Did I just get here yesterday? It is already starting to feel like I have been here a long time. Every time I go somewhere, the first few days are like a first date. Of course, I am on my best behavior, but so is everyone else. They are formal and polite and we eye each other carefully, not quite sure of what to make of each other. Then it gets a little better, each person a little warmer. Today, that started happening. By Sunday, I suspect we will all be one big happy family. J
This morning Merlin was supposed to pick me up at 8 to have breakfast at his house and to go get my visa to work at the school. I sat on the front porch talking (sort of) to the woman that owns the home I am staying in. Her name is Anna also, and it turns out she is a retired genetics professor. Her husband, Alejandro, is the director of the TV station here in town. In Cuba , the people who have rooms to rent are some of the richest in town. Their home is lovely, and I am paying $15 dollars a night to stay here. (Of course, I am paying in Cuba dollars, which is a little bit stronger than the USD.) Anyway……we sat and 8 o’clock went by, 9:00…..10:00……..finally, she took pity on me and brought me a bowl of fresh pineapple and mango. Yummmm!!!!! The mango is amazing!! When Merlin finally showed up, I was only half finished with it, but she kept it in the fridge in my room so I could enjoy it later. J
I figured Merlin was on Latin time, (this is an actual thing according to my guide book!!! Count on everyone being at least 30 minutes later than they say), but it turns out that he was sick. Not ‘oh I am so sorry’ sick, but “ohhh I should NOT have had an entire bottle of rum last night’ sick. J Bless his heart; he was seriously, amazingly, terribly hung over. I asked if he wanted to go later and sleep for a while but he said no, so off we went through Santiago , looking for my visa. In his neighborhood, we walked down the middle of the street with him greeting just about everyone. There were people walking everywhere and any time a car, horse drawn cart or motorbike would go by, they would just swerve around us. The horse or mule drawn carts are loaded with fruit, and each one is topped by an elderly man who looks like the cover of the National Geographic. You know the type………deep lines etched all over their faces…. thin with gray hair and gnarled hands that look like they have seen 30 lifetimes of work. They don’t pay me much attention, but the other passers by look at me curiously, breaking into big smiles when I smile at them. Every person but one did this and it made me feel so happy!
As we neared the center of town, the traffic and noise swelled and I found myself straining to hear Merlin’s conversation. We walked for 45 minutes, passing a million pastel-colored shops and businesses, finally arriving at the school. The sounds of a woodwind quintet battle with those of a saxophone quartet and everything is bouncing off of the salmon colored terra cotta walls. The entire place has a hacienda-like feel, with the halls being open air and doors leading off to rehearsal rooms and studios. I know that they don’t have much money, or very expensive instruments, but that has not stopped these people from learning how to flat out play!!
Merlin converses with a group of people in muey rapido Spanish and after waiting a while, a man comes and takes my passport. I am told that he will have it for two days and they give me a copy to carry around for ID. Now I am not stupid…the very first rule of international travel is to guard your passport with your life!! I know that in Europe , the hotels hold them while you are in the building, but you don’t actually GIVE your passport to someone for two days!! However, amid a chorus of “No Problema’s” from everyone there, I realize that this is how it is going to happen. Sometimes you just have to trust the people you are with and this is one of those times. J In the middle of all of this, Merlin makes many rapid exits to find a bathroom. His late night revelry on the beach is soooo not agreeing with him and he looks terrible!!! As we leave, I tell him firmly to go home and go to bed. I can tell that he is torn…he wants to be a good host, he wants to take care of me, and mostly he is muey embarrassed, but he desperately needs to go lie down. I explain that if he throws up on me, it will most likely affect our budding friendship, and anyway, I need to find the internet. J
So I drop him off at his house and I take off to find the Hotel Santiago. Ahhhh….I wondered where all of the tourists were! I still haven’t seen a single American, but this is definitely where the Europeans are. I find the hotel and it is waaay swanky. Huge and fancy with a convention center, I feel just a little guilty for wishing that I could stay there! I wonder what it is like to live the kind of life where you travel and stay in places like this. But the thought is fleeting….if I was staying here; I would have already missed a thousand memories with my new Cuban friends. Give me a room with a local family anytime. J I find the internet and check in back home. It appears that Yahoo has either frozen my account because they think I have been hacked, (because all of the sudden I am trying to log on from Cuba ?!!? ) or they don’t actually allow communication between their US customers and Cuba . In either case, I can’t access my email there at all, so there is no telling when these reports will actually get to my friends. We will see….. J I can access Gmail so at least I can tell my folks that I am well and that life is good.
