John Brandi, with divine intersession from Renee Gregorio
Cuba Journals, 2002
The following journal notes are offered as uncopywrit rough cut on the road bump and roll catch ups after our journey to Cuba, to be proofed expanded condensed sprinkled with rum and puffed upon with tobacco when the waves settle, brought to fervor by the brassband diamond bellied angel of annunciation, lifted high by the probing ocotsyllables of the old winged sonero who wails voice light and mindlost out of body in the imperial ballroom of freeform and pure locura. Madplay and cool ecstasies to you all! Hasta la Victoria Siempre! Feliz año nuevo-(solstice, 21 Dec - 27 Dec 02: 30th Anniversary of Nixon-Kissinger bombing of Hanoi)
20 Noviembre: Cancun / Habana
Night flight through deluge of rain. Jumble of lingoes. Aero Caribe fuselage lit with lightning. We bounce and rock through movie-set thunderheads, electricity strobing the faces of Cubans, Mexicans, Europeans, and a few Americans like ourselves entering Cuba via Mexico to thwart the near-total U.S. travel ban to the island. Thunder booms over Mar Caribe. It must be Chango's welcome-the Cuban-Yoruban god of storms, music, virility. Half hour later, we see dotted lights of Cuban towns through moonlit thunderheads as we lower over the western end of the island. A few minutes later we gently glide onto the wet tarmac of José Marti airport. Minimal, friendly customs. With a smile we are in. No stamped passport unless we want it, and we don't. A nice souvenir, but an obvious giveaway to U.S. customs upon our return.
We've carried on what little luggage we have, so we're into the muggy night quite quickly. It's after eleven, we're 18 kms. from Habana, and there's no official taxi to be seen. "Look, I have a car, I can take you," the driver of a non-official "particular" whispers. Given the intricacies of Cuban bureaucracy, this could be risky-for him, not for us-but he seems confident and insistent, so we follow him out of the airport across the grass, keeping a few paces behind as directed. At an unlit intersection-a locale all too obvious-he asks us to wait while he runs into the dark for his car-his big chance to earn valuable dollars instead of a pittance in Cuban pesos for the same trip. But he'll be doing it illegally, cutting into tourist trade reserved for tax-paying cabs registered with the govt. In headlights of approaching autos, bags in hand, we wait like signposts in the night. One pair of headlights belongs to the patrulla, unfortunately -the police. I don't say anything to Renée, thinking that certainly our driver-now arriving in his sputtering Moskovitch-has something worked out with them (why else stand us on an obvious corner?). But he doesn't. Two minutes after we jump aboard, the patrulla stops us. They've merely circled the airport, waited for the driver to pick us up, and hastened to their prey. The driver steps out, is given a lecture, and probably a stiff fine. We're also lectured, but in brief, friendly fashion. An official taxi is called and we're whisked off at the $12 legal rate. Good stretch at first, but it soon breaks into unlit potholes. Past Plaza de la Revolucion, down Salvador Allende, past the Capitolio, along the Parque de la Fraternidad, into rutted streets between ornate slant-shadowed buildings of Habana Vieja -the stroke of midnight.
Maria and Jesus (we've booked a room with them via e-mail) are awaiting us in their apartment. Neighbors in sleeveless t-shirts are bent over a hot game of dominoes near their open front door. Like most casas in Habana, the living room is right next to the street, part of the neighborhood. Beisbol on tv, under a big galloping-horse velvet painting. Daughter Yonaida curled up with her novio on the couch. 56 Buick parked in the garage. We're given a brief tour of the casa, led from the living room into a refreshing open-air breezeway with bulb-lit shrine to San Lazaro, patron of the sick (he's also the African saint, Babalu Aye). Upstairs, above the shrine, is our room; modest, comfortable, baño privado. It adjoins a grape-arbored terraza looking across lively, narrow Calle Aguacate, to the iron-balconied facades, baby blue and ochre, of tall-windowed apartments hung with drying clothes. Maria, late forties, runs the show. Jesus, early fifties, is an ex-carpenter. His former workshop is a quaint, brightly-painted cabin built incongruously atop the roof, off the terraza, around the corner from our room-as if dropped down from a dream. He expresses a bit of discomfort over his new role as tourist host. "Loss of privacy; sleeping with an alarm clock at my head; receiving and waking visitors at all hours-strangers who don't engage with the family, because they don't have it in them, or don't speak Spanish."
Casas particulares like this one are highly-taxed, gov't-licensed b&bs that tourists are required to stay in (unless they choose gov't-approved hotels) and pay for in dollars. This means Jesus and Maria, like others engaged in this industry, enjoy a privileged income that sets them apart from neighbors who earn a few Cuban pesos per day (a cigar-factory worker may earn the equivalent of $6 per month; a bank teller $15; a surgeon $25). For us, staying in casas particulares is the best way to see Cuba. At $12-25 a night for two, home cooked breakfast and dinner optional, they are a great alternative to expensive, impersonal hotels. If you want to know Cuba, take salsa lessons, speak Spanish, stay with families, travel with a bottle of rum, change some of your American fula into pesos. Maria prepares a sweet cafecito: thick, sabroso, first of many such Cuban espressos we'll enjoy at any and all hours. We chat a bit, then realize we're all sleepy, and, with hugs, are off to bed. Already familia.
21 Noviembre: Habana
Wet bright sun. It walks up over Habana with blue cloud companions in a white sky. Renée and I hold hands like teenagers, stroll the calles. Meet a young woman sitting on the Malecon, communing with the sea. Below her, between pounding waves, three white-figured blacks bend to the rocks, pouring shots of rum to the tide, letting go small bundles of who-knows-what to the open mantle of blue. "To Yemaya," the woman whispers, "mother of the waters, mother of the orishas, she who is sweet but who can also be angry." Her name is Odeyvis and she's the first of many Cubans who talk openly about Santeria, the religion brought to Cuba centuries ago by Yoruba slaves who, by day, prayed to their orishas, divine beings, under the guise of the Catholic saints-to assure the survival of their beliefs under Spanish oppression. One cannot listen to Afro-Cuban music without hearing the name Chango, Yemaya, or the drum-thumping words to a Yoruban chant. Odeyvis encourages us to visit the Virgen de Regla, "who is really Yemaya," across the harbor.. "Buy her principes negras, little pointed roses. Go to her on Sunday. Take the lancha from Muelle de Luz, the Pier of Light."
Afterwards, in Old Habana (plastic bags over drying lingerie on high iron balconies), we run into a primitive painter, in his mid 60s, from the far-eastern town of Baracoa (which we hope to visit). He's at an easel in a long narrow gallery lined with paintings, working on a brilliant landscape. Typical child's perspective, four sides at once, aerial view; big flat-colored blue bay, red and yellow sailboats. Meticulously, he's adding infinite detail: cracks to sidewalks, shadows to roof tiles, patterns to dresses, nipples to tits, heels to shoes, creases to clouds, spokes to sun-in the fashion of those who look through a dream to find the broken pieces of reality; or of those who use the brush to reverse reality into the dream. We immediately strike up a conversation. "How refreshing to meet you," I tell him, "I'm so tired of meeting professionals!" He laughs, pulls my leg. "Oh but I am professional." And hands me his card: Jose Ceduño. Pintor Naif (with an e-mail address).
René, the gallery owner, is a friendly intense man in his mid forties. His sparkling ten year-old daughter, just home from school, is right out of one of José's paintings. A live wire, beautiful, witty, "an actress," René smiles. We're introduced to his wife, served cafecito, then a shot of rum. The room begins to float. José breaks from his brushwork to converse. We love his conviviality, his vigor. A poet walks in the door, introduces himself. We talk about Lorca and Guillen (earlier in the day, a sidewalk bookseller in Plaza de Armas read us a famous Guillen poem: "Digo Que No Soy Un Hombre Puro." Fired by our interest, Julio recites one of his more bawdy poems, after which we go about translating it into English (a few years ago, we had a similar experience over endless swigs of green tea with two poets in Hanoi). We exchange e-mail addresses (sure method of penetrating the bloqueo), and purchase a couple of small flat-board images of Chango, Ochun, Yemaya: painted African deities similar to New Mexican folk retablos. René packs them in a cardboard handbag, which he fashions en situ with scissors and tape. "In Cuba we do without. This keeps us alert. We are inventive people. You have to be inventive here. This is a place where imagination thrives." Before we leave, he brings out one of his sculptures: a rusty meat grinder mounted on weathered board. Into the meat grinder, a hand-painted $10 US bill. Out of it, the shredded ends of the same bill. "Historia de un Billete Americano!"
