Category Archives: Relationships

The Cuban Love Doctor Is In

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Why do Cuban men cheat?

Are Cuban women faithful?

Steer clear of Cuban men?

Someone save me from my Cuban husband!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

The Gift of Aché Part I

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Folks who know me (or who are paying close enough attention) are aware of my recent rough go of it. Illness, death and dying – that up close and personal, at-the-bedside type of illness and dying – have defined my past 12 months. To put it bluntly, this past year has been a bitch, with moments, days worth of long moments, when my surrender seemed certain.

One of the harshest blows was the death of my friend Angela (known in these parts for her inimitable Cuban Thanksgiving). It was cancer, she was too young, and too loved. To boot, hospice was what hospice always is: well-intentioned and the best compromise given the situation, but sad and painful and a little bit cruel for everyone involved.

I loved Angela and the loss I felt when she finally died – peacefully, surrounded by family and friends in the closest approximation of agape I’ve so far seen – was profound. The grief was shared amongst many and in that there is some solace, but I wasn’t sure that would suffice to carry me through the next steps: I was asked to help clean out her house in Havana and distribute her worldly goods.

The task was entrusted to a five-person team of her nearest and dearest on this side of the Straits and we undertook the task as Angela would have: with a weighty combination of duty and respect, love and courage. She was meticulous in her wishes and armed with a detailed list of who got what, we tackled the job with sorrow-tinged stoicism.

The work went quickly because this is the way of Cubans with a task before them; her computer equipment and kitchenware, jewelry and electronics were distributed as per her written instructions, her love letters and professional correspondence kept confidential. But one wish remained problematic to honor: she asked that Triunfo de Yemayá be transferred to her older brother in South Florida.     

This intricately carved and painted headboard was homage to the Afro-Cuban goddess of the sea and motherhood; surrounded by the magical elements of her domain and influence, the piece was made especially for Angela because she was muse to many, inspiring love and dedication and creativity. Anyone who had been invited into her home over the decades will remember that big, beautiful work of art, stirring memories of good food and friends and the positive energy so engendered.

My problem was Triunfo de Yemayá was as bulky as it was heavy, with fragile protruding bits, and the practical challenges inherent in delivering it to her brother in Miami were many. And my responsibility alone. Not surprisingly, the piece leaned against my office wall for months while I grieved and tried to figure out how to get it across the Straits.    

Triunfo de Yemaya, sitting in my office

The first stumbling block was the crate. This can be a challenge anywhere, but especially in Cuba where resources are scarce and fudging on details, craftsmanship, and follow-through rife. I talked to artist friends and curators to try and find someone to do a proper job of it (see note 1) with little luck. For months no wood was available and the expertise to build a proper crate apparently lacking. To make matters worse, prices carried a Yuma tax, which still rankles, even after 10 years in residence. Triunfo de Yemayá remained an emotional and psychological brick, shoring up my office wall.

And then I met Adam.

(ACHÉ #1)

A babalawo from Centro Habana, Adam is one of those Cubans who can find, fix or resolve anything. In retrospect, it was entirely fitting that a babalawo should step into the picture given the tenor and title of the piece. Within two days, Adam built a beautiful, close-to-MOMA quality crate cheap which would protect Yemayá on her trip across the Straits. Procuring the necessary export papers (see note 2) was the next step and so seamless it felt positively First World.

Packed nicely and with the paperwork squared away, I felt lighter and brighter – I was finally seeing through Angela’s last wishes.

Then I got to the airport.

For those who have never been here, taking big luggage out of Cuba is an anomaly and just a little bit crazy, if you ask me. Even so, lowering the crate from the roof of the Lada felt good and approaching final. How misplaced our feelings can sometimes be.

Yemaya: pre-crate, en route to get export papers

“I know you from somewhere, but can’t place your face,” I remarked to a guy standing nearby as I angled Yemayá on to a luggage cart.

“I processed your export papers at the patrimony office. Let me call ahead to our transport specialist so he can smooth your way; he’s on the tarmac now.”

(ACHÉ #2)

As he made the call, I made my way into line, eliciting murmurs and stares as I wheeled my unwieldy luggage towards check-in.

“Are you exporting a TV?” a tourist entirely unclear on the Cuba concept asked.

I laughed. “No. TVs come in to Cuba, they don’t get taken out,” I said, before explaining the story behind the voyage of Yemayá.

