a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Friday, May 31, 2019

An apology

Well, two apologies now:

First, I have to tell you that my first report from Cuba was certainly not meant to be posted without proofing, but that's what happened...I pushed the wrong button in haste.  There are a few omissions and too many errors I need to correct, and will do so soon.  I suppose some of it made sense, but not quite the sense I meant.

And then, as I was working on that edit the other day, our internet went out in the area, and I put it aside, thinking to come back to it in an hour or two when the situation was restored.  Alas, it remained out all day, and then took it upon itself to send out a post from April I didn't intend to repeat:  if you were puzzled about that, I'm sorry, but I have no idea how it happened.

So there we are, I hope back to normal.

I wish, by the way, that our roses looked like the one above, but the heat...it's been in the high nineties for more than a week now, with not more than two drops of rain...has gotten to all of them, and they are brown and rusty, as are the magnolias and sun-scathed gardenias (though they continue to scent my morning walks).  Only our community garden, watered assiduously by cooperating neighbors, is flourishing to lift our spirits.

Monday, May 27, 2019

An old country

This morning, walking in the growing heat on the neighborhood paths around my new apartment, there was so little breeze that I kept crossing the streets trying to keep to leafy shade.  Paths, roadways, sidewalks all were easy enough to traverse, being mostly newly paved and marked, and for a Sunday morning pretty free of competing vehicles.

Not so in the Habana Vieja, or Vedado, or Habana Centro, the capitol of a country so much older than the U.S. in history and in state of mind, where the streets were cobbled, pitted, crushed or uprooted, and cars, motorcycles, bikes and taxis...even horse-drawn carriages...take the corners of the narrow lanes by sheer bulk, powered by a good deal of machismo.  Fortunately, wherever I walked during those days in the city...and I managed those streets pretty far each day, as much as eleven or twelve kilometers morning to evening...I went as the sphinx predicted for my time of life, three-legged.  I'd been wise enough to carry a cane with  me to Cuba, just in case, since my balance isn't the best these days.  In my way, I am sort of old, too.

Describing the state of the streets seems an odd, not to say ungrateful, way to begin writing about travels to a country I can only describe as spectacular.  Trying to write these posts, I find myself still reeling from it, hardly knowing where to begin; there is just so much, so wide, so deep, and all tangled in the sorts of tangents it is too easy to follow...as, no doubt, you will see as you read these.  I pity you readers, but plow ahead...

But I think the first thing to lay down in any story about Cuba is how old the country is, and how its age defines it.  Those streets, and the buildings which route their ways, exude the 500 years of its formal history.  Here, say the western conquerors, is the spot of origin of Havana in 1519, marked by the Templete; this year is its half-millennial celebration.

Most tourists see these carefully recomposed manifestations of that in the government and private buildings around the plazas.

But for most of the city its ruins and their periodic, sometimes fitful, renovations mark quite authentically the years between its first recorded settlement and the invading countries which left their insignia of conquest and monument over the centuries.  The years, too, leave their half-millenial guideposts for us to ponder.

Some, like the San Francisco church door below, center themselves in view, their height testament to the power they can still instill.  (The larger your door, the more prestige...)

Others, as in the streets in the neighborhood where I stayed, also nearly half a millennium old, lie quietly behind, easily passed by and yet equally full of the history of the more ordinary.

And there is the history standing in the natural world, too, like the ceiba tree, the tree of Mayan myth, and Cuban tradition, the tree under which you are safe from lightning, unlike the haughty Royal Palm, which sends its stalk into the sky to attract Zeus' bolts.  But that's another story.

You see?  I am getting ahead of myself.  I should be starting at the beginning of my journey, and yet, as I look back on it, there seems to be no beginning, except for the simplest of points:  the plane from Miami setting down at the gate, and I barely remember that except for the remnants of my gate pass.  And then, chronology disintegrating, I am immediately awash in Cuba.

