The first trip

December 1999 - January 2000

What was Cuba like?

You might be surprised how many people asked me that question recently. So, do you want the short answer or the long one? The short answer should only take me about a week to write…

It's been almost a month since I returned to the United States from Cuba. I find myself wondering if I might have waited too long before recording my thoughts about my experiences there. Had I started sooner, no doubt my reflections would benefit from being fresh in my mind. On the other hand, as I spend more time thinking about my month in that confusing country, I find that more pieces of that great Cuba puzzle begin to fall into place. You know what? It doesn't really matter. I'll never see the puzzle's final image - just a few extraordinary, clear segments.

So before my tan peels away completely and the freckles on my scalp fade, please allow me to introduce you to my 12 great traveling companions and our exploits in a very different country.

Day 1

Miami: The Translation Transition

Our first day of traveling began as almost all my trips seem to -- without a wink of sleep the night before. I don't know what it is, but I always seem to wait until the last night to pack and do all those little, last minute things. Well, you know what they say: Procrastination is the key that unlocks today's doors tomorrow.

I was banking on getting enough sleep on the full day of airplane rides and layovers we had ahead of us. No such luck. For better or worse, I always found myself sandwiched between companions with far greater energy reserves. Even after staying up for over 24 hours, I managed to get only about two hours of sleep all day.

One of those little bundles of endless energy I was sitting next to was Robin. I'd originally met her and her boyfriend Scott on a similar class trip to Mexico in 1997. Scott couldn't make it on this trip to Cuba, but right from the beginning I was glad that Robin did. To supplement our meager airlines dinners she passed out all sorts of goodies that wouldn't have made it past Cuban customs: Tomatoes, cheese, oranges, crackers, salmon... the list goes on. Those of us lucky enough to sit next to her arrived in Miami well fed. Robin also said the funniest thing I'd heard that day. After talking to a cute-as-a-button, four-year-old girl that was sitting in front about Christmas and Santa Claus, she told her: "We're going to a communist country where they don't celebrate Christmas!" Too bad the humor was lost on her...

Miami International is a great airport to go through if you're planning a trip to Latin America. It had been nine months since I was in South America and for the first time in three years or so, I had no Spanish class to keep me current in my language abilities. I was more than a little rusty. In the airport I had a chance to warm back up again, though. Many of the announcements over the intercom were repeated in Spanish and everyone from the security guards to the people working behind the ticket counter were bilingual. In fact, it seemed as though everyone we came across in Miami (cab drivers, the hotel staff, the pizza delivery guy, etc.) could just as easily slip into Spanish as talk to you in English. It was nice to hear it spoken a bit before the looming task of trying to decipher that crazy Cuban accent.

So, in Miami we faced an overnight layover. Luckily we'd prepared for that and already had hotel reservations. (We left the professor at the airport with Nova because the bag she'd checked hadn't come through -- a normal enough occurrence for a group of 13, I guess, but if Rick'd had his way, it wouldn't have happened at all. One of the requirements of this (and the previous) trip was that you could only bring a carry-on bag. Believe me, you can take everything you need in a small backpack and you'll thank yourself for not bringing all that extra stuff when you have travel from town to town!) Anyway, the rest of the group caught a courtesy bus to our hotel and a short while later all 13 of us were gathered in two rooms.

Although most of us were tired from traveling all day, we didn't get much sleep that night. A small party ensued where everyone began to get to know each other. Most of the action was centered in our room -- perhaps because we had a bathtub bigger than a Jacuzzi! (No joke.) I mean, this thing was enormous. As soon as our backpacks were on the floor, someone started to fill it up with hot water. About an hour later, with the bathroom door closed (and the tub only half-full), a full-fledged steam room had developed. Someone remarked after going to the bathroom: "You guys should add some cold water -- I swear it's going to start raining in there soon!"

The pizza we'd ordered at 11pm or so finally arrived around 3am. It was terrible, but those of us that were hungry ate it anyway. Things finally started to settle down around 4am and I got to sleep just before 5am. Since I was planning on getting up at 7, I would probably have opted to just stay up, but the previous lack of sleep removed that option altogether. I plopped a couple couch cushions on the floor, set my alarm clock, and slept hard.

Day 2

Culture Shock

Our morning in Florida started bright, early, and disturbing. One of the group's members revealed that she'd lost all her money somewhere on the way to Miami. Unable to get any more from home, our instructor was put in the awkward position of decided the fate of her trip - the verdict? If she could come up with $700, she could go. Most everyone that could afford it chipped in and before long she was relieved to find that she'd still be going with us.

After that was sorted out, many of us caught a cab to Wal-Mart for a few, last minute items. Favorite purchases were batteries, snorkeling gear, and Teva-clones. Afterwards Adrian and I made sure we had enough time to play Frisbee in the hotel's pool - quite a welcome change from December in Alaska.

We left for the airport a good four hours before our plane was scheduled to depart - and it was a good thing we did! We walked the length of Miami International almost 3 times before finding Marazul's counter. (At least I was spared some of the searching because I had make a quick stop at the Northwest counter to change my return tickets.) The Marazul "counter" was finally located at the far end of the airport. Set up on the lower level next to the baggage claim area was a single, folding table and three guys waiting for us. We sorted through our papers, gave them our passports, and after paying $50, we finally got our visas and boarding passes.

Dinero Dilema

I had about $900 in my wallet when I got to the airport, and that was a full $300 more than the recommended minimum for the trip. Still, we'd heard from more than one source that Cuba was more going to be more expensive than many of the travel guides let on. At the last minute I thought it would be safer to withdraw another $300 from my credit card "just in case." You see, in Cuba it's nigh-impossible for Americans to get more money. Because of the U.S. imposed embargo, no banks are allowed to conduct any business there. There are no ATMs, and credit cards from U.S. banks wouldn't work if there were. We were told that only traveler's checks drawn on non-U.S. banks would be cashed. There isn't even a U.S. embassy in Cuba for emergency situations! Most of us carried all our money with us throughout the whole trip - in cash!

Unfortunately, as it seemed with all our dealings with Marazul, it couldn't be that easy. While I was off in search of an ATM to get a last little bit of money they told Rick that there were three seats left on the plane that was leaving for Havana in a few minutes. Just to be sure, they suggested that some of us take those seats because the next flight, our scheduled flight, was going to be full. After I returned, Rick told me that I would have been on that flight with Tia and Amber because I was a teaching assistant. When he couldn't find me, he selected Jason on the criteria that he was the biggest guy in our group.

It turned out that Jason, Tia, and Amber were the lucky ones. We proceeded to the waiting area and sat around for three hours waiting for our plane to board. Most of us were quite tired from the lack of sleep the night before and to stay awake Rick and I taught a few people how to play "shithead" - a great card game we've almost played to death on these Spanish trips. When the announcement finally came to board the plane, everyone jumped up and rushed for the gate. Like most airports in Latin American countries I've been to, there would be no orderly procession.

"Shithead. There are no winners -- just one shithead!" Rick taught us how to play this card game two years ago in Mexico. A few of us picked it up and played it quite a bit on that trip. Last year in Ecuador it was elevated to a phenomenon -- people carried decks of cards around with them so we could play in restaurants while waiting for our food to arrive and then Joe and I delighted in teaching "Cabeza de Mierda" to the crew of our boat in the Galápagos. Cuba continued the tradition with the best group of shitheads yet assembled. And to think in all the thousands of hands I've played, every single one has been on one of these UAS trips...! Want to see what all the hype is about? Here's some rules I found on the Internet..

I managed to shoulder my way into the last ¼ of the crowd with Nova close to my side. After I'd cleared the ticket taker, I was set upon by a baggage handler that wanted my backpack. I tried to explain (in Spanish, of course) that it had already been cleared as a carry-on and that I'd prefer to keep it with me. Well, I didn't get my point across because he just told me not to worry, nothing would be stolen, and I'd get it back at the Havana airport. Whatever - but I took a moment to dig out my camera, Discman, and passport just in case.

Marazul wouldn't let us go without one more shot, though. Long after we'd all gathered in our seats at the back of the plane, Rick finally came ambling down the aisle. I was relieved to see him, too. Back at the Marazul counter the ticketing agent had to call the airlines counter to find out exactly how many seats were on the plane. After confirming that they did, indeed have 180 seats (as opposed to 179), they gave Rick his boarding pass - the last boarding pass. But here he was, coming up the aisle with a smile on his face. Everything was okay. Not! When he approached us he said in a voice loud enough to carry: "Guess who's not getting on the fucking plane?!" Uh-oh. I knew in that moment being a teaching assistant really was going to have certain responsibilities attached. Rick gave me the big packet of permission papers from our university and the Department of Treasury and also instructions on how to get to the Hotel Colina before he deplaned to wait for the next flight.

So we flew to Havana. Without Rick. Twelve students bound for an unknown country without their professor - the only person in the group fluent in Spanish. Great. In the group's defense, no one but me was really worried. We had many more experienced travelers and advanced Spanish speakers on this trip than on the previous ones to Mexico and Ecuador. And I admit that I was mostly just concerned about being detained at Cuban customs or immigration and having to spend hours trying to explain what we were doing there by ourselves..

The good news was that after almost 36 hours of travel, we were finally on the last 45-minute jaunt. It seemed quite strange to us that a country so isolated from the U.S. could be so close…

An interesting thing happened on the plane that I've never experienced. Spontaneous applause broke out three separate times from the majority of the passengers - once when the plane took off, once when the pilot announced we were starting our descent, and finally when we landed in Havana. At first I thought it was just because everyone was glad to finally be under way, but later thought it was because many people were delighted to be returning to their country. Bad conditions and better opportunities aside, it's got to be hard to leave the country of your birth.

After landing in Havana, we were ushered into a high-ceilinged, hanger-like room to await processing by immigration. Since we waited for the whole group to gather, most of us were the last to go through the gates. It was interesting. A couple of the students were quite excited to finally be in Cuba. Myself, I was less than enthusiastic. Perhaps it was because I'd been in enough foreign airports already and knew that it could be a long time until we were free to roam, but it was probably just because I was so tired. Also, I worried that my very important visa was tucked away in my confiscated backpack…

I set myself up to be the last one through the line so that I could help Nova with her Spanish if the need arose when she talked with the immigration inspector. Just before that could happen, though, I was forced to choose a different line by someone in an official olive-drab uniform who appeared anxious to go home. I pled my case to no avail and proceeded to an empty line.

My first, real experience in trying to tackle the Cuban accent wasn't a good one. The inspector behind the volume-reducing glass asked me for my passport - I understood at least that much. I passed it to him, and tried to explain that I didn't have my visa because it was in the bag that they took from me at the gate. He gave me an exasperated look, flipped through my passport, and said something that went right over my head.

Accent on the Confusion

Cuban Spanish isn't really all that different than in other Spanish-speaking countries - it's just that their accent has become very thick due to their geographaic (and probably cultural) isolation. I've learned the hard way that Argentineans can be difficult to understand because they swallow their "s" sounds. "Los hijos" becomes "Lo hijo." Some things you're forced to pick up on context alone. Cuban's don't swallow their "s" sounds. They hurl them to the ground to shatter into a million pieces! The words for "tobacco" and "Tabasco" are exactly the same. Another thing that threw me for a loop until I had it explained to me about a week into the trip: Some Cuban dialects switch "l" sounds for "r" sounds! "Por qué" becomes "Pol qué." It took some getting used to.

Anyway, lucky for me my visa was tucked into the pages of the passport. The inspector found it, verified everything was in order, handed my passport back, and waved me towards the exit door. Of course, he didn't tell me that he found it - I still thought I was in trouble. He glowered. Okay. I tried the doorknob. Locked. Is this guy screwing with me or what? I shrugged, indicating the door, and asked if everything was okay. Deadpan, without his eyes leaving mine, he pushed a button and buzzed me though. Jeez, was dealing with all Cuban officials going to be like this?

Being the last person through the immigration doors, the people at the x-ray machine were also anxious for me to hurry through. I placed my camera bag and hip-pack on the conveyer belt and started to ask what I should do with the pocketknife, keychain and other stuff in my pockets - I didn't see any baskets to put them in. Impatiently, a woman just waved me through. Fine. I stepped though the magic, white arch and produced a satisfying beep. Turning to the woman with an "I told you so" look on my face, I was just waved a dismissal. Right. No guns here.

Anyway, lucky for me my visa was tucked into the pages of the passport. The inspector found it, verified everything was in order, handed my passport back, and waved me towards the exit door. Of course, he didn't tell me that he found it - I still thought I was in trouble. He glowered. Okay. I tried the doorknob. Locked. Is this guy screwing with me or what? I shrugged, indicating the door, and asked if everything was okay. Deadpan, without his eyes leaving mine, he pushed a button and buzzed me though. Jeez, was dealing with all Cuban officials going to be like this?

Being the last person through the immigration doors, the people at the x-ray machine were also anxious for me to hurry through. I placed my camera bag and hip-pack on the conveyer belt and started to ask what I should do with the pocketknife, keychain and other stuff in my pockets - I didn't see any baskets to put them in. Impatiently, a woman just waved me through. Fine. I stepped though the magic, white arch and produced a satisfying beep. Turning to the woman with an "I told you so" look on my face, I was just waved a dismissal. Right. No guns here.

Looking around a chaotic airport, I spotted a few members of our Alaska group. After I made my way to them, I was happy to learn that they'd already found my bag and were just about ready to leave. We discussed whether or not there was any other customs we needed to go through - an x-ray machine just didn't seem hassle enough - but decided that all we needed to do was exit the airport. We shouldered our packs, gathered at the turnstiles at the exit and were promptly asked what our business was in Cuba by another official-type.

I forget just what he asked first (how long were we planning to stay…? Probably.), but I do know that it was in English. After a few scattered responses from us in kind, he looked a little confused. I answered the question in Spanish -- my mistake. As everyone else passed through the gate, he stopped me and asked "¿Habla español?" Uh-oh. For the next five minutes or so, while my traveling companions got to fend off aggressive cab drivers, I answered his questions in Spanish and English.

What's your name?
Arlo Midgett.
What's the purpose of your visit?
We're students.
You attend the University of Havana?
No, we're from Alaska.
But you're going to attend the University of Havana?
No, we're students of the University of Alaska. This is a class for that University.
What class?
It's called "The Language and Culture of Cuba"
Where will you be staying?
We have reservations at the Hotel Colina.
So you'll be staying there for how long?
Two days now and one day on January 14th.
How long are you staying in Cuba?
Until the 15th of January.
Where will you be staying for the rest of the time?
I don't know. We're planning on traveling.
Where? What provinces are you going to?
I don't know.
Do you have an itinerary?
No. We were planning on playing it by ear.
Are you the instructor?
[Ha!] No. Actually, he couldn't make it on this flight. He's the only one that isn't here in Cuba.
How many are you, in total?
Thirteen. There are nine of us here now, three came earlier, and they told us that our professor will make it on the next flight.
What's your professor's name?
Rick Bellagh.

Once he found out that I was only a teaching assistant he appeared to decide to let me go - but only after carefully recording everything I'd said. In his defense, though, he was quite nice during the whole interrogation. For the first time, I got the impression that the type of traveling that we were planning wasn't the normal way to go about things in Cuba…

Freedom gained, I stepped out into the crowd that was forced to wait outside the airport by the armed security. Before I could spot a familiar face, I heard my name called out and started toward one of three waiting cabs. Within seconds I was in the front seat and Nina, Gabriela, and I were speeding along towards our hotel.

Our cab driver was quite a character. Since I was sitting in the front seat and (I realize now) because I was male, he addressed most of his questions to me. I did my best to keep up - the accent was still overwhelming - but I also wanted to see as much of the night-darkened landscape as possible. Fortunately I was able to devote more of my attention to the outside world when it was discovered that Nina could speak German. From that point on, the cab driver chatted away with Nina only occasionally asking me to try to translate a word for her from Spanish to English. Weird ride. And apparently it took Nina days to stop translating her words into German after that!

The ride to the hotel took about 20 minutes, but there really wasn't all that much to see. It was dark, but once we entered the city proper, that didn't matter too much. There was more traffic that I'd expected. All the billboards and graffiti spelled out revolutionary slogans and propaganda. The driver pointed out landmarks like the university and hospital. All this flashed by in the night and are now only memories that hardly seem connected to the rest of my experiences in Havana.

We arrived at the hotel at almost the same time as the other two cabs. Gabriela, Nina and I split our metered fare of $8 U.S. (which turned out to be a good deal - the other two cabs paid $20 because the cars were newer, bigger, and air conditioned.) We counted heads and headed for the reception desk.

Being one of the teaching assistants, I took it upon myself to get us checked in. I approached the reception desk and told her about our room reservations. Thus began my second lesson in communist indifference.

The two women working at the hotel's counter were borderline rude. They seemed impatient with my broken Spanish, never smiled, and basically treated me as if I were forcing them to work on their coffee break. After a bit of confusion (example: Who was "Gil de Spain, and why was he supposed to be rooming with Jason?) we managed to get the group split up into rooms. I told everyone to do whatever they pleased for the night, but to be ready for class at 9am in the hotel's restaurant. Then I wrote a quick note to let Rick know our plans and which rooms we were in and left it at the desk.

I dropped off my pack in the room that I shared with Jason and went back downstairs to the outdoor café attached to the hotel. A few of us talked a little bit with Jason, Amber, and Tia and discovered that they'd had no problems with the earlier flight and getting to the hotel. Gabriela, Jennifer, Adrian, Nova and I took their recommendation and walked a couple blocks from the hotel to a little restaurant called El Monguito. Not knowing what kind of food or portions to expect, we ordered $6 plates of chicken and pork and ended up being quite satisfied. Throwing concerns of traveler's diarrhea out the window, I ate everything put in front of me - including the uncooked salad and ever-present, tasteless yucca.

Afterwards we returned to the hotel to see what the others were doing. While we were sitting around outside talking about Havana, the pleasant nighttime weather, and other trivial stuff, our illustrious professor pulled up to the curb in a cab. We assured him that everything was alright, bought him a drink and filled him in on our day's adventures. Rick told me how surprised he was when an immigration inspector stopped him at the airport's exit with the statement: "You must be Rick Bellagh." Apparently I made a favorable impression on the guy - he had only good things to say about our little conversation earlier..

After a bit, we let Rick get settled in. When he returned, a good portion of us decided to go for an evening stroll. We didn't cover much more than 8-10 blocks, but we had a great time feasting our eyes on all the new sights and sounds… We met hustlers who wanted to sell us cigars or take us to discos. We found ourselves at one point in what appeared to be the transvestite section of the city. And we accidentally wandered past a long line of people waiting patiently to get into a plaza - a police officer let us continue through as long as we didn't stop to buy anything.

Most of us returned exhausted to the hotel early that night to get some much needed sleep. Jason and I spent only a few minutes flipping through the channels on our TV (ESPN, Showtime, and CNN included!) before going to sleep around 11pm.

This was my introduction to Cuba.

Day 3

Wandering La Habana Vieja

What a difference a good night's sleep can make! Normally I never feel good about getting up at 7am -- it doesn't matter what time I went to bed the night before -- but when I did just that on my first real day in Cuba, I felt like I was ready to tackle the world.

I grabbed a warm (if a little weak) shower and got my stuff ready for the day before heading down to our hotel's restaurant-mezzanine level. After having to prove that I was staying at the hotel, I was allowed to eat as much buffet-style food as I wanted. A couple other early-risers from my group had already gathered, so I snagged a plate and joined them.

As the rest of the group slowly gathered for the 9am meeting, I found myself sitting at the "Spanish" table. We spoke only in Cuba's native tongue over breakfast, a valiant start for our third Spanish language class in a Latin American country -- too bad it didn't last.

Spanish 24/7

Poor Rick. Ever since the trip to Mexico two years ago, he's been striving to get us to speak only in tongues during these trips. I don't doubt that it would be a "good thing" in that we'd learn all sorts of new words as well as getting much more familiar with speaking and listening to the language. It's an ideal to strive for, but the problem with ideals is that they can almost never be fully achieved. I would love to do what some couples have told me they've done on vacation in Latin American countries - only Spanish before dinner, English for desert. There are a couple major hurdles to monolingual bliss with a large group of travelers, though. First, not everyone has the same level of mastery over Spanish. In this particular group we ranged from one student with a single semester of Spanish under her belt to those who were practically fluent. With such disparity, it can be quite frustrating for both extremes to get their points across to each other. Secondly, when a group is traveling together in a foreign country something very interesting happens. Because everyone is thrust into a strange environment, a strange culture, a certain kind of bonding occurs. Strong friendships quickly develop among people that might not give each other the time of day in their own country. We all want to share the wonders we're experiencing with our new friends and the easiest way to do this is in our native language. Rick shouldn't fret too much. I still maintain that we learn at least as much Spanish in three weeks of social interaction in these foreign countries as we do in a full semester at home. Someday, I hope to go hard-core Spanish myself - I just doubt that it'll be on a school trip.

As we were finishing up our breakfast and the meeting time was falling farther and farther behind, a quick head count showed that we were still missing four people. Bed rousers were dispatched and shortly thereafter the late-nighters, Nina, Robin, and Kean showed up looking a little blurry-eyed. Travis still couldn't be found and some of us were a little worried because his bed didn't appear to have been slept in -- did he come in at all the night before?

Rick started our class assuming (correctly) that Travis was just out and about and would join us soon. We continued to speak entirely in Spanish and it appeared that only Nova would have problems understanding everything said. For our first class session Rick stayed away from language lessons and focused more on our ground rules while in Cuba. We were to stay with groups of at least three people, stay up as late as you want as long as you make it to class in the morning, things like that. We did get one assignment for the next day, though: Write a note/letter/postcard to Fidel Castro -- Rick would deliver them with gifts from the governor and The University of Alaska the following day. Maybe we'd get lucky and be able to meet him!

After the meeting we scattered to get ready for a day of exploring. I grabbed my essentials -- camera, passport, money -- and headed for La Habana Vieja (old Havana) with a whole mess of people. Rick, Nina, and Robin quickly pulled into the lead while Tia, Nova, and Jennifer stuck closer to Adrian and I while we snapped photo after photo.

Our walking route took us down the hill that was Hotel Colina's namesake and then proceeded along the Malecón -- a stretch of road bordering the ocean. On one side you had a low, concrete wall separating the sidewalk from a 10 foot drop to the waves crashing on the rocks. On the other you had seemingly abandoned scaffolding covering the facades of old townhouse-style buildings. In between were four lanes of relatively sparse traffic.

By the time Adrian and I had reached the fortress that marked the entrance to Havana's port, we'd lost sight of Rick and Robin. We found Jennifer talking with some older men whom had, moments before, been snorkeling/spearfishing off the rocks. They let us take their picture and invited us over to their house for coffee. We took down their addresses to be nice, but I don't think anyone was planning on stopping by.

Those of us remaining together decided to head off in the direction Rick and Robin had last been seen. We never did find them, and later found out that they'd been invited into someone's house for coffee. We probably walked right past them...

Our next stop was a touristy looking attraction complete with stylized road signs pointing us in the right direction. A small, concrete building, labeled as the Cárcel Real, was situated in the center of a nice little park. Taking time out of our walk to La Habana Vieja, we stopped to see what was the story behind it.

As we approached, I noticed an older man sitting in a chair propped up against the wall seemingly enjoying the shade. When it became apparent that we were going to take a look inside, he pushed his chair back onto the ground, straightened his hat, and stood up. He stayed politely to the side until one of us asked a question about the significance of this strange jail cell with paintings on the walls and ornate ceilings. Then he launched into a well-practiced speech.

Communism at work

Our first inkling that the communist workforce might, indeed, be quite different from our own was at the Cárcel Real. Seeming to us to be a somewhat trivial job, the "tour guide" who spent most of his day with his chair tipped back against the wall was, in fact, gainfully employed. See, that's the interesting thing about a communist country. The government controls all the jobs, and everyone is supposedly looked after, right? All that adds up to an ideal 0% unemployment. Okay, well, not true - remember what I said earlier about ideals?

I must admit that the full impact of this didn't hit me until later in the trip when I learned about Cuban garbage men. I found myself at the Capitolio one afternoon with an empty soda can I'd been carrying around for about an hour. (Havana has an amazingly low trashcan-to-street-block ratio.) Finally, I got tired of hauling the thing around and asked someone where I could throw it away. He took the can, held up his index finger in a "watch this" gesture, and set it down next to another empty can at the base of the capital building's steps. No, no, no. I can't do that! I went to pick it up, my upbringing against littering too strong to break. But I was stopped from doing that and told that if we didn't leave the can sitting where it was, the other can would get lonely! Funny, but not a good enough reason for me. So he explained: In a communistic country like Cuba, garbage cans aren't needed. They have garbage men patrolling the streets all the time, cleaning up the mess. If the citizens didn't litter, they would be put out of work! Sure enough, I noticed afterwards that Cuba had the cleanest streets of any country I'd visited…

It's very interesting. Apparently you're urged to take a certain path in school and the State will send you in the right direction. I don't know for sure what indicates to them who is destined to be the doctor and who is destined to be the garbage man, but I'll bet it has a lot to do with the student's politics.

We had some difficulty understanding everything he said because of his accent, but we understood enough to learn that this historic monument was the only cell remaining of a larger jail of the 1800s. The reason this particular cell had been saved from demolition and turned into a landmark was because, for a time, it'd been the prison of José Martí -- a revered poet and patriot of Cuba.

Not knowing if it was really expected or not, we gave our presenter a couple dollars as a tip for his little presentation. While I asked if there might be a store nearby where we could buy something cold to drink, Nina took time out to sketch a little of the interior. Lucky me, there was a little tienda right across the street.

While the others waited on a dilapidated park bench, I hurried over to see what they had. Working my way through a crowd of Cubans who appeared to only be window shopping, I found myself a couple of the more common Cuban sodas -- TuKola and Tropicola. I also noted that the prices in this store were less than half that of those at the hotel!

I regrouped and we found ourselves wandering a little bit afterwards. We knew the general direction to Old Havana and were walking in that direction without consulting our guidebooks nor having a specific destination in mind. The first item of interest that we came across was a small tank set upon a pedestal at the end of a huge, open plaza. On the other side of the tank was a huge palace that had been converted into Cuba's Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution.) Well, that seemed interesting enough. We decided to visit.

At the door we all checked our bags and paid a $3 entrance fee before being turned loose inside. Without planning we eventually segregated into three groups - Nina and I, Jen and Adrian, and Tia and Nova. For the next couple hours we wandered through this museum devoted to everything Cuba over the last 50 years.

Almost every display had captions in both Spanish and English so my language skills were not going to be challenged. The museum itself was huge - far too much for me to absorb in one day. In fact, I found myself skimming whole sections because boredom began to set in…

It really was interesting, though. I, as an American, have been exposed to a grossly different view of Cuba's revolution under Castro than the average Cuban citizen. Obviously the museum would be biased. Why not? It's their country they're celebrating, right? But so much of the wording smacked of communist propaganda. Everything about the Bay of Pigs incident(s) called the opposition involved "murderers," "traitors," etc. All their martyrs "fell" in combat or were "murdered" - they never just "died" or were even "killed." I need to find a museum of our own Revolutionary War and take a critical look at that now…

While crisscrossing the museum, Nina and I ran into Jennifer and Adrian. They apparently had found (or had BEEN found by) a couple of Cuban guys looking to sell them some cigars. They thought they might take them up on the offer and wanted to at least talk to them a little more about it. We decided to finish up our museum visit by taking a look at the converted war machines, The Granma (the boat that brought Castro's original party over from Mexico), and miscellaneous other paraphernalia kept out behind the Museo de la Revolución before meeting them back in the plaza.

When we finally did meet up with them, Adrian and I broke out a Frisbee and began our month long campaign to bring disc awareness to Cuban society. There was a large plaza in front of the museum that had ample room to throw the disc around. We had a grand old time tossing that white piece of plastic back and forth while idle Cubans watched with amazement. As we'd discovered two years back in Mexico City's zócalo, it wasn't so much that they'd never seen a Frisbee, only that they've never seen people who could throw it so accurately - and with style!

By the time we'd had our fill of sun, exercise, and sweat, everyone else had gathered on a set of benches along the side of the plaza. Miguel and his friend (the ones anxious to sell cigars) offered me many compliments on my throwing skills. Sensing that Adrian might be a little indignant, they assured him that his catching was bar none - the perfect match for me.

Before rushing off to buy some vaunted Cuban cigars, we decided that we needed some lunch. Miguel was more than happy to take us to a restaurant. We made it clear that we didn't want anything too expensive. Just a small lunch. Well, they led us a few blocks deeper into La Habana Vieja to a block-corner bar called El Angel de Tejadillo. While we sidled up to the counter and ordered drinks (rum, beer, or lemon soda), Miguel went across the street to a house that doubled as a take-out restaurant. When he came back, he announced that he could get us a full plate of pork, black beans and rice, and a salad for $5 US per person. Okay all around? Sure.

Moros y Christianos

Before embarking on this trip, some of us had resigned ourselves to living off rice. Not that we wanted to, just that we might have had to. Well, as we found out, even if that was the case, it wouldn't have been that bad.

A traditional Cuban dish is black beans and rice and most Cubans get such a kick out of explaining to you their name for it -- Moros y Christianos, that is, Moors and Christians. Blacks and whites? Get it? Yeah, we got it, we got it...

The inside joke, if that's what it can be called, is nationwide. Menus rarely print "black beans and rice." It's always Moros y Christianos. And you want to know the funniest part? The whole plate is actually a sort of gray color...

While we waited for our food to arrive, we attempted to talk among ourselves over the din of the bar's terrible audio system. Miguel and his shy friend (from whom I never did get a name) lived just around the corner. They worked in a cigar factory by day and assured us that the cigars they wanted to sell to us were legit - they were allowed to take home so many each day. Adrian finally gave in and said that they'd purchase a box of them after lunch.

Our first Cuban lunch arrived and it wasn't too bad. We had a plate piled high with beans and rice, topped with a huge, greasy slab of pork, and a few slices of cucumbers and green tomatoes off to the side. Before coming to Cuba and hearing about the food shortages, we didn't know what to expect. $5 US for this? Hey, not bad. Better eating (and more of it) than you'd get at McDonald's.

After lunch Miguel asked the majority of us to stay put while he worked out the cigar deal with Adrian and Jennifer. We didn't see them leave, and because of that we had no idea where they went. We finished off our drinks, waited at the bar for a bit, and still they hadn't returned. Anxious to explore more of Cuba, we moved outside to the curb to wait for their return.

Tia and Nova seemed content to stick around as long as it took, but Nina and I were a little antsy to go. I noticed a police officer on the corner watching us - and I thought that perhaps that had something to do with Adrian and Jennifer's delay. After a half-hour, with or without them, we were ready to go. I only wanted to leave a message for our friends so that they would know that they hadn't been ditched.

At one point, I noticed Miguel appear from someplace and engage the policeman in conversation. Miguel very obviously led him away, walking down to the next corner. I used that opportunity to get up and take a look down some of the side streets. I was hoping that I might be able to pick out Adrian and Jennifer in some shady doorway as they conducted their subversive activities… No such luck.

I guess my doing this was pretty obvious. Although the cop wasn't around to see me, someone in the bar in which we'd just eaten had. He came up to me, nodded his head down one street and motioned for me to follow. Uh, okay. So I left the group and followed him. We walked down about 5 or 6 doorways when suddenly he stepped between two men sitting on a doorstop and started up an unlit stairway. Whoa.

"Oye. Va a tomarme a mis amigos, ¿no?" He'd never said one word to me since I saw him. I wanted him to know for sure that I was looking for my friends… "Claro. Venga." He definitely didn't want me standing around on the street. Not knowing quite what to expect, I stepped between the guys on the stoop and started up the stairs.

The insides of the building are just about what you'd think they'd look like after seeing the tattered facades outside. The steep, narrow staircase was dark. What color that there was on the walls had long ago turned to curling paint chips. Bare electrical wires (most without even insulation) ran at crazy angles among the copious cobwebs. We reached the top and I suddenly realized that this was the entrance to more than one family's home. An open-air hallway stretched deeper into the building's recesses and there were half a dozen doors spaced at intervals.

I was led to an open doorway just off the top of the stairs and ushered into a dark living room. Fortunately, Adrian and Jennifer were sitting right there talking to different members of a family - Miguel's? I thanked my silent guide and directed my attention to my cigar-smoking friends. They assured me that they'd finished their transaction - indeed, they had a new, wooden box with them, presumably filled with cigars - and were just looking for a polite way to finish with the social chitchat. I relayed that the group was getting anxious to leave, and that they should make an effort to hurry up. That was just the excuse they were looking for.

When we returned to the street corner, I noticed that the police officer was back and watching us intently. Miguel assured us that there would be no problem, "No te preoccupes." And as tourists, we later learned, we had almost nothing whatsoever to worry about from the police. They were there for OUR protection and they were far more interested in making sure that Cubans did not take advantage of us. At that time, though, we half-expected to be questioned - and with Adrian packing illegal cigars, we decided to wander off in the opposite direction.

Not really knowing where we were heading, we managed to find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the most touristy section of Old Havana. Surrounded by expensive, outdoor restaurants and all manner of taxi (horse-drawn, car, human-pedaled, cocotaxi) were a few main attractions. On each side of Havana's port entrance are huge, castle-like formations that were successful in keeping out pirates and invading armies centuries before. Situated just a little further back was a large cathedral. Nice place to take pictures. Better place to relax.

Having already eaten, but always thirsty from the heat, Adrian and I decided to cross the Malecón for some "imported" drinks - Coca-Cola. We returned to the girls and spent some time lounging around the Castillo Real de la Fuerza's moat. It was a good time to break out the Lonely Planet guide and decide what to do next.

We noticed right off that the Capitolio Nacional (the old capital building) was only a few blocks off, so most of us decided to head that way. Somewhere in all that relaxation we managed to lose Tia and Nova - I think they decided to head back to the Hotel Colina early. We finished our Cokes and headed off in the general direction of the Capitolio.

The old Cuban capital building, architecturally, is much like our own White House. There's a large, pointed dome on top, big stairs to climb. Very Old World. We avoided the photographers and other hustlers at the bottom, climbed the stairs, and looked around.

Obviously, this used to be an important place. There was a large theater on one side of the plaza, impressive facades on all sides, and, of course, the splendor of the capital itself. At the top of the stairs, huge pillars guarded the entrance along with two gigantic bronze statues. Adrian and I were clicking away when someone approached Jennifer and asked if we'd like a tour.

Jennifer reported to us that we could get a "free" tour of the capital building simply by purchasing one, $3 US drink in their built-in restaurant. Well, we weren't up for the $10 dinner special, but we decided that a drink wouldn't hurt. They led us into a dining room off one of the spectacular, high-ceilinged hallways and took our orders. I think we had piña coladas all around.

While we were waiting for our drinks to arrive, we started up a conversation with an enterprising youngster who followed us in from the stairs. His name was Oscar and we all took turns talking with and teasing him. He was especially interested in Adrian and my cameras because he had an old manual camera with him with which he tried to make a living. Turns out that he didn't have any film just then, though, so he wasn't using it much.

While the sun was setting outside our window, we drank our drinks and let Oscar play with our cameras. He really liked messing with the flash! At the end of it all, to show us his appreciation (or perhaps he was just working for a tip…? Nah!), he gave each of us 3 film canisters - as if I needed more stuff to carry around. But he had a whole plastic bag full of them, and I didn't have the heart not to accept. (Adrian, on the other hand, packed one with spare change when Oscar wasn't looking and tried to give it back. Oscar wouldn't have anything to do with it, though, until he picked it up. The brief, confused look on his face was priceless!)

So after we'd paid for our drinks, we were led across the hall by a "guide" who set us off on our tour. She opened up a room that turned out to be the old senate floor and let us photograph, climb around on, and generally do whatever we liked to the podium and amphitheater-style chairs. Oscar followed along, perfectly at home there and was joined by another youngster about his age. When we signaled that we'd seen enough of this room, the woman "guiding" us just told us that we could exit through the opposite door and continue to tour the capital building by ourselves. Hey, alright!

We found out soon enough that the most interesting places were roped off. You could see into many rooms, most with plaques describing what, of historical importance, went on within them. Oscar and company darted indifferently in and out of these closed rooms, all the while ensuring us that it was perfectly okay. (Want to take a picture? Here, I'll hold the rope up for you.) The only opportunity we declined that I regret was a climb to the top of the domed tower. Oscar beckoned us to follow him up, but we were a little too nervous about breaking the rules. Too bad, maybe next time.

After the first 15 minutes or so, Oscar's presence started to get on our nerves. Sure, we had fun "touching his hair" - the Spanish equivalent of pulling his leg - by asking him things like "This is a urinal, right?" at the drinking fountains. Unfortunately, this got him jazzed up and he and his friend spent more time trying to steal our Frisbee and toss it around in that museum-like atmosphere. Boy, would those botched throws made an incredible, echoing racket in there -- we thought we'd be thrown out for sure!

On our way out, I was taking a picture of, supposedly, the world's second largest indoor statue when Adrian came up with a good idea: Wouldn't it be great to get a picture of us playing Frisbee in these hallowed halls? Well, we didn't want to offend anyone, so I told him I'd do it if we could get the (now-watchful) guides' permission. Jennifer agreed to ask, but only if we could stage the photo. We weren't actually going to throw the disc around. They gave their slightly puzzled consent and while she snapped away, Adrian and I set up action shots. We only dropped the Frisbee once - but it was enough. They've got great acoustics in there!

On our way out the door (and all across the plaza), Oscar hit us up for a tip for his guiding services. By then, we knew it was coming, and we pretty much unloaded all the change in our pockets on him and his friend. Big mistake. They argued, hassling us more to make it equal, or give so-and-so more because he worked harder, etc. etc. They were tenacious, but we didn't give in by breaking out the bills. After a block or two they got the point and stopped following us - it took them that long to realize that there was no more money to be had.

At that point we had at least a couple-mile walk ahead of us to get back to the hotel and we were almost running late for our scheduled meeting. Without really consulting our maps, we headed off in the general direction, walking the now-darkened neighborhoods of Havana. We hadn't gone 3 blocks before trouble found us, or rather, me. Oh, it wasn't all bad. I was just latched on to by a jinetero (Spanish for jockey), a street hustler. Oh, it happened to all of us at one time or another. Rick had one latch on to him the first night because he let on that he spoke Spanish. Heck, even Oscar was a jinetero-in-the-making. No, I just fell for the oldest, Cuban trick in the book: I answered the question: "Where you from?" Hey, it was my first day.

“Where You From?”

I suspect that every country you go to will have different opening lines for people to give tourists. I don’t remember Mexico’s, but Ecuador had “Hello, mister!” You couldn’t walk five city blocks without at least one “’Ello MEE-stair” springing up next to you. It took only a few times before you were used to it (longer if you happened to be female -- they used the same opening line regardless of gender!) In Cuba everyone uses “Where you from?” (in English) as their opening line. It took us longer get the hang of it, though.

At first, it was a kneejerk reaction. They’d ask where we were from, we’d respond with “Alaska!” Most people know a little about our state and it was fun to get their reaction -- a good conversation starter. What we didn’t understand, though, is that while they were quite interested in starting conversation, they had no interest whatsoever in where we were from. You see, by the end of the trip, most of us had realized that the people who start conversations with “Where you from?” were simply interested in selling something.

After a month of practice, we had a little fun with these characters in Havana.

“Where you from?”
“South Africa!”
“Where you from?”
“New Zealand!”

We always used English-speaking countries, but more often than not, the questioners didn’t know what language to use on us! One guy suspected something was up when we pretended (poorly) not to understand his Spanish. He eventually wandered away, mumbling “It’s really too bad you don’t speak Spanish, because if you did, I could sell you some great cigars...!”

Yeah, so he asked me where I was from. I answered "Alaska" and he did what everyone else does in the Latin American countries I've visited. He said "¡Oh! ¿Mucho frío, no?" I swear, it's like a knee-jerk reaction for them. Before I knew it, I found myself engaged in a conversation with this black, teenage boy with a disconcerting wandering eye and none of my companions were going to help me out of it. In fact, they seemed to draw off a bit! In my IQ's defense, I have to admit that I knew what was happening. He worked in the standard offers for cigars, hotels, and restaurant advice in with the not-so-standard offers for prostitutes, drugs and other things. He was discreet, even polite while he made small talk around these topics, except for one time in which he really insulted one of the women in our group. (It was a joke, crass and sexist, but taking into consideration the whole macho aspect of their culture, understandable.) I tried to act indifferent to everything he said - for whatever good it did me.

At the end of our walk (he followed us almost the whole two miles), he offered me his last resort - a place to stay for New Year's. To be nice, I took down his name and address. Told him I'd consider it. At that point I had no intention of taking him up on anything, and he knew it. He was just hoping that being polite would butter me up for what was to come: "Hey, can you give me some money for all I've done for you?" I gave him the poor student traveler routine, which he definitely did not believe (and why should he? I had plenty of money at that point - it was just an excuse not to give it to him!) He left a little irked, mostly because his 4-mile, roundtrip gamble didn't pay off. I didn't feel guilty.

(Why is it that I feel the need to be polite? Why can't I just brush these people off and tell my conscience to take a flying leap? Well, all I can say is that later in the trip, we all got much better at doing just that.)

We arrived back to the hotel just before the appointed time, but there were still a few of our companions out and about. To pass the time, a few of us decided to play a few hands of Shithead in the lobby. Before long, the last of us had arrived and we decided to move the group on up to Kean's room for a little quiet.

Rick started us off by asking if anyone wanted to share a story about their first day in Cuba. We all had our impressions to speak of and, of course, there were questions about some of the places we'd visited. Was the Museo de la Revolución worth seeing? How about La Universidad de la Habana? How long should you expect to spend there? That sort of stuff. Then, we got to our little anecdotes. The one I remember most clearly involved Robin being put in the uncomfortable position of having to ask the Spanish word for "to flush…" I leave the rest to you imagination.

Before long, we got around to the real reason we had to have a meeting that night. You see, we'd only booked two days worth of reservations at the Hotel Colina, and the following day we were not planning on staying there again. Oh, it was nice enough, but we were paying far too much and, in a way, it was keeping us more separated from the Cuban people. Rick had asked us in the morning to split up and either look for some casas particulares, sort of like bed & breakfasts, or perhaps just some people willing to put us up for a night or two.

Well, there was no lack of hospitality on the part of the Havana people. In fact, by the reports we'd heard, we had more than enough people offering to put us up in their own house - illegally, though - for the small sum of about $5-$10 each. I, myself, didn't happen to encounter anyone that day that broached the topic of a home-stay, but that didn't bother me. I knew that with half our group already decided, I could let things just settle where they may tomorrow.

After the meeting we found that some people had already eaten, had plans for eating, or weren't going to eat at all. I found myself dining with our illustrious professor, Rick, at El Monguito, the restaurant in which I'd eaten the night before. The menu was the same, basically "dinner with either pork or chicken," but the combination of extras was a little bit different.

We spent the time talking about our first impressions of Cuba - his more accurate than mine because of his better grasp of the language. We compared these to our experiences together in Mexico and Ecuador and also talked about how this particular group of students was different than the last. (I also found out what happened to him and Robin earlier in the day. Apparently they didn't just ditch us - they were invited to someone's house right off the street for a little bit of conversation… By the time they'd thought to look for us, we were long gone.) All in all, it was an enjoyable dinner with the instructor.

We returned to the hotel and played a few more hands of Shithead with some of the less wild (or more tired?) group members who didn't go out looking for discotechas. Just before 1am I headed up to my room to turn in. Couldn't help one last look at the US football highlights on ESPN first, though. It turned out to be the last time I'd hear anything reliable about the playoffs until I returned stateside in mid-January…

Day 4

Sorry, this page has been left blank due to procrastination.

And as of 1/25/02 (two years later), it looks like I'll never get back to the Cuba journal.

I did revisit Cuba in 2003-2004. You can read about that here.