Journeying into Cuban Hearts, Part 2

by Ekua on September 26, 2010 in Cuba,why i travel

On our second morning in Vinales, five out of seven group members leave early to go on a hike. We’ve settled into the group and reached the point where we feel comfortable splitting up from time to time. The female half of the Aussie vegan couple and I stay in town. The previous night, Alberto had suggested that we all go shopping in Vinales in morning. We take him up on that offer.

Our first stop is a small boutique with a tiny selection of dresses and more jeans than seem necessary considering the climate. “This is a very expensive boutique,” Alberto says to us in a hushed voice. I get a sense that to him, this is the equivalent of a clothing store you’d find on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the look-but-don’t-touch kind. I flip through the few dresses they have available and look at the price tags. They cost approximately 8-10 US dollars.

Next, he takes us to store with a variety of items. The Aussie and I refer to it as a Cuban Target. Here, we see a bulky old school television selling for 600. We ask Alberto if the price is in Cuban Convertible Pesos which are approximately equal to US dollars. He nods his head yes. If a $9 dress is expensive, a TV is impossible for the average resident of Vinales.

Those are the kind of things you see in Cuba that make it consistently confusing. First you think, “Isn’t it fantastic that people here do/don’t do [fill in the blank]?” Then you think, “Where are the options? Is having options worth the results anyway?” And so on. The often unresolved question, “Do the ends justify the means?” is omnipresent in Cuba.

Our last shopping stop is a grocery store. The front part of the store is inexplicably full of generic plastic toys, followed by a section of bathroom goods. For all I’ve heard about toilet paper shortages and an inability to buy basic toiletries in Cuba if you run out, there is quite a bit available. The selection isn’t vast, but you can find what you need there. In this store, there are no fresh fruits and vegetables, but around the corner is an area full of processed foods—lots of pasta, rice, dried garbanzo beans, chips and crackers, canned goods, strange meats and cheeses. It looks like what you would stock your pantry with if you were preparing for a natural disaster. I pick up a bag of crackers and looked at the ingredient list which includes “government authorized flavor”. Tasty.

Back at the casa, tiredness and an unsettled stomach prompt me to rest for a bit. I wake up to find the casa owner’s son in the living room, sitting in a rocking chair and watching World Cup soccer on the family’s tiny television. I wonder how the family was able to afford their TV. I sit in an empty rocking chair and watch the game with him. He has kind eyes and we communicate about the teams and our hopes for the game with gestures, nods, and smiles. I know from Alberto that he is a huge soccer fan and plays for a local team. I look outside the window and notice that a storm is approaching.

The clouds that hover over the island are as complex as the people who inhabit it. In several shades and imaginative formations, they cast their shadows below. They accumulate and heave heavy drops and create a mirror for themselves. But it doesn’t last long. Soon after the last drop falls and the clouds disperse, the ground greedily consumes the water, insuring that mangoes will continue to drip from the trees; red, yellow, and fuchsia flowers will burst from branches; and the island will maintain a shade of green that is just a tad greener than you thought was earthly possible.

During the storm, I leave the casa owner’s son to his game and join the casa owner and a some other little old women on the porch to watch the rain and rock the time away. Unlike her son, the casa owner and her friends’ smiles are strained and less than genuine. They are white women, and in Cuba, I know that people of older generations often have more racial hang ups than those of younger ones. But I continue to rock and as the storm eases up, so do they. They begin to talk at me animatedly and I shrug and smile.

After the rain ends, the streets of Vinales immediately return to normal. People shout to nearby porches to communicate with their neighbors. A man sells mangoes up and down the streets until his wheelbarrow is empty. Guajiros ride by in horse-drawn carts. There’s a classic car, a beat up car, and modern car. Women and girls walk by with the a type of confidence I’ve only seen in certain parts of the world. It’s a type of confidence that doesn’t write off femininity as weak or meek. No, the strength they encompass does not require them to shun their femininity, instead, it is born from it. Beauty and power exist harmoniously, simply because of a well-rounded knowledge of the wonder of being female.

Later, the group comes back together for dinner at a nice restaurant on the outskirts of the town center. The hike and horseback riding that some of the group members partook in sound nice, but I wouldn’t trade the the shopping and porch rocking experiences I’ve had. While my day hasn’t been extravagant, the immersion has been exhilarating. And it isn’t over yet.

After dinner, the Aussie couple female half and I head over to the club with Alberto and Mr. Fabulous. The Aussie turns to me and excitedly whispers, “We’re in!” By our third and final night, we feel as though we’ve truly been allowed into the local community. It is variety show night at the club and there are song and dance performances of various types of Cuban styles of music—salsa, rumba, Santeria and more. It’s all performed so casually and comfortably and the costumes are so outdated that it’s obvious that the show has been the same for a long, long time. And based on the nonchalance of the local members of the audience, that seems to be just the way it is.

