Recent gigs I’ve had. Like, being paid to travel the world and write stories and take photos. Little girl me in little town Nevada who just wanted to see the world is seriously freaking out.
Notes From Nevada
SUNDAY // The first death
I was listening to bluegrass when the first death happened. I was at Sorensen’s, the inn owned by the family of my best friend Machete near our hometown of Lake Tahoe, and we had crossed the river to the inn’s cafe for lunch. We’d been staying there for a week, and today the café was hosting a bluegrass and BBQ fundraiser for a local nature conservancy.
String instruments. Coleslaw. The thin, fresh air of the High Sierras. I was biting into baby back ribs when a waitress stopped by the table and asked if anyone had medical experience, because a man was having a heart attack in the parking lot.
The man and his wife were actually early investors in Sorensen’s. Machete had met them briefly over the years, and this thread of connection led to us staying with the wife throughout the process of her husband saying goodbye to life. On the asphalt. In front of their rental car. Hundreds of miles from anyone she knew.
We talked to her for a long time as the medics did CPR and then the AED machine on her husband there in the parking lot, as the bluegrass band kept playing and the songs synced eerily to the circumstance, like when they played “Soul Meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie. She said more than once that she felt bad for ruining everyone’s lunch.
When blood started pouring from her husband’s mouth from the vigorous CPR, we distracted her by asking about their kids. Their daughter lived in Africa, running a hot air balloon company with her boyfriend. I think their son was a college professor, but I don’t remember. Machete drove her car when they took him down the mountain to the nearest hospital. I followed in my car.
He was pronounced dead on arrival, and we sat with his wife as she made the necessary calls to her kids. It was hard to watch. There was an infomercial playing loudly in the ER waiting room. I found the remote and put it on mute. She told us how relieved she was they’d recently finalized their affairs. He’d had a lot of medical problems so they were prepared for the worst.
It made me think about how important is to organize what you want to happen after you die while you’re still living, how much easier it is on your loved ones to not have to figure it all out for you while they’re in the midst of grieving. This is responsible dying. This is letting your death inspire your life, rather than living in denial that we all meet the same fate.
That night we made sure she had dinner, hugged her, and left her to rest in her cabin at Sorensen’s. She departed the next day, leaving us a nice note at the front desk. The whole scenario felt very similar to how my grandfather passed away when I was 21, from a heart attack in a parking lot when we were at the automobile museum in Reno. I was holding him in my arms on the ground as it happened, which was both traumatic and an honor. I’ve never stopped missing him.
But I did try to forget about him, because thinking about him meant thinking about his death, how his body shuddered, the neon lights of the casino next door blinking in his glasses, his eyes staring at nothing, unlike the medics’ eyes – that certain look when they know it’s too late but they try anyway, so later the doctor can begin The Speech with “We did everything we could…” All I could think was not again, please not again, because just a year before my mom had died and I’d only recently been able to get through the day without crying. No, I definitely didn’t want to think about death.
But some people want to think about death. They think about it all the time, on purpose. Memento mori is the ancient practice of reflecting on mortality, of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods. It translates to “Remember you must die.” In early Buddhist texts, a prominent term is maraṇasati, which translates to “Remember death.” Some Sufis have been called the “people of the graves,” because of their practice of frequenting graveyards to ponder on death and one’s mortality. A lot of press came out recently about a memento mori app that sends you five daily reminders that someday you will die. A friend of mine has this app. He says it helps him stay present.
I know about this app because Machete and I are in the process of making our first feature film, called Moon Manor, and it’s a comedy about death. Our lead character has decided to die like he has lived – with intention, humor and zest – and the film follows his last day alive as he throws a fabulous FUNeral before taking his own life. Think “Harold and Maude” for a new generation. This is a quote we use from The Psychedelic Guide to The Tibetan Book of the Dead to explain why we wanted to make this movie: “What if the art of living is actually the art of dying?”
Because of Moon Manor, I’ve spent the last few years getting to know the #deathpositive movement, and I can tell you – death is trending. “Ask a Mortician” is a popular YouTube show, and Death Cafes are popping up all over, a place where you can discuss your mortal fate over tea and cookies. I follow several death doulas on Instagram, and there are more alternatives than ever to the traditional coffin. There’s the mushroom death suit, the biodegradable seagrass coffin, The Living Urn that turns your ashes into a young tree.
In a 2018 New York Times article titled “The Positive Death Movement Comes to Life,” the connection is drawn between the women’s movement and the death positive movement, in a quote from Ellen Goodman, who started the Conversation Project, a guide to discussing end of life that’s been downloaded over a million times. “It wasn’t doctors who changed the way we give birth in America. It was women who said that giving birth was a human event. I think we’re trying to do that now. Dying is a human experience. We’re trying to put the person back into the center of the experience.”
