Recently I stepped into a Grimm’s fairy tale akin to The Sleeping Beauty. Remember how she lay hidden for years in an overgrown forest near the decaying palace which was her home?
The beautiful illustrations by Arthur Rackham from my childhood books came to mind as I explored the island of Cuba. To be transported to a time 65 years earlier is a rare and wonderful treat. I remember what life was like in the 1950s, and in many fantasies, I’ve wanted to return to an earlier period. I was delighted that no billboards or advertisements are allowed on the island; that there are miles of untouched beaches; that hardly anyone smokes (they can’t afford cigarettes); that there are very few cars on the highways.
Once you leave Havana, one discovers tranquil, small colonial towns, still untouched by time, with winding cobblestone streets and central plazas which serve as social meeting places.
What I had anticipated: 50s cars, colonial architecture, The Tropicana nightclub, Alicia Alonso’s Ballet National de Cuba, rice and beans, fried plantains, mojitos, sexy women, Caribbean music, blue skies and ocean, heat and humidity.
What I discovered: a beautiful island with innocent people on the verge of being thrown unprepared into our global society. Under the inept dictatorship of Castro, the life of Cuba is isolated in a time warp. Buildings are decaying and unsafe; streets, sidewalks, curbs, steps, railings are crumbling. There is no money or materials to repair them. Castro has not taken care of his country or its people, and the U.S. embargo has added oppressive measures, as well.
Our congenial group from UCLA Alumni Travel carried needed medical supplies, soaps, toiletries, clothes and children’s toys. These were given out at clinics, schools and the Jewish synagogue. Our guide was phenomenal, bright, clever, funny and scholarly. We lucked out!
The Cuban people enjoy the privileges of universal healthcare and education. They are given coupons to buy food and every worker has a salary. However, the payments are low, money and food are scarce and it is almost impossible for Cubans to cover the costs of food, housing, clothing and electricity. Gas is very expensive and the cars are shared and used as taxis. I was charmed by the 40s and 50s cars, but driving in one is rocky. The floor boards and upholstery are gone, the paint job is pealing, and the taxi stops every few streets to either pick up or let off a rider. The ride is bumpy on the gutted cobblestone streets.
Once out of Havana, on the highways built by the Russians, are miles of virgin beaches, (just waiting to become another Miami). The old, colonial provinces dating to the 16th century are tranquil. People are not in a hurry and friends and neighbors greet each other on the street and in the plazas.
Sancti Spiritus is my favorite town, founded by Diego Velazquez in the early 1500s. Like Trinidad, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourist attraction; Sancti Spiritus has historic architectural attractions, pastel colored centuries-old mansions, tiled red roofs and narrow cobblestone streets. We stayed overnight in an exquisite colonial hotel built in 1818, situated on the main village square. The town’s people were congregating on benches, promenading and enjoying life until 2 a.m. It was too hot and humid to be in their homes without air conditioning. We could hear their voices as we slept in our room with the windows open. I felt as if I was part of the town for that one evening and savored the experience, all but the itching of the mosquito bites. I must admit that it was tempting to think of living in a bygone time, where life was slow, safe and friendly.
We went to The Tropicana, at one time the most elaborate cabaret in the world, for an evening of music and dancing, which began at 10 p.m. A huge outdoor garden arena greeted us. Included in the price of admission was a bottle of rum for every four people! The dancers came out extravagantly costumed on many stages of different heights. The girls were tall and lithe and wore thongs with elaborate head dresses and all sorts of finery on their upper torsos and arms. They were butterflies, birds, Carmen Mirandas, slaves, Africans, Tarzans, animals, etc. The band was loud and continuous and I sat there with my jaw hung open. Three hours of kitschy choreography; repetitive mamba which included, ever so often, a step where the girls bend over for the audience. Probably a new form of mamba moon ba perhaps? It was a hoot.
In contrast, the Cuban National Ballet in the gracious, old, decaying Gran Teatro was original and moving. We were so lucky to attend the night when Alicia Alonso sat in the balcony. I was thrilled to see my revered prima ballerina dressed in bright red, and I threw her kisses, sure she recognized me as one of her longtime, American admirers. I used to throw roses on stage after she performed. The contemporary choreography and music were thrilling. The dancing was great.
Oh, the joy and excitement of the paladares, private restaurants created by the ingenuity of the Cubans. These are located in grand, historic, decaying mansions with the bygone era of romance. In some cases, the first and second floors have been taken over and divided into small living spaces by Cuban families who have lost their homes. We climbed to the third floor (no elevators) on long, winding stairways with crumbling hand rails to find colonial décor, garden patios with views of the city, delicious food, and, of course, mojitos and mamba bands. We were lucky to experience several paladares in Havana, and their savory food and old world surroundings.
Having my niece, Laurie, along was a great plus. Her enthusiasm and wit added to the enjoyment of the tour. As the hot and humid week wore on, rum with all the sweet, sugary juices lost its attraction. In the end, we were happy with rum, straight, on the rocks.
Doris Sosin is an activist, founder of the North of Montana Association and co-founder of the Santa Monica Conservancy.