Saturday, May 02, 2009

SoapBox Week in Cuba - Cultural Aspect Part 1

I probably should have written about this aspect of my trip first, but I was just a bit overwhelmed and kind of needed to let it settle awhile. Cuba really did have a deep impact on me, although, as I have mentioned, I got to see very little of what I had intended. In the end, I was able to see nothing of urban agriculture beyond a glimpse here and there of rooftop gardening, nor did I get the chance to visit any rural farms beyond what I'll mention later. Even so, I feel that I had the chance to ingest a balanced amount of Cuban culture for a week long first visit. There really is a huge amount to see and I feel its best to balance relaxation and cultural/historical exploration on these kinds of journeys, especially shorter ones, or one risks a...lesser...experience.


As I mentioned previously, Tuesday was all about a day trip to Havana. Nearly twenty of us went, taking one mini-bus and one minivan. I think those of us in the minivan had the better and more intimate experience as each vehicle had one tour guide. While driving, the guides gave their own presentations and when walking, one guide would talk and one would play tourist shepherd. This herding was a bit annoying but, as was obvious and came to be more so, necessary.

The drive to Havana seemed to be about 2 hours, not including the 20-30 minute stop along the way at the roadside/hillside pina colada and merchandise stand (as with all Caribbean islands I have been to, there is NO shortage of shitty souvenir-buying opportunities). I should point out here though, that I was incredibly hung over until at least 2 pm so this trip could have been longer or shorter...I'm just not sure. I think we left at 8 am and reached Havana at around 11 am. Luckily our tour guide was very cute and the information interesting so I was able to stay awake and stifle the roiling belly and throbbing head enough to pay attention and take a few pictures. Honestly, as cute as she was, the information was really what kept me alert and attentive. Through the entire day, we were presented with a wealth of historical and cultural information.

This is the view from that pina colada stand.

The gorge itself is jokingly known as something like "mother in law's gorge" because in Cuba, when a couple gets married, the new husband often goes to live with his wife's family (new houses are not easily procured as the sale of property is illegal). The turkey vultures which are plentiful here are said to be searching for the most recent mother in law brought to "see" the gorge by an overly henpecked son in law.

Feeling slightly refreshed after a deliciously fresh virgin pina colada, we were back on the road to Havana. Havana is a city in two parts: Old and New. Old Havana was established by the Spanish in 1519 and consists primarily of Baroque and Neo Classical architecture. New Havana spread beyond the fortifications of Old Havana throughout the 17th century and beyond. Much of Havana is now undergoing a massive restoration and one can see rough scaffolding and workers absolutely everywhere.

This was the definitely the case as we began our day at The Necropolis Cristobal Colon (Havana's Cemetery): Cementario de Colon (longest name for a cemetery or what?).

This cemetary is breathtaking, crammed full of stunning crypts and mausoleums. Over 1 million burials have taken place here since the cemetery's creation in the 1870's. Of particular interest to me was La Mausoleo de los Bomberos (The Monument to the Firemen) which was erected in respect for the dangerous work done by firefighters, especially those many who died battling a massive city fire in 1890. It also happens to be the tallest monument on the grounds. This monument was of particular interest to me because the stagehand union I belong to is affiliated with the firefighter's union and I have worked with several Edmonton firefighters (we owe all firefighters a great thanks).

This place was truly amazing, both in architecture and in the quantity of heroic lives being commemorated there. Each and every monument is a work of art. The one peso that is often demanded of those who intend to take pictures is definitely worth the cost. Personally, just getting to see this site is worth a peso I think. This next picture is of a tomb which has become a local fertility shrine. Women who are wishing to be pregnant (or have a wish for someone else to bear a child) approach the statue uttering a fertility prayer and then walk backwards away, still facing the statue, back down the other side. The full walk completes a full circle and I wondered how many notice the significance as they are walking this circle. My brother's new female in-laws all took part in this ceremony so I may be an uncle very soon.

Upon leaving the cemetery we made our way around New Havana, having plenty of opportunity to ponder the irony in calling this place New. Watching the other vehicle, a mini-bus, maneuver through these narrow Spanish-style streets at least provided distraction from how close oncoming traffic was to our own smaller minivan.

Not all of the roadways are narrow tho, many are several lanes wide, especially as we got closer to the Plaza de la Revolucion. Just yesterday, May 1, this place (also known as Revolution Square) was filled with hundreds of thousands of Cubans celebrating May day and 50 years since the most recent Cuban revolution. It was a powerful place to stand, knowing both the spirit of camaraderie AND of violent repression that have been represented there.

Standing in the middle of this square, looking around, one sees the various government Ministry buildings. These buildings are of the most recent architectural influence, the drab and uncreative style of the Soviet Union, altho one bears the likeness which is so prevalent in Cuba, Che Guevara. As he was Minister of the Interior, it makes sense that the Ministry of the Interior bears this mural of his likeness.

From here we were back down narrow streets and off to lunch in a beautiful restaurant in some stunning old hotel in New Havana, the name of which escapes me now. After lunch we were led to the Ambos Mundos Hotel, favorite of Hemingway, and its Roof Garden restaurant.

After being greeted by an odd mosaic (?) at the top of the old elevator (complete with crotchety operator), one discovers immediately that the view from up here is breathtaking. Birdsong is even present up here, competing with the restaurant band.

