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Conner’s Letra del Año

I’m back in the swing of things here in Havana and if I’m reading the signs/between the lines correctly, it promises to be a memorable year. Already some unpredictable ($200,000 cars?!) and unexpected (Fidel rolling up at Romerillo?!) things have happened, about which I promise to post at a later date.

‘Surprising’ and ‘fast-paced’ are the catch phrases for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell. Indeed, 2014 has proven illuminating and educational, adrenaline-rushed and not a little bit hectic – and we’re only a few weeks in.

It’s exciting – I’m excited – but I get the feeling that this year is going to obligate us to work, HARD, to maintain balance; we will have to be master jugglers these next 12 months. It will be tricky keeping all our professional, personal, and spiritual balls in the air, but if we stay focused and true to course, I think the payoff will be well worth it.

In an effort to measure the tenor of our times and steer a tentative course through the exotic, but potentially choppy, waters of 2014, I offer you my Letra del Año. For those readers unfamiliar with this annual declaration, it’s a collaborative document issued each new year by the major Afro Cuban religious associations. It contains everything from conjugal advice and health warnings to what foods and saints should be offered and attended.

While I’m not an adherent, I, like innumerable others on the island, pay attention to each year’s Letra. When I read 2014’s, I was a bit shocked (and encouraged – maybe I’m on the right track!) to learn that one of the sacramental foods this year is the pomegranate. Not only is this extraordinarily rare in Cuba (so an odd sacrament, for any year), I’d bought one and shared it with a friend on New Year’s Eve before this year’s Letra was published.

And will my Letra del Año be prophetic? Maybe not at all or possibly in part, only time will tell, but here’s my take on 2014 and what we might expect:

Love is in the air:
I’ve known Alejandra since I moved here. She’s both family and friend and a helluva woman. She lives with her aging parents, works in a thankless job for 20 bucks a month and has struggled with mental health issues over the years. For the first decade I knew her, she was completely alone – ‘pobrecita,’ they said. I don’t remember her ever going on a date, even. Then, a year ago, Alejandra met Evaristo, a good and good looking guy, who helped around the house, got along with the parents, and had a decent job. And for whatever reason known only to them (or not even – love, after all, is one of life’s great and wonderful mysteries), they clicked and swooned and grooved.

Last weekend, they tied the knot in a beautifully simple ceremony in Alejandra’s front yard. The look on their faces, on that of their parents, siblings and every last guest was pure bliss. You could feel the love before the first teardrops of joy fell. I have another amiga getting married next month and a dear friend of mine for whom the seeds of love have been slowly, carefully sown over the last year or so and are about to bloom. Another few couples are marrying over the summer and well, all you need is love, right? I say: let’s spread it and do our part to silence the bitter and hateful.

Healthier habits and routines:
Whether or not related to love and matters of the heart, I foresee folks around me (and myself included, hopefully, but unlikely), adopting healthier habits. Smoking and drinking less, sleeping longer and more soundly, eating healthier and doing some exercise will be in the mix. Watching less TV (no matter how classic or well-made) and reading more and better literature fall under this rubric, as does consuming less “news”, which just serves to make us more anxious and at the same time apathetic if you ask me.

Globetrotting:
This will be a year of travel, people. Already my trip calendar is filling up fast, with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ohio, Hawaii and Ireland on my itinerary. Cuban friends are also planning to travel (some ‘definitively’, as we say here, leaving us holding our aching hearts) to the usual places – Mexico, Miami, Madrid – but also to Canada, Germany, Amsterdam, and Thailand. Seems like everyone took a turn around the block with their luggage this December 31st, one of our year-end traditions/superstitions.

Consolidating creativity: I and many people I know put (too) many wheels in motion in 2013 – work projects and personal relationships, new businesses and novel challenges. Last year saw lots of this and now the time has come to focus, buckle down, and channel all this creativity into attainable goals. It’s important to emphasize attainable, since the majority of mi gente are overachievers and tend to set themselves up for defeat with all the complex, long-term (some life-long!) goals they set for themselves. We have the energy, we have the intelligence, we’re motivated and we’ve set 2014 up for success – let’s make it happen, one milestone at a time.

