Some readers may remember my predictions for 2014, where I mentioned that we’re going to have to fight to maintain balance – here, there, everywhere. Work, play, love, lust, family, friends, menial tasks like housecleaning and random responsibilities like jury duty, babysitting, passport renewal: all of these priorities are competing for precious time this year. Given that there are only 24 hours in a day (see note 1) and in those too few hours I’m meeting deadlines, running a bookstore, consulting travelers and policy makers, playing bike polo, and updating my app, I’m terribly behind on that key activity called sleep (and many aforementioned menial tasks/random responsibilities).
So that elusive balance? Tough to find, let alone forge, in today’s Havana, which moves to a new rhythm (note 2), thanks to the economic “updating” (to use the official vernacular) we’re experiencing. While I’ve written some about the troubling aspects this updating engenders, I’m going through a sort of Marriage Encounter phase with my adopted city, whereby my enchantment or something similar, is being rejuvenated. This is taking a conscious effort, I’ll admit, but also seems to be occurring naturally, for which I’m grateful.
If you sense that I’m adverse to change, I am – when that change is inequitable, disquieting, violently +/or stressfully attained or more bad than good. And I’m quite clear that I need to embrace Cuba’s changing socio-economic landscape in a positive, proactive way. Those of us who don’t are doomed – to angst, bitterness, depression, anxiety, addiction, denial and other not-so-desirable states. The long and short of it? I’m trying to love the new Havana even as foreigners move here in droves, rush hour traffic worsens, and the unfortunate combination of wealth and bad taste (note 3) conspire to give the city a flavor that’s starting to feel like Hialeah. So I don’t get swept away by the black cloud called Progress, I dedicate this post to the great things about our economic renewal.
Ice cream, you scream, we all… To say Cubans are fond of sweets is like saying Warren Buffet is well off. You need only look at the rapid proliferation of bakeries (some quite good) as testament. Or the line at Coppelia. As an ice cream fanatic myself, I’ve braved that colossal line – regularly running to an hour or more in the summer – many a time. Following on this delicious tradition is the recent emergence of several outstanding heladerias wholly (or partially) privately-owned and -operated.
I’d heard about the new ice cream place next to El Palenque, but it took a while to jinetear a ride all the way out there to the upper class suburbs to give it a try. Once I stepped into the cool, air-conditioned parlor with ice cream cone chairs and 25 different flavors – hazelnut! tiramisu! pistachio! – I knew I’d found my temple (see note 4). It’s a state-Italian venture as far as I can tell and a hell of an addition to Havana’s gastronomical scene. The same can be said for the spiffy new ice cream place on Calle 84 near 5ta B in Miramar. Creamy, dense, in all sort of assorted flavors – this is what folks tell me Coppelia was like back in the day. One recommendation: someone should open these types of parlors ‘for the hoi polloi,’ closer to the more densely populated (and less affluent for the most part) barrios of Marianao, Centro Habana, Lawton, etc. Even though the stuff is wicked expensive at 1 CUC a scoop, Cubans will always find a way to finance their sweet teeth. [ed note: to discover these and other interesting places to visit around town, please check out my Havana Good Time app for iPhone and Android.]
Late night noshing – Used to be that if hunger struck at midnight, you were shit out of luck. Just a few years ago, dinner after 11 would inevitably mean a microwaved package of overcooked El Rápido spaghetti with watery tomato sauce or some dry on the outside, pasty on the inside croquettes at Ditu (see note 5). News flash: those days are as long gone as Alicia Alonso’s eyesight. In today’s wee hours, you can choose from Swedish, Russian, KFC-type fried chicken (our crispy coating, however, is made with plantains and officials put the kibosh on the drive-thru window), sushi, pizza (delivered to your door in under 30 minutes or it’s free), Mexican, tapas, and my personal favorite: old fashioned comida criolla. I get that extended hours, KFC wannabes and delivery pizza may not be your idea of innovation and I mostly concur. However, the Cuban in me says ‘sushi?! Now that’s progress.’ Plus, there are rumblings of some real foodie inroads being made, including vegetarian cajitas (little boxed meals for a buck or two), protein/veggie shake shacks and various permaculture projects. Now if only the concept of Sunday brunch with Bloody Marys would catch on…
At your service: It’s amazing how many new, small private businesses are providing one service or another. Your Samsung Galaxy not receiving messages? Need your bikini line (or back or upper lip) waxed? I can hip you to half a dozen places within a mile of here to fix you up. Car need a wash? Maybe your dog does. Or perhaps you’re too uncertain or mono-lingual to make that casa reservation in Santiago de Cuba. No problem: in the “new” Havana someone will do it for you – for a fee of course. Today, you can get your iPhone unlocked, your navel pierced, Botox injections (this is actually a state enterprise; I don’t know if private individuals are also doing it, though I wouldn’t doubt it) and many more services we never dreamed of a decade ago. Having such services available bestows a sorely needed veneer of normalcy and efficiency on our corner of the world.
Touchy-feely intangibles – Some of the positive aspects being felt after three years of economic updating are unquantifiable and quite possibly ephemeral (depending on what the future holds). However, in the right now, relaxing restrictions and regulations has unleashed a torrent of pent-up creativity, which is exciting. More importantly, it gives people the space to dream, to put their ideas into practice and test their mettle. Furthermore, the possibilities provided by the 200 and something authorized economic activities give people breathing room, broaden their horizons, and help loosen the (real or perceived) noose of control that many Cubans feel outside or inside forces exert over their lives. This liberty, for lack of a better word, has taught a lot of people, fast, the meaning of hard work (see note 6), which my proletarian background obligates me to view, always, as a good thing. It’s empowering and for the first time, Cubans are getting a sense of individual agency (as opposed to agency as a nation). It’s refreshing. Now however, the trick is to turn all these touchy-feely intangibles into something good and sustainable and not just a mechanism for making money on the backs of their/our/your neighbors.
1. When I’m in charge there will be 48-hour days, no laugh tracks or white people with dreadlocks, plus Styrofoam will be illegal.
2. Once again, let me make it clear: what I write is about Havana – not Bayamo or Puerto Padre or Sandino. I wish I had the time and opportunity to visit these (and more) places across the island more often, but alas…
3. More on this money and tacky taste issue in future posts. Currently I’m thinking of launching a documentary project called Havana: Crimes Against Architecture focusing on how the nouveau super rich are tearing down residential jewels and throwing up Miami style McMansions.
4. I exaggerate. Coppelia, known in these parts as the ‘Cathedral of Ice Cream,’ will forever be my preferred spot to worship and gorge.
5. So notorious is the mystery meat croquettes and variants peddled at Ditus around the country, it led to a popular joke: when someone says ‘ditu’ (tell me about it), the response is ‘no es de pollo’ (it isn’t chicken).
6. Before certain readers get their knickers in a twist like they did with one recent post, let me say that many Cubans I know are very hard working – amongst the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Here, however, I’m talking about the younger generation who really are clueless about what a true hard day’s work entails, and about people who think running a small business is easy money.