“Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same.”
In 1994 my husband and I visited Montserrat, a carefree paradise known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. We hiked into the Soufrière Hills Volcano that would erupt a year later, devastating the island and forever changing its topography, economy and culture. During our visit, Sam commented that Montserrat reminded him of Hawaii in the 1950s, unspoiled and lush, before it was overrun by development and tourism.
That is Cuba today – a time capsule, a letter in a bottle just washing ashore.
My recent trip to Havana was a treasure chest of vibrant people, vivid colors, incredibly beautiful architecture, fragile and crumbling, yet resilient like the Cubans themselves.
My friend Liz had a special reason to visit Cuba. Her father was born and raised in Centro Habana. She wanted to find the family home he left behind in 1956 when he came to the United States to further his medical education. He subsequently married Liz’s American mother. Then came La Revolución Cubana. Liz’s father hasn’t been home in 55 years.
We made the pilgrimage to the formerly grand, now shabby street of Padre Belascoain (formerly Padre Varela) where 86-year-old Dr. de Vega recalled roller skating on the roof and bouncing a baseball against the adjacent building. He was a city boy, so the rooftops were his playground. He and his friends flew kites with razor blades to cut the strings of other kites in the cloudless azul sky.
Liz’s mother died young, and her father never remarried, raising five daughters by himself, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, far from his boyhood home.
With the help of our gregarious taxi driver, “Johnny Walker” who had never been out of Havana, we not only found Dr. de Vega’s house, we visited Santos Suarez, a suburb of Havana, where Reggie, another of our fellow travelers, was in search of his own Cuban roots. His mother and grandmother came from this now run-down neighborhood with small houses and roosters in the road. Here they practiced Santeria, the syncretic religion that grew out of the slave trade in Cuba.
Also on our trip were Nelson and Pablo, with Pablo’s parents, whom Nelson affectionately referred to as “the old people.” It was a multi-generational vacation for these geezers with their son and his partner, who were fiercely protective of them, despite their apparent spryness. Nelson, Pablo, his parents, Liz and I visited the famed Hotel Nacional de Cuba, situated on the Malecón in the middle of Vedado, Havana, where we sipped daiquiris and admired the view of Havana Harbor from the garden. For some reason, we decided to walk back to our hotel, the Meliá Cohiba, also located in the Vedado district. A leisurely stroll along the sea wall, a 20-minute walk, or so we thought.
Our casual promenade soon turned into the Bataan Death March as we slogged our way back in the sweltering Cuban sun, my flimsy umbrella offering little protection. The so-called old people, Pablo, Sr. and Rosa, never complained, but Nelson was distraught, certain that his geezers were going to faint dead away from heatstroke, their last moments on this earth spent prostrate on a hot Havana sidewalk. He finally bustled them into a cab – about a block from our hotel. That’s geezer love in action.
Our afternoon with the jazz dancers of the Santa Amalia Project was the highlight of the trip for me. The Santa Amalia jazz club was founded by Gilberto Torres and a group of friends who came of age dancing to Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie and Cab Calloway in the ’40s and ’50s. The “timeless cool” of these ageless Cubans reminded me of my parents dancing through my childhood.
For Gmamma and DooDaddy, as well as for the Santa Amalia dancers, ranging in age from 75 to 95, it’s all about the music and the movement, which keeps them young. My parents met on the dance floor and jitterbugged through their courtship to the same music and the same bands as these Cuban hipsters a lifetime ago in pre-Revolutionary Havana.
These charming senior citizens are young at heart, like Don Ameche and Hume Cronyn in the movie “Cocoon.” Instead of a rejuvenating swimming pool, the dance floor is their fountain of youth.
Liz found her father’s childhood home. Reggie communed with his Santerian grandmother. Nelson and Pablo made precious memories with Pablo’s parents. And I felt my mother’s presence in a jazz club in La Vibora, a far-flung neighborhood of Havana, where time stands still.