” And you came to Cuba so you could touch it with your eyes,” said our unforgettable friend and guide of two days, Manuel Gonzalez of Trinidad, Cuba.
Never before in my personal writing history, including this blog and the three books I have published, have I felt the burning need to get out of bed in the middle of the night and put down words. Until now. I don’t want to lose the freshness of my impressions about Cuba; its lush verdant scenery, its grand but crumbling Spanish colonial cities reminiscent at times of both New Orleans and Mexico, its mysterious Mafioso ties to America and the hotels where “doze guys” partied on trips down from Miami, its sexy music, its beloved Ernest Hemingway whose books are still studied in Cuban schools, its crazy, off-the-wall humor and its brave, kind and endlessly resourceful people who get up every day and make the most of a difficult situation. Emotional evidence of the Revolution is plentiful; reminders of Cuba’s tumultuous history and its love affair with Che Guevara are alive around every corner of the Havana city streets and in the other cities we visited. The history of Cuba is sad and offers little hope of change under the Castro regime, but its people maintain a joyful Spanish facade. We see the motto Tu Ejemplo vive, Tus Ideas Perduran – your example lives; your ideas last posted in many places with Che’s picture. Che is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Cuban people.
When they thought Batista’s dictatorship was brutal, they soon learned that Castro certainly did not have the welfare of the people in mind when he grabbed power for himself. Learning in conversations with the people of Cuba about how the current dictatorship and how the embargo (which by the way is still in effect, even though our President announced that it is lifted – it has not yet opened anything up for the Cuban people expect USA tourism) applies to their everyday lives was enlightening in ways I never expected… sitting with people in their homes and eating delicious, generous portions of hand-prepared food from spotless Cuban kitchens during our Casa Particular ( Air B&B) stays was priceless. Every family is given a monthly ration of food – basics – eggs, 1 chicken per family, flour, sugar, beans, rice, milk. The “frills” such as produce, cookies – whatever else a family might need must be provided with income so pathetically small that we wondered how anyone could ever make ends meet. The bottom line to every detail of Cuban life is genius invention, constant recycling, trading among friends and helping each other. As our guide Manuel said, “If you can ever get the money together to afford a new car in Cuba, you are in big trouble! You will never be able to find parts for it!” Most of the iconic candy-colored older cars for which Cuba is known manage to be kept running with parts from China and Korea.
When people asked us where we were from they were excited and instantly curious about where in America. OH! Wow! Colorado! Mountains? Snow? Of course other countries have been traveling to Cuba for years and so the Cubans see tourists from Europe, China, South America, Sweden, Great Britain, etc but Americans hold a special place in the hearts of Cubans. “Americans are good people – Cubans are good people! What’s the problem? What took you so long? You need to all come and visit us. We love America!”
From Havana we traveled east by bus for about 5 hours through rolling, thickly forested hills set against distant mountains on our way to Trinidad, a charming village on the southern coast of the island where homes are the paint colors of Cuba – lavender, yellow, sunset pink, citrus orange…red, blue…old old homes often as tiny as an American walk-in closet and usually just a story or two, but oozing personality and radiating happiness. Music starts in the morning and continues through the old narrow streets all day long as we walk and roam. Speaking now with an artist’s voice, Trinidad is nirvana for painters. The ancient textures of stone and brick, peeling paint, iron grillwork painted white or left black, potted flowers and greenery – hidden patios and secret nooks where cats sit in the sun – carriages pulled by one horse clop-clopping on cobblestone streets and guys selling bread up and down every skinny street in the early morning. All this and the deep Prussian Blue Caribbean as a bonus. This is the Cuba I loved the most.
Outside Trinidad we were fortunate to visit the ruins of an old sugar plantation, including slave quarters and the current restoration of the big mansion itself to its former glory with its Italian Cararra marble floors and painted frescoes. We saw where and how the sugar cane was refined, the enormous copper pots where they boiled it down and the ways they used the leftover pulp. We learned about the daily lives of the slaves, who were shipped in from all over the world to begin working at age 4-5, and the tall white stucco tower built for the only purpose of keeping watch over the slaves in a landscape of tall sugar cane. When a slave was observed running away, the tower bell was rung and slave owners for miles around took that as a warning and a signal to drop everything and search for the escapee.
Cien Fuego (100 fires) was our next destination, a morning’s drive west of Trinidad – Cuba is a big island so we saved far eastern Cuba for another time… Cien Fuego is quite different than Trinidad, with an outdoor mall of nice shops and some great restaurants on roof tops and terraces. Mojitos flow, and if you know even some of the words you might be asked to sing with band…oh my god! I had a lot of authentic Cuban food while on the island, but the best spaghetti I ever ate in my life was in Cien Fuego. But – the outskirts are very poor, the hovels are dirt-floored and similar to those we saw in rural Cambodia. Horses, cows, cats and dogs are brittle and emaciated, skin over bone; the people are painfully dulled of any signs of a happy life. I was terribly upset by what I saw there, just a few blocks away from the city. I actually had to fight my impulse to get out of the car and start handing out money, as small a difference as that would have made for just a day or so.
In Cien Fuego on the main plaza is a lovely old mansion that has been made an art gallery – the inside of the building itself was as interesting as the art. Contemporary Pop Art set against centuries’ old frescoes and floors was a fascinating contrast. The art scene in Cuba is quite active – the dictatorship subsidizes artists to some extent. But we talked to many artists and a tiny tube of paint the size of a child’s little finger is the equivalent of 15 dollars. We do believe that studio space might be cheap, however, because there were some wonderful old buildings with spacious art studios in them. The art ranges from realism to abstract, as one would expect, and I am happy to say that mixed media has made a bit splash in Cuba! Very nice examples were to be found in every genre and I bought a few small pieces. Many Cuban artists have been educated formally in fine art and art history, some outside of Cuba. Art is respected and artists are prolific, turning out a lot of work – we have no idea if any of them are making a living at it however. One artist we met was lawyer. Doctors, lawyers and other professional people are paid by the state, and many of them have free time to do other things, we learned.
This is only my first installment about our trip to Cuba. The subject of Cuba is vast enough for 10 blogs and I will be writing other posts about it in the days to come. I took over 1000 pictures and am attempting to categorize them for easy access while writing. The people of Cuba are very pleased to know that so many of us here in the USA are interested in their lives. We noticed a lot of people on cell phones in Cuba but only in WIFI hotspots – just a few wealthy families actually have internet access. Public internet is still a few years away but things are changing very rapidly there now. They are quite aware that the next Revolucion with be in communication and they are also aware that it could be both the good news and the bad news, because they want Cuba to remain unspoiled.
The country of Cuba is in dire need of money to save its infrastructure, because it is centuries’ old and falling down around them. The tax money the Cubans pay goes…..where? Nothing gets done. I could go on and on…but for now I will leave you with my humble thoughts and my cherished photos of a place I now love.
to be continued…