I was 14 when the documentary film Buena Vista Social Club was released in Australia. At that time the Latin community in Sydney was still small and very new… this was not the Bronx or Miami. I gleaned pieces of information about my roots from my mother through stories, music and food. But the explosion of sound, culture and pure ‘sabor’ in that now classic documentary was to rock my world and set my life on a course that would eventually lead my mother and I to Cuba, albeit 16 years later.
We flew on the full moon into Havana, landing on a hot sticky summers day. Our drive into the city from the airport was an emotional one. Immediately we saw all the symbols that one associates with Cuba. The old cars, the colorful narrow streets of Old Havana, the beautiful wabi-sabi decay of the old buildings. We had arrived. I was full of emotion and on the verge of tears. I could write a whole post on the gorgeous aesthetics of Old Havana, on the usual things that tourists see and do. El Floridita, El Nacional etc. I could romanticize these potent symbols of Cuban culture and leave you with a more or less obvious picture of the country. My photos for sure tell that specific story. Or I could write this post on politics and my thoughts on the the revolution. The things I witnessed that seemed to work or fail. But its such a complex and sticky subject, and my opinion won’t do anything for the beautiful people and I met and fell in love with. So after a lot of thought I have decided to write about 3 special people we met on this trip. Their lives and experiences touched me so deeply, that I would be doing them an injustice if this post were just about politics and old buildings.
Isahine. Dressed head to toe in white, this beautiful young woman met us our first morning in Havana and offered to show us around the city. Her fluent English, stunning features and maturity far beyond her 20 years left my mother and I in awe at our luck in finding such an accomplished, unofficial guide. (Special thanks to Debbie for arranging our meeting). I took so much pleasure in watching her haggle over taxi fares and navigate the streets of Havana, gracefully ignoring all the stares and vocal appreciations of her beauty. “Cuban men love to tell you how beautiful you are. They find the beauty in any woman.” This was true. And even the feminist in me didn’t protest. After all, this was not just your regular catcalling and whistling. The comments made to me all day, everyday were good humored and often very specific. “Your skin is the color of cinnamon, so tasty” Even my mother didn’t mind the attention. It would be like going to France and hating croissants, it just came with the territory. In addition to saucy looks from Cuban men, many people crossed their arms at her and said “Santo” to which she replied “Bendicion!” Isa was completing her year of purification as part of her Santeria practice. The all white dress code was a visual display of her beliefs, rooted in the African religions brought to Cuba with the introduction of slavery hundreds of years ago. The fact that these beliefs are still honored and practiced is so fascinating to me. Next time, I asked Isa, would she bring me to a ceremony?
It turned out that Isa’s father is the profilic Salsa singer, Isaac Delgado. Very much respected in Cuba he had defected when she was younger and not allowed back for a few years, during which time she could not see him. She moved to Spain as an adolescent where she learned her fluent English from watching American movies. We spent a lot of time talking about her reasons for returning to Cuba after her years in Spain. Racism and the pain of being separated from her people and culture were a big factor in her decision to come home. Isa’s story is very unique. Most Cubans have never left, much less returned from other countries, although this is slowly changing. When asked about the atmosphere of change in the air (that Monday the US had announced it would reopen its embassy in Havana) she said “I’ll believe it when I see it.” That said, she spoke very positively of the country and the city that was her home. Driving through the stunning old faded mansions of Vedado, the former suburb for the wealthy – I asked what kind of people lived there now. “All kinds of people.” “Is it still a wealthy area?” I asked. “We don’t have those anymore” she insisted. On our last night in Havana, Isa invited us to watch her fathers concert at the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform (a fitting place to spend 4th of July). Her entire good looking family was either singing/playing an instrument on stage or dancing with us in front. The feeling of singing along to her fathers beautiful voice along with thousands of other Cubans on a hot Havana summer’s night was the culmination of all that my mother and I had wanted to experience on our trip. In these moments of dancing and ecstasy all of our collective troubles were momentarily forgotten. This is reason that Latin music touches so many people, even those outside our culture. Life is imperfect, often unfair and cruel. Yet in that hardship we will still sing, we will still dance. We endure.
Yerandi. I had heard that the town and valley of Viñales was Fidel’s favorite place in Cuba and after taking in the stunning landscape, verdent green valleys and towering rocky mountains, I could see why. Old 50’s cars shared the road with horse driven carriages and colorful houses dotted the landscape in this lush, tropical paradise. We had not done too much research before arriving so when we were introduced to tall, lanky, and hilarious Yerandi as a guide – we gladly accepted his offer to show us the caves. Yerandi had spent a few years studying languages at university and had worked for the military for a short time. He was back in his hometown of Viñales after a few years in Havana where he admitted he had partied hard, caught up in the nightlife scene of the capital. I told him my mother and I had been disappointed with the scene in Havana, we couldn’t find anywhere to dance that wasn’t full of tourists. “Oh you want to dance?” he asked me. “I’ll take you to the plaza tonight, lets see how well you dance.” He was 2 years younger than me and we had established a joking rapport early on. He was a born comedian. His jokes and parodies of himself and other Cubans had my mother and I cracking up, but there were hints of tragedy in his past. He spoke of being beaten by his mother for being naughty. “Were you?” I asked. “Of course I was!” was his reply.
