Lets face it, if any of you have been reading this blog so far, it should be starting to become blatantly obvious that I have a major infatuation with nostalgia and the past. From Sixties Rock Stars to 19th Century artistic movements, my vision always seems to refer back to a more romanticized time where things were “better/more passionate/more interesting/more authentic/more beautiful” etc etc. Perhaps this is just the trap that many of us humans just fall in to. Our childhoods always seemed like they were “happier times”, even though in the moment, they may have very well not been happy at all. With the passage of time however, I think it just becomes a natural tendency for most people to see everything that transpired before us through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
Case in point: one of my favorite movies: Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen. Though strangely miscast with Owen Wilson (probably playing the part that a young Woody Allen would have inhabited had he made the film 20 years earlier), Midnight follows the time-travelling adventures of a rather goofy American writer. After wandering through Paris at night, he finds, almost Narnia-like, a dark street corner where an antique motor car will pick him up at exactly midnight to be spirited away to 1920’s Paris.
There, he cavorts with his literary and artistic idols of the Lost Generation at wild late night parties in the cafe’s and gleaming brassieres of yore. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Salvador Dali and F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. Who the fuck wouldn’t want to do that for an evening out?? Alright, maybe some really boring people don’t like Paris or Time Travel, but for me, I’d dress up in my finest vintage suit, pop open a bottle of champagne with Django Reinhardt in a West Bank jazz club, then maybe try to seduce Josephine Baker while I’m at it- that is if her cheetah on a chain didn’t maul me to death first.
Wilson’s character returns night after night to the same street corner, only to be picked up again by the antique car. In fact, he’s enjoying living in his fantasy of the past even more than his stressful, prosaic one in the present where his in-laws are boors and his marriage is falling apart. On one of his visits back in time, he meets a beautiful young Parisian woman, Adriana, and is instantly besotted. Wilson is almost ready to stay behind in Art Deco Paris forever; never to return to his previous life in the modern day.
However, in the most interesting scene in the film, the pair are walking around at night in the 20s, and encounter an antique, horse-drawn carriage waiting for them in the streets. They hop on for a ride, and soon find themselves riding through the gaslamp-lit streets of 1880s Paris- even further back in time. Wilson and Adriana meet up at a cafe and share some absinthe alongside Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin. Adriana exclaims her passion for the earlier “Golden Age” era of the Belle Epoque. To her, the arts, literature, culture and Paris itself were better and more real. Degas, Gauguin and Lautrec express their disdain for their modern era and wax nostalgic about Italy during the Renaissance. When it’s time to leave, Adriana simply can’t- unable to leave her idealized Bohemia of the Belle Epoque behind, she decides to stay in the 1880s, leaving Wilson to take his horse and carriage back to the “future” of the 1920s. Heartbroken, he decides to finally make his way back to his grey reality of the modern world.
Midnight is obviously centered around our nostalgia for a romanticized past. I’m sure Paris in the 1920’s was no cake walk for a large majority of its citizens. It was probably a shithole. Most people lived in cramped tenement apartments with no central heating or hot running water. Bathrooms were most likely down the hall and shared with your neighbors. Diseases like tuberculosis and polio were still not well understood and life expectancy was far shorter than today. The streets probably smelled like old urine. Actually, the last time I went to Paris, the streets still smelled like old urine- at least that much hasn’t changed.
Fast forward another 10 years, and war and fascism was rearing it’s ugly head all over Europe. In short, if you were a rich American expatriate like F. Scott Fitzgerald, life was a neverending series of fancy parties and glamorous dinners. For the average Parisian, life was probably, well… just life. In retrospect, there probably never were any “Good Old Days”. Maybe we should all just try to recognize the brilliance of our own days and make the best of them with the time that we have.
You know what’s great about Midnight in Paris though? A year after the film came out, my Uncle took a trip to Paris and said groups of people would dress in up in Art Deco costumes and have a party every Saturday night on the same steps where Owen Wilson would get picked up. At midnight they’d all cheer and toast with champagne. I don’t know if folks still do this at that location (can any Parisian readers attest to this?), but damn, that sounds like a crowd right up my alley!
So, if you had a time machine: where would you go? Is there an artistic subculture you’d like to go back in time and experience?
“Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money!”
I was just revisiting some George Carlin standup videos on YouTube recently. I think I’ve begun another one of my posts using his quotes. Check Carlin out if you’ve never had the chance. Like his contemporary, Richard Pryor, he’s both a very funny comedian and thought provoking at the same time. As the “Dean Of Counterculture Comedians” (as a newspaper once labeled him), Carlin always encouraged his audience to think for themselves and question the powers that be. In this case, his target was organized religion.
If you consider yourself a Freethinker, a Bohemian, a Hippie, a Goth, a Punk, a Hip Hop poet, a Rebel, a whatever… (who needs labels, right?) probably organized religion is not going to sit too well with you and your stunningly perceptive mind. I know for myself, I’m someone who doesn’t accept the easy answers in life. Maybe the Bible or the Torah are exactly the final word on God, Existence and the Afterlife. But I just can’t accept that it’s all laid out for my mind like a cushy, plush red carpet. I only need to stroll along the velvet-roped path to end all my doubts, questions and worries. The easier the answer is to the Big Questions, the more I question the simple convenience of those answers.
Neither can I accept the powerful institutions that grow up around religion and how that they, and they alone, hold the keys to all these big answers. Some crusty old white dudes in Rome, surrounded by gold, palaces and paintings by Renaissance Masters can communicate with God in some sort of special way and pretend to know His plan alone (and gays and women can stay in their place). Don’t even get me started in on Islam: some crusty old Middle-Eastern dudes surrounded by gold, palaces and Mercedes-Benzes forbid us to drink alcohol, fornicate and satirize religion (and gays and women can stay in their place).
Sorry, I just don’t get it. What’s the appeal? What is it about religion and the DENIAL of pleasure? The more you abstain from in this worldly life, the higher in rank one becomes in the eyes of so many organized religions cults. I’ll enjoy my glass of aged whiskey before bed thank you very much, and highly doubt that when I die, if there is a sentient God, He/She is going to be very concerned about how much bacon I ate, or some sloppy one-night stand I had in college.
