We did something we never really intended to do. Out of the blue, the Oakland Symphony Board posed this question to its members, “Would you be interested in accompanying the Oakland Youth Orchestra to Cuba for their concert tour this summer?” Since Jim was still the president of the Board of the Oakland Symphony at the time, and we are big fans and supporters of the Oakland Youth Orchestra, without thinking much about it at all, we said, “Yes!!”
The Decision and Logistics
Even though the trip would be in mid-July and therefore hot and humid beyond measure, we jumped at the chance. Not only would we have the opportunity to see five Cuban cities before they get trampled by the rest of the American tourists soon to follow, but by going we helped defray the costs encumbering the youth for their once-in-a-lifetime trip. In addition, being on a “cultural tour” to Cuba is known to be a very unique experience.
The itinerary was planned by a performing arts tour company in Oakland (ACFEA), an organization with extensive experience in planning tours for arts groups facing such unique challenges as safely loading expensive musical instruments onto and off of commercial airplanes, making in-country rental arrangements for instruments too big to fly, e.g., pianos and harps, and arranging for complex in-country transportation for approximately 70 students, their chaperones, and a doctor in one bus, and 35 adult “supporters” in another.
The brand new, top-of-the-line, air-conditioned buses to which we gladly became accustomed were a rare and welcomed luxury in a country that is pretty much luxury-free. For example, toilet seat covers, soap, and paper towels are luxuries only to be found in hotel bathrooms, not in public places. (Those little packets of travel Kleenex are a must, should you to decide to go to Cuba yourself.) Our surprisingly comfortable tour buses were made in China, and are only available to tourists, not locals.
There are no subway systems or trains in Cuba, only buses and cars, and most of them are far more dilapidated than anything to be seen in the US. As you may have heard or seen in photos, the country is peppered with American cars from the 1950s and 1960s. They are quirky, loveable, and picturesque for tourists, but they do reflect the sad state of deprivation and deterioration the whole country is in. The majority of the cars are not in good repair. Drivers save their pesos for years, one at a time, to be able to buy one. In so doing, they have an entrepreneurial opportunity to use that car to be a cab driver or to make some extra money as cab driver in addition to whatever else they do.
The economy is extremely limited. Imagine: no retail stores, rationing, few churches, no supermarkets, limited fresh fruits and vegetables, an abundance of canned grayish-green beans, tour guides chosen and paid for by the government, no new clothes, tourist trinkets that must be approved by the government, et al. While, yes, education is free, most people do not pursue higher education because whether you’re a doctor or work in a store, your (tiny) salary is the same. The only people making anything above bare bones wages are people in the tourist industry, because
they are able to earn tips.
When you ride in those colorful cars from earlier decades, notice that they are exuding black smoke, they don’t have seat belts, and the seat covers are just about threadbare. I am grateful to still be alive after risking my life in a handful of these Cuban cabs during the ten days we were there. I had forgotten what it was like to flop around the back seat of a car at breakneck speeds without wearing a seat belt. Traffic police? Speeding tickets? Insurance liabilities? No such thing.
All of this said, people are people wherever you go, and the Cubans are no exception. They were handsome, friendly, kind, fun, talented, and oh, the Cuban music! But they are, in my opinion, extremely deprived, and affected by the kind of Communism to which they have been born and under which they have been raised. I found myself increasingly grateful for my own freedom — of thought, philosophy, lifestyle, career, and more — the things I take for granted every day.
The Oakland Youth Orchestra
And what about the Oakland Youth Orchestra? They were fabulous! They represented our country and our city in a way that would make all of you very proud. Under the direction and inspiration of their adored conductor, Omid Zoufonoun (formerly on staff with the Oakland School for the Arts), they achieved musical excellence as well. As supporters, we followed the orchestra to all three of their performances in the Teatro Thomas Terry in Cienfuegos; the Teatro La Caridad in Santa Clara; and in the Teatro Nacional de Cuba in Havana. We celebrated with them at the most beautiful vintage hotel in Havana, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where we also had our best meal (no canned green beans), and a floor show of gorgeous Cuban men and women gowned and tuxed in full 50s Cuban regalia a la Desi Arnaz. The members of the Oakland Youth Orchestra have never looked as beautiful and proud and accomplished as they did that night. They will surely take all of that with them as they move into their futures.