As so many friends have asked for a report on my recent trip to Cuba and Southern Mexico, I have posted a journal for you to enjoy. I hope that you will find it interesting. pr
A JOURNEY TO CUBA
My purpose in choosing Cuba was several-fold. First, in 1964 I sailed past Cuba on a United Fruit Company banana freighter on my way back to New York. When we were in range of Cuba there was a classical music station broadcasting from the Island that was quite good. The Island itself looked beautiful. Reports in Guatemala from people in the diplomatic corps that Fidel was a marijuana smoking degenerate who was bound to fail within a year or two, made it seem even more interesting to investigate. Were these messages true? If so, how would it affect the Island? After all, there had already been the missile crisis in 1962 and our country was vehemently opposed to the government, so the mystery that shrouded it was intriguing.
More recently I was interested to visit the Island that produced such incredible music, both old and new. Cuba was said to exist in a time-warp with cars from the 1960s and well-educated people who had chosen not to leave the Island despite the many restrictions and hardships. Why did those who fled on flimsy rafts make the dangerous 90-mile trip to Florida? And what about the wealthy Miami Cubans who support the embargo and want Fidel ousted? Much to consider.
Finally, as I am now writing a book, "How We Heal: Faith and Healing in the New Millennium," Cuba was an interesting place to explore. Purported to have very advanced conventional medicine, it also has a large population of people who follow the Santeria religion as well as is known for Blue scorpion venom, a folk medicine that allegedly has a protein in the venom that can cure cancer and other ills. I was provided the opportunity of exploring three very different approaches to healing in a contained area.
Preparing for the trip required more time and energy than I had anticipated. For instance, we need tickets on Mexicana to go to and from Cuba and for me to continue to Veracruz once back in Mexico. I had found flights that would work but an agent at Mexicana in San Diego told me I couldn't get tickets in the US, only in Mexico. I sat on this information for several days before deciding that I really didn't want to risk getting tickets at the last minute when we got to Mexico. So I called again and found that yes, I could get tickets, but I needed to call Mexico for them and I was given a phone number, which didn't work. On the third call learned that the number was only useful within Mexico, and was given another number. Bingo! I got the tickets.
Fortunately, just before getting the tickets I learned that Havana was an hour earlier than Mexico. If I had booked us on to Cuba the day we left, we would have arrived at 10:45 at night. After customs, etc. we would have needed a cab and then a hotel. A midnight exploration didn't seem like a wise beginning to a trip in a Socialist country where nothing appeared certain from our vantage point. So, my next tasks were finding a hotel at peak season in Cancun, a major resort destination, a hotel in Veracruz, and a hotel near the airport as my flight out of Mexico City was at 6:40 a.m. Thanks to the Internet, this was easier than I expected, and in each case, I found excellent hotels at affordable prices.
Finally, arranging a guide and a place to stay in Cuba was on the agenda. Thanks to a friend, I was connected with Thelma Esnard. Thelma's grandparents were Americans living in Cuba; her mother has dual citizenship. She was trained as an attorney and later worked at the University assisting with travel arrangements for professors and scientists. She arranged the American travel for the members of Buena Vista Social Club until post- 9-11, when Cubans could no longer easily travel to the States. She now assists Americans who are visiting Cuba to do research, etc. She was our angel.
I left for Cuba at 7:30 a.m. February 24th, traveling with Karen Lynch, my dear friend and also my primary care doctor. Karen incorporates complementary medicine into her family care practice and was interested in learning more about how Cuban doctors practice medicine given their lack of supplies. She also was fascinated with Cuba. She was an ideal travel companion.While I gathered together tickets and other travel needs, Karen read Cuban guide-books. From what she learned, the trip sounded as if it would be quite an adventure, possibly a difficult one. We learned that Cubans live on black beans, rice and pork, and that fruits and vegetables are a largely unavailable luxury.
We were to stay in a casa particular, a family home that may or may not have hot water or even regularly running water, as well as common electricity blackouts. People needed even the most elemental things such as toilet paper and soap. So we packed our own towels, toilet paper, soap and pillows, along with nuts, chocolate and energy bars to break the monotony of rice, beans and pork. We each had one small bag with our clothes and carried a second bag filled with things like powdered milk, pens, lollipops, children's toys, skincare samples, whatever we could gather and stuff into our bags. We also learned that we should bring no electronic devices such as cell phones, as they would be confiscated and held in customs until we left. Given that we were to leave at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 4th, I decided not to risk bringing my digital camera. Unfortunately, I bought the disposable cameras, which didn't work properly, and I have no good pictures in the six rolls I shot.
We arrived in Mexico around 5:00 p.m. and spent the night in a sweet hotel in downtown Cancun. It was a hotel of the 70s, neither fancy nor resort-like, but practical and with beautiful, well-kept grounds and an excellent restaurant. It was a real find at $60 a night. As we both had been very busy until we got to the airport, we were grateful to have a comfortable hotel waiting for us. After breakfast the following morning, we returned to the airport and flew to Cuba early the afternoon of the 25th.
Cuba is visually magnificent. From the air I could tell that it has not been stripped of its natural forest as it is lush and verdant. Having spent so much time in Southern Mexico and Central America, I could tell that the island is healthy overall. Havana does have the same issues as most cities with diesel and other fossil fuel pollution but the countryside is in good shape and it is famous for excellent natural preserves and modern methods of sustainable agriculture, recycling and other planet-saving measures, created partly from necessity.
We had anticipated customs would be difficult but, in fact, we went through both coming and going with no problems whatsoever. We were met at the airport by Thelma, a vibrant woman in our age-group who is enthusiastic and easily prone to laughter and giggles (a plus) despite (or perhaps, because of) the many challenges she has experienced in her life. We rattled off from the airport in her 30 year old Lada that is on its last tires, first to meet her charming husband, Emilio, an architect and sculptor, and then to our casa particular.
Karen and I had expected that we would share a small room in a family home with one bathroom for everyone and minimal comforts. It came as a major shock, then, when we arrived at Raquel's ground floor home in an Art-Deco mansion. Karen and I each had bedrooms the size of large living rooms, with polished marble floors, antique furniture, air conditioning and our own baths. It was like a well-appointed bed and breakfast. At one point I turned to Karen and said, "Pinch me!" Each morning we were served plates of fruit, fresh juice, an omelet with fresh vegetables, toast and tea in a dining room also decorated in period furnishings. Karen's room had a door to a veranda overlooking the street that was filled with tropical plants as well as chairs and a table. For this we each paid $45 a night including our breakfast. Hotels run roughly $120 a night with meals separate.
