Cuban Culture – Music, Art and Tobacco
The following is a condensed commentary of the rest of the week in Cuba. Please don’t get the impression that you can do all of this in one day because, well, that’s just silly talk.
We spend our first full day in Havana exploring some of the streets with a local architect. Yup, many jobs, such as architects, pay so poorly that they take high-paying jobs in tourism. (Hmmm, perhaps I’m living in the wrong country.) From Spanish-Moorish, to Baroque (which I tend to be), to Gallic, to Art Deco, Cuba’s architecture is as interesting as its people. Daniel, our guide, who bears a striking resemblance to Javier Bardem, is obviously passionate about the architecture, and his opinions, which makes for a great couple of hours. He shows a bit of disgust when pointing out one of the modern buildings which includes one large level of floor-to-ceiling windows. “With Havana’s sunny climate, this makes no sense,” he tells us. Oh, but even worse is the stairway he points out. It leads from street-level to the entrance of the building. The issue is, there are double glass doors at the building’s entrance, but the metal rail lining the stairway ends in the middle of the second door, rendering it useless. I wonder if this was a mistake or, perhaps, done purposely by the architects to express their dissatisfaction with the pay.
Also in Havana, we take advantage of a beautifully sunny day and enjoy a ride through the bustling city in gumball colored, antique cars. It feels a bit like Isadora Duncan meets of American Graffiti. Thankful I left my scarf back at the hotel, we stop at the house/studio of Jose Rodriguez Fuster. Fuster is known as the Picasso of the Caribbean, and his place is in an artists’ community which resembles all of the great Gaudi works spread throughout Barcelona, condensed in a one-block area. Between the cars in which we arrive and the brightly colored mosaics throughout, it’s as if Rainbow Bright vomited over the entire area.
Yes, Cuba is full of art, music, and color and we see it all. While in Havana, we pay a visit to the Muraleando Community Project. In this formerly crime-ridden community, two artists began teaching workshops. When people had something to do other than commit crimes, well, the crime rate dropped. Where once was graffiti, there are now beautiful murals. And where once the youth created a crime problem, they now create art. The community meets every few weeks to share new and creative ideas. Oh, and there’s music. I find it impossible to sit still when the fantastic singer, accompanied by a four-piece band, begins singing classic and modern Cuban songs, and my entire group is up dancing with me.
We’re lucky enough to enjoy a variety of Cuban music, including a wonderful classical music performance by a full orchestra at the Ermita de Montserrate, a former church, now a concert hall, located on top of a hill with beautiful views over the city of Matanzas. While in Matanzas, we also visit a school of music and art with students are chosen to attend due to a recognized ability in dance, singing or playing an instrument. Former students often go on to careers in the arts and we’re lucky enough to enjoy a performance by these up-and-coming artists. On the other end of the spectrum, we visit a senior center which provides us with, not only an insight into the Cuban social welfare system but some more music and dancing.
Perhaps my favorite day is one which brings us out of the city and into the tobacco fields. No, we don’t pick tobacco, but we do smoke a lot of it. We meet the ninety-year-old owner (“The same age as Fidel,” he says), see how the famous Cuban tobacco is grown as well as the drying and rolling process. I learn how to properly smoke a cigar (for god sakes, don’t inhale) and, even better, how to dip it in Cuban coffee and rum. Yes, we smoke our drinks. We then proceed to the organic farm where we enjoy a lunch of freshly picked. . . everything. . . while sitting on the porch overlooking the fields. This area, the Viñales Valley, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and shows the diversity between the busy Cuban cities, the small, traditional towns, and the escapes to nature.
After our day visiting Santa Clara, we’re scheduled to stay in Remedios, a town about forty-five minutes away, but with a slightly better selection of group accommodations. This is new to my company as, while they’d previously stayed in Santa Clara, the one hotel available for groups was, well, somewhere I might have stayed in Asia during my budget crunch. Still, being Cuba, the only thing you can count on is uncertainty. While Jorge, the guide, had tried to confirm which hotel we’ll be staying in, this proves more difficult than putting on your skinny jeans after you’ve been on a cruise and they’ve been washed. Finally, at 11:00am the morning of our stay, we received our hotel confirmation.
After a long day of touring, we arrive at the hotel in Remedios only to be told there’s no room at the inn (Jesus Christ!). We’re told to proceed to the hotel at the other end of the square. When we arrive at the Hotel Barcelona, they welcome us with Mojitos (the tradition continues) and collect everybody’s passports. While other hotels accepted my passport list, this one makes copies of everybody’s passports, which takes some time. As I’m traveling with such a great group of people, they don’t seem to mind the delay and sit on the sofas and barstools in the small lobby and bar enjoying some more cocktails during the wait. Finally, rooms are issued and the two porters work very hard to carry everyone’s bags to their rooms. (This hotel has four floors and no elevators.)
After freshening up, I meet the group in the hotel courtyard, just off the lobby, for dinner. Everyone received a welcome bottle of wine in Havana and most bring their bottles down to dinner with them. The band is playing (there’s always a band in Cuba), the wine and mojitos are flowing, cigars are burning, and we seem to be the only ones in the hotel. We enjoy a nice combo. Buffet & served dinner and, before you know it, most of my group, along with the hotel staff, are dancing a conga-line through the courtyard and into the lobby. By 1:00am there are empty wine bottles and half-smoked cigars scattered throughout. This was one of the more memorable nights of the trip in, what would become known as, “The Frat House.”
The next night we stay at the beautiful beach resort town of Varadero. Varadero is not a place where Cubans live. It’s strictly a resort town where Canadians and Europeans (and soon to be many Americans) vacation. Sure, I have a one-bedroom suite overlooking the ocean, yet I still miss the energy and traditional feel that was Remedios. And I’m not alone. This great group of people I’m traveling with express their preference for our “Frat House.” Still, this Varadero hotel is quite lovely and we enjoy a nice evening of drinks and dinner.
We head back to Havana seeing more monuments to Che and the Revolutionaries (yes, definitely the name of my band should I ever form one) and have a few more Cuban experiences. We take a bit of time visiting Ernest Hemingway’s House. Hemingway lived in Cuba, on and off, from 1939 to 1960, and it’ where he did some of his finest writing, including The Old Man and the Sea. While you can’t actually enter the house, you can look through the wide doors and large windows to see life through “Papa’s” eyes. The air seems fresher in this house on a hilltop and this writer is inspired.
One of our final visits is to a community project for children and young people with Down Syndrome. There is, of course, music and dancing, always with my group joining in. But these are some amazing artists too. They’ve developed a specific style of art using carved printing plates. Their artwork has been featured at international showings and won awards. One of the artists is a former Olympic gold medal winner and we have an emotional surprise moment as he shakes hands with a gentleman in my group who is also a former Olympian. (Both are runners.)
I’m honored to be one who experienced Cuba before, as most expect, it changes completely due to America opening the doors. Again, Cuba never closed its doors and the expected changes do not mean that Cuba will no longer be a Communist nation. It’s simply that, perhaps, America has decided to accept communism in other countries. Whatever the case, I hope Cuba doesn’t change everything. They must concentrate hard on retaining their rich culture and friendly, welcoming attitude.
I’ll be taking just a bit of time off to explore Canada with a new company and to sit in one of my favorite places, St. John’s, Newfoundland (aka, the first Drop Me Anywhere location. You can read about it here), to do some work on my book. I look forward to telling you a bit about where I’ve been staying for the last 3 weeks (another revisit) and explaining the challenges of getting even the simplest of things done while being location independent.