Sunday, March 26, 2017

Learning How Breathe: Turning 27 in Cuba

This is not a typical trip review with do's and don'ts, but a inward reflection and the sights and sounds of my trip. Glimpses of recommended places to go are bolded throughout.

I haven't sat in a rocking chair in years. Or not in recent memory, at least. The thought of rocking chairs is paired with ages high in numbers, the bodies of whom are rich in wisdom and memoirs hidden behind tired, wrinkled eyes. Vaudeville films flashing of a life wholly lived. That, and inner peace. Tranquility. Satisfaction with the way things are and a sound peace of mind. The swaying forward and backward moving to the natural metronome of the heartbeat. Back, forth, back, forth. The rhythm is just so. No missteps until it is time to get up.

My time in Cuba has treated me well, offering me that stillness I couldn't achieve prior. That content and ease. Betty [of Chez Betty] and Abuela ("Alla," as Betty would call down the hallway at any given time) and mama have opened their place of solace and refuge to Crystal and I—and Alla's rocking chair—and allowed me to taste the tastes and smell the smells of Havana life without all the fluff. In my head, I could get around alone if I wanted to. Find a way to may my way through town with 10 CUP instead of the 10 CUC reserved for tourists, more than 50 times the price. Flexing the Spanish I thought was terrible but turned out to be not too shabby all along. 



It all started last Tuesday, Saint Valentin's, the day for love I used to love myself enough to treat myself to a birthday trip. Coasting along an island highway in a kiwi candy green 1953 Dodge Kingsway, watching the school children on midday break saunter down roadsides in their mustard skirts and high white socks to match their starched shirts. Or mischievously toss crumpled paper at passing cabs out the side of packed bus windows. Hand after hand of every sort outstretched, flagging down shared cabbies that are no more than 1 CUC a head. There can't be enough cars for all those hands. Adele's "Fire to the Rain" and Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" play on the radio in fusion with local tunes as we quietly choke on the exhaust fumes of Cuba's infamous old cars and work trucks beating us on the road. Our taxi driver, Ivan, was everything I had envisioned a Cuban man to be. Classically built, with a lean figure, strong but chivalrous face, salt and pepper hair and never without dress pants or a dress shirt tucked in and dress shoes. Unlike Betty, who accompanied him to pick us up at the airport, the English in his vocabulary was sparse, but his warmth and attentive demeanor spoke clearly enough. 



It was Ivan who, the very next day—after we filled out bellies with Alla's tomato egg scramble, arepas, fresh tropical fruit, juice, strong coffee and Cuban ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast—would be the one entrusted in taking us two hours away to the beaches of Varadero. During our adventure, we passed by the U.S. Embassy (which reopened in 2015 after shuttering in 1961), Hotel Nacional de Cuba (an option we didn't even consider) and fishermen hoisting their lines off the side of El Malec√≥n, Havana's Union Square-esque hang out spot, at 9 a.m. We passed beautifully crumbling buildings with Fidel Castro posters stuck and woven between the window bars. We took stabs at conversation as we went, alternating between Ivan's fragmented English, our broken, tense-deficient Spanish and the Google Translate app I downloaded for the trip. Ivan, being the gentleman that he was, made sure he got water for us at the rest stops with his own money, even though he gave us a discount day rate for the trip (we paid it forward and back in our tip, though). 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lies, Lessons and Self-Love: Getting To The Real Of It

Lying is really easy, disgustingly so at times. But even more than it is a fleeting trick, lying is unhealthy. Especially if you're lying to yourself at the same frequency that you're misleading others with the things you say and the way you behave. So, I'm going to be honest with myself for a change. 

My eternal quest is to not just find happiness, but to find it exclusively within myself. You should see all the self-love quotes that decorate all 12 of my journals and occupy the back of my door in Post-It form. My living space literally looks like a scene out of Being Mary Jane. I know that in order to attract love in my life, I must be totally okay and in love with myself first. But honestly, honestly, a huge factor in my self-love quest is my body and loving that. It's... okay. I don't hate it. It could be much worse, but I don't love it. It's functional and, as far as I know, has gotten the technical thumbs up from my doctors, but I don't love it. I have the full activity of my limbs and have no desires to surgically enhance my body (with the exception of a breast reduction if I wasn't so scared I won't be able to breastfeed when motherhood comes knocking). But "love" is not something that comes to mind when I consult my mirror. I'm not blind to my flaws yet. They're right there in neon lights that only I can see. I'm still struggling to take me as I am. 

Unfortunately, the body I envision fashionably and try to dress up and shop for is not reflected back to me. My boobs are the lone victims of gravity (and unnecessary attention) in my friend circles, so no strapless garments and braless days for me ever. No nipple can be freed, sorry. There was no turning back from the dreaded Freshman 15, even four years plus post-graduation. I know when and where my second chin shows up, but I can't seem to master that hiding angle—you know, the one I've previously nailed in selfies—in public or in any other photo not taken by my elevated hand. There are back rolls that did not exist a few years ago, and the persistent skinny-fat fupa always interrupts how my jeans fit at the buckle. I'm tall and lean-looking, meaning curveless except for my chest. No sensual or even mildly switchable hips. No shapely, stallion runner thighs. No tight, naturally cinched waist over here. No phatty, no bubble butt, no nada. A capital P, basically. My feet are big and forever ruined from just a handful of years of tap class (damnit!), so I have to be real selective with sandals. RIP to whatever smooth and spotless skin I had before the stress of 2016 hit me like a billion bricks. I'm still trying to overcome some body hyper-pigmentation and scarring issues. I have this stupid bump on my thumb that came from sucking it up until I got braces in fourth grade. The only things I said I loved about my physical self this year were, oddly enough, my quirky bowed legs—I'm so happy that I didn't notice that they were significantly different from other peoples' legs until right before college, no exaggerations here—and my hair. And I still have my insecurities about certain hair things that I cloak very, very well. Hairstyles I still haven't tried out, and probably won't, because of it. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Basking In Blackness In Bahia With Travel Noire

