Our Baby’s Two Years Old: Cuba Libro!

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

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

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

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

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

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

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

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

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

reading is sexy

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

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

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

“You can’t give away stuff for free.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, environment, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Cubans are Cockroaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

The Cuba No One’s Writing About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

‘To Don’t List’ for Emigrating Cubans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Screwed in Cuba’s New Economy

It will take a bit for me to create the physical time and psychic space to write a long form piece on private businesses here – but trust, me: I’ve got plenty to say on the subject. In the meantime, I’ll channel my cathartic necessities through the relating of my washing machine saga, AKA “The Yoyi Affair.”

_____

I am extraordinarily fortunate to own a washing machine. Anyone who has hand washed a queen-sized sheet, scrubbed towels on a washboard (common to Cuban laundry sinks), or tried to wring out a pair of skinny jeans (and pray for sun because otherwise those clothes are going to smell funkier than a frat boy’s laundry bag) knows what I’m talking about. I lived years here drowning in that routine and now I can’t glimpse a clothesline heavy with recently-scrubbed laundry without wanting to knock on the door and offer the lady of the house a glass of something cool and a rocking chair. It’s terrifically hard work keeping a Cuban household running (forget about smoothly); as you may imagine, laundry is a sticky bitch in the equation.

Luckily, a few savvy Havana entrepreneurs have pinned their cuenta propista hopes on privately-operated Laundromats, where dirty duds are returned to you clean as a whistle, for just a couple of CUCs a kilo. I hear the one in Miramar is making bank, but their folding lacks attention to detail. There are (dark, uninviting) state places too, with cute names like Little Laundry or no name at all. You just have to know they exist and where they are. These are cheaper than the private outfits, but with unreliable hours and workers who filch your soap. I’ve been down that road and while it’s a more sane solution than trying to wring out your Levis by hand, taking my place in line at 6am for a service which takes two days is not my idea of a good time. So when my mom bought her blushing-bride-of-a-daughter a fully automatic LG washing machine as a wedding gift, it was pure euphoria.

That was almost a dozen years and what seems a lifetime ago, but it has worked beautifully and without complaint since. Ah! To wash sheets at the touch of a button! To have jeans nearly extracted dry! I loved that machine even after it developed a high-pitched squeal like a Christmas pig having its throat cut. It was so loud and piercing, callers often asked: ‘what’s that sound in the background? Are you keeping pigs?!’ ‘No, just the rinse cycle,’ I’d explain. I could live with the squeal – after all, I didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to fix it. I had bigger problems – like deadlines and ant infestations and inspectors. And I was tired: we’re working 60 hours a week, easy, at Cuba Libro, where we go through a dozen individual hand towels a day. And more than the pile of dirty laundry, these towels are the sticky bitch in my equation. ‘Whatcha doing tonight, boss? Washing little towels?! Heh, heh, heh,’ is a common conversation starter among our staff. (Note to self: dock pay for every snarky Saturday night towel comment. Just kidding!) It’s sad, but true however: I spend many an evening listening to my querida machine squeal little towels around as I wait for the dial-up internet to hop to. It only makes me weep on occasion.

One of those occasions was when the machine ceased, definitively, to have a spin cycle. Of course, it happened during an insanely busy week: long-time, well-loved staff departing for foreign latitudes; training newbies; hosting groups; friends’ birthdays; multiple deadlines; and my trip to New York. Have you ever traveled with a suitcase of soiled clothes? Not pretty, but a nice little ‘gotcha!’ for the folks rifling through luggage on this side of the Straits and Homeland Security on that one. For reasons more important than this, however, my immediate priority was Getting My Washing Machine Fixed.

