Category Archives: Cuban phrases

Getting Screwed in Cuba’s New Economy

It will take a bit for me to create the physical time and psychic space to write a long form piece on private businesses here – but trust, me: I’ve got plenty to say on the subject. In the meantime, I’ll channel my cathartic necessities through the relating of my washing machine saga, AKA “The Yoyi Affair.”

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I am extraordinarily fortunate to own a washing machine. Anyone who has hand washed a queen-sized sheet, scrubbed towels on a washboard (common to Cuban laundry sinks), or tried to wring out a pair of skinny jeans (and pray for sun because otherwise those clothes are going to smell funkier than a frat boy’s laundry bag) knows what I’m talking about. I lived years here drowning in that routine and now I can’t glimpse a clothesline heavy with recently-scrubbed laundry without wanting to knock on the door and offer the lady of the house a glass of something cool and a rocking chair. It’s terrifically hard work keeping a Cuban household running (forget about smoothly); as you may imagine, laundry is a sticky bitch in the equation.

Luckily, a few savvy Havana entrepreneurs have pinned their cuenta propista hopes on privately-operated Laundromats, where dirty duds are returned to you clean as a whistle, for just a couple of CUCs a kilo. I hear the one in Miramar is making bank, but their folding lacks attention to detail. There are (dark, uninviting) state places too, with cute names like Little Laundry or no name at all. You just have to know they exist and where they are. These are cheaper than the private outfits, but with unreliable hours and workers who filch your soap. I’ve been down that road and while it’s a more sane solution than trying to wring out your Levis by hand, taking my place in line at 6am for a service which takes two days is not my idea of a good time. So when my mom bought her blushing-bride-of-a-daughter a fully automatic LG washing machine as a wedding gift, it was pure euphoria.

That was almost a dozen years and what seems a lifetime ago, but it has worked beautifully and without complaint since. Ah! To wash sheets at the touch of a button! To have jeans nearly extracted dry! I loved that machine even after it developed a high-pitched squeal like a Christmas pig having its throat cut. It was so loud and piercing, callers often asked: ‘what’s that sound in the background? Are you keeping pigs?!’ ‘No, just the rinse cycle,’ I’d explain. I could live with the squeal – after all, I didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to fix it. I had bigger problems – like deadlines and ant infestations and inspectors. And I was tired: we’re working 60 hours a week, easy, at Cuba Libro, where we go through a dozen individual hand towels a day. And more than the pile of dirty laundry, these towels are the sticky bitch in my equation. ‘Whatcha doing tonight, boss? Washing little towels?! Heh, heh, heh,’ is a common conversation starter among our staff. (Note to self: dock pay for every snarky Saturday night towel comment. Just kidding!) It’s sad, but true however: I spend many an evening listening to my querida machine squeal little towels around as I wait for the dial-up internet to hop to. It only makes me weep on occasion.

One of those occasions was when the machine ceased, definitively, to have a spin cycle. Of course, it happened during an insanely busy week: long-time, well-loved staff departing for foreign latitudes; training newbies; hosting groups; friends’ birthdays; multiple deadlines; and my trip to New York. Have you ever traveled with a suitcase of soiled clothes? Not pretty, but a nice little ‘gotcha!’ for the folks rifling through luggage on this side of the Straits and Homeland Security on that one. For reasons more important than this, however, my immediate priority was Getting My Washing Machine Fixed.

I put it off, but the second time I was forced to look into that towel and soap soup, and rinse and wring out each toallita individually, I knew procrastination was no longer advisable. True, I was drowning in work, bureaucratic bullshit and administrative tedium. In short: I didn’t have one atom of extra energy to confront the jodedera of getting a major appliance fixed in today’s Havana. And then I met Yoyi. He was an affable guy with gold teeth, cafe au lait skin, and an efficient, confident air. His workshop is in a garage a couple of blocks from Cuba Libro, the driveway choked with washing machines in various stages of decay, disrepair and death. When I explained to him the problem, he boiled it down to one of three parts. ‘Let’s go to your house. I’ll assess the problem and if you agree, I’ll bring the machine here to the workshop, fix it and you’ll have it back in 24 hours.’ Transport, parts, labor and a one-year guarantee included. Efficient, professional and good looking private enterprise? Hell yeah, bring it on!

Flash forward to my apartment where two strange men are shimmying the machine away from the wall and peering into its nether regions. “It’s the clutch,” Yoyi tells me. Of course it’s the clutch, the most expensive part, for which Yoyi quoted me $150CUC. This is a total rip off, I’m fully aware. Yoyi was showing me what’s known in Cuba as ‘cara dura’. I was getting the Screw-The-Yuma price (and female to boot! Cha ching!) and I knew it, but I needed that machine in working order like, yesterday. I’m used to Cubans fucking me for my non-Cuban status in terms of pricing, but fucking me up the ass in terms of pricing? This is something else. ‘$150 CUC. That’s rough. You can come down a bit, surely,’ I told Yoyi with a smile.

We settled on $130CUC and away he went with my machine. The next day I went to his garage storefront at the appointed hour where I, along with his employees (who couldn’t reach him on his cell), waited until it grew dark. Yoyi finally rattled up in an old Lada, wedged the machine in the trunk and off we set for my apartment. After he and his pierced, tattooed helper lugged it up to the third floor, they plugged the old girl in and ran it through the spin cycle. Success! There were smiles, handshakes and goodbye kisses all around. I was impressed: within 24 hours, I had a working washing machine installed in my house, plus a one-year guarantee from Yoyi and his guys.

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The next day, I loaded up the machine, turned on the water, added detergent and pushed the magic button. I was answering yet another email from a clueless journalist here on assignment with no Spanish, no contacts, no guidebook or map even, and only a vague idea of what to write about when the machine started beeping. This wasn’t the steady ‘wash is done!’ beep but the frenetic ‘spin cycle won’t kick in!’ beep – the exact same annoying beep that drove me to Yoyi in the first place. Beads of frustration sweat popped to my brow as I went to inspect. It had worked yesterday. Why not today? I tried to restart it, trick it into going through different cycles, and taking out some clothes to lighten the load. Nada. When I looked closely, I noticed Yoyi had switched out my drum for a smaller, inferior one. De pinga.

I returned to his appliance workshop one, two, three days in a row. The place was shut tighter than the doors of the US-Cuba negotiations. Yoyi and crew were gozando with my $130 CUC no doubt. My mind went to a dark, destructive place: I was ready to open a can of NYC whup ass on the dude. On Day 4, I went with a gaggle of Cuban friends to back me up (what a motley bunch of muscle we made: a fellow so skinny his nickname is Periodo Especial; a too-good looking gay friend hitting on the too-good looking mulatto friend, a quiet pacifist, a philosopher…). When we rolled up on Yoyi, he admitted to not having tested the spin cycle with actual water. Duh. And he fessed up to switching out the drum. He promised to return to my house, retrieve the machine and fix it properly. I was peeved, but encouraged – his one-year guarantee had some validity, it seemed.

