By Dr. William Kumbier
Professor of English
Before the winter fire,
We’ll still be dreaming . . .
- Sandy Denny,
“Who Knows Where
the Time Goes?"
I first heard of the Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, Cuba, from Dr. Tamara Falicov of the Department of Theatre and Film/Latin American Studies at the University of Kansas. On behalf of Missouri Southern and our International Institute, I had contacted Dr. Falicov by email in the spring of 2003, to invite her to be the keynote speaker at a week-long Cuban film festival that we had planned as part of our “Cuba Semester” in the fall. From the start, Dr. Falicov was eager to come and share her expertise: she recommended a number of films for our festival and promised to bring with her some hard-to-find documentaries from KU’s Latin American film library. Then, in our subsequent communications with her, we learned that she would be taking a group of students and faculty to the Havana Film Festival in December and that we were invited to join the group. Dr. Chad Stebbins, director of our International Institute, asked me if I’d like to be the one to go and, despite the fact that it was June and I was in whirlwind preparation for my daughter’s wedding and imminent departure for six weeks in India with our university’s summer India program, I immediately said I would jump at the chance to visit Cuba. Several of my friends and colleagues had recently been or were about to go there and had said the experience had been great, incredibly illuminating. It wasn’t immediately clear, however, that I would have legal authorization to go, since I was not covered by any institution’s educational license to travel to Cuba; more on that later.
Dr. Falicov’s visit to Missouri Southern in October was a brief but wonderfully eye-opening occasion for us. She is a young, 30-something film scholar, an expert on the cinema of Argentina, where she was born, but she also knows Cuban cinema inside out. Though she may strike one as reserved and tentative at first in her lectures and interactions, she soon shows that she has a rapport with students and faculty, that she is excited about her topic and always ready with a wry, ironic sense of humor. When I introduced her to our Missouri Southern audience, as I found out later from Ree, my partner and colleague, she was betting that I would mispronounce her name (it is “TaMAra” rather than “TAmara”), which I did, for the first and only time. During the documentary she brought about contemporary young people in Cuba, Cuba Va, her comments and asides to me showed that our impressions and responses to the film and its passionately engaged subjects were often on the same wave length. As her visit concluded, she suggested that the travel agency handling the December trip could probably work out any problems there might be about the legality of my travel status.
Still, it was a few weeks before it finally had become clear that I would actually be visiting Cuba, and during that time my apprehension about the trip had been growing. I was to travel with a group of about 15 students and three other faculty from the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri–Kansas City, led by Tamara. To prepare myself for the trip, I had participated, on two weekends in November, in Tamara’s three-weekend college course on Cuban film, “Tropical Reels,” but had missed the third weekend in order to accompany our Model U.N. delegation to the American Model UN conference in Chicago. I tried my best during those two arduous weekends to revert to being a student, taking extensive notes on all the films we viewed, participating as actively as I could in discussion, completing the pop quiz (I learned much later that I had scored 100%!) and in-class freewriting assignments, and reading numerous articles, many in grainy, blurry microprint, on Cuban film in the invaluable $20 compilation Tamara had prepared. She led us through the development of revolutionary Cuban cinema, which, since the Revolution, has been under the direction of ICAIC, the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry). We focused on the films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, from the Godardian/Fellini-esque shades of his Memories of Underdevelopment, through the macabre postcolonial fantasy of The Last Supper, to the quiet tensions and sympathetic intensities of Strawberry and Chocolate. We viewed the progressive feminist film by Sara Gomez, One Way or Another, TV documentaries about Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and the Jewish community in Havana, as well as striking short documentaries, such as For the First Time, about mobile cinema in the early days of the Revolution, and the inventive Santiago Alvarez’s Now!, a knockout short from the Sixties about the U.S. civil rights movement, composed entirely of stills. My participation in the course necessitated spending two Saturday nights in the retro-before-its-time White Haven Motor Lodge, where I have become quite “at home” and where I wound down at night from the intensity of the classroom by sipping brandy and nibbling dark chocolate (though not before digesting at least one longer, critical article for the next day).
My growing apprehension was due, however, not only to the intellectual demands of keeping pace with students and faculty who were up on film theory and history, Spanish, cultural studies or all three together, not to mention energy, for they all were, I think without exception, at least twenty years younger than I, most much younger than that. My main concern was that I would be traveling to Cuba in an uncertain status, under what is known as a “general license” for professional researchers, for which the United States’ Office of Foreign Assets Control made provision, rather than the specific license for travel to Cuba that covered the students and other faculty (one had to be a KU or UMKC student or faculty to be covered under that license). As I had discovered during Missouri Southern’s fall “Cuba Semester,” Americans are allowed to visit Cuba only for very specific purposes and under very restrictive conditions. My colleagues had advised me that, since I could not travel under KU’s educational license, and since Missouri Southern’s license for travel to Cuba had expired the preceding June, I should travel as a professional researcher in film.
Now, to declare myself as that was a stretch, since I had published nothing on film or film theory, though I had written extensively on Hitchcock and had helped coordinate Missouri Southern’s Contemporary Foreign Film series for several years. I was advised to carry letters testifying to my academic legitimacy and the seriousness of my research purposes from my dean, my academic vice-president and our director of international studies and, once I was at the film festival, to see as many films as I could and take copious notes on each. Even then, I was warned that I might face prolonged and exacting interrogation by U.S. customs officials at the Miami airport and that I would be wise not to be carrying too many cigars or too much rum on my return (which is what the Bush administration believes college professors travel to Cuba to get). Not to mention that only a few days before our trip the Bush White House had announced a tightening of restrictions on Americans’ travel to Cuba; my uncle had warned me, “You’ll be fined!”
Nevertheless, equipped with my roller suitcase, a carry-on bag and my file of three letters on austere, official Missouri Southern letterhead, I arrived at the White Haven in the early evening of Thursday, December 5, in order to attempt being rested for our scheduled 6:00 am rendezvous at the KC airport the next morning. To relax I went down to the Plaza and had a meal of fish and chips at the O’ Dowd’s Irish pub there; then a walk, amidst the horse drawn carriages and the sparkle of the Plaza’s Christmas lights, and then the essential stop in Barnes and Noble. When I returned to my room I phoned Ree, as we had not had much time to talk in Joplin before I left and also for some “reassurance.” (Ree had gone with the last Missouri Southern delegation to visit Cuba before our license expired, and had several times assured me that travel in Cuba was much easier than in India.) I suppose I got some sleep but did not need the 4:00 am wak-up call I had requested as a back-up.
Friday, December 5
At about 5:30 Friday morning I found myself shivering in the satellite parking lot at the KCI airport, awaiting the shuttle bus. I had on only my trench coat, without the liner, since whatever clothing I had with me at that point I would have to take to Cuba, which I assumed would be much warmer, in the 70 to 85 degree F range. Once in the terminal I looked for Tamara but did not see her; soon, however, I recognized a couple of male students from the weekend film class, and it wasn’t long before our group had assembled. Fortunately all of us except for three were on the same flight to Atlanta and then Miami; I can’t remember why the other three had to travel on the next later flight (or perhaps we had been put on an earlier one). I was pleased and relieved to find that almost all of the students in the group, who really still did not know me or that I was a professor, were open and friendly; I was to find out later also how accomplished several of them already were not only in Spanish but in negotiating a new, foreign culture. My seatmate on the flight to Atlanta, Linda, for example, told me enthusiastically about her recent sojourn in Italy. It wasn’t long till I realized that from two or three of the students especially I would be learning much and, throughout the trip, I was to encounter none of the desire for insularity and retreat to things American that I had seen in some Missouri Southern students who hadn’t been ready to travel abroad.
We experienced our first significant delay once we arrived at the Miami airport. There is, I believe, one daily flight to Havana from Miami, and I think it was originally scheduled for the late afternoon. We rushed through airport lunches to gather at mid-afternoon at the Continental ticket counter, only to find we first had to check in and be checked at one of the two folding tables set up by Marazul Charters (our travel agency, based in Miami, on which scores of Cubans, Cuban Americans and Americans traveling to Cuba depend). It was a long, Cuban-style line even before we got to Cuba. Most of our group progressed through this checkpoint without a hitch, though the Marazul agents were temporarily thrown by the absence of a copy of KU’s Cuba travel license among my papers. I explained that I was traveling under a general license that didn’t require a document but that I was with the KU group. Fortunately, Tamara wasn’t far away and, without really resolving anything, the Marazul agents passed me on to the ticket counter. I discovered about this time that the younger, affable and somewhat stocky man with dark hair, goatee, glasses, a florid shirt and a camera, who was standing near me and who had commented that he was traveling as a journalist, was also Tamara’s husband, Steve; he produces a daily news/talk show for the Kansas City NPR affiliate. One of the students in our group, a baseball player named Jason, thought he had seen Alan Arkin in line with him (“That’s the guy from Slums of Beverly Hills”). It turned out, rather, to be the leader of another student group, though, from beneath the brim of his straw hat the resemblance to Arkin was enough to make me look twice. Jason was bringing to Cuba a box of baseball bats along with his luggage, as he’d heard Cuban kids love baseball and he was hoping to play with them and distribute the bats.
Once we cleared security to our gate (a woman in front of me dropped and shattered a large bottle of duty free vodka that she was trying to put on the conveyer belt), we learned that our flight would be delayed by at least an hour, which stretched to two hours, then three. The reason for this was not clear, but it was clear that Continental had only one or two planes available for the daily Cuba run, and apparently the one that was supposed to fly in from Havana and then turn around and convey us there had not yet left or could not leave Cuba. Thus, we were responsible for impressively stimulating the economy of the gate area restaurants and bar as we got to know each other better. Two of the other faculty, Mitch and Daven, and I compared Havana and Cuba travel guides. Mitch teaches screenwriting at UMKC and Daven teaches film production there. They had the abundantly illustrated DK Eyewitness Guide to Cuba while I had the British magazine Time Out’s Havana & the best of Cuba. Both guides were tantalizing!
Jason, who kept telling the bartender just to add various people’s drinks to his tab, including one beer that ended up in my hands as Jason slapped me on the shoulder, soon ran up a bar bill of over $95 and eventually had to be pointed out to the somewhat concerned bartender. By the time we finally boarded our plane between 9:00 and 10:00 pm, Jason had spend about half (or maybe more) of the $300 in cash he had for the trip. We knew this could be a problem because we knew that all our transactions in Cuba would have to be in US dollars; no credit cards issued from a US bank would be accepted and there was some question about negotiating traveler’s checks. I myself was anxious about money, since I was carrying slightly less than $500 in cash and $300 in traveler’s checks, and I had been told to expect tourist, not Third World, prices, which generally proved to be the case, at least for us if not all travelers to Cuba.
The flight to Havana took longer than I expected it would, since my largely anecdotal knowledge of Cuban geography – which I should have studied much more carefully before the trip – told me that Cuba was “only 90 miles” from the Florida Keys. What I hadn’t realized until then is that while that is true of the island of Cuba, Havana itself is several hundred miles west. (Most Americans don’t realize that Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is 1,000 miles long.) At any rate, after an hour or so we saw the lights of Havana, defined like a necklace along a sharp curve that I imagined to be the Malecón, Havana’s famous waterfront boulevard and promenade, and then, as we passed over the city and south, no lights at all, for most of the last minutes of the flight before we landed at Jose Martí airport, marking the abrupt step from urban Havana to its rural environs. At the airport we were promptly redirected from our first landing gate to another before we could disembark. Entry to Cuba was easy: the only delays for me were momentary, courtesy of a female customs official who looked intensely at me, comparing my face to my passport photo, and the luggage handlers, who managed to create some slight suspense among the mostly American passengers waiting to retrieve their bags. Signs posted told us to inspect our bags carefully before leaving the area, but for almost a half hour there were none to inspect (a seemingly long time considering ours was the only incoming flight). Fortunately during this wait another “professional American film scholar” told me the film to see at the festival was the Cuban director Fernando Pérez’ Suite Habana, excellent advice, as it turned out.
