Cuba :: Part II

I am about to descend into the depths of moving hell, having made my way down its rickety stairs for the past few days.  The good news is that I know a glorious light awaits me on the other side, but there better be angels singing and a nice bottle of champagne or heads are going to roll.

In the meantime, memories of Cuba continue to fill my brain and force me to look at everything around me in a whole new way.  It is interesting to be moving so soon after visiting Havana and to see, box by box, how much we have, compared to how little so many Cubans have.  We have two houses full of furniture, clothing, pictures, artwork and other belongings - even things like multiple bottles of lotion, bars of soap, tubes of toothpaste and spare light bulbs.  Two houses!!  Over the past few weeks we have sold more than a dozen pieces of furniture, and had no problem doing so because we had plenty of friends who not only had the spare cash to buy them, but also the space in their home to use them.  A home with running water.  A home with multiple bedrooms and just two people.  A home with a yard.

How to explain the living conditions I saw in the city of Havana?  It is a bit of a tricky prospect, because I do not want to give the impression that the people are destitute.  Life is a struggle, but basic needs, such as education and health care, are met.  Every inch of available space is used thanks to what I can only consider resourcefullness and creativity.  Homes that once had twenty foot ceilings have been divided into multiple "apartments" with ten foot ceilings.  Handmade brick structures have been constructed on the tops of some buildings, where people can live but have no running water or plumbing.  In most of Havana, privacy is scarce, but it appeared that most people at least had a roof over their head.  (I am trying to be careful of making general statements about what I saw.  As a tourist, I only saw a small sliver of life in Cuba, so keep in mind that whatever I share here is just my impression and not an attempt to state something as an absolute fact.)

Beyond the downtown areas of Havana, there was a wide array of living conditions.  We passed by Soviet-built apartment complexes, basic and utilitarian.  I visited the home of a well-known artist, and because it is the artists who do very well in Cuba, his home was huge by Cuban standards.  Renovations are beginning to happen around the city, but for the most part the architecture of Cuba is crumbling.  Despite all the piles of rubble, broken and taped up windows, layers of paint and plaster and boarded up doorways, I found Havana to be extraordinarily beautiful.  On the evening the Biennial opened, I was across the bay admiring the city at sunset, and it was practically glowing.  A quick impression of the city would probably not even let you know it was falling to pieces.

It is the details of Havana that were the most fascinating.  Walking by a boarded up entry to a courtyard and seeing a white skirt hanging on a laundry line inside.  Passing a pile of rubble into a hotel with a perfectly intact red and gold stained glass ceiling more than thirty feet long.  Having to watch your step everywhere because smooth pavement and sidewalks are a rarity.  Seeing a young girl playing hopscotch with a crushed can; seeing two boys playing baseball with a broomstick and a bottle cap.  Exposed wires everywhere.  Twenty foot doorways without the doors.  Men pushing carts full of onions and bananas.  Older couples holding hands.  Turquoise blue.  The warmth of the sun.  The sparkle in the smiles of the people.  Magic.  Simply magic.

"There is a vitality to Havana, a beautiful, warm energy filled with contradictions, creativity and music that does not allow one to sit still or avoid smiling.  There are sights, sounds and smells that overwhelm one at the turn of every corner, through every open door and broken window.  It is impossible to take it all in.  As much as I went into culture shock when I arrived here I know my senses will be equally bombarded when I return home.  Life is not ever going to be the same.  My new mantra:  Remember Cuba."  -Journal entry March 30, 2006.