December 09, 2013

"Live" Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Days 11 & 12: But why is the rum gone?

November 16, 2013
It was our last day in Cuba, and thanks to Air Cubana's multi-hour delay, we had some time. We set our with no real plan. We walked toward the capitol, which is the same as ours but a little bigger, with palm trees and classic cars surrounding it. It looks like a bizarro world set piece--it could be the US capitol after some serious climate change, or in an alternate reality.

The capitol building as seen from taxi #2.

We also saw the whole building or two that constitute Chinatown, and the bar where Hemingway drank. The most famous one anyway--Husband and I have a theory that any bar of a certain age can make the claim that Hemingway drank there. I was also told that there's a bar down the street advertising the fact that Hemingway didn't drink there, but we didn't pass that one. At any rate, this is purportedly the bar where Hemingway invented the daiquiri, though the idea of him sipping a daiquiri doesn't compute in my head any more than does his bidet.

There's Hemingway's liquor, between the granny chairs
and under the taxidermy.

December 06, 2013

"Live" Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Days 9 &10: Trinidad and Beyond


November 14, 2013
Today was our visit to Trinidad, a town that apparently was the highlight of the trip for many. I feel like we failed at seeing the town properly. Husband was ill again and stayed behind. The rest of us went and wandered the town, but we had no agenda or plan or even map and so just wandered around buying things. Trinidad is famous for its weaving. We thought we had less time than we really did, so we aborted a mission to climb a tower, and just sort of hung around. Another of Trinidad’s claims to fame is its stone streets (not cobblestone, stone), which are definitely a throwback.

Most of the things Bunny and Crow bought were hats.

Other people made reservations for dinner and music and such in town, but it didn’t even occur to us. What with our late night scramble to find flights home and the fact that we were staying in a resort, the idea of taking a taxi back into town to have dinner seemed hard. So we aimed for the beach instead. It took forever to eat lunch and change and check the stupid internet for a flight confirmation and rent goddamn beach towels and finally get to the beach. 

On the bizarre side, we found this scary effigy in our room.
Hotel cleaning is an art form in Cuba. 

Crow and I went swimming. Bunny got about knee-deep before bailing on the coldish water and sharp sand, and Husband wouldn’t budge from his chaise. The sun set early and we went to the hot tub. It was moderately warm--much more so than the ocean!--but did not have any kind of view and so we missed the sunset again. I would have liked to see it. 

After the hot tub we ate the mediocre buffet dinner and played a variant of big chess that I came up with. It’s team chess, with no strategizing. The players take turns and they are absolutely not allowed to talk to each other about their plans. It makes you wish for telepathy. It’s also a little stressful, because I for one made some huge mistakes and felt really guilty. But Crow and I won in the end. In the end we had only our two rooks and a couple of pawns, and they had nothing but pawns, and then we queened up one of our pawns and killed everyone. All in all it was a relaxing day, which was much needed.

November 15, 2013
The next day was back on the bus. We drove to an empty intersection with nothing around but cows, which was where the Soviet Army trucks were supposed to meet us. They were late, and in the end we all had to crowd into one because our two didn't show.

Coffee, with army trucks in the background.

We went to a coffee plantation where we saw the true Arabica plant—Cuba is apparently one of the only places where it hasn’t mutated. Andre, the coffee farmer, is amazing and I want to take him home with me. We drank coffee and then drove up farther into the mountains where we had lunch and finally met the jincila, my favorite of all the cocktails we tried. 

Andre in his natural habitat. He's promised to write a book.

Then we went on a hike with Andre and he told us how to cure everything with plants from the jungle. Which of course we forgot immediately. There are these cute little plants that curl up when you touch them, which I found endlessly entertaining. Then we had lunch, and we also were lunch for the tiniest little mosquitos ever [spoiler: it's three weeks later and I still have the bites]. Lunch was roasted pig that we saw being roasted.


The ride on the army trucks was the highlight of the day for me. The roads we went up were ridiculously rutted and muddy and steep and it was like an amusement park ride.

After that we were late getting back to Havana, which meant that we had to rush to make the Buena Vista Social Club show that we’d booked. We bailed on dinner having barely gotten our entrees. When we got there, late, they immediately brought us a round of mediocre mojitos, and then another. The music was exactly what you’d expect, not really my thing, but fun, and with more variety than the music we'd heard everywhere. There are only six songs in Cuba (or so goes my theory): "Guantanamera," "Oye Como Va," another whose name we never knew, "My Way," "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," and one rotating selection by the Beatles. 

Mandela, "terrorism," and perspective

I feel I must take a brief break from my navel-gazing travel blogging to say something about Nelson Mandela. I am no student of history, especially recent history. I can't claim to know much more about Mandela than what I've read in the last day or so since learning of his death. But even that is enough to give me pause.

History is, as we all know, written from the winners' perspective. This places Mandela's legacy into an odd category. He lived long enough to become one of the "winners," universally acclaimed as a force for good and a moral person. But as many have pointed out, the US didn't remove him from our terrorist list until 2008. Why? Among other things, Mandela refused to renounce violence as a method of seeking justice. Therefore, from certain perspectives, he was a terrorist.

The definition of a terrorist is, of course, completely dependent on perspective. One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. The British thought of our founding fathers as terrorists, and with good reason! But no one is the villain of his or her own story. So who else might we be erroneously demonizing? It's a tough question.

I saw some of this while in Cuba. Growing up in the US, I was of course taught that Fidel Castro was an evil man. In Cuba, he's a revolutionary. Here he's a rebel, and a tyrant. Now, a week in Cuba doesn't make me an expert, but while people there do seem to prefer Raul, I didn't get the sense that anyone felt crushed under Fidel's iron fist (as my American education led me to expect). It is possible that there's so little freedom there that no one felt safe enough to criticize the regime, er, government. But it is also possible that people really do support the country birthed by his revolution. Perspective.

In order to accept Mandela into the pantheon of winners, the other winners are already trying to shape his legacy, erasing the violence and claiming that they were behind him all the way. Let us not forget that the truth is more complex than that.

December 04, 2013

"Live" Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 8: Crocodiles!

November 13, 2013
Today was another long bus drive out to our all-inclusive resort on the beach. A little break to enjoy the fact that we're in the Caribbean! Have I mentioned the weather? It's so nice to be too hot in November.

On the way we stopped at a nature preserve--the Cienfuegos Zapata--where we were supposed to take a bird-watching boat ride. Some of us had prevailed upon Michael to keep the crocodile visit on the schedule, so we started at the breeding center for the endemic Cuban crocodile. They have adorable young ones, and amazing grown ones. They are as still as statues, just waiting, I guess, for something edible to wander past their mouths. Michael and Danilo tried to rush us out of the place in order to catch our boat, but us bad kids went back in and I'm thankful we did, because that's when Husband spotted the man with a little crocodile we could touch. He asked us if we wanted pictures holding it, and we said Hell Yes. The little crocodile felt so soft and warm, and I'm so glad we didn't miss out on that chance. We still rushed out after three of us had held it, only to wait around. It turns out that the boat driver wouldn't take us on the kind of slow bird-watching ride we apparently wanted, so instead of taking a speedier trip we decided to forego it.

My little crocodile friend.

We stopped again when we got to the Bay of Pigs, or Playa Giron as it’s called locally. But we didn’t go to a memorial or museum or anything. Instead we just stopped on the side of the road where people were snorkeling in the bay’s crystal clear blue water. Hard to imagine anything warlike happening in such a location. 

The Bay of Pigs.

The drive was pretty beautiful overall, especially the closer we got to the resort. We almost made it in time to see the sunset; instead we followed a very insistent gato down to the beach just as it was becoming fully dark. The beach was rougher than I’d hoped, the dropoff steeper, the water cooler. But still it was a Caribbean beach! We headed back inland to the resort and got drinks, sitting down by a set of big chess. Crow mused about how he used to play, and Husband too, so we pressured them into playing a game of speed-chess before dinner. Neither of them could stop overthinking their moves, so we had to abandon it and go eat our “special” dinner in the resort's better restaurant, which was not so very special.

Almost to the resort.

After dinner the chess game was still there, so they resumed, and now Bunny and I jumped into the game to help. And then we were blindsided by Michael, who in the day and a half since telling us about our flight problem had managed to get a cursory internet search done. This was not the help I felt we'd been promised, and it also bothered me that he hadn't sought us out in any way, but just given us the info when we ran into him in the bar. So then we had to get in line for one of the resort's two ridiculous dial-up computers and spend literally hours struggling to book new flights. I believed we had managed it, but I was never sent an email confirmation of the change, which would effectively sour the rest of our trip with the uncertainty of whether we would be able to go home. United Airlines, if you're reading this, little things like that matter. Despite the fact that every time I logged into the site I saw our new flight times, the lack of that email mattered. 

So that was how our first resort day ended, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a semi-strangled cry of frustration. Still--crocodiles!

"Live" Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 7: We live here now

November 12, 2013
Today was my birthday, but it wasn't my all-time favorite. Husband was sick (with what we are calling Fidel's Revenge) and didn't go on the day's adventure. I admit I was pretty worried about him, especially since if he got worse and had to go see someone we would have no way of communicating. Even if we hadn't minded the probably astronomical cost, US phones simply do not work in Cuba. And I didn't really trust the hotel staff, because someone had already taken one of Husband's inhalers and pretended they didn't have it, when they did. Husband had to sneak behind the reception desk and steal back his own medically necessary property.

Me sad because Husband's not with me.

So anyway my day was already not awesome from the time I got onto the bus alone, feeling pretty guilty about going without him. And then we learned that our flight time from Cuba had been changed by several hours--enough that we would miss our flight home. This meant that we now had to figure out a way to change our (non-refundable) flight while in a country where we were totally disconnected--no phones, no internet. Tour guide Michael said that his office could handle the changes (which turned out to be completely untrue), but even so I was worried about the cost. It looked like my birthday present was going to be losing about $1000 just to get home. Whee.

If it weren't for those issues, though, it would have been a nice day. We visited a tobacco plantation and some cuevas (grutas), and now I have an entirely unnecessary two words for "cave" in my Spanish vocabulary. Also caverna if it's really a big cave. 

In a cave. On a boat.

At lunch, humiliation as I was pulled into the Afro-Cuban band that was playing me a happy birthday song. I'd already been visibly worried enough that well-meaining people kept asking me what was wrong and telling me it would be okay. I had just said that all I wanted for the rest of the day was for no one to look at me, and then I was the center of attention, trying not to murder everyone with my eyeballs. All I wanted to do was eat the delicioso rice that we'd been served. Our table--the cool kids--ate all of the rice from all of the tables. Todo el arroz! Amy and Darin bought me the local drink, orange juice and honey and rum, which was okay. Husband would have liked it, was all I could think.

The last of the rice disappears into Crow.

We also visited a tobacco plantation and drank rum and coffee with the "Marlboro Man," who is pretty awesome. The cave were cave-y, and the scenery gorgeous, but overall we spent a lot of time on the bus for not terribly much. This was also the day we realized that things that had been listed on our schedule were being quietly skipped, so we did not see the painted cliffs.

The Marlboro Man rolls a cigar.
Tobacco leaves dry behind him.

Back in Havana, the night's activity was a cabaret show. Husband felt well enough to come along, which helped my mood. We were right next to the stage, and practically kicked by the dancers, who were pretty good. The costumes were colorful and threadbare, the makeup glittery, the dances . . . odd. The first number was a rape dance that made me truly uncomfortable. However, it was also my favorite number as a work of art. The dinner that was served before the show was truly horrible, by far the worst food we ate on our entire trip (yes, worse than lunch at the Houston airport Panda Express). We joked that it was a good thing we couldn't really see the food in the low light, but when the stage lights came on and my mostly-uneaten plate became visible, there was the biggest wad of what looked like pubic hair on it. 

Halfway through the show tour guide Michael told us that the bus was leaving, so we awkwardly left right in the middle of the performance. He gave me a bottle of rum for my birthday, and the hotel gave me a bottle of Chinese sparkling cider and a fan, which was very sweet. Also, to my pleasant surprise, they took care of Husband while he stayed behind ill, checking on him every couple of hours. It turns out the chambermaid is also a registered nurse and she examined him and gave him advice while mopping the floor. Another odd reminder of the problematic two currency system that has turned nurses into maids. But again, this reminds me of my own life, and those of all my highly educated underemployed friends. Le sigh.

December 02, 2013

"Live" Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 6: Socialismo o Muerte

November 11, 2013
Today we visited an organic farm in the outskirts of Havana. It was pretty with bright red soil, and they served us a delicious lunch. During the food shortages post revolution, Castro set up a series of small urban farms to meet local demand. The one we visited is one of these, though it's now run collectively by the workers. They are mandated to sell a certain percentage of their food to the government, but the rest is theirs, and the profits likewise.

"What do they do with the bunnies?"
"Um . . . What do you think?"

Then we visited Hemingway's home. There are no polydactyl cats at this one, unlike the house in Key West, though there are a lot of inbred dogs. The house, reportedly, is exactly how he left it, and indeed it is fully furnished, right down to the selection of liquor. I may never understand the fascination with Hemingway, but I do have a picture of his toilet. Why not?  

This is Hemingway's bidet.

We had the afternoon and evening free so we went to the Museo de la Revolucion, which unfortunately I was in no mood to appreciate. I was grumpy because they made me check my purse, but for some reason not Bunny's. I also saw ones much bigger than mine. So I had nothing with me: no camera (they told me photography was forbidden, but told Bunny & Crow to go right ahead), no translator app (also on my phone), and I was worried that they would steal a 20 CUC bill from my purse, which they did.

The Museo de la Revolucion, with a piece of Havana's
old city wall in the foreground.

All in all the museum made me feel bad about my country some more, and even though I know to take these claims with a grain of salt, the socialist system in Cuba seems pretty good. I would trade some creature comforts, and the ability to become really rich, for a basic safety net that won't let me starve or go homeless or die for lack of medical care, and that will let everyone get a good education without going into debt. I don't even think I mind the educational system of choosing your top ten majors and being placed in one based on the need for that type of professional and your test scores. That seems fair and it would help to not produce a glut of professionals in one area who then can't find work. Cuba has a problem in that skilled professions tend to be paid by the government in relatively worthless Cuban Pesos, meaning that doctors and teachers and such make less than waiters, who are tipped in CUCs. This is pretty lousy, but the same is true here to a large degree. I make more money working in a bar than I did teaching college.

The view across the Bay of Havana.

After the museum we walked along the Maracon toward old Habana, as the sun set. We had a very excellent dinner at the paladar tour guide Michael recommended (whose name I will apparently never know), and then we had a drink with two Cubans, Josef and "Jack Daniels," who had accosted Crow earlier. Even though we all knew what was happening (that they wanted us to buy them a drink), we didn't mind because it was fascinating to chat with them about life in Havana. We also bought a box of "black market" cigars from them, which we have been told not to do [No, US Customs, if you're reading this, we did not bring any back with us]. But probably the story they told--that workers in the factory pay the guard to let them sneak a few out the back door--is true, which means it was a pretty good deal. I love that we did two of the things we were warned about at once, eyes open, and still didn't get ripped off.

Who needs a glass?

After that--and we had to extricate ourselves with some difficulty--we made our way to a brewery in the plaza vieja, where they serve beer in huge columns with a column of ice down the middle. We got a golden beer, 3 liters of it, and it was pretty good. Here there were many cats hanging around, though I think they had standard cat toes.

December 01, 2013

"Live" Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Days 4 & 5: Cuba Libre!

Ugh, late again. But happy December, everyone! Congratulations to all you NaNoWriMo winners out there, and if I may insert a small personal advertisement, why not take advantage of my NaNoWriMo Special:

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November 9, 2013
On a plane to Cuba. It's late, and we're missing half a day in Havana as a result, but at least we knew about it days ahead of time so we knew we could take most of the day to meander back to Cancun.