Thursday, August 22, 2013

5 Days in Cuba: Chapter 3 - Big Cups and Angry Birds


The sun sets, the mosquitos arrive. I'm going through my options mentally and then erase them because I'm not leaving this airport without my Mom.

Then Mom leaves the building.

What was it, they ask, what the &^^% was ut I want to ask but I let her explain.

I can't believe what it was;  it was not what i thought and suddenly Cuba feels like a planet stuck in an alternate universe.  I promise I'll tell you what it was, in the book, when these stories are ready to be printed. Until then please keep your seat next to me as Machete speeds us through the narrow streets around jeeps and horses and bicycles to  dinner at hotel L;union.

Last year we all went up to the hotel room and went through the gifts right away. This year is different.  Everyone is starving and maybe traumatized and Mom keeps shouting "vino!" so we drop the bags in our room and have dinner with Mila (abuela's brother's daughter), her husband, her son Joelvys , her grandson Xavier (pronounced SAPier) and now Mayulis (the doctor, my cousin with long hair and bejewled nails). 

We sit down to dinner without my mom who is upstairs because she needed to talk to my dad for a minute. 

The waitress is my friend; I met her on my last trip, as well as her husband, her daughter and her mother-in-law. We get along.

They all order Paella and beer. Mom arrives and orders a bottle of wine.

I ask point to the menu and ask the BIG question -- is there spaghetti?

Yes, yes there is spaghetti, they knew I was coming, everyone jokes.

OK, fine I point out the menu says it’s with cheese and green vegetables. 

Yes? The waitress nods. OK, I shrug, I guess that's what I'm supposed to have, after all my complaining that there's no spaghetti in Cuba.

Mom orders something steak and everyone else at the table orders paella. Once the ordering is done, the wine bottle arrives, along with several tiny shot-sized  glasses that are apparently the normal wine serving sizes on this communist island.  

After a long day of travel my Mom and I are giddy and burst out in laughter at the small glasses. 

I shake my head. I'm here to bring change to Cuba, I'm here to help, one minute at a time. And right here and now, they clearly need help with their wine glasses. 

 No, no tiny glasses, bring us normal wine glasses,  Yamila the waitress takes the tiny glasses up and exchanges them for bigger glasses. 

This is a good sign.

Mom pours wine and the tension at the table is palpable.  It’s like they’re all sitting there waiting for something, waiting for us to do or say something so bad it’s obvious in their silence, their terse answers to my questions.

I get it and excuse myself to go up to the hotel room. This time we are on the inside of a square that overlooks a courtyard and is open to the sky.

A short paunchy halfbalding man with a shirt bearing the Cubataxi logo barrels by me, beads of sweat lining his brow as I approach a blind corner and I surprise him.
He shrinks towards the wall while racing forward, shouting silently with his body language that he wished to be unseen but it’s too late. I know that regular Cubans aren’t allowed in hotels, not casually, and I’m sure he’s up to something and I shake my head when he can’t see me.

My key actually works (every time anything works I’m excited, even when my car starts) and in the room I quickly search around for the gifts I brought them tucked in pockets of my carry on luggage.

I find them  and dash back downstairs. The food wasn’t there yet (of course) so I distributed what I brought down.

Here, for you, -- I give the 15 year old boy with the spinning dollar sign belt buckle a black box and he looks confused. Open it! I command and he does. There, it’s an iphone 3 loaded up with every game possible.

One day people will wonder who brought Angry Birds to Cuba, and people will shrug and wonder, but you and I know the answer.

He stares at it and realizes it’s a camera and then fixates on that. 

I lean back into the silence and observe he does not look happy, no happier than if I had given him a helmet with moose antlers sticking out that smelled like poop.

He didn't hug me or say a big thank you, not really anything. Maybe he was tired.  I let that go.

Next I hand my cousin an iPod (my treasured favorite ipod that I gave great thought to not giving away) with a huge amount of memory. It’s filled with movies and songs and also it can be used as a massive storage device on an island that lives on sharing files via USBdrives.

 He too is quiet,  not excited or particularly thankful. He turns it over in his hand whispers something. And nods his head when I show him the connector cable. 

He nods. The silence comes back to the table. 

