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Getting acquainted with Cuba

Getting acquainted with Cuba

Posted by PanamericanWorld on September 23, 2015

On my first trip in March, with my daughter Madeline, I expected remarkable art and architecture, cigars and rum, faded ’50s-era casinos and T-shirts bearing the likeness of Che Guevara. I looked for evidence of defections and detente, of clampdowns and compassion.

We found all of it – on the cobblestone streets and back alleys of Havana, in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and in the Museo de la Revolucion, in private restaurants and tobacco farms.

We also found it in the stories told by the people we met, from a tour guide who was contemptuous of the current regime and a museum docent who told us the Cuban Revolution had led to her emancipation from colonial society.

But many of our experiences bore no relationship to our expectations: Tourists, including Americans, were everywhere. Restaurants that cater to those tourists frequently doubled as galleries, some with remarkable paintings and sculptures. The rituals of Santeria are not merely the stuff of pop culture, as we discovered when we walked down a short strip of street known formally as Callejon de Hamel, with its shrines and galleries and murals devoted to the Afro-Cuban religion that combines Yoruba and Catholic beliefs.

When we were planning the trip, we didn’t take geography into consideration. Cuba is a Caribbean island, which means beaches and palm trees and tropical fruit, right? But the terrain is richly diverse: Parts of western Cuba – the postcard-worthy mountains and valleys of rural Pinar del Rio province two hours west of Havana – resemble a Chinese landscape painting. Nothing prepared us for the contrast of apartments on the verge of ruin next to seemingly well-preserved buildings slathered in Wedgwood blue or pastels.

Cuba’s story unfolded through its food, its flora and fauna and, of course, its people. They introduced us to the art of hand-rolling cigars, 12-year-old rum, and orchids the size of salad plates. They were curious. Welcoming. And voluble.

That included our guide for five-and-a-half days, who greeted us each day with great enthusiasm, even though he undoubtedly had squired tourists through Meyer Lansky’s Hotel Havana Riviera and the Plaza de la Revolucion dozens of times. He shared his life story, his opinion of Fidel Castro and his love of ’80s pop music. When he dropped us off at Jose Marti airport, he embraced us like long-time friends.

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