The Cuba Journal
My Trip To Camaguey Province 2012
Day Minus One – Friday, November 23
Well the trip has begun and it’s a bit of a shaky start considering I had just spent the four nights previous drinking my ass off in Ottawa and Toronto.
My plane landed at Camaguey airport at 1900 and I was looking forward to napping on the 2hr shuttle to the resort town of Santa Lucia because I wasn’t able to get any shuteye on the flight.
The first thing that I noticed when I boarded the bus was the sea of white hair and I realized that almost every seat was filled with senior male peckerheads. I thought that’s kinda strange, but was too burned out to pay it any serious attention. I found an empty pair of seats at the rear and plopped my bag next to me as a privacy shield so I could snooze uninterrupted.
Just as we were pulling out one last straggler climbed onboard and a few seconds later I heard, “Oh good, there’s one seat left.” A short while after that I was subjected to the torture of a full-blown conversation. The torture was even more acute because as the bus ride went on I gradually became aware of exactly what sort of crowd surrounded me.
It began innocently enough when the dude asked what my reason for making the trip was.
-Um, I hope to do some scuba diving, maybe explore the landscape a bit, meet some people, relax…
He chuckled and was like, Yeah that’s why we’re all here isn’t it? He nudged me and gave me a wink and then in a conspiratorial tone whispered, At least that’s what our wives think, huh? If they knew what this place was like…
I was like, “What?”
So for the remainder of the trip I received a first hand education on the do’s and don’ts of sex tourism from a seasoned veteran. How to pick the best professional ladies, how to negotiate the best price, where to find a room, how to sneak a companion into the hotel, where to score Viagra, etc and as I sunk further and further into my seat it dawned on me that the bus was filled with these guys, many of them repeat customers, up to six trips a year – all laughing and giggling with anticipation – and I thought, what the hell have I gotten myself into??
When we arrived at the resort I was so friggin exhausted I just plopped my bag on one bed in my room and passed out on the other almost right way, fully clothed.
Day One – Saturday, November 24
I woke just after 0900 and ate a sloppy breakfast of cold scrambled eggs, dry toast and black coffee (the latter of which was actually pretty good) in the resort dining room. I was slightly disconcerted by how many old single men were lurking about but I had no intention on spending very much time on the resort grounds so I didn’t spend much time thinking about it and instead focused on making plans for the coming week.
One of the first things I did was grab my skateboard (an almost brand new re-issue of an old Caballero from the ‘80s) and hunted down one of the maintenance guys so that I could borrow a wrench and screwdriver to bolt on my trucks and wheels, which I had disassembled for packing. He led me back to the hotel workshop and it suddenly became the most important project of his day. He wouldn’t even let me lend a hand and in about fifteen minutes he had the job done. I took off my shirt and gave it to him in thanks.
I hit the road in front of the resort, which was surprisingly paved smooth, and proceeded to skate up and down the strip. The sun was hot even early in the morning and I was shirtless and streaming sweat after only a few minutes. I guess the sight of a tattooed gringo riding a skateboard in small town Cuba is rare because I had local heads turning and fingers pointing and shouts of “Hola!” the entire time. Lol.
I found the dive center and booked my scuba excursions for Monday and Tuesday. The reefs just offshore from here are supposed to be some of the best in the world and I was excited because it had been years since I’ve gone diving and I was long overdue.
I found the car rental and booked a vehicle for Wednesday and Thursday so I could explore inland a bit and hopefully get to the city of Camageuy itself where with any luck I’d get lost in the labyrinth of streets it purportedly consists of.
I figured I’d use this day and the next to just chill a bit and get my bearings, considering that as I’ve mentioned before I had just completed a fairly exhausting week back in Canada before I came.
The heat of the day continued to build and before noon I had already consumed 1.5l of H2O but my extremely eccentric palette was demanding something with a little more flavour and as a result by 1400 I had managed to become accidentally drunk. The wonderful benefit of such a predicament was that after finding my way back to my room I was able to take a mid-afternoon nap de los muertos for several hours.
I woke at 2050 and almost missed the dinner buffet. I devoured a delightful meal of white rice seasoned with salt and a glass of Bucanero beer. There was some meat-looking stuff in a couple of the trays but I thought that they’d best be avoided.
I shook the cobwebs out of my skull with a tepid shower and decided I would investigate a so-called “white party” that earlier I had been told was being thrown down on the beach somewhere. The premise was that everyone was supposed to attend dressed in white clothing. I threw on a white button-up.
I hit the beach for the first time since my arrival and made my way toward the sound of music while the waves slapped against my ankles. As soon as I arrived a flock of brilliantly feathered professional women descended on me like seagulls at a summer picnic. I was quite bemused but also not very interested. I will admit that many of these ladies were breathtaking to look at – but their beauty was layered strictly on their surface and I couldn’t help but be wary of what may lay just underneath, so for the first hour or so I was occupied with polite refusals and committed myself to avoiding eye contact.
