Well, I’m finally out from under the mountain of mail and email and other obligations that faced me upon my return from Cuba. Now I can take a few moments to write these few words about my experience.
The first thing that banged me over the head was seeing my boarding pass
After the brief flight, we deplaned at Jose Marti International Airport, where, with surprisingly little delay, they stamped my visa.
I was scheduled for two days in Vinales, heart of the tobacco country, three days in Cienfuegos on the south coast, and three days in Havana. During the entire trip, there wasn’t five minutes that went by where I didn’t see a car of this vintage.
I could get into all the details, but I won’t bore you with them here. I will, however, say that from the jump, I knew this would be an opportunity for me to build bridges to the Cuban people, one person at a time. I took every opportunity to engage ordinary Cubans, trying to see the world through their eyes. Being from Key West was a big plus, since historically, there’s always been a deep tight connection between the two islands, being only ninety miles apart. Every day, I wore a different guayabera, the Cuban national garment, and on these guayaberas, I wore a flag pin showing the Cuban and American flags together. Much to my surprise, the people showed me a lot of appreciation for these simple efforts.
I knew that any mention of politics would be completely counterproductive, so I avoided the topic at all times. Instead, I stuck to things of mutual interest: music, food, baseball. Oh, and speaking of baseball, we went to a game in Cienfuegos. Turns out, this is playoff season in Cuba, and Cienfuegos was playing Pinar del Rio for the right to go to their version of the World Series. We had fantastic seats, down the third base line just past the home team dugout…
I have to say, though, that with a final score of 13-3, and with seven errors committed during the game, the level of play wasn’t nearly what I’d hoped for. It was still quite a thrill being there, though, and was one of the brightest highlights of a trip filled with highlights.
Poverty was in abundance every time I turned my head, and I was struck by the near-total lack of any middle-class housing. What decent housing I did see, I was told was occupied by government officials.
Music is an extremely important component in Cuban life. I couldn’t believe how many places had live music every night. You’d find it in bars, restaurants, plazas, and in what looked like nothing more than roadside picnic stops. The musicians were terrific, and I bought CDs from every group I saw. The money for these CDs went directly into their pockets without having to whack it up with the government, so I opened my wallet to them. On a couple of occasions, the music and singing very nearly brought me to tears, it was so expressive. Like this guy, for instance, one of the most soulful trumpet players I’ve ever heard.
When we finally got to Havana, I was stunned at the view from my hotel room. I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels in my life and have looked out over more air conditioning compressors than I care to remember, but I’ve never had a view like this one.
Much has been made of the tumbledown condition of the city, and it was certainly evident while I was there. The government, however, is finally making an effort to preserve some of these grand old buildings. Lots of construction was taking place, with scaffolding covering the facades of quite a few downtown structures.
Of course, a trip to the Floridita Bar was compulsory, and while my hypoglycemia doesn’t permit me to guzzle daiquiris like Hemingway did during his years there, I did manage to scarf down a couple of mojitosÂ sin azucar. And while I was there, I got to speak to Ernest himself, and tried to explain some of the finer points of writing. I’m not sure if he was listening, though.
After eight days, I returned home, buzzed and exhausted at the same time. I think I can say with confidence that I did in fact build some bridges across the ninety miles of the Florida Straits.
I will return.