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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Habana Brats

Okay, people. I know I (semi) committed to writing about Cubans’ belligerent resistance to healthy/sane/considerate cologne application. If you haven’t been to Havana, trust me when I tell you the problem is generalized, acute, and worsening. When you can taste the chemicals wafting off a shaved metrosexual half a block away and instead of his taut ass in tight jeans all you see is that icon of stink Pepé Le Pew, you know the issue is serious.

But that’s going to have to wait because there’s another little drama happening over here which has my panties in a twist – I’m talking my underthings are in a massive, up-the-crack bunch thanks to what I call Habana Brats.

These cubanitos are chapping my ass. I need to write about them. It will help me move on. Hopefully. The stinky Cuban diatribe will have to wait.

They’ve always existed, these better-off, entitled, vacuous kids (e.g., certain military/political offspring who rolled up at high school during the Special Period in their own Ladas), but the phenomenon is spreading like an outbreak of VD in a freshman dorm around here lately.

First of all, these kids are clueless, which is annoying enough (see note 1). They don’t know what it means to pay an electricity bill – much less what’s involved when there’s no money to pay said bill. Nor do they know the exhaustion that comes from working a double, (let alone a triple), shift. They don’t know how to food shop or menu plan, some don’t even know how to make a pot of rice. They’ll need these life skills. Most of them anyway – the really rich ones will just hire help to do their grunt work and trust me, you don’t want me to start ranting about that. At the very least, knowing how to manage money, cook, and perform other mundane, but necessary, tasks of adulthood will make them more attractive mates. I pity them. As mom always says: ‘pity: it’s the basest coin in the realm.’

This new generation is a whole lot of hedonism, which is fun, to be sure, but unproductive – both for them as individuals and society as a whole. Unproductive and detrimental. I repeat: for them personally and us as a collective. They spend their days walking their pure-bred dogs, primping at private salons, and shopping (not for the evening meal, obviously). Nights are dedicated to bar hopping from one wannabe “lounge” to another, spending two weeks’ of a teacher’s salary on cheesy cocktails like Blue Hawaiians and Appletinis. I feel like telling them to grow a pair and graduate to vodka on the rocks (see note 2). They get giddy smoking cherry-flavored tobacco from hookahs (Havana’s new fad) and pursuing deep (insert ironic cough) conversations about where to buy designer clothes and pirated iapps (including mine).

hgt banner

I don’t know where they get the money to pursue this lifestyle, but young friends of mine (the thinking kind, thank you), posit that it probably comes from their parents +/o Miami. So shame on them too for enabling their brats. I’m sure these kids are the envy of their peers – equally worrisome if you ask me.

Returning to the point about this generation being vacuous: in my (thankfully) passing experience with this class of kid, the most demanding thought to skip across their minds is what to wear to the Ernesto Blanco concert or the superior photographic capabilities of the iPhone 4s (the iPhone 5 has yet to be seen in the hands of a Cuban in these parts). You may not find this problematic, but if you don’t find it boring, you’re probably one of them.

But what really rankles, the trend that makes me want to grab these brats and shake them like a chequere, is how they talk, loudly, obnoxiously, about their first-world problems (i.e. bullshit), throughout an entire set of music. Cuban musicians are globally-renowned for a reason: They are fuck-all talented and are products of a long tradition of formal musical education (and informal: Benny Moré was an autodidact, as was Arsenio Rodriguez). Many are prodigies and/or award winners – Montreaux, Grammys. We’re talking giants of music. Moreover, they’re playing their hearts out for peanuts. And these little ingrates are chattering away ad nauseam, drowning out greatness with their banal drone.

I first noticed it during a double set at the Café Miramar by Aldo López-Gávilan – one of the country’s most talented young pianists. An intimate club with good audio (see note 3), this is one of the popular spots on the new Miramar bar circuit favored by these nouveau rich kids. As Aldito and his conjunto ripped through one tune after another, these chamas couldn’t be bothered to listen. I actually had to move right alongside the piano to be able to hear the music over their din.

