Category Archives: Got My Mojo Back in Cuba

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.

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What’s with the Cuban Women?

This is Part 2 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba not long ago. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.

On Sunday, a 28-year-old novelist, whom I’ll call Raffi, joins us for the day’s sightseeing. Wearing a straw hat with a black band, gray pants, and sunglasses tucked in the V of his yellow polo shirt, Raffi has an open face and dark eyes quick to smile. He’s a friend of one of our leaders, Trish, who’s guided many trips to Cuba.

IMG_0135Raffi, two others and I climb into a taxi—a ’55 Chevy that’s been painted “Havana blue” and completely refurbished, with air conditioning, a rebuilt motor, new upholstery and paint, and stereo sound coming out of the ancient radio. The drivers use ingenuity and parts they scrounge on the black market to keep the cars in peak condition.

Raffi tells me the driver makes more than surgeons, who earn about $25 a month. “I have friends with Ph.D.’s who drive taxis,” he says, explaining that there are two currencies in Cuba—CUC’s (called kooks), for tourists, and CUP’s, or pesos, for Cubans. The CUC is worth about a dollar but the peso is worth four cents. Taxi drivers and others who work with tourists get paid in CUC’s, but all other Cubans get the measly pesos, and they can’t live on pesos alone. Some earn cash from illegal activities and others get money sent from relatives abroad.

Cuba SD carRaffi says his grandfather was a founder of the Cuban Communist party, but his grandmother hates the revolution. “She had a business that they nationalized and took away,” he says. “She thinks the revolution ruined the country.” His grandfather, who owned a small coffee shop, was so passionate for the revolution that when officials came to his shop, he said, “Take it!” Raffi smiles. “They were like cat and dog. That’s why they were so in love.”

We pass a billboard, “United for a sustainable socialism.” I ask Raffi why I haven’t seen or heard the word “communism.” He shrugs. “Today we don’t speak of communism. We want a socialism where the government controls the most essential parts of the economy but not all. A socialism that can survive without being subsidized by Russia or China.”

“Do you think that’s possible?” I ask.

“We don’t know. We hope.”

Marti

Jose Marti

 

 

Raffi is working on a novel about Jose Marti, which, he says, “has helped me a lot. When you learn about the man, you fall in love with the country he lived and died for.”

“What do you think Marti would make of Cuba today?”

Raffi throws back his head and laughs. “That’s a question I ask myself every day.” He says Marti would have wanted the revolution and the good things it brought—free education and health care for everyone. “But…” He raises his hands, palms up.

Cu Sanchez

Yoani Sanchez

I tell him I’ve read Havana Real, by the dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez, who describes how she grew up hungry and obsessed with food, had to wait years to get a pair of eye glasses, and had her blog repeatedly shut down by “faceless censors.”

Raffi nods. “What’s revolutionary at one time can become orthodox tomorrow.” He believes this is what happened with the Cuban revolution—the idealistic cause became frozen into a defensive and rigid bureaucracy. “We have to revolutionize the revolution,” Raffi says.

I suggest that the same could apply to the American revolution. What the founders conceived of as a system of checks and balances has devolved into obstruction and paralysis. “We need to revolutionize it.”

Raffi and I learn we share a love of “Cuban fusion music,” made by young musicians who merge traditional Cuban melodies with other genres—rock ‘n roll, reggae, African, and Brazilian. He tries to find a fusion concert that night, but not hearing of one, takes me to a large club, the Casa de Musica Habana. There are two show times in Cuba: the matinee, from 5 to 9 p.m., and the night show, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. We arrive during the interval when the place is closed, so we wait on a nearby park bench. Raffi lives in this neighborhood, with his grandmother, a cousin, her husband and their baby.

This is central Havana—drab, crowded, and ugly—where a building collapses every three days. The buses are so full that people have to fight their way inside, so they often walk the distance or splurge on a bicycle taxi.

Raffi spots a cluster of 10-year-old girls who live on his block, sitting on a bench across from us, singing in harmony. Raffi waves and calls, “How come you don’t say hello?” The girls jump to their feet and run over, forming a line in front of Raffi. As if moving down a reception line, each girl takes Raffi’s hand and touches her left cheek to his, then her right cheek to his, then takes my hand and does the same. It’s the sweet Cuban greeting—touching both cheeks—that I’ll come to savor.

After the girls run back to their bench, Raffi tells me he’s different from most of his peers, because his mother was a diplomat who took him with her to other countries. “I’ve seen the world, but others my age want to see what’s outside Cuba.” Most of his friends, including his girlfriend, say, “There’s no future for us in Cuba.” They study at university, complete graduate work, but then find there are no openings for the jobs they’ve been trained to do.

