Return to La Habana, return to Mexico
A bit of bad luck left us in a sticky situation when we arrived back at the terminal in Habana. I was in the grips of a tremendous head cold, possibly a flu, and left our survival camel-bak water bottle (this bottle came with a UV light screw on cap that wipes out chances of bacterial replication, retail value 100$) at our casa in Vinales. The groggy morning fog stripped me of my common sense and I could picture the bottle sitting on the concrete shelf next to the kitchen table in the sunlight of the picture perfect Cuban day we left behind. This problem was resolved, with a bit more of that Cuban magic that I was becoming accustomed to, days later when a bus driver brought it back for a special pick up at the station. By now half of Habana seemed to have to the same head cold that I had, and I was suspicious that we had somehow brought it over on the plane we arrived on. This will have to remain a mystery.
Part 2 of our Habana adventures was a more gentle version of our arrival, kind of a way to better get to know the luster of life in Cuba. We wanted to dig deeper, to feel the heartbeat of the city, and to try and to get a grip on what keeps the clock ticking. Naturally, this was best done by getting lost in it’s maze of neighborhoods outside of the mainstream restaurant strips, away from Obispo, beyond Vedado, and into the unknown. This mission was only due to the beautifully executed collaboration of two artists, J.R and Jose Parla (http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/339625/20120510/havana-biennial-wrinkles-city-jr-jose-parla.htm), for the bienal art festival that Cuba hosts every 2 years. For Cuban artists this is the chance to get some international recognition while the spotlight is turned on, and is an opportunity to stretch out of the unknown and into a whole new league. JR shot portraits of elderly Cuban’s and wheat-pasted larger than life sized black and white images onto the sides of buildings within the neighborhoods they reside in. His accomplice used abstract brushstrokes to enhance the captured faces that already spoke louder than words could ever capture. A newspaper information guide to the bienal listed all the street corners, kind of like a legend of sorts, for a real life treasure hunt to find these portraitures scattered all over different parts of La Habana. A large majority of these pictures were pasted in neighborhoods that travelers would never find themselves in, which I think was part of the theme of this collaboration. With “esquinas” marked off on our map and our eyes finely tuned in on finding these gigantic “Wrinkles of the City”, we sought out on a 6 mile journey through the twisty, time-warped puzzle of the city. The unique part of this mission was getting to know these old, hidden neighborhoods where kids were playing baseball in the streets, men were welding metal bicycle frames, cars were being repaired, and outdoor boxing gymnasiums popped out of nowhere before our constantly scanning retinas. By following this invisible, interactive path we felt like we were part of an exploration, like no tourist before us could have possibly found themselves here wandering these same streets. In total we found about a dozen of the portraits (I think there were about 25 listed, but some seemed to have disappeared) on our photogenic treasure hunt. We eventually ended up back at the Coppeleria for another round of ice cream goodness. I’ll never forget the image of the skinny older gentleman next to us waiting contently with a gigantic 1lb piece of layered cake on the table in front of him. He looked like he could have been one of the portraits we had been seeking out, a wrinkled man with a whole lifetime behind him of work, Cuban living, and social extremism. We imagined what could possibly be stopping him from digging into this massive sweet treat while our order was being processed. The answer to our question came moments later when the server brought three “tres gracias” next to his cake, totally 9 scoops of ice cream. He began mashing the ice cream into the cake and it all quickly disappeared. This time I ordered 3 “tres gracias” for myself as well. When in Habana…
Another necessary stop was the Museo Historia de la Revolucion. This museum was the former presidential palace where the previous president before Fidel, Batista, held his office. Under Fidel’s orders, a team of rebels arrived hidden in a supply truck armed to the teeth with guns and cojones the size of grapefruits. Bullet holes remain inside the building to preserve this ballsy move to oust the leadership and add a touch of reality to the history, as told by Fidel of course. Propoganda and heavily opinionated “truths” cover this museum’s walls and tell his side of the story, mainly the gusto that Fidel, commondante Che, and Camilo Cienfuegos displayed when they took control of Cuba from their base camp in the jungles of the Sierra Maestra. Very interesting artifacts are kept behind glass as well as tons of images of young Fidel and his troops training in the jungles and highlands of Cuba. The history seemed to have stopped suddenly in the early 90’s, probably due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union that helped perpetuate the catastrophic slide of Cuba’s economy. This version of history is a highly polarized one and continually states, and shoves, the ideas that everything is going as planned with the principals of socialism that Fidel created, when present day Cuba tells a much different story. At it’s roots it seems like Fidel’s ideals were beneficial to the people suffering from the prior dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista. Initially Fidel gave back to the country in a socialized platform guaranteeing free healthcare, housing, education, and a general idea that everyone helps out each other. A kind of brotherhood was created, somewhat uniting the country as a whole (in my opinion). Still to this day Cuban’s have a bond with each other that no outsider will ever fully comprehend. They’ve been through thick and thin and it’s in their DNA to help out a neighbor or friend in need. This ideal situation turned sour over time through politics and Fidel’s infamous jabs and punches with the US during the cold war. The embargo began crippling the economy and at the same time it didn’t evolve with the rest of the world. This ultimately kept Cuba in it’s own bubble of yesteryear while families hold on for hope of a more prosperous tomorrow. During the mid 90’s things got so bad that wages were cut drastically to somewhere around 5$ a month in order to keep Cuba from going completely broke. The Cubans had to adapt and survive, coming up with creative ways to eat and live juxtaposed against their ruler having beautiful, private homes in each one of the 40 provinces. But through and through many Cuban’s we interacted with still stand behind the cause and are united through the bond of the tough times they’ve been through. We were finding out more and more that in Cuba there are only 2 types of people: Cubans and foreigners. Us foreigners will probably never understand what’s behind the curtain of Cuban windows because we weren’t born into it.
