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 Malecón, 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).
The day treated us to white sands, crystal waters, random conversation with an old Canadian man who didn't like Trump, iPhone Boomerangs, lifeguard chair impromptu Photoshoots and a treat at the overlook point at the border of Matanzas at Puente de Bacunayagua. That was the only super planned day, aside from making time to go given tourist sites like the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana, Museo de la Revolución and Cámara Oscuro. We also took an Afro-Cuban religion tour, which schooled us on the nitty gritty of Santería on Callejon de Hammel and Havana's local art scene.
The other days, we took upon ourselves to be become one with not only Havana, but its people. Strolling along in Havana while black brought about its own attention. Kisses and whistles from men dark and darker are as abundant as the cobblestones snaking through the skinny streets housing majestic buildings with crumbling facades. Ladies in spandex pants, flip flops and hair casually pulled back stop and reach out their hands to admire my dresses and waist-length twists for themselves before becoming the umpteenth person to tell me about the rumba festival happening "right now" around the corner. "Luego," I say before escaping the crowded maze that is Habana Viejo. Meeting Yanai as we shopped for cheap keychains and magnets that accidentally broke while Crystal shopped.
Elvis, as he led us to our favorite paladar of the trip, with the rum-sopped lobster and live music with the young white couple obviously, and endearingly, drunk in love.
Finding fellow New Yorkers in Drew and his lady friend while sipping on excellent daiquiris at El Floridita. (Fun fact: He also low-key saved me from being hit by a parking taxi.)
Nurse Ana, who immediately saw the Jamaican in me and stopped whatever she was doing to help us get CUP from a barber shop and hail a local shared cab ("Please, don't speak," she'd told us once we were tucked in the car and she told the driver where we were going in Spanish).
My Howard University friends Bryant and Chad as we passed the Capitolio in search of tickets to a sold out show at the Cuban National Ballet (we got them).
Alexander from Santiago de Cuba, who was an author in the book festival—his was called Nombres de las Estrellas—as we left Revolution Square.
Most memorably Reinaldo, our papa for the day, literally cried when talking about all the good President Obama (still my president) has done for them over lunch. His wife ("the love of my life") called while walking the more deserted streets in search of cigars and he showed us a picture of his hija. He has family in New Yersey, he'd said.
One night we got literal hamburgers (ham was the base meat; I took one bite and threw it away) and fries "to go" in a supermarket white shopping bag (just everything tossed in the bag, LOL), where the handsome, blue-eyed server—yes, a suited server at a mall hamburger joint—blushed and shifted when we assured him how good his English was. To ward off hunger that night, we chomped on the sugary yellow galletas while chatting with Betty at the dining room table well into the night.
Although attempting to turn up at Sarao on a Thursday night was a bust, our other two nights out in Vedado were nights to remember. At the Cuban Art Factory (Fábrica de Arte), fine art mixed with turn up harmoniously. For one night, despite her temporary kidney illness, Betty went out with us for a night on the town. We got out there late, which I was trying to avoid because I heard the line became the stuff of nightmares, but just a few heads up in the line, Betty's college friends were trying to make a move of their own. The three of us finessed our way to them in the line. Then Jesús, her more- fabulous-than-life hairdresser friend (and self-declared wife of Beyonce) knew of a friend of a friend who worked there. One by one, our new group of seven skipped the line of hundreds and got scooted in in a hurried, clusterfcuk New York fashion. Inside, I bonded with her journalism friends, some of whom had amazing English and others of whom knew very little, but all of whom held me in such high regard when they found out I was from New York. Their eyes would widen and they'd quickly fetch their neighboring friend and, in Spanish, tell them I was "a periodista… de New Jork." Always with the dramatic pause. The reactions were hilarious, embarrassing and humbling. "We suck," the busty one and the sassy man with the pashmina would joke.
The very next night, our last night to savor the nightlife, we returned to Vedado at the recommendation of the radio journalist with the malo inglés. King Bar, which when pronounced right alluded to the slang Spanish phrase for doing the do, was such a win. Admission was 7 CUC, but that covered your drinks at the bar. You only needed two. The caipirinha I had came in such a big glass that it took me nearly an hour to finish it, and I barely wanted another drink for the night even though I had 4 CUC left on my credit. But Crys and our new gay dance besties insisted I honor the birthday eve turn up. At 11:59, the club randomly started playing happy birthday, purely by coincidence, and I shimmied and shook with William (Billy) and José before hauling myself to the bar for a daiquiri. I assumed this cutesy frozen drink would be a light one, but I was wrong, as my stomach would tell me a few moments later when I met Malssimo and his Italian friends while catching a breather outside. I lasted for about 20 more minutes before I needed to go make that tried and true walk home in the dark along the main avenue.
Just when I thought the trip couldn't get any more random, my actual birthday proved me wrong. We started the day with lunch at La Guarida, a fancy, Beyonce-visited paladar that we simply couldn't get dinner reservations for (Betty had called on our behalf to see if they had any slots for the 19th, to which they asked, "For what month?" We couldn't get reservations for Obama's spot San Cristóbal or Dona Eutimia either). It was delightful anyhow. My lobster and saucy rice medley was so delicious, even though the portions were petite and perfectly Instagrammable. After fine dining, as all those who've visited La Guarida before us, we explored the premises, taking pictures by the famed linens and the same steps where Rihanna posed for Vanity Fair. The space, with it's own destructed charm, was breathtaking with such excellent light pouring into the room. Heaven for a sun baby like me.
Next up was the Cuban National Ballet at Alicia Alonso Theater, where we saw a lovely performance of "Giselle." As a former dancer and a fan of the art form, it was so interesting to see the differences between a performance in Havana, where the attitude is to comfortably make due with what you have, and maybe one in the United States, which would likely be more ornate. We take the little resources we have back at home for granted, and only notice things like stage soundproofing and shock absorbers in their absence. Crystal and I almost left the theater during intermission because we had no idea if the performance was over or not when we saw everyone get up from their seats. We didn't have a program because it cost to buy them and we were on our last leg of cash. In the vestibule, the doors were closed and everyone milled about, grabbing drinks. A kind samaritan gave me his program, and we combed through the all-Spanish booklet to find the 15 minute intermission notice.
At the conclusion of the play, we meandered around Old Havana's buzzing main square to kill time, settling down in the lobby of Hotel Parque Central to make use of the Wi-Fi and kill all the minutes left on our internet cards (our first time trying to use them and purchase them along Calle 23 was such a fail). As I FaceTimed my parents and sister to tell them about my birthday excursions, three white men walked up to us ready to charm. Timothée, Ben and Sam—two French men and a Dutch man based in Hong Kong—had just landed and were looking for recommendations to party in Havana. King Bar, I immediately suggested, still feeling woozy from the night prior. "So let's go now?" Timothée said more than he asked, reaching his hand towards mine to help me up. I laughed out loud. With a morning flight, there was no way I was going to go out for another night of partying and drinking. Plus, I had to pack. In turn, everyone laughed off my reasons. Even Crystal. "Live a little" was the consensus. However, it was only 7 p.m., and King Bar didn't liven up until at least 10 p.m. Their easy fix? Some drinks at the hotel bar, their treat. We made our way to the bar to have rum shots (we were going to have tequila but felt it was most appropriate to have Havana "Ron," Cuba's word for rum) and mojitos. Finishing the drinks was such a struggle, especially for our three new friends. The jet lag was weighing on them heavy. They were pilots for Cathay Pacific Airways, we eventually learned, on their month long annual vacation. Havana was just one stop of many. I had no idea there were such young pilots out there. Anyway, we finished our drinks, annoyed the bartender and surrounding patrons with a birthday serenade for me, and I continued dodging plans to go to King Bar because of how tired I was. Tim was shooting his shot, and it was cute, I won't lie. I'd never had a white guy court me that way, but after some time we eventually bid our friends adieu and went our separate ways. I wonder if they ever made it to the bar…
All in all, as Crys and I sat in our first class seats on the way back home (hey, treat yourself every now and then), all we could do was laugh and think about how this trip was one for the books. There were so many experiences I forgot to write down, and so many places we simply didn't have the time to see in our short six days. Cuba, we'll be back.