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A man of many words. Profane, profound, loyal to a fault and a right rat bastard. I love the finer things in life: expensive cigars, cheap women and all the salted, cured meats I can eat. A friend to dogs, lover of humanity and despiser of people. If I were King the world would be a better place, because, well...I would be King! Oh, and I like ice cream.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

I Had A Dream...

Standing on the glistening sands of a Cancun beach, I looked out to sea. Castro's Cuba stood seemingly just over the horizon. After 46 years, through nine American presidencies, a war in Vietnam and two in Iraq, a near-nuclear conflict with the Soviets (by way of Cuba) and the fall of the Soviets this island nation stands as an anachronistic paean to old-style communism. A so-called Worker's Paradise.

But, alas, due to the constant pandering for votes to the Miami-based exile community Cuba remains off-limits to American citizens. The US has a long-term embargo against trading with this enemy. The Cubano ex-pats, from the initial wave of escapees when Fidel came to power, were wealthy former landowners under the US-backed regime of Fulgencia Batista, a right wing dictator put in office by the CIA. When Fidel nationalized the banks, sugar plantations and any other worthwhile assets, the owners were out and the "people" were in. So they flooded south Florida. They became citizens and used their wealth and growing influence to oppose anything Fidel. Thus the trade embargo. It is a felony for an American citizen to go to a country 90 miles from Key West. Technically, as I understand it, we can GO there.. We just can't spend any money there.

So a trip to Cuba would have to remain a dream.

I laid down on the beach for some sun. The roar of the waves lulled me to sleep, dreams of Cuba in my head.

Suddenly, in my dreamlike state, I was aboard a Cubano Airlines Soviet era YAK-42 approaching Havana. The plane was comfortable enough, albeit a little crowded.

Upon landing it took almost two hours for the passengers to claim their luggage, our first taste of Communist efficiency. Surprisingly the airport (Jose Marti International) was fairly modern. Much better than the shacks in Jeddah or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Driving from the airport I felt we could have been in any other Central American country, including parts of Puerto Rico, except for the billboards extolling the virtues La Revolucion.

Sure, there were the old 50's era cars. But also some Euro models, including lots of old Soviet Ladas. (Remember one of early blogposts from Bulgaria? I waxed poetic on those pieces of crap.) The might have even been a rare BMW.

Soon we were driving down the Malecon, reminiscent of the Corniche of Alexandria, Egypt or Marine Drive (The Queen's Necklace) in Mumbai, India. The skeletal remains of Viejo Habana recalled the long lost glory that pre-dated Fidel, Che and the Revolution. It was one of the most impressive "City First Impressions" I have encountered.

Soon we were esconced in the Plaza Hotel. High ceilinged, air conditioned, cable TV and with bathroom with windows looking down on the city. This was a place for foreign tourists. Security was tight. We would be ID'd each time before we hit the door and as we approached the elevators.

That evening we headed out for something to eat. Electricity is at a premium in Cuba. The streets were dark. But, police presence is constant (They don't want to risk tourists getting mugged. Bad for business. They may be Commies, but dinero es dinero.) We came to a little salsa joint, "Bar Monseratte." A live band had the joint jumpin'. I'd say half the patrons were locals, the rest turistos. Jason (Disturbingly he showed up in the dream) bet the band would play "Guantanamera" within 15 minutes. He thinks just because he speaks a little Spanish he's an expert on all things Latino. I'm happy to report he was dead wrong. It was 23 minutes.

After finding out the American dollar was no longer coveted in Cuba I cashed in the last of the 65 Euros I had purchased when I was in Egypt (Funny the things that come up in dreams). Turns out they preferred Canadian bucks. And I had just been in Montreal. If only I had known.

We ate pizza and drank Bucanero Fuerte until last call, 11:30PM. We were out by 12:30.

You know how in a dream sometimes you are suddenly transported to a completely different place? Well, that's what happened next. Below are some of the sights we dreamt about along the way:

The next morning we were on a bus bound for Valle de Vinales, a UNESCO World Heritage site about three hours west of Havana.

Parque Nacional Vinales (pronounced Vin Yal' Ez) is a fertile plain of several valleys separated by pincushion or haystack hills called mogotes (Mo Go' Tays). The whole area was once several hundred meters higher in elevation. About a bazillion years ago a network of underground rivers ate away the limestone bedrock underneath creating massive caverns. Eventually the caverns gave way leaving the eroded walls seen today.

