I’m never good at beginnings. One always wants something snappy and gripping but something like that would just feel calculated. So here I am with the beginning of my diary from Cuba, and the way I begin is with “I’m never good at beginnings”. Perhaps this will change if I later edit this, but that, again, would feel calculated. So here it is, my account of being an American in Cuba, a college student in Havana, a 21-year-old girl in Vedado.
I never thought that I would end up some place like this for my abroad program. Up until yesterday I’ve lived in an Anglo-centric world, with cold winters and strangely Puritanical value systems (why do liquor stores still close on Sundays?). My reading lists have focused primarily around dead white guys. The houses I live in have small rooms and relatively short ceilings.
Now, I’m not saying all this in harsh critique –I am in no position to cast off my upbringing just days after leaving my country. Plus I like those reading lists and short ceilings. My point here is to merely shed light on the fact that no versions of my past selves (from birth to college) would have ever pinned Havana as the destination of my semester abroad.
I am lucky enough to have met a very special hombre the first night of my college career, Andrew, who has since become a major part of my life. So major, in fact, that he has encouraged me to learn a new instrument, learn Spanish, and apply to abroad programs outside of, well, London. Andrew has quietly and subtly pushed me to grow, to take risks, and to think past the world in which I grew up. We both applied to the Cuba program, and I applied to another program in London, just in case. I wanted to make sure that, wherever I was going, I was going for myself, not for him. He felt the same. It just so happened (fortunately) that our paths merged. We both got into the program, and were both assigned to the same home stay.
Originally I meant for this first entry to revolve around observations of my first day in Havana, but I seemed to have gotten off track, explaining how I got here in the first place. So, back to those observations.
As the plane set down in Havana last night – simultaneously setting with the sun – I found that a pit was growing deep in my stomach. All the anxieties surrounding this trip, anxieties that I have been considering for the last year, set back in, a thousand fold. Out of the country for three months, away from loved ones, English, three-pronged outlets, television, “decent” water pressure, my own bed, peanut butter cups (AIIII), Fox news (YAYYYYY), cell phones, Wifi, and Hampshire. I felt as if a wall – 3 months tall – had just been placed in front of me, waiting to slowly be chipped away. When it was gone I would have all those things I just listed back in my life. Three months. That’s a long time. I was already tired.
We moved through Cuban immigration. All around me were vacationers from Canada, France, and England…pasty people with furrowed browns, thick accents, and tired eyes. I didn’t want to speak. I didn’t want to be betrayed as American (why?). When it was my turn, I handed over my passport to the officer. She looked at the front cover and for a split second I saw her expression change from sheer boredom to interest. It quickly went back to boredom. She filled out some paperwork, snapped a picture, and handed me my passport and my visa. She had stamped the visa instead of the passport, so that the passport would be “clean” when re-entering the US.
I continued to feel tired.
We retrieved our baggage. We sat for an extended moment as we waited for the final person in our group to get through Immigration (his passport is from Pakistan, he was pulled from line, he was asked additional questions). We met some of the organizers from the trip, all of which seemed to have much higher energy levels than those who had been traveling all day. I met my tutor, Celia. I managed to give her a kiss on the cheek and feebly mumble “encantada” before becoming mute. The Cuban Spanish was overwhelming, I was tired. I felt like an idiot. The anxieties grew. We packed out luggage into vans and drove out of the airport and into the city.
Havana is probably the darkest city I have ever seen…or not seen. Out the window I could make out the shapes of buildings far different than those of Massachusetts, their outlines crude against the sky (I say crude without any negative inflection). We made a stop at a house, our professor got out and unloaded her belongings. The car pushed back from the curb, traveled ¾ of a block, stopped. This time, it stopped for me and Andrew.
We got out into the dark street, pulled our luggage from the car, and were greeted by Baby, our madre cubana, and her husband, Julio. They led us upstairs past a small garden and porch and into their home – our home.
The ceilings are tall. At least 2 stories, which leaves everything with a feel of grandeur. The entrances to all rooms climb up the lofty walls. There is a faint musty smell, mixed with odors of warm air and gasoline from the cars out in the streets. It is stale but comforting. We are led through the beautiful house. We are showed our bedrooms with private bathrooms. All the furniture seems old but well loved, as if the house were furnished with belongings from a grandmother’s basement – not my grandmother, but someone else’s. Thus, everything seems paradoxically foreign and familiar all at once.
Baby has food waiting for us – a rice dish similar to paella, fried plantains, shredded cabbage and fresh tomatoes. We eat like kings as she watches her telenovella and occasionally yells at one of her dogs, Bruno, who is yelping just outside the dining room. Her Spanish is hard to understand – fast and slurred. Up until this point my only exposure to spoken Spanish has been in American classrooms, where professors over-enunciate and can switch to English if need be. I am tired. I try to keep up. I end up nodding and smiling wearily. The anxieties grow.
Andrew and I leave the house around 10:30 to meet up with the rest of the students on the trip. We decide to walk to the Malecon, a busy street that runs parallel to the ocean. We sit on the wall and take in the sea. We are approached by three street musicians who serenade us, despite the fact that we told them we couldn’t tip. They stick around for a while, we trade incites about our native cultures. Their leader is charming with a deep voice, he sings and plays trumpet. He performs. We wished each other luck and depart, walking back to our homes.
I unpack in my room. I feel very alone. Andrew comes in to visit and say goodnight. I ask him to stay. We have a sleepover the first night. It is cold, which I wasn’t expecting. My mind is racing even after the light is turned off. Three months. The bed is uncomfortable. Thin and tough. I can feel the bed frame and plywood under the 4 inch mattress. The pillow is lumpy. A far cry from my nest in Massachusetts. Thinking back on all of this, even now, not even 24 hours later, I feel a lump in my throat for my past self. For my present self. I feel so much better today than I did just last night. But three months still separate me from my comfort zone. I am excited for the time ahead but frightened all the same.
We woke up this morning. I had every intention of showering, but slept in an extra 10 minutes. Then I noticed that both the sink and the shower had single knobs – for cold water. The hot water knob in my shower is temporarily out of commission. No hot water. Fuck.
I decided to forego a shower.
I tried turning on a light to put in my contacts. Didn’t work. Went back into my bedroom to try another light. Didn’t work. Power was cut. Damn.
I got dressed and went back into the dining room I had eaten in the night before. Waiting on the table was fresh pineapple, papaya, rolls, coffee, and scrambled eggs. Needless to say, we continued to dine like Kings. The coffee was hot and strong. Baby again joined us while we ate. Today, I spoke more to her and understood a lot more of what she said, as if I woke up and had remembered more of my Spanish.
We departed around 10 and walked that ¾ of a block to Carol’s house, where we met with the rest of our group for orientation. The house was a palace. Dogs everywhere. Same as in the street. We begin our walking tour of the area.
Oddly, I notice many similarities between Havana and my hometown of Gloucester. Both have narrow streets with many potholes. Both its native inhabitants yell at each other in public to greet one another. Both have selfish drivers. We stop at another house to sit for a while and go over more useful information. More dogs. More strong coffee.
