After eleven years living, dancing, teaching tango, and writing in Buenos Aires, I came home to L.A. in 2014, where I'm reconstructing my life.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Last Dance in Havana Part 3

Cuba goes way out of its way to make tourists happy, as tourism is now their biggest industry. But the tourist doesn’t get a good look at the other Cuba, the one of the Cubans.

The Cubans live in two worlds: their own and that of foreign visitors. Cubans get two government TV channels; tourists in hotels get CNN and satellite stations in several languages. There is the peso market and the dollar market (and the meeting of the two in the black market.) There are Cuban taxis, restaurants, hotels, markets, and shops, where only pesos are spent. Then there are the dollar stores, products and services. (Americans can forget about using their credit cards or ATMs.)

How paradoxical it is in this anti-capitalism regime that foreigners must change their Euros and Yen into American dollars to spend in Cuba. It’s only recently that Cubans are allowed to own dollars, and it’s with dollars that they can buy meat, fruit and products to elevate their lives above the basic subsistence the government provides.

The Cubans may not have a lot of material things, but still they know how to enjoy themselves. Luckily the best things in life are free, because the Cuban people glory in their music, their dance, and their sexuality. They smile, their dispositions are sunny, and if they complain, I never hear it.

Havana feels very safe. There are police everywhere, in front of every important building, on every street corner, looking into every bar and restaurant for illegal activity.

There are also cadres of security people stationed throughout all the tourist hotels, making the tourists feel secure, but also keeping the Cuban people out. It is against the law for a Cuban to be in a tourist hotel room--for their own protection, they are told. One of our Cuban dancers makes a mistake; after class she teaches a dance step to two American women in their room and the chambermaid reports her to hotel security. Rudely ordered downstairs and to show her identity papers, the plea of the two Americans doesn't prevent her breaking down into tears. She ís mortified--and so are the Americans.

We tourists see the old-fashioned charm and warmth that is carefully orchestrated for us to see. We love Cuba, but we also can leave. A new Cuban friend says that since the triumph of the Revolution, no one dies of hunger as before. Samuel Johnson wrote that freedom is ”the choice of working or starving.” The next day my friend tells me how his brother’s raft sank on its way to Miami...

Cubans are amazingly resourceful, innovative, and clever at creating what they want and need out of what they have. The classic American cars that they keep running on cannibalized parts, clunky Soviet engines, and spit are the most famous example of Cuban ingenuity. But there are many, many others. Making silk purses out of sows’ ears is a national talent.

At our farewell party in the Roof Garden of the Hotel Sevilla, there’s an all-girl salsa band, and performers in thongs and feathers. We all dance salsa, and many of us dance tango. We exchange promises to write, but without easy access to the Internet in Cuba, email is difficult, and regular mail is extremely slow, unreliable, and censored. The Cubans ask when we will return, and wistfully grow silent when the time comes for them to say when they might visit us.

Handsome Esequiel grabs my hand, saying, “Vamos, mami!” and we dance our last dance. I have learned this week that his sad expression is probably more due to his need for dental work than his mood. I awkwardly give drummer Carlos a tube of heavy-duty cream for his rough hands, as lotion--like soap and shampoo--is almost impossible to come by due to the U.S. embargo. I promise to send Eduardo a Spanish/French dictionary by DHL, the best way to communicate between our two countries, but I don’t know at the time that it costs $80 to send a small package from the States. I give Teresa, Yolanda, and many other women satin baseball hats I’d brought with me. And to Rey I give the most treasured gift of all, a bottle of aspirin for his mother. Here in Cuba, when locals whisper to you in the streets, it’s indeed about drugs, but it’s Tylenol, cough syrup and antacids they are interested in.

I receive a small blackface doll in a rumba costume, a necklace of watermelon seeds and shells, a postcard of Havana--precious mementos I’ll cherish always. The Cubans and the visitors laugh together without end the last night, all of us with happy Cuban faces. If we didn’t laugh, maybe we’d cry.

Luis whispered to me with a smile, “I see you are sad because you are leaving. Look at me, I cannot leave, yet I am happy.”

As the old Soviet-era prop jet takes off for Nassau the next morning, I see the ribbons of highways bisecting fields of sugar cane down below, empty but for only the occasional vehicle. Before long the turquoise sea sparkles in the sunlight. The United States and its many choices is so far away. I hear “Chan Chan” in my head, and I’m crying.

Originally published in Dancing USA.


tangospeak said...

What a beautiful story. I was able to see a collage of Cuba coming to life through your words.
Whem was this trip to Cuba?

tangocherie said...