When we invited him to eat with us at a really nice restaurant (Casa de Confianza, an organic, must visit farm and restaurant) he refused to eat. I think he was uncomfortable with us paying. Even in his own country we lived in different worlds. Tourists are even given a different currency – 1 CUC equals 25 Cuban pesos. That means taxi drivers out earn doctors. I told Yerandi if he didn’t eat, neither would I. He finally accepted. When offered bottled water he declined asking for tap instead. “Porque soy gaujiro!” he said. A gaujiro is a colloquial term of affection given to the inhabitants of the Cuban countryside. I was in love with them. I stared at them in awe as they stood on the side of the roads on horseback watching tourists drive by. There was a uncomplicated simplicity to them. I loved how proud Yerandi was of his country roots, one of the reasons he had returned to Viñales from Havana.
He picked us up that night to take us dancing in the plaza. This was where anyone in the town who wanted to dance came to hang out. A DJ blasted tunes from a computer that looked like it was from the early nineties. Young people, old people, Cubans, tourists – were all gathered in one place. The kids were moving in ways that would be considered very taboo here in the US.. Ahhh I was home!!!! And it turns out my mother and I had lucked out once again. Now that the sun had gone down and the music was blasting we could see Yerandi was the unofficial mayor of the city. Or “El Capitan” as he called himself. He knew everyone. He could hustle a taxi with the flick of a hand, he knew all the security and barmen. All the female tourists hovered around him, knowing he could show them a good time. And then there was his dancing, the boy could move! We danced reggaeton, we danced salsa. Now it was my turn to impress him. As he guided me through complicated salsa moves, there was an ease and effortlessness to the way we both moved together that was pure bliss to experience.
The next day we swam in the caribbean ocean together, sharing our life histories and stories of losing our virginities. In a moment of heartfelt connection I told him when I got home I would send him a gift. His face changed, his mood got dark. “Why? Did I ask for any gifts?” I don’t want anything from you.” I was gutted that I had offended him. Later he explained that so many tourists he bonded with offered to keep in contact when they got home and send him presents – but he had been left waiting for an email or package too many times and didn’t want write me off with the rest of them. “So don’t promise me anything please. I don’t want to hurt again.” I cried at his pain of feeling left behind. The whole island felt forgotten. I wouldn’t forget, I promised to myself.`
Ariel: Yerandi had brought along his friend Ariel to the plaza that night. A tall, muscular basketball player with kind eyes and a sweet, gentle disposition – Ariel was very proud to tell me he was an athlete. Despite his height and build he moved so beautifully and with so much ease that I stopped to video his footwork during the night. He was so free in his body – you don’t see big men like that moving that way back home. I was taking turns to dance with all of Yerandi’s friends and trying to be very diplomatic with my time, but as the night went on and more mojitos were consumed, they all took whatever opportunities they could to pitch themselves to me. “I want to steal a kiss from you” “I will marry you, I swear” “I may seem quiet but I’m crazy like you!” It was harmless and they all whispered within a couple of feet of my mother (who was in rare form and stayed out all night to dance with me) but nevertheless it became clear that I would have to at least symbolically pick one of them as the favorite so that the others would back off. Ariel didn’t have any typical Cuban one liners. Instead he pulled out his old phone and showed me videos of him playing basketball. “Sorry the quality is so bad but thats me in the back” he said pointing at the screen. I couldn’t really make out which one he was but it was such a sweet and endearing moment that I chose him with a kiss on the cheek. He became my unofficial protector that night. As he escorted my mother and I back to our Casa Particular she said, “You’re just like me, you always pick the underdogs.” Ariel had told my mother that his heart had been broken by a beautiful tourist a few months back. He did after all have the typical tall, dark and handsome looks that western girls usually go for in Cuba. One of these girls had spent her vacation with him in Viñales, only to forget him after leaving. It was that same familiar feeling of being left behind.
The next day he joined us at the beach. He had very small, specific scars on his chest from where his father – in a ceremony that reflected his Afro-Cuban roots – had cut him to protect him from the jealousy of others. Ariel was an only son. His state income from being an athlete went towards helping his mother and 3 sisters. Being a pro-athlete is hard in any country, but he definitely felt frustration at the limitations imposed on him by playing in Cuba, which is why stories of Cuban athletes defecting are very common. Later that day as we shared our views on dating and relationships, he said “I”m not like the others. I just want my wife and children by my side and then I will be happy.” I wished him all the happiness in the world. The kindest man in the Caribbean.
A few days later, in Mexico City, I looked over the pictures I had taken in Cuba found myself suddenly overcome with emotion. My beautiful friends. I had only glimpsed a small portion of their reality but it had moved me to my core. It wasn’t pity I was feeling, they had too much self respect and dignity for that. But a sadness at having made such a beautiful connections then leaving, just like all the others. What were they doing at that moment? I imagined Yerandi dancing in the plaza and Ariel eating dinner with his mother. Did they think I would forget them too? Were they also sad that I was gone? Or had they resigned themselves to always being left behind?
Isa, Yerandi and Ariel. I am coming back to your beautiful country. You are not forgotten. And ‘ojala’ one day you come visit me in my home and I will welcome you into my world as you welcomed me into yours. Things are changing. The tourists moan about the changes. They want it to stay the same, a charming, quaint, time capsule of a world. I’ve since learned that this is a selfish way to think. I only hope that when change comes, the magic will remain. Cuba, jewel of the Caribbean: I have loved you since I was 14 and this love for you has only grown stronger… how could I ever forget you?