Cuban Descendant to Cuba — What I learned
What you ought to know (10 tips) as a visiting foreigner
Part I. This entry is about my physical trip to Cuba. Stay tuned for the spiritual Part II.
I arrived early in Cuba after a 43 minute flight from Miami, in which the time in the airport exceeding our time in the air. It was as muggy in Cuba as it was in Miami. Lo’, I called a taxi colectivo (shared taxi) to Viñales.
Tip #1: Don’t rely on your cards! Remember to bring enough cash — or better yet convert your monies into CUC in your country for lower fees. The USD to CUC exchange rate is set as $1.00 USD/0.87 CUC, with the 10% surcharge. Some exchange their monies to EUR and then to CUC, but it all depends on the fees and rates at your time and place. Also, as a U.S. citizen, you must pay a $50 tourist visa and your travel must qualify under one of their pre-approved categories. I chose the general umbrela category of ‘research,’ which was true; I was there for the people and the geology.
CUBA — The Island of Cuba is one of paradisal glory but know that this isolated island is also a giant contradiction. The Cuban idiosyncrasy is borne of an ethnomictic population which is as contrasting as its peoples. A Cuban may be described as chatty, witty, always falling in love, argumentative welcoming and generous, selfless and proud of his own, whilst also argumentative, hyperbolic and excessive, confident in his ability to solve any problem, though finding a problem to each solution. He is last but not least, noble and a patriot. Cubans treat their street animals poorly, but their house pets like family. Cubans seldom have soap stocked in their bathrooms yet have the best health-care system in Latin America (source). This fact was corroborated by the locals, who say that though the farmacias and clínicas are free for Cubans, they are expensive for tourists and seldom fully stocked.
Cuba is an emotional place for me, being of Cuban roots. It is a place that conjures images of conga drums that pound late into the night, spicy dark rum, the manly sport of baseball, and the delicate sport of ballet, popping street art and unique pastel homes and old Spanish décor, which in the states would come off as tacky, but amidst a backdrop of verdant mesas, they come to represent the warmth of the residents. Cuban conversation is filled with terse language, old axioms, sexual innuendo, and generally people who are warm and expressive, all with music emanating from every window and the wafting, enveloping aroma of puros, hand-rolled cigars, filling the air.
Tip #2: Your cellular service is likely not to work, and you might have to wait in line for a WiFi card at one of the existing ETECSA locations. This is and of itself can take a few hours, which leads to my next tip.
Tip #3: Locals have a go-get it mentality, one in which they often have no regard for tourists, so when waiting in line, make sure you ask everyone what their place in line is, and call anyone out who is skipping.
Havana to Viñales — My communal ride West from terminal Víazul in Habana to Viñales was with a fellow by the name of Miguel. He said he’d take me to my destination in a modern car for the same price as a large coach, benefit being we could leave immediately. The car ended up being a 1990 Peugeot 505, older than me, but “modern.” I suppose modern compared to the Chevy Bel Air. I was fortunate to speak not only Spanish but the Cuban dialect, so we engaged in a great deal of banter with the gringo passengers in the back. Miguel was a 60-or-so years gentleman with a hoarse voice, and sun-kissed skin. He said Cubans worked everyday, but Taxi hustlers usually were slow on Sunday. He told me if he stayed home on God’s day, his wife would only make him do the dishes and wash the clothes. Miguel beeped at every living thing on the Cuban highway, lost dog, wild horse, pedestrian. It didn’t matter. Miguel was certainly going over the speed limit, maybe even twice so. Slowing only in sight of cops and potholes.
We arrived, and I had not but the saved image on AirBnb to direct me to where my casa particular might be. No address or anything. But luckily, I could pull up a picture of the house — a humble blue house with white trim and red rocking chairs. “Tata!” He explains. “I know the one — we’re cousins.” He takes me directly to her door, and we enter together. Later I learned that he didn’t mean it in the literal sense, but in the familial one. Everyone in Viñales knows each other by name.
Tip #4: Stinginess is considered among the worst moral qualities. Tagging another as stingy is an affront on his character. Songwriter Juan Formell and his band Los Van Van, says it best:
My hands are always empty, giving when there’s nothing to give. Oh, but what can I do? These are the hands that I have! (translated)
This was certainly my experience. Whilst making good cheer with the locals, anytime one of them was with food in hand, they would offer a bite to me before taking one themselves.
