POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: sketchy

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For Nancy. From whom Cinder adopted “sketchy.”

Listen:

& read:

I.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Jane: “What?”

Cinder: “If I had to describe Cuba in one word: sketchy. The cars are sketchy. The buildings—not all of them, but too many—are sketchy. The food is sketchy. The buses are sketchy. The playgrounds… sketchy.

We are at a playground. At which I just told Ender to get off the swing, because, um, I saw the screw in the bracket that’s supposed to hold it attached to the upper pole wiggle and wiggle and wiggle…

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Well.

Cinder: “I’m going to ask Flora what she thinks. Hey. If you were going to describe Cuba in one word, what would it be?”

Flora: “Mildly traumatizing.”

Jane: “Is it because of all the dead bird parts in the Metropolitan Parque?”

Flora: “And the run down cemetery you made us walk through. Again.”

Cinder: “That’s two words. One word.”

Flora: “Run-down.”

Jane: “But the experience of a lifetime, right?”

Cinder: “Just keep telling yourself that, Mom.”

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II.

We’re walking this crazy loop through a section of our hood where we don’t normally go, and we get lost—mostly on purpose—and end up by the Havana Zoo.

Jane: “No.”

Ender: “But…”

Jane: “Absolutely not. Think about the Aquarium. Quite apart from the fact that the admission price is extortionate, it will make Flora suicidal.”

Flora’s already mildly traumatized, because we went through the Bosque—Havana forest and the Havana Metropolitan Park Natural area—which were wild and beautiful and utterly unkept up and full of garbage and also bird carcasses, what the fuck—and I can’t figure it out until we accidentally interrupt a Santeria ceremony and they’re not sacrificing any chickens, but suddenly, all the feathers and corpses make me think maybe it’s not just cats and vultures and words come out of my mouth, and Flora hates humans.

Flora: “If your stupid religion requires a sacrifice, it should only ever be a human sacrifice, goddammit.”

Jane: “So you’re cool with what the Aztecs were doing then?”

Flora: “Yes. Except for all the llama killing.”

Instead of going into the zoo, I offer to buy them some KFC-style fried chicken. We’re clever now. I order a single serving. “My kids are picky,” I tell the server. “If they like this, I’ll order more.”

Flora: “It’s edible.”

Cinder: “It’s not good.”

Ender: “I don’t think it’s meat.”

Jane: “Is it because you’re thinking about all the bird corpses?”

Cinder: “Well, I wasn’t, but thanks, Mom.”

Jane: “Just drink your Fanta and chew.”

They elect to drink their Fanta and be hungry. I take a bite.

I don’t think it’s meat either. Although—that’s definitely a bone.

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III.

Santeria crash course: Santeria is what happens when Yoruba and other African tribal beliefs meet colonialism and Roman Catholicism. Santeria is the name the Spanish plopped onto the practices they noted among the slaves in the Caribbean. Regla de Ochá or La Regla de Ifá are alternate names for the religion that occurs everywhere in Carribean where colonizers and slaves collided.

Cuba’s version of Santeria is, like everything else about Cuba, uniquely Cuban.

As Vice’s Phil Hill Clarke puts its, “In its earliest days Santeria was an exclusive slave practice — a rejection of the masters’ Catholic saints and the colonial Christian God.”

One of the centers of Santeria in Cuba is the Havana suburb of Regla, but I don’t manage to drag the kids there.

Next time.

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IV.

The colonial period from the standpoint of African slaves may be defined as a time of perseverance. Their world quickly changed. Tribal kings and their families, politicians, business and community leaders all were enslaved and taken to a foreign region of the world. Religious leaders, their relatives and their followers were now slaves. Colonial laws criminalized their religion. They were forced to become baptized and worship a god their ancestors had not known who was surrounded by a pantheon of saints. The early concerns during this period seem to have necessitated a need for individual survival under harsh plantation conditions. A sense of hope was sustaining the internal essence of what today is called Santería, a misnomer (and former pejorative) for the indigenous religion of the Lukumi people of Nigeria. In the heart of their homeland, they had a complex political and social order. They were a sedentary hoe farming cultural group with specialized labor. Their religion, based on the worship of nature, was renamed and documented by their masters. Santería, a pejorative term that characterizes deviant Catholic forms of worshiping saints, has become a common name for the religion. The term santero(a) is used to describe a priest or priestess replacing the traditional term Olorisha as an extension of the deities. The orishas became known as the saints in image of the Catholic pantheon.

— Ernesto Pichardo, CLBA,
Santería in Contemporary Cuba: The individual life and condition of the priesthood

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V.

Our loop takes us past the Ho Chi Minh monument—which is his bust, bronze and conventional, on a marble block—again, conventional. Around it are red poles, roughly shaped into a tent. Part of the monument or a separate public art sculpture?

Cinder: “I don’t get it.”

I explain Ho Chi Minh to them briefly.

Cinder: “No, I mean, the theme of this park. Look, there are all these road signs, right?”

I notice them for the first time, but he’s right—here’s a stop sign, and here’s a yield, and here’s children crossing and…

Cinder: “And the path is painted like a road—see the separating line? So it’s like for kids to bike around in, and learn street signs.”

I nod.

Cinder: “And then… there are the stairs…”

So there are. In the middle of the road.

Cinder: “Sketchy. In a word: sketchy.”

I prefer… not well-thought out.

Like socialism Cubano.

Perhaps socialism itself.

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VI.

Segue: it briefly occurs to me that the problem with socialism is that Karl Marx formulated it at a time when the Industrial Revolution had totally and completely perverted the concept of work, worker… life.

He saw what was happening… and tried to think of a way to make it better.

But he didn’t think… maybe that’s not the way it ought to be at all.

VII.

Old school Castro and the Communists didn’t approve of Santeria or Catholicism or any religion. Religion, you may remember, is the opium of the people and all that.

Perhaps now recognizing that the people need their opium, new school Castro and the post-Communists have stopped actively repressing religion in Cuba. Well, mostly.

As a result, Santeria has undergone a massive renaissance. The BBC reports that it’s Cuba’s most popular religion, and judging by the number of iyabos (initiates), easily recognizable by their all-white costumes, head coverings and beads, the BBC is right.

If you’d like to find out more about Santeria, the aboutsanteria.com site and blog are a good starting point.

Short-hand: there’s more to Santeria than animal sacrifice.

But, that, too.

And the evidence of animal sacrifice causes Flora as much angst as roadkill.

I explain Santeria to the children, in rough outlines.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Flora: “Very traumatizing. But then, so is much of this trip.”

What? Really? Why?

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VIII.

Barely a hop and a skip away from the Ho Chi Minh monument is a cemetery. Could it be the Chinese cemetery I’ve read about? I think I see Kanji…

Flora: “Seriously, Mom?”

Jane: “How can we not go in? It’s right here.”

Also, I fucking love cemeteries. All those silent stories…

Flora: “Dear Moxy. I have now been in every single cemetery in Havana. I’m sad to report each is full of decrepit graves, and possibly corpses, although most of the crypts look empty. Mom says the removed bodies have been probably removed by officials and not grave robbers.”

Jane: “Aw. You listen to me when I talk.”

It’s the Chinese cemetery. It. Is. So. Cool.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

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Ingrates.

Jane: “Experience of a lifetime.”

Cinder: “Humour her. Quick. Before she decides to drag us to another animal sacrifice park.”

Flora: “Experience of a lifetime, Mom.”

That’s better.

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: the playgrounds kill me

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For Sara, Valli, Lilia, Charlotte, Lachlan, Meredith, Nova, Faeryn, Indigo et al. Who would have fun there anyway.

The playgrounds kill me. Each time I see one, rusted through, abandoned, virtually destroyed, I am hit by a wave of suffering so intense, I almost vomit. I do not feel this badly when I walk past the shoeless drunk curled into the doorway of a building owned by the government that’s supposed to provide for him. Nor when I walk past a mansion that was a thing of beauty in 1858, 1959, and is now a heap of rubble.

But the playgrounds—empty, rusting, so fucking unsafe… they kill me.

Do you understand why?

My children don’t mind. They find the places that work, and have so much fun:

Yes, my children don’t mind at all…

Do Cuban children?

So many of the playgrounds are… empty. So empty. Because they are—well, not just depressing but dangerous.

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And sometimes… they are put to different, more practical use:

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I try to see beauty and purpose in that.

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I see it as the most powerful indictment of Castro’s revolution.

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…and wait until I show you what the schools look like…

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(This is one of my favourite photos from the trip/project)