Humans of Havana

“I’m doing absolutely nothing. I don’t plan on even leaving the house. I want to hang out with you guys, eat as much as I possibly can, sleep and luxuriate in hot water worth its name.”

As you may have guessed, I was excited to go off-island for Thanksgiving and spend some quality time with my family. I needed a rest from my 70-hour work weeks. I needed to escape from Cuban-generated stress. I needed to eat with abandon. I needed a 24-7, seamless Internet connection. I needed to bank.

The only social obligation I had was to re-connect with my oldest friend who cheated death – repeatedly, by a hair – and was now on the road to recovery. The meet-up had potential to be heavy (we were twice a couple over our 30 year friendship and I was intimately involved with his various brushes with death) and I was looking forward to it, but not, if you know what I mean. I really didn’t want to leave the house, much less on Black Friday, but for Jason I’d do it. I took a seat near the dog park at the Museum of Natural History to wait for him.

My head raced with random thoughts – nostalgia for our long-gone youth and those heady days when Jason and I crossed the country in a Ford Econoline; my (possible) complicity in his near death experiences and the day I gave him a final wake-up call; and how amazingly he shreds the electric guitar and viola da gamba. I marveled that the New York winter weather was actually pleasant – the landscaped areas around the Museum of Natural History teemed with families and Upper West Side lifers lightly clad, nary a woolen scarf in evidence, present company excluded, of course.

I looked past the Alfred Nobel monument and across the plaza wondering how late Jason might be – he is a chronic over-scheduler; I think it’s related to his natural state of misplaced optimism. As I mused on the intersection of cheating death and misplaced optimism, I saw a guy in the middle distance walking in my direction.

‘He’s bee-lining for me,’ I thought with no small dose of dread. I wasn’t in the mood for a random encounter. Not today. And I was right – this guy was striding directly towards me.

What the hell does this have to do with Havana you’re wondering? Maybe you’re yelling at the screen: ‘¡Vamos al grano, ya! Get to the point already girl!’…I’m sure I’ve lost readers already. So as not to lose more: the tall guy with a big, pro camera dangling from his wrist rolled up to my bench.

Him: “Hi.”

Me: I responded with what a Cuban friend calls my ‘synchronized swimming smile.’

Him: “Have you heard of Humans of New York?”

Me: “Nope,” looking up the path to see if Jason was coming. No dice.

Him: “I take portraits of New Yorkers and do interviews to go with them. I have two books on the New York Times Best Seller list.”

Me: “Congratulations!” This wasn’t sarcasm: as a writer, I’d be orgasmic if I had two best-selling titles.

Him: “And I have 18 million followers on Facebook.”

Me: 18 million?! I wondered when was the last time he came upon someone who had never heard of his project. Instead I said: “that’s a lot of bored people.” He laughed. Point for brazen camera/writer guy.

Him: “Maybe the content is really good and that’s why there are so many followers?”

Me: “Fair enough. Let’s say half are following for the content. The other half are just bored.”

Him: Earnest laughter.

I agreed to give the interview and have my portrait taken. (Actually he had me at two best-selling titles).

Him: “What’s the biggest challenge in your life right now?”

Great opening question, I thought. But complicated. My imminent meeting with Jason was an immediate and unpredictable challenge. Growing Cuba Libro amidst innumerable, unforeseen bumps in the road was another. I also had career and deadline challenges, others related to my relationship, and still more with my family. But really none of that compared to my greatest problem.

Me: “My biggest challenge? I just quit smoking. And I live in a country where everyone smokes, everywhere – on the bus, at school, in the office, even in hospitals. And a pack of cigarettes costs 70 cents.”
Him: “Where do you live?!”

If you’ve been to Cuba, if you have struggled with the nicotine monkey (according to addiction experts it is the hardest to get off your back), you know down to your bones how hard it is to not smoke here. I ended up talking to Brandon Stanton for over half an hour, covering all kinds of ground and talking about a variety of topics, including his wife’s stellar project Susie’s Senior Dogs. Jason looked momentarily hurt when he finally turned up and found me deep in conversation with this affable guy snapping my photo. Brandon gently asked for 10 more minutes with me.

Alas, I don’t think Brandon knows this monkey of which I spoke. He couldn’t relate to how all-consuming, how incredibly difficult it is to quit smoking. Ex-smoker Brandon was not. Pretend extrovert? Maybe. What he published focussed entirely on my comments about being an introvert in Cuba. Here, there’s obligatory socialization. Having to talk to strangers and greet neighbors by name, take a day out of the weekend for a visit or engaging in a conversation waiting for the bus, bread, the bathroom, whatever – these were significant challenges when I moved here over 15 years ago. But I’ve learned the lesson well, I think. Otherwise I certainly would have blown off the guy with his camera and mad interview skills. Had I not had over a decade of training talking to strangers, I would never have had 70,000 likes and nearly 3,000 comments on my HONY appearance.

Now I’m back in Havana. I resisted valiantly. After 8 hours at court for Miguel’s trial last week, my resistance failed. Each day, with every cigarette, I feel I’ve failed. And each day I feel more a Human of Havana than a Human of New York.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad

7 responses to “Humans of Havana

  1. What a cool chance encounter! I had no idea Brandon’s wife was Susie of Susie’s Senior Dogs – both are great orgs. I went to Cuba for the first time in August and fell in love with the country. I’ve traveled and lived in other areas of Latin America, but there is something really special about Cuba. I hope to visit again soon and was glad to find your blog!

  2. Mercy Arrate

    I have not smoked in 9 years 2 months and 14 days. I quit the day my grandson was born (4th generation Cuban American), because I wanted to watch him grow up. It has been spectacular so far.

    I quit over and over again for almost 10 years, but it finally stuck. Keep quitting, and eventually, it will stick. The way I feel about it now is that I won’t go back to smoking, if for no other reason than to avoid quitting again. It sucks!

    • Thank you so much for wiritng in Mercy. You’re note is an inspiration. I smoked for 15 years, quit for another 15 and said: quitting is so incredibly difficult, I will never smoke again. As my mom likes to say: “famous last words.” Pero yo vencere!! just not today…..happy new year

  3. How cool is a chance encounter between my favorite Cuba blogger and another all-time favorite, HONY?! And I too wasn’t aware of the connection between Susie’s Senior Dogs — another incredibly cool org — and HONY.

    I’m glad you ended up not blowing him off, because HONY is doing truly amazing things, as-in Nobel Prize worthy imo. Maybe he’ll end up doing Humans of Havana, as you (perhaps jokingly) alluded; it would make an incredible addition to the HONY collection, starting with one woman with an unusual and interesting story. Maybe a collaboration is in order….

    • I would love to collaborate on a Havana version. No shortage of intriguing humans and their stories here!! Thanks for reading and writing in (your favorite blogger?! that’s a nice way to start the day!)

      • Will be there Jan 26-28 and plan to try to stop by the shop to say hi!

        Anything in particular you guys are in need of at the moment from up here? Email me if you like jonmichaels at outlook dot com, or facebook messenger whichever is easiest.

      • Hola Jon!! Thanks for reading and your generous offer. we are completely out of hibiscus flowers (jamaica). Since we introduced our “Happy Frappy” (hibiscus and pineapple juice whipped in a blender with lots of ice), it has been flying out the doors. If you live in a major metropolitan area (or California!), these should be available in bodegas or the mexican section of decent grocery stores. Have a wonderful trip!

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