Cuba with the family, the bicycle, 3 books and also some art

cycling to Vinales

My trip to Cuba this summer (22 August – 12 Sept 2011) was framed by three books and a text. One of the books was about history (Jenny Erpenbeck’s Heimsuchung/Visitation), the other about family, and the last about travel (the ever so detailed Lonely Planet to Cuba – I really don’t know how they do it!). The art text A Sea without Boats was  by our great mentor David Harding who visited Havana in 2005. All of them were quite randomly (apart of the guide book of course!) given to me just before we left.

The Zeiske-May family en route, Day 1

We – Nick (my husband) and our children Rachel, Deborah and Michael – left Huntly’s non-existent summer behind on a Virgin plane and arrived at our lovely Casa Particular on Calle Aguilain Centro Havana in the late afternoon. After a couple of days in La Habana with all the colonial houses, the chocolate café, the Patisseria Francesa, (a great people watching place, shame just about all the young girls in the hands of wrinkly males from Manchester, Munich and Milano) our first week was already planned out: a cycle trip from the capital to Viñales in the West of Cuba.

We started on the Maleçon, Havana’s 20k long waterfront along the Strait of Florida  – so well described by David Harding – in scorching heat; but luckily cycling offered a welcome breeze and refreshment from the temperatures that we are so not used to. Against all our ambitious cycling plans the first day we only managed to get to Playa Baracoa full of Cubans having fun; no tourist in sight. A decision had to be made: from tomorrow onwards we start at 7am at the latest.

The area west to Havana is very lush, green and hilly, signified by tobacco and sugar cane plantations, the very stuff that formed the great misery of Cuba after the fall of the Berlin wall, when the Soviet Union pulled out from their economic treaty. The Cubans call that time the ‘special period’, which brought a lot of poverty and in some regions even hunger due to the valueless monoculture. But now – thanks to a land reform in the late 1990ies – which gave campesinos small patches of land, you find all the delicacies that the Caribbean tropics have on offer: avocados, mangoes, papayas, rice, it is all there.

From Baracoa we passed the industrial town of Mariel along the coast and got to the superb eco-park of Las Terrazas where already in the 1960ies a grand reforestation programme was launched which now forms a great jungle.  At Rio José’s natural pools we found some nice huts populated by Cuban holiday makers and played some crazy games of charades. The next day presented us with an early flat tire which Michael very ably fixed at a small restaurant with the best ever toilet (see picture for the view from its window!); and a broken chain for Nick.

Toilet at Las Terrazas

But the area was so hilly that we had to push anyway up; down he could just roll until we met some very handy Cubañeros on the road side who were able to fix it while we sipped some coke and rum (or a hot version of Cuba Libre). Rolling into Soroa we found a most lovely Casa Particular (the Cuban version a B+B) called Don Agapito; the owner and his wife – Juan Carlos is a mathematician who works for a seismic station – really bent over to give us the best of food that Cuba had on offer: lobster, fresh fruit, fresh juices, rice with beans, and, and, and….  But in the afternoon a big rainfall (normally a welcome refreshment) came which caused a flush flood, in which Michael and Deborah almost got stuck at the other side of the river. Luckily a nice guard helped them back to habitation.

early morning start in Soroa

From Soroa we rolled down to the autopista, where we stayed for a while alongside other cyclists and a few cars to get onto the caretera naçional. The scenery offered scattered farming settlements, with campesinos on horseback and oxen-driven carts. We took a break at a shop which had bread, but not for us as we had no tokens – no problem, we had a giant avocado and a clutch of bananas instead. What more do we want?

The route like the house in Visitation slowly unfolds the 20th century history of Cuba.  Like the work  of the gardener in the book the thread that binds the landscape together – is the periodic activities of agriculture, large-scale plantations of sugar cane and small scale watering, pruning, composting, etc. As the decades pass and the fields get eaten away by misuse and decay, the campesino’s patience, pragmatic labours become what is unexpectedly moving here. One could not stop thinking that only 25 years ago all one would have seen was sugar cane to feed the cakes and teas of people in the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany, maybe even the inhabitants of the lake-side house in Visitation. The special period radically transformed Cuban society and the economy, as it necessitated the successful introduction of sustainable agriculture and decreased use of cars, and overhauled industry, health, and diet countrywide.

