MARCH, 2004 E.V.
For Doctor Bradley Wolff and Amy.
Many thanks to you and your staff, Nalani and Linda, for your
generous donations of medical supplies to Cuba AyUUda.
Thanks also to everyone else who contributed much needed supplies.
We've cigars when you're ready!
... And for Camella Grace
FRIDAY, MARCH 19
Adam, Camella, her nephew Joe and I decide to have one last taste of Americana before we board our plane to Miami International Airport where we will catch a charter flight to Havana, Cuba. The only thing available at this hour is the Burger King in the Los Angeles airport terminal. Camella and I laugh at the thought: "We're going to go over there with Whopper breath", she smiles as we wait in line. I order a Whopper Junior and Coke. The Coke is flat, and the Whopper Junior isn't that much of a whopper, but what the hell, I force most of it down with sips of the bitter Cola. I even eat a few chemical-tasting fries, sprinkling too much salt on them in the process. Maybe I'll stop to buy a bag of peanut m&ms just in case push comes to shove over there. Camella has been to Cuba before, and has warned me that there won't be much to eat. The mangos, however are f***ing "DELICIOUS!", this she's told me countless times over "Stella meetings" at our favorite British pub. As we sit down to eat, upon unwrapping their grandiose 'Whoppers', much to their horror, Adam, Camella and Joe discover that the uniformed brain trust of this particular airport BK have given them some form of chicken sandwiches instead. So much for having it your way! Adam jumps up to take his back when Camella realizes that we're about to miss our flight. We spent so much time having our bags examined (they were crammed with syringes, medicine, and bags of condoms and 'coincidently' we each had a "SSSS" on our boarding pass) that we've lost track of the time. Tossing the BK mistakes in the waste bin, we gather our carry-ons and head down the carpeted hall to catch our American Airlines flight. Needless to say, our last meal on American soil for one week wasn't too spectacular. I only hope those mangos are as f***ing "DELICIOUS" as Camella's been saying. As we hurry to the gate, I just know I'm forgetting something...
AMERICAN EAGLE CHARTER FLIGHT 9512:
SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC
For American citizens, travel to Cuba is severely restricted as part of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations promulgated by Uncle Sam under The Trading With The Enemy Act. With these "Regulations", spending money relating to Cuban travel is prohibited unless one has a special license to do so. Criminal penalties for violating the Regulations (enforced by the Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control) range up to 10 years in prison and $250.000 in individual fines. For our trip, we have a specific license that authorizes us to engage in travel-related transactions in Cuba from March 19, 2004 to March 26, 2004. We are traveling under the auspices of the First Unitarian Church (of Portland, Oregon) as participants in Cuba Ayuuda, a program that includes religious activities and offers humanitarian aide. This said, as the plane bumps along, I try to decide which brand of Cuban cigars I want to bring back to the States. I've been told that we're allowed to return with one box each, and I've narrowed it down to either Montecristo #2 (torpedo), or Cohiba Esplendidos. I diligently study a copy of The Cigar Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide that my friends Brad and Amy Wolff gave me, hoping it will be of assistance as I attempt to go the black market route with my purchase. Having strained my eyes, I glance over at the man sitting across from me, an earringed Latino priest recognizable by his starched white collar. In fact, in looking around the turbo-prop charter, I notice that it is filled with 'priests' from various Xtian denominations (although I don't believe there are any Unitarians on this flight). I wonder what their mission is?
JOSE MARTI AIRPORT: HAVANA CUBA (AFTERNOON)
A far cry from the neon-lit bars and restaurants of LAX and Miami International, but kind of what I expected, with "Contigo Revolucion "signs and other rallying cries of Communist propaganda on the stark sky-blue walls and little else in the way of advertising. As we stand in line, waiting to show our paperwork and explain the purpose of our visit to the olive-green uniformed personnel from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), the whole thing has an Orwellian '1984' feel to it. But when we clear customs, things brighten a bit. A pretty Cuban women approaches Camella, informing her that she's there with a taxi van that will take us to our hotel. She smiles and shakes our hands. Camella had told me how friendly the Cuban people were, and I've just gotten my first taste. Somehow this women is able to wave us past the long line of a final security post, and before we know it, we find ourselves standing in the afternoon sun of this Caribbean island. Camella's friend, Alex, is also there to greet us. With a warm smile, handshakes and hugs for all, Camella's musician friend is also our Cuban cigar connection. Outside, there is a crowd of people standing behind a chain-link fence, watching us with mild fascination as we toss our luggage in the van. This is a bit disconcerting, and an instant reminder of the fact that most of these people have never left the island under the communist regime. Adam gives the women a five dollar bill, and she seems delighted. In that most Cubans only make about 10 dollars or so a month, it's not hard to see why. On the way to the hotel, she acts as a tour guide, speaking good English while pointing out certain buildings and places of interest. Although she appears to be very educated, and in fact might even be a doctor or professor, in her self-employed role as a tour guide of sorts, with tips, she probably makes twenty times the money of a doctor. This is just one of the bizarre dichotomies of Capitalist tinkerings in Cuban communism under Castro's "Special Period" after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
We're staying in a nice tourist hotel near the Malecon, the seaside promenade where it seems high waves are constantly breaking over the concrete walls, drenching passersby. When we get out of the taxi van in front of the hotel, we are nearly blown over by the wind. Is this the prelude to a hurricane I wonder? I've never felt such strong gusts, even in the tornado-prone springs of Southern Illinois. As we check in, the bartender offers us a tray of complimentary rum and colas. The entire way to Cuba and for months prior Camella has been telling us NOT to drink the tap water. Drilling it into our heads, she was. But we've just drank what the locals call a Cuba Libre, and there was a pile of ice in it. I point this out to Camella after she takes her second sip. "Goddamnit." She then says something about it being alright because it's such a small amount of water. But I'm thinking about things that are of a microscopic nature and don't necessarily ascribe to her small amount theory. At any rate, she gives me the rest of her drink and I down it, heading over to the bar to order another round or two. Camella has told me that there would be two kinds of beer (one of her selling points on getting me to go), and I think I have quickly identified both national brands. I order a Cristal, but don't like it much, so I tell the bartender that I'd like to try a bottle of Bucanero. "Very strong" he warns me in broken English. "Okay, then a bottle of Bucanero por favor." Adam and Camella take the elevator up to their room as Joe and I sit in the lounge to see just how strong these Bucaneros really are.
