Contrasting images flash through my mind when recalling Cuba and the people met there: Walkers beneath covered walkways (handy under hot sun and pouring rain) and cab drivers in shiny vintage convertibles (smiling, smoking a Cuban cigar).
We wandered a workshop courtyard around a large sculpture that gave me a feeling of strength and wariness from all angles in Cienfuegos and heard Cuban reverence for Jose Marti, poet and inspiration for many revolutions, as his statue raised a hand above us. One guide told us she held a dentist’s degree (Cuba exports skilled doctors and dentists), but she made many more pesos guiding tourists. I learned that children, ages 5-12, attend school. We identified junior high students by yellow skirts and white shirts, technical students by brown ones, and those whose exams allowed them to enter pre-university wearing blue. All do three years of social service and can qualify for government jobs in three more years. All education if free, producing a very high literacy rate.
From a cobblestoned street-long mural depicting important personages from the past to an entire whimsical neighborhood transformed by one man’s efforts to bring his neighbors together in a common project, Cuba seemed alive and hopeful. We, of course, bought souvenirs, rhythm instruments, painting, leatherwork, and cigars. Cuban guides didn’t worry much about the time, nor did they seem understand our bus getting hungry (surly?) before mid-afternoon. Once, we found ourselves seated in a nightclub where stagehands worked on the sets for an evening performance while we were given one Cuban cigar and a small taste of rum, with instructions on how to enjoy them together in Spanish. The guide, sensing the group’s displeasure and hunger, took us quickly to a nearby restaurant where a guitarist and singer sang while we had Cuban sandwiches., Also,nly once did I see a woman begging as we exited a Cienfuegos restaurant, sated by sangria, fish, squash, plantain and taro fritters, almond ice cream, and ultra-sweet , strong coffee.
St. Francis’ statue stands outside a church by the same name watching the Plaza Vieja tourists try to cock one hip and strike a pose while waving a cigar. Somehow the colorful scarf tied with a bow on top didn’t look quite as right on a blond as on the woman who effortlessly carried a basket of fruit above her scarf. A strikingly handsome man in a red suit and white tie carried a newspaper to shield his face until some visitor pressed pesos into his hands. How many women took home a photo of their “Cuban boyfriend” to wow their friends? I was tempted! Between selling times, they gossiped or people-watched us walk down streets where Papa Hemmingway had walked or climbed stairs to write seven books here, including The Old Man and the Sea. He finally moved three miles east outside Havana for more quiet surroundings. I wonder what he would make of the 2 million+ population in the city today. Cuba itself has eleven+ million inhabitants.
Artistic murals adorned walls on Cienfuego’s ancient streets, musicians were everywhere–in casino entries to crumbling open streets. The giant fortress, built in pirate privateering days, guards Havana. Tourists now wander there. Most of the art and music reminded me of both shed blood and renewed hope embodied together.
One Havana evening, we had mojitos–depicted on the stained glass above the restaurant bar– and lucked into reservations for La Taberna, the nightclub where Benny More, singer and horn player, hung out. The building dated back to 1760, we were told. Big band behind him, one singer never changed expression during song after song The other donned hat and glasses plus a wide white tie from past days when he sang with minimal movement. Two dancers did perfectly sizzling guaguanco, rhumba with sensual undertones, along with more recent dances adapted from 1960-70’s in New York–cha cha, mambo, and salsa. At one point, Sid–part of a couple with whom I shared our ship’s dinner table other nights, smiled broadly and exclaimed, “Isn’t this JUST WONDERFUL?!” The stylized movements evoked emotions like none I had experienced in years of “each do your own thing” dancing popular across America. The floor in front of the band sometimes filled with less accomplished dancers trying to copy the main couple’s steps. During one long-held trumpet call, he held her above his head upside down with her legs making a perfect diamond before they went back to routine, sexy steps. Each port had its old/new contrasts, suggesting hope. This uplifting sculpture graced the turn-around for people hoping for reservations for tostones (black beans and rice), plantain, or seafood at a restaurant with quite a past. The woman had lost a marriage, status, her entire known life, yet eventually rose to realize a new dream that became a sought-after historical place to eat near Havana’s casinos and fine old houses (now hotels).
Back on board, I was reminded of the problems human populations can bring about. One morning before arriving in Cuba, I had stood on the 11th deck and watched floating debris the size of small cities on both sides of the ship for almost an hour. The attendant told me it was “seaweed” and then added, “well, maybe the blue or red or white or pink parts might be some plastic”. That did little to assure me I hadn’t seen some of the pollution that scientists and environmentalists are working hard to clean up before it kills our ocean populations. I’ve read that most fish already have ingested large amounts of plastic. Seafood was on the menu for our windy, rainy departure.
If Third World Cuba can rebuild, while allowing rubble and mansionstogether to make their way with a song that embodies both the sad state of things and hope for a bright tomorrow, maybe we in the greater world can become global neighbors who catch the same acceptance and vision as we cooperate with them. It will take some changes in attitude, but observations of two Cuban cities’ people reawakened my hope for all of us.