We are shown where we can access (ridiculously expensive) Wifi so that we can write home to our families. We are shown where to buy pens, food, and medicine. Where we can convert our money from CUCs to moneda nacional (pesos). We stop at a beautiful restaurant, where we gorge ourselves on more paella, mojitos, and, of course, more strong coffee.
Our orientation for the day is over, so the students all veer off towards the Malecon once again. We hang out for a while, then go our separate ways. I walk back towards Paseo and 27th with Andrew and Oskar. We stop for cigarettes. We walk more roads with beautiful but decaying architecture. Whether or not I should, I feel safe. My mood has improved. The city has sprawled itself in front of me as something to be explored and not feared. I return home and begin writing this.
I don’t expect every entry to be this detailed, but today I felt a certain urgency to document this part of my life that is just beginning to unfold. I don’t want to miss it or forget it. I already feel like I am not the person that stepped off the plane. I feel both good and bad about this. I miss my Mom.
Last night I turned off my cell phone and put it back into my luggage. The only thing I won’t unpack for this trip. The next time I turn it on I will be someone entirely different and wholly the same. I already feel sick of a lot of bullshit I had put up with in the US – not with over-arching issues directly relating to the US, but just with things I do and put up with that are unnecessary. Checking my phone to fill awkward pauses in conversation. Carrying a purse filled to the brim with “things I need”. Worrying about people who don’t worry about me.
This entry has been chock full of paradoxical and hypocritical statements for which I can neither account nor apologize. That pit in my stomach has been transformed from anxiety to something else – a growing rumble that is warning me a new phase of my life has finally come.
As I sit here writing this, I have just finished my first meeting with my tutor, Celia, a beautiful, stylish, tiny, and (most importantly) patient middle aged professor of Cuban theater history. Today I was subjected (subjected?) to more Spanish than I think I was ready for, but I suppose that one is never ready for primary exposure to a new language. There is a lump in my throat and tears waiting just behind my lids. It has been a really hard day, one that already had me wondering if this program was a mistake for me.
Even as I write that I know that it can’t be true. I was told beforehand by past student participants that you can expect to have the occasional existential crisis while in here. After all, it is a completely different way of life – not completely different; my life here so far is a tease – it reflects familiar customs but as soon as you get slightly comfortable something rushes in to remind you that, no, you are not in the US; no, people don’t speak English and yes, you are far away from personal comfort.
I know that these crises will hit me at different times, and those days that I feel completely lost will probably rarely coincide with a similar crises of a peer. Thus, the feeling is completely isolating. While everyone else smiles and takes in our daily activities, today I felt a wave of anxiety, close to tears. I couldn’t move past it. I was and am letting my worrying steer my life today. I hate it. I want to go home. At the same time I don’t at all. I know I am stronger than this. I know I will be stronger than this. Its temporary, like most things. Even now, I’m frustrated by the fact that I want to cry – sob – but I can’t, for fear that my homestay mother will call me for dinner and my blotchy face would betray me. I don’t want to look weak. I’m already sick of feeling stupid.
I had already had appreciation for immigrants in the US. I would never become frustrated when they spoke in their native language in public (as my brothers do… “you came to our country so speak our language”). But now that sentiment has grown exponentially. I now know the small, daily anxieties of someone who does not understand the language well – I am nervous to make purchases, clarify questions.
This morning I woke up feeling entirely different. I had gotten more sleep I had exercised, I started learning guitar (thank you, Andrew), my Spanish was already improving. We woke up and ate breakfast with Baby again (papaya, bread, pineapple, oranges, plantains, eggs, coffee), and walked to our meeting place – Carol’s apartment. Once the group had gathered (and we exchanged stories from the night before), we set out with Gangy to the public bus which would take us out of the city and to Guanabacoa.
Gangy. Before I continue with the events of the day, let me say that Gangy is already shaping up to be one of my favorite people on this trip (which is a tall order, considering everyone is very nice and accommodating). She will be my Spanish teacher while I am here. Gangy is an older woman, again tiny, with sparkling eyes and a smirk that is both kind and sarcastic…I don’t know how she does it. Like Celia, she is extremely patient. Unlike Celia, she can also speak English, which is a godsend because she can translate and correct us. I don’t know what else to say about her, except to stress her patience and kindness. I feel as if she made a personal connection with me with very few words, but many knowing glances.
So Gangy led us to the corner of 23 and J (el parque El Quijote) to catch our public bus. Upon arrival she called out to those waiting in the park, inquiring who had arrived last (before us). A woman raised her hand; we would be behind her in line when the bus came. I liked this; while in the US I am used to people lining up on a corner for minutes on end, Cubans leisurely sit down and wait for the bus wherever they want, knowing who to follow in line. It is much more pleasant.
The bus is so cheap. Only a few centavos. We all had dropped off our purses before getting on the bus, so there was no chance of getting robbed. When the bus came and picked us up, we got on and began our journey through the city.
The ride got me excited about exploring Havana – we passed the central area of the city as well as the older part, both with beautiful architecture that looked as if it was in a permanent state of decay, always teetering on decrepency but never quite falling to it. The streets were narrow (like Gloucester), people stared into the bus to people-watch (like Gloucester). I could feel the eyes of a few men on the bus looking at me, up and down. I take these looks like I take piropos on the street – not personally but generally, a symptom of being female. Its not flattering, its common.
The ride was beautiful. I was close to the window and felt like a sponge trying to absorb as much of the scenery as humanly possible. What I saw can only be explained visually. I cannot do it justice in words.
We traveled out of the city and into Guanabacoa, to the house of Luis Gárciga, an experimental film maker. The roads became more narrow and of even worse quality. The air smelled good. It was so warm. When we got to the house, we were greeted by Luis and his previous students from the University of Havana (who now worked together in film to form Jóvenes Realizadores), Celia-Yunior, Javier, Grethell, and Renier. There were many cheek kisses and “mucho gustos”.
We played with their dogs and began drinking our rum sodas until they were ready to begin screening the short films. First we watched a film created for a past student’s final project, then one of Oskar’s, Vaudeville is Dead, which profiled Andrew’s performance in the play that I wrote, Benito the Great. It was the first time I had seen the whole film. It was difficult to watch my stiff and calculated performance.
Then we watched – just now I got up and walked into the dining room to refill my water glass, I walked in on Baby watching TV with her daughter. They were just sitting and talking and I miss my Mom – many of their short films that they work on as a collective. Many were just long shots of various images that related to the experience of being from Havana. Frames of a collective life. Few were boring, most were provoking. I enjoyed them. After the screenings the group talked about their experiences as filmmakers, which was very interesting but I really had to pee and wasn’t expecting a 45-minute talk back.
I went to the bathroom. I came back, and they were discussing Oskar’s film, asking him questions about his process and film’s themes, in Spanish. He was flustered – a room full of eyes waiting for him to say something moving about his work. He would get halfway through a sentence and not be able to figure out how to finish it. We all tried to help.
Then they began to ask me questions about the movie. In Spanish. Questions about the multiple representations of reality in the film. Now all those eyes were looking at me. I couldn’t even answer those questions in English, I had no idea what Oskar was trying to portray. I gave it my best shot, but it was now me that was speaking in half sentences, flustered. They finally gave up and let me speak in English. I felt like a dumbass, a child.
