An American in Cuba - Part Two
28 December 2019 | Havana, Cuba
Terri Potts - Chattaway
I came to Cuba with little knowledge of its history or politics. I was just a baby during The Bay of Pigs. My body still retains the memory of the collective tension felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis, despite the fact that I was only four years old at the time. I lived in Miami in the seventies and attended a high school predominately populated with Cuban-American students whose parents and grandparents were survivors of the “Great Revolution.” Yet I cannot remember any formal education regarding our neighbor, Cuba. It is with this lack of knowledge I came to learn more about this country that lies just ninety nautical miles south of Florida.
I gathered information from tour books and Google resources. We visited museums while in Havana which definitely had a specific point of view. We spoke to the locals, some of whom were very candid about their lives. And I heard from Orlando, s/v Cuba Libre, (See comments on Part One.) who has a very disturbing personal account of what happened to his family and their home after the revolution.
I believe Cuba to be a very different place now that it was then. But I only saw the surface. I did not see behind the curtain that I am sure still survives to this day, albeit slightly different. What follows then is simply my impression of Cuba as I experienced it.
We arrived at Jose Marti International Airport from Mexico. Immigration and Customs went smoothly for us. We met up with Amy, Marco and Mateo only to find out their Customs experience didn’t go so well. Before leaving the states, Amy had gathered an entire suitcase of music donations as a gift to the Conservatory of Music, including two violins. For roughly an hour they were shuffled between line after line until finally they were allowed to pass with their gifts. By that time, poor Mateo had had enough. Their travel started in San Diego with an overnight flight to Ft. Lauderdale where they had a long layover before flying to Havana. Once together, we exchanged our Euros (They don’t accept American dollars.) for CUCs and hailed a local cab.
Since we were five with many pieces of luggage, we were pointed to a van. A very, very, very old van. It looked as if it had traveled many miles and carried many people. Oh, what stories it might tell if only it could talk. Two sat up front, three in the middle, and I sat in the way back in a jumper seat amongst the luggage stuffed around me. The luggage ran high around my left side and behind me. Between that and those in front of me, I had only a view out the right-side window.
As I watched the view fly by my window, I noticed a car drive up next to us. It was a 1950s Chevy. Green with black trim. It had rounded curves. It was full-bodied and sexier than the sleek cars of the present. At least, in my opinion. Inside were six people. Three in front. Three in back.
The driver looked to be in his early thirties. He had a handsome face with days-old stubble. He wore sunglass and looked like we might find him on the cover of GQ. Next to him sat a woman. She appeared to be tall with a long torso. Her hair was black and ran straight down her back. To her right sat another gentleman. My view of him and the other three was somewhat blocked but I couldn’t help wondering who they were to each other and where they were going. There seemed to be no conversation between them. All looked forward. They passed us by.
Sitting at a light, the green Chevy with rounded curves and black trim stopped next to us. The driver looked at us as curiously as I was watching them. Two groups of strangers connected by only a moment in time.
Our Airbnb was located in Habana Vieja (old town). It was a four-bedroom “house.” It really was just four bedrooms with a small entry-way. There were two bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms downstairs. All four had bathrooms. The entry-way had a small couch and one chair serving as a living room. At the back-end of the entry-way was an alcove that had a small refrigerator stocked with soda, beer, wine and water. If one looked up, you would find no roof per se, just an opening. It was a ventilation air-shaft. The floors and stairs were marble (so much marble in Havana). The stairs had an iron-rod railing and curved up to the second level. The house was very clean but at times, there was a distinct odor of recycled water. The mattresses could have been better. Amy and Marco’s mattress was extremely hard and ours literally swallowed us up, making it difficult to exit and led to an aching back.
Our Airbnb was located and run by the hotel next door. We were told that it was owned by a family not the government. It was a work in progress. As the days went by, we saw that it had much potential. All the houses on the street were narrow and tall. In fact, we were invited to have breakfast on the roof of the hotel. We walked up the marble stairs. “Seventy stairs.” Our host told us proudly as we huffed and puffed our way up.
Our hosts, Diamond and Andy and their staff, were great. Friendly and extremely helpful.
The house – like all the houses in old town – sat right up against the street. The neighborhood was full of life with men hanging out on the corner and women sitting on the curb of their house or watching from their windows up above. Every once in a while, a local vendor would pass by selling bread or fruit. You would hear them calling out. They were either pushing a cart by hand or pulling a cart via bicycle. Laundry hung from second and third-story clothes lines. An immense number of feral cats and dogs roamed the streets looking for food and a safe place to sleep. We noticed someone feeding them as they left a pail full of water and a pig’s head (Yes, a pig’s head!) under a tree.
