Got My Mojo Back in Cuba

This is Part 1 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba not long ago. To see all 5 posts in chronological order, Click Here.   

I heard music—guitars and maracas—coming from a baby blue building in Baracoa, a small town at the Eastern tip of Cuba, where Columbus first landed on the island. Looking through the door, I saw a four-piece band on a wooden dance floor, with several couples doing a provocative salsa and others sitting in metal folding chairs.

cu hot danceI sat down, alone, intending just to watch. I’d recently come to the realization that I’m at the age where I’m invisible. When I walk along the street, no one looks at me, especially not men, and if their eyes accidentally do meet mine, they carom away like billiard balls cracking off the table rail.

I’d no sooner settled in my chair, however, than a man wearing an orange shirt and a shark’s tooth necklace asked me to dance. I hesitated; he looked younger than my son and I hadn’t done any Latin dancing in years. But he stared straight in my eyes, smiling, and moved me about the floor with such assurance that I was soon dancing better than I thought I could.

This was Cuba, where, I’d been told, “Men learn to dance in the crib. It’s genetic.”

For years, I’d been dreaming about spending a few months in Havana, soaking up the music and culture and taking an intense Spanish course. But this was before the U.S. restored diplomatic relations with the country, and when I learned there was no high-speed internet or cell phone service on the island, I skidded to a stop. Whoaaaa. Two months unplugged? No ability to call or be reached from home? I don’t think so.

Then an invitation arrived for a 12-day people-to-people trip sponsored by a group in Boulder, Co. Boulder has a sister city, Yateras, in the Eastern mountains, where Castro, at 25, gathered his rag tag troops and launched the revolution.

Everything for the trip had been arranged: charter flights, lodging, permission from the U.S. Treasury Department. I figured that for 12 days, I could tolerate going cold turkey from electronics.

What I did not know was that the mojo I hadn’t experienced in years would rise again in Cuba. I’d return from the island feeling sensual and lissome, and acquainted with the realities—both wonderful and tough—of living behind the digital curtain, under Cuba’s unique form of communism, which co-exists with Catholicism, Afro-Cuban sacrifices, and a national obsession with sex, rum and insanely fabulous music.

Logging Out

High heels and short shorts

High heels and short shorts

Our group arrived at the Miami airport at 6 a.m. for a charter flight to Havana. Expectant, nervous, I sent my last emails and made my final phone calls from the gate. Next to me was a Cuban woman in her fifties, presently living in Miami and returning to visit relatives. At six a.m., she’d appeared in full makeup, an iridescent orange dress that was skintight and cut in a V so low you could glimpse her nipples, big jewelry, and gold sandals with stiletto heels. Most of the Cuban women were dressed in that manner, while I wore a  sensible, wrinkle-free travel dress.

We took off and almost immediately started our descent to Havana, only 90 miles from Miami. Then we were walking across the grass to the Forbidden Kingdom. Police dogs sniffed our luggage, officials took a photo of each visitor and then waved us out of the terminal, where we came face to face with a billboard of Ernesto Che Guevara that said, in Spanish, “We see you every day, pure as a child or a pure man. Che, our commander, our friend.”

A chartered bus took us to Old Havana—a maze of narrow streets dating back to the 1500’s. The buildings, once elegant and ornate, are now shabby but painted electric colors: lemon yellow, candy pink, and the sky blue they call “Havana blue.” This is different, I would learn, from other parts of Havana where the buildings are dilapidated and gray. But in the Old Havana that tourists see, there was color, sound and art. Birds sang in the royal palms, sculptures and paintings were displayed in the squares, and when we sat down at an outdoor cafe, a group of young people on stilts came dancing up to us.

Cubans stiltsI began to notice that Cuban men of all ages were looking at me, making eye contact. And not just because I’m a tourist. More than a million tourists from Canada and Europe had come to Cuba the past year. The Cuban men—and women—seemed eager to connect. No one on the street was holding a cell phone to his ear, and nobody in the café had her head bowed over a screen. No kids were playing video games; they played outside in their neighborhoods.

I was struck by how assertively sexual the women dress. No matter how old or how much extra flesh they have, they wrap it tightly and let it show—rolls, folds, overripe mounds, or firm little buds popping out of garments that are scooped out in front and back and slit up the legs. I saw a female army officer walk by, wearing a crisp, khaki blouse and a khaki skirt that was so short it did not qualify, in my mind, for that category of clothing. Under the so-called skirt, she wore black fishnet stockings with roses twining down her legs, and red stiletto pumps that I’ve heard described as “fuck me shoes.” An army officer.

