Archive for January, 2016

My Cuban Adventure Part Four: The Arts and Music

January 23, 2016


Art is everywhere in Cuba. Public art was both abstract and representational. There were metal sculptures, made from scrap metal including old car parts, on the streets and in the park behind the Hotel Ciego de Avila.

We visited a silver shop in the city. The artists were making jewelry and sculptures from old silverware.

One Saturday we went the museum in Ciego de Avila. After touring the museum we were treated to a traditional dance performance with a live band, Rumbavilla. They included us in the dancing, too.

Then we were off to Moron, a nearby city of 60,000 people. We went to the theater there, Moron Teatro. The government gave the building to the troupe, its director, and the stage crew. The theater was built in 1922 but was heavily damaged by a hurricane. In the ensuing years it was used as a venue for boxing and duck races as well as a storage facility for fertilizer. The actors, director, and stage crew cleaned it up and renovated it. They got a box car, cut it in half, and added one side of it to the back of the building for dressing rooms and used the other half for the front lobby and ticket office. They completed the work in five months and now have a full schedule of performances each week including classical, contemporary and children’s plays. The admission price is five CUP’s, about twenty cents.


There are several troupes of actors from the company that entertain at the beach resorts of the province. Since many of the tourists do not speak Spanish, they put on variety shows. We were treated to such a performance that included mimes. Huge puppets, dances, singers, and acrobats. The theater company is known for their clay-brushed characters. They presented Medea in that form as street theater.

Another amazing part of the theater company is their outreach program. They send a troupe out to isolated areas and stay for ten days, teaching the local people how to put on their own shows.

One night in Ciego de Avila we went to a nightclub called La Trova, named after a branch of Cuban music. We listened and danced to a band called Cuban Roots, Raices Cubana. The painter Miguel Angle Luna who was a fan of la trova so he opened the club and started it as a foundation to preserve the music.

In Havana we went to the Old City where we saw rehabbed buildings.I was struck again by the modern outdoor art like this surrealistic statue of a rooster.

rooster surrealistic statue in Havana

The galleries on the New Quarter had some interesting art, including Zombie art. Here’s a photo of fanciful mail slots.

When we went to the Museum of the Revolution, I saw a newer portrait of Fidel Castro painted by Luis Soltelo.


IMG_1659 I’ve included a photo of the rotunda of the building.


When we passed by at night, Che’s face was lit up on the front of the building.


We went to the Lucecita Music Consortium founded by Lucecita Benitez. They have a festival every summer, Pina Colada, in Ciego de Avila. The consortium’s mission is to provide training and venues for new talent. They have a show on the internet on the last Friday of every month, although I couldn’t find it.

sculpture at Lucecita

We visited Muraliando, an artists’ consortium in Havana. The government gave the group an old water tower that had been used as a garbage dump for years. The artists cleaned it out and built studio space for themselves and have a program for 250 children. It’s in a run-down area so the artists made murals and sculptures all over the streets.

There we listened to another band, Mambu and Company, who got us up and dancing.

My impressions are that the Cubans respect intellectuals and value their diverse culture.







My Cuban Adventure Part Three Transporation

January 11, 2016


IMG_1714I took a charter plane to Cuba as there is currently no commercial air traffic allowed. This is quite expensive ($540 roundtrip from Miami) and requires long waits. Some of the planes are American (Eastern, American, etc.) We had to check in four hours ahead of time. Baggage was expensive. The charge was by poundage, often including your carry-on.

We landed at the Santa Clara airport, went through customs and got on a beautiful air conditioned bus that took the teams to the two cities. I was surprised that there was little traffic on the highways. We went through mostly rural areas, flat with lush greenery. There were horses with carts or carriages on the same roads.

In Ciego de Avila there was also little auto or bus traffic on the streets. There aren’t enough public conveyances. I saw people, with their hands out with money, on the major highway through town hoping someone would stop and take them to a destination for money. I saw only one auto taxi. There were many pedicycle taxis. A ride in these costs about $2.00 for two people. Since it wasn’t only tourists, but also locals taking these pedicycle rides, I think there was a different price for the local people.

