In Which I Exhort You to Bring Imodium Wherever You Go

In Which I Exhort You to Bring Imodium Wherever You Go

I thought I’d be writing as much about my visit to Amsterdam and Antwerp as much as I did with Cuba earlier this year. It turns out I was wrong with a capital W… make that all-caps WRONG because most of my time was spent pounding the pavement and then coming back to the hotel suite in the evening all exhausted and fit for nothing but watching the US Open on Eurosport1. I know, it sounds horrible doesn’t it? Maybe if I’d been younger, I’d have spent more time partying my ass off and swilling jenever into the wee hours of the morning even if I don’t really drink all that much, because who cares about cable when you have the invincible power of youth brimming in your veins?

So now here I am on the flight back, winging my way across the Atlantic. It’s the first chance I’ve had to sit back and really try and remember what the trip was like. I am currently aided by the “Easy Listening” genre offered by the inflight entertainment. Right now, it’s Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer”. Lol. I haven’t heard this song in years. It’s something my mother used to play on her guitar, back when she had one.

Anyway.

I was going to write about my Amsterdam and Antwerp experience, but decided to share the perils of travelling without Imodium instead. Yes. I lived through some people’s worst nightmare. And I didn’t just live it any old place.  I lived it on Icelandair Flight 506, from Keflavik to Amsterdam.

I had felt all girl-scout confident and prepared on the way, because I felt I had all the necessaries for an emergency. Including Imodium. Imodium, for the benefit of the ones unfamiliar with the name, is a brand name of generic loperamide and is used to control the symptoms of diarrhea. I had checked it in my luggage, because I wasn’t anticipating anything. But that’s betrayal for you. It just comes out of nowhere. It’s almost always unexpected. I have no idea what I ate. Whatever it was, my traitorous stomach just decided to rebel.

I told myself I could hold it until we landed in Schiphol International. You know how sometimes you think it’s just a small rumble, a bit of a fart, it’ll sort itself out? There we were, seatbelt sign on, everyone strapped in our seats, about half an hour away from actually landing on the tarmac when my stomach decided it had had enough. Faced with the reality of being in a metal tube filled with recycled air and potentially asphyxiating everyone on board, I scrambled up and over Le Hubs, who was trying in vain to get me to stay in my seat, and headed for one of the bathrooms, which was locked, because they lock the doors of the lavatories before landing.

“We’re landing in fifteen minutes!” said the flight attendant who tried to get me to go back to my seat. “This is an emergency,” I hissed. There must’ve been a really feral look in my eye, or maybe the kind of wild desperation that drives people to do unspeakable things, because she didn’t argue any further with me.

Is there anything worse than everyone knowing you’re about to go into the shitter when you know it isn’t going to be a quiet session? Because I would say yes. It is a thousand times worse when said shitter is an airplane lavatory at the front of the plane with an attendant strapped to her seat beside it because the plane is supposed to be going down from a higher altitude to land. Add in you sitting there trying to go as discreetly as possible but knowing it’s pointless  because you’ve been holding everything in so long it’s too late to be coy about setting your large intestine free, turbulence shaking you around as you sit there  in a cold sweat, wondering if your stomach is done with you and if it’s safe to come out,  then someone starts banging on the door saying the plane can’t land if you’re still in there doing god knows what so you hurriedly clean yourself up and emerge trying to look like it’s just another day in Normal Town. And then you go back to your seat to face a husband who is as mortified as you are and avoid eye contact with everyone and everything for the next few minutes as the plane finally touches down and you’re just praying to God no one recognizes you or even remembers you on the baggage carrel.

(Which, to my relief, no one seemed to. At least that’s what I like to think.)

On my first plane ride with a group of other people I worked with on the school yearbook,  I remember one girl making sure she took an Imodium before we started off. I asked her what it was for and she said she just wanted to make sure nothing untoward would happen on the way. I thought it was kind of silly to willingly constipate yourself when your stomach was fine, but it turns out she was right in the end. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong. I still don’t think it’s a good idea to take Imodium when there’s nothing wrong with me, but from this day forth, I vow never to be without it at all times.

