I tried to train my eyes on the bright yellow gloves coming at my head, but my mind was on the other boxers, all floating around the muggy, poorly lit gym in Old Havana and landing punches on bags or pads with a loud Eeeeuh! It was freaking me out.
Jordenis, my small but stout coach, was calling out punches and combinations for me—“left, left, LEFT! Why you throwing right?”—then screaming, “Defense! Defense!” as I shuffled back, dodging his jabs.
By the tenth exchange, I got cocky, tired, or both. Jordenis was moving faster and throwing harder, but he was smiling for the first time, so I smiled too, like a fucking idiot, and dipped right instead of left. Jordenis threw right. Just like that his bright yellow glove had rearranged my septal cartilage.
I’d never been punched in the face before, let alone directly on the nose. I wasn’t even supposed to be in that gym. But still, it was a welcomed reprieve from everything going to hell or more back in the States. After the year we’ve had, maybe it’s what we all need.
Three weeks ago, I picked Cuba for an impromptu trip. I was weary and strung out over everything 2017 had to offer. Over the parade of powerful men and their sexual misconduct; over the narcissism and nastiness of the president; over a photo of t-shirts that joked about murdering journalists sent to me by my cousin in the Midwest. I wanted the hell away, further than away, to somewhere I could log off and then some.
Most of us travel happy and eager, but I was more dazed and angry, showing up in the country we’re warned not to go to with a wad of cash and no plan other than to hit something, bop around the gray area between New and Old Cuba, and hope to wash up somewhere along the Malecón in a clearer state of mind.
I’d heard this standard critique of Cuba, that its poor infrastructure made traveling there hard. Translation: it’s not our reality and it’s hard. But let me point out one of its virtues, and why I think Americans will still go to Cuba: It’s not our reality and it’s hard.
When I bought the plane tickets, Cuba should’ve been at the height of its tourist season—four million visited in 2016. Instead it was nearly devoid of Americans thanks to a new U.S.-Cuba policy relegating the island back to an experience-at-your-own-peril status. This () roadblock was coupled with a miserable hurricane season, a temporary freeze on private business licenses by the Cuban government, and vague stories of sonic attacks on American diplomats.
To be clear, yes, you can travel to Cuba. You can affiliate yourself for little money with an outfitter, buy a visa, hop on a plane, and just getthere.
“The bottom line is you just need someone who knows their shit showing you around,” as my friend, a fixer, put it. There is a list of places Americans aren’t supposed to go, but it doesn’t make Cuba hard. What makes Cuba hard is the push-and-pull of a place where the clock supposedly stopped in 1960. But the Trump policy is the most frustrating—not dissimilar to a smear campaign. That too made me want to hit something.
I’d been to Cuba once before, in April, and made quick friends with a boxer. I knew he worked out at one of the main gyms in Havana, either Kid Chocolate or Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym. Kid Chocolate, named after Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo, a boxer of the 1930s, is not so much a gym as it is a basement with a few bags, harsh overhead lights, and sweat-stained floors. Four boxers with arms large enough to bench press entire villages alternated between punching bags and pull ups. A coach named Jordenis told me he couldn’t help me find my friend but that he would train me in the morning. I said no, it was okay, I’d go check the other gym. He said, yes, 9:30 a.m., and walked away. I didn’t seem to have a choice.
“Let’s go tomorrow, flaco*,” he called back. “You’ll be champion.”
What’s Cuba if not a constant churn of changing plans?
One of the boxers pointed me toward the other gym, Rafael Trejo, in the city’s former red-light district. Trejo is one of the oldest boxing gyms in Cuba, one that every great champion—Teófilo Stevenson, Félix Savón—has passed through. I walked seven blocks only to find the open-air cathedral of a gym empty. After killing some time in the flea market by the train station, I walked back to Trejo—still nothing. How lame would my experience of Cuba be if I didn’t find the one person I wanted to see and spar with? Get over it and figure things out, or resolver, was the phrase the Cubans had lent me on my last trip. So, resolver.
I had time, lots of time, so I set out to explore Havana on foot. I’d avoid the tourist traps—no convertible rides in sherbet-colored Chevys down the Malecón or sunset-laden mojitos at the Hotel Nacional for me. (Hotel Nacional is on the State Department’s banned list since it’s government-owned anyway.)
My walking tour brought me past El Floridita (Hemingway’s former spot), the Grand Theatre (Cuban National Ballet), the Museum of the Revolution (conflicting if you go with a young Cuban), and the Bacardi Building (no booze, but it’s pretty). These are the spots where in April I would’ve seen Americans being American: the college or business school bro who decided a mojito, cigar, and a convertible was his ideal Cuba—selfie stick optional.
I asked a shop owner where I should go next, maybe somewhere locals like to go. He sent me to a cafe called El Café. Really, it’s called El Café—call up any young Cuban and they know exactly the place you’re talking about.
