Cuba was never on our bucket list, but last fall, on a gray and gloomy Seattle day, we were idly talking about going somewhere in the middle of winter, to a place where the sun was shining, and a letter arrived from Grand Circle Foundation, inviting us to participate in an official People-to-People cultural exchange in Cuba in January. So that’s how it began. (Grand Circle Travel is the parent organization of Overseas Adventure Travel, with whom we frequently travel. Their foundation does wonderful work in the places they visit.)
We left Seattle just after three days of snow, when most of the city had shut down, and had five days to spend in Florida, in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, and also in Miami and Miami Beach, before we met our group and flew off in a chartered Delta plane for Havana, along with several other groups of Americans. Entering Cuba was easy; our American guide, Tatiana, handed us packets that contained our visas, roundtrip tickets, and forms to be filled out–Immigration, Customs–and we were on our way. In Havana, we tried to give these forms to officials, but they just waved us away. The United States government used to forbid its citizens from visiting Cuba–they had to sneak in from Canada or Mexico–but last summer the rules changed. Now American citizens in affinity groups–religious, cultural, etc.–are allowed to visit. Not as tourists–oh, no, not that–but for cultural exchanges. That’s what we were doing, exchanging, being cultural ambassadors, while we toured around. And also American citizens are not supposed to visit Cuban beach resorts, but one of the hotels we stayed in sure looked and felt like a resort–sandy beach, non-stop entertainment, purple wristbands that gave us entree to everything and all we could drink! I want to write more about Cuba later, but for starters, here’s one of our cultural exchanges.
In Cienfuegos, we started out at the “jardin de UNEAC, which stands for Union de Escritores y Artisans de Cuba, and is pronounced ‘oo nee ac‘. We had a talk by the president and some of the artists. UNEAC supports five different creative endeavors: painting, sculpture, film, dance, literature. Then we had a Q and A with him and some of the artists. (I asked a lot of questions about writers and publishers.)” That quotation was from my journal. One of the artists whose wife is a writer/poet asked us to stay after the afternoon dance recital (a children’s programs that is part of UNEAC) to meet her. Then
we toured some of the artists’ studios. In the studio of Camilo Villavilla Soto, Artista plastico, we saw a ceramic sculpture piece that we really liked. There are two systems of money in Cuba, one for Cubans and the other for foreigners. We agreed that we would go back to the hotel to convert our dollars to the special Cuban Convertible Pesos called “kooks” and he would bring the piece to the afternoon visit.That visit turned out to be one of the most meaningful encounters of our trip.
My sculpture looks like a Russian matryoshka doll that is also a grenade. I think that when Camilo created it, he was thinking of all the hidden entities, secrets possibly good or bad, inside such a doll and also of the potential destruction of a grenade. I think of it as a protest against the Russian presence in Cuba–of course they are gone now, but still it was a daring political act to make such art, and maybe not such a safe thing for him to do. And the other reason why I liked the piece so much is that I have a small collection of matryoshka dolls, the first from a visit to the Soviet Union in 1977.
Camilo brought the grenade/doll to the garden, and after the darling children and their parents had packed up and gone home, Camilo, our guide American Tatiana, Don and I, the poet and her artist husband, and two or three other artists sat for perhaps two hours talking about getting published there and in the states, about editors, about publicizing and marketing our work (she relied a lot on readings), about the lives of artists and then more broadly about all our lives. I showed them my pictures of my family, including one that showed my collection of matryoshka dolls. The artists, some of them, had had shows in the U.S., all in east coast cities, and they said that musical and dance groups also had toured. Very few had traveled beyond the other coast, but of course they all said they
would like to. We’re grateful to Tatiana for translating; her family is from Peru, and she grew up bi-lingual, so while she is fluent in both Spanish and English, it isn’t easy switching from one to the other.
I plan to write more about Cuba soon–people ask about the food, the hotels, etc., but now I’m just going to show the pictures of my new matryoshka, in my collection.