costumes, cathedrals, and old cars

Throughout our tour of Cuba, the U.S. government-approved program required participation in prearranged tours. We’ve no complaints; we understood the deal going in. However, it was important and refreshing to have some free time, too. We only wished there were more of it!

We had flexibility to explore on our own only in Havana. On Monday, we wandered around Old Havana and enjoyed a lovely lunch at la Moneda Cabana. On Monday evening, we enjoyed the Tropicana Cabaret. On Tuesday afternoon we enjoyed another meander around the old city, some shopping, and an old car tour. Each brief experience further endeared this place and these people.

Initially, I’d wavered on purchasing tickets to the Tropicana. The show didn’t start until quite late. It was yet another bus ride. We were running low on energy reserves. But the Hubs urged me on, “You’ll regret it.” He knows me so well. He was right. It was worth it!

This world-renown celebration of Cuban culture did not disappoint. Elaborate costuming, intricate choreography, powerful vocals and Cuban rhythms in a lush tropical venue under the palms and the stars. In a word, fantastic. Loud and proud seventy-five years in the running, this cabaret knows its business. It was conducted completely in Spanish. We hardly noticed.

Our tickets came with prime seating and beverages — much more than we would care to consume. We gifted excess Havana Club Special to a couple of Russian tourists at an adjacent table. They were very appreciative, their rudimentary English much better than my (non-existant) Russian! It was cool to make another international connection.

We were fortunate the weather cleared enough after Tuesday’s programmed tour for an old car excursion late that afternoon. Initially, we’d booked this tour through the ship. It was relatively expensive and, as it turned out, completely unnecessary. Old cars tours are widely available in Havana for 40-50 CUCs per hour. We were relieved the ship canceled our tour and refunded our money due to lack of interest in their extended version. We negotiated independently on the fly for less than one-quarter of the cruise ship price. Granted, it was a shorter but still quite sufficient.

There is no shortage of old cars but we took our time selecting both car and driver. The Hubs was determined for a convertible and we hoped to find a driver who spoke English. Most drivers use a predictable route unless you request otherwise. We didn’t mind as this was an entirely different vantage point from the open back seat of a 1954 Dodge.

The car was in great shape — inside and out — and original except the battery, he claimed. We had no reason to doubt him. Glossy vinyl upholstery in cream with contrast trim was meticulously maintained, covered with clear plastic protector. It was clearly an old car; every time we cleared a corner, the driver’s door swung opened. He nonchalantly reached out to haul it back in as he hand-signaled the turns. There was the distinct smell of exhaust trailing our progress around and about the city. It was never clear if this was from our vehicle or the many others we encountered emanating black smoke. Probably both.

Our driver welcomed questions and supplied frank responses, his perspectives notably different from state-employed guides we’d encountered on programmed excursions. Yes, Cubans are free to travel. But who can afford to? Yes, Cubans receive monthly rations and government paycheck, free childcare, education and healthcare. But it is not nearly enough to live well or thrive. Yes, Cubans may be approved to pursue private enterprise. But taxes and licenses are formidable hurdles.

His wife is a doctor; he is a private businessmen. He is also an expert mechanic, required to keep his car running. (Cubans are the best mechanics, we heard time and again.) They struggle with two children and aging parents. His father worked forty years for the state and receives a measly pension, half the meager current wage.

I asked about leisure activities; for example, how would he spend a day off with his family, just for fun? He seemed confused by the concept of fun, or day off, perhaps both. Did they go to the beach? Perhaps picnic? He hesitated. “It’s expensive.” I was reminded of the privilege of leisure, lost on much of the world.

He supplied ample commentary on the sights we passed. One building he pointed out was an incredibly ugly Russian concrete housing structure with twin towers rising 17 stories. His uncle lived there, he noted. No elevators, by design. Yikes.

One of the most interesting components to our conversation was religion. We drove past the cathedral from which Pope Francis celebrated mass just a few months prior. An enlarged image of the leader of the faith still adorns one side of the structure. It struck me as odd and hopeful at the same time. Nearly every image we saw in public was of a limited selection of national heroes; a few of artists and many of revolutionaries. On the Venezuelan embassy we saw a large poster Hugo Chávez. Comadante, the sign read.

Pope Francis spent several days in Cuba and gave personal audience to Fidel Castro — or vice versa? I’m not sure. Oh, to be a fly on the wall. How powerful to hear the Pope proclaim the gospel to the multitude at Revolution Square, if also an ironic setting.

Our cabbie confirmed that Cubans enjoy freedom of religion and remarked that he is among a minority practicing Catholicism (Christianity) in Cuba. We heard several times how, in deference to their masters, slaves made pretense of worshipping the Christian God while using church time to worship African gods. Most Cubans continue with African traditions.

I’d become somewhat familiar with Santería via Celia Cruz series on Netflix  in advance of our trip; one of her contemporaries became deeply involved. We were exposed to several “saints” up close and personal at the African Cultural Center in Santiago de Cuba. These encounters left me feeling unsettled, uneasy. It seemed dark, foreboding,

In our Caribbean experiences, it’s easy to find hand crafted religious artifacts. Despite several market inquiries, I was disappointed not to locate a Cuban Christian cross. I’ve a small hole on my world of crosses wall, waiting for Cuban completion.

~ Renê Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

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