2017
04.19

SCALE

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT PACKING FOR A MULTI-SEASON TRIP.  A FEW INSIGHTS INTO MY OCD NATURE.  ABOUT TSA PRE-APPROVAL,  ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF NUTELLA, AND WHAT CONSTITUTES A LIQUID.

It was agony!  For three days I had been deciding, sorting, weighing, arranging, downsizing, rearranging and weighing again, all the travel pouches that were destined to accompany me on my next trip.  The pile of pouches just would not shrink, no matter how much I tried.  It wasn’t the length of the trip, it was the weather that caused the problem.  In China it was still cool and rainy, in Tibet there would be warm days, cool nights, and snow on some of the treks, and in Nepal the hot and dusty summer would give way to the monsoon shortly. 

Aside from all the necessities for each climate, I needed just the one or two fun and comfy outfits, right?  And what about a few gadgets for the “you never know” situations?  Not to mention my camera, computer, external hard drive, charging gear and batteries, weighing in close to 20 pounds.  And a few snacks had to come along — that’s how you make friends on the road.  And for comfort at least one jar of Nutella — that’s how you stay grounded after a difficult day.  And some disposable items will come in handy and eventually make room for souvenirs.  And what about book(s)?   

Just picture the shoe decision alone…!

Think like the Polish backpackers, was Celibeth’s advise.  Of all people, Celibeth, who travels with no less than 6 pairs of shoes!   But she had a point.  We had encountered a Polish couple in Cuba that had been on the road for a year with all their belongings on their backs.  I did that years ago when my brother Andreas and I took off on our hitchhiking adventure to the Soviet Union, in 1982.  We each had over 20 kg on our backs, sleeping bags and tent included.  It was way too heavy then and there is no way I could handle this now.  I have become the “rolling luggage” type.  But why can’t they make luggage any lighter these days?  My duffel bag rolls in with 13 pounds without even anything in it!  Check-in allowance is 50 pounds.  Carry-on is supposed to be 15 pounds.  I kept weighing and shedding to no avail.

Strangely enough, all this packing and arranging felt rather soothing.  I know every little thing in my pack now, neatly listed everything on my note pad, and recorded which pouch it was packed in.  I color-coded as much as possible the various parts of the trip or the nature of the content, and found the perfect spot for each pouch in my big drop-bottom duffel bag.  This is when packing becomes Zen.  And yes, this is my OCD streak rearing its ugly little head.  But this system comes in handy when you have to pack and unpack every few days.   

I decided to take a chance.  Once in a rare while you get some mercy from the people behind the counter at the airport especially on long trips overseas.  My pack was 10 pounds above the allotted 50, and my carry-on 5 pounds over the allotted 15. Perhaps this would be my lucky day and I would get away with it? 

No prisa, no prisa!  That was our motto in Cuba.  No hurry.  It is travel rule #1 for me.  For a 9 AM departure I set the alarm at 4 AM.  A leisure shower, a nice breakfast, tea time, and ample time for David to drive through the nasty rain to get me to the airport 2 hours ahead of time for a domestic flight.  The United Airline counter was still deserted.  It was and it was not, my lucky day.  For 10 pounds over limit on the check-in, the lady behind the counter wanted $200. The nerve!   I tried to rationalize the situation:  I could easily load 10 pounds into a second bag and take it on board, but what would we accomplish?  Extra space in the cabin was needed and the duffel bag would not be an inch smaller.  But this was not about being rational, it was about rules on one hand and about not drawing too much attention to the final weight of the carry-on.  I had to comply.  It broke my heart to ruin the marvelous packing job I had done, but I grabbed some of the heavier pouches until the scale displayed the required 50.  Now I had 30 pounds to carry.

On to the TSA check.  Most likely, you all have come across ads for TSA Pre-Check verification by now.  You choose an office near you, make an appointment, bring the required documents and for $85 (or if you have miles or bonus points with some airlines you may substitute those), you will be TSA cleared for five years.  The charm of it:  shorter lines, no removal of belts or shoes, no displaying your computer.  And best of all:  when you come back into the country, faster immigration services. In January, I had gone through the process.  It worked like a charm.  Except that now, one of my bags was pulled aside; the one containing my excess weight.  What had slipped in there, that was not right for carry-on, but my Nutella jar!  It would have never occurred to me that it could be considered to be a “liquid”.   But TSA calls the shots.  It is a liquid. 

Once, a long time ago, my friend Maria in New York had given me a wonderful bottle of lemon liqueur as a gift.  Neither one of us had anticipated that it would be confiscated when I tried to board my flight.  But then as now, I had been early.  And I was not about to ditch that liqueur.  Instead, I headed back out into the waiting area and found some adventurous  people with time on their hands, and we had a spontaneous lemon liqueur party polishing off that bottle together.  At 7 AM with hardly anyone around and only a Nutella jar to offer, that did not seem to be a good option.  I had set my heart on that Nutella! 

Celibeth had just played out a similar scenario on our return trip from Cuba.  She had purchased two jars of honey.  They were not allowed on board.  This was not just any old honey.  It was honey from Cuba and she was going to fight for it.  She was escorted out by a TSA officer back to the airline.  She got a small carton into which the honey was placed and checked as fragile cargo.  It seemed a miracle to me that this little package could made it through.  But it did.  And what was there to lose?  At least the honey had a chance.  I was going to give my Nutella a chance, too.  And indeed, a TSA officer escorted me back out.  I returned to the airline stating the utmost important of this article and asked for a box.  The ladies shook their heads…  No box?  But I “need” this!

It was still early.  My bag had only left the belt a few minutes ago.  The ladies called it back!  Deep down in the basement of the airport, behind the maze of luggage belts I had to find an obscure door from where my pack was to re-emerge.  After 10 minutes of waiting, time ticking, and nobody around to ask if I was even in the right spot, I doubted the wisdom of this decision.  Would I jeopardize the arrival of my luggage in China by making it come back out?  But now I was stuck.  Eventually, the bag came.  I exchanged the Nutella jar for a pound of clothing as I knew the ladies up there would not budge.  Soon thereafter, the luggage was back on the belt and I sent off a little prayer to Ganesh.  My journey had begun.

Thanks for reading. 

Thanks for going on yet another journey with me.

*** The title is a take-off on the infamous Zen or the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

2017
04.12

CELI’S GUEST POST

Celi’s Feet in the Cuban Sand

SYNOPSIS:  Celibeth’s reflections:  

Of all the places on earth to visit, abroad and here in my own country, I can honestly say that traveling to Cuba was never on my radar. A chance trip with my WCC Spanish teacher in 2001 introduced me to this place of so many different looking people, smells and sounds…everybody seemed to smoke cigarettes and the cars emitted diesel fumes that would make my friends back home insane. I had not yet travelled to New Orleans at that time, but when I was there years later the broken concrete sidewalks and the exposed electrical wires and cables sticking out of the sides of buildings, also the smells of food and cedar wood reminded me of Habana. And it’s not even so much all those sensory triggers that hail to my psyche exactly…it has more to do with the way regular people look you in the eye when you pass them on the street. You won’t get an Hola! or a ‘Buenos dias’ from all of the strangers you see, but most.

