The first known inhabitants of Cuba, the Taino, settled the Cuban archipelago around 700 AD, while the Chinese were combining saltpeter and carbon and sulfur to invent gunpowder, and while Pepin the Short was ruling the Franks.
The Taino were skilled farmers, potters and weavers. Alas, their weaving was so accomplished that the conquistadores later forced them to weave sails for their caravels.
On October 27, 1492, Columbus espied Cuba and thought it was Japan; he called this place “the most beautiful land that eyes ever beheld”.
When the Europeans arrived, there were about 300,000 indigenous people living in Cuba. Then came the Spanish, forced labor, smallpox, measles and typhus; all that remain of the Taino are a few shards and these words: Canoe, hammock, hurricane and tobacco.
(Still, I consider that to have left the world greater by the addition of words is not a negligible legacy. Words of any kind, words that are powerful, words that name powerful weather, words that evoke siestas, words for crops, words for modes of transportation, these are always worth having.)
Also, according to the Internet (”We are still here”) descendants of the Taino are alive and well and living in Brooklyn.
The first name for Havana was San Cristobal de Havana, and Saint Christopher was named its patron saint. In 1969 St Christopher was de-listed form the Catholic liturgical calendar, his ‘cultus’ being deemed too fantastical and possibly even untrue. Given the otherwise bizarre standards for sainthood in the Catholic Church, this seems a harsh fate for the beloved patron saint of Havana and travelers. (My grandmother saw to it that I always had a St. Christopher medal in my car and tucked inside my suitcase when I traveled. The de-listing of the saint was for her a matter of indifference.)
Because we are Americans, we cannot just get on a plane and fly to Havana. We must go with a group that is licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and have a specified and educational raison d’être for the trip. We did. We traveled to Cuba to experience Art and Architecture with a group composed of Hampshire College alumni and parents (my favorite daughter went there) and assorted friends. If you know anything at all about Hampshire College, this should be a key piece of information. If not, imagine a group of people who went to Hampshire because they were disinclined to follow a traditional educational path; who preferred to create their own curriculum, follow their passions, re-invent the wheel, and inhabit coed dormitories. Creative souls, all.
We gathered at 4:45 am at the Miami airport, not a generally happy time for many creative souls. But CSB is generally awake at that hour, so he found the Dunkin' Donuts gathering place without difficulty. Meanwhile, all the Cubans on the flight were getting their enormous bags shrink-wrapped. The rational for shrink-wrapping luggage became the dominant topic of inquiry all morning, long after it was exhausted as a topic. (E.g. What happens to all that shrink wrap once it gets to Cuba and is removed?)
Cuban women are known to be lovely, but I had no idea that they were also deeply attached to high heels, vertiginously high heels. I watched Cuban woman sprint across cobblestoned streets in high heels, faster than I can run in my trusty and practical Birkenstocks.
Laundry in the countryside and in Havana.
* The Damned Circumstances of Water, by Sandra Ramos. (At MOMA and elsewhere)