Category Archives: Cuba

Cuban Nostalgia, cont.

Past meets present

Past meets present in Havana

Just a few weeks ago, I posted some of my memories of Cuba. The YouShareProject picked it up, wanted to publish it, and I added to it. You can read Cuba’s Siren Song Still Beckons, most likely the first of similar recollections.

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Cuban nostalgia

I want to go back to Cuba. “Nostalgia” in Greek is literally “an aching for a return home.”

DCP_1055I have been exiled for all of my adult life from the place where I spent the happiest days of my childhood. I lost my grandmother, my cousins and my indulgent aunts — half my family was snatched away. And my loss was minuscule next to that of my friends.

The “lucky” ones were sent by their parents to the U.S. as children to escape indoctrination and hardship. Some of these “Peter Pan” kids were sent to relatives, but others to institutions, because there was no one to care for them.

HavanaDecay Now the gates that had been slammed so tightly shut are beginning to reopen. And yet, I will return with trepidation rather than eager anticipation, for I will not see my grandmother or my aunts; I will not be able to return to the place I knew. You really can’t go home again, even though some aspects of Cuban life are in a time warp — the American cars of the 50s, carefully maintained way, way past their lifespan because they were irreplaceable.  There were no new cars to take their place.

Much of Havana is the same. Sort of. The houses and buildings are still standing, but they tend to be ramshackle and ill-cared for. The Spanish colonial façades are familiar and still beautiful, but they barely conceal the decay inside.

Twelve years ago I went back, so I know what to expect. Despite the hardships they have endured, Cubans are irrepressible and spontaneous — they haven’t lost their good humor — it’s what enables them to keep going. They paint and dance, write and sing — the arts cannot be shackled.

Twelve years ago I didn’t want to go back — I didn’t want my cherished memories to be ravaged by the present. Today, I do. I want to see my compatriots hopeful, optimistic, their indomitable spirit allowed at last to fly free.

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Cuban paradise

Varadero Beach

Varadero Beach

Varadero was so beautiful then … Sand like superfine sugar, white and barely granular; the water aquamarine, warm and shallow, gentle waves lapping at the shoreline … I’ve heard that now large hotels built by Europeans lord it over the pristine sand.

The drive from Havana to Varadero was tedious for a child whose only concern was how much longer til I can go in the water? I’d probably appreciate the ride a lot more now — 80+ miles along a coast road sheltered by palms and bombarded by the outrageous colors of exotic flowers between glimpses of the sea.

When we finally arrived, I was ready with my bathing suit. My parents couldn’t hold me back from the beach.

Relatives I hadn’t met had given us the use of their house, an early example for me of expansive Cuban generosity. The house was right on the beach, and I was in heaven, because the sand and the water were always available, and the coconut palms offered shade when the sun was too fierce.

One beautiful morning, I remember, I woke up early and my parents were sound asleep. I must have been somewhere between five and eight years old. That morning the quiet was pervasive, interrupted only by occasional birdsong. The day was brand new, asking to be explored and enjoyed. Putting on my bathing suit, as I did first thing every day at the beach, I heeded the siren call of the water and the sand. There was barely a breeze, and the sun was still lovingly warm, not yet torridly hot. I played a while on the sand, but then I couldn’t resist — first my toes, then my ankles, little by little I ventured into the beckoning water.

Back at the house, my parents were waking up. When they didn’t see or even hear me, I now can only imagine their panic. At some point, they looked out toward the beach and beyond, into the sea. An only child, I was used to playing by myself and was having a fine old time splashing in the warm water. I couldn’t understand why they were making such a fuss.

Photo by Philip Gabrielsen

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Dreaming of Cuba

1955 Chevy on El Malecón in Havana, Cuba, with El Morro Castle

1955 Chevy on El Malecón in Havana, Cuba, with El Morro Castle

When I was growing up, I spent a part of every year in Cuba with my Cuban family. I almost remember — I heard the stories so many times — standing at the railing of my grandmother’s balcony when I was two years old. Pushcarts teeming with fruit and vegetables, others with knives and cutlery, yet others piled high with many-hued fabrics, each vendor hawking his wares with a distinctive cry, kept me pressed against the railing, fascinated by the colors and the sounds. When my grandmother saw something she needed, she’d lower a basket on a rope so that the vendor could fill it with mangoes and papaya or bacalao (salted codfish) or sacks of black beans and rice. Then she would hoist the basket back up, remove the groceries, count out the pesos she owed and send the basket with the money back down to the peddler waiting below.

I remember a Havana that was noisy and garish, rhythmic and musical. At dinnertime it was redolent with the smells of ropa vieja, picadillo, arroz con pollo, tostones, frijoles negros and the like. Bananas grew in the backyard. At 11 in the morning, we had a break at school and ate pastelitos de guayaba, flaky pastries filled with guava paste that I still savor and crave today. I remember the incomparable beaches and the people who loved me.

That was before Fidel’s triumph. During the long decades that followed, my memories persisted, even as the distance between them and harsh reality continued to grow. Today I’m reading Havana Nocturne, T.J. English’s account of the seamy, violent and thoroughly corrupted underbelly of the beautiful city in those halcyon days. Cuba is very much on my mind as it is for many in the wake of the rapprochement between Pres. Obama and Raúl Castro. In the weeks to come I will be reconciling nostalgia and history as this new era unfolds.

Photo by James Seith Photography

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Now I can go home again– to Cuba

Castillo del Morro in Havana's harbor

El Morro in guards Havana’s harbor

Exiled for most of my life, separated from my Cuban home and family, I was overjoyed by the news of Cuba’s return. Hooray for Pres. Obama, Pope Francis and the Canadians! At last the failed policies of isolation and embargo— they did nothing to remove Fidel while they resulted in great deprivation and suffering— are beginning to crumble. Pres. Obama has achieved another first, a momentous achievement. The Cuban American naysayers will some day soon realize how their outdated obsession has been propping up the dictatorship and harming the Cuban people.

More to come …

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