Category Archives: Here is Haiti

For: My 20-Something Friends, Love: Your 40-Something Tía

Sometimes I bore myself with all this Cuba talk and expat navel gazing; granted, there’s a lot to say on the subject (see note 1), so I’m not beating a dead horse per se, but it does make me feel like a wordsmith one trick pony. So very occasionally (e.g. when I was in Haiti and occupied Wall Street), I muse on things which have nothing to do with the beguiling isle.

But this post is a complete departure for me since in addition to being not at all Cuba-related, it’s also the first time I’m writing for a particular readership (see note 2). Inspired by my cohort of young friends on both sides of the Straits (who are remarkably similar in their youthful optimism and doubt, impatience and drive), I wanted to share a bit of wisdom to help ‘abrir caminos’ as we say here (see note 3).

I’m guessing most Here is Havana readers are – like me – “older,” but surely you have some young friends and family who might benefit from my blather. Or perhaps you’ve hit your fourth or fifth decade and have pondered the passage of time and its relation to the parable of life in ways discussed below. Regardless, I’m hoping said blather will resonate, no matter your biological age.

Party hard while you can – Partying until dawn at 40 is an entirely different undertaking from that at 20-something. At your age, you suck it up after a big night out and snag a couple of hours of sleep before going to class or work or both. But when you crawl in at daybreak at my age, you’re looking at a 24 hour recovery period. In short, the day after is totally lost, a write-off, while you drag ass, rest, maybe have a little hair of the dog, followed by more resting. My advice? Party hard while you can because that in itself gets harder as you age.

Shape up now – Your mind, depth of experience, and perspective grow as you grow up (if not, you’re doing something wrong), but your body? Hell in a handbasket, my friends, and you’ll eventually reach the point of sagging muscles and tone loss, slackening skin accompanied by its evil twin wrinkles, and gravity working its black magic on your boobs, balls, and god knows what all. My advice? Eat healthy, exercise, and don’t smoke or drink to best hedge your bets (says the woman suggesting you party hard while you can). I largely ignored this advice at your age, so I’m not throwing stones here, but rather signposting the road of life for my young friends. (I should admit here that I’m also a wee bit nostalgic for the taut, hard body I had at 20.) My advice? Enjoy it while you’ve got it, but know that maintenance is essential if you want to remain fit and bed-able at 40. This is particularly true for young XX readers, since women are saddled with an unjust and inequitable standard of youth and beauty as compared to men.

Get jiggy now– You might not think much of it at the moment, but once you’ve passed 40 or 50 springs on this earth, Viagra will become tantamount. For males, it’s a modern miracle. For us women, it sucks 16 ways from Tuesday. First, there’s straight up anger. They get Viagra and we get menopause?! Where’s my Viagra coño?! Second, those little miracle pills trick men into thinking they’re unjustifiably hot, omnipotent, and virile (some are dupes in this sense regardless, but that’s another story). On the upside, we ladies usually hit our sexual stride much later than guys – i.e. when most age-appropriate males can’t keep up without the help of Big Pharma. My advice? Enjoy yourself (safely!) now and entertain the cougar cruisers when your time comes.  

Some things don’t fix themselves – In addition to penile erectile dysfunction (see above!), other problems in life like clogged drains, yeast infections, back taxes, and bad tattoos (see below!) don’t get better on their own. This can also be said of HIV infection and I feel a little sorry for my 20-something friends who have only lived in the post-HIV world. My advice? Embrace latex and call a professional – whether it’s a sexual health expert, plumber, gynecoloigist, accountant, or laser wizard – when things go awry.    

Resist brand tyranny – Whether it’s Apple or Converse, Mercedes or Harvard, I urge you to resist marketing mania and associated pressure to buy and flaunt labels. Hilfiger or Louboutin, Ed Hardy or Kate Spade: no matter the brand, wearing it will not make you smarter, better looking, or more kind. True, I’m a fashion disaster, but in these matters, I defer to my favorite billionaire who observed: why shell out $10,000 for a Rolex when my $15 Timex keeps the hour just as well? My advice? Think twice before buying into the brand.

Love stinks – Sorry to break it to you, but even at my age you probably won’t have the love thing figured out. Sure, you may be with someone, engaged, married, or in love even, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. On the contrary, love makes everything more complex and in that complexity lies the problem. My advice? Tellingly, I have none; please let me know if you’ve had any revelations on the relationship front.

Think before you ink – I’m speaking from experience here guys: the tattoo that seems daring, romantic, or artistic at 20 can become a real problem at my age. Trust me – the choice between cover-up and removal isn’t pretty (or cheap) no matter how you cut it. My advice? Think long and hard about the statement you want to make and if it needs to be permanently emblazoned on your body and where.  

Older doesn’t necessarily mean smarter – Which is my way of saying: you don’t always have to listen to people older than you. Authority figures sometimes get off on that alone – i.e. the authority of age and position – and that can be dangerous for reasons too convoluted to go into here. My advice? Question authority, as much for your own benefit as for those wielding that authority because once they go unquestioned, they can do anything. And we definitely don’t want that.

Take the long view – I have a young friend who lost her zest for college two-thirds of the way through and she’s thinking about dropping/copping out. I say copping out because the lion’s share of the work is done and she just needs to suck it up a little longer to successfully attain her degree. Three semesters seems like forever to her at 21, but that ain’t nothing in the scheme of things, baby! I beg those of you close to completing school, a project, or a dream to persevere even though it feels like it will be forever until you reach your goal. My advice? You can do it – just go easy and take it slow when your patience runs thin.  

Keep your finger on the pulse – I’ve learned in the two decades since I was in your shoes that it’s important to befriend, mentor, and seek out and the opinion of, people younger than you. My advice? Whether you’re 20, my age, or double that and your next step is death, nurture relationships with people younger than you to keep your horizons expanding.

Live your dreams – As so many have said, life isn’t a dress rehearsal; it’s the only shot you’ve got. My advice? Make the most of it.

This post was motivated by the friendship of many 20-somethings in Cuba and beyond, including Caitlin, Benji, Joelito, Jenny, and Pablo. I dedicate it to you!

Notes

1. Which is why I’m writing a book (some would call it a memoir, a word that makes me cringe for several reasons) on the topic.

2. If you’ve landed here because you’re interested in Cuba-specific reading, I suggest trolling past posts and checking back in a few weeks – I’m preparing something juicy on the Pope.

3. For the curious: ever since I was 16, I knew I didn’t want to have kids and at 42, I remain exhileratingly child-free (and I’m not alone: check out this group Green Inclinations, No Kids or GINKs). But I adore being an aunt – tía in Spanish, which is a double entendre in Cuban since it loosely means ‘a woman of a certain age no longer considered sexy or eligible for seduction.’ I remember the first time a young Cuban buck called me tía – it smarted, yes it did!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Here is Haiti, Relationships, Writerly stuff

My Digital Divide

Have you ever lost a job or revenue due to tech inequity? Watched hours of productivity get sucked into the ether by a dial up connection that poke, poke, pokes along, draining all satisfaction from the act like an inexperienced or egotistical lover? Known the frustration of not being able to perform any task involving large documents, YouTube, streaming, or VOIP? And my list of music to download? A pipe dream – along with watching Jon Stewart – until I’m off-island. Is there anyone out there who feels my pain?

Before I detail the many and sundry ways Cuba, and more specifically I personally, am far behind the tech curve, let me be clear: it’s not all bad, this technological disadvantage – knowing how to write and submit via a super slow, unreliable connection for example, helped build skills and instill patience which served me well reporting from post-quake Haiti.

Let me also point out that in some cases my technological handicap is not because the gadgets aren’t available in Cuba, but because they’re out of my financial reach – which is the same thing in the end, and a reality faced by many of the world’s poor. Something to think about the next time you hear someone defending technology as the great leveler (and when you receive text messages from Yoani Sanchez: where does she get the money? I have to wonder).

Taken together, the technical challenges (see note 1) combine with the price of buying and maintaining new technologies to create a digital divide which I’m guessing most HIH readers can’t imagine. Here’s a litmus: have you ever folded laundry, washed dishes, or otherwise had to multi-task while waiting for a page to load? No? Then you probably can’t relate.

Before anyone kicks me to the curb for being a privileged foreigner who’s insensitive to what ‘regular Cubans’ go through (see note 2), let me clarify a couple of things. First, I have access to funds many Cubans don’t and I have the ability to open an internet account as an accredited journalist. So privileged? Yes. Insensitive? No – just ask my friends and family without access of their own.

Furthermore, my livelihood in large measure depends on my ability to research and submit articles, stories, and guidebooks and update my iApp via the internet. Without those gigs, I’d be left with just this blog and empty pockets. Don’t get me wrong: Here is Havana is a great writing tool, motivator, community-builder, outlet for angst and cathartic vent, but without my internet connection, it would go the way of Obama’s campaign promises, fast.

This is the practical effect of the digital divide, but there’s a subtler, more insidious side to the disconnect: it contributes to the outsider status of expats like me. Neither entirely comfortable where we came from or wholly accepted where we’ve moved to, we’re in this limbo that is pointed up every time someone waxes orgasmic about Angry Birds or Google +. Mostly I prefer being behind the tech curve (I’ll take the Flinstones over the Jetsons any day) but when it affects The Work, I bug (see note 3).

For those interested in how a decade living in Cuba translates vis-à-vis tech challenges, here goes:

I have no cell phone. Cubans are incredulous when they discover I’m not celled up, but their disbelief is based on their assumptions that a) I can afford one (see note 4) and b) I want or need to be localizable 24/7. They’re wrong on both counts.

I’ve never used a GPS. I’m a map idiot, I admit, but the GPS concept is just dangerous if you ask me. First, any map skills someone like me may have had (or had the chance of developing), go out the window once you introduce GPS. Second, they’re useless in contexts that don’t fit the traditional mapping mold, like Cuba, Hawaii, the Mosquito Coast, and every medina. Third, they limit one’s likelihood to get lost, thereby curbing new discoveries, spontaneity and flexibility, and chances for fun.

I’ve only played Wii once. Granted it was for three days straight and was a helluva lot fun but…Here in Havana I have a friend with a Wii, who calls it ‘healthier than Playstation’ and limits his daughter’s usage (but not his, I suspect!). Tip for those looking for a gift for Cuban friends: you can’t go wrong with a Wii, (two remotes, please).

Kindle-free. My take on the Kindle is kind of like my take on sexual diversity: to each his (or her) own – as long as it doesn’t infringe on my action. In other words: you can have your Kindle, but let me have my books. This is where my old fashioned ways are a disadvantage, to be sure, since hauling books here is a real pain in the ass (see note 5), plus they require shelf space. Sure, a Kindle would make my life easier, but it would also make it less enjoyable. When someone talks quality of life to me, that involves the look, smell, and heft of books.

Blue Tooth?! About a month ago I saw a Cuban American picking his way among the busted up sidewalks of Centro Habana with one of these gadgets wedged in his ear. I burst out laughing at the newest accessory in the Miami crowd’s insatiable need to ‘especular’ (show off their material goods). I tried to imagine what was so damn pressing on the other side of the Straits that this guy was willing to pay three months average Cuban salary (minimum!) to have it mainlined into his ear. Then I remembered what Cubans do with other signs of apparent wealth like watches and cell phones: they wear them and flash them, but it doesn’t mean they work. But it’s one thing to have a busted watch strapped to your wrist or a bunk cell phone clipped to your belt (that’s how the men do it here; the women tuck them into their cleavage), while it’s quite another to walk around with a pinguita in your ear.

¿Conclusión?

My life goes along happily, swimmingly without these advances. Just don’t bring it up at deadline time or mention Jon Stewart – unless you want to see me cry.

Notes

1. Cuba is prohibited by the blockade from connecting to any US satellites or fiber optic cables. At the moment, that leaves Cuba only one choice for connectivity – an Italian satellite which transmits all the data to and from the island.

2. While it’s true Cubans have the lowest connectivity rate in the hemisphere with only 14% of the population connected, these figures don’t reflect the reality since internet accounts are widely and regularly shared here. And the famous underwater cable that has been laid from Venezuela to Cuba and promises to increase our connectivity by 3000%? When it was announced a few years ago, I counseled folks to not hold their breath. Take my advice: keep breathing and continue to file under ‘I’ll Believe It When I See It.’

3. This post was inspired by an ongoing freelance gig that I couldn’t accept because I have no access to Skype.

4. Despite the exorbitant costs (to get a cell account here costs $40, with both incoming and outgoing calls charged at $0.10-$0.45/minute), most Cubans are gaga for cell technology and spend what little money they have to get it.

5. This is also extremely costly: on the direct flights from the USA to Cuba which I’m eligible to take, any luggage over 44 pounds is charged at $1/lb – and that includes carry on.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Best Cuba Posts Evah! (Sorta)

Hola & Happy July 26th!

Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus – ‘recharging the batteries’ as we say on this side of the Straits – and more importantly, trying to get my act in gear to write, to bite off the rest of my forthcoming book. Aiming to strike while the iron’s hot and all that.

In the meantime, some bloggers way more sophisticated than your humble, slogging-through-dial up protagonist, have invented this clever game of virtual tag whereby they tag Here is Havana making me “it,” inviting me to excavate oldie, but goodie posts that warrant reading.

These are not just pedestrian travel bloggers looking for free junkets and working the ad sense angle, but fabulously well-traveled women who have lived in Chile (in the case of Margaret over at Cachando Chile) and Moldova (in the case of Miss Footloose over at Life in the Expat Lane). What’s more, these chicks can write! I highly recommend checking them out. Also a big shout out to Camden of The Brink of Something Else for nominating Here is Havana (check out the killer shot of Havana taken from Regla - tagged as TBSE’s most beautiful post).

