Category Archives: cuban cooking

Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.

Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).

Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.

And Cubans did.

They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…

Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.

The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.

But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.

Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.

It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.

And we’re feeling it.

There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…

This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?

‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’

The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.

Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.

Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.

Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.

We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.

Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Calling the Cuban Fashion Police, Urgente!

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Along with the fidelity conundrum, questionable Cuban fashion has proven rich and popular fodder at Here is Havana. Lamentably, the fury of dubious style has only quickened with new access to knock-offs, bling, and cheese funneled from places like Hollywood and Hialeah. And don’t even get me started on the mania for saline/silicone tits/ass that everyone is chasing here…(see note 1).

But what’s piquing my interest lately is the non-surgical – namely bad haircuts, tacky accessories, and unsuitable footwear and clothing. Part of the problem, explains my 24-year old friend Omar, is that Cuban “fashion” appropriates, rather than innovates.

“There are no personajes,” he says. “We’re not used to creating our own style or seeing anything unique. I mean, people look at me funny when I wear my red pants. Red pants! The other day, I was out with my friend Rodolfo who had on a kilt – an authentic Scottish kilt (see note 2). Imagine the shit he took! Everyone was staring and pointing at him when a guy walked by and said: ‘you’re wearing a salla!’ Then he looked Rodolfo square in the eye and said: ‘but, brother, you’re in talla.” (You’re in a skirt, but man, you’re rockin’ it!). Needless to say, Skirt Boy is the exception to the rule.

But as original as this may seem here, even this is appropriated (and dated – Angus Young, anyone?) One factor, certainly, is the unquestioning, indiscriminate glamour many Cubans ascribe to anything foreign. For example, a compliment like ‘Nice necklace/shoes/dress’ is invariably answered with: ‘es desde a fuera’ (it comes from abroad) – as if this were explanation enough for its quality or style (see note 3).

If you’ve been to Cuba, you’ve surely marveled/recoiled at some of the national fashion. Skin tight jeans bedazzled with Playboy bunnies; spinning $ and pot leaf belt buckles as big as my hand; and couples in matchy-matchy outfits are de rigueur, as are back fat, camel toes, and muffin tops (what I term ‘congris belly’). More than passing trends, these unfortunate looks hang around here like scabies on a hippy. I’m afraid these may never go out of style and I wonder about the up and coming looks Cubans are sporting. Are they too, destined to become part of the uniform?

(A brief caveat: the last time I wrote on this topic, some readers accused me of being harsh and judgmental. I get that much of the clothing and accessories people wear here is directly related to economic possibilities, but there is no excuse for bad taste – even class or wealth. Furthermore, once you see a chick in Lucite heels trying to negotiate the white sands of Playa Santa María, clutching her macho to remain upright, I think you’d agree. If not, you’ll probably not cotton to this post much…)

Fake Hair – Remember when I wrote about Cubans taking the disposable part out of the disposable diaper equation? This behavior is a result of wanting the new thing (i.e. disposable rather than cloth diapers) but not having the money or access for the upkeep). Well imagine a ‘fall’ of synthetic hair a decade beyond its expiration date and you get an idea of some of the nasty rat’s nests women attach to their real hair here. No matter if it’s color correct or not, although to their credit, muchachas and matrons who favor fake hair generally try to match it as closely to their natural color as possible. Recently I snapped a photo of a mom attending her daughter’s graduation – a big, dress up kind of day, as you may imagine – with one of these hair pieces. In this case it was a swirl rather than a fall, but I’m fairly certain this was simply the same dog with new fleas: an old hair piece cut and fixed up one last time before it’s relegated to wherever synthetic, flammable accessories go to die.

Personally I’m not too surprised by this fake hair folly: after all, the mullet can still be seen here. Very unfortunate indeed. Which brings us to the next fashion foible:

Bad Hair – There has been a pandemic of bad hair around here as of late, with some styles taking the offense to new heights – both literally and figuratively. Here I’m talking about the yonki. Like me, you may be tempted to pronounce this like those tasty little potato dumplings from Italy, but do so and you’ve pooched any chance of passing for a Cuban: in these parts this hair style is actually pronounced like a strung out heroin addict. Intrigued simply for its rabid popularity, I started investigating why Cuban youth are raging for MC Hammer-era fades known as ‘junkies’ when I discovered the term actually comes from the regguetón star El Yonki.

