Category Archives: Cuban phrases

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

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

Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels!

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

Our Baby’s Two Years Old: Cuba Libro!

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

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

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

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

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

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

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

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

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

reading is sexy

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

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

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

“You can’t give away stuff for free.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cuba No One’s Writing About

Early adopters of my blog may remember my post (many moons ago) where I listed the reasons why I love Cuba. Considering I’ve opted to make this crazy place my home for the past 13+ years, this is a question I get fairly often. For several reasons – the superficial fluff being published about Cuba with frightening frequency, the tsunami of clueless tourists, the stress Cuba’s new economy is generating – I think it’s time to revisit why Cuba rocks. This is the Cuba no one is writing about – the deep, below-the-surface substance that makes this place so special. Let’s dive in:

Our diet is largely chemical- and preservative-free.
Sure, you can spend $5 on a can of Pringles or $3 on a can of Red Bull, but when you can whip up fresh plantain chips for mere cents and buy fresh-pressed guarapo for pennies, aside from the novelty, why would you?

The country is popping with wonderful eye/soul candy. Human, architectural, artistic, natural – this place is a visual and spiritual feast.

There is music everywhere
. Literally (and whether you like it or not).

Havana’s tactile nights.
Once you catch that savory-sweet wind laced with gardenias, plumeria and sea salt, moonlight glancing off the waves crashing into the Malecón? No tiene nombre as we say here.

Solidarity.
Foreigners ask me pretty often if Cubans’ willingness to share, lend a hand, empathize, and the like is real. It is. I think this is one of those things – if we can retain it (dare I say strengthen?) – will go a good way toward saving what’s really admirable about this society whatever the next few years may bring.

Abortion, free and on demand.
Ever wonder why it’s so hard to find an orphanage in Cuba? This is it: almost 100% of children born in Cuba is a wanted child.

Cubans are shame-free when it comes to bodily functions. Got diarrhea? Your period? Hemorrhoids? Feel free to share (over-sharing and TMI are concepts which don’t translate here); seek advice and resources; vent. Interestingly, this is one of the few areas of discussion and interface which is completely free from gender considerations. Just today I was talking with a Cubano friend about finger probing prostate exams, while another guy lent a kind ear to a friend waxing cathartic about her crippling hot flashes.

Embracing bodily (mis)functions is something I came to appreciate very early on: one of my earliest memories after moving here occurred at a family barbeque at Playa Larga. A couple of hours after meeting everybody, one of the teen girls emerged from the ocean and appealed to men and women alike: ‘does anyone have a maxipad? I just got my period.’ (Yes: there was blood running down her leg. Did I mention that TMI doesn’t apply here?!). And she felt no shame because of it. Why would she? She got her period unexpectedly – one of the most natural things in the world (and what keeps the human race going, incidentally) – and it was entirely not her fault. It’s like how Cubans view disabilities: it’s not that person’s fault, so it’s just downright cruel to shun or otherwise judge someone for a condition or circumstance which is completely out of their control.

But I digress.

Back to how Cubans view bodily functions and how this perspective implicitly rejects Puritanism and gender paradigms. I’ve been in conversations with friends – male and female – about: being a man-whore; circumcision; boob jobs (for both aesthetic and medical reasons); to what size the cervix must dilate to pass a baby; bowel movements – lots and lots of shit talk (frequency, consistency, color, remedies for, causes of); hemorrhoid operations; and penis operations (thankfully not related and not on the same person).

And then there was this recent exchange between some (platonic) friends as we headed out one night:
Her: Shit. I don’t have another Tampax (pronounced in Cuban: Tampac).
Him: I’ll go get one from my sister.
Me: =)

Cuba: it makes you laugh. It makes you cry. But it never leaves anyone indifferent. And this is the #1 reason I love this crazy place: it arouses passion.

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

‘To Don’t List’ for Emigrating Cubans

Amaya; Otto; Giulietta; Jonas; Alejandro El Mesero, Alejandro El Informático: all these friends (and more) have left these shores in the past six months in search of something bigger, better, brighter or simply different.

We always send friends and family off with well wishes and congratulations (yes: getting a coveted work visa or bewitching a foreign spouse is still celebrated here the way I imagine prisoners celebrate an Early Release Date), but it’s sad too, despairing even. Tears are shed – in private or at the airport, before during or after. Yet once they dry, Cubans face leave-taking the way they face bureaucratic absurdities, violent hurricanes, chronic shortages and all-day blackouts (yes: we still have them. We’re in the thick of one as I write this, in fact, beads of sweat pooling between breasts). Mal tiempo, buena cara.

Living in Cuba is a lesson in constants: constant contradictions, constant challenges, constant rupture. And I’m still learning. I mourn the loss of my friends who, once they leave, get sucked into a dimension of fast food and FaceBook, big box stores and demanding bosses. It’s wonderful for them to have experiences they’ve only dreamt of and deserve, but it still feels like abandonment to me. Cubans seems to be less ‘trágica’ about it. I guess they have to be. It makes sense – intellectually. I know (too) many Cubans who’ve flown the coop, so to speak; the nostalgia and longing can be crippling, painfully so. As an immigrant myself, I know this feeing intimately. Mal tiempo, buena cara.

But emotionally? It sucks to have your social structure stirred up like a stamped on ant hill. Then there’s brain drain, the negative birth rate (many émigrés are women of child-bearing age), dearth of eligible bachelors, and all the other practical implications of immigration.

Rather than wallow however, I try to be of service. It helps me work through the missing. Not ready for my medicine? Tough luck.

For all my Cuban friends considering or in the process of leaving, I offer this check list of things you’re used to doing in Cuba that you cannot do once you arrive at your foreign destination of choice or default. This should be especially helpful for those moving to La Yuma.

DO NOT:
launch snot rockets (AKA the Farmer Hanky)
– pop your lover’s zits in public
– have an open container in a car
– toss cans and other garbage out of a moving car/bus/train
– tssst tssst to get the waiter’s attention
– shoot birds with a sling shot
– pick your neighbors flowers or poison your neighbor’s dog (yes: this is pretty common here)
– saunter away from a steaming pile of your dog’s shit on the sidewalk
– flaunt your mistresses
– smoke cigarettes – anywhere (unless you enjoy pariah status)
– believe everything you read on the Internet
– steal the toilet paper
– throw soiled toilet paper in the garbage
masturbate in movie theaters
– use cooking oil as sexual lubricant
– wear stilettos to the beach
– wear shorts so short your ass cheeks hang out
– forget to write. We miss you!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad