Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A bit of fresh air and exercise in Santiago de Cuba

One does not jog in Santiago de Cuba. One may rush, walk quickly, trot, or even run if they are hurrying from point A to point B; if they are avoiding a speeding car, motorcycle, or horse and buggy, if they are competing to hustle a tourist for a few dollars, or if they are retreating from said tourist, who is fed up with hustlers and threatens to call for the police. But one does not job for exercise or recreation. It simply is not done.

I know this, but I go for a jog anyways. I know that people don`t jog because it`s too hot, I know the sun is too strong, I know that many Cubans don`t consume enough calories to waste them jogging in circles. I know all of this and yet I still go jogging. In Cuba I eat white rice, white bread, personal pizzas that cost 20 cents (yes they really cost 20 cents and yes they taste like it), and multiple ice cream cones daily. I need to go jogging.

Never in my life have so many people stared at me so blatantly and so hard. I`ve walked the streets of St. Louis, Colorado Springs, Madrid, and Washington, DC in miniskirts. I`ve gone to breeder-bars and hetero-clubs in full drag face. I`ve been known on campus and the boy (?) with pink hair. I`ve been the only foreigner in rural Mexican towns. And still, I promise you, never before have I been stared at like I am while jogging in Santiago de Cuba.

People freeze in mid-step, their ice cream cones rapidly melting, to watch me pass. Twenty people congregating on the corner, all engaged in spirited conversations as they wait for the truck--once used to haul livestock but now used for public transport--suddenly become silent (all of them) and collectively watch me cross the street while dodging bicycle taxis, motorcycle taxis, car taxis, horse-drawn taxis, and the train. Old men engrossed in a game of dominoes look up from the table (unheard of unless it´s to argue) as I streak by. Small children point as I near them and ask their mothers, "what is he doing mamá?" Too confused themselves to chastise their children for pointing, they respond, "I don´t know. I don´t know." I feel as if I don´t pass a single person who doesn´t momentarily pause to ponder what the hell I am doing.

Maybe it´s my outfit, I think to myself. I´m wearing hiking shorts and my blaring white chest is bare. Around my left arm is my iPod, blasting reggatoón remixes to keep me motivated and running on-beat (Gywau, I find that Beyonce keeps me on my stride). My head is covered with a bright yellow bandanna to keep the sweat from my eyes. I have no illusions of blending in, but when I stop running to have a breather, I only get half as many stares. Half as many stares is about normal, I calculate I start running again and the stares redouble.

Jogging through the streets of Santiago is like running cross-country or an urban obstacle course. The sidewalks rise and fall dramatically. I rather run in the street where I only have to jump over pot-holes every third or fourth stride, but the constant passing of dump trucks keeps me hopping from the poorly maintained streets to the ever poorer maintained sidewalks. I come upon a pot-hole so large that it no longer can be called a pothole. This crevasse stretches the width of the street and is six feet long. It is one-foot deep with brown water. I climb a pile of rock and rubble to avoid the moat.

As I run I can feel the grit collecting on my face and up my nose. When a car or truck passes it spews out thick black exhaust that hangs in the air, refusing to dissipate until I run, wheezing, through it. I think to myself that breathing in the exhaust particles is doing more damage to my lungs than all the cigarettes I smoked in high school combined.

I stop to cover my mouth and nose with my bandanna and look at the soviet-style apartment complexes surrounding me. I´ve been passing these hideous structures (classic community style architecture is actually quite rare in Cuba, which is known for gorgeous neo-classical and colonial buildings) for ten minutes and haven´t a clue as to where I am (the communist living blocks some how didn´t make it into the guide book). Beginning to tire, I decide it would be best to ask for directions back to the city center. I approach a friendly looking middle-aged woman and politely ask if she could point me in the right direction. She looks at me, her mouth slightly open, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. She stares at me for a good 30 seconds, looking me up and down to take me all in before making me repeat the question.
"El centro?" she responds, "ooohhh its far away. You can´t walk from here. You have to find a truck along the highway."
"Oh, no, I`m going to run to el centro," I tell her.
"You are going to run there?" she asks, furrowing her eyebrows even more.
"Yes. Run. For excessive."
"Aaahhhh OK. It`s that direction, over there." She points straight down the highway. I smile, thank her, restart Chamillionare on my iPod, and continue, chuckling softly.

When I arrive back at José`s, I tell him about how everyone stared at me as if they had never seen anyone out for a jog before. He nods his head in an understanding and almost sympathetic manner. Today he is wearing camo shorts, a fitted camo t-shirt tucked in, and a camo bandana wrapped tightly over his head. I have to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself from laughing.
"Siiiii," he says, "they probably think you are a little crazy, but pay them no attention. You`ll have a cuerpo diez (ten-body--as in a body rated a ten on a scale from one to ten) and then what can they say? NADA!" He slaps his hands together and then throws his arms up in the air. I smile, nod my head in agreement and repeat "NADA" also throwing my arms up in the air.

I return to my room and giggle while imagining how people would react if they saw me during my cardio striptease routine.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

¡Saludos Boludos!

I am writing to you from the land of boludos, che, chamuyeros, chetos, parillas, and porteños. In order words, I am back in Buenos Aires, and I couldn´t be happier. In the next week I´ll reconnect with friends, find a place to live, stroll the streets of my Buenos Aires querrido, stuff my face with Cumaná, and dance all night at Plop. I will update you on all of that in due time, but first I have a promise to fulfill.

Many of you have asked to hear "all about Cuba," and I think my initial post left many of you scratching your heads or concerned (however I´m glad to see that at least a few of you got the joke). Rather than explain it, let´s just move on. I think for many of us, Cuba holds endless mystery. Few countries have survived the cold war, a missile stand-off, a CIA-backed invasion, dozens of attempted presidential assassinations, sporadic acts of terrorism, and a strict US-trade-and-travel embargo, especially countries whose leaders boast (quite forcefully) of revolution and socialism so close to United States soil. For those of us who like to consider ourselves ´travelers,´ Cuba is in a class of its own. It´s forbidden and therefore intriguing. Cuba is the land of salsa, mambo, Hemingway, mojitos, daiquiris, resistance, and above all, perseverance.

I´ll be honest--to date Cuba has been the most difficult place in which I´ve ever travelled. Nothing I had read (and I had read quite a bit about Cuba) and no one with whom I had spoken (and ya´ll know I like to talk) about Cuba adequately prepared me for this country. There were many times I felt frustrated and that frustration turned to anger because I thought that every moment in Cuba was supposed to be adventure-filled and spectacular. A few afternoons I felt lonely and helpless even, and I slept for hours locked away in my private, air conditioned room. There was even a day I thought about changing my ticket and flying to Buenos Aires early.

It wasn´t until two days before I left that I added it all up--frustration, anger, loneliness, helplessness, irregular sleep--and realized I was experiencing the classic symptoms of culture shock. I had only experienced culture shock once before and that was upon returning to the US after studying in Argentina. Never had I been culture shocked in a foreign country. The reason? I can´t be sure, but I think it is because I usually do a fairly good job of clearing my mind of expectations when I arrive in a new place. If I expect nothing, than I am open to everything, and ready for anything. But I realized that I was so determined to fall in love with Cuba, so eager to connect with Cubans, to see their country through their eyes, that I didn´t recognize all the expectations I carried with me. So there I was, culture shocked and only a marathon swim away from the Florida Keys.

I don´t want to lead you to believe my trip to Cuba was a bust, because it was anything but. It was rewarding, refreshing, adventurous, and enlightening. I learned years ago that we learn and grow the most when we are uncomfortable, which means that I do not regret even the times I found most difficult. I just want to be honest, and I am going to write about all of my experiences in Cuba, not just the travel brochure moments (which don´t come too often considering my travel style). My first blog will be a series of shorts from my journal beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. In that way, I can write about Cuba from many different angles, and then expand on a few themes in later blogs.

As far as photos go, I hear you all clamouring, but I can´t upload them until I have my computer, which is currently in transit to Buenos Aires. Once I am able to sort through all of them, I´ll put them on my Flickr page, and let you all know.

As always, I love hearing from you all, either through email, gchat, or through comments on my blog.

much love and many kisses


p.s. maybe i should just say that all of this is based on what i THINK cuba would be like if i had actually been there.