MONDAY // The second death
We wake to the news that our childhood friend Stella has passed away in the night. We’d been planning to go see her in the hospital that day. She was only 35. Breast cancer. The same way my mom died. My mom was first diagnosed when she was 37. Before I came on this trip home, I’d taken the test to find out if I carry the breast cancer gene, something I’d procrastinated doing for 15 years.
A few weeks earlier, Machete had gone to visit Stella and they’d given me a call. I’m so sorry I never called when your mom passed, was the first thing Stella said to me. She was on a lot medication, loopy, but cognizant. I wanted to be there for you but I didn’t know how. Now I know what you were going through. She sobbed as she said this, not holding back, not “holding it together.”
I’d imagined the call would be me offering her platitudes, that we’d avoid the inevitable reason for the call — essentially, to say goodbye. Her complete vulnerability broke me. When someone is dying we commend them for things like “bravery” and “fortitude.” What we’re really saying is make this easier on me, because I don’t know how to deal with that fact that you’re dying.
We spent an hour on the phone, the three of us reminiscing about being in high school theater together, about how Stella was a legendary Marilyn Monroe impersonator around town, a woman when the rest of us were just girls. We told her she’d always been ahead of her time, and her being the first to transcend was just another example.
I have to get off the phone because I’m catching a late flight to Hawaii. I never made it to Hawaii, always wanted to go, she says. I feel like a colossal jerk, even though I’m going for work — to write a story about the Honolulu Biennial — and even though it’s taken me a long time to get to the point in my career I get to travel to write, I feel bad for feeling bad, because it’s another level of making it about me. Throughout the trip I think of Stella constantly. Try to somehow pass her the special quality of the air in Hawaii, the plumeria flowers, to transmute moments of impatience or anxiety (i.e. being a human), into gratitude and appreciation for my life, my breath. Memento mori.
And now it’s a Monday in this cabin and the only think I can think after this second death is that I need to be in Nature. I go to one of my favorite spots, Hope Valley. Good memories. Good name. I used to come here with my grandfather. I drive up to two old guys in front of their RVs and say hello and ask if there are any new trails. Just walk into the meadow and you’ll see, one of them tells me. He has a beard like Santa Claus. The other wears red suspenders.
The valley. Bees and crickets and the sun like melted butter. I listen to music, dance and skip around. Even though my heart is heavy with thoughts of Stella, I also feel grateful to be alive. Memento mori. A river cuts through the valley and there’s a little beach, so even though the water is absolutely freezing I strip naked and swim. Memento mori. I smoke a joint, dance some more. I put my clothes back on and do a workout, then bask on some river rocks to write. Then I hear a voice, a voice filled with authority.
Excuse me, m’am. The gentleman in the parking lot made a report that you’re acting erratically. Are you on some kind of drug?
It’s the sheriff. He’s been called all the way out to remote Hope Valley because I’m acting like a pagan witch weirdo (at least on the spectrum of “normal” the old timers in the parking lot are used to). He approaches me cautiously, like I could be dangerous. I’m just enjoying a quiet moment in Nature. I’m trying not to laugh.
He says he has to ask me some questions, starting with what’s today’s date. The 10th? June 10th? He looks at me hard. That’s incorrect, m’am. I explain I’ve been staying in a cabin without WiFi, purposefully trying to lose track of time, could he ask me an easier question? This is not going well. He asks me what year it is, my name, who the president is (ugh), my address. I answer as soberly as I can and he starts to ease up. He speaks into the radio strapped at his shoulder.
Suspect is just enjoying the river, not dangerous, not armed. Repeat, suspect is just enjoying the river.
To change the subject, I ask if he heard about the heart attack at Sorensen’s the other day. He answers that he was the first responder. I tell him I was there too, that’s where I’m staying, my best friend’s family owns the place and we were the ones who took his wife to the ER. I thought you looked familiar, he says. Something flashes in his eyes, a look like sadness. I ask him what it’s like for him, as a sheriff, to deal so closely with death as part of his daily work. The way he looks at me indicates no one had asked him that in a long time, maybe ever.
What proceeded was twenty minutes straight of the sheriff talking about what it’s like to be law enforcement in a rural area. How a lot of the deaths he sees are suicide, people who come to a beautiful place to end it all. He said he didn’t blame me for wanting some alone time by the river, he wished he got more time alone to reflect. He talked and I listened as the sun moved behind the clouds and the temperature dropped and the frogs started warming up their sunset chorus.
When finally I spoke, it was to ask if he wanted to stay at the river and take a moment, and I’d walk back? He kinda pulled himself together and said no, he needed to go tell the old guys in the parking lot I was okay. They were just making sure you weren’t hurt, they weren’t spying on you, just so you know. I nodded, knowing full well they’d have to be watching me with binoculars to have seen me from so far away.
The sheriff looks around, at the mountains with snow still on the peaks, at the river forever flowing through the valley called Hope. He starts walking away, my solo healing now his, my processing of the heart attack I witnessed and the stoic grace of the wife, the loss of my grandfather, of dear Stella, of my mom, always of my mom, now transmuted into the healing the sheriff needed, for all the death he’s absorbed over the years. He paused and looked back at me. I smiled, said nothing. I took a photo of the river rocks I’d been laying on, packed up my things and left.
When we get back to Los Angeles, Machete and I start working on our application for Reimagine End of Life, an annual weeklong celebration of death in San Francisco. Reimagine is also in NYC, and they’re expanding to more cities. We’ll show the trailer to Moon Manor, meet more of the community. Last year, events included Oscar winner Frances McDormand performing Sophocles and a conversation with the director of Pixar’s Coco. Death is trending, and Hollywood is on board.
A few weeks later, I get the results back from the genetic test. I don’t have the breast cancer gene. Incidentally, the same day Machete gives me a joking-but-serious gift: a workbook called I’m Dead. Now What?, in which you fill out all your pertinent information (insurance policies, passwords, burial wishes) so your loved ones are prepared to handle your affairs upon your death. If we’re going to make a movie about responsible dying, we need to walk the talk, she says to me.
The book is still sitting on my desk, unopened.
My official Moon Manor writer/director portrait taken on set December 2018 by @thisheartofstone. Looks like a back-to-school picture, and that’s how it felt too. Excitement, exhaustion, glee. We’re deep in post production. Magick is brewing. http://www.moonmanormovie.com
New PRINT story!! There’s nothing quite like holding your words in physical form, especially when that form is pretty as @flauntmagazine. Other than #rossbutler being such a nice dude, the highlight here was getting a teensy bit of redemption for the car accident I got into driving to the interview. Full story on newsstands and online: http://www.flaunt.com/content/ross-butler.
Gig of a lifetime!!!! Thrilled and honored and stoked to say I’ll be joining the @sol.selectas journey to Morocco as the caravan storyteller!!! All those years writing about my travels on this blog are paying off, no one was reading it (except my sister, love you sister) but I was finding my voice and now that translates to work and pinch me how is this real life?!! There are a few tickets left if you want to comeeeeeee. 🐫 http://www.solsahara.com
Everything on the train is grubby, and it’s more expensive than a flight. But something happens to the mind when on the train. The tethers are loosened. You enter a meditative state. The most fruitful writing and reading time. Nature drifts by outside and you have the best seat in the house. You pass rivers and mountains not even cars can access. It’s the best of all worlds, I’m in a comfortable seat watching the world like a movie screen. Neighborhoods with neighborhood things—kids jumping on trampolines, clothes drying on the line, rusted cars and stray dogs. This trip was 36 hours, my longest yet. The Coast Starlight through the forest and the agricultural fields and the ocean. America’s great West Coast journeying Seattle > LA.
Last month was my birthday so I ran away to Tulum for a few days. To me, this picture is México. Rather than the beach and margaritas and all that, it’s the dusty roads, the bark of raggedy dogs, the delightful, too sweet taste of Mexican Coke.
Remembering my first visits to México as a tween, giddy to buy cheap beer without an ID, the rough streets of those early days of Sayulita where Beth’s family had a house and we had a whole other life we’d bi-annually dip into and be “G.I.T.s” … Gypsies In Training. I decided last minute to come on this trip, so maybe I became a gypsy after all? But that’s a cultural appropriation – gypsies are a people who’ve been persecuted terribly over the centuries, the Coachella-fication of their aesthetic on par with Tulum’s tourists who know nothing about the tension simmering under the sunburned streets. But let me not travel down that path. This is a “HBD to me” post after all. Age just has a way of ripping off the blinders.
Back to waxing poetic about the intoxicating magic of México. And thanking @our_habitas and @uproxxtravel for giving me wings to explore @artwithmetulum. A new year for new opportunities. Shameless hotel balcony selfies shall endure, however.
I hope more festivals will take a cue from @artwithmetulum and #partyforapurpose. Four days of art, music and food centered around talks on sustainability and social change. I did a story over at @uproxxtravel if you wanna go seeeee. “The mission of Art With Me *GNP is to enrich the local community, preserve the natural environment and strengthen the artistic development of Tulum through conscious and sustainable practice. Art With Me has chosen solid waste management as the central environmental topic for its’ first year, due to the threat it has on the Mesoamerican ReefSystem (SAM), the ocean and the local people of Tulum.” This was a great sculpture at Art With Me by Daniel Popper. Installations like this were hidden everywhere in the beach and the jungle. Photo by Peter Ruprecht.
