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ADVENTURES IN CUBA
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||I recently made my second trip to Cuba, armed with a video camera, still
camera, liters of bottled of water and my dancing shoes. Since my last trip in
February 2000, Caribbean Dance and Music Programs has gone out of business and
several new tour groups have emerged in the Bay Area.
My trip was organized and guided by my Rueda teacher Ramon Ramos, email@example.com a wonderful Cuban dancer and den mother for wayward dancers. Ramon regularly conducts hardcore workouts and Rueda classes at Dance Mission in San Francisco on Mondays and Wednesdays.
|All photos are copyrighted (C) 2001 by firstname.lastname@example.org|
Our group consisted of 10 pretty accomplished Salsa dancers (ONLY 2 MEN---WE NEED MORE MEN ON THESE TRIPS) who were totally psyched about learning more about folkloric and contemporary Cuban dance. We had a designated translator but there were several people in the group who were fluent in Spanish. Plus the trip was an opportunity for people like me who to struggle to improve their Spanish.
Our trip overlapped with another Bay Area Cuban travel group—Plaza Cuba (www.plazacuba.com) who brought dancers and lot of musicians to Havana. Plazacuba conducted workshops at the Escuela Nacional des Artes (ENA) for participants who were committed to immersing themselves in the intricacies of Cuban melodies and rhythms. As I said in my earlier article, Rita's trip to Cuba( click here to see last year’s article), a pilgrimage to Cuba (and Puerto Rico—my next Salsaroots trip) are mandatory for anyone who wants to really understand and embrace the culture, history and musical heritage that is the foundation for current day Salsa.
If you are thinking about going to Cuba, do your homework. When you are planning your trip, talk to as many people as possible and check out the discussion group: http:/library.thinkquest.org/18355/gather/cgi-bin/mboard/TravelBoard/list.cgi.
I highly recommend the books, Havana Handbook and Cuba Handbook by Christopher Baker which you can get from Barnes and Noble or any bookstore with a good travel section.
There are many airlines that fly to Havana and consider looking at www.nashtravel.com to review your options. I went the economy way ($569 round trip) but this was a red-eye flight on Mexicana Airlines which made stops in Guadalajara, Mexico City and Cancun. (We may have stopped few more places while I was asleep). We finally hopped a 50 minute flight from Cancun to Havana for about ($90). The total travel time was around 12 hours due flight delays. If your budget limited and you decide to travel this way, be prepared for delays, cancelled flights and numerous flimsy excuses about transportation problems from airline personnel in English and Spanish. There are also flights to Havana from Toronto (Grupo Taca airlines) for $639. There is also a flight from Los Angeles to Havana with a connection in El Salvador for a minimum of$1200 with Grupo Taca. Lacsa Airlines flies from Los Angeles to Costa Rica then to Havana (minimum of $1423). The price of the ticket also depends on your length of stay in Cuba.
During this visit I stayed in at hotel on Paseo de Marti, commonly known as the Prado, a picturesque tree lined boulevard reminiscent of Paris. My hotel Casa del Cientifico had beautiful marble staircases, an ancient creaky elevator, clean, somewhat spartan but very reasonably priced rooms ($34/night for a single with bath) and a fantastic location. My room opened onto a roof top tiled patio with a spectacular view of the Prado, Malecon (the seawall) and the Capitolio. I even had a little refrigerator in my room for bottled water and fruit. Since the hotel only had about a dozen rooms, the staff knows everybody very well and they are very helpful and attentive. Though many of them were not fluent English speakers, they were patient as I struggled to formulate questions in my halting Spanish. (Glad I listened to my language tapes before I left the U.S. but I need more practice.) Later in my stay, I went for the more plush environs of the Hotel Sevilla ($100/ night) with lovely Moorish inspired architecture, sunlight-enclosed courtyards and a swimming pool.
Right across the street from Casa del Cientifo was a 24 hour convenience store with a ready supply of essentials—bottled water, snacks, fruit and rum. A great bottle of rum will cost between $6-8. A liter and a half of bottle water was about $1.50. You really need to stock up on provisions for your day trips since there are no Seven-Elevens or Burger Kings on every corner. I always carried bottled water, fruit, crackers, handi-wipes and Kleenex in my knapsack since many toilets don’t have tissue paper, soap or paper towels.
