Cuba: What You Know but Don’t Realize

Over the years, I’ve dedicated (probably too) many hours analyzing, writing, editing, and commenting about the differences between here and there. The ‘there’ of which I speak is the US – from where I hail – but could easily be anywhere North, whither Big Macs and reality television conspire to make people fat and stupid.

Did I just say that? You betcha. I’m sorry if that applies to you, but my internal editor has been on sabbatical ever since a guy richer than Croesus got all up in my grill dissing Cuba like he actually knew what he was talking about.

Which is part of what sparked this post.

There’s a type of visitor here – usually imperious, moneyed men skidding down the hill of middle age towards moldering (and the aforementioned rich fulano fits the bill) – who has Cuba all figured after four days here. Sometimes even before getting here. Cuba is more complex than you could have imagined, you’re more close-minded than you care to admit, and your facile analysis belies the intelligence I’m sure you evidence in your back home life. For those in this category, I’ve crafted this post to clue you in. Just a little.

First, we’re facing a wave of economic, paradigmatic change here without precedent. It roils with an energy confusing, contradictory and encouraging (in its way), towards our shores. Indeed, already it’s breaking on our eroding sands. Like a tow surfer (see note 1) whose very survival depends on accurately calculating wave height, speed, and interval, while accounting for hidden (i.e. underwater) and surface (i.e. other surfers and their support crews) factors, we’re gauging the wave, trying to maintain balance, remain upright, and most importantly, keep from being sucked under.

But as any tow surfer will tell you: surviving a 75-foot wave and riding it are two entirely different experiences – as different as summiting Everest with throngs of weekend warriors as attaining the peak without oxygen. One simply takes money and some machismo and motivation; the other requires experience, training, skill, meticulous preparation, and a measure of karma and respect born of intimacy with the context.

So as this monster, freak wave feathers and breaks over Havana, I want to ride it, not simply survive it. And to do that, I – we – have to measure and analyze the conditions, bring our skills and knowledge to bear, channel positive energy, and ensure our fear is healthily spiked with faith. The first step in successfully positioning ourselves to ride this wave, it seems to me, is to understand the culture, in all its contradictory complexities, which brought us to…right…now…

While many emphasize the differences between here and there, between the land of Big Macs and the tierra de pan con croqueta, I take this opportunity to explain how we are the same:

Opinions vary: One of the questions I field most often is: do people like Fidel/Raúl/socialism/the revolution? This is as absurd as asking do people like Obama/capitalism/federalism? Setting aside the fact that the question itself is unsophisticated and dopey (governance and mandate are not about like or dislike but rather about measurable progress and peace within a society, plus, any –ism is just theory; it’s how it works in practice that counts), I posit that it all depends on whom you ask. Up there, a brother from the Bronx is unlikely to share views with a Tea Party mother of two. Similarly, an 18-year old from Fanguito won’t agree with a doctor from Tercer Frente.

It’s obvious, but visitors tend to forget that here, like there, you must consider the source when posing such questions. Less obvious is that here, it also depends on how you ask the question. But that’s a more advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

People like stuff: On the whole, Cubans are voracious shoppers – always have been, always will be. Whether it’s shoes, books, handbags, wooden/porcelain/glass/papier mâché tschotskes, fake flowers, clothes, or packaged food, Cubans will buy it. Or at the very least browse and touch and dream of buying it. Some folks – like the ones who inspired this post – deny capitalist, consumerist culture ever existed in Cuba before now, revealing their lack of knowledge. I’m embarrassed for them; on the upside, it means many up there are clueless to fact that if you dropped a jaba bursting with a new pair of Nikes and Ray Bans, iPod (or better yet, Pad), some Levis, a pound of La Llave, gross of Trojans, and a couple bottles of Just For Men on every Cuban doorstep, with a note instructing them to come over to the imperialist dark side, a lot, the majority even, would do it. Being Cuban, a lot would pledge to ditch and switch just for the swag, of course, but that too, is an advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

Until that day, folks here are gobbling up stuff as fast as the shelves can be stocked. In short, todo por un dolar is rivaling hasta la victoria siempre as most popular slogan around here.

