Category Archives: cigars

Do You Have the Cojones?

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If I had a peso for every email I get from someone saying they want to live in Cuba, I could take the six month sabbatical I need to finish my book. Hard as it may be for some of you to believe (or stomach), people do indeed write me all the time professing that they want to live here. These wannabe transplants mention the music usually, the slower, easier pace sometimes, the social safety net often, but Cubans and their idiosyncrasies always. It’s the Cuban ser – their way of being and living – that is so infectious, they tell me. As if I didn’t know. After a decade living here, believe me, I know. And it’s not always pretty or fun. So before you do something rash or costly or dumb, ask yourself this:

Can you be passably nice to people you can’t stand; have betrayed you; or are inept?
Sure, things are changing fast down here with unprecedented economic reforms having sparked a capitalistic furor and all the multi-tasking, efficiencies, and work ethic the best of such furor engenders. But really, it’s the same dog with new fleas. Bureaucratic habits and vice; the cradle-to-grave airbag of state support (i.e. a not always effective, and often painful savior); and the absurdist criteria for job security are die-hard tendencies everyone has to navigate.

Such tendencies, coupled with Havana’s small size and an ingrained system of sociolismo – whereby who you know helps keep you afloat – force us to deal daily with perfidious lovers, mentally challenged office drones, and crabby clerks. Getting all New York uppity or asserting that ‘the customer is always right’ will backfire (trust me) and just make everything harder in any and all future dealings with the aforementioned lovers, drones, and clerks.

Which is more important: sex or drugs?
You’re shit out of luck if it’s the latter. Cuba’s zero-tolerance policy and strict interdiction laws mean jail time for a joint, limiting recreational options to island-produced vice: rum and prescription speed, sedatives, and the like.

If it’s the former, than c’mon down because sex of all types and stripes is better on the island. While I’m still parsing the reasons why, I can say with certainty that it’s related to the lack of shame Cubans have about natural, bodily functions; the absence of Puritanical underpinnings found in other societies (you know who you are!); and the prowess of Cubans en sí. Even if you were to relocate with your spouse or partner, I predict my findings would be confirmed.

Can you tell/enjoy a good joke – especially when you’re the butt of it?One thing that chaps my ass are all these Cuba wonks (including locals – yes, Yoani Sánchez, I refer to you) who write about island life, history, politics and even travel and fail – utterly – to reflect the wicked sense of Cuban humor. This is a funny people, people. No matter who you are or where you’re from, Cuban friends, family, and colleagues will constantly darte chucho y cuero. Loosely translated, this means you will be the butt of many jokes. You are expected to laugh along and what’s more, reciprocate.

To take an example from the weekend-long International Harley Rally I participated in recently….

I rode on a 1953 hog driven by compañero Vladimir (Note: name has been changed to protect the guilty). Like most Cubans, he took the 3-hour ride as an opportunity to flirt and shower me with compliments – the scripted Cuban prologue to getting into a girl’s pants. Not a chance did Vlad have, but that never stops an island guy from trying. I was clear on this point, as were the other 100 or so Harlistas and their backseat Bettys, but poor Vlad tried his damnedest regardless. On the last night, there was a big fiesta, the booze flowed, Vlad got stupid drunk, and ended crying in a corner. His friends rallied, rousted him, and escorted him safely to bed. Upon their return, they passed me this note:
[
(Coni I love you. You betrayed me. I never thought you’d do that to me. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I love you. A kiss)

Uproarious laughter ensued – we all knew Vlad’s blubbering had nothing to do with me and everything to do with dropping his bike in a drunken mishap. Lips pursed and blowing kisses, I snatched the forged note from Rodolfo’s hands, preventing him from making good on his threat to post it on Facebook.

Which is more important: food or sleep?
Automatic fail if you answered either because you’ll will go without both at some juncture here. Obnoxious reggaetón at 5am; pre-dawn Revolutionary Square rallies; and all-night parties will rob you of the latter, while shitty/non-existent restaurant service; midnight munchies with nowhere to sate them; and food just not worth ingesting, will rob you of the former.

Do you have personal space issues?
If ‘yes’ even crosses your mind, cross Cuba off your list: chronic housing and transportation shortages mean you’ll share rooms and beds, seats, sweat and oxygen with friends and even strangers at one point or another. Culturally, Cubans have a completely different approach to personal space – kissing, touching and rubbing up against each other is de rigueur, regardless of relation or circumstance. Even in the dog days of summer, folks greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, leaving behind a wet slick of sweat, a reality I’m still not sure how to deal with: do I let it ride and dry or swipe it away with a perdóname smile?

Are you more of a tits or ass person?
Cuban preference falls squarely on the latter which is a boon for bosom-challenged me, though I’m sorry to report that implants are making major inroads here, tweaking the standard of beauty towards the bust.