It felt somewhat counter-intuitive on my part considering that I am a red-blooded heterosexual and these ladies knew all the tricks of seduction. Most of the men at the party were much older than I am did not seem to share the same concerns or inhibitions. It was a virtual feeding-frenzy and from my perspective an absolute surreal scenario, one that I had never really been witness to before. Have you ever seen a septuagenarian attempt to impress a teenage girl by dancing to trashy euro-techno? It’s a ridiculous spectacle that can be succinctly summed with six letters: hahaha. But ironically it’s a somewhat sad hahaha.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I was in a writing mood and so I was compelled to leave the party several times throughout the night in order to go to my room and record my thoughts. I was petrified that they would vanish forever as they’ve done an infinite amount of times before.
As the night wore on I spent my time drinking Cristal cervezas, inhaling the salt-scented breeze and circling the periphery of the party, alternating my observations between the phenomenon of the revelers and the moonlit waves rolling against the shore.
I was standing there alone and drunk and lightly toying with the idea of wading into the surf and swimming as far as I possibly could out into the ocean when a stunning woman in a tiny white dress approached me from across the sand. My defenses were virtually non-existent and although I had no intention of risking an STD contraction I considered the possibility of inviting this young lady back to my room where she could masturbate on the bed for me while I smoked a cigar and sipped on a beer. There is nothing I enjoy watching more than a woman convulsing in orgasm and I pictured curling up next to her in bed when she was finished and falling asleep inhaling the scent of her hair.
But then I remembered some of the old men with young locals that I’d seen earlier in the day around the resorts and they’re both laughing and smiling and flirting but the moment the man looks away her mask drops from her face and a vacant look is exposed beneath and in her eyes and it fell on me like an ocean wave that regardless of this woman’s persistence and enticing demeanor there exists the possibility that she is acting against her free will and I simply could never humiliate another human being like that. So I turned and walked away and went back to my room where I passed out alone.
The last thought I remember before I drifted off was how nice it must feel to be in love and how far away I was from that ever happening to me.
Day Two – Sunday, November 25
I woke at 0800 and discovered that there is a snack bar where they offer cappuccinos so I sat on a deck chair and indulged. While I was sipping I observed two kittens playing tag among the shrubs that circled the palm trunks and so I named them Capp & Chino and we immediately became friends.
A warm rain began to fall so I went for a long walk after I broke my fast and then returned to my room to read for a while. When I next emerged from my room, just before noon, the sun had come out and with it my depression evaporated like the puddles that had littered the pool deck tabletops only moments before.
I decided to head out to the beach to see what the motherfucker looked like in the light of day. I went for another long walk that lasted for about 1.5hrs in each direction. I was only hassled a couple of times by local merchants which isn’t too bad considering how far I went. I was fairly amused by the typical opening these dudes would approach me with that would go something like this:
-Hello my Amigo how are you I have cigars anything you want you like to fuck beautiful chica?
And I’d be like:
– I’m good, how are y… wait… what? Um no thanks, I’m good.
When I got back to the resort I sat down under a palm tree with my notebook and a cerveza and spent some time contemplating the universe again. After a short while a wrinkled old leathery bat swooped past me in flip-flops and mustard-gassed me in a cloud of her putrid perfume. I wondered why people feel the need to spray themselves with that crap. I was worried my eyes were going to bleed.
I sank into deep introspection and considered how much I do not “get” things like sun tanning or wearing make-up or perfume. I’m prepared to accept that I may just be a strange and foolish anomaly for the way I think. I don’t feel like people are more attractive as a result of that stuff, in fact I feel like it takes away from what makes someone attractive. It’s all just industry driven propaganda motivated by profit at the expense of people’s self-esteem because it targets our insecurities and vulnerabilities and makes us feel like we need a product to have value. We’re bullshitted into believing that our real selves aren’t good enough.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told a woman that I think she never looks more beautiful than the moment when she steps out of the shower and all the fashion and so-called health industry garbage has been washed away (ok fine I’ll tell you, it’s probably been at least a million times lol ).
I’ve actually had women roll their eyes when they hear this, turn toward the mirror and dive right into the makeup bag. Disappointing and heartbreaking.
Yeah and the health and fitness industry is mostly all shite too. I’d much rather squeeze soft and squishy over tight and toned. As long as you’re not going to drop dead before you get old I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
Millions of years of evolution have made certain things about a woman attractive to me and they all trump the opinions generated by the fashion and fitness industry that so many people subscribe to.
Traits such as intelligent eyes that are deep enough to fall into, a warm smile that can wrap right around me, a genuine laugh, soft hair and body parts that jiggle. But it’s difficult to sell those things in a department store like a bottle of tanning lotion so they get buried beneath a ton of colourful face-grease.
The fact is that getting that perfect tan is only going to lead to you eventually looking like a giant walking scrotum and I cannot speak for all men but the last thing I want to fuck is a baked ballsack with lipstick and perfume.
The remainder of the day was mostly uneventful. I spent the evening relaxing on a chair outside my room because you’re not really supposed to party or consume alcohol the night before a dive. Something to do with the oxygen/nitrogen in your bloodstream I think. Anyway, I was restless falling asleep and didn’t manage to drift off until sometime around 0200.
Day Three – Monday, November 26
I woke at dawn after dreaming that I had been locked in an apartment with a full-grown male lion. My instinct had been to immediately run and try to escape but when I tried to initiate that action it only served to provoke an attack and the lion lunged at me. So I thought – what would prey do? Prey would turn and try to run and since I do not want to be prey I forced myself to stand and face him. The lion lost interest in me, curled up and lay at my feet.
I went to the snack bar and ordered a cappuccino like I’d done the day before but only Capp was there and Chino was nowhere to be seen and so I became a little worried but after a few moments he appeared and it was then that I knew everything in the universe was right and good.
So I went scuba diving today but I thought that since it had been almost ten years it would be prudent of me to take a little refresher class first and that consisted of about an hour in a hotel swimming pool going over procedure, drills, and hand signals. It all came back quick enough. I will confess that half of that time was spent concentrating on diving instruction and the other half observing the group of girls in bikini bottoms splashing around in the shallow end.
It’s funny because it was the first time I’d ever dove in a pool. When I learned in Mexico we stood on the end of a pier and the guy mumbled a bunch of stuff in Spanish that I interpreted as “good luck” before pushing me off right into a busy shipping channel, the water was so brown and cloudy that I couldn’t even determine if I was upside down or right side up and all I could hear were the menacing thump of boat propellers like at the beginning of Apocalypse Now when the ceiling fan dissolves into the helicopter blades.
I went back to the hotel and scarfed down a hotdog that I garnished with some brownish stuff labeled “ketchup” and some other brownish stuff labeled “mustard” and it was delicious. Capp thought so too – I wasn’t sure where Chino was but assumed he must be strictly a morning cat.
In the afternoon I did a real dive in the open sea. I showed up at the dive center at 1300. We geared up and trudged to the boat on the beach. We motored for about 20mins until we reached the outer reef where the pilot cut the engine and I boosted myself up onto the edge and then flipped backward over the side, allowing the weight of my tank to drop me into the water with a splash. There were four of us including the dive master and when the boat sped away we deflated the air from our vests and sank beneath the surface.
Instantly the world that I’m used to living in vanished as far away as outer space. All the bad shit disappeared with it as well. War, anger, suffering, greed, deceit, envy, ignorance, judgment… all gone and I was soaring high above the sea floor on wings, reborn like a phoenix and in love with everything around me.
We descended over the edge of a coral cliff, floating our way down like four feathers drifting toward the ground and the cliff walls were teeming with life and beauty and colour. Anyway… I saw plenty of fish. Blue fish, yellow fish, red fish, green fish, fat fish, skinny fish, large fish, small fish. And brilliant shades of coral. Hammer coral, bubble coral, flower coral, brain coral, soft coral, hard coral, giant vase shaped coral. One of my favorite animals to watch is the parrotfish, brightly coloured and if you get really close to them you can hear them gnawing on the coral with their beaks and it sounds just like someone crunching on a mouthful of potato chips, which in real life I find a little disgusting but in this life I consider beautiful.
When I finally surfaced the weather had changed and the sea had turned into giant swells and I was bobbing cork-like and virtually helpless. One moment I would crest over the peak and I’d spot the boat several swells away and the next second I’d be cascading down a slope of water until I was at the bottom of a trench with walls of ocean on either side and nothing to see but a narrow slice of sky above. In addition to that my vest seemed to be leaking air and my tank was almost empty and if it ran out completely it wouldn’t be long before my vest would deflate and I would be forced to jettison the entire set-up or risk being pulled right back down to the seabed again. Thankfully soon after I found myself next to the boat and so I climbed aboard and was safe and sound.
One of the hotel staff had obviously noticed my fascinating menu choices whenever I dined and I assume felt sorry for me because after I returned to the resort in the late afternoon I was approached and invited to a dinner at a local home in a village not far away. I was like
– Hells ya!
She was like – Qué?
So I was like – Sí sí
So at 1800 I hopped into a horse driven carriage and was taken through some fields to a row of houses about 8km away.
There were very few electrical lights but the moon was almost full and I could make out the cinder block construction of a single story dwelling with a path leading through a fenced in yard that I followed until I was at the rear of the building.
It was situated right on the sea on a point where the waves split and crashed over some rocks that rose black out of the surf (I had asked for a baño when I got there and was laughed at so I was standing behind a clothesline urinating while I observed this).
There was a small room filled completely by a single table decorated with a cloth and fully set with plates and cutlery. Several of us gathered around including a young girl, her mother, the hotel staff lady, a man who had been introduced as the owner of the home, and a couple of others I assumed were either friends or family.
The feast began right away and it was phenomenal. Sliced cucumber and tomato salad, thin sliced fried banana chips, fresh garlic shrimp, white rice, and fat fluffy lobster tails that had been fished from the ocean only hours before right off the doorstep. I wolfed down three of them. It was such a welcoming respite from the drudgery of the resort buffet. So yeah, what a great meal!
After we ate there was some attempt at a broken conversation across two languages and I taught the little girl how to play wooden labyrinth on my iphone, which she picked up right away and was clearing levels in no time. Then her mom showed me a school textbook that the girl was using in her classes and I was amazed to discover that a ten year old was doing grade 11 algebra for homework every night and doing well at it. That made her better at math than me.
Fidel Castro may have been at the helm of a repressive regime but there were a few things he was determined to implement and one of them was that every citizen would receive the highest standard of education. Cuba contributes 10% of the total budget toward education compared to the 3.5% and 2% that Canada the US contribute, and the illiteracy rate for children in Cuba is 0%. When the regime finally ends and the embargos lifted the world better watch out because it is an island full of rocket scientists all chained to the launch pad and just starving to take off and soar.
I walked back to the resort in a cool tropical breeze and fell asleep exhausted and content.
Day Four – Tuesday, November 27
Woke at dawn excited for my big dive today. The dive I’d really been waiting for and one of the main reasons why I’d made this trip.
The little boat took four of us from the shore out to sea and we chugged along the coast on a trip that lasted about 30mins. We stayed shoreside of the reef and the water was calm and glassy and as I looked out on it I thought about how the surface was like a tinted window that masked a world so close to me yet invisible and mysterious and impossible to know until broken through and experienced first hand.
After splashing into the water I looked at my fellow divers and noticed something and at the last moment I tried to voice a concern
-Hey, why do you guys all get to carry knives and I don’t have one? Do you think I could possibly…
Glug Glug Glug… and we were under.
It occurred to me that if I were superstitious I would have been inclined to interpret the suspicious absence of both Capp and Chino while I was enjoying my cappuccino that morning as a bad omen. It was because I was thinking about this as well as concentrating on slowing my descent in order to hover just above the ocean floor at 87 feet that I didn’t even notice the first shark until it had already passed almost directly above me. There was a sudden diminish of light and then brightness again as the shadow swept past. I caught the arch of the animals tail in my sight and as it turned I was able to behold it in its entirety.
I had been diving with sharks in the past, the graceful, slender and relatively harmless Caribbean reef sharks that are a common attraction for scuba expeditions throughout this part of the world. But this creature was something different.
This was the notorious Bull shark.
Ten feet long and a muscle-packed 500 pounds. Considered by many to be the most dangerous shark in the world, responsible for more attacks on humans than even the Great White or Tiger. They’ve been called the pitbulls of the sea. They are highly aggressive, unpredictable and territorial.
I had settled on the lip of a sloping embankment and was trying as best as I could to keep still and make myself appear like a chunk of coral, but it is difficult (especially with my minimal experience) to maintain neutral buoyancy because every time I filled my lungs with air I would begin to rise slightly and then with each exhale I would sink again and so I had to focus on only filling my lungs halfway so as not to levitate from the floor too much.
Then from out of the deep blue gloom the ghostly silhouettes of six more Bull sharks emerged.
They were circling closer with every pass in what seemed to be an organized formation, like a search party patrolling. Maintaining a slow and steady cruise that they punctuated with sudden bursts of speed and they’d open their jaws and snap at things, triangular serrated teeth tearing into any unlucky fish in their path.
I couldn’t see the other divers, they were all behind me and I was the one furthest out in front. The largest of the sharks, the one who had first swam over me, came close enough that I could see a large scar just behind her left eye, so I named her Capone. She was the shark who was paying me the most attention and I assumed that she must be the matriarch of the clan, although in my research later I wasn’t able to find any evidence that they organize themselves in any sort of system – all I could find were fear mongering articles and scary attack stories.
The sharks were circling so close now that they were disappearing in my peripheral while I struggled to keep an eye on whichever one happened to be in front of me and it was slightly unsettling to know that I couldn’t see them all at once.
Soon Capone became preoccupied with swimming directly toward me and then circling around and repeating the move and I figured that she was performing some sort of recon maneuver fueled by a curiosity about this invader who had settled on her turf.
When I was a child my father had told me that if I was ever at risk of being attacked by a shark that the best thing to do is to punch them square in the nose. He had been in the navy during the war and I suppose it must have been a common topic for sailors to discuss considering the threat they were under of being torpedoed and thrown into the Atlantic. All the nerve endings convene at the tip of a shark’s snout, it’s the most sensitive part of the animal’s body, so it was advice that I never forgot.
Suddenly on her third pass Capone darted at me.
She came unbelievably fast and when she was less than three feet away her mouth opened and I could see rows of teeth and realized that I could fit my entire head inside. I clenched my fist and braced myself and at the last second she turned and the entire length of her massive body brushed past my face.
I had looked her right in her stone black eye. Into millions of years of evolutionary perfection. And I could hear the thoughts that she was speaking to me.
– I’m sorry that you’ve misunderstood us. We have only been trying to live.
And then I felt the weight of shame come over me like the millions of tons of water above. I was ashamed for belonging to such a bloodthirsty, ignorant, murderous species of indiscriminate monsters.
Humans are the real killing machines. We are slaughtering this magnificent animal to extinction and for what? Because we are stupid and short sighted and we allow our fears to dictate our actions. A large part of why they are so wrongly perceived is because of that idiot Stephen Spielberg and his ridiculous horror film.
We are living in a world where misunderstanding is epidemic and perpetual. These creatures are immune to cancer and we are going to lose our chance to learn why! There is so little that we know about ourselves and our universe and so much they have to teach us and as I hovered there at the bottom of the ocean I watched them swim in the gentle current the way you would image angels fly among the clouds and my heart broke for them. They are gorgeous and majestic and the love I have for them eclipsed anything as silly and irrational as fear.
Eventually the sharks lost interest and circled away from us, fading like spirits into the distant blue.
In the afternoon we did a dive over a sunken ship and it was very good. When we got back to shore the dive master mentioned to me that he loved photography but didn’t have underwater camera housing that he could take that deep, so I gave him mine.
When I returned to the resort in the early evening I was invited to a second dinner at a local’s home. It was a woman’s birthday and there was going to be a celebration that included a pig roast so of course I was all in.
At 1900 I wandered over to a house on the other side of the town with a couple of other hotel guests who had also been invited to the party. It was a beautiful two story house with spiral columns supporting a large verandah beneath which were tables already set up with numerous plates of mouth watering food. Several people were gathered in the front yard and some neighbours had assembled into a four-piece band and were playing music.
When I stepped through the front door into the house the first thing that caught my eye was a large painting that dominated the wall. It depicted a boy alone in a room with a lion.
In the kitchen I greeted the birthday lady with smiles, Hola’s and cheek kisses. Two of her friends (family?) were busy preparing more food and drink. In the back room the men were carving the pig and proudly posing for some photographs.
We ate outside under the verandah and I was given a seat next to the matriarch of the house, the woman whose birthday I had come to celebrate. The band played music throughout the meal, which was a delicious assortment of brown rice and beans, sliced tomato cucumber and peppers, fried banana chips and roasted pork.
After we ate we lounged around and listened to the music, laughing, drinking and dancing. The other guests and I agreed to chip in ten pesos each to the host in thanks for her hospitality and I was actually willing to put in like three times that amount considering the priceless value I’d received from the experience but one of the other hotel guests who I discovered was an ex-cop started bitching about what he considered a high cost. I was furious at the whining sonofabitch. I hate cheapskates and I was toying with the idea of inviting him to go out for a swim with me the next day in the ocean and I was thinking about that stupid Jesus poem where there are two sets of footprints in the sand and then later on there is only one set of footprints but I had no intention of carrying that peckerhead on my back, if you catch my drift. But I let it go, forgot about him and resumed enjoying my night.
The band finished playing sometime near midnight and as I made my way back to the resort along the empty streets I gazed up to a perfect clear sky and there was a full moon with a near solid silver halo looking back down on me like a single unblinking eye and everything in the universe was right and good.
Day Five – Wednesday, November 28
Woke at dawn and had a cappuccino while watching Capp and Chino chase after a lizard. I was in an introspective mood again and was contemplating the idea of fear. We live on a planet engulfed in a cloud of it. I call it the Atmos-Fear. We’re afraid of so much. We’re afraid of being judged, of being hurt, of being alone, of the future. We’re afraid to admit that we’re afraid. We are afraid of what we don’t understand, and there is so much of that. We are only simple human animals after all.
And what really is the worst that can happen? Death? The night my mom died we were alone together in a tiny room at the hospice. It was mid-January and outside the window a frigid wind was howling and the glass was shaking and the sky was heavy with cloud and blowing snow and the darkness of those long nights had already settled. She had been hyperventilating for a little while at this point and I was kneeling next to her bed with my arm around her and my hand stroking her hair. Gradually her breathing began to slow and the moments of time that passed between each breath lengthened until eventually I was holding her and waiting and waiting for the next breath to come but it never did and outside there was a calm as the wind had died and I knew that my mom had not been afraid, she had just gone and was no longer there anymore.
We die every time we go to sleep and are reborn each time we wake. The day will come when you simply won’t wake up and you aren’t even going to notice it. So what is there to fear? Considering the island that I’m visiting while I write this I’m reminded of the last words spoken by the revolutionary Ernesto Guevara to the young executioner who was apprehensive about firing his weapon –
“Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
After breaking my fast I skateboarded down to the car rental because today was the day that I had intended to get the fuck out of this town. I acquired a little white compact that I immediately named: nataS el’ Blanco.
I returned to the resort briefly to pack an overnight bag then hit the road. I drove for about an hour through a light rainfall passing a couple of small villages and pastures with grazing cattle until I came to an unmarked fork in the road. It occurred to me that I had neither a map nor a compass. I reached a sudden conclusion that my attempt at this excursion had resulted in incredible failure. I was angry and disappointed with myself and in a bitter mood as I made a u-turn and headed back to the resort.
I ate some lunch next to the pool and grabbed my skateboard because it looked like the rain clouds were blowing away and the sun was trying to push it’s way through. A few of the hotel entertainment staff noticed me and came over to ask about the board.
