|September 6, 2015 | Cuba, Travels
Hey, here’s something a friend of mine wrote tonight: ”Three years ago I was playing in a band that toured Cuba under the embargo. The tensions between the band were insane. These gigs were some of the hottest and loudest shows I have ever played. There’s probably an entire novel worth of stories that could be written about this tour (tour bus crash, injuries, fights, getting detained by the police on suspicion of theft for hours, walking for miles around Havana, and so on, and so on). Coming back to the U.S., we land in Tampa and all flights are cancelled due to an incoming hurricane. What do we do? Rent two cars and drive 10 hours straight through a goddamn hurricane to get back to New Orleans. Terrifying. Been thinking a lot about this tour and my time playing. Next time, with a better band name.”
I was along for that ride, and you probably could write a book about it. Americans are not well-loved in Cuba, and I lost my wallet during that drive through the hurricane, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I took this photo of the band at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana.
Happy times on tour, Havana, Cuba, August 2012. Me and Mark Antee, waiting for the bus. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more. Mark’s last show with She’s Still Dead was this past Sunday.
Pinar Del Río, Cuba. She’s Still Dead shooting band photos in the town square. The show, later, is a whole story in itself : one of the most disorganized concerts I’ve ever witnessed, and perhaps the most chaotic one I’ve ever been involved in. Which is saying something. Have you ever watched a band, a very loud and heavy one, and a couple of stray dogs amble across the stage? Laugh, ya gotta. Nothing else for it.
At one point, sitting on the dusty curb in front of the gig ( no dressing room, no place to go ), talking to the kids, watching couples promenade, and fending off the old drunks who are very eager to make contact with us, someone notices the sky, which is overflowing. We are not accustomed to being in a place dark enough that stars are visible, but some of us remember the names of constellations.
It’s in the details.
|September 18, 2012 | Cuba, Travels
Santa Clara, Cuba. This jolly lil’ fellow is a member of the CDR.
|September 7, 2012 | Cuba, Travels
Cine Camilo Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Cuba.
The lobby of an old-style ( like many things in Cuba, a literal time capsule, conveying not just a sense of what it was like in the 1960s, but the feeling of actually being there, something I’ve rarely experienced anywhere else ) single-screen movie theater. A cavernous, pitch-dark place which shows art films and horror movies ( in English, even ) for free. We took a look, and there were exactly two people in attendance.
It’s on the ground floor of the Santa Clara Libre Hotel, about which I read this : “ Bordering the Parque Vidal, we find the Santa Clara Libre Hotel ( formerly the Santa Clara Hilton ), considered by critics and the general population as the ugly duckling of the place. It offers an unbecoming contrast with all the surrounding architecture both in scale and design. Still, the building is rich in history. Legend has it that the breakout of the 1959 revolution put on hold projects for higher towers in the plaza; these would have contributed to further destroying the existing beautiful colonial and eclectic architecture. The walls of the hotel still show multiple machine gun impacts from the attack of the rebel forces led by Che and Camilo back in the 1959 revolt. “
It’s the only place to stay in Santa Clara, and we stayed there, and it is a fucking shithole, although the bar on the roof is very nice. There are indeed bullet holes in the walls.
Holed up in the cool dark, playing with my travel journal. I neglected to write anything down about week 2 in Cuba, but I did manage to collect an entire run of pesos ( both systems of currency, the CUP or moneda nacional, and the CUC, commonly referred to as the cook. For more on this confusing system, see here. )
An idea I first encountered wile reading Paul Theroux, and which is a strong thread running through the travel books I’ve been devouring recently ( by Rolf Potts, Chris Guillebeau, and Edward Hasbrouck ) is that the best way to experience other places and cultures is to travel solo. I’ve always felt the opposite; I become more adventurous when I’m with other people, and more likely to disregard my own tiredness ( physical as well as existential ), and I think it’s just plain better to have someone to turn to and say, can you believe this shit?
I believe that the real reason these guys advocate a solitary approach is that they’re professional writers with deadlines, and if you’re with other people, it can be difficult to buckle down and get some work done. After all, if the gang comes by your room with plans of going to such-and-such museum or monument or bar, are you really going to hide out at the hotel and work instead?