Hotel rooms strike me as the loveliest and loneliest places on earth
Everything is fresh, the illusion of perfect
A temporary home in a tower of travelers
When you don’t have to worry about clean towels or making the bed
The mind can dive into more existential pursuits
The square of toilet paper origami
The smart appeal of bleach
A room service pre-order form, so you can eat bacon and eggs two minutes upon waking
52 channels to flip through, the only place left to watch basic cable and feel like a kid again
But after a few days, your clean paradise becomes a prison
And it’s depressing to be in a room masquerading as your own but it belonged to the guy before you and the family after you and really it belongs to the maid
And the plastic key is so plastic
And they politely request in an aggressive way
That you check out by 11am
Where once the bland painting on the wall was blessedly free of personal attachment, it’s now offensive in its non offensive-ness,
And maybe you peek behind it and see a doodle left by a past resident
And you’re disgruntled you didn’t think to do something edgy like that
The bad coffee in its single serving pouch makes you mad because you’re a single serving person in a single serving room in this single serving life
And so you go home, where the to-do list lives, and boxes that need sorting left over from when you moved in, and the oven needs fixing
But it’s perfect in its imperfection because it sounds like ice cream trucks and lawn mowers outside because it’s a neighborhood
And it’s a home
And it’s yours
The moon is mysterious — always changing shapes, always rising and setting at different times. It’s a wild banshee compared to the sun, ever constant in its brightness.
The moon is alluring, too — so seductive that the tides move at her will (don’t talk to me about gravity, I’m being lyrical here). And yes, the feminine pronoun shall be used to reference her, because women have a special connection to that round lantern in the sky. The lunar cycle is 29.5 days long, the same length as a menstrual cycle.
I love the moon in a way I don’t love — or even notice — other celestial bodies. And so, after intending to do it forever, I finally went on a dedicated full moon hike. Meaning, I wasn’t out at night and “just happened” to glance skyward. Instead, I went out to purposefully hike by her light. It was an adventure available to us all, wherever we are, for free.
My moon hike happened New Year’s Day, the first full moon of the year. I was back home in Northern Nevada and had the wild hair (what a funny expression, is it just one singular hair that’s wild? where does this hair grow?) to get in touch with my inner pagan. It was time to check “moon walk” off my list of life experiences.
Following my wild hair, I went to the internet, which told me that the local parks and recreation department was leading a full moon hike around Wahoe Lake, the small body of water between Carson City and Reno. God love parks and rec departments. I’d never actually been to this lake, Lake Tahoe kinda steals the thunder of all lakes around here, so it seemed all was in “alignment,” as they say.
Here’s what happened when I arrived: http://www.uproxx.com/life/mega-moon-hike
Who knew getting hated on could be so rewarding? To date, the essay I wrote about my Burning Man experience (see above) has been read 50,000 + times. This might be normal for other writers, but since I’m usually locked away in a long form narrative, this shit never happens to me.
I’ve felt elated, proud, shocked, seen, and – hurt. Because there’s also been a lot of backlash. By readers who hate Burning Man in general and thus hate the article (which is such a curiosity, to take the time to read AND comment on an event you’ve never attended but loathe intensely … Burning Man is so charged like that). And by Burners themselves who hate – well, me. Or at least what I wrote, what I represent, “everything that’s going downhill about Burning Man.” To get backlash from the community stings a little. Okay, a lot. I got called a Sparklepony. In Burn culture, this is very, very unflattering.
When I look back at what I wrote, in the midst of unpacking the rental van, hair ratted, bike chafed, picking playa dust out of my eyelashes, mourning the loss of my sleep schedule, hoping we wouldn’t get charged a cleaning fee on the van, getting charged anyway, catching up on bills and checking in with family, yeah I cringe at how obnoxious the article is at times. But in that haze of post peak experience deadline drama, I had no time to self-censor, no time to organize my thoughts beyond a brain dump of what the experience was like inside my neurotic, self-judgmental mind.
I agree with some of the detractors. I wasn’t there for my camp as much as I could’ve been, admitting lugging grey water in apocalyptic heat was the hardest physical labor I’ve ever done was a pretty embarrassing window into my privileged existence. But the comments that piss me off are the ones that refer to me as “just another pretty white girl.” This means my experience isn’t valid? This means I can’t have a point of view?
Would it have made a difference if I’d divulged that I’ve spent the last year as caretaker to my very ill father? That getting to spend a week feeling alive in the desert was the antidote to our endless ER visits. And that before that I was holding space for my boyfriend when he got run over by an SUV, breaking both legs and spending months in a wheelchair. And that he and I got our Burning Man tickets as the goal on the horizon when he would walk again. And that even though we’re not together anymore, my ultimate Burn highlight was when we found each other on the playa under the moon, marveling that he could not only walk but dance and ride a bike, and we held the solar shower for each other as we took little bird baths and discussed our favorite art installations.
If I’d shared all that, would it have made a difference?
Or is that just something a pretty white girl would say?