Afterwards, moving outside and on the verge of frustrated tears, Andrew approached me, a little smile on his face (or at least I perceived it as a smile) and said, “its hard when you can’t be eloquent, isn’t it? You’re so used to it.” It took all my might not to punch him in the arm or cry or collapse into his arms in a hug. It was hard. For the first time in my life something wasn’t coming easily to me. I just wanted to go home. I started getting short and distant with him. I couldn’t help it, I just wanted someone to release my frustrations on. I apologized, poured myself a rum and coke, and tried to pull myself out of my funk. The Cuban barbeque began, I ate and drank a little more, my mood improved (and by improved I mean I became less frustrated and more drained).
I returned from the party early to prepare for my first meeting with my tutor, Celia, writing out a list of vocabulary I thought might come up in our conversation that, if at the ready, would spare me from further embarrassment. I re-read my Cuba paper I wrote last semester (that I am still terribly proud of) and waited at the corner of my bed, ready to jump up when I heard the front door ring.
And now here I am. I put down this writing for a while when Andrew came back from the party around 8, so that we could eat. After we caught up on the gossip involving members of the trip (it seems as if girls are already pairing off with some of the Cuban boys that were at the barbeque, to which Carol responded that “they’ve been boyfriends before and they will be again, they are good at it.”), he taught me more guitar chords and a few new songs. I’m progressing quickly in 2 days…it makes me feel good to see progress in something that I am doing, especially when the progress with my Spanish seems to be moving so slowly.
I am so glad Andrew is with me. I know that I would feel completely lost and alone if not for him, my greatest and most necessary tie to home – not home as in a specific location, but just my home within another. He is sweet and patient and knows when I need extra TLC. I don’t see my dependence (not quite the right word) on him as a crutch, but as a comfort. I hope I am the same for him.
It has been a couple of days since I’ve had the opportunity to update this journal. Since then, some amazing things have occurred – which is a cheesy thing to say but it is true nonetheless.
Two days ago (the day after my last entry) our group met at Carol’s house early in the morning for an hour-long lecture on the socio-economic history of Cuba. The lecture was, of course, in Spanish, which would have been fine if not for the echo-y room in which we sat, that made it impossible to understand the speaker if she turned her head away from you. But instead of freaking out if I missed a sentence of the presentation, I simply attempted to gather the gist of the lecture. This made the whole situation a lot less stressful, and I ended up picking up more of it than I originally thought I would.
Afterwards, we were led to the corner of Paseo and 23rd, where we caught Peso Cabs to take us to another barrio in Habana. To explain, there are many kinds of cabs in Cuba – CUC cabs (more expensive and designated primarily for tourists – you tell them exactly where you want to go and they drop you off there), Peso Taxis (in moneda nacional, a flat 10 pesos – you hail one using a hand signal indicating which direction you want to go, and they will stop if you are moving in the direction of their assigned route; thus, you get dropped off in the area of where you are going, not at the exact address), and Gypsy cabs (either CUC or moneda nacional, these are run by regular Cubans who are trying to make a little extra money).
We were dropped off in an older part of town, of which we explored a few blocks, taking pictures and terrorizing dogs stuck behind fences. We were stared at much more frequently in this neighborhood, which indicated to us that we were no longer in the touristy area of town. We stopped at El Rápido, a “fast” food chain that serves cheap freezer pizza which would be perfect if one were looking for drunk food. There were a couple of dogs hanging out in the area, begging for scraps off the table. But not just any scraps – if you tried to give them bread they would not accept it, only meats and cheese.
After lunch we continued to explore this older part of Habana, streets numbered in the 90s and 100s. The houses became smaller and, if you peered into an open door or window, emptier - free of excess material possessions. It was here where I felt most like an outsider since the beginning of this trip. That was, until, we came upon the last leg of our tour, the house of Juan Valdez. Juan was, as Carol calls him, the supreme informant of how life in Havana works (to author Dick Cluster for his book, The History of Havana). He is a kind, energetic older man…you can tell that he loves sharing his knowledge of his city with others. We stayed at his house a while longer before departing – back to the streets and back to peso cabs.
Later that night, Andrew and I were invited to attend a play with my tutor, Celia. She had not informed me of what the play would entail, so we showed up at the National Theater (recently rebuilt from an old cinema) with little idea of what we were about to see. Outside of the theater, a crowd had already gathered and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the older generation of theater-goers dressed quite similarly to their American counterparts. Countless older women, with painted faces, longer dresses, and beaded shawls, pursed their lips and kissed friends’ cheeks, their hair shalacqued to high heaven. I loved it.
Celia appeared and took me and Andrew by the arms, leading us through the line and into the theater (despite the fact that the ushers were not seating yet). She seemed to know everyone, and had access to any door, schmoozing her way through the lobby.
When we got into the theater, she chose seats for us and excused herself so that she could talk to the press. Yes, to talk to the press. Andrew and I made small talk and looked through our programs, that listed numerous other shows (TYA and adult) that we could attend. That same excitement that is present before an American show was in the Cuban air – some things are passed translation.
Celia came back and sat down with us, and I asked her the name of the show. She explained to me that what we were about to see was actually a compilation of the work of Nelson Dorr, a well known dramaturgo in Cuba. He was being inducted into the Premio Naciónal de Teatro …. Without knowing it, Andrew and I had been invited to the Cuban equivalent of the Tonys’ lifetime achievement award. I still can hardly believe this.
The show consisted of a variety of dances, songs, and monologues, all of which could easily be understood whether or not one spoke Spanish – the theater that we were exposed to was extremely expressive and dramatic, much in the style of Greek comedy/tragedy. During the performance, Celia sat at the edge of her seat – it was clear at this moment that the same excitement and passion that I feel when watching a show was present within her. I immediately felt more closely connected with her, and so thankful I had access to such a wonderful woman.
After the show, we parted ways with Celia and enjoyed a few beers at a nearby market. I was drunk with excitement about my Cuba theater project and the work I would be doing for Div III – watching performance always leaves me with an eagerness to begin work on my own projects. I feverishly talked about what I wanted to accomplish in the coming months and years. We returned home and I slept like a baby.
The following day (yesterday), our group met, again, at Paseo and 23 to hail Peso Cabs. This time, we would be taking them without adults on the trip. Most of the Peso cabs were ¾ full, so many of us had to go alone, myself included. I quietly got in to a cab full of Cuban men, and prayed that I would not miss my “stop” at Parque Central.
Turns out I didn’t. I got out right at the edge of the park, and easily found the rest of the group. I felt like a boss. It was pretty awesome.
We met with another tutor on the program, Jaime, an architect who was in charge of the restoration of Habana Vieja – the most well-known tourist area of the city, thanks to its distinct architecture. He led us on a tour through Habana Vieja, stopping at open air markets and churches that he had built. The architecture was so beautiful and old – as if someone had transported us back to a different time. It quickly became my favorite part of the city (thus far). We stopped at a gorgeous hotel and sipped cappuccino in their central garden, joined by a group of musicians, a chicken, and a peacock. I’m not kidding.
