Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cuba Pt 2 - La Habana Vieja

Walking the streets of Old Havana, you feel like you have just walked into the past. There is a sort of timeless quality to it. Like you have stumbled upon an old European city that has fallen asleep. The buildings are covered with generations of dust and though the buildings are strong, they show the wear of many years. The once biright colors seem slightly faded. The streets are narrow and uneven. Your feet fall hard on the cobbled stones. Ancient cannons mark the boundaries of the old city and block cars, motorbikes, and bicycles from entering.The breeze is cool but the air is thick.

The buildings may look like they have been sleeping for a hundred years, but the streets are filled with life. From dawn until late into the night the streets are filled with people talking, laughing, and singing. Vendors sell baked goods like fried coconut balls smothered in caramelized sugar. They yell out "Cooooooooco!" and crowds of people swarm to get a taste. Street dogs appear at your feet as if from no where. These pups seem indifferent to both people and each other. They do not beg or bite but merely look up at you with heartbreaking eyes and all you want is to cuddle them. That is until you look closely and see just how dirty they are.

Every morning there is a book market in the Plaza de Armas. The square is packed with tables and shelves of old books and trinkets. Antique camera, military pins, and old coins cover the tables in front of the book shelves. Picture frames feature pre-revolution currency which, as is pointed out by many people, looks surprisingly like the United States currency. The towers of books are filled with histories and biographies of Fidel Castro, Jose Marti, and overwhelmingly, Che Guevara. Occasionally, you can find a book in English like the Constitution of Cuba. The square is wide and fresh air flows in from the Canal de Entrada which lies just beyond a row of buildings. Between the breeze and the shade provided by tall trees in the center of the square, it is easy to peruse the book market for hours and never grow tired.

La Habana Vieja is packed with tiny museums that document much of the history of the city, old automobiles, and military weapons. There are even museums for spices, perfume, and chocolate. There is a museum that features a lighted model of the city with a docent who tells you different facts about the city. In the lobby of this particular museum there are stacks and stacks of old Cuban movie posters from the 1960's. An hour could easily be spent devouring the visual delights from these posters. Graphic designers, feel free to swoon. There are no signs or advertisements for any of these places. They are quite literally, hole-in-the-wall joints. Walking down the street you might see an open door that leads to an art gallery or exhibit. If you aren't one to go poking around, you might never see the wonders that hide in the city.

Between the museums, art galleries, and tourist shops, there are the cafes. Small and unassuming, these place give you the opportunity to really be able to take everything in. The food is simple and delicious. The beer sucks but you don't even care because nothing feels better than going to a cafe for lunch, getting a ham and cheese sandwich, and sipping a Bucanero while you watch people saunter by. Isn't that how you really experience a city? When you just sit and watch? There are caricature artists that come by and for a CUC or two will draw you. Be prepared to be portrayed about fifteen years older than you really are.

Bands of musicians play softly while you eat and its only then that you realize the music you have been hearing, the music that fills the streets, that follows your footsteps is live and coming from these artists. They wander from cafe to cafe, bar to bar playing music and singing songs so beautiful you can't help but stop to listen. The songs they sing seem to be known by everyone around you. Old men hum the tune to themselves while women begin singing along. The women sing as beautifully as the musicians. Young men move to the beat and gently beat the rhythm on their chests and you wonder if the music matches the beating of their hearts.

The Malecon is a stretch of road that runs along the sea into Havana Port. Across the canal you can see la Cabana, the old fort. Back in the old days, soldiers would fire a cannon at 9 pm every night to signal to the people of Havana to extinguish their lights to protect the city from pirate attacks. This ceremony still exists today. Along the Malecon there are hundreds of old Chevrolet cars from the 1950's. Its shocking to see so many American cars, many seemingly in mint condition, lined up to take tourists for a ride. As the sun sets in the west, the clouds and the water are painted in pinks and purples. You stand leaning against the wall, watching the water, and feel the cool ocean breeze on your cheeks.

La Habana Vieja is beautiful and stunning. You are greeted with such sights and sounds, smells and tastes to convince you that you are some place magical and you truly are. But beyond the cannons and the cobblestones and the tourist glam lies a very different Havana...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cuba Pt. 1 "Why is everyone clapping?"

Every once in a while you are presented with an opportunity you just can't pass up. No matter how busy your life seems to be, you make time for it. This was one of those opportunities.

Its illegal to go there. Talking to people in my parents generation, it feels illegal to even talk about it. Never have I ever experienced a national taboo quite like this. The more I talked about it the more ignorant I felt. I am not a dedicated student of history or politics and it showed in my face anytime someone tried to talk to me about communism, capitalism, the missile crisis or Fidel. My personal experience consisted of I love Lucy and a sandwich.

Everyone had so many questions for me and I felt like such a ham not having any answers for them. Some people were excited for me and told me in hushed voices how they have wanted to go there their whole lives. Some people were outright shocked and disapproving. They told me horror stories of when they were kids hiding under desks waiting for Castro to drop the bomb on them. In some ways I wondered if it was really fair of me to go when so many other people knew so much more than myself. Fuck it. I'm going, I thought. This would probably be the only time I would ever be able to do something like this anyway.