I put it off, but the second time I was forced to look into that towel and soap soup, and rinse and wring out each toallita individually, I knew procrastination was no longer advisable. True, I was drowning in work, bureaucratic bullshit and administrative tedium. In short: I didn’t have one atom of extra energy to confront the jodedera of getting a major appliance fixed in today’s Havana. And then I met Yoyi. He was an affable guy with gold teeth, cafe au lait skin, and an efficient, confident air. His workshop is in a garage a couple of blocks from Cuba Libro, the driveway choked with washing machines in various stages of decay, disrepair and death. When I explained to him the problem, he boiled it down to one of three parts. ‘Let’s go to your house. I’ll assess the problem and if you agree, I’ll bring the machine here to the workshop, fix it and you’ll have it back in 24 hours.’ Transport, parts, labor and a one-year guarantee included. Efficient, professional and good looking private enterprise? Hell yeah, bring it on!

Flash forward to my apartment where two strange men are shimmying the machine away from the wall and peering into its nether regions. “It’s the clutch,” Yoyi tells me. Of course it’s the clutch, the most expensive part, for which Yoyi quoted me $150CUC. This is a total rip off, I’m fully aware. Yoyi was showing me what’s known in Cuba as ‘cara dura’. I was getting the Screw-The-Yuma price (and female to boot! Cha ching!) and I knew it, but I needed that machine in working order like, yesterday. I’m used to Cubans fucking me for my non-Cuban status in terms of pricing, but fucking me up the ass in terms of pricing? This is something else. ‘$150 CUC. That’s rough. You can come down a bit, surely,’ I told Yoyi with a smile.

We settled on $130CUC and away he went with my machine. The next day I went to his garage storefront at the appointed hour where I, along with his employees (who couldn’t reach him on his cell), waited until it grew dark. Yoyi finally rattled up in an old Lada, wedged the machine in the trunk and off we set for my apartment. After he and his pierced, tattooed helper lugged it up to the third floor, they plugged the old girl in and ran it through the spin cycle. Success! There were smiles, handshakes and goodbye kisses all around. I was impressed: within 24 hours, I had a working washing machine installed in my house, plus a one-year guarantee from Yoyi and his guys.

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The next day, I loaded up the machine, turned on the water, added detergent and pushed the magic button. I was answering yet another email from a clueless journalist here on assignment with no Spanish, no contacts, no guidebook or map even, and only a vague idea of what to write about when the machine started beeping. This wasn’t the steady ‘wash is done!’ beep but the frenetic ‘spin cycle won’t kick in!’ beep – the exact same annoying beep that drove me to Yoyi in the first place. Beads of frustration sweat popped to my brow as I went to inspect. It had worked yesterday. Why not today? I tried to restart it, trick it into going through different cycles, and taking out some clothes to lighten the load. Nada. When I looked closely, I noticed Yoyi had switched out my drum for a smaller, inferior one. De pinga.

I returned to his appliance workshop one, two, three days in a row. The place was shut tighter than the doors of the US-Cuba negotiations. Yoyi and crew were gozando with my $130 CUC no doubt. My mind went to a dark, destructive place: I was ready to open a can of NYC whup ass on the dude. On Day 4, I went with a gaggle of Cuban friends to back me up (what a motley bunch of muscle we made: a fellow so skinny his nickname is Periodo Especial; a too-good looking gay friend hitting on the too-good looking mulatto friend, a quiet pacifist, a philosopher…). When we rolled up on Yoyi, he admitted to not having tested the spin cycle with actual water. Duh. And he fessed up to switching out the drum. He promised to return to my house, retrieve the machine and fix it properly. I was peeved, but encouraged – his one-year guarantee had some validity, it seemed.

Then I went to NY. My mighty Cuban muscle paid several visits to Yoyi, but he was as scarce as butter and cheese in Havana circa 2015. That is to say: nowhere to be found. Then Havana got flooded. The pictures were frightening from where I was sitting stateside, but I knew the reality was much more horrifying: collapsing buildings; ruined keepsakes, furniture, electronics; stranded seniors. And I doubted there was hope for returning to a working washing machine.

Two days before arriving back in Havana, I got word: Yoyi fixed the machine, it was back at my house and ready to roll. I sent silent (none have email, alas) thanks and praise to my Cuban muscle and didn’t bother wasting my precious family and friend time in NY washing clothes; I’d do that in Havana and serve up another gotcha! to all airport personnel who deigned to inspect the contents of my luggage.

You see where this is going?

I got home, hugged the dog, and unpacked a small – teeny, really, so as not to overwhelm her – load of dirty laundry into the machine. As it did its thing, I began extracting from my luggage all the teas, spices, shoes, small electronics, feminine products, vitamins and the rest of the pacotilla with which I always travel: every trip Cuban friends and family give me a list of things they need but can’t get here (currently I’m procuring: baby bottles; children’s NyQuil; a lint brush; a motherboard; lubricant and coin wrappers). And guess what?! The machine worked! No frantic beeps! A proper rinse cycle! It was extraordinarily satisfying – $130 CUC satisfying, I’d say.

Fast forward two days. Another night spent alone washing little towels. As I was counting my blessings, the evil beeps started. The rinse cycle didn’t. I was peering again into little towel-soap soup. My knees and resolve to work with this guy weakened: I just don’t have the energy to interface with Yoyi again – in spite of the year guarantee. But when I do, I’m not going to bring him my machine for a third time. Instead, I’m going to bring all my NY Irish to bear and open that can-of-whup-ass all over him and his private sector business. Stay tuned.

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Trilingual in English, Cuban and (Now) Dog

Dependent, smelly, costly and often filthy (all that butt sniffing/rolling around in dead things?!), flea-bitten, tick-ridden, and prone to humping whatever they can get their legs around – can you tell I’m not a dog person? They’re such a burden, nothing like their haughty, independent feline counterparts who you can leave with a bowl of kibble for days while you go off the grid and they’ll ration it, killing birds or rodents once it runs out. So no, I’m not too keen on dogs, but now I’m in deep – over my head deep. More proof that the universe is conspiring against me…

Two days before my 45th birthday, a stray dog wandered into Cuba Libro. Like I needed something breathing-eating-shitting extra to stress about. Within a day, the kids who work with me named him Toby. It was all over, I knew. I’m sure there are parents out there who know exactly what I’m talking about: once the kids you love give the flea-ridden, tick-bitten beast a name, you’re responsible, no backsies. He was awfully cute, it must be said. Adorable, to-die-for, irresistibly cute, but no one who works at Cuba Libro has the living conditions or lifestyle conducive to caring for a dependent – no matter how cute.

toby cubalibro

I was resigned to letting “Toby” live in the Cuba Libro garden, but two events changed all that. First, a friend walked in one day claiming: ‘I know this dog. He lives in my building.’ This seemed more than a bit far-fetched: Ariel lives in 10 de Octubre – at the other extreme of sprawling Havana – and besides, dogs are to some humans what Yuma are to some Cubans: they all look alike. But when Ariel picked up the phone and said, “señora, your dog is here in Vedado,” and she responded, “Oh! That’s not my dog. It’s my son’s. He’s doing his military service, but I’ll tell him” I knew this wasn’t a simple case of mistaken identity. An hour or two later, young buck Carlos showed up and was plastered with wet kisses by “Jason”. It was obvious the dog had once known and loved this fellow. But with nowhere to place Jason when he went into his military service, Carlos let loose the dog into Havana’s mean streets. As you may imagine, I thought Carlos an ass – not only had he given his dog a dumb dog name (J is pronounced H in Spanish), but he’d abandoned the animal, leaving him to his own devices. I may not be a dog person, but I’m not cruel.

Savvy pup that he is, Jason-now-Toby traveled clear across the city to cross our threshold with fleas, ticks, parasites and a sad look in his amber doll’s eyes. Just like Wilbur was “Some Pig,” I started getting the feeling that Toby was “Some Dog.” But I resisted – threatening to send him to the campo (in my case, this is not a euphemism: I was actively looking to place him with a farm family in those first few weeks). As my father once observed: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus,’ something I agree with wholeheartedly and cite often.

