Category Archives: Cuban idiosyncracies

Inside a Cuban Prison

Maybe you read my recent post Inside a Cuban Posada, where I sneak a peek (cockroaches and combs included) into the island’s love hotel business. This post follows in that same vein – providing readers a first-hand, behind the scenes look into things wild and weirdly Cuban – though this one doesn’t contain photos for reasons too obvious to state.

To be clear: I’ve never been arrested, in any country (knock on wood). Rather, pulling back this veil on Cuban jail is possible due to some very unfortunate events that unfolded like this:

My friend – let’s call him ‘Miguelito’ – was hanging out on the Malecón one torpid Thursday night. A fight broke out nearby having nothing to do with, nor involving, Miguelito and his piquete, who were just sharing a bottle of rum on Havana’s seawall. But when the cops arrived to break it up, they detained everyone in the vicinity and patted them down. Miguelito froze like a deer in the proverbial headlights and remained paralyzed while six or so of his friends were searched, each one anxiously, surreptitiously tossing anything incriminating over the wall and into the bay. But not Miguelito. The police found a blister of Ritalin in one pocket and $7CUC in the other. Ritalin, known as ‘titi’ among the Cuban pill popping crowd, is produced domestically and taken by prescription, but also recreationally. Maybe it’s a popular rave/party drug were you live too. I wouldn’t know. I left the States even before the Special K craze and the strongest pills I take are ibuprofen. Anyway: major problem for Miguelito.

He was taken to the police station in Havana Vieja for booking. Word hit the street the next day. His girlfriend – let’s call her ‘Esther’ – and those in his inner circle tried to keep his imprisonment on the Q.T., but Miguelito is a super social guy, with lots of friends of different ages, from different neighborhoods. And besides, this type of information – Miguelito’s in jail! – fuels Cubans’ vice for gossip and drama. Miguelito is a close friend of mine and I bristle at random people hitting me up for the skinny. They don’t care how Miguelito and Esther are doing, they just want a piece of hot gossip. One of Migue’s supposed friends – one of those who was there went it all went down – had the chutzpah to say to me: ‘he’s an idiot. He should have ditched the pills. He had the chance.’ Passing 20-20 hindsight judgement on your buddy who is now sweating his balls off in an overcrowded jail while you’re drinking a Bucanero at noon and sweet-talking a foreigner? Classy, dude. Similar conversations and scenarios unfolded in the ensuing weeks while we collected money to contract a lawyer and tried to keep Esther from falling over a psychological or emotional cliff. Working full-time, navigating the penal and judicial systems, separated suddenly from her partner of four years – she lost weight, grew pale, took up smoking and got increasingly pissed at Miguelito’s so-called friends. ‘Not one of them! Not a single one has called me to ask how he’s doing. Let alone me. The shitheads!’

Esther is one feisty muchacha.

She kept us informed: ‘he was transferred to the Combinado del Este.’ This was bad news. About a 30-minute drive from Habana Vieja, it’s a bitch to get there and is known as the roughest prison around. ‘They cut off all his hair.’ This was expected news, but it was a shock, still. Miguelito had beautiful tresses down to his ass. I used to let out a small squeal every time he came into the café with his hair loose. In this heat, it wasn’t that often that we got to see Miguelito’s mane. Esther fought to keep his hair. ‘It’s totally against regulations,’ they told her. She fought on. They said ‘No’. She kept fighting and they finally relented, bunching it into a ball and shoving it into a plastic bag. When Esther got home, it stank, having been stuffed, damp, into a bag. She untangled it the best she could and saved some for when he’s released. Who knows why, but I would have done the same. The rest she sold – to someone who wanted long hair for their ‘Santería Barbie.’ This is not a Real Barbie, but a doll used in Afro-Cuban religions. They gave her $10CUC. ‘I could have gotten $40 for extensions from my hairdresser if it hadn’t been so tangled and smelly,’ she told me. We learned that Miguelito wouldn’t give up the name of the person who sold him the pills – the guy’s no rat. We also learned that he hadn’t been sentenced yet, but the worst case scenario was eight years. Miguelito won’t last eight days in prison, I thought, my heart dropping. He’s a smart, articulate guy, a nerd who’s prone to wax eloquent about the new Samsung phone and The Big Bang Theory.

About this time, he started showing up in my dreams. Nothing untoward mind you, he just began making cameos with all his hair, in all its glory.

Last week, Esther, another close friend and I had the chance to visit Miguelito. He’s allowed three visitors maximum, every 15 days; names of visitors have to be submitted at least a week before his authorized visiting day. We contracted a rickety Dodge to take us out there for $10CUC (that Barbie money came in handy). We would have to make our own way back. Exiting the tunnel under a summer sherbet sunrise, we followed signs to the beaches – Playas del Este and Varadero. But we weren’t going to the beach. The long, tree-lined drive to the entrance was more like a lead in to a botanical garden or country club than Havana’s notorious hoosegow. But we weren’t going to a garden; we weren’t going to the club. The framboyans were afire with orange blooms and the grass neatly clipped (not surprising giving the surfeit of manual labor on hand). We helped Esther drag out everything she’d brought for Miguelito: his lunch; a small duffel stuffed with razors, soap, a towel, washcloths, and other personal items; a five gallon jug of purified water; and a giant white sack in which Cuba imports rice (from Brazil or Vietnam). Every visitor had a sack like this, cinched with a piece of rope, and crammed with toilet paper, powdered fruit drink, crackers, cookies, bags of puffed wheat, hot dogs, and lots and lots of cigarettes – a valuable coin in the incarcerated realm. Each pack had to be stripped of its plastic casing, the silver foil removed. Menthol Hollywoods are the most coveted, but there were also Populares, H Upmanns, and Criollos, the uncut black tobacco cigarettes which taste sweet, like cancer candy. People in the breezy waiting room unwrapped cigarette packs furiously as we waited for Miguelito’s name to be called.

The grim looking guy on a raised platform at the front of the room was barking into his microphone. We didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but once in a while he’d shout sternly: ‘sit down! Wait for the name to be called!!’ He wore olive green and owned his authority. ‘MIGUEL ÁLVAREZ!’ We rushed to the platform. He checked our ID cards against Miguelito’s approved visitor list. When he saw my ID, he paused. I held my breath. Everyone said that foreigners can visit prisoners, but like much in Cuba, I wouldn’t believe it until I actually saw it, until it actually happened. ‘When you get to the next checkpoint, tell the officer that Peña Blanca said you can enter. He’s probably never seen one of these ID cards before.’ I exhaled. First hurdle cleared. We waited to pass to the next checkpoint and I looked around at all the women and children – they outnumbered adult male visitors four to one – coming to see their husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, and sons – it dawned on me that this was the first time in 15 years that not one Cuban here cared that I was Yuma. There must have been 150 people waiting for their person’s name to be called and I received not one double take, nary a sidelong glance or raised eyebrow silently saying ‘yuma?! What is she doing here?’ It was a revelation – I’m so used to being a sore thumb, an odd combination of welcomed and singled out, accepted, but different. In short, I’m accustomed to being constantly reminded of my otherness, my non-Cuban-ness. But not here. People couldn’t care less – they had more pressing issues. If only the reality outside these four walls could be as natural and laidback. Oh, the irony.

