Return to Roots - May 19

May 19 2015

Woke up pretty late. It was a long, full day yesterday, and I'm a sleeper... need my 8 hours! I did forget to mention being in Tito and Grisel's house yesterday. They were very excited to show it and also lots of pictures on their computer. Pictures of their beach vacations from all parts of Cuba. I noticed that they had a lot of knick-knacks. Alicia and Raul's place had those too. Little items scattered all over the house. I guess when you don't have much you save everything. It was interesting to me. 

We're back in Tito's car after treasure hunting. We were able to go into my grandfather's first house on San Carlos St and my Tio Juanito's house next door. We found them after asking many locals for directions. The entire neighborhood was... heart wrenching. These were huge beautiful homes, sometimes mansions, that were forgotten for decades. We found #14 and #16. My grandfather's place (#14) was locked but #16 (Tio Juanito) had inhabitants. Miguel came out, we explained our cause and they graciously let us in. They being the house owner, Dora, a sweet, very old lady, whose 93 year-old husband lay dying on the couch in another room. She said he was by her side all her life so how could she abandon him now. I cried. Miguel and Dora showed us the entire home. They showed us the original parts and the modifications. There was an incredible rooftop area where we saw the entire Havana. They restored it as much as possible but most was original marble and other materials. They created rooms in several parts of the house to rent them out. Dora and Miguel treated us like family. She said "Aqui tienes familia y no me llores" ((You will always have family here, and don't cry anymore)) I loved that. As we were leaving and taking pictures of Belo's house, a man came out. A bit more reserved but he let us take pictures of his place too. It must have been so beautiful back in the day. Huge marble columns and original tiled floor. After that, we went to the house in Nuevo Vedado. This is where my Mom and Tivivi lived and the last house they all had as a family before finally leaving Cuba. Again, we hit the jackpot and a sweet girl came out named Maria Carla, and she opened her home to us. I explained why we were there and she happily showed us around. We really hit the lottery. No way would people open their homes like this in the US.

Hotel Nacional. Basically what Cuba was 50 years ago. Abi and Belo would stay there for sure. Absolutely beautiful but not real Cuba. Great drinks. 

4am again. We were talking en la sala with Estrella and Aramisito after coming back from a jazz outing at the Jazz Cafe. Great freaking band yet again. So after Hotel Nacional we went to grab a bite at Rum Rum* in Old Havana. Great Ropa Vieja, run by a guy Tito and Grisel knew named Morro. Awesome dude. We walked back to the car where I saw an epic beard, finally! It was long and white and his mouth inhabited the biggest cigar I've seen yet. I had to have him take a picture with Jay, so we have documentation of that. Afterwards, we visited Aramis and Tito's mom and dad. She hadn't seen Jay since he was a baby. They were very sweet. Their dad is a famous author (Arnaldo Correa)  and he gave us a packet he wrote explaining one of his books. He showed us some of his published copies. Impressive stuff, he was so full of energy in wanting us to hear about them and his mark on the world. She gave us a partying gift, two mugs with Cuban art on them. So sweet. Claudia was there too, and she had one of her prints (she loves photography) rolled up and she dedicated one of them for us to take back home. I just loved all of that. Memories to cherish for years. Family is so important and everyone has their story to tell. From there, we ventured to my grandfather Bito's house. Where my Dad was born and where they all lived until shortly after the Revolution. This was really cool because my family was still there! Enrique Iñigo Bajos lives there with his family. I called him to alert him that I was coming and off I went. They were so awesome and inviting. Actually, I would use those adjectives to describe almost everyone so far. This guy definitely looked like he belongs in my Dad's family. He looked like his younger brother! He showed us around along with his lovely wife, Anais and his daughter, Amanda. We sat for hours trying to understand our family tree while looking at older pictures and finding Tita and Bito's faces in some of them. Anais made us lemonade while Amanda kept trying to get our attention. Enrique loves racquetball- so does my Dad! Tennis too. It was so cool to actually share with family I had no idea I had in Cuba until a couple of weeks ago. Blows my mind. I can't wait to show my Dad and aunts, and hopefully Tita can understand a little. 

Aramis made us delicious lobster dinner tonight. This family is so hospitable. So genuine and giving and honest and loving... just because. It's really refreshing. I wish we had a longer trip here. 


