In the morning I met my contact R, who was going to help me get the paperwork to work on his reserve. We hopped in a taxi colectivo and headed for the Ministry of Agriculture. And by taxi colectivo, I mean colossal ’50s town car.
If the taxista sees you’re a tourist, he won’t take you because tourists are supposed to use the taxis that charge in tourist pesos. So I tried not to let it show it was my first time inside a car that had rolled out of the factory when segregation was still legal. The teal paint was flaking at every layer, the beige leather ceiling was rotting at the edges, the dashboard dials reminded me of a vintage Kitchenaid mixer. The original door handle was entirely gone and replaced by a cheap metal one, several inches to its right, that was also the only thing pinning the upholstery to the door. I tried to see how fast we were going until I realized the speedometer was stuck at 10 km/hr. Yet this thing carried me, R and three other passengers through town, until R handed the driver 20 national pesos and asked him to stop. After disgorging us, it lumbered away, spewing exhaust into the street.
I eventually did take some stealth shots of the most craptastic taxi I rode in. Doesn’t the front seat immediately make you think of black-and-white movies?
That would be the road you’re seeing between my feet.
In the beginning I was still hesitant to take pictures of government buildings. But during our two-hour wait for a Ministry representative, I had ample time to stare at the people and the illustrated slogans that stretched across the lobby. It was a very Peter-Hessler-in-China moment.
AGRICULTURE IS THE GREAT MOTHER OF THE LAND
(a bucolic farm where a smiling pig rested its front feet against a fence, a decal horse ate some decal grass, and the rabbit family was almost as big as the cow)
THE LAND IS THE ONLY CONSTANT SOURCE, TRUE AND ETERNALLY UNSPOILED BY WEALTH
THE HANDS THAT CULTIVATE THE LAND WILL BE THE HANDS OF FAIRNESS
A BETTER FUTURE IS POSSIBLE — LET US PLANT IT STARTING NOW
THERE ARE NO CONTRADICTIONS IN NATURE — THE LAND WILL PROVIDE ENOUGH FOR ALL THE PEOPLE IT RAISES
ONLY LOVE GIVES RISE TO MIRACLES
I also watched the employees return from lunch and go back to work. It took a while to identify what I found so strange, but I eventually realized that, excluding people in uniform, there is no office dress code in Cuba. Many women wore spaghetti-straps, jean shorts, mini-skirts and flip-flops. The men wore anything from jeans and T-shirts to slacks and button-downs.
After R reminded the front desk we were still there, we were finally called to meet with a protocol officer. He was a man of a certain age who told us that changing my visa status wouldn’t be easy and that the Ministry could do nothing until we had approval from an agency called Flora and Fauna. We would have to go to the local Flora and Fauna headquarters to talk to a man named B.
Old man: (pulling a random piece of paper out of his breast pocket and writing down my name) Are you of Chinese or Korean descent?
Me: I’m Chinese.
Old man: (ignoring me) I was an ambassador to North Korea. Did a lot of work there.
Me: Oh. Good.
Old man: I knew Kim Il-sung very well.
Me: What were you doing there?
Old man: (Pause.) Working.
I have to remember that all the older people here have memories of a time that I learned only from textbooks and movies. (Or not so old: the “Período Especial,” a time of extreme shortage, resulted from the fall of the USSR and lasted through the ’90s.) And that some of them probably were involved in projects I don’t want to know about.
We took another taxi colectivo to the local Flora and Fauna HQ, housed in a dusty set of low green-and-white buildings among native trees. The guard was a very young woman in uniform, bored and leaning back on her squat chair. A blue velvet rope theoretically prevented trespassers from entering. Except it didn’t quite reach my knees. After recording R’s name, she unhooked the rope, and we stepped over it pretending we couldn’t have done so five seconds ago.
As we walked toward the building, R told me that absolute high director was a comandante in the revolution who still wielded enormous power. Once, R’s agency was having trouble receiving permission to conduct biodiversity surveys, simply because people from different provinces were involved. The director made a phone call, and in ten minutes they had their permission. Sigh.
B was a half-blind man who looked like Gandhi. He warmly asked about R’s family but snapped into business mode as soon as the conversation turned to my visa. I would have to submit a letter and a project description to the Director General of Flora and Fauna. Things finally started to make sense. No one had ever asked for a formal proposal—of course they’d want to know why I wanted to sample the birds. Here was my chance to present my case and my credentials.
So I spent the night cobbling together recent proposals, then translating the whole thing. Because I had no printer access, I wrote out the text in cursive onto seven pages of notebook paper torn from my journal. It looked like a homework assignment for 9th-grade U.S. History class.
With R’s help, I added a section about the conservation benefits of my study, modified from my work with the endangered Puerto Rico birds. It would turn out to be critical to the big Flora and Fauna meeting the next day. We attached a letter of recommendation from my advisor and were ready to go.
P.S. We stopped on the way back to visit Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the eastern part of the city famous for its grand colonial buildings. On the way back, R helped a young woman push her broken-down car, blasting “Gangnam Style,” to the side of the road. I have seen a car being pushed by helpful passersby almost every day.
The Capitolio Nacional, which used to house the Cuban Congress but is now home to the National Academy of Sciences. Much better.
Cuba in 51 seconds: Bici-taxis, old cars, pedestrians, and sounds of the city. My favorite of the videos I took.