HAP-py new year! Everyone went to the Rainbow Inn for a lobster dinner and a riotous good time, and I had my first ever Junkanoo. Junkanoo is both an old slave tradition and a modern call to toast by the drunken firemen with their big drums. The music was cacophonous all night long, from Pitbull blaring from a DJ station to a not-very-far-removed quintet simultaneously playing the second worst rendition of “Hotel California” I have ever heard on a snarly broken PA system, to the full brass band of haphazard parade participants. I transmitted holiday wishes using the time-honored State College communications network, which in this situation means Evan calling his wife and passing a message through her to his mom who passed it on to my mom.
I’ll do the 2013 annual debriefing when I’m back but for now, have your green grapes and laissez les bons temps rouler. Or just Junkanoooooo.
Jon and Willow have plans for a wildly successful sustainable eco-hostel in the family islands so they have moved themselves and Yarrow and the cat Sophie to a cottage near Governor’s Harbour. Eleuthera (el-OO-tra) is a pirate fairy tale of an island twenty minutes flight time to the east of Nassau, a hundred miles long but only like half a mile wide. From Gregory Town in the north to Rock Sound in the south runs the pothole-ridden and unlit Queen’s Highway where drunk drivers can careen without fear of law enforcement and where locations are described by context rather than address: past the gas station, palm tree on the left, blue trash can on the right, if you reach the speed limit sign you missed the turnoff. The resupply boat comes on Tuesdays so that’s when people can go grocery shopping for food other than spaghetti-Ohs and even stores with a “Closed” sign can be opened if you can rouse the proprietor from where he is hanging out a few doors down.
I was beyond delighted to spend the week Evan, who is my oldest friend in the entire world and a fellow local film star as the evildoer when I was the Yellow Ranger in Jon’s straight-to-VHS directorial debut. Evan is also a software engineer so we had the pure pleasure of being able to, for example, intersperse arguments about breakfast-drink-titled frameworks with sunset snorkeling to a shipwreck. We got a vacation rental mansion on the Atlantic side with some of Willow’s numerologist friends and did a notional amount of tourism, one day going up north to Glass Window Bridge and the Queen’s Baths and one time going gift shopping for band sawed conch shell Christmas ornaments. Otherwise we structured our mornings around kayak trips to the point or around the cove and our evenings around conch fritters and Kalik. I learned the miracle that is spray sunscreen and the enticement that is goombay punch with black rum, and am really coming around on the idea of “traditional” vacations.
Merry Christmas! Zoe and Victor wouldn’t hear of me spending the holiday alone so they invited me to their family dinner of lobster and tomatoes and stories. Danny’s heart would have broken at the 75-year-old great-grandfather whose eyes filled with tears as he described the VHS tapes he has of his grandchildren in Miami, his only contact with them, and how they are deteriorating over time as a result of being repeatedly replayed but he doesn’t have a way to digitize them and anyway DVD players are technically illegal. I smoked a Christmas cigar and failed to call my parents because I couldn’t work out international collect on the public pay phones.
Summary of the trip! The books I read for atmosphere beforehand were “Cuba: What Everyone Should Know” by Julia Sweig and “Havana Nocturne” by TJ English, which were both excellent and informative, and “Mangoes, Bananas, and Coconuts” by Himilce Novas, which was merely excellent. My undisputed best visual of the whole time that I could just kick myself for missing on camera: a slick machista with a perfect mustache driving a magenta Oldsmobile with fins and a girl on the passenger side of the tan leather bench texting furiously on her hot pink iPhone. I forgot my travel alarm clock (so I learned how to use the calendar function on iPad), a pair of sunglasses (although I observe that only ladies of questionable morals wore them anyway), and a Spanish dictionary (but I proudly didn’t need it in the end!). I brought but didn’t need an electrical converter (who knew?), and next time I come I will bring a damn kilogram of platinum or whatever goes in catalytic converters for diesel engines because the soot here is disgusting. Even with that knowledge, Havana airport is calm on a Sunday morning and the terminal is full of chirping birds so I am leaving with a good impression. Anyone who wants to go, let me know and I will give you some nice contacts.
A literal cámara oscura is a cool periscope thing that uses lenses and mirrors to show the whole city from a tower on the old square, where a tour guide works the pulleys and a parabolic canvas to manifest a kind of mechanical magic that brings all the sights in and out of focus as the mirror points different ways but the funniest thing was the woman who was clearly on script otherwise but who kept interrupting herself with an imperious Silencio, por favor! to shush the kids on the tour.
On my next-to-last day, I talked for half an hour to a bookseller named Sixto in the Plaza de Armas who loved jazz and quizzed me endlessly on my Spanish and Dizzie Gillespie and sold me a book of Afro-Cuban fairy tales, heavy on the Yoruba chanting. I had lunch and a beer at the Ambos Mundos roof deck where Hemingway was supposed to have written some of his books, but since he was clearly talented and famous and lucrative, he is always just Hemingway, the novelista, and not Hemingway, the American novelista. Mm hmm. Also Ambos Mundos is described gushingly in the guidebook I borrowed from Zoe as “Average food at average prices. You could do worse” so it’s a good thing the restaurant has a historical function above and beyond its culinary mission. I have also figured out how to have a much nicer day in Vieja neighborhood now, because I stick to Obispo – Mercaderes – Brasil and don’t go randomly through funny-smelling back streets.
Long afternoons on yellow sand at Playa del Este allowed me to finish my Cuban romance novel and come to appreciate “tanning” as a recreation. I am so totally converted to the rum on a desert island idea for RM some year, as long as the island isn’t *so* deserted that there aren’t guys walking up and down selling paper twists of cacafuetes (roasted peanuts) or playing bongos. I am delighted to be regularly mistaken for a Brazilian, for what that’s worth, and I broke my brain trying to talk to some Germans at breakfast one morning.
I had an utterly unsuccessful night photography session one evening on the roof of the Hotel Saratoga with another Canadian and have nothing to show for it, but the view over the ruined capitol building that replicates the US Congress was really eye-opening. Everything in Havana is cursed with trying to be someone else, whether it is America (Central Park, the shops on Fifth Avenue, the district of Los Angeles) or Spain (Paseo Prado is madrilleño although in contrast to Europe, the lions are black). Where Havana shines is in the small things, such as the feeling of walking home every day from the bus stop past the same guys playing the same domino game they must have been playing since the revolution.
Individual days become indistinct in memory but I know I spent a reasonable amount of time at all the hotels that claim to have invented a cocktail: mojitos at the Nacional, a Cuba Libre by the pool at the Cohíba Melia in Vedado. At the Hotel Nacional I decided that my new favorite song is Dos Gardenias Para Ti, as long as it is being sung by a honey-voiced Cuban backed by two guitarists and who does his own percussion. I also saw people with brand-name Coca-Colas despite the bloqueo so I’m not really sure how that happens, but given the broad-daylight nature of the black market here, I am not too shocked. Semi-licensed “shops” at the bottom of every stairwell along Máximo Gómez sell pipe fittings, paintbrushes, and endless cakes to a bustling trade, in contrast to the deserted 24-hour bread bakeries on the same block that require a ration card–I was there later in the month, when nobody technically had any rations left and so had to shop at their friends’ places rather than the government storehouse.
One morning I was on the bus out to the Christopher Columbus Necropolis to buy a ticket to Varadero when I ran in to a fun Italian named Simone who was also traveling alone and lives in Canada, so we spent the day in Miramar comparing experiences and eating toasted ham and pickle sandwiches. He basically says that for all I bristle at Latin catcalls, at least they aren’t bringing me prostitutes all the time, which is apparently what happens to him. Later in the trip and after *much* trial and error I figured out that you can actually avoid like 90% of the “Ay, princesa” nonsense by stopping to chat with someone of your own choosing every half a block or so, buying a two-peso granizado from an entrepreneur or even just apologizing for jostling someone. My Cuban disguise that also helps is tall hair and Roman sandals. I recognize that I would fit in better if I had more bedazzled pink tank tops with saucy slogans or textured hooker stockings like Cuban woman apparently wear with official uniforms and sensible brogues, but I just can’t.
Another deterrent to awkward attention is buying a Juventud Rebelde or a Granma from a veteran–sure, they’re propaganda, but at least they are more detailed than CNN or whatever passes for mainstream Western media these days. I had a guy look embarrassed and qualify his comments about Obamacare as speaking in ignorance because he hadn’t read past the first 1,000 pages and come on. Also, a bici-taxi driver went out of his way to compliment me for not being a communist because I wasn’t staying in one of the official tourist hotels where the money goes straight to the government, so I’m not sure how well the state message is coming across anyway.
–Billboards at the Havana airport
I am actually absurdly proud of myself for pulling this latest one off. For Christmas 2013 I successfully arranged and executed a solo trip to Cuba, and I made it while Castro was still alive like I have always wanted. My adventure came despite several relevant life situations major and minor, right down to Fate’s last-ditch hurdle of the $87 cash payment for unspecified “fees” in order to board my flight in Nassau.
Zoe and Victor had sent their driver to the airport to pick me up but I had to push through the perimeter of the tourist handlers to get to him and his (gasoline-powered!) Peugeot because he is Cuban. I was immediately grateful for the ride when I saw the public Metrobus jam-packed, hip-to-hip with commuters, and then I arrived at the Cerro apartment in the middle of a 50th wedding anniversary celebration so they graciously and enthusiastically welcomed me in with rum and salsa dancing, what a joyous start.
From Monday onward I was on the move, walking untold miles through streets named after authors, poets, and commemorative revolutionary dates, zig zagging through Vieja, surviving on mostly mamay and beer after my astonishingly filling chorizo omelette breakfast every morning. There still are as many old Detroit-born automotive beauties here as the Godfather II would have you believe but anyone who didn’t learn to drive stick on the family Škoda won’t be as delighted by the rest of the Cold War-era treasures: Lada, Moskovitch, even the odd Trabant or Dacia. Fewer people smoke than I would have predicted but a non-negligible proportion of the ones who do light up fat stogies in front of the telecommunications center.
Havana is dirt cheap and lots of fun if you speak Spanish and pay the hell attention, although you can skip either of the above qualifications if you are from Miami. The first rule is obvious and much more important than in Mexico; the second means keep an eye to your purse and watch out for the parallel currencies because convertible pesos have 25x the value of national and the bills look similar; the exception is because I think people can sense a kindred spirit. More generally I would say that Havana is a cross between Manila and Oakland or something, because it’s superficial and unfair to say that it is “like Miami” since the material ethos is so different. That being said, well, Marielitos and property refugees from the fifties do their best to make Calle Ocho just like home and vice versa. The dirty marble Art Deco buildings are in a catastrophic state of disrepair that makes Oakland look good but the underlying architecture is glorious and recalls precisely the era of Havana Nocturne, when the Mafia ran everything from the casinos on up as the bordello de los gringos.