I wish I could tell you all about Cuba. But I don’t know enough.
I wish I could tell you all about the history of Cuba, but I am unqualified.
I wish I could tell you all about Cuba today, but there are too many things I didn’t even see.
Cuba seems to change on a daily basis, a world shifting and changing to suit its own needs. I say that only as a tourist. I don’t know what it is like to be Cuban, or to live on an island nation governed by a unique set of principles. There seems to be a purposeful divide between the local daily life and the tourist tableau on display. Perhaps this is not all that different from the way other countries allow tourists to see their world, but it is the most apparent divide I have seen.
Even so, the Havana I saw in a measly five days was full of magic, where around every corner I thought, “I did not expect to see that.”
Restaurants that were open and thriving three days ago, recommended by our Cuban hosts, were closed for renovation, or gone completely when we tried to visit them.
Three dogs ran by on the street, all wearing t-shirts, two wearing hats, and one with a nametag.
The only salsa dancing I did was a doorman to a bar, egged on by a drunk American tourist (that I did not know).
I’ll go into depth about our trip, my usual, day by day, but I have to tell you that visiting La Habana was surreal. More so for me than other Latin American countries. There is something unique to Habana, maybe the communism hosting capitalist tourists, maybe a crumbling city that is nearing its 500th birthday, or perhaps being in a country where knowledge is open and free to any citizen who shows interest. The art on every street corner surpassed anything I’d seen in American tourist galleries. The bands in almost every bar starting at 4 o’clock in the afternoon were better than most thrown-together bar bands in tourist districts I’ve been in. And that was just them playing covers.
But to all of these there is a caveat, a wondering what the real Cuba is like, because we saw the Instagram profile of the country: beautiful cars, intriguing sunsets, and even the crumbling and disarray of the old town fell apart in an elegant manner.
Despite my suspicions, make no mistake, there is magic in Cuba. It isn’t big magic, the hit you over the head kind, but rather the shrugging, of-course-it-is type of magic that citizens accept and visitors marvel over.
The only way I can describe a day like this is to say, in the least dude-bro way: Epic.
I want you, dear Reader, to experience this day the way Mary Joy and I recapped that particular day’s events: with a nice bottle of Chilean Carmenere. Curl up on your twin beds in your pjs with short glasses of wine, giggling about the handsome Rapa Nui dancers, expressing disbelief at the actual physical location of your body on the planet, and marveling at the hundreds of scattered stone statues that most people only ever see in National Geographic. Get your glass, join us.
So. Epic. Today. Why so much epic? Because there were so many unexpected sights and sites, and feelings, and the sun felt good on my skin after being in the saltwater, and the warm sand on my toes was perfect.
Start at the beginning with breakfast: guacamole on toast is a great idea. So is a strawberry parfait and a cup of coffee to get you motivated for a day of incredible stonework.
We started the day at Akahana, a township site with examples of the elite’s boat houses (not made with a boat or a for a boat, but in the shape of a boat), as well as a volcanic bubble, which is the sort of cave-like house the rest of the plebeians would have lived in. To be fair, the cave would have been so much more comfortable. But it was magical to be there before other people. We were the only ones on the beach, sky and water stretching out endless, impossibly tall waves crashing against the basalt rocks below us. An earthquake in Indonesia a few days before was still giving us dangerously big waves, and preventing local fisherman from catching food for their families. But in the sunny stillness on land, the crashing water was beautiful and perfectly blue against the sky, meeting at a faraway point.
A few vendors showed up to sell us their wares as we were leaving, and I am not sorry to say that is where I spent my souvenir money. Just as only those with Rapa Nui blood who belong to a clan can own land on the island, they are also the only ones who can make souvenirs, including all the tiny moai statues sold for a dollar, equipped with magnets or loops for cheap strings. An older woman set up shop at one of the tables, but it was clear she wasn’t feeling well. I helped her set out some of her wares, and I was taken with this beautiful shell necklace. I bought it immediately, and wore it proudly. I will wear it proudly here too, and when not, hung on a wall, a reminder of a gorgeous morning on Easter Island.
Mary Joy had to float me the pesos, as I hadn’t anticipated the shopping that morning. The next vendor was a young woman named Daniela who did a pen-and-ink piece of art on pulverized mulberry bark, depicting the island’s history. Bought it right there, again, all my pesos. Or rather, all of Mary Joy’s, until we got back to the room and I could reimburse her. Whoops. But these weren’t cheapie, junkie things. Because the older woman and Daniela had made these items themselves, set up shop in the mornings, it made it feel more personal, and not just like a trinket. These items feel important to me, and also to them. Maybe its silly to feel such a connection through a sales transaction, but I did. I do. Looking at Daniela’s pen-and-ink, I just want to hug her.
From there we went to the Quarry of yellow tuft, the moai factory, as it were. There were moai in every stage of manufacture, some half-buried, some listing to the side, some not quite free of the quarry, carved facing outward, looking to the sea. Walking amongst all these various stages of development, hundreds of honored leaders awaiting their bones and their eyes to begin their ritual watch over their peoples, leads a person to think about the revolution, the uprising, that changed the island forever.
When the workers decided to rise up against their leaders, men who hoarded knowledge for social gain, the elite ran away. They ran to higher ground, dug a deep trench, and filled it with every flammable scrap they could find. When the workers came to kill them, they fired the trench, keeping them safe on their side of the island (this only works because of the same width of the land). But, remember, this is a group that didn’t value women. So no one was watching when one woman of the elite group slid away from camp to talk to her clansmen who were part of the force of workmen. She found them a way where the trench was at its thinnest, and they plotted. That evening, when the workers came to menace the elite again, the workers made a big fuss, hollering and carrying on, while a few of them snuck around to the thin spot. When the elite fired the trench that night, they were stuck inside with a group of angry warriors. Thus, end of the upper class. But also end of the knowledge.
These new leaders, minted by the violence of their acts, didn’t know how to build ocean-going boats to go out and retrieve sharks and turtles to feed the masses. Agriculture was slow. Food was scarce. Hungry people are dangerous. They fought amongst themselves, now, hunger fueling their violence. Clans sought refuge in the caves under the island, coming out only at night to gather up mussels and snails, subsisting on nothing, and never seeing sunlight. Three generations lived in these caves. Roughly one hundred years people lived in fear of each other, fear of becoming dinner.
This idea struck me the hardest on this trip.
How does that third generation convince the second generation to leave the cave? The second generation being the one born and dying under the island, stuck in the darkness for an entire lifespan. The concept blows me away.
That quarry filled with the blind eyes of the moai, watched over the bloody unrest of its only people, isolated for 2,500 miles in all directions. It’s a terrifying thought.
We continued on to happier things, including Tonariki, where the Japanese helped re-erect moai as they would have stood seven hundred years ago. They reconstructed the ahu, the platform structure, as well as built a crane especially to lift the moai back to their seats.
The largest moai is not there in the quarry, interestingly enough, but rather at another location, still lying on its face. This is Te Pito Kura, and is 10 meters tall and about 80 tons, and he “walked” home. Supposedly it was erected by the widow of a man, and when she couldn’t pay for it to be delivered, she borrowed. When she couldn’t borrow, she stole. And when she couldn’t steal, she seduced. How much did she love him? About 80 tons of yellow tuft.
In the afternoon, we headed to the beach, the site of the original landing of Hotu’matua. It’s sandy, with another ahu filled with moai. They have their backs to you as you swim in the blue, blue water. The waves were still really high, but I got in, along with two other travelers, Jim and Julia. It was fun to body surf, and get slammed around by the water when we weren’t careful. Lots of people were at the beach, including a lot of locals. It was fun to see the kids out there, body surfing and poking around with swim masks and snorkels.
Mary Joy stayed on the beach with most of the other travelers. The seas were a little choppy, but it was completely worth the salt water up the nose to swim at Easter Island.
Of course, what better way to top off the day than dinner and show? We ate downtown and then headed over to a “cultural” show. As they warmed up with drumming, I realized that the music I had heard on our first day was this group, as it wasn’t far from our hotel.
I retrieved a pisco sour from the concession stand for myself and Mary Joy, and we settled in with a few others from our group to watch the show. Completely worth it. Remember how I said that this culture was all about male beauty, and high standards for men? It was pretty evident this evening.
The show itself was very much like other Polynesian groups, which is to be expected, as they are having to rebuild their stories and music from scratch. After the 1860s, there were very few of them left, scarred by Europeans diseases yes, but decimated by Peruvian slave raids that took 1500 of an already small population.
The dancers and singers sweated as they chanted, kicked, and swayed. Modern tribal tattoos were evident on many of the men, as there wasn’t much to hide any sort of mark. They had such a good time, the big band behind the dancers, the dancers who worked so hard in the humidity, glistening with the effort. By the end, the entire audience was caught up in the good time, laughing along as they took members from the audience to give these dances a try (impossible for a novice, unless you know how to bellydance). Our small group laughed and hooted the whole way back to the hotel, the sky clear and the stars bright.
The Southern Cross was clear as if it had been drawn on paper, right above us. It was a gorgeous night, warm and soft, and Mary Joy and I snuggled into our beds, happy to chatter over a glass of Carmenere.