Travel Memoir—Bronze: She Loved to Rumba(le)

by Miroslava Turk

When in Cuba, do not attempt to calibrate your expectations.

If you make that mistake, you may fail to notice the presence of irony all around you. If you expect only certain results, you will never see what actually does occur. Irony often leads us to mystery and the beyond. Away from sameness and staleness. Irony has the ability to make us fresh again.

Back in the States we tend to get stuck on the commonplace notion that you can predict future outcomes based on past performances. But Cuba is not the stock market, and forecasting an outing with our island nation neighbors is like endeavoring to fine-tune the wind. Especially after you’ve attached a healthy mix of in-the-party-mood, Americans. Add to that the fact, that many of your new friends have rarely even seen Americans for the last fifty years, and a little alcohol…see where I’m goingthe possibilities grow exponentially.

Right before the close of the last century, I helped lead a rag tag filmmaking team to the island nation in search of shamans and mystics, whose knowledge and experiences could unravel the great secrets of the mysterious Afro-Cuban religion, Santeria. Towards the end of the project, we found ourselves ensconced along the northeastern shores of a hamlet called Nuevitis, conducting back-to-back interviews with a local Santeria priest, his friends and family, and topping off the work day by filming the spontaneous street band and dance performance, that will forever be known as El Corazon . Afterwards, the film crew and Cuban entourage were itching to unleash a whole lot of pent up vim and vigor at the nearest watering hole. But first Margaret, my co-producer, and I, needed to arrange suitable transportation.

We ordered up a horse-drawn carriage with two open seats, enough to fit six people snugly. Naturally, all thirteen of us clambered aboard: Jordan, Fermin, Nervelio, Joel and their girlfriends, Joel’s son Gael, the two doctors, Mandy and Willem, Margaret, Matt and I. We paid the driver a couple of dollars to shuttle us to the only true discothèque in town, the smart and popular, Vulcan. When we got there, the driver waited patiently while Wilem checked inside, only to find out the club was fullthe wait time for new coming revelersLong. No problem, we could dance our asses off and get hammered at the same time at the Hotel Caonaba, a nearby three storied hotel perched on a hill overlooking the sea, and boasting a large dance floor and bar. This time we didn’t have to get out of the carriage to notice the line of people snaking around the hotel.

Disappointed but not defeated, we were finally dropped off at the Servi Gas Station, where we purchased a couple bottles of rum. A few Cubans left the pack, disgusted probably, that the rest would sink so low as to try to party under the harsh fluorescent glow of the interior of a gas station. Lights on steroids. But soon someone found a white plastic table and enough matching chairs for everyone to sit in, if not comfortably, then all together. One by one, we slid into place and uncorked the first bottle of rum. The proprietor told us he had no problem with our turning his gas station into a tavern, so long as we kept buying Coca Colas.

Something was missing. Music.

To liven things up I asked Matt, the cinematographer, to croon a little Frank Sinatra for the gang. He had been charming Margaret and me with popular 1960’s lounge tunes for a few days now, so it really surprised us that in the middle of his rendition of Fly Me to the Moon , Jordan shot up out of his seat and began to shake his head apoplectically from side to side.

“No not this! We gotta get out of here.” What? Don’t tell me Frank’s too tame for you? Too gentle for your eager heart, and your restless feet? In truth, Cuban bodies were built to move, to gyrate, to the pulsating beat of salsa and rumbawithout itthere could be no boogie.

In an instant, we were blindly following Jordan, our Cuban Pied Piper, out the door and down a narrow dark street. Not because we were naïve or unwilling, but because there were no streetlights to show us the path. Generally in Cuba after dark, you must rely on your instincts alone to find your way. A couple of blocks later, out of the blackness, emerged a rickety old door whose peeling paint and recent graffiti, gave it the appearance of having been shut up for years. Surely this was once the entrance to someone’s small cozy apartment, now left abandoned due to mysterious circumstance. But Jordan was blessed with a sixth sense that the rest of us didn’t seem to possess. When he knocked on the door, it suddenly gave way creakily, escaping the loud whining protests of its hinges.

While we staggered through the portal I was seized by a bout of giggling, because none of my American sensibilities had prepared me for stepping inside an implausible time warp. On this Sunday night, in the middle of this sleepy town, a veritable speakeasy stood ready to do business. Was this just nervous laughter on my part, or a summons from beyond, warning me to be watchful? Things are not always what they seem to be on the surface. Maybe everything in life has an underside that remains to be examined under the light of the culture where it was born. Maybe I would get my first taste of irony.

While Jordan negotiated with the bartender/owner, the rest of us found our spots around real wooden tables and chairs. Not quite the accommodations of the four-starred Hotel Nacional, but a huge cut above the Servi gas station.

The bar was small and cramped, the counter battered and bare. But almost immediately ashtrays clattered into place, beer bottles popped open and slid unceremoniously to eagerly awaiting hands. There were six tables in the twenty-by-thirty room, all of them suddenly occupied. The dance floor was ten feet by eight feet. It too was filled with bodies. Who were these people? Where had they come from? There were men and women, girls and boys. And they kept on spilling into the room.

Our presence had been like sonar, signaling beams to the patient earthly masses. Had there been a lookout, a sentinel possibly, positioned to smell out tourists with money? Our arrival: one sure way to entice a sleepy bar to open its door, and give the neighbors an opportunity to listen to music and dance. And drink.

My interior discourse on the entertainment habits of the locals was cut short when I heard, “Mickie, look,” Margaret snickered and pointed to the bar.

“What?” It was difficult to know where to focus.

“Bob Dylan and Andre Agassi!”

“Huh?” I continued staring, giving her words a chance to sink in. Side by side stood two men, one a dead ringer for America’s soulful troubadour and his companion, the look-alike tennis champion who the month before had won the French open, the first American to do so in 61 years.

Bob had that classic Dylan profile, droopy eyes, and a mop of curly hair, the top of which was working its way to becoming a mullet. More startling than his resemblance to Dylan, was the fact that the Cuban was wearing overalls. In Cuba, you never saw men wearing overalls. When in the throws of heavy-duty labor, male workers commonly sported the uniform of long pants and no shirt. But this Cuban Bob, like his counterpart, was a rebel.

Andre on the other hand, had on a pair of chinos and plain white tee shirt. His chamois-smooth olive skin, shoulder length auburn hair, chiseled features and sparkling dark eyes, conjured up glory posters of a young Agassi swinging a tennis racket. He even had on a bandana to keep those long tresses in place. The only thing missing was his doppelganger’s signature Nike tennis apparel. So. How’s that marriage to Brook Shields working out?

The oddest thing about the celebrity look-alikes was that they didn’t really fit into the ever-expanding communal tableau filling up the honky-tonk. Even though they spoke Spanish and seemed to know everyone else, they appeared and acted like Americans. Later someone told us they worked at a nearby resort.

I watched Margaret leave the table and go to the bar. The bartender was smiling as she sucked down her first beer. I could hear the beginning of a conversation between them. The bartender rapid firing his friendly questions, Margaret answering back in faltering Spanish. At one time I would have winced. But I knew in my heart no Cuban would ever be put off by Margaret’s lack of grammar skills or use of fractured vocabulary. At five-ten, Margaret’s slim body, shiny dark hair, and angular face, never failed to capture the imagination of Cuban males. It’s as if they had already guessed that in another lifetime, the statuesque producer had once worked as Bunny Rikki in the Baltimore Playboy Club. Margaret looked like an American Indian princess, and carried herself like a Southern Bell. When the bartender handed her another beer, no money exchanged hands.

I looked away and for the next hour concentrated my attention on the dance floor. About a dozen teenagers were turning up the heat. They looked to be about fifteen and sixteen. The boys, dressed in long pants and polo shirts, a few with bare chests, moved to the beat of their female partner’s rhythm. The girls wore flouncy skirts and short halter-tops, beguiling and spellbinding their boyfriends with their seductive spinning. These kids worked the dance floor like they were pieces of a long uncoiling, shimmery snake. They were dirty dancing, unaware or unselfconscious of the adults watching them.

I tried to stretch out all of the disjointed events of the evening across a map in my mind. I wanted to organize the disparate ingredients into neat little rows and analyze them. First, we started out as a group drinking and singing at a gas station, which probably did not have an entertainment or bar license. Later, we crashed an underground joint that seemed to operate on a need to-party-only, basis. And what about these kids? Where were their parents? Didn’t minors have curfews in Cuba? Shouldn’t they have been home studying or getting ready for the next day’s National Service dutycutting cane in the fieldsrather than reinventing the mating ritual at this late hour?

No one had showed up to haul off the various offenders to prison, rehabilitation camps, or even to write citations. No one scowled, judged or admonished. No one seemed one bit afraid. What kind of dictatorship was this? And where the dickens, were the moral police?

I thought back to my own grey bleak childhood. As a first generation daughter of immigrants who had fled the tyranny of Communism, I knew only too well from scowling and admonishments. Not too mention beatings. My people had suffered plenty. Most lost their families and homeland, barely escaping prison or worsea slow painful rotting from within, always under the watchful glare of Soviet repression. That kind of running and hiding, scavenging for food and supplies, dreaming of one day regaining at least a parcel of your dignity, makes you hard and inflexible. Because you’re so afraid. You’re always afraid. Fear paralyzes your personality. It also makes you a tough and abusive adult. Your only model: life’s tortures and torturers.

In the summer of 1999, almost forty years after the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and Castro’s declaration that the Cuban revolutions had been socialist, no repressive regime appeared that night to regulate the party habits of the locals, to arrest the dissidents, not even to spy on or hassle the American infidels that may have been responsible for the Cuban’s trespasses. Ironic .

The kids continued to dance and charm the rest of us. They drank lots of water, trying to restore hydration to their sweaty bodies. When you can dance, and dance well, you own portable entertainment. You can take it anywhere and use it to delight others or just yourself. We all danced. Margaret and I danced with each other, with Jordan, Fermin, with whoever asked us. With whomever we asked. Quieres bailar? Si. Como no? Even Matt danced. When in Cuba.

I watched one girl in particular, whose looks were far too striking to belong to a single individual. But there she was. A hazel-eyed beauty with dark eyebrows, full lashes, pouty mouth, and a combination of voluptuous and sharp features. She reminded me of a Cuban Jennifer Jones. A beauty from another era, across another time warp. Back in the US, she would be garnering modeling contracts, coveted movie roles, and would have quickly become an easy target for corrosive tabloid gossip. But right then she was completely uninhibited, never taking herself seriously, just doing what she loved with the boy she adored. Dancing.

A few times she shot me back a glance filled more with curiosity than with anxiety or irritation. She was fascinated by my fascination. Or maybe she wondered what an older blonde gringa was doing in her little town, on her dance floor, drinking the local beer. Maybe she would send her boyfriend to find out.

He was tall, thin, dark-skinned, with short-cropped hair. His bearing was courtly and affable, his confidence high when he asked me to dance. Oh boy. He was sixteen, maybe fifteen. I smiled and got out of my chair. We danced salsa and then improvised other moves. Basically he let me do what I wanted without getting all concert performance on me so I would look bad. And there was no dirty dancing. After two songs I smiled again and turned to go back to my table. He followed me and sort of bowed and said, “Gracias.” Who says you can’t be a dirty dancer and polite at the same time?

Actually these kids were big teases. Their steamy movements were covered mostly by clothing, and were completely devoid of actual physical touching or grinding. Just the well choreographed copycat version. The dance as prelude to sex, when performed with passion, can be more sensual than the real deal. The last time I felt as free as my last dance partner had been, was when I was in my early twenties. In the sultry summer months of the late seventies, I never missed a night of dancing at Sutton’s gay bar in the Minneapolis downtown district. For ninety days, over two summers in a row, my friends and I, drinking only sodas and water, discoed the nights away. We bumped and grinded, teased and flirted, and never failed to close the place down. Sometimes afterwards we all met up at the White Castle to eat burgers and onion chips, and we almost always left for our homes alone.

Do a little dance, Make a little love, Get down tonight . Disco, although not as elegant as salsa, was invented to celebrate the body and dance. When my girlfriends and I landed on the shiny, mirror-balled dance floor, the gay men would ask us if we ate Wheaties for breakfast. We were the champions of dance. Uninhibited souls, free to stir up Bacchanalian fantasies as good as the next Dionysian reveler. That’s because in a gay bar, you could be more audacious than in a straight one. Especially, as a woman. No males would hit on you or make you feel cheap. No one would cramp your style or hold you back from expressing yourself. Just like here. A safe place where you could do things right out of proportion, and not live to regret it. In Minnesota it was a gay bar. In Nuevitasa makeshift discotheque. Ironic .

A niggling scraping shattered what was left of my reverie. Something was amiss. I pinpointed it quickly because after 12 years of bartending, I was a trained bloodhound still capable of detecting the first signs of a bar fight. Still my reaction time was relatively slow because momentarily, I was thrown off balance. This was Cuba. Until now, I’d never even heard anyone get mad at anyone else before.

More evidence drew my attention. The scraping multiplied and increased sharply. Chairs were shoved out of the way. A few fell over. Loud yells. One male. One female. Cuban speed-talk followed by a series of sharp ‘No’s’. These delivered by Margaret. The graceful and dignified producer was slapping the bar with her hand.

While the majority of people withdrew to the front of the saloon and outside, clearing the tables and dance floor in less than a minute, a smaller group inched its way towards the bar. They picked their sides. One half stood behind the bar with the bartender, the others on the outside of the bar with Margaret. Her companions were Jordan, Fermin and a big guy. He might have been the biggest guy in Cuba. His posture indicated he was now Jordan’s best friend, who stood defiant, defending Margaret vehemently. Bluster and threats grew louder, intensifying the already palpable adrenaline ripping across the room.

“Oh man,” Matt announced. “Time to get out of Dodge.”

Roger that. I started out of my seat but immediately guilt took over. I couldn’t leave without Margaret. Even though on some level I was already sure that whatever transpired to create this rumpus, Margaret was at least partly or wholly to blame. But Margaret was my film partner, my buddy in crime. Friends look out for each other. True friends help bury bodies. They certainly don’t cut and run at the first sign of trouble in a Cuban bar. It took a little coaxing, but eventually Matt and I convinced Margaret, Jordan, and the rest of our friends, to walk away.

Six hours after chancing upon a hidden bar in the barrio, we stepped into the sweltering night and marched shoulder-to-shoulder back down the way we came. Us and the neighborhood. I glanced back and saw a wide ragged river of bewildered faces turning to each other, asking the same questions over and over. What happened? What was that yelling all about? Why did we have to stop drinking?

I wanted to know too. When I asked Jordan, he mumbled something about him and his girlfriend having a deal onto death. Partners until death. Whatever. Maybe Fermin would tell me. He had been at the bar. Heard the yelling. But all I could get out of him was that there had been a misunderstanding about a bar tab. I looked back at Jordan and almost asked him again. But his face and body were already stiffening with signs of raging epinephrine and testosterone. All those flight and fight chemicals, and no outlet.

So I went to the source. “What happened Margaret?”

“The bartender accused me of reneging on the bar bill.”

“Did you?”

“Of course not. I didn’t have a bar bill.”

“But you drank all night and bought rounds for all of our tables.” I said pointedly.

“Those drinks were on the bartender,” Margaret shot back.

“All of them? Did you really think he was buying you all of your drinks all night long?”

“He asked me if I wanted a drink. I said yes. After that the drinks just kept coming. I thought he was being generous.”

“Don’t tell me it never occurred to you that you might be responsible for at least part of that bar tab?” I asked.

“No. And besides, there was no tab. He never wrote anything down. Every time I came back from dancing, there was another drink waiting for me.”

“Did he speak English?”

“No, we talked in Spanish the whole time.”

Ah. Ah.

I ran a few possibilities in my mind. Rather, I glommed onto one conclusion. Margaret misunderstood. The bartender misunderstood. The dispute may have been born in innocence, like a scene right out of a Jane Austin novel, but our frolicking mob of boozers had left without paying the humungous bar tab. Jordan was savvy enough to have known what went down. Nonetheless, his grievance went beyond money. It was about honor. He had accused the bartender of taking advantage of a foreign tourist whose language skills were not equal to the manipulations of a flimflammer.

Despite accusations from both sides, a substantial loss in bar profits, and more than one bruised ego, not a single punch had been thrown.

We had a forty-five minute walk ahead of us to our beds and sleep. Halfway there, the sounds of laughter and teasing began anew. Memories of the almost-bar fight had been replaced by the pleasure of shared company and mutual trust. Old friendships were renewed, new ones cemented. But my heart remained heavy. Why couldn’t I just let it go? Why wasn’t I more like my Cuban counterparts who quickly allowed bygones to be bygones. I wanted to stay mad. I wanted someone to pay. I wanted Margaret to be wrong.

The night was over and the first signs of daylight bled through the eastern sky. It was easy to see the street now. Its ramshackle patches of broken concrete and tarmac separated rows of faded wooden houses on either side of the street. Somewhere a dog barked and a rooster crowed. When we walked, we kicked up dust that seemed to hover in the air for a short time before falling back to earth again. Dust. All around us dust. The particles of life.

At the top of the hill, before starting the descent towards our street, it occurred to me just how far from home I really was. The stark difference between what I was seeing and the familiar monotony of American suburbs was spellbinding.

With their straight smooth sidewalks and streets, manicured lawns and uniform houses, so many American cities provide regular comfort and solace to returning weary travelers. Coming back from work or school, or shopping or play. Upon return, the sameness calms. Eases the heart and mind. But it also puts you to sleep. Because the predictability of a polished frontier holds no insight or meaning. No challenge. In tiny Nuevitis, each layer of peeling paint tells a story. Behind rough-hewed facades, history unfolds and brings us closer to its ancestors. Here the past is visible and robust, not lying dormant under the veneer of a freshly paved parking lot. Not yet, anyway.

In a town without an existing GDP, limited resources and unpredictable services, live a gentle vibrant people who still believe in random magic. Perhaps it is the absence of so many material trappings and the attending concerns that they demand, that keeps the locals open and positive. Allowing them to welcome strangers, even Americans like us, to their home. Ironic .

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