November 25, 2016

Discovering Religion, Art & Philosophy in a Cuban Alley

Our travels a few weeks ago in Cuba brought us to Central Havana, in a barrio called Cayo Hueso ("Key West").

There, we found ourselves in the Callejón de Hamel ("The Hamel Alley"), two traffic-free blocks of street art murals and scrap material sculptures, named after 19th century German arms dealer and slave trader Fernando Hamel.

If you were to visit, you might come upon a Santería priest smoking a cigar or a band of Afro-Cuban musicians playing rumba while they twirl their brightly-colored dresses.

Of course, it was only after Russia pulled out of Cuba in 1990 (and the resulting collapse of the economy) that Santería was able to emerge from the underground, where it had been hiding from the government stronghold on religion.

You wouldn't have found this alley in Havana before then.

Now, you could swear you're in a California sculpture garden.

While the sounds of rumba swelled around me, and the rain fell on top of me, I noticed a stone wall embedded with metal bathtubs that had been painted with characters from The Little Prince ("El Principito"), one of my favorite books of all time.

But the words aren't those of French author (and pilot) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. They're excerpts from Cuban literature, namely a 1989 children's book called La Noche by Havana's own Excilia Saldaña Molina.

The excerpted passages chronicle a philosophical conversation between a young girl and her grandmother. It ponders the bigness of the universe through questions she asks her. For instance, "If freedom is happiness, then what's happiness?" The answer, her abuela says, is peace.

The answers aren't always quite so simple. Is it better to be a river or a bridge? Well, that depends on whether you want to keep moving or if you don't want to get cold.

Why do poor people fight? For love and respect. Why do the rich fight? For gold and for fun.

Like The Little Prince, it covers some pretty heavy topics like envy, jealousy, fear, and loneliness.

And those are all things we all can relate to—regardless of which language we speak, write, or read, and regardless of whether we're as young as that little girl (or The Little Prince himself) or as old as the grandmother (or the pilot).

I think there's something about The Little Prince that really resonates in Cuba. You have to see things with the heart in order to see them rightly there. If you're only looking with your eyes, you're likely to miss out on what's really essential.

Related Posts:

Photo Essay: The Picasso of The Caribbean's Surreal, Ceramic Land
Photo Essay: The Rite of Zorthian Ranch, By Invitation Only
Photo Essay: Saving Sculptures from the Scrapyard

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