Category Archives: off-the-beaten track

My New Cuban Love Affair

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]So it’s International Women’s Day (see note 1) and a full moon – two events which occasion a certain randiness and frisk in these parts. And I’m feeling particularly frisky these days thanks to my new love affair with a certain Francis.

Francis is my new bike.

My trusty steed…

Before I wax poetic on the new steed between my legs, let me take this opportunity to digress a bit with a few words about the personification of one’s transport.

I was once in love with a guy who drove a truck – lived with him for over four years actually – and it fell to this unlucky fella to teach me to drive (see note 2). During my schooling, he also taught me the importance of naming your vehicle. Your car (or truck or bike) has a personality, he explained. You need to communicate with one another and work together. A name facilitates this inorganic synergy between man, movement, and machine; completes the anthropomorphic picture so to speak. I took his point. The one and only car I owned (co-owned and only for three months), was a beat up Audi named Otto. My mom’s Subaru is Harriet the Chariot. My sister’s 1982 Peugeot is Bruce. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Rocinante, Mugsy, and Hoss – great cars all.

When I got my new bike, I knew I had to have a name.

But after a month zipping across Puente Almendares, pedallling the pristine macadam bordering Parque Monte Barreto, and bracing my ass against potholes and train tracks, I still didn’t have a name. Clearly it was time for outside counsel. I put it to my friend Lucia, she of the Bambi filets

Her first question: male or female?

Ever-practical, Lucia cut to the obvious question I’d failed to ask. I had been so focused on a name that would translate equally well in English and Spanish, that I’d completely neglected to consider gender. Standing there in her bedroom it occurred to me that I didn’t want only linguistic inclusivity, choosing a name that would make sense in both my languages, I also wanted gender inclusivity.

“How about something gender neutral?” I wondered aloud.

“There aren’t many gender-neutral names!” Lucia’s 10-year old wunderkind piped up. After a few beats she asked: “How about Michel(le)?”

“Good one!” I said, knowing that girls of a certain age (even hyper talented Cuban ones) need encouragement and positive reinforcement. “But this bike doesn’t seem like a Michel(le).”

Wracking my brain for neutral names I’d come across in Cuba, I asked: “How about Francis?”

And a bike was born.

That was a long digression, I know, but I’m taking the Vin Scelsa defense here (see note 3).

_____

 I first cut my two-wheeled teeth in Manhattan (site of my one and only drunk “driving” accident, when I went down hard in a greasy Chinatown alley, erasing a patch of freckles the size of a one peso coin in the process), then in San Francisco, and now in Havana.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to glide along a deserted big city street under a moon so full it makes even me want to lactate, there’s something of the magical hidden from you. Every city has a side that only night owls see, of course – anyone who has walked home from a bar or ballgame in the wee hours has experienced this frisson with a city’s secret side. It’s exciting and slightly illicit somehow. With the wind in your face and the caresses of night billowing your hair and clothes about the faster you pump the pedals only heightens the sensation. Whether I’m coasting down Paseo or along Avenida 31, dodging potholes in Playa, or startling stray cats from their dumpster diving, on my bike I feel free in a way approximated only by orgasm. In short, city cycling unshackles something in the spirit.

Gliding through Havana’s landscape on a bike makes me look at things differently from when I’m walking (or driving, it goes without saying). I’m higher up for one. I see over hedges and into windows. I discover shortcuts and side streets I didn’t know existed. I note every parked car (my greatest – and most realistic fear – cycling in Havana is that I’ll get “doored”) and each driveway. In my experience, riding in a city requires a level of alertness not necessary while walking and opportunities for observation not possible while driving, which makes me keenly aware and appreciative of my surroundings while mounted.

I carefully consider other cyclists now and their habits, from the old dudes who poke along, pants rolled to the knee, to the shirtless young studs who ride as confidently as any Midtown bike messenger, cigarette dangling from their lips. The deplorable state of Havana’s street lighting is hammered home on these late night jaunts, as is the real possibility of encountering a drunk driver. And is there any city that smells like this one? Pedalling along, I get glancing whiffs of savory sea mixed with the off-putting tang of rotting garbage and wet earth if it has rained, dried leaves if it hasn’t.

