Stupid Shit People Ask Me About Cuba

Judging from the number of people who walk into Cuba Libro saying: ‘Hi! I’m [insert random name here]; I sent you an email!,’ people are unclear about the volume of correspondence I receive related to my journalistic, writing, and community-building activities. Suffice to say: I receive way too many emails for me to remember each one; your missive has to be extraordinarily clever or interesting or funny if it’s going to imprint itself on my overworked brain. Nevertheless, there’s another type of correspondence that, lamentably, gets stuck in my head, rolling around like a cheesy song I just can’t shake – Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Ob-la-di Ob-la-da and the like. These requests fall under the rubric of the outrageous, misinformed, misguided, disrespectful, and just downright dumb.

Then there are the idiotic search terms people use to reach my blog. To take one of the most recent examples: ‘do Cuban men masturbate?’ I’m sure (or rather, I hope) most of my readers don’t need an explanation as to why these may be the stupidest search terms ever. Maybe if they had searched on ‘do Cuban dogs masturbate?’ I might be willing to help – especially because a friend taught her shih tzu, proudly, to jack off yesterday. True story.

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One of the wisest young men I know recently opined that it’s okay to name the crime, but not the criminal. I’m still mulling over the ethics of this principle. For instance, in certain cases, simply naming the crime fingers the criminal; it’s that grey area which troubles me, ethically speaking. And this post swims in those grey waters: I’m naming the crimes, not the criminals here, but some readers may recognize themselves. Accept my apologies in advance, but I do feel strongly that when you’re traveling to a foreign culture or context – regardless of whether it’s within your national borders or not, regardless of whether it’s actual or armchair travel – you have the responsibility to learn about that culture and context before you go. I’m not talking about thesis-level research here people, but rather educating yourself a bit about where you’re traveling so as not to say or ask stupid shit like:

Given all the African immigration here, do Cubans practice female genital mutilation?
This question, fielded in a group Q&A (after the group had spent a week in Cuba already), left me speechless, literally. I’m not sure if the person asking was blind – you need just look out your tour bus window at all the empowered, professional, libidinous Cuban women to realize this would be impossible in this context – or just plain stupid. With all the elegance I could muster, I explained: what you call ‘immigration’ is known as slavery. It happened hundreds of years ago. And I don’t think the slaves were cutting cane by day and clitorises by night.

Can I yarn bomb the tank in front of the Museo de la Revolución?

I’m not clear exactly what a yarn bomb is – and I didn’t care to clarify with the lovely San Franciscan vegan asking. No, sweetie, I don’t think you should try something ‘artsy’ on the tank used to defeat the USA at Playa Girón (the only ‘military defeat of Yankee imperialism in the hemisphere’), which by the way, features a 24-hour guard by Cuban soldiers – unless you want to become intimate with the inside of a Cuban jail, where things are decidedly not vegan.

I live in (insert any town USA) and want to retire in Cuba. Can you help me?

In a word: no. For anyone harboring such a fantasy, let me just say: this is illegal with both the US and Cuban governments. Interestingly, most of these requests come from people who have been to Cuba once or only on vacation or 30 something years ago. Sorry to be a bubble-buster but 99% of you couldn’t handle Cuba. Seriously limited internet and burdensome bureaucracy, water/electricity/gas outages (I haven’t had water in my building going on two days now), shortages of whatever at any given moment (currently we’re having trouble procuring sponges, light bulbs, diapers, nail polish remover), dodgy transportation, hurricanes, and the cultural and practical requirement that you speak Spanish, are our daily reality in Cuba. Still want to retire here? Buckle up. You’re in for a wild ride…

I want to hold internet publishing workshops with Cuban youth. Can you help me?

For folks who want to help educate the poor, digitally-challenged Cubans (a fallacy, by the way), I have two words for you: Alan Gross. Remember him? He snuck in satellite and technological equipment – illegally – to do something similar and was given a 5-year stay in a Cuban jail. Even if you were to do everything completely legally, with the approval of and collaboration with local authorities, consider these two words: dial up. My millennial readers don’t even know what this is, but in a nutshell: it allows you to connect to the internet (when the phone call actually goes through and the remote computer and server are actually doing their job) at a whopping 40kbps. This translates into a 30-minute battle just to get to your inbox – not open an email mind you, but just to see what lurks therein. There’s no video or audio streaming, no up or downloading of documents larger than 300k without losing your youth, and inaccessibility to any sites full of Flash, plug-ins and the like.

We’re a widely-read/famous/well-financed publication. Would you write some original Cuba content for us? We can’t pay but…
I rarely finish reading such requests, because there are some openers for which nothing good ever comes after the “but” (think: ‘I’m not a racist/homophobe, but…’ or ‘I’m not attracted to you, but…’). And ‘we can’t pay, but…’ falls squarely within this paradigm. Typically, they offer linking to my blog for “exposure” and promise to cite me as an “expert.” You’d be surprised how many editors contact me with this vapid attempt to stroke my ego.

For those wondering about my needs for exposure, the expert moniker, or ego-stroking, let’s review: I’ve written close to 20 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, including the Cuba guide back in the day; I’ve been an accredited journalist in Havana for a dozen years, covering everything from the health system to antique Harley-Davidsons for all manner of media; I’m the only foreign journalist to have been embedded with Cuba’s Henry Reeve Medical Disaster Team, twice; I’ve been writing this Cuba-specific blog for over 6 years; I wrote the majority of the content for the Cuba Travel Network; I’ve been featured on Democracy Now, PRI’s The World, the Travel Channel, TeleSur’s From Havana and Dossier programs, and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Islands Magazine, Drift and others. Furthermore, my writing is included in numerous anthologies and I’m the primary author of Havana Street Style and Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor. I’ve got thousands of followers on social media. And you want me to write for free?! I’m not sure what these editors are smoking, but I’ll take a double dose.

This is just a sample of the stupid shit people have asked me recently. Stay tuned for more (for there will be more, I’m willing to bet on it) – including repeated requests by House Hunters International trolling for ‘Americans moving to Cuba and restoring their new homes to their previous grandeur.’ Díos mío. Can someone stop the ride? If things continue this way, I’m going to have to get off.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Smell the Skin Cancer: An All-Inclusive Experience

Years have passed since I’ve been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort. As you may have guessed, resorts are not my thing.

Friends back “home” are incredulous when I regale them with tales of Varadero (AKA Cuban Cancún) or the cayos – small islands off the coast made accessible by environmentally-disastrous causeways built to bring the tourist hordes. With some 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks under my belt, treks into jungles where no solo woman before me dare tread, intrepid back-country camping and off-the-grid surviving, their first questions, inevitably, are: you?! At a resort? Why? You don’t drink, the beach bores you and the sun wreaks havoc on your Irish complexion – do you really need more freckles?! What’s the draw?

I understand their confusion. They know me, but they don’t know Cuba, these well-meaning friends. They do not know August with no air conditioning or eating some kind of pork product daily – or more often still. They’ve never been jarred awake at 6 every morning by the pop and buzz and blare of recorded trumpets followed by live young communists screeching principles. They know not of living with no telephone and only four channels (now five – woohoo!) of state TV, or cohabitating with termites to the point of total closet/bed/living room furniture collapse. Intrusive neighbors, migraine-inducing regguetón. Blackouts. Noxious, obligatory fumigations. The sprint for a guagua too full to stop for more passengers or lugging a propane tank, bicycle or sack of yuca up five flights of stairs. They know none of this. But I do. Intimately. Maddeningly. Ad nauseam.

But rather than describe the attraction of an all-inclusive in similar pitying detail, I’ll boil the attraction, for me, down to three things: cheese, hot showers, and ESPN. So when a friend (who shall remain nameless) suggested we spend a weekend at an all-inclusive, I jumped.

Here are my impressions of the Cuban todo incluido experience, circa Christmas 2015:

– Cuban tourism authorities are completely clueless that non-Christian (or non-Christmas-celebrating) visitors travel at this time of year. The resort where I stayed was festooned with every nöel-themed cliché you can imagine, from the plastic tree with gaudy metallic balls to faux snow and giant Merry Christmas banners. The quartet even played carols each night at the buffet. I was embarrassed for the Cubans (how fast they appropriate some of the worst of US consumerist culture!), while cringing for the Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and others who probably thought coming to Cuba would spare them this onslaught. Think again: it’s only going to get worse.

– I dub those tourists who only know Cuba through the resort lens the “masses of asses.” And they’ve earned the moniker for the shiterature they’re reading on vacation. Granted, about 20% were reading on digital devices – but even if every single one of them was diving into Dickens or Dawkins, that leaves 80% who are reading complete crap. The 50-tome library dominated by Danielle Steele, Ken Follet and other straight-to-paperback scribes. The poolside sunbathers with their Barbara Taylor Bradford. The guy smoking a stogie in the garden engrossed by Clive Cussler. I get that they’re on vacation. They want something light. But since when does light=formulaic and mindless? Ever since light became lite, I guess. So I dub this holiday reading by the masses of asses: (Lite)rature and suggest they check out Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer or Junot Díaz next vacay.

– Man titties: pink and hairy, glistening with sunblock and sweat. Overall impression? Gross.

– This particular resort was fairly, refreshingly light on jineteros/as and their janes/johns, but this doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere, if these experiences relayed by Here is Havana readers are indicative. Nevertheless, Cubans are (almost) always on the prowl. To wit: a nahwey from Centro Habana tried to pick me up when I entered the water near where he and his friend were lying on the beach. He took it as a sign. Not an illogical assumption, but incorrect: I just had to pee.

– One question which kept occurring to me as I surveyed my surroundings was: when did Deadheads quit tour and start designing resort wear? (Probably once Touch of Grey was released). Psychedelic and sexy but supremely comfortable – stealing into hotel rooms to rob wardrobe never crossed my mind before this trip.

– Streams of people made their way to the beach each dusk to watch the sunset. I’m happy for them. Happy they’re doing it. Everyone should be as fortunate as me – to have seen so many Cuban sunsets: from valley to sea to summit, coast-to-coast. But never before from a boat, which is odd indeed. Especially on an island. Especially for an ocean-faring waif like myself. It puts the ‘no boat’ rule and resource scarcity into sharp, stark perspective. I’ve lived here for 14 years and have never seen a sunset from Cuban waters. WTF?! [note to self: must rectify].

– Then there’s what I call the Tourist Tabula Rasa. Most folks in resorts haven’t a fucking clue wat Cuba is, was, or where it’s headed. Granted, none of us really has a grasp on the last, but the all-inclusive tourist bubble and how it dovetails (or doesn’t) with the Cuban reality is a dangerous thing. And scary. I imagine the guy with bigger boobs than me and his wife brandishing the schmaltzy zirconia necklace back home at a cocktail party: “Cuba? There’s awesome cheese and great hot water showers. Plus, there’s satellite – I thought it was going to be just government TV!”

They’re wrong, of course, but for me, at least for this weekend, they’re right: the cheese – blue, Manchego, Jarlsberg – was sublime. I stuffed myself full of it, took a long, hot shower and kicked back on the bed to watch the B James/S Curry Cavaliers/Warriors showdown. Conner Heaven.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

I’ve got my knickers in a twist and if you know me, you know how ugly I can get when my ass is chapped.

Today’s topic? Ethical, responsible, and sustainable travel to Cuba.

For those who don’t know me (let alone my knickers), a bit of background: I’ve written some 20 or so guidebooks – almost entirely to Latin America and Hawai’i. That is, contexts where vulnerable communities and environments depend on critical tourist dollars. And it’s not always pretty. Importantly, I’ve also borne witness to the continuum of change in Cuba, from my first month-long volunteer stint in 1993 to right now, after nearly 14 years in residence. So I know intimately the ‘bueno, malo y regular’ that tourism can heap upon a place. I also know painfully well the challenges facing Cuba as it navigates a tumultuous domestic reform process, while facing the oncoming tourist ‘tsunami’.

When I launched Cuba Libro in 2013, I designed it as an ethically- and socially-responsible business – relevant and responsive to local communities’ needs, which would also serve as a cool, cultural space for visitors to dig below the surface of this increasingly complex society. I also wanted it to shine as an example of how the private sector can (and must if there’s any hope for the Cuba we know and love) support and strengthen the public sector.

I recently participated in a Temas panel and debate dedicated to sustainable and responsible tourism. If you’re unfamiliar with Temas, it is the intellectual publication of reference here and its Director, Rafael Hernández – regularly published and quoted in the western press – can often be found on speaking tours abroad. In short, Temas is a heavyweight when it comes to critical debate in Cuba.

So despite feeling like shit with what turned out to be the onset of dengue, I made my way with some 50 colleagues to the lovely Parque La Güira in Pinar del Río to learn about what’s happening around sustainable tourism in Cuba.

I should have stayed home. While the panelists were informed, experienced, eloquent, and educated, there was a general pall over the proceedings. Despite a formal invitation, no one from the Ministry of Tourism showed up. Nor were there any representatives from the Ministries of Health or the Environment. So much for intersectoriality. What’s more, various presentations and exchanges revealed there is no national strategy, no community voice or participation, not even a consensus on what constitutes sustainable and responsible tourism and therefore no evidence base upon which to measure progress. I wasn’t sure if it was the dengue or lack of policy/political will making me shudder, but I (and others I spoke with) came away from that panel depressed.

Why? Because responsible and ethical tourism is a two-way street. Recipient countries have rights and obligations and it’s unclear what Cuba is doing about it. The emphasis on golf course and resort development (did you know Cuba is in a crippling drought? We certainly do: it’s on the news and in the papers all the time) and cruise ship tourism (I was hoping someone on the panel would provide cost-benefit analysis on this issue. File under: Wishful Thinking), are troubling. Even more troubling is this trip report from a frequent traveler to the Oriente, and this report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which while long, lacks substance.

But individual travelers also have rights and obligations and since I can’t do much in the short term about the government’s role, I wanted to write about what you can do to help Cuba while you explore this fascinating country.

#1: Respect the laws of Cuba – If you are a reporter, blogger or freelance writer or filmmaker and enter Cuba on a tourist visa with the intention of writing about or filming here, you’re breaking the law. If you participate in sex tourism, you’re breaking the law (and if you have to pay for sex, you’re a loser). If you couch surf, you’re breaking the law. If you drive drunk or with an open container in your car, you’re breaking the law. If you put up the money for a business or house with a Cuban on the paperwork, you’re breaking the law. Do people do these things all the time? Yes, every day. But people OD on heroin every day, too – that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do it, right? I know, I sound like someone’s curmudgeonly mother.

#2: Reduce water usage
– The drought is so dramatic it’s affecting our fresh food supply (although upwards of 70% of food is imported, none of it is of the fresh fruit or veggie variety). Plus, there are millions of Cubans, even right here in Havana, who do not have running water every day. Can you let a faucet drip or run knowing that? Would you do it at home given the same circumstances? Californians know full well what I’m talking about.

#3: Reduce plastic waste – During our team meeting at Cuba Libro yesterday, one member opined that we should sell bottled water (even though we give out gallons of purified water for free every day), because ‘tourists don’t trust boiled water.’ And he’s right – some folks don’t believe boiled water is safe for drinking. But they’re wrong: check the scientific evidence. And the plastic waste 3 million (and counting) tourists create when they drink countless plastic bottles of water during their stay is doing damage. This is an island ecology, where use is outstripping recycling and we don’t have landfill enough for all the plastic waste you leave behind once you return home. So what can you do? If you’re in a casa particular, boil or otherwise treat (drops, chlorine, iodine, filters) water and use a refillable bottle. At the very least, buy the 5 liter jugs of water and refill with that. When all else fails, switch to beer – anything to avoid the half liter bottles overfilling our landfill.

#4: Adapt – My Cuban friends make fun of me I’m so anti-pingüino. ‘The penguin’ is local slang for air conditioning. But it has been unbearably, record-breaking hot this summer, and I’ve had to resort to sleeping some nights with my Russian tank of an AC on ϹИᴧЬНО (that’s ‘high’ in Cyrillic, I think!). So, it’s hot, I get it. But the all-too-common tourist practice of leaving the AC on all day long while at the beach or out sightseeing so the hotel or casa particular room is ‘a lo pingüino’ upon return is totally irresponsible – not only does it sap the local electrical grid and damage the environment, but it contributes to global climate change as well. Besides, in AC-challenged Cuba, adapting is a much more practical survival strategy (just yesterday a US tourist said to me: ‘quite frankly, I’m used to my US comforts, like AC’). In short: suck it up and use your AC judiciously.

#5: Do not, ever, request Guantanamera, Lagrimas Negras, or Chan Chan
– Already Cuban musicians and artists are dumbing down their magnificent repertoire to cater to perceived tourist tastes. Respecting the patrimony of Cuba includes letting these musicians rip on compositions they haven’t played a thousand times for a thousand tourists. Your travel memories will be richer for this expanded listening experience. And don’t forget to tip.

#6: Learn some Spanish (or even better: Cuban) phrases
– No matter where you travel, having a couple of local phrases and vernacular up your sleeve opens doors, minds, and hearts. Get a phrasebook or app. Use it. Trying to communicate, even in the simplest way, in the language of your host country is a sign of respect. It’s not easy, I know this in the marrow of my bones. But it’s also not terribly hard once you start and is immeasurably rewarding. Do it!

#7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
– Speaking of which: visitors, especially from the USA (who Cubans love for cultural-historical reasons, but also for being big tippers), have to tame their egos. This doesn’t apply to everyone, obviously, but there’s a tendency for some US folks to push the “America [sic] is the greatest/most democratic country in the world” point of view, combined with a cringe-inducing perspective about “how to fix Cuba.” This happened just yesterday at Cuba Libro and got Douglas’ Irish up in a major way – and he has not a drop of the Emerald Isle in his blood. Travelers, from everywhere, frankly, should be conscious that they are visiting a highly-educated, cultured, and professional context, which is no way intellectually ‘frozen in time’ and that Cubans have spent a long time analyzing and living with their problems. No matter how erudite you are in your own life and field – and I include myself here – you don’t know as much as people living here day-to-day, who have spent a lifetime in this complex country. Can you enrich the dialog and provide perspective? Definitely. Can you solve Cuba’s problems after a ten-day or two-month trip? Definitely not. Show respect for your hosts’ intelligence, triumphs, and challenges by listening and learning. No one likes a dogmatic pontificator.

Lest I am accused of being a hypocrite, I will sign off here. If you have something to add about responsible/ethical/sustainable tourism, please write in; I’m starting to put together evidence, documents, and experiences related to what works and what doesn’t regarding this issue with an eye towards action.

Happy travels!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, environment, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Our Baby’s Two Years Old: Cuba Libro!

Circa January 2002: I was sitting at my sister’s dining room table – in the crappy apartment she was forced to rent after losing her home and business in 9-11 – with a friend. At the time, he was a producer for PBS and I was a struggling writer. When I told him I was moving to Cuba to live and write he said: “who would ever buy what you have to write about Cuba?” Cue incredulous, pregnant pause (haters gotta hate, right?) I’m sure he doesn’t remember this comment made so long ago, but it kicks me in the ass every time I pitch, and write, and yes, get published. Turns out some people do want to buy and read what I have to write about Cuba.

Flash forward a dozen years. A friend drives across Havana to give me a sack of books. “They’re good, but not great and I have no room for them. If you don’t want them, I’m throwing them away.” So first of all: I don’t have room in my life for good, but not great books, let alone the shelves to hold them. Second of all: I can’t bear to see books thrown out and can’t do it myself – it’s like those leftovers I swear I’ll eat tomorrow, until tomorrow turns into the next day and then next week. By that time, I can no longer distinguish the pesto from the mold but it’s food; when you grow up poor, you don’t throw away food. Third of all: when my friend made that drive across town, I was in a very dark place, in a grief so deep I couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish a page of a book, let alone an entire title.

That yellow sack of books sat for six months gathering dust as I mourned my loss and questioned my life. And then, after much loving support from my friends and family here and there, I was able to get through a page, a book, an entire day without bursting into tears. I started feeling like me again. An idea began to brew. What if Havana had an English-language bookstore and coffeehouse, a place equally comfortable for Cubans and visitors, residents and foreigners, where you could sit with a good book and coffee to make conversation and friends and memories? It could be an oasis from hot, hectic Havana where nada es fácil; it could be a place for visitors to get cultural information and for Cubans to practice their English; it could and would be an alcohol-free space, a regguetón-free zone, a place with no place for pena.

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

But it could be so much more (obviously, I was feeling very much myself again, thinking and dreaming big). We could be ethically- and socially-responsible, basing our business philosophy on the principal that everything we do, every policy and practice, must be a win-win-win: a win for our customers, a win for our community, and a win for our staff. We could be a beacon in Cuba’s dark, uncertain times of private enterprise, where inequities are deepening, the country is experiencing double brain drain (people leaving for foreign shores; people leaving the state sector for the private), and the majority of Cubans don’t have the resources to patronize – let alone open – a private business. We would do things differently: we would be a place for everyone, our goods and services would be accessible to everyone, regardless of age, race, nationality, sexual orientation and importantly: finances. Money would not be the arbiter of who is in and who is out at our special spot. And so, Cuba Libro was born.

As two friends and I painted the space we rent from a neighbor, I honed my strategy about how to build community, support that community, and offer something completely different.

First Cuba Libro policy? You don’t have to buy anything. You can spend all day in a hammock reading National Geographic in Havana’s shadiest corner and not spend a kilo. This will bring in all the folks who don’t have the money or inclination to buy a coffee or book. It will make it a more diverse, exciting space. For people who love to read but don’t have the money or space for a book, we’ll offer library services, lending titles at 5 CUP (25 cents) for two weeks.

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Second policy? Cuba Libro staff will earn more than anyone else in Havana doing similar work. We will commit ourselves in this way (and others), to supporting Cuban youth – to proving that young people here can learn new skills, make a dignified living, and build a future in their beloved Cuba. In addition to the robust salary, I instituted a profit-sharing program for staff and a tip jar exclusively for them. Here’s a typical end-of-day exchange with staff: “Conner. This is too much. Please take your cut of the tips.” I always decline, but then they slip some bills into my bag when I’m not looking and I slip them right back. In an effort to support young Cubans, I determined we would dedicate part of the café to emerging artists who have little opportunity to show their work in a city where six terrific artists crawl out from under any rock. We’ve shown artists who use the hallway of their building to create or have to sit on their single mattress to paint. For almost all our artists, their Cuba Libro show is their first solo show. One of my favorite parts of this 2-year adventure is when I get to call one of these artists (especially the ones earning peanuts in a state job) to say: ‘you sold something; your work is going to Canada/the United States/Chile/wherever, c’mon by so we can settle up.’

reading is sexy

Third policy? We will do everything within our power to help attack inequities, educate, contribute to the health and well-being of our customers/staff/neighbors, broaden our collective support network, and build community. We will start donation programs, hold classes and workshops, plant trees, refill water bottles (as tourists numbers soar, plastic bottle waste is becoming a huge problem for this island ecology), give out free condoms (my public health commitment and also a way to diversify our community even more), make our stellar bathroom available to everyone, whether they buy something or know us or not, and actively curate titles, authors and genres requested by our community. When friends started an organic, collective farm, we offered to make their wonderfully delicious and affordable produce available to our community – at no profit to us. We pledge to be relevant and positive and pro-active.

Fourth policy? Cuba Libro will institute a collective decision-making model – any policy change or decision which affects our staff and/or community, requires consultation with them. This is completely new for many Cubans and we’ve had several opportunities to put the model to the test: do we want to appear in the Lonely Planet guidebook? Do we want to be on Travel Channel? This is a no-brainer for folks blind to everything except the bottom-line, but as I always say: ‘Cuba Libro is less about peddling coffee and books and more about being a resource for the surrounding community’ and once you get massive international exposure from media giants like LP and Travel Channel, the scales tip towards more foreigners, fewer locals in your establishment. Our collective debate revealed that none of us wanted this. But the debate also revealed alternatives, which ended up winning out. When I suggested raising our prices after more than a year in operation, staff pushed back, argued why we shouldn’t, and we didn’t; our prices, payable in either CUC or CUP, (another policy designed to make Cuba Libro as accessible as possible to as many as possible), have remained the same since opening: from a 60 cent espresso to a $1.50 frappuccino (both of which kick ass, according to customers). The latest debate is a rager: should we habilitate WiFi when it becomes a possibility? Feel free to weigh in, we’re currently collecting opinions.

Meanwhile, Cuban friends and family doubted my crazy bookstore/café idea when I unveiled it in 2013:

“You can’t give away stuff for free.”

“You have to sell liquor or you won’t survive. At least beer!”

“What’s the point of an English bookstore in a Spanish-speaking country?”

“You can’t lend books, they’ll never come back.”

Well, two years on, we’ve proven them wrong. Now what we’re hearing:

“Cuba Libro literally changed my life” (Susan, who met her future husband here)

“This is the best job I’ve ever had. It has changed my life” (Douglas! Fabulous Douglas, author of our original motto: ‘Life is peachy at Cuba Libro’);

“This is the coolest place in Havana” (Richard, early adopter and mainstay of the Cuba Libro family);

“I wouldn’t have survived medical school without Cuba Libro” (Dr Vero, another early adopter who was also the first – but not the last – to say: “I’m not telling anyone about this place. It’s MY oasis; I don’t want anyone to know about it”);

“I wish I had discovered this place when I first got to Havana” (Molly, a regular-in-the-making);

“This is my favorite place” (Humberto, who has cashed in more buy-10-get-1-free cards than anyone);

“I swear this is best iced coffee I’ve ever had” (Marcia, documentary filmmaker);

“Who are these new people? This is OUR hangout and they’re in MY hammock! (Maria Carla, Cuba Libro regular and future famous playwright).

We were one of (if not THE) first business with a loyalty reward program

We were one of (if not THE) first business with a loyalty reward program

I speak for the collective when I say: we’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved at Cuba Libro, very much a labor of love, very much a success – as defined by us. Although there are days we lose money, when the bureaucracy and inspections and blackouts and difficulties seem too much, there are days like last week when I looked around the garden, full of Cubans and a smattering of foreigners laughing, playing Scrabble and the guitar, reading Rolling Stone, and sipping 100% Cuban coffee and realized we’re not only creating community, we’re creating meaning in our lives and the lives of others. Douglas caught me smiling and read my mind: “this is what you dreamed of, right?” Yes, Dudu, this was the dream, the dream we’re making a reality in our shady little corner of Vedado, every day.

Last day before August vacation; they look happy, but these regulars (Cuban all, except me) grumbled!

Last day before August vacation; they look happy, but these regulars (Cuban all, except me) grumbled!

This post is dedicated to all our supporters from around the corner and around the globe, who have helped us survive and thrive over the past two years, proving the improbable is possible and that you can live your dreams. Thanks to you, we’ve found the motivation, positive energy, solidarity, and resources to do all of this in two short years:

– Over 5200 condoms distributed, free!
– Over 1600 book donations to Cuba Libro from around the world
– Dozens of bilingual dictionaries donated to the local elementary school
– One dozen bilingual dictionaries donated to a private English teacher
– Several large donations to family doctors and administrators
– One large donation of coloring books, crayons and age-appropriate games to Centro Habana Pediatric hospital
– 12 art shows of emerging Cuban artists + rocking parties to inaugurate each (free to public!)
– One live music event with musicians from USA & Cuba (free to public!)
– 6 cine debates (Cuban documentaries presented by the filmmakers followed by debate; free to public!)
– 3 book launches (free to public!)
– 121 official people-to-people groups received from the United States
– One semester-long conversational English class, taught by a certified, native English-speaker
– Visitors from more than 3 dozen countries
– One marriage
– Providing study space and caffeine for half a dozen medical students, now doctors
– Innumerable friends made (including those with benefits!)
– One baby on the way (due Oct 24th; congrats Gaby & Raudel!)
– One stray street dog adopted
– 132 frequent client cards filled (buy ten coffees or other drink, receive your next drink free)
– Planted 6 trees
– Launched organic farm share with Finca Tungasuk, reaching dozens of local families

Rescued, November 2014!! Senor Tobias, resident CL pet.

Rescued, November 2014!! Senor Tobias, resident CL pet.

It has been one hell of a ride and we’re steeling ourselves for Fall 2015, when we’ll be expanding the organic farm share, hosting a week-long American Sign Language workshop (taught by a Cuban), hosting two art openings and one cine debate and launching a book about Pope Francis (while he’s in Havana!) and my new book Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor. Our work regularly exhausts us but always motivates us to do more and better. Thank you Cuba Libro community for making our work meaningful. Here’s to the next two years!!

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Cubans are Cockroaches

Cuba – Cubans – defy odds. The longest, harshest embargo in modern history. Back-to-back-to-back hurricanes. The Special Period (very special as the joke goes here). The dearth of feminine products. Their tenacity and resiliency make them the cockroaches of the human race: they will out-survive us all.

I’ve had the privilege of living among this tenacity and resiliency for over 13 years. It’s an ‘I can do this, this can be done’ perspective, as opposed to a defeatist, ‘can’t be done’ perspective. The former is superior. Even if it leads to failure at least you’ve tried (fuck you, Yoda).

And then there are times when ‘this can be done’ leads to legacy. From the 16 staffed and equipped field hospitals Cuba sent to post-quake Pakistan to the biker who smuggled six vintage Harleys to Miami piece by piece. There’s the Fabrica de Arte. La Farola. Cuban drag queens.

Once, flying down Boyeros from the airport, I saw a handicapped dude in an electric wheelchair giving a rope tow to his buddy – also in an electric wheelchair. If that’s not the epitome of a can-do attitude, I don’t know what is. Although, as I write this, I remember another graphic example of that same attitude: one night I walked in to my friend’s kitchen to find Noche, the cat, mounting Lola, the dog. I’ve seen gay canine sex in Cuba. I’ve seen furry threesomes. But interspecies? Cuban pets can (and do!) do it! Then there was the time Dina – the dog up the street – was in heat. She’s epileptic, so her owner had to keep her sequestered behind a fence; were she to screw, she’d likely die. This didn’t stop Toby from licking her red, swollen privates through the fence everyday. ¡si, se puede!

Seduce and woo a foreigner for a couple, three years to get a fiancé visa and then split upon arriving abroad? It can be (and has been) done. Throw a 105mph fastball? Aroldis Chapman can do it! There are those old cars (and more “modern” Ladas, too) converted to run on propane tanks – the same kind of little tank you have hooked to your BBQ in the backyard. Tucked away in the trunk, drivers can switch, with the flick of a switch on the steering column, between propane and actual gas. There’s the literacy campaign which taught the entire country to read and write. There are bike brakes held together with string. No brakes? No problem! When you hit a downhill, just brake with the heel of your tenis (this has happened to me).

There’s the mojito. I always empathize with the poor bartender staring down that 10 mojito ticket, crushing mint until their wrists hurt. I know at that moment when they’re swishing around yet another sprig, they’re thinking: ‘couldn’t we have a less labor-intensive national drink?!’ (Pro tip: get on your barman’s good side by ordering a Cuba Libre). But they do it – crank out a dozen mojitos at a time (and look damned good while doing it).

And the best part of the ‘I can do it perspective?’ It rubs off.

There’s a dark side to this, too (isn’t there always?). From people taking to dangerous seas in unworthy vessels to reusing disposable diapers. Unfortunately, in too many cases, it’s the chronic scarcity here that obligates Cubans to this tenacity, resiliency, and ingenuity. But that’s a different discussion and besides – I think Cuba’s recent history with all the scarcity and want, and importantly, the humanity there sown, bodes well for what lies ahead. This back story puts Cuba – and Cubans – in an advantageous position to figure out the economic piece of their present story, in a sane way.

Have doubts? We all do. The question is: Are you a cockroach?

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The Cuba No One’s Writing About

Early adopters of my blog may remember my post (many moons ago) where I listed the reasons why I love Cuba. Considering I’ve opted to make this crazy place my home for the past 13+ years, this is a question I get fairly often. For several reasons – the superficial fluff being published about Cuba with frightening frequency, the tsunami of clueless tourists, the stress Cuba’s new economy is generating – I think it’s time to revisit why Cuba rocks. This is the Cuba no one is writing about – the deep, below-the-surface substance that makes this place so special. Let’s dive in:

Our diet is largely chemical- and preservative-free.
Sure, you can spend $5 on a can of Pringles or $3 on a can of Red Bull, but when you can whip up fresh plantain chips for mere cents and buy fresh-pressed guarapo for pennies, aside from the novelty, why would you?

The country is popping with wonderful eye/soul candy. Human, architectural, artistic, natural – this place is a visual and spiritual feast.

There is music everywhere
. Literally (and whether you like it or not).

Havana’s tactile nights.
Once you catch that savory-sweet wind laced with gardenias, plumeria and sea salt, moonlight glancing off the waves crashing into the Malecón? No tiene nombre as we say here.

Solidarity.
Foreigners ask me pretty often if Cubans’ willingness to share, lend a hand, empathize, and the like is real. It is. I think this is one of those things – if we can retain it (dare I say strengthen?) – will go a good way toward saving what’s really admirable about this society whatever the next few years may bring.

Abortion, free and on demand.
Ever wonder why it’s so hard to find an orphanage in Cuba? This is it: almost 100% of children born in Cuba is a wanted child.

Cubans are shame-free when it comes to bodily functions. Got diarrhea? Your period? Hemorrhoids? Feel free to share (over-sharing and TMI are concepts which don’t translate here); seek advice and resources; vent. Interestingly, this is one of the few areas of discussion and interface which is completely free from gender considerations. Just today I was talking with a Cubano friend about finger probing prostate exams, while another guy lent a kind ear to a friend waxing cathartic about her crippling hot flashes.

Embracing bodily (mis)functions is something I came to appreciate very early on: one of my earliest memories after moving here occurred at a family barbeque at Playa Larga. A couple of hours after meeting everybody, one of the teen girls emerged from the ocean and appealed to men and women alike: ‘does anyone have a maxipad? I just got my period.’ (Yes: there was blood running down her leg. Did I mention that TMI doesn’t apply here?!). And she felt no shame because of it. Why would she? She got her period unexpectedly – one of the most natural things in the world (and what keeps the human race going, incidentally) – and it was entirely not her fault. It’s like how Cubans view disabilities: it’s not that person’s fault, so it’s just downright cruel to shun or otherwise judge someone for a condition or circumstance which is completely out of their control.

But I digress.

Back to how Cubans view bodily functions and how this perspective implicitly rejects Puritanism and gender paradigms. I’ve been in conversations with friends – male and female – about: being a man-whore; circumcision; boob jobs (for both aesthetic and medical reasons); to what size the cervix must dilate to pass a baby; bowel movements – lots and lots of shit talk (frequency, consistency, color, remedies for, causes of); hemorrhoid operations; and penis operations (thankfully not related and not on the same person).

And then there was this recent exchange between some (platonic) friends as we headed out one night:
Her: Shit. I don’t have another Tampax (pronounced in Cuban: Tampac).
Him: I’ll go get one from my sister.
Me: =)

Cuba: it makes you laugh. It makes you cry. But it never leaves anyone indifferent. And this is the #1 reason I love this crazy place: it arouses passion.

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‘To Don’t List’ for Emigrating Cubans

Amaya; Otto; Giulietta; Jonas; Alejandro El Mesero, Alejandro El Informático: all these friends (and more) have left these shores in the past six months in search of something bigger, better, brighter or simply different.

We always send friends and family off with well wishes and congratulations (yes: getting a coveted work visa or bewitching a foreign spouse is still celebrated here the way I imagine prisoners celebrate an Early Release Date), but it’s sad too, despairing even. Tears are shed – in private or at the airport, before during or after. Yet once they dry, Cubans face leave-taking the way they face bureaucratic absurdities, violent hurricanes, chronic shortages and all-day blackouts (yes: we still have them. We’re in the thick of one as I write this, in fact, beads of sweat pooling between breasts). Mal tiempo, buena cara.

Living in Cuba is a lesson in constants: constant contradictions, constant challenges, constant rupture. And I’m still learning. I mourn the loss of my friends who, once they leave, get sucked into a dimension of fast food and FaceBook, big box stores and demanding bosses. It’s wonderful for them to have experiences they’ve only dreamt of and deserve, but it still feels like abandonment to me. Cubans seems to be less ‘trágica’ about it. I guess they have to be. It makes sense – intellectually. I know (too) many Cubans who’ve flown the coop, so to speak; the nostalgia and longing can be crippling, painfully so. As an immigrant myself, I know this feeing intimately. Mal tiempo, buena cara.

But emotionally? It sucks to have your social structure stirred up like a stamped on ant hill. Then there’s brain drain, the negative birth rate (many émigrés are women of child-bearing age), dearth of eligible bachelors, and all the other practical implications of immigration.

Rather than wallow however, I try to be of service. It helps me work through the missing. Not ready for my medicine? Tough luck.

For all my Cuban friends considering or in the process of leaving, I offer this check list of things you’re used to doing in Cuba that you cannot do once you arrive at your foreign destination of choice or default. This should be especially helpful for those moving to La Yuma.

DO NOT:
launch snot rockets (AKA the Farmer Hanky)
– pop your lover’s zits in public
– have an open container in a car
– toss cans and other garbage out of a moving car/bus/train
– tssst tssst to get the waiter’s attention
– shoot birds with a sling shot
– pick your neighbors flowers or poison your neighbor’s dog (yes: this is pretty common here)
– saunter away from a steaming pile of your dog’s shit on the sidewalk
– flaunt your mistresses
– smoke cigarettes – anywhere (unless you enjoy pariah status)
– believe everything you read on the Internet
– steal the toilet paper
– throw soiled toilet paper in the garbage
masturbate in movie theaters
– use cooking oil as sexual lubricant
– wear stilettos to the beach
– wear shorts so short your ass cheeks hang out
– forget to write. We miss you!

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