Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bobby LeFebre in Cuba

The following are journal entries from my trip last week to Cuba. I very rarely share journal writing as it is incomplete and without structure, but I wanted to share my experience with the many people that were interested and sent me private messages about my trip. I will be writing academic essays about the Cuban spoken word aesthetic soon, but the following is a timeline of my recent trip. By no means is this a complete look at everything I did and experienced, but it is some. The Cuban people are amazingly resilient. Cuba is a beautiful country misunderstood by many and I am glad to have been able to see and feel firsthand what Cuba really is and isn’t.  This journal is not representative of the Cuban perspective. It is my perspective of the eight days I spent in Cuba. Forgive the errors or incomplete thoughts.  There is a lot below, read what you wish and thank you for all the private messages, texts, and hugs and kisses.

If we were to play a word association game and I said the word "Cuba," what is the first thing that would come to mind? Is it Fidel Castro smoking a puro in menacing green fatigues confirming your fear? Is it Communism or Socialism or Che Guevara? Is it rum or mojitos? Do you have any frame of reference at all?

Wanna Come to Havana?

In January of this year I was contacted by a dedicated Cuban poet named Elier Alvarez, aka, "El Brujo." All I knew about him was that he was a mutual Facebook friend of my real life friend and mentor, Paul Flores, who is a poet and youth worker from San Francisco. Elier informed me that he had studied my performances on YouTube, visited my website, talked to Paul about me, and was impressed with my work and accomplishments as a slam and performance poet. He explained that he was planning an international spoken word festival in July called "Zonas Poeticas." He wanted me to come to Havana to share my expertise in slam and performance poetry with the Cuban people. The goal of the festival was to create a space for workshops, debates, performances and overall dialogue about how Cuba can more effectively develop and infuse spoken word and performance poetry into the fabric of their already vibrant arts and culture scene. "El Brujo" is the the General Director of Caminos de Palabras, a promotional group that is developing spoken word in Cuba. Although the scene in Havana has existed for more than ten years, it is a relatively unknown art form outside its small circle. This is due to many factors, but the most salient are the lack of formal research and journalistic writing about the genre, as well as the practitioners not knowing how to successfully promote their creations.

For months Elier and I communicated online, mostly using Facebook's chat function. We were virtual pen pals communicating in real-time about the festival details. Like any emerging spoken word scene, there were many bumps and uncertainties along the way. At times, details appeared directionless and resources seemed less than limited, but we kept exchanging ideas. He sent the official letter of invitation that all foreign visitors participating in government-sponsored events must have. In Cuba, every public event has to be approved and sponsored by a government agency. Elier is an independent promoter of poetry and cultural events, which poses many issues in and of itself, but “Zonas Poeticas” was set to be an officially sanctioned event. Elier received support from the Cuban Agency of Rap, as well as two or three other agencies that saw potential in the event. I was charged with figuring out if the trip was going to be a beneficial one for me to take. With my work, school, and performance travel schedule being super busy, I had to really meditate on it. After months of contemplation and information, I accepted the invitation and boarded a plane to Mexico; that's right, Mexico.

Traveling to Cuba “Illegally”

Because the ridiculousness that is the embargo continues to exist, and the permit process is tedious and almost impossible to navigate, I decided travel to Cuba without Uncle Sam's permission. Borders are houses of cards in the eye of a hurricane. Fences drawn in the sand the tide and wind wash away intentionally. If the sun does not need to ask for permission to cross the horizon everyday why should we have to? An unauthorized trip to Cuba requires a lot of leg work. One must learn how to navigate the maze our government has built for us to walk through. First you have to find a third-party country to fly into. For me, Mexico was closest. I had two options: Cancun or Mexico City. I chose Cancun as it is closer to Havana. After searching flights, I realized that it was nearly impossible to fly into Cancun and catch a plane out to Havana the same day. I decided to fly into Cancun, get a cheap airport hotel for a night, and fly to Havana the next day. Before booking plane tickets, I called Cubana airlines at the Cancun airport and talked to an agent about my situation. There can be no paper trail showing you purchased anything Cuban, so I politely asked if there was a way to save a seat for me from Cancun to Havana without paying in advance. The woman generously agreed, took my name and other information and said I was good to go. I booked a round trip ticket to Cancun solidifying my commitment to the trip.

