Cuban Journal

I did a double take: the statue of the flamenco dancer, hewn from concrete, was smiling at us with a set of distinctly human teeth. It was positively eerie. Then it struck me that this statue and its toothy smile encapsulates what Cuba is all about.
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I did a double take: the statue of the flamenco dancer, hewn from concrete, was smiling at us with a set of distinctly human teeth. It was positively eerie. Then it struck me that this statue and its toothy smile encapsulates what Cuba is all about.

I was on my maiden trip to the island with a people-to-people study group called Road Scholars, and we were standing outside the Muraleado community center
near Havana. The ebullient director explained that in putting together this thriving, hopping center from scratch - a scarred hillside, an abandoned water tank - folks had, of necessity, commandeered whatever came to hand. That included the flamenco dancer's smile, contributed by a neighbor who'd held on to her dead mother's teeth for years till she finally found them a good home.

A touch macabre, perhaps, yet in the same spirit as the center's other sculptures, cobbled together from axels, hub-caps and assorted scrap from 1950's cars. This is what Cubans do: they make something from next to nothing. Cuba has yet to recover from the double whammy of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the American Embargo (which Obama aspires to end, as he announced in his historic visit). During those years people went hungry, there was no oil, no transportation, regular blackouts (which they called whiteouts). Buildings are still in a state of semi-decay, wash hanging from windows of former mansions with leprous walls.

Be forewarned - (I was not, adequately) -- the lack of infrastructure makes Cuba a challenging place to travel. Expect interminable waits at the airless Havana airport - for baggage, to clear Customs; return flights to Miami that arrive according to their own inscrutable timetable and cause you to miss connecting flights and spend a vertical night in the airport. On the road you'll find more pothole than road. As for the plumbing, keep a supply of pesos to pay the woman posted outside el bano for a meager slip of paper, and don't flush.

We Road Scholars at least had our air-conditioned (State-owned) bus. Cubans, though, in a country lacking transportation, routinely hitchhike on the highway, waving peso notes as an inducement for a ride. They also, famously, drive American cars from the 50's sporting fins and tail lights - the hot rods of my youth -- retrofitted with new engines and soot-belching mufflers, and often painted flamingo pink. "Rolling museums," they're called. Here, too, Cubans appropriate what's at hand and spiff it up for a second life.

Havana does offer lucky travelers pockets of luxury. Our group of twenty was billeted at the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which towers over the famous seaside strip, the Malecon. The Nacional is a tatty grande dame -- saggy beds, capricious elevators, sluggish plumbing - but the place exudes glamour and history. First off in the lobby, you're greeted by a giant poster of Fidel in battle fatigues bearing the date '59 to mark his victory over Batista. And when was the last 4-star you visited whose hospitality shop is stocked with books by "Federico Engels y Carlos Marx?" Not to mention Che, whose charismatic gaze greets you everywhere, from books, to tees, to walls, like the island's patron saint. A babel of languages resonates in the lobby, its tall beamed ceilings a throwback to Spanish colonial days; a gallery of world leaders - and guests of the Nacional - gaze from the walls of the photo room; leather chairs under deep porticoes invite the foot-weary to kick back with a mojito.

After checking in, we were invited by Road Scholar's unflappable leader - and Cuba presents much to flap about -- to assemble for the bus at 8:30 A.M. Early departures seem to be the m.o. on group trips (I saw a convoy of stalwarts launching at 6 A.M.) -- a bit military for those of us who like to mosey into the morning. Still, for the moment, Cuba is probably best experienced collectively with expert guides, such as we routinely had.

First up was the modern Fine Arts Museum, rich in the work of the major Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, who pushed back against the notion of regarding Cuba as a playground. (Cuban art tends to be militant and message-oriented.) Enshrined in a glass enclosure opposite the museum stands The "Granma," the yacht Fidel sailed in his first (failed) attack to oust Batista. Cubans celebrate their own history at every turn. Instead of bearing ads, billboards and walls trumpet values: "Libres. Firmes. Dignos. Unidos." "Gracias Che par el exemple." "One just principle from the depths of a cave is more powerful than an army" -- Jose Marti. The Havana Hilton is now the Habana Libre.

I ducked out of the museum galleries to eavesdrop on an art lesson in the courtyard for a group of well-behaved children (it was Saturday). Cuba reaches deep into its own meager pockets to provide cultural events for people of all ages. In the course of our week-long trip we attended exciting performances by two dance companies; the training of its superb young dancers is state-subsidized. At a senior center retirees demo'd for our group the Afro-Cuban-inflected danzon.

In retrospect I hear President Obama - who arrived in Cuba soon after we left -- chiding Raoul Castro for trampling human rights. You have to wonder with Castro how the president can lecture Cuba on rights when, unlike America, this embattled little country still reeling from the Embargo provides free medical care and education to all its citizens - the most basic of human rights, last time I checked. As for the ladies in white, the only such Cubans I saw were members of an Afro-Cuban cult that prescribes a year of wearing white to cleanse your soul.

Throughout the trip we ate well -- largely in paladars (privately owned restaurants people have carved out of their own homes). La Maraleja, the inner patio of an elegant house, served up lobster, greens, mojitos and café, as well as a lecture by an ex- baseball player who compared the shocking difference between Cuban salaries to America's, an obvious talent drain.

A culinary highlight were the meals at organic farms in the countryside. This was not Park Slope farm-to-table trendiness, this was the real deal. The cuisine is largely vegetarian, sometimes hard to identify; if rich nutrients had a taste, this would be it. Coincidencia Farm near the town of Matanza doubles as an art colony and sculpture park and is run by an agrarian engineer charmingly prone to quote Thoreau. In this idyllic spot we sampled a green soup I'll ever be in search of. It was made from the moringo tree whose leaves are rumored to cure everything from cancer to dyspepsia, and will likely soon join aloe vera and kale as American obessions).

The décor of one paladar was hilariously eclectic, as if plucked from every one of Cuba's reincarnations, exemplifying the country's ability to repurpose junk. It included an ancient Victrola, a statue of a conquistador, chairs hanging upside down from the balcony, cloying paintings of pastoral lovers that might have graced Batista's dining room, even two barber chairs.

With an Average salary of 350 Cuban pesos a month, people struggle to supplement their incomes, our guide told us, as we headed toward Vinales, a stunning valley known for its limestone karsts. Unbelievably, brain surgeons drive hacks in their free time. Raoul Castro encourages business start-ups; unlike Fidel, he hopes to incorporate elements of capitalism into socialism. Entrepreneurial types open bakeries and paladars, or own fleets of American hot rods turned taxis. Cuba is on the move and opening up, in many senses. Our Cuban guide - a lovely woman, informed and forthcoming -- was herself benefiting from Cuba's growing tourism business. "We need to learn how to build a business in Cuba," she acknowledged.

According to another guide, freedom of speech is gaining ground, too. Cuba's entertainment world now accepts self-criticism and mockery (which in the past would have been quashed). Pamfilo, a character in a TV comedy, is a senior who jokes about his low pension and the lousy bread you buy from the ration books given every Cuban. Such criticism is accepted now, our guide told us, as an expression of the common experience that lets off steam.

Rounding out a long hot day with a visit to Finca Vigia, Hemingway's farm in Cuba, it became all too evident that tourism was gaining ground in the country. Transtour buses clogged rutted roads; we could barely get near Hemingway's quarters for the crowds; the available banos were woefully inadequate. A tourist mecca like France has learned to gracefully manage its huge influx of visitors. Cuba is new at the game and must contend with a ragged infrastructure. Wending our way back to the bus it struck me that we'd come to Cuba just in time, before the hordes descend. Because the country is ill equipped to handle it, the window of opportunity for the kind of broadly inclusive visit we experienced may be sliding shut.

No matter, now that it's opening up, people will flock to Cuba. It's a joyous place; the sounds of salsa fill the plazas. Scarcely a day passed when we didn't dance. Or want to dance. Cuba has even preserved some of the old raffishness - those cool straw boaters the men wear, and the scent of Cohibas; black fishnet stockings on female employees at the airport; beer (Buccanero or Crystal) served in cylinders that stretch nearly to the ceiling.

As one guide said, "We Cubans are a spiritual people. We need to believe in something." The Catholic church, now finally tolerated (along with December 25 as a holiday), is scarcely the center of Cuban life. Yet for Cubans perhaps the aspirational qualities of religion have been reborn as a kind of civic religion. What makes a visit to Cuba so exhilarating - beyond the exotic locale -- is that belief in something. And the solidarity. It's infectious.