How do you feel about second-hand smoke?
Personally, I’m tired of tourists giving me dirty looks as I enjoy my habitual cigar. More than sex, rum, salsa, and solidarity, Cuba is known for its world-class tobacco. If you’re going to be here for any length of time, you’ll have to accept the fact that at one time or another, in places appropriate and not (e.g. windowless clubs, in hospitals, on buses), you’ll be breathing in the piquant, cancer-causing smoke of uncut black tobacco cigarettes and one peso cheroots.

Are you a hygiene freak?
If you’re one of those folks who has a trial-sized Purell bottle clipped to your bag, this isn’t the place for you. From stepping in street juice and gutter detritus to tolerating bugs or hair in your food (or as part of your food, as often happens with chicharrones), you’re going to experience it here. What’s more, every Cuban observes the five second rule: food dropped on the floor is entirely edible, as long as you retrieve it within five seconds. To wit: a couple of days ago I went to the panaderia for my daily ration of bread. As a nice neighbor helped me deposit the rolls in my sack, two fell to the sidewalk. Without pause the baker said: ‘give me those; I’ll replace them.’ He did, but only after placing those two tainted rolls back on the rack alongside the rest to be sold. Whomever came after me got those fallen rolls, none the wiser, poor soul. This happens all the time, and you will eat food that has kissed the ground, whether you know it or not.

Can you go without toilet paper/tampons/Internet/butter/speaking your native language for indeterminate and sometimes extensive, amounts of time?
We all go without these items down here, since to be in Cuba requires an adaptability many visitors I know simply don’t have but which Cubans possess in spades. No toilet paper? No problem – we use water like billions of other people around the world or the Communist daily cut into handy-sized squares. A diehard Tampax user before my move, I switched to pads a decade ago and many Cuban women still use swaths of cotton. Baking notwithstanding, oil is a good enough substitute for butter and while there is no substitute for Internet, being disconnected has its advantages – like actually interacting with real human beings.

On the language front, I’m embarrassed for expats who move to foreign countries and ensconce themselves in enclaves of their native tongue. These folks also like to foist that tongue on locals by talking REALLY LOUD or s-l-o-w-l-y in the odd, delusionary, and insulting belief that these strategies will result in success. If you’re going to live here, you need to speak Cuban, coño, which as any Spanish-speaking visitor knows, is an entirely different ball of wax from straight up Castellano.

Do you wither in the heat?
If so, don’t come here: you won’t be able to take it and frankly, you griping about it bums us out. We, on the other hand, can complain about it long, hard, and better than you – a right earned through innumerable August blackouts with no fan, AC, or ice water.

How is your tolerance for contradictions?
Every society has them and if you think otherwise, you’re not paying close enough attention. But the Cuban flavor of contradiction is particularly special. Married men, for instance, can keep multiple lovers (sometimes of both sexes). Married women? Not so much. Meanwhile, government laws promote private business but the bureaucrats charged with upholding those laws squelch incentive and drive; sex is the national pastime but making carnal noises the neighbors can hear and nude (even topless) sunbathing are taboo; artists keep profits from their work abroad but athletes don’t see a cent; and a taxi driver/tour guide/waitress/hairdresser earns more than a neurosurgeon. The media bears much guilt as well: you’ll very rarely hear trova legend Pablo Milanés crooning his immensely popular songs of love on the radio or TV, but sleazy reggaetón by the likes of Osmany García who beseeches chicas to suck his pinga gets airtime. Some of these contradictions are trying to work themselves out, but are proving as hard to cure as bed bugs and herpes.

Finally, do have untapped stores of inner strength (i.e. cojones)?
I hope so because to live here, you’re going to need them.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, cigars, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Cuban Harley Culture

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In the introduction to my forthcoming book (see note 1), I muse briefly on how similar Havana (my adopted city) is to New York (my birth city): the garbage and grit; taxi drivers with higher degrees; the self-contained neighborhoods – it all feels very familiar. Another characteristic both cities share is they teem with subcultures worthy of an urban anthropologist. Poets and punks, gym rats and drunks, shylocks, gamblers, sluts and thieves: here, like there, we’ve got the full spectrum of human passions, vice and interest crashing together like waves on the Malecón.

This past weekend, I was (gratefully, willingly) thrust into one of Cuba’s most prismatic and emblematic subcultures and scenes: I rode along on the country’s first Harley rally. For the record: the trip from Havana to Varadero was only the third time I’ve been on a Harley in my life. The first was a joy ride in what was clearly foreplay and a bid to get something more corporeal between my legs than a thundering motor (in this the fella failed, for which I’m thankful: at that destructively drunken point in my life, the last thing I needed was to hook up with a biker bartender). The second was a thoroughly platonic and enjoyable ride home from the year-end party in Habana campo hosted by the Latin American Motorcycle Association (LAMA) and the third time was this past weekend, when over 50 riders made their way to Varadero on pre-1960 bikes from as far as Pinar del Río and Camagüey for three days in hog heaven.