As we traveled across the island in the next 12 days, we were traveling back in time. Because of the embargo imposed by the U.S. in 1960, there’s been little economic development, and as a result, the beaches are pristine and unpolluted, most of the land and produce are free of chemicals, and there’s a huge diversity of animals and plants—one of the richest in the world. But you won’t find a Coke or big Mac on the island. Yet.

What you will see are billboards everywhere, with slogans like, “The revolution is us!” and “Our country or death!” In the U.S., the message of billboards is, “Buy!” but in Cuba it’s, “Go, revolution!” We did not see a single image of Fidel or his brother, Raul Castro, the current President, but Che—you can’t get away from him. One billboard showed nothing but his black beret on a field of blue, and said, “We’re learning to love you, Che.”

“Che” means friend, brother or comrade in Argentine slang, and Guevara, who came to Cuba from Argentina, considered it an honor to be so addressed. In the film of his life directed by Stephen Soderbergh, he is pictured teaching his young soldiers to read, and telling them to respect the campesinos in the hills where the guerrillas are camping. “We don’t take their possessions, threaten or harm or rape them,” he says. “Anyone caught stealing their food will be denied food for three days.”

At the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, there are black metal outlines, five stories tall, of the faces of Che and of Camilo Cienfuegos, another dead revolutionary hero. Under Che’s face are the words: “Hasta la Victoria siempre”—Forward to victory, always. Under Cienfuegos’ face: “Vas bien, Fidel”—You’re doing great, Fidel. Crowd Awaiting Pope John Paul III tried to imagine having such billboards for our leaders, past and present. George Bush’s face with, “You’re doing great, George!” Or a portrait of Obama saying, “Our commander, our friend.”

I felt humbled by how little I knew about Cuba. I’d been in my teens during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I’d had the impression that Castro was crazed, a maniac. At U.C. Berkeley, there were students who idolized Castro and Che and volunteered to go cut sugar cane on the island. But I was not one of them. If you’d asked me, “Who is the most revered person in all of Cuban history?” I would not have known.

It’s Jose Marti. There’s a museum dedicated to Marti in the Plaza de la Revolucion, and his bust sits in front of almost every Cuban school. He was a philosopher, political activist, and writer who was killed in 1895, in the struggle to gain independence from Spain. Marti was 42, not trained as a soldier, but he insisted on mounting a white horse to lead the Cubans into battle. He was immediately spotted and shot, but left behind volumes of essays, letters and poems, including the lyrics to the song, “Guantanamero.”

Our group had dinner that night in the courtyard of Dona Eutimia, a paladar—one of the private restaurants that have opened since 2010, when the government, in an attempt to boost the feeble economy, began letting people start their own businesses. Many had turned their homes into paladars, which serve far better food than the state-run restaurants.

We ordered at 7 p.m. but did not receive our meal until 9, which is typical for the paladars. The cooks prepare everything in tiny home kitchens with primitive ovens. During the wait, we listened to singer-guitarists and drank mojitos or shots of Habana Club Especial, a smooth, elegant rum that sells for $8 a bottle. When the meal arrived, it was worth the wait: wooden platters of paella with huge chunks of fresh-caught lobster, shrimp, chicken, saffron rice and fried plantains, followed by café cubano, delicate cups of sweet thick coffee. Most Cubans couldn’t afford a meal like this; they’re lucky to get an occasional chicken with their ration cards.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Please leave a comment below.  Thanks!

 

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39 thoughts on “Got My Mojo Back in Cuba

  1. Ren Feldman

    Loved the article, Sarah. Love you too. Cedar and I are dying to go to Cuba. Your article will definitely add some umph to our wish. Abrazos, linda amiga,

    Renaldo Campo de Hombre, aka Ren Feldman

    Reply
  2. Betsy Cox

    Sara! I’ve missed you since I finished “Loose Change,” which I ordered immediately after hearing you speak at the Saging Guild last year. You kept me company in Mexico on a family vacation. I was sad to finish it. I’m one of your contemporaries who lived that time, too. Thank you for telling what it was really like for an educated woman to come of age in that time.
    and now this! I read the first chapter, and will savor the rest. Your narration sings!

    A Denver Fan,
    Betsy

    Reply
  3. Bill Younglove

    Thanks for that shared travelogue. Having visited Cuba just two years ago (March 2013), I can confirm much of what you wrote about, with the exception of the clothing styles. I really liked the fact that the people-to-people mandate (2 contacts minimum daily with the Cuban people themselves) really put our group in touch with the arts, religion, culture, and history. There is, however, one McDonald’s on the island–at Guantanamo. Question is: How much/how rapidly will the island change once it “opens up?”

