In the Summer, In the City

It may be hard to believe (or all too easy, depending on your experience and perspective), but there are days I rue my decision to live here. You’d think 14 years would be time a-plenty to know whether a place is for you. Alas, I descend from a long line of slow learners…

 

But Cuba is a confounding place, at equal turns bewitching and bitchy. Sometimes, on those twilight evenings when the full moon is on the rise, the air perfumed by gardenias and a stranger offers to heft your burden three flights to your door, it feels like you snagged the brass ring. Other times, when you awake to a blackout and there’s no coffee in the stores, when a stranger lets fly a snot rocket, sprinkling your sandals with phlegm, it feels like someone just poisoned your childhood dog.

 

Today is a dead dog day.

 

I’d be lying (not like a rug, but like a Cuban!) if I said I’ve had a string of dead dog days – sure, my manuscript was rejected by yet another agency and half of my friends are in the midst of existential crises (the other half, meanwhile, have left the country). And while things are feeling a bit chronic lately, I’m living more for the moment, in the moment than usual, having a bevy of new experiences – like driving a motorcycle for the first time, a 1956 Harley no less, and producing my first short. I’m also getting better at looking on the bright side, like when my pap smear came back clean. So I’m doing ok, but Havana is in its summer throes and it ain’t particularly pretty.

 

Being poor and from NY, I know how much of a burden summer can be, when the days are too hot and long, when tempers run just as hot and way too short. After so many interminable summers, you’d think I’d be used to it. I should be used to it (I’m from the slow side of the family, remember). Maybe it’s because a life lived in Spanish is still hard for me. Or because I miss my people, my family – both Cuban and Yuma – almost all of whom are not here. Maybe I need catharsis. I definitely need a break. Since the latter is too long a ways away, I’ll settle for the former.

 

Here are some of the reasons Havana is anything but fun in the summer:

The heat: There are songs, stories, eulogies written about Havana heat. It is legend. It is horrid. These days, Havana is Hades hot and pea soup humid. It’s thick and clinging like a dim only child or the not-too-bright girl whose cherry you popped. When there’s a breeze from the sea, it’s tolerable, but when Havana’s still, the heat steals sleep and robs appetite. Sex lives stall and it’s just one more excuse not to work (most Cubans don’t need another, believe me). Havana also proves that climate change is real. If you’re one of those who needs proof, you’re as dumb as that once-upon-a-time virgin. When I moved here in 2002, July and August were intolerably hot. Now, May through October is like the old August – mercury approaching 100°F and humidity so dense breathing is hard. That mouldering stink you sense from the other five people crammed into the collective taxi? It’s the humidity: newly-laundered clothes (not to mention towels) never completely dry. And beware and prepare your olfactory sensitivities if you board a bus after a summer thunderstorm – the stench wafting from the hundreds of passengers will permeate your clothes, memory, soul.

 

When I made Havana my home, I was of the belief that complaining about the heat just made things hotter. Like many of my beliefs once firmly held (women over 40 shouldn’t wear mini-skirts; flip flops are indoor shoes), this has fallen by the wayside. I challenge anyone – whether here for a vacation or a lifetime – to pass two days here in summer without griping of the heat.

  • ¡Hay que calor!
  • No soporto este calor…
  • ¡Que calor hace, mi madre!

 

Now you’re as likely to hear me complain as earnestly and often as a native Habanera but with my NYer potty mouth: El calor está de pinga mi hermana. Maybe if I had air conditioning at home or at work. Somewhere.

 

Blackouts and gas rationing: That air conditioning we USED to have at home, work, somewhere? Adios, amigo. Some two weeks ago, information started leaking that we’re headed once again for rolling blackouts a la Periódo Especial (maybe not that bad, but bad enough). I was here August, 1993. A month of 12 to 16 hour blackouts was plenty for me. Little did I know that by the time I moved here in 2002, things had only improved a little (this was before the Venezuela-Cuba pact brought cheap oil to our shores). The time without lights was a few hours fewer but the heat was just as intense. At least this time around I wasn’t working in the fields under a blazing sun, kept upright by periodic shots of milordo (sugar water).

