on any street, any place, there is no crime, no attacks, no murders; The salary is not much, but it is what we have. » Gustavo tells us that Fidel is still alive, he is Cuba, "He was family. He talked to everyone, it was a natural thing. He gave people confidence, people gave him confidence, they talked to him informally, there was no distance". Massimina cannot speak because she has to cry. She, her daughter and her niece, represent in front of my eyes the period between before the revolution and today. She says that we cannot imagine what it was like before, under Batista: they were liberated by the revolution. Isela la combatiente (the fighter) spent 17 months in the Sierra Maestra, together with Fidel, Celia, Camilo and Che she fought for the revolution. Her voice mixes with the others on the main street of Matanzas, before the car with Fidel's body passes by and the city falls into a silence she had never heard before, the crowd shouts "Viva Fidel!” once again, then she looks at me and adds "Hasta la victoria, siempre!
"Don't take away what we are, we are Cubans," they all say. In Cuba there is no discrimination, the cleaning lady, the doctor, the scientist know that they are interdependent. They are also all proud to satisfy the whole range of colours that human skin can take on. In Cuba, there is no packaging waste on the streets and no obese people. Everybody has little, but nobody is poor, because everybody can buy the most important things for small change. There is also no need to step over others, because power cannot be a goal.
My father decided for me until I could do it myself. I think about how well he can talk and yet never tried to convince me of anything. I think that everything he said to me he wanted to repeat to himself. Weaknesses and mistakes have always been allowed, because you can't pass on experience as much as you would like to. I never got a Bible or a Red Booklet from him, he gave me poetry and literature. He also suggested me "If" by Rudyard Kipling, and so, by choosing a poem instead of a decalogue, he has given me the world I am living right now.
Politics can represent a family structure, more democratic, socialist, dictatorial… I look at how the three protagonists of this month of my life, my father, Fidel Castro and Donald Trump, welcome or care for their "children", what they say to them, how they stand there, how they teach them to deal with what they have, the potential, the material, the context. I look at what they fight to defend them and what they want to earn for their well-being. I look at the language they speak, and how that makes the "children" talk to each other. I recognise that certain figures set an example for us and have an influence on our lives, whether voluntarily or not. I look at my father and notice that he tries to learn from me what he can do for me. And then I ask myself, what do we wish for, anyway?
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!