Unforgettable Cuba


Its been a year—at this time, January of 2013, my comrade and colleague in Women’s and Gender Studies at another east-coast university and I, were enjoying the Caribbean sights and sounds of Havana, Cuba. She is originally from India and I from Pakistan, both of a generation raised on a diet of mutual suspicion by our respective (former) nation-states—yet, here we were, together as cosmopolitan friends who also grew up admiring the Cuban revolution and all that it symbolized for the countries of the global south in our newly postcolonial age. This trip to the land of the heroes of our youth—no matter how tarnished by the intervening decades– was one that we shall not soon forget.

Cuban National Capitol

It really wasn’t as difficult to get to Cuba as we’d originally thought it would be—since as educators in the USA, we could now travel legally. Armed with letters attesting to our educational credentials from our respective deans, off we went, first to Cancun in Mexico where we spent the night at a cheap motel near the airport, ensuring that we’d be well in time before the once a day flight on Cubana Air to Havana. Strapped into an old Soviet-era plane, we took off in an excited state for a country which we were both keen to see before it really changed once Fidel Castro was gone—and with him, the very particular appeal the island held for those of who came of age in postcolonial societies in the decade of the sixties and seventies, when socialism and communism were still attractive ideologies. The men who stood up against the might of imperial western powers—Fidel, Che, Cienfuegos, and earlier, Jose Marti—were very much the icons of teenage starry-eyed passion in our part of the world, and here we were, middle aged women in our fifteeth decades, feminists both, screaming for our taxi driver to stop, Alto!, as we drove past Revolution Square, Plaza de la Revolucion—with its humungous wrought-iron image of Che Guevara adorning the front of the administrative building of the Ministry of the Interior; what formerly used to be Batista’s palace and after the 1959 revolution has become the headquarters of the Communist government—it is said Fidel’s office is located here. Right across from it is an equally larger-than-life statue of Jose Marti, another anti-colonial hero of the Cuban people. Measuring 109 metres in height, it is one of the tallest points in the city of Havana. Boy oh boy—were we ever in thrall—and enthralled—by these images that spoke to the machismo of revolution, no matter our feminist creds!


My fellow traveler Shoba and I checked into one of the hotels-called El Presidente- in the area known as Vedado, where in the early 1900s, wealthy Cubans and Americans built palatial homes, as well as ritzy hotels, the ritziest of them—the Nacional, a meeting place and home for the Italian-American mobsters we have all come to have a love-hate relationship with thanks to films like the Godfather trilogy, Bugsy, Scarface etc. In 1955, apparently an entire section of the hotel was converted into a gambling complex by the Jewish-American gangster Meyer Lansky, who apparently had ties both to President Roosevelt as well as President Batista.  Anyhow, since we were to embark on a week-long guided educational tour of Havana and its outskirts with the tour company through whom we had booked our trip the following day,  we decided our first evening should be spent relaxing nearby at the Nacional, which overlooks the beautiful seaside harbor where in the past, travelers used to arrive by boat. We hailed a taxi right outside our own hotel—a gorgeously renovated pink-toned 1960 Chevy, complete with a TV screen fitted onto its front passenger side visor (how’s that for communist deprivation?)– to take us a few blocks over to the hotel Nacional via the Malecon (which is the name of the 4-mile long  stunning seaside drive that connects old Havana—La Habana Vieja—to the newer residential and business areas of Vedado and Miramar).

Wow. What a truly elegant hotel, with a grand verandah in the back, opening onto beautifully manicured lawns dotted with palm trees, sweeping down almost to the sea. An inviting outdoor bar in one corner of the verandah was our first stop of the evening, where we tried the ubiquitous Cuban favorite, a mojito, a sweet-sour combo complete with sprigs of mint and a dash of lime. The bartenders were handsome and charming to the hilt—even to us oldies—but as we gigglingly reminded each other—“but goldies!” It helped that  I had no qualms in speaking to any native who would listen to me in my broken Spanish, si, si, senor….

The evening was magical. Despite a lackluster meal of fish (pescado), and the requisite rice and beans (moros y christianos) at the Nacional’s outdoor restaurant (ironically for an island people, the Cubans neither eat—nor it seems–know how to cook fish), it was simply fabulous being serenaded by guitar-wielding habaneros singing “Guantanamera”—never mind the obvious touristy-kitsch factor—or the fact that by the end of the week we would have had our fill of it as street musicians accost you with it wherever you go. But this was our first night  in Cuba….a place we left-leaning academics had dreamt of visiting for so long…and here we were, on a balmy night, and it could have been Karachi in another era…Guantanamera of my youth. And it ended with us sitting on wicker couches with outsize white cushions in the verandah listening to an amazing all-female jazz ensemble, enjoying the whiffs of Cuban cigars being smoked by other patrons, and not getting back to our hotel till the wee hours of the morning. Boy—if this was a precursor of the week to come, it was going to be one hell of a ride….

