Cuba in episodes, let’s watch!

Cuba in episodes, let’s watch!

Smaroula Pandelis

A personal experience of my trip to Cuba in order to participate to the IV Conference of UNESCO for the world’s balance and join the Cuban playbachers of Teatro de los Elementos, as member of the International Playback Theatre Network.

Episode I

Where am I going? This is the first time in my life that I will travel so far away from home all alone.

“Do not worry for your arrival in Havana, Cuban playbackers will be waiting for you at the airport with flags and hugs”.

Well OK, another playback exaggeration! I hope someone will be there waiting with my name on a piece of paper. If not, well, I will take a taxi and go to the hotel. I hear that there are plenty of taxis at the airport in Havana.

Episode II

I feel quite confused. I am tired from the trip and at the same time I am full of energy! I have arrived! The sliding doors open and I almost burst in tears! A big yellow flag with the playback figures on it is waving. A tall gorgeous man is waving the flag. I run into his arms! “Are you Isnoel”? “No, I am the chauffeur” and his arms open into a big hug. I don’t think I have ever been so welcomed in my life before!

Episode III

A big silver car painted with a kind of can paint with a matte finish, is waiting for us. I am sure my brother had one like that in his miniature collection when we were kids, back in the 60s. My chauffeur, I forget his name, is proudly driving it to another terminal where we meet Isnoel and Davis waiting for Michele from Hong Kong. The flag is joyfully waving again.

Episode IV

It is late. The warm up has ended but the people are still there waiting for myself and Michele. Many hugs, many names, a new place, another continent, a big project. I feel small and somewhat lost. I suddenly recognize Andrea and Antonio from the IPTN board. Never met them before. The connection via skype is of another kind. They smile and nod their heads with kindness. “We thought you did not recognize us”. Yes, I didn’t. They seem different when you can touch them. They are real!

Episode V

My room is huge. My bed is huge. The bungalow must have been built at the times of the Casinos and Cabarets. You can tell from the style. But everything is deteriorating. The smell from humidity is killing me.

Episode VI

Sitting around the pool, tasting fried bananas for the first time. Davis’ smile makes me feel at home. I soon go to bed. It is 9.00 am for me but it is 1.00 am for the new me in Cuba!

Episode VII

Carlito and Yenli are singing in the bus. We are heading to El Hovero where Teatro de los Elementos exists. We will be staying there for 4 nights. I am excited. We talk with Andrea and Michele about the situation of women in Hong Kong and soon we talk about us. First stop to have lunch, fried bananas again with meat and rice. The highway is so peaceful! One bus now and then, or a car from time to time and yes, there is a carriage next to us! A man is travelling with his horse and his carriage!

Episode VIII

A strange rumor there is in the bus. What happened? The singing stops. We are not allowed to stay at El Hovero. The Ministry of Culture decided that all foreigners should stay outside the place. We can spend the day there but they have to find rooms for us to stay during the night at the village nearby. Isnoel is very unhappy. But why? We made all this effort to have cultural visas in order to be allowed to stay with our Cuban friends at El Hovero. Besides, there are people that were left back in Havana just because there was not enough space for everyone at Hovero.

Episode IX

We stop at Cumanayagua, the village near Hovero where our rooms are. All houses have their windows and doors covered with iron bars. Looks like a Prison Village. Why? Our hotel is a village house run by Conchita, a 70 year old lady with thick lenses and a warm smile. My bed partner is Andrea. We share a small double bed. Our room is an attic! The door has a very sophisticated way to lock! Iron bars from the outside, a very heavy security white door behind it! How does this door open?

Episode X

Momento uno

El Hovero! Teatro de los Elementos! What a place! A huge piece of land with trees, a river, small bungalows here and there! The bus stops. Cubans run outside the bus and I watch! The warmest hugs are given in front of my eyes. Some internationals already know some people from this place. I have the sense that we just landed in Paradise!

Momento dos

The dining room is an open place covered with a wonderful thatched roof. The table is so long! We are 50 people!

Momento tres

Two cows walk in a very lazy mood. They are so thin! When was the last time they’d had food?

Momento cuatro

Two lovely dogs are approaching. When was the last time they had food? (This is a picture that has sneaked into my heart. Raw-boned dogs and cows everywhere).

Momento cinco

Fried bananas with rice and meat! I stand up and say in a loud voice, I cannot eat my food unless I can feed the dogs, anyone willing to give some food for the dogs?

Episode XI

We all become a big family. 50 people in a big circle warming up to work together, play together, laugh together, share and breath together. I keep making mistakes with the names. Not important, as long as there is a smile. We form groups. My group is great! We are going to perform first! Tomorrow evening at the cultural centre of Cumanayagua! Do we have enough time to rehearse? We will be on a journey to the lake in the morning!

