So, let me preface this story by saying I’m a bad liar. Awful. My palms get sweaty, I can’t make eye contact and I start fidgeting. I think my friends have a hard time believing this because I’m usually cool, calm and collected, but really, when I have to lie, or in this case omit the truth, I’m awkward AF.
I’m telling you all of that because I was supposed to omit the truth when I landed in Cuba back in the spring of 2015. And the truth was that I was a journalist, and I’d left the U.S. on a journalist visa. Although I wasn’t necessarily going to the island for work (I maybe would’ve considered writing a story if I’d stumble upon something worth writing about), a journalist visa was the easiest and quickest visa for me to obtain considering I had all of my credentials readily available.
Upon arriving in Cuba, they’d have no idea I had left the U.S. on a journalist visa. Cuba isn’t exactly fond of journalists and they require them to get a special visa and clearance from the Cuban embassy, “so just don’t mention it,” my travel companion Cheryl had told me, nonchalantly. It really sounded like an easy task, and should have been. People do this all the time, I’m sure. And, I mean, why would anyone even ask me if I was a journalist, and why did that even matter if I wasn’t there to work and was just looking forward to cervezas, salsa dancing and exploring?
So we arrive, walk down the steps from the plane and I take in a deep breath because wow, I have arrived to the place where my culture was born. My mother is from Cuba. More on that shortly because this story elevates quickly.
Cheryl and I are standing in the long, hot line at customs, and, “proximo!” They call the next person. That’s me. I go up to the young customs employee, and he asks for my passport which will show him I was born in Puerto Rico, was 27 years old and had spent some days in Asia and Canada and the Caribbean and here and there. He looks at me and, in Spanish, tells me I look much younger than I am. I respond that, “Asi me dicen,” because that’s what I hear all the time, and he makes a flirtatious comment and tells me to go through the door to baggage claim. Whew, that was easy. So I go. As the door closes behind me, I could hear him say, “Proximo!” Cheryl was up next.
I’d decided to wait for Cheryl right outside the door before going on to baggage claim because, I don’t know, that’s what travel buddies do. So I did, I waited. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Nothing. I think that’s when my nerves started peeking out from that deep, little place inside of me that usually stays sealed and locked up. I wondered if the customs people were giving Cheryl a hard time. I forgot to mention that Cheryl is fair-skinned and freckled, with light eyes. She speaks some Spanish, but not fluently. Was that why they were taking so long with her?
Well, let me just go get our luggage… just in case, I thought.
I go over to the one luggage belt in the Havana airport. The only one. I wait. But as I’m standing there, waiting impatiently and anxiously, my backpack starts getting heavier. It’s because my big ol’ camera is in there, with its big ol’ lens. So I take the camera out of my bag and wear it around my neck.
That’s where I fucked up the first time.
Within maybe 30 seconds, a woman from customs walks up to me and grabs my camera, as I’m wearing it around my neck. “What do you have this for? What kind of photos are you taking? Is this a professional camera? How far does this lens zoom in?” Those were some of the questions she asked me in Spanish. Her face was at most a foot away from my face, and she was asking back-to-back questions, aggressively. Then, after all the back-to-back questions and quick answers, she asks, “Where do you work?” And I say, of course, because I’m Zai and I’m nervous as shit, “At a newspaper.”
That’s where I fucked up the second time.
“Come with me,” she tells me. She grabs me by the arm and it felt like the longest walk across the tiniest airport. We go up to her boss, I assume, who is a man in a corner of the airport dressed nicer than anyone else. He’s also taller than anyone else – maybe 6’2 or something like that? Maybe not. Maybe he was 5’7, but to me, at that point, he was this big, scary man who didn’t like me because I was, gasp, a journalist. The man takes my passport.
“Where do you live? What’s the name of your newspaper? What do you write about?” I got some more back-to-back questions from him. His interrogation was more detailed and longer. And he was writing down my answers, not in a fancy notepad like you’d imagine, but on scrap piece of paper he’d cut off from a book, it looked like. When he was done, he disappeared with my passport and his notes into a room in the back of the airport. He left me with the lady who had initially questioned me, and when I asked her why such a big deal was being made, she didn’t answer.
All the while, Cheryl was nowhere to be seen.
Fun, right? Here I am, in this communist country whose government hates journalists because, well, they fully support censorship, and now they know I’m a journalist and tried to keep it from them, and I can’t find my friend, and, and, and. By now, those teeny tiny nerves I keep tucked inside? They are full on raging. They’ve brought on the sweat and the fidgeting and cotton mouth.
Then, through the crowd, I spot an auburn-haired woman. Fucking Cheryl. There you are. The lady who is with me is distracted so I just kinda walk away and up to Cheryl, who is facing away from me.
“Don’t get nervous,” I whisper in her ear, “But they’ve taken my passport and are questioning me because I accidentally said I was a journalist.” Cheryl turns around and her face said, “Seriously, Zai?”
I’ll speed up this story now because we’re pretty much at the climax and I really just want to write about all the culture and shit. So, Cheryl comes with me to the customs lady, and the head honcho is making his way back with my passport and his notes. I forget what what other questions he had for me, but I do remember the one thing that broke the ice and mellowed the mood. In the middle of this seriousness, Cheryl tells boss man, in broken Spanish, “Venimos para cerveza,” as she is is acting the way you’d act out “drunk and dancing” in a game of Charades. The man cracks a smile, then I do, too, and I follow up on her explanation. “We’re really just here to vacation and have fun. I brought my camera to take photos. I’m not working. I didn’t even bring a notebook or pen.” (I totally had a notebook and pen right in my backpack.) He gives me back my passport. Yay.
Cheryl and I move away from the drama to get closer to the baggage belt. Yeah… about that. We’d been in the airport longer than an hour, and the baggage belt hadn’t even turned on. Welcome to Cuba.
After two hours (or three), our luggage arrives, we take it, and pretend we don’t see the head honcho and his sidekick keeping their eyes on us. We walk quickly toward the airport exit and in no time we spot Cheryl’s friends who live in Cuba – they’d been waiting for us. Our hugs and kisses with them were interrupted by the last I saw of the scary customs man, who briefly questioned Cheryl’s friends and then let us go. We were only stopped once by police right after we left, for no apparent reason, and then another time during our trip we had some men in military uniforms follow us for a bit while we explored.
So that was it. That was what it was like getting interrogated in Cuba. I laugh at it all now, but seriously, the fear of not knowing what would happen to me was REAL. To this day, I have no idea what that man did with all that time he spent with my passport and information, and my parents insist that if I ever try to go to Cuba again, they’ll tell me to turn around and go back home. Maybe. I’ll find out one day, I’m sure.
Now to the other adventures and tips for getting around the island, which I’ll try to keep short because you’ve been here a while.
La Habana, Santeria & salsa dancing
By now, you might know I like to have as much of a local experience as possible when I travel. It seems hard to do that in Havana, where there are lots of tourist-y spots and propaganda the state-employed travel guides will point you to. But lucky for me, my travel guide was Cheryl, who has visited the island several times and has gained a family there.
When we arrived, Cheryl’s friends drove us first to our casa particular – the home of a local Cuban family whose been given permission by the government to host travelers. Casa Angelita, as it’s called, is a semi-colonial house owned by a lovely older couple. The house is right by “esquina 23 y 12” in Vedado, which is a pretty well-known intersection, making it easy for us to get around by walking or taking short taxi rides.
The casa has spacious-enough rooms with AC and a beautiful terrace. Angelita served us a breakfast of guava, other fruits, Cuban coffee and bread every morning, and she told us a bit about herself and her family. We also get a free wake-up call every morning- the cock-a-doodle-doo of the neighborhood roosters. All for, roughly, $25 USD/day. (Her prices have increased slightly since then, but still worth it.)
After we were settled in, we visited some of the iconic landmarks in the area, like The National Capitol Building, Habana Vieja, Calle Obispo, Paseo del Prado, Callejon de Hamel and El Malecon. These spots have a ton of history and culture behind them, and yes, though they may be a bit touristy, you should get there and learn about them if you’re ever in Havana!
One of the highlights was getting to go to a gathering at Cheryl’s family’s home. They cooked fresh fish for us and other goodies, and turned up the music for some salsa dancing in their very cozy living room. What a joy to be in their presence.
We did some salsa-dancing again another night, when we followed a band to a hole-in-the-wall, local bar in Havana’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown). There, we were the only tourists, and we met a young man who taught me some more dance moves. He later told us about his life in Cuba and how desperately he wanted to leave. We treated him to beers and food, and at some point during our conversation, he stopped talking and asked us, “Are you journalists?” The fear in his eyes was real. But we said, “No,” and kept talking till late. I wonder about him sometimes. I wonder if he’ll ever leave and live his dreams. Sigh.
Another highlight was getting ourselves to Regla, a municipality of La Habana that’s easy to get to via ferry through the Havana Port. Once we arrived, we found Santeras (Santeria practitioners. Santeria is, in short, a religion in which Catholic beliefs and African traditions meet.) offering cleansing and readings for money right by the port. We did stop to talk to them, and while I won’t say what they told us, I will say there were goosebumps and tears and other stuff. Beyond that, we saw regular folks doing their day-to-day thing. In Cuba, that often means hanging out on the porch, gathering for a game of dominoes, or making food and music.
(Side note: Make sure you also visit some paladares if you’re ever in Havana.)
Las Terrazas, ropa vieja & “pan con timba”
About an hour-ish drive from La Habana, we left behind the city scenes to see the beautiful landscapes of Artemisa Province, which is located in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range. On the way there, on the side of the long road, you could see fields of cows, and then, every couple of miles, young men selling blocks of something. I asked our driver what these blocks were, and he told me they were cheese and guava paste. Growing up, my Abuela Consuelo used to give us “pan con timba,” which in Cuban terms, is Cuban bread with guava paste and cheese. So I just had to stop and purchase some, and I swear, it was some of the best I’ve ever had. Maybe that’s just ’cause it tasted like home.
Anyway, in the Artemisa Province, we stopped at Las Terrazas. In this gorgeous village is where the earliest coffee plantations of Cuba were born, and it’s also home to art and pottery studios in some of the quaintest cottages landscaped by bougainvilleas. There are natural springs and small waterfalls here, too, making it a beautiful place for a swim and a hike. That opened up our appetite, and we ate some of the best ropa vieja (after my mom’s and Abuela Consuleo’s) at one of the restaurants here.
This has been a long enough post, so I’ll just end with a memory I never want to forget:
One night, Cheryl and I had indulged in a few drinks and went out looking for a bar to keep the fun going. It was Sunday, though, and not much was open late. On a dark street, we came across a young taxi driver leaning on his car, and Cheryl asked him if there was anywhere he’d recommend going. “I’ll take you,” he told us. I was sketched out, but Cheryl assured me it was fine, so I went with it.
The man, probably just a bit older than me, took us to an old hotel and got out of the car. “We have to go up to the top floor, that’s where the club is. I’ll take you,” he told us. I was so nervous. I’ve written about murderers and serial killers while at the paper – this is how the stories start. But still, we got into the elevator – it was one of those manually controlled ones – and slowly went up. We stopped, I gulped, and the doors opened. There was music and dancing and indeed, it was a club and a rather nice one.
We kept the drinks going and invited him to join us. He told us about himself, and I just remember feeling pity. The night came to an end, so he took us back to Casa Angelita. Before he left, though, I turned to him as he was walking away and gave him an extra generous tip. He looked at me and didn’t have to say a word. I could see the immense gratitude in his eyes. Then he pulled me in, giving me a hug so tight, I will never forget what it felt like. It was one of those hugs that make you rock from side to side. His head was nestled in the space between my neck and shoulder, and he just gave me a dozen kisses. If I close my eyes, I could almost feel it all over again. Almost.