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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Cuba Education and Culture Tour, Post 1


Wednesday morning, June 5th  I think  

I am going to post the rest of this account as I wrote it, not at all in chronological order and posted in several segments. Hope it isn't too confusing. Think of it as a series of ramblings, that hopefully will give you some overview of the variety of our Cuban adventures and experiences. 


Hotel Telegrafo, Havana

We are now into day 4 of our Havana sojourn, staying with our group of 12 at this hotel. Our agenda has been pretty full, and very interesting. Despite our hesitations about travelling with a group, this has been working well, and we are certainly seeing more and more different facets of Havana life than we ever would have on our own. I am now just going to try and list the various places we’ve been to, and then will have to save details for later, hopefully later today. We are due downstairs in the lobby in about 15 minutes to meet up with Hoji, our funny and knowledgeable guide.

Thus far we have visited a day program for elderly, which also houses a preschool for workers at the program, a training school for teenagers to learn restoration trades which they then use to work on restoring buildings in the city, a cigar factory, a rum museum, the nightly firing of the cannon, an organic farm, a performance at the new Buena Vista Social Club, and ceramic artist Jose Fuster’s town, home and studio, where we also had lunch served to us. More about those below.

Thursday morning, on the bus

We have just packed up and left the Hotel Telegrafo, on our way overnight to the farming area of Vinales, where there is a tobacco farm and some kind of eco lodge called Las Terrazzas where we will be staying.  There are rumors that we will staying at a different hotel when we return tomorrow, which won’t matter for us, since we have had to pack up and take our luggage with us.

Last night Loring and I met a young woman, Giselle, who is a professor of mathematics. ` Our contact was through a man I’d met in Ukraine in 2008, when I was working at the Jewish cemetery there. He wasn’t officially part of the group, but when he heard from his friend what we were doing, he came from Poland to join us. Lukas is a great guy. I have been in touch with him sporadically on facebook. Fb alerts people to friends who have been to visit other countries, and let me know that Lukas had been to Cuba. He put me in touch with Giselle, who was very eager to meet us

Giselle had met Lukas 7 years ago, on a bus. So we met for dinner last night, She is 27, has lived in Havana 8 years, first as a university student, then as a teacher. She is provided with room and board and a salary of $20 a month. Yes, you read that right. We had heard that before about people in other professions, doctors, engineers, etc. Cubans do receive free education and health care, but very little else, and exist on just a substenence stipend. Giselle says she saves enough money to buy soap, etc, each month, and sets aside a llitle to buy a pair of shoes and a few items of clothing once a year. And here we were, drinking daiquiris and pina coladas, eating stuffed eggplant and barbequed pork and ultra rich chocolate cake, spending three or four times Gisellle’s monthly salary on one dinner. We talked about Cuban society, her family, her students, her desire to visit France someday. But she was vehement about loving her country, and not wanting to live anyplace else.

What seems so skewed here is not just the differences in living style and wealth of different strata of society, much more than I'd expected, but who it is on which end of things. It is the professionals who receive the very low incomes. People in the tourist services industry, and artists and musicians, the ones who are able to travel abroad and receive foreign currency, but also local musicians who receive tips performing at restaurants who earn much more.

 I spoke to the two musicians who were serenading us at the table as we ate, and asked them if they supported themselves with their music. It’s a question I have often asked musician friends at home. In the US, the answer is usually no. These fellows last night said they did live on the income provided from their music. They asked what we wanted to hear. American music? I said no, Cuban, anything but Guantanamera. (which means, by the way, girl from Guantanamo.) It’s not a bad song, except when you hear it repeatedly, even in the course of one day.  So they played several songs I didn’t know, followed by a pretty nice rendition of Blowing in the Wind.  At least it wasn’t New York, New York or Yesterday, which we have been hearing every morning at breakfast. The first couple of days it was a pleasant surprise to have live music, provided by two women on keyboard and saxophone, at breakfast, but then their repertoire became a bit tiresome. 

Here’s a partial list of the favorites played by some of the “lounge” bands we’ve encountered. Aside from the ones I just mentioned, there’s Strangers in the Night, the Girl from Ipanema, My Way… Besame Mucho…etc. The Havana old standards, I guess. I was tempted to request something like "These Boots are Made for Walking", just for fun, even though I hate it.