** Rum Rum Cafe: Calle Empedrado No. 256 Entre Cuba y Aguiar, Havana 10100, Cuba

Return to Roots - May 18

May 18 2015

First official day. Last night we got picked up by Aramis, Estrella, and Aramisito. What a beautiful family. So genuinely excited to us and show and explain SO MUCH! I feel like my head is trying to wrap itself around these 'politics' and concepts and their way of life. We ate at our first 'negocio privado' - not bad food but definitely not exciting. I don't mind at all because my intention is to absorb as much as I can and food will be just to sustain me. I do have to say that I may be addicted to their mango juice. Holy shit, that stuff is good.

Our lovely Casa Particular mom made us some this morning .We slept well. Sheets were not soft but we were so tired we fell like bricks and passed out till 10am. Aramisito was waiting for us. At this very moment I'm surrounded by bodies and bones. This is the craziest cemetery I've ever seen. El Cementerio de Colon. My mom would love the huge memorial for the Bomberos. There is nothing taller or bigger here, it isn't allowed. The cars are impressive. I feel like I've been transported through time. I can't believe I'm walking down the streets where my grandparents lived and breathed. I feel so lucky to be able to be here. My heart is full. 

Now eating at our first Havana Restaurant- Cafe Paris. We had a mojito (shit was strong!), an appetizer of shrimp (meh) and a Ropa Vieja type dish with moros. It was a bit over salted but good enough. The music is incredible. A band started playing almost at the end of our meal, which is better than most live music I've heard in Hollywood- the capital of entertainment. Pssh. The singer was heavenly, and the amount of joy and love I felt just listening to them jam took my breath away. Oh, tipping 1 CUC is more than enough here. ONE. It's difficult for me to leave just that but Aramisito says that's plenty. He's been a great tour guide; such a sweet guy but also sassy and funny. I love the sense of humor here. I hope it rubs off on me this week. I wish I had their chispa!

The Art! Wow. Wow. Wow. We just left El Artesano del Muelle. We're in a taxi now, so excuse my jumpy handwriting. So much art. Yes, some were touristy but really cool stuff nonetheless. I enjoy talking to the artists and hearing their stories. It's funny how they are so fascinated by us but we think they are the fascinating ones. We fell in love with some pieces that we're coming back for on Wednesday. Havana is falling apart but I can see the beauty. I felt like I understood why it's hard for my grandparents to come back. This place must have been insanely gorgeous 50 years ago. But it's definitely sad, a tragedy. They are rebuilding some streets and some buildings. We don't feel foreign here, our spanish has improved- I'm getting complimented on it, which helps me not feel so insecure! Jay has too. Aramisito says he looks more foreign because of the intense beard he's sporting and his light eyes. After he said that, I noticed no one had beards. 

Ok, so although the home we stayed at sufficed, Aramis and his family insisted we stay with them. We'd have our own keys and bathroom . So of course, we went. I left Alicia and Raul's home by saying that Varadero was available to us earlier, and with a mango juice in tow and some pictures, we were off. I left her 50 CUC, some Kiss Perfumes (thanks Dad), and clothes for the young girl that I think was their granddaughter. 

Just got back to our new home in Vedado at 3am. Pretty beat. We were fed some delicious (by Cuban standards) chicken and rice & beans by Estrella. She cracks me up. Straight shooter but with a lot of animated sass. I love that broad. We had to be ready by 8pm because Aramis' brother, Tito, was going to pick us up to see El Cañonazo. He picked us up with this wife, Grisel, and his daughter, Claudia. Very sweet and cute girl. We witnessed this tradition where sometime in the 1800's (I believe) Havana had to shut down the Port so pirates and other enemies wouldn't try to invade them. They signaled this with a loud canon shooting. This happens at 9pm every night. Locals and tourists alike gather around the Morro and Canons and watch as young military men in ridiculous garb and white wigs start the ceremony. It ends with a loud bang, shooting blanks, and everyone claps. Pretty cool alarm clock. Quite the fuss. We then enjoyed an hour or so on El Malecon. It's the Cuban PCH, a wide bank divided rocky water with the street, and locals use it as their hang out. It's free, all their friends go, there's a constant breeze and occasionally you get serenaded. I could see Stefano spending hours upon hours on this thing. We talked about Cuba and reasons to why it is the way it is, and other topics like that until a man with a guitar and a humming-buzzing instrument came by. That was awesome. Oh yeah, it's called a kazoo. He sang 5 or 6 songs. His name is Deste. What a character. I got teary eyed in one of the songs thinking about my ancestors hanging out en El Malecon. The idea that my roots are expanding to meet my history, people who made me who I am, astounds me. Also, Cuban people, for the most part, are simple and happy. They're expressive and live life to the fullest of what they can realize. It's inspiring. After our mini-concert, we headed to a little dessert/pastry place and I had a delicious lemon tart. Claudia was quiet but laughed at some of the stupid things I said. You can tell she was excited to have us around. She nearly flipped out of her chair when Jay told her I was a SIM. Actually, more people here know the SIMS than I expected. She likes to take pictures... photography is her hobby. Tito is a kind guy, more soft spoken than his brother but opened up more as the night went on. Grisel was a little chatterbox and full of life and energy. She definitely has opinions and expresses them freely.

I'm pooped but loved today. I feel blessed to be here and I hope time moves very slowly tomorrow.

Return to Roots - Prep for the Journey

Since Cuba is not a trip you can plan as easily as say, Hawaii, there are steps that you need to take to obtain a ticket and visa, you also need to know certain rules to enter/exit this mysterious island. 

Ticket and Visa: I used the Travel Agency DMC/ Destination Management Consultants and dealt with Sheyla Diaz, a very helpful agent based in Miami, FL. Contact Info: 1850 SW 8th Street, Suite 204-A, Miami, FL 33135 // 305.443.0417 // sheyla@dmcandtravel.com. We flew through Marazul Charter which are either American Airlines, Delta, or JetBlue planes. I paid $400 round trip and Marazul includes the exit tax ($25) in that price.

Should your charter not include the exit tax, please keep 25 CUC handy at the end of your stay so you can leave the island! Also, cash is the only method of payment in Cuba, no credit cards, travelers checks, or anything else is accepted there. 

Our Tourist Visa was $95 a person. We used the addresses of family members and were not asked anything else. If you don't have family there, just ask Sheyla which would be your best option. Like I said, she was very helpful. 

Tips: Your phone will not work over there. There is only wifi in the hotels, should you stay in one (I highly recommend staying at a Casa Particular, more on those below). You're able to rent one through DMC but I loved being off the grid for a week.

Bring medications (prescriptions and over the counter), sunscreen, hair products and anything else you may need as these items are difficult to find there and you don't want to waste time trying to find them.

I recommend rummaging through your closet and packing clothes that you may not have worn in a while and don't mind leaving to the beautiful people there. I brought outfits and shoes that I knew I could easily part with at the end of my stay. Even if you don't have family in Cuba, there is always someone who will know what to do with that thoughtful care package. Clothes and shoes are not easy to find or cheap for them, so this is something special you can leave behind as a token of gratitude.

Casa Particular: My intention for this trip was to see Cuba from the realest POV possible, and that would definitely omit staying in a hotel. Casas Particulares are plentiful in Cuba. We stayed with family in Havana but in Varadero we secured a wonderful little Casa for three days. Roberto & Martha's home was a 1 minute walk from the legendary beach, a short stroll to local Artisanal shops, and a quick taxi/Almendron/horse carriage ride to plenty of delicious restaurants. Roberto charge 30 CUC a night because we were in an off peak time. it's 35 CUC if you're there during the peak months. Contact information: Street 17 #102A, 1st and 2nd Ave, Varadero, Cuba. // +53.45.612958 mobile +53.52.775806 contact@bbinnvinales.com

Bonus: If you also have Cuban roots, I highly recommend trying to locate the homes of your family. My grandfather made a map for me before I left and he circled the home where he grew up and lived until he was 17. He also showed me the home where my mother and aunt lived until they fled Cuba in 1961. He asked me to take pictures of them if I could. My aunt on my dad's side gave me the address where we have a cousin I never met. He still lives in the home where my dad was born and most of his family lived. These were very special landmarks for me and created a powerful adventure which I detailed in my travel diary.