Time management challenges: Doesn’t it seem like everyone’s overworked, over-scheduled and just rushed overall? In my world, it looks and feels that way. Keeping everything together, tying up loose ends, leaving time for the people and things we love – this is going to be difficult in 2014. This is especially true in Havana and New York, the two places where I pitch my tent so to speak and where the rhythm of life is different and more hectic (increasingly so in Cuba) than other latitudes. Managing time, while still living in the moment and being present, will be even more difficult. Slowing down to smell the roses, sing to babies, and ask after our neighbors will be important this year. Please remind me when I forget.

Last but not least: have a fabulous and healthy 2014 everyone.

Let life be peachy.

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Queer Cuba

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I’m what’s known in the vernacular as a ‘fag hag.’ It was not choice, calling or custom that threw me into the gay orbit at an early age, but rather a fortuitous convergence of nature and nurture. My family is peppered with homosexuals and my oldest brother loved to tell us of his escapades with The Eagle Scout, The Priest, and The ‘Straight’ Guy. As a tween, I was already accustomed to seeing men kiss and knew about the dark and personal horrors of the closet (from the likes of The Priest and Eagle Scout, not my brother who was loud, proud, and occasionally obnoxiously, gay; see note 1).

I’ve been to leather bars, bear bars, piano bars and clubs where the dress code is naked and go-go boys dance in cages. I remember one of our tribe – the hottest, most coveted among them – telling me he wished he was straight so he could get with me. I love the humor and the hubris, honesty and fashion/design sense of my gay friends. I go to them for sex tips and appreciate having escorts who won’t try to grope me. They throw the best parties and usually have kismet with the downtrodden, being an oppressed group themselves.

By way of context, I’m talking about pre-AIDS New York City, when there were still dungeon clubs and working “girls” in the offal-slicked streets of the Meatpacking District (see note 2). Back then, bath houses called on gloomy days and condoms were for breeders. But most relevant to this post: straight girls like me were part of the gang.

This wasn’t the case in San Francisco where I lived for seven years after NYC. The queer scene there, to me, felt hyper segmented, with gay men, women, and everyone everywhere along the sexual diversity spectrum siloed in their individual worlds. It smacked suspiciously of tolerance, a weak and non-sustainable stand-in for the unity and community I’d known in New York.

Back here on this island, I’m happy to report that years of tireless, often unappreciated and highly criticized, work by CENESEX (headed by Mariela Castro), the HIV-STI Prevention Center, El Mejunje, advocacy groups like GPSIDA, MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), and the straight allies who support them, is gaining traction.

sorry girls Im gayteeny

Nowadays, men hold hands in public (in Havana anyway), transgendered folks go shopping, clubbing, and to work as their real selves and there are more and more places for the community to convene (see note 3). And every year, Cuba’s International Day Against Homo/Transphobia grows bigger, more fabulous, and better focused. Last night, I attended the World AIDS Day gala which was as sexy, saucy, and talented as you’d expect of this place and the theater was SRO with the entire rainbow representing. I hesitate to say it’s a movement which is a bit of a dirty word here, but I’m heartened to see my queer friends and compatriots finding their stride. It feels like pride, but that’s another questionably good concept in the Cuban context since it implies superiority of one group over another and replicates hegemonic constructs they’re trying to break down and through.

But there’s rhetoric and there’s reality and as the wave of sexual diversity rolls towards a crest, I’m asking myself: will it manifest like NY, SF, or something altogether different? The evidence is conflicting, the analysis complex, and even after talking to lots of friends – gay, straight, and in between – from here and away, I’m still not sure where all this is going. But here are some factors at play in gay Cuba:

The Machismo Hydra – Once again, the scepter of male dominance and perceived superiority rears its ugly head (no pun intended) and underscores human relations here. I’m fairly certain this is part of the reason gay men have more visibility, mobility, and are more tolerated (there’s that sticky wicket again) here than gay women. Just yesterday I overheard this exchange between four friends hanging around their Lada slinging back Bucaneros: “who care if there are fags there? Deep down we’re all fags” (see note 4). The underlying meaning? Men-on-men action is not only within the realm of possibility – no matter how subconscious – but could even be desirable. Is it the power two men together represent, the simple carnality of it? Is it a way to neutralize machismo in an effort to liberate mind and body somehow? Once again, I’m not sure, but while a Cuban guy can say ‘deep down we’re all fags,’ chances are high that same fellow would say of a lesbian: ‘she just hasn’t had the right macho’ (and immediately propose himself as the one to convert her). Almost to a one, lesbians here, foreign and Cuban, have confirmed my impression that a) it never occurs to most men here that a woman can only be into women and b) once they know, it’s simply a question of ‘having the right macho’ to show them what they’re missing. What’s more, lesbian friends often mention the discrimination, including derogatory terms, leveled at them by gay men. This is troubling.

