12 May, 2006

This is a statue of Fernando VII, which seemed to attract an undue amount of attention from passing tour groups.

That's a rolled up parchment he's holding in his hands, tourists. Nothing to see here.

Nothing looks as nice as a newly paved street.

Such streetwork seems to be an ongoing process in Havana.

And these are the guys in charge.

All week long we wondered what was in these little rolled up pieces of paper that were being sold all over town. It turns out they were salted nuts. Five rolls for a dollar. And the paper was anything people could get their hands on.

Another odd thing was how the purely Cuban cola can had a very American looking "nutrition facts" box printed on it.

This was the "Chinese restaurant" we went to in "Chinatown." We doubt a Chinese person has ever worked here. They also served "Italian food."

The Capitol building at night.

12 May, 2006

In some ways the time has gone by very fast and in others it seems to have dragged. It seems like only yesterday that we arrived in this strange place and yet the days themselves have felt long and hot. If I was better acclimated to this kind of climate I'm sure I would have gotten a great deal more out of it.

My biggest regret is that we never made it out of Havana. I had wanted to take a train or a bus into the countryside and see a different part of Cuba. But we did only have a few days to get a lot done. And, as we had been warned by many, the trains and buses were notoriously unreliable. The last thing we needed was to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere because of a misinterpreted schedule.

I was also hoping we would be able to do a few interviews with either some people involved in the subject matter we were looking into or even with some average Cubans. I talked to plenty of the latter and even managed to record some of them. But I wasn't about to risk having someone get all paranoid as to what my intentions were or having them targeted by the cops, not that I saw any indication that such a thing was likely. But who was I to take that risk with their lives? Far better to simply observe and report without involving innocent parties. Of course, I wasn't particularly eager to put myself on the radar of the authorities either, and conducting obvious interviews was one way of doing this. As for the specific people we were looking to talk to, managing to actually reach people, such as Bernie's friend at Radio Havana, proved a daunting task. We will keep trying until we leave however. But I'm still quite content with what we have learned so far.

We spent a bit of time on the net again trying to get some more contact info for various people. I found that our biggest challenge was not so much getting past Cuban roadblocks (although the route to the Radio Marti site was most definitely being blocked) but rather dealing with stupid spam filters. Not only was most of my legitimate mail sent to my newly created Hotmail account being classified as spam (having this account allowed me to read at least some of my mail from an unsecured terminal) but outbound mail was being caught by other systems and labeled as spam, perhaps merely because it came from Hotmail. Talk about stupid things to get frustrated by.

On the subject of jamming, we ran some tests on our AM/shortwave radio and found a curious pulsating bit of static in various spots, most of which seemed to coincide with the Radio Marti frequencies we had. I can't say for sure that what we heard was jamming - that will require a bit of analysis back home - but one thing was for certain: we couldn't hear Radio Marti at all. So whether it was because they weren't strong enough to reach us, they weren't broadcasting at all, or because they were actually being successfully jammed, it seemed clear that whatever money was being spent on this U.S. propaganda tool simply wasn't paying off. The FM station in Key West seemed a lot more accessible. And the propaganda spewing from its transmitters (sleazy contests, stupid celebrity gossip, and bad music) probably was doing more for the Cubans than for the Americans.

It struck me as my time here grows to a close that in the entire week I didn't see a single airplane in the sky. I guess it makes sense since people don't really have anywhere to go, due to a combination of travel restrictions and cost issues. It will be interesting to see if there's any activity at the airport tomorrow besides us.

Mike and I recorded some sound for "Off The Wall" this afternoon while sitting on a stoop in the middle of the afternoon. I think we summed up a lot of what has been going on here and between that and the other recordings we have, combined with the many impromptu encounters we had with people walking by, we should have enough here for a couple of shows.

I've decided to take some wrappers off of various items for analysis back home. One thing which we both found rather interesting was the barcode setup. Every single package here seems to begin with the same number, which implies that the same company is running everything. Either that or the barcodes aren't even real. I don't know if there's a single place in the entire country where barcodes are being read. Plus it was really weird how certain packaged items were put together, like the can of Cuban soda that had the exact same "Nutrition Facts" in English (font and all) that we're so familiar with back home. My simple question: Why?

We went online for the last time to check in back home and do a few final experiments. We tracked down the machine that was blocking access to the Radio Marti site by running a few traceroutes and seeing where it was stopped. We actually got a login screen which no doubt would have allowed us to make all kinds of changes had we gotten in. We didn't quite have the nerve to try it from there though. Still, it felt good to confirm that there was blocking going on and to be able to see just where it was implemented.

Even though we had spent all of our time in Havana, it was clear that there were many parts of the city we hadn't seen. Chinatown was one of them. That's right, Chinatown in Havana. It just seemed too strange not to see, even though neither of us held out much hope of it being anything like what we were used to back home. Finding vegetarian food in New York's Chinatown is hard enough and it's been pretty near impossible this last week in Havana. So mixing these two elements together would certainly be enlightening and quite possibly catastrophic.

We wandered through the still sweltering streets looking for a sign of this neighborhood. Sure enough, just like every Chinatown I've ever been to, there was a gate announcing its beginning. But that was about it. The streets and the people pretty much looked the same on either side of the gate. No evidence of Asian culture was apparent.

It took a bit of searching but we found a place with flashing lights and a Chinese-sounding name. They served Chinese, Italian, and Cuban food. Whee. Right next door was another place and this one actually had a pissed off looking Chinese guy standing outside. I asked to see a menu but there wasn't anything Mike could eat so we wound up going next door to the Chinese/Italian/Cuban place that probably never had a Chinese person actually inside it. There were all sorts of Confucius quotes on the walls and menus. I can only imagine what Confucius would have really said had he stumbled upon this place.

It wasn't horrible but it had the distinct taste of a Cuban attempt at Chinese food making. And I just wasn't able to reconcile seeing plates of spaghetti going by while I tried to find something Chinese on the menu. But again, it was a nifty experience to try out.

In addition, it brought us to a part of town near the Capitol that I wished we had spent more time at. I guess it was a whole lot more ritzy - the buildings were large, ornate, and well maintained. The roads here were actually paved with asphalt and traffic lights were at several of the intersections. But in retrospect, where we stayed was a whole lot more authentic so I imagine I would have been less content overall if I had stayed in the luxurious part of town.

We had to walk all the way back through the dark streets where loud groups of people gathered to sit on the curb, play games of dominoes and checkers, or try to get the naive tourists to buy something from them. (I learned that almost all these interactions go the same way: "Hello, my friend, where are you from?" followed by a convivial discussion that invariably put down Castro and talked up the United States. Then they would offer to "help" you in some way, whether it be by obtaining some item for you or changing money. In the end, it always came down to you making some kind of a donation to them or trusting them to do something for you, much like my experience with the tickets. There were exceptions - people who actually did care where you were from. You could tell the difference with a little training. But it inevitably results in you not being as open to people as you could be which is, I suppose, just common sense.)

Also on the dark streets were cops (at least one per block) who basically just stood there, occasionally interacting with the residents, never with us. And then there were the dogs scampering around everywhere. You really had to watch your step on the streets though as there were numerous potholes and just plain holes, not to mention the occasional puddle of sewage. But through all of this, there existed a sort of carnival atmosphere.

We weren't able to stay out too late as we had to check in at the airport at around 7:30 am. Tomorrow it was back in the States and quite a bit of uncertainty as to how we would be greeted. I cannot wait.