I have so much to say- I don't quite know where to start, all I knew when I woke up this morning was that I was back in a comfortable bed, not sticky and covered in bug spray, with a real toilet that includes the added luxury of a full fledged toilet seat (that flushes all night long- unlike the toilet we had in Cuba, which was seat-less, and only flushed during what I would call my normal business hours in the States), a shower that disperses more than a trickle of water, and it even comes in different temperatures and all the luxuries of home. I woke up a bit confused, threw on some "work clothes" (which felt weird) and got in my car to drive to my corporate job- once I got there I felt like it was starting my first day of work all over again, I was nervous walking in, was surprised when I walked into an air conditioned office, etc....
Maybe I'm just out of it but I sincerely feel like I just came back from the trip of a lifetime (cheesy, I know, but true) and that the experience truly changed me in some weird way. Maybe it was the insecticide they sprayed directly into my face in the cabin of the airplane when we landed in Cuba (you know, standard Cuban procedure to get rid of the bugs we may be carrying from Mexico), maybe it was the people in the street who were not so poor that they were begging for food or money, but all they wanted was a bar of soap (because doctors there make $16 a month and a bar of soap still costs $2), or maybe it was traveling around with a troop of 19 really cool, fun Americans and Leyder's extended family of about 15ish people at any given time (my friend Joey's husband), one of which was super overly friendly (to the point where after she congratulated us on our engagement (which was so special, in Spanish and amazing of course but I'll save the details for over the phone and in person)- and right after discussing how happy she was for us she then switched topics right away to explain in detail her bowel movements for the day and how she really felt about Montezuma's Revenge).
WOW! What a trip- it was so incredible to not only be in Cuba but get a real locals perspective, spend time talking to people that lived there and stay in a small Cuban beach town with no other tourists (other than our troop). In case any of you are wondering how this came to be, how Joey met Leyder, etc... I'll break it down real quickly- Joey met Leyder in a gym- he played basketball for the Cuban National Basketball Team and on a trip to play in Australia they had a layover in Los Angeles LAX airport where they defected (they planned to do it a few days before the trip but didn't know how it would happen or what they would do when they got to the US). They had $50 in their pocket, ran through customs, out of the airport, jumped into a taxicab (with a driver who happened to speak Spanish- thank God) and said "take me to Miami," when the taxi driver explained how far away Miami was they said, ok take me to Oakland, finally they found out that for $50 they were only getting to downtown LA, so that's where they stayed (in a hotel in downtown LA and since in Cuba only the military wears suits, every time they saw someone with a suit they thought they were being followed) until a friend wired them enough money to take a Greyhound to Oakland. Joey and Leyder met at a gym, and have been in love ever since- they make a great couple.
One thing about Cuba that I really wasn't expecting (besides learning about all the bodily functions and did I mention STD of one of our fellow compadres over a nice dinner), was the amount of control the government has over the people and the amount of propaganda that is so in your face throughout the entire country. For starters, during our stay Joey's parents were kind enough to rent us three beach houses in Boca Ciega, a small beach town outside of Havana, absolutely stunning by the way but anyways, when we all went through Cuban customs in Havana we had to write on our customs forms where we were staying so we all wrote down the only address we had with us, that of Leyder's parents in Havana. Normally when you travel and write where you are staying on a customs form it really doesn't matter, in Brazil for example I just put down the tiny city of Rio de Janerio and let's be honest- who freaking cares, like anyone is ever really going to check where you are staying unless you are smuggling in monkeys or five kilos of cocaine, you're probably cool as a cucumber.... NOT IN CUBA my friends, no no no... Apparently, in order to rent out your house to foreigners or even Cubans, you must be licensed by the government, in fact, a friend of Leyder's (a Cuban girl) came to stay with her mother in Havana and brought her son (who would be her mother's grandson, duh)- well apparently she could not stay in her own mother's house with her own son without being registered, so when the government found out she was staying in her mother's house and her mother was not registered to have guests, she had to go to some government office in Havana, wait in line for 5 hours and get cleared for her and her son to stay with her mother in Havana- can you imagine! As a side note, I bet some Americans wish they had to go through that much trouble to spend QT (quality time) with their family, but that's neither here nor there... I'm lucky not to feel that way and I'm glad I don't have to register my dog in with George W. every time my dad is generous enough to offer Doggy Day Care free of charge.
