Hasta Suicide is Hard in Cuba

If you know one thing about Cuba or have read a few of my more distressed musings over the years, you’re aware of how hard things are here. Some people have it easier than others of course – that’s the way of all societies, including those striving to be equitable and just – but I can count on one hand the Cubans I know who have it easy como tal.

The rest of us? We’re taking it One Day at a Time, trying to keep kindled the light in our eyes as we tolerate brutally long lines under an equally brutal sun; navigate a frustratingly disorganized (and often contradictory) bureaucracy; and bid adieu a steady stream of friends and loved ones as they leave the island.

That light, the inner sparkle and glow which I’m convinced helps us mere mortals to remain upright and breathing against the most violent and debilitating experiences life is forever fond of meting out – brain cancer, heartbreak, war, earthquakes, Tea Party republicans – has been snuffed for many here. Perhaps you’ve seen it yourself.

Is it just a coincidence that Cuba has one of the world’s highest suicide rates? And for all you dissident fucks and pseudo-intellectual detractors who pin blame on the revolutionary government, I recommend you read Lou Perez’ definitive tome To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society. Therein you’ll discover that Cuba has had a sky-high suicide rate throughout the ages. I’d venture a guess that rather than any political paradigm, imperialism, slavery and neo-colonialism (plus their oppressive after effects), combined with lost or tossed love are largely to blame.

Causes aside, the problem is that in today’s Cuba, killing yourself is not an easy proposition. I wouldn’t even know where to get a gun, for instance, and no one I know has a working oven to stick your head in, let alone a car and garage guaranteeing proper asphyxiation. As far as I can tell, unless you throw yourself in front of a bus, off a bridge or down a dry well (a popular solution in the campo if I’m not mistaken), you’re shit out of luck in terms of trying to off yourself.

Hanging is a universally popular option, but how do you knot the thing correctly? If we had any decent kind of Internet, this could easily be learned on YouTube, I’m sure, but alas…And then there’s the question of finding an appropriate spot for your final dangle. I know that in my microbrigada apartment, there isn’t a prospective beam that isn’t termite-infested, an overhead fan that could bear my weight or other place for proper hanging. Getting cozy with a toaster in the tub seems practical – if you know anyone with a toaster or a tub. I suppose you could substitute an olla reina, but finding a tub? Good luck with that.

This leaves poison, pills or wrist-slashing (vertically, people, not across the veins). All things considered, I suppose an overdose would be the best bet. How many diazapan do you think it would take? That’s a rhetorical question.

I leave you with these thoughts since this will likely be my last post for a spell as I try and enjoy something of this summer.

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A Cuban Glossary

Anyone who speaks a language foreign to their own knows what an embarrassing, ego-crushing, confusing and even dangerous proposition it can be. If you’ve poked around my blog a bit, you know I’ve had my share of missteps, malapropisms, and foot-in-mouth moments. Trust me: it sucks.

I figure I suffer more than most in this foreign-language-learning struggle for three reasons: 1) there’s a lot of static in that part of my brain wired for music and language (luckily I make up for lack of natural ability with pure tenacity); 2) as a writer, words are my medium and I’m spoiled in English, where I have many and varied options to express myself clearly and precisely (not that it always works). When you’re learning a foreign language, for instance, it takes time to learn how to say sneaker, stiletto or ballet flat, obligating you to default to the generic ‘shoe’ in the meantime; and 3) Cuban Spanish is far removed from the español I learned in university, Guatemala and the streets of NYC.

I often advise native Spanish speakers to prepare themselves for a different linguistic experience here, adding that they may encounter problems understanding Cubans. Clearly, asking directions, exchanging pleasantries, or ordering a meal/drink/bit of fellatio will be (or should be) straightforward enough for hispanoparlantes. But once conversations get cooking, seasoned with slang and dichos, oblique (for non-Cubans) historical/cultural/political references, and island particular vernacular, it can get tricky. Few people believe me, let alone heed my counsel (see note 1).

I can hear some readers scoffing across the World Wide Web. But take this exchange for example:

“¿Que bolá asere? Tengo pincha y me hace falta una botella. Tírame un cabo y te doy un pescao.”

Very simply, this translates to: Hey man. I have to get to work and need a lift. Help me out and I’ll give you 10 pesos.

See what I mean? Tricky.

Of course, every country has its own terms for this, that, and the other thing. Vocabulary varies from region to region and between cities as well. For instance, I recently took a straw poll amongst friends from across the USA, asking what they called the type of sandwich sold at Subway. In New York, we call it a hero. In other parts of the country, you’ll hear it referred to as a submarine, a sub, grinder, or po’ boy (which really is in a class by itself, as anyone who has feasted in New Orleans will tell you).

