Lolo: Artists Flourish in Cuba

Food and other commodities can be hard to come by in Cuba but Art is abundant and gives us all hope!

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We recently visited a well know artist’s studio in Matanzas. Cuba’s sculptor “Lolo” or Osmany Betancourt Falcón is one of Cuba’s flourishing artists.He is a local to Matanzas and his studio can be found on Calle 97 known as Narvaez facing onto the San Juan river.

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He was busy at work when we arrived, up a step ladder on a huge piece supported by various pieces of wooden scaffolding and ropes. In the back ground a radio played some lively tunes and one of his colleagues with whom he shares his studio was working on some glazes. We wandered around admiring various pieces and looking at his array of tools and machinery for moving large works.

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We chatted to Lolo when he took a short break to wash the rich red clay off his hands, and we asked him about his studio and his wonderful creations! Materials can be hard to come by in Cuba and so artists tend to work with what is easily available locally. Lolo likes to works in clay, and it is sourced from Pinar del Rio the neighbouring province. Then he likes to casts his pieces in Bronze and wood is another favourite material he incorporates.

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For the piece he’s working on now, he plans to send it to the US to be cast in bronze.

Asking Lolo where we could see his works, he told us there was one in the Ceramic Museum in Havana. This is a small museum is on Calle los Mercaderes just off Plaza Vieja, entry is free and it’s well worth a visit!

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Lolo has had some recent fame winning first  prize in Matanzas, in the 11th Summer Exhibition 2011 with a piece entitled “Sargento” an installation in enamelled ceramic, metal and wood.

He has won other prizes in the Bianual Amelia Peláez Ceramic Competition and in the Roberto Diago Salón. He has also had pieces of work on show in Canada, Holland and Germany.

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The government actively supports “the Arts” and over the last 53 years of revolution, Cubans artist have enjoyed support and opportunities that others have been denied. Art of all types and forms is everywhere and accessible, mainly free of charge or very cheap for Cubans. Tourists pay a lot more. Artists have an almost free expression in music, dance, sculpture, and painting, the resulting works interpreted by the viewer.

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Art schools are over subscribed and its a career  that the younger generation are drawn to. The arts attract tourists and sales to tourists bring extra cash bonuses.  If you are talented and produce popular works you might get a chance to travel with a show or get a contract to perform abroad. The young have a thirst to see the world beyond Cubas shores!

Why not book a holiday in Cuba this year?

The Castro days are numbered and change will steamroll this fragile and unique island.

Cuban Snapshot 7 days  http://encompasstours.com/tours/a-cuban-snapshot-7-days/

Mi Cubita 14 days     http://encompasstours.com/tours/mi-cubita-cuba14-days/

 

 

 

Varahicacos Cuba. “the other Varadero”

Varahicacos Cuba. “the other Varadero”

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Foreign tourists to Cuba either flock to Varadero’s white sandy beaches or give it and its glut of “all inclusive” hotels a wide birth!

For visitors who don’t like beach hotels, Varadero is still worth a visit to see the dramatic lifestyle contrast with the rest of Cuba. This narrow strip of beach lined land is bursting with Hotels, and amazingly, still more hotel giants are being constructed cheek by jowl. You can only try to imagine what it will be like in ten years time! As no Cubans actually live in Varadero, workers are bussed in and bussed out. The only Cubans enjoying Varadero are the ones selling goods on the streets! This is a pricey, tourist only zone!

Varadero beach

So why come to Varadero?? Well luckily there is more to Varadero than the lovely beach if you are prepared to go and look for it. Put it on your itinerary now before it gets completely squeezed out!

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If you take the “Hop on Hop off beach tour bus” you can get a few glimpses of the sea and, an almost ariel view of the developments on the peninsula. Among the crowded hotels in down town Varadero, dive centres and fishing opportunities are abundant! There is a dolphin centre where shows are put on and it’s possible to swim with the dolphins too. Still in the down town area you find Jonson Park, originally a private residence now a botanical garden with lake and other family attractions in a 9 hectare site.

Continuing on, up the peninsula, the Varadero Golf Club at Mansion Xanadu is 18 to 19 hole golf course surrounded by lush green palm trees and makes a refreshing break from the built up area! Golf carts and equipment are available to rent and an 9 hole option or a course of lessons can be yours at a price.

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Just beyond this and opposite “Reserva Ecologia Chaplin” you find “Boat adventures” a centre offering a range of water bourn tours exploring the mangroves!

Keep going on the bus till you reach the area called “Hicacos” and the “Reserva Ecologia Verahicacos”, our destination today!

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It’s a small reserve but it is an attempt to preserve some of the original flora fauna and vegetation currently to be found on the peninsula. At the entrance there are some well presented information installations in Spanish and English describing some of the highlights and aims of the reserve. Pay your entrance fee and a poor map is provided! But it suffices! Underfoot its sharp coral rocks, so good foot wear is advisable. The paths are adequately marked and the whole self guided tour lasts about an hour to an hour and a half! Butterflies and lizards skit off into the undergrowth, while caves, ruins of the salt works and giant cactus are the main physical attractions of the reserve. It’s nice to think about how this part of the island looked before the first building arrived!

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Your “hop on hop off” bus ticket last the whole day so there is plenty of time to complete the whole beach tour and return down town for a cocktail!

Why not come and see Cuba for yourself?

A Cuban snapshot 7 days tour

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Mi Cubita 14 days tour.

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Ferry to Casa Blanca

 

If you are walking down the “malecon” (coastal road fronting the sea wall)  in Havana toward the harbour and Bahia of La Habana, your eyes will be drawn to the lighthouse (faro) standing proud on the cliff edge protecting one of Cuba’s spectacular natural harbours, the bay of Havana!  The lighthouse stands on the end of a promontory strongly fortified with huge walls and battlements, built by the Spanish Conquistadors to defend the city against pirates and other bounty seeking invaders. Opposite stands the old city of Havana, once a jewel of the Caribbean!

A road tunnel now links Havana to the other side of the bay, but locals who live in Casa Blanca (a community on the other side) make the crossing to and fro on the ferry to get to work and school. If you like boat trips then the ferry to Casa Blanca will be one you’ll enjoy, and once there you can walk up the hill to the statue of Blanco Cristo (White Christ) and enjoy the view.

The ferry has a vauge time table…. It starts running around 6.30 to 7am and stops around 9.30 to 10pm and the crossing takes about 5 minutes.

Once you have located the pier, which is opposite the new Russian Orthodox Church you will need to go through the police check point and join the queue which is undercover on the pier. The police will want to look inside your bags and require men to empty their pockets and maybe even do a body search!!!  All a bit strict for a short ferry crossing you might think??

Well NO! In fact two or three ferries have been hijacked and sailed with all their passengers to foreign shores, namely the USA, where all Cubans are welcomed with open arms and helped to settle in! Another victory for the capitalists!!

The story of one famous hijack is worth repeating!

One day as the ferry left Casa Blanca to cross the bay a whole bunch of people boarded in party spirit.  Through the police check with their crates of beer, bottles of rum, pots of food and snacks, tambores, maracas, guitaras, singing,  dancing, laughing & joking. Men, women, children, adolescents, babies etc a big family outing!  You get the picture!! An outing with a surprise! Half way across the bay the ferry turned left and headed out to sea, party still in full swing!! This change of route was noticed by the security police on the pier who notified the coast guard. The coast guard was not quick off the mark as they thought something on the lines of..“well the ferry has hardly any fuel they won’t get far!” How wrong they were! This had been well planned. The crates of beer were full but the bottles were full of fuel not beer and so the ferry partied on to Miami!!!

So if you still want to chance the crossing, join the queue in the line marked Casa Blanca and when the ferry appears pay your peso to the official and jump on board!

The price you pay for the ferry is one peso moneda nacional MN (not tourist money CUC) and before you start thinking this is very cheap, please remember that an average Cuban monthly salary is $20 to $40 US so that is only 500 to 1,000 pesos MN.

Once on the ferry find a safe place to stand and hang on! Bicycles and other small cargo are allowed at no extra cost provided there is space. The journey is pretty smooth and eventless normally but you might want to take note of where they keep the life jackets!

Exit the ferry and the ferry terminal at Casa Blanca and ahead of you a road leads up through a small park onto a road that leads to the statue of Jesus Blanco. For the last few months he has been encased in scaffolding but there is a view point worth reaching and the walk up takes about 10 to 15 minutes from the pier.

Proceedure for the return ferry is exactly the same but if you don’t fancy it or are in a hurry you can always catch a taxi and return by the tunnel. If you have lots of time to spare then why not head up to the lighthouse or visit the old fort which is open to visitors for aprox. 10CUC

It’s a lovely view over the old city and the bay is cleaner now than it used to be before the iron curtain fell and cut of the plentifull trade from this once thriving port!

If you fancy a trip to Cuba and want some company why not join one of our small group tours. No more than 8 in a group with a dedicated tour leader throughout. Read more on our tours pages.

For a short tour try “Cuban Snapshot”
http://encompasstours.com/tours/a-cuban-snapshot-7-days/

If you have more time then “Mi Cubita” covers two weeks
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Read more about Cuba in our news posts.

San Lazaro

Cuba’s Favourite Saint

Catholicism came to Cuba with the original Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century and despite efforts to ban religions of all kinds following the revolution of 1959, it remains outwardly the dominant religion of the day. The churches have all reopened and been repaired, the pope has visited twice giving Cubans his blessing, and people are able to freely practice their chosen religion without fear of persecution.

“Santaria” is the name given to the Cuban form of the African religions brought over with the slaves from West Africa. Cuban life is steeped in the beliefs of Santaria which has always managed to survive underground practiced by people in the worst conditions imaginable who gained from it their strength to survive. Although it is now recognised as a religion in its own right and openly practised it is so ingrained into the beliefs and culture of the island that it adopts and transforms the Catholic saints and embodies them with its own deities, and vice versa in a sort of symbiotic relationship!!

The saint most celebrated in Cuba is San Lazaro! He was the poorest of the poor. He ate the scraps from under the tables and even the dogs licked his sores, so the stories tell us. He was famously raised from the dead by Jesus and himself became a saint.

Who can not feel sorry for San Lazaro? He is the saint for whom so many Cubans feel a great sense of empathy.

San Lazaro has a dedicated following in Cuba his Sanatrian self is “Babalu Aye” (ref Rough Guide to Cuba)

December 17th is his saint day and the preceding day, December 16th, is the day of peregrination. The devotees begin their dedications and demonstrations of self sacrifice in Santiago de las Vegas and culminate their 5 to 6 kilometre journey at the Sanctuary of his name adjacent to and in the grounds of the old Hospital on the out skirts of El Rincon, a suburb of Havana.

They are a conspicuous procession, dressed in dirty old clothes or tunics made from old sacks for the occasion. Barefoot or with special rope shoes if not on their knees, some even spread-eagle themselves on the ground face down on the earth. They might carry wooden crosses or other burdens and slowly painfully make their procession to the feet of their saint. On reaching the Sanctuary they make their pledges and promises in return for cures received or hoped for, for themselves, for relatives or friends. Many also renew their promises to fulfil pre existing devotional pacts with San Lazaro for favours done and cures received.

On the streets of Havana there are many devotees who walk the streets carrying small statues of San Lazaro and collecting money for Cuba’s favourite saint!

Join us on one of our tours!

If you have only one week try “A Cuban Snapshot”
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For those with more time to spare try “Mi Cubita”
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Our Man In Havana

If you haven’t read the book or seen the film and you are thinking of visiting Havana, Cuba, then this classic Graham Greene is an easy entertaining read and a must see movie! Directed by Carol Reed with unforgettable roles played by Alec GuinnessBurl IvesMaureen O’HaraRalph RichardsonNoël Coward and Ernie Kovacs.

The novel was first published in 1958 and film shooting began the next year in Havana. It was just two months after the communist revolution of 1959 and Havana would never be the same again! Thanks to the cooperation of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro the city was made accessible to the film crew and Castro visited on set at the Cathedral Square! All filming was done on location; Calle Lamparilla where our hero Wormold had his shop, Hotel Sevilla which at this time had been known for its easily available cocaine and female company, and the opening scenes from the roof top of Hotel Capri which had a roof top pool and was like all hotels and casinos under mafia control.

Our hero Wormold (a vacuum cleaner salesman with an adolescent daughter) is reluctantly recruited as a spy for the British Government and submits false information to keep MI6 happy!  The backdrop of espionage and the threat from the enemies behind the iron curtain are the stuff and nonsense of this delightfully funny and slightly ridiculous story! However as with all Greene’s stories the events are based on true events and encounters he made in his extraordinary life!

Greene the man was easily bored and travelled extensively and compulsively throughout his life….Nicaragua, Liberia (where he was a spy) Haiti, Sierra Leon, Vietnam, Cameroon, Hungry, Indo China, Mexico, Egypt are but a few of the places he travelled and worked.

Starting off as a journalist in Nottingham, he moved eventually to become sub editor of The Times which he later gave up out of boredom! He converted to Catholicism and married his only wife Vivien whom he perused with a great passion but love quickly died. They had some children but he was an absent father, too busy travelling and having many affairs, but remained married to Vivien and in some strange sense “loyal” to her.

A great love of his life was a woman he met in Cameroon. She was married but they conducted a relationship that lasted 32 years! He once said ..”In Africa I learnt to love life again”

His childhood had been unhappy with mental illness in his family and he spent some time himself in a residential psychological rehabilitation centre when only a teenager!

He was a meticulous man with a huge regard for his own work and was very pushy with his books. Physically he was tall with bright pale blue eyes that people he met said, caught and held their attention!

Greene died 1991 in Switzerland; he had fled Britain partly due to being pursued by the tax man. His novels will remain classics of the highest quality.

His themes of the hunted man and his sense of guilt run through his writing. He had a huge sense of place and many of his novel read like film scripts. It’s said that during filming “Our Man In Havana” pages of the book were merely stuck to the story boards to work from directly!

If you want to retrace Greene’s or Wormold’s steps in old Havana you will not be disappointed. The appearance of the Spanish colonial buildings might have decayed since filming in 1959, but the streets and Hotels made famous in the film are still there to be enjoyed today. Room 510 Hotel Sevilla is celebrated as it was his inspiration for part of this unforgettable book. The casinos no longer operate but the ghosts of the mafia are very much alive!

 

Graham Greene was the subject of BBC Radio 4s “Great Lives” series broadcast on August 2nd 2011, and you can listen to it on BBC iPlayer or download it as a pod cast http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/greatlives/

 

Enjoy a tour of Cuba and life in old Havana with one of our delightful holidays.

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