Cuba Journal Part 4

January 20, 2012

My Buddy the Babalau

Thursday, Dec. 8, 2012

I was the first person on the roof this morning for the breakfast buffet.  I grabbed a plate of fruit and a coffee and started skimming through my book on Santeria that I had brought with me. This morning the group are all heading across Havana bay and over to Regla. If Havana were San Francisco, Regla would be Oakland. Though a part of Havana, it is its own municipality. The community is close by, working class, and has mainly to do with shipping.

In Regla there is a Church I have visited before. It is named ‘Nuestra Señora de Regla’. Here, catholic and Santeria rites are observed equally. When we arrived I helped Jeanne out of the bus and we all stood by the waterfront as our guide familiarized us with the church and its meaning to Regla. A white headless chicken lay soggy and sloshing on the shore of the water, on the other side of the sea wall where we were standing. Jeanne spotted it and I informed her that it was a sacrifice, probably given up to one of the Orishas (Santeria saints) last night or early this morning. I had watched one of these rites before, at a distance, the last time I was here. I moved her to the other side of the group, upwind of the death smell. My suspicions on the dead chicken were confirmed by the guide when one of the people on the group asked him about it.

“You were right! How did you know that?” Jeanne said.

“I read stuff.” I said, not wanting to elaborate on the rite I had witnessed two years ago. The guide took us inside the church to see the famous statue of the ‘Blessed Virgin of Regla’, patron saint of this church.

She is black, wears blue and white robes, and carries a white child in her arms. There was a mass going on, the first day of Advent, so the church was fairly crowded but no one seemed to mind. Still I felt rather subconscious and intrusive so I stayed in the back so I wouldn’t be a distraction.

After that, we went a few doors down the street to the Santeria museum, where artifacts and costumes were displayed. Each orisha or saint-spirit has their own color, name, and area of nature that is their domain.

No photos were allowed unless you paid the customary five pesos. Since I had been there I decided to save it. But I was as always, captivated by the religion and its origins. It is perhaps the most enduring of all of my many passions. Yemaya, mother to the Orishas and Santeria equivalent to the Virgin Mary, has her direct roots from the Yemaya people of west and central Africa but through her name derivations she even has roots to ancient Egypt and the goddess Isis. This place is a myth-lover’s paradise. Here is the Virgin mother being worshipped as she was in Africa and even in Egypt thousands of years ago. Brilliant! Dig deep enough and the world religions begin to tie themselves together. I almost couldn’t wait to get back to Muraleando and tell Mario what I saw.

After the museum we walked a few blocks and it started to seem familiar. I was on a dusty street with no people walking about, and a line of very high doors, over ten feet. The number on the door where we stopped was 13. I knew this place and had forgotten about it. How the hell did I forget this place, it was the home of a Babalau, a Santeria priest. Our group had visited his home when I was here with the cartoonist group a couple of years ago. The guy’s name is Silvio. He stands about 5 foot even and looks to be about 55 or 60. On my previous visit, I had drawn a picture for Silvio, it was a cartoon of Snoopy sitting on his doghouse, shaking hands with Ochun, a lovely female orisha and the protector of Cuba who hovered over the doghouse smiling. I signed it with a note, Jeannie Schulz explained to Silvio then what Snoopy meant to us in the USA and he placed it on his altar which was a large glass cabinet along with several taxidermed creatures, candles, skins, bones, necklaces, trinkets, dozens of little figurines, and religious paraphernalia. I was very proud that Silvio had placed it on the altar, I wasn’t expecting that but I couldn’t help but wonder if he had kept it all this time. Was it still there?

We all filed into his small front room and I greeted him and shook his hand. He seemed to brighten as I studied his face for a hint of recognition. He started just a little bit as he stared into my face. He smiled warmly and shook my hand but said nothing. I wondered if he had a moment of recognition but couldn’t place me. Everyone filed in after me as the guide explained more about Santeria and about what Silvio does. As people were getting settled and had started to listen to the guide, I made my way toward his kitchen where his altar/glass cabinet was. I saw the drawing, it was right where he had set it two years ago, and even had a couple of small cobwebs on it. It was a little dusty. It had never moved. I was stunned. His wife discovered me and asked if I was all right. I pointed at the picture and told her that I had drawn it for Silvio two years ago. She smiled broadly and interrupted the speech to tell Silvio that I was the one who drew the picture. He came in to the room, completely confused. He reached up and took the picture down and stared at it and then looked up at me and smiled. He laughed a little bit and slapped my arm a few times. He had recognized me, he just didn’t know where he had seen me before.

[Admittedly, I was very heavy during this mural time, about 25 pounds more than I was the first time I saw Silvio.  No wonder he didn’t recognize me. Because of my knee pain, I wasn’t able to exercise all this year and thusly gained about 25 or 30 pounds. Now, at this copying and posting of my journal and one month post-surgery, I have lost all of those 25 pounds and am back to my old weight again.]

Silvio moved back into the entry room and began to speak through the guide’s interpretation, to the group and answer their many questions.

I asked someone from the group to take a picture of Silvio and I next to the cabinet and here it is.

The drawing is on the back wall, just above Silvio’s head.

I told him I would like to see him again some time.

Back on the bus it was a short ride to Regla’s neighboring town of Guanabacoa and another Santeria museum. I was getting pretty nervous because I was supposed to meet Luis at 12:30 at the taxi stand and it was already 12:20. But I had never been to Guanabacoa or this museum and I love setting foot in new places a little too much to care. This museum of Santeria was spectacular, it had full costumes of the orishas that are used in the religious rites of Santeria and better descriptions of them too! One area of the museum had magnificent drums including one made out of human skull and leg bones. I just HAD to photograph that for my kids so I went back to the desk and paid the five pesos to take pictures.

Soon we were back on the bus again and back in Old Havana, a full half hour late for my taxi to Muraleando. Luis had left to take a fare to Miramar so his brother Eddie had drove me to Muraleando. Eddie is 70, very cool, and speaks very good English. I arrived at Manolo’s house at 1:30 and quickly got to work. I still had an entire mural to paint, the one inside the entrance to their community arts center, the “new pride of Muraleando”. Manolo greeted me and told me about the big unveiling tomorrow. This, I had already been told about. T.V. news cameras, I did NOT know about. Manolo jokingly tells me to wear a tie.

I finished the second mural at 5:55 PM, 20 minutes before Eddie was to come get me in the taxi.

I had hoped to finish overall tonight because the group is going to Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia, tomorrow morning and I really wanted to see the old place and the boat.

I walked around alone again this evening, I found a bunch of tables in the street in front of an Italian restaurant so I stopped for some spaghetti with Arrabiata sauce. It was terrific. After dinner I kept walking past the beautiful ancient-looking St. Christopher church and over to my old hotel, the Tejadillo. I was charmed to see it again and hoped to see the two musicians I enjoyed at that time but sadly they were no longer there. New musicians had claimed the Tejadillo bar as theirs. Around the corner another favorite watering hole of mine was there, the Bogedito Del Medio. It was packed in, noisy as hell, and had tourists spilling out into the street so I turned around. I didn’t feel like one of them anymore. I walked back to my hotel and they weren’t serving any more food at the bar so I went up on the rooftop restaurant and had a couple of rolls and a mojito while I write in this journal about my day. It is a quarter to nine and I’ve got a perfect view of Morrow castle, just there on the other side of Havana bay. The air is very cool tonight and the guitar player is trilling a Spanish love song. I hope that cannon from the garrison goes off soon.

Chapter five, coming soon!

Cuba Journal part 3

January 12, 2012

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.

“Check!”

Part 4 coming soon!

Cuba Journal Part 2

January 10, 2012

Working Through It.

Dec. 5th, 2011

    While I was painting the mural this morning, I had a moment of temporal perspective. I was taken back to the sixth grade when Mr. Henry asked me to paint the backside of a bookcase that he was using as a divider in the center of our classroom. It must have sectioned off a reading area or something, I’m not entirely sure, memory fails. Mr. Henry knew I was a huge Peanuts fan because I always carried a Peanuts paperback book in my back pocket. I had several of the old comic strip collections as a kid, reprints of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s strips, and liked to draw the characters all the time and even on the papers I turned in. So Mr. Henry asked if I would paint the characters on the back of that big bookcase. I painted Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Lucy on the bookcase which Mr. Henry varnished to protect. I looked at that with pride every day that year, my very first mural. I hadn’t really thought of it much since today and suddenly I remembered details of it that I never new I retained. I recalled this with clarity this morning as I painted the mural of Snoopy and Woodstock on a 9 feet by 16 foot wide wall in an artists community in Havana, some 38 years later.

When they come, it’s important to notice and enjoy life’s little circles.

I worked in the muggy heat today from 9 AM to 6 PM. I knew that today had to be a big push and I had to get a lot done so that I could afford a day away from Muraleando on Wednesday. The group will be visiting western Cuba and I really want to see that.

So I worked hard, starting with outlining all of the ink pen lines with a black felt marker so that I could easily see the lines beneath the paint I hoped to apply by the end of the day. The outlining went very quickly. The group I came here with stopped by to tour Muraleando and to learn about the community and their mural project. It was nice to see everyone and they were excited to see the work, even though there had been no paint applied yet. Not long after they left, the actual painting of the characters was underway. The paint I had brought, a quality exterior latex, was applying well and I breathed a sigh of relief. Not being too used to painting murals, I really didn’t know how this was all going to go down but at the pace I was going, I knew I would finish by day’s end. I started with the red of the doghouse, then the green area of the grass. The black lines I had drawn were showing through the paint perfectly and would be easy guides when the final black outline stage would come.

There’s something childlike and playful in this island’s presence sometimes, and it can only be felt sans tourists, sans iPod, and with a solitary immersion in the culture and in the community of the Cuban people. Like in a drowning, the lungs eventually yield to its usurper and one becomes the water. You feel it when you are alone, a tickle of sorts around you at times. While I was using the two inch brush, painting the white area of Snoopy’s body, the large old tree that shades this area- the bus stop and now my mural- dropped a lovely yellow green leaf exactly in the center of my brush. It was delightful, and an old man who was quietly sitting on the bench near me, of whose presence I was not even aware, saw the moment and began laughing out loud. It was very funny, the tree’s trick seemed so perfectly and purposefully executed to the point of blunt absurdity. The old man’s laugh seemed knowing. Familiar, like he knew something I didn’t- he had seen things like this before it seemed. The tree played with me throughout the day, dropping nuts squarely onto my back as I painted. I laughed for the tree. He seemed to need humoring.

Painting in such a high profile spot as the community’s only bus stop, I received many passers by. The children delight me the most. These are my people, for my mind is like them.

An elderly lady came by, quite spry I thought, and we exchanged pleasantries. She told me that she was over eighty years old and that she teaches Tai Chi just around the corner. I knew Tai Chi about 25 years ago but could never recall it now. She was marvelous for eighty-plus years old. Childlike in her eyes, she seemed in spirit that, given a hardwood court, she could probably dunk on me. I politely declined her invitation to her class, I regret that now, but I did have a job to do that I didn’t know how long was going to take so I went about my work. About a half hour later I heard beautiful, mellifluous music coming from somewhere. Not Cuban, it was regionally unidentifiable- just slow and lovely. I asked Mario about it and he said it was the Tai Chi class. I pictured the lady leading it as I listened and worked.

By three o’clock I had all of the colors applied and started to paint the black outlines. This was the scary part, because if the black lines got too thick or too thin it wouldn’t look like Charles Schulz’s work and that’s what I’m trying so desperately to do. To keep a fidelity to the line that Schulz is famous for. To me that line is as delicate and distinctive as a museum porcelain, as true as any Wyeth, and as recognizable as a Picasso or an Ansel Adams. I had to get it just right.

By five forty five I finished outlining the doghouse, the grass, Woodstock’s tree, and the message of greeting to the people of Havana.

I was done, exhausted, aching, sore, and my knees were giving me all kinds of hell. It was starting to get dark and I could barely walk back to Manolo’s house. The taxi picked me up at ten after six. Good ol’ Luis my taxi man, a great guy and a new friend. It was dark as Luis and I drove back and there are very few streetlights on the roads when it gets dark. Luis had to keep turning his brights on and off as we drove down the main roads. It was a lovely night though.

I walked into the Ambos Mundos hotel and grabbed a Buccanero beer as I passed the bar and limped up the damned stairs to my room on the third floor. There is an old elevator in the lobby from 1925 but it doesn’t stop on three, even when you can find a bellman to operate it. I sat on the bed and slammed the cold thin grail dry, draining good and fast. I limped into the shower and was dressed and back down in the lobby at seven thirty to meet my friends from my last trip here, Paolo and Melis. They were late and I was early, so I had a coffee and a cheeseburger at the bar, followed up with an incredible snifter of eleven year old rum named ‘Santiago’. The rum is so different here, so pure and special and varied that it really should be called something else. Santiago eleven-year-old rum is like an amber fire in your nose and a clear soft caramel stream in your throat. The only thing I could think of to make that taste experience even richer would be pairing it with a deeply effluvious Cuban cigar. But I don’t smoke.

Paolo finally showed and soon Melis came in too. Paolo runs tours to Havana and Melis, a devastatingly beautiful young Cuban woman in her late twenties I’d guess, is learning the whole tourist trade from him. I suspect that they are a couple but I don’t ask, it seems impolite. They don’t display affection in public but you know when you can feel the connections sometimes. As I stated, I knew them both from my previous trip here a couple of years ago when they were getting their business off the ground. I always teased Melis telling her that she was the most beautiful girl in Cuba because she gets very embarrassed. I’m likely right though. I tell her that because I like when she smiles. Rooms lighten.

Paolo wanted to look around Vedado, the next neighborhood over from where I was staying, for interesting places to take group tours in the evenings. Melis knew of a couple of places so we taxied over to a jazz club called ‘La Zorra y Cuervo’, The Fox and the Crow. It opened at ten so we killed some time walking around Vedado. Paolo and Melis spoke mainly in Spanish and I, not being very good in Spanish just sort of followed them around. I didn’t mind, I was content to walk behind Melis.

We finally sat down in a modest little restaurant next door to the ‘La Zorra y Cuervo’ and they had pizza and I had a small bowl of rice and beans. At ten we entered the underground jazz club and the band were amazing. Highly professional, just hypnotic really, and we really loved the place. We split up around midnight and I came back to the hotel and started writing in this journal, Paolo and Melis took off to who-knows-where.

