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  
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  
Mar 07 2018

2/26: Havana

We took a bus to the neighborhood around Eric’s other place and wandered around taking photos in the alleys before a grabby Cuban man had us heading inside for some breakfast and to meet our guide for the day, a handsome, tall woman named Chaneti. After telling her where we’d been and what we’d seen, she led us out to the Malecón, where we walked along the seashore listening to her tell us stories of her childhood swimming in the abandoned swimming pools there. It was a beautiful day, the sky a brilliant azure and the sea a deep, calmer shade of blue. Before the revolution it had been quite luxurious, but people swam there up until the 90’s, when Cuba’s economy crashed after the fall of the Soviet Union meant that funding from that country dried up, and the government banned all sorts of things, including seaside activities, rather than trying to regulate them. We walked over to the old district to a cigar shop located in a lovely old mansion to buy some cigars, because that’s apparently what one does here. It was hot, and I was beginning to feel tired even though it was early in the day. In addition to the usual 35mm lens I always use on my old Sony, I brought the big, not often-used 16-35mm f4, just to have it in case I needed it. I kept it on the camera during the day, switching to the prime at night, and while it is useful in crowded, narrow alleys with lots of people, it is a big, heavy mofo of a lens, and makes the setup not a little ungainly when wearing it all damn day. It’s smallest when at 35mm, so that’s usually where I kept it.

Our first attempt at lunch was thwarted by the lack of most of the items on the menu, but our second was successful and featured a house band that wasn’t bad, but mistook Chenbl’s request for “something traditional” for a desire to hear “Stand By Me”.

As we walked over to the harbor to take a bus, Chaneti talked about Cuba’s prospects and the gradual opening up that has been burgeoning since Obama’s historic visit. I felt a cold coming on, but for some reason I hoped that the hot sun would somehow prevent it. We got on a crowded bus that traveled via tunnel across the harbor and to a small seaside town where, Chaneti told us, the fisherman on whom Hemingway based his book The Old Man and the Sea had lived. Apparently they were friends. We walked out to the seaside, where a group of kids were practicing baseball. Out on the shore, an old man sat on the rocks, facing the ocean.

I was feeling poorly by the time we got back to Eric’s place for some very nice pesto noodles, and went to bed immediately.

posted by Poagao at 11:49 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/25: Havana

We woke to birdsong this morning due to the continued lack of A/C. It’s not that hot at night here so it wasn’t that bad. Since our host Fefa was out already, we had to awaken Eric in order to arrange a guide for tomorrow, our last full day in Cuba.

For  today, we decided to walk down to the ocean on Paseo Avenue. The area is quiet and full of large, nicer houses and the occasional embassy. Both the motorcycle cops and the man they caught in his grey Lada seemed embarrassed to be there.

Down on the oceanfront were a couple of hotels, including the Riviera. Which means tourists. I’ve noticed that Cubans seem to whistle a lot to call each other (they also yell). An older couple, most likely American, sat at the table next to us during breakfast. The paunchy white dude had a brand-new red-starred Che Guevara hat to match his Adidas shoes and Reebok backpack. He used sign language a lot with the waitress. Occasionally a large Cuban woman in a lovely head-dress would breeze by, offering to exchange U.S. dollars.

The light had been quite nice when we arrived. Fifty yards away, an old green Packard was parked by the ocean in a very alluring fashion, but by the time we’d finished breakfast both it and the nice light were gone. We walked out to the oceanfront walk and watched fishermen, some swimming with some kind of motor and some in boats, moving around in the water. A man in a Mariachi outfit that was much too hot for this weather came striding over from the direction of the hotel, singing as he went, and we retreated to the main road.

I find Cuban men with bellies very reassuring. They don’t try to hide them; their shirts are as tight as ever, and many even go shirtless. Another thing I love about Cuba is not just the old cars, but the colors of the old cars, as well as the buildings. Where did these colors go, these bright greens, blues, oranges, reds, and even purples? You can only find them on Matchbox cars these days. Now everything is drab and boring, auto palette-wise.

We went to a mini mall in front of the hotels. I don’t know why, so don’t ask. The bathrooms had a woman in front to make sure that nobody could go to the bathroom without paying, which would have made some amount of sense had the bathrooms been working. The mini mall did feature garbage cans instead of random piles of garbage, which is something. We’d thought of going into the store, but there was a long list of things they told us we couldn’t bring into the store, including fhones(sic), computers, tablets, and of course, money. “How can you buy anything in the store without money?” we asked, but it was moot because when Chenbl tried to ask for assistance at the counter inside, he was told everyone was out eating. Later we found that the list was apparently things you couldn’t leave in your bag to be checked before entering the store, which actually makes sense.

