In Cuba if you don’t work you don’t eat.
Sounds logical to me!
cuban-crafts05Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say (whoever ‘they’ are) and, oh boy, are the Cubans inventive! They can do more with an empty drinks can than anyone else in the world, I’m sure!
It seems to have started when the American embargo left them without any spare parts for their huge American cars. So they began to open and flatten cans of Coke, fit them over the car’s bodywork, and then spray them with paint.
Don’t forget that the inside of the cans is plain silver, or goldish.
When I pay my annual visit to Cuba, I love to see all their crafts. They can turn an empty can into – and I kid you not – trains, boats, planes, hats, cameras, (working cameras. You pretend to take a photo, press the ringpull shutter, and the front flies open) plus many other fantastic creations.
Shells on the beach become attractive jewellery; earrings, rings, bangles, brooches. Mother Nature’s natural iridescent colours don’t need any artificial additions.
Grass is woven into bowls and baskets, and even into grasshoppers!
cuban-crafts23One hotel that I stayed in had the most wonderful woven and knotted wall-hangings on every floor.
I asked the Manager who had made them, and he inquired for me. They had been purchased from a central supplier, and nobody knew who the Craftworker was.
Looking on the plus side, although they were unrecognised for their original work, the person or persons who made them would have been paid at once for them.
The next time that I stayed in the hotel, the wall-hangings had been replaced by a selection of original paintings.
There were also sculptures and other ornaments dotted around the hotel.
Every time that I go to Cuba, I notice the changes. They’re subtle changes though; nothing drastic and destructive. Cuba is still Cuba!
One thing that surprises tourists to Cuba has always been the shortage of shops, stores, supermarkets, etc. Most of the hotels have one or more shops, but apart from that, you have to hunt for them, and they often have a limited supply of stock.
cuban-crafts030You can’t just pop round the corner and buy a packet of pens for £1 or a new set of batteries. It just doesn’t work like that.
I always fill my suitcase with things to give away, like pens, notepads, plasters, Paracetamol, a few toys, and clothes that I can leave behind.
My taxi driver was really pleased to be given an English/Spanish dictionary instead of a tip. And the lad who carried my heavy suitcase up three flights of stairs, when given the choice between a tip or a CD immediately chose the CD. So Michael Jackson went to a very good home!
People used to, and still do, sell their wares from the front of their houses, or approach the tourists as they step down from their coaches. They are usually rudely pushed aside.
We visited a small ceramics factory in Trinidad, and a group of ladies held up their embroidery to show us.
cuban-crafts06While the others in our group were occupied inside the factory, I went outside and talked to the ladies, asking them why they didn’t put prices on their work as it would attract the tourists.
Their reply was, they didn’t have any pens or paper.
I went to the house of one of them and spent the next ten minutes making signs for them all.
One of them, Mayra, took me to the small room that she rents and showed me her sewing. She works hard for a pittance.
I bought a lovely piece of embroidery from her, and then I dragged in some of the others from our group and persuaded them to buy something.
Two years later, last year, I was on another trip to Cuba. The coaches stopped at the Trinidad Ceramics – and there was Mayra waiting between the coaches. She screamed and hugged me, then she dragged me over to her house, shouting at everyone that her Inglese friend had returned!
She pressed some embroidery into my hand, draped a necklace round my neck, and gave me her address, which she’d had on a shelf waiting for me for two years, hoping that I’d turn up again!
cuban-crafts03Of course I gave her some presents in return; pens, CDs, Paracetamol, and took her photo. Then I grabbed some of the group to see her work and buy something.
She’d be OK for several months after my visit!
There are characters performing wherever you go, especially of course, in Havana.
Old coloured gentlemen in smart suits sing and dance, Santeras, of the old religion, dressed in white and smoking a cigar, offer to tell your fortune. And they probably can!
A small dog wearing a t-shirt and sunglasses poses for photos (1 dollar) in the basket of a bike. He makes a sign to his owner who gently lifts him down to the ground, and raises his t-shirt so that he can relieve himself in the gutter, then his owner gently lifts him back. The dog rests his paws on the front of the basket, playing to the crowd. He obviously loves his life!
We watched an old lady with missing teeth who stopped in front of us and burst into song. Her voice, which was still powerful, must have been very good when she was younger.
cuban-crafts04Then she spoilt it by lifting up her dress and displaying her knickers. We walked away.
For a long time there has been a huge craft market on Havana seafront. You can see some crafts being made, and watch artists at work. But it’s obvious that some of the workers belong to co-operatives where they can constantly produce certain crafts much quicker between them.
Now, official markets are being opened. The size of the stalls are generous, they are under canvas to protect them from the hot sun or sudden downpours, and there are toilet facilities.
Prices are mainly fixed in Cuba, so you don’t need to waste a lot of time bargaining. But the Cubans are a genuinely kind and appreciative race, so they will give you a discount if you buy more than one item. And I find it hard to resist buying several things as they are attractive, different, reasonably cheap, and I appreciate the work that goes into them.
If you’re considering visiting Cuba in the near future, I strongly suggest that you go around the 6th-10th May, when the annual FitCuba is being held.
cuban-crafts10There is always a guest country, and this year it is France.
As usual, you can enjoy music, food, a wonderful atmosphere,and of course, a lot of craft stalls.
See you there!

For details of visiting Cuba, click on the advert in our magazine, or
Contact the Cuba Tourist Office,
Embassy of Cuba,
167 High Holborn,
Tel: 020 7240 6655