En Cuba | Memories of a First Trip

Trinidad, Cuba, circa 2006. Photo: Jenny Newman.

I feel a bit slooooooooooooooooooooow today. Even though I just had two cups of coffee, I feel a bit slow. But no matter. You don’t always have to move fast. You don’t always have to be limber, like a “taught, pre-teen Swedish boy.” You don’t always have to wake up and think, Man, I could just get out of bed and run 5k right now. 

I don’t know if I’ve ever run 5k in my life.

Maybe while playing soccer. 

I was kinda bumming on my hotel here in Zacatecas even though the location is perfect. That is until I had breakfast on the rooftop terrace this morning and basically fell in love. The breakfast was: coffee, a concha, huevos rancheros WITH chilaquiles, and fresh fruit. Oh and also bread, but I didn’t have any of that. And the view! My god the view. It was stunning. The city rippling out in front of me like a blanket waving in the wind. The sounds wafting up from the streets made me feel like I was in 2nd century Rome. The church spires in the distance, and the sun kissing my face. It was an ideal breakfast. 

But I’m not here today to talk about Zacatecas or my hotel or huevos rancheros or the fact the Subi is bone-dry on oil, I’m here to today to talk about Cuba. I would like to reminisce a bit. I went to Cuba for the first time in 2006, with my friend Jenny, and I would like to recount everything I remember about that trip. Which actually isn’t that much, since we spent a good portion of it drunk. But I’m hoping writing a blog post will dredge up memories about it, and for some reason today I feel like dredging. 

“En Cuba….In Cuba.” That was one of the first thing any Cuban said to us, translating this dastardly difficult phrase. He also pointed out “La palma,” meaning of course to say, “LaS palmaS,” but Cubans are incapable of pronouncing “s’s.” Find me a single Cuban who has ever fully pronounced an “s” in her life, and I will buy you a one-way ticket to Wenatchee. Jenny and I tried to HITCHHIKE from the airport to Havana, but ended up just getting a cab. For like 20 bucks.

That night we ended up in the middle of nowhere. We were trying to get to Trinidad, but the bus just dropped us off somewhere on the highway. We had no idea the bus wasn’t gonna take us all the way to Trinidad. But then we were in a ’54 Pontiac getting taken to Trinidad, and then we were on the rooftop of some kind of lodging we found, enjoying the tropical night and looking out at the stars. Did we get a bottle of rum that first night? Did we do anything at all?

We went swimming on a beach near Trinidad that wasn’t a beach. We got a ride there from a guy on a horse-drawn cart, and he kept yelling at the horse, “Cabaaaaaaaallo.” On the way back we hitchhiked on what might’ve been a huge army truck, a bunch of people standing in the back. At the beach women tried to buy Jenny’s sunglasses, and also asked if she had any makeup she could give or sell them. That night we DID drink rum and went to a club in a cave, where I danced like a fool and Jenny got romanced by some Cuban guy. This would be our routine: One night drink WAY too much, the next day be hungover and not drink at all. Then the next night drink WAY too much again. When you’re young you recover quickly. I was 23 at the time. My Spanish was the best it’s ever been. And it was Mexican Spanish, through and through. I didn’t realize then that every country had a completely different dialect. When the waiter said something  I didn’t understand I said, “Mande?” and then the guys next to us said, “Are you from Mexico?”

“No, why do you ask,” we said.

“Because of the word ‘mande.'”

Trinidad? Somewhere in Cuba…Photo: Jenny Newman

After Trinidad we went north, determined to go to a beach. We hitchhiked to a cay and went swimming and saw a barracuda in the water. At the beach bar of an all inclusive resort the bartender said, “Gimme 10 bucks and I’ll give you whatever you want.” So we had lobster and drinks. Then we went to the pool of the all-inclusive resort where we met some Brits who had a vendetta against the hotel and said they’d get us free drinks. And then when we were sufficiently housed we just went up to the pool bar ourselves and ordered whatever we wanted. Jenny was thrilled at being able to buy stuff in the hotel store of the all-inclusive resort. It’s hard to buy stuff in Cuba. Lots of times you go to the supermarket and there are just empty shelves. You go to an ice cream shop and they don’t even sell ice cream, just tobacco. You go to buy water at a gas station and they say, “Come back at 12pm.” When you come back at 12pm they say, “Come back at 2pm.”

After the cay we went to Varadero for more swimming. And then from there it was on to Havana, where we ate the only really good food of the trip. Cuba has amazing food, incredible food, but you have to buy it from places where locals eat. If you get it at touristy places it’ll be horrible and cost too much and probably be pizza. If you can’t pay in the peso nacional, you probably shouldn’t be eating there. I don’t remember much about being in Havana. We walked the malecon, one of the most enchanting parts of Havana, cars from the 50’s whizzing by and decadent mansions behind you, crumbling. Across the strait in front of you lies Florida, just a scant few miles away. En Cuba….

And then it was back to Mexico, back to Mexico City, back to consumerism, back to drinking and smoking cigarettes and speaking tons of Spanish and going out with friends. Back to “real life.” I didn’t like Cuba that trip. I sort of hated it. But that was just because I was hungover half the time. Even though I sort of hated it I always wanted to go back, and I finally did in 2017. And that of course was a different trip. That time I didn’t spend the trip hungover. I met actual Cubans. I stayed with Cubans. I met a wonderful girl from Denmark to travel with for part of the trip. I witnessed a Santeria ceremony on the beach. But most of all I got an appreciation for Cuban life, appreciating things we take for granted in the US, and just kind of going…slower. Spending time with family. Talking and laughing. Swimming. Walking. There ain’t a whole lot else to do in Cuba.

En Cuba….

Jenny Newman and the author.