May you live in interesting times, the Chinese curse goes. I was on tour with a band in Cuba for two weeks, and then when I came back, there was a gigantic hurricane hovering over the town where I live. I got access to the internet yesterday for the first time since August 15th, and it’s a little hard to know where to start.
Should I beging with the part where a little metal band from New Orleans becomes, against all odds, the first American rock group ever to tour Cuba? Or the part where, in a single day, the gig in Holguín is cancelled due to Hurricane Isaac, the band’s singer and drummer are detained by the police while a report is taken on a portable typewriter from the 1950s, the tour bus hits a horse-drawn sugar cane cart on a country road, and we end up sleeping in a gigantic Soviet-style hotel where many of the rooms have no power or running water? Or maybe that other part, where we wake up in Havana, drive in the dark past billboards imploring us to uphold the Socialist ideals of Fidel Castro, land in Tampa FL, which is full of RNC delegates, find that all flights home are cancelled, and rent cars so that we can drive into the storm, while everyone else is evacuating?
From Patricia Galagan’s series Cuba Interiors, this photograph shows the exact look of some of the rooms I was allowed to visit last year in private homes in Havana. In fact, Ramón’s ( cousin of Kevin, my half-Cuban, New Orleans-born traveling companion – he was our guide for the first half of a week-long visit, and is shown here in the yellow shirt ) Centro apartment ( that’s here, in my shitty snaps ) looked exactly like this. To first-worlders, these photos depict romantic patinas, beautiful states of crumbling, character. Given the choice, I personally would opt to live in mottled, ancient plaster rooms ( I do, in fact ), but as Kevin’s other cousin ( the charming and somewhat crafty Augusto ) explained to me, it is almost impossible for regular people to get paint, and when it is available, the cost per gallon is more than a month’s salary.
Cerro, Havana, Cuba. We convince Cousin Augusto to take us to an exhibition baseball game at the Estadio Latinoamericano, home of the Industriales, Havana’s home team. Augusto warns us that foreigners aren’t expressly forbidden to come here, but they’re not exactly encouraged either, and that we should avoid talking or drawing attention to ourselves in any way.
This week, thanks to Augusto and Ramón, we have gotten to go several places which are normally off limits to tourists. Every time, we try to make ourselves invisible, but people make us immediately and address us in English. I ask Augusto about this and he says that it’s not our height, or our Levi’s, or our tattoos, and that we don’t even have the uniquely American way of carrying ourselves which many travelers from the U.S. do. “ They can just smell it on you “, he says.
We get through the gate without much trouble, and the cost of a ticket is something like nine cents, which I pay for with some tattered Cuban pesos I’ve gotten on the black market. ( a thing which I’ve never seen anywhere else : there are two systems of currency here – the Cuban peso, which is for natives, and the CUC, which is for visitors. More on that here )
Augusto describes the legions of secret police and sharpshooters who descend on the place when Fidel attends games, and points out the box where he sits, which is right in front of us. A few people watch us sideways, but they are genuinely interested in the game, a languid affair that they follow intently. There are no concession stands, just a few people walking around hawking food that they made at home. An old guy comes by selling coffee out of a battered teapot. ” Cuánto? “, I ask, but he refuses to sell me a cup. ” That’s okay, you don’t want to drink that shit ” says Augusto.
The sun starts to set, and the old concrete glows pink. Lights click on and buzz, and the breeze carries warbling announcements and the occasional flanging crack of a bat. A kid walks around the bleachers and blasts a horn that looks like it was made from an old radiator. There are no billboards, and no one has a cel phone. Everyone is right here, in the moment, and I find that I am content to sit very still and think about absolutely nothing.
Regarding my trip to Cuba of a couple of months ago, I’m asked the same four questions again and again, one of which is :
Are Cuban cigars really that much better? One afternoon, in Havana, we find ourselves on a balcony overlooking the Calle Monserrate. I look at my cigar ( the band from this particular one is shown above ) and I think to myself, ” God DAMN, this is the best cigar I’ve ever smoked! ” – but, hold up, let me set the scene up for you. After a day of furious sightseeing which involves plenty of walking under a white-hot, angry sun, careening around in battered American cars from the 1940s, and breathing dust and diesel fumes, Cousin Ramón brings us to an imposing stone edifice that looks like a museum. He explains ( or, rather, he mimes – Ramón knows no English at all, literally not one word, and the smattering of textbook Spanish Kevin and I can speak is good for practically nothing, so there evolves between us a sort of elaborate spanglish grunt-and-dance that almost works, but not quite ) that we will be eating here. We look at each other and shrug as Ramón leads us upstairs, through marble halls, to a tiny L-shaped room decorated with soccer banners and pictures of sun-dappled islands. It’s a bar, where a few good-natured people are quietly drinking beer ( Cristal for the ladies, and the slightly heavier Bucanero for men ) and eating food that’s coming from a kitchen somewhere else in the building.
This is a little odd ( imagine being at, say, the Field Museum in Chicago or the Museum of Natural History in NYC, opening what looks like the door to a broom closet and finding a groovy little drinking spot ), but it’s a cool scene, and just as I’m thinking to myself that I’d come here all the time if it was in my town, Kevin ( who doesn’t drink, even ) says, ” Man, if I lived in Havana I’d come here every day! ” We get to talking with the bartender, who explains that this building is not a museum but the headquarters of the society of descendants of Canary Islanders, and that we are in the society’s private bar. Ramón’s hook-up here must have something to do with his job at the society of Galician descendants, which we have visited the preceding day.
The Sociedad Gallego is located in the Gran Teatro De La Habana, which we got to explore after visiting to the group’s beautiful offices and regretfully refusing the boxes of cigars Ramón’s boss was trying to sell us ( it seems to surprise people here when we explain that we can’t buy souvenirs – while it’s not technically illegal for American citizens to visit Cuba, it is illegal for them to spend money there, so anything they’re caught trying to bring back is liable to be confiscated, with fines levied on top of that ). The halls of the grand theater were filled with ballerinas, and the who the fuck are these guys? look we were getting from these girls indicated that we were indeed being permitted to do something special. After some haggling with a guard, we were allowed to go upstairs to see the grand ballroom :
I digress. We eat spicy, hand-tossed pizza in the tiny Canary Island bar, and it is very good. Crazy-good. Maybe the best food we’ve eaten all week ( ha ha, more on that later ), and then we head out to the club’s outdoor terrace to smoke cigars. Kevin is quite laid-back about his straight-edge lifestyle, certainly much more so than I was when I was an insufferable 15-year-old Minor Threat fan. He’s not preachy, nor is he in recovery – he simply doesn’t drink, and given that he grew up in New Orleans, where the party never ends and the resultant wreckage, human and otherwise, is everywhere, it’s no wonder, really. I am respectful of this, as I am generally respectful of anybody’s abstentions, indulgences, religions, whatever-gets-you-through-the-nights, but at this moment I put to him, rather forcefully, that he has gone to a great deal of trouble to visit the land of his ancestors, and if he doesn’t at least drink a toast to them, I will be greatly disappointed. He agrees that this is reasonable. The sky is bright blue, flags flutter, palm trees sway gently in the breeze. We lean over the balcony and take in the Edificio Bacardi, the art deco former headquarters of the rum-making family that’s across the street. Vintage green, red, blue cars stream by on the avenue below, and I experience a moment of perfect calm. It’s not as if you could squint and sort of imagine that you’ve gone back in time : this IS the past. We proceed to put away a great deal of dark rum.
I once heard someone, I think it was a chef or a restaurant critic, put forth an idea that I call the po-boy theory, which states that if an absolutely authentic po-boy sandwich were assembled in a place other than New Orleans ( this assumes that you’d be flying in bread from the Leidenheimer bakery, the one essential and absolutely indisputable ingredient – one could argue that Gulf seafood would also be necessary, but as New Orleans residents know, the best po-boys come from shabby corner groceries, which often use frozen seafood imported from somewhere else — that this tastes better than one made with fresh ingredients in a nice restaurant is something we’ll just have to put down to voodoo. ), it still wouldn’t be as good, because you wouldn’t be eating it in New Orleans. Certainly this idea applies to New York pizza and bagels : it’s the water, they say, and that may be true, but I bet it has a lot to do with the fact that you’ve just come up out of the subway and you’re at Famous Original Authentic Ray’s ( you might want to hop to it : St.Marks Pizza shut down a couple of years ago, which is still strange to me, and now the Ray’s on 11th St. & 6th Ave. is closed. What’s next? ) gobbling a slice that was shoved at you across the counter by a guy whose name is, for real, Vito, and you’re about to run around and do New York-y stuff all day. Is the gelato in Rome really better? Maybe, but you’re in fucking ROME, the astounding, beautiful, movie-set city. There are girls on Vespas and everybody’s like ” ayyyyy – ciao! “, and, say, this is some good gelato!
Actually, I did learn that the Cuban Cohiba ( the brand I smoked, mainly ) was first made at the behest of Castro himself, and that the like-named brand that’s available in the U.S. is totally unrelated. Let’s just say that Cuban cigars are really good when you’re smoking them in Cuba.
Vedado, Havana, Cuba : Cousin Ramón takes us to the Cementerio De Cristóbal Colón, Havana’s massive, sprawling graveyard. Someone at the gate tries to charge us to enter ( my Spanish is not good enough to be able to tell whether this is an official entrance fee or a suggested tip ), but Ramón convinces them that we have relatives here and have come from the U.S.A. to pay our respects. The place ( Necropolis, it’s sometimes called, which is appropriate : a city of the dead ) is full of ornate, often gaudy crypts, some of which are larger than any I have seen before. We look at a big open-air platform which is used for burning corpses, and we search for bones. There are quite a few. Ramón works for a society of descendants of settlers from Spain and we are allowed to explore this group’s private art deco crypt, which extends three stories beneath the ground and holds hundreds of bodies.
Kevin meets his Grandparents for the first time.
Havana, Cuba : messing around on a rooftop.
Here’s what I was looking at :
Havana, Cuba : Everyone scrutinizes us intently, from head to toe. I have experienced this before, on tour in Europe, but this Cuban inspection feels different, more like hunger than curiosity or mental note-taking. Kevin mentions that everyone is staring at my shoes.
I have recently unboxed a pair of made-in-the-U.S.A. 1990s Vans, the very last of my White Zombie-era stash. This is kind of cool if you’re a sneaker nerd, but they’re just black-on-black canvas Authentics, which, regardless of their Californian hand-stitched provenance, look pretty much the same as modern Vans, or Keds, or even those cheap Chinese shoes they sell at Wal-Mart.
The extensive observation of my footwear seems funny to me, until I consider the life of Cousin Ramón, who meets us at the airport and shows us around for a couple of days. He has a job, and he lives in a beautiful but crazily dilapidated fin de siècle apartment that he must share with only two other people, but he owns almost nothing : some battered 1930s furniture, a few chipped religious figurines, assorted tchotchkes, a plastic bag full of family photos. He wears the same clothes every day, and we wonder if this is best outfit or his only one. I see imported athletic shoes in store windows, but I do not see any being worn by passing Cubans. There are no Vans here, and nobody could afford them if there were.
Below, a corner of Cousin Ramon’s apartment. We end up here a few hours after we land in Cuba, and it is perhaps the most surreal thing about the whole day. The antique fan does nothing to alleviate the intense heat and I imagine that Ramón must be used to it, but he is sweating as much as I am. The apartment is unbelievable, as is Aguila Street below. I curse myself for not bringing my wide-angle lens.
We sit in the feeble blue-white light ( There are no incandescent bulbs in Havana – at night, the entire city glows, dimly, under harsh flourescents ) and look at old photographs of Kevin’s Mother, Aunts, Grandparents, and of Kevin himself. It is bizarre, in this very foreign place, to see the photo-processing logo of New Orleans’ K&B drugs on the backs of these prints.
Havana, Cuba : Have you ever in your life seen something as dangerous-looking as this? The water comes through the galvanized pipe and is instantly heated in a powered shower head ( Super Ducha! brand ) which is tied directly to the casa‘s electrical system. Lots of water + lots of electricity + you (wet) standing under it. Surprise ending to story : I shocked the shit out of myself with this thing. It wasn’t enough to knock me down, but it hurt. The plastic vine is a nice touch, though, don’t you think?
Main entrance, typical Havana apartment building :
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