Whispers from Cuba: Part One
Part One– You Can Smile Now
A trip to Cuba. My sister Christine and I had an identical “to-do” item on our bucket list. We wanted to experience the old world charm of this island that had been virtually frozen in time for over fifty years after Fidel Castro led his Socialist Revolution. We needed to get there before the landscape changed.
Chris and I knew the icy barrier was thawing between the U.S. and Cuba. No, not global warming. Current leaders were now talking.
A few weeks prior to our visit, President Obama became the first sitting U. S. head of state to travel to Cuba in nearly 90 years to meet with Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother.
Soon after that historic event, Mick Jaeger and the Rolling Stones were permitted to hold a free public rock concert in downtown Havana. The Stones turned up the island heat. There was dancing in the streets.
New ideas and updated information infiltrated the antiquated state-run media through the inevitable growth of cellular phones and more wide-spread Wi-Fi access. Technology breached El Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, a 16th century Spanish fortress that once guarded the entrance to Havana Bay. The post-revolution generation sampled the modern world and wanted more. The spotlight turned towards Cuba.
“The world is changing Cuba faster than the Cuban state can cope,” according to New York Times columnist David Brookes in a recent article.
I had to go ASAP.
I did not go with a political agenda.
I did not go to perform.
I did not go to force change.
I wanted to meet the people of Cuba.
I chose a true “people to people” opportunity arranged by Bucknell University Alumni Association. The nine day trip (April 10-18, 2016) was authorized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control. Its specific license allowed us to engage in authorized educational exchange activities while in Cuba.
We were advised in our literature, “There will be little to no free time each day of the program. U.S. law requires that all participants of this program adhere to the full-time schedule of the people-to-people activities. Deviations from this itinerary are restricted.” Our tour was scripted.
This trip warning did not concern me. I lived and studied in Madrid, Spain in 1972 under the final years of the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Armed guards watched me from the rooftop of La Cultura Hispanica building at the University of Madrid. Franco’s special-forces, La Guardia Civil, waved when I hitch-hiked around the Spanish countryside. My experiences in a restricted society prepared me. I did not anticipate any problems. I was excited to meet and speak Spanish with the people of this island nation that was so geographically close, yet so politically far away.
We met our enthusiastic tour guide, Antoinette, and joined our well-traveled and equally eager fellow tourists in Miami. Each of the other 26 members of the group enhanced my trip with lively conversation and witty remarks. We couldn’t have asked for a more delightful crew.
The American Airlines charter flight took 45 minutes from Miami to Havana. As we approached the island I looked out my window. I could see open green fields, small buildings and a curiously vacant shoreline. No seaside high rises. No amusement parks and boardwalks. No distant four lane highways with morning traffic patterns that resembled columns of ants. It was an innocent view.
As the left wing of the plane dipped downward facilitating our descent, the land grew closer. I felt like I was in the opening scene of an episode of the 1970’s television series Fantasy Island. I was in de plane, de plane!
Cuba was waiting for me.
There was one other American Airlines plane on the runway. The small facility reminded me of New York State’s Albany Airport where I flew into in the 1970’s from college. Quiet. Simple. No jetports. When I walked down the portable stairway on to the concrete tarmac, the humidity wrapped around my face like a thin veil. The sun warmed my back. I could smell the moist, rich soil.
The plane cabin emptied without any fan fare. I don’t know what I was expecting. Balloons? Banners? Silly me. What was I thinking? I was so excited to be there.
We filed into the single level terminal of the Havana Airport and waited for instructions.
Soon I was directed to a confined space facing a Cuban customs official. To my left other tourist stood waiting in line behind a red strip on the floor. To the right was a closed white door. The air was stale in the small space where I stood alone. In front of me was a shoulder high barrier. I peered over at a uniformed man. He told me to look up at the tiny suspended camera.
“Don’t smile,” he seriously instructed me in perfect English. I was so happy to be there that I had trouble relaxing my mouth muscles. He was matching my facial image to my passport picture.
Thump! He stamped my passport and visa. Then he smiled and said “Welcome to Cuba.” Now I smiled. A buzzer signaled that the door to the right was unlocked. I exited into the open terminal.
