CUBA: EIGHT DAYS, THREE MEN AND A ROOSTER
Photo Credits: Jeffrey Round

Day 1. It's June 1993, and I'm heading to Cuba with friend and fellow writer Allan Stratton. The Iraq invasion has recently begun. Fuck Bush. This is my little strike against Amerika.

At sunset we land on Cayo Coco, a tiny key off Cuba’s northern coast. The Sol Club Cayo Guillermo is a four-star hotel with an open-air lobby and small cabañas set beside lamp-lit paths. I’m both relieved and disappointed to hear perfect English spoken at reception.

Allan and I rendezvous at a cavernous buffet. Our waiter, an energetic young charmer named Nelson, is fluent in five languages, including English. I flirt as he pours wine. I make three trips to the hot buffet; Alan is strictly a desserts man. At nine, Allan goes off to bed while I swim under a sky full of stars.

Day 2. I wake early and—miraculously—without a hangover. At the restaurant, a different waiter serves coffee and fresh juice. This one’s a no-flirting type. Afterwards, Allan goes snorkeling. I head for the beach to discover I’m the only gay man. How will I have fun? I feel like a Martian in a tribe of Venusians. They might be nice, but we’ll have nothing in common. They won’t get my jokes and I’ll have heard all of theirs.

I spend the afternoon in an open-air bar with Guillermo the Rooster. He’s friendlier than the other Canadian tourists. In fact, Guillermo’s a great companion. He enjoys the pastry I offer and doesn’t argue with my taste in reading material.

I spot Nelson leaving the beach with two stunning women. His body is nicely toned. Oddly, I sense no sexual attraction between him and the women. It’s like watching a 10-year old talking to strippers, oblivious to their appeal. I’m intrigued.

At supper, Nelson is reserved as he pours wine. Have I been staring too much? (Of course I have.) At nine, Allan goes off to bed. The moment he leaves, Nelson is beside me chatting up a storm. Had he thought Allan and I were a couple? I find myself wondering what Cuban boys do when they like one another. Then he tells me about his sons: one nine, the other seven months. I assume a wife is involved.

Still, I’ve heard stories about Cuban men leading quiet lives at home and wild sex lives elsewhere. I’ve also heard stories about tourists and their easy money. If anything were to happen, would it be sexploitation? I’m happily drunk and don’t think this through. It’s past 10. Nelson has a bus to catch—all workers live off the resort—but he clearly doesn't want to leave. I’m the last diner in a big empty room. At the last minute Nelson runs to catch his ride.

Day 3. At breakfast I tell Allan about the previous evening. Is there a protocol for sleeping with married Cuban men? Allan concludes that Nelson shows all the signs of being a closeted gay. I’d simply be hastening the inevitable if I seduce him. Far from sexploitation, it would be therapeutic.

We spend the afternoon on Media Luna—Half Moon Island. At the bar I chat up a local boat operator. It’s the dark skin and light eyes that mesmerize me, I realize. Clearly not interested in me, he’s chatty nonetheless. He says Media Luna belonged to President Batista before the revolution. In fact, this is the area Hemingway wrote about in Islands In The Stream.

Allan and I go snorkeling. He’s brought a bag of bread crusts. Colourful schools of fish pursue us through the water to a sunken wreck off the end of the island. One aggressive little guy nips my thigh when Allan isn’t fast enough with the bread. They’re so plentiful you can touch them. Alas, not so the boys.

Back at the hotel I stroll to the Dive Centre, an open-air structure with walls painted in marine life. A blonde, blue-eyed man named Pedro summons me. He looks German, but his name gives him away. Pedro’s really built and—I can’t help thinking—exceedingly well-groomed. I begin to wonder.

His English is on par with my Spanish, and we soon run out of things to say. Our eye contact holds, however. “Are you?” he seemed to be asking. “Definitely,” I answer in silence. The conversation turns to his 10-year old daughter. What kind of language is this anyway? These men have the Gay-Speak all wrong. I don’t even ask about a wife.

