Cuba

November 2016.

Cuba touched my heart.

It enters straight in the top 10 of my best trip adventures.

It was the first time for me departing on my own with a group of unknown people. I have to say we were a cool group of people, well-matched, and our tour leader was a navigated traveler and this always makes the difference. If someone would ask me: things can go really bad or really well in a group like this, it depends on your attitude. If you are prepared to share space and time with people that might be very different from you, then you will get along. In the end it’s just for 2 weeks. Keep it relative.

We had a little bus and a local guide taking us around for 2 weeks.


Wherelse in the world can you stop on the highway (carretera central) and have mojito or a pina colada in a palm kiosk???

We slept in the casa particular almost everywhere and ate the food the restless ladies would cook for us for dinner and breakfast. It was fantastic to enter their houses and sometimes sleep in their own beds (you have to imagine that for a one night stay you pay an amount corresponding to an average month salary, so you can understand what a good deal this is).

I have been to other 3rd World countries before, but Cuba was different. In other places (Thailand for example) you slightly feel assaulted, you feel most of the time like a walking wallet, like a scam target. To the point of asking yourself if your presence there is really appreciated, if it actually does anything good for the people, for their economy, if it’s worth it, if it is not just the arrogant dream of the western man to go around the world and put a check on the map he has at home. (I do have a scratchmap myself by the way, just to keep it honest. And I do feel I want to see as many places as possible in my life… but sometimes I ask myself these questions.)

But Cuba is a peaceful place, and quite safe. We never felt in danger nor the people who asked us things bothered us or invaded our personal space. It is quite surprising though to realise that no one asks you for money directly, they actually can’t buy the things they wish because they don’t have them there. The shops look pretty sad. Shelfs and shelfs of the same 2 or 3 items.

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shelves full of the same product

So, instead, they ask you for t-shirts, make-up, soap, shoes, candies… I think I have seen the highest level of happiness ever into the eyes of a kid to whom we gave some candies, it made me think of my niece at home and all the toys she has and still wants more, and a candy is just a candy to her – not a treasure.

I give you an example: at the end of the trip I wanted to throw away my worn out sandals but my host lady asked me to give them to her instead. Can you feel proud or generous about something that? I felt a bit ashamed to be honest. But the dignity and the pride of the Cuban people really impressed me. They are very creative and reinvent constantly objects because they cannot throw them away; they have the best mechanics capable of repairing 100 times these old fashion colorful cars. Once I was riding a taxi that had my age! Rolando the driver was amasing. He took us on a moskvich up to the Sierra Maestra all in first gear. It was magical.

Culturally also Cubans are quite rich: such a mix of different origins and traditions and genetics. Cubans are blond as well as dark, they are white as well as mulatto. They can be quite different one another, but they are all integrated. Maybe living on an island and under a special regime helps to create cohesion, so it seemed to me quite a positive example to look at nowadays. I admire the way the aboriginal tradition managed to survive in a mélange with the imposed Christianity creating unique religious forms. (You know the story of this old Italian lady whose niece discovered she has been praying for years to a statue of a Star Wars character that she was believing was Saint Antonio? Well a bit like that, it made me think it’s not the form that counts but the meaning you put in it. In the Cuban Santeria in order to worship secretly their Orishas (semi-god and goddess) the people used to pray to the Christian saints, in this way they managed to keep their own beliefs alive and not being caught.)

Before departing, I found some people reacting a bit weird when I mentioned I was going to Cuba. People like insinuating things and being malicious, but I understood that the same geographical place can hide multiple types of destinations. Cuba is a typical example of such a bias.

All my friends who have been there before me and have similar points of view, where really enthusiastic. Most of all I wanted to go there before everything started to change too much. Well, timing couldn’t have been better because Fidel died while I was in the middle of the tour (we’ll get back to that later)!

On the same plane there were people going to a resort to spend 2 weeks at the beach during the day and with free alcohol at night. Each day the same. But holidays like that could be everywhere on earth, no??? Why bothering to go far? Other people (old people) going to meet their local partner for a relationship that is consumed few months per year. The habitual customers. And then people like me, the modest adventurous travelers.

You might already know I have a thing for the places I like to call “fucked up”, i.d.: falling apart, decadent and shabby (like certain Eastern European cities). Cuba has this flair throughout. But Havana especially. Havana avenues for me could easily beat the glamorous Champs-Elysees, no joking. There are so many beautiful palaces with that colonial style that everywhere else has been knocked down to make space to modern stuff, but if they ‘d just receive a little attention and care… and then there are little hidden gems, like restaurants and bars inside certain buildings that at first sight you would bet they are closed for imminent collapse danger. It’s all there to discover.

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The local mountain taxi – photo by Lucio P.

And then Fidel died. It was at the crack of dawn when we got up to depart for the tracking in the Sierra Maestra. And the rumor started spreading in the group as people from Italy were sending text messages about this epic event. We could not believe it, it was such a special day. We visited the camp site in the forest and got exhausted by the 6 hours trail. Unfortunately the downside of being part of Cuban history while it’s developing is that the atmosphere totally changed, they stopped playing music in the casa della musica of every town we visited, and also stopped serving alcohol in most of the places, including those for tourists. In any case you can choose only between 2 beer brands: Bucanero and Cristal, but still we were craving one of those at each dinner after long and hot days walking around or after 6 hours transfer on the bus.

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Sierra Maestra panorama

We bought the local newspaper as souvenir which was quite an adventure per itself, we watch the local TV which broadcasted with no pause all the events and all the interviews ever recorded on Fidel. We talked to the people and we felt their grief. Because despite all you can say to criticize this government, Fidel was one of the most important leaders of our century, a powerful symbol of a dated ideal. It’s not easy to judge what is good or bad. You have to see it with your eyes. You have to understand the value of freedom like we perceive it in our part of the world and that we give for granted most of the time. But really isn’t.

If I just can tell you one thing would be to take time to go see places like this in your life, where things work different than in our reality, because you come back with eyes wide open, you come back and you re-asses things, you re-weight your values. It’s like a mental reset to me.

Finally, the only few days at the beach for me were enough. The weather was mostly cloudy and windy – which is ok being during their winter, but not to really enjoying swimming or even sunbathing (occasionally raining).Don’t get me wrong, Caribbean sea is indeed wonderful and crystal clear. It all made me feel like I want to discover much more of Central America now. I hope it will inspire you too.

Oh, sorry, wait a minute, I was about to leave you without talking about food!!! I loved all the exotic fresh fruits and juices and things I never ate before like guayaba. We ate a lot of lobster as well, meals consist mainly of white or black rice with beans plus chicken or fish, some side dishes like platano chips, tapioca and yucca. Interesting fact: red meat is rare and quite expensive, reserved for tourists, because there is an actual law that forbid the population to kill cows.

Ok, You can go now.

Havana view terrace la Guarida

Annunci

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas (October 2013)

Writer’s Notice: this is fiction, but I thought it would be more funny tell you the story this way instead of saying that I had a great time and everything was amazing. Dot. So, I spiced it up a little…

Folks, let’s face it, in Vegas everything has to be The Best. We all have to have the best nights of our life, it’s all pushed to the limit: if you kiss you can’t just kiss someone, you have to kiss in 4 in a sort of group kiss where all the mouths and tongues mingle together – like I saw on the dance floor of the Vodoo Lounge- if you eat you have to eat in the most trendy restaurant with the best chef; if you drink if you have to get so wasted that you erase totally the hard disk of your mental memory; if you are tipsy/on the way to be drunk (this happened to someone I know) they have to take you out from the club on a wheelchair from the backdoor while 2 American girls following you scream “ OH MY GOOOOOD! She needs to go to the H-O-S-P-I-T-A-L!!” (Seriously, the wheelchair was not necessary, she just needed a bit of fresh air…). If you wear heels they have to be climb-the-ladder sort of high heels, that if you fall from up there you need 15 surgeries to fix your ankles. If you are fat you have to be obese and if you are fit you have to be obsessive-healthy-vegan-eating fit (but this is just America as a whole actually) …and so on and so on… is just NOT the place for being reasonable, well-balanced people or born under the Libra zodiac sign.IMG_0471

I arrive there, coming from 5 super chilling days in LA were people are super laid back, smoking weed at Venice beach, enjoying the sunset after surfing. Vegas looks like a giant amusement park without borders, everything is designed to suck the money out of your wallet. All of the lights: bling-bling, the noise of the slots: ting-ting, the laser of the Luxor pointing the sky (the most powerful on the earth, can be seen from the atmosphere!!!), the fake eruption of the Mirage, the sharks in the aquarium, the roller coasters, the lions in the garden of the MGM, the excursion tours, the fountains, the naked oily strippers, the homeless, the beggars, the street artists, the coloured feathers, the tingle, the illusionists, the magic, the shows, the pools, the souvenirs, the shops, the gadgets, the alcohol, the parties…

I am immediately overexcited, overwhelmed, like a kid first time at Disneyland, like in an endless Xmas Eve. I breathe adrenaline. I smell it. You want to do and see and touch everything. And you just don’t want to sleep. For this, there are some little pink bottles sold at the gift shops called after the movie The Hang Over, that are like a pure concentrate of Redbull. They tell me it works, but taken with moderation. Moderation is a word that has no meaning and no use whatsoever in Vegas – I object! – and I immediately buy 2 for 9 $. And then 2 more, as souvenir before leaving…

First night. In Vegas it’s easy to get things for free, or at least they make you think you do. Just walking around the casino and you meet a PR, you get a bracelet and he promises you to get in for free including drinks if you go to his club. Works sometimes, but sometimes you get to the door and they don’t have your name because you never replied to and SMS you never got from the PR as your mobile mysteriously doesn’t work abroad.

Getting ready thinking that I will look good and discover 5 minutes later that I am totally underdressed for Vegas style -even if I am wearing something so sparkling and short and glittery that I could only wear it again next Xmas if wanting to resemble a Xmas tree. Got chat up by 3 different drunk guys within 1 hour. I am still a bit stiff though, and tired…

Second night and the travel group already shows signs of dismantling, each of us struggling to decide what to do, what to prioritise, fighting to impose our interests… but we are going to have dinner altogether.

“We get ready”. They seem again just 3 simple words… but in reality Las Vegas poses many fundamental challenges to all women on the getting ready subject: one of those is the heels marathon as anticipated above. Because if you take me, that I am a crazy dancer and in general someone that when goes out, instead of spending the evening in pain, prefers to kick asses on the dance floor, I basically never wear heels. I might do with a lot of mental preparation if it’s a special weekend, so max on a whole Saturday night and then take the Sunday off to recover on flat shoes and pediluvio (aka foot bath). But in Las Vegas every day is a Saturday night, so no matter how long you will stay, you’ll have to be on top all the time! It’s the ultimate challenge for anyone’s feet! So let’s suppose that the outfits are chosen and ready (which is of course not an easy task after the Xmas attempt) we still have a lot to do about the shoes. I read in the guide book that all clubs had a note at the bottom like “dress to impress” or “dress to kill”. In this case the shoes are for sure made to kill -yourself- not the ones that look at you! I have never seen more bare foot women like in Vegas passed the hour! Therefore I mostly go out with a tiny bag with my golden ballerinas (Golden because they are literally precious in those moments but they are seriously covered in golden glitters! I tell you, fit all dresses! Perfect!) If on day 1 you can make it till 3 am on the heels, on day 2 you are already crying at around midnight and so on for day 3 and 4…

So after all this what-the-hell-do-I-wear-dilemma, we rush to catch the free shuttle bus to town, but it’s barely an 8 seater, obviously full, so we need to pay the taxi. There you realize that your hotel is great but why the hell did you not book something on the Strip directly, instead of adding to your bill 12 $ of taxi each way whenever you want to go out from it?!

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We walk around, but as I am a notable freaking planner, wandering around without a plan and most of all crossing places I have already seen in the morning, it simply drives me mad! So there you are, ready to fight with your travel companions because it’s natural after 10 days of non-stop co-existence. Someone realizes that he forgot his ID, hence can’t go anywhere without it and we need to go back and get it. I tell you that nowhere like in Vegas I felt more under-aged. I got asked all the time if I was sure I was old enough, I mean, ok it starts being flattering and it ends up being offensive! A stupid card dealer at blackjack table stopped me even from watching others playing unless I would proof my age. I gave my Swiss driving license stating “I am thirty!!! (WTF)”, and she repeated “ahhh thirteen…” What??? She believed it?! Then as I gave her my evil face waving around my driving license, she even called the manager as they had to check my document in the computer to make sure… what’s wrong with Swiss IDs? Well, I tell you, the bouncers normally all look for birth date first and then expiration dates, but hey we don’t have one, Swiss driving licenses are limitless, so even when I am going to be a senile grandma I’ll still drive! He wanted to make sure it wasn’t fake.

On the plane it happened also! I asked the hostess for a little Californian white wine to get me to sleep and she said: “You look so young, are you sure you are at least 21?” (I look young??? Is young now a synonym of crap? Because I just feel I look like shit with no make-up, the hair like a bush and 2 eye bags as big as my carry on after 10 hours journey! I thought this would make me look older actually!!!).

We finally arrive at the restaurant and I am already tired of standing. My friend who made the reservation just texted saying that she is on her way –aka she is mathematically not less than 30 min late all the time… So the 2 top models that are working as receptionists and are supposed to let you to your table, they politely scold you off as you can’t be seated unless the whole group is there checking-in together. Such a fuss! Yes! Restaurants have a check-in procedure and a check-in desk, like if you were flying to Timbuktu!

When the late friend comes, it seems a joke, but part of the others is already lost into the huge shopping mall -as they were tired of waiting and went for a round! More waiting… When we finally re-group, the models walk us in, by the time we sit it’s 21.30 and I haven’t eaten since 12.00. I am on that hunger stage where I have cramps and no one should talk to me if they care for their life. The restaurant is super cold as the Americans are conditioning sick. Nonetheless they keep serving us jugs of water with a kilo each of ice cubes and frozen cocktails on the side. Tummy congestion anyone? It’s free and included in the meal! The ambience is weird. In order to be a super cool restaurant they decided to have club music pumping the beats at full volume. I thought dinners where occasions to rely and talk. Here no one can hear a thing, not even the waiter when we order! He has to prone down to your mouth to guess what you want and combine some reading-lips skills! By the time we make it and get the plate is past 22.00. Who is in the mood for drinking now? I actually wish to, but would be better to go straight to plain whisky (NO ICE!).

Oh! Good news! We are told that we can get free entrance to the club downstairs: we get one stamp on the wrist! Finally P-A-R-T-Y. But the doorman bounces us back to the starting point saying we have to queue again outside to show our IDs before we can go in the club! I feel like a game token in monopoly. We get another stamp after the second queue. And guess what? Girls enter for free. Yeey. Another stamp. To prove I am actually female I need a stamp?? In Vegas you actually never know… At this point I get an allergic reaction to the ink on my skin! We get to the bar and we discover that to have free drinks till 23.30 we are actually supposed to queue again in another line for the guest list and get a bracelet! And It’s now 23.20 – F*ck it.

Ok time to dance. Considering what I said in the introduction, it does not take me long to realize that all the human beings around us are just too wasted. So no man can be considered able to have a conversation with you which would lead to a bit of flirting. It’s just all or nothing at this point. Someone simply tries to thrust his tongue into my mouth without asking permission while he is passing by. Another guy (and this is maybe the most weird approach I have ever experienced in my life!) mumbles in my ears “you surely have a husband, but you are gorgeous” and instantaneously leaves. What a way is that if I can’t even answer that actually NOT, I AM NOT MARRIED…

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This supercool deejay in this super cool TAO club is changing song every 10 seconds! I can’t even dance!!!

Third night. After a full day of running, walking, sweating, roller coasting, driving, visiting, climbing up the Stratosphere and exploring the Old Vegas, It’s girls Night in the amazing terrace of the VODOO Lounge! This is my fav night! The music is right, the mood is right, we are all equally and in the right measure tipsy. We get approached by a man with his companion inviting us into his private area that is an amazing terrace on top of Vegas. He pours us drinks and I start being sceptical. Some people say I waste the fun being always so cautious, but after he told me he is Italian he started touching my ass! In the US you meet often people calling themselves Italians, just because their grandma’s grandma maybe was. But they really believe they still are even without knowing a single word or anything about our culture (which in fact does not include spaghetti con polpette!). So when people asked me where I was from and said Italian, my friend rushed to add after me: “she is real Italian, not like American Italian!”. After the nice man has tried to grab each and every of our asses under the eyes of his partner, we just feel a bit embarrassed and try to come up to the dance floor again. We finally leave, I remember a glass elevator and people screaming Mexico. It’s my friend! Then we get lost in the casino and start playing poker, making new friends and so and so… I think we ended up in Mac Donald’s. But do you know that even Mac Donald’s in Vegas instead of their normal sign have a special old-fashion-casino-style-sign with all lighting bulbs?!

As a conclusion after paying a fortune to stay at the Palms in a double suite, our door keys never worked properly, we got locked out several time, we had to call first the maid with the master key, then a technician of the magnetic door lock and then David Copperfield in person who thankfully has a permanent show going on in town! But the receptionist wouldn’t let me in on the first night neither give me a second key as the room had only one name – so why didn’t you tell us at check-in that you needed to register us all to avoid problems??? Am I supposed to sleep on the floor? And pay that much to be locked out??? I feel horrible but start knocking till someone gets up to open the door for me. It’s maybe 4 am! After a tough negotiation we got a free SPA entry… hey you don’t try to fool me, I have worked in tourism! It turns out that the “SPA” was as big as the bathroom of my double suite…

But hey, we are in Vegas…. wasn’t it supposed to be fun???

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