my first country without a guidebook

CUBA and the “Buena Vista SOL Club”

My mother writes, “You didn’t know Cuba was off limits to US citizens? Blows my theories about your know-all!” Rest easy Mom, of course I knew Cuba was “off-limits” for US citizens — so feel free to fall back on your previous know-all assumption of me, especially if we discuss Religion.

BUT there were PLENTY of implications OF that fact that I DIDN´T know. Also, being that I bought my ticket to Cuba two hours before my plane departed, I hadn´t a chance to find a Lonely Planet Country Guide. (LP books, by the way, are fondly, commonly and most appropriately *as to be seen* referred to as “The Bible” by gringo-trail-backpackers.) So…sans guide book, this is an estimation of my line of thought while on the plane on my way to Cuba:

“My first country without a guide book! Golly Gee! What an adventure I´ll have!”

The “golly gee” is only inserted in hindsight (which is said to be 20/20) and indicates the degree of innocence in my naive excitement.

So what ARE the implications of being an American traveling in a forbidden country? Well, first of all – you can`t have your passport stamped. I, of course, being the “rebel” I am *sarcasm*, scoffed at this information and the idea of any “silly” American LAW getting in the way of my reckless travel spree. I actually planned to INSIST that my passport be stamped. But when I got to the immigration counter, all my bravery fled as a brutal looking official bombarded me with commands and questions; “remove your hand from your face”, “what`s your street address”, “take off your bandanna”, “where are your parents from”, “turn sideways”, “stand up”, “sit down”, “fight, fight, fight”.

As the big metal door clicked open and I was allowed to pass though, I mumbled my humble gratitude for being allowed into their country before I noticed that my Tourist Card, NOT my passport, had been stamped — and luckily so! Apparently there are some nice combinations of thousand-dollar fines and jail sentences for those who are caught “conspiring with the enemy”…which can apparently be proven by a faded blot of ink in that blue leather ID card. (My annoyance and anger with American law, government and ESPECIALLY foreign policy continue go grow at an alarming rate — a *controversial* subject I have successfully managed to avoid on this site SO far….)

Pues Si…..

Ah yes…more implications of being an American in Cuba with OUT a travel guide….

Upon arrival in Cuba, I began my scout for an ATM machine. The first machine politely rejected my card. The second gave me a bad look and scoffed. The third? The third spit my cards out as if they were coated in gasoline. *splehhh, splehhh, splehhh* (<—what ATMs sound like when they spit cards covered in gasoline out).

Aggravating “adventure” number one that I could have avoided had I THIS information from a travel guide:

Cuba does NOT accept monetary transactions affiliated with the USA. Credit cards and bank cards issued in America will not be honored. Travelers checks, any any other form of money printed on US paper, will likewise, not be accepted. (Nor will travelers´ insurance cover any accidents, injuries or robberies on Cuban territory.)

I remember my 8th grade teacher once asking me in class to give an example of “irony”. I didn`t have an answer then, but here`s one for you now Ms. Greeno! *raises her hand and wiggles in her chair* Despite the fact that Cuba will not accept any type of monetary transaction that has anything to do with the good ol` U of A, the ENTIRE tourist industry will accept NOTHING in form of payment BUT…you guessed it….(or did you?)….the US dollar. Like El Salvador and Panama, Cuba also sees only green.

“Golly Gee!” That sucks! Or at least it did as I wandered from bank to bank repeating to myself, “THIS is an adventure. Everything WILL work out. I WILL laugh one day at this.” And for the record: It WAS, It DID, and I DO. 🙂 (But the details of “worked out” story are rather boring, so I won`t go into them.)

As you may have noticed, there was no internet access in Cuba. Excuse me…no PUBLIC internet access. Now THIS is an amazing concept itself. The people of Cuba have access to only TWO daily newspapers (full of anti-American sentiment). They are allowed to watch only TWO, strictly regulated, channels on the television and, as already mentioned, have no public internet access. BUT, if you make your way through the lavish gates of the posh hotels (which Cubans are strictly forbidden to enter) you will find 60 channels of satellite television (including CNN US), access to foreign press and all the internet access you can afford (which was “none” in my “low-funds” case). Apparently, such is the world of Communism. Of course, EVERY Cuban ALSO has access to free medical care and Cuba has an astounding rate of 1 doctor per 100 citizens as well as the lowest rates of infant mortality and longest average life-span in Central and South America. Apparently, such is the world of Communism. But politics and government are NOT my sports. I turn them off when they come on TV and out when they come into conversation. As Tom Robbins once wrote, “Politics are for people who have an abundance of passion for changing life, and a lack of passion for living it.” (Oh yes…on my 4th Tom Robbins novel now…just because I cooled on the quotes does not reflect a cool on the heat in my heart for Robbins.) I`m just not a believer and if government were a subject of mine, I`d grade myself a C-. I`m not about to babble like I know something I don`t, so I`m sorry I can`t go more into detail on probably the most interesting aspect of Cuba. My apologies.

*re-reads her essay* Ack! What have I done?! I`ve painted a page of black and red slash marks on Cuba! Cuba was WONDERFUL! My first experience in Time Travel! I mean just LOOK at the pictures below…the old American cars, the little yellow-bug taxis, the “camel buses”. I spent hours on the boardwalk just watching, and gasping, at their modes of mobility. Have you ever seen, “Buena Vista Social Club”? (On my TOP 10 list of favorite bands.) If you want a feel for Cuba, you have to see this documentary. The old Cuban men sitting on doorsteps smoking cigars, the beautiful and curvy Cuban women struttin` their spandexed-selves, the rhythms of Cuban music wafting down every long and towering alley (see picture below)! Incredible! Havana is ALIVE. And it`s history, it`s revolution, it`s PRIDE (at being the first to put their foot down to the Evil Empire *yep, that`s US*…. and it`s UNITY are displayed around every corner in graffiti quotes and murals of Che and Castro. And the kindness of the people! On one of my “adventures” trying to find a beach outside of Havana (without the guide book *record skips*) in asking for directions, TWO people offered me bus fare. *shakes head in disbelief*. Beautiful, inside and out.

O´my god. I wrote a book! Let`s get to the pictures before we go to publishing!

Picture 1: One of the forms of Taxi (if you look closely, you`ll notice the guy smilin` for the camera in the car)

Picture 2: The “Camel” Buses (“Saturday Night at the Movies”– known for their abundance of sex, drugs and violence)

Picture 3: Standard Form of Transport. Cross your eyes till you see a dozen and you`ll get a more accurate “feel”.

Picture 4: The towering alleys of Old Havana.

Picture 5 : Street performers in the main square.

Downfall of traveling “Solo”? NO pictures of myself in Cuba. I`m just too embarrassed to ask. I HATE feeling like a tourist.

Did I mention that my Spanish was USELESS in Cuba! They drop and chop vowels and words as if their Spanish were on some new fad diet….

*glances up at the essay*

Okay! Okay! I`ll shut up already!

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