The sun was brutal, making the most of the hours left to it before the black clouds on the horizon arrived. I was glad for my umbrella. My sturdy, black umbrella was a purchase made the summer before, in a small, dusty shop on a tiny lane off the main market street in the South Indian town of Pondicherry. I had traveled there to present my Cuban boyfriend to my eighty-one year old father. The store, which specialized exclusively in umbrellas of all sizes and colors, had a reputation for quality which stood at odds with its humble appearance. I remember the incredulous, jaw-dropped looks on the Tamil clerks' faces as they scuffled their bare feet on the floor. The clerks silently gazed upon me and my boyfriend with the kind of look you might expect from an extraterrestrial seeing a human being for the first time. My red, checkered sari and long braid proclaimed a tie to an aristocratic tradition of another era. My stance, just a little too close to the tall, gawkishly thin man with fair skin and tightly curled black hair, was indecipherable, and the shop was silent other than the dull whir of the ceiling fans that moved the stale, humid air. Back in Havana, the umbrella bought that distant afternoon sheilded me against the sun and the stares of Cubans along the Calle Paseo in the central neighborhood of Vedado. The stares were of a different nature than in Pondicherry, more sexual perhaps, and certainly more overtly amused, but no less an optical declaration of my foreignness.
I was on my way to Galerías de Paseo, the Cuban equivalent of a mall. If you want anything in particular, then this shopping complex overlooking the ocean is usually a disappointing destination. There is little that you can count on there; even something as ubiquitous as toilet paper might evade you for weeks on end. On the other hand, if you go with an open-minded spirit of adventure, willing to buy anything, the endeavor is not without its surprising charms. You might encounter a useful plastic spice-box. Or you could be pleasantly caught off guard by the rare appearance of tuna packed in water rather than soy oil. Once in a blue moon, a garish, hoochy-koochy tank-top, confectioned by cheap labor in China, might catch your eye.
This was one of those tough days, a day when I was headed towards Galerias on a mission impossible: to buy a small, over-priced slice of low-quality Gouda. The twenty-minute walk from the cramped apartment I shared with the Cuban boyfriend usually resulted in a twenty-minute fruitless return. Fortunately, I had little to lose today in terms of time or effort. I was already near Galerías attending a rehearsal of the Teatro Público at the Trianon Theater. The group's director, Carlos Diaz, was in the beginning phases of staging a monologue to be delivered by an actor known for his comedic, cross-dressed caricatures. The piece, Josephine the Traveler, was written by Abilio Estévez, a Cuban writer in Spain. It centers on a crazy old woman who, having never left her cell, fancies that she has traveled the world over. Introducing herself with much glamorous hyperbole as a woman of the "Orient," Josephine later reveals in one of her many confessions to the audience that she hails from the "Orient of Cuba," replacing any exotic fantasies of remote lands with the image of the Island's lesser developed Eastern side.
Humorous and ironic, yet quietly tragic in its underlying message, the work philosophizes about a typically Cuban form of cosmopolitanism. This island state of mind works by building for itself an irreproachable cross-cultural authority with little need for direct experience. I had been called in to make a small intervention in the artistic process. A bharatnatyam dancer trained by two sisters in Madras and Montreal, I had been asked to provide the actor with gestures from classical Indian dance. These stylized movements could serve Josephine in her vain attempts to veil her small-town ways with feigned Eastern mystique. It was a delightful, if odd, task from my point of view, but the kind of request to which I had become accustomed by virtue of being the only person with such obscure know-how in this city.
I left the morning's rehearsal by noon and walked around the corner some five minutes to where the avenue ended at the boardwalk. As I entered the area of the shopping complex I moved quickly past an elderly man selling peanuts in paper cones and unofficial taxi drivers pimping for rides. I closed my umbrella as I strode through the sliding doors, which always stood open, and made my way up the wide spiral staircase to the second floor. I felt grateful for the shade provided by the building's minimal lighting, which had been reduced recently by a national edict mandating energy-saving measures in all public and work facilities.
I passed the coin-operated hobby-horses, which I noted were weirdly identical to the toys I had mounted as a child in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and arrived at the bag-check outside the supermarket. Bag-checks are a common feature in many Cuban stores where goods are sold in the currency known as the CUC. One of the odd features of the Cuban economy is a dual money system. Moneda nacional, the currency in which Cubans receive their salaries, is good for vegetables, some forms of transportation, movie and performance tickets, paying the phone and electric bills, and the odd and sundry items available in stores designated as points of sale in pesos. The CUC, on the other hand, is obtained primarily through the exchange of foreign currencies even though it is not honored anywhere outside Cuba. It is the money by which everything from cigarettes, to cooking oil, to appliances is purchased. Galerías is a definite CUC kind of location.
