Wednesday, April 26, 2006

March 29 - April 9

Unfortunately, it’s been almost a month since my last update. While a lot of interesting things have happened, my lack of initiative to put them down to paper means some of them have been filed away into the part of my brain that will only remember them at some random time in the future; the others I will recount now.
While Cuba ended up losing to Japan in the World Baseball Classic Finals (as a sidenote, I’ve never seen a baseball team play with the odd style that the Japanese team did, but obviously it beat out our Western style), they were given a hero’s welcome home. A half-mile long procession of all the players, coaches, and trainers wound its way through Havana, with people lining the streets the whole way. They ended up at the main sports stadium where they were received by a cultural celebration and then given commemorative bats by Fidel. One of the things that struck me about this whole ordeal was the scale of the production: who organizes these large receptions and what will go into them? This celebration for the baseball team was a bit more than your typical tickertape parade, and lasted for over two hours (broadcast live on TV). The Communists here are very much into their pomp, and this certainly lived up to it.
I watched the parade procession for a while and then realized that it would hit the Malecon at some point - and why should I sit around and watch it when I can be there in five minutes? So Scott, Valerie, Alex, and I all hauled down the six blocks to the Malecon and watched the parade pass by in person. I took some great pictures of the beaming players as they passed by, as I remembered that some of these athletes are recent graduates of the sports universities and despite their sudden celebrity status from the Classic, they’re considered the same as any other Cuban.
Every time we attend one of these state-sponsored festivities, I can’t help but get a warm feeling that even if things aren’t superb as far as standards of living, the people of Cuba band together under their national identity and get to collectively take pride in a success del pueblo in a way that most people in the US couldn’t even begin to comprehend (though we Texans have a pretty good idea of how being so proud feels).
One afternoon with El Profe, we went to Regla, across Havana Bay, for the novelty of the ferry ride. On the way back to Havana, a girl asked me gruffly if I was interested in two of her friends, and I apathetically replied in the affirmative, having had my fair share of jineterismo the past weekend in Santiago and not wishing to be bothered by prostitutes at that point in time. A kid on the ferry noticed that this girl kept trying to get my attention, and shared his concern that the woman was actually a man. We got off the boat before them and turned around to ogle, and while the two prostitutes were definitely women, the boss was undoubtedly a man, dressed in Capri pants, a bandana over the head, a tight tank-top, and some heels. The lack of breasts, the deep voice, and the over-exaggerated walk gave it away however.
This led to an interesting discussion about transvestites and transsexuals in Cuba. Cuevas informed me that after a consultation with a sexologist at one of the many government sex clinics, those approved can receive a state-provided sex change, free of charge. Now while the moral-conservatives in the States might condemn the state-sponsorship of sex changes as some perverted endorsement of unhealthy social behavior, I feel that this is a great example of the progressive attitude that is permeating the Cuban government. To me it seems that the government is aware that there is extra pressure to look good internationally and internally when it runs the risk of stagnating after almost fifty years. Examples of this attitude abound: Cuba has come to embrace the youth rap scene wholeheartedly; homophobia is almost non-existent when compared to the US; and the government recognizes and helps the transsexual community.
Sometimes, however, the government approach, when faced with new and difficult problems, is unorthodox and perhaps a little rough. Take Cuba’s approach to the burgeoning AIDS issue in the 80s. Fairly quickly, sanatoriums were set up in certain locations throughout the country, and those seen as high-risk sexually active adults or admittedly HIV positive individuals were interred into these glorified quarantine camps. This practice is one of the government programs that have been criticized as violating human rights. The moral dilemma arrives from the belief that Cuba would have had a rampant AIDS problem had they not forced certain residents into these sanatoriums. While some citizens who were admitted were discriminately stereotyped based on paranoid criteria, the question remains: At what cost do you suspend certain rights in order to protect the whole of the population from an unknown threat? Obviously, these same questions have been asked within the US government of late, though in a different context.
Travel in Cuba is a strange beast. As I’ve mentioned before, as students in Cuba we occupy a strange space between tourists and residents. We carry two different IDs, our Cuban-issued temporary resident ID and our US passports. The former theoretically allows us to gain access to Cuban prices and Cuban opportunities that most travelers in Cuba do not enjoy. The problem is that along with those much cheaper prices (for instance, a $40MN Cuban bus ticket – which converts to $1.60CUC - compared to a $40CUC tourist ticket on the same air-con bus) comes all the difficulties of living as a Cuban. To reserve tickets at these prices, you must place the reservations exactly 15 days before you intend to travel. Otherwise, you can get onto the waiting list, which is a first come first serve situation depending on the space still available on each incoming bus. This list, however, can vary from several hours (within two hours of waiting in Matanzas, a city two hours away from Havana, I bought a $7MN ticket on a new air-con bus), to several days (the bus station in Holguin had taken names on the waiting list up to 749, which meant a two or three day wait).
This system, therefore, works well for one-way-bound Cubans, not for weekend traveling students that must get back before classes begin again on Monday. You may be lucky enough to have a short waitlist to your destination, or perhaps you planned in advance enough to reserve tickets fifteen days in advance. But once you arrive at your destination and the time to come home is at hand, your options become limited to an expensive en divisa tourist ticket or a private taxi whose driver ironically asks you to tell the police if he is stopped that you paid in moneda nacional, not the less-expensive-than-the-bus-but-still-at-least-half-the-cost convertibles that you actually pay in. The latter is often less comfortable but more convenient and cheaper, while the bus is usually more comfortable and always a sure bet, though more expensive and running on a schedule.
A case in point of the difficulties of travel, the citizenship of students, and the attitudes in Cuba was our attempted trip to Isla de la Juventud. We had only heard of one way to get to Isla: reserve the trip 15 days in advance for $30MN, or pay $35CUC the day before. Both options included an air-con bus to Batabano and then the ferry ride to the actual island. Considering we didn’t have 15 days to plan, nor did we want to pay $35CUC to have it prearranged, we decided we would get to Batabano ourselves, and then buy a ferry ticket separately.
We arranged a private taxi to Batabano, the port city on the Caribbean side south of Havana, for $10 a person. Scott, Valerie, Danielle, Diana, and I made the trip squished into the backseat of the car. We arrived at Batabano at 11AM only to find out that the two ferries leave at 2:30 and 6:30 in the afternoon. Where the actual ferry landed was about 300 yards away from the control point, so we were forced to wait outside of the gate. We talked with the security guards about how we would be able to buy ferry tickets, and were told that once it was determined how many free seats were available that we would be first in line to purchase those. To make a very long story short – every hour we would check to see how things were looking, and the story kept changing: first we would have to wait for the first seats to open up; then we were supposed to wait for the first three buses carrying the people who paid for the bus and ferry ticket; then it ended up we were just going to have to hope that something was open. No seats ever opened up; six buses, instead of three, showed up; and our hope for anything at all was dashed by a rude security guard who at one point declared that we could call anyone, including Fidel, and no one would be able to change the situation. Later he sarcastically told us to go complain to our embassy.
Getting fed up with the guard not helping us out, I took an opportunity when he was looking away to walk through the gate and towards the ferry landing. I got about 100 yards before they started yelling at me to come back. One of the guards made a motion at me of alternately clasping a hand on a wrist – I think he meant he’d arrest me if I didn’t come back. After exchanging some nasty words, I realized that we had no hope of getting on the ferry, so we booked it back to Havana for another $10 at 6:30PM. In other words, I spent $20, 7 hours, and a lot of frustration for nothing. But Cuba no es facil.
Fun fact: When Cubans say something like "Todo el mundo piensa que…" ("The whole world thinks that…"), they really just mean all of Cuba – the frame of reference for everyone in life doesn’t really extend past the coast of Cuba. Their patria is the whole world.
Sometimes I’m afraid that I come off sounding like Cuba is just frustration after rip-off after confusion. That’s true – but it’s still a great time and I love it. Our trip to Santiago was no different.
Originally, we were supposed to travel by Cubana airlines, since we had the money in our program to afford it, and it’s a 16 hour drive by bus. There were doubts, however, considering Cubana has the worst flight record of any in the world. The change came when the UNC students decided that they wanted to come as well, although they couldn’t afford the cost of an airline ticket. So instead of four hours of traveling and almost three days in Santiago, we had two days of travel, and less than 48 hours in Santiago to accommodate the others. But apparently we saved a couple hundred of dollars that probably won’t get kicked back to us since we didn’t pay out of pocket.
The bus was hellacious. It was freezing cold, and for the whole overnight trip, loud salsa and reggaeton music blared over the speakers. It was proposed that the explanation for the cold was that because Cubans so seldom do get to enjoy a large air-con bus, they want to get the most of it. It’s as if you find a big case of Girl Scout cookies, but you have to be somewhere in five minutes. Well of course you’re going to eat as many cookies as you can before your time is up, even if it’s unhealthy and uncomfortable. Such was the temperature on the bus.
When it rolled around to 10PM on the bus, Scott and I politely asked the bus driver if he could turn down the music so some of us could sleep. The bus driver said he would, but then didn’t. Once again, we asked him to turn it down, and so he did, but hardly enough to make a difference. He came back to ask us if it was ok, and acted appalled that we had asked for the music to be turned down when Scott was listening to his iPod. We had to explain that even with headphones on, it was still possible to hear the music, and I went so far as to say that I can’t even think to myself because the music was so loud. Well, of course, at this point, the music stayed at the exact same level and we tried our best to ignore it.
To make the whole bus situation even better, we had an annoyingly over-the-top sleazeball tour guide who overused his rape whistle to call everyone’s attention to get back on the bus. By the end of the trip, everyone was fantasizing about shoving the whistle down his throat.
Just so I don’t go on complaining unnecessarily, here’s a quick list of other ways we got hustled:
A bicitaxi driver took us to a restaurant that was closed, then to a private restaurant that was overly expensive, received a finder’s fee from the proprietors, and then charged us $10 for the trip, when it would’ve normally been $2-5. I gave him the $10 and told him to choke on it.
Friday night, while drinking beers, we were told to leave the establishment if we weren’t going to order any food, despite the fact that A) we had already ordered 10 beers between 5 people, more than the cost of a plate of food, and B) the sign outside said that we were in a bar, which I assumed to mean that you can just drink, if you’re so inclined, and not be required to buy anything.
Saturday night, without any hindsight, we ate at the same restaurant, and argued for 30 minutes about the prices on the check. The waitress had decided that when we had asked for a certain plate, that she would instead give some of us the 3-course option with it, forget some of our side orders entirely, and change what came with the plate to her own accord. The bill, however, said we had each ordered the most expensive, 3-course option. We won out in the end, but we left our good moods as the tip and walked out in a terrible mood.
Onto the fun parts: Friday night, Diana and I ate at a very nice, inexpensive restaurant and had a fun day visiting the rum museum. Because of the difference in cost between the plane and the bus, we were able to stay in the Casa Granda, the best hotel in Santiago, where we enjoyed hot showers, a real breakfast buffet, and American TV. Diana and I spent a good amount of time watching Rudy on HBO and NCAA Final Four games.
Friday night, we also ended up hanging out with a bunch of Santiagueros, drinking beers, moving from bar to bar, and singing songs. I ended up trading my shirt with one of the Cubans, which I think has been my best transaction here in Cuba so far.
Saturday, we visited Castillo de San Pedro de Morro, one of the first castles in Cuba. The grandeur of this castle was actually pretty breathtaking, and I saw my first two iguanas here.
The city itself is very pretty, with some of the oldest buildings in Cuba. Santiago was the second capital of Cuba before the Spanish government was moved to Havana, and the Sierra Maestra surrounding Santiago, as well as the city itself, served as the starting ground for the Revolucion with the attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, 7 years before the second leg of the Revolution began. Fidel delivered his "history will absolve me" speech in court in Santiago, and when he, Che, and Camilo Cienfuegos restarted the Revolution in 1956, the people of Santiago drew attention away from their entry by starting a rebellion.
However, besides the museums, the city reeked of jineterismo to me. Others on the trip loved it and had a much easier time of the city, but I unfortunately walked away completely uninterested in returning. Still, I have to take the bad with the good, and it wasn’t a complete blowout of a trip.
The following weekend improved quite a bit. We ended up taking a train from Havana to Camaguey, an old colonial town, and Cuba’s third largest city. For one, we wanted to try to visit the five largest cities in Cuba by the time we left, and for another, Diana’s Cuban boyfriend, Raydel, hails from Camaguey, and so we were invited to stay the weekend with his brother, mother, and grandparent’s in their house.
In one of our guidebooks, the travel time from Havana is listed at 7-10 hours, and unfortunately we landed on the long end of that estimate. Several "technical problems" occurred, and the train spent close to an hour not moving. Once again, the adage of "if it’s available, don’t just use, abuse it" came into play, as we all struggled to stay warm against the constant cold of the air conditioning. We also joked on the train about keeping a journal of how many times the smell of rancid urine wafted into our car from the bathrooms in the front: "9PM, somewhere outside of Matanzas – the smell of acrid urine hits my nose again."
Camaguey did the colonial thing well. Colorful houses, extravagant churches (even one with a catacomb), and incredibly kind and laidback people made for a great city. The fact that throughout the whole weekend I saw less than ten foreign travelers made for a welcome juxtaposition to Santiago’s hustler-laden tourist cesspool.
Raydel’s family was a lot of fun. We woke up together on Friday morning and made omelet sandwiches with tomato, ham, and cheese. Both he and his brother were referred to by friends and family as Nini and Jeje. We met his sister and her husband, who had an adorable child with bright blue eyes, and Friday night had a large family dinner with Raydel’s mother, stepfather, father, stepfather, brother, grandparents, and several friends. We talked about scholarship in the US versus Cuba, and his father agreed with me that what’s important above all is understanding the people: taking "clases de la calle".
Saturday, while Scott did his typical new-city walkabout and Diana, Jessica, and Valerie went with Raydel to tour some more of the city, I went with Nini and his friend to Playa Santa Lucia to enjoy the beach. The highlight for me was the snorkeling, as I not only saw conch shells, colorful fish, and barracuda, but I also saw a shark. In ten foot deep water, I saw in front of me a five foot long shark swimming diagonally away from me. I froze, and in an instant had about fifteen thoughts flash across my mind: How afraid should I be? Am I bleeding anywhere? Is it going to turn around and come for me? Should I try to get closer to it, since it seems to be going away from me?
Naturally, I answered yes to the last question, and finally saw in real life what they always tell you on the Discovery channel: one, that sharks really have no interest in humans, and two, that they are extremely fast. Within a few second of me pushing forward to get a better look, he was out of my vision. Admittedly, the rest of the time I snorkeled I was checking behind me to make sure that the shark wasn’t sneaking up behind me.
Saturday night, we decided to leave early after having an uneventful night. During the day, we had put down our names twice on a wait-list for the bus, thinking that if we missed it the first time around, we would be there the second. We decided to go at around midnight to see where it was, and regardless, be ready to wait. When we arrived, we found out that our group had missed our first chance by less than five names, and we weren’t scheduled to come around again for another hundred people. At that point, we decided to cut our losses and get a private taxi back to Havana. At 2AM, we rolled out in a brand new Volkswagen minivan. We realized a few klicks outside of Camaguey how fast the driver was going – he averaged 85MPH, sometimes getting up to 95MPH. The thing that made this even scarier was that for a long time we were driving through thick fog and rain. I took off my glasses and decided not to open my eyes until I got to Havana. Coincidentally, we got back home less than five hours after leaving Camaguey, and in less than half the time it took to travel the same distance by train.
I’ll bring this up-to-date in a few days. I apologize if the quality is lacking. Like I always say, if I kept up with it more often then I’d have less trouble remembering everything and be more apt to be profound. Que sera…

