Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 29 2019

Cuba Trip! Part two

Cuba was basically an encapsulation of conservative Americans’ fears of socialism, I wrote in my notebook as we drove on the eastbound road to Matanzas. I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. I’d chosen Matanzas basically by looking at it on Google Maps: A sleepy port town, not on the tourist track. It seemed a better choice than touristy Vinales, and I’d always liked port towns; I wasn’t particularly interested in cigar manufacturing or horse-riding. And even Ms. D was with us on this excursion. As we drove, a military convoy consisting of two (2) motorcycles hauled a poorly disguised boat onto the highway, stopping traffic for a short spell before heading back off.

After a couple of hours in a van that apparently had no high gear, we drove through town and up into the hills a little ways to visit the famous caves in the area, supposedly discovered by a Chinese miner by accident. We took the tour, quickly falling behind the rest of the group as everyone was taking selfies. Several other groups passed us, and the local photographer/videographer who’d been tasked with recording our visit with a handicam gave up, going on to shoot other tourists. The caves were, well, caves. The guide mentioned how in the early days there were no restrictions, so a lot of the stalactites and stalagmites had been removed by visitors. I was expecting instructions about not touching anything, but he was pretty much: “Hey, touch anything you want! See that pool of water? That’s lucky water! Go play in it!” When some of the group was posing people leaning on a formation for photos, the guide actually helped.

By the time we were done with the caves it was time for lunch, which we had at a place across from the waterside railroad tracks, at the suggestion of our drivers. It wasn’t bad, but of course with the group it took forever; I didn’t get the impression that they usually had that many customers at once, and we rather caught them unawares.

So by the time we were done with the caves and lunch, it was getting on in the day, the day I’d hoped to spend exploring the city. As a result, we only had a short time for people to walk quickly around for a little bit. I found the other end of the now-defunct Hershey Train, and chatted briefly with some fellows standing next to a lovely vintage green Mercedes-Benz, but I didn’t get a chance to actually see much.

We stopped at Cohimar as the sun set, wandering around that seaside village under the gaze of the Hemingway Statue there for a bit. Some of our group insisted on making a Beatles-style lineup shot on top of a fort. Ms. D was setting up shots, putting her straw hat on small local kids and taking their shots. Dinner was lobster at a touristy place off the Cathedral Square back in Havana, and the ensuing wifi access pretty much ensured that we were sitting there the rest of the evening, me tapping my foot impatiently while the others checked their social media for a few hours.

We got up early the next day. Early morning light in Havana is quite nice, especially in Centro just south of the Malecon. It seemed to be the first day of school for some groups of kids, standing in the street outside their school and singing patriotic songs while proud parents looked on. The group ran around photographing, free of fear of retribution, which made me pause. If you don’t usually take that kind of photo in a Western country, would you do it here? If not, is that a double standard? Even if it’s not a double standard, it’s something I’d think one would want to at least be aware of. I kept seeing scenes that I felt sure I could have photographed with a certain amount of concentration and empathy had I not been flanked by five or six camera-wielding members of our group, none of them actually looking at the people in front of them, eyes rather fixated on their LCD screens. Using the Leica Q’s 28mm didn’t help matters, as that camera rewards getting closer, more personal and more intimate, not sniping away from afar in a group as someone could do with a longer focal length. So I passed over scene after scene, feeling more numb to it all. I’d made a point of promising myself nothing on this trip; I knew it would happen and purposely lowered my expectations. But I was still depressed and tired.

Later in the day, men were offloading dead pigs at a market near the train station, which now seems to be under renovation (it was derelict the last time we passed this way). The area has, since our last trip, always been one of Chenbl’s favorite parts of Havana; he kept wanting to go back there. We stopped to chat with a drum maker, hovered around the scene of one of the many broken-down trucks being repaired, but generally just kept walking.

Eventually, as late afternoon approached, I decided I needed a haircut. Usually I just do it myself, but it had been forever since I’d had a nice cut in a Black barbershop, and Havana has no shortage of these, so while everyone else went back to Las Maletas, Carlos, Chenbl and I stopped into a local place, and I enjoyed having what’s left of my raggedy-ass hairline shaped up by the barber as we were treated to the latest tunes from Kendrick Lamar and Future. Though I didn’t understand most of the Spanish banter going on inside, it was pleasant and a good way to regain my peace of mind. Afterwards we walked through the posh, upgraded hotels near the Capitol, past an upscale camera shop with LEICA emblazoned on the front, to the old city and our hotel.

At dinner (lobster, which explained the cats milling around our legs as we ate), a very blonde teen stopped in front of our table and started sketching on a piece of paper while staring at me. Scam, I thought, and shook my head at him. Undeterred, he presented me with a laughably amateur scribbling. “I am no Picasso,” he said, demanding money for the sketch. That much was true; not only was he no Picasso, he apparently didn’t understand that Picasso was basically creating photo-realistic artwork by his age; only later in life did he go for the more abstract pieces he’s known for. But though I was a jerk and didn’t pay up (I told him he should have at least asked me first), I did watch the kid scam several other tourists in this fashion. I wondered if he’d have dared do the same thing or meet with the same success if he were Black; I doubted it. It was just part of the atmosphere in Cuba, something we didn’t really encounter the last time, before the crackdowns both there and abroad.

I should add here that Carlos was extremely helpful not only by helping us translate and provide context, his thoughtful, measured pronunciation of Spanish helped me realize that I could slow down and get my pronunciation right rather than tripping over my own tongue trying to get phrases out too quickly.

We got up early again the next day, our last full day in Havana, and we told everyone we’re just going to walk around…y’all just do your own thing. We took the ferry to Regla, toured the Black church with actual Black Jesuses (Jesi?) depicted inside, and then walked the streets for a while. People in the group started to get hungry and complain, so Chenbl bought nearly every biscuit a local vendor on a bicycle had on him, and handed them out. Back in Havana, we visited the tourist market, which was another long, achingly long stretch of frustration. Desperate vendors, schpiels, the same merch in every stall…the market had shrunk by about a third since the last time we were there, but it seemed interminable just the same.

Then, as the sun began to set, we set out through town again. I had to visit the park that David Alan Harvey had told me the location of, where at least three well-known Magnum photographs had been taken. The playground has since been renovated, but I could still make out where the Magnum photos had been taken. It seemed that both David and Alex Webb had taken nearly the same shots just at the entrance of the playground, which is interesting. The light was nice there, and I would have liked to have stayed, but we had to go. Again.

We walked through Centro again, making for the National Hotel, which was such a long way that before long only a couple of the group were still with us. Kids were playing baseball in the streets. Beggars followed Chenbl, one so persistently that Carlos and I had to flank him and suggest that he might want to move on. Back at the hotel, as we arranged for vans back to the airport later that night, the landlady told us how she basically had to go to Mexico to get anything, and customs was a nightmare.

My room was unavailable that night, but it was ok as we had to leave at 3:00 a.m. so I just slept in the security room. Our flight was at 7. At one point on the dark drive, I awoke from a nap and realized that we were no longer on the main road, but rather taking a shortcut on backroads, passing near what looked like a incarceration facility. For some reason at that empty hour a sudden fear sprang into my mind, that something had gone horribly wrong, the drivers had set a trap, and we were actually being delivered to prison. But the feeling passed as we drove on and the airport came into view against the glowing horizon.

We bade Carlos farewell; his plane, bound for Honduras and then Guatemala, was parked next to ours, and leaving right after us. It felt a little like Hoth. I didn’t feel sorry to be leaving; unlike the last time we’d gone, this trip had been frustrating and a bit of an ordeal. I don’t know what lies in store for Cuba. Better things than now, I hope. I wish them the best.

Toronto was colder than when we’d left. We arrived way too early to check in to the Comfort Inn, and it was drizzling outside, so at Karl’s suggestion, we spent most of the day at a huge mall. Something -dale…Yorksdale: Massive, but seemingly very repetitive stores. The sun came out for a moment, dazzling everyone, and then hid again. An obviously armed security guard came up to Chenbl and I, asking if we were looking for anything in particular. I assume this had something to do with the fact that I was by far the worst-dressed individual in the mall at the time, and that’s saying something. The next day Karl showed us around the St. Lawrence Market, Eaton Mall, and the fountain made up of happily vomiting dogs, all in between periodic cups of coffee. We also perused the World Press Photo awards.

The sun was out in force the next day, though it was still chilly. We traveled into town via the circuitous bus/subway combination that everyone was convinced took far less time than it actually did. When we exited the station downtown, we were greeted with very lovely light flashing down from many different buildings at once. I wanted to explore this scene, seeing several wondrous possibilities within walking distance, but the group had to make a birthday song video for Carlos first. This took a while, of course, and by the time we were done, the light had moved on, becoming rather mundane. Oh well. It was probably a trap anyway.

We took a ferry out to the islands on the other side of the harbor. Quaint little places, forest paths, docks full of cleverly named sailboats. On the other side was a pleasant little beach with the water of Lake Ontario lapping gently on the sand. A man in a wheelchair rolled up and gazed at the water for a while. We walked along the island through disc-golf courses and waterways filled with swans and other wildlife to the central part, where we had some lunch at the Carousel Cafe, where the salmon salad and mac and cheese we ordered arrived with surprising alacrity. Chenbl was initially dismayed at the sight of mac and cheese, but after a taste was convinced it was a good choice.

Back downtown, the light was becoming quite nice. Karl had told us that he’d be around a certain intersection, but apparently we missed each other. But ducklings gonna duck, and just for fun after noticing them following me I walked in circles for a while before they caught on. Then I spotted a nice series of columns across the street, and quickly crossed over to take a few photos there. Periodically people would walk by, but nobody took any notice of me.

…until the others showed up, having crossed the street at the next intersection and come back. Flanked by several people, all holding their cameras up, I began to notice the people on the sidewalk throwing us annoyed looks, even though I was no longer taking any pictures. I should move on again, I thought…but wait; perhaps they need to know that this kind of thing has consequences, apart from simply the usual bad photos. So I walked up to one of the windows along the wall and took a shot of my reflection. It wasn’t even a shot of any of the people there, but one woman,  unsurprisingly, spoke up. “Hey, could you all stop taking pictures of people here? It’s really rude.”

“My apologies for the inconvenience,” I said, meaning it. “We’ll go.” I just hoped that the people in our group had taken note of what had just happened.

I was pretty much done in any case. Chenbl and I had some dinner at the Eaton Mall before browsing Best Buy, where Chenbl was powerless to resist the call of the big-ass boombox on display (it did sound amazing, I will admit), the price a fraction of what it would be in Taiwan. We lugged the damn thing on the subway as a group of white teens spouted ignorant homophobia and racist nonsense to a younger boy who was obviously in high heaven to be amongst his heroes. Then it was the bus back to the hotel to prepare for yet another late-night flight.

It was a long flight, 15+ hours just to Hong Kong. We flew over the north pole, and it felt like it as the plane was so cold. Back home, it has taken me a minute to get my mind right again. Chenbl’s been asking me where we should go next, but right now I. just. can’t. even. In any case, though it was a bit of an ordeal at times, I hope that you’ve at least enjoyed reading about it.

posted by Poagao at 4:22 pm  

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