Cake Balancing

A trip to Cuba by way of Cayman Island

by Ed Collins/February, 2006
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I’m traveling on someone else’s frequent flyer miles and I just can’t accept that it’s OK. When the ticket agent hands me a boarding pass, I look at the pass, then at her, then I say, “That’s it?”

“Yep, you’re set to go,” she replies without looking at me.

Excitement is muted by anxiety. In 45 minutes I catch a flight to L.A., then I wait 90 minutes before catching a flight to Miami, then I wait four hours before boarding a plane to …

Grand Cayman Island.

It’s February 7th, my––our––anniversary, number 36. Called Judy this morning to announce that I’d arrived, all well. She wished me a happy anniversary. “I thought it was tomorrow,” I said. “I left on the fifth or was it the sixth? Forgot I lost a day traveling all night.”

Total BS. Last night at Rob’s I e-mailed Duncan and requested that he buy some flowers, leave them on our porch, with a typewritten note, to read: Jerk chicken, Cold Red Stripe beer, warm trade winds. Wish you were here. Happy anniversary.

Sitting under a cabana, 70 degrees, gentle breeze, soft rain. I need a rest.

Must’ve walked a four miles of the 7-mile beach, carrying a heavy backpack crammed with fins, mask, camera, water bottle, and a wet beach towel.

You can catch a bus in front of the market, I’m told. But there’s no place for the bus to stop. So I walk and walk and walk. Then, when I’m nowhere near a building or even a large tree, it begins to rain. On the only road that circles the island, the traffic at my back, I occasionally turn to show my pitiful face.

Right away some guy stops his pickup truck, asks where I’m going. “Town,” I guess. He’s Canadian, from Alberta. Sent his wife and daughter back after Ivan, when his house was damaged.
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A month after Robbie accepted this job, and a month before he was going to start, Ivan hit. 85 per cent of the island was under six feet of water. 80-foot waves hit the reef, reducing them to 35 feet. Then they hit the club, along with roofing material, TV sets, patio furniture, what not.

I asked Geraldine, one of the club members, where she went to weather the storm.

“Higher ground, at a friend’s home. We went into the bathroom,” she said.

“How great were your fears?” I asked.

“I thought I was going to die.

“My son is in London,” she continued, “I took his birth certificate, papers, photos, documents and put them inside a cushion that I held to my chest. I wanted him to have information about himself and the family.”

Rob Seward played on my USD team and worked at my camp during the early 90s. For a half-dozen years, at least, he worked as a purchasing mgr. for a San Diego retail clothing company. One day a vendor made him a job offer, contingent on something or other––98-per cent sure he was.

So Robbie quit his job to take a break.

That 2% explains, in part, why he’s here, managing/teaching at the Cayman Islands Tennis Club.

Like Cattle, Really

From giant cruise ships, boatloads of bloated tourists file onto the dock, line up to follow a single Caymanian holding a sign that identifies a tour or distant beach. Others meander through downtown shops.

Old men dressed in Bermuda shorts, loose-fitting pineapple-adorned collared shirts, dark socks and soft-souled shoes; many wear a pinched look that comes from over-eating and/or drinking. They look tired. The stress of daily life–work, family, finance and commute–now comes from decision making: shuffleboard or lounge chair; scrabble or checkers; movies or pool; salmon, pasta or burger; plain, cheese, bacon or jalapeño; key lime pie, baked Alaska or chocolate mousse, etc..

Middle-aged men in tank tops with thin, sunburned, hairy arms carrying: beach bags filled with sunscreen, goggles, bottled water and pulp fiction. Midwestern and Northeastern couples who haven’t worn shorts since Labor Day. Most wearing tee shirts identifying their home state college or professional sports team. Here comes Jeter, there’s Oklahoma State. Oh, there’s Ben’s Pizzeria (Bend, Oregon).

Tonight.Scanned Image 2

We call ‘em a n’ wester.

Rain?

No, just a lot of wind.

More than this?

Yes, 30-35 mph.

Are you from the cruise ship?

No, I’m not.

I didn’t think so.

I take that as a compliment.

Yeah, I don’t know how these people can enjoy this. Cattle, I call them. They line ‘em up and herd ‘em like cattle.

I asked if he was a native.

“Not this island,” he said.

He told me he was from Cayman Brac, but that he’d been at Grand Cayman for the past twenty years.

“And your folks?”

“Cayman Brac.”

“How many generations of islanders?”

“Three or four,” he said, then added that his ancestors were from England.

Our conversation was interrupted by a group of tour bus drivers who were speaking animatedly among themselves.

“Jamaicans,” he said with apparent disdain.

After a pause, he added: “They’re so loud, always arguing. They ‘re not like Caymanians.

“How do you describe a typical Caymanian?” I asked.

“They’re quiet, mellow.” He went on to tell me that Jamaicans outnumber Caymanians four to one. “There’ll be civil unrest or something someday,” he said.

Cuban Unexpectations
When traveling I enjoy seeing how the people live. I want looks from people that say, how’d you get here?

An example: In southwest Louisiana, Judy and I were in search of Cajuns. One night we were sipping beers in a neighborhood bar. Besides us, there were only three other customers––one at the bar and two playing cards at a rear table. I asked the bartender where we’d find a place to hear Cajun music played for Cajuns. He introduced us to the only other customer, who happened to be the president of the local Acadian historical society. Two hours later we were the only non-Cajuns at a weekly weekday potluck/dance. The food was great (as Cajun food is) the music was crude but authentic, and Judy danced a lot. We stayed past midnight and were the first to leave.

Meandering the South Sound

Off in the distance, an occasional rooster crow. Northwest trade winds stir up two-foot waves. A comfortable breeze whistles through the palm fronds. It’s the perfect place.

