Entry 1

This entry was written on Wednesday, July 21.

The first sign Cuba is a slightly different getaway spot comes as I wait in line for my flight to the Bahamas, where I stopped en route to Havana: There’s a “Warning” poster that has a blurry photo of a guy with tight shorts and what looks like rolls of quarters taped to his thighs. A mule, I figure. Then I look at the small type: “This man was caught trying to smuggle 44 birds from Cuba. He was fined up to $4,000 per bird.” I raise my eyebrows, as does the Cuban-American woman next to me. How do you hide 44 birds wrapped around your thighs? “Pobrecitos” (poor little ones), laments my neighbor.

Using the Bahamas as a way to launder myself—and thus avoid the wrath of the embargo—turns to be easier than I had thought. The instructions from my Bahamian travel agent had been: Go through Immigration, go through Customs, turn left, and then head into the liquor store and say, “I’m a friend of Ken’s.” The rigmarole is required because U.S. government restrictions force you to work through middlemen in order to buy anything Cuban, such as airline tickets. It works perfectly.

As a journalist, I am actually licensed by the Treasury Department to visit Cuba. So I could have taken a direct flight from Miami. Trouble is, Cuba’s policies are the opposite of the United States’: They’re happy to let in average visitors, but they’re suspicious of nosy reporters and require them to get a special visa. Since I plan to report on dissidents—who faced a brutal crackdown by Fidel last year—my chances of getting such a visa are basically nil, and even applying for one may increase my risk of getting caught should my application be denied and I go anyway. So I head in as a “tourist” (sans fanny pack and sandals with socks).

Arriving into Havana’s airport, there’s another peculiarity: X-ray machines on the way in. That’s probably a result of the terrorism Cuba faced in the mid-1990s when a series of small bombs, presumably from exiles, hit the capital.

I catch a taxi into town, and my head immediately hurts and my eyes water. It’s the pollution. There are plenty of tail-finned Chevys still plying the streets—ranging from those in mint condition to others, so far as I can tell, using wire hangers in strategic locations. None, I bet, would pass a smog test.

An Argentinean journalist who visited Cuba last year and tried to do what I am doing (reporting on dissidents and independent journalists with only a tourist visa) was held incommunicado for two days and then expelled. I’d prefer that not to happen to me. So I try to keep a low profile and play like a tourist for my first few days.

I walk down Calle 23, otherwise known as “La Rampa,” which became famous in the pre-revolution days for its gambling and gangster scene. The streets are devoid of advertising and filled with party propaganda. My favorite: “I [heart] my CDR.” Committees in Defense of the Revolution are the evil twin of neighborhood watch groups. There’s one on almost every block. Staffed by locals, you go to them to, say, complain about potholes. They also control jobs. And they snitch on you.

A security guard at an outdoor pavilion along La Rampa sees me gazing around.

“Where you from?” he asks.

I tell him.

“Ahhh, the United States. The Yankees, the Marlins … and ohhhh … Serena Williams. I have a poster of her in my room. She’s muy linda,” he says, doing that hour-glass-shape thing with his hands. We chat for a few minutes. Then he takes out a photo of his 3-year-old son. “Handsome,” I say.

“Listen, I don’t have money for diapers,” he says. “Can you give me $3?” I do.

I make my way to the Museum of the Revolution, which, shockingly, has a slightly heavy-handed approach. Upon entry, one is greeted by a looping video of a Fidel speech. A friendly matronly looking guide approaches me. “Listen,” she says, pointing to the screen and smiling.

Escaping, I make my way down the Malecón, Havana’s famous seawall and boardwalk, where I run into a raging party. The Malecón has been closed to cars, there is beer for 3 pesos (about 12 cents), and the massive speakers are pumping in Jay-Z. It’s like a Third World Spring Fling.

Not exactly the hip-swaying type, I go to buy some water and meet a thirtysomething Cuban named Raul. He’s sitting at a cafe with his wife and invites me to join them. Raul owns a paladar, a private restaurant licensed by the government. So he has dollars and buys me a beer. “There’s nothing here in Cuba,” Raul says. “If and when I have the money, of course I want to go the U.S.” I buy some rounds, he buys more, and more. He invites me to his house tomorrow night for dinner. I hedge. But still, we talk for hours, and celebrate with his cousin who everybody is offering congratulations on his 15th birthday.

Eventually, drunk, I get up to leave. “My friend will give you a ride home” Raul says. I accept—I don’t see any taxis—and Raul, his friend (who’s Mexican), and I hop in the car. We arrive without event at the high-rise apartment where I’m staying. Raul gets out to say goodbye. “Listen,” he says. “Can I borrow $20 for a present for my cousin? I’ll give it back to you tomorrow when you come to dinner.” $20 is about twice the average monthly salary in Cuba. I give it to him—and skip the dinner.