Later, we took a random bus on a random road. It drove west, through a tunnel, and that was the end of the line, so we walked around the area. It was a mix of nice houses and dilapidated houses, with a couple of restaurants and hostels. It was hard to tell if things were getting better or worse. Over by the ocean, Chenbl walked into an official-looking building. When I tried to follow a few minutes later, a man in white stopped me, saying that it was a military base and I wasn’t allowed. “And you’re security?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Ok, well, let me just call my friend, who is also a foreigner, the one you just let walk in with no problem just now, and we’ll leave,” I said, motioning to Chenbl, who was across the room no doubt browsing important military documents. Perhaps they just assumed he was Kim Jung-un. That is some haircut.

We passed a large building that looked for all the world like a 60’s department store, but with “Karl Marx” written in luscious script on the front as if Marx had a line of luxury furniture, and followed a group of boys towards a section of waterfront between the remains of two abandoned apartment blocks. The waterfront was guarded by a large hole, which we deftly avoided. Once out on the dangerously slippery dock, we took pictures of the boys jumping into the water for a bit before continuing to walk along the water to another largely empty mini mall, which at least had pseudo-pizza and what I think were supposed to be hot dogs. They also had knock-off soft drinks.

After that we walked on, admiring the large vulture-like birds circling in the air (which might have actually been vultures, I’m not sure…they had red things on their heads, so possibly…this is what happens when you get to rely too much on Wikipedia and suddenly lose all Internet access). Down on the beach, a family was getting ready for a picnic, the dad gathering firewood and the two sons killing a chicken.

It was rather hot by the time we got on another random bus to town. You’d think just getting on random buses would fail eventually, and you’d be right. This one took us further and further into the countryside, until the last stop, a rather desolate area. The ride’s soundtrack was provided by the boys sitting behind us, who were taking turns rapping, singing, clapping and shouting.

The bus manager at the depot asked us where we were going, and put us on another bus back into town, which was nice of him. It was good we got on at the depot, because the bus filled up almost immediately, as most buses here do. I’ve found that most buses have at least one dude with a beatbox on board. Most of the time this is a good thing. Sometimes there’s more than one, and a battle ensues.

The new bus took us on a circuitous route around the city again, but we ended up in the old quarter eventually, just in time to browse the dockside market before it closed at six. After that we walked back through the alleys to the square near Chinatown that has become our go-to place to catch random buses. It’s also popular with people wanting rides in old cars providing taxi services, and since the next bus took forever to arrive, I spent some time taking photos of the old cars. I could probably do that all night, and indeed it would probably take some time to understand the area and the pace of activities there well enough to get some really nice shots.

But a bus did finally arrive, and we got dinner at a place right by the stop that featured “beef” hamburgers before we walked back to our place in Vedado.

posted by Poagao at 11:45 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/24: Havana

Our apartment is apparently haunted. Chenbl’s been acting, well, stranger than usual; this morning he dozed off in a chair and woke up to find that he’d accidentally formatted his camera’s memory card in his sleep, in what would appear to be one of the world’s first cases of sleepformatting. All of the shots and videos from the trip so far, gone (though I told him to stow the card for now so we can look into recovering the images later with software). My portable battery stopped working, and the air conditioning inexplicably shut down and just beeped at us all night.

We decided to walk to Eric’s other place this morning for breakfast, as he is probably sick and tired of taking us. We went the wrong way for a bit and wasted time going in a few circles, but fortunately I downloaded a phone app that shows your position on a map via only the phone’s GPS, which doesn’t require a Wi-Fi or phone signal. After breakfast, I read a piece in the place’s Lonely Planet about how the mafia basically caused the revolution by propping up a corrupt government (Good thing that kind of thing never happens these days, he added sardonically).

After breakfast, we set out south, away from the ocean, through the alleys. The light was brilliant, and once you’re here it’s pretty obvious why people take these high-contrast shots of people’s silhouettes against monochromatic backgrounds, a la Alex Webb. It also explains the horrible lengths some people go to with HDR to “rescue” such shots, god help them.

As we proceeded south, away from the touristy areas and Chinatown, the neighborhoods became poorer and dirtier, flowers and garbage piles lining the dirt roads. We walked all the way down to the back of the train station, where a man was collecting what looked like white dust from a field underneath the elevated railway tracks. A couple of little girls in a doorway, upon seeing our cameras, struck some alarmingly suggestive poses. One of them wore lipstick. “You’ll be an actress one day!” Chenbl told her.

