Cuba

CUBA – LAND OF EXTREMES

 

The Cuban people have been proudly trying to make do for decades, and here is a perfect example. At breakfast, they ran out of juice glasses, so when I asked the worker, he handed me a coffee cup. I went back later for coffee, & not surprisingly, they had run out of coffee cups, so the woman handed me a cereal bowl. Both workers smiled, happy to have solved the problem. The Cuban people, for the most part, are friendly and kind, always putting out a hand to help Keith. Several people yelled at us as we go by – “I love Americans! Estados Unidos? Si? Me gusta!”

 

Art is encouraged by the government, but the symbolisms are dark and powerful. One artist showed a huge meat grinder with naked people being thrown into it. Another artist had a giant old-style Singer sewing machine, and it was making a boat. Another sewing machine had its needle sticking into Havana on a map of Cuba. Another theme was big-breasted women, and one of the women had a boat for a vagina. Another was an abstract of an eye, nose and mouth with the tongue sticking out. A dagger stabbed through the tongue.

One painting was simply of boats.

 

On the way to our paladar dinner, we had to walk by these old, magnificent cars – ’55 Chevy, ’22 Model T Ford, an old Dodge, a ’54 Ford Fairlane, and a convertible. After a great dinner, we were told to get in one of the cars! What a blast – all in a row, horns blazing, going through the twisting, narrow streets.

 

Sneak Walk. Remember, we had signed a document that said we would stay with the group. But, our official visits were done for the day, and Keith wasn’t feeling well and just wanted to lie down. Walking through the narrow streets of Camaguey alone in the late afternoon gives one a chance to glimpse the life of an average urban Cuban. Sunglasses on (to hide the green eyes) no camera, no grupo, no espouso, just brisk walking as if I had a destination in mind, as if I knew what I was doing. A father teaches his little hijo how to ride a bike with training wheels. Three women help a man down the steps of a cathedral to return him to his wheelchair. A life-sized photo of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road is a mural on a wall. Nurses still in uniform walk slowly home. Mothers hand-in-hand with bouncing children still in their school uniforms, scarves askew. Lovers linked arm in arm. People stop to offer a handshake or besos to their amigos. Bicetaxis, bicycles and horse-drawn carriages and ox-carts zip by, pedestrian beware. Ladas do tend to stop for children. A mujere lowers a rope to an amiga on the street three stories below to haul up a shopping bag. Police abound, usually in groups of twos and threes. A dance performance takes place in an instant stage created by chairs placed across the pedestrian walkway. Perros respond with a half-hearted tail wag. (I didn’t see one female dog in Cuba who wasn’t nursing.) People cluster in open doorways, leaning, yakking, yelling at others across the walkway. School girls flit in and out of clothing stores, giggling. Stores stock sparse amounts of inventory with lots of empty space on the shelves. Many buildings are under construction. Women, especially, tend to be plump. A constant diet of rice, beans and sugar is a testimony to the no-carbs philosophy.

 

We were treated to an incredible performance, Carnegie Hall quality, by the Camaguey Chamber Orchestra. The outstanding and highly professional concert included Mozart, Tchaivsky, Strauss, Cuban national music, and a finale in homage to the Beatles. When they played their beautiful version of “Let it Be”, I had tears in my eyes. Indeed, why can’t we just let it be? Cuba has been jerked around by Spain, France, England, the United States, Russia and Venezula. When is some country going to help Cuba instead of trying to make it over in its own image? Later we saw one of the bassists ride by on a bicycle with his stand-up bass. On a bicycle!!

 

We met with a professor of literature from the local university. Her joy is to have people come to her to write love letters. She interviews them about their issue (my wife just left me, and I want her back, or I’m a doctor assigned overseas and I’m missing my first anniversary away from my spouse) and she composes a letter for them based on their unique circumstances. Remember, Internet is hit or miss or non-existent there, so people really do send letters. I couldn’t get anyone to translate, so I’m not sure she understood that I’m a writer, too. But she was a dear, and I respect anyone living under a repressive Communist dictatorship who tries to spread love by writing.

 

We attended a lecture by a professor of economics who was adamant that Cuba would not concede on any points – particularly regime change. Talk about a bad attitude for future negotiations. I mean – the USA has made plenty of mistakes, too – remember the Bay of Pigs and the failed embargo? And Cuba has made plenty of mistakes – how about communism and throwing itself in with the USSR? So – how to solve this? Get a mediator to sit down with these two countries and try making sense by knocking their heads together?

 

Cuba is beautiful, tragic, cultured, sad, full of gorgeous, restored historic buildings, and row after row of crumbling buildings. Our guide, Jose, told us the common joke – What are the 3 failures of the Revolucion? Breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Cuban people are a combination of resigned, tenacious, resourceful, cowed, frightened, paranoid, friendly, poverty-stricken, and lacking in many basic things we take for granted, like soap, toilet paper, toilet seats and shampoo.

 

In Havana one evening, we caught a cocotaxi and zipped along the Malecon, with a cloud-to-cloud lightning storm exploding over the water, waves crashing on the top of the wall. Our driver of this ½ motorcycle, ½ scooped out Volkswagon, told us the locals call the Malecon the longest bar in the world, eight miles. Plenty of hente, abrazos y besos, lovers walking hand–in-hand, one couple caught in an embrace with the illumination of a lightning flash as their backdrop. A quintessential Cuban experience.

 

Certainly, we were getting the filtered view – the highest and the best, the best face forward that the government wanted us to see. But – we have eyes. Besides all these official, staged shows we watched, there was also 1500 miles of bus riding – looking out the windows, straight into the heart of the Cuban social fabric. There are waves of people standing by the side of the road, waving money at passing vehicles, trying desperately to get somewhere – a terribly inefficient way for employees to get to work daily. There’s the splendidly decaying city of Habana – 500 year old buildings built by the Spanish about to crumble back into the Earth. It is an orderly, safe society, because no one is allowed to carry weapons – except, of course, for the military. It’s a tragic, beautiful, sad, innocent, oppressed, lovely, haunted country. Cuba – land of extremes.

2 Responses to Cuba

  1. Vi November 25, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    Really enjoyed your writing about Cuba. Reminded me of East Germany and Russia in 1993 etc. How can so much of the world have so little?

  2. N.R.G. November 26, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    I know, Vi – we are so lucky, to be born women in this time, in this place. And – we are so fortunate to have traveled so widely and seen so many amazing places. I’ll call you when you’re back in AZ.
    Love,
    NRG

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