Opening Statement

Friday 13 February 2015

On The Road In Cuba!

DTC: 1996 A Cuba Story! [Complete] 

Chapter 1: Palma Soriano!

My adventures in Cuba continue: There was a long weekend ahead at the Toronto Friendship School. Willy, Ramon and Mati offered to take me on a road trip over the mountains to visit the interior of the island. We hired an older gentleman, "Popo" (means papaya...) who owned an old beat up Polski Fiat. There aren't any post 1961 embargo American cars in Cuba. Was an option. Turned into a good adventure. Not your usual tourist tale. Indeed, allow me to share with you my real life Cuba Story.

Popo showed up about 6 hours late. No big deal in Cuba, the "land of waiting." A popular joke claims that at first everyone was waiting for the revolution, then for the workers' paradise, now for Castro to leave. Waiting is quintessentially Cuban. Popo had stopped along the way to pick us up at a party. My tour guides were glad for him. Glad he had a good time at the party, even though we'd be left stuck waiting! They thought that was great! Because he stopped at a party? And now we were running late!

To his credit Popo brought me a bag of fruit from the party. No token gesture in a land where most everyone goes hungry! I'm boiling mad but what do I say? Anything? When in Rome, or in my case Cuba, how does the saying go? Oh well. O.K. Climb aboard! We're off! Up into the foothills of the Sierra Maestra and onwards and upwards into the mountains!

We are soon high up overlooking the 500 year old crumbling city of Santiago de Cuba. The glistening late afternoon Caribbean sea. On the other side of the mountains, we drive down into the valley of "El Cristo", permanently shrouded in cloud. Only moving silhouettes are visible to the eye. Strangely beautiful. Quite unreal!

We continue puttering along in his car, out onto the plains towards the small old Spanish colonial town of "Palmas".  Tall swaying palms dot banana and sugarcane plantations stretching as far as I can see. We drive past a huge run down sugar mill into the sun bleached ruins of a town where everyone and everything is moving in slow motion, in the sweltering late afternoon heat. I thinking this is all right. Very picturesque. Quite hot, but hey; our trip is indeed looking like an adventure!"

Sitting in our sweat soaked shirts, dust swirling about, we proceed into the town square .... where the radiator boils over! Psssssssssss! And dies. So much for the Popomobile! The hood's up. A crowd gathers. Everyone peering in as the long late day shadows stretch across the square. What to do? 

Once again we are engaged in the great Cuban past time of waiting! Fortunately, a friendly family invites us to stay overnight in their simple overcrowded quarters. Folks walk through all hours to check the gringo out. Hola! Hello there! It was different. It ended up being quite the party. An End of the World Party!

The End of the World Party is another great Cuban national past time. What else have they got to do most of the time? We are stuck waiting again too. Well, hooray for the End of the World Party! Tinny salsa music blasts in the back alleys under a Habana moon. Hips sway. Hand rolled cigars are passed out. There's much story swapping and good laughter. Then, an electrical blackout grinds everything to a halt. Damn those Yankees! Ha! We laugh. Call it a night.

Next morning Ramon finds another chico with a car! A beat up, old, baby blue, 1956 Chevy with a cracked, window shield. A Madonna sticker on the dashboard. The cheap fan barely works. A dumpfy kinda charm! Not unlike Palma. Yes Palma is different than Santiago. Like small town Ontario is different from the big city. Let's drive on further inland to see more of what it's really like................

 The early morning heat builds quickly. Sometimes I don't feel alive until it hits 30 degrees Celsius. Even in far less than ideal conditions like these. Am I a stickler for pain? It's a case of quality verses quantity.There's a trade off. In the First World, we've got most of the wealth. Yet we often seem to forget how to enjoy the simpler things in life. Not so the Cubans, whatever else they lack.

Everyone is out on the street to see us off -the whole community! There's old folks. Young amigos y amigas. Toddlers too! The End of the World Party isn't over. All of them are like family now, so sorry to see us go! 

