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Feasting in Cuba, day 4

February 29, 2016

February 9, 2016

Literature, friendship, shopping, more eating and drinking, and . . . Jesus!

Another big day had been planned for us here on our last day in Havana. Our tour directors were amazing. As soon as one thing fell through on our itinerary, they jumped on it and found a substitute. Every minute was filled and we had no idea how much time, effort, and their own money they expended to keep everything running smoothly. Here is a big shout-out to our hosts, Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull of Old Havana in Durham, NC, and to Leyte and Saul Rivera of Leyte Global Services. If I have not made it clear that you should not attempt to do Cuba alone, let me reiterate: This country is not a DIY destination. You need somebody who knows the ropes to tiptoe through the myriad knots that will trip you up. Since both Roberto and Leyte have the advantage of being Cuban, their knowledge came in extra handy.

 

We started the day visiting Libro Café, an independent bookstore/lending library of English language books owned by Connor Gorry, an American ex-pat and journalist who loves Cuba and is trying to improve the life of the people in her community. Anyone can come to her place to read all he wants without regard to funds, and the place was crowded with young people who come here to read, snack, and visit with each other. Of course, there are plenty of public libraries in Cuba, but the types of books available there are limited. Independent bookstores and libraries have not enjoyed much freedom in the past, with librarians being subjected to prison sentences for offering “unacceptable” books, but constraints are slowly relaxing. As Cubans have greater access to the internet, no doubt restriction on thought and speech will begin to disappear.

One of the most frustrating things about being in Cuba was the lack of internet. Although some access is available at the hotels, many times service was down. Every time I tried to buy a card so I could check in with my family, I heard, “Sorry, no service right now. Check back in an hour” or “a day.” Connor hopes to offer free internet to her clientele one of these days, but she, like everyone else, is facing the excruciatingly slow pace of change.

Our time at the Libro Café was well spent. She had invited three young Cubans came to chat with us. One was a medical doctor who has switched careers to become a chef and tattoo artist. We thought this was odd. Why would anyone go through the rigors of medical school and then just give it up to work in food and ink? Her reason was rather sad: She wanted to become a urologist, but because the government wants more GPs and fewer specialists, she could not continue her training, so she turned her back on medicine altogether. I also suspect some other thoughts may be brewing in the minds of many highly educated Cubans to cause them to rethink their careers:

  1. Going to school in Cuba is not only free, it’s relatively easy because the government gives everyone a stipend while they are studying. It isn’t much of one—worse than starvation wages, actually, but so are the wages of American, who also are burdened with tuition costs. If you love to learn and don’t mind holding down a job while you are working, taking advantage of the free educational system in Cuba could be the way to go. It doesn’t matter if you don’t stay in the profession. You don’t have a mountain of student debt to clear once you graduate.
  2. As I discussed earlier, since professions with high prestige pay less than those of lower prestige, no professional in Cuba earns a living wage (I’m sure there are exceptions for those who have friends in high places). Since you aren’t financially tied to your professional path, there is no reason to stay with it if you decide you like something else better. As far as I can tell, the only reason to be a doctor in Cuba is if you love medicine. You certainly don’t do it for the money. If you happen to love being an artist and can earn a more lucrative income by practicing your art in the private sector, then why not go for it?

I know this seems strange to anyone who has grown up in a capitalistic society where education tends to be the means to an end. In Cuba, you can get an education just because you feel like it. Oddly, the Cubans I met seem to appreciate their education more than Americans do, and they take it more seriously in some ways. Granted, we met some stellar young people who perhaps were the best examples of the society, but I have to say, these kids were extraordinarily bright, sophisticated, well educated, and well rounded–Renaissance men and women, with interests in many disciplines. They knew more about American politics than the above-average American university student does. They understand the ideologies of all our potential presidential candidates and the implications of what it means to Cuba and the world if any particular one of them is elected. It was very impressive, how hard they work, how much they know, how enthusiastic they are, how committed they were to making the world a better place.

At the request of Connor, we had brought books to donate to the library. Although I thought it was a little silly to bring romance comedies about hillbillies to a bookstore in Havana, my publisher insisted on bringing my two novels to contribute. Here I am with a copy of A Sinner in Paradise and an advance review copy of A Saint in Graceland, which at this very minute may be being read by a Cuban thirsty to know what life in West Virginia is like. It boggles the mind to think about it. My books in Cuba!

books andme

Hey Mom, Look! My books are being read in Cuba!

 

At lunch, I managed to make my way through yet another serving of pork while cursing my allergy to seafood and fish. I also was beginning to find it difficult to look at black beans and rice. Images of pizza, chef salads, and guacamole began to swim in my head. But the mojitos helped to quiet those longings. After two, I did not mind another round of beans and rice, although I pushed aside the yucca.

