Decidedly uncomfortable with religion

Top of my list of places to visit in Havana was the island of Regla, and a neighbourhood home to the Santería religion. From the Spanish word that means ‘worship of saints’, the Catholic undertones are obvious. So why then did I leave the place feeling decidedly uncomfortable and even just a tad afraid?

I’d been to a Santería church in Trinidad. And while it was different, it didn’t feel real. It felt more like a show piece – something set up to catch some tourist dollars. I didn’t get any sense of it being lived in, or used. Although I don’t doubt for a minute that it is – I just didn’t get the vibe. I’d seen people dressed all in white everywhere we went – am still not sure if they are Santería or some other religion… but it all added to the intrigue.

We took the ferry across to Regla from the port in Havana. The 25c fare mentioned in the guidebook had increased to €1 for foreigners. Behind us, we left a mammoth cruise ship docked at the port, the lovely Russian Orthodox church, and a Rio-style marble statue of Christ of Havana, the work of  Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera commissioned in 1953. [And again, made from Cararra marble – had I know the length of its reach, I’d have visited the marble museum when I was in Carrara – will have to go back.]

Looking forward, we could see the church. As we walked up, the wall outside was full of dolls and people selling beads of a sort. I went inside to see the Black Madonna (a fixation from a previous life) sat for 40 minutes or so.

Apparently, the Santeria would surreptitiously practice their religion (back in the day when they couldn’t) by aligning their gods with Catholic saints and then praying to them.

Santería has its roots in the Yoruba people of West Africa.  […] In Cuba, the slaves of Yoruba origin were called “Lucumí,” perhaps due to the mistaken belief that they all belonged to the Ulkumí tribe, or because the slaves addressed each other as Oluku Mi, meaning “my friend.”  Although most Africans were forced to convert to Catholicism upon arrival in the New World, many continued to practice their native religions at the same time.  A common misconception is that Afro-Cubans blended the two religions into a single one, but a more accurate way to think about religious syncretism in Cuba is to say that the two systems continued parallel to each other in the minds of the Afro-Cuban people, who didn’t see any contradiction between them.  Practitioners of Regla de Ocha or Santería might describe themselves as Catholic, attend Catholic masses, and baptize their children as Catholic, while also practicing their African-based religion in their ilé, or Lucumí temple-house, in their own homes or in the home of a religious elder.  While they know that the Catholic saints and the Lucumí Orichas are not identical, they find similarities between them, and they see no problem keeping a statue of Saint Barbara or the Virgen of Charity on a Lucumí altar, as another way of representing Changó or Oshún, two of the most popular Orichas in Cuba. For centuries, Santería was practiced as a somewhat “secret” religion as a way to avoid religious persecution or the negative social stigma attached to Afro-Cuban culture in general. It survived as an oral tradition, passed down from one generation to another, through initiation ceremonies that created a tightly bound community and distinct lineages based on ancestors. As Cubans left the island, many took their religion with them, and Santería spread to the United States, Canada, Europe, and other South American countries.

The church itself was peaceful and dates back to the early 1800s. It was busy. Men and women of all ages did the rounds of the statues, stopping to touch each one, lips moving in prayer. It was quite mesmerising. The Black Madonna – Our Lady of Regla – has pride of place. In Santería, the Virgin of Regla is syncretized with the Orisha Yemayá, owner of the moon, the seas and everything that lives there.

The statue here an exact copy of the original (which dates from about 430) and was brought from Spain in 1696. It’s had an adventurous life. When the British arrived in 1762, the statue was removed to safety first to a church in the village of El Calvario and then to a sugar mill in Managua. It was ‘abducted’ by anti-Batista revolutionaries, with the priest’s approval in 1958.  Today, it sits in state, celebrated daily but especially on 7 September when the annual pilgrimage takes place.

