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Buckle up babies. We’re going for a ride deep into the Cuban psyche – that dark place in the collective conscious where centuries of financial boom-bust and political reindeer games have festered age-old habits, neuroses, and desires. What you’ll read here, I’m fairly certain, you’ll read nowhere else (see note 1).
For those of you just hitting on Here is Havana, the types of vignettes herein have been gathered over several years working as a journalist based in Havana. In this post, I dissect pacotilla – a practice and reality recate cubano that technically means ‘second rate, cheap, or shoddy’ but which in Cuban translates as buying as much shit as possible at every given opportunity.
It matters not whether you’re a doctor or nurse, ballerina or agronomist: if you’re a traveling Cuban, neighbors, family, friends, and co-workers expect treats when you return from your foreign adventures. A new pair of stockings (fishnets preferred; see note 2); a feather-festooned headband; or a trashy one title magazine like Us or Hola! – it doesn’t really matter what is proffered but rather that something, anything makes the long journey to these shores.
It’s a danzón of mutual expectations. The traveler feels morally obligated to shop for those in need back home, while the island-bound (silently, discreetly) hold their passport-wielding compañeros to their tacit obligation to bring back shiny pretty (sometimes useful) things. Plus, Cubans LOVE to shop.
I’ve seen this all in action, up close and personally. I’ve watched my husband dart frantically around Duty Free shops looking for the cheap chocolates his co-workers adore. Every Cuban itinerary includes last minute trips to sprawling outdoor markets in search of bras/underwear/soccer jerseys, with me more often than not, as guide. I’ve waded through enough shoes, sneakers, and sandals to shod a small Guatemalan village. These shopping forays are exhausting. Especially the shoe store shuffle. Have you ever tried to buy a pair of shoes for someone else, miles and oceans away, with only a vague description of what they want and the outline of their foot on and old piece of newspaper for sizing? (see note 3). Soul sucking.
So I wasn’t surprised when Olguita and Lizette – two docents I struck up conversation with recently at one of Havana’s most historic sites – launched into their own tale of pacotilla.
Lizette had recently been to Mexico City for some sort of tourism training. Given that this was her first trip out of Cuba and she hails from Guanabacoa, that working class ‘hood across the bay, expectations were high for the goodies she’d bring back. Particularly on the part of Olguita (see note 4) her jovial and dark as night colleague.
“I shopped like crazy. Socks for my husband and his father, the tiara for Yenly’s quinceñera, bras for Xenia who is such a tetona they don’t have her size here, and on and on!” Lizette tells me.
“Don’t look at me m’jita!” Olguita says with a girlish grin. “I only asked you for one thing. I asked only for my hair,” she says with a dramatic toss of her faux fall that looks surprisingly like real hair at first blush but is oh-so-synthetic upon closer inspection.
“But where I had to go to get it! An area mala, mala, mala. I feared for my safety!” (see note 5).
There have been a bunch of articles recently about Cuban doctors working abroad. Many focus on the why and most are off the mark. Having specialized in Cuban health and medical internationalism for half a dozen years, I can tell you most have got the facts wrong or distort them, and the analysis – when it exists – makes it obvious that most reporters have never seen Cuban medical teams in action. Which is ironic. Would you buy a guidebook written by someone who had never been to the destination in question? Then why do readers believe reporters who have never witnessed these medical missions?
Here’s my take:
Cuban doctors want to help. First and foremost they want to help the people in the country where they’re posted, but they want to help themselves and their families as well. With the extra money they earn (usually $50-150 a month, plus their regular Cuban salary), they buy fishnet stockings, socks, and watches. Sometimes they buy in bulk for resale back home. Those who would begrudge them this – and believe me, they’re out there – are at best out of touch and at worst, cruel.
But Cuban shopping mania can get complicated. Especially on relief missions involving large numbers of personnel in far away lands.
When I was covering Cuba’s medical team in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake there, I offered to take letters back to the families of the ‘disaster docs.’ I was given several letters to shuttle back to the island, along with life-sized dolls, remote control cars, sneakers, lipsticks, and enough nail polish to start a salon. To be honest, I left Islamabad with more gifts than baggage. That team nearly 2000-strong was in place for 6 months and the shopping those health professionals did in that time necessitated a weight limit policy upon their return – the plane just couldn’t handle all that pacotilla.
In Haiti where I was posted for a month recently, I saw every stage of the process, from shopping to shipping. Every day, vendors set up on the edge of our camp peddling belts, boots, watches, cell phones, clothes, and sandals. Once a week (always at night), ‘the señora’ would come with a well-fingered catalog of electronics and appliances which the Cubans pored over like a treasure map, placing orders for everything from meat grinders to MP3 players, washing machines to Wiis. Those health professionals cycling out of Haiti after completing their 2-year tour are allowed to import into Cuba (free shipping, no taxes) three big boxes about the size of your typical US oven. This is one of the major perks of doctors posted abroad and while the size allowance differs depending on the country (see note 6), folks volunteering abroad go into it knowing they’ll have the opportunity to buy that washing machine or TV they’ve always wanted once they complete two years in-country.
Which is precisely how I found myself in toe-curling agony one middle of the night. Sleep was elusive enough in post-quake Port-au-Prince, what with the images of the daily tragedies crowding out all soporific tendencies; the 100 degree heat didn’t help any. When it came, sleep was narcotic, a dark, blank territory free of burning garbage and humanity’s rot, those sights and smells that get branded on your senses during such disasters. There were no sweet but sick children in this dreamless sleep, no little orphaned girls with no place to live caring for thirsty, hungry younger siblings.
It was about 1 am this particular Sunday. I had just dropped off to sleep, despite the gunshots, in spite of the heat.
A big belly laugh more appropriate to a bar than a terrible disaster rousted me from my slumber.
Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! Wrack-a-ta!!!
Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.
More loud voices. Heartier laughter.
These doctors were going home. It was 1 am in central Port-au-Prince, but they were already supping on yuca con mojo and strolling along the Malecón.
WRACK! Wrack-a-ta! WRACK!!
They were wrapping their huge, oven-sized boxes in packing tape right outside my tent. I had seen them packing earlier in the day. A brand new washing machine was loaded with sneakers, sheet and towel sets; ovens were stuffed full of bedazzled tank tops (“Sexy”) and camouflage camisoles, flip flops, jeans, and bras. After the short sea voyage between these two besieged nations, the appliances would take up residence in rural homes from Guantánamo to Guanahacabibes. The packing tape condom was necessary: a few boxes had recently suffered water damage – naturally no one was taking any chances.
Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.
The racket was awful and interminable. I squeezed my eyes shut. I waited with curled toes, willing it to stop. I could tolerate the laughter, but not the nerve-grating, sleep-robbing tape wrap.
WRACK! Wrack-a-ta! WRACK!!
I was on my elbows now, the cot’s metal springs pushing through the lousy foam cushion. Surely they’ve woken the whole camp. Surely they’re robbing us all of sleep. But no one said a word. Least of all me – I knew how hard they’d worked for this day, the time away from their family, the ache for Cuba, coping with the illness of Haiti, and to top it off, the quake. Besides, keeping mum is the Cuban way. They suck it up. They withstand.
And then, a voice from the wilderness of tents around me…
“Would you quit it with the damned tape already?!”
Thank you vecina mía! Thank you and bless you!! Bless you for piping up to shut them up. Surely they’ll listen to you, to one of their own, to someone who has to rouse herself in a few hours to face all the post-quake disease and destruction Haiti can dish out.
“Oh! You want us to be quiet? And what happens when it’s YOUR turn to ship home?”
A heavy silence followed.
“All right! But hurry up!!”
Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.
My favorite doctor pacotilla story comes from Venezuela. As you may know, Cuba, Venezuela and other regional partners have been pursuing all sorts of cooperation since Chavéz was elected. This includes large numbers of Cuban medical personnel (to the tune of 30,000+ at one point) working in Venezuela. These folks, too, have the option of shipping home their purchases for free.
My optometrist friend had the best approach. She bought a top of the line, full-sized fridge, packed it top to bottom tight with Polar beer, boxed it, wrapped it, and shipped it home. When it arrived on her Vedado doorstep, she unpacked it, plugged it in, waited for the beer to chill, and threw ‘la casa por la ventana’– a huge party.
Gotta love those Cubans!
And I do…when they’re not in their pacotilla.
1. And when I say Cubans are asi or asado – like this or like that – I mean generally, most of them, much of the time. Not each and every one of them, hot day in and sweltering day out.
If I seem a little defensive lately, dear readers, it’s because my detractors are on the attack. My little non-monetized, not-for-the-hyperbole-dependent-masses blog and my slow selling app are garnering scrutiny and a bit of cyber sabotage. Coño.
2. Have you ever taken a gander at the gams of Havana’s immigration officers? Their intricate fishnets would make Frederick’s of Hollywood proud.
3. On the whole, Cubans are brand whores and their logo fury has made the shoe chase easier. Nowadays, all anyone wants are Converse and Crocs.
4. I love how they so liberally use the diminutive in Cuba – even for 200 pound mamacitas!
5. I have seen this from Guatemala City to NYC and from Pakistan to Port-au-Prince: Cubans making sure they visit the cheapest markets, which are invariably in the shadiest part of town. Their knack for ferreting out these places is legendary. When I was in Haiti, a Haitian friend asked me to help financially with his sister’s burial. When I asked around about local funeral costs, a Haitian doctor with the Cuban medical team there told me: ‘well, the coffin alone will run at least $500 but the Cubans know where to get them cheaper…’ Even coffins they know where to get cheaper!! That’s talent.
6. I speak here only of doctors leaving Haiti after completing their 2-year stints; there has been a bit of chisme floating around that the policy might be changed (or already has – you know how reliable Cuban gossip can be!) in some countries but I have no idea what the current situation is elsewhere.