Category Archives: Cuba

Me and Josue Finding Santeria

A week ago today, just a few hours before I had to return to Jose Marti International Airport, I stepped into the backseat of a bicycle taxi driven by a twenty-something named Josue. I had no idea who he was, that he had a five-year-old daughter with big, brown beautiful eyes, that he struggled with asthma, that he lived in Old Havana. He didn’t stand out from the other Bici-taxi drivers—sinewy guys in secondhand T-shirts. There’s a look to the guys moving the gringos about. I asked him to take me to Fin de Siglo, a market not populated by gringos. He drove me there, and it was closed, even though my hotel concierge told me it was opened. That was twice in one week that I had tried this market with no success. But that’s the thing with Cuba—you don’t learn about what’s opened or closed by researching online, if you’re lucky enough to get on the Internet. You learn Cuba by asking around, and going there, either to discover the doors opened or closed.

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(This isn’t Josue, but a different Bici-taxi driver who didn’t take me anywhere.)

Josue offered to take me to the San Jose mercado, a massive craft market on the waterfront that’s popular among tourists. Along the ride, we chatted in that broken, awkward way two people who don’t know enough words in one language do, but he had a warmth to him that I trusted. He coughed throughout the entire ride, and when I asked what was wrong, if he was okay, he said he had asthma. Our conversation was mostly in Spanish. I learned he was separated from the mother of his daughter. That soon, he’d be going to the pharmacy to pick up his asthma medication. That he didn’t smoke cigars because of his asthma. That the following day, Saturday, he would get to do his hair, drink some whisky, enjoy the weekend. Cuban men have a thing about hair. He showed me pictures on his phone of how he liked to style his hair. I wanted to tell him he spent more time on his hair than I did on mine, that my idea of going out was a shower and hopping into a convertible so that the wind could give me that beach-blown look I often have. He admired my eyes. I showed him a photo of my husband and daughter, said I missed my family but also enjoyed traveling alone. He jokingly said if I were his “chica,” he wouldn’t let me travel alone. I smiled, enjoying the sweetness of it all. Blonde ladies traveling solo from the Snow Belt are exotic in Cuba. I get it.

When we got there, I asked him where I could pick up a taxi to get back to my hotel; I didn’t expect him to wait. He offered to come inside with me. So we wandered the market together. We were about the same height. Me and Josue looking at baskets. Me and Josue looking at jewelry. Me and Josue looking at art. When I stopped to admire a painting, and the vendor told me it would cost fifty, Josue leaned toward me and whispered to only pay forty.

I wanted to spend more time at the market. I wanted to fly home with more Cuban art. I wanted to know more Spanish verbs so I could have a more meaningful conversation with Josue. But it was the end of my trip, I was running low on cash, I had used up the five or six Spanish verbs I knew, and I still had to throw my suitcase together and make my way back to the airport. That afternoon, I would be somewhere over the Florida Keys, heading north. I tried to explain to Josue I didn’t have enough to pay for both him and an artist. He kept putting his hands up, and if I understood him correctly—and, perhaps I didn’t—he told me not to worry about it. I got the impression he was giving me a free ride, and who anywhere anymore gets a free ride? I told him it was okay, we could go.

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On the drive back, he began talking to me about Santeria and the “Santos,” or saints. I never mentioned Santeria, but he seemed to want to tell me more about himself. He pulled over to two different Santeria shops, gently led me by the arm or the shoulder, showing me inside. He started pointing at things, speaking in a slow Spanish, sensing I was trying to tune into each word, like recognizing a song. I didn’t pick up everything he said, but admired the santos beaded bracelets he wore, which he pointed out were for sale in the store. I didn’t get the impression he wanted me to buy anything, but that this was something that was cool to him because he darted from one section of the store to the other, explaining things along the way. He pointed to ceramic urn-looking objects that he said you put food and offerings in; he mentioned he had a few of these at home. I could tell he wanted to share more with me, but we were limited by language, and I kicked myself for not practicing more Spanish before my trip. I didn’t buy anything, at the San Jose market or the Santeria shops, and Josue didn’t appear to care.

