Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Where to begin. Of all the days spent in Cuba, the first day remains a blur, dominated by clearing customs, TSA and the immigration Nazis in two countries within hours is enough to jangle even the sturdiest of world travelers. There were lines and more lines controlled by non smiling or non English speaking people, not because they couldn't speak English, but because they didn't have to, since most of the people in line spoke Spanish.

View from El Morro Castle overlooking Caribbean Sea

Where I had been cautious in my packing by making sure everything fit into my rucksack and one bag, others in line toted huge packages of green plastic shrink wrapped goods to take into Havana. Some of it was identifiable as car tires, bulk toilet paper or paper towels. There were tools and plumbing parts. Things that I would later learn, are impossible to purchase in Cuba thanks to the United States 60 year embargo coupled with the fall of Russia back in 1991.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, Cuba was left hanging with no trade partners, America turned its back on Fidel Castro, ticked off because he kicked them out of their favorite playground, and nationalized and confiscated American holdings in Cuba. JFK mounted a boycott and tried unsuccessfully to assassinate El Presidente a number of times over the years in retaliation.

Stuff like that makes for some harsh feelings to say the least. With no one to trade with, the island fell into decay, so to speak, unable to sustain itself. While it is recovering, total recovery has been an arduous process with some things still in short supply, as the United States continues to sulk about losing its Caribbean playground, while paying more attention to the feelings of the displaced, rich white Cubans in Miami than the brown ones in need in Cuba.

This Cuban scenario is similar to the one played out between the US and Haiti when it sought its independence from France. The US allied itself with the white Europeans fearing a slave backlash on its own turf. US actions continue to reverberate today in modern times as both Haiti and Cuba are left to struggle while the US turns a deaf ear and shrugs.

Another thing in short supply that took me and Marie by surprise was the fact that there was a banana shortage. A banana shortage in a place sometimes referred to derogatorily as a “banana republic.” A place that supplies the fruit to the rest of the world. But there was a good reason for the shortage.

Balcony view in Old Havana

Seems Hurricane Sandy blew all the ripening fruit off the trees when she hit the island, so plantains and bananas were scarce. The same held true for coconuts too. Sandy did a number on the island. If we didn't see actual destruction, we saw red roofs on buildings. The red a sign that it had recently been replaced. We saw whole neighborhoods of red roofed homes and buildings during our travels, especially in and around Santiago de Cuba, which is at the opposite end of the island from Havana.

I was blown away by the “oldness” of everything. The cars, American mainly, dating back to the early 50's, yet still running. The buildings harking back to precolonial times, still standing, still useful, still occupied. Some painted and renovated while others were in varying states of decay and disrepair. Old faded decadence covered over with new, vibrant paint. Brilliant colors guaranteed to offend any housing or condo association in the US that can't see past beige or white or other boringly neutral colors of American status. Old, decayed, but clean. Very clean.

La Ferminia Restaurant Havana, Cuba
Tapas serving at La Ferminia

Following our city drive through, we were taken to La Ferminia a restaurant that served Tapas style. Back in the day, when the wealthy, primarily white Cubans fled Havana in the wake of the revolution, they left their belongings, their homes, their cars and all of their stuff. Those homes became “found” materials and were eventually put to other uses. Many of these homes were transformed into restaurants. They became what are called Paladars. It's like going to dinner at a friend's house, where your friend hires servers and a band to entertain you. Comfortable.

More to come..

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Looking for Assata Shakur, But Finding Me, Instead

I'm long past the days of jumping airplanes on the spur on the moment. My ready bag was not ready. I was no longer working for anyone other than myself and I was now traveling on my own dime, so while I have always wanted to go to Cuba, there was a new caution in my step.

Cuba is still embargoed for Americans, basically, meaning I couldn't just go and enjoy myself. I had to ally myself with a tour group, Insight Cuba, something that I have always tried to avoid at every opportunity. Tour groups are okay, but I always feel like a kid having to ask the babysitter if I can go to the bathroom, when I'm on a tour. Insight Cuba is the best of the best. I was very pleased and would travel with them again, despite my innate reservations about tours.

I love being able to make decisions about where, when and how to go, on my own. On a tour it is hurry up and get someplace with no time to savor the moment. I need to taste my food, my drink. I need to smell the place. I need time to trip over the curb and to stumble over the cobblestones in the roadway. I need to talk to the people in my path, pet the dogs who venture near, and watch the street play happening around me.

Looking out at El Malecon from Melia Cohiba Hotel

I don't know when or even if President Obama will lift travel restrictions, so I decided to go now, with a tour, because I can always return, if I like it.

Like it!” Ha! Cuba felt like going home. I exhaled. It felt like I'd been born there, just returning after a lifetime trip into the outer world. My Spanish sucks, but it didn't matter. I understood what was going on around me as if I was simply walking around my own neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio.

And I was greeted like a native, starting on the plane from Miami. My seat mate was an old man in a brown suit, vest and tie, wearing four hats piled on top of his head. It was an easy way to carry so many hats. He also had a couple of others in each hand. He didn't talk at all until we landed at Jose Marti International Airport, when he turned to me and asked me if I was home to visit family. He said this in Spanish. Since he spoke slowly I was able to understand completely, what he said to me.

I told him in my broken Spanish that I was an American on vacation and not Cuban. He turned and looked squarely at me and said, “but your family is here, you are Cuban?” I told him “no.” The look in his eyes told me he didn't believe me, but he was polite about it, and we parted to gather our belongings.
Downtown balcony view from Hemingway House

My friend Marie smiled at the exchange. It was the first of many times per day that I would have to explain that I was away from home, not returning home.
It was also the first indication, here on this trip, that Black Americans don't travel. We tend not to leave our neighborhoods to even cross the street. As Marie and I wandered from Havana to Bayamo and back again, we found Americans, excluding the ones we were traveling with, but not one of them was a Black American.

For the past several years Black Americans have been obsessed with finding their ancestral roots in order to determine where they came from, meaning what tribe in Africa. Our genealogical search takes us from America to Africa with no stops in between. However, judging from what I've seen and heard, maybe more of us should stop first in Cuba before going all the way back to Africa. African culture, religion and history was not erased in Cuba.

The Spanish and Europeans tried. However they were not successful in quieting or shushing the “African-Native Indian noise,” as they were in the United States. Cuba was birthed by a Black woman said historian and professor Alberto Faya and it shows in all aspects of Cuban life. It is the culture of Cuba, fused from Native Indian, African, Spanish and European roots.

To quote Professor Faya, a noted historian, teacher, performer and musician, “preserving culture is preserving life! It is African. We are all African, here.”

Dr. Faya teaches history without “holes.” In America, history is taught to make the European look powerful and dignified while denigrating non Europeans, casting them as less than human, unworthy of historical mention.

I nearly cried as his lecture progressed. I'd waited all my life to hear all of history, inclusive, colorful, equal, an out loud “black and proud” moment that is still reverberating inside me.

More to come..