I've returned to Cuba, three years after our first visit. This time it's for the Bienal, a large scale art show that happens every three years. (go figure!) Most of the group is from New York and New Jersey. I am the only one other than Astrid, the trip organizer, from Ma. although she has lived there only a few years. Astrid is Cuban American, she left when she was about eight. We all convened at Miami airport for a charter flight to Havana. (operated by Eastern.) There are a lot of things I don't quite get about U.S.-Cuban relations.
I've arrived safe and sound in Havana, although I almost didn't. More about that in a minute. I am sitting on the porch of the Hotel Santa Isabel, where, I am told, others who preceded me include Jimmy Carter, the King and Queen of Spain, and Sting. I wonder if any of them slept in my bed. Today is our third day. This morning we will be taking a walking tour of the Malecon (the seaside promenade), with an architectural historian.
I am the first one of our group at breakfast. Loring will laugh when he reads this. Maybe I should edit it out. I am setting a dangerous precedent. I haven't found a time to write until now, too busy during the day, too tired at night.
So, about the "almost didn't " part. I woke up early Tuesday am in my stunning airbnb apartment in downtown Miami. I hope I find the time to backtrack and describe my brief wonderful Miami sojourn.
But now, that I've finally calmed down, let me recount my almost disasterous trip from Miami to the airport. I left the apartment with plenty of time time for the trip to the airport. A transit cop pointed me in the right direction, telling me to take the train to the last stop. What he neglected to tell me was that there were two train lines. I of course was on the wrong one, which I discovered after we passed the stop to transfer to the airport line. I had to get off and take the train back, then change to the line that actually went to the airport. When I got to the transfer station, the train had just left and the next one not due for another 25 minutes. My phone had died, permanently, the day before when I drowned it. A very nice transit officer allowed me to use his phone, but I didn’t have the group leader’s #, except on my phone. I called Air Havana but only got a message, and no room to leave one. Finally the train arrived. Then, an airport shuttle train, and a rush through corridors, like a bad dream. I arrived an hour late, as the group was starting to give up on me, and received a warm welcome. They’d been worrying and were relieved to see me, and were very helpful in calming me down. I was of course equally glad to see them.
The flight to Havana was about 45 minutes. We were, somehow, in first class. There was so much room that I couldn't reach my bag once I'd stashed it under the seat ahead. It was so comfy I wished the flight was a little longer.
Our hotel, the Santa Isabel, is lovely, and located on the Plaza de Armas, in the middle of the old city. I haven't had a chance to walk around the area yet. We've had a busy schedule, brought around the city on a fancy airconditioned bus similar to the Chinese imported one we had on our other trip here. Let me quote from the history written on the hotel restaurant menu:
"On October 16, 1833,the mansion was graced and were made solemn feasts, rising from its roof a great balloon full o flowers. On Sept. 16th 1867, the North American merchant Mr. Luis Lay from New Orleans rented the palace and installed there the luxurious Hotel Santa Isabel, the most modern and famous of Havana for having ensuite bathrooms, maid service, good food, and sea views. In 1943 the architect Mr. Benes Arrate restored the building and it was declared national monument, respecting its original....whoops, the English translation stops there. Let me see if I can decipher the last sentences. ...." the hotel was re-inaugurated on the 1st of March 1997 , continuing the tradition and history of hostelry in Cuba." Or something like that.
Breakfast here is a choice of anything or everything on the menu, including a hot buffet that I first thought was the entire selection. I've had my plate of fresh fruit, and am awaiting my cheese omelette. Along with the coffee is brought a basket of breads, including chocolate croissants, my favorite. Not quite Parisian quality, not even Au Bon Pain, but still.
In the time I've been writing, most of my group has arrived for breakfast, and a couple have already left. We are scheduled to meet the bus in about 20 minutes for our architectural tour.
I hope that our walk includes some of the art along the Malencon. It was all of those installations that clued me in to the fact that there was an art festival when we were here three years ago. At first I thought just that there was an incredible amount of street art in Havana. And there is a fair amount. But not as much as during the Bienal.
A day later:
It turns out that the walking tour did not include the Malecon: we are going on a separate walk there tomorrow. I'm glad they weren't combined; there is so much to see on each.
This walk included a lot of history, more than most of the group seemed to want, but it was very interesting. We saw many restored buildings, and went into a couple that were centers of some kind. One was an Arab cultural center. There were beautiful tiles and fountains, and a peacock strolling around the courtyard. Beautiful but not friendly, it pecked at a few of our toes. We encountered several of them along the way, along with a peahen, the female of the species, much less spectacular in its plumage than the male. They also had a terrible screech that belied the beauty of their feathers.
There are a number of “boutique” hotels, more than were here, or at least more than I noticed, three years ago. We went into one with a strange bronze monk statue out front, hooded and faceless, and apparently a Christian "theme." There were other monks and different Christianesque statues inside the lobby, small reproductions in a glass case for sale, and a desk with a computer inside a confessional booth. Not sure that would go over too well in the U.S.
The hotel put me in mind of the Hotel Raquel where Loring and I spent a night three years ago. We'd been staying with our group at the Hotel Telegrafo, from where I believe the first telegraph had been sent from the island. We went on an overnight trip, the dozen of us, and Hoji, our guide, to a cooperative farm, a tobacco farm, Hemingway's house, and Jose Fuster's wildly mosaiced house and village. When we returned from our trip, no more reservation at the Telegrafo. No problem; after a brief delay, we wound up at the Raquel. No complaints, it was a beautiful place with a Jewish theme. Not a Jewish owner or prior owner, as I'd assumed, just Jewish art and a restaurant that serves potato pancakes, Israeli salad, etc. I guess religion has a certain folkloric cache here. Since I'd asked, our guide, a head historical architect here, took our group to the Raquel, which was even more beautiful than I'd remembered.