I began an online search for a place to stay. The majority of the events of the conference were to be held at the University of Havana, so I chose to stay in Vedado, which is very close to that base location. Hotels are plentiful in Havana. Everything from tourist resorts to budget stays. Another option, and one I almost took advantage of, is the Casa Particular, which is a private residence that basically functions as a bed and breakfast. These casas run anywhere from $13-30 dollars a day. Some are rooms in a Cuban Family's home, others are private apartments with private entrances and bathrooms. I ended up booking a hotel across the street from the University. Again, I had to call the hotel directly to reserve the room. This time, I bought a Caribbean phone card and called the Hotel directly from a pay phone. Again the Cuban receptionist was very polite and gave me my confirmation number.

Denver to Cancun

Prior to leaving Denver, I packed my suitcase with slam and spoken word materials to take to the Cuban people. This included DVD's, books, and the official Poetry Slam Inc. Rule book. I had previously sent Elier two academic essays I had written about slam and performance poetry, as well as six of my performance poems I translated to Spanish. Upon arriving to the Denver International Airport Cancun-bound, I was automatically upgraded to first class because I was assigned a seat between people in a wedding party and they wanted to sit together. I arrived in Cancun with a sea of spring break types and binge drinkers to be. After passing through customs and immigration I went searching for the Cubana airlines counter to purchase my ticket to Havana that I only had a VERBAL reservation for. Upon arrival to the window I saw a sign saying "Cerrado." I spoke to the customer service person who informed me that all Cubana flights were canceled for the day, meaning all of those passengers were moved to the flight set for the next day; I only had a verbal confirmation for that next day flight, so I started feeling kinda uneasy. I was told to come back in the morning to speak directly with the representative at the Cubana Airlines counter.

I headed to the hotel I had booked for one night not knowing if it was going to turn into two, or three, or if I was going to turn around and come home. Once I settled in, I grabbed some tacos from a little puesto close to the hotel. After eating I used the hotel computer to notify my contact in Havana about the situation. Four girls walked in the computer lab talking about Cuba. I asked them where they were headed. They responded "Havana tomorrow at 3:30." I said "me too, hopefully." They were unaware of the cancellation of flights, but they had tickets purchased, so they were not in any real danger of being bumped. As conversation continued I asked the girls where they were from. "Colorado" they responded. I said "no way, me too!" Turns out we were on the same flight into Cancun. The girls were master's students that studied abroad in Havana last year, and loved it so much, they were returning; this time, the "illegal" way.
I sent an email to Paul Flores to let him know about my crazy delay. He has made this trip many times before and I trust him and his opinion wholeheartedly. Paul is someone who I have always looked up to and his guidance and advice has helped me grow as a performer. He responded with the following prayer:

"See, this is just the beginning of the twilight zone that is Cuba.

Don't worry. It will all work out. But you will be tested. Your patience and your first world expectations will be tested. My suggestion is to be ready for anything, don't take anything for granted and try to get everywhere earlier than on time.

Also READ THE SIGNS, literal and spiritual. Metaphors are in everything you see and touch. You are entering El Caribe. African and Taino. Arawak. Lucumi. Ifa. Orisha. Santeria. Con los santos no se juega. This is NO JOKE. Things exist on many levels in El Caribe. Open your spirit. Say that again Become more spirit. Stay positive. Say that again. Nothing is at it seems. Everything has a reason.

If you can buy some rum and a cigar. Blow smoke and rum over your bags. Find some chalk or a pen and make crosses on all sides. If not, then meditate and open that third eye.

You will be cool."


I woke up early ready to go with the flow.  I printed Paul's email and held it as my prayer. I hopped online to see if my Cuban connect happened to check his email/Facebook. He had not. I ate breakfast and headed to the airport. I had a conversation with the taxi driver about his work, where he was from, and what he liked and disliked about Cancun. He liked the money, the women and the camaraderie and disliked tourists with shitty attitudes, being away from his family, and not knowing when he would be able to go home. He was from Veracruz. When I arrived to the airport, there was nobody at the Cubana Airlines counter. They were supposed to be there at 8am, but didn't arrive until close to ten. I talked with the representative who informed me there were no flights available for the next three days. I literally laughed out loud and took his advice to check with AeroMexico. AeroMexico runs a charter flight that leaves Cancun at 11:15 pm and arrives in Havana at 1:30 am. Upon arriving at the counter and explaining my situation to the pretty lady, she informed me that there was indeed space available on the late flight. I bout the ticket. I went back to the Cubana counter to buy my return flight for July 16th.