I’m not knocking Personal Spirituality: many people in times of hardship take comfort in believing in a higher purpose to their lives. If staring up at night sky and marveling at the vastness of the universe inspires you (I know it does me), then all the power to you. But Thinking For Yourself– now there’s a novel idea. Question authority wherever you find it, and do what pleases you in this lifetime- as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Live your life the way you feel it should be lived.
You only have one chance to get it right and once you’re gone- you’re gone. Even if you ascend onwards to some higher plane of existence, you’re not coming back to this one in the same way. So, enjoy your days while you have them. Stop denying what you’d love to do in your life out of fear of violent retribution by some Invisible Sky Wizard invented by illiterate desert sheepherders 2000 years ago. Drink a bottle of red wine and fornicate in a public park. Besides getting arrested, I guarantee nothing really bad is going to happen to you. There is no Universal Truth folks (except, of course, every word that I’ve ever written in this blog).
With all the violence being committed in the name of religion in today’s world (and throughout human history for that matter), maybe it’s time we took a step back from all this primitive barbarity and the justification behind it based on unverifiable emotions and feelings… Just sayin’.
What do you think? Are we all just deluded chimpanzees denying ourselves meaning in this lifetime?
I remember a conversation I had with an English teaching co-worker in Brazil. He had just broken up with his fiancé in Sao Paulo, and had decided to rapidly quit his job at our school and move to another city in the South of the country where he could be closer to his family (he was half-British/half-Brazilian). I suggested that when he arrived at the city where his parents lived, he could try opening up his own English school; be his own boss etc. His answer left me somewhat dumbstruck:
“I’m a lazy person, Greg- I’m not ashamed of it. Its how I am. I just wouldn’t want to put all that effort into something like running my own business.”
He said it in all seriousness, without a trace of irony in his voice. Clearly, he knew his own personality to a tee- and had no hesitation in expressing it in straightforward terms. ZFG: Zero Fucks Given. It almost made my jaw-drop to hear someone say that without apologies. In fact I admire him for it: it was almost a revelation to hear.
I think a lot of people, particularly in American culture, would actually be quite ashamed to openly label themselves a lazy person. It’s probably the greatest, cardinal sin in our society: Idleness and lack of ambition. Ask people what they did with their weekends, and they often reply enthusiastically: “Oh, Busy!” with this burnt-out hysterical smile on their face. As if it was a boast- the greatest accomplishment of their week.
Probably this mindset was inherited from those really unhip Puritans. They were so uptight, even England got sick of them and kicked them out. I mean really, how can a country founded by religious fundamentalists who hated music, dancing, drunkenness, fun, fornication and socialization between the sexes be good for anyone? (And that means you too, ISIS Caliphate) Lets build some barns and pray all day, holy crap. I wouldn’t have lasted a day in that colony. Probably would have been better if they had all just starved to death at Plymouth Rock and the Irish had built a pub on it’s ruins. Then invited the local Indians around for pints and a game of darts.
I know, I know, we can’t avoid work: but neither should we avoid relaxation, playtime, fun and idleness. In fact, I do like working, and will work hard, if it’s something I care about or fascinates me (like writing this blog for instance). I do also make it a point to exercise 4 times a week. However, there seems to be a tendency, a decidely modern one at that, that lauds being busy for the mere sake of it. If you’re not running around like a chicken with your head cut off, there’s something undefinably wrong with you. You’re a bum! Well, maybe there’s something undecidedly wrong with our own culture?
Take a comparison between the UK and the USA. Although, both countries have relatively similar bad habits (drinking, smoking, greasy food), the Brits have far lower rates of diabetes, heart attacks, hypertension, strokes and cancer. How can this be? Some might argue that the defining difference (although the Brits also guarantee heath care regardless of economic ability to pay) have far less working hours and far more vacation time. In fact, it’s guaranteed by law. Here’s a screen shot from the benefits section of the McDonald’s website in the UK:
Ouch- that’s kind of like a slap in the face if you’re American. How much holiday/rest time do American fast food workers receive? None? “Oh, you were diagnosed with a brain tumor today? Come in to work or you’re fired”.
Or maybe we could adopt the Japanese model, where they literally have a term called Karōshi (過労死): “overwork death”. Young men who apparently should be in the prime of health, slipping into a coma at the job and never waking up. WTF?!? Don’t worry, his bosses found someone else to take his place on the assembly line the next day. His sacrifice will never be forgotten by the Toyota Board of Directors.
In any case, maybe it’s time we all slowed down a bit. Don’t feel guilty about not being busy all the damn time. Take time for YOU. Get enough goddamn sleep per night- it’s actually bad for your health not to. Your brain will literally start to eat itself without enough rest. Fill your downtime with hobbies, activities, passions, interests, friends and family. Before you “Karoshi”. Work isn’t everything you know…
As I’ve mentioned before, Cuba is a funny place: they march to the beat of their own conga drum, for better or for worse. You can follow the death-defying narrative of this trip in Part 1 and Part 2. This can however be a little problematic for first time travelers going there, especially Americans who are now just getting to take advantage of the newfound Glasnost- or for however long that lasts. This post is for pure logistics of how to get here, what to bring, money, how to get around, and dealing with immigration matters (particularly for Americans and those on Green Cards). And just a heads up: I’m not receiving any affiliate or referral income for any of the below links, they’re just the one’s we used or were recommended to us.
We used Skyscanner to buy our tickets. The prices from the San Francisco in September were very reasonable: $350 per person roundtrip, with a layover in Mexico City. Bear in mind though that our tickets were purchased in the low season. There are (for now) direct flights to Havana from Miami, New York and Charlotte, among others. You will have to choose what category of Tourist Visa you’ll be visiting Cuba under. More on that later, but most people choose the rather vague “Support For The Cuban People”. Just select one and try to be consistent about it.
What To Bring:
This was probably the most challenging area you’ll have to deal with. Most products you’re used to easily obtaining in your own country just aren’t commonplace in Cuba. Hell, there’s hardly any stores at all on the street anyway. Do you really want to spend 3-4 hours of your vacation wandering around Havana in 95 degree heat trying to find this stuff? Me neither.
