Habana Brats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aldito en el Cafe Miramar

Disgraceful and disrespectful a la vez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Cuba Reveal: Cuenta Propismo

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

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

Now The Bad…

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Just When You Think You Know Cubans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Travel to Cuba

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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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