There were also many horse and carriages on the city’s streets. It felt like a trip through time. These cost about $1 per person for a ride. The team took these carriages every night to dinner and then back to the hotel after tutoring at the Community Center.


There were trains going through town and a station. There were also “dragon” buses. These were two or three buses attached to each other and pulled by a semi. Ramon said they hold more than two hundred passengers, standing.


The autos were generally two types: fairly new and vintage. The vintage ones in Ciego de Avila were not for the hobbyist. They were a means of transportation. I sat in Parque Juanita one Sunday at noon to photograph vintage cars that went by. I noticed that about a third of the cars fit into that category.



We rode to Havana in the same wonderful bus. The highway was sparsely traveled. We stopped on the way to see Ernest Hemmingway’s house. These two restored cars were there, but they didn’t belong to Hemmingway.

There were more cars in Havana, but not many by American standards. I saw little yellow three-wheeled taxies.


IMG_1537The vintage cars were in better shape in Havana. On Friday night we went for rides in vintage cars that were convertibles. Great fun. These were driven by their proud owners who were members of car clubs.

Until three years ago, houses and cars could not be legally bought or sold. The owners of the cars I met had been in the family. However, a person could buy a car under the table but the registration remained under the name of the original owner until recently.


Cuban Adventure, People

January 1, 2016

Cuban Adventure Part Two   The People

Our Global Volunteers Team was the fifth to Ciego de Avila and the seventh to Cuba overall. The teams to Ciego de Avila have all tutored walk-ins at the Community Center. Although the building is owned by the Baptist Church, the tutoring is open to all.

In the mornings, most of the people were adults. Some of the volunteers also worked with young adults whose English teacher had strongly recommended they attend. The people who came in ranged from those who spoke no English to those who wanted to practice their already good English skills. The latter group, whom I never worked with, gave the volunteers insights into everyday life in Cuba.FullSizeRender (1)


I worked with the people who knew no English. My first, and most consistent student was Myla. We went over greetings, where are you from etc. I wrote everything down on index cards, in English and Spanish, so she could take them with her. When she got stressed (two hours is a long time for tutoring) we used my elementary Spanish and talked about our lives. She used to be a junior high school Spanish teacher until she had to quit to take care of her father. He died but now she takes care of her brother. Her daughter (psychologist or psychiatrist,) and her granddaughter live with her. Her granddaughter is ten years old and studying ballet at a school for the arts. (As I spoke with people it was quite usual to have multigenerations living in the same house. It speaks to the lack of housing and the dearth of building materials.) Her daughter and granddaughter go to the beach for their August and October holidays.

Rita, a college Spanish literature teacher, also came in the mornings. She was quite a character. She brought homemade wine one morning to share. One day when several of us were sitting on the wall in the square, we saw her. She insisted we come to her home. First she stopped by a travel agency and got us brochures and maps of Cuba. We shared organic yogurt. Her home was quite spacious: living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and patio upstairs.


In the evening tutoring sessions, we worked with people of all ages. Many older teens came. My take on it was it was an activity, sanctioned by their parents, where they could hang out with their friends. However they worked hard on improving their English.

One boy, about ten, came with his mother and English teacher. There were about five other children who came. A couple came who were moving to Toronto for jobs they’d secured. Annie, an enthusiastic woman, was a dance teacher who hoped to work in the resorts. Working within the tourism industry was the best way to make money.

One of the girls being tutored was on vacation from her boarding school for high achieving students. She told us about a custom for fifteen year old girls. Not a quincinera, but a photo shoot. As soon as a baby girl is born, the parents start saving for it. It costs the equivalent of $180. The photographer provides the lavish costumes but the girl’s family furnishes the modern clothes. When I asked several other people about the custom, they said they hadn’t done it for their daughters so I’m not sure how prevalent the practice is.


I also worked with a teenager who lived with her grandmother. Her mother was a doctor who was working in Brazil. It was an intergovernmental agreement. She saw patients for free and was paid by the Brazilian federal and municipal governments. In Cuba she earned the equivalent of twenty dollars a month. Teachers make about seventeen dollars a month. In another installment I’ll discuss the two forms of currency and how they can survive on so little.


