Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

March 27 - April 5 2008 / Cuba: A Brief Visit in 2008

A Church Group Sees Havana, Cienfuegos, and Matanzas
Part 1 - In Havana

Part 1 - In Havana

PART ONE – In Havana

Still at home, sitting at the Easter table of last Sunday, with lilies, three open, three to come, and brilliant daffodils with red-and-yellow tulips.

I can't think what this trip will be like, with its peculiar religious "mission," as if the folks were heathen!  But I will keep my eyes and mind open, and see whatever there is to see.  After all, it is lucky I have this opportunity to go, even if it is with a church group.

A sparrow was seen carrying some of the nesting material I put out in its beak!  As thrilling as any trip, to any where.

When I called home from Miami yesterday evening, having had a massage and at that moment being served a nice gimlet--I love this airport—my husband said how he knew I loved being on the road again.  I had not been thinking of that but how very true it was, how deeply he knows and understands me.   Yes, yes, the road is my home. 

When I checked into my room, here at the airport hotel, I found it has a "view" of some sky--and the high confectious clouds of Florida--and a marvelous array of pipes and ducts and concrete, as if I were looking out on some big machine, or were part of it.

It was dark and quiet in my room in the night.  I went down this morning and got a little notebook, a cup of coffee, went outside and the sky was a pale blue.  I was amazed to find the airport bustling and filled with people, at 6:30!--

In a few minutes I'll go down again and see if I can find some little thing to eat for breakfast, and then check out and go over to Concourse G where I am supposed to meet the rest of them, for the charter flight to Havana.

I just finished reading a novel about a school shooter, how he tried to fit in and had no friends, and I somehow got thinking about my own high school and earlier years, I had no friends either, really, but I loved my own company even then and did not feel lonely.  I was PROUD of being different.

Still am.

OK, so now, the next time I write I will be in Cuba.

The flight here, on a plane full of people returning home I think—going up the stairway into the plane, I see a Cuban passport in the hand of the woman in front of me.   At the airport in Miami we swim in English and Spanish.  In line for the charter flight, the Cuban fellow in front of us checks out our boxes labeled “Book of Common Prayer – Spanish”.  You can’t tell who is Cuban or not; there are lots of people speaking Spanish who have blond hair and pale skin.  

O yes.  The absurdly turquoise-blue sea with its floor visible from our modest height… Flying in over the land of Cuba: some red dirt and some farms, rows of planted trees, dark red dirt, but mostly farms.  One divided road and not a lot of cars.  

Along the road into Havana from the airport all the huge billboards are about political stuff (I finally figured out there is no advertising--our guide, an excellent one named Enrique [note that this is not his real name], says that the political stuff soon becomes like advertising).  Many of the signs talked of how horrible Bush is.  Fortunately they don't seem to think it’s we Americans who are horrible.

Things look actually pretty prosperous to me.  I will have to look up their rankings in the little Economist booklet.   The outskirts (how very many times now have I been driven from an airport through ratty outskirts) are pretty nice, and the obligatory divided-highway-from-the-airport-to-the-city is neatly landscaped down the center, and better than many I have seen around the  world.

As we drive along I see it's true about the ancient American cars, huge ones, small ones, some I believe the vintage of our old Plymouth FROM WHEN I WAS A CHILD in the 1940’s for heaven's sake, others from the 50's, many painted by hand with dull paints but in brilliant colors.  Lots in a particular vivid blue.  I saw one in lime and grass green, about half a block long!  The streets are a car museum.

Just a moment to VENT about how extremely disorganized most everyone on this trip is!  I feel in a dream or even a nightmare: Who are these people and why am I with them!

But from my lovely small high-ceilinged room here in this Havana hotel, with its elegant cream and nile green drapes, I hear a rooster, in the middle of the city, and that is a great pleasure.  Across the way the rooftops show brilliant laundry (one of my favorite photographic subjects) as well as a large dog, and broken down buildings as well as newly rehabbed ones. 

After settling in we made a long walk around parts of the city.  This is a peculiar place.  Apparently everything is rationed, and there seem to be no stores at all, at least none where we were walking.  I keep asking where people get their goods, and nobody seems able to answer me.  I asked our guide, Enrique,  if we could see some shops, and he said, well, the next place we go would be best for that (note that we never did see those shops Enrique promised).   In fact, I see no signs of commerce anywhere.

Enrique says, for instance, that if you have a family of four, you are rationed one tube of toothpaste every couple of months, two if you have more in the family.  Or maybe it was if you have four kids.  Anyhow. 

It's not as if there is nobody living in this part of the city.  Everywhere are tattered formerly grand buildings with people and their laundry hanging off the balcony railings, and part of the buildings hanging, too.  It's like a maze of living spaces.  Quite nightmarish, like one of those science fiction things with the fake horrible future shown in all its dreadful detail.

