Saturday, October 27, 2007

Santiago de Cuba/Baracoa/Bayamo, 6-12 October 2007 (Written 12 October 2007)

The first day in Santiago we walked around the dusty streets and took in the sleazy feel. Even the afternoon downpour couldn´t wash away the feeling of dirt and sweat and rum mixed into the city. The views from the higher part of the city were spectacular though, overlooking the Bay of Santiago. Groups of old men sat in the street playing dominos in small groups, and the jinetero factor was decidedly higher than in Havana. We met Vicente, a taxista in Plaza Dolores and we negotiated our trip to El Cobre. He was quick to agree to 15 CUC.

¨We want to go to the mass.¨
¨Why? Well, the mass starts at 8am but it goes until 1pm.¨
¨You sure? Until 1pm?¨
Big laugh, then, ¨Wellll maybe until 11:30am.¨
These Cubans, they need their Saturday night partying…He explained to me that well, it´s Saturday night so there´s really no way we can go earlier than…9. Even when offered a huge sum of money – equivalent of a month´s salary, they are on the brink of throwing it away so they can enjoy their Saturday night partying and Sunday sleep-in. I was starting to not understand Cuban culture as much as I had thought I did, or wanted to.

That evening we went to Paladar Las Gallegas after searching for Santiago 1900 for a long time. Totally different directions were given to us by totally different people, and finally after way too much jinetero action, we jumped into the Paladar. We had to wait more than an hour for our food, and the service was pretty meagre. Santiago de Cuba is known to be where all things cultural, music and artistically, emerged from in Cuba. This includes trova and son, and I was eager to check out some of the live venues. We went into Casa de la Trova, which was essentially tourists and jineteros and jineteras. The basic driving force between interactions between foreigners and Cubans is purely economic. Otherwise, you could say there´s sexual motivation. But even the sex is financially directed – make you fall in love with them for their sex skills and then they make you take them away back to your country and once they´ve passed immigration, you never see them again. It´s incredibly frustrating. We staved off the attacks for a little while, also because the supremely superior dance skills of the Cubans was very intimidating. The Cubans would dance and spin at a dizzying rate whilst we struggled to keep the intricate beat sitting at the table. Finally a young guy named Adrian talked us into dancing with him, in the side room with the patio so we wouldn´t have to be in front of everyone. That still meant that the workers could watch us and laugh at us. Sigh.

We walked back through Plaza Dolores at night, which fills to overcapacity as a meatmarket of unrivalled proportions. Ages varying from 13 to 80, all genders, wandering about blowing kisses, hissing, and calling out piropos.

Sunday morning we had our breakfast and met Vicente who was ready and waiting to take us on our pilgrimage. The Basilica of El Cobre is where a totally intact statue was discovered in a copper mine. It´s a small figure, but venerated throughout the country and it´s impressive to see the kind of crowd it draws. A verdant green road leads up to the view where you can see the yellow building with the red rooftops amidst the mine still used today. People of all ages come from all over the country, as well as other countries with santeria traditions, and it was the most usage of cameras and videocameras I had Cuba. There was no instrumental accompaniment to the singing in the service and we didn´t stay too long, but it was worth it to see the white robes on the assistants and the elaborate green robe worn by the main priest.

Afterwards, we went to the Cimarron, a monument to the workers of the region. The views were gorgeous, and we were also able to see a neon blue lake colored from the sulphur in the area. There was a statue of Olokun, the orisha who is half human, half ocean who has an anchor tied to his leg.

Back in Santiago, we found the peso pizza stall and had lunch. We decided to sit outside the Casa de la Trova and listen for awhile. The two cutest old men I´ve seen in Cuba thus far came to talk to us.

¨De Japon…(using his pointer to demonstrate hard thinking, followed by enlightened revelation)…Akira Kurosawa!¨
¨De Japon…Toshiro Mifune!¨
¨De Japon…Nissan!¨
This continued for awhile, until he said, ¨Y de Santiago de Cuba…Antonio!¨, and introduced himself. What a character. His companero was Oberlin, and they were going over to Parque Central to play some son music. Shortly after they were on their way, I saw an old man take a hat away from another old man. Both looked to be in quite bad shape, with torn clothes and beaten shoes. I convinced Molly to get the hat from the man who had stolen it and give it back to the rightful owner. As she snuck up behind him and grabbed it, he gripped it firmly and shook his finger at her, saying no. After a few minutes of playful argument, he finally did give it back to the other Viejo. He then came over to us and showed us his card that showed he belonged to the Asociacion de Sordos – he was deaf. He had index cards with different countries written on them so he could ask people where they were from. He finally came to Estados Unidos and Molly nodded. We told him to wait for us and we would return with something for him. We rushed home and grabbed some shoes, clothes, and toiletries. He was really happy, and so were we as we headed towards the next place we could hear music reverberating. In Hotel Venus, a group of 8 musicians was practicing their salsa routine. We stayed outside for awhile listening to them practice until they convinced us to enter. They took turns dancing with us, and it was fantastic. Not having other people watching you (it was easy enough to ignore those passerbys on the street who stopped to watch and undoubtedly laughed), and having a private full band perform was a luxury you don´t get to enjoy often. As most interactions in Cuba, it ended with them asking us to buy the whole band drinks, and seeing as how they had entertained us and put up with our dancing, we were obliged to say yes. It´s a Catch-22 no matter how you put it and it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I realize that it´s not highway robbery for somebody to ask me for a soda, but it´s also pretty shitty that people are only nice to you because they think that they can get something from you. What´s worth noting is that this type of opportunistic situational manipulation is missing from interactions with old people. There was a couple at artehabana in Havana that was super friendly and we spoke for some time, after which I offered them a beer, and to which they profusely refused. So where does this huge divide come from? Is it the old people that remember a time when socialism actually worked? Do they see personal interaction as more valuable than a soda, or a bottle of nail polish? As far as I can see, Cuba isn´t socialist. It´s created a society that is more capitalistic than most others I´ve ever seen. Everyone is trying to gain, financially or in status by which they can guarantee some sense of prosperity.

