Category Archives: Americans in cuba

Living the Dream: The Stones in Cuba

“I am about to see the Rolling Stones. In my hometown. In my lifetime.”

Proclaimed with equal parts conviction and awe by a Cuban I hold in certain esteem, we headed off on foot to Ciudad Deportiva. The Day had arrived. There was a spring in our step, a jaunt in our spirit and the sense that all the sacrifice and struggle, resignation and indignation living in Cuba engenders was about to pay off. For those of us who stick it out here (Cubans and aplatanadas alike) our reward was about to be reaped. It was a chosen and blessed feeling – and still is 24 hours on as I write this; the perma-grin still affixed, the experience embedded somewhere deep and personal, patching a broken heart perhaps, or planting a seed of revelation to be harvested at a later date.

stones en route

The sun set pink and orange as WisPride beside the stadium as the moon rose opposite, the iconic Stones logo pulsating in 3-D on screens in between. We roamed the grounds, hugging innumerable friends and making new ones along the way, including Julie, who had arrived in Cuba for the first time the night before and had seen the Stones once before – in 1968. We scoped out a spot like a dog who sniffs and spins looking for the perfect place to shit. I invented a game as we waited for the show to start: with what song would they open? Song to close? Number of encores? What song would you most like to hear? Our piquete debated and struck gentleman’s bets.

stones about to take stage

My dearest friend, visiting for the first time in my 14-year residence, craved the ballads: Angie; You Can’t Always Get What You Want. And she got what she needed. This wasn’t the case for another friend who, if there’s any credence to karma, should have been gifted a sweet, slow, poignant Time is On My Side. It is on his side, but reaffirmation by The Stones, at decibel levels heretofore unprecedented, would have been nice. My tear-inducing favorite, Wild Horses, didn’t make the set either. Disappointing, but I too, got what I needed in the end (funny how that works).

stones

My intellectual sparring partner and fellow member in the Cuban Tribe of Cool sidled up as the lights went down: ‘I’m betting Satisfaction to open and Jumping Jack Flash to close, flipping your prediction, just to be contrary.’ He’s smart enough to qualify an opinion contrary to mine: the lights burst on, the Stones took the stage and ripped into…Jumping Jack Flash. We locked eyes and laughed (score one for Conner!) before breaking into wild, unbridled dance, our feet pounding down the grass. And so kicked off two solid hours of dancing, leaping, singing, screaming and booty shaking. The shoes were off, the cameras were away and our hearts were open, from the first bars of Jumping Jack to the final cymbal crash of Satisfaction (I called it bitches!!).

toby los rolling

I’m not a big believer in much, but I do believe in energy transference and we had slipped into a pocket of joy and movement and acute consciousness of the historic moment. This concert was an even bigger moment, more of a game changer than the Obama visit (something else I called). That The Stones eclipsed Obama was a no-brainer: musical convergence – free no less, created by one of the greatest rock n roll bands of all time – has much more relevance for us here on the ground in the here and now. We channeled that energy and convergence, whirling and dipping and hugging throughout the show. We were actively, mindfully, transcending la luchita, shedding the stress of the bureaucracy and lovers’ spats, co-workers’ drama and the myriad hypocrisies and illogical contradictions we encounter daily. We were living The Rolling Stones in Cuba. I’m quite sure we’ll be talking about that rendition of Sympathy for the Devil for decades – as well as Mick’s accomplished Spanish and domination of Cuban jerga; when he shouted ‘Habana! Está en talla!’ the crowd went berserk.

stones pre show

I have many friends who blew off the show citing their distaste for (or outright panic of) large crowds. In fact, this was the number one reason given by many – and I polled scores in the lead up – for not attending. I feel extraordinarily sorry for them. Next time? Face your fears. There was room enough to get down and lay down, cartwheel and roam and damn, did we! You all? You missed the experience of a lifetime. It’s that simple. Herein lies a lesson in saying ‘yes!’ to adventure and opportunity as you make your way through this crazy little thing called life. To those of us who said ‘hell yes!’ to The Stones in Cuba, I salute you. To those who didn’t, you willfully missed the greatest rock concert in Cuban history – something you’ll be explaining to your kids, like people who blew off Woodstock…Sucks to be you.

The sun set, the moon rose and I’m writing this as the sun rises over Havana the day after. My feet ache and my belly’s tight and grumbling from too much coffee and not enough sustenance, but my spirit is bursting with a lust for life and the conviction that you can construct a short, but meaningful and memorable one if you try.
stones no reguetown
The next time I doubt that, I’ll read this post. I, we, are proof.

I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.

P.S. Now bring on Led Zeppelin – the only band more beloved in Cuba than The Stones.

Living the Dream – Bonus Material

The Rolling Stones are a band that keep on giving. Not surprisingly, impressions, sentiments, and memories of this historic concert are still sinking in (plus rumors are running rampant here), so I’m adding this bonus material:

– I have it on good authority that the Obama Sisters, Malia and Sasha stayed behind with their abuela for the Stones show while their parents continued on their diplomatic jaunt through Latin America. File under: Another Moment Barack Misses Out.

– Since Saturday, you hear people whistling Paint It Black in the street and Jumping Jack Flash coming from balconies. And everyone’s watching the HBO series Vinyl, including me. New York and rock and roll? I’ve been living this since my diaper days and am loving this series long time!

– Ingress and egress to the venue epitomizes Cuba: the entrances and exits were simply sections of the tall, iron fence taken out. We streamed in with hundreds – no metal detectors, no pat downs, no bag searches. My biker friends did get patted down (yes, profiling happens here too), I learned later, upon which knives, all-in-one tools and boxes o’ ron were stashed in boots.

– Rumors four days post-show: next acts due to play here include AC/DC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Red Hot Chili Peppers. As with everything here, we’ll believe it when we hear/see it. And even then it’s unbelievable: that the Stones event even happened is still sinking in all these days later.

