Chuck Smart


Adventures in Cuba!

Our experience of Cuba was full of contradiction. We constantly felt ourselves shifting to adjust to what came next. Soft, tropical island. Hard living. Beautiful. Oppressed and poor. Crumbling colonial buildings. Inspiring billboards proclaiming “anti-imperialismo” and statues in every plaza of revolutionary heroes. A national economy that doesn’t sustain the people. An amazing richness of people, music, culture, and spirit. Music everywhere. Salsa. Son. Mambo. Rumba. Bata and bembe’. Louis Armstrong, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. And high energy Cuban hip hop, called timba. There are great colonial buildings, museums, forts and monuments to visit. But for us, this trip is about the people and the music.

We bicycle through streets with houses of faded blue, pink, yellow and green. Huge colonial columns on wide porches. Marble stairs. Elaborate doors and ironwork, shabby with age. People are everywhere on the street, in doorways, leaning from window sills and balconies. Apartments are small and cramped. Life is lived on the street to some degree, particularly for the young. There is a wide boulevard along the seawall in Havana. Tourists and local people walk there at all hours of the day and night. Amorous couples are necking everywhere. It is romantic, but also a necessity for dating couples and for young marrieds who have no place to be alone in their apartments.

Our first day in Havana we meet Leonardo, a bicycle taxi driver who pedals us through Havana’s fortunately flat landscape. He points out landmarks, stops for our photographing, and tells us about himself and his family. He takes a detour down side streets from the National Capitol building to the home of his aunt, Tia Sonja, who welcomes us into her 8’ x 20’ almost two room apartment. She gives us sweet black coffee and shows us her Santeria alter. Santeria is a combination of Catholic and African Yoruba traditions, centered on deities called orishas, who replace the saints. Babalu’ Aye or St. Lazarus is the deity for health. Tia Sonja explains the ritual she will undertake on the coming Sunday, a lengthy pilgrimage which ends atop a mountain where she will make offerings of rum and cigars and money she has collected. She will give her prayers of thanks for the restoration of her health. She is finishing work on a coarsely woven set of shirt and pants made from sugar cane sacks which she will wear and leave at the end of the pilgrimage. Later in our trip we experience other Santeria rituals. As we leave, we ask that she include us in her prayers. She hugs us and kisses us on both cheeks and says a blessing before we go.

We’re off down the street to Leonardo’s sister’s apartment. Carmen is a doctor, but she is renovating her apartment herself in order to rent it out as a homestay to visitors. It’s larger than Tia Sonja’s, with two rooms and a kitchen on the first floor. Steep, narrow steps take you up to two smaller rooms and the bath on a 2nd floor. And steeper, narrower steps up to a single room and balcony on the third floor. She will live with her family on the first floor and rent out the second floor. Leonardo, with his access to tourist dollars, is helping to pay for the renovation, adding substantially to Carmen’s $20 a month salary. It’s not yet finished. Next year, she says, “we’ll be ready.”

We’re off again, through streets more crowded with children coming home from school, people coming home from work. We dodge small Russian-made cars, 1948 Fords, ’52 Chevys and ’54 Cadillacs, small yellow cabs powered by MoPeds, and huge double-humped buses called Camels. Leonardo cycles us past historic Hemingway sights — the Florida where he stayed and El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, where he drank his famous drink, mojitos, made of rum, lemon juice, simple syrup, mint and soda. We hear music and follow the sound to Plaza de la Catedral where the Catedral de San Cristobál stands, completed in 1777 … which by the way, has a manger in front that includes a rather large, horned steer. We find places at the outdoor tables and hear the first of many wonderful Cuban Son bands – Son is a popular music that comes from the mountains of Oriente in the South, with many rhythms, bongos, guitars, clavé and horns. Chuck connects immediately with Lazaro, the vocalist, and when the set is over, he comes over and Chuck introduces himself. And in his best Spanish, Chuck introduces Dawn as a peanut vendor, Manisera, instead of Amanasera, which means sunrise. Lazaro dedicates the next song, the Peanut Seller, to Dawn with great theatrical flamboyance. The music was terrific, with many songs made known to Americans by the Buena Vista Social Club. Song follows song, Cuba Libre (rum and coke) follows Cuba Libre.

Across the square someone overhears we are from Seattle and introduces himself as another Seattlite, with his girlfriend from Peru, his mother and stepfather. We find we know his stepfather, Theo, and know of his mother, Nancy, who used to run Still Life in Fremont. Small world. Lazaro joins us again and Chuck quizzes him about sacred drum rhythms, bata and bembe’. He teaches Chuck one rhythm, sitting in the plaza with almost painful grins on their faces, playing very fast bata rhythms on the sides of their legs. Chuck later discovers enormous bruises, of which he was very proud. The music continues until early morning and we leave exhausted, saying our goodbyes with back-slapping hugs.

Leonardo has invited us to dinner the next night. We accept, but find later that our friends from St. Louis have arrived and are taking us to a Chucho Valdés concert. A must-see. He is one of the jazz world’s most well-known Cuban musicians and a national treasure in Cuba. So how do we find one BiciTaxi driver in a city of 2 million people? By asking other drivers, who ask other drivers, who ask other drivers, until we find Rudy, who happens to be Leonardo’s brother-in-law.