Episode XII

It is late. My group decided that I would conduct tomorrow’s performance. We hold each other in the dark and with eyes closed we sing lullaby in different languages. I take this warmth with me and go to sleep. Conchita is waiting with her smile and Andrea is a great room mate!

Episode XIII

The boats are almost rotten! Who cares? We jump in. We are in a big artificial lake enjoying the nature around, the singing in the boats, the smiles in the faces. Some of us are swimming, others take pictures, we are all hungry!

Episode XIV

Oh! The tavern is so beautifully spotted! Fantastic place to have lunch by the lake! No, there is no food, the woman in the tavern says. Sorry! She was not properly informed and we are too many! There is no way she can prepare food now! What?

Episode XV

The cultural centre of Cumanayagua is nothing like the thing I could ever imagine. Broken windows, a big piano behind the scene, filthy stage with innumerous mice shit! No, Carlito explains to me. These are not mice shit. He points on the ceiling. I see bats hanging from the wires at the stage ceiling. Wonderful! The performance begins. I conduct, Davis is translating from English to Spanish and vice versa, bats are flying, actors and musicians are playing, the audience is sharing stories. We all enjoy the miracles of playback!

Episode XVI

We play by the harbor of Cienfuegos this time. Next to a bar, on the street, people coming and going, watching and sharing stories. Lorena is conducting. Another group is performing at the theatre of Cienfuegos. We end up dancing and drinking Cuban beer. The spirit of playback theatre is spreading around Cuba!

Episode XVII

I am almost asleep in the bus on the way home. Where is home? I am very tired and sleepy and I don’t realize that all the internationals have got off the bus. I end up at Hovero with the Cubans. Isnoel is puzzled. Oh no, I can’t stay there. I have to go back to my room in Cumanayagua! Well, that’s the rules. The bus takes me back. Isnoel is sad that they couldn’t offer me dinner and they had to send me back hungry!

Episode XVIII

We arrive at Hovero to have breakfast. Actually, to have a second breakfast as Conchita offered us a superb breakfast with coffee and fresh fruits, bread and handmade marmalade. She tells her story, her journey in life. All stories are so similar all over the world! The big table is set and yes, there is a second breakfast. Cubans are coming to me to say how sorry they were that they could not offer me food last night! How sweet! I receive hugs and smiles. The best food for the soul!

Episode XIX

We finish our work as a small group at the house of Sanchez Iglesias, a very famous Cuban artist. This isa unique bungalow kind of gallery, full of art and Cuban spirit. Working in that place made me feel as if I was in another world. Everything was so unique! Even the toilet was artistically decorated. Iglesias comes and stays here from time to time. It is his house in Hovero. We were very privileged to work in this space.

Episode XX

Yenli offers to show us the open air theatre that Isnoel and Oreol , the founder of Teatro de los Elementos, built with their hands, stone by stone! She suggests that we close our eyes and they guide us with Carlito through a field to an unknown place. I feel the grass under my shoes and I smell the air. All my senses are alert. We suddenly stop and Yenli with Carlito help us stand one next to the other. When I open my eyes, I don’t believe what I see! I stand on the top row of a stone theatre which is like an ancient Greek theatre but, the stage is a river! Between the first raw and the stage, there is a small river. Owo! The stage must be something like 100 meters long and another 100 meters wide. Behind it there is a big field of fruit trees! Isnoel tells us how this was built. I want to stay in this place more. I want to wake up during the night and come to watch a performance with candles, as in the ancient times. Oh, I want to come back to this place one day and perform with my Greek playback group.

This place is hard to leave.

Episode XXI

On the way to Havana we stop to have lunch at the same place we had lunch on our way to Hovero. This time I decide to walk around a bit and I come across to the most shocking picture I ever had in my life! I see an iron cage not larger than half a cubic meter. In it there is a very big snake, more than 5 meters long as I can see. The snake is curled and it is motionless. I don’t think it can stretch, not even move. A meter away from it there is another cage with 5 or 6 guinea pigs. Probably programmed to be sacrificed for the snake! I have a kind of disgust for snakes, but this snake breaks my heart. The epitome of slavery! I am furious! What can I do for this snake? Next day, I tell the story in the performance of the Teatro Espontaneo de La Havana. Who will speak for this snake? Who will speak for the innumerate creatures that are slaves in this world?

Episode XXII

Same hotel in Havana. This time we have rooms in the big building. I have a room on my own. Our program is very tight. We have to register for the conference and every day each small group has to perform in different places in the city. The conference Center is an interesting building. Two of us are denied entrance as shorts are not allowed! Many people from all over the world, young people, middle aged people, old people. Too much bla bla bla. Politics, politics, politics! It makes me feel I have landed from another world. In fact, it is true. We just arrived from Paradise!

