Return Traveling

I never meant to be a return traveler. The allure of more and more exotic passport stamps is pretty strong. Almost as strong as the allure of new and different countries. But at this point, I sit firmly in the category of a return traveler. I went to France in 2006 and returned in 2010. I went to Egpyt for six weeks in 2009 and returned for a long weekend in 2011. I went to Cuba in 2010 for three months and returned in 2012 for a month. I went to the Dominican Republic in 2011 and went back six weeks later. I have been to Canada and most of my domestic travel spots countless times.

It makes sense that I’ve become a return traveler. In many other ways, I am not like the typical traveler, or travel blogger. I prefer my stays to last a month at a minimum. I almost always speak the language. I research the history, culture, and politics heavily and before and during my stay. This is just another way of settling myself deeper into the places I go.

One value is that I get to see the changes. Pre- and post-Revolution Egypt look incredibly different, and I loved seeing how the place and people had changed. The progress in Cuba has been amazing, and I’ll be writing about it more later on. With the Republica Domincana, the two trips were close together but that meant everyone remember me. I had the great experience of keeping my promises and seeing Mata during the rainy season we had heard so much about. France is just a second skin, and getting to know that for sure forever erased any doubts I felt when I first visited in a sleep-deprived 16 year old haze.

If return traveling seems like a waste of time, I think it either means the place doesn’t work for you or you have a very different set of travel priorities than I do.  Maybe someday this will change for me, but for now I couldn’t be happier spending my last traces of un-adult life in Cuba, for the second time.  And I can’t wait to make my way back to Egypt, France, the Dominican and Cuba once more.

Incomunicado

I never truly thought before about how disconnected Cubans are.  Perhaps because I was too preoccupied with my own lack of communications.  Or because that narrative is so ingrained that all I learned here last time was about the opposite of stereotypes.  I found out they watch House and Gilmore Girls.  They know America’s music and politics.  These are not people who seem isolated.  But the last few days, we’ve been trying to negotiate phones and internet for the group.  Phones are not going to happen for the leaders of the group.  There’s a lot of legislation about phones, and they end up being cost prohibitive anyway.  90 CUC to set up the line, 20-30 CUC for the phone, and then there’s the minutes!  What Cuban has that kind of money?

Last time I was here I was very lucky with the internet.  We had wifi in our home and at school.  It was slow, but I was able to email and google voice chat every once in a while.  All of that was free and in the two locations we went to most frequently.  This time, we have to pay 10 CUC for an hour’s worth of internet on one of Habana Libre’s computers.  Today we just now figured out how to get the internet on a couple of laptops at the Jose Marti center where we take classes.  It’s a landline, it’s slow, facebook, twitter, Skype and WordPress are all blocked. 

If I were a Cuban with a question, where would I go?  The books sold at the Plaza de Armas are as old as dirt.  Getting to the internet is incredibly expensive for someone on a salary of less than 100 USD a month.  The newspaper here is the state-run Granma, named for the boat that brought Fidel and co. back to Cuba.  education is amazing here, but the textbooks are outdated and everything is rn by the government (sort of sounds like America…).  Often I can’t even find the party line, nevermind well-researched, balanced facts. 

Luckily, Cubans are known for their ingenuity.  I’m rying to learn more, but they have figured out ways of getting blocked television and radio, using proxy sites and SAT phones which are closely monitored here.  I still wish informaton would open up more down here, and I believe it would help Cuba as a whole, inclding the government.   Unfortunatuely, no big conclusions here.  Just a lot of hopes and questions.

Aesthetics and Lectures

There are some beautiful photos coming out of this group. Some, though, don’t look like the Cuba that I know. Not that they’re going to new neighborhoods or meeting new people. Rather, some students are so good with their tools that they can manipulate a country (and a people and even buildings) I know so well into an alien landscape of pure, distilled beauty, often divorced of any social, political or economic reality.

Cuba is just too important to me for that.

I hate that for an American, there is no place to consume valuable, accurate news about Cuba. You can read the nostalgic memoirs of Miami Cubans, dipped in vitriol for Fidel. You can see the photos online of cigars, old cars and the same few Cuban workers dressed in colonial costumes. You can read Yoani Sanchez’s pissed prose, or the blogs of a few dedicated gringos. You can read the old fiction of Hemingway or Graham Greene. But where does an American turn to hear what regular old life is like for the majority of Cubans?

After I came back last time, a couple of my dad’s cousins asked me, while we were doing the MS Walk in Porstmouth, NH, what a couple of guys like them would be doing if they were in and from Cuba. That is the question we need to ask ourselves about foreign countries, instead of reducing everything to sexualized or demonized stereotypes.

I guess if I felt like Cuba was a well-covered topic, I could go for pure aesthetics. In Boston I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I value seeing the glorious within the everyday. But when the glory is artificially manipulated and the vida cotidianna is nowhere to be found in public discourse, it seems more like dishonesty than an aesthetic choice. There are a few journalism majors here, and I’ve enjoyed hearing their perspective on which stories we should be telling with our photos.  While some of the students are design majors, many are not and the combination makes for a lively mixture.

Granted, I don’t think my method is any better. Given the chance, I would accompany all of my photos with novellas explaining the several decades worth of history, culture, politics and economic shenanigans that converge on the theme of my photo. It was pointed out to me that I am allowed one sentence, and any more than that would be a lecture. Um, yes. Can I just do that then? Can I just give everyone lectures and accompany them with a handful of photos?  Luckily, Andrea (one of the professors) is awesome and understood my dilemma right away.  When we get back to the US, everyone is going to put together a final product.  For me, she suggested that I do a book–the photos I take here broken up into thematic chapters with a lot of copy.

On rough days, I feel that photography may just not be the medium for me. This fatwa on words is pretty anathema to everything about my personality. At the very least, I hope when I return to better internet the enhanced photos will make the lectures I post a bit easier to stomach.  But then I have days where if I don’t shoot until the afternoon I get antsy.  And everyone in the class I’m (supposed to be) assisting has been incredibly helpful with their critiques.  I’m certainly enjoying the steep learning curve, and I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by some incredibly talented, kind people from whom I have picked up a lot.

In the Time of the Butterflies Review

At its heart, In the Time of the Butterflies is a book of historical fiction about the four Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. They went up against the dictator Trujillo and each woman became a revolutionary in her own way. This all happening in the 1930s-1960, at a time when Haitians had been massacred by the 100,000s and anyone (or the family of anyone) who disagreed with Trujillo was subject to jail time, disappearance, loss of property, torture and even death.

in-the-time-of-butterflies

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. It’s how I learned about Apartheid, China’s One Child Policy, and racial reality in the pre-Civil Rights South. In fact, for a long time I thought writing historical fiction was going to be the small way in which I would attempt to save the world. I know the history and I have seen the movie. But that doesn’t make it any less depressing when the Mirabal sisters die. Well, all but Dede, doomed to be the one who lived. And the husbands all die. And the mother dies. And the father died years ago, likely after-effects of going to prison rather than giving his Minerva to that goat of man.

I love that Alvarez shows these women as women first, even when they couldn’t admit that to themselves. They were sisters and daughters and lovers and mothers and friends. It’s not like they grew up saying how they were going to be martyrs destined for Dominican currency and to be the founding example for the UN’s Day Against Violence Towards Women. They grew up as the Mirabal Sisters, and the capital T in “The” came later. The perspective shifts from one sister to the next throughout time, giving each the time to illuminate the exaggerations and omissions of the others. Each chunk of their lives is separated into sections, and the overall effect is that you miss each sister as soon as you leave her. By the time you get to the stuff that’s already been in the papers, you no longer are unsure how asthmatic baby Maria Teresa could be the bold gun-runner who was tortured in prison after she refused a presidential pardon.

Minerva is the natural heroine, for myself as well as a less argumentative general audience. It isn’t hard to see the opinionated, authority-questioning, boundary-pushing Minerva as a revolutionary. After all, once you ask the president (whom you slapped) for permission to be the first woman in your country in law school, hiding explosives in the garden is no bit thing. But Ms. Alvarez did a rare thing with Minerva: she showed how a brave and boastful woman could be so totally broken and vulnerable inside, without losing an inch of her bravery and old self. I have no doubt that Minerva couldn’t always see it, but it is something powerful to see a powerful woman break down as much as she can without losing herself.

I highly recommend In the Time of the Butterflies to anyone who knows anything (or wishes to know) about Dominican or Caribbean history. Also, I think it is our duty as Americans to learn the bits of history that we collectively lie about to ourselves every night so we can fall asleep. While America is only peripherally referenced in the novel, it’s not hard to realize how we fit into the martyrdom of Las Mirabals. Our inaction jumps off every page, as do the allusions to our eventual occupation of the DR.

PS the film starring Salma Hayek as Minerva is also lovely. I watched it while sick one night in the DR, and I think I freaked out whoever it was who came to check on my and found me crying alone in a dark room with my teddy bear. Sorry!  It’s just a really heartbreaking story, made all the more so by it being more or less true.

A final note on gender: this book has often been expressed to me as being perhaps too focused on women. It was once a requirement for Shaugnessy’s DR trip I took last year, and apparently the discussions of menstruation, marital woes, and motherhood proved too much for some male readers. Under the category of “sorry I’m not sorry,” I don’t think a book about four women, written from their perspective, needs to explain why there are so many women in the book and why they get so many pages. Also, is it actually emphasizing women that much? Or are we just so not used to female protagonists (and especially ones of such complexity and depth who refuse to be reduced to our usual tropes or to being the props of the men in their lives) that we can’t handle good ones? And finally, I think as a whole we have gotten too comfortable with white, attractive, able-bodied men as our blank protagonists, and the concept of blank protagonists in general. If we want worthwhile minds then we need to read challenging literature, and that requires characters, whether real or imagined, that push us beyond our comfort zone. So stop feeling bad for all the men of the world who do not receive nearly enough coverage in history books, news channels, daily conversations and literature, and push yourself to see the value in the lives of these women, even the parts of their lives that are “icky.”

Walking with the Ghost

Cuba chases me around. I never really expected to be back here again before all hell breaks loose, but here I am. I’m glad today went well, because I needed a win this afternoon. This morning I tried to take some photos of Coppelia (the famou ice cream shop of Fresa y Chocolate fame) then wandered accidentally toward the US Special Interests Section and from there I fell into the old neighborhood.

I stood outside of Casa, my old school for a while. I didn’t go in. I walked past Alex’s house without noticing. I didn’t go inside la esquina de primera y a. None of the ninos were by the fuente. I didn’t stop for croquetas de pollo y una naranja. The woman at the gas station had to count out omy change for me, and even bought a goddamn fiesta cola. Light. Two of them, actually. Goddamn they taste like crap.

Everyone was probably with their madres today anyway. Sometimes I dislike how easily I go unrecognized. I have the same shoes, beach cover up, and tshirts. I go to the same beach and speak the same fractured Spanish. But I have red hair, bangs, a hoop through my nose and 15 fewer pounds to show for the last two years. A lot of the same people are important to me, with a few notable exceptions.

Everything is more affluent this time around. We had lobster my first night. It was the only option, so bottoms up for me! Luckily it was the first food I kept down all day.

There are two channels of HBO, as well as multiple ESPNs. Breakfast is an actual buffet, with real options and more than enough for everyone. Multiple types of bread, plenty of butter substitute. No fighting over the cocoa powder or Nescafe.

There was hot water in the shower. I turned on the cold water anyway. I guess I’m old fashioned like that.

It’s strange not living in the Real World House, or even a reasonable facsimile. I only share my bathroom with one other person. No one barges in unexpectedly. We don’t have the internet, but more importantly, there is no music. There is no dancing. There is no drinking in the shower, no Try a Little Tenderness, no swimming off the Malecon, no practicing drums in the living room.

There are the same flat pillows and scratchy towels. The threadbare bedspreads and choking old guaguas. The politics are the same, although mis compadres know far less about it now than those who came before them. Instead of my balcony, I write from my artificially condicionado’d room, about the same size as the one I shared with four other girls back in the day. Everything is either exactly the same, or exactly different. Are we sure I came back to Cuba? Or is this some other isla?

If I Wrote for Thought Catalogue, this is what it would look like

Paris is like that first love that will always hold your heart. You two can fall easily back into each other’s arms, where everything comes quickly, lasts long, and feels right.

Canada is like that guy from your hometown that you paw around every once in a while just to feel alive, or to remember how it felt when you were sixteen and everything you did with him was new and dangerous. You may go back every once in a while, but honestly sometimes you get more out of not even bothering.

Egypt is like your first time: different for everyone. But no matter how you found it, it will always have a grip on you. It will always make your pulse quicken and give your stomach a jolt like an electric shock. You may wander back when you’re not sure what else to do, and while it may welcome you back, it could just as easily chew you up and spit you out. You will always wonder what if, and Egypt will always be there to remind you and tempt you.

Benin is like a bad fling: been there, done that, no regrets and no returning. Unless it was for a really good reason…

Greece was like finally getting with the most popular guy in school and not really getting it. What’s all the fuss about? I was too tired and busy from the pursuit to even enjoy it. And anyway, shouldn’t he come to me?  Maybe someday it will be time for a reunion…

Cuba is that guy your mother wanted you about. Some call it abuse; others are jealous. Sometimes, those people are one and the same. He’s frustrating, mean, fickle and generally beyond human comprehension. He may depress you, confuse you, and even cheat on you, but he makes you feel like a queen. With him, you are a woman no one else ever see or creates in you. With him you are wild, free, fun, and young forever. You are powerful, flirtatious and just a wee bit dangerous. Anyone who tells you they’d rather be alone than by his side is lying or they don’t know what they’re missing.

For reference, this is Thought Catalogue.