Friday, May 28, 2010

Cuba 2010 -- China 1980

I visited the People’s Republic of China for the first time in 1982 and later lived there as a visiting professor during the 1993-94 academic year. I mention this because Cuba today has more than a few parallels to the PRC of the 1980s and 90s as Comrade Brother Li Wei and I both noticed.

Some of these similarities include a generally poor population with a high literacy rate (considering the poverty) plus a few beginnings of market-based economic endeavors. Also, Cuba, like China in the 1980s, is encouraging tourism as a source of income. This produces an anomaly when European and Canadian tourists show up in Cuba with hundreds of dollars or euros to spend, while the local population is getting by on a few hundred dollars a month. Like China in the 1980s, Cuba is dealing with this anomaly by printing two kinds of currency. In Cuba these are the peso, which is worth about 4 U.S. cents and the “convertible currency” or “CUC” each unit of which is worth a little more than a dollar.

So, when we went into cafes which take CUCs we found ourselves spending five to ten dollars for a breakfast, while a café catering to local clients would charge us less than one dollar. Li Wei and I actually discovered one of these peso cafes in Old Havana where we found we could get a breakfast of café con leche plus a cheese sandwich for about 30 cents. We went there almost every morning and appeared to be the only foreigners frequenting this shop which we came to refer to as “the People’s Café”.

OK, Pop Quiz: We frequented the People’s Café because

a. We wanted to show our solidarity with the masses
b. We wanted to gather ethnographic data about the lives of ordinary Cubans
c. We are cheapskates

I suppose there should be an answer “d” for “All of the above.”

Sometimes strangers would join us at our table, since in these popular cafes sitting at a table does not imply that you have a claim on all of its chairs.

Li Wei at the “People’s Café” with a friendly stranger who joined us at our table.

Another feature of the PRC back in the day was the obligation to submit to self-criticism in order to purify oneself of “bourgeois liberal” tendencies. I may need to do that now since I may have given a too thoroughly negative portrayal of Cuba’s food in my previous post. Certainly we did enjoy some good dining experiences, one of which centered on some very good Cuban sandwiches at the Telégrafo Hotel.

Havana Cuban (LW - means photo by Li Wei)

Also unforgettable was the Coppelia Park with its ice cream pavilion. The Coppelia pavilion looks like it was built to reflect modernity as this was envisioned in the 1960s, with its central dome hovering over airy interior spaces. Here you can wait in the tourists’ line, which moves quickly, but where prices are in CUCs, or you can choose one of the many other lines which move at a leisurely pace but where you can pay for your ice cream in Cuban pesos – meaning you can get an “ensalada” or variety dish of good ice cream for less than a dollar. We waited in the slow line, of course (see Pop Quiz above) and had the pleasure of talking to a group of Bolivian university students who had come to Cuba to study medicine.

It took us 30 to 40 minutes to be seated, but who was counting? We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly both in the waiting and in the eating of our ensaladas.

The Coppelia - Interior (LW)

Ice Cream Ensalada (LW)

On Thursday and Friday we took a short trip to some smaller Cuban cities including Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. Santa Clara is best known for the Che Guevara memorial which tells the story of Che’s participation in the Cuban revolution and specifically his role in the Battle of Santa Clara. There was an elderly Argentinean couple in our group and when we arrived at the Che memorial the woman was so moved she started weeping. Che, after all, was her countryman and, had he lived, would probably be close to her in age today. Che is a romantic revolutionary hero to millions of people around the world, including in Cuba. My own feelings about Che are mixed. I understand that he hated injustice and that’s good. He saw a lot of injustice that was supported by U.S. policy and designed to promote American commercial interests at the expense of the locals’ well-being – how can any reasonable person object to Che for that? But, of course, the current government of Cuba, for all the virtue it has demonstrated in its defiance of the Mafia and the American-backed Batista dictatorship, does have its failings particularly in its restriction of expression by voices of the opposition. Even here, I believe allowance must be made for the need of the Cuban government to fend off American assaults that were aimed at destroying it, but I still can’t be enthusiastic about a government that suppresses its critics. Also, there is the issue of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – in which both Fidel and Che expressed a willingness to start a nuclear war over their confrontation with the U.S. On this issue, Che’s fanatic anti-American hostility and willingness to blow the world to bits strikes me as a mirror image of the right-wing fanaticism in the U.S. -- like that of General Curtis LeMay, who was similarly willing to let the nukes fly just to show who was boss. May the Goddess of Mercy preserve us from such self-righteous pride and arrogance.

