Obama, Rolling Stones, and Vin Diesel in Havana

Havana is a city unlike any other and its no surprise that most tourists visiting the island visit its bustling capital. Colorful and majestic buildings are in various states of decay, bike taxis sport flags from various countries and blast reggaeton music; and ’57 Chevies transport tourists and locals through crowded and pothole-ridden streets. The Malecon waterfront wraps around the north side of the city, offering an unobstructed view of the water and the perfect place to people watch. Loads of travel sites and blogs are dedicated to visiting Havana so instead of describing the usual hot spots, I’ll detail what made my third visit to Havana unique.

Eager to observe Obama’s visit to Cuba and the Cuban people’s reaction, I booked a flight to arrive the same day as the President. At the airport, I met an American woman with Major League Baseball, there for the first ever game between Cuba (Havana) and the US (Tampa Bay). Obama’s jet arrived just after our flight so the airport and surrounding area were locked down. Nearby streets and highways shut down for nearly two hours, during which the baseball reps regaled me with baseball stories and the politics of the international game. Unfortunately, I arrived from Mexico with massive, debilitating food poisoning and wound up watching the festivities from the couch all week. My friend nearly reported me to immigration, fearing I had Zica, then she was then convinced I had a problem with my ovaries, and then certain I had appendicitis. It turns out, it was just really bad food poisoning.

Nearly a week later, I was well enough to attend the monumental Rolling Stones concert, the first major international concert that most Cubans had ever attended in their lives. My first stop was to the medic station. With the ambulance door wide open and at least a dozen concertgoers peering in as they waited for the gates to open, the medic proceeded to ask me a series of personal questions related to how gassy I was and the color of my vomit and stool. I was shocked at this lack of privacy but a Cuban friend was not “Everyone poops, what’s the big deal?” The medic told me it was none of those things and I just had to wait for everything to work it’s way out. I headed to the “bathroom” at the corner, only to find that it was simply a small wooden stall that was set up on top of a storm drain with about a foot clearance on the bottom so you could see guys just peeing directly into the drain. God bless the elderly woman who let me use the bathroom in her home. Eight hours later, Mick Jagger strutted his stuff onto stage despite his age and spoke adorable Spanish to the crowd. I met one of the band’s videographers at a hotel restaurant and he told me the Havana concert was the best show on the entire Latin American tour. He also shared with me all sorts of funny and secret stories about the band that you’ll have to hear from me in person.

During a trip to my usual vegetable market two blocks from the friend I always stay with in Havana, I stumbled on a large group of Americans. They were just starting to film the Fast and Furious movie, the first US movie to be filmed in Cuba. Much of the film was shot on the street directly below my Havana home (my friend gazed starry-eyed at Vin Diesel from her balcony) but I was off traversing the Eastern part of the island at that point.

As this was my third trip to Havana and I had already spent over a month there, I had visited every tourist destination that interested me. Instead, I opted to spend my time visiting nearby organic urban farms, attending unbelievably lively baseball games, taking a free jiu jitsu class at the university, reading at the Cuba Libro bookstore/café, playing bike polo, and helping a filmmaker friend shoot footage for an upcoming documentary about another friend competing for the Guinness World Record for the tallest bike (10 meters high!). Though I had grown sick of the catcalls and hearing “You want taxi?” and “Where you from?” every 5 minutes, I felt at home in Havana. Life became normal, Havana was my new home, and I was sad to eventually leave my friends. Another trip to the island is surely in the works.