By Lynn Oldshue
I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba. In 1938, my grandfather surprised my grandmother, his new bride, with a honeymoon cruise that stopped in Havana. After Castro’s revolution and the Cold War closed the doors on travel to the island, they could never go back to relive the memories of their first days together. The city became a mythological place that held a piece of two people who meant everything to me.
Seventy-eight years later, travel restrictions to Cuba have begun to ease and I took my own family, along with Michelle and Dylan Stancil, for spring break during the third week of March. The same week as historic visits by President Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones.
In the weeks before the trip, I was warned of being monitored, of romanticizing the Communist island nation, and to take a roll of toilet paper because most restrooms don’t have it. On the morning we left, our driver to the airport said he came to the U.S. from Cuba and would never go back.
At our gate at the Tampa airport, Cubans stood in line with luggage wrapped in clear plastic for privacy and security. They carried boxes of Dunkin Donuts and pushed big screen TVs, bikes and even a lawnmower purchased in the States.
I didn’t know what to expect, but the Americans boarding the plane, including me, wanted to see the country before it changes.
I sat next to a young woman returning to Cuba for the first time in eight years. She moved to Tampa for a better job and regularly sends money to her family. She hasn’t seen her mother since she left, and as we landed tears streamed down her face. Sitting beside her, a woman making the flight to see relatives held her hand. She told of her family moving to the United States after the Cuban government took everything they owned. That was 46 years ago, but Cuba is still her country and she wanted us to tell the stories of her people. She said we were going to be in the right place at the right time.
Passengers clapped as the plane landed in Havana. The girl rushed to be first off, but there was no quick exit from the José Martí International Airport. Three charter flights arrived at the same time to the small airport that is barely prepared for one. Advice to take carry-on bags was right, and we should have listened. Fliers crowded around two unmarked carousels and we waited more than two hours for bags to finally come our way.
An American travel agent said, “I don’t see smiles in my group. Everyone put in a dollar and place a bet for the time our luggage will get here.” No betters. “I am going to try and get all of us into the lounge.” The tour group talked about O.J. Simpson and his glove. A couple from Germany wore Rolling Stones T-shirts. They have seen the Stones play around the world, including in Argentina two weeks before. They wanted to see the legendary band’s first show in Cuba and follow Mick wherever he goes.
Walking out of the airport is stepping back in time. It is easy to see my grandparents strolling the streets of Old Havana because it is almost unchanged since they were there. The elegant mansions, villas and hotels built by Americans in the early 1900s are cracked and crumbling and there has been little renovation or new construction since the Cuban revolution in 1958. The Bel Airs, Impalas, Plymouths, and a 1928 Model T Ford aren’t just classic American cars for postcards and photographs, they have been a main source of transportation for over 70 years.
The day after we landed, the Rolling Stones played a free concert for over 500,000 people in Havana — the first rock concert in a country where that brand of music had been banned by a dictator for a half-century. Staging, sound and lighting equipment were sent over in 61 shipping containers and the Ciudad Deportiva sports complex had a major U.S. festival feel, minus the beer. Alcohol sales are banned at public events. There were no merch tables; $40 t-shirts are twice the average Cuban’s monthly salary. There were no portable toilets, just a few metal closets over drains scattered around the outside of the complex. Across the street, there were concert parties on roofs, and a crowd stood in line at a house to pay to use their restroom. After the show, there were no traffic jams because most of the crowd rode the bus or walked back home.
Cuba is described as frozen in time, but cellphones, tourists, limited WiFi access and Facebook are the elements of a slow thaw (Read our first story, “From the Rolling Stones to WiFi, Change is Coming to Cuba”). Cubans want to catch up with the world beyond their coastal horizon and are finding the courage to speak honestly about their lives and their government. Those in power still punish dissenters, but people were eager to talk in our interviews.
Cubans are open and unguarded. Many don’t have cars or TVs and they socialize on sidewalks. We watched them every morning and evening from our balcony in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, built in the early 1900s. Boys played soccer and baseball in the streets and women hung laundry on balconies and in front yards. Nurses in white uniforms, caps and shoes walked to the hospital and parents walked students in burgundy uniforms to the school where they played “hot potato” at recess. At the hospital, women brought children in for vaccinations and an old man was seen walking to his car holding his X-ray. People are proud of the free healthcare and education in Cuba.
Houses are close together and windows and doors are always open. Names were yelled for neighbors, asking them to come out. A woman went house-to-house giving manicures. A shirtless man painted the grout orange around the stones on the front of his house to the sounds of “Get Down On It” by Kool and the Gang on his radio. He taught me Spanish phrases every time I walked by.
A cobbler pumped his foot on the pedal of his Singer sewing machine, repairing sandals and tennis shoes as his friend sold nail clippers, batteries, toys and Tupperware from the shed in his front yard. Kids wore boxing gloves and practiced their punches, and men with machetes chopped back the grass in the small squares between the sidewalk and the street.