So our group had a similar problem, the lovely freedom fighting Cuban gov saw that nineteen Americans were staying at Leyder's mom's house (which for me was hard to believe they actually looked at our customs forms enough to care- once we got through customs without bringing in any bugs or drugs, why did they care?- so most of us (myself and Brett not included, we got lucky)- had to spend a day waiting in line in a hot government office, registering exactly where we were staying so the government could later come and swoop almost every single penny for the people who were putting us up for about $10 per person per night)- we might as well all have been members of an Iraqi terrorist cell- it was just weird. From there- it got even more strict, I was just about to write the Cuban gov a letter and let them know not only where I was staying, who I was staying with but also the color of my bikini and the brand of soap I brought into the country so that they could be 100% positivo that none of their citizens got a free lunch (or a free bar of soap for that matter) out of me and there were many more intricacies about who was staying where, when, etc... but I won't bore you anymore with the details. You'd think that they would want to encourage tourism but I guess not.
I think I was just blown away by the way that the government controls absolutely every aspect of everyone's life and that the people there cannot afford a bar of soap. I guess since I have been to China, I thought I had experienced Commmunism, and while it was weird to learn about a lot of policies in China (how the government keeps track of how many children the urban Chinese can have, the lack of freedom of the press, etc...) by no means are China and Cuba even comparable on the level of government scrutiny over your day to day life. In China, if you had money (which at least some Chinese people do), you can go into a store and choose between 20 brands of shampoo and 100 brands of tea. In Cuba everyone really has to do something on the side to get by, and when you go into the stores there, there is not a whole lot you can buy (in other words, being in a Cuban grocery store was like being in 1/100,000th of my favorite store in China, Wu-Mart (the Chinese knock off version of Walmart where they played happy birthday on repeat, in English and then in Mandarin, all day long). When Leyder was little, his mother worked in a bakery, and she would steal bags of flour and sugar and after school Leyder would have to go sell them on the street so the family would have enough money to eat.
In Havana we came across a guy who asked us if we wanted to buy some Cuban cigars, we decided we did so he took us behind this gate and into his apartment (in most countries, I would not just go into some strangers house under any circumstances but in Cuba we felt so incredible safe, safer than I feel even in Palo Alto, because everyone is so damn afraid of the government, the last thing on earth they are going to do is stick a gun to your head, not that they would even waste precious money they need for soap on a gun but you get the point)- so he took us through his house, past his baby crib, after introducing us to his wife and family and into his bedroom where he pulled out a few boxes of Montecristo cigars which his father had stolen from the cigar factory where he worked. We bought them for $55 for 25 cigars, I think in the factory they were about $300 a box, and in the US who knows how much but for them but $50 on the black market was 4 times as much as they make in a month so that guy was probably considered lucky there.
Back to the GOV- Well one way the gov really showed us how happy they were that we were spending our money there (besides having a law that made it illegal to stamp American passports which was cool beans) was that every time we drove anywhere (we rented 4 cars) there were policemen on the side of the road who would step out into the highway (which if you think about it is smart in and of itself), point at one of our cars (and always a car with a white driver) and pull us over. Sometimes for laws we didn't know existed because they were different from our laws and sometimes just because we were white. LITERALLY. Which wasn't half bad considering sometimes it's nice to just experience that kind of blunt discrimination if you're never really treated like that at home. Sometimes they would pull us over and we would ask what we did wrong, and apparently there was no reason. Talk about PROBABLE CAUSE for search and seizure, now what I think they were really thinking was what idiot American is dumb enough to rent a car in a country where there is no car insurance and some Cuban is going to steal every emblem and light off the surface off your car to repair his 1950's still functioning vehicle- that happened to all of our cars, of course).
