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First Person

An Accidental Island Tour

While in Cuba to cover a cultural exchange, a reporter discovers harsh realities and finds herself interpreting for Woody Harrelson.


"Rest easy, old man," Harrelson says, patting the cameraman on the shoulder.

As we go back through the "too-nell," Harrelson asks me to roll down my window. I fear he is about to spit on me, but he explains that he can't breathe, and the smog is killing him. I tell the Cubans that the air in Havana is filthy. The Cuban journalist looks shocked.

"We have no air pollution in Havana," he says, quite seriously. I translate for Harrelson, who can't believe what he's just heard. I can't believe it either. Havana smells like a jar of Vaseline, and if you stand outside for more than 15 minutes, your skin gets coated with black goo.

"You tell my man that he just lost a whole lot of credibility as a journalist with me," Harrelson says. "You tell him he's un poco loco. This is the worst air I've ever seen."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 24, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 15 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Misidentification--Mick Fleetwood was mistakenly named in a March 29 story that was published in The Times' main news section and a photo caption in Calendar on March 30. Both instances concerned the "Music Bridges" project in Cuba, where Fleetwood was a participant, though not in the cited performance.

I tell the Cuban. His response: "There is no industry here. And few cars." Across the bay, an oil refinery belches black smoke into the sky. The cars on the road, either old American jalopies or Soviet Ladas, do the same. When the sea comes splashing over the sea wall, it is oily and black.

"No pollution?" I ask.

"Look, this is the problem," the journalist says. "Woody is an environmentalist, and I am a beer-drinker. It's all in perspective."

I translate for Harrelson, who laughs. "If only he knew," he says.

We arrive at the restaurant in Old Havana where Harrelson is supposed to meet some friends. The Cuban journalists get out to accompany him. Harrelson looks at me with worried eyes.

"Do they think they're going to follow me all night?" he asks. I ask them the same question, and they nod, gleefully.

"Do you want them to go away?" I ask Harrelson. He nods sheepishly, afraid to hurt their feelings. "Don't worry," I say. I tell the Cubans that Mr. Harrelson would like some privacy, and they apologize to him and climb back into the taxi. The driver charges Harrelson $24 for nearly three hours of service. Harrelson thanks me, then ambles down the street, enjoying the relative anonymity he has here.

We begin to drive back to the hotel.

"Do you think he knows Cameron Diaz?" the Cuban asks, eyebrows vibrating.

"Yes," I say.

"Do you think you can ask him to tell her to come to Cuba?"

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