I’m in the TransPacific Literary Project!

I’m in the TransPacific Literary Project!

I’d been sitting on this until everything was finalized, and today’s the day! My essay, “Tiangge” is the first entry of the TransPacific Literary Project’s Trans:Act Folio, and I couldn’t be happier!

I wrote the bones of this piece four years ago, around four in the afternoon. It just poured out, fuelled by a haze of nostalgia and homesickness. Immigrants are transplants who carry pieces of their homeland with them no matter where they may be, and sometimes I miss the part of myself that I had to leave behind.

This wasn’t something I ever thought I would share, but I am glad I did. The challenge was to seamlessly incorporate the native language of transaction into the piece, and I was fortunate to have an absolute marvel of an editrix who patiently helped me wrestle it into the shape it eventually ended up taking. People never believe me when I say I’m a sentimental little thing, but seeing my work published is always a surreal experience, and I’m really excited to be able to share my essay with you now!


Arroz a la Cubana: Sorta Kinda Havana Good Time

Avoiding the sunshine. I’m laughing at my past self circa a day ago gloating about staying out in the sunshine, because why then did I sign up for a day tour of Havana, which meant a full eight hours in such heat, I came home with a massive migraine?

So there I was, with a gang of other happy, sunburned retirees headed to Havana. I booked a guided tour for a day trip to Cuba’s famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) capital, just to see what it would be like. Because Varadero is two hours away, I didn’t want to chance going into the capital alone on buses I was unfamiliar with. My imagination, always fertile and ready to go for the worst case scenario, was in overdrive, waiting for the guardia civil, the policia, the men in uniform come to drag me away, lock me up and attach electrodes to my tender parts for every minor infraction, because well, communism (and I am an ignoramus) so I was on my best behaviour.

Here’s what I found:

1. There are barely any Asians in Cuba.

2. About 80% of everyone visiting is white, and the locals automatically assume – not mistakenly – that they are Canadian. (Cuba is to Canada what Boracay is to the Philippines.)

3. I don’t think I’m cut out for guided tours after all.

It was a tour designed to check all the boxes, and we were led from tourist spot to tourist spot to a shop for rum and cigars, kind of like kids in kindergarten on a field trip. I’m used to planning my own itinerary ahead of time, and I like to try and go where the locals go and poke around, so if that is your thing, don’t do a guided tour. I didn’t get to take a lot of good pictures because we passed quite a few sights (El Capitolio, Morro Castle, etc) while still on the tour bus and didn’t have the time to take quality shots. I was also disappointed because I thought we would have some time to get into museums and browse, not just stand outside buildings while the guide drones on about how Hemingway lived in this hotel and how Hemingway drank at this bar. Eh. Yay? It really is my fault, I should have done a lot more research  but I only have myself to blame for the last minute decision to go.

The Havana I envisioned was a city that comes alive in the evening, strung about with fairy lights, air filled with salsa music, laughter, the chatter of a people letting loose and stumbling out of nightclubs. The Havana we saw was Old Havana, bleached by an unrelenting sun, occupied mostly by tourists goggling at the state of disrepair. By day, the decay of the city is revealed, its buildings crumbling, paint flaking off of edifices built in the 20’s, mold and water stains caked on like a woman who had staggered to bed after a night of debauchery, fallen asleep without removing her makeup and woke up in the bright light of day. Many of the buildings are gutted with only their facades left intact, and many are in an ongoing state of construction that seems to have been undertaken with gusto but half-heartedly left in disrepair when time, money, or energy ran out.

And it’s quiet. It felt like the only people out were the tourists. We drove through one of the neighbourhoods on the way to having lunch and I wondered where the locals were, because I didn’t see very many of them on the streets. Where were the street vendors? The food carts? The hustle and bustle of the everyday? Nowhere. Havana is clean, almost unnaturally so, and the quiet juxtaposed with all the buildings with paint peeling off is almost eerie.

