Sunday, October 03, 2010


There's a little town in Cuba that will forever hold my attention.  For three days I was the Pied Piper of Matanzas.  I would have stayed longer had I not met a musician from Havana called Orlando.  I was staying in the private apartment of two sisters and though they had asked that we not bring girls back to their place, one night we did.  What started with the simple intentions of hanging out on the roof with two girls that we met while riding our bicycles, ended with the usual parade of followers, this time in the living room of the two sisters.
Being the head of the snake takes its toll.  Were we in America or Europe or Mexico, the endeavor to hang out on the roof with a couple of young ladies would have been much more discreet.  An invitation to the girls with an explanation that we were staying at someone's apartment and we needed to be mellow would have yielded something along those lines.  Were we with a bigger group, a polite goodbye would have sufficed in breaking off on our own.  Not so in Cuba.  The tail of the snake lingered in the hall outside the apartment, persistently knocking on the door asking to see us.  The sisters would then come to the window and call up to the roof to let us know the others were anxious to know what we were doing.  Then the girls with us got in a screaming match with the sisters.  My girl was very insistent that we meet the next day so I could buy her a new electric fan.  By the end of the night we had to shove people out the door and down the stairs telling them to scram and in some cases hitting them off with a couple of bucks.
Quietly watching all of this from the sofa was Orlando.  He had a great smile.  He was there to play a gig the following day.  He suggested we leave for Havana the morning after that. 
The rest of our time in Matanzas and getting to Havana is another story.  Orlando hooked it up, though not without the usual Cuban shuffle of getting in and out of a few cars and vans.  He took us to a great old house to stay in in Vedado, the nice old residential area of Habana.   We had the whole top floor to ourselves with a terrace and a semi-private entrance for twenty bucks a night.  Orlando introduced us to a woman that lived above the music school where he taught just down the street.  She cooked breakfast everyday and occasionally other meals for three or four of us for the next couple of weeks.  Some of my happiest memories of Cuba were the meals we ate in her kitchen.
Orlando took us to rumba parties where we were the only foreigners.  He showed us hidden places in old Havana.  Not places where Hemingway used to hang out (though I did visit Finca Vigia while in Cuba), but little passageways that seemingly led to nowhere. At the end of which he would knock on a wooden shuttered window.  He'd then ask me for three dollars and hand it off when the window opened.  A few minutes later the window would open and three tiny cardboard boxes packed full of congri were passed from the darkness.  Dinner.  Three bucks for three people.  That's very cheap even by Cuban standards.  Especially for foreigners who are expected to eat only at state-sponsored restaurants where a tasteless hamburger is ten dollars.
But there are great private restaurants run out of the back of apartment buildings and homes all over the city where you can eat well for about three or four dollars per person.  You just have to know how to find them.  And be willing to walk through someone's living room while they're watching television. There are jineteros all over the place trying to hustle you to guide you to places where they get a kickback.  Thankfully we could ignore those annoying bastards.  Orlando introduced us to his best friend and his sister, who were both dancers.  The five of us went all over Habana day and night, usually by bicycle.  Orlando's sister often rode side saddle on the top tube of my bike.  She was the only woman I hung out with in Cuba that didn't ask me for money.  Of course we paid for all of her meals and drinks when we were together as we did for Orlando and Jose.  It seemed only fair - they were always showing us a good time for less money than we would have spent had we not been with them.
The last night we went out to ice cream at a place in Vedado.  It was a celebration.  I wasn't drinking alcohol at the time, but the other three guys were sharing a bottle.  They got a little drunk.  They had bought us little Che Guevara key chains as gifts.  I still have mine.  We walked back to the music school and continued saying our goodbyes.  I ran over to my room to get my Persols to give to Orlando.  He had lost his sunglasses - some cheap pair - earlier in the week.  I think I had the case with me, too.   He and his sister were standing on a staircase just above me.  I passed the sunglasses over the bannister to him.  He was thrilled and put them on immediately.  Then he pushed his sister toward me and told her to kiss me to thank me.  He was drunk and it truly was the only creepy thing he had done the whole time I had known him.  I liked his sister and normally I would have liked to kiss her, but it wasn't right.  She and I exchanged a look that let me know we understood each other.
A few minutes later we all hugged and said our final goodbyes.  A year or so later a friend of mine went down there from New York.  I gave him their addresses and some gifts to take.  He met up with our friend that cooked for us.  She told him that Orlando had gotten out of Cuba and gone to France.  He defected while on tour.  I'm sure he's doing fine wherever he is.

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