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     By rita@salsacrazy.com


Kristi, Bay Area Salsa teacher and member of the dance troupe, MAMBO ROMERO, recently made her first trip to Cuba.  In addition to checking out the scene in Havana, she explored one of the rural communities in Cuba.  Here is an excerpt of rita@salsacrazy's  interview with her.  There is also a gallery of her photos of people and places at the end of the article.


What was the biggest surprise for you about CUBA?

It was so beautiful..the green landscape. I had thought more about Havana and not so much about going outside the city to see how amazingly beautiful the country really is.

What about the people?

The people in Viñales were incredible. sort of what I was expecting. I had heard about how warm the people were and how much they helped you. They are so happy to talk to you, ask you questions and do anything for you. Some very sweet, just down home people that had a genuine curiosity and kindness. That was really nice. Sadly people who come here often donít find that kind of energy.

You said that Viñales is about 3 hours north of Havana. Can you tell me more about the city?

It is farming community in a valley-- "Valle de Viñales" and is has some archeological sites. I did not get a chance to visit them though. The pace was so slow and relaxing, we got into this lazy, laid back mode so that we didnít do a whole lot but we still had a blast at the same time. It was gorgeous. We stayed at a "casa particular" (family run lodging) with a great family. The food we had there was the best food that we had in Cuba. Compared to Havana, the quality was a lot higher and flavors were richer. The food was a lot fresher since in Viñales with their farming community they have crops and animals right there. We had fish with a wonderful tomato sauce and of course the usual staples of chicken, black beans and rice. Fresh avocado and cucumbers. But it was made in a way that just more tasty and savory.

What did you do during the day?

Most of the time we went for walks through the fields. We took a guided hike with a great guy. I am not much of a hiker and it was hot, difficult hike but very beautiful. The whole place was just so different from Havana that is just nice to just walk around. Thatís what we found ourselves doing. They also have caves there with stalagmites, stalactites. There is a village of ancient people whose religion is based on water. They donít believe in traditional medicine but they bathe in a special spring twice a day. While we were there one of the men was having a birthday and he was over 100 years old.

What was goes on there at nighttime?

Down the road there were 2 clubs across the street from each other. One place was more touristyówith a good little, live band. The tourists were there and there were some Cubans trying to pick up the tourists. Across the street there is another club, which I think is a store during the day. They clear it all out and you can dance in the courtyard. All the Cubans were on that side. So we wound up going back and forth to both clubs. The Cuban side just had a little CD player so that the people who came there to dance controlled the music. We met some really nice people--two really sweet guys. One guy was a professional Afro-Cuban dancer and his friend was also a great dancer. We had some really fun dances there. Nothing fancy but the energy of the people was really great. They love to dance and you can just feel it when you are dancing with them. They were really impressed with us because they could not believe these girls from California could dance Salsa. It was unbelievable to them. And the fact that we dance well was even more amazing to them.

Where did they think you were from before you told them you were from California?

A lot of people thought I was from Spain. A lot times they would call out at you "Where you from, where you from?" If you donít answer, then they start guessing. They would start with Spain, and then Italy but they would never guess the United States. Thatísí probably because they donít have that many Americans coming there. A lot of people thought I was Cuban. But they pretty much thought I was European and after that they would guess somewhere in Latin America.

There are no beaches in Viñales?

Right. Itís all green hills and valleys. They have tobacco and you can take tobacco plantation tours on horseback. There are lots things to do. You could easily spend two or three days there. I always felt safe thereónever threatened.

What would you recommend for people who are going to Cuba?

Make sure that you avoid getting sick. It can really put a damper on your trip.  Having connections to people in Cuba is important. I like the idea of going on my own and not being on an organized tour. I like to be on my own and kind of see where things take me. That works most of the time but this time I think it kept my trip from being as good as it could have been. The more information you have before you go about where to go and what to do, the better off you will be. The more planning you can do, the better it will be. Things like whom should I see if I want to take dance classes or music classes? What clubs should I go to? We found ourselves chasing Salsaótrying to find a place to go dance and having a hard time. That was pretty frustrating. We had heard that "Salsa is just everywhere. Theyíre dancing in the streets." But then we got there, I said, "Well, where is it?" We couldnít always find Salsa. Even after asking around, we found it difficult to find a good place for music and dancing. It was hard to find places where you could dance with Cubans and not just other tourists. So, having as many places and people to connect with before you go, will definitely help. Talk to people who have the same interests that you do since the tour books may not fully cover what youíre looking for.

Anybody who likes art museums has got to go to the Bellas des Artes, the Fine Arts Museum. I am not a big fan of galleries but they had some really beautiful work. I probably enjoyed that museum more than any other museum I have visited. Except for the Picasso Museum in Spain. There were some really fascinating works with unique political, cultural and social perspectives. I was really impressed with many of the Cuban artists.

I think that international awareness and interest in Cuba art is starting to emergeóprobably due in part to the popularity of Buena Vista Social Club. But it is still hard to find Afro-Cuban art. There were not a lot of galleries. Some of them I would stumble upon by accident. It seems that you have to know the artist and go to his studio. Unless you wanted to only buy the expensive, high-end internationally known European-influence artwork. If you want to find anything Afro-Cuban, you have to know the artist, or know his mother or know somebody who will tell you that he lives "at that fourth house down this side-street". Itís all about knowing the right people and embarking on an adventure.

Thatís how Cuba is.