Endless stretches of rundown streets; stone steps outside the old mansions with fading glories; random benches under the shade of leafy tropical trees by the boulevard; shadowy corners of drinking holes – these visual images are the things that remain in my travel memories of Havana – all that with the presence of G and A. Bits of the numerous conversations we had in all these places pop up alongside the snapshot images after all these years. But I remember the things of G far better – this bad kid forever.
It was the morning of the last day of the year when I first met G on the patio of a B&B. We did not know it until much later, but we were both in our worst shapes that morning. He had a marathon drinking contest with a fellow Swedish guy straight from daytime till past midnight the previous day. His head was heavy. He sank into a state of post-drinking depression. As for me, I had yet recovered from the trauma of the episode happened the previous night. Having just landed in the city, I bumped into a rogue on the street and was tricked with half of the Cuban currency in my pocket. Self-doubt and self-blame thrashed my soul all night for my own stupidity as to fall prey to a petit rogue. My ego was deeply hurt. But that morning on the patio, both G and I were trying to pull ourselves together and look as normal and calm as we could. He chain-smoked on an armchair, looking chilled, while I fed myself mechanically mouthfuls of the lavish breakfast prepared by the host, not quite knowing what I was gobbling up. With our own preoccupation, we noticed but consciously ignored each other in the not-so-big patio. We were not in the mood to act socially. It was a long time until I seemed to suddenly recall to act according to the B&B protocal, break the strange air of quietness, and decide to strike a conversation.
I soon found out he knew Havana well. Having lost all my confidence on making any sound judgment in this strange city, G emerged as a savior. I grabbed him and probed him with a bucket of questions – would it be safe to walk around Havana alone? Would I get cheated if I exchange local currency in the black market? Would there be any bad areas I should not cross? … In response, he mumbled a few careless remarks, showing absolutely no interest to my concerns, and soon started his own monologue recounting each and every place where he had gone out drinking the previous day, breaking only by frequent intervals of cigarette-sucking. This was how our first ‘conversation’ went. Much later, when we joked about how we met, he would imitate my anxious voice shooting a frenzy of questions like a prosecutor in court. What he really wanted to say was like – what bad luck it was to meet one crazy, paranoid Asian woman that morning!
Living in the far north, G had already taken the long way to Cuba five times before I met him in Havana. I had not probably asked him why he loved the country so much. All I knew was that he was familiar with every nook and cranny of Havana as if it were his hometown. I, and a little later that morning a girl from the Netherlands living in the same B&B called A, joined and tagged along G to wander around this city. In the following few days, we trio got lost in time and in conversations in a city that none of us belonged.
G was a great talker. On the first day we hanged out together, we could already piece together almost everything about his whole life.
Born in 1959, G introduced himself as ‘the child of revolution’ (the Communist revolutionaries overthrew the Cuban government that year). He lectured us the history of Cuban revolution, and repeatedly urged us to read about it. You could tell how he truly believed this was a glorious revolution, and you could almost feel the rebellious genes streaming in his blood when he talked about Che Guevara.
Cuban revolution and Che Guevara aside, three other subjects gave his talks a rare seriousness. He talked these things as if an obstinate kid talked about his favorite school subjects. World politics for one (he was then a political journalist in Sweden), David Bowie for another, and Manchester United. For the last subject, the fact that there was no good place to watch live football broadcast in Havana could not stop him from supporting his favorite team. In a little pocket notebook, he carefully jotted down the date, time and result of every match played by his team. If, on a slip of tongue someone mentioned rivaling Liverpool, he would unforgivingly roar and curse the unfortunate innocent talker.
In a much suave tone, he told people at every opportunity everything about David Bowie. He would describe how he encountered David Bowie’s album ‘Aladdin Sane’ for the first time, as if recounting how he met his first love. He would proudly roll up his sleeves to show people the tattoos on his arms. On one arm was David Bowie’s painted face on the album cover of ‘Aladdin Sane’; and on the other, the lyrics “We can be heroes, just for one day”.
