Saturday, March 15, 2008


Never been much of a strident anti-communist, but I found Havana creepy and sad, and compelling and dynamic, too. The flight attendants on Cubana flight said it all without words: an hour out they began stuffing everything that wasn’t nailed down or screwed into the bulkheads into their luggage. Piles of paper napkins. Plastic cutlery. Doggie bags of food. It was dark and wet when I stepped out of the airport, into a gypsy taxi running on three cylinders, belching oil and fumes, and without door handles. I don’t like to lose sight of my luggage but the driver insisted it had to be hidden in the trunk: “Policia!” he said. “Eleven million Cubans, five million police.”

And then suddenly, speeding down dark streets, an endless line of ghost-like people plodding along the pavement, the driver wanted his money up front. Now. “No,” I said. “I need gas,” he said. “No,” I said. “No money, no gas,” he said. “We won’t make it to the city.” Finally we agreed on half now, half when I got to my hotel. And sure enough, half went right into the tank a few miles later.

In this land of free health care and free education and Che and Fidel on every wall, the Cubans were hustling and bobbing and weaving around the system – and the police on every corner. Havana is a city seething with restlessness and want. “I teach Salsa,” said a sweet young thing named Martha. She was 21, could have been my daughter, was modestly dressed in running shoes and shorts and a t-shirt. Twenty minutes later her friend appeared out of the woodwork and worked hard to pimp Martha out. “We’re hungry,” they said. “Come on, fucky-fucky.” I bought them a plate of grilled fish. The friend rolled cigars – 100 a day – and earned 240 pesos a month - $10 at the official exchange rate. “America great,” they said. Yeah, I said, but you get free health care.
“Ha!” they said. “Nada free! You gotta give the doctor perfume, shampoo, souvenirs,” they said, “or else you’ll sit on a list for years. And the police earn 800 pesos a month, plus 40 convertible pesos.” They wanted more. “Mojitos! Shrimp cocktail! Fucky-fucky?”

I spent a night drinking with a Cuban in dreads named Orange and his girlfriend. Well, I bought them drinks – the bill was four months salary for Martha’s friend. Orange said there was a better bar around the corner. “Let’s go,” I said. “You go first and then we’ll meet you,” they said. “Huh?” I said. “Policia!” they said, eyeing the goons outside the bar. And just to be safe, they said, you better buy the cops a beer. Which I did.

Still, the Cubans are always in motion, always rocking. Huge crowds of men argue over baseball in the park. Couples dance salsa on the beach. Reggaeton and salsa blare from speakers and kids play stickball in the streets.

In Cuba I also realized the Lunatic Express isn’t just about movement; it’s also about ending up in places I never would have traveled to otherwise.

Monday, March 10, 2008


In Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s amazing book, Random Family, when the drug dealers and partiers stay up until dawn they call it “breaking night.”

I love that description; I broke night last night, not partying, but rolling into Toronto just as the sun was rising over a city gleaming and steaming: 14 degrees F; Lake Ontario a solid sheet of ice; three feet of snow piled along the streets and sidewalks; plumes of white rising from the city’s buildings and vents against a hard blue sky.

We were 11 hours by Greyhound from Manhattan. “Guess I’ll just freshen up,” said my seatmate, Deirdre, “and then it’ll be “Good Morning! Air Canada, How may I help you?” The irony: she works for Air Canada, flies for free, and got stuck in New York by bad weather gumming up the system. “Unscheduled events,” they’re called, she said. People are on the move. “They’ve gotta be at a wedding. A funeral. A business meeting. I’m a fast talker and I average 11 calls an hour.” That’s eight and a half hours a day. Twenty five thousand calls a year. “Planes are so full, you get one unscheduled event – doesn’t matter where – Chicago, Toronto, New York – and people get stuck for days.” Hill had to be taking calls this morning so she had no choice: Greyhound. “Haven’t been on a bus in 30 years,” she said.

It snowed off and on all night; the bus was full and she was nervous. On February 25th a Greyhound on the same route, from NY to Toronto, swerved off the road, flipped, and landed upside down on the median strip. Forty-one were hurt. Buses are pretty safe, though – over your lifetime you’ve got a one in 94,242 chance of dying in one, according to the National Safety Council. That’s compared to the odds of one in 80 in a car; one in 200 just falling; one in 180 of accidental poisoning (doesn’t quite sound right, does it?) or one in 552 on an airplane. That’s just in America. A bus in Bolivia, an airline in Africa, and I wager the odds get worse. Speaking of which, tomorrow I’m flying to Havana on one of the world’s most dangerous airlines: Cubana…

It was yesterday morning, on the China Bus from DC to NY, that it hit me: the Lunatic Express is standing travel on its head. The destination really is the journey. The moment I arrive I’m coughed up on shore, a fish slapping its tail and gagging for breath. I’m homeless and burdened with too much stuff. But on a bus, a train, a plane, a train, well, I’m home, where I’m supposed to be. The bus mysteriously stopped twice; we were an hour and a half late. Babies were crying and people checking their watches (almost all Chinese, I might add). Not me, though. I didn’t care; I was already there.

I suspect there are going to be a lot of breaking nights ahead…