Late afternoon, sheets of rain. We duck into Bar Monserrate. It's packed, rum is flowing, so is the music-what we came for! (besides wanting to know Cuba sans the warped propaganda, wrong-headed policies, and punishing tactics of the U.S.). We have to pinch ourselves to remind us this isn't a dream. This is IT, we are HERE. Live music, and it's hot. Trumpet, guitar, tres (small guitar with triple sets of double strings), conga, stand-up bass, guiro (gourd rasp), clave (a pair of sticks to set the beat), maracas. All to a general cheer, spontaneous swing, dollar cigar, dollar mojito (rum mint julep), the curved touch of sweating shoulders, unidentified and perfumed, against our own. Street life out the window, stopped in the rain to hear the music. Cuba son, Cuba rumba, Cuba chocolate, Cuba candela, Cuba linda, Cuba transformativa! At the long wooden bar, an assortment of men, women-old, young, smooth, whiskered, smoke ringed, ragged edged: in shimmering lime, oriole, geranium. Look, she's speaking multiple tongues, legs crossed, ebony against royal blue. Look, he's out of a daguerreotype, wheat-colored, white silk shirt. Teakwood faces, night-sky legs, leopard skin thong under resinous silk. Morena, mahogany, amber, clove; all mixed up with the whipped-cream tourist. "A bar where nobody faces IN," Renée explodes. "Everybody looks OUT, at the dance floor, at the people-ready!"
At break time the conjunto's elder guitarist approaches a boy and a girl in the crowd, maybe eight years-old, who were eying one another shyly. He gives them claves and maracas, asks them up for the next set. And they do! Shy at first, then rolling with the band, they dance to either side of him as he belts out a son, everyone clapping, turning on the steam! We feel like we're in a derailed train, a trembling thermometer. Flames leaping from the soul. Juice! Movement of ass and hips. Wacky, suave. Dark flower opening for the circling bee. A wheel rotating off its axis, siempre maintaining its center of gravity. Open bodies, melting bones. Delirium of teeth, ambush of tongues. Fake pearls, talc, and tin. The stem of womanhood swaying beneath the hooped-arm of her rumba king. Agua! Camina! Impossible feet. Wreckage of mind lost in abandonment. "Look, she has a little diamond moon rotating in her belly's center." Spinning, spinning-to beating drums, lilting tres, thunder from shutters, rain spraying bare-backed ladies seated by the open windows. (In the swirl of it all, I'm transported back -to Jorge's Cantina, Puerto Rico, forty years ago. Just a kid, rum burning my tongue, banana flowers bending phallically in warm breeze, rain beaded on breadfruit leaves. The girls from Utuado heavy with perfume, pressing against me in deflowered red. Their little sisters in first-communion white, lemon ribbons in their hair. On brightly-painted guaguas, old 50s buses, we splashed across the island: to Lares, Ponce; bald tires, open windows, rain spraying our faces. In those rattling seats, I got my first taste of collective energy, liberation posses, red-star pamphlets, libertine priests, men missing their feet, señoritas, lowcut, violet eyed, unhesitant with their addresses. Brief encounters, quick conversations, plaintive guitar, nobody with enough money. Essential experience. Never to leave me.
22 Noviembre: Habana
Cuba: doors forever open to the streets, the people, the world. Coffee, rum, always waiting. Frank, present, unhesitant, witty, intelligent, welcoming people. Eager to flirt, acknowledge, sing, throw the bull, get down. No shortage of dignity, no hesitant embrace. The whole island an extended familia rhythming to son, salsa, ritmos Afro-Cubanos. Chango ta veni! Ellegua quiere tambo! Through strobing sheen of vegetation, across waving rivers of cane, over ragged rainbowed revolutionary sierras, in wave froth and back slaps: vibrancy! A lesson here. On how to live, how to be completely with people, and with yourself. Over and over, Cubans will tell us: "You will not go home the same."
Smell of sawdust. Baking bread. Sugar. Perfume. Fresh paint. Black pulleys. Rain-washed vines. Whirling spokes below a smiling face on a three-speed Schwinn: even teeth, chocolate face. On Agramonte, around Neptuno, down the Prado, wherever you walk those old cars come into sight: mom's 37 Ford, Dad's white Bel Air, Uncle Mario's 53 Buick Special (vintage save for the silver swan on its hood). And there, under a stenciled Che, the 57 Chevy in whose naugahyde seats my timid fingers discovered the forbidden island of a teenage lover. We even spot Renée's first car, a banged up Renault; and my disaster of a little French Simca. I suppose these cars are mostly of interest to nuts of my generation. Each time I spot one and go bananas, Renée says, "Don't tell me you owned that one, too. How many did you own!?" Waft of rubbing compound, spray paint, souped-up engines, fresh wiring, new upholstery. It's the chrome, the curves, the finned rears, the way a heavy door shuts perfectly; like when Jesus proudly nudged the door of his Buick shut, and looked at us with a smile-a perfect clik; a solid marriage of metal. These automobiles-their chrome Indians gleaming like bowsprits, waxed bellies hugging the pavement- backshift me into clandestine adventure, first loves, sloppy sex, unexpected turns, misdemeanor, speed, camaraderie, the strange phenomenon of double dating, three a.m., two couples hotly doing it at once. At the capitolio there's an immaculate Edsel convertible: pushbutton steering wheel, white tuck and roll. Near the Prado, a broke- down 53 Chevy. We talk to the owner. I want to photograph the car because it was my first. Mint green and sea foam; bought it from dad with $ saved from my paper route. "Fine," says the owner. "But it's tough to drive an oldie. They eat gas, they're expensive to repair. If you visit again, bring me a clutch. Where do I find one in Cuba? Okay, okay, sit on the bumper-the both of you-I'll take the photo."
By the harbor, down from the old customs house, we visit Dos Hermanos Bar where Lorca drank. Photos of him on the wall; a letter to the proprietor thanking him for his hospitality. A friend in the US said he thought Lorca too sentimental a model for poets these days. But for me he will always be the eye in the holy mirror of the soul, his music the poetry from an upside-down violin. Who, here on these wet streets- amid blackness of skin, conga ritmo, lace-draped filagree balconies, school children in pressed uniforms, the charging drive of the sea, the lilting melody of the tres, an old bass fiddle booming from a peeling facade sculpted with pink pelicans, the scent of tobacco, white roses and rum, doorstep conversationalists puffing puros, the soft flutter of paper flags with their single red star, the reality of the Revolution-could not be touched by Lorca being touched in this very city! Green air, green eyes in copper faces. Silver cobble, prismed glint from a madonna's tiara. "Dearest Mother and Father," he wrote (March 8, 1930), "Havana is truly a marvel. The rhythm of the city a suave, sensual caress. The sea a prodigy of light and color. It looks like the Mediterranean but its shades are more violent. Naturally, I feel right at home."
We pilgrimage to Hotel Ambos Mundos. Hemingway lived here, on and off from '32 to '39, before deciding to make Cuba his permanent home for the next twenty years. We visit his fifth-floor room, shown about by a beauty who exudes a bright sexuality and a fine knowledge of who she's talking about. Her looks betray a blend of Russian and Caribbean-who knows? The room, dim at first, is blessed with a soft spreading light when she opens the shuttered balcony door. Below, all of red-tile Habana Vieja presents itself: cathedral, lighthouse, sea, the old fort, green flanks of Casablanca, Christ blessing the bay, guitar strum floating up from streets. Ambos Mundos: appropriate name for this place, where-barefoot, in shorts, standing at his portable Royal on these arabesque tiles, light bouncing from high ceilings and white walls-Hemingway began For Whom the Bell Tolls. There's a simple wooden bed (double, of course), chair and table, a glass case with hunting boots, sunglasses, webbed fishing cap, and the beak of a swordfish. Nearby is the Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway's favorite bar, formerly a mom and pop grocery store where writers could buy drinks on credit. It's now a "must" for tour groups who arrive by the busload to drink the (overpriced) mojito, made famous by Hemingway who brought it out of obscurity. Alejo Carpentier, Nicolas Guillén, Nat King Cole, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Carmen Miranda all visted the Bodeguita. We pass, though; decide to retreat to the shady Plaza de Armas (1519) with its second-hand booksellers at racks of collectible novels, yellowed maps, antique poetry. We purchase a 1930 crimson-covered Alfonsina Storni: Mejores Poesias, and seriously consider some fine old hardbacks of Lorca, Aime Cesaire, Roque Dalton, and a 2-volume leather-bound Nicolas Guillén-poetry for our times, definitely. But we need to consider how much weight we want in our little suitcases! Ah, blotting paper, postales, old money, glass weights, fountain pens, marbled tomes, doves in puddles, my edges blurred. Look, here's a book on Hemingway: "I've often wondered what I should do with the rest of my life; now I know. I'll try and reach Cuba."
The rest of the afternoon we go bar to bar-Paris, O'Reilly, Monserrate-taking in septetos, trios, conjuntos, ending the night with poetry and song at the Casa de la Trova (House of Ballad): an old building off the Malecon, courtyard hung with art; a simple inner room arranged with folding chairs around an open floor. Our equivalent would be Albuquerque's Outpost. Tonight it's poetry by the people, for the people, affordable for all, and recited with such gusto that behind-the-podium poetry seems suddenly tedious. In Cuba it's common for anyone anywhere to spontaneously stand up and break into a song or a poem; and why shouldn't it be? The culture is filled with examples of illustrious song writers and poets; among them, the political activist and revolutionary, Jose Marti, the country's most visibly honored figure.
