Communicating from Cuba?!

One of my oldest, closest friends is having a tough go of it lately. Man problems, work-life balance problems, health problems. In a nutshell, she’s living life, which, as Hobbes observed, tends to be nasty, brutish, and short.

All I want to do right now is pick up the phone and call her in LA to commiserate, consult, and kvetch. Unfortunately, that’s an impossibility since I’ve insufficient saldo on my cell and besides, rates are outrageous (over a dollar a minute). It’s also impossible to call her from my home phone, which has no international service. At least I have a home phone – many people here can’t say that. But igual, rates are outrageous. What about email? you may be wondering. I can pause the pirated US Open match I’m watching, plug in the modem and phone line, wait and HOPE it connects (on a weekday night like tonight, even if I succeed in logging on to the remote computer, the connection speed tops out at 28kbps – that’s kilo, not megabytes, people). If it does connect, yay! Then I have to click through four screens to finally be able to kvetch and commiserate via email. Meanwhile, I’ll be praying no one calls, thereby kicking me offline. But you know what? That just doesn’t cut it when you want to talk to someone you love.

If this state of communicative affairs sounds terrible as you stream the latest Netflix series or rock out to Pandora, while taking calls and reading this blog via your broadband and bandwidth, it is. But things are a lot better than when I first moved to Havana in 2002. Back then I lived in a microbrigada in what’s known as a ‘silent zone’ – meaning a neighborhood with no landlines. For the next six years making a phone call (nationally only, of course) was a serious chore. I had to make sure I had the right coins (because not all coins are accepted; that would be too easy and efficient), go down five flights of stairs and walk several blocks to a pay phone. And if there was a neighbor gossiping with her girlfriend from Gunatánamo? Ay mamá! The wait for that precious phone could be half an hour or more. I remember a fight broke out once – nothing physical (it takes a lot, or a lot of rum, for a Cuban to raise a hand or throw a punch), but rather a loud, bellicose shaming: ‘chiquita! You aren’t sitting at home in your living room. This is a p-u-b-l-i-c phone. Wrap it up already!’ This encouraged others to chime in. ‘There’s a line here, you know!’; ‘we have to make calls too. Give us a chance muchacha!’ people in line grumbled.

Having a cell phone back then was unthinkable. It was extraordinarily expensive of course and it was illegal for Cubans to have them. That seems absurd now, given how far connectivity has come in the intervening years. The only people I knew with cell phones were international correspondents (who also had Internet and satellite TV; the latter is still illegal for Cubans). Fortunately, the days of illegal cell phones and silent zones are long behind us. Now we have Wifi in parks, people get emails on their smart phones, and don’t be surprised if the Cubans kids at the table next to you are glued to their tablets or iPads. In short, communication to and from Cuba is better than ever – not as fast or accessible or affordable as any of us would like, but still, we’re leaping into the 21st century. Here’s how we keep in touch in Cuba nowadays:

Cell Phones: Cubacel is the one and only cell service provider on the island. Once you sign a contract for a phone (cost: $30 CUC) and buy an actual phone if you don’t already have one, you have to fuel it in increments of $5 and $10 CUC to make calls. National calls cost between 10 and 35 cents a minute, depending on the time of day. International calls are over $1 CUC/minute no matter where in the world you’re calling. Text messages are more affordable (nine cents per 160 characters within Cuba, 60 cents to the rest of the world) but can be prickly in practice.

Just getting a cell contract is a neat feat since the lines at Cubacel offices can be obnoxiously long and it’s not uncommon to find they are out of SIM chips, in which case you’re shit out of luck. If your phone is from outside Cuba, it will likely be locked or won’t accept the size chip used here, which also renders you shit out of luck. This, however, is ‘resolvable’ since private entrepreneurs all over the island have opened businesses specifically to unlock phones and cut SIM chips down to the proper size (costing an additional $100 CUC or so all in).

Text messages are a fast, cheap way to communicate – I’m sure many of you reading this send scores of messages a day without even thinking about it – but texting can fail mightily here. The most frustrating aspect for me personally and millions of Cubans is that it’s impossible to send messages to or from the USA using a Cuban cell phone. You read that right. You can text a congris recipe to your friend in London, Madrid, Buenos Aires or Montreal, but can’t tell your mom in Kendall that you love her or confirm an upcoming meeting with a delegation from DC via text. There are services to allow texting between the two countries, but Im too tired to jumopop through even one more hoop! Internally, text messages also get delayed when volume is particularly heavy – on Valentine’s Day, say, or when the Stones are in town. How many times have I been rudely awoken by a 4am text that was actually sent the night before? Too many to count. And how many parties or family meals have passed without my presence due to delayed message receipt? Ditto. The moral of this story is two-fold: if the information you need to convey is time sensitive, spend the extra money on an actual call. And if you want a good night’s sleep, put your phone on airplane mode.

The same advice holds for US folks with Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint, which now have roaming agreements with Cuba. Rates are usurious – you wouldn’t be the first to return from a Cuba trip to find you’d racked up $1000 in roaming charges. The only people these agreements benefit are business and government fat cats with even fatter expense accounts.

Now for the good news. A service appeared several years ago which allows you to recharge a Cuban cell phone via the internet. This means you don’t have to hunt around for someone selling the $5 or $10 CUC scratch off cards and you can do it any time of the day or night. Don’t have an internet connection and credit card? No matter – friends anywhere in the world can gas up your cell with the click of a few buttons. But it gets better: every six weeks or so, the companies providing this internet-based service have promotional offers which double or even triple the money charged to your phone. For those without friends or family abroad willing to plunk down money on your cell, there are private businesses all across the island which allow you to take advantage of these promotions for a $2 CUC surcharge. These services (Facebook is another), have literally transformed communication between Cuba and the world strengthening relationships and even reuniting families. My friend Douglas in Havana, for instance, reconnected with his long-lost brother, Clive, in Stockholm. They first made contact using Facebook and now talk via cell thanks to offers like those provided by ding which make calls affordable (admittedly, I’m often transferring money from my cell account to Douglas’ – and other friends – so they can talk. This is another new and wonderful option we have: using a simple code, you can transfer saldo from one cell to another here.) Clive has been to visit Douglas three times in the past 18 months and it’s heart warming to see their relationship blossom.

While there are a handful of companies offering this suite of services, my family and friends swear by ding (not for nothing but ding is headquartered in Dublin so receives bonus points for the Irish connection). Hearing about my mom’s latest canine escapade or wishing my niece a happy birthday, sharing details about our latest art show at Cuba Libro or regaling friends with Harley tales: I can personally attest to an improved quality of life thanks to ding’s generous recharge offers. And all you have to do is click Cuba in their drop down menu, enter the phone number and click ‘Top Up.’ This last has led to some panicked calls from Cuban friends: ‘Conner! My socio in Canada wants to put money on my phone before the offer expires, but they can’t find where to do it!’ I tell them to click the big green button that says ‘Top Up’. Even bilingual friends look confused at this point, unclear what ‘top up’ means – it’s less than intuitive this last step. The ‘top up’ service is sold in 500,000 retail locations around the world as well. Ding also has services for putting money on Cuban landlines and nauta accounts.

Nauta: This is even newer and more novel than cell phones. An email and internet service available directly from your smart phone (which one repeat visitor called ‘the new Bible in Cuba’), Nauta is very handy, especially if you work extensively with Cubans via email. Opening a nauta account may involve an interminable line, but it will be worth it once you pay your $2 CUC to open the account and receive a dedicated nauta email address. Then you can send and receive email and surf the internet for $1 CUC per megabyte – the money is deducted directly from your cell phone. Internet can also be accessed from hotels ($6 CUC/hr) and dedicated ETECSA internet offices (the most user-friendly is in Miramar Trade Center). Ding also offers Nauta top up services.

Wifi: Wireless access in public parks across the nation may just prove to be the revolution within the revolution. This technology was introduced a couple of years ago and allows people – again, those privileged enough to have smart phones – to connect to Wifi for as little as $2 CUC an hour using a one-use card. Re-sellers are rampant due to the high demand however, and do a booming business cranking the cost of the cards by 50 to 100%. Since my phone is more dumb than smart, I’ve never used the park Wifi but I know the connection can be wonky depending on traffic and well, communicating in a public space can present privacy issues. If you want real insight into contemporary Cuban culture, skip a night on the Malecón and plant yourself on a park bench during peak Wifi hours. A grandmother connects to the internet for the first time in her life and meets her baby grandson virtually; a mulatta lies to her husband that she doesn’t have anyone else, that he’s her one and only Papi; a third grader tells his mom about his day at school – whether you’re at 16 & 15 or Parque Coyula or any of the other parks around town with Wifi, such eavesdropping will be a revelatory experience.

For my part, thanks to my family and ding, I finally have money on my phone to be able to talk to my friend in LA. When the call connects, it goes directly to voice mail, costing me $1 CUC in saldo.

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

In the Summer, In the City

It may be hard to believe (or all too easy, depending on your experience and perspective), but there are days I rue my decision to live here. You’d think 14 years would be time a-plenty to know whether a place is for you. Alas, I descend from a long line of slow learners…

 

But Cuba is a confounding place, at equal turns bewitching and bitchy. Sometimes, on those twilight evenings when the full moon is on the rise, the air perfumed by gardenias and a stranger offers to heft your burden three flights to your door, it feels like you snagged the brass ring. Other times, when you awake to a blackout and there’s no coffee in the stores, when a stranger lets fly a snot rocket, sprinkling your sandals with phlegm, it feels like someone just poisoned your childhood dog.

 

Today is a dead dog day.

 

I’d be lying (not like a rug, but like a Cuban!) if I said I’ve had a string of dead dog days – sure, my manuscript was rejected by yet another agency and half of my friends are in the midst of existential crises (the other half, meanwhile, have left the country). And while things are feeling a bit chronic lately, I’m living more for the moment, in the moment than usual, having a bevy of new experiences – like driving a motorcycle for the first time, a 1956 Harley no less, and producing my first short. I’m also getting better at looking on the bright side, like when my pap smear came back clean. So I’m doing ok, but Havana is in its summer throes and it ain’t particularly pretty.

 

Being poor and from NY, I know how much of a burden summer can be, when the days are too hot and long, when tempers run just as hot and way too short. After so many interminable summers, you’d think I’d be used to it. I should be used to it (I’m from the slow side of the family, remember). Maybe it’s because a life lived in Spanish is still hard for me. Or because I miss my people, my family – both Cuban and Yuma – almost all of whom are not here. Maybe I need catharsis. I definitely need a break. Since the latter is too long a ways away, I’ll settle for the former.

 

Here are some of the reasons Havana is anything but fun in the summer:

The heat: There are songs, stories, eulogies written about Havana heat. It is legend. It is horrid. These days, Havana is Hades hot and pea soup humid. It’s thick and clinging like a dim only child or the not-too-bright girl whose cherry you popped. When there’s a breeze from the sea, it’s tolerable, but when Havana’s still, the heat steals sleep and robs appetite. Sex lives stall and it’s just one more excuse not to work (most Cubans don’t need another, believe me). Havana also proves that climate change is real. If you’re one of those who needs proof, you’re as dumb as that once-upon-a-time virgin. When I moved here in 2002, July and August were intolerably hot. Now, May through October is like the old August – mercury approaching 100°F and humidity so dense breathing is hard. That mouldering stink you sense from the other five people crammed into the collective taxi? It’s the humidity: newly-laundered clothes (not to mention towels) never completely dry. And beware and prepare your olfactory sensitivities if you board a bus after a summer thunderstorm – the stench wafting from the hundreds of passengers will permeate your clothes, memory, soul.

 

When I made Havana my home, I was of the belief that complaining about the heat just made things hotter. Like many of my beliefs once firmly held (women over 40 shouldn’t wear mini-skirts; flip flops are indoor shoes), this has fallen by the wayside. I challenge anyone – whether here for a vacation or a lifetime – to pass two days here in summer without griping of the heat.

  • ¡Hay que calor!
  • No soporto este calor…
  • ¡Que calor hace, mi madre!

 

Now you’re as likely to hear me complain as earnestly and often as a native Habanera but with my NYer potty mouth: El calor está de pinga mi hermana. Maybe if I had air conditioning at home or at work. Somewhere.

 

Blackouts and gas rationing: That air conditioning we USED to have at home, work, somewhere? Adios, amigo. Some two weeks ago, information started leaking that we’re headed once again for rolling blackouts a la Periódo Especial (maybe not that bad, but bad enough). I was here August, 1993. A month of 12 to 16 hour blackouts was plenty for me. Little did I know that by the time I moved here in 2002, things had only improved a little (this was before the Venezuela-Cuba pact brought cheap oil to our shores). The time without lights was a few hours fewer but the heat was just as intense. At least this time around I wasn’t working in the fields under a blazing sun, kept upright by periodic shots of milordo (sugar water).

 

These days, the rolling blackouts have already hit certain Havana neighborhoods, but where they’re causing real distress is in the state sector. Stores, offices, and agencies previously chilled by the pingüino, are now without air conditioning. Along with internet, air conditioning is reason enough for people to cling to their shitty salaried state jobs. Now folks are even less motivated to hit the daily grind. To save energy, some places are only working half time these days – either half the hours five days a week or full days only half the week. However you do the math, it means less efficiency, less gas for the economic engine, less optimism, less hope. And more sweat. Though I’m sure some people welcome the time off – after all, it doesn’t affect their salary.

 

What people are NOT welcoming is the 50% cut in gas rations. Here is Havana in a nutshell: the global price of oil, combined with the political shakedown in Venezuela means there is less black gold to go around in these parts. Cuba has had to adapt (luckily, Cubans are more adaptable than Darwin’s case studies). In response, the government cut all gas to state enterprises in half – from now until October if word on the street is to be believed. The effect this is having on daily life is hard to overstate. To understand it – and we’re still trying – you have to know a bit about the ‘mecánica’ Cubana. I can say with confidence that every recipient of a gas ration for their job sells a portion on the black market. They make a little extra for their family, the buyer gets cheaper gas and everyone is happy. Those days are over. Families have less of a supplement, people are only driving when necessary, and the authorities took measures to prevent price hikes by boteros. These drivers of collective taxis (known as maquinas or almendrones), buy their gas on the black market for 40 cents cheaper a liter than at gas stations. Have you ever seen one of these taxis filling up at the Cupet? I thought not.

 

One of these taxi drivers became overnight famous when he stupidly, ingenuously blurted out on the nightly news that his business is being crushed because of the higher black market gas prices. Within 24 hours, the government announced they were enforcing a set tariff for collective taxi rides. Anyone caught violating it would get fined and risk losing their license. Passengers were encouraged to write down the license plate of any violators and report them to the authorities. Oh this is rich! What happens when the cheated on husband reports his wife’s lover, the taxi driver to the cops just to screw him? Knowing el cubaneo, I’m sure this is going down as I type this. And what happens when these drivers realize they can band together and agree not to work for two days, paralyzing Havana? Then we’ll be screwed.

 

Vegetable drought: The hot summer months are truly shitty if you like vegetables. Right now, you’re lucky to find a cabbage or some limp green beans – and please don’t write in about the abundance and variety if you shop at 19 and B – the ‘boutique market’ as it’s not-so-fondly known. In regular, run-of-the-mill markets, the only thing you’ll find are tubers and cabbage and garlic so tiny you need a loop to see the cloves. Meanwhile, onions are so expensive people have stopped eating them. Our usual summer consolation – avocado season – is no consolation this year: early summer winds sent the bulk of the harvest to the ground to rot. What’s left are not the quality or quantity we’re used to. Normally by this time in the summer, we’re sick of avocadoes, having subsisted on them for months. I ate my first avocado this week. To make matters worse, the ambulatory vegetable sellers have disappeared. Their prices were usurious but at least it allowed us to resolve a cucumber or two.

 

Super slow season Tourists are flocking to Cuba, I’m sure you’ve heard, but the flow slows to a trickle in the summer (see The heat, above). This is creating desperation in la calle that’s palpable and uneasy. We’ve had half a dozen people come in to Cuba Libro looking for work, while we struggle to pay our bills. The tourists have trickled out, Cubans have little extra cash for coffee, and our expenses pile up. The slowdown is also noticeable since people are selling anything and everything they can: books older than me, raggedy ass magazines, used clothes, underwear (not used, thankfully), fish, powdered milk, plants, art – you name it, someone’s selling it. Everyone is feeling the pinch – except the Cuban 1% who continue to drive, party, and consume like they’re in Miami.

 

There’s more, but why beat this dead horse? We still have three months of summer to go. It’s going to get hotter, mis amigos

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Your Man vs Mine

It’s confession time. I confess I really didn’t like living in San Francisco – loved the access to nature, but the striving, wannabe, hipster attitude? Not so much (besides, I’ll take a hippie over a hipster ANY day). However, my 6+ years in residence in that burg did deliver a gift for life: I met my best friend and go-getter writer and adventurer, Alexandra D’Italia. Over two decades later, we continue to constitute and grow our mutual admiration society, driving each other to live, love, and create to the fullest.

And I have another confession to make: on my recent quick trip to LA (to spend time with Alexandra living, loving and creating to the fullest, among other things), I actually started thinking about spending a chunk of time in the USA; this thought had never crossed my mind in any meaningful way since moving to Cuba in 2002. I know it sounds a bit crazy given the complete insanity going on this election cycle, but the nature, the intellectual stimulation, my gift for humor in English, the fast internet and Trader Joe’s – it got under my skin, rang my bell, got my Kappa key a-jangling. Writing alongside award-winning Alexandra (who is now accepting a select number of creative clients so that you, too, can be inspired by her) was a big part of this ‘ah-ha’ moment and as we walked home one evening among the adobe-style bungalows, their gardens perfumed by datura, a writing challenge presented itself…

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My First Daddy Issue
Alexandra D’Italia

I was not a girl who could just watch TV without the parental okay—Three’s Company? Too much jiggling. Laverne & Shirley? The characters were morons.

M*A*S*H was the exception. Mom loved B.J. Hunnicutt. If they had those allowable cheat lists back in the seventies, he would have made my mother’s list after Remington Steele.

I was planning on becoming Laurie Partridge and marrying Keith Partridge —fictional incest didn’t matter much to me back then. After all, I was pre-preteen and sex didn’t matter.

Then Hawkeye became the IT man of my life.

My parents would roll their eyes: “Alan Alda directed this episode, it’s going to be overwrought.” But damn, did I disagree. Any episode he directed melted into my psyche. In a dream, Hawkeye is limbless and unable to save a child with a belly wound. My parents’ stories of war protests didn’t have meaning until Hawkeye. He put the picture in my brain. He made me a dove.

And he had all that brown hair I wanted to touch. When he smiled, I smiled. You could tell he lit up a room. I wanted to be in that room!

Empathetic yet sarcastic, irreverent yet responsible —he was always right. He not only lit up the room, he was the smartest one in the room. No rule couldn’t be broken. No authority couldn’t be challenged. Get the job done and get me my martini. He was my dream personality.

Then there was his soft side. That man could give a good hug. Didn’t you see when he hugged Hotlips? Her stiff veneer broken by his warmth?

That Hawkeye was a Ladies’ Man only added to his allure. I wanted Ken, Jeff, Andrew, Chris, and Peter to follow me around the way the nurses followed him. [This never happened.]

Hawkeye even looked like my dad—handsome and lanky, brown hair parted on the side, piercing eyes that saw things you didn’t want to be seen. They both had that aura of dashing.

But he seemed much more approachable than Dad at the time who in a Buzzfeed quiz—What M*A*S*H character are you?—would have gotten Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. At the time, Hawkeye was easier to hug.

Then Hawkeye got real. My mother called Alan Alda a feminist. Oh glory be! This during the last gasps of the Equal Rights Amendment. Say what you want about the power of parents over a first child, but swoon did I! Snarky, smart . . . and a feminist? Dreamy.

So was it the man or the character? The man. My favorite Woody Allen films? Mr. Alda is in them. When I discovered he was in the Broadway production of my favorite play, Art, I wept that I missed him in it.

And finally, this man made me love a republican.

What?

No, not Trump. Not Reagan. Not Bush, HW or W. His conservative Senator Arnold Vinick on The West Wing, every liberal’s political porn.

Now that’s a first love. Or at least a first daddy issue.

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‘Tween Spank Bank
Conner Gorry

‘Tween Spank Bank
I’ve long been an avid masturbator and am not afraid to admit it. In the States, you don’t talk about these things in polite company. But here in Cuba? Stories are enthusiastically shared and notes compared. After 14 years in residence on this beguiling isle, I’ve heard enough to fill pages. One day I’ll reveal the cream of the crop (pun intended), but rather than shock and appall – and some of these tales are truly shocking, if not appalling; the masturbating dog (true story) being the least of it – I’m going to stick to the topic at hand: my early days of getting off.

Although I’m generally known for my moxie and grit, this isn’t a topic I’ve considered exploring previously. However, on a recent memorable, transformative trip to my native land, my best friend, (a woman I respect for myriad reasons, including the notches on her lipstick case), confessed to a detail which demanded a response. It was one of those moments to which you wish you weren’t witness; when someone presents an image you wish you could un-see – like my Cuban co-worker talking about how he looks in his leopard print g-string (another true story). My friend told me her ideal man growing up, the one she dreamed about, swooned over, and who filled her fantasies, was Alan Alda, Hawkeye, of M*A*S*H fame. Don’t know WTF I’m talking about? Click away; you’re not my ideal reader.

“Alan Alda?! Estás loca? Yuck.”

She took umbrage; defended her man – ethical, responsible, funny, a great father figure. These are all terrific qualities, we can agree. But to jack off? No, mi hermana.

“So who was the man of your wet dreams?” she asked me, throwing down the gauntlet.

“Mine? He was virile. Strong. Cut. And in command.” The One. The Only. Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk, Starship Enterprise.

Looking back, it’s cliché, I admit. The uniform. The take-charge attitude by a blond-haired, blue-eyed Adonis who motivates men, makes women weak in the knees, and saves the day – most of the time. Kirk was the stereotypical ‘mangón’ as we say in Cuba. Now that I think about it, it’s no wonder I go gaga over Cuban men – I was weaned on the machismo, bossy, and egotistical Captain Kirk, who says crap like ‘Mr Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That’s the only planet in the galaxy that can make that claim.’ Drilling down further, I see now that Kirk was kind of a douchebag – especially in the relationship realm. He was a product of his time, I guess, but so am I; as I grew older and up, my taste has skewed aggressively towards people who are ahead of their time.

Reflecting on my preferences for getting off, both then and now, I realize my friend – once again – is both ahead of her time and much more intelligent than I. In the short run, for a night or three, Captain Kirk is your man. But for the long haul, what every woman wants is Hawkeye.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Expat life, Relationships, Writerly stuff

That Time of the Month in Havana (AKA Periodo Especial)

So the KKK deigned us with a visit. Not the white hooded racists, but the Prada-clad Kardashian clan. By all accounts, they hated Havana. They are not alone. Reasons to dislike my adopted city abound – the vicious gossip and hearsay; the transportation troubles; the dearth of nuts, berries, cheese, and fish; the inevitable beer or four added to your tab. But apparently, none of this registered on the limited radar/IQ of these young women who will never garner the respect or notoriety of their step dadmom, Caitlyn Jenner (I bet that puts Kim, Kourtney and Khloe’s La Perla panties in a twist). No, they hated Havana because their escapades in the world’s hottest city went undocumented on Snapchat and Twitter, negating whatever semblance of relevance they’ve ever known.

And in Havana, the Kardashians are irrelevant, something else they bitched about: ‘no one here knows who we are!’, proving once again that as insane as Havana is, it remains one of the world’s last bastions of sanity. What is relevant are the expectations people bring to this very unexpected place. I get it: most folks traveling here have sorely limited knowledge about Cuba. Maybe they know about the Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs or nothing at all. That started changing about two years ago when the likes of Usher and Jagger, Lagerfeld, Lady Gaga, and the real First Lady began stampeding the island like WalMart shoppers on Black Friday. Naturally, these visits made novel TV fodder for channels around the globe.

Meanwhile, Hollywood discovered a tropical playground with high-quality, low-budget talent (Fun Fact: the 12 day shoot for the 8th installment of the Fast & Furious franchise cost Universal $7 million; Cuban friends working on the set report that Vin Diesel is an idiot). Vanity Fair won’t fulfill subscriptions to Cuba (which has my cotton briefs in a twist), but sent Annie Leibovitz down for an exclusive shoot with Rihana where the pop star looks like just another ‘ho from Centro Habana, $2500 come-fuck-me shoes notwithstanding. All of these factors, plus others beyond the purview of this post, create a pseudo-reality of Cuba in the minds of the outside world. The result? Distorted perceptions and false expectations.

Distorted reality was what led me to create Here is Havana seven years ago – to give you the straight dope on what’s really going on in one of the world’s most fascinating cities. So while the Kardashians are whining about their inability to access the Internet (Pro Tip girls: head to the park at 16 & 15 to get all your connectivity woes resolved), I want to talk about real life issues affecting us on the ground: feminine hygiene products.

This is what period products are euphemistically called in the USA, but down here, where menstruation is talked about in mixed company, between and among generations, and at the family dinner table, we’ve no use for euphemism. Cubans – and now me by extension – talk about maxi pads and ‘Tampac’, blood flow and cramps they way you talk about Fair Trade coffee and standard-of-living raises: big issues, but not a shame-inducing big deal. In short, from periods to explosive diarrhea, Cubans have no pena when it comes to bodily functions. I’ve written previously about my admiration for this kind of Cuban straight talk, but given the ‘tourism tsunami’, I think a re-visit is in order, especially what women can expect at that time of the month.

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When I moved to Havana in 2002, it had been decades since I’d used a maxi pad (also known as a sanitary napkin, which makes it sound like a Purell-infused paper towel found on your airplane or hospital food tray). Until my early 30s, I was a tampon gal all the way and never used anything but Tampax (Fun Fact #2: tampon brand loyalty is one of the all-time fiercest consumer behaviors according to focus groups and surveys; get a girl on to your brand in her first or second cycle and she’ll love ya for life! Or at least through menopause).

I arrived with a jumbo box of tampons, but was rudely awakened when those ran out: tampons were just not a thing in Havana. Not available, at any price. I was shocked and a little pissed. How did Cubanas cope? Tampons were a necessity as far as my First World mind could fathom and many of you likely agree. Can’t it be argued that the tampon is one of the most powerful weapons in the women’s lib arsenal (after the washing machine and the immigrant nanny to run it)? It seemed antiquated, as if I’d been thrown back to my mother’s pre-Betty Friedan teenage years.

Except this was 2002. And I was bleeding without recourse. I had to adapt.

This exercise in dystopian social Darwinism taught me some key Cuban survival skills. Most importantly, I learned how Cubans confront the monthly bleed: they procure a limited amount of maxi pads via their ration card, supplemented by cotton swaddling they fashion into pads when the ration, inevitably, runs out. The former are often gifted or sold, the latter reserved for when things devolve into a bloody mess. Once in a while, you might find pads in the dollar stores and when you do, buy in triplicate. When all else failed, I resorted to wads of toilet paper and Scotch tape. File under: Epic Fail. This all put a serious hitch in my giddy up on trips to the beach, hotel pool, or secret waterfalls, but I made do without any seriously embarrassing bleed through. Although, as I like to point out, it’s terribly hard to embarrass a Cuban, no matter the context, and period blood made public is no real cause for concern. To wit: my buddy Oscar recently shared a story about partying with friends at one of the faux posh Miami lounges cropping up in Havana like fungi under cow shit. Seating was in booths and on cubes made of white pleather (that’s plastic leather in Conner-speak; learn it. Love it). When Oscar’s girl stood to go to the bathroom, she left the cube smeared with blood. As she walked away, Oscar grabbed a napkin and wiped it clean without missing a beat.

Still, it’s hard to return to bulky, non-beach-compliant pads and relive pleather-smearing accidents after you’ve experienced [insert your favorite brand here]. Indeed, tampons are in such high demand in Havana, we ask foreign visitors to pack some extra in their luggage. Thanks to many kind folks who have done so, we have stock on hand at the bookstore – we’ve saved many a tourist and colleague with these donated ‘feminine hygiene products.’ And we’re converting people too: a pair of Cubana friends declined our invitation to a Cuba Libro beach outing because it was their time of the month. I told them this shouldn’t be a limitation and introduced them to tampons. One of these women was in her 20s; the other in her 30s. I gave them a quick how-to (verbal, not visual) and handed them the bilingual instructions/anatomical diagrams provided in every box. Judging by the frequency of tampon requests we’re now fielding at Cuba Libro, I’d say consumer choice and convenience – of which the tampon is poster child – are going to start driving many people’s agenda. Personally, unless I’m working an outfit requiring a thong or am destined for water play, I’m a stalwart pad supporter. At my age, I don’t have that many more years to worry about all this. What a fucking relief (but please dear lord: retain my robust libido!)

As for the Kardashians, I hope they brought enough feminine hygiene products – they sure did seem like they were on the rag during their visit.

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Living the Dream: The Stones in Cuba

“I am about to see the Rolling Stones. In my hometown. In my lifetime.”

Proclaimed with equal parts conviction and awe by a Cuban I hold in certain esteem, we headed off on foot to Ciudad Deportiva. The Day had arrived. There was a spring in our step, a jaunt in our spirit and the sense that all the sacrifice and struggle, resignation and indignation living in Cuba engenders was about to pay off. For those of us who stick it out here (Cubans and aplatanadas alike) our reward was about to be reaped. It was a chosen and blessed feeling – and still is 24 hours on as I write this; the perma-grin still affixed, the experience embedded somewhere deep and personal, patching a broken heart perhaps, or planting a seed of revelation to be harvested at a later date.

stones en route

The sun set pink and orange as WisPride beside the stadium as the moon rose opposite, the iconic Stones logo pulsating in 3-D on screens in between. We roamed the grounds, hugging innumerable friends and making new ones along the way, including Julie, who had arrived in Cuba for the first time the night before and had seen the Stones once before – in 1968. We scoped out a spot like a dog who sniffs and spins looking for the perfect place to shit. I invented a game as we waited for the show to start: with what song would they open? Song to close? Number of encores? What song would you most like to hear? Our piquete debated and struck gentleman’s bets.

stones about to take stage

My dearest friend, visiting for the first time in my 14-year residence, craved the ballads: Angie; You Can’t Always Get What You Want. And she got what she needed. This wasn’t the case for another friend who, if there’s any credence to karma, should have been gifted a sweet, slow, poignant Time is On My Side. It is on his side, but reaffirmation by The Stones, at decibel levels heretofore unprecedented, would have been nice. My tear-inducing favorite, Wild Horses, didn’t make the set either. Disappointing, but I too, got what I needed in the end (funny how that works).

stones

My intellectual sparring partner and fellow member in the Cuban Tribe of Cool sidled up as the lights went down: ‘I’m betting Satisfaction to open and Jumping Jack Flash to close, flipping your prediction, just to be contrary.’ He’s smart enough to qualify an opinion contrary to mine: the lights burst on, the Stones took the stage and ripped into…Jumping Jack Flash. We locked eyes and laughed (score one for Conner!) before breaking into wild, unbridled dance, our feet pounding down the grass. And so kicked off two solid hours of dancing, leaping, singing, screaming and booty shaking. The shoes were off, the cameras were away and our hearts were open, from the first bars of Jumping Jack to the final cymbal crash of Satisfaction (I called it bitches!!).

toby los rolling

I’m not a big believer in much, but I do believe in energy transference and we had slipped into a pocket of joy and movement and acute consciousness of the historic moment. This concert was an even bigger moment, more of a game changer than the Obama visit (something else I called). That The Stones eclipsed Obama was a no-brainer: musical convergence – free no less, created by one of the greatest rock n roll bands of all time – has much more relevance for us here on the ground in the here and now. We channeled that energy and convergence, whirling and dipping and hugging throughout the show. We were actively, mindfully, transcending la luchita, shedding the stress of the bureaucracy and lovers’ spats, co-workers’ drama and the myriad hypocrisies and illogical contradictions we encounter daily. We were living The Rolling Stones in Cuba. I’m quite sure we’ll be talking about that rendition of Sympathy for the Devil for decades – as well as Mick’s accomplished Spanish and domination of Cuban jerga; when he shouted ‘Habana! Está en talla!’ the crowd went berserk.

stones pre show

I have many friends who blew off the show citing their distaste for (or outright panic of) large crowds. In fact, this was the number one reason given by many – and I polled scores in the lead up – for not attending. I feel extraordinarily sorry for them. Next time? Face your fears. There was room enough to get down and lay down, cartwheel and roam and damn, did we! You all? You missed the experience of a lifetime. It’s that simple. Herein lies a lesson in saying ‘yes!’ to adventure and opportunity as you make your way through this crazy little thing called life. To those of us who said ‘hell yes!’ to The Stones in Cuba, I salute you. To those who didn’t, you willfully missed the greatest rock concert in Cuban history – something you’ll be explaining to your kids, like people who blew off Woodstock…Sucks to be you.

The sun set, the moon rose and I’m writing this as the sun rises over Havana the day after. My feet ache and my belly’s tight and grumbling from too much coffee and not enough sustenance, but my spirit is bursting with a lust for life and the conviction that you can construct a short, but meaningful and memorable one if you try.
stones no reguetown
The next time I doubt that, I’ll read this post. I, we, are proof.

I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.

P.S. Now bring on Led Zeppelin – the only band more beloved in Cuba than The Stones.

Living the Dream – Bonus Material

The Rolling Stones are a band that keep on giving. Not surprisingly, impressions, sentiments, and memories of this historic concert are still sinking in (plus rumors are running rampant here), so I’m adding this bonus material:

– I have it on good authority that the Obama Sisters, Malia and Sasha stayed behind with their abuela for the Stones show while their parents continued on their diplomatic jaunt through Latin America. File under: Another Moment Barack Misses Out.

– Since Saturday, you hear people whistling Paint It Black in the street and Jumping Jack Flash coming from balconies. And everyone’s watching the HBO series Vinyl, including me. New York and rock and roll? I’ve been living this since my diaper days and am loving this series long time!

– Ingress and egress to the venue epitomizes Cuba: the entrances and exits were simply sections of the tall, iron fence taken out. We streamed in with hundreds – no metal detectors, no pat downs, no bag searches. My biker friends did get patted down (yes, profiling happens here too), I learned later, upon which knives, all-in-one tools and boxes o’ ron were stashed in boots.

– Rumors four days post-show: next acts due to play here include AC/DC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Red Hot Chili Peppers. As with everything here, we’ll believe it when we hear/see it. And even then it’s unbelievable: that the Stones event even happened is still sinking in all these days later.

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Getting Stoned with Obama in Cuba

No, I’m not talking about smoking blunts on the Malecón (File under: Not Gonna Happen). Nor am I talking about the rock-throwing barbarity found in other latitudes – even at their most dogmatic and agitated, Cubans are more prone to throwing eggs and barbs and Santería spells than something that would directly, physically harm another human being.

Anyone who is following developments in Cuba knows to which watershed event this post refers: the Rolling Stones are going to rock Havana on March 25th; that’s what I’m talking about.

Rumors started flying about the possibility of a Stones show here even before Mick Jagger dropped in for a visit last October. But rumor-mongering and gossip – the ‘national sport’ – are rife here regardless of time or circumstance. We dared not imagine that such a huge, historic, and real rock ‘n roll concert by a band so legendary (for the record: Cubans have always preferred Zeppelin to the Stones) would actually be transformed into reality. The Stones in Cuba fell into the realm of ‘when the embargo is lifted’ – something people talk about rhetorically, dreamily (also for the record: the embargo is still 100% in effect). Until it’s actually upon us.

Soon, very soon, it will be upon us. And Cubans aren’t talking about anything else.

Oh wait. There’s a different, history-in-the-making visit which is also going to be upon us shortly: the first standing US President (I met Carter on one of his post-Oval Office trips here) since 1928 will set foot in Cuba. I’m sure you’ve heard. And some readers must be wondering how Cubans feel about it. At Cuba Libro we have the opportunity to ask hundreds of Cubans from all walks of life what they think about any given topic on a regular basis. So we’ve started asking. And listening.

First off, everyone agrees it’s a milestone, historic, maybe even a game-changer. Second, everyone here in Havana gets excited for such high-level visits, be it Pope or President, because it means streets will be paved and houses painted on the official route the dignitary will traverse – just yesterday an 88-year old Cuban granny offered this precise opinion, unprompted. Third, the Obamas are rock stars; Cubans are, on the whole, faranduléros, no matter if it’s Barack or Beyoncé, Rihanna or Raúl, they chase stars like the most ravenous paparazzi. Furthermore, the presidential couple will bring lots of press and TV crews and attention to Cuba and if there’s one thing Cubans love, it’s attention.

So as a good friend from NY said after the December 17th normalization announcement: ¡Obámanos!

Yet there’s a cost, a downside to all this attention and fanfare. Public transportation will be disrupted in a massive, isn’t-life-here-tough-enough? way; liquor sales with be suspended for at least a day, likely more in this case; cultural activities will be cancelled or re-scheduled; and the overwhelming majority of us will never catch a glimpse of the visiting luminary (though Cubans are already capitalizing on this visit with their archetypical humor: check out these magnets now for sale in Old Havana!)

obama magnet

But make no mistake: Obama’s trip visit is just the appetizer. The pollo of the ‘arroz con pollo’ is the free Rolling Stones concert for el pueblo cubano (as I write this, I hear the first mention of the Stones concert in Cuba on Sirius-XM radio. Cue the goosebumps). We’ve had similar giant, free concerts in the past – Audioslave, Calle 13, Rick Wakeman, Fito Paez, Air Supply (I know, I know. Believe me, I know the Cuban penchant for cheesy American pop). None of these concerts ca compare to the Glimmer Twins, Charlie and Ronnie. THE Rolling Stones!

What Cubans are most concerned with is access to the venue and the crowd-control question. Cubans are experts at state security – they’ve thwarted over 600 attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, after all – they aren’t that adept at controlling cultural crowds. I’ve seen cinema doors broken down by surging masses trying to get in to the premier of Minority Report and I was locked inside the Casa de la Música when rioting crowds tried to bust down the doors to see The Roots. I predict a shit show to enter and exit The Stones concert. Roads will be closed, security will be tight and bags will be searched. We’re not talking Altamont here (see aforementioned egg/barb-throwing observation), but leave plenty of time to arrive and leave, cógelo suave, and remember: we’re all damn lucky to be here, now.

People near and far are beyond excited for this concert. For months I’ve been fielding questions on my Facebook page, at Cuba Libro, and via email about this monumental musical event. Now that details are coming to light, most people want to know how they can avoid the lines and crowds. It’s a good question; people are coming from Miami, Mexico, Camagüey and más allá for this show and there isn’t going to be enough room at the inn (5,000 Havana hotel rooms have been requested for Obama’s visit just two days before, which means 5,000 people who think they will sleep in Havana those days will actually be whisked to Varadero, regardless of what their reservation receipt says. Official emails to this effect are making the rounds already).
The question we’re fielding, publicly to our Cuba Libro community, is: given the choice, who would you rather visit our innovative, visionary project – Keith Richards or Barack Obama? So far, the legendary guitar player is in the lead by a nose. Except if the visit is Barack and Michelle. If she’s in the mix, most Cubans vote for the Obamas. No one, it should be noted, has yet asked if a visit to Cuba Libro would be Keith and Mick.

I leave you all to ponder the greater socio-political implications of our poll’s results. Stay tuned!

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Cuban Harlistas, Mis Amores

Life here in Cuba – and my life, por díos – has changed dramatically in the past few years. I got a bike and helped found Habana Bici Polo; I opened Cuba Libro; and was thrust into the big, raucous family of Cuban Harlistas. As a writer, sub-cultures like this one are a perennial turn on. The layers of nuance and language particular to a group, the rites of passage, the history: every aspect is a source of fascination and writing fodder. Add sexy, powerful motorcycles and the machos who ride them to the mix…and, well.

I’ve just returned from the 5th Annual International Harley Rally in Varadero and the bikes (and riders) are as sexy and powerful as ever, the nuance and language and rites continue to evolve, and my admiration and passion for this unique group of Cubans remains unflagging.

harley2thisone

Since I’m one of the very few chicks without a steady ride and driver, every rally I cast about for singletons looking for a back seat Betty; I estimate I’ve mounted over a dozen of these classic Harleys since the first rally in 2012. This year, I rode with Raúl on Omar’s spectacularly-restored 1960 blue and white Duo Glide. We cruised straight through to Varadero under steely clouds with a nagging threat of rain that never came. The needle on the speedometer didn’t pass 80 kilometers per hour; when we arrived we learned it was busted and we’d made the entire trip doing an exultant 120 kph. We’d no idea as we fought a ferocious head wind and incoming cold front which set the sea churning and waves crashing just shy of the highway.

Among the many highlights of this year’s rally was the presentation of my book, Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor, co-written with Harlista Jens Fuge. In my opinion, this is the best book on the subject – not due to the writing necessarily (though it is fantastic), but rather thanks to the phenomenal images taken over a ten-year period by Harlista Max Cucchi. This is a distinguished book for several reasons beyond the writing and photos, however. First, it includes riders from the length and breadth of the island, not just Havana. Second, it contains the most complete history of Harley-Davidsons in Cuba. Third, all the text is in English, Spanish, and German. Last, but certainly not least: each person interviewed received a complimentary copy of the book and a full color poster. For those who have realized projects in Cuba and not done the same (whether it’s a TV series you promise to deliver on disc or memory stick; a photo shoot where you commit to providing the images to the subjects; an article or book on Cuba you say you’ll bring down once it’s published): shame on you. These people made time and dedicated energy so you could realize your project and have no way of procuring whatever you produced. Speaking from personal experience this is all too common.

harley1

One of the most emotional moments for me was gifting the book to Gerardo López (Papá), the elder patriarch of a family which has four – and counting – generations of Harlistas who have all obtained their motorcycle license on the same Harley. The collective confirms this is the only family in Cuba which can make this claim. When I interviewed him for the book, an impassioned Gerardo, Jr told me he would never sell the Harley, that it would stay in the family. And I believe him: unlike many Harlistas who begrudgingly sell their hogs for cars as their family grows, this one added a matching side car instead, debuted at this rally. After I presented Papá with a copy, his teary-eyed daughter-in-law took me aside, to tell me something about this soft-spoken, well-mannered man that only two other people in the world know (and he’s not one of them): doctors recently found a tumor in his lungs and this would likely be his last rally. Receiving the book means the world to him, she confided, and would provide much solace as he battles cancer. That’s when tears started filling my eyes and the hairs on my arms stood up. It happened again at the farewell lunch when Gerardo Papá told me: “next year, I’m riding a Harley to the rally. It may be a trike, but it will be a Harley-Davidson, driven by me.” I dearly hope he’s right.

harley3this

Like Gerardo Papá, many of the Harlistas are… Let’s just say as a group, we, like the motorcycles themselves, skew “older.” Also like the motorcycles, some Cuban Harlistas are walking (and riding) wounded: herniated discs, busted clavicles, chronic lower back pain, bum legs, bockety knees, failing night vision. It’s a bitch kick starting these bikes in the best of health; imagine what it’s like for Francesco fighting to kick start his ’48 Panhead with a perennial bunk leg. Or Paco, who at 69 years young, is one of the most enthusiastic and dedicated riders. Every rally he arrives from Camagüey with one of his daughters on the back of his 1950 hog; you can bet he’s got a bit of a limp after that 10-hour ride. Who wouldn’t?! This rally, William (‘The Canadian’), arrived listing heavily to port aided by crutches after an on-the-road accident and a bed-ridden month.

harley9

And then there’s the Story of M (I’m not printing his full name to protect the guilty!), who drove from Havana to Varadero, his leg in a cast and who also wobbling around on crutches. He told everyone it was a work-related accident, but knowing him better than that, I flat out asked what really happened. I’ve a talent for sniffing out falsehoods: he’d fractured his leg leaping from a balcony when the husband of the woman he was shagging turned up. ‘I got away, but with a cast,’ he told me smiling foxily. With these and other various injuries, aches, and pains, I’m guessing close to 10,000mg of dipirona and half as much ibuprofen was taken over the 3-day event. This may be ‘Club Temba,’ but these folks are the very definition of endurance: they’re riding the miles, partying until dawn, and up and at ‘em and back on their bikes (or back to fixing them), a few hours later. Props, brothers.

harley6

We always travel in a caravan for the inevitable breakdowns en route. This year, our group had their share of problems: a flat that took until 3am on the eve of the rally to fix; another flat on Gerardo’s side car just beyond Santa Cruz del Norte; a gummy piston on Pelussa’s rig at 2am under a fine, post-party rain; and something with Rafael’s ’46 Indian that drew crowds to watch the master at work. But these are minor compared to some years. Leaving the rally a few years back, we had to call on the Harley family in Matanzas to babysit Julio’s busted hog overnight until we could send a trailer to collect it. No matter the rally, bike, driver, or rider, there’s always an adventure afoot with these cats.

harley3

This year’s rally was the biggest yet, with more motorcycles, more Cubans from throughout the island, many more foreign visitors (some arriving on modern Harleys thanks to La Poderosa Tours), and exciting new activities. As always, there were the coolest t-shirts available in Cuba on sale; donations collected for senior citizens and vulnerable children; a rocking concert by David Blanco; and hilarious competitions involving bottles, hot dogs (only in Cuba, right?!), and feats of balance. This year also featured martial arts and acrobatics (yes, while on a Harley), a joy ride through Cardenas where all the neighbors came out to ogle these marvelous machines, and a farewell fête at an exquisite finca owned by a fellow Harlista. Rafael had to bust out his complete set of tools and attend to his Indian yet again while we ate, drank, danced, and laughed. A gang congregated around Rafael to provide support and advice (not that he needed it!) Anywhere else in the world, a mechanical breakdown during the final hurrah of a raucous weekend would have been cause for grumbling, but not here where solidarity, friendship, and empathy abound. I admire their strength and camaraderie and am honored to be included. See you at next year’s rally!

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