In December, Lewis and I were admitted to the San Salvador workshop, in one of two rival barrios in Remedios, a small town on the north coast of Cuba in the Las Villas province. The workers met us with a mix of confusion and suspicion, an appropriate reaction, I thought, to a group of strangers showing up at a place of employment with only a bottle of rum and a basic grasp of the language. We stood awkwardly on the edge of a large yard, penned in by four open-fronted warehouses. Teams of 20-somethings surrounded us, hammering and painting what would become the hypnotic backdrop of an annual firework showdown of artillery-barrage proportions called the Parrandas.
Among the crowd, I noticed one man in particular, dressed in ripped denim shorts. He smoked a cigarette and was applauding the work of the others. He caught my eye and came over, brushing off my offer of a Camel ("They're for girls") and helping himself to the rum, before giving us some of his own from a water bottle he carried. He was called Ditto and had light skin with freckles and blue eyes. He was one of the many day laborers who had been working on the site for the past two months. He explained that these were the last days of paid work before the money allocated by the state dried up. As a result, the pace of work was frantic, knowing that deadlines would have to be met before the money ran out.
As the sun started to set, the teams dispersed. Roughly ten hung back. They gathered at the back of the warehouse, catching the last of the sun and finishing the painting. A baseball game played through a badly tuned radio in the background.
In Remedios, we spent most nights in the town's main square, drinking and watching as gaggles of teenage girls paraded, arms linked, and ignored catcalls. Around the edge of the square, faces hovered, illuminated by the light from phones.
When we weren't sitting in the square, we played dominos on the street corner. We gathered chairs and stools from various houses, stolen from the youngest family members and from beneath the feet of resting mothers. The board, a repurposed old door, came from one of two houses. Ditto owned a notoriously crooked one, which he only ever used as backup.
The inscription on the Cuban peso coin reads patria o muerte (motherland or death). I asked Ditto if he believed in it. He laughed. I asked who did believe in it, then, and he gestured as if he were stroking a beard (Cuban sign language for Castro). Sentiment toward the late leader varies by age group: For those old enough to remember the revolution—and subsequent turbulent relationship with the US—Castro was a demigod, untouchable. For those too young to remember this era, he represented an outdated economic system and the cause of Cuba's woes.
The week after the Parrandas floats were finished, Ditto and his cousin Pocholo didn't have any work, so we took a bus to the beach. The driver confiscated our bottle of rum, though, so we sat like schoolboys in the back, passing by dust-colored towns and untilled land. Billboards dotted the highway with jingoistic slogans; one read oppose the blockade, an injustice against Cuba. We passed a harbor where rusting hulls bobbed unmanned, mostly of the fishing-trawler type. There were no yachts or powerboats; the only seaworthy boat was a military-landing craft. We wondered how much time you'd get for stealing it. "Fifteen years," reckoned Pocholo. The beach itself jutted out from concrete banks, foundations of an unfinished hotel, its construction appearing to have been abandoned decades before. Beyond it choppy green water stretched out toward the American coast. —PETER LANE