Cuba Part 2: Just Look Up

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

At some point in the past decade, people began walking with their heads down.

Why? What are people looking for?   Looking at?   Their feet?   The ground?   Avoiding gum?   No, they are looking at cell phones in their hands. With the invention of the smart phone, the art of personal interaction and communication started changing.

Wherever you travel these days there’s an internet connection. Or so I thought. We were told in advance that internet connections could be “spotty” in Cuba. Even though I travel with a smart phone and iPad, I found the prospect of limited access intriguing. I activated the auto reply on my business email, recorded a voice mail greeting informing clients I was out of the office, and off we went.

Pedicab in Havana

Pedicab in Havana

As digital protocol dictated, on arrival I checked my email on the iPad. In Cuba my smart phone was useless except as a clock or camera. The hotel wifi connection was slow the first day. On the second day – even slower. I could brush my teeth and shower by the time my email loaded. (Unlike home, our hotel shower was extremely luxurious resulting in my taking an abnormally long shower.) This lengthy shower enabled all my vital communications to download. After so much time and effort and so little reward (important emails vs. junk emails), I decided to turn off all electronics and experience being “digitally disconnected” for the remainder of the trip. I felt a sudden strange sense of freedom.

For me, cutting the digital cord was not as hard as you might think. Unlike many of my contemporaries, technology doesn’t play a large part in my life. Outside of work, I don’t Tweet, post on Facebook or check in on Foursquare. I do have a Facebook account, but only have a small number of friends – and they “friended” me. My wife says I’m antisocial.  She’s probably right, but I think it’s only a part time condition.

Poster at Hotel SaratogaBeing digitally free, I had more time to explore my surroundings. One day, while wandering around the Hotel Saratoga lobby, I noticed an interesting wall decoration. On it were signatures of people from all over the world who had stayed at the hotel. At the bottom were the words Brooklyn, NYC and a website address: Olivesveryvintage.com. Since I was born in Brooklyn and my son had recently moved there, it piqued my curiosity.

The photo and website address stayed in the back of my mind until I returned home. I found out that olivesveryvintage.com is the website of Olive and Olaf’s, a store in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn and an online shopping website for vintage fashions and home décor items. On a lark I clicked on the company’s email link and sent the photo and a short email detailing how I came to take it. Later that day I received an email from Jen McCulloch, the founder and owner of Olive and Olaf’s. She was amazed that someone would contact her regarding a poster she had signed 5 years earlier. I just might drop in to Olive and Olaf’s next time I’m in need of something vintage to wear. (It’s funny that after refraining from using technology, I needed it to connect with Jen.)

While traveling around Cuba I saw little evidence of people using smart phones or tablets. Because of poor or nonexistent internet connections, if you do see a smart phone it’s for voice conversations or texting. Even in people’s homes internet connections are rare due to the high cost, limited bandwidth and censorship of online content.

On one hand limited technology hinders progress in Cuba, but at the same time facilitates an atmosphere for people to people communication. People talk directly to one another – not via technology. They tend to live in the moment, their moment, not through someone else’s life on Facebook.

Wall Graffiti

Wall Graffiti

Walking through the streets of Havana, while looking up, I noticed interesting graffiti on the outside wall of a bar. The bar turned out to be La Bodeguita Del Medio, one,of  Ernest Hemingway’s many favorite watering holes.  The bar & restaurant was also a favorite of former Chilean President Salvador Allende and the poet Pablo Neruda. It lays claim to being the birthplace of the mojito.

Hemingway's Hangout

Hemingway’s Hangout

While in Cuba I consumed more alcohol (mojitos and cervezas) than I have in the last two years combined. I rationalized this consumption as a way of staying hydrated. And I did.

La Bodeguita Del Medio was packed and alive with conversation as I entered. No one was looking down at their hands. Drinks were being consumed, food shared and stories exchanged. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand one word, but I knew everyone was thoroughly engrossed in the moment.

People to People

People to People

In the evening many Cubans congregate along malecons with the hope of catching a breeze and meeting friends. Face-to-face conversation is the main entertainment … and perhaps receiving a free bottle of rum from a passing carload of crazy Americanos. One night, with Matt our tour guide from Austin and Cindy and Terry from Michigan, I cruised the malecon in Havana.

While speaking with a Cuban about the local social scene, a young woman came up to me and posed for pictures her friend was taking. She was about 20 years old, extremely attractive, and had a great smile. This led to a conversation with Matt translating, since he was the only one in our group fluent in Spanish. Through Matt I asked why she wanted pictures with me, secretly hoping I still had that certain “something” (which I’m not sure I ever had). Or was it that I reminded her of her father? It turns out she just wanted pictures with an American tourist. She gave us her phone number and told us to call if she could be of any help during our stay in Cuba. I’m still waiting for her to “friend” me.

As I get older, I have a growing desire to find the world of my early years. Where neighbors would go outside on a hot summer night and speak over the fence. Where children would see how many fireflies or bees they could catch in a jar.Dina Photo Web 2

To facilitate a true “people-to-people” experience on vacation, you might first want to attend a 3-day retreat at Digital Detox in Ukiah, CA., where the theme is “disconnect to reconnect”. After attending you could take a flight directly to Cuba and truly enjoy a “people-to-people” experience. All you need to do is just Look Up! If not you might miss something like this – click here!

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Cheers! A Toast to Wine Glasses

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur from Our Apartment

We are ensconced in our apartment in Montmartre, with its incredible view of the Sacre Coeur and the rooftops of Paris. At night music and cigarette smoke drift through the open balcony doors from the Square de Willette seven floors below.  Like Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I am quite sure that Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and Sartre are driving about the streets, and I will run into them around the next corner!

The apartment is everything that it was advertised to be on the Vacation Rentals by Owner Website (VRBO). We have two bedrooms, a separate water closet, a dishwasher, and even a washing machine! But what we didn’t have was an extra supply of wine glasses for entertaining our family. Since the apartment had been recently refurbished with IKEA home design, we decided to buy some matching glassware. The nearest IKEA was in Roissy, at the Parc des Expositions. We felt very global – Americans searching out a Swedish store in France. But getting there without a car was the challenge!

From Hemingway to Hamlet

We consulted the Website for public transport directions: first a Metro, then a train, then a local bus.  We’re Metro pro’s now, so we were soon at Gare du Nord, one of the major train stations. Buying a train ticket presented the first predicament – the automatic machines took only coins, and we had bills. After fierce negotiations with the official at the Bureau de Change whose job, he reiterated emphatically, was to exchange foreign currency NOT Euro’s, we emerged victorious having traded our Euro paper for Euro coins.  We popped our money into the machine, and out popped two tickets.

To Go … or Not to Go?

Looping our way through the throngs, we arrived at the designated platform. A train was waiting … but was it ours?  As we puzzled through the list of stations searching for “Expositions,” the warning bell rang. To go … or not to go… that was the question!

Passengers crowded forward.  The bell rang again, and the doors began to close. We shrugged, and with inches to spare, we leaped aboard. What did we have to lose? If the train wasn’t going where we wanted to go, we could just get a return ticket at the “unknown destination.” Or, if the unknown destination turned out to be fun, perhaps we would buy a toothbrush and stay there for a day or two!

The train interior was utilitarian, with plush seats worn to a hard glaze. Outside, the cinder track beds ran alongside each other; power lines rusted overhead. I thought of black/white movies of troop trains going through a gray and rain-soaked Europe, but the houses along the track had colorful window boxes behind the hedges and shutters thrown wide to catch the afternoon sun. I wondered how they had looked when my uncles were part of the liberation in 1945.

How Do You Say IKEA?

IKEA at Roissy

After screeching stops at various stations, the train surprisingly halted at Parc des Expositions! We scrambled out of our seats and on to the platform. The Website had suggested bus number 640 or 23; each had its own bay and we settled uneasily between the two, ready to board quickly when one or the other arrived. Bus 640 rolled in and I approached the driver, “Est-ce quec’est  l’autobus du magasin …?”  I hesitated.  How do you say “IKEA” in French? I substituted. “…du magasin de la Suede? …Does this bus go to the store from Sweden?” The driver grinned. “Oui, madame. Cet autobus va EYE-KEY’-AH” . It sounded like the IKEA in Minneapolis, Houston, Denver, and probably in Sweden as well! He made sure we got off at the right stop.

Cheers!

Far more confident and many Euro’s less, we returned by bus, train and metro to the apartment … bearing wine glasses and other impulse purchases. We were impressed with ourselves – especially with our spontaneous decision to jump on the train to nowhere at the last minute! If we had ended up on the Riviera or in the Dordogne Valley, we would have bought toothbrushes. We have all the time in the world … or at least six more weeks!

We filled our glasses, stood on the balcony and saluted the Sacre Coeur with a good chardonnay!