For me, I’m very a fair skinned, ginger freckle face: copious SPF 50+ sunscreen is a must for me in countries with strong sun. My wife has a long, thick mop of mixed/afro/curly hair: for her, quality shampoos and conditioners are just a daily part of life. So we just had to plan on the fact that these products wouldn’t be sold on normal store shelves during our trip, theyhad to be brought from home.
Ideally, we would have liked just to have brought only lighter carryons into the cabin of the plane and not dealt with baggage claims at all in Havana Airport. I can attest personally that it took 1.5 hours to get our bag in a dark, low-ceilinged, sweltering hot claim area. It was exhausting and would be even worse for someone older or with small children. Welcome to Revolutionary Communist efficiency!
I would say the lifesavers for us were the following items:
Microfiber Towels (they dry easily)
Antibacterial Hand Gel
Kleenex (quite a few packs)
Head Mounted Flashlight
Color Photocopies Of Your Passports
I would say specifically the Kleenex was highly important. Often, you’ll pay $1CUC simply to use the bathroom somewhere and they don’t even have toilet paper there (so what did you just pay for?!?) We seriously tried to buy toilet paper in Cuba. Not once, I’m not even kidding, did we ever see it anywhere for sale. So, you have been warned in advance.
The headlamp was also great for reading at night, particularly when we lost power for 4 days during Hurricane Irma: a lifesaver when there’s nothing else to do. Copies of your passports are highly important, especially if you lose them, and also Cuban’s may often ask you for ID when using a hotel pool or renting snorkel masks etc. The money belt was also a must as we were traveling with $3000 worth of cash. Losing it or having it stolen was not an option in a country where our American-based debit cards would not function. If you lose your cash, you’re up a creek without a paddle!
We kept reading and hearing about the need to buy traveller’s health insurance before going to Cuba. I have a few friends who go regularly, and they said it was never an issue. On their advice, we didn’t bother purchasing any. But when we arrived at the airport, there was a desk just after passport control with two rather tarty-looking nurses (black fishnet stockings and stiletto heels) stopping some tourists at random. I assumed this was an inquiry about if they had insurance or not. Apparently if you don’t have it, you have to buy the Cuban version there at the airport. I just pretended I didn’t see them and walked right past. If you want be safe, try World Nomads and print out a copy to bring with you.
This is another uniquely confusing aspect of Cuban life that took a bit of creative thinking to get used to. There are 2 forms of currency in Cuba: CUP’s are for the locals, though you can try to exchange it. It is very low in value, but you can use it to pay for small things like ice cream and local bus rides. CUC’s “Convertible Pesos” are for tourists. At this time of writing, its value was a little over the Dollar, but less than the Euro. As a tourist, you’ll probably only ever deal in CUC’s and you can exchange them just outside the front doors of the airport before you catch a taxi into Havana. On the streets, branches of “Cadeca” money exchanges are another option. I found them to be air conditioned, clean and professional.
Since we could not use our American based debit or credit cards nor Greenbacks in Cuba, we had to bring in foreign currency and then change it there. We opted for Canadian Dollars, but Euros and Pounds Sterling are also good. We had to bring it all in cash, which I did not like, all $3000 worth for 2 1/2 weeks. We converted the 1st half at the airport and the second half in Trinidad at a Cadeca branch. Plan on dividing some of the money between different places on your person and in your bags: in case you lose it, you don’t want to lose it all! All in all, we spent almost all of that money, and I didn’t feel we were going buck wild on the spending. A few fancy dinners, 4-5 drinks per day, taxi rides, 30-40 CUC per day for homestay accommodation. It adds up fast and is certainly far more expensive than Mexico.
Where to Stay:
You have to have an address for where you will first stay when you arrive. After that, its fair game. We chose AirBnB for a private apartment for our first 5 nights in Havana. It was pretty convenient and simple to arrange. Though I’ve had issues with AirBnB before in the States, I think Cuban’s reliance on these new platforms brings in a livelihood they have never had before. I wasn’t too worried about our Cuban hosts canceling on us at the last minute.
As our stay with our hosts came to an end, they inquired where we would be going to next. They were more than happy to call ahead to a friend’s casa particular (homestay) over in Varadero and reserve it for us. In fact, all of our hosts did this for us, so it simply became an ongoing chain of referrals. Honestly though, there are so many casa particulares in every Cuban town, you could just simply show up and find one within the first few minutes of walking down the street with a suitcase in your hand. The street touts will almost fight each other for your business.
I liked the aspect of the homestay accommodation in Cuba. So much is done differently there, that the hosts always went out of their way to call a taxi for us, arrange a tour, set up our next place to stay etc etc. They made things easy (though I realize they were all probably getting a small commission every time they did this). So, dust off your high school Espanol and bust out of the all inclusive resort my friends- you won’t regret it.
Getting Around Inside Cuba:
Cuba ain’t exactly the most efficient place in world, and public transport is no exception. Let’s take the example of the intercity bus company, ViaAzul. To simply get the ViaAzul bus from say Havana to Varadero (about 2 hours away), you’d have to buy the bus ticket at least 1 day in advance. There are no other offices in Havana where you can buy a ticket for these buses, you have to take a taxi to the bus station on the periphery of Havana, near the airport, and buy your ticket there. Then take a taxi back to your hotel. Then on the day of your journey, you need to take a taxi again to the bus station, travel, and then taxi again to wherever you are staying in the next city.
For all this hassle and rather pricey taxi rides (3x $10 taxi rides in Havana to accomplish your bus travel), you might just be better off taking private cars for the same price- especially if you are traveling in a group. Luckily we were in a group of three, but if you’re even remotely sociable, you should be able to meet other travelers going your way. There are sometimes even taxi drivers standing in front of the bus stations simply offering “Taxi Collectivo: Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos etc” before you go in. If you can get four riders, negotiate with him for a fair price. It’ll save you both a crap load of time, as well as often money.
Immigration (Coming Home):
This is just for American travelers and Foreign Nationals with Green Card residency in the US. All other nationalities don’t have to worry about the below categories, though you may still have to purchase a travel visa to enter Cuba. Check your local Consulate or Travel agency to be sure.