I offered one of the dancers to give it a try but she spoke no English, was hesitant and shook her head at first. I pleaded “c’mon” though and she gave in – so I put my hands on her waist to steady her and she grabbed my shoulders and stepped up. Her brow was furrowed and she was looking down at her feet but I lifted her chin up with my finger and motioned with my hand that she should look in my eyes, not at the ground. For a few moments she was unsteady as I gently rocked her back and forth but it wasn’t long before her dancer instinct took over and a smile broke out on her face and her eyes lit up. She had gotten it, and I had witnessed one of those little human miracles that occur whenever you try something new and you can’t do it and you can’t do it and you can’t do it and then suddenly something clicks and you’re doing it and it feels amazing.
I left the resort and went for a skate up the road until I got to the gas station at the end of the strip. I ran into a few local kids who told me that there was one other skateboarder in town and one kid with rollerblades. So we hunted them down and before I knew it I was part of a Cuban skate crew.
The first thing I noticed about the dudes skateboard was that he had a fairly decent deck, a Lance Mountain that some previous tourist must have given him, but his trucks and wheels were shot to shit. So I mentioned to him that his wheels were coned and his trucks were ground down to almost nothing and that if he wanted I’d be willing to trade but he’d need to find a wrench and a screwdriver in order to make the switch and he was like – Qué?
So I just shook my head and tried to sign language what I meant and then he got it and we went looking for the necessary tools.
We came across some of his friends and got the tools and got to work and in about 30mins we had made the trade (his bolts were rusted and it was a bit of a bitch) and I think he was pretty happy.
We spent the rest of the afternoon skating around and I showed off my impressive trick repertoire that consisted of “pushing myself along” and “not falling off” and the occasional 360. As the sun set I made my way back to the resort, promising to meet my new crew at the dance club later that night.
So I napped, showered, dressed and ate and by 2200 I was on my way to the dance club. I was curious to see what it was all about as it was my first time checking it out. What I got was another glimpse at the sex tourism world in living colour and full action.
There was a bar, an open courtyard with patio tables, chairs and a stage. The place was packed full of young (some very young) local professional woman and older (some very older) white Canadian and European men. There was also a light sprinkling of local dudes and a very small percentage of tourist women, but they were definitely in the minority. From an anthropological point of view it was an interesting study.
But it was a house of illusions really. One of twisted mirrors and bent shapes. Shadows and tricks of light. Pounding bass and dance beats. I ordered a couple of cervazas and strolled around double fisted taking it all in.
As I watched dozens of senior men grinding against girls just out of high school I thought of some of the tragic stories I’d heard over the past week around the hotel and I was overcome with an incredible melancholy. Stories of men who had stood by wives riddled with cancer. Men who had been left forsaken in their lives or lives that had evolved into nothing but broken promises. Widowed or divorced, lonely and destitute. Or husbands having gone through decades of marriage empty of compassion and frozen by a lack of intimacy.
There is a suffering here. And it’s shared by the economic suffering that the women live their lives under, that forces them to participate in this illusionary game where these men have traveled thousands of kilometers for temporary respite. For this make-believe dance where for a brief moment they can imagine that they are loved again.
And as I stood there sipping my beer I began to slowly lift off the floor (not in real life but in my mind). I levitated over the dancing crowd and the mingling patrons, girls in colourful dresses and vivid make-up; blue dresses, yellow dresses, red dresses, green dresses, fat woman, skinny women, tall women, short women. I could see them all swimming beneath me as I floated over (not in real life but in my mind) and among them circled predators, large lumbering shapes cruising amid the shadows and cutting through the currents of sound. Hunting with grinning mouths full of hungry teeth and the flash of folded paper pesos.
And I saw all of these things, the smiling and the laughing, the flirting and the dancing, the groping and the grinding, the kissing and the caressing – but they were all just jagged coloured shards that were pasted together like a sheet of stained glass. And beneath the semi-opaque surface lived a definite sadness. An overwhelming sadness, a sadness of veiled misunderstanding and misinterpretations, a sadness of false hope and of the false promise of salvation, a sadness that permeated and underscored all of the conviviality and all of the exchanges of a love that is empty and nothing but a thinly disguised misnomer. And the swelling beneath me was pushing me away or drawing me under, I don’t know which, but I had to leave, I was running out of air.
As I was exiting I ran into my skate crew and a bunch of other local dudes hanging out and I started chatting with a guy who spoke passable broken English. I told him that I had a car and needed a guide to accompany me to Camaguey the next day and he was like – Qué? So I slowed down and explained to him exactly what I wanted and he understood and said that his grandmother lived in the city and that he’d like to visit her so we made a deal to meet in front of my hotel the next morning.
Day Six – Thursday, November 29
Woke at dawn and had a cappuccino with Capp and Chino. The sun was rising bright and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky so I knew that it was going to be a good day.
At 0900 I met my new found Amigo at the front gate. His name was D____, but I decided to think of him as Toothpick because he kept one in his mouth at all times. He hopped in the car and we were off.
The early day was already hot and there were heat waves rising off the road ahead as we made our way across the countryside. I had to keep the speed relatively low because the road was spotted with potholes and many of them were quite deep, considering that the only thing on nataS el’Blanco that the rental place wouldn’t insure were the wheels it would have been a potentially costly mistake to smash into too many of them.