We were met at the airport by our Havantur guide, Estér, who directed us to our bus (the bus, in fact, that would be ours for the next six days). As in India, our middle-aged bus driver singlehandedly – well, actually he used both hands and a spatial acumen and quickness that I was to see in many Cubans – loaded our suitcases. Estér was dressed in the Havanatur uniform - navy blue pant suit, white blouse and red scarf – her crisply professional dress contrasting with our rumpledness from, by this point, 17 or 18 hours of travel. Estér’s dark eyes and alert glances conveyed that immediately arresting combination of beauty, intelligence and competence I was to see in so many Cuban men and women. Though we were tired and riding mostly in the dark, Estér provided commentary all the way to our hotel, as we passed through what she told us was her neighborhood, Cerro, along the Avenida de la Independencia, past the Palace of the Revolution (“where the President goes to work every day”) and the Jose Martí Monument, into the Vedado district. Estér informed us that “Vedado,” which means “prohibited,” referred to the fact that the area outside Old and Central Havana was once forested and off limits to building. Now and then I noted, emerging from the night, an occasional grove of banyan trees. (The area still has the aura of a garden district but is very built up and, as my guidebook warned me, noisy and excited at night, with many clubs, restaurants and, of course, cinemas, not to mention the celebrated Coppelia ice cream park) Estér pointed out the monstrously long, double-humped buses – the “camels” – that most Cubans ride and told us we should not attempt those unless we were very brave. After heading a few blocks east on La Rampa, Vedado’s main drag, we turned right on O Street for our hotel, two blocks south.
Our hotel is known both as the Hotel Vedado, which most seem to call it, and the Hotel Flamingo. It reminded me of the three-star hotels in India where I’ve stayed: very basic and generally worn and dimly lit, though clean and featuring rooms that had been repainted mint green not too long ago. It took quite a while for the seventeen or so of us to get checked in, receive our hotel I.D.s and get settled in our rooms, a process complicated by the fact that the hotel had two “towers,” separated by an enclosed pool and patio. To get to the second (south) tower, which is where my room was, one had to ascend one flight via a staircase behind the bar in the main lobby (which featured a mural of Cuban celebrities who had stayed in the hotel, including Castro himself), pass through a “gallery” of colorful contemporary Cuban paintings, in the pseudo-surrealist mode we were to see again and again, cross a walkway over the pool area and enter a second, dimly lit lobby. The luggage of the four of us assigned to the second tower traveled separately, under the care of Mario, the bellhop, because the elevator we were to take to our rooms could hold only two people at a time (three if all inhaled and held it). A larger elevator next to it was broken and barricaded off.
When Mario met me in my room, his main concern was to ensure that I understood how to operate the safe, for which he gave precise, clear instructions in English. Despite his clarity, I had to hear the instructions several times, since working the safe required following an unalterable sequence of some combination of inserting a key, turning it, listening for a sound, pressing a red button, entering a code, listening for one beep (or two?), then checking to see that the code was “locked in,” but NOT removing the key. Though not really a difficult process to master, the few steps I had to follow were almost overwhelming at 2:00 am after 22 hours awake, despite Mario’s intent concern and patience, and even then I had to call him back once. The room had air conditioning but it had not been turned on and I didn’t think I needed it, since the temperature outside was in the seventies, so I cranked open the windows and opened the slatted shutters (no screens), collapsed on the low bed and fell asleep listening, as I love to do, to the sounds of the street, which were very lively and loud. In fact, as I continued to do this every night in Havana, I learned that there is possibly only one hour every day – my guess is it’s between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. – when the area around the Hotel Vedado is anything close to quiet, and even then there might be someone just below my room working on his car or a lone voice singing an early morning song.
Saturday, December 6
Despite the fact that I had gone to bed so late, I woke early, before 7:00. I opened the shutters of my window to see how the surroundings looked in the daylight. Directly across O Street were two tall apartment buildings; the more interesting one, to the north, was painted mint green, with several stories of terraces and balconies, looking exactly like those I had seen in films and photos of Havana, decked with pieces of used furniture and clotheslines. Later I would see the glow of light from the rooms behind these balconies and the hint that they were in isolated cases more richly furnished than their external appearance would imply. To the south was a small square, with murals painted on the adjacent building wall. At that moment, I was the only one looking out from my window, though, as I had been told by previous visitors to Cuba, I was likely to see many later on engaged in the classic Cuban pastime of watching from balconies.
My room had a fully equipped bath, but engaging the shower proved a challenge. There was no place roughly near my height to fix the head of the flexible shower hose, which would not have been a problem had I not quickly discovered there was no hot water that morning. Consequently, I had to find ways to lodge the shower head so that it would not spray me at times or in places for which I wasn’t prepared. At one or two points this Hydra unexpectedly flexed, spraying the ceiling and walls. I felt like Woody Allen with the hair dryer in Play It Again, Sam or, better, Charlie Chaplin, the hero of Cuban cinema, wrestling with any machine in Modern Times. Still, I managed to get clean and go down for breakfast, which was served from 7:00 to 10:00.
Upon showing the hotel I.D. card that I had been issued the previous night, I was admitted through heavy glass doors to the breakfast room, a high-ceilinged area poolside but very dimly lit. There seemed to be plenty of tables, though I discovered later that there were far too few for the number of hotel guests once breakfast really got going. I took a table close to the natural light of the patio. There were tablecloths – I can’t remember whether they were ivory, mint green or pink – stained here and there with the traces of earlier breakfasts. An attendant with a “crumber” was brushing a table near mine and used tableware and dishes were removed very promptly. The breakfast was buffet style and very filling: this morning there were assorted peeled and sliced fruits (oranges, grapefruit, pineapple, passion fruit), fried potatoes with cabbage (which reminded me a little of German hot potato salad), bacon and sausage, pancakes, an array of breads and cakes; obviously a tourist breakfast. To my delight there were vats of Cuban coffee and hot milk, so one could mix a bowl, in a bowl-sized cup, of café au lait. A woman behind the buffet counter stood ready to prepare fried eggs or an omelet on demand. The food was very satisfying, though I went light on the breads, which were not exceptional, and skipped the meats. I was intrigued by a woman sitting at the table next to mine; well, not by the woman but by the fact that she appeared to be surveying both a newspaper, which I hadn’t seen anywhere in the hotel lobby, and a large, glossy catalogue. I speculated, correctly, that these were the bulletin for the day’s film showings and the film festival program. As I was finishing breakfast, I was joined by Mitch and Daven, who reported that they, too, did not have hot water in their rooms. Daven said that was true of the hotel’s entire south tower and that he was going to change rooms. I decided to wait it out one more day.
I forgot to mention that even this early in the day I had already had several occasions to try and resurrect my high school Spanish. I had already greeted several of the hotel staff with “Buenos días,” to which they responded, “Good morning,” and had needed “por favor” and “gracias” in the dining room. I had read that Cubans typically leave off word endings and that their Spanish is fast. My experience bore that out, except that those with whom I tried to speak were willing to slow down. But my naïve and tentative “Buenos días” did become “Buen’ día” or “Buen di.” This may sound trivial to more accomplished linguists but, despite my ability to read French, German, Classical Greek, and some Spanish and Italian, I had never before traveled in a country where I felt I actually had to speak the language and, crude as my attempts were, I was thrilled when I elicited an appropriate response or when I understood what someone was saying, which was surprisingly often. Of course, I was not good for more than the briefest, superficial exchanges, but in an email from the hotel to my mom I did thank my high school Spanish teacher, Senora Perryman!
We were to gather in the lobby at 9:00 to meet Estér and our bus, but, as might be expected on the first morning, several of the students were late (Jason was especially late and apparently recovering from last night’s bar tab). Tamara was sitting on a couch with her arm around an attractive older woman, whom she introduced to me as Celia, her mother, who had arranged to be in Havana when Tamara and Steve would be there. I think it may have been Celia’s first visit to Cuba, but I can’t recall for certain. Celia and Tamara both are Argentinian by birth, though both have lived in the United States for years; I imagined Celia to be in her sixties. She struck me as gracious and urbane and I was to enjoy several stimulating conversations with her, mostly centering on our impressions of Cuba and the films we saw, at various times throughout our visit. And, Celia, Tamara, Steve and I all had in common that we were considerably older than the students; with Mitch and Daven we had our photo taken at the end of the trip as the “post-30” group.
Our scheduled morning activity was a tour of Old Havana, which was to be followed by registration for the film festival at the Hotel Nacional, the festival’s headquarters. For our morning’s tour we were graced by the presence of an official guide I’ll call Eduardo. (I can’t, thankfully, remember his real name.) He was young, good looking and intelligent, but seemed to want continually to impress us with his wit and “sophistication.” He worked for the government office dedicated to restoration of buildings and sites in Old Havana and did know his stuff, but he kept injecting gratuitous editorial comments about the monuments and buildings we passed: “Look at that. I hate it” recurred more than once in his monologue, along with abundant other throwaway lines. He instructed the bus driver to head west from our hotel, through a tunnel under the Alemendares canal and into the Miramar district, then back east so that we could ride the entire length of the Malecón (about seven kilometers) before arriving in Old Havana. He and Estér pointed out key buildings and monuments along the way: the office of the U.S. Interests Section (which our country has in Havana instead of an embassy), the Casa de las Americas (the Cuban cultural center, which we were to visit later in our stay), the monument to General Antonio Maceo, a heroic Liberation fighter in the Cuban War of Independence who had been killed in action in 1896 after having survived 24 bullet wounds, the monument to the Maine (as in “Remember the Maine!”) and, most interesting to me, the Anti-Imperialist Monument, an expanse of pavement under a number of modernistic steelwork arches. At the east end of that monument was a recently erected statue of Jose Martí holding a young child. Estér told us that the statue and the plaza were created during the Elian Gonzales crisis of a few years ago, that the plaza was where rallies calling for the return of Elian were held and that the child Jose Martí was holding was “symbolic.” Someone in our group asked if the child was supposed to be Elian, since the statue appeared during the Elian controversy, and Estér repeated that no, the child was merely “symbolic” (end of discussion). Later, on an early morning walk along the Malecón, I took a picture of both the Anti-Imperialist Monument and the statue, and that was the only occasion of my entire visit on which I was interrupted by a police officer. He told me I could photograph the statue but not the plaza (though I had already snapped the picture).
When we arrived at the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, it was gray and drizzling, alternating with brief periods of rain. That meant that there were only a few of the booksellers I’d read about setting up their stalls around the plaza square. Those who know me will be astonished when I swear that I passed these by without hesitation so that I could stay with our group as we entered Old Havana. The truth is that, after my India experience, I was wary of buying and burdening myself with too many books. I did spy a 19th century edition of Don Quijote, however, along with some old histories of Havana, which made me promise myself to return to the stalls when the weather was sunny.
Eduardo, after pointing out a statue of a colonial ruler whose name escapes me but who, when viewed from the side, appears to have a very impressive erection, led us to the Plaza de la Catedral, which was very subdued because of the rain. We entered the cathedral and found that a Máss was in progress, so we listened to the singing of the choir for a few moments. In this case as in many others, there did not seem to be time or the opportunity to explore the site more fully. We spent a few minutes looking into the buildings and courtyards around the cathedral square and then walked on, but not before the “local color” músicos played for us and a couple of traditionally costumed women asked if we wanted pictures taken with them. Thus, I had been in Old Havana only for about 15 minutes before I realized that this was exactly the Havana that many tourists are supposed to see and, for all I know, want to see first. There is no denying its colonial appeal; for those who have been to New Orleans, it is reminiscent of the French Quarter, but, of course, older and more baroque. Still, as we continued our walk, we saw more and more tourists. Our guide did point out a couple of reconstruction (restoration) sites along the way, eager to impress on us that Cuba was making an effort to preserve historical architecture. The southern extent of our walk was the Plaza de San Francisco, where I saw a couple of young women who were celebrating (or, judging by their facial expressions, being forced to celebrate) their quinze años, or coming out. They were dressed in silks, satins, lace and frills; one was being helped into a horse-drawn carriage; another had been asked, for a photo op, to sit, her dress billowing about her, on the wet pavement as the pigeons, scores of them, flocked to her. I enjoyed watching children gingerly trying to feed the pigeons for a few moments before we were whisked along to a small park honoring Diana Spencer and created by the Friends of Lady Di, the colorful, tile-covered pillar in the center of which Eduardo pronounced “ugly.”
