Cuba: The Eternal Education

Some of you may remember my catharsis about know-it-all Cubans, a semi-measured rant dissecting the Cuban ardor for being right – even when they’re talking out their ass.

Not surprisingly, there’s a similar breed of foreigner, an expert on Cuba after two weeks, two years or tenure (see note 1). Maybe you’ve overheard them at the next table at one or another of Havana’s overhyped paladares prattling on about how to unify the currencies or make Cubans more efficient (the most vulnerable rarely have a seat at this table, literally and figuratively). Perhaps you read a blog written by an absentee/wannabe Cubanologist or transient traveler who proclaims to be an authority on political bell weathers or sexual proclivities here.

No matter the source: those claiming to have Cuba pegged are usually off base or worse – not even in the ballpark. Whereas it used to be difficult to understand things on the ground from afar, today it is near impossible since economic reforms are changing the landscape here fast. For us living it, we’re learning something new every day, the details and mechanisms of which cannot be fully known from wherever you are reading this.

Although the economic changes are injecting a level of uncertainty and accelerating individualism (here in Havana at least) that trouble me, I still give daily thanks – or try to – that I live in a time and place that continually teaches me new things. After all, learning something new every day is one of the key ingredients in the ajiaco of life – another reason why I love Cuba. Judging by the experience of certain friends, I’m confident the eternal education Cuba provides is a constant regardless of outside forces or how long you’ve been here.

Take my friends Ann and Alicia. North Americans both, they’ve lived here full-time for a collective 55 years and are still learning. Recently they separately admitted to having just learned that the red ribbon hanging from the undercarriage of 6 out of 10 cars here is to ward off the evil eye. And they both own cars! Such discoveries after so much time in residence encourage me to keep observing, keep meeting and talking to new people, having new experiences, and writing about this complex place where there’s always something new to be learned. In the past several weeks alone, my Cuban education has schooled me thus:

El Torniquete: The observant among you have likely noticed women and young girls chancleteando through the streets of Centro Habana or La Vibora with empty rolls of toilet paper spooled tightly around their tresses and piled atop their heads. This is knows as the ‘tourniquet’ and is a simple, free way to produce a fancy, going out ‘do. Although I’ve long marveled at the ingenuity, I never knew this technique had a name until a friend helping to gussy me up showed me how it’s done. For those wondering, I’ve only been partially successful in my gambit to improve my “look” due to my rabid aversion to shopping and my preference for substance over style. Furthermore, with only 24 hours in a day, other pursuits (e.g. cooking; bike polo; visitas) take priority of personal primping. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn from my impeccably turned out Cubana counterparts.

4/4 Time Dies Hard: I’ve recently taken up salsa lessons which have been measurably more successful than my half-hearted attempts at honing my fashion chops and style. I have an amazing dance teacher – talented, patient, encouraging, and easy on the eyes – which is a large part of the equation. Last class he admitted: ‘I thought it was going to be much harder to teach you’ and after just a few lessons, we’re both impressed that I’m already spinning around the dance floor without spinning off beat. But a lifetime 4/4 habit is a bitch to break, I’m learning, and I still tend to misstep, especially when in the arms of a taller, drunker, or clumsier partner than my teacher.

El Baile de Perchero: Along with salsa, I’ve recently become privy to another dance form known as the Hanger Dance. Surely a Cuban invention, this is when a couple dances themselves out of their clothes and on to more carnal endeavors and pleasures. It’s a testament to Cuban propriety that the name of the dance involves hangers: my clothes usually end up on the floor.

Vestido de Iwayó: Admittedly I know very little about Afro-Cuban religions – Yoruba, Palo Monte, Abakua, et al. But I, like many readers I assume, can’t fail to notice initiates walking around in these parts wearing head-to-toe white clothing. Even accessories – headbands and hand bags, hats and umbrellas – must be white for those haciendo santo and formally entering the religious ranks. It’s one of the most obvious outward manifestations of Afro Cuban religions here, but I’ve only recently learned that it’s called dressed as/for iwayó.

Life on the Inside: Given my insatiable craving for learning about new Cuban customs and culture, I’m very grateful to a friend who admitted he spent five years in a maximum security prison here. For my/our purposes, it matters not the crime for which he did time (though it was non-violent), so I won’t go there. What is important is the crash course he gave me about life inside a Cuban jail. He graciously endured and answered hours of my questions on everything from food and escape attempts to rape and overcrowding. Suffice to say that what I learned was so fascinating, I’m writing an article about the cultural dark side here entitled Havana Black & Blue. Any interested editors reading this are heartily encouraged to contact me as I look for an outlet for this piece.

Of course, the one thing everyone here – visitor and resident alike, whether they like it or not – is always learning, is how to maintain patience and good humor in this sometimes frustrating, but never dull island….

1. The so-called ‘Cubanologists’ who sit in their ivory tower offices in developed world academies of higher learning (or their cubicles in think tanks), espousing how it is in Cuba (where they visit once a year, perhaps), especially chap my ass.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

30 responses to “Cuba: The Eternal Education

  1. Ellen Smart

    I literally laughed out loud reading this! El Baile de Perchero, I ended up calling it El Baile Horizontale!! Even though there may be nothing “horizontal” about it haha! I may be becoming a resident of Cuba myself within the year, will be in Cienfuegos, and I would love to pick your brain about types of businesses that I may be able to start on my own..once you are a resident…can you buy property and is there a limit on how many you can buy? Many more questions so if I can contact you, please let me know. My email will be in the “details” below. Love your insights! Have a great day!

    • Hi Ellen. Glad I got you laughing on this bleak Tuesday. Im sorry I can’t honor all requests like yours but Ive had to stop giving out free advice like the kind you seek – the new economy is obligating us to work in different ways. I can be hired as a consultant however. Let me know if you’re interested and good luck with your bid to live here.

      • Ellen Smart

        I completely understand…been there done that ! I’m looking forward to the challenges and the learning experiences that will most definitely come my way. Cheers!

  2. Ro

    Amen, amen, amen to Note. 1!!
    Non-Cubans who are know-it-alls about Cuba are annoying, especially those who make $$ off their “expertise” and simultaneously miseducate or even worse, slander – and boy, are they popping up all over. Even more annoying is when they preach to Cubans about how they should run their country.
    A little humility goes a long way. Thank you for reminding me about the importance of being grateful for learning.

  3. viajerauk

    Hey Conner
    Hope you’re well and have found missing bass guitars, colleagues or any other missing thing.

    Totally agree with you about the “Cuba Expert” phenom: you know the REAL expoerts are the ones willing to admit that the more they learn, the more they realise how little they know.

    and while I am really really not trying to be that kind of pain-in-the-ass blowhard, show-off or try-hard here: Vestido de Lwayó is a typo I think. It’s “iyawo” – which is the Yoruba word for ‘bride’, so makes perfect sense because within traditional Yoruba religion and Cuban variants, the initiated ‘novice’ (whether male or female) is considered and referred to as the ‘wife’ of their governing orisha (deity). and dressing all in white, covering your head (at least) and using an umbrella to keep off ‘dangerous’ sunshine or evil forces is trad Yoruba, all the way, as well.

    that’s it from me, but a sincere (and humble) thank you for illuminating the thing with the red ribbons on cars and the torniquete! all news I could definitely use.
    Take care of yourself…

    • Hola viajera. On the contrary – I rely on well-informed and non-rabid people like you to help me keep this blog accurate. Thanks for the heads up.

      Still looking for all kinds of lost things, including my youth – 11 years here is taking its toll. But thanks for asking!

      • Amy

        Hi Connor – those of us who long to live in Cuba again or for an extended period of time are lucky to have you as a learning resource. Thank you for sharing as you do! I heard lots of uninformed comments before, during and after my recent visit to the Cuban family I used to live with. Ay, mi madre!

  4. J

    Torniquete Time. From my experience, los rolos de papel are only one part of this beautification ritual–having been “torniqueted” by some real pros in Camagüey and Havana. The first time, my untamed, frizzy, curly locks were openly criticized en voz alta by three women, all at once–with much pulling of hair, head shaking, and sighing at my complete ignorance of “proper hair care”. Insulted, but open to a new experience, I waited for the solution I knew “was coming”. They told me to wash my hair. I did. Then they parted my hair in several sections and began comb and wrap it tightly in one direction around the way around my head to get it to go straight. They plastered my torniquete with presillas and wrapped my head tight, tight, tight with a rag. I didn’t get the rolos, but it did feel as though my circulation were being cutoff. I knew I was in the hands of pros when I found my head stuck in a plastic bonnet hair dryer on high for an hour in the middle of July. At least, they were gentle when they “combed me out”. Lots of oohs and aahs at the sight of my smooth do. It lasted for about 30 minutes outside in the summer humidity, but I felt very cubana for just a sec. The owner of the bobby pins counted them carefully when I returned them to her. Whew. I think about how many bobby pins I’ve carelessly lost over my lifetime of consumer excess in the U.S. Note: I have tried torniqueting my hair at home with limited success. You think it’s Cuban water that makes it work there? 😉

    • Hiya. Thanks for the detailed resumen of exactly how the tourniquete is achieved. Don’t try this at home kids! Besides, it won’t come out a la cubana – only those who have to count bobby pins, can endure an hour’s worth of hair drying in July, and are ingenious, patient, and detail-oriented enough to spend even more hours primping with few to zero resources can make this miracle happen. Or maybe it’s the water.

      • maudiaz

        Can you show us a pic of a Torniquete??

      • Next time my friend Yusleidy is in her tourniquete, Ill snap a photo. I’ll see if I can get a street shot as well. Its also worth noting that tourniquetes are almost always cleverly covered with scarves, though Cuban women have no qualms about walking about town in their tourniquetes (or with the dark line of hair dye still staining their forehead!)

  5. maudiaz

    Hey, Conner!

    Another fantastic blog!

    It is interesting how it ended up coinciding with Chavez’ death.

    I’d love to read your insight on how this will (or will not) affect Cuba and the maelstrom of changes it’s currently undergoing.

    All the best and keep’em coming!!!

  6. Hi Conner
    I try to visit when I can, mostly to see my beloved friends in Trinidad. In each and every visit I have always learned something new, it never fails to amaze me. You can never know it all about Cuba and so when people ask me all sorts of questions about Cuba, I can only share what I’ve experienced. I try to share my passion hopefully inspiring others to also visit Cuba and then experience it for themselves, that’s not to say that they will get to know it all of a sudden, but at least they get a taster. Cuba is not for everyone but I love it.
    As for el torniquete, I had no idea it had a name either, but I have seen it many times and it always makes me smile. One of my Cuban friends used to mock me as my clothes were always creased; hard to avoid when your clothes are always folded up in the rucksack. He always took pride in his appearance, but as I was without access to hangers and not willing to use an iron, and seeing women walking the streets with toilet rolls on their head, it amazed me how much importance he placed on it, but then he always managed to look impeccable whilst according to him I always looked like I came out of a jumble sale!

    • Hiya Rena. Sounds like a great and healthy outlook and approach to this crazy island!

      A little I-travel-out-of-a-rucksack-and-refuse-to-iron tip: hang whatever it is youre to wear in the shower while you shower (on a peg, from the window knob or faucet if no hangers are available) – the water mellows out the wrinkles. This works especially well if there is hot water where youre showering. Happy travels!

  7. Caney

    2 pictures of torniquetes here:

  8. Hi Conner, the correct word for recently initiated is iyawo- the bride (or bridegroom) of the santo.

  9. There is a woman who lives in my city who is Israeli by birth and Cuban by her own declaration. She has written a book called “My Seductive Cuba” ( Admittedly I have not read the book however I do find something rather distasteful how she has co-opted Cuban culture. There was a Cuban baseball player in Toronto who wrote “Eres Marecon” under his eyes which created quite a stir. This lady was interviewed by a national TV station as a Cuban expert! Mi dios….

    • I’ve heard of, but haven’t read the book either – I wonder if is it any good? But wait a sec: she actually calls herself Cuban? That takes ovaries, as we say here!! And yes, I followed the “maricón” flap (LGBT/homophobia issues are one of my areas of expertise/interest/activism) – there’s so much more work to do.

      By the way – don’t you think it would make more sense to interview say, a REAL Cuban for the sound byte they need, or at least a longtime Yuma en Cuba? Jejeje. Thanks for writing in.

  10. day

    Hi Conner,
    You have a very interesting blog which I try to read when I’m back in Canada for a holiday (as I am now). My home is also in Havana. Good for you for writing about Havana, being helpful and not making a fool of yourself – I rarely give advice about Cuba because it really is so easy to talk crap.
    Conner, your post is very easy to relate to. Cuba constantly challenges me to learn. My friends and family usually get a good laugh a couple of times a week based on my misunderstandings of Cuban culture and language. However, their all time fave is from about 4 years ago. I had been living in Havana for about a year and, whenever someone complained about something (anything from cans of tuna to matches) being lost (ie not in stores or street), I constantly heard the response (from Cubans of all stripes): “It is probably in the Comité Central.” Everybody always said it with so much seriousness that one day when we had been out of something-or-other for far too long, I said so why don’t we go to this almacén called Comité Central and see if we can make a little business outside. Duh. Of course, it’s not a warehouse. My father-in-law and Granma had obviously wasted countless hours on me trying to explain political process in Cuba. I’m not sure how I failed to connect the C.C. for real with the C.C. in the joke. For a fairly intelligent woman, I constantly come off as pretty dumb in Cuba. This makes me think of all the double meanings in conversations with Cubans. Have you posted on all the double entendre? It kills me.
    Now about the hair… I know that I’ve said that I don’t give advice, but I’m going to make an attempt to put a word in for Cubanas: To all that splurge on a can of Pringles, please leave the empty (or better yet full) container where a Cubana can salvage it for her tourniquet. If the shiny paper is taken off and the container cut, the rolls are a better size (for the ever so stylish looong hair) and much stronger than toilet paper rolls.
    It really is interesting how Cuban women bond over hair. A key moment for me in my journey to be seen as a little less foreigner and a little more just me was last year when I, for the first time, went to a party with a scarf on my head (well actually 2 – I double-scarved) and henna running out of the scarf. It was a party not to be missed, but I couldn’t waste the colour and take it out before morning. I was told how great (Cuban) I Iooked and then a bunch of my Cubana friends proceeded to sympathize with me because I couldn’t hear anything (blaming the 2 scarves) at the party. My mother-in-law had helped me to coordinate the outer scarf with my clothes and I must say I did have a certain Cuban elegance thing going on.
    Before I go, I have a little story about the red ribbon on cars which speaks to my inability to understand Cuba/ns. Last Thursday, my friend drove my husband and me to the Viazul station so that I could head out to Varadero airport for my flight north to -30C (no word of a lie, it was that cold here last night). (I was actually looking forward to heading to Canada because after weeks of the damp cold in Havana, I knew that -30C would bring with it a centrally heated and dry house!) Well, for the whole trip my friend ranted to us about the ridiculousness of brujería and superstition. As he was ranting away, I was staring out the front window to the hood ornament of his 50’s Chevy. It had a big old red rag tied around it, flapping in the wind. When hubby and I got out of the car, I asked him, “So then what gives with the rag on the hood ornament?” He just shrugged and said that that (meaning the contradiction) is what makes our friend Cuban. It’s that constant contradiction that, for me, makes it so difficult to figure stuff out there and keeps it interesting.
    Well, I guess that I’ve written enough here to last me for the next 5 years.
    Wishing you much success in your life,

    • Hey there

      Thanks for reading and writing in. I have several moments which stay with me as ‘Damn. Im no longer simply Yuma’ (and many more that tell me I still have a lot to learn!) The best Im saving for the book, but the most moving of the former was my bon voyage party thrown by the doctors of the disaster team when I was leaving port-au-prince after living in their tent camp/reporting on their work for a month post-quake.

      Then there are those more ignominous moments when I realize Ive really crossed past the point of no return. Just last week I had one when a friend reached over and said: ‘I really just have to get this.’ And proceeded to lance a zit that had been troubling my face. Public zit popping, me? Dedicated readers know Im not a fan, but it IS part of the cultural landscape here!

      Enjoy all those up-north things you miss while here.

      PS – excellent tip about the Pringles can. I will try once my hair grows back!

  11. dany

    Good article Conner!
    That’s something that, as a Cuban not living in Cuba, I’m missing out on, all the changes that are going on, I wonder if I will recognize it when I go back this year or next. Fortunately my mom and sisters keep me actualizada 🙂 but it’s not the same.

    I didn’t know about el baile del perchero, must be getting old! I knew about a “fiesta de percheros” (swingers’ party) although I’ve never been to one lol.

    My dominican friends “se mueren de la risa” when I say “torniquete” (they also laugh when I say “carmelita” for brown, until I showed them the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la lengua española that has “Carmelita” as a regionalism for the colour brown) , for them is the “tubi”, or “doobie” when they anglicized the term in their famous dominican hair salons which are prevalent in the U.S. Dominicans are great doing hair, better than cubanas I have to say, and their hair products are excellent, at least for my black relaxed hair. My mom calls their conditioners “amansa guapo” like the herb so used in brujeria in Cuba.

  12. Pingback: Pushing Your Luck in Cuba | Here is Havana

  13. E. Walsh

    Your article is so very true! After 20 years of travel to Cuba and learning much, one aspect of my learnings remains most constant, the more I learn about Cuba the more vast my ignorance of Cuba seems to become! I seldom stay in a hotel – most always a casa particular – and on a few trips – a casa solar – (hot as hell – toilet shared by two families that had to be flushed with a bucket of water – and no electrical power from evening til morning)! Baths were taken with a small bucket of hot water mixed with a bucket of cold water and a cup to pour the mild water over your body. Forget hanging your non-ironed cloths in the shower while you shower!

    • Baths were taken with a small bucket of hot water mixed with a bucket of cold water and a cup to pour the mild water over your body.

      This is how 80% of cuba takes a “hot shower”, I spent 6 years doing it myself (and ranted about it here some time ago).

      Thanks for reading!

  14. LuisC

    That’s right. Most Cuban homes do not have hot water and it needs to be heated first, and then mixed with cold water to get the right temperature. Even if they do have a shower, if it’s working at all, it’s all cold water. There are also many old bathtubs in Cuba, with no shower connection, and people take their buckets of water there and take their time bathing themselves. Some people used to have a water heater, some still do, so they do get hot and cold water in their bathrooms. Another thing is that water is cut off in some cities, between certain hours, and people gather water in big tanks or whatever they have available. It’s better in Havana, at least in some sections of Havana, according to what I have read. The last time I visited Cuba, 14 yrs. ago, water availability was still an issue because it was restricted to mornings and evenings. I think the situation must have improved some since then, due to all the Casas Particulares offering their services to tourists. Even little Viñales has 160 of these.

    • Hey Luis

      Things have improved vis-à-vis water availability, but in parts of Habana Vieja, it’s still un día sí, un día no (even less often in parts of the campo). There have been massive infrastructure projects nationwide to improve this aspect of life which is so essential for health and well being. Folks still have tanks (if they can afford one) where water is stored. These have been identified as part of the problem with the proliferation of the mosquito that spreads dengue – they breed in water and unless the tanks are capped, it’s a dengue foco waiting to happen.

      Thanks for reading and writing in

  15. LuisC

    You are welcome. Love reading your Cuba blog. Yes, water is still a problem in many areas. You only have to read the ads for houses for sale, how they specify there’s water ’24 hrs’, something essential and which adds to the value of those homes.

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