As we left the church, all was well. A young man and woman called us over. They had their doll out and started to chat in Spanish. I was a little dazed by it all. They wanted to tell my fortune. Ten years ago, I’d have jumped at the chance but today I’m not at all anxious to know what the future may hold – let it happen when it happens. I declined gracefully. The young lad told me I had something wrong with my leg – not difficult to see had he watched me going inside initially. The girl pointed to my stomach and made a face. I didn’t notice that they were offering to sell me beads – I just heard them repeating the world ‘protection’ over and over. And I had to go. I didn’t visibly run away but mentally I’d have broken the 3-minute mile. I was upset, disquieted, and a little afraid. The fact that both my stomach and my leg were acting up for days afterwards I put down to suggestibility. It had to be. Somewhere, unbeknownst to me, I’ve become a tad more rational and a little less fanciful. Not sure when it happened. But happen it did.

Wandering around the town, I was again struck by the innate beauty of it all. Here, too, locals gathered for their wifi fix in the square and altars to various Santero were visible through windows and doors. The port building looked  little worse for wear but all seemed to be operating. I was more than a little intrigued at what the box-ladened bikes were trafficking back and forth on the ferry.

I came across a plaque marking the birth of a secret society, the Abakuá  – an Afro-Cuban men’s secret fraternity. With so little known about this secret society, a 2000 paper by Ivor Miller talking of how Abakuá musicians have sung about their contributions to Cuban history, their liberation struggles, and race relations makes for an interesting read.  The plaque put the lid on what I could take. I was ready to leave.

Back in Havana later, I was struck by the incongruity of it all. I could buy my voodoo paraphernalia in a huckster shop down a side street and on my way there would like pass a bar or restaurant like Dos Hermanos that proudly bears a plaque to those who’ve supped inside. It was all just a little surreal.



Buena Vista Social Club

I’m no stranger to adding to what little information I might have to make a more complete story. In another world, this might be classed as poetic licence. Trouble is, I manage to convince myself that my version is the real thing and then when I find out the real story, I’m usually surprised. And not always pleasantly.

Pre-Cuba, I’d thought that the Buena Vista Social Club was a Cuban band that has been playing together since the 1950s. Relics of time gone by. I had them up there with the Blind Boys of Alabama, who’ve been playing together for more than 70 years.  But was I ever wrong.

Going to see the band was high on my list of things to do in Cuba, right there with having a cocktail at the Hotel Nacional. We’d hooked up after our respective days out for an evening drink at the Hotel Ingleterra on Parque Central and on checking with the concierge, decided to go see if we could get tickets to the Buena Vista, if not for that night, for the next. We followed directions and found ourselves on the street behind the Saratoga Hotel in a neighbourhood that still bears the hallmark of grandeur.

A crowd had gathered at the foot of the stairs in what we assumed was our building, as it was the only place showing any life. We queued, too, not quite sure what was going on. As we moved on up the stairs, I noticed that others behind us and in front of us had tickets in hand. We had nothing. But when we got to the desk it turned out that yes, for €50.00 each, we could get dinner and watch the show – from a front row table.

Now, had I been more on the ball, I might have asked some questions but I was so excited about finally getting to see the boys that I didn’t. We could have cocktailed it for free, all evening, and not bothered with the €35 bottle of white wine that fell way short of what I’m used to in Hungary – but as I said, I was too excited to pay attention to the details.

The food was grand – fine – it filled a gap. Not exactly haute cuisine but as dinner-show dinners went, it did the business. I was there for the music. The band began to come on stage, one by one. Laughing. Joking. Tuning up. And then it all began.

A line of elderly men and women dressed in their finest filed out. All singing. About 14 musicians crammed on the stage played their hearts out. And the MC of the evening told us what was in store. Some of the greats from the days of yore would be entertaining us for the evening.

