Rocking Our Souls in Cuba

by Marcia McGreevy Lewis

After a terrifying night-time car chase in Havana, two sisters head to southern Cuba and discover the role music plays in peoples’ lives.

We couldn’t decide whether the hole in the floor of our taxi was amusing or alarming as we bumped our way along Havana’s rutted streets. When we settled into our room at the dilapidating Hotel Saratoga, we threw open the shutters to relish the balmy high sixties and low seventies temperatures. Wafting in through the shutters was the beat of Afro-Cuban bongo drums. Music thrums through Cubans’ souls.

My sister, Molly, and I toured Cuba in 2012 when President Obama opened the country to cultural exchanges. Technology was proliferating there, and we wanted to feel the country’s pulse before sleek boxes replaced the moldy, crumbling buildings, and museums claimed the antique cars.

Havana supported 2.2M of Cuba’s 11M residents, along with five centuries of Spanish architecture blighted from years of neglect. The vivid azure skyline was a background against images of Che Guevara on buildings and the proliferation of marble statues and limestone turrets. Scaffolding supported buildings that were decomposing. Trees sprouted from abandoned balconies. Flimsy laundry lines strung together deteriorating buildings. 

When Fidel Castro seized power from Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he appropriated US-owned businesses, causing the US to levy an embargo. In response, Fidel aligned with the Soviet Union and nationalized Batista’s presidential palace to become the Museum of the Revolution. Bullet holes from the revolution pocket the museum walls, but that’s not the most interesting wall. The “Rincon de Cretins” features pictures of both Bush presidents and President Reagan with the message, “Thank you to the cretins for making socialism inevitable.”

This is Hemingway country where, after Hemingway’s death, the Cuban government confiscated his property. We were fortunate to visit his home, Finca Vigía, a pale yellow neo-classical dwelling. Mounted animal heads protruded from every wall, except a bathroom where he had scrawled his daily weight. El Pilar, his boat, on which he searched for German U-boats during World War II, perches on the back lawn.

Paladars, restaurants in private homes, were evidence that government-sanctioned capitalism may have started dusting the economy. We set out one night to try one and unearthed the same taxi driver with the same hole in the floor—or maybe it was a second taxi with another hole, but there was irrefutable evidence of a hole. He knew where the paladar was, so we bounced our way over the rock-strewn roads until he let out an ear-piercing yelp, screaming that the truck coming from the opposite direction was towing his boat.

We peered out the dust-covered windows to observe a black truck hauling a small gray fishing boat. Before we could ask how the driver knew it was his, he flipped the car in a U-turn, began blasting his horn, and raced after the truck. In one second our peaceful excursion flamed into wildfire. The horn was so loud that we could hardly make out his words, but we did hear, “I had the trailer locked.  How did the bastard get it onto his hitch? Bastard!”

Yanking up our feet to deflect the rocks that banged against the floorboards wasn’t good enough. Next, we crouched on the seats to avoid the boulders that popped into the car. Despite my stomach feeling like a flock of birds thrashing to break out, I thrust my hand into my purse to retrieve my camera and began taking pictures. With the jostling, I got great pictures of the dashboard, the ceiling, and my legs. The only thing to do was to hang out the window and shoot from there as we bolted around a corner to see the truck driver head into a one-way street.

“We’ll circle the block and catch him!” roared the driver.

“If he comes out,” my sister said as she covered her eyes. “He could have a gun!”

Ignoring her, the driver flew down the street, blasting his horn at anyone in the way, took another U-turn at the end, and circled back. We spotted the truck stopped at a dead end, and the driver was out of the truck unhooking the boat trailer. We powered on, trying to block him, but the driver vaulted into his vehicle and roared past us as we entered the dead end. My camera clicked madly away as I tried to capture his shadowed face and the non-existent license plate.

Our driver leaped out of the taxi, producing the key for the boat lock. “Bastard! Rope. He tied my boat to his hitch. Nobody takes my boat,” the driver spat out as we bobbed along with double the impact now that the boat was bounding along behind us. “Paladar?”

“I’m not sure my nerves are ready for dinner. My stomach is in knots, and my whole body is shaking. Give me a minute to process this,” said Molly.

“We might as well go ahead,” I said, hugging her. “Maybe they’ll have mojitos.”

Mojitos did greet us as we stepped inside the restaurant. Little did we know how much we needed the hypnotic drum beats of the musicians, too—standard at each paladar. Our meal was standard as well—beans, rice, shredded beef, and the predictable additional starch—yuka. That’s what we needed, standard. No gun-toting, boat-stealing, crazy-driving truck drivers.

By the time we left Havana a day later to drive to Cienfuegos, our nerves had finally calmed, and we were able to enjoy the verdant growth that surrounded us. The tidy town square in Cienfuegos bordered by French neoclassical buildings thumbed its nose at Havana’s decrepitude. Descendants of the Buena Vista Social Club entertained us at the locals’ lair, Club Danzon. Men spiffed up in white—shirts, pants, shoes, and hats—swept us onto the dance floor.

Sugarcane fields surrounded us as we later drove to the city of Trinidad. Its cobbled streets, pastel houses, and elegant plazas evoked Cuba’s glory days. There, we visited Normando, who explained how people at every level exist, not easily, on government ration books. Professionals made subsistence salaries; artists and sports figures made more. All used ration books for food and essentials. There was no homelessness, but two jobs were essential. The government absconded with most coffee the plantations produced, and the farmers who weren’t allowed to sell the remainder did just that. Factory workers who wove baskets from palm leaves made illegal baskets to sell on the side.

There were amusing moments like listening to the locals argue (vociferously) about baseball every day on the same street corner. And there were inconveniences, often related to personal plumbing. Someone needs to redeploy the women who guard restrooms. They withheld infinitesimal squares of toilet paper as ransom for tips. And someone else needs to catch the toilet seat thief. Toilets never had seats. 

1950s American cars imported before the revolution—turquoise Ford Fairlanes, yellow Hudson coupes, and red Chevy convertibles, tail fins flying—all cruise like mobile museums. Those are the show cars. Some cars hang together minus bumpers or door handles and have brakes that sound like a chef’s knife stuck in the sharpener. Patches of house paint attempt to cover flaws. That paint, along with parts from old Russian cars, is all they can access.

Bring on the night! We returned to Havana after our trip to southern Cuba and hired some once-hot rods that honked ai-oo-ga. As we careened down the Avenue of the Presidents in our “Yank Tanks,” we bellowed rock songs to people strolling along the Malecon seawall, assuring those Cubans that their message is clear—it’s music that rocks the soul. 

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