Viva Cuba Libre!
Trip Start Dec 06, 2011
3Trip End Ongoing
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Yet Cuba is such a distinctive place, none of this provided me with an accurate sense of what I was in for. Cuba lives in an alternate universe, trapped in a time warp. The experience of being there was indescribably different as compared to anything I´d previously known or even considered. And because of the unique unfamiliarity and challenges, every day truly felt like an adventure. Which was of course, exactly the quality of experience I was looking for.
I was continually fascinated and tremendously inspired, despite being frequently hassled, regularly hustled (in ways I'd never before imagined!) and deprived of so many basic comforts and conveniences I normally take for granted
Towards the end I even managed to lose myself a bit. This was disorienting of course, but also exactly what I needed. Sometimes we find our selves by losing our selves.
I was in Cuba for approximately six weeks and I probably would have stayed longer if my attitude hadn´t started breaking down and/or if money and further travel plans were less of a concern. Despite my intense fascination, Cuba´s just not an easy place to be. It's extremely difficult to transact any kind of business there*. Managing my money and making arrangements for travel beyond Cuba was nearly impossible. Also, hustling is so rife that it´s a constant battle to resist tricks and come-ons. Even among people with whom I otherwise had lots in common (for example a Cuban psychologist that I met in Baracoa) the relationships I experienced were almost always encumbered by the incomprehensibly vast economic gulfs between us.**
I was able to use the Internet in Cuba, but my opportunities to do so were few and far between, expensive and slow.*** That´s part of why this blog entry is coming so well after the fact and in such a huge agglomeration. But it´s also part of the reason Cuba was so enchanting and absorbing to me. Part of the strength of the culture there is due to how isolated Cubans are from the rest of the world (the vast majority of Cubans have never used the Internet as we know it) and the fact that their day-to-day manner of relating (even among educated professionals) has yet to be really affected by the information technology revolution
Christmas (or the lack thereof)
I started my trip in Havana, arriving there from Cartagena (via Panama City) on midnight Christmas Eve. So my first day in Cuba was Christmas day. I walked all around the city (literally hours and hours of walking) out of curiosity (and sheer fascination) and just to get my bearings. I like to do that when I get to a new place. Walking around Havana I saw practically no evidence a major holiday was occurring. Those of you who know me well, can imagine how much I appreciated this. Turns out Christmas is a very low key affair in Cuba, and many Cubans don´t even celebrate it. This makes sense when you think about it. Religion has been de-emphasized by the political system for many decades and there is virtually no consumer culture (and no economy to support one). Also, the religion that seemed more fervently (and perhaps more widely) practiced in Cuba is not Christianity, but rather Santeria (read the caption of my photo from the Santeria gallery for more on this). So the basic premises of the contemporary Christmas holiday as we know it in the U.S., have little traction or relevance there.
Vedado and my ¨black family¨ in La Habana
I stayed with a family in the Vedado neighborhood for the entirety of my first jaunt through Havana, which was about a week. This family is the parents, sister and nephew of a friend of mine in Portland, Eduardo, who emigrated (via raft and refugee camps!) from Cuba to the U.S
The Vedado neighborhood where Eduardo´s family lives is filled with crumbling old 19th century mansions, fading art deco buildings, leafy tree-lined boulevards, the main campus of the University of Havana, lots of theaters, an excellent contemporary art gallery, and several phenomenal jazz clubs. The family was especially gracious and hospitable towards me. In addition to preparing meals and helping with my laundry, they generally were looking out for me. Dolores, Eduardo´s mother, was especially open in sharing with me about their lives and seemed genuinely interested in knowing me. I think I may have reminded her of her son, whom she misses dearly. Overall the time spent with them in their home helped immensely to orient me to life in Cuba, and reminded me of what it´s like to be taken care of by a loving family. Shortly before I left (the second time), offering my final goodbyes, Dolores joked that I now have family in Havana, my ¨black family¨ as it were. It was pretty funny and we both chuckled.
