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.