It is kind of refreshing, though, to know that waitstaff, maids, and artists do well economically. And tour guides like Hogi, who will, though, continue to live with his mother or his in-laws when he eventually gets married. He is 30, his girlfriend is also a tour guide. 

Giselle told us that her students are angry, angry that they are expected to work hard but don’t expect to see any results of their hard work. I asked if her thirteen year old sister had any thoughts yet of what she wants to study. She wants, Giselle said, to be a dancer at a hotel. Her parents don’t mind the idea, because they see what the results of all of Giselle’s hard work have resulted in.  Giselle, though, is very happy as a teacher, just wishes her existence wasn’t so difficult.  Even her state -provided food is at a cafeteria a couple of miles from where she lives, which is also a mile or two from the university. So, she walks a lot, and also cooks rice and beans a lot for herself to save some of the walking.

I asked her about her name, which is not a Spanish sounding one. She said it is a common name here, in honor of Alicia Alonso, a world famous ballerina from Cuba in the 60’s I believe. Giselle was one of Alonso's famous roless, is in fact one of the world’s most famous ballets. I remember Alonso’s name, think I may have even read a child’s biography of her, but don’t remember much about her. Will have to do some google or wiki research upon our return.

Yesterday morning, we visited the Museum of Literacy on the grounds of one of Havana’s universities. It was fascinating. In 1959 Fidel made a speech at the U.N. and a pledge to eradicate illiteracy in Cuba. A one year campaign was designed where students and adults were recruited to go to the countryside and work one on one and in small groups. A curriculum was developed to give people who were interested basic reading and writing skills.  We saw a film that interviewed several women in their 50’s and 60’s who had volunteered, and for whom it remained a high point of their lives. Those women said their parents were worried and didn’t want them to go, but they persisted until they convinced them. Later yesterday, we met with a woman, a professor, from an upper middle class family who attended an American school here. She had also joined the literacy brigade, along with her mother. Her family was the only one from her school who remained after the revolution. Her own son and his family, though, live in the U.S.

For the literacy campaign, a large number of gas lanterns were imported from China, because most of the places where people were taught had no electricity, and most of the instruction took place at night, because the people were working during the day. And the lantern itself became a symbol of the campaign. The museum director, who was a member of the brigade herself, and still teaches as well as directing the museum, because she feels that is her most important role.  She stood holding one of the actual lanterns as she told us all of this, with all of us, of course, taking pictures.

 Loring said that the lantern was exactly the same as the ones the fisherman used in la Boca. I said they were probably the very same ones, seeing as many of the cars on the road are of the same vintage or older. Two things from the museum spoke most powerfully to me: one, the image of the lantern as a symbol, and its literal and figurative symbolism. The other is the concept of the volunteers, many of them children, teaching adults and children, and how empowering it must have been, for both students and instructors.

The graduation “exam” consisted of a letter written to Fidel, to document their learning and to thank him. Many of the letters are preserved in the museum’s archive, and a few were on display. One was in Braille. The oldest graduate of the program was over 100 years old, and the youngest teacher, was, I believe eleven. Actually, I think it might have been nine.

Later, on the terrace of the Hotel Jazmines:

It is about 7:45 pm, and just before sunset. Our group arrived here, about 2 hours west of Havana, several hours ago. We are staying here overnight, then heading back to the city for our last night with the group. It is a wonderful place, in a dramatic setting, surrounded by fields and palms and some strange hill formations called mogotes. They apparently occur only in several places in the world. There is a pool, which about half of us hit shortly after our arrival.  We’ll have dinner in a bit.

On the way, this morning, we stopped at a community called las Terrazas. The government formed it in the 70’s, forming a preserve, replanting trees native to the area such as mahogany and teak offering people who lived in the area the choice of moving into homes built for them, or staying in the homes they’d lived in. Some chose to stay put, and some regretted it later. I don’t know if there are others who stayed where they were and were happy about it. There are about 1000 people who live there, a grocery store, health clinic. Coffee shop, school, day care center, plus facilities for tourists, a restaurant, two small lakes with boating, etc. I asked if the grown children of the original settlers mostly choose to leave or stay. Most stay.  It’s understandable. It’s a pleasant and thriving place. The preserve is on the grounds of a former coffee plantation. The owner’s home has been preserved and turned into a restaurant. Some of the stone  walls  of the slaves quarters remain, and you can see niches which they used as the shrines of their suppressed Santeria faith, which persisted through Christianity and is still wildly practiced. We’ve seen shrines in a variety of places.

