A patron said maybe I ought to go to Cuba. I call him the Good King. He said I should paint Cuba before it changes. Once Castro is out of there, it'll become kind of like Moscow. We talked about it for a year. I finally did it.

I was scared. There I am. I'm going to a Communist country. I don't speak Spanish. I don't know anybody there. There's no American embassy. My hotel reservation gets canceled. But my plane's leaving, so I get on it. It's some Soviet thing like a bus. Condensation is steaming up all over the place. It looks like smoke, like we're going down in flames.

Out of the corner of my eye I see an American passport. The guy's name is Ronald. I call him Ronaldo. He tells me he used to be a litigation attorney who represented Colombian drug lords, that he has money stashed in Costa Rica. He has some kind of press credentials. He says Cuba is the last great adventure. I figure he's running cigars.

I'm at a party with a bunch of bumpy-grindy teenagers and a kid puts a 9mm in my face. "Señor," he says. "Ten dollars."
At Customs, I point to my paintboxes and tell this chick with a machine gun that I'm an artist. "Mi equipo," I say. My equipment. I did learn to say that. "Yo soy un artista." She doesn't even open the boxes.

That first night in Havana I thought I was gonna have a stroke. I'm riding around on a bus 'til three in the morning trying to get a hotel. Nobody has a room. I wind up calling Ronaldo. He saves my ass. The guy has a Steinway in his living room. He says I don't know how to bribe people. Ten bucks, he says, woulda got me through the door of any hotel in town. Ten bucks! I would have given 'em a hundred. The next night I'm at a party with a bunch of bumpy-grindy teenagers and a kid puts a 9mm in my face. "Señor," he says. "Ten dollars." He wants to sell me the gun.

By then I have a huge room with a kickin' air conditioner at the Hotel Sevilla in downtown Havana. The maids there tell me I eat too much. I figure out that they're hungry, that they want tips. They do origami with my towels and leave them on my bed with a note that says, "From your housekeepers, Nuri and Norca." It's a French-owned hotel. There's live music going all the time. The lobby is full of hookers. A policeman's there 10 hours a day watching the elevators so tourists don't bring hookers up to their rooms unless they give him 20 bucks first. The policeman watches me for a while until he realizes I'm not a serious threat to the revolution.