Then I went to NY. My mighty Cuban muscle paid several visits to Yoyi, but he was as scarce as butter and cheese in Havana circa 2015. That is to say: nowhere to be found. Then Havana got flooded. The pictures were frightening from where I was sitting stateside, but I knew the reality was much more horrifying: collapsing buildings; ruined keepsakes, furniture, electronics; stranded seniors. And I doubted there was hope for returning to a working washing machine.

Two days before arriving back in Havana, I got word: Yoyi fixed the machine, it was back at my house and ready to roll. I sent silent (none have email, alas) thanks and praise to my Cuban muscle and didn’t bother wasting my precious family and friend time in NY washing clothes; I’d do that in Havana and serve up another gotcha! to all airport personnel who deigned to inspect the contents of my luggage.

You see where this is going?

I got home, hugged the dog, and unpacked a small – teeny, really, so as not to overwhelm her – load of dirty laundry into the machine. As it did its thing, I began extracting from my luggage all the teas, spices, shoes, small electronics, feminine products, vitamins and the rest of the pacotilla with which I always travel: every trip Cuban friends and family give me a list of things they need but can’t get here (currently I’m procuring: baby bottles; children’s NyQuil; a lint brush; a motherboard; lubricant and coin wrappers). And guess what?! The machine worked! No frantic beeps! A proper rinse cycle! It was extraordinarily satisfying – $130 CUC satisfying, I’d say.

Fast forward two days. Another night spent alone washing little towels. As I was counting my blessings, the evil beeps started. The rinse cycle didn’t. I was peering again into little towel-soap soup. My knees and resolve to work with this guy weakened: I just don’t have the energy to interface with Yoyi again – in spite of the year guarantee. But when I do, I’m not going to bring him my machine for a third time. Instead, I’m going to bring all my NY Irish to bear and open that can-of-whup-ass all over him and his private sector business. Stay tuned.

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

Day 1, Year 0: Cuba and the USA

A bunch of people have asked about what I, CCG, personally think about recent groundbreaking announcements vis-à-vis Cuba, the US, and their respective release of prisoners. Some of you folks who follow my blog, but also a rash of people who read my dispatch for the Daily News (New York’s hometown paper!), came around querying. So to complacer them, you, and me, I’ll give you some of my thoughts on this, Day 1 of Year 0.

For me, the tangible effects this is going to have on Cuban families (and I mean that in the most expansive, criollo way possible) is the most important issue. Any improvement in trade, telecommunications, travel, postal and embassy (!) services, immigration policies, and transparency, translates into some sort of improvement for Cuban families. Ahora: the question is at what cost those improvements? Therein lies the rub, which is why it deserves is own short discussion.

I’m hearing a lot of static in the international media/blogosphere about the ‘Americanization’ of Cuba. First off, I suggest anyone using this term study up on Simón Bolívar, with a little José Martí thrown in for good measure. Second, the idea that US companies like McDonald’s and Starbuck’s are going to roll in and over the island disregards two very important components of the Cuban political reality: 1) the state remains steadfast in its commitment to complete sovereignty and 2) they’ve been thinking about this day for over 50 years. It also ignores two important factors in Cuban daily reality: 1) there are more pressing material problems than satisfying a Big Mac/Frappuccino craving and 2) policy makers are aware of the health dangers (ie chronic disease) burgers and milkshakes pose and so should work to keep them out – protecting public health is especially important in Cuba where the government maintains a universal, free system and regards health and well being as a human right.

Taking these realities into account doesn’t mean that no US chains will stake their claims here, but I think the Cubans will be strategic about whom they let in. Marriott, Hilton and other hotels, Cargill, ADM, and their big ag interest friends, Home Depot, telecommunications providers – these are all likely candidates for early entry into the Cuban market. McDonalds and Starbucks, not so much. Maybe it’s too rosy a picture, but I don’t think the folks running the show are just going to open the floodgates and let US interests run roughshod over the place.

The ‘run run’ (as we say here) amongst some, is that the policy changes won’t stick or even be enacted. One camp reasons the Cubans will finesse a flip flop, while the other argues the US Congress and/or next President (should it not be a Democrat or Rand Paul), will roll back whatever Obama and company have in store for the next year. These bits of ‘logic’ defy logic. First of all, the Cubans would be completely loco to announce such policy changes and then not pursue them – this is just a recipe for disaster given the current context on the island. And as far as Washington goes, US business interests want in on Cuba, like yesterday. The bottom line (pun intended): The desire for increased commerce and trade will trump any tantrums thrown by hard-line Cubans and Republicans regarding Cuba. As Obama has said repeatedly (paraphrasing Einstein), pursuing the same actions over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. And the embargo is a self-defeating policy – another opinion voiced by President Obama in these past few days.

Leaving politics aside, this is an incredibly emotional moment – especially for those of us who have been adversely affected and working so tirelessly to have this Draconian policy reversed. Obviously, change isn’t going to happen with the flip of a switch. There are a lot of messy threads to untangle, many policies and steps to analyze and tweak. For example, the 50% or so of Televisión Cubana that is pirated from US channels – HBO, Showtime, Discovery, ESPN – is going to go by the wayside, sooner rather than later. But after ‘no es fácil’ (it isn’t easy), our favorite saying here is ‘algo es algo’ (something is better than nothing). And the announcements of this past week are a very big something.

Just now, my 51-year old neighbor stopped by. “I never thought I would live to see the day. I knew The Five would return home in my lifetime, but I never thought I’d be alive to witness the normalization of relations. It is a great, great moment in our history.” She came over to congratulate me on the new era of US-Cuban relations (this is happening all over Havana these days: whether stranger, friend or neighbor, everyone is greeting each other with claps on the back, hugs and shouts of ¡felicidades!) and to let me know she’s already renovating a room in her house to rent to Americans, once they can travel here freely.

Personally, I can’t wait. Vamos bien.

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

Havana for Careful Readers

Surrounded by punchy bright flowers, relaxing, windows thrown wide. The breeze and verdant hour and laughter of passersby intoxicate. Inventing parties, creating drama, swapping art and clothes and women, maintaining levity despite – and because of – life’s hardships: this is Havana. The unhinged enthusiasm dominoes, flirting, a robust buffet, and pelota (especially if it’s Industriales vs Matanzas like tonight) can occasion: this too, is Havana.

