A month-long day in vibrant Santa Clara

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Cuba Parts 1 and 2.

After yesterday, I feel as though I’ve been in Santa Clara – this subtly beautiful small-town center of vibrancy and progression – for a month.

In Rodolfo’s “luxury car,” I rolled into town, via the Che Guevara monument, around 2 p.m. on Wednesday.

The streets narrowed and became cobblestone. People on foot , bicycle, horse cart and taxi buggies that seemed incapable – or unwilling – to stop if anything crossed their paths, crowded the cars. People sat on the modest stoops of colorful row houses and talked with coffees.

It was immediately unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. I wish I could describe it properly. A wonderful, buzzing chaos.

Unlike most tourist cities, a lot of Santa Clara requires one to be in the know to access. Buzzing barber shops are almost hidden behind the slatted grates of an iron door. Cafeterias on side streets feel like homes – with only a kitchen and one or two tables. Places that are businesses often have no sign on the outside or hint that they are more than a residence – until you burst through the doors.

Rodolfo stopped to talk with four different people before pin-pointing my location. After unloading at my apartment – more on that later – I went out and walked a wide circle around the area in the center of town  before plopping down at the nearest bar, ordering a couple of Cuba Libres and trying to make a plan.

I never made one, but a plan soon found me. First, I ran into Luy, a Cuban American, who spends half his time in the states and half his time here.  Speaking English was a great relief after a morning of jagged communication and he quickly confirmed to me that I was swindled with my cab ride.

And I think I’m starting to learn why everyone – at least the younger side of everyone – is so friendly here and eager to show around, without apparent motives. You have to know a lot of people to get anything done. Everyone has a function. In Santa Clara, it seems like everyone knows each other.

After chatting with Luy for a while and telling him I’d see him later at El Menjunje, the club where he works  — “If you live in Cuba, you have to work hard,” he said – I quickly made some new friends.

Yuniel and Islay, Santa Clara natives, were going to find a drink and I joined them. We bought three tall, tart and sugary mojitos and sat on the steps of the main bar in the square surrounding Parque Vidal and chatted best we could. Yuniel’s English is maybe about 40 percent where my Spanish is at about 15 percent and Islay’s English is about the same as my Spanish, but when we could not find the words, we acted it out. Occasionally, that got complicated, like when I was trying to ask them about the annual transvestite beauty pageant that I read is held here each year.

Around that time, Luy walked up again, shouting to Yuniel and Islay and slapping their hands. Of course – he knew them already. Luy, who had warned me earlier not to buy cigars from the factory outlet – the black market is better, he said – had procured a box of Cohibas for me. By legitimate means, I am sure!

Luy introduced me to his “life mentor” – a guy who everyone calls KK – and he promised he would find me a reasonable driver to take me to Varadero on Friday and that the ride wouldn’t cost me more than $50.

He shook his head at hearing my commute story and how they played up the “outside danger” factor.

“There are two Cubas,” he said. “The government and the people.

“The people want to work and they need the money the most, but they are fair and they are real and they will give you a real experience. The government sees it as its job to wring as much money as possible out of tourists, especially Americans. And the experiences, they come from a corporation, not a person. The best thing is to avoid the people in suits as much as you can.”

After cooking with my hosts – more on that later, too – I convened with everyone at El Mejunje, which hosts a wide variety of live performances in its stunning, open-air park-like space. It’s also the site of Cuba’s only gay club, which it transforms into each Saturday and Sunday.

Luy had told me earlier that when he works Saturdays “Guys will come and ffpt! Give me a pat [on the bum] and I’ll just grit my teeth and smile and carry the drinks.”

He laughs and smiles. In reality, they are all very proud that Santa Clara has this distinction – several people told me about it, beaming. Later, Luy told me he actually dons mascara for those nights and when I asked him if he was popular in the gay community, he just winked and strutted.

That night at Mejunje, there was a Cuban chorus  before the main act that people were actually buzzing about: a group of Washington State folk singers doing a people-to-people tour in the country.

The big event of the night was supposed to, instead, be a massive party over at Santa Clara’s university – the country’s largest. But it had been cancelled in honor of Fidel Castro’s death. Although I arrived after the official grieving process had completed – ending the country-wide ban on alcohol and most businesses closing – discotheques are still closed at least through January, Juniel said. There was to be no raucousness, no dancing, no reverie for at least another month.

“We’re supposed to be more calm,” Yuniel said. “We’re supposed to be sad.”

He winked. “But I’m  not sad.”

The group at El Mejunje – singing a sort of folky gospel music – was about what you’d expect and the group was a little disappointed. But still, the venue was incredible. When you walked through the door, it was like entering a park courtyard with trees, two small sets of iron-and-wood bleachers and a bar. Upstairs, there was another bar and a balcony overhang. Islay and I drank rums up there and when we were bored, wandered over to the attached art gallery which also happens to be a pop-up tattoo shops at certain times.

On the tiny terrace hanging over the street, we met a couple of American girls and a couple more Cubans, and the English was easy and entertaining. Someone found a portable speaker and one of the girls played hip hop from her playlist and the Cubans gave us a very off-beat impromptu salsa lesson. Don’t let the government know we were dancing!

I’m about to hit the town again now – I have a lot of sightseeing to do.

This morning, Milagros – my hostess, Loana’s sister – and Irving, her husband brought up breakfast to my apartment, a procession of trays and carafes. There was a plate of scrambled eggs with vegetables, a big plate of fruit with pineapple, starfruit, guava and papaya, a spiced pork hamburger patty, soft cheese, mango juice and a deep, dark coffee with no bitterness or acidity. Amazing. An hour later, they knocked on my door to collect it. More on those wonderful people later.

Ciao for now!

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A month-long day in vibrant Santa Clara

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