It was our last night out in Cuba, and we were all determined to make the most of it. I set records for the short time I took getting ready for our farewell dinner and for the first time on the trip, I too had nice clothes to change into for dinner. (That's something younger travelers just don't seem to have down the way retirees do: I never thought to bring fancier clothes for dinner. Doreen is the obvious exception to that rule, since she always looked amazingly appropriate for any situation!) Before I fell asleep on the bus, I did buy a beautiful blue hand-crocheted dress at the San Jose Market. Along with the breathtaking shoes I bought at this local artists' market by the hotel, I finally had the "dress up for dinner" part down. The "fit it all back in your suitcase" thing was a problem to be solved later.
But there was still time before the farewell dinner, so I did what all smart women do: I ate dessert first.
I did cheat by using the CUC side of the popular ice cream shop, but next time I'll make up for it by standing in line for hours with Cubans waiting for ice cream on the peso side of the block. Either way, a great experience and totally worth the very minor stomach ailments I experienced later. It was exactly what an ice cream shop should be: an open outdoor patio, far enough from the street that you feel rested but close enough that you can hear the sounds from the street nearby. Not a tourist in sight so I enjoyed the companionship of Cubans stopping for a break from their afternoons.
And then for one last time, we all piled onto the bus for our next Cuban excursion. Spirits were high - some because the trip home was near and some because it was impossible to cry at the same time as eating a delicious dinner. You already know which one I was.
The restaurant was a wonderful place inside an even more wonderful building, part of the former upper-class neighborhood that boasted diplomatic residences and mansions for Bautista's "ghost ministers" (political pals who reportedly didn't do much but got nice perks).
Now you understand why there's no way I could avoid buying those shoes!
And like every tourist-targeting castle, the restaurant had its own wine-serving knight in almost-shining armor.
This dinner was different because both tour groups were together for a rare joint outing. Most of the time the two buses were on alternate schedules, to avoid a tour group of almost 60 people. Although I would have loved to spend more time with my friends on the "blue bus," I'm forever grateful that I avoided treks through Havana with 60 people. For tonight, though, we had the place to ourselves and the orange-blue mingle was a big success.
Determined to make the most of my last moments in Havana, I joined my friends for another trip 'round Hemingway's places in Habana Vieja.
Bob's drink with his bronze doppelgänger.
Once again, the night streets of Havana were near empty until 10:30, so we took advantage of the opportunity to capture sights like this one: a garbage truck rolling through the streets after dark.
Just a quick trip down Nerd Lane...solid waste management is always fascinating on an island, so of course it's even more interesting when that island is the one place on Earth that hasn't conformed to modern systems most of the time. I'll be doing more research on the topic soon (that's supposed to convince you to keep reading, not to stop reading!) but from my initial readings it seems Cuba has taken some steps to at least recognize the issues that will arise from uncontrolled landfills on the island. Click here for a very interesting summary of the issues that need to be addressed - such as funding, of course, but also keeping medical waste separate from household waste and better understanding of municipal waste practices. Cuba has also implemented biogas facilities to capture energy from waste - click here for a summary of those efforts.
Back to the touristy talk...I found another "mouth of truth" to add to my collection!
I don't know how I didn't notice this fascinating statute before. His casual but intense gaze stares over Plaza de la Catedral in a way that would be creepy if it weren't so beautiful. The statue is a tribute to Antonio Gades, a Spanish flamenco dancer and choreographer who is renowned as one of the greatest dancers of his generation. He was responsible for taking dance onto the stage and film to enhance its audience, and his work is very popular in Cuba. Before his death in 2004, Gades was awarded the coveted Order of José Marti by Fidel Castro. Though he died in Madrid, his remains are buried in Santiago de Cuba. (Click here for his obituary.)
Our evening festivities wound to a quiet close, with more time in the street outside the always-overcrowded Bodeguita del Medio and enjoyable conversation about shops, paladars and crumbling but beautiful buildings.
You'll be happy to know that I did manage to get everything in the suitcase, though it involved a rather ungraceful act of bouncing on top of it to condense the contents every time I moved the zipper a few inches. Whatever, it got done!
The bus left for the airport far too early (not because of the morning hour, but because I just wasn't ready to leave yet), but I snuck in one more walk through the streets around our hotel to capture a few of my favorite details, like the "Viva Cuba!" sign I saw every day from my window...
A few rushed moments and several lines later, we were through security and in the waiting area for the charter flight back to Miami. My fellow travelers eagerly watched the TV screens to see when our flight boarded...I hoped that if I ignored the TV, maybe the flight would be cancelled. And perhaps I wasn't alone...my fellow Cubans-in-the-making joined me in some light reading while we waited.
The flight did come, as it always does when you're not in a hurry for it to, and we settled in for the short hop back over the water to the U.S.
People warn of culture shock when you travel to Cuba, and I can testify that it's absolutely true...but mine was experienced when I came back from Cuba, not when I landed there. I spent lots of time in American airports that day, and developed a headache as I tried to readjust to the cell phones buzzing, tabloids blaring pointless gossip from every corner, TV screens reeling through their news highlights that aren't actual news and vending machines with stale, overpriced food.
I've readjusted to my real life, but hope I never lose the sense of appreciation I developed on this trip to Cuba. Appreciation for small things like toilet paper and soap, and for big things like the ability to call a family member just because I'm thinking about them. I'll get back to Cuba as soon as I can but until then, I want to capture that person that I was there in the day-to-day reality of my existence here. I want to always be the person I was that moment on the lazy ox, who loves without fear, cares without caution and experiences things without a roadmap. Gracias, Cuba, for helping me find a better version of myself in your complex simplicity.
Thank you so much to the friends and strangers who have shared this journey with me by reading my blog every day! I'm grateful for your company, questions and comments. The good/bad news is that my obsession with Cuba has not even slightly diminished in the two weeks since I've been home, so I'll keep writing about the island and issues surrounding it - like the Cuban Five, water infrastructure and private enterprise. And of course, soon there will be posts about my trip to distant places like Africa and not-so-distant places like Flagstaff. I hope you'll keep reading!