After the show ends, the music goes back and forth from salsa to reggaeton. Still not convinced of our salsa moves, we relegate our dancing to the reggaeton songs. Alberto is not much of a dancer and sits out on most songs. But Mr. Fabulous goes for it, and attracts half of the audience to come over and dance with our little group.  He starts dancing in time with the reggaeton and then builds up to dancing in double time before wiggling it out, each limb moving together but independently. With his moves and charisma combined, here in the States, he could easily start a dance workout video craze.

Alberto tells Mr. Fabulous about the nickname we’ve given him. He shakes his head and responds, “No, no, no!” He points to himself, smiles and says, “Senorita Fabuloso!”

By the end of the night, the three Australian guys have joined us and it becomes one of those crazy, joy-filled nights that is hard to surpass or even match. We linger in the square after the club closes and converse with people of the town and draw out the Vinales experience as much as possible.

At the end of my time in Vinales, I find the word that unites all the people I’ve encountered in Cuba: innocence. There is a lack of awareness about the world outside of Cuba that permeates so much of the way they do things there. It is refreshing, it is heartbreaking, and it is endearing.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunee September 27, 2010 at 6:02 am

I’ve just read a magazine article about Cuba where the writer states that she got the impression that she wasn’t welcome there – that they’d rather she had sent her money to Cuba without actually accompanying it. She ascribes this to the difference between the value of the tourist / local pesos and how everyone wanted to be paid for everything.

It doesn’t seem to me like you’ve had the same experience. You seem to mix well with the locals and were able to get to know them a little better. Perhaps it’s only a question of attitude when visiting a foreign country.

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Ekua September 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Is the article available online? If so, could you give me the link? Like anywhere else, Cuba can be experienced in many different ways based on how much time you spend, where you go, what you do, and how you travel. If I’d only stayed in Havana, my overall impression of the country would likely have been very different. Staying in homestays and visiting the countryside heavily defined my impressions of Cuba.

Cuban people are calm and most don’t seem eager to meet tourists the way people often do in other tropical countries. Customer service is usually pretty awful. People there seemed cold to me at first, but then I got used to it and found that it just takes time and willingness. Once you get past or used to the collective seemingly reserved demeanor, people are actually surprisingly open to strangers.

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Sunee September 27, 2010 at 11:28 pm
Ekua September 28, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Hmm… I have trouble with believing the author tried as hard as she said she did! For one, she calls a rum and cola a “Cuba Libra” rather than correctly calling it a “Cuba Libre” 😉

But in all seriousness, I think she was probably thrown off by the things I mentioned in my first response to you, especially the poor customer service and the people not being super eager to meet outsiders. Of course people aren’t going to be jazzed to give you good customer service when their pay is crap and they are guaranteed the necessities.

Andi September 27, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Ahhh your writing is so gorgeous!!! Yes, Cuba is an enigma that is impossible to understand or figure out. It has been 3 years since I’ve been there and I’m still trying comprehend my trip there.

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Ekua September 28, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Thanks, Andi! Cuba is definitely mind boggling as far as what to think of the country itself and it really challenges individual beliefs as well…

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Herb September 27, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Great insight, appreciated it.

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Ekua September 28, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Thanks 🙂

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Mary R September 28, 2010 at 1:12 am

What a day! I love all your encounters with the grocery store and the rocking ladies! There are so many great details here and I feel like I can really imagine what it must have been like.

Sounds like a fabulous evening too! I’ve had a few of those special moments in my life too, where people, music, lights all merge together and I live so in the moment.

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Ekua September 28, 2010 at 10:11 pm

I’m glad you feel like you can imagine it, that was my goal for these two posts! Great nights out like that are a good incentive to become a night person 😉

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Marie September 28, 2010 at 7:35 am

I love what you said about beauty and power existing harmoniously. I’ve noticed that in Latin America, but never articulated it!

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Ekua September 28, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Thanks! It annoys me that so many still seem to think that femininity and strength can’t mesh when womanhood is such a powerful thing! It’s one of those things that’s hard to describe…

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Globetrottergirls September 29, 2010 at 5:40 pm

We have to agree with Andi – your writing is wonderful!! Enjoyed this article so much, and we’d love to go to Cuba straight away. We hear so many interesting stories about it – hopefully a few more from you 🙂

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Ekua September 29, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Thanks for your lovely comment! I have a few more Cuba posts to go. You’ll see that not all will be happy posts, but I highly recommend a visit to Cuba. It’s such a unique place.

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