Episode XXIII

My group has to spend the day with a group of youngsters in a cultural centre at a central neighborhood. The place is filthy and rotten. In its early years it must have been a great place to be. Large rooms with mirrors for ballet lessons, music room with big piano, other big rooms for lectures. We end up in a room with broken windows and chairs. There is a stage and just opposite of it there is a throne! Who sits on this throne?A guy seems to be in command and he sits on the throne! The youngsters are enthusiastic with playback. They are wonderful! We become wonderful with them! There is a storm coming. We have to leave the place soon. The police arrives and says that children should return home before 7.00 pm. No! The kids want to see the performance that starts at 7.00! We decide to start at 6.00 and finish at 7.00. Kids are happy.

Episode XXIV

The performance is full of sad stories, but the kids share and connect. Alcoholism, rapes, frustration. The room becomes a hug. We finish at 7.00. At 7.03 the lights shut down and there is a black-out in Havana. The storm is here! The raindrops seem like rain slaps! We end up in our bus, all wet. We pick up our colleagues from another neighborhood. We lost Yakov! Where is Yakov? Someone gets out of the bus and finally brings him. On the way to the hotel we pass through rivers of water. The rain is so heavy!

Episode XXV

Inside the hotel lobby the wind is so strong! Windows are broken. My room is on the third floor. My balcony windows wide open and curtains are flying! Oh my God! I lock the windows and run down to the lobby again. There is confusion. A Cuban colleague is with us and she cannot return home. Where will she stay? Someone asks me if I can offer the empty bed in my room. Of course I can. She is so scared. She is not allowed to stay in the hotel. It is illegal for a Cuban to stay in a foreigner’s room in a hotel. We hide her. She is very nervous. If the police knows, she is in trouble.

Episode XXVI

It is 6.00am and I hear strange talking. The colleague that finally shared my room is very upset talking on the phone. The storm has knocked down hundreds of houses in Havana, not far from our hotel. People were killed and many people are homeless. The maternity hospital is destroyed and there is no electricity and water in a big area of Havana. I send an SMS to my family that I am OK and they should not worry. When I go home I find out that they had no idea of the incident. It was not on the news!

Episode XXVII

I walk alone in the city of Havana. I decided to take a big tour on foot and I find myself walking for more than four hours. I have very mixed feelings. The day is beautiful and the atmosphere is nice. I have a feeling of joy. On the other hand, I realize that the scenery is not part of a theatrical play. This is reality. There are people living in these ruins. There are people living in this hopeless reality. For most of them there is no way out. They will take what it is given. Very few people can travel abroad to other countries to work and return with some money in order to buy an old car and turn it to a taxi. I pass outside of two schools. They look nice and renovated because they are sponsored by UNESCO. There is a big difference in the quality of life between Havana and the provinces. In the village, people had their fruit trees, their eggs and could have an easier life. In Havana, life is very strange. Very few busses, no cars except taxis, no eggs, no fruits. You have to be very careful with your money as a Cuban. Salaries are around 40 dollars and life is as expensive as in Europe. I feel sad. I keep thinking of the snake in the cage.

Episode XXVIII

This is the day! We are preparing for the conference. Yoke will conduct. The room is very uncomfortable for a performance, but the atmosphere is welcoming and the group plays wonderfully with the support of the musicians. I feel like in a dream. What a journey! We had about 20 participants to watch. I would expect more as we had promoted the event quite a lot with beautiful leaflets. But I realize that the conference is mainly political in a very stereotypic old fashioned way. Well, at least we made a good start.

Episode XXIX

A private party at Yenli’s. Her paintings are impressive. The house is beautiful. Her daughters and husband are very welcoming. We drink and laugh. Someone shows pictures from the neighborhood that the storm knocked down. What is going to happen to these homeless people now? It is spontaneously decided that those who stay back for a few more days will join the Cubans for a performance in the area, for the people who lost their homes.

Episode XXX

Last international playback performance. This time in the garden of Iglesias’ gallery in Havana. A very atmospheric place. I decide to support my group as a photographer. The cultural attaché from the Swedish embassy is here invited by Pontus who is conducting today. I am leaving tomorrow. I share my story. I feel I leave home to go home. Home is wherever my heart can belong.

Episode XXXI

The taxi takes me to the wrong terminal. I suddenly realize that I have to rush to catch my flight. I have to take another taxi because there is no other way to go to the right terminal. I am lucky I have some money left. I set off for Rome and then Athens. I want to return to Cuba soon. There is this midnight performance in Hovero that I need to see. There are some people that I need to meet again.

Episode XXXII

Back home in Athens. All these days in Cuba I was almost cut off from the internet as Wi Fi is very limited there. This made the connection to everything that happened there, stronger. There was no escape with facebook and instagram. I know realize that the experience was very strong. Twelve performances in eleven days! Fifty new people I met and lived with for eleven days. So far away from home, so close to home!