To beat the now tumultuous heat we sought out Playa Este, just outside of Habana for some Caribbean beach relaxation. The waters were crystal clear and aqua blue while the sun was burning bright in the clear skies. Cuba’s beaches are full of colorful souls playing music under thatched roofs, watching the waves roll in, and enjoying the freedoms of the beautiful surroundings that are available for their enjoyment. They looked like postcard beaches, endless stretches of white sand and gentle, shallow waves rolling repeatedly. I listened in on two Cubans wasting away the afternoon beneath a thatched roof umbrella learning to play a song together. They were bickering over what chords came next, where the next verse was supposed to start, and when to sing. When the song came together it fit the soundtrack perfectly to the day that was happening around them on the shores of the beach. Bueno.
We made it part of our duty to see the massive display of artwork the Bienal was showcasing at the Castillo on the other side of Habana’s harbor. The Castillo is a war fort of the past (built in the 1700’s) complete with massive cannons aimed towards the city, moats protecting it’s foundation, and giant limestone blocks reinforcing it’s outer skin. This was a very unique setting for a modern day art exhibition. The Cuban art scene consists of an otherworldly talented pool of highly skilled artists who produce amazing pieces ranging from paintings, drawings, photography, videography, collages, metal works, pottery, and conceptual. We spent hours wandering the fort in the hot heat while the artists themselves were hanging out in their designated spaces chatting to anyone who wanted to talk about anything. One unique installation consisted of an entire hollowed out palm tree with light bulbs inserted into it’s trunk in an otherwise pitch black empty room. The roof of the castle was not roped off so I naturally climbed up for a bird’s eye view of the city and the horizon lines. When we got back into town we took a guided tour through the Teatro Nacional, Cuba’s gorgeous, otherworldly home for theatre, ballet, and dance performances. Exploring through the grandiose architecture was a definite trip worth every penny. The tour took us through old rooms with workers repairing chandeliers and fixtures, libraries and study rooms, and right in front of a practice room filled with dozens of performers training in class. We could only catch a tiny glimpse of what was going on through a tiny rectangle where clouded glass used to be, watching dancers jump, move, and pose with the soundtrack of 40 feet stomping in a choreographed unison. The thunderous noise echoing off the walls boomed right through our bodies as we listened and imagined what it really looked like on the other side of the portal.
Yet another thing to check off the list was a trip on the Hershey Train. This electric train was built in 1917 by Hershey himself to provide reliable transportation for workers that was always on time. Argelio (our dad in Habana) explained that his dad worked at the sugar factory and shed light on the trains significance. They used to pack his father’s lunch and send it on 10:37AM train so that it would arrive in a lunch box right on time for break. We woke up late in a panicked state because my alarm did not provide enough gusto to snap me out of sleep. We began speed walking down the road, barely awake, and realized we were not going to make the departure. After quickly hailing a cab we caught a more than authentic ferry across the harbor filled to the gills with commuters. Our efforts were in vain because the moment we stepped off the ferry we found out the tracks were under construction and the train was departing from a different location way out of reach. Argelio commented on this outcome by saying “Welcome to Cuba” with a big grin. I was finding out more and more that circumstances like this was part of daily life in Cuba. Patience is engrained in their DNA because there really is no other option but to wait for things to get back up and running or find another way. It is also important to note that when it rains in Habana it pours! We left our casa with a warning about rain from our parents thinking things would be fine. As soon as we got outside we were in the middle of the most torrential downpour I’ve ever been witness to. Drops the size of marbles pummeled us and we immediately became fully saturated versions of ourselves. We almost ran to the Malecon remembering the constant stream of cars night and day driving along the ocean thinking taxi’s would be our savior, but to our surprise there was not a single taxi fording the river that the road used to be on. When it rains in Habana, life disappears into the safety of roofed protection and it is foolish to be outside in the elements.
Our last night in town we both felt that we needed more time in this beautifully strange, surreal world. Life here was an anomaly, and there was certainly no other place in the world like it. We both knew we had to return, we just couldn’t say when. Cuba has so much more to offer than just cigars, rum, and old cars. It’s a true social experiment that the world is invited to come through and take a stab at figuring out how it operates. It’s a place where real, genuine people are full of pride and you can sense what it is to truly like be Cuban. They are not entirely bothered by the thousands that flock in with cameras, taking pictures of them eating lunch on the sidewalk like they are some rare leopard in the Serengeti. Through all the hardships and turmoil that this country has been through, you are almost still overcome with the sense that this ship will not sink no matter how many holes get poked through it’s hull. After we ate breakfast Argelio tried to give me one of his geology books of Cuba, something that I would have surely treasured for the rest of my life. I could not accept his humble offer, knowing that material things are so hard to come by for him and are easily procured back where I’m from. I snapped a picture of his amazing book collection for my own shelf when I get back. One last breakfast before we left for the airport in a family friend’s taxi cab back to our metal transport vessel. I don’t think Elissa or I spoke much as we puttered along the highway out of town. My goal is to get back here one day to see how things have evolved since this trip, if at all. I just don’t know when.
If you visit Habana consider staying at Lidia y Argelio’s casa: Crespo No. 105 e/Colon y Trocadero, Centro Habana (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you make it to Vinales consider staying at Villa Blanca: Calle Camilo Cienfuegos no. 20 e/Celso Maragoto y Adela Azcuy (email: email@example.com)