Still, there is a sort of beginning.  When I arrived at the airport just outside La Habana, coming through the lines of custom with little remarkable obstruction, I was at first too busy looking around for my ride to notice the landscape beyond the bright yellow concrete walls.  But it wasn't long before I saw my name on his placard, and a cheerful fellow hustled me and my luggage outside, instructing me to wait by the curb while he went back for his taxi "200 meters off".  I offered to walk with him, but he waved that idea away; it was clear he had his orders to take care of la dama...a name to which I was referred, I slowly realized over the days, by nearly all the Cubanos I came to meet.  A woman of my age, traveling alone in Cuba, appears to be something of a novelty, at least nominally; there were certainly plenty of women travelers on their own, but only one brandishing a wooden cane with a mule's head on it.  That and a pink hat with a rolled brim identified me from the first day as I found my way around the place I'd been wanting to see again for a long time.

My ride into the sprawling city of Havana, however, was out of a picture postcard.  My driver, sent by my hostesses, arrived in a shiny green and white 51 Buick, with a Mercedes engine and a Chevrolet steering wheel and who knows what else for the rest of its parts.  Born and bred in the capitol, he talked proudly about all the work he had done on this and other old cars; he was a mechanic, he said, and loved working on them.  He also turned out to be an excellent introduction to Cuba modern.

As we drove through the heated breeze barely moving dry fields, unfattened cows grazing at the edges of mango orchards just beginning to ripen their luscious fruit, the beginnings of low white-washed buildings, homes as well as businesses, with blue or rust-red roofs missing pieces, he pointed out this business or that farm, those changes or that ancient edifice.  These gave way to uniformed civil servants or students waiting for buses to school or the city, workers with tools at hand, machines swelling the dust.  Then as we neared the city, a long trail of pipes waiting in the center aisle of the road for burial...new water and sewer systems, long overdue, coming to save the city from its antiquated flow.

We drove past the old fort, the highest point in the city, now the police station, and maneuvering more than one turnabout we turned off the main highway and into the maze of city streets, none more than a car wide and swarming with people, bicycles, trucks, carts and the open doorways of houses, in the front rooms of which many made a small market or restaurant, where women with shopping bags and men fixing cars or unloading bags of concrete from pushcarts clustered. 

We weren't to the main center of Habana Vieja yet, where the tour buses and cruise ships unload...our destination was the southern residential section, a few blocks from the Bay where the old cranes and train terminal (also under renovation) lay.

This would be my neighborhood...what my hosts and my guides and all the people I had yet to meet would, smiling, call The Real Habana.

The house with Blue Doors on the corner of Merced and Habana Streets is an Airbnb that had been recommended by Cathy's son and daughter-in-law from their visit a few years ago; they had been there on an international run.  Nice people, Stephanie told me, and helpful.  My small luggage, driver and I climbed the marble stairs to the second floor where Barbara and Maidy, hosts, welcomed me, paid the driver, and introduced Maidy's parents Nilda and Guelo, who would stay with me while my real hosts went off to well-deserved travel to Spain and perhaps Italy.  They hoped.

 It seemed that the two women had won a free trip, which, in the language of Cuban living, depended on them getting an airline seat standby.  I will shorten the suspense we all went through day after day by saying that it took six days of going back and forth to the airport before they acquired those seats (during which time the afternoon flight had been suspended), and so, it turned out, I got to see and benefit from their good advice and friendly hospitality for most of my stay.  Nilda and Guela were the sweet topping who opened maps, decoded my pathetic Spanish, held conversations with me in the evenings about life and history in Cuba, made me tea and mangoes for my airline cold, and shared their daughter-in-law's book on the continuing evolution of Cuban socialism, which I read for the week, growing more and more interested in its implications not only for Cuba but also for its echoes in other parts of the world.

Guelo being a retired history professor and Nilda being a beautician, they had traveled some outside the country and had lived through most of the revolution.  Their son's family, in California, included a seven year old granddaughter.  To live, they preferred the places beyond the city to the noisy streets of the old capitol.  There was a lot to say on both our sides.  I could hardly have landed in a more propitious spot in La Habana.

After I had changed money (the Cuban convertible peso, which outsiders use and citizens mostly don't, isn't available for exchange outside Cuba), and figured out which key opened which door and which way each worked, I took a map of the old town which Barbara had marked for me and set out on my three feet for the ten blocks north that would take me to the Plaza Vieja and beyond.

The streets between were a marvel in themselves. Cobblestones with pitted corners and loose bricks paved the way.  Buildings crumbled beside me and buildings straightened themselves into their old, renewed configurations.  Like Barbara and Maidy's house, they are centuries old.  Nothing in La Habana Vieja, however, appears to be torn down these days...instead, the goal of all that rebuilding seems to elevate the old to its former glory.

Mostly Spanish in origin, the structures are drawn around a central open space which in houses is most immediately surrounded by the kitchens and washrooms, with clothes and sheets hanging over the balconies.

In the public buildings are atria with beautiful, often peaceful gardens of  tropical flowers, one or two benches for sitting out of the fray of the street, and small sculptures or painted murals.

The windows open by old louvres and wooden shutters to balconies which let the breezes from the Bay flow through.

The past is our foundation, they say, and we make it the foundation for our future.  Houses, hotels, offices and museums were on their way to a restoration of their old dignity to give new life to a new generation.  No matter how long it takes.  It is a city whose beauty emanates from within its structures and its history, and the vision of its future is as spectacular as its past.

That it is also a country with a difficult economy, not to mention contrary neighbors, and workers with advanced degrees that hold two or three jobs to keep a family, is also visible.   Its population of 22 million, like its edifices, are nonetheless raising themselves on the same principle.  It takes money, of course, so the neighborhoods outside the more traveled sections may work harder, longer at it.  But they do, however they can.  More important, they appear to have the architectural skill to do it.

Leysis Quesada vera, Princess of Los Sitios

In the posts that follow, you will see La Habana as I saw, heard, tasted and absorbed it, one story at a time, sometimes from my journals there, sometimes from this distance of time and space and dischronology.   The art I went to see, the point of my journey, the theme of my official intended purpose, dominated the mind I brought to the city, and the images I took away from it.  But Havana itself is the art.  There is art in the very fabric of their lives.  The art they make begins from that point.  The photograph above, one of a series I hope to show you more of, is the Cuba I see.  It is the story I want, more than this messy introduction, to tell you.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The view from here

Birds and the sleepy drone of morning traffic...that's what I hear from my balcony early, my cup at hand, a pen in hand, intended to make the list for the day, but itching to write to you instead.  So I do.  How could I not...looking out at the leafy canopy, the air still cool, the sky a lightly veiled blue, a new morning ritual begun with pleasure.

It's going to be a hot day, but just now the slight chill refreshes, even after the first full night's sleep I've had since moving here to this place eye-level to the tops of trees.  I'm now living three walk-up flights in the air!  Did I mention that I planned to take a small apartment while I was traveling this year, leaving my house in the hands of Joseph and Alexander, Beardy and Pinocchio, their teen-aged bearded dragon and middle-aged cat (the latter newly part of their entourage)?  After two weeks of boxing and bagging, sorting and mulling, I'm nearly all settled in, except for one corner...my workspace, a challenge anywhere, anytime.  But it's today's task, and I'm up for it.

A smaller space, to tell the truth, is an unexpected affront, unless you are a hard-core realist who freely admits to owning more than you can carry.  The summons is good, though:  whereas at home I could shift things through my fingers, believing I needed them, here in little more than half the space, it is easy to release what suddenly one sees as superfluous, sending them on to needier hands.  Perhaps I needed to come here to let go of all that extraneous stuff.  I remember the morning last week when I woke up and said, I don't need to be a museum any more.  That, too, was a letting go.

Reason not the need...says Lear.  But sometimes it's good to.

Even making the decision to leave the house to the children and settle smaller seemed, if not consciously, a necessary retreat.  This place, fortunately, feels like home, if a temporary one...generally quiet, neighbors genial, lots of light, a kitchen window which looks out to the corner of the community garden and inspires me to grow a windowsill of herbs (wouldn't this one be pretty?).

Still, how I'd love to get my hands in that dirt below.  Alas, my travels begin in five days...one chooses one's metier.  I wouldn't be home much even to water those herbs.

Someone among us, though, has planted a vegetable patch, bordered with marigolds.  And someone else has been readying his or her plot, as is clear by the new tangle of tomato hoops and hose.  It's nice to know that in a small space, too, things grow.  And that I can still have my cup and pen at hand looking out at the trees.


Cuba is next...stay tuned.