Every morning I left their house to begin my explorations of the city. Typically, no matter what I´d had in mind, the day would just end up taking on a momentum and direction of it´s own. So I quickly came to understand that trying to make too many plans in Cuba is an exercise in futility
Dolores explained to me how to take the inexpensive and fun (for me anyway) taxi collectivos around town. I probably never would have figured this out on my own. This way I could get around Havana for approximately 1/10th of the price of private taxis. And it was always a more interesting ride since I´d be sharing the car with other passengers from all walks of Havana life. The tricky thing, which I never totally mastered, was understanding the routes and how to effectively identify and flag down these taxis. Like a lot of things in Cuba, there´s a certain degree of anarchy to the way this all works. Most of these taxis are unmarked, the routes are informal and the schedules totally arbitrary. Essentially it´s a semi-organized form of urban hitchhiking. Yet for me it was one of the most convenient and satisfying forms of transportation ever.
Most of the taxi collectivos in Havana are American cars from the 1950´s that have somehow been maintained (without access to American made replacement parts since at least 1962!) to the point where they still manage to get around
I ended up staying with families everywhere I went in Cuba, with the exception of the floating hotel I stayed at during the week long scuba diving expedition (see below). Aside from my ¨black family¨ in Havana, everywhere else I stayed was a registered ¨casa particular¨. This phrase translated just means ¨private home¨. The casa particular system in Cuba is a very regulated and somewhat predictable experience, despite all the idiosyncrasies of families and their homes. It costs about $20-$25 per night to rent a room in a casa particular, and I found them all to be reasonably comfortable and secure
I felt so thoroughly welcomed by the casa particular families, that after just a day or two in their homes, I would start to feel like an adjunct family member, or at the very least, a family friend. Goodbyes were often sentimental.
Central Havana is an extremely dense crumbling mess of attached two to four story buildings, mostly in high rococo architectural style, the facades painted with bright tropical colors, though most of them are almost completely faded. It's mostly a residential area, but there are several major commercial thoroughfares, a small Chinatown, and a large hospital campus. I was completely in awe as I first entered this neighborhood by foot from the Malecon (the storied boulevard that follows the seawall wrapping around the north side of Havana) on Christmas day. Walking down the narrow, largely pedestrian streets, the architecture is uniquely compelling, but even more so, the street life. Six weeks later, on my last night in Cuba, I was still awed by the intensity radiating throughout this neighborhood
The streets are teeming with life, kids playing ¨baseball¨ with wooden sticks and wadded up`pieces of plastic, men playing dominoes on card tables, people of all ages just hanging out, listening to music, checking each other out, fixing and washing cars, little stands selling whatever, lots of random stuff... one day I saw a fisherman just back from the Malecon walking around in snorkel gear holding several freshly caught fish on his hooks. The car traffic there is mostly limited to a few main thoroughfares, so pedestrians have only to compete with the bicitaxis (just like it sounds) and the occasional horse drawn carriages or mule drawn cart.
