It is a country of lively music, bright colors, old cars, cigars, rum, clothes lines, horses, smiling faces, enthusiastic greetings, umbrellas on sunny days, and baseball. It is a country of soldiers, police, poverty, starving dogs, buzzards, potholes, and surly desk clerks. Cuba is a tapestry of contrasts which demand flexibility and tolerance from all who land on its shore.
The first thing that strikes you as you emerge from the airport are the cars. Our Miami guide Julio called his native country the world’s largest outdoor classic car show, and he was right. Chevy’s, Ford’s, Studebakers, Mercury’s, Pontiacs, Desoto’s, and the list goes on and on. About half of the models are from the 1950’s and the rest are even older. During a delay while we awaited the arrival of another tour group, I jumped off the bus armed with my camera and started snapping old America iron like I had just landed from Mars. I had been warned that Cubans (and especially Cuban cabbies) do not like you to photograph their cars without paying for the privilege, so an airport parking lot full of driverless vehicles seemed like a wonderful opportunity. The variety was exciting, and the condition was amazing. We heard one comment that truly remained with us. “These cars have saved our lives.” They are a source of income, an avocation, and a means of evacuation from wars and storms. Again, this is a country that can be experienced on the surface, but only understood on a deeper level.
Whether you drive through Havana, the surrounding countryside, or small towns of the country, clotheslines and drying wash are everywhere. Apartment balconies, rooftops, back yards, front yards, and alley ways are decorated with brightly colored clothes on taut lines of rope or wire. Hand or machine-washed and air-dried, these are the banners of a proud culture where a high value is placed on personal cleanliness. Unlike in some European countries where daily showers are not de rigueur and being trapped in close quarters with your fellow man can seem like a prison sentence, Cubans are undetectable in a dark room. Not that a walk down the street is not a ride on an olfactory roller-coaster, but clothing and hygiene are not the cause.
Dogs are the culprits regarding the fragrance of the streets. While horses and cats are well-fed and well-treated (more later), dogs seem to be on their own. There are 50,000 dogs in the country and twenty-five leashes. Dogs run free in the streets and the theory of natural selection is evident. Some are doing quite well, and many are starving. They run, they fight, they bark, they poop, they sleep in the sun, and they are everywhere. People ignore them, but you best not ignore what they leave behind. If “Cuba Libre,” is the national drink, “cuida tu paso” (watch your step) should be the national warning.
Another atmospheric in the streets is live music. The distinctive Cuban beat is everywhere, from town plazas to street corners, to bars, to restaurants, and open-air amphitheaters. The people are proud of Cuba as the birthplace of the cha-cha, the rumba, and salsa. The island was also the purveyor of Spanish flamenco in the Americas. The young, the old, the rich, the poor, all seem to have been blessed with rhythm at birth and dancing in the streets was not invented in Detroit.
Pride does not end with performance; it extends to teaching the visitor how to dance Cuban-style. One of many wonderful moments of the trip was a visit to a Senior Center in Santa Clara when the septuagenarians and octogenarians got all of us on our feet to duplicate the steps that they had so adeptly demonstrated.
The joy of sharing dance is matched by the Cuban’s joy in sharing everything. Their greetings are accompanied by joyful embraces, kisses, and loud expressions of love. When addressed on the street with “Hola” or “Buenos Dias” by language-challenged Americans, 100% responded with smiles and greetings. The people that we met through the Cuban community projects and privately owned restaurants that we visited, were universally warm, welcoming, happy, and articulate. They clearly carried love in their hearts and had no problem in sharing it with the world.
Surprises? The number of horses throughout the country and a 19th-century reliance on equine power. Plowing the fields, riding to town, bare backing the kids home from school, herding the cattle, taxiing the tourists, or just grazing and awaiting the next task, horses were everywhere you looked. In the US, the vista of one horse powering a buckboard in Lancaster, PA is enough to create a rubber-necking traffic jam. In Cuba, there were times when a view through our bus windshield would simultaneously yield five little horse carts, three galloping cowboys, and two adorable kids riding home from school on the back of a large white mare.
Most of the horses that we saw were well fed, well groomed, and clearly well loved. Their significant role in this culture is rewarded with treatment that conveys gratitude. Whereas the dogs are on their own, the horses are clearly a part of the family unit. If parked on the side of the road, they are always ankle deep in grass. If lined up on a taxi cart queue in town, water is never far away. Coats and manes are well brushed, and hooves are well-maintained. Reaching back to their Spanish roots, horses are still an integral part of this society and culture.
How about the kids? We saw a handful of street urchins in our travels who were navigating life alone, but most children were neatly dressed and walking hand-in-hand with madre, padre, or su abuela. Bright, happy faces, boundless energy, dancing feet, and laughter are the best descriptions that I can offer. School aged children were dressed in immaculate national uniforms. White shirts, maroon jumpers or shorts, and pale blue bandanas were the standard dress for primary students. When you drive many miles from Havana and see the same uniforms you are reminded that you are in a Marxist/Leninist Socialist country.
One other pleasant standard was the love openly shown to children on the street. Yours or others didn’t have far to go without a pat on the head, an admiring smile, or a word of encouragement to guide the way.
We had many questions about the food after our return and I can sum it up this way. Delicious rice and beans of many varieties abound wrapped around the general themes of Spanish and Caribbean styles. Protein courses are typically beef, pork, and chicken, with chicken in the clear lead. The greatest variety of foods come from the fruit family with bananas, mangoes, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, and grapes abundant, fresh, and delicious. Vegetables include potatoes prepared in a variety of ways, zucchini and other members of the squash family, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and corn. Pumpkin soup, lobster, shrimp, and a pudding made from rice, cinnamon and freshly pressed cane syrup were among the local surprises in both taste and presentation. I might have peaked a little early with a first meal of vieja ropa (literally old clothes) which is a delicious Cuban shredded beef. It was the best I have every eaten.
As to the dark side of the Cuban moon, I start from the position that I was prepared for much worse and came away pleasantly surprised by the “presence” of the State in our day-to-day travels. However, when day was done, we often had to rely on the Cuban government for a place to sleep.
Our accommodations were large government-owned hotels all in major need of repair. Even just one roll of duct tape could have improved life in most establishments. As for reliable electrical and water service? Reliable doesn’t belong in that sentence. And going to the front desk to seek assistance was a dangerous voyage.
Let’s just say that American expectations of customer service were quickly adjusted from the first encounter with a government hotel desk clerk till the last. Before a word was spoken, the default facial expressions ranged from overt anger to pity for your hopeless stupidity. Just the effort to stand up and come to the counter was a chore. None of the government employee’s that I saw was in any danger of drowning in their own sweat.
So again, contrasts. If you don’t arrive with flexibility and an appreciation for the simple joys of life, you will probably leave with a barrel full of both.