And The Beat Goes On

By Bernadette Bernon
February 16, 2001
Archipiélago De Los Colorados Y De Santa Isabel, Cuba

This morning, at around 8:20, I sat in the cockpit with a cup of tea, and noticed something in the distance. Through the binoculars, I could make out two makeshift rafts, each rowed by three young Cuban men, steadily making their way toward Ithaka, which is anchored behind a tropical island about three miles from Pinar del Rio, on the northwestern mainland of Cuba. As they came closer into view, I stared at the rafts, which were each made from two inner tubes of old tractor tires, held together by a frame made from scraps of wood. They were laden with the boys and all their gear.

The boys finally reached Ithaka, stopped their labored rowing, and grabbed our rail. They were dressed in rags, and they represented every skin color found in Cuba: black, white, mulatto; green eyes, brown eyes, blue eyes; curly black hair, straight black hair, blond hair. All the young men looked to the one black fellow who seemed to be in charge and, on his cue, to my amazement, they began to sing:

"Oppy ber-dee dee do, oppy ber-dee dee do, oppy ber-dee dee BB, oppy ber-dee dee do!"

I was in utter disbelief at this performance. It was indeed my birthday morning— Douglas must have told them so the day before when he'd gone spearfishing with them. A lump formed in my throat, and I knew, instantly, that this would be one of those moments I'd remember for the rest of my life.

Photo of Cuban flag

"Gracias! Gracias! Muchas muchas gracias!" I cried, delighted and moved by this touching gesture beyond my ability to express it adequately to them in Spanish. They seemed equally delighted with themselves. We invited them aboard for coffee, but they pushed off and said no, they were already late to work, and had to get out to the reef. There were fish and langouste to catch while the day was young, they said, and they'd see us out there later.

We'd come to know Miguel, Raul, Pablo, Jose, Fredo, and Felipe, the young men who made their meager living spearfishing off the magnificent reef on the other side of this cay, through our friends Harold and Diane on Sea Camp, the boat with which we'd been sailing since we left Key West. Harold and Diane had spent five weeks at this cay last year, had gotten to know these boys as if they were sons, and had corresponded with them in the months since.

We were thrilled to have been part of the emotional reunion between all of them a few days before and, luckily for us, we were now considered by these fishermen and their families to be FOHD — Friends of Harold and Diane — and so were immediately elevated in status. Or, I should say, we were friends of "Ar-ruze and Dee-Anna," which is how everyone pronounces Harold and Diane here. These fellows had an equally challenging time pronouncing Douglas and Bernadette, so somehow we've become "Doo-car and BB," which is just fine. Indeed, Diane and Harold and Douglas and I have all become so accustomed to these new monikers, and we've been spending so much time with Cubans, that now we just save time and introduce ourselves this way.

By 10:00, Doo-car and I had pulled on our wet suits, climbed into the dinghy with our pole spear and look-bucket, and headed out to the reef, which is alive with hard and soft coral in every color and shape, and teeming with lobster, snappers and hog fish. It was impressive to watch these boys hunt. They could see fish and langouste where we saw nothing, take a deep breath and dive 30 feet down to the bottom, peer into coral caves, find their prey and stalk it until they nailed it. I admired their skill, endurance and perseverance. On a rare day, they sighted a turtle, and whenever that commotion occurred my heart sank like a stone, as they said the price for turtle meat on the black market in Havana was an astronomical $1 per pound. With such riches at stake, I couldn't find it in me to blame theses boys. They lived in the depths of poverty and had families to support, a powerful motivator. Only those of us with passports can afford to turn away from such an opportunity to better our lot in life.

Photo of a bookstall in Havana In the bookstall in the main plaza, we read in Granma of the tragedy of the young boys who'd died trying to escape Cuba.

For Douglas and me, life is very sweet out here on this Cuban reef, far from the hectic pace of Havana. However, because we've only just left there, I still find the vivid images of the city are never far from my thoughts. What I expected the city would be like turned out to be a simplification. For instance, just before we sailed away from the city to cruise this coast, we saw in the national newspaper — which is called Granma, after the boat in which the young Fidel and his followers made their historic crossing from Mexico to Cuba 44 years ago and launched the revolution — that two teenage boys from a Cuban military academy had frozen to death in the landing gear of a British Airways jet. They'd hidden there just before take-off in an apparent attempt to flee the country. Fidel had twisted this tragedy around, and actually found a way to blame the United States for it, claiming that the American laws that give asylum to Cubans who make it to American soil enticed these boys to commit a suicidal folly. El Jefe made dramatic public speeches to present these claims, which were nationally televised, and then he held an enormous anti-American rally in Havana devoted to the tragedy and America's culpability.