I got lost in Vedado early one Saturday morning after being swept up in the thrill of seeing an international Triathlon taking place on Linea…  I remembered no landmarks as I was too busy looking for an open tienda (shop) to buy water and watching the cyclists speed by with their spandex suits and shiny bikes.  I was walking in circles and after meeting a guy at a bus stop (lucky for me the bus was not on time as usual) for the second time, he basically took me by the hand and showed me home (I sort of knew the address but had no map and was very thirsty by this time) Of course he invited me to meet him for a drink at a neighborhood place, which I declined as it was 10:30 AM and juice and coffee were on my mind, but he was my friend now. We went back to meet him, explained the situation, gave a gift of Detroit Tiger’s paraphernalia and parted. This happens all the time.

I don’t exactly fit into the landscape in Cuba, physically anyway….being tall and blondeish makes me a target for many hoots and hollers, but I counter back to the question of ‘where you from?’ sometimes with ‘guess’ (adivina) or ‘where you from?’  It’s not a game actually but how I am in my real life wherever I am. It’s the sense of humor my dad instilled in me…a mechanism if you will, to deflect or whatever. The point is, for reasons I understand better after this recent visit that I feel at home on this Island. People still talk on the phone to each other. People drop by friend’s and family’s homes. There is always time to strike up a conversation with whomever you meet. These are the important components of who I am and how I still wish things were in my life. How often do you want to call someone up and right then, talk about your issue, but you fear (wait, you know) they won’t pick up? Sad.

When I first came here for the 2001 trip and the subsequent trips after, I brought with me my US/tidy/western sensibilities and I did my best this trip to leave all of that at the border. This time with ET was different. I was older (much). I had friends who lived in Habana, (Roycito, Gina and Roy Sr. are my family now).  The combination of being away from the American news cycle and the cold weather, to seeing Cuba again with all it’s richness and difficulties, and how things have changed but also not changed and seeing the amazing art scene (I have a project in the works thanks to Leo and Tomas and Alicia and Adrian and Esther at the Gallery ‘El Ojo del Ciclon’) and the vibrant, totally cuban creative identity at work has inspired me once again. So, I gotta get busy and figure out how to get back there!

Traveling with ET made it possible for me to really enjoy myself and get a deeper understanding of the amazing culture and history of Cuba. I saw sights I probably would not have visited on my own. She knows how to navigate most all situations. Her experience and common sense taught me a lot! And after a month…we are still sisters and great friends! 

Poco a poco. No prisa! No prisa! 


    

2017
04.11

Study

SYNOPSIS:  TYING LOOSE ENDS.  ABOUT GOOD CUBAN FASHION…  A TOUR OF THE HOTEL NACIONAL, VISITING A TOBACCO FACTORY, PAYING HOMAGE TO HEMINGWAY AND MAKING A QUICK STOP AT THE UNIVERSITY AND THE # 1 ICE CREAM PARLOR OF CUBA.    IT IS AN EXTRA LONG BLOG…  SORRY!   TRIP IS ALMOST OVER. 

It was the worst tour ever by the worst guide ever.  This tour had come so highly recommended by our German friends Wulf and Karin, we had made an extra effort to attend it.  Every day at 10 AM (except on Sundays), you can join a guided tour of the Hotel Nacional, one of the most famous hotels of the world.  But the little old lady who led the group, charming and sweet as she was, was ill equipped for the job.  Her whisper-voice, more conversational than anything was at best fit for a group of 1-3; not for the 20+ we were.  And in typical Cuban fashion, she left us in the dark on what she would do next, where to turn, what to expect.  It was pure agony.  But we got a good view from the top tower of the hotel, the only part worth anything.  The tour was advertised as free, but it turned out non-hotel guests were required to purchase $5 tickets which doubled as vouchers for a drink.  But of course not at the garden terrace that Celi had chosen for her drink.  That one did not honor the vouchers, which in good old Cuban fashion again, nobody told you and which you only found out after it was too late.  What a wasted morning!

Celi left the tour about 15 minutes into it.  I hung in there for one of the two hours.  Then I charged ahead.  I had gotten on the lady’s nerves enough, asking her to at least face us when she was talking.  Open to anyone, tour or not, is the Casino, preserved with its original decoration. A picture of some of the mobsters who frequented the joint, including legendary Meyer Lansky, decorated the foyer. 

A trench from the Cuban Missile Crisis located on the property, is also worth hiking the loop.  On the lawn of the hotel, several air and exit shafts covered in green metal are visible.  The trench seems to be a few hundred feet long, narrow and gloomy.  To contemplate how close we came to World War III at that time is chilling even today. 

Frank Sinatra stayed at the hotel, among many other dignitaries, entertaining the mobsters at their most famous Havana Conference in 1946.  Obama, when he visited Havana in 2016 was not a guest at the hotel, but stayed at the more secure quarters of the American Embassy.  Aside from its reputation, there is not much glory left at the Nacional.  The rooms seem run down and aged, the roof balustrade was crumbling, the walls in the halls are fading.  It’s the Cuban fate.  Why should the Nacional escape it?

I had a full program today.  I had hoped to visit a rum and a cigar factory during my stay; after all, these are the hallmarks of this country.  But I had run out of time.  The cigar factory won out.  When I arrived at the Fábrica de Tabaco Partagás, an English-speaking guide was just about to depart.  She hustled me into a small room and required that I left bag and camera in there — no tag, no security, no lockers, just a shelf with open boxes.   Guides from all the other tours requested their visitors to drop off their larger bags there, too. But most people have pockets and could at least take money and passport along.  I had nothing.  I hardly could focus on the tour.  I had been stripped of all belongings that mattered; aside from money and passport, my large big camera was sitting there in full view.  What if anyone just took even half of it?  I almost dropped out of the tour in fear of losing everything. For the next 1/2 hour I sweated blood and tears.  All was there when I returned.  Thanks, Ganesh!  This could have backfired badly.

The factory — no pictures allowed — was a four-story building in which several hundred workers rolled cigars day in and day out; up to 180 cigars per day per person.  We were told this was a temporary location since the original factory was under reconstruction.  But there would have been little difference to what we were allowed to see.  The tobacco preparation process was not part of this tour.  There is much science involved in picking the right tobacco, drying it, etc.  This was only about the rolling part. 180 cigars was the norm.  If they rolled more, there were bonus payments in CUC.  Between 7AM and 3PM they worked, with two 15-minute breaks for breakfast and coffee, and a 30-minute lunch break.  That is a lot of repetitive motion…

Throughout the day, music accompanied the rollers.  It alternated with live reading of the newspaper.  On last year’s trip to Indonesia, I had visited a similar operation in the Sampoerna Factory, where the famous clover-scented cigarettes known as Kretek were still hand-rolled.  There, the workers received a comparatively fair wage.  Here, we were told, they worked for 500 Cuban Pesos; the equivalence of 20 CUC, or what I would spend in one night for a dinner for two, on the open market in Havana!  But, we were assured that they nicely supplemented their income by 5 free cigars they could take home daily.   Each one of those, if sold officially could fetch between 5-15 CUC. 

They could also smoke as much on the job as they wanted.  Yes, just imagine!  Even if you did not smoke yourself, you would be exposed to second-hand smoke daily from 7-3 if you worked there.   Is that something the Cubans have even heard of?  Smoking was presented to us as if it were a great bonus, not the work-hazard it really is.    

I could have bought some cigars there — in that very same room in which all the luggage was so insecurely stored.  The guide herself conducted this hush-hush operation after the tour was over.  I opted not to.  This is probably a place where you get the real deal, alas, without the proper bands and packaging which I think is half the fun in buying a Cuban cigar.  I don’t smoke anyhow, but I have a few of my neighbors who I intend to surprise with a puffable gift from the island.  I want the real thing, band and all.

Right outside the tobacco factory I had my pick of official and unofficial taxi drivers.  I picked Lazarus, a guy in his 30’s, for his knowledge of English.  His car, an old beaten-up Lada, left much to be desired.  But I did not care.  We hit it off right away talking about Cuba, our trip, his family, his car(s).  According to Lazarus he is not allowed to own two cars under Cuban law. So he owns one.  Another one, an American Oldie, is listed in his father’s name.  He works 12 hours 6 days a week and over many years has been able to work himself up into owning these cars.  Because of that law, he can also have only one operating license.  If caught with a car for which he does not hold a license, he has to pay off the officials…  It works. No problem, he assured me.  Corruption in Cuba is indeed well and alive.   Always has been, and as long as there are shortages and rations most likely, always will be.  Theft, for one thing, has taken on epidemic proportions.  By one estimate, 60% of all gasoline in the country is stolen.  And that is just gasoline…

I asked him about his country, Fidel, Raoul, the future, the past, his son, his opportunities, housing, and all.  He loves Fidel.  I got the distinct feeling that not loving Fidel is just not an option he (or others) could ever seriously consider.  But Raoul… that is a different matter.  He has no use for Raoul and is hoping that the future will bring changes once Raoul has left.  But who will it be, after Raoul?  Fidel’s grandson perhaps?  In that case, will he give himself permission to criticize an offspring of Fidel?  Or will he be stuck having to love him?  Will Cuba become a family dynasty of the North Korean model with a Caribbean touch, perhaps?

The reason I needed a taxi was that my next destination was about 15 km south of Havana Center, the suburb of San Miguel del Padron where Ernest Hemingway once had his Finca Vigia.  Hemingway is revered in Cuba as hardly any other foreign writer.  He had adopted Cuba as his second home and by all official accounts was a sympathizer of the revolution.  One would think that he would have been treated well by Fidel, but after his death, his widow was forced to sign over his villa with all of its content to the government… The house was left untouched since the time of Hemingway’s death.  And in good old Cuban fashion things were left to their own devices.  Thousands of books, letters, and documents were forgotten and rotted away in the damp basement.  It is anyone’s guess how much would be left if Cuba had not agreed to a multi-million-dollar restoration of the property, including the digitization of some of these papers, all paid for by the U.S, a nearly unprecedented “joint venture” between the two countries! 

Today, the property seems to be in good condition and is open for visitors.  One cannot enter the house, but 1/2 dozen large windows provide ample viewing spots into the house.  Rum bottles, arts, personal items, everything was (supposedly) as Hemingway left it.  There were books everywhere, even in his bathroom.  Next to a scale, the bathroom had a curious spot on the wall covered with tiny scribbles in several columns.  Was that his fluctuating weight?  Were those ideas for the next book?  In good Cuban fashion, information was hard to come by.  Over 20 stuffed animals attest to Hemingway’s love of hunting. 

I seek out house museums and homes preserved by famous people.  They provide such an insight into people’s personalities, tastes, and habits.  This was no exception.  I was creeped out just looking in on all of these dead animals staring at you, from a distance.  How could Hemingway ever sleep with all of these guys looking down at him?

Not only was his house preserved, his famous fishing boat, the Pilar (which he had willed to his friend Gregorio Fuentes), also mysteriously ended up in the government’s possession and was on display next to his swimming pool.  His car, a 1955 Black Chrysler, is still at large… The property was filled with mature trees and lushly covered gazebos.  In the far distance you could see the skyline of Havana.   The weirdest part perhaps, is a little graveyard, unadorned and unsentimental, yet right there — of four dogs who had passed on the property.  It reminded me of Peggy Guggenheim’s dog cemetery in Venice.  At least she had put in some aesthetic effort in creating this oddity.  Hemingway did not.

An older wooden home on the property, now used as offices, may have been the servant’s quarter.  Hard to tell, but I did not see a kitchen in the main house…  Middle class Cubans, even today have servants as a matter of course; much more than we are used to as Americans of any social class.  Many of our AirBnB hosts even employed cooks and cleaning ladies.  It would surprise me if Hemingway would not have followed that local custom.  Hemingway’s home was the highlight of my day.  But it was still early and so I asked Lazarus to drive home following a different loop.

I wanted to go pay respect to another man of rank and file: Lenin.  Lenin Park is one of two large parks in the Havana area.  Lazarus told me how much his wife and children love this park, but he never had seen the Lenin sculpture I was after.  I will be a tourist today, he exclaimed, visibly excited.  We had to search around the vast park but finally found it:  Lenin immortalized in stone.  Contrary to East European Block countries, where sculptures of the fathers of socialism, Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, were everywhere; in Cuba, these patriarchs are noticeably absent.  This was only one of two Lenin monuments, the other much smaller.  And so I checked off yet another “should see” on my list. 

Since it was on the way, I asked Lazarus to drop me off at the University of Havana, a humungous neoclassical building perched atop a hill, overlooking the city.  From the top of the stairs, I contemplated this trip.  A wonderful breeze cooled the air.  American Oldies whizzed by looking awfully small from up here.  I will be sad to leave.  We easily could have spent another month exploring this big island.  Who knows when I w

ill return.  Perhaps never. Perhaps, soon.

Thanks for once again traveling with me! 

Good night.

2017
04.10

Performance

SYNOPSIS:  FAC – WHERE IN THE WORLD…?

Three strikes…  This was the third taxi ride, none of them cheap, that Celi and I took up to the FAC — the Fabrica de Arte Cubano at the far Western end of Vedado.  The first time was about a month ago, when we met Tomas, the curator from the Factoria de Arte in Old Havana, and got mixed up about these two.

The second one was last night when, after a nice dinner, we arrived at the FAC around 11 PM.  The line of people wrapped itself around two blocks.  We had barely gotten out of our taxi, completely flabbergasted at this hopeless sight of lined up humanity, when we were approached by Mario, a lad in black.  He was part of the ushers of the FAC and he had some powers, he assured us.  For a mere 10 CUC per person he could get us into the place in about 10 minutes.  Why us?  I guess, at a bit of a distance from the crowd we provided a safe target.  We did not know how he was going to accomplish this speed-demon’s task, but for 15 CUC (we bargained), we were going to give it a shot.  But when he simply cut us in line at the turn of a corner, leaving hundreds of patiently waiting people in the dust, we backed out.  These people in the queue had been there for 1.5 hours.  One of the reasons they were not moving was that people like us were constantly fed into the line ahead of them, enriching some of the wheelers and dealers we had encountered everywhere and appreciated to some degree.  But there is a limit.  Celi called it bad karma, and that’s exactly what it was, or would have been.

So, we took a taxi back home.  The taxi driver was a cool guy who knew the deal of the FAC.  It is only open from Thursdays through Sundays from 8 AM until 3 AM.  Fridays and Saturdays are crazy — just as we saw it.  A venue with about 800 capacity is often packed with up to 2000 people, he told us.  This was no good, given my claustrophobic tendencies.   I am glad we left.  But we did not give up.  It was a must-do on our list for Havana and we were just going to come back on Sunday and earlier.

The plan worked.  I had spent most of the day home resting after an onslaught of diarrhea in the morning.  I was bummed as there was so much more to see and to do in Havana, but…  this was close to the end of the trip and a day of rest seemed appropriate even if forced upon me.  In my casa and in the comfortable proximity of a clean bathroom, I caught up on blog and photo work, but I am still behind…

Celi had spent the day with Roy’s family, whom she had met 15 years ago.  They were going to speak Spanish for the most part, they would all talk on top and over each other as I had already experienced, and they would have a delicious meal which most likely could only be eaten by my eyes — it was just as well that I did not join her.

At night I was ready.  Once again, we fetched a taxi to the FAC.  Today, and completely legitimately, we started at the very same corner we would have cut into yesterday.  We were there 20 minutes prior to opening.  All was orderly and legit.  We did not know what to expect. 

If you google the FAC, you will know that it by now has gained international recognition as a contemporary art center.  It is also a bar, more accurately a multi-bar venue and one of the hotspots of Havana’s night life.  It is housed in an abandoned factory (or fabrica, as the name indicates), divided into various performance spaces on two levels.  It feels like a maze in there as you completely lose sense of where you are or how big the space actually is.  You just follow corridors, turn corners, pass by various art exhibition spaces which open up into two or three larger courts used for live performances or big-screen backdrops.  Loud avant-garde music is drowning out the conversations and multi-colored disco lights flicker through the air.

The place began to fill up quickly.  We roamed around, trying to get a sense of the layout; hopeless.  By mere chance we found ourselves at one of the courts when a series of performances started.

The first act:  a short, black woman, completely nude, loosely wrapped into some bright-red, tentacle-like silk sausages sat on a chair (accompanied by loud music and ever-changing lights).  She was circled in fast motion by a photographer who held out his digital camera videotaping her slow movements; stretching a leg, raising her arms, bending her head — while trying to prevent everyone else from taking pictures.  This went on for about 10 minutes.  Without warning, the show was over, the lights turned dark and the woman jumped, ran through the crowd and disappeared. 

The second act:  A bunch of characters in absolutely astonishing, creative, fanciful costumes paraded in slow and dignified motion up and down an isle that had been cleared in the crowd.  They were joined or rather disturbed, by a bunch of “alien-type” characters which seemed to be their “antidote”.  They interacted for a while also accompanied by lots of lights and sounds until this too, ended abruptly.

The third act:  As the costumed characters cleared the stage, a man drew the attention of the crowd screaming.  Was he a lunatic?  Was he part of the act?  It was not clear for a while.  The limelight moved over to him.  He acted crazy and irrationally mainly screaming, undressing himself, and rolling around on the floor.  His act lacked both the grace and the exotic nature of the other two.  It was simply disturbing.  And that’s when we decided we had seen enough.

The people in attendance were tourists.  I would say that no more than one in 50 people were locals.  English was spoken everywhere.  One drink cost 6 CUC — almost as much as some low-level government office attendants make per month!  The venue was as hip as any, with large flat screen TVs, modern sound and light equipment, ultra-modern music.  This could be a hotspot in New York or Tokyo.  But it was Havana.  Something was utterly fascinating about this. Something was horribly wrong with this.  If this is Cuba, what does this mean?  As everything else in this country, this must be a government-operated venue, or at least government approved.  But what is the government thinking?!  Is this just another plot to rake in CUCs?  Is this an indication of opening the doors to western ideas?  Is this art for art sake in the famous Fidel art doctrine proclaimed long ago:  Anything is possible within the revolution, nothing is possible outside the revolution? 

You be the judge of this.  And if you are ever in Havana, don’t miss this.

Good night.

2017
04.09

Halicarnassus Shrine

SYNOPSIS:  VEDADO.  ABOUT CELI LOST, COLON CEMETERY, CALLE 17 AND A WOMAN FROM COSTA RICA.

After more than 2 hours, Celi finally returned from “getting us some water”.  I had pictured her talking to some handsome Cubans, losing track of time.  And indeed she had been distracted; not by one but by a few hundred handsome Cubans participating in a triathlon along the Malecon, near our AirBnB.  And then she was lost.  For two hours she circled our casa no more than 1-3 blocks from it; so near and yet so far.  No address, no phone, no map, and distractions giving way to distress — that does it.  An ice-cream parlor, the only landmark we had from the night before, finally saved the day.

United again, we could start the day.  This AirBnB unlike all the others, is not offering breakfast.  But several cafes and a market are nearby where almost everything can be found that we need.  We are experiencing culture shock.  Vedado, with its wide streets, posh restaurants, faded mansions, plentiful supplies, worldly yuppies, and American rock music, feels like New York. Everyone around here is trying to be cosmopolitan and stylish; many succeed.

After a brief stop at a garden cafe — where we were completely put off by the lack of service and the little brass bells we were supposed to use to get somebody’s attention —  we settled for a cafe right next to our high-rise.  It was furnished in white, red and black, decorated with large canvases displaying melancholic-depressed figures, playing hits from the 70’s.  Breakfast was delicious.  For the first time we were served crispy croissants with our ham rather than greasy fluff-rolls.  The fruit juices were divine, as they have been all throughout Cuba.  And the coffee, for us foreigners mixed with milk and a bit of sugar, did what it was supposed to.  We perked up.  Life was good again.

We are within walking distance from the Hotel Nacional, a landmark of historic proportions.  In two days we will join a tour there.  Today, we just grabbed a taxi.  That’s one of those unpleasant moments when we have to fend for a fair price.  Not an easy task in front of a hotel where a night costs $200 and up.  We parted ways in the afternoon.  Celi returned to the Artists Commune where she had started her Cuban art project.  I boarded the double-decker Havana Tourist Bus for a round trip through Havana.  We had strolled through Havana Vieja when we started out a month ago, but I had not seen much of the rest of Havana.

After more than one hour out and about through various neighborhoods, the bus started to circle back.  A highlight was the stop at the Plaza de la Revolucion.  It is no less ugly and no less vast, spanning a whopping 11 acres, than the one in Santiago de Cuba.  In Santiago it was Antonio Maceo who towered over the plaza, here it is Jose Marti, the national hero per se.  Remember, you will never see Fidel.  Metal bars form giant outlines of the infamous faces of both Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara on two of the many government buildings lining the plaza.  Marti’s 59-foot white granite figure, seated as if to resemble Rodin’s thinker, sits atop a 90 foot base in front of a 300 feet tower that is constructed in the shape of a five pointed star. It houses a museum in his honor.  I did not bother to leave the bus.  The scene was more than I could bare from afar.  The same emptiness radiates from this plaza as from all the other post-revolutionary ones I have seen. 

But I left the bus at Necropolis de Colon, for yet another cemetery.  Colon is the largest cemetery of Havana, if not Cuba.  I had seen elaborate funerary architecture in Cienfuegos and Camaguey.  But I had seen nothing yet.  Colon tops them all going overboard in securing a spot in the afterlife, or at least leaving an extravagant mark in this life, should the afterlife fail them.  Here, Jesus preaches down from the top of an Egyptian pyramid, Florence’s cathedral is evoked in a miniature chapel, the Mausoleum of Halikarnassus is replicated on an artificial hill, Michelangelo’s Pieta graces not one but several tombs, a chess champion (José Raúl Capablanca) is guarded by a chess queen, and some Hermes-style Greek dudes are paired, conjuring up anything from an illusion of twins to gay lovers who don’t want to part in death.  The whole place is testimony for the compulsion to “outdo the Joneses”; a bizarre mix of reverence and mockery.

On the map I only had to cover the span between thumb and pointing finger to get home.  On the ground, that was a 2 hour walk.  But the sun was getting low and I was in no hurry.  As I strolled along rather aimlessly, I was approached by a young black lady obviously in distress.  Did I speak English?  Yes.  Could I tell her how to get to 17 and M? Streets in Vedado are roughly following a grid that is numbered one way and equipped with letters the other way.  I was not yet sure where I was but I had my map and I had discovered little pyramid-shaped markers at various corners aiding people without maps.  Calle 17 in Vedado had been mentioned as a worthwhile street in one of my guidebooks. I was happy to walk there with that young lady. 

She was a tourist from Costa Rica and her story was rather distressing.  Yet another unsuspecting, and I have to say gullible, tourist had been taken to the cleaners.  She and her boyfriend had stayed at a casa particular.  Those are privately rented rooms that predate AirBnB by decades and are a great alternative to hotels.  Her hosts eagerly prepared meals for them, three times a day.  Never once did they mention that they would charge for this service.  With AirBnB we encountered standard prices of $5 for huge and plentiful breakfasts and $10 for delicious home-cooked meals.  They accepted the offers and ate.  After three days they were presented with a bill detailing just about every ingredient of every meal they had totaling $300!  Charging them $150 would have been a lot.  But they had not expected any charge and were stiffed with a bill that by far exceeded their budget.  They paid and left in disgust.  But here she was, the girl from Costa Rica on a Saturday afternoon trying to locate a Western Union office open for business.  Did she even know how that worked?  Western Union is no bank.  I did not get that far into the conversation with her as she was in marching mode and I was in strolling mode.  She had far to go and was not about to waste a single further dollar in anything as frivolous as a taxi.  I hope she got what she needed.  But come on, folks!  A bit of common sense here and there goes a long way.  Cuba is expensive, but not more expensive than the U.S.  You don’t pay five-star prices in a casa particular.

Calle 17 was a good walking choice.  It was lined with magnificent crumbling palaces and villas once occupied by business barons and mafia mobsters.  After the revolution they were either abandoned or forcefully taken over by the government.  Some of them had been restored, some taken over by public institutions, and from others the laundry was dangling and the dogs were barking just like in Old Havana, as they had been subdivided into dozens of small, dark apartments. 

At our casa I united with Celibeth who had spent a wonderful afternoon with her artist companions.  We headed out for a dinner at a nearby terrace.  A colonial home had been converted into a classy dinner place with tasteful music and delicious food.  Prices were much more reasonable here than in many of the provinces.  Is that because supply here is easier or competition stiffer?  It seems counter-intuitive to pay more in the provinces than in the capital.  But that is the picture.

After dinner, we headed out for a visit at the FAC (Fabrica de Arte Cubano).  But I will leave that story for another day.

Good night.

2017
04.08

The Professor

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT A DAY WITH THE PROFESSOR.  WHAT CUBANA AND VIAZUL HAVE IN COMMON.  MEETING UP WITH OLD FRIENDS.

The professor had spotted me three days ago near Fidel’s birth house in Santiago and approached me with the stale old question we are asked a dozen times every day: “Where are you from?”  There is no introduction to this, like a “hello” for example, or “how are you”?  It’s always:  Where are you from?  There is also no context for this question.  It’s not like you are talking to somebody.  You are just walking, minding your own business and there it comes, without fail.

This time, for some reason I was too tired to answer, kept walking, and just said: “From far away”.  The professor would not have this for an answer.  He caught up with me and in very good English started a conversation.  No question, he was a jinetero, a hustler.  But he had class and as it turned out, he had something to offer.  He has a gentle, dark face, white hair and most likely is in his 60’s.  He used to be a professor of Spanish and Cultural Studies and now was retired.  Well, that broke the ice.  Three days ago when I first met him, I was on my way home and we were heading for Baracoa. But I promised to meet him today at 10 AM for a tour of town before we were leaving.  I still had to check off a few sights.  I would appreciate his company and knowledge of town.

During our first conversation he said that he would like to lead me around as if for nothing but the pure joy of it.  When I asked him what he would charge for that service, he quoted of all people, Pablo Neruda, who said something to the effect that talking about money ruins friendships.  I had to remind the professor that we were not yet friends since we had just met and that not talking about money would most likely ruin a friendship that we otherwise could build in the course of that day spent roaming through town.  He wanted me to make an offer:  10 CUC.  At that he gently shook his friendly face and started to tell me how hard it is to make a living, especially in a country that does not value professionals as much as construction workers.  And how hard it is for people in retirement like him.  And that he hopes that at the end of a day spent with him, there might be 20 CUC.  I wonder what Neruda would have said about that turn of the conversation.

And so I countered that we Americans have to budget every penny of a trip to Cuba since ATMs are not working for us.  Cuba has proven to be every bit as expensive as home and I will see what is going to be left when I return.   Of course, I would be happy to help a fellow professor as much as I can.  What I thought only to myself was this: I know that there are people who work for 8-12 CUCs per month, others are even worse off and have no access to CUCs at all; and nobody is homeless in Cuba or goes without food.  10 CUC is a fair price for a 1/2 day of walking around.  But I did not say that.

The professor took me along Heredia Street named after a famous poet Jose Maria Heredia.  His house is one of the oldest in the city, dating from the middle of the 18th Century.  A tiny bookstore, known as La Libreria La Escalera is a packrat’s heaven, filled with books, brochures, stickers, memorabilia, photographs, and who knows what kind of hidden treasures.  The owner barely has a stool left to sit on.  But as the photographs of him and famous dignitaries in his shop attest to, he has a history. 

Another must-see in town is the Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardi Moreau.  One of the rum barons and also mayor of Santiago, and contrary to the rest of his family, a Cuban patriot and in good standing with the revolutionaries, endowed this museum and stocked it with items from his vast personal collection from guns to fine arts.  The air-conditioned second-floor is a welcome relief from the heat of Santiago.

I could not go to Santiago without having at least a brief look at the Cuartel Moncada, a former Fulgencio Batista military compound which Fidel and some of his ill-equipped companions stormed in 1956.  This attack was pure foolishness, but is considered the start of his 1959 revolution and led to one of the most famous speeches in history in which Fidel prophetically claimed that “history would absolve and prove him right”.  I guess it did.  Not even the CIA with 500 men “working on his case” and a $100 million budget per year could get rid of him.  Tax-payers’ money!

By a sheer miracle, Celi caught up with us there.  The next place was at the professor’s insistence a stop at a state-sponsored artists’ cooperative.  Several artists had studios at a large house spread out around a lush, green courtyard.  We met several of them, but time was running short and the pressure to buy something was mounting.  We resisted.  Yes, there were great pieces of art there and yes we still had money left to buy them, but we both already had bought what we wanted and did not take well to sales pressure jinetero style.

I had specified to the professor that I was looking for art related to the Santeria faith.  Finally, he got the message, conceded and we took off in a taxi to visit the studio of Lawrence Zuniga Batista. Reluctantly and after lots of ringing his door bell, he opened.  He is an obviously famous, but grouchy, old black man, who threw himself into a mock fit when the professor asked him to give me a good price for some of his art since I was searching for some teaching material.  What Zuniga produced was not exactly what I had in mind, but I was between a rock and a hard place now.  I finally found an affordable retablo of the Virgen of El Cobre.  I had a connection to it and I knew that it was part of the Santeria faith.  By now I was practically panicking.  I had to get ready for our 4-PM departure to Havana.

A big hug and a few kisses Cuba-style on both cheeks of the face, and yes, 20 CUCs for the professor (not 10), and off I ran.  A quick shower, some packing and arranging, more hugs and kisses for our wonderful hosts at the casa in the Tivoli district, and we both sank into the back bench of Joel’s big blue Chevrolet taking off for the airport. 

1.5 hours wait, 1.5 hours flight.  In three hours we should be in Havana.  Our friends Ursula and Steve arrived only minutes later.  Is it they who are bringing us the bad luck traveling, or is it us, who are cursing them?  Well, the plane that was supposed to take us to Havana had not even left there! We had hours to kill at an airport where the waiting room (with seats and food court) would not even be open to us until our plane was in the air and more or less guaranteed to fly us to our destination.  But surrounded by friends, time flies.  We were chatting and drinking Radlers (as we call a mix of beer and soft drinks in Germany).  And finally we were called into the waiting room. 

Check-in procedures are laughable but typically Cuban.  A long queue forms.  One by one, the passport is checked by one single officer.  She carefully scrutinized every face and then manually marked the seat in the plane with a big X, thereby preparing the passenger list for the stewardesses later.  What did we do before computers in the West?  Likely something quite similar.  The flight was uneventful, one could even say it went smoothly. 

At takeoff I had visions of the Viazul bus inching up the mountains near Baracoa.  Would it make it?  Did this Chinese bus engine have the muscle power?  This old Russian airplane had seen better days.  It worked very hard at take-off, but finally pulled all of us up into the dark sky.  And it got us down safely.  Good old Russian plane.  What if or when it breaks?  Who these days, supplies Cuba with anything like the Russians (and for that matter the East Germans) did?  I wonder.  Will they start fixing their planes the way they fix the old American cars?  Only in Cuba!

Roy Junior, Celi’s old friend, picked us up at the airport and in no time we had reached our new casa in Vedado, an upper-class district of Havana.  We are no longer in the Old City.  We will explore new territory.

Our casa was a shock to both of us.  For some reason we had pictured an apartment just like we had in Old Havana at the beginning of our trip.  But we only had a room.  In a sense, we had two rooms; one for us, and another one with a bed and a refrigerator.  We also had our own bathroom, all of it in a separate wing paralleling the living room of our hosts.  When we asked if we could spread out into both rooms — the other one was not occupied, we were told we would have to pay double…  I guess not. 

And so we will have to adjust to one final place in our final city during our final days.  I am already sad we will have to leave so soon. 

Good night.

2017
04.07

Fog on the Mountain

SYNOPSIS:  TRANSIT SANTIAGO.  VIAZUL ONCE MORE.  ABOUT GOOD OLD FRIENDS AND OUR RIDE ON THE BUS; SHARING SNACKS AND STORIES.

The day started with the usual noises.  The rooster had been cockedideldooing since midnight.  He was joined by dogs fighting, feral cats meowing, kids crying around 7 AM competing with some street vendors, and lots of banging by 8 AM.  Baracoa had been hit by Hurricane Mathew a few months ago.  Surprisingly little of this can be seen in our street — two streets removed from the ocean.  Still, roof tops are being fixed, some upper level houses had railings knocked over and some wooden structures had crumbled completely.

It was overcast.  Mainly in Baracoa have we seen clouds.  It is the region with the most rainfall and the highest humidity.  I don’t mind, not for today.  Cooler weather makes travel that much easier.  We have another 5-hour bus trip ahead of us, if all goes well.

We have long passed the midpoint of our travels.  In fact, only 5 days remain and sadness is beginning to settle in.  Baracoa is the farthest point east we have gone.  From here on out it is retour via known paths.  We could have spent a few more days in this relaxing sea-side town.  There is not much of cultural value that can be seen.  But several excursions into nature would have been possible.  Some people come only for that as there are several protected biospheres accessible from here.

Packing takes more and more time as we have to be mindful of what to take, what to shed, what to give away.  I like the days when actual travel begins around mid-day.  And we have time for everything and then time to spare.  We can stick with our morning routine, which has baffled every host:  We take about 1/2 hour just to drink our coffee before we have the actual breakfast; just like we do at home, Celibeth and I.  She does it for health reasons, I do it for starting the day off easy.  A good start makes for a lot more energy down the road. 

By 11 AM we were done and I still had time to write for a while.  By noon, our friends Karin and Wulf, the German couple arrived; they were taking over our wonderful room as there had been some booking mixup at their old casa.  By now it rained heavily — just when it came time to get to the bus station.  Plan A, taking a bici-taxi, would have soaked our luggage, so we splurged and took a real taxi.  In plenty of time we arrived at the Viazul station.  Check-in was uneventful, luggage was checked properly and all looked good, except that the bus did not arrive.  Instead, three of our old friends from the broken-down bus that had brought us here three days ago, did.  Was that a bad omen? 

Ursula and Steve from Great Britain joined us, as well as Jakuv from Israel.  He was the hit of the trip.  After three weeks in Cuba he was able to produce one gorgeous snack “from the holy land” after another, sharing them with all of us: olive crackers, licorice, candy, and most of all, the juiciest, thickest dates you have ever seen!    Thanks, Jakuv!  You did not show up that night at the Casa de la Trova, the center for traditional music where all of us were going to have one last drink and one last dance.  We looked for you everywhere!  Sorry, we missed you.

With such good company in tow it almost didn’t matter that the bus was 1.5 hours late.  After we got going we noticed that the rain had loosened debris from the mountains. The road was littered with small rocks and branches.  The fog in the valley was so thick that at times you could not even see beyond the edge of the road.  It was scenic and beautiful, but the bus was inching along, losing another 1.5 hours in time.  But who cared.  What did matter was the cold!  Supposedly, the switch for the AC was broken and without exception we were shivering.  This could have posed a serious problem if Ursula had not come to the rescue.  Just as Jakuv produced snack after snack, she pulled scarf after shirt, after jacket out of her bag supplying all of us with some extra cover.  Ursula, you rescued us all from serious hardship.  Thanks!

And then the phone rang!  On the bus.  We foreigners, who make up most of the customers of Viazul, don’t have phones that work in Cuba.  But there was a guy who did.  And he spoke German.  And he was traveling by himself.  This was too intriguing to let go.   I asked if I could join him for a while.  That was Manfred, a retired professor of archaeology, a bio-chemical engineer by training, but also a “student” at the university in Baracoa.  That status had allowed him to be a resident in Cuba for the last three years.  Now he has to wing it, use health issues to extend his stay, or frequently leave to return and renew his visa.  We talked at length about how it is possible to live in Cuba as a foreigner, about restrictions, bureaucracy, life and why he chose this unusual option. 

What does he like the most?  The people.  I can second that and I think any traveler to Cuba will encounter the most cheerful, friendly, ready to drink and dance-kind of people.  What does he like the least?  The envy.  As a foreigner with access to a pension abroad he is privileged by default and will always have more than anyone around him.  That might feel good for a while, but I can see why it also can turn into a burden. 

It is a shame that Cuba’s current state of affairs is driven by CUC, driven by a two-tiered society.  Those who have CUCs, and those who don’t.  It has been like this for a while, but if this divide grows, a point of breakage might be reached that becomes irreparable.  Can Cuba survive this growing gap?  The strain that is put on by religious, racial, and social gaps elsewhere, is put on here by money.  That is a common line elsewhere too, but money here is not so much the typical divide between rich and poor that elsewhere goes along with hunger, homelessness, lack of education.  That is for the most part provided.  It is more a divide between minimum and luxury.  It’s the luck of the draw that determines who can cross over from one side to the other, relatives in the US, friends abroad, connections to tourists.  That’s why we as foreign visitors are so high in demand.  And that’s why so often a favor that seems to be extended in friendship and from the heart, or an interest in us as people still carries an underlying expectation of return, preferably in CUC.

This was our last ride.  We made it.  It was late, but not too late to join Ursula and Steve for a drink on the terrace of the Grand Hotel.  They were closing down, but that made the roof top even nicer.  We sat until way past midnight without even noticing.  Good bye Santiago.

Good night.

P.S.  Why on earth did I not take a single picture of Jakuv?!

2017
04.06

Shell at the Beach

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT BEACHES, CHOCOLATE MAKING, AND MINSTRELS.

From town to town we had hoped that the beach would be within reach and we could relax here and there.  Celi envisioned entire days lounging at the beach; for me an hour of swimming and an hour before and after sounded good enough.  But nowhere so far has the beach been within easy reach.  Our only beach-day happened because we had a driver in Havana and passed Santa Maria, a famous beach on the way from our visit to an artist couple’s home in Guanabo.

Even here in Baracoa where we can see the ocean from our rooftop, it takes 30-45 minutes by car to get to a “good” or white beach.  A local beach at the end of town has black sand and is small, but usable and perfectly adequate in a pinch (even if without much shade).  The so-called good beach does not live up to the expectations one might have when you compare it to the famous beaches at the North coast of Cuba, which have often been converted to resort towns, some exclusively set aside for foreigners.  But it had its own charm.

A small restaurant was located there that had set up wooden chairs for its visitors, free of charge.  We arrived around 11:30. Lunch orders were placed and shortly thereafter, the fresh fish was delivered right into the small kitchen.  You could have anything from grilled fish to lobster, fresh off a fishing boat.  A few wind- and hurricane-swept palm trees provided shade.  The water was shallow forever, and swimming, the way I like it, right into the big waves, was impossible.  The waves broke way too far out to even get there.  If you had your own snorkeling equipment, some coral reefs could provide additional fun.  We had to be content with walking up and down the virgin shoreline.  There was an endless array of small corals, shells, or rounded multi-colored beach glass to be picked up.  A few local women made the rounds trying to sell cacao oils, necklaces and an assortment of other stuff. 

The day went and I have to say, I wouldn’t mind another one of them, but we have to move on.

Infotur, one of the local travel agencies, organized the trip to the beach via a collectivo, or shared taxi.  I had reserved two spots for this trip and mentioned it to the German couple Bernd and Karin we had met on the bus from Cienfuegos, and the American couple Rebecca and Steve whom I had met here waiting in line at the bank.  So the six of us were reunited for this trip in one of those old American jeeps.  And since the agency had us by the neck, they added an involuntary stop on the way out to demonstrate chocolate making for us.  After all, this is the chocolate producing town of Cuba and the actual factory is closed to visitors.  I did not mind the stop, but once again, we were not told or even asked.  The hope of course is, that we buy something.  And we did.  This is not the ordinary chocolate you typically purchase at a store, but the pure paste pressed into bars or rolled into balls used for cooking, or for chocolate drinks.

We were exhausted from all this relaxing.  We had barely enough energy for an hour of traditional music at the local Trova, a word roughly translated as Troubadours or Minstrels.  Every city seems to have at least one Trova with a “house band” and visiting troupes.  Some are more famous than others, but it is hard to find really bad musicians around here.  I wish I could dance…  For the most part I am resigning myself to watching the graceful, sensuously slow or frantically fast movements of the experts.  Dance is engrained into Cuban culture.  You see even little kids moving their bodies like pros. 

After that the Germans and the two of us headed down to a highly recommended sea-side restaurant on the somewhat desolate and run-down malecon, named Marco Polo, for a delicious meal.  It was too dark to see the ocean, but you could hear the waves breaking at the lava rock that lined the shore and you could smell the sea.  What could be better.

Book in her hand and computer on my lap, Celi and I zonked out at some point, fully dressed, on our beds…  Relaxing all day is exhausting, indeed.

Good night.

2017
04.05

Museum Cave Exterior

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT THE FAMED ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM. MEETING ALEXANDRO.  A POLITICAL DISCUSSION AT THE MARCO POLO.

It was a low key day.  Once in a while you need that: hair, laundry, suitcase — they need a bit of extra time here and there.   I was not even sure if I would leave the casa at all today.  Celibeth had gone out to the local beach.  I was determined to catch up on the blog and other things.  But finally, in the early afternoon, I had some bees under my bonnet and looked for something to do: the Museo Arqueologico Cueva del Paraiso seemed a good choice.

In any other country this museum would be closed as an embarrassment.  In Baracoa it passes as one of the cultural highlights of the town…  The other is a cross displayed at the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion.  It is believed to have been brought here by Columbus from Spain. It is indeed that old, but it is made out of indigenous wood, so you be the judge of what that means.    

The museum is unique; I grant it that.  An NGO team worked on excavating and displaying some artifacts of the region; particularly those related to pre-columbian Taino culture which is prevalent here.  For a long time this culture was believed to have been eradicated completely by the colonizers.  But as in other parts of the world (Indonesia comes to mind), a substantial number of indigenous people managed to escape into the mountains, out of the reach of the New World rulers.  Baracoa is ideal for that and these artifacts corroborate the fact that some Taino blood survived.

At the museum it is hard to tell which artifacts are authentic and which are reproductions.  Once again, information in English is nonexistent.  When the museum was set up, it may have been impressive.  About a dozen display cases are filled with bones, tools, and small sculptures.  They are nestled in the nooks and crannies of a Taino cave which once also served as a burial ground.  Mind your head.  Neon lights illuminate the now dusty objects in the now somewhat clouded glass cases.  Is there no upkeep?  The location of the museum is its greatest asset.  The caves are located high above ground and from the burial chamber one has a view across town and the bay.  The climb through and up is precarious.  The final wooden bridge and staircase would pass no safety inspection anywhere.  Make sure you have insurance before you climb.