In the course of our walk we had seen a number of intriguing shops and restaurants, especially along O’ Reilly and Obispo Streets, which I later learned were main tourist channels. There was Johnson Drugstore, with its antique ranks of wood and glass cabinets holding porcelain jars of medicines and their ingredients, a cake shop with delectable looking pastries and the hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn lived for a while, with its 1930’s style bar and, we were told, fine selection of rums. When it was time for lunch, our group split between those who wanted to eat at the well-known and fairly expensive La Mina restaurant right on the Plaza de ArMás and five or six of us (the older ones) who went in search of something cheaper. We ended up a couple of blocks west at the Café de Paris, which appeared to cater to both tourists and locals. There was construction in the immediate area and some sidewalks were torn up; I remember we had to cross patches of mud to get to the entrance. There I had, before lunch, my first cortado, the small espresso coffee and frothed milk drink that Cubans enjoy; I was instantly addicted. Tamara said that in that case the thing to do was to have another after lunch (they cost $1.00 or $1.50). There I also learned the difference between the two most popular Cuban beers, Cristal and Buccanero, with the picture of a pirate on its label that, we agreed, looked decidedly like Mitch. Buccanero is a bit darker with more substance, so I preferred that to Cristal, which seemed watery to me. I ordered my first Cuban sandwich – pork and cheese on crusty bread – something I was to have several more times as an inexpensive lunch (usually about $3.50). As we left, three musicians were setting up just behind our table; just as previous travelers had told me, live music is everywhere in Havana.
After lunch we gathered at the Plaza de ArMás, except for Jason, who had gone off in the direction of La Bodeguita del Medio, the bar where, reputedly, Hemingway had carved his name (or where his name had been carved). Our bus took us back along the Malecón, where we our first concentration of the 1950’s American cars – many flamingo or blue Chevies – for which the city is famous, to the Hotel Nacional. The hotel is by far the most luxurious in Havana, an island of pre-Revolution Cuba, with its swank lobby, palm trees and elegant terrace open to the sea. We found our way through the lobby to the registration office for the film festival, where we needed to receive our I.D. badges. This involved some confusion over whether our registration fees – which I heard could cost anywhere from $15 to $70 – were already covered by our tourist voucher. It turned out that they were. Yet we still needed to pay for laminated badges (only $1.00), for which we had to have our pictures taken and then proceed through the badge assembly line. I came away with four microphotos of myself; only one was required for the badge. I didn’t discover until after the trip that my name on the badge had been printed “Willian Kumbien.” I bought a program book for $10, and when I hefted it knew immediately that carrying it home would put me over my baggage weight limit. It was glossy black and white, 350 pages, detailing the hundreds of films to be shown at the festival. This catalogue was available only in Spanish. We also picked up our copies of Diario del Festival, a daily eight-page newspaper highlighting festival events and listing film times and locations for today, Saturday, and Sunday only. At first glance, I was overwhelmed by the fact that films were being shown across Havana in at least twenty venues, from 10:00 am until the early morning hours. My quick survey spotted Suite Habana, the film that had been recommended to me, showing at the Yara theatre at 5:30. I drew that to Tamara’s attention and many of us decided to catch that show.
Before leaving the hotel, we noticed that the Cuban film institute, the government agency known as ICAIC, had set up a sales booth on the hotel terrace where they featured t-shirts and classic Cuban film posters. We had seen examples of these in our film class: they are custom made for each film produced in Cuba by artists – the most celebrated was Eduardo Munoz Bachs, who died a few years ago – and are marked by their imaginative, often whimsical use of pop art and Sixties mod designs and colors. They are irresistible. We enjoyed matching the posters to the Cuban films all of us had seen. The official poster for the festival itself featured a sky blue design of what looked like the mushroom cloud of an exploding atom bomb but which, on closer inspection, proved to be a raincloud god with puffy cheeks blowing down a shower on the land. Of course, I ended up purchasing a range of posters and t-shirts, on which the poster designs were also printed, before leaving Cuba (the posters for $10 and t-shirts for $5), including a Charlie Chaplin t-shirt for my daughter, Alana.
Though I was eager to get to the film showing later that afternoon, we were first scheduled to attend a “folkloric event” in the western section of Vedado. We were told that it would involve music and dancing, though Estér could not tell us much beyond that. She was anxious to get to the venue since we were already too late, we feared, to get a seat for the 2:30 event. In fact, we did not get seats and were among the first who stood along the back of the courtyard where the event was held. The audience members standing or sitting, however, were in good spirits because a bar with a thatched covering was selling beer and mojitos, the classic Cuban rum and mint drink, in plastic cups. That was the first mojito I had. The program itself was actually a dance recital, an extended chain of performances by various folk dance classes. The section devoted to Haitian dances, reflecting santería myth and ritual, was the most exciting for me, though because I am still learning the names of the gods and goddesses, their powers and their colors, I could not follow all the stories as they were danced, but one especially, centering on, I think, the god Eleggua, a trickster, was danced with impressive power and machete flourishes. One of our students, Barrett, had found a seat down front just to the right of the dance area, next to some Cubans who, I could tell, were commenting on the dancing and possibly interpreting for him; his Spanish, I discovered, was fluent and he was always eager to interact with those he met. For us, though, it became harder and harder to see or photograph the dances, because more and more spectators and more and more mojitos were crowding into the courtyard in front of us; people were holding cameras high overhead as they could reach, aiming and snapping shots, hit or miss. My pictures show the results. The recital concluded with awards and recognition of the folk dance teachers, very much as in a dance recital I had seen last summer in Hyderabad.
When we arrived at the Yara theatre, where Suite Habana was to be shown, we got our first taste of the ethos and etiquette of Cuban lines. Since we had passes to the festival, we understood we would have some priority in admission to the theatre, but when we simply slipped under the rope barriers and tried to walk in, we were politely redirected to the end of a long, rather formless line. For this particular showing there appeared to be hundreds with passes, and the line wound way around the corner of La Rampa and L Street. I did not think that even with our passes that we would get seats in the theatre, but I had grossly miscalculated. The inside of the theatre is cavernous, with at least 2,000 seats, it seemed, extending so far back into the darkness from the seats we found – 15 or 20 rows back on the right – that I almost could not see the back wall: an ocean of faces. The feature film was preceded by, first, a political message I was to see many times but am not sure I ever entirely grasped, though I think I’m safe in saying it was affirming recent and ongoing struggles and victories of the Revolution. Then they ran the trailer for the film festival itself, an ingenious, fast-paced montage that flipped through the numerals 1 through 24, each numeral “hidden” or cleverly mixed into the composition of each successive image, several of which presented partying or parading crowds of kids or young people, culminating in the number 25, for the 25th Latin American Film Festival. The trailer’s opening image panned along a dark-skinned, sleeping nude woman; its last image showed the same woman, now wide awake and, presumably, ready to view a film!
Suite Habana had been screened earlier that day at 10:00 and, I believe, a few times before that in the festival (the festival had opened December 2). Still, it was thrilling to watch this nearly brand new Cuban film unroll before the eyes of a largely Cuban audience. The film, directed by Fernando Pérez, whose earlier Life is to Whistle we had seen in the film class and also at Missouri Southern’s Cuban Film Festival, moved beyond that film’s magic realism to a sort of symphonic docudrama. It followed a day in the life of ten or twelve residents of Habana, counterpointing their experiences, interweaving their paths: a 40-year-old railway worker who played saxophone in a jazz club by night; a 79-year-old retired woman who now sold the cones of unsalted peanuts we were beginning to see everywhere on the street; a young man who hauled concrete and cement during the day and performed as a star dancer in the national ballet by night; an Afro-Cuban woman who worked in a cosmetic factory; a nine-year-old boy who was struggling in school and was cared for by his abuela during the day and his tirelessly compassionate father, a widower, in the evening. Pérez told his story almost entirely through images: though the soundtrack of the film was always interestingly textured, the main meanings were conveyed through montage, often through some of the deepest, most reflective close–ups I have ever seen. It became clear by the end of the film that each of its subjects carried an unvoiced dream, partly or mostly unfulfilled; that explained why a recurring motif of the film was a one-person vigil held at Vedado’s “John Lennon” park, where a lifelike bronze of the former Beatle sits on a park bench. I was to find out later that inscribed at the foot of the statue, in Spanish, are the lyrics of “Imagine”: “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” A particularly engaging feature of the film was that all the characters portrayed were non-actors, and, in fact, some of them were at the showing, including the nine-year-old, who was sitting in front of one of our students. (A few days later I saw the peanut vendor framed in the doorway of the Casa de las Americas.) Suite Habana, shot entirely on location, also happens to be an evocative anthology of characteristic views of the city; the film’s coda is a montage of the play of the waves on the Malecón. Later I was to learn that Suite Habana captured a number of prizes, including the festival’s grand prize, not surprisingly.
When we returned to our hotel after the film, we were to board our bus for the Miramar district, where we were to have a special dinner at a well-known, rather pricey restaurant, El Aljibe. We were relieved, first, however, to find that Jason had made it back to the hotel on his own, and when we found him in the lobby he was seated at one of the glass-topped tables with an attractive young Cuban woman. He had met her after he had played ball some ball with kids in a nearby park. I didn’t linger there, but later, my suspicions about the woman were confirmed, when Jason told us that night that she had surprised him by asking him for money after spending an hour with him. He responded, emphatically and incredulously, at least as we heard it from him, “I don’t pay for sex!” After that, the woman apparently managed to ease herself discreetly from the hotel. It was our group’s first encounter with a jinetera (prosititute). Fortunately there weren’t many more.
My guidebook says the restaurant we were to visit caters to “diplomats, business people and nouveau-riche Cubans” but also that El Aljibe is also the “best state restaurant for Creole food.” The restaurant seems large, but it has a casual, country feel, perhaps because of its palm-leaf bamboo design and because it has only half walls, the rest being open to the outside. A cat (or cats) meandered around the tables, hoping to catch some scraps, which was unlikely because the chicken, served with a specialty sauce, was delicious, as were the black beans and rice and fried bananas. Unfortunately, many in our group chose not to attend this dinner (which was covered by our travel voucher). Though Estér joined us for dinner, she was very busy, preoccupied during the meal to ensure that everyone received their meals and drinks. (After some deliberations, it was determined that one beer per person was covered by the voucher, while mixed drinks were not.) Once we were finished, the bus returned us to the hotel and I believe I spent the rest of the evening plotting out my film viewing plans for the next day.
Sunday, December 7
I woke early, again to street sounds, and again to a cold shower. I confess to having spent few moments in hydrologic denial, trying to convince myself that the water was, actually, just taking a very long time to warm. My rationalizations stemmed from the fact that, once in any hotel room, I hate to pack up and move to another for any but the most insurmountable reasons. So I informed the desk clerk that there was no hot water in my room and she responded, “Yes, there is no hot water in the whole building. They are working on it.” Fine, I thought, I will give them another day, though I suspected the affirmation that they were “working on it” was like the many positive responses I had received in India when the news was far from positive, i.e., a response whose worth was mainly to placate me. I went on to breakfast, this time armed with my own film festival program and newspaper, and decided to try ordering eggs. Somehow I managed to convey to the cook that I wanted two, over easy, and she prepared them perfectly. I left some money in her tip plate.
We were scheduled to visit several sites this morning, starting with the Museum of the Revolution. Our group assembled in a much more timely way than we had the day before and we arrived at the Museum about 9:30, only to find it did not open until 10:00. Estér quickly implemented Plan B, which was to go first to the Capitolio, the plaza in front of it and the adjacent Parque Central. This gave me my first view of the towers and ornamental sculpture that dominate and characterize the Havana skyline: the dome of the Capitolio itself (which Estér informed us was just a bit higher than that of the U.S. Capitol), the towers of the Hotel Inglaterra and the Gran Teatro, the Bacardi tower with its hood-ornament-like bat emblem. Parked in the paved area in front of the capitol are ranks of “fantasy” taxis, the vintage 1950s American cars that appeal to so many tourists. I climbed the Capitolio steps to see (from outside, entry at the time was not allowed) the huge statue of Athena in the lobby and on my way down watched some from our group have their pictures taken by photographers using old box cameras but with film that could be developed on the spot. I chose to avoid the photographers and walked toward the Gran Teatro, past the Payret cinema, regarded by some as Havana’s premier movie house. Above me were some picturesque balconies, many with potted plants and drying laundry, which I photographed. Not surprisingly, it was in this area that I first felt bothered at all by jineteros, or hustlers, most of whom wanted to take me to where I could buy cigars at a cheap price. (The Partagás cigar factory, which I would visit later, is right in back of the Capitol, so this is a likely location for them to do some business, but I had decided not to follow jineteros, male or female, at least not on my own.)