For Yanks, you have to buy a “Tourist Card” before you board the plane for Havana. Honestly, this just seems like a bureaucratic formality at this point. We bought ours at the “I” information desk next our the departure gate at Mexico City airport. It cost $20 per person and was simple as cake. But try to be consistent in what you decide to select. Don’t say you’re coming in on a Mormon Mission and then spend your time dancing salsa and cavorting with the local talent (not that that’s wrong or anything). The categories are:
Official business or the US government, foreign government and certain intergovernmental organizations
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
Support for the Cuban people
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
Exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials
Certain export transactions
When arriving in Havana, I heard that the immigration agents would simply stamp the Tourist Card and leave my American passport blank, but they quickly stamped it without asking. Oh well. Keep the Tourist Card with you for your whole trip, they’ll want it back before you board your flight home.
Upon returning back to the States, I got no guff from CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) agents. They did ask me if I was bringing in any alcohol or tobacco products. I did say I’d bought about $40 bucks worth of cigars. “Cuban’s?” he asked, arching an eyebrow inquisitively. “Yeah”, I said, “but I got ’em at Duty Free”. “Well, be careful: there’s a lot of fakes out there”, he replied. Seems like he knew where I’d gone, but I don’t even think he looked at the stamps in my passport. In any case, you are allowed to legally bring in up to $100 worth of rum and cigars now from Cuba.
In my wife’s case, she’s a Brazilian passport holder living in the US on a Green Card. So although there are no restrictions on Brazilians traveling to Cuba, the US government treats GC holders the same as a normal US Citizen who wants to go there. Upon returning, they definitely scrutinized her a lot more than me. We agreed the best policy was to have her category and justification worked out beforehand, and to simply be forthright regarding her travel history if asked. The agent did ask her where she’d been and when she replied Cuba, they asked her about 3-4 more questions about what she’d done there and why. That was all. Just don’t try to bullshit the CBP Officers: they don’t appreciate it and can certainly make trouble for you if you are not a citizen.
I Think That About Covers It. Let Me Know If You Have Any Other Questions!
Alright, now for the sucky part of our trip. After spending 5 sweaty days in Havana, we went on to the touristy beach resort of Varadero. I usually try avoid these places like the Black Death, but we found another home stay with an elderly couple right on the beach- and the beach itself was truly magnificent. No complaints here, but it was certainly a far cry from the grinding conditions of downtown Havana. Didn’t really feel like “Cuba” at all.
From there, we made our way South to the colonial city of Trinidad, minus a few lost hours due to a flat tire with the national bus service ViaAzul. It took so damn long to get repaired, we simply caught a ride with another tourist in a historic DeSoto taxi the rest of the journey. We just hired private cars for the rest of the trip. Public transport in Cuba is just too unreliable, and if you can get a group together, taxi’s are the way to go!
Trinidad was fantastic, and we got to spend a few good nights there- but the news we heard from Cubans on the street and from our homestay hosts was not good. A Category freakin’ 5 was on its way to hit the East and North coasts of Cuba by Friday night, and we would be feeling it hot and heavy in Trinidad before too long (Cuba is a long, but narrow island).
Our last day of sun was at nearby Playa Ancon. Even by Thursday, all the restaurants and places serving booze were closing down. Apparently, the durned Guvmit wants to make sure that nobody is drunk during national disasters. Fucking Pinko bastards: this is why America won the Cold War. And would you look at this beach!
There was a beautiful thatched palm restaurant just sitting there, in normal times serving mojitos and fresh lobster, but instead simply had a bunch of employees milling about, listening to music and telling everyone who walked up that they were “closed”. Still managed to finagle a few cold cans of the local barley pop from their fridge though.
By late Friday night, the rain was cats and dogs and we had already lost power- including our AC. Good luck trying to keep your shutters open to let the cool air and mosquitos in when it’s bucketing down outside. By 6am, the wind was howling like a pissed off Banshee and the windows and door to our room were rattling angrily in their locks. This incessant banging went on and on and on and on and on and on…for 14 hours straight with not even a 1% diminishment in ferocity. It was like being stuck on a runaway freight train which you couldn’t get off of due to the demonic speed it was reaching. The wind at times would actually cause the stone and concrete house we were in to shudder. If you did open the door even an inch to look outside, it was like someone instantly threw a bucket of water in your face, drenching your clothes to the bone.
I felt a lot like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz with her house spinning around and the evil neighbor lady riding her bicycle outside the window, cackling manically. “Auntie Em: It’s a Twister! Its a Twister!!!!!” Copious amounts of water started to flood onto the floor of our room through any available crack in the door and window frames. I’d liken it to being on a sinking ship: the more you tried to bale out the incoming water, the faster it came in, until their was a huge puddle on the floor and you just got tired of trying to take care of it so simply left it to accumulate. By about 10am, I was actually exhausted enough to fall asleep, even with all the loud banging going on. I woke up two hours later, and the same noise and horizontal rain was still howling past. To call this all unnerving would be the understatement of the Century.
Luckily around this time, our homestay family’s mom ran up in the rain to knock loudly on our door to bring us a bottle of Havana Club rum and a plastic water bottle full of sugar and fresh lime juice- God Bless the Cuban people! I vaguely recall drinking some of that and then passing out again.
I would say that by 10pm Saturday night, the hurricane had infinitesimally started to weaken, but as soon as it seemed to break for a few brief minutes of respite, the rain would splatter again on your windows and the screaming winds would begin back up again. I did remember by the middle of the night that it seemed like the worst of it had passed.
The next day, everyone in the town, both tourists and locals, started walking around to survey the damage- or least to simply get out of their houses and catch some fresh air. The worst that we could see was some loosened roof tiles and downed trees, but nothing major. Still, I thought that we were very lucky to have not been as close to the Eye as other parts of the country had been. Somehow, my wife’s iPhone was able to catch onto a 3G signal and we sent off a few texts to our family that we were all OK.
Honestly though, the hardest part of the trip was the next four days of the journey. Power was out in the entire country and the weather was still bucketing tropical rain down from the heavens. The biggest challenge came from simply finding food to eat. Since the Cuban government has strict controls on the economy, most businesses could not, or were not, interested in opening. This presents a problem if you’re a tourist and simply want to get a sandwich because you’re hungry. Cafes, stores (such as they exist), a restaurant, a market- all shut down until power was restored. We did see a state run bakery open, with a long line of Cubans clamoring to get some stale bread to last them the next few days.