Stoked, we walk the late-night Malecon, past ghost facades of bygone mansions, some with neo-Moorish design; some with bulging-eyed gargoyles; some eroding before our eyes; some restored and brightly painted. But most are deep gray, windows to the waves in phosphor somnalescence, a de Chirico painting. Along the promenade we get corny, smoochy. Embrace, kiss, practice a couple out-of-synch dance steps. It's about a 20-min walk back to our barrio, some of it through perfectly dark streets, but we never feel on edge. It's apparent, walking Habana-2 a.m.or 2 p.m-that the tension and hidden danger one feels on U.S. streets is absolutely missing here. The city is ours; it's neither a challenge nor a risk to walk out and discover it. Something else: no billboards. None of this buy buy buy-in order to be. The whole phenomenon is absent, and it's a breather, a real load off the psyche.
23 Noviembre: Habana
Renée points out a large poster of Fidel. Under him, the words: ¡CUBA Contra el Terrorismo y Contra la Guerra! (think about that, Mr. Bush).We have letters from a friend in the US for Sra. Eumilia, in Centro, a busy section of Habana wedged between upscale Vedado and historic Vieja. Even though Centro seems about to fall in on itself, it overflows with life: streets filled with singing, boys in soccer games, schoolkids in groups guided by vigilant teachers, men repairing cars, rickshaws dodging potholes, sonorous nasal voices slapping ham on bread, people with shopping bags looking for something they can't get. Doors open, cafecito waiting for a friend, neighbor, relative, even bumbling travelers like us. Spontaneous meetings, impulsive conversations. A dip, a dance, a stretch in the language. Rounding a corner, a guy under a square of canvas on a bike with a paintbrush behind his ear. A child chasing her shadow as if it were something magnetic. A dog with its paws up over a second-story balcony, watching the human phenomenon. Inside an apartment, Faith Hope and Charity under glass over a green coconut on a red couch.
Eumilia, in her early seventies, greets us with hug and kiss, her smile radiant. She is the obvious center of her extended familia. It is in her humble apartment, with only the bare essentials, that we feel her presence as a santera, a person initiated into the santeria practice-thus a wisdom keeper, advisor, a medium between humans and spirits. We meet her grandson, Lazaro, his girlfriend Maylin, both in their early 20s; as well as beautiful Yusleisis, Eumilia's granddaughter, 5th grade, to whom we give colored pens and spiral notebooks. She thanks us with a beaming smile. Lazaro has just finished his initiation into santeria, having had to dress in all white and follow strict observances for one year. He still wears a white cap and displays the beaded bracelet of his given saint. Walking around Centro, he helps us change dollars into pesos so we can enjoy street pizzas, ice cream, sandwiches, cafecitos, shots of rum, beer, bus rides, and newspapers at the people's price. At an intersection I spy a skinned leg of a goat in a corner by the sidewalk. "An offering for Ellegua," Lazaro says. "This is one of many auspicious crossroads. Ellegua is the owner of roads, he can open them for you." (We remember India, similar reverence for intersections, tirthas, sacred crossings acknowledged with cloth-wrapped stones, ochre markings, shrines to Ganesha, sprays of marigolds, splashes of vermilion.) Late afternoon. We head back to Jesus and Maria's. Their daughter is getting married this evening and we're invited to the reception. We find a Dollar Store, purchase a bottle of Habana Club seven-year añejo for the novios, then hasten to the house, showing up just in time to change into dressy clothes. Yonaida, 21, is about to leave her room-next to ours on the rooftop-and is stunning in her white flowing trails, veil, curled hair, bouquet of roses. Exiting the house she's helped into a horse-drawn colonial-style wooden coach and seated with with her father, Jesus, who beams proudly in blue suit, white shirt and tie-a radical change from his usual t-shirt and shorts. Together, with flower girl and ring bearer-both beaming-they're off to the civil wedding, the entire barrio leaning over balconies as the red-ribboned coach is drawn away by a magnificent black horse tied with white balloons.
With time to spare while the civil ceremony proceeds, we head to the Monserrate, not far away and already a favorite bar-as opposed to, say, La Floridita, another Hemingway hangout (where the daiquiri was invented), which is too spiffy for us- predictable trio music, the kind meant not to be listened to; and a clientele too proper. The Monserrate, in contrast, is a real bar. Lively, rowdy, easy to meet people in, full of Cubans, travelers, gorgeous women of professional and questionable repute, and son, rumba, salsa-non stop; played by young and old alike. Typically a 5-7 member group with lead singer on maracas, joined by two backup singers on claves and guiro, joined by the ever-present, mesmerizing bright-toned tres. Add the guitar, cow bell, bongos, conga, bass fiddle, and sometimes a trumpet. Stephen Foehr, in his book Dancing With Fidel, goes back to the early part of 20th-century Habana and relates how when son first arrived from the Oriente "it was social outcast music confined to dancehalls and rooming houses of colored workers. When the trumpet was added to the tres, claves and maracas of the original son ensemble, the septeto style was created. Then it met rumba and the music got another boost. The snobs and racists couldn't resist." Foehr describes the Monserrate quite accurately: "not sealed behind glass" like the Floridita, but without pretensions and designed not too suffer damage if the good times become too rambunctious (and they often do!). The outside walls are open latticework, which allows live music to pour out and people on the curb to peer in. Dancers crowd the middle of the room. This is where I would expect to find a hale and hearty Hemingway, half lit on mojitios, boisterously backslapping friends and strangers alike."
Heat of spirits and music in our blood, we return down Aguacate to Jesus and Maria's for the reception, the house thoroughly decorated with balloons and ribbons; stair railings wrapped in crepe, our room surrounded by a big crowd listening to blasting, recorded music on the terraza-the younger generation's pop salsa. It's raucous and fun, even though we'd hoped for live music. Appetizers, sandwiches and salads are served in continuous portions, along with beers, rum, cuba libres. We plunk down in the middle of it all, conversing through the noise with one delighted stranger after another, smiling and expressing our gratitude to be here, in Cuba, having this human exchange. Nothing like living and dying in the present, goofing, watching the youngsters crank their hips and roll their bellies, the older generation cheering them on-along with bride and groom who've changed from ceremonial garb into dance clothes. An older man in baseball cap and casual clothes (maybe the best he has) literally gets down with the youngsters, pulling bare-bellied girls out to dance, rolling his thin hips sexually, losing his cap in the process, exposing a gleeful smile, a balding head, an absolutely engaged look in his twinkling eyes as he lowers closer to the floor, his young partner following him in exact, tempestuous mime. "Mi futuro!" I say to a couple, Renée's and my age, with whom we've been animatedly conversing. Which brings a roar of laughter, and another toast of rum. I think of how the U.S. gov't would like us to believe that Cubans are oppressed, thin, beaten down by tyranny. Such a description certainly doesn't fit these people (nor anyone we'll meet in our travels). In fact, being in Cuba is to experience flat-out welcome by well-read people (bone up on the phenomenal literacy campaign of 1960) who freely express what's on their mind, and know the art of real dialogue. Oppressed people I equate with fearful post 9/11 Americans saturated by corporate media, beaten down by the president's unceasing rhetoric: why talk, let's fight. "Governments are one thing, people another. Never lose hope. Never forget that we, the plebe, are in the majority. And that this, what we are doing, talking back and forth like this, is the essence of our majority," quote: Rodolfo and Maria Elena, with whom we are sitting.
24 Noviembre: Regla.
Clear, almost brisk Habana day after the rowdiness of last night (Renée being danced in one direction through the crowd by a handsome young dude, me in the opposite direction in the arms of a feisty mulata). Today, not the usual breakfast of eggs, toast, juice, coffee, papaya-everyone's too tired; instead, we enjoy espresso with leftover wedding cake. Then to the streets, down Sol to Plaza Vieja and the docks. A hand-in-hand couple (she in all fuchsia, he in orange shirt and pants) stroll toward us with an exchange of smiles-we all know what we've been up to in the perfumed sheets of dawn! As they pass, Renée looks into a doorway and points out two printed posters of a small black madonna-Nuestra Señora de Regla-over an altar graced with thin yellow and blue candles and sprays of gladiolas. To the east, the Pier of Light. To the south, narrow streets between crumbling neoclassical buildings: faded salmon, mint, citrine. Curlicue railings, broken griffin's tail, missing wing, concrete eye, cherub's shoulder full of rain. The smell of printing ink, congealed wax, laundry, lighter fluid from a table of wicks, flints, and miniature screwdrivers where a man repairs your lighter while you wait. Calle Cuba, Iglesia del Espiritu Santo, Convento La Merced. Finally, the sparkling waterfront where, at the Pier of Light, we join a queue waiting for the Regla ferry: mothers, fathers, children, bicyclists, baby carriages, bristly guy in Yankees ball cap vending the Granma. Lady in celluloid leotards under rainbow parasol. Rosy puff of tobacco. Eucharistic face of a newborn at the purple star of a sunlit breast. Pelican. Barnacle. Rusted ladder. Slender shadow, tangled branches for a head. Jasmine. Cheese puffs. Gold anklet. Tattooed sword pointing into the crotch of an aromatic creature. Baseball journeying through outer space. Prehistoric glove open and waiting. Old leather queen, lips thick as honey. Trembling daughter, her hand in the king's. Grandmother, silver-haired. Eyes of a free-flying bird. Dreadlocked man with fishing pole wearing sleeveless t-shirt that says GENOCIDA! ABAJO El BLOQUEO! CESE EL TERRORISMO CONTRA CUBA! I give him a thumbs up, knowing we're here illegally-dropping off medicine, spreading our dollars, our silent seeds, our subversive collections of love, politics, and revolution.
