What I didn’t know – and loved – about Cuba

HAVANA _ You don’t know a place until you’ve been to a place.

I didn’t know Cuba.

Now I know a little more. And I’ll never do justice to everything I saw and learned. But here’s a little: I was stunned by the cosmopolitan, the upscale, the wealth. I was stunned by the grand boulevards and mansions. I didn’t expect the museums and how much Havana appreciates and lovingly preserves its history through the care and nurturing of its oldest buildings, books, history – and art.

I was mostly stunned by how stunned I was. What did I think was happening in Havana? Did I expect to find extreme poverty on every corner, people begging for food? Did I really not expect the upscale restaurants where I dined every day?

And oh, the creativity!

I visited the gallery of Eduardo “Choco” Roca, who looks a little like the late actor Brock Peters, has a voice like James Earl Jones – and is brilliant. He uses crushed cans from beer, soda pop and other beverages to capture the lives and faces of Cuba. I’d never seen anything like it. The colors and vibrancy were magnificent, and he was so unassuming and matter-of-fact about his brilliance. Knowing there was no room on the walls of my home, I still purchased one of his works to remind me of that great visit. (Perhaps the bathroom?)

We dined at the El Aljibe palodar (one of many, many private restaurants in Havana), where the chicken that everyone raved about tasted like my grandmother’s- perfectly seasoned, kind-of-stewed, kind-of-baked with rice and beans.

We strolled through Fusterlandia, the wild, wacky and wonderful complex created by painter and
sculptor, José Fuster. He tiled his home, nearby homes and neighborhood businesses in a colorful burst of mosaic fun. (It reminded me of what Tyree Guyton did here in Detroit with the Heidelberg Project).

We drank a few mojitos at the Hotel Nacionale; it was the best mojito I’ve ever, ever, ever had.

We strolled Central Park, which was filled with tourists, schoolchildren, couples in love and was surrounded by the magnificent American cars from the 1950s and 60s that roll along every boulevard all day and night.

I I had my photo made by a photographer using a 100-year-old camera that made negatives on the spot that he processed in a little tray while you waited. It was a meticulous but quick process that he repeated over and over in the sunny square.The camera featured a jeans pants leg and was put together with mostly duct tape, but processed near-instant black-and-white prints  in a matter of minutes. For only $2 American, I brought back one of my favorite souvenirs.

Oh, and we stopped by St. Francis of Assisi Square, where I took a random picture of a restaurant. Why? Because years ago, it used to be the Bank of Detroit.

If you’ve got the time, take a side trip to Matanzas, the City of Bridges. There, 17 bridges cross three rivers (Rio Yumuri, San Juan, and Canimar). It’s on the way to a wonderful beach, where I spent 20 minutes lazing in waters so clear you could see through it and sand so soft, it was as if sea shells declined to get in the way. (This is not a postcard).

Oh, there was so much more! We hung out at the University of Havana so you KNOW I went to the library. We dined at the restaurant made famous by Beyonce and Jay-Z (and sat at their table).

And we met Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, who creates under the single name Salvador and who is a friend of the actor, producer and filmmaker Tim Reid, with whom we traveled. This man, this painter and sculptor, took OVER a neighborhood with his art that features bathtubs, hand pumps and all kinds of paint. But he didn’t stop on his street – Callejón de Hamel, near University of Havana. He kept going, painting entire buildings, including a school, then giving them to artists for lofts and studios. He MADE an entire community and has created a model for cities worldwide (including Detroit). And yes, he looks like the world’s most interesting man.

We also visited “El Morro,” the fort that overlooks Havana’s narrow harbor channel. Built between 1589 and 1630, it sits frozen in time. At the front is the cigar store where a single man rolled the world’s longest cigar.

I didn’t take photos of the Cuban rum that I brought back. No, I didn’t buy 15 bottles. But I bought enough so that the girls can get together and raise a glass: You know who you are!

It is almost criminal to post photos without captions. I know Mark Gail and Fred Sweets are shaking their fingers at me. But I’m on a book deadline and have to return later to do it. Stay tuned.

And visit Havana, if only to get a sense for yourself of its complexities and beauty and beliefs. It is a cosmopolitan upscale, poverty-stricken suffering, beautiful island that is as diverse as America. Its music, which I heard in clubs and bars and on streets and corners, was amazing. Its people are proud and interesting as anyone in any country, including our own.

Freedom means different things to different people. But the U.S. better pay attention to Cuba, and if you’re African-American, you will feel more than you ever thought you could when you meet Afro-Cubans. What you will understand most is this:  It is complicated.

I asked almost everyone I met: When will the revolution be over? One diplomat said to me: It will be over when everything that needs to be changed is changed.

Sounds like some advice America could use a dose of, too.

rochelleriley.com is home to Rochelle’s personal reflections about her pursuit of life, liberty and whatever else she wants. You can read her newspaper columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley. You can follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.