The Museum of the Revolution is housed in what used to be the elegant Presidential Palace and in fact served as the official residence for Cuban presidents up until and even after the Revolution began, until the Revolutionary government moved its headquarters in 1965 to the Plaza de la Revolucion. Batista was in this palace when it was stormed by revolutionary forces in 1959; indeed, among the first things Estér pointed out to us were the bullet holes in the marble of the wall behind the central staircase (just behind another bust of Jose Martí) and the secret stairway Batista used to escape the rebels. Castro and his comrades announced the first laws of the new government from this site, from the very council chambers Batista had occupied. The palace was converted to the museum in 1974, and now offers an exhaustive chronicle – from the Revolutionaries’ perspective – of the political struggles, defeats and victories from the early 19th century to the present.
To see the entire museum, one must begin at the top and work one’s way down three floors. Here and there along the way one may pause and look out the large windows, which offer fine views of the city, including the glass walled building behind the museum that showcases “Vehicles of the Revolution,” notably a bullet-riddled panel truck and the very boat, the Granma, that brought the revolutionaries back to Cuba. The exhibits themselves are densely verbal: each contains many texts that would take even the most devoted visitor days to process, though key, ideologically strategic points are made in both Spanish and English. Since we had only an hour there, my survey of the exhibits was unavoidably cursory and erratic. I noticed things like shirts worn by martyrs of the Revolution at the time they were killed, dapper shoes that had been worn by a charismatic leader, a typewriter that had been used for revolutionary documents, instruments of torture used by the Batista regime. Many visitors were attracted to the life-sized diorama of Castro and Che in the mountains. I took a few extra minutes at the Bay of Pigs and “missile crisis” exhibit, simply wanting to see the revolutionary take on the world events of 1962, the infamous “thirteen days,” that had so terrified me as a ten-year-old child.
Our next stop was the Callejón de Hamel, a stop specially requested by Tamara. The callejón is a pedestrian walkway in Centro Habana, one block south of San Lazaro Street, between Hospital and Espada. The walkway and the buildings surrounding it have been painted entirely with murals evoking Afro-Cuban and santería themes but also the social/spiritual philosophy of their creator, Salvador Gonzalez Escalona. As my guidebook states, the callejón today is “a participatory artistic project offering numerous community arts events, including a rumba pena every Sunday.” Well, this was Sunday and we arrived just in time for the noon rumba. By now, the slightly overcast day had turned sunny and warm. We were told by the emcee to watch our backpacks, purses and pockets – good advice, since the crowd of onlookers soon became dense, though some still found room to dance and respond as the orishas were called, and many of those dancing swayed a mojito in one hand. A middle-aged black woman next to me was both dancing and selling CDs of the rumba musicians for $10; I bought one. We were struck especially by the agility and consummate, spontaneous responsiveness of a nine- or ten-year-old boy to the rumba’s polyrhythms; his limbs reacted, with incredible energy and precision, to each new percussive inflection. Onlookers of all ages, especially children, watched from every side, and from windows, rooftops and balconies above. If the eye strayed from the musicians for a moment, it would meet one of Escalona’s mysterious phrases inscribed on a wall or some unusual object – a wheel, a bathtub – that had become part of the callejón’s collage. We stayed as long as we could – about 45 minutes – and then disengaged ourselves from the crowd to head for lunch. On our way out of the callejón we were besieged by children who wanted soap or pens; I felt very bad about not being willing to give up the one reliable pen in my shirt pocket, until Mitch offered to give the child who most seemed to want it one of his instead. One student in our group, Malakai, with his coffee complexion and fabulous, beaded dreadlocks and very friendly manner, was taken by those at the rumba as a local more than once.
A small group of us began walking in the direction we thought would get us back through Centro Habana to La Habana Vieja, where we knew we could find some inexpensive restaurants. How I wish we had not been so hungry, because each corner, each block, each crumbling façade of Old Havana intrigued me. I made eye contact with so many faces – of people buying and selling snacks, of people sitting in their doorways, of people working on their cars (many of those this Sunday) – but did not yet feel I could stop to talk nor that I had the confidence in Spanish to do so. I began to think then, though, that, in Havana as in India, one is unwise to look only at the surface. The surfaces of things in Havana are appealing and fascinating, to be sure, but beneath them appear to be even more interesting complexities and subtleties of human life, in a city that is trying always to get by and that the continuing Revolution urges beyond just surviving, always toward the realization of dreams.
We eventually emerged, after some unnecessary roundabout walking and looping, on the Prado, the famous tree-lined boulevard which that day was lined with artists selling colorful – again often pseudo-surrealist – paintings or picturesque watercolors. When finally we reached O’Reilly Street, we headed east and began looking for likely places to have lunch. Our group was large enough that it was difficult to come to some agreement. I think it was I who at that point consulted a guidebook to see if there were any paladares nearby. (A paladar is a small, often unadvertised family-run restaurant licensed by the government to serve a specified number of patrons, usually fewer than 20.) When we reached the first address of what was supposed to be the location of one, there was nothing that looked like a restaurant in sight. We asked a man who was standing by the door, and he motioned us up a dark staircase to a door on the first landing. A woman answered and invited us in. It was, in fact, a paladar and they proprietors were ready to serve us; that is, until we discovered that lunch was $15 per person, fixed price, too expensive for some in our group. We quickly left and when we reached the street, a jinetero latched onto us and quizzed us about how much we wanted to spend. After a couple of unsuitable stops, he led us to a café on one corner of O’Reilly. Lattice work half-walls separated the café from the street, which was alive with Sunday strollers and others just going about business. We were told that this café had been featured in Buena Vista Social Club, though I didn’t recall it from the two times I’d seen the film.
The food at the café was very tasty – I had a fried pork and rice dish – but very slow in coming; time enough for two Buccaneros, at least. We began to wonder about the usually slow service in restaurants, and one from our group speculated that those running the restaurants can’t afford to stock meat, so they retrieve it from local meat shops as they need it, according to what customers order. I wonder if this is the case. Certainly the time we waited would have been ample for a restaurant employee or jinetero to run out and buy meat from one of the corner stands we had seen on our walk to the café.
By the time we finished our lunch it was almost 4:00, and I had planned to see a program of Cuban animated films at 4:30. My destination was the cinema 23 y 12, at least a couple of miles away in Vedado. At the end of O’Reilly Street, just a block from the Plaza de Armás, I spotted a cocotaxi, an egg-shaped car painted yellow and orange, operating very much like auto rickshaws in India. This one was run by a woman who told me she could take me to 23 y 12 but that it would cost $5.00. This proved to be the best buy I made in Havana, for she rocketed through the backstreets in thrilling style, arguably the best driving I’ve ever experienced. I vaguely remember the street sign “Calle Neptune” for much of the way, lots of blue and mint green walls and a vendor of plastic toys, but the ride is mostly a blur. The only limit to my enjoyment was that I felt my bladder was about to burst (one too many Buccaneros) and I certainly did not want that to happen en route. It’s hard to convey how much every bump and spurt of speed kept me on the edge of my seat in more ways than one! To my relief, there were no lines at 23 y 12 and I quickly found the men’s room, with ten minutes to spare before showtime.
The program, one of several in the concurso de animados (animation competition), featured seven shorts and one feature-length film. The shorts were very short, some under one minute, none more than seven or eight minutes long. I didn’t find the animation especially unusual or innovative, though I am not up on the state of the art and whatever verbal component there was in each I’m afraid was lost on me. It was beginning to register with me that there was no reason, really, to expect English subtitles at any of the showings and there were none in this one. What I wanted to see was the feature, Más vampiros en la Habana (More Vampires in Havana), the sequel to what I’d heard was the hit of some years ago, Vampiros en la Habana. As far as I could make out, and from later conversation with Tamara, the films revolve around the fight for control of a secret formula that will allow vampires to flourish in the daylight. This sequel seemed to take the struggle back to the era of World War II, since the Nazis, the Soviets and the Americans all seemed to have a stake in securing the formula and deployed complicated plots and counterplots to that end. A likeable Cuban family man, who for some reason had the formula in his possession (was he the inventor?), was swept up in the intrigue. I could tell that the film was deft in its satire, politically and even at times sexually uninhibited, and it was amusing to see how the Americans were caricatured. Judging from the reactions of the audience, which was full of kids, the film is very funny, though most of the jokes, along with the magic formula, escaped me.
Immediately after Más vampiros ended, I rushed down La Rampa one block to the headquarters of ICAIC and the Charles Chaplin theatre, where I was to meet up with our group for an evening showing of the Argentinian film, Hoy y manana (Today and Tomorrow). By this time, Angela Dittrich, a facilitator from KU’s Office of Study Abroad and her supervisor had joined us. They were eager to see how the trip, the first to Cuba that KU had sponsored, was going for us. Tamara had requested that everyone in our group attend this showing, partly because she knew the director, Alejandro Chomski, and his previous work, though this was his first feature film, and partly because she had heard that the evening showings at the Chaplin theatre offered earphones for listening to simultaneous English translation. We had heard that there were only 50 headphone sets, so it was important to be there as soon as those with passes were admitted. To secure a headphone, we had to turn in our badges as security. The headphones were designed to fit over the top of the ear; mine did not fit snugly. In fact, my headphone proved to be a nuisance, since the simultaneous translation was erratic and unreliable; the translator alternated between direct translation and free paraphrase, with intermittent, inexplicable periods of silence. Fortunately, there were French subtitles, and by patching together the Spanish original, the English translation and the subtitles I caught most of the dialogue.
Hoy y manana centers (much of the time literally and suffocatingly) on a young woman in an urban setting, Paula, who is running out of options: she has no job, she is several months behind on her rent and utilities, she cannot even scrape together enough change to buy cat food and has to steal it. She tries one recourse after another, including her father, a doctor, who’s well off but reluctant to give her money. Eventually she turns to a friend who leads her into prostitution; successive encounters with repellent or abusive clients drive her further down, all in the course of one day and night. Throughout much of the film the hand-held camera is breathing down her back, won’t let her go; close-ups that at first induce sympathy soon become aggressive; she can’t escape the frame. The film harasses her through her downward spiral right up to the final shot, which shows her, from behind, running breathlessly to a bridge: freeze frame as she halts at the rail . . . about to jump?
In terms of technique, the filmmaking was stylish, remarkably assured for a first film: at times I thought the film cleverly negotiated the thin line between sympathy and sadism in its relation to the subject. The overall movement of the film seemed, though, to me to be toward rather predictable subjection, even humiliation, of the female protagonist: portrait of a woman’s victimization by a male director who, I suspected, was more complicit in the abuse of his subject than some in our group thought he was. Discussions after the film seemed to return to the question of whether or not the film presented anything like a feminist perspective, offsetting its clichéd representations of female exploitation with empathetic images of Paula’s desperate resourcefulness and her pride. The film may have sustained an ambivalence towards the subject, but I felt that in the end it had trapped her. Tamara and others in our group thought the director showed an unexpected degree of sympathy and respect for the subject’s integrity, and at least one student, Kelly or Carol, I think, took it as a very empathetic portrait of a woman under duress. Maybe I was being too analytical or focusing too much on the camerawork. The film must have something, since we continued to discuss it through our dinner, when we eventually found somewhere to eat.
Though La Rampa was humming, we found few restaurants open. We tried a couple of paladares that we found only by their address in the guidebook among the tree-lined, shadowy sidestreets of Vedado – in the dark the addresses were very hard to make out. Neither paladar we tried could accommodate our large group at that hour (about 10:00). Finally we found an open air café on the north side of La Rampa, where three musicians were playing “Guantanamera” and other predictable Cuban classics. Davin, Mitch and a couple of others from our group were already there. The menu was appealing and most of us – by then a party of about ten – ordered fish. We waited and waited, well over a half-hour, for some food to arrive. Then a very embarrassed server informed us that they were out of fish and not able to get any more (confirmation, perhaps, of our theory that meat is not secured until someone orders it), so we all switched to chicken, which in turn took its time arriving. (I recalled the Hotel Himalaya in Chennai last summer where seven or eight listless but still live chickens were delivered through the dining area to the kitchen.) I think it was about 11:30 when our meals at last were served and Celia, who had not ordered chicken, had to send hers back because it was inadequately prepared. After more than two hours in this ill-starred café, we continued down La Rampa toward our hotel.
