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Jail, Cafe Closure & Strawberries?!

Usual excuses aside (overworked; procrastination; writer’s block), the transition from 2018 to 2019 was, as we say here, ‘de pinga’ – and not in a good way. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say I’ve been waiting for some positive news, from whatever corner, to revitalize Here is Havana. Luckily, living in Cuba obligates me to develop an inhumane amount (for me, a native New Yorker after all) of patience…But I tire of waiting for the bad news blues to lift and need to write for sanity’s sake. So I thought I’d provide ya’ll with an update of some doings in my corner of Havana (and there is some good news, despite my whining).
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Miguel has been sprung! For a weekend anyway. We celebrated his first three-day pass from Havana’s largest prison a short time ago and the tears flowed, believe me. If you’ve been following the story, you know our dear friend was sentenced to six years in the Combinado del Este for fewer than two dozen tabs of Ritalin. According to Cuban jail math, where 10 months inside equals a year in real-world time, he’s served a third of his sentence already. Several months ago he was ‘stepped down’ to the minimum security ‘campamento.’ On bad days he professes he’d rather be back in the Combinado’s maximum security section, but really, life is much better for him in the campamento, comparatively. He has regular, monthly conjugal visits and much more phone time, plus he has been released from machete duty, now spending his days in an office (Miguel The Bureaucrat!) – except when there are high-level visits, of which there are many, by comandantes and the like. At these times, it’s all hands on deck to paint, sweep, clean and perform whatever other tasks are necessary to prettify the place. A tall order.

Those prisoners who’ve earned their chits and kept their heads down, like Miguel, are rewarded three days on the outside. A family member (or friend) has to trek out to the Combinando for ‘orientation’ and to escort the prisoner home. There are five rules of the weekend pass:
1. They must check in, before settling in at home, with their local police station.
2. They cannot go to parties or clubs or bars – any place selling alcohol is verboten.
3. They cannot frequent parks or anywhere else with a “bad element.”
4. They must not be out, anywhere, after midnight.
5. They must report back to the jail no later than 9am sharp on the appointed day.

A local police officer may stop by their home during the weekend pass to ensure they are complying. This didn’t happen during Miguel’s three free days, but another prisoner failed to return and the whole place went on lock down.

When Miguel walked into Cuba Libro, a giant cheer went up – the kind you hear when the lights blast back after a 10-hour blackout. He and Esther’s coffees were on the house (as they have been since he was imprisoned and will remain so until he’s released) and we all wore those goofy ear-to-ear grins brought on by happy reunions and unbridled joy. Old friends dropped by once word got out that Miguel was in the house and seeing him – clean shaven, his raven locks a distant memory, his teeth fixed – surprised many. Diana, who didn’t know he was out for the weekend, greeted everyone around the garden table with the customary kiss on the cheek. When she reached Miguel, with whom she has been friends for years, she said ‘Hi. Nice to meet you.” As Diana took a step back, everyone burst out laughing.

“MIGUEL!!!” she shouted and jumped into his arms.

He flushed red and flashed his fixed-on-the-inside smile. Diana is one of our prettiest, most exotic regulars and Miguel had probably never before received such a shower of affection from her. The scene repeated itself when Amanda, another regular and friend, didn’t recognize him. Head shaved, the dimple on his chin, his filled-out body: Laritza, another friend, said “whoa! You’ve become a tall drink of water locked up!”

It was beautiful to be a part of the reunion and share with Miguel and Esther (who couldn’t keep their hands off each other; we almost shooed them into the bathroom for a quickie, but house rules hold that only the owner has that right). I’m just sorry we didn’t have more time together. But he has another pass in 45 days. The countdown begins!
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Switching gears, I wanted to give a short update about my rebuttal to that story that went viral saying Cuba Libro was being forced to close – this did damage, believe me, coming at the end of a very tough year where hurricanes and Trump absurdities took their toll. I promised we would find a way to stay open and true to our mission and vision, while remaining 100% legal (an important element in our ethically- and socially-responsible business model). The article didn’t mention any of this but I was (mostly) confident that we would prevail. Lo and behold: two days before new regulations for private business were due to take effect, the one that was most problematic for us – that you can only have one license – was struck from the plan. !Pa’lante!