We learned the daily routines of neighbors. Next door, a man wearing a fedora sat on the curb under a tree with roots that seemed to wind from the ground, up the thick trunk and into the branches. He smoked a cigar while his four-foot-long basset hound sat by the gate, moaning to be let outside. In the kitchen, a man started with a block of butter and flour, rolled them into pie crusts and later stirred in chocolate batter. We watched him flatten the crust with a rolling pin and smelled the chocolate from our rooms on the second floor. We bought one of the sweet, rich pies, topped with nuts and it arrived cold in a Tupperware box.
On the other side, a neighbor coaxed his car to run each morning. The engine started, shuddered and quit. He grabbed a screwdriver out of the glove compartment, opened the hood, sucked something out of a small tube, spit it out, slammed the hood, put the screwdriver back in the glove compartment, started the car and drove away.
Music was everywhere in Cuba. It was in the whistles and calls of “bread for sale” as men walked down street with long, clear plastic bags of loaves, round or square. It was in the drums and trumpets of bands in restaurants and nightclubs, or the constant pounding of bass, snare and congo drums for nine innings during a baseball game. A cover band played Journey, Led Zeppelin and the Police. A young boy beat drum sticks on the steps in front of his house as a grandmother swept the porch and sang songs to her young granddaughter. In La Ramba park, two young men leaned over a cellphone and sang along to Adele’s “Hello.”
Michelle and I watched a rehearsal of the popular Cuban band, Vocal Sampling. The a cappella group creates instruments with their voices and percussion with their hands. The sounds of harmonies, trumpets, trombones, guitars and drums, are invisible, but they feel real and have taken Cuban music around the world.
“Most of us don’t play the instruments we sing,” says Rene Banos, director of the group. “We started doing it casually at parties and amused ourselves trying to sound like instruments while we were drinking rum, and it grew into this. We still try to invent new sounds and new ways to bring our voices together. We write our own songs, but ‘Five Minutes More’ by Frank Sinatra and ‘Blowing in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan will be on our next album that we are finishing now. We have taken this music and our stories of Cuba around the world and we will go to the U.S. in the fall. Our voice is the instrument that gives us more freedom.”
There is freedom in music, but religious freedom was almost eliminated under Castro. The religious symbols were in Colon Cemetery where families with names of Ariosa, Otero and Balboa lie in miniature cathedrals, or under statues of Christ wearing a crown of thorns, and saints in prayer. Easter morning was like any other Sunday. There was no sunrise service, no crosses wrapped in white. Men stood fishing on the wall at the Malecon, pole after pole, catching nothing. Spinning lines in to check bait and keeping an eye on the others. Women stood in line to buy potatoes at the subsidized market. Older men played basketball, shirts versus skins, and outside the Casa de Gobierno, a man hammered nails into his nose for a crowd. The Easter moment came in an interview with Mary Antony, a 71-year-old security guard, who hugged me and called me her sister when she found that I am also Methodist.
People are laid back and cheerful in Cuba, except during baseball playoffs. There is no Jumbotron, no T-shirt cannon and no fan games between innings, but people stood, cheered and blew plastic horns throughout the game. They argued and held friends back when a double play ended the game between the Havana Industriales and the Ciego de Avila Tigres.
On one of our last nights in Havana, my husband, John, and I saw two young boys throw a cat over the Malecon wall into the sea. John yelled at the boys, climbed down and saved the howling kitty. The boys ran away, but threw rocks at us from across the highway. They even followed us back to our house, still throwing rocks and shouting an English word they couldn’t pronounce and should have been too young to say, keeping on after Fernando, the owner of our house told them to stop and go home. The cat smelled of diesel and after it was over, we convinced ourselves that they had dipped the cat in diesel to kill its fleas. Maybe they were just trying to wash it off when we jumped in to save it.
It was late at night, but we took the cat to El Cimerron restaurant, a cozy neighborhood restaurant and bar, to find it a home. They gave us directions to the cat lady, Gladys Wiswell. We knocked on her door, saying the Spanish words we thought they told us to say, but we didn’t understand what she yelled back at us. She opened the door and smiled when she saw us. She said, “No, my child, speak English. We all need big hearts, especially for animals, and it runs in my genes. My grandmother was the founder of the first Association for the Protection of Animals. She also protected single women who were pregnant and orphans. I will take care of the cat, but I won’t take your money. God brought you here tonight.”
A phrase she used stirred my heart and its memories. I had forgotten my grandmother sometimes called me “my child” when I made a mess scrambling eggs in her kitchen, or when she hugged me close. Maybe God did take us to meet Gladys that night, not only to save a little orange and white cat, but to help me find the connection to my grandparents that I was looking for. Seventy-eight years after their honeymoon, I found a reminder of the love of my grandmother and she was close to me again.
For a week in Cuba, I watched people live their lives and I discovered a part of my own life too.