Skyscanner travel writing competition May 2011 Winner
Dancing in the Cuban Dark
By Mandy Huggins
The shady terrace at Casa Mendales looks out towards the ocean across the mismatched rooftops and patch-pocket gardens of Cojimar.
The houses in this sleepy Cuban fishing town are painted in soft cupcake colours, the sky is a bright wash-day blue, and the dusty road is the dirty yellow of a lion’s belly.
Tanya Mendales, the larger than life owner of my casa particular, sits next to me on the terrace amongst sunflowers, and paints her nails a startling orange. On the street below, women sashay past in a whirl of tropical colour. A dachshund, his coat as shiny as a newly opened conker, struts past on a tartan lead.
Tanya leans precariously over the rusty railing and shouts down to a friend. The two women roar with infectious laughter, flashing bright white smiles. My Spanish is not good enough to catch what they are saying, although I am trying to learn what my vivacious host refers to as ‘the Cuba ways’.
This town is famous as the place where Hemingway came to fish, and where he met Anselmo Hernández, the fisherman who was immortalised in The Old Man and the Sea. Day-trippers come from far and wide to visit La Terraza bar, with its beguiling setting at the water’s edge. From Hemingway’s favourite table you can watch the fishing boats heading out to sea, and feel his ghost in the cool breeze that blows through the open window.
Everyone in Cojimar has an anecdote to tell about Hemingway, or claims to be related to Hernández. Tanya is no exception – Hernandez, she claims, was a distant cousin.
That afternoon I pick tomatoes and lettuce from the huerto, or kitchen garden, with her husband, Manolo. He tells me that nearly half the vegetables in Cuba are grown either in these tiny plots, or the larger urban cooperative gardens.
As I help prepare dinner, I watch Tanya as she sweeps the floor with a rough broom, singing softly to herself. I am lured by this deceptively simple life; a cool tiled floor under my bare feet, a sack of beans, and a sun-bleached chair on the terrace.
As dusk falls we carry the food out on to the terrace. I fetch generous plates of black beans and rice, and we sip mojitos made with home-grown mint. It seems impossible to imagine anyone wanting to leave here, but I know that choosing a simple life is not the same as living it day in, day out, through necessity.
Over the years, from here in Cojimar, many young Cubans have attempted to sail across the Straits of Florida on homemade rafts, to follow their own dream of a better life. Manolo Mendales nephew was one of them. He disappeared with four friends one night in 1994, and was never seen again.
As Manolo tells me the story, we fall silent, and for a moment we are divided by our different worlds.
Then, in this town that is full of unspoken hopes, we hear Son music drifting across the street, and without hesitation Tanya jumps up to dance. She reaches out her hand to me, and we dance together in the pale moonlight.
Voices call up from the street, and assorted neighbours appear on the terrace. Two of the men have brought guitars, and the women sing, vivid tropical birds oozing with soul. We sway in a swirl of colour and song, blissfully happy in this shared world of music that needs no translation.
‘This is my friend from England,’ shouts Tanya. ‘I have taught her the Cuba ways!’.
Pictures by Chris McGuigan