Thelma was an expert guide and made certain that we saw everything possible given that we had only six full days. In addition to our interest in the Cuban medical system, we wanted to see the sites in Havana and also to hear Cuba's incredible music. We both hoped to do some bird watching and I wanted to visit some farms to see how they implement sustainable agriculture. I was also interested to see how vermiculture thrives in the tropical heat. As we were traveling with minimal funds, we knew some of this might not be possible. Karen had low expectations for the trip after her foray into the guidebooks. I try to have few expectations when I travel; instead, I remain open to possibility. All possible expectations we may have had were surpassed in the blink of an eye.
Havana in its heyday had unbelievable riches in every respect. The base from which the Conquest of the Americas took place, its European roots go back to 1492 when Christopher Columbus declared Cuba for Spain. The Bay of Havana has its requisite forts and seawalls. At one time the old city was walled, but the walls were removed hundreds of years ago to allow for expansion. As the playground of the rich and famous in the early decades of the 20th century, it is filled with beautiful hotels and Art Deco buildings, enormous mansions once owned by wealthy sugar and tobacco growers, European royalty, American businessmen and stars, and more. Cuba was the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean with all the beauty, excess, decadence and illicit activities that one could imagine. Add to it the humid, earthy heat and the sensual aroma of tropical plants mixed with salt air and acrid, sharp smell of diesel, the beautiful people of many colors and origins, and the throb of the Afro-Cuban music and rhythms, and you can begin to imagine Cuba. It is more than a concept; the Island is very visceral and vibrant. While yes, only some of the buildings have been restored, most are in various stages of decline because of the harsh tropical weather and the lack of funds, the images of what Cuba was before the revolution are palpable everywhere.
Throughout the week we toured the city of three million people, visiting plazas, the cathedral, Old Havana, the Fine Arts museum (beautiful and very modern when it was built in the 1950s and filled with the exceptional art of Cuban painters), the University overlooking the city (and with a tank and slogans on walls in commemoration of where students died in the revolution to overthrow Batista), the Fine Arts Institute (set on exquisite and extensive grounds on the site of an old country club), the metropolitan park which cuts a huge swath through town, the nearly 2000 acre botanical gardens on the City's outskirts, the malecon (waterfront), neighborhoods such as the one where we stayed in the Vedado and the Miramar that were filled with enormous homes and manicured gardens, the markets and the dollar stores where goods are alternately available – or not, a convent that provides support and care for the elderly, single mothers and children and collects medical supplies for children with special needs, the synagogue that provides a resource for getting medicine and supplies not only for the Island's remaining Jews but for others in need, and much more.
We discovered that you can eat extremely well in paladors, small restaurants run by families for those who have the financial resources to enjoy them. We also ate in some regular restaurants and the food was consistently good. Cuba also has its own versions of MacDonalds and KFC. (We didn't try them so no comparative reports available.) Havana is not an inexpensive city – restaurant prices were nearly comparable to the US and the exchange rate on American dollars is not good; 20% is taken off to change into CUCs the Cuban money. We had a big breakfast, a main meal in the early afternoon while out with Thelma, and then ate very lightly in the evening. While it was true that during the "special period," after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the withdrawal of the USSR, most food and other goods were unavailable much of the time, produce is now grown in and around the city and farmers come in from the countryside with fresh produce as well. However, some foods can be difficult to get. Milk is in short supply and families in Havana mainly depend on powdered milk when it is available. We were glad that we had brought 12 quarts of powdered milk to give to the Cubans.
We stopped at a roadside produce stand on the edge of Havana. Next to the stand was a roughly two-acre vegetable garden with marigolds and other flowers every few feet that discourage pests or provide foils to the problem insects. On the edge of the garden was a statue of Jose Marti, poet laureate and Cuban hero. Pro-Castro propaganda was posted around the garden and on the wall of the stand along with information promoting the garden's organic status. Apparently most people don't understand or appreciate that their crops are grown organically. They're just happy to have produce. We also visited the local produce markets in town. There was a good variety of vegetables and fruits but they were expensive for an agricultural country.
Nearly everything on the Island is illegal. Further, laws change constantly so keeping up with what's legal and what isn't is a constant challenge. While I don't believe that it's nearly as repressive as China or the Eastern Bloc countries when they existed, there are 27 dissident poets in prison at this time and, if you are doing something the government deems is subversive in any way, you too could go to prison.A few years ago American money, especially dollar bills, were a hot item in Cuba. Everyone wanted to be paid in American money, which they squirreled away for when the system changed or they had the chance to travel or emigrate to the US. In 2004 American currency became illegal, so it's not so appealing now. There are four television stations, all censored. Satellite dishes are illegal. The press is heavily censored. While people have access to e-mail, the Internet is illegal except for some people in the University and for some doctors and scientists. Even then, it is only available a few hours a day. If this sounds shocking, consider that Rupert Murdoch has heavily censored Fox Channel and that most of our major news sources are also censored.
Fidel likes the Embargo. It makes him look like the "good guy," keeping up the State despite the greedy, inconsiderate U.S. The State underwrites the thriving Cuban black market as the State is the only one capable of getting the goods. People pay up to three times what the going price would be in the US. Who makes the profit? The State. In fact, Fidel is purported to be worth $900 million dollars, a fact he vehemently denies. The Embargo, of course, is absolutely crazy and impacts us all. As Americans we are denied our right to travel or to support Cuba, and the Cubans are denied basic medicines and other goods they desperately need. It is also technically illegal for Cubans to receive assistance from their families though it isn't strictly enforced. However, the Embargo will soon fail to benefit US interests as Cuba and China are developing strong trade relations. We saw many cheap goods in the Havana market kiosks set up in Central Havana near the waterfront, much of it from China.
Billboards with propaganda in support of the Revolution or denigrating Bush were everywhere. Buildings were also covered with propaganda and a thick cluster of black flags block the front of the American Embassy on the Island so that the building is all but obscured from sight. Most Cubans have no real information from the outside unless they have families living in the US. Most people know little other than what the State wants them to know.
