Seduced by Cuba’s Surprises
by “Island Expert” Gilberto Lucero
Much has been written about Cuba: its dictatorship, its economy, its music, the way buildings crumble beautifully to create a cityscape that seduces the eye. I am certain that much more will be written about Cuba and its ever changing image - and this is perhaps what makes this island so intriguing; after living in Havana for two years, the one thing I can say with certainty is that Cuba surprises.
Caribbean islands are infamous for their beaches, tropical drinks, music, and exotic beauties; Cuba is no exception. But if you venture away from the miles of beaches and off the well-travelled cobblestone roads of Old Havana and walk down the windy neighbourhood streets where clothes are hung out to dry on thin ropes precariously tied from balcony to balcony, where each building is painted an electric shade of blue, then green, then pink, then yellow, past women gossiping across the street, loudly (for the only place for a secret in Cuba is out in the open) you will find hidden treasures.
Beyond the plazas where sounding horns of restored Classic American Cars painted and polished to shine like gemstones fall silent into the everyday neighbourhoods, you will find herds of shirtless boys playing football on the street, the footprint of mansions sinking into the sea, the old watchman with his red arm band patrolling the roads on a bike so crooked its front wheel defies all sense of physics.
Tucked inside neighbourhoods on the same block where a horse-drawn carriage daily pulls past buses so full of people you think it would fall to pieces, in the most unassuming of homes you’ll find an antique shop (Anticuario) that hold stories from a decadent Cuban past, forgotten under a dust of the Cold War.
I went antique shopping to get out of the heat with a Cuban friend of mine who has heard of a place, from someone else, who had heard or it, from someone else. This is how word gets around in the island about everything – eggs that finally arrived at the store, a place to buy black market potatoes, a new café that is now serving foreign, usually American, coffee.
As we approached the house its disrepair was all too obvious, but the beauty of the two-story home with a grand entryway, stained glass windows, and open patio was still lurking underneath its weather-beaten exterior. Upon walking in, the senses are attacked by hundreds of tea cups mounded one on top of the other, paintings stacked from floor to ceiling, jewellery methodically pinned to a canvass of a portrait of a woman in high collared dress – her hair pulled back to slicked perfection – the many diamond broaches sparkling in the evening sun. There is so much to see the eye has no place to rest.
The owner of the house enters wearing a housecoat and rubber slippers - her hair in curlers - a cigarette listlessly swaying on her bottom lip as she speaks. Her voice, gruff and loud, asks us what we are looking for and I quickly say wine glasses. I’m not really looking for wine glasses, but she has the kind of demeanour that would not respond well to “just looking.” She points us in the direction of a larger room down the hall – probably at one time the dining room.
We start to sift through cabinet after after cabinet and pile after pile of teacups, glasses, and ashtrays. The experience is half treasure hunter, half voyeur. Everything I touch is one of a kind and I can’t help but think where it came from, who held it last, and when and why it was left. These are the things left behind, not by time, but out of necessity. Things left in the rush of getting to the next plane out of the country, or waiting at the dock for a boat to take you away. Only a revolution, a war, or a hurricane could make people leave things of this value and beauty behind.
There is no way to tell how the many pieces of furniture, art, statues, religious icons, and beds could have travelled from their once opulent residence down the streets of Havana overwhelmed with potholes to a nameless shop run by a woman who had managed to have memorized an inventory of goods that took up the better part of her home.
The owner of the house kept a close eye on us in between the ins and outs of family who lived on the second floor. For every teapot, cup, and sugar bowl I was interested in she seemed to have a story – of the wealthy land owner who sold it to buy a gun, or the newlyweds who sold their wedding bands for cash they needed urgently. “Urgently for what?” I asked. “ You know, urgently,” she said and looked at me as if to finish the story of two newlyweds buying passage to Florida to live happily ever after. Each story more grand, each character more desperate.
I ended up buying 8 colored flute glasses; she said they were from the 50’s and they can’t be found anymore. I believed her. When I asked how much she said two dollars a glass. Not only was I touching history, I was getting a deal. I left with a bag of wine glasses wrapped up in the Miami Herald – I never bothered to ask how she got the paper. I was happy with being able to touch these relics of a country that has frozen in time. I was happy to listen to all of the stories – either truth or fiction it didn’t matter.
(Photo credits: Gilberto Lucero)
Thank you, Gilberto, for contributing this beautiful post to Island Runaways. Look for Gilberto’s author bio over on our Island Experts page.