Matters of Race in Cuba — The Cuban Government prefers to emphasize national rather than racial identity, and as such, rarely release statistics on race. However, some unofficial sources, estimate that about 70% of the population is of mixed race, a large percentage of which is mestizo — combined Spanish and Native American descent. There is quite a large Chinese (Chino) community which arrived contemporaneously with the slaves, and in similar conditions, and the term Chino is still used very frequently as an endearing form of slang. Despite making strides since the 1950s, there is evidence of modern day systemic racism.
Tip #5: Cuban chisme (gossip) is something you shouldn’t miss out on. There’s an old saying which is only as old I say it is, because I made it up. But is nonetheless true:
If you wish to study economy of motion, study a horse mid-gallop.
If you wish to study economy of sound, listen to Cuban chisme.
On a simple trip to get bouillon cubes for the night’s sopa de vegetables (vegetable soup), my Cuban adopted mother Tata gossiped with just about everyone about the days happenings — who passed, who was drunk last night, etc.
Catholicism and Santeria
Catholicism is still the religion of Cuba , telling of its old Spanish routes, and Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religious cultivar, if you will, developed from the legacy of the Niger-Congo Yoruba peoples which came as slaves. It is surprising how much Santeria is still prevalent in modern day Cuban culture.
Tip #6: When invited into a home, you are an esteemed guest — and are expected to play the part. This means, if you’re offered Cuban coffee — drink it! If you’re offered to eat something, eat it. And if they present their children to you, you are most lucky — chat with them and you will begin to feel like a distant family member rather than a tourist.
Tip #7: A Cuban in need would just as soon give you the shirt off their back rather than take the one off yours. This very thing played out when I complimented a young Cuban fellow by the name of Ernesto on his shirt — a nice white cotton affair with mangas cortas (short sleeves) and royal palms emblemized all around. I was sincerely impressed with his style. He took his shirt off and offered it to me, free of charge he said, he had only worn it 3 times. I told him I would not, could not take it. That it befit him best. Cubans may be poor, but they are convivial and accommodating. This quote is of an inn in Viñales from a 1916 expedition written by John Brooks Henderson:
What the inn may lack in luxurious beds and modern conveniences is amply compensated for by a quality of charm that made us content the moment we entered.
I can now say, that over a hundred years later, not much has changed.
Tip #8: If you wish to be charitable with your time in Cuba, bring the children some deflated balls (basketball, soccer ball, etc.), some candy, some shoes, or books in Spanish. It can be deflating to see the conditions in which they are playing their favorite sports. I saw a kid ‘riding’ a kick scooter handle attached to a triangular chassis of bound wood. It didn’t work at all, but he pretended it did.
Tip #9: Cubans will joke with you, sometimes at your expense. But it is all in good fun. The best way to combat this if you don’t have the Spanish skills and wit to combat it is to laugh it off, and throw a punch their way (figuratively). Cubans are a hardened bunch, if you burn someone who burned you, the group will laugh twice as hard. But of course, never go below the belt. Ex: if someone tells you the hair on your head is migrating to your chin, you might give him one to the chin as well, by letting him know that your baldness is genetic, but his haircut was a choice (trust me, they love this shit).
Tip #10: Cubans revere their youth — it is their pride and their joy. You’ll know this if you see impressively sharply dressed secondary schoolers coming and going in their wawas escolares (schoolbuses). Even the national music is very often sung by young children, and often is reminiscent of old post-revolution glory set to old Spanish melody often with neo-African rhythm and instruments.
Bonus tip: You’re allowed take back with you an unlimited amount of alcohol and tobacco products, if you’re over 21 — and of course it’s for personal use. However, only the first liter of alcohol and the first 100 cigars are duty-free, and your total claimed value is under $800. I brought back 2 liters of Guayabita del Pinar and 50 puros.
The bad — without a doubt, an essence of the Old Guard still permeates Cuba. Fidel is seemingly on every placard of import, and on every store window. The general public certainly has reserved sentiments toward the regime, but from my most intimate moments with the locals, it appears they were more or less in support of Castro, but faulted his regime, the system, and the U.S. embargo. Seldom will you hear this save for quiet intimate moments. Cubans openly and fiercely love Che Guevara and Jose Marti (if you don’t know, he was an equality-touting, freedom fighting badass, romantic visionary poet, and martyr), and some Cubans, specifically the older ones who are farmers and ranchers, they love Fidel with the same intensity. It makes sense, since they are old enough to know what Cuba was like under Batista and the Spanish.
The government is afraid and suspicious of its peoples. Cubans are allowed armas blancas (white arms), up to and including machetes, but are disallowed armas negras (firearms). The owner of my casa particular, Tata, told me that there are beaches where naturalized Cubans are not allowed, because they contain access to boats. The fear of one being pirated and stolen, assumably to escape to Miami or thereabouts, which is only 200+ mi away, is great.