If you’re on a tight budget, one option is to stay at a less expensive hotel and just pay for a day pass at the luxury hotel pools like Golden Tulip Parque Central and the Hotel Nacional. Many of these hotels charge $10-$15 per day and offer poolside food and bar privileges, towels and at the Parque Central, a covered hot tub. The pool and hot tub are totally decadent luxuries but after dancing and walking on marble and concrete for two weeks, I felt I really needed it. Take your sturdiest walking shoes for exploring Havana Vieja (Old Havana).
If you plan on dancing a lot, leave your high heels at home and invest in a pair dance sneakers (Capezio and Braun make great ones). There are very few Salsa venues with wood floors and you will usually be dancing on asphalt, concrete, tile or marble which can be murder on your feet and legs without proper support and cushioning.
Havana definitely seems to be changing rapidly. Luxury hotels are springing up like the Dutch owned Parque Central (beautiful lobby, great restaurant and a business center with internet access)--priced at $5.00/15 minutes). There are signs of an upcoming hotel on the Malecon, which is a joint Cuban, and Chinese business venture. This year I noticed more retail shops and better produce and goods in the grocery stores. I saw lots of construction and renovations of hotels, museums and monuments. But the magnificent decaying Spanish colonial churches and mansions and cobbled stone plazas remain pretty much in tact. The place is a photographer’s dream with all kinds of marble columns, colonnaded arcades and aristocratic homes. My favorite buildings include the Capitolo and the Grand Teatro. The Capitolio is Cuba’s former congressional building was built between 1926 and 1929 and was patterned after our congressional buildings in Washington DC. It also has internet access for only $1.00/hour.
|The Gran Teatro de la Habana was built in 1837 and still host performances by the National Ballet and Opera.|
I spent most of my time either roaming around the narrow streets of Habana Vieja searching for restaurants, farmer’s markets, music or museums or taking classes at the Casa Cultura with Ban Rara, the folkloric and contemporary dance group. Walking is definitely the best way to explore Habana Vieja since the streets are tiny, riddled with potholes, full of people, bicycles, parked cars, motorcycles and small dogs. The taxi drivers hate to drive there except to go to the well-known restaurants and many don’t know the area very well. I rode in a tricycle taxi called ciclotaxi which looks like a "rickshaw" and a Cocotaxi. The Cocotaxi is a motorized tricycle encased in a bright yellow helmet shaped casing. The Cocotaxi sits very close to the ground, moves very quickly and somehow squeezes into the tightest spaces. You can take tours of Havana in horse drawn carriages similar to the ones you might see in New Orleans.
Also I constantly used the maps in the Havana Handbook by Christopher Baker (my bible on this trip) and a larger map I got from Cody’s bookstore.
Though I spent most of my time in Havana Vieja, I found great hotels (such as Havana Libre), shops, nightclubs and restaurants in Vedado, the trendy, middle class section of Havana. Vedado also has wonderful casas particulares (private homes) where one can rent clean, well maintained room in a residential neighborhood for $15-$20/night. For a few more dollars your host family will cook meals and they are invaluable sources of information about the city. Vedado also has the extremely popular Cuban ice creamery, Coppelia situated in a huge park. The ice cream is great and there is plenty to see while you’re waiting in line with all the rest of the Cubans for your scoop of coconut ice cream on a hot, muggy afternoon.
RESTAURANTS AND NIGHTSPOTS
Since I was doing a lot of walking and dancing, I worked up quite an appetite. Exploring new restaurants is always one of my favorite vacation pastimes. The best breakfast fare is generally at the hotels and Parque Central had the most sumptuous feast for $12. They had the usual stations for omelets, bread and hot foods but also they had amazing fresh fruits and jams. The Ingleterra and Seville hotels were a little cheaper (about $10) and did not have as much variety in their buffets. But the early morning view from the top of the Hotel Sevilla hotel is breathtaking. Hotel Sevilla is also great for dinner and you can almost always hear live music while you dine.
|An Afro Cuban violinist serenaded us one Sunday morning during brunch. She played selections from the movie "The Godfather"—an appropriate choice since lots of mobsters and movie stars have frequented the Sevilla hotel since it was built in 1909.|
Other restaurants to check out are Café del Prado (small Italian bistro), Restaurante Hanoi (very cheap and good Vietnamese/Cuban food). One of our big favorites for lunch in Havana Vieja was Lluvia del Oro. The food was the typical pizza, pollo frito (fried chicken), pollo asado (grilled chicken), beans and rice but they had a spectacular band called Son de Mi Terra. Son de Mi Terra played traditional son, danzon and very hot salsa tunes with gusto.
