CUBA LIBRO, Volume Two – May 2, 2017

Following a brief and boring breakfast, we once again cluster in the lobby of the Telegrafo poised for travel. Chinese Bus #5050 is all set to transport us to Cienfuegos, a three-hour road trip. I’m looking forward to Cienfuegos. We chug along the highway while Orelvis holds a call-and-response discussion for about an hour on current conditions in Cuba. Many questions are answered and many pieces of the Great Cuban Puzzle fall into place. Particularly intriguing is the Special Period, the time of great stress following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its long-term subsidy.

Of course, upon entry into Cienfuegos we must immediately attend a cultural event – Orquesta de Guitarras, an ensemble of eight musicians, six attractive young men and women and two old guys, their ‘dear teachers.’ The concert takes place on the roof of the Hotel Union, which provides a splendid vista of the roofs of Cienfuegos. All the players received their first twelve years of education at the Beny Moré School where we stopped last year. Beny Moré was a famous Cuban musician in the 50s and 60s and his name is now attached to one of the finest schools of music and art in the country. They’re masterful and self-possessed to the point of leading some of us in a spirited line dance. I buy the CD.

Just as I’m about to descend into the black hole of peckishness, we arrive at Café Lagarto on the bay, our lunch destination. Their specialty is roast pork and the restaurant is tarted up with all kinds of semi-tacky, theme-parkish statuary created from found objects, however, it sits right on the bay and is thus susceptible to breezes. There will be no time to relax into unconsciousness, for we’re due back in Cienfuegos’ main square to visit Vladimir Rodriguez’s art gallery. He is still charming and his English is idiomatic and almost accent-free. Also there, are two Cuban writers who offer their impressions of their genres, poetry and YA, and the literary vocation, and the Cuban literary community.

Last year, Tim and I were able to sneak away in the early evening to listen to an all-female string orchestra at Teatro Terry, Cienfuegos’ exquisite 19th century concert hall. An inquiry at the box office reveals no programming either Tuesday or Wednesday. Damn.

This year, our lodgings are scattered throughout the La Punta neighborhood of Cienfuegos; a species of accommodations called casas particular, the Cuban version of AirB&B. Casas particular were one of the first signs that the economy was adapting to private enterprise. I’m installed in Villa Tyta, a modest, pink house with a patio right on the bay that features a sandbox with Smurf statuary. I would love to put my head down on a pillow for twenty minutes, but there’s an insistent banging, the byproduct of the man of the house installing some new windows. Suddenly, time for our last fucking workshop, and I am Very Grumpy.

We dine as a group in at our main casa particular – Angel y Isabel. Before dinner, Michael Ruhlman, Ann Hood’s tall, handsome, and accomplished brand-new (married a week) husband, gives us an inspired talk on food writing and the writing life in general. I eat dinner with Ann and Michael and Brandon, the genial wiseguy who works for Great Courses. My attempt at an early snooze is disrupted by stealth mosquitoes. Thus, I am able to catch up on this journal thing, all the while fitfully scratching and fretting.

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