December 17, 2011

Introducing El Pollo Loco

I ended up in Cuba after a simple decision.
“Rux, do you know I have 40 days off this year?”
“Do you want to go with me to Cuba?”
Rux was collecting data for her thesis in dance anthropology; I was going to do absolutely nothing for one whole month.  Or at least that was the plan, because I was informally assigned the role of camera operator, which I accepted joyfully in order to take part in interviews, meetings, shows and practices of (as it turned out) the greatest Rumberos in Havana and Matanzas. 

December 16, 2011

Casa sweet casa

Travel guides, blogs and forums all agree: choosing a casa particular over a hotel gives tourists the opportunity to see how Cubans live, it is a guarantee of getting to know real Cuba. Actually, this is just an opportunity to spend less money on accommodation and to get an idea of how some houses have been transformed in order to feed some more touristic illusions.
Our first casa in Havana was definitely the best one and they also served the best breakfast, which in Cuba is a major plus, as the food in casas is one of the few things that are edible without consequences (leaving aside the consequences of eating eggs for breakfast for one whole month, i.e. an average of 60 eggs/ person and cholesterol levels we decided not to measure, at least for a while). 
Do we have enough room for all the stuff we carried with us?
Coming up next: Brazilian telenovelas
The room with the best Cuban soundtrack
Guava is the new black
Our bathroom in Havana - breaking the last barriers of privacy 
However, the main reason why we liked this casa was that in less than two days we befriended the right people and that's where the real fun began. We learned a lot about just how pushy Cuban guys can be and just how assertive we could be, we found out that you don't have to know somebody in order to like them, we partied in a club with house music located more or less at the end of the world and got there in a cab with the backseat covered in duct tape, paying for this a lot less than the normal fare and also understanding just how meaningful and special life insurance can be, we climbed up the roof and took some amazing photos of Havana, discovered the cheapest joints with the worst coffee and the best fried chicken, I improved my Spanish while Karolina was told she didn't really need any language in order to communicate, we almost got a ride back home in the police car and ended a party at the hospital at 2 a.m.
The other casa in Havana was the perfect example of how to squeeze money out of tourists without giving anything in exchange. One of the beds in our room broke when we sat on it, breakfast was a nightmare, we only had hot water in the morning and by night there was no water at all, except for the puddle on the floor where every morning we could admire the sight of wet, dead ants. 
"Don't worry, we have many beds"
Wet ants. Dead. 
And then there was the colonial house in Matanzas, so beautiful and spacious and welcoming we couldn't believe our eyes. It was safe, cozy and inspiring and after two very intense and crazy weeks in Havana we finally got a good dose of tranquility. 
Patio in Matanzas
Where the rooms have no keys. And don't need any. 

Script talks in Matanzas
Addicted to Cubita
The last stop before going back to Havana was Trinidad, where our casa did not differ much from a normal  guesthouse anywhere else in the world and the interaction with real Cuban life was reduced to meeting our hosts - and they were Cubans. 
Should have worn high heels to ring the doorbell
Almost ready to leave Trinidad
Going back to Havana was like going back home, to our old room and old habits. And on the last night, which deserves a post of its own, it turned out we were more at home and more adapted than we would have thought. 

December 11, 2011

Las chicas habaneras

I was prepared for jet-lag, mosquito bites, sunstroke, food poisoning and my intuition told me it would probably not be easy to adapt to a culture so different from my own. But I only came to understand the true dimension of this encounter by the end of the first week, when I was finally forced to exit my comfort zone.
During my first days in Havana I'd wander aimlessly, trying to absorb the city with all my senses, to bring it closer, to uncover its layers and see just how much of it would willingly unveil. It was obvious from the first hours this would be a place where any attempt at acting like a local would be futile. And then, by the end of the second week, there came the surprise. Coming back from one of the interviews for my research, I found Karolina waiting with E.L. and B. on the stairs in front of our house and it was then they told us we started looking Cuban. I took it rather as an unintended compliment to my fashion sense and its adaptability - I think it was the only thing that managed to adapt and only partly cover everything that was touristic about me. That was where the line was drawn, almost by itself – visually, I was beginning to adapt. Any other kind of alteration was off limits.  There was no way to forget, not even for a second, that we were tourists, paying the price of witnessing the daily realities of a country bearing little or no comparison to any other. We spent most of our time walking in neighborhoods tourists are advised to stay away from, we got the chance to glance behind the curtain and tried to deal with the reality of daily life the way it really happens, with all its ups and downs. Seen from the backseat of an old Caddy, Cuba is splendid, happy and idyllic - the daily life of most Cubans is nothing more but local color to spice up a trip sprinkled with Mojitos, accessorized with  Che t-shirts and salsa rhythms. Seen from behind closed doors of houses not meant for tourists, it loses its vintage-commy glam and everything worth knowing has a price and leaves traces.
But we were to discover that only later, because the first week in Havana was more of a crash course in a new reality. Slowly, we got used to:

  • a very specific type of interaction happening in the streets, which was funny for about three days, then became slightly annoying and by the end of our first stay in Havana it was simply tiresome (needless to say, after a week away from Havana we missed it and couldn’t wait to get back): Psssst. Taxi lady? Beautiful! I love you! Where are you from? Naming a country – any country – would inevitably trigger the following conversation: Oh (insert name of country) really?! I have a friend who has a friend who lives there / My brother lives there with his wife / I was there in the ’80s. Are you interested in buying a CD with Cuban music? Do you know Buena Vista? Cigars? Do you dance salsa? I’m a teacher. The funniest part was having the Linda! I love you. Un chico para bailar salsa? routine played on us by men who weren't even looking our way – they do it as naturally as they breathe. A guy walking and writing a message on his phone is likely to compliment your smile without even taking his eyes off the screen, even when you're not smiling.
  • being stopped by the police at night because we were walking with Cubans and having to explain in my far from perfect Spanish that we had no problem with it and that we actually wanted to be with them
  • kids in the streets asking for sweets, money, pens, my watch, jewelry for their mom
  • daily life unfolding in front of us in the streets – the Cuban concept of privacy is so different from the European one that at some point I was actually wondering if there was one at all. Most of the houses in Havana had their doors wide open, exposing everything that was inside, a living and breathing museum of the quotidian, leaving little to the imagination and in many cases making poverty almost tangible 

  • telling little white lies, like on the night when we had to cover for the taxi driver who was doing illegal business and told the police we were friends, not clients, coming back from a salsa party. It didn't take me long to learn this art which I still like to think of in terms of practicing a new type of discourse rather than lying and Karolina said I’d be leaving Cuba with very specific new skills
  • the washed up colors of the city, like a carousel that had once seen happier and brighter days. Seen from above, everything colorful is probably something tourist-oriented (casas particulares, hotels, museums, galleries). The rest is Havana.  

  • prices changing over night – the same coffee in our favorite coffee-shop in Obispo had at least three different prices in just one week
  • verbal bills – this is something that happens quite often in restaurants, most of the times they’ll charge 10 pesos for anything, even for rice so salty and stale it’s inedible
  • singing and dancing out of the blue – when doing house chores, when walking, when having dinner - this is not a myth, it really happens and it's amazing and contagious. They really do live their music, and most children seem to learn how to dance as soon as they start walking. What I do think is a myth is that of the carefree and happy people - the music is always there, but it's not always a celebration, it can go hand in hand with the shadow of nostalgia, sadness, anger of frustration. Even at the library, I got used to doing my reading with music, soundtrack provided by a very nice lady who was all the time either chatting with her fellow workers or on the phone, yet my books were never late, not to mention I got some very good suggestions to enrich my bibliography. This was another thing I absolutely loved about Cuba - the time people have on their hands and the really really cheap phone calls. During our first week in Havana, our landlord told me I could use their phone to call everyone. Call all the places where they play rumba and ask about schedules, call all your contacts, call anybody you want. Just don't call your boyfriend, because then you won't see anything in Havana, you'll just spend hours on the phone.

And then there was that particularly ordinary Sunday afternoon in Centro Habana, on the sidewalk, waiting for the first interview for my research, watching the dogs sleeping in the sun and the kids playing, people walking with colorful birthday cakes and listening to the blend of salsa, bachata and reggaeton flowing out into the streets from open windows, cars and the phones of a few guys playing dominoes in front of a house that used to be blue in its better days. If our trip to Cuba had a better scriptwriter, this would have been the perfect moment for an illumination, for butterflies, for serenity. But there was nothing, not even the slightest inner twinge. It was rather static, more like a picture. It was simply being there, a feeling so new it was almost unsettling. 

December 10, 2011

Autentica Cuba

There's a song that says "It was the most beautiful island discovered by Columbus". In fact, Columbus himself called Cuba "the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen". But there's so much more to it than just its beauty - Cuba is a dream come true, the place to be when you need to get away from it all, to put your mind and soul at peace. An unforgettable experience even for the most demanding and sophisticated tourists, for those whose hearts seek adventure and are not afraid to dive into the unknown, ready to be charmed and seduced. 
Autentica Cuba awaits its visitors with endless beaches and a sea so clear blue it seems photoshopped, lazy afternoons in the shadow of palm trees and a coconut cocktail to keep the body refreshed and the mind relaxed, breathtaking landscapes and the amazing architecture of Habana Vieja, countless museums for a cultural infusion, rum, cigars, vintage cars, music and street performers, an exotic blend of rhythms that work wonders on the body and make it move before you know it. Autentica Cuba is summer love and flirting all year round, an exciting nightlife and more salsa parties than even the most passionate salsero would dream of, Guantanamera, Chan Chan and Hasta siempre, Comandante live on every street corner and the original Mojito and Daiquiri, Hemingway's favorites, at Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita.
It's the promised land that will make all touristic fantasies come true, a treat for those seeking authentic experiences and life-lasting memories. 

All pics courtesy of El Pollo Loco

And then there's Real Autentica Cuba. All in all, in one month, I'd say we spent about 2,5 days in Autentica Cuba, when we really needed a break from the epic proportions of culture shock, from the reality of non-touristic sights that made us want to turn our heads and look the other way, from our inner turmoil and contradictory emotions. Coming soon :)
For more Autentica Cuba pics, check out El Pollo Loco.