Pre 1940s, the Buena Vista Social Club was a members’ club in Havana, a place where Cuban singers and musicians entertained the people. In the late 1990s, American musician Ry Cooder won a Grammy for his album featuring singers from the Buena Vista Social Club.  This was in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, Wim Wenders did a documentary of the musicians involved, which was nominated for an Oscar. Wenders himself was fined $25k for breaking the US embargo against Cuba. It was a cheap price to pay for bringing Cuban music to the world stage. What we were treated to that evening were some of the finest of the finest. It was humbling, mesmerizing and simply brilliant to see. A night that ranks up there on my list of Top 10 experiences ever.

Did I mention we had a front-row table? I was practically dancing on their toes. Septuagenarians, octogenarians, each with more life in their little fingers than many twenty-year-olds today. And they gave it wellie. Ill-fitting box suits reeking of mothballs. Spats. Wide, printed ties. Hats. All so last-century. It was like going back in time.

Each performer wandered in and out of the tables, entertaining everyone in the room. Cabaret at its best. The house dancers dragged people up to the front to dance (there was no shortage of volunteers). At the table next to us, a Meryl Streep lookalike was celebrating her birthday, somehow connected with who appeared to be the mother of one of the younger singers and a force in her own right. It was all very speak-easyish. Booze. Cigars. Babes. And the godfathers. My imagination was running riot.

And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get much better, the MC for the evening announced Juana Bacallao, the goddess of Cuban cabaret. In her 90s, the woman is nothing short of amazing. Apparently she plays regularly at the El Gato Tuerto and in her day was one of the stars of the Tropicano (two more for my list should I ever get back to Havana – but the tourguide of one of the women in front  of me in the queue apparently rated the BVSC above the Tropicano – if you have to make a choice). She keeps her tonsils oiled by drinking honey with egg yolk every day. She’s quite the woman. An inspiration. Seeing her live was something else.

And Juana was in good company. I rather fell for Orestes Macias and would quite happily enjoy a Cuba Libre with Flora Max. It was only afterwards that I realised how many greats were in the room that evening.I checked out Mundito González…

Many have been the singers, who have cultivated the musical genres characteristic of the Cuban sound universe. But when we think of that glittering jewel that is the bolero, Mundito Gonzálezs image appears, and with him, his privileged voice, his musical culture and his exquisite sensibility lavishing the listener, the joy of entering the deep secrets of music. 
Harold Gramatges

And then had to check the bolero – a slow-tempo 2/4 dance music that has fused with other forms into what even I recognise as styles.


The bolero-son: long-time favourite dance music in Cuba, captured abroad under the misnomer ‘rumba’. The bolero-mambo in which slow and beautiful lyrics were added to the sophisticated big-band arrangements of the mambo.The bolero-cha: many Cha-cha-cha lyrics come from boleros.

Amazing what you learn on a weeknight in Havana. If you’re in town, make it your business to go see the Buena Vista Social Club. For one night, take yourself back to the 1940s and let loose. It’s worth every penny and more.


I hate being a tourist. I like to travel. To see places. To try new things. But I hate doing it under the guise of a tourist. I don’t queue. I try to avoid attractions. But if it’s offroad, offbeat, off-centre, I’ll find it.  Or he will.

We were on the hop-on, hop-off bus in Havana (hopping not recommended by the way as there’s sod all by way of timetable, little by way of signposting, and in a whole day of sporadic waiting, I never once saw the No. 2). The No. 1 is the city tour. We took it because I wanted to see the cemetery and it was as handy a way as any to get there. No. 3 takes you to the beach but we didn’t have long enough in the city to spend a day on the sand. No. 2 is supposed to connect you from No. 1 to the Hemmingway Marina. I remain unconvinced.

We were heading to a little neighbourhood in the northern burbs between the Marina and Club Havana. Here, apparently, a Cuban artist by the name of José Fuster, is working wonders in the ‘hood by doing it Gaudi style. I have it on good authority, that every month or so, the man takes a trip abroad and brings back colourful mosaic tiles that he then uses to do up the neighbourhood in what has become known as Fusterlandia.

