More time than I had anticipated (or wanted) has passed between diary entries, so my apologies to myself for any slips of memory that will make this addition void of nuance. Since the last time I wrote, I have found myself in an entirely different mindset – not surprisingly, but the change is definitely a welcomed one. I have spent more time in theater rehearsals and class, and have also made a trip across the island to Santiago, which is the closest thing to a pirate town I have ever visited. More on that later.
After writing my last entry on Sunday (27th), I took a long, solitary walk – something I have gotten into the habit of doing here and that I find very helpful and relaxing. Since I didn’t bring an ipod or anything of the sort, I am left with only my thoughts, which I can sort through and repeat as often as necessary until I have exhausted the topics. I usually bring a book and separate these copycat-Trousseau outings with some lighter reading on one of the many park benches in the Vedado area. Sunday’s reading was JD Salinger’s 9 Stories, which I have, unfortunately, already finished (I’m burning through all my free-reading material much faster than I had anticipated). After a long afternoon out by myself, I returned home, ate some cookies, wallowed in my blue mood a little longer, then watched a movie. I woke up the next morning free of my self-pity, having fatigued any need to continue my wholly unnecessary angst.
Monday was business as usual – nothing out of the ordinary to report before early evening (morning schedule and Spanish class were without incident). After class I went to the Melia Cohiba hotel to attempt an internet connection, which arbitrarily cost twice as much money as usual (depending on what time it is and who is working at the front desk, internet access is sold in 80 or 120 minute blocks, costing 6 or 12 CUC, respectively). I begrudgingly handed over my 12 CUCs and went to find a seat, hoping to any and all Gods that the internet would actually work after having to shell out that much money.
Luckily it did (kind of), and I was able to finally access some messages that I was unable to open a week and a half before, during my last visit. It made me very happy to be able to communicate with my loved ones, which continued to boost my spirits. The two hours allowed me a decent amount of time to message most people (although I’ve decided I will have to rotate who I respond to in-depth each time, because otherwise carpel tunnel would prematurely set in), update my blogs, and answer “business” emails from school. I also got the opportunity to trade poetry with Georgie, which I quickly saved to my computer desktop so as not to lose it when the internet connection ended.
Later that night, I had the opportunity to sit down with his work and read over it, a lot of it having to do with me and my closer group of friends during last semester. Last semester was a very difficult time for me (definitely the hardest term I’ve had at Hampshire, both work-wise and emotionally), and it was interesting/hard/wonderful to see it reflected from someone else’s perspective, especially when that someone is a person that I love dearly. It made me feel better to know that I had never been alone throughout that time, and that things were already better. Whether I had realized it or not, we had all survived it – just as I would survive (and thrive!) this abroad program. It made me miss my home at Hampshire, that home being my friends there. But that home is never that far away, even from Cuba.
I also had a message waiting for me from Celia: Baby informed me that the following day I would be meeting her at Sala Hubert De Blanck. I was slightly confused, because I thought we were meeting at Sala Bertolt Brecht, to attend a pantomiming seminar. I verified with Baby and she confirmed the former.
The next morning (Tuesday) I woke up early to walk the short distance down to Linea and Calle D to meet Celia. When I got there, I realized it was the same bright yellow building and parking lot I visited last Friday to watch Teatro Tropatrapa. I was further confused, but went in anyways, asking a guide to direct me to the Sala. She smiled and led me back to that parking lot, where Angelito and some of the other members of the company were just starting to assemble. Celia was no where to be found. I figured I had just beaten her there, and said hello to the company.
They did not seem too surprised to see me again. They asked where Andrew was, and they laughed when I told them he was still sleeping. They told me there were doing an interview before their rehearsal, but I was welcome to stay. To stay? It became very clear to me that this was not what Celia had planned or intended for the day. I had no idea where Sala Bertolt Brecht was, and no way to get in touch with Celia to alter plans. I decided to stay and film Teatro Tropatrapa once again, and call Celia later about the mix-up.
The interview that they were doing was actually a short television profile on an upcoming show that they are working on, premiering near the end of March. It was endlessly helpful to record them talking about the new project, and they also performed some scenes from it. After the television crew had left, I had time to sit down and ask them a few questions about their process and why they participated in live theater. I then stuck around and watched some more of their rehearsal. While it was unfortunate that I didn’t make the pantomiming seminar, the day’s filming started to give my final project more focus – why my subjects choose to participate in live performance as opposed to television, radio or cinema. After a few hours, I thanked Angelito and the boys and set out for a free afternoon, roaming the streets of Vedado once again. I finished 9 stories and found yet another great (and hidden) park. I realized that I now felt comfortable in my Habana neighborhood – I knew my way around, I never had to ask for directions, and I had spots to get coffee, browse books, or find cupcakes (everything I needed for a free afternoon).
That night I wrote another response to a play I had read, Contigo, Pan y Cebolla, before Celia called me to ask where I had been earlier that day. I explained to her that Baby had mistakenly given me the wrong meeting place – Celia confirmed that she had mentioned Sala Hubert De Blanck in passing, and that she must not have been clear with her directions. I said it was not a big deal, because I still spent our “class time” working and filming Teatro Trapatropa and had conducted a short interview with Angelito. She was happy with my work and I could tell she was pleased that I had been outgoing enough to work without her. I told her that I would bring my essay on Contigo, Pan y Cebolla to my literature class for Alfredo (her husband) the next day to give to her. She was, again, pleased – all of these short essays are self-assigned and auxiliary, I write them for my own clarification and reflection, but pass them in so that she knows how I am progressing with the work. Celia tells me she will also send Alfredo to class with Electra Garrigo, so that I can read it over my trip to Santiago.
Wednesday began in my regular morning routine, and led into the afternoon as usual. After a 10-peso pizza for lunch, I stopped at an agro and Cadeca to exchange money into moneda nacional and to buy a few treats (peanut butter paste!) for Thursday’s long ride to Santiago. Then it was off to another Wednesday literature class to (this week) discuss the writings of Jose Martí. At our break time, I handed Alfredo my essays, but did not get the Pinera play in return...I assumed there had been yet another mix-up, and decided to confirm later with Celia. As always on our Wednesday classes, I reflected on my growing comprehension of Spanish – more progress.
After class, Andrew, Oskar and I walked around in search of food and cigarettes (for Oskar). We did a big loop of the area (maybe 10 blocks) – found the cigarettes but no appetizing food, and decided to wait til dinner. On our way back, I asked Oskar if I could borrow some of his books to read, and he leant me a few when we stopped by his house. I wish wish wish I had brought more to read: this trip would’ve been a perfect time for some Faulkner or Baldwin. Alas.
That night Celia called me before I had the opportunity to call her – she apologized profusely, telling me Alfredo had left the play on the kitchen table, and that she was thinking of coming over to bring it to me. I told her it was ok and that there was no need to, that I had plenty of other things to read. Alfredo cut in on the call and thanked me for my participation in class earlier that day. Celia told me she had read my essay and thought it was very insightful. It was my best Cuban phone conversation to date. I hung up feeling good, much better than I had that past Sunday, when my mood was so low. I packed for the trip to Santiago, and went to bed as early as I could.
Thursday morning I woke up at 5:30 and finished getting ready for the trip. By 6:00, Andrew and I were in the atrium at Casa Silvia, ready (or as ready as possible) for the 14-hour car-ride ahead of us. This road trip marked the longest to date – I don’t think I’ve ever done a car-ride longer than 8 or 9 hours in a single day. I had brought plenty of reading to keep me busy, but I found myself sleeping more than anything else. We would stop every couple of hours for a small snack and bathroom break (I have now explored the depths of some of the most disgusting bathrooms – or holes-in-the-ground – (wo)mankind has ever known). The ride was actually not that bad. I got to see a lot of Cuban countryside and experienced true Cuban highway driving…fast and slightly reckless but always staying within the bounds of control. By 9 we had arrived in Santiago, exhausted from sitting on buses all day and terribly hungry for a real meal.
Luckily, Casa Marucchi (where Andrew, Oskar and I would share a room) had prepared a meal for our arrival, with delicious homemade juices, a tomato salad, fresh bread, cheese, and salami, and the most delicious homemade cake I have ever had. It was easily one of the most delicious meals I have had since my arrival in Cuba, although I’m not sure its due just to the quality of the food or if it has more to do with the level of hunger with which I met the meal.
Casa Marucchi was a beautiful old house in the heart of Santiago. As you walk in there was a large parlour filled with ancient chairs, photos and antiquities, with guest rooms off to the right. If you walk through the parlour, there is a small computer and television room…but if you keep walking, the house opens up to a beautiful garden, partially uncovered, with bright green plants sitting, hanging, and draping from every possible surface. There are a many seats and a few tables, a fountain or two, a small pool with a snapping turtle, and a partial outdoor stove. There are also a few cats, a tiny dog (who we nicknamed Chicken Nugget, which was much more fitting than his given name, Toby), and a parrot. The garden ends with a brick staircase leading up to the roof, where there are more plants and a swing. It was absolutely gorgeous. Our room itself was also large and wonderfully decorated, with a boudoir for which I would sprain my right arm to have. Plus, the most amazing part, the bathroom had a lovely shower, with warm water and – shockingly – the best water pressure I’ve experienced in Cuba. It was like showering in the US!
Now, all of these things – the luxurious dinner, the beautiful parlour, the sprawling garden, the friendly pets, the fantastic water pressure – led me to have quite a lovely first impression of Santiago.
The old idiom, “too good to be true” should’ve entered my mind. But it did not. Over the next three days, that favorable first impression would be chipped away, leaving me with the sense that any kindness and opportunity that I was experiencing was not sincere but bought, and that even still it was usually performed begrudgingly.
On Friday – by far the best and most fun day of the trip – we woke up and enjoyed breakfast out in the garden before an 8:30 departure. Little did we all know, almost all of our time (this being our Spring Break, our trip of “relaxation” before our work on final projects became overwhelming) had been planned out for us with activities in the same vain as those of orientation.
Our first stop of the day was at a local espiritista, to talk about his work and role within the community. Now, I’m not going to talk at length about this visit (or about any of the religious visits during the trip) because there is very little information I can provide with certainty of knowing that I am accurately representing it. I believe the espiritista belonged to the Haitian-Cuban community that combines aspects of Voodoo, Santería, and Christianity – within the realm of the performance that was being offered (and caused a heated debate) the weekend before in Habana. We entered his shrine-like room that was a meshing of older pictures, religious relics, and knick-knacks that held personal worth to the espiritista. He talked a little about what he does, mostly cleansing members of his community of their sins on a weekly basis. He also reads futures in cards – similar to Tarot cards but with a Spanish deck that, we were told, are a lot more complex to read. After a very brief visit (not more than 25 minutes) we piled back into the buses to go to our second activity of the day.
We quickly arrived at a small side street with a sign proclaiming the presence of a small theater-café, Macuba. Up a few flights of stairs, we entered a great little café (15 to 18 small tables, each with 3-4 chairs) that opened up to a stage (about the size of the studio). We had a short discussion with one of the directors, Fatima, of a company that worked in the space, before watching part of a dress rehearsal for a show they were premiering the following week. It was very well acted with a lot of energy, and I was immediately disappointed that I would miss the opportunity to see it come to opening night. I made use of the chance to get more filming done for my final project, and also asked a few questions afterward, relating to my work.
While I would’ve loved to have stayed and watched more, the chance was stifled due to our exhausting schedule, which forced us to truck along to the next place of interest – this time a castle/fortress. We were there for a petty 25 minutes or so, not even enough time to make it through the entire castle. Then it was back in the vans for a short drive to a ferry that would take us to lunch on an island nearby. We ended up at a beautiful restaurant over a dock on the island, giving us a gorgeous view of the castle we had just briefly visited, as well as the houses nestled into the rolling hills and extending down and over the water. It was very clear that the restaurant was designated for tourists, with tables and tables filled by “the pale knees of aristocracy” – middle-aged white people from Western Europe. We ate a delicious and slightly expensive lunch, and I enjoyed a glass of white wine for the first time in over a month. It was triumphant.
As we started to finish up our meal, dark clouds began to close in on the island, practically bursting with rain. After everyone finished their drinks and took their turns in the bathrooms, the downpour had already started, bathing (quite literally) everything in gray light and cold rain. We tried to wait it out, but when it appeared that it was not going to stop – and we were going to miss our return ferry, which only comes but once an hour – we decided to make a run for it.
The roads were already flooding, and as we walked back down the hill to the ferry station, we traipsed through the babbling brook the road had become. We cautiously ran through the street, as natives watched/laughed/cheered us on toward our destination, safely under the protection of their roofs. By the time we made it to the station, everyone was completely drenched, head to toe. We laughed and took pictures of each other. Oskar attempted to smoke the world’s soggiest cigarette. I remember feeling an awareness that this was a moment I would remember, a story to tell of my time in Santiago. Everything took on a sepia tone.
The ferry finally arrived and brought us back to the mainland, where our drivers were attempting to restart our van (nearly everytime they stop and park it, it later resists restarting: thus, we usually catch them putting the car into neutral, pushing it a few hundred feet before they can get the engine to start). After their success, we all piled back into the van and headed back to our home stays – the rest of the day’s activities had been canceled due to our current damp states and the weather.
After warm showers and brief naps, Andrew, Oskar and I left our room in search of dinner. Since we had not received maps or directions (or even suggestions as to where to find food), we tried to retrace routes that the vans had taken earlier that day, passed streets that seemed fairly promising as far as food and entertainment went. Maybe 5 or 6 blocks from our home stay, we hit the strip filled with Cubans and tourists alike.
This is what we learned: the spectrum of food and entertainment in downtown Santiago has the very cheap (and very shitty) and the very expensive (which I cannot say whether or not it is good, because we chose to go ‘very cheap’). We entered a small, white room that offered 10 peso pizza and spaghetti. The small restaurant was lit only by overhead fluorescents…that should’ve been the warning I heeded, but no. I stayed. I endured. About an hour later the cheap pizza was sitting (or rather sprawling and making itself mighty comfortable and heavy) in my stomach. Andrew and I headed home after a failed attempt at re-locating the small theater we had been in earlier that day (playing Flaco y Gordo), and readied ourselves for bed. Oskar went his own way. We would not see him til 2:30 in the morning, when he returned from a night out on the town (and a date planned with a local girl studying at the University).
Saturday morning began (once again) at 7:30, with a quick but delicious breakfast out in the garden before leaving for Gran Piedra, a huge rock at the top of a mountain just outside of Santiago, with a beautiful view of the city and ocean. The ride up into the mountains was nothing short of terrifying – once again we were in vans, but this time with different drivers. Our new driver was a very short and very jubilant middle-aged man who enjoyed his salsa and Rihanna music. He also happened to enjoy speeding up very curvy mountain roads (that had no guardrails). These various interests made for an interesting, bumpy ride. Many of us employed our oh-shit-we’re-gonna-die handles just above our seats.
Before our hike up to Gran Piedra, we stopped at an old coffee plantation and did a quick tour of the area, which was great because the now-museum had an excellent cat that enjoyed being pet. After that, we went back to the Gran Piedra entrance/restaurant, put in our order for lunch, and began the walk up to the mountain summit. It was not too difficult of a hike (mostly stairs), and after 15 minutes or so, we were standing on top of – as promised – a great rock with an even better view. I will have to include a picture because any words I try to use to describe its majesty would feel as clichéd as using the word “majesty” as I just did. I cringed a little. But it was pretty damn majestic. What wasn’t majestic, however, was the enormous dark cloud that was beginning to make its way over our area. Having flashbacks to the downpour the day before, we made our way back down the path and towards our lunching spot.
After we were informed that lunch would not be ready for another hour (noooooooo), we decided to again set out to a nearby botanical garden to make the wait more bearable. Again, I cannot accurately describe how beautiful (and green) this hillside garden was, chock full of oversized Birds of Paradise, Lilies, Roses, Strawberry patches, and coffee and bread trees. And again, excellent animals: 2 small and friendly dogs free for the petting.
Already exhausted from the jam-packed day, we headed back for a late lunch (around 2:00…we hadn’t eaten since 8am and had been hiking about all day). It was already becoming clear that everyone’s good spirits were beginning to fail: the last day and a half had been filled to the brim with a whirlwind of activities. While we were (and remain) appreciative of all of these opportunities, it was already becoming too overwhelming of a schedule, especially for a vacation that was supposed to serve as a break from the semester.
It was already becoming apparent that we would return from this “break” more exhausted than when we left. Also, we had no idea what the itinerary ever consisted of, so we felt like we were being carted around without any sense of the grand scheme of things. It was all becoming too much. On top of that, with each activity, it became more and more clear that those participating (for the most part) were doing so primarily for monetary compensation for our program. While yes, it makes sense that they are getting paid to show us what they do with their lives, more and more it felt that it was the only reason they were participating: their kindness (and at times, mere tolerance) was bought, not freely given. They did not seem truly impassioned to share their work. They seemed bothered by our foreign-ness, which, in turn, made me feel extremely self-conscious. As the day wore on, I felt increasingly less welcome.
Of course, it must be noted that this was not the case with all activities, but with a majority of them, as well as with our presence in Santiago in general. I must also note that I suppose it is good that I encountered a place where my foreign-ness is held against me in a way that I feel out of place…while it did not feel good, it was a good learning experience and offered me a useful perspective that I’m sure many immigrants encounter (at length too, not just for a day or two) in the United States. Please forgive this very short (and far from eloquent) analysis – I know that it is far from being hashed-out, but I plan on giving this more thought in the future, when I have the time and proper mindset.
Anyways, after lunch, we were ushered back into the vans for the hour-long ride out of the mountains and (you guessed it) an afternoon of Haitian-Cuban dance performances. Before lunch, Andrew had been feeling a bit under the weather, blaming the pizza he had eaten last night (a second pizza, from a different place than the one that I had eaten at as well). The illness had only become worse since then – by lunch he was getting awfully quiet and pale; by the bus ride back down the mountain he was doing his best not to toss his galletas. Pobrecito.
As we reached La Casa del Caribe, it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it. He opted to stay outside and wait out the puking, telling me to go inside and that he would be fine. I didn’t want to, but he continued to insist and I knew that I was just causing him more hardship by protesting his wishes. I reluctantly left him alone and went in to view the first dance performance of the day.
The costumes (probably the completely wrong term for them, my apologies) were beautiful and colorful, with women in bright full skirts and tops, carrying baskets and dancing with an energy I don’t think I’ve ever seen rivaled (especially considering the heat). There was also a chorus, band, and male dancers comprising the company. I got some great filming done for my final project, but was completely distracted by the fact that Andrew was outside waiting to throw up. As soon as the performance and Q&A ended, I made my way back outside, to see Andrew looking very pale and unhappy but still making small talk with one of our drivers. I sat with him for a while and told him I wanted him to go to the International Clinic – a hospital that a few of our fellow students had already visited with knee injuries, flu-like symptoms, and a bacterial infection (not a good trip to Santiago for many people and for many reasons).
He accepted and I told him I would go find Roberto (our fantastic program coordinator) to tell him about the change of plans. As I was leaving, it became very clear that Andrew was nearing the point of puke; I made a run for it, hoping he would be ok. By the time I got back, he had already puked, a dancer from the performance had been rubbing his back, and our driver had asked him if he drank too much rum the night before (no, he just ate too much shit pizza). The activity had ended and everyone was making his or her way back to the vans. Roberto joined us and navigated us towards the car that would make a stop at the clinic. Andrew once again insisted that my presence was neither needed or wanted (“but thank you”) and sent me home with the hope that I would not worry (“yeah right”). On the ride back we passed Moncada – we leaned out of our seats and towards the windows, hoping to get a look at bullet holes in the side of the bright yellow building.
I set out by myself to find some food before the final activity of the day. I knew to expect piropos (we were still in Cuba, after all), but I wasn’t expecting them to be all that different than those offered in Habana. I would soon find out that this was naïve thinking: walking around Santiago as a girl (and especially without the company of a male) feels like a continuous walk of shame in which you are only trotting along for the enjoyment of the male citizens (pigs?) of the city. Within the stretch of a single block, I was probably harassed at least 5 or 6 times, with one guy even following me just repeating, “Linda. Oye, Linda, Linda!” I couldn’t keep dealing with it. Ready to return home as soon as I made a purchase, I found the nearest store and bought the first food I saw.
After a dinner of cheese balls - which I maintain was a better and more nutritional choice than the pizza from the night before - I met up with other students on the trip to walk the short distance to Tumba Francesa, where we would view the other Haitian dance performance that evening. Outside of the hall, I began filming primary shots of the building and street, which drew the attention of a young neighborhood girl, Felicia. Felicia is 6 years old, likes the color pink, and is very interested in modern technologies from the United States. She insisted that I take a picture of her, and when I explained that it was a video camera, she became even more excited, wanting to help me with my project and also be one of my subjects. As we moved into the hall, she came and plopped herself down next to me, intent on giving me insider information on the dancers (all were adults from the neighborhood with the exception of one of the male dancers, who was a boy about her age).
The costumes and music were very similar to those we had seen earlier in the day, yet the dance itself seemed less energetic and more oriented towards precise movements, in the way of a group/partner dance. There was also a maypole, which they expertly weaved around while dancing. Felicia sat next to me (as well as her slightly older brother, who had now joined us), often getting up and dancing in front of me to the music, hell bent on being the focus of my filming. I didn’t really mind much, and took it as a welcome break from the cold shoulder that most residents of Santiago were giving us – it was nice to be around someone who wanted to play with us! The dance performance ended, and Felicia’s mother escorted her and her brother out of the hall, but before they even disappeared into the street, the two siblings came running back in, pulled me down to their height, and gave me kisses on the cheek before saying a final “ciao”. Needless to say, the whole interaction improved my spirits and feelings toward the day in general.
I walked the few blocks back to my home stay with Kristina and Lia, and made plans to meet up with them later in the evening to explore downtown Santiago. Andrew was back from the clinic by the time I returned to our room, attempting an early night of sleep. I checked in with him shortly, told him I would bring him some food, and set out around 9pm with a small group of students.
There was a 4-day celebration going on downtown, which closed off a couple of main streets to foot traffic. We ventured through the crowds in search of finding some cheap rum and TuKola to enjoy somewhere along the stretch of the fiesta.
If I had thought walking through the streets of Santiago during the day was bad (due to piropos), I was completely underprepared for the walk on which I was setting off at that moment. Hoards and hordes of disgusting, drunk, horny men – ranging from 13 to mid-50’s – with no sense of personal boundaries or chivalry. In our (practically) innocent search for rum, we were verbally assaulted with a slew of less-than-complimentary compliments; arm grazes, and attempted butt-slaps. It was the least safe I have felt since being here. It was also the most I’ve ever felt like a mere object to the opposite sex. We found a bottle of Santiago’s rum, got our cola, and found a park slightly removed from the festivities to enjoy our findings.
We had not been sitting for five minutes when another drunk pig spotted us and started yelling in the middle of the street. He then traveled half the distance between us and again started yelling at the girls in our party. I was feverishly irritated, the need to seek out physical violence against these constant offenders was overwhelming but I was powerless to follow through on that necessity. I knew all the other girls were feeling similarly. The pig came closer, despite the fact that we had entirely ignored his 2 previous attempts. He started straight in on an unwanted conversation; he was eyeing each of us up. He was driving me insane. I was sick of feeling helpless. I made a split second decision to try a new tactic.
If you are at all close with me (and I’m assuming anyone reading this most likely is), than you know of a little impression that I’ve been doing for years. Her name is Leslie, or Stupid Turtle. It entails me making a very very very strange face, drooling a little, and yelping. I gave myself a lazy eye, closing the other one ever so slightly to further mismatch them. I let my mouth gape. I flared my nostrils. And I let out the most unappetizing howl I could muster, in the style of Sloth from the 1980’s classic film, “The Goonies”.
There was a moment of silence. The pig looked at me, confused. He had just seen me, a moment before, perfectly fine. He knew I was making fun of him. He knew that I could control it. He faltered for a moment, and then tried to start in again on his one-sided conversation. But every time that he would try to say something, I would just yelp over him. I could hear the 2 girls sitting next to me losing it. I could feel their happiness at someone finally doing something more ridiculous than the piropo itself. 2 of his friends came over, seeing what I was doing. The girl he was with understood that I was sick of dealing with him, and tried talking him into leaving, calling me a clown. I didn’t care. I kept it up. After a few solid efforts, he finally left. I burst out laughing, and took my first swig of rum of the night, in victory. An older woman who was sitting nearby in the park was dying laughing, clearly enjoying my performance far more than I had. She smiled at me and raised her drink. She probably endured those advances wordlessly for years.
Not soon after my triumph over the piropo, we heard the sound of a table being turned over and saw a fist fight breaking out about 20 yards away from us. We moved back a little, watching the fight from afar as others tried to break it up. The fight subsided, and we thought it was the end of the drunken tussle.
About 20 seconds later, it had moved into the middle of the street, with 2 or 3 guys hitting each other with chairs. Soon a few more friends had joined into the rumble, pulling anything they could into the fight, knocking over tables, pulling out cables that were powering fryolators, attempting to grab the poles that were holding up food tents. In another minute, men were holding out empty rum bottles (the contents of which, no doubt, was fueling said fight), and (this is when we completely left the scene) a few long knives. In the middle of the street.
Based on my mounting interactions I had been having with the people of Santiago, I began to realize that this city was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a pirate town or, the Wild West.
We moved to a different area of the park, talked a little bit more about how none of us thought Santiago was really the place for us, and enjoyed the magic tricks of one of our friends. We also talked with a few Santiago natives (who were not nearly as scary as others we had encountered), who even confessed their frustrations with their current government (a strange occurrence for Cubans to recognize to strangers in public). After a (fun-filled?) night, we headed back towards our home stays to get some rest before the final day of jam-packed activities. I stopped on the way and grabbed some bread and cheese for Andrew.
By the time I got back, Andrew was still sleeping and Oskar was no where to be found: he had gone out on his date nearly 12 hours earlier and still hadn’t returned. We ate bread and cheese and hypothesized what he could be up to; placing bets on what time he would get home (the answer was 3:00).
Sunday. The final day of our trip. Wake up at 7:30. Breakfast in the garden. For the first time since arriving, the skies are clear; the cold front has moved out of the area. By 8:30, it’s already extremely warm and sunny. We have another full day planned out for us, starting with an hour-long ride out to Iglesia Cobre, one of the most famous churches in the West of Cuba. We stand outside the beautiful church and are given a lecture on its history, both social and religious. I am sure that it was a very interesting talk, but it was extremely difficult to listen to under the pulsing heat of the sun. I felt like I was melting. In March.
After realizing that the church was temporarily closed for Sunday Mass – who would’ve predicted that?! – we head back to the vans to visit the house of a local espiritista (I think?), who has painted his entire house with murals, one of which depicts him, topless, sweaty, and muscular, sitting in the Amazon with a snake staff held proudly in one hand. I am confused to as why we are there (its never really explained to us thoroughly), but resolve to paint myself into a badass mural like his when I return to the US.
At the end of the tour, I watch as one of our program leaders pays him for his services, and that feeling of buying-our-welcoming sets in once again. Its 10:30 in the morning and I am already worn out. We have a tireless day ahead of us. A wall (much shorter but in the same likeness to the one that was 3-months tall that I’ve previously mentioned) goes up between me and the next time I’ll be able to rest. We get back in the vans and return to the church.
We tour the church, which is as pretty on the inside as it is on the outside. I enjoy the architecture and art work of the church, and also enjoy the mullet-hawk that one young Cuban man is sporting with utmost pride. You go, mullet-hawk, walk tall.
The tour ends, we meet back up, we find a place to get water. Everyone’s face has that look of someone a little bit lost, the heavy eyes of a tired tourist. We walk to the town center for a steel drum band performance. It is good, livens our spirits a little, but wholly tires us out even more. Luckily, lunch follows, only across the street. Unfortunately, the food is cold, unsavory, and in small portions, and the bathroom. Oh no, the bathroom. By far one of the worst that I’ve encountered in Cuba, which is saying a lot. It was a large partitioned room that emitted the smell of urine all the way down the hall and nearly to the dining room. The closer you got to entering the room, the worse it became. Raw sewage on the floor. In the time it took me to complete my business, I was nauseous from the overwhelming smell.
Santiago continued to disappoint me in dining experiences.
We had mentioned earlier to our program leaders that we were extremely tired out, and that we would like to call it a day after lunch. We knew that if we continued going through the motions, it would not only be pointless, but it would be rude to the people we were visiting: we didn’t want to project an attitude of boredom and weariness towards them and their work – especially considering that this would most likely form their view of not only the students of Hampshire College, but also of Americans in general. We knew we were at the point that we could not mask our exhaustion.
Thinking that we were done after lunch, we left the cafeteria and reconvened outside, where it was brought up once again that we still had the option of continuing the day. The overwhelming majority of us said that they were done, that we were sorry but grateful for the opportunities we were given, but just thought that we weren’t in the right physical or mental state to continue. They said this was fine and that those who wanted to head home could. Then, our Santiago housemother, Marucci, unhappily pulled our program leader aside.
Let me back up just a little to talk about Marucci. She is a nice woman who remains nice as long as everything is going according to her own plan. Her house is beautiful and she can be very agreeable, but as our stay wore on in Santiago, it was clear that our presence was becoming more and more annoying to her. Now, I would take responsibility for any irritating actions if I thought that there were any I committed, but the truth is I was a very good, respectful houseguest. And yet, she still became less and less pleased with us. I really don’t know what her problem was, but by the end of the trip I was really sick of her disapproving looks and eye roles.
So Marucci pulls her aside and tells her that we have to go to the next activity, because they were putting on a performance just for us. Ok, fine, valid. But she knew that we were anticipating being done for the day after lunch by about 10 in the morning. She could’ve spoken up earlier. She could’ve brought this up instead of letting us think we were done midday. We reluctantly said we would finish the final activity, got back into the vans, and headed to the last destination, tired and angry. I felt like an 8 year old being forced to go to Church by his mother.
The last performance was by a Haitian-Cuban choir. It was a lovely performance, and they were all very talented. While most people sat in the middle section of the small auditorium, I chose to sit in one of the side sections, which gave me a good view of both the performers and the Hampshire audience.
Just as had been predicted, everyone looked like ghosts of themselves – trying desperately and sincerely to look happy and engaged, but it was clear that all parties were somewhere else entirely, searching for beds in their minds. Marucci looked disapproving at all of us. After the performance, we thanked them genuinely, and waited for the Question and Answer session to be over. But instead of a Question and Answer session, it became Marucci’s moment to bombard the choir with questions as to why they didn’t align themselves and perform with the church (to which she belonged). The choir was clearly uncomfortable at the question, and answered that they had tried a few times to be accepted by the church, but they wouldn’t allow them to perform. They said that they were doing something separate from the church. This answer was not good enough for Marucci, who started telling them they must be talking to the wrong people, and began to insist upon a better course of action for them to take.
The choir continued to look more and more uncomfortable, and Marucci continued to force her opinions on them. It became clear to us in that moment that it wasn’t a problem with us that was making Marucci irritated, it was a problem with Marucci herself. I began to care less and less what she thought of me (but, for my focus on etiquette, I continued to do my best to be a polite guest in her home).
We finally left the small auditorium and were set free for the day. A few students chose to stay behind and finish out the day’s activities, while most of us took a van back to our home stays in downtown Santiago. Upon arrival, Andrew, Oskar and I were giddy with exhaustion, and sprawled out on our beds laughing at any little thing that was remotely funny. After some showers and further resting, we went out to find food (as Oskar went to meet the girl from the other night for another date – he would not return until 5:30 the following morning, an hour before we left Santiago for good).
Andrew and I walked the same stretch of shopping and food that we had the nights before, trying fruitlessly to find some decent food that we had missed in searches before. We ended up at another cafeteria (overhead fluorescents, why didn’t I heed your warning?) and ordered what we later become known as Spaghetti-gate 2011. We tried to order just regular spaghetti. They said they only had spaghetti with sausage (aka hot dogs), which should’ve been a tip off that it had been sitting there pre-made, and was not worth our time. But we were starving and delirious and said fine, we’ll take it.
The spaghetti was cold. And I’m not talking lukewarm cold; I’m talking in-the-fridge-for-a-while cold. The sauce maybe had a slightly warmed center. The cheese was not melted, but just globs of suspicious looking yellow-orange paste. And the hot dogs were cut helter skelter on top, attracting flies. What is more, the guy had overcharged us for it, after Andrew had called him out on it. I was so mad! I wanted to just overturn the plate onto the table and leave. But we sat, defeated, and ate only the spaghetti, fearing anything else on the plate would leave us sick. We drank our sodas, toasting to our imminent departure from Santiago. We went back to our home stay, and I was asleep by 10, ready to wake up at 5:30 the next morning and get the hell out of town.
And that is exactly what we did. 14 hours, 1 book, and lots of Itunes music later, we were back in Habana.
I know I’ve spun a mostly-pessimistic tale of our journey to Santiago. It left everyone tired and angry, and its food claimed many people’s health, sending them straight to the clinic. We felt unwelcomed. The girls of the trip had been accosted with the worst piropos we had experienced thus far. One girl was robbed – a guy had run up behind her and ripped the bag right off her, breaking the thin strap and running a few blocks before passing it off to his accomplice.
But the trip was not all bad. If nothing else came from it, we all realized how much we loved and missed Habana. I found myself homesick for the place that, only a week ago, I was ready to leave. I returned home transformed, rejuvenated and excited about the second half of the semester. Santiago had transformed me into a Habana Girl.
The last three days since returning have been back to business as usual, with classes and tutor meetings and my beloved morning routine. Our Habana mother, Baby, was as happy to see us return as we were to see her – she showed us a few things she had bought for the house while we were gone, and told us a few stories of things we had missed. We were happy to be back in our Habana home.
My vivid dreams – which had wholly disappeared since going to Santiago – returned with our homecoming. Once again I am dreaming of people I know and knew in the most lucid dreams I’ve ever had.
Yesterday I met with Celia (who is a little on the sick side, which makes me terribly unhappy), who informed me of the big weekend I have coming up: I will be going to rehearsals and interviewing many VIPs of the Cuban theater world starting tomorrow and continuing through Sunday. I’m very nervous about it, worried that I will waste their time or ask them a stupid question. At the same time, I know that whether or not things go smoothly, time will pass and I will survive. I’m looking forward to the challenge.
After my meeting, I walked around Vedado by myself, as I’ve done so many times before. I realized there were very few streets in my area that I didn’t know. Familiar places. I am happy to be here. I am doing good work. I will eventually return home.
Yesterday marked 6 weeks since leaving home at the end of January, as well as 7 weeks left before returning. I know time will continue to fly past me. I know I am not wasting it.