Rebel with a Cause

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Sunday, February 25, 2007

"What are you rebelling against, Johnny?"
"Whaddya got?"
-- The Wild One

Despite my late-ish night I'm up before sunrise, down to the U.S. Interests Office for a shot of the forest of Cuban flags in first light.

The de facto U.S. embassy has the greatest piece of performance art of the century at its gates, a made-to-order protest space, headed by an accusingly pointing Jose Marti statue, Elian Gonzalez cradled in his arm. Between Marti and the US building, a vast boulevard replete with a permanent sound system, stage and elaborate lighting infrastructure can hold well over ten thousand outraged Cubans.

This is the Plaza Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, which demarcates the edge of the barb-wired embassy with the densest collection of flags I've seen. Over one million people rallied here at the height of the child custody battle in 2000. I'm amused and cynical about the optics, about the ready-to-wear protest space.  The buildings around the plaza -- the ones that would appear in any crowd shots transmitted around the world -- are some of the few renovated in the neighbourhood.

My timing for the photo is perfect, as later today all the Cuban flags are replaced by black flags with a single silver star, marking the anniversary of some US atrocity. (The shooting down of a Cuban airline in 1976, I believe, which resulted in 73 deaths. Suspect Luis Posada Carriles has been harboured in the US for some time despite extradition requests.)


Our destination for the day is the Acuario Nacional, the national aquarium. Lucy is enthralled by the dolphin show. For the next few days, all she wants to do is go see the dolphins again. It's a genuine and surprisingly polished affair which showcases some great stunts, such as trainers launched over the top wire by dolphins, and some liability-filled moments that delight the big Cuban audience. A dolphin tows a boy from the audience around the pool in a rubber dinghy.

On a Sunday, we're the only tourists here. People talk to us out of interest, not self-interest, and the experience is refreshingly hustler free. Rosemary gets a shot of me and a naked, white Jonathan, surrounded by camera-wielding local women. The aquarium itself has seen better days. About half of the big tanks are empty or drained. Water drips from many of the display casings. It's not the Sydney Aquarium, but Lucy thoroughly enjoys pointing out the sea turtles and tapping the glass in front of the crocodiles.

Cuban bureaucracy is as mindless here as everywhere. Tourists pay one (high) rate in convertibles which includes all shows (or should I say the one show); Cubans get a very cheap admission in monedad nacional and pay a bit more for the show. The dolphin show ticket-ripper knows we're tourists and have already paid. But although the attendant at the aquarium entrance took our tickets, she insists the family sit out in the sun missing the start of the show while I go back and get the torn halves. An asshole in Cuba can be so effective in small ways.

We finally make it to for lunch. Julie has been keen to sample the shakes and burgers here since reading the Lonely Planet description "Cuba's answer to Subway." I suspect one of the foods she's craving this far into the trip is a pizza sub.

We're in the land of residences and boutique hotels here, well out of the core tourist area. It takes a few minutes to find a cab, and in the meantime we discover a Parisien patisserie and stock up on beer and pain au chocolat, which we consume in our sun room back at the casa.

After a week, we finally have good enough weather and health to use the pool at the Hotel Nacional. Lucy and I throw Rosemary's official towels over our shoulders and saunter into the outdoor bar/pool area. I'd be the world's worst criminal. Just going into Rosemary's room past the "no guests in rooms" sign to watch TV seems clandestine enough. I guiltily swim under constant fear of being nabbed without a guest pass.

Small children were not the primary concern for the pool's designer. A small ribbon of 2-foot-high water rims the pool, intended for sipping one's mojito between dips. The ledge drops directly up to 3 meters in some places. I have to keep Lucy very close, but I dutifully become her turtle and give her rides on my back around the pool.

For dinner we walk straight out of the hotel and down Calle 21 for 11 blocks. Rosemary is positive we're heading back to the hotel at one point, although the road runs true and we take no turns. Clearly she's not someone I want navigating, but she takes the ribbing I give her well. In her defence, the surroundings undergo a severe alteration from the urban to the sub-urban, from almost maintained to very run down. In a few places the sidewalks are so displaced by trees that we have to carry the strollers.

The restaurant, El Gringo Viejo (the old Gringo) is worth the walk. I have rabbit, Julie lamb in a port reduction, Rosemary pork. All excellent and prepared so much faster than any other meal that they must posses the only prep cook in Cuba. Jonathan sleeps through most of the meal, but we've learned our lesson and have Lucy back home before she passes out.
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