Wednesday, June 20, 2012

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

Long after Batista's revenge runs its course, I'm still processing this amazing island - the sheer beauty of the land and beaches, a culture rich with music, art, dance[1], and spectacular architecture, it's people - warm and wonderful, gifted, happy. It's a land of baseball and rodeos, movies and ice cream, dominoes and chess, reading (Cuba enjoys virtually 100% literacy). It's a delight, a mixed bag, an enigma...and a continuing education course. It must be the aché[2] - the force, a vital energy not yet sapped by the greed of capitalism or overconsumption or the heavy footprints of neighbors to the north.

Like so many places, Cuba is a country in flux. The Revolution is a work in progress. New regulations encourage a grassroots entrepreneurism, and many are embracing the opportunities. I'm in a small shop on the main square in Santiago de Cuba when a young man comes over to ask (in near perfect English[3]) where we are from (standard opening gambit), then proceeds to tell us about himself and an upcoming trip to the states, which he is clearly excited about. When I ask what he thinks of the US Embargo, he reflects a moment then replies that our internal embargo supersedes any external embargo. "We need to examine what it is in us that censures, restricts, and holds us back." This sticks with me the rest of my journey, along with the internal GPS and revolution such embargoes demand. It's with me still.

We land in Havana mid April, midday, following a short one-hour flight from Cancun. My seatmates are two young men, Korean and Norwegian, eager for their first trip to Cuba, practicing their Spanish, surprised I am going there. I explain Obama's new regulations and how I am able to go to Cuba to do professional research. They think it all so crazy, symptomatic of US imperialism and control, and are not happy with the president who gave them hope for America then reneged on promises. Still, they are sweet to me. In Cuba, as in most places, people love Americans. It's our government they hate. I wonder how long that will hold.

Standing in line at immigration, I am singled out by a uniformed young man who asks me questions - where I'm from, what I'm doing here, what's my work, etc. I mention being a photographer, and when he asks to see my equipment, I pull my iPhone from my back pocket. "Pictures for my grandchildren," I say. "Oh, retired," he returns with a wink, making sure I understand what he's saying. "Enjoy your visit." I slide right through immigration, without needing the 'required proof of insurance'. They weren't concerned with baggage weight either. Then an older uniformed worker comes up while I am waiting in line for customs, takes my arm, and guides me through the crowd. "Welcome to Cuba. I hope you enjoy," he says, smiling and steering me around the line.

It's hot. And humid. "Calore!" The midday sun scorches, and I drip for the next thirty days, but I learn from mad dogs and Englishmen, staying out of the midday sun. Quickly finding my two amigos, we load into a taxi, charging the standard fare to Habana - "$25 cup". He takes our Canadian dollars. There are two currencies in Cuba: the convertible peso (nearly par with American/Canadian dollars) and the local peso (money nationale/MN), about 20 mn to 1 cup. But more about that later. Eyes widen on the twenty-minute trip to Cuba's capitol, a city of 2.2 million habaneros, finally arriving at the famed Malecon, just two blocks from our casa[4]. We are on a small street in Habana Viejà -  a World Heritage site[5] and architectural wonder in its third decade of restoration.  It feels like a time warp, with buildings from the 1500's and classic American cars from the 1950's.

Margot is expecting us, and when we ring the bell, she leans over the balcony of her 400-year colonial home and calls down, "Buenos Tardes," as the door unlocks. We haul suitcase and backpacks up a skinny marble stairwell, arriving in the office, with twenty-foot ceilings holding crystal chandeliers, walls of Cuban art, a desk...and Margot, buried behind it, playing computer games.

Our room is a sunny corner, with a balcony overlooking Cuba and Tejadillo streets, close to everything: Plaza de la Catedral, Museo d'Art Colonial, Plaza de Armas, Obispo Street (home to galleries, music venues/bars, shops, and markets), and Hemingway's Havana haunts: Hotel Ambos Mundos, La Bodeguita del Medio, and El Floridita bars - each claiming fame to his 'favorite' drink, in order - cuba libra, mohito, and daiquiri (the 'Papa Hemingway' made with grapefruit juice instead). Habana Club is easily the best rum I've ever encountered (and I lived for over thirty years in the land of mai tais). I would be remiss not to underscore the value of rum in Cuban life...and on our trip. It is ubiquitous.

But I digress. Our first night in Havana, we walk around the corner towards the baroque Catedral de San Cristobal and its large square, where music draws us into a small restaurant called Patio Amarillo. We plant right off the stage and enjoy a dinner of salad, brown rice and black beans, an enormous grilled lobster tail, dessert, coffee, and three cocktails each (mohito, piña colada, and Cuba libre), music, and salsa dancing. For $15. What began as an intention (months before in the middle of a bleak Ashland winter) to scratch something off my bucket list, is now real. After dinner, I stand in the plaza under bell towers and stars. Welcome to Cuba!

[1]  We miss Carmen (the ballet) by a day.
[2]  Aché means 'the force', as in vital energy.
[3]  Everywhere Cubans seek us out to practice their English.
[4]  We stay in casa particulares throughout our trip. These are rooms in private homes, often offering breakfast and/or dinner. It would have been an entirely different trip staying in hotels.
[5]  Cuba enjoys twelve UNESCO World Heritage sites: architecture, art schools, historic castles and towns, tropical forests and National parks, Vinales Valley, an offshore reef system...