None of his friends are married, and if they were, they wouldn’t be able to find housing and would have to crowd in with relatives. Most of them want to leave, but not Raffi. “I’m happy in Cuba,” he says. “The country is changing, but people don’t believe it yet. They self censor, holding back their real thoughts out of fear.”

When the club opens, they charge me 10 CUC’s and him 3 pesos to go inside, where the music is reggaeton, not my favorite or his, and it’s loud. Eardrum-busting loud. I watch young women grind and shake, rubbing their boobs in men’s faces or grabbing hold of a guy’s buttocks and slamming their crotch into it.

Cu dirty danceWe leave after twenty minutes and I’m disoriented. In the early days of Women’s Liberation, I was part of the cohort who stopped shaving our legs and were annoyed when guys whistled at us on the street. We insisted on being seen not as sex objects but as full and fully valued human beings. What’s with the Cuban women?

TO BE CONTINUED.

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Dancing with Cubans

This is Part 3 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba not long ago. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.

There are two questions I start asking everyone I meet: “Why are the women so flamboyant in flaunting their bodies?” And, “Can the Cuban government change its spots?”

When I tell our tour guide, Liliana, about the women I saw at the Casa de Musica, she shakes her head. “Those were jinateras, girls who sell themselves to make extra money.”

“But most of the women around here dress like that. Why?”

“Ask the men,” she says, turning to a group of locals drinking coffee at the next table. They give several reasons: “the climate,” “it’s the style,” “the custom,” and “the men like it.” Laughing, one adds, “We don’t have dangerous animals in Cuba. Only women.”

cub girl phone

Girl with jury-rigged phone on street

Liliana says the two major forms of entertainment are music and sex. At most clubs they have condoms on the menu, and sex education starts early. “They use a banana,” she says.

Raul with daughter Mariela

Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, who’s widely loved, is director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.

A willowy, freckled brunette, she campaigns for AIDS prevention and LGBT rights. She led the first parade—a conga dance through the streets of Havana—against homophobia, and was instrumental in getting a law passed that allows transgender people to legally modify their gender and receive sex change operations at no cost.

As to whether Cuba’s government is changing, I hear two narratives: “It’s changing fast,” and “It will never change.”

LarramendiIn old Havana, Julio Larramendi, a chicly dressed art photographer and gallery owner, says, “With Raul at the helm, things will be different.”

Artists like Larramendi—rather than hedge fund managers and bankers—are the privileged, the 1% in Cuba, who for years have been allowed to travel and sell their work abroad, which cushions their life at home. Larramendi says, “My parents and I were part of the revolution. We still have commitment.” He shakes his head. “Our children don’t. They want to go live in Miami or California, but I decided to stay here. The future is here.” He says Cuba today is not what it was two years ago, and “next year there will be greater changes.”

I hear the opposite on the plane we take from Havana to the Eastern city of Holguin, when I ask a 26-year-old chef, Juan, if the government is changing. He gives his head a firm shake. “Maybe when I die. My father is 56 and all my life, he’s been saying things will change, some day it will be different.”

Juan, who wears a gold earring and his hair cut and gelled to stick straight up, had to pay a fee to be admitted to culinary school, where he studied four years to get a job in a restaurant that pays him $15 a month. He would like to visit relatives in New Jersey, but to apply for a visa, he says, “You have to go to Havana two times, buying two round-trip tickets, and pay the application fee of $160, whether you get the visa or not. That adds up to a whole year’s salary.” He frowns. “Nothing’s changed.”

From Holguin, we take a chartered bus on the rough, two-lane road—the only road—that runs the length of Cuba. A billboard proclaims, “Siempre adelante”—always forward, which seems like cognitive dissonance. A horse-drawn wagon is pulling a flatbed on which a dozen working men are standing up, jammed together, and in the fields men are cutting cane with machetes. Along the sides of the road they’ve planted a living fence—a continuous row of sharp-thorned cactus—to prevent livestock from crossing.

In the countryside, the only cars we see are beat-up junkers, not the slick, refurbished gems of Havana. But the landscape is bucolic: fields of corn, hollyhocks and sunflowers, roosters crowing, cows mooing, mountains rising on one side and on the other, the sea.

When we reach Santiago de Cuba, our hotel offers dial-up Internet on an antique computer for $8 an hour, but I avert my eyes. I don’t want to go near it. Contrary to what I’d expected, being unplugged has been a relief. I hadn’t realized until I was forced to withdraw from it how much the Internet keeps the brain and nervous system on edge, alert to the dinging, ringing, and tapping in the never ending cycle of receiving and responding. Just a few days after disconnecting, I could feel my body letting down. It was a level of relaxation I hadn’t experienced since the 90’s, before email, before the 24-hour glut of information.

