Hogs & Dogs: Extreme Camping in Cuba

Our summer vacation plans were simple and cheap: strap the camping gear onto the 1946 Harley-Davidson and plunge deep into the mountains of Pinar del Río, getting as far from hot, hectic Havana as we could without a visa. We were broke and stressed; our souls needed to sigh a bit among the pines and pure air.

 

This sounds nuts, I know. Who in their right mind vacations where there is no plumbing and more livestock than people? To boot, our transportation is a 72-year old motorcycle held together by string (literally; more on that later) and we’d be camping in a place where, incidentally, camping isn’t a thing. Add to this the general state of Cuban roads, the crippling August heat, and dearth of gas stations, stores, and food, and you begin to understand why the whole idea had family and friends from near and far expressing concern for our sanity.

lastunasbaches

But this wasn’t our first rodeo. Last summer we traveled nearly 2000 kilometers between Havana and Granma on that same Harley as research fodder for my new book. Yet this was something altogether different.

first rodeo

This time we were considering taking the dog.

 

Our decision wasn’t snap or capricious; we’d deliberated and debated – conversations which left me more comfortable with the idea of canine accompaniment but not entirely convinced. And being the youngest of four from a poor household (i.e. too self-centered than my station or accomplishments warrant), I wondered: how does bringing Toby benefit me? Unless I sold the story to The Sun or New Yorker, it seemed like a lot of work for negligible reward…

 

The evidence base, if you can call it that, was slim and partial for how Toby might comport himself on our odyssey. We’d spent a sublime weekend camping at seaside Canasí where he romped in the woods, lounged by the campfire swollen with tinned meat, and ran, tail between legs, from the surf. And there was no question the little guy loves to ride: every day, paws on the handlebars, ass pressing against José as we bank turns, we commute to Cuba Libro on the Harley. But what we were proposing wasn’t just a weekend within striking distance of the capital or a five-minute jaunt between home and work. This longer, more remote trip promised to be more intense. Way more intense.

commuting

The idea was a week-long back country camping trip covering over 600 kilometers through the mountains of Pinar del Río, towing a trailer with our gear and Toby in his cage. Never mind that Toby, a dog rescued from Havana’s mean streets, had never before been in a cage.

 

Both José and I have extensive riding and camping experience – he more of the former, me better-versed in the latter – but as a team we were motivated and adept. In short, we had the chops to make it happen, dog and all. Toby? I wasn’t at all sure how he’d react.

 

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For those not familiar with Cuba, let me explain why this plan sparked a second round of concerned emails, which now expressed fears for our sanity and Toby’s safety. First of all, there are no Harley-Davidson dealerships or parts sellers in Cuba. Should we break down in the middle of nowhere – if a cable or gear shaft or belt should go – we were on our own. Luckily, my pilot José is a crackerjack machinist, electrician, and inventor (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also easy on the eyes!) Plus, the Harley is made from real steel that can take a beating. Second, in Havana, you can’t just pop into a Petco for a doggie cage or AutoZone for a trailer. All this had to be built from scratch and scrap – on a limited budget. These weren’t hurdles we could throw money at. Complicating matters is the fact that there is nowhere to officially camp on the island – we’d have to be tremendously resourceful and somewhat careful to find practical, pleasant places to camp (last year we pitched camp too close to the naval base in Guantánamo). And one more detail troubled me: dog food isn’t sold in Cuba. We were used to cooking for him daily at home, but on the road? It’s not like we had a camp stove or anything.

chariot

The one-wheel trailer, hitch and cage were designed and built by José using salvaged wood and wire, supplemented by re-purposed refrigerator racks and dorm room crates dating back decades to my NYU days. The cage door was held in place with a bungie cord – release the cord and the door swung open. The cage (or “chariot” as my friend Chris prefers to call it), sat atop a suitcase containing our camping, cooking and snorkeling gear, plus our clothing, food and my reading/writing materials. The suitcase nestled perfectly in the trailer’s bed and elevated Toby and chariot above the exhaust pipe. Even with all this killer design and forethought, I wasn’t at all sure how Toby would handle it. José told me not to worry. Like that ever works.

 

Once everything was strapped down and secured, we placed Tobito gently in his cage. He was more enthusiastic hitched to the Harley than when we tested it in the living room. So enthusiastic, in fact, he started barking as soon as we hooked the bungie cord into place and didn’t stop until we unhooked the door (every couple of hours once we were on the road). It was 600 kilometers of non-stop, on-the-road barking – maddening for us, but he was a happy camper. He wagged his tail wildly, caught the wind of the open road upon his face, and sniffed eagerly at the goats, cows, and pines as we passed. He often had an erection. By the time we got home, he was hoarse from so much barking and we were aurally traumatized. But he was a trooper and a champ, never messing his cage, protecting our camp at night and hopping gleefully in and out of his chariot by trip’s end.

toby in LR

tobyin chariot w LR

 

We’d pre-cooked five days of meals for Toby, freezing it and storing it in a little Styrofoam cube. It kept well for four days and the last meal we fed to an emaciated country dog who devoured the almost-turned liver and rice. Once the precooked meals ran out, we fed him hot dogs and canned meat balls cooked over the campfire.

 

When we caught bad weather (repeatedly), we would quickly pull over and bivouac under sheets of plastic. Together with trailer, Harley, chariot, and gear, Toby, José and I would huddle under a plastic teepee and prepare our little cafetera to enjoy some sweet, hot, dark espresso as we waited for the skies to clear. We had no camp stove, but lo and behold! At our first rest stop, José whipped out a ‘revelberro’ – a one-burner wonder made of two steel pieces: the base which gets filled with luz brillante and the burner, which is placed on top. In Cuba, you learn something new every day and though I’ve camped the length and the breadth of the island – from Granma to Guanahacabibes, above and below waterfalls, on the beach and in the bush – I had never seen one of these nifty units before. It’s not only great for camping, but also blackouts, hurricanes or when you forget to pay your gas bill. Note to self: see if José’s sister will sell me her revelberro. Toby didn’t partake of the rich and delicious café Cubano, but we granted him tent access during thunderstorms and rain. Hot dogs and meatballs, tent privileges and unparalleled adventure: this is one lucky doggie.

 

We crawled out of the tent after one of these summer storms broke and found a horse grazing under a double rainbow. On the far west coast, when the clouds shipped out after a nighttime tempest over Guanahacabibes National Park, we wished on shooting stars. We shared crack-of-dawn coffee facing the caves from where Che commanded troops during the Bay of Pigs with the site’s historians one day and sipped the best espresso (served in little coconut shell cups) with a campesino family in their dirt floor home the next.

tobes rainbow

No cell phone service, no showers or tour buses or air conditioning: camping in Cuba is not for the fastidious or faint of heart. The lazy or timid also need not apply. But if you’re looking for a unique adventure – natural, cultural, logistical – consider this alternative. Even if you don’t have a car or bicycle (or Harley!), a similar trip to ours is possible. Parts of it you won’t want to replicate, like when one of the seat springs (about the size of a small peach), busted in two on a remote road cleaving between mountains. Suddenly I was leaning dramatically to starboard. José cut the motor and set to bending and re-threading the spring to make it shorter, but strong, reinforcing it with several lengths of twine.

 

If you’re game for this type of trip, it helps if you speak Spanish and can build a decent cooking fire, but with gumption, a phrase book, and healthy stash of protein nuggets and nuts, you can camp here way off the grid and without leaving a trace. If you’ve dreamt of this kind of vacation, you may find these tips helpful, honed over 15 years of camping on the island:

 

  • For reasons related to Cuba’s wonky supply chain and environmental stewardship, do not depend on bottled water. Pack a filter or purification tablets to ward off thirst and protect your gut flora. Cuban pharmacies and almost every home also stock hipoclorito de sodio; add two drops to every liter for potable water.

 

  • Food can be an issue in Cuba (now there’s an understatement!). Even if you’re on the fanciest organized tour, you will probably go hungry at some point in your trip. Bringing packaged soups, pastas, and dehydrated meals from home, supplemented by vacuum packed tuna, Spam, and the like, is a great strategy. Also, high-protein, lightweight anything (beef jerky, Clif bars, trail mix) will be a life saver at some point. You can round this out with peanuts and other on-the-ground snacks; our little sack of chicharrones kept all three of us happy during our recent odyssey. Fruits and veggies can be procured en route, but availability and variety depend largely on the season. Fresh pork is sold everywhere – looked for ‘ahumado’, smoked cuts, which keep beautifully. Eggs are also widely available; keeping them from cracking is the tricky bit, but an experienced camper/packer will figure it out. Hard boiling them for a roadside picnic is another option. Canned goods are sold in tiendas; those at gas stations, like the one where we stocked up in Sandino, can be gold mines.

 

  • Mountain regions and (some) beach areas are the best bets for finding practical, beautiful places to camp. For mountains and valleys, I suggest: the Escambray, Sierra de los Órganos (Pinar del Río), Valle de Yumurí (Matanzas), Sierra de Cristal (Holguín) and the region around Baracoa (excluding Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, which is off-limits to casual campers). For beach camping, good opportunities abound in Guanahacabibes and the adjacent coast of Pinar del Río, Playa Larga (Matanzas), the beaches between Cienfuegos and Trinidad, the Las Tunas coast and beaches around Yumurí (access from Baracoa). Canasí is ever popular and there will likely be Cubans camping there when you turn up.

 

  • If you can’t find an appropriate camping spot, try one of the scores of ‘campismos’ around the country. Technically these are not for tent camping and only a handful rent the concrete cabins to foreigners, but with a bit of conversation and cash, you’ll likely be able to convince administrators to let you pitch your tent. These are always located in beautiful settings, from mountain to sea, along rivers and tucked into valleys.

 

  • Cuba is, overall, quite safe. Locals tend to be more curious and protective of campers than any sort of threat and they’ll surely want to chat you up, which is part and parcel of the charm of this sort of trip. Offering a slug of coffee or swill of rum to people happening upon your camp will result in lively conversation, unsolicited advice and maybe even new friendships!

