Cuba: From a Romantic View
It’s difficult not to sound romantic describing Cuba. Red and white 1950s Cadillacs share the streets of Havana with mid-century Chevy Impalas and Fords of all makes and models from a similar period. Boys and men, of all ages, play stick ball or pick-up baseball upon side streets, inside green parks, aside large city monuments and wherever else enough space can be imagined for a game–the country’s love affair with the sport forever on display. Old Spanish architecture defines each city and town; beautiful buildings in various degrees of decay and repair–man’s hands continually fighting those of Father Time. The people, a seamless mix of white, brown and black, illustrate a society where mixed-race is the norm and not the exception. And food, that most basic of necessities, is eaten in that most basic of ways, in season. When avocados are ripe they are eaten. When they are not, there is no guacamole. It’s that simple.
Within this simplicity of life lies beauty. Within it lies the romanticism. Yet, having visited this Caribbean nation, I know that what comes across as romantic to an outsider is really born of necessity. Within Cuba’s simplicity also lies a deep poverty. Cuba is a poor, isolated island nation. For over fifty years it has been the target of an economic embargo by the most powerful entity in known human history–The U.S. Government. The embargo, Cuba’s lack of natural resources, the fall of the Soviet Union and many other factors have guided Cuba toward its current simple existence. Thus it is not solely by choice that old American cars still dominate Cuba’s roadways or that fruits and vegetables are eaten within season, or even that baseball games dominate the streets and parks. The old cars remain because, lacking the option of constantly importing newer models, Cuban’s have learned to repair and reuse what existed before the embargo. Similarly, the seasonal food movement is not really a movement at all, but the result of Cuba’s difficulty importing food. In turn, Cubans have learned to eat with the seasons as our race had done for countless millenia past. And children still play baseball in the streets, as children of my generation and many of those before me did, because the internet and smart phones, twitter and Facebook have not been introduced to the masses and thus do not consume people’s free time. Lacking the resource to connect through computers has given Cubans the gift of connect with one another in person, and through sport.
Although Cuba moves forward poor in capital, it is rich in other ways. The government provides its citizenry with free eduction through the university level. The result is Cuba has a literacy rate that shames much of the Western world. The government also provides monthly rations of basic food supplies. It is not a lot, but it ensures all people a basic standard of living. The result is Cuba does not have the starving masses common throughout much of the world today. The government also provides universal health care coverage to its people; each citizen has a personal relationship with his or her doctor (no more than 80 patients per doctor is permitted). And the coverage is good, ensured by the fact that Cuba has a surplus of highly trained doctors throughout the country. The result is Cuba has an infancy mortality rate lower than the U.S., a life expectancy that is higher and an obescety rate that makes us jealous. It is no secret that Cuba has some of the best doctors in the world. And, in a roundabout way, that was why I was there.
I was in Cuba to visit a very good family friend, Madeline (Maddie). Maddie, a beautiful woman of one and thirty, was in her second year of medical school in Cuba. She was one of one-hundred-and-fifty American students enrolled at Cuba’s world renowned ELAM (Escuela Latin America de Medicine) program. The program, started by Castro, provides free medical education to students from over ninety-two countries around the world; exporting Cuba’s knowledge of the human body and providing trained doctors to underserved communities around the world, including parts of the U.S. Maddie had learned about the program a few years prior and, after some sould searching, dove into the six-year endeavor of living and studying in the isolated Carribean nation. I was impressed. Not only was medical school a demanding life choice, but Maddie was choosing to do it in a country where blackouts were common, resources were limited and the entire curriculum was in Spanish.
I would arrive in Cuba two days before Maddie’s spring break began. Understanding the demanding schedule of medical school, I wrote to Maddie and told her I would spend my first two days in Havana alone, “See you on Sunday.” Thus it was that I stayed at a small accommodation called Casa de Rosa in central Havana.
In Cuba, there are no hostels and only a few hotels, which lend themselves to that crowd of people who believe spending more means better. Most accommodations, therefore, are homestays sanctioned by the government. Thus, someone like Rosy gets a license and can then rent a room, or in Rosy’s case two, in his or her house.