After waiting an hour in an air-conditioned VIP waiting area with my group, I retrieved my suitcases. I assumed it had been somehow previously examined since I was not requested to open it. I handed a completed health document, certifying that I was not carrying any unwanted diseases, to a smiling lady at a podium and continued on with the process.
I put my carry-on luggage on a conveyor belt and walked through an airport screening portal just like in the U.S. On the other side, I reclaimed my stuff and filed past another security person who waved me past as after I gave him my final form.
That was it. Here I was! The arrival seemed pretty uneventful and routine.
I kept smiling.
Outside of the terminal I felt the curious stares from Cuban families waiting behind a barrier for familiar incoming travelers. Well-dressed young girls checked out my attire from head to toe. I was not exactly a fashion statement in my comfortable Capri pants and thick soled walking shoes. Older women were not as interested in my wardrobe. Instead they pushed away the heat with their colorful fans.
I wanted to stop and say hello to the crowd and tell them how happy I was to be in their country. However our group was quickly ushered to our waiting modern tour coach, a Yutong purchased from China. Inside the bus we met our young handsome Cuban tour guide Manuel.
Palm trees. Vintage American cars called Yank Tanks. Small cinder block dwellings and dogs walking without owners were the first things I noticed out my window. It was mid-morning. A few people walked leisurely along the sidewalks. I couldn’t detect their destinations. There were no shops. There were no office buildings on the road from the airport. There was very little traffic. Life was in slow motion.
I wish I had brushed up a little on my Cuban history before my visit. But I came with an open mind, an open heart and little knowledge.
As I stood in Revolution Square, our first tourist stop, I was informed that it was here where Fidel Castro gave his famous eight hour May Day speech on May 2, 1961. The iconic black outline of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevera, the beloved Argentine revolutionary and Fidel’s friend and comrade, filled the front of a building on one side of the square. On the other side, a large statue of Jose Marti, Cuba’s national pride and 19th century poet and journalist, watched over the open area from a higher elevation. I tried to envision the crowds that gathered in the warm sun to listen to Fidel’s message on that historic day.
The large square was empty now except for three buses of foreign tourists. The silent loudspeakers, still anchored above on tall poles, were reminders of the historic event. I tried to imagine the intense sentiments of that day. However I did not have a national point of reference in my own life’s history.
Cuban students were on a week-long vacation celebrating the Bay of Pigs victory. It is an important, patriotic event in Cuban history highlighting the success of Fidel Castro and his Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces in April 1961. Again my limited historical knowledge reared its ugly head. I was embarrassed at my shallow historical knowledge. There was no way to Google the event to learn more. I did not have access to the Internet on my phone. I was stuck in my own ignorance.
Because of the extended holiday, the University of Havana was closed. Nevertheless, a local student tour guide agreed to speak to us in the shade outside of the steps of the entrance to the University. The young tour guide told us about his wonderful opportunity of a free education. He was proud of his country and grateful that the state provided him with the opportunity to study engineering.
As we stood under a tree for shade from the hot Cuban sun, a passing professor was attracted to our group. He wanted to join in on our experience. The stranger introduced himself in Spanish and the student translated. He wanted us to know how trying life was during the dark years after the departure of the Soviet Union. He said in Spanish “I was a head with a body. I lost 30 pounds.” But he didn’t show any resentment towards his healthy audience of U.S. citizens. I was moved by the professor’s mini-lesson about the difficult years of the early 1990’s. I was humbled by his interest in us.
Then the older teacher wished us well and went on his way with his worn leather folio under his arm. And we continued on with our tour. I wondered where he was going. I wondered what his house looked like. I wondered if I would have done the same if the roles were reversed. Or would the sting of the embargo have poisoned my words?
He looked back and smiled. I waved.
On the way to a welcome mojito at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, we drove along the historic Malecon– the ocean front promenade. I looked out the bus window at the rough blue ocean and wondered if this potential water escape route was calling out to any Cuban citizen that day. I recalled many images of primitive rafts and tires lashed together making a hopeful trip to the U.S. Now the water passageway was real. Uncomfortable with the thought, I pushed the pictures out of my head and instead enjoyed the beautiful deep blue water of the Straits of Florida and the view of El Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro in the distance.