These hairdos are, quite simply, ridiculous – particularly the 3” high version. Just as popular (and ridiculous if you ask me and if you’re still reading, I assume you do) are the ‘faux hawks’ kids are favoring these days. Guys: do you not have the cojones for a real mohawk? Now that school’s out, you have no excuse (see note 4).

Absurd Footwear – I have some basic rules about shoes. #1: If they’re broken in and still hurt when you walk, they’re defeating the purpose. #2: Ditto if you’re unable to walk in your shoes or they’re inappropriate for the context (eg stilettos on cobblestone streets/in church; come-fuck-me shoes on sand). These rules conform in some way or another to my cardinal rule for fashion, friends, and lovers: form follows function. So you won’t be surprised to learn that I frown upon Uggs worn with Daisy Dukes – something that is also catching on here, though the boots are knock off pleather (that’s Conner-speak for plastic leather) numbers made by Chinese child labor.

Then there are knee-high Converse sneakers and these weird bondage/Xena Warrior Princess-type sandals with leather ankle cuffs. Not only are these fashions entirely too hot for a Havana summer, they’re fugly (more Conner-speak meaning fuckin’ ugly). To be fair, visitors tell me the same thing when I wear jeans (the hot part, not the fugly part). While researching this post, my fashion consultant, who is here on a long overdue visit (for familial, not fashion reasons), assured me that most of these trends, plus scoop belly overalls – perfect for flaunting that congris paunch! – and bubble dresses (known as bombaches) are still in style only in the Mississippi backwoods and Kansas trailer parks.
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That’s the bad news. The good news is Cubanas work these lamentable trends more beautifully than anyone else. Cuba remains a country of gorgeousness any way you cut it, no matter the cut of your jib.

Notes
1. A top plastic surgeon here assures me Cuban men are just as amped to go under the knife as their cubana counterparts. As you may imagine, the men go in for love handle removal and chest/muscle amplification. I guess good old fashioned exercise is just too taxing?

2. Rodolfo was wearing underwear; I confirmed, so not 100% authentic.

3. Another common response to such a comment is: ‘it’s yours,’ followed by the person taking it off and handing it to you or says ‘borrow it whenever you like.’

4. Cuban kids from kindergarten through high school wear uniforms and have to conform to hair regulations as well – although they’ve been relaxed a little bit as of late, wild hair is still cause for demerits in many schools.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

The Cuban Food Question

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Not questionable Cuban food, mind you, but questions about Cuban food which continue to dog me, even after 10 years here, like: why are there no croutons? Or guacamole? And why don’t Cubans cook with coconut (Baracoa excepted)? Or bacon? I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t enough cocos and pigs to go around. To be fair, bacon is making inroads (see note 1) and I’ve seen a couple of coconut dishes here in Havana, but a tasty use for stale bread and old avocados?! You’d think the frugal out of necessity and habit Cubans, people who always use a tea bag twice and for whom disposable diaper is an oxymoron would be all over these past expiration date preparations. But no.

As devoted readers of this blog well know, I’m preoccupied with food, maybe disproportionately so, but that’s what happens when your formative years are spent in a food insecure home (see note 2). Whether that’s the reason my mom and siblings are such avid, fantastic cooks, I can’t say, but it rubbed off on me. This devotion to inventive, well prepared food coupled with the hundreds of restaurants, bistros, cafés, buffets, and drive-ins (Hawaiian kine) I’ve had to review for guidebooks makes me an expert of sorts (the bad, overly critical kind perhaps, but hey, someone has to steer you clear of shitty food in your travels).

Not surprisingly, I’m both excited and wary about the explosion of new restaurants in Havana. Excited because the quality and diversity of menus are improving – even in state restaurants which seem to be upping their game in the face of stiffer competition. Wary because I know how horrifyingly crappy Cuban food can be and the tricks used to try and cover the fact. At the same time, I’m concerned for my fellow travelers since everyone is writing about these new eateries, including amateurs and hacks who are dangerously unqualified – either due to a lack of regard for good food in general or ignorance of Cuban cooking and context specifically. These poseurs shall remain nameless, (that would be tacky), but their “work” on the topic has motivated me to help out with some observations about eating in my fair city.

All the examples below are from new paladares which are currently or soon will be listed in my app Havana Good Time.

An Indian restaurant sans raita – So Cuba has its first “Indian” restaurant (note quotation marks people – punctuation has a function!). The space is quite lovely and the staff is attentive, but the food? Like the guy I lost my virginity to, being the first is not enough to win me over. I know, I know, I should be thankful that we even have an “Indian” restaurant here (see note 3), but you know what? I cook better Indian food and mine is accompanied by the requisite raita. For those not familiar with Indian cuisine, this traditional sauce is used to cut the spiciness of dishes while adding a dynamic flavor layer to the palate. And before you jump down my throat about the unavailability of certain ingredients here in Cuba: raita is yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic – three items that rarely go missing here in Havana.

“Vegetarian” spring rolls – It’s really too bad that the new Vedado paladar serving this toothsome finger food doesn’t heed punctuation as religiously as we do: when I cut into one of these rolls recently, out spilled bok choy, scallions, cabbage, carrots and…ham. When I asked the waitress (nicely, my shoulders unburdened of any NYC or foodie chip) what was in these rolls, she confirmed the presence of the ever-present pork. I pointed out that this could result in some serious problems – not only with vegetarians (see note 4), but also with Jews and Muslims too, who take as much solace as herbivores to see vegetarian selections on the typically pork-laden Cuban menu. When I asked why they call them “vegetarian,” she said with a straight face: ‘because there are lots of vegetables in there.’ 

Deep fried olives are considered nouvelle cuisine – I don’t know what was more shocking: seeing something besides Gouda cubes and croquettes as hors d’oeuvres or the realization that they had actually deep fried olives to serve to a group of foreign VIPs. While far from heart healthy, I have to admit these were disconcertingly tasty, which can be said for almost anything except the deep fried cucumbers I had last week. Both of these examples, by the way, hail from Habana Vieja, part of Eusebio Leal’s wickedly clever fiefdom (which is usually head and shoulders above regular state enterprises). Alas, sophistication is not an overly common Cuban trait, as evidenced by…

Oil & vinegar, the one and only dressing – Sure, you might get a nice honey Dijon in someone’s home, but in a high end paladar? Not likely, where the same tired oil-vinegar- salt trio prevails (lucky you if that exotic spice we call black pepper is available!).  A few places are starting to provide balsamic and olive oil, considering this the height of haute, showing how far we are from raspberry vinaigrettes or tahini-lemon dressing. Granted, raspberry vinegar and sesame paste are in short supply here, but honey, Dijon, blue cheese, anchovies, capers, soy sauce and many other ingredients for inventive dressings are available sin problema.  But this lack of sophistication is even more blatant in the place with…

Busty waitresses in low-cut blouses and Daisy Dukes – I don’t care how hot you are (or think you are or your manager thinks you are): I don’t want my steak served with more flesh in my face than Copacabana sees in summertime. In a word: inappropriate! Especially at this expensive high-end restaurant featured recently in several glossy magazines (which made a glaring omission of the “uniforms;” unsurprisingly, all the articles were written by men). Havana Hooters anyone?

The $4 fruit shake – Argue with me all you want (welcome to the club!), but this is simply wrong in our context and distorts the local economy like the thousands of bright-eyed NGO workers who rush into post-disaster Haiti or Indonesia and pay triple the going price for bananas, potable water, taxis, whatever. To all the new places offering the four dollar shakes and similar: consider yourself boycotted on GPs.

Musing about all this leads me to believe the absence of croutons, guacamole, and coconut-based dishes is due to lack of knowledge, experience, creativity, motivation, or a combination thereof.

What do you think readers? Any surprising omissions in your Cuban culinary travels?

Notes

1. I predict crispy bacon (not the flaccid, fatty crap at hotel buffet troughs) will explode in popularity as US visitors continue to pour in and restaurateurs realize the egg/bacon/toast triumvirate is as American as inequity.

2. Mom was a single mother of four which made her, out of necessity and habit, a creative, but stretched cook (and very Cuba in her way which is a big factor as to why I’ve been able to survive/thrive in the peculiar conditions on this side of the Straits. Epigenetics might have something to do with it too). We all remember with a shudder living on oatmeal for two weeks solid and the fight over who got more noodles. This fracas is still dragged out to this day – but in the best, sibling rivalry type of way now that our oatmeal and noodle days are behind us.

3. In the interest of full disclosure: everyone I’ve talked to who has eaten there – visitor and Cuban alike – was very impressed with the place which means one of two things: my standards are too high or theirs are too low.

4. I have seen a strict vegetarian take a bite into an egg roll he was told was 100% veggies and the resulting fisticuffs – never underestimate the strength and rage of a pissed off vegetarian!

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Filed under cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Travel to Cuba

Cuba Contradictory

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]While other bloggers are making their end-of-year lists, I’m just waiting for this year to end. Loss and sorrow is what 2011 has meant for me and while a turn of the calendar page won’t cure what ails me, you, or the world, it can provide a dose of hope – false and fleeting as it may be – to help us keep on stepping. Like a car with an empty gas tank, the warning light red and taunting, we know we’re running on fumes, but moving forward nonetheless; ‘bound to cover just a little more ground,’ as the song goes.

Havana circa December 2011 feels similar: we may be running on fumes, but at least we’re still running.

But that’s today. Other days, Havana hops with energy and enthusiasm and drive, where the theme song is instead ‘How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more’ – more millennial and hip, more sophisticated and noteworthy. This fuel injection comes from new economic regulations permitting private businesses, the buying and selling of cars and homes, and relaxed travel rules by Obama for Cubans in the USA wanting to visit family on the island (see note 1).

So how Havana feels largely depends on the day you measure her. And your outlook, what you see and experience, and who you talk to. Just like anywhere else, I suppose (if you’re paying close enough attention), except this place is like nowhere else. The contradictions are starker, more frequent, funnier.

Here are some that have caught my attention recently:

The Limousine/Ox-Drawn Cart

When Cubans of a certain means and bent get married, the bride and groom tour around town in a convertible festooned with satin bows, the novia perched atop the back seat waving to passersby while the driver lays on the horn (some honk out the wedding march, others the Godfather theme). But a few days ago, I crossed paths with the newest fad of the nouveau riche: the black tinted stretch limo (there’s only one) rented from Rex Autos covered in the same satin bows. There was no horn honking, however, and no visible bride – defeating entirely the purpose of showing off to plebes and passersby. I guess the thrill of a limo ride is reward enough for some and it did turn heads, including mine.

A short time later, I waited as two oxen were maneuvered with coos and stick by their expert handler. They carted behind them the water tank (known as the pipa in these parts), that makes the rounds of neighborhoods without municipal water. The pipa is the savior of all those homes and families which only have water un día sí, un día no (or even more infrequently).

Stretch limos and oxen carts; conspicuous consumption and water shortages: Es Cuba, my friends.

Penthouse Too Big/House Too Small

Estrella lives in a propiedad horizontal – a floor-through apartment. And it’s a penthouse no less. These huge, luxurious flats are found throughout Vedado high-rises and are more reminiscent of Manhattan than Havana. They usually feature phenomenal city and sea views but are also a pain in the ass – hard to clean and maintain, they’re also a real liability during hurricanes when their height, exposure, and plate glass windows put them in direct path and danger of the elements. For these reasons, Estrella is looking to permutar her penthouse for something closer to the ground, a more manageable home in short.

Contrast this with my friend Gloria – 68 and a spitfire who has dedicated her life’s work to helping the revolution work, she shares a bedroom with her 6-year old grandson and 10-year old granddaughter. If you know Cuba and the housing crisis we’re in, you know multi-generational sleeping arrangements are common. Except in Gloria’s case, she not only shares the room with her grandkids, but a double bed with the boy to boot. Sadly, this is also not terribly uncommon.

Both Estrella and Gloria are equally revolutionary and politically committed; this too, is Cuba, dear readers.

Chocolate-filled Churros/Pallid Pizza

As the new economic regulations gel, Cubans are figuring ways to live with the Gordian Knot that is capitalism. Folks with money to invest and a head for business are differentiating their products and services – and making money hand over fist as a result. The full-service car wash that everyone is talking about is one example of entrepreneurial pluck and vision, as is the nearby scuba school. Since I have no car and don’t dive, these are simply a curiosity for me. Not so the cafeteria selling chocolate-filled churros; jamaliche that I am, this development piqued my interest. Using a machine imported from Ecuador, these folks crank out a fried, filled sweet treat that drives Cubans gaga – and all for the nice price of 3 pesos (less than 15 cents). Also taking the city by storm is the burger and pizza joint with one of those inflatable playhouses kids love so much in the yard. While the kids jump and play, their parents nosh and drink, dropping a bundle in the process. According to my sources, this cafeteria is netting 1500 pesos a day (around $62 – not bad for a startup here).

Meanwhile, block upon block of new cafeterias sell the same forgettable hot dogs and egg sandwiches, bread spread with cloying mayo or croquettes. Some of these places serve terrible food – tasteless or cold, on day old bread or presented to customers just after the flies have been swatted away. Last week, I stopped by a new cafeteria in my neighborhood selling the smallest, palest, saddest pizza I’ve ever seen. With cheese congealing (despite being placed beneath an office lamp), the pathetic pizza sold at Rapidos around town look delectable in comparison. No wonder the government estimates 80% of these new businesses will fail within a year.

The contradictions abound caballeros. Every human and society has them. But we’ve recently had many complexities introduced into our reality here on the island which are deepening these contradictions. It’s a confusing time – anxiety-ridden once you scratch the surface – but it seems these complexities have also sparked a new line of critical thinking and reflection.

Over several visits with different friends and families over the past week, discussions have turned on the theory and opinion that what we’re experiencing today can largely be chalked up to the Special Period – that time in the 90s when the Cuban economy crashed and burned, threatening to take the Revolution with it. So that wouldn’t come to pass, people tightened their belts, took a hold of their bootstraps, and sallied forth. But at a cost. These conversations didn’t focus on what the new economy is or isn’t doing for our present, but rather the hard times of the past and how they eroded values, placed the pursuit of things over relationships, and planted the seeds of individual survival over the collective.

“We used to live here so naturally.”

“People changed overnight.”

“It was 180° turn, fast and dizzying.”

These are some of the comments made to me recently about those trying years, but in relation to our current situation. Interesting food for thought and worth recalling, 20 years hence, as we contemplate the changes in Cuba circa 2011.

Notes

1. You should see what folks are bringing in from abroad to start their families’ businesses here – everything from car parts and coolers to snorkel masks and jungle gyms. Permissions for Cuban families from the USA to travel here is being threatened by political (but powerful, ojo) dinosaurs in Congress. Although it seems Obama isn’t going to let this happen, I encourage all Here is Havana readers to keep the pressure on to lift both the travel ban and the blockade.

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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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Cuba: Independent Republic of Los Sabelotodo

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Last night in a fit of exasperation my husband chuffed: ‘yeah, ok. Whatever you say sabe lo todo.’ A Cuban labeling someone as a know-it-all is ironic, not to mention a clear cut case of the pot calling the kettle black. In this instance, applying the sabe lo todo label was especially illustrative since a) my significant other is a shameless (and sometimes tiresome, truth be told) know-it-all and b) he was telling me where to pitch what stories – in essence, telling me how to do my job. He’s annoyingly right most of the time, but this wasn’t one of them.

After nine years of marriage, this isn’t my first experience with him waxing expert on themes about which he’s largely clueless. In the US, we call this talking out your ass. The most hilarious (or heinous, depending on your POV) of his sabe-lo-todo/ass talking was after I’d had an explosive multiple orgasm. As I lay there in that delicious free floating state of petit morte, he came back for more, making a beeline for my clitoris. When I begged him to stop, explaining it was painful like when someone tickle tortures you, he actually said: ‘No! This is the best part!’ A man professing to know how a clitoris feels post-orgasm: this is how deep Cuban sabe lo todo runs.

