Unpack Studio, 7 & C, Vedado, Habana April 2017
I arrive in a heat wave so hot I will need a coping strategy. I rent a bike that’s too expensive and realize I should have bought one to donate to Unpack. Oh well, I am happy to be freewheeling through the colourful streets of Habana. I head west beyond the seawall searching for ocean access. Beach #1 is rocky with what looks like tufa and fossils, hard to walk on. I cool my feet but not much more, something nibbles at my toes. Beach # 2 is as rocky and looks too dangerous to enter. Beach #3 holds potential but I must traverse a thin ledge to reach the shore. Courage required and soon I’m swimming in the cool clear water with los muchachos. It’s over the bridge at Calle 12, doable on bike for a daily swim.
I settle into a routine making art in the mornings, reading Spanish, buying provisions para la comida. I find milk for café con leche, guavas for shakes and peanut bars for strength. On my outings I venture deeper into Centro Habana, gaining confidence and inspiration. Small architectonic paintings develop from the forms and colours noted. I’m interested in the space between house and street where public meets private with brightly painted pillars, gates and steps; each plane a different value that satisfies my painterly gaze. It hits me that Cubans decorate with concrete! I visit art galleries and begin to grasp the conceptual sophistication of contemporary Cuban art.
We visit Ernest Hemingway’s house and are swept away by the tale evoked in the objects and spaces he occupied. We linger by the pool… I reread Old Man and the Sea and am struck by his visceral descriptions. Hemingway loved Cuba, It fed his complicated soul for over 30 years. I begin to grasp the contradictions that exist in parallel worlds. The dual currency is emblematic – collectivo taxis cost 10 pesos to Habana Vieja (a few Canadian pennies) while regular taxis are 10 cuc’s ($14). We use both depending of what we’re buying. Cubans love to shop… yet there is little available. Advertising is absent yet slogans are everywhere, architecture is outstanding though much in ruin, streets are alive, detritus abundant. Cubans are warm loving people and I am grateful for the care and hospitality I feel (gracias Omar, Laura y Matilda). There is irony in the evening ritual on the Malecón where lovers gaze out at the dividing sea. What will linger for me are my wanderings through Centro Habana feeling the pulse of the neighbourhood and the beauty of its buildings while peering through grated windows into tiny dark rooms where life unfolds in the shadows.
Thank you Unpack, it’s been a crazy and wonderful adventure.