April 30, 2014, Trinidad, Cuba
Wade, Camille, and I walked Trinidad’s streets until we found a restaurant for lunch. It must have been a tourist haven because we spotted a trio playing the traditional son music of Cuba outside its entrance.
El Dorado only had another table with several local men sitting there quietly, but not eating. We were the only ones ordering a meal. The food was good—we had seafood with the customary white rice and Cuban black beans.
What made the meal memorable was the singer and conjunto who accompanied him.
The five men who were playing in the street just moments before followed us inside once they saw we had settled in for lunch. Their singer practiced the classic tradition of the troubadour, who typically would have memorized many hundreds, often a thousand or more songs. He asked us basic questions so he could customize a trio of songs just for us.
With me as the only fluent Spanish speaker in our American trio, I told the singer our names and our country of origin.
Our singer adroitly composed lyrics on the spot, personalizing the songs. He sang about each of us in turn and I sat transfixed at his original verses that rhymed so well. I so enjoyed his deft improvisation, how he sang rhyming Camille’s name with the Spanish word for “humble” which captured her gentle spirit perfectly.
Camille took this photo with my camera while my back was turned. I was a little busy.
Once the entertainment moved onto the next restaurant, Wade started to ask me many questions about Cuba’s history and its current form of government as we ate. However, we were the only ones talking and the silent Cuban men sitting nearby were listening to us in the almost empty restaurant.
“So why did Fidel Castro decide to become a Communist?” Wade asked. It was the last question he asked me in public.
At the mention of the bearded one’s name everyone’s head swiveled abruptly—even the server had stopped in his tracks and was staring at us.
“Wade,” I said quietly. “Let’s talk about all that later, OK?”
You do not hear open discussion of Castro, current political affairs, or discussion of the Cuban government’s rule in public. Cubans will often stroke or touch their chin briefly to show they are referring to Castro and his iconic beard.
This undercurrent of tension would break through the seemingly exuberant veneer of Cuban culture, dance, and music at unpredictable moments. Lunch was only the beginning.
Featured image is of the lovely American couple I met while in Trinidad, Cuba, Wade and Camille. Photo credit: Iris Gonzalez
Did you miss my first post in the Cuban travelogue series? You can read it here.