I grew up thinking that Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of Russia, the United Soviet Socialist Republic, was the devil. The first rooster I ever knew belonged to my best friend's family and he was a red rooster and he was mean as fuck and his name was Khrushchev.
And then- somehow- Cuba, which I was only vaguely aware of even though I moved to Florida when I was five years old, became Communist and was aligned with that red, evil devil and there was a guy named Fidel Castro who wore green army stuff and had a beard and smoked a cigar and he was like Devil, Jr. but an even bigger threat because he was so close to us, geographically, and Khrushchev was going to use Fidel's country as a place from which to bomb us.
This is all overly and vastly simplified and told from a child's perspective and not to be taken as actual history and to be quite honest- I still don't understand how Cuba came to be under the protection of the USSR. And I actually asked that question of Ruben, our own personal historian on the trip. Ruben has two master's degrees and speaks very good English and took us on our tour of old Havana and to the art museum and answered questions one day over lunch right before all of the waitresses sang and danced for us and he got the phone number of one of them with whom he'd been flirting.
Best history lecture ever and that's Ruben on the right.
I now understand a little bit more about the Revolution. Cuba had become a complete money cow for America. American Fruit Company, AT&T, American sugar companies, etc., etc. Not to mention the mafia. And so a very, very few people were very, very rich and everyone else (the workers) were basically starving to death and being bled dry.
Again- vastly simplified, I am sure.
And so Fidel Castro and some other folks (Che Guevara being one of them, I am certain) started a revolution and kicked out the big fat American blood-suckers and ended capitalism entirely (Ruben's grandfather had a small milkshake business and after the Revolution, it was taken from him) and somehow, the USSR became Cuba's ally.
But I'm still very, very hazy about all of this.
And I never really got a good answer from Ruben.
I should read some damn history.
But the point of this story is, that any child growing up in the sixties had an impression of Cuba as being a Communist country (and hell- it may have been Socialist for all I know- how embarrassing to admit all of this) and as such, it had to be a sad, sorrowful, GRAY, serious, ungodly place completely without humor or joy where nobody had the courage to speak out against the government at all for fear of being thrown into a horrible prison and tortured. And of course, where all the Soviet bombs were waiting to be dropped on us.
And then over the years, I grew up and Fidel became old and more avuncular than demonic and the images which came back from that closed country were those of beautiful old buildings and cars from the forties and fifties and of a population which consisted of people of all colors and I read Cuban fiction and THEN, Ry Cooder came out with the amazing and brave and incredible album which he recorded in Cuba, Buena Vista Social Club.
Which I listened to about five thousand times and cried to approximately four times per listening and then I saw the documentary and wept my way through that and I realized that I did not know shit about Cuba.
Hey. Guess what?
I still don't.
When we got to the airport in Havana (and the plane ride was like this: achieve elevation/prepare for landing) it reminded me greatly of Cozumel's airport back in the nineties. Very utilitarian. Very, very hot. We deplaned via steps and walked across the tarmac to the building and went in and got in line to get our passports and visas checked. In Cozumel this is all very open and the officials who stamp your passport are right there and you wait with all of the other tourists and when it becomes your turn to hand over your passport and documents, it's simply a matter of "Hola," a brief stare from the official and then stamp, stamp, here's your visa, off you go to collect your bag which may or may not be searched determined by some mysterious process I've never understood, but mostly not.
But in Cuba, we had been given all of these instructions of what to say if they asked why we were visiting Cuba (cultural exchange) and to not speak Spanish to the officials because they might think you are, well, something, something, and to just be ignorant Americans and if there were any questions AT ALL, to summon Yosi or Soledad. So. Waiting in line. To go into a tiny room. The door opens and you go in. To your left is a woman behind a counter at a desk. A stern looking woman. There is a scary camera hanging from the ceiling. You hand over your passport and your documents. She looks at them. She does some things on a computer.
"Have you been to Africa in the last three months?" she asks.
"No," you say.
She does a few more things on the computer.
"Take off your glasses and look into the camera."
You do this. A picture is taken. More computer stuff. Eventually, she hits a buzzer which unlocks the door in front of you. You are free to walk through it.
And this is what I saw- a huge, very, very gray room with horrible and inadequate florescent lighting and no seats and no amenities and two baggage claim conveyer belts.
No "Bienvenida a Cuba!" banners. No music. No one selling mojitos or cuba libres or trying to get you to rent a moped or buy a time share.
Just gray. Floor, ceiling, walls. And heat. Heat. Heat.
And I walked through that little door and I thought, "Jesus Christ. This IS what Communism looks like. Holy fuck."
But then I noticed something. All of the security guard women had obviously been issued a uniform shirt but whatever they wanted to wear below that was up to them. And that meant skirts barely longer than the shirts and often black lace patterned panty hose and high heels below those.
Well. This was definitely a different sort of Communism than what I'd been told about.
I took a breath. I felt much better.
We waited and waited and waited for our flight's baggage to appear and hell- how many flights a day come in to that airport? And we were supposed to be at the club for a sound check so very soon and weren't we supposed to change our dollars into CUP's at the airport? Of course, my bag came in last and by the time I grabbed it and Lis had her guitar, her banjo and her luggage and Sole raced us out to the bus to meet Sobe and get our seats and get on the way to FAC, we were completely culture shocked, heat exhausted, hungry, and penniless in the sense that even being in possession of an American dollar is a punishable offense for Cubans.
But. Sole and Yosi were calm and cool and Sobe was awesome and uniformed and flirting with Sole and greeting each of us with a huge smile and the bus was air-conditioned and Sole just handed out 100 CUPS to everyone and said, "We'll tally it up later," and off we went, our eyes boggling and bugging out at everything and Sole on the mic trying to explain to us what we were seeing.
The musicians did their ancient and familiar musician rituals with the sound man and the stage and instruments of wood and strings and human voice
and the rest of us wandered around. One of the first things I saw was this.
I knew all was well.
And so it was.
Do you realize that it's going to take me longer to share this story, this dream, this journey, than it did to live it?
Ah well. I am having the time of my life. And I've had a beautiful day, doing laundry and messing about with plants and in the garden and I got to have a long, long conversation with my oldest friend from childhood on the phone and this is what we're having for supper.