The Year of Living Differently #30: From Here to Eternity – La Habana, Cuba to Los Angeles, USA

From Here to Eternity

LA HABANA, CUBA to LOS ANGELES, USA – 19 April, 2003
Frankly, by the end of two weeks in Cuba, I had had it up to HERE with hissings and harassments from the sleazy Cuban men. I was actually rather glad to be heading out today. But Cuba had indeed been one incredible learning experience and an appreciated challenge at this point of my trip. It had provoked me to think about the various facets of life and that many things are not what they seem. Gosh, what else is out there? The more I know, the more I realise I do not know.

If the airport departure halls in other countries had been a tad charmless, I was pleasantly surprised by the departure hall of La Habana airport. I was greeted by a huge hall of flags from all over the world, hanging from the ceiling. I kept my eyes skyward and walked around the hall twice. I found that I could only recognise a fraction of the flags up there. Indeed, there is so much more out there.

The plane back to Cancun was not the propeller-sort. It was bigger and less wonky. I also had the chance to practise my nearly-forgotten Russian alphabets on the seat-numbering and buttons for stewardesses. This must either be a repainted AEROFLOT or at least, it came from the same supplier.

Upon arrival, the Mexican Customs asked if I had any cigars with me. I said ‘no’ but I actually had two. The Cuban customs had not stamped on my passport and I knew, for sure, US citizens were not supposed to declare that they had been to Cuba nor have any evidence of Cuban cigars. But I was not sure whether I could or not.

I soon departed for Los Angeles. I was flying to LA, because to go to Tahiti, I had to fly from LA. Yet I could not connect the flights and so, I needed to spend a night there.

In June last year, a lady from LA, Delara, had spotted my BootsnAll articles and emailed to me, offering the chance to crash at her living-room couch if I ever drop by LA. I remembered her offer and had contacted her a few weeks ago. To my delight, the offer was still on and she would pick me up. Wonderful.

However, trying to clear the US Customs was a nightmare. Firstly, I realised Mexicana flight crew had not given me the Arrival/Departure card on the flight. I was one of the first to get off the plane but by the time I filled out the Arrival/Departure card in the corner, the four planes that had arrived at the same time had unleashed the rest of the passengers.

I queued randomly at one. The speed of clearance was moderate but when I was merely five persons away from the top of the line, the officials came and, from me onwards, gestured that we were supposed to turn back and head to other lines as they were closing our counters.

I was at the start of this line. By the time those at the back turned around and made their way out to join other lines, I was at the end of the queue. There were perhaps forty people in front of me. Great.

We moved along slowly and by the time I was halfway there, the officials came to shoo us to another line again. Good lord, enough already.

Finally, finally, finally, it was my turn. Of course, the Customs guy now said I had filled out the wrong card. I should have filled out the green card, and not the white one. He paged for a Mexicana staff. After a while, she arrived and led me from Counter 64 to Counter 9 to get the green card. By then, there was only a trickle of passengers left. All the carousels had long stopped. My backpack lay abandoned in the middle of the hall.

The Mexicana staff then fretted that she only had the green card in Spanish, not in English. I was really agitated by now. I practically snatched it from her, muttering I could read some Spanish. I feared Delara might not be waiting for me anymore. Yet, I could not appear to be nervous in front of these people.

Then, I had to walk all the way back to Counter 64 and face the insipid questionings of the Customs guy. In my haste, at the place which asked me to list all the countries I had been to in the past X days, I wrote ‘Cuba’ and when he asked me where I had been since I left Singapore, I mentioned ‘Cuba’ too. He let me through. But later, other people warned me that I should NEVER have mentioned ‘Cuba’. If I had arrived at the Miami airport, I would be creamed for sure. Oh dear, I had no clue.

Delara was still there, holding up the ‘TRISHA’ sign, slightly droopy by now. My angel in the City of Angels! She was just about to give up. How lucky I was. She drove me to her home to dump my bags and then, we headed to her favourite bar for drinks. It was Saturday night. She had worked hard during the week and was dying to meet up with her friends again. In fact, she seemed to know half the people at the bar.

I was still reeling from the shock of coming from a country with not much available to a country with everything available. The language was another thing. I could eavesdrop at other people’s conversations without really trying.