In addition to the beautiful Art Deco buildings and homes, there are many poor neighborhoods throughout Havana, often existing side-by-side with the upscale sections. The definition of a "poor" neighborhood is somewhat complicated. The State provides each person with a monthly dole of black beans, rice and pork, barely enough to live on. After the Revolution many people lost their living as small stores were closed by the State and some agricultural crops such as sugar were discontinued when the prices dropped dramatically but were not replaced with other crops. People migrated from the countryside to the cities in search of employment. The State provides free housing for everyone though much of the housing is substandard. Families squatted in abandoned homes and flats when the original owners left the Island. Those who left Cuba were forced to leave behind title to their homes and/or goods. Farms were taken over by the State and families were moved onto them, maybe continuing to run the farms and maybe not. The result of the cross-migration is a city filled with people who have had little education and who are living in crowded conditions in deteriorating buildings. Further, it's not uncommon to see a beautiful plaza in Havana with crumbling buildings next to renovated hotels or business offices, clothing hanging from balconies on string clotheslines. The contrasts are surprising.
Cuba currently has two monetary systems, the peso and the CUC. The State pays workers in pesos, but pesos can only be used in a few stores and restaurants. As no one can own anything there is little incentive to maintain living quarters, especially by the poor and under-educated people. (Yes, the State provides free education to all, but many people from the countryside don't understand the value of education. Also, if a doctor only makes $35 a month, there isn't a lot of incentive to get an education unless it is a family legacy to be educated.) As a result, there is a very high rate of unemployment. And, there is a disproportionate number of under-educated people as so many educated people have left the Island. Driving a taxi or working in any area of the tourist industry pays more than most of the so-called white-collar jobs. Begging is illegal but it's also not real common. The most striking beggars were young men in clean clothing asking for handouts, sometimes in the guise of needing medicine for an ailing parent, sometimes just asking for spare change in the same way as our panhandlers. There are increasing problems with robbery and other crimes and prostitution is thriving despite the government's attempts to suppress it.
The overall feeling of the educated Cubans who have remained in Cuba is that the Revolution has only benefited the very poor. Several of the people we met were active participants in the student revolution to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, a ruthless dictator. The first ten years of the Fidel regime were difficult but hopeful for the Cubans who remained on the Island. People were willing to live with shortages as accepted sacrifices in support of the new regime. By the eleventh year they realized that much of what had been promised in the Revolution would never come about. Fidel was not a businessman and didn't have the infrastructure to effectively support the Cubans. The Russians were never accepted, in part because they didn't accept the Cubans. They were a gloomy, pessimistic presence on the Island, didn't associate much with the locals, and were not missed when they left, despite the ensuing hardships and shortages.
The Island is a fascinating study of contrasts and really understanding the intricacies of Cuba is something that even the Cubans themselves will say is difficult. We certainly observed that the people are extremely resourceful, whether it is repairing ancient cars, finding medicine and other goods they need, or assisting one another in a very open, cheerful manner. People walking by on the street would immediately jump in to assist us women as we attempted to jam our suitcases into the tiny trunk of the Lada, or carry something heavy. It didn't matter that we were white or perhaps perceived as "wealthy" or "upper class;" people simply help each other no matter what. It also appeared, at least from our perspective that although there are shortages of many items we take for granted the Cubans are not seriously badly off except that they live under a regime that represses freedom of speech and expression. Given our very broken medical system, high cost of housing, and prohibitively expensive higher education, the Cubans are better off than we are in these respects. With a 97% literacy rate and a low infant mortality rate, our countries are on a parity in some areas. What Cubans lack are material goods from clothing to bedding to good transportation, medical supplies to school supplies to information resources, quality protein sources to potable water. These necessities are based, in my mind, on how the US was pre- the 1960s encouragement of mass-purchase of material goods: they have basic needs rather than a desire for excess.
Our medical exploration was quite interesting. We first spent several hours with a very knowledgeable oncological surgeon, which affirmed what we had heard, that Cuban medicine is as advanced as in the US. The greatest obstacles facing Cuban doctors are the lack of the newest medicines and their incredibly low wages. A doctor cannot live on his salary in Cuba, which is roughly $35 a month. Gilberto, the oncologist we visited, was quite interested to know more about my experience in cancer treatment. While he was educated about the chemotherapy and monoclonal drugs used in my treatment, some of the drugs were not yet available in Cuba. He was also concerned about how many people don't seek treatment in his country – even educated people – because of the fear of cancer. To that effect, he showed us photos of a breast cancer patient, an art historian, who had horrific looking surface tumors on her breast. He said that despite how they looked, they were greatly improved as she had been through radiation already, and was about to have a mastectomy. His point was that it wasn't just the poor who wait to be treated, and it wasn't because of the costs involved with treatment. He wondered if this were true in the U.S. as well.
I've considered his question a lot even before I began collecting research for my book. I believe that many people choose to remain in denial for as long as possible before seeing mainstream doctors. Fear of something serious is certainly a factor, but I believe there are a variety of other reasons as well. In my case, my insurance was about to be cancelled and I was afraid to go to the doctor with a serious complaint for fear of not getting new insurance coverage. I've watched several women I know choose to use alternative treatment before they were willing to concede to surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, hopeful that they could avoid what is, by anyone's standards, invasive, painful and often exhausting treatment. In a few cases they waited too long and have not survived.
Our hospital/clinic environment is certainly not warm and inviting, medical tests are intimidating, medical professionals can be condescending or talk in a language that patients don't understand, costs are an understandable factor and, for many, the medical system is an entirely different universe from that which the patient has drawn comfort in healing. And it is for these reasons and other reasons that so many people seek to be healed by someone who approaches healing in a very different way from mainstream medicine or delay treatment as long as possible. More than anything, denial is a strong and very common factor in our accepting help in the healing process.
Tilberto is the best surgeon on the Island, but tye pay for doctors is so low, he would be able to afford to stay except that his wife has a good job as a producer with a French film company, so they can pay their bills. He is about to start trials of DCA, a simple, cheap compound that has shown great promise in petri-dish tests with human cells and with animal testing. Canada is also testing DCA; as far as I know, the US is not as the pharmaceutical companies cannot patent this cheap, natural compound.
Gilberto wants desperately to find cures for his patients. A communist and atheist, his faith is in finding medical intervention that will work. On the wall of his office is the well-known photo of Deena Metzger, arms flung skyward and naked to the waist, her missing breast sporting a tattoo of the branch of a tree that continues up her arm. He was very impressed that I had met her and that I too carry the same passion for life in the face of adversity.
We visited an oncology clinic/hospital as Emilio is currently in treatment for prostate cancer. The building was being renovated and was old and dusty. Last summer it was difficult for Emilio to walk as the cancer had metastasized to his spine and the dreary condition of the clinic did little to boost his spirits. So his chemo nurse, Rolando, offered to come to their home if Thelma could provide him with a ride to and from the hospital. We picked up Roly at the hospital, brought him home for Emilio's treatment, and afterward, we all shared a meal prepared by Thelma. We were told that there were better facilities in Havana. However, based on the hospital I visited, I'm glad I received treatment in the U.S. though I would have enjoyed having my own nurse treating me in my garden.
We went downtown one morning to observe Dr. Lino Tomasen, who is known for healing illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, sclerosis, paralysis, etc. that are considered incurable or can't be operated on to bring about a cure. He allegedly transmits energy through his mind and hands to patients. Born in Santiago de Cuba on December 4th in 1961, Dr. Lino, as he is known, was considered a child prodigy, capable of doing things such as concentrating on a flower in his hands and making it open, or turning a glass of water hot or vice versa. He began healing the sick when he was seven, was trained as a medical doctor, and worked for many years within the medical system. He now operates a hands-on healing service Monday through Friday from 9:00 until 1:30 or until he has seen everyone, out of a small room in the Concordia section of downtown Havana.
Dr. Lino is an enormous black man, tall, heavy and very strong, which he happily demonstrated for us by pounding his hand on a wall so hard that we wondered if he'd punch a hole in it. He claims to never run out of energy – sweats a lot, yes, but never runs out of energy. He often wears a red shirt as he was born on the Feast of Santa Barbara, the saint that is syncretized to Shango, God of Fire in the Cuban Santeria religion. He glittered from sweat and an impressive amount of gold jewelry around his neck, his wrists and fingers and sported a large cigar in his mouth. There were lines out the door and down the block of people either interested in visiting, waiting for people inside, or just there to observe. The walls are covered with testimonials carefully written by people who have experienced miraculous healings from the hands of Dr. Lino.
Dr. Lino's father was a guerilla in Fidel's revolutionary army and there are pictures of Fidel and Che on the walls as well as revolutionary propaganda and a large painting of Jesus Christ. Dr. Lino makes money hand-over-fist offering free services to all takers. It also provides him a platform as showman, a role he clearly enjoys. And, while his services are free, people make donations. Factoring that he spends roughly one minute with each person as well as the donations each person gives him, he is making a far better living as a healer than as a doctor.While he treated the day's visitors, he chatted with us, primarily me as I was placed close to the front and because I spoke Spanish. He periodically would emphasize a point by lifting a recipient of his healing into the air and drop the person down hard onto the floor. His hands-on work combined chiropractic techniques and meridian points, some lifting and dropping, and occasional seated work. The stretching of his patients clearly hurt some of them, but they endured it with no more than an "ow" or "ooomph."
When it was my turn the room, which hummed with the subdued conversation of patients, caregivers and observers suddenly turned silent. I imagine that everyone wanted to see how he would treat a foreigner and if I would experience a miraculous healing in front of them. In fact, he spent an extra minute or so with me and was extremely gentle. I felt tiny next to his enormous frame and larger-than-life personality.It didn't occur to me to ask for anything in particular to be cured, but Karen, who saw him next, mentioned a painful knee. Curiously, her knee stopped hurting right after she saw him. She was sorry she hadn't asked for a cure for her plantar fasciitis, a far more painful and chronic complaint. Was I cured forever? Who knows?
One afternoon we met with Natalia Boliviar, a descendent of Simon Bolivar's brother and the Island's expert on Santeria, an ancient earth religion brought to the Americas by the slaves. Natalia is in her 70s, an accomplished artist and writer, who gives lectures worldwide on Santeria. We exchanged books and I asked her and her daughter questions about the Santeria in Cuba. Karen entertained herself while we spoke in Spanish by playing with the parrots. Karen knows quite a bit about bird behavior and had the family parrot laughing and laughing (I'm serious about this) as she played games with it. Peekaboo is a favorite of parrots.
Known variously as Santeria, Lakumi, Umbanda, Candomble, Macumba Voodoo, Hoodoo and more, depending on the country where it is practiced and the lineage from which it draws, Santeria is used for healing mental and physical ailments, casting and breaking spells, reading the future and much more. Many priests and priestesses provide herbs and other traditional remedies for treating physical and emotional complaints. While Santeria was suppressed in Cuba for many years and was considered a primitive and backward religion practiced by ignorant country people, it exploded in the 1990s and it is now estimated that 70% of Cubans practice Santeria or have at least have taken part in a ritual or asked for help.
Late the following afternoon we were taken to a poor neighborhood outside of town to visit a babalao, a brujo mayor, or high priest of the casa tormenta devoradora remolino batalla, in the Palo Monte lineage of Santeria. This lineage comes originally from the Congo/Angola tradition. Juan Rivas Molina is a slender little man of 90 who was waiting for us in a chair outside his very humble home, neatly dressed in a shirt and slacks and with a hat on his head. His great-grandfather was a slave of Bantu heritage, his grandfather was a brujo mayor, and it was passed to on to Juan. He told me, "God gave me the gift to do good. I cannot buy it, I cannot sell it, I cannot give it away. I can only use it to do good for others."
The man who took us to visit the babalao (also known as babalu in some countries) is educated and works in the government managing sports facilities. His wife was diagnosed with fairly progressed colon cancer and received radiation treatment to reduce the tumors pre-surgery. They went to see Juan Rivas Molina, then returned to the doctor for a scan before surgery. The tumors were gone. They have since visited this babalao and believe he is a true healer.