At Lluvia del Oro, the waiters don’t mind if you dance in the corner while you are waiting for your meal. A great way to work up an appetite and enjoy the music. Several restaurants such as Café Mina and Don Giovanni have outdoor courtyards where you can drink, dine and dance to live music for a minimal sum. I often strolled down Calle Obispo at noon eating delicious a 50-cent ice cream cone (coconut and mango are my favorites) and lingering outside of 6-8 restaurants just to hear tiny combos playing great music.
For a very relaxed dinner I really enjoyed El Alijibe in the more upscale Vedado. Their specialty is a savory roasted chicken and they also have fish and seafood and great deserts. The dining area is outdoors under thatched roof canopy and can accommodate romantic couples as well as large groups of diners. They conveniently have a pricey cigar store next door for those who want finish off the meal with a hand rolled Cuban cigar. El Aljibe is definitely a place where you want to relax, talk and unwind before you hit the nightclubs later in the evening.
I am still very fond of the paladares, privately owned restaurants. Since they are not allowed to advertise, you have to rely on taxi drivers, hotel concierges and other tourists for recommendations. The meals without drinks average about $12-$20. Our favorite paladares on this trip was La Guarida, in Centro Habana. It has become somewhat trendy and is now so popular you have to make reservations in advance. Just getting them to answer the phone to take your reservation is the first challenge. Centro Havana is a little residential and seedy than Vedado or the touristy areas of Havana Vieja. As the taxi driver was winding through narrow, dusty roads, I wondered if he actually knew where he was going. Finally he pulled up in front of a dark unmarked doorway (typical of paladares) and the doorman motioned for us to enter. We went through an unlit hallway and mounted an ancient wrought iron spiral staircase and climbed to the second floor. The second floor opened out to a large marble terrace with colonial columns, huge windows and rows of laundry that was drying on the line. I realized that the paladare was situated inside an apartment complex where you could hear and see families watching TV and eating dinner through their open windows and doors. We finally climbed up one more flight to the third floor and were ushered into a small waiting room with tons of movie posters and vintage photos of Cuban artists and musicians. The dining room is very intimate with lots of wood, antiques and atmosphere. The chicken and fish dishes were very tasty and the service was prompt. A great place for a romantic dinner.
I made a pilgrimage back to the Plaza de Artisans open-air street market on Calle Tacón. Amid all the usual tourist kitsch you can find some interesting things musical instruments ( claves, maracas, guiros) and inexpensive paintings and jewelry. Be sure to visit Felix’s booth—he is one of the few people with paintings of dancers and musicians instead of just bars and vintage cars.
I also visited art galleries on Calle Obispo including Galeria Forma and the studio of Roberto Fernandez Martinez. Mr. Fernandez is a dedicated, knowledgeable collector and ceramist with a special fondness for Afro-Cuban and Indo-Chinese images. His personal collection of artwork and books on Cuban artwork is outstanding and he is a very gracious host. If you plan to buy valuable artwork, be sure to get the autorizacion de exportacion( authorization for exportation) issued by the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales to avoid complications with customs. Reputable art dealers will take care of this for you.
Of course I was on the hunt for hard to find Cuban music to expand my collection. The most extensive music collections I found were at the music store on Obispo, the ARTEX souvenir store across from Havana Libre hotel in Vedado, Casa de la Musica, Museo de la Musica and finally at the airport. It is very helpful if you know the artists who you are looking for and know what CDs are already available at Descarga.com, Amazon.com or you local store. CDs are expensive in Cuba (usually $15 or more) and it makes sense to buy things that are not available outside of Cuba. Since some stores also sell copies of the CDs at this high price so be sure that what you buy has the original CD cover and liner notes.