At El Café, the smell of freshly roasted peppers (plus diesel and cigarettes, always) filled the courtyard. The place, a hub for young locals and expats, was evenly split between Cubans and travelers who knew where to find the cafe called El Café. Here you could marvel at the sculpted faces and feathery locks of all the genetically blessed Cubans as they scribbled in notebooks. Few, if any, used phones.
I met a young woman who was on the verge of opening the first real fashion line and art collective space for Cubans in Havana. She told me that right after the new Trump policy, the Cuban government put a freeze on approving small business licenses. Things weren’t looking great. I wait for her to finish a sentence, but she doesn’t. Her smile just grows into a laugh, a confident one, and she shrugs.
“We have this saying here,” she said. I thought I knew what was coming, but instead she said, “Relájate y coopera. It’s like relax and go with the flow, sort of.” She shrugged again.
I arrived at Kid Chocolate the next morning with hands folded across my chest, hoping Jordenis might not notice me and I could work out my frustration alone with a punching bag. But he came out of the office, wrapped my hands, and told the other boxers to make room because this flaco was training with them today.
Boxing is serious business in Havana. Cuba has won more Olympic golds in boxing than any other country since Castro came to power in 1959. To this day, boxing gyms are jammed with champions and kids intent on being the next great thing. They all had their fists up, practicing quick, balletic footwork they’ve known since they were small. I, on the other hand, could barely keep myself upright as Jordenis put me in front of him and tried to teach me a Cuban boxer’s footwork.
“You need to learn to dance before you can box,” he said.
I couldn’t dance, and I couldn’t hang. It got me punched in the face.
“OYE! C’mon, relájate, flaco,” Jordenis said after he hit me. Again, relájate.
I lasted maybe three more minutes. I wasn’t so worried about my nose—it has always cracked a little when I move it right or left—it just felt like a tennis ball was trying to break through my skin. And I didn’t want to nurse it in front of guys who had clearly been hit harder. I thanked Jordenis for putting me back in my body and went toward Rafael Trejo to try to find my friend.
But I stopped in a park, rested my head on a stone table, and listened to the clink-clink-slap of dominos nearby. It was the first time I’d stopped still since I arrived in Cuba, and it left me reeling at how ill-prepared I was to be without a thought toward what came next. After my aimless meandering, the feeling that overcame me was as stunning and belittling as getting hit, how flummoxed, but also seduced, I was by a very American fixation on moving forward and up. I thought, for a moment, maybe we don’t know what operating without an end looks like.
Relájate y coopera.
Rafael Trejo was empty again, save for some kids and another coach with a stopwatch. Maybe all I’d get of Cuba’s boxing culture was being socked in the face in a gym I never intended to be at and told to chill the fuck out. I left conceding that I wouldn’t find my friend in Cuba.
“That’s very Cuba,” a college student said when I told her about it back at El Café. Her name was Renee. Renee suggested shots of Aguardiente (a.k.a. firewater) at Café Dandy to numb the sting in my face, so we went. Meet someone at the cafe called El Café, strike up conversation, and you have a lifelong friend in Cuba.
She wanted to open a business soon, much like many other 20-somethings of the New Cuba. I wanted to know if my country was hurting the private sector in Cuba after it had all this hope over the last two-and-a-half years—I couldn’t help but revisit something tangentially related to the ugliness back home. “Things look bad, but we get through, help each other . . . Palanca is the closest word. And you, people who visit, too. Because you need something, too,” she said.
I wanted her to say she was mad, but that was me that was choosing to fixate on the ugly. Not her. You’ll find a lot of Cubans like Renee.
A confession: Before I left, I did take a ride in an old-school car down the Malecón. The Malecón is like Cuba’s giant living room couch that looks out over the rest of the world. It’s overrun by Cubans on their phones, swiping through what arrived on the weekly paquete (Cuba’s offline internet).
That morning, waves crashed against the stone wall and mist settled on phone screens and sea puddles. Trumpets sounded from somewhere I couldn’t see and a cruise ship drifted in over the horizon. Looking out over the water, I’d forgotten the country I came from was only about 100 miles away.
I came to Cuba because I thought I needed to work out some aggression, but what I really needed was to stop. Amidst the kind of loud silence only Cuba can offer, you run into yourself, forcing you to come to terms with the gray areas of living—somewhere between losing our minds and being able to stop moving and relájate y coopera.
Americans will still come to Cuba. They’ll be the ones who seek a more intentional break from everything here. They might be dazed, lost, confused, harboring a desire to wander, to be put back in their bodies. Maybe they’ll want to punch something, too. But before they come back to the States, they’ll sit, like this, without a thought to what’s next.
I thought about going back, trying to explain where I’d been. I figured I might just say it’s complicated, but it’s also what we need.
*Flaco roughly translates to skinny guy, which I am.