I just sat down in a sweaty Viazul bus on my way to Cienfuegas. The Cubans call the bayside city “The Pearl of the South.” It could be the Hades of the South and I might go. I couldn’t handle one more visit to Trinidad’s Casa de la Musica or see one more ’53 Chevy paperweight. Trinidad is real, real touristy. You have to really look to find the real Cuba, well past the many mansions long ago abandoned by sugar barons fleeing Castro’s revolution.
But last night I found it. (The bus just turned on the A-C and, once again, I can think of only one place I’d rather be than Cuba right now. As to your ensuing question, no comment.)
I had just eaten a long-awaited ropa vieja, and roamed outside the Plaza Mayor area for some of the little hole-in-the-wall bars or cafes I passed while doing errands earlier in the day. About four blocks down the hill from the plaza I passed an open door with a small neon sign reading “Savor Tropical.” Inside were just a few tables and a tiny bar with four barstools, just enough for two couples or a lonely travel writer wanting to discuss sensitive political topics.
As I ordered my Havana Club on the rocks, which I’m slowly developing a weird dependency on, a stylish woman in a red tube-top dress asked me how I was. The last time a woman said that to me in Cuba, she wanted $100 for an hour of “cultural insight.” Turns out she was a singer-songwriter who was half the act for the evening. The other half sat at the last stool, a striking, narrow-faced woman with long, flowing black locks and a black scarf around her neck.
They both spoke a little English and Yaydi, the songwriter, spoke very good Italian. After seven days in Latin America, my Spanish still couldn’t get me out of a parking ticket. Finally, I could make myself understood.
Savor Tropical has been open only a couple of years and I wonder how some of these places stay open at all. Most of the restaurants I pass stand empty, a waiter limply holding a menu in the street. Earlier I had eaten my traditional ropa vieja, specially made as a request by Migue, my casa particulare host, alone in an empty restaurant, Salon 1851, which had been open all of two weeks. Two male guitar players and a woman singer serenaded me. I couldn’t have felt more foolish if I was singing to them.
But Yaydi seemed real happy. She writes a lot of poetry and so does her boyfriend. I’ll call him Javier. He is bald as a cueball and black as an 8-ball. He’s stocky. He looked like he played catcher for Los Industriales at one time. His glasses gave him a studious look, made even more when he talked about his poetry. He said he writes about love and struggles, two subjects that seem central in all Cubans’ lives.
Javier and Yaydi joined the growing list of Cubans I’ve met who are poets. I’m not surprised. Some of the best poetry in history came from Russia before and after the revolution.
The best writing comes from the heart and the heart is especially heavy when oppressed.
“It’s one way to express your fears and your dreams,” Javier said.
I asked Javier if he was happy.
“We are fighting every day to be very close to being happy,” he said.
He was happy last night. He’s a masseuse who finally, after waiting forever, got permission to open up a practice in one of the hotels. He was as giddy as a schoolboy, rubbing Yaydi’s leg and stealing kisses when her head was turned talking to the singer. Cubans are among the most passionate people I’ve ever seen which doesn’t help my loneliness. It never does. When I first started visiting Italy alone, I swear if I saw one more swarthy Italian bend a woman over a fruit cart I was going to get one of those cat scratching poles.
The duet’s audience was me and a bored, chubby local who looked like he hadn’t moved since Castro was healthy. When he left I was again a sheepish audience of one. Even they weren’t crazy about this idea. They stopped playing after about four songs.
But when they left, Javier asked me to help them celebrate.
“We go to special place,” he said. “It’s another club where singers go practice. It is the real Cuba.”
So I joined the three of them down the dark street and into a small doorway. It looked like another sugar baron’s house as we walked out a side exit and into what looked like a large breezeway between two mustard-colored buildings. A bunch of tables were set up facing a tiny stage at one end. The backdrop was a crumbling brick wall.
A middle-aged Argentine woman in a brown dress was belting out some very professional Latin hits to the appreciation of all the locals who gathered. She apparently had played a concert earlier that night and had come over to try some new songs. In Trinidad, that’s the equivalent of Robin Williams stopping by the Improv to test some new jokes.
“In this period,” Javier told me, “this has become big.”
Later a beautiful white Cuban in a short black dress sang love songs. Javier is right. This is Cuba. Even though I was alone, I felt some passion that fills Cubans every day. Or maybe I was just melancholy. I could hear birds chirping in the background. A cool breeze came off the sea eight miles away. It didn’t hurt that Yaydi kept filling my cup from a bottle of Havana Club she snuck in.
They left me with hearty handshakes, Yaydi’s CD, “Mujere Puede” (“Woman Can”), and Javier’s email address. They also left me with an affection for the Cuban people that will never disappear, even if the Castros do.