I began the twelve-hour wait by exchanging my U.S Dollars to Pesos. Cuba heavily taxes the U.S. Dollar and I don't like losing money. I then went to Starbucks to buy an iced Chai so I could get a wireless code. About 6pm I started to get hungry. I posted up in the airport restaurant and people watched. Out of nowhere, I see a girl I know I have seen before; I just couldn't place from where. After about ten minutes of us sharing awkward glances, she broke the ice... "Bobby?" she said. I replied in the affirmative. Turns out, it was Chloe, aka Niveah, a Denver poet whom I have crossed paths with numerous times in the past. She was heading to Havana to work on her master's thesis on poetry and colonization, and she was set to be on the same flight that I was. Weird, huh?! What is even stranger is that she ran into the girls I had met the night before at the hotel and they had a conversation about our serendipitous interaction. The girls told Chloe that they had met me, mentioned my name, and Chloe was like, "I totally know him" What was even more strange is that she was traveling with Musa, a Denver filmmaker, who was also headed to Havana to work on a documentary about hip hop in Cuba.

My flight to Havana was set for 11:15pm. The incoming flight was delayed and the plane did not even arrive until around 1am. On the way through the gate, Mexican officials strip searched our carry-on bags, and finally, I was on the plane to Havana. AeroMexico has the most attractive uniforms of any airline ever. The women wear cute red hats, with read scarves around their necks, a red belt that hugs their curves, and red shoes that complement the overall effect. The men wear fitted vests with red ties that sit below their chiseled jaw lines; it was the most beautiful display of aerial service ever.

Arrival in Havana

The plane arrived in Havana at 3:30 am. Upon entering customs, an official approached me asking if this was my first trip to Cuba. He also asked me what the purpose of my trip was. I informed him I was a poet and that I was invited to speak at a spoken word festival. He joked with me in Spanish saying, "makes sense, speaking at a spoken word festival." He smiled and said bienvenido a Cuba amigo, suerte con tu presentación. I continued to the window where the nice lady behind the counter purposely failed to stamp my passport, winking as she handed it back to me and said "adalante." I was in Cuba. The reality of trip was setting set in. Cuban accents swarmed the air mixing with cigarette smoke. Laughter, yawns and pictures of sleep circled with the rotating baggage claim belt. 30 minutes later, I grabbed my bag and headed for the exit.

It was 4am. I exchanged some Mexican Pesos for Cuban Convertible Pesos and got a cab to my hotel. The driver was blasting Marc Anthony on high, singing to every lyric, while playing the drum that was his steering wheel. I arrived at the hotel. By this time it was 5am. I woke the attendant, who was sleeping behind the counter. I informed her about my unfortunate plane issues and she gave me a key to a room and a note left by the festival coordinator to call him first think in the morning. It was first thing in the morning, so I called to inform him I arrived. It was 5:15am. He didn't answer. I found my room, a humble accommodation on the 6th floor. Finally, it was time for a nap. I fell asleep somewhere around 5:30am.

Day One

I woke up at 7:30am, to a call from the festival coordinator. I was set to be picked up at 8:30am for a debriefing and planning meeting for the first day of the panel discussions. I was met by Glenda, a festival co-producer and we left the hotel for a quick cup of Cuban coffee. I am normally not a coffee drinker, but she convinced me it was good stuff, so I had some,and It was good. We hailed a cab to the University's facultad de artes y letras where I was introduced to the space we would be occupying all week. The University has an auditorium with about three hundred seats and a large stage. A simple table and three microphones were set up and I gathered my documents for my talk. Basically, I was set to talk about the slam poetry model in the United States. Cuba is very interested in the artistic process regarding spoken word and they are hungry to carve out their own path. I spoke to the crowd about slam, the artistic process, aesthetics, and rules of competition. I discussed the importance of writing from a place of sincerity and the consequences of contrived performance and poetry. We had a rather long Q&A which was actually the coolest part. There were simple questions asked, like "what is the difference between spoken word and slam," but there were more challenging questions too like "how has slam and performance poetry impacted the literary cannon in the United States?" The people of Cuba come from a long poetic tradition. Some still practice older forms like the decima and sonnet, while others have conformed to free-verse. One thing that was evident, was that Cuban spoken word artists very much respect academic poetry and many are trying to find a way to balance the "street" poetry and the "literary." The people who attended the festival were very intellectual. They were interested in the philosophy and psychology of spoken word, and when my broken Spanish tongue could not profoundly answer their profound questions, I utilized Alejandro, a awesome dude who was the only in the group to speak fluent English.

