Sunday, October 31, 2010

halloween in havana

So I'm sitting here on Halloween night, not feeling very Halloween at all. First of all, I'm a little tired because I had an awesome day hanging out with my first American visitors! My sister Maeve baked me the most amazing oatmeal-chocolate-chip-cranberry cookies and my American visitors brought them here from New York. "They taste so American!" said one of my friends when she tried one. I couldn't agree more. And it felt so good to have a little family connection that was physical rather than digital. Emails can only go so far.

Back to Halloween. There's a party tonight that's being thrown by a bunch of the American students. We're supposedly all putting on costumes and getting liquored up and having a grand old Halloween. But to be honest I'm not really feeling it. A lot of kids have class tomorrow morning and so they're not coming to the party. Plus today was the Cuban time change, I think it's a week earlier than in the states for some reason. So I'm a little sleepy.

Guess who I just met?
Yaniv Schullman

I decided to stay in instead, and hung out with Alejandro on the porch for a while. Then Maya and Matt came back to the house after having happy hour with this professor from SLC who was visiting. They brought back this guy who just got into town today from New York, and he's here supporting his friends who are in the ballet festival (ABT and NYCB) which I am going to see as well. He didn't know Matt or Maya, but he heard them in the lobby of the Meliá talking about Sarah Lawrence and he introduced himself.

I happened to buy the September issue of Vogue when I was at the airport in Miami, knowing that in a month or two I would be craving most things American. I lent it to some friends and didn't ask for it back until the other day, when I finally started reading it. Unfortunately my friends didn't really take care of it so it looked like it had survived a hurricane. But still readable. I noticed an article about this documentary playing in the states right now that was made by two brothers and a friend, called Catfish. It's a documentary about one brother's facebook relationship with some eight year old from Michigan. He ends up going to Michigan after she sends him some handmade art, and the brother films the trip. It's a sort of commentary on social-networking in the 2000s.

This guy Yaniv just happened to be the star of that film. And when I asked what he does and he explained that he was in this documentary that his brother and his business partner made, all sorts of little neurons in my brain started firing as I groped to remember why this story sounded very familiar. And finally--aha! I figured it out. And I told him he was pulling my leg. It seemed like something he would do. He's a funny guy.

But no, it was the truth. Some obscure figure from the pages of my September Vogue magically apparated onto my porch here on Halloween. I told you, you never know what to expect here in Havana. I guess my night in turned out to be an interesting night after all.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

on art in cuba

I wanted to mention our lecture the other day with Fernando, who I guess I could call our cultural liaison. He works at the Ludwig Foundation, which is an organization here that organizes cultural events. From what I understand, they do everything from visual art exhibits to dance performances.

Fernando gave us a lecture about Cuban dance history, which was really lucky because I knew next to nothing before. Most notably, I did not realize this crucial point: before the revolution, there was effectively no dance scene in Cuba. Now, Fernando made a point to distinguish the three classifications of dance in the country. Folkloric (afro-cuban), popular (for fun), and artistic (...). Alicia Alonso came back to cuba at some point after the revolution in 1959. She had married someone in the states who had some money, and together they started teaching dance here in cuba. In the 60s the state created the National Schools of Art, which is where I'm taking classes now.

Apparently there were cubans who studied with Merce Cunninghman and Martha Graham who returned to Cuba and taught dance. So contemporary dance in cuba has roots in those techniques. But the most obvious influence to me is of course afro-cuban folkloric dance. Fernando pointed out that the biggest shift away from Martha and Merce was the torso and hips. Cubans like to move them! More undulation.

The Ludwig Foundation's offices are two blocks from our house, on the top floor of this nice apartment building that I would guess dates from the 50s or 60s. The top floor belongs to the foundation. There's a beautiful gallery space with floor to ceiling windows and sliding glass doors that open onto a terrace that has amazing views of the city and the ocean. It's very fresh, very modern, and it's the cleanest and whitest place I've seen in all of Cuba. It feels like this little rooftop escape for the artistic elite.

Speaking of artistic and elite. One of my friends made a comment today that struck me as revealing. We had just seen a dance performance and we were talking about how great it is that there's so much going on culturally in Cuba. She then said something along the lines of "well it's too bad that in the states we have all these obstacles in place for artists." And then someone else chimed in, "yeah, here artists all make the same as everyone else." "And it's their ticket out of the country, to travel."

This bugged me for several reasons, and instead of saying anything I just thought about it for the rest of the walk home. First of all, you don't think there are as many obstacles in place for cuban artists? The only people who get to GO to the conservatories are the best of the best of the best. You get groomed from a very young age. If you don't show "talent," you don't get the training. There are tests here. If you don't pass them, you don't go to college. You don't go to the conservatory. You become a police officer. To me, that appears to be a very significant obstacle.