Barking dogs, erecting walls, crumbling sidewalks and streets, buildings, families and lives. Coin flipped: tinted cars, exclusive bars, fridge full and belly contento. Friends forever leaving, returning as visitors of a sort to eat congris, drink lager, dar cuero. Dancing. Laughing. Taking your vieja to the polyclinic and chama to Jalisco Park. Loading up carts to overflowing at El Palco or 70 y Tercera, getting right with the padrino, paying respects at Cementerio Colón. Public peeing and masturbation, gay play along the dark bastions of the Castillo de Principe, working girls working the boulevards of Miramar and the back alleys of Cayo Hueso. Going for the daily bread.

Genius composers, a farce of artists (but reams of the real deal, too), honest, sensitive young men breaking the mold and stereotype, moms working themselves ragged cleaning, cooking, shopping, caretaking and running ministries. Dads pregnant with beer bellies out on the town, suelto sin vacunar. Know-it-all and equally annoying clueless tourists who don’t study up enough beforehand resolve life for some, earning gratitude, fomenting envidia.

All of this is Havana. Come see for yourself.

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

A Cuban Glossary

Anyone who speaks a language foreign to their own knows what an embarrassing, ego-crushing, confusing and even dangerous proposition it can be. If you’ve poked around my blog a bit, you know I’ve had my share of missteps, malapropisms, and foot-in-mouth moments. Trust me: it sucks.

I figure I suffer more than most in this foreign-language-learning struggle for three reasons: 1) there’s a lot of static in that part of my brain wired for music and language (luckily I make up for lack of natural ability with pure tenacity); 2) as a writer, words are my medium and I’m spoiled in English, where I have many and varied options to express myself clearly and precisely (not that it always works). When you’re learning a foreign language, for instance, it takes time to learn how to say sneaker, stiletto or ballet flat, obligating you to default to the generic ‘shoe’ in the meantime; and 3) Cuban Spanish is far removed from the español I learned in university, Guatemala and the streets of NYC.

I often advise native Spanish speakers to prepare themselves for a different linguistic experience here, adding that they may encounter problems understanding Cubans. Clearly, asking directions, exchanging pleasantries, or ordering a meal/drink/bit of fellatio will be (or should be) straightforward enough for hispanoparlantes. But once conversations get cooking, seasoned with slang and dichos, oblique (for non-Cubans) historical/cultural/political references, and island particular vernacular, it can get tricky. Few people believe me, let alone heed my counsel (see note 1).

I can hear some readers scoffing across the World Wide Web. But take this exchange for example:

“¿Que bolá asere? Tengo pincha y me hace falta una botella. Tírame un cabo y te doy un pescao.”

Very simply, this translates to: Hey man. I have to get to work and need a lift. Help me out and I’ll give you 10 pesos.

See what I mean? Tricky.

Of course, every country has its own terms for this, that, and the other thing. Vocabulary varies from region to region and between cities as well. For instance, I recently took a straw poll amongst friends from across the USA, asking what they called the type of sandwich sold at Subway. In New York, we call it a hero. In other parts of the country, you’ll hear it referred to as a submarine, a sub, grinder, or po’ boy (which really is in a class by itself, as anyone who has feasted in New Orleans will tell you).

But although we have regional differences on the island, it’s much more complex. This way-with-words business goes beyond variable regional vocabulary since Cubans pepper their Spanish with terms of African origin (like the aforementioned asere); many American English words are in daily use, including lager, homerun, and brother, all uttered in a sultry accent; and entire syllables are regularly dropped (e.g. ño), while other words are contracted (e.g. equivoca’o). Needless to say, this complicates matters, as does Cuban-specific vernacular. Some of these words may be used in other Spanish-speaking countries, but probably not in the same way Cubans use them. Have insights? Drop me a line or submit a comment.

Almendrón – Old US car; almendra means almond. Almendrón is a big almond, which these cars resemble.

Bala, bata, petaca – Cigarette

Caña, fula and tabla – Every day terms, these are used to denote CUC or ‘kooks,’ the hard currency here. Other terms include chavitos (which I hear infrequently in Havana) and morrocota, used exclusively for the 1 CUC coins. ‘Fula’ has other meanings as well; see below.

Curda – Alcohol; can also be used as an adjective for someone who’s drunk.

Faster – Bicycle; also called a chivo.

Fula – Screwed up, twisted, somehow malevolent or damaged. Used to refer to situations or people: “¿Ella? Tremenda fula.”

Gabo – Slang term for house or home; also a diminutive of Gabriel, used most famously for García Márquez.

Guagua – Bus

Jama – Food; grub

Jeva/o – girlfriend/boyfriend

Nescafé – Nothing doing; no way, as in ‘did you two hook up?’ ‘¡Nescafé!

Pincha – Work, job

Run run – Word on the street; rumor; grapevine. Synonyms include radio bemba and la bola.

I could go on (and on), but I’ve got other work to do, deadlines to meet, and dreams to realize.

Me voy en fa’.

Notes
1. Anyone planning a visit here will benefit from learning a few phrases and sayings with the Cuban dichos app.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad

Havana Changes for the Good

Some readers may remember my predictions for 2014, where I mentioned that we’re going to have to fight to maintain balance – here, there, everywhere. Work, play, love, lust, family, friends, menial tasks like housecleaning and random responsibilities like jury duty, babysitting, passport renewal: all of these priorities are competing for precious time this year. Given that there are only 24 hours in a day (see note 1) and in those too few hours I’m meeting deadlines, running a bookstore, consulting travelers and policy makers, playing bike polo, and updating my app, I’m terribly behind on that key activity called sleep (and many aforementioned menial tasks/random responsibilities).

So that elusive balance? Tough to find, let alone forge, in today’s Havana, which moves to a new rhythm (note 2), thanks to the economic “updating” (to use the official vernacular) we’re experiencing. While I’ve written some about the troubling aspects this updating engenders, I’m going through a sort of Marriage Encounter phase with my adopted city, whereby my enchantment or something similar, is being rejuvenated. This is taking a conscious effort, I’ll admit, but also seems to be occurring naturally, for which I’m grateful.

If you sense that I’m adverse to change, I am – when that change is inequitable, disquieting, violently +/or stressfully attained or more bad than good. And I’m quite clear that I need to embrace Cuba’s changing socio-economic landscape in a positive, proactive way. Those of us who don’t are doomed – to angst, bitterness, depression, anxiety, addiction, denial and other not-so-desirable states. The long and short of it? I’m trying to love the new Havana even as foreigners move here in droves, rush hour traffic worsens, and the unfortunate combination of wealth and bad taste (note 3) conspire to give the city a flavor that’s starting to feel like Hialeah. So I don’t get swept away by the black cloud called Progress, I dedicate this post to the great things about our economic renewal.

Ice cream, you scream, we all… To say Cubans are fond of sweets is like saying Warren Buffet is well off. You need only look at the rapid proliferation of bakeries (some quite good) as testament. Or the line at Coppelia. As an ice cream fanatic myself, I’ve braved that colossal line – regularly running to an hour or more in the summer – many a time. Following on this delicious tradition is the recent emergence of several outstanding heladerias wholly (or partially) privately-owned and -operated.

