Saturday, April 16, 2016

The interwebs

Just a brief note on the internet. I heard before I came that they don't really have wifi here. Just a little bit, and it's "bad" - so don't plan on any internet. So, I told everyone I wouldn't have any internet but since my phone company had said that I would have texting, I was expecting that. Totally wrong. No texting. I could even text in Mongolia five years ago! No texting here. And I hadn't bothered to unlock my new phone, since I thought I would have service. Well, actually, I do have service. I have 4 bars, it just says SIM card not allowed on network. So... we're intentionally being blocked. Considering the trade embargo that has devastated their country, seems a small price to pay in return. At any rate. So I go to buy a cheap phone, a story I won't tell now. It's a story of stress and hardship (sort of) and leaving after two sweaty hours with no phone. But I DID leave with an internet card for 5 hours of pre-paid time, and the knowledge to always bring a bandanna with me to mop the sweat off of my face in the future (haven't left home without one since). And a guy from Israel who at the end had helped to translate for me when I thought all hope was lost reminded me to sign out from the computer or else the timer would continue to run and I would lose that card. Well, duh.

I heard that some plazas and hotels had wifi. I wondered if the hotel I had seen near my casa had wifi. As I approached I saw a throng of Cuban people outside sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the walls, all on devices. How odd. It turns out you can ALWAYS tell if a place has wifi - because there will be a throng of people there, all on devices. Glued to them. Not looking up from them. I of course become one of those people as well when I go for my morning internet attempt. It's so funny to have designated spots where people are all on devices: usually phones, rarely laptops, and then everywhere else is device free! Cubans don't have data access here, so outside of the few plazas or hotel orbs, they are rarely on their phones - only for actual phone calls! I kind of like it - I feel like maybe we should have something similar.

Usually people get hour long cards, but thinking ahead, I got the fancy five hour card. I got on the wifi for the first time thinking, "This is so easy! Wonder why people said it was hard?" and then 10 minutes later it went out, and I couldn't get back on it to log out of the system and stop the timer. I tried every five minutes for over an hour. No connection, no log out. Bye, bye five hour card. Was good to have used you for 10 minutes. Now I just buy the one hour cards. The wifi is actually much less fickle in the smaller towns. Even when the power goes out, the internet stays on! So you have hundreds of people on benches and fountain edges at night in a tiny square, all blinking in the pitch black at their glowing devices. It feels like it's some sort of comment on these times in which we live, but I am not sure what...


So as I was leaving Habana, now over a week ago, some cars - maybe police, I couldn't tell - went down a nearby street with sirens. My taxi driver seemed annoyed by this - I thought oh, maybe it's some sort of fancy convoy. Except then a big truck drove by with crazy billowing white steam coming out from behind it so i thought oh, street cleaning. How odd since it's so filthy here, but i guess that's why they clean the streets. So we drove off in the opposite direction, and went to turn down a street, only to see that the entire street was a total white out. You couldn't see more than 5 feet ahead, up to the sky. This happened for a few more streets before we found one where the smoke had lessened so we could cross it. Turns out they bomb for mosquitoes. That "steam" was a crazy amount of chemicals being sprayed - with people just walking through it. I thought wow - that would never happen in Berkeley. But, they have a massive mosquito problem here, which causes many terrible diseases, and with the spraying they have essentially none. I have no idea how frequently they spray, but it certainly works - there was only one night in Santiago De Cuba when I was bitten by mosquitoes. None of their windows have screens - nor glass. They're not really windows, rather the hole that a window would go in, with wooden louvers over them. With it being so hot here, and the need to keep them open, I can see how mosquitoes would be a huge problem.

I'd forgotten about it until today when I had to leave the casa I am staying in because they were going house to house doing fumigation. You are actually forced to allow them into your house to fumigate. They don't do the bedrooms... but still. I was even nervous about it out on the streets, and I will say, it smells really badly. If toxicity had a smell that would be it.

Again, I'm not saying it's a bad thing to do, this is one solution to a really bad problem they had, and i for one have no other solution to propose. I just wonder if people are maybe not given the proper warning and information so they can avoid the chemicals as much as they should. I saw people walking blocks through solid white chemical spray... or maybe they know and don't care. Quite possible.

