Tourist Tales from Cuba
by Vicente Morín Aguado*
HAVANA TIMES — Asa Cusack is one of those authentic globetrotters of our times. If there’s such a thing as “healthy envy”, it’s the sentiment I hold towards that young Irishman whom I met in the park called “La Fraternidad”, gazing with astonishment at the enormous bulk of the Havana Capitol building.
“The thing is, here in Cuba we characterize ourselves as ‘poor rich’” I told him. This arresting phrase was enough to initiate a conversation still in suspended animation, even though I have no way of knowing exactly where my brawny friend is now, the one whom my wife calls “my son.”
In Latin America, we generally spend everything we have in a short time, to impress or perhaps to enjoy what may come our way only once in awhile.
The Capitol building I referred to is considered slightly larger than the original in Washington, replete with bronzes, marble, mirrors and precious woods. The original price was paid by the Americans themselves as a loan granted to our small and poor nation.
Today that enormous neoclassical building is a tourist attraction, as well as serving as the seat of the Academy of Sciences in Cuba; a wise decision of the revolutionary power.
The new government abolished the former political-representational system under which these luxurious chambers housed the Congress of the Republic, a miniature version of the system created by the gringos.
With these and other explanations, Asa and I began to make friends and we headed to a nearby open spot for a refreshing drink, an obligatory activity in the summer afternoons, when “the dog stretches out to sleep and stops responding to the master” as the popular saying goes.
An additional surprise for me was that the Irishman taught English in Oaxaca, Mexico, and could communicate clearly in Spanish, so that I didn’t need to resort to my limited English.
We ended up at my house, because the unconstrained traveler that is Asa Cusack preferred my humble abode to the luxuries of a rented place in the residential neighborhood of “El Vedado”, where, in addition to paying a lot of money for each night, they purloined a good part of his personal supplies and served him food that was both badly prepared and of insufficient quantity.
I still have photos of the Irishman wolfing down the homemade dishes that my wife served him, as if he were her own son. He was in his element and had no complaints about the narrowness of the room, the bath with neither hot nor cold shower, or the lack of any other of those “commodities” so often prized by tourists.
The conflicts, if you could really consider them as such, came regarding his slovenly appearance, despite a huge smile, together with his unavoidable condition of being a foreigner, a European on top of it, in Cuba.
During one of those days I was invited to the performance of a new orchestra in one of the popular Havana discotheques and we headed off for there, Asa and I.
I confess that I didn’t expect such a huge welcome, nor did the Irishman. The table was a beehive of visits, and not only of young women, a natural thing when a tourist is involved.
My young friend could have afforded to accept any of the myriad of proposals he was offered, including women or business deals, but faithful to the incessant blinking of my eyes, he stood them all up, including – to my regret – those of the debuting musical group.
There are a lot of stories about Asa, because he was looking for a woman who would be willing to accompany him on his next adventure in the world, a truly fantastical notion in our lands.
I believe that his opinions fell on deaf ears. He was little understood, and he left Cuba with the tags of “dumbbell”, “stingy” and the worst of all: “Could it be that he doesn’t like women?” But this wasn’t true, as I can assure you, as well as the infallible views of my wife who remembers him as a son.
We took him to the airport, partly hitchhiking, partly in a taxi for fear of arriving late. Later, we remained in contact via e-mail, Asa constantly asking me for advice on matters difficult to respond to.
One day, when “my Irish son” was in London, I received the following query from him:
“My dear elder friend, as you know, I brought a very pretty girl back from Oaxaca to this city, with the idea that we would live together for the rest of our lives. She is very content with the the Big Ben and all those things that you know about. Now I tell her that we should go to India, with backpacks and no set plan, for a long while. That country fascinates me.”
“Maria Guadalupe, has looked at me with an expression of hatred, as no one has ever looked at me before. There’s no peace between us, and now she wants me to pay her return trip to Mexico. I don’t understand it. Before that proposal, everything was going fine, including those intimate matters that I only tell you. Do you have a response?”
What a problem to try to respond to! I talked about it with my wife, for whom it was a little painful. We ended up smiling, although somewhat unhappy about the raw reality of the situation:
“Just imagine! He got the Mexican girl out of Oaxaca and took her to London. That girl is captivated by the best of that world, and then Asa, the ingenuous, comes up with an offer to go to India, which for her, would be like going back to Mexico!”
This was more or less “ten years before the present day era”, in the lingo of the archeologists. Me watching the computer screen nervously, as its clock marked a descending count in hard currency, representing the scarce dollars I had paid to respond to the tall Irishman.
“My response is that you should go to India and forget the Mexican, since she never really loved you, as your Cuban mother has counseled me well.
“Son –do your will regarding this journey, since that’s the opportunity that you’ve been given. Maybe you’ll find the girl you require in Calcutta or Bombay. You know, the Hindus are famous for their beauty!”
(*) Vincent Morin Aguado: “My aim is the truth, though the path to it is difficult and I can only reach a certain capacity to raise new questions. My compass is that of common sense, which leads to solidarity, but if I accompany this with balance I can reach a fair share of justice. I am a teacher, the son of teachers, so my vocation is asking and answering. I am Cuban from Cuba and I live in Cuba. I like to exchange ideas with people at any time, and from wherever a message might come.”