Thursday, September 30, 2010

pool talk

Today after dance at ISA we went to the pool of a hotel nearby. Yet another way to exploit my white foreign privilege here in Cuba. As a foreigner, no one thinks twice if they see you in a hotel. They assume you're a guest.

So we waltzed into this ritzy hotel like we owned the place. And had absolutely no trouble. I stayed at the pool with Allison, the dance grad student from NYU, for a good four hours.

It was a beautiful pool, two-tiered, with a water fall, and made with different shades of blue tile. We were the only people there for most of the afternoon.

Allison and I agreed it was surreal. We were basking in the sun by this beautiful pool, palm trees waving in the breeze, with men asking us what we wanted to drink. And outside was the rest of Cuba.

According to Allison, Cubans weren't even allowed into hotels until 2007.

This is such a complex place; all these different realities competing with each other. There's the reality the tourists see when they stay at the hotels and eat at tourist restaurants in Old Havana. There's the reality of reality of black Cubans. There's the reality of white Cubans. There's the reality of us students, which is some twisted view between tourist and student and American. It's as if every time you turn your head, you find yourself looking at Cuba in a different way. There are so many sides to this coin--so many that I've barely even scratched the surface.

My brother sent me an article from Harper's Magazine, written by a journalist who comes to live in Cuba for 30 days. His mission is to spend only the salary of a Cuban journalist ($15) the wages of an "official intellectual." His article is called "Thirty Days as a Cuban: Pinching pesos and dropping pounds in Havana."

When he goes to the neighborhood bodegas where Cubans get their food rations, they tell him no. Of course he can't buy from them. He's foreign. But within minutes he's buying from them. You can always find two sides. The official, and the actual.

Nothing is exactly what it seems like on the surface. Take the car I rode in last week. A perfect metaphor for Cuba. It's a '54 Buick "with a Peking motor, a Russian transmission, and a differential from a tractor."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

downward dog

I'm testing the wifi at ISA. It's free, but terrible. So far anything that involves logging in has failed. Including email and facebook. And when there's a bunch of other kids here it takes about 10 minutes to load the nytimes.

A dog just trotted in to school casually (not unusual). It yawned and then stretched its front feet into a perfect....downward dog. I've finally seen a dog doing downward dog. My day is a success.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

trip to Matanzas

My trip to Matanzas was an adventure.

Our group took two micros to Matanzas, which is less than two hours from Havana. There's a new museum there called the El Museo del Ruta del Esclavo, or the Museum of the Slave Route. Anyway, it's located in this fortification that was constructed to guard the port, and then eventually became a prison.

The exhibit was nice. They had some artifacts from the governor's residence (the location of the museum, safe inside the walls of the fort) including some pottery and things like that. The next room had a collection of models of the African gods, or how they are represented in Afro-cuban dance. They had a lot of cool drums and the outfits were really interesting. Each god pertains to some theme, and the dress somehow reflects that.

After going through the exhibit we got a tour of the fort. The dungeons were pretty dark and scary. I can't imagine being a prisoner there. They said it was used until 1980 or so. I'm curious what kind of prisoners were put there. Maybe political ones? I wouldn't put it past them.

Then a group of kids came and showed us a presentation of African dance. It was crazy seeing these little kids, some looked as young as 4 or 5, doing all the moves so fluidly. They did most of the moves that we've been learning at ISA in our folkloric dance class. If only we had been born Cuban. Then we would've been moving like that our whole lives.

After the amazing show we drove to Varadero, a town nearby that has the most beautiful beaches. The water was so clear and light blue. It was the most beautiful beach. The water was just the right temperature, but really salty. And the air was breezy and warm. So nice! And the chocolate ice cream cone for fifty cents. Perfect.

We left the beach and I got dropped off in Matanzas again, to meet up with Alejandro. I had the phone number of his friend Ariel, and was going to call and get directions to Ariel's house. We met up soon after, and Ariel made dinner for us. He was such a good cook. And he has this really great apartment--it's New York small, but so functional. Everything has its place, very neat and tidy. But so loud! It's on a corner on the busiest street in town. The traffic was so loud that it sounded like I was outside on the street. When we woke up I put in ear plugs to try and sleep more and it was still a dull roar.

Anyway, we had a fun night. We went out to a gay club and danced literally until 4 when the place closed. This is totally normal, too. Everyone stayed until it closed. There was supposed to be a singer that night, but their car broke down. Instead, terrible karaoke arrangements. Imagine the worst MIDI you've ever heard, and then add terrible off-key singers. All at ear-blasting volume.

We woke up and Ariel cooked an amazing lunch. He uses this crock-pot to cook chicken, and it was the richest tasting thing I've ever had. Cooked with the skin on, so that's what gives it all the fat and flavor. I forgot to mention the most amazing flan we had the night before. Gosh, I ate so well in Matanzas.

Getting back to Havana proved to be the adventurous part of the adventure. Normally buses stop on the side of the road, so we waited and waited. An hour passed, and no luck. So we went to the bus station. Next bus is in two hours. So we waited and waited. Not enough seats on the bus. Walked back to the hitch-hike location. Waited another hour. Finally someone stopped. At this point it was 9:15 and we had been waiting four hours!!!