That evening, we decided to go back to peso pizza since our budget was routinely going over what we were hoping to spend. It was also raining heaps, so we went back to the casa. All of a sudden, Vladimir was being really nice, coming to tell us that it was his 38th birthday but with this rain he couldn´t go out. He started to tell us of his family with 7 children in the country and essentially how poor he was. I was sucked into his sweet, unassuming nature and we shared photos with him. All of a sudden, the 3 women who lived in the house who had previously shown negligent interest in us came out to talk to us and were being friendly. I think this served two purposes: watch Vladimir to make sure we weren´t getting too friendly, and to try to get on our good side so that we would recommend their casa to other travellers. I was a bit put off by both motives that I perceived…we decided to go for a walk since the rain was letting up a bit. When we came back, Vladimir was waiting on the porch in his nice going out clothes, and didn´t hesitate at all to ask me for a dollar because he was going to the countryside to visit his family the next day. I felt…used. Manipulated. Fooled.

The next morning we got up early and Vicente was waiting for us. We were headed to Baracoa, population 65,000, oft referred to as Cuba´s Shangri-la. The bus ride to Baracoa was stunning. The most impressive thing about the Cuban landscape I´ve seen thus far is the variety of flora on the island. There were steep rock cliffs on which grew various different types of cactuses, and soaring high above were multiple species of palms. How these plants kept their roots firmly planted in the earth that was subject to endless tropical storms amazed me. The bus driver stopped apparently at whim numerous times during the drive, making it probably 45 minutes to an hour longer than it needed to be. When we finally did arrive in Baracoa, the woman who Vladimir had called was waiting for us. She explained that her house was full that day so that night we could stay in a friend´s house, and the next day we could return to her house. I explained that we really didn´t want to change rooms and I also tried to bargain about the price a little bit. It resulted in us staying with her brother, and her leaving quite annoyed. I told her it was just as annoying to be told that we had a reservation and then not have a room, and the expectation to have people change houses without any compensation, or without kindness in fact was unfair.

We went to search for a peso meal and found a super super greasy pizza stand. We ran into Jen, a Canadian girl we had met on the bus. We decided to head towards the beach that afternoon. The sun in Cuba is a raging force, beating down relentlessly and even the strongest must wither in its strength sometimes. Walking past the Malecon, you pass the baseball stadium to walk along the black sand beach with waves gently lapping the shore. There is a sporting ground where children gather to play baseball and run around in green fields with the jawdropping backdrop of the Escambray Mountains and the Caribbean Sea. Continue your walk along the beach and pretty soon you have two choices; walk on the sand, or on a small path weaving through palm trees and tropical fruit trees. We chose the latter for the spotty shade that the towering palms provided. Many different lizards and geckos darted about. We were looking for Playa Blanca, which supposedly has white sand. We were walking without water and even though it was past 3pm, it was way hotter than any day I have ever recalled. We gave up on the beach, settled for the black sand, and headed back towards town.

Back in town, we got some guarapo, pressed sugar cane juice. Incredibly refreshing and rehydrating, exactly what we needed. We still had some time so we wandered around this small town that has been likened to Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez´s novels. The Plaza de la Independencia on Maceo Street is the lifeline of the town, with people of all backgrounds gathering to chat, rest, or meet others, and the proximity to the Casa de la Trova means you can enjoy the music drifting by from the refreshing locale of a park bench under a tree.

We met Jen for dinner at Paladar La Colonial that night, and Molly and I shared some shrimp and ¨Tati¨, tiny fish about 1.5cm long that is cooked by the hundreds. It´s a Baracoan specialty and I did struggle momentarily with consuming so many tiny creatures…afterwards we grabbed the bottle of rum Molly and I hadn´t drunk in Santiago and we situated ourselves in Plaza de la Independencia. Over the next few hours we were spoken to by a dozen young hopefuls which eventually led to us dancing in the square with no accompanying music. We then proceeded to dance in the street outside La Terraza, and then we invaded a domino match and the players probably found us more entertaining than the domino game.

