I had previously mentioned the abundance of artists and musicians found all throughout Havana. These street musicians taking five here are representative of what you'll find all over the city. I have never visited a city quite so alive with music!
On two separate nights, we went out to experience Havana's very active, very pulsing nightlife. Throughout the Miramar district (see map in part I of this series) and elsewhere, there are numerous all-night clubs where the music and dance seems endless. We went to two different jazz clubs the first night, and the show and musicianship were excellent! Salsa dancing couples were everywhere, and the musicians played very energetically for hours on end.
Cuban jazz is a mixture of many influences: lovely, melodic, and sensual Spanish guitar; African rhythms and percussion; and American horns. Let us not forget the ever-present melodic keyboard, too! The very catchy rhythms make you want to hit the dance floor nonstop. The music reflects the same subtle blending the Cuban population does: roughly 65% white, 10% black, 24% mulatto, and perhaps 1% Asian. Whites and blacks and mulattoes all mingle and dance together without a second thought, just as it should be. For an excellent representation of authentic Cuban jazz, much of it performed by actual old Cuban masters, go to Amazon.com and pick up a copy of the magnificent Buena Vista Social Club. Named after a 1940s members club in Havana, Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder traveled to Cuba to record this gem of an album which I highly recommend. It won't be long before YOUR toes start tapping, too, and you'll be blown away by the musicianship!
We also attended an all-night cabaret which featured one fabulous troupe of dancers after another. The custumes were all richly colorful, and the acrobatic energy of each performance was incredible! So THIS Vwas what Havana was like in its 1940s-1950s heyday! Decadent and sensual, with an unending supply of drink and rhythmic music.
Shopping in Cuba is interesting. Apart from tiny kiosks in market squares, Cuba has two kinds of stores: peso stores, which accept and trade in pesos, and Dollar stores, which trade only in dollars or Euros. We stopped by a peso store but didn't stay very long. For one thing, as foreigners, we couldn't use the peso. For another, shelf after shelf was bare and there was hardly any reason for the shop to be open. This, unfortunately, is what locals not brandishing any dollars have to put up with - empty shelves and shortages. Dollar stores are much better stocked, but the goods found in them tend to be higher priced, although still a bargain by our standards. There are loads and loads of Columbian soft drinks (even the diet variety), but no Coke or Pepsi products to be found ANYWHERE! Much like an American convenience store, the Cuban dollar shops stock a wide variety of goods that can be purchased only with dollars. But there was absolutely NO American brands of anything to choose from! No Kellogg's Corn Flakes, no Schick or Gillette razors, no Kraft cheese or Swanson TV dinners - nothing. Our long term Cuban embargo has seen to that, so Cuba was forced to purchase similar, non-U.S. products from elsewhere in the hemisphere. Even though these dollar stores seemed well-stocked, we did find a curious shortage in one of them. We went to get toilet paper and a few other household odds and ends for our kindly Havana hosts. We couldn't find ANY toilet paper! There were several shelves of baby diapers, but no toilet paper! We summoned a clerk who said they had run out and he didn't know when more would come in. I wondered how many other Cubans would have to do without this basic household staple due in part to our embargo, and for how long...
It took me a few days to realize the peace and quiet one gets from not being continually bombarded with product ads, be they on billboards, TV, radio, or in print. For in Cuba, advertising simply doesn't exist. For that matter, neither does American football. While we were in Cuba over the Super Bowl weekend, we had no clue the Baltimore Ravens had defeated the New York Giants in the game until after we had landed back in Cancun, Mexico! The Cubans, it seemed, got along just fine without our overly abundant advertising or Super Bowl hype, and that was fine with me! The "Colon Lady" would never fly in Havana, and it made me stop to think how corporate America pesters and overwhelms us constantly with silly ads...
On our very last night in Havana, we thought we would go stay in a room at the Lincoln Hotel, which, if you remember, was where we had told the Customs agent at the airport where we had intended to stay 6 days earlier. Man, was that ever a mistake! We paid $30 each for the stinkiest, most mildew-infested dump I have ever stayed in! I went in the bathroom to shower and found that there was no hot water. I turned the dial over and over, but nothing came out. The bed smelled so dank and humidity-ridden I was almost afraid to sleep in it. I went over to each of my compatriots' rooms and found that there was something major league wrong with each of theirs, too. We decided to chalk it up to experience, and, what the hell, we'd be out of there in about 7 hours anyway! I've never slept in such a musty bed, and I hope I never do again, either. So much for medium-priced state-run hotels in Cuba---they can have them!
We made it to Jose Marti International Airport and soon were on our way back to Cancun. We surrended our tourist visas upon boarding the plane, so no one would be the wiser. Upon disembarking at Cancun, we had one last hurdle to overcome. As we went before the agent who was seated by himself at a table, we mentioned being Americans returning from Havana, and told him restamping our passport with "Cancun" only six days later, with no other stamps in between, might pose a problem with U.S. Customs once we got home. The agent looked at us slyly and said in heavily-accented English, "But is requirement for me to stamp passport. However, for a small gift, I may be able to make an exception..." We then put $5 in each of our passports. The agent snatched each bill and then dismissed us without restamping our passports. We figured he was used to such transactions and was very happy to get some extra American cash to bolster the Mexican pesos his paycheck would come in! You can always count on the corruption of a Mexican official, and once more we had dodged a bullet, seemingly miraculously! It was a calculated risk that paid off. We then booked our regular Northwest Airlines flight back to Minneapolis, where sailing through Customs there was a breeze (even for my high school friend, who had loaded up his heavy winter parka with various Cuban wood carvings he had purchased on the streets of Havana, and me with the souvenir Che Guevara beret I had bought).
In the aftermath of 9/11, such a trip like this, done the way it was done, may no longer be possible. I hope to return to Cuba someday, before it once more falls to American corporatist influence and becomes perverted with profit motive and that wretched advertising, much as the rest of the world has. Good as well as bad, my six days in Cuba I will always remember and treasure, for its lack of corporatism as well as for the art and beauty of its people!
UP NEXT: "FACES OF CUBA" and my final conclusions about this magnificent journey!