Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mi Abuela

Grandma always insisted she was from Madrid. She never spoke about her native Cuba, never told stories about growing up on this long crocodile island. Her name was Maria Elena Delgado. She never learned to drive, she washed dishes with scalding hot water, and her wedding ring had long since grown into her finger, never to budge. She had a temper like a firecracker. She used to say, Jessica, don't tell Sara or Courtney, but you're my favorite grand-daughter. Then she'd watch John and I shoot baskets outside in her driveway. Nearly a month here in this sweltering country and she has been on my mind.

I don't even know where she grew up. When I tell people, in my crumbled Spanish, that mi abuela was from Cuba, their eyes grow wide. Si! Si, they say, your smile, your brown skin, you look like a Cubana! And even though they don't say it, I can tell what they are thinking: Why don't you speak Spanish then? How can you not know where she came from? She is family!

Still, I feel her everywhere.

In the fiery woman screaming at her son on the sidewalk (and there's Grandma, shouting at Grandpa, calling him a criminal! for some minor infraction that was over as quickly as it started)

In the great restless waves off the coast of Baracoa, tossing me just hard enough to make my heart quicken without panic (I can't quite recall her story of the sea, but I know it involved her being dragged out and nearly drowned and she never swam again)

In the generosity of the older women whose homes we stay in (many of whom are named Maria Elena). Just yesterday we received free espresso, ice cream (strawberry of course) and cake.

In the way you know people are just telling you what you want to hear, not because they are liars necessarily, but because in Cuba the truth has acrobatic qualities. We've learned the hard way there is no such thing as a reservation here. (and, again, Grandma, serving us her special home-made soup, though the Campbell's can pokes out of the trash)

Aye Dios Mio! Oh My God! she would exclaim, and now I know why. So many reasons, both good and bad, to take that name in vain here:

M and I swimming beneath a rainforest waterfall, so cool and delicious after a grueling hot hike.

We ride in a 1949 Chevrolet (so many old cars, like I've never ever seen) to a 200 year old colonial house where we get to stay for about 25 dollars.

The incessant Where are you from?--- the hustlers who see dollar signs in our eyes and won't take no for an answer.

The rivers of urine on the streets of Carnaval; the sheer beauty of life in the kids screaming from their 1950s rides as they eat cotton candy at Carnaval.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rusty Jewels

We've made it clear across the island, to the easternmost city of Baracoa, where Columbus first landed in 1492 and planted a wooden cross that foreshadowed a seismic shift whose ripples we are still riding. We had to ride through Guantanamo province to get here, military checkpoints and dry scrub giving way to a verdant valley flanked by ocean and mountains. We are closer to Haiti than Havana, tucked into a sweet little village that was only accessible by sea until the 1960s. Fresh sugarcane juice for sale on the sidewalks, trumpets and percussions treating us to a Cuban rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In" as we sip our Sunday morning espresso on the triangular plaza, just a slow minute stroll from the crashing waves. It's one of those places you never want to leave.

It took a total of 24 hours by bus to make it here, stopping in cities aglow with filth and beauty. A quick run-down of the places we've called home, if only for a couple of restless nights:

Cienfuegos, city of a hundred fires, which the hyperbolic Lonely Planet called "the Paris of Cuba," and which we quickly renamed "the Fort Bragg of Cuba"on account of its treeless dishwater hue. We walked around, sticky with sweat and car exhaust grime, until the punishing sun forced us into pool-crashing at the lovely Hotel Colonial. After a dip and a hamburger in the plant-filled gazebo, we were restored, but still ready to move on.

Next was Trinidad, a little glowing ember of bright colonial homes and pineapple every morning for breakfast. We swam and shell-collected on the beach by day. At night, under the eerie swooping bats, on the hardscrabble yard of a run-down compound, we swayed to the infernal rhythms of a six-piece acoustic band playing for an audience of eight. Their eyes were all alight, their joy palpable, not missing a beat even as babies cried from the doorways and chickens scratched amongst their feet.

It's safe to say that Camaguey, the labyrinth city designed to foible invading pirates, was the best place to leave. Chewed-up streets clogged with hustlers and sad parks, but luckily a few hushed churches to escape the constant car bleating.

It was a long six and a half hour bus ride to Santiago, a lively artsy Caribbean-vibing city, where the people are darker and the mood lighter. We explored a vast cemetery where Cuba's hero of independence, Jose Marti, is buried (his tomb is guarded round the clock) and where countless revolutionaries are at peace, at last. We walked around the plazas at night, watching boys play crushed-can soccer (no limit to Cuba ingenuity) and girls play tag around ancient statues.

And now, off to pry into the secrets of Baracoa....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Stars and Rain and Strawberry Ice Cream

Viva Fidel!
Socialism! Si!
Siempre el Revolucion!
Viva Cuba Libre!
Viva el 26!
Socialismo o Muerte!
Viva Raul!
Unidos con La Patria!
Patria o Muerte!

These are but a sampling of the slogans that are neatly painted in flowing cursive in black and red on buildings and billboards all over Cuba. Socialism or Death. Unity, Strength, Liberty. Everything for the Revolution. Revolution Always. And here I am, idealist American, proud teacher of Fidel´s Socialist Revolution, my heart breaking and spilling its blood all over this wide lonely world, full to bursting because of a rainstorm or a line in a book that I can´t stop underlining, and, not for the first time, my world has been shattered. Whew, how´s that for Cuban drama?

Cuba is most definitely not a capitalist country, and before you think my disillusionment runs too deep, there are some truly admirable things that I relish about it. No ads, for one. Imagine a world without commercials, without twenty brands of competing toothpaste, without billboards on the highways (except for revolution slogans). Refreshing as the afternoon rain. No marketing, no bowing to the unholy dollar, unambitious display cases. And gardens everywhere! Looking out the window of the Chinese bus, brown rivers slinking through groves of banana trees, and rows upon rows of produce grown without pesticides. Cows and chickens that are actually roaming free, never caged or penned. No trucks hauling food across the island; it´s every hippie´s sustainable dream! People bring their own containers to ice-cream shops and women get a year of paid maternity leave. And since stores and restaurants are state-run, prices are regulated, which means easy budgeting and no getting ripped off.

But, alas, there are the downsides that I just couldn´t have foreseen. Today, for instance, as M and I walked in the steamy sun after visiting the Moncada barracks (where Fidel launched his very first insurrection in 1953), we saw people walking with cups of heavenly strawberry ice cream, but when we located the stand, a line snaked the length of an unfurled racetrack. Ditto for banks, internet shops (I´ve been trying for days to get on a computer!), birthday party supply stores, pizzerias, markets of all kinds. Buying a bottle of water in a market is a highly regulated procedure, whereby you must first check your bag, make your purchase, and then show your receipt to a guard at the door, who then folds it in half and makes a rip.

Since most people seem to need money, people have taken to renting out rooms of their homes, which is where we stay. Great for us, who get an intimate, personal experience of Cuban cooking (heavy on the butter and carbs and absolutely delicious!), decor (a fondness for fake flowers prevails), architecture (courtyards in the middle of the home, so when it rains you´re right there with it), and attitude (friendly and honest-- our current host built a special two-story bedroom for him and his wife, which he is now forced to rent out for 25 dollars a night to people like us).

And there´s more, but as usual, the hourglass is nearly empty. Despite the contradictions and heartbreaks of a post-socialist country badly in need of inkpens and hair conditioner, M and I are having a splendid time hopping across the lush island. We spent a few days bonding with a sugar-sweet Swiss family, swimming with 9 year old Kaspar at the beach, pushing one year old Marilyn in her baby carriage down cobblestone streets, dancing to back-alley music with more soul than this island can contain, but contain it does. When the lines are short enough, we wait for a taste of the sublime strawberry ice cream and curse Fidel for not putting fans in the grimy ice-cream shops. We walk around on poorly-lit streets in the rain, we swim in the warm Caribbean, and we thank those hazy stars, night after night, for all that we have.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Cuba Libre?

Havanna is unlike any other city I've ever been to, my head spinning with images and ideas as I try to type fast, because using the internet (which is legal only for foreigners, not Cubans) is incredibly expensive and as slow as it was in the mid-90s and I have only eight minutes left of my half hour time allotment after dutifully emailing my mom.

On our first day here, M and I scored a fifth floor apartment from the sweet tobacco-and-domino-loving Rolando, which looks out over the Centro Historico, Havanna's beautiful crumbling center. Despite the dog poop on the sidewalks, the little kids peeing in gutters, the rank dumpsters, and the sad disrepair of the gorgeous old buildings, the Centro pulses with a ferocious heartbeat. Music spills out of cafes all day and night; little rowdy packs of shirtless boys play soccer on any available patch of pavement; girls hold hands and eat ice cream cones and break into spontaneous dance; we feel safe and cushioned, anonymous, though the edge of economic sanctions appears to cut deep.

We were thrilled to have a kitchen until we took a trip into a grocery store, where fifteen people waited in line for a pint of yogurt or a hunk of cheese, which are kept in display cases and doled out according to ration cards. The shelves are not stocked. Long lines snake down the sidewalks, people waiting for fresh bread, eggs, and a turn at the bank teller.

Yikes! Time is up.... what else? So much! The mojitos run sweet and strong, the night-time rain last night as locals danced in the streets to the tunes of the bars that they can't afford to drink in, polished and preserved for the tourists, was surreal and enlightening. I can't believe this place.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

This Is Not Here

Landing at the Cancun airport at night in a rainstorm is an eerie experience. The wet heat crawls down your back and you don´t want to imagine what it feels like when the sun is shining.

For some people, Cancun is paradise. For us, it´s more like the ninth realm of hell. There´s no escaping it, however, if you´re flying to the Yucatan peninsula with visions of jungle lakes and Mayan ruins in your intrepid mind. Dazed from the exhorbitant price of the taxi ride, the bright lights of McDonald´s, and the sad town center, we finally found a greasy hotel room. The whiny air conditioner stopped working in the middle of the night (not that my achy stomach was allowing me to sleep much anyway).

The next day we ventured out to the beach, which, aside from the ocean, no less stunning under a thick gray sky, is like a run-down Las Vegas where American corporations come to wink and wilt. Carl´s Jr, Chili´s, Office Depot, Subway, you name it, the Cun probably has it. Inside a giant mall-like dome the Hard Rock Cafe displays a sign over its doorway that says This Is Not Here. Wise words---this simulated inelegant environment is nowhere and everywhere. Eerie indeed.

So we headed to the nicest seaside resort we could find, exploited our tourist-looks, and spent a sultry afternoon dipping into the cool luxury of the pool while a wedding party posed for pictures. Just as the pretty bride managed to cross one of the pool´s quaint bridges with her train intact, the clouds broke open to the tune of Sade´s heart-wrenching croons.

Though we´d planned on exploring the interior of the peninsula, our unhappy bowels had other plans, which consisted of getting all too acquainted with Mexican toilets and farmacias, and which ruled out any bus trips longer than twenty minutes. So we took the ferry to Isla Mujeres, a true island paradise, where, thanks to the low (meaning unbearably sticky) season we got to stay in a fancy (for us) hotel room we´d otherwise never be able to afford. The days drifted by in a tropical haze of swimming, reading, cautious nibbling, and sprawling out on our plush king-sized bed for cool naps and so-bad-they´re-great reruns of Beverly Hills, 90210.

The bright gum-drop buildings, the friendly locals who greeted M by name (thanks to his Vote for Mike T-shirt), the turquoise-clear water, and even the punishing sun did much to restore my weary travel-tummy. Last night the island hosted a raucous political rally for the local elections. As we chatted up two sweet British girls and ate our fish tacos at a sidewalk table, throngs of people on foot, golf-cart, and motorcycle howled and honked in the choked narrow streets. Their excitement swelled inside me (¿or was it the diesel fumes?) as I recalled my long-ago days as a proud socialist behind the bullhorn.

Later, while M nursed another bout of Montezuma´s Revenge, I savored an ice cream cone and watched a basketball game in the town square. As the languid players sweated and cajoled each other on an ancient court beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary, I searched in vain for the fat moon in the sky.