Whispers from Cuba: Part II Games, Cigars, Dance
The Cuban whispers continue…
( Disclaimer: After my trip, I vowed to work on not jumping to conclusions without first considering the facts.)
Fact: One of the morning itineraries on our “people-to-people” tour with the Bucknell University Alumni Association in April 2016 included a visit to a Senior Activity Center in Santa Clara, a typical Casa de Abuelos. (Literally translated: House of Grandparents)
Conclusion: “Hmm—mm, this ought to be fun,” I said sarcastically to my sister Christine. I envisioned a group of sedentary, wrinkled old people waving their canes at me to come closer so they could whisper to me.
Fact: The group ranged in age from late seventies to mid-nineties at the Casa de Abuelos in Santa Clara.
Fact: The seniors’ whispers truly inspired me.
A collection of doctors, engineers, teachers, professors, accountants and cooks enthusiastically greeted us and immediately started to teach us the danzon, Cuba’s national dance. These former professionals knew life before, during and after The Revolution. The well coiffed women moved gracefully in their brightly colored tops and skirts. The men stood tall with pride in their casual shirts and spiffy hats. The gentlemen respectfully placed the back of their worn hands on their female partners’ shoulders and trim waists. The couples glided down the length of the room.
While the recorded music played, the participants’ faces changed. Broad smiles shifted to more serious expressions. There was a remarkable serenity in their profiles. Backs were rigid. Steps were slow and measured. Cuban whispers filled their heads.
After their performance, there was an explanation of the movements. Then the seniors invited our group to join in. Plucking members from the row of sideline chairs, the floor became crowded with new couples. I danced with a member of our group. Robert and I muddled through the steps with lots of laughter. I appreciated his invitation. His wife looked on in amusement.
Next we learned about fan language. The previous, more formal culture of Cuba, dictated a strictly held tradition. When going out in public with a gentleman, a single young lady needed a chaperone. In order to bypass this potential obstacle, subtle inner voice messages, whispers, were relayed through the movement of a hand-held fan. The position of the fan, the length of the opening of the slats and the direction of the wave all had a special secret meaning. Romance did not need words. It was fascinating to learn the code and see the excitement on the faces of the senior women as they demonstrated their skills. I suspected their minds were recalling a special romantic whisper.
Finally we enjoyed a demonstration of an old fashioned child’s game— quimbumbia.
The object of the game is to smack a three inch wooden spindle on its narrow end, making it flip up into the air, and then whack it with a 14 inch stick as if you were playing baseball. A wager is made on the distance. If the wager is beyond the actual distance, no points are awarded.
I raised my hand to be a volunteer. Not because I wanted to show-off my skillful hand-eye coordination. (In fact, I rarely connected with a softball in high school.) But because I wanted to join in with the seniors since I was one myself.
A very sweet man crouched down with me and schooled me on the technique to get the spindle to flip up. That was the easier of the two parts. I did it after the third try. The harder part was hitting the airborne twirling wooden piece with the thin bat. I never really succeeded. The closest I came was when I caught the outside edge and the small wooden piece dribbled off to the side. The Cuban seniors were relieved that I finally hit it. They graciously clapped. Later I purchased my own quimbumbia set and I vowed to come back and try again.
While we ate a delicious lunch at the back of The Senior Activity Center, a new group of foreign tourists entered and was now seated in the same chairs where we sat. The danzon was in full swing again. The seniors were dancing and smiling. More whispers.
Fact: the Senior Activity Center was not boring.
Conclusion: Perhaps our culture should consider removing the word retirement from our senior facilities and replace it with the word activity.
On this day Chris and I were seated in the front of our tour bus for the three hour ride from Havana to Pinar del Rio. This beautiful town, founded in 1778, is tucked in Cuba’s westernmost province by the same name. The region where it is located, the Vinales Valley, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The 270 square mile plain is surrounded by limestone karst hills the locals call mogotes.
The asphalt roadway clung to the mountainside like a thin strip of Turkish Taffy, stretching and twisting from side to side. I popped a tic-tac in my mouth to ease my nausea. I hoped my scrambled eggs, 5 slices of bacon, cinnamon churro and coffee would not surge upwards and grace my lap. I did not need to revisit my breakfast.
Although it was early morning, the sun was extremely hot when we reached our first destination.
“Meet a traditional tobacco farmer and cigar-roller in Vuelta Abajo, the country’s tobacco heartland. Spend time with his family as he welcomes you into his home to sample Cuban coffee,” my Bucknell University Alumni Association brochure announced.
I quickly headed towards the shade of the primitive thatched-roofed barn on Senor Benito’s farm when I exited the bus.
The smell inside the open building was familiar in my nostrils. Clusters of drying tobacco hung from the rafters in the same manner in my hometown of Lancaster, PA. Fluffy yellow chicks pecked around on the earth floor looking for seeds at my feet. All that was missing were some barefooted, pig-tailed girls in black dresses and boys in straw hats wearing trousers held up by suspenders and I would have been back in Amos Stoltzfus’s Amish barn in Pennsylvania.
I didn’t notice the farmer’s actual tobacco field with the wide-leafed plants near the barn. I didn’t observe any harvesting equipment. But a wide gravel turn-around for multiple buses next to his home caught my attention. This was more than just an ordinary farm. Our tour guide Antoinette had mentioned at breakfast that we needed to get to the farm early because “the site gets very crowded”. We were the first ones there.