Right now, I am sitting on the large balcony outside my room here at the Santa Isabel, overlooking the lovely park plaza.It's about 9pm, and the first time it's been cool enough for me to sit out here. It's just beginning to get dark. There's a band playing at the corner of the park below. There of course has been music everywhere but this seems particularly wonderful. They just began playing a Manu Chau song I’d discovered through my Paris friends a few years ago and listen to constantly at home.
The booksellers set out their wares every day, although they've packed up a few hours ago. In the morning, I watch and hear them pull their wares and tables into the plaza, clacketing over the cobblestones. From our last visit, three years ago, I remember only books and posters for sale. Now there are many more venders, and almost every seller has a few flea markety items too, pins and watches and cameras and other such things. I of course perused everything carefully, in search of an appropriate vintage souvenir. I did eventually find a wonderful advertising fan, circa 1940’s I’d guess, with a picture of a lovely lady on the front, and the words, in English, “a sight for every lifeguard. “ On the reverse is advertising for a Havana clothing store.
It was ironic that it was a fan I found, because I'd actually set out in search of a fan store some of the others had found a day or two ago. I did eventually find it, and after many minutes of perusing each fan in the store, finally settled on a one in black with lacy cutouts and painted pink flowers. There were dozens of fans, each displayed open on a stand, in a mirrored case. The owners told me all the fans were made here in Havana. I’m wondering, though, if they were made in China, and painted here. Even if so, they are beautiful. There was a woman painting them in a corner of the store, so of course I asked her to paint ”Cuba”, and her name, Lidia, on mine. She said she painted every one of the fans. There must have been hundreds of them, one of each design on display, and many more in the drawers below.
Now several of us are fanning our way thru the hot days in the studios and booths of the Bienal, and the restaurants where we pause for lunch between visits. A lovely sight in itself, and at least giving us the feeling that we are cooling ourselves a bit.
I realize I have hardly described the art we've encountered, and the Bienal, actually the crux and motivation for our trip. I've seen so much art, , and met so many artists in the last few days that I can barely keep track of it all. Today I purchased a piece of art, about which I am really excited. Out of our group, I believe I am the next to last to have actually bought something, from a printmaker who we first met at the exhibition a few days ago, and whose home studio we visited today. I am the only one in the group who is not either an artist, collector, or gallery owner. Everyone is very friendly, not at all austere as I'd worried might be the case. It is certainly wonderful to have their eyes to help me appreciate and see things about the art that I might not have appreciated otherwise.
What has bowled me over, though, is the amount of art others are purchasing, and amount of money they are spending. It is no doubt much less than they would spend in the US for similar quality work. But it still out of my league. Several of them have bought several pieces, each in the $1000 to 2000 range, and large in size. I have neither the wall space nor the inclination to spend thousands of dollars. But I am very happy with my small piece.
Norbert and Janette's studio is in a beach town about a half hour outside of Havana. They joined us for lunch after our visit, and then we spent about an hour on the beach, which was beautiful and full of locals on a perfect Sunday afternoon. There were couples, families, all sorts of people, and a couple of guys strolling the beach selling kites. I’d guess that most of them were Cuban, Havana folks who’d come out for the beautiful day. It’s only about a half hour drive from the city. The Europeans and Canadians head further out for the all-inclusive resorts further up the coast. We Americans are not officially allowed at the beach, which is recreational, not educational. I supposed our visit to the artists’ studio had perhaps validated our side excursion, but most likely, no one cared. This restriction is, after all, on the part of our government, not the Cuban one.
A couple of our group stayed on the beach longer than the rest of us. Most everyone went back to the hotel, and I, alone, went back to El Morro, the fortress which is the largest Bienal venue. I'd only covered half of it on our first visit, and know other people wanted to go back, but I guess not today. No problem, because I am always happy visiting museums and exhibits on my own. I revisited several artists' booths (not sure what to call them, they are actually former barracks and perhaps prisoners’ quarters in the old fort.) We'd met some of the artists personally in the meantime, and I therefore saw their work in a new light.
Returned here about six pm. the first evening I am spending here, and on my own. A welcome respite, although I have enjoyed being with and getting to know the people in the group.
One more thing to mention before I forget, and before I sign off tonight. Our local guide, Grency, is delightful. I asked her on the first day if she knew a lot of other guides. When she said yes, I mentioned Hoji, who'd been our guide three years ago. She indeed knows him, and is his facebook friend. He's no longer working for the company and now is in Miami. It sounds as though he is helping people to emigrate. Grency seemed as excited as I was to find out that I knew him, and says she’ll give me his whole name to contact him on fb. In any case, I hope to stay friends with her.
Oh, a couple of other coincidences - two of the people in this group went to UNM, one a few years after I did, the other more recently. They both came to Havana last year on a UNM trip, which they didn't like nearly as much as this one. I think that's where they met each other.
Another possible coincidence - another woman has a daughter in her first year at Oberlin. She says her daughter has a friend named Naomi. Wouldn't it be strange if she and my niece know each other? (UPDATE: they do!)
Time to stop for tonite, though there's so much more to tell. Now to attempt to access the internet!
And there ends my writing, and attempts to post it, while in Cuba. So much happened, and I will attempt to document it here, if memory permits.