Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Art and literacy

What a fabulous day, filled with arts and letters--and it was Vicky's birthday! Here she is cutting her cake during lunch at the whimsical home and studio (in Jaimanita, just outside Havana) of famous ceramist and painter José Fuster. More on that later; now I want to tell you about higher education and our visit to the University of Habana, the first university in Cuba, established in 1728.

UH consists of 16 faculties, 14 research centers and 25 majors; it now has over 6,000 students. Traditionally, the university has bred political activism, but after Fulgencio Batista's coup d'état, it became the center of anti-government activities until he closed it in 1956. It reopened in 1959 after the revolution. This past February UH inaugurated the Nanotechnologies College of the University of Havana; it will be nicknamed “NanoUH.” Major aims include educating Cuban students, promoting advances in nanoscale science, and developing the nanotechnology industry in Cuba. Advances in nanotechnology can be applied in sectors such as healthcare, energy and the environment. (Picture of the 88 steps and entrance columns at UH by Vicky.) It struck me that architecturally, the UH looks a lot like Columbia University in New York (where I grew up): the massive columns and the Alma Mater, especially, remind me of CU. It turns out, we learned during the visit, that CU's Alma Mater (which sits at the steps of the Low Library) was the gift of Mrs. Robert Goelet and Robert Goelet Jr. and was presented in 1903. (Picture of CU's Alma Mater with a book on her lap from the web.) The bronze Alma Mater at UH was inspired by Columbia’s Alma Mater and was created in 1919 by Czech sculptor Mario Korbel while he lived in New York City. Notably, the facial features of UH's Alma Mater resemble a Cuban criolla, since it was sculpted to look like the daughter of a faculty member at UH at the time.

We met with UH's professor of History and Law Dr. Delio Carrera to explore university level pedagogy, and to tour the university grounds. I especially enjoyed seeing the Aula Magna, built in 1906. It's a ceremony room where, most recently, people such as Hugo Chavez, Pope John Paul II, and Jimmy Carter have been received. I like the ceilings; they are covered with seven splendid frescos painted by Armando Menocal y Menocal, one of them pictured here. We saw his art again at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Presidential Palace/Museum of the Revolution.

Menocal y Menocal was an eminent painter of landscapes, portraits and historical scenes. He was born in Cuba in (debatedly) 1861 and died in Cuba in 1942. He studied art for a time in Spain, and returned to Cuba to teach art, but in 1895 he interrupted his painting and teaching to join the Cuban War for Independence from Spain as an assistant to Máximo Gómez Báez. (I have to say: Máximo Gómez Báez was a Dominican who fought in support of the Spaniards during the Dominican Annexation War of 1861-1865. When the Spaniards lost the battle, he self-exiled to Cuba, where he lived for the next 40 years until his death, and there he took up the Cuban struggle for freedom; he's famed for having implemented war tactics such as macheting whole troops and torching sugar cane fields and plantations.)
After the visit to UH, we enjoyed a bus tour of modern Havana. we saw the Capitol building (a smaller replica of the Capitol building in Washington, DC), the Grand Theatre, Central Park, Prado Promenade, more of the Malecón seawall, Monument of the Battleship Maine, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (where Máximo Gómez Báez and other illustrious people are buried), Miramar, Central Havana, Revolution Square and the Jose Martí Memorial (pictured on the above).

Here I want to tell you just a little about José Martí. But for fun, check out the best known (some call it the Cuban national anthem) Cuban song, "Guantanamera," which has lyrics based on Martí's poetry (the video includes photos of him).

This video of Pete Seeger singing "Guantanamera" is interesting.

"Like bones to the human body, the axle to the wheel, the wing to the bird, and the air to the wing, so is liberty the essence of life. Whatever is done without it is imperfect." José Martí

José Martí is the national hero of Cuba but he's also very important in all of Latin American literature and politics. He was an impressively prolific poet, essayist, journalist, children's writer, philosopher, theorist, translator, professor, publisher and political activist who fought fiercely against Spain and the United States and for Cuban independence; he was instrumental in forming the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Martí was born in Cuba in 1853 and was killed in battle with the Spanish troops in 1895 in Cuba. He lived in Europe and the Americas (including New York), and traveled widely, always speaking and writing in support of Cuban independence. He abhorred slavery anywhere for any reason. The most salient issue for me, as an American visiting Cuba, is the very different perspectives Martí's life and work evoke: Fidel Castro's Marxist ideology upholds Martí as inspiration, whereas many who are anti-Castro uphold Martí as a nuanced proponent of democracy. One has to read his work carefully to determine which side he might have supported.
Then we visited the Museo de la Alfabetización/Museum of Literacy and met with its director, Susana Morejon, to review the 1961 literacy campaign in Cuba and how its practices are being employed in Latin America currently. The museum exhibits relics of the 1961 literacy campaign. This campaign brought tens of thousands of city youth into contact with the country people, breaking down racial barriers and instilling a spirit of national cohesion. I took way too many pictures of murals, books, posters and statues, but it was absolutely thrilling for me, as a literacy theorist, to visit the museum and see these artifacts first hand.
And... José Fuster's home, studio and art... I thought I'd walked into a slice of Antoni Gaudi's Barcelona! Derivative! Ha! That was my first reaction, but then I thought about the Cuban psychological tradition (dangerous territory to say that, I know) which, rather than focus on the individual, emphasizes family, community and the social environment, and Fuster's work made sense to me. His aim has been to involve an entire neighborhood in re-envisioning their role in the making of art, in collaborating, in beautifying their living spaces with whatever they can find in times of scarcity. The picture below is of one tile, made by someone in the neighborhood, among hundreds covering houses, fences, and any surface imaginable. ________________________________
We also visited the Museum of Fine Arts where we examined the evolution of Cuba's visual arts over the last 300 years. The museum's collection traces the richness of Cuba's Spanish, French, Chinese and African cultural roots. The day ended with a walk through the open-air handicraft market in Old Havana, and a stroll past the public art exhibit of reproductions from great works in the Louvre. Havana is filled with art!

Monday, March 30, 2009

A poem and architecture

(Street scene in La Habana Vieja by Vicky)

I've always wanted to visit Cuba for personal reasons too--for instance, the history of my name, Dulce María, being rooted in my French ancestors' detour through Cuba, and in my poet grandmother's affinity for her contemporary, Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz who was not as well known at the time. Growing up, I learned to revel in Loynaz's sensual and passionate work. I've also enjoyed the fact that Dulce María Loynaz, born on 10 December 1902, saw herself as a wanderer; she traveled through Europe, the Middle East, South America and the US. Her poem, "Viajero" ("Traveler"), is powerful. But, after the revolution she lived in Emily Dickinson-like seclusion until she died on 27 April 1997 at age 94. So, I want to start this entry with a poem I currently repeat as if in mantra.

Que la vida no vaya más allá de tus brazos.
Que yo pueda caber con mi verso en tus brazos,
que tus brazos me ciñan entera y temblorosa
sin que afuera se queden ni mi sol ni mi sombra.
Que me sean tus brazos horizonte y camino,
camino breve y único horizonte de carne:
que la vida no vaya más allá... Que la muerte
se parezca a esta muerte caliente de tus brazos!

What I Want
To have life go no farther than your arms.
To hide with my poem in your arms.
To have your arms encircle me whole and trembling
leaving nothing outside, not my sun, not my shadow.
To have your arms my horizon and highway,
short highway and only horizon of flesh:
To have life go no farther... To have death
resemble this feverish death of your arms!

This poem is in Dulce María Loynaz: A Woman in Her Garden (Selected Poems), translated by Judith Kerman et al. White Pine, Buffalo, NY 2002.
(Street sign in Old Havana)

It took nine years to build the Scale Model of the city of Havana (picture, below, by Vicky); it is the second largest scale model in the world after the one of New York. It encompasses the most important zones of Havana at a scale of 1 to 1000 and explains past, present and future developments within 4 sq km of the city center. The tiny buildings are made of recycled cedar wood cigar boxes, and they are painted in different colors to represent the three major phases of the city's development: the colonial period from 1519 to 1898; the post-independence period when there was rapid growth and technological development from 1898 to 1959; the revolutionary years from 1959 to the present, as well as future urban plans. The Model shows the city in all its magnitude and beauty.

