Journeying into Cuban Hearts, Part 1

by Ekua on September 14, 2010 in Cuba,why i travel

It is time for our group salsa lesson, the hour of our evening that we naively believe will give us the skills we need to work up the nerve to dance with the Cubans. Our instructor and her assistant are patient and serious, but I can see their eyes smile with amusement as they try to teach seven goofy foreigners the basics of salsa and rumba.

They are not the only ones indulging in entertainment we provide. Every time we catch a glimpse of the window, we see heads popping up, taking stock of our new skills or lack thereof. People also walk in and out of the studio during our lesson and linger to watch. It seems like half the town has showed up to view the comedy show we didn’t know that we would be putting on.

After dinner, we all meet up at one of the casa particulares. It’s the house of Alberto*, the man who couldn’t stop laughing when he overheard our tour guide explaining to another casa owner what the Aussie vegans would and would not eat. Alberto is small and animated and a lovely host. It takes just a few moments for me to realize he is gay. He says to us, “I saw you guys at your dance lesson.” He smiles mischievously and says no more. The Sydney boys bring rum and he gets fresh mint from his garden and we make mojitos.

But then it becomes known that he could get in trouble for having foreigners over who aren’t staying at his casa. To others, it could look like he selling meals to foreigners off the record. And this could attract negative attention from the government.

So we move our party to the steps of the town square. The Sydney boys replenish our drink supply, but we have no cups. Someone simply goes into the club to ask for cups and they come out with several. I am surprised at the ease with which they’ve acquired them. In the States, the response would likely be something like, “Buy your drinks here, or leave us alone.”

We intend to eventually go into the club and try out our salsa steps, we really do. But the town square turns out to be entertaining far beyond what we could have imagined. On the steps, our group is joined by our bus driver, Alberto, and a few of Viñales’s most unique characters.

The first of our new friends is a guy we nickname, “Mr. Fabulous”. We’d seen him the day we’d arrived and his look surprised me. Vinales was not place where I’d expected to see someone sporting an asymmetrical dyed black emo haircut and pants so tight that they looked painted on. As soon as I saw him, I knew I needed to get to know him. I had shared my sentiments about this with the Aussie couple.

So as he approaches our group, they join me in my excitement. He is a friend of Alberto’s and hairdresser in town. As he chats with Alberto, I can tell he is sizing us up, determining whether or not he’ll hang out with us. We seem to pass the test and he stays and mingles and shares his flamboyant fabulousness with us.

Alberto decides to share a secret. He turns to the female half of the Aussie couple and says, “I have something to tell you.” He pauses. “I’m gay.”

“I know,” she responds.

He leans over her towards me to let me know, and we basically repeat the same lines. I explain to him that I don’t care. I tell him that I live in San Francisco, after all. He looks at me with a blank stare. I can tell he has no idea San Francisco has a reputation for being a mecca for gay males. He asks the Aussie, “What about your boyfriend? Does he know?”

She says, “Yes, he does, and he doesn’t care.”

We try to explain that the whole group knows and everyone likes him just the same. We tell him that we’re all pretty much from liberal cities with an “anything goes” vibe. But again, he stares at us blankly and skeptically, clearly not being able to fathom the places we come from. The people of the town seem to be friendly with Arturo and Mr. Fabulous and their friends. They are well-liked and respected. But when we ask for details on whether or not it’s always been the same way, we don’t get a clear answer.

Also hanging out in the square is the the town clown who has orange striped hair like a cat. He was one of the salsa lesson crashers we’d encountered earlier. That night, he is determined to put on a show for us. He dances a strange concoction of salsa-ish and tap dance-ish moves with such conviction that just for a moment, I wonder if he’s a dance move creative genius. Intermittently, he throws in a silly handstand to mix things up. The people of the town are obviously used to him and they are subtly compassionate towards him the way they might be to members of their own families.

We have such a great time meeting new people that we never go into the club before it closes. We see our guide exit the club amongst the last people to leave. He is arm and arm with a woman. It was hard not to assume that a relatively high income made it easy for him, with his highly tacky persona and all, to easily attract women. More than once we would see him in the same beauty and the beast situation.

