Arriving in Havana

Monday, November 4, 2013

Our first day here was so jarringly unfamiliar and bizarre.  Flights out of the US went fine, even though it cost a lot to get 5 suitcases and a laser printer onto the plane.  Forty minutes after we left Ft. Lauderdale we landed in Havana.  So close, yet so inaccessible.  The ridiculousness of that refrain would follow us throughout our stay.

Once we got to Havana it took a couple of hours to leave the airport with Aduano (customs) spending a long time questioning the hot plate we had packed in the luggage (for the workshop).  Nothing else was a problem, probably because a representative from the Ministry of Culture was our VIP agent at the airport and did all the talking while we sat in the lounge and waited.  Eventually we were taken to customs and asked to open one bag, the one with the hot plate (they obviously had looked in all of them when we were in the lounge), but this was the one that raised the red flag.  They wouldn’t allow the hotplate to leave the airport (we don’t know why).  They wanted to keep it so that we could pick it up on our way out of the country.  So they filled out paperwork about it, and weighed it, and documented it, and registered it and then told us they would keep it at the airport for 3 cuc per day. At that point we decided to abandon it (it was worth far less than the “storage” fee).  Meanwhile, we watched others entering the country have their bags thoroughly searched and items confiscated left and right.  We had to pay 50 cucs to get the laser printer in, and then we were allowed to enter the country.   Thank goodness that the representative from the Ministry of Culture was there with Eduardo.  I’m not sure we would have gotten all of our supplies in without her.

At the airport exit we found Yunayka Martin from San Alejandro Academy waiting for us with a car from the school, but not enough room in the car for our luggage and ourselves.  So we packed the luggage in the car and got a taxi and headed out to San Alejandro Academy to drop off the art supplies.  We drove through the “suburbs” of Havana.  It looked a lot like Southern California, but much poorer. I was struck right away by the oldness of all the vehicles.  And the built landscape seems to have stopped being built in the 1950s.

San Alejandro Academy is an arts high school – the second oldest in the western Hemisphere.  It is difficult to get into and students come from all over the island.  It’s a beautiful complex of buildings and we could see that at one time it was quite grand.  Like so many other spaces in this tropical climate it has an inner courtyard surrounded by corridors and smaller buildings.

We hastily dropped off our workshop supplies and were introduced to Sandra Fuentes, the director of the school and her staff who gave us sweet tea and small ceramic plaques as a welcome gift.  We left the prints for the exhibition Grabados Ecologica with Yunayka and hopped back into the car for the ride to our casa particular.

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We were met at our new home away from home by Roberto Garcia, who was to be our translator and guide for our stay.  He greeted us with a warm smile and let us up a flight of stairs to a lovely apartment.  Casa particulars are private homes that rent to visitors, and this one is often used by faculty from Hampshire College (thus our connection).  Magalis is the proprietor and a lovely woman who made us feel right at home.  Magalis lives in three rooms in the back of the apartment and offered to cook meals for us for a small price.  She had prepared a wonderful lunch for us, enough food for 2 meals and we got the basics from her (through Roberto) such as how to use the multiple locks and keys.  Roberto warned us about not eating or drinking street food, and instructed us in how to carry our bags in the street and left us on our own for the rest of the day.

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After settling in, we ventured out to explore the neighborhood.  It was overwhelming – the sights, the smells, the sounds.  Everything so unfamiliar.  The teeming of life in the midst of a crumbling infrastructure, beautifully restored buildings next to falling apart structures, huge holes in the sidewalks, barking dogs, trash and dead animals in the streets, cars zooming by on broad streets, the Malecon (the sea wall) that keeps the ocean at bay, statues of heroes and martyrs of the revolution.  Our first walk was a real eye opener for us.

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The first night was tough – humid and hot in an unfamiliar place.  And we experienced our first blackout.  At around 5PM we heard a big bang and the power went out.  After an hour or so we walked down the street to see some men on a ladder working on a power line.  By 8 still no power.  We took a cold shower together in the dark and climbed into bed, so unsure of what was in store but hopeful that a new day would bring power.

Tuesday we woke to power!  It was another day of exploration for us.  We ventured a little further from our new home, taking in the sights and sounds of the city.  We walked along the Malecon, the sea wall which keeps the ocean from flooding the city but also serves as the “sofa of Havana”, a gathering place for the residents.

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