Havana’s Symphony of Sound ~ NYT

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Just before New Year’s Eve, my wife and I left our two young children at home with my parents and sneaked down to Havana for a brief getaway. You might be familiar with this uncanny sensation of kidlessness, as if you are getting away with something reckless and potentially illegal. More than once, I felt as if we had discovered a cheat code that had opened a portal into a parallel universe. Suddenly, we were allowed to get a drink. We were allowed to sip this drink. We could read more than a single page in a book at one time. We could enjoy a meal without cleaning yogurt off the ceiling.

Yet this odd feeling of defeating space and time came as much from our destination as anything. Cuba, that elusive island unfurling across the Caribbean like a tangled flag, sits barely 100 miles south of Key West. 100 miles! And yet, in some respects, it might as well be 10,000 miles. The country’s complex identity is inherently bound up in the duality of this proximity, in its ability to feel both so close and yet so far away at the same time.

Our visit came at a strange time for Cuban-American relations, as the country languishes in a period of post-Fidel, post-Obama uncertainty. Many Cubans we talked to cited President Obama’s 2015 visit as a watershed moment, a critical first step in normalizing relations between the two countries. But such optimism has given way to a kind of stagnant waiting game, filled with more questions than answers: Is the sudden explosion of private businesses (like Airbnb) on the island a sign of things to come or merely window dressing on what remains a totalitarian regime? What will happen when Raul Castro finally steps down? In this age of Trump, are Americans even allowed to go to Cuba anymore? And if I did go to Cuba, would my capitalist mind be turned into mush?

Like many, I had been particularly taken by reports that American diplomats in Cuba had suffered from a range of mysterious symptoms, including nausea, hearing loss, dizziness, memory loss and even brain damage. Both the media and the U.S. State Department bandied about an attack by a “sonic weapon” as a possible explanation. It felt like a last, toxic gasp of Cold War subterfuge.

What, pray tell, would this even look like? I pictured a Russian agent in a dingy hotel room, a gadget-filled suitcase open on the bed, various satellite dishes pointed at his target in an adjacent building. Scientists and acoustic experts have dismissed such theories of ultrasonic sound rifles as extremely unlikely. A more plausible hypothesis is that the diplomats were exposed to some kind of toxin. Still, sound as an all-pervasive, invisible weapon remains a primal fear of mine. I even wrote a novel in which a New Jersey teenager discovers a particular frequency, that, when played at exactly the right decibel level, has disastrous physical effects on his classmates.

So then why go to Cuba and dive into the cross hairs of both diplomatic and acoustic uncertainty? Because this is why we travel. As José Martí, Cuba’s talismanic national poet and philosopher once wrote, “In a time of crisis, the peoples of the world must rush to get to know each other.” No one can predict what will happen to Cuba in the coming years, which is why you must rush there now. As in, right now. To visit is to witness a rare bird about to fly the coop.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

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