We left Trinidad by Monday, and made our way to the elegant seaside city of Cienfuegos. Here still, it was raining and there was simply nothing to do and nowhere to go except to walk around with the other bored-looking tourists when it wasn’t pouring outside. I’ve been to New Orleans when a tropical storm knocked the power out at night. The bar owners just lit some candles, kept serving drinks, and grilled up some burgers in the courtyard. The show will still go on! Not so in Cuba. There were no clubs playing music, no bars, no food. I think at one point we found a generator-powered 24hr gas station serving half melted pints of ice cream. That was some fine dining, son.
By the 4th day of simply being stuck in my room, with nothing but my miner’s headlamp and a thick medieval fiction novel to keep me company, I was going completely Stir Crazy. Our time in Cuba was only 2.5 weeks and we’d already lost so many precious days to nothing. I was about ready to take a car to Havana airport and get the first flight out to Mexico- costs be damned. The more I thought about it though, there were probably 5000 other tourists trying to do the same damn thing, and the thought of camping out on the floor of the airport with no electricity for 3 days waiting for a standby flight was not exactly appealing either.
We carried on to the Bay of Pigs, and at least by this time Señor Sol had returned. We were at least able to get some snorkeling and a few decent meals in during our last few days before our flight home. When we arrived back in the upscale Vedado neighborhood in Havana, the streets look like this:
Apparently, 9ft waves had come smashing in from the Malecon seawall, and flooded every part of the city at least 6 blocks back up to the first storey. Whole apartments had been washed out. The streets were filled with rotting garbage, drainage water, soaked mattresses, broken furniture and irreplaceable household devices (vacuums, microwave’s etc) strewn about. Not a pretty sight- nor smell. Havana had been hit hard, but to its credit, the city government seemed to be pretty efficient in bringing in tree cutting crews, restoring downed power lines and bulldozing debris off of the streets.
Luckily, the airport was up and functioning normally by early Saturday morning and we were able to fly back home without a hitch. But my heart goes out to the kind Cuban people, and other islands in the Caribbean who lost everything. As I write this post, it seems that poor Puerto Rico is reaching a full-blown humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria. And if you’re reading this: an extra special thanks to Dr. Luis and Dona Olga Ibañez, who took such great care of us during the storm in Trinidad!
Alright, so I just got back from Cuba. One lesson learned: never go there during Hurricane Season (September-October). Just our luck, Hurricane Irma, the largest recorded hurricane in history had decided to make a stopover at around the same time. We’d bought our plane tickets in May of 2017 for the first two weeks of September, and then ordered a Lonely Planet a little while later to start researching places to visit, apartments to stay in etc. We did remember reading that September can be the rainiest month of the year in this area of the Caribbean, and that it is also Hurricane Season. Meh, we thought: ain’t gonna happen. Fortune favors the bold, right?
This was a trip my wife and I had wanted to do for around 10 years or so, but other trips and family commitments had somehow always gotten in the way. Finally, we thought- we’re gonna make this happen. Havana: that ancient, decaying city just off the coast of Miami, perched precariously on a mysterious, forbidden island full of cigars, classic American cars, dangerously strong cocktails, fried plantains and the Buena Vista Social Club: Communist Paradise, here we come! Its gonna be great: just like North Korea, but with white sand beaches and better music.
Well, I’ll start with the good. Cuba is all these things and more. Its a fascinating, historical and beautiful country. I’d indeed like to go back and see more of it. It’s also quite a unique place. Not just because of its form of government and relative isolation from the rest of the world, but also because of the challenges that one faces as a tourist in just trying to understand how Cubans do things (I’ll cover these logistics in another post). Let’s face it, Cubans are a fiercely independent people, and they’ve chosen to do things their own way without the interference of the United States. You can agree with that or not.
Some friends of mine have been to Cuba a lot, and they say it takes multiple trips before you even start to see the reality of how the economy really works, the carefully constructed facade you see as a tourist, and how the majority of Cubans live day to day. I decided that although I am no lover of non-democratic governments, I’d go there first and see for myself what it’s really like before I made up my own mind.
Our trip started off great. We had reserved a simple apartment in Centro Havana for the first 5 nights. Centro Havana is the working-class barrio that a huge number of Habaneros live in. It’s bordered in the East by Old Havana, in the North by the famous Malecon seawall, and in the West by the more upscale Vedado neighborhood.
Centro Havana is probably the densest neighborhood I’ve ever stayed in. All those photographs and images you have in your mind of how Havana looks: it’s probably Central Havana. And it represents probably the reality of daily life for the vast majority of Cubans, not one that I would romanticize in the slightest. The 19th Century buildings are collapsing, paint is peeling in the humid tropical sun, shoeless kids playing football in the street, stray dogs, piles of fragrant garbage piled up in the streets. It’s also LOUD. At 8am on a Sunday, Reggaeton is already blasting from a neighbor’s 3rd story balcony, somebody is hammering on his car engine, motorcycles are roaring down the street, people are laughing, talking, singing, shouting, screaming. This symphony of madness seems to go on 24 hours a day.
However, how amazing to see a city entirely devoid of Americanized fast food chains, billboards, obnoxious corporate coffeehouses and bland international banking centers. Havana is unapologetically Havana, in all its ruinous grandeur. It’s probably unlike any other place on Earth.
It was also hot. Remember, this is 106 miles South of the tip of Florida at the end of summer; even my Brazilian wife found the heat debilitating. I remember sitting down at a restaurant midday, and the waiter brought us some bread and a refrigerated pat of butter to start. After about 10 minutes, I looked at the butter, and it had completely liquified. As had my brain…
Our apartment homestay hosts would serve us breakfast every morning at 9am on our balcony. By that point, sweat was already starting to drip off the tip of my nose as we tucked into our breakfast of eggs, tropical fruit, bread, ham, cheese and coffee. Thank God, every casa particular we stayed in had an air conditioning unit installed in every bedroom. I don’t think we could’ve hacked it otherwise. Just spending the day walking around in the streets wears you out after a few hours. The tropical sun, combined with the noise and black clouds of soot being spewed out from the cars, makes for a withering experience.
