Cuba in February (2)

Cuba in February (2) Cuba-HavanaStatue “My grandfather went to that factory every day for five years, and he oiled that machinery.” This is the story of a grandfather who was a tanner by trade, and having arrived in Cuba from Europe, he worked hard, and in spite of fierce competition, and because of his honourable business practice and business acumen, he finally owned a factory. Sadly for him, four years after the revolution, the regime decided to include smaller businesses in their centralization of the economy. They told him he had to close his tanning factory, telling him the space was needed for storage, throwing skilled leatherworkers out of work, depriving them of decent wages, and depriving the town at one stroke not only of good jobs, but of locally-produced leather goods. For five years, the factory sat idle, and the old man would go into the place every day and oil the machinery against the day when he would be allowed to re-open the factory, thus providing jobs, continuing a tradition of craftsmanship. Finally, a more aggressive centralization was instituted, and the government sent in a crew with acetylene torches and cut up the machinery for scrap. I for one cannot excuse the regime for such bizarre and damaging practices. Cubans are not looking for America to come and save them; the very opposite. They fear what will happen if the trade walls come down and their country is invaded by raw capitalism. They like their public education, their health care system and the distinction that their unique place in the world gives them. But they do want more freedom, they want freer trade, they want access to the physical world via travel, they want access to the world of information that is the unrestricted internet, and they want to stop living within an absurdist joke. The system they fought to put in power has betrayed them to ideology that is more bankrupt each year they stay in power, and seems to lack any cogent leadership. It is as though everything became frozen in 1959—not just the cars held together by love, bondo and binder-twine, but the revolution itself. Every government worker is bored, aggressively impolite. Every aspect of the infrastructure is tired and decayed. The high ideals of Fidel, and the massive public uprising that washed the hated Batista regime into the sea (along with the millions he stole in the act of leaving) is nowhere in evidence. The people are as exhausted as their stuff; I have never been anywhere so institutionally cynical. I have seen much deeper poverty, much deeper unhappiness in my travels. I have seen (as in Mexico) much more blunt and brutal shows of state power, but this is a society living in a state of apathy. Nothing to be done, live and breathe another day, for it will be exactly the same as this day, as yesterday: tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow… People don’t fear their government so much as they endure it, because they don’t believe it will change. Cuba will change: the Castros will not last much longer, and the island will be pried open by the world, but the real challenge will be to pry the people out of their political torpor. If your experience of sixty years is that It Doesn’t Matter, or, as the local phrase goes, “it’s somebody else’s job,” what can convince you that it does matter, that it is, in fact, your job? Feb 27: At the theatre. We walked over to the bus station today to acquire a ticket on Saturday’s bus to Veradero. The ticket agent had on her bet Cuban bureaucratic manners. We advanced from the line-up and into her office (yes, when you buy a bus ticket in this country, it’s like going to the Principal’s Office). She sat and busied herself with her nails for a moment as we stood—and very long, loudly-painted nails they were—she could but awkwardly hit the keys on her computer. (She was, by the way, a drop-dead gorgeous woman. If you saw her on the street you’d have to stop yourself from staring at her.) On the walls of the bus station are painted long slogans images of Fidel and Raul captioned “Our Heroes.” I thought, “Such old men. People need younger heroes than this, people whose deeds are more freshly inspiring.” Like the young Muslim woman who took a bullet for insisting on her right to be educated. Later that day, we went along to the theatre to see the play by the Dramatic Society. How oddly the whole affair was conducted! We arrived at 2:23 for a 2:30 matinee. A small throng of high school students sat on the steps of the theatre. R and I were admitted early into a theatre that would seat perhaps 200, designed as a proscenium-arch theatre with shallow wings not unlike many a Canadian high school stage, outfitted with a spare collection of lighting instruments. I think the technician or stage manager, seeing us take our seats, thought, “this must be our audience,” and took down the house lights. The actress onstage, who was en scene as we came in, launched into her first monologue. The play was about three women on a boat trying to get to Florida. They are caught in the Sargasso Sea (I’m not sure if this nautically possible) and dying slowly of thirst. The three actresses, all of whom were attractive, physically well-trained women, moved well, spoke audibly, and pronounced their words well enough. However, the director, if there was one, had declined to have them do anything but emote. None gave an account of the thirst, exhaustion, heat, sunstroke, disbalance, or any other quality