And so our second day begins with this search, which ends with a taxi ride with Rudy and our new bicycle taxi driver, Carlos. We go up over the central hills that run east and west through Havana, past the Palacio de la Revolución and a huge statue of José Marti, past the huge sports stadium where baseball is played almost daily, to the apartment building where Leonardo and Rudy live. It’s about 8 stories, probably 30 or more apartments per floor, built in the 60s, run down by our standards, but clearly new by theirs. We get in the elevator to go to the 5th floor. The elevator is about 4’ x 6’ and when the door closes on the four of us, the lights go off and it starts to rise with a distinctively loud clank. But we arrive safely and surprise Leonardo, who proceeds to invite us for lunch since we can’t come to dinner. It turns in an impromptu party. In addition to the four of us, there are Leonardo, his girlfriend, Rudy’s wife and daughter, another sister, two neighbors, and two students from Spain. All of us in three rooms, the main living/dining room about 18’ x 10’. But the rum is flowing, salsa is playing, and everyone is talking trying to make sense of our limited Spanish and their much better English. After a spaghetti and hot dog lunch, the dancing begins. Yes, even Dawn and Chuck can do it in Cuba!

Before we leave, letters to friends and family in the U.S. are written, including those from other neighbors in the building, for us to take back to America and mail. At least half the people we meet in Cuba have relatives in the U.S. They either came over in the first round of exiles in the 1960s, in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, or since 1994 as balseros or boat people. We talked with everyone about their country and how they feel about it. They don’t hide their feelings about Castro, their disappointment, frustration, anger. We asked what will happen when Castro dies. They say they have no idea, “No one tells us anything.” We asked if Castro’s brother, Raul, might be a candidate. They shake their heads vehemently and say, “No, he is corrupt. Hated by everyone. He has stolen huge amounts of money from the government.” And then they go on to say with a resigned sigh that “The bearded one may be old, but he is healthy and strong.”

We also asked about color differences and racism in Cuba. We’d heard from earlier visitors, African Americans, that darker skinned people were ostracized, including tourists. We had read that Castro “outlawed” racism and that it had made a very positive impact, but had not completely erased the problem. Cubans are of all colors, from very white to very black, with all shades of brown in between, often in the same family. People we met told us that there is absolutely no emphasis placed on color. We did see it play out in the workforce to some degree, however. In the hotels, the front office and reception staff generally were white or light, the restaurant staff were mostly darker shades of brown, and the cleaning staff often were very dark. We were on the alert for it, but experienced none of it. In fact, as an interracial couple, we felt less visible than perhaps anywhere we have ever been.

In our travels one day an old woman come up to us and asked us to visit her Santeria alter. We followed her back to her apartment, through dark hallways and small courtyards to a room with a large glass-fronted chest filled with objects signifying the many orisha deities. She put on a red headscarf and tied another around her hips, then danced and chanted. She opened her sacred basket containing many special objects and showed them to us. We learned later that this was a sacrilege, sure to bring her bad luck in the future (fortunately, not us)! Later that day we went to the home of our guide, Julio. His mother has prepared for a Santeria ceremony that is taking place all over the island. It’s called “Waiting for Lazero.” St. Lazarus is supposed to be honored and celebrated on Sunday, so Saturday night families and friends get together and wait for him. At midnight, candles are lit and sacrifices of cigars, money and rum are made before the house alter. Everyone is given a piece of chalk, which we crumble in our hand and then rub onto our arms, legs and the backs of our necks. The mother in the house then blesses everyone by rubbing our heads and limbs with rum. Then anyone who wishes to says a prayer at the alter, thanking Lazero for the blessing of good health in the past year or asking for good health in the coming year. It feels very special to us and we are privileged to take part.

Our last night is also spent with Julio and his family. His mother made us a wonderful dinner. A typical pork dish, criollo puerco, a fresh tomato and onion salad, rice and delicious black beans, and fried plantain. It is served with rum to drink and followed by fresh papaya and a farina pudding. Sweet black coffee ends the meal. Food is scarce is Cuba due to the embargo, so meals have not been a focus of our trip. But this dinner is special and much appreciated. Breakfast at the hotel was great. Lots of fruit and fresh-squeezed juice. Eggs, a variety of pork sausages, other sliced cold meats and cheese. Sweet breads. Hot coffee and hot milk mixed together. We would load up on breakfast, never sure exactly what or when the next meal would appear. Mostly basic dishes of rice, beans and cooked pork or chicken.

Finally, there is cigar-smoking. Another Cuban pleasure. Enjoyed by men and women alike. We met a young cigar roller who worked in one of the factories. He told us how it was done, the harvesting, curing, drying, selecting, and finally the rolling of fine cigars. Since we were in Cuba legally, we were allowed to bring cigars home, one box each. We bought Cohiba Esplendidos, the famous large ones like Winston Churchill smoked. Similar to the Monticristos that Castro smoked until 1989 when he gave it up for his health. The cigars would have cost more than $300 a box at the hotel store, but we found them through Cuban friends for considerably less. And we have the pictures to prove that Dawn partook. Chuck made deep spiritual contact with his father, who was an avid cigar aficionado. Chuck continues the smoking adventure still.

So that’s a brief slice of our adventure! So much to see and do. So many people to talk with. So much music to hear. We must go back! Chuck and I came back from Bali wanting to be better, kinder people. After Cuba’s spirited music and people, the rum-drinking, the cigar-smoking enjoyment of it all, we came back wanting to be a little wilder and more alive.

Chuck and Dawn Smart, December 2000


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