The Caribbean is renowned for its easy, laid back nature, but Cubans take it to another extreme, raised as they are on long queues, on systematic uncertainty. If patience is a virtue, then Cubans must all be saints. The only time I ever saw anyone move beyond an amble is the morning it rained. But even then they move at about half the speed of the average Tokyoite. And unlike in that Asian capital, there isn’t an umbrella to be seen.
This is the day we were meant to commence our drive by heading along the Malecon, then on through Miramar with its big houses, former estates converted to embassies. But our guide G tells us that we need to took take an alternate route, as the Malecon would be flooded by now with storm-born waves. Instead we navigate the grander boulevards of the city, but even many of these are flooded due to the poor drainage system, stranding the old cars like dinosaurs in a tar pit. Within, the passengers sit quietly, in wait.
Free of the city, we move quickly but cautiously along the broad, well-cared for Autopista, heading west. Even behind the wheel, no one seems in much of a hurry. The rain and clouds begin to lift, revealing a flat land, unkept and shrubby. It is surprising to see an almost desert-like quality to a Caribbean island. The hills begin to rise, but there is little else on the landscape. There appear to be fewer old cars in countryside, but then again, there are fewer cars period. Here and there, somebody is standing alongside the road with their hand in the air, clenching cash. Road-trippers in Cuba act as impromptu taxis, and can pick up money for petrol by offering rides. Many cars are packed six to eight in a vehicle, reminding me of the lowriders of my native New Mexico.
The landscape of Valles de Vinales truly impresses, its perimeter lined with tall and fragile limestone hills, pocked with caves. We are shown one cliff face painted with colorful fossils and dinosaurs and prehistoric men. Cats doze in the grass beneath, and we are offered rum in a small thatch hut nearby. (Every destination on our tour seems to include a rum drink.) There is more rum at our lunch stop, in a nameless restaurant alongside the highway. The owner appears to be quite a character, entertaining a group of people with some uproarious tale. We are not invited, which is just as well, which enables us to enjoy a quiet lunch alone with the scenery. Eventually one of the guys comes out of the kitchen with a guitar, and leads into some of the better known Cuban classics. He seems to like my voice as I spontaneously join him on Guantanamera. so he hands me a pair of maracas. This soloist then promptly becomes part of a duet, and I enjoy helping him finish his set.
Before we go, he hands me a CD to buy, the first of many times that this will happen. My favorite cultures are those that are the most musical, that find value in time dedicated to music. In the sweep of the rat-race, it is difficult to find time to pick up a guitar. And Vinales represents this, a place where traffic moves at the pace of a horse’s tail. Pony carts ferry people past rows of bungalows, each with wide porches and brightly colored rocking chairs. This is the greatest resource of the valley, the scenery, and the rocking elliptical flow of the day.
The only thing missing then, I suppose would be a cigar. Our guide G takes us to a small farm on the edge of town, where we watch a man roll his leaves with hands tanned a similar brown. He must have rolled hundred of thousands in his life, and there is a precision there that is beyond thought, relying more on habit and muscle memory. His boss has a similar relaxed nature, though more methodical in his jokey charm. He has us all laughing before long, and we are sad to decline his offer to stay a night here at his farm. Sadly we need betray the spirit of the Valley, for we have appointments back in Havana.
The first of these is dinner at La Esperanza, renowned as gourmet delight. The owner meets us at the door, charming and gracious, but apologetic. It seems that there is a film team from New York filming a documentary, and their lights, cables, and equipment are strewn everywhere. We say that we don’t mind the chaos, and take a table adjacent to the patio. (The patio itself would be ideal, but it has started raining again.) The occupants of the only other occupied table are going through the motions of a meal, as the cameras circulate around them, and the boom mike hangs threateningly above. Besides the TV presenter, the diners include a member of Buena Vista Social Club, the man heading the restoration of Habana Vieja, and Cuba’s premier ballerina. When the shooting stops, all begin to mill about, and the night takes on the feel of a party. We too are swept along, and I spend a fair amount of time with the producer, hearing tales of what it had been like to shoot during Castro’s mourning period. Having previously received governmental permission, they were able to get near unlimited access. It is a good night, albeit a surreal one. But there is another destination to come.
The Tropicana fulfills all my dreams of visiting a time when travel was glamorous, when it was unheard of to go anywhere without a dinner jacket in your valise. Granted I was tie-less in my linen sport coat, but the spirit still applied. The club is in what appears to be a quiet suburb, up a tree-lined drive well hidden from the road. The hostess hands me a fat Cohiba and leads us to our table down front of the stage. The tables behind us are filled with foreign tour groups, all tinted blue when seen through the haze of cigar smoke. A trio of waitresses come up and plonk down a metal ice bucket, a bottle of rum, and four colas. I ignore the rum and instead drink the soda. It is the local brand of course, due to the embargo. The only Coca Cola I see in Cuba is in the neutral land of the airport bar. I like this about Cuba that the usual brands and logos are nowhere to be seen, a little corner of the world where corporations don’t yet dominate.
The show starts promptly at 10 pm. A bevy of sequin draped beauties wrapped in ostrich plumes fill the stage, the aisles, the dance spaces high above. There is a phantasmic quality to the night, in the sweep and flash of colored light, tricking the eye into thinking it is observing a bizarre species of animal. They way they completely surround us is very unnerving. They are joined eventually by young men in their white suits who whip and whirl and pump their hips. Ricky Ricardo never did anything like this. Over the night the costumes shift into the more and more bizarre, the hats and frills getting bigger, then falling away completely to be replaced by gold-lame bikinis that help keep a portion of the audience awake. The men are bare chested and muscled, which wakes up the other half. The music stays high energy, foot-tapping, though growing a tad monotonous. It will go on through the night but will do so without us. I grab LYL’s hand and twirl and dance her from our seats and up the aisle, as if we are part of the show. We laugh as we escape into the quiet open air, swept clean by the winds blowing through the hedges, as if fanned by a flock of ostriches.
On the turntable: Caetano Veloso, "Qualquer Coisa"
On the nighttable: Paul Hendrickson, "Hemingway's Boat"