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.

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