Juan led us through to the back of his home to a little room dedicated to his work. One wall was painted with a scene from the countryside; another had the painting of a man, perhaps his grandfather, and the third wall had a painting of Santa Barbara, the saint tied with Shango, God of Fire.There was an altar covered with a cloth and with a candle burning on the floor in front of the altar. I soon learned that the distinctly strong odor in the room came from the altar. Juan lifted the cloth to display a dead goat and pigeon, sacrificed that afternoon. Animal sacrifices are not done regularly, but rather, for momentous occasions to please the Orishas (deities) and to garner assistance in healings. I was not under the impression that this had been done specifically for me but for the benefit of several people who would be coming for help.
I was dressed in a white Totonac dress I had brought to Cuba with the hope of attending a Santeria ritual, and with a simple necklace of red seeds called Corolina that are worn by Santeras. My feet were jammed into a pair of borrowed white sandals that were both too small and too narrow. It was difficult not to think about my sore feet as I shuffled into the room. Thelma and Karen wore white blouses. White is the color of the Santeros and Santeras, and the streets of Cuba are filled with people in white, devout followers of Santeria.
I sat down in a chair next to Juan. There was a problem with the electricity, which arrived via a tenuous looking cord that ran from the house to a fluorescent light on the ceiling. This required the concentrated efforts of several family members and took about ten minutes of fiddling with until we had light. I wasn't sure whether it was better in the candlelight or with the harsh overhead light; neither brought a respite from the humid heat or the aroma of the room.
Once we were settled in, I asked Juan a few questions about how he became a high priest. Thelma started to tell him a bit about me but he raised his hand and said, "Tell me nothing." He picked up some unusual looking stones that he had on a table next to him and dropped them like jacks onto the table. He then arranged them in a pattern and began to speak. "You had a serious sickness," he said, "and you cried and cried because you did not want to leave everyone. There were many others too who cried as they didn't want you to leave. God decided that you should live as there are so many that want or need you here. Also, because you are so kind to people. And also because you are to write an important book that will be read around the world. So you are not to worry. You are to live for many, many years."I was then told to go to the altar and to place my hands on two large cow horns that protruded from the sides of the altar. I had to bend down slightly and reach wide to hold the horns. I was to repeat after the priest in my language of origin a series of sentences. Quite honestly, I don't remember what they were, only that I did it. When the ritual was completed I was to sit down again.
I was told that I was now the daughter of Obatala, an Orisha of creation who represents wisdom and justice. S/he is represented by (syncretized with) the saint Las Mercedes. In the Palo Monte lineage s/he is known as Tierra Tiembla, or shaking earth. My colors are white or light colored clothing, the best foods for me are white, such as rice, custard, milk, etc. White represents pureness, which is what Obatala stands for as all things that are pure and white belong to her.
Juan then raised his voice, finger pointing to the sky, " The Palo Monte religion is powerful! We are over 2000 in the Casa Tormenta in Cuba, in Colombia, in Venezuela, in Spain, in Miami, and in California!! You are part of Palo Monte, daughter of Tierra Tiembla, known as Obatala! Go forth with your work."The ritual, now complete, we sat and looked at a dilapidated photo album containing pictures of a young Colombian girl he had cured of leukemia, of people in Spain and other parts of the world who had come to him, and of various family members. I gave him some money, which he was quick to refuse, saying he only did this for free. I told him that he could then perhaps use the money for his grandchildren. I later learned he had 75 grand and great-grand children, so I doubt the $20 went far. I also presented him with a bar of Belgian chocolate and, after finishing my notes, a good ballpoint pen. He seemed most pleased with the pen. We returned through the house to our car after paying our respects to his elderly wife. As we walked out to the dark street Juan was passing pieces of the chocolate to the crowd of youngsters who had hung around the outside of the house.
Our lead on Blue Scorpion venom turned cold when the phone number Thelma had was found to be disconnected and we were told that the man who had created this venom as a treatment had died. However, while waiting for the plane from Cancun to Veracruz I was approached by a woman who asked if I had just returned from Cuba. I said I had and she said, "I saw you Saturday in Habana Vieja. Why did you go to Cuba?" After I responded I asked about why she had gone.
It turns out that she had melanoma, had surgery and radiation and was currently in remission. However, she had been taking Blue Scorpion venom to prevent its return and had gone to the Island herself for the first time on the same plane as us. She gave me the information she had and Thelma will follow up for me. With this last piece of research coming, I was able to find out even more than I had anticipated about how Cubans approach healing.
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Unfortunately, there wasn't time to travel the three hours from Havana to a wildlife preserve, the best on the Island for bird watching. If we return this is high on our list of things we'd like to do. However, when we were at the botanical gardens we went to a beautiful section that was landscaped as a Japanese garden. It had a pavilion over a lagoon, and the lagoon was filled with a variety of birds. We saw some beautiful herons, water hens, finches, egrets and more.
We were also unable to visit farms in Pinar del Rio, a beautiful state to the West of Havana. Again, this is on my list for the future as Pinar del Rio is famous for its natural beauty. And, I would love to go to Santiago de Cuba, the city where the slaves were first brought to the Island. It is the birthplace of the extraordinary Cuban musical legacy and is home to a folkloric dance troop that I would love to see perform. Much to look forward to if and when the opportunity presents itself.
There are many "snapshots" of our trip in my mind. Every day in a park downtown, a large clutch of men gather to discuss baseball. Baseball is a major passion of the Cubans and it is followed closely and intensely. These men shout out their thoughts and opinions to anyone willing to listen. That this is a daily obsession is notable considering that baseball is a seasonal sport.
We took a break in Habana Vieja one afternoon and drank lemonade in the rooftop garden of a hotel. The view of the city was spectacular. We also drank daiquiris at the Florida, one of Hemmingway's regular haunts, where there is a statue of him next to the bar stool where he always sat.
We visited the Church of Las Mercedes in a poor neighborhood downtown. The saints in the church are syncretized to the Orishas. Yemanya, Orisha of fertility and of the sea was festooned with artificial flowers. El Santo Nino de Atocha, Lazarus, Las Mercedes and other saints were honored with flowers and candles as well.
The memorials to those fallen in the attempted overthrow of Batista were very moving. There are statues of Jose Marti everywhere. He was very instrumental in the Spanish American war in the late 1800s and was also a fine poet. The term "guajira" used to describe the Cuban country women comes from a poem written by Jose Marti about the village, Guajiras. It was also quite interesting to see so much propaganda in the form of billboards.
Rubber trees decorate the streets, their arial roots hanging down like opaque beaded curtains that undulate in the breeze. Balconies are covered with ironwork reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Sanseveria plants, known as "Women's Tongue" sit in pots on balconies or grace front yards to protect the homes from malicious gossip.
Odd reticulated buses pulled by a truck tractors and known as camellos (camels) lumber along the highways jammed with up to 600 travelers. Long lines of people wait for the camellos or for the 1950s and 60s cars, restored and supported by fares from people traveling from point A to B.
In the metropolitan park we watched dancers practicing for their weekend hotel spectacular. Their instructor sat on a table with a boom box next to him, making comments on their moves. We attempted to get him to dance with them; he politely declined. However, a small girl also watched the dancers, entranced by their moves. Soon she danced along with them, pirouetting and prancing to the music. After we left the group we passed an area where more music was coming over a sound system. Completely absorbed by the music I began to dance, paying no attention whatsoever to anything but the music. When the piece ended I heard hearty applause and looked over to see a long bench filled with senior citizens. I burst out laughing and we waved to one another.
And this is something I love about the Cubans. They are spontaneous and filled with fun. They are also flirtatious, and possess a great sense of playfulness.
I haven't told you about the music; I saved this for last. I wish it could have been more but we discovered that live music is not inexpensive. Most venues charge $20 to get in and another $10 for a two-drink minimum. Even more daunting than the money is the fact that music doesn't start until 11:30 in the evening. If we were twenty years old we might have been up for it, but we were up and out to see everything we could from morning till night and staying out until 2:00 or 3:00 and still showing up each morning didn't seem possible. I pushed aside my disappointment as so much else was filling us with joy.
But wait…there was music at the end of our trip and a teaser all along.
For those of you who adored the Ry Kooder documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, I am delighted to say that in a bit of serendipity, we met three of the four surviving members of that memorable group. The first day we toured downtown, we visited the lobbies of some of the more remarkable hotels. In the finest hotel lobby we encountered Pancho Amat, tres player in the BVSC. As Thelma knows all the musicians who have traveled to the States, she introduced us to him; he was very gracious. The following morning, while stopped for a red light, Thelma leaned over Karen to shout out the window, "Eliades." And there was my "hero" Eliades Ochoa in his jeep, cowboy hat on his head, grinning over at us. I yelled out my window that I had seen him in Santa Cruz and that we loved him. He laughed heartily and waved to us. And the final afternoon, while sitting in a café in Habana Vieja and listening to an excellent Cuban group, in walked Juan de Marco, sporting a red shirt and black beret over his abundant braids. He hugged all three of us, bought us artificial roses a young woman was selling, and introduced us to two American men from New Jersey. All three men were smoking puros, the cigars Cuba is famous for. I cannot tell you anything about the cigars as we did not visit the cigar factories nor bring back cigars as we know no one who smokes these days. However, we did learn that a box of the finest cigars can cost upwards of $5000!
Listening to the music at Café Express was a great treat. We had a late lunch and allowed the music to encompass us as did the locals who were lined up all around the café. A small boy played maracas in time with the band, and a nearly toothless woman dressed in a simple shift jumped up and down to the music and cackled her delight. Thelma knew the band members, of course, and introduced us, and they played some of the wonderful old-time tunes especially for us while couples danced in the streets.
After we packed and left Raquel's beautiful home, we visited a family of musicians and were invited to join them at their table at the Havana Hilton at 11:00 pm. They are an unusually handsome family, all talented musicians and composers, so we were excited to know that we would have a taste of Havana nightlife before we left We went to Thelma's house and rested before dressing and having a light meal.
Emilio joined us as we drove downtown along darkened streets to the Havana Hilton where we met up with the entire family and went to the top floor to the Club Cuba Libre.We were seated behind the stage and a bottle of rum, glasses with ice and cans of Coca-Cola were set out for us. Yes, Coca-Cola has made it past the Embargo, perhaps funded by the State as a small concession to an international favorite.
While we chatted with the band members we watched a strange fashion show that preceded the music. Both men and women paraded in a variety of outfits that spanned beach wear, skimpy dresses for the Club scene, baggy pants for men cut much like tribal North African Bedouin pants, and more. Just before midnight the band members went to the stage as music straight out of Star Wars blasted from loud speakers heralding the rolling back of the roof. It was a warm, clear, star-lit night with a full moon shining on Havana; when the music began I felt as if I could fly.
At first they played Timba, the fast-moving popular Cuban variety of salsa, but then the music shifted to a fusion of salsa, Samba-reggae from Brazil, and the particular style of the group. I dragged Thelma onto the floor with me but she gave out after half the song. I felt tired but I remembered how, in my dancing days, you need to push through until your muscles are warm and then you can dance forever.
As "forever" would be over in only forty minutes I decided to stay dancing with the young and beautiful locals; I'm sure I was twenty years older than the oldest dancers on the floor. It was wonderful! Nearly everyone was dancing side by side as a group, following the lead of the band and singing along. They are clearly a popular group with a large following. When the music finally came to an end a man standing next to me came over to speak. I said, "Now I can say that I have danced under a full moon in Havana. I am an American!" He grabbed me in his arms and said, "You are a princess." I was so happy for the compliment that I didn't correct him regarding my title. I was soaking wet on the humid dance floor, looking at the beautiful moon over Havana, and thinking of how grateful I am to be alive and able to continue to dance through life.
After three hours of sleep we arose, loaded our bags into the sagging Lada, and headed for the airport. The moon hung low in the sky and mist rose from the ground, giving everything an ethereal appearance, much like the magic realism that I associate with Latin America. It would be another hot day in Havana.
A RETURN TO SOUTHERN MEXICO
Nearly fifteen years ago I first traveled by ADO from Puebla to Tuxpan then to Papantla, center of the Mexican vanilla industry. I had spoken about vanilla at an international conference sponsored by the Autonomous University of Mexico, which focused on the 500 years of the crossover of the Old and New food traditions. Six years earlier The Vanilla Cookbook had come out and I was finally visiting Papantla for the first time, hoping to see the vanilla growers and the plantations I had written about.
This first trip turned into a nearly yearly adventure where I learned much about the legacy of Mexican vanilla, which later became the backbone of my book on the history of vanilla. It had been five years since my last visit, however, and I was both excited to be returning to see my Mexican "family" as well as to teach a seminar on how to launch a successful marketing campaign for the promotion of Mexican vanilla.