Havana (and the rest of Cuba) is also extremely safe. I’ve traveled and lived extensively in Latin America, and I’ve never been to a place where I felt so secure from street crime. I lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil for 4 years and just about every single one of my co-workers and in-laws became victims of either an armed robbery, an assault, a carjacking- even a few kidnappings. How refreshing it was to walk semi-drunk at night in downtown Havana, in streets as dark as squid ink, with not a care in the world.
Yes, there’s poor people sitting on their front stoops, and groups of young guys talking and gesticulating wildly on the corners at 1am, but nobody bothers you. Nobody. The worst thing that you had to look out for was the alarmingly large potholes you could fall into and break your ankle in in the darkness. Who can say that they could walk unmolested in any other big city at night in Europe, the US or the rest of Latin America? Even Police States have their plus sides…
One thing that was hard was the amount of Jineteros (“Jockeys”/Hustlers) on the streets of Cuba, and not just in Havana. They’re not too aggressive, but they just have to come up to you wherever you go. Indeed, it was hard to find genuine interactions with most Cuban people we met that did not have an ulterior economic motive as the end game. Cuban people are friendly and warm, as in most tropical countries, but when you’re only earning $20 per month, the lure of the tourist dollar becomes too hard for many to turn down.
They usually try to get you to buy a fake cigar at a cooperativa, direct you to a casa particular, or give them $5 for baby formula. I was sadly getting cynical to all this “friendliness”, so it was always a surprise when a Cuban simply said good morning to me, wanted to know where I was from, commented on the weather etc. and that was it: just being friendly to a stranger.
Another thing I did notice was Smartphones everywhere. Sad to say, but Cuba is changing and changing fast. Every Cuban under the age of 20 could be found sitting out on the dark streets at night, their faces illuminated by the pallid glow of a tiny telephone screen. No salsa dancing, flirting or shooting the shit with their neighbors, just staring vacantly into the screen of their telephones, texting away or surfing God knows whatever websites the Cuban government actually permits them them to read. In some ways, Cuba is not that unique anymore: most people listen to Reggaeton, wear American sports clothes and baseball caps, and probably welcome the influx of international shopping chains. I’m sure in a few years, Havana will be the next party down Spring Break destination for drunken frat boys from Ft. Lauderdale. See it now while you can.
I’ve been delving back in Jack Kerouac as of late. I remember reading his most famous books, On The Road and Dharma Bums, probably in my late teens and early twenties. Still misunderstood, some would say Kerouac is wildly overrated, others think he’s a genius and one of the best American writers of the 20th Century. I gave my wife a Portuguese translation of On The Road to read, she just found it bewildering as to why anyone would find the characters interesting or inspirational at all. She thought they were all just addicted to speed, sweating and listening to jazz. Well, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.
Yet I think you what you can’t deny is the originality of his writing style. Passionate, romantic and improvisational: Kerouac best encapsulated the Beat’s obsession with Bebop Jazz and their attempt to incorporate it’s spontaneity into their their own poetry and prose. Kind of like an Impressionist painting, the words of On The Road have a wonderful “in the moment” feel to them. When they’re at their best, his novels jump off the pages like a stream of concisousness: wild, free, unstructured and unedited to express the heart-felt core within to his reader.
As the legend goes, Kerouac ingested heaps of benzedrine, and sweating profusely, cranked out the entire novel on one gigantic 120 foot roll of paper in just three weeks. There’s supposedly some truth to this, but probably most of the novel was already contained in his numerous journals that he kept throughout his travels (if not inside his own head). Clearly autobiographical, Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty embark on breakneck road trip adventures across the US in late 1940s/early 1950s America. Drinking, hitchhiking, shacking up with numerous girls along the way, Kerouac tries to embrace life as much in the moment as possible while seeking out the still exuberant, frontier spirit of his country.
Like a modern day Huck Finn, he lives only for today: forsaking domestic stability, superficial possessions and societal conventions in a journey that seems to have no destination or ultimate resolution. The quest itself is its own spiritual goal.On The Road still sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year, hopefully inspiring its readers to go out and seek truth, freedom and chase their dreams. I think that’s part of why it’s still appealing: the answers to life are a personal journey that can’t be duplicated by living somebody else’s life. We’ve all gotta create our own adventure and grab the world by the short and curlies. Maybe this is all just naive and only inspiring to young people, but it was an exciting read at the time.
Anyway, it had been a while since I last delved in some Beat writing, so I found an old, dog-eared copy of one of his later and lesser known works, Desolation Angels. To be honest, I found Angels a difficult read, even skipping some passages. A lot of the book is derived from his journal entries as he worked as a lonely fire lookout living in a tiny cabin on top of Desolation Peak mountain. Kerouac’s famous stream of consciousness writing in parts is almost abstract to the point of confusion. Maybe he knew what he was thinking as he scribbled it all down atop a Pacific Northwest peak, but it can be hard as a reader to relate to exactly what he was thinking and feeling at that time. But I just fell hard for his tiny chapter #73. His description of crossing the Bay Bridge from the East Bay over to San Francisco (when the bridge still had an operating train) just speaks to my soul like melted butter:
“It’s the Bridge that counts, that coming into San Francisco on the Oakland-Bay Bridge, over waters which are faintly ruffled by oceangoing Orient ships and ferries, over waters that are like taking you to some other shore, it had always been like that when I lived in Berkeley– after a night of drinking, or two, in the city, bing, the old F-Train’d take me barreling across the waters back to that other shore of peace and contentment– We’d (Irwin and I) discuss the Void as we crossed– It’s seeing the rooftops of Frisco that makes you excited and believe, the big downtown hunk of buildings, Standard Oil’s flying red horse, Montgomery Street highbuildings, Hotel St. Francis, the hills, magic Telegraph with her Coit-top, magic Russian, magic Nob, and magic Mission beyond with the cross of all sorrows I’d seen long ago in a purple sunset with Cody on a little railroad bridge– San Francisco, North Beach, Chinatown, Market Street, the bars, the Bay-Oom, the Bell Hotel, the wine, the alleys, the poorboys, Third Street, poets, painters, Buddhists, bums, junkies, girls, millionaires, MG’s, the whole fabulous movie of San Francisco seen from the bus or train on the Bridge coming in, the tug at your heart like New York– And they’re all there, my friends, somewhere in those little toystreets, and when they see me the angel’ll smile– That’s not so bad– Desolation ain’t so bad–“
Funny, even 70 years later, standing on a busy corner in North Beach on a Saturday night, you can still see the “whole fabulous movie of San Francisco” as it passes you by on all sides. I can still get a glimpse, if I squint my eyes just so, of what it must have looked like back in Kerouac’s day. In any case, in his last sentence Kerouac seems to say that when he finds his old friends living in their bohemian crash pads somewhere in the city streets, he’ll be able to forget about life for a while. Embraced by the good company of some like-minded misfits, sharing a laugh and a jug of cheap wine, the Void is put off for another sweet day. The Angel of Desolation will smile at you, and perhaps it ain’t so bad after all…
So what writing tugs at your heartstrings? Which writers inspire you to grab life and never let go?
