Without realizing it, both Boris and Yoel reminded me of some of the major differences between Central America and Cuba. While talking to a fellow driver in the airport, I heard Boris say “que bola”, or the Cuban version of what’s up/que tal/que onda/que hay, and later that day I heard the full “que bola, acede”, an only-in-Cuba greeting. While I was chattering away during our drive, I definitely used words that don’t come from here, and in response I got Boris scrunching his nose at me like a rabbit. Ahhh yes, the Cuban version of “please repeat that/I didn’t hear you/I don’t understand”. So I repeated, and there was no more nose scrunching. Love it. During our time here, I think Moondog was the only one to perfect the technique. Standing in line (which in Cuba is just a group of people mulling about the same general space) brought the inevitable “ultimo?” so we knew who to follow when it was our turn, and my maquina ride from Vedado to the hotel went as smoothly as possible: only 2 or 3 cars sped past when they heard my requested “Capitolio” before one skidded to a slower pace for me to jump in.
(re) Tracing my footsteps
The morning after my arrival, I couldn’t wait to get my mouth around some delectable Cuban treats – mainly yucca, congri and some sort of unidentifiable meat. The idea was to meet Yoel at Cine Yara for lunch, so I headed out on foot from Centro Havana. In order to avoid getting myself completely lost on the first day, I decided to follow the easiest path: the Malecon. Oh Malecon, how I love you! I wandered past the queues of people waiting for their particular gua-gua (the camellos are no longer in existence!) and weaved through those zipping past on bicycles while balancing a cream-coated sheet cake in one hand until I was past the monument to Antonio Maceo. As I tried to avoid getting hit by waves crashing over the sea wall (unsuccessfully, I might add) I took in the sights all around me, turning around to catch a glimpse of the Castillo del Morro (where Che had his office post-Revolution) and noting the lamp-posts that were just beginning to be erected as we were leaving were all standing tall along the road.
I felt a lump in my throat as I noticed the Focsa tower in the background, just behind Hotel Nacional. I made my way past the USS Maine monument, where I remembered spending our last hours in Havana with all of the amazing friends we’d met over the months, and kept going to the US Interest Section. The flag poles (73 of them) were a new addition, and I read later (thanks, Lonely Planet) that:
Luis Posada Carriles [was] …suspected of bombing a Cubana Airlines flight in 1976 that killed 73 people. After the US refused to extradite American resident Carriles for trial in Venezuela (where he is alleged to have hatched the plot) in 2005, the Cuban government organized mass-demonstrations outside the US Interests Office and raised 73 huge black flags; one for each person that was killed in the crash.
After wandering past the building (didn’t the infamous “No les tenemos absolutamente ningun miedo!” billboard used to be up here on the left?) I turned around, a futile attempt at drying the sea-wetted right side of my body, and wandered through Parque de la Dignidad, glancing up at the Jose Marti statue and wondering if Elian Gonzales knows that he’s immortalized in Marti’s arms. From here I followed 17th street (yes, El Conejito restaurant is still there!) and was surprised to see the same senora selling pan con cerdo behind the metal fence in front of her house. And then, looking small and crumbly, was the hotelito – our home for 4 months. The most amazing part? The doorman (someone please remind me of his name!) recognized me! As soon as he saw me his face lit up, and he said “Well look who’s here! You’ve been gone for a while!” and he invited me in to see that, as I expected, everything was exactly the same as we left it: same wood paneling, same couches, same cubby holes for the keys – even the bar and dining room were the same! I asked after Ramon, but it was his day off. Apparently all the same camareras were working there, cleaning up the upstairs rooms as there is a group from Pittsburgh studying at the moment. Amazing.
After saying my goodbyes, I – as promised to Bridget – bought a brick of mani and broke it open right away. Cuban peanut butter is unique and delicious and I could have eaten the whole 5 peso block, but decided to hold off until after lunch. Even though I was already starving, I had an hour before meeting up with Yoel so I slowly walked past the house selling cajitas to check that she was still there, and on up to La Rampa. I don’t know what I expected, but I suppose I knew deep down that it would be the same. But it was exactly the same, which was the biggest shock! Same Don Quixote statue, same lines at Coppelia, same Dino’s pizza being sold at Yara with all the Coco taxis out front, same artisan market – even the same internet shop that we used to use! The only major difference is that there was more of everything: peso pizza stalls and hot dog stands lined the streets, where before there was nothing; beer was being sold at almost every corner; 90% of the people I saw were using cell phones, and overall it seemed to bustle more.
From here I wandered down to the Pavillion and around to the entrance of Hotel Nacional. I decided not to go in just yet (didn’t end up going in at all that day) and wondered to myself if I could find “my” house – the one I have been in love with since my first time in Havana. While looking to the sky and seeing the “Hotel Capri” and “Hotel Victoria” (which reminds me of the day after Thanksgiving when we went swimming there and I swiped a beer mug) signs, smiling to myself, I looked ahead and saw what I was looking for: my house. It’s still there, looking completely deserted with the front windows completely taped up and blocked out, but as lovely as I remembered it. I loitered outside for a bit, buying Granma and Juventud Rebelde papers from the old man passing by, but no one was coming or going and I didn’t want to stand around for too long. I took another longing glance and headed back to La Rampa to meet Yoel.
Yoel was slightly delayed (hora cubana, dontcha’ know), we had to change our lunch plans, settling on a pizza for him after making a few phone calls, while I was holding out for my beloved cajita. After getting work stuff out of the way we were able to chat for a few before he ran off to a meeting in another part of town. Feeling extremely hungry by this point, I meandered back to the cajita woman, only to find out that by 1:30pm – the time I arrived on her doorstep – she’s normally out of everything. Boo! The brick of peanut butter in my purse reminded me that I was near the local peso market, so I made my way to the back of the stalls to the lunch counters and helped myself to a bountiful plate of congri with yucca and pork. The chivalry of the Cuban man took me by surprise when, after I’d finished my lunch and was ready to make my way out, I was invited to a glass of refresco, or natural juice. Now I know that 1 peso doesn’t seem like a lot to offer someone, but considering that the maximum this gentleman made per month (this is an assumption, of course) is 480 pesos, one of those is quite valuable. I was touched by his offer and accepted the glass of orange juice to wash down my super-Cuban lunch. I decided to get my mind in order before “work” started, so I caught a maquina back to the Capitolio (still just 10 pesos) and drifted back to the hotel where I showered and got my paperwork in order for the 6pm meeting that night.