Gargantuan Che Memorial Statue in Santa Clara

And on the Mafia -- Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and other crooks made Havana a sordid cash cow in the 1940s and 50s, based on gambling and prostitution. They operated with the blessing of conservative dictator Fulgencio Batista, whom they paid off in order to get a free hand from his government. One of the prime Mafia hang-outs was the Hotel Nacional. It was here that an important organizational meeting was held by Mafia big shots in order to plan their infiltration of Cuba’s government and society. A fictionalized version of a Mafia meeting in a Havana Hotel is portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, and in that meeting the Nacional is mentioned as part of the Mafia’s empire.

Hotel Nacional

We visited the Hotel Nacional and toured the wing where some of the hotel’s history is recorded. The walls of this wing are covered with pictures of the dozens of celebrities who have visited since the 1930s. In T. J. English’s book, Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution, Frank Sinatra is written about at length as one Hollywood celebrity who was particularly cozy with the Mob. His picture is not featured among the many that festoon the walls of the Nacional and neither are those of Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano or the other thugs who dominated Havana in the days before Castro took over.

Celebrity Photos

On Saturday evening, just a day and a half before we had to return to the U.S., we had an opportunity to hear an open air concert by Chucho Valdez and his band in the Plaza de la Catedral. The concert included food at prices ranging from about $33 to $55 depending on the menu; not for the masses, obviously. The food was fairly good however, and, along with the free mojitos, which just kept coming, we were quite content to sit chatting while waiting for the famous Chucho to show up. He did show up at 11 pm (two hours after the concert was supposed to begin, but since we had attained Nirvana by then, time had long since dissipated) and his performance was smashing. Very jazzy with lots of percussion along with piano, brass, saxophone and some nice vocals as well. A night to remember and, I don’t want to mention any particular comandantes here, but it is surprising the number of mojitos some individuals can put away and still stay on top of things.

Chucho's Band with the Cathedral & Light Show in the Background (LW)

Chucho Valdez (LW)

There were a lot of things that Cuba had to offer that I won’t go into here. (At some point I have to stop blogging and start working for a living.) But if I were to list my favorite things I would start with the friendly people, the beautifully restored neighborhoods of Old Havana and the wonderful live music that emerges from every plaza and about half the bars in the well traveled neighborhoods of Havana in the evening. I hope I will be able to return in the not-too-distant future.

Adios, Linda Cuba. May the day come soon when we are all free to visit each other at will.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Our Dudes in Havana

I’ve long wanted to visit Cuba and last week I finally had an opportunity to do so, traveling with Brother Li Wei, Sister Alicia Homrich and Patricia Tome, aka Comandante P.

Patricia is making a documentary about Cuban food and has been to Cuba three times over the past few years, so she provided us with advice and organizing knowhow for this trip.

Our official objective was to attend a conference on theater and related arts known as Mayo Teatral and this turned out to be a bonus since all of the performances we saw were quite good, including in particular a modern dance sequence called “Casi Casa” or, according to my translation “Almost a Home.” This involved a lot of male-female interaction, some of it incorporating stoves, furniture and vacuum cleaners.

We also saw some films, two of which were documentaries about Cuba and one of which was a German film with Spanish subtitles called Lichter or Lights. Lichter focused on Ukrainians who had made it to Poland but who were trying to get into Germany against the aggressive policing of the German border guards. It was very well done and brought to mind all the borders where rich countries attempt to keep poor people from getting in, including the Florida Straits that separate Cuba from Key West.

