CUBA LIBRO – May 15, 2016

We leave Havana like we’ve been shot from a cannon. It’s not dawn, but it sure feels like it. Our destination is Cienfuegos, 145 miles southeast on the Caribbean Sea. We motor along a divided four-lane highway with no traffic, none. At the midpoint, Rogelio pulls over at a fruit stand where all kinds of exotic fruit is available for sampling. I abstain, due to fear of stickiness and fruit in general.

Cienfuegos had been a center of sugar industry wealth in the 19th century and has the beautiful architecture to prove it. A collection of wonderful buildings rings the central square; the grand arcade that runs the length of the park opposite the domed municipal building, the church with its four-story bell tower, and Teatro Tomas Terry, an imposing provincial theater. Tim brings us to an artist’s studio, but I break away to explore the teatro.

It costs 2 CUC* to enter and look around. I pay at the almost invisible box office window. In the lobby, there’s a marble statue of Tomas and he is flanked by marble staircases that lead to arches closed off by a cascade of red velvet drapery. One that’s drawn aside a bit invites me in. The stage is lit. A dozen or more empty chairs form a semicircle. Two young women warm up, one on violin and the other on string bass.

As my eyes become accustomed to the modulated gloom, the teatro reveals itself . The scallop-shaped orchestra embraces curved rows of wooden seats. Four tiers ascend to the painted ceiling supported by slender metal columns. The louvered doors encircle the orchestra and the first tier boxes and admit slats of light. The textured glow and the metal filigree give the room the air of an enormous birdcage. A date, embossed in the proscenium, reads 1889. I hurry out to tell the other writers of this splendid room. When I return, the chairs on stage have been filled. A string orchestra of sixteen women tunes up.

Our bed for the next two nights is Rancho Luna (subtitled Hola Club), a sprawling seaside resort built and run by the state. At check-in, they adorn your wrist with a pink plastic wristband that entitles you to free beverages and food. The common areas loll under a vast shed open to the elements, giving the illusion of breezy coolness. False. It’s way fucking hot. Still, the blue Caribbean lies just steps away.

On the bus ride to our lodgings, Tim taps me on the shoulder, asking if I’d like to attend the concert at the Teatro Terry tonight. Oh, ya. It begins at five o’clock, so we’ll have just enough time to clean up and catch a cab into Cienfuegos.

Tickets are 10 CUC. Moments later, the lights dim and the women file in, followed by the diminutive conductor, Zenaida Romeu. Founded in Cuba twenty-two years ago as Latin America’s first all-female string orchestra, the Camerata Romeu fills the hall with sweet music. The program features seven or eight short pieces by composers from Americas North and South. Tim and I have seats in the front row, grand tier. From our vantage, we can see the entire audience fanning itself. The birdcage is full of butterflies. Afterwards, we stroll through Cienfuegos to tonight’s restaurant. Tim’s arranged for us to dine away from Rancho Luna, which has a heinous kitchen.

Returning from our evening meal, Rogelio stops the bus, steps out to pick a migratory crab off the road. He holds it by its pincers to show us. Apparently, the season approaches when thousands of crabs leave the sea, scuttling overland to spawn or die or buy souvenirs or something. This fellow is in the vanguard. Katrina requires a picture of this hapless crustacean so I wield her phone with equal pathos.

*The CUC (pronounced KOOK) is the second tier Cuban currency that has parity with the US dollar used primarily in the tourist economy, while the Cuban peso/dollar exchange rate is 26:1. Cubans pay 10 pesos for the concert; we pay 10 dollars.

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