For Mark. Thank you! That was the loveliest, most generous of surprises.
Today, I am a ghost.
I move through the streets of Havana, but I touch nothing and nothing touches me. I am apart—I’m not really here. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that I grip the rusted steel bars of a fence to check whether I’m still corporeal.
And yet. I’m not really touching them. This cracked sidewalk under my feet isn’t really under my feet.
Two men pass by me and I am sure that if they were closer to me, they would pass through me—and while I move out of the way for the elderly woman burdened with groceries… I think… I don’t have to.
She looks at me and she sees me, but the way she looks at me reinforces that I am not real.
I am a ghost.
Ephemeral, passing through. Here today…
They all know this: the people queuing at the Cadeca, the grocery story, the bakery. The people crossing the street, the people crowding around me on the bus, the people selling me bread, milk, vegetables.
I’m here—but I’m not. I will be gone tomorrow.
I can be gone anytime I want to.
I am in my fifth week in Havana now. Were it my fifth month, my fifth year, it would not matter—I am not rooted to this place. I am not chained to it, and so not of it.
Lazaro, the doctor-turned-farmer-turned-taxi-driver, tells me that his greatest worry for Cuba is that too many of the people “worth anything” want to leave.
“That is all they dream of doing,” he says. “What will happen to Cuba if they are all gone?”
I understand his concern, quite acutely and practically. I’m a child of Eastern Europe, which for near 50 years bled its best to the West—I am a child of those who left.
Here, in this struggling country, hammered by history and “geopolitical reality” (“I don’t know how to say that in Spanish,” I tell Lazaro, but I don’t have to; he understands) I am a ghost.
Because I can leave any time I want to—they can’t—I choose to be here—they cannot make that choice…
I have been doing an assortment of things to not live like a tourist. Laundry by hand and flapping in the wind to dry instead of carted to the lavanderia, guaguas and long walks instead of taxis, groceries instead of restaurants.
But it doesn’t matter, none of it matters.
I can be gone tomorrow—I can leave any time I want to. They can’t.
This meditation on choice, will, volition—will you let me use the word freedom?— has been haunting me as I’m haunting Havana today. I choose to be here—he doesn’t, not really, and she’d be gone tomorrow if she could, “not a single fucking regret,” she says. And even the people who are content to stay—if leaving is not an option, then is staying really a choice?
I realize, suddenly, that I live in a country—and more specifically a city—where virtually everyone makes a conscious choice to come—stay—leave—be.
If I wanted to—I could be gone tomorrow. And so could you.
We choose to stay.
It is not an unconstrained choice that’s equally available to each Canadian, Calgarian. Political freedoms are always constrained by economic realities, and no matter what your political system of choice is, it fucks over the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, always. Look to New Orleans before you get too self-righteous about the failures of Fidelismo.
But me… my family… my neighbours… we are where we are, we live where we live, because we choose to stay.
I find the thought… intoxicating.
So intoxicating, it is as overwhelming and overpowering as my earlier loss of corporality. I get dizzy and I’d sit down for a moment, but the owners of this particular villa do not want passers-by to use their fence as a bench and have lined it with spikes.
I lean my forehead against the stone post of the fence, paint peeling.
We choose to stay.
The most powerful… the most powerful, fascinating, growing places, cities in the world are places where most of the population chooses to come, chooses to stay.
I need to follow this thought places.
Stranger: “Lady? Are you all right?”
Jane: “I’m fine. I’m just thinking.”
Stranger: “About what?”
Well. Choice. Freedom. What life has handed me on a silver platter really, and what it stubbornly refuses you.
Jane: “How beautiful Cuba is. And how kind its people are. And how I hope…”
My Spanish is not good enough to express what is swelling in me, but “Ojala” in Spanish and in Cuban Spanish in particular stands alone.
Stranger: “I hope too.”
I still feel… unrooted and unreal. In this place. But suddenly, so physically rooted an connected to the home I haven’t been missing, thinking about at all, I think I feel your heart beating inside my chest.
We choose to leave. We choose to stay.
This is intoxicating, an act of such volition, an expression of such freedom…
Do you understand?
Series 2 of Postcards from Cuba is brought to you by my creative and chaotic approach to financial planning, my bank’s poor judgement in issuing me a line of credit, and the occasional generous donation by fellow readers. Won’t you contribute as well? A $5 donation makes a difference and helps pay my rent, feed ma’ kids, and keep on writing freely:
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