Brightest island, your people find in you delight in being human, a reason for living, intimate dignity of being . . . (Dulce Maria Loynaz)
The ferry arrives. It's a short, 10-peso ride across the harbor to Regla. Waves slap, debris bobs. Across the saltwater, a fine view back toward Habana: cathedral towers, cranes, dockyards, orange tile rooftops in coral sun. All the history, music, poetry, invention, mafia, bigband, corporate invasion, armed struggle, revolution, reform, collapse, reform. Cosmopolitan splendor? For whom-the rich and famous? Hemingway lived with Batista's iron rule, hailed his exit with a boisterous Hijo de Puta!
At the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla (1810), we buy a single pink gladiola and offer it to the Virgen de Regla (Yemaya, Eye in the hidden Reef) with a few golden pesos. She is miniature, black-faced, caped in blue, crowned in brilliance, white niño in her arms, two golden angels at her feet. Peaceful place, very laid back. Beside us a woman stands and prays before the virgin, holding up a black doll dressed in the red- white colors of Chango. On the gessoed walls of the nave are the essential saints; before them two women pause to pray, hands outstretched, touching the statues. We stroll up the cobble street, stop to visit a santeria priest who shows us to an elaborate shrine in his house, where we bend, individually, ring a bell before a cloth-wrapped esoteric array of bead-draped images. The babalawo prays, inserting our names in his recitations. We'll take any and all of it, to assure a safe and bountiful journey; but also to receive the powers recycled through the universe via priests, poets, seers, singers, and nature itself. Little darts of energy that help clear the mind and balance the psyche. Brought up as Catholics, we're drawn to these humble churches. To dip our fingers in agua santa, touching them to speech, hearts, and thoughts; to look into the eyes of Nuestra Señora de Regla with wishes for a good journey for all of us- why not? These santeria followers who've come to worship Yemaya in the form of the Catholic madonna, I identify with them. It is the old village deity they speak with, not the God of Spain nor of the Christian west; but the One of an entirely other continent. Not exactly Africa; not on any geographer's map.
Cordial, gracious, the santero shows us to Regla's museum, where dance, drumming, and singing by an Afro-Cuban group, the Conjunto San Cristobal, is going on. Tumbadoras, guiros, claves, a pair of huge rolled and shaken chequerés-bead-wrapped gourds. Voices, percussion, dancers-two female, one male-in quick, spicy, highly-charged rumba. The two woman (their wild energetic dancing makes it seem like four) are brightly costumed in whirling, wide-hooped, balloon-sleeved dresses. One yellow, with contrasting blue underskirt to symbolize Ochun, orisha de amor; the other in blue, with white applique bands to symbolize Yemaya. Their heads are elaborately wrapped in scarves that match their dresses. Chango, the male dancer, is young and virile, red cap and shirt, white knee-length pantalones ending in jester-like red designs. All are black, beautiful, barefoot. They're absolutely on fire as they spin and dart into the brick courtyard. Friends back home, septuagenarians, have told me the key to long life is: Keep moving! Maybe this is why Cuba's life expectancy of 74 is one of the highest in the Americas (along with the lowest infant mortality rate-half that for the young of Washington D.C.).
After three shots of rum with the musicos, the intensity of the blue-gold morning heightens. Renée and I proceed toward Regla's central plaza, purchasing some rather awful chicken paté from a coaxing vendor, mostly because of her good cheer, then follow her to a friend's house for chilled guanabana juice and conversation. And that's all they want. Simple exchange. Where from, how long in Cuba, where have you gone, what do you think of Cuba, do you have any children, how did you get to Cuba? Raquel, 37, skillfully sews a loose cuff on Renée's pants and won't accept money for it. Maria Antonia, the paté vendor, talks about visiting the US. "But, ay, this economy, the struggle. Everyday up early-a la lucha, we say. Do you know how many of these little snacks I'd have to sell to go to your country! Besides, Cuba is family. For me, there is no life in exile, even with money." -As we hug goodbye I can't help thinking of these women, so intimately nurtured by family and community, struggling through fear and isolation in an American suburb, their lives exposed to the unpredictable violence that is absent here. The U.S. attempt to strangle a political experiment that addresses the roots of such violence, is perhaps indicative of its own democratically-impotent thinking. All over the globe, in the name of democracy, capitalism tries to extinguish the lights of justice. It's business or nothing. Get in the way of our plans and we'll isolate you and strip you bare. If that doesn't work, we'll take out your leader. A passage in Eduardo Galeano's Upside Down addresses the embargo: "The nine U.S. presidents who have screamed successive condemna-tions of Cuba have done nothing more than denounce the consequences of their own acts: the ceaseless aggression and the long implacable blockade that drove the Cuban revolution to become more removed from the model originally envisioned. For 40 years Cuba has been treated as a leper for the crime of having built in this hemisphere a society based more on solidarity and less on injustice. In recent years that society has lost most of its material base of support, the economy is out of whack, (but) as a friend just back from Cuba told me: there are shortages of everything except dignity."
25 Noviembre: Habana to Trinidad
The Viazul tourist bus-comfortable, efficient-rolls out of Habana on time. In minutes we are cruising the green countryside; little traffic (petrol is about $4 a gallon), many hitchhikers. The few vehicles on the road are filled with people. I remember freeways back home, traffic stopped to a crawl, one person per vehicle, a big man in an oversize pickup, tailgate painted with stars, stripes, and: BURNING THE PAST SEEKING THE DREAM. Here, just the opposite: REMEMBERING THE PAST LIVING THE DREAM. For all its faults and foibles, the revolution happened, it wasn't put off; a homegrown movement (as was liberation from Spain) that broke the chains of Batista and his corporate cronies, unified people, educated them.-Along one stretch, a billboard rises from the sugarcane:
200 MILLONES DE NIÑOS EN EL MUNDO DUERMAN
HOY EN LAS CALLES-NINGUNO ES CUBANO.
Not once on our journey do we see a homeless person using the sidewalk for a bed. In Albuquerque alone, a small U.S. city, 75 people died on the streets this year. Last May, on another journey, we were appalled at the number of homeless on the streets of Guatemala; ill-prepared for the ruin of the capital, the destitute faces of its citizens, the tear-welled eyes of those who told us stories of decades of struggle, repression, torture, death. No successful, one-shot, unified revolution cleansed that country of corruption. The landscape, "beautiful" to beauty seekers, remains war ravaged: villages of widows, a capital ransacked by crime and murder, forests raped by the rich; body and psyche of the nation battered by 50 years of US interference, School-of-the-Americas-trained death squads, puppet dictators (responsible for the greatest number of deaths in the second half of the 20th century anywhere in the Americas). And now look at the US: under the yoke of a falsely-elected president who mocks international law and human rights as he readies to bomb Iraq, remove one dictator, cloak another in democracy. "National security," yep: the last refuge of a scoundrel. To Renée's and my good credit, though, Cubanos discern even before we even speak that we do not represent that America.
Gorgeous landscape, even better as the road swings into the hills towards the coast after Cienfuegos. In a little town near here, Beny Moré-the Barbarian of Rhythm- was born. As we leave town, there's yet another sign that gets the brain ticking: SIN EDUCACION NAY HAY REVOLUCION. It calls up Cuba's impressive literacy move-ment that fanned out 120,000 literacy workers across the republic to teach a million people to read and write. This, and then attention to health care; especially impressive to Renée and me, two of more than 50 million Americans without health care, a basic human need that any citizen-concerned country would prioritize.
Flame trees shade a 55 Chevy Nomad station wagon parked on a hill above the sea. Cuban flags flutter over a schoolhouse (dove white, cielo blue, azul of Yemaya). We turn into the hills, enter the colonial town of Trinidad, magnificently preserved, yet not too precious. We don't take the colonial house Maria and Jesus suggested; the owners are installing a new cistern and the patio's torn up. Instead we find a modest newer home, owned by an accountant and his wife, up a cobble lane near the Casa de la Trova. It has an upstairs room with a terraza, metal rockers, a view toward the sea, another toward La Iglesia de Santisima Trinidad. We're also under huge mangos and aguacates, surrounded by the neighbors' gardens. $15 night. Perfect.
