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In the Summer, In the City

It may be hard to believe (or all too easy, depending on your experience and perspective), but there are days I rue my decision to live here. You’d think 14 years would be time a-plenty to know whether a place is for you. Alas, I descend from a long line of slow learners…

 

But Cuba is a confounding place, at equal turns bewitching and bitchy. Sometimes, on those twilight evenings when the full moon is on the rise, the air perfumed by gardenias and a stranger offers to heft your burden three flights to your door, it feels like you snagged the brass ring. Other times, when you awake to a blackout and there’s no coffee in the stores, when a stranger lets fly a snot rocket, sprinkling your sandals with phlegm, it feels like someone just poisoned your childhood dog.

 

Today is a dead dog day.

 

I’d be lying (not like a rug, but like a Cuban!) if I said I’ve had a string of dead dog days – sure, my manuscript was rejected by yet another agency and half of my friends are in the midst of existential crises (the other half, meanwhile, have left the country). And while things are feeling a bit chronic lately, I’m living more for the moment, in the moment than usual, having a bevy of new experiences – like driving a motorcycle for the first time, a 1956 Harley no less, and producing my first short. I’m also getting better at looking on the bright side, like when my pap smear came back clean. So I’m doing ok, but Havana is in its summer throes and it ain’t particularly pretty.

 

Being poor and from NY, I know how much of a burden summer can be, when the days are too hot and long, when tempers run just as hot and way too short. After so many interminable summers, you’d think I’d be used to it. I should be used to it (I’m from the slow side of the family, remember). Maybe it’s because a life lived in Spanish is still hard for me. Or because I miss my people, my family – both Cuban and Yuma – almost all of whom are not here. Maybe I need catharsis. I definitely need a break. Since the latter is too long a ways away, I’ll settle for the former.

 

Here are some of the reasons Havana is anything but fun in the summer:

The heat: There are songs, stories, eulogies written about Havana heat. It is legend. It is horrid. These days, Havana is Hades hot and pea soup humid. It’s thick and clinging like a dim only child or the not-too-bright girl whose cherry you popped. When there’s a breeze from the sea, it’s tolerable, but when Havana’s still, the heat steals sleep and robs appetite. Sex lives stall and it’s just one more excuse not to work (most Cubans don’t need another, believe me). Havana also proves that climate change is real. If you’re one of those who needs proof, you’re as dumb as that once-upon-a-time virgin. When I moved here in 2002, July and August were intolerably hot. Now, May through October is like the old August – mercury approaching 100°F and humidity so dense breathing is hard. That mouldering stink you sense from the other five people crammed into the collective taxi? It’s the humidity: newly-laundered clothes (not to mention towels) never completely dry. And beware and prepare your olfactory sensitivities if you board a bus after a summer thunderstorm – the stench wafting from the hundreds of passengers will permeate your clothes, memory, soul.

 

When I made Havana my home, I was of the belief that complaining about the heat just made things hotter. Like many of my beliefs once firmly held (women over 40 shouldn’t wear mini-skirts; flip flops are indoor shoes), this has fallen by the wayside. I challenge anyone – whether here for a vacation or a lifetime – to pass two days here in summer without griping of the heat.

  • ¡Hay que calor!
  • No soporto este calor…
  • ¡Que calor hace, mi madre!

 

Now you’re as likely to hear me complain as earnestly and often as a native Habanera but with my NYer potty mouth: El calor está de pinga mi hermana. Maybe if I had air conditioning at home or at work. Somewhere.

 

Blackouts and gas rationing: That air conditioning we USED to have at home, work, somewhere? Adios, amigo. Some two weeks ago, information started leaking that we’re headed once again for rolling blackouts a la Periódo Especial (maybe not that bad, but bad enough). I was here August, 1993. A month of 12 to 16 hour blackouts was plenty for me. Little did I know that by the time I moved here in 2002, things had only improved a little (this was before the Venezuela-Cuba pact brought cheap oil to our shores). The time without lights was a few hours fewer but the heat was just as intense. At least this time around I wasn’t working in the fields under a blazing sun, kept upright by periodic shots of milordo (sugar water).

 

These days, the rolling blackouts have already hit certain Havana neighborhoods, but where they’re causing real distress is in the state sector. Stores, offices, and agencies previously chilled by the pingüino, are now without air conditioning. Along with internet, air conditioning is reason enough for people to cling to their shitty salaried state jobs. Now folks are even less motivated to hit the daily grind. To save energy, some places are only working half time these days – either half the hours five days a week or full days only half the week. However you do the math, it means less efficiency, less gas for the economic engine, less optimism, less hope. And more sweat. Though I’m sure some people welcome the time off – after all, it doesn’t affect their salary.

 

What people are NOT welcoming is the 50% cut in gas rations. Here is Havana in a nutshell: the global price of oil, combined with the political shakedown in Venezuela means there is less black gold to go around in these parts. Cuba has had to adapt (luckily, Cubans are more adaptable than Darwin’s case studies). In response, the government cut all gas to state enterprises in half – from now until October if word on the street is to be believed. The effect this is having on daily life is hard to overstate. To understand it – and we’re still trying – you have to know a bit about the ‘mecánica’ Cubana. I can say with confidence that every recipient of a gas ration for their job sells a portion on the black market. They make a little extra for their family, the buyer gets cheaper gas and everyone is happy. Those days are over. Families have less of a supplement, people are only driving when necessary, and the authorities took measures to prevent price hikes by boteros. These drivers of collective taxis (known as maquinas or almendrones), buy their gas on the black market for 40 cents cheaper a liter than at gas stations. Have you ever seen one of these taxis filling up at the Cupet? I thought not.