Aldito en el Cafe Miramar

Disgraceful and disrespectful a la vez.

The same thing happened at a packed Casa de las Americas gig recently. The concert, billed as Drums La Habana, was particularly unique in that it showcased Cuba’s most accomplished young drummers – Oliver Valdés and Rodney Barreto. To call these guys talented is like calling an anorexic lithe. These two are monstruos as we say here, producing percussive feats that your mind, eyes, and ears are hard-pressed to process.

The concert was unbelievable – the musicians were in the zone, Cheshire Cat grins plastered across their faces as they pounded their kits and poured their hearts out. Unfortunately, this virtuosity was accompanied by a low, constant thrum emanating from the back of the historic Che Guevara auditorium. I’m pretty sure I saw sax player Carlos Miyares grimace in their general direction at one point and I wonder how many artists are bothered by these bad manners and lack of listening skills? People around town have criticized Santiago Feliú for walking off stage recently two tunes into a set because he couldn’t be heard over the chatter. For those who don’t get it: have you ever performed live for an audience who thought their conversation was more important than the music you were making? It’s degrading. Creating art in front of a live audience is a brave act. Cubans used to respect that. Many still do, but they tend to be over 40.

I know a lot of what I’ve written here applies to youth the world over. But Cubans have distinguished themselves by being different. And this is getting lost and eroded little by little, day by day. Sometimes I wish all these kids would just emigrate and join their homogenized, opiated tribe up there and leave the island to those who are still interested in forging new paths, exploring frontiers, and listening, quietly, with appreciation, to some of the world’s best music.

Notes
1. If you’re new here, let me repeat: what I write at Here is Havana does not apply to all Cubans. I’m not implicating an entire pueblo, of this I’m very conscious, so save your comment for some other blinder-wearing blog. On a related note: although I’ve been based here since 2002, there’s a reason this blog is called Here is Havana: what I write applies only to what I know, that is to say, only to the capital. I really have no idea what happens in the provinces.

2. A new Russian bar, Tovarishch, is about to open up on Calle 20 and 5ta. I hope the bartender laughs openly at every kid who orders any pastel-colored or fruity vodka drink. I know that sounds mean, but I’ve had one too many run-ins lately with the annoying chamas. I promise to return to my upbeat self as soon as you arrive at the end of this sentence. OK, I lied. These kids have bad taste, to boot. 

3. Except behind the two wide pillars in the middle of the room; come early for a table with clean sight lines and clear sound.

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Today’s Cuba Reveal: Cuenta Propismo

I know more than a little about ‘cuento propismo,’ which in Cuba means freelancing (see note 1). I’ve been a cuenta propista writer since my grad school thesis was published and while writing is qualitatively different from slinging soggy pizzas from a Centro Habana tenement, many of the same principles apply. Tax burden and penalties; supply and demand; competitive advantage; 7-day work weeks and phantom vacations; plus a good dose of self-discipline, accountability and responsibility all come in to play when you’re your own boss. You also need to hone or have a knack for selling your product.

Here in Havana, where small businesses are sprouting like zits on a teenager, the learning curve is steep. Marketing is largely limited to twinkly lights, decals, and flyers and it’s not uncommon to see half a dozen or more cafeterias selling the same greasy grub on a single block. To date, over 400,000 people have solicited licenses to run or work at private businesses (tellingly, statistics released by the government fail to mention how many of these businesses have closed or failed since the licenses became available), the majority for food sales, preparation and services. It’s an experiment in market capitalism unfolding as I write this and it’s changing the face and feel of the city.

Some of the transformations are good, others are bad, and a few are ambiguous – for now anyway. Like a ‘sleeping shrimp,’ I’ve been swept along, but Havana is starting to feel vastly different for both individual and societal reasons and whenever I get this ‘oh shit, the roller coaster is about to dip and bank’ foreboding, I know it’s time to write about it.