So we got a ride back to Havana in this Land Rover that had two benches in the back where we sat facing each other. I felt like I was some sort of outlaw, flying through the night in back of this truck with 8 other people. Up and down, bumpety-bumpety. For almost two hours on this little bench. But it was exciting as hell.

We got a deal on the ride. We paid 5 CUC for both of us. Everyone else paid 5 each. The driver told us to pay after everyone else so the others wouldn't know. Alejandro scribbled me a note saying not to speak English because they might try to get more money out of me. So I was silent.

We called the house before we left to tell them to save me some dinner. So when I got back at 11:15, exhausted and hungry, I was SO happy to get fed. The security guard in the back of the house heated up my dinner, and everything was delicious and he was so nice to serve me. It was nice to be home.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

pianos and penance

Today we had our third dance class at ISA. (We now go Monday, Wednesday, Thursday). It went really well--we had a different professor because our usual one couldn't make it, and he took extra time after class to teach all the foreign students the steps and movements in detail. He even spoke English!

By the way, it's been interesting taking dance in Spanish. I'm finally beginning to mentally sort out the difference between front and back, which I always get confused. Also, the names of various body parts are becoming more familiar. But most importantly, you don't really need to talk to dance. You can just watch, and learn. Which is what a lot of our class is. The teacher does the step, we learn it as fast as we can, then we go across the floor doing it. If it's complicated and people don't get it on the first try, maybe she'll slow it down and demonstrate the steps. But mostly it's fast and there's just enough time to figure something out before it's your turn. The other students are really good, so it's best to watch them practicing. Or sometimes they'll be really sweet and explain it to me. Over all, I feel really supported--which is no small feat considering this is the first time I've ever taken African dance. So it's all new--language, movements, people.

After class I went over to the music building and finally, FINALLY, played a piano. It was the first time since early-mid August and BOY was it about time. Most of the practice rooms have those work-horse Yamaha upright pianos, and most of them are kind of newish looking i.e. shiny--but you wouldn't call them new once you've heard them. I tried a few different ones. Most have their share of problems--sticking notes, notes so out of tune they sounded like the next note up, things like that. One piano didn't have any hammers. I started pressing keys and to my surprise, none of them worked. Upon opening the thing up I realized that there were no hammers striking the strings. Maybe getting new ones? Regardless, for all the complaining I've done, a piano is a piano is a piano. And it's nice to finally play one again.

There was a huge storm while I was at ISA, and it didn't stop raining for maybe an hour. And it was raining HARD, raining buckets. They have free wifi for the students down in the main lobby area. Which, by the way, is totally open, no doors. There's this huge L-shaped terrace out back where people hang out and practice their instruments outside. Or people are huddled over their laptops using the wifi. I tried it out, but you have to sign up for it or something, and the guy who does that wasn't there. Go figure. Whenever you need someone in Cuba, they've already left or didn't come in today. You can count on it. So when you do get what you're looking for, it's a real accomplishment!

The cab ride home was funny. First I met a guy from Miami while we were both trying to hail a taxi. Finally we found one going to Vedado (we were on the wrong side of the road apparently, even though I caught one yesterday going the other dirrection). I was sitting up front and center, right next to the driver. My knee kept bumping into the shift lever. Remember that old cars had bench seats in front, 3 folks in front! Anyway, he started talking to me and when I told him I was from the states he said "The enemy! I should leave you here!" and he started pulling over. Very funny. Everyone was laughing. So then he launched into his US talking points, which I couldn't really follow because his accent was really thick. Cab guys are usually hard to understand, in general. He said I was the reason he was driving this piece of shit car from 1954 and then declared that the only good thing from the US is the movies. By the way, his piece of shit car: a 1954 Buick with a "British engine by Peking, a Russian transmission, and a rear differential from a tractor." Nice. So that's how they get them to run! Swapping parts from tractors and random cars. How they get it to all work together, I'm amazed. Anyway, I will remember the ride for the many jokes he made at my expense. They all laughed. But I couldn't understand, so...I smiled knowingly. I suppose I'm just doing penance for a couple hundred years worth of US sin.

Monday, September 20, 2010

dance classes at ISA

I love ISA.

The group consensus was that our first dance class at the ISA was a success--and that it was the best decision we've made so far in Cuba.

The setting is the former Cuban country club, a resort for the Havana's elite. As part of the transformation following the revolution, fancy private buildings were converted to serve the people instead. We touched on this aspect of Cuba's urban development in my art history class today. So anyway, it's a sort of tropical paradise with big rolling hills of green grass with a few palm trees blowing in the breeze.

We were thrown into a dance class without any expectations--all we knew was that supposedly cuban folkloric dance. The class was definitely following the afro-cuban tradition, and I've never taken African dance before, so it was all new and humbling. A lot of complex footwork (which I've sort of got a handle on, I think thanks to taking tap all those years) plus arms all over the place and all the while you're pumping your chest. In fact, we practiced this chest pump for the last 15 minutes or so of class--against the wall first and then on the floor.

The music was amazing. There were three guys drumming and a big lady with this beautiful, resonant voice. She would sing, the class would sing back to her. Everyone else knew the words. So we've got to get on that.

