This diary has been edited, names and places have been changed.
Day one, march first.
Friends came over the night before our departure to send us off with a proper goodbye.. finishing packing orders and ordering in vegan pizza. I always balk at the price of two pizza pies, but food has a weird way of bringing people together, moaning over the same flavors and slapping each others’ hands away as you reach for the same slice. It’s a oneness and togetherness. I’m seeing you, listening to you, hearing the same things as you, and now sharing the same tastes on my tongue. Senses merging into one and a unity emerges. So I splurge on vegan pizza with fake pepperoni that remind me of the sliced meatballs I used to get on pies back home in Vegas.
Here we all were, brought together by two cardboard boxes and their content. Around one in the morning I got too tired, and begged to go to bed, but they all kept chatting. I gave up, didn’t say goodnight to anyone, and went to the back room to sleep.
An alarm at four in the morning jolted me from a stressed state of slumber. Sleeping while also in a present state of mind, worrying that I might miss my alarm. My four alarms, set for 4:12, 4:35, 4:44, and 5:12. But I still wake up ten times before any of them get the chance to go off.
The morning was a blur, a complete and utter state of unease, like tension hanging in the air between enemies or lovers. Would we make it to the airport? Of course we would, but really would we? Would we make it through customs, probably, but really would we?
The answer to the question hung in the air, a conversation between my bank account and customer service at JetBlue airlines. We needed return flights to get visas, and need visas to get into Cuba.
The answer was yes, and with time to get a smoothie and bottle of water. Staring at the back of someone’s head, watching Ferris Bueller’s day off, which got me thinking about naming my child Ferris one day. Just after Sloane gets out of school, the ocean peeled away to lush lands. Cuba was close, ten minutes til touchdown. I looked out at green fields with palm trees poking out the center randomly, or one house standing alone with a pool in the backyard, encircled by thick greenery and palm trees.
We touched down, no applause surprisingly, but my heart was aching with a sort of nostalgic sadness. Cuba could rapidly change because of the relations with the US. This place could be gentrified like the Bahamas or Jamaica in a few years. Turned into tourist traps of hamburgers, menus in english, and fees to see murals on walls. I felt it happening to me and slipping away all at the same time.
The journey out of the airplane and to our taxi was just as frazzled as the journey to the plane. I was nervous, and could barely say hola without messing up. Customs was a mess, we went in three different lines not knowing where to go. My word processor was the flagged item, needing to be accounted for. Then I saw my name on a sign and my first instinct was to remember what I read on some travel blog, that you need 30 CUC for the car ride, so you better get it before you get in the taxi. I scanned for a place to exchange the dollars I had exchanged to euros into cuban convertibles.
The boy manning the sign came and found me, grabbed me by the shoulders, and flashed a disarming smile. “First of all, hi,” he said extending his hand for me to shake. “Nice to meet you,” seems like I forgot all about pleasantries in a hustle to get out of the airport.
We made it to the taxi. Windows rolled down, the scene unfolded. Vintage Fords of all different colors, rainbow colored decrepit buildings, school children walking home arm in arm with churros and high white socks.
Outside of our home for the month, our host stood ready to welcome us in. We had to step over puddles of water seeping from underneath the entrance door and out into the street. A barefoot man was sweeping the water away, and politely stepped aside for us to get up the slippery marble steps. I shrugged it off and said “es lo miso en nueva york.”
We were let into the apartment. First room with walls of neon green, the bedroom bright blue, and the bathroom white and peach tiles. Our host explained that we have to lock the door twice, and padlock it. When we go to bed, when we leave the house. He handed me a fat key chain, keys for everything. The very front door, three keys for the door to our apartment, a door to the outside patio, and two more that I don’t know the function of. When we went out later that evening I fastened the key to my belt loop and listened to it jingle with every step that I took.
Our host, David, counted out the colored Euros I gave him, and offered to take us into town to exchange the rest of our money at the bank. But first, we had to go meet his wife.
It felt like a long walk because everything was so stimulating, when in reality it was maybe three blocks away. We got to the street, turned the corner past a garden with tall succulents and saw Laurita and her mother out on the balcony. They both waved down at us, David turned to us smiling and said “My wife is the best person.”