Our arrival in San Diego de los Baños an old mineral spa town was delayed by a giant but very welcome rain fall. How refreshing to get totally wet! Here we found a cigar workshop where we were shown the making of Cuba’s most important export product from start to finish. Most interesting the old Hotel Saratoga, not really for westerners, but they did let us in for a beer (which might have been our stomach’s fate the next few days). The hotel certainly had its former glory, but I loved the crumbled charm, it would have been a paradise for a photographer interested in colonial architecture with absolutely stunning art deco throughout.  San Diego would certainly be the place where I would like to test out the town is the venue if I was given a chance to. I love it: lots of undiscovered features with a great pinch of old-worldliness.Cigar maker in Soroa

The next day we landed in Viñales at the Villa Las Vegas (10 CUC per room) where we were a bit tummy troubled but I rolled up with my book about the sociopathic American youth; the evening we ended up at the Casa de la Musica with some superb local rhythms. Viñales has a lot to offer, we went into a cave where the boat man picked us up in the middle (the rest we walked on our own – it would be a health & safety officer’s night mare) and a tobacco rolling coop (women only with a lot of stages of fermentation going on), the kids went horse riding and we bought a couple of little artworks in a local gallery; but mainly it is all about scenery.  With a little regret in my eye we left it for Havana. If there ever is a next time, we should stay here longer and spend more time in the area, or cycle even further west.


Back in Havana we visited LASA, a project in the neighbourhood of St Augustín. This is a project set up by Aurelie, a French curator and her husband Candelario. They make their living from producing Martí sculptures for housing developments and through this subsidise LASA which focuses on socially engaged and street art projects in the St Augustín neighbourhood, which is predominantly signified by council housing. The idea really is to give the place identity. They started with a census – not dissimilar to our cultural audit. We returned to Havana with our white Cabriolet taxi to the famous art school ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) which is designed in the form of the body of a woman! Cuban architect’s Ricardo Porro’s art school was/is a deliberate suggestion of the female form complete with a fountain shaped as a mamey, or papaya—an overt reference to the female vulva. It has been very lovingly described by David Harding questioning whether we talk about it in polite company.

At night Havana becomes one heaven for music: Rumba, Samba and all the other Latino sounds mixed with their African roots is what one finds here in the bars, cafés and teatros. We went to the Teatro Americano to see a kind of variety show that featured poetry, singing, rumba, dancing and sound, the show in the exquisite art deco building got better and better as the night went on.

One of the (many) highlights of our trip was our drive to Trinidad, for which we hired a 1948 blue Chevrolet taxi with all the old features (and Hyundai motor!). I got behind the story of all the old cars: till today it is not allowed to sell property or cars; hence people can only keep or inherit it but putting in new motors is not a problem. Given the tank-like making of them there was never a problem with rust and therefore Cuba has all these wonderful best-kept vehicles on its quite roads.

Chevrolet for Trinidad

Trinidad is often seen as the pearl of colonial Cuba. It is, but it is therefore also a bit touristy. But really here we listened to the best of music in the whole of the trip: Los Piños in the town’s Casa de la Cultura. It was just magic. I wished I had bought their CD; the trumpeter appeared to be German, but he was a very assimilated one. Another interesting feature about Trinidad is its restaurants which look like antique shops. The rest of the evening we spent at the Casa del a Musica on their steps next to the cathedral watching and listening and dancing to (not me) Salsa and Son. Wild taxi ride in a R4 to our Casa at the La Boca beach, a small village populated by Cuban holiday makers only.

Another highlight of our trip was the Las Caletas beach west of La Boca – we walked the 6k to it in training for our forthcoming marathon in Berlin –with fantastic snorkelling for corals and fish life and all the place to ourselves despite a lovely little bar for our cokes. Sadly Kevin was always accompanying me, even here at the beach. I also got a very odd seaborn tick there.

Another best bit was going up to the Toppes the Collante hills; steep up to the 850m our first stop was the coffee house there and a little museo with the history de la revoluçion, as Ché and Fidel spent a lot of time here hiding and fighting. From here we walked the Sentiero Batato where we found after an hour some caves with some magically cool pools. This would definitely be the place to stay longer if we ever came again, just because it is so much cooler and therefore one can do the most fantastic walks. You think you are in a giant botanic garden here. I picked some papyrus and some mimosas on the way, deciding to get into house planting once back in Huntly (never happened, sorry). On the way back we discovered the great hyperrealist landscape painter Tomás Sánchez whose tropical forests come from inside his mind – in a small gallery en route.

on the autopista

Our last step before returning to Havana was Cienfuegos a sea side town of former glory, where recently the UNESCO world heritage status came to rescue. We got a Casa in Punta Gorda called Ana Maria, which had its own beach on one side and a sea side view in front of the house!! So you could observe both sun set and sun rise from the place. Like Erpenbeck’s house in eastern Germany this house is oozing with history, while the Caribbean sea replaces the Mecklenburg lake, the happenings of the 20th century carved out its spirit today. Lets hope the impending events that increased capitalism will bring to Cuba will not kill its charm, or even replace it all together. After a swim in the bay and Guava juice for breakfast we faced the 37+ C to explore the town and it’s amazing colonial architecture, including an ancient necropolis, while at night we explored more music in the local Casa de la Musica.

Back in Havana I finally finished with Kevin. He has done the long anticipated horrible act it in the penultimate chapter. The last chapter reconciled the whole book; his mother Eva Khatchadourianwas looking into the police car with cupped hands asking ‘What have you done?’ He searched hard in her face, but she did not know for what. The reflective chapter made up for it all in the end.

The last few days we spent exploring more of Havana and more of its artists. In the Havana Biennial office at the Centro Wilfredo Lam I was presented by some 8 young artists with their splendid and refreshing work. Highlights were the work of Celia Gonzalez Alvarez and her  work partner Julien Aguiar Perdomo, who married and divorced six times in an attempt to analyse the limits of government bureaucracy. Given that it is not allowed to buy property other than a grave they made one in a backyard. They also matched a trip in Tobago with the one of the coast line in Cuba (only to discover that as Cubanos they are not allowed to stay in the hotel they investigated of course).

Carlos Martiel bound himself onto a running horse and sewed an English gentlemen’s suit on his body in an attempt to discover racial and social relations through a mix of violence, love and hate.

Grethell Rasún Fasiños works with human left overs: snot, hair, finger nails, shit, pee, menstruation blood… She makes jewellery from hair and foot nails, paints shanty houses with a mix of pee, clay and chalk in a plea to find the truth between the beautiful and the ugly. Next to this she makes the most hauntingly beautiful photographs looking at Havana houses that have been bit done up, but mostly crave for attention, colour juxtaposing the range of grey of the colonial facades.

Renier Quèr made a most eerie film about his father’s (who was an active member of the revolutionary army in the 1950ies) sleep, haunted by frequent nightmares.

Nick and I also undertook a studio visit in the Playa area visiting the artist René Francisco. He showed us his paintings where paint has been layered on canvas with a spatula, using a painstaking, pointillist technique. Most of the works have sociological and political themes; some of them show masses of indistinguishable faces in black-and-white. Also the people sculptures made of lead tooth paste tubes from the Russian era. We were particularly taken by one work that included a picture of some American soldiers taking Göhring’s paintings in Germany. René is very popular also due to his unorthodox teaching methods at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). His determination to create interaction between students and professors led him to create Galería DUPP, DesdeunaPedagogíaPragmática. René talks admiringly about the ISA, which isn’t for him only a school to learn to paint, but a school of ideas, where the professors try to shape the students.

Rene Francisco Art work
Rene Francisco Art work

René has also done a lot for the cause of conceptual art and community development; he has a great commitment to El Romerillo, one of Havana’s most infamous slums. Once he received a grant from a German art foundation which he used to help residents by renovating Rosa Estévez’s house (Casa de Rosa). He also turned the yard of Marcelina Ochoa, who everyone in El Romerillo called “Nin”, into a garden. The documentation of El Patio de Nin was exhibited at the Venice Biennial in 2007.

Our stay was rounded off with a night at the wonderful La Guarida Paladar (restaurants in private houses which started in the ‘special era’ but are now providing a great counterpart to the normally state-run restaurants) on the 2nd floor of a full tenement building. After that we went to the Casa de la Musica for a great Rumba and Salsa evening where Rachel and Deborah could show us their newly acquired skills from the dance lessons that morning.

I am endlessly jovial that Rachel, Deborah and Michael went with us. It has been a revelation to me to discover them as adults and not as children. I have been busy the last 21 years to bring them up, and when you start off, you don’t know where this road will take you. A question that was raised too much with the book that accompanied me on this trip (and on return I discovered became a bestseller movie, which I watched with Michael the week before he turned 18). But now I know that they can stand on their own feet, while being your children, your friends and great travel companions at the same time.

And only on the flight back to London, I finally managed to get to the last pages of the Lonely Planet too. This made me realise that there is much, much more to do another time.

Bueno – Hasta la vista!; or – Haste ye back Cuba!

(Deborah proof read this text. She epilogued that somehow I must like Kevin. I am not sure that is true. But I certainly know that did not like his mother).

bye-bye to Havana on Jose Marti airport

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