alejandra

The DINK Phenomenon – DINK stands for Double Income No Kids and savvy marketers have long carved out a niche among gay men who on the whole have more disposable cash and fewer familial responsibilities than straight and lesbian couples. So it’s no surprise that many of the loveliest, most successful new bars and restaurants here are owned and operated by gay men – out and not, it’s worth noting. This is great – the boys are cute, the décor classy (or camp), and the food and drink of high standard. I’ve had memorable times at several gay-owned establishments. At a few however, the vibe is decidedly cold shoulder, reminding me of San Francisco, i.e. you’re not one of us, but we’re running a business so we’ll put up with you. Again: troubling.

The Generation Gap – The older I get, the more I understand how age affects human relations, which is one of the reasons I so energetically nurture relationships with people of all ages. Queer relations in Cuba are no different. Talk to a gay men of 60 here and you’ll get a very different perspective from that provided by the 20-something set. The younger generation generally, has a much more open and organic take on sexual diversity – regardless of gender. I remember one night at the Cine Club Diferente film debate here when an elder gay icon stood up and expressed his opinion on the gay politics reflected in the film and its relevance to Cuba. He was followed by a young university student who said he respected the older gent’s opinion and experience, but didn’t share them. And then he told the story of arriving at his dorm the first day of school and telling his roommate: ‘I want you to know I’m gay and if you have a problem with that, we’ll have to make a change.’ The other fellow had no problem with it, they became roommates, and remain so a couple of years on. Meanwhile, young women are increasingly experimenting with other women and although a friend assures me this is just a fad, I have to ask: And? Even if it is a fad – one of those ‘yeah, there was that one night with a friend in college’ type things – doesn’t it open people’s minds, expand their horizons, and break down bias?

Of course, all of this has to be couched in the Cuban context, where there’s a housing crisis, with its attendant lack of privacy (keeping many folks in the closet); salaries are absurdly low (affecting entertainment options, autonomy, and a whole host of other issues related to mental health); and sexually diverse people have experienced very real discrimination. And while friends from the States tell me all of this (i.e. the discrimination, alienation, confusing orientation with preference, etc) sounds familiar, I do think it’s substantively – at least legislatively – different here. Voters in Villa Clara have just elected their first transsexual public official for example, gender reassignment surgery is provided free for those who qualify, and same sex unions will soon be legal nationally.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I love gay culture and sensibilities and while I don’t know where we’re going, I hope to continue to be a part of it. Remember: though we may be straight, that doesn’t mean we’re narrow.

Notes

1. Is that politically incorrect? You let me know, but those who knew Bruce know he could be obnoxious – charmingly so, but obnoxious all the same.

2. R.I.P. My last Giuliani/Bloomberg nerve snapped when I dared to venture down to my old stomping grounds around Little West 12th Street last year. I never thought I’d see New York go generic, but there it was; it could have been Any City U.S.A. (Yes, I’m bitter about “progress” in Manhattan).

3. My Havana Good Time app has a dedicated LGBT category if you’re interested.

4. As with all things, conversations, and events related at Here is Havana, this is 100% true.

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Conner’s Cuba Rules Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] About six months ago I wrote Conner’s Cuba Rules, a super popular post that raised the ire of some readers. Rereading my musings six months later, I better understand some of the dissent offered by commenters. Given that much has changed here in Havana since then and I’ve had several opportunities to travel outside of the capital thanks to my day job, I’ve compiled a new, hopefully more positive, set of rules to complement the first ones.

The Revolution will be televised: I’ve met a lot of visitors (and even some foreign residents) who have never seen Televisión Cubana. Granted, there are only five channels here, but you’re missing out on a big chunk of Cuban culture if you don’t surf those five at least occassionally. For the intersection of politics and journalism, check out the Mesa Redonda (see note 1) and the prime time news. The latter is important in and of itself for the weather report; pay special attention if Dr José Rubiera is forecasting. Meanwhile, a good baseball game can rivet entire households, the novela even more so. Only if you watch TV here will you understand what Cubans mean when they say: “it was like the Saturday night movie” (see note 2). Meanwhile, the music shown down here – videos, documentaries, concerts and jam sessions – can be as moving as the live thing. I’ve seen Chucho Valdés, Clapton and Queen, the Festival of Modern Drumming and some guy from Uzbekistan singing Talk Boom, a riveting song I’m still trying to track down – all in a single night on Televisión Cubana. Watch it; you’ll like it (or at least get a good laugh or song lead).

