This is where my thoughts go.
"I have a deep love for the people of Cuba. Throughout a lifetime of world travel, rarely have I been to a place where I’ve witnessed so much grace, spirit, dignity, and wonderful humanity" - Peter Turnley
Chapter I: Siempre Hay Un Ojo
The first time I went to Cuba I was faced with a ton of questions - “why do you want to go there?”, “Is it even legal?”, “isn’t it dangerous?”,”what if you can’t come back?” The thread was constant and bottomless as a leaky faucet that keeps you up at night. I didn’t care. I didn’t care because I knew how few people actually knew at all what they were talking about. I supposed that there are two images of Cuba that most Americans who have never been there have; the daiquiri laden playground of Hemingway’s day - smiling locals, the Caribbean sun stinging your skin while you smoke cigars with strains of Guantanamera floating through the air. Or they think of what is known as “The Special Period” -famine, destruction, and desperation - an island of trapped, starving people - angry and questioning with no answer or catharsis. Trying to survive and waiting for the tide to turn. I looked into the eyes of my questioners and saw the mix of anxiety and desire to fill this curiosity from a safe distance, through me. You do it first. There was still no part of me that did not want to go - I was looking for an escape, running from my stagnant life in New York. I needed something to jolt me out of a depressed period. Things had dominoed - heartbreak, disappointments, being laid off, an accident that nearly destroyed my childhood home, people that called themselves friends distancing themselves because I’d lost my spark. I felt pretty disposable in those days. Thank God I went to Cuba.
I had some of the most human experiences of my life in Havana. I have seen brightly colored, gorgeous french architecture, crumbling and dilapidated, neighbors shouting to eachother from the street or windows - one happy to lend what the other needs. I’ve spoken with old men - talking to me as if I were their daughter- who have lived through the isolation and starvation, and watched their country fall into dilapidation. Saying to me with wide smiles “Alex, have you ever eaten marinated fabric? I have. There was nothing else. But look at me now - I am healthy, I am happy. I refused to quit. Here, we help each other. Do you know how healing it is to know that if you reach out there will be a hand there for you to hold? People need eachother.” You can't help but take a message like this to heart. I know the Cuba you love, I know the Cuba you fear. I have seen the best, I have seen the worst, and I love them both deeply.
I was determined to make my second trip to Cuba mean something - not just to me - but for the people there. I was so gratefully indebted. At my very worst I had come here and was surrounded by such caring grace. It had been the first time in a long time I had felt seen in a way where no one was looking for the nearest exit when I showed up. People were happy to see me. I wanted to give that back. My friends and I took art supplies - colored pencils, watercolors, paper, books, and vitamins and donated them to Cuba Libro and Muraleando, spending the day there and seeing the passion of the volunteers running each organization, talking to kids about their time there, watching them practice a play that Victor had written, going to a music lesson, and a ceramics study. I had a polaroid of us and one of the founders of Muraleando - Victor - all standing in front of the Vigin Mary statue made of cement and car parts that welcomes guests to the arts center - but he loved it and asked to keep it so I thought it was better left with him.
I still didn’t feel I’d done enough. How could I? There’s so much to do. Love is always like that - it comes with a special bitterness.The longer you look into something you truly have love for the more you'll find you want to do. The more you love it, the more you want to fix and the more you come back to it the more you'll fall in love. The cycle is inescapable. And it should be, things are always changing and there is always work to be done.
In addition to donations, I made sure I spoke to as many people as I could about their lives, what they wished, and how they were feeling. What I could do to put money into the pockets of poeple living there instead of feeding the government machine that - sure, is renovating parts of Havana, but will ultimately serve a community of foreign tourists and undoubtedly introduce the same imbalance of power between locals and visitors that the revolution had attempted to escape. I wanted my photographs this time to have more soul, so I got closer to people. I showed them my work. I spoke way more Spanish than I knew I knew and I hugged and kissed everyone I saw more than once like family. I was so happy to be back. And I'll be happy to return.
Cuba, an island you can see the edge of from the Florida keys, for many Americans, is shrouded in mystery. We know the ideas they have about it - the lush tropical playground, the brightly colored communist nation. Mojitos, smiles of beautiful women, classic cars driving through crumbling neighborhoods where your entertainers go home after they've smiled and placated you in your fantasy. The truth is much more satisfying, human, and complex, and there is no way for me to sum it up here. Just like anywhere else it is full of great minds, great talents, art, culture, important ideas and contributions. Just like a person, it should never be whittled down to assumptions or its best and worst traits to represent the whole. You have to know it for yourself. I can promise you without doubt or reservation that I’ll keep going back every year as long as I can.
