OFF COURSE IN CUBA
National Geographic Traveller India|May 2020
Saying yes to bright-eyed strangers and no to Caribbean clichés rewarded a traveller with an atypical intrigue
MUGDHA MAHALANABISH

I SCANNED THROUGH THE PAPER AND DIALLED THE DIGITS R HAD HASTILY SCRIBBLED ON THE NIGHT BEFORE. STALKING HIM ON SOCIAL MEDIA WAS OUT OF THE QUESTION. “THERE’S NO INTERNET IN CUBA!”

—I’d heard returning visitors exaggerate, submitting to a quirk that lines up with a Marxist-Leninist socialist state. The truth is that Internet access has historically been limited to centralised public spaces in the country and it was sometime last year that the government extended access to Cuban homes, albeit selectively. In short, looking for R, whom I had known for about a day, felt like a riddle.

The dial tone gave up for the third time. R was not to be reached.

We had been drinking at a nondescript bar somewhere in Central Havana when he’d playfully handed me his cell number. A karaoke session unfolded in the background, the singers attempting American pop songs. Fidel Castro’s dictionary would probably chalk it up as ‘Yankee Imperialism.’ “I do not approve of gringos telling Latin American Caribbean stories,” a dear Colombian friend had once told me. “Oh and please do not click pictures of riding one of those old classic cars, puffing on cigars,” he’d added for good measure.

Cuba is as arcane as it is iconic, and it is shrouded in the biases of a mainstream Western gaze. What one chooses to show about the country is thus political when presented to a world that largely associates it with cigars and wildly chromatic cars, a repressive socialist state, or a frenzied Cuban immigrant in the U.S. who goes by the name of Tony Montana (Scarface). Half a century of U.S. embargo had tried to keep Cuba isolated and economically challenged, yet it could not dampen the island’s vitality. It is this vitality that my friend had wished for me to explore.

“You visit my country and you don’t even say hi?” Those were R’s first words to me.

No, I won’t. That’s not how we roll with strangers in India, or in my hometown Calcutta. And back in New York City, where I now live, you’d need a lot more than that smile of yours to break through my self-absorption. That city has undone my Calcutta warmth.

But that’s not what I said. Breaking away from set ways, I smiled back. R clicked his tongue, and behind him Havana shut up. Over the next many hours, we would take long walks, stopping to sip on mojitos he’d never drink.

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