After a nice lunch at the hotel and a long nap at the house, Merlin is back, looking a bit better. J He takes me to his mother’s house to wait while she cooks us dinner. We sit in the front room of their home, on five rocking chairs all facing each other about two feet apart. The small room is made up of cinder blocks that have been white washed and there is a big pile of bricks lining one of the walls. Merlin’s father explains that they are slowly doing construction on the house and that when he has the materials, he can do the work, but it takes a long time to save up for the materials. The rest of the house is in a room behind a sheet that has been nailed up across the doorway. I catch a glimpse behind it and see a small space with a double bed taking up most of the room. I know that the cooking takes place in there, but I cannot see where. As we are talking, the conversation turns to coffee and they explain that the best Cuban coffee is exported and that the locals only get the poor quality. I tell them that in the US , Café Cubano is wonderful and is the best part of going to a Cuban restaurant! Merlin’s mom makes me a cup and it is perfect…heavy, dark and sweet. I have to learn to do that at home. J
As the evening wears on, Merlin comes and goes, as does his father. Conversation is at its best when Merlin is here because he speaks pretty good English and can translate. However, when his father is in the room, most communication shuts down. It seems like his dad is very, very upset at him for having…ahem….such a good time last night, and is not speaking to him. I try to keep the conversation going, laughing and saying silly things but it pretty much is going over like a lead balloon. J Oh well,…..
When his mom finishes dinner, we take it to his apartment to eat. She carries part of it and sets the table before leaving. I ask if she will stay and eat but she says no, she will eat with the rest of the family. I am feeling awkward. I ask Merlin why we are eating at his house, not his families, and he explains that where they eat is very, very small and that there is not room for one more person. I take that at face value and sit to enjoy the meal.
You know how I have talked about several ‘firsts’ when I travel? The first moment I know my adventure begins and the moment when I relax and start feeling more at home? Well, there is another ‘first’….it is the moment when you realize that your best laid plans for keeping your body, more importantly, your digestive system, healthy are coming to a screeching halt. You can do your best…buy bottled water, brush your teeth with it, not eat fresh fruits and veggies that you can’t peel…..but there is always that moment that washes all of your good intentions down the drain. It actually happened last night, but then happened again tonight. Merlin plopped down a glass of cold water from the tap….in a glass that has also just been rinsed off in the tap. He looked at me expectantly and said, “It is ok…the water here is very good….it will not make you sick”. Hmmmmmmmmmm…………… I am sorry, I know that a savvy world traveler would have kindly said, “No, thank you”, and left it at that. But as I looked up into the face of this young Cuban man who was trying so, so hard to be a great host to me, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t say ‘no’ last night, and I couldn’t say ‘no’ tonight. I may pay for it later but some things are more important. As I ate the cooked pork and rice his mom made, I felt very lucky to be welcomed into this family. I ate the un-peeled fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, knowing that this kindness was worth all of the traveler’s stomach discomfort in the world. J I will double up on all of the immune system stuff that Ann gave me and get on with life.
After dinner, Merlin showed me his collection of double bass music, and before I knew it, he was taking off to get his bass. On a bicycle. In the rain. J His mom came and sat with me and we talked for 45 minutes, her thinking I know a whole lot more Spanish than I do! She has no English at all, but we made do. With a lot of laughter and a little help from the worthless Spanish/English dictionary I have, we covered topics like marriage, tennis shoes, music, Salsa, her daughter and the reason she wasn’t playing cello anymore. At least, I think those were the topics we covered. J There is so much I want to know about her…how she met her husband, what she does for a living, and what she thinks about her life. But for now I will have to be content with shared smiles, laughter and a rough idea of what our shoe sizes are. J
Merlin finally arrived with the bass, which he had indeed carried on a bicycle in the rain. He wiped it off and we proceeded to play a bit. When he took off to see if a friend of his had his iPod, I continued to play softly while his mother cleaned up from dinner. “Muey linda......muey linda…” she said softly as the rain continued to fall outside. I played all of the pretty things I could find, doing my best to make it as beautiful as possible, knowing that tonight, this was the only way that I could say thank you for the kindness she has shown me. When she walks me home later, I thank her for being my “Cuban mama” and she just laughs and hugs me. Really, how did I get so lucky?