After the first flight and first layover, I was less anxious and annoyed than I had planned to be. In fact, I was smiling. Subtly, of course. I expected to feel alone, lost, vulnerable, but sitting on that plane from Panama City to Sao Paulo, I was everything but. New York spoiled me, yes, but whether I thought it did or not, it prepared me to look at myself as a global citizen. Sitting on the train and walking down crowded city streets in different boroughs, it’s uncommon to only hear one tongue spoken in passing. There will be conversations that you technically can’t understand or jump into, but you feel it. 

Foreign sentences don’t feel foreign, so sitting in this aisle seat hearing a black man speak in Portuguese—a language my ear was never trained for—to a white Brazilian after being told “Gracias” by an ethnically ambiguous fellow while in Panama’s airport felt like magic. I don’t feel lost even though I don’t fully know what they’re saying; I feel enamored. Inspired. Just because I’m a part of this right now by osmosis. Part of cultured roots and lilty tongues. To witness that gradual transition from gate to gangway was unlike what I’d imagined it to be; it was better.


--

I’d never heard of a “Brazilian winter” before. When you think of winter, you think of New York at its most unforgiving. Or Canada. Crisp white lawns and slushy brown streets. The hurt of numb, red fingertips and constant reminders that the socks you bought aren’t quite thick enough. Scarves, fuzzy hats, mittens with removable thumbs for struggle texting. Frosted breath and hot cocoa and fire escapes and days off school and work. Not Brazil. Not Salvador da Bahia with its roosters that crow at six in the morning and two thirty in the afternoon without ceasing. With its sudden, heavy rains that wane out into scattering, cool mist twenty minutes after starting. With its hot, hot suns and the relieving shade from wide green palms and extending branches. From the infinite stream of flip-flops slapping and pitter-pattering across uneven, uphill cobblestone. With its moquecas and caipirinhas eaten and sipped plentifully on the airy edges of patios, blending with the tune of American laughter and smoky Portuguese lilts in the kitchen. With its clumped up houses with clothes lines extending out of open doorways, gridiron windows and snaking roads out front. This is not a wintertime I could’ve imagined (nor is it one I wish to leave), yet here I sit on my private balcony passing over sweet memories made as the time passes before my capoeira class.

These past three days have felt like plenty more, and the friends I’ve made within them have felt like long lost family. That’s black people for you. That’s the main reason I was so adamant about test driving a Travel Noire Experiences trip for myself. There’s something so magical about the binding feeling that comes with color. Good ol’ melanin. Browns, beiges, butters and blacks. Even straight out of the gate at the airport they found me, lost-looking and confused and tired and delirious looking for a TN’s taxi driver holding a teeny, tiny sign. I scanned the airport rich with a language I simply couldn’t navigate at the moment and came across a cluster of black people with my eyes. I had a feeling they were my group but I kept to myself to avoid mislabeling and embarrassment on my part. They spotted me spotting them, and with disarming smiles and a crooked finger, beckoned me over to them, confirming my correct association. From there, all discomforts were gone.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Blackness Is A Poetry

Contrary to the current state of the nation and how it tries to tell our story—when "all lives" desperately try to smudge out our melanin like a bad eraser wasting space on a No. 2 pencil, but we go no where—I love my blackness more than anything.

I love the way we have the strength not only to pray, hard and unyielding, but to forgive even when it doesn't feel deserved. When it isn't deserved, point blank period.

I love how we sound when joined together in song, whether organized or by impulse, the natural harmonies that arise and the feelings that permeate from those choral moments onto any ears nearby.

I love how dramatic we are, how we tell stories and our eyes wrinkle and out brows furrow, and the way our hands move when retelling even the simplest of anecdotes. Bodies swaying with narration.

I love our sweetness, our sass, our sarcasm, our wit, our sharp tongues, our sympathy.

I love our skin and how it glistens and glows, not burns and reddens, in the sun. How tints and hues of the darker human spectrum vary slightly, but the sameness is the only color we see. The only one that matters.

I love how our laughs are big and deep, wide and loud, with all of our teeth on display. Diastemata abound, indicative of the wide range of experiences we've endured as a result of where we all come from. Where we were born, bred and multiplied fruitfully, seeds of deeply rooted culture sown and reaped on our own land. Where we were uprooted, relocated, then forced to adapt and thrive.

I love the way our hair, course, coiled or kinked and without effort stretches up to the heavens like the coveted crowns that they indeed are.

And painfully enough, I love my blackness more than white America will allow me to. More that what they feel is safe, permissible, able to control and monitor. Marveling from the outside, while elbowing and stealing to get inside. To dissect and understand something that is ours and ours alone. Itching to sip from our well to quench their thirst for culture, spice, flavor, resilience, Godliness, MAGIC, not caring how, when or if it is replenished. Itching to get a taste of the cane sugar that is blackness, pure and unrefined. A flavor not theirs to grasp.

My blackness is too sweet for you. Too diverse and complex for you. Too potent for you. My blackness, a priceless treasure bestowed upon me from my Father, is a beautiful sonnet not designed for skimming. Not to be read and digested unless you really get it. And trust me, if you're not in it, of it, chances are you'll never get it. Sorry, not sorry.