“You have funny eyes.”
The man approaches me – thin and smiling in a coffee-colored suit, wheeling a cart of hollowed-out coconuts filled with snow-like flecks of ice cream. He stops, and pulls at the skin around the corners of his eyes, turning them into slits. He laughs. “China?”
“I’m from Australia,” I say, trying to smile. He stares openly at me as I walk away. No one here is ever discreet about staring – they do it in the same way I might look at a sculpture in a museum.
The air is warm and slow, honey melting in water. People are staring, pointing, whispering. “China, China. Chinese girl, Chinese girl.” I feel like I’m dreaming or acting, wandering unsteadily through a light-saturated scene: the sky cloudless and tropical blue; the walls and streets hewn out of stone so white my eyes burn; turquoise and lilac-colored shutters; the pungent smell of fish and blood from a shop window. I am fighting a sensation of heaviness, of drowning, from the antihistamines I took to stop the swelling from insect bites. But, I am conscious enough to hear the voices, to feel a tidal surge of frustration and anger that I still have no answers to my questions, that I am still a stranger, a China.
What is the real Cuba? My thoughts spiral as I walk onward through the labyrinth of narrow, sloping streets, searching for the home of a writer. The shadows of palm trees stream across the sidewalks and baby-blue vintage Chevrolets beetle past me. In the two convenience shops on the corner, half the shelves are empty, but an outdoor souvenir market spills across the road nearby: tables covered in Che Guevara shirts and mugs. Which is the real Cuba? The one that had to compromise, selling itself to tourism to prop up an economy where beef is a luxury, or the socialist paradise where everyone gets free education and healthcare?
I pass by the local park where a group of girls in school uniform are dancing to a dub-step remix of Chan Chan, a famous Cuban song that plays on repeat here, the only song that buskers seem to know. I think to myself (cynically, tiredly) that this country is always on show. But maybe I am bringing my own imperfect understanding of authenticity, hoping for an experience that matches that understanding, just so that I can one-up other travelers. "I saw a side you didn’t see."
I find the house I am looking for: a bright green door with no number. A woman opens the door – a woman with warm eyes that crinkle when she smiles. Her name is Ana. She shows me inside, into a space the size of my living room at home. Every corner of the room is filled with books and artwork – a copy of The Scream – sepia-colored volumes of Pablo Neruda’s poems, Pride and Prejudice in Spanish.
Ana’s family appears; her husband Leo, a man with a generous smile and a majestic pepper-grey beard, and her father Juan, tiny, hunched-over, serious. They make coffee for me, gently, unhurriedly, smiling when I scramble for a word in Spanish. Leo explains that this is one of the only independent, non-government bookstores in Cuba. Most of the books sell for the equivalent of 25 Australian cents; some are given away for free.
Leo writes detective novels, bestsellers translated into multiple languages. His eyes light up when he talks about his character, a policeman who would rather be a writer. Ana paints in the Impressionist style – lilies in ponds that remind me of Claude Monet.
Juan brings out a guitar and we sit around, hot coffees cradled in our hands like precious jewels, and he starts playing Chan Chan. A slow, loving, meandering version, with touches of nostalgia, ad-libs, a complex and delicate intro. He asks us all to sing with him.
“El cariño que te tengo, no te lo puedo negar.” The love that I have for you, I can’t deny it.
When the song is over, we sit in a comfortable silence, smiling at each other.
And then Juan points towards me, grins, and says: “China?”
This story was a winning entry in the World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship 2020.
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