Monday, August 24, 2009

Tears in Havana

(This is an old story, never before told.)

A small trickle of blood collected on my neck as I tried desperately to recall the Spanish for “stop humping my leg, you stupid dog!”

In all my confusion, the words failed to come, and that mangy mutt just kept doing its thing against my bare, sweaty leg. Its owner seemed to neither notice nor care, and she brushed me off despite my pleas for help. Where on earth were the police when I needed them?

Probably not the wisest idea, but in my desire to escape the deceptively pretty confines of Havana’s tourist district, I had decided earlier today to set off on my own and explore the streets of the old city. On this side of the invisible fence between foreigner and local, daily life beat to the rhythms of the raggaeton music that poured out of dilapidated, broken-down entryways. Groups of kids, shirtless and barefoot, kicked soccer balls around over the cracked earth beneath them. In these narrow alleyways, the air hung thick with smells of frying pork, beans and rice. This was Havana, I thought, real and raw.

I leaned into the shade of an old building, taking momentary refuge from the afternoon sun, and was struck by the sight of a splendid, elderly woman perched high on a balcony above. Her large frame rested heavily against the rusty bars of the balcony, and I feared the crumbling platform might give way underneath the weight of her soft, round body. Gazing out at nothing in particular, she cooled herself with a fan in the steadiest of rhythms. Her dark skin and bright red dress, long and flowing, were a striking contrast against the colorless, gloomy backdrop. With the greatest of stealth I reached for my camera, aiming to capture this breathtaking sight.

Seconds later, a young man came up from behind. I froze, stunned, as he locked his gaze with mine. In one swift move, my sturdy bag broke into two. The heavy yarn cut deep into my skin as the strap gave way, and the kid was off and running. Without thinking, I ran after him, screaming out in Spanish any expletive I could think of. People stared and laughed, shaking heads and tsk tsk-ing the silly white girl running wildly through their streets.

I tried in vain to catch up to my assailant, but my running shoes were no match for his bare feet. Exhausted and defeated, I slowed to a crawl and approached a woman standing nearby, hoping she could help. Her nasty dog had other ideas. Fighting back tears, I walked away, leaving the humiliation behind.

Sure enough, there were two police officers just blocks away near the touristy Malecon – the extended boardwalk that separates city and sea. I recounted my plight, and next thing I knew I was thrown into the back of a police car, bars on all windows blocking my view of the world outside. My mind started to reel with thoughts of Cuban prison cells and torture chambers...

To my great relief, the officers dropped me off in the waiting room of a crowded police station. There I sat for a good hour before a station officer took notice and approached me. Towering above me in his freshly pressed uniform, he glared down with blatant distrust in his eyes.

Identificacion!” he demanded.

Que?” What? I asked.

IDENTIFICACION!” He now shouted, his booming voice ringing in my ears. “Show me your identification!”

But, but... I don’t have it! I blubbered in Spanish. My identification was stolen! I was robbed!

Not seeming to understand nor care, he pulled out his wallet, flashed an ID card at me, and in rapid Spanish yelled, “I have ID with me, why don’t you?”

I was wounded, filthy and scared. I was in no mood to be bullied. Looking up into his glowering eyes, I tried to speak, but instead broke down into a torrent of tears. As though a switch had been flipped, this monster of a police officer melted before my eyes, his guilt for making a woman cry etched so clearly on his face.

I was in that station for a few hours longer, filling out paperwork, waiting, and even translating for a French couple who had been scammed. All the while, this officer was putty in my hands. He eventually ensured my safe return to my guesthouse, where I was greeted with a hug and a mug of hot tea by the house mother.

Lesson learned? Havana, like everywhere, has its angels and its demons.

And, if I ever do get into a spot of trouble with the authorities, tears just might help.

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