More than anything else, meeting local people who are warm and friendly is what I remember most when I travel. To increase my chances of interacting with locals, I prefer to stay in smaller hotels, guesthouses, Bed & Breakfasts, and when possible, with families.
So when my friend, Lett and I decided to visit Havana, there was no question where we’d stay – we chose a B&B or casa particular.
The casa particular we ended up staying at was not the one we booked initially but we wouldn’t have met the wonderful family who embraced us and with whom we now stay in touch.
And if we didn’t walk almost everywhere, we wouldn’t meet the Cubans we encountered while out and about. Some left quite an impression.
People like Reina.
Reina greeted me as if I were a long lost friend. And from what she said, I realized she thought I was someone she had worked with years before. I started to tell her she was mistaken but she kept on talking. She realized her mistake only when I switched to English and told her I was Jamaican.
Jamaica!, she repeated and without missing a beat, invited Lett and me to a reception that was being given in honor of the visiting Barbadian Prime Minister at the Caribbean Center that evening. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend. But I’ve not forgotten her generosity.
Alex is a member of one of the bands that plays at the Hotel Inglaterra where we spent a few afternoons listening to music and drinking Cuba Libres. We chatted with the musicians after one of their sets and Alex offered to show us around. It was our last day in Havana and a slight drizzle fell quietly on the morning. But Alex arrived exactly at the time he promised he would. We took the bus to Old Havana (Habana Vieja) and he showed us several places we had missed, then accompanied us back to the casa particular.
Then there was Minia.
Lett and I had gone to the Hotel Nacional to use one of their computers. As we were leaving, an employee approached and asked, in halting English, if we were Jamaicans. A smile of relief spread across her face when I responded that I was. So were both her grandparents, she gushed.
I should not have been surprised to meet someone of Jamaican heritage but I was. Long before migration north became the dream of most Jamaicans and other Caribbean people, Cuba was the place to go. It is estimated that between 1916 and 1940, nearly 300,000 Jamaicans migrated there in search of work in the sugar industry. Relatives of mine on both sides, including my paternal grandfather, went as well. However, only my grandfather returned.
Before I left for Cuba, one of my father’s sisters urged me to try to find an aunt who had never returned. But with only an old address and just a week in Havana, I knew the odds of finding her were slim – I didn’t even try.
I didn’t count on finding Minia or on being busted as a Jamaican — not that I was hiding. I have a pretty normal face, with African features, that equal numbers of Ghanian and Nigerian friends have claimed could be from their respective ethnic groups. But I wonder if there were some characteristics typical of Jamaicans that telegraphed to Minia our real identity.
I have to admit, she could well be a distant relative – her grandparents are from the same area in Jamaica as my maternal grandparents – I’ve yet to trace our genealogy. But for someone whom I met only briefly, I feel an inexplicably strong connection. So I’m glad that she busted me in Havana.
Santeria is derived from the Yoruba religion of West Africa. Followers believe in Olodumare (God) and his manifestations (Orishas) that help them in their daily lives, if they follow the appropriate rituals.
Shango represents virility, strength and sexuality. His color is red and white.
Ochun (or Oggun) is the god of iron and mineral and anything made of iron or steel.
Yemaya is the queen of the seas. Her colors are blue and white.
Obbatala is the god of peace, the creator of the world and the father of the Orishas. His color is white. As I write this, I’m listening to Bobi Cespedes‘ Rezos. Listen to her tribute to Obatala.
Babalu Aye can tell the future. His color is purple.
Eleggua (Eshu) is guardian of crossroads and roads and the protector of travelers. His color are red.
When Africans were brought as slaves to the New World, one of the traditions they brought was their religion.
In Cuba, this religious tradition is known as Santeria and it exists side by side with Catholicism. Each Sunday afternoon, Callejon de Hamel, a block-long shrine to Santeria located between Aramburu and Hospital Streets in Havana comes alive with rumba music and dancing.
Artist, Salvador Gonzalez, whose studio is located in the middle of the Callejon has been creating these artworks, sculptures and murals since the 1990s. Now the entire block is awash in vibrant colors.
Callejon de Hamel underscores the significance of Santeria to Cubans.
This doll was embedded in the ground near the entrance to Callejon de Hamel.
A friend who had met Salvador in Havana more than 10 years ago, gushed that I had to meet him. She didn’t know if he’s still be there 10 years later and I didn’t know that Callejon de Hamel was where his studio is located or that he was the artist behind the sculptures I was looking at. But something about the work made me think of him, so I asked and was shown his studio. He wasn’t there. But my friend, Lett and I, hung around admiring his paintings. Luckily, just as we were getting ready to leave, he showed up and graciously agreed to take this photo. Of course, I had to tell him about my friend who had spoken so glowingly about him.
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