The rice, beans, chicken, pulled pork and vegetables smelled delicious. We ate lunch family style under a pavilion in the courtyard of the hotel. A local trio serenaded us as we passed around the ceramic plates of food.
The cool ocean breeze caught my attention and reminded me of the presence of the water behind me. The refreshing air made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. When the kind waiter brought me another Cristal I thought again about our proximity to the water and what it represented. The Gulf of Florida was much more than a small slice of ocean between our two countries. For the server and the musicians it represented a barrier to a free society. I had crossed that very water to get to Cuba. That same water way would also be my safe passageway home to the United States.
I sipped my cold beer and clapped vigorously for the musicians serenading us. That was all I could offer.
Our first two nights were spent at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It is Cuba’s most historic and iconic hotel built in the 1930’s. It hosted world leaders such as Winston Churchill and Kofi Anna as well as American Mafia figures and show-business celebrities including Frank Sinatra. Peering into the beautiful dining room I imagined movie stars in fancy gowns with long cigarette holders. I smelled a trace of lingering cigar smoke oozing out of the wooden beams. Maybe the aroma was leftover from a puff from “Lucky” Luciano’s Cohiba cigar during the 1946 historic Havana Conference which brought together U.S. Mafia and Cosa Nostra leaders at the same hotel. http://www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com
Our group ate in that very spectacular dining room on the first night. As I listened to the piano player and admired the décor, I secretly imagined that I was a visiting dignitary and sat up extra straight as I ate my delicious meal.
The next morning, rows of pastries, sliced papayas, cored pineapples and pancakes and waffles catered to our American appetite. Cold vegetable salads blotted together with mayonnaise and displays of unfamiliar sliced meats, slim sausages and hunks of cheese tempted the European travelers. In a corner, a clever machine squeezed orange halves within view behind a plastic window. It provided the sweetest juice I have ever tasted. The waiter kept refilling my cup with rich coffee. I could have stayed there for hours.
But we were back on the bus to visit “El Tanque”.
My sister and I grew up in the country so we knew what a concrete cistern was. We had one buried in the backyard of our childhood house to catch the run-off from the gutters for an extra water supply. “El Tanque” was exactly that. A large circular tank had been unearthed and moved to the hillside of the 2014 award winning mural making community, Muraleando, just outside of downtown Havana. An entrance-way was carved into the cistern and the remaining body served as a circular center for this community art project. Attached to the exterior were old steam irons, broken pottery, assorted pieces of grill work, faucets and traces of worn-out small 1950’s appliances. They were now part of a large collage. Brightly painted murals surrounded us on every available surface. Proud, happy faces greeted us as we walked up the winding wooden steps to the entrance.
A local group of young musicians waited to perform for us. Their smiles bounced off the bits of broken colored glass cemented to the walls. A young girl started to twirl when the vibrant music started. Her pony tail swiped her smile with each turn. The air was thick. I could feel the sweat trickle down the indentation of my spine as I swayed with the music in my plastic chair. I started to clap with the Latin beat of the beautiful music. I wanted to dance.
I left a coin with other contributions in a glass jar by the counter. Then I purchased a small oil painting done by a woman in the community. She smiled and spoke to me in Spanish as she wrapped my purchase in brown paper. I was so happy to be able to communicate with her. She told me that part of the money would help The Center to continue and a portion would go to her. I felt I made a contribution that morning.
“May I take your pictures ladies? You are beautiful” I asked in Spanish to the women standing above on a balcony on the street next to the art community. I did not want them to think they were merely curiosities. They were beautiful. The ladies smiled graciously and asked me if I was from Canada. I guess my Spanish has remnants of my high school French. Or was it that the Canadians had been travelling to Cuba for years?
“No, yo soy Americana.”
“Bienvenido!” they said in unison and waved vigorously.
“Gracias,” I replied and told them what a wonderful time I was having. We smiled at one another once more.
Smiles. Hugs. Hearty handshakes. The people of Cuba impressed me with their warmth and hospitality. They are proud of their country. They are anxious to share its beauty and heritage.
Chris and I were anxious for more adventures.
Stay tuned for Whispers from Cuba Part Two: Games, Songs and Cigars