    Reply
    1. victor

      on guantánamo, bill, there is not one McDonald’s, but it would be in naval base of the United States in guantanamo bay, Cuban territory occupied against the will of the government and the Cuban people, whose sovereignty must be returned to its rightful owners…

      Reply
  4. Madgew

    I was in Cuba also just before the embargo was lifted. I loved the country and especially the people who were so friendly. They love the USA even though we have treated them so bad over the last 50 years. They were anxiously awaiting the lift of the embargo and have the cruise ships pour in from the US. However, their infrastructure is not ready yet. They are missing a few major elements-one being toilet paper. We traveled by bus from Holquin to Havana by way of Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Trinadad and many other stops. We visited the home of a 90 year old Shaman which was so terrific. We studied the culture, the religions and the history. The reason Castro is not immortalized yet is because in Cuba they only honor you once you are dead. That is how you know regardless of what you hear, Castro is still alive. We had a private meeting int he intersection with our counsel general for Cuba and met with may people in architecture and history.
    I would go back in a heartbeat. Loved everything about Cuba. So happy I got to visit before it changes with the eventual influx of the Americans and everything changes. Not all for the good I am afraid. I have included my travel blog on Cuba.

    Reply
    1. victor

      the embargo, magdew, was not lifted… ilive here now, an i have 61… united states must lifte the blockade to cuba…!!! it is not good, blockade is a criminal weapon agains the cuban people…

      Reply
      1. Madgew

        Victor should have said I went just before Obama let the talks begin. The blockade/ embargo will be lifted in my opinion.

        Reply
  5. Vicki Kaufmann

    I love your description of Cuba. I’m privileged to live in South Florida and to have worked in Miami, the hub of Cuban culture here in the US. I have several Cuban American friends. Your article makes me want to visit Cuba. You may want to do some research about the Operation Pedro Pan airlifts that brought many young Cuban children to the US under the guise that that they were coming to school here. Many are now prominent leaders in their communities. I was privileged to work with Msgr. Bryan Walsh who helped mastermind this plan.

    Reply
  6. susan swiderski

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your impressions about Cuba. Nothing can teach us more about a place than visiting it in person, and interacting with the locals. Reading your account is the next best thing.

    I thought I “met” you through reading “The December Project,” which captured my heart, made me fall in love with the rabbi and revel in your beautiful friendship. Little did I know we’d already “met” years ago. An earlier comment on this post mentioned your book “Loose Change,” which rang a bell. I raced (okay, I waddled…) to the other room to see if I remembered correctly, and sure enough, there was your book. I read it in the late seventies, but didn’t realize … blah, blah, blah. You get the idea.

    Reply
  7. James Angleton

    I’m glad that the Cubans responded to a lively adventurous feminine free spirit and made you welcome. This is a counterpoint to the male narcissism that had contributed to your move to Colorado.

    Reply
  8. Keith

    Yes Cuba is a fun island for a tourist who is on a 12-day trip. What’s not to love? Sunshine, beaches, cigars, run & sexy people – sounds great. Perhaps some good will actually reach the citizens of the island instead of just propping up an oppressive regime…perhaps. As a Jew, does the lack of religious freedom bother you or did the stilettos blind you to that inconvenient fact of life in this paradise? As an American, does the lack of political freedom & complete control by the government of all aspects of life bother you? As a writer how did you find the freedom of expression in Cuba? Does being able to wear provocative clothing make up for the fact that no one can speak up against the government? As a capitalist & YES you are a capitalist since EVERYTHING that you have ever earned, saved & enjoyed is a DIRECT result of living in a capitalistic society does it bother you that, in your own words “Most Cubans couldn’t afford a meal like this; they’re lucky to get an occasional chicken with their ration cards.” Yet you had a great meal. How would you like to live there? No chance of writing anything like what you have published here in the U.S., & no Internet & no cell phone service, rationed food (when was the last time you have even heard of that? WW2?) but hey, the beaches are clean with no high-rise condos being built by the evil corporations out to exploit the poor islanders. OPEN your eyes & write about the average people, their fears & concerns & the oppressive government that the people of Cuba have lived under for far too long. The ills of Cuba are not the result of the U.S. embargo but lie directly on the communist government of Cuba, who have crushed the spirit of the people & brainwashed them with giant billboards & constant & complete control of the media. This sounded like “1984” & your article like something out of the Ministry of Truth. You like Cuba? Go live there. You like Cuban people? Then write about their struggles & support efforts by your OWN government to peacefully bring change to the government of Cuba & true freedom to the people. It can happen – remember the U.S.S.R.?

