Day 3: Dos gallos con salsa

For the past two mornings we heard a rooster crowing: it wasn’t something we had expected to hear in Havana. We asked our host mom about it, and she said that a lot of families raise chickens in their yards for eggs and meat because of the economic situation. She also said that some families have pigs and keep them in the bathroom at night and let them wander the house in the day. They’re basically a pet, until it’s time for slaughter. With the price of pork at 1200 pesos a kilo, it makes sense for some people. (To put this in context, we heard that the salaries for government jobs top out at about 11,000 pesos a month, and that retirement pensions are about 4,200 pesos monthly).

Our group spent the morning at a community center doing service learning with children from the Pozitos neighborhood of Marianao. Together we upcycled egg cartons into decorative mobiles.

Interesting side note: the director said that in the special period of the 90s, egg cartons were like gold. Everybody kept theirs so they wouldn’t have to pay the 1 peso fee to get a new one. She said that even though they are in a difficult situation now, people currently are more likely to toss their cartons and pay for new ones rather than keep them.

The kids were a bit shy at first, but we talked to them a bit. The ones at our table reported that school lunches were free, but the food was bad, and one said that his teachers were a pain. One played street hockey and the other baseball. I didn’t take pictures to protect their privacy.

José Martí, Cuba’s national hero who was also a poet and essayist, is everywhere in Cuba, including the fence of the community center.

The center also had turtles!

We had a nice lunch at the center, and then we were invited to watch part of a party/initiation rite for a secret society of Abekuá, a religion of Bantu origin. We walked through the yard where people were waiting for those going through the initiation to emerge from the temple building. There was a lot of people, a lot of drumming, plenty of empty beer cans, and a dead rooster (sacrificial, I’m guessing) in the corner. Pictures were not allowed as it was a religious ceremony. After we got back to the center, the directors explained that we were the first large group of foreigners that had ever been invited to witness such an event at that temple. It was cool that they let us observe and that we saw something that very few foreigners get to see.

Then we went to a dance studio in Old Havana called La Casa del Son for a salsa class. Our group had Adrián and María as our instructors. They taught us several combinations that they named by number, so we had to remember which sequence went with each number. After some individual practice, they brought in other dancers so that every student had a teacher-partner. It reminded me of the moments in Dirty Dancing when the dance teachers went into the crowd and chose resort guests to dance with them. My partner, Cobá, was helpful, and all of the teachers were positive: they high-fived us every time we went through a set of sequences. No pics here because we were busy dancing!

Day 4: Beach, Neighbors, and Family

Today the group made an excursion to Santa María Del Mar. DD1 and I were excited about this because it is one of the beaches that my mom regularly visited with her family.

Our host family was concerned about pickpockets and advised us to leave our phones at home. This was great for protecting valuables, but it meant that we had no camera. A friend graciously agreed to share her pics of that day, so credit to V here.

The beach was beautiful! It must have been amazing to have this as a regular outing spot growing up.

There was a Portuguese Man of War that had washed up on the beach, though, and some people spotted more floating on the water. I’m not sure if that’s seasonal, but definitely be careful if you go.

The stretch of beach that we were on was fairly undeveloped. There was a hotel and some food stands near the access point. Once on the beach, there were umbrellas and chairs for rent and vendors selling snacks, coconuts (with rum added if you wish), hats, and sunglasses. We even saw some folks who had arranged for a table and dinner set up on the beach. The only thing missing? Bathrooms. We tried going to the hotel, and security said the restrooms were only for guests. When I asked if that held even if we bought a drink, he referred me to their gift shops in the other building. Once there, we bought drinks and asked an employee about restrooms, and she was nice enough to take us to one for employees. Incidentally, we also tried to get lunch at the hotel cafeteria and were again turned away by security. It’s weird because most hotels I know of in other countries are happy to let non-guests pay to eat at their restaurants. Eventually I spotted a restaurant a little ways down that may have had facilities.

After the beach, we met up with our host family. First they drove us through the neighborhood where my mom lived as a teen, Casino Deportivo. We went by a park that she knew

and a place that was a market when she lived there.

I had my mom’s address with the cross streets and description of where it was along that block. We went there and saw that the house numbers weren’t anything close to what she had written down. We double-checked our cross streets and deduced which house must have been hers.

Our host dad mentioned that some parts of the city had houses renumbered as part of urban planning efforts, so that maybe that’s what had happened on this street. There was a man on the street, about 30 years old, so my host dad asked him how long they had had these house numbers. The guy said it was a long time, but when my host dad followed up asking if the numbers went back to 1959, he wasn’t sure. He said that the family across the street had been there for a long time and suggested we ask them.

That family was on their front porch, so my host dad approached them. They confirmed that the house numbers had indeed changed. My host dad explained why he was asking, and they started asking for my family’s name. I started with our family surname, then the first names of my grandparents and my mom. Then I remembered that my mom went by a nickname and shared that. Then the grandfather of the family cried out, “la hermana de [my uncle’s nickname]?”

I responded that [nickname] was my uncle!

We had a nice conversation. The grandfather had grown up on that street since he was three. He used to ride bikes with my uncle and said that he had a picture of them at a birthday party somewhere in his house. He remembered that my mom played piano and that my grandfather drove a Chevrolet. I shared some old pictures of my mom and uncle on my phone and took his contact information so he and my uncle could get in contact. (Post-trip update: my mom and uncle had a video call with him!)

After that amazing encounter, we had another one: our host family drove us to meet our cousin and his wife. It was great to be able to meet them in person for the first time! They introduced us to white guavas, shared stories, and showed us lots of old family photos. Some had been taken in Cuba, like this one of my cousin Martha (RIP) on her wedding day.

Others had reached them from the US. I guess I’d forgotten that my mom sent my senior picture to Cuba!

We’re so glad that we had the chance to spend some time with them!

Day 5: Getting Schooled

We began our day at CIPS with a talk about education. Not surprisingly, it started with a José Martí quote.

The talk did couch things in terms of improvements that have happened since the Revolution, but it is true that there were inequalities in education before that time.

Also, the speaker had worked for 12 years in the literacy brigades teaching older adults, so I respected that she walked the walk on the topic of education. She also just described how education is structured in Cuba, such as what grades are at which schools and college entrance exams.

Her finishing slide reminded me of much of the perspective of I had been hearing: pro-Revolution with an upbeat, love-for-all vibe.

Our next stop was an elementary school.

The main lobby had a wall of pictures for Fidel,

And some photos of when current President Díaz Canel visited their school: a study in contrasts, to be sure.

The kids had planned dance performances for us in the school lobby, but there was an apagón when we arrived. They had found a speaker that would play—I’m guessing it was battery-powered—but every group would have to cut their performance short so that there’d be enough power for everyone. The kids adapted and gave great abbreviated performances (not sharing pics to protect the kids’ privacy).

After that, each performing child was told to find a person from our group and give them a tour of the school. My tour guide, A, was a sweet fifth-grader whose favorite subject is math. She took me by the hand and showed me all around the school, and soon one of her friends joined us to assist in the tour.

We saw the computer room, which every class visits once a week. I noticed the mention of Scratch Jr.

This is the lunchroom.

On the menu: pea stew, white rice, beet salad, jam and bread.
I noticed a cardboard Granma in the Kindergarten room, though I don’t know how often it is brought down for lessons. The kids were coloring numbers at the time.

I spotted one classroom named for José Martí’s narrative children’s poem “Los zapaticos de rosa.”

I explained to A that I had taken a picture of the sign because my mom was born in Cuba and used to have that book. She told me that the story was in her José Martí reader and promptly took me to see an art project on “Los zapaticos de rosa”

And a José Martí quote.

After lunch, we visited the Literacy Museum, which is specifically about the Literacy Brigades that Castro formed in 1961.

I am all for literacy, and the brigades were successful, but I felt like we were getting the government point of view laid on pretty thick at this museum. Maybe it felt that way because our group, along with the museum tour guide, was being supervised by some type of party official. Also, the museum told more about the politics of the brigades—e.g., how some were attacked by counter-revolutionaries—than how they taught people to read. We actually learned more about that from the speaker that morning. Fortunately, this was the only place on the trip where I felt like we received any attempt at conversion to the party line. To the contrary, everyone else was very open about the challenges people in Cuba were facing—which, at least at this moment in time, does not make for a very convincing argument.

Thanks for reading! Next I will share about our trip to Viñales.

This featured blog entry was written by amikulski from the blog Family Travel Files.
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By amikulski

Posted Sun, Apr 07, 2024 | Cuba | Comments