We landed at Jose Martí International Airport on Monday afternoon, May 10, and after descending from the plane onto the tarmac, were led to an entrance that looked like the backdoor to some kind of warehouse. Not too big on formal niceties at JMIA. After we had gone through customs, etc. (which didn’t take too long), we headed out to meet our ground transportation. Actually Patricia was delayed by a great deal of questioning from the authorities, but, according to one of her questioners, it was because they liked her looks.

Arriving at Jose Martí International Airport

On the way into Havana I saw an old blue 1952 Ford that looked just like the first new car our family owned and I hoped to see another one during the trip so I could photograph it and show Dad. No luck there.

Cuba does have lots of old cars, and for some reason, there seem to be more Chevrolets than any other brand. Some of them are falling apart, some have been repainted badly, but some look very spiffy. A few were pimped up so they looked like something Cheech Marin might have tooled around East L.A. in.

We stayed in a private home called Casa Nelson that had been converted into a kind of “pension” maintained by Eric, a very friendly and good natured guy in his 30s. Eric provided us with breakfast every morning, featuring a good sized plate of sliced fruit, bread and honey, guava paste, mixed fruit juice (freshly prepared and including various mixes of pineapple, guava, mango and I’m not sure what else).

Breakfast at Casa Nelson

Our place was in Old Havana, which is the area inside of what used to be the city walls, walls that were constructed to defend from pirate raids that came all too frequently in the centuries before 1800. In Old Havana the streets are rather narrow and the sidewalks extremely narrow. Since Casa Nelson is in a poor section of town the streets were not the cleanest in the world. I won’t say they were the least clean though, because I’ve stayed in some mighty sketchy neighborhoods in my day. I noticed my Cuba Lonely Planet Guide recommended that foreigners not walk the streets in our neighborhood after dark, but we did so without worry. For one thing, violent crime is very rare in Cuba due to the vigorous police presence. That’s one advantage of living in a country where the government decides what its own limits are in the area of law enforcement. Obviously there are disadvantages to this, which we can save for future discussion.

Old Havana Street

Lonely Planet says “Don’t go to Cuba for the food.” My own advice is “Don’t go to Cuba for the food.” I hate to say this because everyone was so nice to us and our experience was wonderful in almost every regard. But the food in most restaurants is merely edible. Our first evening dinner was not even up to a standard we could call "bland." We ate at Don Lorenzo’s which had been recommended to us as a good place not far from our pension. However, the prices were high and when our food came, some of it was so badly prepared that we couldn’t even eat it: inferior watermelon, lousy chicken, not-very-good bread, and even below par stuffed plantains. And the wontons - to call them lousy would be unfair to food that is merely lousy. They had the texture of stale bread and the flavor of Styrofoam (not that I've ever eaten Styrofoam, so I'm guessing here). Some of Don Lorenzo's food was passable, but none of it was good. The high point of the dinner was watching the rooster in the giant cage next to our table sexually assault his mate. Also, since the dining area was on an upper floor, we could look out the window onto the streets of Old Havana and watch the sights.

Alicia, Patricia, Li Wei and those #^@%-ing Chickens

The low quality food was disappointing to me because in Florida we have a lot of Cuban restaurants that serve great food. Some of the Florida Cubans (especially those with strongly right-leaning political views) are convinced that people in Cuba are starving. There may have been food shortages in the 1990s, and there are specific shortages today, but food in general is readily available and nobody seems to be suffering from malnutrition.

One of our culinary highlights was our visit to Havana’s Chinatown or Barrio Chino. On Tuesday afternoon Li Wei and Alicia and I walked on 23rd street while Patricia made some arrangements with the film institute with which she has been working (ICAIC) and as we looked around in a local market we ran into a group of Chinese students who had come to Cuba to study medicine. They clued us in on the best Chinese restaurant, and the next evening we made our way there.