After the panel, we had lunch. We ate Cuban hamburgers, discussed global colonization and the Mexican-American experience. Cubans have a very strong understanding about the land in the United States that used to belong to Mexico. They could draw a line across the southwest showing the territory before the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. We discussed assimilation, cultural shifts, and Cuban Black identity. Midway through lunch and our conversation, it began to rain torrentially. It was the hardest rain I have ever seen. It was beautiful and scary at the same time. The theater had wooden shutters that were unable to keep the water out, and by the end of the storm there was six to ten inches standing in the orchestra pit. Thunder cracked loudly shaking the dilapidated building.

Each day had a similar schedule. We began with a panel discussion, followed by aesthetic and theoretical debate, later followed by a film about spoken word. The first day's film was a French production called, Slam: La que nos quema. I couldn't tell you anything about the film as I slept through it cause I was tired. After the film the rest of the day began. We walked down the streets of Havana, as the crew pointed out important buildings, artist chill spots, and where to get the best and cheapest food. We discussed poetry, art, politics, the Cuban people, and the struggles the average Cuban faces. They were intrigued by my work as a social worker and asked me questions about marginalized groups in the United States. Hip hop has been a way for Cuban's to learn about the African-American experience and I was asked many questions about hip hop and urban U.S. culture.

Cubans are a proud people. Some are frustrated with the perceived disconnect from revolutionary ideals, some are more upset than others, others couldn't care less about the situation stating they just want to live freely. We found a restaurant to have dinner at and it was awesome. I had the Pollo de las casa con arroz, frijoles negros y una ensalada. After dinner we took a walk to the Hotel Nacional, which is a luxury hotel located on the Malecon. We sat and talked about everything you could possibly think of. I was asked what the average American thinks about Cuba, what I think about Cuba, and why I agreed to come. We talked poetry, politics, identity, art, and then walked back to the town center. I smoked my first of a few Cuban cigars, drank some rum, and then called it a night. I was exhausted.

Day 2

I woke up well rested and ready for the hotel breakfast buffet. I had arroz con pollo, chorizo, and tostones. Fresh squeezed orange juice is the business in Cuba. I made my way to the University, which was about a five minute walk from my hotel. Upon arrival, I met Rensoli, a cultural promoter and academic with whom I was going to share the panel with. The topic for the day was "Spoken Word: Different Realities." We discussed the many contexts in which spoken word exists, with special attention paid to the US, and Rensoli's experience in the Caribbean. Rensoli is a highly intellectual poet and philosopher with thick dreadlocks and a smile that consumes a room. The panel went over very well. There were students in the audience from the university, poets from Havana, as well as folks from off the street. After the panel, I was interviewed by local freelance writer who asked some really interesting questions, which actually felt like writing prompts. He was compiling a story on the festival for local arts and culture magazines and was genuinely interested in what I do.

After eating a bomb Cuban hot dog, it was time to watch Pinero. Unfortunately, the power went out about 15 minutes into the film and that was that. Blackouts are not uncommon in Havana, and you just go on with your day. I was able to head out to see Havana Vieja. A place filled with people and contradiction. Tourists walk the old cobblestone streets, and locals go about their business. It is said the average Cuban makes about $20 a month and most stores are there for tourist money only. There are two forms of money in Cuba, the CUC (Pesos Convertibles) and the Cuban Peso (Moneda Nacional). The CUC is the tourist currency, which is equal to one U.S. dollar, and the Cuban Peso is a local currency that is widely used by residents. There are 24 Cuban Pesos to every CUC. To highlight the difference, it takes five CUC's ($5) to get from Vedado to Havana Vieja, which is about a mile and a half away. It takes only 10 Cuban Pesos(41 cents) for the same trip. It took about a day to figure out who accepts what currency where, but it didn't take me that long to figure out how to save some skrilla.