Pack a sense of humor: It always amazes me when I read something that disregards, overlooks, or otherwise fails to recognize the Cuban sense of humor, which ranges from the side splitting to the sublime. The writer can be someone who knows and loves Cuba long time or a visitor who has parachuted in and out on vacation. No matter the source, the frequency with which folks miss the funny stuff here is alarming. It’s true, a lot depends on speaking Spanish (or a crackerjack translator), but however you resolve the language question, if you’re comparing Cuba to China, Vietnam, or the defunct USSR, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients in the Cuban character. These folks love to share stories, jokes, and the occassional tall tale, and use their verbal prowess to enliven, laugh, and woo; it is what has enabled these people to resist so much for so long. Even without Spanish skills or a translator, if you’re not laughing a lot on a visit here, you’re doing something wrong in my personal and professional opinion (see note 3).

Use pesos cubanos: If you know even a little about Cuba, you know we operate on a dual currency system with pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles circulating side by side. Since one of my goals of Here is Havana is to bust myths, I always take the opportunity to debunk one of the most pervasive: that foreigners cannot use pesos cubanos (AKA Moneda Nacional, MN), but only pesos convertibles (AKA divisa, chavitos, CUC). This is 100% false. Anyone can use either currency. It’s what each can buy where the difference lies. Certain goods and services, for example, are only available in CUC including cooking oil and butter, hotel rooms and the internet. But fruits and veggies, surprisingly pleasant cigars, fixed route taxis, movie tickets and lots of other stuff are sold in pesos cubanos – if you know where to look. My advice? Change some CUCs into MN (1:24) to experience firsthand how much pesos cubanos can buy and how the double economy works.

So as to avoid confusion +/o more myths: you can always pay for goods and services priced in pesos cubanos with hard currency pesos convertibles but never the other way around. And some services (interprovincial buses, concert and ballet tickets) are sold in pesos cubanos to Cubans and residents, but in hard currency to visitors.

Bring your own reading material: Rarely a week goes by when someone isn’t griping to me about the lack of English-language books and magazines here. What is available is largely limited to historical and political titles and they are very expensive (and make for dull beach reading besides). The Kindle can be handy in this regard, but the bonus to bringing print publications is that you can pass them along to some avid English reader (like me!) upon departure. Drop me a line if you have some good (ie no romance novels or sci fi pulp) English-language reading material to donate to the cause.

Hightail it out of Havana: This may seem contradictory, given that I have an iApp to the city and I recommend in my guidebooks and elsewhere that visitors consider basing their entire trip in Havana. But things are changing fast here and though I’m a city girl by birth and breeding, I’m back peddling a bit on that advice. Havana, with its dirt, garbage, and graft, noise and air pollution, and materialistic ways (I did call Habaneros ‘logo whores’ after all) is distorting Cuba’s image. In short, Havana is not Cuba, which can be said of every major city around the world from New York to Manila, Managua to Dakar. But since visitors often request recommendations for “authentic” experiences and how to discover the “real” Cuba, I now find it prudent to advise getting out of Havana and exploring farther afield. With more flights, both charter and commercial, to provincial capitals like Holguín, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba, this is also a more practical proposition than ever.

Above all, have fun and keep your head about you!

Notes

1. The Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a nightly “debate” show which discusses a topic (US aggression overseas; Latin American intregration) on which all four guests and the modeator agree.There are many jokes in these parts about the program; the shortest and sweetest calls it the Mesa Cuadrada, meaning ‘Square Table’ in literal Spanish, but meaning something more along the lines of ‘Dogmatic Table’ in Cuban.

2. The Saturday night movie here is prefaced by a parental warning, the most common of which alerts viewers that the Hollywood action shlock about to be shown contains Nudity, Violence, & Foul Language. To wit: the old, slow, over-crowded camello buses (of which I took many), were always called ‘the Saturday night movie.’ [NB: did it annoy you to have to scroll down to read this note? Yeah, me too, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to hyperlink notes within posts; if someone has a solution, please get in touch].

