Art Gallery

Art Gallery

SYNOPSIS:  About rations, ferries, trash, art, yacht clubs, tattoos, and more.

The sun was beating down on us much stronger than in Havana.  But I guess that beats the Michigan winter by a long shot.  We were only a few blocks away from the central plaza via the boulevard.  Much of the shopping that is above and beyond the government-allotted monthly rations — happens here.  Cubans have their basics met.  Housing is either cheap or free entirely, medical expenses and educational costs are met by the government.  And rations for all necessities are given to every citizen; they last for about 10 days.  Roysito in Havana jokingly commented:  In most countries, 95% of the population work, 5% are unemployed.  In Cuba 5% of the population works, 95% do nothing.   But 20 days have to be covered somehow, and if you desire luxury items of any sort, you have to work above and beyond.  And let’s just say this:  Most Cubans, even with connections to the West, with opportunities to make CUC (or hard currency), are not rich.  But some are!

Cienfuegos runs an exclusive, high-end athletic club and the yachts parked in the bay are nothing short of spectacular.  Celi bought a day pass for the club and spent the afternoon swimming and making new fateful friends, while I explored a nearby castle. One of her new friends, Michael, a Cuban-Canadian, sported a Cuban-Canadian flag on his chest — Celi just had to have a flag, too… Yes, last night she took off with Michael and his family to a friend who runs a tattoo parlor and got a Cuban flag tattooed right on her sunburned skin.  I can’t even imagine the pain.   If anyone needs a Cuban flag for life though, it’s Celi. This is her fifth trip to Cuba and it surely will not be her last.  She was obviously born in the wrong country.   

But back to shops and stuff:  In government-run stores, restaurants, or for transportation services, you see two price systems:  CUP and CUC.  The ratio is about 1:25. Yesterday, for example, I took a ferry to a nearby castle where I had to pay 1CUC ($1 or 25 Pesos).  In comparison, the locals paid 1 CUP (1 Peso, or 2.5 Pennies).  That ferry was another example of total chaos.  Obviously, not enough ferries run between Cienfuegos and Jagua, where the neatly restored 18th century Fortaleza de Nuestra Senora de Jagua is located.  It is the 3rd most important castle in Cuba and was built to keep pirates and the British out.  Jagua is also a fishing village and the entrance to the large bay preceding Cienfuegos. 

Already an hour before the ferry departed, a line had formed.  I thought at first I had gotten the departure time mixed up and dutifully got in line.  1/2 hour before departure a small door opened and like the storm of the Bastille, the piled up sea of humanity made a run for a tiny, rusty, old boat.  That was the ferry?  OMG!  By the time I got on, I thought it was crowded.  But people kept piling on and on and on, until the boat was a death trap.  Now I understood that 1 hour in line got you a seat, or as in my case, a standing spot in the shade. Some people ended up in the beating sun on top of the ferry for this 1-hour ride…  Miraculously, we all made it.  The ferry departed from the “harbor”, which hosted a few other rusty fishing boats and the most imposing 2000 people (or more) yacht that had anchored here for the second day.  The contrast could not have been more ridiculous. 

The bay of Cienfuegos is beautiful.  The town itself has a Malecon, or seaside promenade, but as you come closer, you realize the inescapable stink caused by all the trash floating ashore.  People on the ferry tossed everything from cigarettes, to paper to plastic wraps into the water.  Unfathomable!  Why do they think this is OK?  This is their water?  The town itself is very clean.  But when we walked to one of the cemeteries, we passed the downtown area and walked through a dirt-road shortcut which might as well have been called the city dump.  The most fascinating “trash” were three old steam locomotives that were rusting away and in part had been demolished to create garages, front doors, or sheds around the neighborhood.

Here in Cienfuegos, as elsewhere in Cuba, tourists are a main source of income.   People are creative.  They open small, private restaurants, provide good food, services, often live music, and are able to charge only CUCs (even for the locals).  We met an artist who had a studio right at the main square that would be the dream of any US artist:  four rooms that in part doubled up as display rooms.  I have to believe that it is this prominent location that allowed him contact with tourists and connections abroad. His work is displayed in over a dozen western countries and he is planning a trip to Switzerland soon.  He seems to do well for himself.

Cienfuegos has an art school and art is just simply everywhere; not only here, but everywhere in Cuba.  Contemporary art is held in high esteem.  The more surprising then, to see absolutely horrible trash on people’s walls.   Kitsch does not even begin to capture the stuff that is on people’s walls.  Naked ladies, weird flowers, meaningless landscapes and most of it in heavy black and gold, baroque frames…

Transporting foreigners is another lucrative way to get CUCs.  Taxi services of all sorts are provided by the locals in regular cars, American oldies, horse-drawn carriages — some from colonial times for which you have to pay extra, of course — and the ever-present bicycle taxis.  I took a ride to one of the cemeteries on that one.  My driver took me off the beaten path, proudly showing off a suburb with new construction.  To me, the houses looked nice, but overall the neighborhood had the feeling of a housing projects.  He obviously envied the people who lived there for their peace, quiet, safety, their neighborhood school and hospital.  Someday, he would love to move there with his two kids.  I could not quite figure out on which basis these apartments are allocated.  He mentioned the military and a few other groups of people — but my Spanish and his English both fell short at that point.

Cienfuegos is a laid-back, colorful, cultured town.  We enjoyed our time here and I can only recommend a visit.  For most tourists, this is at best a stopover.  More likely the town gets passed over altogether.  It deserves better.

Good night.

6 comments so far

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  1. Where is the tattoo parlor?
    I’ll have one day in Cienfuegos, and would love to get a tattoo while I’m there.

    • I will try to find out for you, but it might be too late by now? ET

  2. The art is so COLORFUL.
    Re the LGBT activists: I thought gay people were oppressed and had to be under cover in Cuba. No?

    • Ann, we were not able to talk much to these women. I wish… From what we gathered, there is still discrimination, that’s why there are activists. But we saw several transvestites who seemed to go about their ways happily and undisturbed.

  3. I think architects who design socialist housing all graduate from the same school. How boring!

  4. Thank you so much for your descriptions of life in Cuba!