On Tuesday we met Jen at cubatur for our trip to Bahia de Taco. Our guide, Karel, was a super sweet 26 year old. On the way to the Bahia, we stopped at Finca Esperanza where there is a good variety of plants to demonstrate what kinds of crops are being cultivated in the area. We tried coffee, cacao, guayaba, and saw the zapote (mamey). We arrived at Bahia de Taco and met Yoannis, the boat driver and guide. The Bahia de Taco is where manatees are said to be seen, but extensive research hasn´t been done due to lack of funds. The bay is beautiful, with mountains all around, and one small opening to the sea. It still serves as a refuge for boats out to sea when tropical storms hit. We stopped in one part of the bay to walk around. The variety of life we saw was remarkable. Tiny hermit crabs that eat fruit scattered across haphazardly. Polymites, which resemble ancient snails, and who have brillian purples and whites mixed in, rested on giant leaves hanging from trees. Yoannis knew a great deal about the medicinal plants in the area. Tapon is a small plant that in an infusion works against diarrhea. Verbena, which has small purple flowers, can be used to make a drink that works for babies that refuse to drink their mothers´ milk.

After the Bahia tour, we stopped at Playa Maguana on the way back to Baracoa. A small stretch of white sand beach with aquamarine waters at the perfect bathing temperature; comfortable enough that you´re not cold, but not hot enough that you feel like you´re in a hot spring bath. We arrived back in Baracoa and we went for a long walk through the lesser explored part of town, where the greenery seems to be an extension of the dilapidated concrete. We ate dinner in our casa, a delicious meal of chicken cooked in coconut milk, tostones, okra and corn salad, and rice. We went to the Casa de la Trova afterwards where there were several dozen European tourists and a few Cubans scattered about. Molly and I made our exit quite quickly and turned in after walking around for awhile.

Wednesday morning we got up early to go on our respective photo shoots. I found the cemetery on the other side of town and wandered around the area for awhile. We had breakfast and then met up with Jen to go to the Archaeological Museum. It turned out that it was closed for the holiday because it was October 10, but they were able to find someone to open it. It´s inside a cave and displays skeletons and tools used by the indios that no longer live in the area, and it was mildly interesting. The walk to and from it though was extremely muddy and slippery and with the humidity hovering around 98%, there were plenty of other places I´d rather have been. We went to the Casa del Chocolate where Molly and Jen had watery hot chocolate. Back to the casa to pack, and Molly and I discussed our plans as we´ve both been struggling a fair amount with various things in the country. It´s tough because being alone kind of sucks, but being with another girls calls even more attention to us. It seems like it´s necessary to always be on guard and it can be difficult to know when an interaction with someone has crossed the line from a friendly conversation to an obligation to compensate financially.

Right around the time Molly and I were talking, there was a torrential downpour and the streets were flooding within minutes. I was unsure whether the bus would leave, but it turned out to be ok. It did rain most of the journey, though, and when I picked up my backpack in Santiago de Cuba it was soaking. I made it to Bayamo on the 7:30pm bus and arrived at 10, with Giral waiting at the station. He´s a great guy, and I instantly felt at ease with him. He had brought a bottle of grapefruit juice that he had made for me at home. We went to the casa that he had found for me and then went for a bit of a walk.

This morning it was still raining so after breakfast, I took a nap. I spoke with Antonio, the owner of the house who talked and talked and talked about all things Cuba with me.

Giral came around 11:30 and we walked, dodging puddles and sharing an umbrella to the city center. Bayamo has a very artistic feel; along the main thoroughfare is Calle General Garcia, with giant sculptures of acrylic paint tubes replacing the ordinary boring telephone poles. Galleries are everywhere, and we visited the art gallery where he works, as well as several other studios. The university displays some original work by students which was great to see – artists able to survive receiving high quality materials without paying at all. I remember how expensive photo equipment in Los Angeles was, and having to select the courses I could take in the photo program based on how much I knew the course would cost me in required materials.

We went to Parque Cespedes, also known as Plaza de la Revolucion, and the tranquillity and serenity of this town continued to amaze me. There were a few people scattered about and it was lively; it didn´t feel dreary or anything like that, but it was free of jineteros and catcalls. Wow. We continued on to lunch at Restaurante Vegetariano, and I was super happy. For US$2 total, we ate a feast of vegetable soup, vegetable rice, okra, green beans, pumpkin, cucumber, soy protein picadillo, and fried plantains. So great to get that many vegetables at once! It was pouring rain so we waited in his gallery for awhile then headed back towards my casa. We stopped at a guarapero and had some of the refreshing icy cold drink.

