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Travel Image: Cuba
Photo: Mike Wang
Travel Image: Cuba
Photo: Mike Wang

Cuba: A Whole New Ballgame (cont.)

As the players took the field everyone stood. Alfredo turned to me and said in broken English, “Get up for national song.” Just like home, I thought, until, instead of placing their caps over their hearts, everyone held their right arm, horizontally in front of their chests in a gesture that appeared to me to be very communistic. Looking around I noticed another subtle difference: At an American park you’ll see advertisements for all manner of products and services ranging from beer and soft drinks to insurance and real estate agents. In Cuba they have billboards, too, though theirs bear decidedly different messages including, “Socialism or Death,” “Viva la Revolucion,” and “It is more important to build the muscles of the spirit than those of the body –Fidel.” Apparently, no matter which politico-economic system a nation subscribes to, a little advertising never hurts.

As the teams took the field, Alfredo told me that Cienfuegos is the team supported by the self-reputed, worst behaved fans in all of Cuba, which I quickly witnessed for myself. After a first base umpire didn’t call a check swing strike, the fans proceeded to call him every name in the book, including taking shots at his sexuality, humanity, and the size of his rear end. They were as inventive with their name-calling as the most seasoned Yankee Stadium Bleacher Bums. But it would have been a much more effective display had the stands been filled nearer to capacity. There were barely a thousand people in a stadium that can hold 60,000. The fact is most Cubans can’t afford the 1peso(.05$US) price of admission. So they stay home and watch games on TV for free.

When the game was finished, Alfredo and I decided we’d get something to eat. It was late, and the only places open on a week-night would be the state run fast food joints called Rumbos, which you’ll find all over Cuba. Alfredo told me that his cousin Frank (pronounced Frang,) worked at one of these places, and it’s where all the young people liked to hang out. So we hailed another taxi, and this time headed for the quiet Vedado neighborhood. We arrived at a small outdoors diner with hard plastic booths lit with mosquito attracting, fluorescent bulbs. The place was filled with teenagers, laughing and drinking Tropicolas, a suspiciously Coca-Cola-tasting beverage. We were greeted by a guy in what I remembered to be the same outfit worn in malls across America, by the employees of the Hot Dog On-a-Stick chain. This was Frank. Cubans are very gracious folk, so no sooner had we shaken hands, Frank was offering us everything. Would you like a beer? Perhaps some fried chicken and fries? What about some ice cream? I wasn’t sure whether or not to accept when Alfredo gave me a nod of encouragement. “Yes,” I said, and soon began the parade of fast food dishes.

As we sat there, enjoying a cold drink, at 11pm on a hot Wednesday night, two vans pulled up. Out came eight special police officers, four of whom were armed with semi-automatic weapons. I glanced over at one of the vans about five feet from where I sat and noticed a tiny opening with a pistol sticking out, and just above it, a tinted window with a face staring at us. No one flinched, and I just sat there sweating. One of the guards went in the kitchen. I had no idea what was going on, but it didn’t look good. For five minutes I sat motionless, while my Cuban friends continued to chat. Didn’t they see the guns?

It turned out, though, that the guards were just there to collect the dollars, probably about 500 of them. I asked how often they came around, Frank told me twice a day at every Rumbos, and all other state-run, dollar establishments around the country.

We left the Rumbos after midnight. I was within walking distance of my hotel. I felt as though I had stepped into an old episode of the Twilight Zone. Sensing this, Alfredo put a hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s like your country, but instead of apple pie we have Fidel.”

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