Those metal rockers make us think we'll get some writing done, but, as usual we hear music; head out, get lost in the town, the people, the unabashed intensity of it all. (Later we discover Peter Ripley's Conversations with Cuba, a passage where he sums up of this experience: "We were overcome by all of it, pushed into overload ... the beauty of the country, the charm of the people, the grace of the culture, the vigor of the society. It was something we could not put into words at the time ... it was too close to bring into sharp focus, to define, to even describe. We were just in it." Everyday we struggle to write; everyday we hardly get a pen to the page. A wonderful submersion. The exhilaration one feels as the rug slips out from under you as when falling in love. To be swallowed up, dazzled. A wet electric shock. And the constant kisses, as if in meeting a perfect stranger you were hugging an old friend. The pulse, questions, invitations, immediacies. The roll of quiet eyes suddenly set afire as they follow what must be the most gorgeous movement of flesh one has ever witnessed: a perfect sway of hips in tight green spandex or in shimmering silver translucencies: Suave, suavecito, negra-the sonoros sing-Dame un pedacito negra, a mi me dijeron que lo tuyo tiene miel! Nope. No writing today! (hard to believe how Hemingway pulled it off-a Nobel for simply making the sheer effort to remove himself from the rum, women, bars, brouhaha, and fishing buddies to stand over his typer would have been enough!)
26 Noviembre: Trinidad
Pastel facades, colonial houses with amazingly tall wooden doors, frescoed walls, carved roof supports, trailing vines, marble floors, ornate grillwork, arched windows over railed balconies, flowery courtyards, streets paved with cobble (some of it used as ballast in Spanish ships) -and music everywhere, louder as the last pomegranate light sears the rooftops, brightens the thunderheads. A guy on a street- corner yells "Mousetraps, mousetraps!" He's proudly vending his handmade traps, calling excitedly, a smoking cigar dangling from his lip. We stop. He shows us how they work-with a SNAP! that startles Renée against a bright blue wall. Next block over, we meet a meringue man whose deep voice echoes with lush tones. He's got little puffs of meringue in a cardboard box. Children run out, we stand back; then purchase two for a peso. On Calle Boca there's a tiny corner bar with a worn wood counter bordered with hammered tin-it's like Doña Natalia's in the Oaxacan village of Teotitlan del Valle. Its clientele: two men and a donkey. I order three shots of rum, 1.25 ea., a little over 4 cents. Renée drinks one. There are no other women to be seen. The bar man says the donkey visits every afternoon and is 30 years old. He slips from behind the bar to feed the animal a piece of bread. I pat its head. White felt. Like a baby lamb. Lorca would love this. He'd put the donkey in a poem and children would understand perfectly. Big people might need another shot of rum, though- to make it real. It's not the suggestive power of the imagination, I tell myself, es la bella sorpreza del mundo.
After the donkey, the meringue, and mouse trap man, we stumble on the Casa de Yemaya. Spacious blue and white room; in its bare center a little black doll veiled in white, propped on wooden chair: pearl necklace, knit bonnet, flowing robes, eyes like heat mirrors. From somewhere a waft of perfume. At the door, a girl in blue with a bouquet of sunflowers. Turn to look again. Nothing. Only a white 51 Chevy squeaking ghostlike up the twilight cobble. In another room, a statue of la Virgen de Regla. Glittering azure robes, gold tiara, conch shells, painted toes, paper roses, lavender daisies. Transmorphic radiance. She of quinine skin who presides over the hammock of thought, the funeral of the machine. Orisha of orishas, grand procla-mation of hidden paths. Opposite her is a shrine whose embroidered linen is set with seven glasses of water; one with an egg in it. What does it all mean? Tranquilo, hombre. Tranquilo, I tell myself. How does it all feel!
27 Noviembre: Trinidad
This morning we browse the open-air mercado downhill from our casa particular, on Calle Media Luna. Embroidered tablecloths, hand-sewn dolls, papier-mache autos, toy motorcycles crafted from recycled tins, an assortment claves, guiros, maracas, and drums. Nearby, we visit Rosa Giroud, who works for Caridades. We chat with her over coffee, and drop off our donation of eyeglasses, anti-bacterial creams, aspirin, ibuprofen, notebooks, pens and clothes-our suitcases are suddenly light. After we leave she runs after us. In her hand is a rolled-up watercolor, one of her own, of Trinidad's Plaza Mayor. At a peaceful little square (Plazuela del Jigue) we browse a second mercadito. A graceful acacia spreads over the vendors. Renée buys a 1938 papier-mache Ford and a seed necklace; I buy a pair of claves. The white-porticoed house behind the vendors has a facade of hand-painted sky-blue tiles, wrought-iron fence, and a graceful tile roof-one of the most soothing edifices in the town. We photograph a couple well-preserved 18th-century mansions with carved-cedar ceilings, walls painted with murals. In one of these lived the naturalist Von Humboldt during his travels through Cuba (1801).
After lunch, despite the heat, we stroll uphill to visit Luisa, a santera who we met earlier, in her house near the crumbling 18th-century church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, overlooking Trinidad. "Come back at four, I'll give you a consultation," she told us over an extra-strong cafecito. Not knowing what to expect, we return. A chubby assistant, wearing shorts and baseball cap, welcomes us and directs us to a couch in front of a tv (the Flintstones!). Luisa is with a client in the rear altar room, separated from us by a red curtain decorated with cowboys, the word RODEO repeated throughout the pattern. We smell cigar smoke and rum, and from behind the billowing curtain, hear grunts, moans, stuttered growls. Suddenly, Luisa-I barely recognize her-enters our room backwards, bent over a small plastic-bag-wrapped bundle, dragging it across the floor to a corner. Her eyes are closed; she is reciting a litany to San Lazaro, patron of the sick, puffing a cigar, her contorted voice pleading for the healing of a small girl. Choking, mumbling, she remains bent over, moving backwards in a zigzag path -back through the curtain, out of sight (we later learn that the Yoruban diety, Babalu Aye, "comes down" as a bent over, gnarled-fingered sick person with conjested voice, arms flailing to clear away evil influences).
A few words with the client, the collection of a small fee. Then we are led in. This is not the Luisa we had met earlier, but someone in trance, eyes shut, puffing heavily on a habanero, turned slightly away from us, then toward us (each in turn), speaking from the side of her mouth, then turning away to receive messages from the orishas, then turning again, still with eyes shut, to speak in our direction. All of this before an altar set with esoteric mounds draped with white cloth, beads, shell necklaces. There are a couple of unusually-shaped black river stones, several glasses of water, dried flowers, bottle of rum, ashtray, candles. The largest object-below a black crucifix on the wall-is a statue of San Lazaro with hand-painted sores, pair of crutches hung with rosaries, broom in one hand, rattle in the other (like the ones used in the middle ages to warn passerbys), two little plaster dogs barking behind him. Luisa's assistant enters from the kitchen and sits by us to interpret, in Spanish, if we need clarification of Luisa's messages. Much of what follows is confidential, but in the ceremony's core Luisa gives us each a beaded necklace blessed with smoke, sprays of rum, prayers to the orishas, and a corresponding saint: Ellegua (San Antonio) for me, "el Dios que da proteccion al futuro y propositos que desean alcanzar las personas en estudio." Chango (Santa Barbara) for Renée, "el Dios de la musa, musica, los artistas, intelectuales, bailarines." I'm told to bathe in rose water and walk the streets dropping carmelos so Ellegua will clear the road of difficultie and bring sweetness. I'll do a painting, I tell myself. A jester dancing the streets leaving a trail of carmelos.
28 Noviembre: to Santiago de Cuba
O Cuba, O curve and sigh of clay O rhythm of dried seeds.
As soon as the full moon rises, I am going to Santiago
In a coach of black water, I am going to Santiago
Wind and rum on the wheels, I am going to Santiago . . . (Lorca)
From Trinidad to Santiago de Cuba, twelve hrs on Viazul bus. "I saw a turkey on a pole; that's my Thanksgiving," Renée exclaims. We roll through El Valle de los Ingenios. Low palms, grassy hills, backed by the glowing green Sierra Escambray. LA TIERRA ES LA MADRE DE FORTUNA! We snuggle, talk about Trinidad, its charm and seduction. We recall a group of people around a television set in someone's doorway as we walked to the bus station. What's going on? -It's sad, they say, Polo Montañez is dead. It's true, the announcer comes on again: Polo Montañez, the beloved Cuban cantante who rose to fame from humble campesino beginnings, is dead from severe head wounds suffered in an auto crash. The sugar cane bends, sun ducks behind a thunderhead. Cuba mourns.
A white cry brought the morning to its feet . . .
Plenty of music filled our stay in Trinidad: Casa de la Trova. Casa de la Musica. Palenque de los Congos Reales. La Parranda. The best in Afro drumming and dancing to the best in acoustic septetos to the best of semi-electric salsa. The latter up a stone apron of stairs under the stars. Agua! A girl with a blinking ruby between her breasts, open lips, thrown-to-the-side hip of seduction. Another, her body a copper mechanism, heliotrope island swimming between the legs, rolling buttocks in diaphonous sheen, belly rotating while body perfectly maintains its center of gravity, every part moving in a different, sensuous, erotic direction. Heels floating, teeth flashing, eyes lost in propeller whirl. No wonder we stay up all night every night! Dazzlement, fusion, rippling syncopation, sonorous alchemy that cranks the blood, opens the heart, slides the feet across eternity. Black upon black, faces with the look of climax, afterglow. Orgy of bodies sweat-strobed, nostrils flared, wings burning.