With that said, now I’ll do the only thing you really can do in life: focus on the light.
In this case: the positive feedback the article has generated. Readers who’ve shared El Guaco-esque experiences of their own, and the owner of El Guaco himself, who found me on Facebook to say El Guaco is his playa contribution because he’s an introvert and this is how he feels comfortable interacting with people.
Some other things I need to say:
–My heart is heavy for the man who ran into the fire, for his family, for those who witnessed it. I didn’t address this in the article because I wanted to gently shine a light on all the other aspects of the experience. I don’t have anything poetic to say about it, just had to acknowledge it.
–I love bike culture at Burning Man. It’s such a return to childhood, riding around with your friends, your bike posse. It’s the perfect example of the duality out there, hedonistic activities happening simultaneously as you get in touch with your inner child.
–Something needs to be said about baby wipes at Burning Man. They are a gift from heaven. That’s all.
–To save face, I know I should write more about my previous Burns, in response to the commenters who wrote that it’s sad I’d been 4 times and was still such a “spectator.” But that’s another article for another time. And I’m pretty ready to be done with Burning Man for the year.
The last thing I want to say is I’ve had haters before. I wrote a sex column for a semester in college that was so divisive I got both applauded by my First Amendment and Society professor, and nearly kicked out of school. Being the center of such turmoil was thrilling, and embarrassing. It was right after my mom’s death and I was in a very “fuck it” place in my life. I’d be lying if I said the backlash didn’t affect me deeply. I wanted to hide for the entire year following. What’s changed in ten years? Then I was writing for shock affect, this time I was authentically expressing myself and my experience. I think I just have a somewhat salacious way of moving through life. I’ve also had ten years of rejection and disappointment to get me primed.
Okay, controversy. Okay, Burning Man. I’ve said all I can say. I’m done. For the year. Or longer. Or not.
Lately, I feel grumpy. It’s July, which means days are long and hot. Pool parties. The beach. Short shorts. Blah fucking blah. In other words, a constant reminder that despite my best intentions, somewhere along the line I sold out and became an adult.
I feel nostalgia for the summer of my youth so heavy I can’t breathe. Growing up in the tiny ranch town of Gardnerville, Nevada meant summers were like a country music video on repeat. Especially the sweet spot between ages fifteen and seventeen, when we were old enough to drive but too young to go anywhere.
The launch of summer was Carson Valley Days, the town parade and carnival at Lampe Park. Everyone came and everyone rode the same five rides we’d been riding since we were kids. We spent summer days at Lake Tahoe and summer nights at the river. Cheap beer was usually involved. We rode in the back of pickup trucks, driving too fast down county lanes, nothing but the stars above and our uncertain futures ahead.
The lack of options is what created the bliss. Gardnerville had one movie theater and lots of empty Earth. Social life meant seeing the same movie for the fifth time, or circling up around a bonfire in the desert or the woods, drinking our parents’ purloined liquor and blasting Country Grammar (I know I just seriously dated myself, but Nelly’s debut album was really tight).
I marvel at how we found these bonfire spots. Before Waze, before texting. I guess we called each other on land lines and wrote down the directions?
I could devote an entire book to growing up Gardnerville, and I still might. But for now the last thing I’ll mention here is the scent — summer nights in the ‘Ville are the aroma of hay fields, fresh unpolluted oxygen, cows, wholesome American dreams. I know I’m waxing poetic, we always look back on our youth with a rose-colored lens.
But no matter how many cities I visit, or fancy Hollywood events I attend, nothing feels as great as being seventeen on a summer night, surrounded by my gang of friends, parked at the river, singing Garth Brooks into the night.
Yes, 17 things. Because Cuba is the most unique place I’ve ever traveled. The sweet sharp rum. The magnificent crumbling buildings. The gorgeous people and their difficult history.
My trip came together on Christmas Eve and I arrived Havana the eve of New Year’s Eve, so I had little time to build expectations. Probably doesn’t matter. Even if I’d been prepping the trip for months I’d still be blown away. Thus, having gone into the experience a blank slate, here are 17 things that surprised me about Cuba.
#1) It was easy to fly there, in a complicated way. Commercial flights are now happening from the U.S. straight to Cuba, but you still need to prove you’re going for one of 12 “official” reasons (you can’t go simply as a tourist). But hacking the system is way more fun! We flew to Mexico City and bought a one-way ticket at the Cubana Air office, which took a few days to figure out and included exploring the Witch Market and a Lucha Libre match. It was a *tiny* bit stressful carrying all our cash around one of the most dangerous cities in the world (you can’t buy a flight to Cuba with an American credit card), but finding an open Cubana office also felt like a treasure hunt (they’re open for like three hours a day, an hour of which is lunch-I liked these people already).
#2) When you stay with a family, you become part of the family. The best accommodations in Cuba are the casa particulares, basically, renting a room from a family. For around $30/night, you get a clean room, breakfast, and the chance to see what Cuban life is really like. Maybe we got lucky, but our family was the shit. We went together to the beach, to the river, they drove us where we wanted to go in the city and helped us plan the rest of our trip. Two nights booked at the casa became six nights, and whether they like it or not, I now consider Martique to be my Cuban mom, Yoe to be the affable dad-who’s-more-like-a-friend, 19 year-old Alejandra to be my hermana pequeña, and the 13 year-old son (who’s name I think is Alejandro but seems unlikely, right?) to be the little brother I don’t really have a relationship with because all he does is play video games. They spoke no English, so I finally got to live out my dream of being the foreign exchange student with the cute accent who’s always saying funny stuff like “estoy embarazada” (meant to say: “I’m embarrassed” actually said: “I’m pregnant”).
#3) New Year’s Eve is NOT a party night. I’d imagined myself with new Cuban friends, rum drunk in the street as we salsa danced into the new year. I’d even brought a cheap gold “2016” crown from home (nerd alert!). This was not to be, however, as Alejandra informed me NYE is a family night, everyone stays in and has a big dinner. We were invited to feast with them, and had a delicious meal of chicken, pork, black beans and rice, plantains and tres leches cake (worth mentioning: the BBQ was a DIY creation made from an old propane tank). Two traditions were throwing a bucket of water out the door at midnight to cleanse the year past, and burning scarecrow-like effigies in the street (more tame than it sounds). After dinner we walked the dog to the neighbor’s house to play dominoes. At 1:30am Alejandra said she’d heard about a party at the Port we could try and get into (so it IS a party night, parties just start way late after family dinner?)…fast forward a few hours and we’re meeting Fidel Castro’s granddaughter at a swanky house on the water. ¡Felicidades!
#4) Cuban guys sculpt their eyebrows. The most lovely shaped brows I’ve ever seen were on the faces of the macho Cuban men. An unscientific visual survey confirmed they also shave their arms and legs. Perhaps they’re trying to keep up with the gorgeous Cuban women. Cuban is a melting pot of African, Caribbean, and European culture, creating stunning, mixed-race humans the likes of which I’ve seen only in Brazil. And they’re so sexy! Even the official uniforms of the girls working at the airport were mini-skirts and black fishnets.
#5) It is NOT possible to get sick of rum. It’s the nectar of life.
#6) It IS possible to get sick of Adele’s new album. — It was the only music I had actually on my phone. No wifi meant no streaming meant Hey Adele, if you’ve called 1,000 times and no one is answering maybe you have the WRONG FUCKING NUMBER!
#7) It is possible to get SLIGHTLY sick of cigars. — Did you know cigars are just dried tobacco leaves rolled together? You’re smoking leaves. I didn’t know that. And they’re really green and pretty when hung up, like the pic. But they started giving me a headache, and/or that’s because it’s still legal to smoke cigarettes everywhere in Cuba.
#8) Cuba is freaking beautiful. I was expecting lovely beaches, but wasn’t prepared for the green hills, red soil, and exotic flowers. Like you see in Viñales, a country region a few hours from Havana. We arrived at night, so was blown away by the view that greeted us in the morning. I also didn’t realize a lot of the country was built in the 1500s and 1600s, creating a unique mixture with the buildings built in mod 1950s style. And! I was surprised to find out how big Cuba is, it’s the largest island in the Caribbean. A bus ride to Cienfuegos or Trinidad, two cities a lot of travelers visit, was 6 hours from Havana. And that’s staying on the west coast of the island.
#9) Cuba just got the Internet, but they still don’t have advertising. Some people told me the Internet came to Cuba 15 days ago, others said 3 months. As I experienced more than once on my trip, it’s hard to get a straight answer on anything in Cuba. I do know this: when Martique (the mom at our casa particular) said there was Internet at the park, I thought she meant there was an Internet cafe. I went looking for the cafe, and found dozens of people with their laptops filling every bench IN the park. As in, when Cuba decided to allow its citizens wifi, it became available only in a few select parks in the city. On some street corners (near parks) you can access it as well. Martique mentioned it was an effort to clean up the hotels, previously the only place to log-on, an unpleasant experience for high-paying tourists to find their lobby packed with Cubans vying for enough of a signal to make a 15-second video call to relatives in the States. She said they put extra benches in parks and now that’s where one goes to do Internet-ing, “como si fuéramos animales.” You still need to buy an Internet card, you get an hour at a time, which costs up to $7 in hotels, and there’s an emerging street hustle of selling the cards on the street for $1 or $2.
Not that they haven’t had content this whole time. From the Miami Herald: “Because of the severe lack of web access on the island, many people subscribe to the underground paquete, a weekly package of programming bought and sold on thumbdrives, or, for those who can afford them, external hard drives. The paquete sells for between 2 to 3 CUCs — the Cuban currency roughly equivalent to dollars — per week, and buyers can watch, among hundreds of offerings, recent episodes of Game of Thrones, Veep, and The Mindy Project.”
As a Communist country, there’s still a general lack of advertising. No messages shouted at you from billboards or bus stops. No images forced into your brain. No suggestions on what to eat, think, wear. Not being constantly plugged-in is something I always enjoy about traveling, but the lack of advertising felt like a cleansing of the palate.
#10) Cuba is FULL of tourists. It might not be a common place for Americans to go, but the rest of the world long ago made Cuba its playground. To the point that Habana Vieja (Old Town) is like visiting Epcot Disneyworld (why do so many tourists wear workout clothes or sweats when traveling? I get wanting to be comfortable, but you’re not working out, you’re not napping…no entiendo). Tourism is a very good thing for Cuba, however. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Cuba had an extreme economic collapse. From Lonely Planet: “Almost overnight half the factories closed, the national economy shrunk by 60%, and Cubans who had been relatively well-off a year or so earlier, faced a massive battle just to survive.” In 1993, attempting to revive itself, Cuba legalized the US dollar and opened the country up to tourism and limited forms of private enterprise. Tourism is how they’ve been able to recover.
#11) The classic cars aren’t classic on the inside, and there’s no toilet paper. All those beautiful cars from the 1950s? For the most part, the engines are new, and often the interiors as well. So you hail a taxi, and from the outside you step into a ’56 Chevy, but on the inside you find yourself in ’02 Peugeot. Also, lots of taxis that stop aren’t actually taxis, just people looking to make an extra buck. Which is cool. Also also, for some reason Cubans love to put Mac Apple stickers on their gorgeous classic cars. And, most of the old cars have one handle to roll down every window, so you have to pass it back and forth. Worth noting: January 2014 was the first time a Cuban was allowed to buy a car without a government permit in over 50 years. Not related, but also interesting: there’s a severe lack of toilet paper in Cuba. Paper goods in general. This is why you see people bringing toilet paper with their carry-ons at the airport, and why the pizza we ordered one night was served on printer paper rather than a plate.
#12) Cubans are the happiest, most welcoming people in the world. And they seem to love Americans. Considering the hardships they’ve been through because of Castro’s tricky relationship with the U.S. government, I was blown away by the sweet open demeanor of nearly everyone I met. When asked where I’m from and I answered “California,” somewhat nervously, I was always met with a huge smile and Bienvenidos a Cuba! and usually “we love America!” Then I’d say Fuiste a America? (Have you been to America?) and immediately feel like an asshole because leaving Cuba is nearly impossible for them. Both to get a visa, and to ever earn enough money.
So why are they so happy all the time? I have a few theories. It’s like there was a collective decision to make the best of it, considering they’re more or less trapped on their island. The attitude could’ve easily gone the other way, toward discontent and anger. It’s an example of what’s possible for the human spirit. A case for the “paradox of choice” argument. Does having less options make you happier? Dunno. But Cubans seem to have something figured out. I’ve never seen so many people in a good mood.
#13) Cuba has virtually no crime. Is happiness the simplest antidote to violence (see above)? Google “crime in Cuba” and you’ll see across the board that Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world to travel. I’ve never felt more comfortable meeting strangers. Like our friend Rey, an older guy we met on a walk who ended up spending half the day with us, showing us secret spots of Havana and telling us about his life as a salsa instructor. Or Eddie, our tour guide in Viñales who arranged for us to stay at his mom’s house when all the hotels were booked. I did keep getting called “Bruchie” in the streets, which I eventually realized was a version of “Brooke Shields,” which I’ve gotten all my life (thank you thick eyebrows). But this didn’t feel threatening. In fact it boosted my ego quite a lot. Duh.
#14) Havana was the playground of the Mafia. The surprise here is more so that I knew very little about the history of Cuba’s revolution, and it’s a helluva story. My brief understanding (starting with the Revolution, though going back farther to the Spanish-American War and William Randolph Hearst’s role with yellow journalism is equally fascinating):
A) In the 1930s and 40s, Batista was in power, and at first he was a good guy and very progressive, then he became corrupt and took shitloads of money from the American Mafia, in exchange they got to do whatever they wanted in Havana (which is terrible and glamorous and why there are hotels with the height of 50s chic that hasn’t been updated since then, so thus is rundown as fuck). B) This upset a lot of people, including a young lawyer named Fidel Castro who led an uprising that resulted in the famed revolution of 1959 (Che Guevara was a big part of the revolution and in fact I saw his likeness all over Cuba, much more than Castro’s). C) The U.S. puts an embargo on Cuba because Communism was the worst thing ever at the time, and for other reasons I don’t fully understand (input welcome!). D) The Cuban Missile Crisis. E) Cuba becomes a shining example to the world for it’s literacy rate and healthcare system. F) Sugar plantations play a big role in all of this. G) The USSR is also very much involved. H) Fidel’s brother Raul takes over in 2006 because Fidel is 80 years-old and getting sick. Raul starts allowing things like private restaurants and more tourism. I) In 2015 the U.S. lifts the travel ban to Cuba (not entirely, just more than ever).
And that’s a terribly spotty account of Cuba’s last several decades, based on a traveler’s understanding as told to her by Cubans.
#15) Cuba has two currencies. This is a bizarre aspect of traveling in Cuba–tourists have one currency, locals have another. From the economist.com: “ONE country, two currencies” is one of Cuba’s more peculiar idiosyncrasies. The Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) are both legal tender on the island, though neither is exchangeable in foreign markets. The CUC is pegged to the dollar and worth 25 times as much as the CUP. But whereas most Cubans are paid in CUP, nearly all consumer goods are priced in CUC.” What this means as a traveler is you’ll be riding in a taxi with four locals and know you’re paying not just a different price for your ride, but an entirely different currency. It’s complicated and odd, and comes with all sorts of historical significance and reflection on current economic times.
#16) Santeria is one of the most common religions. Cuba embraces many religions, a refreshing experience. The people are open to all types of beliefs, one of which is Santeria–traditions from Africa kept alive by the slaves who were brought to work the sugar plantations, combined with Catholic saint worship. I also learned about Yoruba, an offshoot of Santeria that involves wearing white every day for a whole year. I visited Regla, where the main church of Santeria is located. I was scammed outside the church by two ladies who I think did black magic on me. I am purposefully glossing over all this because I intend to do a whole post or video on just this subject.
#17) Miscellaneous. A few final details that surprised me about Cuba. A) The Malecon (the long walkway between Havana and the water where everyone congregates to drink and drum) is as fun as expected. B) The art is incredible in Cuba, perhaps because the isolation means a unique, original style has emerged (and the Fábrica de Arte gallery/concert venue/cafe is one of the coolest places I’ve been in the world). C) I love cats. And I didn’t see that many at first around Cuba. Martique told me one night during the worst economic times all the cats disappeared. Because they were eaten. Note to self: research if this could be true. D) Cuban women aren’t allowed in caves because they steal the sparkly rocks (as told to me by our guide when exploring the largest cave in Cuba…could this possibly be true?).
And now we’re at the end. If you made it this far, you might not be as surprised as me to discover all these quirks about Cuba. Or maybe you’ll discover your own. I do know it’s the only place I’ve never seen an Irish bar in the world. The people are lovely, but it can be tough getting anything accomplished (you know you’re somewhere living in the past when Guatemala (our destination after Cuba) seems full of modern conveniences). But Cuba is 100% worth visiting, and I think I’ve left a piece of my heart there. But I always do that when traveling.
I had a cold desert Christmas. I visited my dad in his new home of Flagstaff, Arizona, and was amazed by the majesty of the land. We had Christmas dinner at the Grand Canyon. It was my first visit, and the site took my breath away (because the Canyon is awe-inspiring, and because it was really fucking cold).”We” was me, my dad, and John, the wonderful human I get to call my boyfriend. I’ve spent many holidays back home in Tahoe as the weird single LA artist cat lady, so being somewhere new with someone to call my own felt like Christmas morning all week long.
In addition to the Grand Canyon, we also explored the Wupataki ruins, the Sunset volcano crater, the mystical rock formations in Sedona, and drank in the stars via telescope at the Lowell Observatory. One word kept connecting these different experiences: perspective. I’d been needing a dose of the stuff. Lately, I’ve been trapped in the petty grievances of my lower mind.
It was fascinating to read about the natives who called Wupataki home, how they were in a constant struggle to survive against the elements yet thrived for centuries. Pottery has been found there but not the tools to make it, which suggests it came from elsewhere, which suggests trading between tribes occurred at Wupataki. The Sunset crater wasn’t much to look at from the base, but the lava flows around it were cool, and I was gobsmacked to read the placard calling the volcano a “geographic infant” because it erupted a mere 1,000 years ago. Telescoping the night sky at the Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was discovered!), we saw a “stellar nursery” located within Orion’s belt, which is literally where stars are born. Add in that poor Pluto isn’t even considered a planet anymore, and all this perspective made me feel one thing: grief.
Grief for all the times I’ve felt less than amazed to be alive. Grief that I spend a lot of my days without perspective. The perspective that this Earth is magnificent and I’m lucky to inhabit it for a speck of time.
So my perspective going into 2015: I’m grateful I have a healthy father, a car to take me to places like the Grand Canyon, and a witty handsome boyfriend to be my co-pilot. Here are some pics!