Many of the houses were also their place of business. I am not sure how this worked. How much of what they earned went to the government. There were lots of artists. Good artists. Some trinket shops. Some had little cafes in their homes. On the corner of our street was a meat market. It was only opened certain days and when it was, people lined up for their share. They showed their booklets and the proprietor would check off the box that said how much meat they were allowed with a date and signature. A ration booklet of sorts, distributed by the government. They were allotted so much food a month. We were told it only lasted a week.
We started our first day with breakfast on the roof. The view showed a clear picture of the decay of a once thriving city. Some buildings had some cosmetic repair but most were slowly crumbling into dust. The paint had long ago faded away replaced with a black grunge. Metal fences that wrapped their porches were covered with rust. Wires dangled, precariously, from rooftops. These are the buildings that house many of the poorer Cubans. The ones who rely on their stipends to get them through the month.
Those buildings that stood repaired and in glory were government owned and run such as the Museo de la Revolucion and the Catedral de San Cristobal, a beautiful church with a Baroque façade now considered a national monument.
In the distance we could see remnants of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a sixteenth century castle/fort that once surrounded the city to protect it from pirates.
We were served fruit, eggs, ham and buns. This seemed to be a traditional breakfast. Soon, the sun was burning our skin and creating beads of sweat dripping down our skin. We carefully maneuvered down the seventy marble steps and outside onto the street. Waiting for us was our 1955 Chevy Bel Air. Oh, she was pretty. Purple with white interior. A convertible. We would have much more sun on our skin as the day passed.
Over the next week – when we weren’t working with the musicians – we toured much of Havana and a little bit outside of the city. Much of the city’s pride seems to be in celebrating their heroes; Jose Marti, Fidel Castro and Che Guevera. There are others too.
The Museum of the Revolution painted a very specific scenario of their history, as you might expect. There was nothing of the atrocities that Orlando shared, of course. (Historical records are sometimes written by those who have a very selective memory.) But there was much about our country and the horrors the CIA bestowed on the Cuban people. Batista and the United States government/Mafia were no angels during the previous regime either. Our blended histories have a very complicated – and I dare say, ugly - story.
The Cuban people we met and interacted with were warm and friendly, and as I mentioned above, sometimes quite candid in their answers to our questions. One of our drivers explained how he studied to be a mechanical engineer. “My education was ‘free,’” he said. “But then I had to work for the government for free for two years.”
“How did you eat?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “My parents. My friends. My girlfriend. Then, when I got a job as a mechanical engineer, I was paid forty dollars a month from the government. Forty dollars!”
It was impossible for him to live on forty dollars a month. He went to his father who had an old, American car and decided to be a tour guide and taxi driver.
“See that sticker on the windshield?” He asked me. “In order to drive this car, I must first pay the government seven hundred dollars a month. Just for the right to work."
We visited all the tourist haunts; Hemingway’s house and many of the bars he frequented. We stopped at Floridita one day for Daquiris. They were really good and we happened on some great live music. Everywhere was music. So much joy in their music.
One of our excursions took us to the scenic Valle de Vinales. As we drove out of the city, there were fewer and fewer cars. Transportation was either by foot, bus, or many drove carriages with horses at the helm. Every once in a while, we would see a small community of homes or a farm. A man was plowing using two oxen. Other men were cutting the grass with machetes. Back-breaking work.
The valley, itself, was beautiful. The mogotes were like little mountains covered with lush foliage. Hidden amongst them were caves with winding paths we could walk through. One had a river running through it and we hopped on a boat for the last bit of our tour. Sort of like Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Only this was the real thing.
The red earth was rich and a perfect planting ground for tobacco and sugar cane. We visited a tobacco farm. Chickens roamed the grounds while our host taught us to role a cigar.
Another day, we visited Santa Maria, a popular beach because, after all, it is a Caribbean island.
As you can see, Cuba is a fascinating island. So much to see and to learn. I know many of us glamorize its past with the stories of Hemingway, the clubs, the cars and the riches. But one must remember who and what was behind all that. During that era many Cubans suffered from poverty and a lack of education. With the revolution, I think it was the Cuban peoples’ hope that things would get better. You can judge for yourself how that worked out.
It is at the invitation of our Cuban friends, the Arango family, that we went. And what we found is that we are all of one family, the human race. We crossed cultures and found new friends. I am so grateful for the chance to get to know and learn about our neighbors.