13 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Getting Stoned with Obama in Cuba

No, I’m not talking about smoking blunts on the Malecón (File under: Not Gonna Happen). Nor am I talking about the rock-throwing barbarity found in other latitudes – even at their most dogmatic and agitated, Cubans are more prone to throwing eggs and barbs and Santería spells than something that would directly, physically harm another human being.

Anyone who is following developments in Cuba knows to which watershed event this post refers: the Rolling Stones are going to rock Havana on March 25th; that’s what I’m talking about.

Rumors started flying about the possibility of a Stones show here even before Mick Jagger dropped in for a visit last October. But rumor-mongering and gossip – the ‘national sport’ – are rife here regardless of time or circumstance. We dared not imagine that such a huge, historic, and real rock ‘n roll concert by a band so legendary (for the record: Cubans have always preferred Zeppelin to the Stones) would actually be transformed into reality. The Stones in Cuba fell into the realm of ‘when the embargo is lifted’ – something people talk about rhetorically, dreamily (also for the record: the embargo is still 100% in effect). Until it’s actually upon us.

Soon, very soon, it will be upon us. And Cubans aren’t talking about anything else.

Oh wait. There’s a different, history-in-the-making visit which is also going to be upon us shortly: the first standing US President (I met Carter on one of his post-Oval Office trips here) since 1928 will set foot in Cuba. I’m sure you’ve heard. And some readers must be wondering how Cubans feel about it. At Cuba Libro we have the opportunity to ask hundreds of Cubans from all walks of life what they think about any given topic on a regular basis. So we’ve started asking. And listening.

First off, everyone agrees it’s a milestone, historic, maybe even a game-changer. Second, everyone here in Havana gets excited for such high-level visits, be it Pope or President, because it means streets will be paved and houses painted on the official route the dignitary will traverse – just yesterday an 88-year old Cuban granny offered this precise opinion, unprompted. Third, the Obamas are rock stars; Cubans are, on the whole, faranduléros, no matter if it’s Barack or Beyoncé, Rihanna or Raúl, they chase stars like the most ravenous paparazzi. Furthermore, the presidential couple will bring lots of press and TV crews and attention to Cuba and if there’s one thing Cubans love, it’s attention.

So as a good friend from NY said after the December 17th normalization announcement: ¡Obámanos!

Yet there’s a cost, a downside to all this attention and fanfare. Public transportation will be disrupted in a massive, isn’t-life-here-tough-enough? way; liquor sales with be suspended for at least a day, likely more in this case; cultural activities will be cancelled or re-scheduled; and the overwhelming majority of us will never catch a glimpse of the visiting luminary (though Cubans are already capitalizing on this visit with their archetypical humor: check out these magnets now for sale in Old Havana!)

obama magnet

But make no mistake: Obama’s trip visit is just the appetizer. The pollo of the ‘arroz con pollo’ is the free Rolling Stones concert for el pueblo cubano (as I write this, I hear the first mention of the Stones concert in Cuba on Sirius-XM radio. Cue the goosebumps). We’ve had similar giant, free concerts in the past – Audioslave, Calle 13, Rick Wakeman, Fito Paez, Air Supply (I know, I know. Believe me, I know the Cuban penchant for cheesy American pop). None of these concerts ca compare to the Glimmer Twins, Charlie and Ronnie. THE Rolling Stones!

What Cubans are most concerned with is access to the venue and the crowd-control question. Cubans are experts at state security – they’ve thwarted over 600 attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, after all – they aren’t that adept at controlling cultural crowds. I’ve seen cinema doors broken down by surging masses trying to get in to the premier of Minority Report and I was locked inside the Casa de la Música when rioting crowds tried to bust down the doors to see The Roots. I predict a shit show to enter and exit The Stones concert. Roads will be closed, security will be tight and bags will be searched. We’re not talking Altamont here (see aforementioned egg/barb-throwing observation), but leave plenty of time to arrive and leave, cógelo suave, and remember: we’re all damn lucky to be here, now.

People near and far are beyond excited for this concert. For months I’ve been fielding questions on my Facebook page, at Cuba Libro, and via email about this monumental musical event. Now that details are coming to light, most people want to know how they can avoid the lines and crowds. It’s a good question; people are coming from Miami, Mexico, Camagüey and más allá for this show and there isn’t going to be enough room at the inn (5,000 Havana hotel rooms have been requested for Obama’s visit just two days before, which means 5,000 people who think they will sleep in Havana those days will actually be whisked to Varadero, regardless of what their reservation receipt says. Official emails to this effect are making the rounds already).
The question we’re fielding, publicly to our Cuba Libro community, is: given the choice, who would you rather visit our innovative, visionary project – Keith Richards or Barack Obama? So far, the legendary guitar player is in the lead by a nose. Except if the visit is Barack and Michelle. If she’s in the mix, most Cubans vote for the Obamas. No one, it should be noted, has yet asked if a visit to Cuba Libro would be Keith and Mick.

I leave you all to ponder the greater socio-political implications of our poll’s results. Stay tuned!

8 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, dream destinations, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Cuban Harlistas, Mis Amores

Life here in Cuba – and my life, por díos – has changed dramatically in the past few years. I got a bike and helped found Habana Bici Polo; I opened Cuba Libro; and was thrust into the big, raucous family of Cuban Harlistas. As a writer, sub-cultures like this one are a perennial turn on. The layers of nuance and language particular to a group, the rites of passage, the history: every aspect is a source of fascination and writing fodder. Add sexy, powerful motorcycles and the machos who ride them to the mix…and, well.

I’ve just returned from the 5th Annual International Harley Rally in Varadero and the bikes (and riders) are as sexy and powerful as ever, the nuance and language and rites continue to evolve, and my admiration and passion for this unique group of Cubans remains unflagging.

harley2thisone

Since I’m one of the very few chicks without a steady ride and driver, every rally I cast about for singletons looking for a back seat Betty; I estimate I’ve mounted over a dozen of these classic Harleys since the first rally in 2012. This year, I rode with Raúl on Omar’s spectacularly-restored 1960 blue and white Duo Glide. We cruised straight through to Varadero under steely clouds with a nagging threat of rain that never came. The needle on the speedometer didn’t pass 80 kilometers per hour; when we arrived we learned it was busted and we’d made the entire trip doing an exultant 120 kph. We’d no idea as we fought a ferocious head wind and incoming cold front which set the sea churning and waves crashing just shy of the highway.

Among the many highlights of this year’s rally was the presentation of my book, Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor, co-written with Harlista Jens Fuge. In my opinion, this is the best book on the subject – not due to the writing necessarily (though it is fantastic), but rather thanks to the phenomenal images taken over a ten-year period by Harlista Max Cucchi. This is a distinguished book for several reasons beyond the writing and photos, however. First, it includes riders from the length and breadth of the island, not just Havana. Second, it contains the most complete history of Harley-Davidsons in Cuba. Third, all the text is in English, Spanish, and German. Last, but certainly not least: each person interviewed received a complimentary copy of the book and a full color poster. For those who have realized projects in Cuba and not done the same (whether it’s a TV series you promise to deliver on disc or memory stick; a photo shoot where you commit to providing the images to the subjects; an article or book on Cuba you say you’ll bring down once it’s published): shame on you. These people made time and dedicated energy so you could realize your project and have no way of procuring whatever you produced. Speaking from personal experience this is all too common.

harley1

One of the most emotional moments for me was gifting the book to Gerardo López (Papá), the elder patriarch of a family which has four – and counting – generations of Harlistas who have all obtained their motorcycle license on the same Harley. The collective confirms this is the only family in Cuba which can make this claim. When I interviewed him for the book, an impassioned Gerardo, Jr told me he would never sell the Harley, that it would stay in the family. And I believe him: unlike many Harlistas who begrudgingly sell their hogs for cars as their family grows, this one added a matching side car instead, debuted at this rally. After I presented Papá with a copy, his teary-eyed daughter-in-law took me aside, to tell me something about this soft-spoken, well-mannered man that only two other people in the world know (and he’s not one of them): doctors recently found a tumor in his lungs and this would likely be his last rally. Receiving the book means the world to him, she confided, and would provide much solace as he battles cancer. That’s when tears started filling my eyes and the hairs on my arms stood up. It happened again at the farewell lunch when Gerardo Papá told me: “next year, I’m riding a Harley to the rally. It may be a trike, but it will be a Harley-Davidson, driven by me.” I dearly hope he’s right.

harley3this

Like Gerardo Papá, many of the Harlistas are… Let’s just say as a group, we, like the motorcycles themselves, skew “older.” Also like the motorcycles, some Cuban Harlistas are walking (and riding) wounded: herniated discs, busted clavicles, chronic lower back pain, bum legs, bockety knees, failing night vision. It’s a bitch kick starting these bikes in the best of health; imagine what it’s like for Francesco fighting to kick start his ’48 Panhead with a perennial bunk leg. Or Paco, who at 69 years young, is one of the most enthusiastic and dedicated riders. Every rally he arrives from Camagüey with one of his daughters on the back of his 1950 hog; you can bet he’s got a bit of a limp after that 10-hour ride. Who wouldn’t?! This rally, William (‘The Canadian’), arrived listing heavily to port aided by crutches after an on-the-road accident and a bed-ridden month.

harley9

And then there’s the Story of M (I’m not printing his full name to protect the guilty!), who drove from Havana to Varadero, his leg in a cast and who also wobbling around on crutches. He told everyone it was a work-related accident, but knowing him better than that, I flat out asked what really happened. I’ve a talent for sniffing out falsehoods: he’d fractured his leg leaping from a balcony when the husband of the woman he was shagging turned up. ‘I got away, but with a cast,’ he told me smiling foxily. With these and other various injuries, aches, and pains, I’m guessing close to 10,000mg of dipirona and half as much ibuprofen was taken over the 3-day event. This may be ‘Club Temba,’ but these folks are the very definition of endurance: they’re riding the miles, partying until dawn, and up and at ‘em and back on their bikes (or back to fixing them), a few hours later. Props, brothers.

harley6

We always travel in a caravan for the inevitable breakdowns en route. This year, our group had their share of problems: a flat that took until 3am on the eve of the rally to fix; another flat on Gerardo’s side car just beyond Santa Cruz del Norte; a gummy piston on Pelussa’s rig at 2am under a fine, post-party rain; and something with Rafael’s ’46 Indian that drew crowds to watch the master at work. But these are minor compared to some years. Leaving the rally a few years back, we had to call on the Harley family in Matanzas to babysit Julio’s busted hog overnight until we could send a trailer to collect it. No matter the rally, bike, driver, or rider, there’s always an adventure afoot with these cats.

harley3

This year’s rally was the biggest yet, with more motorcycles, more Cubans from throughout the island, many more foreign visitors (some arriving on modern Harleys thanks to La Poderosa Tours), and exciting new activities. As always, there were the coolest t-shirts available in Cuba on sale; donations collected for senior citizens and vulnerable children; a rocking concert by David Blanco; and hilarious competitions involving bottles, hot dogs (only in Cuba, right?!), and feats of balance. This year also featured martial arts and acrobatics (yes, while on a Harley), a joy ride through Cardenas where all the neighbors came out to ogle these marvelous machines, and a farewell fête at an exquisite finca owned by a fellow Harlista. Rafael had to bust out his complete set of tools and attend to his Indian yet again while we ate, drank, danced, and laughed. A gang congregated around Rafael to provide support and advice (not that he needed it!) Anywhere else in the world, a mechanical breakdown during the final hurrah of a raucous weekend would have been cause for grumbling, but not here where solidarity, friendship, and empathy abound. I admire their strength and camaraderie and am honored to be included. See you at next year’s rally!