    Reply
  9. Gail Toyooka

    I want to experience Cuba, too!!! You are such a master in conveying this sensually
    awakening experience that is age proof.

    Reply
  10. Sally Grounds

    Can’t wait to read more Sara. Love your description of your experiences.
    Hope to see you when your on the Island again.

    Reply
  11. Nancy Spaeder

    How marvelous to read about Cuba through the eyes of an empath. I lok forward to more accounts of the Cuba trip; it is difficult to find reliable information about Cuba.

    Reply
  12. Jimmy Lewis

    Hola,

    I also recently returned to my Home in México from Cuba. Baracoa is my new paradise! I loved
    The trova place also. i have Ben there Many times over The past 19 years and can’t seem to
    get enough of It. I will try to send you a video of my work there.

    Jimmy

    Reply
    1. Tracy

      I spent 2 weeks in Cuba in 2000, driving the length of the island with two other women. We stayed in casa particulares, the homes of Cubans renting out rooms to try and make ends meet, and honestly it was difficult not to be upset by the loss of a working alternative to capitalism. The loss of “a beautiful dream.” The people were wonderful; the music fantastic; and it’s great that the country has guaranteed education and health care. But as an American I was appalled that the Cuban people seemed to be imprisoned. They couldn’t leave Cuba. They were stuck there even though many wanted out. I have hopes that this is changing, starting with internet access.
      I do love the sensuality you write about; maybe latin lovers are all they’re cracked up to be.

      Still, I do l

      Reply
  13. Tom cannon

    Congratulations for getting your mojo back. It must feel real good. It was a very interesting read. I en joyed it. I am
    cu-rr eIntly in Japan – first time in ten years – I am showing a photographer around and he is generously paying my way.

    Tom

    Reply
  14. Marta Vago

    It’s easy to idealize a country one knows little about. The more I travel around the world, the more evident this becomes. Cuba, for a variety of reasons, is a mess: a place that’s been idealized by Americans, due to Cuba’s pre-Communist glory, combined with American anti-Communist sentiments. I have no doubt you had an interesting experience in Cuba. I’m glad you did. I, for one, have no desire to go there.

    Reply
  15. spense havlick

    Sarah,
    What a joy to read your Mojo Blog re Cuba. Your beautiful prose took me back there and it was like being there yesterday with you again.
    You certainly captured the moods of the trip we had and whoever reads it will surely want to sample what you experienced ……if they can.
    Fondly,
    Spense

    Reply
  16. Michael Zimmerman

    I love the ‘billiard balls caroming off the table image”. Thanks for your article about Cuba. I am eager to visit in December for the Havana Jazz Festival, salsa dance( ya estoy un salsero, y hablo Espanol) and study Spanish. Could I have fun for 2 months in Cuba?

    Michael

    Reply
  17. Arlene Jenkins

    I found your trip o Cuba very enlightening , interesting and newsworthy .I am anxious to read more of your visit to Cuba.

    Reply
  18. victor

    sara, i think you write clear and sincerily, it is well you get your mojo here, during your first trip, but in others things, i think you need more information… come back, please…!!!!

    Reply
  19. judi Bachrach Turner

    The computer just said that my comment was a duplicate. This is the first time
    I read your Cuba blog and the first time I ever said that I wanted to go there.
    FYI

    Reply
  20. Ava

    I truly enjoyed this Part One of your journey. I’ve always been fascinated with Cuba. I’m looking forward to Part Two.

    (I knew I should have moved to Boulder).

    Reply
  21. Ava

    an excellent book to check out is: “Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today” by Yoani Sanchez.

    Reply
  22. Barbara Alethea

    Hi Sara,
    Very much inspired by your blog–I think a trip to Cuba is just what I need!
    Nice work!
    Alethea

    Reply
  23. Niki Berg

    Sara. Thank you so much for sharing this first part of your Cuban journey. You are a brilliant writer and I
    can’t wait to read the parts which follow. Once I began The December Project I couldn’t put it down. I loved that experience, moving, informative and oh so engaging.

    My best to you and hope at this point you are able to keep your Mojo. Amazing to be in touch with
    it at our age ! Here I go to part 2.

    Niki

    Reply