Monday, February 28, 2011

Journal Entries II


Another week has passed – I believe I’ve just decided out of necessity to only update this journal on a weekly basis, which is frustrating because I know it will mean the death of daily nuance. Perhaps I will find the motivation I need to update on a more usual basis but I doubt it.

Today my entries may feel a little sepia-toned; I am feeling homesick and nostalgic for things that I am still 2 months away from. On my calendar, I have marked a countdown from April 27th. It started on January 26th, the day I left home for the Bahamas. On that day, there was a small “91” marked in the top left hand corner. On today’s date, there is a small 59. While time moves paradoxically here (both rapidly and tediously), I find myself defeated by that small “59”. The time that I’ve spent here will be have to re-occur two fold before I set foot back into my comfort zone. That 3-month wall is a third shorter, but is still too tall.

As I’ve explained it to a few people, this experience so far is feeling similar to that of a bad breakup from a first love, with moments of weakness when I miss something that I feel is lost forever, moments of strength when I realize that whether or not I’m enjoying it I’m conquering it, and moments when I understand that this will be easier and more beautiful when I’m passed it, knowing that while it was difficult it was moreover crucial to my personal development. I hate that I feel this way – I wish I could simply exist happily in the moment. I feel like I am often wishing for this to be over so that I can appreciate it more (and safely) in retrospect. I know that once it is over I will often long to return. I feel cranky and childish and stubborn.

This trip marks so many things for me, but mainly it marks the longest and farthest I’ve really been from home. I’m still proud of myself for not choosing a program in London – I still believe it would have been a cop-out. I keep thinking back to the fact that I chose a college close to home, talk to my family on a day-to-day basis… this is far away from what I’ve known for 21 years. I feel apologetic for continuing to recognize this, but I have to for my own reassurance.

The truth is that I am having a great experience. I am learning a lot, meeting a lot of great people, putting in a lot of hard work. I’m just having trouble pulling myself out of my own head, taking this trip day by day instead of as a whole.

Something that I haven’t addressed at all in this journal is my unconscious life here, my dreams. I’m beginning to think that it would be worth while to record these as well. Since arriving in Habana, my dreams have been more vivid than they have ever been before. I remember at least 2 or 3 every night, and they usually involve people that I know from home. There is always a feeling of longing to them. The dialogue is always more lucid than my usual dreams, more self-aware. I say things to people that I never get a chance to say to them in person – they answer with things I wish or am afraid they would say back. I feel like I can actively decide who I dream about on occasions.

I’ve also noticed that my creative writing every day reflects this. I am interested in writing about images from my dreams, things people told me. And that feeling of longing permeates everything I write.

Sunday – Andrew and I wake up, have a leisurely breakfast. We exercise, we read, we linger. Its another beautiful day outside, so we decide to walk to Habana Vieja, via the Malecon. Its about a 45 minute walk along the water. We pass natives (all paired off and in lovers’ embraces) and tourists (in small groups, squinting) and attempt to guess where everyone comes from. Germans are the easiest to identify, standing out amongst the Cubans and tourists alike. We stop for a while, sit up on the wall of the Malecon, look out at the ocean, spit off some Beatles-philosophy out of irony. Sometimes I just look out at the ocean and want to throw myself in it, swimming endlessly so that I know how little I am in the vastness, etc.

We get to Habana Vieja and walk down side streets that many tourists avoid. We get peso coffee, we play with dogs, we window shop. A few blocks of road have been closed to any car traffic, which seems strange in the touristy neighborhood. We see signs that explain why: there are not a lot of parks or open areas in Habana Vieja, and some streets have been closed to encourage the people of the neighborhood to get some exercise playing games and walking around without fear of dodging cars. After noticing that first sigh, countless others become illuminated on every street, promoting physical activity for healthy lifestyles. One point awarded to socialism.

We head towards Plaza Vieja, a location we visited during Orientation the first week, for a late afternoon snack. On our way, we walk passed Conrado, the loud and forceful man who imposed himself on us during our first visit to Plaza Vieja (the man who insisted and followed us to our restaurant, in search of being awarded a few beers for his service). He was drunk and yelling at some other people in the street, we would have to walk right passed him in order to get to the Plaza. We increased our speed, kept our heads down, and prayed that he would be too drunk to see us. We made it safe and sound, and hoped that he wouldn’t just pop up at the restaurant again.