11 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Stupid Shit People Ask Me About Cuba

Judging from the number of people who walk into Cuba Libro saying: ‘Hi! I’m [insert random name here]; I sent you an email!,’ people are unclear about the volume of correspondence I receive related to my journalistic, writing, and community-building activities. Suffice to say: I receive way too many emails for me to remember each one; your missive has to be extraordinarily clever or interesting or funny if it’s going to imprint itself on my overworked brain. Nevertheless, there’s another type of correspondence that, lamentably, gets stuck in my head, rolling around like a cheesy song I just can’t shake – Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Ob-la-di Ob-la-da and the like. These requests fall under the rubric of the outrageous, misinformed, misguided, disrespectful, and just downright dumb.

Then there are the idiotic search terms people use to reach my blog. To take one of the most recent examples: ‘do Cuban men masturbate?’ I’m sure (or rather, I hope) most of my readers don’t need an explanation as to why these may be the stupidest search terms ever. Maybe if they had searched on ‘do Cuban dogs masturbate?’ I might be willing to help – especially because a friend taught her shih tzu, proudly, to jack off yesterday. True story.

_____

One of the wisest young men I know recently opined that it’s okay to name the crime, but not the criminal. I’m still mulling over the ethics of this principle. For instance, in certain cases, simply naming the crime fingers the criminal; it’s that grey area which troubles me, ethically speaking. And this post swims in those grey waters: I’m naming the crimes, not the criminals here, but some readers may recognize themselves. Accept my apologies in advance, but I do feel strongly that when you’re traveling to a foreign culture or context – regardless of whether it’s within your national borders or not, regardless of whether it’s actual or armchair travel – you have the responsibility to learn about that culture and context before you go. I’m not talking about thesis-level research here people, but rather educating yourself a bit about where you’re traveling so as not to say or ask stupid shit like:

Given all the African immigration here, do Cubans practice female genital mutilation?
This question, fielded in a group Q&A (after the group had spent a week in Cuba already), left me speechless, literally. I’m not sure if the person asking was blind – you need just look out your tour bus window at all the empowered, professional, libidinous Cuban women to realize this would be impossible in this context – or just plain stupid. With all the elegance I could muster, I explained: what you call ‘immigration’ is known as slavery. It happened hundreds of years ago. And I don’t think the slaves were cutting cane by day and clitorises by night.

Can I yarn bomb the tank in front of the Museo de la Revolución?

I’m not clear exactly what a yarn bomb is – and I didn’t care to clarify with the lovely San Franciscan vegan asking. No, sweetie, I don’t think you should try something ‘artsy’ on the tank used to defeat the USA at Playa Girón (the only ‘military defeat of Yankee imperialism in the hemisphere’), which by the way, features a 24-hour guard by Cuban soldiers – unless you want to become intimate with the inside of a Cuban jail, where things are decidedly not vegan.

I live in (insert any town USA) and want to retire in Cuba. Can you help me?

In a word: no. For anyone harboring such a fantasy, let me just say: this is illegal with both the US and Cuban governments. Interestingly, most of these requests come from people who have been to Cuba once or only on vacation or 30 something years ago. Sorry to be a bubble-buster but 99% of you couldn’t handle Cuba. Seriously limited internet and burdensome bureaucracy, water/electricity/gas outages (I haven’t had water in my building going on two days now), shortages of whatever at any given moment (currently we’re having trouble procuring sponges, light bulbs, diapers, nail polish remover), dodgy transportation, hurricanes, and the cultural and practical requirement that you speak Spanish, are our daily reality in Cuba. Still want to retire here? Buckle up. You’re in for a wild ride…

I want to hold internet publishing workshops with Cuban youth. Can you help me?

For folks who want to help educate the poor, digitally-challenged Cubans (a fallacy, by the way), I have two words for you: Alan Gross. Remember him? He snuck in satellite and technological equipment – illegally – to do something similar and was given a 5-year stay in a Cuban jail. Even if you were to do everything completely legally, with the approval of and collaboration with local authorities, consider these two words: dial up. My millennial readers don’t even know what this is, but in a nutshell: it allows you to connect to the internet (when the phone call actually goes through and the remote computer and server are actually doing their job) at a whopping 40kbps. This translates into a 30-minute battle just to get to your inbox – not open an email mind you, but just to see what lurks therein. There’s no video or audio streaming, no up or downloading of documents larger than 300k without losing your youth, and inaccessibility to any sites full of Flash, plug-ins and the like.

We’re a widely-read/famous/well-financed publication. Would you write some original Cuba content for us? We can’t pay but…
I rarely finish reading such requests, because there are some openers for which nothing good ever comes after the “but” (think: ‘I’m not a racist/homophobe, but…’ or ‘I’m not attracted to you, but…’). And ‘we can’t pay, but…’ falls squarely within this paradigm. Typically, they offer linking to my blog for “exposure” and promise to cite me as an “expert.” You’d be surprised how many editors contact me with this vapid attempt to stroke my ego.

For those wondering about my needs for exposure, the expert moniker, or ego-stroking, let’s review: I’ve written close to 20 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, including the Cuba guide back in the day; I’ve been an accredited journalist in Havana for a dozen years, covering everything from the health system to antique Harley-Davidsons for all manner of media; I’m the only foreign journalist to have been embedded with Cuba’s Henry Reeve Medical Disaster Team, twice; I’ve been writing this Cuba-specific blog for over 6 years; I wrote the majority of the content for the Cuba Travel Network; I’ve been featured on Democracy Now, PRI’s The World, the Travel Channel, TeleSur’s From Havana and Dossier programs, and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Islands Magazine, Drift and others. Furthermore, my writing is included in numerous anthologies and I’m the primary author of Havana Street Style and Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor. I’ve got thousands of followers on social media. And you want me to write for free?! I’m not sure what these editors are smoking, but I’ll take a double dose.

This is just a sample of the stupid shit people have asked me recently. Stay tuned for more (for there will be more, I’m willing to bet on it) – including repeated requests by House Hunters International trolling for ‘Americans moving to Cuba and restoring their new homes to their previous grandeur.’ Díos mío. Can someone stop the ride? If things continue this way, I’m going to have to get off.

28 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Smell the Skin Cancer: An All-Inclusive Experience

Years have passed since I’ve been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort. As you may have guessed, resorts are not my thing.

Friends back “home” are incredulous when I regale them with tales of Varadero (AKA Cuban Cancún) or the cayos – small islands off the coast made accessible by environmentally-disastrous causeways built to bring the tourist hordes. With some 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks under my belt, treks into jungles where no solo woman before me dare tread, intrepid back-country camping and off-the-grid surviving, their first questions, inevitably, are: you?! At a resort? Why? You don’t drink, the beach bores you and the sun wreaks havoc on your Irish complexion – do you really need more freckles?! What’s the draw?

I understand their confusion. They know me, but they don’t know Cuba, these well-meaning friends. They do not know August with no air conditioning or eating some kind of pork product daily – or more often still. They’ve never been jarred awake at 6 every morning by the pop and buzz and blare of recorded trumpets followed by live young communists screeching principles. They know not of living with no telephone and only four channels (now five – woohoo!) of state TV, or cohabitating with termites to the point of total closet/bed/living room furniture collapse. Intrusive neighbors, migraine-inducing regguetón. Blackouts. Noxious, obligatory fumigations. The sprint for a guagua too full to stop for more passengers or lugging a propane tank, bicycle or sack of yuca up five flights of stairs. They know none of this. But I do. Intimately. Maddeningly. Ad nauseam.

But rather than describe the attraction of an all-inclusive in similar pitying detail, I’ll boil the attraction, for me, down to three things: cheese, hot showers, and ESPN. So when a friend (who shall remain nameless) suggested we spend a weekend at an all-inclusive, I jumped.

Here are my impressions of the Cuban todo incluido experience, circa Christmas 2015:

– Cuban tourism authorities are completely clueless that non-Christian (or non-Christmas-celebrating) visitors travel at this time of year. The resort where I stayed was festooned with every nöel-themed cliché you can imagine, from the plastic tree with gaudy metallic balls to faux snow and giant Merry Christmas banners. The quartet even played carols each night at the buffet. I was embarrassed for the Cubans (how fast they appropriate some of the worst of US consumerist culture!), while cringing for the Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and others who probably thought coming to Cuba would spare them this onslaught. Think again: it’s only going to get worse.

– I dub those tourists who only know Cuba through the resort lens the “masses of asses.” And they’ve earned the moniker for the shiterature they’re reading on vacation. Granted, about 20% were reading on digital devices – but even if every single one of them was diving into Dickens or Dawkins, that leaves 80% who are reading complete crap. The 50-tome library dominated by Danielle Steele, Ken Follet and other straight-to-paperback scribes. The poolside sunbathers with their Barbara Taylor Bradford. The guy smoking a stogie in the garden engrossed by Clive Cussler. I get that they’re on vacation. They want something light. But since when does light=formulaic and mindless? Ever since light became lite, I guess. So I dub this holiday reading by the masses of asses: (Lite)rature and suggest they check out Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer or Junot Díaz next vacay.

– Man titties: pink and hairy, glistening with sunblock and sweat. Overall impression? Gross.

– This particular resort was fairly, refreshingly light on jineteros/as and their janes/johns, but this doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere, if these experiences relayed by Here is Havana readers are indicative. Nevertheless, Cubans are (almost) always on the prowl. To wit: a nahwey from Centro Habana tried to pick me up when I entered the water near where he and his friend were lying on the beach. He took it as a sign. Not an illogical assumption, but incorrect: I just had to pee.

– One question which kept occurring to me as I surveyed my surroundings was: when did Deadheads quit tour and start designing resort wear? (Probably once Touch of Grey was released). Psychedelic and sexy but supremely comfortable – stealing into hotel rooms to rob wardrobe never crossed my mind before this trip.

– Streams of people made their way to the beach each dusk to watch the sunset. I’m happy for them. Happy they’re doing it. Everyone should be as fortunate as me – to have seen so many Cuban sunsets: from valley to sea to summit, coast-to-coast. But never before from a boat, which is odd indeed. Especially on an island. Especially for an ocean-faring waif like myself. It puts the ‘no boat’ rule and resource scarcity into sharp, stark perspective. I’ve lived here for 14 years and have never seen a sunset from Cuban waters. WTF?! [note to self: must rectify].

– Then there’s what I call the Tourist Tabula Rasa. Most folks in resorts haven’t a fucking clue wat Cuba is, was, or where it’s headed. Granted, none of us really has a grasp on the last, but the all-inclusive tourist bubble and how it dovetails (or doesn’t) with the Cuban reality is a dangerous thing. And scary. I imagine the guy with bigger boobs than me and his wife brandishing the schmaltzy zirconia necklace back home at a cocktail party: “Cuba? There’s awesome cheese and great hot water showers. Plus, there’s satellite – I thought it was going to be just government TV!”

They’re wrong, of course, but for me, at least for this weekend, they’re right: the cheese – blue, Manchego, Jarlsberg – was sublime. I stuffed myself full of it, took a long, hot shower and kicked back on the bed to watch the B James/S Curry Cavaliers/Warriors showdown. Conner Heaven.

15 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

I’ve got my knickers in a twist and if you know me, you know how ugly I can get when my ass is chapped.

Today’s topic? Ethical, responsible, and sustainable travel to Cuba.

For those who don’t know me (let alone my knickers), a bit of background: I’ve written some 20 or so guidebooks – almost entirely to Latin America and Hawai’i. That is, contexts where vulnerable communities and environments depend on critical tourist dollars. And it’s not always pretty. Importantly, I’ve also borne witness to the continuum of change in Cuba, from my first month-long volunteer stint in 1993 to right now, after nearly 14 years in residence. So I know intimately the ‘bueno, malo y regular’ that tourism can heap upon a place. I also know painfully well the challenges facing Cuba as it navigates a tumultuous domestic reform process, while facing the oncoming tourist ‘tsunami’.

When I launched Cuba Libro in 2013, I designed it as an ethically- and socially-responsible business – relevant and responsive to local communities’ needs, which would also serve as a cool, cultural space for visitors to dig below the surface of this increasingly complex society. I also wanted it to shine as an example of how the private sector can (and must if there’s any hope for the Cuba we know and love) support and strengthen the public sector.

I recently participated in a Temas panel and debate dedicated to sustainable and responsible tourism. If you’re unfamiliar with Temas, it is the intellectual publication of reference here and its Director, Rafael Hernández – regularly published and quoted in the western press – can often be found on speaking tours abroad. In short, Temas is a heavyweight when it comes to critical debate in Cuba.

So despite feeling like shit with what turned out to be the onset of dengue, I made my way with some 50 colleagues to the lovely Parque La Güira in Pinar del Río to learn about what’s happening around sustainable tourism in Cuba.

I should have stayed home. While the panelists were informed, experienced, eloquent, and educated, there was a general pall over the proceedings. Despite a formal invitation, no one from the Ministry of Tourism showed up. Nor were there any representatives from the Ministries of Health or the Environment. So much for intersectoriality. What’s more, various presentations and exchanges revealed there is no national strategy, no community voice or participation, not even a consensus on what constitutes sustainable and responsible tourism and therefore no evidence base upon which to measure progress. I wasn’t sure if it was the dengue or lack of policy/political will making me shudder, but I (and others I spoke with) came away from that panel depressed.

Why? Because responsible and ethical tourism is a two-way street. Recipient countries have rights and obligations and it’s unclear what Cuba is doing about it. The emphasis on golf course and resort development (did you know Cuba is in a crippling drought? We certainly do: it’s on the news and in the papers all the time) and cruise ship tourism (I was hoping someone on the panel would provide cost-benefit analysis on this issue. File under: Wishful Thinking), are troubling. Even more troubling is this trip report from a frequent traveler to the Oriente, and this report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which while long, lacks substance.

But individual travelers also have rights and obligations and since I can’t do much in the short term about the government’s role, I wanted to write about what you can do to help Cuba while you explore this fascinating country.

#1: Respect the laws of Cuba – If you are a reporter, blogger or freelance writer or filmmaker and enter Cuba on a tourist visa with the intention of writing about or filming here, you’re breaking the law. If you participate in sex tourism, you’re breaking the law (and if you have to pay for sex, you’re a loser). If you couch surf, you’re breaking the law. If you drive drunk or with an open container in your car, you’re breaking the law. If you put up the money for a business or house with a Cuban on the paperwork, you’re breaking the law. Do people do these things all the time? Yes, every day. But people OD on heroin every day, too – that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do it, right? I know, I sound like someone’s curmudgeonly mother.

#2: Reduce water usage
– The drought is so dramatic it’s affecting our fresh food supply (although upwards of 70% of food is imported, none of it is of the fresh fruit or veggie variety). Plus, there are millions of Cubans, even right here in Havana, who do not have running water every day. Can you let a faucet drip or run knowing that? Would you do it at home given the same circumstances? Californians know full well what I’m talking about.

#3: Reduce plastic waste – During our team meeting at Cuba Libro yesterday, one member opined that we should sell bottled water (even though we give out gallons of purified water for free every day), because ‘tourists don’t trust boiled water.’ And he’s right – some folks don’t believe boiled water is safe for drinking. But they’re wrong: check the scientific evidence. And the plastic waste 3 million (and counting) tourists create when they drink countless plastic bottles of water during their stay is doing damage. This is an island ecology, where use is outstripping recycling and we don’t have landfill enough for all the plastic waste you leave behind once you return home. So what can you do? If you’re in a casa particular, boil or otherwise treat (drops, chlorine, iodine, filters) water and use a refillable bottle. At the very least, buy the 5 liter jugs of water and refill with that. When all else fails, switch to beer – anything to avoid the half liter bottles overfilling our landfill.

#4: Adapt – My Cuban friends make fun of me I’m so anti-pingüino. ‘The penguin’ is local slang for air conditioning. But it has been unbearably, record-breaking hot this summer, and I’ve had to resort to sleeping some nights with my Russian tank of an AC on ϹИᴧЬНО (that’s ‘high’ in Cyrillic, I think!). So, it’s hot, I get it. But the all-too-common tourist practice of leaving the AC on all day long while at the beach or out sightseeing so the hotel or casa particular room is ‘a lo pingüino’ upon return is totally irresponsible – not only does it sap the local electrical grid and damage the environment, but it contributes to global climate change as well. Besides, in AC-challenged Cuba, adapting is a much more practical survival strategy (just yesterday a US tourist said to me: ‘quite frankly, I’m used to my US comforts, like AC’). In short: suck it up and use your AC judiciously.

#5: Do not, ever, request Guantanamera, Lagrimas Negras, or Chan Chan
– Already Cuban musicians and artists are dumbing down their magnificent repertoire to cater to perceived tourist tastes. Respecting the patrimony of Cuba includes letting these musicians rip on compositions they haven’t played a thousand times for a thousand tourists. Your travel memories will be richer for this expanded listening experience. And don’t forget to tip.

#6: Learn some Spanish (or even better: Cuban) phrases
– No matter where you travel, having a couple of local phrases and vernacular up your sleeve opens doors, minds, and hearts. Get a phrasebook or app. Use it. Trying to communicate, even in the simplest way, in the language of your host country is a sign of respect. It’s not easy, I know this in the marrow of my bones. But it’s also not terribly hard once you start and is immeasurably rewarding. Do it!