Twenty-five yards off shore, a group of rocks peak above the water. I walk across the sea grass, which breaks the water’s surface. I sit down, strap on my mask, slide into the water.

Immediately a school of fish swims by, like I’d stumbled onto a procession of colorfully and elaborately dressed folk dancers. When I got out of the water, not more than 45 minutes later, I felt like I’d been a long trip.

Time fascinates me.

The bartenders are from Peru and the Dominican Republic.

Jerry, on the other hand, is a 5th- or 6th- generation Caymanian. “We came from Africa as slaves,” he explained.

Now Jerry fishes. His dad fished, he said, and his grandfather and his great-grandfather. “We’ve always fished,” he said.

Sitting on the deck of an open-air bar, drinking a Red Stripe and writing, the Peruvian gal comes out, asking if I want “Mani”. Puzzled, I thought I had just paid. I reach into my pocket.

“No, no, mani––cacahuates (peanuts).”

“No entendí,” I say.

She starts to speak in English. “I’m learning,” she says. “You’re learning here?”

“I’m studying.”

She leaves.

I want to know how she ended up here.

Back to Jerry.

He catches my attention because frigates are circling his little boat, in search of fish entrails. He’s cleaning his catch. I wade out into knee-deep water to introduce myself.

The Dominican returns, asking if I want another beer.

Can’t leave now.

She sees me writing in my journal.

“Tu diario?” she asks.

“I write down my travel experiences,” I tell her.

She’s been here only two months. I ask why here and she speaks too fast for me to understand.

I asked what she did in the Dominican.

Restaurant work.

“Did you meet any baseball players,” I ask.

She lights up. The stadium was right next to the restaurant, she says. She starts with Sammy Sosa, and then names a half-dozen Dominican ball players.

Back to Jerry.

“The next generation they do drugs; they not fishermen,” he says.

“If I give you the fish I catch, can I go with you?” I expect he’ll ignore my question, but he responds affirmatively.

“You fish with a rod and reel?” I ask.

He gives me a look that says, You’ve got to be kidding.

“Hand line,” he says.

Then he tells me that he once caught a 500-pound grouper with a hand line.

“That must’ve taken forever,” I say.

“12 minutes, no more, “ Jerry says with obvious pride.

“You caught all those fish this morning?” There were a dozen fish on his boat, most of them barracuda.

Marissa from Peru and Rosie from the Dominican didn’t come her on a lark. They came here to work. 14 hours a day. To make enough money to send home.

Walking down the road. I peaked into a commercial building The roof gone, the doors off, the windows broken. Crudely written on a wall was the explanation:

Ivan was here
“He was a bad man,” said Jerry. “Rich and poor, he didn’t care. Other homes floated away, I was lucky.”

I stopped by the side of the road to change into a short sleeve shirt. I was standing next to a three-foot brick and stucco wall. I took off my floppy hat and placed it on the wall, then, while I was digging through my backpack, a gust of wind blew it over the wall.

I put down my backpack, reached over, and, with belly draped over the wall, I leaned as far as I could w/o letting my feet come off of the ground.

Only an inch away, I leaned farther until my feet had to leave the ground.

For a moment I lost my balance. Think baseball bloopers, when a guy tumbles heels-over-head, reaching for a foul ball.

Just then Robbie’s cell phone rang.

I did a good describing the scene to because Robbie laughed long and loudly.

Here’s the deal: Soon after Robbie took the Grand Cayman job I decided that I’d go to Cuba. (Judy, meanwhile, never showed an inclination––a sick cat at home and the illegality of travel). I asked him to get me a tennis contact. I figured I needed an invitation to get a U.S. license to travel. (Before Bush it was recommended not to travel, not banned.) So, after corresponding by email with the president of the Cuban Tennis Association, I applied. “To give a series of clinics to the teachers” was the purpose of my visit.

On the Prado The Unión Arabe de Cuba is a restaurant and club, it seems, run by and for people from the Middle East. There are a number of dining rooms and a bar with a huge painting of a camel.

Shrimp, rice, sweet potatoes and cabbage, two beers and the sweetest, tastiest sugar-glazed cake-like treat, typically Middle Eastern, I presume.

Regarding my arrival to Cuba, I could try to paint a better picture but it wouldn‘t have been much of an improvement.

I suppose a Tropicana showgirl and a limo.

I get off the plane, go through Immigration.

Hector greets me holding a sign that says. Sr. Collin. Then he hangs around until the box of equipment clears customs. Then he takes me to the street where I’m greeted by a driver a, two officials with the Cuba Tennis Federation and one’s wife.
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Abel and Julio Cesar are tennis umpires. Abel speaks a bit of English, Julio, I eventually discover, speaks fluently, Aurora understands little. Half way there, after discussing a variety of subjects in my very rusty, labored, halting, simple Spanish, Julio translates into English something I was trying to say. His accent was perfect.

I laugh out loud. “I’m struggling to communicate and you are fluent.”

They take me to the National Tennis Center, which is in the middle of the athletic park built for the 1991 Pan American Games. There I meet Rolando Martinez, who is the President of the Cuban Tennis Federation.

While Rolando shows me photos of a Cuban junior tournament, Abel calls casa particulars (private housing) to get a place for me to stay. One hour later, after calling every one on the list that has been provided me by a student’s sister (who came here three times to study dance) he scores.

Rolando shows me photos of the phys. ed teacher in a remote village who has constructed a makeshift court on grass and dirt. The kids are using crudely made wooden paddles and they’re playing with sponges from the sea that are shaped more or less round and painted different colors. Precious are the kids’ faces.

It takes only ten minutes by foot to reach the city. There’s the Spanish Embassy, an incredibly ornate and grand building. The famed Malecón is to our right, a centuries-old fortress to the left.
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My housing is off the Prado, a 25-foot wide tiled walkway with that spans about 12 blocks.

Abel takes my bag as he leads me into the building.

By elevator we very slowly climb to the 7th floor.

The door opens and a short elderly man greets us…

The smell of cigars.

He’s got one in his hand. Behind him is an equally short woman missing a few teeth. They look at me suspiciously. Alberto takes us into the guest room, shows me the private bath, a double bed, a grand armoire. There’s even a refrigerator “In case you want to buy a few cervecitas,” Alberto says. Then he motions for me to check out the views. There are two large open windows on each side of the bed.

Abel asks if it’s OK.

“OK? It’s incredible.” I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect.

This is Alberto and Maria’s home.

The grandmother sits at a sewing machine. Alberto tells me that one son is a phys. ed. teacher in a remote town and another is a physician working in Venezuela.

Carmen I
In the bar/dining room of the downtown Hotel Inglaterra: The fumidora (cigar store) proprietress, the bartender, the mesero and the waitress stand and listen to her play the piano. I sit down at a table. She gets up, approaches, asks for a request.

Whatever, I say.pianist

She sits down, points at me, says “America,” (what’s the look I have?) then plays Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Then Memories, Dancing Cheek to Cheek (Name?Heaven?).

She points at me again, then plays As Time Goes By from Casablanca.

I place a peso (dollar) on a plate sitting atop the piano.

I can wait to see the history of Cuba and artifacts. I’m in the center of the museum district. I wandered into this hotel just to see the lobby.

It’s been an hour, at least; she shows no signs of taking a break.

I order a fried chicken sandwich and a soda. I can’t walk out on her. I tip her again.

Things that stir the heart. Elicits that whatever you call it physical feeling.

Sitting here, alone, being serenaded privately (a few tables of tourists not paying attention). The mesero stands respectfully and listens. The boy claps respectfully after each song.

Going on an hour and a half. One tune after another.

Dia De Las Enamorades (Valentines Day)

What greater love is there than for your country.

At the Museo de la Revolución:

A handsome man wearing sunglasses (something I rarely saw, only on a few hip college-age kids) indoors, sings romantic songs to pre-recorded instrumental music. An elderly black lady gets up and dances flirtatiously next to him. Then, during the following song, another lady does same. They act out jealousy, disapproval, contempt for one another. Like it was rehearsed, the performance is good.

Between artists, a large middle-aged man walks to the front of the audience, introduces himself as a Panamanian economist, here for a convention, then tells the audience he’d never been to Cuba before, that he was “living a dream,” and that “de Cuba a Cielo,” which means, I think, give Cuba to Heaven.

A Duck’s Neck

Sitting on the Malecón, watching a man and woman wring a duck’s neck, cut its throat, then it’s head off. Then I get distracted. The next thing I know the duck is flopping around in the water and the couple is getting in a bicycle taxi carrying a large blue vase. I should have paid closer attention.

.03 cent Bus Trip
It costs three dollars to get to the fortress by taxi and four cents to return by bus. I picked the bus that was filled, so I stood comfortably by the door. When I got off the driver helper caught my attention by saying, in English, “Sir, Sir. Have a good evening.” He may have been practicing his English, or he might have been expressing his appreciation for me traveling like everyone else. Whatever, I told him to have a good evening too.

Cell Phone

Can’t be all bad: It wasn’t until late in the day, after seeing at least a couple thousand people that I saw my first cell phone. People were actually speaking with one another and making eye contact.

The Big Leagues

From the bar atop of the Habana Libre Hotel I saw the lights of the stadium. I asked the bartender if they were playing baseball or soccer. Baseball, he said, without looking up from his mixing.

So I hailed a taxi. Ten minutes later, the driver points to a big wa wa (Cuban term for big bus). “The game’s over,” said the driver. A few blocks later, and, sure enough, they had turned off the lights (all of the lights). Back to the city we went.

On the return the driver tells me that the ball players are not professionals, but they receive a salary. I was confused.

“Do they have day jobs?” I asked.

“No, just baseball.

“And they can support a family?”

He rolled his head. The universal sign for más or menos.

“And do the better players make more?”

“Maybe a little. I don’t think so. Mostly they’re equal,” he said

Tomorrow, Sunday, the game starts at 2pm. He explains that the National series is now taking place, that each of the provinces is represented, but Havana fields three teams.motherdaughter

Food Rationing
Sunday a.m. and people are streaming into a corner store. And so do I. At the entrance is a blackboard, identifying what is available the allotment and the price for the day. Eggs, tobacco, rice, beans, sugar flour. Allotment per person and price.

Leaving, I overhear several people complaining about what I figure to be the unavailability of a staple. It’s Sunday, a family dinner planned around something or other. Now what?
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Bother the Tourist, Go to Jail

Police stationed up and down the Prado and Malecón. Police stand at corners of most streets, occasionally I see two at one corner. One stands in front of a hotel patio restaurant where I’m the first customer of the day, having a café-con-leche. He has a two-way radio. Occasionally he speaks into it.

Then he yells at someone on the other side of the street. Now another policeman appears. He’s arguing with a guy in a striped shirt. The guy now looks resigned to his fate.

Must’ve been scamming the tourists.

Five minutes go by.

The two policemen stand aside, smoking cigarettes. The guy stands still with his arms crossed.

The guy asks permission to go into a corner store.

Now a guy in a sport coat and tie walks across the street and begins to chat with the cop. He must work for the hotel. He does.

It must be illegal to solicit anything from tourists. I haven’t been harassed much. Not even much eye contact.

I order another café-con-leche.

Finally, 20 minutes later, squad car #1056 pulls up. They put the guy into the back seat. Ten minutes later they take off.

Good, now I can continue with my day.

Zoo

There’s something very real, pathetic, about small zoos in small countries. I’m off.

It was sad, bad and good. Not one keeper. Not one grounds man. A hippo and a rhinoceros, lions and tigers, bears and monkeys.

Everything in disrepair, so much so that when I ascended the steps to the lion enclosures, with not a soul in sight, I felt uneasy.

A tropical plant-filled garden of a place. Quiet and quite alive. Heavy clouds and breezy. Animals all frisky. Poor monkeys played on bars and hung from the sides of the cage, carefully circumvented the enclosure since the entire floor was covered with water. Clogged drain, it seems.

No beisbol hoy

I walk a few blocks to the Ciudad Deportiva, site of soccer, baseball, and an 18,000 seat arena for basketball, volleyball, etc., (built in …, it was one of world’s finest at the time, or so I’m told). Hoping there’d be something going on. Only a dozen young men playing a pickup soccer game.

I walk back to the zoo, hail a taxi, then inquire where the baseball park is, and if the driver knew if the game had been rained out, as the prior taxi driver had said. Without saying anything, he punches radio buttons until he hears a broadcast of a game.

“Third inning,” he says.

How great.

Ten blocks later, he mumbles something about this not being the game played in Havana. From there one could see the light standards, so we drive on. At the stadium he asks someone, who tells us that the game was cancelled due to field conditions.
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My First Ballet

Back to the centro, I walk around aimlessly until I decide to hail a taxi back to the Hotel Inglattera, where I had listened to Carmen the pianist.

While sipping a beer on the outdoor patio, while listening to a 4-piece band, I notice a bunch of people gathering in front of the building next door.

So here I sit, awaiting the beginning of the Ballet Española de Cuba.

It’s a grand building, with five balconies. I’m seated in row 18 on the floor.

Intermission. My first ballet. Spellbinding. I move down to the first balcony, stage left.

I can’t judge, of course, but the level sure impresses. The dancing is athletic and, what’s a word more apt than graceful.

This must be one of the benefits of communism. If a person wants to pursue something, money can’t stop them. Maybe that means that money can’t help them either if they don’t show the talent.

There are so many incongruities: The public parks are beautiful. The benches on which to sit, relax and people-watch are plentiful, but mostly unuseable, since many are missing the slats.

The first night it was dogs barking and people talking, tonight it’s wind howling and rain splatting against the windows. It’s a genuine n’wester, or s’easter. A w’ southerner, probably not.

Capitolio

This copper relief is one of ten that adorn this door. There are three doors to the main hall. That’s 30 of these. They must tell the pictorial history of Cuba. Imagine. Immediately after entering through one of these doors, there’s a 30-foot-tall statue of a woman holding a oval-shaped gold shield that’s half as big as she is. On the periphery of the shield are historical scenes. Unfortunately, scaffolding obstructs the view.

Barrio de Cuba is a two-hour film/soap opera that begins with a mother dying in childbirth, then the father leaves the child for a life of self pit and rum. I walk out before he comes to his senses and returns to his child and mother-in-law.

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By Ox by Gosh

Wasted $5 to go on the Indian Cave tour with the European tourists.

Afterwards, I begin walking on the one-lane road out of Viñales. Farther and farther out I get, curious, as I always am, as to what’s around the next corner. Finally, about 5 miles from town, I turn back. It’s getting late.

Rarely a car passes. When an ox-driven cart comes, I half-jokingly solicit a ride. Amused, I’m sure, he stops.

Every question I ask, he makes me repeat it. He offers nothing more than one word answers.

We’re the only ones using the road, for the most part; still, his focus is complete. He barks out orders to the two beasts. Mostly he says three things, which I’m sure are:

Go straight,

Go right,

Go left.

He gives these directions in a conversational tone, then, when he doesn’t get the response he wants, he shouts. Occasionally, when he’s really disappointed, he smacks one on the back with a stick.

My butt hurts from sitting on these yucca branches. 45 minutes later José stops on the side of the road, motions that he’s headed into the hills to deliver his crop, then he invites me to accompany him.

“No gracias,” I say as he smiles.

Walk on the road. See the people. Say hi to the guy on the bicycle. The school girl, the grandmother rocking on her porch.

Me pasajé!.

laundryNo dinner at Elina’s

I returned to my boarding house at 9:30 in the evening to find the dining table set for one. Rodolfo and Elina both greeted me at the door, along with their 6-year old niece. They seemed disappointed as I said straight away that I’d already eaten. Elina had the look of a woman who had slaved all afternoon in the kitchen, preparing her specialty. I don’t think she had.

“No problem,” Rodolfo said, a few times, to calm her down, I’m sure. It wasn’t the food, I figure, but the money. Before leaving she asked at what time I wanted dinner. To be polite, I said 8 or so. I also asked how much. $6 she answered.

Now if Maritza the radio broadcaster makes $9 per month, then $6 is a big deal.

Elina gave me the impression that it’s going to be tough to get from here to Las Terrazas.

To get down the road with the people is to experience travel.
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The pic I missed: Tractor. Trailer. Passengers.

Getting Out of La Palma

Elina was right. In Cuba you sometimes can’t get there from here––unless you have a day to waste.

I learned this from experience. Twice I spent the better part of three hours in eager expectation and disheartened resignation as I waited by the side of the road.

I had decided to go from Viñales to Las Terrazas by way of Bahia Honda. So in the morning I walked to the central bus stop (the intersection of two main roads) and joined the dozens of people who wanted to go somewhere. I waited about an hour before a coche particular (call it a taxi that is not private but public) stopped when I signaled. He was going to La Palma, which was in the same direction of Bahia Honda, so I took it.

The system operates this way: You can hail a ride from anywhere, but your chances are best at one of these community bus stops. In other words, a bus or a big truck is less likely to stop for one or two passengers elsewhere. At many of these bus stops there’s a guy who is dressed in a lime green jump suit, whose job it is to stop traffic (he stands in the middle of the street and motions for the driver to stop). And from what I understand, the driver is obligated to, in the interest of public transportation. And we’re talking about any transportation––from private cars (of which there are precious few, to taxis, to 1/4-ton, 1/2-ton and full-ton pickups and flat-bed trucks (to climb into the back he has a stepladder).

“He came to enjoy Cuba and he’s going to spend a cold night enjoying the street.

“Thanks for helping me,” I said to my hosts.

“We’re Cubans,” Freddy responded.

Talking with the nurse (Caridad Bello). at the bus stop, I mention that commuting is also a problem in the U.S., but for different reasons. Here, no one has a car, there everyone has a car, which becomes the problem. If you work in the city and live in the suburbs, you cold wait just as long to get home.

But this was getting ridiculous.

A telling scene: I’m sitting with the people at the bus stop, and they’re all waiting for transportation. A bus (not likely). A pickup. A cargo truck. A tractor pulling a flatbed. Whatever. Each time a taxi approaches at least half of them yell for me to get up and show that I’m a foreigner––that I can pay.
bus stop
At first I try. It happens four or five times. By the third time I have decided that this would be the easy way out of this. “I prefer to stay and travel with you all, no matter how long it takes,” I say.

About an hour and a half later my hosts decided to try a different strategy. They beckoned me to join them as they walked back to town. A couple blocks away a truck passed. They turned to run after it, assuming that it would stop before the bus stop. A half block later, they stopped. The truck was not going far, they learned, so they resumed their walk.

We stopped at a store for chicharrones made from the yucca plant, and, just when things were looking hopeless, a school bus came from the opposite direction. Freddy yelled something to the driver, who he apparently knew.

Bingo! We scored.

The feeling one gets from success somehow almost makes the wait worthwhile. Almost.
The bus stopped, sat, we waited––for at lest 30 minutes, for what I don’t know. I just can’t understand the speech.

In La Mulata the young couple say goodbye, wishing me well before taking off. Together with the nurse, a man and the nephew of my host, we walked along a long single lane blacktop, at one point with water on both sides. “We grow rice here,” she said. It’s pitch black. Then we stopped at a gate that has a sign saying room for rent.

What a good feeling.

We arrived at 8:30pm, more or less. It took 4.5 hours to cover 26 kilometers. That’s 4.5 hours of waiting, pacing and squatting, high anticipation, immediate disappointment, high hopes and dashed hopes.

Here I sit, in a rocking chair, in a comfortable room watching Cuban TV. After being served a beer, the first thing I hear is a Venezuelan politician calling George Bush a terrorist.

Lisandra, Freddy and Caridad Bello
The next morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh pineapple, mango, toast and coffee, I’m back on the street with high expectations. The nurse, the college kids and my hosts all agree: that rides are much easier to get from here, especially in the morning. And, they all say, there are lots of tourists.

An hour later I realize that, unlike Cubans, tourists don’t stop for anyone. And, unfortunately, there isn’t anyone else. Two hours later, I am one disappointed traveler, I hail a lone public taxi. He stops. He’s going back to Viñales. And so am I.

I give up.harvest

Shoes from Miami

He stopped to pick up a pair of shoes one of his brothers had sent him from Miami via an acquaintance. So the brothers had won the emigrate-to-America lottery that the U.S. provides for Cuban nationals (and many others I’ve learned).

Another never-traveling, stand-by-the-road colleague was hoping for the same luck. A 20-something, he looked and dressed like he was already on the streets of L.A..

Barefoot in Paradisehorseback

On the narrow path, suddenly a young woman appeared. “Where you from?” she asks in English.
“Estados Unidos,” I said.
“I speak English. Woud you like to see he cave in our house?”
Such incongruities: She looked like she could be behind the jewelry counter at Nordstroms and stopping disingenuous male shoppers in their tracks. But here she was, except for a few twisted pieces of leather and a worn slab of rubber, almost shoeless. Perfect skin, teeth and beautiful black hair. She also was another day-dreaming Hollywood capitalist.
“It’s beautiful, Hollywood?” she asked.
“It’s OK. They make movies there.”
“And Disneyland?”
I just chuckled.
When we returned from her backyard cave (for lack of a flashlight, I bet, no one’s ever explored it), her mother was washing clothes in a pool that was natural or formed on top of a table-sized rock. “By hand,” she said. “No electricity have we. Every day because only few clothes, and very old.”cavelady

She held up a pair of other husband’s worn and patched pants that had a thin frayed rope for a belt.

I was conflicted.

They lived, lovingly, I’m sure, in absolute paradise, in serene and natural beauty beyond descriptive phrases. Her mother close by. His mother taken care of. A healthy baby.

But no extras of any kind.

When I awkwardly climbed back on Lucero, I had left behind an extra tee shirt that was in my bag. Back on the path, I thought that I should have asked her to take a picture of Miguel and me, and slipped her some money. I’m curious if she’d have taken it. Before saying goodbye and thanks for the tour and coffee, I told her that “Without a doubt, you’re the flower of this valley.” She said thanks without blushing.

As soon as we began to head back, Lucero’s mood changed. The thought of eating and/or getting this novice rider off her back put a spring in her step. Now, when I tapped him on the butt with my twig, he responded with enthusiasm.

And me, I was Roy Rogers, John Wayne and Hoss Cartwright, all in one. As horseman, my confidence was soaring. That is, until Lucero met another horse on the trail.
We had stopped to open a gate. Miguel got off his horse while I sat and watched. I had noticed a horse tied up nearby. With my back turned I didn’t see the horse approach us. Just when he came to interact with Lucero I saw Miguel’s face. It bore the look of fear.family
As he scrambled to separate the two horses, Lucero started acting up. It was then I realized that I was in a precarious position. If they started rough-housing, or worse, I’d end up in a heap, bruised or worse. I looked down to see that Lucero had entangled himself in the horse’s rope. Miguel frantically tried to calm Lucero while lifting his leg.

In just a few seconds that felt longer, Miguel separated the horses, and we resumed.

Industriales

coach
The equipment manager of the national championship Industriales kept his eye on every ball. The balls used for tee ball were taped up. The batting practice balls would probably not be used for a high school J.V. team. And the infielders practiced a drill using softballs (they must last longer).

The balls used for the national team of Cuba were white. While watching batting practice (from a great distance) I never saw any balls leave the park. It must be understood that if you hit a home run in BP, you pay for it.
Standing behind the torn screen backstop, in the middle of an open field (think enormous junior high school playground), watching a strong and athletic young man swat balls with the assuredness, fluidity and technical perfection (it seemed to me), I was suddenly overcome with emotion. I’m sure he’s competing to tballkeep his position on the nation’s top team, but the moment, to me, he was hitting baseballs only for the fun of it. Time and time again, dead center contact. Balls rifled, to all fields––line drives and certain home runs. Whe he finished taking his swings he caught my attention and put his finger to his eye. I thought he meant that he wanted to be sure I was noticing his sweet sing. then he walked over to me. “Can I see?” he asked.

“Oh no, it’s not digital,” I said. He tapped me on the shoulder and walked off.

I walked to the right field side of the park and noticed that there was an open gate that rifled, to all fields––line drive and certain home runs. When he finished taking his swings he caught my attention and put his finger to his eye. I though he meant that he wanted to be sure I was noticing his sweet swing. Then he walked over to me. “Can I see,” he asked. allowed me to get next to the fence. This was too good to be true. Many of the players were doing calisthenics at the direction of a coach.

I stood there for a minute, maybe two, before the security guard appeared. I had visions of him taking my camera and removing the film, so I left.kidsbaseball

 

The final cut for the Cuban national team isn’t announced until five days before the first game. What I was watching, but only for a few moments, before getting reprimanded for the second time, was 26 pitchers trying out for 13 positions. Reading a newspaper story about the process, the manager was quoted that “those in the best shape will go.” Then he added, “I always say that our team is made up of men and not names.” The tournament, which includes Major League players for the first time, begins March 3rd. I can’t remember now how it went: Bush’s administration either wouldn’t let participant if Cuba did, or were somehow preventing Cuba’s participating. I do remember that the U.S. made a relative last minute decision to play.

 

The ‘53 Chevy Is Not for Tourists

taxidriver“You come back, rent a car, and I’ll show all of Havana––no charge.”

When I signaled for a ride he was speeding by, yet he managed to stop before reaching the next block. I ran so as to not make him wait.

In the back seat was an old lady and a young man, in the front passenger seat a middle-aged woman. I slid into the middle. Immediately the driver turned and asked where I was from. Again, mention of the United States initiates lots of conversation. Then the old lady gets out, a half block beyond where she wanted, and she was upset. The driver got out, opened her door, helped with her packages. The front lady turned to get a look at me, and smiled. It was a great smile. “Your smile is so…open,” I said in Spanish.

Back in the car, he couldn’t get the car started. It barely turned over. He put it in reverse, coasted backwards, then popped the clutch. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. Then the street flattened out. They gave each other a look of concern. Then he turned the key again. Nothing. And again.

It fired up.

It was the driver’s wife. Just the three of us. I told him how much I was enjoying my vacation, but what a difficult time I had traveling in the country.

It was a clear, warm but not uncomfortable day. They both wore tank tops.

She accompanies him quite often, I bet. It’s winter now, the weather comfortable. I can see them together in the summer, when it’s hot, oppressively hot, and humid. I see them with a packed car sitting in traffic, ambient heat, body heat, impatiently waiting for a long light, cars all around belching pollutants. I see the sweat, the clinging tee shirts, the discomfort in their faces. Then the light turns green, they get the tired old Chevy up to 30 mph on the open road––the breeze, the relief, the smiles return to their handsome faces.

National Band of Cuba in Plaza de Armas

orchestraWalking through the national park, I found myself walking behind a girl carrying what appeared to be a musical instrument.

“Is that a musical instrument?” I asked.

“A trombone,” she said.

“And are you going to practice?”

“Play.”

“Where?”

She went on to tell me that she was a member of the national band of Cuba and that they were performing at a town square in the historical section at 4:00 p.m..

“The public invited?”

“Si.”

Joined Monster Buses

It seemed like a good idea to take public transpiration back to the city, so I boarded the monster bus. Actually, it’s like a Peterbuilt 18-wheeler that pulls two jumbo-sized busses. Every one I’ve seen has been absolutely, totally and completely packed. There weren’t many riding when it stopped in front of me, so I climbed aboard. Within 10 minutes it was so crowded that I couldn’t turn around, which didn’t bother me because I had a seat.

Then came a signal.

A tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was a young woman holding a baby in her arms. “Excuse me,” she said softly.girlcars

No problem, I thought to myself. I was standing right next to the back door, so I’ll just exit at the next stop.

When I tried, a guy told me that I had to go the front exit. There were 100 people in front of me.

Madrileños and Me

“Madrilenos que está aqui en Habana.”

An elderly lady tries to speak but is overcome with emotion. She stops, regains partial composure, then continues. I can only imagine her source of emotion: The revolución undermining her culture. The former glory of Spain-influenced Havana––the revered and protected architecture, their lofty position in society, the church.

I may be wrong.

I have again managed to be in the right place at the right time. Kids, pianist, tenor, soprano, duet, baritone and Rosita Fornét, who received a standing ovation. Her first appearance since a recent operation. I find out later that she’s a famed Cuban singer/actor.

One Cabaret

dancersI’m not one for doing things just for the sake of saying I’ve done it, but I’m doing it tonight.

I’m sitting in the Hall-of-History bar at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. In 40 minutes I’m to check in with Freddy at the front door to direct me to my seats to attend my first, and I’m predicting last cabaret show.

From what I read, this show is comparable to the famous Tropicana show, which has been running for 60 (?) years. I’ve paid $70 for a 3-course dinner and hopefully up-front seats at the grand spectacle. What I’m expecting is a long night of bongo-driven music and tall bare-breasted Cuban women wearing colorful costumes and headwear that would make Rudolph jealous. Plus an over-the-top MC wearing a white tux, paten-leather shoes and an ear-to-ear smile that could light up a small Cuban village. Beyond that, I have no idea. It lasts two hours, I know that. I’m going to be seated with an elderly German couple who refuse to speak with me, even though they speak English. Also at the table will be a sunglass-wearing Columbian drug dealer (I take that back, he’ll have front row seats and I won’t). I’m gunna end up on the side, I’m betting. The lack of jewelry and the jogging shoes are going to keep me off the center aisle, I can tell you that.
poster
It won’t be for trying. When I shake Freddy’s hand, I plan to give him the most pathetic look I have. This––my trip to Cuba––is a trip of a lifetime, the look will say. I’m a simple farmer from the American heartland and I promise to be the most Cuban-music-loving appreciator, cabaret-fan in the audience. Besides, Freddy, I am risking a $2000 fine just to be here tonight. Just give me a chance, Freddy, I won’t let you down…

This is perfect! A table for one, 15 feet from the stage, just to the side. An intimate room with several hundred people, much smaller than the Las Vegas showrooms I’ve been in. Red table cloth. Nobody to have to talk to.

Waiter: Beer, wine, soda, juice, mojito.

Why not!

1st course down. Cold 1/2 lobster with mayo (pick it up with hand and crack it open, I assume is right) and two large and tasty shrimp. No cocktail sauce. Mojito’s got a leaf in it. Smells like mint.

Nobody near me is speaking English.

I can wait until this is over, but it won’t end too soon. Everything is so formulaic, repetitive, exaggerated. The costumes are extraordinary but garish, it’s a matter of too much of too much. The ear-piercing sameness of the music, the seemingly excessive number of dancers (or not a big enough stage)––if it wasn’t for my perfect vantage point, or the fact that I paid the big bucks, or my holding out hope that something really cool will take place, I’d bolt.

Addendum: What diverted my attention from the stage was taking place in the best seats in the house, which for the first half-hour of the show, sat vacant. This I noticed, since all the seats in the theatre were filled.

Just as I expected, in walked the Columbian drug lord with his mistress, his business manager and his bodyguard. And I’m not making this up. Granted, he could have been the Ambassador of Bolivia, but I doubt it. The ambassador wouldn’t be wearing long shoulder-length hair parted down the middle, a Polo shirt with a sweater pretentiously draped over his shoulder.

Following them to their table was a waiter, who stood in front of them while they took their sweet time placing their order. In just a few minutes, he returned with a huge bottle of Chivas Regal, a bucket of ice, bottles of water and cans of soda.

While everyone else, it seemed, respectfully watched the performance, this guy and his entourage kept the waiter on a string. He must have returned six times, to:
bring a fresh bucket of ice,
another bottle of whisky,
a plate of peanuts,
coffee for his mistress,
cigarettes for the accountant,
more soda,
and I can’t recall what else.

And, during the performance, each got up and left their seats––at least once, the accountant twice. (Cocaine in the bathroom, no doubt).
To validate my contention, the headlining bongo drummer actually dedicated one of his drumming “licks” to him, calling him, and I swear I’m not making this up, “El Gran Hombre”.
When the drummer finished his banging, the Kingpin responded by applauding with both hands over head.
I was thinking at the time that when the bill comes for the whisky and all, that the drug trafficker would leave an enormous tip to the waiters, a portion of it going to the drummer who acknowledged him during the show.

The 60ish cab driver sees me, someone his age, an American, and thinks John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall. He’s a big time western cowboy fan. He wanted to know if all the “vaqueros” he called them, were in Texas.

Cake Balancing

I missed the pic when a motorcycle passed. On it rode two guys, the passenger holding a large single-layer cake above his head. I turned to watch him negotiatecubanito the traffic. He stopped at the light. I kept watching. When it turned, two cars in front and one at his side belched plumes of bluish smoke around him. Ummmm. Tasty.

The waiter on the 3rd floor of the Spanish Cultural Center had me cornered. After showing me the building, explaining its purpose, telling me about his relatives in the U.S., identifying the ingredients of a mojito (“Some rum, lime juice, a little sugar, soda water, mint sprigs.”)

“Come, sit down, the bar tender won a mojito-making contest.”

He served me, then sat down and began to work me. It ended when he asked me to buy him a mojito.

“Cuba no es libre but I’d like a Cuba libre.”

When I laughed at his joke, he thought he had me.

“Please, I just want to relax my legs and write a little.”

He went away. A few minutes later I see he’s approached a young couple.

The girls lifts her hand up to neck as if to say I can’t drink anymore today. Over and over again he extends his hand toward the bar. Gesticulating. Talking animatedly. Shaking hands again. Kissing the gal. Then they walk away.

Peering inside a tired old but magnificently built building, I noticed a kitten curled up at the foot of a grand 12-foot front door. I was digging into my backpack for my camera when a guy came to the door and motioned me to come in. Two elderly men stood side by side in the back of what now was evidently a little used parking garage. One of the guys immediately began speaking to me in English. The other stood by his side, smoking a cigar, and politely listened as if he understood. I began to speak in Spanish.

“If you please, I rarely get the opportunity to practice my English.”

One was a carpenter, the other a veterinarian who specialized in artificially inseminating cows.

A very old man sat nearby eating from a plate that he precariously held in his frail hands. “From this kitchen old people are served a daily meal. It’s free, provided by the state. They come every day.”

A lady sits on a stool in the doorway of an 18th century building, holding a plate of what appear to be caramel covered cherries. She tells me what they are but I fail to understand. Try one, she says, as if I like it, I’ll want to buy more.for sale
It was sweet but I couldn’t tell what the caramel was covering. I gave her 25 cents and she tells me to take some more.
This lady’s mother and son were in the States, and she had tried six times to win the lottery, all with no success.
“Lucky number 7,” I say. It’s so sad.

Tomorrow’s my last day. My flight leaves at 7 p.m. Should it be cancelled, I’ll spend seven more days in Havana.

How to spend the day.

Once more I sat at a table in front of Carmen. When I told her I was leaving tomorrow she rose and kissed me on the cheek.

An attempt to go the Finca de los Monos, where the Cuban boxers evidently train, ended when my driver learned that it was 25 kilometers away, he wasn’t sure how to get there, and he wasn’t sure if they were training today. I opted to take a shorter trip to see the foreign embassies, the ambassadors residences and the Marina Hemingway. On the way out of Havana proper, we passed…

Raul is driving his brother cab because his brother has had three traffic violations. That means three months suspended license. So, during Raul’s break as some kind of manager of a nearby sugar processing plant, he drives the cab––seven days a week.

A pleasant, well-educated fellow with a wife and two kids. When Fidel suggests two kids and a tube tying, Raul complies. Overpopulation is a stain on the economy, Raul says.

In my South American travels I’m used to a Catholic church on every other block, but not so here.
Scanned Image 6

Pre-Flight Jitters

This is about as worked up as I get. Start with the fact that there is only a weekly flight to Grand Cayman. If this one gets cancelled… Secondly, I was concerned that I’d get an immigration officer with a thing against Americans, and, despite the policy, he’d/she’d stamp my passport. I have no idea what would transpire––from a reprimanding look to a U.S. treasury department-levied fine of $7000. Then, when I left the apartment this morning, with the intention of not returning until the mid afternoon, it occurred to me that my hosts might go out for the afternoon and forget about my departure (I had already paid up). And I might not have the key for the 2nd lock on the door, and since my airline ticket and passport were inside, I decided to go back and play it safe.

So here I am, sprawled out on three airport waiting room seats. It’s more than two hours before departure. I look at my ticket and note that the boarding gate is B14. Then I lookup a the sign in front of me. B14. This is not my usual method of operation.

On the way to the airport I told the cab driver that I was going to Grand Cayman. It couldn’t be more different from one day to the next––from the hectic street life of Havana, to the tranquility of the GC beach.

The people are gracious and polite, cheerful and, above all, patient. At La Coppelia, an one-square block park that serves ice cream in one of four buildings, the waiting lines were 30-50 people long. This wasn’t just to get the ice cream, but to get a table. The line barely moved.

talk is cheap

talk is cheap

One day I passed a line of men outside an old bar. Men stood holding plastic water or soda bottle, the men in the near near the bar wore a hopeful look, the ones in the back of the line looked hopeless, not expecting that the supply would last.

Most people in the street dressed in second-hand American clothes. I saw so many lines outside stores that resembled thrift shops. In front of every door a man stood and regulated the line. Only a few shoppers inside at a time.

I gave the taxi cab driver the second of the last of my Cuban convertible pesos. To pay the airport tax I had to convert Euros. I still had 40 Cuban national pesos.

I walked around until I found two cleaning ladies and when I placed the money on their cart they responded gratefully, adding, “Have a good flight.” The thought occurred to me that if the several hundred seated in this lounge would empty their pockets of their unused pesos (that can’t be traded out of the country), these girls could buy food for their families to last a month.

On the street, going to a Cuban movie, buying a take-away snack, a sandwich, an orange or a soda, you have to deal in the peso nacional. In a hotel or upscale sit-down restaurant, they’re not accepted. You need CUC.

Jorge Luis

When you put a face on the problem it goes straight to the heart.

I’m sitting next to Jorge Luis, a 25-year old good looking Columbian who is making his second extended trip to Grand Cayman, to work. Confused by the immigration/tourist card/customs papers to be filled out upon arrival, I help him make sense of it. This initiated a series of questions that led to his crying.

Last year he spent seven months working in construction. By trade he’s an electrician, “but the competition is very great there, and its hard to stay employed.” This time he plans to work for a year.

“And your home is where?”

“Cartagena,” which, although I’ve never been there, is situated on the coast and spectacularly beautiful. He tried to speak in English but couldn’t answer the question of whether his family was in Cartagena or not.

“Are your parents there?” I asked.

He gave ma a quizzical look.

“Padres?”

“Oh yes, and my wife and my child.”

“How old is your baby?”

“Eleven days.”

And that brought the tears. And to me, almost.