But although we have regional differences on the island, it’s much more complex. This way-with-words business goes beyond variable regional vocabulary since Cubans pepper their Spanish with terms of African origin (like the aforementioned asere); many American English words are in daily use, including lager, homerun, and brother, all uttered in a sultry accent; and entire syllables are regularly dropped (e.g. ño), while other words are contracted (e.g. equivoca’o). Needless to say, this complicates matters, as does Cuban-specific vernacular. Some of these words may be used in other Spanish-speaking countries, but probably not in the same way Cubans use them. Have insights? Drop me a line or submit a comment.

Almendrón – Old US car; almendra means almond. Almendrón is a big almond, which these cars resemble.

Bala, bata, petaca – Cigarette

Caña, fula and tabla – Every day terms, these are used to denote CUC or ‘kooks,’ the hard currency here. Other terms include chavitos (which I hear infrequently in Havana) and morrocota, used exclusively for the 1 CUC coins. ‘Fula’ has other meanings as well; see below.

Curda – Alcohol; can also be used as an adjective for someone who’s drunk.

Faster – Bicycle; also called a chivo.

Fula – Screwed up, twisted, somehow malevolent or damaged. Used to refer to situations or people: “¿Ella? Tremenda fula.”

Gabo – Slang term for house or home; also a diminutive of Gabriel, used most famously for García Márquez.

Guagua – Bus

Jama – Food; grub

Jeva/o – girlfriend/boyfriend

Nescafé – Nothing doing; no way, as in ‘did you two hook up?’ ‘¡Nescafé!

Pincha – Work, job

Run run – Word on the street; rumor; grapevine. Synonyms include radio bemba and la bola.

I could go on (and on), but I’ve got other work to do, deadlines to meet, and dreams to realize.

Me voy en fa’.

Notes
1. Anyone planning a visit here will benefit from learning a few phrases and sayings with the Cuban dichos app.

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Havana Changes for the Good

Some readers may remember my predictions for 2014, where I mentioned that we’re going to have to fight to maintain balance – here, there, everywhere. Work, play, love, lust, family, friends, menial tasks like housecleaning and random responsibilities like jury duty, babysitting, passport renewal: all of these priorities are competing for precious time this year. Given that there are only 24 hours in a day (see note 1) and in those too few hours I’m meeting deadlines, running a bookstore, consulting travelers and policy makers, playing bike polo, and updating my app, I’m terribly behind on that key activity called sleep (and many aforementioned menial tasks/random responsibilities).

So that elusive balance? Tough to find, let alone forge, in today’s Havana, which moves to a new rhythm (note 2), thanks to the economic “updating” (to use the official vernacular) we’re experiencing. While I’ve written some about the troubling aspects this updating engenders, I’m going through a sort of Marriage Encounter phase with my adopted city, whereby my enchantment or something similar, is being rejuvenated. This is taking a conscious effort, I’ll admit, but also seems to be occurring naturally, for which I’m grateful.

If you sense that I’m adverse to change, I am – when that change is inequitable, disquieting, violently +/or stressfully attained or more bad than good. And I’m quite clear that I need to embrace Cuba’s changing socio-economic landscape in a positive, proactive way. Those of us who don’t are doomed – to angst, bitterness, depression, anxiety, addiction, denial and other not-so-desirable states. The long and short of it? I’m trying to love the new Havana even as foreigners move here in droves, rush hour traffic worsens, and the unfortunate combination of wealth and bad taste (note 3) conspire to give the city a flavor that’s starting to feel like Hialeah. So I don’t get swept away by the black cloud called Progress, I dedicate this post to the great things about our economic renewal.

Ice cream, you scream, we all… To say Cubans are fond of sweets is like saying Warren Buffet is well off. You need only look at the rapid proliferation of bakeries (some quite good) as testament. Or the line at Coppelia. As an ice cream fanatic myself, I’ve braved that colossal line – regularly running to an hour or more in the summer – many a time. Following on this delicious tradition is the recent emergence of several outstanding heladerias wholly (or partially) privately-owned and -operated.