We began the day by meeting with world-renowned architect, urban planner and professor Dr. Mario Coyula, who is in charge of the Scale Model and is also the director of the Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital/Group for the Integrated Development of the City, a multidisciplinary team of experts that works as an advisor on urban policies for the city government. It promotes a comprehensive development of Havana, and helps to create awareness about all issues concerning the city.
It's amazing to think through Habana's history, from the inception of the city to now, and the factors that have impacted its architecture. It's true: generally, even though UNESCO declared Havana a World Heritage site in 1982 (and thus you might assume that world funds would be poured into it), the city is in dire need of fixing up. Though still beautiful and eclectic, after 40 years of neglect, worsened by the salty humidity of the ocean, most buildings are peeling and falling (see street scenes below). But there are signs of active revitalization, for example, the Hotel Los Frailes (musicians in the lobby pictured on the left) located in a narrow alley in Habana Vieja, just steps from Plaza San Francisco (pictured below), is impeccably restored. It was the former mansion of the fourth Marquis and Captain of the French Navy, Don Pedro Claudio Duquesne, and now, repurposed, it makes you feel as if you're in a medieval abbey. La Habana is visceral; 3 of its 11 million people live in the city; tourism and investments are expanding. And no matter its current condition, I agree with Christopher Columbus who (during his first voyage in the vessel Santa Maria) wrote, "I have never seen such a beautiful place." He spent five weeks in Cuba and liked it so much that he returned the following year to explore it again. By 1516 there were seven permanent settlements established on the island, including one he called El Puerto de Carenas. Later, it was renamed Batabano, then San Cristóbal de la Habana, and ultimately simply Habana. By 1519 when the city was fully established, it was described as "the jewel of the Spanish crown."
The second of today's three highlights was visiting Museo de la Revolución y Granma Memorial/ Museum of the Revolution, located in the former Presidential Palace. There we learned about the history of the Cuban Revolution and examined documents and objects, among them the famous yacht Granma that returned Fidel and his 82 guerilla fighters from Mexico to Cuba to launch the struggle for liberation from the Batista dictatorship, and an SU 100 tank destroyer (pictured above).

Oh yes, and the third highlight was that we were scheduled to examine the teaching of music and dance--and it was my birthday! We actually danced on the rooftop of a private house in Habana Vieja, and I was given a bottle of Cuban rum, which, of course, I shared with the entire group. In one of these two pictures you see members of the band that played that night, Grupo Dulce María (think that name's popular in Cuba?), pouring the first and best bit of the rum in honor of all the Santos.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

We arrive!

Finally! We arrived in La Habana. Despite being tired from the long trip, and the stimulating 30 minute taxi ride from the José Martí international Airport, there was no way I'd go to sleep, so Vicky and I dropped our luggage at the Hotel Habana Libre in La Rampa, a central neighborhood in Vedado. Until the revolution, this was the Hilton Hotel that had been opened in March 1958 and had become a gambling casino and playground for rich Americans. But, the revolution triumphed on 1 January 1959, and Fidel Castro and his supporters took over the building on 8 January and nationalized the property. The Continental Suite, room 2324, was renamed Puesto de Mando de la Revolución; it served as headquarters during the next three months while Castro, the Comandante en Jefe, planned how to proceed. Of course, Hilton was unhappy and demanded two million dollars, which the new government paid.

The Habana Libre is near the extensive Malecón Seawall that hugs the coast for seven and a half miles (as seen above in the picture taken by Vicky), the University of Habana, the exquisite Hotel Nacional, not far from Habana Vieja, and diagonally from Parque de las Taquillas and the very interesting Heladería Coppelia. From the 23rd floor balcony window of the hotel we'd seen a very long line snaking around what seemed like a spaceship in the middle of the park. Those long lines squaring off the corners of 23rd and L streets turned out to be people socializing and waiting to buy ice cream. Ice cream!? All those people?! Yes. Heladería Coppelia does indeed sell delicious ice cream, we soon found out! It's one of a chain of stores found throughout Cuba. We walked through the packed perimeter and outdoor gardens, and the six dining halls housed under the "space ship," where people pay with pesos, but we had to buy at the empty part for tourists who pay with CUCs. From above, the building is indeed like a two-level spaceship, but from inside it looks like an inverted ice cream cone with stained glass windows. The "Cathedral of Ice Cream," as the place is commonly known, was built by Mario Girona, a Cuban architect who died in August 2008. It opened in June 1966, when the blockade was in full force and Cubans couldn't have soft drinks and ice cream, so, they developed their own.

The place is named after the famous ballet, "Coppélia" choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870. To me, that's a strange choice of names, since the ballet depicts a Frankenstein-like plot about a diabolical inventor who makes a life-size dancing doll and then falls in love with it. In any case, there are 26 flavors that can be purchased from 11:00 AM to 10:30 PM. The best seller is fresa y chocolate, a phrase, I realized later, used as the title for a terrific film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Strawberry and Chocolate, that I saw when it first came out in 1994. It's about Cuban society in 1979 during the peak of discrimination against homosexuals; the film opens with a scene at Heladería Coppelia.
Our first evening in Habana was pretty fun--imagine walking by the fragrance of orange blossoms with an ice-cream cone in your hand, and listening to sexy music and the roar of the ocean as the sun sets. Yeah, the next day we also enjoyed Mojitos (picture below) at the roof garden terrace of Hotel Ambos Mundos in Habana Vieja, where Ernest Hemingway spent a lot of time, in room 551, and wrote the first chapters of his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Recipe for Mojitos: 2 ounces of light Cuban Rum, carbonated/Club water, wedges of lime, mint leaves, 1 1/2 ounces of sugar syrup. Muddle everything except the rum at the bottom of the glass, add ice, then add the rum slowly, stirring as the mint rises. Drink slowly and with people you like.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


I could not wait to sit under a Queen Palm enjoying the hot Caribbean sun! It takes almost a full day to get from northern California to Havana--because there are no direct flights. If you don't have pre-arranged permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which allows you to book a charter flight from Miami, you can fly to Toronto and then take a direct flight from there to La Habana. Or, you can leave CA at 11:00 PM on Saturday and fly to Guadalajara, then to Mexico City, to Cancun, and finally arrive in Havana at 4:00 PM on Sunday. Given that long haul, it makes a lot of sense to pack light enough so that you can carry your suitcase onboard. From the airport it's easy to take a taxi to the hotel. But before that, you have to convert currency.

Front of a Cuban Convertible Peso.

Officially, you can't pay for anything with American dollars, and you can't access American banks through ATMs, and so even if you prepay everything to an educators tour like the one Vicky and I joined, you have to bring cash for incidentals.

Back of a Cuban Convertible Peso

As of November 2004, foreign currencies are no longer accepted in Cuba. Pesos Convertibles, released by the National Cuban Bank, substitute for foreign currency, most intentionally the American dollar. CUCs are not an international currency and Cuban folks don't have easy access to it.

Front of a Cuban peso.

Cubans get paid in Cuban pesos, a different currency; it's what they use to purchase most things. Cuban pesos are of little use to tourists (unless they're visiting very rural areas). One CUC is worth about 24 Cuban pesos.

Back of a Cuban peso.

American dollars can be converted for CUCs at the airport, in hotels and in banks, but it doesn't matter where you do it, because the rate is a flat minus 20 per cent; that includes a 10 per cent extra tax just on the American dollar. That is, right now the American dollar is worth only 80 cents. Other foreign currency is exchanged following the daily currency rate of the international currency market.

In mid 2008 Raul Castro loosened the law and now Cubans are allowed to apply for licenses to drive their own private taxis on specific dates and routes.

Most of those free-market taxi drivers are citizens who own classic Chevys and Packards which are very appealing to tourists, especially. They charge state-established fares.

This new practice is welcome, because despite the government's recent purchase of a fleet of large Chinese buses, the transportation system does not meet the demands of local citizens and tourists.
There are various kinds of other vehicles, among them horse-drawn and bicycle-drawn carriages that are popular with tourists, but the "cutest" of the functional every day taxis for everyone is an open tiny vehicle for two or three passengers.

Hot Topic
Free the Cuban Five

"The Cuban Five" are men who are in US prison serving four life sentences and 75 years collectively. In 2001 a Miami federal court accused and convicted them of committing espionage conspiracy against the US. They claim to have been involved in monitoring actions of Miami-based terrorist groups in order to prevent terrorist attacks on Cuba. They affirm that they never harmed anyone or committed any acts against the US. In August 2005 the conviction was overturned, and a new trial was ordered outside of Miami, but that ruling was vacated two months later, in October.
The case is still under appeal. In Cuba, buildings are covered with posters such as these in support of the five men.

Friday, March 27, 2009

More background info

There's usually confusion about how Americans can visit Cuba, so, before committing to going on the trip I researched a couple of things: I looked into Cuba Education Tours and found that they donate part of the money I'd spend being in Cuba. This Canadian organization supports projects on the island, for instance, architectural preservation, environmental conservation, health care and educational programs. Specifically, CET collaborates with Cuban organizations such as:

Casa del Niño y la Niña/House of the Boy and Girl, is a Central Havana neighborhood (called Cayo Hueso) sponsored learning facility for young (3 to 18 year old) Cubans seeking to expand their academic options following the regular school day. The picture on the right includes the director of the House, Rosa Sardinas, a retired television personality who manages the project simply because she thinks it's truly important.

Asociación Cubana de Pedagogos (Association of Cuban Educators), a professional organization advancing the needs of teachers and improving the quality of education delivery and services on the island.

Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina – ELAM (Latin American School of Medicine). (In this picture on the left you see ELAM students on their way to eat lunch.) ELAM was Established in 1999 and is completely financed by the generousity of Cuban people. ELAM is the largest medical school in the world with a current enrollment of over 12,000 students from over 29 countries. All its students are from outside Cuba and mainly come from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. The school also accepts disadvantaged students from the United States; since 2005 there have been 21 students from the US that have graduated. Tuition, accommodation and board are free, and a small stipend is provided. Upon graduation, young doctors are expected to return to their homelands and provide medical services to the poor for a period of three years.

Museo de la Alfabetización/National Literacy Museum(that's me by the entrance) exhibits relics of the 1961 literacy campaign. Prior to the Revolution a quarter of adult Cubans were illiterate and another million were semi literate. Ten thousand teachers were unemployed and 70% of the rural population had no schools. After 1959 all private schools were nationalized and education became free and universal. Former military garrisons were turned into schools. In 1961 all schools were closed for eight months and some 250,000 students and teachers were sent to rural areas to teach reading and writing, laying the foundation for Cuba's stellar literacy rate today. This campaign brought tens of thousands of city youth into contact with the country people, breaking down racial barriers and instilling a spirit of national cohesion.

"Freedom of movement is the very essence of our free society… Once the right to travel is curtailed, all other rights suffer… The right to know, to converse with others, to consult with them, to observe social, physical, political, and other phenomena abroad as well as at home gives meaning and substance to freedom of expression and freedom of the press."
William O. Douglas, United States Supreme Court Justice, 1964

I looked into the "legality" of American citizens being able to visit Cuba. I wanted to understand the situation clearly. Here's what I learned:

* Of course, the US government can't restrict its citizens from traveling anywhere, but it can impose fines and penalties for disobeying laws such as those established by the "embargo"/blockade on Cuba.
* Essentially, it is illegal for US citizens to spend American dollars in Cuba. Thus, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury Department administers Cuba travel restriction.
* There are exceptions, and therefore some lucky Americans can travel to Cuba legally.
* Those exceptions include: official government travelers, journalists, people visiting close relatives once in three years, full time professionals conducting research, full time professionals attending certain international conferences, persons who have received a specific license.
* "Professionals" include, but are not limited to, lawyers, health care specialists, educators, scientists, artists, agronomists and social workers.
* As an academic, I fall under the "full time professionals conducting research" and can travel to Cuba legally on an OFAC General Research License.
* Travel and accommodation costs related to professional development and research can be tax deductible.

(Picture of street scene on the left taken by Vicky.) This is what the Office of Foreign Assets Control says about the General Research License in it's memo called "Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications to Engage in Travel-Related Transactions Involving Cuba."