I’m awakened the next morning by the sound of drums. Walking out on my balcony, I see four groups of musicians gathering in the square, drumming, singing, and I feel my body entraining with the music.

Cuba musiciansAs I walk about the streets, I’m holding myself taller, aware of my hips, the length of my steps, the loosening of my shoulders and neck. And I’m actually beginning to enjoy the way women dress. It’s not subtle but vibrant and fanciful, and it’s inclusive. A man I meet at a music club says, “Our first principle is: Every woman is beautiful.”

On several nights we go to dance performances and each is radically different. The Afro-Cuban dancers are fierce and raw, acting out stories of the gods struggling with each other. But the Tumba Francesa, developed in the early 1800’s, is polite and formal. On French plantations in Cuba then, the slaves would gather at night to make music and imitate the court dances they’d seen their owners doing—minuets and quadrilles. At a club in Santiago, we watch pairs of dancers sashay out in costumes made of cheap fabric but styled like those of the slave owners, with ruffles, sashes, and petticoats. The dance looks like a mix of African, 18th century French, and American square dancing, to the beat of giant drums.

cu tumba ladiesAfter the last number, the lead male dancer reaches for my hand to lead me to the floor. I hesitate; I’ve had a bout of intense vertigo recently, and I’m nervous the dancing might bring it back. But I can’t help myself. I rise, and as the drums grow louder, the Cuban is so masterful that it’s like playing tennis with a strong player—you hit better—and with a great dancer, you can’t make a mistake.

Of the numerous men I’ve dated, there was only one who liked to dance. Most men don’t understand that they don’t have to be Fred Astaire; if they can lead and keep the beat, any woman in the room will be their partner. Knowing this, I tried to encourage my son to dance but he never quite took to it. So to be in a country where men are enthusiastic to dance with me…. well, it’s the closest I’ve come in quite a while to bliss.

TO BE CONTINUED.

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Midnight Call in Cuba

In 1961, 200,000 Cuban students—half of them girls—volunteered to leave their city homes and go live in remote villages to teach adults to write their names and read.

two girl volunteersGirl volunteers

I learned about this when our group visited the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the  place where, in 1953, Fidel, who was 25, and his younger brother, Raul, staged their first armed attack, on the second largest military barracks in the country. Fidel had 120 rebels in a caravan of cars, but the cars got separated and the one carrying the heavy weapons got lost. The men who did reach the barracks started firing too soon and were outnumbered ten to one. They lost the battle and 61 were killed, but the revolution was on.

As we tour the Moncado Barracks, now a museum, I stop before a wall on which is written: “Every revolution has 3 phases: conspiracy, insurrection, and ultimately, the phase where it truly begins. Here was born the liberty of Cuba.”

Below are large black and white photos of the faces of the 61 killed. They’re so young—the average age is 18. Each has a unique expression, with singular eyes and set of mouth. I look at each face, sounding out the young man’s name. I can imagine what they felt: the rightness of their cause; the passion to transform an illiterate, poor country into a society where every person would learn to read, have free health care, education, housing and a job.

It was this passion, I suspect, that spurred so many Cuban teenagers, after Fidel triumphed in Havana, to take a year off school to go teach campesinos to read.

And it came to me: if I’d been a Cuban in my teens or 20’s at the time of the revolution, I probably would have been with Fidel.

That evening in Santiago, we’re invited to the launch of a book that our tour leader, Trish, helped publish, at the Cuban Union of Intellectual and Creative Artists. As the author speaks, I take notes on my iPad. After the talk, an unusually tall Cuban man in the audience, about 50, walks up to me before I can stand and asks what I’m writing. He says he’s a journalist for a local paper, and his name is Charles Dickens Romero-Lopez. I ask how he got that name. “My father is a writer and loves Dickens,” he says.

There’s merriment and mischief in his eyes, as we begin to debate the merits of Dickens vs. George Eliot and Cervantes vs. Tolstoy. We commiserate about the state of journalism and publishing in Cuba and the U.S. We’re both divorced, we learn, and have children about the same age.

“Are your kids named Garcia Marquez or Pablo Neruda?” I ask.

“How did you guess!”

“Truly?”

“No.” He takes hold of my arm as we laugh.

