Goodbye Santa Clara, hello Varadero

Cuba travels parts 1, 2 and 3.

This morning, when I awoke from my rum slumber, I walked two circles around Santa Clara and then had my hosts call me a taxi.

On the drive out, I teared up.

That’s the spell that is Santa Clara, delivering two of the fullest two days I’ve ever had in a locale I already know will be one of my favorites always.

Yesterday, Luy tells me, I became Cuban.

After waking up to the sound of children shouting and the thick smell of tobacco smoke rising in through the open windows, I went down to El Mejunje to meet Luy like we had agreed to the night before.

“If you’re going to hang with me, you have to be Cuban,” he said.

Stop No. 1? To get my nails done in a deep shade of blue, apparently. Across the street from the salon was the unofficial revolution museum – a tiny, coffee-shop sized space filled with original documents, pictures, artifacts, uniforms. None of it is under glass. The uniforms you can touch; the medals of honor, you can buy, tarnished and worn from years past. A turquoise bubbly fridge, era 1940s is still working – and they use it, to store drinks and food.

They live in this museum the way the city itself functions as a living, breathing museum. It is as though someone hit the pause button in the 1958 and the city has lived every day since, frozen in time.

They walk the same streets, they live in the same buildings, the rich ones drive the same cars, and the slow, social, vibrant, unplugged lifestyle continues. Wifi is all but absent. As for GPS? Google? Apple? The roads have never been mapped. Directions consist of landmarks and hand motions. Iphones are basically relegated to, well, telephones.  Friendship is valued above all worldly possessions, which are few. People find each other by going to the square or a particular café. And at night, everyone gets together, drinks rum and dances.

Nothing works, the power and the water across the city cuts out randomly – including once last night and once this morning and there aren’t enough jobs, by far. But there is a beauty in the pillars that hold together the disintegrating floor, the sloping roof. Everyone works together and for each other. And there is such joy and pride and why not? Beyond the historical gold mines, Santa Clara is unique, extremely lively with art and culture, incredibly progressive considering the context and full of wonderful coffee, cheap beer and amazing views.

I asked Luy what was hard to get in Cuba. Some of the things I have read it is very hard to get are quality shampoos, etc., sheets, towels, razor blades, toys and spices.

His answer included iphones, playstations and good wifi but he added “Food is easy. Beer is easy. Friends are easy. And almost anything else, you can get on the black market.”

After the museum, Luy showed me the Che Guevara monuments and the original trains that Che led the revolutionists in overturning, effectively pushing Batista from power. Across the street was a stand selling Che t-shirts, hats and bags.

“It makes me kind of sad,” Luy said. “Che was a great hero, but now he’s just a tourist symbol.

“You can buy a t-shirt for 7 CUCs. But if it has Che’s face on it, it’s 20.”

We bought a bag of bananas from another roadside stand and walked up the mountain, peering around the plateau at the city below after we caught our breath. Luy pronounced me 85 percent Cuban after the mountain and at lunch when I flicked a fly out of my wine and kept drinking, he gave me a disgusted look and said I was now more Cuban than he was.

Later I met up with Juniel and his friend Yesser, who happens to be a music artist who is of some repute in Havana I’m told.

The three of us drank coffees and beers at Café Europa for a while and then set off for the baseball game I had been yelling about for two days. Woops. Turns out I had gotten the time wrong – it was a day game – and the stadium was empty. Instead, we had pork and chicken and rice and beans and salad and rum at a nearby restaurant. For all of that for the three of us, it was 6.50 in U.S. dollars. Of course, there were no napkins. Another place, no ice.

“Everything is like this,” Yuniel said, shaking his head. “We don’t have, we don’t have.”

I managed to pay this time. Despite that Cubans are economically engrained in a far different world, I found my friends to be extremely generous – with their time, their hearts and their money – and often insisted on paying as I was “the guest” in their Santa Clara.

During dinner, Yuniel and Yasser talked about American movies they’d seen – the Hangover was a hit – and actors they tried to remember names for. Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Sean Connery.  Yasser had played Tu Pac earlier – Cubans seem to love American rap and hip hop – and Yuniel sang bits of Bob Marley and “Everybody Dance Now.”

Earlier, I had asked Luy if he thought Cuba would change now that it was becoming more open to American tourists.

“It will change,” he said.

He doesn’t fear it. Thought Luy is relatively well off – the son of two doctors, one Cuban, one American. But most people he knows are not. One of the people I had met, he told me, shared a single room and a single bed with his mother and his brother.

“It has to change,” he said. “There is so much sacrifice.”

That night, the orchestra played in Parque Vidal before the premier event – a professional dancing academy performing African and traditional Cuban dances on a stage constructed that afternoon.

The night ended late once more at El Mejunje, where there were very good Cuban singer-songwriter types on stage and Juniel taught me a little more salsa in between downing Cuba Libres. We met a girl from Holland and a couple from Germany, who were all wonderful and I talked so much and so loudly over the music that I lost my voice. (I’m also still mui infirma!)

Today I made the trip to Varadero, the land of beautiful beaches and many, many tourists. The road was different than that from Havana to Santa Clara – through many small towns and amongst many more cars and trucks carrying goods and sometimes crammed with people, all standing up. My driver, who spoke very quick Spanish, of which I processed about 25 percent, wove in between horse carts and cars and bicycles on the single-lane road while whipping along at 140 kilometers. The front windows were missing and one of the back windows rolled up only halfway so we were thrashed with wind the whole way. When we got closer to Varadero, the land leveled, the road side became more sandy and the air wetter and more salty.

As I arrived at the Hotel Melia, a soft rain began, the first I’ve seen here. At the hotel, no one seems happy and everyone seems annoyed at the tourists parading around demanding things.

At least everything is still very Cuban: although they advertise free wifi, one has to purchase it by the hour in a glass room lit up by string lights in the lobby. The “internet center” hands out pieces of paper with passcodes for 3 CUCs and if you want more when the hour is over, you have to go back and purchase another piece of paper.  When I told the clerk I wanted to purchase wifi for my room, she shook her head.

“In the rooms it’s no good,” she said. “It’s best to sit in the lobby when you use.”

The elevators, already slow, have stopped working since I’ve arrived. The water heats only to luke warm. And the process for getting ice includes bringing your bucket down to the cafeteria where they will practically throw it back at you.


Goodbye Santa Clara, hello Varadero

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