While Pedro and I stare at one another in confusion, a god incarnate strolls by in a tiny red Speedo with a submarine packed inside. His name is Aleksandro. (Of course it is.) He’s a lifeguard. (Of course he is.) He’s a cross between Ricky Martin and Superman. I can barely look at him. This man is danger personified. We say hello, then I ignore him before something embarrassing happens.

At supper, Nelson is reserved again until Allan retires. This time he sits with me. I tell him I want to rent a car and drive to Havana. Tomorrow’s his day off, he says. If he can arrange the following day off as well, he’ll go with me. We could find somewhere cheap to stay overnight—probably just one room and a bed. My wheels aren’t turning so much as doing roller-coaster loops. Nelson goes off, but soon returns to say his request for an extra day has been denied. Still, he offers to arrange a car for me.

I’m wondering if I can sneak him back to my room when his boss passes by and blurts something in a flurry of Spanish. Nelson blushes. With a nervous smile he says, “He told you to get ready for the bus if you’re coming home with me.”

Nelson promises to call tomorrow early about the car. If I’m out, he’ll leave a message. We make plans to meet on the beach when I return. I’m far too drunk to sleep or swim alone. I head to the bar where the old Supremes hit “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” plays over the speakers. It takes on new meaning.

Day 4. The next morning I have a hangover and sunburn. There’s no call from Nelson. Allan cheerfully announces he’s made it through the night without sleeping pills for the first time in months. He’s on his third cup of coffee and bursting with chattiness. My head is just bursting.

On the beach a wedding party strides around in formal wear. The bride and groom sweat copiously. Allan and I note that the idea of being married here (as opposed to elsewhere, rather than to not being married at all) has its charms.

In the bar after lunch, Guillermo the Rooster is preoccupied with chasing a thieving band of magpies from his garden patch. Every time he drives them off, he pecks pompously at the ground as if to say, “See, I’m protecting this precious bit of earth!” It’s a Cuban preoccupation.

By afternoon there’s still no call from Nelson. Havana may now be out of reach.

At the Dive Centre, Pedro spots me. Once again, the greater the eye contact the stronger his protestations of family life become. Pedro is just leaving when Aleksandro arrives. In his Speedo. With its submarine. He stands over me, removes his sunglasses and grins. I melt.

We talk about life in Cuba. There’s no mention of a wife or children. He asks about peculiarities of the English language. Do you say, “My salary is 10 dollars ‘for’ month or ‘by’ month?” I’m appalled, but try not to let it show. I tell him you would say ‘per’ month. Somehow I forget he’s tanned, handsome, muscular and ninety-five percent naked, and we just talk.

Day 5. Allan has arranged a Jungle Tour. It consists of two gay men (us), a Canadian father and son, and an English couple who don’t like water. Cheers! Our boat operator, a Cuban Clint Eastwood, hits the waves broadside and makes us all sick. My cap flies off and we have to turn back. The English couple glares as I fish it out of the water. I sit on the cap to punish it.

I tell them I lived in London in my twenties. “Where?” they ask. I decide to risk the truth. “Brixton Hill,” I say. ‘Wrong neighbourhood,’ their eyes say. “And Ladbrook Grove,” I add apologetically. ‘Acceptable neighbourhood,’ their eyes note. “Did you like London?” the woman asks. “I loved it,” I reply. Correct answer. “Although I haven’t been back since I discovered Paris. It’s so beautiful.” The woman looks away. “Yes, but it’s full of Parisians, isn’t it?”

Back at the resort, there’s still no word from Nelson. This is the day we agreed to meet on the beach. I sit reading my book for an hour. I’m just about to give up when who should appear but Aleksandro! We stroll to the Dive Centre and sit side-by-side on the floor. I’ve revised my travel plans to Trinidad de Cuba, a colonial town four hours south. As it turns out, Aleksandro's father lives there. And tomorrow is Aleksandro’s day off. He’ll arrange for a car through the resort and we’ll go together!