To compensate for the café experience, four of us – Celia, Tamara, Steve and I – stopped off at Coppelia for ice cream. Coppelia is the immensely popular ice cream stand and park area directly across from the Yara cinema. Its popularity has increased since the release of Alea’s Strawberry and Chocolate, whose opening and penultimate scenes are shot there. The straight young man, David, and the gay man, Diego, first encounter each other in Coppelia, where strawberry and chocolate ice creams are associated with gay and straight, respectively. (For me, of course, there was also ironic pleasure in visiting Coppelia because of the name’s connection with the robotic-balletic offspring of Hoffmann’s Sandman.) Because of Coppelia’s popularity, there are usually two lines: a “peso” line for Cubans, which can be endless, and a “dollar” line for tourists, which moves quickly. Apparently we arrived late enough that there was no need for separate lines. That night not too many flavors were available, but those that were proved lighter than American ice cream though not as light as Italian ice; subtle, exquisite. For a $1.00 serving I received a blend of two flavors, one mango, I think, and the other flavored with almond: a superior nightcap!
Monday, December 8
Perhaps since we had been out fairly late the night before, I did not wake up quite as early, though I was still ready for breakfast before 8:00. I was extremely gratified by the fact that when I turned on the water for a shower it was not only warm but hot and had to be tempered with cold! They really had been working on repairing the boiler and restoring service! And that was the last element needed to make my hotel room, while spare and worn by American standards, as comfortable as I needed, and even more pleasant than most American chain motels I can afford, thanks mainly to the windows that could open into the morning or night air. I went all out for breakfast and tried an omelet, which required risking a few more instructions than my dos juevos of the previous day. Whether or not that worked, the omelet was perfect.
This day was to be our “free” day, at least until 4:00, when Tamara had urged those of us who were interested to meet at the Hotel Nacional for a press conference by an American film scholar and her Cuban colleagues regarding the U.S. release of Cuban documentaries on video. We had been scheduled to visit ICAIC, but that visit had to be rescheduled for Wednesday; too bad, because in retrospect, knowing now what we gleaned from that visit, it would have benefited us to have the information earlier in our stay. Still, I was eager to do some wandering on my own, so I decided to retrace, partly, yesterday’s steps and head from the Malecón down through Centro Habana to Old Havana. The walk took about forty-five minutes but it should have taken longer: I wish now I had stopped several times in Centro Habana and hung out. It was raining steadily, though, and I was focused on sidestepping puddles, mud and other pedestrians, trying to avoid poking any with my umbrella. I did manage some eye contact, some smiles and a few feeble “Buenos días”es. It was also warm and humid enough that I soon began to sweat. Nevertheless, my walk compounded my impressions of Centro Habana from the previous day: there was much of potential interest behind each doorway that I wished I had time to experience and the Spanish to help me explore it.
Since there were no other large blocks of free time in our schedule for the rest of the trip, I decided that I would use a few hours for seeking out souvenirs. The shop listed in my guidebook that most intrigued me was Casa del Abanico, on Calle Obispo. My book had reported that the shop had a large selection of hand-painted fans and that artists there would willingly decorate a fan with a design or inscription I chose. I found the shop with no trouble, its front window almost filled with a half-unfolded, outsized wooden fan and its name frosted on the glass in gold script. Inside, the shop was spacious, with the feel and light of a loft, the fans displayed in glass-fronted cases; there might have been about 70 or 80 on display, ranging in price from a few dollars to several hundred dollars, most hand–painted and many painted by the two Afro-Cuban women who sat at work tables about halfway to the back of the shop. A male shop worker was quick to approach me and very patient as I kept asking to see various fans from the locked cases. I soon decided that I would buy several, one for Ree that I wanted to have inscribed and one each for my sister, Mary, my sister-in-law, Mary, and my mom. I found a gorgeous one with a florid design on deep blue background that I thought was right for Ree and said I would like to have it inscribed. Then my nervous negotiations began.
I had written, with the aid of my Spanish dictionary a brief inscription, which I handed to one of the artists on a scrap of paper. She smiled and asked me what color she should use, so my grammar and spelling must have been acceptable. I suggested yellow and she began painstakingly writing with the tip of one of her array of fine brushes while I waited and selected the other fans. I was self-conscious and anxious about communicating something that delicate in my halting Spanish, and I’m sure I appeared somewhat flustered. In a few minutes, however, she showed me her work. The cursive writing was elegant but my hesitation conveyed to her that something was wrong with the color: the sun yellow was too bright for the other colors on the fan. I stupidly could not remember the word for “dark” so I had to fumble through my dictionary until it hit me: oscuro. She blended in some darker yellow or brown to create the appropriate tawny hue and carefully repainted her work, tracing over the inscription. I was very pleased. I picked out three other fans; one, which featured bright orange and green flowers had been painted by the other artist, who proudly told me it was “hers.”
From the fan shop I headed toward the corner of Obispo and Baratillo, where my book told me I would find the Casa de Café. Since the shop had no windows and the entrance was through large, colonial wooden doors, it took me a few minutes to spot it. There I bought a stock of two types of Cuban coffee, Cubita and Café Serrano, and, per my son Alec’s request, a handful of cigars, which I knew nothing about. Ree had prepared me for the price of a cigar in the moderate range, but even so I was surprised to see that $15 bought only three or four; I suspected that buying an entire box might not be within my budget and decided to wait to buy any more. I was also remembering that if, at the border, I wanted to be taken as a serious film researcher, I should not be carrying too many cigars. From Casa de Café I sought out lunch, which I found at the Café O’Reilly, a bar/café with the front open to the street. Its distinctive feature was a tightly winding, iron spiral staircase, that led to an upper level and the rest rooms. When I had finished my Cuban sandwich and, again, Buccanero, I visited the rest room mainly just to twist my way up and down the staircase.
Thus far in the trip, I had been concerned about not seeing enough films, so I had resolved, starting Sunday, to make at least two screenings a day. This afternoon I had planned to see a Costa-Gavras film, since a retrospective of his work was a main feature of the festival; supposedly he himself was there and had given a press conference on Sunday. I did not want to spend my time, however, re-viewing a film of his I had already seen, so that ruled out Missing, State of Siege, Music Box and Z, much as I admire those films, and his latest film, Amen, was not showing at a time and place I could make. His 1988 American film, Betrayed, was being shown at La Rampa cinema at 2:00, so I took a cocotaxi there and arrived just in time. True film aficionados, I’m sure, would find it laughable that I devoted two hours to watching a film that one can rent here in any video store, and in English rather than dubbed, stilted Spanish. But I had not seen the film and thought I would try it. For those who don’t know, the movie stars Tom Berenger and Debra Winger. Winger plays an undercover agent based in Chicago who infiltrates a white supremacist cell in the Midwestern plains (I think). As she is falling in love with a farmer (Berenger) and his family she is also compelled to discover the depths of his hatred and racism, into which he is indoctrinating his children. Not being able to understand much of the poorly dubbed dialogue, however, proved to be an advantage for once in that it forced me to focus on the visual narrative. Though the film is not in a class with Missing or Z, the filmmaker’s technique captured the creeping paranoia of the characters and worked toward that typical Costa-Gavras moment when the protagonist discovers both her complicity in evil and that evil’s overwhelming force. Incidentally, the La Rampa cinema itself turned out to be the trendiest of those I visited during the festival, featuring an espresso bar and restaurant next to an ICAIC poster and t-shirt stand, and a long rampway up to the theatre, along which were displayed large photos of the actresses of Jean Renoir’s films.
Betrayed ended just in time for me to meet Tamara and some others of our group at the Hotel Nacional for the press conference; in fact, we had time for a cortado just before that in a downstairs bar decorated with framed ICAIC posters (I was seeing them everywhere but never tiring of them). We learned at the press conference that Cuban Cinema Classics was making three anthologies of classic Cuban documentaries available in the United States on VHS and DVD for the first time. Though I did not have enough money to afford one of these (they were offered at a festival discount of $79 per volume), I vowed to order one after I got home (I haven’t yet). One of our students, Barrett, asked particularly insightful questions at the conference. As the session broke up, Tamara, Celia and I agreed to rendezvous with Steve for dinner at a cafeteria a few blocks west and then go on to see the evening showing of Roble de olor, a new Cuban film starring Jorge Perugorría of Strawberry and Chocolate fame, at the Payret cinema.
The cafeteria was on La Rampa, at the foot of the north end of the legendary Habana Libre hotel (formerly the Hilton). The lobby of this hotel, with its green marble, Fifties-modern globe chandeliers, winding staircase and huge Christmas tree made me feel, as my guidebook put it, like the hotel had been locked in a bizarre “time warp.” A few discreetly mounted plaques on the wall were the only signs that the building had figured in the Revolution (Castro had stayed in the Presidential Suite) and I think it was this hotel that Coppola tried to evoke in shooting the Havana sequence of The Godfather, Part 2. (He was prohibited by the U.S. from shooting on location, as was Robert Redford for his film Havana.) There is now a disco on the top (25th?) floor, which I didn’t see. The cafeteria itself was OK: I had a passable salad and a small Greek pizza, but the prices were surprisingly high.
We shared a taxi to the Payret, which, as I mentioned earlier, is directly across from the Capitolio. Again, the auditorium was immense, with at least 2,000 seats, I estimate, and obvious signs of faded luxury. Art Deco sculptures of the nine Muses flanked the screen; to my embarrassment, I couldn’t name the appropriate art for each Muse. In this case, the showing was the film’s premier at the festival, so the screening was preceded by brief speeches by the director, Rigoberto Lopez Pego, and a few of the actors (Jorge Perugorría not among them). Like most contemporary Cuban films, Roble de olor (Fragrant Scent) was a joint venture, this time backed by Cuba, Spain and France. Tamara suggested she sit between me and Steve so that she could translate key lines for us. Just before the film started to roll, she whispered: “The word is out: nightcaps at Coppelia.”
The film was a sprawling but often stilted historical epic, set in 19th century colonial Cuba, about a German speculator and a progressive Haitian shop owner who fall in love and begin to fulfill their dream of developing and operating a “utopian” (i.e., politically correct, multicultural) coffee plantation. The workers are to be treated fairly and paid decent wages; the progressive ethos of the plantation is figured in a plantation orchestra with the workers as musicians, led by a Haitian conductor with a propensity for Haydn. All is well until the proprietor’s racist, Eurocentric cousin and her tutor arrive from Germany and are shocked at the “enlightened” principles by which the plantation is run. She also suspects, when she hears the accomplished orchestra, that there is witchcraft afoot (after all, this is santería country and the musicians were black). Her envious scheming, along with power struggles between the French and Spanish that escaped my historical understanding, triggers a series of disasters that end in violence and, of course, the dissolution of the utopian dream: to be expected, since the director had advised us that the film was about just how difficult it is for people to live together! Much of the film seemed bloated and melodramatic; there was little of compelling interest that wasn’t predictable, the characters were wooden and the acting – including that of Perugorría, who appears a little pudgy – seemed awkward and presentational, or maybe it was just that they were constrained by the bolts and bolts of white cotton used for the costumes. As Woody Allen said of wheat in Love and Death, there was “white, white, nothing but white” (except for the yellow that was the female protagonist’s santería color). The film was exhaustingly pretty to look at, though, and with its PC slant and star attraction will probably gross millions of dollars. All of us were glad for something a little lighter, though also in shades of white, at Coppelia. So our “free” day came to a close.
Tuesday, December 9
We were to gather at 9:00 this morning to meet Estér and the bus. Several in our group were hard pressed to do this, since the number of people who were eating breakfast in the Hotel Vedado had increased dramatically over the last two days. Patrons were being admitted to the dining area only one or two at a time. When we finally gathered, there was some confusion about our itinerary. First on the list was Casa de las Americas, the main national center for the arts, but after that the plans seemed uncertain. We knew at some point we were to take in the forts, La Cabana and El Morro, though we weren’t sure when or how long that would take, or what was to follow that. At any rate, we set out for Casa de las Americas.
