I booked a photography workshop in Cuba nearly a year ago. I was fresh off my break-up and was in the process of dissolving what had been our home for five of the seven years we had been together. On a whim, I booked this trip, because once the house has burnt down the risk of drinking red wine on the white sofa takes on a new perspective. On a different whim, I moved to Seattle, so contextually speaking committing to this trip to Cuba wasn’t the worst display of my impulsiveness.
In the wake of the trip, I am at once annoyed and thankful for my impulse. It’s easy to focus on the negatives at the moment because I am right in the middle of a double ear infection and a sinus infection that’s been brewing for more than a week. I am on antibiotic number two, hoping this one will do the trick. I no sooner recovered from the intestinal distress that often results from an American gut abroad, when my slight cough and congestion morphed into the current three headed hydra of cranial discomfort.
I blame Cuba. That’s not entirely fair. I flew into Cuba after twelve months of very stressful things taking place in very quick succession. The break-up smacked into a personal melt down, smacked into moving to Seattle, smacked into discovering dislike for Seattle, smacked into my Dad having open heart surgery, smacked into a new role at work, smacked into moving back from Seattle. It’s a double-decker sandwich of stress. And to my body’s credit, it took it down like a champ. In spite of all the exhaustion and flights, I remained well through all of it. After my body did me a solid like that, I rewarded it with a trip to Cuba, a place where raw sewage runs through the streets and hand soap and toilet seats are only for the rich and famous. Ok, I still kind of blame Cuba.
If I had expectations they were that Cuba wouldn’t be that much different from Costa Rica. For both Spanish is the national language, and their standard of living is a bit lower than ours in terms of material goods. I am careful to stipulate that, because both countries have good healthcare for all, something we lack here. I expected that the embargo would leave Cuba at a slight disadvantage to the other Latin American countries I have visited.
This was not terribly far from reality. Buddhist thought suggests that the root of suffering is the difference between reality and expectations. This proverb adequately describes my trip. There were some unanticipated language issues, which really shouldn’t have been a problem, a point I will explore later. The lack of municipal water services was a surprise. But I was anticipating the need for bottled water, so that in itself wasn’t an issue. So far so good.
Our guide seemed competent enough in the emails. His fifteen years of experience instilled confidence. The trip was just under $4000. And for that amount of money, I had certain unexplored expectations about the quality of our accommodations.
Suffering enters stage right.The first thing that should have put me on notice was the hotel we all stayed at the night before the flight to Cuba. This was the place selected by our guide, and while he negotiated a reduced rate it was no better than the rate I booked on Kayak only a week later, the rooms weren’t included in our trip fee. It was a Ramada Inn. It was strategically right next door to a place called the Doll House, a neon pink bedazzled gentlemen’s club. It was clean and adequate, but I think its featured neighbor says it all.
Clean and adequate are excellent words to describe our accommodations for the rest of the trip. We all had roofs over our heads and bathrooms. Yes. All things beyond that were questionable.
In Havana some of our fellow travelers didn’t have running water for some time. We were staying in historic Havana, which was revealed on a unsupervised bus tour to also be the slums of Havana. Our travel mate had paid extra for a room to herself, only to find as many as four strangers in her apartment at any given time. I got a warm shower there … on the last day. At first, I was put off by the dribble of water coming out of the shower head. But after a couple cold showers, I started to appreciate that I had nearly the whole tub to lather up in, away from the dilapidated spigot shooting icicles in my direction. Since our fellow travelers were without a toilet seat I counted us lucky. I have long since cast off the burden of hovering and find it uncomfortable in my 40 year-old body. I haven’t the slightest idea how the retired folks managed it.