Before class I went to try and find a free practice room with piano...but they were all full, of course. I'm just itching to get to a piano. God, it's been so long.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that we have transportation provided to our dance classes. Such a luxury to be driven to your class. We took the bus back, which took about half an hour. Not so bad, and it's dirt cheap, basically pennies. You can also take a máquina back.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

el "parásito"

This week I've been "recovering" from my parasite. I'm still not convinced it's cleansed from my system, as it's kind of a crap shoot as to whether I'll have gastrointestinal woes (sorry for the bad pun).

I've been taking 1000 mg per day of Metronidazol, plus folic acid. And I've been drinking as much yogurt as I can (it sold out at the grocery store down the street a couple days ago, so I had to go to the fancy supermarket in Miramar).

The hard part has been the diet. No products with sugar. So I haven't been eating vegetables or fruits for a week, and it's really hard. Even harder is coping with my sweet tooth, which is reminding me of its existence every time they bring out a delicious dessert at dinner. Actually I'm reminded of my sweet tooth every waking minute.

My mind has started some sort of coping mechanism where all I can think about is food, and home. I'm pretty surprised by the kind of food-memories it's conjuring up spontaneously when I least expect it. And I'm not just fantasizing about my favorite home-cooked meals and favorite cookie recipes (although that makes up a large part of it). My body is telling me over and over: pizza, snickers bars, big juicy hamburgers with barbecue sauce, greasy onion rings...These are things that I eat rarely, I would say. But right now it's all my little body wants.

I haven't been perfect following my diet this week, and maybe I'm starting to have some sympathy for people who go on diets or who are diabetic. Basically, it sucks not eating sugar. The second day I broke down with the rice pudding at dinner (it was so good, worth it). Twice I was going so crazy for sweets in my room that I ate the secret ration of fun-size dark chocolate mint milky way bars (who knew milky way bars were what I would crave here).

Now my junk-food complex is manifesting itself in planning for the future, i.e. when I can eat these delicious sugar-laden morsels again. I went to the supermarket in Miramar (the "embassy" grocery store because it used to be frequented by ambassadors and I imagine it still is). They had exotic items such as: apples, peanut butter (made in USA), strawberry jelly, soy milk, chocolate bars, spices, chips, canned fruits and vegetables, flour, cake mixes...I bought the ingredients for my favorite, "oatmeal school cookies," except we couldn't find whole wheat flour (obviously not a surprise) or baking powder (big surprise). Apparently people don't bake things in Cuba. Other big realization of the day: there is no real milk here, only the powdered kind. As soon as I wrenched open the peanut butter when I got home, my mind immediately flew to that trusty peanut butter companion: milk. Oh how I miss my Snowville Creamery.

I find it a little ironic that since Cubans are so obsessed with brand names in their clothes (anything with a logo will sell here, actually the more ostentatious, the better) yet when it comes to food, brand names are almost nonexistent. They don't have selection here, so why give it a name that differentiates this product from the next product? Because there is no other product to compete with. There's only ONE kind of mustard here. You only get one choice. You can have any color as long as it's black.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Buena Vista take three

I finally saw the Buena Vista Social Club. Except it wasn't the Buena Vista Social Club. It was El Grupo de Compay Segundo, the man who fronted the band but then died a couple years after the group's international success. Two of Compay's son's are in the group: the bass player and the lead back-up vocals guy. The lead singer and the tres player were both in Buena Vista, which they of course didn't fail to mention. They did, after all, win Grammy's.

Whatever they're called, whoever it was--they were amazing. Exceptionally talented, all of them.

The experience itself was a little bizarre. They told me to show up at 8:30 to get my tickets, so like I good little boy I showed up on time and got a good table near the middle. But then it slowly dawned on me that I had been duped and I proceeded to wait an hour and a half for the show to start. Here I was, in the "1930 Salón" of the Hotel Nacional, surrounded by middle-aged tourists necking over their dinner of smoked salmon and filet mignon. And me, with my doctor's orders of no alcohol, no sugar, sipping my black espresso and pretending to be fascinated by the dinner menu. So I was not in the best mood. But the music certainly changed that.

They played a couple songs from the Buena Vista repertoire--Dos Gardeñas, Camino por la Vereda, Chan Chan. The rest were new to me, and all good as far as I was concerned.

I recorded all but a few on my iPod, which cut out a couple times and mysteriously showed no battery, only to show happy green battery when I arrived home. But I did manage to catch the dancing couple who accompanied them on my camera. I made a video and spent all of today editing it (since the camera's microphone is shitty I synced up the iPod recording with the digital camera's video, but it was incredibly painstaking). Hopefully I'll be able to upload parts of it, eventually. The whole thing was too big to upload with Cuba's bandwidth.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ISA registration

We just signed up for classes at ISA, the conservatory. There are 7 of us taking classes there, so we drove together in one of the mercedes vans that they take us in everywhere. Our driver got confused and we got lost, but eventually we got there after like 45 minutes or so. It's in Playa, which is a suburb that's still considered Havana as far as I can tell. Same one as the hospital where I went Monday.

When we first got there, I chuckled a little bit because it's obviously an old hotel/resort that they've converted into administration. So imagine going into a hotel and climbing to the second floor to find your room. Except your room is the office of such and such. I found it amusing.

We talked with the lady whose door said "international studies" or something like that. At first she gravely told us that it would be difficult to schedule dance classes and the percussion classes were all full. Some of us didn't take the news well. But then one of the dance professors arrived and told us the schedule. Mon-Wed-Thurs 11:45-1:30. It aligns with all four of our schedules, miraculously.

The dance coordinator took us to meet the students we will be taking class with, who are second year students. We walked over to the place I think we'll have class, and it's this round room with a raised wooden floor, pretty interesting looking. It has four beams holding up the roof, so not an ideal dance studio but it must work fine. There were three drummers getting ready for class, and their warmup instantly made me want to dance.

We also met a really lovely girl who will be taking class with us, named Allison. She's studying dance education at NYU--I think it's a masters program. There's also a family from Iceland who moved here for the year and the whole family is taking classes at ISA. I felt a little sorry for them because they don't really speak Spanish and I could tell that the heat was getting to them (one environmental extreme to the other, and they had only been here 3 days).

I asked the lady from the office about taking jazz piano, and she knowingly smiled and confirmed my suspicion that they don't teach jazz at ISA. This still boggles my mind. But maybe it has something to do with funding/space. I looked around and found some music studios--it's all really haphazardly spaced around the place, as it was a hotel. The practice rooms were full except one, which had an upright Kawaii piano. The lady told me that they're usually full. Of course they are. It looked like one hallway of rooms for a whole conservatory. There must be more somewhere around the campus.

For a moment I was tempted to take music as well as dance, but when and where would I practice? I haven't found any pianos in Vedado yet, and I couldn't just go to ISA every time I want to practice. Could you imagine? It just seems like a big hassle. And again, it wouldn't really be worth it to me unless I could study latin jazz. It's a shame. My fingers are really itching to play.

Monday, September 13, 2010

trip to the doctor

Just got back from my trip to the doctor, due to the continued digestive problems.

I first took a máquina (cab) but he took me too far, so he dropped me off and told me to get a cab back the way we had just come. I asked a nice lady how I could get to the clinic, and she helped me get into a maquina going the other direction. It was a '74 VW beetle (I asked what year). The last time I rode in a VW beetle was the one we had when I was little, so that was a neat little trip down memory lane. I even remembered the smell that VW had.

Anyway, he took me directly to the hospital so he charged me 1 CUC rather than the 10 pesos cubanos it should've cost. He wanted to wait for me and then take me home to get more money from me but I politely refused.

The hospital was a little confusing at first. Go here. No, go there. Talk to that person. Finally I found some nice people who helped me, and within 10 minutes I was talking to a doctor, having a bizarre conversation about diarrhea in Spanish. He said it sounded like I have an intestinal parasite or amoeba and that he needed a stool sample to verify.

After a very awkward time in the bathroom, and a very awkward exchange of said sample, I waited another 15 minutes in the lobby. The doctor said that it had come back negative for parasites, but since only 35-40% of parasites are normally present in feces, he said he would treat me as if I did have one. I certainly feel like that's the right diagnosis, so I said ok.

Then I went through the hoops again to get my medicine. The pharmacy in the hospital has all these glass cabinets with medicine displayed. Really bizarre, just like in stores with their glass displays usually sparsely populated with inventory. They gave me a form at the pharmacy that I needed to get to the finance people, so I went back and forth and finished the paperwork. My health insurance card for Cuba did the trick. I think the whole visit was like 32 dollars.

The hospital itself was one that I think is mostly for tourists or diplomats. It was not a crowded public hospital. One thing I like about it is the nurses. They still wear flattering white nurse uniforms, complete with pillbox hats. Other than that, it was very normal, modern hospital.

My treatment:
Antibiotics (I think that's what it says, but the box is Spanish)
Folic acid
Rehydration tablets
No milk
No products that contain sugar, including fruits vegetables and beans (bananas ok)
Drink plain yogurt 3 times a day
He also said not to eat food on the street, especially if the conditions look bad (basically eliminates all street food)

After my embarrassing cab journey to the hospital, the one back was very smooth and cheap. Now I need to find yogurt (requires a trip to the special grocery store far away) and buy some tupperware so I can save dinner leftovers. I'm sad that I was told by a doctor not to be buying food on the street. It's so cheap and easy. Now I'll have to be more thoughtful about the quality...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Buena Vista take two

september 11

Our number dwindled to two--the two diehards of the Buena Vista Social Club who were not deterred by last weeks cancellation or the 25CUC price tag. But my friend Ingrid and I finally made it to the Hotel Nacional after an exhausting day.

First we had gone to el campo--the countryside, nearish to Havana--to visit a farm. Little did we know when we left at what seemed like the crack of dawn--7am--that we would be picking guayabas and marching through the red dirt. The same red dirt that got everywhere. Shoes, legs, hands, clothes...And most of us were wearing our birkenstocks and shorts. I felt like a total ninny next to the veteran trabajadores (all women) who were wearing heavy cotton shirts with long sleeves. Not to mention their rubber boots. Such a gringo I am.

I was grumpy considering my stomach ache and the remnants of my exhaustion the day before. I'm still having digestive problems and not feeling myself. But the trip to the farm was the perfect "I'm-glad-I-don't-have-to-do-this-every-day"-experience. And of course it helped contextualize life in Havana, the big city.