We were greeted their by an administrator of the center, who apologized for the fact that one of the exhibit halls had no lighting as a result of a power interruption. He invited us either to come back later or to see what we could of the center. We opted for the latter. What we could view was an extensive exhibition devoted to the life and work of the late Cuban photographer known as Korda ( Alberto Diaz). Though he had begun his career as a high fashion and commercial photographer, Korda is known and loved as the photographer of the Revolution. Among many famous images, he took the most often reproduced photograph of Che Guevara. But he also documented every aspect of the early days of the Revolution, most movingly the euphoria of the first few years. There were images of Castro and Che fishing, Castro skiing in the Soviet Union, Castro and Che trying to play golf, and Castro meeting Hemingway, not to mention the celebrated “Don Quijote de la Farola,” depicting a skinny, straw-hatted revolutionary nonchalantly straddling a lamppost high above a demonstrating crowd, smoking a cigar. (This image is now hanging in my living room.) Korda also photographed the lives of the guerilla fighters before Batista was overthrown. A particularly striking room was devoted to images of Che, including some grouped around a street corner sign marking the intersection of 23rd and 12th Streets, where the Socialist character of the Revolution had been proclaimed (the same corner where I had attended the animated films in the 23 y 12 cinema). There were also loving photos of Korda by his friends. Before leaving the Casa, we stopped in its gift shop, where some bought ICAIC videos, Korda posters and CDs. (I bought a Silvio Rodriguez CD, Rabo de nubes, that both Tamara and Estér had recommended to me; later I found a copy of his Mujeres. After we had seen a clip of Silvio in a segment of Suite Habana, Tamara had told me that he was “the Cuban Bob Dylan,” so naturally I wanted to hear more.)
I believe we went from Casa de las Americas to the Plaza de la Revolucion. We were there for only a quick stop, just long enough to photograph the huge steel image of Che, with the ubiquitous slogan, also in steel, “Hasta la victoria siempre,” the gigantic Cuban flag on the façade of the Ministry of the Interior and the Jose Martí monument that towers over the area. Mitch and I photographed each other with Che looking over our shoulder.
To get to our third stop of the morning, the forts known as El Morro and the Forteleza de San Carlos de la Cabana (or, simply, La Cabana), we had to pass under the Canal de Entrada (the canal entrance to Havana harbor) by way of a tunnel. As we approached the tunnel, it occurred to me that that tunnel passage was an apt metaphor for my “tunnel vision” experience of Havana so far. I had seen many intriguing sites and a few interesting films, I’d had satisfying food and some refreshing beers, I’d visited some unusual shops and I’d even made contact with a few Cubans. But I was becoming aware that we were experiencing Havana almost entirely from within the tourist economy, the tourist bubble. That experience can be so diverting and apparently rich that the parallel lives of most Cubans outside the tourist economy are virtually invisible and easy to ignore. One sign of that for me is that in six days in Havana I never paid for anything with pesos, which Cubans use, though less so than they did ten or even five years ago, but always with U.S. dollars and the change I received from those. Nor had I been able to have any conversations with Cubans other than service personnel, and even then I had only superficial exchanges. I had been leaving a dollar every morning on the pillow of my hotel bed for the maid whose name I learned was Lydia, and every evening I would return to find the bed neatly made and my bath towels always arranged on the bedspread in some artful design: a fan, a swan, two hearts. But I seemed unable to connect with the human behind the service she provided, or the human behind the restaurant waiter or the self-assured bartender at the Hotel Nacional who prepared my cortado.
Since this lack of connection had not been the case in India, I decided that the problem was twofold: first, I was constrained by the film schedule, since it really was important for me to go to as many screenings as our schedule allowed. After all, that’s why Missouri Southern had funded most of my trip, and I really did want to see new foreign films. Second, there was the language barrier. Though in India I had been cut off from those who spoke only Telugu, Tamil or Hindi, there were always plenty of Indians on hand, of all castes and classes, who spoke English. Here, my Spanish was just this side of totally ineffectual; it certainly couldn’t be relied upon for any level of meaningful exchange. I listened as closely as I could to conversations, for example, between Tamara and Estér, or between those in our group who were fluent and the Cubans they encountered, with great interest but greater envy and feelings of real deprivation. Indeed, I recalled that two of my Joplin friends had come away from Cuba having been asked to be godparents of a Cuban child – I was a far cry from that! Not that I necessarily wanted that honor, but it would have been gratifying to have gotten to know a Cuban family well enough to reach that level of communication and trust. I made myself a promise not to travel in a Spanish-speaking country again until my Spanish had improved and only when I would not be on such a demanding daily schedule.
To some extent, our visit to the forts backfired. Apparently our travel voucher covered the cost of entrance to the fort area, but not to either fort. Estér contested this with the gatekeepers at both El Morro and La Cabana, to no avail: they would not budge and we did not want to pay admissions at that point. So we contented ourselves with the limited access we had to the grounds. We were able to cross over several moats at La Cabana and to climb the rise above El Morro and look out over the battlements at the skyline of Havana across the canal. I learned that Che had made La Cabana his headquarters once he arrived in Havana in 1959. We saw neat pyramids of cannonballs reposing on the grass and, in back of El Morro, long grasses waving and a couple of 1950s cars parked along the road. A small fair or flea market outside El Morro offered cheap souvenirs, and I bought a coconut shell turtle, claves and two model cars, one made out of a Cristal can and a Model T Ford made out of highly varnished wood for my son, Dave, who swears by Ford trucks.
As we crossed the canal back into the city, opinions differed as to where to go next. Some of the students simply wanted to be let off the bus, to wander in Havana. Others wanted to tour the Partagás cigar factory. Daven was searching for a church he had heard of where he could find a priest connected with an AIDS hospice, since he had brought with him medical supplies to donate. (Estér seemed to insist that it would not be a problem if he did not find that particular priest, since the supplies could always be donated to the government, whose health care programs, she repeatedly insisted, provided for AIDS victims.) I had no strong preference, but knew that I was within an hour or so of needing lunch. Tamara suggested crossing the canal, this time by ferry, to a community on the other side called Regla, which Tamara had heard was a santería center. This sounded interesting to me, so we asked the bus driver to drop us at the quay where one boards the ferry and said we’d be back in an hour. Steve, Tamara and I passed through the security check (there had been a violent incident on the ferry sometime in the last year) and paid 10 cents for a ticket.
A short ferry ride brought us to the quay in Regla. We disembarked and began to walk toward what looked like the village, passing along the way a santería shrine to Yemaya, goddess of maternity and a patron saint of Regla. Regla is absolutely non-touristy: there is no sign at all of its catering to tourists in any way, or expecting them. We inquired where the main street was, only to be told we were on it. We saw no restaurants, only a few snack stands, and not too many people to talk to. We passed a small schoolroom that was partly open to the street; student books and workbooks were there, but no students at that time. Finally, as we were about to retrace our steps, I spotted what looked like a pastry stand on the opposite side of the street. As we approached, we saw that, like so many Cubans, the woman in charge of the stand was operating it out of her home; the stand, though facing the street, appeared to be at the back of her living room, which was furnished with vinyl upholstered chairs and decorated with an artificial Christmas tree and shiny New Year’s greetings. We bought a couple of the pastries she had to offer, a lemon bar and a Napoleon, which we washed down with orange drink she was selling. The pastries turned out to be scrumptious and we bought more; after all we consumed we still had change from $1.00. I had not picked it up, but Tamara told me that what the snack stand owner mainly wanted to talk about was her daughter, of whom she was very proud. I told her how delicious I thought the pastries were. Then we had to hurry back to the ferry to reach our bus within the appointed hour.
By that time, I decided I was ready to be on my own for a while. I wandered first back into Old Havana, just a few blocks away (or did the bus drop me somewhere near there?) I walked again through the congestion of Calle Obispo, which, for at least one block, was torn up by workers who were repaving it with concrete blocks in a carefully laid out pattern. I passed by a bird seller, who had set up 15 or 20 cages for canaries, parakeets, parrots and the like on a corner. My ear caught the enticingly romantic sounds of a violin and piano duet and I soon realized it was coming from the bar at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. I decided to stop in there for a lunch, so I could try some Havana rum at one of the places where Hemingway had enjoyed it. I ordered a Cuba libre and a sandwich but, to my disappointment, I had been seated only about two or three minutes when the musicians (a female violinist and her male accompanist), who had been playing salon music of sumptuous elegance, packed up and left an acoustic void that was soon filled by the sound of drills and jackhammers at a construction site across the street. So I did not linger there. Instead, I resolved to continue behaving like an American tourist and visit the Partagás cigar factory behind the Capitolio.
Since many of the Americans who make it to Cuba do visit a cigar factory, I will say little about it. A guided tour for a group of ten or fifteen there costs $10, and our guide was exceptionally congenial, well-informed and tolerant of the many questions he was asked. After watching for a few minutes the workers who are monitoring and sorting incoming bales of tobacco leaves in the basement, one is taken to the factory’s top floor, to watch the cigar rollers and the roller trainees in action. The smell of tobacco throughout the factory is pervasive and pungent, though to me not unpleasant or unbearable. I was impressed by the steady deliberation of the cigar rollers’ work and their apparently encyclopedic awareness of the minute particulars of tobacco leaves: another example of Cubans’ quiet competence. I’m quite sure the work ultimately is deadening and probably dangerous to their health, though most of the rollers seemed comfortable and content as we walked through. I was gratified to see a “reader” in action, as I had heard of the cigar factory readers in reviews of the recent Pulitzer Prize winning play by Nilo Cruz, Anna In the Tropics. The reader sits on a raised platform at one end of the rolling room and reads a selection that the workers have requested; I discovered soon that the reading is piped on speakers throughout the factory. In the morning, the reader reads the news and in the afternoon a novel chosen by the workers (a pulp romance/mystery on the afternoon I was there, not Anna Karenina, as in Cruz’ play); workers take turns as reader. I was also struck by how blunt and slow-to-catch-on the Americans in my tour group were: having been out of contact for a while with Americans, and especially louder American tourists who are prone to ask the same question several times, I found most of those in our group irritating. I found out later that they also try to buy, on the “sly,” the odd cigar from the rollers, which the rollers don’t mind their doing at all but which I found inappropriate and disrespectful, since there is always the possibility, admittedly faint, that workers might have trouble accounting for the product they sell “unofficially” to tourists. Nevertheless, I emerged from the tour wishing I knew enough about cigars to smoke them with true appreciation of their value, and I did buy a handful more at the factory store.
I have not mentioned that at this point in the trip I was becoming anxious about money. I had between $100 and $200 left in cash, enough, I figured, to last me the next two days, but not with much to spare. The Marazul travel agency’s information for tourists had asserted that one could cash traveler’s checks in Havana – though my Joplin colleagues and friends had said that they doubted that. I decided to go to the address of the bank they listed and try to cash about $120 worth. When I arrived at the address, there was no trace of the bank, which had moved to a new location a couple of miles away. Since it was after 3:00 pm, I decided it would not be worth the trek to that location, only to discover that the bank was closed for the day. I let it go and began walking west on 19th Street.
Estér had told me where in Vedado I might find the John Lennon park I had seen in Suite Habana, and since the park was only a few blocks from the 23 y12 cinema, where I wanted to catch a 4:30 screening, I walked in that direction. 19th Street is lined with beautiful old homes landscaped with lush vegetation, most of which have been converted to apartments or offices; it is a street that lives up to Vedado’s identity as the garden district, very reminiscent of streets in pleasant quarters of Baton Rouge or New Orleans. But even here people were out doing what they had to do: cleaning, working on their cars, carrying groceries from a large produce market that I passed. After walking about 20 blocks, I arrived at the intersection of 19th and Calle 4. My map told me to walk one block north, to 17th and one block west, and there he was: John Lennon seated on a park bench in the southeast corner of a one-block park, watching the world spinning round.
Pilgrims to the Lennon park often bring something for him: an oblation of Havana Club, some flowers, a poem or song. As I approached his park bench, I saw that earlier visitors had left a bouquet of glads and a sheaf of poems in a plastic bag. As one can see from my photos, the statue is uncannily lifelike, but it exudes an air of serenity and acceptance. Though it sounds silly to say it, the statue seems infinitely patient, as its real-life counterpart must not have been able to be. When one looks down, on the pavement just in front of the bench are the lyrics, in Spanish, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” that I had been thinking of since I’d viewed Suite Habana a few days before. I wanted to sit there a while, though there were other visitors. I asked some – they were Italians, I think – to take my picture, once and then once more to make sure. As I walked through the park, I found an area of pavement covered with drawings and graffiti, most notably Lennon’s saying, “Was is over, if you want it”: very inspiring and a resonant complement to my visit a decade ago to Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Then, after a few moments’ peace, I was thrust back into the buzz and hum of the traffic near 12th and 23rd.
This time at the 23 y 12 cinema I was to meet up with Tamara to view a program of Cuban documentary shorts. We were both interested in one that had been advertised as a sequel to the classic ten-minute film, Por la primera vez (For the First Time), recording the early days of mobile cinema when the Revolution brought movies to remote rural areas. There is little to match the magic that film captured, especially the expressions on the faces of those young and old across whose field of vision black and white images of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times are flickering “for the first time.” The sequel proved disappointing, however; it consisted of little more than follow-up interviews and reminiscences, forty some years later, of those who had been in those audiences or who had had something to do with showing the films, and it wasn’t much longer than the original. The film that most impressed me in the program was Domino! Domino!, which imaginatively chronicled the Cuban obsession with the game from seemingly every possible angle. The short deployed a contagious energy and an intriguing reflexive aspect, frequently simulating domino moves in its film technique and presentation (rhythmic montage, rectangular sections of the screen that snapped open, etc.) within a basically straightforward documentary approach (domino games, interviews with contestants in a national domino competition). Another short I enjoyed was a low-key documentary on the singer/songwriter Noel Nicola, whom I had never heard before. He happened to be in the audience that afternoon. I found his songs and personality so appealing that later I sought out a CD by him as well.
I hung around the area of 23 y 12 after the program of shorts, because the next program at that cinema continued the documentary concurso with two longer music documentaries, one on the pop rock group, Habana Abierta, and another on the Cuban singer, Bola de Nieve, clips of whom I’d seen in Fernando Pérez’ Life Is to Whistle. I was frustrated, though, at not finding any place to eat; all the restaurants in the area were full, including an Italian one that looked serviceable just a couple of doors down from ICAIC. A few minutes before the 7:00 screening I ran into Mitch, Daven and others from our group and we entered the theatre, which was already buzzing with excitement. It turns out that Habana Abierta is very popular, if not hot, at the moment, and many Cubans had come to see the hour-long film of them, made by, of all people, Jorge Perugorría (his directorial debut). He was there and made a brief speech before the film’s premier.
Habana Abierta was engaging though straightforward and simple in structure, mixing concert footage and fan interviews with informal shots, in and around Havana, of the group members, all male and distinctly multicultural. The “boys” in this more-mature-than-boy band were shown hanging out at the big Christ statue across the canal from the city or driving along the Malecón. They have an immediate appeal and sense of humor – kind of like the early Beatles in that regard – but also appear to be culturally and politically “with it.” Their songs blend traditional Afro-Cuban elements with reggae and contemporary rock, and the lyrics are catchy and topical, with titles like “Yo no tengo la culpa, mama” (“It’s not my fault, Mama’), “Máquina de amor” (“Love machine”), and “La Habana a todo color” (“Havana has all color”(?)). What was most exciting about the screening was that the audience knew all the songs and sang along with the film, interacting with the performers in an animated call-and-response, punctuating the lyrics with emphatic waves and hand gestures. It was lots of fun and the hour-long film was a big hit. Jorge Perugorría received numerous hugs and congratulations in the lobby afterwards. In fact, the experience was exhilarating and satisfying enough that we decided to leave it there and go for dinner. Mitch, Daven, one of our students, Sally, and I had a leisurely meal at a café on La Rampa about halfway back to our hotel, at an outdoor garden café called, I believe, El Conchoritto.
Wednesday, December 10
I opened my last, full day in the city with a full breakfast, including eggs, prepared with a wink from the cook, who knew me by now. (It’s a small but significant satisfaction to be able to eat a big breakfast when one knows one is going to walk it off in the course of the day.) This was also the day of our long-awaited meeting at ICAIC and, of course, my last day to catch any film screenings, since we would be leaving late in the morning on Thursday. Since I had a little extra time before our group was to gather and since the day was already warm and sunny, I decided to walk up to the Malecón, take some pictures of the waterfront and then stop for a cortado on the Hotel Nacional terrace. (It was on this outing that I was reprimanded by a police officer for photographing the Anti-Imperialist Monument.) While I was sipping the cortado, I saw Celia on the other side of the terrace and asked to join her for a few minutes. I expressed some concern about cashing travelers’ checks and she informed me that one could do that there in the hotel, at the hotel bank on the second floor just above the lobby. Not only could I do it, I was able to do it with little trouble or question, and I walked out of the hotel with enough extra cash that I would not have to worry about money for the remaining two days of the trip and still have enough for some souvenirs (thus far I had spent fairly little on those). On my way toward the street I noticed again the red circle and slash of the international sign for a prohibited activity: in this case, along the hotel drive, the prohibited activity was trumpet playing, or music performance in general: the red slash cut right through the stylized silhouette of a horn. In Cuba, then, music is almost everywhere.
At around 10:00 we arrived at ICAIC and were greeted by a staff person, who escorted us up several stories to a suite of offices and a large room that had been arranged for our reception. Chairs had been set in a large circle and the air conditioning was on full blast. Fortunately, we were served demitasses of hot coffee as we found our seats. The gentleman who spoke with us, through a translator, was Roberto Smith de Castro, whose ICAIC title is “Vice President of Exhibition.” Mr. Smith was open, frank, full in his responses to our many questions and very generous with his time. He began by informing us that ICAIC has no fixed budget for film production; instead, he said, “We try to find the budget for the films we want to make.” Today in Cuba that usually means interesting companies from other countries in co-production. In fact, most if not all of the feature films produced in Cuba each year are joint efforts with Spain, France, Germany, Italy or other countries; the lavish Roble de olor we had seen the other night, for example, was a joint production of Cuba, Spain and France. Some would argue that this has made the films perhaps less “Cuban,” at least in that they must be marketable to a wider, international audience and, indeed, many of the films produced in the last decade, Cuba’s economically pressed, so-called “Special Period” are glossier and obviously of more general appeal than those from ICAIC’s earlier decades. Nevertheless, Mr. Smith asserted that the stories in Cuban films still center on Cuba and are shot by Cuban directors; the challenge is to keep the films as Cuban as possible. He said that this year has been a good year, bringing with it the production of five feature films. They are hoping to produce five again next year. Incidentally, Mr. Smith noted that ICAIC’s directors receive their salaries as directors, not for making a particular film. Gutierrez Alea, for example, directed Strawberry and Chocolate for a salary of well under $10 per week .
When asked how ICAIC would feel about Cuban-U.S. co-production, Mr. Smith said that though Cuba would welcome it, there are currently barriers, formidable ones imposed by the American government. Prominent American directors, such as Robert Redford, Francis Ford Coppola, and more recently and memorably for the Cubans who met him, Steven Spielberg, have wanted to shoot in Cuba but, given the U.S. embargo, have been unable to; for films like The Godfather, Part 2 and Havana, they had to simulate Cuba. Mr. Smith acknowledged that ICAIC had benefited indirectly from American help, through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to help preserve ICAIC’s film archives. Mr. Smith was most eloquent in response to one of our last questions: what’s the biggest challenge ICAIC faces? In Cuba, he said, we are always after a “social dream (sueño), a collective dream. In the movie industry that dream has involved, first, continuing to make films in a world where it’s increasingly harder to find co-producers. When the theatres in Spain are full of American films, it’s difficult for Spanish producers to invest in Cuban productions. The dream is also to show films from everywhere in Cuba, since there are over 2,000 films of the approximately 3,000 made worldwide each year that Cubans don’t see. It takes money to exhibit them, and most Cubans pay only two pesos – about seven cents – to get into a cinema, so “we don’t recoup the costs of bringing in foreign films,” Mr. Smith said. Of course, one of the reasons the international film festival is so exciting is that Cubans, too, among the 500,000 spectators, get to see new movies from around the world. “But,” Mr. Smith added, somewhat poignantly, “we are still dreaming.” I thought: the dreams of the souls in Suite Habana, the dreams of John Lennon, the dreams of ICAIC … was I beginning to hear a theme?
Mr. Smith’s observations made me reflect on how much Cubans, while very much in the world and part of the world, are in some ways very isolated. I don’t say that simply because Cubans and U.S. citizens can have so little contact with each other. After all, people from all over the world visit Cuba; it’s only Americans who don’t. I also can’t comment on what Cubans see on television, since I did not watch TV while I was in Havana – none at all, though there was one in my hotel room. But after two or three days I began to miss, for example, newsstands. The adequately stocked international newsstand in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional was an eye-arresting exception: in fact, the only newspaper I saw everywhere for sale was Granma, pretty much a propaganda rag, and the magazines for sale in bookshops and at bookstalls were often long outdated issues. While there are numerous places to buy other reading material, there were huge gaps in what was available, not just from the U.S. but from the world, even in a larger bookshop like La Moderna Poesia. When I finally made it back to the bookstalls at the Plaza de Armas, I discovered a deadening uniformity of selection among them. I had no trouble securing internet access to my usual electronic news sources while I was in Cuba, but I wondered how easy such access is for Cubans, who spend much of their day just trying to get by. My impression is that in Cuba one would have to work, maybe more than a little and even more than one has to in Joplin, Missouri, to develop a viable global perspective. Yet, as I wrote earlier, I met few Cubans among the relatively few I did encounter who did not strike me as alert, aware and intelligent, and they are clearly ready to learn and critically assess more about the world than they may have been able to so far.
After ICAIC, and after my earlier infusion of a few more U.S. dollars, I was ready to shop for a while, picking up a few souvenirs I hadn’t thought I’d be able to afford: a cigar case for Alec, a brightly painted, bus-shaped box of dominos, some more ICAIC posters and t-shirts, a few more cigars, a book of Korda’s photographs of the Revolution, some black coral earrings for Ree. I enjoyed a relaxed lunch at La Mina café (the restaurant we had avoided on our first day) so I could watch people stroll by in Old Havana one last time and do some last strolling myself. Then at 2:00 it was time for me to meet our group at the University of Havana.
What our meeting would entail or who we would meet with at the university wasn’t clear. Though Estér had been told we would meet with someone, I had a feeling that the meeting we had was mostly improvised. Only a few from our group – besides me, Daven, Barrett, Steve and Tamara – showed up at the grand sweep of steps that marks the main entrance to campus. At the top of the steps looms the serene and, for want of a better word, compassionate figure of Alma Mater, welcoming students to the university. The steps have great significance for Cubans and for the Revolution, since revolutionary student demonstrations started there on more than one occasion. We were told that students had been “safe” from police action and arrest as long as they stayed on the steps, but that the minute their feet left the last stepped, their protection ended and the fire hoses were turned on them. We were able to spend about an hour in conversation with a senior faculty member, whose name I do not have, but who was on the social science faculty and, coincidentally, had been one of Estér’s professors. I quickly formed the impression that the academic careers of both students and faculty there are more rigorous and demanding than at many schools in the U.S., though, of course, I did not visit classes or review syllabi or programs of study. I was impressed that faculty are expected to be mentored – and reviewed – longer than I suspect is generally the case in the U.S. before they can, at last, attain the rank of senior professor. Still, job possibilities for university graduates do not appear rich: Estér had been fifth in her graduating class and had been selected to go on to tourism school and then work for Havantur, a job which she did exceptionally well but for which she was clearly overqualified.
We had planned to have a farewell that dinner at a paladar that Tamara had scouted out, the Heron Azul just a block or so from our hotel. Since that meant we would not be going to any evening screenings, I decided to catch a 4:30 screening at the Riviera cinema on La Rampa, which seemed to be showing mostly Italian films; in this case Il ritorno di Cagliostro, directed by Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco. I was intrigued by the name of Cagliostro in the title, since that magician, reputed to have animating powers over inanimate objects, particularly statues, figures incidentally in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales. The film, primarily in black and white, was overtly reflexive from the start: two Sicilian sculptors, who manufacture mediocre statuary, dream of founding a film company, Trinacria, that will rival the major Italian studio, Cinecitta, Sicilian style. They manage to secure the financial backing of the Church, mainly by convincing a prominent local cardinal to back their first feature, “Santa Rosalita,” a saint’s life. The brothers’ cinematic vision and competence seem just a notch below that of Ed Wood in Plan 9 from Outer Space, but that does not stop them from undertaking a string of films, each worse than the last. As a last resort, they hit on the idea of making a film about Cagliostro, and succeed in casting a dissolute American character actor, Errol Dougglas, in the lead (shades of My Favorite Year). Of course the project ends in disaster, but, as it does, the film takes a metatheatrical turn with an interruption by a dwarf narrator whose cane, swagger and authority evoke the spirit of Orson Welles. The dwarf, literally shifting the scene by “pulling” the equivalent of a wipe across the screen, reveals the “secret” behind the whole Trinacria fiasco: the sculptors were being used as a front for some mafia vengeance in which Lucky Luciano plays a key role. After a moralizing coda, the dwarf closes the film with an enigmatic “Who knows?”
The film was bizarre, at times archly so but also at times really funny. The film’s black and white tended toward the marble, gray and white tones of the settings and the sculptors’ studio, to create a sort of petrified, blanched out Big Night (the successful American comedy of a few years back about two Italians who attempt to open a gourmet restaurant in New Jersey), with the difference that the sculptors have no talent for making films or even the slightest knowledge of how to begin. The Church is caricatured throughout in a mode that mixes Fellini and Woody Allen (monks and fathers dancing in couples to 1930s night club music), though it’s Fellini without the buoyancy and flow, and the last half-hour becomes an homage not only to Orson Welles’ late career appearances as a ponderous on-screen narrator but, more pointedly, to David Lynch (see Mulholland Dr.), complete with the Lynch clichés of the opening curtain and the dwarf. In a predictable final twist of irony, the sculptor filmmakers are last seen as statues in a gallery where the dwarf narrator closes the film. In short, the film was not uninteresting but it was burdened by ironies working overtime.
After this screening it was time for me to head back to the hotel and join the group for the farewell dinner. I’m a little ashamed to say that it had taken me until this evening to have a meal in a paladar (though we had tried to do that a few times before). The Heron Azul had no trouble accommodating 20 of us, but to do so it had to seat eight of us in a “secret” dining room hidden behind a nondescript door. This room was lined with cabinets fully stocked with wines and liquors, but the snugly fitted door gave me the sensation of being hermetically sealed inside whenever it closed. The room really was not detectable from the rest of the dining area, where the others in our group sat. Our meal was fine (a type of fish I can’t recall), preceded by a Cuban “salad” tray of sliced carrots and other relishes and complemented by white wine (the only wine I had in Cuba). I don’t remember much about the meal because most of it was taken up by “unobtrusively” circulating film festival posters that we autographed for Tamara and her “study abroad” associates from KU. When the “secret” dining room filled with cigar smoke courtesy of members in our group who wanted to try some of the huge cigars they had acquired, several of us eventually left the chamber for the main dining room and dessert, a very fine flan. Of course, we took many “farewell” photos. Among the more photogenic was Alex, who had acquired a “planter’s” white cotton outfit and a Panama hat. Though it took some doing, our entire group managed to assemble on the steps of the Hotel Vedado for the final shots.
When we disbanded, the night was still young but our group members’ plans were uncertain. I found myself in the awkward position of not knowing quite what I wanted to do or with whom, especially since some had already set off for entertainments. Eventually I joined the group that had headed toward the Habana Libre hotel, though I was not inclined to pay for the elevator ride up to the disco and the cover charge once there, nor was I up for disco dancing. I did not want to go to a jazz or salsa club on my own. So, I contented myself with spending some time with them in the lobby before they went up, enjoying a Cuba libre, then going back to the hotel, where I would have stayed had I not checked my film festival bulletin one last time to see if anything was showing nearby. Sure enough, just two blocks down at La Rampa cinema there was to be an 11:30 showing of a British/Danish co-production, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, identified in my program as a comedy.
One reassuring aspect of a film festival as large as the Havana festival is that one will never be the only one in the audience for any screening, and, indeed, there were quite a few people there to see Wilbur. The film proved to be very fine, an understated, sensitive and unflinching comedy-drama about a quartet of protagonists, including two brothers who have “inherited” their deceased parents’ business, a dusty, toweringly overstocked but welcoming used bookshop in Glasgow. The responsible but caring brother, Harbour, must see not only to the shop but also to his desperately, comically suicidal brother, Wilbur. (In the film’s first half-hour, Wilbur, relentlessly inventive, tries six or seven times to end it all.) A woman, Mary (?), and her six-year-old daughter, Alice, enter the picture and relationships develop gently among them – and the bookshop, which itself grows in humanity as the film progresses. At a turning point in the film, Wilbur begins to realize reasons not to kill himself just as Harbour and the others must confront a disturbing reality about their future. I will not reveal what develops since this is one of the films screened at the festival that I think some American audiences are likely to have a chance to see. It is a testament to the film’s quiet, engaging power that I remained awake and engrossed in the film until it ended at 2:00 a.m.. (And that’s the truth, for those who have had to watch my drooping to sleep on the couch at 9:00 p.m. in front of mediocre video rentals!) I was also content to return to my room knowing I had seen almost as much of the festival as our schedule allowed: over the last five days I had been to nine screenings and seen seven feature films and numerous documentary shorts, many from Cuba itself.
Thursday, December 11
From the time I finished breakfast and packing my suitcases, I calculated that I had a little more than an hour left to spend in Havana before we would have to load up for the ride to the airport and our return to the U.S. I had brought with me ten eight-color packs of Crayolas, an equal number of Post-It pads and ten small bars of Dove soap, thinking that I would have had far more occasions than I had to give them away to kids I encountered. Now, on the last day of the trip, I still had them to give away and I really wanted to do that. One of our students suggested that I just walk south from our hotel a couple of blocks, find the block park there and hang out: she said I was sure to see some kids before long. So, I followed those instructions and, as soon as I reached the park, I spotted two groups of children, one boys and one girls, as well as a group of senior citizens practicing tai chi and other morning stretches. I sat down on a concrete wall with my backpack; the “park” was entirely paved, with only a few benches.
I started watching and saw that the boys were playing a form of scrub baseball, using a three-foot stick or slat as a bat. The girls were watching. An adult accompanied each group. When after a few moments, the girls got up to move, I followed them across the park, then introduced myself to the adult woman who accompanied them, who said she was their “teacher.” I introduced myself, said I was a teacher and asked if it would be all right if the girls could have the notepads and crayons. She assured me it would. Moreover, she wanted to introduce me to the boy’s teacher or “coach,” since there were enough supplies in my pack for both groups. The kids seemed glad to get what I’d brought. The boy’s coach, however, was intent on talking further with me and, after some pathetically fumbling Spanish from me and halting English from him, I became aware that he was asking me if I had any shirts (as in t-shirts) I could give away (to him). I remembered that in fact I did have a spare t-shirt, a Crop Walk shirt, in my room. He agreed to accompany me back to the hotel to retrieve the shirt. Apparently it was no problem for him to leave his baseball players for a few minutes!
Interestingly, as we approached the hotel he hung back and said he would wait there for me, across the street. This seemed to confirm what I had heard from Ree and others, that Cubans could be given a hard time if they attempted to enter tourist areas, with or without a valid reason. So I went to my room, picked up the shirt and put it in a Wal-Mart plastic bag, along with a spare pair of flip flops and some gum. When I handed the bag off to my new friend, he was appreciative and asked if I’d like him to come along with me. I said thank you, but that I would have to be leaving soon. Thus, in just under an hour on the last morning of my stay, I had had my first real encounter with Cubans who were not somehow connected with tourist sites or official stops on our itinerary. It was awkward, but felt good, and I was almost instantly sorry that I would not have a few more days in Havana. At last I was getting comfortable and loosening up so that I could explore the city on my own on a sunny day, and it was almost time to leave. Just a week, I told myself: one more week and I, my Spanish and my connections with Cubans would have improved incredibly! I don’t know how much that thought was fantasy, but I would have liked the chance to find out. It was essentially the same feeling I had had at the end of my first visit to India, and in both cases it was a rich, satisfying feeling, at least until I realized that to stay for even a couple of days more I would have to have had money.
Our departure from the hotel went smoothly and we arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our 3:30 flight. Tamara had collected enough money from those in our group to make up appropriate gifts for Estér and our bus driver as we said our goodbyes. Aside from a few moments of anxiety because Alex had lost his Cuban visa – the 3” by 2” card can easily flutter out of any passport – we checked in without trouble. Though I was worried because my luggage exceeded the 45-pound weight limit, no one said anything. Once we passed through security, we found there were some souvenir shops and a decent restaurant. I bought my one and only bottle of Havana Club rum, some chocolate and a few postcards of the John Lennon statue. A few of us decided to have one last lunch, a Cuban sandwich and a Buccanero. Much to my surprise, I encountered no hassles from U.S. Customs, though we heard that some paintings Alex was bringing back were temporarily seized. I was simply asked, “How many cigars do you have?” and I responded, “Thirteen.” That was it. By the time we reached Atlanta, I knew I would not want to drive home from Kansas City that night, so I phoned Ree and then the White Haven Motor Lodge, asking them to reserve a room. They said it was cold and snowing there but, since I would be arriving very late, they would “hide” a room key for me under one of their snow-covered ornamental bushes, decorated with Christmas lights (just like home). I knew then it was time to dig out my overcoat for my return to the Missouri winter, when just that morning I had been sweating in the neighborhood parks and squares of Vedado, where the Cubans were beginning to put up New Year’s decorations. New Year’s Day, of course, ever since 1959, is also the anniversary of the Revolution.
* * *
Now, two months after my return from Cuba, upon reflection and having spoken again with colleagues and friends who have been to Cuba – and reading the rich and, as far as I can tell, precisely accurate Trading with the Enemy, Tom Miller’s account of his time in Cuba – I find that my few days there very much duplicated the experiences of those who visit and are trapped in the tourist “tunnel,” making contact only briefly and intermittently with Cubans outside the tourist economy. I wish it had not been so much that way and, should I be lucky enough to return someday, I will do my utmost to see that it is not that way. Still, there are ways in which my brief visit was revealing, affirming, transformative. Though in terms of externals – activities, sites visited, restaurants and cultural events – my six and one-half days in Havana were hardly unique, I experienced much that was new for me. I found that even my feeble Spanish could elicit a friendly response from native speakers. I drank a passable new beer and savored an espresso coffee drink that was better, to my taste, than any I’ve had anywhere in the world. I saw a range of films most Americans are not fortunate enough to see and saw them, moreover, in a stimulating international context. In nearly the oldest if not the oldest city in the hemisphere, I had found and wound my way through the labyrinth of Centro Habana, where each chipping away of a colonial façade revealed a redoubtable liveliness within. I found that U.S. dollars, absurdly, can buy anything in a country with which the United States has no official relations or business, and came to dread the day, which may come sooner rather than later, when the presence of unbounded American capitalism in Cuba may again make incursions into Cuban culture far more damaging than the current omnipresence of greenback currency. More precisely, I saw and respected the resourcefulness and resiliency of the Habañeros, but feared for their fragility in the face of the economic tsunami that could swamp them, rushing over the Malecón, when Wal-Mart and McDonalds finally decide to bypass the Miami lobby and set up shop in Cuba. I sensed what it means to think of revolution not merely as a one-time, violent disruption, a clean-cut and ideologically “pure” transfer of political power, but rather as a continuing process that, with all its compromises, disappointments and setbacks, its bureaucratic hassles, its periodic challenges to human rights, still at some level inspires a people whose sense of pride and independence is palpable. “We are still in the Revolution,” we heard Cubans say. I discovered, even if only in fleeting glimpses, flourishes of human and natural beauty amid formidable life struggles. Finally, while I can easily repeat the cliché that Cuba seems a fine place to visit but that I wouldn’t want to live there, I must also add that a week there helped me, more deeply, to realize something of what it means to affirm that “you may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”