11 May, 2006

Never again will I complain about bumpy New York streets.

An assortment of vendors and tourists.

A window display of some of Havana's most familiar sights.

This was a really big drug store that had construction going on around it.

While Mexican Coke could be found, this was the cola you were more likely to get. It has a sort of C&C taste.

If you asked for lemonade you could easily get this instead. Note that it comes from the same company as tuKola. Most every beverage here does.

Again I spotted the money van making its rounds.

Every now and then you can find a shop that takes credit cards. But no American credit card will work here.

Pizza sitting out in the sun proved to be a rather popular commodity.

This is the kind of payphone that you have to use if you want to call the States with a prepaid card. Good luck finding one that works.

The street cleaner makes its way down a popular route.

Shortly afterwards, the garbage truck comes by.

This is another weird thing about this place. I've seen lots of people walking around in the heat and humidity carrying whole cakes with no packaging at all.

When you have so many dogs running around, you'd better get used to the fact that nobody's running around cleaning up after them.

A street merchant selling all kinds of items, all of which I'm prohibited from buying by George W. and friends.

A remnant from the past?

A different part of town in the embassy district where there aren't so many old cars and where there's a bit more nature to be found. I'm told it's meant to resemble Miami.

These trees really caught my attention from a distance.

They almost seem like they don't belong on this planet.

It was like looking at some complex form of intelligence. I'm sure I'll have nightmares.

One of many fishing vessels seen in the Gulf of Mexico.

A couple of high rises by the water. I didn't see a single air conditioner in either.

The Hotel Melia Cohiba which looked pretty expensive from a distance.

Yet another kind of taxi.

A symbolic race between the old and the less old.

11 May, 2006

We're slowly starting to get onto a decent schedule in anticipation of Saturday's crack of dawn departure. Today I actually got up at around 7 am. I should be dead tired before midnight and as long as I stick to this schedule I should be in good shape.

We actually managed to check out the complimentary breakfast at the hotel for the first time. Not much of a selection but it sure beat Miami. This also came in handy because I'm now officially in a cash crisis, in no small part due to the jerk who stole the $50 or so from me. So I need to be careful over the next couple of days, especially considering there are going to be other charges such as a couple of phone calls we made from the room, a taxi to the airport (which hopefully won't be another $50 ripoff), and an actual departure fee that needs to be paid when we leave.

We went over to the Internet cafe to download last night's show and catch up on mail. I got about 10k a second download speed on my laptop. Bernie sent us the contact info for a friend of his at Radio Havana and some info on Radio Marti, the propaganda station beamed over here by the U.S. government. Unfortunately he sent me links instead of the actual frequencies and the links timed out. I suspect they're being blocked but I'll know for sure if it happens again later. I asked him to send the actual frequencies so we can see if those are receivable here. Hopefully they'll show up in time.

We did OK on the fundraiser but not as well as I had hoped, primarily because there weren't enough volunteers at the station to answer phones. We'll have another chance in two weeks.

We went back to the room to listen to the show which kept us out of the noontime sun for an hour. It's amazing to me how quickly you can get drained just by walking around in the oppressive heat. I suppose it's all a question of acclimating yourself. But I really don't think humans were designed for this kind of weather. From the looks in their faces, neither were furry dogs and cats. Anyway, the show sounded good, with a minimal amount of people stepping on each other due to the satellite delay. Thanks to Arseny, Redbird, Walter, Jim, and Juintz for keeping things going back home.

It was time to go out again. Mike wanted to check his Cuban email account to see if any messages had come in and I was just content to meander around outside watching people go by and getting some occasional good photos. I also decided to change another 60 euros so I would have something to live on for the next two days. I have another 40 after that and then it's just U.S. dollars which you can get changed here for a steep price. Let's hope it won't come to that.

I also stopped in the air conditioned camera store to pick up a mini DV tape but mostly to just hang around and enjoy the cool temperatures. I think a lot of the people waiting for pictures were doing the same thing. After all, who waits around for pictures?