We watched one of these spectacle speeches by Fidel, in Havana, on an old black-and-white television set in the humble three-room apartment of a Cuban family with whom we'd become friends. Indeed, it's not hard to catch Fidel in speech-making mode, as television here seems to offer all-Fidel all the time. Reruns of his frequent speech-making seem to be telecast almost nonstop. "Mas habla," lots of talk, whispered Elia, the grandmother we'd become devoted to in Havana, as we all watched the disturbing speech in her modest living room, and she tried to diffuse an uncomfortable moment for us.

Fidel's legendary hatred of the United States is fierce and longstanding; the U.S. had long been a supporter of President Batista, the dictator whom Castro overthrew. However, his animosity doesn't appear to be shared by his people. Every Cuban we met, when we told them we were from Los Estados Unidos, welcomed us in almost embarrassing displays of generosity and warmth. "We are all part of the same family," said one Cuban man, a music teacher we asked for directions one day on the street, and who ended up walking us all the way to where we wanted to go, even though it was far out of his way. "We share a complicated political history. But you are a good people, and we are a good people, and now we should be friends together."

This was not the first of such conversations we had in Havana. Over and over again, Cubans we met would ask us our impressions of their country and of their people, almost obsessed with making sure we went back to Norte Americana with good opinions of them. Not to worry. If that were the only measure of a country, Cuba would be at the very top of every traveler's hit parade. The Cuban people are some of the kindest, most self-effacing, generous, politest, dearest people I've ever met. Anywhere. Many people here are threadbare and bony from the horrors of long years of poverty, and they're constantly vigilant of Big Brother, who appears to be observing them from every street corner. But, at the same time, they have an indomitable spirit, a deep pride in the accomplishments of their country's revolution against imperialism, a seemingly innate sense of hospitality and generosity, and a love of life unlike any I've ever seen.

Photo of street performers in Old Havana Performers and musicians make the central streets of Old Havana a hive of energy.

And their music! This is a country literally alive with the beat of some of the most addictive music imaginable. Salsa. Rumba. Afro-Cuban. Sexy, lusty music, as full-bodied as the cherubically rounded Cuban women on the streets, who seem to have poured themselves into every rainbow color and stripe of lycra. At the Bar Monseratt, where we often stopped on the way back out of town to the boat, we loved to listen to the six-piece band Havana Club Sun. What they could do with a flute, bongos, two guitars, a bass, mariachis, and a gourd would make even the most diehard non-dancer rise up from his chair to start shaking his stuff. Havana Club Sun was so addictive that one night I noticed through a food pass-through into the kitchen that even the cook was playing a four-sided cheese grater with a knife, and dancing around. Then, the lead singer, a big man in a white Guabera shirt, performed Cuba's signature song, Guantanamera, with words adapted from Jose Marti, the father of Cuban independence, and the place quieted down. This he followed by an impassioned version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," in Spanish, and that brought down the house.

Photo of Shoemaker and knife sharper
A shoe repairman tries to salvage a pair of worn-out sneakers on one street corner,
while on another a fellow sharpens knives and scissors.

One day, Ar-ruze, Dee-anna, Doo-car and I were exploring some of the poorer Havana neighborhoods, just on the outskirts of Habana Viejo, the historic old section of the city. It was 5:30 or so, just about the time that people were coming home from work, kids were still playing in the street before being called in for dinner, women were out on the decaying balconies taking in the last scraps of laundry and chatting to neighbors on opposite balconies. As we peeked in the windows and open doors, we could see that the magnificently detailed row houses, where in each one a single proud family might have lived in comfort, now were completely run down and falling apart, and contained many families made to live like sardines in a tin.

Photo of vintage car on Havana streets

Everywhere on the road were the vintage American cars for which Cuba is famous. None were imported after the 1959 revolution. Occasionally alongside the curb, there would be an old Packard or Edsel, with its hood up and its owner fiddling with the engine. Inevitably, Harold and Douglas wandered over and peered in too and nodded their heads and pointed, communicating in the universal language of guys. On the main streets, we passed many statues of the adored Jose Marti, and countless posters and pictures of Che Guevara, Cuba's legendary revolutionary guerilla leader — far more than images of Fidel. Occasionally whirring past us were unusual hump-back buses pulled by trucks. These are called camels, and they were always packed with locals, who nicknamed them guaguas, which they charmingly pronounce "wah-wah," like a baby crying for water.

