Trinidad, a town of incredible art galleries (this place could get me into trouble!), music playing day and night, coffee shops and peso pizza. It’s a shame that all I remember about being there before was that I was so sick I curled up on the floor of the house we visited as a group and fell asleep while everyone else took a walk around the cobblestone streets of a beautiful city. But no fear! I had ample opportunity this visit to wind my way through the bumpy streets, stopping for cheap sweets at the pastelerías, enjoying a cold beer or café con leche with salsa and son playing in the background, and smoking a cigar while playing dominoes on the roof. Now this is the Cuba that I could get used to!
Our trip to Trinidad coincided with the celebration day of Yemayá, a Santeria saint, who corresponds to the Catholic celebration of San Jose (March 19th), which meant rum and rumba in the streets! I was looking forward to participating in a very Cuban ceremony with the rest of my group after dinner, but – to my surprise – most people weren’t that into it. The night before, we thought there was going to be early celebrating, so we made our way to the Temple to see what was going on. Well, nothing was going on, but at least we got in to see some of the offerings that had started to be left for her. We were informed that the following night there was going to be a party starting at 3pm and we were all more than welcome to come back and join in the festivities, which I was amped up for. The next night we had a lovely dinner (and a small break from rice and beans!) at a local restaurant on the plaza – beautiful setting – before gearing up for the big show! I had been around earlier in the afternoon and stopped by to see the Temple full of rumba dancers, frantic drummers and at least ten sheet cakes at the altar, so I was anxious to see what had been added in the past few hours. We beat the crowd to the Temple and listened to/watched the multiple drummers (bongos, congas, etc.) pouring their hearts into the music, participating in a call-and-response with one of the Santeria priests (I assume) in what I can only guess was the Yoruba language. After about ten minutes, most people I was with had decided to leave, so there I was – alone – in a Cuban dance off.
I couldn’t have imagined a better night! The drumming didn’t stop, and a lovely Cuban woman took me under her wing to make sure I was dancing and not standing there like some tourist with my arms folded in front of me. She kept shouting “agua!” (Yemayá’s element) and turning to me to shout “you’ll be Cuban by the end of the night! AGUA!” It was indeed a unique experience! I didn’t feel like I was being judged or ridiculed, just allowed to dance freely and have fun. I’m sure there were some local people there who may not have appreciated my presence, but if that was the case then they certainly didn’t make a big deal of it. I was there, dancing and sweating, for about 2.5 hours before I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. The reason? Well, since it was a religious ceremony, people were getting “taken by the spirit” and would occasionally fall into trances and start having what looked like a seizure. These fits didn’t seem to bother anyone, and someone would throw their arms around the person and drag them through the house to some back room, keeping the person from hurting themselves or others. After 10-20 minutes the person would reappear, dancing, as if nothing had happened. This happened about 5 or 6 times – the last occurrence being directly in front of me – and I finally decided that maybe I wasn’t in my element after all. I snuck out during another rumba and made my way home in the cool, fresh air.