The Cuban Trip
Feature by Mavis Manus
Part One

Cuba was a powerful experience and I am not even quite sure why this 700-mile-long island should make such a strong impression. We soaked ourselves in the history – from the destruction of the native population by the Spanish through successive imperial powers as France, England and the U.S.-backed repressive dictators. We also read about the romantic but bloody revolution and its heroes, and the aftermath of repression, the good life flourishing under the USSR and the subsequent acute poverty when that economic aid ran out. Now tourism is helping things, controls are loosening. Meanwhile Castro has made indelible achievements – no more illiteracy, racism (at least by law), hunger or homelessness. Basic food, housing and medical care are practically free. Just about the only piece of graffiti we saw on a wall read “There are 4 million homeless children in the world. Not one is Cuban”. There are very few photographs or statues of Castro. Che is the icon, on t-shirts, statues and walls.

Unlike practically every foreigner we met, we were not members of a group. We had journalism credentials and were able to take the once-weekly flight from Los Angeles to Havana. Our plan was to meet up with friends, a Viennese couple, spend a week in Havana, drive in a rented car round the island for another week and spend the last day or so in Havana. The first week we visited a cigar factory (slightly embarrassing to wander round the factory watching people work at the benches). One old woman of near 90 sat in one corner with a triple thickness cigar stuck in her mouth – not a pretty sight – a bit like the Christmas pig with apple. But the making of cigars was in truth an interesting process. One feature; in the morning a reader read the newspaper through a loudspeaker and in the afternoon did the same with Spanish literature (Lorca, Cervantes, etc.)

A day was well spent on Hemingway, at the village where he moored the Pilar and where ‘the old man of the sea’ still lives. He used to charge $10 for an interview but now he’s too old and tired and has a sign on his door “Please don’t knock. I can’t see any visitors”’ and then to Papa’s finca, kept in perfect condition. We were not allowed to enter, only peer in through windows and open doors. But it was magical seeing his books, desk and combat boots. There were tourists of course, including one utterly cliché-looking post-revolution Russian group – blue serge suits, square haircuts, square faces, sour expressions. My friend, Ursula, who speaks perfect Spanish< asked what the Russian people thought of Hemingway. It was duly translated, heavy pause for thought, then “They think he is magnificent”. We were a bit pouty that these Russians were allowed to wander inside the house. Guess the USSR still exerts a force of some kind.

Old Havana was the most colorful district in Havana, with wonderful crumbling architecture, large squares, many coffee houses. Music galore, of course. Everywhere, all hours of day and night. Perhaps not so picturesque to live in, (see crumbling), often a family crowded in one room, no running water (a truck comes round and you line up with buckets and containers).

It’s just about the safest country in the world. We’d wander down dark streets middle of the night with no fear of being mugged. There are warnings, however, about bag-snatchers and even I had a mini-experience of an attempt. A young lad approached me, asking, “Carameles?” As kids were always asking for chiclets or sweets I automatically opened my bag and was surprised when suddenly Willard yelled “Get out of there!” The lad’s friend had crept up with hand outstretched to grab my wallet, or whatever he could, from the open bag. They slunk off sheepishly with Willard yelling “Malaka!” (Greek for wanker). I’m sure they thought they’d learned a new word in English.

But everyone is hustling for those extra dollars. It’s a dollar economy and earning pesos won’t get you far. Often professional people give up their jobs to drive a taxi, become waiters or maids in order to get their hands on dollars. There is of course some prostitution, street selling of cigars, rum, tickets to the ballet and whatever can be converted to yanqui (as the museums quaintly continue to call the U.S. dollar).

You see every kind of transportation on the road, horse and buggy, horses, taxi cocoanuts (vespas with round tin backs which seat the driver and two passengers, pedobikes, open-backed trucks whose passengers stand in back, vehicles called camels which are truck fronts pulling sway-backed busses. Our favorites were these great old Cadillacs and Chevrolets, anywhere from 22 to 55 years old, with fins, rumble seats and painted in ice-cream colors.

We talked to dozens of people and Willard interviewed popular playwright, directors of both stage and film, artists, professors as well as people met while wandering. We were met consistently with friendliness and politeness. Cubans are a most attractive people; the women favoring spandex which show their figures to good advantage. It was a boon having Ursula speak not only excellent Spanish, but she has a most sympatico approach to people. On journalist told us of a press conference held for a Minister who was given a hard time by the press, velvet gloves off. The Minister was surprised at first, then became a little angry, but the journalists seemed totally unafraid.

We rented a car to take a trip round the island. We stopped at Cienfuegos (huge elegant square and theater) for some hours and stayed in Trinidad for a few days before going on to Santiago de Cuba. Again the architecture in Trinidad was stunning, with cobbled streets meeting in a large central square of magnificent houses. Now they are government buildings or art galleries or museums, not private homes. But in the side streets are the remains of slave quarters. In Spanish times Cuba had 150,000 slaves and as beautiful as it was I was spooked by the atmosphere. The pain of these slaves was soaked into the cobblestones.

Santiago de Cuba is rightly famed for its music – and this in a country devoted to that art. We spent many hours listening to bands all kinds of music played on regular, home-made and local instruments, and of course to singers whose voices entered your soul.

A change came with a trip to the beach with clean white sand, luxury hotels, great swimming. We found one little Greek-like cove outside Santiago, with very few other bathers, one little food shack where the owner offered to cook us up a lobster with lots of side dishes. Willard was awed to meet two young Cuban men who’d been fishing with spearguns for a couple hours without need of a wet suit. Even more awe-inspiring was their catch – two large lobsters, 3 large fish and half a dozen smaller ones.
The worst thing about the visit was the food. Even in the idyllic setting above, the lobsters arrived hopelessly overcooked. Eventually we had to stick to breakfast, cheese sandwiches for lunch and an omelet and fresh fruit for dinner. I had always claimed Scotland as having the worst cooking in the world, but Cuba won that title hands down.

On the flight back to Havana there was a group of young men speaking English (well, one had a Scottish accent which Willard would question was English). They were entertainers off a cruise ship – 2 singers, a comedian and the Scotsman a magician and a comedian. Lots of laughter though no food was served on the 3-hour trip. Fortunately I had taken along quite a bit from a generous breakfast at the Cuevas Hotel in Santiago and we shared the bites to accompany the free-flowing beers.

This time we stayed in the Capri Hotel (one of the two in Havana built by Meyer Lansky and not cleaned since). The advantages were its lovely rooftop swimming pool and its nearness to a super little jazz club, The Fox and the Crow, where we heard great jazz until 1.30 every morning. be continued.