Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 24 2019

Cuba Trip! Part one

I started this trip in a state of apprehension; too many things going on. I’ve missed that old feeling of just setting off into the world that I used to get; it’s been too long since those days. I keep hoping it might return someday. I got an inkling of it as we took the metro, but at the airport more details pulled me back into limbo. Students began to appear, part of our group, as well as their friends and spouses along for the ride, to get a glimpse of whatever this whole “street photography trip” thang was. But I felt obstructed, like I was in everyone’s way. Our reserved seats were gone? Ok, fine.

Hong Kong airport, when we got there, was awash in the migraine-producing afternoon sun; the students ran around in groups holding their cameras in front of them like filled diapers, succumbing to the trap of “good light”. I looked at the people getting on the plane and wondered how many of them were going into exile. How many were starting new lives elsewhere, never to return?

The ensuing flight to Toronto was one of the longer I’ve taken, worth several movies I hadn’t seen and a few I had. A season of Black-ish. Some Bob’s Burger. Nothing happened outside the plane, or inside for that matter.

In Toronto, we found the old van that was the hotel shuttle, and then for some reason found that our rooms had all been reassigned from the original website booking at the airport Comfort Inn, many double bed rooms were now singles; the woman at the desk said that’s what our reservations were, and when I looked, that was indeed what it said. It’s not us! she said, talk to the booking site. Fortunately Chenbl had made pdfs of the original bookings, and so I had an online chat with the website customer service, who assured me all was well. The desk woman then called up, affronted that I would do exactly what they told me to do when I complained by taking the matter up with the website. The website apparently called the hotel up and said WTF.

I had disliked Vancouver when I was there last, but Toronto felt different, more earnest and less insecure. Or perhaps that was because it wasn’t freezing so I wasn’t in as nasty a mood. We walked around the cloudy grey of downtown, through the recently deserted square where they’d held Nuit Blanche the night before. A huge scarred model of a Pentax K1000 stood in the middle of it. A group of subdued protesters marched through the square, chanting education slogans.

Chenbl and the others wanted to see Niagara Falls, so we hopped on a bus there, stowing our stuff at the Ramada Inn we’d reserved there for the night. The rooms, and the hotel, were much nicer than the Airport Comfort Inn. There was no breakfast, but an iHop downstairs and a Buddhist monastery next door. We hopped on a bus down to the falls and looked at all the water as well as all the people looking at the water. Across the river was the United States, and with all the signage and bars they made sure everyone knew it. The place felt like I imagine a small version of Las Vegas would feel. We walked back towards the hotel after the sun set, bathing the eerily empty town in lovely golden light, and I could think of nothing but a sudden realization of why Alec Soth was so smitten by this place that he made a book of it. I could have wandered, but now everyone was hungry, so: dinner at a steakhouse, looking out the large windows while everyone discussed what meal to have. Next time! Except there is no next time; there never is.

We took another series of buses the next morning up to a little town chock full o’ preciousness called Niagara on the Lake. The-King-stayed-at-the-Inn!-Well-More-Like-Passed-Through kind of place. Lovely houses, tourists everywhere. Chenbl and I walked the precious streets, noting the bees inside the glass cabinets full of cookies and cakes. Bees! So it must be good, Chenbl noted, nodding. We all love bees these days. We used to hate them but now when we see a bee we ask how it’s doing and if it would like some water or something.

Then we took a cable car that went nearly all the way over the river before heading back to the falls. Some of the group wanted to take the boats to under the falls, but I didn’t feel like getting myself and my camera soaking wet, so Chenbl and I decided to take a zipline by the falls instead. It was fun, but too short. We wandered the town some more, from the strip of gaudiness by the falls, neon signs, Ripley Believe it (or Nah), etc. to the quiet motels and empty shops. Beautiful dusk light as we walked to a bar to get burgers for everyone waiting back at the station for our late-night bus back to Toronto.

The next day we met up with Karl Edwards, a local street photographer, and shot for a bit at a salmon jump near Old Mill…groups of kids on field trips scampered around, but precious few salmon were jumping. I didn’t care, but Chenbl perched himself on the edge of the dam and waited for a long time to get some fish shots. Then Karl took us around downtown, which was now brilliant with sunlight. It was difficult to keep everyone together…someone was always complaining about us going either too fast or too slow. Photography in such a state is quite difficult…Oh well. Next time! We took the UP train back to the airport. The UP line is fast and convenient. But people in the group were complaining because they didn’t like to buy tickets each time, but they didn’t feel like buying the Presto card, which would have been cheaper and meant buying tickets every time, which meant everyone waiting around for the group to get their tickets…so…?

Karl walked with us again the next day around Chinatown, and he even suggested dimsum for lunch. The light was very strong, the cable cars running up and down. Chenbl and I walked around a bit on our own, having sent everyone off to do their own thing for a few hours. We stopped at the art museum before heading back to the airport. I still liked Toronto more than Vancouver…it just felt more chill for some reason…though like Vancouver there are far too many hulking blue skyscrapers. I’m sure there’s nowhere I could afford to live in either town.

But we had a redeye flight to Havana to catch, which was mainly why we’d elected to stay by the airport. The terminal was swank, with iPads for everyone and a bar so everyone could get drunk for the party flight down. The fully booked jet waited far out on the tarmac as we were taking the cheap Rouge option with no frills; everything on board cost money, so I drank water and listened to Spotify for entertainment. Both the flight and Customs were smooth, and we met our old friend Carlos, just flown in from Guatemala to join our excursion. Outside the terminal in Havana, our two hotel bus drivers were apparently expecting “LIN” to be a svelte young Asian woman, and were visibly disappointed to find my ugly mug instead. But they took us into town anyway.

At the hotel there was some bullshit when one of the students (a former student, so this was not entirely unexpected behavior) took issue with not all the rooms in the ancient edifice being exactly the same. Ceiling heights were a factor, apparently, as ludicrous as that sounds. It was as if she didn’t know nor care that she was in Cuba, FFS. There was a lot of sighing and drama and accusations, but Chenbl and Carlos and I agreed to switch rooms with Ms. P. Donna and everyone finally got to bed around 3:30 a.m.

The next day we just walked around the area, letting everyone get accustomed to the place. There were lots of difference from the last time we’d been there a year and a half ago; everything in the city seemed to be under construction; mostly old buildings being refurbished, but some new buildings as well. More new cars, restaurants, even new cruise ship terminals, all in preparation for the opening to the world that Obama began and Trump then crushed. Some serious private money had been spent before the Large Orange One pulled the rug from underneath them. Of course the Cuban government also deserves its share of the blame for utter mismanagement and corruption.

We stopped by the mojito bar again; the drinks were better this time, and the band was good. Most of the bands here are good. Our group, many of whom had put on hats, sunglasses and facemasks so that they resembled an Invisible Man Fan Club, ran around holding their cameras out in front of them, fixated on the little screens, and of course taking photos of whatever I was photographing or looking at. I could turn around at any point and see a line of them standing behind me, cameras held out in front of them. It was amusing the first couple of times.

Chenbl found a barber to get a haircut, which is always fun. Then we walked down to the Malecón and then into Centro for some lunch of ham sandwiches on the street as a couple of dogs watched from a barred window across the way. Then we headed back through the square where we’d spent so much time waiting for buses last time, and then to the Chinatown Gate. A man approached Chenbl, wanting to show him his ramshackle house, and of course Chenbl went with him. Sighing, I followed, for there were sure to be shenanigans. Sure enough, the man started going on about feeding his children, etc. Chenbl gave him some money, but he wanted more, so I moved away, towards the exit, and Chenbl followed my lead. It was sad all around. I was sensing a greater desperation in people than the last time we’d been there, which should have come as no surprise. The hawkers were more insistent, more people weren’t even bothering to even pretend to offer anything, simply coming up and asking for money. They’re feeling the squeeze, but of course the government isn’t feeling it, so the wrong people are being squeezed. Needless suffering, i.e., politics. Seeing this, as well as knowing the history of repression of the people, made me more hesitant to take photographs. I knew and they knew that they could get into serious trouble if they messed with tourists.

We made our way back to our hostel, the Las Maletas, which was great; I’d recommend it highly. Located in a lovely old building in old Havana, close to just about everything, the hosts were gracious and understanding, the breakfasts good, and they helped us plan our days as well as they could. I had a room at the top of the stairs in the back, with only a tiny window looking out on the adjacent dance studio, but I loved coming back there after a day of walking around the city, listening the music and voices wafting in from the street as I took a cold shower. The only rain we saw was at night. Like Camelot, but not, because the poor state of drainage on the streets meant nearly constant puddles everywhere. Nice for reflection shots; not so nice for walking.

The next morning Chenbl and some of the others had to go to the bank around the corner to change money…that gave me a little time to walk around on my own taking photos…alas, all too soon we were all together again, moving ducklike through the lively streets. We stopped into a shop to get some cigars, and then went to the old square, where a man straddled a stage he was constructing. I took a few photos, and when he came down I gave him some vitamin water to drink. After lunch we took a glance at the Peter Turnley exhibition, which wasn’t all that impressive. But then I’ve never really been a huge fan of either Turnley. It’s nice that they have that little gallery space, though.

Nearby a school was letting out, the parents waiting for the kids outside. Of course our group stood in a line, surrounding the door, cameras held up and at the ready. Oof. I had to go sit down a little ways down the street until they finished.

We took a ferry across the harbor, something I usually enjoy, and were asked for candy from some of the kids fishing at the dock. Carlos was sitting with a brother-and-sister team who were quite the comedians. A hot walk up the hill later a few of us were looking at the Christ statue. A group of Russians, including a woman in a scarf, was taking selfies while making poses in front of the statue. Then we walked back down to the ferry, as most of the group hadn’t been in the mood to follow.

That night we took vans out to the recently re-opened Factory de Arte, and I spent most of the time watching a fantastic Black trumpeter who shared the stage with a timid but also not bad white saxophonist and a young white woman playing the flute who really had no business being on the stage. There was also an extremely self-indulgent photo/art show upstairs. Everyone who’s anyone in Cuba was there; it was interesting, though I am no one and thus effectively invisible in such places. Which is fine with me.

The next day we (well, most of us…Ms. Donna graced us with neither her august presence nor financial contributions ) took vans out to Fusterlandia, a tiled home that has become a tourist attraction, but the surrounding village turned out to be more interesting than the exhibit. It’s astounding how much potential there is in the people of Cuba, their resourcefulness and ingenuity, I thought as I walked around the area. If they leapfrogged the petroleum industry and went straight to electric, it would be utterly amazing. I walked alone towards the seashore, passing through a junkyard that had been a playground. A trio of young boys played on the broken swing set, and I paused to engage in a short conversation in my broken Spanish with a man who was working on a house. It wasn’t his house, he said, resigned. He could never afford it. Carlos often told me my Spanish was better than I thought it was, but to be honest it’s just not good enough for anything more than basic conversation.

A magic dog bustled around a busy market, but our lunch was to be quite posh, on the water at Hemingway Marina, built for use by foreigners who are allowed to use boats. The waiter tried to add US$50 to our bill, but two of our number are accountants, and they weren’t having it. Chenbl still tipped him. We drove a ways out of town in the afternoon, Universal Studio-esque clouds building up as we walked around a run-down neighborhood. Though everyone was friendly, some of them told Carlos that parts of it might be dangerous, that we should avoid going a certain direction. Everyone seemed to think Carlos was Mexican, and he was constantly correcting them.

On the way back to old Havana, we stopped for a bit at Revolution Square to wonder if the giant heads came alive at night and compared selfie counts (Che always wins, and it drives Cienfuegos CRAZY). It rained hard after dinner as we walked around the old town, filling up the puddles for the next day, so we waited under the eaves of a large government building, ignoring the calls of passing, well-lit cabs.

 

posted by Poagao at 6:13 pm  

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