As you may imagine, my muse was working overtime in this new and captivating environment, populated by cool people with their own language and subtext. Since everything I know about biker culture I learned from Easy Rider and Altamont, I was keen to experience the 1ro Encuentro Nacional de Harlistas Cubanos firsthand.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Al contrario: I was inspired and surprised. Because although as a group these folks cultivate and maintain an identity wholly dedicated to, nay obsessed with, Harley Davidson, they remain, al fondo, 100% Cubano.

If you know Cuba from the inside, you know this subculture phenomenon – be it goth, gay, or black – hasn’t always fit in well or properly with the macro unity concept that is the glue for us here in one of the world’s last bastions of socialism. Of course, when there’s USAID or other sovereignty-compromising dollars in the middle, peor todavía. Worse still with reason since I believe all human relations should be driven by mutual respect, regardless if it’s in the realm of sex, economics, culture or politics. In short: you don’t tell me how to live, work or play and I’ll return the favor.

What was even more striking still was that on the whole, these Cuban bikers are more closely connected to their global counterparts and importantly, their US brethren, than any other community I’ve encountered here (see note 2). As a group, they speak (almost) as much English as the slickest jineteros and what’s more, the main biker groups here – LAMA and Harlistas Cubanos – have foreign membership, long timers like me who live here and love bikes. And the mix works seamlessly because beyond the bikes, gear, and foreign presence, what grounds and unites these folks is their Cubanilla, with all the idiosyncrasies good and bad that implies.

Even before we rumbled out of Guanabacoa towards Varadero, the gossip was flying. And believe me: these Harley folks are more chismoso than a kitchenful of bored housewives. I learned all about Antonio’s marital strife; the petty divisions and squabbles among different riders and groups; and how Vladimir got his hog and Oscar lost his. Thanks to the gossip mill, I was privy to the anonymous alcoholic’s struggles and how much Fulano paid for the silicon tits and ass of his funny, sexy, back seat Betty. The grapevine was heavy with juicy fruit, but what impressed me the most was the handful of folks who didn’t gossip. Those are the ones to ponder further, I figure – above all because I abhor gossip as an entirely negative pursuit. With the anti-chismosos, I’d found my people (see note 3).

What also struck me as totally Cubano was the fury for everything with the Harley Davidson logo. I know brand loyalty is common to riders the world over, but Cubans can go overboard like nobody’s business – especially when it comes to logos and bling. And this was no different: there were boots, belts, shirts, jackets and vests, jewelry, headbands, bandanas, flags, stickers, and business cards all emblazoned with the Harley label. Boy, did I ever look out of place with my Hawaii-kine style, particularly when everyone was throwing devil horns and I’m waving the shaka. But while I may have looked out of place, not for a moment did I feel out of place – another sign you’re hanging with Cubans.

If you know this place and manage well in Spanish, you know that there is no one who can make and appreciate a good joke like Cubans – especially when the joke’s on you. And these bikers are tremendous jokers – jodedores constantly dando cuero. No one is spared, least of all me, and these Harlistas ribbed me good-naturedly at every opportunity: about how I leaned into curves (not that well, apparently; ¡que pena!); about my addiction to roasted pork (see note 4); and my penchant for hopping on the back of anyone’s motorcycle, anytime. I’m sure they have words in biker parlance for promiscuous back seat bitches like I was this weekend, but in my case, it ended with a forged love note that had everyone busting a gut. But at least I fared better than another foreigner who had his gold chain vicked by a muchacha ‘fren’ giving him a massage; he never heard the end of it.

But what most drove home the Cubanilla for me was that bedrock Cuban principle driving relations on-island and off which these folks have in spades: what matters above all else is family. Blood, extended, new and departed. And it wasn’t only the adorable kids along for the ride (many in mini Harley gear), but how you know your back is covered when someone falls ill or that someone will lend a hand when you need a new part, mechanic, or lover and an ear when you’re down. As a group, the Harlistas Cubanos function as one big, complicated – dysfunctional at times, but happy all the same – family. United by their love for their bikes, the road, and their patria.

It’s a weekend I’m sure I’ll never forget. If you’re in Havana and want to experience what I’m talking about, stop by their weekly event at La Piragua (Malecón and Calle O, in the shadow of the Hotel Nacional), held every Saturday at 5pm. You just might get lucky and spot me in some colorful get up on the back of a hog, throwing a shaka to my new friends-cum-family.

Notes

1. A perennial work in progress that’s like a so good, but so bad lover you know you should finish with but somehow can’t (or won’t), I’m determined to get this sucker published in 2012.

2. Granted, I don’t hang out with dissidents who are all up in that foreigner action – and not in a good, healthy way like this bunch.