There were all kinds of the usual road hazards and distractions that you find whenever you are driving in the Caribbean. Speeding buses, horse drawn carts, pregnant bitches with a dozen swollen nipples, cows, goats, ox drawn carts, shepherds tending to their flock and the occasional suicidal cock leaping across the road with their feathered plumes bouncing behind them. Every once in a while we would pass groups of olive fatigued soldiers standing along the side of the road performing the immensely important job of “standing along the side of the road”.
A part of me was hoping that during this drive something would go horribly wrong because nothing going wrong leads to a lackluster memory. I joked that if I saw the flashing light of a police car behind us that I was just going to pin it because I was sure my rental was faster than the ancient vehicles the cops were driving. Toothpick laughed but I’m not sure if he picked up on the fact that I was just pulling his leg.
We stopped at a fork in the road that split off to the city of Nuevitas and picked up a pretty hitchhiker that Toothpick spent most of the rest of the trip chatting to. It took us a lot longer to get to Camaguey than the shuttle bus took from the airport last Friday, but I was driving with extreme caution and so we didn’t roll into the outskirts of the city until almost 1200.
We dropped the hitchhiker off at a train station and proceeded to make our way into the core of the city. Camaguey is an old place. There is no logic in the street layout. For centuries the people who lived here had to defend themselves against pirates who would arrive to plunge and pillage and so they purposely designed the city to be as confusing as possible to any outsiders in order to give them a fighting advantage.
I discovered this first hand as Toothpick called out directions, his poor understanding of English caused him to frequently mix up left with right so finding our way around began as quite a clusterfuck with me making more wrong turns than correct ones. Eventually we made it to his grandmother’s house and I was able to park. He introduced me to this adorable old lady sitting behind an iron gate in her entranceway.
Then we went on a walking tour of the neighbourhood. There were piles of debris scattered through the streets, leftovers from the devastation caused by the recent passing of hurricane Sandy. In fact there were parts of this island so ruined that they don’t even exist anymore, something that much of the outside world is not even aware of.
So we made our way through narrow streets and throngs of people checking out the sites, buildings, statues, storefronts and all the usual crap people look at when they’re touring a city.
We soon met up with a friend of Toothpicks named Ronaldo who could also speak pretty good English and the three of us grabbed some cervazas and spent the rest of the afternoon joking around and getting buzzed.
We found a casa where I could rent a room for the night and for some reason Toothpick thought it was very important that I come across the street for a slice of Cuban pizza just as I was negotiating a price for the room and Ronaldo was asking if I could drive him to pick up the shoes his girlfriend had forgotten to bring to work with her and for a couple of minutes all hell was breaking loose and I almost lost it. I mean seriously Toothpick, can’t the pizza wait for five fucking minutes!?
Things settled down and I ate my pizza (delish), paid for the room, and we delivered the shoes, which turned out to be a real emergency because I guess Ronaldo’s girlfriend really needed them badly since she was calling his cell every three minutes asking what was taking so long. The good thing was I got to meet two of her friends, Mary and Juanita, and we all made plans to meet up later in the evening.
In the late afternoon I went to my room in the casa to rest for a bit while Toothpick and Ronaldo went home to do the same. I started to think about freedom and what it really means to be free. These people don’t really know it and have not known it for a long time. They’re not allowed to leave. They’re not allowed to earn a wage. They’re not allowed to speak their mind.
And yet I live in a place that’s supposed to be free but it can be so conservative, socially restrictive and judgmental that I’ve actually witnessed a woman in her mid twenties break down and cry because she had yet to find the man she was supposed to marry, as if it were something that she’s obligated to do in order to be accepted. I’ve also witnessed people subscribe to that obligation and then live in misery, trapped in a life they cannot escape because the social implications are so extreme and the stigmatization that breaking from it would invite forbids such an escape. How does the word forbid equate with freedom?
Sometimes cultural law and the rule of peers are just as demanding and restrictive as civil law implemented by government. Sometimes revolts against the tyranny of the worlds we live in are fought with violence and guns and sometimes they’re fought by facing possible disgrace in a social setting and being brave enough to do whatever you need to do in order to make your own life happy and to be truly content with who you are. Shedding tears because you’re not living up to the absurd expectations of your own arrogant family? Often the lines between sorrow and anger are difficult to distinguish, but instead of succumbing to the first, my tendency is to embrace the latter. To stare judgment down and reveal it for the illusion and fragile shell that it really is. But I still don’t know if any of us are ever really free, or what it even means.
The night had arrived and I met Toothpick, Ronaldo, his girlfriend (who I’m sure must have had a name), Juanita, and Mary – who I thought was absolutely gorgeous – near the monument down the street.
We went to a restaurant where we ordered cervazas and weird little cheese things with bread. We were going to go to a dance club after but I had neglected to bring any long pants and they wouldn’t let me in without them so we decided to go back to Mary’s place, at least I think it was Mary’s place, it could have been Juanita’s, or maybe both of their families lived there. Fuck, I’m still not sure; there were some language hurdles that I just couldn’t get over.