I just simply love this video. I read a lot of vintage/historical web forums in my free time- you could say I’m obsessed with Music, Film, Fashions and Culture from between the two World Wars. I guess I’m just infatuated with history generally, and was lucky enough to run across this short film in a forum. In it, a former African-American chorus girl from the 1930s and 1940s gets to see archival footage of herself dancing in three different historical Jazz Era films. After watching herself so many years later, she says, “Making me wish I could get out of this bed, and do it all over again!”
Born in Chicago in the year 1912, Alice Barker, picked up stakes and moved to New York when she was in her twenties to be a dancer. And dance she did, becoming a professional chorus girl during the Harlem Renaissance and performing at such famous nightspots as the Cotton Club, The Apollo and the Zanzibar Club, as well as on Broadway. She performed alongside such legendary entertainers as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Throughout her professional career, she appeared in theater shows, films, commercials and TV spots- when interviewed it seems that they were too numerous to even count. Unfortunately, unlike in todays world where we can access every classic TV rerun on demand, Alice never got see to her old film clips again, and lots of her old memorabilia was lost as she aged and went into full-time care. It was only until some academic jazz archivists were able to track her down to a nursing home in NYC at the ripe old age of 102 that she was able to see this old footage of herself. At this point, Alice was probably the only living link to this lost world and all the memories of how it really was.
What’s also great about this video is that it went somewhat viral- looks like its had over 16 Million hits on Youtube, making Alice an unexpected minor celebrity in her final years. According to her website, she was even able to reconnect with some old colleagues, friends and their children whom she had lost track of over the years. The fan mail she received from people inspired by her story gave her newfound enthusiasm and joy in her life. On her 103rd birthday, a troupe of dancers from Harlem even came to her home and performed for her and the other residents, I think that’s just fantastic.
And I love Alice’s reaction around the 5:50 mark as she exclaims, “It’s just fabulous!” And the childlike excitement that washes over her as recalls all those old memories from 70 years earlier. “I used to often say to myself, I am being paid to do something that I enjoy doing and I would do it for free. Because it just felt so good doing it. Because that music, I would just get carried away in it”
She goes on to tell a story of her one of her earliest childhood memories, “My mother told me, she was getting ready to bathe me. And on the corner there was a band playing. She had forgotten something, and she went back into the house to get it. And when she came out, I was gone. And I was down there naked! Just going, dancing. And I can see me, down there, naked, just dancing. And then, if the band would stop playing, I’d look at ’em and: ‘come on, lets get it going- let’s get it going here!'”
The Power of Music: how it holds it sway over us, marking our earliest memories, the most important moments, our most vivid emotions. Maybe that’s how we all are: we come into this world tiny, naked and enthusiastic, just dancing to the music. Guess some of us just get to dance to it more and for longer than others. We start off young, beautiful and beaming, but eventually all of us lose the energy, sexiness and youth we once had. And Alice was most definitely a hottie back in the day!
Alice Barker passed away in April, 2016 at the age of 103, spending her last day on Earth in good cheer, listening to her favorite tunes and having her caretaker read her fan mail. Alice even gave her a wink as she left for the day. I hope I get to live as long as Mrs. Alice, and if not as long, at least as joyously and with clarity of mind. Time is indeed a thief. Rest In Peace Mrs. Alice Barker: keep on dancing in that great chorus line in sky…
If you live to be 100, how will you look back on your life? And is there anything you could be paid to do that you would do for free anyway?
OK, I have a confession to make: I actually bought a Powerball Lottery ticket a few days ago. I mean, the payout was gonna be over $700 Million. So I’m a fucking hypocrite alright! Like Walt Whitman once wrote: “I am large- I contain multitudes. Do I contradict myself, very well, I contradict myself.”
I know, I know, I tend to rant about not lusting after material things on this blog, but there’s also a side of me that’s just inherently lazy. “By GOD”, I thought, “if I won $700 Million,I wouldn’t have to work again ever!” Now that’s an appealing thought right there. “What else could I do with all that dough?”, I continued to muse, “travel the world, help out my mom, pay the ransom for all those Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram… Gosh, even run for President. Look out Mr. Trump- I’m coming for you in 2020!”
Sure, a few weekends of wearing bespoke suits, showing up like a baller in my Ferrari to some trendy club, bottle service in the VIP room with a couple Victoria’s Secret models at my beck and call. I won’t lie, it would be fun to experience it just a few times in my life. Just to act like a complete douchebag and everyone still kisses your ass. I’ve always wanted to be an arrogant dick!
But the travel would appeal to me the most. There wouldn’t be any country I wouldn’t have the funds and the TIME to visit. Hell, I could even fly 1st Class to any destination I wanted. No listening to screaming babies for 10 hours, complementary champagne, plenty of leg room on those oh so comfy looking lazyboy recliners. There’s even a polyester drawstring curtain to separate you from the unwashed hoi polloi!
Once comfortably ensconced in Dubai after my refreshing flight across the Atlantic, I could purchase my own mini island right next to David Beckham. Then, on to Dim Sum overlooking the skyline in Hong Kong, camel rides around the Pyramids of Egypt, endangered White Rhino hunting in Tanzania- the world would truly become my oyster. And that stuffed rhino head sure would look nifty mounted up on the walls of my Scottish hunting lodge.
Of course I didn’t win, but there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming is there?
