Back on the road again. This time, Cuba, the last of the three countries heading my travel list for some years. Countries that have been all but impossible for me to visit. And this year, I’ve done them all: Saudi Arabia, Libya and now, Cuba.
I entered Cuba as a “delegate” with Global Exchange with a tour focused on Arts, Culture and Architecture. Most of the time was in Havana for we were rained out of Trinidad - in fact, the local resort where we stayed a night, closed down, thoroughly soaked by storms. We ended back in Havana a day early, at the Hotel Nacional, no great hardship there.
But to begin: there were twenty-two in the group: Writers, photographers, architectural historians, students, dancers and other interested travelers. Most stayed with the program though some went their own way - they had other agendas. The itinerary included a walking tour of Old Havana, visits to the Fine Arts Museum, an artist’s studio, meeting with an urban planner, time at various organizations, i.e. the Muraleado community project, the Ludwig Foundation, the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation, Casa de Africa and Fototeca (local photography) plus observation of dance classes and a rehearsal. And more.
Extra curricularly, I attended several performances of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s student and main company, an enthusiastic song-dance Opera on the Streets and the Buena Vista Social club with its two marvelous Spanish-style ballroom dancers. And I did get to Hemingway’s Cuban home, now a museum, Finca La Vigia. I missed the Museum of Danse.
Cuba has been described as a country fixated in the fifties. There is some truth to that, what with the old cars and buildings, both in good condition and dilapidated disrepair. Buildings are old Spanish influenced Greco-Roman with decorative metal on both windows and balconies. In the Old Havana, the ground floor was often barren with rickety stairs leading to apartments that would be rejected by any self respected tenement.
My roommate visited several locals, friends of a friend, and reported the basic living conditions of even middle class, had few facilities in their small living areas. Toilets there and elsewhere, were sans seat and lid, leading to a half squat; toilet paper was rare, often handed out at entry for a small tip.
We started with a walk and talk about Old Havana, a presentation of the Master Plan for restoration. Into various plazas and religious buildings. A good orientation to the area.
For me, the high point was the time at Pro Danza, Laura Alonzo’s dance studio and company. As we drifted into observe class, I felt totally at ease, set to remain there indefinitely. The dancers were good, well trained - the men all but hit the ceiling of the room with their jumps and leaps. I was able to talk some with Alonzo, the daughter of Alicia and Fernando, who was charming and energetic as she talked of her background and the company. At seventy, she still takes class - my kind of woman!
Miguel Coyula was an outstanding speaker - not the filmmaker but the architect and urban planner . He reviewed the history of Cuban from the 1500s when it was a stopping point for ships from the colonies onto to their home ports, to the present. (Noted was that the Cuban Capital building, almost identical to the US Capital, excepting two metres taller.) Baptista and the Mafia worked hand in glove. So it was at Revolution, people trashed the casinos. - and parking meters! Afterwards, modern buildings rose, often prefabs influenced by the Soviet and Eastern European styles.
Coyula talked of owning his apartment but has a struggle to find funds to maintain it. The cost of materials is very expensive. Until the Soviet Union collapsed, 80% of the trade came from the Eastern bloc. Since, Cuba has been struggling. Seventy percent of the food is imported. There is encouragement of small farming and interest in a hybrid economy: 40% planned and 40% private. Problem is fifty years of a planned economy to buck against. Plus a brain drain. Tourism is increasing - Canadians and Americans are most numerous. And they were obviously all about. (And the Cubans do come out ahead, what with two currencies - one for them and one for us - plus a 10% cut, with American dollars).
I found the Muraleando Community Project, fill of life, much more interesting than the Colon Cemetery. Members had decorated several blocks of the area surrounding their building, worthy of mention in Lonely Planet. The stop at the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation, a cultural and scientific organization was most interesting for along with Jimenez’ writings, was a nice collection of artifacts from Peru and Mexico. The Fine Arts Museum had an extensive collection including some children’s art work. Across the street was the Military Museum, which was being repaired so no admittance.
Out in a one time elegant residential district was Alicia Leah’s home and studio. I was more interested in the neighborhood and her home than her painting. Her home was well kept as were some of the neighboring places - but not all. I thought of Coyula’s comments about the expense of maintenance materials..
The Ludwig Foundation was a NGO focusing on contemporary Cuban art while Case de Africa took a look at the African influences - I opted out of that early; the drumming was too piercing, man! I also left the Fototeca early, becoming bored with some of the presentations; they also had a Andres Serrano exhibit, most of which was a bit too avant garde for me. .
I took off with two of our poets one night, to a cafe where poets were reading their work. It was well attended and they had good ice cream, a must for me. Some were really performance artists while others just stood and simply read. It was mas intersante! Even in Spanish.
The trip ended at the Artisan’s Fair, located in an old warehouse with three elderly train engines before it. It was made clear to us, rail travel was NOT the way to go. But the engines were nicely restored and made an interesting entry way to the building, where all sorts of artistic items were sold. Paintings, leather work, weaving - you name it. A nice ending to our explorations. I walked across the street to look into an old 15th Century church (San Francisco?) with a stained glass window of recent (2000?) origin - obviously new but appropriate to the building. From the chairs and music stands, it must have fair acoustics as it obviously is used for chamber concerts.
Wile we did see and walk about Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South, we missed out entirely Trinidad, a World Heritage site - the tropical storms were just too much.
There is a lushness to Cuba, greenery about. Though it contrasts with the exhaust smoke from the autos. But, there was the spirit and vitality of the people. I couldn’t help but compare to Libya: there they had recently thrown off the yoke of a Strong Man, now determined not to repeat that; conversely fifty years ago, Cuba had thrown off the corruption of a Strong Man, but replaced him with another Strong Man. Yet, I had the same feeling of exuberance from those I talked with in both countries. Like Libya, Cuba is poor, third world, but full of hope.
Bits and pieces: Patterned hose popular on the younger set, even those in uniform. Hava Nagila being played by a roving quartet at mealtime. The wet suited scuba diver with harpoon and fish, rising from the harbor water by the light of the moon. The sound of the evening cannon going off, leaving me with a day’s worth of ringing in my ears and a broken blood vessel in my eye - I was right next to it, a bad mistake! The couple who gave three of us a ride to the hotel when taxis weren’t forthcoming. The non-English speaking woman who was so concerned that I had a untied shoe lace.
Accommodation: We stayed at four hotels, three in Havana and a resort place outside of Trinidad. The first two hotels were in various parts of Old Havana - we were moved to give us a chance to experience various architectures and districts. These were comfortable 3* hotels with an efficient staff. The resort was having its problems but, given good weather, would have been quite comfortable.. Its customers had come down for R/R and were not happy campers. The last hotel was the Nacional, a year younger than me. A 5*, it was elegant with three restaurants/cafes, a swimming pool and a couple of night clubs. I snuck in one night to see a couple of would-be Apache dancers perform; it was there I saw the Buena Vista bunch.
Food: Excellent. Usually we ate at restaurants patronized by Westerners. Two meals - breakfast and lunch or dinner, were included. Some places I’d never find again and others were quite evident. Choices were usually chicken, fish or pork. You could pick up cheap but good sandwiches at street cafes.
The Tour: Well planned, keeping in mind various artistic interests. And enough spare time to pursue individual agendas. The guides were exceptional: knowledgeable and patient - chasing down tickets for various evening activities. A minimum of propagandizing.
Cost: Global Exchange charged $2600 which included airfare from Cancun to Havana. The sllight from San Francisco to Cancun: $509.63. Overnight Cancun (including restaurant): $150. Entertainment, meals, donations and gifts in Havana: $500.