Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Passing Feeling- Elliott Smith

So as I write this, I am back in the States. But I know I have a lot of updating to do, so we’ll start with Santiago.
Santiago is the second biggest city in Cuba after Havana, located on the other side of the island. The city was nice, but I feel like we didn’t really take advantage of everything it had to offer. We were all a little sad that we were away from Havana for our last full weekend. The best part (worst?) part of the trip was actually getting there/home.
I have been on a lot of airplanes in my life, but never have I boarded an airplane through the butt. Yes, that’s correct. This plane is a leftover Soviet plane from the 80’s. It shows. So we enter the plane through the back and find our seats. Through some stroke of luck, I’m sitting with Honorio and Danny, with Steph, Songe and Emma ahead of us. We managed to escape los profes.
Anyway, after we settle in, we realize that the seats don’t lock in place. As in, I can push forward on Sonya’s seat and she goes forward. Apparently, she was feeling super nauseous at the time and I was only making it worse, but I prefer not to talk about it. After we take off, white gas starts coming out of these vents on the floor. Obviously, that’s the air conditioning. And then the miserable flight attendants walk down the aisle spraying some chemical out of a can- air freshener.
I decide to check out the bathroom, so I head to the back. After I get in to this miniscule water closet, I realize that it is ridiculous. Maybe Russians are extremely tall, but there is no way that I can effectively squat on this toilet. I have to kind of hoist myself up and brace myself between the two walls. There is no was I’m touching the toilet seat (yes! There was a toilet seat) because everything is covered in an odd blue substance. After I’m done I want to bathe in hand sanitizer, but I stop myself from causing a scene.
The flight attendants come and bring us coffee (even airplane coffee is delicious in Cuba) and we chisme the rest of the flight. Just my luck, but I have to pee again at the end of the flight. I once again visit this ridiculous bathroom, and upon further inspection, I note that there are five or six napkins precariously folded, for drying one’s hands, I assume. And! There is a small cup of a thickish green liquid. Mouth wash, perhaps? Quien sabe. On the way out, the door was stuck, locking me in the bathroom. After banging on it for a while, I finally get it open, hitting a flight attendant and Profe on the way. Whoops.

Anyway, Santiago. Things we did:
1. Saw a performance of “tumba francesa,” which is a traditional dance/song thing in Eastern Cuban. It was brought by the French when they came to Cuba after the Haitian Revolution. Very different than anything I have seen in Cuba. There were these two adorable little kida that I was playing with and taking pictures of during the whole thing. I gave them gum. We were best friends. David, Jorge, and later their friend Rafael. So cute.
2. Climbed this ridiculously steep mountain in super hot Santiago to see a statue dedicated to los cimarrones, or runaway slaved. It was very beautiful and scary and Cuban. I loved it.
3. Went to a famous church which is the home of the Virgen del Cobre, (Virgin of Copper), who is Cuba’s patron saint. The church was beautiful, very similar to other Latin American churches I have seen. But it makes me sad when you see such splendor in a country full of people with no money. You would think the Catholic Church would understand that beautiful buildings don’t help people feed their families.
4. Went to the trova festival. Trova is a form of music that comes from the Spanish troubadours. The music isn’t really my style, kinda nasally, almost yelling, but it was cool to see. Also, there were a bunch of ladies that were sporting some meannnn mustaches. Ay dios. In traditional Cuban style, it started an hour and a half late because the sound guy didn’t show.
5. Went to the town of Guantánamo. In my guidebook, I had read that there is a hotel that has a lookout point on top where you can see across the bay to the U.S. Base. So we were all pretty excited, even after the terribly bumpy 1.5-hour bus ride. But then we discover that they had closed that hotel. Too many Cubans were jumping off of it into the bay to swim across to the base. Since it is considered U.S. soil, once they stepped foot on the soil, they were given U.S. citizenship. So the Cubans put a stop to this pretty quickly. So we couldn’t see the base and the town was pretty boring, nothing to do or see really. And there are no tourists in Guanánamo, so the men were relentless in their hissing and calling out to us. They had to get it all out in one day, I guess.
6. Visited this cool fort right outside of Santiago. It was beautiful, overlooking the bay. You could see the whole city from up there.

I also discovered something silly: I had made a friend when we were in Matanzas. He took us out dancing and we all had a great time. This whole time, I thought his name was Osmani. While in Santiago, our tour guide told us that it’s pretty common for parents to name their children English words, even if they don’t know what it means. It dawns on me that my friends name is not Osmani, but Usnavi. Yes; his parents named him U.S. Navy. Oh dear.

The plane ride home was equally ridiculous. But before we even got on the plane, we got a good dose of Idiot Profe. Our plane was delayed, then delayed again, then not on the board at all. Someone alerted Profe to this (of course, he was not paying attention) who got up, walked around without talking to anybody, and came back, declaring that no one knew anything. Then he got a beer. A while and many Shakira songs later, Courtney goes to ask some guy who looks official what’s up. He tells her that the plane is delayed because of weather in Haiti (that’s where it was coming from) but it has left and is on it’s way. Courtney, a 20-year-old student who doesn’t speak fluent Spanish, got way more information than our professor, who is Cuban, fluent in Spanish, and responsible for 12 students. After Courtney tells him this, he curls up in a fetal position and goes to sleep. Woo hoo.
When we get on the plane, I discover that I am sitting backwards. Like sitting on a jumpseat, I am facing the back of the plane. Taking off was such an awkward sensation. And we got this weird muffin that was kinda good. It might have just been weird because I hadn’t had a muffin in three months. Mmmm muffins.

Our last week was really bittersweet. Everything was for the last time: our last time at 23 y K buying hotdogs for fifty cents. Our last visit to Tal Vez. Our last time at Fabio’s (although that happened twice). Our last walk to school. Our last time to HV. Our last time sitting on the Malecón. Our last bus adventure. Our last moneda cab. So many lasts.
I guess it’s normal to start thinking about the beginning when you’re at the end. While I was drinking wine and packing with Honorio, I remembered our first night in Cuba. It was a Sunday, and we started class the next day. No one really knew each other. Everyone was kinda tired after a day of traveling, and most people just went to bed. But Honorio asked if anyone wanted to pitch in for a bottle of rum. When in Cuba… We sat around playing cards, talking, being friends. Me, Danny, Honorio, Tara, And Meg. La Junta.

Leaving was a lot harder than any of us predicted. Saying goodbye to Maria, Chino, and Milady was so sad. Maria made me tear up, Milady wouldn’t let me. Chino made me cry. He hugged me so tight, with a thousand “cuidates” and “buen viajes.”
We had just started to feel at home when we left. Three months isn’t that long of a time. In the beginning, it was took a while to adjust because everything was so different than what we were used to. But after a while, I began to feel at home in my city, in my residencia. I had a routine. I had friends. I had a life. Just when I was starting to feel secure, I had to leave. And now I have to adjust all over again. It would have been so much easier if I didn’t care.
I think one of the hardest parts about going home is knowing that no one will be able to understand. And it’s not their faults, but no one knows what Cuba is like and what it does to you. I have changed so much in these past three months and the only people I can really talk to about it is the other eleven people I traveled with. And I guess that’s okay.
My first meal at the airport was a combination of nachos and buffalo wings. It was delicious. But all I wanted to eat was rice and beans.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

This Scene is Dead- We Are Scientist

Just some more fotos from my time in Cuba. All fotos de Meg, except the first, that's mine.

One of our first days here. Looking across the bay near Habana Vieja.

On our walk home from school.

Some ministry of something. But that's Che's face! He's everywhere.

This is an ad on a paper placemat at a restaurant that we love (they have great fries). But this ad says "Panoramic Restaurant- Maybe the best restaurant in Cuba." Maybe? So silly.

Meg and Steph found a frog in their toilet in Cienfuegos.

The smallest car on the face of the Earth.

The foreground shows Cuban homes. In the background is a five-star hotel.

My hood.

Some chicas hanging out on the porch.

The Righteous and the Wicked- Red Hot Chili Peppers

So Cuba lost to Japan in the Classic, which is greatly upsetting for all Cubans and me. It was a pretty sad game too; Cuba lost 6-0. Ouch. But tonight! there is a Cuba-Japan elimination game, so there's some esperanza. This is a double-elimination situation. The USA is guaranteed a spot in the semi-finals in L.A. after a GREAT game against Puerto Rico (three-run rally in the ninth to win 6-5). Also going to the semi-finals are Venezuela and Korea. And either Cuba or Japan. So much excitement! We're going over to a friend's house to watch.
In other news, it may be spring time in Boston but it is full on SUMMER in Cuba. Everyday I feel like melting. It's terribly humid and generally gross. But for some reason, I love it. This city fits me.
Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day and that makes me miss home a lot. i was really craving Diane's Irish soda bread, some mashed potatoes, and a good beer. Instead, I had rice and beans and some rum. All of which are delicious, don't get me wrong. But they don't make me feel particularly Irish, you know?
We were planning on going to the cervezería and then to this "Irish" bar in Habana Vieja (contradiction, I know). BUT with a recent influx of work, we could not. Who knew there was tarea in Cuba?
This new homework came from Dr. Brown who is teaching my Caribbean Music class. We had a test yesterday that included 5 takehome essays due thursday (this on top of a paper due today, a paper due tomorrow, a paper due tuesday for other classes.) I don't want to rant, I just want to say that never have I felt so unprepared for a test after studying for five hours. Yep, five hours. It was extremely unfair and I'm still so upset about it. (I had another five paragraphs, but I deleted them because it's just me complaining about how unfair this test was.)
Ahhh okay. Tomorrow we leave for Santiago de Cuba! It's a big city on the other end of the island, near Guantánamo. If you can believe it, it's supposed to be even hotter there! Ay dios. But I'm excited, we're flying there! So we'll get to see some real Cuban air travel.

I have ten days left on this island. I'm freaking out.

This is how I will remember Cuba: loud.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pictures of Me- Elliott Smith

Just some silly fotos from all different things.

This was taken at Callejon de Hamel, where every Sunday they have a rhumba festival. This was our first or second weekend in Habana and this guy named Saulé (the Cuban version of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean) had his own version of an ipod. He had a stethoscope taped around his cell phone. Now I don't think he used his cell as an actual phone, just as a musical device. But who knows. Foto de Steph.

This is a shot of Sonya and I walking to Habana Vieja. On the left is the water (Cuba's north shore, facing east) and on the right are some of the restored buildings along the Malecon. This is how I will remember Cuba: bright. Foto de Sonya.

This was one day when Steph, Meg and I wandered home from our happy place (a.k.a. this place that serves decent pizza). We found a whole street of these wonderful trees. We jumped for joy. Foto de Meg.

José Marti! I know Danny and Maggie would appreciate me bringing the 'stache to Cuba. Foto de Meg.

Meg, Steph and I standing on top of Arco Iris. Well, actually I guess it was under Arco Iris. Foto de Michelle.

A photo of the Capitol building. This building was designed after the U.S. Capitol building in D.C. Foto de Steph.

I think that's all for now.

The New American Apathy- Mazarin

On Friday, the gang went to America.
Kind of.
We had planned a visit to the U.S. Interest Section. Since the U.S. doesn't have diplomatic relations with Cuba, we don't have an embassy here. Technically, it's part of the Swiss Embassy. It was really interesting and we earned a lot. The following are some of the more interesting things.
1. Purpose of the U.S. Interest Section
This took a lot of explaining. If the U.S. doesn't want to have anything to do with Cuba (no trade, travel, etc.) why do we need our own section? Well, at the Section they help U.S. citizens living/visiting Cuba (legally). They also help Cubans who are looking to receive asylum in the U.S. The U.S. legally accepts 20,000 Cubans a year. The waiting time for immigrants from an country to get a green card can be 10 or 15 years (or more). But Cubans have a special status. All Cubans are considered refugees (most people are considered refugees until they leave their country, but since Cubans can't leave, they're refugees when they are in their own country). Therefore, they can become an LPM (Legallys Permanent Resident) in about 18 months. Also, any Cuban who sets foot in American soil is legally allowed to stay; the U.S. will not deport them (this is called Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy). The agreement used to be that any Cuban who made it to international waters (via raft, boat, what have you) would be brought to the U.S. as well, but that law changed in the 90's. Now, anyone found in international waters must be returned to Cuba with an agreement that the Cuban government doesn't punish them in any way (no jail time or anything). The U.S. periodically does checks on these people to make sure that they're being treated properly.
The Section also tries to gather as much info as possible on Cuba to send back to the U.S. This is especially important because Obama is reviewing our policy on Cuba right now, so the more information they can send, the better. The problem with this, however, is that the Cuban government will not talk to FSO's at the U.S. Interest Section. They try to set up meetings or whatev and they are denied. So the U.S. has to go through thirs parties to find out stuf (Mexico or Spanish embassies). So this just makes it hard to get info.
2. Internet? What a novel idea.
The U.S. Interest Section runs two 9soon to be three) internet "cafes" to give Cubans better access to the internet and specifically to international news. The internet is uncensored and anyone can sign up for a slot of 1-2 hours of free internet. They have about 40 cmputers right now with more on the way and apparently hundreds of people use them every day. BUT you always have to think of possible consequences for Cubans. If you have visited the American Interest Section, there can be negative effects career-wise; it can hurt your chances for getting a promotion if you've used the American internet.
3. Forest of Flags
A little more about Cubans access to news: I might've mentioned this before, but on the side of the building there's a scrolling news bulletin. It's updated 4 times a week and has world news headlines (in Spanish!). Things about Obama's inauguration, stuff in Iraq, Israel/Palestine conflict, what have you, are flashed across this giant screen. Recently, a big item was about a priest who was murdered in the Cuban province of Villa Clara. This went unreported in the Cuban press. Shortly after the U.S. started broadcasting these messages, the Cuban government erected about 50 black flags in from of it in an attempt to block the news.
4. The U.S. breaks it's own laws
Okay, not really. But I think I may have incorrectly reported on this before: the U.S. trades with Cuba. In fact, it is the island's fourth largest trading partner, after China, Venezuela, and Spain. In the 2008 fiscal year, The U.S. did $717,000,000 USD worth of sales to them, up about 65% from the previous year. Othe countries who trade with Cuba know that they have no money, and kind of allow them to buy stuf on credit (i.e. they don't have to pay them for years and years). The U.S. on the other hand, makes the govenment of Cuba pay in cash upfront before we even ship them anything. Also, in the grand scheme of things, 717 million dollars isn't that much money. That wouldn't even bail out our banks.
5. They will not throw you in Guantanamo
Tip for anyone who wants to enter Cuba illegally: if you have a problem, they will help you. They do not stricly enforce the no travel policy. So if you lose your passport, all of your money, or you're plane ticket, they will help you out. Don't worry.
Okay, so that's all I have for the U.S. Interest Section. Let's move on to the U.S. marines
While leaving the Section, the woman who talked to us (she was annoying, self-rightous and American-centric) invited us to the Marines house for a St. Patrick's Day party. She told us there would be green beer, green jello shots, and dancing. Everyone from the Section was invited.
We go out to lunch after and discuss. Were we going to go? For one, we didn't know what to expect. I was thinking that this party was going to be like a frat party: a bunch of boys in the Marines who haven't talked to girls in months (neither the Marines or the FSOs are allowed to date or even really befriend Cubans). Others were thinking it was going to be like a cocktail party because families of the people who worked at the Section were invited. Either way, we decided it would be an adventure. Eight of the gals got dressed up and went to Miramar.
Thankfully, when we walked in, we saw one of the women who had talked to us that morning. She pointed out the bar and the dance floor and told us to have fun.
The barmen (and woman!) were the Marines who lived in the house. First, the Staff Sargeant (I'm not actually sure if this was his title, but he was the one in charge) came up to us and asked who was 21. We all nodded slowly, confused. The drinking age is 16 and unless I'm buying drinks in USD, I don't understand the point. Also the fact that none of us were asked for ID was odd. So we hung out at the bar for a while, meeting some of the Marines. I talked to the only female in the whole house for a while. Aside from being one of the most socially awkward human beings I have ever talked to, she was pretty nice.
She told me that she's only 21 (the youngest one out of the 8 Marines in the house) and she's been serving since she was 18. Before Cuba, she served in Iraq and Senegal. She's currently working with the Department of Homeland Security to get her degree in Terrorism (yes, it is called a degree in Terrorism). Tara asked her if it is difficult to be a woman in the Marines. She said yes, because first, it's more physically demanding and you don't get any slack (which is expected), while at the same time you have to work twice as hard to earn people's respect even when you can complete the physical tasks. Ahh, the hypocrisy.
So anyway, as the night went on and the Marines started to loosen up and share some more info (might've been the green beer).
What I learned from the Marines:
1. They don't like Cuba. Because it's Cuba, they're not allowed to leave the island or the city! For a lot of them, traveling was the reason why they joined the amred forces. Some one told us that when he was stationed in Korea, he went to Vietnam, China, Thailand, and Japan. Here, they can't even leave Havana.
2. They don't take advantage of being in Havana. They say they go out at night and such, but they pretty much limit themselves to Miramar (a really rich, touristy suburb of Havana where they live). They're not allowed to date or even really hang out with Cubans. In other words, they don't really know anything about Cuba.
3. They think really ridiculous things. Like Cuba is a super dangerous country. We told them that we travel around the country quite a bit and they asked us what kind of security we travel with. Excuse me? I never feel unsafe in this country. It's like living in any other city: don't be stupid and you're fine. Also, this is a very safe place especially for Americans. The Cubans want the embargo lifted. Something happening to an American here would be a PR nightmare. Speaking of the embargo, there was a Marine who didn't really know what it was. Meg was talking to him about how Cubans are starving and he was trying to blame it on the Cuban government (which, yes, they play a role in this as well). Meg then said "Well, I don't think the Americans have helped then out very much either, with the embargo and all." He then looks at her, in all seriousness. and asks "What do you mean?"
They were also convinced that "the Communists" (Yes, those are the words they used) are watching us all the time. Oh dear.
So in other words, I think that since they don't know Cubans or the real Cuba, they will never understand anything about this country. Not that I do or can or pretend to.
All in all, the whole night was weird, interesting, and fairly sad.
I come home in exactly 2 weeks.
In other completely unrelated news, I have the first sandal tan of my life. I thought my feet were dirty for like a week until i believed it. It's very faint but I kind of like it.
Also, I really miss cheese.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Book of Right On- Joanna Newsom

So as to the links from yesterday, this is the first step taken by the Obama administration to undo some Bush administration rules that strengthened the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
This bill, which was passed by Congress yesterday, is a $410 billion appropriations bill that states that Cubans in American will be able to visit the island more (Bush rules limited travel to just two weeks every three years, and confined visits to immediate family members). The amount of money they are able to send to the island will also increase (right now, they are only allowed to send $100 a month to family in Cuba). It will also loosen trade restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, making it easier to ship agricultural products and medical supplies to the island.
Many Cubans rely on remittances from the U.S. to supplement their low wages here in Cuba. But for people who do not have family abroad, they're out of luck. This bill, while greatly improving life for many Cubans on the island, will create an even greater wealth gap in this supposedly "classless" society. I'm not blaming the U.S. for this because I think passing the bill is the right thing to do, but I think that Castro needs to take into account that this bill, in addition to other changes in U.S. policy regarding Cuba that are sure to come in the future, will change this country forever.
Obama said that he is open for talking with Cuban leaders but that, like other U.S. presidents, he will only consider a full lifting of the embargo once Cuba's communist government makes "significant moves" (democratic elections and the like).
I am excited about the easing of trade because this will mean more food and more medicine on the island, both of which are greatly needed.

The News- Jack Johnson

US Congress eases curbs on Cuba- BBC March 11, 2009 2:54 G.M.T.

Cubans applaud U.S. bill easing trade, travel- Reuters, March 10, 2009 9:57 p.m.

Some good news for Cubans and Cuban Americans alike. Will discuss possible implications of this later.