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"Notes" #14

Pt. 2    Trip to Cuba   (Feb. 2020)

Cuba- Please Accept My Apology
After we picked up Drinda (my wife) from her Airbnb - she actually looked quite good considering her 26 hour ordeal in getting to Cuba - we all piled into Ernesto's old import. It was several miles to our Airbnb in the old section of Havana and we began to take in the flavour of city.
The apartment we stayed in was lovely, despite the fact that the building housing it was old and in need of a great deal of repair. In one part of the hallway it was open sky where rain and birds came in unhindered. Our apartment had a sitting room with a bedroom and bathroom off to one side and a lofted bedroom and bathroom above, where son, Brad and his wife, Suzanne stayed.
The lady who looked after the apartment was named Dani and while she was explaining everything about the apartment, another lady was copying information from our passports for the state. Then we had to sign to confirm that what she had recorded was correct. They don't use the word "Communism" in Cuba, but rather refer to their political system as Socialism. Dani droned on about where the coffee was, how to use the various machines, and that she was available for a variety of 'maid' things, but it wasn't until she mentioned that we had to cut back on toilet paper that she really caught my attention. Apparently, the plumbing is so old that the system can't handle much sewage so we had to put the used toilet paper in a bag and not flush it down the toilet. What?!
The area around our apartment in old Havana was like the country itself - something beautiful and ornate next to a building that is very old and has been left to decay, next to a building that is being refurbished. The friendly people are living in poverty imposed upon them by their government, which they are aware of and are vocal about. Only in the last few years has there been any private enterprise allowed, and that is limited mainly to some private cabs, restaurants, bars and a few retail outlets. I have never seen so many vintage cars (cars of the 40s 50s and 60s that have been immaculately maintained) as there are in Cuba - a rainbow of colours, shapes and makes with the majority of these cars handed down from generation to generation. We were not even allowed to open the car door for fear of chipping the paint. The drivers of these cars took impeccable care of their investment.
We took a tour of Havana on Saturday morning in a vintage Chrysler convertible. The weather was sunny with what would be a spring temperature here in MB.

 It really is a "different" economic system when a medical doctor makes the same monthly wage as a street cleaner, and cab drivers and people in the service industry are the top wage earners (due to tips). Celeste, (not her real name), our guide, told us that her mother, a university professor, made 25 CU a month. (1 CU = $1US). Celeste, herself a linguistic professor at the University, had to hold down two jobs and said that she and her boyfriend had to live with her mother just to make ends meet. She reiterated what I had heard previously, that doctors, (Cuba produces some of the finest in the world), only made 30 CU a month and had to maintain a second job to survive. On the other hand, all education in Cuba is free. So you can get incredibly well educated but you aren't allowed to use that education to get ahead. Celeste did not appreciate the socialist system she had to live under. I stated in the form of a question to her, "So why bother to work hard and get yourself educated and show initiative when you can never get ahead in this system." She agreed, "We have the resources but the government and its rules keep us in poverty."
Saturday evening we met our musical tour guide at a small bar near the main seat of Parliament. Once again, large ornate structures surrounded the main, incredibly beautiful building, and yet half a block off the square are old, dilapidated buildings-the dichotomy that is Cuba.
Our meeting place, a small intimate bar, perhaps 30 seats, had a four piece all-women band (piano, cello, drums, and singer); very good and very professional. I remarked that back home we could never afford such a quartet in so small a room. We would need a room of 75 to 100 to be able to afford such professional musicians. Our guide suggested that they may be working for pennies and a few drinks. We stayed, had a drink and listened to another set before walking to our next adventure, which was the world famous "Bona Vista Social Club". Brad and I have been fans of the original group, started in the late 40s and 50s, for years. We have their discs and Brad actually saw them in concert, back in the day. The concept of the original Vista Club was a "happening" that brought together Cuba's finest musicians jamming nightly. What magic that must have produced! We were very excited, even though this was definitely not the original (of course how could it be - age?).
The present Bona Vista Social Club tribute band is very good, very rehearsed, and at times looked very bored. What did catch my fancy was the fact that they paraded out at least 10 old singers (mostly over 70). I had two opposing feelings: sadness that at their age they still had to, on a nightly basis, dress up, and wind themselves up for two songs. Maybe they really enjoyed themselves, but I felt sad for them. The other feeling I had was that I loved it, particularly because I am of that vintage. Boy, those gals and guys really knew how to sell a number; all had great voices, but after a while the music began to seem all the same to me and their number of performers and affordability crept into my mind. There were 12 people in the band, a bandleader, an MC, three backup singers all on stage, as well as 10 singers and two professional dancers on the floor area. How could they afford all these performers? They did this every night, either out of love for performing, a second job, or were truly starving entertainers.
We took a cab home, and the driver got lost but we finally arrived at our apartment. The glow of the evening drifted into a real need to find a pillow.
Breakfast on Sunday morning was just down the street from where we stayed, at O'Reilly's on O'Reilly Street. Needless to say we tried to find the history of O'Reilly's but discovered very little. It was upstairs at O'Reilly's bar, looking out at the street and the people, that we ate our last meal in Cuba. I had a one-egg omelette (not easy to make), potatoes and toast. That only filled one-quarter of a four-quarter stomach. Oh well! The energy of the day began to heighten as the streets started to fill with people. Even at 10:00 AM the music happened. Performers on stilts followed by a trumpet and a variety of drum type instruments paraded through the streets.
Time to go! Ernesto came to get us. I had to give him another hug for taking care of Drinda and a big tip--he earned it. We made it through Havana customs and onto a very packed Cayman Airways plane.  45 minutes later, we were through customs on Cayman and then to Brad and Suzanne's home.
Would I go back to Cuba- a resounding yes! Mainly because of the generosity and spirit of the people and their love of music. This would definitely draw me back.
Oh, by the way, I cheated a bit on the bag with toilet paper. So if the streets of Havana are overflowing with waste and toilet paper, I sincerely apologize!