Dispatch From Cuba 2015

by | Jun 30, 2024 | POLITICS, SHORT STORIES, TRAVEL

I wanted to give a bit of context for this piece. I was introduced to Bill one afternoon at the local watering hole by a mutual friend. Bill, a talented and experienced writer, shared some of his work with me, and I was interested to read more. When I asked if he had anything we could publish, he sent over a series of travel vignettes. You can read one below. Also, he has a novel A Gambler’s Feast: Summer of 1969 that is worth a read. — Anthony

In Little Havana, across from the boisterous Domino Park, in a cigar store on Calle Ocho in South Miami, settled into a deep leather couch amid feathery potted palms stirred by lazy ceiling fans, a traveler is eager to join five Spanish speaking strangers locked into an animated conversation. His courage fueled by strong tobacco and a bracing shot of Cuban coffee, he chooses his moment: “You guys gotta be talking politics,” he says in English.

They are.

The five meet every Thursday for lunch, punctuated by a smoke at The Little Havana Cigar Factory. They are not unlike men all over the world of a certain age and inclination who gather in cafes, parks and bars to chew over the events of the day, embroider stories from their past, complain, laugh and occasionally break eye contact to admire a pretty young woman, in this case a tall hostess, well aware of her Thursday Regulars and their innocent flirtations.

They welcome the traveler, speaking English for his benefit, and confirm it is presidential politics up for discussion this afternoon. And as is the norm in this part country, by people forced from their country as children, it’s all filtered through the lens of U.S. Cuba policy:

Jeb is their man, but feel if the young people vote, Hillary will likely win. Obama gave too much away for the sake of relaxing relations.
None have ever returned and never will as long as the regime is in power. When our generation dies the opposition will be mostly over.

Castro ruined a beautiful country.

They speak wistfully. Resigned.

The traveler confides with trepidation that he is embarking for Havana in the morning and has visited the island previously. He says, “Do you all hate me now?”

“No,” they say genuinely. “Not at all.”
The leggy hostess serves another round of Cafe Cubano. “Salud,” they say, cups raised. One by one they shake the traveler’s hands and wish him well as they slowly file out into

the heat and the sound of slapping domino tiles.

***

This is important.

The Spanish word for sandwich is… sándwich. Who knew?

Some of us who travel internationally discover from time to time that our appetites are still at home days after we’ve landed on foreign shores. No matter how much we’d like to try the pickled fish or tongue taco, there are occasions when something more familiar and less adventuresome might be in order get one through those squeamish, gurgling, alien food challenges, providing a gastronomic bridge of sorts, to new and unfamiliar cuisines.

Appetite Lag can be problematic. But there is a solution. And it is the simply sublime, ham and cheese sandwich.

Seems almost every country has a version. (You’re on your own in Muslim cultures, although I seem to remember having one in Tangier…) In addition to Cuba where they are

particularly delicious, I’ve enjoyed them in South Africa, Zambia, Argentina, all over Europe, Thailand, Japan, Mexico and Canada for example. So learn how to ask for one in the native language and make the ham and cheese your safety net road meal until your appetite arrives on a later flight with your luggage.

You’re welcome.

***

Cuba generates more revenue annually by loaning…better said, renting…doctors to foreign countries than it brings in from tourism, often cited as the prime source for foreign capital. Reliable 2014 numbers put income from placing doctors abroad at $ 8.2 billion; tourism in the neighborhood of $ 2 billion. Regardless of the trending increase in travel and tourism to the island accelerated by the recent loosening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Health Care Diplomacy, as it is known, will continue to provide significant income to Cuban government coffers for years to come.

One example. The niece of a friend in Cuba practices medicine in Brazil. He recently told me she earns the equivalent of $990 per month from which she pays her expenses, approximately $400 monthly. For her services Brazil compensates Cuba the equivalent of between $3000-$4000 each month. Do the math. On the surface it seems like a raw deal for the doctor.

Maybe not.

At home, medical professionals earn what amounts to $44 a month, surgeons and specialists slightly more.

For a Cuban doctor it’s profitable to practice healing in a foreign land.

***

He strides onto the stage of the Sala Dolores Concert Hall in Santiago de Cuba as if he’s just taken off a cape.

And on matters of Cuban music, when Maestro Daniel Guzman speaks, you listen.

The 73 year old…a visiting Artist in Residence at the University of Richmond this past April at the invitation of Dr. Mike Davison…is often referred to as the “Leonard Bernstein of Cuba,” a testament to his long and glorious international career as a musician, teacher, bandleader, composer/arranger and orchestra conductor.

On a steamy late May evening at a long table littered with mojitos on the balcony of the Hotel Casa Granda hanging over the historic Parque Céspedes in Santiago, he commands a group of visiting U.S. musicians and friends taking part in a local festival of music. The Maestro stands and gestures with his glass as if it were a baton and declares that history has been made. With authority, he declares this week’s brass quintet performances by student players from Penn State University, along with five teaching professionals, the first “ever” played in Santiago, and “probably the whole island.”

“Salud,” he says to the young players and their professors, all puffing on celebratory cigars. His smile seems to say more than his words.

The embargo may block us from many things, but not the music.

Main image of Havana, Cuba 2015 by William Hamby

William Hamby

William Hamby

William Gerald Hamby is a longtime resident of Richmond. His first novel, A Gambler’s Feast: The Summer of 1969, KP Publishing, is a story about coming-of-age in a tumultuous time. His travel notebooks about roaming in Thailand and Cuba have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines. He has an EMMY awarded by the Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.




more in politics

Editorial Roundtable on the Richmond & Virginia Elections 

As we find ourselves in the middle point of summer, the upcoming months will bring pivotal decisions for our community as we elect our next mayor, city council and school board members followed by the gubernatorial election next year. Over the past few months, we have...

News or Noise: How Irresponsible Journalism Threatens Our Democracy

Immediately after the first presidential debate, journalists wasted no time amplifying Biden’s poor performance. And so the narrative begins. Or rather, continues. Over the last few years, news outlets have been reporting on the advanced ages of both presidential...

RVA 5×5 | Bonding With (Or Against) The People?

There has been a lot of activity across the region recently about bond ratings and localities issuing bonds. It is a timely comparison of priorities of local leaders, a glimpse of a possible future, and what happens if you have people in charge who worry more about...

Richmond’s Next Mayor? Get To Know Dr. Danny Avula

Here’s my conversation with Dr. Danny Avula, candidate for Mayor of Richmond VA. This completes the set of all my conversations with Richmond’s prospective Mayors for November 2024. One of these people is going to be leading the city next year. Who it’s going to be is...