Glancing about, I see some of my old friends, including Remy Martin. On the television behind the bar, sexy European women are practicing safe sex by putting condoms on dildos with their mouths. So Adam found the only hotel in Cuba with a satellite dish. He may be distributing medical supplies to aids patients, but he's sure as shit not going to miss any Simpsons reruns. I keep waiting for Fidel to walk in wearing his military fatigues, take a look around, stroke his famous beard and say "Goddamnit!, what the hell is going on?" On the television screen, more women take their turns putting condoms on dildos. After a few rounds (about nineteen condomed dildos worth), Joe and I decide to brave the wind and go for a stroll. Oddly enough, the wind is only Pazuzu fierce around our hotel. Once we're past the building, it's perfectly calm. We wander towards the ocean, somehow gravitating to what would quickly become our sanctuary from communism, Cuban style.
"Nice" I tell Joe, as we walk down a plush carpeted hallway under rows of magnificent sparkling chandeliers. With it's ostentatious art deco interior, the Nacional is what Cuba must have been like before the Revolution, and what it may again become after Castro. We walk out into the tranquil courtyard, where tourists are seated on rattan furniture sipping tropical drinks served by Cubans in immaculate white uniforms and black bow ties. There are gardens of colorful bougainvillea and frangipani. Turkey Vultures peck about on the manicured green lawn. A glittering fountain in the tropical sunlight. Cubans strumming guitars and playing bongos for dollar tips under thatch-roofed bars. A pig being slowly roasted on a spit. All that's missing is a luxurious cruise ship anchored in the white-capped ocean. As we walk past the European tourists sipping Havana Club rum, Joe points to a man looking rather comfortable while seated poolside. In fact, this dude's looking a little too comfortable. He's puffing on a big fat Esplendido that's glowing cherry red and sipping a Mojito in his wickerwork throne without a care in the world. "Isn't that the guy that was sitting next to you on the plane?" "Yeah", I tell him. "He was a priest with a starched white collar then, but now (about two hours later)...he's thrown that puppy away in the ocean breeze and put on a flowery Caribbean shirt." "What a scam", Joe says. "Yeah", I agree... "let's go have a Cuba Libre... and find out where he bought that cigar."
A dingy kaleidoscope. Overcrowded tenements with Habaneros leaning over their balconies. Decrepit, crumbling pastel-colored colonial architecture at twilight. Narrow, cobbled streets filled with ethnically diverse people dodging speeding Coco taxis and 1950s American automobiles in every color of the rainbow. Ramshackle little stores with mostly empty shelves from the decades-long US embargo. Crowded, touristy markets of gaudy arts and crafts. Police and the ubiquitous Ministry of the Interior folks posted on every dusty street corner. Public transportation unlike anything you've ever seen, with bizarre "Damnation Alley-esque Metro buses (a hybrid of semi-truck and bus) crammed with people hanging out of the windows, and not just for a breath of fresh air. One flips us off. Mangy dogs and Afro-Cuban rhythms in dimly-lit back alleys. Dollar fried chicken stands (the El Rapido chain) and tattered green awnings covering locals drinking bottles Cristal beer. Depressing bookstalls filled with the same books and pamphlets of the pioneers of Cuban communism. Communist slogans, pickpockets and prostitutes (mainly grabbing Joe, goddamnit!, the prostitutes, that is).
Although we feel perfectly safe, we're tired from the plane flight and decide to take a Coco taxi back to the hotel (bar). Before doing so, however, we stop at the Telegraph hotel cafeteria to get something to eat. We all order the hamburguesa, although some of us rather reluctantly. It doesn't taste that bad, but looks quite mysterious. "Very rat-like" I utter to Joe. It's here, while attempting to doctor up our fries with watered down ketchup, that we find out that none of the salt shakers on the island work (at all). The salt has crystallized due to the humidity we suppose. Adam assures me that it's not rat meat I'm staring at, but a kind of meat loaf containing lots of vegetable filler. I want very much to believe him, and eat some more of my 'meat loaf.' Camella is touting a party at one of the Unitarian's casa particulare, complete with Caribbean music, but the rest of us are just too tired to attend. So its Bucaneros at the Hotel Victoria and Pulp Fiction on television. When we go up to our room, Joe and I notice that fresh towels at the foot of our bed (I want to say beds, but they're so damn close together that it would be a lie) have been rather ingeniously folded into the shapes of swans. I fall asleep as Uma overdoses on heroin, crushing my towel origami in the process.
THE CUBAN COUNCIL OF THE CHURCHES
(Consejo de IgIesias de Cuba)
SATURDAY, MARCH 20
Our first meeting with the Unitarians (except for Camella who is friends with several) in a large house where such Xtian and semi-Xtian meetings are held. Across the street, several olive-green uniformed members of the Ministry of the Interior are keeping a close eye on us. This and the Gigeresque jagueys trees out front makes the scene quite surreal. Inside, fans of stained glass are lit by tropical sunlight as we climb a marble staircase to a room upstairs. The meeting starts, with Camella's friend and Cuba AyUUda representative Yanely translating Spanish to English. Being discussed are the various projects that the council of churches are involved in with regards to humanitarian aid in Cuba. We then talk about our painting and gardening projects, with Camella signing us up for both. In closing, our official contact in Cuba tells us to enjoy our visit, and that to feel free as Cuba is a free country. She also wants us to know that the Cuban people are not terrorists and have no intention on attacking the USA. This comes as kind of a shock to us. I never imaged such a thing. "Attack us... with what, mangos and lit cigars?" Adam whispers to me. I laugh, especially since I still haven't seen a single f***ing DELICIOUS mango on the island.
PARTY AT ALINA'S,
CHORAL DIRECTOR OF CORALINA
We arrive in the afternoon, bringing some of our suitcases of medical supplies. The Cubanites and Unitarians are drinking Cristal, Havana Club rum and Tropicola while smoking cigars and playing dominoes on the porch of a Colonial gem of a house. We walk into the kitchen and are handed beers and plastic cups containing shots of amber-colored rum. A Cuban feast is being prepared. Adam and Camella have presents for the kids, and everyone is getting along just fine. There is some discussion about not having enough Cristal, so the Unitarians are planning a good old fashioned beer run. Adam, Joe and I decide to go for a little walk, and wind up at an amazing cemetery. This is Necropolis Cristobal Colon. Although it's now closed for the day, we give the security guards a few dollars and they let us have the run of the place. With elaborate creamy marble tombs and beautiful monuments dating from the 1860s, Adam appears to be in heaven. Especially since it's now twilight. He gets lots of photos of this seemingly endless necropolis. As darkness falls, I suggest that we should probably return to Alina's party. Reluctantly he agrees. When we get back, Camella is sitting on the porch sipping a glass of Havana Club neat. She's a little pissed that we didn't tell her where we were going, and honestly I don't blame our group leader. We've been gone for hours, and have missed the Cuban feast. When Adam tells her about how cool the cemetery was, she informs us that she's been there before. In fact, it was the decrepit little food stand across the street from the main entrance of the cemetery where she had her most mysterious hamburguesa the first time she visited Cuba. She described this peculiar pinkish-colored flesh to me back in Los Angeles during several of our "Stella" meetings. "But the mangos are f***ing DELICIOUS!" she always added. "Very rat-like" I commented, thinking about the pink meat of this suspicious hamburguesa. "You know, it might even have been human flesh...I'd like to see this food stand." So we make plans to return to the cemetery the next evening around twilight. Adam's excited. As for the party, there's more shots of rum, and we make friends with more of Camella's Cubanites. When we get back to the windy Hotel Victoria, Joe runs up to the room as I park myself at the bar. A few minutes later he returns, laughing his ass off. It's the fresh towels on our 'beds.' Two origami swan towels forming the shape of a heart as they kiss, with an artificial red rose placed between them. "Do you think the maids think we're gay" Joe asks me? "I think they want a tip... and I'm warming up to the swans." After a couple of bottles of Bucanero, we sneak off to the ornate splendor of the Nacional for a couple bottles of Bucaneros out on the veranda. Blair and Joe's sanctuary on a beautiful communist island.
HOTEL VICTORIA/ROOM 305
Sunday, March 21
Almost noon. I'm stuffing twenty dollar bills into my hiking boots when the phone rings. It's Adam. He wants me to hurry up and come up to his room to see the Borg Queen. God...damnit, Star Trek, here in Cuba. Afterwards, we debate for several minutes whether the cotton balls we've brought are for medical or beauty purposes. Adam says medical, and the debate's over. Now for the hair-dryers bought by Heather Borland. Medical or beauty? It's time to go see some Santeria (i.e. The Cult of the Saints).
CALLEJON DE HAMEL/ CENTRO HABANA
We've come with a few of the Unitarians to see a Santeria performance. Before it starts I purchase a nice painting in a little gallery. The alleyway is crowded with people, mostly European tourists who've come to hear the rhythms of the Voodoo-like Afro-Caribbean religion, a mixture of African Yoruba beliefs and Roman Catholicism. As the drums pound, a pretty Jamaican-looking women appears to be possessed by the gods, writhing in a trance. I think this is just for the tourists, but can't say for sure. In the crowd, little pickpockets have their hands in our pockets. But our money is in our shoes. I walk over to a beer stand and order a Bucanero for a buck. The women doesn't have change for a five, so I order five Bucaneros. "Wow, they also come in cans!" Joe and I drink as Adam and Camella take photos. Joe wonders if he's becoming possessed by the gods of Santeria. I tell him that he's probably feeling that way because he has just guzzled three cans of Bucanero in the hot tropical sun. Pickpockets keep sticking their hands in his pockets. "Goddamit", Joe laughs, evidently amused by the little fellows. I tell him that we should wait until the little bastards collect enough money and then pickpocket them. Just to mix things up a bit. Either that or have stuffed our pockets with Monopoly money. Orange five-hundred dollar bills at that.
After the Santeria, we head back to the hotel, stopping to get some lunch in a little privately owned restaurant called "The Rabbit." Guess what's on the menu? Adam, Camella and Joe order rabbit, and I grilled chicken and greasy fries. I actually ordered "greasy fries." I have to go to the men's room. "Finally, flies" I say to myself, at the site of hundreds of flies on the walls. When I return to the table, I tell Adam about this. He also has to go to the men's room. When returns, I ask him if saw all the flies. He says he just saw a few. "God..,damnit, come with me!" I drag him back into the men's room to show him all the flies. "I didn't look at that wall" he says. "Finally, flies..." but still not as many as I'd hoped for. When the food arrives, the others silently pick at their rabbit, attempting to eat around the chunks of bone and occasional tufts of rabbit fur. My chicken scares the shit out of me, the ketchup is very watered down and, of course, the salt shaker doesn't work. No salt comes out at all, which might be a blessing as my "commie tropicola" is flat and lifeless. "Kind of like an old diet RC", Camella remarks after I force her to take a sip. I'm starting to think about how amazingly good that Burger King at the Miami airport would be. The first thing I'm going to do after we clear customs is get myself a Whopper (and not just a Whopper junior this time). I might even get some onion rings to go with my french fries. "Put some onion rings on your Whopper" Adam advises me in all seriousness. That's EXACTLY what I'm going to do, Adoom. Just as soon as we clear customs.
NECROPOLIS CRISTOBAL COLON
At twilight we return to our favorite cemetery, once again giving the guards a few dollars. As we examine the various tombs and beautiful marble sculptures, we come across evidence of a Santeria sacrifice... maybe. Several minutes later we find ourselves standing in front of a large pit into which splintered, half burnt wooden caskets are haphazardly piled up. Dozens upon dozens of them. Looking inside some of them we see bits of moldering clothes and the macabre strands of women's long dark hair. Nearby we discover a couple a large rusty lids. Opening the creaking things, we discover thousands of discarded human bones. We guess that the Cubans are digging up the bodies from the older graves, those no longer maintained, to make room for newer ones. Adam and Camella take lots of photographs in the crepuscular light before we leave the place. "Think we'll come back tomorrow night" I (jokingly) ask Adam? "I'd like to" is his serious reply. We return to the hotel, passing colored plasterwork buildings and bombed out-looking decrepitude along the way. And always the giant billboards with communist slogans: Socialismo o Muerte (Socialism or Death).
Some of the Unitarians have suggested that we go look at a lighthouse or hear a canon being fired at 9:00 pm. "Sure, we could do that" I tell Camella... "OR...better yet, Joe and I could take a bottle of rum to the Malecon and look for mermaids... Later that night, we go out to some night clubs. Pretty women are everywhere. Dressed very sexy, one with a belt buckle that says "F*** ME.
"I don't want to mention any names, but I think there's certain communist dictator who is a sleep at the switch" I tell Camella. She smiles: "He's 82 for Christ's sake!" Cans of Bucanero, and glasses of Mojitos. The rhythms of urban salsa. "Do I detect a rumba!" After partying with Camella's Cubanites, Yanelly and Pepe, Alex , Damaris and Amilcar of the Cuban band "Warapa", Yanely and Pepe come back to our hotel. Sitting in the lobby, they both look very uncomfortable. They're not really supposed to be there with us, and under no circumstances can they ever come up to our rooms. There might be plain-clothes members of the Ministry of the Interior around. This is rather disconcerting to me, and my first real glimpse at apartheid.
I'm sleepy and go up my room. While laying on the bed and reading a book about Cuba, I think I may have identified Camella's very rat-like hamburguesa. There's this small rat-like creature called a jutia that, according to the book, "secretly turns up on dinner tables." As I'm about to call her room to tell her this, Adam knocks on the door. He's brought us a shiny box of sugar wafers that he got at the Miami airport. Joe eats nearly all of them as I construct a final kill devil before hitting the pillow.
HAILING A TAXI TO TAKE US TO THE BEACH
Monday, March 22
Camella is a bit annoyed with me as we step out into the wind storm in front of the Hotel Victoria. I keep joking about the fact that I've yet to see one of these f***ing DELICIOUS mangos of hers. Every morning while ordering breakfast in the hotel restaurant, I get a fruit salad, toast and café. The fruit salad is always just a few slices orange, grapefruit and seedy watermelon, but there's never any mango. These breakfasts are becoming a ritual with us, and every time we eat, one of us accidentally spills something on the while linen table cloth. This morning it was my coffee, which formed a stain in the shape of "Che" , a national hero in Cuba whose face is on billboards everywhere you go. Ernesto "Che" Guevara was a guerrilla fighter and mass murder responsible for much of the country's economic woes. In the late 1960s, he was executed by CIA-funded Bolivian troops while trying to incite the local peasants to rebel. Before killing him and burying him in an unmarked grave, his hands were chopped off. And, yes, the salt shaker didn't work... at all. So, as we attempt to hail a taxi to take us some 45 minutes to a beach, I'm making new demands. "Just tell the guy that all we want is a beach with palm-fringed dazzling white sand, glittering turquoise water, thatch-roofed cabanas, beautiful topless women bronzing in the tropical sun whilst rubbing sunblock on each other's bodies, spiced rum drinks served in coconut shells, pink porpoises dancing in the prismatic ocean spray and at least one goddamn luxurious cruise ship anchored off shore. You know, the clichéd images of a Caribbean island please and thank you!
As we head out of Havana, the road is lined with giant billboards with images of "Che" Guevara and Jose Marti. Communist propaganda and anti-American sentiments everywhere. And, even worse, the artwork looks like a five-year-old did it. I'm over El Chancho and these rallying cries. I've had it with reminders of cold war stand offs. Where's the f***ing beach?
After about 45 minutes the taxi turns down a narrow road and I get my first glimpse of a Cuban beach. I look at Camella and we both start to laugh. It's exactly what I asked for. Palm-fringed dazzling white sand and glittering transparent turquoise water. Everything but the pink porpoises and cruise ship, but, looking around, even that wouldn't surprise me. We find a spot (which naturally costs a few dollars) and strip into our bathing suits. Camella presents me with a coconut filled with rum!.. and after lighting a small Cohiba Exquisito (purchased at the Nacional), I'm a happy camper. Adam goes to the sandwich stand to get something to eat. When he returns, he describes his peccadillo (minced beef) sandwich. I listen carefully to his full description before pronouncing it "Very rat-like."
Sitting back in my chair, getting obliterated on rum & tropicola while enjoying the topless lovelies bronzing on the beach, Joe walks up and says "Blair, look at the girl rubbing suntan lotion on that other girl!" "I can't see her", I tell him. "There's a pole in my way." "What pole" he asks? "Oh, it's my dick." A Cuban beach waiter asks me where I'm from? "Rumania" I tell him in a cloud of cigar smoke. Damn, I wish I had some pistachio nuts. I don't want to have to brave one of those beach peccadillo hamburguesa things that Adam liked in his fevered imaginings. That's alright, think I'll look at some more oil-bronzed bodies in my flowery Caribbean shirt. When it's time to piss, I walk out into the ocean. With salty waves crashing against me, I wad out to Camella and inform her of my devious plan. She laughs, mock-screams and attempts to swim away. I would have waited if it weren't for the three jellyfish coming my way.
I don't remember much about this place. What I do remember is discussing Cuba's bizarre socialism with the Unitarians. I also vaguely remember ordering carne asada and getting some kind of pork dish that I refused to eat. I then ordered pescado (fish) but had a hard time reeling it in. "When I clear customs I'm going to order a double-Whopper from the Burger King of AMERICA. It's going to be amazing, with a near-tower of extra-crispy onion rings adorning it in all it's glory. Now, who's with me?" "I will accept nothing but perfection from that Burger King" Adam tells us. Evidently he's in.
On this fair evening, the seeds of dissention are being sown. With the lack of f***ing DELICIOUS mangos, I'm plotting my own little Revolucion to take over Camella's title as group leader (among the four of us, that is - Mona is the undisputed group leader of the Unitarians). Spanish guitars and African drums. I buy Adam some Pernod, three glasses in fact (although the next morning he tells me that he only drank two and a half). After dinner we visit a recording studio where Alex and the other members of "Warapa" are recording their new CD. Both Adam and I are impressed with how modern the technology is. The new song we hear is about a lesbian. Nice! I keep waiting for El Caballo to walk in, look around, and say "Goddamit!, What the hell is going on?"
Tuesday, March 23
I wake up and look for the Yellow Pages to try and find a spike-removal service. The same one that Danny uses. Did I have the "fire-water"aguardiente? Maybe it was the half of glass of Adam's Pernod that pushed me over the edge of the cliff. Joe stirs in his bed and says that he doesn't remember how last night ended. "See, things already getting better from my revolucion" I warn him. It's way too early, but this morning we have to grab a taxi to take us to the Council of Churches where we will board a bus full of Unitarians that will take us out into the country. It's time to do some gardening projects. But first we're going to do our breakfast ritual, whereupon I accidentally spill the watered-down ketchup on the white linen tablecloth, it forming a stain that uncannily resembles the bearded face of Fidel Castro.
When we step outside to find a taxi, we realize that the wind is not blowing. It's a miracle worthy of a flourish of trumpets. I tell the others that there will be no wind storm under my regime. I also get cocky and say that I will find mangos of all things in Cuba. Camella isn't amused, but nevertheless picks a white mariposa (butterfly jasmine) and offers me its fragrance. I then tell the others of my grandiose plans to have a ceiling fan installed in my hotel room and place some palmetto bugs on the walls. That and charter a small plane to take us to the McDonald's on Guantanamo Bay. "I really think you made the wind stop, Blair!", Camella says as she looks for a three-dollar taxi. She sounded a tad sarcastic.
After about an hour or longer drive out into the country, we arrive at the farm, a place at the back of beyond where medicinal plants are grown. "Very Jim Jones" I whisper to Camella, pointing to a vintage water cooler that looks exactly like the one in the pictures taken of Jonestown. On a small table set up under a banyan tree, about 333,000 flies are crawling all over tiny ham sandwiches and bowls of greenish plantains. It's like the entire Cuban air force was there. And what's this?! Mang...No, some other type of fruit that the flies are fine with. A young Cuban man approaches with an old acoustic guitar, smiles and generously offers us this palatable fare. I stare at the fly-bespeckled little sandwiches with fascination and in my head ask the same question Roy Neary asked: "Who are you people?"
Pentecostals, is the answer. We're not going to do any gardening, we're going to hear sermons about Jesus! As the minutes drag by, the Pentecostal piles on the agony. I'm extremely thirsty, but forgot to bring my bottled water. All four of us did. And to make matters worse, there are reddish mounds of fire ants all around. Adam brings me a little tiny cup of bitter coffee, telling me to swish it around in my mouth but not to swallow it. Just because it seems so dramatic, I do. More sermons about Jesus. My mind starts to drift off to a happier place... Before coming to Cuba, I treated myself to a kind of pre-vacation if you will. The Siljmonster (yes, that 'mythological' Icelandic creature spoken of in hushed tones around campfires at night really does exist) and I went to Sedona, AZ. for a few days of bliss.
So as the Pentecostal speaks in praise of the dead Saviour in the dusty platinum sun... (a blurry dissolve of jungle canopy), I'm sitting on the shady upstairs patio of Oaxaca, dipping pastel-colored tortilla chips into chilled salsa while sipping a luminous purple prickly-pear cactus margarita. The scenery is truly spectacular here, and I don't want to return to the fire-ant farm. Mornings with chocolate margaritas, chips and salsa, vortices to explore in the afternoon, and glasses of French champagne while moon bathing late at night with a glittering djofullinn seem like heaven...
"Fardu I rassgat!", my reverie is shattered. "And now we are going to plant a tree" the Pentecostal informs us as he strums a C major chord (and I was in F sharp). So the Unitarians gather in a circle as a sapling is planted in a most ceremonious manner.
The Pentecostal keeps strumming the C major, all the while singing "Planting a tree... Planting a tree... Planting a tree... As the Unitarians take turns watering the newly-planted sapling, a pretty woman slowly steps backwards with her camera, bending down to carefully frame a shot of the tree planting ceremony. As she does so, she steps on yesterday's newly-planted sapling ( also planted with a similar ceremony I would imagine). Crack! Her shoe breaks the fragile thing in half. Embarrassed and horrified, she looks up at me, the only living witness to her destruction. "God...damit" I shake my head in mock-disgust. "It will all be in my report", I inform her. As Adam and Camella continue to hide behind their cameras, naked unto the world, I join the Unitarian circle, holding hands with Kate and Katy. "Planting a tree... Planting a Tree... Planting a tree..." When he's finished, he proudly displays his CD. "Five dollars." "Is the Tree Song on there" I ask Kate (or is this Katy)?
Adam and I walk away from the others to examine the entrance to tunnels concealed by vegetation where weapons were hidden during the Cold War days. As we check them out, we both agree how wonderful a rainbow snow-cone would be right now. Adam also tells me that he hopes our next tour of Cuba will be at a water-purification plant. I think he's going mad from lack of hydration, but don't want to alarm him. We then wander off to look for the world's smallest hummingbird.
Next, we are asked to gather in yet another circle and one by one introduce ourselves, telling the others where we're from and what we do there. In my head I'm trying to decide if I want to be a Steeple-Jack, Joyce scholar, or... both. How about a CIA ASSassin? The guy seated next to me tells everyone that he sells books, so when it's my turn, being the first-class ass that I am, naturally I say that I write books. I also say that I'm a ufologist... that I chase flying saucers in my spare time, adding after a pregnant pause, that "they're real." A few minutes later a couple of Cuban farm hands approach me. In very broken English they ask me if Area 51 is real. "Yes" I reply to their open astonishment. Somewhere in America, a decorated five-star general, or shadow-government alphabet-soup type suit just shuddered. "God..damnit", the most secret facility in the world and a couple of farm hands in the boonies of Communist Cuba have heard about it. They next ask me if crop formations are real. And then about a crash in Roswell in 1947. I can't lie, and they look at each other in amazement.
When it's Adam's turn, he doesn't say anything about being in a band, but, instead tells the group that he operates a snow-cone cart and would like to sell Blair a rainbow one for a hundred dollars. I wonder if he really believes this (but would surly pay that much).
EL RAPIDO FRIED CHICKEN STAND AT A MARKET IN HAVANA
We ride in a van back back to Havana and take a taxi to the Malecon. All we can think about is buying a bottle of water. At the dollar fried chicken stand in a touristy arts and crafts market, all they have left is one small bottle. We buy it, and the four of us share it. It's great to be alive. And we saw the world's smallest hummingbird (I think).
HOTEL TELEGRAPH RESTAURANTE/HAVANA
Not a bad pepper steak-like thing, but all the stubby greasy fries on my plate are floating in the dark 'champagne'-mushroom sauce like dozens of little rafts.
PARTY AT CAROL'S CASA PARTICULARE
It's around ten at night. The Unitarians are rocking the upper floor of the Casa Particulare. So it was BYOR (bring your own rum). The Unitarians and an impressive Cuban guitarist are playing acoustic guitars. One of the group leaders sticks a Cohiba Robusto in my mouth and hands me a lighter. As I puff on it outside on the balcony, Mona's Cuban guitar teacher, Vidal, asks Adam to play. An acoustic guitar is provided, and, after doing his dropped D tuning, Adam plays unplugged versions of Aenema and a few other older Tool songs. Vidal seems fascinated, and watches closely. When Adam plays some of the new Tool stuff, I find myself fiendishly pleased that a couple of Cubans and Unitarians are getting a preview of something that no Tool fans have heard. Sitting there under the stars, looking out at the royal palms, I sip Bucaneros as Adam and Vidal show each other scales and finger exercises. In the other room the Unitarians are singing campfire music. Katy holds a tootsie pop in one hand and a lit Cuban cigar in the other. Two bottles of Havana Club rum have already been drained. I spot a bag of peanut m&ms on the table. God..damnit, I knew I forgot something at the airport. The party gets louder and a Cuban neighbor complains. Camella has put some kind of sparkle lotion on her friends Yanely and Damaris, and they're now sparkling spectaculare in the Casa particulare. As I watch the sparkling Cuban girls, I keep thinking that Castro is going to walk in , look at Camella's handiwork and say "Goddamnit, what the hell is going on?" After another Bucanero, I'm ready to go. Once again, the Unitarians have out drank me.
On the way back to the hotel, I talk to Kate and Katy about my research into ufology. Camella's Cubanites are trying to find us a place to get something to eat, but at this late hour we're not having much luck. Finally the others settle on bocadillos (ham and cheese sandwiches) in a dreary bus station. While we're there, arrangements are made to have a 30-passenger public bus take the six of us back to our hotel for a dollar each. This is so Cuba. Earlier, while trying to find a taxi to take us to Carol's party, a Cuban guy and his girlfriend pulled up in an old Chevrolet. They were on their way to a movie but offered to become a taxi for three dollars. We climbed in and they drove for 20 minutes to the Casa Particulare. I wonder what the hell we'll be riding in tomorrow?
2,000 FEET UNDER WATER OFF THE GUANANHACABIBES PENINSULA:
RUINS OF A SUNKEN CITY?
We're in a high-tech submersible, 600 meters deep in the water off a penisula on the Western part of Cuba. The underwater cameras are capturing grainy images of what appear to be geometrically-shaped artificial structures, possibly the remains of an ancient civilization. Some of these appear to be pyramids. The night before one of the Unitarians told me that they don't use the "J" word. Well, now I'm thinking about using the "A" word. The intelligent design in the mysterious structures becomes more evident, and the Cuban geologist is puzzled. As I continue to examine the screen, some kind of alarm sounds. Is there something wrong with the submersible, I wonder? The sound continues. I start to get a little nervous... and wake up to hear the phone in my hotel room ringing. Goddamnit! It was just a dream. It's Camella or Adam calling us from their room. I'm not examining the possible remains of sunken Atlantis, I'm going to have to climb out of bed to go look at a lighthouse or hear a canon fire or something. At breakfast, while accidentally spilling my coffee, I realize that I failed to come up with a mango and tell Camella that she can be the group leader again. Moments later when we walk outside the hotel, we're nearly blown over by the wind. All Camella can do is laugh... and look for a taxi that will take us somewhere for three dollars.
PLAZA DE LA REVOLUCION
Wednesday, March 24
Here, in chronological order, we find everything we ever wanted to know about the "triumph of the Revolucion." There is even a gift shop with postcards and coffee mugs of Che. Oddly enough, on the floor of the observation deck at the top of the building there is a tile which gives the direction and number of kilometers to Miami. There is also the direction to some place that I've never heard of that is 666 kilometers away. Adam takes a photograph of this and points it out to Camella who has already photographed it. We decide to skip the Institute of Tropical Medicine & AIDS Sanitorium (or was it a hike with the Unitarians to a waterfall in the forest?) and go to the beach instead.
UNDER A COCONUT PALM ON THE BEACH
This isn't like the beach we were at a couple of days ago. There are no thatch-roofed cabanas or women bronzing in the tropical sun. In fact, there's no tropical sun. The place is deserted but still we look for a spot among the rock-strewn sand to lay our hotel towels down. It's too windy to sit on the beach so we gather around a couple coconut palms and pop open Bucaneros. Several yards away are the remains of a bombed out looking building. On the pastel-colored walls, someone has written 'Viva Fidel' in dog shit.
The grassy area around us is littered with debris, almost as if people are using it as a garbage dump. As we drink Bucaneros and rum, a Cuban police officer appears out of no where and says something in Spanish to our friends, Pepe and Yanely. They tell us that the guy said not to leave our empty beer bottles behind. I finally found a bag of pistachios, but for every three shells, one doesn't contain a pistachio. Goddamit. With all that work opening them, too. Joe diligently attemps to knock down a coconut from a tree but is unsuccessful so we settle on plastic cups to drink our bottle of Havana Club. When it starts to get dark, we walk to a small roadside cafetria and grab a table. The Unitarian with us orders a hamburguesa, and I open a can of Pringles that I was amazed to find. I don't know where it came from, or how it got to Cuba, but the chips weren't uniform, and from where I come from, Pringles are, if anything, clones.
"It will all be in my report" I inform the can with mock-disgust.. The hamburguesa arrives. "It almost looks like a real hamburger, doesn't it Joe? Right down to the sesame seeds... Very rat-like" I mumble. The Unitarian takes a bite and says "f***ing fantastic excellent!" As I debate whether or not to open my last warm Bucanero, Pepe informs me that I can exchange it for a cold one in this place. Wow, try doing that in America. Instead, I buy a cold one from a vending machine outside. A Bucanero beer vending machine. Way to go, Cuba!
At night we go to the Social Club to here famous Cuban musicians play Caribbean rhythms for the tables of European tourists. Trays of Mojitos are served by Cuban waiters. Afterwards, it's to another club where our Cuban friends' band "Warapa" are playing. All the Unitarians are there, looking a bit tired from there afternoon hike to the waterfall, but still having a great time with glasses of rum and the ubiquitous Bucaneros. The third song is about the lesbian that we heard in the recording studio. Damaris dances and singer Amilcar tells me over the microphone to put my hands in the air. Realizing that we are supposed to go paint an old folks home early in the morning, I scratch my arm. "Jungle rot" I warn Camella. "Highly contagious." I scratch again and touch her arm. "Pass it along" I say, gesturing to Adam. When the band's finished with their two sets, in hushed tones we discuss our Cuban cigar orders and formulate a plan to go pick them up at Alex's place.
In a scene reminicent of "The French Connection", we follow our Cuban connection to his Tiki (tenement) in a taxi. "Let's make this more like "Quest for Fire" than "The French Connection" Adam whispers. There are rolling blackouts as we turn down narrow streets, passing vintage American automobiles driven by Cubans. We arrive and tell our driver to wait. He seems nervous, but agrees to do so. In pitch darkness we climb a series of rickety stairs to Alex's apartment. It sounds like a woman is dying in one room, and we have a hard time keeping from laughing (you had to be there.). We remind ourselves to keep silent, but the stairs are getting more and more dangerous and we can't see a thing. I swear at one point that we were walking across a tightrope. Finally we reach our friend's small apartment. Inside, he hands us our boxes of Cohibas and MonteCristo #2s. At only $35.00 a box, I decided to buy a box of each and take a chance of getting them both through US Customs.
We pay our friend and leave. As we brave the rickety stairs in the dark, the women in her unit continues to die.
THE COUNCIL OF THE CHURCHES
Thursday, March 26
It's a bright early morning. Olive-green uniformed members of the Ministry of the Interior keep an eye on us as we gather with our Unitarian friends. A van arrives to take us to our gardening and painting projects. Adam, Camella, Joe and I are supposed to go with the group that will be painting, but there's not enough room in the van to take all of us. The group leader, Mona, says that there's one seat left in the van going to do gardening. With a warm smile she takes me by the arm and says "Come with us, Blair." Terrified, I climb in and the sliding door is shut. Inside, the Unitarians are talking about insect repellent and such. Where in the hell am I being banished to... and, more importantly, will there be large spiders there. I press my face against the window of the van and look at Adam, Camella, and Joe sitting under a banyon tree in front of The Council of the Churches.
"God...damnit" I silently scream at them as we pull away. When we reach the garden and the others pile out, Mona tells me that I'm not going to be gardening. The van will take a Unitarian couple and me to the old folks home so we can find the paint and materials we need to work. The van will then go pick up the other painters and bring them to the place. After a half-hour drive through some of the worst slums in Cuba, the driver finally finds the Salvation Army retirement home and parks behind a disemboweled 1957 Chevy that must have been a grand old boat in its day. We step out in the hot sun. This should be interesting.
THE OLD FOLKS HOME: SOMEWHERE IN HAVANA
Depressing. The eldery are seated on ratty couches and walking about in the main room, most of them smiling warmly as we enter. On the television an angry crowd in some foreign country is burning an American flag. Many of these Cubans are pre-revolutionary, and some probably even speak good English. No one has any idea where the painting materials are, so the Unitarian couple and I start walking down narrow hallways and opening doors, seeing things that I really didn't need to see. Things like... well, you don't need to see them either. Finally, after much confusion and problems with translation, we find small supply room where several cans of paint, brushes, rollers and trays are being stored.
In that someone has already covered with a tarp a rusty bed frame and few meager possessions of the elderly man in the room closest to the main entrance, the Unitarian couple and I decide to paint it and the room next to it first. Besides, the paint of both of these rooms looks horrible. As I first sweep all the daddy-longlegs from the ceiling and corners, the old guy watches with a sad expression. I wonder if they were his friends? The paint is bad, as are the brushes and rollers, and even the rags are rags.
Adam, Camella and Joe arrive with the other Unitarians. Dipping my roller into the tray, I look up to see that more daddy-longlegs have already gathered in the corners.
Goddamnit! As we work as a crew painting walls and ceiling, we realize that what we're doing doesn't look so good. In fact, we've spent several hours putting two coats on, and it looked better before we started. It's the shitty paint we're using... that and the fact that most of us are rock musicians, not painters. Also, we're putting a lighter shade of blue paint over a darker shade of blue and it's not covering well. There are streaks everywhere. The poor old man watches us without saying a word. "What are we going to do?", Camella whispers to me with a faint hint of a smile. "What every painter that has botched a job does... hurry up get the hell out of here before these guys come after us torches and pitchforks." The women from the Salvation Army assures us that the paint just needs to dry, and that it will look good. "Ohhhhhh, magic paint" I smile at Camella. Adam and I compete to see who's the best fine line man, and thirty minutes later we're finished with our room. The old man smiles to show his appreciation. Both of my hands are covered with paint. Earlier I heard the Unitarians talking about a bucket of turpentine, so I go in search of it. When I find it, I stick my hands in the brownish-yellow liquid, rubbing hard to remove the paint. As I continue to do so, several of the elderly Cubans watch with curious expressions. I smile proudly as I show them my paint-free hands and go back to see how our room is drying. A few minutes later Joe walks in and asks me if I noticed the bucket of piss in the back room. "Goddamnit" I mutter to myself. I'd forgotten about all the plumbing problems...
While riding back in a van to The Council of the Churches, Adam asks the small boy seated in front of us what he misses the most about America. The boy, who'd been in Cuba for almost two weeks with his Unitarian parents, said that he wanted some pizza with spaghetti on top of it. The poor kid was cracking, I thought to myself. He hasn't had anything descent to eat in all that time, and now he's delirious. Spaghetti on top of pizza! But then his mother turns to Adam and says "Ummm, Pizza Schmizza! This, she explains to us is a popular pizza chain back in Portland where they live that makes a certain type of pizza with spaghetti on top. Adam tells her that the next time his band plays in Portland he's going to eat at Pizza Schmizza.
Adam and Joe want to try the ice cream that they've heard so much about. The heathen near-vegan tags along, just for the adventure. Adam gets vanilla with Joe ordering a double scoop of both chocolate and vanilla. When he's finished, Adam buys another paper cup of vanilla to take back for Camella. I notice that one of the flavors is mango, and I'm thinking to myself that that's what he should have got for her. Later, while enjoying her vanilla ice cream (unaware that they had mango), Camella asks me if I'm going with her and Adam to feed dinner to HIV/AIDS patients at some old church. I tell her that Joe and I are going back to the Santeria gallery to look for more paintings.
Unable to find the back alley where the art gallery was, Joe and I walk over to the Nacional. We've got a couple of Exquistos, but nothing to light them with. There are no matches on the island (even in the Nacional), but we've found a cigarette vending machine that has a lighter. Sticking two dollars in it, we select the lighter. A pack of Winstons comes out. "Goddamnit." But when we open the box, we see that it contains the lighter. We walk out onto the veranda. As usual, Havana Bob is there, smug in his Cuban finery, puffing on a Cohiba. A breeze is blowing off the ocean and there are lots of white caps, or are those starched white priests collars like those discarded by Havana Bob. He takes a sip from his Mojito, and exhales cigar smoke. The breeze is making it hard for us to get our Cubans lighted, and it takes a good few minutes before they're going. As we walk past the glittering fountain, it goes berserk, spraying us and dousing both of our cigars. "God..." "Damnit" , Joe finishes it for me.
We sit down at a table under a thatched roof bar and order a tropical rum drink called La Barraca. We like the Nacional. A peacock walks by on the manicured lawn. "Is this ash tray for sale" I ask the waiter in the immaculate white uniform? "Three dollars" he replies. "We'll take two. Is this salt shaker for sale?" "Four dollars." We now have a salt shaker that works. "How much to shut up those Turkey Buzzards?" We order another round of drinks. "Camella's out in the jungle circumcising a Rhino, and we're drinking La Barracas by the seaside" I say to Joe while tipping an ash in my new Hotel Nacional ash-tray. We descide to play some cards, a game I call Revolucion (Take Two in the United States). The ace of spades is Castro, and ace of clubs, Che. Each are worth 59 points instead of the usual 40. The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards, and the person with the lowest point total wins. If you forget to say "revolucion" when you only have one card left, you have to pick up five more cards from the deck. I win the first hand, catching Joe with a 'Castro.' We continue to drink in hot afternoon sun, shuffling the deck and dealing cards as pretty European tourist girls sit down next to us. Nice. Our old friend cerdo asado continues to be roasted on a spit, and is now looking a little charred. From time to time, Joe shouts that "He's glad he got rid of Castro!", drawing glances from the waiters. "Revolucion" we call out when we're down to our last card. I keep waiting for El Barbudo to walk in wearing his fatigues, stroke his famous beard and say "Goddamnit!, What the hell is going on?" I'll be damned", I look over at Joe, pointing to a cruise ship passing by in the distance. Finally.
Adam, Camella, Joe, I and our Cuban friends have gathered around the bar in the hotel lobby. It's our last night on the island and Camella is wondering where we should go to eat. "Well.. There's this place" I tell her..
We're seated at a big table feasting on roasted chicken, rice and black beans (called moros y cristianos). Adam says he wants to get the most ridiculous tropical rum drink they have. I tell him to order the La Barraca. "Is this where you guys have been getting those Heinekens and Pepsis you bring down to breakfast" Camella wants to know? Adam says that he likes this place. "Very rattan" I tell him. After dinner, we go find a table in the courtyard and order more drinks. Around 2:00 we say our final good bys to our new friends. There are lots of hugs and we tell them that some day we hope they can visit us in America. After the others leave, Joe and I get some more cigars and teach Katy how to play "Revolucion." It was during the card game that I learned that the an earlier crew of Unitarians had painted the same room that we did on the day before. "Goddamnit." I think about the poor old man breathing paint fumes and wondering what the hell happened to his room? We drink Bucaneros and Mojitos until 4:00 AM and then call it a night, seeing that Katy gets a taxi to take her to her hotel.
AMERICAN EAGLE CHARTER FLIGHT 9513 TO MIAMI:
SOMEWHERE OVER CUBA
Friday, March 27
I see Adam frantically taking pictures of something he has seen outside the window of the turbo-prop plane. A few seconds later he hands me his digital camera, showing me how to zoom in on the image he's just taken. I can hardly believe it. What the hell is that doing there? I stare at the LED display and zoom in on the pentagram. It appears to be constructed of roads, but what are those other things? I then hand the camera to Camella who was sleeping when Adam snapped the pictures. She stares at the display screen for a minute or so, and then gives me a look of sheer amazement. All those assassination attempts by the CIA - what was it at last count, 637 - and nobody knows where Castro lives. "It's so obvious", Camella says while staring at the photo Adam just took from a commercial flight.
MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
After clearing customs with our Havana Club rum and Cuban cigars, we go directly to that Burger King we've been talking about for days now. Adam asks me if he'd be considered a traitor if instead of BK he ate at the California Pizza Kitchen located next to it in the food court. I tell him that I don't care. Camella also jumps ship to get a salad and gourmet pizza, but Joe and I get our Double Whoppers, fries and onion rings. Seated at the table with our food, I see that the salt shaker works just fine. California here we come.
ADAM AND CAMELLA'S HOUSE
Adam and I are seated in front of a computer in his office, editing the Tool web cast when Camella walks in carrying a plate of sliced fresh mangos. Without saying a word, she sets the plate down, hands me a Tecate, and smiles that big Camella smile. "Thank you", I tell her, and try a slice of f***ing DELICIOUS mango.
Photos by Adam Jones