Friday, April 21, 2006

Food & Movies

In our desire to learn more about Havana, we discovered that this city is picturesque from all over the island, from Morro Castle to Old Havana, to even the newer neighborhoods uptown. But since we came for the film festival we found ourselves crisscrossing the city, going from one movie theatre to the next, where lines of movier goers snaked down the block and around the corner.

And since our quest for movies inevitably led to the search for food, the two seem to be connected on this trip. What saved us from having to eat the worst pizza on the earth was Nicole's talent for referring to our guide book and map. Without Lonely Planet's advice we would have been worse off. When in doubt get the planet!! It's worth the money.

In regards to food, what we quickly learned is that in Cuba, it's all about the meat. And if fact, the more meat you eat the better off you are. There are markets everywhere with fresh meat sitting on tables. I'm talking slabs of meat, skinned legs of animals, juicy innards, dead chicken and cow parts sprawled around, and lots of pork everywhere, all raw animal flesh hanging from hooks, basking in the sun, a play ground for flies and shoppers.

It reminded me of La Marqueta, a huge meat market in Harlem, where I used to frequent with my relatives. Even the smell of raw meat was the same, and still made me quesy. I took these pics because I didn't believe my Mother would believe my stories of meat in the Cuban sun. While I may not appreciate it, the Cubans are rumored to be great at preparing the meat, and many people adore the dishes that result

The obvious thing is that vegetarians clearly have it hard here. Most Cubans are meat eaters, but there is a growing population of Cuban veg-heads struggling in this meat-oriented society. There is a chain of vegetarian restaurants that is at least a step in the right direction for people like me, though too pricey.

Because of this, our main dishes tended to be rice and black beans with salad. Nicole was clearly at a disadvantage, and thus limited in what she could consume. Rice. Black beans (when available which isn't always) and salad. And then there are eggs, which aren't vegetarian but at least a protein option. Since I have more leeway, because I eat seafood on ocassion, I did have decent shrimp, fish, and lobster dishes, especially at one particular cafe we grew to adore for its food and the warmth from the people running the joint.

Once while we ate there we also got a chance to sit next to a table of famous Cuban hip hop artists. The Waitress, a fabulous AfroCuban sister, was clearly star struck and fawned over them. From their fly outfits to the number of people who walked up happily greeting them, Nicole and I decided to sneak a few photos as proof that we hung out in hip places and rubbed elbows with at least the Cuban famous. If anyone recognizes these raperos (rappers), drop me a line so that I may properly brag.

What we also learned is that Cubans love their sweets and their booze. Pastries. Cakes. Rum. Beer. We saw lines of people waiting to get their allotment of cakes. And when I mean cakes, I mean fancy cakes, like wedding cakes. We'd see people, kids, old ladies, men with canes walking the street, avoiding pot holes and hungry dogs, deftly holding these fancy cakes with icing, drooling for their sugar fix.

We also saw loads of people buying their booze by the bottles. Havana Club, which is Cuban Ron (rum), and cuban beer like Cristal. Havan Club is the country's premiere choice of drinks. The island grows its own sugar cane and refines its own rum. Everyone drinks it. Many even use it in religious Santera Yoruban ceremonies. Though I am not that much of a drinker, I must admit that Havana Club is superior, and by far better than stinky Barcardi. This is just my preference. I learned that though Barcadi is more popular internationally, and is supposed to be representative of Cuban rum, it's not. Most Cubans understand that Barcardi and Havana Club are worlds apart, even universes apart. Barcardi is loaded withtons of inpurities that adversely affects its taste, and gives you the worst hangovers. Havana Club is purer, tastier, richer. The story is that the Barcardi people have tried stealing the Havana Club's recipe, which is guarded like Fort Knox. When you taste the Cuban ron you understand why Barcardi does not even compare. When in Cuba, do a taste test and you'll see for yourself.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Blog Returns

Okay, folks, so I have returned after being away from this blog for some time. My apologies. Since my last entry I have managed to complete my feature screenplay, an urban hip hop drama. Presently, I am developing it and am seeking financing. Keep your fingers crossed for me. Hopefully, you will all be seeing it in a theatre near you. Until then, I'd like to continue filling you all in on the trip to Cuba. Even in hindsight, it was great. Not just the images we captured, but the people we met, and the experiences we cherish.

What was amazing was how much the Cubans adore movies, and will stand around for hours watching crews work on the streets of Havana. Their fasciantion with movies is like everyone else's around the world.

While Nicole and I gawked like everyone else, I overheard Cubans pointing out famous actors captured somewhere in these pics. If you recognize anyone gimme a holla and let me know, because I sure didn't recognize anyone. Cultural media icons certainly don't translate if Cuban movies can not be screened in the United States. Yet another reason to end the embargo. A star is a star is a star, right?

The other two things I realized while standing around watching, are that production crews do the same technical things when it comes to shooting. It doesn't matter what kind of camera is employed. When there's too much sun and glare, you still need a scrim to screen out the sun. The other thing I noticed is that people of African decent are still under-represented behind the camera. Here in the U.S. and there in Cuba it is a rare thing to see an African woman like myself directing, even though we're out there trying to break through the glass ceiling. In Cuba, Gloria Rolando is an amazing AfroCubana director who has created stunning work, yet she still struggles to direct. I read an amazing interview with her in which she says how essential it is for society to ensure that people of color and women create their movies because we challenge the status quo; yet often we are not given the opportunities and must scrape together our own chump change to make what we envision. I can totally relate. Still, we perservere because we love filmmaking and have many stories to tell. My one wish is that audiences grow conscious of needing to support people of color filmmakers. It's not enough to see movies with people of color actors. Change must come behind the camera.

Las Krudas Rulez!

Though it's been sometime since my last entry regarding the trip, and my memory might not be as fresh as it was after the trip, I muyst admit that I am still enamoured with Las Krudas. Las Krudas is a Cuban Hip Hop group that used to consist of three women, two AfroCuban woman and sisters, Wanda and Odaymara Cuesta, and Olivia Prendes. They are feminist, lesbian hip hoppers breaking it down, keepin' it real. Las Krudas is now just Odaymara and Olivia, and they're still holding it down. Their music is not only tight, and engaging, but the lyrics are though-provoking and critical. It was a pleasure spending time with these sisters, sharing food as vegi-hedz in cuba, drinking club ron, the world's quintessential rum, and talking about nights away.

2/07 This is a major update!!! Las Krudas, all three members are back together, now living in the U.S. Here's a shout out to my girlz!

check 'em out:

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Happy 06!

I've taken a bit of a hiatus on the blog but for those still interested there are lots more pics, stories, and reflections to come in the near future. Cheers.

Stay tuned.....


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Unexpected Connections

Moving to Vedado gave us a different perspective on Havana. Before the Revolution this was THE neighborhood, the place where rich Cubans, especially foreigners and the Italian Mafia lived the good life.

You can see it in the amazing mansions, though many are now a bit busted, they're still very spectacular. The high rise apartment buildings have terraces, some a bit off kilter, that afford people living there magnificent views of the ocean. Vedado even has bountiful trees and green grass space where people play soccer, or chill out in the shade, a great place to nap in the park, as Nicole can testify. This neighborhood is also more developed than Habana Vieja and Centro Habana, and is where you can find most of the movie theatres. What was also intriguing about our domestic relocations was meeting our various hosts. To recount a bit, before moving to Vedado, Nicole and I actually stayed in two casa particulars in Habana Vieja.

The first few nights we were in Rafaela & Pepe's home ( the gentleman with the scars mentioned earlier). The rooms were ornate with Greco-Roman (but really African) columns, and the ceilings were huge. The first night we got there after 2am we settled into sleep lulled by the sounds of people playing dominos and chatting, and we were awakened by those same sounds mixed with the sounds of a primary school across the street.

We have learned that people's apartments are often hot so they socialize a lot outside, extending the community beyond their respective homes. That reminds me of growing up in the Bronx, hearing basketball games going into the middle of the night. Because we had not booked the room for a longer reservation we wound up moving a few blocks away to Pepe's son's casa particular. Eugenio is a doctor who is presently practicing medicine in Venezuela, and like his parents he was very nice to us and very protective. His place we learned was also co-managed by other siblings in the family. It's obvious that casa particulars are a great business to get into, especially ones listed in guide books, because while we were at Eugenio's the phone and door bell rang constantly, foreign travelers like us looking for places to stay. He had to turn some away.

During my first trip to Cuba I stayed in a casa particular managed by two women who cared for me dearly because they worried that my lack of Spanish would get me lost, that's how conscientious some hosts can be. While on that trip I had an interesting conversation with an AfroCuban hip hopper who bluntly asked me why I didn't stay with an AfroCuban family. I explained to him that I had wanted to but that I couldn't find a black Cuban family in any of my research. From that conversation that's when I learned how difficult it is for Cubans of African descent to get into the casa particular business, because it often requires a lot of money to repair housing to the standards for foreign travelers, and because Black Cubans' standards of living still have problems. So, on this second trip I was hoping Nicole and I would be able to find an AfroCuban family to stay with for cultural, political, and economic reasons. That didn't happen on this trip as well, and clearly reflects some of the economic inequity that black people in Cuba are still struggling with. More reflections on that later, but either way, staying in casa particulars gave us slightly better perspectives than staying in hotels catering to tourists.

When me moved to Vedado we stayed with Magali and Raul, our third set of hosts. Their place was amazingly surreal, but it was like stepping back into the 1960s. The furniture, the dishes, even the art work and the lamps reflected that period. Nicole and I both agreed that it felt like staying with our respective grandparents, even though Magali and Raul are probably the same age as our parents. As an aside, Magali told us that the artwork behind us in this photo was her wedding present!

We also learned that Magali was a career military woman with an auspicious history of being one of the first women Cuban soldiers to move up in the high ranks. I'm not really down with militarism but I can appreciate how difficult her struggles were in a macho culture. She told Nicole a great story of how she stood beside Fidel Castro, who commended her high scores but who towered over her like a huge building.

So our first night here was in a small room, and since small can mean different things to different people, here's how small it was.

Me being the tv junkie that I am, I was finally glad to get a tv, whatever it's size!

Havana has many faces, like any big city, but it reminds me of home, of living in the Bronx.

Both places are in constant motion...

...and both people live to talk.

When I was a kid when doing errands with my Mother the thing that fascinated me about her was how we'd walk the neighborhood and never get far because she'd stop and talk to people, or people would stop her to talk. That's what is was like during our 2 weeks in Cuba...

...meeting people...

...talking & sharing...

... connecting.

We met so many people while going to and from movies and continuing our search for the people who helped me make Bloodletting.

One of the unexpected connections we made was with Dona Gilda Merces Parns Bussue. While Nicole and I were rushing from one place to another Gilda asked me for directions in Spanish. She was like a lot of Cubans who assumed I was Cuban, and would approach me, expecting me to understand. When I'd tell them I didn't speak Spanish initially they didn't believe me. They'd say I looked like someone in their family, or a friend, or a neighbor. That's what happened with Gilda, except that she spoke English with us when she realized.

Gilda is a gentle, graceful, soft spoken woman who speaks English with a Caribbean accent. She told us that she was on her way to meet relatives she had never met before, and that she hadn't spoken English in awhile. My curiosity was piqued. I smelled a story. As Nicole and I walked with Gilda she explained that her father was an AfroCarribean immigrant from one of the islands. He came to Cuba, I believe she said in the early 1900s, because he found work here. He stayed and had a family but he never spoke Spanish and was shy. The relatives she was meeting today were from his home island.

When we told Gilda a little bit about ourselves, and about the documentary, how part of it includes stories about my mother and my brother, she shared with us her reflections on the Unites States. She said that in 1959, after the Revolution, she spent a few months in the U.S. but decided to return to Cuba because she said, "they treat black people terrible there." We exchanged contact information then she invited us to her home, which she said was modest but open to us. She said something like, "I don't have much. It's modest, but what I have is yours." I was touched. We kissed and hugged and went our separate ways, Gilda off to meet long lost relatives, and feeling more confident with her English; me and Nicole off to the festival, both feeling grateful to have made this connection.

Under another shady tree in a small park we met Consuelo Beyuer Roque, and her family, three generations of women, her daughter and her nieta, her granddaughter. Consuelo told us how she struggled and had nothing, that her shoes were even bad. Clearly they were a poor family. Coming from one myself, I was touched by their adversities. It also made me realize that as poor as I am in the United States I am more fortunate than Consuelo and her family.

On my first trip all of the delegates I traveled with brought supplies to give to people, the kinds of things we take for granted, bandages, tooth paste, sanitary napkins, aspirin. This second trip Nicole and I agreed to do the same, and we got a bunch of things to bring. A day before leaving for the trip my Mother wanted to do the same. So she and I went to the .99 Cent Store on Sunset Boulevard, and with a small budget, we got things for people. Before cashing everything out I saw a pair of magnifying reading glasses, and a thought popped into my head that I should get them. I did.

During our conversation with Consuelo, she told us that she couldn't read things because she said she didn't have glasses. Immediately Nicole and I worked out an agreed time to reconnect with Consuelo, to give her a care package along with the reading glasses. When we went our own ways I cried. Though I'm not unfamiliar with poverty it was sad to see a family so poor. I lived in the projects and couldn't afford lots of things, but poverty, whatever its form, is still sad. I never want to get used to it, or to get numb to the pain of poverty.

Wiping my eyes, trying not to get lost in the sadness, we bumped into a tall lean AfroCuban man with locks, pushing a cart. He and I nodded, an obvious mutually respectful connection because of our shared African ancestry, and because of our African locks, what many call dredlocks. Then he introduced himself as "The Fruitman" and asked me if I was a Rastafarian.

I've been asked that question many times, whether I'm a Rastafarian. By definition it means: "Rasta, or the Rastafari movement of Jah people, is a religious movement that reveres Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia, as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Lion of Judah. The name Rastafari comes from Ras Tafari, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie I, who Rastas of many mansions say is the earthly aspect of Jah (short for Jehova or the Rastafari name for God) and part of the Holy Trinity." When I asked The Fruitman if there were Cuban Rastafarians he told me that there was a prominent community. It was exciting to know.

From my experiences most Rastas are deeply intellectual and spiritual; they're kind and conscientious; they're usually always vegetarian and environmentally conscious, and they exude a love of life, a love of liberation and justice, and a strong sense of global community. The Fruitman was like this. He showed us photos of his family with international friends. He offered us Cuban ron, and invited me and Nicole into his house, where he introduced us to his wife and adorable daughters. Then he did the ultimate rasta thing: he pulled out a boom banging sound system, and sang us Cuban reggae karaoke, blasting the music so loud that a spontaneous party broke out in the streets in front of his house. He was a star and knew it. We all danced to reggae, he invited us to a rastafarian wedding, we exchanged contact information, and Nicole and I were off again into the streets of Havana. The Fruitman gave me this drawing from right off his wall and wished us well, restoring my sense of life. Big up to the Cuban Rastas and to Rastafarianism everywhere!