That Time of the Month in Havana (AKA Periodo Especial)

So the KKK deigned us with a visit. Not the white hooded racists, but the Prada-clad Kardashian clan. By all accounts, they hated Havana. They are not alone. Reasons to dislike my adopted city abound – the vicious gossip and hearsay; the transportation troubles; the dearth of nuts, berries, cheese, and fish; the inevitable beer or four added to your tab. But apparently, none of this registered on the limited radar/IQ of these young women who will never garner the respect or notoriety of their step dadmom, Caitlyn Jenner (I bet that puts Kim, Kourtney and Khloe’s La Perla panties in a twist). No, they hated Havana because their escapades in the world’s hottest city went undocumented on Snapchat and Twitter, negating whatever semblance of relevance they’ve ever known.

And in Havana, the Kardashians are irrelevant, something else they bitched about: ‘no one here knows who we are!’, proving once again that as insane as Havana is, it remains one of the world’s last bastions of sanity. What is relevant are the expectations people bring to this very unexpected place. I get it: most folks traveling here have sorely limited knowledge about Cuba. Maybe they know about the Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs or nothing at all. That started changing about two years ago when the likes of Usher and Jagger, Lagerfeld, Lady Gaga, and the real First Lady began stampeding the island like WalMart shoppers on Black Friday. Naturally, these visits made novel TV fodder for channels around the globe.

Meanwhile, Hollywood discovered a tropical playground with high-quality, low-budget talent (Fun Fact: the 12 day shoot for the 8th installment of the Fast & Furious franchise cost Universal $7 million; Cuban friends working on the set report that Vin Diesel is an idiot). Vanity Fair won’t fulfill subscriptions to Cuba (which has my cotton briefs in a twist), but sent Annie Leibovitz down for an exclusive shoot with Rihana where the pop star looks like just another ‘ho from Centro Habana, $2500 come-fuck-me shoes notwithstanding. All of these factors, plus others beyond the purview of this post, create a pseudo-reality of Cuba in the minds of the outside world. The result? Distorted perceptions and false expectations.

Distorted reality was what led me to create Here is Havana seven years ago – to give you the straight dope on what’s really going on in one of the world’s most fascinating cities. So while the Kardashians are whining about their inability to access the Internet (Pro Tip girls: head to the park at 16 & 15 to get all your connectivity woes resolved), I want to talk about real life issues affecting us on the ground: feminine hygiene products.

This is what period products are euphemistically called in the USA, but down here, where menstruation is talked about in mixed company, between and among generations, and at the family dinner table, we’ve no use for euphemism. Cubans – and now me by extension – talk about maxi pads and ‘Tampac’, blood flow and cramps they way you talk about Fair Trade coffee and standard-of-living raises: big issues, but not a shame-inducing big deal. In short, from periods to explosive diarrhea, Cubans have no pena when it comes to bodily functions. I’ve written previously about my admiration for this kind of Cuban straight talk, but given the ‘tourism tsunami’, I think a re-visit is in order, especially what women can expect at that time of the month.

###

When I moved to Havana in 2002, it had been decades since I’d used a maxi pad (also known as a sanitary napkin, which makes it sound like a Purell-infused paper towel found on your airplane or hospital food tray). Until my early 30s, I was a tampon gal all the way and never used anything but Tampax (Fun Fact #2: tampon brand loyalty is one of the all-time fiercest consumer behaviors according to focus groups and surveys; get a girl on to your brand in her first or second cycle and she’ll love ya for life! Or at least through menopause).

I arrived with a jumbo box of tampons, but was rudely awakened when those ran out: tampons were just not a thing in Havana. Not available, at any price. I was shocked and a little pissed. How did Cubanas cope? Tampons were a necessity as far as my First World mind could fathom and many of you likely agree. Can’t it be argued that the tampon is one of the most powerful weapons in the women’s lib arsenal (after the washing machine and the immigrant nanny to run it)? It seemed antiquated, as if I’d been thrown back to my mother’s pre-Betty Friedan teenage years.

Except this was 2002. And I was bleeding without recourse. I had to adapt.

This exercise in dystopian social Darwinism taught me some key Cuban survival skills. Most importantly, I learned how Cubans confront the monthly bleed: they procure a limited amount of maxi pads via their ration card, supplemented by cotton swaddling they fashion into pads when the ration, inevitably, runs out. The former are often gifted or sold, the latter reserved for when things devolve into a bloody mess. Once in a while, you might find pads in the dollar stores and when you do, buy in triplicate. When all else failed, I resorted to wads of toilet paper and Scotch tape. File under: Epic Fail. This all put a serious hitch in my giddy up on trips to the beach, hotel pool, or secret waterfalls, but I made do without any seriously embarrassing bleed through. Although, as I like to point out, it’s terribly hard to embarrass a Cuban, no matter the context, and period blood made public is no real cause for concern. To wit: my buddy Oscar recently shared a story about partying with friends at one of the faux posh Miami lounges cropping up in Havana like fungi under cow shit. Seating was in booths and on cubes made of white pleather (that’s plastic leather in Conner-speak; learn it. Love it). When Oscar’s girl stood to go to the bathroom, she left the cube smeared with blood. As she walked away, Oscar grabbed a napkin and wiped it clean without missing a beat.

