2017
03.16
CUCs and CUPs

CUCs and CUPs

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT PEOPLE, PRINTS AND PLAYAS.  ABOUT 82-4-10 AND A FEW OTHER SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS.

It is the fifth time Celibeth has been in Cuba.  The last time was 14 years ago, but people here remember her fondly.  The first few days in Havana we connected and will connect with a few of them.  There was Roy, an uncle of a friend and taxi driver (on a need-to-be basis), who picked us up from the airport.  Of course, he could not just drop us off at our AirBnB but a stop-over at his small suburban house was obligatory.  There, his wife awaited us with a stack of old photos, remembering Celi’s last few visits.  A small wooden calendar was dragged out of nowhere; a present Celi had left 14 years ago. 

Presents, particularly those left by visitors from abroad, mean a lot to people here; more than to us in the States.  No matter how insignificant these presents are, they represent novelty items that are not available and they indicate that Cubans may be isolated, but not forgotten, and that they have connections to the world “out there”. 

Roy prepared a delicious specialty coffee for us mixed from 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot chocolate and 1/3 milk, with sugar of course.  Their teenage son Roycito, had turned into a successful graduate student who after studying English for 5 years at the university was not only fluent, but well on his way to a successful career in the tourist industry.  He was a fountain of useful information. 

In the evening, we expected more visitors:  Gisela, an English teacher and her partner Harahy, who works in a government office.  For two days of work per week she makes $12, or Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC) per month!  Our chins dropped.  We were unable to ask further questions about this inconceivable price-canyon; we had just paid $25 for a taxi from the airport!  How could this work?  Was that $12 a bonus payment above and beyond her base salary?  Was it because she was a government worker?  What was her base salary?  We don’t know.  But when today, we picked up a few bananas, onions, and a couple of tomatoes from a street vendor and were asked to pay a mere 10 Cuban Pesos (CUP)  for it (about 40 cents), there seemed to be at least one possible explanation:  These two currencies exist in two parallel universes.  I am sure we will learn more about this as time goes on.

Today, Roy picked us up to drive us to an artist couple who lives in the small beach town of Guanabo.  Single-family homes with yards and swimming pools next to the beach made a prosperous impression.  But the roads in town were so riddled with potholes that our old Lada almost lost some of its underpinnings… 

Since we were interested in meeting contemporary artists, these two had been recommended to us by Heine, the owner of a translation business and yet another friend of Celibeth’s.  Janette Brossard and Norberto Marrero are internationally known print-makers.  They have gallery contracts in Switzerland; had artist-residencies in Massachusetts, and are represented in various places.  Their work is breathtaking and their printmaking techniques are impeccable and innovative.  Rather than trying to explain their work, I recommend you google it.  My biggest discovery at their home and studio was a technique I had never even heard of: Collagraphy.  It involves a combination of collage making and traditional print-making.  It took looking at an actual template for me to fully grasp the gist of the process.  Whereas Jannette focuses more on portraits and people, Norbert incorporates a lot of dark, surrealist humor in his two and three-dimensional works.  Recurring themes of multi-headed dragons, decapitated kings, drowning damsels, helicopter-winged creatures and more, interact in curious scenes; some of which convey deep subliminal and even political messages. 

Art in Cuba has been less restricted than in many other socialist societies I am familiar with.  Art Schools promote a wide range of styles and media and foster innovation on all levels.  Havana boasts a lively art scene and numerous art galleries.  We will explore a few of them.

Our way back to Havana took us along the North coast of the island.  From the autopista one can spot some of the turquoise blue ocean, sandy beaches, and resort towns that dot the coastline.  Roy stopped at Playa Santa Maria where Celi and I indulged in an hour long swim, riding the waves. 

A delicious seafood lunch was our reward at a cozy thatched-roofed restaurant where we made the brief acquaintance of an ex-Cuban couple who had returned to Cuba for the first time in 57 years!  Visibly moved, the man recounted his reunion with a tree in the nearby park which he used to climb as a boy.   A salsa band entertained with some of the Cuban classics familiar from the movie Buena Vista Social Club.  Listening to this foot-tapping music near that pristine shore, one can see where the idea originated that Cuba is paradise.  Sipping a Mojito at the same time does not hurt this notion, either.  One can almost forget that the world is riddled with problems. 

Returning to Havana put a reality check on this picture perfect day.  We are trying to eat much of our food at our AirBnB home.  Yesterday, Celi had secured some ham.  Today we picked up some fruits and bread from street vendors.  But we still needed water.  What should have been a stop at the corner shop turned into an hour hunt for water.  Every mercado or grocery store I was sent to seemed out of bottled water.  Finally, I spotted a whole palette of water still wrapped in plastic.  When I asked for water at the counter they shook their head.  No water.  But wait… I pointed to the stack in the corner.  No, that was not yet ready for sale!  I almost panicked  This was the fourth store out of water.  I continued up and down the narrow alleys of Old Havana until finally, a small street window leading out from a restaurant displayed just what I wanted:  Large water bottles.   By now I had ventured about 6 blocks from home.  I only had to carry the load home and master the 82 stairs up to our fourth floor apartment.  Just for the fun of it:  Lift 6 1.5 liter bottles — that is no joke.   And 82 steps are no joke either.  But I realized that if I had to climb those stairs day after day with groceries, kids, and other loads to carry. I would most likely be in good shape.  And so, I called it exercise rather than a chore. 

Only beer was missing now.  Heineken was everywhere.  But yesterday, we had gotten our hands on some German beer called Bavaria.  We were not about to lower our standards.  Celi knew where to go.  When we asked for 5 of the cans, we were told we could only have 4.  Why?  No explanation.  If we had not been on our way to a wifi spot I would have tested this rule.  Was it 4 per person?  2 per person?  What if I returned to the store 5 minutes later asking for another 4 cans?  Why was the beer rationed today but had not been rationed yesterday?  More questions than answers.

The good news is that I had a beer when I went to the balcony writing this blog.  And in all likelihood there will be some beer somewhere tomorrow should we need more.  Different countries, different customs.  I should be drinking mojito’s of course, but there will be time.  I am sure.

Good night.