Small worlds

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Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

A friend in the U.K. told me she's seen a number of articles recently in London newspapers on the topic "Get to Cuba quick, before the Americans arrive."

I told her it was too late. When I was there last month, four other American friends, none traveling together, were also in Cuba. I met one for dinner in Havana.

Small world.

Between the rush of Canadians and Europeans who want to get there before Americans and the Americans who want to get there before other Americans, the destination is super-heated.

If the Brits are worried that Americans arriving in great numbers are going to have an impact, they're right, but it's also true that Havana has changed dramatically since I first visited 22 years ago, thanks to the arrival of great numbers of Europeans and Canadians in the interim.

It's an old story, one that has resonated with travelers as long as there have been tourists: Get to a country (or a less-visited part of a country) before its character is tainted by other visitors. The sentiment far predates current trends focused on "authenticity." Guidebooks more than a century old complain that visits to the Pyramids are aggravated by aggressive souvenir vendors.

But I've discovered that despite globalization shrinking our already small world, the concern is frequently misplaced.

Certain places I first visited decades ago -- Ko Samui, Thailand; Angkor Wat, Cambodia; Bagan, Myanmar -- are undoubtedly more heavily developed for tourism now. Although something has been lost, a first-time visitor today will still find plenty to marvel at. Wherever I've gone, no matter how fabulous the experience, I'm likely to meet someone who will tell me, in essence, "You should have been here 10 years ago."

And I often enjoy seeing how places have changed during a second or third visit. It's almost a bonus, as though I'm adding a new destination. Shanghai today is very different from when I first visited in 1984, but it is in some ways more thrilling today. The Maoist overlay on traditional Chinese culture 30 years ago was no more or less authentic than the current overlay of architectural modernity.

Based on my recent visit to Cuba, I don't think there's any reason for great concern that "authentic" Cuba will be overwhelmed by American influence anytime soon. Most people don't realize what a large country Cuba is; it's bigger than Austria or Switzerland and a third again larger than the Republic of Ireland. Most visitors likely won't stray far beyond the Havana city limits or the beaches of Varadero, so those who really want to explore Cuban culture will likely have plenty of time -- and room --to spread out.

As for Havana, there are already double-decker city tour buses. Coaches unload visitors who stand four deep at the bar in the old Hemingway haunt, Floridita ("the cradle of the daiquiri"). Walking down the street, visitors will be approached several times by touts offering discount cigars.

Certain streets in Old Havana have been spiffed up for visitors, and Western brands such as Benetton and Paul & Shark have already opened stores.

But "authenticity" is never more than a few blocks away, and life under present economic challenges manifests in strange and newly authentic ways.

In a neglected part of Old Havana, I saw boys playing baseball in a creative variant connected to both poverty and space restraints. Each corner of the intersection was a base, the bat was a stick, and the "ball" was the twist-off cap from a soda bottle. The pitcher floated it to the batter, who got only one swing to connect (and struck out more often than not).

The theme of "small world" kept coming back to me. One morning, I found myself thinking about my mother's approaching 85th birthday. She lives independently, and I wondered what her life would be like in a socialist society like Cuba.

Not long afterward, I heard live music coming from a building; the door was ajar, so I poked my head in. It appeared to be a community center for senior citizens, and a lively performance was underway, with the audience clapping along to some seriously good singers and dancers.

In the end, I believe music -- more than old cars, more than daiquiris, more than socialism -- is the enduring legacy of Cuba. It had made the strongest impact on me during my first visit, and it seems even more ubiquitous today.

During this recent visit, I noticed posters aimed at tourists that promoted tribute shows to the Buena Vista Social Club, a 1950s music hall whose memory was revived in the 1990s by a popular album of older Cuban musicians, and subsequently, a documentary film.

But it isn't necessary to visit one of those shows to be touched by Cuban music. For me, the musical highlight on my recent trip occurred unexpectedly on a visit to Hemingway's home, about 30 minutes by taxi outside Havana.

When I had visited Cuba before, I bought a tape by Trio Matamoros, a band that had been hugely popular in Cuba from the late 1920s through the 1960s. I love that tape, and as I was leaving the Hemingway house, I heard a band near a souvenir shop whose singer sounded remarkably like lead singer Miguel Matamoros.

I went over to listen, and when the song was over, I spoke to the percussionist. It turned out the singer, Pausides Suarez Macias, was dedicated to "rescuing" the music of Trio Matamoros, and he had toured for years with Miguel's daughter, Seve.

Again, small world.

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