Visiting Cuba has been at the top of my husband’s bucket list for many years, and last month his dream became our reality. We were part of a Western Culture Tour. A group of 15 U.S. citizens with varied backgrounds and experiences, drawn together by a single thread of commonality: the desire to explore Cuba.
For a country that is barely a hundred miles from the shores of Florida, Cuban culture swings wide from the instant gratification-focused, and option-heavy pocket of the world we live in. Cuban time ticks by in rhythmic Rumba beats that welcome interruption and pause. Cars rumble through the streets on 1950s chassis, painted lemon yellow and peony pink, emitting a miasma of black exhaust that would send our emission-conscious country into revolt. Outside of the city, horse and buggy teams outnumber motorized vehicles, and toilets that flush are the exception, rather than the rule. It’s illegal to kill a cow. Guns are generally forbidden. Racism, sexism and prejudice are not practiced or tolerated. Nothing is disposable or wasted. Andwomen make up 40% of the workforce and dominate 66% of professional careers.
While on our Cuban adventure, I asked members of our group this question: “How will you describe Cuba to your family and friends back home?” Their replies were preceded by thoughtful pauses. Then words like “colorful and flamboyant,” “clean and organized,” “fascinating,” “frustrating,” “filthy,” “content,” “happy,” “repressed,” “historic,” and “beautiful” spilled forward. Hard to believe we were all on the same trip. Yet, I could use all of the above adjectives to describe my own experience. The landscape was truly beautiful with fields of sugar cane and tropical mountains. The architecture of the buildings in downtown Havana was magnificent in its timelessness. We experienced a musical variety show at Cabaret Parisien in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba that was certainly flamboyant. The performers’ attire was colorful and extravagantly detailed, complete with fruit-basket headdress and flowing, ruffled skirts.
The words “clean and organized” bring to mind a vivid snapshot that I failed to capture on my camera, but have forever etched in my memory. We wereon our bus passing through a country village. The homes and buildings were mostly small and in need of repair. But there was one tiny home, painted an eye-catching turquoise green, which sat just above the road. As with most homes, a clothesline was fashioned across the front porch to catch the open breeze, and on that line, in meticulously spaced design, was the family’s underwear. From bikini to brief, there was a variety of size and a multitude of color. Striped, solid and floral print undies, hung delicately in the warm air. No t-shirts or bath towels adorned the line. Only a caboodle of bloomers, that was no doubt washed in a basin on a table, with soap sparingly rationed, and agitated by well-worn hands.
We were blessed with one afternoon in our week-long tour to be “on our own,” without a guide or a bus. A few of us took the opportunity to visit the Historic Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana. Prior to the Revolution of 1959, the museum was the Cuban equivalentof our White House. From its inception in 1920, it was home to Cuban presidents, including Fulgencio Batista. Batista was the elected president of Cuba from 1940-1944, and was dictator from 1952-1959. Batista had ties with American Mafia legends Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, and is credited with granting them control of Havana’s racetracks and casinos.
The museum is an interesting collection of historic weaponry, photographs, attire and rhetoric. In 1957, a revolutionary student group known as FEU/DR, pulled up outside the front doors of the Presidential Palace and began shooting. In their attempt to assassinate Batista, they pummeled the foyer of the Palace with bullets. The marble walls still bear the ragged holes of their siege. Most of the attackers were killed that day, but Batista escaped unharmed. In 1959, he fled to the Dominican Republic, and shortly after, Fidel Castro was named Cuban prime minister.
As part of our cultural experience, we spent an afternoon touring Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), which was the winter home of American novelist, Ernest Hemingway. Rooted on a hill overlooking thecity of Havana, the well-preserved property still boasts artifacts and furniture that belonged to the famous writer.
On the last day of our Cuban tour we went to the Topes de Collantes, a national reserve park in the Escambray Mountains. We walked off the bus and ascended into the back of a Soviet Army truck for a ride up the mountain. Keep in mind the trucks are big and open-air. The seats are hard metal and the ride was a spine-cracking mix of bucking bronco and roller coaster. But it was FUN! The weather in the mountains that day was wet with intermittent downpours, turning the mountainous “roads” into heavily gullied pathways of slippery muck. The road rose and fell at steep angles, with sharp turns. We were soaked by the rain and exhilarated by the ride, when we became stuck deeply in the mire on an abrupt incline. It took three attempts to climb, each followed by a slippery, slow reversal before we finally got to the top of that particular hill, and I thought, yes,this is Cuba. A country abundant in beautiful vistas and verdant landscapes. A land where historic lifestyles, architecture, infrastructure and tradition create a track so deep it’s nearly impassable. A country where slow, slippery reversals are imminent, and progress is tedious.
I am grateful that Cuba was on my husband’s bucket list, and that we had the privilege of exploring its grandeur. But I believe a river of change is seeping through the cracks of Cuba’s foundation and some of us, in our hubris, believe we know what’s best for this unique country.
Whatever lies ahead for the people of Cuba, I hope it is a true reflection of the needs and desires of its native people. And in the process, may its beauty remain unspoiled and its authenticity hold fast.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” – Ernest Hemingway
Laurie Kasperbauer is an active Florida Realtor specializing in properties in Naples and Marco Island. Laurie also enjoys the spiritual and physical benefits of yoga practice and instructs both group and private classes.