Category Archives: Expat life

Hogs & Dogs: Extreme Camping in Cuba

Our summer vacation plans were simple and cheap: strap the camping gear onto the 1946 Harley-Davidson and plunge deep into the mountains of Pinar del Río, getting as far from hot, hectic Havana as we could without a visa. We were broke and stressed; our souls needed to sigh a bit among the pines and pure air.

 

This sounds nuts, I know. Who in their right mind vacations where there is no plumbing and more livestock than people? To boot, our transportation is a 72-year old motorcycle held together by string (literally; more on that later) and we’d be camping in a place where, incidentally, camping isn’t a thing. Add to this the general state of Cuban roads, the crippling August heat, and dearth of gas stations, stores, and food, and you begin to understand why the whole idea had family and friends from near and far expressing concern for our sanity.

lastunasbaches

But this wasn’t our first rodeo. Last summer we traveled nearly 2000 kilometers between Havana and Granma on that same Harley as research fodder for my new book. Yet this was something altogether different.

first rodeo

This time we were considering taking the dog.

 

Our decision wasn’t snap or capricious; we’d deliberated and debated – conversations which left me more comfortable with the idea of canine accompaniment but not entirely convinced. And being the youngest of four from a poor household (i.e. too self-centered than my station or accomplishments warrant), I wondered: how does bringing Toby benefit me? Unless I sold the story to The Sun or New Yorker, it seemed like a lot of work for negligible reward…

 

The evidence base, if you can call it that, was slim and partial for how Toby might comport himself on our odyssey. We’d spent a sublime weekend camping at seaside Canasí where he romped in the woods, lounged by the campfire swollen with tinned meat, and ran, tail between legs, from the surf. And there was no question the little guy loves to ride: every day, paws on the handlebars, ass pressing against José as we bank turns, we commute to Cuba Libro on the Harley. But what we were proposing wasn’t just a weekend within striking distance of the capital or a five-minute jaunt between home and work. This longer, more remote trip promised to be more intense. Way more intense.

commuting

The idea was a week-long back country camping trip covering over 600 kilometers through the mountains of Pinar del Río, towing a trailer with our gear and Toby in his cage. Never mind that Toby, a dog rescued from Havana’s mean streets, had never before been in a cage.

 

Both José and I have extensive riding and camping experience – he more of the former, me better-versed in the latter – but as a team we were motivated and adept. In short, we had the chops to make it happen, dog and all. Toby? I wasn’t at all sure how he’d react.

 

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For those not familiar with Cuba, let me explain why this plan sparked a second round of concerned emails, which now expressed fears for our sanity and Toby’s safety. First of all, there are no Harley-Davidson dealerships or parts sellers in Cuba. Should we break down in the middle of nowhere – if a cable or gear shaft or belt should go – we were on our own. Luckily, my pilot José is a crackerjack machinist, electrician, and inventor (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also easy on the eyes!) Plus, the Harley is made from real steel that can take a beating. Second, in Havana, you can’t just pop into a Petco for a doggie cage or AutoZone for a trailer. All this had to be built from scratch and scrap – on a limited budget. These weren’t hurdles we could throw money at. Complicating matters is the fact that there is nowhere to officially camp on the island – we’d have to be tremendously resourceful and somewhat careful to find practical, pleasant places to camp (last year we pitched camp too close to the naval base in Guantánamo). And one more detail troubled me: dog food isn’t sold in Cuba. We were used to cooking for him daily at home, but on the road? It’s not like we had a camp stove or anything.

chariot

The one-wheel trailer, hitch and cage were designed and built by José using salvaged wood and wire, supplemented by re-purposed refrigerator racks and dorm room crates dating back decades to my NYU days. The cage door was held in place with a bungie cord – release the cord and the door swung open. The cage (or “chariot” as my friend Chris prefers to call it), sat atop a suitcase containing our camping, cooking and snorkeling gear, plus our clothing, food and my reading/writing materials. The suitcase nestled perfectly in the trailer’s bed and elevated Toby and chariot above the exhaust pipe. Even with all this killer design and forethought, I wasn’t at all sure how Toby would handle it. José told me not to worry. Like that ever works.