As I checked in, the charter representative told me I was 60 pounds over my weight limit and the crate, while lovely, would not fit through the X-ray. Somehow I hadn’t accounted for these factors.

“How can we resolve this, mi amor?” (see note 3) I asked with a smile, taking the opportunity to explain the favor and duty I was doing and the duty I felt to transport the piece.

A $40 “tip” took care of the weight limit issue and the chief cargo officer was summoned to escort Yemayá to that area of the airport where there was an extra grande X-ray machine for oversized luggage. But there was just an hour until the flight and a truck couldn’t be located to get the piece over to cargo. Just then, the aforementioned transport specialist from the National Registry appeared at my side.

(ACHÉ #3)

They decided to go to Plan B.

Wielding the hammer I’d brought for the purpose, the crate was opened and inspected by the Registry’s transport specialist, the chief cargo officer, a customs agent and a couple other rubberneckers.

“My saint is also Yemayá,” someone said, their proclamation hanging in the tiny, crowded office as a final word of sorts.

Working together, we got her repacked right for the next leg of her trip.

“Now what?” I asked, looking at the clock and wondering if 35 minutes would be enough to complete this part of my mission.

“We’re done here. Now we wheel it on to the tarmac and put it on the plane.”

(ACHÉ #4).

As I bid my crew adieu with a hug and the customary right cheek kiss, I heard someone say: “now let’s see what happens in Miami.”

Stay tuned to learn the fate of Triunfo de Yemayá!

(For those wondering, aché means “«the force», not in the sense of violence, but as a vital energy which creates a multiplicity of process and determines everything from physical and moral integrity to luck.”)

Notes

1. In this I have some experience since I lived with an art handler/installer my last four years in the States and precisely how fine art should be transported and handled.

2. To export patrimony +/o art of a certain caliber from cuba requires easy to procure paperwork and 10 CUC; my experience at the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales in Vedado was one of the most efficient and friendly I’ve ever experienced here.

3. While compañero and compañera may be waning as preferred terms of address, mi amor never will.

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

Piropos Cubanos: Sí or No?

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Cubans are famous for many things: cigars, salsa, and rum jump to mind, with world class athletes not far behind. But that’s amateur hour; after a little more experience and exposure, outsiders (and all non-Cubans are considered so at some time, to some degree) will appreciate less commercial, but equally celebrated traits like Cubans’ sense of humor and solidarity and their art for artifice.

Those who walk the walk and talk the talk know there’s another especially Cuban art and craft – that of come-on lines, known in local lingo as piropos. Whispered your way as you walk by or shouted from a bustling corner, every pretty, average, and ‘butter face’ Cubana has received her share of flowers from the mouths of appreciative men.

If you cook like you walk, I’ll scrape the bottom of your pan,” (note 1) is probably the country’s most popular piropo and anyone with a little swing to their hips has heard it. And while the sentiment sets the imagination awhirl, not a few foreign women have complained to me about how this and other come-on lines tossed their way. In short, they find them offensive.

My friend Juan Carlos argued famously on this precise point with a US feminist poet of note while she was living in Cuba. At that time, she was (and probably still is) vehement in her position that piropos are an affront to women. She’s not alone: similar views were shared here when I mentioned the piropos I receive as I ride this city’s streets on my beloved new bike (see note 2).

To be clear, I’m not talking about groseros – rude, crude lines reinforcing a patriarchal power structure. These are something else entirely and should be rebuked as so. Nor am I referring to the ubiquitous tssssss, tssssss, tssssss that’s used to catch the attention of women countrywide (and which I’m terrified I’ll let slip while beckoning a New York City waitress resulting in bodily harm). No, what I’m concerned with here are those delightfully cunning lines which show appreciation for the female form; I, like my friend Juan Carlos, don’t see the problem.

By way of disclaimer: I was raised by a feminist (by nature, not indoctrination) and I pride myself on being a non-biased, all-inclusive kind of gal who doesn’t give a damn about the color of your skin, to what gender you ascribe, before which god you kneel, or who you choose to screw. Everyone is equal in my heart and mind (until they prove otherwise through moral/ethical digressions). But since so many foreign women have complained to me about piropos, I have to wonder: am I missing something?