Rosy was a black woman in her mid-fifties. She was single and ran her casa with the help of a woman from Spain, who made infrequent visits. Rosy was welcoming, friendly, always smiling and not capable of speaking much English. She and I would spend our two days together speaking the broken versions of each other’s languages. It was fun and demanding and forced me to work on my slowly improving Spanish. Which, poor as it was, happened to be the best of the four guests in the apartment. Thus when Tony, a Brit in his forties, would ignore the continuous blank look on Rosy’s face and instead pepper her with numerous questions–“Are you busy at the moment?” “Can I have a taxi here at 5:30?” “Is it always this hot?” “Will I have enough time?” etc.–Rosy would turn to me with wide eyes and I would perform the simple translation. A look of relief would then settle upon her face.
My two days at Rosy’s were filled with long days of walking many miles around Havana. I spent most of my time winding my way around the old city–Viejo Havana–listening to groups of old men playing music, watching dancers shake and move their bodies, all while taking in the multitude of sights, smells and sounds of the city’s oldest quarter. It was during these many walks that I saw dozens of pickup baseball games–in parks, on the sidewalk, down side alleys, in front of monuments and everywhere in between. In fact, in these two short days I saw more games of pickup baseball than I had witnessed in the past twenty years, since the days when I would spend countless hours at the local playground in the town of my youth with Timmy Howard, Josh Maxwell and all the rest, playing Back Stop till the sun set behind the rolling green hills of upstate.
The weather I endured during my walks was incredibly hot. Within moments of walking out of Rosy’s I would sweat through whatever I was wearing. The rest of the day’s memories accompanied by that uncomfortable feeling of wet cloth stuck to your wetter body. But the heat did little to stop my onward march. The city was dynamic and my curiosity led me to walk on through the mid-day sun till my legs would grow tired and lead me back to the comfort of Rosy’s living room. But before the fatigue would set in, I would see much. There were walks to the coast-line to watch the locals swimming off the jagged rocks that mark the city’s border with the endless water beyond. There were walks down side-streets in central Havana filled with trash and dirt and the ever-moving masses. There were walks through small neighborhoods with children playing and parents talking. There were walks through parks that always ended with me sitting on a bench or the grass close to the nearest tree, hiding from the sun.
It was during these walks that I found out about Cuba’s unique dual currency system. Unlike any other country I had visited before, Cuba has two different sets of money–Modena Nacional (Pesos) and CUCs (Convertible Pesos). The CUC, the younger sibling, is pegged to the dollar (although if you change USD in Cuba you are charged a 10% penalty so in a way the CUC is more expensive). Meanwhile Modena Nacional, the older brother, has a value that fluctutes between twenty-four to twenty-six to the CUC/USD. Maddie had mentioned something about two currencies in an email, but I didn’t quite understand the concept and when I asked for Modena Nacional at the airport, they lied and said I couldn’t get any there. Thus it was that I ventured out into Havana with only the more expensive CUC, and none of the currency used by most locals, Modena Nacional.
On my first evening in town, after much walking and no eating, I grew hungry and began my evening search for food. It is easy to find food in Havana. The streets are littered with tiny eateries that are little more than a window in the side of a building through which someone sells sandwiches, burgers, pasta or makeshift pizza. Locals line up outside these windows, order their food, which often comes in actual plate wear with actual silverware and with actual glasses, eat it while standing close by and then return the now dirty dishes. I liked the process, especially the idea of using non-throw-away containers. I wanted to join in with the locals, but I hesitated, passing by the first dozen windows I saw because the prices looked expensive–$10 for a ham and cheese sandwich. At the time, I was unaware of Modena Nacional. All I knew was that I had turned in a bunch of Euros and gotten $450 of Cuban money in return, whatever that was. Spending $10 of $450 sounded expensive. But hunger started to weigh in and I began to convince myself that I must have the currency conversion wrong, $10 must be a small amount, I told myself. So I walked up to a window and bought a ham sandwich for $10. As I handed the man the $10 CUC note, I had the feeling I was being ripped off, but I made the exchange anyway, ate my small, expensive and less than appealing sandwich and walked on.