Fortunately in the states we have the luxury of indulging in $60k a year private colleges that encourage the idea that you don't have to have the best technique to be an artist. You don't have to be the best of the best of the best. You just have to have good ideas and work hard. It doesn't mean you'll get anywhere, or make any money. But you'll probably have a lot more money than the artists in Cuba. You'll probably be considered a "starving artist," but you'll still be richer than the people here.

And while I'm ranting, I should clarify the myth that artists here make the same amount as everyone else. There's a range of salaries for everyone, including among artists. The most successful artists end up making money outside of Cuba. I'm pretty sure they have to pay a certain percentage to the state. So yes, you can become "rich." "Cuban rich," which means you can buy a new car or have a house all your own. And yes, you get to travel internationally to perform or exhibit or whatever it is you do. And that's great. You get to leave. It's great. And then you can't afford the Starbucks at the airport. Isn't that great?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

fun fact

Fun fact: even though we've been taking classes at the conservatory for two months already, we just signed the "contracts" that officially sign us up and stipulate payment, etc.

Apparently there is a Cuban company or office called Paradíso that is the middleman between the conservatory and foreigners who want to take classes.

I believe we've been enrolled at the school legitimately, but I still think it's funny that it took them more than two whole months to process us. Cuban bureaucracy at its finest.

Have I shared the one cuban joke that I've learned? It's the oldest one out there, and for good reason:

They pretend to pay us.

We pretend to work.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

half way there

So we've finally come to the last week in October. We've already passed the half-way point. You could say that things have been a blur. But then again, sometimes time has a way of slowing down here. I'm thinking back to when I was sick with that parasite.

Classes at the University are getting mixed reviews. It's frustrating to try and fit in to a completely different academic environment. I'm also taking art history, a subject I've never studied before. My two art history classes each have different professors. We're getting to the confusing part of the semester where we start having tests and papers and these things called "seminarios," which I'm still in the dark about. What I can gather is that they're group presentations covering a topic pertaining to the course. They replace the professor's lecture. Today they referred to them as teams. And they also mentioned that the following week's team needs a written copy of the material covered by the previous team, in order to give some sort of evaluation. And then there is a group discussion.

I completed my first paper for my cuban art history class. The assignment was open-ended: give a critical evaluation of the work of a cuban artist exhibited in the gallery in the Nacional Art Museum devoted to the 60s and 70s. It was to be turned in last week, when the class was supposed to meet at the Museum for a practical class. I was in Santiago, so I couldn't go. So I turned it in today. But apparently the practical class at the Museum didn't end up happening. They had class as normal. I have a strong suspicion that had I not been in Santiago I would've been the only kid in class to show up at that museum. And I would've missed class. I explained my situation to the professor, who said it was fine and happily took my paper. But after class when I asked for a copy of the powerpoint from last week's class that I missed, she reminded me of her policy: no students can have copies of the powerpoints. You miss a class, you miss the material.

This type of thing happens all the time in the states. If you don't show up, you pay the consequences. But here, people show up to class really arbitrarily. It's simply not as big a deal. We don't even take attendance in one of the art history classes. So it's very strange that a teacher is not willing to share her lesson with a student who missed a class for a legitimate reason (my group of students had a mandatory trip outside the city).

It's all the little things, the uncertainty, the doubts, the cancellations, the lack of electricity...the lack of consistency. Consistency is something we are very accustomed to in the states. But here, lack of consistency is just a way of life. Even so, I can't help getting frustrated sometimes when it seems impossible to fit into this university. The only thing that calms my nerves is the notion that I'm really only here to observe. Yes, to learn, too. But I think our program acknowledges the disadvantages of the system, and understands that there's only so much we can expect to get from these classes because it's so difficult integrating into the school here. The rest is about us living here, and absorbing as much as we can while observing the differences between our societies. It does make me proud of certain things about the united states that I have never thought of as being positive traits. That very same consistency that I mentioned earlier. It really is nice. Sometimes it can be a pain in the ass, sometimes it can be boring, but at least you know what to expect.

But on the bright side, our class at CEDEM (the Institute for Demographic Studies linked to the University of Havana) is consistently interesting and relatively challenging. We've just started meeting with our tutors, who have each been assigned to us based on the topic we've selected for our final project. I've chosen to research transportation in cuba and its relationship to the environment. So I finally get to do academic work about cars, a subject I've been crazy about since I was three years old. My tutor for this transportation/environment project is absolutely great--he's provided me with lots of good sources for research, he himself is really knowledgeable, and he's really personable and laid-back. So it's a big sigh of relief that I'm finally on the same page as one of my teachers.

And, I've gotten more good news. Someone from home (shout-out to Athens, Ohio!) who now lives in Brooklyn (shout-out to Brooklyn, NY!) is coming to Havana this weekend to visit for a few weeks. I'm so excited for this living-breathing connection to the outside world, and especially two places that are really dear to me. Not to mention the cookies I am hoping my sister will send along!

I forgot that I began this post by mentioning that it's the last week of October. I have to say that I'm going to miss Halloween USA style, in all it's tacky, drunken glory. But I think we're gonna do something with the kids from Tulane. They really know how to party. I think the only costume option I have here in Cuba is cowboy. And I think that would be the second year in a row...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Santiago de Cuba recap

Well, I just got back from our trip to Baracoa and Santiago. I'll try to do a quick recap.

Baracoa was beautiful, quaint, relaxing, and we finally had some really good fresh sea food. Actually it was the first place in Cuba we had coconut milk used in the food we were eating. It was a pretty noticeable palette change. Definitely felt more Caribbean. But also with the coconut and shrimp it reminded me a little bit of Thai food. Needless to say, it was a welcome respite from the usual flavors (pork fat and beans).

Our hotel in Baracoa was an absolute dream, with a really nice pool and beautiful ocean views. The food was also excellent. I also had my first cuban piña-colada, and it was delicious. I sipped on it while I waded through the water.

Santiago is the second largest city in Cuba, after Havana. So it's definitely not quite like Baracoa (2,000 people). After such a great hotel in Baracoa, the one in Santiago was a bit of a let down. Our room was musky/smelly and pretty austerely decorated. But they had good TV! Lots of good channels. I watched a couple shows for the first time: Dexter, Weeds, The Big C. Julie and Julia was on late one night. I also liked Rachel's Getting Married. It was a good escape, watching all that TV. It was one of the first moments that I didn't necessarily feel like I was in Cuba. We all miss home terribly, so it was nice to have the TV connection. Oh, and there were great buffets at dinner and breakfast. Very fancy.

Things we did in Santiago: saw an amazing dance company, Ballet Folklorico Cutumba. They blew me away. Saw them perform twice. Went to a cemetery where José Marti is buried. Very ornate cemetery, very crowded. Water doesn't drain properly, so all of the tombs are above ground. Checked out the governor's mansion in Santiago, which I believe was the first original construction in town, dating back to the 1500s. Great antiques there. Visited "el cobre" a church dedicated to la Virgen de la Caridad (Virgin of Charity). And lastly, went to El Morro, a huge fort on the coast. The views of the ocean from the top of the castle were breathtaking.

Now it's back to real life. Or real life Havana style, which is still pretty unreal. We've passed the half-way mark for our stay here. On one hand, it's kind of hard to believe how fast things have gone. But on the other, we're all longing for home. That much is clear from my dreams. Last night I dreamed of my child-hood home, my block, my sister and her friends, a party at home, food. But I do think that Spanish has crept into my dreams, too. It's a funny mixture.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Baracoa day 2

I'm sitting by the pool at our beautiful hotel in Baracoa. It's called El Castillo, or The Castle, because it is built on the remains of a castle that was built on one of the hills overlooking the city. Baracoa is the first location that Columbus arrived at in Cuba.

There are some beautiful mountains that you can see from up here, and a gorgeous view of the bay and the ocean. Some of us were saying that you can almost picture Columbus pulling up in the bay. It's fun to think that I'm in the same spot, hanging out, five hundred years later.

Today we went to a gorgeous beach and spent the whole day (I'm talking 10-5) at the beach. Such a luxury. The water is beautiful shade of blue, and clear enough that you can see your toes in the sand. Just the right temperature--cool enough to be refreshing but not too cold.

I've never really spent much time in the ocean. Just a handful of times. Maine (you don't really stay in the water for more than 10 minutes), the Outer Banks (the jellyfish sting you), California (nothing to really complain about). So I'm eating this ocean up. Or drinking it up. And let me tell you, it's salty. So salty, in fact, that even I am able to float in it. I've never been a good floater, and here I just kick back and breathe easy.

Despite two healthy applications of SPF god-knows-what, I'm doing pretty well on meeting my tanning objectives. Laying out was never something I enjoyed as a kid. I guess I'm making up for lost time.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Baracoa day 1

We just began our mini-vacation to Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba. The flight from Havana was a little bit perplexing at times. It was my first time on a plane with propellors. Just more noise and vibrations than usual. And it was pretty choppy until we got to high altitude.