I worked with Migue, a nineteen year-old, who attended a military academy. He was a bit shy but I drew him out. One night I tutored him with a fifteen year-old girl whose English was excellent. Her father was a tour guide I’d met at the Cigar Store the day before.

One day while we were walking to the Community Center, an old woman and her husband approached us. She was wearing a large Star of David around her neck. Later, some of the team visited her in her home. Her father had immigrated to Cuba from Istanbul. Her husband was a Palestinian Jew. She was eighty-seven and he was a few years younger. Her home was filled with Judaica. Her two sons were rabbis in the U. S., one in Florida and one in North Carolina.



The second week I worked with Emily, the seven year-old daughter of our local guide, Ramon. She was brilliant and reminded me of my own Emily. I told her stories in Enlgish and Spanish. She then colored the characters and in theory told the stories back to me. By the time she should have done this, she was bored. We played color games and illustrated vocabulary. When I wrote “snowman” we both drew one. Of course mine was better than hers, as she’d never seen snow. She ran crying to her father. Gifted children often think they have to do everything perfectly, and I explained that to her father. Emily could read Englihs on a fourth grade level!

One day two other volunteers and I went to Ramon’s house after lunch. As we walked, he explained that he often picked up Emily before the end of school because she didn’t learn anything in the afternoons. Just as he said this, he teacher came biking by, way before school was over. He explained the often repeated maxim, “We pretend ot work and they pretend ot pay us.”

He told us that he pays about eight cents a month for his daughter to eat lunch at school. The charge for daycare, including two snacks and breakfast and lunch, is about three dollars a month.

Ramon was staying with a neighbor while he rebuilt his home across the street. He was hampered in this effort by bureaucracy and a lack of money and the limited availablilty of building supplies. He had been a teacher but couldn’t support his family on that salary. Teachers are prohibited from taking extra jobs that don’t relate to teaching. Then he worked as an immigration officer at the airport but also did not make enough money. He also tried to make a living as a photographer, but the government took seventy percent of his profits at that time. I think government regulations have changed and he’s going to try that again. I saw his photographs and he is talented.

His wife does not speak English and she seemed shy. His younger daughter Evelyn is a cutie pie. Ramon is quite enamored of his family, wonderful to see.

Almost every adult I met was divorced. The families were small, one or two children. That jived with what I had read ahead of time.


Annie, another tutoree, was a dance teacher. Her life was very hard. She hoped to improve her English so she could work as a dance instructor at a resort.

I saw many people fixing up their homes, painting or doing concrete work.


I realized how cynical I was. When I could ask someone on The Boulevard for directions, I would be taken to my destination. I thought it was for a tip, but people were just friendly and helpful. The staff that served us breakfast every day asked to see us all together. They had made flowers for us out of natural materials. I thought perhaps they wanted an extra tip but our leader Warren tipped them, not us. They were just being nice.

I didn’t see any evidence of racial tension. Columbus and the Spanish decimated the native population. Slaves were brought in to the labor, along with Chinese coolies. The latter had little influence on the culture because they were single men who often didn’t marry. Slavery wasn’t outlawed until 1886. I saw lots of interracial friendships and marriages. The word “mulatto” is not offensive. The African culture is a valued part of Cuban life. Aunt Jemima dolls and mulatto puppets are not insulting.

I saw lots of instances of entrepreneurship. Many people had small “cafeterias” on their patios or porches, selling coffee and take-out food. The paint merchant had his wares in huge plastic buckets. The pedicabs and horse and carriage drivers were in business for themselves.

At the Sunday morning outdoor market, pork, wine, vegetables and baskets were sold. The pork and wine was then re-sold to others. To my eyes it seemed unsanitary to have the pork out in the open. To buy wine, one had to bring back a container. Some people had fifteen containers to trade in. Onions and garlic were sold out of the back of a truck, probably to be resold. There was a lottery/ game show going on in the back of the market. People paid for a number. If your number was called, you went on stage and your number was verified by someone in the audience. The emcee put on some loud music and you had to dance. You then won one of the bags of goods.

I found the people I met to be open, friendly, earnest, and very willing to tlk to Americans.