Oh, let's talk about Cuban car insurance, apparently, this is how it works (I learned this after the same in your face Curious George bowel movement bonanza lady asked if there was car insurance in Cuba)- so there is no "car insurance" in the typical American sense, you don't register your car and pay a fee, what happens is if you get into a car accident the passengers in the two vehicles just get out and start fist fighting. Interesting... A very primal and much more exciting way to deal with an accident, in some ways that would be cool in this country depending on who you hit. My dad just got into a bad car accident where he was hit by a starving Oakland artist. Good job dad, out of all the people in America to hit you, it couldn't be someone with a decent income, you had to get hit by some poor artist. I never saw the lady that hit him but I'm just guessing she wasn't as big or as strong as my father. If they had been in Cuba he could just gotten out of the car and socked her in the face which would have been a little more "just" (talk about justice) than the situation now, where she had a $2000 car insurance policy or something ridiculous like that and did about 100 times that in damages. Anyways....
There is something to be said about having personal choice, about growing up in a country where you get to decide what kind of job you want to have, where you can decide what you want to eat everyday and where it's really up to you whether you work overtime to make a few more bucks or go home at 5 and forgo the additional pay. Apparently in Cuba when you are young the gov tells you what you are going to do for a career, so when Leyder was younger they thought he was big and strong (this is just my guess) so they told him he would join the military, then when they saw him excel at sports they assigned him to be on the Cuban national basketball team.
When I got back into the US we landed in none other than my favorite place ever, NORTH CAROLINA- Charlotte to be exact and when I got off the plane I was just really WOWed by the food court choices in the airport, so much so that I bought a California Pizza Kitchen personal pizza, took four bites, then decided, nahhhh I'm more in the mood for some veggies with dip, had a few celery stick, then thought you know what, I'm fooling myself- Carolina Q is where it's at, so I headed over to the BBQ place and bought myself a pulled pork sandwich, had about half the sandwich and had Brett finish the other half. WHY did I do this and participate in this wasteful behavior? 2 REASONS- I'll be real here, (1) because I could ( I know it's that crap American attitude that I picked up from my fellow Americans that probably got us screwed at the airport in Cancun- more on that later); (2) because as incredible as the food in Cuba was the few times Leyder's mom cooked for us,,, mmmmm...- the rest of the time I had three choices, (1) chicken, (2) white rice, (3) white rice with five beans (whoever thought that you could go to Cuba and just eat a side of beans was pretty much wrong- I'm not sure why but every time we ordered beans we would only get between 5 or 10 of them) and occasionally there was also places with cheap lobster (which was great but not every place had that)- anyways- I can't complain because I had enough money to eat, didn't have to eat rations my entire life, and I do live in a place where I can choose what I want to eat everyday and even shower with soap that smells like chocolate- I'm a lucky girl.
The only other thing that made my dining experience in the NORTH CARO airport so pleasurable was the fact that for the first time all trip, I didn't have to worry about herpes. Ok, I'm exaggerating a bit, but remember how I was describing the woman on our trip who was super "OPEN" about her bodily functions, one day we were all having lunch (and mind you the entire trip we all shared bottles of water, food, forks, etc.. because when Leyder's mom would cook we didn't have enough plates and utensils so once someone was done eating, you just passed your plate and fork to the next person to use and considering soap was really lacking... you get the picture. So this woman, (ok, sorry to be so negative about her, she's a really cool woman, and I do like her a lot as a person- but it's just there were certain things about her I now wish I didn't know)- so we were all having lunch and sharing water and when suddenly she blurts out, "tomorrow we're all going to get herpes," and laughs.... to some people, that might be a "FUNNY joke," but once I saw the open herpes sore on her lip and the one she pointed out ON HER NOSE (yes, this woman had HERPES ON HER NOSE- I kid you not, I wouldn't joke about something like that), I didn't really feel like laughing. Then she explains that everyone probably has herpes but doesn't show it. Well listen here B%TCH, (normally I wouldn't use that kind of language, but what other word is strong enough to describe the feeling that went through my stomach when I realized that all 19 of us had been sharing water with a woman with a herpes not only on her lip, but also on her nose, who exposed us to it the whole time. Fine, maybe some people do have herpes but don't show it but on the chance I don't have herpes, I really DON'T want to get it- know what I mean??? In the States we can CHOOSE not to get diseases by being careful, just because we were in the middle of experiencing a culture with a lack of choice, doesn't mean I didn't still want to uphold some of my AMERICAN VALUES and simply CHOOSE not to get herpes. So buy your own water bottle and don't pass it around the table. Now I know why my mom doesn't feel comfortable sharing cups with acquaintances! MY GOD!