 

Once everything was strapped down and secured, we placed Tobito gently in his cage. He was more enthusiastic hitched to the Harley than when we tested it in the living room. So enthusiastic, in fact, he started barking as soon as we hooked the bungie cord into place and didn’t stop until we unhooked the door (every couple of hours once we were on the road). It was 600 kilometers of non-stop, on-the-road barking – maddening for us, but he was a happy camper. He wagged his tail wildly, caught the wind of the open road upon his face, and sniffed eagerly at the goats, cows, and pines as we passed. He often had an erection. By the time we got home, he was hoarse from so much barking and we were aurally traumatized. But he was a trooper and a champ, never messing his cage, protecting our camp at night and hopping gleefully in and out of his chariot by trip’s end.

toby in LR

tobyin chariot w LR

 

We’d pre-cooked five days of meals for Toby, freezing it and storing it in a little Styrofoam cube. It kept well for four days and the last meal we fed to an emaciated country dog who devoured the almost-turned liver and rice. Once the precooked meals ran out, we fed him hot dogs and canned meat balls cooked over the campfire.

 

When we caught bad weather (repeatedly), we would quickly pull over and bivouac under sheets of plastic. Together with trailer, Harley, chariot, and gear, Toby, José and I would huddle under a plastic teepee and prepare our little cafetera to enjoy some sweet, hot, dark espresso as we waited for the skies to clear. We had no camp stove, but lo and behold! At our first rest stop, José whipped out a ‘revelberro’ – a one-burner wonder made of two steel pieces: the base which gets filled with luz brillante and the burner, which is placed on top. In Cuba, you learn something new every day and though I’ve camped the length and the breadth of the island – from Granma to Guanahacabibes, above and below waterfalls, on the beach and in the bush – I had never seen one of these nifty units before. It’s not only great for camping, but also blackouts, hurricanes or when you forget to pay your gas bill. Note to self: see if José’s sister will sell me her revelberro. Toby didn’t partake of the rich and delicious café Cubano, but we granted him tent access during thunderstorms and rain. Hot dogs and meatballs, tent privileges and unparalleled adventure: this is one lucky doggie.

 

We crawled out of the tent after one of these summer storms broke and found a horse grazing under a double rainbow. On the far west coast, when the clouds shipped out after a nighttime tempest over Guanahacabibes National Park, we wished on shooting stars. We shared crack-of-dawn coffee facing the caves from where Che commanded troops during the Bay of Pigs with the site’s historians one day and sipped the best espresso (served in little coconut shell cups) with a campesino family in their dirt floor home the next.

tobes rainbow

No cell phone service, no showers or tour buses or air conditioning: camping in Cuba is not for the fastidious or faint of heart. The lazy or timid also need not apply. But if you’re looking for a unique adventure – natural, cultural, logistical – consider this alternative. Even if you don’t have a car or bicycle (or Harley!), a similar trip to ours is possible. Parts of it you won’t want to replicate, like when one of the seat springs (about the size of a small peach), busted in two on a remote road cleaving between mountains. Suddenly I was leaning dramatically to starboard. José cut the motor and set to bending and re-threading the spring to make it shorter, but strong, reinforcing it with several lengths of twine.

 

If you’re game for this type of trip, it helps if you speak Spanish and can build a decent cooking fire, but with gumption, a phrase book, and healthy stash of protein nuggets and nuts, you can camp here way off the grid and without leaving a trace. If you’ve dreamt of this kind of vacation, you may find these tips helpful, honed over 15 years of camping on the island:

 

  • For reasons related to Cuba’s wonky supply chain and environmental stewardship, do not depend on bottled water. Pack a filter or purification tablets to ward off thirst and protect your gut flora. Cuban pharmacies and almost every home also stock hipoclorito de sodio; add two drops to every liter for potable water.

 

  • Food can be an issue in Cuba (now there’s an understatement!). Even if you’re on the fanciest organized tour, you will probably go hungry at some point in your trip. Bringing packaged soups, pastas, and dehydrated meals from home, supplemented by vacuum packed tuna, Spam, and the like, is a great strategy. Also, high-protein, lightweight anything (beef jerky, Clif bars, trail mix) will be a life saver at some point. You can round this out with peanuts and other on-the-ground snacks; our little sack of chicharrones kept all three of us happy during our recent odyssey. Fruits and veggies can be procured en route, but availability and variety depend largely on the season. Fresh pork is sold everywhere – looked for ‘ahumado’, smoked cuts, which keep beautifully. Eggs are also widely available; keeping them from cracking is the tricky bit, but an experienced camper/packer will figure it out. Hard boiling them for a roadside picnic is another option. Canned goods are sold in tiendas; those at gas stations, like the one where we stocked up in Sandino, can be gold mines.

