Es Cuba Mi Amiga*

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I love Latin America. I’ve been traveling there as tourist, scholar, reporter, and guidebook writer for 30 years. I dedicated my absurdly expensive stint with higher education to its history and politics. I’ve visited almost every country and know many intimately. Each is different and captivating in its way, it goes without saying. But of all the countries south of ‘El Norte,’ none compares to Cuba.

I should know, I’ve been living here since 2002.

I speak Cuban and know the best scams. (You won’t learn ‘¡¿cuál es la mecánica asere?!‘ studying Spanish in Antigua, homestay or no). My family has a ration book and I commute to meetings in ’56 Buicks. I know where to buy condoms for a penny and procure black market gas. Like anywhere, such practicalities can be learned over time. But the charm of a place, the underlying magic that makes here thrum at a higher frequency than there, dwells within the people.


Bright and early Monday morning, I make my way in a tinny old Lada to the travel agency. Like everywhere in Latin America, errands are best run in the morning lest the lights go, the building springs a leak, or the workers take a 6-hour siesta. I’m not surprised to find the agency next to the Artificial Rain Augmentation office. Es Cuba, after all.

At 8:45 the small, windowless room is already packed – there are four times more people than chairs. As usual, it’s sweltering and the air conditioning is broken.

A bleach blond with two young girls in tow is ceded one of the coveted seats. Her daughters play tope, tope, tope while she chats with the agent. Purchasing a simple plane ticket here is a slow, inefficient process. There’s not a computer in sight, just a single phone, and tickets are written out by hand. Transactions are in cash, meaning at this moment there are of thousands of dollars secreted in bras, stuffed into envelopes, and tucked inside jackets all around me.

To pass the time, we talk about the weather, where to buy rice, and the new soap opera. Those keeping mum are either not Cuban or have been gone so long they’ve lost their local chops – talking to strangers while waiting is both hobby and sport here.

The dyed-blond mom isn’t having much luck today. Each time Inés María tries to ring the central office – where the computers live assumedly – the line is busy. She replaces the handset and asks Blondie what grade the girls are in. With each new client’s arrival, the office grows hotter. A woman wearing the agency’s colors enters at half past nine, proffering a tiny cup of sweet dark coffee to Ines María who immediately offers Blondie a sip.

‘It is so hot in here,’ Inés María says to everyone and no one. She picks up the phone, determined to resolve the problem.

‘Hola amor. This is your colleague in the sauna calling. Can you come check on this AC? It’s so hot I’m ready to take my clothes off in front of all these clients and it’s gonna go porno. It won’t be pretty!’

She signs off with kisses for Mr Fix It’s family and wishes his grandmother a quick recovery.

Blondie’s girls are getting restless. The older one says she has to go to the bathroom.

‘It’s right down the hall, sweetie,’ Inés María tells her.

Typically – for Cuba – the 8- and 6-year old leave without adult accompaniment to find the public bathroom. We resume talking about the weather. Suddenly the younger girl is back.

‘Mom, she needs toilet paper,’ she announces to the now overflowing office. ‘She has to poop.’

Needing a personal, portable supply of toilet paper; talking openly about bowel movements; sharing conversation and coffee with strangers while waiting a couple of hours to purchase a plane ticket: this is normal. This is Cuba.

*This post will appear in the forthcoming ebook anthology of top Latin American bloggers being edited and published by Steven Roll of travelojos. If you’d like to be notified when it’s released, drop me a line.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

17 responses to “Es Cuba Mi Amiga*

  1. Ole

    Que Bola, asere!
    I am glad you are not letting the Heat curb your posting, Again you have caught all the nuances involved in every day Life in Cuba, and rendered it in such a clever manner that even those who have never been to Cuba can share the Spirit of the Island. Congratulations.
    And for those of us who have spent enough time there to really get a feel for the place, it is one chortle after another! Please try to explain the Universal significance of “Quien es el Ultimo?” in one of your posts. I have always suggested it be hammered onto the license plates as a kind of State motto. Or maybe “Pais del Hueco”.
    Thanks much for giving us all a brief glimpse of an island of many complications, and how cubanos meet the challenges and aggravations with their uniquely Cuban wryness and humor.


    • Hey Ole! I personally haven’t said asere (except to reganar my husband) in 8 years. I don’t know why it doesn’t “pegar” with me – maybe like a cracker white chick strolling into the hood and sayin’ Was up my nigga?’ Then again, I didn’t just stroll in and maybe after so long I should try it on. I’m quite the slangster (as opposed to gangster or maybe that’s gangsta?) in English, so maybe now is the time.

      THE ULTIMO – If I were queen: 1) there would be no white people with dreads, 2) there would be 48 hour days and 3) everyone would learn el ultimo as children. It so totally works anywhere in the world! In NY, where lines can go from tolerable to unmaneagable in, well, a NY minute, Ive used el ultimo to get things straight.

      For those of you wondering what we’re talking about….stay tuned.

  2. Ole

    So you straightened out those New Yorkers- good for You!LOL. I think that may be part Cuban, as well. Maybe we will need to coin a new term for you-New YorBano, or something.
    yeah, I don’t use asere either, and probably for the same reason as you, but I will toss one out occasionally to establish that I didn’t just get to Cuba on the pickle trawler if circumstance merits. Usually like -‘no, sere (I have no ene) no me hablas la mierda. Yo era nacido en el Noche, pero no Anoche.
    Dreads on white people should Definitely be outlawed, even if it does put a couple thousand Bahamian and Jamaican women out of work
    Always a pleasure. Ole

    • I usually just go with Americana Cubana, although I have MANY other apodos, including Yuma Periodista, Condor, Konyet, Tom Cruise (?! don’t ask!) and Barbie Americana. All of these coined my month in Haiti with the Cuban medical relief team.

  3. Dan

    I found “el ultimo” to be disintegrating this last winter in la habana- for the first time ever I saw people abusing the protocol and without rebuke. Just some places but…. please include your thoughts on this as well…….

    • Yeah, some old, necessary traditions are going to seed. Ive noticed it depends on where you are, when you’re there (people are much testier in summer Ive found. and at rush hour), and who’s involved. But there have always been people abusing el ultimo (my husband for instance. while he isn’t an ultimo abuser, he is an ultimo nincompoop who just lurks at the back of the line without opening his mouth causing all manner of havoc).

      what is most concerning is the WITHOUT REBUKE part. cutting in line would not be tolerated in the old days (and I have a good not visibly pregnant woman story touching on this) bc everyone would start making a fuss in loud voices accompanied by typically vigorous hand signs. rebuking others isn’t easy here and I sometimes find myself looking the other way when someone hucks trash out the bus window or is smoking indoors. this is a very complicated psychological mind f**ck that Cuba plays on people which I won’t go into here. But, it’s a matter of good citizenship, I believe, to not litter, to obey no smoking signs (yes! we have them here. in some places. some times.) and respect the line.

      thanks for reading and writing and next time I “reganar” someone for cutting in line (even if it IS my husband!), I’ll think of you

  4. Ole

    Hey Conner,
    The slippery entry from the left is the one that always gets me-some cubanos look right past a Yuma as if he didn’t exist. That’s usually when they get an asere from me. And re-newing the Visa down at the old place on Factor y Final was probably the rudest place I ever encountered. Now that they have moved to the modern building on el anillo things have improved geometrically! I had thought about establishing a rent-a-baby business down the street (by the hour) from the old place because any woman with a baby got shuttled to the head of the line. Oh, I forgot I can’t work in Cuba! Actually I received the first work Visa issued to an American since 1959-I’ll maybe tell you that story face to face if we meet. But yes, el Ultimo works if you are vigilant, and doesn’t if you are not. Ultimo nincompoop I liked Very much! Does your marido speaky Inglis? You could be in trouble, unless you have adopted the Matriarcal cuban system!
    Litterers-what can you say? Ignorance is Universal. I refused to give in in the face of incredulity from locals when I would stop my car and make them retrieve what they had thrown out, and told them they would be banned fron further rides if they ever did it again. Railing against against the Tide to not come in, I know, but sometimes you just have to make a stand.
    Don’t want to clog the Blog, so hasta el proximo. You would tell me if I were to abuse your system, would you Not? it would not be by design, I promise. But I am a little long winded at times.

  5. This is my birthday post! It’s good. I’d love to visit Cuba before the capitalism hits the fan, mostly just to go somewhere so profoundly different than the USA (I imagine) and find how the same we are. I read Havana Fever and I can’t get it out of my head now. I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog too, it’s really good!

    • Felicidades Martin! Hope you’re havin’ a helluva bday – looks like you started out right: reading Here is Havana (this is a joke. it is only a joke. we will now resume regular programming)

      Seriously though, you should come on down! and bring that copy of Havana Fever; I haven’t read it yet.

  6. BTW – Martin’s blog sleeper78 is pretty damned funny and a good example of the power of a well-thought out footnote

    (old sockie looks more like bart simpson than jesús to me…maybe they were separated at birth?)


  7. Thank you for the wishes! You’re too kind about my blog, although I would prefer that my foot produced a Bart Simpson than a Jesus.

  8. Talking openly about bowel movements and sharing conversation and coffee with strangers? Sounds perfect. And I could get used to carrying my own TP…

    • haha! I could add so much to this post. just the another night, this was an exchange between a trio of Cubans, of two different generations and genders:

      “Liuba, did you get silicone boobs? You look bigger.”

      “Me?! I have nothing”, says Liuba as she adjusts her powder blue halter top with that ‘tschht’ sound Cubans make.

      Laughs all around.

  9. Dan

    Si Ole, the slippery entry from the left is part of the breakdown of the protocol around el ultimo, it is probable that the problem is MUCH worse when the Yuma is in line and I am just not getting exactly what is going on. Having said all of this, the busses in Cuba (especially Havana) are so much better than a few years ago that any complaints should be looked at in that context. Maybe an analogy to the embargo in general: when the old camellos and guaguas were SO bad, everyone helped out against the common enemy. Now that the busses themselves are better, and on time (ish), the other people in the lines are the only impediment? better keep this embargo intact!

    • Reader Dan is absolutely spot on:”

      1. Yumas slipping in from the left can be problematic. Those from the right: more so.
      2. Busses new and improved – now with piped in reggaeton! Keep in mind some routes are way better than others
      3. Keep the embargo?! You MUST be kidding! If not…you know how we roll on this side of the straits: vete pa’carajo.

  10. Ole

    Conner- I wasn’t talking about Yumas slipping in from the left. Yumas are generally the “slippees” i.e. the ones getting cut in on. And the “slipper “will go through some Very convoluted facial contortions to try to keep from acknowledging that you are indeed there in line.
    I would certainly Never let any Extranjero cut line in an arrogant way(or any other way) without immediately calling him on it. Or a cubano either, for that matter- see asere.

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