We got a table at the busy plaza, ordered a juice and a Cuban sandwich. The juice came first. It was windy, windier than I thought it was. After only a few sips of the orange juice, a gust of wind hit our table, knocked over the drink, pouring sticky liquid all over the table and, of course, my lap. The sun decided it needed a break from shining at that exact moment. Thus, I was sitting in the cool shade, covered in juice that was quickly drying and becoming even more sticky. There was a table of rude and wealthy (a horrible, horrible combination) Cuban teenagers at the next table over. They kept looking over with malicious smiles, whispering, and cackling. I dismissed myself to the bathroom and made an effort to clean myself up. I did the best I could do in the small bathroom, clumsily soaping up my legs, rinsing them in the sink, and attempting acrobatics in order to dry them under the hand-dryers.

I returned to the table, actively trying to keep myself in good spirits. The kids at the table next to us were whistling and yelling at their server, telling them that they were ready for their bill, then subsequently ordering more drinks after he had brought them their ticket. We waited for our sandwich. The sun came back out, my legs did not feel as sticky. I fought back against the bad mood that had been inching in. The teenagers at the next table over finally departed, and an older British couple sat down in their place. We heard one of them say, “May goostah a key.”

After an extended wait, our sandwich finally arrived. We wolfed down the delicious multi-meat and cheese sandwich, paid our bill, and left in search of a peso cab home. The night was spent as most nights here are: lazily hanging out, doing work, and reading (in my case, I was nearing the end of 100 Years of Solitude, which I have since finished and thoroughly enjoyed).

Monday threw me back into my weekday morning routine before Spanish class at 2pm. Class occurred without notable incidence, and I walked down to the Cohiba hotel to use the internet. Of course and as always, the internet connection was feeble, and a lot of the work that I had been looking forward to accomplishing (namely, contacting my family and friends to say hi and confirm that I was safe) could not happen to the extent that I had wished. Thus, I had time to update the travel blog, and send out a few brief emails to family telling them to check the blog for a more personal update. I continue to feel frustrated at my inability to send out more personal messages or upload (any) photos. During the stretches of time in which the internet was completely useless, I read a play that Celia had leant me, “Contigo, Pan y Cebolla”, which had been written in the early 60’s by Hector Quintera (I saw his latest play the Friday before). I continue to be impressed with my abilities of reading in Spanish.

On Tuesday, my regular routine of meeting with Celia was again interrupted due to a group trip to an Art Museum in Habana Viejo. The museum was beautiful and open, with exhibits divided by the eras after the Revolution. I walked through the exhibit and watched time pass through the artwork. I realized how long it had been since I had been in a museum – at least since last summer. I realized how much I love museums, for the same reason that I love plays and magazines and fashion; everything looks finished, realized, planned, controlled. I wrote down names of artists I had never heard of, names I feel like everyone should know. I noted how I felt like I was in an open field while walking through the labyrinth of exhibits.

After the tour, Andrew and I veered off to Obispo Street to look for bookstores, of which we found many, both in CUC and Moneda Nacional. I bought a book of poetry and a series of maps of Habana throughout history. I can’t wait to find a place for them in my room at home.

Wednesday passed without incidence: another day of our Literature seminar. I once again gauged my progress in Spanish comprehension.

Thursday marked another Spanish class, followed by my return to the Thursday night seminar. Since last week, the format had been revised so as to frustrate the students less. It has basically become a project seminar, in which each student talks individually about the progress he or she has been making, and questions they are working through. The class progressed well enough, except for one student who was unwilling to take any criticism about her project, despite the fact that she so easily offered (non) constructive criticism to everyone else. At the end of the 3 hour meeting, we got talking about the rara religious performance we were being offered to view on the following Sunday (today).

To explain briefly (mostly because I am not well informed about the topic), rara is a religious form practiced in this region by Haitian-Cubans, combining elements of voodoo, Santería, and Christianity. This past week is when they celebrate their Easter – while they usually return to Santiago, Cuba for the celebration, a sect in Habana could not afford the trip, and were carrying it on here. Our program is paying the group in order to view (or participate?) the ceremonial performance. A debate arose this past Thursday as to whether or not our attendance at this religious event was disrespectful. While I agree that this concern was valid, it unleashed the most Hampshire-esque discussion I have heard in quite some time, contesting our position as tourists/students/spectators. Not knowing a lot about the subject, I did not participate but rather listened to other’s arguments. I still have mixed feelings on the subject, and am an avid believer that one shouldn’t shoot their mouth off without giving an issue some thought and (most importantly) research. After about 45 minutes of debate, the group split up, some to head to bed (myself included) and others to look for another place to continue their discussion.

Friday morning I woke up early for my meeting with Celia. I checked the syllabus and noticed the class’s focus would be on interviews. I was excited to finally talk about how to approach asking my subject’s questions. I was also excited to submit a short response I had written to one of the plays I had read, “El enano en la botella”. To explain, I have been having trouble accurately articulating my thoughts on plays that I have been reading with Celia – while my Spanish comprehension has come forward leaps and bounds, my generating skills are still lagging behind (not in daily conversation so much as academic discussion). However, I know that writing is one of my strengths – as long as I can sit down and gather my thoughts (and occasionally look up vocabulary), I can articulate myself fairly well. Thus, I decided to start writing responses for Celia so that she would get a better understanding of…well, my understanding.

At our meeting, I passed in my first response. I could tell that she was excited about my level of understanding of the play, and was very happy about my writing, encouraging me to continue. She then explained that she had to change around the syllabus for the day, that we would no longer be discussing interviews, but that she was going to give me a brief (very brief) history of theater for young audiences (Teatro para Ninos) before we stopped in on a rehearsal in a little over an hour. I was going to be meeting Teatro Tropatrapa, a TYA group in Habana. I became a little anxious and flustered, wishing that I had known beforehand so that I could bring my camera. This wasn’t the first time Celia had sprung opportunities on my without previous knowledge, so I resolved that I would just have to bring my camera equipment with me whenever I met with her from that day forward.

After the brief history, Celia and I caught a cab to Linea and D and took a short walk to a parking lot behind a large yellow building – the company’s “rehearsal space”. The company is made up of a small group of men (in their late 20’s through 40’s) with big smiles and even bigger senses of humor. We sat around for about 45 minutes talking about their work, before they played me a few songs and rehearsed a scene that they were working on. They made me a small paper crane and invited me to a performance they were having the following morning. A few hours later, I parted ways with Celia and walked back home to meet Andrew for lunch.

Andrew was still swimming in his bed sheets when I got back. I waited for him to get ready and then we departed for a quick bite before his Spanish class. We parted ways and I set off for an afternoon of solitary exploration. I walked to a few bookstores in different areas around Habana (some indoors, some on sidewalks) and picked out a few books I wanted to bring home for people. I stopped to read 100 years of Solitude (which I was dangerously close to finishing at this point) on a bench looking out to the ocean. I walked for another hour and a half, using the time to think of all the people I knew from different points in my life, wondering where they were at that exact moment. I was on my way to a bakery when I heard a familiar and frustrating sound: the kissy noise of a piropo.

To back up, I had been hearing this all day. I knew that walking around unaccompanied would draw this kind of attention (as it always does), but I had been bombarded with a wave of unflattering compliments all day, men of all ages yelling out “princesa” and “mami” and “guapo” at me as I walked by, following me with their eyes in the most unappealing and lecherous manner, making that awful kissy noise at me. By this point, I was used to the noise and was attempting to ignore it.

But at this moment, I look over and see a taxi driver, leaning over his passenger seat and making that awful noise between piropos. He was a lane over from me, but was slowing his car and keeping pace with me for over half a block. Yes, this guy was probably one of the most persistent hastlers I’ve encountered so far. After about half the block, he started turning into the lane beside me, to cut the distance between me and his yelling.

What happened next I still have a hard time believing, so clichéd is its nature.

As he was pulling his car into the lane next to me, continuing to yell, he didn’t look behind him for oncoming traffic. I heard a car horn screeching. I looked over just in time to see another huge Chevy blast into the side of my predator’s car.

I caused a car accident.

I paused on the sidewalk, my mouth open in disbelief. I ejaculated a nervous laugh. The front of the car had smashed into the taxi had no damage: those grills are so massive and reinforced…there wasn’t even a dent. But the lecherous taxi driver’s passenger-side door was crippled, completely pushed in, frame and all. The drivers were already out of their cars yelling at each other. After another moment of disbelief, I kept walking. While I knew that this kind of accident was going to be economically devastating to that lecherous taxi driver, I couldn’t help but feel a personal triumph over that stupid kissy noise. I reasoned that this was neither the first nor last time that man had ruthlessly bothered a woman, and surmised that he had it coming. I continued to the bakery and bought myself a cupcake.

After another half hour of walking, I headed back to the park near Casa Silvia to wait for Andrew to get out of his Spanish class. I opened up my book, and was determined to finish it before the afternoon was finished.

Not 10 minutes in to my most recent reading session, the older man with his dog (who I had seen and been irritated by the first time I had gone to that park to read…the one who asked me what time it was despite the fact that I didn’t have a watch, then continued to bother and stare at me) started walking passed. Behind the safety of my sunglasses, I saw him start to walk by. He stopped, he looked at me, he turned around and sat down, once again, across from me. I kept reading, intent on not giving him the satisfaction of eye contact. An hour later, he was still sitting across from me and I was finishing my book. I closed it, paused for a moment to let the ending (the beautiful ending) sink in. As if by magic, he got up with his dog and left. Not 30 seconds later, Andrew emerged from Casa Silvia. We returned home, as I told him all about my afternoon.

That night we departed our house with Oskar, ready to continue our Friday night routine. We picked up a bottle of rum and a bottle of Coke, and headed over to Kristina’s. Others in our group were just showing up, everyone bringing alcohol or snacks for the group. We celebrated the end of the week as per usual.

Saturday morning Andrew and I woke up early for the Teatro para Ninos performance, which was only a few blocks away. It was the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning. We sat in on the company’s brief rehearsal before their show, then watched as the children excitedly piled into the small theater/classroom, not an adult in sight. The show was wonderful, with lots of music, jokes, and actor-nugget interaction. I filmed parts of it, knowing it would be useful for my final project. We made plans to see another show the following Monday at UNEAC, and left, in search of Oskar and food.

After finding Oskar (who had given himself another of his notoriously “chic” haircuts), we walked towards 23 and J to get some cheap hot dogs and beer. Still hungry after that, we walked around in the sun until we came across a fast-food restaurant with pizza and spaghetti. We continued our dining experience.

Afterwards, we slowly walked back to our houses, in need of siestas. We relaxed and napped before dinner, at which point Baby treated us (as she does every day, twice a day) to a delicious meal. After dinner, I was exhausted from sun and food and decided to stay in for the night, busying myself with a lackluster exercise session followed by a Disney movie on my computer. Andrew, on the other hand, went out with Oskar to a late night drag show, which was also attended by the actor, Benicio Del Torro. He now has a picture of himself, at a drag show, with Benicio Del Torro. Never thought he would be able to say that.

Which brings me to today, Sunday. I’ve already expressed the wave of home-sickness that I awoke with, and already I feel it waning. Recounting what I’ve done here always makes me feel better. I am self-aware, I know the hypocrisies that exist within me in response to this experience, and I knew beforehand that this wouldn’t be easy. While I am looking forward for this to be over so that I can reflect on it from a safe distance provided by time itself, I am enjoying it in the here and now. Its just hard sometimes.

*please excuse any and all misspellings and grammatical errors...I am far too exhausted to proofread this and make it all pretty. I love and miss you all.


  1. Hi Kath-

    Once again I was thoroughly entertained as I read your diary entries over my morning cup of coffee on another blustery, but at least sunny, winter day in Gloucester. The taxi incident where the driver cracked up his car "stalking" you was hilarious, although sort of disturbing, too.
    Be careful! Miss you! Uncle Dave

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  3. My Dear Kathi ~ I always look forward to all your journal entries. As I read them I feel as though I'm standing with you; enjoying all the sites, sounds and smells as Cuba comes alive though your writings. Please keep writing about your day to day journeys as well as your feeling about them.
    That lecherous taxi driver deserved what came his way....sweet girl... you suffer for your beauty!
    As you bask in the sun New England struggles to get in the "balmy" 40's with rain predicted for later this afternoon. Is Cuba a humid tropical heat or do you enjoy island breezes...I not sure how your weather works? How is your "house mother" Baby and her family? Have you been to any more plays? How are your classes? How is Andrew? Ahhh so many questions. Missing you more than I thought possible, can't wait to see you, lots of hugs and kisses. Love, Auntie