Sunday, February 16, 2003

A Perfect Cuban Night

I had an excellent time in Cuba. It was every bit as good as I expected it to be. The old colonial buildings, often crumbling into ruin, the Cuban music and salsa dancing in every bar and in the plazas, the old American 1950's cars left from before the revolution, and the warmth and colour of the people. The highlight was the music and dance.

A group I was travelling with went to a bar in Trinidad. This is a town with well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture, and a reputation for good Cuba music. The bar was in a courtyard, with the stars shining through a ceiling of vines. We went to the bar to see a show featuring Cuban music and dancing. Unfortunately the power to the town went down just as we walked into the bar. But never mind, within minutes candles appeared, torches came out, and we found our way to a table. As we were the only customers at that stage, the band left their electronic equipment behind, formed a semicircle in front of our table, and gave us a personal performance using only acoustic instruments. They were a bunch of middle-aged and old men, in clothing that has seen better days, but masters of their music. For 45 minutes they performed song after song. When they finally stopped, loud applause filled the bar - the music was so absorbing, I hadn't noticed that the bar had steadily filled while they performed.

That performance characterises the Cubans' ability to persevere, make do with what they have, and continue their lives despite Cuba's constant economic and infrastructure problems. A 40-year economic blockade by their closest neighbour, USA, and the loss of Russian support when the USSR fell apart means that life is tough in Cuba. And yet there is a sense of liveliness in the Cubans missing from much wealthier nations. For example, when I went to a government-run money changing shop, a popular song came on the radio. All the staff, while still serving the customers, started to sway their hips and sing along to the music. I almost expected them to start drinking rum and give an impromptu salsa dancing performance. Nevertheless I got my money changed with no mistakes made.

One negative thing about Cuba was that in the biggest cities there is almost constant hustling by guys trying to sell cigars, advice, and women. Prostitution is a big problem in Cuba, exacerbated by some middle-aged white men who seem to travel to Cuba simply for that reason. When the official average monthly income is only about USD$10/month, the money that can be made hustling foreigners is just too alluring for some.