Monday, March 20, 2006

March 5th - 19th

Baseball fever is upon Cuba. Despite a nasty loss to Puerto Rio of 12-2, initiating mercy rules and ending the game early, we have watched Cuba win against great odds to advance to the final round of the World Baseball Classic. To me, Cuba deserves this honor. Any of the great players, such as El Duke, have been lured away by mountains of money to play in the US and would be utterly ignorant to even think of coming back to Cuba to play for the national team. Therefore, those representing Cuba are a hodgepodge of the best of the provincial teams, many from Havana's Industriales, others from Pinar del Rio, Cienfuegos, Santiago, and all over the country.

Cuba's line on sports is that "Deporte es el DERECHO del pueblo" – Sport is the right of the people. Professional sports do not exist in Cuba, and in that sense, all of the national team is amateur. The oldest player is in his early 30s, and for many of these youngsters, this is the first time they have played against another national team, let alone the first time they have traveled out of Cuba. I have heard that part of their desire to win has been the promises made by Fidel – new cars, new houses, extra rations, and a little monetary bonus. This made me ask on the other hand of what would happen if Cuba were to lose: since the games have been in Puerto Rico and now California, would any of the players claim asylum in the face of defeat? Many of the Cubans believe so.

Our investment in the Cuban team as Americans has really shown how much we're part of Cuba now. I realized this twice in the past two weeks. First, on Tuesday night, I had a dream that I had returned to AU directly after being in Cuba. I saw people I know who I hadn't seen in a while and who I don't particularly care for, so that was a bad start to my return to the US. I also realized in the dream that I felt like I had completely wasted my semester in Cuba and not taken advantage of everything that was available to me while I was there. As soon as I was back in the States I realized I wanted to be back in Cuba.

The second instance was simply thinking of the friends I've made here. We're all great friends with the security guards at our hotel: Nestor, Carlos, Alex, and Jose. For a moment, I thought about how difficult and sad it will be when we leave and potentially say good-bye forever to all these incredibly affable and accommodating friends. I made Professor Carreras sad a week before this realization when I told him that I had no clue when I'd be able to come back to Cuba and that it could be several years.

I have routines here, I know street vendors by face if not by name, I run into friends on the street, and I have a family of two dozen Americans and Cubans in our casita. It really is a difficult realization that your likelihood to return is based on your desire to flaunt the possibility of a $15,000 fine for breaking the law, the chances of Fidel dying and the Embargo being lifted, or whether or not you'll move on to study Cuba in graduate school and come back again. There's always a way to come back, but it's never as easy as any other country in the word, and that makes our time and friends here so much more precious than anywhere else.

Part of what has brought me more into more contact with the Cubans has been my guitar that I bought recently. I can't play much, and that I can comes from tablatures that I've found on the internet, but it's really relaxing to head down to the Malecon every other night or so to watch the sunset and play some Jimmy Buffet, Jack Johnson, or Sublime. Inevitably, someone stops by to listen, make a request that I can't grant, or just to chat. I met eight or so people in two nights, all of them amiable and enjoying the evening as simply as me. One was a music producer, another was a school teacher, and all were eager to ask me questions about the US and then share their gripes with Cuba. Eventually though, the desire to have fun conquers drab political conversations, and we share a beer or two, play some more music, and share stories.

Currently, our IR professor is on a three week tour of the Middle East. He told us that, like the Americans, Cubans have a hard time knowing all the –stan countries of the world: Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. So they have a joke that there's another country that is just as difficult to find on a map – Dondestan. For those that don't immediately pick up on the joke, Donde means "where", and Estan means "are", so the country of Dondestan roughly translates to "Where are they". A lame joke, I know, but I laughed at it.

We had two consecutive weeks of awesome classes at the Ludwig Foundation, where we study Cuban culture. We had a musicologist come and discuss the history and types of music in Cuba for the first week, and for the second week he came with two African dancers who demonstrated the Afro-Cuban styles of dance that still exist. It really opened my eyes to the African tradition of history through ritual and practice instead of written history, and planted the seed of desire to travel to Africa. As our musicologist said, every dance or festival in Cuba ends with the conga, when everyone joins in and throws their bodies into having a good time. It was a great way to end the class, and we all left with huge smiles on our faces.

Spring Break at AU gave time for Phillip Brenner, AU's Cuban specialist (and currently associate dean of the School of International Service) to come visit to see how AU's pilot group to Cuba was doing, as well as aid Ariana, our graduate assistant, in her research. His legend grew larger and more ridiculous before his arrival, as we drew pictures pitting him against UNC's Lou Perez in back-alley knife fights. I am one of two of us who have actually taken classes with Brenner, and unfortunately I had very little appreciative to say of him, other than he knows his subject well.