The rules of the bag-check are strict: even a small shoulder bag like mine must be checked. The umbrella, I was told with a sharp shake of the head, was definitely not eligible for safe keeping. I emptied the essentials from my bag, clutched my wallet precariously under my arm, and thrust my cell phone deep into the side pockets of my cargo pants. I stretched my arm across the counter to surrender the bag to the clerk. I stood motionless, my face registering a vaguely pleading look. The clerk puffed despondently on her cigarette, her vapid eyes staring off into the distance. She straddled the line between being a dwarf and a very short person. I thought about how her body's proportions reminded me of bodies I had seen in India performing the same and other such menial tasks. A stature usually interpreted as a sign of poor nutrition or improper pre-natal care, it was not a size I saw frequently in Havana. In spite of a crippled economy, Cuba still managed to produce relatively healthy bodies.
After some time had passed, the clerk awoke from her reverie. With the same distant look, she perfunctorily accepted my bag and handed me a numbered ticket. I handled both transactions with my right hand in the manner of South Asian courtesy and nodded my gratitude. Indeed I was grateful; without her acceptance of the bag I would not be allowed to proceed into the grocery store. The power of someone so small over my immediate objectives was not lost on me. From her point of view, whether she took the bag or not probably made very little actual difference.
I internally resisted the automatic impulse to associate her disinterest with the pitfalls of socialism and its famed lack of incentives. Checking a bag here was not so different from checking a bag anywhere. In fact, the current situation reminded me of a few weeks earlier when I had waited close to ten minutes at a bag-check in a major electronics store in Manhattan. The adolescent, part-time staffers there, oblivious to my presence, jostled boisterously behind the counter, unabashedly chatting loudly about some new cell phone and after-work plans with girlfriends and boyfriends. As I waited that day, I found myself wondering why these minimum wage youngsters bothered to work at all. They probably received no benefits and would likely be laid off in the near future. Moreover, they had virtually no prospects for advancing beyond "bag check" status even if the store withstood the economic shocks that had already closed another national electronics chain. I felt vaguely depressed thinking that someone could be motivated by a pathetic sales discount on items such as the coveted new cell phone. In spite of the few dollars off, purchasing the phone would probably propel the buyer into credit card debt.
Properly checked, I proceeded into the grocery store, helped myself to a wheeled cart, and headed for the aisles. The place seemed well stocked; I had been in Cuban grocery stores when virtually nothing was available, such as during the final hours before an approaching hurricane when crowds swarm desperately, buying anything, fearing days without electricity, water or gas. Today the shelves were full of nicely packaged, mostly imported goods. Still, it was hard to find anything. I walked up and down an aisle of detergents and cleansers of all kinds searching in vain for dishwashing liquid. Giving up after several minutes of looking on my own, I approached a clerk working in the adjacent aisle. My inquiry into the whereabouts of the dishwashing liquid was met with a soft-spoken, No hay ("There isn't any"), the routine of which did not require so much as a glance in my direction.
I could not help noticing how the mini-skirt of the clerk's uniform slid up to within a few scant inches of her crotch as she bent over arranging items on a bottom shelf. This display of flesh gave testimony to the fact that she shaved only to the mid-thigh. I had seen this hair removal strategy with other women here and was intrigued to the point that I discussed it one balmy night while drinking a Maker's Mark whisky sour on the back patio of an East Village bar. My interlocutor had just cycled over the Brooklyn Bridge from his Navy Yard sculpture studio. The virile glow accrued from the ride, combined with the fact that he had slept with hundreds of women, gave him all the authority in the world to offer opinions about what was hot. His experience with different kinds of female bodies fascinated me, and he was always amused by the international perspective I could add to our ongoing explorations of desire.
I pushed the NY sculptor to the back of my mind where he routinely resided and continued my search for flour, stewed tomatoes, spaghetti, and cheese. I was coming up blank on all four accounts. I tentatively passed the freezer cases of assorted meat products, as if not yet willing to admit to myself that for the last several months I had abandoned my high caste Hindu diet and was now occasionally eating chicken and fish. My reasons for this were simple: strict vegetarian cooking left me in the kitchen as many as four hours each day because virtually no ready-made products were available. Every meal had to be prepared from scratch. Were the domestic tasks in the cramped apartment shared more equally with the Cuban boyfriend, the burden of shopping for vegetables and chopping them might have been more sustainable. Given the circumstances, however, it was enough to be grateful for the fact that the Cuban boyfriend actually enjoyed spiced food.
