01 June 2015

Cuba: overall impressions

Cuba had been on the list of places I wanted to go for a long time, particularly since my co-worker at NYU, Janet Alicea, went in the early 2000s. Then, in 2004, I learned about the National Art Schools in a show at Storefront for Art and Architecture. The buildings thrilled me with their domes and circular plan. My desire increased as my friend Moira Kelly and I discussed going on the SAH trip about three years ago. College Art announced last fall that they would do a trip in May during the Bienal and I leapt at the opportunity. A few days after I sent in my deposit, President Obama announced that the U.S. was finally going to normalize relations, political and socio-economic, after fifty years of enmity and embargo. Since then, Docomomo US has announced that they are doing a trip in October 2015 that I bet will be delightful.

All that excitement and desire doesn't mean I wasn't somewhat apprehensive. It would be my first extended trip to a developing country. I did get to Mexico a couple times when I lived in Texas, once to a conference in Guadalajara and once for a couple hours on my bike, both fairly restricted in space, time, and coverage. This would cover more ground and involve more diverse circumstances.

The guidebooks described the double currency of convertible and common pesos. It seemed confusing but actually works easily as we tourists mostly didn't see any of the pesos that Cubans use. All of my dealings were in the convertible pesos (CUCs, pronounced kooks which was the source of much amusement, as you can imagine). One of our group members bought an ice cream cone when we were at the National Art Schools and that was in street pesos. By the way, it was melting so fast that he lost control and didn't finish it.

Our CAA group included 39 people, including executive director Linda Downs and president DeWitt Godfrey. Alison Fraunhar of Saint Xavier in Chicago, who has published numerous articles on Cuban art, was there for guidance. I would guess that there were slightly more artists than art historians/curators along with other art professionals and assorted spouses, spices, and companions. I was the only man traveling alone but there were several women traveling alone.

As we rode into the city from the Havana airport, I was thinking about how I'd take some photos of old cars and colorful houses, not yet realizing that both of those would be seen everywhere.
The cars didn't always match. The freshly-scrubbed cars seemed to be mostly those serving as taxis for tourists. There were also metered yellow cabs and rather ordinary cabs in various colors and conditions with spoken prices that presumably were negotiable, not that I did any of that. Five of us did take a ride from Casablanca back to the hotel that was faster and more dramatic than we wanted, and expensive to boot. Having survived, it makes a good story. Another time, the taxi ride was slow and you wondered if the driver would get the gears shifted. Fast and slow, a real mix on the streets including the occasional horse cart or farm equipment.
Not all of the houses were this colorful. This one is the doctor's surgery in the fishing village of Jaimanitas, on the outskirts of Havana. When artist José Rodríguez Fuster started decorating his house in homage to Antonio Gaudí of Barcelona, the neighbors asked Fuster to also decorate their house. Now there are several dozen houses and fences with mosaic and painted decoration. Even this street name marker got mosaicked.

I have posted all of my Cuba pictures on Flickr but have lots of stories to tell. I'll try to get some more blog posts done before the memories get drowned in real life. Being there was perhaps transformative. I know we were rich American tourists and our guide was a government employee but I really did feel, through observation and the guide's words, that there was a greater equality and richness and diversity of social interaction than in the US. Perhaps I read too much about income inequality here but we could use a good dose of income compression as long as it was toward the middle. Gretell Sintes (our guide) said that the important people did get better housing but not immense salaries so they don't drive flashy new cars (how can you compete with a '57 Chevy convertible?) or have McMansions. I just realized that I didn't see a single stretch limo full of shrieking tourists. We did, however, go to supper one night in an entourage of old convertibles, honking and yelling at each other and smiling.

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