Walking the streets of Havana in March 2018, I spied a man in a white T-shirt watching a spontaneous soccer match below his crumbling apartment. Beneath him a pallid woman lies prone, staring perhaps in a trance; or maybe she is ill. The soccer ball occasionally bounces off her body without moving her.
This woman is Cuba, subdued and motionless, but looking skyward and hopeful. She sees the failure of her effort to build a new social order. And yet, a new generation of Cubans play all around her. These are not children of the Revolution. These boys are playing soccer, a sport that is gradually supplanting baseball as the national pastime. Change is coming, but probably not fast enough for the guy on the balcony.
Like individuals, nations and their citizens present two selves. It is sometimes hard to tell which is more genuine or if political (polite) appearances on the surface actually reflect the inner reality. Art is often a conduit of clues about a nation’s character and style under the surface— not always, but often.
I barely hit the street on my first day in Cuba when a passerby flashed the grin that many islanders were easy with. However, the blank stare of the green alien persona painted on the wall next to him (and barred entrance) gave me pause. Two thumbs up offer the promise of Havana’s good life, but the haunting eyes of that long green face cast a shadow on the friendly gesture.
Old Havana, Cuba, invites its visitors to smoke, drink, eat and dance. Inhibitions nurtured at home are sorely tempted in this intriguing city, held together by duct tape but made charming by its residents and mid 20th century revolutionary hangover.
Down the street from my hostel/residence are well-attended bars where both men and women patrons mingle with drinks in one hand (maybe two) and cigar in the other. Rum and coke before dinner is a custom that purportedly prepares the diner’s digestion of some meat (or fish) treat neighboring with rice and beans. Drinks are cheap ($2), but Cuban cigars burn $4 and more.
Wikipedia says dance-rhumba originated among poor workers of African descent in the streets and solares (courtyards) of northern Cuba in the 19th century. Rumba remains one of Cuba's most characteristic forms of music and dance, featuring “vocal improvisation, elaborate dancing and polyrhythmic drumming.” Especially on Sunday afternoons and every night, anyone strolling the alleys and roads of Old Havana can pick and choose to mix with an assortment of foot-tapping, rump-waving, shimmering bands and show-offs. My intrepid traveling companions, and even I at one point, did not shrink from the challenge and coaching that most Cubans seem always willing to offer.
Car Talk - “Honey”, that Pink Cadillac
Cruising down the street Waving to the girls Feeling out of sight Spending all my money On a Saturday night Honey I just wonder what you do there in back Of your pink Cadillac Pink Cadillac — Bruce Springsteen
With tape and primitive tools, Cubans saved the royal American automobile fleet of the mid-20th century from extinction or confinement to jailhouse garages. On the Island everywhere, familiar and yet strange (see pink caddy photo no. 3) cars lurk in alleys and driveways, speed through stoplights and languish in repair mode along roadsides and curbs. It’s not just an experience of nostalgia; it’s a retro dream come to life.
Magic Bus - Cuba, Tourists and Stranded
Thank you, driver, for getting me here (too much, Magic Bus) — [part way back to Havana] You'll be an inspector, have no fear (too much, Magic Bus) I don't want to cause no fuss (too much, Magic Bus) But can I buy your Magic Bus? (too much, Magic Bus)
Every day you'll see the dust (too much, Magic Bus) As I drive my baby in my Magic Bus (too much, Magic Bus) Songwriters: Peter Townshend Magic Bus lyrics © T.R.O. Inc. (The Who recorded the song in 1968 and released it on September 18.)
The Magical Mystery Tour bus of The Beatles in 1967 was in a lot better shape than the Big Blue that I and my Cuba companions were introduced to in March. (In the film by that name aired on BBC in December 1967, a group of people including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison & Ringo Starr relaxed in a Bedford VAL Panorama coach bus.) I am not complaining though because I actually really felt reunited with my 1960’s rebel spirit, sans the goatee. Even Cubans who are used to old vehicles whizzing past gave our bus a second look.
The Car Guy
Guides, forever patient
And of course our fate was sealed; our coach died, leaving everyone standing beside the road on the last day of the tour. (Fortunately, its resting place was adjacent to a major rest stop and scenic place, where fine mojitos and sours and coladas kept us entertained until rescue arrived (in the guise of another weathered vehicle that was labeled a ‘bus”).
Who were my companions, besides nostalgic ghosts of The Beatles and Peter Townshend? My tour group, hosted by the Martin Luther King Center program in Havana, included individuals of all ages (above 20 years) and associated in some way with alumni of Eastern Mennonite University (located in Harrisonburg, Va.) I won’t name them individually but photos below depict them in various states of attention and inattention, during periods when our brains were reassembled. They, including our guides, were all a hardy lot (without exception) — very flexible, friendly, maintaining a constant state of good humor, inquisitive and generous. Impressive! (Again, no complaint from me. Watching the road passing under the tires from my seat was at times mesmerizing).