By day, Francis takes me wherever I need and want to go: to check my PO box across town; to immigration; the grocery store; the theater; and my sister-in-law’s house. Errands that used to take an entire morning using public transportation are completed in an hour or two with Francis. Friends I put off visiting because they live far away now have me landing on their doorstep any day, any time. This in itself is liberating, not only for the time and money I save, but also for how refreshed I feel when I arrive – tired, sure, but refreshed like after a long swim or hot bath.

And oh, how the boys seem to like a girl on a bike. Perched on Francis, riding along 3ra Avenida or the Malecón, I bask in all the piropos trailing me as I pedal by: ‘¡Mami, llévame!’, ‘Que rica estás, rubia’, ‘¡Ay! Si yo fuera tu silla, mi cielo’ make me smile. And the best part is that I can mutually admire these men of all type and stripe and then be safely, happily on my way.

This post is dedicated to Chris and Alexis M, and Julia F who made my partnership with Francis possible; and to Cornelius S who introduced me to the joys of cycling the big city.  

Notes

1. Though largely ignored or unknown in the United States, International Women’s Day, observed each March 8th, is a huge deal in Cuba when every guy shows appreciation for the women in his life with flowers and shouts of ‘¡Felicidades!’ Even strangers proffer the celebratory phrase and many restaurants gift a single gladiola to all female patrons on March 8th. It’s one of the silver linings of machismo, I guess. 

2. I’m fond of making rules for others to live by – have been ever since I declared several decades ago that white people should not have dreadlocks. More recently, I’ve decided that men – I don’t care if it’s your dad, brother or lover – should not teach women to drive. It just adds to the universe’s general conflict and woe.

3. Vin Scelsa has been making what’s known as freeform radio for some 40 years now. His show Idiot’s Delight helped shape the paradigm which holds that the DJ can play and importantly, talk about, whatever the hell he wants. As you might guess, Vin talks a lot on his show, often about stuff not at all music-related. And as he’s fond of pointing out: if you don’t like it, change the station. Precisely my philosophy at Here is Havana.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban phrases, environment, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Best Cuba Posts Evah! (Sorta)

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Hola & Happy July 26th!

Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus – ‘recharging the batteries’ as we say on this side of the Straits – and more importantly, trying to get my act in gear to write, to bite off the rest of my forthcoming book. Aiming to strike while the iron’s hot and all that.

In the meantime, some bloggers way more sophisticated than your humble, slogging-through-dial up protagonist, have invented this clever game of virtual tag whereby they tag Here is Havana making me “it,” inviting me to excavate oldie, but goodie posts that warrant reading.

These are not just pedestrian travel bloggers looking for free junkets and working the ad sense angle, but fabulously well-traveled women who have lived in Chile (in the case of Margaret over at Cachando Chile) and Moldova (in the case of Miss Footloose over at Life in the Expat Lane). What’s more, these chicks can write! I highly recommend checking them out. Also a big shout out to Camden of The Brink of Something Else for nominating Here is Havana (check out the killer shot of Havana taken from Regla – tagged as TBSE’s most beautiful post).

The categories were selected by whomever invented the game and include the “most beautiful,” “most controversial,” and “most overlooked” posts, among others, crafted over the two years of Here is Havana’s life. Have a click around, share with friends, spread the word…

Most beautiful: This was intended to be Chapter 1 of my book Here is Havana, but life has taken a left turn (as tends to happen here) and the book now has a life of its own (i.e. more a chronicle and a memoir than E.B. White’s Here is New York – my original inspiration). Any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated!

Most popular: My most popular post is actually my ‘About’ page but since that’s kind of flojo as we say in my neck of the woods, I suggest also checking out my second-most popular post about the wacky way Cubans speak.

