Glimpse into Cuba ~ Barbara

Finding a starting place to talk about Cuba is difficult. I'll start with the sounds of the morning on the streets of Havana, Trinidad and Playa Girón; the cities we visited. Quiet broken by raucous rooster crowing, the squeaking of bicycle tires from pedi cabs , murmurs of Buenas from people walking to work and the street cleaners and the clip clop of horses pulling wagons. Later, the cars begin, and people talking en mass. School children dressed in the uniforms of their grade walk by. The girls may have tights on, the women , definitely with fishnet stockings mainly black, with all kinds of decorations woven into the fabric, wearing platform shoes versus stilettos; better to navigate the cobble stone streets. (Havana and Trinidad are World Heritage sites, still with cobblestones). The young men sport a similar haircut of buzzed sides and bouffant tops. The streets gather trash as the day wears on. People group in front of the panadaria at all hours of the day and night. Walking is difficult due to potholes, trash, spit and pet poo. Che's face is everywhere, stenciled on cars and sides of buildings.

My accommodations were in Casa Particulares, privately run b&b's. The sitting areas had ubiquitos rocking chairs, Christian paintings and relics, and ashtrays. Many smoke; the local cigarettes are strong and cost about 50 cents a pack. A popular brand is "Popular"... Water pressure is low, rooms are comfortable with fans and a/c. Breakfast consists of scrambled eggs or omlets, fruit - bananas, guava, papaya and pineapple, a fruit juice, strong coffee, faux butter and spam. Cubans like their coffee strong with lots of sugar and some milk. Sugar is liberally added to the ever offered mojito. We learned to ask for only 1 spoon of azucar. The families of 'our' casas were gracious Spanish speakers with little command of English. In Havana at Casa Colonial, the home of Miguel y Ana, we were entertained by their young 5ish year old girl, who brought all her baby dolls out to join in on our cigar smoking and rum drinking. Sadly, many casas have a caged parrot. In Trinidad, at Hostal "Benavente", home of Elizabet, as we arrived home after dinner we were met by a family friend carrying large straw filled crates. He went to the back of the house and returned with box after box of pigeons, which he transferred into the crates. We understood the family partipated in homing pigeon competitions. Later we became aware of pigeon houses perched on roof tops as we drove through the country. Most of our group in Trinidad stayed at Hostal Lucero, home of Mercy y Lilian. They arranged a dinner party for us, and in leiu of promised music, invited a young woman to dance for us. She was dolled up in a red satin and white lace dress accessorized by red platform shoes. Very very cute. In Playa Girón, most of our group stayed at Hostal Luis y Marley, a wonderful quiet place with an excellent bar and resturant serviced by the most professional and amieable waiters. My accommodations were just across the street. I was sitting in the common area one night, having declined the group dinner, when the owners were preparing for a dinner party. The host brought me a plate of fried clams and offered drinks. The hospitality at the Casas Particulares was amazing.

Despite the clustering of people in dark doorways of alleyways at night, a normal cause for alarm for tourists, we soon realized that the streets are safe. There are no weapons allowed, no or little drug use, even the groups of teenagers were eager to practice their English "Happy Holiday!" and give directions. I was cautioned by a women about not wearing my shoulder strap purse, and reverted to my more secure back pack and money belt which I always wore unless it was locked in a room safe.

When entering the country, in the immigration line, I pointed to a bag and asked the owner if it was a musical instrument. It was a trombone, and gave me the names of 2 Havana jazz clubs; Jazz Club la Zorra y El Cuervo & Jazz Café. Surprisingly, the Fox & the Raven venue which we visited, was smoke free. I wanted to get to Callejón street to hear drumming and watch the undulating, sexy dances I had read about... that needs saved for another time. Guantanamera is played at all the tourist stops - of which there are many. Americans seem to be everywhere, along with Europeans. Cruise ships are coming, and when the U.S. embargo is lifted, I imagine it will be hard to find a place to go without tourists. Good friend Dean, a bass player, joined in to play the longest rendition ever of Oye Como Va, at lunch one day. It was awesome. We bought a couple of CD's, but barely scratched the surface of the music scene. Yes another time.

We learned so much about Cuba politics, beginning with the Spanish colonials, independence from them, the Batista era, and the Revolution's ultimate success of 1959. There followed of course, more U.S. intervention, The Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile crisis, alliance with Soviet Union, subsequent abandonment of the Soviets and The Special Period, up to now, with hopes for the US to lift the embargo. Most Cubans I spoke with welcome future trade and co-operation with the US, sans control. Today the people receive food ration cards, free rent, free schooling including college, job placement for the 1st two years after college graduation and free health care. A cigar roller earns more than a doctor, I was told...

Religion is open to all with many Cubans adhering to Santaria, a combination of Catholicism and African Yoruba . In one home, we saw glasses of water in corners to soak up bad spirits, dolls of saints, mirror on the outside door. Initiates wear all white and carry a white umbrella, for one year I believe, and adhere to restrictions on behaviors. They receive their personal saint (orisha) from the Santaria priest, Babalawo. Their black virgin Mary holds a white baby Jesus. I would love to witness the transformation as a person's orisha inhabits their body, amid a fervor of dancing, smoking and drinking. That will probablly not happen unless I become very good friends with a believer.

Our food ranged from mediocre to superb. La Guardia in Havana, was one of the best Paladares (privately owned restaurants) we ate at. I had their popular papaya ravioli; yum. Throughout our trip, we were served lobster (even at the Casas Particulares) for the same price as fish. Mojitos are served everywhere. 2 favorite dishes were Ropa Vieja (literally "old clothes"..shredded spiced steak), and Mores y Christianos (black beans and rice, seasoned nicely with spices and bay leaves).

All in all it was a very interesting trip. Cuba has undergone so many changes, and is in the midst of another one. Wireless 'hot spots' are emerging in Havana. The cruise ships and tour busses are already there. Time to visit? Sooner than later!  

Photo: by Louise Talley