In fact in all of Cuba, finding a toilet anywhere that had the holy trinity of toilet paper, a toilet seat, and soap felt like hitting the lottery. Aside from the bathrooms in our rooms, we got shaken down for every bathroom use by wizened old women in front of bathrooms, and once their change bowl was satisfied they would respond by giving us three tiny rough sheets of toilet paper. This led to all of us squirreling away extra napkins and tissues in pockets and backpacks like refugees. After taking one look at the open sewers, and each of us getting doused with some unknown liquid coming from upper floors of the buildings lining the street (does no one look before dumping, *shudder* lets not consider what, off their balconies??!!), it became clear that we would all sorely need functioning bathrooms sooner rather than later.
Things improved when we left Havana. To be fair to our guide, he had booked hotels for us there but had them commandeered by the government for Obama’s crew. His visit also left us to plead our case to the Cuban police, when we were caught in a restricted area due to The President’s walkabout. After some very stressful moments trying to communicate we were escorted to our building.
In Trinidad, Kathleen and I shared a room that reeked of sewage, the only ventilation required that we open our door and the large window that lacked bars or a screen. It was the Sophie’s Choice of smelling all of Cuba’s shit or risk our camera gear stolen. We also traipsed through someone’s living room to get into the building behind that housed our room. But it was scenic and had hot water!
In Santa Clara, we had to traipse through someone else’s living room and kitchen. I enjoyed walking to the bathroom in my night clothes with just some bat wing doors standing between me and the whole family. But our room had a balcony overlooking the city square!
And then there was our feckless leader. When I asked him the evening before departure what type of dialect the Cubans speak, he said nothing while one of my fellow travelers answered. He commanded the floor for almost all of dinner. And he seemed to be wandering around topics in no particular order. Red flags, those things.
Turned out he spoke not a word of Spanish. His ability to communicate important information in a succinct fashion was non-existent. This would lead to us thinking him through talking and engaging in side conversations only to be reprimanded to pay attention. He proved to be incompetent at managing logistics. In each city, he told us our places would be right next door to each other. The closest we were the whole trip was a block and a half, leaving me to think Google Translate has a problem with “next door” in English to Spanish and vice versa. This was my private joke, until one morning at breakfast he talked about the ways in which Google Translate has failed him in his bookings. Finally, while he was a knowledgeable photographer, I think he excelled more at telling stories about Ansel Adams than actual instruction.
Because he spoke not a word of Spanish, I was left as the most proficient Spanish speaker. I can understand quite a bit of what’s said if the speakers are not particularly fast. This gives me troubles with Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. They speak faster than what I can keep up with. Cubans are fast talkers. This is problematic in and of itself, but the Cubans also drop out whole sounds in words in addition to cramming them all together like one endless parade of characters. I understood almost nothing of what they said. When I spoke to them, they understood me perfectly, which is a mystery considering my meager skills as a speaker. I haven’t learned my verb tenses. This makes everything happen for me in Spanish now. There isn’t any future or past, just now. I was deeply amused at my quest for mindfulness over the past year. There was nothing metaphorical about my now in Spanish, it was literally all that was for me. The universe, ever the prankster. Congratulations! I gained a new unpaid position of translator!
I think his lack of competence was more galling when we did a calculation of what he must be pocketing off of each of us. This was only exacerbated when he suggested that we tip our driver and our Cuban tour guides what would be the equivalent of one month’s salary, making our tips collectively add up to six months pay. We quickly surmised that those “tips” were the only way those folks were getting paid.
Even with all these problems, I am glad that I went. I got some amazing shots of Cuba just before it changes, rapidly. The Cuba that exists now will soon be bulldozed over to put up a Hooter’s and a Holiday Inn. The gorgeous crumbling architecture will give way to shiny new things that will become new symbols of excess. Shiny new things that will look just as tired and dated as the hotels there that were once shiny and new in the 50’s. I can only hope that in this time the Cuban people see some benefits from the money that will start pouring into their country, rather than watch, alienated, as wealthy people use their country for their play ground. We all know how that story will end.
It’s taken a year to forge a shiny new me, trifecta of snotty ailments and all. I hope I age better than those casinos. Enjoy the pictures. **I came back with hundreds and skipped entire cities in this collection. That will need to be for another day.