Sometimes everything has to be enscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you. Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that small, bright, and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart. David Whyte

Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart : The End

It was time to go.
I packed bags and memories
Tucked heart back in sleeve.

Sixty minutes flight
Back across the shining sea.
How to view things now?

Stories are my gift
To speak of Cuba’s people.
Words also take flight.


Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart: Seeing Another Face of Cuba

Jose told us of the “Special Period” which occurred during the 1990’s after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Under Castro Communist Russia subsidized and controlled the Cuban economy. When the Soviet Union splintered Russian money was withdrawn. As a result the people of Cuba were thrown into a condition of extreme poverty. Castro named this time when Cuban people were forced to accommodate daily hardship and deprivation the “Special Period in Time of Peace”. In 2012 people talked of the “Special Period” with irony-laced tongues. Though things were getting better for people, they were still troubled by uncertainty and dread.

On our last afternoon in Cuba we visited the Fine Arts Museum. Cuba has a lively and thriving art culture that is unique to Caribbean island countries. As well as more contemporary art works the museum has a renowned heritage of Spanish and other European painters on exhibit. Art works are hung in rooms according to the time the artists painted them. Jose led us through the rooms telling us about the paintings and artists. Jose’s second favorite thing, after leading bicycle tours, is leading people through the art museum and introducing them to artists and their work. I loved especially seeing through the eyes of Cuban painters. Then we arrived at the room where art work of the 1990’s – the ‘Special Period” – was hung. The paintings screamed of chaos. Red paint thrown so I could feel the anger in the hurler’s arm. Fires of destruction, maybe purification. Eyes of monsters fiercely glowing. Paintings torn in confusion. Sculptures of bent and twisted bodies. Tears of ravaging grief. A canvas of total black.

This is Cuba, too.


Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart: Cuban Gold

In Cuba children receive an education from kindergarten into their college years as a gift of the state. Children who have talent and a desire to learn about the arts go to specialized schools. On another glorious sunny day we visited the Beny More Art School for children ages nine to fifteen to attend a musical concert. We filed into the Assembly Hall, no different from assembly halls remembered from our childhood. We were seated with a few teachers, other students and proud, smiling parents like those the world over come to see their children perform. What happened on the stage was nothing like the band concerts my sons played in, or my grandson just last fall.The young pianist sat down at the piano back held erect, adjusted the seat, shot the cuffs of his shirt sleeves and played with the mastery of a symphony orchestra soloist. He didn’t quite sound like one yet but he knew where he was going – at age fifteen. A group of girls and boys playing string instruments with an accompaniment of brass and drums played very properly a few classical pieces. The tempo changed and they swung into contemporary music with a Latin beat – the kind of music where your body can’t keep still. My face broke into a huge grin to see the little girls had the same hip movement as the dancers at the Senior Center. I think they are born with it.

In the afternoon we went to a city square in Old Havana to visit the book sellers. There were stalls after stalls set up selling second-hand books. The titles ranged from old classics and encyclopedias in hard cover to modern best sellers of many categories mostly in paper back. All were in Spanish or English. With the country’s total literacy scored at 99.8 according to UNESCO – a result of their education system – it is no surprise that Cuban book sellers are not likely to run out of business.

Wandering in the town square where there were bound to be tourists were people begging. Many of them were older women who wanted cosmetics and hand lotion because Cuban ration books were not designed to cover such frivolous purchases. They were the most courteous and pleasant begging folk I had ever encountered. We learned that they prized any old thing we carried in our handbags – used lipsticks, hotel-sized hand lotion, mouthwash, hand sanitizer. We gladly cleaned out our purses. Getting replacements was no problem for us. We had not noticed how rich we are. These Cuban begging ladies are distinguished from other beggars I have met in the noticeable health care they receive. According to Cuba’s health care system no one is denied medical care. The women we met sported shining white casts, canes in good working order, eye glasses, Ace bandages and whatever else was appropriate to their needs.

At the end of the day I reflected that no matter what the people suffered living in the political and economic climate of Cuba, they are given two of the three things that enrich human life. With health and a good education the people have seeds to sow for a different future. What they lack is freedom. And I believe in my deepest heart that freedom is on the horizon.


Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart: Dancing Shoes, Joyful Hips

Today we traveled to a Senior Center.
Greeted by smiling faces we entered through a door
Into a dim-lit hallway, and out into a sun-filled courtyard
Shaded by gnarled trees that mirrored faces who had weathered through the years.
In the middle of the courtyard to our surprise
There was a couple dancing.

A man and woman stately and elegant of carriage,
Tracing slow steps of a rumba, turning with grace
And underneath, slow burning fire.
I do not remember if we sat or stood
Or if they served us food.
I’ll not forget the dance.

The couple turned to us. Invited us to join them.
The other seniors eager to include us became our partners in the fun.
We shed inhibitions, traveled back to younger years.
Our bodies forgot stiffness as we moved to Cuban rhythms.
Hips remembered how to flirt, smiles gave come-hither looks.
Oh it was so lovely – being sexy at the Senior Center dance.


Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart: The Bay of Pigs, Black Beans, and Charcoal Made from Scratch

We traveled from Havana to Cienfuegos, where we would spend two nights, on a road that took us by the Bay of Pigs. The coastline that sunny morning gave no hint of the 1960 invasion of Cuban exiles, supported by U. S. Naval forces, who were pushed back and defeated by Castro. We stopped by the Bay of Pigs Museum. There were pictures, old uniforms and guns on display. People besides our group silently looked around. It is a sad place and honors a moment of history we must remember.

This morning blue waters of the bay lapped at beaches which were unnaturally vacant. A few families picnicked. Children splashed in the water. Mostly sea birds had the run of the place. Often our bus was the only vehicle on the road except for farmers going about their business in horse-drawn wagons. Not even the trucks carrying hitch-hikers to work passed by. And remember, private cars are rare. It was a drowsy sort of morning and many on our tour were lulled to sleep. Until – what’s that up ahead? The oncoming lane was covered with what looked like sheaves of wheat to me. But I didn’t think wheat grew in Cuba. There were men standing by a truck that I imagined was hauling their produce to market. The farmers were trying to gather up their crop I thought. Jose set me straight.The sheave-like stalks were black beans, a staple of the Cuban diet. The tall stalks had been piled on the road where the truck could be driven back and forth over them, dislodging the black beans. I realized that this was another instance of Cuban ingenuity, in this case making use of a road less traveled to shell beans.

A little further on Jose had the driver stop the bus. Jose got off and walked toward a strange mound of dirt that seemed to be on fire. A gnome-like man who looked as if he lived deep in the earth appeared. He was short and stooped with a pecan colored face wrinkled like a very dry prune. He greeted Jose as an old buddy with a hug and a back slap. Jose knew everybody on his regular route as travel guide. The old man followed Jose back to the bus and climbed up to be introduced to us. His withered face sparked and came to life as Jose translated the man’s account of the process of making charcoal. The smoke I saw was an essential ingredient. Wood is placed in an earthen oven and set on fire. Days pass as layers of dirt are added to “cook” the wood until the tall mound of dirt and smoldering fire reduce the wood to little pieces of “charred coal”. The old man had been tending his charcoal-making though eras of change in Cuba. The need for charcoal to make fires for cooking food remained the same.


Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart: A Hitch-Hickers Guide to Cuba

One day in Havana we visited a private home,
A lone remnant of the former years and better times.
Part of “now” was lounging by the curb – a grand old car,
Hull of Chevy model I remembered well from teen-age years.
But, guess what?! its engine is an immigrant from Italy.
Cubans shopped abroad – found Fiat parts met quite well their needs.

Welcomed in, we stepped into the home – a bit of Cuba as it was “before”.
Ushered into enclosed outdoor garden space – riot of flowers, shade of trees,
Birds and little lizards kept us company. In chairs positioned circle-wise
We took our seats. Coffee rich and dark was brought, in tiny cups of porcelain
With saucers, white and elegant. We drank and wondered what was next.
We were soon delightfully surprised.

She appeared, our person we were to meet that day. Young woman,
Graduate of School of Law now working at low-paying job.
Cuban education is excellent and free.The future is no guarantee.
She lived with parents like most young people must.
Learning English is a plus. Hers came gratis from American TV.
“Gossip Girls” bequeathed hers. I like her spunk. “Future time” make way.

Travel to city job from family home in countryside was no small feat.
Bad roads, no bus to catch, owning private cars obsolete
The people figured out another way – Pooled together to buy trucks
To pick up hitch-hikers waiting on road sides. Our lawyer-to-be had brains.
Pointing to her feet shod in eye-catching stiletto heels she said,
“Who would pass me by? These are my ticket every time.”


Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart: An Island Unlike Others

A mere hour’s flight spans miles between my land and a world apart.
Hour that does not compute distance in human hearts,
Both mine and a people I’d never met before.
Cuba, island home where bells of freedom do not peal.

My mind does not comprehend my tears that even now add to shining sea
That parts neighbors who are unacknowledged friends.
My heart knows it loves without an understanding.
My soul is happy to remember.


Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart: Introducing Jose and Finding Nemo

Jose was not quite our drum major but I think we would have followed him anywhere as he introduced us to his Cuba. He was a tour guide unlike any I have encountered on my travels. Jose incarnated the history of a people while introducing us to his everyday existence in Cuba. His mother’s family was from Spain and he was aware of his more affluent European roots. He now lived with his wife and two young sons in his mother-in-law’s home. That is how Cuban families manage on barely life-sustaining incomes. Jose, his wife and her father had jobs while his mother-in-law took care of the house and her grand children. Jose had worked hard to make it possible for his family to acquire the resources to add on a room of their own. I say resources because no one has money to buy lumber, tools and other things necessary for construction. Bartering skills and materials is a way of life. Cubans have devised a brilliant underground solution to get around the limitations of poverty. Jose explained to us that in Cuba there are un-legal things as opposed to illegal things. The people are masterful in defining and balancing on this thin margin. Jose’s work as a tour guide was not his first choice but it is one of the best paid means of employment in Cuba, always excepting the Government. His heart’s desire was to lead bicycling tours, which he did in the off-season for tourists. (Except for U.S. citizens people from around the globe visit Cuba.) When we asked Jose questions about Cuba that he was uncomfortable answering he would smile and say, “It’s complicated.” His grin and ability to laugh at the ironies of life in Cuba were endearing.

Though Jose spoke fluent English our tour bus driver spoke none. He helped those of our tour group, including me, who found getting off the bus problematic. It’s always that bit between the last step and the ground that is daunting. The bus driver gave us warm smiles. With my high school Spanish I could say “gracias” but wanted to say more. I had noticed the orange fish with bright white and black stripes hanging from the rear view mirror of the bus. As an educated grandmother I recognized the fish was Nemo. One day getting off the bus I said “Nemo” and the bus driver grinned. We were discovering a common language. Pointing to myself I said “abuela”, which I knew was the word for grandmother because I live near a restaurant by that name and learned the translation from its menu. He pointed at himself and said “papa”. Then we communicated with fingers about how many children and grandchildren we had between us. A couple of days after our conversation the bus driver appeared with a step stool to bridge the gap between the bus and the ground. We beamed at each other. Our message was sent and received.


Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart: Once Upon a Time

Before the current movement towards resuming normal relationships between Cuba and the U.S., when U.S. tourists were just beginning to trickle into the country, I went to Cuba. My husband had long wanted to go there, even if it meant flying to another country that had hospitable relations with Cuba and entering through the back door. I agreed it would be interesting to see this country so near and yet so far away. And then we got our “ticket” to visit Cuba! It arrived in the mail in the form of a small brochure from Road Scholar with whom we had experienced previous travel adventures. Road Scholar had become licensed by Cuba to conduct “Person to Person” tours, now offered by the Cuban government as one of the legal categories for US citizens to enter the country. We signed on immediately to join a group traveling in April 2012. And so the journey began.

“Person to Person” means just what it says. We would spend our days visiting significant places and in conversation with Cuban people – musicians, architects, students at a School for the Arts, followers of an Afro-Cuban Religion, a small Jewish cemetery, a Senior Center, the Bay of Pigs Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, women begging at a town square, a Gospel a cappella Choir, a ration store where Cuban people make selections from meager merchandize offerings, and Hemingway’s home.

Mine is not a conventional travel memoir. I didn’t take notes. I didn’t take pictures.The people of Cuba are with me even now in my heart. What I write does not spring from ordinary memories but from a living experience etched in my mind and gut. This is my love song to people of shining perseverance, who invent novel and even humorous ways to exist in the midst of terrible poverty, whose art and music flourishes, who embody the soul of Cuba. As I re-member my experience with these people I will tell you their stories.