Our first full day in Cuba began with an introduction to Casa de las Américas, the country’s primary location for cultural research and study, and where we’ll be taking our classes for the semester. After meeting with Casa’s administrators, our professors, and the two Cuban women who will be taking classes with us, we went on a tour of the building. Besides being research center, Casa also serves as a living museum of sorts. There is art on display throughout the entire building, and not just murals and paintings, but also a plethora photographs (part of a year-long exhibition) and literature.
Though there are many art pieces that deserve praise, the most interesting to me was the large mural of comandante Che Guevara, whose famously stern face (made famous through Alberto Korda’s Guerrillero Heróico photo) was accompanied by his words: ‘Hasta la victoria siempre’ (ever onward until victory). The mural was a good work of art, but what struck me was how our guides tone and face changed as she talked about el Che. Her eyes widened and her voice slowed as she looked at the face of one of Cuba’s most revered heroes and I started to realize how much this legendary figure means to many of the Cuban people. Even though I’ve read works about and by Che, seen movies dedicated to his legacy, and taken a class on his controversies, I’m realizing that I haven’t even begun to understand the role his image and words still play Cuba.
At dinner time we walked down calle 23 and saw a busy, more typically urban side of the city. Cars and humans move through the area quickly, but unlike in other grand cities
Looking for a place to eat, we settled on café literaria (literature cafe). Though we ordered our dinner there, it quickly became obvious that the place is a prime hangout spot for Habana’s students and hipster youth (nothing out of the ordinary for kids from Northeastern liberal arts schools). After eating and drinking for an hour, a black Cuban, most likely in his 20s joined us. He made friendly conversation with some of our group and then told us about his life as an artist/musician. According to him, those who profit off their art are selling their soul. He seemed like a devout follower of Cuban socialism’s concept of el hombre nuevo; and then he told us that in a few months he’d be touring Miami and Europe to play his music, for which he will be paid.
Just another contradiction to add to the ever-expanding list.
el miércoles y el jueves
Wednesday and Thursday saw our first excursions into Habana Vieja at daytime. The quiet tranquility of the night that we had experienced before was substituted for a continuous stream of tourists and a barrage of Cubans searching for attention and dollars. I’ve heard so much about Cuban amiability, and so far that’s what I have experienced, but it’s difficult to judge the sincerity of random encounters when a short conversation so often ends with a plea for money or assistance. Though this is something that can be found to some degree in any nation’s tourist spots, it’s appearance in a socialist republic adds to the perplexity.
However, the wonder of this UNESCO World Heritage site cause one to quickly forget about the poverty in which many of the area’s residents live.The colonial buildings (many of which have been or are being restored) most certainly rival those of any European city. And we were lucky enough to see the rolling process of a handmade Cuban cigar, tour a museum of the island’s history, and walk it’s many plazas. Also, a visit to the city’s central cathedral allowed us a view of the city’s most importnat : San Cristóbal (the patron saint of La Habana and of travelers) and the patron saint of Cuba, La Virgen de la Caridad (who’s figure in the cathedral was crowned by Pope John Paul II on his 1998 visit to the island).
Friday was our first free day in Habana. We took the opportunity to walk around as much of Vedado as possible. After walking through an agropecuario (agricultural market), we wandered farther away from our residence to the Universidad de la Habana. I’m confident in saying that in terms of architecture, the first university in Cuba puts most North American ones to shame. It was as if we had been transported to a tropical version of Athens or Rome. There are quads surrounded by large, distinctly-classical academic buildings, complemented by palm trees and large bright-green foliage all around. The tall columns supporting massive domes and create an image that could easily be mistaken for an ancient Graeco-Roman hall, were it not for the gardens of tropical plants in their courtyards It’s such a sight that I’m almost jealous of the other American students in Habana who will be spending their class time there.
Later in the day, I worked out at the José Martí stadium, right across the street from Casa. The largely unkempt grass, graffiti, and rusty exercise bars in the open air stadium are not what you would expect from a place named for the leader of Cuba’s independence movement and one of the few figures revered by all Cubans. However, the fact that the stadium is in such a state is almost more inviting. There is no fence along the side facing the Malecón, and the fields and equipment are completely open to the public. And the public takes full advantage of this opportunity. During my workout there were at least three games of soccer going on, many Cubans enjoying their afternoon on the Malecón, and constant breezes of salt air off of the sea; it was more a more satisfying experience than I’ve had at any point at Brown’s new fifty-million dollar athletic facility.