Bears Sighted in Cuba

“We have to get to know each other better, it makes us understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully”

– Motto for the United Buddy Bears, an international art exhibition promoting peace among nations.

Buddy Bears in San Francisco de Asis Plaza
Buddy Bears in Havana’s San Francisco de Asis Plaza

We were very fortunate to be in Cuba when the United Buddy Bears were being displayed at the San Francisco de Asis Plaza in Havana. The brightly painted fiberglass bears represent the over 140 countries recognized by the United Nations and are designed to promote peace, tolerance, and international understanding. They stand hand to hand to represent the people, culture, history, and landscape of the different countries, not the political systems.

The design on each bear was created by an artist from the individual countries and, no matter how large or small, or rich or poor each country is, they have the same size bear and are equal in standing. It was interesting to see how the various artists choose to represent their country – many were quite beautiful, some (including Cuba’s) were a little humorous, and others inspiring. All were fascinating.

The bears were first exhibited in Berlin in 2002/2003, before moving on to Austria in 2004. They have now been shown in over 23 countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Egypt, Israel, Argentina, and India.

Buddy Bears

In March, the United Buddy Bears leave Cuba for their next destination, Santiago de Chile. I tried to determine if they were scheduled for a stop in the United States, but was unable to find anything. I hope they will not only be displayed here, but will also be embraced with the same generous, open-hearted spirit they have found elsewhere.

Cuba's Buddy Bear
Cuba’s Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Buddy Bear
U.S. Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BB Lineup 2

 

 

 

 

Cuba: A Nation Rich in History

On the morning of our second day in Cuba, we were treated to an unexpected scene in downtown Havana. In celebration of Jose Marti’s birth date, hundreds of school children paraded down the avenue next to our hotel. Many of them were in costume, some held signs or flags, and all participated in vigorous chants led by their adult supervisors. It was the first of many times on our trip that I wished that my Spanish was better but even so, the pageantry and the sweet, earnest faces of the children was a joy to watch.

School children celebrating Jose Marti's birthday
School children celebrating Jose Marti’s birthday
Statue of Jose Marti in Havana's main square
Statue of Jose Marti in Havana’s main square

Jose Marti is a Cuban national hero for his role in the struggle for independence from Spain in the 19th century. His writings, including poems and essays, promoted liberty and political freedom. His dedication to Cuban independence – including sovereignty from the United States — and his fight against slavery and racial discrimination is honored throughout Cuba with statues and celebrations like we were fortunate to witness.

After watching the parade, we took off on foot to discover other sights of Havana, including the capitol dome (currently undergoing renovations), magnificent old buildings in various stages of decay, and the entrance arch to a long-gone Chinatown.

The rest of the day included a tour of the Necropolis de Colon, one of the largest cemeteries in the world, a private talk given by Roberto Salas’ about his stint as Fidel Castro’s private photographer in the 1960s, and a tour of ceramic artist Fuster’s amazing compound in which he has created a spectacular and joyful “Homenate a Gaudi” (“Homage to Gaudi”).

Havana is a photographer's dream
Havana is a photographer’s dream

Colorful buildings in Havana

Entrance to Chinatown
Entrance to Chinatown

 

The capitol building under repair
The capitol building under repair
Necropolis de Colon cemetary
Necropolis de Colon cemetery
It is easy to see how the artist Fuster was inspired by Antoni Gaudi
It is easy to see how the artist Fuster was inspired by Antoni Gaudi
No day in Cuba is complete without a cool dude and an even cooler car
No day in Cuba is complete without a cool dude and an even cooler car

 

Cuba: Separated from the U.S. by 90 miles and 50 years

There are many reasons why the tiny nation of Cuba had such a huge hold on my imagination for so many years. Some of the lure was the image I had of a country frozen in time; most of the buildings, infrastructure, and automobiles pre-date 1961, when the United States began its trade embargo. What I knew of the culture and the people was also appealing; I’ve always been attracted to the Latin ethos, perhaps because it contrasted so strongly with my plain vanilla self. And then there’s the arts – especially the music and the dancing – which had a special hold over me.

The beauty of Salsa
The beauty of Salsa

Just a few years ago, traveling to Cuba as a U.S. citizen would mean breaking the law. The travel ban was relaxed somewhat in 2009, which allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba. When, in 2011, “people-to-people” visits were sanctioned so other U.S. citizens were able to travel to Cuba, albeit with certain restrictions, I started to research my options. I hoped to find a tour that had a good mix of organized excursions and unstructured free time so we could explore our surroundings on our own. Last October, when I found one that fit my requirements, I signed up for the next planned trip without hesitation.

Very early on the morning of our departure, a group of 18 mostly strangers gathered together, visas in hand, in the Charter Airline terminal at Miami airport. Exhausted but excited, we began the process of getting to know one another as we made our way through the series of steps necessary for U.S. citizens to travel legally to Cuba. About 2 1/5 hours after we arrived at the airport we boarded our plane for the short flight to Havana’s Jose Marti Airport.

My first glimpse of Cuba!
My first glimpse of Cuba!

When we landed and I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, I could barely contain my emotions. I had dreamed of this moment for so long it was hard to believe that I had finally made it. I was in Cuba!

After making our way through immigration, retrieving our bags, and going through customs, we exchanged dollars for CUCs and we were on our way. Our first day’s agenda included a short orientation walk in Old Havana, lunch, and a tour of the Havana Club Rum Museum before checking into our hotel in downtown Havana.

Jose Marti International Airport
Jose Marti International Airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
Catholic church in Old Havana
Catholic church in Old Havana
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The view from our hotel room in Havana
The view from our hotel room in Havana