My mother and I have just returned from nine days on the island of Cuba. Led by a local tour guide, 43 year old Yarissa, we drove over mountains and along shorelines, exploring this historically rich and culturally exciting country. Arriving in Cuba with no expectations, I left feeling overwhelmed, and changed.
I admit I'm finding it difficult to describe all that I experienced and learned. The people, architecture, food, landmarks, daily life - all of it quite different than the life of this average American. For example, the Socialist government provides its people with a home, food, education, medical care, a job (or they may choose to work for a privately owned business), and if they're employed by the government, they do not pay taxes.
Our guide explained that if you're a farmer in Cuba, the government provides you with land, farm equipment, seeds and so on, and the farmer agrees to sell to the government the crops grown on 80% of the land, and is free to use the remaining 20% to farm for his own family. The farmer's house is essentially four walls of concrete block, a simple roof, a front door, back door and some window openings.
Walking through one such home I saw a dark, rudimentary kitchen outfitted with a small (Japanese) refrigerator and microwave, and a pieced-together countertop with a rigged up faucet and sink. Adjacent to the kitchen was a room with beds, simple and sparse. A partial bathroom was located outside, walled in by found materials such as concrete block and corrugated steel with a plastic cistern precariously balanced above. Just outside the home's front entry, fruits and vegetables were being prepared for sale at the roadside stand directly a few steps away.
Further into the mountains we stopped at a tiny village to visit a school. Again, built of concrete block, the school house consisted of three small rooms: the principal taught the youngest children in one room, a teacher taught the older children in the next room, and an old desktop computer sat on a desk in the third room, the computer room. Above each door I spied the most elegant, pink, hand-painted copperplate sweetly identifying the rooms in Spanish.
There was no language barrier once we all took to the playground, and the children eagerly made silly faces and goofy poses for our cameras. They clearly adored and respected their principal and their teacher. The country proudly boasts 0.2% illiteracy. Stop and read that again.
Every where we travelled, original art and creativity were openly expressed. We enjoyed a world-class choral performance by Cantores de Cienfuegos, as well as locals serenading us with traditional songs at almost every meal. In the photo above, an Afro-Cuban dance performance was so alive it vibrated the concrete floor beneath our feet. In the mountains, we saw hand work, usually wood carvings, curiosities made with recycled materials and a variety of embroidered linens. In cities and towns, prints and paintings dominated - framed and hung on museum walls, splashed over recycled cardboard tacked up as both decoration and sound absorption (photo below), or sprawled across large canvases of alley walls. To be surrounded by the culture and history of the Cuban people in such a diverse yet personal way was inspiring.
One can hardly describe the island without mentioning sugar cane, tobacco and coffee. We were fortunate to visit the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Las Terrazas, where a portion of an old coffee plantation has been preserved, including the haunting remains of its slaves' quarters. The self-sustaining community currently living at Las Terrazas is devoted to reforestation of the terraced hillsides that once served as some of the island's coffee plantations. The above photo was taken at the top of one such plot, and not a building in site for hundreds of miles.
I debated writing about our visit to the Bay of Pigs Museum, mostly because I don't have any photos, but since it fueled what became our country's 54 year embargo against Cuba, I decided to briefly write about my experience. First, let me say that I was born seven years after the conflict took place, and have only a vague memory of discussing it in high school history class. Traveling from Cienfuegos to Havana, our group stopped at the Bay of Pigs, "where the Cuban government maintains a memorial and museum at the spot where forces under command of Fidel Castro successfully repelled a 1961 invasion force made up of Cuban exiles trained and financed by the CIA." *
Inside the museum, we first watched the Cuban government's film presentation, which left me feeling stunned. It also left me with the unanswered question, why were we involved? (Once back at the hotel with google at my fingertips, answers surfaced.) After the film, our guide took us through the rest of the museum, explaining the displays. Case after case, my eyes and my heart took in personal affects retrieved from the site such as clothing, silver flasks, pocket watches, uniform patches, wool berets, leather boots, handwritten letters - relics belonging to both soldiers and civilians.
Presently, I don't know if this experience will find its way into my art work, but as they say, eventually, all that you are ends up on the canvas.
* Excerpt from our itinerary provided by Vantage tour company.
My eyes were opened to the many vibrant colors of Cuba, and I'm grateful to have experienced it with my mom.
This post shares only a portion of our experience, so if you have questions, I'd be happy to discuss them on IG or FB, links below.