In the open barn we met the ruggedly handsome Senor Benito. His chiseled features and broad shoulders commanded our attention as he demonstrated the art of cigar rolling. He was no doubt an expert. His massive hands sprinkled the interior chopped tobacco leaves onto a larger leaf. Then he deftly swaddled the contents in the smooth outer leaf on a board on his lap. I couldn’t wait to purchase some of his cigars. I promised friends and family that I would return home with some. I took my Cuban pesos out of the small purse around my neck and held them tightly in my hand.
After his wife served a complimentary cup of espresso in the modest Benito home, another woman brought out handfuls of fresh cigars. I surged ahead and handed over my sweaty currency. Six anonymous cigars were wrapped in a covering that looked like a dried banana leaf. I sniffed my precious purchase. Ah! Fresh tobacco! Although my sister insisted there was a hint of manure mixed in, I defended their aroma. They were whispering to me.
Finally I could not contain my enthusiasm anymore. I wanted to have my picture taken with Senor Benito. His weathered face and rugged cowboy hat attracted me. His dented machete, stuffed in the back of his waistband in a worn leather sheath, added to his mystique.
We stood outside of his house in the warm sun.
“May I have my picture taken with you Senor Benito?” I asked in my best Spanish. He smiled widely and agreed. I thought that this was going to be a special moment for both him and me.
Handing off my camera to another member in our group, I attempted put my arm around the farmer’s torso, but my thin arm landed halfway around his muscular back and came to rest on his machete.
“Oh senor Benito,” I whispered. “You are so muscular,” I announced in Spanish with a hearty laugh. The lines around his dark eyes deepened and his eyes danced as he looked down at me.
“Oh Senor Benito you could be an American movie star,” I foolishly continued in Spanish. Caught up in the moment I was releasing my inner thoughts, my whispers, in my outer voice.
I felt his warm breath on my cheek as he exhaled in laughter.
“Usted es loca!”
I owned the moment and agreed.
I don’t know what possessed me to get so familiar and cheeky with this total Cuban stranger that morning. But after all I did have coffee in his home, bought his cigars, and that made us friends. Again I thought that a picture would be special for both of us. I even offered to send him one.
Well, on another day of the tour, at a small souvenir stand, I saw a picture of my new friend Senor Benito on a postcard! He was seated in his barn rolling a cigar just as I saw him do! If that was not amazing enough, when I returned home to the States, his image smiled at me once again. This time he was in a major tour company’s brochure, in the same hat!!
It seems that I was with the Cuban Marlboro Man and didn’t even know it. I wonder how many other tourists have taken a picture with him and retold the story of this nice Cuban farmer?
Oh well, he was nice. And handsome. And it was special for me.
The language for the afternoon was dance.
There were whispers of joy everywhere.
In the small town of Pinar del Rio our people-to-people exchange went to a community project for Down Syndrome Young Adults know as Proyecto Comunitario con Amore y Esperanza. (Translated – A Community Project with Love and Hope) founded by local painter Jesus Carrete.
The majority of the young adults who attend the center were in Havana that day for a performance but Antoinette and Manuel, our local guide, arranged for a special small performance. The group is well-known in Cuba. They travel around the country giving dance performances and share their art work and inspirational message of hope. True Cuban whispers. The founder’s brother met us at the entrance and invited our group into the modest cinder block building. All of the walls were decorated with the member’s artwork. Murals, collages, paintings, silk-screens and other crafts. The bright colors gave life to the simple building.
At the far end, three young ladies and one young man waited nervously on a raised wooden stage. Their hand-made red and white satin dance costumes mimicked flamenco dancers. Soft red slippers covered their feet and the ladies’ long hair was pulled back away from their wide faces in long pony tails.
I sat in the front row. I did not want to miss anything. I love dance. I love live performances. I wanted to feel the energy.
I sat on a folding chair three feet from the stage and made eye contact with one of the girls who kept giggling and giving me the thumbs up signal. She was ready to dance but had to wait for the artistic director to give us some background about the center. The nervous performers fidgeted on the edge of the stage. Their excitement was palpable.
When the students took the stage, it was clear that the performance was carefully choreographed and rehearsed. One of the girls was not quite in position and the other two gently nudged her to the right spot. The male dancer stood like a statue in the center. When the sound system blasted the music, the dancers came alive. Arms went up. Hips gyrated. I could read their lips counting out the repetitive steps in rhythm to the music. Pure joy was on their faces. The girls made their hair twirl in circular motions with neck twists and grabbed the flounce of their skirts to emphasize their leg movements. The same steps were repeated every few minutes but each time there was a new twist as a slight misstep occurred or the dancers brushed against one another in their haste to advance from one side of the stage to another. Perspiration collected on their foreheads. Smiles were on everyone’s faces in the room. Our group clapped and smiled. The performers bowed and smiled. The director beamed with pride.
The last song involved an impromptu audience participation. My thumbs-up gal hopped down from the stage, reached her fleshy hands toward me and pulled me back up with her. Other audience members eagerly followed and pretty soon the stage mimicked a spotlight dance on American Bandstand. First one of us showed off a move. Then another answered. Back and forth we danced in a frenzy until we were all sweaty and exhausted. Coveted handmade prizes for the best audience moves were awarded.
After the show I bought a silkscreen print made by one of the students. The simple drawing of a duck with a hat smoking a cigar entitled, Papa, is framed in my study and whispers to me of my afternoon at Proyecto Comunitario con Amore y Esperanza. It truly was an experience filled with love and hope. For me on that afternoon they fulfilled their mission -“to help to develop ethical and human values based on love, dignity, and respect for diversity, social justice and solidarity.”
Dance was the language.
Joy was in my heart.
Games. Cigars. Dance.
Cuba’s whispers made me smile.
Stay tuned for my final Whispers from Cuba