I am glad that the government of Cuba took steps to preserve and restore many of the buildings in the heart of Old Havana. My favourites are the palaces of stone built by the Spanish, some as far back as the 1700’s, their cathedrals and seawalls imposing and engineered to last. Unlike the buildings that flourished in the early 20’s, theirs don’t need paint, only a thorough scrubbing. Through some mysterious alchemy the Spanish made buildings that stood the test of time. It’s their architecture that gives Havana a sort of quiet, solid strength, and contributes to so much of the city’s character. I felt awed by their achievement, and thankful at being able to witness it. Incidentally, Old Havana is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in architecture and history. Maybe just don’t do a guided tour. You’ll have a lot more fun discovering places all by your lonesome!

Arroz a la Cubana: Resortworld 2.0

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I may have lived in Canada a bit too long. I’ve gotten used to the sterility, all the bylaws that treat smokers like social pariahs, relegating them to the fringes, forced to smoke nine feet away from all entrances, skulking somewhere their second hand smoke won’t cause cancer for everyone. This must be literal paradise, because they’re treating this resort like a cigarette fuelled free-for-all. Smoking in the lobby. Smoking at the bar. Smoking at the beach. Smoking at the pool. Smoking in the elevators. Smoking everywhere. (Thankfully, no smoking was done by any of the other folks on the same floor as I was.) They did say Cuba is a throwback to another age, but this is not exactly the the throwback I was looking for.

Then again – and I’ve heard it at least twice now – Varadero is not the real Cuba. So it serves me right, I guess. For choosing what is in real life, Disneyland for adults, where the booze is flowing and the smokers are lit up quite happily and walking around barely clothed, abusing both my eyes and their internal organs. It’s an experience. I’m not unhappy about it. This solo trip has me walking around bemused, almost like I was given a license to watch people in an unnatural habitat and no one cares that I’m gawking because they’re way too busy having the kind of fun none of us get to have elsewhere. A people safari, is what this is. Back home, like everyone else, I tend to mind my own business. I’m usually lost in whatever movie or book I’ve downloaded for consumption whenever I have to commute, so people watching isn’t something that I get to indulge in. It isn’t polite to stare at people in the big city. It isn’t safe either, but in Varadero the rules have gone straight out the window. For all I know, they’re staring right back at me for being an odd duck on my own in a place where it most certainly should be a group thing, but I guess I don’t care either because kevs ever. Maybe that’s the spirit of Varadero. Kevs ever!

Speaking of kevs ever, the man boobs, oy. I’ve seen enough man boobs to last me into the next decade, I think. All the in-resort restaurants have signs reminding guests to keep their shirts on and cover up when coming in, but people don’t read instructions when they’re on vacation, honey. So it’s an overflowing buffet of flesh and ass and yes there are girl boobs too, but that’s boring to me. It’s all the manly jiggles and hairy buttcracks and the sunburns so severe they look like a level six alarm on legs. Sometimes people don’t tan, they burn. The tan ones look like preserved leather, the red ones look like they need a lifetime supply of aloe vera. It’s painful. One woman was walking around with her skin peeling, red patches blooming on her shoulders, revealing … pink patches. Sunburn on a sunburn. Kind of makes me feel glad to be a tropical girl, because I turn golden brown, like a luscious rotisserie chicken. Gloat. As always, I’m staying out of the sun because I’m a vampire with a screwed up body clock here on a people safari.

Arroz a la Cubana: Resortworld 1.0

Arroz a la Cubana: Resortworld 1.0

The tour guide on the hotel shuttle said something that stuck with me. He said “Varadero isn’t the real Cuba.”