Laurita came down, and immediately greeted us with hugs. She tried to speak to me in English, but realized that my spanish was a bit better then her english, so instead she spoke very slowly which I really appreciated. I was able to understand about half of what she said, and she animated her words with her hands to help me understand. For not being able to speak much, we spent most of the walk talking and laughing. She held me and Cybelle’s hands when we crossed busy streets, telling us that she is our mom for as long as we are in Cuba.
The entire walk was so stimulating, colorful buildings selling fruit or juice, fruit carts, hand painted signs, colorful cars, but so much of my attention was focused on trying to speak and understand Spanish.
We got to the bank, and I went inside with David. The bank has a guard out front, only letting in one person at a time. I exchanged euros for CUC, and then exchanged 60 CUC for cuban pesos. There are about 27 pesos in one CUC.
The two money system basically separates the locals from the tourists. CUC is tourist money. It’s obvious from what you can buy with each and the price. CUC gets you taxi rides for 15, and pesos gets you fruits. 1 peso for a banana.
We walked around Habana Vieja with Laurita and David. They offered to treat us to some hamburguesas, but we said we preferred fruit. They bought us a pineapple and six tomatoes. We went from fruit cart to fruit cart to hole in the wall. Me and Cyb ended up with tomatoes, pineapple, cucumber, bananas, and a large loaf of bread. All for under 30 pesos, around 1 US dollar.
We went back to Laurita’s casa. She wanted to give us some coffee grinds and sugar. We went out on her balcony to decompress. I had been making a lot of small talk which really drained my psyche. Laurita took our piña and cut it up into perfect circles. Then she brought us coffee with sugar. I drank it slowly looking out at the buildings and boys playing football in the street below. On a balcony one floor down and to the right, a woman was silently smoking a cigarette, highlighted by the sun. Laurita cut our bread, and sliced tomatoes and put salt on them. I ate bread with tomatoes and salt and it was so flavorful because of the lack of flavor. Everything was overly stimulating, and I felt as though I must have been on some sort of drug. The coffee was strong for sure, but I found myself looking at a fluttering towel in the breeze for ten minutes. We sat and ate and were grateful and being in the moment.
We hugged and kissed our cuban mom after she left us at our house (gave us spaghetti too). We showered and avoided unpacking by taking the streets again. Walking to the malecón.
My body clock woke me up at 8 am. the apartment we are staying in has absolutely no windows, but lots of neon lights. You could sink into bed forever if it wasn’t such a springy mattress. I got Cyb up at 8:30, and we decided to set out to Francescas.
Francesca is just past the capital building, currently under construction. On the walk I wonder about what its like to travel in a touristy way, something I am not accustomed too. Taking taxis and eating at americanized restaurants and paying too much for everything. Speaking only in slow english and saying hola with an h. But those people want to visit museums and take tours and ride on double-decker tour buses. Maybe they end up learning really interesting things about the city that I’ll never know. I’m over here trying to learn what its like to live like a cuban, something I will truly never know, while they are here to learn about Cuba. What makes a country? It’s past or its people? What makes you understand Cuba? Knowledge of dates and historic places, or where to buy the best fresh-baked bread.
So, we went to Francescas.
Francesca’s is a half indoor half outdoor coffee shop. the inside is bright pink with white decorative trim and different breads on shelves on the walls. We grabbed an outside seat and two cafes and two jugo de papaya.
The papaya juice was thick and sugary, and barely climbed up the straw. The coffee was strong, dark, and sweet. There is sugar in everything.
We went to see out mom. Out in the street, two men asked where we were going, we said up to see Laurita. One pulled out keys and opened the front door, letting us up into the building. We climbed the five flights of stairs to get to Laurita’s. She opened the door and was surprised to see us here right on time. We sat down in her little house, the TV on, her mom drying her hair from the other room, and door to the balcony open, clothes fluttering in the breeze and drying in the sun. She set a plate, a cup, and silverware in front of each of us. She brought out plain white rice and soupy black beans. I ate slowly and savored the flavor of an unseasoned meal. It might sound strange, but because things aren’t as seasoned here, you appreciate the flavors more. I ate it with tomato and salt, and said thank you many many times. When we were done eating, she blended us up papaya banana smoothies. Again in the smoothies went spoonfuls of sugar. She went and gave a glass to her husband too, who complained that the smoothie was not sweet enough. She said that we were american and didn’t like a lot of sugar in things, before adding two more heaping spoonfuls of sugar to his smoothie.
We headed back to the Captiolio, and passed right by an open air boxing gym and walked in. The woman there said it was a dollar to view, but we said we wanted to learn how to fight. We were to meet there the next morning at 9.
We walked back to the city, meandering and seeing an old woman watering her plants in the windowsill, men smoking cigars from the window, fruit vendors offering up guava and apple-bananas. The colors here are insane.
With everything on our to do list checked off (lunch with mom, sign up for boxing) we had time to go to the beach. We went to the center of town and hailed a taxi.
The taxi was actually just someone’s shitty car. About a block into our trip at a red light, the engine cut off. He struggled, twisting the key in the ignition and begin the car to restart.
We never wear our seatbelt in taxis, it seems to silly. The cars are all old and there are no airbags anyway. A crash would mean death and it wouldn’t be so bad to die in an old car on the way to a beach in Cuba.
I hung out of the window slightly, watching al of the palm trees and greenery zoom by. We went in a tunnel that was under the ocean. Cybelle and I kept switching the sunglasses, one had orange lenses and the other had pink. Each created a different sort of nostalgic reality that soon became normal to your eyes, so when you switched back or took them off it felt like a whole new world again.
The car dropped us off behind a run-down yellow and blue hotel. It reminded me of the song Hotel California. It looked like once you entered you would never leave. I could imagine how brochures would make this place look luxe, but in person the windows are all eerily open with deteriorating curtains fluttering in the breeze. People look out the window with a sort of sadness, smoking cigars or just staring. In front of the hotel is a path to the beach, and guests get a wristband that grants them all-inclusive benefits, i.e. umbrellas, lounge chairs, and mojitos. We didn’t have wristbands so we had to cough up a few CUC. We got mojitos in return, the bartender took great care layering the flavors in tiny plastic cups. Two spoons of sugar, squeeze of lime, rum, soda water, and mint leaves on the top. Two for a dollar. Which is pricy here.
We took them down to the ocean and sat in the sand sipping our mojitos. We swam in the ocean, the water was so calm that day, hardly a cloud in the sky or a gust of wind coming from any direction. I floated peacefully on my back, feeling the surface of the water and then blending with it. We sat by a concrete slab on the sand, the part of the beach past the inclusive part with tourists and lounge chairs. We looked rather rustic in comparison, stretching out with a bath towel and no protection from the sun.
Once we got home I flipped through the tv, turning it on is a struggle. It takes a few clicks, and then it hums and buzzes on. First a blue screen, then one welcoming you to the TV. Some channels are a fuzzy blur of black a white crackling static, and some are english channels with spanish captions. I found a channel that was showing clips of Lolita, intermixed with somebody in front of a green screen directing the motifs and themes of the movie. So it didn’t show all of the clips in sequential order, more the times that you felt the older character was coming onto Lolita and all the other characters are completely oblivious to his widening eyes and tremor in his voice.
Our alarm woke us up and we hustled to get ready as to not miss our boxing session. The streets confuse me, and Cybelle and I operate very differently when it comes to directions. I think methodically, and need to know street names and left and right an think of it in a formulaic way. Cybelle knows the general direction and will meander until she sees a familiar cracked wall or windowsill of flowers.
We asked around where el gymnasia de Rafael was, and a man led us down the street and pointed at the sign. Everyone in Cuba is eager to offer up directions. The moment we start to look lost or unsure, someone will approach and offer their assistance, and half of the time walk us their themselves. In exchange we tell them we are from Nueva York- you should see their eyes light up. New York is the center of the world and people here dream of going there one day.
We approached San Rafael again and sat in the little lobby before the gymnasia. The gym is in open air, a giant ring in the center and flimsy bleachers. The ropes encircling the boxing area are weathered, and the entire gym is in red and blue. We sat in the lobby for a few minutes, before the woman working the front told us to go walk around for a bit, and that it was going to be a while.
We went down the street to cafe Dandy and sat and drank coffees and ate bananas at the table in the back. El Dandy is a touristy spot for sure, but too cozy for me to turn my nose up at. The chairs are all different wire formations, and there are spanish books on various shelves. There is also a record player in the back, but the speakers in the cafe play Amy Winehouse. There are only five tables to sit at, if you include the coffee table in the back. I get my cafe american and sprinkle the chocolate-sugar-salt mixture in that they keep in the blue ceramic bowl. There are no vegan options, but we make it work with toast and olives and peppers. This day we just sat and ate peso bananas and drank some coffee. We wandered back to the gym around 10:30.
In the street our coach recognized us, he was sitting and talking to some people on the side of the road. He took us down to the Malecón. The water was bright and blue and since the sun had risen higher in the sky it was beating down harder on us.
He faced us with a beaming smile and a striped red and blue track suit. He began to teach us the paces and stances for boxing. Stand, fierce eyes, one hand in front of you in a strong fist and the other by your cheek, pointing your head forward. Your body is twisted to the side to protect from punches and head always turned towards you opponent. He taught us the paces, adelante, atrás, derecha, ‘quierda. The entire lesson was in spanish, so we had to be focusing harder to hear the words he was saying. At one point I was quickly moving between steps and he told me to pause, and to not eat the fruit all at once. We learned to pivot, and then he told us to go for a twenty minute run.
We went back to the gym to sit and watch the boys train. We were sweaty and panting and in our workout clothes. We climbed up the bleachers and sat and watched the boxers pace and jab at each other. The youngest boy, maybe 9 or 10, was fighting fiercely, quickly ducking and jabbing.
Every so often a tourist would come in and take a selfie with a sweaty boxer or snap photos of them training. Cybelle and I didn’t want to linger too much, so we left the gym and said goodbye to our trainer and some of the boxers who had broken focus long enough to say hi to us.
A few blocks away, was an open bar with only Cubans hanging out. Outside of the windowless, doorless building was a woman peddling homemade tamales for 5 pesos. I only had three pesos on me, so we walked inside and approached the men selling beer instead. The beer was on tap, and homemade, and cold. We gave him one CUC for two beers. A man standing beside the bar with tattered jeans and a popular American brand T-shirt gave me the extra money I needed for tamales.
We sat at a table with an abuelita. Her accent was extremely hard for me to understand, mostly because she couldn’t make any consonant or vowel sounds that require teeth. I asked her what her favorite food is and she held up her drink and smiled and replied “cerveza!” She told us she is drinking by 10 in the morning. We laughed, gathered our tamales in the corn husks, and left.
We got home and showered and threw on swimsuits and went down to the plaza to catch a bus to the beach. I went to a fruit market a couple blocks from home and got a giant papaya. Cybelle and I jokingly wrapped it up in a scarf like a little baby around my torso.
We went to the bus waiting in the park and the bus driver found it hilarious, telling me my baby was so beautiful. We got to the beach, and brought the papaya to the bartender. He sliced it open and gave us half a lime to squeeze over it. We went down to the beach and ate the papayas clean with a spoon and drank our mojitos. This day the waves were picking up a little bit, and were capping.
When it was time to leave, we waited outside the hotel for about an hour, before giving up and trying to hail a cab. We only had 4 CUC in total, and it usually takes 3 CUC per person to take a shared taxi home. Fortunately, another tourist was also losing patience and offered to split a car with us. A car rode by and rolled down the window, and I spoke to him in spanish. The tourist looked back at me, and asked what he just said. He was traveling completely opposite of us, with a cuban straw hat on and maps in his phone, and staying at an all-inclusive resort. He told us that every year for his birthday he tries to go somewhere he hasn’t been before, which brought him to Cuba.
He ended up paying for the entire ride, probably as a token of his gratitude that I spoke barely enough spanish to hail down a taxi cab. We exited the car in front of our casa renta and got food for soup. Cabbage, onion, carrot, garlic, tomatoes for the broth. I threw it all in a pot and let it cook for a long time.
I had to get the stove to light, and we were out of matches. I wandered upstairs and went to the first apartment I heard music blaring out of. The Cubans party with their entire families, there’s always loud music drifting from our small patio into the house. They bump it loud, and you can hear them laughing and small kids singing the words at the top of their lungs. I knocked on a door where this was happening, and a guy maybe a few years older than me answered. I motioned that I needed a lighter, and he brought me a box of matches.
A few minutes later he came to our apartment with even more matches, I was struggling to spark them, they are plastic stems instead of wood and a crumbly blue mixture on the top instead of the red on US matches. Trying to strike it quickly makes all of the light blue powder flake off, and the match is useless. He lit the stove for us, and we set the soup to cook, and went up to the roof to practice our boxing.
We started pouring glasses of rum and coke. We danced around, painted our nails red.
We sat at our little table with rum and cokes and I pulled out my notebook and taught Cybelle about logarithms and differential equations. She had told me that her teachers told her she was going to fail their math class, but she was able to learn hard calculus in under twenty minutes.
After an hour teaching math, and singing and playing the guitar, we left. We were running in the streets holding hands and laughing into the night. I was worried I was going to lose Cyb. I kept screaming, don’t let go of my hand! Don’t let go!
We caught a cab and told him to take us to one of the addresses I had scrolled on my arm. We walked in and it was dingy and dark, and it was 3 CUC to get in.
So we left and tried to find the street. We saw a group of boys sitting outside of a door stoop smoking and approached them and asked if they knew where to go, they ushered us inside instead.
They took us to a foosball table in the back. Cybelle and I played against each other, and after we were done he took me to the back and handed me a guitar and my fingers started to play a little bit of Blackbird and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.
They kept us moving around the gallery, showing us pieces and telling us to look into certain eye glasses that warped the world. Another boy came into the room, a tall dark-skinned elegant dancer. He didn’t walk places, he danced to them. You cold tell that he was the odd one of his friend group, the other boys tended to make fun of him for being in his own little world twirling about. But he had such a presence a grace about him.
He showed me his tattoos and I showed him mine, looking up at the stars and talking only in spanish. I was impressed by how far my spanish was taking me that night. I understood almost everything and was able to make jokes and hold a conversation.
We sat around the dominos table and split two glasses of rum and coke between about six of us, constantly refilling and circling. Three other boys had joined us at this point, a nerdy boy named who might have been my favorite of the group. He was mousy and quiet and spoke pretty good english. He told me he taught himself from books, because it isn’t taught in schools. He was soft-spoken and corrected me on my spanish grammar a few times to help me out. Then sitting across from me was a kid with wild hair and a gap tooth.
The dancer had gone in the other room, and was dancing by himself and lying on the ground with his hands in the air. I left Cybelle to fend for herself in the middle of our dominos game and went and lied on the floor with him. He told me to feel the energy between my palms, so I put my hands straight up in the air and felt my palms vibrating and really felt the energy between them.
I went back to the dominos table and settled into the scene. It looked like something from that seventies show, or another sitcom. Two foreign girls laughing with quite the cast of characters. We argued and laughed and made fun of each other. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in a while.
I’m not sure how, but we went into the other room and started to box. I thought I was doing good with my stance, but then again I was drunk.
For whatever reason we left quickly after that and went home, I was crying in the streets as it started to rain. We took two taxis and finally made it back. I don’t remember falling asleep, but then woke up the next morning in just high-waisted white Hanes underwear in my bed.
I haven’t written in a few days, but the days have been a lull or a blur or however it goes when you have been in one place long enough to stop noticing the initial things that made your eyes sparkle. We are tucking into a routine. Boxing, Dandy, going to the beach. I’m sure we did all of these things in the days that I missed writing about so perhaps you didn’t miss much.
We did find a new cafe, one partly down the way from our street. Maybe a kilometer. It is called Cafe Archangel, and it’s one of my favorite secret spots in Havana. I’m typing on it right now. It is also more of a tourist place, and doesn’t feel much like Cuba while you were inside. You could blindfold a friend, get them drunk, put them on a plane, and plop them down at Archangel and they might guess they were in Paris or Spain, but not Cuba.
There is a patio in the back where light comes pouring through and you are surrounded by lots of plants. The waitresses won’t sit you here unless you ask for el mesa en el patio, and even then they are weary. It’s situated right beside the kitchen, which is open. So as you sit and chat or write or read away, you can hear the soft clang of pots and pans and the drowned out conversation from the first room in the cafe.
Hitomi arrived 5 pm. I was feeling sad about my birthday. We had a rough morning, it had been windy, very windy in Havana for a few hot days and felt like a hurricane was approaching. When she came I was feeling rather peculiar, the dawn of my 21st birthday approaching that night.
I went up to the roof with rum and coke in a glass and went down with the sun. I drank and sang to myself, my hair in a scarf, looking through orange lenses at a decrepit city I never thought I would find myself in. I felt lost, I felt anxious, I felt happy.
Hitomi arrived and we went out into the city, and did a lot but not much. We discovered that churros were vegan and ate about 8. We popped into the too-popular cafe Floridita where Hemingway used to write. It was way too expensive, way too packed, way too… not what it probably once was. Hemingway would have been disgusted. As he was turning over in his grave, we scanned the room for the least suspecting subjects. We plopped down besides three girls studying from Boston. They were halfway through with their blended ice drinks and slicing through steaks when we joined them. We made small talk about cities, places, things. I half listened to the band playing and half listened to the conversation.
For my birthday, we decided to go right to Soroa. We had limited funds and I didn’t want to say anything but we were completely out of CUC and now only had peso libre.
We took about 80 dollars all together. That was supposed to account for around 3 meals for three people, a night’s stay, and an hour taxi there and back. I was nervous if we could pull it off and knew it was going to take some haggling.
Before we started off on our journey out of Havana, we stopped to get papaya, bananas, and loaves of bread. We put them in bags and ate the bread on the spot, and started the tricky task of hailing a taxi for 30 CUC to drive around 80 kilometers.
We tried on a side street, and everyone was telling us, sesenta, sesenta. No possible way. As we took steps away it went down to cincuenta, but still, no money left to stay or get back. We finally found a taxi that we talked down to 35, and then talked us back up to 40. It didn’t much matter though, it was a gorgeous old blue car, the type that would cost maybe 20 dollars to take just around the city of Havana.
I stared out the window listening to the salsa music for an hour, watching the trees blur by. I saw a huge truck of bananas, lots of horses, and little shacks, and not much else.
When we got to Soroa there was a strip of houses and markets as we climbed the hill. The car dropped us off in the parking lot, the driver got out and got a drink. I asked for a knife and two espressos and started cutting up the papaya for us to all eat. I took my coffee with a lot of sugar to help perk me up, and ate the papaya slowly to help fill my stomach.
We started to enter the path to the waterfall, and were told it was 3 CUC per person, so then we wrapped around the other way and convinced the man at the back entrance that the entry for us was free. He obliged and let us through. Up a path and down and opened up to this grotto with a waterfall.
We each took a turn placing our head and bodies under the waterfalls and feeling the water cascade down our heads and backs. We went down to a lower rock, and sat in a formation that felt like we were sirens. I plunged myself without warning into the water where there is silence. I waded a bit away towards the rock and saw an opening. I entered, and felt like I was going through a cave. I drifted through and saw light pouring out the other side. I realized the cave was a tunnel, and swam from one end to the other.
On the hike back I noticed a shrouded grotto out of the left of my vision. I diverted, inching down loose rock and dirt and more or less sliding down to the space.
I had the funny idea to get baptized right then. I had never been before, not in a church by the hand of a priest when I was a baby, so why not now, in Cuba, on my 21st birthday, by my own will in this small, isolated oasis.
I stripped off my shirt and denim shorts and dunked under the water for a few suffocating, silent moments.
I emerged not feeling different, but not really feeling the same.