El Patio De Egrem
A stroke of incredibly good luck led me to an amazing hole in the wall live music venue in Central Havana on my first full day in the country. The place is called El Patio De Egrem, and I could have easily missed it were it not for the happenstance good fortune of walking down
the right block in the right neighborhood at the right time. El Patio is a neighborhood venue, connected to the country´s largest music production company, Egrem. Album covers (vinyl) adorn the walls behind the performance stage, showcasing Egrem´s phenomenally varied offerings over the past decades. The place is frequented mostly by locals, including many local musicians, (and some tourists who are especially lucky or in-the-know) and was created to showcase lessor known local acts and to preserve the traditional music that is slowly but surely giving way to more modern styles like reggaeton and dancehall. The cover to get in to El Patio for a show is charged in national pesos****, the equivalent of about 80 cents
I had lots of opportunities to explore the wonders of the music performed there nightly. By my second or third night I had made friends there, found a dance teacher, and even jammed a bit with some musicians (this was a humbling experience, an rough initiation of sorts, but fortunately I was able to have much more satisfying musical exchanges later on in my trip--see ¨my Ry Cooder moment¨ video below). I was deeply moved by the earnestness, variety, distinctiveness and the intense heart and soul of the music I saw at El Patio. Witness some of
the videos I have posted below. I remember feeling heartened to the point of tears by what I perceived as a near total lack of pretense or divisiveness within the music scene there, and a shared sense that music is essential to life, worth even taking substantial personal
When I returned to Havana several weeks later in my trip, my friends from El Patio threw me a birthday party in one of their homes right around the corner. This was a full-on party with a whole roasted pork leg, lots of rum and beer, cake, salads, and dancing, dancing, dancing (see photo and video below)
Jardines De La Reina
After a week in Havana, I went on a week long scuba diving expedition, in an archipelago (try pronouncing that word in Spanish!) called Jardines De La Reina, several hours boat ride south off the Southern Coast of Cuba. This massive archipelago is made up of hundreds of tiny coral islands, mostly covered by mangrove forests. I had made arrangements on-line for this expedition before I arrived in Cuba through an Italian tour company as I had read that it was a very special place and well worth the splurge. And indeed it was.
Jardines De La Reina has been a protected bio-reserve for several decades and it´s far enough away from any commercial development (or history of commercial development), that it´s ecosystems remain remarkably intact This particular tour group is the only one allowed to bring divers or fisherman (catch and release) into the area, and they never have more than about 25 people out there at a time (it´s a vast area). It´s known to be a thriving habitat for Caribbean Reef Sharks and Silky Sharks, and as such is one of the best places in the world to scuba dive if you want to get up close and personal with sharks. I didn´t really know about the sharks when I signed up, just that the reefs were unusually pristine and teeming with wildlife
I stayed there on a floating hotel called La Tortuga (The Turtle) for about a week, diving pretty much everyday with two excellent Cuban guides and a varied group of European diving enthusiasts. Despite having previously completed an advance diving certification course, I was definitely the novice diver within the group. And the only one who didn´t bring underwater photography equipment. Fortunately, one of the other divers, Jonathan, burned me a disk with some of the photos he took. I´ve posted a few of them here. The food on La Tortuga was excellent, fresh caught seafood (including lobster) everyday. Though the actual diving involved lots of physical discomfort, I otherwise felt pampered all week. In that sense, the week on La Tortuga was a completely different kind of experience as compared to the rest
of my time in Cuba.
El Parte Oriente
After the diving excursion, I headed to the eastern tip of the island, to the capital city there, Santiago De Cuba, which is considered Cuba´s second city after Havana. I traveled by land, so I got a bit of a sense of what the interior of the island is like. The roads are pretty empty of passenger vehicles. Along with some buses and trucks jam packed with passengers and one very slow rail line, bicycle and horse drawn carriage and mule drawn carts are the main forms of transport. The landscape is mostly dominated by agriculture, but nothing like the massive export farms I´ve seen in Central America, and with very few cow pastures
Santiago itself is much smaller than Havana, much less developed, and has a distinct personality, much more provincial and ¨Caribbean¨. Five minutes outside the city center there are pigs, horses, goats, etc... clogging the road. The people are more African, many with Haitian and Jamaican ancestry. Th city´s history and culture is dynamically rich and integral to the country. Santiago (and more generally, the eastern part of the island--El Parte Oriente) is known as the birthplace of Son (the most well-known and influential of Cuban music--Buena Vista Social Club is the most famous example), generally the place where most Afro-Cuban music forms originated, and a historical hotbed of revolutionary activity. It´s a very distinct vibe there as compared to Havana. If you think about some of the regional differences in the U.S. (compare New Orleans to Washington D.C. for example) you start to get the idea.