I do still feel a bit scarred from the lack of personal choice, for example, today, my co-workers just took me out to lunch to celebrate my engagement and to be quite frank when my friend Trevor asked me where I wanted to go for lunch, I really couldn't tell him. I mean, not that I was just being indecisive, I felt overwhelmed by the question and had to have him throw out suggestions for me (which even then felt odd). It was weird not having to decide between chicken and chicken (did I mention that I every time we ordered chicken there at this one restaurant on the beach it took 1-2 hours to bring out the chicken, I am 99.5% certain that they go in the back, break a chicken's neck and pluck it right there on the spot- it was that fresh and how else could it take them over 1 hour to bring 2 plates of chicken when there is only 2 people seated in the restaurant. Beats me!
Ok, I'll stop talking about freedom and briefly go into a few cool things we did- (1) went to a small mountain town called Vinales, which was so beautiful and quaint, went on a 8 mile hike there in flip flops (which was such a smart idea, considering I had tennis shoes in my suitcase and when it started raining and my feet kept slipping out of the flops, I had to go Last of the Mohican's style and hike barefoot through red dirt (hard to imagine me doing, I know, but whatever, when I wasn't stepping on hard rocks I was thinking to myself, this is not that bad, Daniel Day Lewis did this in Last of the Mohican's, it's one of my favorite movies, and maybe I don't look as graceful as he did, but I''m still pretty hardcore) and the hike was worth it, we went to a tobacco farm, watched a man roll an AMAZING cigar (I've never smoked ciggies but for some reason I just love Cuban cigars), had farm fresh coffee harvested right there, then hiked to a really cool cave and went swimming inside- INCREDIBLE!!!!!!!
WHICH REMINDS ME- ok, I promise in just a minute I'll stop talking crap about the people on my trip, because 99% of them were amazing 98% of the time, they were a great bunch to travel with, but to me, what I find almost as interesting while traveling as the places I go to- is the way that people act when they're traveling. So, Joey's sister Kiri is married to this guy Dru (Andrew or Dru, you pick what you want to call him- he prefers Andrew but I think Dru is cooler and after you hear this story you might also call him the name he least prefers to be called), and Kiri and Dru are real environmentalists, they are environmentally friendly, which is great, they probably have a compost pile (which is also great)- you get the picture. Ok, so I get being environmentally savvy, especially in the US, I get recycling, biking to work and bringing your own bags to the grocery store in the name of Mother Nature- what I don't get is why you would go to Cuba, pay $20 a night to stay in a room with air conditioning when it's about 90 degrees plus however much humidity outside and even hotter inside and then NOT TURN ON THE AIR CONDITIONING in your room in the name of Mother Nature.
And it gets even better, apparently "Dru" was complaining that they weren't having enough sex during the trip and so Kiri's response was "well, maybe if you turned on the air conditioning" because they were basically roasting like two little rotisserie chickens in their room with no air conditioning. And I will say that it didn't bother me that they were protesting against the air conditioning in their room in their house in Cuba, but what did bother me was when we were sitting backseat in our air conditioned car (most of the time we rode in their car) and when they brought their environmentally friendly practices into our car by not turning on the working air conditioning unit (we all paid for the rental cars)- that's when it started to get PERSONAL and I had to speak up. I'm sorry Dru, either turn on the air conditioning or I will barf in the car- it's up to you- but I'm just guessing that the products you will have to use to cover up the barf stench, won't be nearly as friendly to the earth as the preventative measure of turning on the air con like a normal human being.
Other cool things we did in Cuba- visit the Revolution Museum where we learned all about Cuban history, after every plaque where they explained what happened on each historical date, there was add on sentence where the curator of the museum reminded the visitors that the people and the workers in Cuba agreed with every Castro-implemented policy there. For example, "On November 1, 1961, Fidel Castro abolished private retail trade and all of the people and all of the workers in Cuba agreed with that decision." Hmmm, really? Sounds a little fishy to me... especially now that all that it seems anyone in the country wants is to have their own bar of ZEST FULLY CLEAN (remeber that commercial, Zest, fully clean, Zest fully clean, you're not fully clean until you're Zest fully clean!- I doubt that commercial runs on Cuban TV much- it would just remind the country of how communism doesn't really work.