More than once we would hear stories of people who left their jobs behind to work in the tourism industry where tips give people the opportunity to earn more than the average Cuban. Our guide had once been a teacher. Alberto had previously been a nurse. Both respectable jobs, but not ones that provided extra income in the form of tips from foreigners. In Cuba, you can find people who wistfully want more, but there are often undertones of apprehension and caution about what “more” will bring.

Like I  had hoped when we arrived in Viñales, it is a place that is willing to let people in. When we finally leave the square and return to our casas, the mojitos have long worn off. But our travel buzz, the kind that comes from the ascension to discovery, has been steadily growing.

*Name has been changed

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunee September 15, 2010 at 12:17 am

I find it interesting that he would want to tell all the foreigners that he’s gay. Not knowing anything about Cuba other than what I’ve read here on your blog, I would have thought them to be a bit more conservative. Even though no one was judging him, it still seemed like he expected people to – which makes it even weirder that he’s sharing it with complete strangers.

What an assortment of characters hanging out in the town square! Even though you missed out on practising your salsa moves, I think you probably gained a better understanding of Cuba just watching the people around you.

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Ekua September 15, 2010 at 12:44 am

There was no way he could’ve kept it a secret! It was so obvious to all of us, plus the town was so small that even if we hadn’t guessed, we would’ve figured it out eventually. He probably felt the need to do it for himself… he probably wanted to know that if we were going to become his friends, we would completely accept him.

My guess on the reason for his hesitation was that the town was possibly more conservative at some point. But as I mentioned, it was hard to get more information on the history of that. I also think he was cautious about telling us that info because many Cubans haven’t had much detailed exposure to what’s going on outside of Cuba… so if I imagine that his town only recently began to accept his lifestyle, he may have been worried that the places we came from were as slow, based on the fact that he just didn’t know what else was out there.

We had three nights in Vinales and two were spent at that salsa club, so it was great to have that one night to interact with all of the unique people in the square!

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Mary R September 15, 2010 at 1:15 am

There’s such great description of character in this Ekua. I hope you’re planning to work this into a story and submit for publication somewhere.

I especially liked the salsa, tap dancing, handstand imagery.

Did he reveal he was gay because he thought the women in the group may be interested in him?

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Ekua September 16, 2010 at 12:14 am

Haha, I definitely don’t think that’s why he told us. As I wrote in my response to the comment above, I think it was just something he wanted to share with everyone since we were spending a few days there and it was obviously going to be known at some point.

I’m not sure if I what I will do with this story, but I think if I put together all of the travel blogging I’ve done over the years, I am probably well on my way to a travel memoir 😉

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Terri- Try Anything Once September 15, 2010 at 4:51 am

Great post! I went to a casa particular myself and had the best meal of my time in Cuba there. I was struck by the fact that it was “illegal” to host people in your home for a paid meal. What was hardest for my time there were oftent he barriers that the government put up between foreigners and everyday Cubans. There were obviously ways around it and I did meet everyday people, but knowing that I could not stay in most hotels because they would not allow Cubans was hard. I also had some interesting situations with friends because we were Black and staying in what was a decent hotel. Until we said we were guests and Americans we were definitely given the side eye.

Also quite fascinating re: Alberto + his sexuality. I can only imagine what it is like. It’s interesting to me that he was cautious about the fact that you all didn’t care.

Again, great post!

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Ekua September 16, 2010 at 12:26 am

Yeah, Cuba certainly does have some ways of doing things that make it more of a challenging place for foreigners to get to know locals. And then when you do get to the point where you’re meet people, conversations about touchy subjects can only go so far.

Race in Cuba is definitely interesting and I’ll briefly cover some of my interactions with older generations in my next post. Like you, I also noticed differences in the way people treated me if they thought I was a Cuban or if they knew I wasn’t.

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Herb September 15, 2010 at 8:46 am

Enjoyed the post, as usual.

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Andi September 15, 2010 at 2:22 pm

OMG, what an unforgettable evening! I took salsa classes in La Habana. Alberto sounds like SUCH a character!

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Ekua September 16, 2010 at 12:27 am

@Herb and @Andi- Thanks for reading!

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Marsha September 16, 2010 at 6:21 pm

I love this beautiful portrait of acceptance. LOVE this. “I know and I don’t care”–as it should be. Beautifully written too.

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Ekua September 17, 2010 at 12:23 am

Thanks 🙂

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Lola September 26, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Loving your dispatches from Cuba. Loads of unforgettable characters

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