I know the smell of Cuba, of revolution. I’ve never been there, but I swear I know it.
It’s Sharpie markers. It’s phony Cuban cigar smoke. And it’s the vaguely humiliating stink of being rich and white that rises up off you like a dead-meat odor when you stare, bewitched, into the eyes of a dead man who probably would have hated everything about you.
Growing up in the wealthier enclaves of West Coast North America, I saw Che Guevara’s face everywhere. The tangled hair, the proud, scrappy barba, the defiant chin, all of it emblazoned big and black across expensive mail-order t-shirts and cheap red souvenir flags in gift shops at the mall. He was flamboyant, iconic and just a little bit dangerous – all postures my teenage self wanted desperately to assume, were it I had the art, the gumption.
At 20, I began reproducing the image compulsively with a thick, black Sharpie marker. Onto the walls of bathroom stalls he went, then onto tiny patches of material sewn onto my zipup hoodies, right above the heart. I still didn’t know who he was, except that he’d died before he could get old or ugly, and that the red star embroidered onto his beret made my grandmother squirm. But I didn’t care. I drew Che, over and over, until I could reproduce with eyes closed the contours-in-relief, the harsh and sort of tragic way the shadows fell across his face.
At 21, I joined crowds of stoned white backpackers in the head shops of Amsterdam, filling my pockets with Che-themed ashtrays and cigarette lighters, rejiggered reproductions of that self-same face, sometimes a bit distorted. Copies of copies. The revolution had never been mine, true, but I gorged myself on its detritus without hesitation.
At 22, I went to Northern Laos and watched teenaged boys roam the streets in ill-fitting American military fatigues with Che’s visage silk-screened across the backs. I lusted after those jackets, but left the country empty-handed after one of those boys broke into my bungalow and stole everything I had. I felt like Che was laughing at me in the hungry, humiliating days that followed. I didn’t like it.
When I got home to Portland from Southeast Asia, I fell in with a radical communist from Los Angeles who’d read the complete works of Karl Marx before he was old enough even to buy cigarettes or go to war. We chain-smoked rollies and sat on front stoops and talked late into the night about Cuba, about revolution – about how much it meant and how much it would take. But I was getting older. I threw away my marker and parted ways with The Radical Communist after he bombed a Starbucks and spat “Bourgeoisie” at me in a fit of class rage. He told me my CEO father ought to be fitted for concrete boots and thrown into the Willamette River. I told him “Goodbye.” I headed south.
At 23, I landed on Cozumel, Mexico, a Caribbean island neighboring Cuba 200 miles to the west. There, I spent a year watching sunburned tourists roam among the jewelry shops and the restive cantinas, sucking down knockoff Cuban cigars. The noxious clouds of smoke would get into my clothes, my eyes, my skin. I hated it.
In Cozumel, I’d find Cuban tourist brochures littered along the boardwalk. In the pictures from Havana, Che’s immortal eye gazed down from sun-bleached billboards and steel-framed building sides, looking fatherly, fierce, offering the kind of love that didn’t look like it probably came easy. A love that I’d begun to realize was, perhaps, intended only for the few. I wanted to be worthy. And so I went to North Korea.
There, I paid dubious homage to towering tile monuments of the dear dead and almost-dead leaders of the world’s very last Stalinist stronghold. I dodged angry guards and paid for bowls of ramen with five-dollar U.S. bills and pocketed handfuls of seashells and dirt. Everybody was rail-thin and subdued, bad actors in a play I’d never seen before. Inscrutable old men in tracksuits carrying walkie-talkies trailed me up and down the mountainsides. I bought a bottle of blackberry brandy and a set of Buddhist prayer beads. Everything was the color red. I found a listening device behind the mirror in my hotel room. I had nightmares. And so I went home to America.
Somewhere, right this very moment, rich kids are slapping Che stickers onto the bumpers of their brassy foreign-made cars, illiterate twelve-year-olds in faraway jungles are growing wispy beards and raising their tiny balled fists into the air, crying ¡Victoria! Somewhere, overfed American tourists are paying through the noseholes for hack cigars, and Cubans are collecting their bean rations and patching crumbling walls with scrap-metal and hope. Somewhere, Chinese factory hacks are cranking the levers of monstrous Soviet-era machines that pump out Che Guevara merchandise, thousands by the hour. Somewhere, Fidel Castro and his ilk are getting too old, and Che’s bones are turning to dust while the CIA pretends not to look, and, everywhere, everyone is just waiting.
I haven’t been to Cuba, but I’ve gotten close enough to smell it. It’s the acrid bite of a Sharpie marker. The trailing shit-vapor of a knockoff Cohiba. And the final, undeniable truth about your true place in the world, hanging heavy in the air, like the smell of something burnt.