Chapter II: Tocororo
"One must endure without losing tenderness" - Che Guevara
I am always amazed at the way people in Cuba keep promises so effortlessly. Today in New York it is, in my opinion, far too accepted to agree enthusiastically to plans, text excitedly for days about it, and completely disappear moments before it happens. People are used to it. In fact - people make a big deal about it if you make a big deal about it. I hate it. In Cuba you can walk up to a cab driver in the afternoon, say “meet me in this spot tomorrow at 6am” and at 6am, without any followup or additional prodding, there’s no question that he’ll be there for you. So at 6am, still dark outside, Andy was waiting for us at the end of Peña Pobre, leaning against a 1942 Chevrolet and grinning a gold toothed smile.
He drove us two hours to the countryside, the sun rising over Havana, lighting up the spray of the waves breaking against the Malecon. My mind is quiet. Eventually the city streets made way for long stretches of palm lined highway that we shared with motorcycles, trucks full of farmers on their day to work, horse drawn carts, hitchikers, men slicing through weeds with machetes, and the occasional cow - all of this bucolic scenery contrasting with Andy’s grills and pirated copy of the latest Ariana Grande album blasting through the new speaker system jammed into the rusted out dashboard of his ship of a car. We reached Piñar Del Rio - rows of bright little houses with thick bunches of heady-smelling orange flowers spilling over the fences, dogs and chickens in the yards. People lining up to fill large plastic jugs with water from a truck. We went down a long road and at the end - a group of straight-faced cowboys. I kid you not - cowboys. Well, Gauchos. I am not, physically at least, a delicate woman. I always used to want to be the kind of petit and fragile thing that made hearts melt once they laid eyes on me but it was never me. That day, there, I was happy for my six feet and serious face because I knew it hid how chicken I felt striding up to these amused looking men giving us all an easy once-over in their denim and leather. The thing is - I grew up in the country, I’ve spent long days looking after horses, gaining the trust of animals twice my size, and spending long hours sweating and covered in mud, manure, and whatever else I picked up in a day’s work….but that was years ago and I know I’ve since gotten soft. I never felt so New York, bourgeoise and out of place. There’s a big difference in trying to fit in at work based off of status, money, and having your finger on the pulse of modern music and all that other superficial nonsense. I knew I was being judged on my perceived ability to do things that matter - work with my hands, not whine when I get dirty, pick up on animal instincts, coax life out of land, and above all have a sense of humor about all of it - I knew because I remember giving people the same look they were giving me. Funny how memories never really end.
Our guide is Juan, better known as Pupito. He brought out a dark horse with a bad attitude named Lucero - my favorite kind to ride - and we all started off through the Valle de Viñales, occasionally passing goats, dogs, and other riders. I hadn’t felt peace like that in so long.
Four hours of horseback riding did me some good I had long needed. When I first moved to New York I would go to the park every warm afternoon so I could be barefoot in the grass. My body remembers its connection to what’s real. In Viñales I saw, for the first time since I was working at a barn in Ohio every Saturday, the value of the kind of undervalued, unglamorized work we feel we have come so far from. A kind of stillness of mind that only comes through a life of simplicity - movement of the body, green air in your lungs, the sun on your back. Moments felt longer, cradled in the valley the world felt wilder and safer and faster and slower and wholly at peace.
Then we met Juan Carlos in front of a small farm house surrounded by banana trees. He smiles at Pupito and says “beautiful girls! You keep these three and give the tall one to me.” he says grinning at me. He sidles up next to me and tells me with a wink “you , know, my wife is a mullatto” and I tell him with a grin “you know, you have a type.” At his age he’s harmless. Juan-Carlos has to be somewhere in his 60s but is still clearly full of mischief and vitality. He is unmistakably capable of hard work, but has a fantastic humor and levity. Every time he catches me photographing him he smiles wide and gives a thumbs up. I love people like this, I don’t know how anyone doesn’t. He teaches us about growing tobacco, how you can get three different grades of cigar from one plant, how to roll cigars, dry coffee beans in the sun and pound the husks off and let them blow away in the wind before loading the beans into a crank operated grinder. He cuts cigars for us and dips them in honey and we all smoke for a while before riding off for lunch. I loved photographing these men over lunch. I’ve never seen men who were at the same time so obnoxiously confident and good natured. “Stay like that! You’re so good, you look just like a model” - I would say, clearly being hyperbolic just to let them allow me the photo, but then the answer would come “I know!” and I’d snort and say “never-mind, I think you’re hideous” and they’d laugh and pat me on the back. Nothing taken too seriously.
I think about that day a lot - days when I question myself, days where I think about what truly makes me feel alive my mind's wandering always brings me back here. I wonder how much this way of life will contract as time moves forward and the demands of the modern world shift further and faster than anyone doing slow and simple work can keep up with. There are a lot of things in this world that we take for granted because of our assumptions that things will remain the way we love them forever without help from us. Nothing is like that. I don't know how to end this story, but I guess that just means it isn't really over.