Fortunately, I suppose, there's no electricity still. So no salsa music. Or they'd all be dancing. Cuba's like that: it doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing. Any time's a good time to dance. I kid you not. We'd have never gotten out of Palma! So we toss what's left of Popo's bag of fruit in the back seat. Mucho kisses. Warm embraces! With a wave we rumble down the street. Off on day two of our Cuba trip!

From the holy to the profane: The Sierra Maestra mountains recede behind us, along with El Cristo valley. We drive down the streets of Palma past the towering palms back out onto the plains. The banana and sugarcane groves stretch outward past the horizon. Sitting with the windows rolled down. Drinking it all in. Still quite enchanted. However, soon there are warning signs that's about to change. The once lush vegetation grows increasingly sparse. Half starved cattle, matted hides hanging on bony frames, stand placidly along the roadside, nosing about in the sun dried grass, occasionally swishing away the hordes of flies with their tails. Is that a buzzard circling around and around overhead? We motor across a swaying bridge hanging precariously over a very deep river valley. A great divide of sorts for what lies ahead.

Chapter 2: Contramaestra!

We drive into the town of Contramaestra, a couple of hours later; another old Spanish town forgotten in time. Head for the city centre; the plaza. Circle about in the car looking for a place to stay. Contramaestra is an endless vista of old ruins. A mad mix of Spanish colonial, the occasional American deco structure. We drive past an old rundown Soviet flatbed army truck; closest they'll ever get to public transit in this poor place!

The locals are just standing around -nowhere to go, nothing to do. Look at the despair in their faces! Some seek refuge in the doorways. Under the stark palm trees. In the little park in the centre of the plaza there's a hula hoop contest! Little school girls with skinny stick legs swirl them around and around their impossibly tiny waists. The innocent brown faces squint under the glare of the hot relentless mid- day sun.

Everyone looks up as we pull up front of an old run down building,  "La Cucharacha Motel" as Matilde half jokes. The faded sign promises air-conditioning! Says they accept payment in pesos! Willy slips into the office, returns a few minutes later to explain the situation, "They only have two rooms with air conditioning."

We wearily cart in our bags through the wall of heat. Unpack. Take a cold shower with a hose and a pail in the shared, stained shower stall at the end of the hall. Close our room window shutters. Shut out the sun's glare.

The rattly room air conditioner in my room slowly kicks into gear. Lucky there's electricity! And a black and white Soviet era t.v. set! That's as good as it gets! Don't drink the water though! Ugh! What's scurrying about in the sink? There's not much spring left in this bed. Boy does it sag!

"Well, it's beeg!", Mati notes, "Willy + Ramon only have two small beds in the other room. Mas pequito!"

"Well, we can figure out the arrangements later. It's dinner time. Let's eat!"

The menu shows spaghetti is served morning, noon and night. An over boiled mess with a runny, red sauce. My entourage decides to head to the countryside to see what they can scrounge up for supper instead. I decide to wait. Sit on the rusty, wrought iron balcony. Drinking a thick black espresso. Smoking a cheap Cuban cigarette, a Cuban quick fix, until they get back. 

"So what did you find?" Ho boy! I grow silent. Mystery meat? I wouldn't feed that to my cat, but can't say that. Not here. They try so hard to please! 

"Listen amigos, I don't think so. No. No. I will be fine! Dinner can wait."

Later on, out of desperation I slip out for a stroll. Aha! A dollar store! Its dark and musty inside. The shelves are bare, but for a case of Coca-Cola. And, in a locked glass counter -a Neilsons "Mr. Big" bar! A prized trophy.

"So uh, how much?",  $1 for the "Mr. Big" bar. 75 cents for a Coke. "Well, all right then, I'll take Mr. Big and um .... a can of Coke." 

The handful of locals grow silent. All eyes upon me. The clerk takes out his key. Slowly sticks it into the lock. A low murmur. "Somebody bought the "Mr. Big" bar! Somebody bought the "Mr. Big" bar!"

How embarrassing! On the wrapper it says it's made in Toronto at a factory I drive by every day. The Canadians have arrived in Contramaestra!  Perhaps a hint the Americans will be returning too?