Still, it’s hard to return to bulky, non-beach-compliant pads and relive pleather-smearing accidents after you’ve experienced [insert your favorite brand here]. Indeed, tampons are in such high demand in Havana, we ask foreign visitors to pack some extra in their luggage. Thanks to many kind folks who have done so, we have stock on hand at the bookstore – we’ve saved many a tourist and colleague with these donated ‘feminine hygiene products.’ And we’re converting people too: a pair of Cubana friends declined our invitation to a Cuba Libro beach outing because it was their time of the month. I told them this shouldn’t be a limitation and introduced them to tampons. One of these women was in her 20s; the other in her 30s. I gave them a quick how-to (verbal, not visual) and handed them the bilingual instructions/anatomical diagrams provided in every box. Judging by the frequency of tampon requests we’re now fielding at Cuba Libro, I’d say consumer choice and convenience – of which the tampon is poster child – are going to start driving many people’s agenda. Personally, unless I’m working an outfit requiring a thong or am destined for water play, I’m a stalwart pad supporter. At my age, I don’t have that many more years to worry about all this. What a fucking relief (but please dear lord: retain my robust libido!)

As for the Kardashians, I hope they brought enough feminine hygiene products – they sure did seem like they were on the rag during their visit.

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30 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, cuban words without translation, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

30 responses to “That Time of the Month in Havana (AKA Periodo Especial)

  1. Who are the Kardashians? Who is their step mom? I guess I am even further out of touch with the “important” thing in this world than Havana. They certainly can not be worth the ink you spent on them.

    • Follow the links Nimrod, for more info. they served my purpose – and all my ink is worth it, no? 😉

      • Jessica Purcell

        Hi Conner,
        I am a third year law student at Yale who is traveling to Havana next month to research menstruation management in Cuba. Your blog has provided some of the most relevant information I can find, and I would be so grateful if you would contact me. (Your email link is broken, but I will also try to contact you on twitter.)
        Thank You,
        Jessica Purcell

  2. The Kardashians are like the monster under the bed, they can only exist if you believe they are real.
    Be happy be very happy that they did not rave about Havana to their millions of followers. The result would have been thousands of truly ignorant self absorbed, selfie stick wielding attention whores (male and female) whose only goal in life is to be more like them.
    On a side note I’ve long been a huge fan of come fuck me shoes.

    • Thanks for your thoughts HDT. Unfortunately, the ignorant, self-absorbed, selfie stick wielding hordes are already descending. but ‘del lobo un pelo’ (the tsunami wont be kicked up to Kardashian levels any time soon) but your comment gives me an idea: maybe I should start a covert campaign about how shitty it is to travel to Cuba? How it’s cheaper to get cornrows/laid/drunk in Jamaica or the DR; how there is not nearly enough AC; how public bathrooms are an adventure in avoiding toxic waste?

      By the way: I am also a big fan of the come fuck me shoe, but only when practical (ie not at the beach or in Old Havana or whenever long walks or running for a bus is involved – although I have done the last with tons of grace).

      • Any free advertising for Jamaica is always welcome, especially in the face of us having to soon play second fiddle to the US market. And even though Cuba may in fact be cheaper than Jamaica, you can assure everyone that we are not short on ‘feminine products’ and brands.

  3. RunsWithScissors

    One of your best Conner. Hilarious! Please keep them coming!

  4. Candy Hernandez

    jajajaja. All is true. We always keep a good supply at the Casa and many times young tourist ladies ask me discreetly where they can buy tampons. When I tell them, “no where” they stare at me, slack-jawed, in disbelief. Then I yell out to one of the boys who work at the house to go in the storage room and grab me a couple of pads and when the young stud-muffins hand it to the said gals, they almost die of embarrassment. And then bitch because they don’t use pads.

    So I tell them to give them back and that ends that conversation.

    The problem with tampons is that they severely clog our low-water-pressure-bad sewage system toilets. And tourists refused to throw them in the little garbage cans in the bathrooms

    When in Rome ladies……………….

    • oh yes, forgot about the DO NOT FLUSH rule. we’ve had our share of issues at Cuba Libro, as you might imagine. thanks for reading and writing in!

  5. Caroline

    Very timely – I have just started following your blog; I got back to the UK from a cycling holiday in Cuba two weeks ago. I had read about shortages of pads and tampons, so where the rest of our group had brought pens, pads, children’s books etc, I just brought a huge bag of tampax and STs. If I’d have known about Cuba Libro then I would have dropped some off! (plus this months Vanity Fair, which I also had!).

  6. That was great. I’m passed it, but will remind female travelers when they ask me what to bring to Cuba. Last year, I did bring a bag of stuff like aspirin, bandages, toothbrushes, etc, but the tampons were not on my radar. Thanks. I’m here in Santa Monica, CA a big fan of your pov in Havana. I just wanted you to know I’m listening…, so don’t stop, k?

    • Gracias CME! I try my damndest to keep writing Here is Havana. Im cooking up another post now about how peculiar latino culture comports itself here in southern california, your neck of the woods. It’s not at all like what Im used to in NYC/Bay Area, the two places Ive lived before Cuba. All the Mexicans/Central Americans are godsmacked when I open my mouth and speak Espanol. Maybe it’s the freckles? Thanks for reading.

  7. Your ability to provide readers with familiar paving stones on which to place their feet and follow, allows you to bring ’em through whatever jungle joy, or joke you discover.
    Bravo.

    • Im not sure how many of my readers could or would want to handle my jungle. It can get pretty ugly….but I guarantee lots of jokes and joy along the way!

  8. dude, ask your next visitor to bring a Diva Cup! http://www.divacup.com

    • Diva Cup. Sounds like the new bra at Victorias Secret.

    • I know there is at least one Diva Cup in Cuba, because I have a friend who took it (and left it) there. Hope it’s been used!

      • mel

        diva cup, luna cup, keeper. they sound gross, but once you get through the first cycle, you’ll wonder how you ever put horrible padding against your delicate lady parts. and one will last for 10 yrs. i think mine may see me out to menopause.

    • Dany

      My (Cuban) sister asked me for a Diva cup last year, I completely forgot. Will have to buy it and send it to her. I prefer pads.

    • Kara

      Couldn’t agree more! I’ve lived in a few places where tampons were hard to find and using a diva cup has saved me many a time. Potentially a great option in Havana.

  9. i knew when i found your blog that the timing was ripe and soon i’d be reading some fiery capitalist-transition tales from a woman with an unusual point of view. keep ’em coming, por favor. 🙂

  10. vammy

    I used a Diva cup on my most recent trip to Cuba. I thought I was so smart. I didn’t know how messy these things can get. I usually end up with my hands all bloody, but this has never been a problem here at home as there is always a sink and water nearby. When there isn’t one right there, I can wipe the worst of it on a bunch of toilet paper, step out of the stall, and then wash my hands with lots of water and soap.

    Enter Cuba, and all the public and private restrooms without water, and no toilet paper. I had to ask for help every time, so that someone could come in with a bucket of water to pour over my bloody hands, while I was still there with my pants by my ankles. I even brought my own toilet paper, but fiddling the TP out of my purse while trying to not touch anything and/or dripping more blood everywhere only worked part of the time, and the other times made it worse.

    Luckily I had a (male!) friend who had no problem helping me, but I was taught a lesson when his sister demonstrated to me in front of the whole family her far superior product: Maxi pads. I had actually brought a whole box of Instead Cups (disposable Diva cups) to leave the rest with them, so they could go swimming and sit on white pleather, but I was humbled and took them all home with me again without even offering. Maybe next time.

    I can only suspect that the Kardashians had more civilized accommodations, otherwise lack of WiFi would be the least of their problems 😉

    • thanks for the feedback Vammy. You make a very good point – public bathrooms in Havana can be, er, challenging, even when not trying to juggle a Diva Cup with no water, soap or toilet paper.

    • mel

      i used my keeper in cuba, no problems. wet wipes helped.
      but i suspect my technique is better than yours. i’m not bragging–just that i only get the tips of two fingers and thumb a bit smeared. that, or you have a super-gushy flow. power uterus. 🙂

      • vammy

        The latter 😉 Have to empty every 2 hours, which is why I didn’t want to use tampons anymore (I have to change them even more often). Thanks for reminding me; I think I will leave a few on my next trip since it may be much more manageable for others.

      • mel

        please say you are seeing a doctor/gyno about your flow? most women produce less than 50 ml in a period, and the cups hold 25-30ml. this would suggest that you are producing over 150ml in a day?

        i also wish i’d known about the shortage; i had extra space in my bag and i’d have been happy to leave behind some pads as a thank you to the women we stayed with.
        i’ll suggest it on the next travel board discussion about tipping resort staff. 😉

  11. Allison

    I second the Diva Cup idea, though it is hard in public bathrooms, but still… nothing making sure you bring some Kleenex with you can’t fix. I just spent almost a month in rural Pinar with my husband’s family and I was willing to deal with absolutely anything… navigating the local policlinico when I got strep, showering with a bucket, santanias in the bed… you name it. But I drew the line at maxipads. I just can’t. I sweat enough as it is there without the adult diaper during already uncomfortable days. I gave one to my sister-in-law and it’s life changing.

  12. Apparently no Midol or Pamprin from what my poor cramping menstruating friends say.
    Sorry to tell you this Conner but without Estrogen replacement, kiss that robust libido goodbye.

  13. Pedro Animala

    As they say on the other island, estas brutal! (akin to, you’re awesome).

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