3. Also a sign of my people: so many Harlistas smoke cigars and give them away like candy, I smoked none of my own stash the whole weekend and returned to Havana with healthy stores thanks to their generosity.

4. And let me tell you: the three puercos asados they laid out for the farewell lunch were the tastiest I’ve had in 10 years here, trumping memorable pigs eaten in a bohio in Pinar del Río, on a secluded beach in Las Tunas, and during carnival in Holguín.

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Conner’s Cuba Rules Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] About six months ago I wrote Conner’s Cuba Rules, a super popular post that raised the ire of some readers. Rereading my musings six months later, I better understand some of the dissent offered by commenters. Given that much has changed here in Havana since then and I’ve had several opportunities to travel outside of the capital thanks to my day job, I’ve compiled a new, hopefully more positive, set of rules to complement the first ones.

The Revolution will be televised: I’ve met a lot of visitors (and even some foreign residents) who have never seen Televisión Cubana. Granted, there are only five channels here, but you’re missing out on a big chunk of Cuban culture if you don’t surf those five at least occassionally. For the intersection of politics and journalism, check out the Mesa Redonda (see note 1) and the prime time news. The latter is important in and of itself for the weather report; pay special attention if Dr José Rubiera is forecasting. Meanwhile, a good baseball game can rivet entire households, the novela even more so. Only if you watch TV here will you understand what Cubans mean when they say: “it was like the Saturday night movie” (see note 2). Meanwhile, the music shown down here – videos, documentaries, concerts and jam sessions – can be as moving as the live thing. I’ve seen Chucho Valdés, Clapton and Queen, the Festival of Modern Drumming and some guy from Uzbekistan singing Talk Boom, a riveting song I’m still trying to track down – all in a single night on Televisión Cubana. Watch it; you’ll like it (or at least get a good laugh or song lead).

Pack a sense of humor: It always amazes me when I read something that disregards, overlooks, or otherwise fails to recognize the Cuban sense of humor, which ranges from the side splitting to the sublime. The writer can be someone who knows and loves Cuba long time or a visitor who has parachuted in and out on vacation. No matter the source, the frequency with which folks miss the funny stuff here is alarming. It’s true, a lot depends on speaking Spanish (or a crackerjack translator), but however you resolve the language question, if you’re comparing Cuba to China, Vietnam, or the defunct USSR, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients in the Cuban character. These folks love to share stories, jokes, and the occassional tall tale, and use their verbal prowess to enliven, laugh, and woo; it is what has enabled these people to resist so much for so long. Even without Spanish skills or a translator, if you’re not laughing a lot on a visit here, you’re doing something wrong in my personal and professional opinion (see note 3).

Use pesos cubanos: If you know even a little about Cuba, you know we operate on a dual currency system with pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles circulating side by side. Since one of my goals of Here is Havana is to bust myths, I always take the opportunity to debunk one of the most pervasive: that foreigners cannot use pesos cubanos (AKA Moneda Nacional, MN), but only pesos convertibles (AKA divisa, chavitos, CUC). This is 100% false. Anyone can use either currency. It’s what each can buy where the difference lies. Certain goods and services, for example, are only available in CUC including cooking oil and butter, hotel rooms and the internet. But fruits and veggies, surprisingly pleasant cigars, fixed route taxis, movie tickets and lots of other stuff are sold in pesos cubanos – if you know where to look. My advice? Change some CUCs into MN (1:24) to experience firsthand how much pesos cubanos can buy and how the double economy works.

So as to avoid confusion +/o more myths: you can always pay for goods and services priced in pesos cubanos with hard currency pesos convertibles but never the other way around. And some services (interprovincial buses, concert and ballet tickets) are sold in pesos cubanos to Cubans and residents, but in hard currency to visitors.

Bring your own reading material: Rarely a week goes by when someone isn’t griping to me about the lack of English-language books and magazines here. What is available is largely limited to historical and political titles and they are very expensive (and make for dull beach reading besides). The Kindle can be handy in this regard, but the bonus to bringing print publications is that you can pass them along to some avid English reader (like me!) upon departure. Drop me a line if you have some good (ie no romance novels or sci fi pulp) English-language reading material to donate to the cause.

Hightail it out of Havana: This may seem contradictory, given that I have an iApp to the city and I recommend in my guidebooks and elsewhere that visitors consider basing their entire trip in Havana. But things are changing fast here and though I’m a city girl by birth and breeding, I’m back peddling a bit on that advice. Havana, with its dirt, garbage, and graft, noise and air pollution, and materialistic ways (I did call Habaneros ‘logo whores’ after all) is distorting Cuba’s image. In short, Havana is not Cuba, which can be said of every major city around the world from New York to Manila, Managua to Dakar. But since visitors often request recommendations for “authentic” experiences and how to discover the “real” Cuba, I now find it prudent to advise getting out of Havana and exploring farther afield. With more flights, both charter and commercial, to provincial capitals like Holguín, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba, this is also a more practical proposition than ever.

Above all, have fun and keep your head about you!

Notes

1. The Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a nightly “debate” show which discusses a topic (US aggression overseas; Latin American intregration) on which all four guests and the modeator agree.There are many jokes in these parts about the program; the shortest and sweetest calls it the Mesa Cuadrada, meaning ‘Square Table’ in literal Spanish, but meaning something more along the lines of ‘Dogmatic Table’ in Cuban.

2. The Saturday night movie here is prefaced by a parental warning, the most common of which alerts viewers that the Hollywood action shlock about to be shown contains Nudity, Violence, & Foul Language. To wit: the old, slow, over-crowded camello buses (of which I took many), were always called ‘the Saturday night movie.’ [NB: did it annoy you to have to scroll down to read this note? Yeah, me too, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to hyperlink notes within posts; if someone has a solution, please get in touch].

3. Trying to connect to and use the internet excepted. Even casual visitors know that connectivity is no laughing matter here. Indeed, I flirted with the ledge and sharp knives today as I frittered away several hours trying to connect. Once I “succeeded,” it topped out at 9.6kbps – not nearly fast enough to load even a simple web page before timing out.

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Let Me Count the Ways…

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Ay Cuba.

What have you done to my heart, torn in so many directions but always aching for 23° 7′ 55″ North, 82° 21′ 51″ West? And my soul? Of, by, and for New York from birth, but now reconfigured into an alma cubana that whispers mysteries in Spanish I’m still unable to cipher.

I’m not sure when this happened – feeling betwixt there and between here – though I know it’s common to long-term expats. Hell, I’ve even parsed some of this awkward, never complete transition over the years, crafting a sort of road map to the cultural, linguistic, and romantic bumps in my road.

Despite my musings and analysis, I entered some unknown territory on my most recent trip off-island: in a nutshell, I did not want to leave. Maybe I’ve been hanging out too much with Moises and Rina, two friends who had to travel to the United States recently, but neither of whom had the ganas to do so. It wasn’t due to fear – both have traveled several times for work – nor was it because they’d traveled so extensively that trips abroad had become old hat and rote (see note 1). They just didn’t want to leave the island and these days, nor do I. It feels wrong and a bit scary, like kissing a cousin or sibling.

It makes me sad because I know the lengths so many Cubans take just for a chance to see what lies beyond all that water crashing against the Malecón. And it’s confusing, because on every previous trip, I too felt the need to ‘saca el plug’ (pull the plug) and ‘desconectar’ from the drama-rama that is Cuba. Trips out used to be exciting, emotional, and necessary.

But not this time. I didn’t want to cut whatever cord hooks fast into those of us crazy for Cuba, making us spend money we don’t have, go against our better judgment, and jeopardize job, health, and relationships to get back to the island. In an effort to untangle that cord (or loosen the noose, depending on your POV), I offer all these reasons why I love Cuba (see note 2).

The $1 lunch – Whether it’s a cajita across from the CUJAE or a knife and fork sit down at El Ranchón (one of my all-time favorites), Cuba has some kick ass $1 lunch with all the fixings. Even at the airport: on my recent trip off-island, I filled up at the cafeteria outside Terminal 2 (clearly one of the greatest benefits of the new economic regulations) with a plate overflowing with pork, congris, yucca, salad, and chips. It was so tasty a fellow diner said: ‘my congratulations to the cook – he must be from Pinar del Río!’ (see note 3).

Touching, hugging, and general closeness – Latinos have a different concept of personal space and Cubans, as is their wont, take it to an extreme. Men embrace and greet each other with kisses on the cheek, female friends walk hand in hand, and my best salsa partners have been girlfriends. All of this is to say that Cubans aren’t afraid to touch – your leg when telling a story, your back as they try to pass you in the hall, your shoulder as they ask: ‘how is your family?’ Cubans fill elevators to its maximum capacity and I always delight in watching a mixed Cuban-foreigner crowd boarding them for the mutual awkwardness that ensues. Up in the States, the awkwardness is mine every time I step into a nearly full elevator, encroaching somehow, though there is always room for one more. That weird, reactionary, and let’s be frank, harmful rule that teachers can’t hug students in the USA? My Cuban friends can’t even grasp the concept when I try to explain it.

The hello/goodbye kiss – Related to touching is the traditional Cuban greeting – one kiss on the right cheek no matter if you know each other or not. Even taking leave of big groups results in blowing a kiss to the crowd. I think we should start this trend up north. Our world couldn’t be any worse off with more kisses, could it? On my visit to the States recently, I leaned in towards my host and said: ‘you were wonderful tonight,’ touching his knee as I spoke. Did he misread my Cuban-ness? Interpret it as something more?, I wondered later as he slid his hand down my back to cup my ass. This doesn’t happen in Cuba unless the signal is an unequivocal green (ie the ass grab is mutual).

Fun in the sun – I was born and bred in northern climes, but I’m a winter wimp through and through. Sure I loved tobogganing and ice skating and snowball fights as a kid – still do in fact – but the bulky clothing, the cold that turns wet once the fun is done, and the squeak of day old snow that sounds like someone is packing Styrofoam in your ear isn’t my bag. I like loose clothing, walking in the sun, and smelling gardenias or fresh cut grass in December. Summer clothing is sexier I think we can all agree, and as white as I am, when my freckles fuse into a pseudo tan, I work those scanty, loose-fitting clothes to full effect.

Drink, smoke, & be merry – The 8am Bucanero; the post-feast cigarette; the incessant regguetón: Cubans milk the ‘party hearty, the rest of you be damned’ approach to its fullest. Believe me, I know. And should it slip my mind, my neighbors are quick to bust out their state-of-the-art karaoke machine and warble drunken, sappy ballads until the wee hours.

And the smoking, dios mío. I remember going for my first pap smear at my local doctor’s office here in Havana…hoisting my feet into the stirrups, I watched aghast as the doctor took one last drag of her filter-less cigarette and with a deft flick of her gloved hand sent it flying out the window before diving between my legs (see note 4). If you’re a non-drinker, non-smoker, or not into music appreciation, you’ll probably find Havana offensive. But for those who like an after dinner cigar, enjoy (or need) some hair of the dog once in a while, or are usually the first on the dance floor at parties and functions, I bet Cuba will float your boat.

It’s safer than where you live – Okay, that’s a broad stroke, I know: after all, I don’t know where you live, much less the crime rates. But I can tell you that the absence of crack cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, and guns means a generally safer city. I’m not saying drugs, prostitution, violence, and rackets don’t exist in Havana. They do. But as a longtime traveler and writer of guidebooks to some of Latin America’s most violent cities (Caracas, Guatemala City, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa) and an eyewitness to NYC’s crack attack in the 80s, I can tell you that Havana is a gated community comparatively. Kids play unsupervised in the street here and I walk home alone at night frequently. (Truth be told, I took a short hiatus of walking home alone after a tall guy grabbed me from behind and thrust both hands between my legs one night in Vedado, but I conquered whatever uncertainty the event planted within me). Most of the crime here is of the opportunistic/snatch and grab variety and tends to peak between October and December when people are trying to rally resources for Christmas and New Years’ celebrations.

These are some of the reasons why I love Havana and if you’ve been thinking about coming here, let me leave you with one piece of advice: don’t put it off any longer. The only certain thing in life is that life is uncertain.

Notes
1. Yes, there are Cubans who get tired of traveling they do it so much: politicians, organizers, academics, musicians, and artists, typically.

2. For those interested in earlier thoughts on this subject, see my earlier post Things I Love about Cuba.

3. Country cooking like they do in Pinar del Río is unrivaled – trust me on this one and seek out a campesino lunch next time you’re in that wonderful province.

4. For new readers to Here is Havana, let me reiterate that all the stories found throughout these pages are entirely true, though some names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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I Got the Cuba in Me

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Coming back to the States for a visit is always odd. It’s an out-of-place feeling common to most expats I suspect – awkward yet surreal, like watching a movie you know by heart dubbed in Thai or Tagalog.

For years I’ve carried my ‘Cuban-ness’ back with me and it freaks people out. I touch people while in conversation, call strangers “sweetie” or “honey” (our closest equivalent to “mi amor”) and crowd everyone’s personal space. Solidarity flows from within me for the downtrodden and I chat in Cubano with every bus boy, street sweeper, and young thug I can.

But something about this trip is different. I’ve brought more than my touchy-feely Latino tendencies and finely honed español back to New York this time. Suddenly, I’m seeing how much the Big Apple (my birth home) resembles Havana (my adopted home). And not in a good way.

The similarities are disconcerting in no small measure because they represent an entirely new perspective. For years, I’ve parsed the differences between my old and new homes. On those rare occasions when I did examine commonalities, I focused on how Havana resembled Manhattan, not the other way around. But my perception has flip flopped this trip. Have I crossed some imaginary frontier? Is this what happens when birth home cedes incrementally, but irreversibly to new home? Have I gone native?

Looking back, I realize it started as soon as I deplaned in Miami (see note 1). Approaching the escalator to baggage claim and customs, I noticed a white haired woman – old, but in no way frail – hesitating at the edge of the moving stairway.

“Would you like some help?” I asked her in Spanish. She took my arm gratefully and we maneuvered down towards customs together.