Most controversial: The reaction to this post about Cuban fashion really surprised me – people came out with their elbows sharpened! Despite some of the wide-of-the-mark pop psychology, some of the comments are intriguing. See what you think…

Most helpful: This is a weird kind of category because what may be helpful to you, isn’t necessarily helpful to someone else, and what readers find most useful probably wasn’t the most useful to me (for those interested: the most helpful posts to me are those that help tease out the niggly snarls of cross cultural living, like this one about a visit to the USA and how it messes with my head and this one about always being on the outside looking in. These are closely followed by those posts trying to help me understand evolving Cuban reality, like the capitalist changes underway at present).

Clearly, though, tips for travelers to Havana and how to form a line in Cuba are among my most helpful posts for the general reading public.

Surprisingly successful post: Hands down, this is my post on dying in Cuba, Part I & Part II. There’s a real sadness to this ‘success’ – judging from search terms and other analytics, the folks that are searching on this term are family members living outside of Cuba who lost loved ones inside Cuba and are trying to figure out how to deal with the practicalities of that loss.

Post that didn’t get attention it deserved: At the beginning of 2010, as the wheels of change lurched along their inevitable track, I wrote about what Cubans were thinking, feeling and experiencing and how all these confusing emotions and intellectual gymnastics were affecting behavior. Worth a revisit – especially for those in faraway lands wondering: what the hell are they thinking over there?!

Post I’m most proud of: On the last day of February, 2010, I landed in Port-au-Prince with members of Cuba’s Henry Reeve Emergency Medical Contingent for a stint covering their earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti. For a month, I lived in a tent in their central camp in Port-au-Prince, with no running water, electricity only a handful of hours a day, crippling heat, and an internet connection 1,000 times more frustrating than my dial-up in Havana. Talk about learning experience….

TAG! Now, you’re it:

Bacon is Magic: HIH readers know I’m a chicharrones addict, so simply the name of this blog enamors, but Ayngelina also calls Guatemala “the most underrated country” after only a week. Sharp girl!

Fevered Mutterings, The Art of Unfortunate Travel: Funny, pull-no-punches mutterings by Mike Sowden.

Modern Gonzo: Robin Esrock has lots of companies sponsoring him, his own TV show, and is so well-traveled, he could be one of those ‘been there, done that’ assholes, but in fact is a totally cool, accessible, and down-to-earth guy.

Roving Gastronome: Mexico, Morocco, Queens, Cuba – Zora O’Neill, travel writer, cookbook author, and dinner party hostess-with-the mostest, takes you there and makes sure you eat well.

This Cat’s Abroad: Not updated nearly often enough for the talent and chutzpah exibited, this blog delivers a unique perspective by a woman living in Iraq (and now Kurdistan).

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Writerly stuff

Trip Tips: Havana Independently

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Havana is hot and I’m not talking about mulatas or the weather: from Cayo Hueso to Regla, Cementerio Colón to Ciudad Deportiva, you can’t swing a dead gato around here these days without hitting a tourist. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve seen this many foreigners in Havana since the 2006 Non-Aligned Meeting (see note 1).

There are reasons of course. The Cigar and Young Filmmakers Festivals are going strong as I write this, we’re getting a couple of monster cruise ships docking each week, and all-inclusive packages from Canada are mad cheap (see note 2). But most importantly, Havana’s streets teem thanks to Obama’s rollback to Clinton’s policy whereby US college students and select others can travel “legally” to the island. I’m surprised the effects have been so lightening fast – the new/old regulations were just announced in January – but everywhere I turn these days there seems to be a fresh-faced co-ed in Wesleyan gear or a Teva-shod geek. I hope they all have iPads.

Many of these people won’t end up liking Havana (hell, even I don’t like Havana some times). Starting with poor air quality, negative travelogues grouse about the expense of this place; perceived levels of state control; difficulties scratching below the surface +/o contextualizing their experience; and of course, crappy goods and even shittier services.

The dramatic economic changes happening around here – legalizing 178 types of private business from clown to cook, masseur to manicurist – are altering the travelers landscape (see note 3). So that Here is Havana readers can maximize their visit to this enigmatic city, I dedicate this post to travel strategies designed to get you beneath Havana’s skin.