I was ready for a nap, and after a quick one walked around alone for a bit. I visited the site of the supposed oldest cemetery in Latin America, and although the looks and catcalls did increase a bit, it wasn´t nearly as bad as it could have been. I then went to Giral´s house where I had been invited for dinner. After an attentive origami lesson, I was served a huge meal of chicharon soup (small white beans – super tasty), rice, potatoes, fried flour with spinach, cucumber, and…ground beef. I was really confused about this, since all sources have been telling me that it´s illegal to eat beef in Cuba. Giral shrugged off the question so I´ll need to do further research on this.

Molly called to say that the bus couldn´t leave Baracoa because it was raining too much…she managed to find a good cheap place to stay but it must suck to be stuck there in that weather…it was bad enough being here with a friend who has an umbrella…

And now it´s Friday morning and I´m using Giral´s computer to type this up. The impressions of Cuba I have are so positive and so negative. Seeing the preservation of culture through music and visual art is pretty phenomenal. But to think of all these talented people, and the older ones, having to struggle to survive and fight to feed themselves and their families is absurd. I like the Cuban self-assuredness, honesty, and bluntness, but at times it goes too far. Asking for sodas, beers, clothes, money…when I told Daniel, the leader of the salsa group in Hotel Venus in Santiago that we´d get him drinks but we weren´t having any (I already had a bottle of water and I very very rarely drink soda), he looked me straight in the eye and said, why, because you don´t have a lot of money? These sorts of interactions make it even more obvious that they only associate with us for economic gain.

Havana: 2-5 October, 2007 (Written 6 October 2007)

Tuesday night I met Julio and Elian and we went to Casa de La Musica. There was a salsa group playing and I got to demonstrate my pathetic salsa moves. We stayed in Parque Central until 4am just talking and it was great. The nightlife doesn´t stop...there is always someone in the streets, it doesn´t matter what hour.

Wednesday I slept in until about 10, then Carlitos, a good friend of Hector and Ery came over. I was begged to translate a Celine Dion song for Hector which I still haven´t managed to get out of my head. Finally at one thirty I got up the motivation to enter the sweltering heat once again. I went over to Galiano where Frank from Septeto Nacional told me the day before that I could come by and he would give me a CD. On my way, I ran into Someillan, the trumpet player for the Septeto Nacional and he gave me his info so we could meet up. I went to the studio and there were 5 of the 7 there. Frank el Matador ran off to get me a CD, magazine, and poster of the band and we sat around chatting for awhile. I don´t know if there is any other country in the world where I could just sit back and chat away with a national recording band.

I walked all the way down Trocadero because I wanted to stop by Plaza de la Catedral. On my way there I was crossing the Prado (Paseo de Marti) and there were some middle school kids practicing a marching band routine. I sat on a bench next to a 3 year old girl imitating the band and her mother. There was loud trumpeting in the street and the sound of a roaring engine; a bright chrome deep maroon 1954 Chevy leading a wedding party. The 3 year old girl showed me her Elpidio Valdez cartoons and spoke to me in baby Spanish which I had a hard time understanding and her mother thought it hilarious. I finally continued onwards. Plaza de la Catedral dominates the skyline and this beautiful centuries old Cathedral is the centerpiece of the square.

I was in a bit of a rush as I was supposed to meet Ery at 4 so we could go to UNEAC in Vedado. We got on the public bus by the Capitolio; one Cuban peso (5 US cents) to get us to Vedado. The crowdedness reminded me of Tokyo rush hour trains. From the bus stop we walked to El Huron Azul, the UNEAC bar. The Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos is in every town and provides high quality cheap entertainment for the Cuban intellectual community. On Wednesdays they host a peña, an Afro Cuban music gathering, followed by trova, a single person with an acoustic guitar. Rum and beer flowing liberally as you hear people discussing politics, the latest art expo, the latest new musician to emerge.

Afterwards we went to Coppelia, the legendary Cuban ice cream parlor, made famous in Fresa y Chocolate. There is a Coppelia for Cubans and a Coppelia for foreigners, each using their respective currency. I snuck in with Ery to the Cuban one, where the ensalada, a bowl with 5 albeit small scoops of ice cream costs 5 Cuban pesos...about 10 cents US. We went down the Rampa to emerge at the Malecon again. It was still a bit early by Malecon standards, but already there were couples murmuring and caressing, men with their old guitars strumming softly with a bottle of rum as their audience by their side. We lay down on the Malecon, listening to all the activity, and hours quickly passed.

We stopped by Carlito´s house because we had been discussing my interest in Santeria, and I was given an in depth lesson of the 12 Orishas, deities, adorning Carlito's house. The way in which the Yorubas originally brought over to Cuba managed to keep their religion alive by transforming and transfiguring their deities with Catholic ones is representative of the Cuban attitude towards so many things; they seem to conform and go with the flow yet they are actually solidifying and strenghtening their core.

It was nearly 11pm and I hadn't eaten since breakfast so off we went to find a cajita. Cajitas, which means little boxes, are just that...flimsy cardboard boxes that you buy from a tiny window of someone's home. Next to Chinatown we found a cajita with pork, rice and beans, potato, and cucumber for about 80 US cents. We scarfed it down and back home.