The Cuban service sucks — but there’s a reason for it. If you find yourself in a restaurant or at a bank, you’ll find that the worker will most never be expedient. This is not even on their minds, as Cubans don’t equate time with money. Working-class Cubans earn salaries which are roughly $40–60 monthly, while modern day tourism has hiked up the cost of everyday necessities. On top of that, most working-class Cubans work every day of the year — no exceptions. Keep these facts in mind next time you’re being served by a slow, chatty Cuban.
Nature of Cuba — this section is all about the nature in the West part of Cuba. If you are traveling to the island, especially the Western part, and would like to get to know her best hidden natural secrets, I recommend this source. It covers, as comprehensively as a scientist might hope, the flora, fauna, geology and life of Cuba as it was in 1916. It is written splendidly and with wit and good humor.
The Sacred Ceiba — there is nothing quite like meeting a farmer named Michael out in the muck after a big rain, who, hours from the nearest village, lends you his spare horse. And having nary ridden a horse, teaches you the secrets of it, and takes you to his bohio (thatched roof timber home) and unto his family, and introdues you as familia (family). Thereunto drying off, drinking coffee, smoking puros and exchanging stories of the sacred Ceiba tree. Really. There’s nothing like it.
Michael’s father Segundo (my grandfather’s name) told me that during times of war, temporary truces were declared whenever it spilled into the presence of a Ceiba tree. And that every local believes the tree to be of a strong spiritual energy which absorbs lightning strikes. Hence they fear not working in the fields during a lightning storm. The Ceiba, for the Cubans, is not commercialized. It is not used to a physical purpose at all, and never would you see a Cuban take a machete to a Ceiba. It is the only thing on the landscape, said he, which is sure to hold during a hurricane. Offerings are made unto its roots, which grant this kind of stalwart protection.
Cuban soil — as red as is the blood of those who love her and call her home — is rich and uniquely fit for the tobacco crop. Though the climate is simlar to Miami, the soils are nothing alike. The soil of the plain called Vuelta Abajo (lower valley) is of deep brick-red color, derived from the leaching of iron salts out of ore beds that exist in greater or less extent throughout the hills and limestone mogotes of Western Cuba. This area was designated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its unique geology and tobacco cultivars.
Much as I have opined about the soil and the Ceiba, there is also Cuba’s most crowning achievement: The Royal Palm.
The royal palms (Roystonea regia) are to Cuba what elms are to New England, poplars to Normandy, and her great towering pines to Norway, only, as Artemus Ward would add, they are more so. One can hardly conceive of a Cuban landscape without them. They are the botanic glory of the island. Although introduced into other countries where climate and soil are suitable, yet they never appear quite so well as in their native soil. -John Brooks Henderson
The Geology — The geological study of the Sierra de los Órganos range dates as far back as the late 1800s, when Manuel Fernández de Castro came upon a Jurassic invertebrate fossil of marine origin at Abra de Ancón. Of particular interest in this area are the unconformities, the interfacing of young and old rocks, indicating a gap in the geologic record. The major unconformity here is between Middle Cretaceous rocks and Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary rocks, which include evidence of the Chicxulub event. For those that don’t know, the Chicxulub event occured 65 million years ago, when an asteroid struck the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, dawning the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs and a new geological age. Here, this is evidenced by a 2-meter-thick section of marine sandstone-claystone located near the town of Moncada in the Los Órganos, indicating submarine gravity slides, and contains tsunami deposits, and high iridium concentrations typical of the asteroid aftermath.
The caves of the Los Órganos such as Cueva del Indio and El Palmerito, about eight kilometers north of the town of Viñales, exemplify a limestone system formed by both surface river and groundwater action, and indeed do fill up in times of rain.
After a delightful evening with the racheros, I was shown the blueprints to the little-known cave on the same rock face as El Palmerito. This cave hadn’t a name. It was, at least for the day, all to me. It ended up being a highlight of my trip. After the long hot treck to find it, and the dark and wet labyrinthe it was to navigate, it hid away at the end of it a pool, 90-or-so feet long. It was here I bathed in perfect stillness, darkness, and isolation. This provided me the fodder for my next entry … the spiritual leaps I achieved therefrom.
In the end, contemplating only a short visit to the island, so enchanted did I become with its charms that I nearly chose to stay for good. Until next time, Cuba.
Part II is out! It’s about my spiritual and intellectual journey in Cuba.
FAREWELL EXTANT HOMO
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