I’d heard about the new ice cream place next to El Palenque, but it took a while to jinetear a ride all the way out there to the upper class suburbs to give it a try. Once I stepped into the cool, air-conditioned parlor with ice cream cone chairs and 25 different flavors – hazelnut! tiramisu! pistachio! – I knew I’d found my temple (see note 4). It’s a state-Italian venture as far as I can tell and a hell of an addition to Havana’s gastronomical scene. The same can be said for the spiffy new ice cream place on Calle 84 near 5ta B in Miramar. Creamy, dense, in all sort of assorted flavors – this is what folks tell me Coppelia was like back in the day. One recommendation: someone should open these types of parlors ‘for the hoi polloi,’ closer to the more densely populated (and less affluent for the most part) barrios of Marianao, Centro Habana, Lawton, etc. Even though the stuff is wicked expensive at 1 CUC a scoop, Cubans will always find a way to finance their sweet teeth. [ed note: to discover these and other interesting places to visit around town, please check out my Havana Good Time app for iPhone and Android.]

Late night noshing – Used to be that if hunger struck at midnight, you were shit out of luck. Just a few years ago, dinner after 11 would inevitably mean a microwaved package of overcooked El Rápido spaghetti with watery tomato sauce or some dry on the outside, pasty on the inside croquettes at Ditu (see note 5). News flash: those days are as long gone as Alicia Alonso’s eyesight. In today’s wee hours, you can choose from Swedish, Russian, KFC-type fried chicken (our crispy coating, however, is made with plantains and officials put the kibosh on the drive-thru window), sushi, pizza (delivered to your door in under 30 minutes or it’s free), Mexican, tapas, and my personal favorite: old fashioned comida criolla. I get that extended hours, KFC wannabes and delivery pizza may not be your idea of innovation and I mostly concur. However, the Cuban in me says ‘sushi?! Now that’s progress.’ Plus, there are rumblings of some real foodie inroads being made, including vegetarian cajitas (little boxed meals for a buck or two), protein/veggie shake shacks and various permaculture projects. Now if only the concept of Sunday brunch with Bloody Marys would catch on…

At your service: It’s amazing how many new, small private businesses are providing one service or another. Your Samsung Galaxy not receiving messages? Need your bikini line (or back or upper lip) waxed? I can hip you to half a dozen places within a mile of here to fix you up. Car need a wash? Maybe your dog does. Or perhaps you’re too uncertain or mono-lingual to make that casa reservation in Santiago de Cuba. No problem: in the “new” Havana someone will do it for you – for a fee of course. Today, you can get your iPhone unlocked, your navel pierced, Botox injections (this is actually a state enterprise; I don’t know if private individuals are also doing it, though I wouldn’t doubt it) and many more services we never dreamed of a decade ago. Having such services available bestows a sorely needed veneer of normalcy and efficiency on our corner of the world.

Touchy-feely intangibles – Some of the positive aspects being felt after three years of economic updating are unquantifiable and quite possibly ephemeral (depending on what the future holds). However, in the right now, relaxing restrictions and regulations has unleashed a torrent of pent-up creativity, which is exciting. More importantly, it gives people the space to dream, to put their ideas into practice and test their mettle. Furthermore, the possibilities provided by the 200 and something authorized economic activities give people breathing room, broaden their horizons, and help loosen the (real or perceived) noose of control that many Cubans feel outside or inside forces exert over their lives. This liberty, for lack of a better word, has taught a lot of people, fast, the meaning of hard work (see note 6), which my proletarian background obligates me to view, always, as a good thing. It’s empowering and for the first time, Cubans are getting a sense of individual agency (as opposed to agency as a nation). It’s refreshing. Now however, the trick is to turn all these touchy-feely intangibles into something good and sustainable and not just a mechanism for making money on the backs of their/our/your neighbors.

Notes
1. When I’m in charge there will be 48-hour days, no laugh tracks or white people with dreadlocks, plus Styrofoam will be illegal.

2. Once again, let me make it clear: what I write is about Havana – not Bayamo or Puerto Padre or Sandino. I wish I had the time and opportunity to visit these (and more) places across the island more often, but alas…

3. More on this money and tacky taste issue in future posts. Currently I’m thinking of launching a documentary project called Havana: Crimes Against Architecture focusing on how the nouveau super rich are tearing down residential jewels and throwing up Miami style McMansions.

4. I exaggerate. Coppelia, known in these parts as the ‘Cathedral of Ice Cream,’ will forever be my preferred spot to worship and gorge.

5. So notorious is the mystery meat croquettes and variants peddled at Ditus around the country, it led to a popular joke: when someone says ‘ditu’ (tell me about it), the response is ‘no es de pollo’ (it isn’t chicken).

6. Before certain readers get their knickers in a twist like they did with one recent post, let me say that many Cubans I know are very hard working – amongst the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Here, however, I’m talking about the younger generation who really are clueless about what a true hard day’s work entails, and about people who think running a small business is easy money.

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Cuba: Oh, the Absurdities

I’m writing this on February 14th (see note 1), which down this way is known as Día de Amor y Amistad – Day of Love and Friendship. In Conner-speak, it’s the Day to Stay Indoors since Cubans embrace St Valentine with the frenetic enthusiasm of a nine year old screeching a speech on high revolutionary holy days. (If you haven’t been subjected, count yourself lucky – it can be pretty disturbing). Interminably long lines at restaurants, theaters, clubs and shoddy bars are the norm here every February 14th. My advice? Stay close to home.

 

This fury for the Day of Love is the perfect opportunity for me to tackle the sticky issue of how absurd this place can be. Love, absurd? Indeed, but even more so here, where it’s as scarce as an honest butcher. Lust? It’s everywhere, a veritable epidemic of Eros we’ve got going on. Lasciviousness and overworked libidos? Cubans take the concepts to new heights (or lows, depending on how you look at/do it). But love? Love is something else entirely and aside from parental love for a child and elderly couples with decades of dedication, it’s not much in evidence as far as I can tell.   

 

And I’m not referring to what Cubans say – they talk a huge and charismatic love game – but rather what they do. Blackmail and brujería, lying (by omission or otherwise), cheating, unwillingness to compromise and difficulties/resistance to communicating are how many back up their grand claims of love, making the emphasis on Valentines look pretty absurd. And a lot of things other than love are looking this way lately – where folks walk the walk, but don’t talk the talk; where there’s a great and spreading maw between theory and reality; and where the policy contradicts the practice, resulting in paradoxes no one can wrap their heads around.

 

Some of Havana’s absurdities are simple (and simply ridiculous) like alarmingly long fingernails (which make picking up coins and masturbating problematic) and impractically high heels (which render women unable to walk). Personally, I find these killer nails and come-fuck-me-shoes (as Mom always calls them) absurd. Some other absurdities happening around here lately include:

 

$200,000 cars: The liberalization of car sales ‘no tiene nombre as we say in Cuba. Liberating car sales essentially means the authorities corrected one absurdity (i.e. buyers no longer need to navigate the onerous bureaucratic approval process to buy a car) by introducing another (i.e. cars would now be sold “freely” at prices set by the state). The logic goes that pricing cars high would bring in sorely-needed revenue to create a good, functional public transportation system. But who’s going to buy a car – and a French or Chinese one at that – for 900 times the sticker price? What sounded doable and looked good on paper (and whoever drafted, edited and approved that policy isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer), bombed fantastically in practice. The new car sales scheme kicked up a firestorm of critical foreign press and dealt a low blow to the Cuban people, many of whom had been saving for years to buy a (normally-priced) car. Now they couldn’t even dream of it. People railed publically, loudly against the measure, creating new jokes to channel their frustration (see note 2). For instance, a cartoon popped up of the classic Cuban animated character Cucarachita Martina pondering whether she should spend a $200,000 windfall on a new car or Manhattan penthouse. Thinking she could buy more than a closet with 200 grand in New York is almost as absurd as the policy she’s lampooning.

 

Televisión Cubana: I love TV in Cuba – there are only 4 channels (5 in Havana), which makes choosing what to watch much easier than where you live (see note 3). There are also no commercials, just public service announcements explaining the importance of sharing; why parents need to spend quality time with their kids; and how to keep bacteria at bay through proper food handling (not that it always works). To boot, something like 50% of all programming is pirated from the USA. This has its good parts (August: Osage County; Inside The Actor’s Studio) and bad (Malcolm in the Middle; Royal Pains) but means I can get my English fix any day of the week.

 

Not surprisingly, TV Cubana can also be poignantly absurd. Recently, the national sports channel TeleRebelde was showing figure skating, giant slalom and bobsledding every night. This isn’t absurd in and of itself, but rather a welcome change from the usual baseball/futbol fare we’re fed. What is absurd, however, are the Cuban commentators calling the action from a booth in Vedado. Needless to say, they don’t know fuck all about winter sports. Still, I was heartened that they were sharpening their skills in the lead up to Sochi. Except Televisión Cubana isn’t showing the winter Olympic games. Other TV absurdities include an hour-long midnight aerobics program and a detailed segment on Japanese stationary stores with long, lingering shots of well-stocked aisles of papers and pens, chalk, crayons, ink, paints and markers – mountains of them in all colors and weights and manner of applications. This may accurately be called torture, as well as absurd.

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: When I moved here in 2002 (to say nothing of my virgin voyage in 1993), DVD players were the stuff dreams were made of: only the most worldly and wealthy Cubans had one of these new-fangled gadgets. Indeed, most of us only had VCR players (many still do) and ‘videotecas’ – libraries stocked with movies and soap operas did a brisk business. Oh, how things have changed. Today, you can buy five blockbuster movies for a buck, including those still in theaters near you, like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Most of these are decent copies, dubbed directly from those provided to festival and awards juries. Sure, there are some, like the version of Last Vegas I watched yesterday, filmed in movie theaters – you can see a head every time someone goes for popcorn or a pee and hear the audience laughing at the funny bits, but these are the exception. Havana is peppered with mom-and-pop shops selling these 5-movie ‘combos.’ There are also more technologically advanced options, like the service whereby a young buck comes to your house and copies whatever you fancy on to your computer – anti-virus software and updates provided free of charge. The newest innovation is a service where for $2, the young buck installs a potpourri of 250 gigabytes on your machine, with the bundle of movies, shows, and computer programs changing each week. Need the latest version of iTunes or the season finale of Breaking Bad? These are your gente.

 

What’s so absurd about this is multi-factorial. First, Cuba is signatory to international anti-pirating conventions. Second, it hurts Cuban artists as much as Hollywood and the rest since copyright infringement knows no nationality and you can just as easily procure pirated versions of the hot new Cuban movie Conducta as The Hobbit. Last, many of the movies and shows come with that threatening FBI anti-piracy warning. Very ironic. But what chaps my ass most and takes the absurdity to new, personal heights is the availability of pirated versions of my Havana Good Time app. You can’t download it legally from iTunes in Cuba (the site is blocked by the US government embargo; when you try to access the site, you’re informed of such) but you can easily get a bootleg copy. I don’t know how much it costs or what version they’re offering, but if you come across it, drop me a line – I’d love to know just how absurd this place can get.

 

Notes

 

1. But it probably won’t go live for weeks due to my crappy internet connection – which is so crappy, it conspires to make a quitter of me.

 

2. One notable change over the past 3 years has been the dearth of new jokes around town. Cubans are incredible jokers and love a good pun and humor serves as necessary catharsis here. I’ve been worried about the lack of new jokes recently – people are too anxious, stressed or depressed to devise and enjoy new jokes, until things take a turn for the really absurd, like we’re seeing with the state’s car prices.

 

3. Lack of Netflix and any other streaming video limits choice even more. 

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Conner’s Letra del Año

I’m back in the swing of things here in Havana and if I’m reading the signs/between the lines correctly, it promises to be a memorable year. Already some unpredictable ($200,000 cars?!) and unexpected (Fidel rolling up at Romerillo?!) things have happened, about which I promise to post at a later date.

‘Surprising’ and ‘fast-paced’ are the catch phrases for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell. Indeed, 2014 has proven illuminating and educational, adrenaline-rushed and not a little bit hectic – and we’re only a few weeks in.

It’s exciting – I’m excited – but I get the feeling that this year is going to obligate us to work, HARD, to maintain balance; we will have to be master jugglers these next 12 months. It will be tricky keeping all our professional, personal, and spiritual balls in the air, but if we stay focused and true to course, I think the payoff will be well worth it.

In an effort to measure the tenor of our times and steer a tentative course through the exotic, but potentially choppy, waters of 2014, I offer you my Letra del Año. For those readers unfamiliar with this annual declaration, it’s a collaborative document issued each new year by the major Afro Cuban religious associations. It contains everything from conjugal advice and health warnings to what foods and saints should be offered and attended.

While I’m not an adherent, I, like innumerable others on the island, pay attention to each year’s Letra. When I read 2014’s, I was a bit shocked (and encouraged – maybe I’m on the right track!) to learn that one of the sacramental foods this year is the pomegranate. Not only is this extraordinarily rare in Cuba (so an odd sacrament, for any year), I’d bought one and shared it with a friend on New Year’s Eve before this year’s Letra was published.

And will my Letra del Año be prophetic? Maybe not at all or possibly in part, only time will tell, but here’s my take on 2014 and what we might expect:

Love is in the air:
I’ve known Alejandra since I moved here. She’s both family and friend and a helluva woman. She lives with her aging parents, works in a thankless job for 20 bucks a month and has struggled with mental health issues over the years. For the first decade I knew her, she was completely alone – ‘pobrecita,’ they said. I don’t remember her ever going on a date, even. Then, a year ago, Alejandra met Evaristo, a good and good looking guy, who helped around the house, got along with the parents, and had a decent job. And for whatever reason known only to them (or not even – love, after all, is one of life’s great and wonderful mysteries), they clicked and swooned and grooved.

Last weekend, they tied the knot in a beautifully simple ceremony in Alejandra’s front yard. The look on their faces, on that of their parents, siblings and every last guest was pure bliss. You could feel the love before the first teardrops of joy fell. I have another amiga getting married next month and a dear friend of mine for whom the seeds of love have been slowly, carefully sown over the last year or so and are about to bloom. Another few couples are marrying over the summer and well, all you need is love, right? I say: let’s spread it and do our part to silence the bitter and hateful.

Healthier habits and routines:
Whether or not related to love and matters of the heart, I foresee folks around me (and myself included, hopefully, but unlikely), adopting healthier habits. Smoking and drinking less, sleeping longer and more soundly, eating healthier and doing some exercise will be in the mix. Watching less TV (no matter how classic or well-made) and reading more and better literature fall under this rubric, as does consuming less “news”, which just serves to make us more anxious and at the same time apathetic if you ask me.

Globetrotting:
This will be a year of travel, people. Already my trip calendar is filling up fast, with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ohio, Hawaii and Ireland on my itinerary. Cuban friends are also planning to travel (some ‘definitively’, as we say here, leaving us holding our aching hearts) to the usual places – Mexico, Miami, Madrid – but also to Canada, Germany, Amsterdam, and Thailand. Seems like everyone took a turn around the block with their luggage this December 31st, one of our year-end traditions/superstitions.

Consolidating creativity: I and many people I know put (too) many wheels in motion in 2013 – work projects and personal relationships, new businesses and novel challenges. Last year saw lots of this and now the time has come to focus, buckle down, and channel all this creativity into attainable goals. It’s important to emphasize attainable, since the majority of mi gente are overachievers and tend to set themselves up for defeat with all the complex, long-term (some life-long!) goals they set for themselves. We have the energy, we have the intelligence, we’re motivated and we’ve set 2014 up for success – let’s make it happen, one milestone at a time.

Time management challenges: Doesn’t it seem like everyone’s overworked, over-scheduled and just rushed overall? In my world, it looks and feels that way. Keeping everything together, tying up loose ends, leaving time for the people and things we love – this is going to be difficult in 2014. This is especially true in Havana and New York, the two places where I pitch my tent so to speak and where the rhythm of life is different and more hectic (increasingly so in Cuba) than other latitudes. Managing time, while still living in the moment and being present, will be even more difficult. Slowing down to smell the roses, sing to babies, and ask after our neighbors will be important this year. Please remind me when I forget.

Last but not least: have a fabulous and healthy 2014 everyone.

Let life be peachy.

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Havana Mantras

Cubans like their dichos. For just about any hairball situation life coughs up, they’ve got a palliative or folksy saying.

As you may imagine, the general difficulties of modern existence are fertile fodder. To cite just a few:

Al mal tiempo, buena cara.
(When times are bad, put on a good face).

To the question ‘how ya doin’? or ‘what have you been up to?’, Cubans invariably answer:

En la luchita.
(Struggling a little/lot).

And then there’s the ubiquitous:

No es fácil.
(It’s not easy).

It’s not easy can apply to anything – caring for aging parents with Alzheimer’s; pending paperwork and attendant bureaucracy; the quality of bodega rice; even the weather.

These sayings and many more like them have become mantras of sorts. Short, pithy and to the point, they help people fortify themselves and cope with the aging/bureaucracy/vagaries life never tires of throwing our way.

Recently several friends confided that they invoke their own original mantras when faced with challenging situations. They make me smile (the mantras, not the challenging situations) – in mal timepo, when things are especially difícil, and when it feels like the luchita might triumph once and for all. They’re funny in their way, these mantras, but also weighty since they reveal the resilience and resolve with which Cubans confront obstacles. And I have a feeling such resilience, not to mention resolve, will become increasingly – urgently – important in times to come.

_____

If you follow Cuba news, you know that we’ve been under a wet, windy cold front for the past several days. It looks like it’s finally moving on and none too soon: over 100 buildings collapsed completely or in part in Havana due to these torrential, biblical rains, reminding me of 2005’s Hurricane Wilma. Rain like this is problematic here, not only because it sends buildings tumbling – it also floods homes, damages worldly goods and grinds transport, sectors of the economy and much of the bureaucracy to a halt.

But it’s not just the wet: the cold is a problem too since so few of us have hot water in our homes. To be blunt: showering in this weather without hot water is a bitch. Sure, we heat up pots on the stove, decant it into a bucket, mix it with some cold and scoop it over us as fast as possible. It’s workable, but in those few seconds between scoops, you freeze your butt off. Ocassionally, it’s not practical to heat water – there’s no time, no gas for the stove, whatever. End result? We take a lot of cold showers around here, even in winter, even during the chilliest fronts.

As I was talking to my friend Julio Pedro about this, he told me he has a ritual – a mantra, mejor dicho – which he invokes before stepping into a cold shower. Bracing himself, he repeats over and over again, before and during the cold blast:

Soy un macho de pinga. Soy un macho de pinga.
(I’m the fucking man. I am the fucking MAN).

If you knew JP, you’d laugh, like we did, imagining this wisp of a guy incanting his cold shower mantra.

_____

The mantra topic came up again as another friend and I were planning a night out recently. We were headed to one of Havana’s largest theaters to see one of the country’s hottest acts. Neither of us had tickets and it was doubtful we could procure affordable (see note 1) entry the day of the show. I told her we’d only need one ticket since over the past decade, my foreign press pass has gained me entrance into even the most over-sold events, from Pablo Milanes to the Royal Ballet. My friend, who works for Prensa Latina, said she would use her work badge, a yellow and curling card encased in foggy plastic that says ‘Prensa’ in red letters.

‘Isn’t is expired?’ I asked her.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But it has yet to fail me.’
‘Nice.’ I said.
Then she confessed: ‘but every time I use it, I think is it going to work? So just in case, I invoke my mantra:’

Soy la reina de la Habana. Soy la reina de la Habana.
(I’m the queen of Havana).

I’m not sure if it was the badge, the mantra or her killer smile, but the queen and I got into the concert.

_____

At this point, you’re probably wondering about my mantras. I’ve got mine, of course. Like everyone else, I’ve had to develop and hone my resilience and coping mechanisms over the years here. One I’ve known for a long time, but really started invoking it during my month-long stint covering the Cuban medical/disaster relief team in Haiti after the earthquake. Now, whenever I’m faced with particularly trying circumstances beyond my control, I tell myself:

No coge lucha. No coge lucha.
(Pay it no mind/Don’t fight it).

I’ve added another mantra lately which helps me with the haters and naysayers who for time immemorial have tried to keep down the dreamers and lovers and doers:

Que lástima odias tu vida.
(What a pity you hate your life).  

And a pity it surely is, but you know what? It’s not my problem so I’m not going to coger lucha.

Notes
1. Ticket scalping is a common and lucrative practice in Cuba’s double economy.

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Havana: The Land of Big Ideas

Dear friends, family, readers new and not, informants, and detractors:

I’ve been (too) quiet here lately and for this, I apologize. It’s for worthy, horizon-broadening reasons however, and for that, I’ll never seek pardon. But enough with the ‘justificaciones’ as my friend and Havana Bike Polo champ Tomás likes to say.

To the grano:

I had this idea for a bookstore/café a couple of years ago. Like many of my ideas, it was ambitious, quirky, and against the grain. Furthermore, it was quite possibly impractical and practically (but not quite) impossible. I cooked it up slowly, adding ingredients and letting it simmer while I built momentum and strength (see note 1).

When I roped my Cuban family into it, I never imagined all the valuable experience and lessons – all the magic – we would live in the three short months since opening Cuba Libro (see note 2). And those experiences and magic were imparted and shared by some extraordinary people of all ages and genders, orientations and many nationalities, too. Being Cuba, every color of the skin spectrum has walked through our doors – another thing I love about this island. We’ve even imparted/shared with a little person (i.e. a dwarf), who had a voice delicious enough to eat – I could have talked to him all Havana day long.

In short (no pun intended), the people we’ve met and talked to, read and laughed with, are inspiring and surprising us daily.

Cuba Libro: serving up Havana's best juice!

Cuba Libro: serving up Havana’s best juice!

There’s Marta, the English teacher at the grade school across and up the street. And I do mean across and up: the school is divided between two Vedado mansions a block apart and the cute, uniformed kids are shuttled between the two – single file, hand-in-hand – a few times a day by Marta and others. When Marta came in to see about the possibility of getting some bilingual dictionaries (neither the school nor the teacher has one), we hatched a donation drive. Thanks to some folks visiting from afar, we made the first, small delivery of a few dictionaries a couple of weeks ago (see note 3).

Then there’s the guy in the orange-tinted, 70’s porn star sunglasses peddling black market coffee (see note 4), his breath perennially laced with Planchao. One morning around 11, he came in, plopped into the Adirondack chair under a palm tree, began mumbling drunkenly and nodded off. We rousted him gently and ushered him on his way. The combination between comfort and coolness at Cuba Libro is why we don’t sell any booze. If we did, we’d have people passed out in the hammocks, on the couch, the bathroom floor…

The avocado seller is another memorable character in Cuba Libro’s world. One day he saw me standing in front of the gate and asked: ‘Hey Blondie! Why’s someone as pretty as you all alone?’

‘I don’t know. I guess no one can tame the beast,’ I responded, laughing.

He sidled over with a gap-toothed smile. ‘I know how to tame the beast. Love and tenderness.’

When he saw me a couple of days later he said, ‘remember Blondie! Love and tenderness!!’

It’s still avocado season, but he hasn’t been around in a while. I miss him.

There’s the rough-around-the-edges fellow who passes by at the same time every single day pulling two boxes on a chivichana. We hear him before we see him:

‘CREMITA DE LEEEEEEEECHE!!’

‘BARRA DE GUAYABAAAAAA!!’

If you know some enthusiastic, deep-throated pregoneros, you know we can hear this sweets seller for blocks and blocks and blocks and…here he is now!

Doctors and students, parents, grandparents, expats and diplomats. They’re coming in droves. But it’s the artists – from scriptwriters to sculptors, composers to poets – keeping things frisky. We’re getting all kinds: painters, photographers, actors, costume designers, puppet makers and musicians. Some famous, all talented.

me and santi

I’ve taken a personal shine to Samuel. Red-haired, with big green eyes (a striking combination in any context, more so in Cuba), he’s a violin player who showed up at our most recent art opening. He lives in the neighborhood and was just passing by he told us. The party was in full swing, just comfortably shy of packed.

‘Would it be okay for me to play a while in the garden?’ he asked.

‘OK?! It would be phenomenal!’ I told him, blue eyes meeting green.

So he unzipped his case, grabbed his bow, tuned up, and ripped in. Samuel is 16 years old.

Then there are the little kids, many of them Cuba Libro regulars. Nikki (I’m not sure how to spell her name but given the Cuban penchant for funky, medio cheo names, this is probably close) is a handful and already a troublemaker at the tender age of eight (see note 5), but cute and charming. She’ll go far in this life.

ninas

We also have a tribe of 10-year old guapos coming in. They like to break rules, brag about fantasy conquests, and steal the condoms we offer free for the taking – but not for balloon making, which is what these kids use them for (see aforementioned fantasy conquests).

But it’s sweet, polite Jonathan, a tow-headed kid who says por favor and gracias while looking you in the eye shyly, who has won my heart. In his first year of pre-school (also across the street, but contained in one building por suerte), he came in with his grandmother Aracely a couple of months ago. Havana was still in that weird monsoon vortex where we’d get hours-long, sheets-of-water downpours every day, but that afternoon was sunny. I set Jonathan up swinging in a hammock and started talking to Aracely.

Like Cubans do, she said right out and straightaway: Jonathan is six, an only child. His mother, (Aracely’s daughter-in-law), died of a heart attack in March. She was 27. I touched Aracely’s arm and said ‘how awful.’ I told her how sorry I was. I asked after her family, after her son, after Jonathan. Her eyes went soft and moist as she confided that they were doing the best they can.

They came in a week later during another break in the rain. As Jonathan dashed for the hammock, Aracely told me: we were walking to school the other day. It was 7:30 and he was all excited, pointing as we passed by: ‘look abue! That’s where I drew with the colored chalk. In that garden. Let’s go back!’

And they’ve been in several times since. Jonathan always gets a lollipop, a box of colored chalk, and plenty of driveway-cum-canvas to draw his heart out. And Aracely always gets a cafecito on the house.

This is some of what and whom have kept me from writing lately. And that’s just fine by me.

PS – This post was ready two weeks ago but no manner of internet gymnastics/expense allowed me to post it. GRRRRRR.

Notes

1. 2011-2012 was a hell of a time for me, with great and multiple personal losses – hence the need for strength-gathering.

2. It actually started in earnest about 6 months ago when we started fixing the space up.

3. Anyone interested in donating, please drop a line to cubalibrohavana@gmail.com.

4. We don’t buy it, of course. That would be illegal. Regardless, it clogs our espresso machine. How did we discover that black market coffee clogs the machine? Don’t ask; don’t tell.

5. Not unlike another female Scorpio I know. Ahem.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad