Friday, December 19, 2014

Cuba: Myth & Reality

I wrote this post last week, a few days before US agreed to normalize relations with Cuba and to free the remaining members of the Cuban 5. Doors between the US and Cuba that have been closed for over 50 years are now opening. Hard to believe I was in Cuba a few short weeks ago. The excitement was palpable, we felt a change in the air, fresh winds blowing from the sea ....

Day 1, and a dozen photographers snapped our photos as we descended the gangway of the MV Explorer, our home for past 108 days, giving us our first taste of paparazzi. A police escort accompanied us from the port to the university, where the rector of the university urged peace between the US and Cuba. 

This is my third Semester at Sea voyage as a faculty member teaching Travel Writing and Creative Writing, and I’ve left pieces of my heart in many cities around the world, but this heartfelt welcome to Havana brings me to tears, nearly making me miss the enormous banner draped over the entrance to the university: The Cuban 5.

“Imagine there’s no heaven,” sings John Lennon over the loudspeaker. “It’s easy if you try.”
 I am known for my imagination, but nothing prepared me for this surreal moment: over six hundred Semester at Sea students, faculty and staff climbing the eighty-eight steps to the University of Havana on a windy morning in late November. Later, I get lost in the rhythm of the dance as Cuban and American students (and faculty!) move to the beat. 

The most problematic moment of the day comes when we file into a small theatre in Vieja Havana where La Colmenita (The Little Beehive) a children’s theatre group (aged five to fourteen) will put on a special performance for us. “In English, just for you,” cries Tim, the gray-mustached manager/director of the troupe. “With love for you! Enjoy!” He blows us kisses, and the curtain goes up.
I settle in my chair and watch the children perform a play. They are talented and adorable, especially a tiny girl wearing large glasses, and dressed in a jaunty Peter Pan cap and tights. But wait … what’s this? In the middle of the play, a public service announcement with Danny Glover exhorting us to free the Cuban 5? And video footage of the 5 tenderly playing with their children or teasing their mothers? Ah, I see, this isn’t a play at all. It’s propaganda masquerading as art, slogans pretending to be dialogue—uttered by wide-eyed, earnest children. My stomach coils tighter than when the ship sailed through a typhoon.
You’re in Cuba, I remind myself. Did you expect a frothy Disney concoction with singing, dancing little bees?
Yes, I admit. I want to see Cuba as more than politics and myths of revolution. It’s a tropical paradise of faded glamour, mojitos and daiquiris, hot salsa that starts in the soul and travels to the feet, and warm, generous people. It is also a country where time seems to have stopped in 1959, at the height of revolucion. A country of old men: Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Ernest Hemingway, a Holy Triad who never age and remain frozen in myths as colorful as the 50s cars sailing down the roads, and whose photos loom over the entire city. 

Tour historic Hotel Nacional with Estela, the diminutive guide who was eighteen during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and move from notorious Room 214—where Frank Sinatra stayed and used the secret entrance to Meyer Lansky’s room—to the underground bunker where posters display photos of Fidel Castro with Khrushchev. “This is my Fidel,” sighs Estela. “I wish they showed these pictures of him all over town, not the ones when he got older.”
But no one sees the eighty-eight year-old ailing former leader. The images of Fidel plastered around Havana depict a rumpled, bearded middle-aged man. Fidel hasn’t aged, and neither has the second member of the Bearded Triumvirate dominating Havana’s mythic landscape: Che Guevara, handsome and charismatic from fierce glare to clenched jaw. Che’s face—the iconic portrait that inspired the hippie revolutionary movement of the late 60s-early 70s—broods from book covers, posters, T-shirts, key chains, ashtrays, and aprons, and at night, lights up against a building overlooking the Plaza de la Revolucion. Though I haven’t smelled the Che Guevara cologne, I’ve been assured it exists. A Cuban friend told me that after Cuba, Che went to Bolivia to offer his services, but when the Bolivians saw Che in reality—balding, wearing glasses, middle-aged paunch—they turned him down.   
The third member of the Holy Triad, Ernest Hemingway, still bursts with testosterone from black and white photos where he grips a shotgun or fish, drinks at his favorite bars, smiles with Fidel, and poses with his hunting trophies. Tour buses unload Hemingway aficionados in Cojimar, the wild, isolated fishing village that inspired The Old Man and the Sea. At his favorite seaside café, La Terraza, they are given fizzy blue drinks (specialty of the house) and led to the dining room to ogle his table, roped off and set and waiting.
Back in Vieja Havana, I walk into the room in the pink Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he lived ($3/night during the low season, $5 high season) and wrote. And drank and lived hard. Peering over his typewriter (under glass), I picture him writing terse, taut sentences, tossing adjectives and adverbs out the window like small wriggling fish. Around the corner at La Bodegita del Medio, a cozy neighborhood bar that serves up mojitos, cigars, and hot music, I toast him with a mojito, and then follow his shadow down the pedestrian street of Obispo, lined with cafes, shops, churro stands, and musicians, to the swirling neon sign of El Floridita, the delightfully retro bar known for its daiquiris. I sit next to his smiling bronze bust—on his favorite stool, his back to the wall—and over a daiquiri named for him, I ask what he thinks of this country of old men who remain forever young. He doesn’t answer, maybe because behind us, trapped in his own black and white myth, Fidel eavesdrops.

On my last evening in Havana, I explore the streets beyond the carefully circumscribed tourist areas. The instant you step off Obispo and Mercederes, you stumble into enormous potholes and torn-up roads, crumbling buildings, markets with nearly empty shelves, and people talking, smoking, eating, and laughing on balconies and steps. They rarely eat at the tourist restaurants a few blocks away. There are two different currencies—one for the tourists (Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs), and one for the Cubans (pesos). US dollars are not officially supposed to be exchanged, but for ten US dollars, you get eight CUCs. The average monthly salary for a doctor is fifteen CUCs. A daiquiri at El Floridita costs six CUCs. Health care and education are taken care of, but it is incredibly difficult to live, day to day. When I ask a Cuban friend how he survives on a monthly salary of thirteen CUCs, he shrugs. “Black market. Extra jobs. Tips.” Then, with a shy grin, “Do you have room for one Cuban on your ship?”

As the sky darkens, I return to the port along the Malecon, a five-mile walkway along the sea. In the distance I glimpse the lights of our ship, the MV Explorer. Havana is our last port, and in less than a week we’ll return home to the United States. I’ve fallen in love with this city—the tropical promise and warmth, and even the underlying shadows beneath every ray of sun. I understand that people eat myths for survival, but the revolucion was fifty-five years ago, Che was executed, Fidel has a successor, and two of the Cuban 5 are home.
I wrote these words as soon as we returned to the US. Now, in light of new developments from Washington, I hear the clock ticking again. It’s time to move on and imagine new stories, ones that haven’t been written because they haven’t been lived yet. To create new heroes. To restore hope. As John Lennon says, “Imagine all the people living in peace …. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
Dancing at the University of Havana

Friday, November 28, 2014

Barbados: Girls on the Island

Rihanna is on the island.

"You might see her," says Mike, the cabdriver we hired to show us around the island.  Our tour begins with the small white bungalow on Parris Street in Bridgetown where Rihanna lived until Jay-Z discovered her and she became a global superstar. We sit in the taxi in front of her house while Mike explains that she now has a number of condos, hotel suites and houses to choose from. "But she's a normal girl," he says approvingly. "Doesn't stick her nose in the air. She goes to Sugar's at night to dance and drives around in a buggy. She knows she's home on the island."

A beautiful place to call home, this lush island where rum flows, white sand trickles between your fingers, and the Atlantic and Caribbean meet, and everything tourist-related is expensive. Many wealthy ex-pats own mansions in gorgeous gated communities, mostly in St. James Parish, north of Bridgetown. Thinking about relocating? You might be neighbors with Tony Blair, Tom Selleck, Cliff Richard, Cilla Black, and many others. Oh, and the omnipresent Oprah has a mansion here as well. I say "omnipresent" because nearly everywhere I've gone during this voyage, a local has informed me that Oprah has a house there... though she's never seen, just helicoptered in and out like a mythical goddess. I think it's safe to say that she is not a normal girl on the island.

"There is no middle class in Barbados," says Mike in the Barbadian accent, which merges Cockney with high British and island drawl. "Only rich and poor. But every beach is free. That's the law."

We take us on a whirlwind tour of the island, including stops at St. Nicholas Abbey-- a former sugar plantation where rum is made, bottled and sold-- and rugged, wild Bathsheba Beach on the east Atlantic coast where surfers come to ride the waves.

The following night, following Mike's advice, we head to Holetown, where there is a weekly karaoke street party, and a drag queen show at Ragamuffin's, a small restaurant-bar owned by Neil Patterson, a British ex-pat who has decorated his lovely restaurant with images of the Buddha and paintings from Nepal. Promptly at 9:00, Mannequins in Motion, three drag queens, begin an energetic 90-minute show. The stage is the small area between the bar and the tables, but the performers strut and weave around the waitress and diners. At least six and a half feet tall, the bone-thin leader of the group startles a couple by pushing their plates to the side, climbing on their table, lying back and waving her endless legs in 5-inch heels in the air.

After the show, she and I stand in the doorway of the restaurant and look out at the pouring rain. The karaoke street party has dispersed. With a sigh the Mannequin sets down her enormous pink feathered headdress.

We look from her glittering Dorothy high heels-- the kind a normal girl can make a wish on-- to my flat black sandals, still sand-dusted from an earlier walk on the beach. Our eyes meet, and she gives me a rueful grin.

"From London. Brand-new. Shoes make the girl, you know."

Oh, I know. My trusty sandals have taken me salt-harvesting, wading through seas in Europe and Latin America, up and down steep cobbled streets in North Africa, and dancing in nightclubs and on sand everywhere.

We lean against each other for just a moment-- two girls, with shoes, hanging out on a Sunday night in Holetown.

* I pretend I'm walking on sand as I explore Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown-- the first synagogue in the Americas. When the temple was built in 1654, the new Jewish immigrants covered the floor with sand to symbolize the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years before they came to the Promised Land.

Armed with a valuable knowledge of sugar, this first wave of Jews came from Recife, Brazil, to the Land of Coconut Milk and Sugar Cane, which they hoped to turn into their Land of Milk and Honey. Their stay in Barbados began promisingly as they established and developed sugar plantations. However, this golden period lasted only five years, until 1659, when the Portuguese grew jealous of the Jews' success with sugar. They imposed a law restricting Jews to a single slave, thereby eliminating the possibility of a Jew maintaining a sugar plantation. Hence, the Jews lost the sugar trade. They struggled to survive, and many left for the Carolinas.

In 1750, about 800 Jews remained in Bridgetown. By 1850, the number had dwindled to 71. Today, of the 83 Jews who live in Barbados, a handful are descendants of the original settlers from Recife. Celso Brewster, the genial manager of the small museum adjoining the synagogue, is one of them, and like the other descendants, he is not a Jew.

Between the museum and the synagogue is the cemetery with its fascinating Sephardic carved tombstone designs, including skulls and crossbones, Tree of Life, palms, winged cherubs and doves. A few feet away from the cemetery, stands the stone mikveh (women's ritual bathhouse). It was excavated in 2008, and small Minute Books were found that offer a unique view of women's lives in early Barbados and a history of the Jewish community in Barbados.

The pink synagogue is airy and simple. My friend Ricki and I can't climb the outside steps to the Women's Gallery, but we sense the presence of the women who prayed upstairs and washed nearby in the mikveh. I shake off a sudden image of the Mannequins in Motion, kicking off their sequined heels and dancing across the sandy floor.

Ricki and I head back out to Synagogue Lane and turn down Swan Street, formerly known as Jew Street. The sun is bright, the sea calls, and maybe one last Passionfruit Daquiri to soften the pain of leaving this tropical island. "Jesus is the way!" shouts a man on a radio. The street is crammed with local-owned booths and shops that sell fruits and vegetables, nuts and snacks, and clothing and shoes (though none as high as the Mannequins') and offer services like "Eyebrows cutting and arching."

No eyebrows cutting today. Just two normal Jewish girls in our sandals, trudging across the sand to the next stop in our wanderings.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


                                                                          Tia Ciata 

I entered this city through its music, and with every step I hear the sounds of a tradition so rich and powerful the roots spread across the Atlantic Ocean from the coasts of Africa to Brazil, and then ricocheted back to Europe and the States, where it influenced generations of musicians … and one 15 year-old girl who sat in a movie theatre, watching the classic film by Claude Lelouche, A Man and a Woman, for the third time—not just for the love story, but for the song Pierre Barouh sings to Anouk Aimee as he climbs stairs behind her swaying hips and lovely face as she turns back to smile at him. He sings the words of Samba Saravah, by Brazilian songwriter, Vinicius de Moraes, an ode to the female heart of samba: “She came from Bahia, centuries of dancing and sorrow … and though she may be white in form, she is black in her heart.”

That year I’d gone to Paris for the first time, where someone informed me that as a Moroccan-born Jew, I was considered a pieds noir—someone with black feet. It was clearly not meant as a compliment, but I took it as one. I have black feet, I thought—wow, that means I am part of that vast African continent—and in that theatre, where the projectionist ran the film for only me, I added a black heart to the mix.

Years later, I stand on the notorious Pedra do Sal (Rock of Salt) in Pequena Africa (Little Africa), near the Empress Wharf where slaves from Africa were unloaded, and not far from the square (now a park) where they were bought and sold. Today, the Rock is hushed. A woman carrying groceries climbs past me, two boys sit and play with their dog.

The sun is bright as I climb the stone steps carved by slaves to make it easier to carry salt. The ocean is minutes away, and behind the dust I smell the sea breeze. During Carnaval the port will be crammed with cruise ships, but today—November 7th—our ship is the only one docked in the harbor. We sailed from Morocco—the northwest corner of Africa—to Barcelona, and then a fourteen-day crossing to Rio, echoing the Middle Passage—the heart-wrenching transportation of slaves from the coasts of Africa to Brazil and Barbados. Brazil received four million slaves, more than the United States—a fact that surprised me. Generations of slaves kept coming, keeping the African traditions alive, until slavery finally ended in 1888.

Walls surrounding the Rock are covered with graffiti—dancing figures, balloons and cryptic symbols, a stenciled black model with an Afro, and a message: “If you don’t think she’s beautiful, then you need to free yourself from your preconceptions,” and slogans like “Zumbi Vive” indicating that the spirit of Zumbi, one of the first heroes of slave rebellions, is still alive. And if there’s anywhere to feel the spirit of hope and freedom, it’s here on the Rock, and if there’s anyone to thank, it’s Tia Ciata, the woman whose house I face.

Her full name was Hilaria Batista de Almeida, but she became known as Tia Ciata. Never a slave, she was one of the Bahian aunties—the African women who moved to Rio de Janeiro at the turn of the 20th century and brought with them centuries of traditions, including knowledge of the healing powers of Candomble, the African-based religion that relies heavily on percussion and movement as well as communication with orixas—saints and gods. Slave owners banned both Candomble and samba, and the dangerous, subversive merging of infectious rhythms, wild dancing and chanting that led to trances.  

But there was one place in Rio where Afro-Brazilians—whether they were free, slaves, or slave-owners themselves—could dance all night to the pounding of drums and clash of tambourines: Tia Ciata’s house.

A century after Tia Ciata opened her door to samba, her door is closed, but it’s easy to imagine the Rock still jumping. Tonight there will be live samba. Turn a corner in Rio and you’re likely to find a band or singer and his guitar, crooning samba in one of its many variations.

                                    with our lovely chef who made us feijoada at the Samba Warehouse

my students & I in Carnaval costumes

Earlier today I took my students to the Samba Warehouse, where Akiva Potasman took us for a lively percussion workshop and for a tour of his Samba School’s workshop—the lush wonder of costumes and floats in process as they prepare for next year’s Carnaval. The importance of samba & Carnaval is impossible to exaggerate in the lives of those involved—students rehearse 3 days a week, 4 hours at a time, and must find their transportation to and from the school space, often traveling an hour each way. There are about 5,000 students in each “school,” and there are 12 schools in Rio. They create, rehearse, work, dream, and prepare for the 2 days of Carnaval-- an opera under the stars, magical realism at its most intense. And only1 school will be lucky enough to win.  

The following day I return to the Pedra do Sal, and it feels like I’m coming home. To quote Vinicius de Moraes again, “Singing a samba without sadness is like loving a woman who is only beautiful.”

I think of the dedication that drives the students of Samba and Carnaval to create beauty over centuries of pain.

The heavy, sultry voice of Ito Melodia at the gorgeous club, Rio Scentarium, in Lapa.

The blues—another form of music carried from Africa and whipped into raging life by generations of slavery. It is raw and harsh and crooning and direct and it hurts so good. Like samba, it is the kind of sadness that transforms into joy, that gives birth to hope. It’s survival music that seizes you by the throat and won’t let go.

block party in one of my favorite neighborhoods, Conceicao

So I stand on the Rock, waiting for Tia Ciata to open her door. It is a sunny, quiet afternoon, but I hear sounds of percussion and feet tapping, voices singing, and see hips swaying and heads thrown back. And I feel saudade—that wonderful untranslatable word that means nostalgia and longing for what you’ve left behind, what can never be recaptured, and even nostalgia for the future. I feel saudade for this me in this city at this moment … even as it slips away and I look back over my shoulder at the Rock of Salt and sea wind blows me away from Rio.

Tenho saudade de voce, Rio.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Barcelona: Turn Left at the 19th Century

La Boqueria

Barcelona blows me a kiss … from a balcony overlooking Las Ramblas. Her white dress flies up, just like Marilyn Monroe’s in The Seven Year Itch, but her platinum-blonde wig doesn’t lift a hair.

“She’s a he,” says my quirky guide, Albert.

Of course she is. What better place for a female impersonator to pose than perched on a balcony over the street that embodies living theatre, a street so vast and crowded that each section has its own distinct character—so many little “ramblas” that it became known as Las Ramblas rather than the singular La Rambla.

Barcelona cries, “Eat me! Drink me! … How can I refuse the invitation to enter La Boqueria, the market to end all markets? Fruits and vegetables plump and gleaming, begging to be touched, rows of brilliant colored fresh-squeezed juices and plastic cups heaped with fruits. Pyramids of candies—chocolates, jellies, marzipan fruits, cocoa-dusted nuts—a cornucopia of sweets bursting open. Vast slabs of meat sway over stands, fish and unrecognizable sea creatures seem to wriggle on counters. Locals stride directly to the stand they want while tourists wander in a dazzle of colors, smells, textures gone wild.

So hard to choose …. How about a Torre—a traditional Catalan sweet made of almonds and served in winter? Or a slice of moist date-nut bread? A hunk of pale, sharp cheese? And then I see a cup crammed to the top with large pieces of one fruit: the deep, rich yellow-orange of ripe mango. 

I hold out my hand to buy it and manage to move two steps away from the fruit stand before spearing the first mango triangle. Sweet and ripe, the taste explodes on my tongue.

Barcelona calls to me in Catalan … that ancient tongue, from storefronts and cafes, and walls and balconies, where her flag—the deep yellow of ripe mango, with four red stripes that according to legend are four fingers dipped in blood. At one end of the flag is a white star against a blue background.

Albert, who was born and raised in Barcelona, and has the fierce pride of his Catalan heritage, explains that the people who hang these flags are signaling that on November 9th, they will fight for the referendum that will determine the Catalan state’s right to vote. A human chain of nearly two million people, from the Pyrenees to Valencia, formed an enormous V for Vote.

Will it happen? The election is only a few days away. Locals I spoke to were doubtful, but fervent about the need to try. One said, “Even though Catalonia is the most economically successful state of Spain, the government wants to retain control over us and bind us to ancient laws. The question is: do we need them?”

“We Catalans were always the rebels,” says Albert with a wry grin. “The thorn in the government’s side. We are not fighters, but we know how to talk and write, and really, that’s why we are joining hands—to fight for our voices to be heard.”

Barcelona whispers in my ear … orange-scented murmurs of the true Barcelona, rumors of hidden places known only to its longtime inhabitants, secret places that may or may not exist in daylight, but that are there all the same, if you only have the eyes to see them, and if the light is just right. I listen to the wind and crooning voices and learn about a walled garden behind a bookstore in Portal de l’Angel … a flamenco bar near Placa Real, where at midnight dancers throughout the city congregate to perform for each other, and woe to you if you applaud because the performance is not meant for you … a speakeasy with no sign, where you knock on a faded door and the bouncer looks out and decides if you are worthy to enter … and a magic shop, the oldest in the city, with a multitude of tricks and illusions, and a curtained backroom, where the true magic happens.  

The directions are purposefully vague: turn left at the second cobbled street behind the large café, walk until you see a stone wall, then turn right down that alley. After a few steps, you’ll be there.

There? Where? I search, but see no sign of garden, bar or shop hidden from the public eye. I decide there must be a secret password, an Open Sesame that dissolves the gleaming contemporary facades of the usual suspects—Hard Rock Café, H&M, Zara, and multiplying Desiguals, sometimes four in a single block—to reveal the city’s pulsing heart.

Maybe I’m searching at the wrong time.

Maybe I don't have the eyes to see them.

Barcelona feeds me  and teaches me to nibble. Tapas and montevidos—small meals of fried potatoes topped with spicy Aoli sauce, cheese and meat sliced thin, and my favorite—the simplest of all: a ripe tomato rubbed against the crust of a bread, then drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and a touch of garlic. All passed down with cold golden beer. I bite into pinchos at the Basque restaurant, Euskal Etxca, near the Picasso Museum —sublime tiny sandwiches pierced with toothpicks. When you are ready to pay, the waiter counts the toothpicks. “The honor system,” says Albert. And I drink orxata, a traditional drink made from roots, dense and chalky, yet surprisingly refreshing.

Barcelona paints my portrait … Picasso draws over my eyes—one jarringly large, the other smaller—the better to squint with, querida. Miro punctuates my mouth with dots and lines to turn my smile playful. Dali curls a deliciously malicious mustache over my lips. The three of them divide my face into cubes and sharp angles so it looks different from every perspective.

I peer into the window of an H&M and squint.

“Do you recognize yourself, querida?”

Actually, I do. I’ve just never seen all these sides of me at the same time.

Dali pulls me by the hand. “Now to Gaudi!”

With the others on our heels, we hurry to La Sagrada Familia and enter the vast cathedral that is Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. Gaudi elongates my neck a la Alice in Wonderland until I rise high enough to climb the tree-spiraling columns and touch the ceiling leaves and brush my fingers against the filmy fairy tale spires. I could swear I’m in a surreal airy forest surrounded by fresh green, a carpet of leaves far below.

Gaudi presses his large hand on my head. “There is a misunderstanding that an abundance of light is a positive element. That is not so. The light should be just right—neither too much nor too little—since both things blind, and the blind cannot see.”
He releases me suddenly, and I float like a sagging balloon to the earth.

I leave the illuminated forest of La Sagrada Familia, and feel someone watching me. I squint back over my shoulder.

There they are, in a circle of light: Picasso, Miro, Dali. Soberly dressed in black, studying me—my cubes and lines, my playful dots and crooked eyes, my improbable mustache.

“Well?” I ask.

Picasso and Miro look at their shoes. I am embarrassed. “Thank you!” I call. “Gracias!” And add, “Gracies,” in Catalan, for good luck.

Dali twirls his mustache in farewell.

I twirl mine, too, and return to Las Ramblas, taking my time. Soon it will be the Magic Hour. Twilight—between day and night, the hour when sun and moon share the sky, and the light is just right.