I Got the Cuba in Me

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Coming back to the States for a visit is always odd. It’s an out-of-place feeling common to most expats I suspect – awkward yet surreal, like watching a movie you know by heart dubbed in Thai or Tagalog.

For years I’ve carried my ‘Cuban-ness’ back with me and it freaks people out. I touch people while in conversation, call strangers “sweetie” or “honey” (our closest equivalent to “mi amor”) and crowd everyone’s personal space. Solidarity flows from within me for the downtrodden and I chat in Cubano with every bus boy, street sweeper, and young thug I can.

But something about this trip is different. I’ve brought more than my touchy-feely Latino tendencies and finely honed español back to New York this time. Suddenly, I’m seeing how much the Big Apple (my birth home) resembles Havana (my adopted home). And not in a good way.

The similarities are disconcerting in no small measure because they represent an entirely new perspective. For years, I’ve parsed the differences between my old and new homes. On those rare occasions when I did examine commonalities, I focused on how Havana resembled Manhattan, not the other way around. But my perception has flip flopped this trip. Have I crossed some imaginary frontier? Is this what happens when birth home cedes incrementally, but irreversibly to new home? Have I gone native?

Looking back, I realize it started as soon as I deplaned in Miami (see note 1). Approaching the escalator to baggage claim and customs, I noticed a white haired woman – old, but in no way frail – hesitating at the edge of the moving stairway.

“Would you like some help?” I asked her in Spanish. She took my arm gratefully and we maneuvered down towards customs together.

“I’m missing a contact lens. It’s hard to navigate the escalator,” she explained though I didn’t ask. Thinking about it now, it seems more likely that she had never before been on a moving staircase – you can count the escalators in Havana on one hand. Besides, she was from Varadero.

Mirta told me she was visiting her son who had left Cuba a dozen years ago. It was her first time in Miami. I told her I’ve lived in Cuba for 9 years, though she didn’t ask.

“I’ve lived there for 74,” she responded proudly.

Once we got shuttled to the customs green line (see note 2), Mirta explained that she had to call her son and tell him where she was.

“He’s too tacaño to park and come find me,” she said touching the point of her elbow – the Cuban symbol for cheap.

I liked Mirta’s spunk (see note 3) and was kind of appalled at her inconsiderate son, but I didn’t have a cell phone. Less than 30 minutes on US soil and already I was a stranger in a strange land. Even so, I couldn’t just ditch Mirta in the middle of MIA like a Cubana would her brand new husband she’d used to emigrate. I felt an obligation to ‘resolver’ the situation.

I spied a guy with a phone hooked to his belt and asked if he would lend it to us for a quick local call. He apologized saying his phone was broken. The second guy I approached was totally embarrassed, explaining that he had no money on his. Strike one and two a lo Cubano: cell phone as fashion accessory and no cash in the account. Luckily, the next guy not only had a phone and spoke Spanish, but was an MIA employee and had a soft spot for little old ladies. Mirta went from my care to his, but not before planting a farewell kiss on my cheek.

Mirta was lovely and I enjoy making deposits in my travel karma account, but I shrugged off the episode: it was Miami after all, with Cubans acting like Cubans down to non-functioning phones. But New York looking like the other side of the Straits gave me pause. And it’s not because Havana is evolving, my friends. Rather, I was seeing that shit happens, things break down, and systems fail, even in all mighty Manhattan.
_____

It had been a long night, but I had places to be. I rolled off my friend’s couch, inhaled some good, strong coffee and hustled off to the PATH train. When I got there, all the MetroCard machines were broken. And there was no attendant in the booth. Hola? Is this Havana? I braced my arms on either side of the turnstile and prepared to hop. It’s not my fault I can’t pay, I figured in that particularly Cuban way.

“The cameras will catch you,” a woman behind me said. “Allow me.” And with one fluid motion, she swiped her card through my turnstile.

I ran to catch the train, ‘thank you!’ streaming down the corridor like a boat’s wake.

As my train shuttled past chop shops and strip clubs, I thought about how weird it was for something as necessary as ticket machines to be broken here. Weirder still was a stranger coughing up a couple of bucks to bail me out.

When I got to Newark, I had time for a bite before my next train. Eating: it’s an all-consuming pursuit of mine, especially since many of my favorite foods are as rare in Cuba as multi-tasking and fidelity. When stateside I’m a junky for Thai food, sushi, tofu, cheese of all types, bagels, pizza worthy of the name, mussels, crème brûlée, asparagus, artichokes, and something known in these parts as an almond horn.

Saliva pooled on my tongue as I approached the case packed with Black & Whites, croissants, crullers, and turnovers. There were macaroons, brownies, blondies, carrot cake, cheese cake and muffins. Danish jammed against bagels, while the bialys yearned to be noticed. But nary an almond horn in sight. Mysterious absence of normal foodstuffs: this felt familiar.

As I tried to contain my disappointment and choose from the (too) many choices, an announcement boomed throughout the station. ATTENTION PASSENGERS: DUE TO A POWER OUTAGE, THERE WILL BE NO TRAINS RUNNING UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

A blackout? Of indeterminate duration? Here? The similarities were getting increasingly eerie – and frequent. Later that day, choosing something simple off the diner menu (faced with too many choices again), the gum snapping waiter informed me they’d run out of that dish. This is de rigueur in Havana where you eschew the menu entirely, instead cutting to the chase by inquiring, ‘what’s available?’ But here, in the land of plenty? Things run out? Since when?

Then there’s the ban on incandescent light bulbs. From the “news” coverage I’ve been able to stomach, I gather this is chapping a helluva lot of asses around here. Seems the USA is compelling people (sort of, in a way, only those willing) to swap out energy-draining incandescent bulbs for more efficient compact models. In Cuba, we did this in 2006 (“Year of the Energy Revolution”), when brigades of young folks across the island went door-to-door removing incandescent bulbs and replacing each and every one with the energy efficient curlicues (note 4).

And the potholes. I can’t remember a time when there were so many giant holes pocking New York City’s streets. Everyone is blaming it on the bad winter, but these craters are Diez de Octubre worthy, forcing drivers to swerve and veer in an effort to avoid them, exactly as we do in Havana. On some NY roads, there’s no avoiding them, they all bleed together to form one giant hueco. Is this all the fault of a harsher than usual winter? Regardless, invoking something as nebulous as the weather to justify the crumbling streets seems so….Cuban.

It’s sad – I don’t want my hometown to fall apart – but at the same time, it’s reassuring in a way. Maybe we’re all in the same hand basket, headed hell-ward, no matter if the point of departure is Santos Suarez or SoHo. Or maybe it’s simply that I’ve crossed that imaginary frontier, where my ‘otherness’ is finding its (dis)equilibrium between here and there. Either way, NY no longer feels like home.

Notes
1. As a journalist, I’m legally permitted by the US government to travel to Cuba on the 45-minute, $400 charter flights between Miami and Havana.
2. As we all know: green means go. Once I ended up on the evil red line where a buxom agent threatened to liberate me from my 5 cent cigars. The yellow line is only marginally better (and perhaps worse for all its ambiguity).
3. Dedicated HIH readers know my fondness for viejitas.
4. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I refused to swap out our bedroom light (no way I’m fucking to fluorescents) and snuck in some incandescents in my suitcase.

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24 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, Cuban customs, Expat life, Living Abroad

24 responses to “I Got the Cuba in Me

  1. Ole

    Hey Conner,

    Another great job. I remember when they came around to swap out the lightbulbs- I bought 20 of the old ones from one of the swapper squad guys because I hate those fluorescent ones. Too Prison like, and bad for reading. I included light bulbs in my baggage from then on. It is upsetting to me that the US is going the same way-perhaps intelligent and necessary, but not to my liking. I guess I will have to stock up on about 10,000 of the old ones to carry me on out before they disappear entirely!

    And the huecos-No place will ever surpass Cuba in that regard- why will Jugo not send the asfalta!!! I have suggested that Cuba incorporate Land of the Hueco on its auto tags. Either that, or Quien es el Ultimo?

    Another fine and funny post, as usual. Thanks.

    Ole

    • Hi Ole! thanks for the support

      If the nice soft, yellow light coming from my neighbors all around is any measure, we are not alone in our disdain for the fluorescents!

  2. Ole

    If you are returning thru miami, and have a layover, I would be honored to pick you up for a 50 cent tour and lunch, if the schedule permits on both our parts. The wife may see this as silliness, and refuse to come but your posts remind me so much of the years I spent there as a Yuma in Cuba, in the Marina first ,then through Santa fe, Siboney, Miramar and Habana del Este. I outlasted almost everyone I ever met there, because it takes something that most will never have, a sense of the Absurd primary among them! I salute you for your obstinacy. Yet I know it is so much more than that, and more than tu marido ( saludos a El )- Cuba is an addiction, and if it becomes your particular drug, then no other will do. Ya!
    let me know if I may be of service for that last minute shopping spree in Miami- my wife has directed me to all the best (cheap, but good/ bueno, bonito y barato)places, so your dollars will become elastic. Hahaha!
    Ole

    • Hey Ole

      thanks for the offer! Volunteering to take someone shopping who is headed back to the island means you’re a serious glutton for punishment! My sister has told me she will never (NEVER!) go shoe shopping for my Cuban crowd again. It’s harrowing and tiring and tedious. So I do appreciate the offer but always try to ensure Im in Miami the least amount of time possible.

      Sense of the absurd and dose of obstinacy: totally required for Cuban living. And the tres Bs: bueno, bonito y barato; methinks it warrants a post!

  3. sam

    Conner, Great entry ! Even though I was only in Havana for 2 months I still felt completely culture shocked, sometimes in a good way, my friends have noticed that I sometimes come home way more “open”. I tend to chat up everyone for days after I return from Cuba, invite tons of people over for dinner, hang out with people in the neighborhood I never usually talk to etc etc… One thing SF has in common with Havana is the bus…the 16 mission bus could easily have been transported from centro havana, it always breaks down, is slow, packed with people (and thieves) at all hours, people blast music (sometimes even reggaeton haha), the primary language is spanish…its an experience that strangely makes me feel at “home” in both places 🙂

  4. Cort Greene

    Hola Conner
    another great post!
    Here is one for you! Calle 13 et al
    You can’t buy my suffereing

    You can’t buy the wind
    You can’t buy the sun
    You can’t buy the rain
    You can’t buy the heat
    You can’t buy the clouds
    You can’t buy the colors
    You can’t buy my joy,
    You can’t buy my suffering

    • Thanks Cort. Im really bummed I missed Calle 13 when they played the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista (the parade grounds hugging the malecon constructed in front of the US interests section – terrible for concerts since the audio sucks but great for packing in a million or two people) in March 2010. Im not a huge fan of their musical stylins but I appreciate them as a cultural/political phenomenon and these giant free concerts in Cuba are always a blast; I guess I should give thanks I caught the Juanes extravaganza. But I missed Calle 13 for a purpose: I was covering the Cuban doctors in post-quake Haiti.

  5. Ole

    I always called it the Plaza Elian. They built it for the express purpose of protesting the Miami crowd’s kidnapping of that poor boy.
    I know him and his Dad, Juan Miguel, from Varadero where his dad kept the boat that Fidel gave him for coming back from the US. Right next to the russian patrol boats that would rock the whole Marina like mad when they left and returned.
    He also had a brand new Lada, festooned with every gee-gaw imaginable- it would put a Puerto Rican Publico driver to shame!

    Are the huge flags still flying at the Plaza? It was beautiful when they used the Cuban flag, but not so much with the black ones. The problem was that the flagpoles had to be painted every 3 months.
    The flags were put up to block the view of the electronic scrolling billboard Bush had put in the top story window to provoke the Cuban Gov’t. I remember they closed the Malecon there for over a month- what a pain!

    Ole

    • The flag poles in front of “La SINA” (the spanish acronym for the interest section) are BRILLIANT. I loved this solution to the LCD billboard with “news” eight feet high streaking across that ugly building’s facade (under Obama they’ve disabled this eye/brainsore). The black flags symbolize all the Cubans killed in terrorist attacks over the years (I was at the inauguration of the poles) and the Cuban flags….well, you know what those symbolize!

  6. Cort Greene

    I know what you mean about Calle 13 but this cover with Inti-illmani and Camila Moreno was great and most of the concert in Chile was enjoyable.

  7. Razel

    I don’t believe you are a native NYer by the way you talk about NY in your coming home blog or maybe it is a generational gap. NY was way worse in the 70s and 80s than Havana is today. It was filled with monster sized potholes and crumbling buildings. Take a look at Style Warz for a memory jog. Aside from that your writing is wonderful and brings back memories of both Havana and NY the two places I will always call home.

    • Hey Razel – thanks for stopping by and getting my Irish up!!! (It’s WAY too early for that by the way – I’ve only had time to suck down one cafecito). Questioning Im not a native NYer?! Whoa. Them there’s fightin words.

      Yes, it’s a generational thing: in the 70s I was aged 1-10, so my recollection of potholes is scant (besides: we all know NYers don’t need cars and our family didn’t have one so potholes: who knew?!), but I do remember our cooperative in Park Slope, spending our Saturdays cutting govt cheese into manageable blocks for us and our neighbors; seeing Judith Jamison dance Cry with Alvin Ailey; playing Pix! Pix! Pix! after school on WPIX and so on. Then there were the 80s: crack whores, She-men in the meat packing district (sad what They’ve done to that hood), hopping turnstiles and using tokens to enter the hot and dangerous subway that single women didn’t ride at night, Central Park that you didn’t enter at night, the high times at the Meadow, so…..just so you and other readers know (and something that I thought I needn’t point out, but this IS the Internet after all, duh!): I don’t lie. What you read here is totally true.

      We do agree, though: NY is reverting?

      Thanks for the kind words about my writing: that’s what this blog is about! Do stop by again if you’re so inclined.

  8. Pingback: Lawyers, Guns & Money | Here is Havana

  9. I can usually never think of a fabulous enough response to your blog posts but, because I love your blog so much, I’m pushing myself to anyway. 😛

    Maybe you’ve gone past that line of seeing the differences now. Maybe in a sub-conscious way, you’re seeking out the similarities because Cuba now feel more like home. But, yeah, those coincedences were a little creepy.

  10. mardi

    Oye

    Speaking of the compact fluorescent bulbs …. wonder if they realizes the problems with disposal afterward … mercury

    By the way love your articles and writing style.

    Mardi

    • Hola Mardi. Yes, this part of the equation is ‘muy preocupante.’ (very troubling for you non spanish speakers!). An example, perhaps, of Cuba doing something good in short term but not in the long?

      Thanks for your generous words. Keeps me writing!

  11. Denise

    This repartera from NJ, transplant to Maui who “summers in la Habana” would love to know how in the WORLD, Ole, you manage to transport LIGHT BULBS in your luggage without them breaking!!!??? Do you put them in some kind of metal box? It seems like a great gift idea for my avid reader friends, but I am just picturing the state in which my luggage arrives every summer …

    • Hola/aloha Denise. I, too, have transported lightbulbs (in fact, it’s about time for a new batch of imports!), jars of homemade mustard, olive oil (once a bottle broke and ‘the state in which my luggage arrived’ – dios mio!), glasses, mugs, and more. And then in the reverse, there might be a bottle or two of that potent potable for which Cuba is known tucked away amongst the tshirts and jeans. The last time I did that, I transported it Havana-LA-Honolulu-Kailua Kona.

  12. Gabriel Grenot

    Another great work Conner. OMG it’s true this past august 27 we came back from Cuba and for me to make the transition easier , I hang around mission neighborhood riding the bus up and down with no destiny . my fellows Cubans just smile and ask me . pipo que pinga estas haciendo , montando la guagua ? tu carro esta roto ?. I know you know i did not answer these question. but i smile with them jajajajaj

  13. Gabriel Grenot

    Hey Conner : I do have to say this , I love what you do and the way you do it. My dear friend Jen another follower of your blog let me know about it and i really appreciated it. as i say before I’m from Santiago de Cuba y Cubano 100% , So if sometime my comments about you writing look accusative , I blame mi cubania . I know you’ll understand .
    Please keep writing, every morning when I get to my office i just can way to read one of your work.
    Thanks

    • Hola Pipo. No te preocupes – your comments are very appreciated/well taken. You’ll know I’m irked when I say: ?!Pipo, que pinga te pasa?! jajajaja.

      Have you subsribed to the blog? Since I have to earn a living writing other things(and because I’m determined to only post good – or at least decent! – writing), I only update the blog every 2 weeks or so. A subscription means you’ll receive it in your inbox every time I post something.

  14. Gabriel Grenot

    No I have not subscribed myself to the blog, but i’ll check on that . thanks for the tips and thanks for your understanding
    see you soon

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