We passed in groups of 15 to the next checkpoint where all the duffels and sacks, satchels and purses passed through an X-ray machine. We walked through the metal detector to the next checkpoint where each bag, bundle and Tupperware was individually searched. The white rice sacks were opened and their contents inspected. Esther had brought olives, whole wheat crackers, chocolate, cookies and a ton of other stuff which looked more like a Parque Almendares picnic than a prison visit. Once receiving the green light, the sacks were sealed with a bright blue zip tie and stacked behind the inspection counter. The visitor receives a numbered claim tag (a ‘chapita’ in Cuban Spanish) corresponding to their loved one’s sack which they give to the prisoner during the visit, the convict claiming their sack once the truck transports them to the cell blocks.

It was now going on 11am – we’d arrived just shy of eight. Those with experience brought full lunches to share during the visit. There were pork steaks and sweet potato, congris and avocadoes. I watched as guards dug to the bottom of tubs of rice and beans, stabbing to the bottom with a fork, looking for hidden contraband. The avocadoes were cut in half. Afterwards I learn that avocados, bananas, and guava can be injected with a syringe, with what I don’t know. Can you smoke a banana? Snort an avocado? Someone brought a sheet cake, decorated with electric blue icing. Cuban cake can leave a lot to be desired, but this one would be appreciated, horded, traded piece by treacly piece, I was sure. We passed through one last checkpoint where we handed over our ID cards, got a chapita to claim our cards upon leaving and headed to what’s called the ‘sterile area’ to wait for the long walk to the visitors block. The view through the breeze blocks was spectacular, a panacea – rolling green hills and towering palms, flowering trees hosting songbirds who darted in and out of the waiting room. Finally the door was unlocked and we walked about a half kilometer, outside, to pass through two giant steel gates to the visitor room.

The guard barked Miguelito’s name. I didn’t recognize him when he emerged. Shaved close to the skull and without his signature goatee, he looked edgier, angrier, and without his easy smile. He had a dimple on his chin I’d never seen all the years I’d known him. The room had a couple of dozen concrete tables arranged in two rows, with enough bench space for four people. Men had to sit on one side, women on another. It was prohibited to mix genders, so Miguelito and Esther had to reach across the table to hold hands. Everyone was chain smoking – including Esther. She updated him on progress made by the lawyer – none. She updated him on permission for conjugal visits – she was still waiting for the paperwork on her obligatory HIV test. We shared plastic cups of orange soda and crackers smeared with mayonnaise Esther had packed. We couldn’t stretch our legs; the concrete extended from tabletop to floor, to prohibit any footsie or passing items below. We gave Miguelito the books and magazines we’d brought. ‘Conner, this is hell. Every move, every conversation is cause for ribbing and abuse. I told Esther not to bring the pink Tupperware,’ he said motioning to the container with his dessert. ‘I’m going to take a lot of shit for it.’ He was tormented, worried about Esther (‘please don’t smoke, amor. It’s bad for you’), worried about his sentencing, worried about his sanity. He had to fit in enough to not get the beat down, but was terrified of acculturating. ‘I can feel myself changing,’ he told us. ‘Using slang I’ve never used before and swearing like a sailor’ (or a criminal, I thought). He was having problems in his cell block, which housed 50 bunks. His bottom bunk mate wet his bed every night. The other prisoners taunted the guy, and sometimes hit him. Miguelito defended him once – he’s that kind of guy. Then the abusers turned on Miguelito. He put in for a bunk transfer that had yet to come through. He described the bathroom scene – 16 urinals, 16 sinks and a couple of stalls. There was no room to maneuver between them without making physical contact. He applied for a job in the accounting department but was afraid to get it – jail isn’t a good place to be the Smart Guy.

All the prisoners wore grey vests, white t-shirts and grey pants. They were surprisingly fashionable like cargo pants without the pockets, but the vests were fitted, showing off the muscles of some, the sinewy wrinkled arms of the old timers. Miguelito had fast figured out the hierarchy – he’d been inside a little over a month at this point – and had some budding alliances with the over 60 crowd. They had prison cred for time served and were decent at holding up their end of a conversation. Esther and Miguelito talked about his case; me and my other friend fell silent. We wanted to be upbeat. We tried. We successfully stemmed tears. I didn’t mention the collection we took up to defray legal costs – some lawyers, including Miguelito’s, are now private sector workers for hire. I encouraged him to put pen to paper; he had a bookful of experiences now. He told us how he traded two cartons of cigarettes and a bag of crackers for a pair of boots; a pair of socks set him back 13 packs of Hollywood menthol. If socks cost just 13 packs, the boot guy must have been jonesing something fierce.

The guard blew his whistle and started shouting. Visiting hour was over. We hugged hard and promised to come back soon.

Miguelito still shows up in my dreams and the lawyer still hasn’t done shit, but Esther and Miguelito have a conjugal visit in the ‘Pabellón’ next week. We’re sending condoms. And all our good thoughts. Miguelito still hasn’t been sentenced, but we hope he’ll be out soon.

UPDATE #1: I saw Esther last night. She looks skinnier, more stressed, and a bit run down. And she is a beautiful young woman. The update is not good news: the lawyer whom we’d raised funds to contract and which Esther is working her ass off to pay, split the country, taking the money. He had done NOTHING regarding Miguelito’s case: he just strung her along, told her he had done A, B, and C and kept taking money. He had several cases which he was handling and did the same to the rest of his clients. Please, let karma rain down hard on this DB.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track

Trump: The Laughingstock of Cuba

Let’s get this out of the way – US travelers can still come to Cuba. Nothing has changed, despite what that fool-tool of a President (and his minions) want you to believe.

New regulations for travel to Cuba have yet to be written (they’ll be released on September 15) and won’t be actionable until sometime thereafter. Until then, they’re the same Draconian, out-dated travel restrictions as usual. Draconian because even though President Obama relaxed rules for travel to Cuba (a step in the right direction, without a doubt), it’s still the only country where people from the USA are prohibited from traveling freely. For those keeping count, we’re going on 60 years of attempts by Washington to control Cuba and if that’s not the definition of failure (not to mention stupid and a violation of rights), you need a dictionary, a foreign policy course or both. Never mind that all public opinion polls show that a majority in the USA want full, free, and open travel with Cuba. Another detail: Cuba doesn’t prohibit US people from visiting. On the contrary. They love folks from the US here. The restrictions are all on that end.

But here’s the kicker: though nothing has changed, people are already cancelling trips to Cuba. They write me on this blog, my website, Cuba Libro’s website, and Facebook. Tour group operators, independent guides, semester abroad coordinators: they’ve contacted me virtually or in person to lament the cancellations in the wake of Trump’s laughable, but shameful, speech in Miami. So while it’s still status quo as regards traveling here, and will be for the foreseeable future, Trump did do damage – he wound the clock back to the Cold War, reinstating the culture of fear (and dare I say: terror), that then reigned. And fear is a mighty motivator. It makes pussies of the powerful, cows the courageous and intimidates the intrepid. I know. I survived eight long years of George W Bush here, when friends and family were too scared to come. Or too confused – because this is the other card in the stacked deck wielded by anti-Cuban politicians: it takes even specialist lawyers, those with decades of experience interpreting the twists and turns of the embargo, considerable mental gymnastics, and many expensive, billable hours to tease out precisely what’s legal and not, as well as the gaping grey area between. Clearly, some people profit off the politics around Cuba. During his Miami dog-and-pony show, Trump also successfully pissed off Cubans everywhere – including in the swamp state known as Florida.

On the flip side, some US travelers are heading here now, convinced the hammer is about to come down. Literally as I write this, there’s a New Yorker here talking to a Cuban, saying she came to Cuba “before the law changes.” Forget the fact that this isn’t a law. I hear the same thing day in and day out and am truly amazed that so many people are willing to come here in July and August, the absolute worst times to come to this hotter than Hades destination.

Here in Havana, we listened to his speech live, on Cuba Libro’s beloved Sirius radio (though it was also broadcast on Cuban state TV). The dining room was crowded with Cubans who had never heard him before. Nor had I. One of the brilliant things about living in Cuba is the facility the context provides for existing within a bubble, where asshole politicians, Caitlyn Jenner’s ridiculous pronouncements, and the 24-hour fake news cycle is someone else’s problem. Folks are always surprised when they learn I had never heard him before Miami. But if you didn’t have to listen to his bullshit and blather – if you weren’t addicted to Facebook or Twitter or involuntarily subjected to a screen in a bar or airport, would you waste your precious moments on this dying planet listening to that buffoon? Or listening to pundits or talking heads or social media chatter about him? I was quite shocked listening to him ramble on. I was shocked at how infantile he is, how lacking in elegance, not to mention eloquence he is, and how insultingly transparent he is, manipulating facts and history of course, but also his own supporters. They’re as stupid (or opportunistic) as him. It’s hard not to feel just a smidge of schadenfreude for all the racist, misogynist, isolationist white trash who voted him into office and who are getting a wakeup call to just how destructive he is to their interests. Unfortunately, many innocents are also caught in the net of hate, inequity, and cruelty cast wide by the Trump administration.

Cubans are being caught in this net. But Cubans are cockroaches (old news for regular readers). They’ll survive us all. They withstood the Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs. With stomachs empty and vision failing due to lack of nutritious food, they withstood the demise of the USSR. They withstood and reigned triumphant during the Elián crisis. Hurricanes, drought, Zika and dengue, the embargo, two Bushes – they’ve survived it all. And they’ll survive Trump, too. In the meantime, they’re going to hate on him big time (and are losing money because of him, which fuels the cycle of hate and belies his claim that his policies are designed to ‘help the Cuban people.’) As soon as he began rimming the Miami radicals with his smarmy tone, regular Cubans in the street, bars, cafes, and along the Malecón, were making fun of him.

They were laughing at how behind the times and the curve he is, invoking events that happened over half a century ago. ‘Is this guy for real?!’ one Cuban asked aloud during the speech. ‘Dude! Come join us in the 21st century,’ said another. They were laughing at how low class he is. They were laughing at what an inept orator he is. And they were laughing at the shitty musician chosen to play the national anthem. They stopped laughing when they realized the “out of tune” violinist wasn’t going to follow up the US national anthem with the Cuban one. ‘He’s clueless!’ declared a young local. I agreed: no matter where a Cuban resides, they are first and foremost, cubano and loyal to one hymn: theirs. And no one was laughing when they learned from Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez (and my runner-up choice for next Cuban president; my first is Josefina Vidal) that the violinist at Trump’s speech was the son of a killer: his father assassinated Frank País, a young Baptist caught by Batista’s troops in the early days of the revolution and shot dead.

For Cubans, Trump epitomizes bad taste and is devoid of grace. He’s like a bucket of ice water dropped on them after their first-hand experience with Obama. He (and Michelle) charmed the underpants off the place, their visit making history. Trump isn’t making history; he’s making an ass of himself and tarnishing whatever gleam and sparkle remained of the United States. Mulling it over, I think it’s Trump’s shameless douchebag-ery that ruffles Cubans most.

Going with the flow is something Cubans do with aplomb. They also live for the moment – they don’t get hot and bothered about what might happen further down the road. They’re very Zen in this way. They especially don’t get their panties in a twist with political declarations made up north; they’re way over buying into that kind of drama. Once they found out the 5-year multiple entry visas to the USA already granted wouldn’t be revoked, they went back to laughing at Trump, creating hilarious caricatures and tagging walls with graffiti – one, a larger-than-life portrait with the word ‘estúpido’ stenciled beside it, was quickly painted over by authorities. They should have left it if you ask me. And it’s too bad the artists (from a collective known as La Banda) didn’t go with their original design which read ‘singa’o’. Conclusion on this side of the Straits: Trump es un tremendo singa’o! And he’s making a laughing stock of the United States. Quo vadis?!

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

Inside a Cuban Posada

Brothels, bordellos, madams and the prostitution profession in general have long intrigued me. Even prior to writing about Heidi Fleiss (the Hollywood Madam), one of my first paid gigs as a scribe, I was a proponent of legalizing and regulating prostitution. For my money this is the best way to protect the health and safety of the providers and to bring the world’s oldest profession out of the shadows. It can never be eradicated – hooking, transactional sex, play for pay, whatever you call it – and if it can’t be wiped out, wouldn’t it be better for all involved if the violence and drug addiction, unsafe and underage sex, human trafficking and other related dangers could be addressed in a systematic way, applying legal and public health frameworks? I know some countries have taken certain steps towards this with mixed results – legal houses in Amsterdam; Sweden penalizes johns instead of prostitutes – and there are no easy answers. I certainly don’t have any, though I’ve thought about this quite a bit.

Prostitution in Cuba doesn’t interest me all that much. Or rather, sex tourism doesn’t interest me, but Cubans paying for sex does: it flows so freely here, it seems like money poorly (or desperately) spent. Some of this carnal action happens in what are known as ‘posadas,’ where rooms are rented by the hour. These fill a very specific need here since homes are overcrowded, while privacy is a luxury reserved for the very privileged. So it’s not all putas and johns that rent rooms by the hour, but also couples who just need a place to screw. Posadas are easy to identify. You know those little blue symbols on Cuban homes which signify that they rent to foreigners? There’s another, identical sign, but in red, which means the house rents rooms to Cubans only, in pesos cubanos. I’ve always wanted to rent a posada room for an hour or two, just to see what it’s all about until a friend said: ‘are you nuts?! All those rooms have holes for peeping or filming.’ That turned me right off to this new Cuban experience I sought.

Fast forward to last week and where do I find myself? In a posada in Santa Clara. My friend José and I went to the city of Che/city gay to celebrate International Day Against Homo/Transphobia, but we had no accommodation lined up. Our budget was tight, we were tired, and José offered to hunt down a house. He found something affordable, a bit outside the city center, but we had transport. The only catch was we had to be out by 10:30 the next morning – “seems like they’ve got a ‘palo programado’ (a scheduled screw).” I was too exhausted to ask. When we entered the room – no window, no toilet paper, no hot water, one pillow, one towel and an Igloo cooler on the floor filled with ice – I collapsed on the double bed, but sleep was elusive. The stench of cheap air freshener permeated everything – the sheets, my hair, our clothes, even the stale air stank. We slept with the door open to provide a shred of relief from the olfactory assault. Luckily the room faced a brick wall – to keep out prying eyes.

We awoke fairly rejuvenated in spite of it all and I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of the pair who had a standing date each Friday morning (escaping from work and/or spouses with a handy excuse I would have loved to hear but there are some things you just don’t ask). At 10:30am sharp, a cherry red Dodge with blacked out windows rolled into the interior patio and out stepped a bleached blonde temba (a woman of my age more or less) in platform heels and a puss on her face. A lover’s spat, perhaps? Her companion looked more upbeat (don’t they always?!), having already doffed his shirt in the mid-morning heat. We rode away and I was ready to get as far from the stench of chemical flowers as fast as possible. Too bad it still stuck to my skin.

Two days later, we got caught in a mountaintop rainstorm, quickly scrapping the idea of camping. Instead, we headed to the closest big town to look for a room. We rolled in to Cumanayagua at about 9pm, wet and tired after an all-day hike and were directed to a corner on the outskirts of this bustling rural berg. The sign said: Hostal, 24 hrs, AC, hot water TV and DVD. José walked through the big steel sliding door which I’m learning is typical of posadas (so cars can enter and the lovers can rent their room without being seen) to talk to the proprietress. Standing on the sidewalk, the smell of urine stinging my eyes, I heard her ask: “you want the room for the whole night?! It’s $4.” Suddenly I knew what we were dealing with, but I didn’t know what we were in for. We rented the ground-floor room and once again were assaulted by the cloying stench of cheap air freshener. Was there some lucrative business selling this shit by the gallon to posadas, I wondered?

The bed was flanked by golden gilded mirrors and even tackier curtains without a purpose; a TV on a retractable arm like they have in hospitals pointed towards said bed. There was a DVD player with a disc in it. I would have bet my life that it was some kind of B-grade porn; if I had, I would be dead. It was actually 172 minutes of C-grade music videos. While I surveyed our $4 surroundings, I overheard the señora say: “Who knows? Her ID card says it’s her, but I have no idea.” As if I would be in the middle of nowhere passing a fake ID at a flophouse that reeks of faux flowers and piss…

We hung our wet shirts and pants and socks on a clothesline we strung across the room and took a cold beer and cola from the fridge. That’s when I saw the first cockroach skitter along the wall – a Lower East Side-type sucker, the size of a Bic lighter. I decided it was time for a shower. My flip flops firmly on my feet, opting for our soap rather than the complimentary – used – cake on the sink, black hairs and all, I tried scrubbing the road grit and posada perfume from my body. I succeeded in ridding myself of the former, the latter not so much. When the soap slipped from my hand and skidded across the shower floor, it picked up a few black hairs in the process. Before getting into bed, I wondered who would actually use the comb provided for guests – obviously someone had.

Our hostess warned us that we had to be out by 8am (another early morning ‘palo programado’) and we were beat besides. We woke to the familiar smell of piss and air ‘freshener’ and packed quickly. Another cockroach sighting later and we were out of there. But as we did our final check around the room, the fan mixed with a breeze and flipped up a corner of the sheet, under which was a condom wrapper. At least they’re practicing safe sex, I thought. Ciao Cumanayagua, it’s been real.

I’ve now had my Cuban posada experience – twice in five days. Believe me, it was plenty.

_____

I need to add a little postscript to this post which has nothing to do with posadas but everything to do with how Cuba continues to puzzle. Besides, I need to exorcise the images swimming around in my head. In the five days we were tooling around the Escambray, I learned of a disturbing fact of local life. My friend José told me of a fellow he knows in the tiny town of Cordobonal who is clinically insane. And his family, rather than commit him, keeps him in a cage. I asked my friend not to share information like this with me; as a writer, I was visualizing his whole miserable existence (and that of his family). Later that night, sitting with José’s family in a similarly tiny town, I learned that his cousin’s wife has a nephew who went insane at the age of 14. For the past 17 years, this young man has been living in a cage as well. I think the worst part of it all is that my friend’s cousin was asked to build that cage – and he did. If I’m having trouble with the image of people living in cages, what about the person who builds them? I shudder to think. What makes it even more difficult for me to process is that Cuba has a national network of psychiatric hospitals – all free. Sure, conditions can be pretty scary, the food is scarce and terrible but is this worse than spending your life in a cage? I was talking to another friend about this yesterday and he told me about another one in the center of Vedado that he can see clearly from his balcony. And last night, I was watching Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (a documentary that has gone viral here) and I was left positively speechless when I learned that L Ron Hubbard kidnapped his young daughter as revenge against his wife in the 1950s, took her to Cuba and left her with a mentally disabled Cuban woman – who kept the young Hubbard girl in a cage. WTF people?! This boggles my mind, but it’s got me thinking I should make my own documentary…

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

Carnal Delights in Cuba

A friend celebrated his 40th birthday a few days ago and invited his closest amigos for a party – one of those blow outs with a guy posted at the door to keep out crashers, a DJ spinning cool sets, and the liquor flowing ‘a full’ as we say. The type of party Cubans call ‘tirando la casa por la ventana.’ When I asked another friend, formally invited, if he was going he said: “yeah, I’ll be there. But it’s bound to be a fiesta de chorizo.” It took me a moment to get what he meant – that the male to female ratio at the party was going to be grossly imbalanced, there would be 10 guys for every woman. It would be, in Cuban argot, ‘a sausage party.’

Later that same day, another friend was telling a tale about a recent liaison, saying it was a ‘palo de cebolla.’ For those around the table who didn’t understand, we explained that an ‘onion shag’ is when the girl has a killer body but a face only a mother could love: you lift her dress above her head, tie a knot, and get down to business, her ugly face hidden from sight. Sausage parties and onion lays got me to thinking about Cuban diversions, including sex, and how so many of the terms and phrases involve food. There’s a certain logic going on here since eating and screwing, food and partying share many of the same senses, are sensuous and fulfilling in equal measure (when done/cooked right).

As the wheels turned, I began recalling all sorts of expressions that mix the bedroom and the kitchen. For example, it’s hard to miss the double entendre in Los Van Van’s popular song ‘don’t bother knocking, the black guy is cooking.’ I started picking the brains of friends and away we went. The most obvious is the classic ‘papaya.’ When you’re in Havana and crave this juicy, coral-colored fruit, you best ask your produce purveyor for ‘fruta bomba’ – because here, papaya means pussy. I remember once a group of tourists invited me to eat at La Guarida, Havana’s most famous and in-demand restaurant and laughing out loud as we perused the dessert menu. The chef’s suggestion was ‘papaya pie’ and I explained to the table of yumas (yes, I used to sing for my supper, but no longer) that it was obvious they put it on the menu just to hear foreigners order ‘pussy pie.’

Terms and turns of phrase for the sex act (and fluids), are almost always referring to foodstuffs. Semen is called ‘leche’ (milk) or – as I’ve just learned, writing this post – sometimes as ‘lágrimas de chorizo’ (sausage tears). When you haven’t been laid in a while, you have ‘queso’ (cheese). It’s a veritable charcuterie around here, I tell ya. Talking to my next door neighbor the other day, I learned another relevant sex act phrase when he told me he was going to ‘jamar una heva’ (devour a chick). No matter that he’s married. A quickie, meanwhile, is known as a ‘palo de conejo,’ rabbit being a popular protein in these parts. There are also derogatory terms that I refuse to use including ‘tortillera’ (egg scrambler), loosely translated as ‘dyke.’

When I have questions like these, I go to the experts. In this case, I consulted Alfredo, a street-smart Casanova and all around good guy. Seems Alfredo is a breast man for all the terms he rattled off the top of his head for different kinds of tits (he also provided illustrations): bananas (with nipples pointing skyward); fried eggs (with large aureoles); and orange piths (saggy and sucked nearly dry). He also provided tons of food-related terms for penises: banana dicks curve up, cucumbers are a catch-all phrase for the male member, and my favorite ‘pene de Pelly.’ For those of you who have never gone searching for food here at midnight, been to a baseball game, or ventured to a Ditu, you probably don’t know Pelly, but it’s our Cheese Doodle. Garlic flavored. You can imagine the rest.

I’m sure there are many more; if you have a favorite, please do drop a line – I’m always anxious to broaden my vocabulary. Regular readers of Here is Havana know I’m a huge fan of Cuban slang and sayings (dichos). One of my recent acquisitions makes an apt close to this post: ‘come pan para no comer más pinga.’ This is a handy phrase for whenever a Cuban is being a douchebag – you only have to say ‘come pan;’ they’ll fill in the blank.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Tourism: Killing the Cuban Encanto?

First came the packs of drunken jailbait to the Fábrica de Arte, snapping selfies while the Cuban band played their hearts out.

Then came the frat boys so blasted they lay unconscious in the street and had to be taken to their casa by the police. Only they couldn’t remember where they were staying.

They were followed by the wannabe musician from Ohio (passing himself off as Brazilian) who threw himself to the sidewalk, shrieking like a schoolgirl ‘SOY TURISTA!! SOY AMERICANO!!’ when the Cuban he cheated set upon him.

This is the new normal for tourism in Havana. It ain’t pretty. I figured I’d just wait until it blew over (and it will blow over – the college girls will discover the gorgeous mulatto bailarín is already married; the Yuma who bought a house with his Cuban ‘frens’ will return after a quick trip north to find the locks changed and no legal recourse; and word will get around that there are too frequent shortages here, of beer, water, electricity, English speakers, toilet paper, vegetarian food, whatever). Then something happened which obligates me to write this post.

“Where’s the closest Wifi? We have to connect!”
“There’s a park with Wifi six blocks from here. And they just activated Wifi along the Malecón.”
“What’s the Malecón?”
“…”

These were nice guys, don’t get me wrong. But this is akin to asking: what’s the Louvre? What’s the Coliseum? The Malecón is THE symbol of Havana. This instantly qualified as one of the top 3 most stupid questions I’ve been asked. Plus, it convinced me to try – once again – to do something about the pervasive ignorance about Cuba. I know I’m pissing in the wind here – if I’m lucky, this blog gets 400 views a day and those are mostly choir members: people anxious for on-the-ground information about Cuba, my followers, friends and family. So how do I reach the others? The cruise ship passengers in port for 36 hours and the spring breakers here for a mojito-fueled weekend? What about the 1% who land their private jets at José Martí International Airport and contract a paladar for their exclusive dining pleasure, paying $6000 for the privilege (the equivalent of 20 years salary for my neighbor Mercedes), and then jet off again? Or the family of four “daring” to visit Cuba, trying to keep up with the Joneses?

I’ve written tons about traveling more conscientiously to Cuba. I’m a founding member of RESPECT (Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel) and tell everyone willing to listen about this new consortium. Anyone who asks to buy bottled water at Cuba Libro gets all the potable (boiled) water they can drink, free of charge, and an earful about why we don’t sell bottled water. Four million tourists in 2016, drinking small plastic bottles of water + island ecology = environmental disaster, no matter how you do the math. The same goes for anyone who asks for a straw. We stopped using straws after participating in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup last year when we learned that drinking straws are the #1 plastic product polluting our planet’s oceans.

I’m one of those people who always wants to do more. Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of four. But my time, money and reach are limited. I wish I could have an impact beyond sending these thoughts into the ether and bending everyone’s ear about the evils of (some) tourism. So, until I’m invited to do a TedTalk, here are some of the most egregious and under-reported ways that tourism is affecting us here on the ground:

No Spanish whatsoever: Get a phrase book, an app, an interpreter, whatever works for you, but learn at least a few words of wherever you’re traveling. One everyone needs at the ready here in Cuba is “permiso.” This means ‘excuse me.’ Learn it. Use it. I was at a popular club last week (part of my so-far-not-so-successful 2017 goal to re-establish some work-play balance in my life) and spotted my friends across the crowded dance floor.
“Permiso,” I said, the smile on my face audible.
No response.
“Permiso!” I repeated, louder.
Nothing.
“PERMISO/Excuse me!!”