The drying areas are reconstructed and the guide explained to us the various steps of the process, including spreading and turning the beans every few hours, and raking the pile into the middle and covering with the beans with leaves each night.  We had coffee at Maria’s coffee shop, where Maria, now in her 70’s, still lives, the place now managed by her children. Hoji, our faithful tour guide, highly recommended  a certain coffee drink, cold and sweetened, which tasted like a coffee frappe. I tried to convince Loring that he wouldn’t like it that it was too sweet for his taste, so that I could have his, but it didn’t work.

 I had noticed on the map, when we arrived, a store called Cusco, and asked what it was. The local guide said it sold handicrafts, and that we could stop there if we liked. Unfortunately, it was closed, for lunch or for the day, who knows. I was frustrated because I could see wall hangings, thru the windows, that bore a distinct resemblance to Peruvian arpilleras, the wall hangings that are appliqued and embroidered  of which I have a large collection, many with social and political themes. So there is a clear connection with these, evidenced by the Cusco name, and I would love to track that connection down, and of course obtain one or two. Mission for my next trip here, I guess.

We had lunch at another restaurant on the premises, one of the best meals we’ve had here. Huge platters of chicken and pork and rice and salad, followed by flans. Almost every place we visit has a complimentary cocktail of some sort, either mojitos or cuba libres, or a choice of those, beer , soda, juice. Today’s started earlier than usual, at our arrival at the community about 10 am, followed by a couple more along the way.
We were serenaded at our arrival, and at lunch, by different groups. That is the case almost everywhere, at every meal. The group at lunch today was two men, and they sang what Hoji described as Cuban country music. It is a style of improvised couplets, which some of our group could understand, not me, though, that referred to our group and I guess were pretty amusing. I should try to get some translation. 

I should try to give some description of the people in our group. It is an interesting bunch, twelve of us. We were lucky in that this group is much smaller than their typical group, perhaps because they offered another tour this week, for the Art Biennalle.  There are two couple, ourselves and a couple from San Francisco about our age. There are three women, friends from Colorado, who do a lot of travelling together. This is the first time in several years that all three have done a major trip together, but they have travelled in various pairs between, and there is a fourth friend who also travels with them. They are all teachers, one elementary, one high school, one college. They have done some intensive bicycling trips in the past, to places like  Montana and Kilamanjaro. I would guess they are in their later 30’s to early 40’s.  Another woman is a professor of Caribbean studies who was here once before, in 1999, and is contemplating organizing a trip for some of her students. There is a woman in her 70’s travelling with her 22 year old son, adopted from Honduras. He spent two high school years living in Honduras and speaks fluent Spanish. She has two more adopted children, one Honduran and one Brazilian. All are 22.  She had been to Cuba several times in the 1950’s with her parents, who loved the culture, but hadn’t been back until now. And there is another woman, probably in her 60’s, with her grandson, who is 12, which astonished all of us because he looks to be at least 16 or 17 and also seems more mature than a 12 year old. 

The women travelling singly all, I think, have husbands or partners at home.  The woman with the grandson is very nice (everyone is, we have all agreed that we hated the idea of a tour group, but that this has been great.)  but a bit of a puzzle. She has worked for the World Health Association and travelled widely, and a decade or so bought a house in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru, which she travels to a few times a year. She has already invited us to stay there. She always speaks to the waiters, etc in English, and I assumed until today that she didn’t speak Spanish, that she had somehow not absorbed any in all of her travels. But today at lunch she laughed at the musician’s lyrics, and explained the gist of what he’d said, and so obviously knows a lot more Spanish than I do. 

Well, time to head inside for dinner. More at some point later. They actually have internet here, although didn’t seem t owork this afternoon. Perhaps I will actually be able to post some more before we head back to Havana.

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