9 May, 2006

A sneaky shot of some of the hardware at the Internet cafe which consisted of three Windows machines and a couple of ethernet cables in a small hotel bar.

It wasn't particularly fast but it did work and the only site we found to be blocked was that of Radio Marti, a propaganda station beamed at Cuba from the United States.

A view of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza from old Havana. Opened in 1577, this is one of Cuba's many national monuments.

Yes, that's Jesus and one of the biggest ones I've ever seen. Visible over the water from old Havana.

The old cars really blend in nicely and are often painted bright colors.

The statue of Maximo Gomez, a hero of Cuban independence. Supposedly someone actually lives inside this thing.

It didn't take long for us to find one of the aforementioned collapsed buildings.

Looking in the distance to central Havana.

The Cuban flag flies near one of the more developed areas. Note: an actual traffic light exists here!

Around 80 miles away is the United States.

Pillars seem to be a staple of society down here.

Another one of my favorite buses.

Somehow buses with Italian and German writing are occasionally spotted around town. I suspect it has something to do with tourists from those nations wanting to avoid having to deal with the public buses.

A somewhat rare Cuban stop sign.

I only caught a glimpse of this car for a moment but it was definitely one of the coolest of all the ones I saw. And it wasn't even the only one of this model which I believe is from the 40s.

These are indeed the dog days of spring.

With the occasional cat to be found as well.

The parking lot outside the Estadio Latinoamericano a couple of hours before game time.

Inside the stadium, about an hour before the game. The noise was deafening at this stage and the stadium quickly became full.

Here there are no individual seats, just bleacher style all around.

The home team (Industriales of Havana) quickly fell behind the visitors (Sancti Spiritus). They caught up and went ahead but would eventually lose this game in a five hour marathon.

The Cuban flag is visible right outside the broadcast booth.

9 May, 2006

We had a lot planned today. We wanted to get to another part of the city and we still had our rendezvous with our shady friend Rafael which hopefully would result in our getting into tonight's game.

But first we hopped onto the Internet again from the access point at the hotel. This time we noticed that they actually had an ethernet cable for use with laptops. That was something to try next time. Connectivity here certainly didn't seem to be too much of a problem, that is, once you finally found a place that provided it.

We've only so far seen a very small part of Havana. The historic district was nice enough but we needed a bigger picture for the sake of accuracy. So we set out to head to the more modern area, visible way off in the distance.

We've asked many people how to use the bus network. Everyone has told us not to bother, that it's inefficient, too complicated, or unpleasant. I'm not sure if any of this is the truth or if they just wanted to keep the buses for themselves. And as for taxis, the less said the better. So that pretty much left walking as our only option. And it would be a long walk.

One thing I'm not particularly good at is enduring the hot sun. Somehow people here are able to get along in this oppressive heat day in and day out. Even at night it feels uncomfortable to me. I feel the way the many collapsed dogs we pass by look. The important thing is to pace oneself and to drink a lot of water. Fortunately the latter is in plentiful supply, although every beverage in this place seems to come from a company called Ciego Montero.

We set out along the road by the water. This was at least a little better as there was a breeze but there was also no shade at all. The busy road next to us provided all sorts of entertainment as old vehicles, honking taxis, and bizarre looking buses and trucks flew by. It took about an hour of trudging but we eventually got to our destination.

This part of town was certainly more modern with high rise buildings and crowds of busy people. There were also a fair number of tourists and a few cafes. We rested a while and hung out at a place that had food and drink plus the inevitable live music. This was also the theater district where Cubans come to escape the heat and see the latest usually imported films. At the two theaters we looked at we saw "Capote" playing as part of a double feature along with "In Cold Blood," and a film about Palestine. We stopped by a small record store that had CDs, cassettes, and a small number of DVDs, mostly films like "Fidel" or documentaries on jazz.

There's a very strange currency situation here where you can get Cuban pesos or "non-convertible" Cuban pesos. The latter is what everyone who lives here uses. Prices tend to be far cheaper for things under that system. But, as the name implies, the money is worthless outside of the country. At the entrance to what looked like some sort of park, we found a little kiosk that converted one form of peso to the other and so we got some authentic Cuban money. Neither of us were entirely sure just what we were going to do with these things as foreigners were often charged an entirely different rate and we didn't look at all like natives. But if nothing else it was an interesting novelty item to have.

One other thing we got our hands on was a genuine phone card. For ten (convertible) pesos we had a card that could theoretically call the States. The biggest challenge as always would be in finding a phone that actually worked. But we still had several days to accomplish that task.

It was time to head back, which involved another long hike through the heat. We had been going through a similar routine each day: lots of walking around and then complete exhaustion for a couple of hours before we did the same thing again in the evening.

Before heading over to meet up with Rafael, we stopped by the hotel with the working Internet connection to communicate with some people back home, plan out tomorrow's show, etc. It all seems so very distant but Florida is only 80 miles away and I haven't even left my time zone. In many ways, this place is even more alien than Mongolia was.

We headed down towards the Floridita where our guy seemed to always be hanging out. Mike wanted to find a phone that would work with the card so we bypassed the meeting spot in order to accomplish this. To dial overseas from one of the blue phones you need to dial 119 for international followed by the country code and number. The first phone we tried this from worked but it immediately cut off upon connection. Great. We were now down to $9.70. Other phones were either a different kind, didn't accept cards, had some sort of a problem with the card insertion section, or had handsets that were completely destroyed. Quite a little scam they had going here with the phone cards, it appeared.

Then out of the blue, guess who appeared? That's right, Rafael had found us yet again. This guy was good - or maybe he had eyes all over town. Well, I did say I was going to meet him so it's not like we were trying to hide from him. But if we were it seems as if it wouldn't have been possible.

We told him we were trying to make a phone call and he showed us where various payphones were located. Along the way I noticed how many people he seemed to know personally. There's a lot of that in Havana - people constantly greeting each other in various ways as they pass by. Unlike in the States, these greetings often include the many cops on the streets.

Eventually we made it down to the train station and found a phone that worked. Mike was able to place a call back home. It went through right away but the volume was low. While he was taking care of that, I figured I'd square things with the guy and the tickets. So I asked if he had them and handed him a twenty when he produced them. Now hopefully he would help us actually get to the stadium. But he had different plans. He asked how my friend was going to pay. I told him my friend had paid me and we were square. That's when the guy announced that the tickets were $20 EACH, not 20 for both. Aha! So this was the scam. I was certain that the deal we had entered into was $20 for both tickets, tickets that clearly said .30 on them if they were even tickets at all. The thing is I didn't have a photographic memory on the matter and I didn't want to be a total prick about it, plus $40 for two tickets to a semifinal game still wasn't a bad deal for me. I told him I only had a very limited amount of cash (which was true because I had left the bulk of it sitting back at the hotel fearing the worst) and I was worried about getting ripped off taking a taxi. So I got him to agree to get us there for around $5. If he could do that, I said I would pay him the other $20. I knew I was getting ripped off but somehow it felt more like an experiment.

He quickly found a guy who he seemed to know but it was hard to tell as everyone seems to adopt a very familiar relationship towards each other by default. We got into a decrepit old car with no dashboard at all. Our friend seemed a little distracted saying he was supposed to meet someone. (Probably his next victim.) That struck me as odd since we had been the ones to bring him to the train station. I figured he was probably trying to get rid of us. But he still didn't have the money. So he got into the front seat and we took off on a bumpy, noisy, and smelly (every car here seems to reek of gasoline) ride into the depths of Havana. We knew we would never find our way out of here. But I never felt fear for some reason.

After about 20 minutes of aggressive driving, we started seeing crowds of people heading in the same direction. Something about the look in their eyes told me they were baseball fans. And sure enough, we had come upon a massive stadium which looked as if it had seen better days. We headed into a parking lot and were let out of the car. I asked Rafael how much the ride was and he said $5. OK, I thought. He kept his end so I gave him the other $20. Now I just had to pay for the ride. And this is where things got messed up. I only had another $20 and Mike and I had already agreed that he would have no money on him (which was also a lie). So all I could give the guy was a $20. Wait here, our friend said. We'll go get change. He explained that he didn't want to just give it to this guy since he didn't know him. Gee, that made a whole lot of sense. Perhaps I could apply it somewhere in my life. Whatever. I let them drive off, knowing that this would be the way the con would end. But still - if what he had given us were actual tickets, despite the fact that he had marked them up more than 4000 percent, it wasn't that bad. I know it LOOKS bad but imagine what you would pay for the equivalent in the States. Plus getting a ride in a broken down car and being robbed. Quite a bargain, all things considered.

After waiting a nominal amount of time just in case we weren't actually getting ripped off, we decided to head towards the stadium to see if our tickets were any good. According to one guy we asked, they were indeed tickets but we had to head to a completely different side of the stadium. As we were trying to find where that was, we saw a line of people so we joined them. This turned out to be a line to buy tickets and it was quickly turning into a stampede. But people were getting tickets here and they only cost the equivalent of four cents each! Best of all, we could use the non-convertible money that Mike had gotten earlier. It took about 20 minutes of this hell but we actually got real tickets in our hands. We may never know what the other tickets were.

Everyone was pushed towards a single narrow entryway where the white piece of paper that constituted a ticket was handed to one guy and we were pushed into a column of people who were being searched by the police. It was great. We basically had to "spread em" and get frisked. We passed the inspection and went on our way inside the stadium.

As far as I was concerned, this was it. Mission accomplished. To be able to actually get into a Cuban championship baseball game in Cuba's most celebrated stadium was something so few Americans will ever get a chance to do. Sure, I paid well more than I should have. But I've been ripped off before and the usual desires for murderous revenge just weren't forthcoming here. Perhaps I can help write the country's next tourist brochure. "Cuba: Where Getting Ripped Off Can Be Fun."

Anyway, it's been a while since I've been to any major sporting event. I hear things have changed quite a bit on the inside in recent years. But even if I were catapulted back 30 years in the United States, I'm sure what I saw today would still be incredibly different.

For starters, there was no commercialization. At all. No billboards with beer ads or giant signs advertising whatever network was carrying the game. Just the field, the stands, and the fans. And the enthusiasm of the fans was far and away the most impressive thing there. From the various chants and songs that I hadn't a clue about to the all too familiar "wave" going all through the stadium, the language of baseball clearly transcended the vast cultural differences.

Something else which was radically different was the way snacks were dispensed. Here there were no Babe Ruth bars or cans of Coke, Pepsi, or Bud Light. A woman walked around with cut up sandwiches all laid out in the open. An old man walked up and down the aisles with a thermos, pouring tiny paper cups of ultra-strong Cuban coffee to anyone interested. The cost was a mere penny or two for those using the non-convertible currency. I didn't want to stand out any more than I already was by asking how much it would be in convertible pesos. It was an honor enough just to be inside this house, the biggest of its kind in the nation.

As the teams did all sorts of exercises on the field, the crowd cheered the home team and booed the visitors. Throughout it all, two tiny dogs ran full speed up and down the field keeping the home team players company. Tiny dogs are everywhere in this country and the baseball diamond was apparently no exception.

The noise from the crowd was deafening, even an hour before the game was to start. People had horns, musical instruments, whistles, even pots and pans to bang on. Not the place to be if you had a headache.

The teams were introduced over a PA system I didn't see how anyone could understand. But somebody must have since cheers broke out at all of the appropriate points. The prerecorded national anthem played and a fair amount of noise continued while it was playing. Everyone cheered at its conclusion and the game was underway.

I'm sure the true baseball fans out there would be able to easily point out all of the subtle differences in the game. For me, it seemed fairly indistinguishable from the American version, apart from the venue and the fans. One thing I did notice which seemed rather different was that whenever a player made a particularly good catch, he would be visited by nearly all of his fellow teammates who issued their congratulations. This held true for the batter as well. Several times I saw a batter who had just hit a double or a triple have a teammate come running all the way from the dugout, bat in hand, to the base he was standing at to shake his hand.

This is something I've noticed in Cubans overall. They are very personal people. Twice I had someone pass over me in the stands and sort of step on my foot. In New York I wouldn't have even noticed it. Here they each made a point of turning around and grasping my shoulder in apology. I don't believe I've ever seen such a mixture of passion and politeness in the same place.

As it turned out, the home team wasn't doing so well. They gave up three runs in the top of the first, took the lead after two, and were down again in the third. It seemed to be turning into an extremely long game so I suggested to Mike that we take off in the middle of the third inning. I knew he would be enthusiastic about that. He really showed a lot of patience just indulging me to that degree. I had gotten everything I wanted out of the experience.

Now the challenge was getting a cab in this unknown part of town. And wouldn't you know it, there was not a cab to be seen anywhere near the stadium. I spotted a traffic light in the distance and figured that would be a good place for a taxi to pass by, considering how few traffic lights there were in the city. On the way I saw a dog get run over by a car which really sucked. Somehow he seemed to pull through though and I even saw him continuing down the road later with one leg held up in the air. I'm rather surprised I haven't seen this sort of thing a lot more.

We saw a couple of cabs but they already had people in them. Then we spotted one that was just letting someone out and we shouted to get his attention. It was one of those big old American cars from the 50s which immediately stalled out when he came to a halt. We had to negotiate a ride because he said he wasn't allowed to pick up foreigners. If for $5 he could bring us anywhere near where we were staying, I would be happy.

The ride was diabolical to put it mildly. Apart from the stench of gasoline that apparently was par for the course with these cars, it was loud as hell and the bumpy road made it even more sinister. Of course there were no dashboard lights at all and the driver kept missing other cars, pedestrians, and dogs by mere inches. This was almost like not riding in a car at all but some kind of dark and smelly noise machine. And yet it was all American.

At some point our driver thought it would be nice to get us a couple of hookers so he pulled up to a male and female he apparently knew who proceeded to pitch their various wares. But we really just wanted a ride to where we were going so we politely declined. What a place.

We hung out at an outdoor cafe and watched three dogs and a little puppy horsing around in front of the cafe crowd. A cat eventually came out and caused no end of an uproar. This was how it went, day and night.

Tomorrow night we have a radio show to do. It will be nice to speak with some familiar voices and to finally let everyone know where we actually are. I'm looking forward to sharing what we've learned so far.