 

These days, the rolling blackouts have already hit certain Havana neighborhoods, but where they’re causing real distress is in the state sector. Stores, offices, and agencies previously chilled by the pingüino, are now without air conditioning. Along with internet, air conditioning is reason enough for people to cling to their shitty salaried state jobs. Now folks are even less motivated to hit the daily grind. To save energy, some places are only working half time these days – either half the hours five days a week or full days only half the week. However you do the math, it means less efficiency, less gas for the economic engine, less optimism, less hope. And more sweat. Though I’m sure some people welcome the time off – after all, it doesn’t affect their salary.

 

What people are NOT welcoming is the 50% cut in gas rations. Here is Havana in a nutshell: the global price of oil, combined with the political shakedown in Venezuela means there is less black gold to go around in these parts. Cuba has had to adapt (luckily, Cubans are more adaptable than Darwin’s case studies). In response, the government cut all gas to state enterprises in half – from now until October if word on the street is to be believed. The effect this is having on daily life is hard to overstate. To understand it – and we’re still trying – you have to know a bit about the ‘mecánica’ Cubana. I can say with confidence that every recipient of a gas ration for their job sells a portion on the black market. They make a little extra for their family, the buyer gets cheaper gas and everyone is happy. Those days are over. Families have less of a supplement, people are only driving when necessary, and the authorities took measures to prevent price hikes by boteros. These drivers of collective taxis (known as maquinas or almendrones), buy their gas on the black market for 40 cents cheaper a liter than at gas stations. Have you ever seen one of these taxis filling up at the Cupet? I thought not.

 

One of these taxi drivers became overnight famous when he stupidly, ingenuously blurted out on the nightly news that his business is being crushed because of the higher black market gas prices. Within 24 hours, the government announced they were enforcing a set tariff for collective taxi rides. Anyone caught violating it would get fined and risk losing their license. Passengers were encouraged to write down the license plate of any violators and report them to the authorities. Oh this is rich! What happens when the cheated on husband reports his wife’s lover, the taxi driver to the cops just to screw him? Knowing el cubaneo, I’m sure this is going down as I type this. And what happens when these drivers realize they can band together and agree not to work for two days, paralyzing Havana? Then we’ll be screwed.

 

Vegetable drought: The hot summer months are truly shitty if you like vegetables. Right now, you’re lucky to find a cabbage or some limp green beans – and please don’t write in about the abundance and variety if you shop at 19 and B – the ‘boutique market’ as it’s not-so-fondly known. In regular, run-of-the-mill markets, the only thing you’ll find are tubers and cabbage and garlic so tiny you need a loop to see the cloves. Meanwhile, onions are so expensive people have stopped eating them. Our usual summer consolation – avocado season – is no consolation this year: early summer winds sent the bulk of the harvest to the ground to rot. What’s left are not the quality or quantity we’re used to. Normally by this time in the summer, we’re sick of avocadoes, having subsisted on them for months. I ate my first avocado this week. To make matters worse, the ambulatory vegetable sellers have disappeared. Their prices were usurious but at least it allowed us to resolve a cucumber or two.

 

Super slow season Tourists are flocking to Cuba, I’m sure you’ve heard, but the flow slows to a trickle in the summer (see The heat, above). This is creating desperation in la calle that’s palpable and uneasy. We’ve had half a dozen people come in to Cuba Libro looking for work, while we struggle to pay our bills. The tourists have trickled out, Cubans have little extra cash for coffee, and our expenses pile up. The slowdown is also noticeable since people are selling anything and everything they can: books older than me, raggedy ass magazines, used clothes, underwear (not used, thankfully), fish, powdered milk, plants, art – you name it, someone’s selling it. Everyone is feeling the pinch – except the Cuban 1% who continue to drive, party, and consume like they’re in Miami.

