Cuba Vignettes: 2003
North Americans don't understand... that our country is not just Cuba; our country is also humanity~~~Fidel Castro
Vignette One: Comrades & Bicycles
It was the perfect way to kick off the two-week tour. After finally making it through customs with all our bags and boxes of supplies and donations, we checked into our hotel. Freshening up as best we could from the effects of a long flight and the shock of the brutal Caribbean sun, we headed back out, excited to be in a country fabled for its beauty, culture, people---forbidden to most Americans. Our excitement only increased when we were informed that instead of a traditional walking tour, we would be familiarizing ourselves with Havana by bike.
Hopping on our rentals, we made for a bustling open-air market where we snacked on fresh fruit and green fried plantains. Wobbly but determined---I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been on a bicycle since college---we rode to our second destination the Universidad de la Habana. Parts of revolutions dating back to the school’s founding in 1728, including the one that freed the island from US control, had been plotted on the campus. After months of research, I was beyond thrilled to race up the wide stairs and imagine Fidel strolling through the grounds.
The Malecón was next. The famous walk, which has been featured in everything from the novels and poems of Reinaldo Arenas to eventually “The Fast and the Furious 8: Fate of the Furious” was beautiful.
Officially named the Avenida de Maceo, the Malecón is a broad esplanade and seawall which runs for 5 miles along the coast of Havana, from the mouth of Havana Harbor in Old Havana, along the north side of the Centro Habana neighborhood and the Vedado neighborhood to the mouth of the Almendares River. The roadway, along with American cars from the 1950s to the Cuba Libre, typifies what one envisions when one thinks of Cuba. Bicycling the Malecón, waving to friendly Cubans, and marveling at the vibrant life rolling by on that first day on Isla Bonita was a truly magical introduction.
Vignette Two: Comrades & The Tropicana
If vintage cars and cigars say Cuba, the renowned Tropicana screams it. Launched in 1939, in the Villa Mina in suburban Marianao, the fantastic cabaret is a symbol of both pre and post revolution. Other than touring the major sites of the revolution where Che and Camilo Cienfuegos withstood deprivations as they dreamed and plotted a better world and exploring Old Habana, there was nothing more that I wanted to do than take in a show at the Tropicana. And not just because of Episode 35 of “I love Lucy”!
I wanted to drink rum and witness where the beautiful men and women of Cuba, draped in gorgeous costumes, in front of fabulous sets, shook the night away to dances such as the Conga and music like the son, which they had bequeathed to the outside world.
With two days left on the island, it was finally time to see what all the hubbub was about. I don’t know what it’s like now after Fidel’s passing, Obama “normalizing” relations, and then 45 reversing Obama, but in 2003, even in daytime it was difficult to get transportation. So, I decided to walk from the place where I was staying in Old Habana to the lush, tropical garden estate.
Walking alone through the darkened streets to the Tropicana was like what I imagine it would be like to walk Beirut in the 1980s or the South Bronx in the 1970s during the height of the insurance fires: burnt out, desolate, threatening to crumble at a mere touch. But unlike the morning hours, where, “Hola mamacita!” and “¿Cóme es?” were as common as an afternoon siesta, after night fell, I was neither hailed nor harassed.
An hour and a half later, I arrived at the nightclub safe and excited. And what a delight it was to shake and shimmy with the dancers from my seat. A cold rum cocktail in hand, headdresses and spangles flashing under the lights, entranced by slim brown arms, thick toffee and coco-colored legs, and high, round derrieres, I cheered the men and women of Cuba who refused to relinquish their history, or their joy to capitalism or communism.
Vignette Three: Comrades & Rumbas
Sundays in Cuba are for lovers and dancing and those who love to dance. And I was lucky enough to find an outdoor Rumba dance party on the Sunday before I was to fly home. Under a punishing sun, I attempted to put to use steps I had gleaned watching the talented Tropicana dancers, Soul Train, and my regular old black girl genes. I was gyrating with the best of them until a hermano found me in the sweaty, slick crowd. He sidled up and began putting the moves on me.
I tried. I really tried, but between the broiling heat and the bodies pressed against me like so many electric eels in a tiny aquarium, I just couldn’t keep up. After a few feeble attempts to follow his lightening footwork, I bowed out as gracefully as I could beneath a face slick with water and armpits like those of an NFL linebacker in the middle of a heatwave up against an overtime clock.
Vignette Four: Comrades & Pensions
My Global Exchange Tour: Following in Che’s Footsteps ended, on my own for five days, I had made plans to stay with a Cuban family who rented a bedroom out to make extra money. Board was included, so every morning I sat with the family for eggs, bread, and coffee. If I made it back in time, I shared chicken or beef and Moros y Cristianos with the husband and wife and their young adult children. I don’t remember what I paid but know that it was ridiculously cheap---around 10 dollars a night and ridiculously needed.
I had chosen the pension for the cost and location. Situated in Old Habana, my Casa Particulares was within walking distance of sites I hadn’t been able to see while with my tour group. Every morning after breakfast, I left my small, tidy, fan cooled room and set off to see one touristy thing and one nerdy thing, making my way to Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes as well as across the city to the neighborhood of Vedado where I could checkout super cool Cuban pop art.
I may have pinched my pennies on accommodations, but I treated myself by sneaking back into the Hotel Deauville where Global Exchange had booked us the few nights we stayed in Havana. I sauntered through the lobby like the entitled Yanquis I was and used their pool as if I were still lodging there. Then there were mojitos at the famed Hotel Nacional and one fancy dinner at the fancy Hotel Seville after using their internet to double check my return flight.
The night before my departure, I separated my luggage between the need and the need. The need I packed and the need: new boots I had bought to hike the Sierra Maestra, t-shirts, socks, aspirin, and pesos I left on the bed for my family.
I left Cuba lighter, happier, and infused with gratitude.
Thanks for stopping by! Be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, and keep on being Feminist AF!