And further: what of my impulse to toss out my own piropos to some delicious specimen – a mangón of such magnitude I can’t let him pass without voicing appreciation? Does that make me a failed feminist or a femachista – a term coined by my friend Rigo for those women who talk a good feminist game but reinforce the machismo that is so rampant and damaging here?

After ten years living and working in this wild, incomparable place, I think not. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that the well-crafted come-on line does no harm. In essence, good piropos are funny, imaginative fare designed to make the recipient pause long enough to laugh; and laughter, along with a sharp mind, is the best aphrodisiac I’ve found – two characteristics which the best piropos embody. This struck me squarely the other day when a guy said to me: “your name must be Alice because looking at you sends me to Wonderland.” I laughed out loud and responded: “good one, brother!” And he laughed too.

I have to ask, then: two strangers laughing out loud at a line cleverly crafted. What’s so wrong with that?

Many foreigners don’t always get this. Furthermore, their attempts at piropos usually pale in comparison. To wit, my old friend Mountain was infamous for cooing “oh to be a bicycle seat” to any pretty girl who rode by.

But to every rule, there’s an exception, like the handsome Swiss stranger who leaned in to tell me: “you must be from heaven, because you have the scapula of an angel.”

Personally, I say ¡! to piropos cubanos.

Notes

1. “Si cocinas como caminas, me comiera hasta la raspa’ sounds a lot better in Spanish.

2. Curiously, the quantity and quality of piropos I get while on two wheels differ considerably from those I get on two feet.

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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

For: My 20-Something Friends, Love: Your 40-Something Tía

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] Sometimes I bore myself with all this Cuba talk and expat navel gazing; granted, there’s a lot to say on the subject (see note 1), so I’m not beating a dead horse per se, but it does make me feel like a wordsmith one trick pony. So very occasionally (e.g. when I was in Haiti and occupied Wall Street), I muse on things which have nothing to do with the beguiling isle.

But this post is a complete departure for me since in addition to being not at all Cuba-related, it’s also the first time I’m writing for a particular readership (see note 2). Inspired by my cohort of young friends on both sides of the Straits (who are remarkably similar in their youthful optimism and doubt, impatience and drive), I wanted to share a bit of wisdom to help ‘abrir caminos’ as we say here (see note 3).

I’m guessing most Here is Havana readers are – like me – “older,” but surely you have some young friends and family who might benefit from my blather. Or perhaps you’ve hit your fourth or fifth decade and have pondered the passage of time and its relation to the parable of life in ways discussed below. Regardless, I’m hoping said blather will resonate, no matter your biological age.

Party hard while you can – Partying until dawn at 40 is an entirely different undertaking from that at 20-something. At your age, you suck it up after a big night out and snag a couple of hours of sleep before going to class or work or both. But when you crawl in at daybreak at my age, you’re looking at a 24 hour recovery period. In short, the day after is totally lost, a write-off, while you drag ass, rest, maybe have a little hair of the dog, followed by more resting. My advice? Party hard while you can because that in itself gets harder as you age.

Shape up now – Your mind, depth of experience, and perspective grow as you grow up (if not, you’re doing something wrong), but your body? Hell in a handbasket, my friends, and you’ll eventually reach the point of sagging muscles and tone loss, slackening skin accompanied by its evil twin wrinkles, and gravity working its black magic on your boobs, balls, and god knows what all. My advice? Eat healthy, exercise, and don’t smoke or drink to best hedge your bets (says the woman suggesting you party hard while you can). I largely ignored this advice at your age, so I’m not throwing stones here, but rather signposting the road of life for my young friends. (I should admit here that I’m also a wee bit nostalgic for the taut, hard body I had at 20.) My advice? Enjoy it while you’ve got it, but know that maintenance is essential if you want to remain fit and bed-able at 40. This is particularly true for young XX readers, since women are saddled with an unjust and inequitable standard of youth and beauty as compared to men.

Get jiggy now– You might not think much of it at the moment, but once you’ve passed 40 or 50 springs on this earth, Viagra will become tantamount. For males, it’s a modern miracle. For us women, it sucks 16 ways from Tuesday. First, there’s straight up anger. They get Viagra and we get menopause?! Where’s my Viagra coño?! Second, those little miracle pills trick men into thinking they’re unjustifiably hot, omnipotent, and virile (some are dupes in this sense regardless, but that’s another story). On the upside, we ladies usually hit our sexual stride much later than guys – i.e. when most age-appropriate males can’t keep up without the help of Big Pharma. My advice? Enjoy yourself (safely!) now and entertain the cougar cruisers when your time comes.  

Some things don’t fix themselves – In addition to penile erectile dysfunction (see above!), other problems in life like clogged drains, yeast infections, back taxes, and bad tattoos (see below!) don’t get better on their own. This can also be said of HIV infection and I feel a little sorry for my 20-something friends who have only lived in the post-HIV world. My advice? Embrace latex and call a professional – whether it’s a sexual health expert, plumber, gynecoloigist, accountant, or laser wizard – when things go awry.    

Resist brand tyranny – Whether it’s Apple or Converse, Mercedes or Harvard, I urge you to resist marketing mania and associated pressure to buy and flaunt labels. Hilfiger or Louboutin, Ed Hardy or Kate Spade: no matter the brand, wearing it will not make you smarter, better looking, or more kind. True, I’m a fashion disaster, but in these matters, I defer to my favorite billionaire who observed: why shell out $10,000 for a Rolex when my $15 Timex keeps the hour just as well? My advice? Think twice before buying into the brand.

Love stinks – Sorry to break it to you, but even at my age you probably won’t have the love thing figured out. Sure, you may be with someone, engaged, married, or in love even, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. On the contrary, love makes everything more complex and in that complexity lies the problem. My advice? Tellingly, I have none; please let me know if you’ve had any revelations on the relationship front.

Think before you ink – I’m speaking from experience here guys: the tattoo that seems daring, romantic, or artistic at 20 can become a real problem at my age. Trust me – the choice between cover-up and removal isn’t pretty (or cheap) no matter how you cut it. My advice? Think long and hard about the statement you want to make and if it needs to be permanently emblazoned on your body and where.  

Older doesn’t necessarily mean smarter – Which is my way of saying: you don’t always have to listen to people older than you. Authority figures sometimes get off on that alone – i.e. the authority of age and position – and that can be dangerous for reasons too convoluted to go into here. My advice? Question authority, as much for your own benefit as for those wielding that authority because once they go unquestioned, they can do anything. And we definitely don’t want that.

Take the long view – I have a young friend who lost her zest for college two-thirds of the way through and she’s thinking about dropping/copping out. I say copping out because the lion’s share of the work is done and she just needs to suck it up a little longer to successfully attain her degree. Three semesters seems like forever to her at 21, but that ain’t nothing in the scheme of things, baby! I beg those of you close to completing school, a project, or a dream to persevere even though it feels like it will be forever until you reach your goal. My advice? You can do it – just go easy and take it slow when your patience runs thin.  

Keep your finger on the pulse – I’ve learned in the two decades since I was in your shoes that it’s important to befriend, mentor, and seek out and the opinion of, people younger than you. My advice? Whether you’re 20, my age, or double that and your next step is death, nurture relationships with people younger than you to keep your horizons expanding.

Live your dreams – As so many have said, life isn’t a dress rehearsal; it’s the only shot you’ve got. My advice? Make the most of it.

This post was motivated by the friendship of many 20-somethings in Cuba and beyond, including Caitlin, Benji, Joelito, Jenny, and Pablo. I dedicate it to you!

Notes

1. Which is why I’m writing a book (some would call it a memoir, a word that makes me cringe for several reasons) on the topic.

2. If you’ve landed here because you’re interested in Cuba-specific reading, I suggest trolling past posts and checking back in a few weeks – I’m preparing something juicy on the Pope.

3. For the curious: ever since I was 16, I knew I didn’t want to have kids and at 42, I remain exhileratingly child-free (and I’m not alone: check out this group Green Inclinations, No Kids or GINKs). But I adore being an aunt – tía in Spanish, which is a double entendre in Cuban since it loosely means ‘a woman of a certain age no longer considered sexy or eligible for seduction.’ I remember the first time a young Cuban buck called me tía – it smarted, yes it did!

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Cuba Contradictory

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]While other bloggers are making their end-of-year lists, I’m just waiting for this year to end. Loss and sorrow is what 2011 has meant for me and while a turn of the calendar page won’t cure what ails me, you, or the world, it can provide a dose of hope – false and fleeting as it may be – to help us keep on stepping. Like a car with an empty gas tank, the warning light red and taunting, we know we’re running on fumes, but moving forward nonetheless; ‘bound to cover just a little more ground,’ as the song goes.