Varadero is a peninsula that juts out from the Cuban mainland into the combined waters of the Florida Straits and the Bay of Cardeñas. It is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the entire Caribbean, with around sixty resorts occupying the entire stretch of beach, an absolute cash cow for the country and a source of employment and income for its residents. For all intents and purposes, Varadero is Resortworld. It’s not about the grim and the gritty. It’s about suntans, booze and fun. I wasn’t there for the real Cuba. Not right then.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to choose an all-inclusive resort. Not for me on a solo trip anyway… not in a place where alcohol flows like water, and the waiter actually looks disappointed when I ask for some agua, por favor, like I’m letting him down by bucking societal norms and not ordering a glass of red and white, gracias. Unlike my tablemates, who were all in, ride or die, down, insert-whatever-other-phrase-means-completely-invested-in-something. They had paid for all-inclusive, knowing in this part of the world all-inclusive means drink all you can, and by God that was what they were there for and what they were going to do.

I’m exaggerating. Those were the Dutch boys two tables across, who’d been out in the sun so long they were beginning to look like leather. I say Dutch because one of them had a t-shirt emblazoned Sint Maarten and they did seem European. Then again, they could be any random breed of foreigner on an extended tour of paradise. Almost everyone here has a shirt on from some other Caribbean isle like Aruba or Dominicana, as if to emphasize that the Caribbean is their playground of choice. Hell if you can afford an endless summer, why not? It beats holing up waiting for Toronto to resemble a city again, not barren tundra.

Yes, I may have been projecting. Just a teeny tiny bit. My tablemates were a very sweet fiftyish Korean couple over from L.A., here on a group tour (Me: so you went from sunny to… sunny?) assuring me that L.A. is “still very cold.” They did ask for the rioja and the blanco, though.

I like being sober around the completely shitfaced. It’s interesting to observe how one can go from quiet and reserved to uproarious, red-faced, DGAF drunk, unconcerned about how one might come across leering at nubile Cuban dancers in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp. To be fair, try being around a young girl whose tits haven’t yet succumbed to the pull of gravity, shimmying up beside you in a skimpy pink bikini and tailfeathers, an island showgirl romping through your buffet. If you’re three sheets to the wind, you’d leer openly too. It’s dinner and a show, what’s not to like?

Arroz a la Cubana: Touchdown

Arroz a la Cubana: Touchdown

I had nightmares of getting mugged at the airport. The bestie had relayed a cautionary tale about a friend of a friend who’d set her bag down one minute, and found it gone the next. So there I was, in Varadero’s Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport, looking around furtively every so often like I was deep in the heart of Colon Street with a target on my back. I sometimes forget that if you’ve ever emerged intact from the bowels of old Cebu City, you can survive anything.

Still, it never hurts to be cautious.

Then again, I don’t remember the airport he had specified. Had it been Havana International? If it was, I was being overly cautious for nothing. Nothing happened. Everything ran like clockwork. The Cubans have the tourist machinery down to a fine art. Unlike Manila, there is no chaotic mess, no street hawkers, no shady characters lurking in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of you the moment you exit baggage claims. If there were, I didn’t see them. The whole process, from de-planing, to customs, to baggage claim to arrivals, is smooth, easy and fancy-free.

If you’re flying out of Canada, more often than not the price of the plane ticket includes the cost of the required tourist visa. The airline provides you with a tourist card (which is the visa itself) to fill out on the plane before landing. Be sure to read the instructions before writing anything down because erasures are not allowed. The lady beside me wrote the departure date instead of her birthdate and had to pony up $50 CAD for a fresh slip, something that upset her very much, because she spent a good twenty minutes berating herself while her husband tried to calm her down. Not a good way to start a vacation, that’s for sure.

At customs, the immigration officer checks your documentation – as always, it’s best to be sure your passport is valid for at least six months. Cuba does require proof of insurance. While proof of your provincial insurance (like your OHIP card) is acceptable, I took the extra step of purchasing extra insurance from the airline (Air Transat, $22 CAD) just in case. He didn’t ask to see the extra insurance, just took my picture and wished me on my way.  You can speak Spanish if you like, but English is not a problem at admissions. Just in case, I’d recommend downloading Google’s Translate app. It’s only polite to try and speak the language, rather than expect everyone to know English wherever you go. 

Anyway, after customers comes baggage claim and arrivals. Unlike Cebu or Manila, there are no aggressive hawkers waiting outside to get you to take a taxi or a dubiously priced rent-a-car. I had booked my vacation as a package – airline and hotel in one – which came with roundtrip airport transfers. (Highly recommended, if you don’t want to stress about how to get to your accommodations.) Upon exiting arrivals, you’ll find airline representatives – Air Transat, Sunwing, RedTag, etc. – waiting outside. They’ll direct you to the shuttle you’re assigned to, which turned out to be a big, air-conditioned bus that stops at pre-arranged resorts along the Autopista Sur, the main highway that stretches into Varadero. 

I had wanted to get my currency exchanged at the airport, but there was no booth in the arrivals hall so I ended up doing it at the resort instead. Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is for tourists with a roughly 1:1 exchange rate, and the Cuban Peso, which is what the locals use. While it means visitors don’t get to pay the same rate the locals will for a specific item, I like how savvy it is when it comes to making sure they don’t get taken advantage of.

Blow by Blow

Blow by Blow

I got my first rejection email recently.

I was, absurdly, thrilled.

This may mean nothing to the ones who are brave, who always put themselves out there, who really and truly don’t give a single damn what people think. You know who I mean. The ones able to post anything and everything on social media. The ones who lay themselves open for all of us to see. The ones who share fresh selfies, unfiltered by anything but strident fluorescent light. The ones who post every excruciating detail of their personal relationships as it crumbles around their feet, oblivious to or uncaring of the reception from the rest of us. They hide nothing. Not their pain. Not their joy. Not their confusion. Their feed is a raw jumble of exposed nerve endings, every gnarled moment on show.  To the very brave – and, incidentally, the very stupid – everything is fair game, and they are unfazed by having the world at large as their audience. To them, putting themselves out there is as easy as breathing.

I’m not brave like that. I have always lived by the tenets of nganong ni enter, a maxim that means never willingly putting oneself in a situation which is bound to have an unfavourable outcome. I have never  found myself capable of  rolling  over to expose my belly for inspection, of being that vulnerable in public. It’s a big reason I fail in the world of social media, because so much of it requires selling myself and my capabilities, something I am way more comfortable having other people do than actually doing myself. It’s just not how I am, and I realize I am eventually going to have to get over myself someday, but for now, it is what it is. My  feed is a hundred percent self-deprecation, almost an apology for sharing, like excuse me for showing up on your wall, but yes, I would like to share this today. It sounds sad, and maybe it is, but that is the way I operate. I deflect with humour and sarcasm. I am outwardly blasé because the truth is I care very deeply about things. Risking being seen as anything less than strong and capable is very hard for me, as I am not brave enough to be who I really and truly am unless I trust someone implicitly. It’s difficult for me to readily trust society. I think people as a whole are terrible (except me, I’m amazing), and the internet hasn’t done anything to change that point of view. If anything, it’s magnified that side of the human race a thousandfold.

(Yes, the irony of putting this out for anyone out there to read doesn’t escape me – but a blog is different from social media!)

Anyway, I was thrilled.

Not because being rejected puts writers in the “company of greats”, as so many aspiring dreamers like to say, assuaging the pain with thoughts of Stephen King and the nail in his wall, impaled with so many rejection slips, he had to drive another one in beside it to accommodate more. There is a cold sort of comfort in the story of J.K. Rowling and her incredible journey to superstardom, her path strewn with numerous rejection letters from publishing houses and agents who failed to see the potential of a boy wizard with a lightning shaped scar.

That’s not why I was thrilled.

I was thrilled, because it felt freeing. I had opened myself up to the very real possibility of receiving a blow, finally received the blow, and realized it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. It’s like taking that first step into thin air, with the very real fear of falling to my death, and realizing it’s not the end of the world.  I think I would like to see how far this little side project of mine will go (and no, I’m not giving any further details about it for now!), because I want another blow like that, as masochistic as that sounds. And another. And another. And still another. I will take my blows, and – hopefully – come out on the right side of it, battered, but with a dream come true.