If you want to bring back rum, consider bringing back Havana Club which has aged for 5 years, 7 years, reserved which is aged for 12 years or the very pricey 15 year variety. The best price I saw for the 15 year aged rum was $85 at the duty free store at the Havana airport. The other varieties are readily at the local convenience stores and grocery stores ($6-$10) for much less than you’ll find at duty-free. On my last trip I also enjoyed going to the Taberna del Galeon to sample more exotic flavored rums.
MUSIC AND DANCE
This is the part many of you have been waiting for. As I mentioned earlier in this article many restaurants and bars have live music starting at mid-day. At night I have enjoyed several clubs including Café Cantante, Casa de la Musica ( which has a great CD store) and my special favorite Casa de Amistad. Casa de Amistad is an enormous old mansion, which the State operates as a "friendship" house. The large garden in the back hosts 2 son/salsa bands on Tuesday night performing in an outdoor theater with a large terrazzo dance floor. The show begins at 8PM and admission is only $5.00, which includes a drink ticket. There are plenty of tables and chairs for relaxing and it has become a hit with tourists and locals alike.
Callejon de Hamil is a FREE Sunday afternoon rumba/block party that you can’t miss. The festivities are take place at 12 noon in an alleyway in Centro Havana which is adorned with the colorful Afro-Cuban mural by Salvador Gonzales Escalona. For more information on Salvador Gonnzales log into http://afroweb.com/salvadorgonzalez/salvadgonz.htm.
Callejon de Hamil typically have 3-4 captivating rumba bands playing consecutively on a tiny stage and inspiring audience members to dance rumba (see salsaroots section on Guanguanco for more info). One of the regular bands is Clave Y Guanguanco, wonderful band with great singers and dancers, which will be touring the US and possibly the Bay Area later this year. Callejon de Hamil is where men, women and children of all ages spring to life and move to the captivating, rhythms of the congas and clave and interact with the musicians. In between sets, the DJ plays the hottest tunes by Issac Delgado, Paulito FG, Bamboleo and many popular timba bands. If you’re lucky you find a little square piece of concrete for dancing. By 2PM the alley is swarming with Cubans who have made this a prime place to see and be seen, show off new outfits, well toned bodies and everybody flirts outrageously. It is really like a neighborhood block party every Sunday afternoon. Come early so that you can get a place to sit and snatch some shade because it can get pretty hot under that baking sun.
I highly recommend spending an afternoon at the Museo de la Musica which is close to Malecon. They have an impressive collection of vintage instruments (drums, guiros, pianos) photographs and lots of books, magazines and CDs that chronicle the African and European influences that contribute to many vibrant, complex styles of Cuban music. General admission is $5.00 and they charge extra if you plan to use video camcorders or still cameras.
Tambores de Dahomey
An antique drum from Benin with intricate carvings.
THE DANCE PROGRAM
Our fearless leader Ramon Ramos handed his flock of U.S. Salsa dancers over to his Cuban friends/dance colleagues for the two week workshop. Ban Rara sponsored this year’s program. Ban Rara is the folkloric and contemporary Dance Company that played to sold out audiences in San Francisco in February, 2001. Their workshops were held at their temporary studio at the Casa de Cultura in Havana Vieja. Casa de Culturas are found in every province of Havana and provide music and dance training for children and adults. Our instructors were all members Ban Rara and just like last year their classes should be subtitled "Cuban Dance Boot Camp". We would begin about 10 am every morning with 30 minutes of warm up exercises comprised of modern dance stretches and isolation exercises to help get rid of the vestiges of the previous nights rum and partying lead by Misael. Misael is a wonderful dancer and teacher and quite a gorgeous sight to gaze at first thing in the morning. He also gave us the fundamentals of the Conga and Carnival dances. Isisais Rojas, director of Ban Rara, conducted the classes in cha cha cha, mambo and changui.
|Myrna, (she is gorgeous one featured on all of Ban Rara's promotional material) patiently instructed us in rumba, Afro Haitian dance forms such as Gaga and the seductive form of Cuban rumba called Guaguanco. Click here for more information about Guaguanco.|
|Osvaldy, a young, new member of the company, joyously showed us the intricacies of Arara and Yoruba dances.|
Finally the Nichetto, Ban Rara’s more charismatic and flamboyant dance spent most afternoons whipping us into a frenzy with Casino( Cuban Style Salsa), Salsa Suelta (freestyle open footwork danced in a line) and Rueda( sometimes described as Salsa square dancing). For more info on Rueda click here. Nichetto, as well as the other instructors, are incredibly rigorous and seem to have unlimited amounts of energy. Again let me emphasize ENERGETIC!!