That night, while Rosy and I sat down for dinner at a nice local restaurant, I noticed the prices on the menu; entire plates of chicken, rice, beans, salad and a drink for only $4. A sense of unease settled into my stomach. No doubt remained, I’d been taken in the street. So I said to Rosy, “Comida en la calle es muy caro. No?” (Food in the street is very expensive. N0?). Rosy’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head. I told her about my purchase. She nearly spit up her water and began shaking her head more vigorously before telling me in broken English that what I was suppose to pay was 10 pesos (modena nacional) or, roughly, 35 cents, not $10. Rosy began to apologize for not teaching me the difference between the two currencies earlier. I told her not to worry. It was my fault. “Despues cena, regresso verse el.” (After dinner I will return to see him).
And that’s exactly what I did. Thus less than six hours after landing in Cuba did I find myself in the midst of a losing battle–trying desperately in broken Spanish to explain to a man, who I had overpaid by thirty fold a couple hours earlier, that he should give me change. His family stood by amused as I stumbled through nonsensical Spanish while he feigned to have never seen me before in his life. “Yo era aqui antes,” I began. This was meant to be, “I was here before,” but I used the wrong form of the past tense of was. Obviously. The man stared at me blankly, before shaking his head and claiming, “No entiendo.” Which means, “I don’t understand,” and looking back now, he probably didn’t. I continued.
What I wanted to say was simple, “I gave you $10 CUC and the sandwich was $10 pesos nacional. I want change.” But I had obstacles. First, and quite important, I was not yet able to speak in the past tense. With my mind racing, I found a solution. Screw past tense and just speak in the present, “I give you $ 10 CUC.” He will definitely understand that. Ok, now the second problem. The Spanish verb to give, Dar, is an irregular verb. Of course it is. Thus my mind raced to conjugate it properly. I dove all in and what came out made no sense. “Dago a tu diece CUC, pero la sandwich es solo diece nacional.” The man’s blank stare continued. Dago is not a Spanish word. In fact it may not exist in any known language. I repeated the nonsensical statement a number of times. Nothing. But behind his blank stare was the obvious look of recognition. He remembered me. And of course he did. A couple hours earlier I had just given him two weeks worth of profits for one sandwich. You don’t forget that guy.
The “Dago” line was’t working, so I switched tactics. I looked the man directly in the eye. I leaned in close, no more than ten inches separated our faces. And I began methodically repeating, “Sabe…sabe…sabe…” (You know…you know… you know). My eyes never left his. My words, or rather word, continued steady. Seeing no end in sight, the man finally relented. He must have come to two conclusions. First, I wasn’t going to stop saying “sabe” a mere inches from his face for a very long time. Second, he in fact did know what I was talking about. It didn’t matter if I had made up words or used the wrong form of “was,” he was aware of why I had returned. He knew what I was talking about.
He pulled out his cash and counted out $8 CUCs and handed it to me. This was about 1.5 CUCs short of what he owed me, but I felt like I had managed a moral victory and did not demand the remaining outstanding balance. He had been a worthy adversary with is blank stares and family of onlookers who laughed at me often. Instead I reached out my hand to shake his, a sign of peace. Initially he looked at me with astonishment, believing I was asking for the remainder. But soon he realized my intentions. He took my hand. I looked him in the eye one last time and said, “Gracias,” before heading back to Rosa’s proud that my Spanish skills had allowed me to win back my money and still ignorant of how badly I had messed up what I had tried to say.
When I met Maddie, my life in Cuba changed, immediately. Maddie, fluent in Spanish, took control of most interactions with locals and pulled me out of the tourist world of Old Havana and into her day-to-day reality of living in Cuba. I found Maddie sitting outside the large beautiful Capitolio building on the edge of Old Havana. We shared a big hug and a never ending waterfall of words. We had not seen one another in nearly five years; we had a lot of catching up. Maddie led me across the street to a local restaurant where we ate like Kings and Queens for less than five dollars. Full on our meal of shrimp pasta and pork, we headed back to Rosa’s to collect my things.