As I walked across la plaza principal, I came across what is known as la esquina caliente. Basically, megather on this street corner and talk shit to each other very loudly about baseball. It was one of the most awesome things I have seen in a long time. I continued to stroll along the beautiful streets, making parallels to other places in Latin America, and how Spanish architecture is so damn beautiful. I saw Plaza Nueva, Plaza de Armas, El Capitolo y El Teatro America. I took a 1957 Chevy (yes there are THOUSANDS of old US cars there) back to Vedado and headed to a live music venue. Unfortunately it was just ending. I watched one song the band of 9 played while a couple of people danced amazingly in front of the crowd. I met five people at this venue, whose personalities deserve a book. One man in particular began talking to me about poetry, then life, then art, then women, then religion, then politics, then poker, then Europe, then baseball, then Rum and cigarettes. He poured me a glass of rum, put some ice cubes in it and said disfrute chico. Five seconds after he poured the rum he handed me a cigarette. Everyone in Havana seems to smoke, so I didn't think twice about allowing him to light me up a loosy and enjoyed the sweet taste of Cuban tobacco.

After the short live show, I was walking back to my hotel, when I saw a guy Glenda, a festival assistant, had introduced me to earlier. We will call him tattoo guy. He had a very strong character and a new tattoo of a Cuban flag draped over an outline of Cuba on his arm. He said whats up, asked if I wanted to grab a beer, so I said sure. We went to this little patio spot where people were drinking smoking, playing dominoes and watching people go by. We met up with two other guys tattoo guy knew and we began talking music, poetry and the state of Cuba. Tattoo guy took out his new CD and showed the other guys the cover and track list. He then handed me a copy to take with me. They continued talking politics. The embargo came up. One of the guys said some things that tattoo guy didn't like. The quietest but most intense argument I have ever seen ensued, ultimately ending with tattooed guy wanting to bounce. I left with him as it seemed appropriate. There was a party of some kind going on across the street with music, dancing and more dancing. We cross the street. Tattooed guy starts acting strange. He goes up to the worker and asks if he can play his CD. They laugh, making up excuses as to why, noting equipment, rules, etc. Tattooed guy breaks out his flashlight, begins looking at the equipment and notices it is compatible to play his disk. He becomes upset and storms off. By this time, he had invited me to his art studio to chill, see some local art, and meet other artists in Havana. I lost trust in him by his strange behavior. I tell him I am heading back to the hotel, but he can join me for a quick beer on the hotel patio if he so wished. He did. We sat and put back a Crystal when he reached into his bag. He pulls out a cd and asks the bar tender to come to our table. He explained to the bar tender we were working on a project and he would like to play his cd in the lobby/patio area where we were chilling. I made it clear to the bartender that there was no WE in the equation at all and I asked tattoo guy what the fuck he was doing. The bartender asked if it was hip hop, tattoo dude said yes, bartender rolled his eyes, but said sure. Tattoo guy's face turned completely strange. He was overly, intensely and aggressively excited. He then told me that the first track of the disk was some nationalistic trumpet song that was going to floor people. He slid the table we were sitting at in front of the speaker, turned the volume up and I stood back wondering what the fuck was happening. After about 40 seconds the bar tender cut the music off, saying he could not play it in the establishment. I was super over this dude and I told him I had somewhere to be, bought his beer and told him that I was out. The bartender told me that the music was really *raised his fist in the air*…….. I am not sure what, or who, or anything else about that cat, other than he claimed to be the son of someone important and that he was “immune to penalties.......”I dapped him up and wished him well. He asked me for five dollars, I told him absolutely not, and he went on his way.

Day 3

The breakfast buffet at the hotel is the same every day. Arroz con pollo, chorizo, tostones, an omelet bar, and fresh fruit and juice. The chorizo is absolutely mouth watering, the texture is soft but the inside parts of the meet are flavorful and juicy; not to mention flavorful! I had a break Thursday, from the panel. I contemplated going out to see more of the city, but I figured it was respectable to share in receiving the other speaker’s points of view. The topic of the day centered on exiting forms of oral poetry in Cuba, directions it is heading in, and how spoken word will be the next generation of important artistic expression. During the panel, we were shown a video of a competition-like song ping pong match where someone played a small guitar and a flute while singers went back and forth improvising hip hop battle-like but in traditional song. They called it controversia. Cuba really taps into their oral and cultural traditions. Decimas are popular and the literary aspect of poetry is respected and encouraged. As a spectator and participant in spoken word, I was impressed by the scene's dedication to develop a community of writers and performers, as well as how much they value art in general. Cuba is full of art everywhere.