The shivering of knives and melons of dynamite . . .
"And when they dance like that we play better," a musico says. "Watch. You'll see. The singer will leave the stage for the most involved dancer and improvise just for her" (we'll try that at our next poetry reading!). Of several memorable groups: Los Pinos, performing behind a big wall at La Parranda-an open yard venue, which by day looks like an auto-repair yard, but by night-walking off a superb meal of sauteed shrimp, rice, fried platanos, string beans, salad, fruit, bread, cheese, coffee ($6)-we find alive with music. The dirt patio is strung with lights; a ragtag septet is playing traditional son; three of them elders, the other four much younger. All are dressed country style in overalls, polyester trousers, pin-striped shirts, fedoras, straw hats and ball caps. They perform facing a tamped dance area flanked by wooden benches where we sit. In one corner of the courtyard is a tin-roof kitchen with bamboo walls where a guy steps out in boxer shorts, towel around neck, stretching in just-awakened daze. In another corner: a well with bucket and pulley. It's midnight and someone is hanging wash. Chickens are pecking. Rum flowing. The musicos have that other-worldy look. Song is tumbling from their spasming bodies. The dancing cranks up. A guajiro's ball!
28 Noviembre: Santiago de Cuba
We've been told that Santiago, surrounded by the Sierra Maestra in a lovely crevasse opening to the sea, would be smaller, more intimate, louder, more African, more edgy, less "proper" than Habana. All true. In fact, it's a shock at first. Hotter, more aggressive. Slinky, tight, full of tease, exaltation. The Oriente: where the island gets hairy, wild, mountainous; where the picaros are from; where the son exploded and swept the island with its sexy double meanings; where the Indian Hatuey first revolted against the Spanish; where Fidel and his rebeldes began the revolution. SANTIAGO CUNA DE LA REVOLUCION! Big red letters as the bus rolls downhill into town.
We lodge with Norma and Manolo, an energetic pair in their early 50s. She's just returned from her acupuncture treatment, he's letting me know we missed a ride in his Willy's jeep-unfortunately we caught the Viazul van out the back of the bus station; they had come to the front to pick us up: a surprise. They both love to talk, especially Manolo who's a history buff, a Cabeza de Vaca nut, an American jazz and blues lover. Their second-story apartment is opposite the exquisitely-restored 1920s Hotel Casa Granda facing Parque Cespedes (another Oriente rebelde: Carlos Manuel Cespedes, lawyer-poet-planter who freed his slaves to begin the war against Spain, 1868), and the Santa Ifigenia Basilica, with its angel of annunciation blowing a trumpet toward the Moorish window grilles of the Velasquez house (1516), and the Ayuntamiento, where Fidel gave his '59 victory speech. Down the street, on Calle Heredia are two music venues: the Casa de la Trova, a fine old building with upstairs dance hall; and another downstairs, filled with oils of famous Oriente musicians. Nearby is the Casa de los Estudiantes, a colonial open-air building (where one night we'll escape from a rained-out street concert by Los Jubilados into a crowd of 1930s- like elders dressed in their finest, rum in their laps, paper fans breezing their faces. Further on: the restored casa of Heredia-another celebrated Cuban poet, and Plaza Dolores: intimate, tamarind-shaded benches of brightly-dressed ebony ladies chatting near a Beny Moré-looking guy, wide-brim hat, hands folded on cane. Around the corner, the Jesuit college where Fidel was educated; and a dark Bohemian bar, bull's head over sign commemorating 50th anniversary of Castro's attack on the Moncada.
We're pretty tired after the long ride, and we've forgotten to make arrangements ahead of time with Norma and Manolo for dinner, so we're forced to eat in a dismal paladar that's seen its better days-an old leg of hen and refried rice proves to be our saddest fare on the entire trip. The opposite experience, in Trinidad, was a sweet little rooftop paladar under a grape arbor atop the cook's home-heh-a future capitalist in the making, for he loved preparing food; loved his little business; loved greeting his customers (the gov't taxed him on his allowable 3 tables), playing a son montuno on a tape box while listing his menu: lobster, fish, pork, camarrones. "I worked in a state restaurant. Horrible. You don't have fresh food to cook, so no gusto to prepare it. Your wages don't add up to more than $15 a month. You end up feeling bad that you've served a customer something lousy. Here my love of cooking is rewarded with a decent wage. It gives me incentive to do it again tomorrow. Buen provecho!"
29 Noviembre: Santiago de CubaToday we visit Cobre, 20 kms from Santiago, surrounded by lush hills, to honor the Virgen de La Caridad, Cuba's patrona (she's also Ochun, goddess of sensuality, fertility, love). As we round the curves toward the red-domed basilica, vendors hold out splendid arrangements of sunflowers. Yellow is the madonna's color (honey, copper, and gold her symbols). On one bushy curve, our cheerful driver asks us to roll up the tinted windows of his Moskovitch to prevent the policia from spotting us. We've hired him illegally (can't seem to help ourselves) and the transport scene is tightly controlled-kept within the tax-paying, gov't approved sector; the money recycled into health care, education, etc. Fortunately, the Santiago police are more relaxed than in Habana; they know this driver. With smiles we're waved through.
We're driven around to the rear of the church, wondering why. But soon discover the front door is for those going to mass, confession, or baptisms. The rear entrance is for pilgrims and receives the majority of people. Immediately inside, there is a small altar between opposing stairways that lead up to the Virgen de Caridad. The lower altar is worth lingering at. Above it: Christ on the cross, flanked not by two thieves but by a golden saxophone and a painting of the Pope, who visited the basilica in '98. When I look at the crucifix, I see not only a dying man, but the archetypal death of the ego that gets in the way of man's spirit. If I dismiss the man on the unbalanced Christian cross, I see the ancient symmetrical intersection of sky and earth. Balance! Under the cross is a tray of dancing candles. An old lady is busy scraping wax into a dustpan to be recycled. Milagros dangle and flash on satin ribbons to the side of her: tiny metal eyes, lungs, congas, hearts, houses, automobiles, horses, carts. Even a miniature soldier left by Fidel's mother. On shelves, in cases, pinned to the wall, pilgrims have left an array of photos, santeria beads, braids of human hair, bottles of rum, silver spoons, cockle shells, embroidered hearts, antique coins, soccer balls, baby booties, a motorcycle helmet, set of trowels, wheelchair, signed baseballs, and a tv-left in gratitude by an Angolan man on scholarship to study medicine (after a year, it'll be donated to the little old lady scraping wax). It's all very familiar-what we'd find in New Mexico's chapel of miracles, the Santuario de Chimayo. Upstairs, the Virgen de Caridad is behind glass on a gold pedestal, lit by candles. It was here, in '54, that Hemingway left his Nobel medallion. Pilgrims silently crowd the little shrine; kneel at prayer; add sunflowers to baskets of yellow roses, gladiolas, fragrant sprays of stocks. The Virgin is dark, dressed in gold, holds a baby, and opens a compassionate gaze into the eyes of several dreadlocked madonnas who reverently look up, gold hoops in ears, yellow skirts, Congolese faces; also with babies.
Later in the day we walk the streets of Santiago, have an ice cream at Coppelia, enjoy the leafy suburbs of Vista Alegre, take in the little museum at Casa Africana, then the Casa del Caribe, a cultural center located in a shaded colonial casa where a trio (tres, bongos, guitar) performs on the patio-goldfoil sun beaming through the trees. It's a party for a group of Dominican students, mostly women, here on scholarships to study medicine. A blast-and as usual we stumble upon it without plan. There's a bar under the bougainvilleas; beer and rum available in pesos. The cool, brick patio is perfect for lingering, chatting, meeting new friends. We're introduced to one poet, director, musico, writer, playwright, after another. The young women are gorgeous, of course. I check them out with a big smile, along with all the other viejos, one of whom suddenly walks up onto the low wooden stage with the trio, opens his arms, and recites a poem-his own, but sounding suspiciously like Octavio Paz:
I would like to be where el mundo is at once symmetric y asymmetric
I would like to be beyond the mar y las montañas. Where nobody knows me
or everybody knows me, but does not recognize me.
That world. The one right here.
But that is beyond. Where I am left with Peace.
Where nobody ME JODA!
Big applause, the trio strikes a chord, singing begins, dancing continues, minds and bodies coupled. We take some photos of the musicos, exchange addresses, stroll to a public bus stop, catch the 36 back to Norma y Manolo's for a dinner of deepwater Caribbean fish, rice and beans, crispy plantain, tomato salad, vegies, and the usual shot of coffee. Then I go for a haircut off Plaza Cespedes. The barber has already offered to cut my hair for a dollar. He cranks me up on a classic porcelain-armed chair as we launch into a discussion of Cuban women, beisbol, health care, Viagra. "I know that works to get the stick hard, but, damn, I've been taking medicine to get it down!" The barber laughs so hard he has to stop cutting my hair. Street onlookers, too, are laughing. The barber goes over to the cupboard, snaps his towel, and pulls out a bottle of rum. Still chuckling, he pours a shot to the floor "for San Lazaro," then we each have a shot. The scissors are dull and he nicks my ear once, but in an hour I'm dusted off. A perfect head of no hair-just like my last haircut eight months earlier in Chichicastenango. I tip him a dollar-now he's got a week's wages in his pocket-and agree to bring him a pair of scissors, and Viagra, when I return.
We end the night at Dos Abuelos, an intimate patio performance space facing Plaza de Marte where we hear a lively septet, mostly Cuban crowd; away from Calle Heredia, interesting but for the most too much of a scene for us (one night there's an excellent all-women septet, but the narrow hall of the Casa de Trova jammed with people- and a couple drunk Italians making fools of themselves-makes it impossible to see or hear the musicians). After hearing the famous Carlos Puebla composition to Che Guevara, "Hasta Siempre" (everyone joining the lead singer in emotional outpour) we exit onto Plaza de Marte under the stars and linger hand and hand in front of a stone monument honoring the 1868 martyrs of the Cespedes revolt. There are many sculptures of the heroes of independence around this plaza-where both the Spanish and the U.S.-backed General Machado tortured and shot their prisoners. After we leave the park, I find my mind wandering back to youngsters, like Lazaro and Maylin in Habana, who are among the 60% born after the revolution. They're not idealists, they're eager for entry into the capitalist world, they have no actual identity with life before the Revolution, or the process by which it happened. They'd love to rush into the consumer-producer world without evaluating its pitfalls: crime, paranoia, greed, jealousy, competitiveness, mental stress, drugs; and, now, after 9/11, the US's shining example of xenophobia, mistrust, rampant and malevolent prejudice. There's also the robot work scale to which we're tied, utterly contrary to basic human nature, and impossible for most Cuban youth to comprehend. Cubans my age, especially in the Oriente, want economic change, but with the human, social, ideological benefits the Revolution upheld. Fine tuning, that's all. A capitalist-socialist compromise to boost a woefully cash-short society. The older generation takes enormous pride in the Revolution; they honor Castro, put up with him, but often see him as the over-protective father guarding his 15-yr old daughter from corruption. They want the un-just embargo dropped (as well as the neurotic ban on humanitarian aid), to provide markets to meet the demands of basic food, medicine and housing. For forty years the US (paranoid of countries that test its "democracy" with their ideals of self-governing solidarity) has tied Castro's hands; made it impossible for him. 95% of Cubans may just be getting by economically, but they are far better off than those 95% in Guatemala who not only suffer economically; but physically, socially and psychologically with real fears for the safety of their children, elders, communities.
30 Deciembre: Santiago
I wake mulling over the hubris of El Norte: its need to bully and intimidate, its self-obsessed arrogance, its quick-solution violence, and how-in the case of Cuba- it can't stand to see a real, functioning socialist society 100 miles from its reach; whose streets are safe to walk on, whose children all have homes, whose health care is a basic human right not lobbied against by insurance companies nor the pharmaceutical industry. At breakfast, Manolo calms me down. "Just remember, if you engage in reaction or react in an unskilled or uninformed manner (say against terrorismo), you become what you fight, you act just like them. Nothing changes."
LAS IDEAS JUSTAS TRIUNFAN!
After coffee Renée and I work on our notebooks. I draw Santiago's basilica, the angel of annunciation between two phallic towers; the bobbing boats in the harbor (SS Yemaya, SS Rebelde, SS Nalga); the green breasts of the Sierra Maestra being rained on by guitars; Renée as a mermaid with bottle of rum; Renée naked on the bed by the glass-chime lamp that makes music in the fan's breeze. A few months ago, I asked her: Why Cuba? "Because we're not supposed to." We laugh; yes, how great to break the law and do something important and invigorating. "And we're doing great," Renée smiles. "It's freeing to break through the cloak of fear, the stern face of someone's idea of what's right or wrong."
Noche: Casa de las Tradiciones, barrio Tivoli, overlooking Bahia Santiago. "This is our second honeymoon; from now on, island cultures!" Renée looks beautiful. She's dressed in pure white diaphanous cotton. The night is sultry. The Casa packed, not at all touristy. A septet is cranking. Three or four couples have claimed the small dance floor. Another room is filled with people at tables beneath oil paintings rendered in my own colorist style. We grab the only space, near the bar, where Renée plunks down by an elegant, statuesque black woman. They hit it off energetically in a mix of broken English and Spanish. Her name is Isolina (she asks me me to dance once and shyly I accept). Conversing with her brother, I learn that the septet's leader-who blows a sparkling trumpet and gives full reign to the tight, energetic group-is Finnish. But he's got the spirit of Cuba; he plays, moves, and looks Cuban. And it's true, "in a septet the solo trumpet player is the musical leader who makes or breaks the band; the voice that must lyrically soar between 19th-century brass band cornet and modern jazz. The tres player is the piano of the group, keeping the grounding harmonic rhythm, like the left hand of ragtime, and a twinkling melody of the right hand traipsing across the higher keys. The combination of the brassy horn and strings gives the septet its crisp, subtle sound." (Stephen Foer)
Son-the roots of salsa, of the 1930s rumba craze, even of modern Cuban hiphop- originated in the Oriente in the 19th century. Spanish songs fused with African call-and-response choruses. Black and mulatto composers composed their lyrics in the Spanish decima or quartet form and voiced their protests against slavery. Today, political and social criticisms are still disguised within the son. Supposedly the tres was developed to replace the sound of the piano, an expensive instrument, too bulky to haul to rural parties. The first time I really got carried away by tres playing was while driving through a raging blizzard in New York. I was madly in love, I had downed a couple brews, roads were ice packed, traffic dancing in haphazard slides. Prismed snowflakes swirled with the sound and colors of the tape I was listening to: Los Heroes (courtesy of fellow nadista, Peter Garland). On it was the most glorious, soaring, lyrical stringed instrument I'd ever heard in "Latin" music: Niño Rivera on tres, playing his heart out with the Cuban group Estrellas de Areito (I never dreamed that one day I'd be hearing the tres live, in the country of its origin).
The playing tonight is superb, the crowd energized, waxing the floor with strides and spins, writhing with up and down shimmies-all so incredibly graceful. (And then there's me, feeling like I'm from a country where people are born without hips). When the septet goes into their final number, I'm standing in the crowd with Isolina's brother, when I look over at her and suddenly register that she's in all white, even her shoes. When I ask her about it, and Renée shows her her Chango beads, and I, my Ellegua necklace, she lights up like a bomb. "Oh, yes yes, I'm in the santeria practice. Can we go to the rear patio and talk?" Away from the crowd, the four of us huddle close under the stars-one of those impossible to describe, soulful recognitions that ends in a grand hug (another as we leave the front door) and an address exchange (on our return there's an e-mail from Isolina: "I felt such comfort with you, let's be in touch until your return. Tell John not to be afraid to learn to dance. I teach with a lot of cariño").
1 Diciembre: Santiago to Baracoa
Five hrs, Viazul bus, across the sierra to Baracoa, Cuba's easternmost town. I nod out and dream that I am a quiet turista who has superpowers as a salsa dancer. I always hold back at bars and casas de trova-the shy man in linen slacks and white shirt who takes a seat and tips slow, clear shots of rum from a flask-while musicos play and the best dancers twirl and wriggle, with hardened nipples, flashing smiles, heads thrown back, asses rotating. But my shoes give me away. When the women spot them, they know. The shoes are shiny black oxfords with oversize heels. The women wear-as they really do in Cuba-shiny see-thru dresses that expose luscious nalgas, chocolate orbs divided by satin thongs. As they spin and gyrate with their partners, they keep expectant eyes on my shoes, and on my deliberately passive face. They are waiting for the moment when I'll gracefully stand up, clack my heels across the wooden floor, and stretch out my hand. When I do, everybody falls back in awe as my chosen beauty spins in and out of my arms, dancing the most liquidly suggestive salsa ever witnessed in Cuba. At night's end, I disappear as mysteriously as I arrived- taking no one with me-only to reappear at another venue, days later, to everyone's heightened anticipation. I awake to the bad dancer I really am. The bus is cruising at a soothing, erotic roll. I open my eyes to Guantanamo's south coast. Cactus and wildflowers sloping down to glittering coves of turquoise water. Mar Caribe! Close the eyes, open them; same difference-one dream to another. At a scattering of shacks called Cajobabo we turn inland, rise steeply into the Sierra de Purial and the Cuchillas de Baracoa-where the vegetation thickens. Fed by wet northeast trade winds, this is of the most biologically diverse areas of the Caribbean. Coco, breadfruit, coffee, endemic palms, tropical hardwoods mingle with wispy pines. At the crest, the driver halts for a cafecito. Women approach with bananas, tangerines, yemitas (balls of chocolate, coconut and sugar), and cucuruchos (palm-leaf cones filled with shredded coconut, honey and chocolate; easy to overdose on!). Back aboard, travelers are refueled, the energy is up. We twist and turn downhill, glimpsing deep Atlantic blue through sprays of bromeliads on lacy trees. Finally, Baracoa, first Spanish settlement on the island (1511): a headland of colorful houses facing the sea, backed by El Yunque, a jungled anvil-shaped peak; and La Bella Dormiente, sleeping beauty. Lush countryside here; mountains steep into the sea. Streams rushing from leafy canyons onto white playas.
