Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunset on the Malecón

Once I pulled myself away from the amazing view from my hotel room, I took a minute to evaluate the TV options.  Cuban families have only five channels on home televisions - three of which are "educational" in nature - but there was quite a selection at the hotel.  It took exactly five seconds of this Prince skit from an old SNL episode to know that I wasn't going to be spending any time watching that TV.  Even the Olympic opening ceremony wasn't worth watching when Havana awaited.

I delved joyfully into my first solo experience in Cuba and headed toward the Melia Cohiba hotel to meet up with a friend.  (Corina, I'm still sorry I missed seeing you in Havana but loved the courage it gave me to wander the city on my first night!)

My plan was to walk along Avenida Paseo - partly because it's where the tour guide suggested I walk but mostly because we'd driven along this street earlier and it's absolutely beautiful.  A park-lined sidewalk runs along the middle of the road, and I knew the people-watching would be was too soon to know that in Cuba, Americans are always, always, always the ones being watched rather than watching.

It was in that park that I met my second Cuban boyfriend, Roberto.  He'd lived in Birmingham for two years before the Revolution and prior to desegregation and though he said he did not have time to tell me why he chose to come to America he did share his reason for staying and learning the language: a tall blonde.  His insights on American politics were definitely formed (Sarah Palin and George W. Bush were, according to him, "donkeys" - apparently he was not aware that elephants were in fact a more appropriate political description for Republicans...) but he was more patriotic than most Americans I know.  ("I have three American flags in my apartment," he repeatedly assured me.  "THREE, not two!  And photos of my American friends.")  We paused for a faux smoking break (mine was faux, his was real) before I convinced him that I really did need to head down the street instead of talking all evening.

I enjoyed the hour I spent in the lobby of the Melia Cohiba, and was unaware of how my time there would impact another odd interaction later in the week.  (That's a sneak peek to keep you reading...)  When I learned that my friend had gone home early, however, I was happy to leave the confines of mixed upper-class nationalities and head toward the  Malecón for a sunset stroll.

It’s amazing how universal the ocean is. Watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico was an almost identical experience to one of my favorite traditions: sundown from the boardwalk on Pacific Beach. Families who had been diving off the rugged rocks on the other side of the Malecon wall climbed out of the water, shook off what water they could, and settled on the wall for the celestial show. A few had a more difficult preparation as they tried to wipe blood from the scrapes they’d received while diving in the sharp rocks. There was no crash of ocean waves here, though occasionally the water splashed against the Malecon wall with enough force to send sparkling drops into the air. Instead, it was the quiet lapping of water that I heard from the light wave against the shore after a kayak paddle has passed. It was peaceful, soothing, and quiet enough to hear the laughter and conversation around me.

I was too restless to sit for long, and learned what would prove true repeatedly in Cuba: it is impossible to sit in solitude and silence.  Everyone is eager to talk of America, to hear your story and to tell you theirs...but when I was tired of those conversations I began to wander again.  It was an amazing experience to walk through the Havana neighborhoods at sunset - so different and yet so similar than anyplace else I'd ever been.  Small children tumbled into their mother's arms with giggles as they tried to run across crumbling sidewalks, while older children played ball in the street or did cartwheels in the front yard.  Many called out greetings to me as I walked past, speaking to me not as a neighbor but not entirely as a foreigner either.

And then I had an experience that never, ever happens when I travel alone: I ran into friends on the street!  Two wonderful members of my group had met a young Cuban couple that worked at our hotel, and they were all going out for a night in Havana.  This meant, of course, that the Americans were paying for the outing - but my friends thought it was worth every penny and adopted me for the evening to go along with them.

I'd wanted to find an opportunity to watch the Olympics with Cubans - since I've never watched a soccer game in Europe, this seemed like a good alternative.  But as I learned more about Cuba I realized that was unlikely to happen.  Cubans do not have extra money for things like sports bars, and even if they did it is unlikely that the state-run restaurants would have cable TV to show the Olympics.  I got a lot closer to my goal than I expected, however - this sports-themed restaurant played a few minutes of the Olympics!

Our next stop - and the final one for the evening, since we spent more than two hours eating dinner - was a paladar on the 15th floor of an apartment building near the Malecón.  The word "paladar" is magical but not as wonderful as it deserves because the concept is amazing.  It provides the chance to eat in someone's home when you're on vacation, to support an entrepreneurial family in a Communist nation, and to have food unlike anything you'll find in a hotel buffet. 

Family photos hung on the walls, and members of the family worked together to cook, serve and clean the food.  Our favorite was the bartender, a family friend who spoke four languages and was repeatedly called upon to translate when our very limited conversation with our new Cuban friends got lost in translation.

Looks like just another apartment hallway, not a capitalistic endeavor.

The Cuban people are undoubtedly night people, and I am absolutely not.  The first night I managed to fall into bed only three hours after my usual bedtime...I didn't know then that it would be the only time I'd be asleep before the early hours of the morning for the rest of the trip.  There is too much to see, do, and experience in Cuba to give in to sleep.  But in blissful ignorance of the rooster whose song would wake me before 6 the next morning (how DOES a rooster's song reach the 15th floor of a hotel?!), I drifted off to sleep dreaming of the Cuban adventures still to come.

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