 

One of these taxi drivers became overnight famous when he stupidly, ingenuously blurted out on the nightly news that his business is being crushed because of the higher black market gas prices. Within 24 hours, the government announced they were enforcing a set tariff for collective taxi rides. Anyone caught violating it would get fined and risk losing their license. Passengers were encouraged to write down the license plate of any violators and report them to the authorities. Oh this is rich! What happens when the cheated on husband reports his wife’s lover, the taxi driver to the cops just to screw him? Knowing el cubaneo, I’m sure this is going down as I type this. And what happens when these drivers realize they can band together and agree not to work for two days, paralyzing Havana? Then we’ll be screwed.

 

Vegetable drought: The hot summer months are truly shitty if you like vegetables. Right now, you’re lucky to find a cabbage or some limp green beans – and please don’t write in about the abundance and variety if you shop at 19 and B – the ‘boutique market’ as it’s not-so-fondly known. In regular, run-of-the-mill markets, the only thing you’ll find are tubers and cabbage and garlic so tiny you need a loop to see the cloves. Meanwhile, onions are so expensive people have stopped eating them. Our usual summer consolation – avocado season – is no consolation this year: early summer winds sent the bulk of the harvest to the ground to rot. What’s left are not the quality or quantity we’re used to. Normally by this time in the summer, we’re sick of avocadoes, having subsisted on them for months. I ate my first avocado this week. To make matters worse, the ambulatory vegetable sellers have disappeared. Their prices were usurious but at least it allowed us to resolve a cucumber or two.

 

Super slow season Tourists are flocking to Cuba, I’m sure you’ve heard, but the flow slows to a trickle in the summer (see The heat, above). This is creating desperation in la calle that’s palpable and uneasy. We’ve had half a dozen people come in to Cuba Libro looking for work, while we struggle to pay our bills. The tourists have trickled out, Cubans have little extra cash for coffee, and our expenses pile up. The slowdown is also noticeable since people are selling anything and everything they can: books older than me, raggedy ass magazines, used clothes, underwear (not used, thankfully), fish, powdered milk, plants, art – you name it, someone’s selling it. Everyone is feeling the pinch – except the Cuban 1% who continue to drive, party, and consume like they’re in Miami.

 

There’s more, but why beat this dead horse? We still have three months of summer to go. It’s going to get hotter, mis amigos

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That Time of the Month in Havana (AKA Periodo Especial)

So the KKK deigned us with a visit. Not the white hooded racists, but the Prada-clad Kardashian clan. By all accounts, they hated Havana. They are not alone. Reasons to dislike my adopted city abound – the vicious gossip and hearsay; the transportation troubles; the dearth of nuts, berries, cheese, and fish; the inevitable beer or four added to your tab. But apparently, none of this registered on the limited radar/IQ of these young women who will never garner the respect or notoriety of their step dadmom, Caitlyn Jenner (I bet that puts Kim, Kourtney and Khloe’s La Perla panties in a twist). No, they hated Havana because their escapades in the world’s hottest city went undocumented on Snapchat and Twitter, negating whatever semblance of relevance they’ve ever known.

And in Havana, the Kardashians are irrelevant, something else they bitched about: ‘no one here knows who we are!’, proving once again that as insane as Havana is, it remains one of the world’s last bastions of sanity. What is relevant are the expectations people bring to this very unexpected place. I get it: most folks traveling here have sorely limited knowledge about Cuba. Maybe they know about the Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs or nothing at all. That started changing about two years ago when the likes of Usher and Jagger, Lagerfeld, Lady Gaga, and the real First Lady began stampeding the island like WalMart shoppers on Black Friday. Naturally, these visits made novel TV fodder for channels around the globe.

Meanwhile, Hollywood discovered a tropical playground with high-quality, low-budget talent (Fun Fact: the 12 day shoot for the 8th installment of the Fast & Furious franchise cost Universal $7 million; Cuban friends working on the set report that Vin Diesel is an idiot). Vanity Fair won’t fulfill subscriptions to Cuba (which has my cotton briefs in a twist), but sent Annie Leibovitz down for an exclusive shoot with Rihana where the pop star looks like just another ‘ho from Centro Habana, $2500 come-fuck-me shoes notwithstanding. All of these factors, plus others beyond the purview of this post, create a pseudo-reality of Cuba in the minds of the outside world. The result? Distorted perceptions and false expectations.

Distorted reality was what led me to create Here is Havana seven years ago – to give you the straight dope on what’s really going on in one of the world’s most fascinating cities. So while the Kardashians are whining about their inability to access the Internet (Pro Tip girls: head to the park at 16 & 15 to get all your connectivity woes resolved), I want to talk about real life issues affecting us on the ground: feminine hygiene products.

This is what period products are euphemistically called in the USA, but down here, where menstruation is talked about in mixed company, between and among generations, and at the family dinner table, we’ve no use for euphemism. Cubans – and now me by extension – talk about maxi pads and ‘Tampac’, blood flow and cramps they way you talk about Fair Trade coffee and standard-of-living raises: big issues, but not a shame-inducing big deal. In short, from periods to explosive diarrhea, Cubans have no pena when it comes to bodily functions. I’ve written previously about my admiration for this kind of Cuban straight talk, but given the ‘tourism tsunami’, I think a re-visit is in order, especially what women can expect at that time of the month.

###

When I moved to Havana in 2002, it had been decades since I’d used a maxi pad (also known as a sanitary napkin, which makes it sound like a Purell-infused paper towel found on your airplane or hospital food tray). Until my early 30s, I was a tampon gal all the way and never used anything but Tampax (Fun Fact #2: tampon brand loyalty is one of the all-time fiercest consumer behaviors according to focus groups and surveys; get a girl on to your brand in her first or second cycle and she’ll love ya for life! Or at least through menopause).

