Cuba Chronicle: The Day It Rained Flowers in Old Havana
Our Cuba Island Expert, Gilberto Lucero, is back with another intriguing adventure in Havana. He's previously written of a secret paladar (restaurant) that he discovered and an eccentric antique shop. Today Gilberto leads us from La Habana's famous seafront to the San Jose Market where he discovers an Aladdin's Cavern of treasures.
Along the mouth of the Havana harbor, the Malecón unfurls. Its ample seawall becomes: a night time meeting place, a drag show runway, diving platform, concert hall, fishing spot, and lookout point, anything that can be dreamt.
(Musicians on the Malecón, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Derek Kolb.)
The harbor, boatless and unspoiled, looking forever northward gently caresses this iconic landmark. But during hurricane season, waves rampage over the seawall and onto the Malecón. The waves tower over swerving cars. Traffic lanes become secondary to potholes and pedestrians alike, which suddenly appear in front of your car as you drive into Vedado. The dance between traffic and nature is spectacular and frightening.
(A storm brewing off Havana's Malecón. Photo courtesy of Derek Kolb.)
Along with waves, hurricane season brings hot rain that falls in fist size drops and floods streets. Even the least dramatic rainstorm can turn streets into rivers that fill with teenagers that hold on to the unsuspecting motorist’s car bumper to surf down avenues on sheet metal boards. The rain can bring most daily activity to a sudden halt. But today, despite the rain that begins to fall, we venture down the Malecón to the San Jose Art Market.
(San Jose Art Market. Photo courtesy of Derek Kolb.)
The art market moved from the Cathedral Square in 2009 to a refurbished warehouse in Havana port and is now home to hundreds of artists. Stall after stall the market is full of paintings, wooden crafts, and clothing. The art varies from collages made from discarded film reels to jewellery fashioned from telephone wire and seashells.
Once you enter the market the eye has no place to rest. The warehouse is a cavern of noise and colour, full of tourists and locals alike. Today, I am on the hunt for a piece of art – something “Cuban." There are millions of renditions of Che Guevara’s face looking off into the future, the Cuban flag is torched on everything from coasters to T-shirts, there are photos of Fidel on the Sierra Maestra, and even the Mona Lisa has made it to the island smoking a cigar and drinking a glass of rum. The artful and mindful tourist would be wise to venture throughout the warehouse patiently. There are treasures to be found and artists working, painting, and ready to talk about their work.
(Artists with their work. Photo courtesy of Derek Kolb.)
Today, I meet an artist named Mercedes. She is well into her 60s, her skin is dark and heavy like her voice. She had just finished a painting of Nuestra Señora de Caridad (Our Lady of Charity) the patron saint of Cuba, dressed in gold and floating in the air - beneath her three men adrift in a violent sea.
The waves in the painting are crude and brutal. Mercedes’ brush strokes are intense; pigment takes a backseat to the weight of her brush strokes. There is no subtlety in their motion: first blue, then white, then blue again each layer thicker and more menacing than one before it. The three men in the boat look frantic, their faces undefined. The look in their eyes is wild. But Caridad is calm. Her face is graceful and serene. Her gown, lace like and shimmering in the light, takes up almost all the space on the canvass as if to remind the viewer that she is larger than waves and more powerful than the storm. And around them instead of rain Mercedes paints flowers falling from the sky.
(The painting by Mercedes. Photo courtesy of Derek Kolb.)
When I ask her why she paints flowers instead of rain, her answer is simple, “that’s what I see.” The large yellow petals seem to evaporate before hitting the tumultuous water below.
I tell her I want to buy the painting. I don’t barter. Though, I suppose one can barter at a market like this, I find it inappropriate when it comes to art. And I am shocked she says the painting is only 30CUC (or $30USD). I am pleased with the purchase and commission a second. As we leave the rain begins to fall. I tuck the rolled canvass in my backpack to protect it from the impending down pour.
It doesn’t take long for the storm to unleash. Divers begin to line the Malecón ready to thrust their bodies into swells. Rain begins to collect under the bridge; we don’t stop afraid of getting stuck in the rising water. Stalled cars begin to line the streets. And the rain, like fists or petals, floods the street; our car seems to sail home, the passing stalled cars in our muddy wake. Nuestra Senora de Caridad, safe and dry, in the backseat.
Many thanks to our friend and talented writer, Gilberto, for contributing another fantastic post to Island Runaways about the fascinating island of Cuba.