We brought a couple of bottles of rum and climbed a set of stairs to an apartment on the second floor and there were a wack of people there who I was rapidly introduced to before we sat down and began playing dominoes. They threw on some hiphop beats and we sat around sipping straight rum out of teacups, laughing at jokes I wasn’t able to interpret and playing into the night until gradually most of the people drifted away and there were only a handful of us left.
When it was close to midnight I was feeling pretty drunk and Mary led me by the hand out onto a balcony. We could hear mambo music emanating softly from somewhere in the streets below and she put her arm around my waist and made an attempt to teach me how to dance a salsa sort of thing but I didn’t do very well at it and ended up just falling against her and we laughed until one of the common rolling blackouts plunged everything into silence and darkness and there was only the moon and starlit terracotta roof tiles and a dog barking somewhere in the distance and there was nothing I could say and nothing left for me to do except close my eyes and lean in to kiss those pretty waiting lips.
Day Seven – Friday, November 30
A rooster woke me at 0400 and I found myself in a hot and dark room. I peeled Mary’s arm off my chest and slid out of bed. I leaned back over and whispered to her,
Goodbye stranger, ha sido buena. Espero que usted encuentre su paraiso. He intentado ver la perspectiva y espero que todos tus suenos se hacen realidad.
But she was sound asleep and didn’t hear me so I kissed her forehead and slipped out of the room.
I woke Toothpick who was sleeping on a cot with Juanita in the room where we had been playing dominoes the night before. She was yawning and rubbing her eyes as we said adios to her. Toothpick and I made our way down the pitch black stairwell and out into the street.
We walked quietly along the predawn narrow cobblestone roads, winding and crisscrossing our way to the casa that I hadn’t even slept in to get my bag and then to where we had left nataS el’Blanco. We had to wake the carpark attendant who was sleeping in the rear of a 1950’s Caddy. He opened the gate for us and we got in our car and drove off.
It was an intense drive for me, the headlights offering an obscure interpretation of the road ahead. Potholes firing toward me like asteroids in a video game. At one point Toothpick began to hum a tune that I thought was familiar but I didn’t get it right away until after he repeated it several times and I figured out the tune he was humming was Imagine. So I propped my iphone on the dash and played it for him on repeat and he only knew four words, imagine all the people, and every time those lyrics would happen he’d sing along and it was a little hilarious and we laughed about it.
And there I was, speeding along a Cuban road in the middle of the night with my Cuban friend singing John Lennon and picturing in my head a world full of peace and love.
Next came Instant Karma and the moon and the stars began to fade away and were replaced by a rising sun off to our right and I could see the road ahead more clearly and everything began to get better and at that moment I knew it was all right and good in the universe.
We got back to Santa Lucia around 0630 and I dropped Toothpick off, said goodbye and returned the rental car. The rental agent did an inspection of the vehicle and was like,
No flat tires?
Not even one??
Um, no. (Wtf?)
I was quite exhausted at this point so I went straight to my room at the resort and tried to get a bit of sleep but my mind was racing with thought.
I know that I’ve written all kinds of macho bravado shit about not having fear and swimming with sharks and staring down lions but the truth is that I am afraid. I may have a greater fear than anyone because I am afraid of falling in love.
I’ve seen it so many times in my life already. I’ve seen people happy and in love and spending their lives together and sometimes it’s been years and years and decades and decades until inevitably one of them dies. And you might be lucky and both of you might go at the same time like in a car crash or something but the odds are that won’t happen. One of you will go first and then what happens to the one left alive? You’re abandoned and left in sadness, destitute and heartbroken. And the more complete your union was the less equipped you’ll be to survive alone. And your loneliness will be more palatable than mine ever could because I’ve already made a friend of it and so I know how to live that way. And everyday will become so much of a misery and so much of a burden that one day you’ll just decide that it’s too much and you’ll do something like prop a rifle up against your washing machine and shoot out your heart.
I never want to have that to look forward to.
I was woken at noon by a knock on the door from the hotel staff wanting to know why I was late for my check out. So I packed my shit and dropped it off in the main lobby.
I had a couple of hours to kill before the shuttle was to leave for the airport so I took my skateboard out for one last rip.
I was skating through the village down the road when a group of school kids gathered near to watch me, so I called them over and let them take a closer look at the board, which they seemed to be fascinated by. One of them, a young boy, asked if he could give it a try, so I pushed it out for him and he put one foot on it, then the other, and within a few seconds he was pushing himself along with a giant smile across his face. So I waited until he was a few feet away and then I turned around and walked back to the resort.
It was almost time to leave but there was one last thing that I had to do. I went to the snack bar and sat down and a few seconds later Capp and Chino came and sat with me, one at each foot. I looked at them and said
-I am so grateful to have you two in my life while I’ve been here, my little friends. It means more to me than you can ever understand. I’m going to miss our mornings together and I’ll think of you for the rest of my life. I have to leave now, but I know that you’ll be alright. I love you guys.
They cocked their heads and looked at me as if to say, “Qué?” and then a passing insect stole their attention and they both sprang away.