I arrived with a jumbo box of tampons, but was rudely awakened when those ran out: tampons were just not a thing in Havana. Not available, at any price. I was shocked and a little pissed. How did Cubanas cope? Tampons were a necessity as far as my First World mind could fathom and many of you likely agree. Can’t it be argued that the tampon is one of the most powerful weapons in the women’s lib arsenal (after the washing machine and the immigrant nanny to run it)? It seemed antiquated, as if I’d been thrown back to my mother’s pre-Betty Friedan teenage years.

Except this was 2002. And I was bleeding without recourse. I had to adapt.

This exercise in dystopian social Darwinism taught me some key Cuban survival skills. Most importantly, I learned how Cubans confront the monthly bleed: they procure a limited amount of maxi pads via their ration card, supplemented by cotton swaddling they fashion into pads when the ration, inevitably, runs out. The former are often gifted or sold, the latter reserved for when things devolve into a bloody mess. Once in a while, you might find pads in the dollar stores and when you do, buy in triplicate. When all else failed, I resorted to wads of toilet paper and Scotch tape. File under: Epic Fail. This all put a serious hitch in my giddy up on trips to the beach, hotel pool, or secret waterfalls, but I made do without any seriously embarrassing bleed through. Although, as I like to point out, it’s terribly hard to embarrass a Cuban, no matter the context, and period blood made public is no real cause for concern. To wit: my buddy Oscar recently shared a story about partying with friends at one of the faux posh Miami lounges cropping up in Havana like fungi under cow shit. Seating was in booths and on cubes made of white pleather (that’s plastic leather in Conner-speak; learn it. Love it). When Oscar’s girl stood to go to the bathroom, she left the cube smeared with blood. As she walked away, Oscar grabbed a napkin and wiped it clean without missing a beat.

Still, it’s hard to return to bulky, non-beach-compliant pads and relive pleather-smearing accidents after you’ve experienced [insert your favorite brand here]. Indeed, tampons are in such high demand in Havana, we ask foreign visitors to pack some extra in their luggage. Thanks to many kind folks who have done so, we have stock on hand at the bookstore – we’ve saved many a tourist and colleague with these donated ‘feminine hygiene products.’ And we’re converting people too: a pair of Cubana friends declined our invitation to a Cuba Libro beach outing because it was their time of the month. I told them this shouldn’t be a limitation and introduced them to tampons. One of these women was in her 20s; the other in her 30s. I gave them a quick how-to (verbal, not visual) and handed them the bilingual instructions/anatomical diagrams provided in every box. Judging by the frequency of tampon requests we’re now fielding at Cuba Libro, I’d say consumer choice and convenience – of which the tampon is poster child – are going to start driving many people’s agenda. Personally, unless I’m working an outfit requiring a thong or am destined for water play, I’m a stalwart pad supporter. At my age, I don’t have that many more years to worry about all this. What a fucking relief (but please dear lord: retain my robust libido!)

As for the Kardashians, I hope they brought enough feminine hygiene products – they sure did seem like they were on the rag during their visit.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, cuban words without translation, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Living the Dream: The Stones in Cuba

“I am about to see the Rolling Stones. In my hometown. In my lifetime.”

Proclaimed with equal parts conviction and awe by a Cuban I hold in certain esteem, we headed off on foot to Ciudad Deportiva. The Day had arrived. There was a spring in our step, a jaunt in our spirit and the sense that all the sacrifice and struggle, resignation and indignation living in Cuba engenders was about to pay off. For those of us who stick it out here (Cubans and aplatanadas alike) our reward was about to be reaped. It was a chosen and blessed feeling – and still is 24 hours on as I write this; the perma-grin still affixed, the experience embedded somewhere deep and personal, patching a broken heart perhaps, or planting a seed of revelation to be harvested at a later date.

stones en route

The sun set pink and orange as WisPride beside the stadium as the moon rose opposite, the iconic Stones logo pulsating in 3-D on screens in between. We roamed the grounds, hugging innumerable friends and making new ones along the way, including Julie, who had arrived in Cuba for the first time the night before and had seen the Stones once before – in 1968. We scoped out a spot like a dog who sniffs and spins looking for the perfect place to shit. I invented a game as we waited for the show to start: with what song would they open? Song to close? Number of encores? What song would you most like to hear? Our piquete debated and struck gentleman’s bets.

stones about to take stage

My dearest friend, visiting for the first time in my 14-year residence, craved the ballads: Angie; You Can’t Always Get What You Want. And she got what she needed. This wasn’t the case for another friend who, if there’s any credence to karma, should have been gifted a sweet, slow, poignant Time is On My Side. It is on his side, but reaffirmation by The Stones, at decibel levels heretofore unprecedented, would have been nice. My tear-inducing favorite, Wild Horses, didn’t make the set either. Disappointing, but I too, got what I needed in the end (funny how that works).

stones

My intellectual sparring partner and fellow member in the Cuban Tribe of Cool sidled up as the lights went down: ‘I’m betting Satisfaction to open and Jumping Jack Flash to close, flipping your prediction, just to be contrary.’ He’s smart enough to qualify an opinion contrary to mine: the lights burst on, the Stones took the stage and ripped into…Jumping Jack Flash. We locked eyes and laughed (score one for Conner!) before breaking into wild, unbridled dance, our feet pounding down the grass. And so kicked off two solid hours of dancing, leaping, singing, screaming and booty shaking. The shoes were off, the cameras were away and our hearts were open, from the first bars of Jumping Jack to the final cymbal crash of Satisfaction (I called it bitches!!).

toby los rolling

I’m not a big believer in much, but I do believe in energy transference and we had slipped into a pocket of joy and movement and acute consciousness of the historic moment. This concert was an even bigger moment, more of a game changer than the Obama visit (something else I called). That The Stones eclipsed Obama was a no-brainer: musical convergence – free no less, created by one of the greatest rock n roll bands of all time – has much more relevance for us here on the ground in the here and now. We channeled that energy and convergence, whirling and dipping and hugging throughout the show. We were actively, mindfully, transcending la luchita, shedding the stress of the bureaucracy and lovers’ spats, co-workers’ drama and the myriad hypocrisies and illogical contradictions we encounter daily. We were living The Rolling Stones in Cuba. I’m quite sure we’ll be talking about that rendition of Sympathy for the Devil for decades – as well as Mick’s accomplished Spanish and domination of Cuban jerga; when he shouted ‘Habana! Está en talla!’ the crowd went berserk.

stones pre show

I have many friends who blew off the show citing their distaste for (or outright panic of) large crowds. In fact, this was the number one reason given by many – and I polled scores in the lead up – for not attending. I feel extraordinarily sorry for them. Next time? Face your fears. There was room enough to get down and lay down, cartwheel and roam and damn, did we! You all? You missed the experience of a lifetime. It’s that simple. Herein lies a lesson in saying ‘yes!’ to adventure and opportunity as you make your way through this crazy little thing called life. To those of us who said ‘hell yes!’ to The Stones in Cuba, I salute you. To those who didn’t, you willfully missed the greatest rock concert in Cuban history – something you’ll be explaining to your kids, like people who blew off Woodstock…Sucks to be you.

The sun set, the moon rose and I’m writing this as the sun rises over Havana the day after. My feet ache and my belly’s tight and grumbling from too much coffee and not enough sustenance, but my spirit is bursting with a lust for life and the conviction that you can construct a short, but meaningful and memorable one if you try.
stones no reguetown
The next time I doubt that, I’ll read this post. I, we, are proof.

I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.

P.S. Now bring on Led Zeppelin – the only band more beloved in Cuba than The Stones.

Living the Dream – Bonus Material

The Rolling Stones are a band that keep on giving. Not surprisingly, impressions, sentiments, and memories of this historic concert are still sinking in (plus rumors are running rampant here), so I’m adding this bonus material:

– I have it on good authority that the Obama Sisters, Malia and Sasha stayed behind with their abuela for the Stones show while their parents continued on their diplomatic jaunt through Latin America. File under: Another Moment Barack Misses Out.

– Since Saturday, you hear people whistling Paint It Black in the street and Jumping Jack Flash coming from balconies. And everyone’s watching the HBO series Vinyl, including me. New York and rock and roll? I’ve been living this since my diaper days and am loving this series long time!

– Ingress and egress to the venue epitomizes Cuba: the entrances and exits were simply sections of the tall, iron fence taken out. We streamed in with hundreds – no metal detectors, no pat downs, no bag searches. My biker friends did get patted down (yes, profiling happens here too), I learned later, upon which knives, all-in-one tools and boxes o’ ron were stashed in boots.

– Rumors four days post-show: next acts due to play here include AC/DC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Red Hot Chili Peppers. As with everything here, we’ll believe it when we hear/see it. And even then it’s unbelievable: that the Stones event even happened is still sinking in all these days later.

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Getting Stoned with Obama in Cuba

No, I’m not talking about smoking blunts on the Malecón (File under: Not Gonna Happen). Nor am I talking about the rock-throwing barbarity found in other latitudes – even at their most dogmatic and agitated, Cubans are more prone to throwing eggs and barbs and Santería spells than something that would directly, physically harm another human being.

Anyone who is following developments in Cuba knows to which watershed event this post refers: the Rolling Stones are going to rock Havana on March 25th; that’s what I’m talking about.

Rumors started flying about the possibility of a Stones show here even before Mick Jagger dropped in for a visit last October. But rumor-mongering and gossip – the ‘national sport’ – are rife here regardless of time or circumstance. We dared not imagine that such a huge, historic, and real rock ‘n roll concert by a band so legendary (for the record: Cubans have always preferred Zeppelin to the Stones) would actually be transformed into reality. The Stones in Cuba fell into the realm of ‘when the embargo is lifted’ – something people talk about rhetorically, dreamily (also for the record: the embargo is still 100% in effect). Until it’s actually upon us.

Soon, very soon, it will be upon us. And Cubans aren’t talking about anything else.

Oh wait. There’s a different, history-in-the-making visit which is also going to be upon us shortly: the first standing US President (I met Carter on one of his post-Oval Office trips here) since 1928 will set foot in Cuba. I’m sure you’ve heard. And some readers must be wondering how Cubans feel about it. At Cuba Libro we have the opportunity to ask hundreds of Cubans from all walks of life what they think about any given topic on a regular basis. So we’ve started asking. And listening.

First off, everyone agrees it’s a milestone, historic, maybe even a game-changer. Second, everyone here in Havana gets excited for such high-level visits, be it Pope or President, because it means streets will be paved and houses painted on the official route the dignitary will traverse – just yesterday an 88-year old Cuban granny offered this precise opinion, unprompted. Third, the Obamas are rock stars; Cubans are, on the whole, faranduléros, no matter if it’s Barack or Beyoncé, Rihanna or Raúl, they chase stars like the most ravenous paparazzi. Furthermore, the presidential couple will bring lots of press and TV crews and attention to Cuba and if there’s one thing Cubans love, it’s attention.

So as a good friend from NY said after the December 17th normalization announcement: ¡Obámanos!

Yet there’s a cost, a downside to all this attention and fanfare. Public transportation will be disrupted in a massive, isn’t-life-here-tough-enough? way; liquor sales with be suspended for at least a day, likely more in this case; cultural activities will be cancelled or re-scheduled; and the overwhelming majority of us will never catch a glimpse of the visiting luminary (though Cubans are already capitalizing on this visit with their archetypical humor: check out these magnets now for sale in Old Havana!)

obama magnet

But make no mistake: Obama’s trip visit is just the appetizer. The pollo of the ‘arroz con pollo’ is the free Rolling Stones concert for el pueblo cubano (as I write this, I hear the first mention of the Stones concert in Cuba on Sirius-XM radio. Cue the goosebumps). We’ve had similar giant, free concerts in the past – Audioslave, Calle 13, Rick Wakeman, Fito Paez, Air Supply (I know, I know. Believe me, I know the Cuban penchant for cheesy American pop). None of these concerts ca compare to the Glimmer Twins, Charlie and Ronnie. THE Rolling Stones!

What Cubans are most concerned with is access to the venue and the crowd-control question. Cubans are experts at state security – they’ve thwarted over 600 attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, after all – they aren’t that adept at controlling cultural crowds. I’ve seen cinema doors broken down by surging masses trying to get in to the premier of Minority Report and I was locked inside the Casa de la Música when rioting crowds tried to bust down the doors to see The Roots. I predict a shit show to enter and exit The Stones concert. Roads will be closed, security will be tight and bags will be searched. We’re not talking Altamont here (see aforementioned egg/barb-throwing observation), but leave plenty of time to arrive and leave, cógelo suave, and remember: we’re all damn lucky to be here, now.

People near and far are beyond excited for this concert. For months I’ve been fielding questions on my Facebook page, at Cuba Libro, and via email about this monumental musical event. Now that details are coming to light, most people want to know how they can avoid the lines and crowds. It’s a good question; people are coming from Miami, Mexico, Camagüey and más allá for this show and there isn’t going to be enough room at the inn (5,000 Havana hotel rooms have been requested for Obama’s visit just two days before, which means 5,000 people who think they will sleep in Havana those days will actually be whisked to Varadero, regardless of what their reservation receipt says. Official emails to this effect are making the rounds already).
The question we’re fielding, publicly to our Cuba Libro community, is: given the choice, who would you rather visit our innovative, visionary project – Keith Richards or Barack Obama? So far, the legendary guitar player is in the lead by a nose. Except if the visit is Barack and Michelle. If she’s in the mix, most Cubans vote for the Obamas. No one, it should be noted, has yet asked if a visit to Cuba Libro would be Keith and Mick.

I leave you all to ponder the greater socio-political implications of our poll’s results. Stay tuned!

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Cuban Harlistas, Mis Amores

Life here in Cuba – and my life, por díos – has changed dramatically in the past few years. I got a bike and helped found Habana Bici Polo; I opened Cuba Libro; and was thrust into the big, raucous family of Cuban Harlistas. As a writer, sub-cultures like this one are a perennial turn on. The layers of nuance and language particular to a group, the rites of passage, the history: every aspect is a source of fascination and writing fodder. Add sexy, powerful motorcycles and the machos who ride them to the mix…and, well.

I’ve just returned from the 5th Annual International Harley Rally in Varadero and the bikes (and riders) are as sexy and powerful as ever, the nuance and language and rites continue to evolve, and my admiration and passion for this unique group of Cubans remains unflagging.

harley2thisone

Since I’m one of the very few chicks without a steady ride and driver, every rally I cast about for singletons looking for a back seat Betty; I estimate I’ve mounted over a dozen of these classic Harleys since the first rally in 2012. This year, I rode with Raúl on Omar’s spectacularly-restored 1960 blue and white Duo Glide. We cruised straight through to Varadero under steely clouds with a nagging threat of rain that never came. The needle on the speedometer didn’t pass 80 kilometers per hour; when we arrived we learned it was busted and we’d made the entire trip doing an exultant 120 kph. We’d no idea as we fought a ferocious head wind and incoming cold front which set the sea churning and waves crashing just shy of the highway.

Among the many highlights of this year’s rally was the presentation of my book, Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor, co-written with Harlista Jens Fuge. In my opinion, this is the best book on the subject – not due to the writing necessarily (though it is fantastic), but rather thanks to the phenomenal images taken over a ten-year period by Harlista Max Cucchi. This is a distinguished book for several reasons beyond the writing and photos, however. First, it includes riders from the length and breadth of the island, not just Havana. Second, it contains the most complete history of Harley-Davidsons in Cuba. Third, all the text is in English, Spanish, and German. Last, but certainly not least: each person interviewed received a complimentary copy of the book and a full color poster. For those who have realized projects in Cuba and not done the same (whether it’s a TV series you promise to deliver on disc or memory stick; a photo shoot where you commit to providing the images to the subjects; an article or book on Cuba you say you’ll bring down once it’s published): shame on you. These people made time and dedicated energy so you could realize your project and have no way of procuring whatever you produced. Speaking from personal experience this is all too common.

harley1

One of the most emotional moments for me was gifting the book to Gerardo López (Papá), the elder patriarch of a family which has four – and counting – generations of Harlistas who have all obtained their motorcycle license on the same Harley. The collective confirms this is the only family in Cuba which can make this claim. When I interviewed him for the book, an impassioned Gerardo, Jr told me he would never sell the Harley, that it would stay in the family. And I believe him: unlike many Harlistas who begrudgingly sell their hogs for cars as their family grows, this one added a matching side car instead, debuted at this rally. After I presented Papá with a copy, his teary-eyed daughter-in-law took me aside, to tell me something about this soft-spoken, well-mannered man that only two other people in the world know (and he’s not one of them): doctors recently found a tumor in his lungs and this would likely be his last rally. Receiving the book means the world to him, she confided, and would provide much solace as he battles cancer. That’s when tears started filling my eyes and the hairs on my arms stood up. It happened again at the farewell lunch when Gerardo Papá told me: “next year, I’m riding a Harley to the rally. It may be a trike, but it will be a Harley-Davidson, driven by me.” I dearly hope he’s right.

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Like Gerardo Papá, many of the Harlistas are… Let’s just say as a group, we, like the motorcycles themselves, skew “older.” Also like the motorcycles, some Cuban Harlistas are walking (and riding) wounded: herniated discs, busted clavicles, chronic lower back pain, bum legs, bockety knees, failing night vision. It’s a bitch kick starting these bikes in the best of health; imagine what it’s like for Francesco fighting to kick start his ’48 Panhead with a perennial bunk leg. Or Paco, who at 69 years young, is one of the most enthusiastic and dedicated riders. Every rally he arrives from Camagüey with one of his daughters on the back of his 1950 hog; you can bet he’s got a bit of a limp after that 10-hour ride. Who wouldn’t?! This rally, William (‘The Canadian’), arrived listing heavily to port aided by crutches after an on-the-road accident and a bed-ridden month.

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And then there’s the Story of M (I’m not printing his full name to protect the guilty!), who drove from Havana to Varadero, his leg in a cast and who also wobbling around on crutches. He told everyone it was a work-related accident, but knowing him better than that, I flat out asked what really happened. I’ve a talent for sniffing out falsehoods: he’d fractured his leg leaping from a balcony when the husband of the woman he was shagging turned up. ‘I got away, but with a cast,’ he told me smiling foxily. With these and other various injuries, aches, and pains, I’m guessing close to 10,000mg of dipirona and half as much ibuprofen was taken over the 3-day event. This may be ‘Club Temba,’ but these folks are the very definition of endurance: they’re riding the miles, partying until dawn, and up and at ‘em and back on their bikes (or back to fixing them), a few hours later. Props, brothers.

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We always travel in a caravan for the inevitable breakdowns en route. This year, our group had their share of problems: a flat that took until 3am on the eve of the rally to fix; another flat on Gerardo’s side car just beyond Santa Cruz del Norte; a gummy piston on Pelussa’s rig at 2am under a fine, post-party rain; and something with Rafael’s ’46 Indian that drew crowds to watch the master at work. But these are minor compared to some years. Leaving the rally a few years back, we had to call on the Harley family in Matanzas to babysit Julio’s busted hog overnight until we could send a trailer to collect it. No matter the rally, bike, driver, or rider, there’s always an adventure afoot with these cats.

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This year’s rally was the biggest yet, with more motorcycles, more Cubans from throughout the island, many more foreign visitors (some arriving on modern Harleys thanks to La Poderosa Tours), and exciting new activities. As always, there were the coolest t-shirts available in Cuba on sale; donations collected for senior citizens and vulnerable children; a rocking concert by David Blanco; and hilarious competitions involving bottles, hot dogs (only in Cuba, right?!), and feats of balance. This year also featured martial arts and acrobatics (yes, while on a Harley), a joy ride through Cardenas where all the neighbors came out to ogle these marvelous machines, and a farewell fête at an exquisite finca owned by a fellow Harlista. Rafael had to bust out his complete set of tools and attend to his Indian yet again while we ate, drank, danced, and laughed. A gang congregated around Rafael to provide support and advice (not that he needed it!) Anywhere else in the world, a mechanical breakdown during the final hurrah of a raucous weekend would have been cause for grumbling, but not here where solidarity, friendship, and empathy abound. I admire their strength and camaraderie and am honored to be included. See you at next year’s rally!

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Smell the Skin Cancer: An All-Inclusive Experience

Years have passed since I’ve been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort. As you may have guessed, resorts are not my thing.

Friends back “home” are incredulous when I regale them with tales of Varadero (AKA Cuban Cancún) or the cayos – small islands off the coast made accessible by environmentally-disastrous causeways built to bring the tourist hordes. With some 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks under my belt, treks into jungles where no solo woman before me dare tread, intrepid back-country camping and off-the-grid surviving, their first questions, inevitably, are: you?! At a resort? Why? You don’t drink, the beach bores you and the sun wreaks havoc on your Irish complexion – do you really need more freckles?! What’s the draw?

I understand their confusion. They know me, but they don’t know Cuba, these well-meaning friends. They do not know August with no air conditioning or eating some kind of pork product daily – or more often still. They’ve never been jarred awake at 6 every morning by the pop and buzz and blare of recorded trumpets followed by live young communists screeching principles. They know not of living with no telephone and only four channels (now five – woohoo!) of state TV, or cohabitating with termites to the point of total closet/bed/living room furniture collapse. Intrusive neighbors, migraine-inducing regguetón. Blackouts. Noxious, obligatory fumigations. The sprint for a guagua too full to stop for more passengers or lugging a propane tank, bicycle or sack of yuca up five flights of stairs. They know none of this. But I do. Intimately. Maddeningly. Ad nauseam.

But rather than describe the attraction of an all-inclusive in similar pitying detail, I’ll boil the attraction, for me, down to three things: cheese, hot showers, and ESPN. So when a friend (who shall remain nameless) suggested we spend a weekend at an all-inclusive, I jumped.

Here are my impressions of the Cuban todo incluido experience, circa Christmas 2015:

– Cuban tourism authorities are completely clueless that non-Christian (or non-Christmas-celebrating) visitors travel at this time of year. The resort where I stayed was festooned with every nöel-themed cliché you can imagine, from the plastic tree with gaudy metallic balls to faux snow and giant Merry Christmas banners. The quartet even played carols each night at the buffet. I was embarrassed for the Cubans (how fast they appropriate some of the worst of US consumerist culture!), while cringing for the Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and others who probably thought coming to Cuba would spare them this onslaught. Think again: it’s only going to get worse.

– I dub those tourists who only know Cuba through the resort lens the “masses of asses.” And they’ve earned the moniker for the shiterature they’re reading on vacation. Granted, about 20% were reading on digital devices – but even if every single one of them was diving into Dickens or Dawkins, that leaves 80% who are reading complete crap. The 50-tome library dominated by Danielle Steele, Ken Follet and other straight-to-paperback scribes. The poolside sunbathers with their Barbara Taylor Bradford. The guy smoking a stogie in the garden engrossed by Clive Cussler. I get that they’re on vacation. They want something light. But since when does light=formulaic and mindless? Ever since light became lite, I guess. So I dub this holiday reading by the masses of asses: (Lite)rature and suggest they check out Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer or Junot Díaz next vacay.

– Man titties: pink and hairy, glistening with sunblock and sweat. Overall impression? Gross.

– This particular resort was fairly, refreshingly light on jineteros/as and their janes/johns, but this doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere, if these experiences relayed by Here is Havana readers are indicative. Nevertheless, Cubans are (almost) always on the prowl. To wit: a nahwey from Centro Habana tried to pick me up when I entered the water near where he and his friend were lying on the beach. He took it as a sign. Not an illogical assumption, but incorrect: I just had to pee.

– One question which kept occurring to me as I surveyed my surroundings was: when did Deadheads quit tour and start designing resort wear? (Probably once Touch of Grey was released). Psychedelic and sexy but supremely comfortable – stealing into hotel rooms to rob wardrobe never crossed my mind before this trip.

– Streams of people made their way to the beach each dusk to watch the sunset. I’m happy for them. Happy they’re doing it. Everyone should be as fortunate as me – to have seen so many Cuban sunsets: from valley to sea to summit, coast-to-coast. But never before from a boat, which is odd indeed. Especially on an island. Especially for an ocean-faring waif like myself. It puts the ‘no boat’ rule and resource scarcity into sharp, stark perspective. I’ve lived here for 14 years and have never seen a sunset from Cuban waters. WTF?! [note to self: must rectify].

– Then there’s what I call the Tourist Tabula Rasa. Most folks in resorts haven’t a fucking clue wat Cuba is, was, or where it’s headed. Granted, none of us really has a grasp on the last, but the all-inclusive tourist bubble and how it dovetails (or doesn’t) with the Cuban reality is a dangerous thing. And scary. I imagine the guy with bigger boobs than me and his wife brandishing the schmaltzy zirconia necklace back home at a cocktail party: “Cuba? There’s awesome cheese and great hot water showers. Plus, there’s satellite – I thought it was going to be just government TV!”

They’re wrong, of course, but for me, at least for this weekend, they’re right: the cheese – blue, Manchego, Jarlsberg – was sublime. I stuffed myself full of it, took a long, hot shower and kicked back on the bed to watch the B James/S Curry Cavaliers/Warriors showdown. Conner Heaven.

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Trilingual in English, Cuban and (Now) Dog

Dependent, smelly, costly and often filthy (all that butt sniffing/rolling around in dead things?!), flea-bitten, tick-ridden, and prone to humping whatever they can get their legs around – can you tell I’m not a dog person? They’re such a burden, nothing like their haughty, independent feline counterparts who you can leave with a bowl of kibble for days while you go off the grid and they’ll ration it, killing birds or rodents once it runs out. So no, I’m not too keen on dogs, but now I’m in deep – over my head deep. More proof that the universe is conspiring against me…

Two days before my 45th birthday, a stray dog wandered into Cuba Libro. Like I needed something breathing-eating-shitting extra to stress about. Within a day, the kids who work with me named him Toby. It was all over, I knew. I’m sure there are parents out there who know exactly what I’m talking about: once the kids you love give the flea-ridden, tick-bitten beast a name, you’re responsible, no backsies. He was awfully cute, it must be said. Adorable, to-die-for, irresistibly cute, but no one who works at Cuba Libro has the living conditions or lifestyle conducive to caring for a dependent – no matter how cute.

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I was resigned to letting “Toby” live in the Cuba Libro garden, but two events changed all that. First, a friend walked in one day claiming: ‘I know this dog. He lives in my building.’ This seemed more than a bit far-fetched: Ariel lives in 10 de Octubre – at the other extreme of sprawling Havana – and besides, dogs are to some humans what Yuma are to some Cubans: they all look alike. But when Ariel picked up the phone and said, “señora, your dog is here in Vedado,” and she responded, “Oh! That’s not my dog. It’s my son’s. He’s doing his military service, but I’ll tell him” I knew this wasn’t a simple case of mistaken identity. An hour or two later, young buck Carlos showed up and was plastered with wet kisses by “Jason”. It was obvious the dog had once known and loved this fellow. But with nowhere to place Jason when he went into his military service, Carlos let loose the dog into Havana’s mean streets. As you may imagine, I thought Carlos an ass – not only had he given his dog a dumb dog name (J is pronounced H in Spanish), but he’d abandoned the animal, leaving him to his own devices. I may not be a dog person, but I’m not cruel.

Savvy pup that he is, Jason-now-Toby traveled clear across the city to cross our threshold with fleas, ticks, parasites and a sad look in his amber doll’s eyes. Just like Wilbur was “Some Pig,” I started getting the feeling that Toby was “Some Dog.” But I resisted – threatening to send him to the campo (in my case, this is not a euphemism: I was actively looking to place him with a farm family in those first few weeks). As my father once observed: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus,’ something I agree with wholeheartedly and cite often.

El Coquito was born.

El Coquito was born.

Toby’s second fate-deciding event happened one stormy day after about a week of eating spaghetti and living in Cuba Libro’s makeshift doghouse (a large suitcase donated by a neighbor for this purpose). Our weekly bike polo showdown was cut short when the skies opened up and started drumming a hard, cold rain across Vedado. And I remembered there was a dog I was somehow sort of responsible for. When I went to check up on the perrito, he was huddled in a corner of the garden shivering, ears plastered back as thunder and lightening crashed all around, every hair standing on end, soaked to the roots. I haven’t got much of the maternal/pet gene (if you missed that detail), but even I couldn’t resist his vulnerability (or cuteness). So I stuffed him in my knapsack as best I could, strapped it to my chest, and pedaled home through the rain. That was five months ago and we’ve been making the 6-day a week trek between my apartment and Cuba Libro ever since. And I’ve been forced to speak ‘dog.’

There’s a bark for ‘I have to pee.’
There’s a bark for ‘I have to poop.’
There’s a bark for ‘I’m hungry/horny’ (more on that later).
There’s a bark for ‘I’m scared.’
There’s a bark for ‘someone is at the door.’

As far as I can tell, it’s all the same damn bark. Thankfully I have a professional interpreter in Amaya who is Toby’s co-mother. She’s more than a dog whisperer: she’s a dog witch who anticipates his needs and directs his energies in a way I admire and hope to learn. Some things I’ve come to understand, like the one, two, three turns alternated with sniffs that I’ve dubbed the ‘doody dance.’ Meanwhile, standing on two hind legs and hugging me with the front two while he mews means ‘I missed you!’ But the other conversational pieces? They’re lost on me.

And as cute and adaptable and sociable as this dog is, he lived in the streets for at least 6 months we figure, and I wonder: what was his life like before? What mental and emotional baggage is he carrying from his previous life/lives? Deconstructing Toby’s personality isn’t helped by his slew of nicknames, different ones invoked depending on whom is addressing him and under what circumstances. At turns he is: Toby, El Tobito, The Tobes, Tobias Maximus, Tobito El Coquito (Toby the Little Coconut), Toby the Tuffy, El Peluche (The Stuffed Animal), El Macho, El Guapo, Ese Perro Toby, and Bipolar. This last arose after we caught him staring at walls, barking at dust and chasing his tail in an over-the-top, manic manner.

Beyond the communication problems, having a dog in Havana (something I never thought I’d be experiencing or writing about) is a challenge. Strays and pets (many trained to guard and attack) can be ferocious and we’ve taken to walking him armed with sticks and rocks after several run ins; dog food is sold, but only at very select stores and boutiques reserved for the super rich, so dog food has to be purchased and cooked almost daily (The Tobes is on a diet of rice and liver, with a little pizza and cake thrown in every so often because he’s too cute to resist 100% of the time); and Cubans are rabidly anti-neutering.

Little did I know that the neutering issue would kick up so much drama and debate – though given the machismo here, I should have expected it. I have to admit it’s kind of novel seeing testicles on a dog (where I come from, “fixing” pets is par for the course), especially Toby since he has the ‘one-eyed salute’ thing going on whereby his tail sticks straight up and you get a full-time, full-on view of his bunghole and junk. What’s more, he’s almost completely white, but his balls are black. When I announced my decision to fix him, citing concerns of rampant reproduction by any bitch he mounted, combined with the desire to tame his macho, aggressive tendencies, I got major pushback from all corners.

‘Why castrate him?! You’ve got the male dog. If he was a she, sure, but…’
‘It will make him fat and lazy.’
‘You can’t take away his manhood!’

When the vet came to examine Toby (yes, in Cuba, pet and people doctors make house calls), even he said it was emasculating to fix him and suggested a vasectomy instead. Doggie vasectomies?! For real? Then I learned that some pet owners up north actually have synthetic balls surgically attached to their neutered dogs. WHAT?! This was all a bit much and if you’ve seen how many neglected street dogs live in Havana, snipping him seemed like a no-brainer to me. But after 13 years here (this month!), I’ve ‘gone native’ in certain respects and I got to thinking: the vet estimates Toby to be between 1-1/2 and 2 years old. Has he ever had sex? Hard to know for sure, but likely not. Can I deny him this? Even if it’s not for pleasure, what about instinct? And do female dogs get knocked up every time they do it? What if it does make him fat and lazy? I don’t know anything about dogs and I was receiving conflicting information (if this happened to you, you’d likely hit the internet and find thousands of sites devoted to dog sex and fixing, but alas, a dial-up connection is not conducive…)

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And then Dina, the dog who lives five houses up the way from Cuba Libro, went into heat. And Toby went into hysterics. He wouldn’t even run through the gate to greet Amaya and Douglas as he’d done every single work day. Instead, he’d run straight to Dina’s and pant and pace in front of her fence, planting himself there for hours with a sad, spurned suitor look on his face. ‘Just let them screw,’ you’re thinking. That’s what I was thinking, anyway. Until we learned that Dina is epileptic and El Macho could kill her with all that excitement. Which is why Toby spent many tormented days licking her swollen, red privates through the fence. ‘At least he’s getting something!’ people said. ‘Poor Dina,’ others said. ‘All she gets is oral’ (as if this were an altogether bad thing!). I thought we’d be able to ride out the horny epileptic episode until someone told me bitches stay in heat for three weeks. And Toby was going mad – like off his meds psychotic, following the owner (the owner, not even Dina, who was kept penned in for the duration) for blocks and blocks, across major intersections and trying to go into stores with her while she shopped. And she’d drag him back attached to her leg, whining and dry humping and making a fuss. So I had to leave him home a few days until it blew over.

The day we made our triumphant return to Cuba Libro, he disappeared for a bit (he has the run of the immediate neighborhood all day long) and returned, cool as a cucumber and plopped down. I swear he was smiling and I was sure he’d gotten laid. I wanted to offer him congratulations and a cigarette. Will there be little Tobies running around our little piece of Vedado soon? Maybe. And while I’m determined to get him fixed, I know his puppies would be damn cute.

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As an old friend of mine so sagely observed: Darwin was wrong. It’s not survival of the fittest; it’s survival of the cutest. And Cubans know how to survive (and keep things cute). So I’m keeping Toby.

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