Fun while it lasted

All my life I've had straight hair. Really straight hair. It started out course, changed to being fine, but always straight. I had to burn the crap out of it in the 80's with a curling iron to get it to do the tiniest of flips for my Farrah Fawcett 'do. Even then, they would last like two hours. Even with some approximation of hair spray. My mom hated that haircut, she said I looked like a lampshade. I did look something like that tall, thin guy on Fat Albert who looked like he was wearing a lampshade with his eyes poking through. Was his lampshade red? In my mind it was, but that was eons ago, and I have no internet here, so I can't just go and google fat albert lampshade. The unfair (to me, as a teen) part of all of this is that my whole immediate family, aside from myself, has curly hair. My mom has curly hair, my twin sisters do, my dad would if he had longer hair... why was my fate so bleak? Now, clearly, this is a clear case of the grass being always greener, and hardly the end of the world, but as a youth, it certainly felt unfair. For a while I wondered if my parents were really my parents. But then, I saw a picture of my mother at about 6 years old and me at 6 years years old, and we looked like twins. SO that theory flew out the window. My mother, on the other hand, ironed her hair so it would be straight through her youth. Again, grass. Greener. So it was the fall of 2014 and it had seemed to me like my hair was frizzier than usual when i was drying it. Something had changed... so one day i decided to just let it dry naturally, and I kid you not - I had wavy/curly hair! It was amazing. There were some actual curls. My mother pooh poohed it - like oh, it's just wavy. But I knew. And my new curly hair haircutter confirmed it.

It changed my hair life - it took a couple of weeks to not feel like I looked like I was wearing a wig - it's very strange to see your reflection so altered - but after that, it was like hair heaven. I didn't need to wash it frequently any longer. Every 5 days! I didn't need to ever use a hair dryer again. I could go to sleep with a wet head and wake up with curls! I could wake up, spray water on my head. Take one minute to scrunch it and walk out the door. It was, truly, a dream come true. Plus, I really feel like it better fit my personality. With straight hair it was always so prim and proper. Now i had this hair that did what it wanted, and I just went along with it - and loved it.

The funny thing was people kept saying "hormones". And, I thought, no, that can't be. I had recently been through a procedure to freeze eggs earlier that same year, at which point they found that I was unusually fertile and had actually been given too much hormone stimulation, so I knew my hormones weren't dropping off. Plus, all of the people I had known who had their have change to curly, it happened in their early teens once their hormones had kicked in. Again, no bells going off here, no 1+1 = 2. So I went along happily thinking it was just one of those things until all of a sudden this past fall - so nearly a year later - it clearly was straightening again. I went into complete denial. It must be the weather, must be the fall. Must be less humidity. Surely it will come back... and for whatever silly reason, I used Cuba as the final test. Knowing it would be crazy hot and humid here, I figured I would see what it does here. Just to be sure. Well, it is with a very heavy heart that I can report it's over. My hair is back to being straight. I mean, it has some really, really slight wave. But nothing I hadn't already had. Basically, straight. Turns out that my procedure which spiked my hormones literally off the chart, also made my hair curly. I just had never associated people saying "hormones" with an artificial massive increase in hormones. Not sure why... seems so obvious now.

So now, back to my old boring hair self, I wonder - better to have known a year of hair greatness than never to have known it at all?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

In search of special

When I travel, I look for what differentiates a place from other places, what is the combination of traits that makes it unique? Are there a combination of traits that make it unique? Sometimes the answer is not really. Cuba is not one of those places. Cuba is wonderfully unique. I really wish I could speak to people here about Communism, and their take on it, but my Spanish is nowhere hear good enough to engage in political discourse unless it's to assure people Donald Trump won't become the president, and English is definitely not commonly spoken here except in the service industry, which is small. I am going to try to ask my Casa Particulares owner tonight more about this.

Cuba is really, really hot. They tell me it's winter now. It's in the 90's each day with humidity that probably doesn't even register on the scale it's so high. Baracoa has been less humid and even pleasant at times, but not the other areas I have been to. This heat I think is what drives people to leave their doors and windows open at night, which creates this level of intimacy where you walk down the street and feel as if you are a part of each home. These homes are small, and don't have entrance ways, their front doors open right into their living space, so you are literally a foot away from being inside someone's living room - the open door right in front of you. The scene is nearly always the same - a TV that's on, a number of chairs, often a sofa and/or overstuffed chair as well, and people in what often seems to be their underclothes sitting around, motionless, watching. It's as if the street is their entrance way or hallway. The aesthetic is so reminiscent of the 50's. I want so badly to photograph these vignettes. To produce a series of open door living shots. But, it doesn't feel right to do so without asking, and asking would 1. be awkward and stressful and 2. either result in a no, or something that looks more like a portrait because they would then be too self-conscious and posed. I would need to actually spend time with the family to get the kind of shot I want, and that's not going to happen on this trip. But, I don't feel badly photographing if there's no one in the room, that doesn't feel like a violation to me, so I have grabbed a couple of shots here and there of momentarily unpopulated living spaces. I've never been in a place before where people are just so un-self-conscious about their intimate living situations, doors and windows opened to anyone to look into. This is the most special aspect of Cuba to me. There are others, to be sure, but this is the most surprising. If I couldn't afford more than a fan and it was 95 degrees in my house, no question I too would open my door to the breeze and cooler air. But, I would definitely be conscious of what I was wearing, and how I was acting, and because our living spaces are laid out differently, and generally are larger, I wouldn't be sitting three feet from the open door living my life. It's the combination that I find to be such a treasure here. And also yet again another reminder of how much space we as Americans take up, and how lucky we are that a 1200 sq. ft. house is not considered large.

