Another world, not far away

Editor’s note: This is the first of two-parts on Kapaa resident Gabriela Taylor’s visit to Cuba. The second will be published in next Sunday’s TGI.

How could I have known, when taking my first salsa lesson as a teen in a suburban living room in Rochester, New York, that I’d be dancing to live music in Cuba at the age of 74? It was 1956 when my parents’ friends spun a vinyl record with multi-rhythmic Cuban music, demonstrated steps and got me up dancing to a salsa beat.

Havana

Only 90 miles from Miami, and escaping brutal winters, Havana had become the couple’s vacation destination for beaching, gambling and dancing in lavish hotel/casinos, primarily owned by the American mafia in the 1950s. It was ‘59 when I learned of Fidel Castro’s social and economic revolution that would rock Cuba’s capitalist foundation, smash slot machines, nationalize American companies, institute land reform for peasants (campesinos), end the rollicking, erotic era of Havana as America’s playground, and sever all economic relations between the US and communist Cuba. The rug may have been pulled out from under Americans and wealthy Cubans, but the beat went on. Cuban music, for me, is the heart and soul of the country and the lure that hooked and reeled me onto this colorful, yet complex island, where both baseball and ballet are revered.

After a 45-minute wait for luggage that thumps onto the carousel with one-minute intervals, I learn the Spanish word, patiencia (patience), which by necessity, is part and parcel of Cuban life. Luggage in hand, I face a crowd of guesthouse (casa particular) hawkers who vie for my attention. Searching desperately, I spot my name bobbing up and down on a sign and hear, “hola.” With great relief, I’m whisked away in a ‘57 Chevy Corvair taxi that drives me to my “casa,” Mary Y Miguel, which I booked online from Hawaii.

Diving into the culture

Sensuous Cuban women strut streets in vivid colored Lycra tights or short shorts, sexy tops and flip flops or heels. Skin tones run the full gamut, from darkest Afro-Caribbean to pale Caucasian, and young, well-built men are more macho than I imagined, even making kissing sounds to passing women. Perhaps due to the heat and small living quarters, people hang out in the evenings talking and laughing on sidewalks, while kids play soccer or marbles in streets where little traffic passes. I’m watching the action from my casa cafe, Arc Angel, where the owners and their son are welcoming and so helpful that I feel right at home. Although some people speak English, navigating Havana is smoother with some basic Spanish under your belt and the “Lonely Planet” book in hand. Group tours and hotels are for those who would rather sit back and avoid hassles. However, I prefer immersing myself in the culture, talking to Cubans directly, being surprised by unplanned events and asking for help when needed. Sometimes stressful, the rewards are bountiful.

Navigating Havana

Few automobiles exist in this city of 1.2 million, where vintage American cars sparkle like bright colored gems. Legendary they are, but this deja vu experience jolts me back to an era when the radio sang out, “See the USA in your Chevrolet …” My family took it to heart in 1947, when we left crowded New Jersey and drove across the country to Seattle in a new Chevy. Few Cubans can afford cars, but those with American classics pamper them — bold painted bodies, refurbished interiors, and somehow, fatigued mechanical parts are replaced, despite the current US economic embargo. Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs, Plymouths and Buicks serve as group taxis that pick up locals who wave them down and pile in.

I hire a bici (bicycle) taxi, and a young man with strong legs pedals me to a salsa dance class during my first day in Havana. It’s a good beginning, but walking is the best way for me to explore the historic colonial area, Havana Vieja, as well as interface with Cubans who spill out onto the streets. Here, 220-plus-year-old Spanish colonial buildings house families, Catholic churches still soar, and Cuban-baroque structures have morphed into museums. Crumbling buildings are slowly being restored in this living museum, where 21st century tourists provide punctuation points within a historical time warp.

American/Cuban History

It becomes clear that this trip, for an American, is a time to gain another perspective on the entanglements between the US and Cuban governments that have played out over the years. Monuments and sculptures tell the story of the pre- and post-revolutionary era. Instead of commercial ads, images of Fidel and Che Guevara, as well as their quotes and slogans, pop out of walls and billboards everywhere. Fifty-five years later, the revolution is a recurring reminder in the everyday lives of Cubans. It’s educational and fascinating to me, but I balance that intensity with Cuban music that’s never far away. Live bands blast out salsa and trova (traditional song) with mesmerizing rhythms that temper left brain intensity and penetrate body, mind and spirit.

Taking a self tour with the Hop On/Hop Off bus that includes the Revolutionary Plaza, I photograph imposing monuments of martyrs and heroes. Next stop: the National Hotel, a casino pleasure palace built in the early ‘50s by the American mob, who were financially cozy with the US-supported Batista government. Majestically commanding a hill overlooking the straits of Florida and fortified with canons positioned to defend against potential American invasion, I peruse the small museum and tense up when I read:

“THIRTEEN DAYS LIVING ON THE BRINK OF ATOMIC HOLOCAUST: The greatest confrontation between the USA and Soviet Union did not take place in Europe. It occurred in the Missile Crisis in Cuba in October 1962, the only time the world was on the brink of thermal nuclear war.”

Traveling to Trinidad

Riding in a comfortable, Chinese-built bus to my first destination,Trinidad, I absorb vast, open countryside and small towns for seven hours from a window seat. We pass government-owned field after field, which lie fallow except for banana and sugar cane plantations and some pastures with grazing cattle. Small farms belong to campesinos who grow manioc, beans, fruit and other staples. Arriving in Trinidad, I first hear and then see horse-drawn carts clip-clop along cobblestone streets of 54,000 people. Declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1988, the beautifully preserved and boldly painted Spanish colonial buildings were built in the early 1800s with sweet sugar fortunes reaped from the surrounding valley, where the main crop now is coffee.

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Gabriela Taylor is a Kapaa resident and worldly traveler who pens an occasional column for The Garden Island.

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