The next morning, we realized we had the day to ourselves, as we’d actually gotten in to Havana a day prior to the tour start-date. So, we called Pedro—the cabbie whose name and number had been given to us by our tour operator—and he promptly arrived (aided in his promptness by the lure of American dollars, no doubt, given that pesos are pretty worthless). He had to wait until we had devoured a hearty breakfast near the poolside, consisting of omelettes, breads, a variety of cheeses and fruit—almost everything imported and expensive as local agriculture has suffered enormously (as has just about any industry on the island)—during the post-Soviet period known euphemistically as the “Special Period”—when, with the demise of the Soviet Union, all subsidies dried up;  and thanks to the US-imposed trade embargo, obtaining consumer goods and food, medicines and machinery, has since become a daily struggle for the Cuban people, with the peso economy in shambles.

This is why all tourists to Cuba are encouraged by tour companies to bring soap, batteries, chocolates, cookies, make-up, medicines like Advil, and other items to give as gifts to people they meet during the course of their visit. Meanwhile, we spent our second day on a mission—mine ofcourse– to which Shoba graciously acquiesced, which was to go off in search of Hemingway’s house, Finca la Vigia, which is now a museum, and is approx. 9 miles south east of Havana. I had heard that it might be closed due to some filming about to begin there, but I wanted to check it out nonetheless. And sure enough, we arrived just before lunchtime, and were told by the guard at the gates that we couldn’t go in. Whilst standing there looking and feeling sad—so near, yet so far!—we saw two women walking out of the grounds and chased after them to find out how they’d gotten in. My desi side wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn all we had to do was “grease the palm” of the Hemingway estate guardians—which we did and got in—though we had to wait until another cabload of tourists were shooed away while we discreetly moved off pretending we were going to leave too. It wouldn’t do to start letting in too many noisy foreigners!

Hemingway’s boat—the Pilar, which he used to go marlin-fishing—was moored there, next to his dog cemetery where at least 5 of his dogs are buried. I later found out upon visiting his rooms in the hotel Ambus Mundos in old Havana (La Habana Vieja) where he allegedly completed his novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls—that it was an advance for that book that allowed him to purchase the Finca where he and his wife of those years, Martha Gellhorn, a well-known journalist, and then later, his 4th and last wife, Mary Welsh, spent considerable time, and where he completed several other works including his nobel-prizewinning novel, The Old Man and the Sea. From there it was a short drive down to the seaside fishing village of Cojimar—where we had a blue daiquiri each and some light lunch at a picturesque bar called La Terrazza—which was frequented by Hemingway and his boat’s captain, Gregorio Fuentes, immortalized as the old man in Old Man and the Sea. It was amazing just sitting at the bar, overlooking the sea, and walking down the main narrow street of the village, seemingly unchanged since the great writer spent time here, hanging out with locals, mooring his boat in its bay. I bought a charming memento—a watercolor sketch of La Terraza–which now hangs in my home, from a local gallery across the road where local artists’ work hung on decrepit walls.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of the buildings in and around Havana is how glorious their architecture is, and yet how, because of the challenges of the Cuban Revolution and its aftermath, these buildings are falling apart. Styles embrace colonial, baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau and art deco, with strong Moorish and Spanish influences.  The buildings along the Malecon, especially, due to exposure to the salty winds, look moth-eaten and crumbly, and it is in this section that repairs are now taking place. But the pastel colors are gorgeous…and then the cars! One truly feels like time has just stopped in the 1950s…Pontiacs, Chevies, Fords like in the old Hollywood movies, but painted in bright greens, blues, pinks, yellows…and ofcourse, Shobs and I had to experience a ride in a coco-taxi, which is essentially our rickshaw, painted yellow and black. Getting the low-down on the Cuban economy from cab-drivers was really interesting, as almost all felt angry at Castro and the revolution which they said had done good at one time—but now, the economy was in bad shape ever since the “Special Period” initiated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced Cuba to shut down many industries due to oil shortage which it used to receive on subsidy from the Soviets. Things have revived somewhat recently and there is a growth again in agriculture—we were taken to spend a day at an organic farm, for instance—where we witnessed cooperative farming leading to the growth and harvesting of delicious, healthful produce. After having eaten mediocre food for several days, at the farm we were treated to a luscious vegetarian banquet—my Indian colleague was in heaven (being a strict vegetarian)—and I can say that even for us meat-eaters, that was a really delicious meal!

