Sunday, April 5, 2009

Adiós Cuba

Above: Havana as seen from La Habana Vieja.

The week went so fast--too fast. This Sunday morning, after an early breakfast, we all boarded the bus for a two and a half hour trip from Viñales to Havana's José Martí International Airport. Only one person out of the group stayed for an additional week in Cuba. Vicky and I would not get home until late on Monday night, because plane connections are hugely spaced out, but we arranged to spend the night in Mexico City, so at least we'd be able to rest.

Below: Havana's Christ as seen from La Habana Vieja.
It's too soon for me to have processed all the lessons learned while in Cuba, but I can say with certainty that the trip was worth every penny. It was a fabulously fun learning experience, one that can't be replaced by reading or even knowing people from the island. I wish I could have spent at least a month there, but that just means I'll have to carve time to return.
So, in this final posting I'll simply let you enjoy a few of my favorite pictures, some taken by Vicky.
Below: near the plaza in Viñales, top on my list of all the pictures I took during the week.

Below, Conrado Benitez who was killed during the literacy campaign in 1961 simply because he was teaching people to read and write.
Below, peeking into Ernest Hemingway's private life, a receipt given to him for payment he made to dock his yatch, Pilar.
Below, Santeras ready to tell anyone's future at the plaza in front of the cathedral.

Yep, our bus broke down, but we had a replacement in less than an hour.
Below, tourist trees... all red and peeling!

Below, a mural at the Literacy Museum.

Pictures taken by Vicky
Below, me holding on to El Caballero de Paris/the Gentleman of Paris in La Habana Vieja. Legend has it that he was a proud and kind homeless philosopher in 1950s Havana, and that if you touch his beard or finger, you will have good luck.

Below, the hill where Che readied his men for the revolution.

I saw this painting at the Museo Nacional de Cuba, El Rapto de las Mulatas, painted in 1938 by Carlos Enríquez, one of the "Scandalous Painters." I know its value as an expressionist Cuban painting; I know that it references Jacques Louis David's 1799 painting, Intervention of the Sabine Women, which in turn references the ancient myth of Romulus’ founding of Rome... blah, blah, but the image is so disturbing!
Ceiba tree
Below, old picture of El Templete from the web... because I've been thinking about Ceibas, those massive sacred trees in Maya culture where they were known as "ya'axche," which means "the first tree"/the tree of life. In Maya spiritual belief the Ceiba is a model for the universe; Maya believed that Ceibas held up the sky. Cubans believe that Ceibas have magical power. We saw a young Ceiba at El Templete in Havana, planted on 19 May 1960 to replace the one that had been there since 1691. Every November people are allowed to enter the chapel and to circle the tree three times in silence, touching it, hugging and kissing it, hoping to have their wishes granted.
To read
Under the Shade of the Ceiba Tree , a novel by Betty Heisler-Samuels (Chutzpah Publishing 2002). A fictionalized account of Castro's death, the beginnings of Cuba's black population, Santería, music, folklore, and the future of Cubans on the island and in exile.

A National Georgraphic Channel series: "Inside Guantanamo."

Thank you to all my students, colleagues, family and friends for reading and enjoying my trip vicariously!

Saturday, April 4, 2009


We started this Saturday morning by running in a short version of the Terry Fox cancer-fundraising marathon in Viñales--and Vicky won!!! What a beautiful mural right in the middle of town! Our aim this morning was to explore the rural agriculture-based Viñales Valley, which is particularly famous for its great freestanding rock formations, called mogotes, that are designated as one of only four UNESCO Cultural Heritage Landscape sites. We visited several local farming families; in one we learned about the process of cultivating tobacco, an essential and famed commodity for Cuba's US-blockaded economy.

Sublime tobacco...
Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe,
When tipp'd with amber; mellow, rich and ripe:
Like other charmers, wooing the caress
More dazzlingly when daring in full dress:
Yet thy true lovers more admire by far
Thy naked beauties--Give me a cigar!
from Lord Byron's "The Island" II, 19

(To the left, tobacco leaves drying.) At home I have a cocktail table-size book called The Havana Cigar: Cuba's Finest by Charles del Todesco (NY, Abbeville Press Publishers); I bought it in 1996 when it was first published in English, because the photography, by Patrick Jantet, is gorgeous, and because I'm enthralled by the cultural history of the Cuban cigar. Among the things I learned in this book is that tobacco, grown in the "new" world long before Columbus' arrival, had been used as a state-altering ingredient to facilitate divinations and communication with supernatural spirits. And, that Cuba is the "motherland" of tobacco. Early in the history of tobacco's exportation, Catholic priests emphasized tabacco's use in Native religious ceremonies in order to demonstrate--and denounce--its diabolical character. Nevertheless, by 1540 the use of tobacco had spread throughout Europe, and throughout the Far East by the early 1600s. By 1612 tobacco was being grown in Virginia, US!

By the early 1800s, cigar factories were burgeoning in Havana. They became places for promulgating ideas, and for promoting literacy. One interesting by-product was the use of lectors in cigar factories. His (it was never a woman) role was to inform the workers about current events, perhaps to inculcate political ideas, but also to entertain them and keep them happy so that they produced more. Oftentimes, the lector read from great works of literature; consequently, illiterate workers were very familiar with the intellectual and polemical issues in Don Quixote, for instance. Two cool factoids: José Martí was a lector in and around Tampa, Florida after his exile to the US. Nilo Cruz (see here too), a Cuban American playwright, wrote a fabulous play, called Anna in the Tropics, about lectors in Florida's cigar factories.
We visited a small tobacco farm and met the owner, Benito (pictured above, his bohio, where the leaves are dried, in the background) whose parents, like most tobacco farmers in Cuba, emigrated from the Canary Islands. He talked to us about raising, drying and curing tobacco, and then he rolled a few cigars. He also clarified that he's contracted with the government to grow a certain amount of tobacco, and that he's allowed to keep the excess--and surely, he must need it; he showed us how he packs bunches of cigars into each of his shirt pockets, so that they're readily available to him through the workday--all ten cigars, yes, ten cigars a day! But he affirmed repeatedly that he only smokes the first half of each cigar. The other half he throws back into the soil, because as the cigar burns it intensifies the potency of nicotine. At age 68, he said, he's yet to cough because of a cigar.

This is soooo funny: all week Vicky kept telling me that we tourists can be very silly taking pictures. She told me a hilarious story about her grandparents back in their Greek village. Tourists would stop by and her grandmother was consistently consternated by them taking pictures of their house, and their flowers, and their chickens and animals--all the things that were mundane to her. Vicky imitated her grandmother calling out to her grandfather and showing him how she took an egg and pushed it in a tourist's face to explain that it was just an egg, just an egg. I was in stitches. Then, when we were visiting Benito, he walked over to his chicken coop and started feeding all his birds. Vicky took her camera and was clicking away when suddenly she turned to me and cracked up in the loudest heartiest laugh I'd heard all week. I think everyone else must have thought we were crazy. (Below, another farmer's home, mogotes in the background.)
Afterward, we took a magical walking and boat tour through the limestone Cueva del Indio (pictured on the left) used by Guanahatabey Amerindians as a burial site, and later as a refuge from Spanish slavers. The group walked a little inside the cave, then boarded two boats and motored up the subterranean river for a bit and then back and out of the cave. The tour guide pointed out different formations resembling various things such as a witch, and animals. This cave is part of one of the largest cave systems in Latin America. Lunch was in the restaurant (pictured below) on one side of the Dos Hermanas mogote, right in front of the Mural de la Prehistoria (a bit of it shows to the left of the car in the picture).

Then we returned to the town for a last dinner together at Casa de Don Tomas Restaurant in the oldest building in Viñales. After exploring the open-air craft market and the church, there was dancing in the central plaza at the Parque Martí.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Pinal del Río

The vistas became more and more beautiful (as you can see in the picture of sugar cane fields above) early Friday morning when we left Havana and drove 50 km west to Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range in the municipality called Pinal del Río. Sierra del Rosario occupies the easter half of the Guaniquanico mountain range. The area was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1985. A major project in this community of farmers was founded by the revolutionary government in 1968; it integrated sustainable development with tourism and aimed to focus on reforestation, historical preservation, environmental balance and on helping farmers to make a living. The name of the community derives from the terraces that were laid out and are now a characterisitic feature of the area. When we arrived at Rancho Curujey, the reserve's visitor and information center right by the small Lago San Juan, we were served a welcome drink called Curujey (which is also the common name for the epiphytes that grow abundantly); it consists of Fanta orange pop, Pepsi or Coke, ice and Cuban rum. I drank coffee instead.

I had great fun walking through the lush area filled with wild orchids, ferns and, my most favorite, mimosa pudica (the shy/sensitive plant). That seemed to be growing everywhere! Mimosa pudica is a creeping perennial herb native to South and Central America; its leaves curl inward and close at night or when touched. That type of movement is called nyctinastic; essentially, the movement is caused by turgor pressure, that is, stimuli unbalances the water in each of the cells. Botanists believe that this plant's ability to shrink is a defense mechanism. Of course, I didn't know any of that when I was a child and spent endless hours entertaining myself with this amazing plant. Back then I called it "morir-vivir"--to die-to live! I was thrilled to see them again!
From Rancho Curujey, we went on to Cafetal Buenavista, a coffee plantation built by the French in 1801, worked by African slaves, and now exquisitely restored. The vistas from there are outstanding, as you can see in the picture on the left. (Note the tree; its botanical name is almácigo/mastic lentiscus, but now it is commonly known as "the tourist tree," because the peeling bark is red, like white-skinned tourists who forget to wear suntan lotion.) Pinal del Río, the easternmost region of the island, is famous for producing the finest tobacco leaves in Cuba and maybe even the world. Perhaps that's because of the abundant pine trees that shade tobacco plants. This picture, taken by Vicky, shows the man or/and mule-powered coffee grinder:

Today, Pinal del Río contributes 70% of the raw material used to make cigars. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch in the veranda of the restored plantation house. Of course, there was live music and invariably various renditions of the very popular song "Hasta Siempre Comandante Che Guevara." I think we heard that song at least four times a day; it was especially fun to hear it with Vicky, because she'd learned it while growing up in Greece, so she'd sing it along in Greek while everyone else was singing in Spanish. (Picture of performers by Vicky.) Here are the two versions: in Greek (with loads of pictures), then in Spanish (sung by Compay Segundo and Buena Vista Social Club).

"Hasta la victoria siempre!"

Well, since I'm on this reminiscing kick, I might as well tell you about how psyched I was during my early teens, because my parents allowed me to wear a beret, just like Che's, and to line my bedroom walls with pictures of him. I often imagined being his sidekick and fighting for justice in mountains unknown. Oh my... If by chance you don't know about Ernesto "Che" Guevara, check out his life, here and here. (Picture of Che from the web.)

After lunch, we went to the San Juan river; supposedly, the water has mineral and medicinal properties.

We also visited primary and secondary schools; teachers seemed just as resourceful as those in Havana.

I should also tell you that I survived the week by eating, almost exclusively, rice, beans and cabbage. It's hard for vegetarians in Cuba! It's amazing, but fresh fruit and vegetables are very limited. So is milk. Once, at a restaurant, I ordered coffee with milk, and I was told they were out of milk. But, a plate of Morros y Cristianos has all that you need: proteins from the beans and carbs from the rice. It's a national dish, and rather symbolic of the synergy between black and white people in Cuba (and elsewhere in the Caribbean). The dish is not called Moors and Christians for nothing.

Below is a typical country house, an updated bohio. Bohios are the homes built by indigenous people on the island. They were made of tree trunks, wooden posts and palm leaves. The dirt floors were compacted and brushed smooth. Today's bohios have tile roofs and cement floors, plus lots of windows and doors for the breeze to travel.
And, here's a picture of a doctor's house. Each municipality has one house exactly like it (that way everyone knows where the doctor can be found). The doctor and her/his family live upstairs; patients are seen downstairs. After the revolution appromimately half of all doctors left the country, so the government made huge efforts, and was successful, in training new doctors and sending them out to the countryside. Consequently, today Cuba has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the region, with the average citizen living to age 76, even though the blockade dramatically limits the availability of medicines.

We spent this Friday and Saturday nights at Rancho San Vicente Hotel in Viñales only 5 km from the center of town and on the banks of the Río San Vicente surrounded by flowers, palm, pine and fruit trees and the sounds of the country side.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Regla, Santería

This Thursday, we started by visiting another pre-school. Typically, such schools service working parents; they're open from 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM Monday through Saturday, and they serve snacks and lunch. The kids are from age 1 to 5 (or 6), and if needed they attend until they transfer to first grade.

I was really struck, again, by how much the teachers do with so very little, and, in this particular pre-school, I was glad to see many pictures and artifacts--sitting side-by-side--representing both the revolution (Che, Fidel and Raul) and Disney and capitalism--glad because to me that signals a deliberate attempt to foster critical thinking from the very start.

At another pre-school we visited (picture of kids in front of old computers by Vicky), I was saddened by the ancient computers available to kids--and, of course, by the fact that they don't have access to the internet.

Nonetheless, Cuba has the highest literacy rate for both females and males (99.8%) and highest number of highly educated professionals in all of Latin America.

Actually, Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the entire world, higher than in the United States (which stands at 99%).

(Check out the statistics from the UN's 2007/2008 Human Development Report.) Admittedly, Cuba has a long history of high literacy rates, even pre-revolution (when it was 76%), but to me, 99.8% is indeed a triumph of Castro's revolution.

On the way to take the ferry across Havana Harbor from Habana Vieja to Regla, we saw this splendid building, the Russian Orthodox Church.

I really like this picture of the Harbor entrance/exit; the light at the moment I took the picture was perfect and all of my favorite blues show clearly. Havana Harbor is a major port and leading commercial center; it's been a key component of Cuba's long record as a trading center. Sugar and slaves passed through this harbor. Now there's still sugar, but trading is also dependent on tourism, the meat-packing and food-processing industry, production of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Fifty per cent of Cuban imports and exports go through Habana Harbor.

This harbor is where the USS Battleship Maine was blown up on 15 February 1898; 260 people died. The Maine had been sent to supposedly protect American citizens in Cuba during struggles between Cubans and Spaniards. It's not certain who did the blowing up, but that event served as the catalyst for American involvement in the struggle. That following 25 April the US Congress declared war on Spain. As a result, Spain lost all her possessions in the new world, and the US emerged as a world power. (Here's an old picture of the Maine.)

We took the ferry across Havana Harbor to Regla, the town, and to the Afrocuban/Santería church of Regla, where the Virgen de Regla is the patron saint; she's syncretic with Yemayá, the goddess/deity of the sea, and mother of all living things, in Yoruba religion. Her number is seven (because of the 7 seas), and her colors blue and white. While there, I remembered that in the early 1990s, New Yorkricans Louie Vega and La India recorded a song called "Love & Happiness (Yemayá Y Ochún)" which includes an Afro-Cuban chant. It's now remixed as a housedance number. Listen to it. Okay, just one more song: this one's from the 1950s, I think; it's called "Yemayá" and it's sung by all-time salsera Celia Cruz.

The town of Regla, known for its rich colonial history, is fascinating. It's an industrial suburb with shipyards, docks, refineries and foundries. Nuestra Señora de Regla (aka Virgen the Regla), a Spanish import, has been the town's centerpiece since its official founding in 1765. (Interesting... Regla's sister city is Richmond, California, not far from where I live!)
While in Regla, we visited a museum dedicated to Santería. That was exciting to me, since I first heard of the religion while growing up in the Bronx. I remember once, when I was a teenager, going to a Santería ceremony, because my neighbor was being "crowned" as a high priest. Hmmm... crown is not the right word; maybe it's "annointed." There was a lot of conga and guiro playing, chanting, fierce dancing, animal sacrifices, eating and drinking--and running back and forth for supplies at the nearby Botanica. Check this out (you can find anything on youtube...): here's a video of one of those sorts of Santería ceremonies dedicated to Yemayá.