26-28 February 2017. At the 1993 Havana Film Festival a film called Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) won many prestigious awards including the audience award and the Grand Coral first prize. It is the only Cuban film ever nominated for an Oscar. It tells the story of two men, Diego, a gay artist chafing against Castro’s regime, and David, straight and a communist. Much of the movie takes place in Diego’s guarida, which translates as den or hideout. The movie was filmed in one of Havana’s beautiful but dilapidated mansions dating from the early 1900’s.
After the international success of the movie there were people who came to Cuba wanting to find Diego’s guarida. After about ten such visits the owners of the building decided they must create a restaurant for the people who came looking. Thus was born La Guarida, the first paladar, or privately owned restaurant in Cuba. The restaurant opened in 1996. In the beginning, according to Cuban laws at the time, they could only serve a maximum of 12 people. From these humble beginnings La Guarida has grown to be the the most successful and beloved paladar in Havana with guests including Queen Sofia of Spain, Jack Nicolson, Sting, Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem, Gérard Depardieu, Jay Z, Beyoncé . . . . . and us.
My first introduction to La Guarida was a post on One Foot Out the Door. The restaurant was not named in the post, but knowing we would soon be going to Cuba I immediately enquired about the name of this most intriguing place, determined to have my own experience of it. We were lucky enough to get a booking for our last night in Cuba, and went with our friend “Pedro” and his wife.
La Guarida is both typically Cuban, and unlike any restaurant you will find anywhere else. The building, old and rundown, was at one time the grand mansion of a wealthy family. It is now a multi-family tenement building except for the top floor that houses the restaurant.
From the elegant front door
we walk through what once was a stately entrance hall with an imposing staircase.
There are family homes down the hallway to the left past the red corrugated iron.
With every step there is a new surprise. Walking up the stairs we pass by Fidel quotes painted on the wall, and haphazard construction to shore up the old building.
We arrive at the open landing at the top of the first flight of stairs. Perhaps it was originally a grand reception room. Today it is used to hang freshly laundered napkins and tablecloths – hence the strings from column to column. There are more family dwellings on this level.
On we go up the second set of stairs past the headless Grecian nymph and the walls covered in peeling paint and graffiti
and so finally to the restaurant’s reception area at the top of the stairs. Suddenly we are in another world, one of sophistication and elegance in stark contrast to the floors below us.
While waiting we discover there are several dining rooms, all with the same flavour,
and up a filigreed circular staircase at the end of a long hallway a fabulous rooftop deck.
Eventually we are seated in one of the dining rooms. I wish I could say it is one of the best meals we’ve ever had, but alas it is expensive and not much better than ordinary. I feel this is partly my own fault. The restaurant is extremely busy. We are lucky to get a booking at all. They have run out of my first choice, and offer me chicken or lobster instead. A thought flitters quickly through my mind: lobster is such an intense flavour, so I choose the chicken. What was I thinking? Chicken? I can have chicken anywhere any time! The chicken is fine, but not outstanding. I think Don and the others felt the same way about their meals, but the setting certainly is magical, and it will unquestionably be an evening we won’t forget. Even now, almost a year later, the feeling of it lingers: the extraordinary building, the strange and stark contrast between the lower floors and the restaurant, the sophistication of the restaurant, and the sense of having had a unique experience even if the meal was not the best I’ve ever had.
We were in Havana for six days and walked a lot, all over Old Havana and parts of Centro. I kept noticing strange and disturbing street art. It seemed to me that many were done by the same artist, and it proved to be so. His name is Yulier Rodriguez, and his haunting images can be found in several neighborhoods.
This one is also probably by Rodriguez:
The creatures are alien-like with large pleading eyes. Rodriguez says they’re like souls: suffering, wondering, aching, contemplating. He was interviewed by the police, but in the end was not charged as they had to concede that his work was not political. While it is not directly an attack on the regime, it is hard to argue that a face without a mouth is not a political statement about the right to speak out.
Or that a screaming king (or queen) whose pendulous breasts smother rather than nourish the people is not also a political statement hidden in plain sight.
I find it a poignant and evocative expression of life in Cuba. It is the saddest, most disquieting street art I’ve seen anywhere.
Fabián, another prolific street artist, was also interviewed by the police and not charged. Both are watched, but there seems now to be a growing acceptance of street art in Cuba. Fabián’s work is unmistakable: the hooded head is to be frequently found in various Havana neighbourhoods.
Is it a benediction, or a pious warning?
Another hooded figure by Fabián, this one with more obvious super powers, has a bubble coming from his head (not seen in this photograph), which indicates he is actually dreaming of food. It’s hard to be superman when you’re hungry.
Fabián: Here in Cuba when there are personal or social problems . . . we have to speak while staying hidden. Everyone has a mask. Everyone wants to speak. I am speaking for everyone.
There are less provocative works to be found, such as this drummer,
but a closer look at these pieces, which resemble folk art, reveals that they too have a message – of despair, of bewilderment, of hopelessness.
Finally, a small painting of Michael Jackson with the words They don’t care about us, echoing the refrain of Jackson’s song:
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us.
It is a political statement hidden in plain sight.
The good news is that none of this, especially the works of Rodriguez and Fabián, would have been allowed as recently as three or four years ago. Things are slowly changing.
Down on the Malecón, or seaside boulevard, is an enormous sculpture, eight metres high, created by Rafael San Juan for the 12th Havana Biennial. Named Primavera (Spring) it was inspired by a principal dancer from the Cuban National Ballet. It’s an imposing, powerful, and beautiful work of art. The dancer suggested to San Juan that the head should be held high, not looking downwards, to show the strength of Cuban women, but I couldn’t help but notice how sad she looks. She seems to be staring out to sea, yearning, worried, and waiting, always waiting. Perhaps it is another political statement hidden in plain sight.
Living statues, these days commonly found in big cities around the world, have been popular in Havana for some time. I was both delighted and surprised to see them. I love the creativity, and their incredible skill and talent with makeup, and hugely admire their patience and ability to remain motionless for extended periods of time. I also always worry that the makeup is going to give them skin cancer. What a way to make a living!
A very cool dude:
Which one is the living statue? Or are they both alive?
All forms of art and creative expression are encouraged and supported in Cuba as long as they don’t attack the regime. There are theatre, opera, and ballet companies supported by the government and ticket prices are low so people can afford to go. Street art is now tolerated. And slowly things are changing, making way for a new generation who question the government in subtle, and gradually more and more obvious ways. I suspect that the youth of Cuba will not tolerate things as they are for much longer and that change will ride in on the coattails of their frustration and eventual refusal to accept the status quo.
This is my final post about our time in Cuba last February. It was not always easy. We were travel weary and I was in pain most of the time. It affected how I perceived this most unique of countries. There was much that fascinated me, and excited me, but I couldn’t help but be disturbed by the poverty. The people were friendly, helpful, creative, and full of life. They were also sad and resigned. I was so excited and fresh when we began our nomadic journey back in September 2011. I had energy to burn. I wonder how Cuba would have been for me if it had been the first country we visited rather than the most recent after almost six years on the road.
From Don’s journal:
February 26, 2017. We’re both more than ready to be off the road and back where English is spoken, the water is clean, we have comfortable beds, and we don’t have to move house every few days. All there is between Vancouver and us are two flights.
Other posts about Cuba:
Riding the rails and trekking the trails: day trips from Trinidad, Cuba
Once again Adventures in Wonderland has been nominated in nepaliaustralian’s annual blog awards in the travel blogs category. This is a great honour, and we’d love it if you’d hop on over there and vote for us!
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.