"The Regulations currently contain three general licenses authorizing travel-related transactions involving Cuba. General licenses constitute blanket authorization for those transactions set forth in the relevant regulation and are self-selecting and self-executing. No further permission from OFAC is required to engage in transactions covered by that general license. Individuals wishing to engage in travel-related transactions involving Cuba relevant to... full-time professional research conducted by professionals in their professional areas, or attendance at certain professional meetings or conferences... Section 515.564(a) sets forth a general license authorizing certain travel-related and additional transactions that are directly incident to full-time professionals conducting professional research in their professional areas in Cuba or attending meetings or conferences in Cuba. Research requires a full work schedule of noncommercial, academic research that has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination and is in the traveler’s professional area.... Each person engaging in travel-related transactions under a general license must be able to document how he or she qualifies under the general license. For example, a resume or curriculum vitae generally demonstrates an individual’s full-time professional area. A written work plan done prior to travel might also support an individual’s intention of engaging in a full-time schedule of research. No prior written approval from OFAC is required for travel under a general license."

(Picture on the right of iconic Ministry of Interior Defense Building, with Che's image, in Plaza de la Revolución taken by Vicky.)

* So, traveling with a General Research License may not require that the license be filed before travel; that is, prior permission from OFAC is not necessarily needed.
* You prepare and write the license yourself. You take it with you to Cuba, and present it to US immigration officials upon return to the States.
* There are certain obligations, among them:
* the licensee is for full time professional traveling on a Cuba itinerary related to her/his area of expertise, such as an educators tour.
* The research is of a noncommerical academic nature.
* While in Cuba, licensee activities must comprise a full work schedule of research. For example, over the course of a week, there must be twenty or more hours of research via prearranged meetings and site visits with the balance of research hours conducted individually.
* The licensee's research must have a substantial likelihood for public dissemination. This could include, for instance, a paper circulated amongst professional colleagues, an article contributed to a peer journal or newspaper, a blog entry, a webpage, a public address, slide show, or PowerPoint presentation.
* As a licensed traveler, you can fly to Cuba directly via air charter services from Miami. In that case, you must prepare your General Research License before making reservations, as air charter companies must approve it prior to issuing a ticket.
* When flying via Miami your license will be scrutinized by US officials prior to departure. Plus, you'll have to obtain a visa from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC.
* None of this applies when flying to Cuba from other countries, for example, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica or Dominican Republic.

Yes, it's true: you can see 1950s vintage Chevys with Russian transmissions all over the place. For fun: here is Jackson Browne's song about visiting Cuba, "I'm going down to Cuba." (This youtube.com video has some pretty cool footage of Cuban life.) Below are the lyrics:

Sometimes I get to feeling low
Wish I could just pick up and go somewhere new
Change my point of view
Maybe somewhere I don't know
Toss the idea to and fro
Not sure what makes it come and go
There it is again: sweet music on the wind
Over the Gulf of Mexico

I'm going down to Cuba someday soon
Following that Caribbean moon
It's been too long since I've been there
I'm going down to Cuba with my friends
Down where the rhythm never ends
Where women wear gardenias in their hair

People will tell you it's not easy
You're not supposed to go, they say
They say that Cuba is the enemy
I'm going down there anyway

I'm going down to Cuba to see my friends
Down where the rhythm never ends
No problem is too difficult to solve
Yeah times are tough down there it's true
But you know they're going to make it through
They make such continuous use of the verb to resolve
They've got to deal with that embargo
Enough to drive any country insane
They might not know the things you and I know
They do know what to do in a hurricane
Maybe I'll go through Mexico
Old Jesse Helms don't have to know
Anyway all the allies of the USA
Travel to Cuba everyday

I'm going down to Cuba to see my friends
Down where the rhythm never ends
Where by comparison my trouble will just unravel
I'm North American, you know
Don't like to hear where I can't go
Free people will insist on the freedom to travel

I'm going to drink the rum mojito
And walk out on the Malecon
In one hand a Monte Cristo
And in the other an ice cream cone

I'm going down to Cuba with my band
We're going to formulate a plan
Whereby we obtain that cultural permission

If I told you once I told you thrice
It'll put a smile on your face to see a Chevrolet with a Soviet transmission
I bet the country cast a spell
And there are things I think of still
Like the beauty of that woman that spoke to me
In the Hotel Nacional

I'm gonna book my flight today
I'm definitely on my way
Just hold my place and I'll get back in the race
And I'm back in the USA

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Aren't these gorgeous bird's eye views of Havana Cuba--a UNESCO World Heritage Site? I took these pictures from the 23rd floor balcony of the Habana Libre Hotel just as the sun was beginning to set. The round space-ship-looking structure is the Heladería Coppelia, where you can eat Cuba's homegrown delicious ice cream. My one week stay there went so fast! The trip to Cuba is over, and I couldn't blog while there. The US embargo limits the amount of broadband they have available. The two hotels where I stayed did not allow me to access the internet with my laptop, and their connections were very very slow and expensive. There are limited internet cafes in post offices throughout La Habana, but they too are expensive and slow. So, I'm blogging about this fantastic trip a week after my return.

I've wanted to go to Cuba for years; I wanted to visit while Fidel Castro was still in power, but I never got around to it. This spring, I received an email from Cuba Education Tours, and when my friend and colleague, Vicky, noted it too and decided to go, I joined the group. There were 19 professors, teachers, and some spouses from Canada, the UK and the US. The week was an amazing learning and fun experience. In this posting I'll give you background information, and in subsequent posts I'll describe what we did and learned daily. Below is the gist of our itinerary.

FOCUS Cuban Education System / Research duration 35-40 hours

Travel arrival day. Transfer to Hotel Habana Libre located in the heart of Havana's cultural district, Vedado.

Visit the Scale Model of the city of Havana (which took nine years to build and is the second largest in the world after the one of New York), and meet with world-renowned architect, urban planner and professor Dr. Mario Coyula, who is also the director of the Group for the Comprehensive Development of the Capital, Havana City.


Visit the Museum of the Revolution, in the former Presidential Palace, pictured on the left. Today it exhibits the history of the Cuban Revolution through documents and objects, among them the famous Yacht Granma that returned Fidel and his 82 guerilla fighters from Mexico to Cuba to launch the struggle for liberation from the Batista dictatorship. Discuss curatorial and museology methodology.

Walk/tour La Habana Vieja, and historic plazas there (Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, and Plaza de la Catedral); visit educational facilities.

Examine teaching methodologies for dance and music. Dance son, salsa, rumba, chachacha, mambo on the rooftop of an Old Havana house. Grupo Dulce María performs.

Meet with professor of History and Law Dr. Delio Carrera to explore university level pedagogy. He has hosted world leaders such as Hugo Chavez, Pope John Paul II, Jimmy Carter. Tour the University of Havana founded in 1728, especially the law library and the Aula Magna ceremony room.  

Bus/tour modern Havana: Capitol buildging, Grand Theatre, Central Park, Prado Promenade, Revolution Square, Coppelia Ice Cream Park, Plaza Jose Martí in front of the US Interests Section, Malecón seawall, Monument of the Battleship Maine, Hotel Nacional, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Miramar, Central Havana, and neighborhoods in Vedado.

Lunch at the whimsical home and studio (in Jaimanita, just outside Havana) of famous ceramist and painter José Fuster. This picture of me is in the rooftop of his home overlooking the ocean.

Meet with the  Museo de la Alfabetización/Museum of Literacy’s director, Susana Morejon, to review the 1961 literacy campaign in Cuba and how its practices are being employed in Latin America currently. The museum exhibits relics of the 1961 literacy campaign. This campaign brought tens of thousands of city youth into contact with the country people, breaking down racial barriers and instilling a spirit of national cohesion.

Meeting at the Museum of Fine Arts to examine curatorial and museology methodology. There, see the evolution of Cuba's visual arts over the last 300 years. The collection accounts for the richness of Cuba's Spanish, French, Chinese and African cultural roots.

Early evening:
Walk through the open-air handicraft market in Old Havana.

Meeting at the Latin American School of Medicine/ELAM to examine training methods used to prepare foreign students to become doctors. Established in 1999 and financed by the generosity of the people of Cuba, ELAM is the largest medical school in the world with a current enrollment of over 12,000 students from over 29 countries. All its students are from outside Cuba, mainly from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. The school also accepts disadvantaged students from the United States. Since 2005 ELAM has graduated 6,000 doctors, including 21 from the US.