No one, except the wealthy or taxi drivers, seems to own cars here. Bicycle taxis peddled by occasionally, and once in awhile a horse and trap. Otherwise, only pedestrians were on the street and sidewalks of this neighborhood, which would be an OSHA inspector's nightmare: deep holes in the roads, huge crevasses in the sidewalks, missing manhole covers everywhere, wires hanging down and sticking out of the crumbling walls of what was once a city that rivaled Paris for its architectural beauty.

All along the streets, indeed all over Havana, completely emaciated stray dogs with heartbreakingly mournful little faces, some injured, many covered in mange, followed us timidly, having learned the hard way, I imagine, that the odd gringo may be their only source of a handout in this city of zero scraps. Most days, I found myself affected by the plight of these poor starving dogs more than I could handle.

Sometimes old ladies or ragged children came up to us and asked us for money, or for pens or gifts, or anything we might have to give. Begging is, of course, against the law, but it's everywhere in Old Havana. One old man, a street performer, came up to us, lit a match, then swallowed it. When he saw our surprise, he laughed and scooped out his glass eye with a pencil, popped it in his mouth, swallowed it, and then produced it from my ear!

Photo of Havana architecture

Cuban music, with its irresistible beat, drifted out from radios inside almost every doorway and window, and people on the street stepped to it without even thinking about it. These people have rhythm! It's in every part of them. Fingers tap tables. Shoulders shimmy. Hips wiggle. Rear orbs sway. Ahead of us a graceful old woman walked along with a shopping bag. She was gray-haired, tall, thin, with skin the color of caramel. She, too, moved her shoulders to the beat, and here and there added a little dance step. Diane, behind her, tried to imitate the step. I, behind Diane, followed suit. People started to giggle and point at this parade of the pied-piper. The old woman whirled around to see what was funny. Then she laughed, too, and showed us the step more slowly, until we got the hang of it. Next thing you know, we were walking down the street together in sync, and talking, and this is how Diane and I made the acquaintance of Elia, a 77-year-old mother to five, grandmother to seven, widow on a tiny pension who was living in a small flat with no windows, on the third floor of a decrepit house in Old Havana. Would we like to come to her home for coffee, she inquired? Nothing on earth could give us more pleasure, we said. Muchas, muchas gracias.

And so began our friendship with Elia, her daughter Nelia, son-in-law Ernesto, and two grandsons, Luis and Carlos, whom we visited several times when we went into Havana from the marina. Once, Elia insisted on making dinner for us in her home, a meat soup with a smidgen of meat in it, that appeared to have had a carrot and onion pass over it. The soup was accompanied by some rice flecked with a few black beans, and a small, fried, oily fish to be divided among the nine of us that must have come out of a precious can. We all couldn't sit down at the table at once because Elia didn't have enough plates and chairs and cutlery to go around, so we took turns. Everything was heavily salted, which is the Cuban way, and delicious, a lavish, extremely generous dinner prepared by someone who had to use a typical Cuban ration book to do most of her shopping.

We reciprocated Elia's generosity by bringing her some of the provisions she can't afford, or that were in extremely short supply since the collapse of Cuba's main benefactor, the Soviet Union, such as soap, toothpaste, cooking oil, and canned meat. Elia's ration book, for example, only allowed her one bottle of cooking oil every nine months, not much for a country of fried-food lovers.

Photo of Old Havana market
Everything from different varieties of lettuce to fresh chorizo, from goat heads to live chickens,
can be found in the big vegetable and meat Mercado in Havana.

Most of the stores in which ration books are accepted are gloomy, picked-apart looking places with shelves and cases that are empty, except for a few dusty-looking items that appear to have been there a long while. The lights in some stores, often, are kept off to conserve electricity until someone needs to go in to buy something, then they're turned back on. On the other hand, the "dollar" stores, which require no ration books, but which accept only American dollars — no pesos — and that often are right nearby, are packed with people and well-lit. Like the difference between Siberia and Sodom, the dollar stores stock everything you can imagine: decent-quality tortellini, jams, plenty of butter, several different varieties of olives, a fine selection of Kellogg's cereals, mountains of fresh eggs in cartons, meat, fruits, cheeses, wines, cases of bottled mineral water ... you name it, they have it. And everything is of comparable price to the same items on the shelves of American and Spanish grocery stores.