3. Trying to connect to and use the internet excepted. Even casual visitors know that connectivity is no laughing matter here. Indeed, I flirted with the ledge and sharp knives today as I frittered away several hours trying to connect. Once I “succeeded,” it topped out at 9.6kbps – not nearly fast enough to load even a simple web page before timing out.

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Let Me Count the Ways…

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Ay Cuba.

What have you done to my heart, torn in so many directions but always aching for 23° 7′ 55″ North, 82° 21′ 51″ West? And my soul? Of, by, and for New York from birth, but now reconfigured into an alma cubana that whispers mysteries in Spanish I’m still unable to cipher.

I’m not sure when this happened – feeling betwixt there and between here – though I know it’s common to long-term expats. Hell, I’ve even parsed some of this awkward, never complete transition over the years, crafting a sort of road map to the cultural, linguistic, and romantic bumps in my road.

Despite my musings and analysis, I entered some unknown territory on my most recent trip off-island: in a nutshell, I did not want to leave. Maybe I’ve been hanging out too much with Moises and Rina, two friends who had to travel to the United States recently, but neither of whom had the ganas to do so. It wasn’t due to fear – both have traveled several times for work – nor was it because they’d traveled so extensively that trips abroad had become old hat and rote (see note 1). They just didn’t want to leave the island and these days, nor do I. It feels wrong and a bit scary, like kissing a cousin or sibling.

It makes me sad because I know the lengths so many Cubans take just for a chance to see what lies beyond all that water crashing against the Malecón. And it’s confusing, because on every previous trip, I too felt the need to ‘saca el plug’ (pull the plug) and ‘desconectar’ from the drama-rama that is Cuba. Trips out used to be exciting, emotional, and necessary.

But not this time. I didn’t want to cut whatever cord hooks fast into those of us crazy for Cuba, making us spend money we don’t have, go against our better judgment, and jeopardize job, health, and relationships to get back to the island. In an effort to untangle that cord (or loosen the noose, depending on your POV), I offer all these reasons why I love Cuba (see note 2).

The $1 lunch – Whether it’s a cajita across from the CUJAE or a knife and fork sit down at El Ranchón (one of my all-time favorites), Cuba has some kick ass $1 lunch with all the fixings. Even at the airport: on my recent trip off-island, I filled up at the cafeteria outside Terminal 2 (clearly one of the greatest benefits of the new economic regulations) with a plate overflowing with pork, congris, yucca, salad, and chips. It was so tasty a fellow diner said: ‘my congratulations to the cook – he must be from Pinar del Río!’ (see note 3).

Touching, hugging, and general closeness – Latinos have a different concept of personal space and Cubans, as is their wont, take it to an extreme. Men embrace and greet each other with kisses on the cheek, female friends walk hand in hand, and my best salsa partners have been girlfriends. All of this is to say that Cubans aren’t afraid to touch – your leg when telling a story, your back as they try to pass you in the hall, your shoulder as they ask: ‘how is your family?’ Cubans fill elevators to its maximum capacity and I always delight in watching a mixed Cuban-foreigner crowd boarding them for the mutual awkwardness that ensues. Up in the States, the awkwardness is mine every time I step into a nearly full elevator, encroaching somehow, though there is always room for one more. That weird, reactionary, and let’s be frank, harmful rule that teachers can’t hug students in the USA? My Cuban friends can’t even grasp the concept when I try to explain it.

The hello/goodbye kiss – Related to touching is the traditional Cuban greeting – one kiss on the right cheek no matter if you know each other or not. Even taking leave of big groups results in blowing a kiss to the crowd. I think we should start this trend up north. Our world couldn’t be any worse off with more kisses, could it? On my visit to the States recently, I leaned in towards my host and said: ‘you were wonderful tonight,’ touching his knee as I spoke. Did he misread my Cuban-ness? Interpret it as something more?, I wondered later as he slid his hand down my back to cup my ass. This doesn’t happen in Cuba unless the signal is an unequivocal green (ie the ass grab is mutual).

Fun in the sun – I was born and bred in northern climes, but I’m a winter wimp through and through. Sure I loved tobogganing and ice skating and snowball fights as a kid – still do in fact – but the bulky clothing, the cold that turns wet once the fun is done, and the squeak of day old snow that sounds like someone is packing Styrofoam in your ear isn’t my bag. I like loose clothing, walking in the sun, and smelling gardenias or fresh cut grass in December. Summer clothing is sexier I think we can all agree, and as white as I am, when my freckles fuse into a pseudo tan, I work those scanty, loose-fitting clothes to full effect.

Drink, smoke, & be merry – The 8am Bucanero; the post-feast cigarette; the incessant regguetón: Cubans milk the ‘party hearty, the rest of you be damned’ approach to its fullest. Believe me, I know. And should it slip my mind, my neighbors are quick to bust out their state-of-the-art karaoke machine and warble drunken, sappy ballads until the wee hours.

And the smoking, dios mío. I remember going for my first pap smear at my local doctor’s office here in Havana…hoisting my feet into the stirrups, I watched aghast as the doctor took one last drag of her filter-less cigarette and with a deft flick of her gloved hand sent it flying out the window before diving between my legs (see note 4). If you’re a non-drinker, non-smoker, or not into music appreciation, you’ll probably find Havana offensive. But for those who like an after dinner cigar, enjoy (or need) some hair of the dog once in a while, or are usually the first on the dance floor at parties and functions, I bet Cuba will float your boat.

It’s safer than where you live – Okay, that’s a broad stroke, I know: after all, I don’t know where you live, much less the crime rates. But I can tell you that the absence of crack cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, and guns means a generally safer city. I’m not saying drugs, prostitution, violence, and rackets don’t exist in Havana. They do. But as a longtime traveler and writer of guidebooks to some of Latin America’s most violent cities (Caracas, Guatemala City, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa) and an eyewitness to NYC’s crack attack in the 80s, I can tell you that Havana is a gated community comparatively. Kids play unsupervised in the street here and I walk home alone at night frequently. (Truth be told, I took a short hiatus of walking home alone after a tall guy grabbed me from behind and thrust both hands between my legs one night in Vedado, but I conquered whatever uncertainty the event planted within me). Most of the crime here is of the opportunistic/snatch and grab variety and tends to peak between October and December when people are trying to rally resources for Christmas and New Years’ celebrations.

These are some of the reasons why I love Havana and if you’ve been thinking about coming here, let me leave you with one piece of advice: don’t put it off any longer. The only certain thing in life is that life is uncertain.

Notes
1. Yes, there are Cubans who get tired of traveling they do it so much: politicians, organizers, academics, musicians, and artists, typically.

2. For those interested in earlier thoughts on this subject, see my earlier post Things I Love about Cuba.

3. Country cooking like they do in Pinar del Río is unrivaled – trust me on this one and seek out a campesino lunch next time you’re in that wonderful province.

4. For new readers to Here is Havana, let me reiterate that all the stories found throughout these pages are entirely true, though some names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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Sensing Havana

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Travel anywhere can be magical for many reasons, but as a writer what inspires me most is the shift in perspective – seeing new things, which is as trite as it is true of course – but also seeing old things in a new way. Have you ever noticed how returning home after a big trip even the mundane snaps into focus, like putting on a new pair of glasses? How obviously a tree trunk in the yard resembles a thumb and forefinger though you’d never once noted it or the regularity with which that dun colored bird comes to visit each morning?

I’ve lived in Havana the past nine years and what snapped to my attention and popped into focus when I first got here I rarely notice now (see note 1). Mustachioed women and muffin tops for instance or the fastidiousness with which people sweep the sidewalk and grass strips in front of their homes. I lament no longer seeing my adopted city with a “child’s eyes” – that precious curiosity and wonder we tend to lose as adults – but tell myself it’s justified. Change is happening so fast here (for here), how could I focus on the constants?

 It used to be for instance, that the only Mercedes’ you’d see were taxis lined up at the Hotel Nacional or zooming down 5ta Avenida transporting heads of state. Back in the day, a couple of superstars had them too: Once I saw the unmistakable salsero Pedrito Calvo behind the wheel of his Mercedes, but it was missing a hubcap and had dents around the wheel well. Today, there are all kinds of shiny new cars cruising Havana’s cratered streets – BMWs and Audi’s, but also at least one Bentley, Hummer, and mini Cooper. All sport yellow license plates (indicating private ownership), not black (embassy) or blue (state).

 Today, Havana is in flux. Accumulation of wealth and inequalities are becoming inevitably more pronounced and the political future is…uncertain. There’s a lot of anxiety and low level stress judging by what I’m hearing in the streets and hallways (and the difficulty I’m having scheduling a slot with my new therapist – but that’s another post).

 Some days, like today, I prefer to retreat from all the politics and angst, uncertainty and yes, sadness to some degree, and see Havana like I once did all those years ago – with fresh eyes.

Elaborate topiary & saucy garden gnomes: Tacky and suburban to my sensibilities, most of my Cuban friends appreciate and admire the artistry of a well-trimmed bush and the kitschy-cute gnomes that dot front lawns from Vedado to Boyeros. There are even buxom female gnomes (gnomettes? gnomas?) squeezing their bosoms like ripe fruit in yards across the city. Brightly-painted cement mushrooms often complete the scene.

Public zit popping: This habit is part sport, hobby, and time killer for Cuban couples. On park benches and at bus stops or waiting on the bread line, lovers are popping each other’s zits and squeezing out blackheads with glee. Does someone need to point out to them that acne and food never mix? Apparently, someone does.

Dogs doing their thing:  Innumerable are the times we’ve had to stop the car for a couple of canines fucking in the middle of the street as if they were ensconced in their own private posada. Nonplussed, the bitch regards us with a feral smile as she’s humped away by some mangy stray. They refuse to be rushed: No coitus interruptus for these puppies. The same goes for middle-of-the-street shitting. She squats, watching and taunting us to inch forward with a toothy snarl. It can be a laborious stand off – almost all Cuban dogs are constipated.

Pure breds: While we’re talking dogs, I noticed from the start that certain perros de raza are all the rage here. It used to be cocker spaniels (still the go-to dog for sniffing out lethal and illicit substances at the airport), followed by Dalmatians. This isn’t unique to Havana: certain pets the world over become fads and status symbols (see: Nemo and chihuahuas). But what’s hard to square here is the craze for chow chows, who walk the streets with heat-ravaged fur and black tongues hanging as low as an old man’s balls and Siberian Huskies. Pobrecitos. Dogs die of heat exhaustion too.

Gold teeth: Like pure-bred dogs, the gold teeth fad swept across Havana some years ago like the flu making the rounds now. From 10-year old kids to aging cabaret dancers, everyone was chasing the dental bling. There were even TV shows and news coverage about it. Oral ore seems to be on the decline, but whether it’s just a fad that’s fizzled or a sign of the economic times, I cannot say.

Come hither weatherwomen: When Leticia, the master degree-holding weatherwoman popped on the nightly news screen in gold lamé, I laughed and wondered if the wardrobe captain had taken a vacation or fast boat to Miami. A few days later, she informed us about the advancing frente frío wearing a black lace-up corset and sheer drape. Does she sidle into the next studio after the 5-day forecast to film the novela, I wondered? (see note 2). But nothing topped learning temperatures would drop over the next couple of days from a woman on national television sporting a camel toe.

Cuba: you never cease to restore my sense of awe. And that’s a good thing.

Notes

1. This is the reasoning some guidebook companies use for not employing locally-based authors – they’re too inured to place. It has occasionally worked against me, but I can see their point. The ideal scenario, I think, is for individual guides to be written by a combination of local and non-local authors. This is our arrangement on Lonely Planet Hawai’i and it works well.

2. Even among scientists, Fredrick’s of Hollywood stands to make a fortune here once/if the embargo is lifted.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban Revolution, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba, Writerly stuff

Always the Outsider Inside Cuba

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Maybe it’s me, but certain zingers people have sent my way 10, even 25 years ago I just can’t shake (note 1). There was the time in elementary school when the Mean Girl said: ‘ever wonder why you have no friends?’ I responded: ‘I have friends you don’t even know about.’ Pretty clever in my 10-year old estimation, but she didn’t miss a beat. ‘That’s because they’re imaginary.’ Ouch.

Then, some years later, a different Mean Girl (yeah, I was the one everyone loved to pummel – metaphorically and literally), shot my ego to shit when she told me I’d be better looking as a guy. This memory floated to the surface when I was covering the Cuban disaster team in Haiti and a doctor in our camp nicknamed me Tom Cruise. He meant it affectionately and now we’re friends, but it kicked up the dust in that toxic corner of my consciousness.

 As an adult, here in Havana, what sticks with me is something a stranger said back in 2003. I was researching the Lonely Planet Cuba guide and had rented a car for the eastern portion of the trip. I was in Santiago de Cuba, the heroic city, when I went to return the rental. I still had half a tank of gas, for which there would be no reimbursement. Claro que no. So I walked up to a group of guys clustered around a Lada drinking beers (a popular pastime on this side of the Straits) and proposed selling them the half-tank of gas I wouldn’t be needing.

 “Where you from?” one asked me.

 “The United States.”

 He whistled and cracked his index and middle fingers together in that rapid-fire way Cubans have that looks like they’ve burnt themselves and sounds like bubble wrap popping. “A yuma who knows our mecánica. ¡Peligroso!

And he and his buddies proceeded to siphon my tank.

I was getting it, beginning to grok how this place works. My gas buyer in Santiago called it dangerous, but I considered mastering the mecánica as my first step towards integration. The first sign of acceptance.

 How much I still had to learn…

_____

 Some 8 years on, I have a different perspective. Today, despite my mastery of many things Cuban, it feels less like acceptance and more like I’ve got partial membership in a club dubious of my credentials. A club, furthermore, which doesn’t extend full membership to any foreigner, ever (El Che and Máximo Gómez notwithstanding). The heart of the matter is the unalterable fact that I’m not, nor will I ever be, Cuban. Consider the saying:  ‘those who aren’t Cuban would pay to be’ and you have an idea of how deep nationalist pride runs.

I’ve got some things working against me to be sure. First, I’m blonde-haired and blue-eyed, making it impossible for me to “pass” as Cuban (at least in Havana; see note 2). Thus, my outsider status is constantly called out. I’m also from ‘los Estamos Jodidos‘ as my friend Mike likes to call los Estados Unidos (see note 3). Hailing from the nasty north carries its own particular baggage in the Cuban context – some good, lots bad – and I pay in a way for that too.  Lastly, I’m from New York, a city that makes you feel if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere (except maybe in Havana ironically). When someone takes me for a mark or accosts me on the street like happened last week, it’s an insult to my hometown, as if the archetypical concrete jungle didn’t properly prepare me, as if my urban armor were insufficient (see note 4).

_____

In the peculiar social hierarchy that reigns here foreigners are on the bottom rung. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here – even friends who’ve clocked 20 or 30 years in Havana struggle with this reality to some extent or another. It’s damn disheartening. And it doesn’t matter how much money you have either since everyone will assume you have mucho.

Allow me a moment to vent about the ‘all-foreigners-are-rich’ stereotype that dogs me. This is an assumption I confront everywhere, every day. In the street and at the market; in conversations with friends and encounters with colleagues. I hate to say it, but this myopic view exposes the ignorance many Cubans have of the real world – that world beyond free education and heavily-subsidized housing, electric bills of 35 cents a month and nearly gratis public transportation.

For me, this rich foreigner perspective is akin to the ‘Kmart is cheaper than the farmers market’ argument: when you factor in all the health, environmental and transportation costs Kmart lettuce is actually much costlier than a similar head bought from farmers. In my case, when you factor in the $60,000 of student loans I’m still carrying, the 30% the US government takes in taxes, plus the 20% cut the Cuban government takes in the exchange rate, my earnings are actually quite paltry. And let’s not forget: la yuma doesn’t have a ration card. (Soon few will, but that’s another post.) I realize I’m better off than some, but I’m also worse off than many others, something beyond comprehension here apparently.

It’s not that I expect Cubans to understand my situation – most know not the wrath of the tax man and certainly nothing of the student loan burden. But just once, I’d love for someone to understand that there might be other factors at work, that I’m not the goose that laid the golden egg or an ATM with legs.  

In my youth, I was often told I was spunky, a girl with pluck. Here, (as recently as last week), I was said to lack ‘guara‘ – another of those impossible to translate Cubanisms, but pluck and moxie come pretty close. What is it about this place that makes me feel like I’m 12 again, beating back the Mean Girls every day after school? Is it like this for all foreigners living far from home I wonder? Drop me a line with your experiences; I’d like to hear other viewpoints and try to ratchet down this loneliness a bit.  

Notes

1. I wish our mental hard drives had a ‘delete permanently’ function. Yes! Send to trash, damn it!

2. There are plenty of people who look like me here (thanks largely to French immigration in the early 19th century). Unfortunately, the majority of them are in Holguín and other points far to the east.

3. I’ve always loved this play on words which more or less turns the ‘United States’ into ‘We’re Screwed.’

4. I did open up a big ole can of NYC whup ass on the guy that grabbed me from behind, thrusting his hand between my legs. He was scurrying away fast when I was done with him, but that and a couple of bucks will get me on the subway.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks