A Sunday in Havana

Last night we watched as thousands of Cubans, mostly young, marched through the streets of Havana in “La Marcha de las Antorchas”—holding flaming torches aloft in honor of Jose Marti, the poet and philosopher who led the fight for Cuban independence from Spain and is considered the father of the Cuban nation. Today is his birthday and commemorative events from small to large were happening all over the country.

Natalia’s children’s theater group “Okantomi,” which means “de todo mi corazon” (which means “with all my heart,)” is producing a play that is based on one of Marti’s stories, “Bebe y el Senor Don Pomposo,” so Iris, the tia who is visiting from Holguin on the eastern tip of the island, and I decided to go. The theater quickly filled with children, parents and grandparents and some adults who didn’t seem to have any children attached. Okantomi uses puppets and actors together in a wonderful, creative mix and the play tells the story of a little 5-year old boy (Bebe) who is very rich and his cousin (Raul) who is an orphan and very poor. In the end, Bebe gives a very treasured toy sword to his cousin. There is music and a gaggle of adorable kids who play adorable kids and the audience clapped and sang and applauded on their feet.

This was the 40th Anniversary of this plucky company, which is no small feat in a country where all of the costumes, sets, props etc. have to be created from recycled materials and where the actors earn about 240 Cuban pesos a month for their work (the equivalent of about $20). I first met them over 20 years ago and was able to support them a bit by printing colorful promotional flyers in NYC and bringing them down with me. It was a special treat to be here for this special anniversary and to once again have a chance to admire the work of my dear friend Natalia.

Afterwords I decided to take advantage of the fact that it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t chilly to take a walk in Habana Vieja, the old colonial and much-touristed part of the city. I caught a machina (I’m getting pretty good at that, just have to remember to close the doors of these ancient cars a bit more gently) and disembarked at the Capitolio, the national capitol, which is still under renovation. From there I made my way to Prado, a broad avenue with a large tree lined central median where artists display their work on the weekends.

I was accompanied by a Cuban gentleman who was out for his ejercisios and we chatted about the sad state of the world, el maniatico Trump, and his cousin who lives in New Jersey. No, sorry, I don’t know him. There weren’t many artists out, probably because of the threat of rain, and jewelry and other items aimed at tourists are finding their way into this exhibition. In fact, much of the art seemed aimed at tourists, which is not how I remembered it from other visits.

At several points along the way, I stopped to chat with groups of children who were engaged in drawing classes—very intent on their work. I wove my way back to the Capitolio along Calle Obispo, a pedestrian mall, which is the main tourist street in old Havana. A mix of Cuban families out for a Sunday stroll and camera bedecked tourists, some clutching cheesy Cuban pizza slices in their hands (I wouldn’t recommend it) thronged the street. The bookstores and music store I like to visit were closed so I moved quickly along.

As I approached the Capitol building again I was hit by a wave of nostalgia and remembrance. My dearest friend Maria Julia, “La Paloma” as she was called in the AIDS Prevention Group, lived on one of the streets just behind this imposing structure, in a building across from what used to be one of the premier cigar factories in Cuba and is now a secondary school. In years past, I often stayed with her in her small, fourth floor apartment. Several years ago she died and I still feel her absence so strongly when I am here, especially in the neighborhood where she lived.

Taxi? I was about to say no and go in search of a machina, but my feet were tired so I negotiated a fare in CUCs and was dropped right at my front door. Tomorrow, rain is predicted but hopefully it will not prevent my twice-postponed trip to Matanzas.

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