I quietly place two crisp US dollar bills on the counter. The clerk desperately fishes about the old, battered cash register for enough change. I quickly slip back onto the street. Beat a mad retreat to our hotel room with my booty.

Willy greets me, quite excited, "Guess what? There's a concert at the Tropicana tonight. A local band knows some Beatle songs! They came to ask you to go see them play! Can you help them learn the lyrics better in English? We can tape it!"

"Okay! Okay! Willy, get out the ghetto blaster. Where's your Beatle tape?  Put it on. Let's see what we got. We'll go over the lyrics with them beforehand for practice. Willy, you can translate! Matilde and Ramon too!"

This definitely appeals to the teacher in me. Plus its looking like another End of the World Party, as I unravel the electrical cord. Lean over to the wall to plug it in. Then ...


Oh no! The Soviets wired the hotel for 220 volts! We sit, dejectedly staring at the burnt out player. Our last link with the outside world. Ramon later managed to fix it! At home, we'd just toss it out! But here? Once it's gone, quite possibly there's no more ghetto blaster for Beatle tapes. 

"Well, amigos. Amiga.", I sigh, "I think I'll cut my losses. Take a siesta. We can still go to tonight's show! Figure out what to do then. ­Hasta luego! See you later......."

Chapter 3: A Night Out On The Town!

I awake from my siesta in the early evening. Stare at the creaky old overhead fan futilely moving the stale, hot air around and around. Where am I?  Dazed and confused from all the heat and exhaustion, I yank open the shutters. Contramaestra! 

The long evening shadows create a Cuban twilight zone in the plaza below. Some good hombres hang about below a lamp post smoking cigarettes. Passing around a bottle of rum. Everyone's spilling out into the street.

The chicos' strut about in impossibly tight pants. The chicas' in bright makeup and minis. Everybody trying to catch one anothers eye. Naked toddlers race about at play. The little girls practice twirling the hula hoops around their impossibly skinny waists. Looking at my watch, I notice it's time to get ready for tonight's big show. 

Willy suggests we don't dress up too much so as to not draw attention. Highly unlikely! One suspects by now most everyone in town knows that visitors have arrived. With me, a foreign one. Very rare indeed!

I head to the hotel washroom. Can't drink the local water. So I brush my teeth and gargle with the last of my Coke. Blech. A little boy, waiting for his father by the toilet stall, watches intently. A little wink. He smiles. Stares shyly at the floor. Cute.

First stop -the dollar store. I buy three more Cokes to take with me. Damn. I feel so guilty! Off we head into the Cuban night, the streetlamps casting a pale glow down the narrow cobblestone streets of Contramaestra.

Suddenly -a blackout!!!! Damn those Yankees!! By now a conditioned scream! We'd almost break out laughing except for the chaos that ensues. Cubans on clunky old Chinese bicycles crash into each other, people walking on the street. A mad cacophony of angry voices, bruised arms, shins and knees. Even a fist fight or two as tempers flare. Ho boy! For awhile we stumble about. Total strangers lost in the dark Contramaestra night.....

Somebody resourceful has rigged up a generator at the Tropicana! Around it's tall fence a tumultuous sea of locals mill about. In gay lipstick. Faded party dresses. Baggy button down shirts and worn ill-fitting freshly pressed slacks. Hoping against hope that tonight they will get in! It's a Cuban promised land of bright lights and thundering drums! Tonight's­ el spectacular supreme!

Look -the gate man! "Amigo! ­ Estoy Canadiense! I'm Canadian....."

He gestures for security to let us in. The guards fan out parting passage among the jostling sea surrounding us. We dart for the gate. Matilde determinedly hangs onto my hand for dear life. Ramon bravely tries to fight back the crowd. Willy's bringing up the rear. The crowd descends crashing upon us, picking him clean! At the last second we yank him through. For the rest of our trip he'll bemoan his lost pocket calculator. A cheap gift but all he had to work out the school finances.

"My Chinese slippers! I lost one! I lost one!", Matilde cries!

"We'll get you another!"

"But, I bought them in Habana!" 

"Don't worry!"

