It’s week two here in Cuba and we’re slowly settling into a routine. I’m happier here than I’ve been in a long time, and I think that it’s a mixture of the warm weather and the fresh food. Life is slow and lethargic, and music and dance fill the materialistic void. Today I start my photography classes; we are going to see the darkroom and talk about our future projects. I’m both nervous and excited.
These past two weeks have been a whirlwind. We’ve visited Las Terrazas; a biosphere located about an hour out of Havana. We went swimming in a river, jumped off waterfalls and ate at an organic, vegetarian restaurant where everything was grown on the premises. Over the weekend, we took a cab to the beach. Our cab driver was thrilled to have 19 Americans crammed in to his small van, and the whole ride there, he bumped along to Son music that blasted from his worn- out speakers. He sped down steep hills and we screeched in unison like the excited Americans that we are. The beach itself was a sight to behold. Palm trees dip into the water and the water gradually fades from a dark blue to a clear aqua. We set up near the waters’ edge and spent the day talking, playing Frisbee and swimming when our skin got too warm. On Sunday, we explored Havana Vieja. I rode in my first 50’s car; they serve as bus- taxis here. You have to wave them down on the side of the street and ask for their destination. After splitting up into many groups and after a couple of failed attempts, we all found our way to the heart of the city. Havana Vieja has undergone extensive renovation projects, and as a result, it is very charming and beautiful. The streets are narrow and they lead to open and wide plazas that resemble those in Spain or Oaxaca, Mexico. In Havana Vieja, we ate at the Chocolate Museum (my supply of chocolate from home is running low) and at a microbrewery. The rest of the day, we wandered around, absorbing the architecture and the people that make Havana so unique.
My stay here has been beautiful and surreal but it is by no means a real representation of Cuban life. We are living in absolute luxury here, and it’s hard to get too comfortable when you know that extreme poverty and hardship is living on the same island as you. The Vedado District, where we are staying is the elite suburb of Havana; it’s the Hamptons of Cuba. In comparison the United States, Vedado looks empty and poverty stricken, but in comparison to the rest of Havana, it looks like an idyllic hamlet. Our hotel and all of are classes are in Vedado and so we don’t really get a sense of the real Cuba on a daily basis. Furthermore, because of the double currency in Cuba and the paramount importance of the tourist sector, visitors feel as if they are in tourist apartheid. Luckily, we are taking classes with Cubans and the directed research students have been able to meet and befriend more Cubans, but despite my fluency in Spanish and my dark skin, I can’t shake off the feeling that I’m always the other.
My next entry will answer all of the questions that I have received in e-mails. I will also update with photography “sketches” of the work that I’m doing.
Gracias por leer!
It’s Tuesday, January 10, and I’ve officially been here in Havana for three days. I’m writing this from my hotel room because I don’t know when I’ll be able to go on the Internet and I want to write everything down before new experiences replace old ones. Cuba, so far, has been incredibly fascinating and I don’t even know where to start.
I guess that the best place to start is Miami, Florida. On Sunday morning, our charter flight departed from the Miami Airport and I was shocked to see how many people were on the airplane. I had expected for the flight to be only NYU students, but there were other Cuban passengers (presumably coming to visit family or coming back from the United States). Regardless, there was an overwhelming sense of excitement on the plane, and as we descended upon Cuba, I could almost hear and feel people holding their breath. Crystal blue water lapped on to the rocky shores, and the roads were dotted by cars from the 50’s. It was surreal. Upon our arrival, a guagua (bus) took us from the airplane to the airport and after receiving our special student Visas, we passed through customs and picked up our luggage. (Note: to my deep frustration, the weight limit is no longer implemented for students.)
My first impression of Havana as we drove from the airport to the Vedado district where we are staying is that the city is like a ghost town. Beautiful houses with majestic entrances look dilapidated and empty. Chickens peck at columns that once welcomed wealthy and aristocratic visitors from all over the world. The pervasive sounds of guitars and trumpets serve as background music. Don’t get me wrong; the city is beautiful and oozes individuality and culture at its seams, but you can’t ignore the feeling that it is haunted. I guess the best way to describe my experience in Havana is that I feel like I’m in a slow and eerie movie.