The area in front of the station was obviously affluent at one time, but like most of Havana, has since fallen on hard times. The station itself is under renovation, and the one restaurant we could see on the map had closed long ago, algae clogging up the fish tanks in the dusty windows. We settled for some ham sandwiches while standing in another hole-in-the-wall joint.

The ferry to Regla leaves from the same port as the one to the big Jesus statue, so we had to make sure to be on the right one. Regla, across the bay from Havana, is a down-to-earth industrial neighborhood that reminds me strongly of the set of a spaghetti western. There is a strong African religious element here, which is a fascinating aspect of Cuban culture. We stopped at an impromptu amusement park set up right next to a large power plant; the operators were hooking up the rides directly to the power lines, which was a little disconcerting as they didn’t even wear gloves.

Up the street we were surprised to see “Chen’s Café” in Chinese (albeit in simplified characters) on a sign. We went in and had some chicken and pork accompanied by a drink that can only be described as spaghetti sauce. The boss, “Eddie”, was asleep, alas, so we didn’t have the chance to chat with him.

We kept walking until we came to a cemetery and turned back along another road, this one leading to a small baseball stadium. Back at the ferry, men were standing waist-deep in the water of the bay, fishing. We almost missed the ferry and had to run. I suck at running, but I made it.

The old quarter seemed cringworthily fake after an afternoon in Regla. We failed to buy any cigars due to ignorance in such matters, and the market was closed in any case by the time we got back. I was tired after a long day of walking. We got on a random bus, and my phone’s location app decided to pick that time to quit working, but we managed to get off more or less where we wanted to in Centro. For the first time since we’ve been here, it began to rain, so we took refuge on the balcony of a restaurant, but the restaurant was actually just the balcony. The rain increased, so we sat and watched the splashing old cars and buses in the night against the amazing buildings that are so ubiquitous in Havana. Of course there was no water. Or bathrooms. But I’ve found that Cubans seem to provide more personal space than people do in Taiwan, so there’s that. People create more space to pass on sidewalks, and cars here tend to get annoyed with us walking in their path more than they do in Taiwan. This might have something to do with the inevitably longer stopping distances of ancient, 50’s-era drum brakes and just a lot more mass to stop than more modern vehicles.

We took another extremely crowded bus back to our neighborhood. At certain points everyone on the bus would cheer, and often they would sing along to whatever was playing on the boombox someone had brought with them. As interesting as that may seem, it was definitely not a ride I wanted to last any longer than absolutely necessary.

Tomorrow: More rain? We’ll see.

posted by Poagao at 11:32 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/23: Havana

Eric, Chenbl and I hopped in a crème 1959 Mercedes-Benz 190E to go over to his other place, but the driver, seeing we were foreigners, hopped up the price, so we hopped out again and walked, as the weather was once again brilliant. Eric pointed out various properties for sale, and others with several stories tacked onto the top in a fashion that caused Chenbl, who is after all an engineer, to wince. “It’s a good thing they don’t have earthquakes here,” was a constant refrain throughout the trip.

At the other place, a pair of Italian backpackers were waiting for Eric, and they chatted while Chenbl and I enjoyed another excellent breakfast there. After breakfast, we headed out along the shore and the Malecón, past a school that was just letting out so that we were surrounded with crowds of students. I’ve been seeing the typical “Cuba shots” everywhere, and while I can’t blame anyone for taking those shots, I’ve been feeling a bit reluctant to take them myself. I’ve been trying to take the shots that appeal to me, but I don’t feel I’ve really done justice to the place; that would take more time and dedication (and probably better Spanish), alas. People keep asking us where we are from, nearly always a prelude to trying to sell us cigars. Some say “Happy Holiday!” which I suppose that is to get us to ask what holiday, followed by an explanation of some holiday that requires people to buy expensive cigars.

We walked past a literal hole-in-the-wall barbershop, and after some back-and-forth on the price, we decided to get our hair cut. The guys were pretty good, and it was wonderfully comforting to have one’s head treated so tenderly amidst the Spanish chatter and batter of the Cubans both inside the shop and hanging around just outside. If you’re wondering what kind of hairstyle Chenbl ended up with, let’s just say that he stopped being called Jackie Chan on the street and started being called Kim Jong-un. I suspect this is probably even more effective at keeping people on their toes.