They made us a light lunch, which for Cubans means a vast array of fruit, plus juice, plus hamburgers, plus about 15 coconuts that they cut open for us. That's right, fresh coconut water. Felt like just the right thing for a sick boy.

One thing I learned is that the food that the US does export to Cuba, which is a limited amount, has to be paid for in cash by the Cuban government. No "I'll-pay-you-back-in-2-years"-policy. Needless to say, this makes things difficult.

After coming back to the house, we had to head straight for our first dance class. Now, I should explain first that classes at the conservatory, ISA, don't start until October. But we've met a member of the modern dance company that we saw perform, and he's agreed to give us lessons--6CUC a class. Kind of steep, but supposedly a discount when considering his normal hourly rate of 10CUC.

Herlandís, our teacher, is really sweet and pretty young. He's really strong looking. The class was supposed to be "contemporary" as opposed to folkloric. We soon realized that we were in for a surprise.

What we did was a nearly two hour warm-up. We stretched and stretched. We did pliés, tendus, and some crazy gran pliés at the barr with one foot resting up on the barr and the other pliéing to the floor in a forced arch. It was easily the most intense stretch session of my life. I remember thinking, "I don't remember my legs ever stretching this far apart."

I could feel my poor body saying "no!" "no!" every time he came around and pushed us into super deep stretches, usually in some position that felt odd and contorted. We were all totally out of shape, not having taken dance for months. And here we were pushing beyond the normal limits, beyond where we would be if we were already in shape! Into forbidden territory as far as Sarah Lawrence dance is concerned. I'm not saying it's bad to "challenge" yourself but when challenge borders on injury, that's too far.

I wasn't expecting feel-good Sarah Lawrence vibes, don't get me wrong. I have a feeling I'm going to work hard here as a dancer, and probably will get stronger as a result. Good for me! But I need to be extremely careful I don't fuck my back or my knees up in the process. For example, my neck right now has a limited range of motion. I sat under the hot water for 15 minutes in the shower and it's feeling better.

So, I need to respect my limits. Here's where this gets tricky. First, there's a language barrier. When my teacher is pushing on me and thinks its good for me, that's one thing. Another is when it really hurts and I have to say something but he doesn't get it and...I fail to communicate that I'm in a LOT of pain. So I guess that's the first thing I need to work on: learn how to say OUCH in Spanish.

The other thing is how to voice my concerns in a respectful way. We did a lot of stretches that are literally taboo at my school, and actually in all of my 16 years of dance training. Example: "Such and such is terrible for your knees, so really don't do that ever, but if you do, be extremely careful" Today we did such and such. Over and over again. But I can't say to my Cuban teacher "I'm not doing this because my teacher at home says its bad for you" because this basically means challenging his entire method of training. So can I abstain respectfully and not say anything about the exercise itself? I tried it a little bit today. But usually he'd just come over and help me do it properly (ie the terribly painful and anatomically dangerous way).

My feeling is that this all comes from the ballet philosophy. It's about lines and form and looking a certain way. Modern, at least in its current Sarah Lawrence incarnation, is about the individual--and using your body in an efficient, safe way.

Sorry to blab on about ONE dance class. Obviously you can see it made an impact on me. Tomorrow is folkloric dance. Hopefully less stretching and more moving around. But for now ibuprofen is my friend--will someone send me some more? I'm running out.

Finally, in my roundabout way, I've come to the part about the Buena Vista Social Club. I'll be short and to the point. It was cancelled, for lack of reservations. Apparently not enough tourists around this weekend to buy tickets. And tourists seem to be the only ones who know about these concerts. But the desk lady told us that they try every weekend. So I WILL see them. No matter what.

Third time's the charm.

Friday, September 10, 2010

icky sick

Woooooo free wifi at the melia cohiba hotel! It's party time, friday night, and I'm here at the hotel taking advantage of their broken wifi system (you don't have to have a password tonight to access, thus it's free!)

The very good pianist in the lounge here is playing very bad songs for tourists. Tonight's selections include: The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Moulan, and of course the requisite ditties by Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart...

Well, maybe I do have a soft spot for "Tale as old as time..."

Anyway, I've been feeling sick the past two days. Yesterday I got diarrhea and a fever. The fever went away today, but the gastrointestinal problems persisted. As of right now, my tummy feels delicate but otherwise I feel fine. I think it's probably some street food I ate or something in the water. It takes a while to fully adjust, and yesterday marked the 3rd week.

OK, now the pianist has been replaced, and complemented by a sax and some really bad recorded percussion. Sounds like another ballad. Oh boy.

Today we went to CEDEM (Centro de Estudios Demográficos) for our first lesson. We learned about the study of demographics, ie populations--and the different theories of population growth and how they've changed over time. There was more, but I wasn't feeling so well. Better look at the powerpoint again...

I left early in order to go to my history of cuban art class, which had been moved to Friday at 1:30 for the first week. Unfortunately, me and a French student were the only ones who showed up. But at least the professor was there, so we talked to her a bit and then left after 20 minutes. She seems pleasant, and more artsy than my other art history teacher. If all goes as planned, we'll have our first real class on Tuesday.

Oh gosh, the sound of badly compressed recorded beats. Please save me. I didn't know you could fuck up "The Girl from Ipanema"

ice cream everywhere

Yesterday I went to my first class. But it had been cancelled. I got there ten minutes early and then waited more than half an hour, but nobody showed up except for two Tulane students who I had met before. We waited together and finally went to the office and asked for the second time. This time they told us that the professor had gotten someone else to cover for her the first week, so the class would be taking place Friday at the same time. Bummer for me, since it's smack during my time at CEDEM which always happens on Fridays. So looks like I have to miss the first class.

Last night I went to the movie theatre for the first time. It was a huge theatre, with multiple sections and stadium style seating. The screen itself was the size that you would expect at a Sarah Lawrence film screening. Not a movie theatre. There was this yellow spot on the screen the whole time. Kind of added to the movie in a few places. The sound quality was good but echoey. It was weird because it kind of sounded like surround sound but also hollow. I really felt the directionality of the sound more than I did in normal movie theaters in the states. The movie, by the way, was Rudo y Cursi which is a movie with Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. It was hard to understand, pure and simple. But, you know, the plot of movies can usually kind of work itself out without words. The reason it was hard to understand was the rapid, Mexican Spanish. Lots of words that we wouldn't know unless we lived there for a while. The tickets were I think 2 pesos each. Cheap is an understatement.

Afterwards we went to Copellia, the famous ice-cream place and location of the famous scene from Fresa y Chocolate. For those that don't know the movie Fresa y Chocolate, you should rent it. It's about a gay cuban artist and a revolutionary who by chance form a very unlikely friendship. And it all starts when they meet at Coppelia over ice cream. The artist orders Fresa (strawberry), the revolutionary orders Chocolate. I think you get the idea.

When we went to Coppelia though, they brought an "ensalada" which translates as salad. It really is like an ice cream salad, simply because of the quantity of ice cream that arrives. Maybe 4-5 big scoops all melting very quickly and covered in a thin drizzle of chocolate sauce. This costs 5 cuban pesos. I don't even know how much that is US but it's literally pennies. Maybe a nickel and pennies. It was good ice cream. Vaguely pineapple and orange flavored. Seemed like you didn't really get a choice, just whatever the flavor du jour was.

Ice cream here is a simple, inexpensive pleasure. I eat it almost every day, and so it seems does everyone else. You can usually find an ice cream stand by the trickle of people holding cones. So often on the street I see ice cream and immediately start looking nearby. At these little vendors it comes in the form of softserve in a pointed cone. It costs 1 cuban peso (also literally pennies). The texture and flavor vary subtly from anything you are used to in the states. I like it better, in fact. The flavors are kind of washed out, diluted, just a hint. For this reason the chocolate tastes more chocolately and less sweet. More cacoa it seems, although I know it's just a mix they put in the machine.

In fact I should talk about the machine. Really interesting to look at. On the bottom, there's a little motor that looks like it has one cylinder. This functions as the generator. For some reason I find it really satisfying to watch the drip of the ice cream sizzling on the hot motor. This generator turns the fan that cools the refrigerant (I'm guessing). The top of the machine is a box that contains parts I'm not sure. But yesterday I saw how it works. When the guy running the thing ran out of ice cream he opened the lid. Then from a cooler of ice nearby he got out the milky ice cream liquid that was a light orange color (the flavor turned out to be kind of orange sherbert-like). He dumped the buckets into what must've been two compartments that freeze the liquid into ice cream. We waited five minutes for it to work. Then he was ready to serve us, and the ice cream was SUPER cold. Usually it's drippy and melts almost instantly. This fresh batch was much colder than I was expecting.

His helper then took a new container of liquid and stuck it in the cooler with the ice, apparently to prep it for when it runs out again.

I love these simple machines, and the ice cream is always refreshing because it's always hot here! I treat it like a cheap snack if I'm between meals and need something to refresh me or tide me over.

The flavors I've had so far have been good. Some are hard to place, like the one that I couldn't decide if it was annis or something like vanilla. I've also had vanilla/chocolate twist (maybe that's what the two separate canisters in the machine are for!) and also strawberry or guava. Then I had the orange sherbert flavor. Who knows what today will bring...

Monday, September 6, 2010

john lennon

Last night, on a late night stroll through one of the parks nearby, I thought I spied a man sitting on the bench I was approaching.

The man I had been warily watching actually turned out to be the statue of John Lennon. He sits quite tall, jauntily crossing his legs. I marveled at my proximity to a life size likeness of such a musical giant. After giving his hair a quick pat, I started to walk away but I had to look back again. I felt close to him, something I don't always get when standing next to the statue of so-and-so former President.

See you soon, John.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Compañia de Danza Contemporánea

september 5

Today we went to a dance concert at the Gran Teatro de la Habana. Magnificent, imposing building right next to the capitol building. Huge, fifteen foot doors in the entryway, almost a foot thick. Gorgeous inside with four or five rings of seats upwards, newer red velvet seats that were pretty comfortable. We got complementary tickets from a friend of Maya's who is very involved in cultural programming. But for Cubans it cost 25 cuban pesos (about 1 CUC = a little more than 1 US dollar). For tourists or foreigners like us it would have cost 25 CUC. To put that amount of money in perspective, my friend Alejandro makes about 18CUC a month working as an accountant for an architectural firm.

The dance company that performed is, I think, the premier modern dance company in Havana. It's called Compañia de Danza Contemporánea, and we heard it consists of about fifty men and women.

The program we saw contained three pieces, and there was one other piece on the program that was performed a different day. What we saw was a collection of works by two guest artists, and a Cuban who is a principal dancer at the company.

The first work was a large cast: 10 women and 10 men. It began in somber silence, with a few male/female couples; the men were shirtless and wearing underwear, the women topless. It was an impressive opening, simply because of the beautiful bodies and my own surprise at seeing nudity at the very beginning of the program. But I soon realized that this exposure of the self seemed to be a very Cuban theme that the piece embodied.

What developed next was a ménage-a-trois that ended as the man chose one of the women and left the other one languishing on the ground. As the pair dissolved into the wings, the lone woman, still semi-nude, began a beautiful and sorrowful song in Spanish. She was joined by a different couple, who she watched dance a beautiful duet.

After the song was over, a new sound score with dissonant strings developed and amped up the energy. We saw more members of the cast than ever before, this time with a percussive energy that they passed back and forth between each partner. In incredibly virtuostic and complex ways, they manipulated each other--lifting, throwing, swinging, and pulling. With each moment I was more impressed with that aspect of the choreography. Their rapid changes in level and the way they often defied gravity were fantastic; but more surprising was the physical violence that punctuated the excellently rehearsed and complex trajectories through space: they slapped, tugged, and shook each other--both women and men equally.

This human quality of the work was both exciting and a little boring. While I was mesmerized by the acrobatic nature of the partnering and the immense technique of the dancers, the themes were tiresome for me. We saw men and women dancing together--passionately and violently. We saw trios--with their romantic implications fully developed. We saw men dancing with men, and women dancing with women--which I felt was a deliberate attempt to give the work some edge. These relationships were intermittently tumultuous and tender, all very human. But not terribly innovative or unique.

I suppose that the only resolution came at the end with a stillness that stood in stark contrast with the constant kinetic energy of the piece: the entire cast, all of humanity, doing headstands--all equally vulnerable, all quivering slightly to maintain their balance, all at rest.

It left me wondering what I could expect from dancers of such high quality...Something more profound? More irony? (The last dance I saw, after all, was by Mark Morris) I guess it reminded me how much I appreciate his work for its simplicity and beauty--and his supreme understanding and representation of all that is human.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

buena vista social club...?

This Saturday I woke up for breakfast (served until 9 a.m.) then went back to bed. It's becoming a custom, I suppose. I was going to go the embassy grocery with my friends. It's not a store just for ambassadors but its frequented by them because it's huge and has a large selection. Most of it unaffordable to normal Cubans. But I missed the group that was going together so instead I started walking towards the Hotel Nacional.

I heard that the Buena Vista Social Club was going to be playing there so I went to check about that. The band would start at 9, and the cover was 25CUC. But worth it as far as I was concerned, to see them at such a beautiful hotel. See the following pics.

september 4

I finally got a group of people together to go, and all but two were able to fit in one of the cabs. But as soon as we got to the hotel, we learned that the program had been cancelled. Apparently the lead singer was sick and had no voice. They'll be playing this Saturday though, so we'll see them then hopefully. I'm realizing that this is Cuba: it might not happen, so you just always go with the flow. So, we decided to stay at the hotel a little longer and got really got mojitos and chilled on the beautiful veranda outside.

After that a big group of us went out to this gay club that my friend Alejandro took us to. It happens every Saturday at the Teatro Nacional, which we can walk to. Pretty smoky, crowded, and sweaty. The live music started when we got there around 1 am, and didn't stop until 2:30. At that point the real music started, and people began dancing. Alejandro told me it goes until 5-6 am. Fun, a little intimidating, so glad I had my posse with me. Funny to show up with a crowd of straight Sarah Lawrence girls at a gay club in Havana. Wait, did I just say "straight Sarah Lawrence girls"? Sorry. Impossible.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fidel's speech

This morning we woke up before the crack of dawn. Set the alarm for 4:30, having gone to bed at 2:30. We left the house a little after 5, amazingly we had everyone except two.


Even though we got there insanely early, there was already a huge crowd present when we got there. We stood and waited for almost two hours in the time leading up to the speech. It was dark, of course, since we got there before dawn. So we had great views of the sky over Havana below us as the sun began to rise and the light fell on the University in front of us. Quite a sight.

I managed to record the speech and I edited it to include some commentary and the most important parts. You can hear Fidel's speech (but not very well since he spoke very quietly and the acoustics were bad). There is also a short introduction with music and a student speaker from the University who made some comment warning about Obama and nuclear war. Unfortunately I can't upload it since the file (25MB) is too big for cuba's bandwidth, which, by the way, is rationed.

The speech itself was very difficult to understand; the sound, as I mentioned was bad. Fidel spoke quietly--although in very clear Spanish. I was also dehydrated and exhausted after getting only a few hours sleep the night before.

He reminded me of a benevolent grandfatherly figure. Professorly and charismatic. He made a few comments that made the audience laugh, for example. One was when I think he needed some water. And he also said something about the heat that got people laughing. It was really hot, even at 7:30 a.m.

I feel kind of bad saying it, but it was a pretty boring speech. I think if conditions had been better, I would feel otherwise. It was just hard to follow what he was saying.

He spoke for about 40 minutes. I stopped recording a few minutes before he ended because we began leaving to beat the rush of people, and we left just before he stopped so we were at the front of the crowd. A little crazy to see a hundred thousand people behind you, seemingly running towards you.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

exciting news

september 2

I finally met up with the guy who left the note (Alejandro). Last night we talked on the malecón until the wee hours of the morning. He speaks excellent English. Now I need to convince him to let me practice my spanish with him. Needless to say, sleepy this morning.

With ample coffee I made it off to class from 9-12. Today our professor told us the big news:

Fidel Castro is speaking tomorrow at the University of Havana.

Big, big, BIG deal. His first public speech in a while and certainly a rare public appearance (he's only been sighted a few times this summer). It's also highly significant that it's at the University.

We're all pumped up. The speech is at 7:30 a.m. Maya said it could go till 10-11-12 since he's known for lengthy diatribes. But since he's old and sick, she said they'd probably cut him off sooner. Since the speech is so early, we're planning on leaving the house at 5 a.m.

After class ended at noon I got a bocadito on the way home and bought a mango at the agro, which was pretty amazing.

This afternoon, we headed to the association for cuban workers. They gave us an impassioned speech about workers in cuba, but also made passes at just about every other hot topic. They made me feel really bad about the US embargo and also really guilty that we don't have free healthcare or education for everybody. This was my first ah-hah moment on this topic...the sad realization that despite immense wealth, many people can't pay their medical bills and also are unable to afford higher education. Contrast this with Cuba, where everybody is basically poor, but you can get free surgery and education.

Of course, there is the little old lady who is the bathroom attendant at the university. I brought her some ibuprofen the other day. She said there isn't any medicine available. I think she's closer to the reality of the situation, rather than the folks who spoke with us--who have to tow the party line in order to keep their job. In fact, they neatly dodged a few questions we had that put them in a difficult position.

But for now, I'm putting these thoughts aside. I'm off to see Alejandro in Habana vieja.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

class registration

september 1, 10 pm

Today felt like a bit of an adventure. After going to the second day of Spanish, I struck out on my own.

Our classes in Spanish this week are to access our levels and determine how many classes they need for us, and who is exempt from taking Spanish. There are a few who are excellent speakers already and most of these grew up speaking Spanish. So they get to take an extra class.

This is also the week we register, so I guess I'll go over our course load here: we all take Spanish (unless, of course, we test out). Our second course is also predetermined. We each study at the CEDEM, which stands for something something center for estudios demográficos. Each week we meet with a researcher who shares what he/she is working on, and then we do a site visit that ties in. That's every Friday for a few hours. Eventually we will develop our own research topic and receive a tutor who will advise us and help us right a paper (it's basically our conference work for the semester).

The third and fourth classes are up to us. I'll be taking something at ISA, the Instituto Superior de Arte. My fourth class will be at the University of Havana. We can basically take anything we want, from any of the various colleges (facultades, I think is what they're called). I've been hemming and hawing about whether to take dance or piano at the conservatory. I heard from Matilde that she didn't think the conservatory teaches latin jazz piano. It does seem that they're focused on producing top quality musicians for the concert stage. I get the impression that traditional cuban musical forms aren't emphasized as much, except in percussion. And since no one really knows this information (we haven't even contacted ISA yet since they don't start until October) it's frustrating to try and make decisions based on heresay. A bunch of my friends want to take dance, so that seems like the more fun and less risky option. The piano option seems more risky because I might be expected to study Beethoven and Bach just like I could anywhere else. But I'm here, so the point is to find what is uniquely Cuban. At least in terms of piano, for me.

Anyway, fourth class: I was tossing around notions of the highly lauded biology class (the student evaluations from past years for the course are through the roof). It's cool because you get to go on trips and learn about bugs and birds and stuff like that. And my friends are all signing up, it seems. The other option that appealed to me is the class Arte Cubano. Since I've been here I've been so awed by the setting, especially the architecture and the public spaces and the way people use these things. This art class focuses on art as well as architecture, history, and urban planning. So it sounds like it could be right up my alley, and I think I might be a little more enthusiastic about it. Mosquitoes, on the other hand, I'm less enthusiastic about.

Today I wandered through the part of Havana right below the University. I got lunch on the street: una bocadito (small sandwich) with ham, and a batido (kind of like a smoothie but no yogurt to thicken and it was way too sweet, as everything fruity is here). I really wish I had my camera for my afternoon wanderings. I'll go back and take some pictures.

While I was walking a man said hi and started talking to me about the house where Buena Vista Social Club would operate. Apparently Compay Segundo lived there or something. It has a restaurant and a bar, and he took me there to try a negrón, which he said was much cheaper at the bar. When the tab came he told me I didn't have to tip them--he said they were kind of rich at the restaurant. But then he mentioned that HE could use the tip money to buy his 5-month-old milk. Obviously he hadn't just been taking me around for nothing. Since he was nice and I had a good time talking with him, I gave him 1 CUC (the change from the bill). But next time I'll be more wary when someone decides to show me around.