After coffee, we were free to explore the neighborhood by ourselves, so a small group of us took to Obispo street en route to Plaza Vieja, so that we could catch a late lunch at a restaurant well known for its delicious burgers and light beer – brewed on the premises. We picked up a native Cuban, Conrado, on the way, who insisted that he become our guide. This guy really pissed me off – it was clear from the get-go that he was our “guide” so that he could come along and get a free drink out of it. I would have been fine with this if he had been up front with his intentions, but he wasn’t, and I don’t like feeling like I’m being swindled.
While Andrew and I were not fooled by this, it seemed as if others in the group were fine with his attendance. Whatever. Later, at the restaurant, when we asked for hamburgers, we were told they were out of bread. Hmmm. Yeah ok. In reality, the burgers were the cheapest things on the menu and the waiter knew we were tourists. We knew that his claim was bullshit and was just to get us to buy something more expensive, but there was very little Andrew and I could do – the rest of the group seemed hell bent on getting swindled. We ended up paying out the ass for (albeit, delicious) shrimp, steak, and beer. Our “friend” Conrado gave us his contact information (excessively, might I add, his house, business and cell number, as well as multiple addresses) and told us how to get back to the Central Park (which we could easily see from where we were…thanks Conrado).
Back at the Central Park, we hailed a Peso cab for the first time, without any help of a native Cuban [program leader]. It was a great feeling, as we piled in and sped out across the Malecon. As I looked out the cab’s window, I realized that I recognized different buildings, and could direct myself back home. This felt great – 4 days and I was already learning the streets of the Vedado.
Later that night, we had a party at Casa Maggie to celebrate the end of orientation and the beginning of our semester. Our tutors, friends, and peers gathered and ate delicious food from Casona, a restaurant we had visited our first day. More importantly, though, the party was stocked with multiple cases of Habana Club rum – cheap and delicious.
As it grew later, the tutors began to depart and the party thinned until it was time for everyone else to leave. Carol gathered all of us students and informed us that it was customary for our group to be given a few more bottles of rum and sent to the Malecon to continue drinking. And that is just what we did – everyone laughing and yelling in drunken Spanglish as we left arm-in-arm for the waterside. We met more Cubans and Spaniards and traded drinks and conversation. It was a wonderful end to orientation, and those anxieties that had been so present in me only days earlier seemed worlds away. This experience is going to be amazing.
Today, we began our routine that will continue for the remainder of our trip – classes beginning at 2. Our first class of the semester was our Cuban Literature and History seminar, led by Alfredo and Maggie. Andrew and I struggled through the academic reading (all in Spanish and, in some cases, 16th century, antiquated Spanish jesuscristo) before taking off for the UNEAC offices at 17 and G. The class was also (not surprisingly) taught in Spanish – yet today I found myself understanding almost all of the lecture. Later, when Andrew and I were eating dinner with Baby, I found that I could understand her better as well, without even having to actively translate in my head. This is continuing to be exciting, and I hope my abilities continue to progress (quickly) in the coming days.
Time is already beginning to move faster. I feel the trip picking up. I am excited. I can hardly believe I will be here for the next three months. But, right now, I am ready.
Again, a few days before I’ve been permitted the time to reflect on my visit. Its frustrating that, while I never have more than a few hours of class, there is always something that is consuming my time or, in many cases, I am just too tired to finish the day with a lengthy reflection of the events that have just ceased.
But here I am, writing because I am sitting in a hotel and my internet connection is shit so there is nothing else commandeering my time. Since my last entry, I have had two Spanish classes (last Thursday and today) and my first official meeting with Celia (Friday). The Spanish class (in both cases) seems to be starting slowly, reviewing the past tense today and focusing on conversation. The professor, Gangy, continues to be lovely and patient. It would be a perfect class if not for one of the students, a more irritating Hermione-type who jumps on every question and often asserts a know-it-all attitude. She talks over the other students, over the teacher, explaining things to people, things that they already know. Como se dice, “calm the hell down?”
After the class, we snuck over to a friend’s house before he returned, to surprise him with a cake for his birthday. He seemed extremely happy and thankful that we remembered, and was so sweet that I wanted to throw him a party every day, although that would not be financially intelligent.
But speaking of finances – another tangent; things here are ridiculously cheap (for tourists at least) A huge pizza (big enough for 2) can be bought on the street for about the equivalent to a dollar. A liter of rum will run about $3 or $4. An artist’s original drawing (not a print) cost me about $5 (more on this later). A cab anywhere (if you don’t mind riding with other people) will cost about 40 cents. And theater and dance performances? Under $1 for the best that Habana has to offer. Needless to say, I’m living a cosmopolitan life on the weekends.
Speaking of which, back to the beginning of my past weekend. Friday morning I woke up and walked the 20 blocks or so to Central Habana, to the apartment of Celia and Alfredo. Just as I was beginning my walk, I felt a lick on the back of my leg. I turned around to see a small dog (they run wildly and abundantly around the city) following close behind. He was quickly chased by two other dogs, who I yelled at for his protection. They scattered, and I had acquired a new friend. He subsequently trotted beside me for about 12 blocks, stopping at lights and sitting next to me, waiting to be scratched. Older women I passed on the street noticed and smiled. It was the best way to start my day.
At Celia’s apartment, I was introduced to her granddaughter and pet dog, both of which were adorable. We began our first lesson, which was basically a (very) brief history of theater. She gave me tea and a shirt from the last Theater Festival that had happened in Cuba, and we slid into general conversation about theater and what I wanted to do with my final project. Her dog was sprawled on a couch nearby, on his back, writhing like a king. After some time, she got out some black and white photos and began pointing out different people, all of which she concluded were very important people in Cuban theater, all of which were her close friends or acquaintances. It was clear that the photos were all candids. I remain stupefied at my good fortune (and lack of qualification to work with her).
After our meeting (which ceased around noon time) I walked back to my neighborhood (Vedado) and met Andrew for lunch at a family-owned pizzeria a few blocks away. Good cheap food. Andrew departed for his Spanish class (a higher level than my own) and I departed for a park nearby to read 100 Years of Solitude, which I thought would be appropriate for the trip (and am thoroughly enjoying).
I sat down in the park and settled in to my book, only to be interrupted minutes later upon the arrival of a middle-aged man and a dog. He asked me what time it was, even though he was wearing a watch and I wasn’t. He then decided to sit down on the nearest bench across from me. I could see him staring at me from behind my sunglasses. And I’m not talking about subtle glances, I’m talking about sitting forward, staring at me. He continued to ask me questions every minute or two, as if he understood when I settled back into my book and felt the need to re-irritate me. Ok, first of all, he was probably close to my father’s age, did he really think he could continuously disturb me from my reading and I would just jump into his arms and follow him back to his apartment? Second of all, I was clearly busy and not interested. The piropos are rarely flattering, but it is worse when they are relentless. When I just started ignoring him, he got up from his bench and began “surveying the land”, methodically inching closer to my area. I got up and left, angrily.
