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Next morning on the bus, it was Esteban, not Diego, who came to sit beside me. We had proper conversations about our families, student life, the iniquities of the Yankees and the popularity of the Revolution. Esteban explained where we would be going in the next few days. He grinned cheerfully: “Second week of your stay is always, fly to Santiago de Cuba, visit the Moncada Barracks, the new housing scheme, some sugar-cane fields, then long drive back to Havana. Other places will not be open, shut for renovation, you see!”
He was right. Jean-Paul consulted us all about what we wished to see, and then put in a wish list to our hosts, but the result, as predicted, was that we were flown to Santiago de Cuba, in an elderly little Russian-built plane with windows I swear opened like in a greenhouse. We visited the Moncada Barracks where Castro’s attack in July 1953 marked the start of the Revolution, and we toured a new housing scheme and some sugar-cane fields. I got into an argument about the potential future use of mechanised cane-cutting equipment as opposed to relying on voluntary ‘holiday’ labour to get in the harvest.
Next morning on the bus, I was greeted by Jorge: “It is a nice day, is it not?”
The routine of visits continued, as we were slowly driven back to Havana on the old school-bus that served as our coach. Along the way, we toured a tobacco factory. Then we toured a nickel processing plant. This was followed by a tour of a sugar factory. We walked around big, echoing warehouses, empty except for large hoppers, all equally empty. We heard about shortages of chemicals, the wait for new machine parts, and how the workers had gone off to harvest sugar cane. We met managers to hear more production statistics. We learned how the Yankees had sabotaged the equipment, and about new plans to increase production soon. Despite the lime daiquiris which always followed, even a member of the Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas would have been happier lazing on the beach and splashing in the clear blue sea at Varadero.
But I must have minded my P’s and Q’s on these visits, because after a few days I found myself sitting next to Esteban again. All went well until we got back to the University of Havana. In the Question and Answer session, I guess I shouldn’t have asked, “What aspects of Marxism-Leninism do you teach in the degree program?”
“Which ‘aspect’? What do you mean? We teach Marxism-Leninism. We teach what Marx and Lenin teach us. What you mean, which aspect?”
“Well, like the younger Marx or the older? Or following Antonio Gramsci or Louis Althusser? Stalin or Chairman Mao?” I had enough sense not to mention Trotsky.
Back on the bus, Jorge smiled politely: “It is a nice day, is it not?”
Over the next few days I tried to keep my nose clean. I stayed alert in lectures, waved out of the coach window, nodded approvingly at the latest production statistics. I stood in the midday heat without putting up my umbrella, asked for translations of the wall posters, and cheered the young Cubans in the mass-gymnastics spectacle at the arena. Step by step, I worked my way back up the Ladders, to sit with Esteban.
It might have been alright if it had not been for our bus drivers. All I did was ask “Why, if there is complete equality after the Revolution, do the two drivers on our tour coach always eat their meals at a separate table and not with us?”
“Because they are only interested in bus-driving!” I was sharply told.
At the next meal break, the drivers sat silently with the rest of us, sheepishly avoiding eye-contact. Back on the bus, Jorge smiled politely: “It is a nice day, is it not?”
After a long, humid afternoon, we were looking forward to our reward of drinks and dinner. Our night’s accommodation was a stay in a pre-Revolution but fairly new holiday complex east of Boca de Guamá, which turned out to be designed to look like a Taíno native village, or rather what the architect thought American tourists would think a traditional Taíno village would look like. Each guest-room was a small, round wooden hut, thatched with reeds, sitting on its own artificial mini-island in the thick, muddy water. Little bridges linked the neatly-manicured islets to each other and ultimately to a bridge to the restaurant and bar. The effect was more Polynesian than Caribbean, except the water was a murky orangey-brown instead of translucent blue.
Despite its colour and cloudiness, the water was attractive after the day’s heat. Milton, Harry and I decided to go for a swim, and we were soon splashing about, racing each other to circumnavigate the little islands. We emerged looking like celebrities with an over-fondness for the tanning salon.
After we showered and changed, an affable young barman welcomed us to his bar in another native hut presumably erected to the memory of a tribe who drank lime daiquiris. We politely admired the enormous stuffed crocodile mounted on the wall behind the bar — a Caimán zaquendoor. (We were now experts at species identification.)
“Hey, man, that’s a fine specimen you’ve got there!”
“Si, he is very fine beast. Very big. We get him last week.”
“Where did you get him?” I asked, “From the Criadero de Cocodrilos?”
“No Señor! We get him here, right outside, in the water,” he said. “Why Señor, what is the matter? Is something wrong with your lime daiquiri?”