Sunday, April 7, 2013

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


"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."  Henry Miller

The day before we leave the island, my son asks what's still on my Cuba bucket list...then dedicates himself to helping me scratch them off. "It's Mothers Day," he reminds me, grinning.
            Back in the symphony of light that is Havana, back from our around-the-island tour, in our rooftop suite - with its high ceilings and windows overlooking the cathedral, I lie, just cool enough with my Pashmina shawl over crisp sheets, wondering if team Mantansas took the playoff game...while I listen to the morning clamor of birds over the loud din of the air conditioner. Today I'll do laundry and work/play the Havana bucket list. Shop. Re-pack. Visit Margot to leave a care package for a Cuban friend. Spread love and joy...and gratitude.
            Peter and I head to Obispo to shop...and run into the ceviche place we've looked for for weeks - since an initial visit during our second day on island. It's closed. We buy a few mementos and gifts, watch as a burly local fills our glasses with freshly-squeezed orange juice, swig down the juice and a cappuccino. We shop some more, wanting to buy more art than we have space or money for, then spy a street cart - fabulous fried rice, followed by fresh coconut ice cream. We head towards the plaza, ducking into the famed Floridita Bar, known for Papa Hemingway's daiquiri[1]. There's great live music for the crowd and $6 daiquiris (most expensive yet).
            The Museo Nationale is closed for the national holiday (bummer!), but the National Theatre has free art exhibits (photographic, videos, live, mixed media), many by students, all exhibiting unusual creativity.  We walk to the Ingleterra Hotel and up to the famed rooftop, where the Foreign Press Club met for years. We do egg salad and pulled pork sandwiches, looking over the Capitol, take dozens of photographs of the square below, the Capitola, Parc Central, clear to the Malecon and the fort across. A delicious and inexpensive lunch fuels us for the late afternoon, then we taxi to Hotel Nationale (rooftop-bar hopping) only to find the rooftop closed for renovations, but where we enjoy a Piña Colada in the (Hall of Fame) bar.  The famous room is stuffed with memorabilia about the hotel and celebrity guests who gave this hotel its reputation over the years. 426 rooms, built in 1932, this historic site is a National Monument of the Republic of Cuba.

             I agree with Pico Iyer, "the whole island has the ramshackle glamor of an abandoned stage set", but it has more, so much more: $3 taxis and abundant transportation options,  music and art, mohitos and carajillo[2], beaches and sunsets. Cuba is the Land of Found Things. Everything we lose or leave behind is found and returned, Unlike visits elsewhere where things disappear, never to be found - known by me (and traveling partners) as the Lands of Lost Things - Cuba is a Land of Found Things.
            I love feeling safe - day or night, alone or with others. Having lived in the US for most of my life, where robberies, crime and violence are common, feeling safe is something I seek...and treasure. In Cuba there are no guns, freaks, violence - except for the occasional TV news story about more mass murders in the USA or US troops killing civilians in Afghanistan.
            Everyone holds hands - grandparents and niños, girls, boys, muheres, guys. It's so sweet - the hand-holding, the smiles. Children are not hooked up to machines, games, hand-helds; they play outdoors the way we did when I grew up. So much is changing. Lonely Planet is as wrong as much as it's right - as visits to Habana Tour or Cubanacan attest. Changes are happening, so if you go, watch Cuban media and bogs.
            New regulations and guidelines (over 300) from recent congresses are affecting lives, designed to renovate economic and political institutions, stimulate local entrepreneurial enterprise, increase political participation, and overcome the continuing economic crisis that a small country such as Cuba finds itself in as a result of natural and political disasters as well as a continued effort by the “Colossus of the North” to overthrow the leadership and sovereignty of Cuba, harming the global reputation of the US in the process. I feel especially glad to have seen this lovely island in this moment in time. A proud people, happy despite all the odds. Wanting freedom like all other souls.

CHE - iconic and beloved by Cubans, Latin Americans, other freedom fighters the world over - is ubiquitous throughout the country he helped to free. Like other famous Cuban characters: Fidel, Al Capone, Graham Greene, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara remains top slotted. A book by several photographers who photographed Che while he was in Cuba finds its way to my Mothers Day. As a photographer myself, I love reading the stories about Che (himself a photographer) by others who spent time with him, documenting the revolution.
            And when I begin to really get trinket fatigue in Varadero, I find a silk screen of Che's iconic image by Alberto Korda, which reminds me of Warhol's Marilyn images. I buy it and some small Cuban flags. Still, the anti-corporate revolutionary would roll over in his grave[3], knowing his image was used to sell more stuff than anything else in the country. Che T shirts, paintings, key chains, flags, books, license plates, and more...are found everywhere. Instead of celebrating his 84th birthday, the slain revolutionary hero would be rolling over. Meanwhile, we observe the changes throughout Latin America, inspired (still) by Che and Fidel.

I love this poem: "Guevara" by Nadja Tesich, (translated from Serbian)
If the death comes
may it be welcome
others will replace me
he said once.
His beautiful face
killed by US mercenaries and CIA
Bolivia, La Hugaera.
Yet his face
is all over America Latina
next to Christ
in every peasant hut.
Che never died
in death he grew
and grew and grew.
Latin America moves
is moving
will move
with his face
in front.

            I celebrate Mothers Day with my son, walking Habana Viejo and checking off my Habana bucket list. He reminds me how quickly we went from first discussions of Cuba in January to here mid April. We're good at realizing dreams and making things happen!
I lie here, wondering what the next will be...
            As we wait in Jose Marti Airport for our quick flight back to Cancun, we share a last Cuban coffee (with a shot of Havana Club), wondering when the embargo will be lifted, when the US will believe in freedom enough to allow its neighbors to have it, unfettered by a mean, obsessive bullying.
            Imagine a place where everyone's basic needs are met: housing, food, education, healthcare.  Where corporations are NOT persons, do not rule. Where the Internet has no Google and the people have no Apple. But receives an A+ in sustainable development practices and is the largest per capita producer of organic food in the world with the 2nd highest literacy.  
            Like none of the other eighty-four islands I've visited or lived on, Cuba is really big. HUGE. Flora and fauna remind me of tropical islands the world over, but the lack of commercialism (especially overt corporatism), stunning colonial towns, and the cheapest ice cream on the planet, keep it singular.  Its Architectural eclecticism is well-known. Mudéjar, baroque, ecclesial, classical and neo-classical, art nouveau, art deco, and modernist styles create a vibrancy, town to town - nestling in mountains or sprawling around picturesque bays. Cuban architecture enlivens the cities - as fields and orchards, mountains and beaches, do the landscapes in between. The music and dance fill local culture. (Did I mention the baseball?!!) But it's the people who light up our island time, playing music, dancing like they were born to, laughing and smiling as they go about their simple days - this is the magic of Cuba.


[1] The 'Papa Hemingway' is made with grapefruit juice instead of lime...and delicious!
[2]  Dark Cuban coffee with aged Cuban rum - yum!
[3]  Che's remains were moved to his mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba, from Bolivia in 1997.