Street musicians in a plaza in the city of Trinidad. PHOTOS: Lillian Nakamura Maguire
Passion – that’s the word that comes to mind when I reflect on my recent Cuban holiday in January. The passion of our tour guides throughout our travels. Their devotion to sharing their love of Cuba and how Cubans are working to build a more equitable country. The passion displayed by artists, artisans, musicians and entertainers. The passion in the street art for sale and the murals on the buildings. The passion in the community art displayed in the ceramics village of Havana artist José Rodriguez Fuster – all vibrant and simple in their message of love. Fuster has helped to rebuild and decorate the fishing town of Jaimanitas in the outskirts of Havana.
I was also moved many times by the beautiful sculptures – one in particular in the Plaza San Francisco de Asís in Havana entitled La Conversación by Étienne Pirot. It was donated to the city by Vittorio Perrotta in September 2012. It represents the need for dialogue in contemporary society.
The whole country is vibrant with music, dance and theatre. Live music filled not only the streets, but also all the restaurants. On the last day of our time in Havana, some of the over-60 crowd of our group longed to have a conversation where we could easily hear each other! We sought out a restaurant without live music and managed to find one, although musicians arrived half way through dinner to entertain. Musicians are supported and encouraged and we willingly contributed when the “hat was passed around” and CDs were sold.
Trinidad, Cuba is a lively tourist city. We enjoyed the street theatre. At first what appeared to be statues turned into live “improv” theatre. One bronze looking buccaneer became alive when a coin was dropped into his treasure chest. At one moment cavalier – kissing my outstretched hand and the next – pointing a pistol at my husband’s head! What fun!
Even when people greet friends or neighbours there is passion in their embrace and connection with each other. They hug, grasp each other’s hands, touch and kiss. It seems to happen no matter same sex or opposite sex. Our guide talked about Fidel’s belief in the equality of the sexes and acceptance of people of diverse cultural, social and economic backgrounds and sexual orientation.
Since the invasion of the Spanish, enslaved workers from Africa and labourers from China have all appeared to have shaped and influenced Cuban culture over the last 500 years, although little remains of the original indigenous people. We were surprised to see a gateway with Chinese script and signs for a synagogue and a mosque in Havana.
I learned of Santeria, a traditional African religion that incorporates some elements of Catholicism. Throughout Cuba, there were statues and monuments to many heroes of the independence movement – males, that is, with only two statues of women that I saw. One, a literary figure and the other I think was a medical worker or educator.
Cuba boasts nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Old Havana, along with four other cities/towns, a coffee plantation, a tobacco growing area, a fort, and two national parks. Many cities in Cuba have restored their buildings and there are stunning examples of various kinds of architecture: neoclassical, Cuban baroque, and colonial. Although I know little about architecture, I loved looking at the intricate scrollwork, the marble columns, the balconies and stained glass.
Cubans have developed organic farming techniques based on the symbiotic relationship of plants and animals, and have recognized the importance of reusing, recycling and restoration. We visited a fascinating cocoa farm and a small subsistence coffee farmer. Our local guide from the Baracoa region was passionate in sharing traditional stories and information about the geography, flora and fauna. He was a former teacher in an agricultural school.
We learned that bananas and cocoa are grown together because bananas provide potassium and moisture for the cocoa plants. The farmers have developed planting techniques to retain moisture in the soil. He was visibly moved when I told him that he had a gift for storytelling and teaching, I told him that I hoped he would have an opportunity to get back to teaching other Cuban young people.
Although we didn’t have the opportunity during this visit, there is an ecotourism industry in Western Cuba that I thought would be interesting to explore.
I wandered into a bookstore in Bayamo in Eastern Cuba and was surprised to find copies of books by Canadian Naomi Klein, La Doctrina del Shock (The Shock Doctrine) and No Logo. I was reminded again that I must read Naomi Klein’s writings. I also found a copy of a book called Paulo Freire Entre Nosotros (Paulo Freire Among Us). Freire’s ideas about popular education were familiar to me due to my adult education and community development background.
We visited a primary school in a village that had very limited resources. Our guide had a special connection to the school and told us he regularly visits and takes school supplies to the students whenever passing through the area.
I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures of the children and giving out chocolates and other treats like some members of our group. I decided that when I got home I would make a contribution to the charitable foundation established by the tour company, to which tour participants were encouraged to contribute.
The coming year will bring changes, challenges and new leadership with Cuba’s upcoming election in April to replace President Raul Castro. I hope that they’re able to sustain their passion for their country and stay true to the values that Fidel espoused.
I feel positive and hopeful for Cuba.