It was always an amazing workout and I still don’t know how we kept up the pace of dancing 4-5 hours per day in that heat. Nichetto would go from one dance move to the next at lightening speed, with the CD blasting loud timba music while we frantically tried to keep to keep up with him. Since my group consisted of enthusiastic, experienced Salsa dancers, I think he had to pull out all the stops to give us a good workout. But he was completely up to challenge. Of course after he finished with us, he might rehearse with Ban Rara a few hours, stay out all night dancing and partying and start the whole process over the next day.
All of the dancers and musicians of Ban Rara are incredibly talented, well-trained and dedicated performers. The dancers can one minute perform very ritualized folkloric dances and the next minute break into in wild Salsa moves tinged with Hip-hop styling.
One of the highlights for the week was a special house party hosted by Nichetto. Since his living room is about as big as a medium sized closet, the party (and the rum) quickly spilled out into the streets and attracted his many neighbors and friends. We had a couple of big Rueda dances in the streets surrounded by numerous awestruck spectators. But the real star of the party was an adorable two year old girl from next door. With a little encouragement from her family and friends, she danced effortlessly to NG La Banda and Paulito FG—rocking to the latest timba rhythms. Already she is natural performer and can move her body and hips to the congas and clave with best of them. She is going to be an awesome dancer very soon.
ROAD TO TRINIDAD
I went with the rest of the group on a two-car caravan to Trinidad, a beautifully preserved colonial town that was first founded in 1514. Santiago is about a 4-hour drive from Havana in a fast car, with a full tank of gas and without any stops. Needless to say it took us considerably longer. Cars are extremely expensive to rent to Cuba and the price of gas is about what you would pay in San Francisco—way too much. Since we got the last 2 cars left to rent in Havana, they were somewhat temperamental and had to be coaxed to complete the trip.
After our many rest stops and detours we finally made it to Trinidad. I felt like I had completely stepped back in time by several hundred years. The Parque Cespedes is the main town square has ancient cobblestones, gas lamps and historic churches. We stayed in several casa particulares outfitted in family heirloom antiques, vintage photographs and books and many with enclosed patios in the backyard for dining and entertaining. Since the town was originally built in the 1500, many of the homes and their contents are several hundred years old. Many of the homes have passed down to family members for several generations. Though this town has an Old World atmosphere, Trinidad has a vibrant nightlife with tons of music and dancing. Our evening festivities include music, tons of dancing, cigars and rum and admission was about $1.00. The next day we did a little shopping and strolling among the unmarked streets and alleys of Trinidad and finally ended our stay, La Boca, a very popular beach hangout. The water was warm, the sand wd Casa de Trova, Casa de Cultural and Patio del Trova. All these spots had live bands and there were tons of people see and talk with. As evening approached, our merry band had a wonderful dinner at a local paladare, climbed into our cars and rode off into the sunset toward Havana.
FAREWELL FOR NOW
At the end of my stay in Cuba, I felt that I had barely scratched the surface. The country is a wealth of music, culture and history that holds treasures and adventures around every corner. Havana is still the embodiment of romance, mystery and intrigue. There are tons of other cities in Cuba that are rich sources of Afro-Cuban heritage such as Santiago, Mantanzas and Guantanamo. I hope to explore more of the country in the future. Don’t worry--I am already planning my next trip. If you get there before me, have a mojito (Cuba’s favorite rum drink) and be sure to dance all night long.
CLICK HERE FOR MORE PHOTOS OF CUBA BY CANADIAN PHOTOGRAPHER MARLENE TREMBLEY . Contact her at email@example.com
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If you're thinking about going to Cuba, here are a couple of travel options you may want to investigate:
If you want to go to Cuba with Ramon and experience his dance workshops, log on to Baile En Cuba for more details. Click here for more information.
Alicia listed on SalsaCrazy.com's travel section under our travel at Plazacuba. For all levels but particularly advanced musicians and dancers based at the Escuela Nacional des Artes. Click here for more information.
Global Exchange www.globalexchange.com A little cheaper with classes in percussion, folkloric dance and Rueda.
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