Category Archives: off-the-beaten track

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

Inside a Cuban Posada

Brothels, bordellos, madams and the prostitution profession in general have long intrigued me. Even prior to writing about Heidi Fleiss (the Hollywood Madam), one of my first paid gigs as a scribe, I was a proponent of legalizing and regulating prostitution. For my money this is the best way to protect the health and safety of the providers and to bring the world’s oldest profession out of the shadows. It can never be eradicated – hooking, transactional sex, play for pay, whatever you call it – and if it can’t be wiped out, wouldn’t it be better for all involved if the violence and drug addiction, unsafe and underage sex, human trafficking and other related dangers could be addressed in a systematic way, applying legal and public health frameworks? I know some countries have taken certain steps towards this with mixed results – legal houses in Amsterdam; Sweden penalizes johns instead of prostitutes – and there are no easy answers. I certainly don’t have any, though I’ve thought about this quite a bit.

Prostitution in Cuba doesn’t interest me all that much. Or rather, sex tourism doesn’t interest me, but Cubans paying for sex does: it flows so freely here, it seems like money poorly (or desperately) spent. Some of this carnal action happens in what are known as ‘posadas,’ where rooms are rented by the hour. These fill a very specific need here since homes are overcrowded, while privacy is a luxury reserved for the very privileged. So it’s not all putas and johns that rent rooms by the hour, but also couples who just need a place to screw. Posadas are easy to identify. You know those little blue symbols on Cuban homes which signify that they rent to foreigners? There’s another, identical sign, but in red, which means the house rents rooms to Cubans only, in pesos cubanos. I’ve always wanted to rent a posada room for an hour or two, just to see what it’s all about until a friend said: ‘are you nuts?! All those rooms have holes for peeping or filming.’ That turned me right off to this new Cuban experience I sought.

Fast forward to last week and where do I find myself? In a posada in Santa Clara. My friend José and I went to the city of Che/city gay to celebrate International Day Against Homo/Transphobia, but we had no accommodation lined up. Our budget was tight, we were tired, and José offered to hunt down a house. He found something affordable, a bit outside the city center, but we had transport. The only catch was we had to be out by 10:30 the next morning – “seems like they’ve got a ‘palo programado’ (a scheduled screw).” I was too exhausted to ask. When we entered the room – no window, no toilet paper, no hot water, one pillow, one towel and an Igloo cooler on the floor filled with ice – I collapsed on the double bed, but sleep was elusive. The stench of cheap air freshener permeated everything – the sheets, my hair, our clothes, even the stale air stank. We slept with the door open to provide a shred of relief from the olfactory assault. Luckily the room faced a brick wall – to keep out prying eyes.

We awoke fairly rejuvenated in spite of it all and I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of the pair who had a standing date each Friday morning (escaping from work and/or spouses with a handy excuse I would have loved to hear but there are some things you just don’t ask). At 10:30am sharp, a cherry red Dodge with blacked out windows rolled into the interior patio and out stepped a bleached blonde temba (a woman of my age more or less) in platform heels and a puss on her face. A lover’s spat, perhaps? Her companion looked more upbeat (don’t they always?!), having already doffed his shirt in the mid-morning heat. We rode away and I was ready to get as far from the stench of chemical flowers as fast as possible. Too bad it still stuck to my skin.

Two days later, we got caught in a mountaintop rainstorm, quickly scrapping the idea of camping. Instead, we headed to the closest big town to look for a room. We rolled in to Cumanayagua at about 9pm, wet and tired after an all-day hike and were directed to a corner on the outskirts of this bustling rural berg. The sign said: Hostal, 24 hrs, AC, hot water TV and DVD. José walked through the big steel sliding door which I’m learning is typical of posadas (so cars can enter and the lovers can rent their room without being seen) to talk to the proprietress. Standing on the sidewalk, the smell of urine stinging my eyes, I heard her ask: “you want the room for the whole night?! It’s $4.” Suddenly I knew what we were dealing with, but I didn’t know what we were in for. We rented the ground-floor room and once again were assaulted by the cloying stench of cheap air freshener. Was there some lucrative business selling this shit by the gallon to posadas, I wondered?

