Saturday, October 27, 2007

Havana: 2-5 October, 2007 (Written 6 October 2007)

Tuesday night I met Julio and Elian and we went to Casa de La Musica. There was a salsa group playing and I got to demonstrate my pathetic salsa moves. We stayed in Parque Central until 4am just talking and it was great. The nightlife doesn´t stop...there is always someone in the streets, it doesn´t matter what hour.

Wednesday I slept in until about 10, then Carlitos, a good friend of Hector and Ery came over. I was begged to translate a Celine Dion song for Hector which I still haven´t managed to get out of my head. Finally at one thirty I got up the motivation to enter the sweltering heat once again. I went over to Galiano where Frank from Septeto Nacional told me the day before that I could come by and he would give me a CD. On my way, I ran into Someillan, the trumpet player for the Septeto Nacional and he gave me his info so we could meet up. I went to the studio and there were 5 of the 7 there. Frank el Matador ran off to get me a CD, magazine, and poster of the band and we sat around chatting for awhile. I don´t know if there is any other country in the world where I could just sit back and chat away with a national recording band.

I walked all the way down Trocadero because I wanted to stop by Plaza de la Catedral. On my way there I was crossing the Prado (Paseo de Marti) and there were some middle school kids practicing a marching band routine. I sat on a bench next to a 3 year old girl imitating the band and her mother. There was loud trumpeting in the street and the sound of a roaring engine; a bright chrome deep maroon 1954 Chevy leading a wedding party. The 3 year old girl showed me her Elpidio Valdez cartoons and spoke to me in baby Spanish which I had a hard time understanding and her mother thought it hilarious. I finally continued onwards. Plaza de la Catedral dominates the skyline and this beautiful centuries old Cathedral is the centerpiece of the square.

I was in a bit of a rush as I was supposed to meet Ery at 4 so we could go to UNEAC in Vedado. We got on the public bus by the Capitolio; one Cuban peso (5 US cents) to get us to Vedado. The crowdedness reminded me of Tokyo rush hour trains. From the bus stop we walked to El Huron Azul, the UNEAC bar. The Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos is in every town and provides high quality cheap entertainment for the Cuban intellectual community. On Wednesdays they host a peña, an Afro Cuban music gathering, followed by trova, a single person with an acoustic guitar. Rum and beer flowing liberally as you hear people discussing politics, the latest art expo, the latest new musician to emerge.

Afterwards we went to Coppelia, the legendary Cuban ice cream parlor, made famous in Fresa y Chocolate. There is a Coppelia for Cubans and a Coppelia for foreigners, each using their respective currency. I snuck in with Ery to the Cuban one, where the ensalada, a bowl with 5 albeit small scoops of ice cream costs 5 Cuban pesos...about 10 cents US. We went down the Rampa to emerge at the Malecon again. It was still a bit early by Malecon standards, but already there were couples murmuring and caressing, men with their old guitars strumming softly with a bottle of rum as their audience by their side. We lay down on the Malecon, listening to all the activity, and hours quickly passed.

We stopped by Carlito´s house because we had been discussing my interest in Santeria, and I was given an in depth lesson of the 12 Orishas, deities, adorning Carlito's house. The way in which the Yorubas originally brought over to Cuba managed to keep their religion alive by transforming and transfiguring their deities with Catholic ones is representative of the Cuban attitude towards so many things; they seem to conform and go with the flow yet they are actually solidifying and strenghtening their core.

It was nearly 11pm and I hadn't eaten since breakfast so off we went to find a cajita. Cajitas, which means little boxes, are just that...flimsy cardboard boxes that you buy from a tiny window of someone's home. Next to Chinatown we found a cajita with pork, rice and beans, potato, and cucumber for about 80 US cents. We scarfed it down and back home.

On Thursday I was determined to wake up early to take advantage of the morning hours that aren't brutally hot. I was out the door at 8. A long walk led me to Callejon de Hamel, an alleyway that is a gathering place for practitioners of Santeria and artists alike. I joined one artist to El Colmeo, a bar that was filmed in Buena Vista Social Club, where we had mojitos at 10am, joining a 74 year old percussion teacher who was attempting to teach me some rumba.

