Saturday, August 18, 2012

Be Back Soon

I'll be noticeably absent for a week or so. But I promise I'll be back...and I'll be super focused upon my return. No more slacking!!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The 'Real' Havana

Since we'd arrived in the city, Odalys and Odalkys had been doing our laundry, cleaning up after us and making all of our meals, I wanted to repay their hospitality by taking them out on the town. I just had one request, that we go out in style and see the real nightlife of Havana! They seemed to be in the know and I was sure that Odalys, being a professional dancer, would be up on all the coolest clubs. We tasked them with picking a venue and planned to meet up later after our farewell dinner with Pedro and Olivia.

Old cars outside El Capitolio...waiting to taxi away folks who eat too many shrimp at the nearby restaurants
After gorging ourselves on shrimp cocktails followed by shrimpy soup followed by giant plates of creamy shrimp in a restaurant across from El Capitolio we stuffed ourselves into a 'vintage' taxi and set off back to Vedado to meet the Os at their nightlife hotspot of choice. I was expecting a dark and seductive club, possibly something open-roofed, full of sweaty locals grinding and writhing to reggaeton. What I was not expecting was a hotel.

When we rolled up to the Melia Cohiba I felt a wave of disappointment wash over me. It had all the charm of an airport Radisson and was the exact opposite of what I had wanted to experience. A tacky white vinyl banner with blue lettering spelling out Havana Cafe hung over a doorway to the side of the lobby. I paced back and forth in front of the sign, willing myself not to cry. Juan, Pedro and Olivia were all watching me nervously, trying to figure out why I was having a sudden meltdown.

'I'm sorry guys. I just really wanted to experience something authentic. I feel like this is just going to be a stupid tourist attraction.This is not Cuba at all. It's just really not what I wanted. I'm sorry'

They continued to look nervous, suggested we give it a chance for now and maybe try something else later if I wasn't happy, offered up the possibility that I might like it once we got inside. I knew I was being childish but I couldn't snap out of the mood that had descended on me. When the Os arrived and we got inside, things just got worse. It was a weird Cuban version of a Hard Rock Cafe, my idea of hell, a mish-mash of stereotypes and nostalgia created for people who wanted to experience a country without actually going outside. There were at most 20 people in the giant room, mostly confused, pasty folks who also seemed to be wondering how they ended up in the theme park. Though when I slid my grouchy stare around the room I was clearly the grumpiest of all the grumpy guests.

The only old cars in Havana that I hated
We sat at a table beside the stage, watching scantily clad dancers work their way through all of the usual numbers of a Cuban Entertainment Show. Pedro and Olivia excused themselves halfway through, they had to work in the morning again and were equally uninterested in the performance. We saw them off with hugs and kisses and then headed back in just as the audience participation started. 7 international man were standing awkwardly on stage but they still needed a Cuban. When the host saw Juan and I walk past his humiliation dream team was complete. Juan was pulled on stage with the rest of the men.

One after another, the 8 men on stage were forced to show off their best dance moves to a variety of Cuban rhythms. Limbs flailed, joints cracked, beads of sweat formed, jaws hung open in concentration. When it was Juan's turn, the other men accepted that the competition was over. As he danced effortlessly to a Cuban reggaeton song, they sat back in defeat. However, the host had other plans. He knew it was too easy to just hand victory to the Cuban, so he plucked a Cuban woman and me from the crowd. She was to dance with an Italian who had exhibited decent dance moves and I was to dance with Juan. For our dance, the DJ selected a waltz.

The dance contest losers watching Juan defeat them
I tried to hide my face in Juan's shoulder as he pushed and pulled me around the stage, knowing just as little about waltzing as me but trying a little harder to fake it. I felt the tears from earlier forming again, this time from complete humiliation. I also felt dinner's multi-course shrimp extravaganza rising in my throat. Juan whispered to me not to worry, to just enjoy how ridiculous this was but all I could think about was how idiotic I must look on-stage, in front of this crowd, trying to waltz. When the dance ended I tried to escape back to my seat but the host was not through with us. He teased me about finding a Cuban boyfriend in Camaguey, wondered why I went all that way when there were so many available men in Havana (with a wink wink nudge nudge to indicate himself). The crowd laughed, I stared at the floor, waiting for it to open up and swallow me.

The floor did not open up. Instead a tie was announced, Juan and the Italian were both crowned dance victors and all the dancers from the show appeared around us dressed in white. Juan somehow slipped away to grab my camera and only the Italian and I were left on-stage, forced into some sort of hellish, never-ending chachacha circle. I kept my eyes on the feet of the dancer in front of me and mimicked his moves, swearing to myself that I would never again come to this city without a plan.

When I got back to the table, the Os were grinning like fools. They were so excited after the dance performance and my 'participation' in the dancing. My angry glares had been making them nervous earlier but after seeing me onstage they were convinced that they had chosen wisely when they decided to bring us to the Havana Cafe. They knew it was popular with tourists, I was a tourist, ergo it would be popular with me. Seeing their eager smiles, and realizing that this debacle of an evening was for my benefit, didn't improve my mood but it did convince me to fake a better one. I dug up the best smile I could muster and told them I loved the show, that I was having so much fun, that I was so happy we were all able to enjoy this awesome place together.

Their smiles got bigger and they grabbed my hands, leading me towards the dancefloor that was filling up post-show. Juan followed close behind me and spoke quietly into my ear.

'Thank you'
'For what?'
'For pretending you're having fun. I know this isn't what you wanted. I guess they just didn't understand.'
'It's okay. They tried their best.'
'Still, thank you.'

With the warmth of his breath on my neck and two grinning cousins in front of me, I realized it really was okay. Maybe this wasn't the 'real' Havana I had hoped for but it was a real experience with real people. I let the last of my bad mood slide away and started to dance.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Picture Time

We did manage to squeeze in a little sightseeing in between our lazy days of mostly doing nothing

The Cathedral Church in Old Havana with its convenient next-door brewery

One of many bougainvillea plants I oohed and awed over

El Floridita, the tourist daiquiri-mecca

The most artistic photo I've ever taken

Che graffiti in Vedado

I never get tired of the old cars

The National Hotel (soon to be featured in an upcoming blog post!)

Nice building, nice sky

This guy couldn't have been more rockabilly if he tried

Another nice building

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Season of the Snob - Part 2

As we walked through Vedado towards La Rampa, the tension began to ease up. Without his cousins to keep him company, Juan seemed to realize that it would be a lonely night for him unless he got on our team. He started to join the conversation and by the time we reached our destination the four of us were all talking and laughing together with ease.

We weren't exactly creative with our nightlife in Havana. I hadn't had any particular expectations of the city when I decided I wanted to go there. I wanted to see the old cars and the Malecon but there wasn't anything else that I had been dying to see. Cuba and its capital had never held any fascination for me and even in my post-first-trip infatuation with the country, I hadn't uncovered any landmark or activity that really grabbed my interest. I had figured we'd let the city reveal itself to us in its own way, not force its hand with heavily regimented planning. However, without a plan we simply fell into a routine and ended up going back to the same cafe/bar we'd landed at on our first night out.

There was nothing particularly special about it, even now I can't remember its name. It seemed to be a live music venue but there was never any live music. A large sign proclaimed that it was the 'Mejor de Cuba' but I figured that a country with so little advertising probably lacked an advertising standards council to demand verification for 'best of' claims. It did boast a location across the street from the Hotel Habana Libre, a landmark hotel that unfortunately is butt-ugly to look at.  There was really no reason it had become our local favourite other than the fact that we liked the outdoor patio and we were both creatures of habit.

The Habana Libre Hotel in all its ugly non-glory
After a few beers at our favourite, forgettable hang-out all the awkwardness of earlier had melted away. Pedro and Juan were cracking jokes and laughing til they could barely breathe, Olivia and I were alternating between the deep, emotional conversation of women who are forming a new friendship and laughing at the guys. Juan's worries about their nefarious plans for me had proved fruitless, as had my worries that they wouldn't approve of him or understand what I saw in him. We were just four friends having a fun night in Havana. And that's when the magic started. Literally.

A group of 3 Cuban guys had sat down beside us a few minutes before. I'd noticed them due to the large amounts of gold they were wearing - gold chains, gold watches, gold rings, gold teeth. But what really caught all of our attention was the magic. The biggest, most gilded of the group was entertaining the other two with a variety of simple magic tricks. When he saw that the four of us had stopped talking in order to watch him, the tricks got fancier and more theatrical. We handed him coins, they reappeared in our drinks. He placed an ashtray in Olivia's hand, seconds later she discovered a pile of ashes in her other hand. We yelped in honest amazement and joy at every new feat. He played it cool but obviously enjoyed entertaining us, as every trick was followed by a bigger, better one.

After he was done the show, we decided it was time to leave. Pedro and Olivia had to work early in the morning and had a long bus ride home. Juan was having none of their bus-talk though. He cleaned out his wallet of all his CUCs and CUPs and forced the money on them, telling them that they shouldn't be riding around on a bus at this hour, that they needed to take a taxi home. They were slightly embarrassed but he called a cab over and pushed and cajoled until they gave in and agreed to take it. We all hugged good night and agreed we'd meet up again the next day for dinner.

With magic on his mind and his new friends being safely shuttled home, Juan was practically dancing down the streets back to his cousins house. Every few steps he would stop to hug or kiss me and then he'd grab my hand and prance us down the street again. He went over every trick we'd seen, questioning how it had worked, how it could be possible. He couldn't wait to tell his friends back home about what he'd seen. He recapped the funny jokes he and Pedro had shared, talked about how it was so amazing that I'd found such nice Cuban friends on the internet of all places!

I reminded him that only a few hours before he had felt quite differently, that he hadn't wanted them to come over, that he hadn't wanted either of us to get to know them. He stopped and looked at me very seriously.

'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I didn't trust you or believe you when you told me they were good people. I listened to my ideas and my cousins instead of listening to you. I know I made a mistake but I now know I was wrong and I hope you can forgive me.'

Of course, I forgave him. We'd both been guilty of underestimating people. We'd both been wrong. Luckily neither of us were so set in our ways that we couldn't learn from our mistakes. Luckily both of us were still open to the possibility of magic.

Thanks to a commenter, we've figured out the name of the bar. Yeesh, it's even uglier than I remember!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Season of the Snob - Part 1

Remember back to the beginning of this story? My dalliance with Interpals? It's a creepy name but a decent website for (virtually) meeting people from all over the world for chatting and language exchange. It's not a dating site, though many try their damnedest to make it one. In any case, I was really into it for awhile. I like learning about new places and having 'a friend' in every country in the world. However, after awhile I just couldn't keep with emailing that many people every day. Not to mention, after the initial excitement of meeting a new person from a new place wears off, you usually realize you actually don't have anything in common and you both lose interest. That's how it went with most of my interpals - except Pedro and Olivia.

Bayamo, capital city of Granma province aka 'The Sharktooth of Cuba'*
Best friends from Bayamo, Pedro and Olivia had moved together to Havana a couple years before to work for a TV station there. The three of us instantly clicked. We would spend hours every day on gmail chat talking about music, books, politics, language, culture and relationships. Pedro was a metalhead and Olivia loved poetry and jazz. Both of them were fiercely loyal to Cuba yet readily admitted there were problems in the country, problems that they insisted should be dealt with from within.

Though we talked about everything, I held back when it came to Juan. They were edgy, urban intellectuals, he was a jock from the beach. I am ashamed to admit it now but I was afraid they would judge me, I was afraid they would judge him. I told them I was coming back to Cuba and that I would see them in Havana. I told them first I'd be going back to the resort from my previous trip but I was vague about why.

When we arrived in Havana my dilemma grew. I wanted to meet them, to move our online talks into reality but I was scared to have my two worlds collide. I was scared that these people who knew the intellectual snob version of me would never approve of my mingling with a mere entertainer from a resort. I was scared that they would take one look at us and laugh at the absurdity of the situation. But as my time in the city started to draw to a close, I knew I had to face my I gave them a call and invited them over.

With all the coming and going of neighbours and friends in and out of the apartment, I figured a couple of my friends in the mix wouldn't make a difference. But Juan and his cousins were not impressed. And they were worried. They tried to explain to me that Cubans don't just get on the internet and make friends with foreigners without an agenda. That people in Havana are on the make and a naive tourist like me is exactly who they are looking for. I explained that they were actually from Bayamo...this made a small dent in their argument, they felt that southern Bayameros could be trusted slightly more than northern Habaneros...but still, they wanted to formally assess these internet chatters for themselves before letting them near me.

When Pedro and Olivia arrived they waited outside the apartment while Odalkys went downstairs to interrogate meet them. I was left to wait in the kitchen, Juan sitting across from me frowning. A nagging thought kept trying to push itself to the front of my mind, 'Are they being protective because they care or possessive because they don't want to share their tourist?' I had spent so much time with Juan's friends and Juan's family, I thought he would be happy to even the scales by meeting some people from my life. His crossed arms and deep scowl told me he was not happy at all. 

Pedro and Olivia passed the test and were allowed, but not exactly welcomed, into the apartment. They joined me at the kitchen table and Juan, after a brief and cold hello, went to sit with his cousins in front of the TV in the living room. The three of us sat around the table, trying to make conversation while attempting to ignore the hostile atmosphere emanating from the living room. Finally I couldn't stand it any longer...

'This is really weird. I'm sorry that they're being so unfriendly. Do you want to get out of here?'

They both exhaled huge sighs of relief and whispered yes in exaggerated tones. We gathered our stuff and headed for the door, me stopping to tell Juan that we were going out for a drink. Without unsnarling his face or saying a word, he let us know that he would be joining us. A few minutes later, three relieved friends and one grumpy wet blanket headed out into the balmy Havana night looking for a drink...

The not so bright lights of Havana at night

*Granma province is not actually known as 'The Sharktooth of Cuba', I just thought it sounded cool

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olympics Break

I normally don't pay attention to the Olympics...but this year am kind of into it. I'll get back to writing once this festival of sports is over!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The First of Many Cousins

When I'd been planning the trip to Havana from Canada, I assumed we'd stay in a casa particular, basically a Cuban bed and breakfast. Of course at that point, I did not yet know the size and national reach of Juan's family. Like some math-based nursery rhyme his great-grandpa had had 8 brothers who each had 8 sons who each had 8 sons and so on. It was a very male family line. But there were a few girls sprinkled in there. Two of them, with the matching names Odalys and Odalkys, had moved to Havana in their late teens about 15 years before and hadn't been back or seen Juan since. As soon as the travel plans had been set in motion Juan's mom had called ahead to the Os, arranging for us to stay with them and have them watch out for us in the big city. I had explained to her that I had traveled before, that Toronto was pretty big, that I'd lived in bigger cities. She was having none of it though, this was Havana and there was family to take care of us.

Living large in Vedado
We rolled up to their apartment around noon and a great flurry of hugging, rapid talking and hand gesturing began. They pinched and prodded and poked at Juan, and in simple words and gestures explained to me how they had babysat him all through his youth and how he had been soooo small and now he's all grown up. I smiled and nodded along with their excitement, honestly happy to be a part of this family reunion. As the cousins caught up on 15 years of news, I ended up deep in 'conversation' with Odalkys' four year old daughter Paola.

Paola had taken an instant interest in this this strange, pale creature in her midst who had a bag full of shiny jewelry, shoes and make-up but seemed unable to string together a sentence. She took pity on my odd inability to understand language and simply repeated her questions and statements over and over until I understood. Every day we would take some time to sit together on the bedroom floor, her rifling through my suitcase holding up each of my possessions asking '¿Que es eso?' until I found the name for it in my Spanish/English dictionary. She would then ask if it was mine. I'd answer 'Si' and she'd move on to the next item. What is this? It's sunscreen. Is it yours? Yes. What is this? It's a necklace. Is it yours? Yes. After each item was named she'd ponder it for awhile and then either place it on me or herself. For sharable items, lipgloss, nail polish, Canada flag stickers, we'd both get a turn, her using me as a walking, slowly-talking doll and then getting me to make her up in the same fashion.

I don't really know a lot of children and am never sure how to act around them. But with Paola I was comfortable and grateful. She was taking the time to try and understand me and to help me communicate. She was patient with me. When I couldn't get a point across she was happy to accept a goofy face or silly dance in its place. She would lead me around the apartment by hand pointing out and naming every detail. When I didn't understand, she'd start from the beginning until she saw a spark of understanding in my eyes. At meal times, she'd jump up on my lap and explain what I was eating and how I should eat it. When it was time to sleep, or to wake up, she'd appear at my side to let me know.

¿Que es eso? ¿Que es eso? ¿Que es eso? Spanish 101 with Paola
There wasn't much activity in our first couple days, the cousins were taking their guardian roles very seriously and seemed afraid that I would burst into flames if touched by sunlight, but I didn't mind. The Os, their boyfriends, Paola, Juan, me and the neighbours constantly popping in and out of the house was entertainment enough. We'd eat, we'd talk, we'd drink 1000 little coffees , we'd watch music videos that Odalys had danced in, rewinding and fast-forwarding to her parts again and again and again, Paola would direct all of us in her games and we'd obediently follow her directions. I would come up with excuses to buy water, bread, beer, anything just so I could throw the paper bag on a string out the 4th floor window and wait for the entrepreneurial boy on the street below to fill my order. They laughed at my excitement each time I got to lower and raise the delivery bag but it truly was the highlight of each day.

At night we'd walk over to La Rampa, drink a few beers and soak up the atmosphere. There was no rush to get anywhere and no rush to get home. There were just simple moments flowing together. It wasn't exciting and it didn't signify anything but for the first time in my life I didn't mind. The calm, insignificance of it all was soothing. There was no meaning to any of it, hidden or obvious, and I started to realize that I didn't need all this to mean anything. I just needed it.