Cuba, day 2: So You Want to Swim… Or Dance?

Beach. Sea. Swim swim swim.
That’s pretty much all I was thinking about, shame on me. But on my quest to find the perfect blue water I’ve never been so close to my goal: Cuban beaches are world famous. And though I knew I won’t be able to make it to Varadero, I still wanted to try and find one.

People were weird when I tried to figure out if anyone else wanted to go. After exchanging some money I ended up at the artisanal market not far from the port, brought there by my ultimate love for all things hand made.
Planning to buy nothing, I walked out with two leather bags, tons of souvenirs for my friends, and a decision to come back once more for local art. Everything was so cheap and you could bargain a lot as well. It wasn’t at all like Morocco where they don’t even seem to be willing to sell you anything, as they barely bargain at all, spoilt by all the Western tourists. The only thing I couldn’t buy was art, for I was almost out of cash. I inspected every stall and met a guy named Ruben. He was selling art his family was making, and turned out he used to study in Baku many years ago and spoke decent Russian. We had a great conversation, and I was really ashamed I couldn’t buy anything – but he never tried to sell me stuff. We just talked about life, his times in the Soviets, etc. He told me to come back if I could and say goodbye before the ship leaves.
On the way to the exit I found what I was looking for – an artist whose paintings made me stop and come closer. He drew details of regular Cuban lifestyle, some bits of architecture, and lots of water. I loved the colors – clear, bright, full of sun and at the same time lots of pastel. I asked about the prices and promised to return.
I quickly dropped off the stuff at the ship, and proceeded to Central Park, a heart of Havana where all fancy hotels and restaurants are. Those are surely not meant for the locals. I walked into a “supermarket” – looked like some god-forgotten store in suburban Moscow. They surely could offer more than the street shops, but still not enough to attract my attention. Not even snacks. Only some ridiculously overpriced Western ice-cream. I popped into a bakery to see if I could get something yummy. For Cuban standards, the place looked quite fancy, though pretty cheap for me. It reminded me of the Soviet bakeries still left in the old city of Saint Petersburg. Yes, Cuba definitely brought up a lot of associations.
I found the bus I needed to get to the beach – a touristy hop-on hop-off, with hobos and beggars strolling around looking for some tenderhearted tourists. I hopped on, and soon it the bus started off. I was excited, tracing my finger down the route on the map and counting stops.
It didn’t strike me until we passed the famous Revolution square and a cemetery that we’re going the wrong way. Pretty quickly I found out that I hopped on the wrong bus, and there was no way I could get back to Central Park unless I took a taxi, which wasn’t in my budget. So, angry as hell, I had to waste a whole next hour, if not more, gazing left and right and listening to the audio guide which wasn’t super exciting because we weren’t seeing anything super exciting. Once or twice we faced a road blocked by the police and had to go around. We passed some really nice living areas, surely the lair of the rich and powerful. At last, I was back, angry and hungry. I managed to fetch some snack and get on the right bus this time. Pretty soon after that I met Lena and Yury.
It was easy to tell they spoke Russian by the accent in their English, and shortly after we were in a conversation. They were from Ukraine. Lena worked in som well-known IT company, Yury, as far as I recall, did business. They were really nice people, and we talked all the way to the beach and teamed up there. They even bought me some juice. The beach was called Santa Marina, and on average it was a disappointment – it still didn’t have that blue water I was looking for, but, on the other hand, it wasn’t Varadero. I had a sweet dip, jumped in the waves, floated on my back and really scared Lena by swimming far away from the shore. I met the sunset in the warm Caribbean waves and it was not bad at all. But it got quite chilly in the end, and we had to hurry to catch the last bus back.
Saying goodbye to the nice Ukrainian couple, I walked back to the ship with a dilemma: to go or not to go to that farewell party event thrown by the University of Havana. The problem was – everyone was going. I wasn’t too fond of the idea of spending money on that thing, but it was not much at all, and I was pretty tired of constantly having to make decisions. So last moment I decided to go.
Later that evening…
The musicians are jumping on the stage, sending the jumping vibe down to the crowd. People are drinking and – oh well – getting drunk. The flashes of the projectors are highlighting the streams of rain that’s pouring down through the leaves of the giant ficuses. My Toms are too wet to care. Three sips of Jackie’s pineapple rum are adding up to the romantic setting. I’m watching the party, willing and unwilling to join. I don’t have the feeling of belonging there, but I do like the vibe. So many people there, close to getting wild. Probably I need something else to drink. The Hemingway way of fitting in… right?
If there’s one lesson I learnt tonight, it’s that alcohol opens social doors. I felt like I was out of place until I got myself a Cuba Libre. Alcohol is a strange thing. Some it makes lively and chatty, bursting with energy and optimism. Some it makes sad and lonesome, full of regrets and sorrow. Some, like me, it just makes hella sleepy. Except, as it turned out, the times when the lack of sleep and an overwhelming amount of new information create an explosive. So I got one or two daiquiris – they’re really good in Cuba – and suddenly let Marisol lure me to the dancefloor (or rather a dancepuddle). And it turned out to be quite fun. I still remembered a few steps from our dancing classes, and in general we all were amateurs there. We danced and jumped, the atmosphere of unity and relaxation spreading around. I was surprised enough when someone who haven’t really talked to me for weeks suddenly pulled me into the dance. Indeed alcohol works mysterious ways. Around me people were ruling out their comfort zones and forgetting about private space, the great American treasure. Hands were finding waists, and lips reaching for lips. I kept looking around and giggling. I was within a bubble that was very foreign to me, and I felt like a curious ethnographer caught in a ritual of some desert nomads. Some couples I did know; others never even suspected. People were opening up to each other, exchanging their energy in The pagan style. Fun.
Then, in its time, the bubble was burst; the deans shoved everyone into the buses and got us home, to the ship. I was in the drunkest and the loudest bus imaginable. It was also one guy’s birthday, and all the yelling grew insufferable. In the end, prof. Shushardt who accompanied our bus got back the microphone, told everyone to sit down and shut the hell up. Was asked for a bedtime story. Invented one on the spot. You can always tell an experienced dad by the way his voice changes when he tells a story, a combination of patience and calmness that should get the annoying little one to sleep before the story’s over. He had 8 kids and told their family story, getting quite personal. Well he wasn’t completely sober either, hehe…

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