After a lunch of hamburgers with eggs, we walked down the Malecón and downtown again. It feels like, in just three days, that we’ve pretty much seen the city, though I realize there are many parts we have yet to see. We went to Chinatown and managed to order a couple of dishes to take away. Then we walked over to the bus station to take the bus back and spent an enjoyable evening dining on Eric’s delicious cooking in the apartment while listening to his upcoming album, which I like a lot and look forward to seeing released. He’s quite a musician.

posted by Poagao at 11:06 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/22: Havana

Eric took us to the other property he works with this morning, a nice little space with a courtyard and several rooms just a block or two from the ocean. There we had a nice breakfast of toast, fruit and fried eggs, and met Jorge, our guide for the day. Jorge is a quiet, soft-spoken young man with smoky young Elvis looks and a great deal of knowledge about Havana; it was a pleasure to have him accompany us. He led us through Centro to the small Chinatown area, where we saw Chinese restaurants, Confucian Institutes and Kung-fu temples, some with mis-written characters and bad calligraphy, but fascinating nonetheless. We’d wanted to get our hair cut at one of the barbershops, but they were all full with long waiting times, which is too bad as I really want to see what a barber who has experience dealing with African locks can do with Chenbl’s hair.

We made our way to the old district, this time not going through the touristy bits but the regular parts where normal people live, and it was quite interesting. We visited a shop full of lovely African art and carvings, and talked with the artist via Jorge. Lunch was delicious ham sandwiches at a tiny restaurant in the old quarter, sitting on stools and watching pranks being played on people on the TV, which was hooked up to a box rather than Cuban broadcast television.

We then toured the market by the harbor, where I decided, for once, to not buy a hat. Every other tourist we see is wearing a straw hat, and I’m pretty sure I’d lose it in the wind here. We visited Hemingway’s other bar (that man got around where alcohol is concerned), the one where mojitos were apparently invented, though they don’t use mint but some other similar plant that IMHO doesn’t have as appealing a flavor. Outside the bar a blind man was singing; Chenbl bought his CD, as he’s been doing here to support local artists whose voices appeal to him. I signed what looked like the only Chinese name among the thousands of signatures on the wall outside. People kept shouting “Jackie Chan!” and “Chino!” at Chenbl. “Is this Jackie Chan?” one older man asked excitedly.

“Yes, it is!” I said, a little too enthusiastically. “He gained fifteen kilograms and lost fifteen years!” But my sarcasm didn’t get across; as he eagerly shook Chenbl’s hand, I added, “Don’t tell anyone!” But he was already off to tell his friends, so we decided to get out of there before our ruse was exposed or someone challenged Chenbl to a street fight.

We walked up the harbor through the squares until it was time for Jorge to go. Chenbl and I continued on as the day grew overcast. A bunch of people on motorcycles were waiting to get on a bus…along with their motorcycles. The best of both worlds, I suppose. We then walked through another cathedral and up to the parking lot to catch a bus back to Vedado, or “Ve-ah-oh” as it’s pronounced here; the letter D isn’t terribly popular with Cubans.

Eric was waiting for us again, and after we rested a bit and put on long pants, we went out for some standing-room-only pizza, in that the places that sells it doesn’t have a license for chairs so everyone stands. It was hot and decent. Beef seems quite hard to come by here, and even chicken is a little rare; pork and ham dominate the menus.

Eric then walked with us several shady blocks to the Art Factory, a fascinating complex with strict controls, where all kinds of art are mixed together in various exhibitions…we saw photography exhibitions, ballroom dancing, and the best rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody I’ve ever heard played by a French Horn quartet. We asked the group if they had an album we could buy, but all the leader, a young man named Elio Hernandez Rojas, could do was ask if we had a USB thumb drive so we could copy it. Unfortunately, we didn’t think to bring any. As it turns out, Cubans seem to obtain all of their information, news and entertainment via the distribution (on Tuesdays for some reason) of USB drives. This is mainly because, as I’ve mentioned, the Internet here is basically unusable, with incredibly expensive rates and extremely limited speeds for the short amount of time one can get online, not to mention government controls on the content. On the one hand, this is horribly inconvenient…but I have to admit you do hear real conversations more here than in most other places, and there are far fewer people with their heads buried in phones. The few public places where the crippled Wi-Fi is available are filled with people completing laundry lists of things they need to get done online before their time/data are used up.

Anyway, back to the Art Factory: The complex was made from an actual old factory, with the additions of cargo containers, little courtyards and art spaces throughout. Many foreigners were in attendance, with English, German and other languages being thrown around. There was also a Spanish-language rap show as well as a place with bouncers we couldn’t get into for some reason. The whole was very cool, and had me feeling very strange. I don’t know why, but I’ve been feeling discombobulated, disconnected the past few days. Cuba is just so surreal. There was an art exhibit of pictures of people pointing at themselves, and recordings of people saying who they were. “I am Jose,” “I am Maria,” etc. I thought what I would say…probably: “I am not.”

posted by Poagao at 10:43 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/21: Havana

We hadn’t figured out how to work the A/C; it was a little hot, but opening the windows seemed to work fine once everything cooled down in the evening. It’s so nice to have decent-temperature air available after that awful Canadian cold. The night was filled with the voices of neighbors talking and TVs and radios playing, but I was so tired it didn’t matter. Breakfast when we finally got up was scrambled eggs, toast and fruit made by Fefa, the stout older orange-haired woman who owns the place and has a comfy living room downstairs filled with paintings and well-dressed dolls. This building used to be the garage of the large decrepit mansion in front of it, which is falling apart and partially uninhabitable but is still home to several people in various rooms. Carlos, an older man who is somehow related to the joint, came up to fix the shower drain, and Annanai came to get us afterwards. Annanai looks to be about our age, light complexioned and blonde, and seems to quite often get taken for a foreigner even though she is Cuban. I imagine this can be frustrating for her.

We walked to the wide, rather empty Revolution Square, where there are large abstract portraits of the revolutionary heroes like Che et al, and also where all the military parades are held, but we didn’t feel like paying to go in. Instead we walked around other areas admiring the old cars and colorful walls. Renting classic convertibles painted bright pink seems to be a real money-maker in Havana. We saw prices of $30 an hour, which is a lot even outside Cuba.

After we stopped by a small bar for a drink that was not unlike Taiwan’s Apple Cidra, Chenbl changed entirely too much money because only one person can approach a teller at a time and he got flustered. We then passed by the main cemetery, but you have to pay to get in so we skipped it…the graves looked frighteningly haphazard in any case, and Chenbl can be sensitive to certain things that wander around cemeteries.

We stopped by a market whose concrete entrance signs betrayed its origins as a Woolworth store. Lunch was a great deal of chicken. While Annanai called her boyfriend, we watched some workers unloading supplies for one of the rations store. Every Cuban gets a discount in basic foods, flour, rice, meat, etc. every week. Outside the shop was parked an immaculate two-tone red-and-white Ford Fairlane. Nearby an early 50’s black Volkswagen Beetle rally car was parked in front of a garage that the owner was busy welding together.

So much in Cuba just seems difficult, difficult to buy, difficult to do…it’s rather the opposite of Japan in this respect. Ordinary Cubans live by their wits alone. There simply doesn’t seem to be a real universal system in place, nor a sense of certainty, except that the air will be filled with exhaust from all these old vehicles. I suppose that air quality is not high on the list of concerns.

We hopped into one of these cars, an ancient Plymouth, and drove to the Malecón to see the big Hotel Nacional de Cuba there, the stone of its exterior scarred from an assault on one of the presidents’ factions. Apparently the mafia tried to run Cuba from there, which as we know didn’t really work out. Rich foreigners gazed across the sea towards Florida from the lawn chairs. It was actually cold in the shadow of the hotel, though it was hot everywhere else.

We then took another old taxi to the Paseo, a long walkway in the middle of the avenue, where we admired the old buildings, and then another taxi, an old Russian Lada this time, to the ferry. This took us across the bay to the site of a large Jesus statue on a hill, near an ancient fort. Security is strict on the little ferries because apparently people have tried to hijack them to take to Florida, incredibly. On the hill, tourists faced away from the statue, looking at the sun setting over the city below. It was a short hike back down the hill to walk around the area by the water, which features the remains of a railway. Music was always playing somewhere, and people talked, laughed and occasionally fought in the streets. Life without the Internet and smartphones, ladies and gentlemen. People can only access a strangled version of the Internet on their phones in parks for high rates and at slow speeds. But things might be changing in that respect.

After the ferry back, we got on a crowded bus back to our neighborhood, where we met Eric during dinner. He took us to a rock show at a nearby underground Beatles-themed music club called the Yellow Submarine (which sounds better in Spanish than it does in English). It really wasn’t bad, an enthusiastic young band full of enthusiastic and trendy young Cubans, and though I would have liked to hear more original, Spanish-language content, I wish them well.

posted by Poagao at 10:25 am  
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