CUBA LIBRO – May 12, 2016

The bunch of us piles into Bus 3794 for morning sights. The Partages cigar factory is a four-story building surrounding an atrium. Open walkways ring the atrium at each floor. We cannot cluster as is our custom, but straggle precipitously. The factory spokeswoman has our full attention, because to look down feels mighty perilous. Four hundred people, men and women, work at rows of tables in long, high ceiling spaces with shutters opened to the outside and to the atrium. Many fans keep the air circulating. Each person can roll about 125 cigars per day. Hanging from each workbench on makeshift hangers are their street clothes. Someone has been given the responsibility of reading the newspaper aloud to keep the workers occupied. Understandably, the soap opera section is the only time they pay attention.

The nearby cigar/rum store is packed sardine-wise with busloads of pink shoppers. I squeezed in and squeezed out, defeated. So, to kill time, we visit a statue of John Lennon, working class hero, in a small park. It’s an ugly thing that folks have no trouble cozying up to. “You’re still fucking peasants, as far as I can see.”

Habana Compás Dance is a dance company and school founded a dozen years ago to graft aspects of flamenco on to Afro-Cuban percussion rhythms. The directors and innovators operate on a shoestring from a formerly derelict building. They give several short performances every day as a way to generate hard currency. We sit on benches facing a colorful mural while participants set up a variety of drums and six painted wooden chairs. After a call-and-response-style Spanish to English intro, the troupe blows the roof off the place. With expert timing, total syncopation, and great big grins, ten young women and two guys perform seven short routines. Especially great is the one where they wail on the chairs. It’s all athletic and electric and very musical. These are highly trained and motivated kids and they shine. Such promise.

It would be hard to top this with anything other than lunch. Bus 3794 turns right and enters a community of single-story bungalows. Almost immediately, houses appear adorned with elaborate and colorful sculpture. Figures and flowers and symbols standing alone or connected by arches and gravity-defying curlicues covered with pieces of broken tile. Murals and phrases cover walls. This is Fusterlandia. The bus turns right again and stops at a delirious, three-story, tiled concoction, Casa/Estudio of José Fuster, el Picasso del Caribe. We enter the gate and stand agape amid a fantasia of color and motion. The influences of Gaudi and Picasso immediately come to mind, as well as the similarity to the Watts Towers. I forget I’m famished. Staircases, balconies, and pavilions fly through the air. That’s a small swimming pool with a sunken treadmill (?). Sr. Fuster’s son explains his father’s mission. It is incomprehensible. This place is glorious, totally nutty, and a joy to explore. Lunch is served beneath red tile canopy – rice and beans and chicken and fish. Then we all sing Happy Birthday to Aria, who’s just turned 21.

I sorta hate to leave, but we’re here to workshop our prose, so back on the bus. Tim points out an unusual looking building to the left. A monolith of dreary concrete and black windows rises maybe ten stories when it narrows to a solid concrete shaft continuing another three or four. This is topped with a block of windows somewhat resembling an airport control tower. “It looks like a bottle of vodka, doesn’t it?” say Tim. It was the old Soviet embassy. That’s when I feel the chill of the totalitarian creepiness that lurks beneath socialismo tropicale.

Workshop passes with helpful commentary all around. I’m amazed I don’t drift or drowse. After ninety minutes, we scatter. There’s a free hour before we are to gather again for Tim’s talk on the Cuban Revolution. I take the opportunity to buy cigars. Five cohibas not for me. I pass by the ever-present booksellers at Plaza de Armas. The many booths have spread old trinkets on tables – figurines, coins, paper ephemera. I purchase an Esso map of Cuba. It’s satisfyingly worn, but I will frame it when I get home.

Phil and I have decided to skip the Tim Talk to track down the only English-speaking AA meeting on the island. Guess what! It’s in a church basement. Nuestra Senora del Carmen. Due to profound linguistic disability, I show a cabbie the written address. A Skoda takes us there. We’re quite early, so we loiter outside slowly developing a plan to uncover the location of the meeting room. I have precise directions in my pocket, yet trepidation yields stasis. Finally, we inquire and, after scowls and head shakes from a dour woman, we descend to find all the accoutrements of Alcoholics Anonymous arrayed in a corner of a vast, columned basement. At last a gent appears to set up the meeting, Martin from the Isle of Guernsey. We’re in the right place. Ultimately, there are five recovering guys, which makes a decent quorum. …and the wisdom to know the difference.

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