Santiagueros (people from Santiago) and Habaneros (people from Havana) have a longstanding (centuries) rivalry and mistrust towards one another. Most Santiagueros will tell you straight up that they don´t like Havana or people from there. They perceive Habaneros as cold and arrogant. And they will look askance at you if you suggest otherwise
Santiago is a hilly town surrounded by a bay and the Sierra Maestra mountains. The setting is spectacular, but the city itself is very decrepit and underdeveloped economically. I stayed in a neighborhood called Tivoli, close to the center of town. This was a part of town that had seen better days for sure, but just as in Centro Habana, I was totally fascinated by what I found in Tivoli. I tried to capture the quality of the neighborhood with photographs and video but I think for me that was an impossible task. But I've included a few here anyway. The street life in Tivoli was so profoundly compelling to me from the moment I arrived. Everyday, I´d be walking down the street there and I´d witness something that struck me as truly incredible (and often quite beautiful), but for the locals it was just a regular everyday normal kind of occurrence.
When I returned to Havana after spending time in Santiago, I actually experienced some culture shock. Havana seemed huge, wealthy, modern, and cosmopolitan by comparison
Almost immediately after I left Santiago I knew I wanted to return to El Parte Oriente. The friends I made there, the music, the other places on the eastern side of the island that I heard so much about but didn´t have time to visit... the whole thing really, I just wanted more of it. But I had to go all the way back to Havana first to extend my tourist visa and to make arrangements with the airline to push back my exit flight a few more weeks. I could have perhaps tried to accomplish these tasks in Santiago, but the officials I dealt with there were so incredibly unhelpful that I couldn´t imagine succeeding, particularly without having to resort to bribery. Ironic perhaps, but this fact (that I couldn´t hardly accomplish any basic business in Santiago) pretty much affirms the Habanero view that Santiago is a backwater place. So I guess both the Santiagueros and the Habaneros are at least partially correct in their views of one another!
Casa De Las Tradiciones
This was my main evening hangout in Santiago
Yanela introduced me to other interesting people in the Tivoli neighborhood, such as Lazaro, ¨El Padrino De Los Creencias¨ (see photos below w/ captions), who shared with me some of his uniquely Cuban spiritual practices. Yoanys, who blew me away with his tres playing one of the first nights I was there, ended up teaching me some basics on the tres, jammed with me a few times, and invited me out to his family home outside the city.
During my second swing through Santiago I made it out to Yoanys´s house and spent most of the day with his family and some friends. His wife and mother-in-law prepared fresh fruit drinks (from a maracuya tree in their yard) and a surprisingly tasty ¨libreta¨******lunch for us. He also cut down a fresh coconut from his yard for us to share. They were such incredibly gracious hosts. We talked about all kinds of stuff, comparing our respective lives--which are so incredibly different, and yet it was somehow so incredibly easy for me to relate to Yoanys and his wife (she´s a history teacher).
Yoanys showed me the machine he devised to manufacture his own guitar/tres strings
Baracoa and Guantanamo
When I returned to El Parte Oriente I did so with an agenda to visit these two towns as well as to revisit Santiago. Baracoa is the oldest town in Cuba. Christopher Columbus landed there. Up until the last few decades it was completely isolated from the rest of the island due to its geography (its completely surrounded by mountains and ocean) and lack of infrastructure development. It's still a tough place to travel to and from, especially without a private vehicle. I managed to pull it off, but making the arrangements was a real pain. The town itself is not exceptional in terms of architecture or specific attractions, but it has a distinct feel and a unique culture (music forms, attitude, colloquialisms, etc...) and the setting is absolutely stunning. The surrounding areas are divine with remote beaches, little fishing villages, jungle covered mountains, pristine river valleys, etc..
Like just everywhere else in Cuba, I met some super friendly and easily relatable people in Baracoa too. One was a Cuban psychologist named Yoandriz who was doing his 3rd year clinical placement in Baracoa. He is from the town of Guantanamo, which is about a 3 to 4 hour drive southwest from there. Like many Cuban men I met, Yoandriz was obsessed with women and sex,
particularly with foreign women... so we had lots to talk about and
compare notes in that dept. too. We went to the beach together during the day a couple of times and also went out dancing at night (literally dancing in the streets... the whole center of town is one big party on Saturday nights). He oriented me to life in Baracoa and tried his very best to school me in the Cuban art of seduction (or at least his version of it... to which I was actually quite resistant) while frequently prompting me for assistance and tips in dealing foreign (mostly European) women.