 

  • Pack biodegradable toilet paper. Be sure to pee and poop off the beaten trail and bury the latter, please!

 

no-trace-before.jpg

Guanahacabibes campsite in full swing

No Trace Camping

Guanahacabibes campsite, 12 hours later upon leaving

  • Burn all paper garbage, bury the biodegradable, and pack out the rest. At several points during our most recent trip we cruised the mountain roads with a plastic bag filled with tin cans tied to the motorcycle seat. While this elicited strange looks from passersby and the cans rattled annoyingly, disposing of them properly in the first available garbage provided great satisfaction.

 

  • The May-October rainy season is hot, sticky, buggy and wet. Usually these are afternoon thundershowers, but we’ve been rudely awakened at 3am by water dropping on us through the mesh tent roof. If you break camp early and move on to your next destination, setting up before the thunderclouds roll in, you can beat the worst of it – most of the time. Ponchos are an important tool at this time of year. Not only will they keep you dry, you can use them to cover campfire wood so you’re not eating raw and cold once the clouds move out.

 

 

I wasn’t sure about taking Toby at the outset and even mid-trip, when José declared he’d go camping with Toby again in a heartbeat, I wavered. But once I saw Toby leaping into his chariot with a mini-erection somewhere around Valle de San Juan, barking like mad, I was already planning our next adventure to Pan de Guajaibón.

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Inside a Cuban Orphanage

If you know me, you know I get terribly bored (and sometimes in trouble) if I’m not learning anything new. If you know my writing, you know that one of the things I love about Cuba is that I’m learning new things all the time. It’s stimulating, humbling – an eternal education, vaya. A recent experience was particularly educational when Cuba Libro, together with our family of Harlistas Cubanos, paid a visit to the Guanabacoa orphanage.

orphanage

Here’s what I learned:

1) In Cuba, orphanages are not called orfanatos like in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Here, they’re called casas de niños sin amparo filial (literally children without family protection; more proof that Cubans are masters of euphemism. This is something I knew from my days volunteering here during the ‘Special Period in A Time of Peace,’ – how Cubans refer to total economic catastrophe);

2) In Cuba, these children aren’t called orphans. They’re called niños de la patria (how’s that for euphemism?);

3) There are some very dedicated, loving and compassionate people working in this sector (all are women at this particular orphanage, something I suspect is par for the course across the country);

orphanage5

4) I knew before this visit that there are few orphanages in Cuba (thanks to a variety of factors, including free, safe abortions), but I learned this weekend that the most common reasons children end up here are: neglect, their parents are in jail or addicted to drugs or they’re abandoned outright;

5) Orphanages in Cuba are divided by age – there are orphanages for infants who are still breast feeding, others for children from 1-1/2 to 11 years old; and others for kids 12 to 18;

6) Some children arrive at orphanages having never seen a doctor – despite Cuba’s free, universal health system. A 5-year old boy at the Guanabacoa orphanage, for example, arrived with an undiagnosed degenerative childhood disease. His muscles will atrophy until he dies, before reaching adulthood. He’s now receiving appropriate medical attention, but his is a bleak diagnosis. In addition to full medical care, the government provides these children with food, clothing, beds and linens, soap and toothpaste (a bar and tube, respectively, for each child every month), school uniforms, and a monthly stipend;

orphanage4

7) Every opportunity to place orphans with foster or adoptive families is investigated and made. Although the process is incredibly long and arduous, requiring all kinds of background checks, character testimonies, home visits, and documentation, several of the 20 children at the orphanage we visited were with their foster families for the weekend. Additionally, one 4 year-old girl was with her adoptive family which was finalizing her adoption;

8) The chance to visit the Guanabacoa orphanage and learn how all of this works in Cuba was possible thanks to a donation initiative by Havana Harley-Davidson riders and Cuba Libro. Most Here is Havana readers already know about Cuba Libro’s robust, targeted donation programs but this was our first donation to an orphanage. We’re incredibly thankful to have friends and family among these generous bikers who provided the opportunity to learn what orphanages most need in Cuba:
– infant and boys’ and girls’ clothes;
– sneakers and shoes;
– washcloths and shower scrubbies (caretakers are prohibited from having skin-to-skin contact with the children); and
– white knee socks – part of the official school uniform.
Thanks to this initial donation (organized by our Donation Coordinator, Yenlismara), Cuba Libro will be continuing to support the wonderful staff and children at this orphanage. If you would like to participate in this or other donation programs administered by Cuba Libro, please drop us a line;

orphanage2

9) The last thing I learned was the provenance of this house – a mansion really, with multiple gardens, a pool and Jacuzzi, three-car garage and so many bedrooms I lost count. Several years ago, an official police video made the rounds (you can get the new fuzz reels every week from any little storefront business selling the paquete) about a massive bust in Guanabacoa. The video showed all manner of ill-gotten goods – including eight cars, gold and jewels, appliances, electronics, the works. They even found bricks of cocaine stashed around – it was really some Cops Miami type shit. The culprit? A half-assed Cuban rapper wanted in the United States for a giant Medicare scam which fleeced boatloads of money from the federal program. I had never heard of Gilbert Man before I saw the video, nor after – until we were preparing the kids’ donations. Turns out that after he was caught, charged, sentenced to 17 years and imprisoned, the Cuban government converted his house into this orphanage. Upon visiting and beholding the f-ugly furniture, gold and brown brocade drapes, god awful porcelain vases and gilded mirrors, I learned that Gilber Man may have been (temporarily) rich, but had perennially bad taste.

I also learned that wonderful things can be sown from nefarious seeds and soil.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: Part III

I was sitting in my usual corner in the cafe when he walked in. It took me a second to recognize him out of context and with a good 25 extra pounds on his frame but his smile was unmistakeable. Miguel!! We were one of his first stops on his first weekend pass from prison. I smelled cafe brewing and I was excited to invite him to his first cortadito after a year behind bars.

“Amor. Time to get up,” my husband jostled me gently.

I opened my eyes and realized it was all a dream – the coffee was brewing in my kitchen, not Cuba Libro.

Before my friend Miguel was picked up for carrying 20 or so tabs of Ritalin, I had absolutely zero experience with the Cuban penal and justice systems. Now I know how to smuggle in instant coffee (just the fact that coffee, a staple of Cuban culture and diet is a prohibited item in jail seems punishment enough, especially for Miguel who is a tremendous ‘cafetera’) and know that inside, nine packs of Criollo cigarettes procures a homemade electrical coil to heat that illicit cafe. I know, too, that Miguel’s haircut cost five packs of Criollos and later learned that in the Cuban clink, different types of cigarettes carry differing values. In ascending order: uncut Criollos (forget bringing Titans or Populares to your loved ones inside – even there, people are loathe to smoke them); H Upmann; Hollywood white, red, green, and the highly sought after black. Seems no one is trafficking imported Lucky Strikes or Dunhills, which cost upwards of $3CUC on the outside.

Since my first visits some nine months ago, I’ve learned that I can leave my cell phone with the parking lot attendant for $1CUC for the duration of the visit and that Miguel and Esther can procure a coveted overnight conjugal visit for $50CUC – what she makes in a week working at a fancy Air B&B. Some families have had success securing their loved ones’ release for $500 to $1000CUC (a small fortune here), but not Miguel; there’s zero tolerance for drug offenses here as of late.

During this most recent visit, Miguel was considerably, visibly depressed. He was resigned, bordering on hopeless.

“Screw the appeal. Four years, six years, it doesn’t matter,” was the tenor of our conversation. His appeal was denied I found out this week: his sentence of six years stands.

His outlook was the opposite of what I expected. I thought Miguel was going to fall apart when first incarcerated. And that as he grew accustomed to his new surroundings and adapted to the criminal element inside, he would settle in for the duration. But it played out in the reverse. He was strong at first, worn down as the months passed. Since his arrest in May 2017, Miguel has been beaten up, contracted giardia and had a tooth pulled – medical conditions for which he was given a total of two pills, neither of which resolved the problem or pain – was put in quarantine during a mumps outbreak, and has suffered daily bullying.

“Amor. Please don’t bring my food in pink Tupperware,” he said to his wife Esther during one visit.

He wasn’t being picky – he was verbally abused every time another inmate got a glimpse of his “maricón” storage containers. In the same visit, he asked our friend Raul to sneak in a pair of shorts (along with coffee, bringing in shorts is verboten). Though the most comfortable option, sleeping in boxers is another cause for bullying and the prison-issued shorts are so hot as to make sleep elusive. Esther just popped in to remind Raul about wearing the shorts under his pants and passing them to Miguel clandestinely in the bathroom during the next visit. This is when I learned that the grey uniforms worn by convicts, of which I’ve written previously for their fairly fashionable cut, is made from the same material used to line caskets here (and I know a bit about caskets in Cuba). This is why inmates are known as the walking dead in these parts. Another fun Cuba fact brought to you by Here is Havana.

The news pertaining to Miguel’s situation is pretty grim. His rejected appeal, for starters. Truth be told, his lawyer is a bit weak. Esther thinks the state law firm appointed their bottom feeder to the case, (this happens frequently with drug convictions since they’re considered lost causes). What’s more, they’ve started moving inmates to the provinces to do agricultural labor. A contingent from Miguel’s unit was shipped off to Pinar del Río recently and word on the cell block is that he could be transferred to Camagüey to cut marabú soon. This isn’t all bad. He’ll be outside for a good part of each day and the living conditions should be a bit better. On the downside, he’ll be far – too far, about seven hours in a good vehicle – from visiting friends and of course, his wife. But even this has its benefits: prisoners moved outside their home province to do agricultural labor are usually rewarded with a reduced sentence.

When Esther came by for a coffee today (another community service provided by Cuba Libro: she drinks free until Miguel is released, a policy she tries to ignore, but we don’t let her get away with it), she had some encouraging news: if all goes as planned, Miguel should be downgraded from the Combinado del Este (Havana’s largest prison), to a campamento in September. This means more personal living space and fresh air, plus more relaxed visits. Then if all goes well, two months later he should receive his first weekend pass. Maybe my dream was prescient after all. I can’t wait to prepare his cortadito.

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Patrulla 122: Protecting, Serving, Discriminating?!

I’m just back from another visit with my friend Miguel, who has been in Havana’s biggest prison for almost a year now. I started writing the update (many readers have reached out to me regarding Miguel and Esther’s plight since my two first posts) but that will have to wait; recent events – still unfolding – obligate me to write about my friend Pedro and what befell him on March 6…

At about 3am on the Tuesday in question, Pedro (not his real name) was leaving a get together with his best friend Gretyl (not her real name). Both of them were with their partners. As they kissed their respective lovers goodbye for the night, they heard a squeal of tires and the ‘woot! woot!’ which strikes fear into the hearts of every person of color in today’s Amerika. But this is Cuba, the couples no estaban en nada, as we say and so they were unconcerned. The cop car, Patrulla 122, rolled up to the two couples and requested the ID cards of the four young Cubans. After calling central dispatch and ascertaining that none of them had any priors, the cops turned to Pedro.

“You’re a disgrace. You need to do that somewhere no one can see you.”

While Pedro stood thunderstruck, smarting from the comments, Gretyl and her partner looked on, bystanders now, of no interest to the police.

By now you’ve probably guessed that Pedro is gay and he was kissing his boyfriend goodbye. Two couples. The same PDA. Two completely different experiences.

If you’ve followed my writing at all, you know that I only transmit first-hand or verifiable experiences. In Cuba, it’s important to consider your source, always, and know how to filter out the chisme (gossip), la bola (rumors), and run run (hearsay). These tendencies distort everything from policy making to ‘who’s zooming who.’ Just so we’re clear: this tale came directly from Pedro, as I read the letter he sent to Police Public Affairs and the Provincial Police Authorities.

Moreover, many of you have read about my involvement with the Cuban LGBTQI community. Maybe you’ve seen with your own eyes everything we do to support the queer community at Cuba Libro, including hosting documentary and debate nights, maintaining and promoting our cafe as a safe space, and distributing free condoms – nearly 14,000 since we opened in 2013. I was at the first Cuban conga against homophobia in 2007 and nearly every one thereafter (including with Toby. Unfortunately he got too excited being amongst all his sexually diverse friends; he stayed home this year).

IDAHO, Cuba-style (2017)

So Pablo’s letter, which he was about to deliver to the legal department of CENESEX which deals with these issues, really upset me. CENESEX is quite aware of the problem – citing same sex couples for public indecency (what Pablo and his boyfriend were cited for) – and has been running workshops to educate the police force about citizen rights and the letter of the law, for years now. In short, it’s 100% illegal to cite anyone for kissing, hugging, walking hand-in-hand and the like, let alone detain or arrest someone based on their sexual orientation. Knowing Pedro as we do, we wondered if it was more than just a kiss goodnight. It wasn’t. We asked.

The fact that the straight couple was not fined or defamed (despite partaking of the same behavior), suggests that this is a clear cut case of discrimination based on sexual orientation. The verbal shaming and threat of going to the station – it’s all pretty ugly.

When the police told the young men to ‘get in the car, we’re going to the police station,’ Pedro paled – his parents don’t know he’s gay. And who do you call when you’re 19 and thrown in the clink? He confessed he was still in the closet and asked the police to not take him downtown. So they fined him and his boyfriend instead, 50 pesos cubanos ($2CUC).

I’m finding it hard to put into words how sad and angry all this makes me – a young man living in a (mostly) homophobic society who can’t or won’t come out to his parents and a police force which (too often) doesn’t understand the law and to boot, harbors a deep, ingrained, fucked up homophobia which they inflict on their fellow citizens…

The only thing I can say is we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. Sign me up.

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Who the Hell Am I? A Confession

A Californian passing through Cuba Libro recently asked me if I felt more American or Cuban after 16 years in residence. The question, though common, sort of blindsided me; these types of existential/identity inquiries are interesting, but of little use when you’re a journalist on deadline, finishing two books and keeping a small business afloat. I hadn’t thought about my identity in these terms in a long time.

That was my first clue about how distanced I’ve become from my birth culture: people on that side of the Straits are spending way too much (misdirected) time and energy on identity politics.

But because I have the nagging sense that I’m at some kind of turning point (or point of no return – like if I don’t rein in this Cuban-ness, I soon won’t recognize myself at all), I eked out a moment from my chaotic work schedule to consider her question.

Maybe this is why I didn’t bristle and correct her when she asked if I felt more Cuban or American. Before, I would have quickly observed (with a nearly audible sneer, I confess), that every one of us, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, are ‘Americans’ but I let it slide. Before, I would have delivered one of my pat answers – ‘depends on which day you ask’ or ‘a decent mix of both.’ But when she asked, I stopped to consider her question carefully because I realized I’m feeling pretty confused lately.

How the hell, after 16 years here can I still be confused? If you know something about Cuba, you probably understand.

I think it’s due in part to the recent historic elections here, in which I was invited to vote. It turned out to be a bureaucratic mix-up (I have no right to vote) but it stopped me short. Wait. Elections? Cuba? Electoral college? Veneer of democracy? Where am I? Who am I? Am I experiencing a shift in my core values?

After so much time here, I talk with my mouth full and have zero problem conversing about menstruation in mixed company. The first is an embarrassment and really poor form, I know, but the latter makes me proud. Just today I heard a piece on NPR about birth control and how some US women aren’t comfortable telling their doctors that their birth control is killing their sex drive. This is absurd, counter-productive and one of the many ways in which women are complicit in the misogynist construct: having body shame about completely natural parts and functions (menstruation, vaginas, uteri, orgasms, etc) does us all damage. This type of neurosis I definitely left behind in the US and am glad I did – especially once I had my first pap smear in Cuba. The lovely doctor took a long drag on a filter-less cigarette clamped between her gloved fingertips, flicked the butt expertly out the window and said ‘ok, honey! Feet in the stirrups.’ Sex toys, condom use, hemorrhoids, HIV – it’s all part of the conversation here.

SHOUTING! Through closed doors, from the balcony, across the hall, down the block, over impossibly loud music – Cubans are very loud and I’ve totally adopted the habit. Make no mistake: I arrived here half deaf from too much rock n roll, plus I’m the product of a boisterous NY family where to be heard or get a word in edgewise, interrupting and volume give you an advantage. But there’s loud for practical strategy and there’s loud as rude; I fear I’m entering into Cuban-loud (ie rude) territory.

I’m not talking about when we’re shouting at each other for sport and play, that kind of intellectual sparring and sharing of dubiously sourced facts which is far from fighting here. No, I’m talking rude loud as in shouting across a room to get someone’s attention rather than walking over to them or carrying on a conversation at full volume when someone nearby is trying to study, nap or meditate. Note to self: tone it down.

Time management and punctuality are two US characteristics to which I cling desperately, but try not to inflict on others. Cubans are chronically late and it’s useless to get your knickers in a twist over it. Most Cubans arrive between 15 and 30 minutes late to whatever meeting, event or appointment. Plan accordingly and avoid the frustration. I made the mistake recently of criticizing my hubby for his shitty time management. We had a calm, measured and adult conversation about it. Still, hours later, I was venting to a Catalan friend of mine with many years of Havana living under his belt. “Darling, you can’t get mad at a Cuban for being Cuban. You knew shitty time management came with the package when you bought in.” Note to self: focus on the things you can change.

Sometimes Cuba and Cubans make me want to pull my hair out and I start wandering that dark, dangerous path wondering: “why do I stay here? This isn’t my lucha. These aren’t my people.” And then something like Parkland happens. And a 12-year old from Connecticut visiting Cuba Libro tells me his friend told him to buy a bullet proof vest for his Cuba trip because “they shoot people down there.” And then I realize, why yes, this is indeed my place and Cubans – loud, rude, late and unfaithful – are my people. And no one has a gun. I feel I have to share this information with the misinformed tweens of the world.

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My Havana Valentine

We had a squabble getting ready for Alicia’s party. It was one of those lover tiffs which squalls out of nowhere…but somewhere. It’s that discussion ostensibly about mixed up dinner plans but actually lays bare incompatibility. The writing on the wall? Perhaps for one person in the relationship, anyway. Or maybe it really is about the dinner plans, or where you parked the car, or remembering to buy garlic. In love, I’m slow to see the writing on the wall. I choose to believe it’s about the car or the garlic – until a point.

We kissed in an obligatory, ‘fake-it-‘til-you-make-it’ way before stepping out the door. It’s better this way when you ride together on a motorcycle. Couples can stay mad and steam driving in a car, but two on a Harley is a different story. We had to touch and occasionally huddle against the wind and rain or clutch and lean together to avoid potholes. And when, inevitably, we would hit one of Havana’s classic giant holes in the road, we’d absorb the shock and keep rolling. There was no choice, especially on creepy, dark streets like the backside of Quinta de los Molinos between Centro Habana and Plaza. It was times like these – and taking the curves around the cemetery or dodging asphalt moguls in Playa – that I was glad to have a couple tons of good ‘ole American steel beneath us. I know it’s more Cuban chatarra than US metal, but it’s some sort of comfort still. It helps that my pilot is very experienced, a native Habanero with a mental map of the potholes and other hazards. Still, driving in this city requires the reflexes of a ping pong pro, especially when riding an antique Panhead weighing a ton or two. Centro Habana, where pedestrians rule, is particularly hairy. Indeed, we had to dodge several meandering down the middle of Reina like it was Obispo. Suddenly a loud rumbling came over my left shoulder, shaking me from my nocturnal musings, something Havana’s penumbra and perfume, sinister doings and secret possibilities engender. A garbage truck, light of load, flew by us. The Harley’s speedometer is broken, but they were going over 50 miles an hour.
“Wow. They’re flying,” I yelled into J’s ear.
“And drunk!” he yelled back. “All garbage truck drivers are drunks.”

They barrelled through the red light at Infanta and Carlos III, bearing out his observation. Even under the best, well-lit circumstances, this intersection is extraordinarily dangerous.

We were approaching Alicia’s building – one of those crumbling relics so popular with certain photographers (AKA poverty porn). Our tiff no longer smouldered, but there was a jilted awkwardness between us as we discussed where to park. Alicia yelled down from her postage stamp balcony, underwear drying on the line: “just leave it there! It will be ok.” We were unsure: these old bikes draw crowds from Havana to Gibara and it was Saturday night in the bowels of a rough part of town. But Alicia knows her ‘hood; we left it gleaming under a streetlamp. Someone had scrawled ‘Granma Campeón!’ on a near wall. Dogs barked. A trio of young girls wobbled down the street, their unfortunate fashion choices impeding their progress. I turned to J after two flights up.
“What?” he said, his voice jumping.
I gave him a kiss. ‘Let’s have a good time,’ it said. We entered a house full of friends, more mine than his but not really good ones of either. We danced and joked. He drank wine, I nursed some Cachito. We popped out to the balcony for a smoke and to check on the bike. We were almost double the age of the oldest person there but no matter – this smart, fun Cuban crowd, tight since they were teens, treated us as contemporaries instead of the grandparents we could be.

J was filling his wine glass to the rim, I noticed. I didn’t care, he wasn’t an alcoholic like others I’d fallen for. In fact, he only drank socially, a concept I still can’t wrap my addict head around. But there was only one bottle of red and I noticed all eyes follow his full glass as he made his way across the room. It wasn’t like him to drink much as I mentioned, and he was always thinking of others – to a fault. He needed to take the edge off to deplete that single bottle so dramatically. We took our leave just after midnight, not long after the disco ball was lit. I knew we’d have sex when we got home. We were horny. We loved – and even liked – each other. And more so than the party’s wine and good company, a couple of orgasms would buff out any lingering static between us.

When I next saw Alicia, she told me how everyone at the party was talking about us after we left, saying what a beautiful couple we made. How we were so in sync – healthily, happily. That’s always nice to hear. Especially after a spat. Either it was true or we were really adept at faking it until making it. Maybe it’s a fine line and I’m splitting hairs, but the distinction plagues me: more than once recently I’ve caught myself swaddling my head in scarves, dancing funny with people watching and having existential conversations with my dog. I’m afraid I’m turning into Little Edie, Cuba Libro my Grey Gardens. Perhaps that’s why I believe it’s about forgetting the garlic and not the writing on the wall. Why I choose to believe it’s about fucked up dinner plans and not faking it; I’m choosing to believe if Im partnered up, I won’t end up like the Little Edie’s of the world.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: The Sequel

Miguel has a court date.

Finally.

Regular readers of Here is Havana are likely haunted still by my friend’s unfortunate tale of incarceration in Havana’s roughest prison. Unfortunately, after more than six months behind bars, his – and Esther’s – saga continues its tragic trajectory. It doesn’t help in the slightest that Miguel is still awaiting sentencing for his crime – being caught with 10 tabs of Ritalin, all for personal consumption, but which the cops determined were for sale. I’ve just returned from another visit to the Combinado de Este across the Bay and a certain fatalistic tenor as settled over him. In short, Miguel is caught in a living nightmare, his Locked up Abroad – no matter that he’s Cuban.

Miguel isn’t a drug dealer. He’s a young-ish Cuban who doesn’t drink or smoke or swear, but does enjoy raves and electronic parties which often go deep into the pre-dawn hours. Like many youth the world over, he enjoys a little bump every now and then while getting his groove on. Now he’s looking at six years with Havana’s hardest criminals (worst case scenario) or two if the voodoo we’re working proves to be any good.

Luck has not favored Miguel – or Esther – throughout this torturous process. If it seems like I’m mentioning Esther a lot, I am, and on purpose. For every 10 people who ask her how Miguel is doing, she’s lucky if one asks after her; it’s extraordinarily rare for someone to ask how she’s doing. Miguel told me he wouldn’t be surviving behind bars if it weren’t for his wife of four years. She’s working two jobs to be able to visit him every 15 days (with an additional conjugal romp each month) hauling 20-pound sacks of cigarettes, socks, hot dogs, powdered fruit drink, cookies, olives, and other goods for sustenance and trade on each and every trip. It also falls to Esther to deal with the lawyer and paperwork, track down potential witnesses, and visit her trusted palero so he can work his magic; it’s important not to leave any stone unturned. Esther is fortunate to have sympathetic bosses: the time off and money required to turn over all these stones are not insignificant. Despite the financial support her family, friends, and aforementioned bosses have provided throughout this ordeal, it’s a terrible struggle and Esther has dropped so much weight a day doesn’t go by without a friend or stranger commenting on how rail thin she is. I attributed it to stress but it’s not just that as it turns out – Esther has a thyroid problem. But that’s a different story.

The financial and physical toll of this whole experience is appreciable, but nothing compares to the psychological effects it’s having. The mind games incarceration and the judicial process play is no joke. Miguel’s first lawyer, to give you one example, stopped answering his phone after working on the case for six weeks. Mr Lawyer Who Shall Remain Nameless couldn’t answer his phone. Not because it was lost or broken, but because he fled the country – with all his clients’ money. Worse yet, he never even opened Miguel’s case. My friend had been inside a couple of months already when the treachery came to light. Back to square one. Esther, feeling the financial pain and pinch acutely now, contracted another lawyer. He discovered that Mr Lawyer Who Shall Remain Nameless, in addition to stealing his clients’ money, hadn’t done jack shit and to his chagrin and our horror, Miguel’s second lawyer couldn’t even locate his case file. It was lost in the system, MIA in the Cuban bureaucracy, a place to which you wouldn’t condemn even your worst enemies.

About the time the missing case file came to light, I visited Miguel again. The guards and checkpoints were stricter this time, less relaxed and gregarious, less Cuban, vaya. Seems someone had tried recently, unsuccessfully, to smuggle in some pills in a bag of powdered milk. They had laid a fart in the middle of the fiesta as Cubans say and now the visiting process was more tedious and longer. Worse however, is the fact that they wouldn’t let me enter with the Time magazine dedicated to new technologies (Miguel is a certified nerd) because the advertisement with a woman in a tank top had spank bank possibilities, disqualifying it as appropriate penitentiary reading material. Rather than letting me rip out the offending ad, they stored the magazine for post-visit retrieval. I didn’t really give a whit for the magazine, but I knew it would have occupied Miguel’s overworked brain for hours and kept his day bright long after we concluded the visit. What really grated, however, was the guards also prohibited me from carrying in the most recent B&H catalog, Miguel’s preferred porn with all its new gadgets and high-tech geegaws. They also wouldn’t let me carry in the four-page letter I wrote him the night before. Is there anything more stimulating and stress-relieving for a convict than a personal letter? The conjugal visits, I suppose, but that’s not my job.

This visit was different from those previous and not just for the revision of our provisions. For one thing, I was starting to recognize repeat visitors and their prisoners. There was the dyed blond mulatta with the three inch nails; the guajira in her visiting day dress, the same one she wears every time; and the 72-year old inmate, shrunken and wrinkled, chain smoking uncut Criollos. This time we could have played footsie or passed contraband under the table since the ones in this pavilion were open below rather than blocked off with cement. After initial hugs, kisses and a fair share of ass grabbing, female visitors started setting out tablecloths and Cuban feasts – congris, pork steaks perfectly cooked and seasoned, salads and fritters and flan. Daughters hung on their fathers’ necks, babies nuzzled against chests, and hands were held tenderly across the expanse of table. Voices ricocheted off the cinderblock walls and laughter filled every corner like cobwebs. That room overflowed with love. It was palpable, tinged with sadness of course, but authentic, positive emotion ruled the afternoon.

On the outside, this wasn’t so: Miguel’s central (Cuban for family/support system) was losing energy, our upbeat outlook turning dark. Then by some miracle – or more banal and earthly reasons like money – his case file appeared. Esther snapped into action, amassing documents and paperwork, compiling photographic evidence and contacting potential witnesses. She needed photos of Miguel’s apartment – a nearly condemnable 1-BR affair in Centro Habana – because the investigators accused him of living ‘beyond his means.’ Police-speak for ill-gotten goods or being involved in illicit business. Wait until they see the photos: mildew-stained walls, crumbling counters, doors so termite-infested they’re soft and splintery to the touch, the chipped tiles and floors, and windows so far off true they haven’t shut right in years. Witnesses are an especially important part of the evidence equation – just one person from the group present that night on the Malecón could make all the difference. Any one of the half dozen “friends” who were with Miguel could testify that he wasn’t selling the pills. Bastards. To a one they declined to appear on his behalf. The older I get, the more indignant I am about pussy people – those who refuse to raise their heads above the parapet to defend who or what they believe in.
“Cuba Libro. Buenas tardes.”
“CONNER!!”
“Who’s this?”
“Miguel!”
Say what?! Miguel only gets one 10-minute phone call a week. I couldn’t fathom why he’d call us instead of Esther. But he was phoning with positive news: he got a good jail job, distributing three hots to his cell block. It was a plum job, for which Miguel had to make periodic payments to land and keep, but it improved his life exponentially. Moving between kitchen and cell blocks provide him a freedom enjoyed by few and also gives him regular access to the payphones. He was now calling Esther several times a week, often for 30-minute conversations. The buckets of beans and rice and stew were heavy and his shoulders and arms ached painfully because of them but chow time was a welcome break in the routine and Miguel’s personable, chatty style is making him popular with the other inmates. He told me all of this on the phone, but buried the lead: he finally had a court date for sentencing: more than 7 months after being hauled in, Miguel was going to learn his fate. He warned us: “it’s going to be frightening. I will be in handcuffs and leg shackles. You have to prepare for the worst. Dealing drugs is considered a crime against the state.”

We’re thinking positively, Esther is off to do some intense “work” with the palero and Miguel is hanging tough. About a dozen of us are going to the sentencing. Hopefully I’ll be back here soon with good news.

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