Because I’m consciously, doggedly trying to emphasize the positive, I’ll start out with the good changes first.

The Good

More choice – For too long, Cubans have had to settle for what was available, when and if it was available. This is a result of severe scarcity on a national scale, for reasons well known (see note 2), coupled with centralized control of every sector of the economy. Today, you can choose from where you buy (state or private) and from whom – a friend, neighbor, family member, the muchacha you have a crush on, or the little old man trying to make ends meet. Both purveyors and consumers are still learning about how competition combines with supply and demand to drive choice, but at least now there is a choice – for those who can afford it (more on this under ‘The Bad,’ later).

Higher quality goods and services – The quick learners fast realized that they needed to provide quality products and services if they were going to survive. The savviest of Havana’s new small business owners – many from the Diaspora returning to the island to get a jump on the post-socialist Gold Rush – provide guarantees for their services and inculcate in their staff the philosophy that the customer is always right (not an easy feat in the Independent Republic of Saben lo Todo). On the consumer end, Cubans are starting to appreciate the value of paying more for higher quality – in other words, ‘you get what you pay for’ is starting to take hold.

Greater control and room to breathe/dream – One of the benefits to all this private enterprise – as intangible and unquantifiable as it may be – is that people working in the cuenta propista sector feel they have a modicum of control over their lives and destinies. This isn’t very practical in the state sector where the rule of thumb is ‘we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us (a pittance),’ and decisions can be made without explanation and seem absurdly arbitrary as a result. Striking out on your own, meanwhile, takes courage, fortitude, and a semblance of vision; how you dream your future can’t be arbitrary. It’s particularly nebulous, this ‘dare to dream’ benefit of the new economy, but I think it’s one of the critical changes we’re undergoing here. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of 20-somethings lately and this craving to ‘create your own reality’ is especially relevant to them. Working in the private sector puts money in their pocket – decent money, often for the first time – and habilitates dreams of how to spend it, teaches them to budget and save, and plants the seed that if you work hard, you’ll have the means to make bigger dreams a reality (see note 3).

Now The Bad…

Haves vs Have Nots – All those choices and quality goods, not to mention that entrepreneurial get-up-and-go? It’s only available to those already with the means. Sure, the government has started providing small business loans, but what’s really driving the new economy is that part of the population with the money to buy what’s on offer, invest in a great idea, or renovate a killer location for their new venture. Examples abound: fancy private gyms and spas; lounges a la London or New York serving $25 highballs; multi-bay car washes; and dog boutiques (yes, you read that right). And on the consumer end, we have ‘tweens with the latest iPhones, packed 3-D movie theaters, even paintball at $10 a pop. It’s the classic burgeoning middle class, but for every giddy kid with a new tattoo he’ll surely regret (I know of what I speak!), there’s a sad-eyed child wanting one of the fancy pastries in the window and an angry youth playing soccer barefoot. While I hardly register the flashy moneyed folks, each grim-faced granny and struggling single mother sticks with me. And I’m seeing more and more of them these days.

Life on fast forward – It’s amazing how slow, lethargic Havana has picked up speed of late. New cars hightail it through residential backstreets as if kids weren’t playing there; cafeteria patrons drum the counter top saying ‘I’m in a rush, hustle it up’; and ‘time is money’ is taking root as an economic/life concept. The digital boom fuels this and while I’ll be the first to champion faster internet, I worry the day will come (for some it’s already here), when we no longer make the time to spend time with the ones we love. I have to admit I’ve been guilty of this from time to time.

