Category Archives: Relationships

Queer Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

sorry girls Im gayteeny

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

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

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

alejandra

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, health system, lonely planet guidebooks, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Havana’s Happy Ending Massage

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Next to a full-blown orgasm, there’s nothing more relaxing than a full-body massage in my book. A good massage even beats out great masturbation if you ask me, and while I’ve had massages in places as far flung as Hawaii and the Bronx, Guatemala and the Yucatán, I’ve been reticent to explore such carnal (albeit platonic) pleasures in Havana. It’s not a question of cost – a full one-hour massage is as little as $10 here – but rather the 1-2 combo of Cubans’ notoriously lascivious nature and a rabidly jealous Scorpion husband (see note 1). Who knew what would go down on that table, yours truly lying there nude, a strange man’s hands roaming all about?

But recently, a different 1-2 combo struck, sending me to that table: first, the need for release and relaxation was too pressing to ignore and then a friend opened a full-service spa. Permissible under Cuba’s new consumer capitalism regime, this privately-owned spa is in a privileged corner of an upscale neighborhood and offers everything from spinning classes and yoga to Brazilian wax jobs and microabrasions.

It seemed like the golden opportunity to invite the strong, well-oiled hands of an unknown Cuban macho to get acquainted with my body…

But before getting down to the nitty gritty, I wonder what you imagine when you hear the word ‘spa?’ Is it some oasis serving cucumber water and salmon/watercress baguettes on Little Palm Island? Or a strip mall in the Valley specializing in waxing, wrapping, threading, and peeling? Whatever images the word ‘spa’ conjures in your corner of the world, I bet it’s nothing like what we have in Havana.

All of the spas I know here (see note 2), are mansions or grand homes at least, with living rooms converted to fully-equipped gyms, bedrooms repurposed for Pilates, and closets retrofitted as saunas. My friend’s spa falls under this rubric, though as educated, well-traveled and cultured as she is, her spa is mucho más allá, offering nutrition consultations, medicinal plants for sale on the landscaped patio, and self-defense classes for women.

Bright, clean and spacious, the spa was welcoming but exuded the contradictory energy typical to Cuba at today’s crossroads: phones rang, appointments were made and administrators made sure it hopped with the hustle and bustle of a profit-making/seeking enterprise, while employees sat around picking their nails and contemplating their navels.

I was shown to a Swiss-clean room with AC, professional massage table, and linens monogrammed with the spa’s logo. In the gleaming, marble bathroom, I was instructed to change into the robe provided. Just then, the masseur appeared. I’ll call him Henry. He was big not wide, which was good, and had the sculpted muscles of a gym rat, nicely displayed in a skin-tight wife beater. Except for his braces (adult orthodontia is big here), he was easy on the eyes, which is neither here nor there since my baby blues would be closed, but like having an unattractive or downright ugly gynecologist, it never hurts. Henry had the smooth, lustrous skin privy to youth and would be considered a hottie by anyone’s standards.

Expectations for popping my Cuba massage cherry were high…

I assumed the position face down on the table and Henry spoke the only words he’d utter to me over the next hour: “would you like your gluteus and breasts massaged as well?”

Wait, what?! I was sure I’d heard right, but was struck dumb for a second as yells of “you can do it señora! Feel the burn!!!” bellowed through the thin walls from the spinning class next door. My mind flew into high gear, considering his query:

– Is a tit massage standard procedure?
– Had I ever even been asked this before by a professional masseur?
– Do boobs even have muscles to massage?
– If the answer to the above questions is no, was there a hidden subtext?
– If I answer yes to the tit kneading, does it open the possibilities for a “happy ending” which, considering the cut of Henry’s jib, wouldn’t be the most unpleasant thing to happen to me today?

“Just the gluteus,” I told him when I’d regained my senses. He got busy.

Things started off suavecito, suavecito and my first thought was ‘Is this a massage or foreplay?’ It was too light and fluttery, nothing that would route out my many sore muscles and overworked tendons. ‘Maybe he’s just warming up,’ I reasoned.” But he kept on killing me softly, even on both feet, committing that all-too-common infraction: neglecting the feet in massage quality and quantity.

When it became clear Mr. Muscle wasn’t going to apply himself, I sucked up the string of drool crawling across my cheek and said: “please: do it a lot harder.” And I think he tried – for half a calf at least, but then lapsed back into the massage mode I call “How to Relax Housewives and Pleasure Slackers.” I imagined him learning the techniques at an intensive weekend workshop somewhere bucolic like Las Terrazas or Viñales. Needless to say, this masajito was doing nothing for the knots tucked deep beneath my shoulders and my related stiff neck. Henry’s approach released no toxins and alleviated stress for about as long as takes you to finish reading this sentence.

His hands were big and strong and my mind’s eye saw them kneading whiter skin than he had probably ever touched. ‘Litro de leche’ Cubans often call my skin tone – not always in a good way. When it came time for me to turn my lily white self over, the draping acrobatics commenced. Since I’d declined the boob massage, he had to flip me while keeping both my genitals and chest strategically covered. He was fairly deft at it, though somewhat mechanical, and I imagined a full third of that weekend workshop in Viñales dedicated to ‘How to Drape Your Client without Exposing Popular Erogenous Zones.’

I asked him once again to put more oomph into it, but he didn’t. I resigned myself to the fact that my mind and body were not going to attain any bliss today. Just then there was a knock on the door; a muchacha entered asking if she could leave her bag in the massage room. Busting in on a naked (albeit draped) me didn’t really rankle: I was used to people barging in here – during couples’ therapy, on the toilet, in the throes. Privacy in Cuba is one of the island’s enduring oxymorons and one you have to cope with if you fancy spending large amounts of time here.

My faux/flojo massage was almost over and I realized the only happy ending was for Henry, when I left him a nice tip – just for trying.

Notes
1. In 10 years here, most of those covering the health system (where almost all massage therapists train and work at some time), I’ve never met a female therapist – something which I predict is going to change fast as more foreigners drop into Havana’s day spas.

2. Watch for my upcoming article on Havana’s spas and their inclusion in the next update of my Havana Good Time iapp. It’s worth pointing out that there are both state-run and privately-owned spas here now.

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

Do You Have the Cojones?

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If I had a peso for every email I get from someone saying they want to live in Cuba, I could take the six month sabbatical I need to finish my book. Hard as it may be for some of you to believe (or stomach), people do indeed write me all the time professing that they want to live here. These wannabe transplants mention the music usually, the slower, easier pace sometimes, the social safety net often, but Cubans and their idiosyncrasies always. It’s the Cuban ser – their way of being and living – that is so infectious, they tell me. As if I didn’t know. After a decade living here, believe me, I know. And it’s not always pretty or fun. So before you do something rash or costly or dumb, ask yourself this:

Can you be passably nice to people you can’t stand; have betrayed you; or are inept?
Sure, things are changing fast down here with unprecedented economic reforms having sparked a capitalistic furor and all the multi-tasking, efficiencies, and work ethic the best of such furor engenders. But really, it’s the same dog with new fleas. Bureaucratic habits and vice; the cradle-to-grave airbag of state support (i.e. a not always effective, and often painful savior); and the absurdist criteria for job security are die-hard tendencies everyone has to navigate.

Such tendencies, coupled with Havana’s small size and an ingrained system of sociolismo – whereby who you know helps keep you afloat – force us to deal daily with perfidious lovers, mentally challenged office drones, and crabby clerks. Getting all New York uppity or asserting that ‘the customer is always right’ will backfire (trust me) and just make everything harder in any and all future dealings with the aforementioned lovers, drones, and clerks.

Which is more important: sex or drugs?
You’re shit out of luck if it’s the latter. Cuba’s zero-tolerance policy and strict interdiction laws mean jail time for a joint, limiting recreational options to island-produced vice: rum and prescription speed, sedatives, and the like.

If it’s the former, than c’mon down because sex of all types and stripes is better on the island. While I’m still parsing the reasons why, I can say with certainty that it’s related to the lack of shame Cubans have about natural, bodily functions; the absence of Puritanical underpinnings found in other societies (you know who you are!); and the prowess of Cubans en sí. Even if you were to relocate with your spouse or partner, I predict my findings would be confirmed.

Can you tell/enjoy a good joke – especially when you’re the butt of it?One thing that chaps my ass are all these Cuba wonks (including locals – yes, Yoani Sánchez, I refer to you) who write about island life, history, politics and even travel and fail – utterly – to reflect the wicked sense of Cuban humor. This is a funny people, people. No matter who you are or where you’re from, Cuban friends, family, and colleagues will constantly darte chucho y cuero. Loosely translated, this means you will be the butt of many jokes. You are expected to laugh along and what’s more, reciprocate.

To take an example from the weekend-long International Harley Rally I participated in recently….

I rode on a 1953 hog driven by compañero Vladimir (Note: name has been changed to protect the guilty). Like most Cubans, he took the 3-hour ride as an opportunity to flirt and shower me with compliments – the scripted Cuban prologue to getting into a girl’s pants. Not a chance did Vlad have, but that never stops an island guy from trying. I was clear on this point, as were the other 100 or so Harlistas and their backseat Bettys, but poor Vlad tried his damnedest regardless. On the last night, there was a big fiesta, the booze flowed, Vlad got stupid drunk, and ended crying in a corner. His friends rallied, rousted him, and escorted him safely to bed. Upon their return, they passed me this note:
[
(Coni I love you. You betrayed me. I never thought you’d do that to me. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I love you. A kiss)

Uproarious laughter ensued – we all knew Vlad’s blubbering had nothing to do with me and everything to do with dropping his bike in a drunken mishap. Lips pursed and blowing kisses, I snatched the forged note from Rodolfo’s hands, preventing him from making good on his threat to post it on Facebook.

Which is more important: food or sleep?
Automatic fail if you answered either because you’ll will go without both at some juncture here. Obnoxious reggaetón at 5am; pre-dawn Revolutionary Square rallies; and all-night parties will rob you of the latter, while shitty/non-existent restaurant service; midnight munchies with nowhere to sate them; and food just not worth ingesting, will rob you of the former.

Do you have personal space issues?
If ‘yes’ even crosses your mind, cross Cuba off your list: chronic housing and transportation shortages mean you’ll share rooms and beds, seats, sweat and oxygen with friends and even strangers at one point or another. Culturally, Cubans have a completely different approach to personal space – kissing, touching and rubbing up against each other is de rigueur, regardless of relation or circumstance. Even in the dog days of summer, folks greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, leaving behind a wet slick of sweat, a reality I’m still not sure how to deal with: do I let it ride and dry or swipe it away with a perdóname smile?

Are you more of a tits or ass person?
Cuban preference falls squarely on the latter which is a boon for bosom-challenged me, though I’m sorry to report that implants are making major inroads here, tweaking the standard of beauty towards the bust.

How do you feel about second-hand smoke?
Personally, I’m tired of tourists giving me dirty looks as I enjoy my habitual cigar. More than sex, rum, salsa, and solidarity, Cuba is known for its world-class tobacco. If you’re going to be here for any length of time, you’ll have to accept the fact that at one time or another, in places appropriate and not (e.g. windowless clubs, in hospitals, on buses), you’ll be breathing in the piquant, cancer-causing smoke of uncut black tobacco cigarettes and one peso cheroots.

Are you a hygiene freak?
If you’re one of those folks who has a trial-sized Purell bottle clipped to your bag, this isn’t the place for you. From stepping in street juice and gutter detritus to tolerating bugs or hair in your food (or as part of your food, as often happens with chicharrones), you’re going to experience it here. What’s more, every Cuban observes the five second rule: food dropped on the floor is entirely edible, as long as you retrieve it within five seconds. To wit: a couple of days ago I went to the panaderia for my daily ration of bread. As a nice neighbor helped me deposit the rolls in my sack, two fell to the sidewalk. Without pause the baker said: ‘give me those; I’ll replace them.’ He did, but only after placing those two tainted rolls back on the rack alongside the rest to be sold. Whomever came after me got those fallen rolls, none the wiser, poor soul. This happens all the time, and you will eat food that has kissed the ground, whether you know it or not.

Can you go without toilet paper/tampons/Internet/butter/speaking your native language for indeterminate and sometimes extensive, amounts of time?
We all go without these items down here, since to be in Cuba requires an adaptability many visitors I know simply don’t have but which Cubans possess in spades. No toilet paper? No problem – we use water like billions of other people around the world or the Communist daily cut into handy-sized squares. A diehard Tampax user before my move, I switched to pads a decade ago and many Cuban women still use swaths of cotton. Baking notwithstanding, oil is a good enough substitute for butter and while there is no substitute for Internet, being disconnected has its advantages – like actually interacting with real human beings.

On the language front, I’m embarrassed for expats who move to foreign countries and ensconce themselves in enclaves of their native tongue. These folks also like to foist that tongue on locals by talking REALLY LOUD or s-l-o-w-l-y in the odd, delusionary, and insulting belief that these strategies will result in success. If you’re going to live here, you need to speak Cuban, coño, which as any Spanish-speaking visitor knows, is an entirely different ball of wax from straight up Castellano.

Do you wither in the heat?
If so, don’t come here: you won’t be able to take it and frankly, you griping about it bums us out. We, on the other hand, can complain about it long, hard, and better than you – a right earned through innumerable August blackouts with no fan, AC, or ice water.

How is your tolerance for contradictions?
Every society has them and if you think otherwise, you’re not paying close enough attention. But the Cuban flavor of contradiction is particularly special. Married men, for instance, can keep multiple lovers (sometimes of both sexes). Married women? Not so much. Meanwhile, government laws promote private business but the bureaucrats charged with upholding those laws squelch incentive and drive; sex is the national pastime but making carnal noises the neighbors can hear and nude (even topless) sunbathing are taboo; artists keep profits from their work abroad but athletes don’t see a cent; and a taxi driver/tour guide/waitress/hairdresser earns more than a neurosurgeon. The media bears much guilt as well: you’ll very rarely hear trova legend Pablo Milanés crooning his immensely popular songs of love on the radio or TV, but sleazy reggaetón by the likes of Osmany García who beseeches chicas to suck his pinga gets airtime. Some of these contradictions are trying to work themselves out, but are proving as hard to cure as bed bugs and herpes.

Finally, do have untapped stores of inner strength (i.e. cojones)?
I hope so because to live here, you’re going to need them.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, cigars, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

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

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