Tour Ernest Hemingway’s house and writing study, pictured on the right. Visit Cojimar, the town where he met Gregorio, the fisherman who became the captain of his boat called Pilar, and after whom he modeled Santiago, the main character in his novel The Old Man and the Sea. Gregorio died at age 106.

Visit Casa del Niño y la Niña/House of the Boy and Girl, a Central Havana neighborhood (Cayo Hueso) sponsored learning facility for young Cubans seeking to expand their academic options following the regular school day. Meet with Director Rosa Sardinas for presentation on her outreach work for kids in the community.

Visit Callejon de Hamel, an alley where all the buildings display murals inspired by Afrocuban culture and religions, for example, Yemayá pictured on the left. Meet alley artist Salvador Gonzales at his studio.

Visit preschool, Circulo Infantil Mi Pelota, a typical neighborhood program where working parents can leave their children (age 1 to 5). It opens at 6:00 AM and closes at 7:00 PM, Monday through Saturday, and serves snacks and lunch. Children learn colors, basic shapes and math, and perform activities that prepare them for school.

Ferryboat ride across Havana Harbor to the Municipality of Regla, famed Cuban writer and intellectual Alejo Carpentier's favorite city. This Afrocuban community has a long, rich and still active tradition of African-inspired religions. Visit Regla's church dedicated to the black "Virgen de Regla" and her AfroCuban counterpart, Yemayá, the African goddess of the sea in Yoruba religion and the patron saint of sailors. And, visit Regla Municipality Museum to learn about Santeria and the origins of this unique community and its Afrocuban cultures.

Meeting with representatives of the National Union of Teachers to discuss Cuban education system and practices.

Attend music performance at elegant Hotel Nacional de Cuba designed in 1930 by the famous New York firm McKim, Mead and White.

Morning departure to Las Terrazas, in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range west of Havana in the province of Pinar del Río.

Tour rural village called Rancho Curujey (their lilly pond, a lá Monet, is pictured on the left), a self-sustaining community established in the 1980s that is focused on reforestation, historical preservation and environmental balance.

Visit a childcare program, Republica Oriental del Uruguay, in the agricultural region of Las Terrazas village; talk with teachers and students who live in this community about the integration of farming and environmental issues into the curriculum.

Tour the restored remains of Buena Vista French Coffee Plantation, built in 1801 and worked by African slaves.

Meet with local artists and craft workers in their homes and studios.

Swim in the fresh waters of San Juan River, and explore the surroundings of this lush tropical paradise.

Spend the night at charming and rustic Hotel Rancho San Vincente deep in the lush tropical surroundings of Viñales Valley.

Explore the rural agriculture-based Viñales Valley. Examine the spectacular natural landscape featuring the most interesting and varied geological formations in the Caribbean. The valley is particularly famous for its great freestanding rock formations, called mogotes, from the Jurassic to Paleolithic eras that are designated as one of only four UNESCO Cultural Heritage Landscape.

Visit a local farming family and learn first-hand the process of tobacco cultivation, an essential and famed commodity for Cuba's US-blockaded economy.

Followed by a magical walking and boat tour through the limestone Cueva del Indio used by Guanahatabey Amerindians as a burial site, and later as a refuge from Spanish slavers. Within, witness earth's natural and social history from the Jurassic to the Paleolithic era and beyond.

Visit area that is four kilometers from the village, where, on one side of the Dos Hermanas mogote, the Mural de la Prehistoria (pictured on the right), a 120 meter-high fresco was painted in 1961 by Cuban artist, Leovigildo González, a student of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. The mural depicts animals and other creatures that lived in the valley in prehistoric times; it pays tribute to the Darwinian perspective of evolution.

Dine at Casa de Don Tomas Restaurant in the oldest building in Viñales Village.

Dance in Viñales's central plaza at the Parque Marti, and explore the open-air craft market, the Church, and other interesting sites in this charming colonial town.

Travel departure day:
Early morning transfer by bus to Havana's José Martí International Airport for return home; departure lounge pictured on the left.
Pay 25.00 CUC departure tax.