Prices are outrageous – Since the free(ish) market is brand new, charging ‘what the market will bear’ is being taken to absurd new heights. Agricultural cooperatives charge 10 pesos for four plantains (just a year or two ago these cost half this or less), while young men with bad hair charge 10 CUC for fixing a cell phone on the fritz; total labor: 15 minutes, meaning they make in a quarter hour what many make in a month. Service-based businesses are especially guilty and often don’t post prices, preying on the desperation of the customer who needs their phone fixed/car washed/business cards printed. I actually had this happen recently and when I took the guy to task, he said: ‘next time I’ll tell you the price beforehand’ (see note 4). I let him know there wouldn’t be a next time because I would be taking my business to the (more transparent) competition.

Key items go missing – When products suddenly disappear from store shelves here, we say they’re perdidos – lost or missing. And many things are missing of late since private restaurants and the general population shop at the same stores. This is a real point of contention for cuenta propistas who (rightfully) complain that they have to buy all their materials at retail prices, heavily compromising their profit margin. For the rest of us, certain items are increasingly hard to find – coffee, butter, cheese, toilet paper – as they get snatched up by restaurateurs stocking their larders. This creates even more societal friction and deepens the rift between the haves and have nots.

I don’t know how The Good and The Bad will eventually shake out, but I think we’d all be wise to buckle up because I predict The Bad is bound to get Worse. On the positive tip, there are a whole lot of creative, resourceful, intelligent and determined forces being released and connected right now which I admire. Whatever happens, you can bet I’ll be writing about it. Until then…

Notes

1. The literal translation is ‘by one’s account’ and in today’s changing Cuba refers to all small businesses from grannies selling bras and barrettes to Olympic stars running chic, expensive bars. These small business endeavors are permissible under what’s known in English as the Economic and Social Policy Development Guidelines, which began to take effect about two years ago.

2. Namely, the US blockade, the collapse of the Socialist bloc and ensuing Special Period, scarce resources in general and mismanagement.

3. As I write this, an email arrives in my inbox with this bit: “follow your dreams is sometimes a bit of a load of crap since your dreams don’t always pay the rent”. So far, so (pretty) good following my dreams, but point taken.

4. My bad for not asking the price ahead of time, but I needed the service provided desperately.

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Just When You Think You Know Cubans

Loud, machista, brand-loco, bossy, gold medal (but loose and slippery) lovers: one – or several – of these stereotypes applies to most of the Cubans I know. Judging by the search terms used to land here (‘why are Cubans so rude’; ‘Cuban men are controlling/known for being cheaters’; ‘STD from resort staff in Cuba’), many readers can relate.

It’s true Cubans tend to be noisy, romp with aplomb, and sow their oats with gusto and few regrets. They are also big talkers – waxing eloquent on topics about which they’re clueless or avoiding silence at all costs; I know a lot of women here, for instance, who never, and I mean ever, shut their mouths, talking about whatever minor thought skips across their brains (I always send a silent shot of strength to the spouse when I meet a woman like this). Then there’s the Cuban classic, which I call ‘blah, blah, blah’: giving a long, considered response – to an entirely different question than the one asked. Actions belying words also falls into this “classic” category.

These are all generalizations of course – but that doesn’t obviate their veracity. Indeed, stereotypes exist because they apply to huge swaths of a population. And if you know Cubans, you know that these generalizations are true for many or even most. Which is why I’ve become fascinated with stereotype-defying folks here. People who break the mold anywhere have always intrigued me, but Cuba has traditionally emphasized unity over individuality, is small and (relatively) isolated, meaning there are fewer mold-breakers.

These are what I call, for lack of a better term, ‘not-very-Cuban’ Cubans. Each one was born and raised here, lives on the island still, went to all the same schools, political rallies and lame concerts (Air Supply, ahem) as the rest, but exhibit few typically Cuban traits. Sure, they’re missing teeth, can be unreliable, and are prone to slack; in the end, they’re a product of their context and yet…not.

I’ve met a couple of their kind over the years, but recently I’ve come to know several fairly well – they intrigue and puzzle me in equal measure. For instance, not one of them has been off-island and each works for the state (as well as ‘por la izquierda’ because that’s how survival rolls here). Age might be a factor – the folks I write about are between 25 and 40 – but I’ll have to think more on that since I don’t have the analytical energy just now. By chance (or not), each person described below is also male, but again, my analytical reserves fail me.

What I’m coming to realize as I write this is that place – la siempre fidelíssima Isla de Cuba – has much to do with their character (each is proud to be Cuban), but little to do with their mold breaking: these people would be, and will be, who they are, no matter where they are.

The Musician: I’m not sure I’ve met a Cuban as callado as this guy in the nearly dozen years I’ve lived here. He’s so quiet he makes me nervous. Have I insulted him? Is he bored? Does he simply have nothing to say? This last I discount not only because he has that ‘still waters run deep’ thing going on, but also because when he’s on stage playing his cutting-edge compositions, he speaks volumes.

When I asked a mutual friend: ‘what gives with Daniel? I’ve known my share of strong, silent types, but he kind of takes it to the extreme, doesn’t he?’ She laughed. ‘Yeah, I’ve known him my whole life and I’d swear he was born in Europe instead of La Ceiba.’ Quiet, measured, urbane, and bling-free: he actually reminds me of some New Yorkers I know, this ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban.

The Born Again: One of Cuba’s new frontiers is being mapped out by pews and altars, chapels and collection plates (big, deep ones). As an agnostic skeptical of all organized religion and someone who has seen both the good and bad wrought by evangelical churches throughout Latin America, I have to say all the conversion going on around here has me concerned. The phenomenon is replicating itself from Sandino to Baracoa, with record numbers of converts packing pews most nights and some days too, as they attend bible study, Sunday school and other church-y activities (see note 1). The people I know in Havana who have been sucked in belong to these churches are usually either not too bright or dealing with some social issue – alcoholism or delinquency, for instance.

But not my ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban friend, who breaks even this mold: he’s smart, has a good job, a wife, his own transport, a nice place to live and two happy, well-adjusted children. Furthermore, he was always more of a rebel than a joiner, rejecting the mob mentality. Flash forward to any recent Sunday, however and he’s wholly subsumed by one of these churches – to the tune of several times a week for 8 hours at a clip. And the proselytizing has begun, with non-responders feeling the freeze-out.

The Gamer: Hyper observant and curious, this ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban takes people to task for littering and ‘envidia’ (see note 2), has lovely manners, smells naturally great in the heart of summer (see note 3), and pardons himself when he (infrequently) interrupts. He’s also vehemently anti-gossip and comfortable being alone – criteria enough to make him a peculiar Cuban. Surely this aversion to the maddening crowd is the gamer in him – he admits to shutting himself in for 8 hours or more when he’s mastering a new game – but I thought everyone here was hard-wired for social gad flying. To an extent, anyway. This guy, however, would hole up on a mountaintop with just the bare necessities given the chance, which sounds extreme even to me, a solitary mountain girl at heart.

In another inversion of a Cuban stereotype, he’s not afraid to ask questions, learn about what he doesn’t know, and pursue new experiences – including hard work. He’s got a hunger for knowledge and the confidence to seek it out I don’t see that often in Cuba’s 20-somethings. It’s refreshing and hopeful, especially because it comes from the next generation, too much of which has lost hope here.

Notes

1. Let me emphasize that I’m referring to anti-scientific, charismatic churches (what’s sometimes referred to as neo-charismatic or neo-Pentecostal), not the traditional kind where you go on Sunday to pray and catch up with the congregation. The kind that freak me out are the ones where the pastor fairly preys on his flock, encouraging adoration of him and distance from non-believing friends and family.

2. This is a very negative, very Cuban concept which literally translates as ‘envy’ but runs much deeper, to the roots of want, need, greed, and paranoia.

3. I’m currently preparing a post on Cubans and their cologne/perfume habits; gas mask anyone?

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