Cuba Take II (2012)
Put your warm socks on, this is gonna be a long one! When I last wrote I was about to embark on a....much needed month off back in Portland! After being home on the farm for a week and getting to soak up the bay area and all of it's late-summer-sunny-glory I have to admit I wasn't too excited to come back to cold, damp PDX. But to my great surprise the sun followed me here, I reconnected with the strong community I've started to build, really settled into my room and made house with Sabrina in North Portland, and found myself falling in love with this city again. I got to nanny Dez a little bit (He's speaking full sentences now and running faster than me! It's crazy how much changes in just a couple months), nail down some new routines for the next tour, do a very cold parade through portland (Dez and Gabe came, which was awesome!), experience raucous, corporate Las Vegas for the first time, take some amazing dance classes, and make some awesome new friends in the drum and dance community. I had been casually searching for dance classes to take since I moved here, and somehow didn't discover the Center Space Studio and Donna's amazing teaching skills until that month at home when several people pushed me in her direction....turns out the studio is literally right around the corner from the Egg, where M4 rehearses...I felt like a total idiot for having missed it. But everything has it's time and place, and before I knew it I was starting to feel right at home with some of my favorite new people: Donna (such an inspiration and a wealth of knowledge on Afro Cuban and Brazilian Dance and music), Michael (a badass drummer and dancer who has been instrumental in welcoming me into the community and reminding me how fun and light and comfortable all of our relationships can be)....and it was also there that I initially met Jamie, a spunky, energetic, less-than-5-feet-tall powerhouse of a woman who I was blessed to share a month in Mexico and Cuba with. I had been feeling a strong desire to spend December studying dance in either Brazil or Cuba, and was on the fence as to where to go...but I knew I would need to escape to somewhere warm after a very cold November Tour. Jamie and I literally spent one (awesome) night out dancing together before I received the accidental text message that spurred our whole adventure. "Call me when you have a minute" it said. And so I did. It was an awkward conversation because I later found out that her message was intended for another friend, and we spent the first few minutes trying to figure out what the purpose of my call was. Finally we both just figured, ok, she just wants to say hi and chat. Next thing I knew she was talking about this National Geographic article about Cuba that had just arrived on her doorstep and I mentioned that I had been thinking about going in December. 5 days later we booked our tickets and shortly after I left on tour for nearly a month.
I won't go into too much detail about the tour...It was fun and cold and exciting...and the first tour I had done where I was pretty much the main female dancer. Jenna, a fun stunt flyer from Portland, came for the first week, and then Amy, our main hula hooper, took her spot for the rest of the tour, and neither of them do much involving stilts...so many nights I found myself scrambling to set up my new stilt chair (Aaron built this beautiful octopus-like chair that breaks down into many pieces for traveling-it's fantastic but takes a while to assemble), help set up the merchandise table (my re-re-cycled earrings made from Jenny Pancakes hat scraps kept me occupied on long drive days but didn't sell quite as well as I'd hoped-I think they will do better in summer at festivals), and then throw my stilts on and off several times during the show in order to perform the stilt acrobatics, the pole piece (the stilter holds the pole and I do acrobatics on it), the stilt chair dance, and one or two ground dance pieces. After the show there was still the chair and the merch table to break down so needless to say I was completely exhausted by the end of each night, but I finally felt like I had established my place and was really developing new confidence and skills, and it felt fantastic!
Bear Creek Music Festival in the cold mountains of florida--yea, weird, I know--was definitely a highlight and wrapped up beautifully with me and Pablo getting invited to dance on stage with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, as was our second-to-last show at the packed Brooklyn Bowl. After a full day of performing at a huge parade behind a giant Popeye balloon in connecticut and then playing our last show to a slightly disappointing 32 people (we made light of it by betting on how many people would actually show up--Gogo the driver won and got first tabs on the shower and a good bunk) I took a flight with way too many long layovers back to Portland, where I had 5 days to prepare for my trip.
Prep involved desperately trying to find someone else to sublet my room, which I didn't, and spending way too much time at Fred Meyers trying to buy phones and memory cards and such to take with me so my Cuban friends could sell them for a profit, and then shoving it all in a backpack. We flew out super early in the morning so I spent the night at Jamie's and we somehow woke up 10 minutes before the cab arrived and realized the alarm hadn't gone off. We scrambled and made it just in time...setting the tone for the trip and realizing right off the bat that this was going to be a pretty crazy adventure but that we worked well as a team and everything was gonna be just fine. Because of the way flight times worked out we spent 2 days on the beach in Playa Del Carmen, warming our bones and preparing ourselves mentally for what awaited us in Cuba.
The time wasn't quite enough to prepare me for the challenges I encountered in Havana, but in my experience nothing can prepare you for the unique position of being a foreigner in Cuba. Both times I've traveled to the island I have found myself feeling more vulnerable than ever before, but because of that also more open and willing to learn and let go of some of the inhibitions and habits that are so inherent in our US culture. Cubans don't refrain from saying exactly what they are thinking for fear of hurting your feelings or being what we might consider "impolite." For example, almost every one of the friends I'd made on my last trip (including Maddiel, a wonderful man who's whole family I became very close with) immediately greeted me with "Hola, Gorda!" and followed it up by saying "what happened, you've gained some weight since last time!?" I was rather horrified....I hadn't even considered it, and, aftering being on tour for so long I realized I'd definitely gotten stronger, but I hadn't felt "fat" in a long time. Of course they meant it in the best way possible (in Cuba thicker, curvy women are considered more beautiful than skinny ones), but it took a couple weeks and Maddiel's very thin sister pointing this out for my american brain to get over it.
We also did an insane amount of waiting around, which I tried to warn Jamie about, but even I hadn't really remembered what it's like. Things just take longer there and life moves at a slower pace, and especially as a foreigner, people are quick to make decisions for you and the result is often that you end up sitting in someone's living room with their aunt or grandmother watching TV for hours. But in the end it's always all for a reason and some of the sweetest, richest moments come as a result of being patient and being willing to do things the Cuban way, even if it means changing all your plans and perhaps not "doing" as much as you thought you might.
Over coffee on the rooftop every morning we learned to limit ourselves to 4 "plans" for the day, and to be happy when 2 or 3 of them were seen through to the end. We did finally make it out of Havana twice, which was quite an accomplishment both times. We went to a beautiful beach one day, and up into the mountains another day with my good friend Javier (my guide-extraordinare from the last trip) where we swam in a beautiful river and had lunch at the ranch house of the son of Polo Montañez, a well known Guajiro cuban singer, where we were serenaded and danced with and fed fresh coconut water and an amazing meal from his farm.
In addition, all Cubans are teachers, and everyone has a different story or lesson for you, and they are all right...so nod your head, smile, absorb it all, and take what serves you. Learning to do this was challenging though. On my first trip I experienced this to some extent, but both Jamie and I passed that first week feeling hyper-criticized and severely lacking in confidence, especially when it came to dancing. She was newer to salsa and casino dancing than I was, so her frustrations mostly stemmed from that and from not speaking much spanish, and I was very new to Afro-Cuban dance (the primary focus of our trip...Jamie has been studying it for several years), and I struggled a lot in class. But we were fortunate to find some of the most amazing teachers and mentors imaginable, and things slowly got easier and our confidence began to return. Yueneisys, a good friend of Maddiel's, was our first and primary teacher. She came twice a week to teach us on the rooftop of our apartment--Maddiel found us a total winner of a place with 2 bedrooms, kitchen, and tons of space for dancing outside with stunning views of Centro Habana--and though she was super timid at first she was consistently a wonderful and reassuring teacher and she slowly began to open up to us as a friend.
Miguel, a renouned Cuban drummer friend of Jamie's who now lives in Portland was back in Cuba while we were there and was an excellent friend and resource and was generous enough to invite us to the Santeria drum ceremonies, called Tambors, he often played at. Through him we met Javier, a singer, who quickly became our close friend, spiritual guide, and like a brother to me. I cannot thank him enough for all the time he spent sitting with us, helping us understand and take notes on what we were learning and seeing during the ceremonies. One of the most potent bits of knowledge he passed on to us was instrumental in helping Jamie and I balance our frustrations and learn to work as a team to fill in each other's gaps: It's a saying in Yoruba (the African language that survived the middle passage and is still used in many Santeria ceremonies) that goes "Owuotu, owuoma, aricu babawe" which means "one hand washes the other, and together they can wash the face." Sometimes there are things you can't do alone, but if you find someone who can help you, you can probably also help them in return, and together, you can do anything.
Through Miguel we also met Rey, our second dancer teacher, and our only regret with him was that we did not meet him sooner. All of the self doubt and lack of confidence we had felt was washed away by his excitement about teaching us and his constant praise and affirmations. By the last week things were flowing through daily Cuban life in a way that seemed impossible upon arrival, and we even began to find our feet in the salsa community.
We started meeting all of these awesome dancers who were throwing a lot of hip hop moves into their salsa and getting really creative with it, and it was so inspiring and encouraging. When we had our Despedida (going away party), nearly all of our new friends showed up and by the end of the night we felt embraced by this amazing community of people we had built around us in our short time there and it felt so good! Mira, a friend from the bay area who I randomly ran into at a bar in Havana (such a crazy surprise!), was there with a friend, as were these two awesomely crazy Cuban women who we'd met out dancing (it's so hard to meet Cuban women so it was a super special treat to connect with them), along with Javier, Maddiel, some of his family, and several of our salsero friends.
Wow, this is getting long, and there is so much more I want to say, but many of these stories and bits of knowledge I have gained (especially surrounding the afro-cuban religion) are very intimate and are better shared in person anyway. I do want to conclude by saying that despite all the challenges and frustrations of the trip, it was an incredibly eye-opening and heart-warming experience. When we as humans can relax our ties to the cultural norms we grow up with and learn to really listen and be patient and absorb what feels true to us, we can all grow and expand in such wondrous ways. Sometimes it takes a lot of breaking down and questioning of ourselves and everything around us to be able to find our power and our confidence again, but it always comes back stronger and of more benefit to all that surrounds us.
And it didn't end in Cuba...after missing our flight (we thought we were leaving thursday the whole time anyway, and we really just needed that extra day for so many reasons) and having the opportunity to pay our good fortune throughout the trip forward by helping an amazing Nurse from Cameroon who was stuck in the Cuban airport for days because of stupid political bullshit, we found ourselves in Tulum, Mexico, smack dab in the middle of several huge "end of the world" raves. We wanted nothing to do with them and found our escape through the salsa-dancing receptionist at the hostel and a ridiculous excursion on a scooter to a small fishing town on the end of the peninsula called Punta Allen. Once I had regular email access (Cuba is slow and expensive) I found out that a spot had opened up for me performing with March Fourth on Jam Cruise, a huge, wild jam and funk music festival on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. So I came home for about a week, settled back into my room, did an awesome NYE show at the portland art museum, and then got back on a plane for the tropics. Pretty terrible I know. Jam cruise was an amazing opportunity for us and we really blew everyone away and made a ton of great contacts that are paying off already. So excited to see what this year brings for the band...but for now I'm excited for a month off in Portland, nannying and creating new material.
I hope this new year finds you all happy and healthy and with an abundance of love surrounding you. Here's to making the most of what we have and living joyously!