The bed was flanked by golden gilded mirrors and even tackier curtains without a purpose; a TV on a retractable arm like they have in hospitals pointed towards said bed. There was a DVD player with a disc in it. I would have bet my life that it was some kind of B-grade porn; if I had, I would be dead. It was actually 172 minutes of C-grade music videos. While I surveyed our $4 surroundings, I overheard the señora say: “Who knows? Her ID card says it’s her, but I have no idea.” As if I would be in the middle of nowhere passing a fake ID at a flophouse that reeks of faux flowers and piss…

We hung our wet shirts and pants and socks on a clothesline we strung across the room and took a cold beer and cola from the fridge. That’s when I saw the first cockroach skitter along the wall – a Lower East Side-type sucker, the size of a Bic lighter. I decided it was time for a shower. My flip flops firmly on my feet, opting for our soap rather than the complimentary – used – cake on the sink, black hairs and all, I tried scrubbing the road grit and posada perfume from my body. I succeeded in ridding myself of the former, the latter not so much. When the soap slipped from my hand and skidded across the shower floor, it picked up a few black hairs in the process. Before getting into bed, I wondered who would actually use the comb provided for guests – obviously someone had.

Our hostess warned us that we had to be out by 8am (another early morning ‘palo programado’) and we were beat besides. We woke to the familiar smell of piss and air ‘freshener’ and packed quickly. Another cockroach sighting later and we were out of there. But as we did our final check around the room, the fan mixed with a breeze and flipped up a corner of the sheet, under which was a condom wrapper. At least they’re practicing safe sex, I thought. Ciao Cumanayagua, it’s been real.

I’ve now had my Cuban posada experience – twice in five days. Believe me, it was plenty.

_____

I need to add a little postscript to this post which has nothing to do with posadas but everything to do with how Cuba continues to puzzle. Besides, I need to exorcise the images swimming around in my head. In the five days we were tooling around the Escambray, I learned of a disturbing fact of local life. My friend José told me of a fellow he knows in the tiny town of Cordobonal who is clinically insane. And his family, rather than commit him, keeps him in a cage. I asked my friend not to share information like this with me; as a writer, I was visualizing his whole miserable existence (and that of his family). Later that night, sitting with José’s family in a similarly tiny town, I learned that his cousin’s wife has a nephew who went insane at the age of 14. For the past 17 years, this young man has been living in a cage as well. I think the worst part of it all is that my friend’s cousin was asked to build that cage – and he did. If I’m having trouble with the image of people living in cages, what about the person who builds them? I shudder to think. What makes it even more difficult for me to process is that Cuba has a national network of psychiatric hospitals – all free. Sure, conditions can be pretty scary, the food is scarce and terrible but is this worse than spending your life in a cage? I was talking to another friend about this yesterday and he told me about another one in the center of Vedado that he can see clearly from his balcony. And last night, I was watching Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (a documentary that has gone viral here) and I was left positively speechless when I learned that L Ron Hubbard kidnapped his young daughter as revenge against his wife in the 1950s, took her to Cuba and left her with a mentally disabled Cuban woman – who kept the young Hubbard girl in a cage. WTF people?! This boggles my mind, but it’s got me thinking I should make my own documentary…

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

CUBAN DISPATCHES: Rock ‘n Roll!

Life has become way too complicated (and trying, truth be told) lately – something I predicted would happen. I chose to pointedly ignore the trying part here in that ‘hey, it’s a new year, maybe the world really isn’t going to shit and perhaps I will finish my memoir’ spirit of things. Also, since Cuba’s default setting is Trying, I didn’t want to beat a dead horse. Instead, I focused on the need to balance competing priorities and reminded everyone – myself included – to take the time to stop and smell the roses.

Six months on I can safely say I’ve failed pretty miserably in following my own advice (see previous maudlin post!) and that new year’s optimism has, once again, proven to be a fallacy: the world is going to shit, my memoir continues to gather dust, and I can’t even sort through the priorities, let alone begin to balance them.

Regular followers of Here is Havana will have noticed a precipitous decline in new posts over the past year and for those who care: so sorry. If it’s any consolation, not writing screws with my head mightily since it’s a form of catharsis and therapy – something anyone who lives long-term in Cuba needs in spades. So, here I am again, with a new proposition: a series of short dispatches crafted from various Cuba experiences, 2014.

Let me pop the Dispatch cherry with one of the country’s oldest outdoor music festivals, Atenas Rock. Held in a copse tucked back in the hills of Matanzas, this weekend rock festival features two days and nights of heavy/death/black metal, camping, and more drinking and drugs than food and water. I had no idea what to expect and knew only one person in our piquete. But I love to camp, (plus it’s something I’m good at); I can never get enough rock and roll; and I always like to meet new people. To hell with competing priorities, I thought as I packed my camping hammock.

Our camp!

Our camp!