Back at the house, we found Rosa sweaty and run down with heavy eye lids and a soft, rough voice. She was sick, she said. It started the night before and it wasn’t going away. Gone was her warm enormous smile and vibrant actions traded for a frown and slow, shuffled steps. While I stepped into my room to collect my belongings, Rosa was fast finding out that Maddie was a medical student, which in Rosa’s eyes meant doctor. When I reemerged from the room, Rosa was on the couch and Maddie was taking her blood pressure with a sphygmomanometer, which Rosa conveniently owned. I stood and watched on as Rosa asked Maddie questions and Maddie gave Rosa what advice she could, other than to see her own doctor, who according to Rosa lived in the same building. On our way out, I asked Maddie what she had told Rosa to do. “Rest, drink some water and eat something,” Maddie said. Apparently, Rosa had told Maddie she had not drank any water or ate anything all day and had yet to sleep. Without those three things, she wasn’t going to start feeling any better.
Fresh off Maddie’s medical advice, we were on our way to the small Havana suburb of Playa Baracoa, a quaint seaside village a couple of miles away from Maddie’s medical school. The ride to Maddie’s place in Baracoa would take no longer than twenty minutes by direct car, but we took a series of shared taxis called maquinas, which made the trip closer to forty-five minutes, but kept the cost astronomically low, around $2 total. Moreover, in addition to being inexpensive, the maquinas were all old school American cars from the mid century, with unique interiors and retrofitted designs of the driver’s liking. Though the exteriors looked identical to a 1960 Ford or a 1955 Chevy, the interior and the engines hold little resemblance to the original makes. Indeed it was not uncommon to ride in an old Chevy and stare ahead to see the driver holding a Volkswagon steering wheel, or to look up and see an interior light system made up of modern parts. Over my time in Cuba, we would travel almost exclusively in these old American vehicles, often paying a dollar or less to travel long distances. Taking these vehicles around Cuba was a local experience in and of itself and one that I truly enjoyed.
In Baracoa, I was introduced to Maddie’s two roommates, Liz and Lucia, as well as the members of their Cuban family, from whom they rented their space; a two-bedroom flat directly on the ocean. The family they rented from, two couples in their late forties, lived in two one-bedroom apartments attached to the left and back of Maddie’s place. None of them spoke English, but Maddie was the constant translator. At times, Maddie would translate with a laugh and a blush as the older women would make comments about my looks or insinuate that they wanted to spend alone time with me. It was all in jest of course, as they wanted Maddie to translate and sat back smiling, awaiting my reaction, which was almost always a nervous laugh, a large smile and an occasional, “gracias.”
Although at times I felt a bit awkward around Maddie’s neighbors because of my lack of Spanish, I felt forever at home with her roommates Lucia and Liz. Lucia was born in Colombia, moved to the U.S. at seventeen speaking no English and put herself through college and graduate school in Berkeley. She now spoke accentless American English. She was fair skinned, with brown eyes and dark brown curly hair. She stood no more than five-feet tall and had a face that had an expression for every emotion and thought. She was outgoing and talkative and easily communicated with everyone given her fluency in both languages. Liz was born and raised in LA of parents from Belize. She was a tall black woman, with long well-manicured dreads, glasses, a kind pretty face and a quiet, friendly grace. Liz spoke less than Maddie and Lucia (who was called Mishi by Liz and Maddie), but she was present for every conversation and you knew she listened to what you had to say. A great quality for all of us to cultivate. One of the things that impressed me most about Liz was the fact that she arrived in Cuba speaking no Spanish. Indeed two years into medical school in Spanish and she was probably only proficient at best, but she made it work and was constantly improving. There was a comfort level that existed between myself and Lucia and Liz that allowed me to joke and poke fun at them within minutes of meeting them. There was something so familiar and warm about them. I had found a home in Cuba.