After the panel, i decided to wonder off and see the town. I visited the Cathedral, El Castillo de la Real Fuerza, which is a fortress on the western side of the harbor originally built to defend against attacks by pirates. The fortress is considered to be the oldest stone fortress in the Americas. After the visit, I took a coco taxi to Hotel Nacional to use the internet. There is something interesting about being unable to connect to the world for a period of time; the break was nice. After sending my wife, family and close friends a short note, I headed back to the hotel to change for the open mic that was going to take place at the Institute of Cuban music.

I took a cab to the institute, which is a gorgeous stone building that sits on a gorgeous garden with gorgeous palm trees everywhere. It was gorgeous. I was able to chat with some of the local poets, listed to their interaction, and we ultimately had a great open mic. Styles ranged from well rehearsed and animated, to subdued, but still powerful. Many poets wrote about Havana, some wrote about identity, some about women's issues; it resembled an open mic in United States. There was some questioning of the social situation, leadership, and marginalization. The poets are not beginners, in fact, they were pretty well polished, their stage presence was great, and they have a ton of fun. The Agency of Rap was housed in the building, so I was introduced to those good folks and was impressed by their work. Hip hop in Cuba has been a large force of mobilization and expression for well over a decade.

After the event, the organizers were beat, so they went home. I hooked up with a couple people who attended the open mic who were interested in showing me around. We walked across presidential blvd and word on the street was that everyone was going to an underground music venue/community space that is very popular with progressive-like folks. We packed on to the "gua-gua," which is the public bus hundreds of people cram into for like 2 cents. It was fun and they were happy to show me the craziness that is their bus system. When we got to the venue, which looked like an outdoor community center, I was immediately escorted to the roof, via a steel ladder; I was told the best seats are on the roof of the building. We watched a few bands, some hip hop, sipped on some rum and had a great night. We hopped on the gua-gua again to hit up a live music venue on the other side of town, but they were closed, so we took a local cab, a gua-gua and walked a bit to get back to a central area. I bought a Cuban hot dog and a soda and I went back to my room. I was glad the events for the next day were scheduled 2pm, so I had the morning free.

Day 4

I woke up to an argument in the hotel hallway. A couple was fighting about why the man didn’t bring more comfortable shoes. I ate breakfast and then headed to the Museum of the Revolution. This museum is located in the old presidential palace and has memorabilia from the revolution; including weapons, flags, newspapers, maps, photos and other important documents. Pictures of Che and Fidel are everywhere and the old, run-down building is beautiful. After leaving there, I took a pedal cab down to Old Havana again to chill for a bit before the first big performance of local poets began. There were about 13 poets scheduled to perform, ten of which showed up. The poets that participated had a wide range of styles and talent. Some of the young writers are still finding their voice, while some of the others are more comfortable in front of a crowd and can command attention rather easily. Most of the performance poets have very few pieces, so they often read the same one or two at every event, just as starting poets do here. The scene is growing. Elier is the central figure, or leader of the movement, but he has many people around him that are making the work happen. There is much talent and potential in Havana and the poets are hungry to grow. We often talked about how to host writing workshops and how a collective of poets functions in the U.S. We discussed the benefits and setbacks of competition, especially in a growing scene and how it assists in the growth and maturation of writers.

After the performance we headed to Elier's house where we were going to chill and film some videos on the roof of his housing complex. So, because of the Cuban structure, there is no is no landlord or overseer of housing properties, but there is a manager-like position and second and third in charge. Elier had talked with this person who is not the owner, but is charged with ensuring the building is running smoothly, earlier in the week about the filming and there were no issues. We rolled in about 12 deep and the story changed really quickly. The miscommunication turned into a heated discussion that I just couldn't not record. In the animated language that is Cuban Spanish, these two went at it. At times others would chime in, but the elder man, had an attitude and seemed to be abusing the "power" he is supposed to share. For a good half an hour this continued while some in our group laughed, others were angry, one, actually took a seat ringside and seemed to enjoy the battle. It was a bit unnerving for me as it appeared that something could go down and I was not really interested in what happens if things got physical or if at some point, third party intervention would be necessary. Finally about 45 minutes later, the episode stopped by the old man saying "ok, go up." Lol.

So we did. The view of the city from the 13th floor rooftop was awesome. There was a clear sightline to Havana Libre, Plaza de la Revolucion and just about everything else. We took turns recording poems utilizing the skeleton crew we had and it was hella fun. We wrapped and went down to the 7th floor to Elier's house. There, the night began. The space transformed into a Karaoke bar, a talking circle, a Salsa club, and a small restaurant. Rum and beer were passed around while we all sang together to Alicia Keys, the Police, Benny More, Calle 13 and the Roots. It was an amazing night that ended with me taking the gua-gua bus home, which was packed with people and sweat.

Day 5

Breakfast was the same as always, but good. I went to Hotel Nacional to check my email once again and ended up strolling the grounds again. It is a beautifully crafted hotel and there are numerous little things to see throughout. One room of importance is a salon with the pictures of all of the celebrities that have stayed at the hotel. Everyone from actors to musicians, including Robert Redford, Juanes, Cantinflas, Naomi Campbell, Audioslave and Muhammad Ali. I hailed a coco taxi and headed to the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana Vieja. The Museum houses a medium size collection of pieces ranging from the 1700's to today. There were few pieces that stood out to me, but one was spectacular. It was titled "No Quiero ir al Cielo by Menocal. After the museum I caught a cab back to the hotel to change for the performance; however, the power had gone out and the key to my hotel wasn't working, so I just headed to the venue in what I was wearing. We had a great show. There was a nice crowd for the performance and about ten poets read, including myself. My poems were in English, so many didn't understand a word I was saying, but I performed the shit out of them to add effect.

After the show we all went to Cafe Literaria and talked for literally like four hours. Mojitos there cost $10 Modena Nacional which equals about 41 cents. There was a party happening the same night at Glenda's house, but I chose to sit that one out to get some writing done and to check out a club or two. 23rd avenue is a main artery in Vedado. There are theaters, hotels, and clubs along its shoulders. I ventured into a club where Salsa and Reggaeton were blaring onto the street. The cost was three CUC, which equals three US dollars. I walked into a hot, packed room filled people dancing as if they didn't, the sun would fail to rise the next morning. Everyone was dressed to impress. The men donned impostor designer jeans with tight button down shirts, the women wore skin tight jeans with cute blouses, and some wore close to nothing at all. I hung out for about 40 minutes or so, and then walked down the block to catch a cab to a place that was rumored to have the best live Salsa on Saturday nights. When I arrived the place was absolutely amazing. People were packed at the bar, on the dance floor, as well as seated in what few seats were available. The band and music was so good I was encapsulated. I could not believe how much energy and spirit was being emitted and the people dancing were having sooooooo much fun. Salsa in the United States, especially for non-Latinos, is a fad and fodder for water cooler talk at work. People take salsa lessons to learn how to move rhythmically robotic. There are few places where the "cool" of salsa doesn't exist. But in Havana, the people dance because it is what they do. There is no counting, no lessons before the event, just emotion, fun and natural expression manifested.

Havana is a very sexy, metropolitan area. The women look at you with passion and their smiles alone are enough to make the average man blush. Some women are aggressive with foreigners hoping to make a few bucks, or score some free drinks, but most women are genuinely intrigued by something different and new. The average Cuban will never leave the island. Many that I talked to don't even have to the desire to do so if they could. Tourists, then, provide an escape for the people to visit and explore new places. One woman asked me what the air smells like in Denver. A gentleman at a cafe asked me if I always have to wear a jacket, a small boy asked about baseball, an emcee asked me who I thought killed Tupac and Biggie. One woman asked me, after learning I was a poet, if I would show her how a poet kisses. She wanted to know if my tongue could write poetry on the inside of her mouth. I told her she was too a poet, and no, I could not share my tongue with her as I was married. She understood and said ohhhh un hombre fiel…!!!!! The attitude about sex is very liberal in Havana. It is one way that people escape. It doesn't cost any money, is fun, and if done right it is safe. Cubans joke that sex is country’s the national sport.

Day 6

My last full day was one of relaxing and attending the "clausura" or closing of the festival. I headed to the beach with some of my Cuban friends, who are now family and we enjoyed the crystal clear water. On the way, we stopped probably six times to fill the radiator with water, as the car one dude owns overheats every so often. In the trunk of the car, the driver keeps a large tank of water for the daily routine. The beach is a ways away from central Havana and Vedado, where many of the crew lived, and they don't get to visit the beach as much as they would like. We talked on the way about the tourism Cuba receives and how some visit the paradise of the beaches more than the people who live there. In over packing, I somehow failed to pack swimwear, which wasn't a problem as many locals enter the water with whatever they want to. The water was warm, almost hot and it felt amazing to lie upon the surface, stare at the clouds and reflect on the week I had just had. We ate lunch from a little puesto that sold fried chicken and arroz y frijoles negros. We washed it down with a Crystal cerveza bien fria.

After lunch I noticed that the group was very interested in the paddle boats that were on the water. They kept talking about them, would laugh as people jumped off and it was evident that they wanted to do it. I bought an hour on the boat and we enjoyed our time on the open water. Just as we were wrapping up, the clouds rolled in and it began to rain torrentially. It was similar to the experience I had on day two.

The group dropped me off at the hotel where I began to pack my things and arrange my suitcase. I began to throw every receipt, every tag, and any other evidence that I was in Cuba, preparing for US immigration back home. I showered, and got a cab to the event. I was told the event would take place in one of Havana's worst neighborhoods. It was indeed a dilapidated pile of rubble its children played upon like a jungle gym. The festal coordinator called this area "calles calientes." The taxi driver couldn't even find it. He asked me if I was sure I wanted to continue the closer we got, saying, "this is no place for a foreigner." I arrived to the spot as the show was set to begin. Houses were boarded up, stray dogs with missing fur scratched at their wounds; it was indeed the roughest area I had seen on my trip. One thing that didn't change was the music blaring from the houses, the children playing on the street and the people smiling as you walked by. I arrived to drums and singing. A group of about 10 were participating in a Rumba call and response that was so neat to watch. We were basically having a block party in the worst neighborhood of Havana. It is reminiscent of what was going on in New York with hip hop. We plugged into the electricity of the streetlamp, and set up lights and speakers, a hood-confugured dj equipment station, and rang the festival to a close with culture, music, dance and poetry. One after another shared their poems, rapped, sang--all while the local neighborhood gathered to watch. It was a great night.

Elier, the festival coordinator met me at the hotel to accompany me to the airport on my way out. We talked about the success of the conference, the bridges we built and the opportunity for future work together. I boarded my return flight to Cancun.


So, this is where things can get interesting. I totally chilled out upon arrival to Cancun, checked my email and finished some writing. I downloaded Nas' new album and bumped it in the hotel room. I completed a secondary screening for any evidence that would show I was in Cuba, took pictures of things I wished not to forget, and sat in silence for a bit meditating on my trip. I woke up early, watched some TV and headed to the airport. Oddly enough, as i got into the hotel shuttle (a Volkswagen Jetta), a couple and I began the regular the small talk that comes with sharing a small space. Of course we asked each other where the other was from. Well, they were from Denver and would be on the same flight I was taking back home!! The Denver connection that existed throughout my trip was strangely wild and made me think back to Paul Flores' email about following the signs.

At the airport, I bought some souvenirs to further camouflage my appearance as a visitor of only Cancun. If nothing screams out to the customs folks back home that one went in Cuba, one should be able to walk straight through with no problem. As I boarded the plane my seat was 14D. As I inched closer, I noticed the couple I had chatted with in the car was sitting in the seats next to me! We laughed at the odds and I said out loud that "this all has all happened for a reason." That is the first time I have ever said that cliché, as I like to think I have superpowers and control my own destiny; if nothing more, this trip was a lesson in fate and the energy that exists that is greater than human will.

On my customs declaration form I did not list Cuba as a country visited, took a deep breath and crossed my fingers upon touching ground at home. Although these silly fences continue to exist, I know that i had done nothing wrong and my trip was one of love, art and intellectual, intercultural communication. Poetry has never known borders and I promised to deal with any consequences if any awaited me. I was told by an immigration attorney that lying to a federal official carries stiffer legal penalties than the punishment for going to Cuba without permission does, but I wasn't worried about anything. I rolled up to customs, they asked me how my trip to Cancun was, I responded "splendid," and I was told "welcome back." I walked through the immigration doors with a new perspective and a million stories and headed home.

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