 

  • Mountain regions and (some) beach areas are the best bets for finding practical, beautiful places to camp. For mountains and valleys, I suggest: the Escambray, Sierra de los Órganos (Pinar del Río), Valle de Yumurí (Matanzas), Sierra de Cristal (Holguín) and the region around Baracoa (excluding Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, which is off-limits to casual campers). For beach camping, good opportunities abound in Guanahacabibes and the adjacent coast of Pinar del Río, Playa Larga (Matanzas), the beaches between Cienfuegos and Trinidad, the Las Tunas coast and beaches around Yumurí (access from Baracoa). Canasí is ever popular and there will likely be Cubans camping there when you turn up.

 

  • If you can’t find an appropriate camping spot, try one of the scores of ‘campismos’ around the country. Technically these are not for tent camping and only a handful rent the concrete cabins to foreigners, but with a bit of conversation and cash, you’ll likely be able to convince administrators to let you pitch your tent. These are always located in beautiful settings, from mountain to sea, along rivers and tucked into valleys.

 

  • Cuba is, overall, quite safe. Locals tend to be more curious and protective of campers than any sort of threat and they’ll surely want to chat you up, which is part and parcel of the charm of this sort of trip. Offering a slug of coffee or swill of rum to people happening upon your camp will result in lively conversation, unsolicited advice and maybe even new friendships!

 

  • Pack biodegradable toilet paper. Be sure to pee and poop off the beaten trail and bury the latter, please!

 

no-trace-before.jpg

Guanahacabibes campsite in full swing

No Trace Camping

Guanahacabibes campsite, 12 hours later upon leaving

  • Burn all paper garbage, bury the biodegradable, and pack out the rest. At several points during our most recent trip we cruised the mountain roads with a plastic bag filled with tin cans tied to the motorcycle seat. While this elicited strange looks from passersby and the cans rattled annoyingly, disposing of them properly in the first available garbage provided great satisfaction.

 

  • The May-October rainy season is hot, sticky, buggy and wet. Usually these are afternoon thundershowers, but we’ve been rudely awakened at 3am by water dropping on us through the mesh tent roof. If you break camp early and move on to your next destination, setting up before the thunderclouds roll in, you can beat the worst of it – most of the time. Ponchos are an important tool at this time of year. Not only will they keep you dry, you can use them to cover campfire wood so you’re not eating raw and cold once the clouds move out.

 

 

I wasn’t sure about taking Toby at the outset and even mid-trip, when José declared he’d go camping with Toby again in a heartbeat, I wavered. But once I saw Toby leaping into his chariot with a mini-erection somewhere around Valle de San Juan, barking like mad, I was already planning our next adventure to Pan de Guajaibón.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, cuban beaches, dream destinations, environment, Expat life, hiking, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Uncategorized, Writerly stuff

Inside a Cuban Orphanage

If you know me, you know I get terribly bored (and sometimes in trouble) if I’m not learning anything new. If you know my writing, you know that one of the things I love about Cuba is that I’m learning new things all the time. It’s stimulating, humbling – an eternal education, vaya. A recent experience was particularly educational when Cuba Libro, together with our family of Harlistas Cubanos, paid a visit to the Guanabacoa orphanage.

orphanage

Here’s what I learned:

1) In Cuba, orphanages are not called orfanatos like in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Here, they’re called casas de niños sin amparo filial (literally children without family protection; more proof that Cubans are masters of euphemism. This is something I knew from my days volunteering here during the ‘Special Period in A Time of Peace,’ – how Cubans refer to total economic catastrophe);

2) In Cuba, these children aren’t called orphans. They’re called niños de la patria (how’s that for euphemism?);

3) There are some very dedicated, loving and compassionate people working in this sector (all are women at this particular orphanage, something I suspect is par for the course across the country);

orphanage5

4) I knew before this visit that there are few orphanages in Cuba (thanks to a variety of factors, including free, safe abortions), but I learned this weekend that the most common reasons children end up here are: neglect, their parents are in jail or addicted to drugs or they’re abandoned outright;

5) Orphanages in Cuba are divided by age – there are orphanages for infants who are still breast feeding, others for children from 1-1/2 to 11 years old; and others for kids 12 to 18;