#1. Talk the talk. There is no better way to maximize an independent holiday here than to speak cubano, with all its chopped off words, odd pronunciation and slang (see note 4). Even if ¿que bola asere? and ‘la heva está enpinga’ isn’t in your repertoire, try at least to dust off that high school Spanish since surprisingly few Cubans dominate English (and many of those that do are unusually accomplished charlatans). Not speaking Spanish doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad time – on the contrary. But it will limit your ability to get information, negotiate, learn and arrange logistics.

#2. Embrace pesos cubanos. As soon as you’re able, get some moneda nacional, also known as pesos cubanos and CUP. There’s a myth out there as tenacious as herpes in a whorehouse and which no amount of posting, commenting, and conversing seems to dispel: that tourists can’t use this ‘local’ currency. Complete rubbish. The truth is, most visitors simply don’t know how to use CUP. I suggest starting your trip by changing $5 of hard currency (24 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.82 USD) into this funny money to use for fixed route taxis, movies, food, condoms, cigars, and stepping out.

#3. Roll like a local. Long-finned Pontiacs, Capone-era Dodges, and other ‘Yank tanks’ leap to most minds when Cuba is mentioned. Undeniably cliché, these cars are everywhere, plying Havana’s streets working as communal, fixed-route taxis. For 10 pesos cubanos (about 0.40 USD), you can hail one of these endearing jalopies (I climbed into one yesterday that had packing tape upholstery and a ceiling lined with old refrigerator boxes) between Playa and Vedado or Habana Vieja, out to Miramar or Marianao. Longer routes – from Habana Vieja out to the Playas del Este beaches for example – will run double. To grab one, just stick out your arm parallel to the ground and ask the driver if he’s going to where you need to be. It helps to be on the right thoroughfare: 23 or Línea in Vedado, San Lázaro or Neptuno in Centro Habana, Avenida 31 or 41 in Playa, Calle 51 in Marianao, or 3ra Avenida in Miramar.

c. C Gorry

Even lower down on the transportation food chain is the guagua (pronounced wa-wa) – the Cuban bus. A ride literally costs pennies and while not especially comfortable or efficient, riding the guagua gives a real taste of Cuban daily life with all its attendant humor and hardships.

If these options don’t appeal, consider renting a car and driver. Part of the new regulations stipulate that licensed freelance drivers can now be contracted (by anyone, including foreigners as I understand it) to provide transport islandwide. There are no set fares, with rates to be determined between driver and client. Already nearly 6,000 choferes in Havana have applied for the freelance license; 2,000 have been granted. If the market has its way, the increased competition should make for more bargaining power and improved service. At the very least, it provides visitors an alternative to renting a car for $100 a day (which will somehow end up costing more when the agency is done with you). I predict that freelance drivers who speak English are going to do very well under these new regulations.

#4. Make yourself at home. One of the great benefits presented by the new regulations for travelers is the possibility to legally rent an entire house. This means you can shop at the agro (using those pesos cubanos) and cook for yourself, throw a dinner party, or introduce Cuban friends to the concept of brunch. Having your own private space means you can channel surf Cuban state TV (University for All! Little House on the Prairie! Seinfeld!), take mojitos on your porch to the delight of the neighborhood gossips, or stumble in carefree at 4am.

Another idea for a different Havana experience is to take lodging in more off-the-beaten-track places like the beach towns of Guanabo or Baracoa or Cojimar – the fishing village made famous by Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. These are close enough to enjoy Havana but just far enough removed to give a taste of small town life.

c. C Gorry

#5. Get primped & pampered. The new regulations approve all sorts of services which visitors can now enjoy without any sneaking around. Now your visit can include a 1-hr massage for $20 (really $10, but you might be charged double – the foreigner tax digamos), manicures for $2, and haircuts for $5 (careful with this last however).

If you’re interested to learn if someone – driver, masseuse, pizza maker – proffering these and other goods and services is licensed to do so, ask to see their licencia de cuenta propista. Most people are proud to flash their spiffy new ID cards.

#6. Spread the wealth. Frankly I weary of travelers asking me how they can avoid patronizing state businesses. That’s like asking how to avoid death or taxes. From the moment you buy your $20 tourist card to enter the country, to the minute you’re paying the $25 tax to leave, you’re supporting the Cuban government. What’s so evolved about this place is that paying into government coffers does in turn support the Cuban people (maybe not how or to the extent you’d like, but in my book the Cuban approach is fundamentally better than subsidizing bombs in Afghanistan and spies in Caracas). If you have a problem with this, do us all a favor and go to Cancun.

Having said that, I do recommend spending your hard-earned cash at a mix of state and private enterprises, but how to tell the difference? With eateries, there are some telltale signs. If your server is wearing a uniform or hairnet the place is probably state-owned. If your food descends from a balcony in a bucket it’s definitely private.

With taxis it’s even clearer: 99% of the old Motor City monsters (and many of the Ladas) brandishing taxi signs are privately owned. When in doubt, do like the Cubans do and look at the license plate (see note 5). There’s an entire code for plates here, with the first clue being the color: blue is for state-owned, yellow is private. All hotels, meanwhile, are at least 51% state-owned, but casas particulares (rooms or independent houses for rent) are privately operated. Look for the blue ‘arrendador divisa‘ sign.

c. C Gorry

If you’re interested in learning more of the Havana ‘mécanica‘ including bus and fixed-fare taxi routes, the best spot for 75 cent whisky shots and $1 lunch, Cuban line etiquette and more, please check out my iapp Havana Good Time.

Notes

1. It’s highly doubtful we’ll reap the same benefits however: when Cuba hosted the meeting as is customary for the country holding the rotating presidency, Havana’s main roads were repaved, trees were planted (including many of the trees lining Boyeros every visitor zooms by on their way from the airport) and house facades all along the arrival route were painted up nice and spiffy for the visiting delegations.

2. These 7-day all inclusive deals are oftentimes cheaper than just a Toronto-Havana Cubana flight. Savvy travelers just book the package and stay a day or two at their resort and then travel independently. As an aside, tourism figures for January indicate a 16% increase for the same period last year. Top countries visiting Cuba: Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, and Mexico.

3. I say travelers here instead of tourists because I believe there is a fundamental difference between a person who passively observes a culture and someone who desires to actively participate in it. If you’re one of those disposed to take issue with the tourist vs traveler terminology, I invite you to focus on the phenomenon/philosophy I’m talking about rather than the etymology of the terms used to describe it.

4. Those interested in Cuban slang and phrases should check out this Dichos iapp. I haven’t been able to get it yet (the US government blocks iTunes from operating in Cuba) but am loca to try it.

5. This national reflex is widespread and wild to watch: no matter what type of car you’re in, observe how passing Cubans immediately drop their eyes to check out the license plate. Via the coded plates, they’ll know if your car is from Havana or the provinces, whether you’re a foreign resident or visiting, even if you work for the state, a mixed Cuban-foreign enterprise, a church or an NGO.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Those Faithful Cubans

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Back in the 1850s, when everyone from priests to sugar barons were fighting for their piece of the pie (and their piece of mulatta ass, let’s be frank), this island was known as “la siempre fidelísima Isla de Cuba.” The forever faithful island of Cuba.

As a yuma married to a Cuban for going on nine years now, I can tell you this fidelity question has nagged me long and hard. And I’ve finally reached the tipping point. It took some time, though.

I remember when I was a tenderfoot on these shores – all bright-eyed and basking like a well-fed turtle, not bothered by termites in my bed or even reggaeton (see note 1) – and how much I still had to learn. On one of those fine sunny days way back when, I was seaside with some friends (a pair of ex-pat Europeans who bailed long ago) having a few cold drinks and taking the ocean air.

‘But don’t you wonder where he was?’ my friend asked. She’s one of those naturally beautiful, smart women who always seems to get what she wants even when she’s not entirely sure what that is.

‘Nah.’ I said. ‘I trust him implicitly.’ Did I really just say that? More to the point, do I really believe it? Me, who has only trusted implicitly five people my whole life, four of whom share my last name? It slipped out, but it was true. At least I wanted to think it was true.