On Thursday I was determined to wake up early to take advantage of the morning hours that aren't brutally hot. I was out the door at 8. A long walk led me to Callejon de Hamel, an alleyway that is a gathering place for practitioners of Santeria and artists alike. I joined one artist to El Colmeo, a bar that was filmed in Buena Vista Social Club, where we had mojitos at 10am, joining a 74 year old percussion teacher who was attempting to teach me some rumba.

Thoroughly overheated, I went back home to have a little nap before venturing out again that afternoon. I went to artehabana on Calle San Rafael, where everyday at 4pm there is a free performance of some sort. I sat there writing in my journal and an elderly Cuban couple sat down next to me. They were whispering shyly for a few minutes before they asked me super politely where I was from. They had a bet going: the wife thought I was Venezuelan and the husband thought I was Mexican. Hmm. The performance was wonderful for so many reasons, not least of which the ability to share a public space with Cubans that ranged in income from very impoverished to wealthy intellectuals. These free spaces provide an opportunity for people to enjoy cultural activities despite any barriers and walls that may otherwise exist between them. I was the only non Cuban there.

On my way home I decided to go a different route and was wandering down Calle O'Reilly. A sculpture of a concave human body with mechanical tools inside caught my eye and I walked in the gallery. A beautiful girl called me upstairs and I met Naima and her brother who work at the Studio of Leo D'Lazaro, who has been exhibited in Spain, Mexico, and Cuba. We spent an hour discussing each painting, photograph, and sculpture. We made plans to go see the national ballet or opera before I leave Cuba.

Back home where Raissel, Hector's son was waiting. We had a great meal of yuca con mojo; boiled yuca with garlic and spices on top, rice and beans, bean sprouts with cabbage and potatoes...the only sad part was recognizing that there are very very few Cubans who can afford to eat this much vegetables with each meal. As Ery had promised me a dance class, we went to get a bottle of Havana Club rum so I would be able to dance better and he would be able to teach better...then we began. I won't say I'm great now, but those 2 hours of nonstop dancing and spinning and laughing and smiling immensely improved my confidence. There's just something about Cubans that puts you at ease and it doesn't matter how wrong you might be or how stupid you may look.

As we were proceeding, Molly arrived, so we had another mini meal and because we were all drunk (not Molly) we went to the Malecon...and thus I experienced the Malecon at night. A meeting place for otherwise ostracized homosexuals, many many prositutes and jineteros ready to help you find a good prostitute, lots of music, and lots of rum. 4 in the morning and there were more people outside than any hour of the day. Asi es Cuba. Asi es La Habana.

Friday morning we tried to rent a car but first of all, nobody knew where the rental agency was. When we finally did manage to find it, we found out the owner had left to go to the airport. Estoy para el aeropuerto is what the sign said. Asi es Cuba. I ran into Ernesto, one of the first people I had spoken to on my noctural forays in Habana Vieja, and Molly laughed at me for already having people recognize me and talk to me in the street after being there for 3 days. Well, I just talk to everyone.

We decided to take the bus at 10pm so we would have the whole day in Havana. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is housed in a gorgeous 18th century building, and Museo de la Revolucion is perhaps the most ridiculous establishment of propaganda I've ever seen. But man, what charisma El Maximo has. And Che is pretty dashing. Hahah.

We went to artehabana, and the singer was amazing...tears were in many Cubans' eyes, and most definitely in mine. We then walked to the corner of Hotel Inglaterra where there was a full brass orchestra, about 40 performers performing on the street for free. Someillan was there watching, and again Molly had to watch me be greeted by someone treating me like a long lost friend. Ha. And of course, the old man selling papers was hugging me, and winking as he stole an extra 10 cents from my change when I bought the Granma paper from him.

We decided to try to find the gallery I had been at...a man in a bright yellow cubatur shirt called out to me, asking where I was from in English. I replied in Spanish and he was surprised, asking me the usual how do you speak Spanish perfectly if you're Japanese questions. He was in a doorway of a house with music blasting so we were invited in and proceeded. A full fledged concentrated energetic game of dominoes was taking place, which we soon began to take part in, the rum never emptying in our glasses. A few hours of laughter and clapping and slamming down domino pieces led to our little salsa and reggaeton dance party in this Habana apartment, complete with the 5 year old Jonathan. Asi es Cuba.

We had to leave to get our bus and many hugs and kisses were exchanged. Asi es Cuba.

Havana: 1-2 Oct 2007 (Written 2 Oct 2007)

There are sounds in the street everywhere. Music flows through doorways, through hallways, windows, balconies, cars, bicycles, people are singing, dancing, laughing. Compared with the silence in other cities around the world, it is captivating, making you want to move your body to the sounds.

I was instantly captivated upon arrival, where Hector and Ery without missing a beat started treating me as family. The exaggerated vowels - mu-u-u-u-u-ucho trabajo, mu-u-u-u-uu-cha azucar, mu-u-u-u-uy bueno accompany the big grins and the warm energy.

