Notes from Cuba: Wi-Fi, Hemingway and the Malecón

IMG_20170310_125143

“My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita” – Ernest Hemingway

Cuba is everything and nothing like I imagined. The minute I step out of the airport into the currency exchange line I see the old cars, and gasp in surprise, as if I didn’t really believe they existed. It feels so cliché, so stereotypical- the kind of thing everyone tells you to look out for; like kangaroos in Australia. But here they are. 1950s Chevys and Buicks painted bright pinks, purples and greens. Cars my grandparents would have owned. I am delighted by this. Delight followed by a slight twinge of…guilt? Discomfort? It is the first time I feel this in Cuba, but I know it won’t be the last. I quickly shake it off as Adam, my travelling partner, and I get our first Cuban beer, a Cristal, and hop into a taxi heading towards Havana.

Downtown Havana consists of three main neighborhoods: Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Centro Habana and Vedado, with Centro Habana sandwiched in between Old Havana and Vedado like a piece of ham.

Our taxi driver talks to us in a Spanish accent that is hard for me to understand. As if the words have gotten stuck in the back of his throat and are having trouble escaping.

He tells us there is no crime in Cuba, everyone has a free education, even a university education, and there are no guns.

He’s wrong, though. There’s crime in Cuba, of course. The only problem is the Cuban government doesn’t release crime statistics. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Department of Bureaucratic Security:

“The U.S. Embassy continues to receive several reports per month of non-violent crimes against tourists. These numbers are increasing slightly and are consistent with reporting from other diplomatic missions in Cuba. Most crime can be associated with pickpocketing, purse snatching, fraud schemes, and thefts from unoccupied cars, hotel rooms, and/or dwellings.”

There were also a small number of violent crimes reported against Americans in 2015. So, while it seems like crime is relatively low, it’s actually quite hard to tell. I lock the door to my AirBnb just in case. It has five different locks on it and a hole where there must have been a lock, but now a piece of cotton is stuffed in it.

We are staying on the third floor of a building that looks like it has been abandoned for years- as most buildings in Habana look. There is no elevator and at least one window on each floor landing is broken. But the view of the Malecón, Cuba’s historic esplanade, is magnificent from our balcony.

IMG_20170309_183157

If you want to really see Havana, the Malecón is the best place to post up. At night people stroll, fish, drink, fight, make out, play dominoes, and dance along this 5 mile roadway and accompanying seawall. It is constantly alive and has been nicknamed “the world’s longest sofa.” Along this roadway you can always see the Buicks, Cadillacs, and Chevrolets (Tsch-eyv-vro-lets as Cubans call them) roll up and down looking for tourists.

“Taxi, taxi taxi?” They yell out the window at us, honking a horn that sounds like a mix between a clown car and an ice cream truck.

malecon.jpg

Photo by Adam Willis

Our AirBnb is in Vedado, and as we explore the neighborhood have to be careful not to trip on the crumbling sidewalks while staring in awe at the neoclassical homes, once built for rich families now occupied by multiple, partitioning off the rooms. Laundry hangs in the yard or out windows. A little girl pees in the street as another one, maybe 12-years-old skips down the road in a red school uniform. Half dead dogs, ribs poking out, lie in the shade and cats beg for food at tourists’ feet on restaurant patios.

One of the first things we come to is a Wi-Fi park. Really, it is just a park, but it is one of the few places you can connect to the Internet in Cuba. Everyone’s heads are bent down staring at their phones. Wi-fi does exist here, contrary to what we’d heard- you just have to work a little bit harder to get it. You know, like stand outside of a hotel, or in a park and get a pre-paid Internet card to access it. In 2015, the nation’s government owned telecommunications provider ETECSA started hosting Wi-Fi hotspots around the country. We had stumbled upon one, complete with locals already hustling us to buy a card.

I want to tell them there is a whole world out there- HBO and smartphone options and Internet in your house. Cuba is like that guy you know who still has a flip phone.

