Habana, Cuba Day 1

When: 7-2-11 10:00 pm
Where: Hotel Nacional, Habana, Cuba

The hotel is beautiful. The front desk made of endless dark wood, multiple chandeliers hang in the high-vaulted lobby, and cracked mosaics decorate the walls. An old-fashioned phone sits on the bar. I notice it, marvel at how cute it is, and then realize that the lady behind the counter is actually using it to talk to someone.

Our room has a grand view of the city of Havana. My comforter is gold. I have multiple fluffy pillows and the bathroom is spacious. Two small rocking chairs sit with their backs to the view. The room is furnished with matching dark wood and gold tones.

Upon my arrival, I couldn’t help but make connections to my experiences of arriving in the Philippines. We step off of the plane and are met with humidity and heat. Everyone around us are various shades of brown. Their language is beautiful; my English becomes truncated as I struggle to be understood by our hosts.  Inside of the airport, a bathroom attendant opens the door to the next available stall for me, steps inside of the stall to ensure that it is clean for me, and caringly ushers me into the stall. Afterwards, she makes sure that my needs are met as I wash, soap, and dry my hands.

Outside, crowds of family members wait against metal barricades to welcome their loved ones home. This time, though, no one waits to greet me.  I walk past the expectant sisters, brothers, tias, tios, nieces, nephews, and cousins and follow my group to our tour bus. “Pssst… cheena!” a man calls out to me. He mistook me for Chinese. I soon found that this would be a recurring mistake that Cubans would make about me for the rest of my stay.

As we walk across the parking lot, I notice the beautiful multi-colored, matte-finished and glossy, old cars. I take lots of pictures. I worry that I will not be able to enjoy Cuba behind a camera lens. I absent-mindedly consider the alternative – returning home with no memories to carry with me.

= = =

Forts. Churches. Music.  The sights, sounds, and feels are so vibrant, colorful, sensational, and absolutely beautiful. The people are friendly. A man on the street calls out to us, “Are you American?” “Yes,” some of us reply hesitantly. “I love your people! Your government, not so much, but you are good people!” We smile, now feeling welcome and at ease.

Hundreds of used books line the cobble stone and wooden street and sidewalks; many books are literature from the revolucion. There are old-fashioned cameras for sale. There are images of Che Guevara on every surface, material, and product imaginable for sale.

= = =

Older men and women sit in doorways in ones, twos, and threes smoking the biggest cigars I’ve ever seen. Most wear bright colors which contrast with their deep, rich, dark skin. Some play hand percussion instruments and sing with each other. Clusters of shirtless teenage boys hang out, engrossed in each others’ company too much to notice a large group of American tourists.

We stop at a sunny, sprawling plaza for a  late lunch. I have my second beer of the day, third drink overall (the first was a baby mojito, compliments of the hotel). Everyone around me orders the house special cocktail: a mojito with white rum, dark rum, beer,  lime, cane sugar, mint, and other indiscernible ingredients. I have a sip of my neighbors’ fancy mojito. Ahh. Surprisingly sweet. Refreshing. And Delicious.

I opt for a combination of grilled pork and shrimp, knowing that I would regret overeating later.

I feel myself slipping into an early siesta in a slightly less-than-upright position at the table before the food has a chance to arrive. All throughout lunch, I am quiet. I somehow survived the week in about half the amount of sleep that one should have in an entire week. I push through the afternoon by ordering a Cuban espresso after lunch. The strength of the espresso awakes me upon first sip. This is what I need. Rarely am I impressed by the strength of a coffee drink, however today, on this hot afternoon, I am pleased. I silently curse U.S. and Cuban customs in advanced for not allowing Cuban coffee to cross the waters that divide our home countries.

= = =

The taxi driver recognizes the most frequent visitor of our group of 6. He offers to drive us all about town. His friendliness, lack of English, and beautiful Spanish inspires me to attempt to speak a few phrases to him in Spanish. I resolve to learn Spanish as soon as I return to the United States.

The time is now 10:22pm. I realize that I am slightly delirious and in a half-dream state while writing this entry. The sudden ringing of my room phone reminds me that I am not sleeping, I am in fact, clacking away on my netbook computer. The boys want to have drinks and take a stroll through the town. Without thinking, I aloofly agree to join in.

I figure: depending on your deity, you only live once. And you most certainly only have one first-night-ever in Cuba. Looks like it’s time to slough through another late night and make the most of this trip. Oh, pity me.

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