Because these were physical things that happened to this collection of molecules my spirit resides in and it was my skin that was bruised and scrapped as I jumped and splashed through a rocky riverside beneath the palm trees and old bamboo and my hair blown in the wind through the windows of a 1958 Chevy as it barreled down an empty highway to the city of crumbling majesty that is Habana. It was dry air in my throat as I swam through schools of neon fishes past sunken planes and ships in the Bay of Pigs and music in my ears and so many tastes of honey and sweetness in my mouth and a guitar beneath my fingers at the state run cafe bar on the harbor where we threw back our heads and howled like dogs at a moon that lasciviously winked a slender eye line back to us and we sang in English words which were the only lyrics me and B and the young Cuban boy and his elderly music maestro all knew which was Hotel California and Stand By Me which I sang while thinking of my mother. Now these are all only words that I write and speak of and I am in California again, but that is not a bad place to be, and for the first time I feel something that might be sort of like patriotism because while California is a real place with flaws and hypocrisies and I have stagnated in the wrong places here and struggled from one long side of it to the other and in between to flourish and find history and depth and valor and joy and closeness and health and integrity and there are possibly better places and easier places to live still it means something more and more to say when asked not that I am from the Estades Unidad but from California — each syllable lovingly caressed as it rolls like the Yuba River off my tongue in some kind of hopeful approximation of the music that is the Cuban accent. Cal-y-fourrrn-nia. And now we’re speaking the same language, Cuba and I, although it took a while. We were both eager to learn and to help each other out but still there was something lost in translation, there were muchas preguntas and much confusion, but it was mostly wonderful confusion, and I didn’t mind the questions and the delays and the lack of table salt because I could tell I loved Cuba anyway and she loved me too, but it took a little while for us both to understand each other — for me to understand that if there was anything I needed all I had to do was to ask Cuba for it; to stand in the nearest square or begin to walk down a main street thinking of the thing that I wanted and within 15 minutes someone would approach me and the haggling would begin, typically with a gentleness and good nature I have never been seen while haggling, and then whatever I needed would be provided, and the more Cuba got to know me the more exacting these things were — the more beautiful the old cars that arrived to drive me and others in a collectivo from one place to another, the more comfortable the casa particulars like the one in Cienfuego we found after a woman called six of her friends and then took us walking with her door to door before finally passing us from her hands with a smile and no request for any payment into a large house painted blue with a lovely large room that had air conditioning, art deco furniture, tiling the color of young plants, and a genuine mini bar with not only bottles of agua (a precious commodity in this land) but a bottle of cider from Spain as well — an absolute treasure in a country where the only sure thing was cheap rum — which we drank later that evening on a half finished rooftop patio after returning to the casa from listening to music and ghosts in an old estate by the water. The more also we began to run into people willing to talk to us about their lives and their experiences in this strange country that has been cut off from time and very much feels as though it exists in a completely alternate universe entirely, like the Bay of Pigs veteran who said Fidel was in his blood to the young boy who railed against his lack of options and poverty and everyone in between who had good things to say and criticisms as well but who universally made it clear that they loved their country, and I felt it — I felt it in the plants and trees in the city and from the stones themselves and in the music echoing from everywhere and in the tobacco fields and in all of those old cars and from the people. Cuba does not have clear solutions to logistical problems or concerns, it does not really have wifi, or table salt, or great food, or public transportation, or stores where you could buy things you need or want, but by god, it has character, and it has passion, and love, and those bleed raw and open and thick from a heart that’s seen hardness and poverty and terrible things and not only lived to tell the tale but lived in what can only be described as style.
“Todo llenos.” says the Cuban woman behind the counter in response to a traveler asking if there were any huts available that night in Las Terrazas. The traveler hears this and looks around at the dozen or so thatched huts on stilts overlooking the river — the picnic benches beneath each one of them empty but for the softly blowing wind — and then at the large cantina next to the registration counter with tables to fit at least a hundred people that is solely occupied by myself and my companion and at another table a lone German woman who perks up excitedly at the prospect of a new person to talk to. “Are you sure?” The traveler asks.
The woman — by all appearances sincerely regretful — nods. “Todo llenos.” Totally full.
Cuba was a very confusing place, and for the first time in my life there were several occasions when I wondered if I should have booked a tour instead of forging my own path. If you are the kind of person who likes to know where you’re going to stay that night and what it’s going to look like and how and when you’re going to get in between locations and that the entire town won’t run out of bottled water by 9pm leaving you in the lurch until morning, you might want to book a tour group. If you’re up for a challenge, however, the rewards are high in Cuba — getting a room for the night or from one location to another or finding water after 9pm all feel like major life accomplishments. I have probably never traveled anywhere so challenging. I had lots of time, a good natured traveling companion who spoke fluent Spanish, and was open to multiple possibilities, and even so there were a few moments where I started getting frustrated, but never for long, and overall I had an incredible time and interacted with a side of Cuba that you won’t find on a tour bus, or possibly for much longer if American tourism continues in our uncertain future. Here are a few tips I learned over my two weeks on the island –
FOOD — is not that great. Bring salt and pepper with you. Seriously. Try meals at your casa particular for the best luck. Eat the tapas at El Dandy. Eat the appetizers at Cafe Miglas. Take every ounce of enjoyment you can out of the daily Cuban breakfast each casa particular will make for $5 for you at whatever time you request. It is always some kind a variation around freshly blended juice, fruit, eggs, ham, cheese, and bread and while simple is truly the highlight of eating in Cuba.
STAY — in casa particulars which can be found almost everywhere. You can book these in advance through airbnb or through various hostel websites or for a better deal just ask around and find them when you get to where you’re going if you have half an hour to spare and can haggle in Spanish. Of all the places I stayed this was my favorite and had the best Cuban breakfast to boot.
TRAVEL — there are only two buses that leave a day from the main bus station in Havana — a blink and you’ll miss it tiny room tucked away behind the zoo — and these sell out 24 hours in advance and have long lines. For faster and more reliable transport between cities go to the bus station anyway and upon exiting your taxi you’ll immediately be asked where you want to go and then arranged in a group of other travelers going that way. This is not a scam. You’ll all be picked up in short order and taken directly where you want to go for anywhere from $15 to $30 cuc a head. Or ask your casa particular host to find a collectivo (as they’re called) for you. NOTE: there is no standard for taxi’s anywhere and they will all ask for whatever they feel like at the time. Always haggle — it should only cost $5-10 to get around any town and no more than $20 to get somewhere on the outskirts of Havana from the center.
MONEY — there are two kinds of currencies — the nation and the tourist called cuc. If you’re American you can exchange your dollars outside the airport for an amount roughly equivalent to the Euro. There are some money changing spots in Havana too but I did all of mine at once at the airport. MAS IMPORTANTE — when leaving Cuba you have to go past the currency exchanges on the outside of the airport and on the inside of the airport — you have to go through security and then once on the other side of security find the COMPLETELY UNMARKED/UNLABELED BOOTH with a line in front of it just before the gates begin. This is the ONLY spot that will give you US dollars back before you leave the country.
WIFI — there are a couple hot spots around each main town or city where you can buy a wifi card for 30 minutes of non-continuous access for 3 cuc, but be advised that service is slow and unreliable. If possible plan to just avoid wifi. It will make your life easier.
There is this thing that happens when you travel which is not necessarily that you are forged anew as a wholly different person but certainly that you pass through a fire and are refined and the bullshit of the moment is burned away. There was some bullshit yet remaining from 2016 that benefited from such a burning. It was a difficult year but ultimately a good year for me and my health and wellbeing and sanity and these are things I’m going to need moving forward because it was overall not a good year for the planet or for the species that call it home and I don’t yet know what the revolution will look like (except that it will hopefully look nothing like the Cuban’s) nor do I fully know yet how I will participate but I am starting at the women’s march in Washington DC this weekend and will see where we all go from there.
Until next time my dear friend,