It’s all about the kids: Here, as there, parents want a better life for their kids. While what constitutes “better” (again, here as there) depends on whom you ask, this desire to leave a more comfortable/equitable/safe/luxurious life and legacy to one’s kids is human nature. It drives people to rickety rafts, May Day parades, and long, hard overseas postings. It makes parents compromise their own mental health, spend beyond their means and completely subsume their own lives to their children’s. Case in point: have you ever seen what a Cuban goes through – psychically, financially – to celebrate a daughter’s quince? Hundreds, thousands of dollars and days, months, years of preparation are spent for the all-important photos, party, clothes, and gifts for their darling little girls. Families living six to a room in Centro Habana spending $5000 for their 15-year old’s celebration remind me of US folks who scrimp, struggle, and sacrifice to pay for their kid’s wedding/down payment/tuition. Children first – at all cost and any price, here as there.

We are the best in the world: Drop in anytime, anywhere in Cuba or the US and whomever you encounter will profess their country is the best. Greatness or weakness such bravado and pride? A little of both, I figure. That such hubris has contributed to where we are today, riding the wave, I have no doubt.

Notes
1. I’ve just finished reading The Wave, a spectacularly, adventurously researched and highly readable book on giant waves and the guys – tow surfers – who live to ride them. Check it out.

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

Pushing Your Luck in Cuba

The querida phenomenon; why locals love iron bars and pure-bred dogs; and the story behind those ridiculous ‘dos: Here is Havana is your go-to resource for the inside scoop on all sorts of Cuban cultural minutiae.

This place is so intriguing and complex, I’m constantly heeding Mom’s advice to ‘learn something new every day.’ If you’ve been here, you know this perpetual learning curve of which I speak, surely. Or maybe you live somewhere/somehow that, like Cuba, allows – indeed forces – you to learn something new every day. If so, I salute you.

What’s holding my fascination and providing ‘ah ha!’ moments lately is the long-standing, deeply-rooted Cuban tradition known as La Bolita.

From Ciego’s piña-studded campo to the listing wooden houses of Regla, Cubans are playing the numbers. Like an underground Powerball, La Bolita is technically illegal but in practice allowed to function (not unlike other things here including the world’s oldest profession; two houses sharing one phone line; and foreigners buying property). Not only does it function, La Bolita flourishes as a twice-daily gambling habit nursed across the country.

I was quite surprised to discover how many people I know play La Bolita – work colleagues, neighborhood doctors, Harley dudes, government guys, grannies, ballet dancers. So diverse are the Cubans playing the numbers, I think it may be one of the most genuinely and naturally integrated and equitable systems in contemporary Cuba. La Bolita leaps across class, race, gender, and geographical lines and though I haven’t made a point of asking, I’m sure my LGBT friends are also placing their daily bets (see note 1). In short: La Bolita doesn’t discriminate.

First a little background: Most HIH readers know that until los barbudos rolled into Havana in 1959, Cuba was a viper’s nest of dissolution – rotten with drugs, prostitutes, gin joints, and gambling (no wonder Hemingway called it home!). In those days, fun seekers and ne’er-do-wells from the US used to hop down to use the island like college kids do Cancún and the ghetto: a place to score, get sloppy and slum, before returning to safe, cushy lives back home.

The Revolution put an end to all that (mostly, technically, anyway) and gambling was especially targeted and vilified. Big, lucrative casinos in nightclubs like the Tropicana and Sans Souci and hotels including the Riviera and Capri were shut down, along with smaller enterprises in the back alleys of Barrio Chino and out in Boyeros. La Bolita, however, was a national pastime, a traditional pursuit and while publically and officially banned, has survived all these years. The daily numbers, for those wondering, are drawn in Miami and Caracas, if my sources are correct (see note 2).

From why folks emigrate to how Cubans (mis)behave at all-inclusive resorts, I find all aspects of culture intriguing here. But La Bolita captures my fascination beyond what may be rational. To wit: I recently placed my first bet. I thought this was just a question of picking a series of numbers from the 100 in play and laying down my money á la the NY Lotto. Silly me. This is some really complicated shit and I needed a tutorial from my friend Aldo to place my bet correctly.

>Here’s what I learned:

Numbers range from 1 to 100. Nothing complicated there. But each number corresponds to a symbol – think Mexican lotería.
loteria mexicana
The symbols are key and transcend simple number-figure association, however. For instance, Cubans often play numbers appearing in dreams: if you’re chased by a Doberman while dreaming, you should play 95 (big dog), if it’s a Dachshund, 15 (little dog) is more appropriate. Beware dreams of 63 leading to 8, because that will land you in 78 and finally 14 (murder, death, casket, cemetery). Scary. When this happens, do you play these numbers, just in case?

Folks also bet numbers they see in their daydreams – I’m sure you know someone who hopes to get a 100 or some 38 (car, money) or a Cubana who has already made their dreams come true through a 62 (marriage) to a foreigner.

The numbers and their corresponding symbols have also passed into common vernacular. Fidel is called the caballo (1) for obvious reasons and for those who doubt my claim that Cuban Spanish can stump even fluent, native speakers, what would you do if your taxi driver said you owe a fish and a nun? Would you hand over $5? $20? $50? You’d be ripping either yourself or him off if you did (see note 3).

My life (like everyone’s if we choose to pay attention) is riddled with symbols and I had no problem knowing what numbers I would play. In fact, I determined not to let this year go by without playing La Bolita as soon as I learned 43 (my age) stands for scorpion (my sign). What could be more propitious?

But how to play? I knew I’d have Aldo place the bet because I didn’t want to show my foreigner face at any of the neighborhood ‘bancos’ – Cuban for Bolita bookie – lest I make them  nervous; it is illegal after all. So I’d play 43 and if I needed to pick a bonus number, I figured I’d go with 52 in honor of my beloved Frances.

Were it that easy.

As it turns out, there are all kinds of variations you can play, including the ‘parlé’ (a type of trifecta); a fixed number with additional jackpot numbers; and other combinations which still confuse me. There’s also a specific way to note your numbers on a piece of paper that needs to be folded a special way when you place your bet. The minimum bet is 1 peso cubano (about 4 cents)  but most people wager more; payoffs can be huge – Aldo recently hit for 700 pesos and another friend’s uncle once won 5,000. Of course, he’d bet much more over the course of his lifetime, but that’s the gambler’s carrot and curse, no?

En fin: like many things Cuban, I’m sure La Bolita is played differently in different latitudes (see note 4) – including in South Florida where it thrives. What I relate here is simply how it went down in my corner of Cuba. I ended up playing scorpion-San Lazaro-machete (43-17-94) in keeping with various symbolic occurrences lately. Alas, my 37 (brujería) proved powerless: I lost my 25 pesos.

Oh well, there’s always tomorrow for learning something new (and placing another bet).

Notes

1. Let me take this opportunity to wave the rainbow flag: every May, Cuba celebrates the ‘jornada de anti-homofobia’ known as IDAHOBIT globally – and it’s one helluva good time. This year’s festivities kick off May 7 and run through May 18 in Havana and this year’s host province, Ciego de Ávila.

2. Over several years of writing this blog, it has become clear that Here is Havana readers are hip, informed, and sit upon a wealth of knowledge; if anyone has light to shed on the mecánica or history of La Bolita, please share!

3. A nun is 5 and a fish is 10; your taxi ride cost $15.

4. While researching this post in fact, a friend of mine and closet bet-placer, told me about La Charada (traditionally la charada china). This predates La Bolita, which takes its first 36 numbers (horse/caballo through pipe/cachimba) from the older chinese tradition. This numbers game dates from the 1800s when Chinese workers arrived on these shores. According to one source, in 1957, Cubans wagered between $90 and 100 million on La Charada, la Bolita and other numbers’ games.

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Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

Trending, Cuba, April 2013

Young/old, foreign/Cuban, gay/straight (and variations in between), black/white (and shades in between) – the crew gracing my living room lately is varied and invigorating. They’re a veritable cross section of Havana in evolution, the friends stopping by, sipping coffee, and smoking Criollos in my crib.

I’m indebted to them, my network of family and friends who help keep me dreaming and steady the ground beneath my feet so those dreams can be seeded, sown, and reaped into reality. This has always been a place of shifting sands and I marvel at the Cuban capacity to maintain balance and mirth in the face of it.

Even under normal circumstances, steady ground is as scarce around here as spare change in a junkie’s pocket. These days however, terra firma is still harder to locate as Havana lurches along its path of economic reform, testing the capitalistic waters about which there is much phobia. And with good reason: capitalism is inequitable at its core, which contradicts many principles and practices for which Cuba has long been admired.

Truth be told, it’s a bit scary these changes we’re experiencing, and not just for their tenor, but also their pace – glacial or breakneck, depending on your perspective. Regardless, all the transformations happening in this corner of the world (see note 1) mean it’s trickier than ever to maintain our balance as we crawl, walk, and run in the nascent Cuban rat race.

As a barometer of what’s afoot here in Havana, I thought I’d invite readers into my living room to eavesdrop on some recent conversations.

“I want to start my own company, but can’t” - This came from my friend Fidel (see note 2) who dreams of having his own software development firm. As a bright, young graduate of the UCI (Cuba’s IT university, churning out brilliant computer wonks for over a decade), he’s got the chops to do it, but contends he can’t. I should mention here that I’m in “can’t” recovery: by age 13 or so, I was using the word regularly until an adult I admired upbraided me about the weakness and defeat the word embodies. She was right, of course, even Obama proved that, so when Fidel says he can’t, I bristle and parry.

‘But that’s one of the permissible businesses under the economic reforms. The licensing is easy. Get a few friends together and make it happen,’ I tell him.

He almost snickered, detailing connectivity nightmares, difficulty in accessing the latest programs, lack of marketing and publicity tools, etc, etc. Valid points all, but my recovering ‘can’t persona’ kicked in.

‘I hear you, but you’re talking to someone who wants it all. I know that’s not possible, no one can have it all, but if I get just half…’ He looked at me as if to say: ‘that and a token will get me on the subway,’ as we used to say back in the day.

“Collateral damage from the Special Period” – This observation can be applied to much of Cuban reality today – breakups, emigration, encasing homes in iron bars – but I hardly expected it in reply to my question: ‘how did you get carpal tunnel?’ It was difficult to imagine how a family doctor could suffer from such a condition unless he was a computer solitaire addict or moonlighted as a guitar player (neither, in this case) and I would have never guessed it was somehow related to the dire economic times known as the Special Period in Time of Peace. Turns out he got carpal tunnel after so many years riding a bicycle between home, work, play, and errands – seems the hand brakes worked a number on his wrists for which he’s now being operated.

We laughed (because if you don’t, you’ll cry), and it was funny, in a tragic sort of way. Some categorize the Special Period as a heinous blip on the Cuban psyche, but that economic crash that befell the country when the Socialist Bloc fell is still deeply felt, and those that contend otherwise are either in denial or haven’t been paying attention. Meanwhile, my people are talking a lot about it lately.

Some of the conversation turns on Chavez’ death since the agreements with Venezuela and other ALBA member countries signed in the early naughts, were the first light at the end of the economic-strapped tunnel. Now, with Venezuelan presidential succession hanging in the balance, folks here fear a return to those dire times could be in the cards. In my estimation, Cubans are praying more for Maduro’s victory than during both Popes’ visits combined.

“Tía, what’s vaginoplasty?” – From the Special Period to (re)constructed vaginas: this is what we call in Cuba “hablando como los locos,” and my living room does see its share of crazy folks, I’ll admit. The question is: how exactly do you explain vaginoplasty to a 12-year old? When she’s Cuban, you stick to the science. And when she asks why someone would need it, you stick to accidents and physical deformities, leaving the transsexual conversation for a later date.

I mention this living room chatter because what was most interesting to me what that the topic was broached twice, by different people, in the span of a few days. What are the odds? Pretty good, I guess, here in Havana anyway.

“Don’t tell me he’s a metrosexual!” – In case you haven’t been here in a while, this is the latest fad (and I do hope it’s a fad because unlike transsexuals, metrosexuals actually choose this state of being) among young Cuban guys. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s essentially an androgynous look adopted by urban males to what advantage I’m not sure. And these aren’t men who have sex with men in large part, but het boys adopting a super meticulously primped style that requires shaving/waxing/lasering their entire bodies to a hairless sheen, including their eyebrows. Just the maintenance required chafes (really – isn’t there something better you could be doing with your time and money?) and I personally find it a real turnoff.

So when a swarthy friend admitted his 18-year old son was a metrosexual, I offered my condolences. We both chalked it up to “youth today,” that tired refrain of all older generations everywhere, but I find it intriguing that in such a macho society, this particular global trend should catch on. Is it a statement against the patriarchal construct? I’d like to think so, but what if young women did the same and started going all KD Lang androgynous? Would parents have the same “they’ll grow out of it/youth today” attitude? I’m not so sure. If you have any insight on metrosexuality in Cuba or general, bring it on.

(And you thought this post was going to be all about Yoani and Bey-Jay.)

Notes

1. Periodically (like now) I hasten to remind readers that when I say “this corner of the world,” I’m referring to Havana only. I don’t get out of the city nearly often enough to have a bead on what’s going on in the rest of the country. And Havana is a world unto itself. I think it’s dangerous to generalize or draw conclusions about Cuba as a whole from what’s happening and being said in the capital.

2. Like all names at Here is Havana, this is not his real name. In this case, however, it’s close.

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

Havana Vice: Titimanía


I’m what’s known in these parts as a ‘temba.’ The term generally applies to anyone, male or female, over 40. It’s not a hard and fast rule – a younger person who looks older may be called a temba – nor does it infer, like other terms such as ‘tía’ and ‘pura,’ that the person is over the hill sexually, physically or otherwise. Temba is not derogatory; it’s simply a category of Cuban, used here to describe a state of being, similar to our use of descriptive terms like negro, chino, flaca, santero or maricón (see note 1).

One thing I love about Cuba is its integrated, inter-generational nature. This facilitates friendships with Cubans aged 12 to 84 – something I cherish and which is harder to achieve in the United States. Naturally, however, many of my colleagues and consortes are other tembas. Over years of observation and recently a more in-depth investigation into Cuban sexual practices and mores for a larger piece I’m writing, a couple of tendencies keep cropping up: flexible fidelity is one, titimanía is the other.

Simply put, titimanía is the compulsion temba men have to date impractically young women. This is not limited to Cuba, of course, but by parsing how universal behaviors play out here, I hope to provide insight into the particularities and peculiarities of the Cuban character – for all our sakes (see note 2).

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I’m no stranger to the attractions of older men: at 16, my first serious boyfriend was 26, an arrangement for which he could have been prosecuted in our hometown of New York. While I think statutory rape laws are ridiculous in cases where everyone consents to getting it on, I admit there is something creepier when the ages are more advanced and the age differences greater.

Take my friend Carlos. When I met him a decade ago, he was 40 and his live-in girlfriend was 18. Jenny was gorgeous, of course, but a child – intellectually, developmentally, and practically. Just out of high school, she’d never had to pay a bill, work, or worry about a leaking faucet or roof. After four years together, the relationship ended disastrously, with Jenny hightailing it to Miami taking Carlos’ expensive gifts – jewelry, clothes, electronics – with her. Pre-ordained, perhaps, but that didn’t faze Carlos.

He quickly “recovered” (I’ve noticed men, Cuban and otherwise, tend to rebound fast – but incompletely – from ravaged relationships) and before long had Tania living with him. Prettier than Jenny, smarter, and worldlier, Tania was 22. After a few years, that relationship also ended badly, worse even than the one previous. Tania and Carlos barely speak today, which is uncommon in Cuba where circumstances and reasons too complex to elaborate here fairly obligate exes to remain on good terms. Uncommon and sad: their kids from previous relationships had become siblings and when they split it signaled an end to their blended family to the detriment of everyone involved, even if they don’t realize it.

Today, Carlos is 50 and has recently taken a 20-year old wife. I haven’t yet met her but have heard through radio bemba (our grapevine) that she’s hot and terribly boring, limiting dinner conversations to her new shoes, so-so manicure, and how the sushi she tried last week ‘totally grossed her out’ (see note 3).

Not all 20-somethings are that vapid and clearly, I better understand what’s in it for the women. Older men tend to be better than their younger counterparts in bed (if less athletic and enduring); have more status and economic possibilities; and generally have a clearer idea of what they want in life and are already well on their way to getting it (or should be).

However, once men hit that temba threshold, what they want are girls young enough to be their daughters. My 48-year old friend Elena is finding this out the hard way: after 15 years of marriage, she’s divorced and dating. Elena’s not looking for a new husband or live-in (the two are synonymous here); far from it. She just wants a healthy, available guy for a good time. You’d think this would be easy in libidinous, gregarious Cuba. Not so for Elena. ‘No niños for me,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t want to teach them the art of the orgasm or have to finance our affair. I’ve got my own kids, I don’t need another.’

Elena is looking for someone age appropriate and therein lies the rub: every man her friends try and fix her up with is interested in women her daughter’s age. They are, in short, suffering from acute titimanía. She has actually been told to her face: ‘you’re too old.’ And although they always put it in the nicest way possible, it’s getting her down. Once you rule out the married, infantile (of which there are many), gay, and titimaniacal tembas, Elena’s roster of eligible men is as short as Fidel’s speeches were long. And she’s discouraged, pobrecita.

The titimanía phenomenon came up the other day while I was talking to our mutual friend Alejandro. Clever and fit, with a comely face that belies his 50 years, Alejandro is one of the guys posited – and rejected – as a possible hook up for Elena; he likes them younger. Cubans are very frank about such things, which is efficient at least: while men here might date fat, unemployed, gold-digging, or gap-toothed women, age is not negotiable and they don’t waste time saying flat out ‘you’re too old’ (in the nicest way possible).

Alejandro could tell I was irked by his titimanía and its inequitability. “What chance is there for Elena and her ilk, when you guys are chasing skirts just out of high school?”

Mira, mi amiga,” he said smiling, his eyes crinkling around the corners they way they do with happy people, “from the age of 15, girls try to look older and do all kinds of things to enhance their beauty and heighten their self-worth – fake nails, fake boobs, dyed hair, high heels, the works. Old guys like me don’t do any of that. Instead, we pump up our egos by dating young women.”

“So tembas like you have the mentality of a teenage girl?” I wanted to say, but didn’t.

Laying my indignation aside, I could see his point. It’s about the self-esteem boost for everyone involved. But where does this leave Elena? Alejandro couldn’t provide an answer beyond: “I don’t know, but she’s too temba for my taste.”

Notes

1. This last term, meaning ‘fag’ or ‘queer’ is used in Cuba to denote male homosexuals. And while it’s inherently homophobic – which is why I don’t use it – many highly-educated and cultured people use maricón to classify gay men (or derisively with their straight friends). I employ it here by way of illustration only.

2. Equally as interesting are behaviors which don’t manifest here. For example, the reverse – a young Cuban buck getting jiggy with a cougar or MILF hasn’t caught on here like in the United States (the 13-year old who couldn’t peel his eyes from my temba friend Lucia’s cleavage, declaring her ‘hot and chesty,’ notwithstanding). But I’ll leave this for another post.                                                                                                                                                             

3. While I predict this marriage will be short-lived, I have friends who have been in one of these May-December relationships for ten years. They’re healthy and happy and while it remains to be seen what that relationship will look like when she’s 35 and he’s 63, so far so good. More power to them.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Relationships

Cuba: The Eternal Education

Some of you may remember my catharsis about know-it-all Cubans, a semi-measured rant dissecting the Cuban ardor for being right – even when they’re talking out their ass.

Not surprisingly, there’s a similar breed of foreigner, an expert on Cuba after two weeks, two years or tenure (see note 1). Maybe you’ve overheard them at the next table at one or another of Havana’s overhyped paladares prattling on about how to unify the currencies or make Cubans more efficient (the most vulnerable rarely have a seat at this table, literally and figuratively). Perhaps you read a blog written by an absentee/wannabe Cubanologist or transient traveler who proclaims to be an authority on political bell weathers or sexual proclivities here.

No matter the source: those claiming to have Cuba pegged are usually off base or worse – not even in the ballpark. Whereas it used to be difficult to understand things on the ground from afar, today it is near impossible since economic reforms are changing the landscape here fast. For us living it, we’re learning something new every day, the details and mechanisms of which cannot be fully known from wherever you are reading this.

Although the economic changes are injecting a level of uncertainty and accelerating individualism (here in Havana at least) that trouble me, I still give daily thanks – or try to – that I live in a time and place that continually teaches me new things. After all, learning something new every day is one of the key ingredients in the ajiaco of life – another reason why I love Cuba. Judging by the experience of certain friends, I’m confident the eternal education Cuba provides is a constant regardless of outside forces or how long you’ve been here.

Take my friends Ann and Alicia. North Americans both, they’ve lived here full-time for a collective 55 years and are still learning. Recently they separately admitted to having just learned that the red ribbon hanging from the undercarriage of 6 out of 10 cars here is to ward off the evil eye. And they both own cars! Such discoveries after so much time in residence encourage me to keep observing, keep meeting and talking to new people, having new experiences, and writing about this complex place where there’s always something new to be learned. In the past several weeks alone, my Cuban education has schooled me thus:

El Torniquete: The observant among you have likely noticed women and young girls chancleteando through the streets of Centro Habana or La Vibora with empty rolls of toilet paper spooled tightly around their tresses and piled atop their heads. This is knows as the ‘tourniquet’ and is a simple, free way to produce a fancy, going out ‘do. Although I’ve long marveled at the ingenuity, I never knew this technique had a name until a friend helping to gussy me up showed me how it’s done. For those wondering, I’ve only been partially successful in my gambit to improve my “look” due to my rabid aversion to shopping and my preference for substance over style. Furthermore, with only 24 hours in a day, other pursuits (e.g. cooking; bike polo; visitas) take priority of personal primping. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn from my impeccably turned out Cubana counterparts.

4/4 Time Dies Hard: I’ve recently taken up salsa lessons which have been measurably more successful than my half-hearted attempts at honing my fashion chops and style. I have an amazing dance teacher – talented, patient, encouraging, and easy on the eyes – which is a large part of the equation. Last class he admitted: ‘I thought it was going to be much harder to teach you’ and after just a few lessons, we’re both impressed that I’m already spinning around the dance floor without spinning off beat. But a lifetime 4/4 habit is a bitch to break, I’m learning, and I still tend to misstep, especially when in the arms of a taller, drunker, or clumsier partner than my teacher.

El Baile de Perchero: Along with salsa, I’ve recently become privy to another dance form known as the Hanger Dance. Surely a Cuban invention, this is when a couple dances themselves out of their clothes and on to more carnal endeavors and pleasures. It’s a testament to Cuban propriety that the name of the dance involves hangers: my clothes usually end up on the floor.

Vestido de Iwayó: Admittedly I know very little about Afro-Cuban religions – Yoruba, Palo Monte, Abakua, et al. But I, like many readers I assume, can’t fail to notice initiates walking around in these parts wearing head-to-toe white clothing. Even accessories – headbands and hand bags, hats and umbrellas – must be white for those haciendo santo and formally entering the religious ranks. It’s one of the most obvious outward manifestations of Afro Cuban religions here, but I’ve only recently learned that it’s called dressed as/for iwayó.

Life on the Inside: Given my insatiable craving for learning about new Cuban customs and culture, I’m very grateful to a friend who admitted he spent five years in a maximum security prison here. For my/our purposes, it matters not the crime for which he did time (though it was non-violent), so I won’t go there. What is important is the crash course he gave me about life inside a Cuban jail. He graciously endured and answered hours of my questions on everything from food and escape attempts to rape and overcrowding. Suffice to say that what I learned was so fascinating, I’m writing an article about the cultural dark side here entitled Havana Black & Blue. Any interested editors reading this are heartily encouraged to contact me as I look for an outlet for this piece.

Of course, the one thing everyone here – visitor and resident alike, whether they like it or not – is always learning, is how to maintain patience and good humor in this sometimes frustrating, but never dull island….

Notes
1. The so-called ‘Cubanologists’ who sit in their ivory tower offices in developed world academies of higher learning (or their cubicles in think tanks), espousing how it is in Cuba (where they visit once a year, perhaps), especially chap my ass.

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Birth of a Biker Bitch

Fifteen or so years ago I was living above a taquería and across the street from one of San Francisco’s largest thrift stores. Community Thrift wasn’t the hippest or most swank, but it stocked the eclectic, second-hand zaniness that city is famous for. Living right across the street was dangerous: it made it all too easy to accumulate cool, cheap shit that ends up collecting dust.

This is how I came across an $18 vintage Harley Davidson jacket. Little did I imagine all those years ago that one day I would be flying along the coast east of Havana on a 1948 Harley wearing that jacket (see note 1).