The categories were selected by whomever invented the game and include the “most beautiful,” “most controversial,” and “most overlooked” posts, among others, crafted over the two years of Here is Havana’s life. Have a click around, share with friends, spread the word…

Most beautiful: This was intended to be Chapter 1 of my book Here is Havana, but life has taken a left turn (as tends to happen here) and the book now has a life of its own (i.e. more a chronicle and a memoir than E.B. White’s Here is New York – my original inspiration). Any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated!

Most popular: My most popular post is actually my ‘About’ page but since that’s kind of flojo as we say in my neck of the woods, I suggest also checking out my second-most popular post about the wacky way Cubans speak.

Most controversial: The reaction to this post about Cuban fashion really surprised me – people came out with their elbows sharpened! Despite some of the wide-of-the-mark pop psychology, some of the comments are intriguing. See what you think…

Most helpful: This is a weird kind of category because what may be helpful to you, isn’t necessarily helpful to someone else, and what readers find most useful probably wasn’t the most useful to me (for those interested: the most helpful posts to me are those that help tease out the niggly snarls of cross cultural living, like this one about a visit to the USA and how it messes with my head and this one about always being on the outside looking in. These are closely followed by those posts trying to help me understand evolving Cuban reality, like the capitalist changes underway at present).

Clearly, though, tips for travelers to Havana and how to form a line in Cuba are among my most helpful posts for the general reading public.

Surprisingly successful post: Hands down, this is my post on dying in Cuba, Part I & Part II. There’s a real sadness to this ‘success’ – judging from search terms and other analytics, the folks that are searching on this term are family members living outside of Cuba who lost loved ones inside Cuba and are trying to figure out how to deal with the practicalities of that loss.

Post that didn’t get attention it deserved: At the beginning of 2010, as the wheels of change lurched along their inevitable track, I wrote about what Cubans were thinking, feeling and experiencing and how all these confusing emotions and intellectual gymnastics were affecting behavior. Worth a revisit – especially for those in faraway lands wondering: what the hell are they thinking over there?!

Post I’m most proud of: On the last day of February, 2010, I landed in Port-au-Prince with members of Cuba’s Henry Reeve Emergency Medical Contingent for a stint covering their earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti. For a month, I lived in a tent in their central camp in Port-au-Prince, with no running water, electricity only a handful of hours a day, crippling heat, and an internet connection 1,000 times more frustrating than my dial-up in Havana. Talk about learning experience….

TAG! Now, you’re it:

Bacon is Magic: HIH readers know I’m a chicharrones addict, so simply the name of this blog enamors, but Ayngelina also calls Guatemala “the most underrated country” after only a week. Sharp girl!

Fevered Mutterings, The Art of Unfortunate Travel: Funny, pull-no-punches mutterings by Mike Sowden.

Modern Gonzo: Robin Esrock has lots of companies sponsoring him, his own TV show, and is so well-traveled, he could be one of those ‘been there, done that’ assholes, but in fact is a totally cool, accessible, and down-to-earth guy.

Roving Gastronome: Mexico, Morocco, Queens, Cuba – Zora O’Neill, travel writer, cookbook author, and dinner party hostess-with-the mostest, takes you there and makes sure you eat well.

This Cat’s Abroad: Not updated nearly often enough for the talent and chutzpah exibited, this blog delivers a unique perspective by a woman living in Iraq (and now Kurdistan).

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Writerly stuff

Always the Outsider Inside Cuba

Maybe it’s me, but certain zingers people have sent my way 10, even 25 years ago I just can’t shake (note 1). There was the time in elementary school when the Mean Girl said: ‘ever wonder why you have no friends?’ I responded: ‘I have friends you don’t even know about.’ Pretty clever in my 10-year old estimation, but she didn’t miss a beat. ‘That’s because they’re imaginary.’ Ouch.

Then, some years later, a different Mean Girl (yeah, I was the one everyone loved to pummel – metaphorically and literally), shot my ego to shit when she told me I’d be better looking as a guy. This memory floated to the surface when I was covering the Cuban disaster team in Haiti and a doctor in our camp nicknamed me Tom Cruise. He meant it affectionately and now we’re friends, but it kicked up the dust in that toxic corner of my consciousness.

 As an adult, here in Havana, what sticks with me is something a stranger said back in 2003. I was researching the Lonely Planet Cuba guide and had rented a car for the eastern portion of the trip. I was in Santiago de Cuba, the heroic city, when I went to return the rental. I still had half a tank of gas, for which there would be no reimbursement. Claro que no. So I walked up to a group of guys clustered around a Lada drinking beers (a popular pastime on this side of the Straits) and proposed selling them the half-tank of gas I wouldn’t be needing.

 “Where you from?” one asked me.

 “The United States.”

 He whistled and cracked his index and middle fingers together in that rapid-fire way Cubans have that looks like they’ve burnt themselves and sounds like bubble wrap popping. “A yuma who knows our mecánica. ¡Peligroso!

And he and his buddies proceeded to siphon my tank.

I was getting it, beginning to grok how this place works. My gas buyer in Santiago called it dangerous, but I considered mastering the mecánica as my first step towards integration. The first sign of acceptance.

 How much I still had to learn…

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 Some 8 years on, I have a different perspective. Today, despite my mastery of many things Cuban, it feels less like acceptance and more like I’ve got partial membership in a club dubious of my credentials. A club, furthermore, which doesn’t extend full membership to any foreigner, ever (El Che and Máximo Gómez notwithstanding). The heart of the matter is the unalterable fact that I’m not, nor will I ever be, Cuban. Consider the saying:  ‘those who aren’t Cuban would pay to be’ and you have an idea of how deep nationalist pride runs.

I’ve got some things working against me to be sure. First, I’m blonde-haired and blue-eyed, making it impossible for me to “pass” as Cuban (at least in Havana; see note 2). Thus, my outsider status is constantly called out. I’m also from ‘los Estamos Jodidos‘ as my friend Mike likes to call los Estados Unidos (see note 3). Hailing from the nasty north carries its own particular baggage in the Cuban context – some good, lots bad – and I pay in a way for that too.  Lastly, I’m from New York, a city that makes you feel if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere (except maybe in Havana ironically). When someone takes me for a mark or accosts me on the street like happened last week, it’s an insult to my hometown, as if the archetypical concrete jungle didn’t properly prepare me, as if my urban armor were insufficient (see note 4).

_____

In the peculiar social hierarchy that reigns here foreigners are on the bottom rung. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here – even friends who’ve clocked 20 or 30 years in Havana struggle with this reality to some extent or another. It’s damn disheartening. And it doesn’t matter how much money you have either since everyone will assume you have mucho.