Everybody you see is young.  A lot of young women are dressed in skin-tight stuff and micro skirts.  Young men.  I've seen only a few old people.  They must be at home?  I was accosted by one of three transvestites I saw--he was with someone else and I am sure he did it to be funny for the other--they all three were extremely tall, thin, dressed as females, with deep masculine voices.  Exactly in every detail like the guy I saw once at the church thrift shop, coming in to check for girly clothes.  “My name is--,” said this Cuban transvestite. “What’s your name?”  Sniggers from his/her buddy. 

Enrique right away talks politics.  Perhaps this is in part is because he has traveled with several of our number before, on previous churchy trips, and feels comfortable.

There was a truck with signs for its hair products within, the first sign of commerce I have seen.

The people are black in every shade, white, mixed.  They are not quick to smile at all.  l was approached a number of times by beggars.  Women, with kids, tugging at our sleeves.    However, much of it looks like a fairly prosperous Caribbean country.  I should love to know a bunch of statistics.  But they don't smile, here, the way everyone did in Africa. 

A la Soviets, there is some kind of drink sold in big blue tanks on every street corner.   I see a store with rows of cloth shoes arranged on the floor of the window.  There is no attempt to advertise them or show them enticingly.  There was a clothing store with horrible cheap crap on models.  These are stores for tourists I guess.  You have to use a fake currency, that we exchanged our Euros into.   I saw a store that appeared to be for bicycle parts; in the large store window were about half a dozen miscellaneous objects in a haphazard array.

A lot of restoration is going on on the waterfront.  It's a World Heritage Site and so there is money for this.  The arcaded crumbling colored buildings are being refurbished, repainted.  Who will live in them? 

At dinner, in our restaurant in the old district, a young girl slim as an eel did a kind of sensual flamenco thing, with absolutely deafening music.  And our table sat right next to it.   I would have enjoyed it if I had not been so stupefied by the sound blasting my precious hearing.

The dinner lasted until nearly ten, then a long walk home with a few from our group.  A little scary since we were not entirely sure where we were going.  The old district is well lit at night, but the rest of the city is pitch dark. Lots of potholes and crumbled curbings to be watchful of.  Not a place for the uncertain walker.

We stopped to look at some music going on, performances of some kind, in the streets of the old district.  Opera being played, a group of men enacting a fight to the music, followed by some other drama of some kind.  People sitting on the ground in the courtyard in which this was being done, raptly attentive.

So far, I find it all faintly nightmarish.

Still in Havana
I had about four hours sleep. People are awake and out in the streets all night long, and the roosters seem to crow all night.  What self-respecting rooster would crow at 2:30?  Here, apparently, they do.   I wonder why?

We spent the morning on one of the churchy errands, a very odd affair of being at a cathedral, mighty plain, at a little service run by students at a seminary, and sitting through a long Spanish sermon, by a woman with a voluminous sheaf of notes; she apparently was being critiqued by a professor sitting in the front row. 

At this church we gave to the priest all of the kits of medical supplies that I had brought; he will distribute them to those in his parish in most need of them.  I had bought items to make ten kits, each with a big box of Bandaids, a big bottle of aspirin and one of ibuprofen, a tube of first-aid ointment, a big bar of soap, and a few other items.  In spite of the fact that Cuba trains many doctors, and medical care is free, many of these ordinary items are in short supply.

Then we went to see the Episcopal Bishop of Cuba, a very nice older woman, very smart, who received us at her residence and spent at least an hour with us, together with, providentially, an Episcopal priest who is Cuban by citizenship but who has a parish in New York state.  Or was it New Jersey?  He helped to discuss and translate, and we had a long and interesting visit.

There were many questions about religion in Cuba and the history of the Episcopal church here.  The most interesting is that even during the height of Communism and Castro, the main thing was not exactly are you a Christian and therefore out in the cold, but rather, explain and justify why you are.  Things were apparently not so bad, even when discrimination was actually a law of sorts, as best I can make out.  In fact, as Christians became known for good behavior, it actually became something of an advantage in some jobs.  Though you could never have a top job.   The priest talked about a parish here that got down to twelve people, the hardcore faithful he called them, and now there are about sixty. 

It was pleasant to be in the Bishop’s pink livingroom, most of us in rocking chairs, and to listen to the talk.

Then after lunch at an outdoor fast food place, where there were dry rolls, a thin slice of ham and one of a kind of cheese--food is somewhat desperate here I think.  I did see a kind of outdoor market near the cathedral, with some fresh vegetables and some meat, but not much of either.

After lunch we walked around the newer part of the city, with much more in the way of intact buildings, more taller buildings, lots of nice outdoor things, books, art, touristic stuff which I had no time to look at or buy.

At the seawall that edges the city, to its north, Enrique says, That is my wall.   I cannot go past it.  If you have relatives in Miami (which nearly everyone does) or elsewhere, you stand at the wall and think of them, Enrique says.  It's the closest point to Miami.  He knows all about many places in the world but has NEVER BEEN OFF THIS ISLAND.

And this is, I think, about my 85th country...and I do not ever take that privilege for granted…

There are very few cars, in general.  Lots and lots of the old ones.  "Give way" driving.

The people are black in all shades, brown, white.   There are 11 million in the whole country, and two million here in the capital. 

Late in the afternoon we go to the final day of what appears to be an enormous competition of ballet students--we learn there have been 500 competitors from 14 countries.  The huge ornate theatre, dating from Cuba's glory days, is filled to bursting with young girls, some boys, and their proud families.  The stage is filled with winners, and their teachers. 

The prizes are announced, the crowd shrieks and screams and applauds for each one, although there are clearly some favorites.  The whole thing is just so wonderful, so innocent, so encouraging, so heartful.   The man in front of me tapes the whole thing. 

Then after an intermission the top winners dance for us, on that enormous stage, bare, with taped music.  They are simply magnificent.  I could have watched all night.  One young woman, who with her partner danced like a fantastic bird, was unfortunate enough to have her costume come unvelcro’ed along its back.  No mind--she and her gallant partner went right ahead with the most difficult steps, lifts, it was just wonderful.  I promise her nothing like that will ever happen in her professional life. 

We all were thrilled with the whole thing.

It was far better than walking the streets, for here we really were, or could be taken for, a part of this place.  No torment.

Then dinner of black beans, rice and chicken, and I am driven back to the hotel in the dark.  People on the streets though.  They seem to party a lot, or to have--I don't know.  Things to do with each other.

I have opted out of the music program this evening to be at home instead.  It's the Buena Vista Social Club, which probably I would enjoy, but again I didn't sleep much last night and it was a long day and I know what I need.  So instead, after an excellent dinner of rice and beans, with chicken on offer which I didn't have, it's only five of ten and I am here, writing, will take a nice shower and tuck in.

The rest of the group will rave about their evening’s entertainment in the morning but I am happy here.  (Actually they didn’t, apparently it was kind of fake and nobody much cared for it.)   Over the years, in those 85 countries, I have missed a lot of things this way.   I don't mind.

I haven't got much sense of it here.  Enrique promises he will take us to a ration store, where you get all the stuff that gets rationed out to each person or family.  (He never did, even though I asked several times.)   The average salary is about 280 pesos a month.  Still doesn’t help since we don't know how much things are in pesos.

I miss my family and my Cat.

Today our group went to a church, in part of a house, that our church members have been going to on this trip for four years.  Apparently our church has been giving them money for all these years to reconstruct the actual church they used to have, which, no surprise, collapsed.  For four years there has been scaffolding around the old one.  

In order to get to this church we drove through yet another crumbling neighborhood, with two-story odd columned, porticoed buildings, with lovely decoration around the roofline, and, of course, in crumbles.  I saw a four story shell, with trees growing inside of it, and on the top floor, one French door sort of thing open, and one wall, and there are people living in it.  There were no other walls, no other part to the structure.

Anyhow, there was the priest, a nice man, his assistant who leaned against the wall of the room and looked half-dead through most of this thing, and the parishioners, virtually all women of course, of a variety of ages.  A little girl in a white dress was to be, and was, baptized; she sucked her thumb (she was about 8), and fussed with her pretty long white dress most of the time.  The nine of us crowded into the few rows of seats among the parishioners.   Eventually there was a Communion service, and a short sermon about the resurrection, which I liked sort of and which no one else did apparently, some kind of theological concern which I know nothing about.

Our minister said a short thing, in which he drove our translator, Enrique, nuts, by using phrases he could not understand, and then all broke loose to get with their “prayer partners,” apparently established in previous visits to this church.  Fortunately at the last minute I declined getting one.  Then there was a long awkward time (for me) of visiting around; I was paired with a woman who just wanted practice her English, and that was fine. 

But then we all—parishioners and our group--got to go to a baseball game, and THAT was the real thing, for sure!  I yelled my head off and loved every minute of it even though the home team didn't quite win. 

We had a little trip to a fantastical, fanciful place where an artist has created an entire landscape of tile images—in front of the house, on the roof of the house, all around the house.  It reminds me very much of Watts Towers in Los Angeles in its exuberance and joyful creativity.

We toured around the city a bit more.  At the top of a hill overlooking the city we were overwhelmed by the stink of dead animals left there, I guess sacrificed there as a part of Santeria (the African-Cuban religion).  There are also some flowers, a pile of corn, and it seems to me some discarded clothing.  Directly opposite is yet another structure that looks like a bombed out hulk from WWII.

I guess tourists don't come here because for the first time we are watched, by a row of people.   All of them, staring at us. 

At dinner, in a private home which is allowed to set itself up as a restaurant for foreigners, I sit next to Enrique.  He describes, passionately, exactly what I have been thinking, and trying to explain to people about the Soviet Union. Everybody gets a state salary, a puny one, and the same whether you work well or not, no incentive if no private enterprise.  They don't seem to get that, the folks in this group. 

He talked and talked to me, pouring out all his frustrations with the system here.  At the end of this conversation he finally told me that he has an illegal television, that apparently he hooks it up every day to his computer and he gets to see CBS, CNN, ABC, BBC, news.  I don't want to have my brain washed, he says.  I want to read my three page Cuban newspaper but I also want to see what other people are saying about the news.  Then I want to make up my own mind.