Preparation for travel to Cuba was a bit of a mixed bag. I was infused with excitement, anticipation, and plain old fear. I sat in meetings where one minute we would talk about the project we were working on, the people we would be working with and then suddenly we were talking the logistics of being singled out at the airport. We were warned that absolutely one of us would be stopped and heavily questioned. Don't wear bright colors, don't smile too much, don't frown too much, be aware of your surroundings, don't look suspicious, don't tell them this, absolutely don't tell them that. The anxiety of the intimidation game was building in my tiny little body and I thought I might actually explode from the pressure. After 45 minute sessions of Do's and Don'ts we were reassured that it would all work out fine and soon we would have a Bucanero in our hands. What is a Bucanero?

I woke at 3am and was ready to roll out the door at 4am. For days before my body had been positively humming from the excitement. I could actually feel the vibration of my veins and arteries and hear my heart in my ears. Somehow I managed to sleep on the hour long van ride to the airport. When we arrived we checked in for our domestic connection, weighed our precious cargo, and left our bags with the airline. It had been ages since I had checked baggage and as I walked away from my bag with all my clothes and the parts of the project we had already worked so hard on I suddenly felt very naked and exposed. Ok, this just got real, I thought. 

The plane to Miami was positively freezing and I woke up shivering. Through my bleary eyes I looked out the plane's window to see the most spectacular sunrise. The clouds below gave off a texture of freshly clotted cream and the pinks, purples, and oranges of the sunrise almost brought tears to my eyes. I stared at the sight for several minutes wondering if it was a sign that everything was going to work out just fine.

Another 45 minutes and we walked off the freezing cold plane into the freezing cold meat locker that is Miami International Airport. The line to check-in for the chartered flights nothing short of chaos. There are no signs telling you which flight is which. You could easily spend an hour standing in the wrong line and be none the wiser. Everyone has carts and carts of luggage wrapped in green clingwrap. Families carting TV's, lamps, and crutches are scattered everywhere in no particular order. An old woman came to me to ask me in Spanish if this was the line she needed. I could only smile and say No espanol. Now I wish I had taken Spanish instead of the two other languages I took in high school and college. Somehow our group managed to get to the counter and checked in. Our bags were weighed and checked again. There was a brief awkward moment when we all had to tell the airline representative our individual weights. No secrets now.

The terminal for Cuba flights is the most dismal terminal I have ever been in. Its like a graveyard of forgotten restaurant chains. The Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and Nathan's Hot Dog stand area all empty, cold, and covered with dust. There is no book shop, just a lone cafe serving empenadas and fried plantains.

Waiting is always the worst part of any large endeavor. I can handle any stressful situation when its actually happening, but when forced to wait I imagine the worse of all possible outcomes. What if this happens, or that, or Oh God, what about THIS?!? When I was a kid, I used to believe that I would die before big events happened because I just couldn't fathom how it would be. This seems to be a consistent theme in my life. Please refer to my thesis (once its finished). So just sitting in that empty terminal for hours upon hours waiting was like torture.

Finally, we got on the plane. Wedged lovingly between two good friends, I sat in the middle seat, bouncing with anticipation. I watched as Miami grew smaller and smaller and soon I saw nothing but ocean. The flight was the shortest and longest of my life. I watched the island grow bigger and bigger in the distance. We flew over beaches and fields. After a lifetime of waiting the plane landed on the tarmac. Suddenly, the plane erupted in a sea of cheers and clapping. Why is everyone clapping? My friends and I seemed to be the only ones not celebrating our safe arrival. We all joined the chorus though we weren't sure why.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The "Worst of" List

2011 was a banner year for lil ole me, punctuated by extreme highs and lows. I tend to love/loath "Best of" year end lists but they always provoke me to think about what my "Best of" and "Worst of" lists would be. If one were to use my entire life as the platform, both lists would consist of a disproportionate number of events representing this past year. 

The "Worst of" list would include such events as the death of a dear close friend of literally my entire life. More uncle than friend, he played a larger part in my life than some family members. I grew along side his children and his death was truly a waste. Shortly after this, by a matter of days, was the abrupt ending to a profound relationship. The worst part of losing the lover is losing the friend too. Then, just when I thought I could not handle anymore heartache and grief, an F4 tornado ripped through my town. 

Recently, after another yet-to-be-mentioned 2011 "worst" arose, a good friend joined the chorus of loved ones chiming "Oh honey, you have had the worst year." In many way, yes, I have had a shit year. Looking back, it is hard for me to articulate exactly all that has happened and how it has changed me. Good friends and loved ones tell me that they wish "this" or "that" hadn't happened to me last year, specifically in regards to the break-up and the tornado. I am a dreamer, to be sure, but I am not one to dream the past were different. You can't change the past so why dwell on wishing it were different. You are the experiences you have had and the ways you move on from them. 

It would be easy for me to say that I wish those terrible things had not happened. But that would be a lie. For the last few years I have suffered from some manner of anxiety induced sleep disorder (self-diagnosed by yours truly, Dr. Smarty McSmartspants). I attributed this to anxiety regarding my school work; two programs at once is the dumbest idea I have ever had. I would lay awake in bed, damp from the humidity, unable to get my mind to be still while the Boy slept soundly next to me. I would have droughts of dreamlessness coupled with hypnagogic hallucinations of a man in black staring down on me. The anxiety would have peaks and valleys but it was always there. After the Boy moved out I would have wild nights of sleeplessness coupled with days where I could not open my eyes from the intense sleep I had fallen into. Sleep was the only place I could go where the constant reminder of my former life was not torturing me from around every corner.

After a few weeks I was able to drag myself out of the heavy and protective haze of sleep during the day so that I would not ruin all the hard work I had done in school. And for the first time in two and a half years I was able to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. It was not every night nor was there a consistent pattern but it happened. It was possible I could sleep like normal. I still do not sleep well as most people do. I still lay awake listening to the train whistle in the middle of the night. I still wake to see the blinking of the clock at some ungodly hour. I still struggle to rouse myself in the morning. But it is significantly better than before.

They say that Hindsight is 20/20. I happen to know this is factually true. I was shocked and utterly shattered when the relationship ended. But looking back now I see many things I did not before when I was blinded by love. Anxiety is often exacerbated by many factors. My worries about school were not the only things keeping me up at night, I just could not see it. Somehow, my body knew something was wrong, but my brain refused to recognize it for what it was.

When the tornado blew into town I was still very wounded and broken. When the destruction hit, I was sitting in the basement of the library. The lights had gone out and there was no light in the room save a single bulb across the room behind many shelves. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I could see the faintest light bouncing off the shelves. In that moment, the subtle lines of the shelves reminded me of catacombs. I have tried over and over to articulate the terror and serenity I felt seeing those shelves and I am never able to do it. I suppose no one except those who were there could possibly even understand. Maybe not even them. At the risk of sounding cliche, it was a moment of clarity and closure for me. I emerged from the library knowing my world would never be the same.

In the days that followed I experienced the most life affirming displays of human compassion and solidarity. I, with countless others, helped people claim what they could of their homes and livelihoods. I opened my home to those who needed it and was able to provide them with simple comforts like food, beer, and laughter. I grew closer to my friends here and the community here more than I ever possibly could have without the tornado.

I cannot wish these things did not happen to me nor would I want to. If the relationship had ended sooner than it did, I may never have come here or followed through with my education. If it had ended any later, I would have been living a lie. Mistakes were made on both sides and while some may hate him, I cannot. It may have broken my heart but it was what needed to happen. If the terrible events of April 27th had not happened, I may not have realized that it was truly over. I may never have realized that I could move on. I also would not have seen the greatness that can come from tragedy and the resilience of spirit.

Last year was a hard year but I honestly can't claim it was the "worst." Worst implies there is no value to be drawn. It was the hardest year of my life, to date, but I am grateful for the "worsts." It is because of them I am able to appreciate my "bests."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mastering the Art of Being a Novice

Shit-Hot-Damn. Its 2012. As predicted last semester was so chock full of craziness that I managed to not post a single thing. And here I am, about to embark on the final semester, perhaps of my life, as a student. I cannot express how truly exciting and terrifying that is.

A lot of kids do nothing but complain about school and how they can't wait to get out. I did my fair share of bitching and moaning too but as I got closer to the end of my college days, I realized that I didn't want school to be over. For the semester, sure. But for good? Never in my life had I ever thought I would go to graduate school but shortly after graduation I knew I wasn't done. And now here I am again, staring down the barrel of graduation and not wanting it all to end.

I recently attended a conference where I assisted the moderation of a graduate student round table discussion of "Why Book Arts Now?" Aside from the awesome discussion which I'll talk about in a later post, I was surprised how many students were shocked that my program is three years. "I couldn't imagine being in a three-year program," one student said to me. In all honesty, I feel like three years is not enough. Can you really "master" an art, a craft or any discipline in a mere three years? Two? One even? In a little more than four months I will be able to claim that I am a Master of the Book Arts and a Master of Library and Information Studies. I won't be. I am but a novice.

But isn't that half the fun of being in a bigger world than yourself? I have never been the best student, but those who know me best know that learning and education is a big deal for me. I am constantly wanting to learn new things, read new things, see new things. Isn't that why we are here? To check out the wondrous variety that is out there and decide for yourself what is beautiful and fulfilling? In my lifetime I would like to become a "master" of the following:

The Culinary Arts
Rock Climbing
Deck of Cards Shuffler
Creative Writing
Creating new words that people think are real
Building a house that will be my Home
International Travel
Spanish, French and Italian (in that order)
Identifying living organisms by sight (plants, birds, puppies, etc)
Adobe Creative Suite
Performing basic math operations in my head (multiplication, addition, counting, etc)

Can I possibly master any of these feats in my lifetime? I doubt it. But I'll sure try.