The dude shifted his weight slightly to the right and I squeezed through. I get that not everyone speaks Spanish, wants to speak Spanish, or has the time, energy or brain cells to learn some local words before traveling to foreign climes. But when you start fucking with our mechanisms and flow, it gets annoying (and inefficient). It’s like the people in New York, my home town, who stand on the left side of escalators or who stop on street corners to look at maps or their smart phones. Permiso isn’t a hard word to learn or pronounce, nor is taking the último, which you should do in each and every line in which you find yourself. El último is the most important concept to learn before traveling here if you don’t want to screw with the local flow.

The classic car cliché – The fury for classic car tours has me irrationally incensed. I say irrational because there are upsides: cars rusting in back lots or abandoned in garages for decades are now up and rolling through the streets; restoring them is providing jobs for many; and the cars’ owners are making a killing taking tourists on hour-long loops around the city. Before I unleash my rant, let me repeat for lazy readers who missed it the first time: I recognize the benefits and I admit my attitude is irrational. Now for the complexities: convertible car tours have become such a trend that cars previously functioning as collective taxis for the local population are being taken out of circulation and their tops shaved off (to the tune of $3000 CUC) to satisfy tourist demand. Whereas these drivers used to hump their ass all day long (or hire someone to do so) collecting 10 peso fare after 10 peso fare (about 35 cents), they now get up to $50 CUC an hour (that’s double the average monthly state salary) taking Tea Party supporters on a Habana Vieja-Plaza de la Revolución-Parque Almendares-Miramar tour. I would love to do a Candid Camera-type maldad where fun- and sun-seeking tourists from Kansas jump into the convertible and instead of traveling around ‘Disneyland Havana,’ they’re taken into the dark, gritty depths of Jesús María, La Timba, Fanguito, Los Pocitos, and Coco Solo, ending up in Mantilla…and left there.

Sadly, whoever is currently chopping a classic car is screwed: word on the street is that the state auto regulatory authority won’t be approving any more post-factory convertible conversions. If true, I predict it’s going to play out like this: car owners unable to procure the proper authorization will operate anyway, illegally. The money is just too tempting and they have to recover their investment after all. When stopped by the cops, they’ll slip 20 CUC in with their license and registration and everyone will drive off happy. Instead of being just another cog in this cliché, I suggest taking a classic Harley-Davidson tour – you’ll get the same 360° views; be closer to the people and scenes you’re photographing; and helping a needier Cuban than the convertible car guys. It’s also much cooler. Two other factors about these cars chap my ass: the environmental damage of all these cars without catalytic converters is incalculable and when they line up on the Avenida del Puerto in the heart of Habana Vieja to await thousands of disembarking cruise ship passengers, it causes nasty traffic snarls, making it even more difficult for regular folk to get to and from home, work, or play.

Pro tip for those on one of these tours: someone, please sit up front! It is local custom for someone to share the front with the driver. Cubans are social like that, plus, you get to observe up close how a pro maneuvers 2 tons of steel , can feast on the dashboard details (I’ll bet you 10CUC the speedometer doesn’t work), and you get the same stellar views. Bonus, insider info will definitely be yours if you share a common language with your driver – whose ear you’ll have for an hour or more. So unless you’re on a honeymoon or something similarly romantic, ride shotgun – even, or especially if, you’re traveling solo.

Your lucha is our gain – There’s other tourism-related stuff annoying me lately: foreigners who refuse to stand in line and pay to jump it; visitors who scam subsidized cultural events here, insisting on paying the local price (almost all venues here have a Cuban and a foreigner price, just like in Hawai’i, the Seychelles and other tourist-dependent islands. Often these same visitors decry the low salaries here, precisely as they undermine them); and of course, sex tourism, prostitution, transactional sex or whatever you want to call it. I was very heartened to learn at the recent Gender Violence, Prostitution, and Sexual Tourism Symposium that Cuba is considering penalizing johns instead of the sex providers a la Sweden.

Because this is a very depressing post and we’re living in very depressing times, I want to end on a positive note. A couple, actually.

First, talking with my friend Ernesto today, he observed that one of the good things about all this tourism – especially from the USA – is that people are seeing Cuba for themselves and learning first-hand that much of what they’ve heard about Cuba – it’s dangerous, a repressive police state, that Cubans are miserable and hate their realities – is bullshit. People drawing their own conclusions from their own experiences is powerful.

Second is the story of Kevin, Bryant, Blake and Jeff (or something like that), four bros from the East Coast who came to Cuba on a quick 5-day whim of a trip. On Day 2, they went out to the Morro-Cabaña and while picking their way along the moss-slickened cliffs, Jeff (or Kevin or Bryant or Blake) slipped and went tumbling into the sea. He surfaced quickly, holding his iPhone above the water as his friends fished him out. They made their way back to their casa in Havana and began hunting for raw rice in which to submerge the iPhone overnight in an effort to salvage it. Night had fallen by this time; they didn’t know where to buy rice and no stores (let alone bodegas) were open regardless. They stopped in a restaurant and in their broken Spanish asked one of the waiters if he’d be willing to sell them some rice. A diner overheard their conversation, rose from the table where he was sharing dinner with his family, took the guys to his home, gave them some rice (refusing payment, of course), and invited them back the next day for some coffee and conversation.

They were thrilled and so was I: here were four dudes whose Cuba trip could have been filled with a classic car tour, mojitos, jineteras on the Malecón and getting nauseous on Cohibas. Instead, they embraced serendipity, solidarity and the spirit of experiential travel. I don’t know if they ever got the iPhone working, but I know they made travel memories that will last their lifetime.

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Havana, We Have a Problem: Stray Cats & Dogs

If you’ve been to Havana, you’ve seen them. The poor bitch in heat lying prostrate on the sidewalk trying – unsuccessfully – to prevent another macho from mounting her. Packs of roving cats scouring garbage night after night. Bony and mange-ridden, Havana’s strays have a hard row to hoe. Here, where food is rarely thrown out and the majority face daily pressures more urgent than a dumped or unwanted animal, street creatures have to be really scrappy to survive. They have to dodge the pet police, avoid getting poisoned (a shockingly, all-too-common practice here; when your dog barks too much or causes too much fuss, your neighbor just might feed her some meat mixed with crushed light bulbs or a fatal dose of BioRat, domestically-produced rat poison), and forage enough food to live another day.

lindapreop

Although Habana Vieja has a program for spaying, neutering, vaccinating and tagging strays, this is not the case throughout the rest of the city. Coincidence that the country’s #1 tourist destination is the only place with a functional animal protection policy? You be the judge. Animal rights activists here are trying to get a protection law considered – to present it to parliament, they have to collect 10,000 signatures from Cuban voters. And they almost made it; more than 8,000 people signed the petition to legislate spaying, neutering and vaccinating strays so they might be adopted. But the initiative went to shit when internal divisions (over money, I’m told, which isn’t at all hard to believe), split activists, leaving the petition en el aire, as we say here. Today, there are at least two groups still actively pushing for legislation: PAC (Protección de Animales de la Ciudad) and CEDA (Cubanos en Defensa de los Animales). There are also foreign associations – from Canada and Belgium for example – which help fund local animal protection efforts and come periodically to spay and neuter strays for free. These initiatives are admirable, but speaking from personal experience, wholly inadequate.

Toby. Linda. Tucho. Yoko. Luther. Belle. All of these cats and dogs are part of our family. Don’t worry. I haven’t turned into some crazy cat/dog lady; I don’t live with all these animals, but rather say ‘our family’ since here in Cuba we still speak more collectively than individually (let’s see how long that lasts; in Havana at least, the “me” mentality is starting to root). And each of these wonderful pets are rescues. At different times, under different circumstances in different parts of the city, they were saved from life on the mean city streets.

tony-and-marylou

Toby wandered into Cuba Libro, dirty and sorry-looking, in 2014, soon after his young owner headed into military service, whereupon he cast Havana’s most beloved terrier mutt into the streets. I’ve got empathy for abandoned dogs, but as my father once wisely observed: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus.’ Besides, I live in a three-flight walk up – hardly ideal for a dog. So Toby lived in Cuba Libro’s garden, eating pizza and spaghetti until one fateful day when a violent tropical storm ripped open the Vedado skies, sending down thunderclaps and lightening, a hard pelting rain, and almonds from considerable height. And then my conscience kicked in: ‘that very cute dog is waiting out this storm alone. I better go check on him.’ When I got the locks off the gate and entered the garden, Toby was in the corner, soaked-to-the-bone and shivering, with a heart-broken look on his face. Did I have a choice? No folks, I did not. I plopped him into my backpack, strapped it to my chest and rode him home on my bike. Every day since, we’ve walked from our apartment to Cuba Libro, where he is more famous than me.

Tucho, salvaje!

Tucho, salvaje!

yoko

Tucho, the dog, like his friend Yoko, the cat (her partner, John, went the way of the actual Lennon, unfortunately), were found dumped in garbage cans, on the verge of starvation before my friends Lis and Alfredo took them in. Luther, meanwhile, was rescued outside the maternity hospital in Marianao. Lis and Alfredo discovered him when they came upon a gaggle of mischievous kids pelting the kitten with pebbles. Following a proper chewing out for their cruel behavior, my friends provided house and home for Luther (named for Dr King, who Cubans revere). This is one superior kitten who scales trees and walls like a superhero, can leap through windows better than a thief, and who already has his very own fan club with a President and card-carrying members, of which I am one.

Local heroes, Liz & Alfredo (and Tucho!)

Local heroes, Liz & Alfredo (and Tucho!)

luther

Belle, a gorgeous mutt with a good dose of German shepherd, was found abandoned in a coop, her fur so infested with chicken lice she couldn’t stand herself. Or even stand. Belle was taken in by my friends at the organic farm Finca Tungasuk where they tried all manner of non-chemical applications to cure her. Seems these were some hyper-resistant bichos: they finally resorted to spraying her with Lo Maté!, Cuban roach and bug killer. This is some strong stuff (manufactured by Cuban convicts, by the way). ‘If this doesn’t kill these lice, nothing will,’ they figured, letting the aerosol fly, taking great care to keep it from her head, mouth, eyes and ears. These are CUBAN bugs, remember. Rather than die, they hightailed it to Belle’s nose where they formed a writhing black mass like something from a sci-fi movie. Grossed out but determined, my friends eventually relieved Belle of her vermin, now contained on her nose, using a small brush. The good news is, today Belle is a beautiful, healthy, and happy farmhouse dog. In fact, she has just given birth to six gorgeous puppies sired by Huracán from the adjoining farm.

belle1

belle2

There’s Belle and then there’s Linda. Similar names, completely different experiences. Linda was found in San Miguel de Padrón at death’s door. This is no Cuban drama-rama or exaggeration: this one-year old mutt with baby doll eyes was lying on the sidewalk literally more skin-stretched-over-bones than dog, unable to lift her head. Seems her owners (strike that: abusers) had kept her on a choke chain so tight, a one inch band around her entire neck was raw and bloodied, with tendons exposed. Meanwhile, the ring on the chain had opened a nickel-sized hole in her throat so any sustenance proffered (she was beyond foraging for herself), went into her mouth and came out the hole.

lindaoperacion2

lindaoperacion

Likely she had only a few days of life left when Alfredo and Lis (the same friends who took in Tucho, Yoko, and Luther) carried her home. What ensued was a modern fairy tale mixed with grisly, gory reality TV – a three hour surgical procedure to close her perforated pharynx (during which she flat lined twice), intravenous antibiotics multiple times a day, changing of bandages, intramuscular vitamin injections, and a special high protein diet, among other measures (yes, she was allowed to sleep in the bed!) to help nurse this helpless animal back to health. It put my friends in the poor house with all the transportation, medication and care required, but you should see this beautiful, grateful pooch just a week after her surgery. Hair growing back, eating like a horse, she’s constantly wagging her tail and setting her soft, gratitude-filled eyes on every human she comes across. And she and Toby have fallen in love. Exactly six days into her post-op recovery, she came into Cuba Libro bundled in a sheet carried by Lis. Toby immediately began licking Linda’s stitches and kissing her nose. He swiftly moved to sniffing her butt and before we could intervene, he mounted her. And she liked it. I swear they were both smiling. We’re now considering the possibility of mating them once she’s fully recovered. After Cuba’s cutest puppies are born, she’s getting spayed and he’s getting neutered.

linda-que-linda

Spaying and neutering: this is the #1 issue any Cuban animal protection campaign should attack head on. Where I come from, responsible pet owners spay and neuter. It’s hard to overstate how vehemently most Cubans reject this basic obligation – to the animals, to their neighbors, their city, and themselves. It’s part ignorance, part machismo (‘you can’t take away his manhood!’ I was told repeatedly when I announced I was going to neuter Toby. ‘I can’t? Watch me,’ I told dissenters). If more Cubans followed this standard practice, we wouldn’t have buried newborn kittens left in a box by the bodega last week.

Don’t like cats +/o dogs? Allergic? No problem. There are other animals left to the streets with alarming regularity – a duck took refuge in Cuba Libro’s garden a few days ago and Shiva, a tortoise, was rescued from a Centro Habana sidewalk by another friend a couple of years back. When she reached to scoop up the animal, she was chastised: ‘don’t touch that! It’s brujería!!’ (tortoises are used in various Afro-Cuban sacrificial ceremonies). She paid them no heed and today, Shiva is as big as a football and an integral part of her family. There are myriad reasons for leaving street animals to fend for themselves towards likely death. But there’s no excuse for putting a pet on the streets (a fairly common practice among Cubans preparing to emigrate) and one very good reason for rescuing them: it’s the right thing to do.

shiva
liz-and-shivas

NB: Friends of Cuba Libro, the 501(c)3 I founded to fund projects of high community impact, is launching an initiative to help activists defray costs of animal rescue and raise funds for a proper animal shelter in Havana. Please drop a line if you’re interested in receiving more information.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

That Time of the Month in Havana (AKA Periodo Especial)

So the KKK deigned us with a visit. Not the white hooded racists, but the Prada-clad Kardashian clan. By all accounts, they hated Havana. They are not alone. Reasons to dislike my adopted city abound – the vicious gossip and hearsay; the transportation troubles; the dearth of nuts, berries, cheese, and fish; the inevitable beer or four added to your tab. But apparently, none of this registered on the limited radar/IQ of these young women who will never garner the respect or notoriety of their step dadmom, Caitlyn Jenner (I bet that puts Kim, Kourtney and Khloe’s La Perla panties in a twist). No, they hated Havana because their escapades in the world’s hottest city went undocumented on Snapchat and Twitter, negating whatever semblance of relevance they’ve ever known.

And in Havana, the Kardashians are irrelevant, something else they bitched about: ‘no one here knows who we are!’, proving once again that as insane as Havana is, it remains one of the world’s last bastions of sanity. What is relevant are the expectations people bring to this very unexpected place. I get it: most folks traveling here have sorely limited knowledge about Cuba. Maybe they know about the Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs or nothing at all. That started changing about two years ago when the likes of Usher and Jagger, Lagerfeld, Lady Gaga, and the real First Lady began stampeding the island like WalMart shoppers on Black Friday. Naturally, these visits made novel TV fodder for channels around the globe.

Meanwhile, Hollywood discovered a tropical playground with high-quality, low-budget talent (Fun Fact: the 12 day shoot for the 8th installment of the Fast & Furious franchise cost Universal $7 million; Cuban friends working on the set report that Vin Diesel is an idiot). Vanity Fair won’t fulfill subscriptions to Cuba (which has my cotton briefs in a twist), but sent Annie Leibovitz down for an exclusive shoot with Rihana where the pop star looks like just another ‘ho from Centro Habana, $2500 come-fuck-me shoes notwithstanding. All of these factors, plus others beyond the purview of this post, create a pseudo-reality of Cuba in the minds of the outside world. The result? Distorted perceptions and false expectations.

Distorted reality was what led me to create Here is Havana seven years ago – to give you the straight dope on what’s really going on in one of the world’s most fascinating cities. So while the Kardashians are whining about their inability to access the Internet (Pro Tip girls: head to the park at 16 & 15 to get all your connectivity woes resolved), I want to talk about real life issues affecting us on the ground: feminine hygiene products.

This is what period products are euphemistically called in the USA, but down here, where menstruation is talked about in mixed company, between and among generations, and at the family dinner table, we’ve no use for euphemism. Cubans – and now me by extension – talk about maxi pads and ‘Tampac’, blood flow and cramps they way you talk about Fair Trade coffee and standard-of-living raises: big issues, but not a shame-inducing big deal. In short, from periods to explosive diarrhea, Cubans have no pena when it comes to bodily functions. I’ve written previously about my admiration for this kind of Cuban straight talk, but given the ‘tourism tsunami’, I think a re-visit is in order, especially what women can expect at that time of the month.

###

When I moved to Havana in 2002, it had been decades since I’d used a maxi pad (also known as a sanitary napkin, which makes it sound like a Purell-infused paper towel found on your airplane or hospital food tray). Until my early 30s, I was a tampon gal all the way and never used anything but Tampax (Fun Fact #2: tampon brand loyalty is one of the all-time fiercest consumer behaviors according to focus groups and surveys; get a girl on to your brand in her first or second cycle and she’ll love ya for life! Or at least through menopause).

I arrived with a jumbo box of tampons, but was rudely awakened when those ran out: tampons were just not a thing in Havana. Not available, at any price. I was shocked and a little pissed. How did Cubanas cope? Tampons were a necessity as far as my First World mind could fathom and many of you likely agree. Can’t it be argued that the tampon is one of the most powerful weapons in the women’s lib arsenal (after the washing machine and the immigrant nanny to run it)? It seemed antiquated, as if I’d been thrown back to my mother’s pre-Betty Friedan teenage years.

Except this was 2002. And I was bleeding without recourse. I had to adapt.

This exercise in dystopian social Darwinism taught me some key Cuban survival skills. Most importantly, I learned how Cubans confront the monthly bleed: they procure a limited amount of maxi pads via their ration card, supplemented by cotton swaddling they fashion into pads when the ration, inevitably, runs out. The former are often gifted or sold, the latter reserved for when things devolve into a bloody mess. Once in a while, you might find pads in the dollar stores and when you do, buy in triplicate. When all else failed, I resorted to wads of toilet paper and Scotch tape. File under: Epic Fail. This all put a serious hitch in my giddy up on trips to the beach, hotel pool, or secret waterfalls, but I made do without any seriously embarrassing bleed through. Although, as I like to point out, it’s terribly hard to embarrass a Cuban, no matter the context, and period blood made public is no real cause for concern. To wit: my buddy Oscar recently shared a story about partying with friends at one of the faux posh Miami lounges cropping up in Havana like fungi under cow shit. Seating was in booths and on cubes made of white pleather (that’s plastic leather in Conner-speak; learn it. Love it). When Oscar’s girl stood to go to the bathroom, she left the cube smeared with blood. As she walked away, Oscar grabbed a napkin and wiped it clean without missing a beat.

Still, it’s hard to return to bulky, non-beach-compliant pads and relive pleather-smearing accidents after you’ve experienced [insert your favorite brand here]. Indeed, tampons are in such high demand in Havana, we ask foreign visitors to pack some extra in their luggage. Thanks to many kind folks who have done so, we have stock on hand at the bookstore – we’ve saved many a tourist and colleague with these donated ‘feminine hygiene products.’ And we’re converting people too: a pair of Cubana friends declined our invitation to a Cuba Libro beach outing because it was their time of the month. I told them this shouldn’t be a limitation and introduced them to tampons. One of these women was in her 20s; the other in her 30s. I gave them a quick how-to (verbal, not visual) and handed them the bilingual instructions/anatomical diagrams provided in every box. Judging by the frequency of tampon requests we’re now fielding at Cuba Libro, I’d say consumer choice and convenience – of which the tampon is poster child – are going to start driving many people’s agenda. Personally, unless I’m working an outfit requiring a thong or am destined for water play, I’m a stalwart pad supporter. At my age, I don’t have that many more years to worry about all this. What a fucking relief (but please dear lord: retain my robust libido!)

As for the Kardashians, I hope they brought enough feminine hygiene products – they sure did seem like they were on the rag during their visit.

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