Once we got to town and checked in to the hotel, we went to a great casa particular for lunch. (It's a restaurant operated out of someone's home, a relatively new option for cubans). The food was great. I had swordfish, and there was rice and veggies and this really wonderful coconut sauce. It kind of reminded me of thai food. Needless to say, a wonderful departure from normal Cuban food. Which, although delicious, is not very adventurous when it comes to spices. That's a polite way of saying it's bland. Actually, things are usually flavored with meat and are quite rich. But there's really no heat, no spice. Hot sauce has become my friend here, even though I never liked it before.

After the late lunch we headed to a museum and sat through a lecture on Baracoa, given by this historian who apparently has published things in the US. He was great. He took great pleasure in explaining the aphrodisiac qualities of cacao. "The Viagra of Colonialism".

And after the great food we had at lunch, the dinner at the hotel turned out to be a wonderful surprise. It was great, too. We're already eating so well on this trip. Good food equals happy kids. Back in the hotel room we enjoyed cable tv. It was one of the first time I've watched the news in English since being here. We watched CNN international edition based in Hong Kong. They mentioned the storm in Cuba. What storm? We left Havana just in time.

Beautiful view of the pool at our hotel:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

playing catch up

Well it's been a while since I've posted. No good excuses, I've just been a little lazy. And I started trying to use less internet time. It's been adding up while I'm here. It's probably my biggest expense. Behind peanut butter and oatmeal.

I ended up going to see Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Twice! They were marvelous. Chucho Valdés played with them the first time I went and that was something else entirely. He really put things over the top. The theatre was gorgeous, too. Great curvy sixties architecture. The first night we thought it was sold out but ended up getting half price tickets from someone outside. And they turned out to be some of the best seats in the house. Second night we got in for free with one of the cuban musicians they invited to solo with the band.

The other weekend there was a salsa band playing at the conservatory. After the show ended the party headed to the pool, where scantily clad men strutted around. Good times. If only I had worn my cute underwear. I would've jumped in, too.

After my art history class was cancelled because there wasn't any electricity (not the first time, not the last) I decided to go to the art museum instead to work on an assignment. Beautiful museum, barely anyone there. Couldn't take pictures of the art, though. We went to the museum that was exclusively cuban artists. Saw some great pieces from the 60s-90s.

Tonight I'm enjoying a strange luxury. Unlimited internet access. It's a fluke, I promise. When I complained that my wifi card wasn't working, they gave me a handwritten username/password to use. And it seems to be I'm taking advantage by chatting on facebook and other things that don't fit into my normal usage. It's weird to just be online for so long. I've really become accustomed to not using much internet.

Tomorrow we're leaving for a weeklong vacation. We head to Baracoa, in the eastern part of Cuba, via small plane. We spend several days there and then take a bus to Santiago de Cuba. More to follow on that, and definitely some photos.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wynton Marsalis in Havana

only in Havana

So, I'm sitting outside on the porch chatting with Alejandro. Anna and Jane come back to the house and mention that they just got back from this concert down the street. Was it good? Yeah, they said. We thought of you.

"And Wynton Marsalis is just like chilling there. He received some award or something. You should go."

So I went and put some pants on, because that's what you do when you go out in Havana.

I rounded up Allison, the other musician here, and Alejandro, and started walking to this house that is literally three blocks away. Outside there was a stage set up, and the music was still going strong when we got there. It supposedly invitation only. But since it's Havana, we just walked right in. Lucky for us, we got there in time to hear the last long vamp.

There was Wynton, smiling and grooving on the side of the small outdoor stage. All the musicians were taking turns. One young kid after another had a solo. This went on for a little over half an hour. I was so happy I brought my iPod and microphone. The music was hot. I've honestly never been so into jazz as I was tonight, hearing it live. Only in Havana.

But it doesn't end there.

During the performance I had been paying attention to the sound/video crew who were recording the entire time. They looked like they could be American, and then I heard them speaking English as they were packing up. So I went and said hi to the cameraman. He told me they were from Sixty Minutes. I asked if they were here for the jazz festival this week. No, they were just here following Winton.

"But you're not supposed to be here," the cameraman said when I told him I was studying in Havana for the semester.

Then out of nowhere this tall, elegant-looking old man who was standing next to me stuck his hand out and said, "Hi, I'm David Browning."

I shook his hand and introduced myself, telling him I go to Sarah Lawrence and how we have a program here in Havana. We chatted for another minute. As he started to leave he said it was nice to meet me. I wished him a good stay in Havana. That's when I started connecting the dots. David Browning. Sixty Minutes.