I met up with Mike and we got the soft ice cream cones we saw everyone eating on the street. They were well worth the $1 each. The really cheap things here tend to be the most enjoyable.

We decided to try and visit the Internet center in Havana. These were basically the people who handed out domain names to Cuban businesses and people. We wanted to learn more about the process and how inclusive or exclusionary it really was.

We didn't want to get ripped off on another taxi so we had our hotel call one for us. When it arrived, I noticed a very big difference between it and the last one we had ridden in. This car wasn't ancient. In fact, it seemed almost new. And on top of everything else, it actually had air conditioning! I'm starting to realize that there are two classes at work here. Two currencies, one for the natives and one for the tourists. And now two kinds of taxis, split along the same boundaries. No wonder the cab driver the other night said he wasn't allowed to take foreigners. Those old cars weren't for us. At least, not for us to ride in. Thank God for our ignorance. Riding in that ancient vehicle was one of the coolest things I'd done in a long time.

It was a nice change though to actually ride in a vehicle with working air conditioning for a change. It really put a whole new perspective on things. I wondered how many of the people we were passing had never gotten the opportunity to experience this.

Apparently the driver thought we'd be more comfortable listening to American music so he switched on 92.7, which is a station from Key West. I didn't know people freely listened to American commercial radio but clearly they did. And after listening to only a few minutes of relentless selling and really awful music complete with a pathetically hyped up DJ, I really started to have second thoughts about going back. It sounded so ridiculous.

This guy wasn't ripping us off at all. He had the meter going and we got all the way out to a neighborhood with embassies and weird looking trees for under $10. It was a good taxi experience, one of the few I've had. We got the driver's number in case we had to find a cab back.

Unfortunately, we never made it past the elderly female security guard who kept telling us that the Internet people were there but they were not there, whatever that meant. It was clear that we weren't going to get anywhere with her so we started on our way again. We weren't really sure where we were going. We just picked a direction and started walking.

There were relatively few of the ancient cars here. Instead of being from the 50s, most of the cars looked like they were from the 70s and 80s. This was definitely a more well-to-do part of town, apparently made up to resemble Miami.

We wandered through the streets, making our way to the shoreline and heading back towards where we had come from. I definitely didn't want to walk all the way back but this was much more pleasant than being on the hot, sunny, and crowded streets of the old part of town. In the distance looking north over the water we could see a couple of freighters moving slowly past. Hard to believe it was only 80 miles to Florida.

After walking a while we spotted what appeared to be a shopping mall of sorts. It was basically a small number of stores spread out over three floors. The few air conditioned stores got a good deal more attention from me. I noticed how much more expensive certain items were. A little boombox with tape, radio, and CD outputs was going for $700. I couldn't imagine anyone here ever being able to afford that. I sure as hell couldn't.

We got a taxi back from the "mall" and started to think about the evening. We would have to get on the net again to try and get some contact info which so far hadn't panned out. Bernie's friend at Radio Havana had a disconnected number and we were having little luck even getting the phone number for Radio Havana. Their website was a nightmare.

Bernie had sent us the frequencies for Radio Marti since the website was being blocked from here. Unfortunately they were nearly unreadable as it was a pasting of a chart with dozens of times and frequencies - all in Spanish too. But I could see a couple of medium wave (AM) frequencies) listed so I would check into those tomorrow since they would be the most accessible to people here.

It was time to think about food again which we only did out of necessity. I have to say that food here overall has been pretty uninspiring. It was particularly hard for Mike, being a vegetarian. Much of the time all he could eat was rice and beans since these people like to throw meat into just about everything else. And the few exceptions, like last night's visit to a Lebanese place, proved to be mediocre at best. But this is pretty much what we had both expected.

We settled on an Italian place that really didn't have a whole lot going for it atmosphere-wise. The outdoor cafe appeared to be on a paved lot next to a parking garage. A swarm of taxi drivers and drunken locals were socializing near the entrance, providing diners with some entertainment. And if that wasn't enough, little dogs trotted in and out of the place, looking for scraps. One of the waiters had an interesting approach to dealing with the latter. He would make a little kissing sound, the kind you make when you think an animal is particularly cute and want them to come to you. Then in the next second he would smack at them with one of the menus. He spent a lot of time running around as none of the dogs were falling for this nor would any of them stay out of the place for very long.

Naturally there was a band playing here as well. Every single band that I've seen performing, regardless of the venue, has had a CD to sell. It's rather amazing when you think of it. All of these bands having the ability to record their songs, press them onto CD, create some sort of packaging and artwork, and distribute them on their own. Between CD sales, donations from diners, and whatever the establishment was paying them for being one of the house bands, the potential to do well was at least somewhat realistic.

We had a rather obscured view of the water and at one point a huge freighter passed right by. It was mostly empty but the little white tower structure was unmistakable. I thought back fondly on my ten days at sea last year on just such a vessel. Of course, any vessel that docks here is probably forbidden from docking anywhere in the States.

The food here exceeded my expectations in badness. Maybe it would have been better if I had actually gotten something close to what I had ordered. (Chicken with pesto sauce was interpreted as pork with lots of fat served in rice.) Being somewhat starving and not wanting to be overly American in attitude, I just ate what I was given. That's often the way of the world and it certainly could have been worse. In this case though, that would have been tough. But at least food wouldn't be on my mind again for some time to come.

We decided to cap off the evening by visiting an alleged 24 hour Internet cafe in a different part of town. Actually, it would require us passing by the same section where our friend Rafael had accosted us. As time went by, I realized that I was thinking of revenge more than I had initially. If I saw him, I knew it wouldn't be pleasant. It was bad enough that he charged us $20 for tickets that cost a total of eight cents. And then to say that EACH ticket was $20. But to take off with the $15 in change we were owed for the cab ride was the final straw. I was perfectly willing to pay something extra to get to the game as information from other sources hadn't been particularly forthcoming. But this guy had gotten way too greedy. I didn't know for sure exactly what I would do if I ran into him again. There were many options. I may have even been able to get him in trouble for his anti-Castro remarks. Not that I would ever really do such a thing. But I've found that when handing out revenge, it's best for your target to not know what you're actually capable of. I also knew I wasn't going to resort to any sort of physical altercation. It's not my style and the mere thought of tainting what has been a completely nonviolent atmosphere all around me was something I could never justify. I was confident I'd think of something appropriate. If I saw him.

On the subject of violence, it's a rather strange thing. The people here are all so warm and close to each other, cops included. Unlike in the States, it seems as if the cop on the corner actually lives somewhere near the corner. What's weird is that there are so many of them. I'm wondering if I'm witnessing some sort of fear of the people on the part of the government and that these "enforcers" are put into place to keep the masses in line. I've seen such concern expressed in other areas too: guards with machine guns collecting money from stores on a crowded street in the middle of the day, the apparent standard frisking which went on at the baseball game. All I know is that the standard street cops would never do anything against the people because in every interaction I've witnessed, they were part of the people, not some kind of occupying force the way cops are viewed in most parts of the States.

We made it to the Telegraph Hotel, site of the 24 hour Internet cafe which turned out to be nothing more than a couple of terminals in the lobby. The non-Internet cafe was rather nice, an open-air hangout with a bar and, naturally, a band hawking their CD and hitting everyone up for donations. But it was still a relaxing and friendly place to be, like so many of the places here are. And it was yet another place to get a Mojito.

There were a number of larger hotels in this region which was near the Capitol building. The streets here were actually paved with asphalt rather than cobblestone and there were even traffic lights at the intersections. It would appear that we were at the border of the historic district. It being nighttime and the temperature not being as oppressive, it seemed as if we were in a different place entirely.

Tomorrow would be our last full day in Havana. We were hoping to get a lot accomplished for both radio and print to cap off all of the material we've already gotten.