By Fernando Aramis
HAVANA TIMES — When I was still illegally peddling coffee back in 1994, a door was opened to me in the middle of the labyrinth I’d lost myself in. I found light in the middle of the darkness. And with this light, my days as a peddler ended.
One fine day, I bumped into a musician friend of mine (Alberto Camejo) and when he saw me he said: “We were just looking for you with some good news. “What’s it all about?” I asked.
It just so happened that in the Pilon municipality (Granma Province), a luxurious hotel had been built in collaboration with a Canadian company. My friend was playing the tres guitar in a traditional Son septet (Septeto Canoy), which performed for tourists staying at this hotel. Luckily for me, the septeto’s main singer (Ivan) had met a Canadian woman who he’d then married and was now moving to Canada. Therefore, the band was desperately looking for a replacement and Noida Gonzales, the group’s director, had thought about me. Alberto assured me that it was a very good job and that they earned a lot and that if I agreed, we would go to the Farallon del Caribe Hotel in three days.
Without giving it a second thought, I immediately accepted his offer and we went to Noida’s house to iron out the details.
Three days later, we were on our way to the hotel and that’s how a period of great relief and stability began for me bang in the middle of the “Special Period”.
Pilon is a very small municipality in the Granma Province, located on Cuba’s southeastern coast. Its inhabitants lived off of farming and fishing and so they had no means to get hold of valuable dollars. Therefore, this hotel represented an opportunity for the townspeople to improve their lives.
We arrived and got settled in at one of the boarding houses which stood a few kilometers away from the hotel. It was in fact a little closer to the Marea del Portillo Hotel, the hotel for Cubans, which was by then a small remnant of what it once was. That same night we began playing at the Hotel.
The job involved playing a two hour set, from 9pm until 11pm, and then Alberto and I would stay on to liven up the night at the hotel lobby bar. It goes without saying (for Cubans) that the hotel’s rules and restrictions didn’t allow us to interact with tourists, rules which we of course broke for obvious reasons.
Tourists were mainly Canadian and Austrian, although there were also Germans and Italians. After thinking about it, I realized that in order to take advantage of this opportunity I had to speak a little bit of English, so I put my head down and began to study.
This hotel stood out like a sore thumb in the surrounding area. So much luxury and such stunning architecture in the middle of so much misery and need. The first time I stepped inside the workers’ dining room at the Hotel, which had nothing to envy of the hotel restaurant’s buffet, I was amazed to see just how much food they had. I immediately began to think about all those families in Bayamo who have nothing to eat, who have to turn the city over in order to get something to put in their mouths.
At that time, all of the bodega neighborhood stores were empty. Butcher shops were also empty establishments where you would only see the butcher twiddling his thumbs waiting for something he could sell. Meanwhile, at that hotel, there was a lot of food, so much food. And not only was there food but they used to throw out so much food that it was really distressing to see such injustice.
That was one of the first immoral acts I experienced at the Farallon del Caribe Hotel. I hadn’t been taught at school about anything that I was living. Everything contradicted the principles and values of equality that had been instilled in us since we were children.
I worked at the hotel for over 4 months. We had to play at the Hotel for 25 days and then we would spend 5 days off with our families. We always returned with more than 400 USD in our pockets and at that time, the dollar was worth 120 Cuban pesos. It was a time of financial abundance and comfort. When I used to get home, I’d buy a pig and a lamb for my family. They’d all wait for me with open arms. Gifts, presents and all the comforts that that implied. It was five days of partying and pachanga; we literally threw the house out of the window.
One day, on one of those package deals that came to the Hotel every week, a German lady named Trixi arrived. I began a relationship with her that lasted for just over a year. However, in order to win her over several deplorable things had to take place. That’s when my first experiences as a jinetero (hustler) began.
She wasn’t travelling alone and so we had nothing but an unfinished relationship. However, it was enough for a platonic bond to form between us. When she left, she gave me some electronic devices, money and a letter.
And I continued living my life as a musician at the Farallon Hotel. Amongst so many basic needs, I was able to live comfortably. I remember that we used to buy huge blocks of cheese from the hotel’s chefs for a reasonable price, which we then smuggled out in the group’s drums.
Everybody had their own hustle at the hotel, and although those were happy days so to speak, the hotel’s restrictions and extremism, led me to follow my path elsewhere. Our contract finally ended because they’d taken on another band.
After having worked at the hotel, I decided to go to the beach in Varadero in search of the dollar. That was the only option we musicians had at the time. And because the city where I was born didn’t have access to the sea, we didn’t have opportunities to run into the dollar.
When I left the hotel, I continued to write to Trixi, the German girlfriend I never had. A year passed by and she returned to Cuba to find me. My partner Nadiezka had to put up with that unethical relationship out of necessity during that terrible time that was the Special Period. We met each other once again at Guardalavaca Beach, but that’s another story…