Caroline, this was my first trip to Cuba in 2000; subsequently I returned 5 more times. I was able to get a License from the U.S. Treasury Department to teach tango and to learn salsa, and so I took several groups with me. It was fabulous!

Elizabeth said...

Cherie, I loved this entry about your travels in Cuba. The idea of a Californian teaching a latin dance to is a perfect and modern cultural exchange!

These connections creeate hope for a better world.

Thanks for sharing your interesting adventure.

tangocherie said...

I can't tell you what my "Cuban experiences" have meant to me.

I only wish everyone could experience the same amazing adventure--and learning opportunity!

I will always love Cuba and the Cuban people and the time I've spent there.

I will never, never, never forget.

yanqui mike said...

Tremendous series, cherie.

I've been to La Habana 3 times... all before 2000...all illegally thru Cancún. When I came back the first time, my friends all asked me how it was. Still shaking my head as if dazed I told them that I really didn't think there was anyplace else on earth to go!

Seeing the side of life that normal habeneros live wasn't difficult, at least then. I stayed in normal apartments with normal people, ate normal food, went to the beaches that normal people went to, and drank normal drinks except for having a daiquirí in La Floridita and trying to corner the market on mojitos in every good neighborhood joint I could find.

The people are just downright special. I've met friendly people all over the world but the cubanos have something...more. More genuine, more deep, more real... I don't what it is.

Whew! Sorry to babble. You got my memory machine goin'. I'm sure that you understand.

Great post. Thank you.


tangocherie said...

Mike, thank you so much for your wonderful comments, they mean a lot to me.

I wish I could share with the whole world the amazing moments--good and bad--that I had in Cuba.

My last trip of only a week was from here in 2005 and things had really changed by then. It was VERY difficult for my friends to manage.

You speak of "normal" homes and "normal" meals, but my experience was that the people who had enough space to rent out were "rich," and the meals that Cubans sell to tourists were far and above what normal Habaneros could manage for themselves. My favorite beach, Santa Maria, isn't "normal" if you go there with Cubans--the uniformed police stationed there on the sand are ever alert for fraternization.

My best Cuban friend, Miriam, is a bilingual journalist who lives with her son without electricity or hot water. My last visit there disheartened me so that I don't know if I can return--and with the rise in prices for foreigners, I probably can' least until things change there.

yanqui mike said...

Hee hee... I used the word "normal" but I really meant average.

The places I stayed didn't have A/C nor running water or otherwise.

It had to be brought up several flights of stair in buckets. If you wanted hot water it would have to be boiled on the stove. If you wanted a hot shower would be brought off the stove and poured into a 55 gal barrel braced inside the traditional Cuban tall ceiling about 6 feet above the floor. It warmed the water, I guess. But if you can't take a cold shower in Havana you can't take a cold shower anywhere.

There was electricity ...but the very tall ceilings allow for cutting the rooms into "2 stories" for each floor. That of course cutoff all the ventilation that those fine old buildings provided, keeping things cool even in pre A/C days.

This was 1 1/2 blocks behind the Hotel Inglaterra.

Tremendous good people...

I still remember dancing to Beny Moré from a '40's jukebox in a waterfront bar...

Unforgettable and indescribable to someone who's never been there.


tangocherie said...

Hey Mike,
Maybe we stayed in the same apartment!
Any chance it was on Calle San Miguel?

yanqui mike said...

I googled it: Neptuno y Consulado

Here's a map:

Inlaid in the marble at the doorstep was "Hotel Pullman"

You could tell that it had been magnificent in it's day.

BUT IT'S STRANGE THAT YOU MENTION IT! There was a little angle street that sort of chopped off a corner of that intersection ...for some reason you can't see it in the foto ...but you can see in on this map:

I think that street is San Miguel! My place was sort of at the intersection of all 3 streets!

yanqui mike said...


What lousy links'd think I'd know better.

The satellite foto:

The map:

tangocherie said...

Yup, that's San Miguel, the diagonal. I think that's a great neighborhood to stay in because you can literally walk to wherever you want to go. I don't think it was open when you were there, but a second Casa de Musica opened in an old theatre just a couple of blocks away, so I didn't have to travel far to hear Los Van Van, Azucker, many fabulous bands every night. And then afterwards a hike down to the Malecon with a pitstop for a bottle of rum...

You know, this story has stirred up so many memories of my own that I might have to post more real soon about Cuba and the Cubans.

Anonymous said...

Hola Cherie,

Miriam just sent me your website and I read much of your Buenos Aires writing and all of your Havana writing. It blew me away. Loved the pictures of Miriam and of Cuba, made me sososososo homesick.

Abrazos, and thank you so much,