Looking at the Wi-Fi park invokes that feeling again, the same one from the airport. It stays with me when I discover an abandoned park just down the street from it, complete with an almost empty pool, except the putrid brown water at the bottom and concrete diving platforms crumbling into the deep end. Men playing dominoes on a cracked plastic table in the street eye us warily as Adam snaps photos of them in front of partially collapsed houses.

vedado1.jpg

Photo by Adam Willis

In Havana, they say, 3-4 collapse each day- either partially or completely. The BBC reports that:

Seven out of every 10 houses need major repairs, according to official statistics. Some 7% of housing in Havana has formally been declared uninhabitable. The province around the capital needs some 300,000 more properties.

But despite the disrepair and less than stellar food (pork, beans and rice for almost every meal), tourists are flocking to Havana. At night in Old Havana the bars are full and you can hear Buena Vista Social Club covers almost everywhere.

building one

I start to worry it might all be tourists, but then we take a side street and see a crowd outside of a bar called La Bodeguita del Medio- one of Hemingway’s (many) favorite bars in Cuba.

This bar is full of Cubans, something I take as a promising sign.

The dichotomy of bar life and street life is jarring. One minute you’re staring at a toothless old woman in a doorway or a half dead dog in the street and the next you are in a well-lit bar with flamenco music and pleather couches.

We meet a group of Americans who whisk us off to more bars and we hand money to taxi drivers and bartenders and don’t think twice. Cubans sit in doorways and on porches and stare, or try to tell us about their friend the taxi driver or lure us into a restaurant. It is easy to spot tourists in Havana. And almost every Cuban we come across in the nightlife world tries to sell us something. They know we can pay it.

At 4 in the morning we come across a man with a drink cooler and a bar outside of a house and he asks us if we want pizza. After huge plates of pork and beans, we absolutely want pizza.

17838722_10102033850110276_1287780447_o

Photo by Adam Willis

I sip more Cristal as I wait for the pizza and people shuffle in and out of the house and stare at us and we speak in English and it is at this moment I finally recognize the feeling I have at the airport. After a full first day in Cuba, and more than a few mojitos, I am starting to realize that in this particular world I have found myself in, not only am I an “other” in nationality and skin-tone, but I am an “other” in every sense of socio-economic status as well. I can bar hop in Cuba and think what I am paying is a steal, when really what I have paid in food and drinks and cab rides this first night is most likely someone’s salary for an entire month, maybe two.

I have taken photos of old cars, of dilapidated houses and children playing with broken toys, and these details are fascinating. But what I have to keep reminding myself for most of the trip is the reason there are old cars and cracked sidewalks is because of a US embargo, an oppressive communist government and years of poverty. It’s literally almost impossible to get a new car.

It means when drinks or supplies run out at a store, they’re just out. ‘Til when, you ask? Cubans shrug. A shrug that says, why would you even ask that? A shrug that says as a collective society we have stopped asking why to these kinds of questions.

We take our pizza wrapped in a paper towel and wander back towards the AirBnb and sit on the wall of the Malecón.

This is the worst pizza I’ve ever had in my life, Adam says.

Yes, yes it is, I agree, washing it down with a crisp, cold Cristal, while staring out at the waves.

This is Cuba though. It is a mix of cold beer and terrible pizza, dirt streets and grand hotels, flickering streetlights and gas station stores almost out of everything. Russian engines in American cars, well dressed women hanging laundry off their back porch, and the Atlantic Ocean pounding against the wall of the Malecón as it patiently tries to hold back the tide of what may come.

Advertisements

Notes from La Habana, Cuba

cuba car

Photo by: Adam Willis

At the José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba there are no escalators in the main terminal. That means, if you have a carry-on, you have to manually lug it down the stairs to your gate. The airport is not large, all of the gates are in one area. There is a constant line at the food court, consisting of just one restaurant- with little indication as to what you can order.

We are out of everything except ham sandwiches, the woman at the window tells me when I reach the counter.

You are out of everything at the international airport in the largest city in your country? I want to ask. But after having spent 5 days in Cuba I realize it’s not worth it to broach the subject. That kind of question is a distinctly first-world country kind of question. So instead I ask for the ham sandwich, which they serve me on one side of a Styrofoam to-go box they have ripped in half to get more leverage out of dwindling supplies.

IMG_20170313_154906

As I eat my soggy ham sandwich I notice a tall American girl in line at the food court. And she is losing it.

I hate this stupid fucking country, she says in a high-pitched voice, a voice everyone around her can hear.

It’s a piece of shit! They took my tweezers, they took my stuff. They’re not honest here, she screams at her boyfriend.

I look on in horror at this girl, who apparently has no shame, or might possibly be drunk. She flips her hair back and forth in her expensive yoga pants and hiking boots.

These people aren’t honest, they take our money, I’m not giving them anything else, I hate this!

She is the worst kind of ugly American I can imagine. The kind of person who confirms all of the stereotypes that other countries have about us.

The thing about this girl though, is that in some ways she’s not wrong. I did get ripped off in Cuba, I had a friend who got mugged, I took a woman’s photo and she demanded money from me and it was always hard to tell in the tourist areas who was being honest and who was just hustling you. But what yoga pants girl was forgetting, or just completely missing, is that Cuba is so much more complex than that.

For me, Cuba felt a lot like falling in love. It’s breathtaking, confusing, even absurd at times, completely foreign and maybe a little rum-infused.

I had come to find out if Cuba is an island that time actually forgot, or if it is an island where no one cares if time exists, whether or not the Cuban people wanted to enter into the time of the 21st Century or stay in their parallel universe. Because in the Cuban universe the rules are different, and sometimes they don’t even apply.

Cuban men whistle at us in the streets and try to kiss me in their cab, children point and stare at us in their school uniforms as if we are animals escaped from the zoo, salsa floats out from restaurants and bars, prostitutes follow American men around trying to score in more ways than one. The rum is cheap and the cigars even cheaper.

You enter Cuba at your own risk and whether you like it or not, it hooks you and hustles you. It draws you in little by little, asks you to get into a taxi from the 1950s, forget that the Internet or Starbucks or capitalism exists for a bit, and let go of your inhibitions as you fly down the Malecón into a place wholly unlike the one you come from.

Cuba PKG1-93

Photo by: Adam Willis

 

17684631740_3889cc1ff8

Photo Credit: G. McDougall

I’m a bit of an obsessive trip researcher. I like to know what kind of place I’m walking into before I go, so when I booked my ticket for Cuba last month, I started devouring any information about the country I could get my hands on.

The first thing I realized is that everyone has a different opinion about this island and its history is multi-layered and, oftentimes, confusing. But if you are thinking about a trip there I wanted to share a few resources I’ve been reading that might be helpful– everything from practical travel tips to real-life glimpses into life on the island. Plus, there’s a few documentaries for those of you who might want to brush up on some of that history you fell asleep for during high school.

For travel prep:  
screenshot_20170221-143825-2
I have relied heavily on two books in preparation for the trip. The first is The Authentic Cuba Travel Guide by Christine Williams and Julian Hatfield.

Written by the travel blogger duo of Don’t Forget
to Move
, they offer great practical tips on how to travel in Cuba, with sections in their book specifically for travelling as a solo female, and a breakdown of scams to avoid as a foreign tourist.

The second book I’ve utilized is Lonely Planet’s Cuba Guidebook.

img_20170219_142546

Full of advice, various walking tours and a brief overview of almost everything you could possibly hope to experience there- from hotels to exchanging money- it has a great breakdown of the places in Havana I want to visit. It also comes with a little bit of history and a lot of tips on where to get the best cigars and rum.

Rick Steves, a personal travel guide favorite of mine, also has a short Ted Talk-esque guide to Cuba, with great advice and dad-jokes, if you want to check it out here.

For historical reference:

HBO’s documentary, Patria O Muerte Cuba- Fatherland or Death is a fascinating look into present day Cuba and the longing for change and modernization that many of its residents feel. The filmmakers interview artists, activists and creative thinkers to get their take on what it’s like living in a world where censorship is an ever present reality.

The Cuba Libre Story: Neflix’s 8- part series chronicling the history of Cuba from Spanish rule all the way to Fidel Castro’s reign. I am only three episodes in, but it gives great context into the origins of the island and the Cuban Revolution, especially if you’re a little hazy on why we can’t get Cuban cigars in the States.

For literature’s sake:

dirty-havanaDirty Havana Trilogy: Once banned in Cuba, this book details life in Havana post-Soviet rule. The narrator, Pedro Juan, a listless ex-journalist, is a cross between Kerouac and Bukowski and chronicles his share of sex, violence, hunger, poverty and crazy rum-induced adventures.

Best America Travel Writing 2016:  The essay “Peak Havana,” which originally appeared in Outside Magazine and can be found here, talks about the American misconception (and desire) to visit Cuba before it changes. He argues that Cuba is already changing:

We fear we are missing Cuba the way it was, or was supposed to be. We don’t want to be those people, the ones who arrived too late…Simple advice. We should go to Havana, not before it changes but so that it does change. So that it can change. The most authentic Cuba is the one still to come.

Stay tuned!

Getting to know Cuba

Day 7- The Badlands

Soundtrack: Gloria Estefan, Camarón

img_20170102_181505-1

The part of Spain we are traveling around in during this trip takes place mostly in the Andalucían provinces of Granada, Almería and Málaga. I always have a strange sensation of Déjà vu when looking out the car window because this area looks incredibly similar to the American West, which is why it has been nicknamed “The Badlands.”

In 1961, American film companies started shooting spaghetti westerns in the area because it was a hell of a lot cheaper than Hollywood, and the landscape looked exactly the same as say, Wyoming or Colorado. Big names like Spielberg even shot films in the area. You might remember a little gem known as Indiana Jones and the last Crusade.

Because so many westerns were shot here, there is a town called Mini Hollywood about an hour from Guadix. Mini Hollywood is a western town that was built as the set for films like Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Now it is a theme park/tourist attraction that features cowboy stunt shows and a shootout with Jesse James.

Here are a few other films from the area, posted outside a local tourist kitsch shop.
img_20170103_133623

In keeping with the similarity to the American West, the Badlands also have hot springs.

We take a drive north from Guadix to el Balneario de Alicún de las Torres. It is a resort with hot springs, a pool and areas to hike. This video gives you an idea of what it looks like, even though I think it is pretty much just a drone commercial.

“In the summer this place is filled with guiri’s,” Carolina says.

Definition of a Guiri: Foreign tourist, someone who is clearly not Spanish

Ex.: British people who wear socks with sandals. Americans who eat dinner at 7 p.m. and wear brightly colored clothing. Germans who don’t speak the language but buy houses on the Costa del Sol.

img_20170102_175702

The hot springs are also located close to the Megalithic Park of Gorafe. This is a low-lying valley in the Badlands that has the largest concentration of dolmens in Europe- over 240. What is a dolmen? I’m glad you asked, because I had to look it up.

During the Neolithic and Copper ages, tribes of people lived in this area. The dolmens are where they buried their dead- basically prehistoric burial chambers. Large stone structures that look a little bit like the Flintstone’s house, but you know, for dead people.

We head down the long winding road known as the Ruta de Megalitico de Gorafe that takes us through this prehistoric valley where we eventually end up in the town of Gorafe. Most of the bars and shops are closed, but Carolina knocks on the door of one of the hotels and asks if we can enter. The woman tending bar has a bowl of oranges in front of her and asks me if I would like to try her homemade wine.

“El vino del campo es fuerte,” Carolina says. But the good country people of Spain pride themselves on their homemade wine, and you can’t get much more local than wine from a woman who has probably lived her entire life close to this bar in Gorafe.

I shrug and say “si.” It wouldn’t be a Spanish adventure without at least one glass of wine.

 

img_20170102_190707

You are now entering Spanish time

Days 5-6 

img_20161231_222134

Spaniards have a different concept of time. Nothing happens quickly and no one ever seems worried about this. Plans are fluid, as is time. And during the holidays neither seem to exist. Let me set the scene.

New Year’s Eve/Nochevieja

9 p.m. Wake up from a nap.

10 p.m. Head to apartment where Carolina’s mom lives. On the top floor is “La Torre” (the tower) where the entire family gathers for a New Year’s Eve meal. There is a long table that seats at least 20 people and they are in the process of setting it and putting out trays and trays of food. Various members of the family come and go, Carolina’s brother Carlos pops a bottle of Sidra (a bubbly cider champagne mix), kids play Dance, Dance Revolution on the Wii. Someone is taking a picture in front of the giant nativity scene set up in La Torre. Carolina hugs her niece who continues to look at her phone and her mom, the matriarch of the family, stands behind the kitchen counter overseeing the food and making sure all the plates are ready. They place laurel leaves and various euro bills under each plate for good luck.

IMG_20161231_222238.jpg10:45 p.m. Entire family sits down for dinner. With 20 people talking all at once it is a dull roar of activity and noise. Pass me the ensaladilla rusa, I want manchego! Someone grabs my soup bowl and takes it to the kitchen before I am done. Carolina’s mom dishes out chicken to everyone. Different hands reach for the bread basket, ripping off pieces to soak up the olive oil from their plates. People keep toasting to anything imaginable between bites of food. We clink our glasses together and Carolina’s brothers tell jokes while Carlos pops another bottle of Sidra- the cork flies over our heads and no one flinches but me. It is glorious chaos.

IMG_20161231_223026.jpg

11:15 p.m. Grape washing and cleaning of the table commences. Carolina’s nieces start getting ready to go out. I ask Natalia, Carolina’s 16-year-old niece, what time she will be home tonight and she says, “Hasta la hora de los churros.” This means she will be home at 7a.m. because that’s when the churro stands open. My mouth hangs open and then I have to remind myself to close it. Niece continues putting on make-up.

IMG_20161231_231818.jpg

11:55 p.m. Everyone holds a bowl of 12 grapes and we stand in front of the T.V. Instead of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rocking Eve, David Bisbal is singing on the television and then the countdown begins. At exactly 12:00 a.m. twelve numbers appear on the bottom of the TV and a bell rings for the first 12 seconds of the year. Each time the bell rings you eat a grape—for luck for the next 12 months. Managed to eat about five so at least half my year should be pretty solid.

IMG_20161231_234323.jpg

12:00:12 a.m. Carlos pops another bottle of Sidra and we all go around hugging each other and yelling “Feliz año nuevo!”

1:00 a.m. Continue with Sidra, along with turron and mantecado- Spanish Christmas sweets. Nieces come back up to La Torre with red lipstick on and high heels and take pictures in front of the nativity. Kids continue with Dance, Dance and more aunts and uncles come up and shout “Feliz año!” The noise is constant and incessant.

2 a.m. People start to make plans. Where should we go to have a copa? Who is going where? Should we get some wine at the house?

2:10 a.m. Someone asks me if I want coffee.

2:30 a.m. Nieces head to The Hotel Carmen for the New Year’s Dance fiesta extravaganza. Carolina and I go home and open a bottle of wine.

Around 3:00 a.m. All of her brothers come to the house and we take shots of whiskey. Someone asks if we should go out and have a drink. The consensus is no. More whiskey is poured.

4:00 a.m. I am the first person to go to bed. “Vaya Americana,” they say.

Around 10:00 a.m. (Jan. 1) Carolina’s brothers go to bed.

Around 3:00 p.m.  Everyone goes back to La Torre to eat. Someone hands me a beer. I start to ask what time it is, but think better of it.

Fin.

Days 2&3

Castles, Caves, Cemeteries- An adventure in 3 parts 

img_20161229_162249

  1. Castles

We drive to a nearby town– Jerez de Marquesado– for lunch in a restaurant on the side of a hill overlooking the Sierra Nevadas. The mountains are covered in snow and have a hazy golden glow. There is smoke rising from the houses – for some still use wood burning stoves. This town is part of the white hill towns that dot the south of Spain in Andalucía. Villages of tiny clustered houses, that are, you guessed it, white, sitting atop valleys and nestled in hills that look so much like New Mexico and Colorado you have to remind yourself you aren’t in the American West. But if anything can remind you that you are, in fact, NOT in the American West, it’s a castle.

Which is what snaps me back to reality when we pass one on the way home. El Castillo de la Calahorra. It’s been there since 1509. Now it’s a tourist attraction, but was originally just a casual present from the Catholic Monarchs to a Cardinal.

Here is a photo of it.img_20161228_170619-effects2. Caves

Carolina’s friend has a car that they call el seis cientos- the 600. It is a Seat 600 from the 60s. To get into the back of the car you have to lift the front seat up manually and you can feel every bump in the road and smell the diesel burning. But it is magical to ride in a vintage car through tiny Spanish towns in a vehicle that feels like it was made for these tight, harrowing maze-like streets– slapped together haphazardly over hundreds of years.

IMG_20161229_144610 (1).jpg

Soon we arrive in El Barrio de las Cuevas. A neighborhood where people live in caves.

It is not uncommon to hear people in bars in the area say things like, “Oh yea, tonight I’m going to my parent’s cave for dinner.” And then they sip their wine as if this is completely normal, because, well, it is.

The cave neighborhood has white-washed chimneys sticking out of the ground in all directions and little doors in the side of the clay hills. So if you’ve ever dreamed of being a hobbit, dreams can come true in Guadix.

img_20161229_150347

Each time I step inside one of these caves I am met with an earthy smell and a wave of cool air. The walls are covered with white plaster to keep them from falling in, and if you are ever in the market for a cave they come equipped with all the modern conveniences you could want—running water, lights, Internet. Or you can try one out via AirBnB.

img_20161229_150655

There is also a cave bar nearby in which we sip wine, eat tapas and watch the old men of the pueblo stare at the 600 and remember a different time.

img_20161229_151838

3. Cemeteries

In Pedro Almodóvar’s movie Volver, the opening scene is in a Spanish graveyard full of women washing and dusting off gravestones and placing new flowers at their family’s grave sites. Once a year, on Oct. 30-31, Spaniards go to their graveyards and clean and refresh the flowers and then the next day, El Día de Todos los Santos, people come pay their respects to the dead.

img_20161229_164528

Because of this, I have always wanted to see a Spanish cemetery.  Luckily for me, the 600 just happened to pass one on our way to get a café con leche.

As we walk through the gates, Carolina says, “Look, this is where my pet bird was buried.”

The nicer grave sites are chest tombs, raised up from the ground bearing white stone crosses. But the part that looks different to American eyes are the columns of graves stacked one on top of each other. Massive square structures that look like rows and rows of giant drawers. They reach so high that there are movable stairs to help you climb up to a family member’s gravestone.

img_20161229_164929

I’d like to say something about how I pondered the fleeting nature of our existence, but really I just took pictures of people’s gravestones and marveled that I was in a Spanish graveyard. And that I could walk back through the gates after my tour and have a glass of wine.

Day 1

In which I feel as if I never left but am also a tourist. 

I have four cafe con leches, get completely hopped up on caffeine and walk the streets of Guadix with Carolina and pretend I still live here.

IMG_20161227_143311.jpg

In the process I remember the thing I like most about this town. Everyone is always in the street. Walking, talking, buying things seeing old friends during the holidays. For such a small town there is always activity and action.

The tapas bars are full of people, ordering wine and beer and each bar has one server tasked with getting everyone what they want. They all have the same frantic look and dogged determination–they do not have time to ask you how your drinks are or if you are ok and I appreciate this.

Everyone at the table orders a drink and then tapas, so I do too. Then they tell me it’s usually only two tapas plates per table rather than one for each person. And I go straight back to feeling like a tourist.

In the morning I awake to the streets full of people once again. Shopping and eating tapas and sitting outside and talking to people they meet, people they have known their whole lives in this town.

“Hola guapa! ‘Sta luego!” they shout at each other while pulling shopping carts behind them or disobedient children.

But at 2 p.m. something magical happens. Everything starts to go quiet. Shop keepers pull down their shutters with a whoosh of metal and people walk with a distinct purpose home. It is “la hora de comer.” From 2:30-5p.m. you won’t see any Spaniards in the street. They are home with their families, eating giant meals and maybe taking a nap or watching TV.

The streets seem to breathe a hushed sigh and I am left standing in the plaza taking photos of the cathedral. Just me and a stray dog who looks at me as if I might be lost.

IMG_20161227_142312.jpg