#7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
– Speaking of which: visitors, especially from the USA (who Cubans love for cultural-historical reasons, but also for being big tippers), have to tame their egos. This doesn’t apply to everyone, obviously, but there’s a tendency for some US folks to push the “America [sic] is the greatest/most democratic country in the world” point of view, combined with a cringe-inducing perspective about “how to fix Cuba.” This happened just yesterday at Cuba Libro and got Douglas’ Irish up in a major way – and he has not a drop of the Emerald Isle in his blood. Travelers, from everywhere, frankly, should be conscious that they are visiting a highly-educated, cultured, and professional context, which is no way intellectually ‘frozen in time’ and that Cubans have spent a long time analyzing and living with their problems. No matter how erudite you are in your own life and field – and I include myself here – you don’t know as much as people living here day-to-day, who have spent a lifetime in this complex country. Can you enrich the dialog and provide perspective? Definitely. Can you solve Cuba’s problems after a ten-day or two-month trip? Definitely not. Show respect for your hosts’ intelligence, triumphs, and challenges by listening and learning. No one likes a dogmatic pontificator.

Lest I am accused of being a hypocrite, I will sign off here. If you have something to add about responsible/ethical/sustainable tourism, please write in; I’m starting to put together evidence, documents, and experiences related to what works and what doesn’t regarding this issue with an eye towards action.

Happy travels!

55 Comments

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

Our Baby’s Two Years Old: Cuba Libro!

Circa January 2002: I was sitting at my sister’s dining room table – in the crappy apartment she was forced to rent after losing her home and business in 9-11 – with a friend. At the time, he was a producer for PBS and I was a struggling writer. When I told him I was moving to Cuba to live and write he said: “who would ever buy what you have to write about Cuba?” Cue incredulous, pregnant pause (haters gotta hate, right?) I’m sure he doesn’t remember this comment made so long ago, but it kicks me in the ass every time I pitch, and write, and yes, get published. Turns out some people do want to buy and read what I have to write about Cuba.

Flash forward a dozen years. A friend drives across Havana to give me a sack of books. “They’re good, but not great and I have no room for them. If you don’t want them, I’m throwing them away.” So first of all: I don’t have room in my life for good, but not great books, let alone the shelves to hold them. Second of all: I can’t bear to see books thrown out and can’t do it myself – it’s like those leftovers I swear I’ll eat tomorrow, until tomorrow turns into the next day and then next week. By that time, I can no longer distinguish the pesto from the mold but it’s food; when you grow up poor, you don’t throw away food. Third of all: when my friend made that drive across town, I was in a very dark place, in a grief so deep I couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish a page of a book, let alone an entire title.

That yellow sack of books sat for six months gathering dust as I mourned my loss and questioned my life. And then, after much loving support from my friends and family here and there, I was able to get through a page, a book, an entire day without bursting into tears. I started feeling like me again. An idea began to brew. What if Havana had an English-language bookstore and coffeehouse, a place equally comfortable for Cubans and visitors, residents and foreigners, where you could sit with a good book and coffee to make conversation and friends and memories? It could be an oasis from hot, hectic Havana where nada es fácil; it could be a place for visitors to get cultural information and for Cubans to practice their English; it could and would be an alcohol-free space, a regguetón-free zone, a place with no place for pena.

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

But it could be so much more (obviously, I was feeling very much myself again, thinking and dreaming big). We could be ethically- and socially-responsible, basing our business philosophy on the principal that everything we do, every policy and practice, must be a win-win-win: a win for our customers, a win for our community, and a win for our staff. We could be a beacon in Cuba’s dark, uncertain times of private enterprise, where inequities are deepening, the country is experiencing double brain drain (people leaving for foreign shores; people leaving the state sector for the private), and the majority of Cubans don’t have the resources to patronize – let alone open – a private business. We would do things differently: we would be a place for everyone, our goods and services would be accessible to everyone, regardless of age, race, nationality, sexual orientation and importantly: finances. Money would not be the arbiter of who is in and who is out at our special spot. And so, Cuba Libro was born.

As two friends and I painted the space we rent from a neighbor, I honed my strategy about how to build community, support that community, and offer something completely different.

First Cuba Libro policy? You don’t have to buy anything. You can spend all day in a hammock reading National Geographic in Havana’s shadiest corner and not spend a kilo. This will bring in all the folks who don’t have the money or inclination to buy a coffee or book. It will make it a more diverse, exciting space. For people who love to read but don’t have the money or space for a book, we’ll offer library services, lending titles at 5 CUP (25 cents) for two weeks.

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Second policy? Cuba Libro staff will earn more than anyone else in Havana doing similar work. We will commit ourselves in this way (and others), to supporting Cuban youth – to proving that young people here can learn new skills, make a dignified living, and build a future in their beloved Cuba. In addition to the robust salary, I instituted a profit-sharing program for staff and a tip jar exclusively for them. Here’s a typical end-of-day exchange with staff: “Conner. This is too much. Please take your cut of the tips.” I always decline, but then they slip some bills into my bag when I’m not looking and I slip them right back. In an effort to support young Cubans, I determined we would dedicate part of the café to emerging artists who have little opportunity to show their work in a city where six terrific artists crawl out from under any rock. We’ve shown artists who use the hallway of their building to create or have to sit on their single mattress to paint. For almost all our artists, their Cuba Libro show is their first solo show. One of my favorite parts of this 2-year adventure is when I get to call one of these artists (especially the ones earning peanuts in a state job) to say: ‘you sold something; your work is going to Canada/the United States/Chile/wherever, c’mon by so we can settle up.’

reading is sexy

Third policy? We will do everything within our power to help attack inequities, educate, contribute to the health and well-being of our customers/staff/neighbors, broaden our collective support network, and build community. We will start donation programs, hold classes and workshops, plant trees, refill water bottles (as tourists numbers soar, plastic bottle waste is becoming a huge problem for this island ecology), give out free condoms (my public health commitment and also a way to diversify our community even more), make our stellar bathroom available to everyone, whether they buy something or know us or not, and actively curate titles, authors and genres requested by our community. When friends started an organic, collective farm, we offered to make their wonderfully delicious and affordable produce available to our community – at no profit to us. We pledge to be relevant and positive and pro-active.

Fourth policy? Cuba Libro will institute a collective decision-making model – any policy change or decision which affects our staff and/or community, requires consultation with them. This is completely new for many Cubans and we’ve had several opportunities to put the model to the test: do we want to appear in the Lonely Planet guidebook? Do we want to be on Travel Channel? This is a no-brainer for folks blind to everything except the bottom-line, but as I always say: ‘Cuba Libro is less about peddling coffee and books and more about being a resource for the surrounding community’ and once you get massive international exposure from media giants like LP and Travel Channel, the scales tip towards more foreigners, fewer locals in your establishment. Our collective debate revealed that none of us wanted this. But the debate also revealed alternatives, which ended up winning out. When I suggested raising our prices after more than a year in operation, staff pushed back, argued why we shouldn’t, and we didn’t; our prices, payable in either CUC or CUP, (another policy designed to make Cuba Libro as accessible as possible to as many as possible), have remained the same since opening: from a 60 cent espresso to a $1.50 frappuccino (both of which kick ass, according to customers). The latest debate is a rager: should we habilitate WiFi when it becomes a possibility? Feel free to weigh in, we’re currently collecting opinions.

Meanwhile, Cuban friends and family doubted my crazy bookstore/café idea when I unveiled it in 2013:

“You can’t give away stuff for free.”

“You have to sell liquor or you won’t survive. At least beer!”

“What’s the point of an English bookstore in a Spanish-speaking country?”

“You can’t lend books, they’ll never come back.”

Well, two years on, we’ve proven them wrong. Now what we’re hearing:

“Cuba Libro literally changed my life” (Susan, who met her future husband here)

“This is the best job I’ve ever had. It has changed my life” (Douglas! Fabulous Douglas, author of our original motto: ‘Life is peachy at Cuba Libro’);

“This is the coolest place in Havana” (Richard, early adopter and mainstay of the Cuba Libro family);

“I wouldn’t have survived medical school without Cuba Libro” (Dr Vero, another early adopter who was also the first – but not the last – to say: “I’m not telling anyone about this place. It’s MY oasis; I don’t want anyone to know about it”);

“I wish I had discovered this place when I first got to Havana” (Molly, a regular-in-the-making);

“This is my favorite place” (Humberto, who has cashed in more buy-10-get-1-free cards than anyone);

“I swear this is best iced coffee I’ve ever had” (Marcia, documentary filmmaker);

“Who are these new people? This is OUR hangout and they’re in MY hammock! (Maria Carla, Cuba Libro regular and future famous playwright).

We were one of (if not THE) first business with a loyalty reward program

We were one of (if not THE) first business with a loyalty reward program

I speak for the collective when I say: we’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved at Cuba Libro, very much a labor of love, very much a success – as defined by us. Although there are days we lose money, when the bureaucracy and inspections and blackouts and difficulties seem too much, there are days like last week when I looked around the garden, full of Cubans and a smattering of foreigners laughing, playing Scrabble and the guitar, reading Rolling Stone, and sipping 100% Cuban coffee and realized we’re not only creating community, we’re creating meaning in our lives and the lives of others. Douglas caught me smiling and read my mind: “this is what you dreamed of, right?” Yes, Dudu, this was the dream, the dream we’re making a reality in our shady little corner of Vedado, every day.

Last day before August vacation; they look happy, but these regulars (Cuban all, except me) grumbled!

Last day before August vacation; they look happy, but these regulars (Cuban all, except me) grumbled!

This post is dedicated to all our supporters from around the corner and around the globe, who have helped us survive and thrive over the past two years, proving the improbable is possible and that you can live your dreams. Thanks to you, we’ve found the motivation, positive energy, solidarity, and resources to do all of this in two short years:

– Over 5200 condoms distributed, free!
– Over 1600 book donations to Cuba Libro from around the world
– Dozens of bilingual dictionaries donated to the local elementary school
– One dozen bilingual dictionaries donated to a private English teacher
– Several large donations to family doctors and administrators
– One large donation of coloring books, crayons and age-appropriate games to Centro Habana Pediatric hospital
– 12 art shows of emerging Cuban artists + rocking parties to inaugurate each (free to public!)
– One live music event with musicians from USA & Cuba (free to public!)
– 6 cine debates (Cuban documentaries presented by the filmmakers followed by debate; free to public!)
– 3 book launches (free to public!)
– 121 official people-to-people groups received from the United States
– One semester-long conversational English class, taught by a certified, native English-speaker
– Visitors from more than 3 dozen countries
– One marriage
– Providing study space and caffeine for half a dozen medical students, now doctors
– Innumerable friends made (including those with benefits!)
– One baby on the way (due Oct 24th; congrats Gaby & Raudel!)
– One stray street dog adopted
– 132 frequent client cards filled (buy ten coffees or other drink, receive your next drink free)
– Planted 6 trees
– Launched organic farm share with Finca Tungasuk, reaching dozens of local families

Rescued, November 2014!! Senor Tobias, resident CL pet.

Rescued, November 2014!! Senor Tobias, resident CL pet.

It has been one hell of a ride and we’re steeling ourselves for Fall 2015, when we’ll be expanding the organic farm share, hosting a week-long American Sign Language workshop (taught by a Cuban), hosting two art openings and one cine debate and launching a book about Pope Francis (while he’s in Havana!) and my new book Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor. Our work regularly exhausts us but always motivates us to do more and better. Thank you Cuba Libro community for making our work meaningful. Here’s to the next two years!!

44 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, environment, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba