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.



2017 Grateful 39

There’s something quite lovely about visiting a cemetery on a clear, 30-degree, blue-sky day. I’m a great fan of tombstones and would happily spend my holidays going from one graveyard to another but there are limits. I’ve not yet figured exactly why I’m so fascinated but it’s enough that I am.  If I’m in company, I settle for one in each city. It’s not for everyone. In addition to commemorating lives spent fruitfully or fruitlessly, cemeteries are outdoor sculpture parks. And very often, the leading local architects have the most interesting graves. It was in a cemetery in Warsaw that I saw my first headstone that listed the profession of the interred – an architect. I think it was in Belgrade that I saw a headstone designed as a futuristic building – again an architect. And in Havana, by far the most eye-catching grave (purely because of its oddity and ungravelikeness) was also that of an architect – José F. Mata. Mata is probably better known as the business partner of one Leonardo Morales y Pedroso – who seems to have won just about every notable commission going in the city.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) opened in 1876, its first guest being the architect who designed it: Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso. It’s mapped a little like a small city, sitting on ca. 150 acres, with a main street leading from the gate to a chapel that looks a tad like a miniature Italian d’uomo. It’s off this wide avenue that the main players are buried. The sides streets and less-travelled neighbourhoods are home to those who didn’t quite make the big time. Rank and file still applies in death. Amazing.

Stats say that more than 1 million people have been laid to rest here (a temporary respite for some, as with space at a premium some bones are being put into storage to make way for newcomers). I can’t quite figure out how the storage system works. Lots of the graves and mausoleums have been abandoned because families are living abroad – so upkeep is obviously a problem. Are those the first to be targeted?

Throughout the city of Havana you’ll find reference to the great fire of 17 May 1890 and those firefighters who died in an attempt to control it. Here, at Colón, there’s a 75-foot-tall memorial to those men, the hanging pods on the chain-link surround representing the tears shed when they died. It’s quite something.

I had only one visit on my list (because I was ill=prepared and didn’t do my homework). It was to pay my respects to Ibrahim Ferrer Planas, a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club. A worker spotted us looking and took it upon himself to give an impromptu, and unsolicited tour, for which he expected €5, the same as the entrance fee. From all I understand, this expectation is new – in its infancy – and can even be timed to the arrival of the first cruise ship last year. But hey – we only had 3CUC between us and it was that or a smile. He got both.

Had I done my homework, I’d have spent more time looking for photographer Alberto Korda’s grave (1928–2001). I love his work. He took the iconic photo of Ché titled Guerrillero Heroico that Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick used for his equally iconic facial caricature used on t-shirts the world over.

I’d also have taken the time to search out socialite Mary McCarthy Gomez Cueto (1900–2009), the Canadian widow of a wealthy Cuban businessman who died in poverty. Back in the day, Frank Sinatra was a neighbour. She refused to leave Cuba and couldn’t get at her money because of the US embargo after the Communist takeover. She lived on a tiny pension and died at 108, buried alongside her husband. Quite the gal. And her dad was Irish.

Although confined to a wheelchair after breaking a hip in 2002, she continued to wear a satin dress, silk blouse, chiffon scarf and lipstick for her stream of visitors, just as she had done in the days when she helped to found the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and danced at the Havana yacht club. But she was reduced to wearing plastic pearls and earrings instead of the jewellery which, along with three gold rosaries, was in the First National Bank in Boston; and she was keenly aware that the joy had gone out of Havana, even if there was full employment.

And I’d have dropped by and said hello to William Lee Brent, an American in exile in Cuba for 37 years – and a member of the Black Panthers. He hijacked a passenger plane in 1969 from Oakland, CA, and diverted it to Cuba where he defected, because Cuba…

had eliminated racism and welcomed all revolutionaries, regardless.

They jailed him for 22 months thinking he just might be a spy. Some guys just can’t catch a break, eh. His biography is now on my list of books to read. Fascinating.


But the grave that gets the most attention is one of Amelia Goyri, perhaps better known as  La Milagrosa (the Miraculous). She died while giving birth back on 3 May 1903. She was just 23. Her husband José Vicente Adot y Rabell was distraught. He believed that she was simply sleeping. He visited the grave every day for years, each time knocking on it three times to wake her up. Story has it that she was buried with her baby at her feet yet when the remains were exhumed (not sure why), Amelia was intact and was now holding her baby son in her arms.

As the story spread and more and more people came to visit Amelia, Cuban sculptor José Vilalta Saavedra turned a piece of Carrara marble into a life-size statue of a young woman. Her left arm holds a baby. Her right arm rests on a cross, something that apparently signifies a sacrifice.

While we were there, there was a steady stream of visitors, each one knocking on the grave three times, and then walking backwards away from it, as Amelia’s husband is said to have done, so that he could keep her in sight for as long as possible. Today, visitors pray to her to protect their kids, they pray for a safe childbirth, they pray to defy the biological odds and have children of their own.

I didn’t know this then, but I knocked. And I prayed. And I walked away backwards. Relax… I said a prayer of thanks, yet again, for the blessed life I lead, for the places I get to visit, and for the people I get to meet along the way. For all this, I’m truly grateful.




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.

Caution – scissors and artists at work

Pick an airport. Spot a passenger with a home-fashioned cardboard tube. Chances are, they’ve been to Cuba. Artists and their artwork are alive and well and covering the canvases. And the tourists are eating them up. Us included.

To the left of the Prado as you walk up towards Parque Central from the Malecón, you can see the back of the beautiful Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio. It was here that the Cuban writer José Martí was christened in 1853. Plazuela de Santo Ángel, and its surrounds, is a lovely little neighbourhood, quite European in feel with lots of cafés and restaurants spilling out on to the cobblestone streets. Wander up and down Compostela and take a peek into the myriad galleries and you might just see an artist or three at work.

This warren of streets are easy to get lost in. Ditch the map and enjoy. It’s quite spectacular. I particularly liked Barber’s Alley, with its wall art and what appeared to be a homage to hairdressers! It involved a large sculpture of a scissors. Further investigation revealed just that. Thank goodness for Google.

Papito (known in Havana as the Daddy of hairdressing) turned his house into a hairdressing school. The idea? To teach young people in the neighbourhood a skill they could use. And he did it for free. He wanted to change the street in which he lived, rejuvenate it – and he did. Another amazing man making a difference. 2016/2017 is the year of a global appeal to collect old, used hairdressing scissors which will be attached to a massive sculpture of a scissors to make unity among stylists around the world. That was the scissors I saw… Check the video. Am kicking myself that I hadn’t known this when I was there – I’d have visited Papito’s.

And when wandering the streets, don’t forget to look up. There’s another world going on up there, too. I got so caught up in the whole artist thing that I began to convince myself that I’d read about a Cuban artist called Taller. I saw loads of signs showing studios where I fancied he’d lived. I even made a note to check him out when I got back online. But a search revealed nothing but a Guatemalan architect. And then the paintbrush dropped and splattered my ignorance all over the show. Duh. Taller is Spanish for workshop. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I got this far without making a complete hames of life.

This part of Havana is definitely worth a visit. And if you’re fed up of rice and beans and chicken and pork and fish and want to ditch the Spanish and have some Italian, 5 Esquinas is worth a visit. (Habana #104, esq Cuarteles, +53 7 8606295, But as I said, ditch the guidebook and simply wander. So much to see in this part of town.