Saturday, October 7, 2017

Amo Cuba

How did visiting Cuba become a trip of my dreams? Being married to a Cuban man.  He opened my eyes to a culture that was delightfully different compared to the homogenous place where I grew up in Minnesota.  His family fled Cuba in 1958 when he was 11 years old just before Fidel Castro took over the country.  I met him in 1979 when I was 22 in Manhattan. As soon as we started dating, I was introduced to a different way of life that was both new and refreshing.

It started with the food. There were no bland meat and potatos served at my former in-laws' house. I became fond of sweet, fried plantains that I mistakenly took for bananas and futilely kept trying to fry when my ex-husband--looking puzzled--asked what I was doing. "Trying to make plantains just like your mom's," I explained. That's when he laughed and informed me that plantains were a fruit specific to Latin America and could only be bought at Spanish grocery stores. How embarrassing.

On Carnival Paradise destined for Havana, Cuba
Then his mother served up the heavenly dessert, flan. I tried to make that too. But it fell apart when I plopped the cake pan upside down--displaying creamed mush that was supposed to be a perfectly molded round custard dish with liquid caramelized sugar drizzled over the top  Yum. When my former mother-in-law cooked the dish paella on Christmas Eve, I finally gave up trying to master her Spanish cuisine skills. My ex-husband and I settled for indulging in authentic Cuban food by going to Victor's restaurant on the upper west side of Manhattan.

Discovering Cuban food was just the beginning. We were fortunate to live in Manhattan's Yorktown neighborhood where Corso's, a Latin nightclub, played live music almost every night. It had a huge wood dancing floor where people sashayed to the Rumba, Samba, Cha Cha and Mambo. At weddings and family parties, I learned to dance the Merengue. My ex-husband's uncles were patient teachers and I went on to embrace all Latin ballroom dancing. After I divorced, I discovered The Buena Vista Club--a band comprised of a group of old men who kept the unique sound of traditional Cuban music alive.

I had the privilege of serving a traditional American summer meal--hamburgers, potato salad, and corn on the cob to one of my ex-husband's aunt and uncle that his family was able to fly to the United States from Cuba back in the 1980s. I will never forget when his aunt bit into a sweet cob of corn and began to cry. I asked the family if I had done something wrong, No, they all shook their heads sadly and explained she was sobbing because she had not tasted corn so sweet since she was five years old. That is when I realized how fortunate I was not to live in a country so poor.  I remember a family backyard barbecue where an uncle dug a whole in the ground and roasted a whole pig in it. Initially, I was repulsed by the sight. But I had to admit, that pork was delicious. My ex-husband's extended family were acutely aware of the vast opportunities in a capitalist country and many of them owned their own businesses--including my former spouse.

The food, the music, the dancing and the people of Cuba inundated my life for 15 years. After I got divorced, there were moments when I would suddenly be jolted by the smell of paella in Barcelona, or the sound of a Bossa Nova Samba and I felt a wave of nostalgia.

Overlooking Havana from the ship
When President Obama negotiated with the Cuban government to allow U.S. citizens to finally visit this isolated Caribbean island, I was determined to finally see this illusive country. Through my research, I decided taking a cruise from Florida to Cuba was the best way to go. I wasted no time booking a trip out of Tampa to Havana for my mom and me.

As Carnival ship Paradise approached Havana Bay with the El Morro fortress flanked on the left and the city full of Spanish architecture and 1950s vintage cars on the right, I was overwhelmed by the the moment. Finally, I would see this hauntingly beautiful city.

Havana enchanted  me with its narrow cobblestone streets and distressed architecture. The children played together instead of staring at cellphones. When I opened a bag of Snickers bars, one kid whistled and in seconds I was surrounded by hoards of children begging for the candy like I was a honeycomb surrounded by bees.

At nightfall. the city took on a different atmosphere, The buildings were lit up like Paris and music wafted through cobblstone streets. Taking the advice of our excursion tour guide, I wandered into the bar, Floridida, Ernest Hemmingway's favorite watering hole. The club is famous for inventing the dacquiri cocktal--which was quite evident because the bar was lined up with martini glasses as the bartender poured the drinks from a pitcher all night long. There was a bronze statue of Hemingway at the end of the bar with picture of him during his residence in Cuba on the wall.

After I left that bar I wandered the streets and watched feral cats scatter at every turn. I finally accepted a ride on bicycle buggy who said he would take me to dance club.



Posing in front of perfectly-restored vintage car
Havana by night
At Floridida's Hemingway's favorite watering hole