Seeds get planted, people. Cultivate them – however long it takes – and you shall see that flora flourish, I promise. The problem is, I’ve planted seeds I cannot tend alone – that are so profligate I can’t handle their abundance. When this happens, I write (to wit: this blog!). So while I had no intention of revisiting the Harley scene here at Here is Havana, my garden runs amok…

One of the 12 bikes Ive ridden on...

One of the 12 bikes Ive ridden on…

Some of you may have read my chronicle of last year’s Varadero Harley Rally/Encuentro de Harlistas Cubanos, my first taste of the HD world (save for one long mountain ride years ago, pre-vintage jacket, with a guy who couldn’t hold my attention). Long and short of that post about the Cuban rally? These pre-1960 bikes are impressive and the folks who keep them running and enjoy riding them more impressive still. When I was invited back for the second Encuentro, I was all game.

This year’s event was even better than last – for many reasons but the fundamental one for me was what occurred in the months between rallies: I’m now collaborating with Max Cucchi on his photography book about Cuban Harley riders. Since the 2012 rally, I’ve been hearing all the stories, learning the history, and interviewing the clan. I’m also riding on the bikes; 11 of them 12 of them to be precise and I anticipate trying out more (see note 2).

David Blanco, Harlista Cubano, musician, all around nice guy, rocks out the 2nd Encuentro.

David Blanco, Harlista Cubano, musician, all around nice guy, rocks out the 2nd Encuentro.

It’s true I cringed when that foreign photographer called me a bike dyke, but I have to admit it’s a hell of a lot of run riding on these thundering, troublesome machines. The thing is, riding can’t compare with driving and I know that’s where the real thrill lies (am I doomed to now accumulate a totally cool but not-at-all cheap piece of dust-collecting shit?!). Me acquiring a Harley Davidson is entirely theoretical since I can’t imagine abandoning my beloved bicycle and don’t have the money for anything motorized beyond a rikimbili (see note 3). But while interviewing Cuba’s only female Harley rider for The Book, she offered to let me take her 45 for a spin. Another seed planted, I’m afraid.

li and tony

I’m excited about The Book, in no small measure because it has opened up a whole new world to me, populated by extraordinarily fun, creative, and collaborative Cubans. Until further notice, however, I will be referring to this project as The Book. It had a proper title, which has since been relegated to a working title. Why? Because this is Cuba: things are complicated and being immersed in a rich, rare breed subculture like that of the island’s antique Harleys means being privy to all the gossip, tussles and intrigue therein. Good manners and my desire for everyone to get along prevent me from going into it here. Plus, I’m just the writer/rider so it’s best if I wait and see how it all shakes out. Until it does (in 12 months or so when we go to print), I shall be referring to this project simply as The Book (see note 4).

Cheito Puig, 103 years old and still on a Harley (he's featured in The Book).

Cheito Puig, 103 years old and still on a Harley (he’s featured in The Book).

Besides, none of that is important. What is important is that The Book has images by Max, text by me, and the passion of generations of Harlistas Cubanos.

Notes
1. There are no pictures of me en route, wearing said jacket, since my camera mysteriously disappeared the first night of the rally.

2. As I was readying this post for print a few days ago, I mounted my 12th Cuban Harley. The occasion was a beach BBQ with the gang – fun stuff. Unfortunately, the beast coughed, sputtered, and died two blocks from my house. During curbside repairs, the carburetor caught fire. ‘Socio, you got a fire going there,’ more than one passerby noted casually while eyeballing the red and chrome, leather-accented stallion. It took about an hour to get running again (watered-down gas direct from the Cupet seems to have been the culprit), but that was just the beginning of the 15-hour adventure. A key piece flew off as we flew down the highway; we had to stop at least have a dozen times to do repairs (correction: I watched as my driver and assorted others did repairs); the ‘suicide’ clutch kept getting stuck; and we ran out of gas at 1am in Centro Habana. I guess I’ve concluded the honeymoon phase with these Cuban Harleys…

Even breakdowns are fun in Havana!

Even breakdowns are fun in Havana!

3. These are bicycles outfitted with small motors, usually powered by a liter-and-a-half bottle holding kerosene.

4. Not to be confused with my abandoned memoir. Sigh.

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