Thoroughly overheated, I went back home to have a little nap before venturing out again that afternoon. I went to artehabana on Calle San Rafael, where everyday at 4pm there is a free performance of some sort. I sat there writing in my journal and an elderly Cuban couple sat down next to me. They were whispering shyly for a few minutes before they asked me super politely where I was from. They had a bet going: the wife thought I was Venezuelan and the husband thought I was Mexican. Hmm. The performance was wonderful for so many reasons, not least of which the ability to share a public space with Cubans that ranged in income from very impoverished to wealthy intellectuals. These free spaces provide an opportunity for people to enjoy cultural activities despite any barriers and walls that may otherwise exist between them. I was the only non Cuban there.

On my way home I decided to go a different route and was wandering down Calle O'Reilly. A sculpture of a concave human body with mechanical tools inside caught my eye and I walked in the gallery. A beautiful girl called me upstairs and I met Naima and her brother who work at the Studio of Leo D'Lazaro, who has been exhibited in Spain, Mexico, and Cuba. We spent an hour discussing each painting, photograph, and sculpture. We made plans to go see the national ballet or opera before I leave Cuba.

Back home where Raissel, Hector's son was waiting. We had a great meal of yuca con mojo; boiled yuca with garlic and spices on top, rice and beans, bean sprouts with cabbage and potatoes...the only sad part was recognizing that there are very very few Cubans who can afford to eat this much vegetables with each meal. As Ery had promised me a dance class, we went to get a bottle of Havana Club rum so I would be able to dance better and he would be able to teach better...then we began. I won't say I'm great now, but those 2 hours of nonstop dancing and spinning and laughing and smiling immensely improved my confidence. There's just something about Cubans that puts you at ease and it doesn't matter how wrong you might be or how stupid you may look.

As we were proceeding, Molly arrived, so we had another mini meal and because we were all drunk (not Molly) we went to the Malecon...and thus I experienced the Malecon at night. A meeting place for otherwise ostracized homosexuals, many many prositutes and jineteros ready to help you find a good prostitute, lots of music, and lots of rum. 4 in the morning and there were more people outside than any hour of the day. Asi es Cuba. Asi es La Habana.

Friday morning we tried to rent a car but first of all, nobody knew where the rental agency was. When we finally did manage to find it, we found out the owner had left to go to the airport. Estoy para el aeropuerto is what the sign said. Asi es Cuba. I ran into Ernesto, one of the first people I had spoken to on my noctural forays in Habana Vieja, and Molly laughed at me for already having people recognize me and talk to me in the street after being there for 3 days. Well, I just talk to everyone.

We decided to take the bus at 10pm so we would have the whole day in Havana. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is housed in a gorgeous 18th century building, and Museo de la Revolucion is perhaps the most ridiculous establishment of propaganda I've ever seen. But man, what charisma El Maximo has. And Che is pretty dashing. Hahah.

We went to artehabana, and the singer was amazing...tears were in many Cubans' eyes, and most definitely in mine. We then walked to the corner of Hotel Inglaterra where there was a full brass orchestra, about 40 performers performing on the street for free. Someillan was there watching, and again Molly had to watch me be greeted by someone treating me like a long lost friend. Ha. And of course, the old man selling papers was hugging me, and winking as he stole an extra 10 cents from my change when I bought the Granma paper from him.

We decided to try to find the gallery I had been at...a man in a bright yellow cubatur shirt called out to me, asking where I was from in English. I replied in Spanish and he was surprised, asking me the usual how do you speak Spanish perfectly if you're Japanese questions. He was in a doorway of a house with music blasting so we were invited in and proceeded. A full fledged concentrated energetic game of dominoes was taking place, which we soon began to take part in, the rum never emptying in our glasses. A few hours of laughter and clapping and slamming down domino pieces led to our little salsa and reggaeton dance party in this Habana apartment, complete with the 5 year old Jonathan. Asi es Cuba.

We had to leave to get our bus and many hugs and kisses were exchanged. Asi es Cuba.

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