 

There’s more, but why beat this dead horse? We still have three months of summer to go. It’s going to get hotter, mis amigos

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “In the Summer, In the City

  1. I loved the snot rocket referrnce- it is such a gross habit and oh so prevalent in la Habana. I always was especially annoyed when some Palestino would launch one of Saturn 5 magnitude in the Melia Havana swimming pool- you could see the tourists gagging and fetching and abandoning the pool rapidamente!

  2. Conner, you forgot one of my faves…. “~~~ñó! TreMENdo calor!”

  3. Dave McCorquodale

    Just returned from Havana…June 29th through July 6th and believe me even though Im from the Bahamas and accustomed to the heat..Wow! Havana is certainly uncomfortable in the summer and what makes it even more challenging with the heat is the lack of Air conditioning in most places!

  4. Sally McMullen

    Thanks for the update. My Cuban boyfriend has been complaining but from what you say, he seems to be sucking it up! Now I understand more.

  5. Lo siento mucho….para ti y para el pueblo. Thank you for being our eyes and ears there.

  6. No AC in my Kingston office today, but somehow I feel much cooler having read this.

  7. weareleavingtraces

    We visited Havana in July 2015 and simply loved it. It is a city that – especially as a German – you have to get used to. Horses are just everywhere and streets and buildings are historic, but also look like they are close to collapse. What made Havana unique to us, were the citizens of Havana. We have never felt safer in a capital and their warm welcomes are amazing. During our travels through Cuba, we kept on coming back to Havana. Maybe you would like to read our report on Havana 🙂

    https://weareleavingtraces.com/2016/04/25/havanna/

  8. Lucy

    I have just got back from cuba, i have decided definitively cuba is shit. the whole country is the plaything of one man.

    people get paid by the state in pesos which are literally worth less than toilet paper because pesos cannot be spent in the shops so effectively have no value. the whole country runs on the convertable peso which replaced the dollar and the only way people can survive in cuba is to work the black market to get convertable pesos. the whole country runs on the black economy.

    people are paid by the state if they work but they are not paid enough to survive (and as i just said, they are paid in a worthless currency) so everyone steals from their employer (ie. the state) for goods to sell on the black market. the penalties for this are serious with long terms of imprisonment if you get caught but it is impossible to behave according to the dictates of the state in cuba and survive.

    the only graffiti is state graffiti. “forward from the glorious revolution to our future together” and other slogans. however, the divide between those who have and those who have not is massive. in havana people live in the crumbling grandure of old colonialism. these houses have beautiful facades but behind the facade they are shacks. you have to be a good hustler in the black market to get by.

    there is free healthcare but no drugs in the clinics. there is free education but no way of legally earning enough money.

    here are some examples of castros cuba. people who truck cement around the country are some of the richest people because stolen cement is worth a lot of money. waitresses (who can get convertable pesos off tourists) are richer than doctors. if you are a farmer you cannot kill your own cattle for meat because meat is produced on special state farms. if your cow is elderly and you think it might die, you have to go to the goverment building for a permit for your cow to die otherwise you will be penalised. you can own your house but not sell it (which effectively keeps people in their place of origin) unless, of course, you sell it illegally. ordinary people are forbidden from having internet access and there is one newspaper. cubans know nothing about castros life except the snippets of info tourists bring in. unsurprisingly, castro does not want people to talk to tourists. cubans are not allowed to travel.

    anything you want to do, for example farm a piece of land (80% of land is state owned), means applying for a permit. this process can take twenty years or more and there is no guarantee you will get it although you are more likely to finally achieve it, if you have friends in high places which most ordinary people don’t. it is dangerous to say too much in cuba. there are secret police on the streets. if you give money to people as a tourist, that person can be taken away by the time you’ve turned the corner and again, prison sentances are lengthy and punishment severe.

    Castro forcibly tested 85% of the population for hiv and those who tested positive had to move to a particular area of havana which they are not allowed to leave. works fine as social policy. hiv rates across the country are low. at what cost?

    I have every respect for Cuban people but i hate castro. true, i haven’t mentioned the american embargo. but it seems to me that the american embargo played into castros hands as it created conditions which made it easier for castro to repress “his own” people. imagine the buzz. ultimate power and a whole country to play with. cuba is no democratic socialist republic. effectively, the entire country of cuba is one big prison.

    • Hey Lucy. Im not sure when you were last in Cuba, but your comment mixes a whole bunch of misinformation, myths, outdated data, and some truth. I have worked as a health journalist in Havana for over 12 years (see: http://www.medicc.org/mediccreview) and am telling you that 85% of the population was NOT forcibly tested for HIV and there are medications in the clinics. I work for a double blind peer reviewed and indexed journal and if you are going to make such assertions, you need to provide evidence.

      Also, Cubans are not at all prohibited from speaking to tourists (drop into Cuba Libro some day) and there are plenty of ways to legally make a decent living. Cubans can access the internet in parks and at universities, workplaces, businesses. 80% of land is not state owned. Google lineamientos and land ownership in Cuba. There is some wonderful graffiti in Havana. As of last year, all state shops accept both currencies: peso cubanos, and CUCs.

      Some of what you say is true: huge black market, crappy state salaries, crumbling infrastructure. And to say that you respect the Cuban people but the entire country is a prison implies some people are willfully imprisoning themselves. A contradiction no?

  9. William

    Sounds like Lucy wont be back any time soon ..Myself I cant wait to return next month and as usual a stop to visit havana libro is on my list !

  10. Sally

    Conner you say ‘Life lived in Spanish is still hard for you’.

    Your latest blog is the gloomiest, most depressing of any that you have posted.

    Have you asked yourself what you are doing still in Havana?

    You’ve pointed out in a most eloquent manner the pitfalls, the intense heat, little or no money or work, lack of basics such as sanitary towels, the constant power cuts – both gas an electricity, the shortage of vegetables, the machismo, the disgusting personal habits of Cubans.

    Frankly only a masochist would put up with any, or all of the above.

    Conner we all have choices in life.

    What is stopping you from making yours?

    • Hi Sally. Sorry I gave the wrong impression or rather, didn’t put a finer point on the positives (clean pap smear, etc etc) but whenever I am asked – and Im asked with frequency – why I choose to live in Cuba when there are so many difficulties, my stock answer is: no matter where you choose to live (for those of us lucky enough to have a choice, of course), you take the good with the bad. And though Cuba’s “bad” can be tedious, maddening and inconvenient, the “good” is very, VERY good. To wit: https://hereishavana.com/2016/03/29/living-the-dream-the-stones-in-cuba/

      Having said that, however, Cuba IS changing and when people ask (and this is another question I get with surprising frequency): ‘will you stay here, live here forever?’, for the past 14+ years I have always said: as long as havana doesn’t start to feel like Miami (mcmansions, ostenatious, ridden with inequities, violent), I’ll stay. And unfortunately, there are signs lately, with the “new” economy – which is great (riddled with contradictions and problems, but great nonetheless) – of Havana looking like Miami. We’ll see, but for now, PA’LANTE!!

  11. Mateo

    I lived in Cuba two years and in Spain 14 years (also Turkey one year). I can understand why people become enamored with certain locales especially if they came from NYC.

  12. Kate sinkins

    Would love to know if you have AA friend I can connect with in Cienfuegos during thanksgiving November 23-28. I speak Spanish and am 25 years sober. Always go to mtgs when I travel. I won’t be going to Havana or I would invite you to coffee. Just started reading your blog today! Please email me at katesinkins@gmail.com. Thanks!

    • Hey KAte. I only know of meetings in Havana, but Cienfuegos is a small town; shouldn’t be hard to track one down. Start at the big church or a community mental health center (where they treat addictions). If you find any relevant info, please let me know. I am always eager to help out others in recovery. Congrats on 25 years and have a phemomenal trip!!

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