Monthly Archive: April 2015

– The gift that keeps on giving

 

Baracoa, Cuba

Baracoa, Cuba – where Columbus landed

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Playa Maguana

 

I am getting so much joy from giving the little gifts I brought to Cuba. An adorable old man tried to sell me peanuts. I saw him squinting to read the cover of my book and I asked him if he needed glasses to read. He said he didn’t have any but that was okay, he didn’t need to read much anymore. I pulled a pair from my bag of tricks and gave them to him. He gave them back to me. Once I made him understand that they were ‘un regalo’, he looked at me amazed and tried them on. He kissed me on both cheeks. He ran around reading everything he could and came back and kissed me again and again. 3 pairs of glasses at Walmart? $1. An old man’s kisses? Priceless! The guy I had bought chocolate bars from witnessed the whole thing and came and told me that I was a good person, that the old man was much beloved, and that he had never seen him so happy. He made ‘un regalo’ to me of 2 chocolate bars. That is a lot of money to a Cuban and so I thanked him and bought 3 more! Hahahaaa…

– The last gift

You know how some people have to have the last word? Well, Cubans have to have the last gift! I was very hungry and we stopped and there was an old woman on the side of the road selling things. I didn’t realize that I didn’t have enough change until I had selected cucurucha, chocolate, and a banana. The old woman said it was okay, it was a present. I felt bad so I went on the bus and got a little hotel bottle of shampoo and of lotion and gave it to her as ‘un regalo’. She was so touched, she insisted I take two more bananas. Seriously, you can’t just make a present to these people, they are very proud. I met Felix, an epidemiologist who gave me a cure for cancer. I loved talking to him for hours while waiting for a bIMG_2993us. He has 3 daughters and great energy. He was going away for continuing education. His youngest daughter is 5 and he will call her every day. I gave him presents for her. He wouldn’t take them but I said “Seriously? You gave me a cure for cancer! I cant use it unless you accept them.” He relented and we promised to keep in touch.

IMG_3013Cucurucha – honey, nuts, and coconut goodness wrapped in a palm leaf… Que rica!

– Gratitude… or the lack thereof

As I’ve said in my other posts, Cubans in general are very generous and appreciative. As a rule, I don’t give presents to people who ask for them. Anyone who wants a job in Cuba can have a job (more than we can say in the US, huh?). If they can’t work because of disability, the state will take care of them. So beggars here have chosen that as their profession and I don’t choose to support that. They are rare. But a woman approached me and I realized that I still had an overabundance of gifts to give (I had filled half my suitcase and I’m not taking them home!)

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OMG, I am never breaking my rule again! I gave her soap and some toys for her grandkids and she pushed me aside looking in my bag of tricks and said her mother needed the reading glasses. I gave them to her and then she said, what do you have for ME? I need something for ME! I said, “The soap is for you and, by the way, you’re welcome. Do you realize that you haven’t even said thank you? You are a very greedy person and I wish I had saved these presents for someone else.” She continued to follow me, not getting it. I had to stamp my foot and tell her to leave me alone.

Right after that, a girl walked up demanding sweets or toys. I told her I had lots of presents for kids but not little girls who demand them without even a hello, that I am a person with feelings, not just a ‘present-giver’. I don’t know if she got it, but I felt better for saying it. I went back to the casa and gave a bag of toys to the daughter there who works at a day care to distribute to the kids there. Like all the other Cubans I’ve encountered, except these two brats, she was lovely and appreciative.

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Trinidad, Cuba

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– Hokey pokey

So after a week of riding the buses with the Cubans, staying and eating in their homes, and loving every minute of it, I wanted to go diving on the north coast and the only way I could do it in my time frame and budget was to book an excursion to an all-inclusive resort… it’s like what I imagine is a cruise ship on land… lots of old, fat tourists, glutton-making buffets, and cheesy entertainment. Although I was captivated by what I can best describe as the violin karaoke. He was a very talented player and his boom box accompaniment was Cheeky-Monkey-show-worthy, transitioning smoothly from Frank Sinatra to Eric Clapton to Abba to Tina Turner to yes, wait for it… Jimi Hendrix!

The best part though was the skinny, chemo-bald woman in her 70’s in a mini-skirt who danced her little booty off when pulled from the audience by the ballroom dancers. I don’t know what country she was from but she was embracing life… rock on, sistah! The rains have finally arrived, which is a welcome relief from the very intense heat, but will make for an interesting journey in the dive boat tomorrow.

UPDATE: the coast guard has cancelled diving… for a little bit of rain! I came to this circus for nothing and now I’m locked out of my room because the lock battery died and apparently they have to send away for a new one and traditional keys don’t work even thought there is a keyhole. Oh well, this is why we travel isn’t it… to practice rolling with the punches? I guess I’ll go to the pool bar and do the hokey pokey in the rain in 5 languages.

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– Frosting on the cake

I decided on a whim to get off my pre-arranged charter bus at a midway stop because I was heading west and it was turning back east. No problema… I would just catch a taxi from the junction to the center of town. Except that there were no taxis… or buses… or cars…… and it was pouring rain. After about a half hour of soaking solitude, I found myself singing and smiling in appreciation. See, as bad as the moment appeared to be, it was a moment I wasn’t supposed to have… So how could I complain? It was a moment I got to have… soaking wet on the side of the road in Cuba with no relief in sight… frosting on the cake!

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– Pura vida

I never feel so alive as when I’m getting off a bus in a new town in another country where few speak English and I have no idea where I’m going to stay, get my next meal, or entertain myself and I rarely feel so satisfied as when I’ve figured it all out within hours.

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– Una buena aventura

I took the locale bus… it costs 8 cents and took over an hour to go 30 kilometeres because we left the highway several times to go back into the wild and stop at little farms and such. It was so great to observe the Cubans with each other with no tourists around. Old people and women go first and always get the seats…its an unspoken understanding. Teenagers help old people. Everyone kisses everyone, and every sentence ends in ‘mi amor’. I stiffened when 3 gnarly looking military guys got on, having heard that turistas are not supposed to ride the locals transportation and just having a general fear of uniforms in communist countries. They burst into broad smiles as everyone shouted out greetings and they kissed and shook hands as they went down the aisle.

I went to the museum and saw how justifiably proud they are of kicking our asses in the Bay of Pigs invasion in a David vs. Goliath story that is, frankly, one of those things that embarrasses me as an American…. not that we lost, but that we had no business being there, acting like Yankee imperialists. I bemoaned the fact that I had to walk a kilometer to the bus stop in the intense heat and wait 2 hours for the return bus. I saw a señora I had chatted with on the way here and assumed she was going back on the same locale I was. After a half hour of sweltering, I didn’t know how I’d last another hour and a half and wasn’t looking forward to the long hot bus ride back. Suddenly she jumped up and ran for what looked like a cattle truck that everyone stood in the back of. Fearing this was the bus and I would be left behind, I shouted “Señora?” and she waved her finger at me to say, “this is is not for you” and she called out to a large delivery truck stopped at the intersection. She said, “Give the Señora a ride to Playa Larga!”. He waved me over and she climbed on her cattle truck.

I squeezed between 2 Cubans in the front seat. It was a laundry truck, delivering fresh linen between hotels. The driver had no shirt on, was dark, rotund, hairy and sweating profusely, but he had a big smile on his face. We buzzed back in 20 minutes playing a rousing game of “dodge the crabs”… they even let me steer. It’s mating season and the crabs cross the road en masse with pinchers up. Sometimes you can dodge them… other times they are so thick all you hear is grisly crackling and the road is paved in red and yellow. I’m told their pinchers can puncture your tires. He let me and the other guy off at the hotel he was delivering to so I had a 4 kilometre walk back to my casa in the sweltering sun with my new compadre.

He works for the “Party” as a community liaison making sure everyone’s needs are met. When I told him where I was staying, he said they were a good socialist family that supports the community and the Party. Gotta say… they really seem to love their socialism and the government and are extremely proud of the Revolucion. They are very generous to each other and community-minded. They have some of the best medical care and one of the highest literacy rates in the world. In Russia and Prague before the wall came down, everyone was so dour and oppressed when I was there. Cubans love life and seem so content with their system and their lives… It’s been a real eye opener.

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– Sola

A woman traveling alone is something a lot of people seem to have a hard time getting their mind around. Even tourists from other countries. But especially Cubans because they are all about being together. Everyone I meet asks me, incredulously, “Viajes sola?”. They assume I must be shopping for a man and even the toothless geezers offer to be my ‘novio’. I was waiting for a bus in a shelter with locals and this young, good-looking guy plops down beside me and asks (in Spanish, of course) with a broad grin, if I have money. Because if I do, we can get married. The townspeople burst out laughing at his cheek, as do I. I replied, “No, I don’t… I was kinda hoping you did.” They found that even funnier.

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– Vintage cars and more

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I’d heard about all the vintage American cars in Havana but I had no idea. There are thousands and they are EVERYWHERE… all over Cuba and they are immaculately maintained. (Click to enlarge).

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IMG_2569IMG_2603Many are in use as taxis.

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Before the Revolucion, when the U.S. puppet dictator Battista was in charge, Cuba was pretty much owned and run by American gangsters. Havana was a flashy place to ply your vices… gambling, prostitution, drinking, etc and flashy cars were all the rage. After the Revolucion, when the U.S. imposed the economic blockade, Cuba had a difficult time getting parts to service them over the last 50 years. So they have gotten creative… I passed a foundry of sorts where they create replacement parts by mimicking the original. These old beauties don’t have a lot of electronic or plastic parts and work on pretty basic principals.

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It seems strange to say this, but part of what makes Cuba so special is the result of the blockade. Unlike so many other developing countries, they had to rely on themselves and created their own industries. At a restaurant, I picked up the condiment bottles and read the labels… all were made in Cuba. In so many other countries that I have traveled in, they import everything and have few industries of their own. I hope that they don’t lose their resourcefulness with the easing of economic relations with the U.S.

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And these are just a fraction of the photos I took!

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– Empowerment

Three floors above an open lobby a large bird was trapped. It kept throwing itself against the glass, not realizing that all it had to do to go outside was fly over the railing and down to the lobby and out the front door. I was afraid it was going to break its neck if it continued its futile attempts. A crowd had gathered watching it. Why wasn’t anybody helping it?

I returned to my room, got a towel, came back, threw it over the bird, scooped it up, took it down the elevator, outside, and set it free. The maids, maintenance men, tourists, and security guards who witnessed it gave me a round of applause. Which felt good. But I was puzzled. What made me a hero?

It’s not that I cared more than others… everyone wanted to help the bird. It’s not that I’m that smart… the towel wasn’t that brilliant. It’s that I was the only observer that felt empowered to do something about the situation. All the others were paralyzed by the feeling that they needed some sort of permission to act. It made me ponder how much better the world could be if everyone felt empowered to act when needed.

Perhaps one of the best things we can teach our children is to feel empowered to act to solve a problem. Perhaps one of the best things we can do for ourselves to heal is to feel empowered to challenge our healers and get in the driver’s seat of our healing process. I give you permission… heehee.

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Route & Itinerary

cuba map

April 18  – Denver to Cancun, overnight in Cancun

April 19 – Cancun to Habana, Cubana Airlines ($206), stayed in Habana Vieja at casa particular ($35/night for 2 including full breakfast.

(in blue on map above)…

April 22 – Rented car ($55/day all-inclusive), drove to Viñales, stayed in nice hotel with pool ($100 for 2 including breakfast)

April 23 – Drove to Maria La Gorda at western tip. Scuba dove.

April 25 – Back to Habana, friends left.

(in green on map above)…

April 26 – Traveling sola now! Took overnight bus ($66, 18 hours) to Baracoa. Lovely place, Christopher Columbus landed here. Idyllic Playa Maguana nearby. Chocolate capital of Cuba… yummy! Stayed in casa particular ($20/night including breakfast).

(in red on map above)…

April 29 – Bus to Santiago de Cuba. Underwhelmed… stinky, noisy city. Museo de Carnaval definitely worth seeing though. They have free shows in the afternoon. Casa particular.

May 1 – Privately arranged transport to Guardalavaca to stay at all-inclusive and dive. Yecch, but it’s the only option. ($200 round trip plus 2 nights at all-inclusive). Diving cancelled due to storm : (

May 3 – Overnight bus to Trinidad from Holguin. Pouring rain! Upside – fewer tourists!

May 5 – Bus to Playa Giron/Playa Larga in the Bay of Pigs. Most beautiful casa particular right on beach ($30/night). Scuba diving!

May 7 – Bus to Varadero. Nice casa particular. Couldn’t find a good restaurant. Very touristy but beautiful beach!

May 9 – Taxi to Habana ($35), Cubana to Mexico City ($214).

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