Friday night improved my spirits though, as our group was given tickets to a dance performance of Habana’s premiere contemporary dance company at Teatro Mella. The performances (3 pieces, each about a half hour in length) were absolutely beautiful and complex, with expert precision and unparalleled passion. I left feeling inspired – both to perform and to exercise (they were all crazy in shape, the most gorgeous backs I have ever seen). Thus, I returned home, exercised, and put myself to bed.
The next day (Saturday), seemed to be a continuation of orientation – meaning that we were to meet at Carol’s for a full calendar of activities that were very likely to fall apart and take longer than was specified or expected. And that is just how the day went. We were expected to meet at 10:00, at which time we would meet a woman named Carmen who would take us to her house outside of Habana Vieja for a female MC (rapera) concert. Carmen never showed up, and it was hypothesized that it was because she had been sick lately, with pneumonia. After nearly 2 hours of waiting around, we departed for her part of town in peso cabs.
After another hour of travel and mix-ups (one of the cabs had gotten lost, the other dumped off 7 or 8 blocks from the house), we arrived at the house, where a clearly-not-ill-but-already-drinking Carmen greeted us with enthusiasm and kisses. She was charming but clearly aloof, in the most frustrating way. It was another hour before we started our lecture with her and the raperas, three beautiful ladies (mothers and wives) that rap about the condition of being a woman (and thus, a marginalized group) in Cuba. The conversation was interesting but tedious, and, considering it was already 3 in the afternoon when things got rolling (the time of day when we were supposed to be wrapping things up), I was becoming irritated. Also, I hadn’t eaten since 9 that morning and my hunger was definitely weighing on my spirits.
But then the performance part of the day began, and I was amazed at the quality of music that these women were making in their free time. I feel completely unqualified to say this, but their flow was awesome, and they really knew how to perform. After their set, the waiting game set in again, as Carmen was supposedly making us a soup for “lunch”. By 5pm, we still hadn’t had this lunch, so me, Andrew, Kristina, Lia, and one of our program leaders, Roberto, left to grab some pizza at a restaurant nearby. It was clear that Roberto was also fed up with Carmen’s lack of professionalism and adherence to a schedule. We ate and returned back to the party, and upon arrival, Roberto and Carol left in their car, leaving us students waiting for that “lunch”.
I was tired and frustrated that my Saturday (which would have been my first “free” day in Habana since arriving) had been eaten up by a woman who did not seem to care about anyone’s schedule but her own. We didn’t’ eat “lunch” until around 6 or 7. Afterwards, a group of us were ready to go. We told Carmen we were leaving, to which she told us that we couldn’t leave because we had to stay for the second half of the performance. And really, we couldn’t leave, because she was the one that was supposed to give us directions back home, and was withholding them from us. Cool, Carmen.
We waited for the rest of the show, drinking Cuba Libres and dancing in Carmen’s living room, which sounds like fun and was for a short time, but everyone was growing tired. We watched the second half of the performance, which was fantastic but about 4 hours too late, Carmen made us stay even longer afterward to drink and dance, finally releasing us around 9 to take a bus back to the Vedado. The day very well could have been amazing and fun, if not for Carmen’s lack of respect of other people’s time. Andrew and I vented when we got home and sought out food as comfort.
We awoke at 7:30 on Sunday morning, since we had a call time of 8:30 at Carol’s house – again, we had a full day of activities planned out for us, meaning that we still hadn’t had a day to ourselves since arrival in Habana. But the day was anticipated as being more fun than Saturday; we were taking vans (guaguas) out of Habana and into the mountains to a camping site called Las Terrazas.
First of all, the ride was wonderful, because of the nature of Cuban highways – surrounded by farmland, cows, and palm trees. Also, outside of Habana, it seems as if more Cubans favor horse-drawn carriages to cars, since we saw many of these driving on the highway…yes, on the highway.
We reached Las Terrazas in about an hour, and were engulfed in gorgeous green mountains with bungalows carved into their sides. Chickens, cats, and dogs everywhere. We enjoyed coffee in an outdoor café on the side of a large hill that provided a great view of both the mountainside and the ($7) zip-line tours. After the coffee, we shopped around their small tienda, and I bought that original drawing I have previously mentioned. I am very excited to find a home for it in my room back in Gloucester.
After shopping, our group split up depending on what we wanted to do. Needing a break from human interaction, I chose to go with the group that was retiring by the river (Andrew, Oskar, and Nora – Abel’s wife – made the same wise choice). We were driven up a mountainside and dropped by a large but calm river. We changed into our bathing suits and made our way into the water (which was the warmest fresh water I’ve ever been submerged in). I wore a shit-eating grin as I realized that it was early February and I was sunbathing on a rock in the middle of a warm river. Huzzah.
Soon, the rest of our group joined us and it was time to eat. What were we going to eat? Oh, no big deal, just a full pig that had been roasted on an open fire. When it arrived on a large palm frond, it had been slit down the middle, but its face, ears, tail, everything was in tact. This weirded me out a little but it smelled delicious. I picked off a piece of skin and tasted it. Probably one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. We feasted on the carcass, it was hot and juicy and extremely flavorful. Our group was joined by a fleet of hungry dogs, 7 or 8 at times, looking with their puppies eyes for scraps. Included in this group was the single fugliest dog I have ever seen. Like, we’re talking real mangy, disease-ridden, fugly. Ugh. Flashbacks.
But I’m sure he had a great personality.
After gorging ourselves on the pig, we jumped back into the river, many of us with beers still in our hands, and proceeded to lay in the water and sun for a few more hours, before running to the bar for daquiris and mango juice boxes for our car-ride home. Perfection. All in all, this leisurely day made up for the day before. We were back home before sundown, giving us plenty of time to work on the homework that had been pushed off all weekend (considering we had literally no free time since the weekend began). I exercised and read my book, but was sound asleep by midnight.
Today I woke up and ate a leisurely breakfast with Andrew, since both of us had nothing to do until our class meetings at 2pm. We exercised and read afterwards, then left the house for the afternoon. Again, we stopped at the family-owned pizzeria nearby and enjoyed more cheap/delicious food, before Andrew took a peso cab to meet his tutor and I took back to my park to write for a while before class. This time, there was no sign of the middle-aged agitator, so I sat, wrote for a while, then settled into a book Celia had given me earlier, a brief history of Cuban theater written, of course, in Spanish. I found that I could easily understand a lot of the (albeit, elementary) reading, and was extremely impressed with how much my Spanish had improved in the last 10 days. I went to Spanish class feeling much better about my comprehension level.
Today’s class was full of more review and more irritation from the poor-man’s Hermione, but I enjoyed the teacher and the rest of the students. We also watched a short documentary on the Cuban emo scene, which was both hilarious and aggravating… a group of whiny adolescents that homogenously believe they were expressing their individuality by wearing the same clothing….let’s just say that teenage stupidity flows freely outside the bounds of the US and into the world of socialism.
More to come….
Another jump in dates of entry, so I will (again) have to back track over the events of the last few days.
On Tuesday, I continued the (rewarding) morning routine that I have developed since being here:
- 9:30 wake-up
- 10:00 breakfast
- 10:30 homework/writing
- 11:15 exercising
- 11:45 shower
- 12:30 out the door to find lunch before…
- 2:00pm class (different class depending on the day, with the exception being Friday, on which my schedule is thrown off due to a 9:30am meeting with Celia).
