By: Daniel Otero
“La, la, la, la, la…” Rico, suave… This song was coming through the airwaves, all in a different tongue. Fourth largest spoken in the world. The glorious simple steps came through: one-two, one-two and one-two took my breath away! Taking me back… Fun, yes! Exciting, yes! Nonetheless capturing my whole being and remembered it clearly as a boy whether it came from Venezuela, Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic. The old sound of the Spanish dance and music!
However, the original dance came from none other than, Cuba. It was this Latin-Afro Caribbean country which took over the dance world after Argentina’s tango over 100 years before. The reigning king is salsa! And it came from Island Paradise of 900 kilometers long.
To think about Cuba again and again, there is only one dance that brings everything to life with friends and family… It is salsa! ‘The father’ of all Cuban dances. Later conceiving dances like rumba, cha-cha-cha and mambo. Clearly, baby!
When I was growing-up one thought about Cuba’s Fidel Castro. But the old timers would tell you in fond memories, Cuba was more than that! It was the remembrances of Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears), a classic danced or sung in parties, from Spain down to Panama. This song, one of the saddest [by the way] was the epitome of the sounds of salsa and who made it even better was the deceased Salsa singer, Celia Cruz. Later as I grew-up to understand world politics, I sung songs with the exiles, like “Cuando Sali de Cuba…” (When I left Cuba…). Those songs longing for a return to the motherland; and what can I say, Salsa made Cuba, but Cuba made Salsa. From Pinar del Rio (best place for cigars and black coffee), El Barrio Chino (Havana’s Chinatown) to Camaguey, people danced it to get noticed! And sexy-confidence became the life of the party!
Country only 95 miles (145 kilometers) from the coast of Florida, it has been a long overdo for the elimination of the mighty but passé Embargo and for the Castro brothers to “…tear down this Wall”. Yes, the invisible wall since 1962 between the United States and Cuba. Hold the McDonalds, please!
I went to Cuba almost 20 years ago on a ‘job’. And as the Chinese would say, “It’s a secret!” Cuba did what it does to all people who have passionate feelings—it drove me to discover the Island from Havana to Santiago.
I do salsa and it was in truth when I saw a show at the Tropicana Club did I realize my Salsa was just ‘baby steps’, compared to what the dancers could do! Boots were literally on fire and dancers shook hips across the dance floor!
What awoke again and again in my memories and passions for Cuba was when I met in China an extraordinary-young man, Alberto Marinas. This Cuban exile was waiting, and people may ask, “Waiting for what?” Like any other Cuban whom I had met longed for a return to his or her land.
Other things have quickly followed through the years, but until recently, when I saw the British and American-comedies, “Cuban Fury” (2014) and “Chef” (2014). When I realized how much I missed the country and its passionate people. Cubans are a people who always want to be happy, even when things are really bad. And I had taken these examples into my life to live happier!
Another person who brought Cuba clearly to light [again] was my friend and colleague, Peter Jarvis. He visited Cuba recently and wanted to tell me all about it:
Q: Attractions to Cuba, what made you go?
A: Well mate, Cuba is going to change in the next five years. It will focus more on developing markets and things will quickly change after the Castro’s are done. Not Hemingway’s Cuba anymore, sir. From a cheaper market to the delicious common people, it will change for ‘Yankee land’ and consumerism.
Q: Favorite memories.
A: Visiting and being a guest to an Afro-Cuban family. I fell in love with a local pension (Guest House) in the town of Baracoa (southeast). One problem that broke my heart was the colonial buildings. They are falling apart, barely holding together, grungy and close to collapse!
Q: Best landmarks or landscapes.
A: Ah, that’s a good one, when the tour bus rode across the mountains of Sierra Maestra. [Castro’s old haunts during the revolution], they are just magical and easy to photograph. It was a misty morning and glorious for the shutter. One snap after the other, another place that took a hold of me was Tao Island. Trinidad was another town I loved and definitely a repeatable experience.
Q: Worse experience.
A: F**cking groups! Useless, I would rather go on my own which at times at time I did; especially, when we visited Baracoa, I disappeared along the ‘unbeaten track’! This is what worries me about Cuba, these extreme changes with fat tourist who don’t get off their fat asses and walk. As a traveler I like to wonder alone happily! They are [group tours] just driven from one place to another. Also, missed a great meal at the Hotel Nacional; it was the incompetence of the tour guide. He was ladies man, more interested in the next ‘conquest’, then touring us. But alas, that’s life! By the way, didn’t like the Mojitos or rum drinks, some of them were drenched in sugar, a sensory overload on the sweet!
Q: Favorite meals.
A: Enjoyed the simple things. Cuban foods come out greatly through the people’s dishes like: rice and black-bean soup, accompanied with tasty-crunchy pork and chicken.
Q: Did you feel in anyway isolated as an Englishman?
A: Actually, I never did feel alone. Foods were great and people friendly, always wanting to give of themselves and what little they had to the visitor.
Q: Best drinks.
A: Actually enjoyed the local beer, Cristal, nice.
Q: Would you return and why?
A: Yes and as I told you before, it’s to change [Cuba] in less than a decade. Why? Well, I thought of spending more time in certain places, without the rapidity or the driving on a tour group.
Q: Favorite towns to visit other than Havana.
A: Baracao, Bayamo, Camaguey and Trinidad… Lovely and colorful people, they are always dancing and partying in the centers of town.
Q: What were your feelings about the people?
A: Personalities, characters are just gorgeous. People are just beautiful. Fell in love with the nightlife and they were struggling just to stay happy in an impoverished society. They did have the sadness of limitations and poverty, but they still enjoyed life and accepted the good with the bad in a fun-colorful way!
Q: Changes happening in Cuba?
A: For millions of Cubans struggling, recycling has taken on whole a new meaning. Many of the vehicles have been rebuilt over and over. Oil is cleaned, filtered and again and again reused! The Camello (the camel) bus system holds a new meaning for transportations, using a system of buses and trucks to get ‘to and fro’ in an easier/cheaper manner. Chinese cars are also beginning to come into the Island, vehicles like ‘Gelly and Great Wall’; these companies are open for business in Cuba.
Q: Cost of a typical Cuban meal?
A: It can go as low as 1 Cuban peso, maybe around 6 RMB or $1 USD.
We finalized the interview with cheers, lifting and doing a toast with our beers for the future and prosperity of Cuba. And as Peter thought into the memoir of his mind and recounted, it was an experience that certainly changed his life! Insightful to say the least and thought provoking; it did mix his life for the better and one thing is still on his mind, a quick return! It was one for the books and fond memories of Cuba.
Once in Cuba, a person is always wishing for another and another trip! Into a world of luscious foods, beaches and people! A place that one can say, it’s not all about the quantity, but it is quality. This ‘paradise’ holds true and not always wealth is greater and most certainly, charm rules the day. And here’s one for the Island nation, “Viva Cuba!” Welcome to Cuba, no McDonalds please! Just give me Salsa!