The distinguished gent across from me, a rich well-traveled Turk who was living in Cuba on a lark, raised his eyebrow and his glass. ‘I wouldn’t trust anyone here implicitly, querida,’ he said sipping his Bucanero.
_____

It was my first summer here – 2002. I’d never even seen a spit-roasted pig or the inside of a hospital (see note 2) and my husband and I were spending August camping around the island. I was blissfully unaware of the depth of my ignorance about Cuba – had I known then what I know now and I had known how confused I’d still be all these years later, I may have run away and quit before my Cuban odyssey ever really started.

The car packed high with tent and stove, kitchen kit and several gallons of water, we went way off the beaten path. Making our way across the country we’d just pick a place on the map and go. This is how we found ourselves kicking up dirt on a deserted road heading towards Punta Covarrubias in god forsaken Las Tunas (see note 3). We saw nothing for miles – no birds stirred the air, nary a lizard snuck out his tongue. Not one car or person appeared in the 90 minutes we were on that rutted road. Finally the sea grew into view and with it came gales of laughter.

When we pulled up between pines as thin as a Cuban campesino, we saw a panel truck and a party in full swing. The beach and lone hotel were deserted – closed for the season or some other confounding Cuban reason – but these folks had come to let their hair down and hot dog!, roast a pig.

My husband busted out a bottle of rum and we took turns rotating the pig. Dominos materialized of course. We got to know our hosts in that way Cubans have of making fast friends. They were lovely people, country folk who worked hard and had the calluses to prove it. With the sun dipping low, we swapped addresses (none of us had phones in our homes) and I promised to send Eliades the photos we’d taken.

“On no! Don’t send them to me. My wife will kill me if she finds out!”

And here I’d thought the buxom brunette with the sunburned collarbone he’d been fondling all day was his wife. Silly me.
_____

Not long thereafter, I was on the 100 bus going to a meeting. It was one of those oppressive Havana days when tempers are short, the sun’s rays are long and you’re sweating as soon as you step from the shower. In sum, a typical July day in these parts. The 100 bus, I should mention, ‘tiene sus cosas‘ as we say here – it has it’s thing going on.

This bus runs through Marianao – a very working class, very black neighborhood run thick with bling and babalawos – from where it descends to the seashore in Miramar. In summer, this bus is an asses to elbows, hips to groin crush of humanity desperate to get to the “beach” (no sand, just a nasty species of shoreline rock known as diente de perro). At these times, boys ride the 100 shirtless and the girls are more scandalously clad than usual (if that’s possible). It’s so crowded daredevils hang from the windows, hitching a ride from the outside.

On this day, I was all up in it inside the bus. There was no choice but to squash up against the strangers squeezing in around me. I tried to angle away from any erogenous zones – theirs and mine. As we crossed Calle 51, the crowd crushed in tighter and I felt a warm rush of air on my face.

“Come to the beach with me baby,” a young, chiseled guy chuffed in my ear. I turned away, making sure to steer clear of his bulge.

“I don’t think my husband would approve,” I snapped.

“You’re married? So what?” the kid responded, pressing in tighter against me.
_____

Some years ago, I was let in on a secret. It wasn’t really a secret (a concept which is completely foreign to most Cubans) but rather one of those things that people know about but no one mentions: the two family phenomenon. I had drawn breath 32 years before I’d ever known that there were men who keep two families. Not Big Love style, but two secret families – one on one side of town, the younger on the other.

I have one friend, the poor soul, who discovered the ignoble injustice as her dearly beloved lay on his deathbed. On that day, she had brought him his breakfast and coffee just like every day since he had been hospitalized. She kissed him goodbye and turned to leave just as a second woman came in, breakfast and coffee thermos in hand, trailing two kids. The Other Wife with The Other Children who had no idea they had a half-brother and -sister on the other side of town. The bastard died not long thereafter. My friend and I don’t talk about it.

The same thing befell another friend, Josue. As an adult, he discovered his father had kept another family secreted away, also with kids – two brothers Josue spent a whole life not knowing.

I wonder about men who are so weak and insecure they need two women, two sets of kids, two lives. I imagine it must be extraordinarily stressful and hard to keep straight. I wonder how they look themselves in the mirror.
_____

Don’t believe for a second it’s only the men. Rosario is a perky (natural) blond with the hips of a mulatta and the ass of a negress. Her husband Julian is not only hot, he’s a talented, super successful musician to boot. They have a beautiful son together. One morning Julian woke up to an empty house. Turns out Rosario had married a Mexican on the side to leave the country and took the boy with her. She ditched the Mexican as soon as possible of course; she and the boy now live in Miami.

And what I’ve seen during my work abroad, covering the Cuban medical missions? Por favor. These folks serving two years in godforsaken places are like sailors on shore leave the way they hook up with one another. And the longer and harder the posting, like Haiti or Pakistan? Let’s just say it’s far from ‘la siempre fidelísima Isla de Cuba.’

For someone like me, faithful as a damn dog, this is all pretty disturbing. What does ‘faithful’ mean here, I wonder? Does it even translate? Does giving head count as cheating? Getting it? How about a mercy fuck? I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know, now that I’ve learned a little about Cuba, is that I wouldn’t necessarily say implicitly…

Notes
1. For the record, I have always been bothered by cold water showers and turds at the beach.

2. Since then I’ve been regularly employed as a journalist (take that OFAC!) by MEDICC Review which has thrust me inside all sorts of Cuban hospitals – from pediatric to post-disaster.

3. Very near here is one of the points of highest illegal immigration to the United States in all of Cuba. So common and scheduled are the super fast speed boats that pick up Cubans to zip them across the Straits to Florida they’re called ‘Yutongs’ – our equivalent of a Greyhound.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, Cuban phrases, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Relationships

Mi Tocayo

There’s this magical, hard-to-reach place I’ve dreamt of seeing for years. Atop my ‘to visit’ list, I tacked Technicolor postcards of this glorious spot on my office wall and gazed upon its grandeur whenever writer’s block or boredom hit. Admittedly, a visit there takes considerable preparation and determination, not to mention luck – when the weather turns for the worse, my dream destination becomes inaccessible.

I’m talking about Waimanu Valley, the Big Island, Hawai’i.

Waimanu is so birthing-the-earth beautiful, so seductively tropical, tears have sprung to my eyes simply gazing upon that aforementioned postcard. This mana-packed valley (see note 1) is also sacred to native Hawaiians and is occasionally still visited by ghosts of gods in the night. Truly a godly place (no matter what that means to you), Waimanu’s towering falls and steeply sculpted walls beckoned me.

There are certain places on the planet that are rightfully hard(er) to reach. This is their protection, helping maintain their natural and cultural integrity to an extent. The Galapagos for instance, or Bhutan. Cuba, too, is in this harder-to-reach category (for Americans at least) keeping that island from the north’s greedy grasp – somewhat anyway, for now anyhow.

There are only three ways to reach Waimanu Valley: by foot, kayak, or on a helicopter tour.

The last was never an option since helicopter tours run at least $200 on the Big Island, and so are way beyond my means (see note 2). More importantly, watching these grand waterfalls (or flowing lava for that matter) from behind glass seems too much like porn and masturbation to me. I wanted to taste, touch, and smell the valley. I wanted to earn the climax.

Kayaking into this part of the Big Island’s windward coast, meanwhile, is a complex proposition. The changeable weather, combined with the fierce, surgey ocean with its rips and undertow, advises against paddling in. Conditions need to be just right and although I’d sea kayaked 18 miles of the inimitable Na Pali coast on Kauai, local kayakers told me this wasn’t really practical for Waimanu Valley.

That left the hike. It’s not long – just under eight miles one way – but compensates with difficulty what it lacks in length (see note 3). And with no foreplay: the first mile is 1200 feet straight up. It’s a knee shaking, thigh quaking ascent from legendary Waipi’o Valley and not even the azure sea pounding the black sand beach below makes ‘The Z’ trail enjoyable. My hiking buddy rated The Z (so named for the precipitous switchbacks that carve that letter into the valley’s emerald cliffs) a B, for Brutal. Once you crest the switchbacks, sweaty and panting, there are a dozen gulches to maneuver through, making for a foot-propelled roller coaster ride.