Yoandriz invited me to visit the clinic where he works and I managed to make it out there before I left town
while I was in the clinic, I showed them to Yoandriz and the other
psychologists there... they seemed pretty blown away by the relative
opulence of my office furnishings. It´s incredible how much we take for
granted in the U.S..
Though it's nearby, the Cuban town of Guantanamo has no other real connection with the U.S. military base and infamous illegal prison of the same name. These two Guantanamo's exist in two completely separate universes. The Cuban town of Guantanamo is a sleepy provincial capitol with a university and a rich folkloric music and dance tradition. Changui music (see photos and videos with captions below) comes from the region and there is a museum in town dedicated to it as well as several live music venues right in the center of town
I chose to visit Guantanamo for several distinct reasons, the first of which was that virtually no tourists go there (there's no particular draw there other than perhaps the Changui museum, but most tourists don't dig that deep into Cuban music), and I very much wanted to experience a Cuban town free of the tourist/hustler dynamic endemic pretty much everywhere else I'd been (by this point in my trip I was completely fed up with it). Also, Yoandriz had invited me there to meet his family, visit his home, and attend the birthday party of his baby niece. Last but not least, the mother from the casa particular where I stayed in Baracoa, had suggested I meet her younger sister who is living in Guantanamo with their aunt, preparing to study medicine.
I'm not sure how to best characterize the time I spent in Guantanamo. I was only there for a couple of days, but the combination of variables I was dealing with while there made for some of the most memorable experiences, as well as some of the most awkward and discomforting. If you want to know the whole story, just ask me sometime one on one and I'll tell you all about it!
A very frequent topic of conversation in Cuba
Yet, the Cuban system is clearly very flawed and aspects seem totally unsustainable. The lack of civil liberties and independent press is disturbing and the economy is pretty much a disaster for most Cubans. Of course, the ongoing efforts by the United States to subvert the Cuban government is at least partially responsible for all these problems
The economy in particular is very weak and very distorted in Cuba, and most people there seem to understand this. Also that the government is corrupt, inefficient, and outright repressive at times. Yet, from what I observed, the popular mindset does not generally imagine U.S. style capitalism or democracy as the answer for Cuba. Many Cubans seem to truly respect the system and appreciate its strengths. They understand that their cities are safer than most all others in the Americas*******, that their social welfare system is more generous and more stable as compared to much of the developing world (and thus the majority of their citizenry healthier and more educated) and that their fundamental cultural strengths (arts, music, sports, etc..) remain remarkably intact, not in the least because of government support and a lack of corrosive outside influences. Many Cubans are proud of the revolution´s accomplishments and
they rightly understand that Cuba is respected throughout the world for effectively resisting and speaking out against U.S. governmental hypocrisy and foreign policy aggression. A cynic would say, the government propaganda has worked... I think it´s quite a bit more complicated.
I´ve been writing this essay for about a month, since a couple of days after I got back to Colombia
* I had to accumulate Euro cash in Cartagena beforehand to bring with me for travel expenses there. Dollar (cash) is accepted at Cuban currency exchanges, but a 10% tax is levied. U.S. bank based credit and debit cards (and travelers checks) are not accepted anywhere in Cuba. This is not due to Cuban policy, but rather that of the U.S. government, which blocks U.S. based financial institutions (and most all other businesses and individuals) from transacting business with Cuba. Additionally, I was unable to check any of my banking information on-line while there because of the blockade. Apparently the Internet servers of my credit union and bank could accurately detect that I was attempting to log on via Cuban Internet servers. There is no Skype in Cuba or collect phone calls to the U.S. and so contacting my bank or the airlines, or anything like that, was cost prohibitive.
** The salary for a full time medical doctor in Cuba is $30 a month. Yes, $30 per month. A teacher makes about $20, a construction worker $14. The psychologist I became acquainted with was making $18. So, successfully befriending (or tricking) generous (or naive) foreigners is understandably viewed by many Cubans as one of the only viable paths towards economic opportunity
As compared to much of the world´s population, Cubans have a social security net to cover the barest of essentials (basic shelter, minimal nutritional needs, education, health care, etc...), but beyond that, it´s a daily struggle for most and there's a profound lack of economic opportunity, regardless of education level or motivation. I have traveled in resource poor, underdeveloped countries before. The difference in Cuba for me was that many of the people I met who were materially so bereft, barely scraping by and lacking in things that you and I could not imagine living without, were professionals or highly literate people
***Most Cubans do not have access to the Internet and the country sorely lacks the needed infrastructure to change that. Most Cubans do not even have an email address. And those that do, generally have access only to an ¨intranet¨, not the Internet as we know it.
Actually, the situation with the Internet in Cuba is very instructive as to how U.S. and Cuban politics collide to undermine freedoms and opportunities for Cubans and to create near total obfuscation of the truth. Most Americans would probably consider the fact that its illegal for Cubans to have Internet in their houses (and totally unaffordable for them to use elsewhere when and where it´s even available) as clear evidence of the country´s political repression and lack of civic liberties
The U.S. has been waging relentless economic warfare against Cuba for 50+ years, doing what it can to block any and all business between Cuba and the rest of the world. In the case of the Internet, U.S. based (or U.S. partnered) multinational corporations own the vast majority of existing fiber optic cables underneath the Caribbean Sea. As such, these companies are blocked by U.S. law (enforced by levying massive fines and denying access to U.S. business opportunities) from doing business with Cuba. Access to this underwater cable infrastructure is necessary in order for Cuba to have adequate bandwidth available to provide a decent functioning Internet for it´s citizens. So Cuba is severely handicapped in this way and the ban on home Internet use reflects the governments efforts to manage this as much as any agenda to curtail freedom of information.
****Cuba has two currencies and thus two parallel economies. The ¨peso convertible¨ and the ¨peso national¨. The convertible peso is worth 25x the national peso and is the currency for tourism, foreign exchange, and for purchasing any kind of luxury or consumer good. I carried both currencies, and occasionally I had the opportunity to purchase goods and services with the national peso
*****On Wednesday nights there is Trova (and Nueva Trova) music at El Patio. It´s an open mike type jam, but it attracts incredibly talented and some very well known Trovadores from around Havana. This music, though distinctly Cuban, is best compared to folk rock or protest music. Many of the lyrical themes are subversive/ critical of the government. Yet to be openly critical of the government in Cuba is take on personal risk, because there is really no political freedom or freedom of speech in Cuba. So there is the genuine possibility of being harassed or arrested by the authorities for making this sort of music. Obviously I didn´t understand most of the lyrics or the context for them, but the music just felt particularly valiant to me.
******La Libreta is the name of the food ration booklet that all Cuban
households get and most use for the basics
scarce for many Cubans and the ration booklet helps them get through the
month without having to contend with much outright hunger. The book basically entitles them (for
free or incredibly cheap) to a couple weeks worth of rice, beans, flour,
eggs, sugar, bread rolls, and soy-based ¨meat¨ products.
*****In terms of violent crime, the cities in Cuba are about as safe as any in the world. Or at least that is the shared perception of both locals and visitors alike. I believe it. I felt a distinct lack of violent menace the whole time I was in the country. The cities are extremely poorly lit at night, but I never felt fundamentally unsafe walking anywhere at any time. I could only compare it to my experiences in Japan in this regard. Non-violent petty crime is fairly rampant though, as well as corruption and all types of trickery and hustling. But there´s no guns and little or no drug culture with it´s associated violence, which is pretty amazing when you consider it´s geographical location.