I will say a few positive things about communism (1) education is free and accessible to everyone (even medical school), so much more so than it is the US); (2) Cuba really does support the arts- in fact, dancers in Cuba get paid more than anyone else, $70 a month, which is about four times that of what doctors make, so being a dancer is a really great profession there, and man do they have some good dancers; (3) medical care is free and accessible to everyone; (4) it is so safe because everyone is so scared of the government there is not a lot of crime and (5) although people are poor and many people have practically nothing, it's not nearly as poor of a country overall as many other places I've been to (for example, Haiti, rural parts of Tanzania, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Myanmar, etc...) but overall it really doesn't work. It's crazy to think about what they could do with the time and energy they put into tracking who is staying in what guest house- SERIOUSLY!
Ok, what else- animals and bugs, there were so many crabs in the middle of the highway it was a little bit weird- and Dru got his revenge from not allowing the rest of us air conditioning in the car when a tarancula the size of his HAND crawled out from the shower drain in the middle of his shower. CRAZY! And there were worms and other cool bugs on the floor in our room and the bathroom- but nothing too crazy. I must admit it was nice to wake up last night to pee in the middle of the night and not have to crush a few pillbugs on my way to the bathroom and to be able to use a toilet that didn't smell like a zoo because at home our toilet flushes 24 HOURS A DAY! Imagine that!
AND THE WEDDING- how can I forget! It was beautiful and casual and so freakin cool- and not nearly as planned the way weddings in the states are. For example, Brett's friend just got married, had a beautiful wedding in Berkeley where they had a game plan for the wedding day where every five minute increment was scheduled from 9am until 5. Joey and Leyder's wedding on the other hand was a little more impromptu. The day before the wedding, which they knew would take place on a beach, Joey sent out a group of us friends to pick a good location on the beach where we wouldn't have too many drunk Cubans with their bottles of Havana Club rum in their wedding pictures. We found a nice little bluff about ten feet above the sand and right before the wedding whoever was laying out there moved so the ceremony could take place. It was SO beautiful- I will send pictures soon, the ceremony was in English and Spanish.
Then the location for the reception, which had been booked months in advance, the day before Leyder's mom went to check on it and to pay and was told, sorry, they rented it out to someone else. If that happened here I bet the bride and groom would flip out but in Cuba it was no surprize so they got another location at the last minute, which was beautiful. An outdoor arena of sorts which looked like it was in the middle of the rainforest. Again, I'll have to send the pictures. There was tons of dancing, drinking and eating and a live salsa band (and Leyder performed also- he has a Rigaton/Salsa group in the US)- it was so much fun!
After the wedding- a bunch of us went out to a famous club in Havana called Casa de la Musica (where lots of famous Cuban bands perform)- in order to get there we needed taxis for about 15 but a UPS-esque truck pulled up and we all hopped in (no seats or nothing, all of us were just in the back part rolling around like a bunch of packages) and got a pretty cool ride. At the club we ran into a lot of prostitutes (actually the night before the wedding Brett went out for the bachelor party with Leyder and a few others, these three girls came up to Jesse and he thought they were hitting on him but it just turned out basically every single girl in there was a prostitute), we had the most delicious Cuban sandwiches (ham, cheesse and mustard- even though normally I'm not a ham fan, it was delicious and a nice change from the monotomy of chicken and rice), and then on the way home we got into a taxi which was one of those 1950s cars you see all over Cuba (part of Cuba's charm is really feeling like you are steeping back in time) and inevitably it broke down and everyone was ordered out of the car to push it down the freeway (classic moment). Although the cab driver told the girls we could stay in the car so Jesse and Brett got out and pushed the car- I think they felt pretty strong!
Those Cubans know how to fix cars- one of our cars broke down on the way to Vinales and someone was there almost immediately to fix it by taking out a battery while the car was still running and putting it in another running car, in the rain, a move that could electrucute anyone, but I guess they just know what they are doing! Again, crazy!
So back to the wedding night, when we got back from the club, I realized just how tasty those mojitos really were when I got sick and threw all of them up in the trash can in our worm infested bathroom. The best part was that at the house we were staying at, there was a parrot, who learned my name early on (we didn't have an alarm clock so every morning the girls upstairs would come knock on our door and say my name to wake us up and even if I wanted to sleep in I couldn't because the parrot was like an alarm clock you just can't turn off "Saarah, Saaarah, Saaarah." It was annoying in the mornings when I wanted to hit snooze for 30 minutes but imagine how I felt the night of the wedding, probably after about 5 too many mojitos, throwing up every twenty or so minutes, in our bathroom where the toilet wouldn't flush because it was "after hours" (it was like the toilet had a job, and was only 9-5), there were worms and pillbugs on the floor, mosquitos biting me and the G damn parrot all five hours of my misery "Saarah, Saaarah, Saaarah"- AHHHHHHHH
Oh yeah and not only did the house we were in have a parrot, they also had a lifesize Jesus monument which was nicer than the house itself, incased in glass in the front yard, literally in it's own house- so when I say "Jesus was watching over us every time we sat on the porch" and when I tell people the story of Brett's proposal and say that "Jesus was there," I'm NOT kidding! How cool is that!
Ok, I think I need to wrap things up here, there is so much more I could say, so many more anectdotes I could tell but probably some people are just sick of reading this email (and don't really want anymore details on our compadre's bodily functions) but nice enough to want to get to the end of it- so here is my final story. In a very serendipitous moment, the final night we were in Havana, the whole group drove into town to go to a dance performance (mind you we had to follow each other in a caravan of 4 cars the entire trip= never losing each other once until the last night, which was pretty amazing considering there were no cell phones, in fact I didn't see a place to buy a calling card or an internet store the ENTIRE trip- I'm sure I could have found those things in a few nice hotels in downtown Havana but to not even see a sign for the internet over the course of 10 days was bizzare). Anyways- SERENDIPITY- so the last night we were there, our car got seperated from the other three cars, and so we ended up realizing we were never going to meet up with everyone else, so four of us sat down at this really cool taberna where they brewed beer on site in this plaza in old Havana and in the middle of our beers, this woman came up to us and told us that she and a dance troop had a special dance performance ready, that they were suppose to perform but nobody showed up and she was wondering if we wanted to come. She said it was free, so we agreed to come after we finished our beers.
It turned out that the dance performance was prepared for the ambassador to Barbados but he was off in another provence with Raul Castro, and they didn't know if they were going to make it back in time, but they had been rehearsing this performance for so long they didn't want to not perform it. The whole time we were wondering if Raul was going to show up. So they took us up to this amazing rooftop of a beautiful building around the corner, and performed a private dance performance for us which was seriously the most amazing performance I've ever seen- it was like Cirque de Soleil but without the million dollar stage and just so much cooler (there were about 15 people there) and then afterwards we had drinks and snacks with the dance team and discussed the performing arts and politics and life in Cuba. It was such a special night and such an incredible way to round out our amazing trip.
Now for the scary part, on our way out of Cuba, (they don't stamp your passports going in or out of the country so the worst thing that could happen is that they stamp your passport twice going into Mexico and that's suspicious and can get you caught)- well all of our good luck not being the ones that had to wait in line in the gov office forever came to a RAGING hault when we asked the gov official in Cancun to please NOT stamp our passports, not only did they stamp them but they wrote "flight 7579 from CUBA" in our passports! The agent must have hated Americans (which isn't too surprizing considering 98% of Cancun is filled with our countrymen but anyways, just not nice buddy). We were a bit scared going through customs in North Carolina- but as was predicted, everyone on our plane was coming from Cancun and probably didn't speak a lick of Spanish (and probably didn't even know where Cuba was) and we didn't look suspicious and I was wearing my sparkly Cancun tank top which blended right in (the only difference between us and everyone else on the flight was everyone else had on some ugly CANCUN t-shirts and my tank top was super cute- so we breezed right through and they didn't even look in our passports.
THANKS to all of you who have read this entire thing- hope everyone is doing well.
Besos y Jabon,