El Coquito was born.

El Coquito was born.

Toby’s second fate-deciding event happened one stormy day after about a week of eating spaghetti and living in Cuba Libro’s makeshift doghouse (a large suitcase donated by a neighbor for this purpose). Our weekly bike polo showdown was cut short when the skies opened up and started drumming a hard, cold rain across Vedado. And I remembered there was a dog I was somehow sort of responsible for. When I went to check up on the perrito, he was huddled in a corner of the garden shivering, ears plastered back as thunder and lightening crashed all around, every hair standing on end, soaked to the roots. I haven’t got much of the maternal/pet gene (if you missed that detail), but even I couldn’t resist his vulnerability (or cuteness). So I stuffed him in my knapsack as best I could, strapped it to my chest, and pedaled home through the rain. That was five months ago and we’ve been making the 6-day a week trek between my apartment and Cuba Libro ever since. And I’ve been forced to speak ‘dog.’

There’s a bark for ‘I have to pee.’
There’s a bark for ‘I have to poop.’
There’s a bark for ‘I’m hungry/horny’ (more on that later).
There’s a bark for ‘I’m scared.’
There’s a bark for ‘someone is at the door.’

As far as I can tell, it’s all the same damn bark. Thankfully I have a professional interpreter in Amaya who is Toby’s co-mother. She’s more than a dog whisperer: she’s a dog witch who anticipates his needs and directs his energies in a way I admire and hope to learn. Some things I’ve come to understand, like the one, two, three turns alternated with sniffs that I’ve dubbed the ‘doody dance.’ Meanwhile, standing on two hind legs and hugging me with the front two while he mews means ‘I missed you!’ But the other conversational pieces? They’re lost on me.

And as cute and adaptable and sociable as this dog is, he lived in the streets for at least 6 months we figure, and I wonder: what was his life like before? What mental and emotional baggage is he carrying from his previous life/lives? Deconstructing Toby’s personality isn’t helped by his slew of nicknames, different ones invoked depending on whom is addressing him and under what circumstances. At turns he is: Toby, El Tobito, The Tobes, Tobias Maximus, Tobito El Coquito (Toby the Little Coconut), Toby the Tuffy, El Peluche (The Stuffed Animal), El Macho, El Guapo, Ese Perro Toby, and Bipolar. This last arose after we caught him staring at walls, barking at dust and chasing his tail in an over-the-top, manic manner.

Beyond the communication problems, having a dog in Havana (something I never thought I’d be experiencing or writing about) is a challenge. Strays and pets (many trained to guard and attack) can be ferocious and we’ve taken to walking him armed with sticks and rocks after several run ins; dog food is sold, but only at very select stores and boutiques reserved for the super rich, so dog food has to be purchased and cooked almost daily (The Tobes is on a diet of rice and liver, with a little pizza and cake thrown in every so often because he’s too cute to resist 100% of the time); and Cubans are rabidly anti-neutering.

Little did I know that the neutering issue would kick up so much drama and debate – though given the machismo here, I should have expected it. I have to admit it’s kind of novel seeing testicles on a dog (where I come from, “fixing” pets is par for the course), especially Toby since he has the ‘one-eyed salute’ thing going on whereby his tail sticks straight up and you get a full-time, full-on view of his bunghole and junk. What’s more, he’s almost completely white, but his balls are black. When I announced my decision to fix him, citing concerns of rampant reproduction by any bitch he mounted, combined with the desire to tame his macho, aggressive tendencies, I got major pushback from all corners.

‘Why castrate him?! You’ve got the male dog. If he was a she, sure, but…’
‘It will make him fat and lazy.’
‘You can’t take away his manhood!’

When the vet came to examine Toby (yes, in Cuba, pet and people doctors make house calls), even he said it was emasculating to fix him and suggested a vasectomy instead. Doggie vasectomies?! For real? Then I learned that some pet owners up north actually have synthetic balls surgically attached to their neutered dogs. WHAT?! This was all a bit much and if you’ve seen how many neglected street dogs live in Havana, snipping him seemed like a no-brainer to me. But after 13 years here (this month!), I’ve ‘gone native’ in certain respects and I got to thinking: the vet estimates Toby to be between 1-1/2 and 2 years old. Has he ever had sex? Hard to know for sure, but likely not. Can I deny him this? Even if it’s not for pleasure, what about instinct? And do female dogs get knocked up every time they do it? What if it does make him fat and lazy? I don’t know anything about dogs and I was receiving conflicting information (if this happened to you, you’d likely hit the internet and find thousands of sites devoted to dog sex and fixing, but alas, a dial-up connection is not conducive…)

atbeachtoby

And then Dina, the dog who lives five houses up the way from Cuba Libro, went into heat. And Toby went into hysterics. He wouldn’t even run through the gate to greet Amaya and Douglas as he’d done every single work day. Instead, he’d run straight to Dina’s and pant and pace in front of her fence, planting himself there for hours with a sad, spurned suitor look on his face. ‘Just let them screw,’ you’re thinking. That’s what I was thinking, anyway. Until we learned that Dina is epileptic and El Macho could kill her with all that excitement. Which is why Toby spent many tormented days licking her swollen, red privates through the fence. ‘At least he’s getting something!’ people said. ‘Poor Dina,’ others said. ‘All she gets is oral’ (as if this were an altogether bad thing!). I thought we’d be able to ride out the horny epileptic episode until someone told me bitches stay in heat for three weeks. And Toby was going mad – like off his meds psychotic, following the owner (the owner, not even Dina, who was kept penned in for the duration) for blocks and blocks, across major intersections and trying to go into stores with her while she shopped. And she’d drag him back attached to her leg, whining and dry humping and making a fuss. So I had to leave him home a few days until it blew over.

The day we made our triumphant return to Cuba Libro, he disappeared for a bit (he has the run of the immediate neighborhood all day long) and returned, cool as a cucumber and plopped down. I swear he was smiling and I was sure he’d gotten laid. I wanted to offer him congratulations and a cigarette. Will there be little Tobies running around our little piece of Vedado soon? Maybe. And while I’m determined to get him fixed, I know his puppies would be damn cute.

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As an old friend of mine so sagely observed: Darwin was wrong. It’s not survival of the fittest; it’s survival of the cutest. And Cubans know how to survive (and keep things cute). So I’m keeping Toby.

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Rock ‘n Roll Resurrection: Dead Daisies in Havana

I knew it was going to be a different kind of night when the heavy at the door started scrutinizing my press pass. It was from last year, true, but I’ve been accredited here for a decade plus and I didn’t have my new credential through no fault of my own.

‘This is you?’ he asked, in a not-too-friendly rumble.

I kept silent as he took a closer look. Here we go, I thought.

‘This isn’t you,’ he stated with some authority. ‘This is a mulata.’

I had to laugh. I don’t know what kind of caramel-colored glasses he was wearing or what hooch he was swilling, but I wanted some: a mulata? Me? These are words I never imagined applied to this white-like-leche, be-freckled chick. Luckily, our discussion was truncated by a group of kids sauntering up brandishing CUCs. He palmed the bills and waved us in to one of my all-time favorite Havana venues: El Salon Rosado de la Tropical.

—–

I have very few natural talents, but arriving precisely as the party starts to heat up and sensing when the pendulum is about to swing the other way – my signal to kiss and split – are probably my most utilized and useful. So it was for The Dead Daisies, the historic concert held this past weekend. I walked through the doors just as opening act David Blanco (who I’ve seen plenty) was finishing his set. I took a short cut to the dance floor, ran into friends, then some more, then more still. We danced ourselves as close to the stage as safety permitted, but the place was packed – frikis had begun arriving as early as 11am, from as far away as Camagüey, to hear members of their favorite bands (The Stones; Guns N Roses; Ozzy Osbourne; Motley Crüe) rock the Cuban capital.

For those who like to rock!

Already the Salon Rosado was puddled with vomit (not mine, don’t let the photo fool you).

Nothing new or novel there: knowing your ingestion limit, when and how to mix what, how to pace yourself – this is a tricky equation which many Cuban rockers have yet to get. I’m talking about the younger crowd mostly, but we had to scurry out of the way as security physically restrained and removed a middle-aged dude, fairly drooling, with eyes bulging rabidly. Vomit, condom ‘balloons’ batted airborne with verve, and bottles produced from backpacks – these are de riguer at whatever big Cuban concert and were in abundant evidence this Saturday night.

What set this concert and this group apart was the sheer power, pedigree and talent of the band, combined with the setting: the Salon Rosado is that rare combination of big enough to pack in a few thousand high-energy fans, while retaining the intimacy of a much smaller gig. It’s also a multi-tiered, open-air venue with major space given over to the floor, which means lots of room to dance and mosh and good bird’s eye views, for voyeur rock and rollers. As for The Dead Daisies: we’ve had some big bands blow through Havana during my tenure, including Audioslave, Sepultura, Kool and the Gang and Calle 13; but these concerts are always held in the ‘Protestódromo’ – the seaside, make-shift area designed for massive protests and rallies (it was built during the Elián trauma) and adapted for concerts more recently. I’ve had tons of fun at these shows, but as you may imagine: the audio is shitty. Crashing surf and whipping wind are not conducive to music appreciation. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the last big concert like this was in 2010.

So we were due.

I hate to admit it, but I didn’t recognize the names of any of the musicians (though I reserve the right to invoke the ‘stuck in Cuba’ defense). I had never heard of the band either and was skeptical – what kind of name was Dead Daisies anyway? Flowers, dead or alive, don’t evoke screaming, pulsating, orgasmic rock n roll, not in my mind and body anyway (no disrespect to Guns N Roses and especially Slash, who rocks it real, but Axl’s whiny voice has always rubbed me in all the wrong ways).

R Fortus

But damn, did The Dead Daisies come through. I’m a guitar-loving kinda gal and when I read that Richard Fortus (Guns N Roses) counted John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, and Robert Fripp among his preferred players, I knew things would be just fine. Just how fine I didn’t realize until the first notes rung out from Fortus’ drop-dead gorgeous Gibson over the sea of banging heads. There is perhaps nothing more glorious than a Cuban crowd united by the joy, energy and electricity of music well made, played from the heart. And so it was.

Meanwhile, any band with Dead in its name evokes that other, more (in)famous band synonymous with long sets peppered with covers and standards, enthusiastic mind-altering substance use, and drum solos; I was pretty shocked to experience similarities at the Salon Rosado. My olfactory sense alerted me to someone nearby enjoying the mighty herb and the pierced, tattooed guy on all fours puking violently while simultaneously smoking a cigarette argued for abuse rather than just use (though it was an impressive example of multi-tasking). But when Brian Tichy (from Ozzy’s band) ripped a 15-minute drum solo, the entire crowd was transported to an alternate reality. Holy shit. This guy is a monster. I’m not much for tricks with sticks, but he got admirable air between trills and when he started beating the skins with his hands? We went wild. Well done man, well done.

The Dead Daisies in Havana

An indisputable highlight was The Dead Daisies’ version of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (yet another example that anyone covering a Dylan tune does it better than Bob), where the crowd of 3000-plus needed no encouragement to sing the chorus long and hard. It was just after this when I realized I was in the no-woman’s-land between two increasingly large and frenetic mosh pits – dangerous territory for anyone not looking for a random fist in the face or elbow to the ribs. I danced away from the mosh sandwich towards my friends, marvelling at how music unites people and ignites the collective soul.

The Dead Daisies gave us the gift of uplift – and boy we could use more of it.

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