Amid heartbreaking poverty
HAVANA TIMES – Street Artists, fortune tellers, beggars, Tarot readers, palm readers, wizards, promise-keepers, pickpockets. Old Havana is consistently in turmoil and those that live there need to earn a living by any means possible. Skill, cunning and a ’creole’ form of flair are, within the midst of the final poverty of the country, the one tools available for having the ability to go home with a little bit of money within the pocket.
On Calle Obispo, people push and shove, trying frenetically to make their way about, getting in and out of retailers, pharmacies, kiosks and snack bars. Then it catches the eye that there’s a bunch of people who find themselves there to dam the way in which and detain you — under an overhanging roof. And there… you discover Víctor, a silent young man, hidden behind the miniature canvas curtains of his Galería Morionet.
Víctor operates the strings of his little puppet theatre — whose name combines that of the painter Claude Monet with the word ’marionette’ — and he makes his puppet, a Cuban expert like himself, draw a portrait of a person on a chunk of cardboard.
It’s a refined skill, and never the sort of skill that will be learnt in a mere couple of weeks. The puppet master pulls on his strings and the puppet shakes his paintbrush, fills it with watercolor and moves towards the easel. Sometimes a dog approaches and the puppet artist looks up at him cautiously, without stopping his work, after which he strokes its nose.
People watch the scene, fascinated. The puppet paints in a messy sort of dump that may be any habanero’s neighborhood, splattered with paint stains and above which hang two unstable-looking balconies. Louis Armstrong’s blues plays within the little room, and, when the music stops, some coins drop into the Galería Morionet’s tray.
Unless they’re tourists the passers-by aren’t capable of offer much, and, after distracting themselves from their worries for a little bit while with the show, they need to proceed walking on through a city that gets an increasing number of inhospitable. Two cops eye the youth with suspicion; he carries on along with his work without paying them an excessive amount of attention.
On the sidewalks the waiters of the paladares [private restaurants] spring on the passers-by, interrupting them and unfurling their menus without anyone having the ability to stop them. Not one of the habaneros can afford the luxurious of dining out in Old Havana, however the waiters need to be seen to be lively and charming, to ensure that the owner, who also must defend his business, to justify their salaries.
Sitting on the sidewalk, a boy, dressed spotlessly in white, offers a card reading. Next to him, water and a cloth on which sits his deck of cards, ready for the subsequent fortune-telling. But no one stops, and, bored, he stands as much as smooth out his clothes, after which resumes sitting.
On one other corner a cartoonist draws the portraits of celebrities like Chucho Valdés and Alicia Alonso. Children beg their parents to let him draw them and the person gets to work: back bent over, he holds a board in a single hand and with the opposite he manipulates his ballpoint pen.
Stilt-walkers have also develop into a part of the scenery in the town, especially in groups which roam those streets with more tourists. Noisy and colorfully dressed, these urban artistes hardly manage to get, lately, greater than a few notes stuffed into their hats — constituted of remnants and bells — because the fewer variety of travelers arriving in the town has left them practically without customers.
Mounted on their picket stilts they wait on some corner or other for a Transtur coach to discharge its small group of passengers across the Plaza de Armas or the Castillo de la Fuerza. Their show is transient, to avoid the tourists returning to the coach before having left a little bit of money, which, amongst all of the laughter and song the performers be certain to inform them that “euros or dollars” can be higher received “by these particular street artistes”.
Beyond the tourist area the situation takes on sadder tones. It’s commonplace to fulfill an old lady in a grimy dressing gown begging for money to purchase a number of kilos of sweet potatoes, or a ’promise-keeper’ dragging a stone tied to his ankle with a sequence. As he approaches, as if he were a soul in purgatory, he holds out a bowl for somebody to throw in some ’kilos’. The individuals who watch him, shocked by the marks on his leg, have little to present him.