6) Some children arrive at orphanages having never seen a doctor – despite Cuba’s free, universal health system. A 5-year old boy at the Guanabacoa orphanage, for example, arrived with an undiagnosed degenerative childhood disease. His muscles will atrophy until he dies, before reaching adulthood. He’s now receiving appropriate medical attention, but his is a bleak diagnosis. In addition to full medical care, the government provides these children with food, clothing, beds and linens, soap and toothpaste (a bar and tube, respectively, for each child every month), school uniforms, and a monthly stipend;

orphanage4

7) Every opportunity to place orphans with foster or adoptive families is investigated and made. Although the process is incredibly long and arduous, requiring all kinds of background checks, character testimonies, home visits, and documentation, several of the 20 children at the orphanage we visited were with their foster families for the weekend. Additionally, one 4 year-old girl was with her adoptive family which was finalizing her adoption;

8) The chance to visit the Guanabacoa orphanage and learn how all of this works in Cuba was possible thanks to a donation initiative by Havana Harley-Davidson riders and Cuba Libro. Most Here is Havana readers already know about Cuba Libro’s robust, targeted donation programs but this was our first donation to an orphanage. We’re incredibly thankful to have friends and family among these generous bikers who provided the opportunity to learn what orphanages most need in Cuba:
– infant and boys’ and girls’ clothes;
– sneakers and shoes;
– washcloths and shower scrubbies (caretakers are prohibited from having skin-to-skin contact with the children); and
– white knee socks – part of the official school uniform.
Thanks to this initial donation (organized by our Donation Coordinator, Yenlismara), Cuba Libro will be continuing to support the wonderful staff and children at this orphanage. If you would like to participate in this or other donation programs administered by Cuba Libro, please drop us a line;

orphanage2

9) The last thing I learned was the provenance of this house – a mansion really, with multiple gardens, a pool and Jacuzzi, three-car garage and so many bedrooms I lost count. Several years ago, an official police video made the rounds (you can get the new fuzz reels every week from any little storefront business selling the paquete) about a massive bust in Guanabacoa. The video showed all manner of ill-gotten goods – including eight cars, gold and jewels, appliances, electronics, the works. They even found bricks of cocaine stashed around – it was really some Cops Miami type shit. The culprit? A half-assed Cuban rapper wanted in the United States for a giant Medicare scam which fleeced boatloads of money from the federal program. I had never heard of Gilbert Man before I saw the video, nor after – until we were preparing the kids’ donations. Turns out that after he was caught, charged, sentenced to 17 years and imprisoned, the Cuban government converted his house into this orphanage. Upon visiting and beholding the f-ugly furniture, gold and brown brocade drapes, god awful porcelain vases and gilded mirrors, I learned that Gilber Man may have been (temporarily) rich, but had perennially bad taste.

I also learned that wonderful things can be sown from nefarious seeds and soil.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: Part III

I was sitting in my usual corner in the cafe when he walked in. It took me a second to recognize him out of context and with a good 25 extra pounds on his frame but his smile was unmistakeable. Miguel!! We were one of his first stops on his first weekend pass from prison. I smelled cafe brewing and I was excited to invite him to his first cortadito after a year behind bars.

“Amor. Time to get up,” my husband jostled me gently.

I opened my eyes and realized it was all a dream – the coffee was brewing in my kitchen, not Cuba Libro.

Before my friend Miguel was picked up for carrying 20 or so tabs of Ritalin, I had absolutely zero experience with the Cuban penal and justice systems. Now I know how to smuggle in instant coffee (just the fact that coffee, a staple of Cuban culture and diet is a prohibited item in jail seems punishment enough, especially for Miguel who is a tremendous ‘cafetera’) and know that inside, nine packs of Criollo cigarettes procures a homemade electrical coil to heat that illicit cafe. I know, too, that Miguel’s haircut cost five packs of Criollos and later learned that in the Cuban clink, different types of cigarettes carry differing values. In ascending order: uncut Criollos (forget bringing Titans or Populares to your loved ones inside – even there, people are loathe to smoke them); H Upmann; Hollywood white, red, green, and the highly sought after black. Seems no one is trafficking imported Lucky Strikes or Dunhills, which cost upwards of $3CUC on the outside.

Since my first visits some nine months ago, I’ve learned that I can leave my cell phone with the parking lot attendant for $1CUC for the duration of the visit and that Miguel and Esther can procure a coveted overnight conjugal visit for $50CUC – what she makes in a week working at a fancy Air B&B. Some families have had success securing their loved ones’ release for $500 to $1000CUC (a small fortune here), but not Miguel; there’s zero tolerance for drug offenses here as of late.

During this most recent visit, Miguel was considerably, visibly depressed. He was resigned, bordering on hopeless.

“Screw the appeal. Four years, six years, it doesn’t matter,” was the tenor of our conversation. His appeal was denied I found out this week: his sentence of six years stands.

His outlook was the opposite of what I expected. I thought Miguel was going to fall apart when first incarcerated. And that as he grew accustomed to his new surroundings and adapted to the criminal element inside, he would settle in for the duration. But it played out in the reverse. He was strong at first, worn down as the months passed. Since his arrest in May 2017, Miguel has been beaten up, contracted giardia and had a tooth pulled – medical conditions for which he was given a total of two pills, neither of which resolved the problem or pain – was put in quarantine during a mumps outbreak, and has suffered daily bullying.

“Amor. Please don’t bring my food in pink Tupperware,” he said to his wife Esther during one visit.

He wasn’t being picky – he was verbally abused every time another inmate got a glimpse of his “maricón” storage containers. In the same visit, he asked our friend Raul to sneak in a pair of shorts (along with coffee, bringing in shorts is verboten). Though the most comfortable option, sleeping in boxers is another cause for bullying and the prison-issued shorts are so hot as to make sleep elusive. Esther just popped in to remind Raul about wearing the shorts under his pants and passing them to Miguel clandestinely in the bathroom during the next visit. This is when I learned that the grey uniforms worn by convicts, of which I’ve written previously for their fairly fashionable cut, is made from the same material used to line caskets here (and I know a bit about caskets in Cuba). This is why inmates are known as the walking dead in these parts. Another fun Cuba fact brought to you by Here is Havana.

The news pertaining to Miguel’s situation is pretty grim. His rejected appeal, for starters. Truth be told, his lawyer is a bit weak. Esther thinks the state law firm appointed their bottom feeder to the case, (this happens frequently with drug convictions since they’re considered lost causes). What’s more, they’ve started moving inmates to the provinces to do agricultural labor. A contingent from Miguel’s unit was shipped off to Pinar del Río recently and word on the cell block is that he could be transferred to Camagüey to cut marabú soon. This isn’t all bad. He’ll be outside for a good part of each day and the living conditions should be a bit better. On the downside, he’ll be far – too far, about seven hours in a good vehicle – from visiting friends and of course, his wife. But even this has its benefits: prisoners moved outside their home province to do agricultural labor are usually rewarded with a reduced sentence.

When Esther came by for a coffee today (another community service provided by Cuba Libro: she drinks free until Miguel is released, a policy she tries to ignore, but we don’t let her get away with it), she had some encouraging news: if all goes as planned, Miguel should be downgraded from the Combinado del Este (Havana’s largest prison), to a campamento in September. This means more personal living space and fresh air, plus more relaxed visits. Then if all goes well, two months later he should receive his first weekend pass. Maybe my dream was prescient after all. I can’t wait to prepare his cortadito.

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Havana Declaration: He’s an Assassin

I thought I’d already written all I had to say about New Year’s Eve in Cuba. Likewise, I figured a couple posts about Donald Trump – the Cuban reaction to his election; his overall ineptitude – were sufficient, more than enough in fact. But 2017 was a particularly difficult year thanks to what the politicians, planet and life in general had wrought; given their wont to let off steam when the going gets tough and daily grind too trying, Cubans were anxious to bid goodbye the past year with a four-day weekend. And hell of a party.

Life-long traditions like eating 12 grapes at midnight; tossing a bucket of water out the door to purge the house of last year’s nastiness; and walking around the block with suitcase in tow to ensure future travels, are part of the national New Year’s script. Fireworks, on this island where fun and spectacle are homemade instead of manufactured, are making inroads, despite this year’s tragedy in Remedios. But 2017 required something more dramatic, more purging, more political, a bigger catharsis and my new-found family from the campo didn’t disappoint.

When Ivan told me over Christmas Eve dinner to come early on the 31st to help build an effigy, I took it as idle talk – the kind of statement Cubans make to fill the silent void, akin to the wishful thinking about what fast food they’ll eat once they reach the Yuma or the car they’d buy if they could.

“We need an old pair of pants!” Ivan told me over the phone as we prepared to make our way to his house in Marianao (or Playa, depending on who you ask). It seemed the effigy business was serious, a tradition in this family of guajiros. When we arrived, the life-sized muñeco was well along, the straw-stuffed torso, legs and head laid out for assembly in the driveway below a Cuban flag (another tradition here heralding Fidel and Co.’s victorious 1959 entry into Havana). The shirt and pants were so tightly packed the thing almost stood on its own, but a fist of tawny straw was saved out to fashion that absurd swoop of a ‘do ridiculed from Rye to Katmandu.

My Cuban family was burning an effigy of Donald Trump to ring out the year.

Mounted on a cross for easy transport to the corner, the tucked-away street was dead quiet leading up to midnight. But long-time neighbors knew the glee which overcame Ivan on New Year’s (the whiskey didn’t hurt) and they began drifting from their houses once Donald made his debut. One of the first was an overweight, dyed blond Cubana-Americana in a motley housecoat: “that’s a real man! That’s my President. You’re burning my President?!” she shrieked as she filmed everything with her iPhone. And then almost to herself: ‘this is going straight to Facebook.’ Her embarrassing revelations were interrupted by my second cousin:

“We should have made it Marco Rubio. He’s the real son of a bitch.”
“Yes! We should have made a Mini Me/Marco to go with Trump and burned them together,” I said.

The neighbors – save the bottle blonde – started weighing in.

“Rubio’s the real asshole. An even bigger imbecile than Trump,” opined Neighbor #1.
“And he’s never even set foot on this island! But he acts like he’s struggled and suffered through the same as us,” said Neighbor #2, spitting on the ground for emphasis.

As Lázaro doused Trump’s feet in black market gas, fireworks popped, shouts of ¡Felicidades! rang out and cascades of water arched from bucket to street. 2017 was history.

We sparked a couple of Cuban matches and tossed them in Trump’s direction. The effigy burst into flames the height of two men, burning fast and hot, temporarily silencing the dozens gathered in the street. As we watched rapt, bottles of ice-cold sparkling cider (used here in lieu of champagne, whether out of tradition or lack, I know not) were uncorked and passed around among neighbors and friends. By now, would-be, wannabe, travelers started making their way around the block with wheelie carts, backpacks and duffels. One couple dressed to the nines, looked ready to alight at Charles de Gaulle, while an entire family, five generations all told, headed down the street with luggage in tow. ‘¡Buen viaje!’ we shouted out.

“See you at Terminal 2!” yelled an older gentleman in response.

The graceful Chinese lanterns containing wishes of wealth and health for the new year drew our eyes skyward as they soared high above the Havana rooftops. We pledged to do that next year – something positive and beautiful to be seen by the whole city. Dreaming of the year to come, we watched Trump go up in flames, his head and silly hair crashing to the ground. Through the revelry and smoke, singed straw and sparks, I caught the eye of my suegra:

“Trump is a bad man. A very bad man. He’s an assassin,” she said softly.

Happy 2018 everyone!

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Humans of Havana

“I’m doing absolutely nothing. I don’t plan on even leaving the house. I want to hang out with you guys, eat as much as I possibly can, sleep and luxuriate in hot water worth its name.”

As you may have guessed, I was excited to go off-island for Thanksgiving and spend some quality time with my family. I needed a rest from my 70-hour work weeks. I needed to escape from Cuban-generated stress. I needed to eat with abandon. I needed a 24-7, seamless Internet connection. I needed to bank.

The only social obligation I had was to re-connect with my oldest friend who cheated death – repeatedly, by a hair – and was now on the road to recovery. The meet-up had potential to be heavy (we were twice a couple over our 30 year friendship and I was intimately involved with his various brushes with death) and I was looking forward to it, but not, if you know what I mean. I really didn’t want to leave the house, much less on Black Friday, but for Jason I’d do it. I took a seat near the dog park at the Museum of Natural History to wait for him.

My head raced with random thoughts – nostalgia for our long-gone youth and those heady days when Jason and I crossed the country in a Ford Econoline; my (possible) complicity in his near death experiences and the day I gave him a final wake-up call; and how amazingly he shreds the electric guitar and viola da gamba. I marveled that the New York winter weather was actually pleasant – the landscaped areas around the Museum of Natural History teemed with families and Upper West Side lifers lightly clad, nary a woolen scarf in evidence, present company excluded, of course.

I looked past the Alfred Nobel monument and across the plaza wondering how late Jason might be – he is a chronic over-scheduler; I think it’s related to his natural state of misplaced optimism. As I mused on the intersection of cheating death and misplaced optimism, I saw a guy in the middle distance walking in my direction.

‘He’s bee-lining for me,’ I thought with no small dose of dread. I wasn’t in the mood for a random encounter. Not today. And I was right – this guy was striding directly towards me.

What the hell does this have to do with Havana you’re wondering? Maybe you’re yelling at the screen: ‘¡Vamos al grano, ya! Get to the point already girl!’…I’m sure I’ve lost readers already. So as not to lose more: the tall guy with a big, pro camera dangling from his wrist rolled up to my bench.

Him: “Hi.”

Me: I responded with what a Cuban friend calls my ‘synchronized swimming smile.’

Him: “Have you heard of Humans of New York?”

Me: “Nope,” looking up the path to see if Jason was coming. No dice.

Him: “I take portraits of New Yorkers and do interviews to go with them. I have two books on the New York Times Best Seller list.”

Me: “Congratulations!” This wasn’t sarcasm: as a writer, I’d be orgasmic if I had two best-selling titles.

Him: “And I have 18 million followers on Facebook.”

Me: 18 million?! I wondered when was the last time he came upon someone who had never heard of his project. Instead I said: “that’s a lot of bored people.” He laughed. Point for brazen camera/writer guy.

Him: “Maybe the content is really good and that’s why there are so many followers?”

Me: “Fair enough. Let’s say half are following for the content. The other half are just bored.”

Him: Earnest laughter.

I agreed to give the interview and have my portrait taken. (Actually he had me at two best-selling titles).

Him: “What’s the biggest challenge in your life right now?”

Great opening question, I thought. But complicated. My imminent meeting with Jason was an immediate and unpredictable challenge. Growing Cuba Libro amidst innumerable, unforeseen bumps in the road was another. I also had career and deadline challenges, others related to my relationship, and still more with my family. But really none of that compared to my greatest problem.

Me: “My biggest challenge? I just quit smoking. And I live in a country where everyone smokes, everywhere – on the bus, at school, in the office, even in hospitals. And a pack of cigarettes costs 70 cents.”
Him: “Where do you live?!”

If you’ve been to Cuba, if you have struggled with the nicotine monkey (according to addiction experts it is the hardest to get off your back), you know down to your bones how hard it is to not smoke here. I ended up talking to Brandon Stanton for over half an hour, covering all kinds of ground and talking about a variety of topics, including his wife’s stellar project Susie’s Senior Dogs. Jason looked momentarily hurt when he finally turned up and found me deep in conversation with this affable guy snapping my photo. Brandon gently asked for 10 more minutes with me.

Alas, I don’t think Brandon knows this monkey of which I spoke. He couldn’t relate to how all-consuming, how incredibly difficult it is to quit smoking. Ex-smoker Brandon was not. Pretend extrovert? Maybe. What he published focussed entirely on my comments about being an introvert in Cuba. Here, there’s obligatory socialization. Having to talk to strangers and greet neighbors by name, take a day out of the weekend for a visit or engaging in a conversation waiting for the bus, bread, the bathroom, whatever – these were significant challenges when I moved here over 15 years ago. But I’ve learned the lesson well, I think. Otherwise I certainly would have blown off the guy with his camera and mad interview skills. Had I not had over a decade of training talking to strangers, I would never have had 70,000 likes and nearly 3,000 comments on my HONY appearance.

Now I’m back in Havana. I resisted valiantly. After 8 hours at court for Miguel’s trial last week, my resistance failed. Each day, with every cigarette, I feel I’ve failed. And each day I feel more a Human of Havana than a Human of New York.

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

A Quick Note on Irma

Havana September 14, 2017

Time for thanks giving.

Among the many (well documented) reasons Cuba does hurricane preparation and post-recovery/survival so well is the ability of the populace to pull together, help each other and and sweat it out as one. It’s one of the intangibles of resiliency which if we bottled, would make this a better planet and us a more evolved race. To all the supporters of Cuba Libro who generously donated batteries, candles, flashlights, headlamps, and crank radios over the years: you directly supported resiliency in our community. These items were distributed to families in preparation for and in the wake of Irma. So thanks for that.

To the folks who helped batten down the hatches and clean up afterwards, including the entire Cuba Libro Team who, I say it to them and I’ll say it to you: is in a league of their own. What great, giving people. Regulars and neighbors pitched in too, while Salgado – I can’t remember the 52 things this Renaissance guy did to help us get ready and bounce back. So thanks for that ya’ll. Then there’s Toby who went on walkabout just shy of 8pm the night before Irma hit as we were hauling everything in. He chooses his escape window carefully, that wily pooch. So no thanks due there, but he’s awfully cute and keeps our spirits up (except when he’s on unauthorized walkabout).

To my neighbors in Playa who shared food, rum, water, conversation, information, companionship, volunteer time, and solace, a heartfelt thanks is also due. My block didn’t pool food supplies – a couple of plátanos from Isabel, a chunk of pork from Gaby, some puré from Ramón – to make a caldosa like those where Mary and Yen live, but just short of it. We passed hours and hours talking to our neighbors, sweating out the long hot days and nights when Irma moved out and we were left in entire blackout. Havana, Holguin, the nation. Our lights just came back on after more than four days (CROWD ROARS). As I type this, a text comes in from my friend M who still has no lights. I picture her house and sigh: she definitely won’t have lights any time soon; M lives steps from Colón Cemetery. As soon as the lights came back on at Cuba Libro, we let M and other friends know so they could at least charge their devices and drink some ice cold water. We became a meeting point for support and catharsis.

The flooding, the destruction and the deaths: it’s intense and real. I saw old-growth trees, trunks bigger than tractors, ripped with the chunk of sidewalk where they grew, straight from their roots. Some blocks had so many of these grand stands down you couldn’t even see the street. Most ripped out electricity posts or hung suspended on thick cables. Although these trees – in Playa and Vedado – choked off entire streets, I can’t remember one that hit a house straight on. Crushed an iron fence, sure, glanced off a corner of a roof before crashing to the ground, definitely. But crushing a house outright? I didn’t see that. I’m sure Havana had its share of damaged houses and that is awful. I also saw traffic lights and concrete utility poles snapped in half, heard a dog get electrocuted, watched as blond, laughing tourists cruised damaged neighborhoods in classic convertibles, and listened as my friend D, described her sofa, refrigerator, furniture, books and savings floating in her living room as the sea crashed through her front door. Anyone living on the ground floor within three blocks of the Malecón has a similar story; flooding from the sea also contaminated all the cisterns in these buildings.

As I write this, half the Cuba Libro team still doesn’t have electricity – along with most of the country. This presents so many practical problems it’s hard to transmit the difficulties if you haven’t lived through something like this; the way the planet and Mother Nature are protesting lately (hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis), many readers, friends and family sadly, know all too well what I’m talking about. Instead of presenting the laundry list of problems a developing, blockaded, island nation faces in a post-disaster situation such as we find ourselves, I’ll limit to just one aspect which in my estimation and experience is overlooked and under-reported: sleep deprivation. When it’s a hundred degrees, with 90% humidity and not a leaf blows in the non-existent breeze, you haven’t had a drink of cold anything in days, nor a shower during that time, sleep is more elusive than a straight priest (if this last offends you, sorry: PC this blog ain’t). In these days, we’ve dragged mattresses into living rooms and on to balconies, hefted them up to roofs – NY, black tar beach style – and tried to catch a few winks in rocking chairs. It rarely works and we wake in pools of sweat, no shower possible. Babies are fanned with squares of cardboard or collapsible hand fans all night long. It makes people tense and cranky, a bit awkward and torpid, slow to answer or react. And lovemaking? Por díos, no.

But we’re muddling through with characteristic cheer and chistes, with the occasional attack of hysteria. When that happens, friends and neighbors intercede, commiserate and return us to a laughing state. But this is no laughing matter: the island is reeling from Irma and needs help. If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, come. If you’re coming to Cuba, bring donations – targeted, well-needed donations. I can’t tell you how many tubes of expired Neosporin and four-year old bottles of ibuprofen we’ve received. And please: keep your half-used trial size Pantene. I’d be happy to provide ideas of what, and importantly, where to donate while on the island. If you’re reading this anywhere in the world and would like to support recovery efforts of the health system, MEDICC and Global Links, with over 30 years combined experience in supporting Cuban health, have partnered with PAHO. If you know of other worthy, transparent and experienced organizations with a track record in Cuba, please comment or get in touch.

I’ve gotta go freeze more water for my friends still without electricity.

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

Inside a Cuban Prison

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

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

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

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

Esther is one feisty muchacha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE #2: Miguelito called me after Hurricane Irma. They are all ok, but the prison was five days without WATER. A nightmare, but they lived through it. Miguelito and Esther now have a new lawyer who is actually doing his job, but Miguelito is depressed: he celebrates his birthday next week, behind bars, still.

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