Cuba Pt. 3: F*ck This, I’m Out
Havana beat me into submission, and I ran away
Time To Read: 10+ mins | January 7, 2017
The first piece in the Cuban Trilogy (sounds so cool when you say it like that) can be found here (5 minute read); the second piece here (7 minute read). The story below makes sense without them, but they are referenced and do provide context.
I know a few people who’ve had minor struggles with alcohol. Not enough to enter rehab, mind you, but dramatic enough that they make a concerted effort to slow down because it’s having a negative effect on their lives. Shouting at significant others, ignoring friends, calling in sick on too many Fridays, that sort of thing.
The issue, more often than not, isn’t a dependency on liquor. They can stop whenever with no ill physical effects. Rather it’s the psychological aspect of admitting defeat. The minute you consciously adapt your behavior to work around an external force, be it liquor or a bully or any other fear, you’ve admitted that it has control over you. That it’s won.
Well, that’s me and Cuba. I wanted to escape so badly, out of pure misery — but leaving would mean I lost.
The second biggest factor was cash. I asked multiple people beforehand, and was assured my ATM cards would work; but that fact was widely disputed online, and I never followed up. Not a single vendor in the country accepts anything but cash, and the ATMs categorically reject anything based in the States.
I spent what little money I’d had in the first few days, and only realized afterwards that I was cutoff. To make matters even more fun, I couldn’t get ahold of my bank, because this was right around New Years and all their offices were closed.
By the end of the my week in Havana, I was legitimately living on two dollars a day. I ate nothing at all on two separate 36-hour stretches.
At one point, fearing I wouldn’t have enough money to get back to the airport, I didn’t even splurge on bottled water — I boiled tap in a dirty pot.
But as miserable as that was, the real reason for my retreat was internet. My glib response to friends about my work when traveling is, “as long as I’ve got wifi, I’m good.” Then I went and picked the one country in the hemisphere with no private connection.
I’ve commented on the system before, but like many aspects of experiencing communism, an outsider’s factual description doesn’t do the situation justice. In reality, you queue for an hour to buy the right to a couple hours on publicly shared uplinks. Then you have to find a public park that has access, and then, if you’re lucky, you find one sq. ft. of standing room in that park, because the place is utterly overrun with Cubans on their cell phones desperately trying to Facetime relatives abroad. After turning your computer or phone’s wifi on and off for 10 minutes, you will finally connect. But that connection, per the exorbitant amount of people using it, is only fast enough to load one website every fifteen minutes.
There’s one prerequisite for me to stay in a place. Cuba lacked it.
It’s my own fault. Not Googling an estranged island nation before traveling there was, surprisingly, a mistake. But I won’t take the blame for getting cripplingly ill, which didn’t help my attitude about all this. I spent 5 of 7 days in a cold sweat, alternating sitting on and hunching over the toilet. More time was spent in bathrooms than in the streets. I’m not saying this is entirely Havana’s fault, but it’s guilty by association.
There were other things too. The food is terrible (when I could afford it and keep it down). Of the few meals I did eat, maybe half were fully edible. I bought a ‘hamburger’ on the street; I was handed a stale dinner roll with two ounces of frighteningly raw beef inside. And I’m consciously lying to myself when I call it ‘beef’.
If you walk into a corner store, 80% of the shelves are simply empty. There’s the same amount of space as an American shop, but it’s as if the deliveries stopped coming six months ago. Not a word of a lie, the only food products I could find in stores were crackers and canned peas. It’s post-apocolyptic.
There’s a great story from 1989 about Boris Yeltsin, then a major player in the Soviet Union, seeing the plentiful selection in a Houston grocery store and it totally shaking his faith in communism. Now I get it.
And the shabby charm of the city wears down after you realize it isn’t a planned or chosen style, it’s a result of a crippled economy that can’t afford to repair anything. Think of it this way: when a man drives a classic car in LA, or a woman chooses a vintage chic dresser for her bedroom, they’ve made a choice based on their wants. Here, the aesthetics are forced on everyone. ‘54 Firebirds and beat-to-shit residential paint jobs aren’t a decision based on preference, it’s a lack of anything better being available.
Genuinely, all of this sucks to say, because it was love at first sight.
I spent my first hours exploring Havana with a smile on my face and a confusing feeling in my loins. The city is, without a shadow of a doubt, beautiful. And the people are without fail friendly, helpful, animated and fun, and more stylish than a Paris runway show.
What’s more, my last day there was perfectly fine. After three days of bankruptcy, I’d finally acquired a bit of money – it required every scheme short of selling my body, but I could afford to eat. I was healthy, the sun was out, and a 9-year old tried to sell me cigarettes. I listened to a reggae band playing with only orchestral equipment, including a bright green double bass.
I sat in a touristy restaurant and ordered one of the more expensive dishes on the menu. I was served unseasoned chicken and undersized shrimp that’d obviously been precooked & then microwaved, with cheese melted over it nacho-style. I was given a dollop of mash potatoes that would rival a nickel in diameter, and all this sadness was supplemented by a pile of white rice, of which nearly 9 out of every 10 grains were fully cooked.
In the south, you grow up learning about the evils of communism. As you move out of Texas and Georgia and earn a liberal New England education, you unconsciously supplant those early beliefs with doubts.
Well, I’m here to tell you, if a government ruins a country so thoroughly that they lack the ability to season chicken, that government has failed. And now I know why everyone’s so damned skinny here: they can’t stand the food.
Still though, for all the bitching, that meal was much closer to average than anything else I’d found thus far. This, I thought, I could work with.
But it was too late. I’d already learned that staying here for a decent stretch of time was impossible. There are 186 sovereign nations in the world, and about 170 of them have open wifi. Cuba’s not one of them.
Even knowing all the practical reasons why I couldn’t stay, leaving bruised my ego. If international visits were categorized as wins and losses, Cuba would be my first L. Thanks to some hellacious sickness and a severe lack of preparation, my one week in Havana could best be described as a septic tank fire.
And yet, if I’d Googled it, I never would have come. I’d have seen the wifi situation and known it a fool’s errand. I wouldn’t have spent the money on flights for such a short trip. I wouldn’t have gawked at skimpy customs officers and retro American cars, or gotten to eat dinner in a tiny back alley speakeasy.
It was expensive misstep — but I got to see Havana.
I ran away to Cancun. The last minute plane ticket cost my first-born child, but my spirits were still high because, finally, I was leaving Cuba. I even threw on the same lucky shirt I’d worn on my way in, that classically tropic white button down. It needed to redeem itself, and didn’t smell so bad yet.
Once we were in the air, the flight attendants handed out the customs forms. I had to do some lying this time around — for, “How long will you be in Mexico?” I didn’t think they’d accept, “Your guess is as good as mine.” I suddenly had three weeks to kill and no plans besides busing to Playa del Carmen and finding a hostel for the night.
I finished the paperwork before takeoff, then put the blue pen behind my ear while watching the island of my nightmares retreat underneath. I ate a bag of Doritos, which might as well have been surf and turf after a week of Cuban food. But now, finally, the horror was over.
Seemingly moments after we were airborne, the captain came on to say we were starting our decent. After three separate delays, we were accidentally flying at sunset, so the clouds and sky weren’t blue now. They’d taken on all shades of orange and red and purple, creating one of those spectacular scenes you’d disbelieve in a painting for looking too fake.
There was some blue though. I noticed it out of the corner of my eye. It was ink from the pen, recently exploded, dripping from my ear and leaving quarter-sized blue spots all over my lucky white shirt. A few minutes later, I discovered my hair behind the ear was soaked in permanent dye. It looked like a Smurf vomited Violet Beauregard’s liquified remains all over my neck.
Fuck you, Cuba.
photo: view from my porch on the day of my retreat. havana, cuba