I’d heard about the new ice cream place next to El Palenque, but it took a while to jinetear a ride all the way out there to the upper class suburbs to give it a try. Once I stepped into the cool, air-conditioned parlor with ice cream cone chairs and 25 different flavors – hazelnut! tiramisu! pistachio! – I knew I’d found my temple (see note 4). It’s a state-Italian venture as far as I can tell and a hell of an addition to Havana’s gastronomical scene. The same can be said for the spiffy new ice cream place on Calle 84 near 5ta B in Miramar. Creamy, dense, in all sort of assorted flavors – this is what folks tell me Coppelia was like back in the day. One recommendation: someone should open these types of parlors ‘for the hoi polloi,’ closer to the more densely populated (and less affluent for the most part) barrios of Marianao, Centro Habana, Lawton, etc. Even though the stuff is wicked expensive at 1 CUC a scoop, Cubans will always find a way to finance their sweet teeth. [ed note: to discover these and other interesting places to visit around town, please check out my Havana Good Time app for iPhone and Android.]

Late night noshing – Used to be that if hunger struck at midnight, you were shit out of luck. Just a few years ago, dinner after 11 would inevitably mean a microwaved package of overcooked El Rápido spaghetti with watery tomato sauce or some dry on the outside, pasty on the inside croquettes at Ditu (see note 5). News flash: those days are as long gone as Alicia Alonso’s eyesight. In today’s wee hours, you can choose from Swedish, Russian, KFC-type fried chicken (our crispy coating, however, is made with plantains and officials put the kibosh on the drive-thru window), sushi, pizza (delivered to your door in under 30 minutes or it’s free), Mexican, tapas, and my personal favorite: old fashioned comida criolla. I get that extended hours, KFC wannabes and delivery pizza may not be your idea of innovation and I mostly concur. However, the Cuban in me says ‘sushi?! Now that’s progress.’ Plus, there are rumblings of some real foodie inroads being made, including vegetarian cajitas (little boxed meals for a buck or two), protein/veggie shake shacks and various permaculture projects. Now if only the concept of Sunday brunch with Bloody Marys would catch on…

At your service: It’s amazing how many new, small private businesses are providing one service or another. Your Samsung Galaxy not receiving messages? Need your bikini line (or back or upper lip) waxed? I can hip you to half a dozen places within a mile of here to fix you up. Car need a wash? Maybe your dog does. Or perhaps you’re too uncertain or mono-lingual to make that casa reservation in Santiago de Cuba. No problem: in the “new” Havana someone will do it for you – for a fee of course. Today, you can get your iPhone unlocked, your navel pierced, Botox injections (this is actually a state enterprise; I don’t know if private individuals are also doing it, though I wouldn’t doubt it) and many more services we never dreamed of a decade ago. Having such services available bestows a sorely needed veneer of normalcy and efficiency on our corner of the world.

Touchy-feely intangibles – Some of the positive aspects being felt after three years of economic updating are unquantifiable and quite possibly ephemeral (depending on what the future holds). However, in the right now, relaxing restrictions and regulations has unleashed a torrent of pent-up creativity, which is exciting. More importantly, it gives people the space to dream, to put their ideas into practice and test their mettle. Furthermore, the possibilities provided by the 200 and something authorized economic activities give people breathing room, broaden their horizons, and help loosen the (real or perceived) noose of control that many Cubans feel outside or inside forces exert over their lives. This liberty, for lack of a better word, has taught a lot of people, fast, the meaning of hard work (see note 6), which my proletarian background obligates me to view, always, as a good thing. It’s empowering and for the first time, Cubans are getting a sense of individual agency (as opposed to agency as a nation). It’s refreshing. Now however, the trick is to turn all these touchy-feely intangibles into something good and sustainable and not just a mechanism for making money on the backs of their/our/your neighbors.

Notes
1. When I’m in charge there will be 48-hour days, no laugh tracks or white people with dreadlocks, plus Styrofoam will be illegal.

2. Once again, let me make it clear: what I write is about Havana – not Bayamo or Puerto Padre or Sandino. I wish I had the time and opportunity to visit these (and more) places across the island more often, but alas…

3. More on this money and tacky taste issue in future posts. Currently I’m thinking of launching a documentary project called Havana: Crimes Against Architecture focusing on how the nouveau super rich are tearing down residential jewels and throwing up Miami style McMansions.

4. I exaggerate. Coppelia, known in these parts as the ‘Cathedral of Ice Cream,’ will forever be my preferred spot to worship and gorge.

5. So notorious is the mystery meat croquettes and variants peddled at Ditus around the country, it led to a popular joke: when someone says ‘ditu’ (tell me about it), the response is ‘no es de pollo’ (it isn’t chicken).

6. Before certain readers get their knickers in a twist like they did with one recent post, let me say that many Cubans I know are very hard working – amongst the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Here, however, I’m talking about the younger generation who really are clueless about what a true hard day’s work entails, and about people who think running a small business is easy money.

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

Cuba: What You Know but Don’t Realize

Over the years, I’ve dedicated (probably too) many hours analyzing, writing, editing, and commenting about the differences between here and there. The ‘there’ of which I speak is the US – from where I hail – but could easily be anywhere North, whither Big Macs and reality television conspire to make people fat and stupid.

Did I just say that? You betcha. I’m sorry if that applies to you, but my internal editor has been on sabbatical ever since a guy richer than Croesus got all up in my grill dissing Cuba like he actually knew what he was talking about.

Which is part of what sparked this post.

There’s a type of visitor here – usually imperious, moneyed men skidding down the hill of middle age towards moldering (and the aforementioned rich fulano fits the bill) – who has Cuba all figured after four days here. Sometimes even before getting here. Cuba is more complex than you could have imagined, you’re more close-minded than you care to admit, and your facile analysis belies the intelligence I’m sure you evidence in your back home life. For those in this category, I’ve crafted this post to clue you in. Just a little.

First, we’re facing a wave of economic, paradigmatic change here without precedent. It roils with an energy confusing, contradictory and encouraging (in its way), towards our shores. Indeed, already it’s breaking on our eroding sands. Like a tow surfer (see note 1) whose very survival depends on accurately calculating wave height, speed, and interval, while accounting for hidden (i.e. underwater) and surface (i.e. other surfers and their support crews) factors, we’re gauging the wave, trying to maintain balance, remain upright, and most importantly, keep from being sucked under.

But as any tow surfer will tell you: surviving a 75-foot wave and riding it are two entirely different experiences – as different as summiting Everest with throngs of weekend warriors as attaining the peak without oxygen. One simply takes money and some machismo and motivation; the other requires experience, training, skill, meticulous preparation, and a measure of karma and respect born of intimacy with the context.

So as this monster, freak wave feathers and breaks over Havana, I want to ride it, not simply survive it. And to do that, I – we – have to measure and analyze the conditions, bring our skills and knowledge to bear, channel positive energy, and ensure our fear is healthily spiked with faith. The first step in successfully positioning ourselves to ride this wave, it seems to me, is to understand the culture, in all its contradictory complexities, which brought us to…right…now…

While many emphasize the differences between here and there, between the land of Big Macs and the tierra de pan con croqueta, I take this opportunity to explain how we are the same:

Opinions vary: One of the questions I field most often is: do people like Fidel/Raúl/socialism/the revolution? This is as absurd as asking do people like Obama/capitalism/federalism? Setting aside the fact that the question itself is unsophisticated and dopey (governance and mandate are not about like or dislike but rather about measurable progress and peace within a society, plus, any –ism is just theory; it’s how it works in practice that counts), I posit that it all depends on whom you ask. Up there, a brother from the Bronx is unlikely to share views with a Tea Party mother of two. Similarly, an 18-year old from Fanguito won’t agree with a doctor from Tercer Frente.

It’s obvious, but visitors tend to forget that here, like there, you must consider the source when posing such questions. Less obvious is that here, it also depends on how you ask the question. But that’s a more advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

People like stuff: On the whole, Cubans are voracious shoppers – always have been, always will be. Whether it’s shoes, books, handbags, wooden/porcelain/glass/papier mâché tschotskes, fake flowers, clothes, or packaged food, Cubans will buy it. Or at the very least browse and touch and dream of buying it. Some folks – like the ones who inspired this post – deny capitalist, consumerist culture ever existed in Cuba before now, revealing their lack of knowledge. I’m embarrassed for them; on the upside, it means many up there are clueless to fact that if you dropped a jaba bursting with a new pair of Nikes and Ray Bans, iPod (or better yet, Pad), some Levis, a pound of La Llave, gross of Trojans, and a couple bottles of Just For Men on every Cuban doorstep, with a note instructing them to come over to the imperialist dark side, a lot, the majority even, would do it. Being Cuban, a lot would pledge to ditch and switch just for the swag, of course, but that too, is an advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

Until that day, folks here are gobbling up stuff as fast as the shelves can be stocked. In short, todo por un dolar is rivaling hasta la victoria siempre as most popular slogan around here.

It’s all about the kids: Here, as there, parents want a better life for their kids. While what constitutes “better” (again, here as there) depends on whom you ask, this desire to leave a more comfortable/equitable/safe/luxurious life and legacy to one’s kids is human nature. It drives people to rickety rafts, May Day parades, and long, hard overseas postings. It makes parents compromise their own mental health, spend beyond their means and completely subsume their own lives to their children’s. Case in point: have you ever seen what a Cuban goes through – psychically, financially – to celebrate a daughter’s quince? Hundreds, thousands of dollars and days, months, years of preparation are spent for the all-important photos, party, clothes, and gifts for their darling little girls. Families living six to a room in Centro Habana spending $5000 for their 15-year old’s celebration remind me of US folks who scrimp, struggle, and sacrifice to pay for their kid’s wedding/down payment/tuition. Children first – at all cost and any price, here as there.

We are the best in the world: Drop in anytime, anywhere in Cuba or the US and whomever you encounter will profess their country is the best. Greatness or weakness such bravado and pride? A little of both, I figure. That such hubris has contributed to where we are today, riding the wave, I have no doubt.

Notes
1. I’ve just finished reading The Wave, a spectacularly, adventurously researched and highly readable book on giant waves and the guys – tow surfers – who live to ride them. Check it out.

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

Pushing Your Luck in Cuba

The querida phenomenon; why locals love iron bars and pure-bred dogs; and the story behind those ridiculous ‘dos: Here is Havana is your go-to resource for the inside scoop on all sorts of Cuban cultural minutiae.

This place is so intriguing and complex, I’m constantly heeding Mom’s advice to ‘learn something new every day.’ If you’ve been here, you know this perpetual learning curve of which I speak, surely. Or maybe you live somewhere/somehow that, like Cuba, allows – indeed forces – you to learn something new every day. If so, I salute you.

What’s holding my fascination and providing ‘ah ha!’ moments lately is the long-standing, deeply-rooted Cuban tradition known as La Bolita.

From Ciego’s piña-studded campo to the listing wooden houses of Regla, Cubans are playing the numbers. Like an underground Powerball, La Bolita is technically illegal but in practice allowed to function (not unlike other things here including the world’s oldest profession; two houses sharing one phone line; and foreigners buying property). Not only does it function, La Bolita flourishes as a twice-daily gambling habit nursed across the country.

I was quite surprised to discover how many people I know play La Bolita – work colleagues, neighborhood doctors, Harley dudes, government guys, grannies, ballet dancers. So diverse are the Cubans playing the numbers, I think it may be one of the most genuinely and naturally integrated and equitable systems in contemporary Cuba. La Bolita leaps across class, race, gender, and geographical lines and though I haven’t made a point of asking, I’m sure my LGBT friends are also placing their daily bets (see note 1). In short: La Bolita doesn’t discriminate.

First a little background: Most HIH readers know that until los barbudos rolled into Havana in 1959, Cuba was a viper’s nest of dissolution – rotten with drugs, prostitutes, gin joints, and gambling (no wonder Hemingway called it home!). In those days, fun seekers and ne’er-do-wells from the US used to hop down to use the island like college kids do Cancún and the ghetto: a place to score, get sloppy and slum, before returning to safe, cushy lives back home.

The Revolution put an end to all that (mostly, technically, anyway) and gambling was especially targeted and vilified. Big, lucrative casinos in nightclubs like the Tropicana and Sans Souci and hotels including the Riviera and Capri were shut down, along with smaller enterprises in the back alleys of Barrio Chino and out in Boyeros. La Bolita, however, was a national pastime, a traditional pursuit and while publically and officially banned, has survived all these years. The daily numbers, for those wondering, are drawn in Miami and Caracas, if my sources are correct (see note 2).

From why folks emigrate to how Cubans (mis)behave at all-inclusive resorts, I find all aspects of culture intriguing here. But La Bolita captures my fascination beyond what may be rational. To wit: I recently placed my first bet. I thought this was just a question of picking a series of numbers from the 100 in play and laying down my money á la the NY Lotto. Silly me. This is some really complicated shit and I needed a tutorial from my friend Aldo to place my bet correctly.

>Here’s what I learned:

Numbers range from 1 to 100. Nothing complicated there. But each number corresponds to a symbol – think Mexican lotería.
loteria mexicana
The symbols are key and transcend simple number-figure association, however. For instance, Cubans often play numbers appearing in dreams: if you’re chased by a Doberman while dreaming, you should play 95 (big dog), if it’s a Dachshund, 15 (little dog) is more appropriate. Beware dreams of 63 leading to 8, because that will land you in 78 and finally 14 (murder, death, casket, cemetery). Scary. When this happens, do you play these numbers, just in case?

Folks also bet numbers they see in their daydreams – I’m sure you know someone who hopes to get a 100 or some 38 (car, money) or a Cubana who has already made their dreams come true through a 62 (marriage) to a foreigner.

The numbers and their corresponding symbols have also passed into common vernacular. Fidel is called the caballo (1) for obvious reasons and for those who doubt my claim that Cuban Spanish can stump even fluent, native speakers, what would you do if your taxi driver said you owe a fish and a nun? Would you hand over $5? $20? $50? You’d be ripping either yourself or him off if you did (see note 3).

My life (like everyone’s if we choose to pay attention) is riddled with symbols and I had no problem knowing what numbers I would play. In fact, I determined not to let this year go by without playing La Bolita as soon as I learned 43 (my age) stands for scorpion (my sign). What could be more propitious?

But how to play? I knew I’d have Aldo place the bet because I didn’t want to show my foreigner face at any of the neighborhood ‘bancos’ – Cuban for Bolita bookie – lest I make them  nervous; it is illegal after all. So I’d play 43 and if I needed to pick a bonus number, I figured I’d go with 52 in honor of my beloved Frances.

Were it that easy.

As it turns out, there are all kinds of variations you can play, including the ‘parlé’ (a type of trifecta); a fixed number with additional jackpot numbers; and other combinations which still confuse me. There’s also a specific way to note your numbers on a piece of paper that needs to be folded a special way when you place your bet. The minimum bet is 1 peso cubano (about 4 cents)  but most people wager more; payoffs can be huge – Aldo recently hit for 700 pesos and another friend’s uncle once won 5,000. Of course, he’d bet much more over the course of his lifetime, but that’s the gambler’s carrot and curse, no?

En fin: like many things Cuban, I’m sure La Bolita is played differently in different latitudes (see note 4) – including in South Florida where it thrives. What I relate here is simply how it went down in my corner of Cuba. I ended up playing scorpion-San Lazaro-machete (43-17-94) in keeping with various symbolic occurrences lately. Alas, my 37 (brujería) proved powerless: I lost my 25 pesos.

Oh well, there’s always tomorrow for learning something new (and placing another bet).

Notes

1. Let me take this opportunity to wave the rainbow flag: every May, Cuba celebrates the ‘jornada de anti-homofobia’ known as IDAHOBIT globally – and it’s one helluva good time. This year’s festivities kick off May 7 and run through May 18 in Havana and this year’s host province, Ciego de Ávila.

2. Over several years of writing this blog, it has become clear that Here is Havana readers are hip, informed, and sit upon a wealth of knowledge; if anyone has light to shed on the mecánica or history of La Bolita, please share!

3. A nun is 5 and a fish is 10; your taxi ride cost $15.

4. While researching this post in fact, a friend of mine and closet bet-placer, told me about La Charada (traditionally la charada china). This predates La Bolita, which takes its first 36 numbers (horse/caballo through pipe/cachimba) from the older chinese tradition. This numbers game dates from the 1800s when Chinese workers arrived on these shores. According to one source, in 1957, Cubans wagered between $90 and 100 million on La Charada, la Bolita and other numbers’ games.

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Trending, Cuba, April 2013

Young/old, foreign/Cuban, gay/straight (and variations in between), black/white (and shades in between) – the crew gracing my living room lately is varied and invigorating. They’re a veritable cross section of Havana in evolution, the friends stopping by, sipping coffee, and smoking Criollos in my crib.

I’m indebted to them, my network of family and friends who help keep me dreaming and steady the ground beneath my feet so those dreams can be seeded, sown, and reaped into reality. This has always been a place of shifting sands and I marvel at the Cuban capacity to maintain balance and mirth in the face of it.

Even under normal circumstances, steady ground is as scarce around here as spare change in a junkie’s pocket. These days however, terra firma is still harder to locate as Havana lurches along its path of economic reform, testing the capitalistic waters about which there is much phobia. And with good reason: capitalism is inequitable at its core, which contradicts many principles and practices for which Cuba has long been admired.

Truth be told, it’s a bit scary these changes we’re experiencing, and not just for their tenor, but also their pace – glacial or breakneck, depending on your perspective. Regardless, all the transformations happening in this corner of the world (see note 1) mean it’s trickier than ever to maintain our balance as we crawl, walk, and run in the nascent Cuban rat race.

As a barometer of what’s afoot here in Havana, I thought I’d invite readers into my living room to eavesdrop on some recent conversations.

“I want to start my own company, but can’t” – This came from my friend Fidel (see note 2) who dreams of having his own software development firm. As a bright, young graduate of the UCI (Cuba’s IT university, churning out brilliant computer wonks for over a decade), he’s got the chops to do it, but contends he can’t. I should mention here that I’m in “can’t” recovery: by age 13 or so, I was using the word regularly until an adult I admired upbraided me about the weakness and defeat the word embodies. She was right, of course, even Obama proved that, so when Fidel says he can’t, I bristle and parry.

‘But that’s one of the permissible businesses under the economic reforms. The licensing is easy. Get a few friends together and make it happen,’ I tell him.

He almost snickered, detailing connectivity nightmares, difficulty in accessing the latest programs, lack of marketing and publicity tools, etc, etc. Valid points all, but my recovering ‘can’t persona’ kicked in.

‘I hear you, but you’re talking to someone who wants it all. I know that’s not possible, no one can have it all, but if I get just half…’ He looked at me as if to say: ‘that and a token will get me on the subway,’ as we used to say back in the day.

“Collateral damage from the Special Period” – This observation can be applied to much of Cuban reality today – breakups, emigration, encasing homes in iron bars – but I hardly expected it in reply to my question: ‘how did you get carpal tunnel?’ It was difficult to imagine how a family doctor could suffer from such a condition unless he was a computer solitaire addict or moonlighted as a guitar player (neither, in this case) and I would have never guessed it was somehow related to the dire economic times known as the Special Period in Time of Peace. Turns out he got carpal tunnel after so many years riding a bicycle between home, work, play, and errands – seems the hand brakes worked a number on his wrists for which he’s now being operated.

We laughed (because if you don’t, you’ll cry), and it was funny, in a tragic sort of way. Some categorize the Special Period as a heinous blip on the Cuban psyche, but that economic crash that befell the country when the Socialist Bloc fell is still deeply felt, and those that contend otherwise are either in denial or haven’t been paying attention. Meanwhile, my people are talking a lot about it lately.

Some of the conversation turns on Chavez’ death since the agreements with Venezuela and other ALBA member countries signed in the early naughts, were the first light at the end of the economic-strapped tunnel. Now, with Venezuelan presidential succession hanging in the balance, folks here fear a return to those dire times could be in the cards. In my estimation, Cubans are praying more for Maduro’s victory than during both Popes’ visits combined.

“Tía, what’s vaginoplasty?” – From the Special Period to (re)constructed vaginas: this is what we call in Cuba “hablando como los locos,” and my living room does see its share of crazy folks, I’ll admit. The question is: how exactly do you explain vaginoplasty to a 12-year old? When she’s Cuban, you stick to the science. And when she asks why someone would need it, you stick to accidents and physical deformities, leaving the transsexual conversation for a later date.

I mention this living room chatter because what was most interesting to me what that the topic was broached twice, by different people, in the span of a few days. What are the odds? Pretty good, I guess, here in Havana anyway.

“Don’t tell me he’s a metrosexual!” – In case you haven’t been here in a while, this is the latest fad (and I do hope it’s a fad because unlike transsexuals, metrosexuals actually choose this state of being) among young Cuban guys. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s essentially an androgynous look adopted by urban males to what advantage I’m not sure. And these aren’t men who have sex with men in large part, but het boys adopting a super meticulously primped style that requires shaving/waxing/lasering their entire bodies to a hairless sheen, including their eyebrows. Just the maintenance required chafes (really – isn’t there something better you could be doing with your time and money?) and I personally find it a real turnoff.

So when a swarthy friend admitted his 18-year old son was a metrosexual, I offered my condolences. We both chalked it up to “youth today,” that tired refrain of all older generations everywhere, but I find it intriguing that in such a macho society, this particular global trend should catch on. Is it a statement against the patriarchal construct? I’d like to think so, but what if young women did the same and started going all KD Lang androgynous? Would parents have the same “they’ll grow out of it/youth today” attitude? I’m not so sure. If you have any insight on metrosexuality in Cuba or general, bring it on.

(And you thought this post was going to be all about Yoani and Bey-Jay.)

Notes

1. Periodically (like now) I hasten to remind readers that when I say “this corner of the world,” I’m referring to Havana only. I don’t get out of the city nearly often enough to have a bead on what’s going on in the rest of the country. And Havana is a world unto itself. I think it’s dangerous to generalize or draw conclusions about Cuba as a whole from what’s happening and being said in the capital.

2. Like all names at Here is Havana, this is not his real name. In this case, however, it’s close.

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Havana Vice: Titimanía

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

I’m what’s known in these parts as a ‘temba.’ The term generally applies to anyone, male or female, over 40. It’s not a hard and fast rule – a younger person who looks older may be called a temba – nor does it infer, like other terms such as ‘tía’ and ‘pura,’ that the person is over the hill sexually, physically or otherwise. Temba is not derogatory; it’s simply a category of Cuban, used here to describe a state of being, similar to our use of descriptive terms like negro, chino, flaca, santero or maricón (see note 1).

One thing I love about Cuba is its integrated, inter-generational nature. This facilitates friendships with Cubans aged 12 to 84 – something I cherish and which is harder to achieve in the United States. Naturally, however, many of my colleagues and consortes are other tembas. Over years of observation and recently a more in-depth investigation into Cuban sexual practices and mores for a larger piece I’m writing, a couple of tendencies keep cropping up: flexible fidelity is one, titimanía is the other.

Simply put, titimanía is the compulsion temba men have to date impractically young women. This is not limited to Cuba, of course, but by parsing how universal behaviors play out here, I hope to provide insight into the particularities and peculiarities of the Cuban character – for all our sakes (see note 2).

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I’m no stranger to the attractions of older men: at 16, my first serious boyfriend was 26, an arrangement for which he could have been prosecuted in our hometown of New York. While I think statutory rape laws are ridiculous in cases where everyone consents to getting it on, I admit there is something creepier when the ages are more advanced and the age differences greater.

Take my friend Carlos. When I met him a decade ago, he was 40 and his live-in girlfriend was 18. Jenny was gorgeous, of course, but a child – intellectually, developmentally, and practically. Just out of high school, she’d never had to pay a bill, work, or worry about a leaking faucet or roof. After four years together, the relationship ended disastrously, with Jenny hightailing it to Miami taking Carlos’ expensive gifts – jewelry, clothes, electronics – with her. Pre-ordained, perhaps, but that didn’t faze Carlos.

He quickly “recovered” (I’ve noticed men, Cuban and otherwise, tend to rebound fast – but incompletely – from ravaged relationships) and before long had Tania living with him. Prettier than Jenny, smarter, and worldlier, Tania was 22. After a few years, that relationship also ended badly, worse even than the one previous. Tania and Carlos barely speak today, which is uncommon in Cuba where circumstances and reasons too complex to elaborate here fairly obligate exes to remain on good terms. Uncommon and sad: their kids from previous relationships had become siblings and when they split it signaled an end to their blended family to the detriment of everyone involved, even if they don’t realize it.

Today, Carlos is 50 and has recently taken a 20-year old wife. I haven’t yet met her but have heard through radio bemba (our grapevine) that she’s hot and terribly boring, limiting dinner conversations to her new shoes, so-so manicure, and how the sushi she tried last week ‘totally grossed her out’ (see note 3).

Not all 20-somethings are that vapid and clearly, I better understand what’s in it for the women. Older men tend to be better than their younger counterparts in bed (if less athletic and enduring); have more status and economic possibilities; and generally have a clearer idea of what they want in life and are already well on their way to getting it (or should be).

However, once men hit that temba threshold, what they want are girls young enough to be their daughters. My 48-year old friend Elena is finding this out the hard way: after 15 years of marriage, she’s divorced and dating. Elena’s not looking for a new husband or live-in (the two are synonymous here); far from it. She just wants a healthy, available guy for a good time. You’d think this would be easy in libidinous, gregarious Cuba. Not so for Elena. ‘No niños for me,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t want to teach them the art of the orgasm or have to finance our affair. I’ve got my own kids, I don’t need another.’

Elena is looking for someone age appropriate and therein lies the rub: every man her friends try and fix her up with is interested in women her daughter’s age. They are, in short, suffering from acute titimanía. She has actually been told to her face: ‘you’re too old.’ And although they always put it in the nicest way possible, it’s getting her down. Once you rule out the married, infantile (of which there are many), gay, and titimaniacal tembas, Elena’s roster of eligible men is as short as Fidel’s speeches were long. And she’s discouraged, pobrecita.

The titimanía phenomenon came up the other day while I was talking to our mutual friend Alejandro. Clever and fit, with a comely face that belies his 50 years, Alejandro is one of the guys posited – and rejected – as a possible hook up for Elena; he likes them younger. Cubans are very frank about such things, which is efficient at least: while men here might date fat, unemployed, gold-digging, or gap-toothed women, age is not negotiable and they don’t waste time saying flat out ‘you’re too old’ (in the nicest way possible).

Alejandro could tell I was irked by his titimanía and its inequitability. “What chance is there for Elena and her ilk, when you guys are chasing skirts just out of high school?”

Mira, mi amiga,” he said smiling, his eyes crinkling around the corners they way they do with happy people, “from the age of 15, girls try to look older and do all kinds of things to enhance their beauty and heighten their self-worth – fake nails, fake boobs, dyed hair, high heels, the works. Old guys like me don’t do any of that. Instead, we pump up our egos by dating young women.”

“So tembas like you have the mentality of a teenage girl?” I wanted to say, but didn’t.

Laying my indignation aside, I could see his point. It’s about the self-esteem boost for everyone involved. But where does this leave Elena? Alejandro couldn’t provide an answer beyond: “I don’t know, but she’s too temba for my taste.”

Notes

1. This last term, meaning ‘fag’ or ‘queer’ is used in Cuba to denote male homosexuals. And while it’s inherently homophobic – which is why I don’t use it – many highly-educated and cultured people use maricón to classify gay men (or derisively with their straight friends). I employ it here by way of illustration only.

2. Equally as interesting are behaviors which don’t manifest here. For example, the reverse – a young Cuban buck getting jiggy with a cougar or MILF hasn’t caught on here like in the United States (the 13-year old who couldn’t peel his eyes from my temba friend Lucia’s cleavage, declaring her ‘hot and chesty,’ notwithstanding). But I’ll leave this for another post.                                                                                                                                                             

3. While I predict this marriage will be short-lived, I have friends who have been in one of these May-December relationships for ten years. They’re healthy and happy and while it remains to be seen what that relationship will look like when she’s 35 and he’s 63, so far so good. More power to them.

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Cuba: The Eternal Education

Some of you may remember my catharsis about know-it-all Cubans, a semi-measured rant dissecting the Cuban ardor for being right – even when they’re talking out their ass.

Not surprisingly, there’s a similar breed of foreigner, an expert on Cuba after two weeks, two years or tenure (see note 1). Maybe you’ve overheard them at the next table at one or another of Havana’s overhyped paladares prattling on about how to unify the currencies or make Cubans more efficient (the most vulnerable rarely have a seat at this table, literally and figuratively). Perhaps you read a blog written by an absentee/wannabe Cubanologist or transient traveler who proclaims to be an authority on political bell weathers or sexual proclivities here.

No matter the source: those claiming to have Cuba pegged are usually off base or worse – not even in the ballpark. Whereas it used to be difficult to understand things on the ground from afar, today it is near impossible since economic reforms are changing the landscape here fast. For us living it, we’re learning something new every day, the details and mechanisms of which cannot be fully known from wherever you are reading this.

Although the economic changes are injecting a level of uncertainty and accelerating individualism (here in Havana at least) that trouble me, I still give daily thanks – or try to – that I live in a time and place that continually teaches me new things. After all, learning something new every day is one of the key ingredients in the ajiaco of life – another reason why I love Cuba. Judging by the experience of certain friends, I’m confident the eternal education Cuba provides is a constant regardless of outside forces or how long you’ve been here.

Take my friends Ann and Alicia. North Americans both, they’ve lived here full-time for a collective 55 years and are still learning. Recently they separately admitted to having just learned that the red ribbon hanging from the undercarriage of 6 out of 10 cars here is to ward off the evil eye. And they both own cars! Such discoveries after so much time in residence encourage me to keep observing, keep meeting and talking to new people, having new experiences, and writing about this complex place where there’s always something new to be learned. In the past several weeks alone, my Cuban education has schooled me thus:

El Torniquete: The observant among you have likely noticed women and young girls chancleteando through the streets of Centro Habana or La Vibora with empty rolls of toilet paper spooled tightly around their tresses and piled atop their heads. This is knows as the ‘tourniquet’ and is a simple, free way to produce a fancy, going out ‘do. Although I’ve long marveled at the ingenuity, I never knew this technique had a name until a friend helping to gussy me up showed me how it’s done. For those wondering, I’ve only been partially successful in my gambit to improve my “look” due to my rabid aversion to shopping and my preference for substance over style. Furthermore, with only 24 hours in a day, other pursuits (e.g. cooking; bike polo; visitas) take priority of personal primping. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn from my impeccably turned out Cubana counterparts.

4/4 Time Dies Hard: I’ve recently taken up salsa lessons which have been measurably more successful than my half-hearted attempts at honing my fashion chops and style. I have an amazing dance teacher – talented, patient, encouraging, and easy on the eyes – which is a large part of the equation. Last class he admitted: ‘I thought it was going to be much harder to teach you’ and after just a few lessons, we’re both impressed that I’m already spinning around the dance floor without spinning off beat. But a lifetime 4/4 habit is a bitch to break, I’m learning, and I still tend to misstep, especially when in the arms of a taller, drunker, or clumsier partner than my teacher.

El Baile de Perchero: Along with salsa, I’ve recently become privy to another dance form known as the Hanger Dance. Surely a Cuban invention, this is when a couple dances themselves out of their clothes and on to more carnal endeavors and pleasures. It’s a testament to Cuban propriety that the name of the dance involves hangers: my clothes usually end up on the floor.

Vestido de Iwayó: Admittedly I know very little about Afro-Cuban religions – Yoruba, Palo Monte, Abakua, et al. But I, like many readers I assume, can’t fail to notice initiates walking around in these parts wearing head-to-toe white clothing. Even accessories – headbands and hand bags, hats and umbrellas – must be white for those haciendo santo and formally entering the religious ranks. It’s one of the most obvious outward manifestations of Afro Cuban religions here, but I’ve only recently learned that it’s called dressed as/for iwayó.

Life on the Inside: Given my insatiable craving for learning about new Cuban customs and culture, I’m very grateful to a friend who admitted he spent five years in a maximum security prison here. For my/our purposes, it matters not the crime for which he did time (though it was non-violent), so I won’t go there. What is important is the crash course he gave me about life inside a Cuban jail. He graciously endured and answered hours of my questions on everything from food and escape attempts to rape and overcrowding. Suffice to say that what I learned was so fascinating, I’m writing an article about the cultural dark side here entitled Havana Black & Blue. Any interested editors reading this are heartily encouraged to contact me as I look for an outlet for this piece.

Of course, the one thing everyone here – visitor and resident alike, whether they like it or not – is always learning, is how to maintain patience and good humor in this sometimes frustrating, but never dull island….

Notes
1. The so-called ‘Cubanologists’ who sit in their ivory tower offices in developed world academies of higher learning (or their cubicles in think tanks), espousing how it is in Cuba (where they visit once a year, perhaps), especially chap my ass.

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