At this point we were back on foot mostly, making our way down narrow streets and walkways, being shown place after place, all fascinating and beautiful. I could write a week's worth of posts on just this one day, had I been taking notes. A few more highlights:

What appears to be a painted image on the right side of this picture is actually a mirror image of the left hand side of the street, created by using sand of various color. Brilliant.

Most of the Cubanos hanging about in tourist areas in Havana, are selling something. This lady didn't seem to be selling much other than the chance to take a picture that includes her face. Anyone she caught taking unpaid-for pictures got the mask face. I both understood, and couldn't help but keep her holding the fan in place for a couple of minutes. I don't think she was too pleased.

Cubanos are no longer a very "religious" people. Many suggest that this is the Marxist influence yet I think it has more to do with the amount of "Christians" who have ruled over this land, often as slavers. However, due to the long Spanish influence of the past, Cuba is full of many beautiful cathedrals such as this one. I cannot remember the name of this cathedral but it sat on one end of a fairly large square. This was one of our last stops in Havana and it was the site of a nervous 10 minutes or so for me.

I had noticed these young fellows enjoying a game of wiffle ball pitch and bat off in one corner of the above mentioned square so I slipped off for a moment to get a few pictures. Upon returning, perhaps a minute later, I noticed that my entire group had vanished. I found this a bit surprising since one of our tour guides had been shepherding all day. I suppose even the best shepherds lose the odd dumb or overly curious sheep sometimes, and I was that sheep just now. Thinking that the group had just moved on, I followed first one and then the other of the only two possible routes that would not have involved backtracking. Not surprisingly, this was when I started to get all sorts of offers to buy "drogas" (drugs), along with even more offers to buy black market cigars (most of which are cheap knock-offs obviously). After walking down each route about a half block, I realized that it was unlikely that my group had gone either way. Adrenaline started to flow and my mouth dried somewhat. I'm used to wandering strange places by myself but having been part of a group, I had not been paying as close attention to our route as I should have I found myself a tad disoriented. Luckily, a brief bit of backtracking led to the vast local Flea Market in the area, to which we had all been headed next. Here I found my group...the lost sheep safely back with the herd, without any of the herd having noticed his absence...

I don't have much to relate about the flea market, other than finding it full of beggars and quite a few aggressive merchants (whose goods included very few unique seeming items). There was a good deal of artwork on sale, surprisingly, but most of it was obviously highly Salvador Dali influenced. This is fine, except that it was pretty much ALL so influenced.

After our time at the flea market we were led to the Capital building site, adjacent to Havana's Central Park. Next door to the Capital building was another beautiful structure, this one also drawing my eye as it was the National Theatre of Havana. I must return so I can have the chance to see inside this facility and maybe catch a performance of the National Ballet of Cuba or the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, both of which perform here (among other reasons, I must also return to spend a few hours perusing the Museo de la Revolucion as there was not time to get more than an exterior glance at it).

We made one last stop on our way out of Havana. Somehow, my brother had learned of a boxing club and had arranged for us to visit. We watched the proceedings for about a half hour and it was lovely to see so many youth having an opportunity to get off the streets and learn some discipline. I do hope some less brain damaging alternatives exist as well.

Just outside of this facility I noticed a bit of propaganda I thought I would share. Cuba does indeed have a good amount of this but, personally, I find our subtle propaganda and advertising to be far more advanced, and intrusive. Cuba's propaganda does not seem heavy or Big Brother-esque, it seems...friendly.

Personally, I find this last image to be the most indicative of the Cuba I got to see. Door open, resident sitting on the stoop, aware of neighbors and other citizens, often active with them, sometimes solitary, often in groups.

Seeing how long this post is already, I am going to divide it into two parts. The last two cultural experiences are somewhat related so this is a natural stopping point. Back soon with Part 2.

Peace and comfort to all...remember to wash your hands and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.


Anonymous said...

Great pics, such a different climate, mood and lifestyle. It's good to see that our world still is culturally diverse and not completely disneyfied yet.

"I find our subtle propaganda and advertising to be far more advanced, and intrusive."

But if there's only one party to vote for there's no need to have propaganda/information..

SoapBoxTech said...

The propaganda there encourages people TO vote, even tho there is only one choice. It encourages pride in culture and country. Admittedly, it`s not perfect and I will not argue that it is but for all the oppression and restrictions that we hear of...this is a people that are primarily happy with their situation and in their lives. I do not think the case is so in North America.

linda said...

Thanks for this post! I much prefer the look of old Cuba to the generic architecture of the new but I am like that in general.

The last photograph and your description was very cool. A friend of mine who is very anti Castro still has relatives in Cuba. They tell horror stories about specific people who sit on their stoops and report back to block captains, who then report up the chain. I don't doubt that most sit on the porch to enjoy the day though.

linda said...

Good point about the propaganda as well. I have not been to Cuba or any Communist country so cannot compare. Encouraging people to vote as a matter or patriotism makes sense. I think you explained that well. I half expected that you would post gigantic murals of Castro though!

SoapBoxTech said...

I didn`t see any gigantic murals of Castro...only Guevara. And many many statues of heroes from the Spanish Revolution.

Thanks for the comments!