Delara was excellent. She was chatty, confident, funny, very on-the-go, full-of-energy type of person. We talked about our travels and it was wonderful to learn we shared the same sort of feelings and ideas for our common passion.

I asked her about the side order formerly known as FRENCH fries and to my surprise, Delara had no idea what I was talking about. I had heard from Liliana when I was in Mexico City about USA changing menus and other stuff to remove FRENCH from them and replace them with FREEDOM. I had thought this was the most brainless story I had ever heard in a while.

Guess the stupidity did not spread far from Washington DC. La La Land was safe, for now.

I was introduced to Roy, her flat-mate. He had thought it weird she was going to the airport to pick up a person whom she had never met. Well, once in a while, we have to do weird and crazy things, don’t we? Once again, I was really grateful for Delara’s help, for LA sounded rather daunting to me.

Soon, I started to glaze over due to the body clock still set to Cuban hours. When the bar closed, Delara drove me back first before driving her tipsy friend home. Roy had returned to the apartment as well.

Just as I was getting ready to sleep on the couch, Roy came out to the living-room, clad only in a towel. He sat down and started to ask me questions like, ‘Why did you go to Cuba?’, ‘Why choose a country such as Cuba?’, ‘Why makes you do this, travelling and this sort of shit?’.

I explained as best as I could but he was not pleased with my answers. He kept probing, why, why, why, what f*#king difference does it make, so what if you know how life is like in those f*#king countries, so what? You can’t change the world, you can’t change their lives, the whole world is f*#ked up. (I will have to ask readers to pardon the guy’s FRENCH, or what President B’s supporters would call, FREEDOM.)

OK, despite the fact that Roy was very drunk and had very nearly flashed himself just now, I wanted to listen to his uninhibited opinion for it was from an angle that I never got from the usual people I met, for most of those I met while travelling are people, more or less, like me.

He proceeded to name a few countries and claimed them to be really f*#ked up. “But here in LA, this is the place to be. Nothing will ever change, so I just leave the shit there and f*#k it. Here, we make money, we print money. Ultimately you only have one life and you should live it well for you. Why bother with the rest of the f*$king world? I’m rich, I can do whatever I want. People go to Cuba and have a blast, spend money and do all sorts of things they can’t do here. I don’t see you as that sort of person…”

He explained that he had a lot of respect for what I had done, he confessed he was ignorant and agreed he would never experience anything close to what I had, but so what? Ultimately, I have to stop this and I would settle down and place kids on this world, live my life, earn money for my family because that is MY LIFE and this whole thing, so what if I learnt something, would just be a ‘waste of time and money’.

And so, my entire 11-month-and-3-weeks had just been summarized as a ‘waste of time and money’.

I seriously suspect that if this had happened in another time and place, the old me would have flared up and throttled someone’s neck. Now I know for sure, this trip had changed me.

The words ‘compassion’ and ’empathy’ came into my mind. These are the main concepts Buddhism tries to inculcate in us. If you have peace of mind and a good state of well-being, you will be happy. For any situation, you have to be compassionate and try and understand the other person’s angle and feel it from his or her side. Then, misunderstanding can be avoided and you keep your peace of mind and good state of well-being.

I was glad I had this conversation for I had nearly forgotten, had hardly ever come fact-to-face with people of opinions such as these, for we orbit in entirely different ellipses. If he chooses to live his life this way, it is because that is what he knows. If he is curious to the other sort of life, I think it is difficult to pick my brain just like that, to know why I do the things that I do. I can only share certain things. The rest is up to him.

Meanwhile, he made me search deeper for my own answers. Why do I do the things that I do?

I agree there is only one life. And this is HOW I want to lead it. He was right in some ways, there is nothing I can do to change the world. I never set out to change it or to accomplish anything noble. If anything, the world changed me. Whatever I had done, I had barely placed a dent in anyone’s lives. But they impacted me in more ways than one.

To describe your trip by saying I have done this, this and that, I’ve been to here and there and everywhere, I climbed this, I visited that, I sailed down here, I crossed into there, yadda yadda yadda, sure you have, whatever… But all this LISTING just trivialized everything you had just done. You cannot describe the WHOLE EXPERIENCE in this way. You can paint your impressions of certain specific and special moments, yes, but the complete experience, well… difficult.

Perhaps a person 1000 times more eloquent than me can attempt to do it but the listener, if he just listens and goes ‘uh-huh’, will 100% never get it.

Some of us have the GIFT of choice to decide what kind of life we want to live. Others, unfortunately, don’t. I realise I am one of those with this GIFT and so I choose to go down this path of learning. Because I choose to go down this path, I KNOW others don’t have this GIFT of choice. Unfortunately, I cannot help them much. Yet from them, I now know how important ‘compassion’ and ’empathy’ are. From them, I appreciate my GIFT so much more. The money I spent on this trip is US$XXXX. But the return I got back is priceless. Which ‘business deal’ gets this sort of returns?

Sure, I don’t have anything tangible to show after this. In a month or two, my friends and family will forget this ever happened. I will have to get a job and try to place food on my table, I agree, but in my heart these personal priceless memories, difficult to share with others (I can only try), will linger forever.

The smile of the Tibetean woman whom I reached my hand out to to admire her turquoise ring. The near cat-fight with rogue taxi drivers at the China-Mongolia border. The final wave of farewell from the Herdsman as he crossed the rushing river on his horse. The spattering of saliva from the drunk and very happy babushka. The childish but exhilarating experience of sticking our heads out of the Trans-Mongolian train to smell the taiga and trap Siberia in our hair. The hug from the delighted old Brazilian lady just because I was a ‘china’ and by walking past her door, I had apparently lit up her day. The power of the Iguacu falls. The incredible sincerity of the friends I made in my stay in Buenos Aires. The touching hospitality of the families who invited me to stay with them, to eat with them, to dance with them. The excited children who ran over to show me an insect just as we were leaving the remote Chachapoyas town. The sweet guy who gave me money to get on a bus with him just so I would not be lost in Mexico City. The curious looks from the Cubans when I stood in line with them to eat stale bread and drink syrup… and the wonderful friends I met and shared my trip with, these kindred spirits whom I will always treasure.

Well, like I said, I can only faintly paint certain moments to share. But this ‘waste of time and money’ sure makes me feel good.

Delara was very amused this morning when she heard from Roy that he had come to the living-room, barely clad in a towel and said those things that he said. She wanted to apologize for his behaviour but, nah… she did not need to apologize. It was alright. If anything, it made me understand myself better.

We had our breakfast at 1pm. After Cuban food, gosh… anything sounded wonderful, omelette with spicy sausage and baked potatoes was perfect. Yummy. Thank you!!

I was driven to Venice Beach for my quintessential LA experience. Naturally, there were Dance-for-Peace, Skate-for-Peace, Donate-for-Peace, Art-for-Peace events organised by freaky and weird people. There were protests against the war, not unlike those I saw in Buenos Aires and Mexico City, but with a hippie-slant. Tattoo, psychics and tarot card readings, Indian incense sticks, the chance to take photos with aliens, they were all there.

Delara had been great. She was one super-cool chick. Her energy, positiveness, spontaneity, interesting and inquiring mind… While my stay was short, not even 24 hours, I had a terrific time. So she went to the airport to pick up a stranger but life is too short to just do boring things like NOT pick up strangers from the airport, isn’t it? She deserved one of the very illegal Cuban cigars I smuggled in.

And so I flew tonight to what President B’s supporters would call FREEDOM Polynesia islands and would probably eat a lot of FREEDOM loaves soon.

I arrived at the ungodly hour of 2:40am. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw hefty Polynesian men playing tiny ukeleles to welcome us, and svelte ladies in hibiscus-printed dresses distributing miniscule fragrant jasmine buds. Nice touch, but at this hour? The huge, macho Tahitian Customs guys stamping our passports all had tiny jasmine flowers tucked behind their ears too. Spooky.

I wanted to wait til daybreak to head to Moorea island. I tried to stay awake but finally, I fell asleep on the hard seats. When I woke up, a Tahitian woman in the typical hibiscus-printed primary-coloured dress sitting next to me, started telling me she had been watching my bags and that I should be careful with my stuff. I smiled sheepishly. Merci, I thanked her. OK, another language now. And one that I did not know.

A conversation of gestures, noises and sporadic Spanish vocabulary thrown in, hoping they were similar to French, ensued. In the end, I figured she said there were buses to town, but yet she shook her head when I paraphrased my understanding. My French was limited to numbers, ‘bonbons’ and ‘champignons’. Not very useful now.

She finally waved down a guy whose job was to receive tourists at the airport for various five-star hotels and this one spoke English and instructed me accordingly.

I headed to the main road to try and grab a ‘Le Truck’. This was the typical public transport in Tahiti. They basically looked like trucks. On the ‘Le Truck’, I asked a few other tourists if they knew where to get off for the Moorea Ferry Terminal. They were heading the same way too. Great. They were Go, Junko from Japan/USA, and Greg from Australia.

Go and Junko had booked themselves in a US$140-per night beach bungalow in Moorea. Greg and I opted for a slightly cheaper resort, dormitory beds for US$13 a night.

I had changed some Tahitian francs at LAX airport but I did not have enough to pay for three nights. As it was Easter weekend, everything was shut. The receptionist decided to take US dollars from me instead.

Greg had a weird story. He brought no US dollars or travellers’ cheques, relying entirely on his card. But the card could not work at any of the machines. He tried to do a cash-advance-over-the-counter at the bank at the airport and the guy claimed it was not possible at that branch. With every bank shut for Easter, Greg simply had no means of getting any francs. The guy amazingly LENT him 20000 francs (about US$200), took a photocopy of his passport and made Greg promise to return the money just before he leaves Tahiti.

I had worked in a bank for six years. I assure you this is the ONLY compassionate bank-related story anyone will ever get to hear.

This was really the tail-end of my trip. I was not interested to do this or that sight, hire kayaks or snorkels, or whatever. Nonono. I just wanted to merely exist for three more days.

We took the scenic route along the beach to walk to Go and Junko’s resort. Some places were fenced off but the sea being so shallow, we just waded through the water to get around.

The beach in front of their resort was way better. One could not really swim because of the coral all over and the water was not deep enough to kick one’s legs properly. The water was wonderfully warm and super clear to see the fishes and coral. In the far distance, one could see the enormous crashing Pacific waves but they broke very far off because of the coral and never made it to the beach. In other words, paradise.

I shut down my brain and drifted in the water.

Today was the end of the Easter holidays. Greg had looked forward to going to the bank nearby and doing a cash advance so that he would have money to pay back. Meanwhile, I calculated that I needed another US$15 worth of francs to survive the next few days.

As it turned out, that bank could not provide cash advance or currency change. The staff was there mainly to look surly, tap something on the computer and pretend to use the telephone. We had to go to Cook’s Bay at another end of the island.

The automatic Change Machine would zap US$5 for every transaction. If I needed US$15, I had to feed in US$20. That’s 25% commission!!!! My card could not work on the withdrawal machines either. We later learnt from a French tourist that only her French credit card worked. Most mysterious.

To help out my situation, Greg and I decided to buy US$20 worth of groceries from the supermarket and I would pay by credit card and he would give me francs in return. Great, we would feed on French loaves and Nutella for breakfast and spaghetti for dinner the next few days.

With money issues sorted out, I shut down my brain and read trashy novels by the beach.

That night over spaghetti, I found out that Greg had been on five or six Round-The-World trips over the years. Gosh. He was definitely NOT a lister and was so humble and unassuming that I only learnt about this now. I had to coax stories out from him. I really appreciated him telling me this. I knew this Round-The-World would not be the one and only one. And to hear that he had done several really encouraged me. It might be possible for me too. A wonderful dream.

There were too many roosters on this island.

Some people could exist for their entire life. I existed for two days and felt I was ready to start LIVING again, but not too strenuously, please.

Greg said that, according to the guidebook, there was a ‘fairly easy’ walk from the Ferry Point to Cook’s Bay. Two hours, 5 kms, that sounded alright. I asked if I could join him and so we set off on the bus to the Ferry Point.

Unfortunately, it rained just when we arrived at the Ferry Point. We only set off after an hour’s wait when the rain subsided.

The trail was horribly muddy right at the start. We followed the red markers painted on trees or plastic tapes tied to trunks and started ascending up a slope. Greg only had flip-flops on. With the earlier rain, the climb was difficult and very slippery. Many times, we had to use roots embedded in the mud like rungs of a ladder to climb up.

After an hour of very sweaty and exhausting climb, we reached the top of the ridge. Walking across the edge to the left, we arrived at a view-point and found ourselves right at the bottom of two very impressive peaks.

Moorea had some very astounding and dramatic mountain peaks scattered all over and to burst through the foliage and be met with this sight, I was utterly floored. “This is TREMENDOUSLY PHENOMENAL!!”, I yelled.

We were awed by the fantastic view around us, for we could see Tahiti island, the bays and the spectacular mountains around Cook’s Bay. Yes, the tough work was all worthwhile. Greg confessed smilingly that he had started to have doubts but agreed with me this was worth it. The poor thing was suffering more from the climb because of unsuitable footwear.

Now, we had to descend on the other side of the ridge… which was even worse. We slipped several times and Greg knocked his elbow badly. We came to a point where it was so steep it was like plunging to death. I saw no plastic tapes in a distance and was afraid if we went down this way and it was the wrong route, there was NO WAY we could climb back up. I got worried but there appeared to be no other route and so we carefully crawled down.

We managed to leave the jungle without tragedy after the very stressful journey downhill. And Greg… oops, I am sorry, the Legendary Greg did it in flip-flops. ‘Fairly easy’, my foot!

We returned to the hostel by hitching. I started to have really bad stomach aches upon our return. French loaf, Nutella and biscuits. What could go wrong?

Woke up with no more stomach pains but there were still too many roosters on this island.

After yesterday, we deserved a brainless day today at the beach. At one point, from the clear shallow water, Greg spotted a huge black something moving against the currents. It was a ray! He had spotted one two days ago but nobody was nearby for him to point it out. This time, he pointed it out from the beach and everyone saw it. It was so gigantic and graceful. I waded in the water to follow it for a while. It was great to be able to see a ray. Wow, I was really pleased with this final, perfect present.

I would be flying out of Tahiti tonight to Melbourne, Australia. While I was transitting in Melbourne as well, I had about four hours to kill. Since Greg was from Melbourne, I asked him for transportation details to the city centre, if I so choose to head there from the airport. He suggested I take the SKYBUS to Spencer City Station and then, find my way to Bourke Street.

“OK, so when I arrive at Spencer City, I just have to ask someone: Donde esta Bourke Street? (‘Where is Bourke Street?’ in Spanish). And I can go there by walking?” I inquired.


“Except that I have to ask that in Australian.” I pointed out.

“Yes, that would be: Donde esta Bourke Street, mate? (‘Where is Bourke Street?’ in Australian)”

I was all set to tackle Melbourne.

I sat and read at the Tahiti airport since 5pm yesterday and only boarded the plane at 1am this morning.

I barely got a chance to experience 25 April before…

…it was zapped from me when we crossed the International Date Line.

It was payback time. The hours I had been earning slowly the past 12 months… time to return them.

Took a couple of planes to Auckland, New Zealand and Melbourne, Australia.

Australia was picky about everything. One of the questions on the Declaration Form was if I had any soil, or articles attached with soil with me. Sure, I had. I had gone hiking and slipped down muddy slopes a few days ago. My sandals were still covered with mud. I very honestly ticked ‘Yes, mate’ to that and was ushered to the Quarantine Room.

I was told to take off my sandals and take a seat. The Quarantine guy washed my sandals and returned them, dripping wet. I had a muddy dress from my hike in Cuba and a muddy pair of pants I had on where I did several slipperoos. Do you guys do free laundry here? Nah, I was not going to confess those and so I fled the scene.

I found out the price of the SKYBUS to town and it was not worth for so few hours and so I stayed put at the airport.

And then, my final flight back to Singapore.

Well, at this moment, allow me to share a few humble verses, inspired from various points of my trip.

A minaret against the sunset
A yodelling call to the evening prayer
Incense smoke, lighted candles
Joss papers burn in the temple pyre

Yak-butter lamps flicker on the altar
‘Wind horse’ papers strewn across the pass

Prayer wheels creak as they spin clock-wise
Fluttering in the wind, white and yellow scarves

Faded Bodhisattvas with missing arms
A thousand Buddhas peer out of caves
A wall that snakes forever into the mist
Brick by brick, stacked up by slaves

Undulating grasslands
Stretched endlessly for miles

Emerging from gers,
Curious gentle smiles

The shifting wind
The stirring dust
The thunderous hooves
The silent stars

These meat-eaters, these warriors
Galloping across the hills on their stallions
Survived the harshness, lived the desert

Once widely feared and so valiant

Four days three nights, bulleting west
Siberia in my hair, soot on my face
Lulled by the rhythmic ‘TUK-tuk-TUK-tuk’
Towards the orange sunset, we chased

‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’
Tongue-twisting, four syllables
Surly and sour looks

Coaxed a smile out? It’s a miracle

Onion-domed churches, clashing in colours
State treasure, opulence in abundance
Soviet-era statues, abandoned in parks
Metro stations, grand and extravagant

Sun-drenched bodies, brown and baking
All shapes and sizes, decked out in bikinis
The curved beaches, the warm Atlantic

The party never ends, it stretches to infinity

In this land, the music plays on
Feathers and sequins gyrate to samba
A radio here, a street band there
Booming oludum alternates with suave bossa nova

A limitless coastline, the odd mountains
An impenetrable jungle that knows no peers
Crystalline rivers, blue subterranean lakes

And a waterfall that brings tears

A gracious twirl, a sensual slide
Quivering voices from the cracking gramophone
Passion and nostalgia, that is tango
Musical poetry performed with tearful moans

Red-hot charcoal and that sizzling sound
Comes the smell of unmistakable asados
Yerba mate fills the gourd

The bitter the better, so prefers the gauchos

Relentless wind beats on the pampas
The majestic glacier, one swoons and faints
Amidst the mighty Andes, emerges Aconagua
Seven colours on a mountain, swirls like paints

Turquoise lakes patrolled by guanacos
Savage wind tortures and tosses
Vertical peaks that tower over you

Enigmatic ‘Horns’, sculpted by nature forces

An island with wooden churches and palofitos
Good old fishermen haul in the day’s catches
A climb up the volcano, blinded by whiteness
Confused by the snow, the clouds and the smoke it belches

Hissing and bubbling, the geysers awaken
In the distant salt lake, the flamingoes feast
Vicunas relish the freedom of the altiplano
Sparsely populated by Indians who chew coca leaves

Stone ruins, trapping enigmas and legends
Messages encoded in beads and threads
Dried-up mummies in frozen screams
Intricate textiles, now in shreds

Multiple cultures from epochs ago
Rose from the coast, highlands, jungles and deserts
Slowly taken over by the mighty Incas

Only to be silenced forever by the bearded Spaniards

Mysterious drawings criss-crossed the plains
Boats of reed sail the highest lake
Silent sarcophagi perched on cliffs
A network of trails, through the mountains they snake

One country, three currencies
The land that is Castro and cigars
Crumbling colonial houses

And classic Chevrolet cars

Where everyone is meant to be equal
Every business, state-controlled
Food products, weighed and rationed
Rules and regulations, to be followed

Be surprised by the contrasts
Be shocked by the disparities
Be humbled by their lives
Be touched by their sincerities

If they sound incomplete, it’s because they are. To be honest, I do not know how to end them. To end them with a flourish is as if to say, this is how the country is. But the truth is, I, like any other travellers, am merely a passer-by, some essence of the places at those moments rubbed off a little as I flitted around the peripherals. These are my impressions then and I am sure they will evolve.

I hope that for the past twelve months, I had shared the flavour of things, triggered some wonderful memories, inspired a few to dust off their bags, hit the roads and have their own experiences. Only then will anyone understand what I am talking about.

Twelve months
Eleven diaries
Ten languages
Nine airlines
Eight inspiring books

Seventy-nine rolls of film (oh well)
Six haircuts
Five visas
Four Equator-crossings
Three continents
Two ‘White Nights’
One World
Infinite Smiles

Today, I complete my circle. This is not the end. This is the beginning. From here to eternity, may the magic run to infinity.