I had just moved back from China to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, into a room with no windows in the “swim house”. Things got weird. I blacked out from booze nine times in fourteen days (beer in China was 1.5% and in Pennsylvania it was a minimum of 4%, an innocent mistake, I assure you). I missed something. One night my roommates wanted to do a movie night, so they smoked enough weed to kill a horse, turned off all the lights and put on “The Motorcycle Diaries”. It’s difficult enough to stay awake for any movie in that state but for a movie this slow, and all in Spanish, my roommates didn’t stand a chance. So there I was, culture shocked to the core in a pitch black room, my roommates passed out by my side and Gael Garcia Bernal is flying across the South American desert in an old 1939 Norton 500. He meets a couple walking through the desert and they stop and camp out together for the night. Over the fire they build, the couple asks them if they’re looking for work. He responds that they’re not and they ask, if they’re not looking for work, why are they traveling? He replies that they travel just to travel. I jumped up and walked up to the bright screen and put my hands over my head. “Yes”, I thought “Yes, that’s it. That’s it.”
Gael was Che, and this was Che’s ride through South America that eventually led him to Castro and then to Cuba. I didn’t know any of that at the time, for me it was just a movie, but a curiosity was set deep inside me. Who was this man that is so hated by my government but yet is so revered by every counter-culture kid throughout the world? And what the hell does he have to do with Cuba?
Cuba, to me, is like the beautiful girl at the bar who makes eye contact with you for a moment, looks you up and down the next moment, and then conveniently ignores you for the rest of the night. I’ve longed to go to Cuba for the better part of a decade and, although it would have been possible to go illegally through other countries, it somehow never worked out. Its history parallels so much of our own; colonization from Western Europe, strong agricultural economy, a revolution against European powers because of too much taxation and too little representation, a huge stake in the slave trade, and yet, despite its unbelievable closeness in proximity, the history that I’ve learned has been mainly that of bitter enemies. I see people walking around New York with Che pins and then I remember my parents told me stories about nuclear bomb drills in their elementary school during the Cuban missile crisis (because, of course, hiding underneath a desk will save you from the nuclear apocalypse). I’ve watched every documentary out there, trying to understand what exactly Cuba is, and how it got to be where it is today. Maybe I have an obsession with countries that don’t make sense to my American mind; I’ve traveled through almost all of China and still have barely a clue how it operates.
And so, when the realization hit me that I was turning 30, I finally had an excuse to go for it. That’s right people, I’m turning 30, and I gotta say it feels great. Every year that I got closer to 30 I found that I gave less and less of a shit about the small stuff, and I’m looking forward to waking up on the 18th and giving a whole lot less of a shit, unless, of course, there are lots of beers the night before in which case there won’t be less of any shit. These are the thoughts in my head as I was driven from the airport to my hotel. We rode in a car from the 1950’s alongside donkeys carrying passengers in a flatbed. The colors are vibrant, the people are gorgeous, the weather is temperate, and I feel a surge of energy from the lack of jet lag and being in a Spanish speaking country again.
Declan O’Malley is my travel partner for these first few days. Declan O’Malley (don’t you even think of calling him by just his first or last name) is the manager at the winery and a close friend. He looks as Irish as he sounds, with a broad frame reminiscent of his childhood playing football and a smile that never ever seems to go away unless a customer gives an employee a problem, in which case those cold war nuclear bomb drills would come in handy. If you encounter him and start to tell a story, he’ll be so attentive and smile so much that you’ll be sure there are a group of people gathering around to dump a bucket of pig’s blood on your head. Since he lives so close, my roommates and I often share a cab with him after work. As he exits the cab on Harman street we all peer out the window to watch him walk away, smiling to the world and slowly cascading down the street, which then convinces us that he, in fact, must be a serial killer. So you may call him Declan O’Malley, or as we prefer, “The Harman Hacker”. Gonna do any hackin’ tonight Declan O’Malley? He only chuckles and looks away.