It was hard. It was hot. At times it felt interminable. But the final descent into Waimanu Valley: therein lies the rub. It’s just .9 miles, but it’s an ‘okele kicker (see note 4). Slippery even when not wet, and as narrow as Sarah Palin’s mind, this is a seriously steep and treacherous stretch of trail. With a tent, sleeping bag, and four days of provisions strapped on my back, I had my work cut out for me. One slip and I’d go tumbling 1200 feet into verdant valley.

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We managed the descent and I wasn’t surprised the valley was more glorious than the postcard tacked up in my office back in Havana. The black sand beach fed by a freshwater stream teeming with fish and prawns; the deeply-carved, rice paddy green of the valley walls; and the forest full of wild guava and coffee, breadfruit and feral pigs – it was beautiful. But most captivating of all was Wai’ilikahi Falls – a 1100-foot high set of double falls tumbling over the valley cliffs into an idyllic pool frequented by few.

Following a day of rest and play, I set out to tackle the (officially closed, but fairly clearly marked) trail to the falls. I considered turning back after crossing paths with a feral sow and her piglet. I’d been treed once by a pack of peccaries in the Costa Rican jungle; I know not to mess with wild swine. I almost turned back a second time too – where an ugly invasive choked off the ‘trail,’ obscuring my way for a while.

But I kept on. After an hour or so, the trail began meandering along a rock-strewn stream. I could hear the waterfall clearly now and feel it’s windy swoosh. The trail dipped suddenly and I was dumped at the base of Wai’ilikahi Falls, a pool the size of a helipad at its base.

I threw my arms heavenward, praising its beauty and feeling like a goddess – so blessed was I to be there, living my dream. I was struck dumb by its natural beauty. I swiped a tear dropping from the corner of my eye when I heard a rustling from the trail. It wasn’t a feral pig as I’d imagined, but a young couple, tattooed and tie-dyed, emerging from the wood. I had only been in my dreamscape for five minutes. I was surprised I hadn’t heard them on the trail, that’s how closely on my heels they followed. More surprisingly still, I wasn’t disappointed to have my solitude broken, to have to share this special place with strangers.

We chatted, basking in the falls’ beauty. We voiced our appreciation for this sacred place, so remote and hard-earned. As the young woman washed their clothes in the pool (see note 5), I ‘talked story’ (that most Hawaiian of pastimes) with her husband: Where are you from? First time on the Big Island? Where have you been? The usual travel patter. They were young and adventurous and had been whirling the world for over two years. I took a quick shine to them – especially the guy.

After a brief silence, the falls’ chill misting us softly, I stuck out my hand.

“It’s nice to meet you way out here in this beautiful place. What’s your name?”

He took my hand and smiled. “Connor.”

I was stunned silent, literally struck dumb for the second time in ten minutes. Here I was, in the middle of nowhere and the center of everywhere, at the heart of my Hawaiian dream and who should emerge from the wood without warning but my tcayo (see note 6).

Very funny place, this big island.

Notes

1 In Hawai’i, mana is the island’s life force, the spiritual mojo that pulsates within the volcano, the sea, and deep in waterfall-cleaved valleys like Waimanu. If you’ve been here, you’ve likely felt it, that’s how palpable it is.

2. Even though I’m on the Big Island updating a Lonely Planet guidebook, the payment structure, combined with the company’s policy that we can’t take anything for free in exchange for positive coverage, puts most of these activities beyond my reach.

3. There are four emergency helipads strung along this hike to give you an idea of the difficulty.

4. This, my third time on the Big Island, I’m making a conscious effort to learn more Hawaiian; ‘okele (if you’d hadn’t already guessed) means butt.

5. Note to the valley gods and goddesses: forgive her, she knows not what she did.

6. Like descampar (to stop raining) and buen provecho (have a good meal), tocayo is one of those Spanish expressions with no real equivalent in English. It means to share the same name. Except for my goddaughter Conner, who (although a spectacular and special kid) doesn’t really count since she was named with me in mind, I’ve never had the opportunity to hang out with my tocayo. And certainly not in such a spectacular spot as Wai’ilikahi Falls.

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