The live music continued to fill the night streets and the souls of thousands of Cuban youth all over the island. As the beats waffled over the roof tops and reverberated through the ocean, I was convinced that the joy, laughter and singing could be heard back home. April 3, 2007 marked the 45th anniversary of The Union of Young Communists, a day where youths have the opportunity to express their unconditional commitment to their revolution. In a sea of swaying hips and waving flags in the middle of Havana square, the feeling of human connection melted into me like no amount of chocolate could. It was amazing how a society void of material goods could nurture a people who found joy in the simplicities of life itself.
Journey into the human soul
The mystery and magical allure of Havana’s history and people are what initially fuelled my long time desire to experience it for myself. Motivated by a sense that the hour glass of time had turned over on Cuban politics and culture, and longing to feel a warm connection, I vowed to demystify the world of Fidel Castro with my own eyes. With my partner of four years by my side, we embarked on what would promise to be a journey into the human soul.
Stepping off the air-conditioned bus into the intense Caribbean heat in Vedado, the city’s center, we began our three- and a-half-hour journey on foot to find MOVPAZ. In order to initiate a relationship with the local culture, we collected a bag full of notebooks and pens to be distributed to Cuba’s schools. Although education is free for all Cuban people, supplies are often limited in quantity and variety.
MOVPAZ (Cuban Movement for Peace and People’s Sovereignty) is a non governmental organization that was founded in 1949 to promote peace and development. They accept donations and then distribute the supplies to those who are in dire need, including the rural parts of Cuba, which are often neglected by visiting tourists.
We were immediately drawn into the smell of sweet baked treats from the corner bakeries, while the tantalizing aromas of fresh mangos and papaya drifted through our senses from the open air markets. The purposeful actions of the local people gave the impression that there was work to be done, places to go. We thought about hopping on a vintage local bus, relics from the Soviet era, but decided that we preferred walking over simulating a can of sardines – we wanted to be close, but not that close! Resisting stepping into every eclectic old Spanish colonial home turned artist haven, we finally made it to MOVPAZ headquarters.
It was at this moment that a series of serendipitous events seemed to divinely link themselves together the way they were meant to. We were warmly welcomed into the spacious school like building, and into the office of one of the main administrators. Creating our own language combining Spanish, Italian and English and the universal language of human connection and expression, we were able to communicate and receive the energy of immense appreciation. Seeing as how we hadn’t yet secured a place to stay for that evening, I asked our first real Cuban friend if she knew of a room we could rent for the night. She barely hesitated a moment before she got on the phone with a woman who lived just around the corner. This was a relief since I didn’t think either of us could sustain much more walking without taking a few moments to rest and contemplate how we would spend the rest of our afternoon.
We walked with our heads down, searching for the street markers painted on stone slabs on the sidewalk corners. Stopping at one of numerous corner stands selling street pizza, beer and snacks, we bought a few sugary sodas and enjoyed every last syrupy drop. Knocking on the front door of our Cuban surrogate family with anticipation, we were enthusiastically greeted by Estrella, a woman in her mid fifties with the most piercing blue eyes I had ever seen. She spoke with vehement speed, her beautiful Spanish voice singing in my ears, her words dancing through the air. Her light blue eyes glistened like the sea basking in the late afternoon sun, and warmed any insecure feelings that may have lurked within my subconscious. It didn’t seem to matter that we scarcely understood a word she was saying. She continued to move her lips while communication rose to a higher level, a level guided purely by the senses, the kind that you are made fully aware of when every cell of your being is pouring into trying to connect with the person standing in front of you – a practice we rarely, if ever, engage in. After being given keys to the apartment, we continued our adventure, with the next stop being food! It was 3:00 p.m. We were famished!
Cuba is far from a gastronomic paradise, but alas, we came for the people. Food is provided by the state, rarely changes, no matter where you decide to nourish yourself. Exotic dishes may be available in some of the tourist hotels, but are of decent quality at best, often overpriced. It is best to stick with the local staples of rice and beans, cooked vegetables and fish. Enjoy the copious amounts of fresh fruit available for a few pesos at the outdoor markets, guavas being my personal favourite! Use discretion when considering purchasing whatever the locals may be trying to sell you, "for a very good price". Although a black market exists, especially with the infamous Cuban cigar, it is strictly prohibited by law. No matter how friendly the Cuban people are, keep your political views to yourself, and refrain from asking questions about the Castro government. Freedom of speech is not a right that the Cuban people enjoy, best to respect the culture while limiting judgement.
After satisfying our bellies and resting a bit, we began a long evening with live entertainment at Salon Rojo. We had received a flyer earlier in the day advertising a special tribute to the Buena Vista Social Club. We were eager to experience what a Cuban night in the 50’s would have been like! While waiting in line to get into the bar, we met Rosita, a young woman traveling on her own from Argentina. I was immediately fascinated with her fearlessness and enthusiasm for Cuba’s people, feeling her curiosities mirroring my own. Her English was perfect. It allowed us to share our experiences and next points of interest in Havana.
The three of us shared a table and mojitos, while we transported ourselves to another space in time. We moved in our seats to the hypnotic beat of the drums, the powerful voices and passionate charisma of the performers. It was magic. I closed my eyes and felt what I had come to search for on this rich and beautiful island. The music filled my senses while connecting me to something that I could never feel in a lifestyle full of material obsession – the true, unaltered connection of a people bound together by life’s pure joy.