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.
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.
Last week, I saw myself on the big screen for the first time. I didn’t realize until it happened that it was a moment I’d been waiting for my whole life. Even more radical was the fact that the screening was at the famous Chinese theater in Hollywood, and the piece I had in the festival was an episode of Girl Behind the Glass, something I’d written and created in addition to being on-camera. A surreal experience to be sure, and one I could get used to.
Along with this new milestone, the evening also marked the death of the project. Girl Behind the Glass was the series of videos I filmed as a Box Girl at the Standard Hotel, a performance art installation in the hotel lobby featuring a live model in a glass box going about whatever she feels like doing for all the world to see. I had submitted in the webseries category of HollyShorts Film Festival and by the time I was notified of my acceptance, the series had been put on indefinite hold.
In short, because I told the Standard about my lil guerilla series, hoping to collaborate with them, and their response was to fire me.
I’d loved being a part of the guests’ experience at the Standard. I’d inherited the gig from Beth, who was a Box girl for about a year before me. It was the weekly gig that got me out of my writer’s seclusion and into the glamorous buzz of Sunset Blvd. I finally lived the reality of “If only I was trapped in a box I’d get so much writing done.” And I did. I wrote the pilot of Johnny and the Scams in the Box. I also sketched, painted my nails, caught up on emails, pretended I couldn’t see people seeing me, took selfies, and ultimately — started filming myself.
My vision for Girl Behind the Glass was to create a next-era variety show, featuring clips of artists from around the world, musicians, painters, photographers, hosted by a girl in her white undies in a Hollywood glass box. I pushed myself to finish writing, filming and editing within the four hours of my Box shift, making it a practice in trusting my first creative instincts. I experimented with mediums I’d been itching to explore, like spoken word and video art. I was able to incorporate Machete’s desert video Sleepwalking into the episode that screened at Hollyshorts, so her work got the big screen treatment as well.
Finally, to put it plainly, the Box gig made me feel sexy. And interesting. I’d usually take my comp employee meal in the 24-hour Standard diner after my shift, work on whatever I’d been writing in the Box, have Beth meet me for a milkshake (best in LA!), or just observe the other patrons, who didn’t recognize me with clothes on. Look at those who’d been looking at me. A few times I was asked to model for the official photograph of that month’s installation for the Standard website.
The only thing we couldn’t do in the Box was sleep, though sometimes I got dangerously close. The biggest risk was being too comfortable, forgetting altogether I was on display. Once I remember spying a hair my razor had missed behind my knee and plucking at it, then realizing this wasn’t an attractive activity for the crowd gathered in the lobby.
For me, being the girl in the Box was the sort of artsy, edgy, sexy cool gig my inner Gardnerville girl had always wanted. Along with signing up at Central Casting and being hit on by a slimy producer, being a Box girl is almost a rite of passage, the “ingenue in LA” thing. The gig was validating, literally “be seen, not heard” which felt good in some twisted, objectified way on my nerdy, over-thinking writer’s brain. I did things I never do, like wear black thigh-highs with a bowler hat and shop at American Apparel (for my white undie “uniform”). I also thought the concept was really cool. So simple, just a girl sitting there, but so riveting. Watching a human be a human. Tilda Swinton started sitting in a box at the MOMA the same week I started at the Standard.
You get the picture that I loved the job. So you understand my disappointment when I shared my guerilla webseries with the hotel and they not only didn’t want to collaborate with me, they fired me. At first they said the videos were cute, they just had to make sure I could be filming. They’d “get right back to me.” They never did. Then they took me off the schedule. No explanation, just a stone wall. I was seriously bummed out.
My hunch is it was a legal thing, but I’ll never know. The gig couldn’t have lasted forever, I’ve climbed new rungs of the Hollywood ladder and it’s better to say I was a Box Girl than I still am. At least I went out pitching an idea I believed in. And I certainly had fun. Coming up with the title of the series was hilarious (Hot Box? Fox in a Box?), and once I ran into Josh Hartnett and friend in the lobby and had pizza and beer with them. The show has a life on YouTube, and I’m glad my first big screen moment came out of it. By the way, HollyShorts absolutely rocks, those guys are doing more for emerging filmmakers than anyone out there. The night of my screening I also loved the film Join Us, by writer/actor Brooze Lenzi. It’s about cults, in a way you’ve never seen. Check it out, stat.
I’ll always have those moments when I first hopped into the Box for the night. My shift was 8pm – midnight, and a DJ played in the lobby starting at 9pm. But the first hour was quiet, Zen-like. It was like being hermetically sealed in a fish bowl, or a diorama at a museum. “Observe the 21st century twentysomething female!” And I reflected on my life as such. What was I creating right then? Who was I loving? For much of that year, my life was a series of boxes — the Standard box, hundreds of boxes of books for my non-profit job, the mysterious box that kept popping up in a script I was writing. It’s now tempting to write a wordplay on living “outside the box.” But I won’t, because you get the idea. I do miss being a part of the art, and the vanity validation of it all. But it’s good that I’m out of the box. It’s easier to breathe out here.
When I’m feeling down that my career (as a writer/actor/filmmaker) isn’t “there” yet, Beth (my bff and partner in all crimes) tells me that we’re still putting in our 10,000 hours. As a reminder of how far we’ve come, we recently watched the first short film/video thing we ever made: us impersonating vikings for a contest to win $1,000 and a week stay at a Nordic resort back home in Tahoe.
This was in 2009, when I still lived in a brick apartment in Reno and was a bartender and Beth lived in her parent’s guest cottage and was a go-go dancer. We were staying at Sorensen’s, Beth’s family’s magical resort in the mountains, we were tipsy, and we decided to film an entry. Our imaginations went wild with everything we could do with $1,000, and Granlibakken sounded exotic and mystical, even though it was only a half hour from home.
We wrote our video in 20 minutes and filmed it in 30. Halfway through, the camera died and we filmed the rest on a phone. Our “swords” were made of tin foil, our mustaches were made of paper and taped to our faces. I had been taking guitar lessons for three weeks so there’s a musical interlude. We don’t know our lines, we’re wearing the pajamas we woke up in, and I look like Willie Nelson. But it’s my favorite thing we’ve ever filmed, and perhaps the funniest. Our first venture as Just B.E. Productions (Just Beth and Erin), early starts, earnest hearts, I present, The Hodge Podge Vikings!
This post would not be complete without mentioning Mike Geraghty, who also entered the Granlibakken contest. Mike is a Reno friend and one of the funniest human beings alive, and the reason I didn’t post his video, Lognard of the Lake, first is because his is so fucking funny you’ll die before you can watch Hodge Podge. It should be mentioned he was actually a finalist in the contest (and is currently killing it in the Chicago comedy scene):
I think the fun we had making these videos is evident. We did it because we wanted to make people smile, and we wanted to perform, and in the end it only takes a camera and a little time. Which is the spirit in which all art should be made–straight from the heart in an inspired moment. May all our projects be Hodge Podge!
From the Standard Hotel in Hollywood, check out a playful Box and an artsy desert video from Bang Bang Productions. And I share an existential moment!
Watch more GIRL BEHIND THE GLASS here: http://www.eringranat.com/girl-behind-the-glass
This is my writing:
This is a photo I took:
“Death by Disco”
Los Angeles 2013, feat. Bianca
Over the weekend, I went to Gallery 169 in Santa Monica for the opening of Chris Burkard’s show “Dispatches.” Chris is a magician with a lens (he also happens to be my nephew). The show features some of his radical surf photography from around the world, places you don’t usually associate with surfing like Russia and Iceland. He’s a staff photographer for Surfer, shoots for Patagonia and Quicksilver, is a yogi, family man, and all around cool human. Oh, and he just published his THIRD photography book. You might say I’m really proud of him (and inspired by him, and he’s younger than me–sigh!).
Here are just a few of his incredible images, surf and otherwise, check the show at Gallery 169, it’s there til September 21st!