His tanned thigh rubs against mine. I pull out my map of Cuba. He guides my finger over our route on the map. Now this is flirting! In fact, in my book it’s foreplay! Then, like clockwork, he mentions his family. He’s been married ‘per’ 10 years. “How many kids?” I feel compelled to ask. “Solamente uno.” Only one. I try to read into this. Is he saying ‘Only one in 10 years, so maybe I’m not as heterosexual as I thought’? Or is he saying ‘Only one, so if you broke up the family it wouldn’t be that messy, all things considered.’

Just then, his boss arrives. Aleksandro jumps up guiltily. We confirm for 8:30 the following morning. He’ll arrange the car.

I return to the bar where the English have gathered. They’re loud and drunk, hopping the counters and pouring their own drinks to the consternation of the wait staff. Everything’s free. Why storm the Bastille when you already have the key?

Day 6. At eight o’clock, I head to the Dive Centre. At 8:30 Pedro strolls by and greets me. I tell him I’m driving to Trinidad de Cuba with Aleksandro. “Aleksandro isn’t here,” he informs me. “It’s his day off and he wasn’t on the bus with the other workers.”

At the car rental office I make a reservation for the following morning and spend the afternoon in the shade. That evening I venture over to the bar and sit unsociably alone—not an “English” thing to do. An attractive blonde approaches, introduces herself as Elaine and asks if she and her pint might join me. We chat about Canadians and their lack of sociability and the English and their pubs. I feel a knee rub against mine under the table. Am I mistaken? No, there it is again.

She winks at me. “What are you doing later?” I say I’ll be meeting my boyfriend. She laughs raucously. Another woman approaches wearing a tight black rubber skirt. It’s the bride from yesterday, and the formalities are definitely over.

“This is my friend, Terri,” Elaine says. “And this is Jeff. He says he’s gay.” They both laugh hysterically. Apparently I don’t fit the stereotype.

On the way back to my cabaña, I’m nearly run down by a dozen drunken bodies lurching in a deadly conga-line of overturned chairs, dropped aitches and exclaimed ‘brilliants!’ on the way to the bar. Queen’s fuckin’ English, innit?

 
Day 7. For $60US I’ve rented a battered Jeep with no air conditioner, a broken fuel gauge and windows that won’t roll up. It’s a long, hot drive across the island.

Where North America is cluttered with advertising billboards, Cuba is dotted with political slogans and huge posters of Ché and Fidel saying inspirational things like ‘Patria o muerte!’ (‘Homeland or death!’) or ‘One good idea is worth a hundred workers.’ Grueling poverty is evident everywhere.

In Trinidad de Cuba, an indigent port town, two young men offer to “protect” my car and guide me around. The Jeep couldn’t sustain much more damage even if I refused, but the boys are sexy and fun—when they aren’t threatening—so I accept.

For payment they want “souvenirs”—baseball caps, pens. I have nothing but a few American dollars. They look disappointed, but I’m their only customer, so off we go.

When not regaling me with questionable tales about their town and its decrepit looking buildings, the boys spend their time whistling at women. A young blonde darts around the corner towards us. “What’s your name?” they ask. “Barbra Streisand,” she replies with an English accent. “Can I have your autograph?” I ask.

Back at the hotel that evening I run into Nelson who evades my questions about the car and our aborted date. Finally he shrugs and says, “I didn’t get the car, so why would I show up?” I shrug back.

Day 8. At breakfast I ponder the lost opportunities over the past week and wonder why Nelson avoided my questions. Allan looks up from his coffee. “Cubans don’t like to disappoint us, so they say ‘yes’ to everything, hoping we won’t be so rude as to ask them to follow up.”

This rings true. So it is I, not they, who have broken protocol. I carried no souvenirs for the tour guides, had too many questions for the hotel workers, and embarrassed the men with my attention. My Canadian literalness is simply overbearing.

Right before leaving, we run into Nelson. He accepts a hug. I offer to send him something when I get home. What would he like from Canada? He looks at me shyly. More than anything, he says, he’d like a tape of Celine Dion.

Suddenly it all makes sense. Clearly, these are gay men trapped in Cuban bodies.
 
 
 

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