Marooned in the middle of nowhere waiting for a bus that never appeared, we asked three taxi drivers to take us there. They were either trying it on (extortionate fares) or didn’t know where it was.  A local, unlicenced cab, stopped and said he had no idea where it was but he’d find it. And he did. And we went to Barcelona for a couple of hours.

It was pretty spectacular. Fuster is using the barrio as a massive canvas. He has transformed about houses and parks into something truly gobsmacking. Real people live here. They go to work. They go to school. They play on the streets, drink in the bars, eat in the restaurants. Mad.  Jaimanitas is not a theme park – although being billed as Fusterlandia, you could easily mistake it for one – it’s a neighbourhood. Another type of rejuvenation, different to what’s going on in the Viejo, but a rejuvenation nonetheless.

  If you’re lucky, you can sometimes catch the man himself at work. We missed him. He funds this project by selling his own work (I saw a price tag of $10 000 on one piece) and does a roaring trade in relatively inexpensive hand-painted tiles ($30). I came. I saw. And I bought: an original mixed-media piece that I know I’ll end up furnishing a room around.

The 70-year-old grew up in Caibarién, a small fishing village on the south coast of Cuba. As a teen, he had the volunteering spirit, that drive to make his community a better place, working as he did back then on local literacy programmes. He went to art school in Havana from 1963 to 1965 but it was a visit to Barcelona, to Parque Güell, that sealed his style.  The influence of Antoni Gaudí is everywhere you look in the barrio. Quite fantastic.

I am not concerned with classifications or the critics’ disquisitions. My only interest is to create. To those who say that my work is naive, I reply that they are the ones who are naive, because my art is filled with surrealism, and I prefer to define it as postmodern, although I do not like installations, without categorizations or rigid compartmentalization. My spiritual father is Picasso and my favorite uncle is Gaudi.

La Hababa has a good article on the man, if you’re interested in knowing more. And if you make it to Havana, make the time to visit. We never did get to the Marina.

No ‘i’ in Parlament

A long threatening came at last. For five years now, I’ve been walking by the line of tourists queuing up for a tour of the Parlament Building and each time I’ve made a mental note to self to do it. One day. Needless to say, I never got around to making the required reservation and left it to the inimitable MI to surprise me one Friday.

I’d heard from SJ that the place was amazing and even though I know this particular North American not to be given to wanton bouts of exaggeration, I wasn’t at all prepared for the sheer grandeur of the place. We were deluged with the facts and figures that these types of tours depend on for their sustenance. The only one that stuck in my brain (and is probably somewhat indicative of the type of brain my head houses) is that this particular chandelier has 205 light bulbs and to change one, technicians have to enter from the outside through the roof.

Constructed between 1884 and 1904, the building was designed in mock Gothic style has has many similarities to the Palace of Westminster, in London. It’s the third largest parliament building in the world. It has 691 rooms (200 of which are offices) and so plenty of room for a guest or two. About 1000 people were involved in the construction, which used 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kg (81 lb) of gold. Perhaps shaving some of the wallpaper might help reduce the national debt. Just an idea. And I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted.

One of the oddities of the place (and there had to be a least one) is the numbered cigar holders outside the voting chamber. Delegates would go inside to vote and leave their cigars outside, taking note of their numbered slot. Should the speech go on so long that their cigar burned out, it was said to have been ‘worth a havana’. I wonder how many political speeches these days would even be worth a Marlboro?
It truly is a magnificent building and well worth the 45 minutes it takes to tour it. Holders of an EU passport are allowed free entry. All others need to cough up a hefty 3500 huf ($15 / €12). The system outside is a little crazy but then what bureaucratic system in Hungary doesn’t have ‘mental’ somewhere in its descriptive. You book online and print your reservation – then you skip the first queue and go inside to get your ticket. Then you come back out and join the second queue for your tour – French, English, German – whatever is on offer. One to be added to the ‘what to do with visitors’ programme.