I've had a really good time in this class, it was great getting to meet and talk with other students who are going abroad and I learned a lot about Cuba. When I heard that NYU had a photography program I knew I had to apply not only because of my interest in photography but because when else would I have the opportunity to go to Cuba? Apart from the Revolution, I admit that I knew very little about Cuban culture and history before taking this class.
The blog assignments forced me to do a lot of research that I otherwise might have done at the last minute, if at all. I especially liked the book assignments, because they gave me tan excuse to do some non-school related reading. Reading "Havana: an Autobiography" was very helpful since I now feel like I have a basic knowledge of the history of the country that I will be living in for four months, plus it was fun to read! Watching Soy Cuba also got me even more excited to go to Cuba. After researching the Riviera, I realized that it was the hotel where they filmed the scenes of tourists swimming at the hotel pool, which is pretty cool. The island looks so beautiful in black and white, I can't even imagine what the film would have looked like had it shown all the colors of Havana.The map assignment was also great. Although I need to walk around to really figure out where I'm going, I did find places that I want to check out in my spare time.
For my second book, I read "Telex From Cuba" by Rachel Kusher. "Telex From Cuba" is a novel, and an employee at Idlewild suggested it to me when I bought "Havana: an Autobiography." I didn't buy the book (since hardcovers are so expensive) but I did find it at Bobst Library.
In "Telex From Cuba" Kushner wrote beautiful fiction about the buildup of tension in Havana and the Oriente Province until the explosion of the Cuban Revolution. In the pursuit of showing this, Kushner makes clear the hierarchy of 1950s Cuban society, in which most Cubans were near the bottom. The book is written more heavily from characters who are Americans living in Cuba in the ten or so years before the Revolution.
Kushner’s descriptions of Cuba are my favorite parts of “Telex.” One character, La Maziere, inhibits a red-light district of Havana and sees the city as a sticky, off-color version of Paris. Most of all I love Cuba through the eyes of K.C. Stites. On page 83 he describes a beach called Saetia as a “perfectly protected cove, with pink sand that sparkled like it had grown up diamonds in it, and reefs that were teeming with sea life.” K.C.’s experience in Cuba is driven by his childlike, physical relationship to his environment. He lives like a prince among beggars; with a paradise for his playground. While K.C.’s position seems morally repugnant in terms of Cuban political values, K.C.’s Cuba is beautiful in its simplicity. K.C. saw the harsh treatment of poor Cubans, but his narrow scope left no room for questioning. His ignorance of inequality is easily justified: "it wasn't right, but that's just the way it was."
When I found out that I would be spending next semester in Cuba I tried to picture my living conditions. Maybe I would be staying with a Cuban family? Or in a dilapidated old house on the beach? I fostered some of these fantasies until last week when I found out that while in Havana I'll be living at the Riviera Hotel.
Although I was initially a little disappointed with the thought of living in a hotel, my childhood dreams of living like Eloise at the Plaza came back to me. I don't expect to be greeted by Nanny or to order room service every night, but there is something exciting about living in a hotel with such an interesting history. The Riviera was built in 1957 by the American gangster Meyer Lansky. Lansky had previously built successful hotels (aka casinos) in Las Vegas, and when Cuba passed the Hotel Law 2074 which allowed for new hotels to be built for tourist purposes, Meyer quickly seized the opportunity to build the biggest and best hotel in the Caribbean. According to this new law, if a hotel's construction cost more than one million dollars the contractors were allowed to apply for a casino license, and Meyer's Riviera Hotel was really just an excuse to build a casino. The construction of the hotel cost 14 million dollars, 8 of which came from Meyer himself; the other 6 million was funded by Batista and government funds. Before the construction of Las Vegas style hotels, gambling in Cuba was unregulated, and foreign gamblers were often duped and essentially, robbed. Americans were calling for gambling reform, and by quietly cooperating with gangsters like Meyer, the Cuban government was able to make reforms as well as a large profit.
I found a really great list of Cuban restaurants in NYC, and I definitely plan on hitting up Havana NY and Little Havana Restaurant before I leave the city. One of my favorite restaurants in New York is Cafe Habana, a Cuban-Mexican restaurant on Prince and Elizabeth Streets. I love the avocado and cheese sandwich and the Tlacoyo de Tres Marias, which is a corn cake stuffed with goat cheese, tomato, black beans and salsa. Although I love Cafe Habana, I'm not that the dishes I like are authentically Cuban. Cuban food is very meat-heavy, and as a vegetarian I won't be eating their famous pork sandwiches. I've been told as a vegetarian that I will be consisting on a lot of rice and beans, but I'm hoping that I will be able to find some good fish dishes in Havana. My program has arranged for students to eat breakfast and dinner at the hotel we're staying at, but I can imagine being sick of hotel cuisine after the first couple of weeks, so I plan to explore street food. The currency situation in Cuba is complicated, since foreigners are usually relegated to using a different type of peso than the locals, which can make it hard to pay for food at non-tourist eateries. Hopefully I will be able to work out some shady money exchange with the locals since the tourist restaurants are allegedly expensive and not as delicious as some more low-key local spots.
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I liked this assignment, because I found a bunch of places that I want to go to while I'm in Havana. I especially want to go the Christopher COlumbus Cemetery (the green flag with a dot) and check out the Callejon de Hamel, which is a street painted with murals and filled with santeria shrines.
As I searched the web for Cuban music, I was quickly
overwhelmed. Cuban music is one of the most popular types of “world music,” and the rhythm of Cuban
music has influenced musicians all over the world. Most Cuban music is a blend
of African drum rhythms and Spanish guitar influences, and these two elements
have manifested in many styles of Cuban music. Some styles that I came across
were son (characterized by a syncopated rhythm and the use of claves, two
wooden sticks that are hit together), salsa (which grew out of son music), and
afro-beat. Cuban music has influenced many Latin bands and many salsa and mambo
groups in the US, but since the embargo Cuban bands have not maintained the
popularity they once had in the States. A notable exception is the Buena Vista
Social Club, which is a band of famous Cuban musicians that were brought
together by an American producer. I don’t own any of their albums but when I
heard their song “Chan Chan,” I immediately recognized it. More than any of
these styles I was intrigued by Cuban jazz, a style that emerged when American
jazz artists began to collaborate with Cuban artists in the 1940s. Cuba soon
had its own jazz bands, such as Irakere, whose song “Bacalao Con Pan,” I really
like. In the last couple of decades the influence of rap music has spread
across the world, and I was curious to see the influence of rap in Cuba. I
found some pretty bad contemporary Cuban rap, but I also found out about Las
Crudas (The Crude Ones), a three woman, lesbian rap group. Las Crudas were
I’m reading Havana: Autobiography of a City by Alfredo José Estrada. The book covers the history of Havana from the colonial days to the present, although in my reading I just gotten up to the life of José Martí, the leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Party which organized the first national movement for Cuban independence from Spain.
The book is beautifully written, and it portrays Havana as a city equally entrenched with “pleasure as well as politics” (Estrada 1). Estrada was born in Havana but left as a child, only to return several years later, eager to experience the mysterious country his parents left behind. His descriptions of Havana are vivid, and reading the book I can envision myself walking down Obispo Street with the smell of cigars and coffee invading my senses.
Although Estrada realizes that Havana “is a living, breathing organism, one that [he] could hardly contain within these pages, ” (18) the book is packed with information. Havana: Autobiography of a City is very much a history book, but it is different than any dry text I read in highschool. Before starting this book I had very limited knowledge of Havana; I now feel as if I’d taken a class on Havana’s landscape, culture and people. In the beginning of his book Estrada chronicles Havana’s transformation from a rough and rural island to a busy commercial center peddling sugar and tobacco, two crops that very much define life in Havana.
I watched I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba, in Spanish) directed by Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov. The film was made in 1964, during the zenith of Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. The movie is beautifully shot in black and white, and is definitely the most artful piece of propaganda that I’ve ever seen. The film consisted of four vignettes set in pre-Castro Cuba. The opening shot of the movie pans across the ocean to the island, finally settling on a cross, shot from below so that its upward thrust matches that of the palm trees behind it. The sparse, mysterious music is interrupted with a woman’s voice, slowly and deeply saying “soy Cuba.” This phrase is repeated at the end of each vignette, and each time the woman expounds on what it means to “be Cuba.” Initially, the narrator speaks of the country’s beauty as articulated by Columbus. But the theme quickly turns to exploitation and invasion of Cuba by Christopher Columbus (taking their sugar), then by the tourists (taking their pride) and finally by Batista (taking their freedom).
Finding Cuban art in New York is not easy. I searched for
exhibits of Cuban artists on Google and could only find records of past
exhibitions. I decided to go to the Met, for surely they would have some
samplings of Cuban art. Wrong! I scoured the Central and South American
galleries and couldn’t find one piece from Cuba. I did see a lot of beautiful
gold jewelry and vessels from Peru and Colombia, but I have no idea if these
artifacts would remotely resemble anything from Cuba. Next
I went to the photography floor, hoping to see some of Walker Evan’s black and
white photographs taken in Havana. Although the Met has many of Walker’s photos
of Cuba in their permanent collection, none were on view. I did find a book on
Evans in the gift shop, and decided to look at his photographs online.