Havana circa December 2011 feels similar: we may be running on fumes, but at least we’re still running.

But that’s today. Other days, Havana hops with energy and enthusiasm and drive, where the theme song is instead ‘How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more’ – more millennial and hip, more sophisticated and noteworthy. This fuel injection comes from new economic regulations permitting private businesses, the buying and selling of cars and homes, and relaxed travel rules by Obama for Cubans in the USA wanting to visit family on the island (see note 1).

So how Havana feels largely depends on the day you measure her. And your outlook, what you see and experience, and who you talk to. Just like anywhere else, I suppose (if you’re paying close enough attention), except this place is like nowhere else. The contradictions are starker, more frequent, funnier.

Here are some that have caught my attention recently:

The Limousine/Ox-Drawn Cart

When Cubans of a certain means and bent get married, the bride and groom tour around town in a convertible festooned with satin bows, the novia perched atop the back seat waving to passersby while the driver lays on the horn (some honk out the wedding march, others the Godfather theme). But a few days ago, I crossed paths with the newest fad of the nouveau riche: the black tinted stretch limo (there’s only one) rented from Rex Autos covered in the same satin bows. There was no horn honking, however, and no visible bride – defeating entirely the purpose of showing off to plebes and passersby. I guess the thrill of a limo ride is reward enough for some and it did turn heads, including mine.

A short time later, I waited as two oxen were maneuvered with coos and stick by their expert handler. They carted behind them the water tank (known as the pipa in these parts), that makes the rounds of neighborhoods without municipal water. The pipa is the savior of all those homes and families which only have water un día sí, un día no (or even more infrequently).

Stretch limos and oxen carts; conspicuous consumption and water shortages: Es Cuba, my friends.

Penthouse Too Big/House Too Small

Estrella lives in a propiedad horizontal – a floor-through apartment. And it’s a penthouse no less. These huge, luxurious flats are found throughout Vedado high-rises and are more reminiscent of Manhattan than Havana. They usually feature phenomenal city and sea views but are also a pain in the ass – hard to clean and maintain, they’re also a real liability during hurricanes when their height, exposure, and plate glass windows put them in direct path and danger of the elements. For these reasons, Estrella is looking to permutar her penthouse for something closer to the ground, a more manageable home in short.

Contrast this with my friend Gloria – 68 and a spitfire who has dedicated her life’s work to helping the revolution work, she shares a bedroom with her 6-year old grandson and 10-year old granddaughter. If you know Cuba and the housing crisis we’re in, you know multi-generational sleeping arrangements are common. Except in Gloria’s case, she not only shares the room with her grandkids, but a double bed with the boy to boot. Sadly, this is also not terribly uncommon.

Both Estrella and Gloria are equally revolutionary and politically committed; this too, is Cuba, dear readers.

Chocolate-filled Churros/Pallid Pizza

As the new economic regulations gel, Cubans are figuring ways to live with the Gordian Knot that is capitalism. Folks with money to invest and a head for business are differentiating their products and services – and making money hand over fist as a result. The full-service car wash that everyone is talking about is one example of entrepreneurial pluck and vision, as is the nearby scuba school. Since I have no car and don’t dive, these are simply a curiosity for me. Not so the cafeteria selling chocolate-filled churros; jamaliche that I am, this development piqued my interest. Using a machine imported from Ecuador, these folks crank out a fried, filled sweet treat that drives Cubans gaga – and all for the nice price of 3 pesos (less than 15 cents). Also taking the city by storm is the burger and pizza joint with one of those inflatable playhouses kids love so much in the yard. While the kids jump and play, their parents nosh and drink, dropping a bundle in the process. According to my sources, this cafeteria is netting 1500 pesos a day (around $62 – not bad for a startup here).

Meanwhile, block upon block of new cafeterias sell the same forgettable hot dogs and egg sandwiches, bread spread with cloying mayo or croquettes. Some of these places serve terrible food – tasteless or cold, on day old bread or presented to customers just after the flies have been swatted away. Last week, I stopped by a new cafeteria in my neighborhood selling the smallest, palest, saddest pizza I’ve ever seen. With cheese congealing (despite being placed beneath an office lamp), the pathetic pizza sold at Rapidos around town look delectable in comparison. No wonder the government estimates 80% of these new businesses will fail within a year.

The contradictions abound caballeros. Every human and society has them. But we’ve recently had many complexities introduced into our reality here on the island which are deepening these contradictions. It’s a confusing time – anxiety-ridden once you scratch the surface – but it seems these complexities have also sparked a new line of critical thinking and reflection.

Over several visits with different friends and families over the past week, discussions have turned on the theory and opinion that what we’re experiencing today can largely be chalked up to the Special Period – that time in the 90s when the Cuban economy crashed and burned, threatening to take the Revolution with it. So that wouldn’t come to pass, people tightened their belts, took a hold of their bootstraps, and sallied forth. But at a cost. These conversations didn’t focus on what the new economy is or isn’t doing for our present, but rather the hard times of the past and how they eroded values, placed the pursuit of things over relationships, and planted the seeds of individual survival over the collective.

“We used to live here so naturally.”

“People changed overnight.”

“It was 180° turn, fast and dizzying.”

These are some of the comments made to me recently about those trying years, but in relation to our current situation. Interesting food for thought and worth recalling, 20 years hence, as we contemplate the changes in Cuba circa 2011.

Notes

1. You should see what folks are bringing in from abroad to start their families’ businesses here – everything from car parts and coolers to snorkel masks and jungle gyms. Permissions for Cuban families from the USA to travel here is being threatened by political (but powerful, ojo) dinosaurs in Congress. Although it seems Obama isn’t going to let this happen, I encourage all Here is Havana readers to keep the pressure on to lift both the travel ban and the blockade.

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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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Those Faithful Cubans

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Back in the 1850s, when everyone from priests to sugar barons were fighting for their piece of the pie (and their piece of mulatta ass, let’s be frank), this island was known as “la siempre fidelísima Isla de Cuba.” The forever faithful island of Cuba.

As a yuma married to a Cuban for going on nine years now, I can tell you this fidelity question has nagged me long and hard. And I’ve finally reached the tipping point. It took some time, though.

I remember when I was a tenderfoot on these shores – all bright-eyed and basking like a well-fed turtle, not bothered by termites in my bed or even reggaeton (see note 1) – and how much I still had to learn. On one of those fine sunny days way back when, I was seaside with some friends (a pair of ex-pat Europeans who bailed long ago) having a few cold drinks and taking the ocean air.

‘But don’t you wonder where he was?’ my friend asked. She’s one of those naturally beautiful, smart women who always seems to get what she wants even when she’s not entirely sure what that is.

‘Nah.’ I said. ‘I trust him implicitly.’ Did I really just say that? More to the point, do I really believe it? Me, who has only trusted implicitly five people my whole life, four of whom share my last name? It slipped out, but it was true. At least I wanted to think it was true.

The distinguished gent across from me, a rich well-traveled Turk who was living in Cuba on a lark, raised his eyebrow and his glass. ‘I wouldn’t trust anyone here implicitly, querida,’ he said sipping his Bucanero.
_____

It was my first summer here – 2002. I’d never even seen a spit-roasted pig or the inside of a hospital (see note 2) and my husband and I were spending August camping around the island. I was blissfully unaware of the depth of my ignorance about Cuba – had I known then what I know now and I had known how confused I’d still be all these years later, I may have run away and quit before my Cuban odyssey ever really started.

The car packed high with tent and stove, kitchen kit and several gallons of water, we went way off the beaten path. Making our way across the country we’d just pick a place on the map and go. This is how we found ourselves kicking up dirt on a deserted road heading towards Punta Covarrubias in god forsaken Las Tunas (see note 3). We saw nothing for miles – no birds stirred the air, nary a lizard snuck out his tongue. Not one car or person appeared in the 90 minutes we were on that rutted road. Finally the sea grew into view and with it came gales of laughter.

When we pulled up between pines as thin as a Cuban campesino, we saw a panel truck and a party in full swing. The beach and lone hotel were deserted – closed for the season or some other confounding Cuban reason – but these folks had come to let their hair down and hot dog!, roast a pig.

My husband busted out a bottle of rum and we took turns rotating the pig. Dominos materialized of course. We got to know our hosts in that way Cubans have of making fast friends. They were lovely people, country folk who worked hard and had the calluses to prove it. With the sun dipping low, we swapped addresses (none of us had phones in our homes) and I promised to send Eliades the photos we’d taken.

“On no! Don’t send them to me. My wife will kill me if she finds out!”

And here I’d thought the buxom brunette with the sunburned collarbone he’d been fondling all day was his wife. Silly me.
_____

Not long thereafter, I was on the 100 bus going to a meeting. It was one of those oppressive Havana days when tempers are short, the sun’s rays are long and you’re sweating as soon as you step from the shower. In sum, a typical July day in these parts. The 100 bus, I should mention, ‘tiene sus cosas‘ as we say here – it has it’s thing going on.

This bus runs through Marianao – a very working class, very black neighborhood run thick with bling and babalawos – from where it descends to the seashore in Miramar. In summer, this bus is an asses to elbows, hips to groin crush of humanity desperate to get to the “beach” (no sand, just a nasty species of shoreline rock known as diente de perro). At these times, boys ride the 100 shirtless and the girls are more scandalously clad than usual (if that’s possible). It’s so crowded daredevils hang from the windows, hitching a ride from the outside.

On this day, I was all up in it inside the bus. There was no choice but to squash up against the strangers squeezing in around me. I tried to angle away from any erogenous zones – theirs and mine. As we crossed Calle 51, the crowd crushed in tighter and I felt a warm rush of air on my face.

“Come to the beach with me baby,” a young, chiseled guy chuffed in my ear. I turned away, making sure to steer clear of his bulge.

“I don’t think my husband would approve,” I snapped.

“You’re married? So what?” the kid responded, pressing in tighter against me.
_____

Some years ago, I was let in on a secret. It wasn’t really a secret (a concept which is completely foreign to most Cubans) but rather one of those things that people know about but no one mentions: the two family phenomenon. I had drawn breath 32 years before I’d ever known that there were men who keep two families. Not Big Love style, but two secret families – one on one side of town, the younger on the other.

I have one friend, the poor soul, who discovered the ignoble injustice as her dearly beloved lay on his deathbed. On that day, she had brought him his breakfast and coffee just like every day since he had been hospitalized. She kissed him goodbye and turned to leave just as a second woman came in, breakfast and coffee thermos in hand, trailing two kids. The Other Wife with The Other Children who had no idea they had a half-brother and -sister on the other side of town. The bastard died not long thereafter. My friend and I don’t talk about it.

The same thing befell another friend, Josue. As an adult, he discovered his father had kept another family secreted away, also with kids – two brothers Josue spent a whole life not knowing.

I wonder about men who are so weak and insecure they need two women, two sets of kids, two lives. I imagine it must be extraordinarily stressful and hard to keep straight. I wonder how they look themselves in the mirror.
_____

Don’t believe for a second it’s only the men. Rosario is a perky (natural) blond with the hips of a mulatta and the ass of a negress. Her husband Julian is not only hot, he’s a talented, super successful musician to boot. They have a beautiful son together. One morning Julian woke up to an empty house. Turns out Rosario had married a Mexican on the side to leave the country and took the boy with her. She ditched the Mexican as soon as possible of course; she and the boy now live in Miami.

And what I’ve seen during my work abroad, covering the Cuban medical missions? Por favor. These folks serving two years in godforsaken places are like sailors on shore leave the way they hook up with one another. And the longer and harder the posting, like Haiti or Pakistan? Let’s just say it’s far from ‘la siempre fidelísima Isla de Cuba.’

For someone like me, faithful as a damn dog, this is all pretty disturbing. What does ‘faithful’ mean here, I wonder? Does it even translate? Does giving head count as cheating? Getting it? How about a mercy fuck? I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know, now that I’ve learned a little about Cuba, is that I wouldn’t necessarily say implicitly…

Notes
1. For the record, I have always been bothered by cold water showers and turds at the beach.

2. Since then I’ve been regularly employed as a journalist (take that OFAC!) by MEDICC Review which has thrust me inside all sorts of Cuban hospitals – from pediatric to post-disaster.

3. Very near here is one of the points of highest illegal immigration to the United States in all of Cuba. So common and scheduled are the super fast speed boats that pick up Cubans to zip them across the Straits to Florida they’re called ‘Yutongs’ – our equivalent of a Greyhound.

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