Cuba gives new meaning to the term "Almighty Dollar," on which their economy literally survives, and they're desperate for as many as they can get. Indeed, hotels, restaurants and cafes blatantly charge tourists one much higher price, in dollars, and locals a far lower price for the same thing, in pesos, to get dollars whenever they can. This price gap, which has been called "tourist apartheid," keeps the dollar stores completely out of the reach of citizens such as Elia, who receives the equivalent of less than $10 a month from her pension. For her, with access only to pesos, her ration book and the vegetable Mercado is the limit of what is available within her thin budget.

Photo of Old Havana balconey

One night, Elia, her grandsons, and her daughter invited us out to a local casa de la trova — house of music — to go dancing, something Diane and I had looked forward to doing for days. We couldn't wait to practice our newly acquired Cuban dance steps. First, however, there was the decision of what to wear. No small matter, believe me. The contrast between how we dress now that we live on a boat, and how we used to dress, really hits home in Cuba, where women of every size seem to like a lot of spandex, plunging necklines, neon colors, and high heels. The resulting display of pulchritude reminds you, if you've been cruising for awhile and dressing for comfort, just how far you may have let yourself slip in this department.

When we arrived at Elia's place, she was all dressed up, as was her daughter Nelia, and the boys, Carlos and Luis, looked like the most handsome young men on the face of the earth. The night was filled with nonstop dancing, but it was so much more. As we walked past the tiresome political slogans that seem to be everywhere, and we asked her about her life, Elia tried her best to explain her devotion to Fidel, despite his faults, about what the revolution had meant for her, about the poverty before it, and how there were no schools or medical care or housing for the people, and how all their lives had been better since Batista and the American Mafia had been drummed out 42 years ago. "The young people now don't know how it was then," she said. "They don't remember the hard times."

Photo of crumbling building in Old Havana

From Elia's grandsons, both of whom had good professional jobs — one in administration at the university and one working in PR for the government — we heard a far different story: all about their perception of the government now, about the police and the level of scrutiny they endure in their daily lives, about the constraints on their lives and their movements, about the political machine that controls what they can read and learn, about the inequity between what they earn and what they need to buy. A polo shirt, for example, costs $30 U.S., sneakers cost $50 U.S., and they hardly make the equivalent of $10 U.S. in a month. "I'm leaving Cuba," said Carlos. "I can't take it anymore. I have friends in the States, and I have a plan. I'll be gone in a month." Luis just smiled and shook his head. "I respect what he (chin stroking) did for the country. Things were very corrupt, I know. But, now, it is time for him to go. It is time for change."

Elia became noticeably uncomfortable listening to the boys tell us about their experiences and opinions, and I noticed a few times she fingered the crucifix she wore around her neck, and turned in her chair to be sure no one was listening. We changed the subject. But suddenly, a Guarda came over and took Carlos and Luis aside for questioning, and to check their identity cards. Our hearts stopped. When they finally returned to the table, they told us the Guarda had checked their records at headquarters through their lapel mikes, and wanted to make sure this family of carefully-dressed Cubans were not harassing the visitors, which would be us. This imposed a damper on things for awhile, but before too long we all rallied, and our night out in Havana ended up being filled with dancing, and laughter, honest talk, and new friendship, despite our often comical efforts at Spanish. I hope to stay in touch with these good people for a long time, hear about their lives, and wish them well.

It's memories like this that continue to flash in my mind, now that we're anchored on a pristine reef, far from sweat and rubble, energy, and music of Havana. Everything is different now, more relaxed, less concerned with Guarda and rules and the politically charged atmosphere of the capital, which seems a world away. Yes, Havana is a complex place, dirtier, more polluted, and more run down than I had imagined, and certainly more oppressed. But at the same time, it's more alive, more hopeful, more passionate, and more welcoming than I'd ever dreamed it would be. I loved being there long enough to get to know it and its people a bit.

Now that we're here on the reef, and swimming and fishing, and getting to know new friends, my mind can't help but wander back to Havana. I wonder what progress, if any, Carlos is making in his plan to leave the country, and I worry about him. I wonder if anyone is bothering to feed a scrap to a few of the hungry little dogs I'd come to recognize along the Malecon's broad seaside thoroughfare, or if anyone even notices them. I wonder if the music is wafting out tonight from the open windows of the apartments on the back side of Old Havana. I think about these things, and wonder, too, if a certain grandmother, carrying her meager shopping bag, might be, right now, dancing her way toward home.

Guajira guantanamera
Guajira guantanamera
You soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma
Y antes de morirme quiro
Echar mis versos de alma
Girl from Guantanamo
Girl from Gantanamo countryside
Girl from Guantanamo
Girl from Gantanamo countryside
I am a truthful man
From the land of the palm trees,
And before dying I want
To share these poems of my soul