Friday, March 18, 2016

Cuba 5: Conclusion

We only had a few hours left before our flight back to Miami. It wasn't enough time to really go anywhere, so we just took one last stroll around Havana.

This is like my favorite picture of the whole trip.

The one peso note has the Plaza de la Revolución on the front which we visited on our second day in the country.

The back shows Cuban national hero José Martí.

Have you noticed that many of the famous Che Guevara pictures have him looking to one side, with a shadow on the lower part of his face?

The most famous of them plays that game quite well.

Turns out Che's beard looks like someone glued patches of pubes to his face while he was asleep. Tough luck bro.

You could always tell where one of the rare, rare wifi hotspots was by the crowd of people sitting and standing around staring at phones and laptops.

We hopped in one last Cuban cab and rode to the airport.

Things got very... propaganda-y the farther we got out of town.

"Socialism or death" was one of the cheery slogans on the highway.

So our taxi man pulls up to a terminal, which I don't believe is the correct one. I got out the car to check the place out, and in the mean time he pretty much sets our bags on the sidewalk and drives away. Well in the confusion I left my dang fedora in the cab! How will people know how classy I am now? Recall the time Athena herself stole the camo Keystone Light hat right off my head at the Acropolis in Greece.

We got to the airport super early quite unnecessarily, then sat and stared at each other for hours. Travel isn't all rainbows and socialism and death you know. This was a pretty special day to be stuck at the José Martí International Airport though.

There were a couple of large US military planes at the airport, which must be a pretty rare sight. I believe they were here in preparation for President Obama's arrival. I never really thought about it before but I guess they fly in his armored cars and stuff ahead of his visits to places. I sort of figured they just used local armored cars but I guess you couldn't really ever trust them.

Things got pretty hilarious when an American flight crew strolled in in their uniforms, hit the duty free shop, then walked out with arms full of rum and cigars.

We bounced back to the Cayman Islands before returning to Miami.

The airport was a little scary. We had our Cuban visit paperwork in order but I still didn't want to be grilled on it. When an officer asked me where I had flown from I said Grand Cayman. Which wasn't a lie. Hurray for obfuscation!

We stuck around Florida for another day and I was able to visit some family. Then back to St. Louis we went.

Lydia gets cold on planes.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cuba 4: Flowers, Albino Peacocks, and an Extra Sloppy Joe

We began our last full day with another tour of the Cuba outside of Havana. We've been meeting at the same place for all of these tours: the Hotel Inglaterra right beside the National Theater. Well as a sign of how fast relations between the US and Cuba seem to be thawing the hotel will be joining Starwood Hotels' The Luxury Collection. The Luxury Collection includes the ridiculously baller executive suite we were upgraded to at the Sofia Hotel Balkan in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The streets were in the process of being repaved for Obama's visit. They were a mess and we happily walked an extra block to get around them.

The Russian embassy was a massive, scary looking spaceship. The rest of the embassies on this street looked normal, so I don't know what they are trying to prove here.

Talking to our Cuban tour guides might have been the best part of this trip. They have been through a lot and are surprisingly candid about life in Cuba. Again this guy told us stuff that he probably shouldn't have, so I'm not going to tell you his name and instead call him... Cubro. He was very "whoa dude" and would totally fit in at an American fraternity. Things are moving so fast in Cuba that even young guys like him can tell you about "the old days". He said five years ago that you couldn't sell your car or your house. 

Cubans weren't allowed to enter hotels; only foreigners were allowed inside. There was some sort of socialist reason for that one, like trying to prevent too much difference in lifestyle between different classes of Cubans. One exception to this rule was if a Cuban couple got married they could have their wedding party at a hotel. So people started getting married just to have a hotel party, then get divorced the next week.

We talked a bit of American politics. Both our driver and guide seemed to have some awareness of the presidential primary contests taking place in the US. We hadn't had internet in days so it was a surprise when our Cuban cab driver broke the news that Rubio had lost Florida and left the race. I don't think they were very impressed by either Cruz or Rubio's Cuban heritage. Our guide did say that he favors Trump over Hillary because he doesn't trust her.

Apparently Havana has a Russian Orthodox church because so many people from the Soviet Union lived here.

We talked about the ironic situation Cuba is in, that Cuba went from prosperity to austerity so fast that things like ornate buildings and cars are frozen in time. But the more tourists come and spend money, the more able the people will be to upgrade their cars and their crumbling facades, removing much of what made Cuba exotic and interesting in the first place.

Cubro said half of his friends have left for the United States. It's kind of sad to see what all the emigration has done to people's lives. It seems like it would increase the pressure to leave. Cubro's not too patriotic. In order to evade mandatory military service he started a paper trail for an invented illness years before he was to serve. He said some guys would report to duty in dresses or pretend they're gay in order to be sent home a la M*A*S*H.

Cubro said that for 1 month a year for 3 years as a kid he had to pick coffee beans. If that wasn't bad enough on its own he told us that the fields were infested with fire ants. They would sting him everywhere and it hurt especially bad when they would get on his face. His pretty gruesome solution to this problem was to put diesel on his neck to keep them off his face. The diesel burned his neck but it wasn't as bad as the ants.

Our guide has an iPhone, admires Steve Jobs, saw the movies and read the book. When we talked a bit about socialism, he told me that the first socialist experiment was the utopian New Harmony community in Indiana. As a matter of fact I went there with my mom on the way back from the World Fried Chicken Festival. Small world.

Our first location was the Orquideario de Soroa which was full of orchids and other cool plants.

Orchids orchids everywhere.

Flower from the lady slipper orchid.

This plant featuring a big gray lump at its base is aptly named elephants' foot.

Pickle tree

Shrimp plant

Put some clothes on skank.

Our plant guide kept pointing out all kinds of exotic fruit trees which always annoys me because I think "don't talk to me about some exotic awesome fruit unless you have one for me to taste". Well they had them.

And they made them into lovely juices. We got to try mame juice which tasted like a twist between watermelon and papaya and custard apple juice which was pretty milkshake-like.

We checked out a nearby tiny little waterfall named Cascada Soroa.

I asked to stop at a gas station I noticed on the highway. I think it's fun to go to a place like that that I'm familiar with in the US and then note the differences. There was a little building with a little convenience store in it but everything for sale was yet again behind the counter out of the customer's reach. They had a couple of ice cream coolers that were completely empty. Lydia was sad. She likes ice cream a lot.

We bumped into one of our drivers from our previous tours and said hello. How hilarious. We've met like 10 people in the whole country and I'm already bumping into people that I know. Cubro said I'm the first person who's asked him to stop at a gas station. I'm pretty proud.

Cubro told us that there are two government owned gas station chains, and that the price never changes. This gas station might be the only place I've seen people just bluntly asking for money. I wonder why that would be all the way out here in the middle of nowhere.

Little wastebaskets around were made out of sticks. So eco.

We stopped and had some lunch. That chopped meat looking dish by Lydia has been pretty common so far. It's called ropa vieja which translates to "old clothes", which might be the least appetizing name given to a food ever. It's usually pretty good though. 

There were chickens all over the place and we enjoyed watching their adventures.

There was a band on hand making the rounds. They were singing Decima Cubana, which is apparently some sort of insult music. Seems like something I could get behind, stupid.

If the chickens weren't enough to make the place fun the friggin' albino peacock sealed that deal.

Our last stop in the boonies was at the eco-village Las Terrazas. It was a pretty quaint place. Our guide said something like if the people living here ever move away they can never return. How sustainably ominous of them.

We stopped at a little coffee shop for a break.

Remember that time Lydia got pooped on in Switzerland? Lydia's like an intercontinental poop collector.

We made it back to Havana, said our goodbyes, passed out our tips, and had them drop us off at Sloppy Joe's, home of the sloppy joe. 

Nobody understood any of my Billy Madison references. It was sad.

Whelp, I sat down, ordered something with rum in it and a damn sloppy joe, then took a stroll around the place.

It was full of lots of antique advertisements and the like. The place was popular before the revolution and famous Americans used to stop by.

They did not make it extra sloppy for me. It was pretty good, and the olives mixed in was a unique touch.

At this point we were pretty much mopping up loose ends. I wanted to see the other floors of the Harris Brothers department store we visited on day 2. It was as weird as I'd hoped. The building made the place seem like it had a heyday but we couldn't figure out when that would have been. I have the impression that the moment were are right now is the most "capitalist" the country has been since the 50s. Maybe it was built then?

There were zero customers on any of the upper floors and the salespeople stared at us through their glass walls. It was definitely interesting.

Lydia getting sassy in front of our hostel.

So we were walking into our place after 3 completely packed days of just sucking up Cuba like sponges. We walked past Julio, the sort of manager guy who works at the hostel, and he said some nonsense like "You haven't seen the real Cuba. I bet you're spending all your time indoors." I was like "say that again into my good fist son" and made Lydia hold me back. My attitude was pretty much, ok dude show us Cuba then, and I invited him to dinner.

We turned out to be the ones doing all the showing. Julio hadn't seen much of the tourist Havana that Lydia and I had been traversing the past few days.

We had a nice dinner and afterwards I lit one of the baller Cohiba Behike cigars that I'd purchased yesterday at the tobacco farm. I was ready to get up and leave when the waiter looked genuinely sad and sad that I should really have some rum with the cigar. Julio agreed that I was doing it wrong, so we stayed and had a drink. Julio had some complicated way he wanted me to hold a sip of rum under my tongue while taking a puff of the cigar... I don't know.  

Lydia's frilly drink had a strawberry on the rim. Julio chimed in that he'd never had a strawberry. In his life. Ok, strawberry is yours sir. This picture is his reaction when I told him that he's eating the strawberry wrong and that he needed to hold it under his tongue. He said he liked it but it didn't taste like the soda.

Julio yet again was super forthcoming with his life story. Unlike many of the previous people we asked, Julio did serve his mandatory time in the military. I want to say he worked in some sort of antiaircraft division. Anyway he said he was there longer than the usual 2 years because he spent multiple months in a military prison. I really wanted to know what he was in for but I didn't want to ask. If he said his crime was "eating a tourist's face" or something it would have made the rest of dinner pretty awkward.

He told us that he and the owner thought I must be in the CIA scouting for Obama because I was so straight faced on arrival. I thought that was pretty funny. I was just tired. They also seemed impressed that we never needed any directions or anything. We rock the guidebook pretty hard. That was nice to hear.

The topic of internet dating came up and I told Julio all about Tindr. He seemed pretty excited about checking it out himself. I'm like a cultural ambassador.

Coolest mailbox evar!

We hit the Floridita which bills itself as "the cradle of the daiquiri".

There's a life size Hemingway statue at the bar, and plenty of him elsewhere as well.

We headed back to the hostel and said goodnight to Julio.