We’re staying at the Hotel Riviera, a hotel that’s a relic from the 50’s. It was built by Meyer Lanksy, as part of a plan to develop casino Hotels in Cuba. Although the casino is no longer in use, you get a feeling of what it must have been like to be a gambling member of the mafia as you walk down its haunted halls. Our room overlooks the Malecon, and perched from the window, you can see guitar players, couples and fishers walking next to the ocean. The waves literally crash up and over the Malecon, so if you are not careful, a shower of water descends upon you. Although it is lamentable that American and Cuban governments forbid us from living in home-stays, being in a hotel has forced us to be proactive about getting out and becoming more intimate with the people and places of this city.
On Monday, we first visited La Universidad de la Habana and the Ludwig Foundation where we will be taking our classes. Both are breathtaking. Built between 1906 and 1940, La Universidad de la Habana is a neo-classical, walled campus with tropical fauna consuming the courtyards. Around the complex, you can see Cuban students waiting for class eating 2 peso ice cream. The Ludwig Foundation is far more contemporary as it was founded in 1995 as a way to stimulate the arts after the devastating special period of the 1990s. It sits perched on the top of a residential building overlooking all of Vedado. Its crisp, white walls are decorated with rotating exhibits, and it serves as a gallery space as well as a cultural and artistic coordinator.
Well folks, I don’t want to make this too long because I could write forever and I’m afraid that the length will discourage you from reading. However, I promise to update you as often as I can and extrapolate on my thoughts, feelings and observations.
Today I fly to Miami. Tomorrow morning, we (a group of about 20 NYU film, photography and research students) fly to Cuba. I am freaking out. I cannot fathom how, in less then 36 hours, I’m going to be unpacking my clothes at my new home at the Hotel Riviera. It is unreal.
I get more and more nervous as my time of departure approaches. Limited means of communication means that I’m not going to be in reliable contact with people back at home, and I’m really going to miss all of you. I’m going to miss falling asleep on a certain someone’s lap every night or hearing the annoying tick of my sister squishing her nose. I’m going to miss my brother’s tantrums and my father’s endless stories. I’m going to miss my mother’s home cooked food and New York City’s constant ability to satiate all my cravings (contrary to popular belief, the food in Cuba is infamous for its lack in variety).
To ease my nerves, I’ve been reading guide books and wikipedia pages about the new and mysterious place that I’m going to call home for the next 3 months. Topic of the day: Cuban Art.
Cuban art is very unique because of its mixture of African, European and North American influences. Despite political and social oppression, Cubans have created and maintained a thriving art scene as evidenced by international art fairs such as the Havana Biennial Art Exhibition. Furthermore, the ability for artists to sell their artwork abroad has allowed for artists to enjoy a relatively high standard of living. This creates a fascinating dynamic which I’m excited to explore. Some notable artists: poster artist Rene Mederos, painter Wilfredo Lam, photographer Alberto Korda and sculptor Agustín Cárdenas.
Packing update: My bags weigh in at a hefty 53 pounds (9 pounds above the weight limit). I think I’m going to cut off an arm and call it a day. And on that note, I have to stop procrastinating and finish packing (or should I say unpacking).
Wish me luck!
As I sit staring at piles of unpacked clothes, I realize that I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. Having grown up in the United States for most of my life, I have no point of reference as to what Cuba is like; everything I’ve heard is from the biased view of Cuban immigrants and American text books. Fidel = Satan, Cuban cigars and Dirty Dancing are common topics of conversation when I mention that I’m going to be be living in Havana for the next three months.
I wonder if oppression in Cuba is actually palpable. And if so, how does that oppression coexist with Cuba’s strong cultural and artistic identity? I wonder how the tourism market affects Cuba’s socialist economy. I wonder what the health care is like. (Today I found out that I injured my back skiing and my doctor asked what type of medical care and insurance I would have in Cuba. It’s… uh…. free?) I also wonder if I’m going to get a hard time for sharing the same last name as the country’s dictator.
On a more frivolous note, I’m having a tough time deciding what I should pack to wear. My first problem is that when I picture myself in Cuba, I am compelled to want to dress like I was in the 50s. My second problem is that we are only allowed 44 pounds of luggage (handbag included!) and my camera equipment already weighs 30.
Chan Chan- Buena Vista Social Club
In 1962, Henri Cartier- Bresson traveled to Cuba to photograph Cuban life under Castro’s rule for Life Magazine.
48 years later, I’m following in the footsteps of my favorite photographer and doing the same thing… and nothing has changed. I feel like I’m in a time machine. To document and share my experience with friends and family, I’ve created this blog. So tune in weekly (or as often as limited internet access permits.)
Feliz año nuevo!