Allow me a moment to vent about the ‘all-foreigners-are-rich’ stereotype that dogs me. This is an assumption I confront everywhere, every day. In the street and at the market; in conversations with friends and encounters with colleagues. I hate to say it, but this myopic view exposes the ignorance many Cubans have of the real world – that world beyond free education and heavily-subsidized housing, electric bills of 35 cents a month and nearly gratis public transportation.

For me, this rich foreigner perspective is akin to the ‘Kmart is cheaper than the farmers market’ argument: when you factor in all the health, environmental and transportation costs Kmart lettuce is actually much costlier than a similar head bought from farmers. In my case, when you factor in the $60,000 of student loans I’m still carrying, the 30% the US government takes in taxes, plus the 20% cut the Cuban government takes in the exchange rate, my earnings are actually quite paltry. And let’s not forget: la yuma doesn’t have a ration card. (Soon few will, but that’s another post.) I realize I’m better off than some, but I’m also worse off than many others, something beyond comprehension here apparently.

It’s not that I expect Cubans to understand my situation – most know not the wrath of the tax man and certainly nothing of the student loan burden. But just once, I’d love for someone to understand that there might be other factors at work, that I’m not the goose that laid the golden egg or an ATM with legs.  

In my youth, I was often told I was spunky, a girl with pluck. Here, (as recently as last week), I was said to lack ‘guara‘ – another of those impossible to translate Cubanisms, but pluck and moxie come pretty close. What is it about this place that makes me feel like I’m 12 again, beating back the Mean Girls every day after school? Is it like this for all foreigners living far from home I wonder? Drop me a line with your experiences; I’d like to hear other viewpoints and try to ratchet down this loneliness a bit.  

Notes

1. I wish our mental hard drives had a ‘delete permanently’ function. Yes! Send to trash, damn it!

2. There are plenty of people who look like me here (thanks largely to French immigration in the early 19th century). Unfortunately, the majority of them are in Holguín and other points far to the east.

3. I’ve always loved this play on words which more or less turns the ‘United States’ into ‘We’re Screwed.’

4. I did open up a big ole can of NYC whup ass on the guy that grabbed me from behind, thrusting his hand between my legs. He was scurrying away fast when I was done with him, but that and a couple of bucks will get me on the subway.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks

Tales of Pacotilla

Buckle up babies. We’re going for a ride deep into the Cuban psyche – that dark place in the collective conscious where centuries of financial boom-bust and political reindeer games have festered age-old habits, neuroses, and desires. What you’ll read here, I’m fairly certain, you’ll read nowhere else (see note 1).

For those of you just hitting on Here is Havana, the types of vignettes herein have been gathered over several years working as a journalist based in Havana. In this post, I dissect pacotilla – a practice and reality recate cubano that technically means ‘second rate, cheap, or shoddy’ but which in Cuban translates as buying as much shit as possible at every given opportunity.
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It matters not whether you’re a doctor or nurse, ballerina or agronomist: if you’re a traveling Cuban, neighbors, family, friends, and co-workers expect treats when you return from your foreign adventures. A new pair of stockings (fishnets preferred; see note 2); a feather-festooned headband; or a trashy one title magazine like Us or Hola! – it doesn’t really matter what is proffered but rather that something, anything makes the long journey to these shores.

It’s a danzón of mutual expectations. The traveler feels morally obligated to shop for those in need back home, while the island-bound (silently, discreetly) hold their passport-wielding compañeros to their tacit obligation to bring back shiny pretty (sometimes useful) things. Plus, Cubans LOVE to shop.

I’ve seen this all in action, up close and personally. I’ve watched my husband dart frantically around Duty Free shops looking for the cheap chocolates his co-workers adore. Every Cuban itinerary includes last minute trips to sprawling outdoor markets in search of bras/underwear/soccer jerseys, with me more often than not, as guide. I’ve waded through enough shoes, sneakers, and sandals to shod a small Guatemalan village. These shopping forays are exhausting. Especially the shoe store shuffle. Have you ever tried to buy a pair of shoes for someone else, miles and oceans away, with only a vague description of what they want and the outline of their foot on and old piece of newspaper for sizing? (see note 3). Soul sucking.

So I wasn’t surprised when Olguita and Lizette – two docents I struck up conversation with recently at one of Havana’s most historic sites – launched into their own tale of pacotilla.

Lizette had recently been to Mexico City for some sort of tourism training. Given that this was her first trip out of Cuba and she hails from Guanabacoa, that working class ‘hood across the bay, expectations were high for the goodies she’d bring back. Particularly on the part of Olguita (see note 4) her jovial and dark as night colleague.

“I shopped like crazy. Socks for my husband and his father, the tiara for Yenly’s quinceñera, bras for Xenia who is such a tetona they don’t have her size here, and on and on!” Lizette tells me.

“Don’t look at me m’jita!” Olguita says with a girlish grin. “I only asked you for one thing. I asked only for my hair,” she says with a dramatic toss of her faux fall that looks surprisingly like real hair at first blush but is oh-so-synthetic upon closer inspection.

“But where I had to go to get it! An area mala, mala, mala. I feared for my safety!” (see note 5).

—–
There have been a bunch of articles recently about Cuban doctors working abroad. Many focus on the why and most are off the mark. Having specialized in Cuban health and medical internationalism for half a dozen years, I can tell you most have got the facts wrong or distort them, and the analysis – when it exists – makes it obvious that most reporters have never seen Cuban medical teams in action. Which is ironic. Would you buy a guidebook written by someone who had never been to the destination in question? Then why do readers believe reporters who have never witnessed these medical missions?

Here’s my take:

Cuban doctors want to help. First and foremost they want to help the people in the country where they’re posted, but they want to help themselves and their families as well. With the extra money they earn (usually $50-150 a month, plus their regular Cuban salary), they buy fishnet stockings, socks, and watches. Sometimes they buy in bulk for resale back home. Those who would begrudge them this – and believe me, they’re out there – are at best out of touch and at worst, cruel.

But Cuban shopping mania can get complicated. Especially on relief missions involving large numbers of personnel in far away lands.

When I was covering Cuba’s medical team in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake there, I offered to take letters back to the families of the ‘disaster docs.’ I was given several letters to shuttle back to the island, along with life-sized dolls, remote control cars, sneakers, lipsticks, and enough nail polish to start a salon. To be honest, I left Islamabad with more gifts than baggage. That team nearly 2000-strong was in place for 6 months and the shopping those health professionals did in that time necessitated a weight limit policy upon their return – the plane just couldn’t handle all that pacotilla.

In Haiti where I was posted for a month recently, I saw every stage of the process, from shopping to shipping. Every day, vendors set up on the edge of our camp peddling belts, boots, watches, cell phones, clothes, and sandals. Once a week (always at night), ‘the señora’ would come with a well-fingered catalog of electronics and appliances which the Cubans pored over like a treasure map, placing orders for everything from meat grinders to MP3 players, washing machines to Wiis. Those health professionals cycling out of Haiti after completing their 2-year tour are allowed to import into Cuba (free shipping, no taxes) three big boxes about the size of your typical US oven. This is one of the major perks of doctors posted abroad and while the size allowance differs depending on the country (see note 6), folks volunteering abroad go into it knowing they’ll have the opportunity to buy that washing machine or TV they’ve always wanted once they complete two years in-country.

Which is precisely how I found myself in toe-curling agony one middle of the night. Sleep was elusive enough in post-quake Port-au-Prince, what with the images of the daily tragedies crowding out all soporific tendencies; the 100 degree heat didn’t help any. When it came, sleep was narcotic, a dark, blank territory free of burning garbage and humanity’s rot, those sights and smells that get branded on your senses during such disasters. There were no sweet but sick children in this dreamless sleep, no little orphaned girls with no place to live caring for thirsty, hungry younger siblings.

It was about 1 am this particular Sunday. I had just dropped off to sleep, despite the gunshots, in spite of the heat.

“Jajajajajajaja!!!”

A big belly laugh more appropriate to a bar than a terrible disaster rousted me from my slumber.

Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! Wrack-a-ta!!!

Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.

More loud voices. Heartier laughter.

These doctors were going home. It was 1 am in central Port-au-Prince, but they were already supping on yuca con mojo and strolling along the Malecón.

WRACK! Wrack-a-ta! WRACK!!

They were wrapping their huge, oven-sized boxes in packing tape right outside my tent. I had seen them packing earlier in the day. A brand new washing machine was loaded with sneakers, sheet and towel sets; ovens were stuffed full of bedazzled tank tops (“Sexy”) and camouflage camisoles, flip flops, jeans, and bras. After the short sea voyage between these two besieged nations, the appliances would take up residence in rural homes from Guantánamo to Guanahacabibes. The packing tape condom was necessary: a few boxes had recently suffered water damage – naturally no one was taking any chances.

Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.

The racket was awful and interminable. I squeezed my eyes shut. I waited with curled toes, willing it to stop. I could tolerate the laughter, but not the nerve-grating, sleep-robbing tape wrap.

WRACK! Wrack-a-ta! WRACK!!

I was on my elbows now, the cot’s metal springs pushing through the lousy foam cushion. Surely they’ve woken the whole camp. Surely they’re robbing us all of sleep. But no one said a word. Least of all me – I knew how hard they’d worked for this day, the time away from their family, the ache for Cuba, coping with the illness of Haiti, and to top it off, the quake. Besides, keeping mum is the Cuban way. They suck it up. They withstand.

WRACK!

And then, a voice from the wilderness of tents around me…

“Would you quit it with the damned tape already?!”

Thank you vecina mía! Thank you and bless you!! Bless you for piping up to shut them up. Surely they’ll listen to you, to one of their own, to someone who has to rouse herself in a few hours to face all the post-quake disease and destruction Haiti can dish out.

“Oh! You want us to be quiet? And what happens when it’s YOUR turn to ship home?”

A heavy silence followed.

“All right! But hurry up!!”

Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.

Fuuuuuuuck.

—–
My favorite doctor pacotilla story comes from Venezuela. As you may know, Cuba, Venezuela and other regional partners have been pursuing all sorts of cooperation since Chavéz was elected. This includes large numbers of Cuban medical personnel (to the tune of 30,000+ at one point) working in Venezuela. These folks, too, have the option of shipping home their purchases for free.

My optometrist friend had the best approach. She bought a top of the line, full-sized fridge, packed it top to bottom tight with Polar beer, boxed it, wrapped it, and shipped it home. When it arrived on her Vedado doorstep, she unpacked it, plugged it in, waited for the beer to chill, and threw ‘la casa por la ventana’- a huge party.

Gotta love those Cubans!

And I do…when they’re not in their pacotilla.

Notes

1. And when I say Cubans are asi or asado – like this or like that – I mean generally, most of them, much of the time. Not each and every one of them, hot day in and sweltering day out.

If I seem a little defensive lately, dear readers, it’s because my detractors are on the attack. My little non-monetized, not-for-the-hyperbole-dependent-masses blog and my slow selling app are garnering scrutiny and a bit of cyber sabotage. Coño.

2. Have you ever taken a gander at the gams of Havana’s immigration officers? Their intricate fishnets would make Frederick’s of Hollywood proud.

3. On the whole, Cubans are brand whores and their logo fury has made the shoe chase easier. Nowadays, all anyone wants are Converse and Crocs.

4. I love how they so liberally use the diminutive in Cuba – even for 200 pound mamacitas!

5. I have seen this from Guatemala City to NYC and from Pakistan to Port-au-Prince: Cubans making sure they visit the cheapest markets, which are invariably in the shadiest part of town. Their knack for ferreting out these places is legendary. When I was in Haiti, a Haitian friend asked me to help financially with his sister’s burial. When I asked around about local funeral costs, a Haitian doctor with the Cuban medical team there told me: ‘well, the coffin alone will run at least $500 but the Cubans know where to get them cheaper…’ Even coffins they know where to get cheaper!! That’s talent.

6. I speak here only of doctors leaving Haiti after completing their 2-year stints; there has been a bit of chisme floating around that the policy might be changed (or already has – you know how reliable Cuban gossip can be!) in some countries but I have no idea what the current situation is elsewhere.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, health system, Here is Haiti

Wild Camping in Cuba – Part I

The last time I planted tent poles, it was within pistol shot of the crumpled Presidential Palace, Port-au-Prince, March 2010. At 33 nights, it was the longest I’d spent in a tent. Given the wretched situation and endless cavalcade of sick and hungry Haitians seeking succor from the Cuban medical brigade I was covering, it was, (it goes without saying), the most taxing tent time of my life.

But a few months on, I was ready for the swelter of the carpa and clouds of (malaria-free) mosquitoes. Even the dicey baño scenarios didn’t deter. Besides, a camping vacation was the only kind our budget could handle.

Our target was the Bay of Pigs (see note 1). The snorkeling was good, the fishing promising, and the beaches we found on our 2003 island-wide adventure, camper-friendly. But in one of those travel mystery moments, as vague and insistent as a nostalgic scent or voice carried on a breeze that you can’t be sure isn’t just the wind in the leaves, we changed course. Which is how we ended up under a bridge.

—–

As sick as it sounds (and probably is), the plastic tarp and stick structures huddled under the bridges reminded me of Port-au-Prince. The more fortunate had two-person tents and a thatch-screened area for pissing and more demanding duties. Families 15-strong cordoned off their slice of beneath-the-bridge beach using old rope, freshly-cut palm fronds and whatever else was on hand. Their dogs prowled the periphery, their bunches of plátano hung out of reach. Side by side like cubes in an ice tray, kids tucked into mosquito net cubicles rigged by red eyed fathers in knee-high gumboots. As the little ones slept, bonfires blazed and chispa burned throats. Cooking, bathing, dishwashing and other necessities of life were carried out in broad daylight. Children frolicked. Women worked. Men played dominoes. It felt awfully familiar.

We kept exploring. Every few kilometers there was another river carving its path onto the beach and feeding into the sea. Each river was spanned by a bridge. They had evocative, indigenous names that filled my mouth with marbles: Yaguanabo, Cabagan, Guanayara. Then we pulled down into Río Hondo. Claims had been clearly staked at the far side of the beach nearest the deep, green river and by the looks of it, the campamento there was hosting a family reunion of forty. Already I could feel the reggaetón and general bulla rattling my bones and grating my nerves.

We kept on exploring.

Our pocket was tucked away at the other end of Río Hondo’s sandy expanse, where the bridge curved over and away like a mulatta out of your league. Almond and seagrape trees provided shade for weathering Cuba’s brutal summer sun and we could easily improvise bathroom facilities where they thickened back from the beach; the tumble of sea stones that made up the shore gave way to a sandy, shaded patch for our tent; and our closest neighbors were 300 meters down the beach.

The site was, I dare say, perfect.

To be continued…..

Notes

1. You almost never hear ‘Bahia de Cochinos’ in Cuba, which just goes to show you how far apart the thinking is between here and there. Forget coming to terms on human rights issues, immigration, or sovereign state concepts: the two sides of the Straits are even at etymological odds, having different terms for the embargo (know as the bloqueo here and occasionally as genocidio, which I have a small conceptual problem with), the Spanish American War (called the Guerra Hispano-Cubano-Americano here which makes eminent sense: the Cubans, after all, played a pivotal, indispensable part), and the Bay of Pigs (here referred to as Playa Girón).

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, environment, Here is Haiti, Travel to Cuba

The Newborn, The Survivor, & The Runner-Up


It’s hot. I’m tired. I’m working mucho and earning poco. I miss my familia. And I still haven’t had a vacation since Haiti. I worry. For Cuba. For Guatemala. For Haiti. For the turtles caught in the oil spill.(see note 1)

I, for one, (and maybe you too), could use some levity right about now. So here you go, three little stories – all recent, all true – brought to you by your friends here in Havana.

1. It’s a girl!

It took her a little longer than the usual 40 weeks to join our world but my niece Isabella finally made it here on May 27th, right around cocktail hour. Thatta girl! She weighed in at 7 lbs, 6 oz and is long like a string bean and as pink and soft as a baby should be.

It’s fitting that her first breath was taken at the Hospital Maternidad Obrera in the heart of Marianao where numerous cousins, aunts, uncles and more distant relatives of hers were also born. I got the shooting-up-of-eyebrows response from more than one Cuban when I mentioned the hospital attending my sister-in-law. I had heard stories and Marianao does have a certain rep (not entirely unjustified). I knew a couple of the other hospitals in the barrio (El Militar and Juan Manuel Marquez, a pediatric hospital which I never, ever want to see the inside of again. Not due to the conditions, but rather the trauma and sadness that haunt those halls) and they definitely have their shortcomings. Isabella, however, was my first birth, and I wasn’t acquainted with this maternity hospital.

The parents-to-be actually chose Maternidad Obrera, which was a surprise to me, until I learned it’s one of the few Havana hospitals where the father is allowed to be in the delivery room.

I was encouraged.

The expectant couple was also taking birthing classes at the hospital administered by a real pro – one of those buxom, loving nurses with a brood of her own and decades of experience helping mothers-to-be enjoy safe, fearless births.

“You have to be able to anticipate and interpret your baby’s needs,” she told her class. “He won’t pop from your womb saying ‘hey ma! give me a buck for a pacifier!’”

Each class ended with breathing and yoga exercises. Nurse Betty encouraged fathers to attend. And they did: with jeans slung low enough to flash their knock-off Hilfiger briefs and bloodshot eyes hidden behind absurdly large, white plastic sun glasses, Marianao’s machos came to learn birthing techniques alongside their jevas.

I was encouraged.

When we got word the caesarian was underway, we charged towards Maternidad Obrera. Architecturally it’s fascinating, with curves like those the women inside had lost long ago and stone benches built into the walls of the waiting room. It had received a recent face lift, including a new paint job (baby blue – machismo, as a rule, still rules…) and was, I have to say, spiffy. There was a pair of moms to each small, clean room sharing an en suite bath. Each baby had a crib pushed up against the wall at the foot of her mom’s bed, alongside a couple of chairs for feeding and visitor time.

It was still muy Cubano of course: stray dogs wandered into the lobby at will and visitors – even expectant moms – smoked strong black tobacco cigarettes inside the hospital. The bathrooms often had no water, but you guessed that already, right? Men with cameras slung around their necks peddled portrait services room to room ($1 for standard snaps; $2 for Photoshopped shots, including one that pasted your baby into the arms of Jesus) and the baby blue halls echoed with the click, click, click of female visitors arriving in their come-fuck-me-shoes.

My favorite folkloric moment though, was when a leathery guy came into the room displaying scores of azabache on a hangar. $1 a piece for these small, safety pin charms that get fastened to the back of newborns’ shirts to ward off the evil eye. The hospital itself also offers on-site ear piercing which is either charming and handy or disturbing and invasive, depending on your perspective. Isabella’s parents went for it, though for me she was just as beautiful as could be before those gold studs got punched into her little lobes.

2. Two – always better than one

Not too long ago we hosted a small, lively dinner party. There was me, my husband, our friend Camilo the taxi driver, Yusleidy the actress, and Miriam the veterinarian and cancer survivor. Our conversation ranged far and wide over the terrain of contemporary Cuba. Camilo and the hubby tussled over the music scene (my guy: “it’s vapid.” Camilo: “you’re too nostalgic.”); Mirima lamented the disappearance of black market yogurt; and we all agreed the national volleyball team has a hard season facing them.

In a quiet moment, Yusleidy launched into a tirade about the state of Cuban television. She knows of what she speaks: with that universally winning trifecta of youth, beauty, and talent, “Yusy” is an actress who’s known success on Cuban stage and screen. But her three current projects have been shelved for lack of funds and the one that did get the
green light got away. She let loose her frustration over my Chicken Marsala.

“He gave the part to Fulana de Tal. She can’t act! The only thing she has going for her are those huge tits!”

“Two! Two tits!” interjects Miriam, she of the recent mastectomy. “Tremendous advantage!”

The table erupts into howls of laughter that continue as Miriam regales us with another breast-related tale.

One night during her second round of chemo, Miriam went out with friends to a trendy bar. It was precisely for these types of occasions that she donned the red wig that trailed halfway down her back (children’s birthday parties were another – ‘don’t want the bald lady scaring the wee ones,’ she tells us). Leaving the trendy bar to hop to another, a strapping fellow leaning against a lamp post apprised my friend.

“Come with me baby and I’ll give you a big surprise.”

Miriam imagined getting him alone and stripping off her wig and whipping out her falsie.

“My man, the surprise I’d give you would be bigger, much bigger!”

3. And the winner is…

I have a friend I call 007. He’s one of those cool, super mellow fellows that gains entry into the best parties, rarely gets ruffled, and never misses a beat. He may or may not actually be a spy.

So it was totally par for the course that he would attend the Miss Africa Beauty Contest held last week in Havana. Most of the contestants were students from the Latin American Medical School (see note 2) hailing from countries such as Namibia, Nigeria, Guinea Conakry and other hard-to-locate countries. The contest was hosted at the Meliá Cohiba, one of Havana’s few five star hotels.

“Swanky,” I say to 007.

“Terrific spread. Plus all the red, white or rosé you could drink,” he responds.

I was intrigued.

“What were you doing there? Aside from drinking your fill?”

“My friend was a contestant.”

Why was I not surprised?

“Did she win?”

“Second place.”

This also was not a surprise. 007 knows a lot of beautiful women. Second place netted his friend a BlackBerry. The winner took home a laptop and third place, an iPod Shuffle. Not bad for being beautiful.

“There was a question and answer session too,” 007 tells me.

“What did they ask?”

“Idiotic stuff about Africa like who is hosting the World Cup and what was the only western hemisphere country to send troops to Africa in the 70s.”

But just in case these African beauties didn’t know South Africa is soccer central these days or that Cuba helped liberate Angola, they were given a little help: when 007 went to 2nd place’s home afterwards to celebrate, he spied her pageant materials on the kitchen table, including the list of questions and answers she’d face after parading about in a swimsuit.

In case you had any doubt, Havana is full of beautiful females these days.

Notes
1. Is it me or is it feeling more and more like end of days here on our one and only planet? Oh, those Mayans have me worried with their December 2012 hocus pocus.

2. The Latin American Medical School (ELAM) was founded in Havana in 1998 to provide six year medical school scholarships to poor kids from around the world. To date, nearly 10,000 doctors have graduated from this school completely debt-free. They are expected to practice in remote and underserved communities once they finish. If you’re interested, I’ve written extensively on this socially responsible medical school for my day job.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, health system, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad

Chicharrones are a Drug

Cracklings, lardons, chicharrones – I don’t care what you call them, fried pork rinds are a drug and should be regulated. At least over here in Havana where I’m double fisting my way to a quadruple bypass. I scare myself, so untamed is my gluttony for these nuggets of greasy bliss. They really are narcotic and I got hooked quick, which is what the best drugs do…

I’d lived quite a while in Cuba – years already – without thinking twice about chicharrones. I’d had them here, there, and elsewhere, but I wasn’t impressed. Like salty poofs with the carne flavor twice removed. What I didn’t know is that the chicharrones I had been eating all those years are known as chicharrones de viento. Loosely translated to mean salty poofs with the meat sabor twice removed.

Imagine my surprise to learn then, that a completely different category – an entirely different universe of chicharrones! – exists out there just waiting for me to discover it. And I have.

For the uninitiated, my new vice are chunks of pork rind and fat – ideally with a Chiclet of meat on top – fried in their own grease. I have an addictive personality, I admit (with the caveat that I’m convinced it’s genetic) but the ferocity with which I was/am hooked is frightening. There was no desire phase. Things went straight to I need it, now. Euphoria? None. In fact, I sicken myself with each sinful square and body and mind are conscious of it, complicit.

I know there are people out there who can relate.

I was in the Yucatan some months ago with the fried pork monkey riding my back like a freckle. In the supermercado they sell 25 different kinds of rinds – from the poofs to something approximating the junk I craved. The latter, while good, were just this side of mass produced. Tasty, but processed, if only a little. Counting my blessings (after all, even a cut drug controls the jones), I left the store, crossed the street and found myself facing a simple kiosk manned by a big, jolly Yucatecan mama carving up all things pig. Ears, entrails, loin and yes. Yes.

I waited my turn making the small talk you make while waiting on line in Latin America. When I was up, I told the jolly mama what I wanted. She looked at me knowingly. Knowingly I tell you! and started heaping the glistening squares onto a swath of newspaper with her bare hands. ‘How much do I owe you?’ I asked as she bundled up the goods. ‘Nothing, it’s on the house.’ Just like a dealer: the first taste is free so you’ll be back, hankering for more.

Not long after, we were at a family celebration here in Havana following the usual script: catching up, sharing stories and a big meal, wrapping up with smokes and singing if Octavio or Jorge feels like pulling out the guitar. On the day in question, we were at the smokes part when the neighbors invited us over for a round of dominoes. When we made our way to the back yard, there was rum and dominoes of course and a platter piled high with empella. Oh my.

Methadone is to heroin what chicharrones are to empella.

What’s so special? Not much – they’re simply super chiquito chicharrones. The stuff I craved cut up really small. Now that I think about it, now that I’m practically dry dreaming of empella, I realize it wasn’t just their diminutive size. It was that each morsel had the little Chiclet of meat on top, which when coupled with the deep fried fat on the bottom…dry dream turns wet.

So I’m just back from Haiti. And although I made three simple welcome home requests (‘salad, salad, salad’), my hubby surprised me with not only an ensalada gigante, but yucca with mojo and a bowl brimming with homemade chicharrones. What a guy (and that’s just the G-rated portion of our programming)!

A couple of days later, my sister-in-law was butchering a quarter pig when she sawed off a huge slab of rind and fat bejeweled with those key cling ons of meat. Now I get my fix right at home.

And home feels very, very good right now.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad

Jesus is Just Alright by Me

 

“Thanks to God, you’re better,” my Haitian friend Madsen tells me when I catch him up on my now-cured explosive diarrhea.

God is very much on the tip of the tongues of most of my Haitian friends and the folks I meet here. Jesus is ubiquitous and more popular (but only slightly) than the NY Lotto numbers – a serious vice in Haiti [see note 1]. Alongside the daily numbers – on buses, in barber shops, taped to tents, tagged on partially fallen walls – the Word of God is found everywhere.

Descending the steep hillside upon which is perched a large, makeshift orphanage where the Cuban team is providing free health services, I see a garage door that proclaims: “God loves us. He saved us.” That’s some heavy food for thought and doesn’t help lift the anvil that’s been pressing on my heart ever since I huffed up that hill to where 347 orphans are ill, thirsty, hungry, and too alone.

I wasn’t expecting this unwavering faith. None of my (scant to be sure) pre-trip research prepared me for the Jesus craze that grips Haiti. Casual conversations peppered with holy references and the massive Sunday migrations through the dust-choked streets by young and old alike, Bibles tucked close, catch me unawares. Heathen though I am, I’m grateful this beleaguered people has something to hold on to. I remember something like envy overtaking me as I walked downtown on 9/12, passing full to overflowing churches. From Tribeca to Cite Soleil, when disaster strikes, believers find succor in their faith.

“You’re just cheap. You should give your salary to the church,” a Haitian medical student teases a Cuban surgeon in the emergency room. My ears prick up at this playful, but certain culture clash unfolding. Turns out the medical student gives 75% of her salary to her church and she is trying to convince the surgeon to follow suit. Her beauty and killer smile don’t win him over to the light and when he asks why she would do that, she explains the church is where she finds love and happiness and so is entitled.

More dense food for thought.

One terrible morning, after not sleeping due to stress, heat, the unfortunate musical tastes of my campmates, Cubans packing up two years of purchases in enormous boxes they hermetically seal with miles and miles of tape [see note 2], and an animated, pre-dawn phone negotiation between a Cuban doctor and her husband back in Guantánamo, I’m assaulted by this godliness. Seems someone in the massive tent city up the block thought it a good idea to blast religious pop on a powerful sound system starting at 6am.

In my mind, food, potable water, and safe shelter would be more appropriate for the thousands now getting an earful of Merci Jesus. But what do I know? I thought Jeff Buckley penned ‘Hallelujah’ [see note 3]. Later that day, I see a sign and point it out to my doctor buddies: ‘God is the chef of this house?!’ Everyone has a good laugh at my bad French: clearly God is the boss of this house, not the chef. But while He might be the boss of those houses still standing, I personally don’t see God at work in Haiti [see note 3].

To Madsen, whose younger sister just died of anemia, I tell it like I see it.

“No, friend. It wasn’t God. It was the Cuban doctors and the almighty power of antibiotics.”

Madsen nods. You know, we have a saying here in the countryside: ‘after God, the Cuban doctors.’

Haiti: it just won’t let my mind rest.

Notes

1. I’ve never felt the NY vibe so strongly outside of the city like here in Haiti. They play NY-rules dominoes (whatever that is – I learned dominoes in Havana and honed my skills in the Cuban camp in Port-au-Prince), you can buy Carvel log cakes (I shit you not) and the Yankees logo is everywhere.

2. Cubans completing two years of international service are entitled to ship – duty-free – three large boxes the size of a Westchester dishwasher, back home. In these boxes go 15 pairs of sneakers, a dozen bedazzled tank tops, 10 men’s dress shirts, sheets, towel sets, diapers, and as many pairs of jeans that will fit inside the new oven that after a month or so at sea will be installed in a Las Tunas kitchen. Each week, a saleswoman comes to the camp – her catalog circulates between the doctors like an issue of Penthouse in Cell Block C – and takes orders for everything from washing machines to PlayStations. I’m glad these folks have the opportunity to both do good in Haiti and for themselves and their family. And I understand the need to wrap the boxes in tape (an unfortunate accident to one of the boxes chugging its way to Cuba a little while ago means people are taking no chances), but must they do it at 1am? In front of my tent? Around midnight, one of my neighbors finally yells: ‘will you quit it with that freakin’ tape already?’ I send a mental heartfelt thank you her way. ‘Yeah?’ comes the response. ‘And what happens when it’s your turn?’ There’s a brief, golden silence. ‘Good point,’ she shouts, ‘but hurry it up!’ Damn.

3. I must admit I’m embarrassed by my musical ignorance here, but this is compensated by the fact that Leonard Cohen interpreted by a Haitian chanteuse is serenading several thousand displaced families.

4. Except perhaps in the sunsets. Port-au-Prince is blessed by such jaw-dropping dusks, taking a photo instead of experiencing it seems blasphemous.

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Visions of Port-au-Prince

That spontaneous little tent camp that abutted ours? They razed it the other day to make way for the new Ministry of Public Health. So they say. Regardless of what’s constructed in the bulldozed plot, I don´t know what the families who were surviving there will do, or where they´ll go. For now, they´re squeezed into a narrow strip of no-man´s-land where chickens wade in standing water picking at garbage and bulldozers mound detritus closer and closer to their makeshift kitchen.

It has been raining all night. “How did you sleep?” I ask my neighbor, a doctor from Guantánamo who has been serving in Haiti a year already and treats her patients in capable Creole. “OK, but I wake up tired.” This is common: sleep is elusive, especially when it’s raining. With each drop you think of a different person – the malnourished four month-old; the young girl caring for her three smaller siblings; and the 12-year old boy who is now the head of his household, made fast a man by the earthquake. No matter how much good the world is doing Haiti, regardless of the size and sincerity of the tender outpouring, no one can control today and tomorrow and the next day’s most pressing problem: the rain. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, in Haiti March 2010, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Outside the gate of the Cuban camp, that wind is laced with an acrid smoke from all the burning garbage. Mixed with the dust, it makes a toxic cocktail. There are people living in cars of course and tents pitched in the middle of rubble-edged streets. Even folks whose homes are intact prefer to sleep in tents in the driveway or family courtyard. The earthquake is too fresh in their minds, the 6.1 aftershock fresher still. Signs on the outside of partially crushed homes read: ´Help us! We need water and food´ in three (or more) languages.

You´ve seen the destruction already, repeatedly, on one of your 150 channels. But living among it, with the dust and dirt filling your eyes and nose and mouth is something else entirely. Flies swarm over garbage, shit, and people. Four-story buildings are flattened like millefeuille pastries with chunks of concrete-encrusted rebar dangling from skewed balconies like Christmas lights or strings of rock candy. Thinking about what lies beneath isn’t advised. People are starving literally to death, yet there are mounds of food for sale everywhere: fried chicken, grilled hotdogs and corn on the cob, fresh fruits, vegetables, bread, and rice.

Inside the camps, conditions are not fit for cattle, truly. But the children. Smiling and laughing and dancing in spite of it all. They’re adorable and wide eyed and play alongside garbage heaps shouting ‘ blan! blan!’ (whitey! whitey!) with affection when I walk by. I joke with them, flashing the peace and thumbs up sign and dancing to music only I (and maybe they) can hear. It’s my only way to communicate beyond my high school French. More often than not, they’re barefoot and bare bottomed. It’s heartbreaking. I make them smile, just for now, but Patch Adams I am not.

Back within the walls of our encampment, vendors set up shop, peddling boots, golden-colored watches and fine shirts encased in plastic. They´ve got the Cubans´ number. The sneakers are name brand and spotless, though many are used – or to be precise, no longer of use to their owners who are dead. Some lovely pharmacists who arrived with me just over a week ago are already approaching their 30 kilo baggage allowance, having shopped within our walls to the limit permitted under their contract as part of the Cuban emergency medical team. Meanwhile, Wilfred, a Haitian who worked at the Military Hospital before the quake, runs a commissary where we buy sort of cold Cokes and Colt 45. Prestige, the Haitian beer, is in high demand and runs out fast. One friend, who has been in Haiti for more than two years, takes a long pull on his beer and tells me: “best to stay anaesthetized.” If only.

And I thought Cuba was surreal.

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