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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Culture Tour Part 2

Next morning, Saturday, poolside at Las Jazmine Hotel

It’s about 7:30 am, depart here at 10 am. Breakfast is already being served, but I am hoping to catch up a bit more first. There is a dog here, at my side. Also around the place are a number of cats and a number of chickens, all roaming freely around. It’s amusing to see them all together. Loring thinks that part of the dog’s job  is to keep the chickens from hanging out at the pool area. I think he's right, the dog just chased away a loudly clucking hen, as if he knew what I was writing.

I am going to attempt to record some more of our adventures, in no particular order:

The elderly center is in what what once a convent. It serves the population of the Old Havana section of the city, about 500 people come every day. They also have a day care center on site, for the kids of the center’s employees. We got a brief glimpse of some of the kids as they moved from one room to another, holding hands in boy-girl couples.  Etiquette and proper behavior of boys to girls is part of the center’s goals. The boys apparently pull out the chairs for the girls, too. That part I could do without, but it was interesting to see and hear about. And they were awfully cute. I asked if there is any interraction between the kids and the elderly, and the woman said there was some, mostly on holidays and special occasions, and that they were hoping to do more. 

In one area of the courtyard are a number of exercise machines, for the physical therapy use of the elderly. They looked a bit incongruous in the colonial setting. The center also provides a host of other activities. But on this particular morning, hundreds of folks were gathered in the courtyard, listening to the music of an excellent band, from, of all places, the University of Michigan. Some people were sitting in rows of chairs, others just milling around the courtyard, sitting, standing, chatting, dancing. They were as curious about us as we were about them.  They all looked quite healthy, a contrast to some of the folks at my mother’s independent living facility. But then, perhaps the people with more serious physical and mental health issues were at different facilities, and this is not a residence, but a drop in day program.  I didn’t have a chance to ask whether there are facilities more similar to our assisted living centers. I think most older people live with their younger relatives, sometimes there are three or even four generations living together. I wish we’d had a chance to see a more typical day, but on the other hand, it was an absolutely delightful experience to see hundreds of people enjoying the music, socializing, dancing, ogling us as I guess we were ogling them.

In complete contrast to the center is the home-studio and entire town of artist Jose Fuster. I had read and even seen a You Tube about him after reading in the itinerary that we’d be meeting him. He’s been described as the Cuban Gaudi. A big difference, though, is that while Gaudi, while he did design public places like the  Parc Guell, worked largely on private commission for wealthy clients whose homes weren’t open to the public. (some are, now, as museums.)  Fuster, in contrast, created an immense outdoor ceramic space on his own property that can be seen from outside and around the neighborhood. And he has expanded into several streets of the town, at the request of people whose houses and walls he has mosaiced.  I asked if  he ever ran workshops for aspiring mosaicists, but he doesn’t. His son said that they often do classes for neighborhood kids on weekends, but don’t have time for more than that. Well, it’s best that he gives back to his own community, which he certainly does. He’s exhibited all over the world, but I only saw one place in the U.S. mentioned, at a synagogue in Minnestota. Perhaps he’s Jewish?

At Fuster's we were also served a wonderful lunch of epic proportions, served in the courtyard on mosaic tables. He has quite a few staff people, cooks and servers and mosaicists who now do the actual work which he still designs. I don't know how often groups go there, fairly often I imagine, nearly once a week just on our company's tours, but we were the only ones there that day.

Other places we’ve been:

The cigar factory we visited in the city was fascinating, even though it was a commercial enterprise with a store and very expensive cigars, from about $7 to $12 dollars a piece, at the end of the tour. We didn’t buy any but a lot of the people in our group did, Hoji, our group guide, assures us that people bring back all kinds of things, including cigars, all the time. We don’t have any desire to bring cigars, although we did try smoking one this am, more about that later. But the factory was much more interesting than we’d expected. 

We watched workers separating the leaves from the stems, rolling the interior leaves and then the outer presentation leaf, separating them by color – the Americans like the lighter color ones and the Europeans the darker, (or was it the other way around?) and each thought the taste of the one they preferred was better, although our guide assured us that there was not difference in taste, merely in appearance. One man was separating cigars into seven or eight different piles according to shade, although I couldn’t really discern much difference, and they were boxed further on according to shade. I thought it would make more sense to have some variation of color, which would indicate that they were handmade and individual, but that[s apparently not the case. To me, the boxes and labels were the most interesting part, and I asked if there was any possibilitiy of obtaining any. There wasn’t.. The room in which they were boxed was decorated with paper chains made from labels. That would have been my perfect souvenir.

The worker are assigned one job, with which they stay, to assure the highest quality. They are expected to meet a certain quota, and then are paid a bonus for any quantity above that. They all seemed relaxed, clearly working hard but didn’t seem overworked, chatting with each other as they rolled. It was great to watch, and we all regretted that photography wasn’t allowed.  We asked our guide if the work was regarded as a good job, and he said no, it was very hard work, although each worker gets to take home some cigars, which I think they tend to sell rather than smoke. He was surprisingly open about criticizing the government, an especial surprise since he was a tour guide at a government run operation.

This morning, one of our visits was to a tobacco farm, in an area about two hours from Havana where we stayed last night. Several tobacco growers have government permission to give tours, and sell their own handmade cigars with the tobacco left over after the government takes the tobacco they use for the five government run factories, including the one we had visited. We saw the drying sheds and had the process explained. A gentleman rolled a couple of cigars for the group to share. Most of us did try, and were surprised about how mild the smoke seemed. I hadn’t known that you don’t inhale the smoke, which can make one sick and even hallucinatory. And this is the tobacco left over after the government takes what it uses for the exports. So are those expensive ones even milder? 

The stem line is removed from every leaf, which we had seen at the factory as well, apparently because it has too much nicotine. It is used sometimes ground into cigarette tobacco. I don’t know how much of the Cuban population smokes cigars, or how regularly. You certainly see many people smoking, cigarettes and cigars, and many women smoke cigars as well. I’ll  try to ask Hoji.

Still at the tobacco farm, we were taken to the farmer’s house and served delicious coffee. Some of the nicest moments have been at places like this, where though it is clearly a place for tourists, it is also 
someone’s home, and one gets a glimpse into everyday household life.

I haven’t yet mentioned the dance lesson we were brought to one night. I expected a somewhat hokey event, and this was anything but. Only six of us, half the group, went. It was at a community center and the woman who runs it is the person who gave us the lesson. We were a little concerned to see there were more dancers and musicians than there were of us, and felt a bit intimidated. But once they served us the ubiquitous welcome drink, this time a cuba libre, we loosened up a bit. I certainly did, couldn’t stop moving. All of us danced. The dancers, aside from the teacher, were a young boy, a young woman, and a woman in her 80’s.We learned rhumba, cha cha (called cha cha cha here!) and a couple of other steps. Toward the end the older woman and her husband, a member of the band, danced together. It was pretty amazing.

Oh, and I don’t think I mentioned the visit to the Buena Vista Social Club. Loring and I had watched the movie a couple of nights before we left home,. I knew of it but hadn’t ever seen it before. It is about a group of elderly Havana musicians whose music was rediscovered when American musician Ry Cooder came to Cuba and recorded them, and then later filmmaker Wim Wenders returned with Cooder and made this documentary. The original members are now dead, but this is the so to speak Buena Vista Social Club next generation, and they mostly seemed to be in their 70’s and 80’s. Another experience for which my expectations hadn’t been that high, and which was extraordinary. It was a long show, with musician after musician performing, some singly, some together, and a couple of very sexy young dancers. They repeatedly sang to members of the audience, got people up on stage to dance, and led a huge conga line dancing through the room.

The audience, which seemed to be a mix of Cubans and tourists, not entirely tourists as I’d expected, was wildly enthusiastic. Many of them seemed to know the songs. One couple was there on their honeymoon, were brought up on stage, and sang and danced with the group

One of my main images  of the evening is if several teenager boys who were outside the club, with their faces pressed against the window,  who were singing with the musicians all night long . Periodically I’d glance at the boy at the window right behind me, and we’d smile at each other. When I returned from dancing around the room in the conga line, he gave me a big thumbs up. I went up to say hello on our way out and asked him his name. It is Frank. He asked me where I was from, and I told him. He said, USA, nice country.

I didn’t think the evening’s entertainment could get any more internse. But when we left the club, a block away on the Plaza Vieja, one that has been beautifully restored, there was a huge group of costumed people looking very Carnival-like, with amazing costumes, some on stilts, and lights all around. A few of our group stayed a few minutes to watch, but before long all except Loring and I had left to walk back to the hotel, not far away. I was entranced and we stayed perhaps a half hour longer. What was most intriguing was that they were filming, and would shoot for maybe a minute or two, then stop, get some direction, wait a while, then shoot again. So there would be this intense burst of music and dancing, then a break when all was calm, then the same brief burst again. It had a super surreal feeling.Freeze frame after live freeze frame, with music. 

 I could have watched for much longer. We concluded that they were filming some kind of promotional piece for the country. I asked Hoji the following day if he knew anything about it. He and his girlfriend, Laura, had left the Buena Vista earlier than the group and had also seen them filming. He also thought it was a promotional piece, and that it was somehow connected with the Art Biennale, which is here this month.
We have been coincidentally coinciding with Biennales this year, first the one in Venice last May, which was setting up when we were there, and now this one. There is art in many places on the streets, along the Malecon, at various places around the city. One building along El Prado Boulevard is covered with huge ants, very impressive!  There is a whole schedule of events, but I haven’t seen it and we have been too busy, anyway, to schedule much more in.

Well, we are just about back to Old Havana now on our bus. Our previous Hotel, el Telegrafo, apparently never confirmed our return reservations. So we are going to a different Hotel,the Rachel, for this last night of our group. Since we had packed and taken everything with us overnight, it’s not really a problem, maybe even an advantage, to stay at one more place. The Rachel is mentioned in one of the Cuba books I read, about Jews here, and so I am actually quite interested to see it.

 I don't think I mentioned before that the Telegrafo, where we stayed most of this week, has that name because the first telegraphic communications were broadcast from there, in the early 20th century. The building had been renovated in about 2000. The dining room, where we had a sumptuous breakfast each morning, looks much like it did in the early 20th century. It's quite modern, ac, hairdryers, little shampoo bottles, and the towels, and bedspreads(!) folded into swans and other configurations, a different one each night. It would have cost us about $150 a night if we stayed there on our own. Like the meals, much more expensive than we had expected.  I am glad we got to stay at several hotels, as they were included in our program, but have to say I much prefer the casas particulares (like b and b's that also serve dinner), for about a quarter of the price.

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