*Film credit – Matthew Bayer
We’re not technically allowed to be in Cuba but we flew into Santa Clara, and with a few easy words we made our way through customs and over to our first hostel. The owner Tanya was a fiery Cuban who showed us our room and then proceeded to talk to us for 20 minutes about everything she could help us out with and all the things we could buy from her. She was a true entrepreneur. Declan O’Malley and I sat on our roof taking in a bit of the nice weather, drinking a bit more of the rum and then took a walk.
Santa Clara was the site of a major battle in the Cuban revolution in 1958, and it was here that Che, as second in command of the rebellion, turned the tide of the war and Batista fled Cuba, leaving the Communists to move into Havana. So as Declan O’Malley and I walked the 20 minutes to the park, we were surrounded by murals dedicated to Che and to Fidel. Constantly we passed statues with Che holding a baby, and then Fidel calling on Cubans to fight for their country until the death. All these things we passed as people on horseback rode by and 1957 Chevy’s coughed out black gas in our faces.
It was a pretty bare park, although we were impressed by the size of the monuments dedicated to Che. One had a tall column with his message to Fidel about leaving his post as Minister of Industries (basically the chief of the entire Cuban economy) to go pursue anti-imperialist movements in other countries.
Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking – still haven’t bought any new shirts Jim? Well, how do you think I pay for all these trips? Ever think about that? It’s because I only wear shirts that are given to me from my place of employment, which is also another reason I’ll never have another job. What office is going to supply me with the nice button downs that I’d need? The answer is none, none I tell you. recently did clothes inventory and found that my Bk Winery shirts outnumbered my “other” shirts (black v-necks obviously) 2:1. What can I say? They’re quality.
The next day we jumped in a cab to pick up my roommate at the airport. I could write a 10,000 page book about this roommate, but it would only give you a tiny glimpse into his endless complexity. My other roommates and I spend at least 25% of our conversations talking about him. In fact, I don’t think it’s proper to write his real name in this blog, it would somehow be sacrilegious. We’ll refer to him by a new name, The Barracuda.
The Barracuda darted out of the airport terminal as straight and tall as a telephone pole, head looking side to side like he has just conquered a new frontier and was walking into a reception to tell the world how he had beaten the odds. If anyone had missed their true calling it was The Barracuda having missed the opportunity to teach his unbelievable posture. I’ve studied him pouring wine for a table, his elbow at a perfect 90 degrees behind his back and a slight bend at the waist with a never moving neck. He once biked from our apartment in Brooklyn to California (yes, California, on a bicycle) and I attribute his ease in riding to the complete lack of air resistance from his posture. When things get really down in my life I just think of when he would show up late to work while everyone was already meeting, and his body then had the added effect of a wide eyed deer in the middle of the road about to be slammed by a mac truck. So out of the terminal he shot, with the lean muscle and natural tanned skin of everyone else waiting outside. The Barracuda’s parents are Cuban, have left when they were very young. The Barracuda had been waiting for this moment for quite some time. He saw me waving and came over with a smile, we then led him into the cab we had waiting nearby to take us to Havana.
In Havana we spent the rest of the day walking around, seeing some of the old city and taking in the beach/city vibe. The Barracuda insisted that he bring his large backpack at all times, just incase someone broke into our apartment and stole his camera. Later that night, we came upon a city square, totally deserted except for a group of about 30 people standing in the far corner. As we got closer we noticed two things: that most of the people were young and they were all staring straight down. A man came up to me as we passed and said in a low voice, “you need wifi? I got wifi. Three CUC per hour.” I looked around and saw that everyone was staring straight down into their phones. It reminded me so much of the zombies all standing together and staring down in I Am Legend.* This was one of the few wifi hotspots you could find in the city, and this guy was peddling wifi access like it was cocaine. I later found out that you could get access from the government shops for 1.50, so he had a 100% profit. Once again, the Cuban entrepreneurship shines through.
*Read Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend”. Nothing like the movie and you’ll see why he gave it that title, it has real meaning.