G had a notebook he always had with him. In it he had a tidy record of the information about his travels. Like a kid’s stamp collection, there were bus receipts, entrance tickets and the like, all neatly glued on each page. A saying goes like, ‘a person who is an enthusiast of nothing is not worth befriending, for he has no ability to love.’ If there is some true wisdom in this statement, G must be a capable lover.
G’s ability to love displayed most evidently on his love of one single person – his then 21-year-old daughter. His daughter easily won the most frequent mentions in his talks. Everybody who knew him could not get unnoticed of his love for his daughter, and of the fact that he placed his daughter above all else in the world. In the afternoon of the day we three first crossed paths, we strolled along El Malecon, the famous promenade of Havana. G had been hovering to the brink of drunkenness for the drinks he had all morning and the day before. Suddenly, as if awaken from a trance, he checked his watch, quickly dashed to a quiet corner off the street and fished out his phone. He had to be the first one in the world to say ‘Happy New Year’ to his daughter at home. We noticed the move of his one hand – he was secretly dabbing the tears off his eyes.
While we were just new friends, we had already heard him boast of a few things that in his opinion, macho real men are not supposed to do, all announcing in his same standard expression starting with ‘real men don’t….’. Examples such as ‘real men don’t dance’, ‘real men don’t wear tight pants’, ‘real men don’t drink soft drinks’, etc., were handed out in abundance under the series. While we already heard so much of these, the scene of him crying like a sad young girl came as a huge surprise. Trying hard to suppress our laughs on the one hand, we awkwardly tapped his shoulders, told him we knew he was a real man, and that we knew real men do cry sometimes when necessary. Comical as it was, deep down we were genuinely touched. ‘There is no daughter better than my daughter,’ he later made the statement as he regained some real-man composure. As if to convince us, he showed us a picture of his daughter. We believed him immediately. The good things he said about his daughter were not biased, flowery comments from a father sick with affection. It was easy to tell all he said were true from the face of one young woman who looked both beautiful and wise. He said in a tone of proud achievement that his daughter still treated him like a good friend when she had already gone far with her own life in the university.
G wore a carefree look all the time, bothered by nothing, fearing nothing. But one day while we were chatting in the alfresco coffee shop, feeling sluggish by the piercing tropical sun, he suddenly told us flatly that he would have an important life decision to make when he returned to Sweden in two months. Before he left for Cuba, his newspaper agency told him that his company had to downsize, and he would have to decide whether to accept an offer to retire early or if he would hang in there in his job until he got fired anyway. As soon as he said this, the Dutch girl and I could not help but divulge each of our own troubles that had been bothering us at this same juncture of our lives. Until then, we had behaved like any other laid-back vagabonds with no serous life purpose. Now truth be told, we were way more distraught than we appeared. There were three conflicting looks and souls, trying to seek refuge on this exotic island for an escape at the same time. Fate dictated three fallen souls to meet. Desolation suspended in the air and we fell silent. It was, of course, G who ended this. ‘Time will tell’, he said, pulling us out from the dark abyss of thoughts. ‘We will know when the time comes,’ saying with his carefree shrug.
Except for those few moments of rare seriousness, G was, inside and out, a playful bad kid. He made jokes about the sexy bodies of Cuban women, and did pranks on us two guileless girls. That mischievous look belonged more to a bad young kid, and was out of place on a six-feet-four man past middle-age. We soon were no more surprised by any stupid harmless pranks he did on us, and simply let him make fun as he liked. We were two old mothers spoiling a kid.
Friendships during travels are transitory, a destiny meant to be. We, the vagabond trio, parted our own ways after a few days. I continued my journey to Mexico City, the Dutch girl A flew home, and G left for the Cuban small town Trinidad to spend a week with his ‘Cooking Mama’ – a plump lady who knew how to make his stomach happy. After that, he would fly home and make his life decision.
In a few days of our own life journeys, we met, shared about life and about how we should live it. Then we went on with our separate paths. G is one of those persons who knows how to live life with his own passion and philosophy, those things that make him a unique, distinctive being. He would be doing fantastic no matter what he decided to do, only to be wary of meeting one sexy, curvy Cuban chica he always fancied when he comes back to Cuba one day, perhaps with his retirement money.