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Summer Postcards 2011

A First Course in Cuba

By Elizabeth C. Bloom, Crimson Staff Writer

CIENFUEGOS, Cuba—It was a trip of firsts. The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra was, as far as we knew, the first American college orchestra to travel to Cuba since 1959. While the restrictions on travel to Cuba had relaxed, I felt an obligation to paint a picture of this forbidden place for my friends and family back home. They didn’t know what it was like. Then again, neither did I.

Our first concert took place in the coastal city of Cienfuegos. Two Cuban percussionists—I’ll call them Carlota and Roberto—were joining our shorthanded percussion staff, of which I was half, for George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. After the dress rehearsal, I asked them in high school-level Spanish if they wanted to eat dinner. They did, and so did their music director, Tomasina, and the arts administrator coordinating the concerts, José.

We went into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the Teatro Tomás Terry, our concert hall. José ordered for us and, for my sake, guided the conversation in slow, articulate Spanish. (“Estoy oxidada,” I said to him. I'm rusty.) We compared our respective countries—the educational systems, the musical opportunities, the economies. While we drank sodas and munched on potato chips, they told me about the music they played in their orchestra and about the low salaries Cubans earn.

A two-piece band came in, and José pretended that it was my birthday so they would sing to me. Carlota and Roberto played a salsa groove on claves the band had given them. It was the first time I had heard that rhythm in Cuba, but it wouldn’t be the last. I tipped the band with my pocket change. Finally, our food came out: ham sandwiches, underwhelming. A classic American sandwich I could have gotten anywhere at home, made memorable because it was my first meal with Cubans.

When the check came, Carlota started to say something to me, which I didn’t fully hear, or maybe just didn’t understand. All I heard was—"para nosotros." For us. I thought she and the others were offering to pay for me. I quickly told her that of course they didn't have to do that.

Something was lost in translation. I took out my money, but nobody else did. They just sort of sat there, expectantly, while I put down a few bills. Maybe they were going to pay me back? I didn’t bother asking. And I appreciated their company and trusted them enough not to feel ripped off, either. I don’t know whether they thought I had offered to pay for them; I don’t know whether they couldn’t pay, since the bill was in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), the tourists’ currency, and not in the regular pesos Cubans are paid in. Maybe they simply couldn’t afford it—what in my country would be an inexpensive dinner for five ($22) cost more than the average monthly salary there. Perhaps it was just some cultural more I hadn’t learned about yet.

Whatever the reason, it was certainly a first for me.

Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12, an editorial writer, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

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Summer Postcards 2011