We take a room in a bright green tile-roofed Caribbean-style wood house built in 1920, owned by a meticulous young couple who hold degrees in electronics and pharmaceutics, but, like so many disappointed graduates their age, they've abandoned their professions for the tourist trade. We take our meals here, and find the cuisine of Baracoa special. There is an abundance of cacao, and a chocolate factory. Every morning we're served a rich, creamy pitcher of chocolate along with papaya, french bread, eggs and coffee. One evening we try an assortment of new tastes: teti, tiny minnows sauteed in oil, coconut milk, lemon, pimiento and tomate; malanga, a fried sweet potato; ñami cucu, a bit like cassava, served breaded and fried; frangollo, a green banana toasted and mashed. There is also a homemade hot chile sauce. For dessert we have alberroa, a sweet, star-shaped fruit, cooked in water and sugar. Very delicious. We hear about bacan, too: a tortilla made of baked plantain, coco milk, and pork wrapped in banana leaves; but we don't find the opportunity to try it.
On the little Plaza de Independencia is the Iglesia de la Asencion. Inside is preserved a small cross reputedly planted by Columbus in Baracoa (500 years old according to carbon-dating). But the church is perpetually closed and we never see it. In contrast, the bust of Hatuey, "Primer rebelde de Cuba," is just outside the church. He's the celebrated indigenous leader that fought the Spanish on Hispaniola, suffered defeat, fled to Cuba by canoe, and hid in the caves near Baracoa, and held up a nugget of gold, telling his people, "This is the god of the bearded men who come to conquer us. Resist!" A few months later, Hatuey was captured, tied to a stake, and promised paradise if he would accept the Christian god. Hatuey asked if there were Christians in paradise. Answered yes, he chose not to be baptized. The Spanish burned him. All over Cuba are statues of Hatuey. The island's strongest brew is named after him.
On Plaza Marti (the man who knew that Cuba couldn't be itself without a revolution), between the open shutters of a concrete box on a cement pedestal, there is a public television. A dozen men are gathered on benches, chatting, occasionally glancing up at the only available channel-a Mexican soap opera. We walk through with nods, and cross the street to check out the Casa de la Trova, deciding to return when things are in full swing. On the sidewalk we strike up a conversation with a young painter, Osmel, who wants to show us his work. We like his cool personality, and when I say I'm interested in primitive painters he says, "Oh, then first we must visit René Frometa, the adopted son of La Rusa." We've read about La Rusa (d.1978) and have strolled by her former casa, a hotel rising above everything except the ugly concrete Soviet-style apartments on the Malecon. La Rusa is Mima Romenaskya, a Russian aristocrat who fled the purge of Lenin for Europe, toured as a dancer, moved to Habana in the 20s, then to Baracoa. During the 50s, she helped the Red Cross and contributed to the Revolution. Fidel, Raul, Che, Nicolas Guillen all stayed at her hotel. René and his wife live up the street from La Rusa, a modest breezy casa with rooms to let. He sells his paintings from a studio whose four walls are covered with 18x24" oils. They depict Baracoa over the centuries, beginning with the first inhabitants, through Spanish occupation, the first revolution, and the next. "Please remember, I am not a painter," he smiles. With a pointer he meticulously describes each painting. We sit amused, though weary of how long it'll take him to progress through the three dozen paintings on the walls. But we manage to turn his attention to a portfolio of his work on the table-filled with 5x7 replicas of the larger oils. They are rendered on tagboard in his same naive style. We purchase two: about $3 each, thank him, and agree to return before leaving Baracoa. We also make plans to visit Osmel mañana. It's late, we have to eat dinner, then to the Casa de la Trova.
2 Diciembre: Baracoa
Wonderfully fresh morning. Walking to the Casa de Trova last night, we paused to the sound of a piano coming from the open door of the library. Chinked notes bouncing off green tile floors. Bars of fluorescent light on the ceiling. A child sitting upright at the piano, practicing, her mahogany body dressed in white. Open sheet of music before her. Shelves of books bound in cardboard, humid with the sea. The librarian greets us. School kids at tables greet us. Anyone who wanders in the open front door greets us. The little girl's melancholy transportive notes lift her off her wooden seat. Wings sprout from her shoulders, sparklers light her hair. Outside, a broken fire hydrant stares with a hollow, cyclopean eye to the stars. We relax in green plastic armchairs; read the weekly Rebelde. Fidel's in Quito, surrounded by an applauding audience, giving a speech to commemorate the opening of The Chapel of Man, designed by the painter Guayasamin. On another page, George Bush, sour faced, stands in front of a missile of mass destruction-and it's not Iraq's. I can almost hear his rhetoric, watch his contorted mouth become suddenly comfortable as he issues words of hate. In Santiago, over dinner one night, Manolo cautioned us: "During these times one must have sangre fria." Cold blood. What he meant was keep a cool head, don't let your own blood boil over with their ideas.
Superb energy at the Casa de la Trova. Joyous, rocking, wide-open expressions, hospitable-a fine way to end our stay, for tomorrow we must return to Santiago, fly to Habana, then back to cold, dry New Mexico. Along with the septet we saw in Santiago's Casa de las Tradiciones, this was best music we've heard on the island. (we've only had time to seek out the traditional stuff; jazz, nueva trova, rumba, new wave, we'll save for next time). On a slightly-raised stage before a small dance floor, the acoustic group, Maravilla Yunqueña, wailed out their songs to a packed house. A classic sextet: bongo (same guy works the cencerro by foot pedal), guitarra (second-oldest man in the group; smooth and spirited, steeped in the old sonoro traditions of Baracoa), contrabajo (deeply plucked wellworn stand-up bass), maracas (these hap-pen to be rubber toilet-bowl floats, painted yellow, filled with pebbles!) and guiro. The lead singer, a real nadista, is in his 70s. We're especially entranced by his high energy vocals. Full of gusto, contagious spark, amazing hollers, he often steps trance like off the little wooden platform to weave and sing among the gracefully spinning dancers, his face with the aura of pure pleasure, absolute conviction, his legs two-stepping through the jammed swirl of flickering-eyed dancers. One is in a thigh-revealing red dress, a package of energy, her breasts sweetly plumped in low-cut bodice, neck shiny with sweat, blond hair coiling from porcelain-doll face, full mouth painted with an exagerrated bright red. The old cantante's voice, meanwhile, drops from loquacious, smoky notes into a rasp of sex and growl, a coppery glow emanating from his presence. Eyes closed, he's gone! Into some resplendant Eden. Vibration, pure ritmo! "Baila, baila!" Here's a model of how to grow old, how to get down! Literally, the guy is-legs spread, eyeballs to the holy angels in heaven, fedora almost off his head-down; doing the splits with an elegant knows-her-business 65 year-old silver-haired been through it all woman-who obviously has a lot more to live; and give (she dances these steps as if she were 25). Look, there she goes, into her own trance, living out the undreamed dream in ecstatic spin around the singer."Baila, baila," we toast. Here's another model of how to grow old!
After the Casa de la Trova, we stroll. A storm washes in from sea. I feel lifted out of myself. The electricity is off. Kerosene wicks flicker from small tins in windows. Men configure their dominoes at wooden tables, plastic over their heads, scorekeeper to the side, chalkboard and rum. In one house, between French blue shutters, a little oval mirror reflects our passing heads as if disconnected from bodies. Yes, that's the feeling! Flan-colored facades, ultramarine puddles expanding over cobble streets. A parked rickshaw says: SOY VIVO PARA AMARTE. The rain lifts. Even at this late hour a child is playing marbles, bouncing them off a tiled porch. "What is you?" we hear as we pass. We wonder the same. Bright stars, salt air, a weathered doorway where the fused silhouette of two lovers kiss and fondle, rubbing and gyrating into every position they possibly can, without fucking. Joyous shadows, expanding, contracting in erotic probe. Their little window of privacy. Where else do they have to go?
Before dawn, I sleep with my head to Renée's. The rough white sheets smell of sun. I can hear her breathing between rumbles of thunder. Rain pours from the roof, but in my dream it pours from the soundbox of a guitar. I see an old man dancing, his fedora falls off as he tips his head backwards. He lets out a jubilant scream. Candies fall from one of his pockets. The streets are shining with the sun and moon at once.
Pulling out of Baracoa, we see, painted in red on a peeling wall near a graceful statue of Hatuey throwing a spear toward the sea:
EN CADA AMANECER UNA NUEVA VICTORIA.
With every waking, a new victory!