Then we were off to the street market to find souvenirs and meet a slew of artists taking advantage of one of the few areas of free enterprise. Being an artist, Roberto knows several of the vendors of contemporary art being offered there, so he spent a convivial hour or two reminiscing with his old friends about the art scene in Havana. It was a great experience, and several of our group found some wonderful things. Aside from the fine art, the market offered a plethora of fun gadgets, like wooden replicas of classic cars, toys made from coke cans, items of clothing, and all the other kinds of things you see at American flea markets, including things made in China, but might be enticing to a tourist eager to buy.

Of course, Mike got thirsty after just a few minutes at the market, so we made our way to the next block where we found a bar while we waited for everyone to finish making their purchases.

at the market

At the bar on the waterfront, waiting for the others. The market is the long white building behind me. The scarf was my only purchase because I was tired of being cold

 

After that, we went to the newly opened US embassy, guarded by Cuban guards, and made another tour through a different part of Havana. The streets in the newer part of the city are very long and straight, and very beautiful. I can see why Cuba was once known as the “Pearl of the Caribbean.” Obviously, this was once a thriving place, rich in money, imagination, creativity, and skill. The architecture is so much more whimsical, colorful, graceful, and ornate than anything I have seen in the United States.

nice havana house

Typical beautiful house built before the Revolution.

 

 

 

havana square

The Old Square. The Big Chicken you saw in the first post is behind me

One of the prettiest places in Havana is their Central Park, where the Capitol building resides. Built in 1929, it is a copy of the US capitol, but with a twist: it is 12 inches taller than ours is.(“Ha, ha, take that USA!”) Next door to that is the Opera house, a grand theatre built in 1837 and now houses the National Ballet Company.

 

capital and opera house

The slightly taller Capitol building and the beautiful Opera House.  The little cars in the foreground are typical transportation if you don’t want to ride in a classic car.

 

Then it was back to the old town in Central Havana. We spent the waning afternoon strolling through very old, dilapidated, pothole-infested streets, grieving for the slow deaths of the lovely buildings. Up until now, we had not seen any beggars. Today we saw only two, and they were not particularly good at the craft. You could tell they were just beginning to realize that they could ask for handouts from tourists, but had not yet figured out how to do it well. One woman yelled at us, “Hey, give some money to my baby,” as she waved toward one very well-fed, well-dressed, embarrassed looking boy. Another man approached us, speaking very rapidly in Spanish, motioning us to follow him, but we could not make out what he wanted. He also looked awfully energetic and well-dressed to be a beggar.

havana street

 

Dinner at the Paladar Dona Eutimia was good, but by now I am getting sick of chicken as I listen to everyone else raving about their fish. I will scream if I eat one more bite of black beans and rice or even look at another piece of boiled yucca. Dessert made up for the predictable food, however, as did the frozen mojitos. I thought the mojitos were good yesterday, but if you’ve never had a frozen mojito before, you haven’t lived. Dessert was special because we were celebrating the birthday of the lovely Deidre, whose name fits her perfectly.

Diedre

The Birthday Girl and her Sweetie

 

At the end of dinner, we piled back onto the bus for the short ride back to the hotel.

Driving along the Malecon, (the boulevard bordered by the seawall) we caught a glimpse of an enormous statue of Jesus all lit up, standing on the hill. It was surprising—and nice—to see it. I never expected such an obvious icon of Christianity in this country. Although religious tolerance is rapidly gaining ground in Cuba, and they are far from the days of dragging Christians before the firing squads, the government still favors atheism. The statue has been standing there, unmolested since 1953. Thank you, Castro, for allowing art to survive, even if it goes against your religious and political inclinations.

There are, in fact, many statues throughout Cuba, with a long tradition of sculpture embedded in the culture. Every important event is marked with a statue or several. Near the old marketplace, at the “Anti-Imperialist” Plaza, stands an imposing statue of a man holding a child. At first, I thought it a touching reminder of how Cubans love their children—I had seen nothing but obvious devotion of Cubans and their offspring. But later, I discovered that it was a representation of the Elian affair, when the Cuban child, Elian, who was kidnapped by his mother from his father who had legal custody, back in 1999. She made a run for Miami in a boat that capsized, drowning all but the child, who somehow made it to the United States, supposedly with the help of dolphins. After a long court battle, Elian was literally dragged from his aunt and uncle’s home in Miami by police and reunited with his father in Cuba. I remember the incident, and at the time, I felt sorry for the poor child who would not be allowed to live in freedom after all his mother had sacrificed for him. But the Cubans have a different take on the story. The man in the statue, Cuban hero Jose Marti, holds Elian tightly, protectively, as he points an accusing finger toward the United States. Clearly, the Cubans see the incident as yet another attempt of the Imperialists to infringe on the rights of even the most vulnerable Cuban citizens.

It was another good day in Cuba. Although I am missing my family and wishing I could communicate with my babies, I am still happy to be here.

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