A Life in Three Acts: Tourism and Transcendence in Cuba’s Escambray

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I entered my Havana apartment and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Cuban boyfriend had already turned one of the four available channels to the Jimmy Carter press conference.  It was the statesman’s second visit to Cuba; the first was in 2002.  His purpose was to foster relations between the two countries, no small thing given that American leaders never showed interest in dialogue with this island nation.

On the 21” screen of our Chinese television Carter looked elegant in his long-sleeved, white guayavera shirt.  This choice of traditional menswear was in itself a statement.  It was often worn by Cuban leaders at official functions.  The fact that the press conference was being covered on the Cuban television to me demonstrated a positive receptivity to the visit.  In my experience the details of the visits of foreign dignitaries were not normally broadcast in this way.

Carter spoke about his desire to see the release of American Alan Gross from a Cuban jail where he was serving a 15 year sentence for the illegal importation of telecommunications equipment.  The man was ill, as was his daughter back in the United States.  The objective of Carter’s visit had not been to address this issue exclusively, but it was clearly given priority.

At the same time the former president was just as clear about his desire to see justice for the “Cuban Five” languishing in various jails in the U.S. after being tried for espionage and other illegal activities.  In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear a case which asserted that the five men had never been given a fair trial.  Although the case had garnered international interest, including in the form of a petition on the men’s behalf signed by ten Nobel Prize winners, most Americans did not know of this situation.  The U.S. government had never displayed any willingness to discuss the issue with the Cubans.

I jotted notes as I watched the press conference.  It was my plan to reflect on this material at some point.  Between my job and my hydraulic labors in the waterless apartment it was always hard to find time.  So, I envisioned doing a write-up during the week in April when I would be out of town with my students.  However, other things came up during the course of my travels to Cuba’s interior provinces.  My attention was soon diverted from diplomacy to the natural world and non-ordinary realities.  I didn’t consider this a problem.  My writing, like my life, was never able to conform to the parameters of a linear narrative.  The only through-line for the moment was the water scarcity which was as much in evidence in other parts of the Island as it was in Havana.

The woods of Cuba’s Escambray mountains are typically lush with ferns and pines.  But even this terrain had turned a thirstier, paler green by the time I visited with my students in April.  As we wound our way up the mountain in an air-conditioned tourist bus, the tour guide pointed out patches left black by recent forest fires caused by drought.  Some had raged right up to the narrow vein of asphalt.  I wondered how such incendiary situations were handled in these remote areas.  It cannot be disputed that one of the grand achievements of the Cuban state is its ability to speedily and effectively respond to natural disasters.  My students were less curious and continued sleeping.  We had been traveling about seven hours from Havana including a stopover in the coastal city of Cienfuegos for lunch.

As the bus chugged up the incline I thought about the convulsive history in this region.  These mountains had been a hub for insurgent activity in the early years of the Revolution.  Loosely coordinated groups of country bandits, many of whom had fought on behalf of Fidel Castro’s forces years earlier, engaged in guerilla warfare until subdued by the Revolutionary Armed Forces in the mid 1960s.  It seems the guerillas were brutal with civilians, not surprising given that violence inevitably spins out of control.  Also not surprising was that Uncle Sam participated in all of this.  At first he supported the insurgency groups, but in the end washed his hands of the whole matter leaving a mess of civil unrest for others to resolve.

We had seen few vehicles and almost no pedestrians since we had begun our ascent to Topes de Collantes National Park that afternoon.  Then about half way up the 800 meters climb a child of no more than a year and a half appeared seated alone on the forest floor to the side of the road.  She was a charming upright lump of blond-topped flesh with no adult in sight.  A bouquet of three bright pink flowers sprouted from the little being’s hands held aloft over gleaming locks.  By the time the bus passed I wondered if I had spotted a fairy or some other delightful spirit.

After a final hairpin turn I could see up ahead the imposing rectangular block of buildings which marked our final destination.  Originally this had been the location of a tuberculosis sanatorium.  The facility now functioned as a hospital for a range of respiratory diseases.  The surrounding forest continued to be home for small communities of campesinos who after recent stimulus reforms were gradually returning to a tradition of coffee cultivation.  The area also served as a center for national and international ecotourism.  And for those interested in such things, Topes had the reputation of being one of planet earth’s important cosmic energy centers.

We arrived at the top and checked into our hotel.  The toilet flush in my bathroom was broken and only one of the room’s light fixtures had a bulb.  None of this bothered me; I was here for the nature and the energy.  Besides, I was just thrilled to have a working shower after life in the Havana apartment.  I responded with the same nonchalance to the warmed-over dinner buffet of crusty meats and canned vegetables.  My students, on the other hand, were more easily seduced by the sheer variety of tasteless offer.

After the dinner we collected in the small bar area which had been outfitted with chairs arranged for the nightly show.  A crowd of elderly, fun-loving retirees from Germany sat around us.  Promptly at nine a troop of two women and a man took turns displaying various dances.  One was white, one was olive skinned, and one was black.  The accompaniment blared from a ghetto blaster balanced on a rickety table next to a large vase of fluorescent orange plastic flowers.  Every few minutes the audio of traditional songs and reggaeton skipped as the CD player teetered to one side.  The women dancers were lively but largely disengaged from any eye contact despite the proximity of the audience.  One wore a body suit and short skirt like an ice skater and the other a get-up of white feathers.  I asked my seven-year old friend sitting with me if he liked the man’s purple, puffy laced sleeves.  He tactfully responded that it looked as though it would be hot and was the reason why the man was sweating.

After the demonstration came the dance class.  There was some cajoling in Spanish and English before a small crew of German apprentices jumped up to the stage.  The puffy-sleeved man launched into a round of animated bilingual pedagogy on a microphone, while the ice-skater and the swan marked off the steps.  Soon the rhythmless Aryan elders were rendering their polka-inflected imitations of the dark undulating bodies.  My child-friend laughed and clapped his hands with the rest of us.

The spectacle ended and I retired for a moment to the room to say good night to my child-friend and his father, my Cuban boyfriend.  When I returned to the lounge I found my students sitting in a circle endeavoring to smoke the cigars they had obtained two months earlier from a farmer in Viñales.  The jaunting Germans were still clustered around the dance floor.  With giggles my students reported that one of the Europeans had crossed the room with his camera aimed at the face of my pretty Central American student.  Fortunately, her study of anthropology had equipped her with intellectual tools for understanding the long histories of colonial exploitation and exotification which incited the photographer’s fetish.  More importantly, she had a good sense of humor which allowed her to shrug off the request rather than alter the holiday atmosphere of the hotel lobby and shove the cigar down the geezer’s throat.

The next morning we set out on one of the surrounding trails.  The air was fragrant and I found myself enjoying feeling chilly after the relentless sun and steam of Havana. The guide delivered generous doses of information about mountain survival and medicinal plants.  Leave it to my students to identify early on that he was a dead ringer for the B-actor Rodney Dangerfield.  They also picked up on his tendency to randomly translate single words into English at moments which least needed clarification.  I pretended not to notice.  I was always interested to hear about herbal remedies and had often been curious as to why most urbanites I knew in Cuba seemed to ignore the island’s botanical wealth and local healing traditions.

The sun was directly overhead by the time we arrived at the final turn on the trail leading up to our lunch of fresh country pork.  I was marveling at the international collection of bamboo species donated in the 1930s by Harvard University when the Cuban boyfriend called out to me urgently, “Ven a ver esto!” (Come look at this!).  I moved towards where he stood a few meters away in front of an arrow-shaped sign that read, “Rincon del Yoga” (The Yoga Corner).  Next to the words was a simple illustration of a dark-skinned man – presumably an Indian judging from the white dhoti he wore as pants – seated in the classic pose of veerasana.

I laughed aloud but only part of me was surprised.  I had had such startling encounters with the world of Indian spirituality in all kinds of unexpected places on the planet.  I was certainly aware of various yogic practices in Cuba.  Indian philosophy had a long history here.  Many people would probably be surprised to know that the Theosophical Society arrived here in 1905 and that the sage Paramahansa Yogananda traveled to Cuba in the early 1950s.

We dutifully followed the direction of the sign’s arrow only to find a more charming detail.  This time it was a sign positioned low to the ground which read: “Este lugar invita a la meditación” (This place invites meditation).  Incredibly, the quotation from 1992 was attributed to Raul Castro Ruz, who now served as Cuba’s president.  There was little doubt of the veracity of his claim.  The tinkle of the creek, the soft rustle of wind in bamboo, and the sweet mating call of the Tocororo bird conspired with an unusual vibration of calm about the place.  I found myself wishing I was there alone.

Meters from the socialist leader’s transcendental declaration stood a simple wooden gazebo outfitted with a dozen cushions arranged in a circle on the cement floor.  Propped up at one end was a wooden board with symbols for the various chakras in the human body and a rendition of Lord Shiva in his dancing form of Nataraj.  Outside the kiosk was another wooden board with figures in yoga postures.  The area was clean and neat, evidence that someone was tending it.

The guide had little information, however, as did the purveyors of the pork lunch, who were the ones responsible for sweeping the gazebo.  They reported that on occasion European hiking groups stopped here and once in a while Cubans arrived from other localities.  But no one around knew details of who had built the gazebo, installed the signs, or what the Castro family had to do with any of it.  I didn’t press too much with my inquiries.  The mystery of it all was a source of deep pleasure and affirmed that social realities always defy the explanatory limits of official discourses, scholarly analysis, or folklore.  Without doubt it would be a great story to tell friends back in Havana and my father on the phone from India.

TO BE CONTINUED

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