La Comida

Everyone says the food in Cuba is terrible. Bland. Bring hot sauce. Bring your own food. The New York Times had an article on how there are finally some good places in Habana, but of course they are fancy, expensive, need a reservation, not likely to go on my own and sit reading a book kind of places. Plus, I can't say they sounded like the kind of places I would like anyway.

Much to my surprise, the food here has been quite good! Granted, I'm a vegetarian who eats some fish, some seafood. I hate the term pescatarian, I have never identified with it. When I was 6 my parents raised us to be vegetarian, and I am now the only one in the family left who hasn't gone back to eating meat. My mom lasted until last year, which is pretty impressive. Firstly, the fruit here, as to be expected in a Caribbean island, is fantastic. The bananas are nothing like the bland, mealy things we eat at home. The mangos are incredible. There are some odd fruits I have yet to get used to, there's this one called the guyana which has a nice flavor, but it has these seeds which are about 1000x harder than grape nuts. I had to ask how it is meant to be eaten because I tried to chew a seed and nearly lost my crown. It turns out they eat the seeds, but they don't chew them, they just swallow them. I am pretty sure my digestive tract would not be overly welcoming to these beebees, so I ate around each seed. But the fruit juices, or just jugo are phenomenal. At first I worried about the water situation - normally in a developing country I would never drink or eat something that might have been rinsed in bad water or have bad water in it without being cooked, but I've pretty much thrown caution to the wind here. Okay, sure, I won't brush my teeth using the water, and I only drink the juice at the Casas where I am staying, not on the street, but still. For me, it's risky. Then there are the meals. Breakfast is standard fare. Eggs, bread (the bread is quite good), fruit, tomatoes and cheese. The sandwiches here are often pressed and toasted in those machines I still think of as all having come from an infomercial. They are quite good. They make a mean tuna sandwich. And then the fish dishes are also quite good. It's of course very fresh - I am trying not to think about whether the fish is a bottom feeder and how much mercury it might have in it - those are thoughts best left in California. And I have found the sauces to be quite tasty, and I'm pretty picky. Granted, some are over salted, which my mom would love, possibly because they have heard we pick on their food for being bland and thus the overcompensation with salt. Not sure. I have had better roasted vegetables here than in 95% of the eating establishments in the Bay Area. And the coconut milk fish in Baracoa, along with their vegetarian stews are fantastic. Granted, I am someone who finds one restaurant she likes and just goes back over and over again when I travel, but the fact that I have found so many I like was a surprise to me given all of the warnings. I was expecting it to be like Mongolia. Which definitely had the worst food I have eaten in any country, and worse yet for a vegetarian, though my traveling partner would have said the meat was no better. In fact, she pretended to be a vegetarian for the last week of our trip, having had her lifetime supply of mutton and mutton parts in the first two weeks.

The other thing I have done a lot of is eating meals prepared in the Casa Particulares in which I have stayed - I may have just gotten lucky, but the home cooked meals have been amazing and so cheap! A dinner with twice as many courses and food than even I can eat has been 9$. Breakfast is $3-5. I will say that the hotels - of which there are few relatively speaking here - have some of the worst food. I think they are trying to cater to some ideal of a tourist and losing the Cuban flair in the process. Granted, it wasn't long ago that there weren't private restaurants, or very few, and you either had to eat in state run restaurants, which I hear are awful, or eat at people's homes, but I can't imagine the home cooked meals were worse then? Maybe the reputation is a hold-over from then. At any rate, I've been very pleasantly surprised so far at the food, let's hope it continues! I have three more towns/cities to visit.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

De amor y odio

My first few days here I totally fell in love with Cuba - most of the things I had heard seemed untrue - no one really bothered me trying to sell me things. Then again, I am a professional-level ignorer. You know all of those times that you wish that you could just walk away from someone mid-conversation? If you're an introvert like me then you probably understand this most - just some boring conversation eating up the time you could be spending by yourself. So from all of those times I couldn't just walk away or pretend I didn't hear someone calling to me, I have a lot of ignoring pent up in me, just waiting to get out. And get out it does! You know (if you have cats) that even though they don't turn their heads to you, you can tell they hear you because their ears move? I don't even twitch my ears. Nothing. So, from that perspective, things have been fine. But, I got really fed up with Cuba yesterday, I even almost told some guy off, because I was just so fed up with the relentless cat calls. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not someone opposed to this in limited quantity. Occasionally someone in Oakland cat calls me, and I am actually flattered! I think, oh, that's sweet. But this is a whole other level. Even with my professional ignoring, it's either the snake hiss, "ssssssss" but loudly, or it's the loud kissing noise call. Both of which make it sound like they are calling an animal. Not a human. I try to make eye contact with people. I try to smile and say hello (in whatever appropriate language term), but I learned quickly in my first two days it was not possible to make eye contact with men. First it's the noise, then it's the aggressive posturing and the look like they want to ravage you right there in the street. It's truly disgusting. First I thought oh, I must have looked at the wrong type of guy. I'm sure I can say hello to old men. NOPE. oh, well, these guys have their arms around their wives/girlfriends/whomever, they must be safe. NOPE. What about this guy with his son? NOPE. And after two days of trying to find a single guy who wouldn't make obscene gestures to me, I realized it wasn't possible and put all men on my ignore list. Every single one. Must there be some who are not this demeaning? I mean, I'm sure somewhere there are, but at least 80% are not. If not more. But even though ignoring works for people trying to sell you things or give you a taxi ride, it does nothing to shut up the cat calls. It just means I don't need to see their faces when they do. This only left women to try to make some sort of human-in-passing connection with.

So, coming to Santiago De Cuba, I was relieved to see the ignored men made fewer calls. But what I didn't expect was the reaction from the women. Holy moley. They start the look at your head, down to your toes, back up again, very obviously, and then have this look on their face like you are that mutilated dead bird you just passed in a pile of garbage. And not one woman, but EVERY SINGLE ONE. I went on a two hour walk yesterday and did not succeed in having a single woman treat me kindly or return my hello. Why? Why the hostility? Why be so rude? I wasn't wearing anything odd or flashy. Sneakers and an Old Navy cotton maxi skirt. Tattoos aren't common here because of the cost, but not something that's frowned upon. I felt like I was in an episode of mean girls. I asked Jose, my Casa Particulares owner, about the situation. My Spanish is pretty terrible, and his English possibly worse, but he immediately understood my question and had a one word answer (in Spanish), money. The lack of money was why they were looking at me like that. Was the reason they couldn't be civil to me. He said it's just really ugly in Cuba. I can't ignore the US's part in this due to the ongoing embargo that congress still won't lift, but I won't address that now.

Which leads me to my question of yesterday - why do I want to travel in a country where everyone is so damn rude? Where there's no human connection whatsoever except for service people in the tourist industry? I read nothing about this in the guide books. Do people just not notice when they are traveling with a partner because they don't look to interact with the general population? they currently have something like 3 million tourists a year come through Cuba. Which sounds like a lot, but really isn't apparently. They expect 25 MILLION Americans the first year the embargo is lifted! What a total disaster that would be. They have no infrastructure, they don't have nearly the room, and frankly, the attitude towards any travelers is just so bad, it's hard to imagine this would go over very well. People don't think I'm from the US - it has nothing to do with that. They think I'm from Europe. But then again, most people stay on buses in groups of their own and probably don't notice, so I guess in that regard it's no different than anywhere else. I just think of Nepal, my current favorite country that I have traveled to, and I think of how warm and kind the people are there, how your everyday encounters with random people on the street left you feeling encouraged, and I really miss it.

I was ready to pack up yesterday. Some guy cat called me last night when I was in a foul mood having been giving the look of death from women all day long, and i ignored him and he said in English (which is rare) "Oh, you won't talk to me because I'm black?" and I almost screamed at him, "No, I won't talk to you because you're acting like a total asshole and disrespecting me by making those obscene noises! Do you seriously think a woman wants to be treated like an animal? What is the matter with you?" but luckily my Spanish couldn't come close to forming two of the words in those sentences let alone the whole thing so I walked off furious. As an aside, I have never seen this happen to a Cuban woman...

Today I am calmer, especially after having a good meal and deciding it's best to not try to say hello to anyone. But it leaves me looking from the outside in like at a movie, rather than a place I am participating in experiencing, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. In heavily Muslim countries in Africa people won't talk to you, either, but they are never rude, they just ignore you, and you know that going into it, that they are taught to not talk to non-Muslim strangers, so it doesn't feel so bad.

I hope the tides turn in my next location, because I really, really, really want to love Cuba, and from what I have seen so far, I feel like it's possible. But for now we'll leave it at love/hate.