Havana has so much talent just bursting and needing to emerge from here, gifted in so many areas of the arts. The country is just so rich with talent, intellect, and embarrassingly beautiful people. Hardly anyone is fat and even the poorer people look really healthy. Strong people. I know that they don’t have much to eat but something good is feeding those muscles. And the women, with the afro-hispanic blending just glow like gold. You can’t find a straight line on any one of these women either. I can’t help but wonder if this is what people are supposed to look like.

  The mural is to my immediate left as I took this picture at the bus stop, looking down the main street of Muraleando.

I was finally able to call home tonight too, this was before I had my burger and coffee in the lobby. I called from the front desk at 2.40 CUC pesos per minute. I had no luck in finding an open place that sold pre-paid phone cards, and since I was working all day these past two days it just wasn’t going to happen. So I splurged for the call at the front desk. I had a conscious dream this morning in my bed where Tara, my little 6 yr old, climbed into my bed and hugged me like she often does at home. It was an incredibly detailed lucid dream, she was wearing a blue dress with flowers all over it and had a very sad expression on her face and it just seemed so incredibly real. I hugged her back, I’m not sure why, but it just felt like the right thing to do. I had never had an experience like that before, a dream unexpected, born somewhere between sleep and wake. “Calling Dr. Jung!” I had heard about visitations before and thought about that all day. Worried. When I called, Kim answered and the kids had a chance to say hi and they loved and missed me. All was well. So I could relax and have fun tonight, which I did with Paolo and Melis at the jazz club. Tomorrow I will finish the big mural and start on the small one.

As I start to fall asleep, I wonder if the little girl from this morning wasn’t really Tara after all.

Part 3 coming soon.

The Cuba Journals December 2011 Part 1

January 9, 2012

This is the first of several entries I will be posting in the coming weeks detailing my recent art mission to Cuba. These entries are copied from my journal that I wrote in while I was down there.

Crumbling Walls In Cuba.

My Cuba Journal. December, 2011    ©  Justin Thompson

    This blog may offend some. Cuban families who were devastated and whose homes were taken from them in Castro’s takeover in 1959 will likely not find much warmth in the words of my journal. There’s nothing I can do about that and if it does offend then I soberly apologize. I neither set out here to praise the governing body of Cuba or the United States embargo, and bitter expatriated Cubans should probably read no further. While I respect your frustration, I cannot adopt a passion of which I have no personal wound. Other Americans who have no personal or familial interests in Cuba and have adopted a shallow angry bias based on political rhetoric, partisan lockstep and uneducated platitudes, I could not care less what you think. You have to be there to know something of what it’s like.

  A little shy of two years ago, I first went to Havana Cuba with a group of American cartoonists on an arts and cultural exchange tour. Our group was put together then by Jeanne Schulz, widow of the greatest American cartoonist of all time: Charles M. Schulz. Among the wonderful places and people we encountered at that time was a poor art community named Muraleando, in a poorer area of the inner city of Havana. Noting all of the many murals we saw all over the community, several by guest artists from around the world, it was embarrassing to see that there was nothing from the United States. Not one U.S. artist to be seen. I turned to Jeannie and mentioned this and said, “Wouldn’t it be a kick if the first American mural ever to be here was of Snoopy?”

She liked the idea, and after about a year of reminders and gentle badgering from myself we finally got the OK to do it. I was to join a group and go there and spend the week in Muraleando, painting a Snoopy mural expressing our friendship and respect for the people of this incredible artistic community.

These are my journal entries of that week.

Arrival.  Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011

 There has been much change in Havana since I was here two years ago, most notably the lack of dog crap everywhere. My only real complaint about this place then was that it smelled of dog feces in Old Havana and you really had to watch your step. It was everywhere you stepped but now it’s all but gone. Many more streets and walls in the Old Havana area have been restored and beautified, especially the large plaza areas. Tourism has paid for most of the restorations and it’s on the rise. Mostly from Europe as I understand.

Getting here is always the hardest part. Changing planes, the long layovers and it seems that we’re always schlepping ourselves to the farthest possible end of the airports. Normally I wouldn’t mind that much but my knees are shot. A week after I return I will be having my first knee replacement with the other to follow next year. This was all much easier than the last time we came here. This time we flew from San Francisco to Miami and then caught a charter over to Havana. Two years ago we flew from San Francisco to Houston, changed planes to Cozumel, then took another plane to Havana. That’s another change that’s been implemented since two years ago there are now direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba. But I didn’t have bad knees and a suitcase full of paint to lug around with me back then.

I have been charged with- to me at least- a sacred task. Paint two murals of Snoopy and Woodstock in Muraleando, and make ‘em look good. Not some elaborate, colorful, and ornate impression of Snoopy (which might have fit better among all of the lovely murals there), but an accurate depiction, true to the Schulz style; simple, charming, and elegant. As I understand it, no artist from the United States has been allowed to paint a mural in Cuba so I feel a lot of pressure to get this right.

So here I came to Havana today, banging and clanging my poor, beaten, suitcase full of cans of paint down the cobblestone streets of old Havana. I’m here everyone, sorry about the noise.

How this came about

   Recapping the origin, on my last trip here I was with a group of artists and cartoonists and we visited Muraleando. Jeannie Schulz was with us, actually she had invited me to come along. So while we were admiring the art and murals of this community (as I wrote in the introduction up there) I put the bug in Jeannie’s ear that it would be really cool if the first painting here from the United States was a painting of Snoopy. She smiled and likely just thought I was being nice but I really meant it. Who better to plant a flag of goodwill and friendship than Snoopy? No one!

I thought this would be an idea well received by the main people of this community, artists themselves, who are so incredibly friendly, open, and welcoming. They have great pride in this community that they have beautified.

I kept the idea alive with Jeannie over the following year and she finally realized that I was serious and would be very honored to do the painting myself. It was an important statement for us to have Snoopy there, not for any commercial reason at all. If the people of Muraleando felt that this was in any way a commercial venture, they wouldn’t have allowed it. But they understand what Snoopy is and what he represents. They loved the idea. Snoopy is an international symbol of friendship, fun, and boundless imagination and goodwill. Perfect for this place at this time.

When the opportunity arose to go on another tour to Cuba, we organized it, Jeannie paid for it, and that’s why I’m here.

After getting settled in my room at the Ambos Mundos hotel, I felt like wandering around. Everyone else in the group had crashed or took off, so alone I went. It was Saturday night and the streets of Old Havana were bright and vibrating with music and life. I walked down the street to take it all in, and stopped to watch a lovely couple samba dancing in the lobby of a hotel. I arrived at the Floridita bar at the end of the street and took a seat at the bar and pulled out this journal and began to write. Here I am right now, drinking a mojito and listening to a live quartet of beautiful Cuban ladies singing a song about Che Guevara.

It’s so good to be back here. I relax into it and let it all flow into me. It’s going to be a beautiful week.

Day One. Dec. 4th, 2011

I arrived at Manolo’s home by taxi this Sunday morning at around 10:30. Manolo is the community organizer of the project and generally… da’ man. He is medium height and build, with a cherubic almost constantly smiling face and reminds me a little bit of  George Foreman in that way. After a good half hour of welcome-backs, hugs, and re-acquaintances with his wife Maira and our friend Mario, a DJ and rapper friend of ours in the community who speaks pretty good English, we went to the 8 and a half ft. by 16 ft. high blank wall space.

The bus stop in Muraleando and the empty place where Snoopy and Woodstock will be.

I dragged my noisy old suitcase full of paint and brushes and got to work. That suitcase by the way is a hard shell, light yellow color, with Snoopy as the WW1 flying ace painted on the side. It’s a good old suitcase and I’ve had it for years. We’ve been to Japan many times together and I’m very fond of it. It has a smart Snoopy repeat pattern on the inside black interior and it’s in great shape except for a crack in the outside shell in the corner due to some ninja baggage handler at Narita airport in Tokyo. But it’s a familiar travel buddy and really easy to spot turning stupidly in any airport baggage carousel.

I unpacked the case inside the small rotunda of the brand new Cultural Arts Center that they have created this past year out of an old cement water tank that was sitting here on a mound of discarded dirt and garbage and merely going to waste the last time I saw it. I unwrapped the many tabloid sized pages of Bristol and regular paper I had prepared and numbered as stencils to help me get the exact image up on the walls. This painting had to be as accurate as possible, as if Charles Schulz himself had painted the image there.

Damn, this mojito is good. No wonder Hemingway loved this place. By the way, I’m writing all of this in my journal right now at the bar in the Floridita bar, across from the life size statue of Hemingway there in the corner. Cheers, Papa.

I could never reproduce an accurate Snoopy freehand, especially at this scale, and this is a one shot in a lifetime chance. A free-throw in a tied championship game with one second left. A first step on the moon- better get the damn words right- moment. Well, it is just a mural I know, but it’s really important to me that I get it right. I’m feeling the pressure ‘as-if’.

With the immeasurable help of my newest best buddy Mario (the rapper), I was able to draw the entire image onto the wall today. I had cut twenty stencils out of 11” x 17” Bristol board with an X-acto knife of Woodstock and Snoopy and for the nest, the little tree, the grass, and Snoopy’s doghouse I had printed on these sections of regular paper on the laser printer.

I traced the lines with the Bristol stencils and with the regular paper I just covered the back with a graphite crayon and did the old rub-on technique. All of these pages are numbered so that I wouldn’t get anything mixed up. This preparation took about three weeks to figure out, pin down, and get just right. I carefully placed the numbered papers in their proper places, lining up hash-marks that I had-

Holy crap! A group of four Japanese tourists just came into the bar and started taking pictures of the Hemingway statue there in the corner, and I just impulsively said, “Yokoso!” ‘Welcome’ in Japanese. They started talking with me. They were touring Havana from Tokyo and were so shocked (I suppose, they seemed so) that some blondish white guy in a bar in Havana was speaking Japanese to them that they took my picture with Kumiko, one of the ladies of the group. Life can get weird as hell.

 Anyway, after tracing all the lines in ballpoint Bic pen,  I was done for the day. I had pre-arranged for the taxi to pick me up at Manolo’s home at Five, so at Four O’clock Manolo came over and told me I was done for the day and to bring me over to his house for dinner. And-

Wow, now I just finished talking with a lovely couple who were on vacation from Bath, England. I started to think that maybe a high profile bar might not be the greatest place to be while I write this journal, but no. It’s the best place because I’m meeting and talking with people from all over the world! This is the best!

Now the all girl quartet from last night has returned. One is playing a huge standup bass, another is on a keyboard like Laurie Partridge used to play on the show, one is scratching some kind of ribbed gourd, and the singer, who looks like Diana Ross if she ate a turkey burger, is singing Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’. You haven’t heard ‘Crazy’ until you’ve heard a curvy, caliente, Cubana sing,“Cray-seee…”

O.K. I’m back. That was a great conversation they were very nice people. I really must visit Bath, England someday.

Where was I? Oh, dinner, yes. Oh man, I had a home-cooked Cuban meal! Oh my gosh, it was amazing. Juicy, pressure-cooked sliced chicken breasts, sweet potato fries, black beans and rice, and a salad with green beans, olives, tomatoes, and dark green lettuce. Everything tastes richer and more profound in other countries to me, nothing is fake, no chemicals and additives just simple, real, and fantastic with some stunning Cuban espresso to finish it all off.

Mario (L) and Manolo (R) in conversation after our fabulous dinner.

With the old suitcase stowed and locked up safely away in the Community Arts Center, my first day of work on the mural was done. The taxi was prompt at five PM and I went back to the hotel and showered. My knees were hurting already, I’m not used to standing like that all day. The arthritis is very advanced in both of them and occasionally I have trouble walking, but really only when it gets cold and rainy. Not much chance of that here in sunny and warm Havana.

I got bored around seven thirty and walked out onto the streets to wander around some more because the knees weren’t hurting all that bad after the shower and I was still too super-excited to be here and doing what I’m doing to worry about it. After about 6 or 7 long blocks I saw the sign for the Floridita bar again and knew where my night was going to end up.

I’ll finish this last ‘Crystal Cerveza and I’m done. Big day tomorrow, actual painting!

Adios!

Part 2 will be coming soon!

Results

March 13, 2011

Evidently the bees have it. But it clearly wasn’t a landslide, and it showed me that there is a whole lot of interest in the ‘middle ages’ story and that’s great. So I will be running that as well, later in the year. So. Both sides actually win. It’s just that the bees get first buzz, and that’s fitting since chronologically it happened before the other story.

So starting Monday morning, the bees saga will begin. Going back into these files, tweaking them, polishing them up, and getting them ready to go over the weekend, I found that I’m very happy to bring this to you again. There’s actually some good stuff in there, it surprised me a few times. I haven’t looked at it in a long while.

Keep in mind that this was three years ago and Boody doesn’t have his wings back yet. Although I’m sure I’ll get letters and comments anyway, and that’s OK. Just so you know, I thought that writing “Classic MythTickle” over every one of these would be kind of tedious, I mean you all know it, right?

So in closing, thank you all very much for your input and now here’s a bee joke:

Me– Aaaugh! Please doctor help me! I have been stung by a dang bee.
Doctor– Oh, calm down. I’ll put some cream on it.
Me– Fool! You’ll never find that bee, it must be MILES away by now.
Doctor– No, no, please understand. I’ll put some cream on the place where YOU were stung.
Me– It happened in the garden, where I was sitting under a tree. But putting analgesic cream on the grass is not exactly eco-friendly, sir.
Doctor– Grrrr!  No. I mean in which part of your body did the bee sting you?
Me– Oh! The bee stung me on my finger.
Doctor– Which one?
Me– Well how am I supposed to know? All the bees look alike to me……….. I’m not racist. I like bees, generally.

Decisions vs. Decisions…

March 8, 2011

Thanks for comin’ over, folks, I know… it’s been a long time since my last blog. Sorry. So here’s my dilemma; As some of you know, my job here at Creative Associates (Peanuts), has changed this year and as a result my duties have gotten extensive. Maybe you’ve noticed the increase in “Classic MythTickle” strips, well this is mainly why. Also, my commute just got another half hour tacked onto it every day so I have very little free time. What all this means to MythTickle is, I generally do not have the time to devote to our comic that I really need to keep it steadily going. At least not now in this new adjustment period. I have been assured that my workload will ease up sometime this summer. I so don’t want to end the strip, I really love it and many of you have told me that you do too but I’m kind of in a corner here. I either have to end the strip completely or rerun another long storyline and so, to keep these characters alive, I’ve decided to rerun a story. WAIT! DON’T TURN AWAY! I WILL be posting new strips intermittently during the run of the storyline, so it won’t be just a whole month of reruns. What I want to do here is run a good story, instead of digging around in my archives all the time for crap strips that I’d rather not even look at again anyway, let alone expose you all to.

So here’s my question to you: Do I run the old Egyptian one again where they go in search of the lost bees, or do I rerun the one where Boody gets captured by St. George in the middle ages?

Egyptian Bees, or Middle Ages, that’s the choice. I’d run the Underworld one again but it’s been less than a year for that one and it’s just too soon. So please email me at Justin@mythtickle.com or just respond here and I’ll tabulate the votes this coming weekend and start it rolling on Monday.

Thanks very much for your input, your patience, and your understanding.

– Justin

The Epilogue on a Swampy Log Blog.

September 15, 2010

OK, so there it is. The end of the story that started 6 long months ago, on March 18th.

Thanks so much for the comments that have come in so far, I’m overjoyed that you liked the story so much. It really validates all of the time, work, and thought that went into it. It all came about like this, I wanted to redesign Boody but didn’t want to just start drawing him differently. That’s lame, and a cheat to you readers. There had to be a reason for it. I was originally only going to do a story about Boody going down to Duat and getting his wings for doing something nice for somebody down there. I never thought to place Sir Dudley down there, but soon after I started the story I figured well, what kind of a best friend just let’s his buddy die when he could actually do something about it. So this second story started to emerge and that’s when it all got crazy. The ball was rolling faster, so I decided to create a myth within myths. I figured I’d go with a couple of favorites, Egyptian and Norse and weave my characters into the stories of Isis/Osiris and Hermod/Baldur. I knew from the start that I wanted to make Boody cuter, younger, and give him some little wings, deciding that was the easy part. Trying to come up with a story around it was really, really, hard. So logically, when faced with a difficulty, I decided to make it harder. It’s really the only way to learn anything.
But allow me to back up a bit… Back In March, I started some 3-part throw-away story about the guys being “Ghost Investigators“. It really wasn’t going anywhere so I decided it was the perfect time to kill Boody and kick-start some kind of journey into the underworld where he would be awarded wings. Yes, I really do quite often write this stuff only 2 or 3 days ahead. So from that point, true to form, I pretty much just made it up as I went along, writing usually about 3 to 5 strips ahead of time at the most and in some cases the day before posting.

Why the ‘hel’ would I do that? I had a great acting teacher in grad school once remark on a brilliant actor in our program who was playing Benedick in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. He said how amazing it was to watch this actor every night go through that role so freely and openly and with absolute confidence and trust in the ‘moment-to-moment’ of what he was doing. I was in that show and I watched him every night too. I learned a great ‘something’ from that and I’ve carried it with me and reminded myself of it often, whether I’m writing, drawing, or acting. And it’s very difficult to put into words but the only way I can describe it is having an absolute trust in what you are doing, from moment-to-moment, and always, ALWAYS, work without a net. If it fails, you fall. But you never die, you only learn. That is where I get the thrill for doing this. In the learning of how it is done. I hope to never stop learning, too. My story isn’t perfect, I know this, and that makes me even more comfortable with it. The great philosopher Hung Tzu-Ch’eng once said, “Water which is too pure, has no fish”.
The timing of this tightrope walk was absolutely terrible. After I had begun creating this thing day-to-day, I also wound up acting in my first play in 4 years, maintaining top priorities to my full time job, going to Japan for a week, Disneyland for a week, Colorado for five days, and moving into a new house. Bad timing, I know. But when it started, I had no idea any of that stuff was going to happen, other than the full time job- which I can handle, AND I never would have imagined that the thing would drag on for 6 MONTHS. I wonder if, had I known all of that, I still would have done it. Who said that “Life happens while you’re making other plans.”? I think it might have been Lennon. Or was it Lenin? I’m not sure. It was probably a Beatle, they’re always much more profound than political leaders.
 So as a result of all of this stress and over-work, I had a relapse of my chronic fatigue syndrome and for nearly 2 weeks could hardly do anything but mope, whimper, and sleep. So the timing of this was horrible. But, it had begun and I couldn’t abandon it. It was alive and had to run its life course, there was no ending it prematurely.
 But now it’s all closed up and I’m very satisfied as to how it all turned out and again, I thank you for your support.
 If you want to go back and read it from the start, go back in the archives to March 18th and read on. But give yourselves some time, there are 62 strips to this story I believe, give or take a couple.
 There will be new strips in the weeks to come but there will also be a few repeats here or there, don’t be surprised at that, including a repeat of the big Gods v. Heroes football tournament. I’m going to take some much needed time away and think about what to do next with these guys.
 Oh, and there’ll be a couple of new characters popping up in the next couple of weeks too, your feedback on them will be much appreciated.

Cheers.

Embrace Change!

March 22, 2010

Hi folks,

Sorry I haven’t blogged in so long. I’m so busy that I barely get time to run the comics anymore. It’s just crazy right now. Which coincidentally leads into the announcement. Here’s some news that I know some of you, most of you, will like to hear; you will no longer have to wait until Tuesday to start the week’s MythTickle comics. Beginning next week, MythTickle will start running on Mondays. “But how, Justin?” you may ask. “How are you going to do that when you don’t have any spare time to even blog anymore?” Y’know, you’re right and I’m glad you asked that. For every Yang there is Yin as we know, and yes it’s cool that you clever subscribers will now get new MythTickle strips sent to your emails on Monday, but– and here we go- now there will only be three strips per week instead of four. Starting next week, MythTickle goes to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If you’re O.K. with this, thank you very much for your support and understanding that even I need some kind of life and deserve to look after my own health. With my regular job plus this strip, I have been putting in around 58-60 hours of work each and every week since I started on GoComics about two and a half years ago. Consider also that I am driving a little over two hours each workday and you might better understand why I just can’t do it any longer. The only other alternative to reducing the frequency of the strip is to stop doing it altogether and I just can’t do that. I’m too attached to these characters now.

So if you’re not O.K. with this, my only suggestion is to get my MythTickle book so I can get enough money to print a new one before Christmas. That way you can read one of the strips in there on Tuesday and Thursday and fill your week, that’d be great.

Also, let me know if any of you might be interested in some books I did several years ago, I still have several around. They are illustrated epic poems and stories, like the Yochi story that is in ‘MythTickle One’. In fact I still might have a few first edition Yochi books left.

If you’re interested in them let me know and I’ll put them up on the shopping page. At a significant discount, of course.

So that’s the announcement. But here’s some interesting news, I have inadvertently started a big storyline with the two ‘Ghost Hunter’ strips I did last week. I started thinking about it (always a dangerous activity for me) because the response was so good and so I wound up creating an expanded storyline from it. The best part is, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the end. I’m only half way through thinking about it. I’ve started something I don’t know if I can finish so join me, will you? And watch this storyline meander and be created moment by moment without a clue as to how it’s going to end up. It should be an interesting exercise and one I hope is funny from time to time.

So again, thanks for the support, for buying the book, and for all the emails.

I love ya’.

Justin

P.S. I think I’m going to kill Boody

Incommunicado

January 14, 2010

in·com·mu·ni·ca·do (nk-myn-käd) adv. & adj. Without the means or right of communicating with others. (postpositive) deprived of communication with other people  [from Spanish incomunicado, from incomunicar to deprive of communication; see in-1, communicate]

Friday morning I’m off. Leaving SFO for points South, the likes of which I cannot tell you about ’til I get back. Just know that I should have a couple of good stories and maybe- HOPEFULLY- a slew of new comic ideas. Ideally, I’d love to come up with a new story idea for our gang of MythAdventurers. So don’t get bummed if I don’t respond to your comments or don’t approve any blog comments next week it’s only because I won’t have access to the internet. Told ya’ I’ll be ‘incommunicado’.

Below is a picture of myself that I took yesterday with the camera on a Macbook Pro.

I didn’t realize that a mirror effect would occur and reverse all the text and pictures, but yes that is a picture of the book I am holding and no, I didn’t screw up and print the dang thing back-asswards. I merely submit this evidence as proof that I have not been yanking your chains all this time and that the first MythTickle collection is in fact a reality. I had the printer overnight me a few copies before I left on the ‘super-secret trip’. The big shipment is due to arrive on Jan. 27th and I hope to have a webpage set up by then so that you all can all buy your multiple copies. Man, listen to me getting all capitalist and stuff. Yeeesh! What is happening to me?????????

Anyway I’m off.

Following the bees.

Latest on the Book!

December 31, 2009

Hi everyone,

So I’ve received a few emails about the book, lots of questions, and I’d like to let you all know that the book is up in Eastern Canada right now, being printed on recycled paper (of course) as you read. I have done all of the editing and proofreading and correcting that can be done and that’s it. All that is left to do is get them delivered to me and get a purchase page set up. They are scheduled to ship around the 12th but that presents a huge problem. I will be out of the country from the 15th to the 23rd on a super-secret-diplomatic-comic-related-mission! I can’t talk about it right now but I’ll be sure to fill you all in when I return. So figure on the books being available to pick up some time in late January. I hope that answers some questions. In the mean time, here’s a closer look at the back cover of the book:

What I am currently up to: As I type this it’s 11:24pm PST and I’m sitting in a dark room in a hotel/casino right now, completely sober, overlooking the Colorado river in Laughlin, Nevada. No, I’m not some dead-beat dad scum who’s  run-off with my meager earnings to gamble it away on the slots. No, I always  come here on the week before New Years with my family because my Mom and Dad live near here in Bullhead City, Arizona. We get free rooms for the week and visit with the kids’ grandparents as they get a super-second Christmas and lots more presents. We’ve been coming here for years but it is getting really bad. The hotel is getting run down, they are incredibly understaffed, they’ve taken out the breakfast buffet (aaaaaarrrrrggghhh!!!!) and closed all but one of the restaurants attached to the place. I think the whole town of Laughlin might go out of business soon because the economy is so bad. Nobody has disposable income now. So logically, I pick the greatest time in the world to finally try to market something of my own. So typical of me and my timing.

Happy New Year.

Cheers.