Monday morning I moved to my new posada. For whatever reason Mano hadn’t been able to get one for the entire two weeks so he set it up with one for the first week then the other for the rest of my stay. I had been more than happy with my first posada but will admit the second was even nicer. It had a bunch of mosaic tile on the outside, a bigger layout and just looked nicer all around.
That afternoon we went to the museum of the revolution. It was in what had originally been the presidential palace downtown. The place was definitely over the top luxurious…truly the type of place an evil dictator would choose to live. Upon entry I paid my six dollars plus two more for my camera. Mano paid his fifty cents. The place was filled with marble and there were still bullet holes from when it had been overtaken. The exhibits were subpar; the type of things you’d expect to see in glass cases at a high school not something that was the pride of a whole country. There was a wall with caricatures of Batista and the last three republican Presidents of the US. Above was an inscription but all I could make out was the word “cretins.”
All the “exhibits” in the museum had little cards that explained what they were but almost none was translated to English. There was a piece of plaster with the name Fidel written on it in blood. I think it was somehow more positive than I assumed. There was a lot of stuff about Che Guevara: His berets, guns, clothes and a bunch of his writings. It is so funny to me just how much they hold him up even though he’s not Cuban and Fidel kind of sold him out.
The most interesting stuff was some newspaper articles that claimed the CIA introduced different diseases to Cuba to kill the tobacco, sugar, pigs and children. It was tough for me because I know that the Cuban government is prone to exaggerations but at the same time this is definitely the type of stuff I would believe the CIA would do. There was also a section that “talked” about Batista who had been the leader of the military when it was taken over in the coup. For some reason he had a thing with male genital mutilation. Whenever they snatched somebody off the street (guilty or not) they would torture them to try and get information about the revolutionaries. Then just for good measure they would mutilate the guys genitals if they released him. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not saying that Fidel is a great leader or anything but it makes a lot more sense why the people had a revolution if their old leader had been doing crazy stuff like that.
On the way out of the museum we passed a tank that had a big plaque in front of it and an inscription in English. On the plaque was a picture of Fidel standing on the tank and the inscription read “SAU-100 auto-propelled cannon, 100mm caliber from which Commander in Chief Fidel Castro shot US vessel Houston during the mercenary invasion at Bay of Pigs in April 1961.” I laughed a little at that one.
We went across the street to another part of the museum that housed the yacht that had been used to ferry revolutionary fighters from Mexico to Cuba. In front was some sort of monument with an “eternal flame.” Some tourists were milling around so I asked one to take a picture of Mano, Dieling and I. The guy said yes. I asked him where he was from and he replied “Canada.” That was the fourth and final person I would conversed with in English during my trip.
That evening I took stock of my finances and realized I hadn’t brought enough money for all that I wanted to do. I had brought two grand but thirteen hundred off the top had gone to the posadas and car rental. My first week I had been spending more than fifty dollars a day and now realized I would need to spend less during the rest of my time or I would run out. Unfortunately there was no way to get more money as credit cards didn’t work and I had to remember to save twenty five dollars to pay my exit visa tax.
Mano asked if I’d like to go to a club that night but I said I was just as happy practicing my salsa in the kitchen at his parents’ house. So once again Dieling and I salsad while everyone else watched and commented. It was like going to a show for them. After we were done I walked back to the posada but when I got there realized I wasn’t tired yet so decided to go out for a stroll.
The streets in Havana are laid out like a grid so I kind of kept track of which way I was pointed so I knew where the major streets were in relation to me.
Other than that I just walked. There were still people out. Some just hanging around others were spending time with their sweethearts but at no time did I see anything that looked shady. The stray dogs who did their “own thing” during the day formed into packs at night and wandered around getting into mischief. It was a good place and a good time to be. It took me a few hours to find my way back home but it was the right time. I was ready for bed.
On Tuesday we went to the fortress Morro that sits on one side of the mouth of Havana harbor. It was built around the time Cuba was settled but had been added to many times in the last four hundred years. It was mostly deserted but we still had to pay to get in. There is a huge lighthouse we climbed to the top of. It is still in use and the guy running it told us how it worked. Apparently it is French made and used weights like from a grandfather clock to keep it moving perfectly in time.
After we were done we stopped at Havana Viejo and I made a deal with Mano to give him my laptop, backup camera and the rest of the stuff I brought in exchange for a suitcase full of stuff from Cuba. We got some little knickknacks, key chains, refrigerator magnets and a t-shirt with a picture of Che on the front. On the way back home we took a huge detour and bought enough lobster to last for the rest of my time in Cuba. I couldn’t help myself it was so good. That night was filled with more dancing in the kitchen with Manos’ mom taking a turn to show me how it was done. It was funny because afterwards Dieling told me she danced like an old person. I couldn’t tell the difference.
The next day Mano, his mom, girlfriend and I went for a three hour road trip out as far into the country as I ever got on my trip. We passed some guys selling cheese and other produce on the side of the highway. I couldn’t help but notice all the uniformed army guys hitchhiking. Some of them would have ribbons and stuff on their chests but they would still need to hitchhike to get where they are going…very different from the States. Mano had been in the army for a couple years and showed me the mountain they had to climb as part of their training. I couldn’t tell how far we went because the car felt like it was going faster than it really was while on the highway.
Finally we got to the “Banos de San Juan” which is a small resort centered around a small stream where the water was clear and you could swim. We hung out but after a while I got down to my boxers and dove in. Mano followed suit. We swam around as Dieling and his mom looked on. Overall the place was again subpar for a resort but I had a good time just hanging out and being there.
On the way back there was a cop jeep driving by us on the highway. They would speed up a little then slow down then finally they sped off into the distance. A minute later we saw them pulled over on the side of the road and one of them was in the road waving around that stupid light saber flashlight. Mano pulled over and of course told me “not to say anything.” Mano walked back to talk to the cop. A few minutes later he came back to the car and said the cops had just been bored. We took off and they quickly passed us never to be seen again.
Thursday I woke up a little early. My room was ice cold and the drapes completely blocked out the light. I finally figured out that the clock on my phone was an hour off and started getting back to what I considered a normal routine. In the mornings I would transfer my pictures from the camera to the laptop I got from my friends at I’ma-PC.
After that I would do a little workout. Nothing too extreme but I’m used to working out in the mornings and to me taking a vacation doesn’t mean abandoning all aspects of life back home. When I had originally been planning my trip I didn’t really know what kind of food would be available in Cuba so I brought along single serving protein shake mixes that I bought from NutriSport in Marion. They were absolutely perfect for this purpose. Then I would lounge for a while and read about Hemingway’s exploits. Definitely a nice laid-back way to start my mornings.
The first time I had gone to the beach I hadn’t taken my camera because I had assumed it would be inconvenient to babysit if everyone was in the water. As it turned out Mano never got in the water anyway and the ocean was so beautiful it would have been a shame to go all the way down there and not get any shots of the water (or maybe I just wanted to go back).
Either way the beach was the plan for the day and this time Carlos wouldn’t be coming along. As we were driving around running the errands of the morning we happened to be stopped in the road for some reason and Mano caught me looking at a pretty girl as she walked by. I spent a lot of my time in Cuba just taking in the scenery and I don’t just mean the women so for me this wasn’t so out of the ordinary. Mano decided to call her over to the car and say hi. For some reason he didn’t give me the “don’t say anything” line this time. They were chatting away in Spanish and it just so happened I really didn’t have anything to add to the conversation anyway. After a minute he looked over at me and gave me a questioning look in relation to the girl and then he said beach. “Sure why not.”
So he and Ana exchanged numbers agreed to meet back up in a half hour. Just like that we were finished with our errands all four of us piled into the car and headed to the beach. I tried to make a little small talk on the way but she spoke less English than I spoke Spanish so all I learned was that she was twenty-nine and worked at one of the hotels doing something that didn’t have anything to do with talking to customers. She had gone to school to learn to do hair but she only did it as a side job now.
When we got to the beach we got the same line from the parking lot attendant as before. Somehow we had to be back by a certain time or… I’m not sure what but something. It was windier than the last time and the waves were capping a little. Ana helped me put on suntan lotion and then I was in the water. After I got out a little ways I looked back and saw that they were all still on the beach. I motioned for them to come in but they crossed their arms as though they were shivering and said “too cold.” I couldn’t believe it! The waves actually made it more fun for me and it was still as nice there as it ever is in the hottest months in Iowa. I went out a little farther from the shore but came right back because it seemed pretty obvious the shore was the place to be.
When I got back to the beach I pleaded with them to come into the water but Mano and Dieling were lying out and on top of each other at the same time. I guess since they were already tan it didn’t matter whether or not they got sun evenly. Ana’s excuse was that she didn’t want to get her hair wet and with the waves as they were it would have been hard not to do. She had a very pretty European face but her skin was much darker. Even though her hair was straightened I could tell if she got it wet it might turn into a nappy fro mess. I stretched out on the beach and she cuddled up to me like they were. I have to say it was very comfortable. I mean getting that close to someone you just met is kind of intimate and not something that would ever happen back in the States but when she did to me it just felt familiar as though we had been that close a million times before.
Ana asked if I would like some “helados” which is a Nestle brand of ice cream they sell in Cuba. I said I would. She led me off so that I could buy us some. This is not what I had originally thought of when she had asked but really didn’t mind buying some ice cream. The first place we went was a cabana store close to the beach and from the sign they obviously had ice cream. I didn’t totally understand the prices or what exactly was offered as far as a selection but I got the basics. She asked me what flavor I wanted in English. Then the guy behind the counter let us know that he didn’t have any change implying if we couldn’t pay the exact amount he was gonna keep the change. I was a little put off by this but I told her what kind I wanted. She put in the order. I figured I’d wait to see how much it was and whether or not I could pay the exact amount before I made a big deal out of it.
The guy tabulated the order then came back and said it was gonna cost eight and a half dollars. I didn’t totally understand the prices advertised on the board behind him but I understood enough to know that he was trying to overcharge me. Ana asked him to confirm the price to give him a chance to change his mind but when he came back with the same number she just turned to me questioningly. I said that that was too much so she said we could go somewhere else but it was too late for me. She had known he was trying to rip me off and instead of sticking up for me she had shrugged it off assuming as a tourist I must have tons of money to burn. I was crushed.
We walked a little further away from the beach to another little shop and got the same ice cream for five bucks. This guy had a cash register. When we got back I gave Mano and Dieling their ice cream. They ate slowly and cherished it. I got the impression they didn’t eat ice cream often. I love ice cream and almost would like to be a big serious steroid-taking body builder just so ice cream could be my cheat food. I polished my ice cream off like an old pro.
Afterwards we all laid out some more and Ana was as familiar as ever but unfortunately something had been lost for me. On the way back from the beach I explained to her that I didn’t have a lot of money. If she wanted to just hang out and be low-key then that was cool but I didn’t want to go out or anything. She tried to keep some sort of chemistry going in the car but it just wasn’t there. After we dropped her off she gave me a look that was an invitation but I was too heartbroken to return it. Later Mano told me he thought she would have wanted money and I looked up a word in Spanish “triste” sad.
I didn’t go to Cuba for the hookers. I didn’t go to get laid but I couldn’t help but notice all the beautiful people around me. For me the best case scenario comes down to chemistry. With only two weeks of time the only way I could have been with a girl down there would have been if we had met and had a tremendous amount of chemistry right off the bat. I’m not sure if the familiarity with Ana was in fact chemistry but it sure felt like it at the time. I just couldn’t ignore some of the red flags that were warning me against her and in the end I was sad. Not because it didn’t work out with her but because she wasn’t who I’d hoped her to be.
Friday we picked up Manos’ son from ex’s house which was clear across town. He was going to be baptized the next day so he was gonna stay with Mano that night. We took him around and did some things with him. As it turns out kids in Cuba are very similar to kids in the US. They are so curious and they want fun and attention but not necessarily in that order.
That night we went back to El Morro and walked around with his son. When we had gone to some of the museums I had got the impression Mano had been there before. Maybe on field trips they send the kids or something. But on this trip to the fort we hung around until sundown and as more and more tourists showed up we watched a ceremony where a bunch of guys reenact the firing of a cannon to signify something that I didn’t understand. Really the whole ceremony was overly showy and way too touristy for my taste. On top of that the guys dressed in eighteenth century military outfits who were pretending to march around with a flame but couldn’t even keep time. After seeing two brothers march with Marines I wouldn’t call myself an expert but I can spot a sloppy march when I see one.
Saturday was a whirlwind of family frenzy. Everybody got out their Sunday best and we had two carloads of people. There was Mano, Dieling, Mano’s parents, his sister, her daughter, his best friend, his ex and their son. When we got to the church a bunch of people were already there but they still only took up a third of the pews at best. This was to be a mass baptism.
The priest came to the front and started speaking. They kept telling me to take a bunch of pictures but I felt like a bunch of flashbulbs during a service would be a little irreverent so I gave the camera to them. They went nuts. Actually all the families went crazy with the pictures. When their cell phones went off they would just answer them and talk for a little while. The church is such a humbling building all I wanted to do when I was there was be quiet but I guess they do it differently in Cuba.
Manos’ turn came up. His sister and best friend were the “Compadres” (godparents) which meant they actually held his sin while the priest splashed the water over his head. Afterwards all the families competed to see who could take the most pictures in front of the most different parts in the church. Manos’ family was no different. They had my camera, his sister’s camera, his ex’s camera. We had to make sure to get each shot three different times and with every different combination of people possible.
Afterwards the kids went to the park. We went and bought a cake from someplace on our way. It was nice just relaxing in the park watching the kids chase each other around. That evening we just chilled at the house and talked about life. I didn’t even salsa. They kept making fun of me for being sad to leave Cuba but there was some truth in it. My two weeks had really flown by. That night we all sat around outside and I joked that there are only two promises in life: death and taxes. Mano’s dad then chided back that in Cuba the only promise is death, they pay no tax.
Sunday was the big day. I was up early and I brought my luggage into Manos’ folk’s house. I started taking out everything I didn’t need. I piled the rest of my clothes, toiletries, laptop and extra camera up on the table and told them they could have it all. They looked like kids on Christmas. Then Mano went into the back and got out all of the souvenirs he had got for me. Dieling and his mom carefully wrapped them all in newspaper and packed them in the suitcase so that they would hopefully make it through the baggage handlers.
At the airport Mano walked with me to the gate where I was supposed to check-in and I was happy for it. The guy at the gate couldn’t find my reservation. After half an hour of back and forth he informed me that since I hadn’t been on my original flight to Cuba they had automatically cancelled the return flight and resold the ticket. Now I had to wait until just before the flight was supposed to leave to see if somebody else didn’t show up. Then I could have his or her spot since after all I had purchased a ticket. We waited for an hour and checked in with Aero México. This was the airline I had got my first flight after I missed the one on CubanaAir. The people from Aero México said they didn’t have any flights until the next evening and if I waited that long I would miss my flight back to the US.
It was a bit of an anxious hour but we got a little bit of a show when an Australian tourist came through who didn’t have his twenty-five dollars for the exit visa. He had a credit card but it’s no good in Cuba so the people working at the airport couldn’t do anything for him. He was trying to make as big of a scene as possible without going to jail but they weren’t budging. In the end another guy from Australia showed up right before we needed to board. He just happened to have twenty-five extra dollars on him. At the last minute the official told me that there was an open seat. I exhaled deeply.
This plane was a brand new Russian T20 or something like that but when the landing gear retracted it made some pretty loud clunking noises. Some of the other passengers joked about how since some of the “fasten your seat belt” lights didn’t light up they wondered what else hadn’t been checked out properly. Thankfully the flight was only an hour.
In Cancun I had to get a taxi to take me to the nearest hotel. When I got there it turned out to be more expensive than the driver had told me it was gonna be so he wanted to take me to a different hotel (more money) but I was too tired to care. When I got to my room I made a couple expensive phone calls to let everyone know I was ok then headed to the restaurant in the hotel.
The place was half full but there were only six tables total so that wasn’t hard to do. It appeared to be a big group of people who had just got back from somewhere. One of the ladies recognized me from the airport and asked if I had just got back from Cuba. She must have seen me on the plane so they invited me over.
They had just been on a US government approved trip to Cuba to attend a renewable energy conference. They were all older, most were retired and some of them had been on this same trip several times before. They explained they had been put up in a five star hotel in a remote area on the far side of the island how they had a Cuban “tourism official” who had been with them the entire time, translated for them and facilitated their trip. They had been shown a half dozen one room school houses that each had a single solar panel on the roof that powered the single computer and light bulb in the place. They went on to tell me how wonderful Cuba is because they have the most doctors per capita, great life indicators, one hundred percent literacy and overall equality. One of the ladies told me that she would rather go to a hospital in Cuba than the US. Another said she thought the Cuban model of government was better than the one in the US. I really think they believed what they were saying. I told them simply they had seen a very different Cuba than I and I kept my opinions to myself.
It’s hard because Cuba is beautiful and there isn’t crime or alcoholism or vice and everyone does have a roof over their head. Everyone gets the same education and healthcare and everyone makes the same. In every way that is quantifiable, in every way that we in the US measure, we are infinitely better than them. Our water pressure is ninety psi theirs is five. Our average yearly salary is $30k theirs is $120. Our average meal is one thousand calories theirs is five hundred. We have more cars than people and so on. But in the ways that we don’t measure they are just as good if not better.