We would spend two nights and one day in Baracoa, hanging out, eating and trying desperately to escape the sweltering Cuban heat. On our one day in Baracoa, Maddie, Liz and I visited an American couple, Emily and Jack, who were also in their medical school program. Emily was from New Jersey, she had a child-like face, a soft voice, which she used constantly, and a sweet kindness that she shared with everyone. Jack was from North Dakota and had a farm-boy quality to him that was enhanced by his hospitality and his physical strength. We hung out for hours in their kitchen sharing stories, before Jack got restless and made us all dinner and drinks. While we hung out, Maddie told Jack and Emily how Liz, Maddie, Lucia and I were going on a trip to the southern colonial city of Trinidad the next day. “You guys should join,” Maddie added. After having such a fun afternoon together, Emily and Jack couldn’t say no. They were in.
The next morning, at sometime around 7:30, the six of us hopped in a Maquina headed for Trinidad. The car was packed–three in the front and four in the back. The ride through the Cuban countryside would take over five hours. And it was not a fast five hours as far as five hour stretches go. Indeed my sole memory from the trip was the constant shifting that Maddie, Liz, Lucia and I did in the back seat as we sought to somehow make an uncomfortable situation comfortable.
In Trinidad, we escaped the uncomfortable backseat for the uncomfortable heat of the stone city. Tired from the long drive and not wanting to wander around the city in the scorching heat, we settled for the first accommodation we found; a two bedroom flat that had a third-floor terrace that overlooked the old colonial city and its decaying Spanish architecture. We set our things down and headed for the beach, which was a short twenty minute ride from the center of town.
The city with its narrow cobblestone streets and colorful colonial buildings had a simple charm to it that made wandering its streets an activity by itself. And when a narrow street would open up to a large plaza, lead to a market, or drop us out at a cool cafe or beautiful restaurant we would find ourselves smiling at one another and constantly commenting on how much we liked Trinidad.
In the end, we would spend three and-a-half days exploring Trinidad, its beaches and surrounding countryside. There were multiple trips to the white sand and tree-lined ocean, where we would swim and sip on beers as the afternoons slowly faded. There was a day of horse-back riding (at the behest of Lucia who loves the animal) to a large waterfall deep in the hilly countryside outside Trinidad, where we found refuge from the day’s heat in the cool fresh water that fell from the rocks above into a quaint twenty by thirty foot pool. There was even a tiny cave under the waterfall that a few of us explored.
While the days were hot and long, the evenings were chilly and beautiful as the old town traded the light of the sun for the forgiving dim lights of old street lamps and the glow of lights from inside homes, restaurants and bars. The strong yellow glow dotted the cobble stone streets and lit up the many bars and cafes, inviting us to eat and drink the nights away. And we did. On our second day in Trinidad, we found a delicious restaurant for lunch. It was expensive by Cuban standards, a bit over $5 per item on the menu, but delicious food is a rarity in Cuba and one not to be passed up. Thus we decided to return to the same place twice more for dinner, washing away the days heat with incredible tapas and a giant stream of wine and mixed drinks. The restaurant had a brilliant ambiance, with its wooden tables, barrels for bar stools and brick interior walls that were covered in decorative swords, old metal shackles and other assorted ornamentations. It also had a house band that provided an endless stream of Latin music.
During dinner, on our first night, the band was playing an upbeat Latin song and our table was looking on while moving our upper bodies to the tempo. As the song continued, the saxophonist, having fallen in love with Maddie over a two-word conversation earlier in the evening, walked over to our table mid song as he belted out notes. He then proceeded to stand up on the bench directly opposite of Maddie and began playing to her. Maddie began to blush a bit and that was before our protagonist kissed his saxophone mid-note, sending a kissing melody out in Maddie’s direction. We all lost it in unison, smiles and laughter covering the faces on our table.