The thing that I realized when he got here, however, was that besides the history and politics of Cuba, he knows nothing about the country that he is a supposed expert in. He can't speak Spanish hardly at all, his knowledge of the culture doesn't extend much past the hem of his guayabera, and he commits social faux pas left and right. At a meeting between some of the top professors at the university, my friend Professor Carreras included, someone asked Brenner what he thought of Carreras. He said that Carreras is "loco", which is a huge mistake in Cuban culture. At the university, as I was told by Carreras, the only one who can be called El Loco is Fidel, ironically. I believe it stems from the belief that Fidel is the only one crazy enough to try the socialist experiment. Admittedly, I wouldn't know that to call someone El Loco is a bad thing, but I wouldn't be calling respectable people crazy to begin with.

This insight plays directly into my problems with scholarship and exposes much of it as a crock. It seems to me that social consciousness, cultural awareness, and the ability to speak another language is worth much more than the ability to recite the history of a nation five times over a class of college students that didn't even do the reading for that day or to write an analysis of political behavior based on some theory that's supposed to conveniently box groups of actions together for a scholarly journal.

What made things worse was that Brenner had come to the conclusion that we were all disenfranchised with Cuba and were surprisingly to the right when it came to Cuban-US relations. The problem is that these conclusions were drawn after a two hour breakfast the day after he arrived, and the little time he heard our opinions at the US Interest Section chief's personal residence. Then, rather than have a nice, intelligent discussion with us, he instead shared these feelings with Ariana. Furthermore, his graduate assistant, Marguerite, commented that she hoped that her group (since she'll be heading the next AU group) would be happy about being in Cuba. The fault of both of them is that they explicitly asked for criticisms and problems that we've encountered being in Cuba. It's no wonder that we gave them, as we were asked, but it's amazing that they would draw entirely negative conclusions about our entire group from them.

On a good note, we had three great trips these past two weeks. We visited the residence of the US Interest Section chief, which was an incredible mansion built in the fifties, with beautiful landscaping, a pool, a grand piano inside with chandeliers, a beautiful staircase, and the copper eagle that fell from the memorial to the victims of the USS Maine that had been sabotaged in Havana harbor. While I was unimpressed by Mr. Palmry's opinions, he was in agreement with me that many of the Cuban-Americans in Miami incorrectly think that when Castro passes, they will be able to come back and reclaim the land that they left behind. He told me, however, that he believes that the next change of power will occur not without violence, as these types of changes in Cuba have never come without violence. Somewhat of a damning prediction. As all official US government employees are in Cuba, Palmry is not allowed to travel outside of Havana province, but it's debatable whether the residence makes up for it or not. Mostly, though, I spent my time there swimming and drinking Budweiser.

We also visited Playa Giron, also known as la Bahia de los Cochinos, also known as the Bay of Pigs. We visited several of the locations where the attempted invasion of Cuba by Cuban "exiles" occurred, and I was generally surprised by the audaciousness with which such an attack could have been planned and believed to ever be successful. The truth is that it wasn't ever expected to be successful, but it holds a grand place in the modern history of Cuba, as it was the first time Fidel called the Cuban government socialist and it is regarded as the first victory against imperialism in Cuba. The beaches in that area were very nice too; it was the first time I have ever swum in the Caribbean. During one of the stops on the trip, I asked our history professor who came with us what the US military's involvement had been. He told me that the Air Force had provided cover support, and that were things to change in intensity somehow, there were several US Navy ships waiting in the harbor. The funniest part was when he said that after the invading force was put down in 66 hours, "lots of Cubans looked at the US Navy ships and said, 'Well let's go kill the motherfuckers!'" I was shocked but amused, and later in the day at dinner, he said that it was strange that while most American students binge drink on Spring Break, we were binge eating all the rice, so he started chanting "Chug chug chug!" Similarly, it was strange being on a trip with a professor, and to see him at lunch drinking a beer and then later a mojito. It goes to show how sensitive as Americans we still are about drinking and what part it plays socially in the US, but in so few other nations in the world.

The next day we went to Las Terrazas, a UNESCO sanctioned Biosphere Reserve. The story goes that this small area in the mountains to the west of Havana right beyond the border of Pinar del Rio province was heavily deforested in the 60s and 70s due to the few indigenous families making a living on charcoal, which requires a lot of trees to burn. Because of the deforestation, many of the mountain- and hillsides began to erode, leaving a desolate wasteland. But a plan to reforest the area with 75 species of trees, many foreign to Cuba but known to grow heartily in latitudes similar to Cuba, was put in place to save the area and attempt a pilot program in forest regrowth and ecotourism. Planned communities for those willing take on the social/ecological experiment were built, and a hippie commune type of mentality prevailed over the burgeoning cove. A river was made into a reservoir which is fishable, a posh hotel that runs $100 a night on average was built to bring extra money in, and profits from both that hotel and any purchased art is redistributed into the community. In the 30 years since it was started, over 6 million trees have been planted, and it now resembles a lush forest like it must have a hundred years ago. It was a beautiful place, and I plan on returning another time.

We were also taken one night to a Santeria info session. A santa, a female saint of the Santeria religion, described and showed several of the rituals and symbols used in the practice. A babalawo, an always-male practitioner that specializes in divination, showed us some of the tools he uses and the significance of them. When he realized that I was fairly detached from his presentation (though there were eight of us there, he focused his entire attention on one girl in particular), he asked what was wrong and I half-lied that I had a sore throat and was beginning to get sick. He then took me outside and picked a small weed. He instructed me to chew up the leaves, swallow the juice made by my spit, and spit out the pulp. He also offered some honey to add to the mix. The interesting thing was that after he picked the plant, he crouched down by a small altar and prayed to one of the gods to allow the plant to help me to feel better and overcome my sickness. Whether or not it worked, I can't say for certain, but the fact that I was given a blessing through Santeria is an once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Later the next week, we took a trip to an Afro-religion museum in Guanabacoa, on the outskirts of Havana. Here we looked at two of the religions most well known in Cuba – Santeria and Abakua, the latter an all-male religion. Many of the displays helped to supplement the visit we had paid earlier in the week to the santa's house, and went into further detail on some of the hazy parts of the symbolism.

We've been playing a lot of basketball with the Cubans here. They all play street ball and aren't necessarily fair or followers of the rules, but they can shoot pretty well for such small people. Unfortunately, I didn't get anyone to send a football in time with Professor Brenner, so I think the next sport to try is some stickball on the street with the local kids.

Next up for trips: Professor Carreras has talked with one of his friends, Cuba's foremost marine biologist, to arrange a trip to Maria La Gorda, anther ecologically protected area at the southwestern-most tip of Cuba. We are going under the auspices of studying sea-turtles, which do actually nest in Cuba around this time. Also, one of our security guards, Carlos, has invited me on one of my free weekends that we have left to go duckhunting with him. While this is quite the juxtaposition to my ecology-minded trips, I feel like it's an opportunity I oughtn't to pass up.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

February 19th to March 4

So it’s now March 5th, and the last time I wrote anything was February 19th. I keep realizing when I finally get around to writing down everything that’s happened that if I really did write every day it’d be much easier to keep up with everything, instead of trying desperately to remember what interesting things I’ve done and in the meantime forgetting little interesting nuances about Cuba. So once again, after this update, I’m pledging myself to keep up to date.
In preparation for our trips to both the US Interest Section and the Cuban MINREX (Ministry of External Relations) to get a healthy dose of propaganda, we visited the Ministry of the Interior museum on Cuban history, which had a strong focus on subversion and its connection with the US/imperialism – first those who fought against the Machado and Batista regimes (including Fidel’s student group) and how brutally they were put down, and then information on all the attempts by the US government and US-based groups to overthrow Castro by various means, including all out invasion, sneaking in weapons and propaganda leaflets, and the numerous assassination attempts.
On Friday, we visited the US Interest Section, which is essentially the embassy here. Inside the building, it simply felt like the US again – strong AC, marble flooring, full fluorescent lighting; everything in tip-top shape. We had a short lecture describing the Section’s duties, and then were allowed to ask questions. By the end of the session, our speaker, a woman who had been in the Foreign Service for a little over five years, had come off as completely immature to me. After complaining about lots of little restrictions that the Cuban government had imposed on the Section employees, she reluctantly admitted that those restrictions were placed tit-for-tat only after the US had imposed the same on the Cuban employees in DC. I understood where her frustration came from and why she was so jaded about being in Cuba, but that frustration came off as unprofessional and immature. When I asked what good things she had to say about Cuba, she ignored anything regarding the government (i.e. socialized health care, education, a general level of health) and simply said that she would miss the people because they were very kind. Once again, I got the melancholy premonition of how things would be once Fidel passes away when I saw the utter excitement in our speaker’s face while she talked about how much things would change – the liberalized trade, the freedoms, the opportunities. She also was very proud of her additions to the LCD display on the outside of the building and that it had caused the Cubans to build the fifty or so extremely large flagpoles directly in front to block the view of the display. Each day, a different employee is assigned to write a theme for the display, such as her choosing to write about how Cuba has an intranet, not an internet, as well as include current events that would be censored by the Cuban government. The thing is, she didn’t really complain that the flags now blocked their LCD display, but that the flags were built over what was once their parking lot and that she now had to walk an extra couple of blocks to go to her car. Honestly, it takes a lot to pass the Foreign Service exam and get in, so there’s an inherent level of respect for those employees, but this one just came off as vindictive and immature. They sent us home with some requisite propaganda, but I also left with less respect for the US’s handling of Cuban relations.
After the US side, we saw the Cuban side. At the Minrex, they served us cookies, Cokes, water, and coffee to try to buddy up to us with food. They rambled for a little bit about what they did there, and then again opened it up to questions. Most of the questions were either not understood or skirted around, which was a good thing in one case. A student from UNC asked “Do you feel like it was a mature decision to put up the flags in front of the US Interest Section?” Looking around, four or five of us, myself included, had our mouths hanging open in surprise that someone would ask such a forward and accusatory question. Granted, it’s a question that begs answering from someone, but at the Cuban Minrex, it just came off as stupid and disrespectful. While he was at it, the student should have asked “Don’t you all know that Communism is going to fail?” or “Why do you hate freedom in Cuba?”
This week we also welcomed a new student into our classes, Marie. She goes to a university in Olympia, Washington that runs on a quarter system, so she took a quarter off to come to Cuba illegally for a month. We found out quickly that her father is a professor and will be coming to AU next semester to teach a class, and then found out that she had grown up in DC and was good friends with Philip Brenner’s daughter. It’s a very small world, indeed. We’re all waiting to see how Phil will react when he comes to visit us for Spring Break and sees his daughter’s best friend in Cuba illegally.
Friday night, we decided to flaunt authority a little bit and go hang out with the Marines that guard the Interest Section. We visited their compound, which is fenced in by razor wire, has a beach volleyball court, a basketball court, a horseshoes field, their own bar, and a pool. It was another little slice of America in Cuba, but was a nice relief to be around some ridiculous Americans for a while. We went to Club Chevere where you paid $10 for all you can drink. Not being much of a dancer, I wandered around the club for a couple of hours, and at some point had a breakdown where I became extremely lonely and homesick, and really just wanted to go sleep, so I got it in my head to walk home. I left the club and walked about 6 blocks before I realized I had no clue where I was headed, and then walked back. By this time, my compadres had noticed my absence and had come to look for me, and when they did it was time to leave.
Saturday night, Marie and I went to a baseball game – it was an exhibition game for the upcoming World Classic of Baseball. The game was between the Cuban national team and Nicaragua. The game only lasted seven innings, which was a good thing too, because Cuba beat Nicaragua 13 to 0. The game was a lot more exciting than the previous intra-Cuba game we had seen, and this time it only cost one national peso instead of four convertibles. I’m looking forward to more of these games.
Sunday, I spent the day with Professor Cuevas. We visited his 86 year old mother in a nursing home. Though she had early stages of Alzheimer’s, she was very mobile and spry, and was very excited to talk to me, though she was so bashful that she would ask Cuevas to ask me questions. We also stopped by another resident, who was equally excited to see Cuevas and me – the 92 year old aunt of Fidel Castro.
After visiting, we went to the grocery store where we ran into one of Cueva’s friends. Cuevas told me that he was the foremost biographer of Che Guevara, which was evidenced by the hundreds of original pieces of art, mostly portraits of Che, sent from all over the world. He and Cuevas talked for some time about books, specifically one with letters from Che to his wife that lent credibility to the belief that Fidel and Che had had a falling out and thus why Che had gone/been sent to Bolivia. Cuevas later confided in me that he and his wife, both authors of many books on Communism, Che, and Fidel, were devout party-members and that he himself had to watch what he said around them. I think they enjoyed my comments about the immaturity of the Interest Section employees.
We headed back to Cuevas’s apartment, where I lent him some DVDs to watch and we talked for some time. He had a message on his answering machine offering to sell him some blackmarket pork, which he passed on, though he told me that usually the sellers will take a live pig and put it on the train tracks to be slaughtered that way, since it would be illegal to take it to a butcher. He also invited me to a dinner that he was invited to that evening at the Hotel Nacional, and then another dinner the following night with two professors from Northern Ohio Univeristy.
The group at the Hotel Nacional was about twenty-five Jewish Californians who had come on a humanitarian mission, though really they were on a glorified art tour. We ate a salmon appetizer, followed by filet mignon, with several glasses of red wine, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. I met an older woman who was a graduate of AU, and told stories about our time here in Cuba so far, and was quizzed so much by the group that Cuevas had to tell them to hold on so I could eat before my food got cold. They were very sweet and interesting, especially the man across from me. While I could tell he was facing the early stages of memory loss, often not being able to find the right words or losing his train of thought entirely, he did tell me that he was going to try to start learning Spanish again. It really touched me that despite his age, despite his mental acuity, he still had a lust for learning and was ready to tackle a new language, so I encouraged him heartily.
Cuevas and I did have a good time speaking Spanish however, as very few there could speak even a remedial amount. Many people who spoke to Cuevas in English spoke slowly and over-annunciated, the tell tale sign of someone who hasn’t tried speaking another language very much. So we would make fun of some of the sillier Americans in Spanish, and cracked a lot of jokes between each other. In general, it was nice to meet a group of fun-loving, active older Americans and have a great dinner as well.
Monday night, Cuevas and I met and ate with two professors staking out places to begin their undergraduate Cuba program this coming semester, and while Cuevas was a little bit more annoying this time around and had very little of importance to say, I gave any and all help I could to the professors regarding being an American student in Cuba. I pitched the idea of passing along a revised student guide that we’re planning on making at the end of our time here, which they were very interested in, and even discussed flying several of us to Ohio during the summer to be part of a forum at their Cuban Business Center where we would discuss our time in Cuba and the environment there. The director of the Cuban Business Center had formally been the dean of the business school, and he regaled me with stories of being a lost youth in college who dropped out, then reapplied himself to become a business consultant for Kroger International, traveling five out of seven days a week, and making six figures as well, then eventually becoming dean of a top fifty business school. He gave me some hope in my own times of self-doubt and worry about academia.
That week, I acquired about ten business cards, exchanged numerous e-mail addresses, and met so many people that it felt like I was at a business convention sometimes. I owe Cuevas a lot for introducing me to so many incredible people and seeing such amazing things already.
This past week, nothing much happened in way of events. Mardi Gras doesn’t happen here, but we celebrated anyway at Club Coctel. It was a tiny club but very crowded for a Tuesday night. They played mostly hip-hop, which attracted a hip-hop crowd. Most of the Cubans there were trying to emulate the hip-hop lifestyle of the US, wearing throwback jerseys and do-rags, but even as a white boy, I could tell where they were doing it all wrong – not tying their do-rag properly for instance. I started getting hit up by a jintera, so I had Diana save me, and then we all went to Dino’s for 24hour pizza. We gorged ourselves on pizza, listened to the Marines who met us at the club making misogynistic remarks, and then all got depressed looking at a seven year old kid who was passed out sitting straight up with a half eaten pizza, a packet of cookies, and a soda in front of him. This wouldn’t be so strange if he weren’t alone and it wasn’t 2:30AM. We woke him up finally and asked if he needed a taxi. Instead, he went back to sleep, so we woke him up again, gave him five convertibles, and then tried to go outside with him to get a cab. A Cuban guy started trying to help us out, and once outside, the police, acting completely friendly and amiable, tried to get the child a cab. Instead, he flipped out, threw his food away, and started crying and pushing everyone away. He eventually got a ride somewhere, but to where I have no clue. The waiters at Dino’s told us that he came in there like that several times a week.
Wednesday was a Manu Chao concert, which is a group from Mexico, Argentina, and several other Latin American countries. There must have easily been a hundred thousand youth at this concert held in front of the US Interest Section. Spaniards, Canadians, Argentineans, Basques, Mexicans, and all the other international youth in Cuba. Anytime there’s a large gathering like this, there’s this habit of bringing your country’s flag to wave around in front of everyone and block the stage or someone’s view – I’m not really sure what it proves, because you could probably make the same effect by telling people around you that you’re from a certain country without being so visually annoying. Anyway, while I like going to concerts, I hate it when they’re packed and you ALWAYS have someone trying to push through and get closer, even though you yourself only have a half-foot’s worth of personal space. Then to make it worse, the music gets really strong and people have to create a moshpit which forces everyone to get into even closer quarters so these idiots can have enough room to jump around and push each other. The music was good, even though I only know one Manu Chao song, although it became a little formulaic after a while. I think I would appreciate them more if I listened at my leisure instead of being so annoyed with the constant hands hitting my back while people thrashed around in musical ecstasy around me. It was still a fun night to see a very popular band. The typical anti-imperialist/anti-Bush rhetoric went around, which always seems out of place in a concert, no matter what type of music you make.
So as I’ve mentioned before, we use this thing here called TransCard, which allows Americans like us to get money in Cuba by going through a Canadian company. It’s the only one of its kind, and so you think they’d make lots of money and be really good at what they do. Except that two weekends ago, they “lost communication” with Canada from Thursday until Tuesday, were back up again on Tuesday, and then lost it again until late Thursday night. I had dreams of calling TransCard and asking “So what exactly does your company do?” and when they replied “We allow people to withdraw money in Cuba” I would reply “THEN WHY CAN’T YOU DO IT!” Fortunately, it went back online and we started planning our weekend.
We decided to go to Matanzas via the Hershey train again. In Matanzas, we wanted to find a place to stay straight away so we could enjoy the town, but found that much has changed there. First, our Lonely Planet guidebook said that there was one hotel that was open and two that were closed but would be reopened for business in late 2004. The first was closed for renovations, and the other two had never made it out of renovations and were instead repossessed by Cubans. So we tried to get casa particulares, but rules prohibit more than two people per room, meaning that we would pay $20 for one room for two people, and then $20 for another room for one person. None of them would give us a discount considering the inconvenience, and so we decided to try the campismo, a KAO-like campground with cabins, seven kilometers out of town. We were pleasantly surprised as it was nestled at the base of a cliff by the side of Rio Canimar at the opening to the ocean. Plus, a six person cabin ran the three of us 39 national pesos total – less than two dollars. We unpacked and swam in the water for a little bit, which was a briny mix of the fresh river water and the salty ocean. We played volleyball with a group of 14 year old schoolchildren, and then went to go rent a motorboat across the river. Unfortunately, our six convertibles bought us three drinks and an hour with a ROWboat, not a motorboat. So we made the best of it and took our drinks on the boat and rowed around for a little bit, watching the red crabs eat algae on the bank of the river, and yelling with kids on the top of the cliff.
We headed back into Matanzas, ate a nice seafood dinner, then continued our quest to eat at every Copellias we encounter outside of Havana. I’m not quite sure what compelled me to do it, but I started a fight with a group in front of us in line. See, at Copellias (and of course, everywhere in Cuba) you wait in line to be seated in groups of four. There was a couple in front of us, a couple behind us, and then a guy by himself. The couple behind us brokered with the couple in front of us to get seated with them, which was agreed upon. I could’ve stayed silent, but I felt disrespected that they wouldn’t have the common decency to ask us if it would be alright to cut in front for convenience’s sake. I understand that they cut just to make things work out easier and nothing was really wrong with them doing it, but I told them, “If you had asked me, I would’ve said yes, but since you didn’t, you’ve disrespected me now.” I caused a big scene and amused a lot of people, which was really what I was trying to do. It worked out for the better, because the guy who was by himself was seated with us – he was a cute man in his thirties with a handlebar mustache who lived with his mother and was unmarried. He worked as a treecutter, and had his new axe with him. He told us that though he had relatives in the States, he wasn’t interested in going because he loved his life and his job. We insisted on paying for him since he was such good company (and plus the ice cream only cost a dollar).
Afterwards, we were ready to go try a club, and so we hired a bici-taxi which usually only seat two but into which all three of us squeezed into. His name was Michael, and he cracked us up by constantly telling us and everyone we passed to “Cumon, Cumon!!! (Come on, come on!)” and yelling “HEY YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” at stray dogs on the street. He suggested this club called Las Palmas, which was outdoors and had large stucco walls separating the line outside and the club. There were about a hundred people waiting to get in, and while most clubs and places in Cuba have fairly organized lines, this was a sheer mob trying to push through to the gate that would only open a foot or two every time they decided to let someone in. We were immediately latched onto by some Cubans because entrance was only granted to couples, and what better bartering material than Americans? We tried everything: yelling in English to get their attention, tapping the bouncer’s shoulder, calling his name, sneaking in a side entrance… we ended up just having to wait, and by the time we got in, it simply wasn’t worth it. Diana felt like crap, Scott wasn’t interested in drinking, and we were getting picked up in the bicitaxi in less than an hour. I danced with the girl that had grabbed me, but Diana had pointed out that with her cellphone and the way in which she knew every young girl there (which wouldn’t be strange in a small town, but Matanzas is the fourth largest city in Cuba) it was quite possible that she was a pimp/prostitute. She kept asking for drinks and suggesting that we buy a bottle of rum and a couple of cokes, but I kept my money to myself.
We left and were walking toward the corner where we were to meet Michael when we heard “Come on, come on!” before we even saw him. He intended to take the three of us all the way back to our campismo seven kilometers away, which he did. We sang “I Believe I Can Fly” all together, saw a snake on the road, which he picked up and held after being bit a couple times, and let each of us drive his bicitaxi for a little bit (which was incredibly hard – I have a lot of respect for those guys now). We sat at the 24 hour convenience store across from the entrance to our campismo for an hour or so talking about visiting again, because he had enjoyed hanging out with us. We parted ways and went to sleep fully clothed on our foot-thick bare mattresses without sheets or pillows.
We woke up at 7AM, covered with bites from either bed-bugs or mosquitos, got everything packed up, and took a relaxing breath on the shore of the river with the fierce morning sun shining on the rising. We went to the nearby castle where the student junta from the 1930s waited to get a boat to go into exile, but were instead murdered, but it wasn’t open for another two hours, so we decided to go to the nearby Cuevas Bellamar. While we were walking in the strong morning sun, already sweating with our heavy backpacks, we hear behind us “COME ON COME ON!!!” and see Michael riding up the road on his regular bicycle. It ended up that he was going to the weekly cockfights which were up the road past the caves, so he accompanied us. We bought a loaf of bread from a passerby, and shared it while we walked to the caves. Once there, we hit the caves, which were pretty incredible. They were the largest in Cuba, and had some very beautiful chambers, stalactites, stalagmites, and crystalline structures. Several small pools of water trickled through it, and we drank from the fountains of youth and love. The pictures we took don’t do much justice to the grandeur of the caves. We had a lunch of ropa vieja (stewed beef and vegetables with rice), and then solicited a ride from a local waiting to pick someone up. We thought it was pretty nice of him to take us, and when we asked how much we could give him for the ride, he charged us $3, which changed the ride from a friendly pick-up to us being taken advantage of.
The plan from here was for Diana to head back to Havana, and Scott and I to travel the 35km to Varadero for a day at the beach. Our guidebook (damn that thing) said that intra-provincial buses traveled to Varadero at 2pm for $1.50 – no such thing existed. The only options to Varadero was a big Astro charter bus for $6, or a private taxi for $20. We gave up on that idea after some frustration, and decided to head back to Havana. Our options were to wait until 4PM to take the Hershey train back for 1.60pesos, take a charter bus for $7, or get a private taxi. The private taxi was a headache – Diana was offered a price of $5, but when Scott and I expressed interest in taking it, the price suddenly went to $25 for the two of us, but still $5 for her. We started another argument about how we should be entitled to the same prices, and that it was discrimination, and all but told the driver to go get screwed. Apparently, all the private taxis had colluded on their prices, and we were planning on waiting to take the train. Then we found out that we could get a ride like the Cubans do on another bus that wasn’t there yet, but we bought our tickets after waiting for an hour for 7pesos. The bus showed up, and it turned out to be a chartered TransTur bus, with air conditioning and air-ride suspension. We got on the bus, and all three of us slept for the hour and a half drive back.
Saturday, I swam on the Malecon with all the other Cuban kids, diving off the side and swimming in the heavy waves. That night, Scott, Marie, and I went out to a club, but many were either too expensive, already full, or had too large of lines. We met a group of high-school roqueros (metal-heads) who quizzed me on what Slipknot (a metal band) meant, if I had ever heard of Marilyn Manson, Coal Chamber, Korn, etc. They asked what bands I had seen in concert, where I was from in the US, if people did a lot of drugs in the US, and a load of other questions that I’m sure have been burning up their mind for some time.
So now I’m sort of caught up, and hopefully I didn’t leave anything out. Hasta la proxima…

February 13th to 18th

Sunday night we had a strange black man standing in the shadows of our second floor dorms. Everyone was creeped out by the presence of this guy who was just pacing one area around the veranda upstairs, who wouldn’t say anything to people walking by, but he would stare at them until they were out of sight. I thought that maybe he was a new security guard for our building on the second floor, but Diana and I went to investigate. We found out his name was Juan Carlos, and when we asked him if he worked here, he replied “For the moment, yes.” He was a very timid younger man, but very alert and odd. While Diana and I had a nightcap downstairs, she went upstairs to grab her cigarettes. On her way down, she realized who the man was: We’re across from the Chinese embassy, and so was Fidel Castro at that time. So at every house that had a floor or room that could look over the wall of the Chinese embassy, such as our second floor, they had a security guard posted there. Similarly, white vans lined the streets to prevent people from parking nearby.

Monday, class went by without any big developments. Did you know the Cuban model for independence and revolution was based on the Texas model of a few decades before? Similarly, a proposed flag in 1868 was modeled after the Texas flag.
For the past five days or so, I’ve been waking up with a nasty cough that has prevented me from squeezing the last few minutes of sleep out, as well as coughing up some nasty phlegm and sneezing uncontrollably. I decided that especially after my rainy, cold hike on Sunday morning, it was time to hit the free Cuban health clinic. Diana went with me because of a perpetual cold that she has had for the past month. We both got in to see the doctor pretty quickly, but while she came out with her prescriptions right away, I had none, which was strange. After waiting for 15 minutes or so, we asked why I hadn’t received one – they said that I needed to get my chest x-rayed to see if there were any visible problems. We waited another 45 minutes, and nothing had happened so I asked what the deal was. Apparently, the x-ray machine was broken, but it would be fixed soon and they would come get me. To make a long story short, they had to take two x-rays because it wasn’t fixed the first time, I had to see a second doctor because the first had already gone home for the day, and I had to wait 30 minutes while paperwork was filled out for my prescription for Cipro (yeah, the same stuff for Anthrax victims). I figure it will do me a lot of good, however, since I haven’t been on any prescription medicine in the past two or three years, and it’s good to restart your system every once and a while. Cost to me = $0. Thanks, Cuba!
While at the clinic, we heard five languages: Spanish, English, Portuguese, Creole, and Cuban Spanish. This wasn’t surprising considering it was the foreigners’ hospital, but it was depressing being around sick and wounded people for four hours. Furthermore, it was cold inside because of the air conditioning, and cold outside because of the cold front. I got to take home my x-ray however, so it’s not all bad news.

Valentine’s Day. While mine didn’t flourish with love but rather lamentations, Diana and I went on a pity date with each other – me because of a clarification of my situation, and her because she discovered her first dog was being put down - to see Bario Cuba, a movie about four different lives who are conflicted with love and life. I only understood about 10% of the Spanish because of the Cuban dialect and the acoustics of the theatre, but I could follow the story. The ambience of the theatre was amusing, because people would yell things out randomly and generally it was a very casual, social setting rather than everyone being there to enjoy just the movie.
Earlier in the day, we saw our first transvestites. Diana and I walked by two women waiting on the corner for a taxi, and she commented that one had a deeper voice than me. I walked by and looked at both of them and how they were both taller than me, and after standing across the street and watching them, realized that they were most definitely transvestites. Apparently, it’s a growing demographic in Cuba.

Wednesday afternoon we played some basketball on the nearby courts. Usually, there’s been at least half a court empty out of two courts, but today it was packed with school children playing baseball in the sandlot, a volleyball net taking up one of the courts, and kids on both of the other hoops. They saw us show up however, and we were invited to play with a group of kids already on the court. Although the majority of them were fourteen or younger, one older guy who must have been around twenty-five played with them as well, and this guy could ball. He obviously got his skills from the street, as he was exceptional at juking me out, even once dribbling the ball between my legs and penetrating for a lay-up. It was a little frustrating getting played by a bunch of little kids and one showboat, but we still ended up having fun. After the game, we just shot baskets, and it was nice to see a little 6 or 7 year old kid having a fun time shooting with our ball.
Wednesday night, Eve and Prianca, from UNC, invited me to an a capella concert that a Cuban that they met had invited them to earlier in the week. I’m always up for a capella, so we walked to the church that it was taking place at. Since in the States churches are often venues for social events, it didn’t strike me as odd that this concert was being held at one. When we arrived though, it dawned on me that it was the equivalent of Wednesday Mass (except it wasn’t a Catholic church). Even more shockingly, this church was the equivalent of a Southern Lutheran or Baptist church in the States. People raising and shaking their hands, interrupting the preacher to give praise to Dios, people crying and sobbing, and giving “aplauso para Dios” more than I ever have in my life. I was afraid that the concert wasn’t even going to happen, but the group eventually came on, singing 50s do-wop style a capella, excepting the songs were about God and they were in Spanish. It made me wonder if the Cubans were familiar with this type of music, or if it was just an odd novelty for them. After a while though, the Jesus-ness got to be too much, and we headed back to the UNC residence, where I was formally taught how to play dominoes, though I can’t say I understand the draw of it – apparently there’s some strategy in playing, but I was too frustrated with the flawed logic of some of the rules to get into the strategy of it.

Thursday was supposed to be our day of tavel for the weekend to Pinar del Rio. We received our Carnets, which are our temporary residence cards, in the afternoon. The plan was for Valerie and Diana to head out ASAP, which was around 1:30PM, and Scott and I would leave immediately after our Spanish class ended at 4:50PM. Then we would meet them at a certain location in Pinar at 10PM. If that fell through, we would meet them at 10AM the next day. We all four also planned to hitchhike.
Scott and I got a taxi and headed to the highway that went between Pinar and Havana, paying $8 to get to the outskirts where the highway was located. There we were dropped off at a government-supported hitchhiking area where officials flagged down empty cars, figured out where they were going, and called out to the waiting people. You paid somewhere between 5 and 15 national pesos (25 cents and 75 cents), but we never ended up having to pay because we never got a ride in the 3 hours we were there. In that time, perhaps 5 people got rides to Pinar (as most people there we waiting for that destination), while empty bus after empty bus passed by without stopping. People started getting frustrated, including the official who tried to get everyone organized into a line. Instead, they chose to yell at him and create trouble, but Scott and I tried to be respectful and create a line. Unfortunately, as is becoming more and more common, we were cut in line by several people. The feeling I get is that Cubans are very nice and generous, unless their own way of life is of more importance at the time, such as getting somewhere before the gringos do. It didn’t end up mattering, because we gave up around 8PM when the officials’ workday was over and they headed home.
Then we went through the trouble of getting another taxi for $8 to the bus station to find out when they left in the morning so we could get to Pinar by 10AM. Chances looked slim as the first bus left at 8:30AM and it was a 3 hour drive to Pinar. Thankfully for once we were hustled outside of the station for a private taxi. We were offered a $20 total cost for Scott and me, but it didn’t make sense to leave that night, so we slept back at the residence and then got a private taxi to Pinar the next morning at 6:30AM. When we got to Pinar, we waited for two hours at the Casa de la Musica, which was supposed to be our meeting place. When 10AM and then 11AM rolled around and we hadn’t met up with the girls, Scott went to check at the bus station, the plaza, and the Centra de la Musica. We ended up empty handed, and so we decided to make the most of our weekend and get a casa particular.
On that end, we couldn’t find a place to stay for less than $20 a night, although they would charge $15 a night if we both had breakfast the next morning, which bumped the price back up to $21 total. So we eventually settled for $20 a night, put our stuff down, and decided to go get some lunch. I called homebase (the residence) to tell them where we were staying just in case Diana and Valerie called trying to figure out what happened, and they had called minutes before to leave their address. Scott and I started walking in the direction of their casa, but they ran up behind us while we were walking and we were reunited. Apparently, we were supposed to be at the Casa de la Cultura, not Musica. We reconciled, and then went to check out Pinar del Rio. We visited a kitschy Natural Science Museum that had an interesting wooden canoe that had washed up on the beach a long time ago, though no one knew where it came from, as well as a display on Cuba’s use of renewable energy to power rural schools.
We also went to the Fabrica de Bebidas Guayabitas, an alcohol bottling company. The type of alcohol they made was only distributed in Cuba, and it came from a fruit called the Guayabita, similar to Guayaba (guava) but a different species altogether. They showed us the fermenting barrels, where we were allowed to chew on a piece of the fermented fruit, about the size of an olive. Despite the fact that they only had 30 workers, they produced over 2,000 bottles of the alcohol daily. They had an alcohol for mixed drinks at 40% alcohol and a liquor that was called “Guayabita dulce” that was 30% alcohol and was suited more towards highballs. The dulce, however, was not in stock because they were currently fermenting the next batch. Though I can’t drink because of my antibiotics, I sipped some of the alcohol, which seemed fruity but in an almost nutty way. I bought a bottle because it seemed like it would be a good respite from the monotony of rum when I could start drinking again.
Though the tobacco factory was closed, the tobacco shop wasn’t, so I also bought a cigar made from the tobacco of Pinar Del Rio called Veguero. As far as my untrained palate could tell, it was right in between the smoothness of Habanos and the harshness of Cohibas. The tobacco shop also sold other fine cigars, such as boxes of Cohibas that were easily $300, and a bottle of Cohiba cognac that sold for $500. Thankfully, my cigar was only $5, but I’m still used to only paying $1 per Habano.
That night, while we were waiting for the festivities of the night to begin, we ate some ice cream at Copellias and then listened to some boleros at a café, which was also attended by one of the women to whom the International Book Fair (which was currently in Pinar del Rio) was dedicated. Afterward we headed to the street concert being held in conjunction with the book fair. While we were walking to the stage, a beautiful mulatta woman grabbed my arm and tried to take me with her, but I wasn’t going to ditch the Fantastic Four despite her forwardness and attractiveness. Naturally, the concert started with a cabaret of older singers and older songs, but it was followed with a Cuban hip-hop group. Despite the similarities between reggaeton and hip-hop, the Cubans were not interested in this group, and while I stood at the front of the stage for the short four song set, a Cuban yelled out to the duo to play another song for the gringo since I obviously liked it so much.
While the next band set up, a Cuban recognized me from waiting for a ride the night before. He said that around 8:15PM a bus had shown up that picked up everyone that was still waiting to get to Pinar. It was a little frustrating to know we had been so close, but as he said, Cuba no es facil. He told me that his Italian girlfriend and he worked at the book fair, and that because of his work, he was able to travel to Italy four months out of the year. He also unloaded on me all his grief about making friends with travelers, and the difficulties that Cubans face in being amiable to outsiders. We parted ways with him expressing his hope that someday he’d be able to travel to the US to visit where no one minds if foreigners and natives socialize.
The next band, which I had been told was a rock band, came on to little fanfare, because, as I learned, they were a metal band and everyone in the crowd was waiting for the reggaeton DJ again. I found it pretty interesting that this cultural cross-section put on by the international book fair had decided to support a Pinareno metal group. In fact, it was damned admirable, considering that a group of only fifty or so of the hundreds there had come out of the woodwork to enjoy this type of music. I’m sure it’s seldom that these metalheads have the chance to see a live act, so it was a very awesome opportunity for them. During the set, two or three people stage-dove, and while I was closer up to the stage taking a video of the concert, another kid jumped off of the stage. Immediately, a group of four to eight police officers ran into the middle of the crowd, preventing any moshing and generally ruining everyone’s fun. The anxiety of the police actually ended up causing the premature end of both their concert and the whole street party in general. So while it was very cool that the organizers had been very eccentric in the musical talent of the night, it was extremely disappointing to see the government put an end to a bunch of kids’ fun. They should rather understand that that type of concert would be more therapeutic than trouble-making, and that their course of action will only do more harm in the end than good.
The next day, we rented scooters to drive to Cayo Jutia, northwest of Pinar del Rio. I had originally wanted to go to Maria la Gorda that weekend in my quest to visit the 14 best beaches in Cuba, but its distance from Pinar pushed it back to another weekend in the future. The route to Cayo Jutia was 25km north to the pine-lined mountain town of Vinales, then another 35km west and then north through one of Cuba’s mountain ranges.
Half of the fun was in the journey. We sped along the Cuban roads, leaning into the turns in the mountains and picking up more speed than the two-stroke engines allowed while going down hills. The scenery was incredible, and it was very refreshing to be carving turns while smelling the fresh pine of the mountains.
We weren’t without accidents, however. Scott had some problems getting the bike going, and at one point in Vinales while he walking the bike, he accidentally pulled on the accelerator and the bike shot forward into a Cuban’s bicycle, knocking it over and dropping the scooter. Thankfully, nothing was damaged but perhaps Scott’s pride, and we rode on.
We got to the beach and immediately jumped in. It was a perfect temperature to swim (though the water here has yet to reach the bathwater temperature that we’ve been told it will in the early summer), and we enjoyed splashing around in the sky blue waters. I snorkeled a bit, though it wasn’t as good for that as Playa Jibacoa, and found an intact sand dollar, as well as several broken conch shells. I swam out fairly far, probably around 300 yards, and at one point came across a large, metal circle on the ocean floor. It appeared to be metal at least, but it seemed to be the cap to something. It was very mysterious, but I couldn’t uncover any clues as to what its purpose was.
I found a hermit crab on the beach that was exactly like the ones you see sold in malls in the US. We also made fun of the British tourists at the beach who attempted to ask for fresh “ahg-kwah” instead of “agua”, didn’t know that Cristal and Bucanero were beers, and could presumably hardly say “hola”. After spending only two and a half hours there, we had to leave to get back to Pinar in time to return the bikes, but we were sufficiently sunburned by that time.
Though there isn’t much else to write in regards to the scooter ride back to Pinar, it was really one of the most liberating and fun things we’ve experienced here. Everyone said that they’d love to do it again, so from here on out, any trips we take we’ll be looking for scooter rentals.
We went back to the bus station in Pinar and arranged a trip for the four of us back to Havana for only $4 per person. Before we left, we ate some food at the nearby stands. Once again, I experienced the “screw the Gringo, I’m Cuban” attitude I waited for a steak sandwich. While I held my money out waiting for the server to hand me my sandwich, a Cuban guy stepped up to my side, put his money out, and asked for a sandwich. I stepped towards him and forward, blocking him off, and said “Hey, I’m first” (obviously in Spanish). Then, while waiting for pizza minutes later, a woman stepped to the front of the line to ask a Cuban guy who was right before us to buy two pizzas for her and her child, completely jumping in front of the 4 of us and about 10 other Cubans. It was too late to complain, but I wanted to smash the pizza in her face and tell her to respect the rules of the line. Then, as I was the last in line in our group, I asked for two pizzas but was rebuffed by an older Cuban woman who claimed that she was before me, even though she was after me in the line. I understand partly where she was coming from, because I had come into the line after she had already been waiting, but I have seen plenty of Cubans hold someone else’s place. If I hadn’t gotten my two pizzas at the same time she got hers, I would’ve raised some hell with her.
Diana had an interesting ride back, as she was squished in the front seat between the driver who said that she had to pretend that she was his girlfriend if they got pulled over, and a police officer that we picked up on the highway. She was put up front instead of one of us because she blends in better with the Cubans, both a blessing and a curse for her.
Overall, we had an extremely fun weekend. Things that I’ve learned: one, step up to Cubans who try to screw you on prices, or jump in front of you in lines. They think gringos will just defer because of a lack of Spanish, but I’m more than ready to go toe-to-toe with an arrogant Cuban. Two, the police state is alive and well and ready to put down any violence, even if it’s a form of expression. Three, while hitchhiking is possible in Cuba, and relatively safe, it’s not dependable despite the government’s support of it. That government support probably stems from the fact that even police officers and military personnel are forced to hitchhike if they want to get anywhere in the country.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

February 5th-February 12th

One of the things that I have been thinking about recently being surrounded by this socialist experiment that is Cuba and the pervasive anti-imperialist sentiment rippling through Latin America is the future of this government. Castro has done a superb job at quelling opposition, while keeping Cuba modern (being a leader in biotechnology) and succeeding when faced with imminent failure (bouncing back after the fall of the Soviet Union). People love him, for the most part, and he has kept this revolution and this country going for more than fifty years. But anyway that spends any time reading about Cuban politics or a few days talking to the comrades of this country can intuit that Castro is the only reason that Cuba is still the way it is. His intelligence or his despotism, depending on how you look at it, has kept the country in check and his system of government in place.
This is all old news however. What had me thinking is that no matter how things work out, he will inevitably fail, and because of that, I know part of him must be a very sad man. Whereas many US Presidents have claimed that they would only wish the responsibilities and work of their position on their worst enemies and never on their friends, and that is the loneliest position of power, Fidel has held that same position for over forty years, and has undoubtedly had many more responsibilities than a US president does. Furthermore, even if he lives another ten years, he and everyone else knows that his time on Earth is limited, and with that limit comes the limit of Communism. Though other Latin American nations may transition to a socialist system in the next ten years (I’m looking at you Venezuela, although a very intelligent and respected Cuban recently told me that he knows that Hugo Chavez is nothing more than a dog that is being fed by his master, Fidel, and without a master, the dog, and thus the country, will become a stray), this social-governmental experiment is an inevitable failure.
No one else is committed to carrying on this society, and thus the past forty years of absolute dedication on the part of Fidel has been for naught, in a sense. Think about knowing that soon after you are buried, the one thing you have worked on for your entire adult life will be abolished (though not forgotten). It’s impossible to not be saddened at the thought. It also seems impossible not to be tempted to give up now so at least you can be responsible for two of the world’s most radical government revolutions. Fidel Castro’s dedication is beyond admirable. We all ought to find something in life worth that selflessness.

We went to the Feria Internacional de Libros (International Book Fair) on Tuesday with Delio. We had to stop every five or ten minutes for him to say hello to someone he knew or to ask someone where something was or how much something cost. Diana remarked that it was like going out with her Ecuadorian grandparents in their village because they have to talk to everyone.
It is held every year in one of the large forts of Havana, which is an amazing setting. I was looking for more English books to read while I was here, so I found a copy of The Once and Future King to replace my misplaced version, The Pearl, and an English/Spanish compilation of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Wednesday we learned about the architecture of Cuba, and then took a walking tour of the old part of town in order to see what we had learned about. The changes in the architecture is very interesting, and the reasons for the changes are a total reflection of Cuban history. For instance, many two story buildings were split into one office floor and two floors for living space, after the sugar industry took off in Cuba following the Haitian revolution.

This whole country, is full of paradoxes. For instance, many guidebooks warn that Cuba really isn’t a cheap place to visit. And if that’s what you want to believe, then it will be true. Many of the restaurants will charge between $7 and $15 for a plate of food; clubs can cost between $5 and $15 for entrance, and the charter buses and Cubana Airlines can cost between $30 and $150 one-way.
On the other hand, we find a new place every day to buy a cheap lunch, anywhere between thirty cents and $3 for a full belly and a cold drink. A tangential point was made by Alex the other night: Cuba is like a ten year old’s dream. All of us here eat pizza daily (usually the size of a personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut), some of us more than one pizza a day (my record is four). Afterwards, we usually eat some ice cream (once again, my record is six cones in one day), which is so much creamier and better than American ice cream. Then you can head down to the Malecon on a hot day with a rough sea and get splashed by giant waves, just like a water park. If it’s still hot, you can go get an orange for one peso (1/24th of a dollar) and it eat like you would at a youth soccer game. And the best part is that all of this can be had for about $5 a day, which is around what you would make for allowance as a ten year old. Hell, it’s just as much of a dream for budgeting college students who still like the finer things in life, such as alcohol which can be purchased for a dollar or less for a beer or about $3.80 for a bottle of Havana Club rum that makes Bacardi look like the cheap imitator it is – alternatively, you can buy peso rum which runs about $2.50 (60 pesos).
Ask a taxi how much it is to such and such place, and they’ll tell you. What you don’t realize is that they’ll tell you a more expensive price than what the meters would run you. Such is the life of an extranjero. Last Sunday, when Valerie and I took a cab back to Havana from the International Book Fair, we knew how not to get screwed over – we asked the cab driver to run the meter. The difference this time in how he ended up screwing us over was by taking a roundabout way that tacked on extra kilometers to the meter. A ride that should’ve been about $3 ended up costing $4.50. When I took my cab on Saturday to Casablanca to take the Hershey Electric Railway to Playa Jibacoa, he quoted me $6, but forgot to turn off the meter. When we arrived, the meter only read $4.50 but at 7AM I wasn’t ready to argue in Spanish about getting taken advantage of. Similarly, charter buses run daily to Playa Jibacoa, but they run a much more expensive price than the trains that I took. For a 55km train ride, I paid 1.65 pesos, less than ten cents.
When I arrived in Jibacoa, I still faced a 9km walk to Playa Jibacoa. After a couple of kilometers, I heard a truck rumbling behind me, so I waved them down and asked if they were headed to Playa Jibacoa. They told me to get in the back and they drove me into town in the bed of their bread truck. At one point, a bread basket turned over, so I righted it and put some of the fallen bread back in – I figured it was the least I could do for a free ride that they would not take any money for, not even fifty cents. On the way back to Havana, I took a twenty cent (pesos) train to one station, hitched a ride to another town, got on a guagua (Cuban public bus) for three pesos, then switched to another guagua for two pesos to Havana. The total cost of my transportation for over 100km of travel was essentially ten times less expensive than just the 5km taxi ride to the train station.
The good thing about going to Jibacoa this weekend was that Saturday was the first day I spoke only Spanish. I compare Saturday with this past Wednesday, when I realized that I had spoken less than ten sentences in Spanish the whole day. This is again an example of the problems with American University’s enclaves. To finally become immersed, I had to travel by myself outside of Havana. Whether or not I should celebrate my first day of only Spanish or I should be embarrassed that it’s taken me three weeks to achieve that, I don’t know.
This was also another week of crazy weather. It seems that we have finally entered into Cuba’s winter, with warm days, between 70 and 90 degrees, and cool nights, usually in the 50s or low 60s. As another example, when I came into Jibacoa on Saturday, it was hot – at least 85 degrees, and I was more than ready for a swim in the cool, crystalline waters. I ended up getting a little sunburned on my shoulders, but I headed back to the casa particular I was staying at around 4 because large clouds were rolling in. Around 9:30PM that night, the clouds broke and brought cold winds and a light drizzle all through the night and into midday, meaning I had to walk the drizzly 9km back to the Jibacoa train station with nothing more than a light sweater, and two trash bags. For the rest of Sunday, it remained mostly cloudy, chilly, and windy.
Playa Jibacoa was beautiful. It was exactly what I was looking for in a Cuban beach. It is demeaned as having poor, yellow sand, and smaller beaches than places like Varadero and Playas del Este, but the water more than makes up for it. It was clear as bathwater, much smoother waves than at Playas del Este, and teeming with life. I played with a crab on the shore, chased lizards with tails like a pig’s in the trees on the waters edge, saw urchins, fish of all possible neon colors, a barracuda, incredible corals, and teeming schools of fish. I was glad to discover in my travels that it was definitely doable as a day trip in the future.
The first hotel I had intended on staying at didn’t take walk-in reservations from foreigners. The second hotel required your physical passport, not a copy (the copy of which I had incidentally lost on the bread truck when my backpack came undone), and all of the casas particulares on the beach were occupied. Thankfully, I found a sweet couple fifteen minutes out of town who took me in. The husband was 31, and a speargun fisherman. His wife was an 18 year old Jessica Simpson lookalike who grew up on the beach, although she told her husband after hearing all about the jellyfish and the manta rays that he has seen that she was never going back in. They very illicitly took me into their house (they told me that if while I was at the beach anyone asked where I was staying that I should say at the hotel, not at their house), and while I paid a little much ($35), I had my very first lobster tail for dinner that was caught that same day, had a wonderful breakfast, and was very well accommodated in their house. They both stayed with the wife’s mother that night and allowed me to stay in their bed. The price was more than worth the experience and the knowledge of the sea that the husband passed along to me. Plus, he offered to take some of us speargun fishing if we called him ahead of time.
Friday night I spent the evening with Delio Cuevas, the much mentioned university historian. He told me a ton of incredible things, many of which were told to me in secrecy and thus I cannot relate most of them. He did tell me that he was friends with Fidel Castro in their school, and because of this and his dedication to Cuba, he has been allowed many freedoms in travel. He also told me that he has Fidel Castro’s cell phone number if something important ever comes up. We talked about politics, movies, the United States, and education while we had a daiquiri at Floridita, one of Hemingway’s haunts, and a mojito at La Boguedita, the other of Hemingway’s most famous bars. I shared that I felt that I may never meet another person as intelligent as him in my life, and I stand by that. He spoke to me for fifteen minutes or so entirely in Latin. He also knows at least seven other languages (including Esperanto!). I feel very lucky to have a connection such as him here in Cuba, and he told me that his car and any of his knowledge or connections are at my disposal whenever I should need them.
We’re still being taken advantage of here, but it’s occurring less and less as we learn more about la vida cubana. Our passports were finally returned to us on Thursday, after two weeks, so we can now withdraw money from our TransCards, and also travel. On Friday, we gave our fingerprints for our Carnets, the cards that show us as temporary Cuban citizens, and when we receive those (fingers crossed for sometime in the early part of next week) we will be entitled to better prices on almost everything. Essentially, when we think we’re getting screwed on a price, we can show our Carnets as if to say “Now give us the real price.”
It looks like next week is a trip to Camaguey. This week I’m going to try to explore a bit more of the city, as well as once again trying to keep more up to date on the journal, as I’m sure I’ve already left things out that should’ve been in here. Til next week, think of the world.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Pictures and a video

Here's where I'm putting my pictures now:

And here's a video of big waves on the Malecon:


Jan30th through February 4th

First, I must apologize. I did not keep up with my journal writing, even to the poor extent that I did last week, in which I recounted my days a day after the fact. It is Sunday afternoon, and I’m recounting the whole week’s events – but in a different light from the previous week.

I talked to a friend this week via AIM who has traveled on six-month plus trips to Russia and India, two of my own Holy Grails of travel. He only read one of my last entries, but advised me that while I was very thorough, I was not very succinct or tangential. In the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, my entries “avoid emotional pitfalls and confine themselves to relating the events of daily life in the utilitarian style of a ship’s log” (I’m reading Love in the Time of Cholera). So in order to be more interesting and more introspective, I’m going to do a retrospective on this week mostly regarding really interesting things. I’ll try to stay chronological, but many of my musings are culminations of the week.

Firstly on the topic of classes – to refresh your memories, we’re taking courses on Cuban history from the 1400s to the present day, Cuban culture, Cuban international relations, and a Spanish course. History is surprisingly everyone’s favorite subject, mostly due to the pair of professors. They go off on necessary tangents of world history to help us understand the context of the Cuban aspect, while essentially spinning a great tale of a much storied country. It helps as well that they butcher some English words to keep things amusing, like “chips” for “ships” – “Cuba went from one chip a month to over NINE HUNDRED CHIPS during eleven months!” – and “chopping” for “shopping” – “It was like a chopping mall”. The class is three hours long, two days a week. Cuban culture also will be a lot of fun. The class lectures last only an hour and a half, but almost every week we also have cultural outings in which we tour museums, visit theatres, and actively seek out the Cuban culture. We will also take a four day trip to Trinidad and make stops at important villages along the way.

One of the most interesting things we already learned of the culture is in regards to names. While Cubans have a large number of strange Russian and African names due to obvious factors, the US’s influence as a forbidden yet highly visible fruit is most visible in Cuban names. I’m not referring to James, or Richard, or anything general like that. Some Cubans, especially those in the Guantanamo region, have taken to naming their children Usnavy (pronounced Oos-nah-vee) or Usaf (pronounced Oo-sahf) after the US armed forces presence. Senor Cuevas told us as well of the names Madeinusa (pronounced Mahd-een-oo-sah) and Onecent (pronounced Ohn-eh-cent). Though we’ve yet to meet anyone with these names, I’m convinced they do exist – though I’m still having enough problems figuring out the names of the people I meet in the street.

Cuban international relations looks to be the most difficult class – not as far as subject matter, but insofar as taking notes and understanding where the professor is going with the class. The way we are given our lessons are circular and repetitive, and despite the fact that we discussed the US and Cuba’s reasons for certain foreign policy decisions and the factors that go into that decision-making for at least two hours, I took less than a half-page of notes. Of course, the class also goes from 2PM to 5PM in the afternoon: prime siesta time, so the lack of notes could be attributed to that as well. The party line was towed pretty steadily throughout the afternoon, and hopefully we can expand in the future.

I was placed in the intermediate Spanish class which wasn’t so much a surprise considering my lack of knowledge of both Spanish and English grammar, but because for the past two years I have taken topics courses taught in Spanish. I think it will be an important remedial class in my Spanish, especially being here. The first class was a little basic, going over beginning conversations, but we also covered some idiomatic phrases and words specific to Cuba, which was helpful. While it isn’t helping my academic requirements, I welcome it as development for my language skills.

Valerie and I have been talking a lot this week about the limits of the enclave programs of American University. Enclave programs are groups of AU students who generally live together, take classes together, and venture out together. This is opposed to direct enrollment programs in which the student is typically enrolled in the college dormitory or finds housing outside of the college, takes classes along with the local students, and is responsible for their own social life. We’ve definitely had some trouble immersing ourselves here in Cuba. Most of the day I spend speaking English as opposed to Spanish, which is no fault of the Cubans but rather the nature of this program. We’ve made very few friends with students or just regular Cubans, save for the two guys that Jessica met – one who is attached to her and his friend who presumably wants to get with one of the other girls here. Essentially, guys only want to hang out with American women, and Cuban girls are too submissive to start up conversation with American guys, and I’m not as forward as the catcalling Cubans when it comes to approaching women.

Furthermore, a lot of the people that approach us inevitably want something. Earlier this week I was sitting on the Malecon playing my harmonica when a family of five approached me. First they offered me a pull from their bottle of rum, which I would never pass up here, but after a little chatting they asked if I could buy some sodas for the kids. I ended up buying sodas for the two children, three beers for the husband and his sister and myself, a pack of cigarettes, and a pack of crackers. While they definitely appreciated the luxury and I feel much too guilty not giving when I am able to, it was fairly obvious that I was being taken advantage of. The desire to know me beyond an American or someone to drink with was not there. Still, I hope that with a little more time and impatience I can start spending more time with the real Cuban people.

Friday evening we went to another large march, this one held under the façade of UNESCO. The Latin American Jose Marti Award was being presented to Hugo Chavez by Fidel Castro. The seated audience was mostly trabajadores sociales, a group of student Communists, medical workers from around Latin America (we played a fun game of “Guess that flag!” and saw everything from Guyana to Argentina to Jamaica), and some Cuban secondary school students. The event started out with the Cuban and Venezuelan national anthems, then a multi-country dance, and then the reading of a Marti poem which almost every Cuban was reciting. Then an Argentinean diplomat started the program with a speech in which he lambasted Bush & co. for being imperialists with an evil agenda. After he finished in about fifteen minutes, we were treated to our first speech by Fidel Castro in person. He spoke much slower than I expected, and were it not for the absolute boredom his words inspired I could’ve understood the whole speech – which clocked in at an hour and a half: short by Castro’s reputation. At one point while watching the screens that relayed the view along the Plaza de la Revolucion the cameraman cut to a shot of Chavez listening to Castro – in his lap were two children (presumably his own) who were dead asleep. Surprisingly, the majority of the Cubans grew restless as well, and very few were intent on what Castro had to say. While I was moving along the side of the seated audience to get a closer view of Castro, someone behind me yelled out “Hook ‘em baby!” I wheeled around and saw this short young guy beaming at me who asked “Are you American?” I said yes, and he told me that he was as well. He went to UT as an undergrad, and had been out a few years. He was in Cuba illegally, but we traded a few stories and tips. He was flying out a few days later, so the odds that we would see each other again were slim. Castro finally finished speaking, and so we listened to the first few minutes of Chavez speak, and then decided to book it, which turned out to be a good decision as he spoke for a little less than three hours.

It was exciting to see both Castro and Chavez in the same setting and at such a great venue as the Plaza de la Revolucion. Both berated the Bush administration quite a bit, and it was interesting seeing the Latin American solidarity against the US. I’m not the first to say it, but we are definitely entering a new era of Latin American – US relations, with many south of our nation turning against us and banding together. Both presidents referred to Bolivia and their recently elected indigenous president, Eva Morales. Next year Cuba will host the Non-Aligned Countries meeting, which will undoubtedly move more nations behind the anti-American cause.

Saturday, we experienced our first tropical storm. While the day started off hot and sunny and we contemplated heading to the beach, a few hours later it clouded over and suddenly the sky burst open. I could picture a hurricane in Havana now after seeing the quick ferocity of this storm. This was the cold front that people had been talking about during the week which I didn’t believe was coming. I was quite wrong. Later, Diana, Valeria, Scott, and myself went to Senor Cuevas apartment, which was truly eye opening to me. The head historian of the university and a self-proclaimed friend of Castro lives in El Pentagono, a small apartment complex with five radial wings. To the extent of where he lives, there is definitely no inequality between the people. We watched a movie called Un Rey en la Habana, which was supposedly banned in Cuba because of the less than sophisticated way in which it portrays the Cuban people. The movie was a comedy, but every other word is a curse, which is all I could find that would not be so enjoyed by Fidel. I laughed a lot, and it made me believe finally that Latin Americans have a sense of humor, as opposed to Sabado Gigante and the other terrible comedy hours that Univision and Telemundo put on.

We had agreed to meet at three forty outside of his apartment, but we didn’t show up until four, which worried Delio to the point where he went downstairs to wait for our taxi. Unfortunately, we missed him, which is surprising because he had gone downstairs with a small US flag and was waving it on the corner by himself in the rain. Two police officers stopped him and asked what he was doing, and replied that he was waiting for the US students who were coming to watch a movie with him. He was carded (the police card suspicious Cubans), and when they realized he was a professor at the university, they apologized and sent him on his way. We couldn’t believe that he would do this, but we’ve since learned that you can’t put anything past this energetic old man.

We also met Redondo, his mulatto “servant”, as he called him. He was a young man around 21, who walked around in cutoff jean shorts and nothing else. Delio was quick to tell us that Redondo modeled when he was done working with Delio. A modeling picture was on top of the television, and while he ran to go get us some cola, he received two calls on his cell phone and one on Delio’s phone from someone named “Mamita”.

What really surprised me was some of the things he confided in us. First, he showed us his newest book, which he said was sold in dollars while he was paid in national pesos. Then he showed us all the gifts that his American friends would bring to him and he was very proud of – old, obscure movies, two or three year old Times and Newsweek magazines, and other little trinkets. What hit me in general is how limited the Cubans do live, even the more educated people. There’s no maxim here about getting ahead just by working hard. For the most part, it’s ingenuity and entrepreneurship that gets you ahead, and only by a little bit. Still, to see such a smart, respected old man be so content and willing to give when he has so very little to give in the first place is a touching sight.

Hopefully this edition of my journal was a little more interesting that last weeks. I still have some more general points to share about, such as the differentiation between social classes here, getting routinely taken advantage of, and any adventures that I have experienced or will in the next week. Thanks for reading.