Barrio Chino, La Habana

Barrio Chino includes several blocks in Central Havana (not far from Old Havana), but the most colorful part is a single narrow alley flanked on both sides by Chinese restaurants with lots of red coloring including red lanterns. Our destination, Tian Tan Restaurant, was on this alleyway, and when we got there we understood why it was preferred. Almost all the Chinese restaurants were owned by people some of whose ancestors were Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, but who had intermarried into Hispanic- or African-Cuban families and whose recipes seem to have been diluted along with their Chinese DNA. However, Tian Tan was owned by recent Shanghainese immigrants who remembered their homeland cooking style. An added advantage for us was that Li Wei is a native of Shanghai and he was able to speak in Shanghainese and establish a special rapport with the owners. OK, we didn’t get a big discount or anything, but we did get a very friendly reception. The food was good, the best meal we had on our entire trip, in my opinion.

After dinner we walked back to Old Havana and stopped for mojitos at an outdoor table in the Plaza de la Catedral. A boy of about 10 or 12 tried to sell us trinkets and seemed to fall in love with Patricia. Also, Patricia explained the basis of her disdain for European and other foreign men who come to Cuba to pick up poor Cuban women, referring in particular to a 60ish Spaniard at the table next to ours who was hooking up with a 30ish Cuban lady. In fact, Patricia, not shy about expressing her opinions, let the Spanish gentleman know how she felt about his behavior. He seemed to take her sharp words in stride. This wasn’t the last time Patricia confronted strangers with her candid opinions. Que Valor! (No, I don’t know how to do the upside down exclamation point.)

The Cuban government is working to restore the plazas and other parts of Old Havana to their historical beauty and is doing a good job by my lights. So here are the things I liked most about Cuba: the friendly people, the beautifully restored neighborhoods and the luscious music.

Plaza Vieja in Old Havana

Lively Evening Concert on the Plaza

That’s enough about Cuba for now. Later, time permitting, I’ll say a few words about our trip out to the countryside. Ciao.

Monday, May 3, 2010

No Questions, Please

This is a week of drear and despair – a week lost to grading final exams and papers. I have an intimidating stack of term papers demanding my attention, even after days of effort to reduce the pile, and still two more final exams to administer and evaluate.

What heightens the pressure is that we are in the midst of buying a “new” car (new to us – a 2009 Hyundai Sonata) and the day of graduation for Grace is rapidly approaching. Grace is thinking about graduate school and finding housing in her new North Carolina home town, and that’s an issue requiring some attention and thought. Immediately after Grace’s graduation, I will be leaving the country for a while. I am not at liberty to reveal the exact nature of my activities or my whereabouts on this trip. (I’ve always wanted to say that!)

So given all this, I didn’t expect to be blogging at all this week, but I will put in a word this morning before I get back to that humongous stack of papers. I just want to take a minute to say that some music can really bring your soul back to life. Like Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out – Stay” medley, for example. It’s a great song, the first part being a kind of ethnographic sketch of life on the road for a 70s rock band, and the second being an irresistible plea for the audience or whoever is listening to “please, please stay.” The heart of the “Stay” segment features Rosemary Butler swooping in with her vocal, “Oh won’t you STAA-aay, just a little bit LONGerererer, Please, please, please, say you will -- SAY you will!” Her voice is wonderfully strong, clear, and electrifying, it rings every bell in the bastion of my being. Her solo is followed up by a comical parody by David Lindley who repeats the same lines in falsetto. The whole song rocks and it’s one of those I have to be careful not to sing along to while I’m walking about, lest I be mistaken for an escapee from an Alzheimer’s ward. (Who IS that guy, cruising along the sidewalk singing “And the union don’t mind…?”)

Anyway, Jackson Browne has done some good stuff in his day, and he always reminds me of LA, a town where I spent a little time a few decades back. Rock on, JB.