Got My Mojo Back in Cuba

03/24/2015 11:12 am ET | Updated May 24, 2015

This is Part 1 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba not long ago.

I heard music--guitars and maracas--coming from a baby blue building in Baracoa, a small town at the Eastern tip of Cuba, where Columbus first landed on the island. Looking through the door, I saw a four-piece band on a wooden dance floor, with several couples doing a provocative salsa and others sitting in metal folding chairs.

I sat down, alone, intending just to watch. I'd recently come to the realization that I'm at the age where I'm invisible. When I walk along the street, no one looks at me, especially not men, and if their eyes accidentally do meet mine, they carom away like billiard balls cracking off the table rail.

I'd no sooner settled in my chair, however, than a man wearing an orange shirt and a shark's tooth necklace asked me to dance. I hesitated; he looked younger than my son and I hadn't done any Latin dancing in years. But he stared straight in my eyes, smiling, and moved me about the floor with such assurance that I was soon dancing better than I thought I could.

This was Cuba, where, I'd been told, "Men learn to dance in the crib. It's genetic."

For years, I'd been dreaming about spending a few months in Havana, soaking up the music and culture and taking an intense Spanish course. But this was before the U.S. restored diplomatic relations with the country, and when I learned there was no high-speed Internet or cell phone service on the island, I skidded to a stop. Whoaaaa. Two months unplugged? No ability to call or be reached from home? I don't think so.

Then an invitation arrived for a 12-day people-to-people trip sponsored by a group in Boulder, Co. Boulder has a sister city, Yateras, in the Eastern mountains, where Castro, at 25, gathered his rag tag troops and launched the revolution.

Everything for the trip had been arranged: charter flights, lodging, permission from the U.S. Treasury Department. I figured that for 12 days, I could tolerate going cold turkey from electronics.

What I did not know was that the mojo I hadn't experienced in years would rise again in Cuba. I'd return from the island feeling sensual and lissome, and acquainted with the realities--both wonderful and tough--of living behind the digital curtain, under Cuba's unique form of communism, which co-exists with Catholicism, Afro-Cuban sacrifices, and a national obsession with sex, rum and insanely fabulous music.

Logging Out
Our group arrived at the Miami airport at 6 a.m. for a charter flight to Havana. Expectant, nervous, I sent my last emails and made my final phone calls from the gate. Next to me was a Cuban woman in her fifties, presently living in Miami and returning to visit relatives. At six a.m., she'd appeared in full makeup, an iridescent orange dress that was skintight and cut in a V so low you could glimpse her nipples, big jewelry, and gold sandals with stiletto heels. Most of the Cuban women were dressed in that manner, while I wore a sensible, wrinkle-free travel dress.

We took off and almost immediately started our descent to Havana, only 90 miles from Miami. Then we were walking across the grass to the Forbidden Kingdom. Police dogs sniffed our luggage, officials took a photo of each visitor and then waved us out of the terminal, where we came face to face with a billboard of Ernesto Che Guevara that said, in Spanish, "We see you every day, pure as a child or a pure man. Che, our commander, our friend."

A chartered bus took us to Old Havana--a maze of narrow streets dating back to the 1500's. The buildings, once elegant and ornate, are now shabby but painted electric colors: lemon yellow, candy pink, and the sky blue they call "Havana blue." This is different, I would learn, from other parts of Havana where the buildings are dilapidated and gray. But in the Old Havana that tourists see, there was color, sound and art. Birds sang in the royal palms, sculptures and paintings were displayed in the squares, and when we sat down at an outdoor cafe, a group of young people on stilts came dancing up to us.

I began to notice that Cuban men of all ages were looking at me, making eye contact. And not just because I'm a tourist. More than a million tourists from Canada and Europe had come to Cuba the past year. The Cuban men--and women--seemed eager to connect. No one on the street was holding a cell phone to his ear, and nobody in the café had her head bowed over a screen. No kids were playing video games; they played outside in their neighborhoods.

I was struck by how assertively sexual the women dress. No matter how old or how much extra flesh they have, they wrap it tightly and let it show--rolls, folds, overripe mounds, or firm little buds popping out of garments that are scooped out in front and back and slit up the legs. I saw a female army officer walk by, wearing a crisp, khaki blouse and a khaki skirt that was so short it did not qualify, in my mind, for that category of clothing. Under the so-called skirt, she wore black fishnet stockings with roses twining down her legs, and red stiletto pumps that I've heard described as "fuck me shoes." An army officer.

As we traveled across the island in the next 12 days, we were traveling back in time. Because of the embargo imposed by the U.S. in 1960, there's been little economic development, and as a result, the beaches are pristine and unpolluted, most of the land and produce are free of chemicals, and there's a huge diversity of animals and plants--one of the richest in the world. But you won't find a Coke or big Mac on the island. Yet.

What you will see are billboards everywhere, with slogans like, "The revolution is us!" and "Our country or death!" In the U.S., the message of billboards is, "Buy!" but in Cuba it's, "Go, revolution!" We did not see a single image of Fidel or his brother, Raul Castro, the current President, but Che--you can't get away from him. One billboard showed nothing but his black beret on a field of blue, and said, "We're learning to love you, Che."

"Che" means friend, brother or comrade in Argentine slang, and Guevara, who came to Cuba from Argentina, considered it an honor to be so addressed. In the film of his life directed by Steven Soderbergh, he is pictured teaching his young soldiers to read, and telling them to respect the campesinos in the hills where the guerrillas are camping. "We don't take their possessions, threaten or harm or rape them," he says. "Anyone caught stealing their food will be denied food for three days."

At the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, there are black metal outlines, five stories tall, of the faces of Che and of Camilo Cienfuegos, another dead revolutionary hero. Under Che's face are the words: "Hasta la Victoria siempre"--Forward to victory, always. Under Cienfuegos' face: "Vas bien, Fidel"--You're doing great, Fidel.

I tried to imagine having such billboards for our leaders, past and present. George Bush's face with, "You're doing great, George!" Or a portrait of Obama saying, "Our commander, our friend."

I felt humbled by how little I knew about Cuba. I'd been in my teens during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I'd had the impression that Castro was crazed, a maniac. At U.C. Berkeley, there were students who idolized Castro and Che and volunteered to go cut sugar cane on the island. But I was not one of them. If you'd asked me, "Who is the most revered person in all of Cuban history?" I would not have known.

It's Jose Marti. There's a museum dedicated to Marti in the Plaza de la Revolucion, and his bust sits in front of almost every Cuban school. He was a philosopher, political activist, and writer who was killed in 1895, in the struggle to gain independence from Spain. Marti was 42, not trained as a soldier, but he insisted on mounting a white horse to lead the Cubans into battle. He was immediately spotted and shot, but left behind volumes of essays, letters and poems, including the lyrics to the song, "Guantanamero."

Our group had dinner that night in the courtyard of Dona Eutimia, a paladar--one of the private restaurants that have opened since 2010, when the government, in an attempt to boost the feeble economy, began letting people start their own businesses. Many had turned their homes into paladars, which serve far better food than the state-run restaurants.

We ordered at 7 p.m. but did not receive our meal until 9, which is typical for the paladars. The cooks prepare everything in tiny home kitchens with primitive ovens. During the wait, we listened to singer-guitarists and drank mojitos or shots of Habana Club Especial, a smooth, elegant rum that sells for $8 a bottle. When the meal arrived, it was worth the wait: wooden platters of paella with huge chunks of fresh-caught lobster, shrimp, chicken, saffron rice and fried plantains, followed by café cubano, delicate cups of sweet thick coffee. Most Cubans couldn't afford a meal like this; they're lucky to get an occasional chicken with their ration cards.