The best find at the museum was its door-keeper Alexandro.  He had a good command of English and was obviously bored and eager to talk.  I was in no hurry and sat with him, sharing my newly acquired Baracoa chocolate bar.  He is not happy in Cuba, not happy with the lethargy surrounding him and with the omnipresence of the government.  He lamented the fact that no private initiative worth anything survives — if discovered by the government it will be usurped and killed.  As an example he pointed to the museum.  But he also mentioned a woman who started private English lessons at her home, free of charge.  She was forced to close shop and to offer her lessons in the public school.  She also had to obtain a license for her work and charge.  That was not what she had in mind.  I wonder, does the government have nothing else to do?  I had looked forward to chatting more with Alexandro, but after I had successfully managed the downward climb from the graveyard, there had been a shift change; he was gone. 

I knew Celi had spent the day at the local beach near the end of the malecon.  I headed in that direction wondering if I would find her.  But half way there, the Marco Polo restaurant beckoned with a 2 for 1 Happy Hour and I stopped for a break.  A few minutes later five Dutch ladies sat down at the next table and only a few more minutes, before all of us were engaged in a heated political discussion over Trump, Obama, Islam, and the world.  That felt weird.  We had left this world behind us over 3 weeks ago.  But it seemed to still exist out there, unbeknownst to us, and mainly unchanged.  It is unbelievable how far removed you can be from it all just 100 km off shore from the US.  I am not looking forward to returning to that world, soon. 

Celi found us.  She was on her way home from the beach hearing the chatter of female voices in English.  As we made good use of the Happy Hour, one of the Dutch ladies had by now become quite lubricated and passionate.  With Celi’s arrival it all turned fun and games again.  These ladies were a hoot! 

When we finally were on our way home, who did we run into?!  But the German couple Bernd (better known as Wulf) and Karin whom we had met on the bus from Cienfuegos to Camaguey.  We never saw them there and now we found out why.  Wulf, who had not been feeling well during that bus trip, was so dehydrated that he had become deadly ill.  A doctor came and gave him an infusion, but a sister from the convent also came to sit with him…  Karin must have been beside herself.  Wulf and Karin are almost 80.  Getting this sick is no joke and getting this sick far away from home is devastating.  We were overjoyed to see them and they immediately joined us in the search for a dinner place.

Baracoa is known for its unique cuisine.  We were hoping to replicate the delicious experience we had at our casa last night, but this restaurant only lived up to a mere memory of that great dinner.  Nonetheless, we had good food along with some uninvited musical entertainment.  It is hard to avoid around here and overall good fun, unless you actually want to carry on a conversation. The three of us kept falling from English to German, so that Celi excused herself after dinner in search of more fun company. 

We found her shortly after at the main plaza, surrounded by a crowd of youngsters from the broken-down Viazul bus.  They were drinking an unaccounted number of Cuba Libres (rum and coke) before the end of the night and were acting accordingly… Celi swears that it cured a stomach ache she had.

What started as a boring laundry day ended as a fun day in laid-back Baracoa.  This is a nice way to spend a few days away from not only the world at large, but also the rest of Cuba.  Baracoa marches to its own drum.  You can feel that.   

Good night.

2017
04.04

Sierra del Purial

SYNOPSIS:  TRANSIT BARACOA – HOW EVERYTHING WENT WRONG

The day started rough enough with us having to be up and out the door by 7 AM.  No breakfast, no juice — but we managed.  Hurry up and wait.  The Viazul Station in Santiago is big and clean and shares the terminal with the national buses.  All went smoothly, but the bus did not show up.  Finally, the word came: there was a flat tire.  Another 1/2 hour and we would be rolling.  1.5 hours late, we were rolling indeed.

We were hurried on to the bus, left the station and made one circle, dropping off a man, picking up a local lady — the bus drivers on these overland trips seem to like a mistress or two on board — whose horrible perfume permeated the entire bus and then, we made another strange circle onto a dirt road and waited… The reason for this final delay became apparent soon enough: One of the bumbling tourists had missed the bus and been hurried after us in a taxi.  OK, we finally were all here and off we went for good. 

Celi and I are now experts in getting on the bus early to snatch one of the front row seats.  Soon after we left town, we noticed a loud banging right beneath our seats.  Was anything wrong?  Was this anything to worry about?  We kept going, but a mere 35 km into the ride we stopped at a crappy looking little house with a window out of which a guy was selling overpriced juice.  And we were told it would be yet another 30-minute stop! What the hell? There were no banjos, no food, no reason. This was not a planned stop, especially when taken in comparison the 6-hour trip we took the other day, where we did not even get a single food stop the entire trip.  This was highly unusual. 

Two guys who had been riding in the front, miraculously turned into mechanics.  A ventilator cooling down the motor seemed to be the problem.  They unhinged it and some belts with it, and were working away. Before long, they were soiled in black oil.  It all looked good until they started stoking around in the oil puddle they had created draining who knows what.  They had lost a screw…

Fan in hand, the bus driver, his understudy and the mechanic disappeared and we, the crowd were left standing in the dust.  They told us nothing.  We began to settle in for the long haul.  Some people got out their books, or games, I grabbed my computer, Celi and a few others bought beer — there was little else to be had.  And so we waited for a screw to materialize and the ride to continue.  Or, could there possibly be another bus be sent our way?  In Cuba; not likely.  As time went on, we made some friends meeting the rest of the bus crew.  Old and young; we came from everywhere:  Turkey, Israel, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain, the US. 

Hail to the mechanics.  Two hours later, a screw had been obtained, the ventilator was fixed and we were rolling on to our first stop, Guantanamo.   It has such a ring back home.  Here, it is just another little town looking like any other Cuban town.  Quite independent from it — we did not see any indication of its existence; no sign, no fence, no flag – there is Guantanamo Bay.  It’s a city within a city housing and employing quite a few locals and Americans according to the guidebook.  It goes way beyond its infamous prison and has quite a history.  It’s a thorn in the Cuban’s eyes perhaps a little bit like Israel to some is a thorn in the Middle East.  But Cuba can’t end Guantanamo Bay’s existence.  By contract, both states, Cuba and the US have to agree that the US will leave and I doubt that this will ever happen.  Even Obama had no intentions to close the entire base.  So, Cuba goes about its ways trying to ignore the bay as best as possible.  From what I read, neither Fidel nor Raoul has cashed the “rent” check of a few thousand dollars the US is supposed to pay each year.  It’s a small statement of defiance that says it all.

Four hours late the bus rolled into the station at Baracoa.  Against all the odds, a tricycle taxi driver was waiting for us, sign in hand.  The chain of reliable AirBnBs and pickups was holding and we were delivered into our best accommodation yet. 

We had a huge room, triple the size of the last ones, two roof terraces, cross-ventilation, a mini-balcony for laundry, a large refrigerator.  We were in heaven.  And the meal our new host prepared was by far the best, too.  We are in Baracoa, known for its unique local cuisine based on lots of fish, coconut and cacao products, all locally produced.    

We will like it here.  As crazy as the day had started, it ended perfectly.  Thanks, pantheon. 

Good night.