PanaJournal –The sought after USA, the long lost dysfunctional ‘love affair’ for many Cubans. Romance feels greater when it’s prohibited.

I was really excited when they first offered me the project a few years ago. It was several years before the Obama visit, just before the American Government became seriously interested in mending their long forgotten relationship.

The U.S. already had an office quarters in Havana, just off Malecón promenade, facing the tumultuous sea during the Havana winter, but it was not an official US embassy, even if they do issue visas for the long queue of Cubans waiting in line everyday for that ‘freedom’ to travel abroad. The project I mentioned was offered by GVC – an Italian Non Governmental Organization (NGO), an assignment to train youngsters from one of Havana’s most problematic quarter, El Canal, to make video animation.

The last few days before I left was pure adrenaline. I can’t tell the difference whether it was fear or just my mother instinct hammering on my head telling me that I was crazy, because I’m also bringing my 4 years old daughter in this trip.  We took a direct flight to Havana from Paris. It was mid January, the flight was fully packed, a man who looked like Philip Seymour Hoffman sat next to our window seat, he let my daughter put her feet on his lap for the whole flight. Not a bad start.

It was quite late in the evening when we arrived at Havana’s José Martì Airport. The place was, red, like Chinese New Year’s red, viva comunismo! The project coordinators were there to pick us up just outside the airport. It was humid but cool and it was relatively quiet for an airport. Public illumination was ‘economical’, and lots of people were hitchhiking just outside the airport, most of them custom officers. I found out later that hitchhiking was a common mode to get transportation, since public transportation is almost nonexistent, and privately owned vehicles are rare. It’s a safe and economical way to get around town for most people, even late at night.

The streets were bare and clean. No billboards with any commercial ads, just political slogans and pictures of Che Guevara here and there. Such a refreshing sight coming from a commercially driven western country (I was living in Milan at the time). I enjoyed the breeze going into town, passing through unguarded train tracks. Several vintage American cars were seen on the streets, as well as Asian manufactured cars. There was no traffic and the streets were really quiet. There was a big difference from all the cities I have visited. There was a kind of calm which I wasn’t familiar with, reminds me of some nights somewhere and nowhere in Java. My daughter was already sleeping the minute we strapped her into the child seat at the back of the car. One of the project officers has two kids and she lets us use her chair.

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In the city of Havana, Hotel Riviera – one of the most historical hotel in the city, was our first accommodation, since they couldn’t find us any space in the planned Casa Particular (Cuban owned private houses which are turned into some kind of a very familiar bed & breakfast). The hotel was one of those grand hotels of the 1950’s, obviously before the revolution.

It reminds me somehow of Hotel Indonesia, a lot of blue color and big empty spaces, round shaped furniture and wall to wall carpets in the rooms. Some of the parts are breaking down into pieces even if you can see the effort of keeping them intact. The restaurant looked romantic and sad at the same time since there were more musicians playing live salsa music then guests having dinner. The hotel was right in front of the sea, the famous Malecón area, where youngsters meet in the evening and just hang out on top the walls that separate the city from the sea.

Hotel Riviera

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The Cuban winter was probably the best time to visit, the air was dry and the sea is still warm enough. Even if you might not be able to sit on the walls of Malecón in the evening, the strong tides that blows up the street was so powerfully magical you will be mesmerized even by just looking at it from across the street.

We hailed a beautiful Taxi Particular (Cuban collective taxi, you share your ride with people with similar destination) for our ride home. It cost us only 10 pesos, almost half of what we paid for the tourist taxi. You can find them almost anywhere. This one was a blue and white vintage American car, the exterior was restored in an almost perfect condition as well as the internal part, total white look with plasticized upholstery (I’m not so crazy for the plastic).

The driver told us that they have changed the machine with a Toyota motor, and when we asked how many miles the car has travelled, “Millions and millions of miles, almost infinite”, the driver said.

Any answers on any questions you ask in this city seems to bring you back to the past, more than any other places I have been too. In Cuba, anything was possible to be restored. As anything was quite difficult to find, especially US originated products, so they had to be able to fix almost anything with what they have, since it was also not very easy to purchase anything else, money is scarce, and almost impossible to get anything which is not Cuban made. If it’s not old, it’s fixed, restored or non American.

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But like in any South American or Asian country, food was still the best topic to talk about and a wonderful way to bond. One of the best places to eat is the eating houses or Paladars. The paladar itself, a term used solely in Cuba, means private restaurants in family houses, once was even considered illegal by the state. You have to search for it secretly to have the fortune to dine with a Cuban family and being invited into their houses. Nowadays paladar is more of a restaurant, some of them still simple and usually quaint and cozy with few tables and many family memorabilia. It makes you feel like visiting one of your grandparent’s house.

