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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   things about Cuba
Friday, January 4 2002

setting: south of Staunton, Virginia

Note: Huxyz and Faxxa are obviously invented names. I don't normally resort to this sort of thing, but the chilly police state climate that has descended upon this country is such that I now feel uncomfortable freely talking about the activities of friends when those activities could possibly be construed as anti-American. This is especially true when these activities are legally punishable by sanctions indistinguishable from those used in repressive totalitarian regimes. We live in interesting times.

Today I called Huxyz and Faxxa in Charlottesville and found that they'd just returned from their vacation in Cuba, so Gretchen and I arranged to visit them today. As we drove into Charlottesville, I decided to show Gretchen some of my old haunts. I got off on US 29 and we stopped for gas and big batter-fried potato wedges at the Fontaine Avenue Amoco, the place which, in the summer of 1995, the pre-Big Fun Malvern Girls used for a restroom when the one provided in their nearby apartment was on the fritz. From there I took a left onto dead-end Observatory Avenue and showed Gretchen Kappa Mutha Fucka (129), the place I lived with various people from May 1997-May 1998. Next we drove through the Corner and down Wertland past the old Dynashack, where I lived with various UVA students from June 1996-May 1997.
Huxyz and Faxxa had returned from Cuba at one this morning, but they didn't look anywhere near as bad as I would have in their situation. Huxyz offered me a contraband Cuban cigar from a bag he'd smuggled through customs and I took the absolutely shittiest one, since I wouldn't know the difference anyway. The label bored the word "Guantanamo."
Travel to Cuba has been illegal since the 1960s, when the United States officially entered a period of public denial about what had taken place in its southeastern neighbor. America may be a big and important country, the only remaining superpower in fact, but it's always had a terrible inferiority complex. What else can explain such internationally embarrassing institutions as the compulsory worship of the American flag? This inferiority complex often perverts American foreign policy into taking strange actions that remind one more of a four year old child than a sophisticated global superpower. Foreign policy regarding Iran and Cuba come immediately to mind. Unable to face the shame that these countries escaped our meddlesome clutches, we've collectively decided they no longer exist. This is enforced in law by a series of increasingly repressive regulations. The most extreme and juvenile of these is the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which makes it impossible for the United States to ever have any sort of productive relationship with Cuba so long as Castro is in power. Indeed, there is a provision in this act that allows the American Federal Government to, without judicial review, seize all the property of any American citizen visiting Cuba. This is typical of the transparent hypocrisy pervading such laws. Remember, it was the governmental seizing of property that made us angry with Castro to begin with.
So, in order for an American to travel to Cuba, he must do so from some third country. Since almost every country in the world permits travel to Cuba, this is not difficult to arrange. Common third countries include Canada and the Bahamas. From there, Cuba makes it easy on American travelers. Their customs officials do not leave incriminating stamps in American passports, for example.
What with the anachronistic American embargo and the loss of continued financial support from the now-defunct Soviet Union, Cuba has faced its share of hardships. For example, though Cuba has a great many highly-educated doctors, it faces a serious shortage of American pharmaceuticals. Thus it is common for Americans secretly vacationing in Cuba to coordinate with American donors and smuggle medicines to Cuba. Again, this usually is facilitated by complicit customs officials in intermediate countries. Internationally, it's understood: America is a big annoying diaper baby about some things and Cuba needs medicine.
What is it like being an American in Cuba? Well, for one thing, you have to get used to working entirely on the basis of cash. There are plenty of machines in Cuba for reading Visa and Mastercard, but if those are American Visas and Mastercards, the authentication comes back as invalid. Additionally, there is a weird financial policy in Cuba that officially sets Cuban Pesos as equal to American dollars, even though Cuban Pesos are actually worth approximately five cents on the street. But if you're a tourist and go to buy things with Cuban Pesos, you're shit out of luck; only Cubans may buy things with Cuban Pesos. Americans are forced to spend either dollars or a third currency, convertible pesos, which really can be converted into dollars on a one to one basis at official cash conversion places.
One other wacky thing I remember from the tales about Cuba concerns the conditions of the roads. They look promising on the map, but they can really only be driven during the daylight. At night you're likely to plunge headlong into an open trench or plow into a massive unseen pile of gravel. Then of course there is the danger of cyclists and pedestrians; everybody is literate and people generally live to a ripe old age, but only the super rich have cars in Cuba.
Huxyz and Faxxa's friend Yanis came over with his huge dog, and later we were joined by Yanis' girlfriend. By now we were hanging out in the kitchen and drinking Cuban coffee drinks containing ample fractions of rum.
Eventually we loaded up the cars with people and dogs and headed down VA 20 to a little state or county park surrounding an artificial lake and then went for a walk in the woods. The main story of this walk was the boundless joy of four dogs free to romp in the forest, though there were a number of points of discussion along the way. Yanis, for example, said that he is a poet but that he'd sold his soul to become a day trader. This led to a long discussion about our various day-trading techniques. For Yanis, it's all about applying mathematical formulæ to stock market curves. For me, on the other hand, it's all about responding to the news (or my impatience, though that will be the death of me).
Yanis and his girlfriend went home on their own and only a little while later, the rest of us decided to head back as well. Gretchen and Faxxa didn't know it, but we were a little lost on the way back to the car, until Huxyz and I decided it was best to just make a beeline across unknown ground to another trail we could see in the bottom of the hollow. We didn't know we'd done the right thing until we reached the crest of a ridge and saw the lake stretched out below us.
Once we'd made it back to the lake, the Huxyz and Faxxa's longhaired dogs cheerily ran out onto the ice. One of them even dove into the water and was immediately soaked in ice water, but apparently no less happy. Sally, being a much shorter-haired mutt, mostly kept off the shore and out of the water.
Back in Charlottesville, Huxyz, Faxxa, Gretchen and I all walked to Guadalajara, the cheapo Mexican restaurant near the east end of the Downtown Mall, and there had ourselves a meal of various iceberg-lettuce-dusted entrees. [REDACTED]
After dinner, we headed to McGuffey Art Center via Market Street (not the Mall itself, since it's impossible to get anywhere if you know people in Charlottesville and walk down the Mall). Tonight was the first Friday of the month and was the a night of art openings and free wine. Unfortunately, we had a rather late start on the evening and by the time we were standing in front of art making appreciative grunts, the wine was gone. The art, by the way, consisted of large sculptures made from big intact pieces of tree bark.
Faxxa had heard something about there being another art opening in the basement of the Jefferson, so we walked over there next, though our progress was slowed by a gauntlet of people to whom Huxyz and Faxxa had to stop and regale with tales of Cuba.
When we went down into the Jefferson basement, I was still working under the assumption that the place was still being operated by Jen Farie11o and was still called the Downtown Artspace. But I was mistaken. Now the gallery is called Bullseye, and is being run by sublettor who is trapped in some sort of unhappy financial arrangement with Jen, or at least that's how the story went as told by Yanis when he joined us. Every time he mentioned Jen Farie11o's name, he looked around suspiciously and whispered it as though it was the name of Satan. At that point I looked around and realized that though everyone at the opening was hip and collegiate in the familiar Downtown Artspace way, I didn't recognize a single person. And though the wine was flowing and the scheduled entertainment sufficiently offbeat, the proceedings nevertheless lacked a certain difficult-to-characterize potential to spiral out of control, a potential that seemed to hang over every Downtown Artspace opening back in the day (of course, I was always a lot more drunk and hunted back then). Suffice it to say, the fact that the gallery had been utterly usurped by a totally different, but similar-looking crowd left me feeling old and jaded, my head swimming with ideas like, "I thought that was the Renaissance, now they're telling me this is the Renaissance?"
Yanis seemed to know considerably more political gossip than he was letting on, but then when Gretchen and I casually tossed around the idea of checking Millers to see if Raphæl was working there or the theatre to see if Jessika was in, he acted as if he was amazed by our connections in this town. "I couldn't even talk to Raphæl," he stammered, "he's way too, um, cool for me!" Then he asked, "Is Jessika the girl who works at the theatre who also works at the recycling center?" I nodded yes. Yanis continued, "Yes, see, I know about you," he said to me. "You used to be this far-out crazy punk, didn't you?" This wasn't strictly accurate, so I corrected him, saying, "Nah, I've always been pretty much the same dork I am now. I just hung out with those guys because they were very accepting."
Yanis was acting differently than he had earlier today, both back at Huxyz and Faxxa's house and out in the woods when we'd been walking the dogs. He was far more outgoing, unreserved and unexpectedly sweet. As he went around sticking colored stars on all of our foreheads without bothering to ask, I sort of wondered what had gotten into him. Then I found out. Off in the distance I saw Yanis take a flattened older-model camera out of his pocket, remove the lens cap, and then pour a fluid into a plastic cup. Shit, it wasn't a camera at all; it was a flask! As a fellow drunk, I had to respect his foresight to have packed a flask full of booze for an evening of uncertain alcohol availability.
The offbeat entertainment tonight was a weird little puppet show depicting the adventures of two scruffy looking "people" and an even scruffier-looking robot. The show was, it would be fair to say, much better than expected. Indeed, as we were walking home from the gallery, Huxyz remarked that the puppet show had clearly demonstrated the power of low expectations.

Gretchen and I spent the night in Huxyz and Faxxa's spare bedroom. But before falling asleep, while Gretchen stayed up working on a crossword puzzle, I read from the Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba. Mind you, I'm not a knee-jerk lefty or a particular fan of Soviet communism, but I was particularly struck by the tortured history of that poor country. This was some enlightening stuff, and not, to be sure, the sort of thing taught in the bible trailers and classrooms of America. The depth of American exploitation of Cuba, the casual and often racially-motivated disregard for the lives of its people, it all more than justified the rise of Castro. And what else could Castro do once he was considered an American enemy but turn to the Soviets? Ironically, of course, the infantile behavior of American foreign policy has probably been the single greatest factor in maintaining Castro's position in Cuba. It gives him a simple comic book enemy with which to unite his people, and it mostly keeps out the influence of ordinary Americans. Of course, to my way of seeing things, the lack of Ugly Americans and their garish artifacts is what makes Cuba so compelling. What could be better than an enchanted tropical isle without McDonalds, KFC and Hyatt Regency Hotels? Viva la Helms-Burton Act!

Tug of war in the woods. That's Sally on the right.

Yanis and Gretchen in the woods. There's a bit of Sally's tail and a snaggletoothed dog in there as well.

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