After a few stops to Santeria shops, we were back in front of Hotel Parque Central, one of the city’s newest additions at only a decade old. Another example about how you learn Cuba at street-level: Hotel Parque Central sells five-hour Internet cards, a luxury in Havana where the telecommunications infrastructure is still embryonic. I discovered this by accident when my hotel, Hotel Telegrafo, informed me they were out of Internet cards, and offered no further explanation. I ran across the street to Hotel Parque Central, made my way to the “Business Center,” another rarity in the Havana hotel scene, and was sold a five-hour Internet card for $10, a much better deal than the hourly cards that cost $4.50. There’s your Cuba travel tip for you.

In front of Hotel Parque Central, I paid Josue more than the cost of the fare, and maybe he anticipated this or maybe he didn’t expect anything. I’ll never know. I hugged him goodbye, and he gave me a kiss on the cheek. I would miss him, even though I had known him for about an hour. We’re now Facebook friends.

And I knew why I would miss him. In New York, or when I’m visiting Los Angeles or when I’m pretty much visiting anywhere, I don’t chat up taxi drivers or allow them to join me at art markets. I don’t follow them into Santeria shops or ask them about their kids. I don’t tell them to be careful with their asthma, genuinely worried that bicycling through clouds of exhaust coming from vintage cars was exacerbating a medical condition. The U.S. trade embargo may have kept out Starbucks and McDonalds (though Starwood is making headway in Cuba), it may have made Cuba the time capsule that intrigues the rest of the world, but what it also preserved was Cuban hospitality, a warmth unmarred by relentless ambition to get ahead, which I see in abundance everywhere else. I would miss Josue because I knew what I was flying back to: a heads-down, self-involved affluenza neighborhood where moms at book clubs compare their wedding band upgrades; where, three miles from our house when my daughter had a bicycle accident and was crying loudly over her bloody foot, three people jogged past us as if we were in their way. I was flying back to Trump’s America, to rainy weather where the temperatures were in the 50s, to a dance studio where my favorite teacher no longer taught, to where no one would offer to take me to a Santeria shop without something in exchange.

Towards the end of our ride, Josue either said that next time I come, I bring my entire family or next time I come, I should meet his entire family. Either way works. Josue, if you’re reading this, muchas gracias. Espero ver ti próximo año cuando visito otre vez.

I Suck At Packing (and Blogging)

I have visited about 15 countries, which is quite a bit more than most Americans and paltry compared with the travel writers I follow on Instagram, like JetSetSarah, truly one of the funniest, most upbeat women I’ve ever met on the road, and Where’s Andrew, who somehow combines intrepid with mellow (and the two know each other because when you travel that much, your paths cross—it is known).

Some countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit several times: three times to England; three times to France; three times to Mexico with a fourth later this year; and later this week, my third time to Cuba, a country I adore even though I can barely speak any Spanish. I’m returning with the Cuba Writers Program, co-led by the indefatigable Tim Weed, who knows everyone in Cuba, from one end of the island to the other, including the guy on the highway who sells fruit and who will slice off a sample for you with his machete. That’s right—Tim has friends who have machetes. He’s that kind of guy.

How to pack for Cuba? Well, it’s really hot there, so I don’t need to wear a lot of clothes. I can likely alternate through a couple of sundresses and survive in one pair of flip-flops and be okay. Though my first two trips to Cuba have taught me a few things:

– Pack Pepto Bismol, not because the food will cause problems—I loved the food and didn’t have any issues, but someone in the tour group will likely need Pepto.

– Pack toilet paper. I forgot this last year even though I meant to pack it. Then I endured a number 2 situation in the lobby of Hotel Florida in Havana last year where I had to go back to the abuelita sitting next to her basket of single-ply, single square toilet paper that she handed out one square at a time. Every time I asked for “Una mas?” in a pleading tone, she shook her head. I went back to her three times. So I’m not getting stuck in that situation again because let’s face it: one square of single-ply toilet paper doesn’t do much.

– Pack snorkeling gear. This is a first for me, but I learned I’m snorkeling, and renting gear in Cuba isn’t a reliable option so I rush-ordered some from Amazon, a company I hate. My new fins arrive in a few hours. Because that’s America. Or, I should say, that’s Jeff Bezos.

– Pack dancing shoes. I can’t dance in flip flops, and I’ve become spoiled by my Italian-leather, suede-bottomed dance shoes. This will be their first trip anywhere—they’re excited.

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And then there are the packing essentials that follow me no matter where I go:

– My pool floatie. The world is three-fourths water, and that’s not counting all the glorious, man-made swimming pools everywhere. So my odds of bumping into someplace swim-able are good. That means my pool floatie goes where I go.

– My bathing suit. I pack this whether I’m going somewhere warm or cold because someone somewhere will have a hot tub or a swimming pool, and being in water relaxes me, especially after a flight.

– Klonopin. Sad to say, but me and my benzos are inseparable at this point; I can’t fly or sleep without them, though know that if you hang out with me between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., you’re getting the pharma-free version of me. It’s only on airplanes or in bedrooms where I’ve gotta knock myself out. When traveling, I will share from my stash the following: Pepto, gum, tissues, tampons, maxi-pads, Excedrin, Band-Aids, toilet paper (within reason), vitamins, probiotics, hand sanitizer (again, within reason) and lemon ginger tea. I will not share my Klonopin—I don’t care how wound up you are or what you’re willing to pay.

– Lemon ginger tea. This is true no matter where I go, and was quite handy during last year’s trip to Cuba. I brought plenty, and handed out tea bags like candy. Lemon ginger tea soothes almost anything except a gunshot wound or a broken heart, though I would even venture to say it can indeed help alleviate a bad mood. It’s physically and emotionally potent, and I trust it.

– Books. Pretty self-explanatory.

– Scarves. Even to hot places. You never know when you’ll feel chilly, especially walking on a beach at night, plus scarves are the most versatile item of clothing anytime anywhere. You can tie up your attacker with one, flag down a taxi, stash away some snacks you took from the breakfast bar, or wrap an abandoned kitten. Lots of options with scarves.

– Hats. Just because I like hats.

You’d think given past travel experiences I’d have some hard-won expertise in packing, but the truth is I suck at packing. I often leave packing to the last minute, though I have friends who take the packing process very seriously and tackle their suitcases like a puzzle. The contents of their luggage are as diverse and as thought-through as their retirement portfolios. I am likely to show up in Cuba or any country with a bag full of Klonopin, swim gear, and books, but missing essentials such as underwear or sensible walking shoes. This has actually happened before—me showing up to a destination without underwear because I forgot to pack it. This may make me sound like a fun person to hang out with (“Hey! She’s gone commando, and she’s got Klonopin AND a pool floatie!”) but at age 44 and the mother of a teenager, I should know better. When I went to Japan in April 2013, a friend of mine came over and took a C-suite level approach to packing *my* suitcase. She coordinated and laid out outfits for the different days of the week, sorted out which shoes were necessary, and showed me how to properly roll clothes to make everything fit. She brought her A-game to the task, and truly, my suitcase never looked so well-organized. For her, packing is as much fun as the flight and the trip. I want to aspire to this, and maybe on this trip, I will try.

20 Years Later

On Sunday, I sat on a plane that flew from Los Angeles to Newark. Flying always shocks me. It’s the take off, really. No matter how many times I do it, I still sit there, strapped down, picturing the pilot moving the throttle. Nose up, wheels up, wings up, and suddenly we’re at some unnatural angle going some unnatural speed at some unnatural height, and every time I think “What a feat of engineering and physics!” I become jealous of those tuned out on whatever device they’re allowed to have on or whatever movie they’re trying to download or whatever book they’re reading. The plane levels off, and about 45 minutes to an hour in, I’m able to relax—sort of—and crack open a book, though I’ve learned that reading while doped up on Klonopin means not remembering what you read once you’re off the plane. If it’s a smooth ride, I relish the view from 36,000 feet.

I had to make this flight (I have walked away from the gate before) because on Monday, I was scheduled to participate in a reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village—West Village, to be precise. I had attended a reading at this venue last year. It’s a wonderfully classic Beatnik kind of space, a basement below a restaurant that is narrow and dark with a small stage draped by a red velvet curtain and doused with bad lighting. If the cafe allowed smoking down there, none of us would have been able to breathe, for there are no windows.

The participants were from the inaugural Cuba Writers Program; I was one of six readers. I read a piece that was recently published in Catapult about a waiter I met in Havana. His name is Alexander, and he got me cornflakes when I was feeling sick. We need more Alexanders in the world.

This was my first public reading. I was told I did an “excellent” job, and even came across as funny and engaging. People I didn’t know came up to compliment me. On stage, I could sense the audience was enjoying the piece, so I started to relax into my own words, and reading your own words aloud always sounds different than writing them. Whatever happens with my writing career, at least I can say my first public reading was in Greenwich Village to a standing room-only crowd, and that the audience liked me.

There was an after-party a few blocks away at this writer’s apartment. He organized the event and lived on Bleecker Street. If you don’t know New York City, Bleecker Street is, or at least once was, the heart of Greenwich Village. I lived at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Street 20 years ago, and as we were walking to this party, we walked past my old building. We also walked past the CVS pharmacy that I had once signed a petition to help keep out. The Grand Union where I used to grocery shop was gone. Bleecker still had record shops, a few loud bars, cafes, and a tattoo parlor, and maintained that noisy, gritty vibe I remember when living there. New York University is right there, so the neighborhood teems with students, and 20 years ago, I had been one of them, pursuing a master’s degree in journalism.

The party was held in this gorgeous apartment filled with gorgeous mid-century furniture protected by several large, clean panes of glass windows overlooking Lafayette Street, a north-south road that takes you into Chinatown, Little Italy and the rest of the Lower East Side. The street is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, and I wondered what he would have thought of this big, garish thruway with its giant billboard about a film that sort of, kind of makes fun of war, because those big, beautiful windows offered a clear view of that promotion.

A couple of strange things were going on in my head that night, and this is without wine or Klonopin. One, that just the day before, I had been in Los Angeles looking out at the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory and palm trees through large windows long overdue for a cleaning. That had been my view for 10 days. Two, that I was a guest of a man who had lived in this stunning apartment for the past 23 years, and that 20 years ago, he and I and unknowingly been neighbors, unaware that in two decades, we would meet at an airport in Miami. I wasn’t invited to such parties 20 years ago, where accomplished people hung out, drank wine, talked about books, and could take in the view from wherever they stood because the view was everywhere. I was a bit of a wreck 20 years ago, very bitter about a family court battle I had been dragged through, completely broke, borrowing money from an ex-boyfriend generous enough to help an ex-girlfriend, struggling to make ends meet and to stay focused on my studies at NYU. In July 1996, I dropped out of the NYU journalism graduate program and got a job at a small newspaper in New Hampshire, basically applying my degree before I had it while earning a much-needed paycheck. I was 12 credits shy of finishing my master’s, and never went back to complete it. I do not come from an educated family, so no one was around to advise whether dropping out to take a newspaper job was a good idea or not, which means for a 23-year-old, I was quite free to chart my own course and make my own mistakes. And I did. No one stood around grooming me for success, as I see so many parents do with their children now, and as we gladly do with our 12-year-old daughter.

For years, I felt hugely embarrassed about being an NYU dropout, and for being the emotional and financial mess that I had been in my 20s. My roommate and classmates were A students from upper middle class families who summered in South Africa and Germany, who took unpaid internships at large-city newspapers because they needed experience, not cash, while I sold flowers for $8 an hour at the Union Square farmers’ market, which, to this day, remains one of my favorite jobs ever. At age 23, I lacked just about all the things my peers had to become successful. If my 43-year-old self could have talked to my 23-year-old self, she would have said “Chill, sister. It’s going to be a weird road, but an interesting one, and you’ll get there, just not in the same way your classmates might get there.”

Walking by all those purple NYU flags that dominate Greenwich Village didn’t affect me Monday night. It used to, whenever I was in Washington Square Park or bopping around MacDougal Street to meet a friend for lunch. I had enjoyed myself on stage. People whose names I don’t remember praised my work. I was a writer reading in Manhattan heading to a party at the fabulous apartment of another writer. I felt my own kind of take off. Either it was the jet lag or maybe New York was softening towards me. New York City is not easy on anyone: writers, actors, musicians, people in general. A colleague of my husband’s recently left New York for L.A., worn down by the city’s frenetic pace and stress junkie tendencies. We’re looking to move to L.A., too, and sometimes I wonder if we’ll be packing up just as New York decides to like me after all.

I Stink At Blogging

It’s June 22, and I just realized that my last blog post was two months ago. Unless you’re a famous author like George R.R. Martin and know that you can blog whenever you feel like it, and hundreds or thousands of people will still read you, blogging is supposed to be more of a regular thing, something you maintain, like toned triceps or abs. My husband is good at this, this blogging thing, as is his colleague, Chuck Wendig, who seems to fire-breathe copy while I sit on my front porch, laptop open, shitting kittens over every word, fussing with phrasing, trying to recall everything Jim Shepard said when I was at Sirenland this past March. And maybe Chuck shits kittens over every word, too. He’s just more of a pro about it.

So the blog gathered dust (it’s also undergoing a redesign because I’m tired of all this blue). Meanwhile, I was traveling, writing, and getting published, so no complaints here. I had my first piece for AFAR, about camping in New York City. Then, there was an essay I wrote about a waiter I met in Havana last month. That same week, my first article for The Week was published, so I felt a bit splattered across the Internet in a short amount of time. Is this how Chuck Wendig and George R.R. Martin feel when their stories go viral (certainly more viral than I ever will), and when people they don’t know comment on what they wrote? It’s a cool, weird experience that I am still getting used to.

And while I haven’t been blogging, I have been reading—a lot. I finished Naomi J. Williams’ brilliant “Landfalls”, which I scored as a free gift for attending the annual One Story Debutante Ball. I didn’t know anything about Ms. Williams or the book; I literally picked it up at a table because I liked the cover—18th-century ships being bullied by moody green waves—and I love me a good journey story. I brought the book to Cuba with me last month, and had to keep putting it down because it was so good. Now I’m reading Louise Erdrich’s “LaRose,” which is equally gripping. In between, I tried reading Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s blockbuster novel “The Nest,” and got 104 pages in before I decided I can’t take reading about affluent white New Yorkers anymore and the shit storms they create for themselves. Same thing happened this past winter with Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s “The Ramblers,” though there, I only lasted 40 pages. Rowley’s blog is titled “Ivy League Insecurities.” I started wondering if I should have such an emotionally-charged, socioeconomically-loaded blog title, but only came up with “State School Struggles” before recalling that I had learned—after graduating from state school—that alliteration is for amateurs, and, really, just plain uncool.

I’ll try to blog more often for those dedicated 2.5 readers out there, but in the next few weeks, I have something I’m working on for The Scofield, a mega-thinky platform led by the intrepid Tyler Malone (thanks, Tyler!) and a few assignments about Cuba I gotta focus on, and writing about Cuba always makes me happy. I can’t explain it. I’m a blonde suburban mom who grew up in the Snow Belt, who studied French instead of Spanish, and I’m as gringa as they come. But Cuba feels right. Maybe I’ll blog about that someday.

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Remembering the Cuba I Visited

Last year while walking underground through Montreal’s subway tunnels, I became extremely jealous of Canadians. I’ve always liked them but now I suddenly resented them. There, plastered before us while we waited in sub-zero temperatures for our train was a massive ad promoting a sunny beach vacation in Cuba.

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The ad displayed the usual eye-catching tropical hues of blues and oranges and yellows. I wanted to walk right into that poster. I wanted what the Canadians had, the freedom to pack sunscreen, fly directly to Havana, bask on Cuba’s pristine beaches, shimmy to bachata music in the streets of Havana, dine on “Moros y Cristianos” and slippery pork sandwiches, and buy whatever else fancied them without worrying about not having purchase power.

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It wasn’t that way when Mike and I went to Cuba in 2003. We flew through Cancun. Our connecting flights on Air Mexicana were purchased in Mexico. We arrived at 1 am in pitch dark. There were Che Guevara posters and murals everywhere. Everyone smiled and no one stamped our passports. Without credit cards or any access to our money, we had to make the cash stashed in our various pockets last the week. No splurging. We counted pennies and mojitos (just one per meal to stay within budget). What we didn’t account for was that the beachfront hotel where we were supposed to stay had gone out of business. Our cab driver, a young sympathetic guy who actually carried a cell phone, took us to another beachfront hotel that cost a bit more. We could swing it, but it would be tight. And it was. But what a week.

What I remember most about Cuba is its unblemished beaches, sand so white and fluffy it looked like fresh snow fall. The water was that distinct Caribbean blue you can’t find anywhere else in the world. This was the cleanest beach I had ever seen and covered with Canadians and Germans sprawled out on towels and blankets. I remember the fully-suited guards surveying the water with their binoculars, strolling the sand. One came up to me to inform me in rapid Spanish to close up my purse. I remember a beach vendor selling Pringles potato chips, that the beer was about $1, that old men really do play chess all day in Havana, that the chicken dishes I ate in Cuba tasted very chewy and stringy, and that the coffee was phenomenal and made me want to pull up a chair next to those abuelos, sip coffee and play chess til the sun went down.

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Today’s news from President Obama brought this all back. I never understood this mid-century trade embargo with Cuba and it appears millions of others never did either. We always kept trade going with China despite their human rights record while this bizarre, dysfunctional relationship with an island nation 90 miles from US borders needlessly withered. Meanwhile, the Cubans developed a kind of perseverance and resilience and resourcefulness that can only grow from living without, raising generations of MacGyvers who can readily take a bunch of random objects like a battery, an old toothbrush and a spare tire and make a functioning machine. Seriously, you won’t find a better mechanic on the planet than those tinkering in Cuba.

I want US-Cuba relations to normalize, if that’s the word we’re going to use, but at the same time I don’t want Cuba to become the next Punta Cana pit stop. What will the “new normal” with Cuba look like? Las Vegas in the Caribbean? I was drawn to Cuba while walking around Vienna in 2002; I saw a magazine cover story about Havana’s colonial architecture crumbling. Cuba did not have the money to preserve its own history and its yellowed, cracked buildings were slowly collapsing with age. I traveled to Havana as a journalist the following year because I wanted to see what might not be visible for much longer: 17th century architecture, those 1950s classic cars, streets free of McDonalds and Starbucks. You know how hard it is to travel the world and not trip over an American retailer? I’ve only visited two places so far where I didn’t have American capitalism in my face: Isla Isabela in the Galapagos and Cuba. Cuba is old and beautiful and I want it to stay old and beautiful, though I know that’s an unfair demand. Yet, still I worry about what’s going to happen now. American corporate sugar daddies were just waiting for this moment, for a new generation of leaders to scratch their heads and ask “does anyone recall what we were fighting about?”. Economic prosperity is for everyone everywhere, but I’ll selfishly admit here on the Internet: I hope Cuba says no thanks, or at least doesn’t permit American businesses to overrun what makes Cuba so Cuban.

So how did I leave things with Cuba? Money was squeaky that week, but Mike and I made it back to Mexico with 15 cents to spare. By the time our six days were up, we had just enough money to cover a cheap lunch at the airport, which was a sandwich and an ice cream that we split, plus our airport departure tax for two. I had to pee before boarding, so I went to an airport bathroom and bought some single-ply toilet paper from the attendant because the stalls didn’t provide freebies. Mike thought that was a bit of a binge–that I’ve gone in the woods without toilet paper before–why did I have to blow money on some wipes now? But I just couldn’t fly back to Mexico feeling that way so I gave the attendant the coins I had left in my pocket and she gave me back 15 cents because I had overpaid her. Flushing my last bit of spare change now didn’t feel so hard. We left Cuba with 15 cents between the two of us, which was 15 cents more than what I expected to leave with so I felt like a winner walking out of a casino. About two hours later when we were settled into our hotel at Cancun, we ordered a massive dinner, too many daiquiris and charged it to our credit card. We were back in full capitalistic action with that youthful feeling that anything in the world was ours again if we could afford it. But I admit, feeling broke in Cuba gave me a bit of a thrill. Now with the embargo set to lift, American tourists can buy all the toilet paper in Cuba they want, wiping without worry, but they won’t appreciate it the way we travelers did under the embargo.

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