Havana is being showered with a rain that varies from a gentle drizzle to a furious downpour. Hector and I brave the streets nonetheless, venturing to the agropecuario, the local farmer's market where I can pay using the local money - moneda nacional. The dual money system is so difficult to get your head around. How is it possible that you can buy fresh squeezed orange juice for 2 pesos cubanos - less than 10 cents USD - then go to a tourist hotel and pay 5 CUC - 7USD for the same thing?

I was treated to a lovely dinner last night, Ery singing as he cooks. Spaghetti with tomato sauce and chicken. Afterwards I went for a little jaunt in the neighborhood alone, where people roam amongst the rubble in the streets, restored buildings reminiscent of colonial grandeur placed next to crumbling unidentifiable concrete.

This morning I met David, an absolute gem. Speaking of the illegal and legal systems, how people survive here - ration cards, 8 pounds beans, 6 pounds rice, 5 pounds sugar - and sometimes that sugar isn't enough for people...

We walked at a steady pace for 2 hours covering most of Havana Vieja before he had to return to work.

I ventured to the agropecuario and bought a huge avocado, bright red mamey, mini mangos, limes, and lots of bean sprouts, onions, and garlic for less than $1.50 US. Awesome people in the market - one man and I were talking about Tokyo - a very great capitol - and I said yes, more or less. Mas o menos. We laughed, and I said, well, mas que menos - more than less. He said, well, Habana tambien - Habana also - but it's a little bit broken right now.

My first attempt to use the internet was at the Etecsa on Calle Obispo. After being made to wait outside for half an hour while watching people buy peso ice cream, pizza, sandwiches, and juice across the street, I was told that they ran out of cards so I couldn't use the computer. Sigh. Onwards to Hotel Florida. Not working. Down to El Capitolio Nacional - not working. Siiiiiigh.

I decided to check out El Salon de Ensayo Benny More - a music space where bands practice and you can watch for longer exists, as far as I and about 10 Cubans who tried to tell me could tell. Frustrated but not that upset, I wandered down Galiano...I was going to finally set my eyes on the Malecon, the famed seawall that is the center of life for many Habaneros, where you can feel Cuba's pulse alive and well. Suddenly, I heard music. Catchy music. And it sounded live. I wandered over to the door and there was a huge lock. I smiled at the toothless, Yankees hat wearing man with a half burnt thick cigar in his hand, and he asked me where I was from and let me in. I walked into a concrete room that had egg cartons plastered all over the walls, and there was the Septeto Nacional. How did I get here? They had a special guest as they were practicing for recording their next album, and I was bearing witness to this. A bottle of Havana Club Rum was passed around the room, with Bucanero beer cans for those who weren't ready at 2pm to stomach the fire of the rum. The next hour was cathartic, listening to these world-class musicians who have toured many continents bar the US, as they tweaked their new performances and were jamming, drinking, improvising, and dancing. Wow.

I spoke to the director who invited me back any day that they were rehearsing in Havana, and I have an invitation to his house to receive a free CD of their last recording. I had grown slightly discouraged last night, finding that all the places with live music came along with a high CUC entrance fee, which means an entirely tourist clientele (or prostitutes accompanying the tourists), and wasn't sure how I was going to survive a month without going crazy, either from being around tourists in an overly exclusive isolating setting, or from being cut off from the live music that I had come all this way to enjoy. Looks like I found my survival method.

I did head over to the Malecon briefly afterwards, as it was high tide and the blindingly white spray was shooting over the wall, drenching all those wandering down the meandering path. Back to El Capitolio, an immense structure with great examples of Cuban artists inside. From sand paintings to photography to sculpture, it is a clear example of how Cuba has managed to invest in arts and culture and succeeded tremendously.

Then over to Hotel Inglaterra where I have waited an hour to use the computer.

What more to be said?

There are no tomatoes in the market. Supposedly they're out of season. Is that possible in a tropical country?

The way the Cubans approach their daily dilemmas and nuisances head-on with an unbeatable sense of humor causes me to shake my head and laugh. Hector and Ery and I were talking about trains, and I was asking if I could book tickets in advance for one of the better trains. They both laughed and said no, because it might not leave. When I asked how far in advance I could buy my tickets, they told me, well, show up 2 hours beforehand and you'll know. I asked if I could make a bus reservation in case the train doesn't go, and they said yes - even if I don't show up for the bus nothing happens. In fact, nothing happens in Cuba.

When talking about the bureaucracy even though it's socialist, they said mu-u-u-uuuu-uuuchos papeles, mucho, mu-u-uucho. And the inspectors and the corruption. It's amazing how explicitly people will speak to me about their situations, expressing their opinions and especially about the impending future as El Maximo nears his death. Recent weeks have shown a new vitality in TV broadcasts of the leader, and people have mixed reactions.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cuba overview

After having dreamed for so long about going to Cuba, I would never in any scenario have imagined that I would voluntarily leave early. But usually when it happens, it's least expected. My overall impressions of the country would take weeks to explain, because it is quite simply the most complex, contrasting place I've ever been in my life. The extremes of loving it and hating it were so huge, every day so intense that I found it utterly overwhelming.

Havana is a city that I imagine most people would fall in love with. The architecture, the music, the art, the old cars, the's so charismatic, gently pulsating life, slightly chaotic, slightly slow, all the push and pull combining together in a gentle whirl with the Caribbean backdrop of the Malecon.

The rest of Cuba, to be perfectly honest, I could have done without. Santiago, where we first went, was basically horrible, with the persistent horrible harassment we endured, the heat, the humidity, the dust, the dirt, the grime. Baracoa, a small seaside town was better, but there just really isn't that much to do in this country. Yes, the scenery is beautiful, but apart from sitting outside in plazas and parks watching people and drinking and dancing, there just isn't anything else.

Granted, those things were fabulous and I am sure I will recall them fondly for a long time to come. It is rare to find a culture that still has so much public space, where outside common areas like parks and plazas are occupied by all ages and races, and the feeling of community is indeed very intact. I did thoroughly enjoy sitting and watching people coming and going, watching life just unfold. However, three weeks of that is more than sufficient.

After Baracoa I went to Bayamo and Holguin, both of which are not touristy and I didn't get bothered much at all, which was nice. But, well, I'm sure many people will disagree with me, but apart from Havana, all Cuban cities and towns are essentially the same. There is beautiful colonial architecture in varying degrees of decay, and there are resplendent old plazas and central squares and parks, which are lined with all the busy essentials of any city; food, entertainment, art galleries and the like. All great, but not much variety. You might as well just stay in Havana for the entire duration of your stay in Cuba.

Trinidad is by far the touristiest place in Cuba in my opinion - Havana may have more in terms of sheer numbers, but the fact that Trinidad is so small makes it feel crowded with backpackers. Nice in a way, but the effects of tourism are really felt there. The old cobblestone streets and the restored houses are refreshing to see in contrast to the millions of houses around the country that are decaying to the point of being dangerous to live in.

I was pretty much done with travelling by the time I got to Trinidad so apart from a day trip to Vinales in the west, I stuck around Havana.

The music in the country is phenomenal; when musicians are guaranteed the same income or more as engineers and lawyers, it's no wonder that people don't feel the pressure to pursue other careers, thus allowing multitudes of artists of all sorts to thrive. That's one good thing about Cuba. And the dancing; I don't think any writer could put it into words. When you watch Cubans dance, it just changes you. I can't explain it.

But then there's all the horrible stuff that comes with it. Appearance has everything to do with everything in this country; maybe more so than anywhere else I've ever been. I'm a female, young, slightly chubby by American and Japanese standards, but by Cuban standards I'm pretty average. I'm dark haired, eyed, and skinned, so I don't stick out as much as Molly did with her blue eyes and blond hair. But for some reason, I got a lot more attention than she did - maybe Asians are more of a novelty. Nowhere else that I have ever been in my life have I been regarded as a mere dollar sign with legs; nowhere else have I been constantly disappointed by realizing that the kindness of the Cubans to me was motivated solely for economic gain. In this socialist country, I saw the most capitalism I have ever seen in my life. None of that invite you to tea or coffee just to be hospitable and curious and kind, none of that simple conversation on a park bench. Yes, there were a few examples that stick out as being different, but the grand majority was people who were kind to me because of what they thought I could give them, and the interactions ended with that.

The Cubans are a truly unique people; I don't think there is any other nationality of people that I could compare with them. There is a self-assuredness, a self-confidence, and an absolute comfortableness that is apparent in the entire population. Cubans are a mixed nationality, ranging from whites that look as if they just got off the plane from Spain, to the blackest black of the Yoruba roots in West Africa. But they are all Cubans, and despite color, size, weight, height, age, and sex, they are all totally comfortable being Cuban and everything that goes along with it. There is no shyness, only direct, blunt, and often times harshness. I wish I had gone to Cuba 10 years ago, before this emerging dual economy had gotten to the point where it has destroyed the authenticity of so many Cubans. Prostitution is so much easier and faster than working for the government wage of 10USD a month. Begging guarantees more income than working as a computer engineer. Robbing a tourist means the equivalent of 20 years income, at least. So who is to blame?

When you go out, and people ask you to dance, it's not like in other countries where people just want to dance with you. In Cuba, after one or two songs, they ask you to buy them a beer or soda - 1USD - 3 days of their work. They act as if it's their obligation, often demanding rather than enquiring. For travellers on a budget, and even for those that aren't, this can get extremely irritating. Since when do you have to buy a beer for every person that dances with you?? I realize that there are multiple sides to this story, and it's virtually impossible for these regular Cubans to obtain their glimpses of fiesta in any other way, but it grows so frustrating. Molly and I discussed whether we would actually have more fun if we just started throwing around our cash and bought drinks for a bunch of Cubans whenever we went out. The conclusion was that no, it would simply result in them pressing us harder for cash, and probably larger numbers joining in to see what they could gain as well. The other thing about dancing is that a lot of Cubans just want sex. It's the most sex-obsessed culture I've ever seen. I suppose with no economy, no work, no food, no diversion, and a great offering of soulful, sensual music, it makes sense that this would have evolved. But it is at times super overwhelming to be a part of. Ten minutes of dancing followed by a proposal to go have sex. And even if it's not directly prostitution, it's not genuine sex of simply wanting to fulfill a lustful desire. The idea is that they sleep with a tourist, who then becomes their sugar daddy or mommy during the duration of their stay. If the Cuban's really good in bed, maybe the tourist will come back to spend more time with them. Remember that even if the sugar parent is only spending $10/day on the Cuban for alcohol, food, and transport, that's a month's income PER DAY that the Cuban is gaining. Anyway, I digress. If the tourist comes back to have more sex with the Cuban, the Cuban can then begin to propose a way to get out, in effect going to live with the tourist abroad. It's said that 99% of Cubans, as soon as they have gotten out of the country with a foreign spouse, leave them. I don't really understand how someone could go through those motions for so long, but of course I don't understand what it's like to live in a country where you know you will never succeed materially, where you will never make more than $25/month by purely legal means.

I don't understand the sheer stupidity of the government in so many ways. During the Special Period of 1991 to 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an extremely severe food shortage in Cuba where people had no choice but to eat things such as banana and grapefruit peels, and rice was available for 10 or 20 times the normal price. You look at the Cuban countryside, a large part of it virgin, fertile, lush land where essentially everything must grow, and you think, how the hell are the people here hungry? You go to the markets and there are vegetables; everything must grow here. Yet, sugar cane has been such an engrained part of Cuban history that even today, 5 pounds of sugar are given to every Cuban in their ration each month, while not a single green vegetable is included.

And fish; it's hard to find in Cuba and it's expensive.'s a long, thin island in the middle of the Caribbean. In the coastal towns there seems to be a good selection of fish for decent prices, but anywhere inland it's very hard to find. But ice cream can be found everywhere...if you can keep ice cream frozen shouldn't you be able to transport the fish? The island is so thin I can't imagine it would ever take more than 3 hours to get to any town from the sea. Why do you have to eat grapefruit peels when you could include a ration of fishing line and hooks and tell people to go catch their own dinner? I may sound stupid and extreme, but really, it's ridiculous.

And the U.S. Embargo; the propaganda jumps wildly from proclaiming that the bloqueo can't stop them, that it's not accomplishing anything, all the way over to outstanding claims of how every day the bloqeuo continues 400 cars cannot be brought into Cuba. Umm last time I checked, many many countries were able and willing to trade with Cuba, including ones that make high quality cars, like Japan, Germany, even Korea, China, and Russia...

And in general, the propaganda is at a level so high that I think it would drive anyone insane. You'd either fall madly in love with Fidel or want to murder him. It's funny, all the slogans read about the Revolucion, and so much is written in future tense; Venceremos - we will conquer. Lucharemos, trabajaremos - we will fight, we will work. Until when? Who are we conquering, and if the sign is immortalized in red paint on the wall, doesn't that mean there is no end date to the fight, that it's a permanent battle? And what happens when we win? Wait, didn't we already win in 1959?
I had stuff removed from my luggage without notification, and I'm not sure if it was someone from customs, or someone that works at the airport that stole it. It really really sucks, because I lost all my photos. All the Old Havana beautifully maintained cars, the crumbling architecture, and of course the countryside. I also lost Molly's videotapes, which definitey really sucks. I can't believe that I would be stupid enough to put everything in my checked baggage, and that I didn't back anything up on an iPod or CD's. I guess that means I just need to relive all the good stuff in my mind, and I'm sure as time passes the bad stuff will be less intense and draining.

I don't know how quickly Cuba will change, in terms of tourist appeal. There is so much cacophony about what will happen after Fidel dies, with theories ranging from nothing will change, to the U.S. will come intervene and overnight Cuba will be caught up to U.S. levels of technology, cars, housing, and life in general. Nobody really knows, but I wonder what would happen if all those new cars came in. Would the dinosaur Chevrolets still roam the streets of Havana, winding in and out of their grandchildren, the 2010 Fords and Chevys? Or would they just disappear altogether? Would tourists want to go to a Cuba with no old cars and crumbling buildings? Would tourists want to go to the McDonalds and Starbucks that might appear?

Or, will it not change for a long time to come? Yes, the invasion of Nike, Adidas, and the like has already been steadily infiltrating the society, but will the government realize that a large part of the tourist income, which s so vital to the suffering Cuban economy, comes from people that romanticize about the old Cuba and if it changes, those people will stop coming?

The funny thing is now that I've left, I find myself thinking maybe I should have stayed, and I feel as though some parts of me have already changed greatly. The self-confidence and lack of self-consciousness, and the thorough sensory experience of music is something new. Perhaps there will be more things that become apparent as time goes on.