Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Mar 07 2018

February 20th: Vancouver – Toronto – Havana

Breakfast at the hostel was a bright, help-yourself affair, full of earnest young backpackers shredding their gums with sugar-flavored Cheerios. The bright sun was a ruse, betrayed by the  bitter cold outside. Chenbl and I walked over to Chinatown, marveling at the familiar smells and signs and produce overwhelming the sidewalks there. The old Kuomintang building was abandoned, covered in weeds and neglect. Warming our hands with some hot Tenren tea, we walked over to Gastown. The whole thing would have been charming if I weren’t freezing my ass off. The famous clock was steaming (I assume it was steam, otherwise it really needs servicing) and hooted out the traditional clock melody at 2:45 p.m., after which we took refuge amid the cheap plastic smells of the local Dollar Store.

Later we walked back down to the harbor and browsed the signs elaborating on Vancouver’s shockingly sordid history of labor relations and all the awful things that happened in the process of labor reform. Seaplanes were taking off and landing on the water near a floating Chevron gas station; the remains of snow crunched under our feet. We chatted with some friendly construction workers who were busy renovating a house. Nearby, a large, forlorn heap of charred wood and plaster had apparently up until recently been a house.

Turning onto Davies Street, we stopped for entirely too much poutine before heading back to the hotel, where we spent a great deal of effort trying not to listen to an excruciatingly awkward flirting session between two young backpackers in the common room.

Then it was time to leave; we walked over to the subway and took the train out to the airport. The last few stops featured a shouty young drunk, but that was far less annoying than when we checked in and found that our airline not only didn’t know about any of these newfangled “frequent flyer” things all the kids are about these days, they cancelled our seat selections and put us in the middle seats to Toronto. The flight was overbooked, so the check-in staff asked if we’d take US$100 and a night at a hotel. Uh, no, we wouldn’t. But the line at the gate was truly egregious, a scene rife with insecurity as everyone wondered if they’d be picked to be a Sacrificial Passenger. Indeed, one passenger seemed to have already incurred the wrath of one of the flight attendants as we found out seats. “I’ve seen the way you overreact; you only have one more chance or I will have you removed from the flight,” the attendant warned ominously as the young man spread his hands in the internationally recognized symbol of WTF, man.

The whine of the engines drowned out the safety video and my cursing as my watchband broke, but we were in the air soon enough. Several episodes of Blackish later, as we neared Toronto, however, the captain said weather sucked there so we were going to Buffalo NY instead. The whole plane groaned; most people either didn’t have their passports and/or didn’t have a U.S. visa. Nobody could be looking forward to dealing with TSA asshattery; this was one of the main reasons we elected to go through Canada in the first place. The plane circled at the same elevation for a long period of indecision before they agreed that we would be going to Toronto after all, whereupon everyone cheered. After we landed, however, we taxied up to a gate that didn’t work; it was as if they were surprised to see us. Didn’t they call ahead? The crew tugged fruitlessly at the door for a while before giving up and having us all sit down, pack up, power up the engines, back out and head to a gate that actually worked.

That didn’t give us much time to make our connecting flight to Havana, so Chenbl and I booked it from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, embarrassingly specific final boarding accusations ringing in our ears the whole way, and just made it in time.

The flight to Havana was considerably more relaxed, with far fewer people and a party atmosphere. Everyone there, including the casually dressed but smartly competent cabin crew, seemed very happy to be leaving the frigid north behind. As we’d missed meals in our rush, we had some plane food that was bordering on ok. As we approached our destination, people began to change out of their heavy winter clothes into shorts and T-shirts.

Even though my mind was still demanding to know what the hell I was doing in Cuba, the warm air was an incredible relief. Chenbl changed money at a machine, and we caught a cab downtown to the Airbnb place where we’re staying to put our luggage down before heading out with Annanai, a Cuban woman who is more than passingly familiar with all of this.

Of course the old automobiles and colorful buildings are amazing, but I haven’t managed to figure out just how to photograph them sans cliché. All the taxis and buses are crowded, some of the old buildings are being brought back, and I apparently look like I’m searching in vain for a Cuban cigar. Brilliant musicians abound in the restaurants; the lung power of the trumpet players in particular is astounding. I brought my mouthpiece just in case I happen across an opportunity, but I doubt I could come close to keeping up with these guys.

We had cold chocolate at the Chocolate museum and then stopped into the Floridita bar, which was apparently one of Hemingway’s favorite drinking spots (he had many) as well as the origin of the daiquiri, and which features a larger-than-life brass statue of the heavy-set writer sitting at the end of the bar overlooking the field. Daiquiris were had, and we all left the place a little tipsy and wondering if the little straws were really necessary. The sun was setting before Annanai said we should go back to the apartment, so we got on a crowded bus back to Vedado, where our place is located.

Eric, the French-Canadian who runs the place, came out for dinner nearby, and we had a nice long conversation about his background and Cuba’s future.

posted by Poagao at 10:05 am  

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