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Bodeguita del Medio, is one of those places where used to be so historical (Hemingway used to hang out here), ended up as one of those places recommended so well by guide books that it became so un-Cuban. After several tries on smoke infested and blasting air conditioning Cuban music experience, from the traditional Buena Vista Social club style, Cuban jazz, Cuban folk, we finally found the ultimate Cuban salsa live experience, at least to my point of view, in Casa della Musica.

It was an extremely overpriced place for Cubans (15 pesos entrance and no free drinks), with not very pristine sound system with live music that starts at 12, after an array of salsa and reggaeton karaoke on the giant screen. It does sound lame, but who can resist not starting moving around surrounded by latins swaying left and right even to karaoke music? The band of the night was Lazaro Valdes & Bamboleo, a timba style Cuban dance music. I didn’t even know what it was, but yes it kept me moving all the time. There was a group of dancers in the VIP areas, very young women with some gay boys and yes, not to mention, their older ‘patrons’. We were tempted to get a big bottle of Cuban coke and another bottle of rum and have our own rum and coke picnic like everyone else, fortunately some of us had to drive and we ended up being sober and dancing happily like little monkeys on the loose.

Later when we begin the classes, every day during the breaks foods were provided for all of us in small stereo foam packs, reminded me of fast meeting lunches in Jakarta. The menu was pretty predictable, rice with black beans, fried plantain (sweet potatoes) and a piece of over cooked meat, a piece of heavy sugary cake and Cuban coke or some kind of chemical lemonade they call ‘mate’. The portion was so big that I still managed to leave half of the food to waste. I ended up feeding stray dogs in the garden, where I caught the students looking at me in a strange way. It took me few days before I realized that my Cuban nasi bungkus style was considered a luxury for some of the students. Food which you shouldn’t waste and most of all, you don’t share it with the animals.

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After that people booked me for my not eaten cake, my half eaten food and sometimes my part of Cuban coke that I didn’t drink. We started to speak about all kinds of food, eating habits and of course your beloved country of origin. To me it seems that Cuba doesn’t have a particular culinary interest. Most of the foods are simple or overcooked, consisted of rice, beans, meat and a lot of carbs or gassy veggies such as raw cauliflower, potatoes and other kinds of roots and bananas. A vegetarian colleague ended up eating rice and beans every day, and if she’s lucky maybe with some raw cut cabbage. What we found out later, it was even difficult to find a good simple restaurant. We start to understand the reason why when we started to go around supermarkets and traditional markets. Food are scarce, especially fresh ones. Supermarkets were filled of mono types of products from different brands, a long array of canned chick peas and corns, sugary syrup, very expensive imported cheese. Almost everything was processed, fresh milk was a luxury, and culinary culture was almost inexistent.

Food that translates into agriculture and all its counterparts was surprisingly an important problem to consider in Cuba. Being a big rice and beans consumer, they have to import their rice from Vietnam and beans from elsewhere. It’s an absurd situation of a country not famous of being rich, having to spend their state income for things they should be self sufficient off. One of the main problems in the agriculture is that Fidel Castro has banalized several aspects of life which was considered superfluous; one of them is culinary culture. This has brought down the importance of food being a major aspect of a greater future into just a mere means of survival, throwing Cuba into its inability to take care of their land by exploiting it in a severe monoculture agro-industry.

One of the ongoing projects by the Italian ONG were to teach farmers to bring back the land to its potentials in the hope of bringing back Cuba to at least being able to feed themselves rice and beans without importing it from other countries. However, even with good help, there were still a lot of restrictions from the government, bureaucratically hiccups by not giving the permission to import the necessary machineries.

The problems that Cuba faces today (other than the US embargo), is not only being an indoctrinated country having a lot of censuring from their own government as well as any difficulties on having the creativity of building your own private business (beaurocratic rules keep being changed by the government creating confusing rules), after 50 years of promise for a better country, a lot of very proud Cubans got a bit tired. “It’s not important who governs us anymore, we just want to live well, and live in Cuba, not outside,” as one Cuban told us one day.

The water canal

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The next day we went to El Canal, a quarter almost forgotten somewhere in the city of Havana. Like any other ghetto in any city, people pretend that some of these areas don’t even exist. The taxi driver told us to stay away from it. Almost everyone we met during those first few days didn’t give us any good impression about the place. We stayed silent, each of us with our own thoughts, while we were driven to El Canal with the organizers from the NGO we were working for. Most of them speak in very rapid Cuban Spanish, too fast for my mediocre Spanish ears.

The sun was warmly shinning as we speed through Malecón that early morning, the streets were wide and empty, smoke from the vintage cars almost fill your lungs, wiped off by the big tides that slammed through the city walls bordering the sea. Old cars, villas broken to pieces but still being lived in, people just hanging out in front of their houses, Edward Hopperesque gas stations which I found amazingly wonderful, people selling peanuts in triangle paper holders, colorful Cuban women with their fancy fan, American tourist on top of the flashy vintage cabriolet.

El Canal is situated in the Cerro, an area which was used by rich Cubans in the 1800 as their holiday homes. Wonderful old aristocratic homes and their adjacent slave quarters (most of them in wooden made houses) still exist even if most of them are trembling down to pieces. El Canal takes its name from the water canal that goes through the area. Even though famous for being a dangerous zone in Havana, people of the quarter are proud of their origins and many cultural activities are formed to help the community, especially for youngsters to make them stay out of trouble.

Canalizzando mi Barrio, is one of the projects that was created by GVC Italia .The goal of the project is to contribute to the strengthening of the cultural initiatives of the district of “El Canal” by encouraging the development of cultural dialogue and creativity according to the traditions of the neighborhood. We were there to teach young people from 20-25 years of age, most of them school teachers, some of them teaching art, some of them still attend university, some of them teach music for children and one of them was a political party leader. It was an interesting mix of people.

The wonderful thing about Cuba is that however poor you are, education is your right and you have that right up to the highest education you might need, and it reflected in the community. People are smart, they were interested in conversations with you, they were eager to speak with you and curiously interesting. Criminality is very very low, which is almost a miracle in any other South American country.

The Cuban government provides health and education for free for the people, however it was often noted that the government dictates their ideology in any aspects of Cuban life. A very limited space of different political believes were offered, parents offering different political vision to their children is threatened with imprisonment. Compared to after the revolution, homosexuality and transgender believes are now permitted openly, especially after Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela, is a strong promoter of the gay movement and having the full support from her father. Several new kind of freedom such as in religions and more freedom for Cubans to travel (having the right amount of budget) are being released, signing a new era of Cuba. However with a normal wage of 30 pesos (around 30 dollars) a month, it’s very difficult for a Cuban to even go on a simple holiday inside the country.

Speaking directly to the kids at the training centre: they are kids at all, they love the internet (very slow, very rare and quite expensive WiFi connection anywhere), they love MTV, electronic gadgets and any hip commercial brand that is possible to have by getting their families in the US to send it to them. They love what they don’t have, what is hard to get and of course they love having a dream of a better and supposedly ‘shiny’ future. Some voice of disappointment of not having as much freedom as their neighboring cousins, but simply happy just swaying by a simple samba music and playing the train game with my daughter when she visited one Saturday morning. There is a refreshing innocence in all of this experience with the youngsters, acceptance of the reality of now but with a strong voice ready to fight for a brighter future.

The video animation training went very well, the kids were brilliantly artistic and amazingly smart. Most of them never even used a computer, so it was a great hand on training to make the most beautiful handmade props for the movie and most importantly a great story to start with. From our brainstorming session they managed to create a hilarious story about an alien invasion in El Canal, based on a true story not so long ago in Havana, where a space ship landed in the centre of Havana and after the initial surprise, singers and a band of musicians came out and sing a famous cha cha cha song entitled ‘The alien has landed’ to the crowd, a similar story to Orson Welles’s alien invasion piece that was broadcasted through the radio.

We made props from candle wax, stop motion photos, almost complete scenery of El canal made from beautiful illustrations and photo collages from the student’s photo hunting trip during the day around the El Canal quarter. From knowing almost nothing about animation, they managed to become stop motion photographers, set designers, professional illustrators, Photoshop retouch artist and wannabe video animator (they had to take turns using the few computers provided there). This was one of those experiences where creative dreams become alive and you can see in their eyes how happy they were.

The video animation went to several film festivals, been shown in El Canal, and who knows if it would have had helped youngsters to find a new future for themselves in the work place.

I managed to speak to one of the students on Facebook after few years has passed. Life seems to still be the same, as in other parts of the world. People survive to try to live a better live. Unfortunately, not doing anything that has been taught in the animation class. And with the renewed relationship between Cuba and the US who knows what will happen. There will be for sure positive and not so positive experience.

Few years ago when I had the chance to speak with some of the people directly, you can feel the longing for a change, to be more involved in what’s happening outside of Cuba. But then again for most of us that come from the world outside, of the not so easy day to day struggle in the midst of capitalism chaos and commercial lies and twisted socialism, what I have found in Havana, a clean and ‘innocent’ country, it was such a refreshing view and a pity that all of that will just crumble to the ground and will become another one of those modern metropolitan city that resembles everywhere else.

I do hope in some ways that the proud people of Cuba will still be able to preserve that beautiful characteristics of the people, the country, the history, the energy within, no matter what it will become.***

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