I leaned over the freezer cases, the sliding doors of which were, as usual, left open by preoccupied customers. I turned up my nose at what I saw and continued past. I had decided to remain orthodox with respect to pork, and the chicken hot dogs - made in the U.S.A. in conformance with Hillel proscriptions - were not tempting. Left with little option, I guided my mostly empty shopping cart towards the check-out, passing what seemed like an entire aisle of various brands of green olives. Closer to the front of the store I noted a wide offer of expensive cookies and packaged Spanish finger cakes, as well as multiple kinds of pricey flavored mayonnaises.
Fortunately, the check-out was quick, which might have seemed like an obvious conclusion given that there was so little worth buying from any subsistence point of view. Nonetheless, during crunch hours, the lines could be surprisingly long. I grabbed my two plastic bags and headed towards the exit check point where a seated clerk examined receipts. She occasionally made an off-handed check to see whether the bagged items corresponded to what had been paid. I frequently found myself choking back my first-world arrogance during such procedures. I felt both offended and bemused by the idea that I would deem anything in the store of sufficient interest to run the risk of stealing it.
I collected my checked shoulder bag and awkwardly averted the gaze of the diminutive attendant. She undoubtedly expected me to leave a tip, even though the process over which she presided was a requirement and could hardly be construed as a service. I hurried out of the complex. Out under the sun once again, I opened my umbrella as I turned a deaf ear to the same posse of unofficial cab drivers that I had seen earlier. I wondered how such drivers were faring these days.
Some weeks ago it had been announced that action would be taken against people driving for paid fares without a taxi license. Only the owner of a car could obtain such a license and drive the vehicle. Official voices stated that there were processes established for the rendering of these licenses, but many people voiced confusion about how and where to actually obtain them. The current importance given to proper documentation had resulted in a serious increase in traffic police activity. Officers stood on corners to stop passing cars and demand to see papers with more vigilance than before. For this reason, transportation had decreased in the last few weeks throughout the city, which posed a serious impediment for the many inhabitants who relied on unofficial taxis as well as for the many for whom driving was a primary occupation.
Taking a left at the corner I began to head up the Calle Paseo back towards the cramped apartment. In spite of the heat and gradual incline, I enjoyed this walk every time. Bifurcated by a well-manicured park of grass, trees and pleasant benches, Paseo was for me one of the prettiest streets in Havana. The posh mansions which lined either side - some of which had been restored and painted in unconventional pastel shades to serve as the homes for institutions and embassies - stood as silent testimony to the thoroughfare's grandiosity in another era. The scale of these and other palace-like abodes throughout the city were evidence of a level of wealth and urbanity which could only have been described as colossal in the context of a small, agricultural nation in the 1950s. Looking at them somehow steadied my thoughts, rendering it easier to understand the inevitability of the force that exploded here in 1959 and the social project which subsequently ensued.
A man's voice calling out my name interrupted my musings. Whirling my head around in the direction of the corner I had just crossed, I saw a metallic blue car idling. Although the passenger window was rolled down, the driver remained invisible. I hesitated. In Havana, there are few cars on the road because citizens do not commonly have the economic means or legal right to purchase motor vehicles, and I had no idea who could be calling me. Catching my name again, I began to walk slowly back towards the car. Straining my neck forward and squinting my eyes, I tried to recognize the caller. A few steps closer, I could make out Rayban aviators but little more. Only when I had practically arrived at the car door did I realize who had called me. I smiled, nodded my head and hopped in beside my friend, a young, prize-winning actor. I recalled having heard through the grapevine that the car belonged to a famous musician's daughter.
With predictable machismo, my friend scolded my failure to recognize him immediately. By way of response, I turned my torso to face him - a move easy to make in a Cuban car since there are never seatbelts. I cocked my head back to leisurely scan him from head to toe. He was dressed as I had often seen him, in a close fitting tank top that revealed his powerfully chiseled shoulders and loose cotton athletic pants, which vaguely increased his short stature. His boyish features set off his grey-green eyes, now invisible behind the dark sunglasses. The bronzed color of his skin seemed as carefully worked as his physique and transmitted a sense of tropical health while leaving no doubt in the viewer's mind that he was white. My friend was handsome in an utterly conventional way that interested me little but nonetheless kept me from boredom. At the very least, his current arrival meant that my afternoon was not going to proceed as planned. In the context of a place which afforded few entertainments, that was always a welcome turn of events. As the car lurched forward, I felt ready for a long afternoon.
Shanti Pillai is an Indian-American academic and artist, who lives and works throughout the year in Havana, New York City, and South India. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University and is currently the Resident Director of the Princeton University semester program in Cuba. In her life as a dancer, Shanti is a performer of the South Indian classical dance, bharatanatyam.