If you know Cubans, you know people like this. Alternatively, if you’ve been to Cuba, you’ve likely met the street sweeper (or taxi driver or bartender) who knows more than a foreign neurosurgeon. These folks will tell you the best way to prepare lobster even if they’ve only tasted one in their life or expound on the safety of New York City streets though they’ve never been on a plane.

Let me be clear: not all Cubans suffer from this affliction and it definitely strikes men more often and acutely than women. Male vegetable sellers, for instance, are notorious know-it-alls, forever proclaiming their flaccid or small, close-to-rotting or not ripe produce is top quality. I recently let loose on a burly guy selling the typical selection of Havana fruit and veggies (i.e. flaccid, small, and pre- or post-prime) who tried to convince me his bruised, mushy tomatoes were perfect for tonight’s salad.

“Do you cook at home?” I asked him, my smile turning nasty.

“Do you do the shopping for your house?”

“Do you know what I’m buying these tomatoes for?”

“No, no, and no, so shut the fuck up.” That’s what I wanted to say but didn’t. Instead I walked away, costing him a sale, which in this wacky system is of no consequence whatsoever (yet).

Having a touch of the strident, know-it-all myself (when I was 8 my mother told me I was too dogmatic; it goes that far back, runs that deep), I chafe when I come up against it here, I admit. This has forced me to think about the causes of sabe lo todo and taught me to better appreciate the Socratic Method. It has also underscored the importance of being open to learning from all walks of life á la Popular Education.

So why are Cubans such know-it-alls?

First and foremost, Cubans on the whole are ingenious, smart, and educated, so they do know a hell of a lot. Over 50 years of free education (including in remote areas and all post-graduate and advanced studies) means the average Cuban knows more about the history of the Western Hemisphere, for example, than me or you. I’ve been embarrassed more than once by Cubans correcting me about a Civil War battle or US electoral processes. ¡Que pena!

Such erudition may be eroding among the younger generations however, as Cuban education (especially primary and secondary) becomes increasingly mired in resource scarcity, low teacher and student morale, and slackening standards – not unlike what’s happening in public schools up North, I gather. But Cubans 40 and over? Like the IRS, they are all-knowing and spell trouble when they’ve set their sights on you.

Another, more complex reason for the sabe-lo-todo tendency is the success the Cuban Revolution – capital C, capital R – has had sticking it to The Man Uncle Sam. No country so close, so small has ever resisted the US drag towards globalization, neo-liberalism (AKA contemporary colonialism), and all the inequities and contradictions these constructs imply. To say nothing of Cuba’s resounding defeat of US-backed invaders at the Bay of Pigs or the wedge it jammed between the super powers during the Missile Crisis.

Sometimes when I sit back and look at Cuba in the big picture, even I have trouble believing this little country has so consistently and successfully flipped the proverbial bird to the USA. Not since the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 has a small island been such a game changer. Despite all the errors and imperfections of the Cuban system, having such chutzpah and success must affect the collective psyche some how, imprinting a tacit superiority on the hearts and minds of the people.

However, underlying this singular triumph and its attendant feelings of superiority – modest and unconscious as they might be – is, I suspect, a niggling feeling of inferiority. Let’s face it: Cuba is an island, small and isolated, which has never been given its rightful place on the world stage.

Underestimated and undervalued, Cuba’s contributions to the global dialectic in science, medicine, literacy, human rights broadly defined, and disaster prevention are minimized, criticized and questioned – often by people and media unqualified to level such judgments. This has to rankle, contributing to an inferiority complex which, in a textbook example of over compensation, manifests itself as sabe lo todo.

Lastly, many Cubans confuse opinion with fact. A slippery concept, opinion is a confluence of knowledge, experience, emotion, bias, even upbringing and culture. Facts, meanwhile, are evidence-based, provable and documented. Facts can inform opinion, but not the other way around (FoxNews notwithstanding). Presenting opinion as fact is one of the first, most obvious signs that you’re up against a sabe lo todo.

Although I’m often ruffled by this posturing which can feel belittling as it negates my experience and knowledge, Cubans have taught me that no one is all-knowing. Certainly not me. Slowly, this wondrous Havana journey is making me less of a know-it-all and more of a question-it-all.

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