Tuesday, March 20, 2012

No Island is an Island: Chapter 3: Machete and No Spaghetti

As we prepared ourselves to leave the small airport I was prepared for the worst.  I was ready to shove down my claustrophobia and endure a tiny tight tincan car crammed with people racing on bumpy roads.

The Universe laughed at my fears and instead sent me a safe ride in an airconditioned KIA minivan, escorted by a driver named Machete.

My Dad met Machete last year when Mom brought him with her to Cienfuegos. On the drive to the airport, back in America this morning, my Dad warned me to tell Machete that I was NOT going to be his wife #8.

I didn't say that to this nice man of course, and not even because my Spanish is Spanglish and it could have come out like a blustering proposal instead, but because I was far too busy  gawking out the window into the strange dark city that looked like Miami's quieter darker sister who never recovered from some devastating tragedy.

Machete slowed the KIA on the smooth narrow road to show me we were going  around a horse drawn carriage in the nearly-empty dark road.  This carriage was not like the ones you'd see tourists on in the French Quarter. This was like 1850. The back of the carriage was lit with a little pot of fire, like sterno. I was delighted. On the short drive to the airport we passed a total of eleven horse drawn carriages before pulling up to the hotel.

The first thing I noticed about the hotel wasn't the hotel but the humongous tourist tourbus we pulled up behind. It was a tall high new airconditioned bus that looked decidedly European to me, which again, was odd since there were no bridges between Cuba and France or Norway (yet).  I guess that bus sailed over on a ship and was exiled in Cuba and the driver was king of these streets, playing chicken with horses and winning.

Seeing bus shook me out of my insultingly low expectations for Cuba.

It's not my fault I expected Cuba to be a hungry, sad, uncomfortable place.

My Dad prepared me for not-great food, warning me that all I'd eat was pizza.

He told me there was no spaghetti in Cuba and the chicken tasted funny to him.

 I passed this by my Cuban friend at the airport and she agreed, adding that Cuba exports all her chicken breasts, so the people only eat dark meat. If they can get meat. And keep it cold. Which is another story entirely.

Before we go further in this story, let me remind you I know my Cuban History and have transcripts and degrees to prove it.  I know the History of the Cuban Revolution and I know (ok, I "believe") that in the fury of her nationalistic revolution that unfolded during the bigger context of Cold War, Cuba made an awful mistake and married the wrong partner, the one that would leave her poor and lonely when he pulled out in the early 1990s.

I knew there would be shortages so I packed peanut butter crackers and a good disposition.

 I was ready for fleabag hotel that had a dripping roof and apoplectic electricity and I'm sure I didn't even hide my shock when we walked into a delightful, open and clean lobby that had computers and happy people.

After checking in, we brought our huge bags upstairs and came down to have dinner with my new family who I was still meeting.   A tuxedoed waiter leads us to a round linen covered table in a high ceilinged dining room. Around the table sat my Abuela's niece, her husband, her grandson and a guy I decide must be her daughter's husband.

None of them speak English so I do my best smalltalk in Spanish and let my Mom help me through the more complicated thoughts. The waiter brings menus that are in Spanish and English, as though they'd been expecting me.

There is paella, seafood dinners, steak dinners and pasta dishes.

My Cuban family each ordered paella, and when it was my turn, I asked for a bowl of pasta.

The tuxedoed waiter shrugs helplessly. No spaghetti today.

My dad warned me about this, so I look for pizza on the menu.

Nope.  Mom and I order a  tuna sandwich to split between us. We nibble at the fries and drink cold wine and let our guests feast.

After that, when I thought it was time to go to bed, to finally think about all that I saw and maybe write it down, my Mom announced she was taking us all to the 4th floor to the roof so I could finally see Cienfuegos.