Although this type of metal isn’t generally my cup of tea, I’m 13% more deaf, which is generally a good measure of a proper rock festival. It’s terrible for my friends, family, colleagues and anyone else with whom I converse of course: I only hear half of what they’re saying and the rest of the time I’m shouting because my volume control is busted. But Atenas Rock 2014 was completely worth it.

crowd1

Everyone tells me this wasn’t as good as other years, in another era, but this weekend festival has some basic factors working it its favor. First, the setting in a grassy valley surrounded by woods bisected by the meandering Canímar river, is majestic. Second, the entire affair is free – the camping, the music, swimming in the refreshing pocket pools along the river. And, much to my amazement, Matanzas has some pretty good rock and roll bands (though groups come from Havana, Holguín and other provinces to play here, transport difficulties and lack of resources mean Matanzas is heavily represented); keep your ears open for Rice & Beans and Stone Road, especially. Finally, though there was liberal intake of all sorts of psychotropic substances, it was a very mellow, even family atmosphere, with long-haired rug rats throwing up the devil horns as they frolic in the river.

yankees vub

Some aspects, however, were less than ideal. Like not providing a single bathroom for the hundreds of concert goers? A shit show, literally. To be clear: I have no problem peeing and shitting in the woods. Indeed, I’ve logged en plein air baño time all over the world, from Hawaii and Bolivia to Morocco and Guatemala. But after a weekend of roughing it with people ignorant of the most basic camping tenets, heading into the trees when nature called was like walking into a feces minefield. To wit: my friend went to pee before turning in the first night and almost took a massive digger when her flip flop skidded in a pile of human shit. The kid in the next tent convulsing and barfing, pausing just long enough to shout about how he was possessed by a santo malo was also a bit of a downer. I, for one, was thankful when he passed out long and hard.

Shredding!

Shredding!

Sleep was elusive, what with deafening decibels shaking my tent flap and too many of the bands played covers. Hey, I like a good cover just as much as the next rock ‘n roll chick, but when it’s Highway to Hell played by six different bands, some badly? It gets a little tiresome. And it’s a waste of valuable stage time. But all in all, it was a fantastic festival. I can’t wait until next year. Rock on!

last night

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

Cuban Harley Culture

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In the introduction to my forthcoming book (see note 1), I muse briefly on how similar Havana (my adopted city) is to New York (my birth city): the garbage and grit; taxi drivers with higher degrees; the self-contained neighborhoods – it all feels very familiar. Another characteristic both cities share is they teem with subcultures worthy of an urban anthropologist. Poets and punks, gym rats and drunks, shylocks, gamblers, sluts and thieves: here, like there, we’ve got the full spectrum of human passions, vice and interest crashing together like waves on the Malecón.

This past weekend, I was (gratefully, willingly) thrust into one of Cuba’s most prismatic and emblematic subcultures and scenes: I rode along on the country’s first Harley rally. For the record: the trip from Havana to Varadero was only the third time I’ve been on a Harley in my life. The first was a joy ride in what was clearly foreplay and a bid to get something more corporeal between my legs than a thundering motor (in this the fella failed, for which I’m thankful: at that destructively drunken point in my life, the last thing I needed was to hook up with a biker bartender). The second was a thoroughly platonic and enjoyable ride home from the year-end party in Habana campo hosted by the Latin American Motorcycle Association (LAMA) and the third time was this past weekend, when over 50 riders made their way to Varadero on pre-1960 bikes from as far as Pinar del Río and Camagüey for three days in hog heaven.

As you may imagine, my muse was working overtime in this new and captivating environment, populated by cool people with their own language and subtext. Since everything I know about biker culture I learned from Easy Rider and Altamont, I was keen to experience the 1ro Encuentro Nacional de Harlistas Cubanos firsthand.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Al contrario: I was inspired and surprised. Because although as a group these folks cultivate and maintain an identity wholly dedicated to, nay obsessed with, Harley Davidson, they remain, al fondo, 100% Cubano.

If you know Cuba from the inside, you know this subculture phenomenon – be it goth, gay, or black – hasn’t always fit in well or properly with the macro unity concept that is the glue for us here in one of the world’s last bastions of socialism. Of course, when there’s USAID or other sovereignty-compromising dollars in the middle, peor todavía. Worse still with reason since I believe all human relations should be driven by mutual respect, regardless if it’s in the realm of sex, economics, culture or politics. In short: you don’t tell me how to live, work or play and I’ll return the favor.

What was even more striking still was that on the whole, these Cuban bikers are more closely connected to their global counterparts and importantly, their US brethren, than any other community I’ve encountered here (see note 2). As a group, they speak (almost) as much English as the slickest jineteros and what’s more, the main biker groups here – LAMA and Harlistas Cubanos – have foreign membership, long timers like me who live here and love bikes. And the mix works seamlessly because beyond the bikes, gear, and foreign presence, what grounds and unites these folks is their Cubanilla, with all the idiosyncrasies good and bad that implies.

Even before we rumbled out of Guanabacoa towards Varadero, the gossip was flying. And believe me: these Harley folks are more chismoso than a kitchenful of bored housewives. I learned all about Antonio’s marital strife; the petty divisions and squabbles among different riders and groups; and how Vladimir got his hog and Oscar lost his. Thanks to the gossip mill, I was privy to the anonymous alcoholic’s struggles and how much Fulano paid for the silicon tits and ass of his funny, sexy, back seat Betty. The grapevine was heavy with juicy fruit, but what impressed me the most was the handful of folks who didn’t gossip. Those are the ones to ponder further, I figure – above all because I abhor gossip as an entirely negative pursuit. With the anti-chismosos, I’d found my people (see note 3).

What also struck me as totally Cubano was the fury for everything with the Harley Davidson logo. I know brand loyalty is common to riders the world over, but Cubans can go overboard like nobody’s business – especially when it comes to logos and bling. And this was no different: there were boots, belts, shirts, jackets and vests, jewelry, headbands, bandanas, flags, stickers, and business cards all emblazoned with the Harley label. Boy, did I ever look out of place with my Hawaii-kine style, particularly when everyone was throwing devil horns and I’m waving the shaka. But while I may have looked out of place, not for a moment did I feel out of place – another sign you’re hanging with Cubans.

If you know this place and manage well in Spanish, you know that there is no one who can make and appreciate a good joke like Cubans – especially when the joke’s on you. And these bikers are tremendous jokers – jodedores constantly dando cuero. No one is spared, least of all me, and these Harlistas ribbed me good-naturedly at every opportunity: about how I leaned into curves (not that well, apparently; ¡que pena!); about my addiction to roasted pork (see note 4); and my penchant for hopping on the back of anyone’s motorcycle, anytime. I’m sure they have words in biker parlance for promiscuous back seat bitches like I was this weekend, but in my case, it ended with a forged love note that had everyone busting a gut. But at least I fared better than another foreigner who had his gold chain vicked by a muchacha ‘fren’ giving him a massage; he never heard the end of it.

But what most drove home the Cubanilla for me was that bedrock Cuban principle driving relations on-island and off which these folks have in spades: what matters above all else is family. Blood, extended, new and departed. And it wasn’t only the adorable kids along for the ride (many in mini Harley gear), but how you know your back is covered when someone falls ill or that someone will lend a hand when you need a new part, mechanic, or lover and an ear when you’re down. As a group, the Harlistas Cubanos function as one big, complicated – dysfunctional at times, but happy all the same – family. United by their love for their bikes, the road, and their patria.

It’s a weekend I’m sure I’ll never forget. If you’re in Havana and want to experience what I’m talking about, stop by their weekly event at La Piragua (Malecón and Calle O, in the shadow of the Hotel Nacional), held every Saturday at 5pm. You just might get lucky and spot me in some colorful get up on the back of a hog, throwing a shaka to my new friends-cum-family.

Notes

1. A perennial work in progress that’s like a so good, but so bad lover you know you should finish with but somehow can’t (or won’t), I’m determined to get this sucker published in 2012.

2. Granted, I don’t hang out with dissidents who are all up in that foreigner action – and not in a good, healthy way like this bunch.

3. Also a sign of my people: so many Harlistas smoke cigars and give them away like candy, I smoked none of my own stash the whole weekend and returned to Havana with healthy stores thanks to their generosity.

4. And let me tell you: the three puercos asados they laid out for the farewell lunch were the tastiest I’ve had in 10 years here, trumping memorable pigs eaten in a bohio in Pinar del Río, on a secluded beach in Las Tunas, and during carnival in Holguín.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

My New Cuban Love Affair

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]So it’s International Women’s Day (see note 1) and a full moon – two events which occasion a certain randiness and frisk in these parts. And I’m feeling particularly frisky these days thanks to my new love affair with a certain Francis.

Francis is my new bike.

My trusty steed…

Before I wax poetic on the new steed between my legs, let me take this opportunity to digress a bit with a few words about the personification of one’s transport.

I was once in love with a guy who drove a truck – lived with him for over four years actually – and it fell to this unlucky fella to teach me to drive (see note 2). During my schooling, he also taught me the importance of naming your vehicle. Your car (or truck or bike) has a personality, he explained. You need to communicate with one another and work together. A name facilitates this inorganic synergy between man, movement, and machine; completes the anthropomorphic picture so to speak. I took his point. The one and only car I owned (co-owned and only for three months), was a beat up Audi named Otto. My mom’s Subaru is Harriet the Chariot. My sister’s 1982 Peugeot is Bruce. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Rocinante, Mugsy, and Hoss – great cars all.

When I got my new bike, I knew I had to have a name.

But after a month zipping across Puente Almendares, pedallling the pristine macadam bordering Parque Monte Barreto, and bracing my ass against potholes and train tracks, I still didn’t have a name. Clearly it was time for outside counsel. I put it to my friend Lucia, she of the Bambi filets

Her first question: male or female?

Ever-practical, Lucia cut to the obvious question I’d failed to ask. I had been so focused on a name that would translate equally well in English and Spanish, that I’d completely neglected to consider gender. Standing there in her bedroom it occurred to me that I didn’t want only linguistic inclusivity, choosing a name that would make sense in both my languages, I also wanted gender inclusivity.

“How about something gender neutral?” I wondered aloud.

“There aren’t many gender-neutral names!” Lucia’s 10-year old wunderkind piped up. After a few beats she asked: “How about Michel(le)?”

“Good one!” I said, knowing that girls of a certain age (even hyper talented Cuban ones) need encouragement and positive reinforcement. “But this bike doesn’t seem like a Michel(le).”

Wracking my brain for neutral names I’d come across in Cuba, I asked: “How about Francis?”

And a bike was born.

That was a long digression, I know, but I’m taking the Vin Scelsa defense here (see note 3).

_____

 I first cut my two-wheeled teeth in Manhattan (site of my one and only drunk “driving” accident, when I went down hard in a greasy Chinatown alley, erasing a patch of freckles the size of a one peso coin in the process), then in San Francisco, and now in Havana.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to glide along a deserted big city street under a moon so full it makes even me want to lactate, there’s something of the magical hidden from you. Every city has a side that only night owls see, of course – anyone who has walked home from a bar or ballgame in the wee hours has experienced this frisson with a city’s secret side. It’s exciting and slightly illicit somehow. With the wind in your face and the caresses of night billowing your hair and clothes about the faster you pump the pedals only heightens the sensation. Whether I’m coasting down Paseo or along Avenida 31, dodging potholes in Playa, or startling stray cats from their dumpster diving, on my bike I feel free in a way approximated only by orgasm. In short, city cycling unshackles something in the spirit.

Gliding through Havana’s landscape on a bike makes me look at things differently from when I’m walking (or driving, it goes without saying). I’m higher up for one. I see over hedges and into windows. I discover shortcuts and side streets I didn’t know existed. I note every parked car (my greatest – and most realistic fear – cycling in Havana is that I’ll get “doored”) and each driveway. In my experience, riding in a city requires a level of alertness not necessary while walking and opportunities for observation not possible while driving, which makes me keenly aware and appreciative of my surroundings while mounted.

I carefully consider other cyclists now and their habits, from the old dudes who poke along, pants rolled to the knee, to the shirtless young studs who ride as confidently as any Midtown bike messenger, cigarette dangling from their lips. The deplorable state of Havana’s street lighting is hammered home on these late night jaunts, as is the real possibility of encountering a drunk driver. And is there any city that smells like this one? Pedalling along, I get glancing whiffs of savory sea mixed with the off-putting tang of rotting garbage and wet earth if it has rained, dried leaves if it hasn’t.

By day, Francis takes me wherever I need and want to go: to check my PO box across town; to immigration; the grocery store; the theater; and my sister-in-law’s house. Errands that used to take an entire morning using public transportation are completed in an hour or two with Francis. Friends I put off visiting because they live far away now have me landing on their doorstep any day, any time. This in itself is liberating, not only for the time and money I save, but also for how refreshed I feel when I arrive – tired, sure, but refreshed like after a long swim or hot bath.

And oh, how the boys seem to like a girl on a bike. Perched on Francis, riding along 3ra Avenida or the Malecón, I bask in all the piropos trailing me as I pedal by: ‘¡Mami, llévame!’, ‘Que rica estás, rubia’, ‘¡Ay! Si yo fuera tu silla, mi cielo’ make me smile. And the best part is that I can mutually admire these men of all type and stripe and then be safely, happily on my way.

This post is dedicated to Chris and Alexis M, and Julia F who made my partnership with Francis possible; and to Cornelius S who introduced me to the joys of cycling the big city.  

Notes

1. Though largely ignored or unknown in the United States, International Women’s Day, observed each March 8th, is a huge deal in Cuba when every guy shows appreciation for the women in his life with flowers and shouts of ‘¡Felicidades!’ Even strangers proffer the celebratory phrase and many restaurants gift a single gladiola to all female patrons on March 8th. It’s one of the silver linings of machismo, I guess. 

2. I’m fond of making rules for others to live by – have been ever since I declared several decades ago that white people should not have dreadlocks. More recently, I’ve decided that men – I don’t care if it’s your dad, brother or lover – should not teach women to drive. It just adds to the universe’s general conflict and woe.

3. Vin Scelsa has been making what’s known as freeform radio for some 40 years now. His show Idiot’s Delight helped shape the paradigm which holds that the DJ can play and importantly, talk about, whatever the hell he wants. As you might guess, Vin talks a lot on his show, often about stuff not at all music-related. And as he’s fond of pointing out: if you don’t like it, change the station. Precisely my philosophy at Here is Havana.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban phrases, environment, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Best Cuba Posts Evah! (Sorta)

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Hola & Happy July 26th!

Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus – ‘recharging the batteries’ as we say on this side of the Straits – and more importantly, trying to get my act in gear to write, to bite off the rest of my forthcoming book. Aiming to strike while the iron’s hot and all that.

In the meantime, some bloggers way more sophisticated than your humble, slogging-through-dial up protagonist, have invented this clever game of virtual tag whereby they tag Here is Havana making me “it,” inviting me to excavate oldie, but goodie posts that warrant reading.

These are not just pedestrian travel bloggers looking for free junkets and working the ad sense angle, but fabulously well-traveled women who have lived in Chile (in the case of Margaret over at Cachando Chile) and Moldova (in the case of Miss Footloose over at Life in the Expat Lane). What’s more, these chicks can write! I highly recommend checking them out. Also a big shout out to Camden of The Brink of Something Else for nominating Here is Havana (check out the killer shot of Havana taken from Regla – tagged as TBSE’s most beautiful post).

The categories were selected by whomever invented the game and include the “most beautiful,” “most controversial,” and “most overlooked” posts, among others, crafted over the two years of Here is Havana’s life. Have a click around, share with friends, spread the word…

Most beautiful: This was intended to be Chapter 1 of my book Here is Havana, but life has taken a left turn (as tends to happen here) and the book now has a life of its own (i.e. more a chronicle and a memoir than E.B. White’s Here is New York – my original inspiration). Any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated!

Most popular: My most popular post is actually my ‘About’ page but since that’s kind of flojo as we say in my neck of the woods, I suggest also checking out my second-most popular post about the wacky way Cubans speak.

Most controversial: The reaction to this post about Cuban fashion really surprised me – people came out with their elbows sharpened! Despite some of the wide-of-the-mark pop psychology, some of the comments are intriguing. See what you think…

Most helpful: This is a weird kind of category because what may be helpful to you, isn’t necessarily helpful to someone else, and what readers find most useful probably wasn’t the most useful to me (for those interested: the most helpful posts to me are those that help tease out the niggly snarls of cross cultural living, like this one about a visit to the USA and how it messes with my head and this one about always being on the outside looking in. These are closely followed by those posts trying to help me understand evolving Cuban reality, like the capitalist changes underway at present).

Clearly, though, tips for travelers to Havana and how to form a line in Cuba are among my most helpful posts for the general reading public.

Surprisingly successful post: Hands down, this is my post on dying in Cuba, Part I & Part II. There’s a real sadness to this ‘success’ – judging from search terms and other analytics, the folks that are searching on this term are family members living outside of Cuba who lost loved ones inside Cuba and are trying to figure out how to deal with the practicalities of that loss.

Post that didn’t get attention it deserved: At the beginning of 2010, as the wheels of change lurched along their inevitable track, I wrote about what Cubans were thinking, feeling and experiencing and how all these confusing emotions and intellectual gymnastics were affecting behavior. Worth a revisit – especially for those in faraway lands wondering: what the hell are they thinking over there?!

Post I’m most proud of: On the last day of February, 2010, I landed in Port-au-Prince with members of Cuba’s Henry Reeve Emergency Medical Contingent for a stint covering their earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti. For a month, I lived in a tent in their central camp in Port-au-Prince, with no running water, electricity only a handful of hours a day, crippling heat, and an internet connection 1,000 times more frustrating than my dial-up in Havana. Talk about learning experience….

TAG! Now, you’re it:

Bacon is Magic: HIH readers know I’m a chicharrones addict, so simply the name of this blog enamors, but Ayngelina also calls Guatemala “the most underrated country” after only a week. Sharp girl!

Fevered Mutterings, The Art of Unfortunate Travel: Funny, pull-no-punches mutterings by Mike Sowden.

Modern Gonzo: Robin Esrock has lots of companies sponsoring him, his own TV show, and is so well-traveled, he could be one of those ‘been there, done that’ assholes, but in fact is a totally cool, accessible, and down-to-earth guy.

Roving Gastronome: Mexico, Morocco, Queens, Cuba – Zora O’Neill, travel writer, cookbook author, and dinner party hostess-with-the mostest, takes you there and makes sure you eat well.

This Cat’s Abroad: Not updated nearly often enough for the talent and chutzpah exibited, this blog delivers a unique perspective by a woman living in Iraq (and now Kurdistan).

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Writerly stuff

Trip Tips: Havana Independently

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Havana is hot and I’m not talking about mulatas or the weather: from Cayo Hueso to Regla, Cementerio Colón to Ciudad Deportiva, you can’t swing a dead gato around here these days without hitting a tourist. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve seen this many foreigners in Havana since the 2006 Non-Aligned Meeting (see note 1).

There are reasons of course. The Cigar and Young Filmmakers Festivals are going strong as I write this, we’re getting a couple of monster cruise ships docking each week, and all-inclusive packages from Canada are mad cheap (see note 2). But most importantly, Havana’s streets teem thanks to Obama’s rollback to Clinton’s policy whereby US college students and select others can travel “legally” to the island. I’m surprised the effects have been so lightening fast – the new/old regulations were just announced in January – but everywhere I turn these days there seems to be a fresh-faced co-ed in Wesleyan gear or a Teva-shod geek. I hope they all have iPads.

Many of these people won’t end up liking Havana (hell, even I don’t like Havana some times). Starting with poor air quality, negative travelogues grouse about the expense of this place; perceived levels of state control; difficulties scratching below the surface +/o contextualizing their experience; and of course, crappy goods and even shittier services.

The dramatic economic changes happening around here – legalizing 178 types of private business from clown to cook, masseur to manicurist – are altering the travelers landscape (see note 3). So that Here is Havana readers can maximize their visit to this enigmatic city, I dedicate this post to travel strategies designed to get you beneath Havana’s skin.

#1. Talk the talk. There is no better way to maximize an independent holiday here than to speak cubano, with all its chopped off words, odd pronunciation and slang (see note 4). Even if ¿que bola asere? and ‘la heva está enpinga’ isn’t in your repertoire, try at least to dust off that high school Spanish since surprisingly few Cubans dominate English (and many of those that do are unusually accomplished charlatans). Not speaking Spanish doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad time – on the contrary. But it will limit your ability to get information, negotiate, learn and arrange logistics.

#2. Embrace pesos cubanos. As soon as you’re able, get some moneda nacional, also known as pesos cubanos and CUP. There’s a myth out there as tenacious as herpes in a whorehouse and which no amount of posting, commenting, and conversing seems to dispel: that tourists can’t use this ‘local’ currency. Complete rubbish. The truth is, most visitors simply don’t know how to use CUP. I suggest starting your trip by changing $5 of hard currency (24 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.82 USD) into this funny money to use for fixed route taxis, movies, food, condoms, cigars, and stepping out.

#3. Roll like a local. Long-finned Pontiacs, Capone-era Dodges, and other ‘Yank tanks’ leap to most minds when Cuba is mentioned. Undeniably cliché, these cars are everywhere, plying Havana’s streets working as communal, fixed-route taxis. For 10 pesos cubanos (about 0.40 USD), you can hail one of these endearing jalopies (I climbed into one yesterday that had packing tape upholstery and a ceiling lined with old refrigerator boxes) between Playa and Vedado or Habana Vieja, out to Miramar or Marianao. Longer routes – from Habana Vieja out to the Playas del Este beaches for example – will run double. To grab one, just stick out your arm parallel to the ground and ask the driver if he’s going to where you need to be. It helps to be on the right thoroughfare: 23 or Línea in Vedado, San Lázaro or Neptuno in Centro Habana, Avenida 31 or 41 in Playa, Calle 51 in Marianao, or 3ra Avenida in Miramar.

c. C Gorry

Even lower down on the transportation food chain is the guagua (pronounced wa-wa) – the Cuban bus. A ride literally costs pennies and while not especially comfortable or efficient, riding the guagua gives a real taste of Cuban daily life with all its attendant humor and hardships.

If these options don’t appeal, consider renting a car and driver. Part of the new regulations stipulate that licensed freelance drivers can now be contracted (by anyone, including foreigners as I understand it) to provide transport islandwide. There are no set fares, with rates to be determined between driver and client. Already nearly 6,000 choferes in Havana have applied for the freelance license; 2,000 have been granted. If the market has its way, the increased competition should make for more bargaining power and improved service. At the very least, it provides visitors an alternative to renting a car for $100 a day (which will somehow end up costing more when the agency is done with you). I predict that freelance drivers who speak English are going to do very well under these new regulations.

#4. Make yourself at home. One of the great benefits presented by the new regulations for travelers is the possibility to legally rent an entire house. This means you can shop at the agro (using those pesos cubanos) and cook for yourself, throw a dinner party, or introduce Cuban friends to the concept of brunch. Having your own private space means you can channel surf Cuban state TV (University for All! Little House on the Prairie! Seinfeld!), take mojitos on your porch to the delight of the neighborhood gossips, or stumble in carefree at 4am.

Another idea for a different Havana experience is to take lodging in more off-the-beaten-track places like the beach towns of Guanabo or Baracoa or Cojimar – the fishing village made famous by Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. These are close enough to enjoy Havana but just far enough removed to give a taste of small town life.

c. C Gorry

#5. Get primped & pampered. The new regulations approve all sorts of services which visitors can now enjoy without any sneaking around. Now your visit can include a 1-hr massage for $20 (really $10, but you might be charged double – the foreigner tax digamos), manicures for $2, and haircuts for $5 (careful with this last however).

If you’re interested to learn if someone – driver, masseuse, pizza maker – proffering these and other goods and services is licensed to do so, ask to see their licencia de cuenta propista. Most people are proud to flash their spiffy new ID cards.

#6. Spread the wealth. Frankly I weary of travelers asking me how they can avoid patronizing state businesses. That’s like asking how to avoid death or taxes. From the moment you buy your $20 tourist card to enter the country, to the minute you’re paying the $25 tax to leave, you’re supporting the Cuban government. What’s so evolved about this place is that paying into government coffers does in turn support the Cuban people (maybe not how or to the extent you’d like, but in my book the Cuban approach is fundamentally better than subsidizing bombs in Afghanistan and spies in Caracas). If you have a problem with this, do us all a favor and go to Cancun.

Having said that, I do recommend spending your hard-earned cash at a mix of state and private enterprises, but how to tell the difference? With eateries, there are some telltale signs. If your server is wearing a uniform or hairnet the place is probably state-owned. If your food descends from a balcony in a bucket it’s definitely private.

With taxis it’s even clearer: 99% of the old Motor City monsters (and many of the Ladas) brandishing taxi signs are privately owned. When in doubt, do like the Cubans do and look at the license plate (see note 5). There’s an entire code for plates here, with the first clue being the color: blue is for state-owned, yellow is private. All hotels, meanwhile, are at least 51% state-owned, but casas particulares (rooms or independent houses for rent) are privately operated. Look for the blue ‘arrendador divisa‘ sign.

c. C Gorry

If you’re interested in learning more of the Havana ‘mécanica‘ including bus and fixed-fare taxi routes, the best spot for 75 cent whisky shots and $1 lunch, Cuban line etiquette and more, please check out my iapp Havana Good Time.

Notes

1. It’s highly doubtful we’ll reap the same benefits however: when Cuba hosted the meeting as is customary for the country holding the rotating presidency, Havana’s main roads were repaved, trees were planted (including many of the trees lining Boyeros every visitor zooms by on their way from the airport) and house facades all along the arrival route were painted up nice and spiffy for the visiting delegations.

2. These 7-day all inclusive deals are oftentimes cheaper than just a Toronto-Havana Cubana flight. Savvy travelers just book the package and stay a day or two at their resort and then travel independently. As an aside, tourism figures for January indicate a 16% increase for the same period last year. Top countries visiting Cuba: Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, and Mexico.

3. I say travelers here instead of tourists because I believe there is a fundamental difference between a person who passively observes a culture and someone who desires to actively participate in it. If you’re one of those disposed to take issue with the tourist vs traveler terminology, I invite you to focus on the phenomenon/philosophy I’m talking about rather than the etymology of the terms used to describe it.

4. Those interested in Cuban slang and phrases should check out this Dichos iapp. I haven’t been able to get it yet (the US government blocks iTunes from operating in Cuba) but am loca to try it.

5. This national reflex is widespread and wild to watch: no matter what type of car you’re in, observe how passing Cubans immediately drop their eyes to check out the license plate. Via the coded plates, they’ll know if your car is from Havana or the provinces, whether you’re a foreign resident or visiting, even if you work for the state, a mixed Cuban-foreign enterprise, a church or an NGO.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized