I get up early and leave the casa particular (a Cuban version of Air B&B) in Santiago de Cuba on the island’s east end to sit in the Parque Cespedes to write in my journal. The bright sun already begins to heat up the humid mid-summer air. In a short while, three of us will embark on a weeklong cross-country road trip to Havana with our hired driver Umberto at the wheel in his late model Toyota.
Immediately Samosa approaches me. A heavyset man in his mid-thirties; he wants me to look at his drawings, and, of course, purchase one. I resist my impulse to make him go away, deciding that this kind of clandestine engagement is the point of traveling. He tells me about his life of limited resources, his time in art school, and his now-deceased father, an amateur photographer who left him boxes of photos taken when Samosa was growing up. I buy one of his primitive drawings for 10 CUCs (one CUC is worth approximately $1.00), and he gives me a second one as a gift.
Seizing this moment of my receptivity, Samosa hails two men sitting on a bench across the walkway. Alberto and Raul join us, Samosa serving as translator. A man in his late-50s, in a white collared shirt and worn linen pants, Alberto is a local troubadour singing with a group of friends every night in a nearby plaza. He carries two bandaged maracas. I ask him to sing a song.
With his melodious, raspy tenor soaring across the square, he croons a melody aching with heartfelt passion that seems to reflect the soul of this colorful city. Samosa and Raul join periodically in refrain, as locals and visitors gather around us for the performance. I happily snap away with my camera. At the finish, I grace the cap he extends with a bill and thank him for his gift. I feel blessed.
This is the Cuba I didn’t know I was looking for.