This leisurely morning/early afternoon schedule has allowed me to gain back, in my health, what was lost over last semester and Janterm –a personal triumph that I hope will not be abandoned when my workload increases with the duration of the semester.
Tuesdays (and Fridays) are my meetings with Celia, so I walked the 20 or so blocks to her house on Infanta and San Lazaro. As I was crossing that final intersection to San Lazaro, I had the most aggressive piropo experience I have had since arriving in Habana. The traffic lights had just changed to red, allowing me to cross the intersection in front of a row of old Chevy’s. Halfway across the divide, I felt something flying past my head, and looked down in time to see a stale loaf of bread land on the street beside me. I looked back to identify the cause of the bread-heave, and there, a few stories up, was a grimy Cuban man, perhaps in his late 20’s, puckering his lips and making kissy noises at me. He threw bread at me to get my attention. I am still confused as to what he was expecting to accomplish, other than losing a perfectly good loaf of bread. I continued walking.
My meeting with Celia again took place 6 flights up in her apartment, as she dictated a lecture on the multiple theater companies of Habana and beyond. I took copious (and irritatingly messy) notes for an hour and a half, translating in my head. We took a cookie and soda break, and then watched short film clips of many different theater companies, recorded from an old Cuban television program that profiled the goings-on in Habana’s art world. While we watched, Celia’s 1-year-old granddaughter climbed the furniture and alternately hit and hugged us. After 3 hours of academic Spanish, I was exhausted, and Celia released me back to the streets.
I walked back to Paseo, and passed some time in another park, reading and writing. In addition to keeping a journal whilst here, I am also trying to write creatively everyday – at least one entry. More difficult than it sounds, and I am already getting frustrated with my limited content and niche-y personal voice.
Andrew and I passed the evening working through our reading for our Wednesday afternoon Cuban history and literature class. This week’s reading was slightly easier than last week’s, since we are moving chronologically and beginning to leave behind readings in 16th century, antiquated Spanish (dripping with Italian and hints of Latin).
The next morning, I continued my daily routine and set out with Andrew for Wednesday’s class at UNEAC, on 17th and G. On our way, I (once again) became frustrated with the idiotic walking patterns of Cubans. Let me explain: since being here, I have become increasingly more frustrated with those walking the streets of Habana…the best way to explain their walking style is to compare them to the slow walkers in the halls of my high school, the ones that trot along at slow (yet still inconsistent) paces, make turns without signaling, and stop abruptly without warning. It drives me crazy whether or not I’m in a rush, because I just don’t understand it. I understand walking with leisure, but not stupidity.
So this Wednesday, as we are walking, we get stuck behind yet another one of these notorious walkers. After a few blocks of stopping short, I see the opportunity to move around him at a quiet intersection. I began to walk faster and start to clear his path, when I feel my right foot sliding out from under me. I look down to see a chunk of melon under my foot, sending me down hard on my left knee.
In the US the joke is to slip on bananas, in Cuba, I suppose it is melons.
I immediately am mad at myself for my impatience, which has now cost me some scuffs, bruises, and an awfully sore kneecap. We keep moving, get lunch, go to class. My knee swells – not a lot, but enough to drawn my attention.
In class, I find myself understanding more of the lecture than I had the previous week. I know I continually bring this up in this journal, but believe me, when you are understanding very little of the world around you, any progress is major progress (but never enough, never enough).
Andrew, Oskar and I leave class and begin the long (but much longer now that I have a wounded knee) journey home. We stop at a local agro and buy a small snack that resembles a Powerbar but tastes like peanut butter and sugar. Delicious, and just the pick up we need after another 3-hour seminar.
I spend the night reading and playing guitar (I have hit a plateau in my progress; it is much harsher on my fingers than my baritone ukulele’s strings), exhausted, like most nights, by 11 or 12.
Thursday – the morning schedule again. I finish my routine, grab some lunch at a local pizzeria, and return to Casa Silvia for the 2nd Spanish class of the week. I get out, already feeling tired, and return home with Andrew and Oskar. We head back out minutes later, starving and in search of some food to tie us over to dinner. This has been another developing pattern since being in Cuba: because of all the walking and exercising, I find myself constantly hungry, eating more than I ever eat at home, and yet still losing weight. It is to the point that all of the bottoms I brought with me – pants, shorts, and skirts – are riding low on my waist and baggy in the butt. This sounds like a “good” problem to have, but I just feel like I’m swimming in everything I wear.
We walk to a Chinese restaurant and order cheap fried rice and some drinks. The place is deserted save for those working there, and a few older men having beers and laughing loudly. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of food either. After ordering, our waitress runs out the front door, returning minutes later with the drinks we had just ordered, that she had bought from another store across the street. The food comes soon after, more salt than rice, and we eat. I manage to get through half of the serving and ask for a box for the rest. The waitress mumbles under her breath that they don’t have boxes. I look at the boys and they take my plate and finish the rest. She brings the bill. She had overcharged us by 20 pesos, an “accident”. We notice and call her out on it – she seems slightly upset that we have realized her “mistake”. We still leave her with a tip.
Around 7:00pm, I get a call from Celia, informing me we would not be meeting in the morning, but in the afternoon, so that I could attend a rehearsal with Teatro Caribe. She starts informing me of a reading she wants me to do to prepare, when the phone disconnects. I call her back, it disconnects again. She calls me back, another disconnection. I am growing more anxious. I hate being underprepared, and was already feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of attending the rehearsal. Plus, Gangy was supposed to attend our meeting that day, and now that meeting had been changed. The phone wasn’t working. How would I let her know? The phone rang again, and Baby picked up. She quickly took the message from Celia before the phone disconnected, and relayed my assignment to me. I still couldn’t get in touch with Baby. I could feel that 3-month tall wall going back up in front of me.
At 7:30 we head back over to Casa Silvia for our weekly Ethnography seminar. The week earlier, I had left our first class tired and frustrated (it meets from 7:30-10:30, after other 3-hour seminars, and not surprisingly at all, is conducted in academic Spanish). This week, I really should have just stayed home. I already was stressed out thanks to the phone situation, and had a bad headache and stomachache from the Chinese restaurant’s salt-rice. But I went anyways, only to sit through a 3-hour lecture on the elementary points of Enthnographic work. I felt as if I had to be missing something in the conversation; our professors kept repeating the most basic (and common sense-driven) information about how to conduct interviews, over and over again. Why? What was I missing? Everything they said was like, well, duh. Then they went around individually and started picking apart people’s starter questions for interviews. When they got to me, it was around 10pm at night, I was tired and upset, and just wanted to go to sleep.
I went through my questions in Spanish, trying to explain the things I needed help with and what I thought I had to work on. When my Spanish was exhausted and I needed to clarify more points, I switched to English, which other people had been doing all night. In fact, I had been using more Spanish than a few other students. Instead of getting direct feedback and help on the questions that I had asked, the professor used me as an example about how, in the interview, we needed to be using Spanish fully. He, again, drove this point home for about 10 minutes. Ok, I understand that, I’m doing my best, but my time for preparation for these interviews is not the moment to limit my use, especially when points must be clarified for my own sake. I was tired.
