Cuban Diary Day 4: Religion, Restoration, and Revolution

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Today is our fourth day in Cuba.

Up at 6 am today to find out that hot water is not turned on until 6:30. The same smell of cigarettes is here, stronger in the night but still here. Going down to breakfast, our next-door neighbor held the elevator for us. Unfortunately, none of us thought to push a floor button, so the elevator ascended rather than descended. After 5 more stops (2 on the way up, 3 on the way down), we had added 9 French-speaking passengers for a total of 12 on the elevator. (The posted capacity for the elevator is 10 persons.) It was so crowded that a young man waiting at one of the stops did not get on (but the woman at the next stop did squeeze in after making a face). We original three, being at the back of the car by now, were last off. As Lazaro said, “it looks like a clown car” as we all streamed off the elevator. The last departing Frenchman turned and smiled. Our neighbor, the first on the car, was the last off and the last into the breakfast buffet (no good deed goes unpunished).

Lobby, Hotel Presidente

Following the French crowd into the breakfast buffet, we saw that it was overfilled with no place to sit. Caridad found an empty table in the lobby outside the restaurant door, and by the end of breakfast, there were several other Americans (only) at the tables there. The buffet offerings were the same as yesterday, and again, the palatable choices (for Caridad) were a boiled egg, toast, and dates.  Lazaro readjusted the toaster, moving the setting from toast to bagels, since the toaster was not powerful enough to toast a slice of bread on one pass. We had juice and coffee, which were passable. Other pastries tried were lead. One of our group at dinner yesterday had suggested the cheese, but when we looked at it this morning, there was very little left around the edges of the tray and that was congealed. We can’t believe that the Cuban people, cooking at home with the same ingredients, would produce what passes for food in this restaurant.

Lazaro again tried to get change to use for tips, by asking the front desk for 1 CUC notes, but they had none, only 3 CUC notes. With the unfavorable exchange rate, and tipping at least 1 CUC at a time, tipping becomes quite expensive. (A CUC is valued here at more than $1.15 USD.)

Heading back to the two elevators, we observed that their cars were stopping at certain floors for a long time before ascending. Finally, a car reached the lobby and we got on with another group member. At the second floor, five people were waiting with four large suitcases. We told them that the elevator was going up, but three people and all the luggage crowded in. The other two people presumable walked down the one flight of stairs to the lobby. At the 6th floor, the three of us squeezed out around the luggage. We don’t know what happened to the people who wanted to go down by going up.

We were back down to the lobby before 9 am, and the bus and guide arrived shortly. On the bus, the guide told us that our first stop (the Convento Belén community center) was canceled because they had no water and could not have visitors for a week. Our schedule was rearranged.

The event previously scheduled for the afternoon, a visit to the Yoruba Association “to learn about the influence of African religions on Cuban culture,” came first. A representative there talked to us, in accented English, about religion and the exhibits in the building. Her talk and the displays were informative and interesting. When Nigerians were taken from Africa to work for the Spanish in Cuba, they were only allowed to worship in the Catholic faith. Of course, they already had their own beliefs and gods, and so they incorporated them into their Catholic worship. Their gods are represented by the Catholic saints, in addition to their representation as Afro-Cuban orishas (saint-gods). For example, the orisha Aggayú is associated with the Catholic Saint Christopher. The sculptures and tableaus in this museum represent these orishas. This merged religion, Santería, only exists in Cuba, and the Yoruba Association is the “museum” for this part of their culture. Photography inside the museum was prohibited, but the shop owner on the first floor welcomed picture-taking.

The Santería shop sells only religious items. The shelves against the back wall display Catholic saints and other figures with religious significance. Notice the figures of native Americans on the left of the top shelf: Cubans include native Americans in their ancestry. The case of hats contains decorated ceremonial hats for the Santero (priest) as well as white caps that can be worn by male initiates into the religion. (During the first year of initiation into Santería, both male and female initiates wear only white.)

Next, we visited the Escuela Taller Workshop School, where young men and women between 18 and 25 years of age are taught skills needed in the restoration of the many old buildings in Cuba. They are taught concrete, stone masonry, plastering, woodworking, glasswork, plumbing, electricity, painting, and murals. Their schooling takes two years, beginning with 6 months of coursework and ending with 1.5 years of on-the-job training. After this, they are guaranteed a job by the government in restoration projects. If they want, they can work independently completely or in addition to government work after they complete training. On average, women comprise 30% of the classes, depending on the skills needed. The government plans two years ahead for projects to be worked on, and the school adjusts its classes to meet this need. We saw students replicating plaster moldings and planing wood. We also saw a table saw with absolutely no safety guards.

Lunch at Restaurante Santo Ángel came next. We had black bean soup as an appetizer; a seafood skewer, chicken or pork for the entree; and strawberry ice cream for dessert. A band (clarinet, oboe, and two string instruments) played while we were there, and a collection to tip them was taken.

As we stood in the shade in front of a store, the guide described foreign private enterprise in Cuba. Foreign companies can rent space in Cuban government-owned buildings and keep the profits; individual-owned Cuban companies cannot. The store we were standing in front of is English; it sells clothing (a shirt in the window costs 100 CUC), but the guide has never seen anyone in that store for the ten years it has been there. All around the square were similar foreign-owned companies. One of the tour members would like to open a business in Cuba selling electrical parts, since he does that at home.

Train in front of marketplace
Train engine in front of Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes San José

After this, we went to Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes San José, located in a harbourside warehouse in Old Havana.  This is a huge indoor market where art, wood carvings, leather items, and anything a tourist might want were presented in hundreds of small stalls in many rows. Resisting the many entreaties to “come into my stall,” we walked past and looked at every stall. Some of the art was very interesting, but really too large to bring home. (Photography inside was discouraged, since the artwork was original.) We admired the train engines sitting in front of the building, and then waited in shade for the bus.

After this, we drove to the “Plaza de la Revolución” or “Revolution Square” to see the memorial to the Cuban hero José Martí, completed in 1959. This tower, already on top of a hill, is 109 meters tall; the statue of Marti is 18 meters tall.  (There is a rumor that the underground base of the tower is as deep as the tower is tall, containing a bunker for high government officials.) The fee to walk up the hill was 1 CUC, for which we each paid using a 3 CUC note, receiving 2 CUC each in small change. This is what we need for tips and restrooms. We walked up the hill, hoping to ride the elevator to the top of the monument, but it was not running.  We hurried back to the bus, just making our 15 minute deadline.

Around the plaza are the National Library, government ministries, and other important government buildings. On two of these buildings are the huge steel likenesses of the most important deceased heroes of the Cuban revolution:  Ernesto “Che” Guevara  on the Ministry of the Interior, and Camilo Cienfuegos Gorriarán on the Ministry of Communications.

Palace of the Revolution

Behind the plaza is the Palace of the Revolution, which is the seat of the Cuban government and of the Communist Party (the “Cuban White House”). (We tried to imagine a tunnel between this building and the rumored bunker beneath the Revolution Square tower.)

After this, we drove back to the hotel to “freshen up” before dinner. This means a short nap after blogging.

Just before 6:45, we went to the lobby to meet the group for dinner. It was raining, so Lazaro hurried back to our room to get the umbrella. It was still raining when the bus got to the restaurant, but finished before dinner was over. The Russian paladar Nazdarovie is a Soviet Union style restaurant. The food was excellent. We shared a table with another couple from the tour group, and their company was excellent also. We were back on the bus before 8:30 and dropped off at the hotel shortly after. Six of the group continued on the bus to a musical performance, and they will taxi back to the hotel afterward. We and the other couple from dinner sat in the hotel lobby and listened to a group of (mostly female) musicians play and sing, long enough to tip them twice. At one point, we were the only group listening, so the vocalist came to our table as she sang “Yesterday” in almost perfect English. We went back to our rooms at about 10:30, to get ready for tomorrow. While we were in the elevator, a young woman got on wearing a red Nike shirt, and our companions joked with her about exercising on vacation. As it happens, she lives one town away from us. Small world.

Stay tuned for more of our Cuban diary. If you want to catch up on the first days, read:

Eight Days in Cuba: an Introduction

Cuban Diary Day 1: Arriving in Cuba

Cuban Diary Day 2: Squares of Old Havana

Cuban Diary Day 2: Views of Old Havana

Cuban Diary Day 3: Cigars, Salad and Salsa

Cuban Diary Day 3: Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigia

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