Here’s a composite sketch of Jose Marti Square in central Havana. It was late in the day, the sun was going down fast. I positioned myself so that the glare of the sun was directly eclipsed behind one of the towers on the Grand Teatro, and began to rapidly sketch the square right to left. As I sped through the panorama I’d draw across the page onto a new sheet – and also adjust my position so the blinding sun would be in turn behind the statue of Jose, or screened by the palms. You really couldn’t see much inside the big backlit shapes of the buildings. Made for an interesting drawing – with the subject only half seen through the glare.
It was rush hour – a steady stream of people were moving across the square – leaving work and heading for the overcrowded busses that would take them home. But the other thing that was going on was my first experience in Havana with outright begging. Of course I’d been meeting people the whole week who were selling things, or who clearly worked for minimal wages in hopes of seeing tips from foreigners. But unlike places I’ve been in Southeast Asia or South America, I really didn’t experience any people systematically begging. Far fewer in fact than back in the US/Canada.
However this time there was an old woman, perhaps in her 70’s or 80’s. She was quite aggressive – coming straight over to me, standing very close in my personal space, and insistently whispering in a low pleading monotone. She’d clearly had a hard life – face ravaged by poor nutrition, bad dental work, a lifetime of tropical sun. None too clean either. Dressed in rags, something stuck to her face – food? Something I didn’t work too hard to identify. I was drawing as quickly as I could to catch the last light. As I moved with the sun, she would shuffle closer, constantly pleading.
Now. I never really know what to do in these situations. Clearly – she could use some money. But of course – so could many many other people I’d seen. Just in a five block radius there were young guys selling themselves to tourists, kids playing near corpses of dogs on the street, regular guys working construction in cheap shoes with their grandfathers hand tools. How can you say which person is the one you’re going to reward? Everyone here is in the middle of a untenable situation.
Then there’s the issue with the tourist economy. When we arrived our ‘greeter’ (I won’t say guide, as they really just give you a quick lecture and then drop you at your hotel), was very insistent that we were *not allowed* to obtain local currency (pesos), and that nobody was supposed to sell us anything outside of ‘nice’ shops, where we would pay in CUCs (tourist money).
The system is to ensure that tourists pay cheap-for-us but inflated-for-locals prices. So sure – it’s a tax on tourists. We don’t really need to get the incredibly low local prices. I can see the ‘fairness’ in that.
But the problem is, we can’t easily spend money just anywhere. You can’t patronize any small (independent?) shops without pesos. I wasn’t even sure locals were allowed to hold CUCs. I know now I could have given dollars to people – but I didn’t know then.
Either way I’m not exactly a rich guy. We had a tight budget for the trip – and pretty much spent it all on flight, food and lodging. If I *had* made a greymarket deal and bought some local currency I could certainly have afforded to be a lot more generous to everyone. Even a ‘starving artist’ can be a big tipper at 30 to 1 exchange.
But they don’t really want you to figure this out for some reason. I can only conclude the official policy is to prevent locals from accumulating too much foreign currency. They certainly don’t make it easy.
So I did this drawing and chocked up that mixed experience.
I don’t have a conclusion here. What would you do? Give something to the old lady? Bring a pre-determined amount and give it out to whoever tugs the heart-strings each day? The logical mind says you can’t help the individual, you should support education and economic development. Teach them to fish, not airlift fish sticks. But you know, there’s some suspicion here that the government isn’t equipped to help people. So who’s the right organization to actually support? Tough call. What would you guys do?
As I work on the drawings from this trip, I’m thinking about what I can do to raise some money with the art. Plans are not set. But some portion of the sketchbook or the app or the gallery show that comes out of the trip will go to some kind of cause. Not a great answer. Yet.
I will leave you with some drawings from the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. More about this fabulous place later.