On my second trip to Cuba, back in February 2016, I went with some friends to a beach outside Havana to get some much needed sun and sea. While relaxing, two musicians appeared on the sand by my beach chair and started to sing.
It was the classic Cuban folk song "Virgen de la Caridad," dedicated to the patron saint of Cuba, which I'd never heard before. The song, the sea, the sun -- the profound beauty all hit me at once.
By the end, they were five, each new member appearing as the song progressed, adding depth, dynamics, beauty. It was a most surprising development, out of nowhere.
I wanted to give them a huge tip, but only had a few dollars on me. I was so transfixed but sad I couldn't return the gift. When they finished, they thanked us and continued on down the beach.
A year later, I returned alone to Cuba, this time to Cienfuegos and Trinidad. On my second day in Trinidad, I was wandering around the old, winding cobblestone streets of the historic district in the early afternoon. I'd just eaten lunch and wanted to explore. I heard a lilting voice float up over the trees. Something about it rang a bell.
"I know that voice," I thought to myself. I listened some more. "Where do I know that voice from?" Then it hit me. That’s the same voice I heard on that beach a year ago. I followed it to a cafe around the corner, walked in, around the bar, and into the courtyard. There, I found Raúl Cutino and his brother, this time with 2 new accompanists. I was right. It was him.
I introduced myself and we reminisced. Graciously, they played "Virgen de la Caridad" again. Raúl told me the particulars of what it's like making a living as a musician in Cuba. It sounded rough.
He worked 7 days a week, playing for 12 or more hours per day, received a fixed salary, barely enough to survive, and spends months away from his family, traveling up and down the island wherever his promoter books him and his band.
I bought his newest CD entitled Creación Latina and gave him a big tip. It was great to reconnect with them.
Trinidad is a beautiful city, filled with charming people, spectacular views and gorgeous architecture, nestled on a hillside overlooking the Caribbean with the Sierra Escambray mountains climbing steadily to the North.
The streets are winding, with many dead ends. I got lost a bunch. They were purposely designed to confuse pirates hundreds of years ago, after the town was repeatedly ransacked. I recommend it highly. It's a place you could spend a lifetime.
The people are so hospitable and gracious. On another afternoon stroll, I walked by a house blasting music from the living room, all the windows and doors open to the street, as so many Cuban homes are in the warm Caribbean sun.
An arm reached out, between the iron grate window, offering me a glass of rum, as I paused to listen. I'm from New York. We don't trust nobody. But my intuition told me to go for it. So I accepted the glass, took a swig, and chatted with the 4 brothers who lived in this house and were celebrating a birthday. They invited me in.
They were stone masons and artists who owned their own business creating patios, signs, and other decorative pieces for local businesses and hotels. I spent a few hours talking with them. One fellow gave me the hat off his head.
They showed me all the construction they’re doing to add a few bedrooms to their home and told me that I have a place to stay when I come back. We danced and sang along to the merengue and bachata beats blaring out the speakers. I was in heaven.
So much synchronicity on my adventures in Cuba. I've rarely encountered such generous and giving, warm and welcoming people in my life. It makes sense their patron saint is the "Virgen de la Caridad" or "Our Lady of Charity."