Honestly, I think if I really did win the lottery, after the initial excitement of showing up to work in my bathrobe and giving my boss the middle finger, I’d probably get bored real quick. I mean, I’m an active person- I always need something to do. While the rest of my poor friends are still out working, I’d just be at home. There’d be no one to hang out with. What’s the point of having all these fun experiences if you have no one to share them with, right? Sounds like a lonely existence really.
Plus, traveling all the time would get tiring. I think the longest continuous backpacking trip I ever did was for four months (South America). This was seeing a new town, getting on a bus all night, staying in a noisy hostel and then doing it all over again a few days later. By the end of my trip, I was frazzled. I’d seen a lot, but don’t think I’d do it again. Rather than burning the candle at both ends trying to see everything, I’d rather stay in one city or country at this point. And again, I’d probably just miss my family, friends and cozy apartment- at least for a little while.
Then there’s these real life examples of Lottery Winners who let all that cash get the best of them:
Billie Bob Harrell, Jr.: $31 million. Texas, 1997. As of 1999: Committed suicide in the wake of incessant requests for money from friends and family. “Winning the lottery is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
William Bud Post: $16.2 million, Pennsylvania. 1988. In 1989: Brother hires a contract murderer to kill him and his sixth wife. Landlady sued for portion of the jackpot. Convicted of assault for firing a gun at a debt collector. Declared bankruptcy. Dead in 2006.
Evelyn Adams: $5.4 million (won TWICE 1985, 1986). As of 2001: Poor and living in a trailer. Gave away and gambled most of her fortune.
Suzanne Mullins: $4.2 million. Virginia, 1993. As of 2004: No assets left.
Shefik Tallmadge: $6.7 million. Arizona, 1988. As of 2005: Declared bankruptcy.
Thomas Strong: $3 million. Texas,1993. As of 2006: Died in a shoot-out with police.
Victoria Zell: $11 million. 2001, Minnesota. As of 2006: Broke. Serving seven year sentence for vehicular manslaughter.
Karen Cohen: $1 million. Illinois, 1984. As of 2000: Filed for bankruptcy. As of 2006: Sentenced to 22 months for lying to federal bankruptcy court.
Jeffrey Dampier: $20 million. Illinois, 1996. As of 2006: Kidnapped and murdered by own sister-in-law.
Ed Gildein: $8.8 million. Texas, 1993. As of 2003: Dead. Wife saddled with his debts. As of 2005: Wife sued by her own daughter who claimed that she was taking money from a trust fund and squandering cash in Las Vegas.
Willie Hurt: $3.1 million. Michigan, 1989. As of 1991: Addicted to cocaine. Divorced. Broke. Indicted for murder.
Michael Klingebiel: $2 million. As of 1998 sued by own mother claiming he failed to share the jackpot with her.
Janite Lee: $18 million. 1993, Missouri. As of 2001: Filed for bankruptcy with $700 in assets.
Or how about this fine upstanding young chap? Dude used to snort cocaine through the casing of a solid gold pen, then he ended up living homeless in the forest. The harder they come…
Seems like winning the Powerball isn’t all it’s cracked up to be I guess. Perhaps there’s something about complete and total freedom and an absence of limits in a consequence free environment that leaves us a humans slightly unhinged. Even the best of us would probably lose our sense of reality- or at the very least our family members end up trying to sue, kidnap or kill us. Let’s put that “blood is thicker than water” canard to rest.
So, what can we conclude from today’s post and my own pitiful confession of superficial weakness? Try to be satisfied with what you have, right? Or maybe: Be careful what you wish for. As some of these examples have shown, money certainly doesn’t buy you happiness. Though daydreaming about it just might…
Your turn: what would you do if you won millions of dollars in the lottery?
The eternal artist’s dilemma… Often romanticized,and certainly cliche, the life of a starving artist can be one fraught with discomfort, economic instability and a lack of mainstream success. Does one throw caution to the wind and pursue their creative dreams- at the possibility of dying in the gutter? Is it all worth it in the end? I think for some musicians, actors, playwrights and painters, there is no other life. They just can’t imagine not making their art and sharing their passion with the world.
Being poor though is no joke, and what may seem romantic in your 20’s doesn’t pan out to be so appealing by your 30’s. I can think of members of my own family who have tried to make it in the arts. Some have been very successful at it, some live a comfortable enough existence, while others still struggle later in life.
However, let’s face it: the people who get paid the big money usually do something hard and boring (think bankers and lawyers). Although everyone on earth hears music everyday, looks at some form of creativity expressed through posters, advertising, movies and clothing design- the people who produce it are hardly ever put on the same social hierarchy as a rich businessman, athlete or politician. Most true artists don’t make enough to pay their rent. Although there are of course some very exceptional artists do strike it rich and becomes rock stars or get their work exhibited around the world.
I think for most folks though, just getting by doing an OK job they don’t hate is often enough. Perhaps something on the periphery of the artistic world: teaching, working at a nightclub or museum- at least you’re working around creative people and environments and can feel stimulated and energized by that. A regular job can be sufficient to pay the bills and hopefully leave you enough time and energy on the side to make your crazy noise-pop, write your short stories and paint nude self-portraits in your studio.
No matter how talented, there’s always the distinct possibility that no one will care about your art- at least not enough to want to pay for it. Take poor old Vincent Van Gogh, the famous case of the Dutch painter who never sold a painting. I think only his beloved brother, Theo, ever bought something from him. Clearly an artist ahead of his time, but misunderstood and ignored during his own life. After a life of struggle and poverty, Van Gogh eventually took his own life, penniless and unknown till the end. Not much fun if you ask me… Now, his paintings are some of the most expensive in the world and an entire museum is dedicated to his work in Amsterdam. Ouch, the irony of that! Life seems to play cruel little games on some of us doesn’t it?
Personally, I’d love to be able to make a fat paycheck off of playing music, I’m just not too sure how I could ever make that happen. It’s always just seemed like something fun I could do on a Saturday night with my friends. Just a passionate outlet and stress release that happens outside of my regular job. Personally, there’s only so much of eating Top Ramen in a cold apartment that I could take, but I respect those folks who sacrifice it all for their art and refuse to compromise.
What about you: is it worth it to be poor but free do create? Or can we all have our cake and eat it too?