HAVANA — "It's been 51 years since the event you Americans call the Bay of Pigs, but now Playa Girón is a popular beach destination for foreigners," the guide tells me. It is hard to imagine that the words "Bay of Pigs" could do anything but fill Americans with dread. As if reading my mind, she says, "We don't call it Bahía de Cochinos."
I'm touring the Museo Girón, several shabby but mesmerizing rooms built as a testament to the "bravery of the revolutionaries" and campesinos who beat back the "Yankee imperialist invaders" in the 1961 botched beach invasion and attempted coup by CIA-trained Cuban exiles. The exhibits are poorly presented but fascinating — an old uniform from the Cuban revolution of the 1950s, weapons captured from the Americans and a plethora of photos of Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara making impassioned speeches and mingling with the everyman.
I marvel that I am standing here legally. Though certain travel to Cuba has always been permitted by the U.S., many Americans had been entering the country through Mexico and Canada, not having their passports stamped and fibbing to immigration on their return. But since Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel, assumed control, he has loosened slightly the iron control over commerce and allowed licensed American tour companies to enter Cuba legally.
He also instituted two currencies in recent years: one for foreigners, one for locals . The foreign is worth 27 times that of the local, meaning Cubans cannot afford what foreigners can.
I am here on a people-to-people exchange. This means that I must travel with a group tour and that I am not to go to the beach, as many Europeans do who flock to Cuba. It also means that I must engage in cultural, religious or academic pursuits. I chose the first and arranged it through a U.S. company called Insight Cuba. I am here to meet the people.
And what people. Despite the privations Cubans have suffered in the last half-century, they are, for the most part, flamboyant, cheerful and musical. But they also seem unabashedly desperate. They are ready to embrace more American tourism, ready to be done with hardship and ready to rebuild the country they took back after the fall of the Batista regime.Their revolution may have ended in triumph, but not without a price that has taxed them body and soul.
Still, Havana has an enchantment that goes far deeper than the crumbling buildings, the impeccably kept 1950s American classic cars and the grand churches and plazas of colonial days. It contains both sadness and artistry that is Cuban alone.
Son music spills out of every bar and wrought-iron balcony of the faded houses. People call boisterously to one another on the street. Men carrying guitars and women wearing dance shoes traipse the potholed back alleys.
"Art and music is what is left," Roniel Fernandez Didoz, a gallery owner, tells me. "We don't have the Internet in our houses. We don't all have computers. Our children don't have iPhones and games. But everybody plays an instrument and can dance."
He is correct. I have long been a fan of the Buena Vista Social Club, a band that American musician Ry Cooder brought to the attention of the United States. Now, it occurs to me that a band the caliber of those elderly masters plays in most corner bars. The lack of technological distractions has served Cuban music well.
In Havana, I seek bars not made famous by Ernest Hemingway or Cooder. I walk away from the lovely Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza Vieja and into residential streets, the ones not gussied up for tourists, and duck into dimly lighted places with oilcloth tablecloths and Chianti bottle candlesticks.
Musicians play, clearly enjoying jamming on battered instruments. Locals dance, the men with their hair slicked back and their shirts unbuttoned too far by American standards, the women in tight dresses and impossibly lofty shoes.
At mealtimes, I seek the paladares, the nongovernment restaurants that have opened in the last few years, serving vastly superior food to the government ones. Although tourists and government officials are the only ones who can afford the paladares, they are a slice of Cuba that seems genuine and gives me hope.
Finally allowed limited private enterprise by Raúl Castro, Cubans have turned apartments, houses, living rooms and patios into intimate restaurants. Some of them are very elegant, although ingredients are hard to find and the food is inconsistent..
Communism promotes the arts heavily, and Cuban culture has benefited from this, although there are struggles with lack of funding. A highlight was a trip, arranged by Insight Cuba, to visit the Laura Alonso dance school, in what must have once been a magnificent mansion.
Laura is the daughter of the acclaimed ballerina Alicia Alonso, the grande dame of Cuban ballet. We watched as 35 dancers crammed into an overheated studio and practiced over and over again, their dedication and athleticism world class. Afterward, they carried a warped plywood dance floor and a battered sound system outside to perform ballet, contemporary and tap pieces for us. Their mastery of the art forms overcame the gloom and hardship of their surroundings. It was so poignant that many in our group were left misty eyed.
We had the same experience in Cienfuegos, a small colonial town on the way to Trinidad, an hour's drive from Havana and the tour's ultimate destination. Although there isn't much to see in Cienfuegos besides the plaza, Insight had planned a private concert by the talented Canto Sur, an eight-person orchestra that played Bach and charanga, traditional Cuban dance music. Again, their passion and skill seemed out of place in this hot, dusty backwater. But that is the joy of Cuba today: There is exceptional talent everywhere.
Trinidad is a large and idyllic town on the south-central coast. This well-preserved World Heritage Site is an example of the affluent life led during the sugar-boom days. Of course, this means it sees many tourists, but it is not as crowded as Havana.
The Plaza Mayor, the central square, was lined with churches and restored villas that are now cafes, art galleries and paladares. The town seemed alive with commercial promise, and although it smacks of tourism, I enjoyed an excellent coffee in a charming bar, a genuine pizza just down the road and a dinner in a 17th century house surrounded by antiques and giant oil paintings.
And then there's the shopping. In Trinidad, the women are known for their embroidery and sell tablecloths and bedding in the local artisans market, with bedspreads going for $20 or $30. It broke my heart that I could not buy from every eager campesina who called out to me. Most Cuban doctors, lawyers and engineers are paid $20 a month, so $30 for several weeks of embroidering seems like untold riches to these women.
Taking the tour bus back to Havana, we passed many of the white-sand beaches and turquoise waters that we were not permitted to visit — yet. One positive aspect of the embargo: Cuba has remained Cuban, without a McDonald's or a Hilton on every corner.
What I wish most for all Cubans is the chance to be seen on the world stage and be paid fairly for their efforts. And to be able to afford the same $2 espresso I had. Meanwhile, get here before Starbucks does.