Fine, OK, I’m bigger than being all about someone getting excited about my presents.

So I just go on and pull out a box with rings that I refuse to wear anymore. One is white gold with diamonds; the other is a matching set with gold and diamonds and emeralds.

I show them both and let them pick which one they’d like.  They look at each other and smile and tuck the box into Mila’s purse, neither of them having even tried a ring on.

  A lesser woman would have been maybe annoyed a little but I know the pain of buying awesome presents for my kids and saying “these are from Santa." I'm prepared. I’m OK.

I finish a glass of wine and the food comes.

First everyone gets their paella then Mom gets her plate of meat and last my spaghetti arrives.

Yamila sets my plate down and then looks at me expectantly.

This is spaghetti with green vegetables, I ask in English then Spanish. 

She says yes and leaves us to eat.

I poke and prod with my fork. There are no green vegetables in my pasta, just white chunks of god-knows-what.  I take a bite. It’s OK.

Really, it’s not OK, it tastes like it was boiled in bad water. Maybe it’s the cheese, I think, then take another sip of wine and another bite. 

The little white squares are potatoes, cut up, mixed with pasta. Ew. 

Yamila comes up to ask how it is. I say it’s pretty gross, no one puts potatoes and pasta together and she nods and adds that’s what she thinks too and adds maybe it’s the cheese that’s bad. 

I have a few bites of my Mom’s steak and finish my glass of wine. 

Mom pours herself a second glass and pours me more and the bottle is empty. 

Without saying a word we both know these glasses are like hourglasses. 

They have our attention until we finish our wine and then we will get up and hug them goodbye.

Mila asks about our plans this week and I let my Mom explain.  Tuesday is Tialourdes house; Wednesday is Havana; Thursday is exploring; Friday is coming home.

Mayulis offers that she is free tomorrow and would love to see us. Mom gets a stern look on her face. Tomorrow we are visiting Tialourdes; we need to give her our full attention, she’s 91. Olgita will make us lunch, and people will be coming through to visit. Mom ends with say why don’t you come by TiaLourdes house at 330 or 4 and rescue us.

Yes, yes, it is agreed that Mila and Mayulis will come by at 330. And yes they know where Tialourdes house is; it’s on the Prado, which is like being on Jackson Square in the French quarter, right in the middle of things.

I know they want to know what we brought Tialourdes, and also they want to know what we brought them in the two unopened gusanos, but it’s not time to go there. I want to TALK. So I tell them a story and when I stumble I make my Mom translate. 

I tell them the story about what I’m going to do tomorrow, what I’m going to say to someone at TiaLourdes house. They look confused, and Mila shakes her head and says NO! no, no Missy.

I shake my head back and say yes, yes, I’m not looking for an answer because I know the answer, I’m coming here to TELL them the answer that’s in front of everyone and no one sees.

Mayulis adds, no, no Missy and looks at her Mom like “stop her!”

And then I pause and give them each of the facts lined up one, two, three, four, finally FIVE.

They wince and one of them nods despite themself.

Mila again tells me No, no you really can’t talk about that and I respond (and I’m telling you my Spanish is good when it’s good) don’t worry, don’t worry you aren’t responsible for me, and so I don’t answer to you.

I pause and look around. My mom is half laughing and half shocked. 

She can’t believe what balls I have and she knows better than to try to stop me because she also believes my one two three four FIVE stack of facts.

I know I’m right and I also wonder if little hamster wheels of though ran around in their heads, wondering what other bombs I might be coming here to drop.

A palpable awkwardness lingers at the table. I ask them each about work, about life. 

I remind them I never see my Mom, that this is the first meal we’ve had together since last time we were in Cuba, and apologize for being silly. 

The check comes and Mom pays it; we have envelopes with cash separated for each event and each thing we are planning for all of the 5 days, and this is right on the mark. 

Everyone gets up and excuse themselves despite my not very strong offer they come upstairs to the rooftop bar and watch my Mom and I catch up. 

It’s Monday and everyone has work and school (except Mila, that’s another story) so they all politely decline and we hug hug hug and make plans for Tuesday.

With them gone, Mom and I realize we aren’t tired at all, and head up to the rooftop.