that the given circumstances seemed to call for. They fought and orated like 1st-year acting students tearing the scene to tatters. Meanwhile, the front-of-house staff, apparently taken off guard, let in the students who were there to see the play in small groups over the course of the play. How they were to have any stake in the dramatic situation was a mystery to me, and to them as well, evidently, since they wandered into the dark theatre talking amongst themselves as though they were walking into Assembly, as though there were no play at all happening on the stage. They commented amongst themselves quite frankly on what they were looking at. Having performed for a lot of High School students, I didn’t need a translator to catch the gist of their commentary: “Oh, look, there are some people talking up there.” “Rad, man.” “Weird.” “Lame.” “That’s supposed to be a boat, I suppose.” What was obvious was the complete lack of any theatrical CULTURE. The events onstage were divorced from any of the real tools of the theatre: reaction, situational awareness, physical truth, character development. Indeed, all things that might come from the Zone of Silence (as I’ve been preaching for 35 years). The Director used few of tools at his or her disposal: no lighting changes, no real attempt to create the “boat”. The front of house staff clearly were not in communication with the tech staff, and worst of all, no one massaged the most important relationship of all, that between performers and audience. I suppose after 60-odd years of professional theatre in Edmonton, after 34 years of a festival that produces up to 184 plays in 10 days, after three generations of training actors and other theatre people, we have learned something of our craft. I sometimes forget how far we’ve come. R and I went along to the city museum later, and I paid my fees both to enter and to take pictures, which I declined to do, as not much in the museum was inspiring; to be sure there were pictures and displays of artifacts, but not organized with any sense of narrative or context. What surprised me was the absence of any contrast between pre and post-revolution, as though the fact were being ignored. R provided commentary, particularly about the beauty of the older exhibits of Cienfuegos’s glorious past. The best thing in the museum was the group of young art students who were helping each other install their own works, which I gathered constituted their grad projects from the art college: their enthusiasm and cooperative energy were delightful. They worked with joy, helping each other to pour sand, to string wires. Finally that evening, I marched with J and his daughter down to the athletic grounds—several acres of scrub grass and gravel, surveyed by a covered audience bleacher of crumbling concrete. Two or three hundred people of all ages jogged, stretched, practiced karate, and (predominantly) played in pickup soccer games, using steel structures the size of hockey nets for goals. Juan was there to play with his pals, and he’s an impressive older player. The level of futbal skill was high, and the energy was so like Canadian shinney or ball-hockey sessions that it warmed my heart just to watch. Fun, taken seriously: the competitive fire burning in each breast, the out-of-bounds ball chased with real energy, so to keep the momentum of the game going. At the house afterwards, J was noticeably warmer to me. He really wanted to see the picture of himself that I took on the field. He makes me his special mojita. After dinner (another great meal cooked and served by an M.D.!) R comes over with his daughter K, who wants to get some music from my computer and show me her work. Her cartooning is excellent; she has a unique talent. The tool she really needs now is access to the Net. It is the very tool she is institutionally denied. J also wants to show his son’s art: amazing still life studies, each of which has a humourous touch or a visual joke or pun. His son has not been admitted to art college; evidently the college accepts students on some other basis than that of technical skill. On my my last night in Cienfuegos, the last night in February, 2015, we all (both of my Cienfugo friends’ families) walk down the Parada to the seaside club and pay one CU (in my case—10 pesos the Cubans), to enter the open-air concert area (once upon a time the Pan-American Airways slip where seaplanes landed rich American gamblers and other high rollers). Two members of the band I’d played with two days ago are in the 11-piece concert band. They are kicking it as we walk in, playing a wide repertoire of popular music from Beatles to salsa. The 2-piece horn section is killer good, my young friend Pavel is demonstrating a mastery of electric guitar chops that surprise me (I hope he’s using the strings I brought him), and the 3 (male) vocalists are strong in their harmonies and their group dancing. The percussion section is speaking a language that we Northern types understand no more than Esperanto, and the women in our little group, after a while, simply will not allow me not to dance. The second-set climax is Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” Every Cuban band I’ve heard so far (I’ve heard six) covers this tune. To my ears, it’s just a hockey-jockey chant that yobs bellow at the end of a victory. Apparently, the song has some special resonance with Cubans, whether it’s regime defiance or simply proud defiance of the world: “to hell with embargos, to hell with hardship—we still exist!” When the band packs it in and the recorded music (predominantly Cuban) fires up, everyone is up on the floor dancing. J gets up with Rs wife, R leans over to me and says, “now you’re going to see some really good dancing!” Indeed: they put on a clinic of sexy, beautiful moves. The black girl who is dancing in front of me has more rhythm in her hips than half of the Canadian nation. Mar 1. I left Cienfuegos yesterday, with kindness and warm affection on all sides. Juan and Anita part from me like a brother. As far as R and family, I now feel like they are a part of my lifelong planetary connection. I vow to help K in whatever way I can. The four-hour bus ride from Cienfuegos to Veradero was marked by two bizarre coincidences. I was sitting at the back of the bus, with the last free seat on the bus beside me. At the one-hour mark, the bus stopped to pick up a single passenger from an obscure resort on the coast. A woman makes her way back to the empty seat and plunks herself down. We greet each other, and as her accent is clearly Canadian, I ask her where she’s from: Duncan, B.C. Her name is Kathleen Reid. Another few sentences of conversation reveal that we know several people in common, including the erstwhile director of the Malaspina College theatre program, and two of my former colleagues at the National Theatre School,  with all of whom she has worked on theatre shows. The coincidences don’t stop there: we are both from families with 3 boys and 1 girl, born in the same order, we both are twice married, and both have 1 daughter and two sons, in the same birth order. She even has a London, Ontario connection (I believe she said she was born there, and so I tell her about nearby Brownsville, founded by my ancestors). Then she tells me about her father’s WW2 navy career (he was at Lt. Cmdr aboard a destroyer), and how he was in Halifax on VE day. At this point it would not have surprised me to learn that her father and mine had ended the Halifax Riot getting drunk together. As all of this information is unfolding, a guy makes his way from the front of the bus to try to use the (of course) out-of-commission toilet, and I think… “that looks like… no, it’s simply not possible!” When we stop for a short break, I approach the man. Yep… “You ARE Alex, from Edmonton, right?” He laughs, “Ken, I couldn’t believe my eyes!” We have jammed together many times in Edmonton, and always enjoy playing together. He is on his way to Havana, and when Katherine and I get off the bus in Veradero, we agree to meet in Havana on the morrow, when I’ll be there. That night in Veradero, Katherine and I, by silent compact, spent several hours together. After a dinner at the local café where Cubans eat (one-third the price of the places on the tourist Strip), we buy some rum and hang out on the beach under the stars, talking about politics, child rearing, spirituality, Canada, ex-mates, theatre…  fellowship.Cuba-Havana12. In the morning, we have coffee with Carlos and we hear his achingly sad story of three years at a boarding school in the Seventies. The story is hauntingly similar to that of many Native Canadians; he too was removed from his family and culture. Not surprisingly, he credits music (often listened to illicitly, either on radio stations from the USA or through the English teacher’s locked door) with saving his sanity. No wonder he likes rock music. THE NEXT DAY… I get on the bus to Havana. I am seated next to a talkative Argentinian. I’m glad he assumes my Spanish is better than it is. It’s a great language lesson when you understand 20 per cent of what’s said to you, and you have to strive to get more. 2 Marso. My last morning in Cuba. The town of Vedato (part of Havana) wakes up shaking itself into another bright day, the mist rising from Havana’s vast harbour as some cruise ship painted with a bright bustling flower design as though it were a child’s toy steams into the bay from the calm Caribbean to disgorge its tourists. They will timidly poke into naughty Havana for a single day to buy and snap and gawk and then retreat to the safety of the ship and its groaning boards of food and drink. I spend a few more profitable hours in the company of Dario, the young artist who is hoping to buy an apartment in Habana and move in with R’s daughter when they can afford to marry. He is a very quick, articulate young fellow who forebears my slowness on the uptake of things Cuban. His art, which he is happy to show me on his laptop, ranges from painting to cartooning to animation, to humourous live-action video. He reminds me so much of my hyper-smart nephew Brendan (they even look alike) that I wish I could magically transport them into the same room and watch the intellectual sparks fly. He generously accompanies me to the airport (showing me how to get there on public transport, saving me a bundle of money), and stays with me as long as he can before my plane leaves. This young lion, like his beloved, like every young person in Cuba, yearns to join the vast cyber-world that they are perfectly well aware is the stream in which, world-wide, their generation now swims. To the USA, I say, yes, if you really want positive change in Cuba, park your ships off Cuba’s shore, but if you truly want to help the people of Cuba, keep the guns unloaded, missiles in their tubes, the planes on the decks. Broadcast broadband internet signal instead. **

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