Ironically, despite having spent so much time in the region, I had never visited the port city of Veracruz, famous for being close to Boca del Rio where Cortes and his entourage came ashore to claim Mexico for Spain, for being the base of the Mexican Navy, and for being the birthplace of Danzon, a sensual dance with roots in Cuba.
After spending most of the day in the Cancun airport we left for Veracruz. The weather had turned cloudy and windy but I thought little of it. However, I noticed that our plane was bucking heavy headwinds as we circled over the Port and onto the landing strip. In fact, a northerly had come in with gale-force winds and heavy rain to the north. It was probably 55 degrees Fahrenheit, not the hot, sultry port I had anticipated.
My dear friend Norma Vallejo met me and we headed into town to my hotel to sign me in and to leave the car. We drove through the old streets of Veracruz that eventually come into the downtown plaza area, with old colonial buildings and a cathedral surrounding the heart center of town. My hotel was two short blocks away from the plaza, nestled inside the walls of an old church with beautifully landscaped gardens and a pool in the center. Unfortunately, it was impossible to imagine enjoying the beautiful gardens in a gale.
We leaned into the wind and walked the plaza and on to dinner in the Emporio, a famous old hotel on the square. The windows rattled as the wind gusted against them. I had not brought warm clothing and was bundled in a sweater and light jacket. All I could think of was a bowl of hot soup. Back at the plaza a folkloric performance of the jorochas was being performed. Young men and women in white danced to the music famous to this region. La Bamba is perhaps the most well-known of the jorochas, lyrical music played on the guitar, jarana and harp. The dancers were the best of a competition that had taken place and they were a delight to watch.
The Olmec women who normally hawk their wares around the plaza were bundled in wool blankets, packing up and leaving early as no one was there to haggle over their offerings. No danzon in the park, only musicians lined up, hopeful that someone would have a party or gathering and need their services. Few people sat at the many tables of open-air cafes, and people laughed as they bent into the wind, struggling to walk. We parted early for a good night's sleep and touring the following morning.
Monday was still grey and windy though not quite as wild as the night before. We had an excellent breakfast at a café and then Norma took me along the malecon and down the Coast to Boca del Rio. No longer a sleepy hamlet or vestiges of the Conquest, Boca del Rio is a resort town filled with million dollar homes and fancy spa hotels. We came back along the malecon where the ships were lined up in their berths and sailors walked along the streets. I attempted to take some photos but mainly got sand in my freshly washed hair, my ears, my eyes and my mouth. Inland seemed like a better option.
We returned to the plaza area and went down a street famous for its delectable fruit ices and ice creams. Normally shills call out a rapid, "huerra, huerra, huerra," to draw in buyers; few people were interested in cold desserts in the blustery weather. However, we weren't about to pass up a tropical specialty unavailable in the United States: guanabana ice! If you ever have the opportunity to try guanabana, do it! It is a delicate white fruit with black seeds the size of raisins and often left in the ice cream or beverages made from this fragile treasure. Despite the cold it was so refreshing and brought back wonderful memories of enjoying this fruit, available usually in the winter and spring.
After visiting some of the shops we headed north to Totonocapan, the land of the Totonacs. I enjoyed the lush countryside and rocky outcroppings I had never before seen, all unfamiliar until we came to Los Moros, a great seafood restaurant near Nautla, about an hour south of Papantla. This was the furthest south I had traveled in the past. We had freshly caught fish and fried bananas before returning to the road to Normas beautiful cottage in the country.
Norma left her career in Mexico City to come back to Papantla to run her parents' ranches. They have Swiss dairy cows, a mozzarella cheese business and a vanilla plantation, with additional crops such as bananas and chile. The two ranches are near each other; Norma lives near the small village of Poyutla.
Norma's father Victor helped to design and oversaw the building of her perfect two-bedroom country home. It sports the beautiful and practical thatched roof of traditional Totonac homes, thick stucco walls and ceilings to keep out the intense tropical heat, and a beautiful covered patio that looks out into the jungle. A small river runs below the house and the air is filled with the sound of water and tropical birds. There was no tropical heat when we arrived, however. We warmed up with cups of hot tea and then went to sleep under mosquito netting to protect against mosquitoes carrying dengue, which was currently in the area.
I asked Norma if she had ever read "Out of Africa" by Isak Dinesen. She looked at me in surprise; although she hadn't read the book, the movie was her inspiration for coming back to run the family ranches and to leave city comforts for the rich solitude of the countryside. I promised to get her a copy of the book, a favorite of mine, in English as this is the language Karen Blixen used for her many stories despite her Danish origins.
I could have happily spent my entire visit at Norma's ranch, listening to the birds and walking in the shade-cloth houses with the vanilla. Sadly, I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to curl up on the couch on her beautiful patio and read books or talk with her about the dreams and challenges she experiences in her new life. The following morning we traveled the crushed rock roads in the farm truck to Papantla to prepare for the seminar, to be held the following day. It was very emotional for me to be back in noisy, dirty, but always fascinating Papantla, or Kachikin as it is known by the Totonacs on the ranches outside of town. I feel a deep connection with the people of Papantla; it is my second home.
While I had written the seminar before I left the States, I had been concerned from the beginning about my ability to lead the seminar as it would be in Spanish. My Spanish has grown rusty from lack of constant use. I can converse without a problem, but leading a seminar is quite different from conversing with a friend or shopkeeper. My concerns were real and I soon turned over the seminar to Norma's skillful leadership. I provided her with the exercises and discussion points and she did a masterful job of breathing life into the program. It was a daylong program with a two-hour break in the afternoon for lunch at a restaurant near the ruins of El Tajin and for visiting.
It was so exciting to see friends again, to be in familiar territory and eating the delicious food typical of the region. I was also struck by the huge differences between Cuba and Southern Mexico and wished that Karen had been able to travel with me to see how different the two countries are. Although we were in a metropolitan city in Cuba and Papantla is a rural, agricultural city, the contrast still held true. Southern Mexico has a strong indigenous heritage, with two parallel but very different cultures existing side-by-side. There is an invisible but very distinct wall between these two cultures. While each group depends on the other and constantly crosses back and forth between the two worlds, each retreats into their familiar space when the day is done. To the Totonacs, the land is communal and to be used by whomever needs it; for the Mestizos who have ranches and run businesses, having chickens and pigs rooting up their crops or women digging mud from the river for their kitchen floors, the concept of communal land creates problems that need to be addressed carefully in an attempt to avoid the unavoidable friction of cultural perceptions.
While Veracruz state is arguably one of the richest in Mexico with its petroleum fields, livestock, abundant tropical commodities such as coffee, vanilla and cacao, it can't possibly compare with the culture and wealth of Cuba. The Veracruz rain forest was 98% intact at the beginning of the twentieth century; within fifty years most of the forest had been cut down by the petroleum workers who laid oil lines to Mexico City and put up derricks where once there had been tropical hardwoods.
Cuba's forests are largely intact and the countryside has been maintained by the community out of necessity, using the most modern sustainable agriculture. While this is somewhat more common now in the Mestizo community, the Totonacs have retained their ancient practices of slash and burn and planting that served them well when there was abundant land available to them, but has long since changed and become more problematic.
More than anything else, I was struck by the difference in the rhythm of the two countries, whether it was in daily life or in celebration. Cuba is more sophisticated and more uninhibited in dance and daily interchange. Southern Mexico is more conservative and subdued. This doesn't mean they don't love to dance or celebrate, but they are more circumspect in showing their emotions.
In Cuba there appears to be a sense of unity that doesn't exist in Mexico in my experience. This is extrapolation on my part and there may be arguments that would shoot down my observations, but having lived in Guatemala and having spent a lot of time in Mexico, this is what I believe to be true. Most of Latin America has a strong caste or class system established during the Colonial years and that has remained strongly in place. This system affects most of the way things are done, including the way that vanilla is bought and sold. There are old families who have controlled the curing and drying of vanilla and who make the lion's share of the profits. Despite a real desire by the majority of growers to change this balance, it is difficult to create new paradigms. Looking at the vanilla industry I'm dismayed that there are three separate vanilla associations in one small region. This doesn't include the growers to the south in San Rafael or the growers in Oaxaca or Chiapas. Each association wants to manage the vanilla their way. The result, of course, is that nothing changes. My hope was that the seminar would get the attendees to think outside the box, to make a paradigm shift so that they could work in unity to support everyone. From my perception, this is the only way that the industry can thrive. But my perception may not be the best one as I am seeing their problems through my cultural lens, one that may not address their needs in a way that will serve them. Certainly Norma and some of the other members of the younger generation understand that things must change in order to move forward, but for those still holding on to the way things were, or those who believe they cannot change the existing structure, this is not a option. I want the Mexican industry to thrive; only time will tell if this is possible.
Much has changed in Papantla since my first visit fifteen years ago. There has been an exodus from other areas of Mexico to the Gulf Coast and therefore many newcomers. This has caused a shift in the "small town" character of the city. The newest generation of Totonac youth has been strongly impacted by the media. They no longer wear their traditional clothing, instead attempting to be as modern and "Westernized" as possible.
There are some new restaurants in town, Internet cafes, and Papantla's first "Big Box" grocery and dry-goods store, small and limited by big city standards, but nevertheless a place where products can be bought in bulk. It is so apparent after a long absence how life has moved on. Children that I knew as babies and toddlers are now in high-school or college. Long-time friends are much older, some having retired, some now infirm or dead.
My friend Heriberto Larios has all but abandoned his traditional vanilla plantation overlooking the ancient cities of El Tajin, and now has property near Cazuelas, a small hamlet outside of town, with a beautiful, established orchard filled with mangoes, papayas, bananas, citrus and coconut palms and an old house that needs to be torn down and replaced. Vanilla vines hang from orange trees and wooden trellises and an arroyo separates the land, providing the water that the traditional plantation lacked. Berto's daughter Luci is taking over the management of his plantation and business for him and has dreams of building a small home in Cazuelos though the problem of poisonous definitely gives her moment for pause.
In the countryside people still use burros and horses for transportation, homes are still simple and children still walk to school after gathering the day's water from the local well or tending to livestock and other farm chores. Fortunately, the traditional nixtamal where corn is ground fresh each day for tortillas, still exists and the tortillas continue to be flavorful and delicious fresh off the comal. I couldn't get enough of them as well as bocales and tamales wrapped in banana leaves. My opportunities were fleeting however – just a few servings in the homes of friends. I had only one full day to visit everyone, an impossible task.
I stayed with Norma's parents, Victor and Gloria, in town Friday night and visited her sister Alma Saturday morning. I saw my Totonac "brother," Joaquin Morales on the ride to Poza Rica to catch my bus to Mexico City. I hadn’t seen Joaquin since 1998 as he worked for several years in the Lacandon rain forest, overseeing a vanilla plantation. I had seen his family, who had remained in town, but it has been five years and his eldest child is at the university in Xalapa and the youngest is ten years old. I drank in everything as deeply as possible before arriving at the bus station.
Even the bus ride was fascinating. It takes five and a half hours to climb slowly from the Gulf Coast to the high plains of the Valley of Mexico. It is an education to watch the changes in plants from the deep tropics to the high desert plateau. The buses are newer and more comfortable but they still show terrible movies and the volume is still deafening. The price is still excellent, however, about fifteen dollars to travel 170 miles! The weather had warmed a bit for a day or so but another northerly was blowing in from the States as I left, and it began to rain as we reached the summit of the Sierra Madre Oriental, roughly 8000 feet above sea level.
Except for the fact that they couldn't find my reservation for fifteen minutes, a real concern as I hadn't brought a credit card with me, my Mexico City hotel was perfect. It was not far from the bus station and was only five minutes from the airport with a shuttle running every fifteen minutes around the clock. It was modern, clean, very comfortable, quite affordable and had a casual restaurant with surprisingly good food. I had two bowls of delicious soup, a hot shower, and fell into bed as wakeup time was 4:00 a.m. in order to catch an early plane back to the States.
My feet were firmly planted between two worlds, the one that was ready to return home to my own bed and to my beloved grandsons, the other yearning to remain in Mexico or to return to Cuba, where time was malleable and the responsibilities of daily life were far away. However, if the jatropha project we are in the process of launching takes off as we plan, I will again be traveling south to the other world where part of my heart remains.