Monday, February 27, 2006

Cameron’s Cuban Adventures – Part 1

Current mood: contemplative

Entering the Frank Pais Airport in Holguin, I felt calm, collected, and confident. Despite traveling alone, everything would run smoothly for me. I witnessed how quickly my fellow passengers were processed and let into Cuba. I figured it was because we were all Canadians, and Canadians are ever so popular in Cuba. However, my experience was to prove an exception to my own rules.

I came up to the Plexiglas Customs window and gave the young women my passport, boarding pass, and hotel information – as required. After looking over my passport, she asked me what I did for a living. I found that a bit odd. Regardless, I complied. I told her I was a biologist. She seemed a bit confused – or maybe “concerned” is a better word. I immediately thought it was because my passport was stamped three times with TN-1 Visas – a necessity for me to work for Cornell University in New York. Maybe that caught her attention. Relations between Cuba and the USA are prickly, to say the least. The plot would soon thicken, and so would my anxiety.

She asked me if I worked in a hospital. I tried to explain what a biologist does. It’s difficult enough explaining my career to someone who lives in North America, let alone someone seated behind Plexiglas who speaks English as a second language. Another officer – a man – entered the booth to look at my passport. Then I started to get worried.

He asked me to write down who I worked for. I took that as meaning who I worked for when I lived in the USA (I had just left the USA four days previously and moved back to Canada). I wrote down “Cornell University” and, once again, I explained that I was a biologist.

After some discussion with her colleague, the young woman stamped my Cuban Tourist Visa and let me in. Maybe I let out a noticeable sigh of relief. An elderly Canadian gentleman behind me, noticing how long it took me to get through customs, asked me what went on.

“What did they want – your life story?” he asked.

I told him the delay was probably because I worked in NY for two years and recently moved back to Canada.

“Just tell them you’re on a weeks’ vacation” he said, as if that was all that was required.

I thought that was that. Not too much difficulty after all. Nothing to fret about. Pretty soon I’d be proved wrong – again.

I collected my luggage and headed towards the sliding doors, leading out to the buses that take everyone to their respective resorts. I was ready to start my “weeks’ vacation”. Suddenly, a female customs officer stopped me and politely asked me to step aside.

I was lead to a plain metal table. Another female customs agent, who looked VERY serious, brought out a pen and a small document of some kind. She wrote down some information from my passport. She asked me what I did for a living. Again, I tried to explain what a biologist does.

I began to get worried – frightened, even. What did they THINK I did? I was dressed in a white dress shirt, black jacket and black slacks – wardrobe from the previous night out with friends in Toronto. It was a practical outfit, I thought. It kept me warm back in Toronto. But now was it somehow working against me? Did it make me look suspect? Did they think I was a spy?

At one point, the woman seemed to be losing her patience with me. I strained to understand her and answer all questions to the best of my ability. I explained that I no longer worked in the USA and that March 6 I start my new job as an Environmental Services Technologist in Goderich, Ontario Canada. Try explaining THAT position to anyone! (At this point in time, I’m still not sure what all my duties will entail).

She had me write down the job title and location of work on a form. Looking at my passport, she asked me what I was doing in Brazil (!). I was taken aback. I told her I was at a film festival. She didn’t appear to believe me, or perhaps that information just added to the overall confusion. What kind of a portrait was I painting of myself?

Then she asked me to open my carry-on luggage and remove the contents. I gladly did. I did everything I was told. I had nothing to hide, but I was nervous!

She looked everything over carefully. Although nervous, I thought this was all a mere formality. Again, my passport indicated that I lived in the USA for two years. So what, I thought. I’m a Canadian – that’s all that matters. But in reality – maybe not. One more doubt added to my overall sense of dread. I was feeling guilty, even though I did nothing wrong. It all stemmed from one simple action. The customs officer came across a certain book I had with me.

When she picked up my copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”, I thought my goose was cooked. It was in her facial expression. The way she slowly leafed through the pages. The way she examined both covers, even turning it upside down and examining the spine.

Many things flashed through my mind – none of them inspiring confidence. I thought: “This is it. The straw that broke the camel’s back. They’re not letting me into Cuba.” It may sound absurd, but I hoped and prayed that Vonnegut had never written anything negative about Cuba! Worst case scenario – I’m traveling alone. I could easily be held somewhere. They could do whatever they wanted. Such were the nightmare scenarios that raced around inside my head.

When she was finished looking at my carry-on luggage, she said “OK”.

“Is everything all right?” I inquired, after an awkward pause.

“Yes. Don’t worry.” she finally smiled. “Enjoy your trip.”

And so I was off. What an introduction to Cuba! While I had lingering doubts about my experiences at the airport (what DID they think I did as a living?), I tried to ignore my uneasiness and enjoy my stay. Was I successful? Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of Cameron’s Cuban Adventures!

PS: Recently, I started reading “Cat’s Cradle”. As it turns out, the book includes a character who was wanted by US authorities for illegally importing Cadillacs into Cuba. It mentions Cuba many times. In fact, the novel’s fictitious island of San Lorenzo sounds like Cuba. The novel also includes some criticism of communism. Coincidence? Bizarre!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Cameron’s Cuban Adventures Part II – A Land of Contrasts

Current mood: nostalgic

I would describe Cuba as a land of contrasts. The artificial, manicured appearance of the resort I stayed in contrasts sharply with the impoverished farmland around it. I witnessed many images that play to this idea. They will forever be imprinted in my mind.

A Soviet-era apartment building is faded, cracking, crumbling, but up on one of its cramped balconies a beautiful, well dressed young woman relaxes in the sun, reading, seemingly oblivious to the situation around her. On a hot, sunny afternoon I saw a woman hanging her laundry on a rusty barbed-wire fence.

One night, I left the quiet, secure confines of the resort and headed towards a genuine Cuban block party. My host was Carlos, a Cuban who worked at a local discotheque named “La Roca”. We were accompanied by two Italian girls who lived in Switzerland. The experience was Felliniesque at times.

People of all ages, from children on up to the elderly, were dancing on compacted dirt strewn with small rocks. Over 12 musicians crammed the stage. They played non-stop. To keep the energy going, the vocalists kept rotating. It was a dream-like atmosphere to begin with, further assisted by the bottle of Cuban white rum I bought for 3 pesos, 3/4 of which I managed to consume straight out of the bottle!

Perhaps the thing that intrigued me the most about Cuba was the people. Despite being poor, and living it what we would call “squalor”, they were very friendly and often well-dressed. They seemed happy, content, mellow. I envied their lifestyle, to a certain degree. I suppose they had no idea what they were missing, considering the trappings of North American society. Ignorance is bliss. But are Cubans really happier than North Americans? Considering my own situation, high-paying jobs and material gain has never held bouts of depression and mood swings at bay. Come to think of it, I’ve seen people who were far poorer, destitute, and on the verge of death wandering Vancouver’s Main and Hastings area.

On second thought, I was careful not to over-romanticize the Cuban lifestyle. After what happened to me at the airport, I was still paranoid. For all I knew, anything could happen in Cuba – not all of it good.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Cameron’s Cuba Adventures III – The Final Installment

Current mood: nostalgic

In the countryside, goats, oxen, horses, and chickens roam free. That explains all the vultures flying overhead. Cycling along quiet country roads, I’d stop to take pictures. I’d think I was alone, surrounded only by thick palm trees and the blue sky above. Suddenly, someone would materialize from the bush. They’d say “Ola” and move on to catch the next bus, carriage, or transportation of some sort. This happened several times – people appearing from out of nowhere. I soon realized that there were dirt trails leading up into the dense brush. In some places, despite the seemingly inhospitable vegetation, I could hear rumba and dance music blaring from a boom-box – somewhere up on the hill, hidden in the greenery. In Cuba, life pops up in unexpected places.

The highlight of my trip revealed itself the day before I left. I had climbed up the 458 steps to the top of Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross), in Holguin City. I was one of three who dared to make the hike; everyone else, although initially keen on the idea, lost their enthusiasm as soon as they laid eyes on the steps. Couldn’t blame them – it was unforgettably hot. Anyway, my arduous journey was rewarded with more than an excellent view and a few photo ops.

On top of the hill was an old, decaying watchtower. The entrance to it was a small, dark rectangle. Inside, barely visible, I could see an elderly man. I could see his thin frame and weather-worn face when he drifted towards the doorway. It looked like he had something decorating the walls. Art work. He was selling some of his artwork in there, I gathered.

At first, I didn’t know what to think. I was strangely reluctant to go in there. Firstly, I didn’t think I’d make it through the door. Secondly, I convinced myself long ago that I wouldn’t be buying any art. Art as a souvenir just didn’t interest me at the time (as it would turn out, I had been looking at the wrong art!). Yet, as I circled round and round the watchtower in the heat, and the tourist crowd thinned out, my curiosity grew. Most of my tour had returned to the bus, but I had to have a look.

I carefully navigated the small doorway. My tour guide came with me. The group was about to leave and I think he wanted to collect me. What I saw impressed me – moved me. I was very taken by a painting of a Cuban woman drinking coffee – “Mujer Cofe”, it was called. I was particularly struck by her eyes.


The other artwork was also impressive, including one piece entitled “Consternation”, in which the woman had one egg in hand and had to figure out how she could make a complete breakfast out of it (I admire the resilience of the Cuban people, in art and life). When the artist found out I was from Canada, he said he had a gallery opening in Toronto. He presented me with the newspaper clippings. He was very proud of them. He did not speak English, so my tour guide translated everything.

I had a hard time deciding what painting to purchase, and my tour guide was still trying to rush me along. I finally settled on the “woman with coffee” painting. It was her eyes that did me in. The artist’s caveat – the woman in the painting doesn’t like coffee. I would never in a million years pry that detail from the painting itself.

In the end, the painting cost me 10 Cuban pesos and the frame cost me 250 Canadian dollars. That’s North America for you! I still regret not getting that “Consternation” painting – it would have been a mere 10 pesos more. So, if you’re going to Holguin, and you think you’ll climb the 458 steps to the top of Loma de la Cruz, and you plan to squeeze into the old man’s gallery nestled within the ancient watchtower, let me know. I’ll give you the 10 pesos.

11 thoughts on “My Cuban Adventures

  1. Pingback: My Cuban Adventures | International Photography Magazine

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