Category Archives: cuban words without translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Havana Vice: Titimanía

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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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Adventures of the Cuban Virgins: Part II

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We last left our protagonists – American musicians on the island for the first time – as they were figuratively deflowered by the temptress that is Cuba and literally robbed by her inhabitants.

With only 48 hours in country, they were already acquainted with water-borne bichos and explosive diarrhea; frolicked (and perhaps even fornicated) along the Malecón; and acquired groupies. In short, they were partying late, sleeping little, creating music, and making very merry.

The theft of the Fender bass after the Will Magid 4’s first Jazz Festival gig did little to dampen their spirits or enthusiasm for this place. On the contrary: the kind, well-equipped stranger who offered to loan us a bass for the next gigs only reinforced their admiration for Cubans and their ways.

Before you can say ‘pass the planchao, asere,’ it was Friday, hours before the gig that had everyone hot and bothered. It wasn’t a festival event, the crowd would be small by design (we had to keep it quiet in the interest of crowd control), and we weren’t sure how the band would fit in the performance space. But after another rehearsal in my living room, all we could talk about was the Guagua Loca.

Box o rum, at the nice price!

Box o rum, at the nice price!

It’s not really called the ‘Crazy Bus,’ (see note 1); that’s my name for it because it is a little loco (and muy cool) this gutted bus packed with Havana’s best DJs making music and fun on its midnight tour of the city. To date, the Guagua Loca had only made one voyage; my guys were excited to be the first foreigners invited to play this innovative mobile music party.

Clearly, a jazz quartet has no place on the Guagua Loca. But while the Will Magid 4 was here to play Jazz Fest, they aren’t really a jazz combo at all, but an amalgam of funk and groove, sampling and swing drawing on musical roots from New Orleans to Ghana. This is music to boogie and have revelations by and after just one gig, Cubans were already gaga for their delicious mix of live and electronic music. And after meeting Iliam and Alexis, (collectively known as I.A. Electronica, the brain trust behind the Bus), the feeling was mutual. Hopes were high for Friday night’s adventure.

As the sun set and excitement swelled as big as the almost-full moon, the Will Magid 4 + 4 dribbled in from their day’s explorations. I waited until all were assembled to give them the news: the Guagua Loca was off. For reasons beyond our control or comprehension, it had been cancelled by The Deciders. I was at pains to explain it – maybe it was a little too loco for this place and time? Regardless, everyone – the Will Magid 4, the other DJs, and fans – was saddened by this turn of events. So we turned to rum for succor and set our sights on Saturday night’s Jazz Festival gig.

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We were running late for the sound check and I was tasting the bane of all music managers: organizing musicians is like wrangling cats in heat. When my phone rang at 4 on the dot and it was Wil Campa asking “Where are you? We’ve got the bass and are waiting at the theater,” I started to fret for real. The bass was locked in, but now we were missing the bass player.

At the beginning of this trip, if I’d had to bet who would go missing, show up late, or somehow leave us hanging, my money would have been on the drummer. To my surprise, Terry turned out to be the only one at our early morning meeting after partying all night and was settled behind his kit on time, every time, earning him a new nickname: Mr Professional. Adam, meanwhile, had taken to Cuba like a drunk to an open bar (despite the theft of his bass), and he was out mixing and mingling somewhere when we had a sound check and a Cuban musician of international renown waiting on us.

Smile on his face and jaba in hand, Adam sauntered up at about 4:05 and we rushed to pack ourselves into an almendrón to the Bertol Brecht Theater. True to his word, Wil Campa and his wife Tony awaited us there with a beautiful six string Rickenbacker they were loaning Adam for the night.

Tony, Adamm & Wil Campa, post-gig

Tony, Adamm & Wil Campa, post-gig

“Please, please, please don’t let this bass out of your sight,” Tony implored.

Slipping the case on to his back, Adam said: “don’t worry, I won’t.”

After kisses and hugs all around, our saviors sped away in their late-model BMW to shoot a music video in the setting sun.
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The room was big and a few of our tribe were still suffering from bouts of explosive diarrhea forcing them into a step we’d dubbed ‘the clench and scurry.’ If you’ve ever been to a theater anywhere in Havana, you know how apocalyptic/toxic/disgusting the bathrooms can be. But everyone took this in (scurrying) stride, as they did all their Cuban experiences, from cockroaches in the bedroom to stolen instruments and cancelled gigs.

The Will Magid 4 set up – live electric bass and guitar, drums (with some sort of electronic component I never did grok), trumpet, MacBook, and sequencer – was presenting problems during the sound check. There weren’t enough outlets and we didn’t have the right adapters. We were short a few cables and there was a false contact somewhere between the amp and bass obligating Adam into his own dance and scurry. Little by little we worked together to get it together, but everything was running late and the 25-piece college ensemble following us fiddled with their instruments, anxious to get their sound check rolling. After a few false starts, things were finally set and I took a seat alongside Will’s parents. The first notes erupted from Will’s trumpet and I started to relax when suddenly everything went dark and silent.

Blackout.

Dios mío. Would Cuba pull any punches for these guys?

I followed Emilio, the laid back runner-of-things at the Brecht, onstage. In trembling sotto voce I asked: had the group’s rig blown the circuit?

“Some cables are down,” he explained. (Whew). “The electric company is on their way. Chill out for an hour or so with some beers and I’ll call you when we’re back online.”

Will packed up his Mac, Adam shouldered “his” bass, and we stowed the rest for safe keeping. After a couple of lagers and lively conversation with some Cuban musicians who told me there are only 8 or so fretless Fender Jazz basses in all of Havana (I will find you cabrón, whoever you are) and that both Carlos Varela and Liuba María Hevia had both suffered thefts of their guitars (the WM4 was in good company), Emilio’s call came through: llegó la luz; haul your asses back.

Once there, the sound check went quickly, I bought Emilio a Bucanero, and we cut loose until showtime. In spite of all the mishaps and low level stress (mine, not theirs), energy and hopes were high for this gig. It was indoors, so the sound would be better that at the previous show and we’d done a lot of publicity to get a good crowd. I’d set up two interviews for Will and invitations had already been extended for their return to Cuba.

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The Will Magid 4 went on after the talented Jorge Aragón Trio and though the crowd was thinner than we’d hoped, the potential was palpable. I prayed to whomever listens to me – that is, no one in particular – for good sound and functioning equipment. I knew the rest would be superbly attended by the four guys on stage.

WM 4 ADsmall

By the end of their first number, feet were tapping and heads bobbing as the audience got into it. The last notes of Cuban Swing were winding around and down when suddenly everything went dark and silent.

Blackout. (‘Shit!, again?!’)

“Thank you all and good night,” Ethan said into his mic, unplugging his guitar.

“¡Qué lástima!” Terry exclaimed, using his new favorite phrase.

Once again I followed Emilio onstage.

“Leave your rig and gear hooked up. We’re checking on the problem and you guys’ll continue once it’s solved.”

Will looked at the band, lit by the beam from Terry’s iPhone.

“I saw a stand up bass backstage,” Adam ventured.

“St James Infirmary. Acoustic. Let’s do it,” Will said.

And there in that dark theater, the quartet – now a trio as Ethan held the iPhone up high for light – gathered in close. Will began teasing out the first notes of what turned out to be the most soulful and novel version of that jazz-blues standard ever heard on these shores. The Cubans in the audience sat stunned and smiling. Emilio caught my eye with his big thumbs up and nothing could keep my goose bumps down. The notes from Will’s trumpet trembled and leapt through the dark in a visceral eulogy to life’s lost love. The rhythm section paced our emotion, carrying us through one of those impossible to plan and hard to forget only-in-Cuba moments.

It was musical alchemy. The band knew it. The audience felt it and we had the talent and solidarity, dreams, hard work and dedication of so many people, strangers and friends alike, to thanks. It was magic not unlike Cuba itself.

As the last stanzas enveloped us, the band was suddenly, glaringly, bathed in light.

Llegó la luz.

“Can’t we have a little more blackout?” someone in the audience asked.

They finished their impromptu number, Adam traded the stand up for the Rickenbacker, Ethan plugged in and the Will Magid 4 played out their set to a dancing crowd – small, but exultant.

2013? I’m chasing more musical alchemy. Won’t you join me?

My deepest thanks and respect to Will, Adam, Terry, Ethan, Larry, Patti, Julie, Josue, Wil Campa, Tony Massolin, I.A. Electronica, and all the organizers of Festival Jazz Plaza 2012 for helping make my dream of bringing US musicians to Cuba come true.

Notes
1. It’s real name is the ElectroBus; look for it.

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La Bola en la Calle: Crime in Cuba

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“He killed it! And I love this venue,” the young Cuban American says leaving the Jardines de la Tropical where Carlos Varela has just played a rare Havana concert.

“Yeah, way better than when we saw him in Miami,” his friend responds.

“Totally. And it’s so obvious we’re in Cuba: look at all the rejas.”

Gems like these are why I’m such an avid eavesdropper: whatever differences there are between here and there, the one warranting comment is the Cuban mania for throwing up gates and bars around their homes.

If you’ve been to Havana, Santiago de Cuba or anywhere in between, you’ve seen this obsession Cubans have with enclosing their homes with iron bars. They’re cages, literally and figuratively, and are poignantly ironic as a result – so many people carp on about ‘freedom’ here, while locking themselves away in jails of their own construction.

Home robberies do occur, there’s no doubt, and the Puentes Grandes section of town where Varela played fairly beckons ne’er-do-wells: it’s dark, isolated, and provides many easy escape routes. But the disconnect between the real and perceived threat is aggravated by various factors including press coverage (there is none); the Cuban penchant for, and reliance upon, gossip for information (loosely related to the first factor); and our human tendency to place an inordinate amount of importance on Stuff.

Our first home here – a charmless microbrigada box in the industrial outskirts of town – had a small balcony, for which I was thankful, except it was enclosed in a cage. For me, there was no stronger metaphor for a bird with clipped wings and will than looking out from that barred balcony. I tried not to think about it too often, but ended up not using the balcony much at all. That cage mitigated any levity my soul derived from the semi-outdoor space it provided.

But after a decade of watching people struggle to amass money to put up bars (see note 1) and as much time puzzling over the rich and contradictory Cuban psyche, I feel driven to write about theft, safety, paranoia, and protection of stuff here and why I think the Cuban perception is skewed.

There’s no evidence: Have you ever seen crime statistics for Cuba? Me neither. I’m sure they’re collected – after all, the data-laden ONE (Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas) amasses stats on everything from new HIV cases and teacher:student ratios, tomato harvests and tourist visits – but crime is neither reported on nor published. Is crime up? Maybe, if you believe the bola en la calle, AKA what’s being said in the street. But then you’d be violating one of my top Cuba rules: if you haven’t seen or experienced something here firsthand, it’s best to assume it’s false or fabricated (or at the very least exaggerated) until proven otherwise. Indeed, if I believed everything I heard here, I’d be writing about cooking oil made from cremated bodies; JFK’s bastard Cuban son; condom cheese; and the government’s plan to spend nearly $400,000 converting all license plates from American- to European-style. Rumors, nada más, which will remain so until evidence confirms or disproves them.

What my experience tells me is that house theft is not nearly as common as Cubans believe. In over a decade here, I know three people who’ve had their homes robbed. In each instance, no one was hurt, thankfully, though all were home at the time. In only one of these cases was the perpetrator caught; in none of the cases was property recovered. Three robberies in 10 years hardly argue for a generalized wave of house break-ins (see note 2) requiring enclosing your home in bars.

Paranoia, it’s epidemic: In reply to my query about government policies regarding this and that, a dear friend explained: “half of the paranoia is based on experiences of concrete, unrelenting and strategic attacks on the country from without and within. The other half is straight up paranoia.” The Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines paranoia as ‘a tendency on the part of an individual or group towards excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others.’

Based on my experience with everything here from bureaucracy to busy body neighbors, I’m on board with my friend’s assessment: there are some very real, tangible threats to protect against and there are the imagined ones. Something else my experience tells me is that paranoia is contagious. From day one, all of my neighbors, both in the aforementioned barrio on Havana’s outskirts and now in Playa, have urged me to padlock my front door gate, locking myself inside, especially at night while I’m sleeping.

But I’ve never done it: in my mind, the way Cubans smoke, fire is a much bigger threat than robbery (see note 3), and I’d rather be burgled than trapped inside a blazing building. Recently, a friend slept over after a party and locked up the house after I’d gone to bed. I was amused, but not surprised, to find upon waking that he’d padlocked the front door. What wasn’t funny (and gave me great pause) was, the following night, for the first time in a decade, I padlocked that gate, thinking ‘an ounce of prevention….’ Yet, when that prevention is based on rumor and paranoia, is it really worth it? And how about when the preventive measure generates another danger, in this case rendering my house a fire trap? Needless to say, that was the first and last time I padlocked my front door but it taught me an important lesson: paranoia is a disease, easy to catch.

Friends impose this same paranoia regarding my preferred mode of transport: constantly, I’m urged to be extremely careful on my bike, to the point of not riding at night, ever, because I risk being jumped and the bike ripped from between my legs. While I recognize that someone desperate (or stupid; see next point) enough might attempt this, I’ve never heard of this happening here. Have you? The more people tell me this, the more I think it’s an apocryphal holdover from the Special Period.

I’m was born and raised in New York: My friends from Centro Habana scoff when I tell them this, rejecting it out of hand as any kind of mitigating factor vis-à-vis crime against my person or property. ‘This is Havana, it’s different,’ they invariably say. My first inclination is to say: ‘hell yeah, it’s different!’ and then explain the armor and mechanisms one is forced to develop waiting for a New York City subway on an abandoned platform deep underground circa 1986 when wild-eyed crack hos, male and female, roamed and robbed violently, desperate for money for more rock cocaine.

You needed mad city skills in my New York of yore, I want to explain, but refrain. I don’t tell my Centro Habana friends about walking in the street – never on the sidewalk – in dark, decrepit neighborhoods to improve your visibility and sightlines and lessen the possibility of being jumped or cornered, nor about turning rings inward or forsaking jewelry altogether to decrease your chances of being marked. Although I don’t offer tips like ‘never leave a backpack in a locked car,’ sometimes I wish I had: my stepson made this rookie mistake in Madrid last week and was robbed blind of his laptop, passport, plane ticket and more. Likewise, I don’t explain the very real difference between walking streets where you know people are armed with guns and those where someone may have a knife – but probably not.

I also don’t share my experience of 18 months of self-defense classes where I learned tactics for what to do when jumped, pinned or attacked, at gun or knife-point, or with bare hands. With their belief in la bola, combined with paranoia and lack of firsthand knowledge of what constitutes real and constant threats, what would be the point? Besides, it reeks of mala brujería to talk about it: I don’t want to jinx myself and have to put those skills to the test.

¿Conclusión?

Cubans have an unrealistic measure of what crime looks like outside their door, down the block, across town and overseas (see note 4). The question is: does it really matter? Isn’t this just a chronicle of life in contemporary Cuba? Possibly, except I’m worried about what relying on la bola about crime will mean as we move forward with current economic reforms. As inequalities deepen – and they are, as I type this – and crime begins to climb, as it tends to do when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, won’t it be helpful for citizens to know exactly what their playing field looks like?

Notes

1. Even more than renovated kitchens and bathrooms, the first home improvement Cubans make is erecting rejas on windows and doors.

2. Ojo: Note that here I am referring only to home robberies and how they correlate with barred windows and doors, not opportunistic theft of bicycles, chain and purse snatching, etc.

3. One friend of mine has fallen asleep not once, but twice, while smoking, torching his mattress in the process. Despite having escaped unscathed, he continues to smoke and nod off; I have the burnt furniture to prove it.

4. This intrigues me even more still since part of the reason for this skewed perception is lack of press coverage of crime here. But you see the same exact fear and paranoia in the US due to too much press coverage and the generalized media strategy of ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’

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The Cuban Love Doctor Is In

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Why do Cuban men cheat?

Are Cuban women faithful?

Steer clear of Cuban men?

Someone save me from my Cuban husband!

People look to me as some kind of authority when it comes to their Cuban lovers – although I’ve only written once on the Cuban fidelity question and never directly about love, lust or the like. Still, Those Faithful Cubans is one of my all-time most popular posts and people search daily for information on the issue as the above – actual search terms from the last week – illustrate.

Honestly, I do try to extend the benefit of the doubt in this regard, but one thing I’ve learned in my job as a health journalist here is to be experiential- and evidenced-based (see note 1). And what the evidence reveals on this topic likely won’t be welcome news for those of you with Cuban lovers or spouses.

Lest you think I’m about to malign an entire country and culture, let me clarify: there are exceptions to the rule – always – and if you’re in a relationship with a Cuban and reading this, you may be one of those lucky few. But in general…

They’ve all got someone on the side. Often, as one reader pointed out, this is a complicit arrangement – more up front and out in the open than on the side. I know men who have been married 20 years (or longer) and have kept the same mistress all the while. Polygamy without the papers I like to call it. In many cases, there’s little care taken to hide it – friends, family, colleagues are all hip to the scenario.

Upon first analysis, it seems logical to say: if everyone’s ok with it, what’s the problem? And trust me, this question has forced me to examine if my own moral code – faithful to a fault – is clouding my appreciation of the issue. But after turning the critical eye to my own beliefs and how they “cuadrar” (or not) with my adopted culture, I’ve concluded there is a problem with these arrangements for two fundamental, fucked up reasons: health and machismo.

Here in Havana, the latter is real, prevalent, and extraordinarily complicated – if you think otherwise, you’re not paying attention. When you hear the word ‘macho,’ the image that pops to mind is likely a hirsute brute in a wife beater, feet up on the coffee table, shouting kitchen-ward for another Coors and a nacho refill. Let me tell you: machismo here is as far from that as a Miami Cuban sandwich is from its Havana counterpart.

Cuban machismo is more subtle (and therefore potentially more dangerous, since you’re not always quite sure what you’re dealing with). It has to be – Cuban women are too empowered, strong-willed, and educated to put up with that shit. The economic dynamic here also plays a part since 57% of all technical and professional jobs are held by women, which doesn’t lend itself to the financial domination men lord over women elsewhere.

This isn’t to say that Cuban women are free from blame. Each time they shoo their sons from the kitchen telling them to play soccer with the other boys and every Saturday they make their daughters help clean house instead of suggesting they help dad fix the bike, they’re part of the traditional gender construct problem. In short, many of the fairer sex here replicate damaging stereotypes and patterns which prop up the macho paradigm (see note 2).

Tolerating mistresses validates machismo for a simple reason: it is not a two-way street. Try taking and maintaining a lover just like your male partner and watch the mierda hit the fan. The message is clearly ‘I can, but you can’t,’ coupled with ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ It’s a pitiable slice of paternalistic hypocrisy that chaps my ass. Can you tell?

And the one-way street runs into carnal endeavors as well: while he may be hot for a threesome with another chick, cuidado if it occurs to you to suggest the same with another man. While this surely is not unique to Cuban machismo, it involves factors specific to culture and place, especially Afro-Cuban religions which, on the whole are absurdly homophobic and macho (see note 3).

(I offer this as partial answer to the reader who searched on: Why don’t Cuban men like their bums touched?)

 The health-fidelity convergence is, at first blush, more straightforward. When a man or woman takes another partner (or several), they are potentially exposing their spouse to everything from HPV to HIV. Sure, there are protective measures everyone can and should take, but condoms, which cost pennies apiece and are sold everywhere, are as popular here as turds at the beach. And let’s face it: there are many ways to swap fluids without penetration, when a condom does you no good.

Machismo also muddies the health picture since some married Cuban men like to get out and savor their own flavor. And this can increase risk of HIV infection for wives since machismo-cum-homophobia is a condom-adverse state of mind. Indeed, here, the term ‘men who have sex with men’ is favored over ‘homosexual’ since only a small portion of men into guy-on-guy action self-identify as gay. I always laugh a sigh when I tell a Cuban friend someone is setting off my Gaydar and they respond: ‘But he’s married!’ Were I to say instead, that man has a mistress, the response would be along the lines of: ‘of course! Who doesn’t?’

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve limited this diatribe to the bio-medical effects this putería/mariconería has on health. But what of the mental, emotional, and spiritual toll long-term mistresses (and masters) have on health? Better I save that for a different post.

 I don’t have the answers, but to the reader who searched: when your boyfriend goes to Cuba for a month, I say: assume he’s gone rogue and use a condom until you know otherwise.

Notes

1. This is sound advice for everyone from Cuban newbies to vets: take everything with a grain of salt unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

2. Metrosexuals – a fairly recent phenomenon here – are bucking this trend. I just wonder how they keep so hairless given our lack of resources here?!

3. Admittedly, I’m not an expert in this field and if anyone is willing and able to share knowledge about the beliefs and codes of conduct vis-à-vis male/female relations and power structures in these religions, bring it on.

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