Dance to Cuba's tune

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

TRAVEL:Getting to grips with a country and its culture can be difficult at the best of times, but in a place as unique, confounding and often mystifying as Cuba, embrace the possibility that it’s not going to happen at all. Spending a few weeks listening to Spanish lessons in the car and reading Jon Lee Anderson’s epic account of Comandante Che’s revolutionary life will stand to you, but for a truly immersive experience, brush up your salsa shimmy and prepare to bust some moves.

Wandering around Havana in search of one of the city’s carnavales de Cubanos, at which to show off said moves, it quickly becomes obvious that finding a festival in this parish is going to be difficult. The music, mojitos, daquiris and dancing are everywhere. The whole city seems to be in party mode, and the Cuban crowd are well trained in the art of enjoying themselves.

Trying to find something in particular in Cuba can be frustrating: the trick is to roll with it, and when you’re searching for something else you’ll probably happen across the thing you previously needed.While looking for dinner, I ended up at the ballet. Having missed a festival in the south, I stumbled into the middle of two festivals up north. I got my hands on a ticket for the Plaza Jazz Festival while trying to book an internal flight.

In a packed Mella Theatre on the opening night of the festival, Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez, performing with his sizzling quintet on his home patch at the international jazz festival he founded, was out of this world.

Five-and-a-half hours southeast of Havana is the beautiful town of Trinidad, a time capsule that harks back to an era when the rich colonial sugar plantations made the place a bustling jewel of the Caribbean. Many of the musicians who provide the soundtrack that permeates Trinidad from early morning to, well, early morning, will provide music lessons for anyone interested. I hooked up with a percussionist and, besides the beat schooling, he provided some great insight as we chatted between slaps. His love for Cuba, his family, his bandmates and their music was obvious; that he and his Croatian wife choose to make Cuba their home is intriguing.

While living in Cuba doesn’t afford the same economic opportunities he enjoyed while living in Mexico or Canada, he says it’s a better place to rear a family, and because he is married to a foreigner, he has the luxury of being able to travel abroad when he wishes. He cites safety, medical care and education as the main reasons for choosing to live in Cuba. Having begun his career as a university mathematics lecturer, he found a career in music more rewarding, both financially and spiritually. A few mornings spent in his company, drumming, sipping beer, chatting, lizards running around our feet and hummingbirds buzzing in the red and yellow blossoms on the tree under which were taking shade, were moments to be savoured.

About 10km outside Trinidad is Ancón, one of Cuba’s finest beaches, with enough white sand and turquoise Caribbean waters to populate a library’s worth of travel brochures. A trip to the coral reef on a catamaran for some snorkelling is an idyllic way to spend a winter’s day.

Las Parrandas, in the usually sleepy town of Remedios, is held once a year, on December 24th, when the town goes all out with incredible floats, parades, light displays that would put Las Vegas to shame, fireworks that are as dangerous as they are impressive and teams of locals who compete to out-do each other with gunpowder and gala. It all adds up to a festival experience that is as much chaos as it is carnival. Health and safety isn’t high on the agenda, pickpocketing is rife, rum is downed by the bottle, being singed is likely, temporary tinnitus is probable – but an exciting and unique night is guaranteed.

This traditional festival is one of the largest and oldest on the island, its origins going back about 200 years to a priest who used to round up the children of the town, getting them to parade around the streets making as much noise as humanly possible in an effort to hunt parishioners out of their homes and herd them into the church for midnight Mass. The tradition caught on and eventually became a competition between two neighbourhoods, El Carmen and San Salvador, as to which could make the most noise and spectacle. It’s gotten wonderfully out of hand.

Shouldering my way through the crowds of carnival goers, it sounded as if the old boy outside a rundown building was shouting, “Two-headed cow, six-legged dog and four-legged chicken”. In Kinsale this might signal a pop-up restaurant, but in Remedios it was a bona-fide freakshow. A hard-fought haggle, a slug of rum, a spit on the hand and a handshake later, and we were in. All the advertised attractions were on display and some sensitive souls scarpered, but morbid fascination kept me staring. The poor dog looked tired. These men have been at more than 760 festivals in Cuba with their grotesque menagerie.

Roaming around the country on the festival trail, it feels as though serious change has begun in Cuba. Subtle signs of creeping westernisation can be seen, and maybe this will make life somewhat easier for people who have lived through decades of lean years. On an early-morning local bus, overcrowded with people on their way to work, most for paltry wages, it’s incredible how happy they seem. The sunshine surely helps, but it can’t be the only reason.

Forcing yourself to smile apparently cons the brain into triggering endorphins:in a country where public negativity towards the regime can have serious repercussions, perhaps enforced positivity on a large scale has a similar effect. Whatever the reasons, Cubans are quick to laugh, smile and make you feel welcome to what Christopher Columbus described as “the most beautiful land on earth”. He ought to have known: he got around a bit.

All you need to know . . . Cuba

The festivals: Festival de la Trova Longina, Santa Clara, is a festival of traditional song held in early January, featuring skilled troubadours and musicians. Romerias de Mayo, Holguin, is a week-long multi-disciplinary arts festival in early May.

Camaguey Carnival,Camaguey, is a party triggered by John the Baptist’s feast day, on June 24th. You’ll find these festivals all over the country. Festival del Caribe, Santiago de Cuba, in early July, celebrates the city’s cultural diversity with pan-Caribbean music, dance and mayhem. Revolution Daycelebrations are held countrywide on July 26th, with more flag-waving and propaganda than a Fianna Fáil ardfheis (also the birthday of writer and patriot José Martí).

* Where to stayCasa Paticulars are the way to go for accommodation. These BBs provide valuable income to families and some of the best meals to tourists.

Once you find a good one, you can ask the bean an tí to book ahead for your next destination. These women have one of the most solid networks of information in the country. Advance bookings are sometimes available at

casaparticularcuba.org

* Getting aroundViazul provides regular and comfortable buses around the country and has stations in most major towns. Try to book your tickets a couple of days in advance to avoid waiting lists.

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