December 5, 2020

Virtual tour of Cuba, 11/29/2020 (pen and ink, Prismacolor colored pencils on grey toned paper)

I traveled to Cuba last Sunday morning to sketch. Given that we of Los Angeles County currently have a curfew and are almost back to complete lockdown, it was a nice diversion. I have to be honest, Cuba has never really been a destination for my bucket list radar. But the woman who took us on our virtual tour certainly convinced me to pencil it in. She told us that she was there in the 80s and then again in 2019. I guess in recent years it has gotten easier for an American with a passport to visit. But as the US is still engaged in an embargo with Cuba, it seems a very odd arrangement, to say the least. She told us the average person who lived there had difficulty obtaining all kinds of things. For example, it was not uncommon to see old 20th century cars driving around the streets as new cars were not available. She said they made do with parts they could find/exchange to modify and make their cars run. She added that they sometimes adapted motor boat engines to power these old clunkers. She said they were called “Frankenstein Cars.” (I wonder if that translates to “coches de frankenstein” in Spanish?) Our tour guide also said that new construction was almost unheard of and they again tried to fix/repair what they had. It seems that the building you see here was only inhabited on the first floor, and the upper 2 stories were facades only, with no way to repair or rebuild them. 

Of course she spoke of Ernest Hemingway living in Cuba. Hemingway lived there on and off for thirty years during the late 30s, 40s and 50s. He had a permanent residence in Havana and went there in the winter months when it was just too cold to be in Idaho. He is credited with writing “Islands in the Stream,” “A Moveable Feast” and “The Old Man and the Sea” while there. But when Batista was deposed in 1960, Hemingway left Cuba for good as the American government had asked US citizens to leave the country. But Cuba will always have a connection with the US, even more than the fact that one of the greatest 20th century American authors lived and wrote there. You can’t argue with the way the Cuban culture has affected American culture, specifically in areas of Florida. Key West is only 90 miles from Cuba and there are reportedly over a million Cuban-Americans in Miami. As I said, you can’t argue with the affect numbers like that can have on any culture.

As we finished and shared these sketches we all decided it would be a great adventure to go there as a group to sketch and paint there someday. I know I’m in! 

Virtual tour of Cuba, 11/29/2020 (Prismacolor colored pencils, white POSCA pen on grey toned paper)

Our virtual tour guide of Cuba warned us that we may need to think outside the box to capture the photo she took of the lovely little Cuban dancer with the green fan. As I decided to do this one with just my Prismacolor colored pencils on grey toned paper, I hoped I might channel Degas for this one.

Thinking of her as a dancer reminded me that many dances we do in the US originated in Cuba. Salsa dancing, a kind of Afro-Cuban style, has it’s origins in Cuba. The rumba also comes from Cuba and according to Wikipedia Danzon is the official musical genre and dance of Cuba. And it is also a dance style you can see in Mexico as well as Puerto Rico. 

And of course if you are going to mention all things Cuban, you can’t stop with just dancing. What about their music? Anybody out there a fan of Gloria Estefan? Of course, yes! She’s a Cuban American. And my dad loved listening to the Buena Vista Social Club music. They were a group of musicians that got together in 1996, and were dedicated to bringing back the music that could be heard in Cuba before Castro. Check it out on YouTube. I dare you not to love it and want to get up and dance!

Speaking of my dad, he liked to smoke cigars. And when he could get them, smoking Cuban cigars were his absolute preference. When he traveled to Quebec on business in the 60s and 70s he often brought back Cuban cigars. Many of his fellow engineers were of a like mind and often took requests from anyone traveling to Montreal or Toronto. Canada had no beef with Cuba and probably imported extra hand-rolled cigars with gusto for that unspoken US market. I’m not a fan of cigars, especially the smell of one being smoked in my proximity. But I remember listening to an interesting story on the radio about the people who hand rolled the cigars in Cuba. It seems that there are people known as Lectores (readers) in the workrooms where people toiled long hours, hand rolling cigars. These Lectores sat in a prominent place in the room and read to the workers. They read the newspaper and any kind of book they had available. I remember the person who was reporting the story said that he had heard of someone reading Don Quixote. He said that sometimes the workers would stay on longer just to hear the end of an article, story or book. 

I remember my dad smoking cigars in the little family Volkswagen on our way to visit my grandmother (his mom) in Pacifica (near San Francisco). It was often very windy and cold on that windy road. So, all the windows were rolled up with just my dad’s tiny wind wing cracked to let out the smoke. I don’t remember actually seeing the smoke, but the smell was unmistakable and almost gives me a sick headache thinking about it now as then. I didn’t care then, or now, if they were expensive hand-rolled Cuban cigars. In my opinion they all smelled bad when lit. I guess my only favorite memory of his cigars was when he smoked them outside and on the beach in Santa Cruz. It was his favorite way to light fire crackers and cherry bombs. I don’t remember the terrible smell at all. I guess if I have any smell memory from that time it would be a slight whiff of gun powder. But I do remember his smile and all of us laughing hysterically with every loud bang and puff of smoke! Don’t miss the cigars dad, but I do miss you. 

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