A table has been reserved for us up front of the decrepit old stage. I nervously sit down. The band soon joins us. Yes. They've heard a lot about Canada. Another Cuban joke: if Quebec separates from Canada they'll join us. Then we'll have the United States surrounded. Ha! Unlikely.

Chapter 4: Tropicana!

A pale spotlight shines on centre stage:

"BABALU!!! BABALUAAA!!!", a skinny Ricky Ricardo look a like, a forgotten out take from the "I Love Lucy" show, breathlessly pounds away on his conga drum. The Tropicana Orchestra joins in. Dancers in swirling skirts, hips swaying round and round, delicately balance fake fruit baskets on their heads. Everyone is looking pretty tattered and frayed but that hardly matters tonight! The show has begun! The spectacular supreme!

Striking a match, I light up a fine Cuban cigar I've been specially saving. Enjoy one along with the other hombres. A fine, thoughtful plume of smoke. The fragrance tickles my senses. You know, the whole trip is worth it if only for this one night alone! Whatever else the Cubans might lack they enjoy a rich sense of music and culture without compare. 

I can't pronounce let alone name the rich smorgasbord of songs and dance that we are treated to tonight! The rich array of horns, percussion and rhythm instruments. The stand up bass. Tres guitars. We are treated to Son-Montuno. Changui. Guaracha. Mambo. Bolero. Merengue. Yoruba. Afro-Cubano. Every strain and combination of Cuban musical styles there within! The list goes on and on. Absolutely fabuloso!!!

Suddenly, the Tropicana falls silent. A nervous Cuban Frank Sinatra gingerly steps into the limelight. In broken English he bravely attempts to croon "My Way" to the hushed audience. The orchestra awkwardly struggles to back up his foreign Broadway tune. Little of this would've been tolerated a little over a year or so ago. All eyes are upon us as they finish the song. A stunned silence. I politely clap. Whistle enthusiastically. Stomp my feet. Everyone seems pleased and gives him a huge round of applause!

And now, the act they've been waiting for all these years: It's the Cuban Beatles!!! With guitar strings made from stripped electrical wire. A battered old out of tune keyboard. Drum skins that have definitely seen better days. But nothing's going to keep them from their moment in the spotlight in this really big show!

Oh no!! Not Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da!!! Too bad I screwed up the ghettoblaster and we couldn't do our teaching thing! But the Cubans love it. Totally gobble it up. Then a few more songs. The Cuban Beatles throw in a McCartney number "Hope of Deliverance". Sadly fitting and all things considered quite sweet. And then OH NO! 

"Come up! Come up! On stage!", There's excited whispers and shouts. They know I'm fluent in English! Arghhh!

Well, we do what we have to do to fight the good fight. The Cuban Beatles break out into a rousing rendition of "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (Lennon not Lenin...). I try to help them along. I swear to god this is the only place in the world where ANYBODY will ever clap and cheer while I sing Beatle songs on stage or anywhere else. For an encore I show them them how to do the twist while the band bashes away at "Twist and Shout". I'm even really getting into it now. Ha. In Cuba nobody really cares as long as you catch the spirit. That's about all they're going to get from me tonight!

Okay folks, that's about it! But no, no! "Speech! Speech!"

The Cubans love speeches. Long, long speeches like Fidel gives on t.v. at night. Truth be told, I'd make a pretty lousy Cubano Communist. Instead we indulge in a little patriotic good cheer. Always a safe bet. 

"VIVA CUBA! VIVA CANADA!", I cry out, pumping my fist in the air.

A sea of hands and fists wave in unison held high under the full Habana moon. Pretty crazy! Indeed they go nuts! Cuba's like that. It's truly an enigma. You've just got to love Cuba for being itself. Maybe it truly is impossible to figure it out. You've just got to experience it with your heart.

Chapter 5: Putting On The Ritz!

Awoke next morning. Figured we'd better get head back for work in Santiago. That's really what the Cuban School Project's all about. Everybody would be getting worried about us too. 

First we'd need to make the good bye rounds. Say farewell to all our new found friends in Contramaestra. I began to roll over the new names and faces in my mind as Willy and I pack up the baby blue 56 Chevy on the street out front of the Roach Motel. Glad to be done with all that, or so I thought.

"Excuse me sir!" An old man is standing beside me watching with great interest. Obviously no razor. His thread bare suit has seen better days. Sunken cheeks. Yellowed and missing teeth. A survivor. He raises a keen eyebrow, slyly leans over to me and says, "I can tell you are a veeerrry reeeeech man!"

"Oh yeah? How can you tell that I'm rich?"

A big warm grin spreads from cheek to cheek as he gazes at me with sheer amazement in his sparkling eyes, "Because you stay een a motel and brush your teeth and gargle with Coca Cola!" 

Chapter 6: Corazon!

Driving through the outskirts of Contramaestra we spot the Cuban Beatles relaxing on their front porch. Trying to escape the insidiously creeping, mid morning heat. Ricky and Frankie are there too! Pretty soon it's a jam. An acoustic one -easier on the strings! A little Spanish guitar. Some sweet tight harmonies. I may have heard the old Beatle songs a zillion times, but never like this! Somebody leads us in the "Ballad of John and Yoko" one last time;

Christ you know it ain't easy
You know how hard it can be
The way things are going
They're going to crucify me

I hope the embargo doesn't crush Cuba. That they don't get nailed on a long, lost, Cold War, political cross. Or caught in the crossfire of the next dubious world crisis. But with the way things are going down here -well, God only knows what comes next! It's such a sad, sad situation. You couldn't meet a better people. Anyway, before long the whole neighbourhood's gathered around the porch. It's another End of the World Party! Everybody clapping and singing along! English songs! Cuban songs! It doesn't matter!

"See the drummer?"

"Yes Willy."

"Pedro is the local school director." 

As the Cuban Beatles launch into an obscure Cuban folk number he does the dance that they all love. Up and down Pedro bounces face down on the floor. Keeping his balance. Lightly touching it with his tongue. Could you see your school board director getting down like that in Canada? Hmmm.

Everyone's still dancing, as we drive off. Cubans are like that! Any excuse will do. Anywhere. Anytime. I watch them disappear in the oppressive, sweltering heat through our rear view mirror as we make our way out of town. Back to Santiago de Cuba.

We'll drive across the plains to Palma. Rendezvous with Popo. Probably he's somehow fixed his Polski Fiat by now against all odds. Drive us up back up into the mountains, through El Cristo headed for a return to sheer Godliness; boiled water, a cooked meal and shower at the Toronto Friendship school! I wince at the thought of leaving our Contamaestra amigos y amigas trapped in their desperate hell. And yet, and yet, I'll bet they are still dancing and singing there today against all odds!

We stop for a stretch in the open plains. Everybody has diarrhea except me. Never thought I'd admit it but thank God for Coca Cola and Mr. Big bars! Ha. A lone condor circles lazily overhead as I walk out into the parched wind swept grass. The soil beneath my feet seems to give a hot heavy sigh; caught in an endless cycle of poverty and despair. Cuba; holding on like there's no tomorrow!

We didn't get very far on our road rip into the interior of the island this trip. Maybe it's more than I could take. By all accounts, it only get worse past Contramaestra. We are but on the cusp of the disease and hunger awaiting further inland during the current Special Period. As unimaginable as the embargo. 

I sigh. When my time and money runs out, I get to leave. Catch a flight back to our own little hellish First World malaise. I know, our neo con reality can really suck. But it's all very relative. My Cuban amigos y amigas will always be in the back of my mind. It's an especially heavy cross they must bear. Nothing they can do about it. I'll keep going back to try to help out. A big chunk of my heart will always be in Cuba.



PS: "Cuba and the Night" will continue ......


The Cuban School Project @ CSP

Toronto Friendship School @ Cuba + The Night 2

Traditional Cuban song + dance @ Santiago de Cuba Diary 4

Afrocuban culture, song + dance @ Santiago de Cuba Diary 5

Another Short Story: "Christmas in Cuba [1996]" @ Christmas in Cuba!

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