07 October 2008

Joy Amidst Anguish:
An Impression of Cuba

"The body suffers more than the soul, 
because the soul can always find something to hang on to, 
a memory, a hope."
- Reinaldo Arenas, "Before Night Falls" (1992)

To me, the above quote encapsulates my impression of the Cuban people we met, spoke with, and drank with for nine days on our honeymoon in 2004. The neglect by the government and the poverty of the ordinary, working person was pitiful, but the people & their attitude were amazing. Resilient, optimistic, joyous, friendly, open, and profoundly real.

We drank in dark cafés and outdoor patios with whatever locals happened to be sitting next to us. Cigars and mojitos and Cuba Libres. A friendly conversation was always struck up. Everyone was more than happy we were Americans, and more than willing to sit and talk for hours. They especially loved to talk about baseball. We carefully guided the verse towards politics. No one would ever discuss Cuban politics (too dangerous), but to a person they all asked us, "Why did you vote for Bush?" And we would have to explain that we didn't vote for him and were as perplexed and vexed by his election as they were. "But he is so... dumb," they would say. ("How could you..." was the unstated coda.) We just had to shake our heads with wry smiles - it's a mystery to us too. How to explain the sense of disappointment and abandonment that we felt because of the so-called leadership of our country.

We befriended a local musician and spent a couple of evenings on outdoor terraces as his small band ran through their repertoire - a mix of island soul & jazz, son, and traditional Cuban songs. He was a teacher during the day, but had to work six nights a week from 7pm until after midnight in order to support his wife and son. We took his address and promised ourselves we would send him a "care package" of clothes, supplies, toys, etc. (Little did we know this would be next to impossible because of our government's policies).

Everywhere we went, people were smiling, holding hands, laughing. The pervasive poverty was crushing, yet the people had the best attitude towards life I've ever encountered. It was explained at one point that there was really no middle class. Everyone was in the same boat really, except for the upper politicians, so there was hardly any class resentment. People were poor, and had been poor for so long that they learned to live with it, live through it, and rise above it. They lived on an exquisite jewel set in the beauty of the Caribbean, the buildings were crumbling, yet still handsome and detailed Spanish colonial. The faded charm of Havana is akin to an aging and desperate Madrid or Lisbon or even Paris. The people celebrated what what they had, and tried (at least in public) not to worry too much about what they had not.

I raise my glass (of rum) to the beauty & goodness of the people of Cuba.
KJT - Havana, Cuba (2004)

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