“I’m missing a contact lens. It’s hard to navigate the escalator,” she explained though I didn’t ask. Thinking about it now, it seems more likely that she had never before been on a moving staircase – you can count the escalators in Havana on one hand. Besides, she was from Varadero.

Mirta told me she was visiting her son who had left Cuba a dozen years ago. It was her first time in Miami. I told her I’ve lived in Cuba for 9 years, though she didn’t ask.

“I’ve lived there for 74,” she responded proudly.

Once we got shuttled to the customs green line (see note 2), Mirta explained that she had to call her son and tell him where she was.

“He’s too tacaño to park and come find me,” she said touching the point of her elbow – the Cuban symbol for cheap.

I liked Mirta’s spunk (see note 3) and was kind of appalled at her inconsiderate son, but I didn’t have a cell phone. Less than 30 minutes on US soil and already I was a stranger in a strange land. Even so, I couldn’t just ditch Mirta in the middle of MIA like a Cubana would her brand new husband she’d used to emigrate. I felt an obligation to ‘resolver’ the situation.

I spied a guy with a phone hooked to his belt and asked if he would lend it to us for a quick local call. He apologized saying his phone was broken. The second guy I approached was totally embarrassed, explaining that he had no money on his. Strike one and two a lo Cubano: cell phone as fashion accessory and no cash in the account. Luckily, the next guy not only had a phone and spoke Spanish, but was an MIA employee and had a soft spot for little old ladies. Mirta went from my care to his, but not before planting a farewell kiss on my cheek.

Mirta was lovely and I enjoy making deposits in my travel karma account, but I shrugged off the episode: it was Miami after all, with Cubans acting like Cubans down to non-functioning phones. But New York looking like the other side of the Straits gave me pause. And it’s not because Havana is evolving, my friends. Rather, I was seeing that shit happens, things break down, and systems fail, even in all mighty Manhattan.
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It had been a long night, but I had places to be. I rolled off my friend’s couch, inhaled some good, strong coffee and hustled off to the PATH train. When I got there, all the MetroCard machines were broken. And there was no attendant in the booth. Hola? Is this Havana? I braced my arms on either side of the turnstile and prepared to hop. It’s not my fault I can’t pay, I figured in that particularly Cuban way.

“The cameras will catch you,” a woman behind me said. “Allow me.” And with one fluid motion, she swiped her card through my turnstile.

I ran to catch the train, ‘thank you!’ streaming down the corridor like a boat’s wake.

As my train shuttled past chop shops and strip clubs, I thought about how weird it was for something as necessary as ticket machines to be broken here. Weirder still was a stranger coughing up a couple of bucks to bail me out.

When I got to Newark, I had time for a bite before my next train. Eating: it’s an all-consuming pursuit of mine, especially since many of my favorite foods are as rare in Cuba as multi-tasking and fidelity. When stateside I’m a junky for Thai food, sushi, tofu, cheese of all types, bagels, pizza worthy of the name, mussels, crème brûlée, asparagus, artichokes, and something known in these parts as an almond horn.

Saliva pooled on my tongue as I approached the case packed with Black & Whites, croissants, crullers, and turnovers. There were macaroons, brownies, blondies, carrot cake, cheese cake and muffins. Danish jammed against bagels, while the bialys yearned to be noticed. But nary an almond horn in sight. Mysterious absence of normal foodstuffs: this felt familiar.

As I tried to contain my disappointment and choose from the (too) many choices, an announcement boomed throughout the station. ATTENTION PASSENGERS: DUE TO A POWER OUTAGE, THERE WILL BE NO TRAINS RUNNING UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

A blackout? Of indeterminate duration? Here? The similarities were getting increasingly eerie – and frequent. Later that day, choosing something simple off the diner menu (faced with too many choices again), the gum snapping waiter informed me they’d run out of that dish. This is de rigueur in Havana where you eschew the menu entirely, instead cutting to the chase by inquiring, ‘what’s available?’ But here, in the land of plenty? Things run out? Since when?

Then there’s the ban on incandescent light bulbs. From the “news” coverage I’ve been able to stomach, I gather this is chapping a helluva lot of asses around here. Seems the USA is compelling people (sort of, in a way, only those willing) to swap out energy-draining incandescent bulbs for more efficient compact models. In Cuba, we did this in 2006 (“Year of the Energy Revolution”), when brigades of young folks across the island went door-to-door removing incandescent bulbs and replacing each and every one with the energy efficient curlicues (note 4).

And the potholes. I can’t remember a time when there were so many giant holes pocking New York City’s streets. Everyone is blaming it on the bad winter, but these craters are Diez de Octubre worthy, forcing drivers to swerve and veer in an effort to avoid them, exactly as we do in Havana. On some NY roads, there’s no avoiding them, they all bleed together to form one giant hueco. Is this all the fault of a harsher than usual winter? Regardless, invoking something as nebulous as the weather to justify the crumbling streets seems so….Cuban.

It’s sad – I don’t want my hometown to fall apart – but at the same time, it’s reassuring in a way. Maybe we’re all in the same hand basket, headed hell-ward, no matter if the point of departure is Santos Suarez or SoHo. Or maybe it’s simply that I’ve crossed that imaginary frontier, where my ‘otherness’ is finding its (dis)equilibrium between here and there. Either way, NY no longer feels like home.

Notes
1. As a journalist, I’m legally permitted by the US government to travel to Cuba on the 45-minute, $400 charter flights between Miami and Havana.
2. As we all know: green means go. Once I ended up on the evil red line where a buxom agent threatened to liberate me from my 5 cent cigars. The yellow line is only marginally better (and perhaps worse for all its ambiguity).
3. Dedicated HIH readers know my fondness for viejitas.
4. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I refused to swap out our bedroom light (no way I’m fucking to fluorescents) and snuck in some incandescents in my suitcase.

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5 Bodegas & 8 Cafeterias Later…I’m Worried

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I recently shared with readers my top five reasons for the frayed Cuban psyche circa February 1, 2010. To recap, this psychic static is being caused by (in no particular order):

– the embargo
– bureaucracy
– economic hardship
– housing
– exhaustion

The domestic economy and crushing bureaucracy is a double whammy that’s hitting home, every Cuban home, including mine, and I’m worried.

The problem? Apparently, distribution of cigars for domestic consumption is in some kind of trouble. What kind of trouble, I can’t be sure, but that’s what the last bodeguero I talked to posited. How deep that trouble is, I can only guess and gossip (the technique used 24/7/365 by 11 million Cubans trying to figure out everything from when/if the ration book will be cut to the whereabouts of a beloved film star). But whatever the reason, it doesn’t look good for your cigar smoking Havana correspondent: after hoofing between five bodegas and eight cafeterias (see note 1) to procure the five cent cheroots I’ve been smoking for the past eight years – nada.

I’m getting a little desperate.

One of my last hopes is the funeral parlor. Every Cuban funeral parlor has a cafeteria attached where, heretofore without fail, I’ve been able to buy cigars from the upbeat (surprisingly) and underpaid (not surprisingly) staff. Getting my fix from the folks babysitting stiffs and their loved ones is only a little morbid when measured against my cigar-less disposition. Death is one thing, murder quite another.

If the funeral parlor doesn’t bear fruit, I’m afraid I’ll have to resort to my back channels (see note 2). Thankfully, since arriving those many years ago, I’ve opened several such channels. But these things take time – it’s not like picking up the phone and ordering a pizza/burrito/pad thai like where you are – and my stores are running dangerously low. True, my family and friends are always looking out for me, flipping me quite good cigars de vez en cuando, but I can’t count on ‘every once in a while’ when my stores are running dangerously low. Have I mentioned my stores, those that currently run dangerously low?

Of course, I could, in theory, resolve my stogie problems in hard currency – the dreaded CUC which circulates alongside the weak-like-an-ugly-man’s-chin Cuban peso. Unfortunately, our family economy won’t support another hard currency habit, I’m afraid (see note 3). Besides, I find the five cent cigars just as smokeable as their brand name counterparts, plus I appreciate the low level commitment of these ‘dirt sticks’ – 25 minutes and out. To be honest, I don’t like Cohibas much (see note 4). I mean, when they come my way, I’m grateful and enjoy their long, spicy smoke, but it’s not my famous cigar of choice (see note 5). In short, the time and money commitment required by really good Cuban cigars – what most people think of when someone says ‘Cuban cigars’ – isn’t practical for the modern Habanera like myself.

My bodeguero tells me he doesn’t know what’s up with February’s cigar delivery. Like so much here in Havana, it’s making me sweat.

Notes

1. The bodega is where all Cuban families (at the time of writing!) receive their monthly food and staples rations. It is also where you (yes you!) can buy 100% black tobacco Cuban cigarettes and tasty, smokeable Cuban cigars for $1 per 20, plus rot gut rum sold by the liter (bring your own empty for this service). Whatever gets you through the night and all that!

2. If I or you ever think, ‘she’s not THAT cubanizada,’ dig the subtext here (which is pretty much the Cuban economy in a nutshell): ‘state drops the ball on X good/service forcing otherwise upstanding citizen to resort to the black market’ (or as we sometimes say here: the ‘informal economy’ which is a wonderful euphemism).

3. My husband has a $2.50 cigarette habit. There’s no way I could tack on another $5 or so dollars a day.

4. The Robusto hoarded away in my drawer-cum-humidor that my father-in-law recently gifted me notwithstanding.

5. For those wondering how to make my day, do it with a Romeo y Julieta Churchill (or Monte Cristo #2).

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