The area is developing as a Mecca for rock climbers. It has been written up in the New York Times as such.

In fact we stayed in a "Casa Particulare" which was owned by a man who is developing climbing in the area.

Casa Particulares are basically spare rooms in private homes. Ours was a single room with a private bath and two beds, 20 pesos. It's a little taste of capitalism for Cubans. I think they like the taste. When we reached the village of Vinales our bus was met by throngs of locals hawking their rooms.

After checking in we decided a hike was in order. Jason found mention of a five mile trail just outside of town. It took us about a half hour to find the trailhead and two more minutes to lose the trail, never to see it again. Sort of.

We followed a rutted, sandy road (thinking it was the trail) until we came to a cemetary above the village. That's when we knew for certain we'd missed the trail.

But, that didn't stop us. Scouring the trusty Lonely Planet Guide we spied a hiking trail located north of town. Off we went Walking along the road leading to the trail we passed a house with two blonde, blue eyed kids, a boy and a girl, playing. They could have been Scandinavian. With no hesitation they approached us, greeting in English. Jason asked them if they were taught English in school. Without hesitation the boy said yes, while simultaneaously the girl said "si."

It had been raining lightly, but we avoided the worst of it. The area of the hiking trail had been soaked however.

After a while we gave up trying to avoid the puddles and just waded right in. Unfortunately I wasn't wearing soaks. By the time we finished my dogs were fairly raw.

All in all I figure we had hiked four hours, at least 10 to 12 miles. But, like morons, we weren't finished. After a shower back at the casa particulare we lazed around a bit and observed rural Cuban life.

These two guys were wondering what the Hell they did in that last life to deserve this.

It appeared, in my dreamlike state, that at least in rural Cuba life is much more social than in the US. The little main street was alive with people out visiting. It was Sunday evening. Father's Day. At least to my eyes they seemed happy. I can't think when Cuban society opens up to the West (or gets opened) and accepts Capitalism, even China-style, they will be happier. They have little here, but they have much. They say in Cuba there are a thousand doctors for every aspirin. Medicine of any kind is at a premium. That's why I gave the Sra. of the casa my two bottles of Bayer and six bars of soap. They could make a nice piece of change off those.

As evening approached we decided we needed to look for a place to eat. We hadn't eaten since breakfast back in Havana. Jason suggested we try the nearby Hotel Jasmine a couple kilomters outside town, an easy stroll. We had walked so much already, what was a couple miles more?

More than we thought apparently. In what was turning out to be a disturbing trend (you know how those frustration dreams can be) we headed the wrong way out of town. Dusk was nearing under a clear blue Caribbean sky, a lovely time of day. The sky turned golden against the silhouette of the pin cushion mountains. Traffic was light. It was a pleasant walk.

Eventually, though, dusk turned to dark. Under cover of a starlit sky we pressed on til we came to a camp ground. The restaurant there had closed. But, not catching on, we kept going. This Jasmine Hotel must just be a few hundred meters further. It wasn't.

Amazingly, in total darkness we came across another restaurant. Closed. The security guard there was very friendly. In what Jason later told me was heavily accented Spanish he told us he'd never heard of the Jasmine. Nice.

We had walked at least three miles, which meant we had that far to go back. It was pitch black. But, what a star-filled sky! No light pollution. Stars you'll never see back in the States. Only in a dream.

In the blackness we were joined by a Cuban local, named Lazaro. Lazaro was a veritable Hispanic Sam's Club. He offered to get us girls, cigars, alcohol, entry to cock fights, a ride to Pinar del Rio (another town), anything we wanted. But, no Jasmine Hotel. Laz had never heard of it. Sheesh!

Fortunately for me Jason was stuck with the task of conversing with Lazaro. Initially he tried to speak only with me, as had the restaurant guard earlier. We figured it was because I was the elder of the two. But, when I told him "No fumo Espanol" (I don't smoke Spanish.) I was off the hook. To his credit Lazaro attempted to hitch rides for us (to no avail) and guided us to safety against pedestrian, bicycle, horse-drawn and vehicle traffic. Except for cars and trucks everything came at us out of the pitch dark.

It looked like ol' Laz was thinking of hanging on to us for the night. Not really desiring his company I hit upon a plan. I set a pretty stiff pace. He commented on it to Jason a couple times. Whenever there was a lull in his constant babble I picked up the pace, not quite running, but covering ground at a pretty hot pace nonetheless. By the time we re-entered Vinales Lazaro was finished. He dropped off at the first house we came to.

Oh yeah, as we topped a small rise before Vinales Lazaro pointed out Hotel Jasmine to us. It was south of town. We had gone west.

We never did find a place to eat. But as it turned out we weren't very hungry anyway (How hungry do you get in a dream anyway?).

By eleven we were back in our room fast asleep. The roosters lit up around 5 AM, but I held out til 7. The grunting hog outside my window turned the trick.

An interesting intra-dream story. Walking down the Vinales main street that evening we noticed a sign in an office offering a taxi ride direct to our hotel in Havana for 15 pesos. This seemed a good deal, because the only bus from Vinales to Havana available to us didn't leave until 2PM and would take close to three hours. This would cut into our planned Havana exploring time. The bus was 12 pesos each, plus a five peso taxi from the bus station to the hotel. So it was a no-brainer. The cab could leave anytime and we wanted to go as early as possible.

We arrived at the oficina shortly after breakfast the next morning. It turned out there had to be four riders to complete the deal. The young lady working at the office asked us to stay close by. It was her job to fill the cab. OK, fine.

After a short wait along come two girls who looked like they might want to go to Habana. Actually they were on their way to Trinidad, meaning they had to go through Havana. So there was hope.

It wasn't easy though. They seemed incapable of decision. Here were their options:

1. Take the 2PM bus to Havana to connect on to Trinidad. Only the Trinidad connector leaves Havana at 1 PM. So they would have to spend the night in H-town.

2. Wait in Vinales until 7:30PM to find out IFthere was room on the NEXTmorning's 8 AM bus to Havana, THEN make the connection to Trinidad.

3. Throw in with us, get to Havana in time for the 1 PM to Trinidad. Be in Trinidad by 6.

They had until 10 AM to have any chance of making it. It was 8:50. How this was a difficult decision is beyond me. But, that's the essence of frustration dreams. I said they suffered from "Paralysis by Analysis." Jason called it the "Itty-Bitty-Titty-Committee." Either way it was hard to believe. Finally right around Ten the viability of option three hit home. Fifteen minutes later we were rolling. Although the driver managed to fry his clutch, we made the Viazul bus station by 12:30 and our hotel by one.

The girls were from the Netherlands and were pretty experienced world travelers. They had recently been to Sri Lanka, so we shared some commonalities. One even worked in the travel industry. Maybe Jason and I looked too shabby to trust. But, what do you expect from a country that can't decide whether they are the Netherlands, Holland or Dutch?

Back in Habana we spent the rest of the day piling on more miles exploring Viejo Habana.

We walked the Malecon, visited the Plaza de Armas, Plaza de Catedral, Universidad de Habana and the Plaza de la Revolucion.

We saw the Nacional Hotel, the one financed by the American Mafia. It was where in Godfather II Hyman Roth celebrated his birthday with Michael Corleone and associates.

If there was to be one thing that would get me in trouble with the Federales (Bush's Federales, not Fidel's) it would be this:

The only thing I forgot was my "McLenins" tee shirt.

As dusk of another Caribe day neared we headed back to the Plaza, passing through non-turisto areas. We were approached, as we were fairly frequently, by friendly Cubanos seeking to get us cigars or chicas. At one point a couple policia warned me to put my camera away for safety. But we had no worries. We ended up at the Capitolio, a smaller, more intricate copy of the US Capitol building.

A '57 Chevy.

"El Che" is still everywhere.

Fidel, not so much.

The old cars broke down frequently. But, they always seemed to stop to pick up hitchhikers. Everyone pitched in to help. We think it was considered de rigeur for riders to offer a small fee for the honor.

Havana Harbor. Remember the Maine? Nothing there to indicate it ever happened.

Three wheeled cabs up for daily repairs.

The original Bacardi Rum factory.

Was it a dream?

The droning of the Cubana airlines plane suddenly gave way to the crashing waves back in Cancun. I awoke with a start. What a dream. So lifelike. So real.

Of course, it's a felony for Americans to go to Cuba. And I'm a law-abiding American citizen. I would never do something like that. Photoshop and Google Image can make it look like one has been anywhere.

Those who know me well know there are certain things I would never do. One of those things is something I claimed to do in this story.

I NEVER fall asleep on the beach. That's how you get burned.

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