Cuba Journal part 3

Tuesday Dec. 6, 2011

I slept in very late today. For me, 9:30 is ridiculous. By the time I got around and ready to leave the room, the daily breakfast in the restaurant on the roof of the hotel had ended. I was to meet Luis at the taxi circle at 10:45 so I walked down the street searching for a quick breakfast. I found the restaurant where I saw the couple samba dancing the other night and it was open so I sat down and had a two egg breakfast with some fantastic Cuban coffee. The coffee here is primavera!

I met Luis right on time at 10:45 and we left for Muraleando. Luis is really fun, we talked about the beautiful Cuban women, and he would beep a special ‘wolf-whistle’ horn when we passed a particularly attractive lady walking down the street. This happened quite often. I showed him pictures of my wife and kids, he showed me pictures of his little girl who lives with her mother in Miami. His nephew Ernesto joined us on the ride this morning as Marc Anthony blared on the stereo speakers in the cab. I always sat in the front, so his nephew had to ride in the back. Luis started talking about Jennifer Lopez’s exquisite posterior and he told me that she was half Cuban, her Cubana side coming from the fishing community Cojimar, made famous by Hemingway’s novel ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. I wondered if that was true.

In about an hour, I finished what black outlining remained on the big mural. I had saved the character outlines of Snoopy and Woodstock for last because I wanted to be as familiar as I could be with the brush in my hand and with this paint before I attempted the outline of the most important part of the mural. That important part being, the familiar and instantly recognizable lines of Woodstock and Snoopy and their smiles. One screw up and it wouldn’t look like Sparky drew it. Any cartoonist will tell you how amazingly difficult it is to try to draw Charles Schulz’s characters and make it look just like Sparky drew it. There’s always something off, either it’s the placement of the mouth, the eyes, or even the perfect balance he put down in his characters when he drew them. The simplicity of the artwork is so deceptively complex that it is confounding to cartoonists. That’s why I worked so hard to get the stencils right. And even though I had the lines drawn on the wall to follow, I was shaking as I finished those all-important lines of their charming, smiling expressions.

Once finished and satisfied with the outcome (and now thankfully breathing) I grabbed my materials and Mario and I moved it all down to the Arts Center complex to start on the second mural. This one is smaller, about 4 and a half ft. high by three ft. wide but no less important than the large mural, for this one was to be the very first thing you saw upon entering the Arts Center. Right inside the entryway door, a greeting for the Arts Center visitors of Snoopy and Woodstock. I had to scramble to prepare this image, as they wanted it to be different that the large mural and only let me know about it two days before I left. But working very late I did it, I got the papers printed and numbered and ready to go before I left for the trip. I left the lettering and greeting up to Manolo since this image seemed more personal for him. He was grateful for that. This mural was going to be a little different than the other because this wall was covered in a fine yet textured stucco. Not as smooth a surface as the first mural and I wondered how differently the paint would be and how the brushes would take to this slightly bumpier surface.

Mario, nibbling on a pig head he had just bought from some dude walking down the street.

        Mario, my new buddy and trusty ‘Sancho Panza’, held the papers to the wall as I outlined the shapes and got the image transferred in about an hour. He is my devoted helper although sometimes I feel subordinate to him. It’s a great partnership, I challenge the windmills and he hands me the lance. While we were working together I confided in him, the strange spiritual moment I had the other morning when I felt and clearly imagined the little girl in the flowery blue dress. He smiled and stared a little past my eyes, showing me he clearly understood and said that I had a ‘visitation’. He told me about powerful spirits that he has encountered and experienced. Sometimes in his bed he says feels a great pressure pushing down on his chest and arms to the point of complete incapacitation. This evolved into a discussion of Cuban Santeria of which he is a devoted follower and practitioner. I asked him if he had many spirit experiences.

“Oh my God, yes. All of the time!” he said, and I noted a little fear in his face as he leaned his head back.

Abandoned by his mother at birth and his father when he was three, Mario was left to make his own way. Eventually in his late teens he got caught up in hustling stolen merchandise and did two years in jail. After that time, which seems to affect him to the point of not wanting to talk about it, he acquired a daughter who is now four years old. When his daughter was a baby, she developed a tumor behind her right eye and eventually lost that eye. The tumor was inoperable and grew to blind her other eye. It seemed that she had no chance, but Mario swears that after he accepted Santeria, and prayed fervently, a surgeon came and told him that he would try to operate and extract the tumor. The operation was a total success and now, although totally blind, his daughter is alive and well, doing great in school and learning English. Mario credits his religion completely in curing her and saving her life.

Mario took me to his modest little home that he has built, just a block down from the Arts Center, and showed me the various spirit bowls and guardian spirit artifacts he has there. I was fascinated, my passion and curiosity for world religions and cultural beliefs being fully appeased. Santeria was formed in the 18th century when Spanish slave traders were abducting Africans, mainly from the Yoruba people of West Africa. Threatened with death if they did not convert to Catholicism by their Spanish slavers, they formed a communal compromise combining their gods and deities with the catholic saints. Converting only in name, they worshipped their own deities in secret and eventually it all got blended together. The saints and the deities matched up well and today Santeria is widely and openly practiced in Cuba.

By the end of Tuesday, I had finished the large mural and completed drawing the smaller image on the wall inside the Arts Center.

I left at five, good ol’ Luis was on time and prompt as ever. Arriving back at the Ambos Mundos hotel, I picked up my beer at the bar and used the lobby phone to call my mom and dad to tell them I was OK and that the project was going well. Dad was doing OK which was a great relief. Two months prior, he was in a hospital in Las Vegas with stage four cancer. It was a terrible and agonizing time for all of us but he pulled through it and was home recovering and doing just fine. It was another great relief, thanks to an expensive call to the Estatos Unitos. The U.S. sticks it to Cuba with the embargo and they stick it to us with phone calls back to the U.S. Hell I don’t mind, it’s worth it.

I went up to the room, knees creaking and bitching as I hulked my way up to the third floor. It’s getting harder and harder to tolerate these stairs as each day goes by. I don’t complain much, there are so many more people with advanced arthritis far worse than mine. I showered and changed and went out to dinner with our tour guide and two other gentlemen from our tour. With the help of some local guy we met in the plaza by the great and stately St. Christopher church, we stumbled down a couple of dark and dirty back alleys and arrived at a home that was converted into a small, three table restaurant. Two ladies, residents of the home, cheerfully served us and we had a wonderful meal. Some people are being allowed to run their own businesses in Cuba now, and this home-restaurant kind of thing is becoming quite popular. And with good reason, the food was fresh and very impressive. And at a good price too, it was a wonderful meal and a very different kind of dining experience.

The finished large mural at the Muraleando bus stop. The playful tree is in the foreground.

Today I Am A Tourist

Wednesday, Dec. 7 2011

I joined the group today because I needed a break from the painting, but mainly because they were going somewhere I had never been: to the west country of Viñales. I sat next to Jeanne Johnson on the bus, as I usually do. Jeanne is charming, open, motherly, warm, and my travel buddy in the group. Having bonded at the airport in San Francisco as soon as we met, she at 81 told me of her son who is also named Justin and is only a year older than I. Jeanne goes on group tours all of the time she tells me in the back seat of the bus, as the scenery blurs from dingy concrete to glowing green fields of cane, grass, tobacco, and tall palms.

I snap a few pictures as eventually mountains begin to take shape in the distance. “I’ve been to Egypt, Jordan, Vietnam, China, and New Zealand,” she says, the latter being her favorite, “all in the past six years and now Cuba.” She licked her right forefinger and scratched an imaginary line downward. “Here’s another one. Check!” She referred to what she called her ‘bucket list’. She needed a little help getting around on the rocky parts of the ground but for 81 she travels remarkably well. By the end of the day, she and most of the rest of the group, their average ages being probably somewhere in the mid to late 60s, were getting around and on and off the bus better than I was. My knees are not liking the traveling one little bit. Jeanne told me that her husband is buried in the same memorial park as Charles Schulz and she has occasionally seen his children visiting his grave.

Our first stop was a nature preserve site and community named Las Terrazas.

It was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1984. In the hills surrounding the area, terraces were bulldozed into them in the late 60s when the project began and pine trees were planted along them as a secondary forest. It is a remarkably peaceful and beautiful spot, and we were welcomed by the people of the community with rum and cokes.

We pushed farther west another hour into the Viñales valley, where giant limestone rock formations, domes really, called mogotes, look like they have grown from the surface of the flat fertile land.

They are quite naturally covered in trees and greenery and the entire landscape seemed so unspoiled and unfamiliar as to appear alien. They could shoot a convincing science fiction movie here.

We rode into a valley of these mogotes and had lunch at a gorgeous open-sided restaurant at the foot of a massive mogote on which a mural, named Mural de la Prehistoria, was painted fifty years ago. 120 meters high and 180 meters wide, it depicts the evolution of life on Earth. To the left, trilobites swirl into two curled necks of Plesiosaurs, then two battling mammals, and ultimately at the far right are the red shapes of a man, woman, and child. All I can humbly say was, “THAT… is a mural.”

There was a man riding a big bull around like a pony near the restaurant, I guess he moseys over there and lets tourists take his picture for a few pesos.

It tickled me to see this big bull all saddled up like a cowboy’s horse yet tied to a stake like a puppy dog as his owner stood at the nearby outdoor bar and had a few before his ride home.

I sure wouldn’t have seen this hanging out in the city all day.

From the mogote valley we traveled another twenty minutes to the modest home and farm of Benito, a tobacco farmer who farms about 5 or 6 hectares of land next to his house.

We met him inside his tobacco barn and he explained the process of drying the tobacco leaves and curing them.

There were several racks of drying leaves in the shady, humid enclosure. Damn, it smelled great in there. Sweet and sour and brown and green all at once. A few of the gentlemen in the group took a few puffs of the freshly made cigar that Benito had just rolled on the leg of his jeans. They said it was remarkably mild, whatever that means to a smoker, but even I could appreciate that the smell of that cigar’s smoke wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as cigar smoke usually is.

Benito invited us into his home for some coffee- outstanding of course- and I walked around to the outside of his house. I watched his two puppies play, fighting over a large yellow leaf. Many chickens plunked their faces along the ground like a child on his fourth piano lesson and I noticed a small half enclosure standing nearby. I went closer and saw a three ft. by 2 ft. cage. In the cage were two large cat-sized rodents called ‘hutia’. Cubans often eat these cute buggers with wild nuts and honey.

We arrived back in Old Havana at around 7:30 or 8, well past dark, and everyone was exhausted. I ate dinner at the hotel alone and read ‘The Sun Also Rises’ before drifting off, another new world conquered on my list of places to see in the word.


Part 4 coming soon!


4 Responses to “Cuba Journal part 3”

  1. papaspoint Says:

    gorgeous country!

  2. Jinjer Says:

    I’m having trouble seeing why anyone would be upset with these posts. They are about the people and the land, not praising any politicians. I feel a little homesick for a place I’ve never been!

  3. Joseph Brian Scott Says:

    Really enjoying your jouranl; can’t wait for the rest.
    Good job on the mural in Muraleando.
    I had never heard of ‘mogotes’ before; your description makes me want to eat at the ‘mogote-restaurant’ in the valley very much.

  4. Ricky Says:

    You have definitely captured the essence of Charles Shultz in your mural. Sitting between more complex murals, it’s simplicity shines!

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