I didn’t get any useful feedback. I didn’t get any of my questions answered. All I got was berated for slipping back into English at 10pm at night, after 5 hours of Spanish class. I felt like my best wasn’t good enough. It took all of my remaining energy to keep from crying, to keep it together, to take the criticism. Over and over in my head I heard “why am I here, why am I here, why am I here?”
I left. It was 11. We hadn’t eaten our dinner at home yet. All I had in my stomach was that shit salt-rice. Why am I here why am here why am I here? I hadn’t gotten in touch with Gangy. She was going to depart for our meeting at 8 the next morning. None of my questions had been answered. I had to do more reading in Spanish to prepare for a rehearsal for one of the most well-known Cuban theater companies. Why am I here. I didn’t make it through our late dinner without crying. I let go of all that salt that I had eaten hours earlier in the awful Chinese restaurant, sad and tired and frustrated and just wanting to go home. I finished dinner, went to my room, cried and wallowed. After an hour, I got up, I washed my face, and I started my Spanish reading. Friday morning I woke up early and called Gangy. After 4 unsuccessful attempts, I got through. Gangy informed me that she already knew about the change. It seemed like I was the only one who hadn’t been told of this. I went back to sleep.
I woke up an hour later, and started in on my morning routine. I was hours away from my first real break since arriving (since the previous weekend was filled with activities). I kept my head down, got through the morning, and walked to Celia’s to meet before the rehearsal. We met on her corner and began the walk to the taxi stop. She informed me that I was not only going to observe the rehearsal, but would have time to talk to the writer/director of the show as well, Eugenio Hernandez, who just happened to be one of the most important modern dramatists in the country. She hadn’t thought it was important to tell me this the night before. I had nothing prepared. The 3-month wall seemed to get a little taller.
After more walking and short cab rides, we arrived at the theater, a dark small space filled with familiar personalities – actors and a technical crew. I was introduced to a few actors, as well as Eugenio, who pulled me into a center seat and told me to enjoy the run. Run? It was a month and a half before the opening curtain, I figured they would be working on blocking. But no, they presented a (very pulled together) 3 hour performance. Beautiful and inspiring, even though I did not understand all of the dialogue. I filmed some scenes. It was the perfect subject for my final presentation piece, tackling mythology in Cuban theater, with strong female leads shaping the plot. Also, I had access to the original writer and the full cast.
The 3-hour epic ended, and Eugenio immediately made a beeline for Celia, eagerly asking her what she thought of the run, interjecting at times that the rhythm of the thing was all off, and that it was just a rehearsal. There I was, sitting with my tutor, who had one of the premier Cuban dramatists keenly waiting for her reaction. How did I get this gig? She gave her answer, then turned to me and asked if I had any questions for him. Oh yeah, I had to speak to him in my elementary Spanish and ask him about his play that was considered a modern masterpiece.
I got through a few questions fairly well, with the help of both Celia expanding on my questions and the good graces of Mr. Hernandez. His answers were articulate and lengthy, which set me at ease – I knew he would be a wonderful person to interview for my final project. I only wish that I had more camera storage to record his answers then and there.
Afterwards, Eugenio and Celia introduced me to the whole company, telling them that I would be around for more rehearsals, and that I would be interviewing some of them. Celia addressed the group, telling them that I understood a lot but still could not generate full conversations, so to be patient. I appreciated this message, and everyone seemed enthusiastic to meet and work with me.
I left the rehearsal exhausted, and walked back across the Plaza of the Revolution with Celia, back to the Vedado. I used the walk back to process how amazing this experience was, how within the space of 24 hours I could feel completely exhausted and depleted, only to then be inspired beyond belief by the opportunity I had somehow been given. Even now, sitting here writing this, I feel like bursting in to tears, as I have felt for much of my time here. If I did I would know it would be simultaneously out of homesickness and gratitude and frustration and wonder.
On Friday night, most of the students our group gathered at one of our houses, drank Habana Club rum, and blew off some steam. It was just what I needed after such a long 2 weeks. One girl encouraged an excessive drinking game, which got everyone loosened up and brought the group closer. We drunkenly shared experiences and stories, magic tricks and desires. We went out for snacks, and walked to Calle G to observe and partake in the Cuban teen nightlife.
Which brings me up to speed on the weekend, since I have really not done anything of real worth since Friday. Saturday meant sleeping in late, watching movies on the computer (there was a cold front that came in that meant it was rainy and overcast for the first time since arriving, just in time for my first free day…both a blessing and a curse since I needed rest but I wanted to go to the beach), and going out to an upscale restaurant with Andrew and Oscar…where I ate a delicious Fillet Mignon for about $6 MUAHAHAHA. After Friday, his night of drinking and smoking cigarettes, Oskar commented that he “woke up feeling like Tom Wait’s ash tray,” a statement that was both wonderful and awful at the same time, and in some ways (for different reasons) I know just what he means.
Another week has sped by, pulling us into the second quarter of the semester (3 weeks have already passed). This week has definitely marked a turning point for me. While I still often reflect on the things I want and miss from home (waffles! Vogue! American cinema!), it finally clicked with me that I won’t be able to return here whenever I feel like it. I know this is an obvious truth, but the full gravity of that notion took some time to settle in.
Monday was Valentine’s day, which meant a special lunch with Andrew…in true form, we found someplace with cheap fried chicken and celebrated the day “in style”. Pollo Ditu, a chain restaurant in the same vein as KFC, resides on streets 17 and 4, a short walk from our house. It is open 24/7, and specializes in bistec de pollo (basically a lukewarm breaded chicken patty), and crochetas (unknown chicken/potato? matter fried in little balls…suspect but satisfying). A lucky strike extra, there was a cat lurking about looking for dropped and forgotten food. We stuffed ourselves (and the cat) with fried food, and went our separate ways to classes.
I had about a half hour before Spanish began, so I went back to my park on 23 and Paseo, hoping there wouldn’t be any men waiting to bother young women who were trying to read. Luckily, there wasn’t, only an older woman reading her own book. Not 5 minutes after my arrival, though, a younger man dressed in all white with matching stunnah shades (not uncommon, Cubans are really into dressing monochromatically…and in Ed Hardy blegh) made his way into the park. My guard already up, I was ready to be bothered. And I was, but not in the way I was expecting. He walked around, found a wall, and proceeded to unzip his pants and start peeing.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen in this park. It seems as if my park is a premier location for Habana’s male population to frequent for the purpose of both bothering women and relieving themselves. Such a shame, it’s a great park otherwise.
I was willing to ignore him, as I had ignored others about 5 or 6 times, but the other woman reading was not so forgiving. Mid-pee, the man was accosted by this woman, who had gotten up from her seat and started approaching him, yelling about how this was a park where children often hung out and how he was a disgusting pig. He attempted to shuffle further away from her, while still peeing, as she closed the gap between them yelling. It was wonderful. He apologized and left. 20 minutes later, a father and young son came to the park. The father directed his son to the same wall, and helped him unbutton his pants so that the toddler could pee. This time the older woman looked defeated, closed her book, and departed.
I left the park and went to Casa Silvia for another 3 hours of Spanish. After class, Andrew was waiting outside the front gate with a flower for me. What a charmer. We walked up to Zapata and bought delicious peso coffee.
Which brings me to another recent development. I have always been a tea drinker, very rarely entering into the realm of coffee-drinking. I knew that I would be drinking coffee while here, so I started integrating it into my diet over January, knowing that my sensitive stomach would need time to get used to its acidity. And I’m glad I did, since the coffee here is super strong and is served everywhere – basically, if you go out to a restaurant, and you don’t want to drink rum or beer, you will be drinking coffee. We drink it every morning with breakfast as well. At first, I would only have about a third of a cup. Then it went up to half a cup. Now it’s filled to the brim. I already know it will be one of the things I’ll miss when returning to the states, strong and flavorful and cheap.
The night was spent reading and catching up on other class assignments, followed by an early bedtime – the days continue to wear me out, sending me off to bed around midnight.
Tuesday, usually one of the days I meet with Celia, had been hijacked by plans to attend 2011’s Feria de los Libros, a national (and very well attended) book fair that travels around the country in the first half of the year. We caught a peso cab to Parque Central in Habana Vieja, and walked to the steps of the capitol, where we were supposed to meet with the rest of the group. Yet when we got there, no one else from the group was around, save for a few other students. We waited for a while, then caught our own bus to the Fair, which was being held at Habana’s Fortress – yes, fortress.
Through an underground tunnel and up a hill, the fortress (complete with steep walls, a lighthouse, and many stealthy passages) overlooks the coast, Malecon, and most of Habana – it’s a gorgeous view. After loading up on cheap pizza, we entered the fair grounds. We visited a few stalls that were all designated for tourists (books in CUC, run by Canadians with the most atrocious Spanish accents I have ever heard…), and then found the moneda nacional book section – a literary goldmine.
Books are ridiculously cheap (for the most part) in Cuba – most books being about the same price of peso cab ride (40 cents). I left the fair with 4 or 5 academic-theater books that collectively cost me about $3 US. I believe I am going back today or tomorrow for more….
After the book fair, a few of us went back to Pollo Ditu for beer and chicken to tide us over until dinner. Again, the night was passed casually reading and completing our Wednesday Lit class assignments.
But later, when I went to exercise around 10:30, I was hit with a wave of panic, similar to a feeling of nausea – I couldn’t banish the thought that something really bad had happened back at home. I don’t know if it is intuition or superstition that runs in some of the members of my family, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling, and felt overwhelmed and panicked at the thought that something big and bad was happening and I wasn’t there for it. It made for an unrestful night.
Wednesday morning I woke up without that thick worry of the night before and felt entirely better. I had rescheduled with Celia, so I was unable to carry out my usual morning routine, and instead walked over to her apartment around 9am. We talked in Spanish for about 2 hours, then watched more recordings of Cuban theater for the final hour of our meeting. It continues to amaze me that I am watching and understanding theater in a different language. I never thought I would actually do that.
I rushed home after class so that I could eat with Andrew and Oskar on our way to our literature seminar. As I had predicted, the two of them were hanging out in Andrew’s room when I got back, giggling about past, present and future shared experiences. After a surprise visit from Roberto and a call from Andrew’s tutor, Radamés, we started off in the direction of UNEAC and Café Dianelis, a family-owned restaurant that operated out of their living room – great food but awful service. After a long wait, we sat down to another 3-hour class with our egg and tomato sandwiches.
Class dragged by that day, yet 5pm came anyway and we were done for the day. I was again exhausted by the 6 hours of Spanish, but – as always – found myself impressed by how much more I was understanding. Wednesday’s classes are what I usually use to gauge my Spanish-comprehension progress, since it was the first class we had here in Cuba, and it meets only once a week, which allows for a neat and clean measure of time.
Thursday was a return to my weekday morning routine, followed by Spanish class. We were let out of Spanish early, however, so that we could attend another event associated with the Feria de Los Libros, a book release and panel discussion, which one of our professors (Alfredo) was sitting on since he had edited said book. A few of us headed over to UNEAC’s small compound, and entered a well-tended garden filled with the literary elite of Habana. We sat on a bench and looked extremely out of place. When the room was opened for the panel, we went in and found seats towards the back.
It seems as if lecture-etiquette is very different in Cuba than it is in the US. Throughout the whole discussion, people were arriving late, making no attempt to be quiet, greeting friends that were also in attendance with loud and lavish hugs and cheek kisses, answering cell phones that hadn’t been on silent, and allowing their children to roam free around the room. The only one who seemed to be surprised by these interruptions was me – the group of native Cubans seemed to think this was business as usual, leading me to believe this was a common practice during lectures. Hmmm.
After the panel, I was tired and had a headache…in no mood to attend another Thursday night panel which have been notoriously more frustrating than helpful. I decided to stay home and just get through more reading that Celia had assigned to me – a good idea that became an even better idea when Andrew and Oskar returned, irritated and with no new information or knowledge. Meanwhile, I had read an extended monologue by Abilio Estevéz, titled El enano en la botella – a very Beckett-like piece that discussed the condition of a dwarf who lives in a bottle. The multi-faceted monologue serves as a microcosm of the Cuban condition and consciousness, complete with existential crisis. I was pleased to realize that I could understand difficult philosophical concepts in Spanish, and even more pleased I had got some actual work done instead of sitting in on the seminar (which has now been restructured for the rest of the semester so as to better aid the students…hell yes).
Yesterday was another early meeting with Celia, full of more historical context on the history of theater followed by recordings of seminal pieces. Celia had also arranged for me to attend a musical by Hector Quintera that evening; I left with vague instructions as to how to get to the theater.
In the afternoon, our entire group went to Sala Fresa y Chocolate to talk with Nelson Rodriguez, probably the most important film editor in Cuba…almost all of Cuba’s significant contributions to cinema have been through his hands. We talked about his work, the editing process, and watched some of his pieces that he had chosen as among his best. Again, I had a moment of recognition at how absurd the opportunities of this program are, and how fortunate I was to be included within it.
Later that night, Andrew and I headed to Sala Hubert de Blanche to meet Celia for Quintera’s musical spectacular, in which he told the story of Monsier Bola using contemporary music (kind of like the most glorified karaoke you could imagine). The show was a little lackluster at first, and I was wondering what was going on – Quintera is regarded as one of Cuba’s elite dramatists. And then, the story started developing, and a charismatic drag queen showed up. The rest of the show was hilarious and energetic… I’m talking about men with frosted tips in lime green lycra body suits with layers of frills around their calves and wrists. So much glitter. So much Cuban attitude.
After the play, we parted ways with Celia and went in search of other students on the trip. Like last Friday, a group of them were hanging out in front of Kristina’s private apartment, getting ready to go buy more rum. We joined them, grabbed 3 more bottles at a nearby gas station, and continued the party that had happened a week before in the same room, later leaving to go to (where else?) Pollo Ditu for some late night mediocre chicken.
Which brings me to today, now. I will probably exercisee after this, then head out to Habana Vieja to walk around and explore, making our way back to the book fair. Time is moving faster…