On our last night in town, after another entertaining evening at our favorite restaurant in Trinidad, our group went out for drinks, ending up at a dance club located deep within the confines of a natural cave. We had been hearing about this place for the past few days and had finally decided to experience it. And I must say it is quite an experience to walk down steps into a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites, slowly hearing what began as a faint murmur turn into the loud thumping of dance music as you turn the corner into a large open area to find a long bar to your left and a DJ booth high up on the cave wall to the right. We would drink and dance and joke about the situation until we were tired and ready to retire.
On our final day in Trinidad, we went to the beach, got ripped off by a maquina driver, who I chest bumped with anger before the girls forced us to pay the exorbitant rate, and lost our ride back to Havana before being saved by a local cab driver who had fallen in love with Lucia the day before. He set everything up for us and found us a driver who would drive us half way before putting us on another car bound for Havana. That night, Liz, Lucia, Maddie and I would stop off in Havana for dinner and drinks. What began as a slow relaxed early evening turned into us becoming best friends with the bar tenders and cook, who proceeded to give us shot after shot after shot of free rum to show their affection. They even let us take over the DJ duties for a short time, I decided to bump some Macklemore and judging by the response in the crowd, I am not sure if his music has made it through the embargo yet.
On my last full day in Cuba, Liz, Maddie and I went for a visit to the Cuban Schools of Arts, but upon our arrival we were informed by the head guard at the main gate that the school was closed and no guests were allowed. Maddie was undeterred, however. After hearing the no, she went up to a younger security guard who we had seen earlier and told him our situation–the head guard had told us no. This guard told us to walk to the back of the school. The guard back there is nice he might let us in, he said. We walked to the back of the school, found the guard and Maddie tried her luck one more time. This second officer was most definitely nicer. He smiled a lot and wanted to help, but he couldn’t, he said. There was no one on campus today so we would stick out and the head guard would then want to know how we got on. Maddie looked sad. The guard did not like this. There was another way, he said. At the very back of the school, there was a place we could walk onto the campus and no one would be around.
Liz, Maddie and I made our way to the back and easily maneuvered ourselves around a break in the fence that cut off the former golf course from the city streets. We were on the campus. And what a unique campus it was. A former golf course that Fidel and Che had once played on the day after winning the Cuban revolution, it was nationalized and turned into a school for the arts at the behest of Fidel. The construction of the many differing schools had begun in 1961. It was a flower that Fidel had wanted to see blossom. Until he didn’t. With funding running low, Fidel, on the advice of a cabinet member, terminated the construction of the school. Classes went on, but the school was never finished. Buildings fell into disrepair. Indeed many had never been in repair. What had begun fifty years ago with the best of intentions, to train Cuba’s poor, rich, urban and rural in one school for all aspiring artists, had stumbled along the way.
Students learned to attend classes in rooms without windows, to paint in spaces where doors were never built, to act in theaters that had no seats, to sculpt in outdoor arenas and to play music in buildings that let in noise from the outside world. Liz, Maddie and I walked through the half-built buildings, which remained rough and rugged. We climbed the rounded brick roofs of the never-finished theater school and meandered through the main auditorium that never had windows put in. We thought of the architects who never saw their works finished, the workers who sweat and bled yet never found gratification in their completed labor and of the students that were forced to live and work in this environment.
Much like Cuba itself, it was not ideal and it was not as it was intended to be. But it still trained hundreds of Cubans of all walks of life each year, turning young men and women into artists. And as I walked through the uncompleted School of Theater, I could hear the soft notes of a flute coming from the neighboring school of music. Beyond the incomplete walls of the next school was a student practicing his or her instrument on a weekend when no one was around. The soft tones of the beautiful melody not confined by a state-of-the-art music room, swept out into the large open areas of the old golf course and found its way to my ears.
I looked around at the decaying, unfinished dreams that surrounded me as the breeze carried the soft notes of another’s current dreams to me. Life was difficult in Cuba. I knew this. It was isolated and at times lonely and sad. But, in moments, it was romantic. One needed to only stop and listen to the music to hear this truth. There is beauty in missed opportunities and incomplete dreams. There is beauty in hope. The hope of a single student alone in a worn old music room. The hope of a nation to one day see its dreams become a reality. And that type of hope, to me, is romantic.