The Cuba No One’s Writing About

Early adopters of my blog may remember my post (many moons ago) where I listed the reasons why I love Cuba. Considering I’ve opted to make this crazy place my home for the past 13+ years, this is a question I get fairly often. For several reasons – the superficial fluff being published about Cuba with frightening frequency, the tsunami of clueless tourists, the stress Cuba’s new economy is generating – I think it’s time to revisit why Cuba rocks. This is the Cuba no one is writing about – the deep, below-the-surface substance that makes this place so special. Let’s dive in:

Our diet is largely chemical- and preservative-free.
Sure, you can spend $5 on a can of Pringles or $3 on a can of Red Bull, but when you can whip up fresh plantain chips for mere cents and buy fresh-pressed guarapo for pennies, aside from the novelty, why would you?

The country is popping with wonderful eye/soul candy. Human, architectural, artistic, natural – this place is a visual and spiritual feast.

There is music everywhere
. Literally (and whether you like it or not).

Havana’s tactile nights.
Once you catch that savory-sweet wind laced with gardenias, plumeria and sea salt, moonlight glancing off the waves crashing into the Malecón? No tiene nombre as we say here.

Foreigners ask me pretty often if Cubans’ willingness to share, lend a hand, empathize, and the like is real. It is. I think this is one of those things – if we can retain it (dare I say strengthen?) – will go a good way toward saving what’s really admirable about this society whatever the next few years may bring.

Abortion, free and on demand.
Ever wonder why it’s so hard to find an orphanage in Cuba? This is it: almost 100% of children born in Cuba is a wanted child.

Cubans are shame-free when it comes to bodily functions. Got diarrhea? Your period? Hemorrhoids? Feel free to share (over-sharing and TMI are concepts which don’t translate here); seek advice and resources; vent. Interestingly, this is one of the few areas of discussion and interface which is completely free from gender considerations. Just today I was talking with a Cubano friend about finger probing prostate exams, while another guy lent a kind ear to a friend waxing cathartic about her crippling hot flashes.

Embracing bodily (mis)functions is something I came to appreciate very early on: one of my earliest memories after moving here occurred at a family barbeque at Playa Larga. A couple of hours after meeting everybody, one of the teen girls emerged from the ocean and appealed to men and women alike: ‘does anyone have a maxipad? I just got my period.’ (Yes: there was blood running down her leg. Did I mention that TMI doesn’t apply here?!). And she felt no shame because of it. Why would she? She got her period unexpectedly – one of the most natural things in the world (and what keeps the human race going, incidentally) – and it was entirely not her fault. It’s like how Cubans view disabilities: it’s not that person’s fault, so it’s just downright cruel to shun or otherwise judge someone for a condition or circumstance which is completely out of their control.

But I digress.

Back to how Cubans view bodily functions and how this perspective implicitly rejects Puritanism and gender paradigms. I’ve been in conversations with friends – male and female – about: being a man-whore; circumcision; boob jobs (for both aesthetic and medical reasons); to what size the cervix must dilate to pass a baby; bowel movements – lots and lots of shit talk (frequency, consistency, color, remedies for, causes of); hemorrhoid operations; and penis operations (thankfully not related and not on the same person).

And then there was this recent exchange between some (platonic) friends as we headed out one night:
Her: Shit. I don’t have another Tampax (pronounced in Cuban: Tampac).
Him: I’ll go get one from my sister.
Me: =)

Cuba: it makes you laugh. It makes you cry. But it never leaves anyone indifferent. And this is the #1 reason I love this crazy place: it arouses passion.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

18 responses to “The Cuba No One’s Writing About

  1. I was only in Cuba for a few short months (y estoy loca por volver), but I experienced many of these things first hand, and it was beautiful. Although it’s been a year and a half since I left, not a day goes by when I don’t meditate on these things.

    A personal anecdote: I found the Cuban approach to natural bodily functions to be so refreshing, especially when I got a parasite after being there about a week. At first I was slightly embarrassed; everyone where I was working/studying knew all the gorey details within a few short hours (ese radio bemba nunca falla!!), and my new acquaintences would ask me about it, wanting descriptors y to’…But they were all trying to give me remedies and suggestions to make me better, and were genuinely concerned.

    To contrast, a few weeks ago I went to visit my parents and relatives in California. Upon arriving, I ripped my big toenail up with my suitcase while pulling it off the belt at the airport. It was quite a gruesome, bloody sight to behold, and needed medical treatment. Later, my mother tried very hard to ‘censor’ my recounting of what had happened so as to not ‘offend’ or ‘gross out’ other people when I was asked.

    I much prefer the Cuban philosophy: shit happens…

    • Amadís

      I am a bit surprised, annoyed and alarmed that all you gringos refer to this as Cuban. How shameful! I am Cuban and from a very proper family … and no… we didn’t fart in public, talk about menstruation, cuss and spit. My mother taught us that those things were done by gentuza. I have travelled in 70 countries and have lived in 10. And yes… I have had Chinese spit green next to me, I’ve had an African friend fart in my face and a Frenchman pull funny stuff out of his nose. I’ve been coughed upon in Afghanistan and have had sex proposed in Bolivia, Botswana and Benin. I have aldo encountered very refined people in those cultures who roll their eyes in their sockets when they see lewdness. Cussing, talking about bodily functions, screaming, fighting on the street and being publicly drunk is what whores, eccentric homos, low-lives, losers do. It’s also done by supposedly intellectual folks who have been known for their drunken brawls. Even British royalty have had public sex and engaged in lewd conduct but wrong is wrong. CUBA has in the last 60 years transformed itself into a salveseelquepueda. There are no rules of decency. When you get your FREE condoms publicly at a bookstore and proceed to have sex in a park you have fallen more base than a microrganism. Con todo mi respeto a los microorganismos. The new Cuba is of jineteras, maricones, gritones, unwashed humanity, filthy mouths and no moral compass. That is not the Cuba of my parents. To finalize et pour bien conclure, there are many Cubans out there inside/outside Cuba who will agree with me. Thank you y muchas gracias but the Cuba you so admire I loathe and despise. Amen

      • You’re absolutely right – not all Cubans share these characteristics and indeed, you can find this type of gross/inappropriate/tactless/tasteless behavior everywhere, in any context or country. You also find homophobia – which you’ve evidenced clearly in your note. It must be terribly hard to loathe and despise your native culture. I wonder, with so much travel under your belt, when was the last time you were in Cuba?

  2. Ole

    Once again you hit it dead center, Conner. Cuba is a vastly open society when it comes to talking about almost anything. Except the usual that No One dare mention, such as Freedoms of Expression, Assembly, Communications, and Politics of any kind.. Such a Shame. BTW- Who is going to take over once the two Castro boys are in Cristobal Colon? My bet is another of the old guard, maybe Ramiro Valdes( which will be a turn Backwards should it happen) or perhaps Raul’s son who is cropping up in the news up here more frequently. Or his gay daughter even, which would probably be a refreshing change for poor ol’ kuba.

    Anyway, back on point, this was a Great read. Please give us more.

    • Mariela is gay? That’s news to me and Ive known her a long time! Also, Id love to give you more blog posts, but have to prioritize writing that pays (plus, there’s Cuba Libro, which is a wild, beautiful adventure that has hijacked my life!)

      • Ole

        I stand corrected and castigated for my erroneous assumption about Mariela. She has taken such an active role as spokesperson for the LGBGT (is that right?) community in Cuba that i never gave proper consideration as to her proclivities in that regard. I apologize, if such is warranted. Glad to hear that your book store is soaring. i promise to visit if/when i get back to Cuba- with the Wife, the Suegra and the Hermanita all up here now i really don’t find reason to travel that way much anymore. ( Actually the Wife is adamant about keeping me away from the Cubanitas, and for no good reason, as she remains La Flor de Cuba in my eyes even if she is an Americana now). Although I will have to ride the Balearic ferry boat down direct from Ft. Lauderdale/Port Everglades once it becomes operational just for the novelty of an easy trip to Cuba after all the skipping around i once had to do to get there and keep OFAC from dropping an $11,000 fine on me for violating the travel restrictions.
        In an act of foresight and a showing of their true intentions Balearic, which has been using the vessel for trips to the Bahamas for the last year, named it the “Pinar del Rio”. See you Soon I hope. i will write to see if you have any special book requirements that i might bring (That is a potentially dangerous offer, so be light on me when i write, please.)


  3. You are right, they are very natural !!!

  4. I thoroughly enjoy your take on Cuban life and culture, through the rare lens of an expat. The music certainly is everywhere, thankfully I love the music! We hope to drop by Cuba Libro when we are in Havana again. (I can never get enough of Cuban coffee, and my husband is an avid reader.) I look forward to your next post, and thank-you for your refreshing blog!

  5. Kara Freedman

    Awesome! I’ve got some friends that I hike with that I can share bodily functions with, but generally it’s entirely frowned upon in the US. Too bad.

  6. Mia

    Beautiful Conner! Cubans possess something more important than material things—-CHARACTER!!!!! so badly needed here in the US! Love your blog!

  7. Bryan

    Interesting reads. Just stumbled along. If I’m correct, did you used to post a lot on lp? I used to frequent the Cuba branch, years ago before my trip to La Habana. Went back to the branch to seek out some new info. All I find there is a bunch of cranky sun-starved Canadians and a few mean Aussies still chatting and giving out sarcastic advice to clueless people wishing to visit the island. Those guys need to move on & find a new country to romanticize & give bitchy advice. Pyongyang anyone.

  8. MarryPat

    Oh, thanks for the post! I’ve booked a tour to Cuba and collect all the information that can be helpful. Thanks for the warning…

  9. Pingback: That Time of the Month in Havana | Cuba on Time

  10. Jennifer Belanger

    I love to read your articles! I am from Canada and travel to Cuba every year for the last 8 years. Your voice is so genuine and funny. Yet you hit some serious topics that help me to be a better friend to the Cubans we meet and Cubans we have become close to. How can I find all of your articles? Thanks and keep writing you are a joy to read!
    Affectionately yours,
    Jena belanger Alberta canada

  11. Le agradezco mucho este ensayo. Necesito su ayuda, si me hace el favor.
    When I was a junior mate aboard a Liberian flag tramp steamer in 1962 and ’63, I became close friends with the radio operator, a Cuban national named Eduardo Ignacio Valdez. At some point, Eduardo told me he’d been raised in a Cuban orphanage. I believe it was in Havana. Each orphan was the responsibility of a single sister to nurture, raise, educate and provide the child with an occupation. Eduardo’s was radiotelegrafista. I am now writing a memoir of those days and for the sake of precision, I need to know one thing. Eduardo had told me that his name (middle? last?) was always given to any child raised in that orphanage. I just can’t recall if it was “Ignacio” or “Valdez.” If you or any of your correspondents knows the answer to that, I’d appreciate your letting me know. De nuevo, le agradezco mucho sus esfuerzos en informar a la gente de hoy en día las realidades de la vida cotidiana cubana.
    Buena suerte en todas sus empresas.
    Jeff S.

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