To ease the people’s suffering—including malnutrition that started to be seen in young children during the privations of the “Special Period”—Fidel and his brother Raul and other leaders of the govt decided to ease into some neo-liberal reforms in the late 1990s, allowing cab owners to earn a dollar income from increasing tourism (which was being encouraged by the state)—as well as permitting the growth of individual-owned and operated “paladars.” Thank goodness for paladars (or we would have starved!)—which are restaurants run by people in their own homes, and which range from ordinary to pretty high-end—almost as good as a moderate-high-end restaurant  in NYC. And because they are located in people’s homes, one gets to see how people live inside some pretty interesting houses and apartment buildings. Ofcourse, a lot of the self-employed complained about having to pay high taxes, which is especially true for those making over a certain amount—as Cuba is still a communist country where no one is allowed to get “rich.” Still—as everywhere else, people are learning to under-declare their income so as to avoid heavy taxes…and one can see that the paladars that are doing well are now renovated so as to provide a quite luxurious setting for their clientele who tend to be tourists since locals cannot afford to pay for such fancy meals in US dollars. Our last night there, Shoba and I went with some of our tour group , with whom by now we had become quite friendly—and one of whom we’d discovered was Janis Joplin’s sister who had just published a book about her famous sibling!—to a paladar recommended by my friend Jill’s brother, who lives in the Grand Cayman and visits Havana often. It was magnificent—both the setting and the food. Sitting out on the rooftop of a renovated mansion, palm trees swaying in a balmy breeze even on a January night—I thought how this reminded me of some of the most beautiful homes of the richie-rich “elites” of Lahore or Karachi which I visit on my trips back home. It seemed to me that with Fidel’s passing and the neo-liberal model being slowly but surely embraced by his brother Raul—Cuba was headed the way of much of the rest of our world, full of more economic growth opportunities, but also plagued with more income and lifestyle inequalities.

One final stop that night—Shoba copped out, saying she just couldn’t keep up with my insane energy-level—was La Tropicana. How could I leave without seeing one of the (in)famous floor shows for which the club was known, back in the hey-day of Havana hedonism, when Hollywood and Mafiosi converged upon the island for rummy good times that only ended when revolution chased out the uber-rich and their hangers-on? The club has made quite a come-back—and the show that night was really over-the-top, replete with Mulatta go-go-dancers wearing feathers and sequins and shaking and shimmying down grandiose stairs from trees and thick foliage (its an outdoor show), smoke machines working overtime.

It had been a trip full of paradoxes—days spent on officially-mandated visits such as to the Museum of Literacy, where the director, a Mulatta woman, defended the Revolution telling us a person of her class and skin color would never have made it to this position had the Revolution not occurred. Nights had brought us in touch with the wilder, more fun-loving side of Cuban culture—ranging from the amazing jazz-funk band Bellita y Jazztumbata—again headed by a woman, the fierce Bellita of the band—who gave a hell of an energetic performance my second night in town, at the famous jazz club, Zorra y el Cuervo. That she was a grandma—with her 5 year old grandson in the audience (at 1 am!)—floored me. This was one HOT mama!!! Or we ‘d hang out with the tour group at La Floridita in Habana Vieja, downing daiquiris y mojitos a la Hemingway—one night all of us crazy ladies couldn’t stop ourselves from planting kisses on his bust at the bar—silly and unfeminist—but oh so much fun! And then ofcourse—I had to drag Shobs one evening(and was she grateful!)—to listen—or should I say dance to—the music of the Buena Vista Social club. Though several of the original band members are no longer alive and the internet is full of posts decrying evenings such as this as tourist traps—I must say, the Afro-Cuban music sounded pretty authentic to me and the old men singing and dancing with the audience were adorable!

What was truly wonderful was a sense of utter safety I experienced—unusual for a woman anywhere in the world. I took taxis in the middle of the night, returning to my hotel at 3 or 4 am, and never once felt afraid despite not knowing either the language or the place. With my few broken phrases, I managed to get around quite well, and even to glean some understanding of ordinary people’s lives in Havana. While they almost all expressed anxiety over their economic present and future, they nevertheless also spoke with pride about the fact that Cuba, under Castro, had managed to eradicate the scourge of illiteracy, that all citizens had access to free healthcare, and that kids and women were free to roam about without fear of gun violence or rape. A professor from the University of Havana spoke to our group about lingering machismo and attendant sexism in the Cuban culture—but, as with racism, the scourge of sexism and recently, homophobia is being addressed head on. Indeed, as members of the Federation de las Mujeres Cubanas—the Cuban Women’s Federation founded at the time of the Revolution—said at one meeting I attended, that they now even admit lesbians and transgendered women as members and celebrate May 17 as both farmers day and gay pride day! In terms of legislation since 1997, all laws smacking of any discrimination against gays and lesbians have been removed from the constitution. And the new family code law being advanced by jurists will recognize same sex unions but the country is not yet ready for gay marriage according to them. However, the women leaders of local chapters of the Federation I spoke to said changes in traditional thinking are definitely occurring, and that one way this happens is through continuous discussion amongst the people of any and all proposed laws—this, they said, “is our revolutionary tradition.”

And of course , no visit to Havana could be complete without paying homage to the heroes of the Revolution—whose memories are safely preserved at the Museo de la Revolucion, formerly—what could be more ironically fitting– the Presidential Palace. Seeing the Granma—the smallish yacht which carried Fidel and a mere 82 of his comrades-in-exile from Mexico to Havana in 1956, to launch, improbably, the Revolution that toppled the might of the dictator Batista—made Shobs and I both retreat to a space of silence. Whether one agrees or not on the failures and successes of the marxist experiment in Cuba, witnessing that little boat carrying such a small number of men who would bring down a powerful dictatorship and its attendant ruling elite, in service to the restoration of the vast majority’s human rights including the basic right to education, to food and to shelter—well, it was quite a humbling experience, and one of the most powerful moments on our trip. We certainly felt ourselves in the presence of a major turning point in human history here, a moment which, along with the men responsible for those events, affects the world to this day, eliciting great passion from supporters and detractors alike.

Whilst the machismo spirit of La Revolucion brought with it great surges of adrenalin that proved a powerful antidote to our feminist critiques, we nevertheless were thrilled at the evidence of the underground survival of pre-revolutionary Cuban spiritualism: the religion of Santeria in which female deities like Oshun reign supreme. On a Sunday afternoon, our tour guide took us all to witness Santeria ritual dance and music in Calle Hamel, and to witness that spectacle of human bodies gyrating, dancing, leaping, singing, drumming and screaming in thrall to unseen spirits of various orishas was exciting—and inviting! I immediately leapt up to the highest point in the narrow and crowded street, atop a carved out tree trunk—both to see the action whirling around me as well as to participate with my own thumping of feet and flailing about without falling off my perch, trying to imitate the sounds, the prayers and rhythms reaching a crescendo around me. As I later learned, historically, culturally and liturgically speaking, Santeria has always been a religion that honors women and upholds their importance in society. With its roots in the traditions of the matrineal Yoruba tribe of Africa, Afro-Cubans brought as slaves into the new world were able to preserve those beliefs and lore of their religion through women who, through the generations, passed on the secrets of ceremonies, sacred songs, and their divination systems. Indeed, the importance of women can be seen in the powerful female orishas or goddesses that are found in the pantheon of Santeria. Yemayá, for instance, is the mother of all living things, who owns all waters and is queen of heaven and of the earth. Oshún, her younger sister is the orisha of the river, the essence of femininity, sensuality, beauty and fertility and is a powerful witch and seductress. It follows—for those of you who know me—that I’d be immediately attracted to this latter goddess, and  procured her likeness right away, painted by the local artist whose fame and popularity gives the street its name. So, from the studio of Hamel, I now have a small portrait, a black etching of the Orisha Oshun, wearing a magnificent headdress, painted against a flaming saffron background, which now hangs on a bright yellow wall in my study. It occupies a spot just above my desk, so that it is to her I turn each morning before I switch on the computer, after briefly glancing and nodding to my Cuban male icons on the side wall : there’s Fidel, pitching a baseball, Che smoking a cigar (shirtless!)—and here he is again, threading a needle for his daughter, caught on camera in an unusual moment of tenderness—and ofcourse, Papa Hemingway, standing proudly next to a big marlin he probably had caught that day , or pretended he had.

“Venceramos” I say to myself each day before sitting down to write or read. Everywhere we went in Havana we saw graffiti—the only kind permitted—declaring the certitude of Victory, even if always couched in the future tense. It is a small way to buck myself up, to face the challenges of this day and the next, hew to my deadlines, keep up the work I believe in, pray to the goddess to keep the fertility of my imagination alive. The other common saying we saw scrawled across pavements and on banners and billboards and pavements across town and the countryside was “Socialismo o Muerte”-Socialism or Death. In a time when the world’s economy is in shambles, when the middle class is being wiped out everywhere in the name of neoliberal free-market policies, when the ranks of the jobless and the under-employed are growing not just in the countries of the global south but within the heart of Empire—well, perhaps that is a battle-cry we could all do well to contemplate seriously, and without prejudice.

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