Thursday, August 9, 2012

CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries) ~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions from a month in country


We learn about jinteros[1] our first day in country. The evening after landing in Havana, Peter journeys out for a bottle of rum ('ron') to mix with a couple of colas and limes found in our room's fridge. There's a large rooftop with great vistas over Habana Vieja, so it must be happy hour. Margot tells him there is a shop around the corner, but between the casa and the shop a pedi-cab peddler stops to ask if he wants a ride. When Pete explains he is just going around the corner, the young Habanero offers to take him for free. "I'm going that way anyway." Blocks away, heading past Parc Centrale, he tells Pete his friend has rum at better prices than the shops. But the ride would still be free. An hour later Pete returns back to the casa, leaping upstairs for money, since the pedi-driver will not release his $20 rum without payment of $10 for the ride. Grateful he wasn't knifed and burgled in the seamy section of Central Havana where they ended up...and that he only overpaid by $27 for his first bottle of rum, he remembers the blog warnings about jinteros and street hustlers. Kathy and I get a good laugh out of it all.

And by mid-morning two days later, we find ourselves hustled as well. We are heading up to Obispo Street when a lovely young family (couple in their twenties, pushing a baby in a stroller) greets us with the usual "where you from?" We stop to chat and, being two abuelas[2], play with the baby. The young man mentions that his uncle (of Buena Vista Social Club[3] fame) is playing a gig at that moment, and Kathy perks up. A professional musician herself (and conga player), she takes the hook. The restaurant is only a few blocks out of our way anyway. The music IS great - traditional son[4]. Naturally we order a couple mohitos...then a couple for the couple. Alex takes my hand, leading me to the dance floor for some salsa, after which Alex's 'grandfather', famed BVSC piano player, joins us at our table. Naturally we buy him a mohito and fall into a discussion about Afro-Latin rhythms. Later, eager to continue our original plan to get up to Parc Central, we call for the check, "la quenta por favor", only to realize we are being charged four to five times the normal price. It was then we groked the hustle was on...except for that brief moment when first approached on the street. Clearly the couple gets payment from the establishment, but they then have the nerve to double down, asking for money for formula for the baby, who can't breastfeed because of the mother's medication...
It's a $40 hustle...and worth every peso.

It's the last time I get hustled, quickly learning the drill - say "no, gracias", don't make eye contact, and pass right by. A few days later a young man volunteers to take us to hear some great music (hadn't we heard this before?), and when I spot a contemporary dance troupe (free) in the plaza, I go my separate way. Kathy finds me minutes later, her guide having been stopped by a young policewoman for "talking to tourists" (read: hustling tourists). Then there was the gent in Plaza Delores who invited me to dinner. When I tell him I already have plans, he hands me a piece of paper with his name and address on it. "Come by later," he whispers. I'm telling the story to Kathy and Peter over dinner, and we all crack up when they ask "quanto questa?" Lonely Planet is right - Cubans have honed the hustle to an art form.

Kathleen, unfortunately, never learns, continuing to be coerced into begs, bribes, and outright hustles for the duration of the trip. She also gets us front row seats at numerous music venues, sits in with some of the bands, and buys all the performers' CDs. Live music is everywhere in Cuba - on every street corner, at each venue. As ubiquitous as jinteros and twice the fun, the Cuban traditions of Son, Salsa, Rumba, Changüé, Guaguancé, and Timba reverberate for weeks. Guitar players strum along cobblestone streets; bongo players sit on the wall along the Malecon; wandering minstrels play in parks and public squares, in restaurants and paladars[5]. A woman pulls out her guitar on a bus to Trinidad. A classically-trained flamenco guitarist makes dinner at an 'Italian' paladar palatable. Each makes my sojourn enchanting. Collectively, they make up the rhythmic undercurrent of Cuba.

In Trinidad, La Trova[6] (where tourists stumble over salsa lessons by locals, to multiple bands) and House of Musica (with its outdoor amphitheatre, son of son, African rhythms, and full moon) are trip favorites. OK, and the dance-off Andri (son of a Puerto Padre casa owner) and my son have one late afternoon after too much rum. It is a riot of salsa, bootie-shaking, dirty dancing, breaking, hip-hop, and timba...on testosterone. When Andri wins, he takes his wife to the dance floor, and we all are wowed.

Then there's the art. Street artists, like musicians, draw, paint, sculpt, print, mime, dance, and origami in every plaza and park, every famous square. Galleries and shops exhibit oils, watercolors, acrylics, charcoals, stunning photography. We enjoy watching artists create at 'taller' experimental studios, honing their craft. They invite us to play. The art is colorful and fun, looks Picassoesque. Or maybe late Gauguin. It's Cubaism. It's political satire. It's revolutionary.

I stroll into a sidestreet gallery in Baracoa, at the far eastern end of the island, and am transported. Cubaism, flavored by local native Taíno history and the culture of the revolution (Che ala Baracoa). The student introduces me to Mildo Matos, the artist, and for the duration of my stay, I photograph artists and their work, interviewing them in studios and shops.

In a socialist country where peoples' basic needs are met (food, housing, education, healthcare, childcare), art, music, dance, and culture flourish. I wonder what my country would be capable of if so many weren't scrambling daily to pay the bills, if we weren't all in debt to banks, landlords, student loans. If our market fundamentalism hadn't worked to create systemic inequality, burdening the 99% so deeply. The freedom to create is palpable and insistent.

[1]  "Welcome to the land of the jintero or tout, a profession raised to an art form by the Cubans." Lonely Planet, Cuba (6th edition)
[2]  Grandmothers
[3]  Rent the movie: Buena Vista Social Club
[4]  Son - a Cuban music style, made popular again by the Buena Vista Social Club
[5]  Paladars are privately owned restaurants, fairly new to the revolution, and almost always better than government ones.
[6]  Every town has its Trova, providing a mixture of popular national music along with traditions of the province.

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