Author’s note: From November 27-December 4, 2010 I traveled (legally!) to Cuba as part of a 18-member delegation from St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis. We went to celebrate the installation of Griselda Delgado as the new Episcopalian Bishop of Cuba. As one of two non-Episcopalians on the trip, I felt thoroughly included and welcomed by both my fellow travelers and those we met in Cuba.
An Encounter of a Different Kind
Colin, a third-year student at the Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, VA asked if he could accompany me on another foray into central Havana, the area near our hotel, a former hotel/casino during the mafia-run days of Cuba under Batista before the success of the revolution was assured with Batista’s fleeing on New Years Day of 1959. I had told him of my earlier walk down The Prado to the sea wall and back while he was studying prior to his ordination exam that will occur later this spring. We walked near the Capitol building and took photos of the 1950s-era cars and then continued down a narrow alley/street that was now bustling with people. Right away a couple with their school-aged son approached us asking where we were from, probably overhearing our conversation in English. The father added that he had visited New Jersey. Colin tells him “Washington, DC” and the man recognizes that but looks puzzled when I say Minnesota. Mentioning Minneapolis brings no more recognition but when I add “close to Chicago,” he lights up in recognition.
He tells us “Welcome to Cuba. This is a special festival day — Do you like beisbol?” [Our tour guide on the bus ride from the airport the day before had told us the baseball season officially opened on Sunday as we drove by the stadium for the Havana team.] He wants to tells us about it and shepherds us into a small bar down the alley where only the bar maid is present and tells us to have a seat. He asks Colin in Spanish if we can get some “refreshments” and Colin agrees. The barmaid quickly starts making five drinks, and I quickly stop her before she adds rum into mine.
So Colin and our new friend’s mojitos have rum, the other three do not. They want to talk to us about our impressions of Cuba, telling us that everything is good for them here — except they don’t get enough food. They blame the US embargo as the source of their troubles unlike my first encounter by the sea where the Cuban “government” was the main culprit.
We got the bill for our “education” — it was $25 CUC (about $30 US). I figure it is the government’s way to gain income since it owns virtually all the restaurants, stores, and bars in the nation. Do “tips” go to the wait staff, or does the government take those as well? I paid the bill and started to leave. Although this man told us he worked at the nearby government-run hospital as a radiologist and his wife worked as a schoolteacher, he asked Colin to give him $20 CUC “for food.” Colin was rather surprised and came up with $10, so he turns to me to ask for more. I decline and we both left the bar asking ourselves if all encounters we will have with the locals will be on this basis. I try to avoid eye contact as we leave the area and return to the now-bustling Prado where artists are displaying their wares, hoping for a sale.
Our hotel is nearby and we return to our rooms to change clothes and get ready for the installation ceremony of the new bishop — not knowing then that it would run three hours in the very crowded Cathedral — but it was joyous nevertheless.