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 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!"
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
"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 ...
"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.
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.....
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!"
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!
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!!!
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.
"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
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!
"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.
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 " @ Christmas in Cuba!