The Professor


The professor had spotted me three days ago near Fidel’s birth house in Santiago and approached me with the stale old question we are asked a dozen times every day: “Where are you from?”  There is no introduction to this, like a “hello” for example, or “how are you”?  It’s always:  Where are you from?  There is also no context for this question.  It’s not like you are talking to somebody.  You are just walking, minding your own business and there it comes, without fail.

This time, for some reason I was too tired to answer, kept walking, and just said: “From far away”.  The professor would not have this for an answer.  He caught up with me and in very good English started a conversation.  No question, he was a jinetero, a hustler.  But he had class and as it turned out, he had something to offer.  He has a gentle, dark face, white hair and most likely is in his 60’s.  He used to be a professor of Spanish and Cultural Studies and now was retired.  Well, that broke the ice.  Three days ago when I first met him, I was on my way home and we were heading for Baracoa. But I promised to meet him today at 10 AM for a tour of town before we were leaving.  I still had to check off a few sights.  I would appreciate his company and knowledge of town.

During our first conversation he said that he would like to lead me around as if for nothing but the pure joy of it.  When I asked him what he would charge for that service, he quoted of all people, Pablo Neruda, who said something to the effect that talking about money ruins friendships.  I had to remind the professor that we were not yet friends since we had just met and that not talking about money would most likely ruin a friendship that we otherwise could build in the course of that day spent roaming through town.  He wanted me to make an offer:  10 CUC.  At that he gently shook his friendly face and started to tell me how hard it is to make a living, especially in a country that does not value professionals as much as construction workers.  And how hard it is for people in retirement like him.  And that he hopes that at the end of a day spent with him, there might be 20 CUC.  I wonder what Neruda would have said about that turn of the conversation.

And so I countered that we Americans have to budget every penny of a trip to Cuba since ATMs are not working for us.  Cuba has proven to be every bit as expensive as home and I will see what is going to be left when I return.   Of course, I would be happy to help a fellow professor as much as I can.  What I thought only to myself was this: I know that there are people who work for 8-12 CUCs per month, others are even worse off and have no access to CUCs at all; and nobody is homeless in Cuba or goes without food.  10 CUC is a fair price for a 1/2 day of walking around.  But I did not say that.

The professor took me along Heredia Street named after a famous poet Jose Maria Heredia.  His house is one of the oldest in the city, dating from the middle of the 18th Century.  A tiny bookstore, known as La Libreria La Escalera is a packrat’s heaven, filled with books, brochures, stickers, memorabilia, photographs, and who knows what kind of hidden treasures.  The owner barely has a stool left to sit on.  But as the photographs of him and famous dignitaries in his shop attest to, he has a history. 

Another must-see in town is the Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardi Moreau.  One of the rum barons and also mayor of Santiago, and contrary to the rest of his family, a Cuban patriot and in good standing with the revolutionaries, endowed this museum and stocked it with items from his vast personal collection from guns to fine arts.  The air-conditioned second-floor is a welcome relief from the heat of Santiago.

I could not go to Santiago without having at least a brief look at the Cuartel Moncada, a former Fulgencio Batista military compound which Fidel and some of his ill-equipped companions stormed in 1956.  This attack was pure foolishness, but is considered the start of his 1959 revolution and led to one of the most famous speeches in history in which Fidel prophetically claimed that “history would absolve and prove him right”.  I guess it did.  Not even the CIA with 500 men “working on his case” and a $100 million budget per year could get rid of him.  Tax-payers’ money!

By a sheer miracle, Celi caught up with us there.  The next place was at the professor’s insistence a stop at a state-sponsored artists’ cooperative.  Several artists had studios at a large house spread out around a lush, green courtyard.  We met several of them, but time was running short and the pressure to buy something was mounting.  We resisted.  Yes, there were great pieces of art there and yes we still had money left to buy them, but we both already had bought what we wanted and did not take well to sales pressure jinetero style.

I had specified to the professor that I was looking for art related to the Santeria faith.  Finally, he got the message, conceded and we took off in a taxi to visit the studio of Lawrence Zuniga Batista. Reluctantly and after lots of ringing his door bell, he opened.  He is an obviously famous, but grouchy, old black man, who threw himself into a mock fit when the professor asked him to give me a good price for some of his art since I was searching for some teaching material.  What Zuniga produced was not exactly what I had in mind, but I was between a rock and a hard place now.  I finally found an affordable retablo of the Virgen of El Cobre.  I had a connection to it and I knew that it was part of the Santeria faith.  By now I was practically panicking.  I had to get ready for our 4-PM departure to Havana.

A big hug and a few kisses Cuba-style on both cheeks of the face, and yes, 20 CUCs for the professor (not 10), and off I ran.  A quick shower, some packing and arranging, more hugs and kisses for our wonderful hosts at the casa in the Tivoli district, and we both sank into the back bench of Joel’s big blue Chevrolet taking off for the airport. 

1.5 hours wait, 1.5 hours flight.  In three hours we should be in Havana.  Our friends Ursula and Steve arrived only minutes later.  Is it they who are bringing us the bad luck traveling, or is it us, who are cursing them?  Well, the plane that was supposed to take us to Havana had not even left there! We had hours to kill at an airport where the waiting room (with seats and food court) would not even be open to us until our plane was in the air and more or less guaranteed to fly us to our destination.  But surrounded by friends, time flies.  We were chatting and drinking Radlers (as we call a mix of beer and soft drinks in Germany).  And finally we were called into the waiting room. 

Check-in procedures are laughable but typically Cuban.  A long queue forms.  One by one, the passport is checked by one single officer.  She carefully scrutinized every face and then manually marked the seat in the plane with a big X, thereby preparing the passenger list for the stewardesses later.  What did we do before computers in the West?  Likely something quite similar.  The flight was uneventful, one could even say it went smoothly. 

At takeoff I had visions of the Viazul bus inching up the mountains near Baracoa.  Would it make it?  Did this Chinese bus engine have the muscle power?  This old Russian airplane had seen better days.  It worked very hard at take-off, but finally pulled all of us up into the dark sky.  And it got us down safely.  Good old Russian plane.  What if or when it breaks?  Who these days, supplies Cuba with anything like the Russians (and for that matter the East Germans) did?  I wonder.  Will they start fixing their planes the way they fix the old American cars?  Only in Cuba!

Roy Junior, Celi’s old friend, picked us up at the airport and in no time we had reached our new casa in Vedado, an upper-class district of Havana.  We are no longer in the Old City.  We will explore new territory.

Our casa was a shock to both of us.  For some reason we had pictured an apartment just like we had in Old Havana at the beginning of our trip.  But we only had a room.  In a sense, we had two rooms; one for us, and another one with a bed and a refrigerator.  We also had our own bathroom, all of it in a separate wing paralleling the living room of our hosts.  When we asked if we could spread out into both rooms — the other one was not occupied, we were told we would have to pay double…  I guess not. 

And so we will have to adjust to one final place in our final city during our final days.  I am already sad we will have to leave so soon. 

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. Would have been cool to have found some Santaria art…comparison to the Yoruba art would have been interesting.

  2. Sounds like a really interesting trip which very few tourists get to see.