Tomas and Celi setting up

Tomas and Celi setting up


Despite purchasing a wifi card and spending an entire hour at a wifi spot, I have not yet managed to connect to the internet or figured out how to make a phone call.  Yes, we are in a different world, but it’s also me, who is just too computer/phone illiterate to overcome the hurdles an American phone is putting up trying to prevent me from accessing any insecure connections in a country not served by US phones.  Ughh!  

And here is what you already figured out, my “confession”: This blog is not rolling out in real time. Technology got the better of me.  When this blog will roll out, I will already be home.  But…  I did write the blog, as always, as I went.  Day by day if possible:  In the mornings before Celi woke up, on the bus, on the road, and at night, until I would zonk out.  It’s all I can do under the circumstances.  I hope you understand.  But back to our day:

The computer situation is way different from the Cuba I encountered 15 years ago.  Most Cubans have cell phones that function as mini-computers.  There is no wifi at private homes but most of the luxury hotels that cater to foreigners, have wifi access and make it public in their lobby-bars, as long as you consume something.  The government is providing wifi hotspots through town, typically in public parks.  Especially young people congregate there and facebook and email as everywhere else in the world; almost – there is no google!

It was precisely that lack of access to google and my lack of Spanish that got us into a mixed up situation not uncommon for people even with access to all the information; as we were told later.  Factoria, fabrica – it all was the same to me.  This morning we were scheduled to meet with art conservator Tomas Aquilino Lopez Sanchez at the Factoria de Artes.  Well-known, in fact world-famous by now and listed on my Havana map, is however the FAC or Fabrica de Artes de Cuba.  One is located in Old Havana, the other one is in Vedado, two districts and a 20-minute taxi ride apart from each other. 

We headed from Old Havana to Vedado in a cool, Havana-style, American Oldie taxi and promptly were overcharged triple.  The Fabrica (FAC), indeed an old factory, was closed and deserted.  The doorman had never heard of Tomas and we could not make a call.  We paid him one of our CUCs to make a local phone call.  Tomas was waiting at the Factoria…   Back we went in another taxi, once again paying double the local price.  We had no alternative.  But as if to compensate us for this rough start of the day, a drop-dead gorgeous, tall woman entered the courtyard.  A person actually affiliated with the FAC who gave us her card and invited us to a fashion show when we will return to Havana.  The FAC is a place where fashion, music, visual arts, performing arts and all come together in nightly events.  It opens from 8 PM to 3 AM.  That says it all.

Tomas was recommended by a friend of a friend of a friend; so it goes when you go to Cuba.  He works as a conservator and curator in a government-run art gallery in a three-floor colonial building that had been built by a New Jersey printing company.  When American businesses got expelled after the 1959 Revolution, it had become a bank and eventually fallen into disrepair.  By 2009, the government had restored and refurbished it and it was opened as a gallery.  Sponsorship for the arts in the US pales in comparison to Cuba.  It is a phenomenon I remember well from East Germany.  Cultural institutions never had to worry about funding.  They only had to worry about crossing the red political line.  It was the price to pay, and which situation is better or worse, is debatable.

Two Cuban artist-collaborators, Jose Toirac and Octavio Marin, had put up a show of artifacts on honesty based on the legend of Diogenes, who had walked around in ancient Greece with a lantern day after day and when asked, replied that he was looking for an honest man.  The show is entitled:  Diogenes Y La Luz.  Obviously a difficult task then and now.  These artists had sifted through Cuban history and picked who they considered honest people; rich and poor, famous and ordinary, past and contemporary ones.  If we had just strolled through the exhibit, we would have missed nearly all of the well-conceived artistic and political messages.  The exhibit was highly conceptual.  With Tomas as our guide, the depth of their artistic thought opened up to us.  The exhibition was a phenomenal commentary on Cuba and a testimony to these artists’ intellectual and artistic prowess. 

Not only were we blessed with Tomas as a guide, but he joined us for lunch and patiently answered the dozens of questions we had about life in Cuba.  Not enough.  When he heard that Celibeth was working on an art installation, he connected us with El Ojo del Ciclon, an artist’s studio in which local artists, visitors, students, and guests gathered daily.  That place was something else.  An artist had taken an old corner house and instead of hiding the decay had turned it into a Gesamtkunstwerk.  Graffiti, collages, sculptures, a decorated old car, a “bedroom”, piles of prints and paintings for sale, there was no end to this KunstkammerHaunted House crossover.  We could not have pictured a more fitting environment.  They would help to complete her project.  This was more than we could have hoped for. Thanks, Tomas!

It had been a long day and we headed home.  Celibeth had made plans on going bowling that night.  I decided to give the internet one more try.  But before dark and while Celibeth rested, I went for another stroll.  As if guided by a divine hand, I turned a corner only a few blocks from our home and found myself in front of the Jewish synagogue of Old Havana, Synagoga Adath. 

It was Friday night. 

I had no head cover and a big camera dangled around my shoulder.  A definite no-no for an orthodox and even conservative congregation.  I entered and quickly seized the situation:  The Sabbath service was in full swing.  Before anyone took notice of me I snapped one picture and quickly stowed the camera in my backpack.  Women were seated separately from the men.  That indicated a stricter than Reform congregation.  I peeked into the women’s section.  Several women were without head cover.  I should be OK.  And so I entered.  The back rows were filled.  I had no choice but to sit in front of everyone; a bit of a conundrum as I don’t know what I am doing.  A glass divider in front of me allowed me a glimpse on to the women behind me.  I mimicked as well as I could what they were doing:  Get up, sit down, turn around, nod.  I even knew some of the songs. 

The synagogue was a two-story modern corner building with two floors.  I suspect that it is more of a community center with a store, a child-care facility (I saw two strollers) and perhaps a few other facilities.  I will have to google that. 

Left of the women’s section, through a milky glass, I could see the shadows of the men.  The rabbi was towering above them all, his voice leading the about 15 men in the pews.  We were only 7 on the women’s side.  About 30 minutes of prayers and songs passed when the men gathered in the women’s section, which doubled up as a community room featuring several dinner tables.   The rabbi gave a rousing speech that seemed of interest mainly to him.  Some men dozed off, others’ thoughts obviously drifted, a few stared into the far distance.  Only one of the women seemed to follow, nodding here and there.  Despite the rabbi’s passion, he could not even elicit a smile from anyone. 

After the sermon was over, the rabbi blessed the sabbath and we all lifted a small glass of kosher, super-sweet wine.  At that point, everyone got up and lined up in front of the two small bathrooms.  I guess it was time for a cleansing of sorts.  The Challah bread was brought in and put before the rabbi and it was clear that the actual ceremony and celebration of the evening was just beginning.  But I thought it was a good moment for me to slip out. 

As agnostic as I am, I am always moved when I have these spiritual chance opportunities during my trips.  I feel assured that somebody out there is watching over me. 

Shabbat Shalom.