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‘Going native’ is a slow, oftentimes imperceptible process. You might not even notice the subtle adjustments – those natural-for-the-context changes that living in a foreign culture forces over time.
For me here in Havana, the first manifestations were in my wardrobe: hemlines got shorter, heels got higher, and everything got tighter and scandalously more scanty. Gradually, I came to grasp the necessity of the visita (see note 1) and found the natural rhythm of Cuban time (15 to 30 minutes late as a general rule. Such tardiness differs from the Cuban no-show which is a surprisingly common trait to which I have yet to warm). It took me longer to get used to discussing menstruation and death with acquaintances and even strangers, but eventually I did.
But I resist some. I’ve always said aloud and to myself that the moment Cuba and its peculiarities compel me to lie, I’m outta here. And I’ve never cottoned to the homophobic slant and slang which is still horrifyingly acceptable here. Yes, Virginia, maricón is a dirty word.
Some cultural tendencies however can’t be resisted indefinitely. They creep in and over you, like moss enveloping a stone, until one day you realize, ‘I’m doing it.’
Last year, after seven summers, I started complaining about the heat.
‘!Dios mio. Que calor!
‘!Que calor, cojone!’
‘It’s really hot, isn’t it?’ I’d start asking in that Cuban way that awaits no response.
It’s probably not surprising that I first perceived the change in my demeanor last summer: August 2009 was the hottest in 40 years. We’re talking triple digits in the shade. What my friend Ian calls a 24-hour Bikram yoga class. This might not sound bad to you. Maybe you’re reading this in an AC’d office or riverside on your iPhone. Perhaps you’re in cool Buenos Aires or at altitude somewhere in the Alps or Andes. If so, count your blessings.
At 9am here, the mercury is already past 90°F and the soupy air is a challenge to breathe. Even moving at a pace I call Cuban summer slow, rivulets of sweat cleave my chest and hair is plastered to my neck. It makes people, myself included, a little loco this heat. Tempers tend to flare as temperatures rise and drivers act stupid. I don’t know why, but as a rule, the hotter it is, the worse people here drive. And at ridiculous speeds. The only thing I can figure is that they’re trying to get as much wind entering their vehicle as possible since few cars here have AC (see note 2).
It melts gum and trashes elastic this Havana heat. All my bra straps are buckled and my husband returns home from work with salty white Rorschach stains on his Angela Davis t-shirt. Upper lips are forever beaded and hand fans work furiously during these dog days of summer. Chocolate, needless to say, doesn’t fare well.
Cold showers don’t help – I’m sweating even as I towel off. Besides, ‘cold’ is a misnomer since here in Havana, most water tanks are on the roof, beholden to the sun’s brutal rays. What comes from the shower pipe in July is too hot to handle. Ironic: in the winter I can’t get a hot shower and in the summer I’m jonesing for a cold one.
Things that usually come easy to me – sleeping, thinking, fucking (not in that order, obviously) – are nearly impossible in this heat. Cooking is also a bitch and I often wonder why gazpacho and ice coffee haven’t caught on here. These are the things that expose Cuba’s isolation. Our lumbering Russian AC, circa height of the Cold War, helps only a little. Maybe I’ve got the Cyrillic knobs and levers figured wrong?
Summer in Cuba, it must be said, is a hot, gnarly bitch. But you take the good with the bad and I think I’ll do just that: the hubby and I have an after-work date to get wet at the local swimming hole on Havana’s western shore.
1. The ‘visita’ is a key cultural concept here and a major factor in contemporary daily life – it’s one of the few things that can’t be politicized, legislated, or blamed on the embargo. At its most basic, visiting is a friendly ritual that keeps people connected and informed (or at least gossiping). It’s rarely scheduled, but is rather a spontaneous drop in on friends and loved ones to chat and catch up while drinking dollhouse-sized cups of sweet dark coffee. Some of my favorite people to visit are Teresita and Carmita.
2. But some unexpected ones do: I was stunned silent the other day as I climbed into a collective taxi on my way home from a meeting. It was a ’56 Buick with all leather interior and kicking AC the driver had rigged himself. Those clever Cubans!