"What do you need to Know about Japan? Deep deep waters...the first time I came here it was like - It was a transformative experience It was a powerful and violent experience like taking acid for the first time. I often compare the experience of the first time going to Japan, going to Tokyo as being what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend must have felt the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town." - Anthony Bourdain
Chapter I: On A Dime
It took me 2 long days to get from my 3 bedroom in Queens to Shibuya crossing. A 7 hour flight followed by a missed connecting flight, an overnight in Seattle that turned into dumplings with old friends, an 11-hour flight to Narita and 2.5 hours of being lost on the train until finally, finally - I was hugging my friend on the busy platform of Shibuya station. My relief, however, was clouded by one little annoying thought nagging at the back of my mind - that this, the only person I knew in all of Japan- my translator and host for my trip - would only be with me for another day and a half. "Yeah so....my internship didn't offer me a job and I have to leave the country on Monday." was the response I got to my excited/exhausted "I'm an hour outside of Narita" text I'd sent from between the snack cart and a sleeping woman. He told me he'd leave me his house keys and that he was sure I would figure it out and I'd be fine. Of course, I indulged in 5 minutes of "crazy time" on the plane where I came up with every scenario wherein I would NOT be fine just to get it out of my system while the fussy woman in a neck pillow in the seat next to me slept on my shoulder. Lucky her! So calm and carefree sleeping on a plane-stranger while I'm inventing in my head that I'll be mistaken for a loitering homeless person while wandering the streets because I'm lost and my phone is dead and I look dried out and seedy from the plane. After my mind had exhausted itself with my mania I had a profound moment of clarity. I told myself that I would simply have to say yes to everything that came to me on this trip because I would otherwise be resisting and fighting the trip, setting myself up for frustration and discomfort (which is how I ended up saying yes to a 20-minute interview for some popular Japanese television show where they asked questions almost exclusively about my teeth.)
In two days I went from knowing one person in Japan and staying with my friend in the suburbs of Tokyo to knowing five and staying with a new friend in the middle of Shinjuku. Funny how close you can get to a stranger over a quick drink and a hot meal. My most memorable experience was traveling outside of the city to have hot pot at a friend of a new friend's house. Although his friend is loud, boisterous, a little raunchy and and has very American tastes in music and entertainment, our host is the exact opposite. He is quiet, good-natured and straight-faced, and from what I've had translated to me - a quick and acerbic wit. He speaks no English. He doesn't care that I don't speak Japanese. He calls me over by my name and speaks to me pointedly and intensely while everyone else is roaring with laughter at his insistence and translating for us as I just smile and nod - afraid anything else would be impolite.
"He wants to know where you learned to use chopsticks. Now he wants to know if you have a boyfriend or a husband. He says he can learn to be funny if you'd like that. He wants to know if you're okay with older men - he's 23". The overlap of Japanese and English and laughter, which is, of course, universal, was persistent in this group. "I just picked it up over time. I'm single. I like funny men. Tell him that doesn't make any sense and that I'm 28." He pointed to himself and happily repeated "Japanese Boyfriend?" until I nodded along. This is always what I've called "real life" - moments of connection, visceral experiences - food, laughter, flirtation. Being invited into someone's space. Making the unfamiliar feel like a bit of home.
Soon I was able to navigate the train systems of Tokyo without panic. I sat down to Chanko Nabe served by retired sumos while tapes of their glory days played on a tv on the wall and received a nod of approval after clearing my plate. I wandered the streets and parks on my own, occasionally being stopped by other foreigners, happy to see another stranger traversing a strange land. Even when we don't speak we are reinvigorated by the sight of eachother. If they can I can.
By my last night in Tokyo I was comfortable enough to go with my new friends to Golden Gai - a dense cluster of tiny bars - usually with room for no more than 5 or 6 people. We piled into a wood-paneled bar that played nothing but David Bowie and served bratwurst with your drinks. Just us, the businessman, and his hipster friend. Reminded me of "All Along The Watchtower" - the joker and the thief - both already red-faced and drunk. The hipster guy leaned across my friend to speak to me in Japanese. By NowI knew enough to greet him convincingly enough that he continued before my friend stopped him. "Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you like Japanese Gentleman?" he asked me, dissolving into laughter with his friend at each question. My friends, in an attempt to help me out, jumped in and informed him that I had a boyfriend in Japan. He only got more intrigued and excited, widening his eyes and grinning - "you have a Japanese boyfriend??? You don't speak Japanese?? He doesn't speak English?? So its just BODY LANGUAGE??" everyone fell into stomach tightening fits of laughter. No matter where you go some interactions will always be the same. Past that everyone was too drunk to translate much for me but by that point you kind of know where everything is going. People talk about their jobs, their families, their likes and dislikes, music, sex, what they wish things were like, trash talk their friends that are in the room and then laugh and hug them, call their wives ogres and nags and then drunkenly show you lovely pictures of them and go home to them just like they do every night. You go to any bar anywhere and a least one of these conversations is happening. And that's what I love - the common threads.
I time traveled the next day 13 hours back into the past and slept for 12 hours to find that even after I lived what felt like a lifetime of crisis, confusion, bad language skills, uprooting, getting lost, desperate translations, and the unfamiliar - everything was exactly as I'd left it. There's something about knowing you can return to have your fill of the same that makes you more hungry for the other, no matter how scary and uncomfortable. You do it to know you can. You do it to gain perspective, to fall in love again with the world, to remind yourself there is life beyond the end of your own desk or dinner table. You do it to feel alive again.
Capter II: Keep The Quiet Out
One of the first things I noticed about Shibuya crossing- made famous by Sofia Coppola's cult classic film Lost In Translation - wasn't the 40 foot tall LED screens, robot restaurants, or the crush of foot traffic - it was the unexpected quiet. Not a car horn, not an excited shriek of recognition between friends, no couples in heated debate. Just the continuous low hum of murmuring conversations and the quiet swish of tires over smooth asphalt. Incredibly still - eerie to my New York sensibility. I ask my friend if it's always this quiet."yes, that's kind of a weird thing about Tokyo - sometimes it just gets really silent."
I am, well I can be, a fairly solitary kind of person. An observer by nature, I find a little pride in my ability to sit back and enjoy life going by without trying to tamper with it too much. I like that I can enjoy a movie, dinner, a long sit at a crowded bar in my own company. But in Tokyo, I felt distinctly lonely. The heavy quiet of the backstreets, the societal agreement against small talk, loudness, general chaos, fidgeting, leg crossing, PDA, excessive physical and eye contact made me realize just how western my brand of solitude truly is. I know how to be alone when there's a chance at quick conversations amongst strangers, passing glances, a quick smile or joke. That kind of alone, to me, feels full of opportunity. But this was a new brand of silence I didn't know how to prepare for. In the times that I was on my own and away from the new friends I had made under my unique circumstances the only people I talked to most of the time were convenience store clerks and baristas and although there was a language barrier, I found myself grateful for their gracious but fleeting attention. I felt, at times, like a ghost wandering through a strange utopia - everything so organized, so safe, so clean, efficient, polite, removed, a tinge of neatly packaged anxiety underscoring everything.
There is a word in Japanese -"hikikomori" - which describes those who, for varying reasons, would rather carry out an isolated existance - specifically those who have not shown interest in socializing for at least a year. In an article for National Geographic, photographer Maika Elan observed “there are always two sides that oppose one another. It is both modern and traditional, bustling and very lonely. Restaurants and bars are always full, but if you pay close attention, most are packed with customers eating alone. And in the streets, no matter the hour, you find exhausted office employees.” That took some getting used to. In fact, many times when I was alone, members of Japan's expat community would catch eyes with me and insist that I add them on social media and reach out. "It's very lonely here" they would tell me. They knew the quiet I knew. And they avoided it too.
As rich and stimulating and beautiful as I found it there, it was also all too easy to go full days without talking or making eye contact. Rushing through the crowds of Harajuku or through the serenity of Ueno park, eyes focused downwards at the spotlessly clean street, or over the heads of strangers - fixed on the sloping roofs of faraway shrines or the cadmium-yellow leaves of ginko trees in the distance. That time in my own head, did though, give me a new perception of personal space.
All of the thoughts that go unsorted in my day to day life because of constant overstimulation came flowing out all at once. I fought that quiet for a long time, anxious to be alone in this new and profound way. I listened to headphones, chatted incessantly to my acquaintances, tuned into every little automated voice - though I couldn't understand what they were saying. In the west, we don't have a concept of what the Japanese call "fuinki" - - a presence, something special, the mood, the atmosphere. Here silence can mean just as much as speaking, and dedication to a peaceful atmosphere is universally understood. The emphasis is on a quiet existence and social discretion that simply does not exist in the west. I felt like my head was wrapped in gauze for the first couple of days, somehow numb but hyper-aware of myself. I don't remember when it was exactly - I think sitting on a bench at Jingu Gaien - that I heard the quiet for the first time. By that I mean, the first time I let it in and I didn't feel lonely or overwhelmed, the first time I wasn't begging my phone to light up with a notification to distract me from my solitude. And I understood.