Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ELAM, Hemingway & Hamel

I am very impressed with the work being done at ELAM/the Latin American School of Medicine, the largest medical school in the world, established in 1999, and accepting 1,500 students per year. Those students, from over 29 countries, are given room, board, books and everything else that they need in order to complete an arduous 6 year program that focuses on general medicine. Once they graduate, they return to impoverished communities to provide healthcare. It amazed me to tour this school, and to see how much the Cuban government is doing--exponentially--with so very little resources. Imagine if we in the States were to imitate that altruism, and, for example, support 5 underprivileged students per year in each of the top 10 American medical schools! Health care in the world would change dramatically.
After our inspiring visit to ELAM, we went to see Ernest Hemingway's house, which he called Finca Vigia, located in San Francisco de Paula. What a haven! He had 9,000 books in that house; they still line even the bathroom walls. It's a sunny and breezy house, but, I didn't like all the mounted animal heads, his hunting trophies. He lived there from 1939 to 1960; it's where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and where he entertained guests such as Ava Gardner.

This house is deemed to contain the most important of his legacies, but unfortunately during the Bush administration it was caught in the middle of politics: it's in dire need of repair and the many Americans willing and able to help Cubans undertake the work are not allowed to do so because of the blockade. Some repairs have been done, and the house seems lovely to me, but it is sad that such a treasure can be affected so perversely.

The house was built in 1886 by a Spanish architect. At first Hemingway rented it, then, acknowledging how much he liked the location, the nearness to fishing, the bars he frequented, and the exquisite views from his windows, he bought it for $18,500. The tower, where he preferred to write--standing--was built just for him in 1947; it resembles the tower he had in his house on Key West, Florida. He kept an enormous number of cats in both houses.

When Hemingway left the house in 1961 after the revolution, he moved to Ketchum, Idaho, where, sadly, he killed himself.

We also stopped by several other Hemingway haunts, among them The Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, two of his favorite bars, and to the next town, Cojimar, where he met Gregorio Fuentes who became the captain of his yatch, Pilar, and where there is now a monument built to honor him.

(Here I am happy by the sea in Cojimar; this picture is for Nadia Marie, who calls me "wild haired woman." I miss you!)

(A piece of a mural in Hamel) My friend on the east coast has a friend who lives in Cuba. Because of the blockade, she can't simply write her a letter and deposit it in a mailbox; American post offices don't deliver letters to Cuba. So, my friend sent the letter to me, and the plan was for me to buy a stamp in Havana and mail the letter. But, it turns out that our group would be in Cojimar, and so instead, I delivered the letter in person. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the day and she was not home, so I put the letter under her door.

On the way back for lunch in Habana Vieja, we drove through the Habana Harbor Tunnel, built in 1958, that connects the shoe-horse ends of Havana Bay.

We visited Casa del Niño y la Niña, an after-school program, in the Central Havana neighborhood called Cayo Hueso.


We also strolled through Callejon de Hamel, the alley where since 1990 buildings are covered with murals inspired by Afrocuban culture and religions done by Salvador Gonzales. Like Fuster's, this ongoing art project seems to reflect the Cuban emphasis on community (as opposed to on the individual).

We learned that Gonzales' idea was to create a cultural platform in the community. Every Sunday afternoon a rumba session is held and important groups, such as Clave y Guaguancó and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, perform and interact with the neighbors. On the last Friday of each month there are recitals of ballads, poetry and traditional music. One Saturday each month there is entertainment for children, for instance, clowns and puppet shows.

Gonzales' project seems more activist than Fuster's. I was amazed by how he and his neighbors transformed discarded bathtubs into comfortable seats in a small park. That surely is about necessity being the mother of invention, but it's also about creativity and ingenuity!

Gonzales has said: "Here, the traditional comparsas (carnival street bands) of our barrio are very important. So too all the rumbas formerly played in Trillo Park. This is also a place steeped in popular religion. You can walk down the street and hear a 'toque'. Abakuá plants (for initiations) are found all over. The barrio has its own 'potencia' of the secret Abakuá religion, very important here."

"I am talking about the religion known as Santería, which comes from the Yorubas; Palo Monte, which comes from the Congo; Abakuá, which has to do with Calabar [the Cross River Delta in Nigeria]; and maybe some manifestations of spiritism, a cultural expression of working class people, the ordinary folks in our country."

"This barrio has a strong contingent of Black people. Of course, we don't have all of the Black people in the city here. Our country is a mixture of African, Spanish, and Asian presences. The barrio looks great, with many colors that shine even more now that there has been some remodeling. In one way or another, this work that we began here in Centro Habana has resulted in the same kind of color and magic that the barrio has to begin with."

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