I notice that our group is preparing to leave. Charles Dickens asks where I’m staying, and if I’d like to continue talking? I go to find Trish and ask if he can come back to the hotel on the bus with us, expecting her to say, okay. The stated purpose of our trip is people-to-people interactions. But she looks at me a long moment. “I’m not sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know who you’re talking to in Cuba. He wasn’t on the guest list of people we invited.”

Chastened, I say goodbye to Charles Dickens and we exchange contact information, although I don’t imagine we’ll ever speak again.

That night, I’m jarred awake at 4 a.m. by a loud ringing sound. Disoriented, I try to figure where it’s coming from. As the ringing continues, I turn on a light and trace the sound to an old-fashioned rotary phone in a corner. I haven’t used a phone since I’ve been in Cuba and hadn’t noticed there was one in the room, and then it stops ringing. My mind races. You don’t know who you’re talking to in Cuba. That afternoon, we’d met with a district official and I’d asked my perennial question: “Is Cuba’s government changing?” Irritated, he snapped, “There are things that will never change. The political system—socialism—will not change.” He pointed a finger at me. “The government can’t provide everything, especially during a financial crisis.” Later he’d asked Trish why I was taking notes. She took me aside and suggested I be more discreet.

I lie awake, worrying, am I being watched?  Was Charles Dickens a government plant?  I have a friend in New York, a writer, who went to Cuba after the revolution to teach, and was arrested, accused of being a spy, and imprisoned for 18 months. If I should be carted off to jail, nobody would know where I was or what had happened, and there’s absolutely no one I could call for help.

The only way I can calm myself to sleep again is with the thought that if that happened… I’d have a hellacious story.

TO BE CONTINUED….

This is Part 4 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba just before President Obama announced that relations between our countries would be normalized. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.

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Last Tango in Cuba

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

The last place our group visits is Baracoa, a small town with old world charm, at the very eastern tip of the island. It’s where Columbus landed, and at Our Lady of the Assumption church, they have the cross he allegedly planted in the sand. Our guide, Liliana, tells us that the first land deed Castro signed over to a campesino was in Baracoa. “He started giving land back to the people at the same place where the Spanish colonizers started taking it.” baracoaOur hotel, the Castillo, feels like paradise, especially after some of the ones we’ve stayed at that had threadbare sheets, scratchy towels, lights that don’t work and only a trickle of water dripping from the shower. The Castillo sits on the highest hill in town, has a sparkling clean swimming pool, and rooms that look out on water in two directions—the Straits of Florida and the Atlantic.

I wander through the streets of pastel houses with decorative iron grillwork. Horses are pulling carriages, and people are eating pizza they buy for a few pesos from a window in someone’s home.cub man baraIt’s hotter and more humid than anywhere else we’ve been, and in no time, sweat pours down my face and chest. I climb back up the hill to our hotel to take one of the four showers I’ll have today. I didn’t bring any tank tops or shorts, since I’ve stopped wearing such garments, so I put on a black sports bra and tie a thin sarong from Hawaii around my chest as a dress. I’m showing as much skin now as Cuban women. Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

There’s a lively artists’ colony in Baracoa, and I visit the studio of Roel Caboverde, who paints Cubans in a style that incorporates cubism and expressionism, exaggerating the hands and eyes.  His work is so much in demand internationally that he has little in his studio to buy, or I’d have brought a painting home with me.

Hurricane, by Roel Caboverde

Hurricane, by Roel Caboverde

My one disappointment on this trip has been that no one in our group wants to go out at night to hear music or dance. So I’ve taken to going alone. I show up at matinees around 5 p.m., take a seat and in minutes, someone, usually younger than my son, escorts me to the dance floor. Everyone dances—from those so old they can barely make subtle movements to six-year-old girls who know how to shake it.

salsa CubaI feel sultry, juicy, but wonder if I look like my mother did when she took up square dancing in her 60’s and flirted with her partners.

On our last day, we drive back to Holguin, where we’ll catch a charter flight to Miami. I know that as soon as the wheels touch down, emails will start flooding into my phone and I’m dreading it. I don’t want to be ensnared again, after being in a country where everybody’s unplugged.

I think back to the last matinee I attended in Baracoa.

cu man splitsA young man who was a head shorter than me was the first to ask me to dance. When the song ended, he said his friend wanted to meet me also. The friend had Rasta dreadlocks and was the best dancer yet. As he spun me around the floor, my sarong slipped down to my waist, leaving me in the sports bra with a bare midriff but no one seemed to pay any mind. I felt unfettered and alive. I’d arrived in Cuba feeling my currency had been spent, and was leaving with the knowledge that I still have untapped reserves.

As the music grew louder and faster and the matinee drew to a close, I confess: Reader, I led everyone on the floor in the limbo.

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