I arrived in the middle of Centro Habana on a hot Monday afternoon its April 23rd at 1 pm. I am greeted by one of our tour guides Moriama , and Maylena the landlord of the casa particular (a Cuban style rental home / Airbnb). They let me know that the others from the trip are in transit from Viñales.
I knew I only had 6 days in Cuba I wanted to go explore and take it all in.
So I dropped off my bags and i began to walk around Havana. I went down Calle Escobar to hit up the Malecón, as I walked up and down the picturesque streets and I was mesmerized by Cuba’s beauty but shocked by the ruin. I sat by the Malecón and contemplated and thanked the universe for this moment. I tried to make sense of what I was feeling, I knew I was about to embark on something totally new and that I have never done before.
I guess when CubaOne, reached out to me a few months back about going on a heritage trip to Cuba with 8 other Cuban Americans, I didn’t realize exactly what I was getting myself into. When I met Rebecca, Victoria, Ceci, Andrew, Danny, Andrei, Joe, and Reuben, I thought it was interesting to meet other Cuban Americans like myself. Very Cuban, but not your stereotypical Cuban. These cats had the Cuban spirit and identified with the culture, but they’re redefining what that means to them.
“La timba no es como ayer”
As I walked around Havana I immediately began my search to find the folklore. I knew that a rumba or a tambor had to be happening close by. I walked around for a few hours never a dull moment. Something’s always happening in Havana either someone dropping a rope with a basket or a plastic bag to save them a trip upstairs or seeing a mechanic fix a car in the middle of the street. Seeing a handyman with his hands full of grease buy a loaf of bread and carry it home, , Or the people shouting from their balconies to the kids playing ball, or the long lines of people waiting for their bus ride home or to take out money from a beat up ATM machine. The sounds are loud and vibrant.
After exploring for a few hours, I hear it from the distance — I can hear the deep bass frequencies of the Iya drum blocks away — I let my intuition guide me to the “Tambor” as I am walking I hear it getting closer and closer and I found the building where these bataleros were playing masterfully. I stood there for a while and listened and tried to soak it all in, but I guess my curiosity rubbed them the wrong way. They stopped playing and closed the blinds of their house and the whole block began to stare at me. The irony, they thought I was a cop? As I hear one them say “La Timba No Es Como Ayer. Tumba”. (Things ain’t like they used to be, so get lost) I began to explore back to my street Concordia. lucky for me, every block in Centro Habana looks the same block, so I totally got lost. I tried to blend in, but I stood out like I had a sign that said Make America Great Again.
I wish somebody gave me a memo that we we’re going to be in the “hood”.
It was an intense awkward feeling being around a bunch of people staring at you. Some have no intentions, some wish you well, some laugh at you, some are plotting to see how they can wrap you into something. But luckily I speak fluent street Cuban, or at least I thought I did!
“No es Facil”
I had to learn how to be still and present,I had to forget about my first world luxuries or desires or demands I had. I had to feel everything that was happening around me, as the days passed I couldn’t shake this conflicting gut-wrenching feeling.
I didn’t know if I should feel happy, sad or both. I couldn’t shake the paranoia.
The conflict within me was I couldn’t ignore how people looked at me. Their daggering sharp looks deeply pierced my soul.
I could feel the deep resentment, sorrow, angst, and frustration. The resentment wasn’t that I am American or a tourist. The resentment was that at the end of the day I would go back to America and they would still be here in Havana struggling.
When you have two heritages that are similar but totally different. You begin to see and understand things about both cultures that most people can’t comprehend. I felt conflicted.
I heard people say “No es facil” or “Es complicado“.
“Si no sabes no te metas”
Ironically The safest I felt was at “El Diablo tun tun” . A rumba club that’s infamously known for being a “hood ass spot”. I went there by myself to see osain del monte. I’m a big Osain del monte fan. I have been listening to them for years so I was particularly excited to see them in action. I was blown away by these cats.
Baddass-ery at its finest. I’ve never heard a rumba like this before. Poly rhythms and syncopation galore.
After the show, I had the opportunity to meet the leader Adonis Panter and the drummers from Osain del Monte, we talked for a while and we all hit it off. They invited me to a beach house for a late night hang. Arriving to the house I could hear the drums roaring from the distance. I was impressed that they played a gig for hours and they’re right back at it. It felt like the Jazz scene of New York, these guys are really about this life,They are messengers of this music and culture. The preservation and the tradition mattered more to them than anything else. I could see the years of study and experience each one them had. All masters of the music.
As the hours passed they ask me If I wanna play. Much like in NYC. If your going to sit in and play you better bring your best or don’t bother because you will be embarrassed. “Si no saves no te metas”.
They say “show me what you got Mister New York”. they gave me a drum and started a fast guarapachangueo. We started jamming. They definitely threw me into the blender and tested my street cred.
Luckily I held my own. We played and sang and fellowshipped together until the sun came out. I felt so free, I felt like I had finally completed my mission and my search. I finally was exposed to what I have been searching for years. I was humbled by their grace and how they preserved and honored these deep traditions. These guys are the real deal.
There is no uber or Lyft in Havana but there definitely is surging. Everybody Is Hustlin’
I say there’s a 50 cent to $5 dollar markup for every street transaction for foreigners. I was overcharged on almost every purchase until I understood the hustle (leave your wallet at home and only have small bills in your pockets).
The deprivation is so real, I lost track of the number of times I was solicited for money, food and prostitution. Even the worker at the deli tried to take me to a brothel. Maylema the landlord charged me for some drinks that I didn’t drink, sold me a box of bootleg Cohibas and stole 3 pairs of my socks.
her family totally exploited that I was and somewhat clueless about intricacies of the day to day In Havana. Much like any one else in Centro Habana would.
How could I blame them? People are desperately trying to survive. Making a mile out of an inch.
Everybody is hustlin’
I had a double standard in Cuba.
Sometimes I had to be as Cuban as possible and try to convince people I was a local. Sometimes I would have to be as American as I could.
After days of being hustled, I went into ‘Hotel Parque Central’ but it was alarming. They have the strongest, buffest, scariest looking security guards I’ve ever seen. So I left and went across the street to Hotel Inglaterra so I could finally chill and have a drink and attempt to connect to the bootleg WiFi. After sitting there for a while I couldn’t help but notice the hotel staff lurking and watching to see if there were any locals to kick out.
There’s this weird ranking system in Cuba. There is no delegating, or any democracy whatsoever. So whatever the “MAN” says Goes. Foreigners can pretty much do whatever they please as long as they bring the money. And, the locals generally get treated like trash. It was disheartening to to see the shameless disregard most Americans and foreigners people have for the local Cubans, blinded by the the beauty and the attractions. It was atrociously disappointing.
For every 5 dudes hustling there are 15 living a honest life.
The entrepreneurial spirit boiling in Havana, Being submerged to the innovative nature of the Cuban people was humbling and inspiring.
They are masters of efficiency and innovation,the great Cuban DJ Bjoyce introduced me to a sound engineer at FAC that made a stereo 8th inch cable by cutting up a few cables wiring it together and putting back in its black casing in 15 minutes.
I got to meet the very talented DJ Jigue. His place felt like a basement in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. The walls were covered with hip hop memorabilia, Vinyls everywhere, Congas, Batas, percussion instruments, midi controllers and the delightful smell of nag champa incense.
He hipped me to the complexities of living in Havana. He exposed me to the underground internet system that has hacked into the government network and sells bootlegged credits out of homes in Havana. We walked for blocks trying to find WiFi but most places have sold out of credits.
We hung out almost everyday and listened to music and shared information. One day I asked him would you ever think of leaving and coming to the states ? He said “No. Look I know im poor, I am lucky to travel and see other places a few times a year and i am blessed for that but I am happy here. I don’t have the luxuries that you do I would love WiFi and organic foods but at least here my kids can go to school and I don’t have to worry if some one is come in with a assault rifle and kill everyone, I don’t have to worry about rent, mortgages or bills, and I’m lucky that I can make a living with my art. In my opinion that is success”.
Cuba is a country full of contradictions. There is no black or white as to how it is . Although the disparity is too wide.
This is no la la land, This is la Habana, a city where there is deep pain and suffering but you must suffer in private because “no es facil” and it’s quite complicated.