While I was piecing together what just happened I went and met Alejandro's friend's mom, who I found out is on the welcome committee of some artistic organization and gets to meet VIPs when they arrive at the airport. We talked about how I just met this guy named Dan Browning and she mentioned that there were some journalists from this show called Sixty Minutes. Just then I heard Dan Browning walking by saying, "Yeah, we're still looking for Diane." Diane...Diane Sawyer??

We finally saw Diane Sawyer coming outside and meeting up with Dan and leaving. Meanwhile Winton Marsallis was taking pictures with everyone. My camera was out of battery, so I didn't bring it along. Bummer.

What a night. Of course I could just walk in on a free jazz concert honoring Winton Marsallis. Of course I could bump into one of the most important faces of American television.

Only in Havana. At this point nothing should surprise me.

We watched as Wynton Marsalis walked right by us, Alejandro nudging me to say something as he was all by himself. But I realized he had just managed to escape the crowd and was about to make an exit. I didn't want to bother him.

He got into a fancy black car that was waiting nearby. I'm pretty sure it was the Chinese knock-off of the Mercedes S-class. Alejandro and I started to leave. As we were walking along I saw the car pull away. I noticed Winton and his entourage looking towards us from inside, and I instinctively waved.

He gave us his closed-lip smile and waved back. Only in Havana.

cabaret chanel

As soon as I got back to my room from dinner I got a call from Alejandro. His cousin and her friend were performing tonight at this gay cabaret show. There would be, in his words, "she-males." Did I have any plans?

I took a quick nap and got dressed up, because his cousin told him that people get dressed up at this place. We piled into a cab, all four of us in the back seat. It would take us two cabs to get there because it was so far away.

On the way I learned that the guy who owns the cabaret is a Cuban who lives in Holland. He comes back to run this cabaret out of his house. It's supposed to be really fancy and big.

We show up at around 9 and watch his cousin rehearse their number with these two beautiful, muscular black men. Their choreographer is teaching them the moves. I know the song well. Vogue, by Madonna.

Alejandro and I wait around for a while for the show to begin. The owner's mom is acting as hostess, and she offers us little shot glasses of creme de vie. Rum mixed with creme, explains Alejandro. There's cinnamon sprinkled on top. It tastes kind of like egg nog. Except I've never liked egg nog, but I really liked creme de vie.

The house felt like it had arrived in Cuba from some other planet. It reminded me of what I imagine Elton John's house might be like. Except it's the Cuban version, so instead of real Louis XVI armchairs covered in cowprint fabric, they're fakes. Gilded this, gilded that, satin curtains, rhinestones, urns filled with sparkly things, faux-granite everywhere, enough fleur de lis wall paper to cover the entire country. It was practically a gay shrine. And this was just the antechamber. Upstairs was where the party was at.

The host, a drag queen with this bouffant wig that reminded me of some eighties country music star, explained the theme of the evening in perfect Spanish that was easy to understand. This evening was devoted to celebrating Chanel. Hence the creme de vie. Hence the fashion show that followed. Hence the glittery home-made Chanel logo above the stage.

The main salon was two-stories, with a balcony overlooking the stage. Tapestries and bright red curtains hung over the windows and walls. A long dining room table with chairs that had red fluff upholstery. There was a throne-like bench in one corner. It wasn't over the top, it was like way way past the top. But again, endearingly home-made in that oh-so Havana way. I could tell that this was someone who had left Havana for Europe and was attempting to recreate what he had seen.

The show was really entertaining. One drag queen after another lip-synced her way through saucy ballads about love and heartbreak. A particularly beautiful drag queen turned out to be a male-to-female transexual. Allegedly the first one in Cuba, according to Alejandro. When I asked if this meant she was the first to have the surgery that is paid for by the Cuban government, he was skeptical and had never heard of it. So on this point I'm still not sure. But I heard Cuba was the first country to offer free sex changes.

Alejandro's cousin and her friend performed the Vogue number. The two nearly naked men that danced with them were wearing masks and looked like they might've come from some sex-dungeon. I ordered more creme de vie from the bar.

After the show we danced for a while and waited for girls to get paid. But of course this took longer than expected. We finally left a little after 4 am, and weren't able to get a cab for another half hour. Luckily the driver took us directly home, so we didn't have to catch another cab and didn't have to walk at all. By the time I got to bed, it was after 5 am. My roommate Tommy woke up while I was snacking and used the bathroom. When he came back he said to me in Spanish, "Is everything ok?" I mumbled something back. He was sleeptalking. He almost never talks to me in Spanish. We slept in until after 1 pm.