My phone went berserk with messages and incoming calls as friends and supporters shared the news. Relief from constant, low-level stress caused by circumstances beyond one’s control doesn’t wash over you suddenly once the danger and adrenaline pass. It’s not like a near car crash. Rather, it releases slowly, like the pressure cookers steaming black beans in every Cuban home. Several trustworthy sources had counseled us to sit tight and wait and see, but when you’ve shed volumes of blood, sweat and tears for over five years to convert idea/dream into reality, it’s challenging internalizing such advice – however well-informed.

Complicating Cuba Libro’s particular situation (beyond that our business model is founded on selling affordable coffee and books – hence the two licenses) is that we rent our space. No one here is a property owner. Cuenta propistas who own their property enjoy more latitude with the one-license rule since each person on the deed is permitted a license. But all that is water under the bridge. When we learned that logic had prevailed and two or more licenses were permitted – after all, we’d been operating continuously for five years, with all the attendant inspections, required permits, work papers and the rest – we were ecstatic. And vindicated.

Of course, the changes that did take effect obligate us to confront tiresome, tedious levels of bureaucracy and these are causing all manner of frustration across Havana. For instance, because the name of our cafe activity has been changed from ‘cafeteria de alimentos ligeros en punto fijo’ to ‘servicio gastronomico en cafeteria’, we have to change all our paperwork: our health certificate, all the working papers of each of our team members, and inscription of the business with urban planning. Sounds not too taxing, writing here in this beautiful, tranquil garden with an espresso at hand, but believe me – this will take weeks and require a heroic amount of patience on our part.

And then there’s the ‘cuenta fiscal’ – the bank account that every private entrepreneur has to open. The good news is once you have the account, you receive a 5% discount on purchases made with the bank card. You also have to maintain three months of your licensing fee in the account (in Cuba Libro’s case, $45CUC), plus a percentage of profits – not ideal for a cash-poor business like ours. Nevertheless, this means the government is guaranteed their payments and can be more on top of tax scams – a major problem in the all-cash private sector. The bad news is many (if not most) of the banks aren’t prepared: they don’t have the personnel, they don’t have the magnetic ATM cards and nerves are fraying. Tussles and arguments have broken out in banks over this and really, I haven’t the energy these days to face a bureaucratic scrum. Like a pap smear, it’s something that has to be done, but no one looks forward to it.

AND THIS JUST IN!!!

I ran into my friend and cafe regular Adonis during my four days of rest and relaxation with my Harley-Davidson family. This was well-earned and sorely-needed after several 70-hour work weeks punctuated with daily donations to tornado victims. My phone was turned off, I didn’t connect to the internet and checked in on Toby once a day because in this, I have no choice: I’m head over heels for that terrier mutt. Chatting with Adonis about his 7-year old daughter and the upcoming concert over smoked pork ribs, reality came crashing down…

“Conner! I forgot to tell you. Did you know that someone opened a Cuba Libro in Havana Vieja?”

“What?! Where? What do they do there?” I asked, calmly, because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it at the moment, plus I was loath to let this dose of unsettling news ruin my mini-vacation.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “It was closed when I walked by.”

I gnawed on my pork ribs as the idea of someone profiting off our six years of tireless work gnawed at me. We aren’t among TripAdvisor’s Top 5 Things to Do in Havana by chance and this bit of trickery was just the type of thing that makes me hate the human race sometimes. Alas, there wasn’t much I could at the moment, but I could consult our most trusted regulars and mine the hive for ideas on how to proceed. I sent out a quick message to half a dozen friends and returned my phone to airplane mode.

Back in Havana, with several ideas in hand ranging from industrial espionage and legal recourse to tactics much more…guerilla, I began lining up our ducks to stop what I was convinced was a straight up case of identity theft. Adonis did some legwork taking photos of “Cuba Libros…Bookstore” in a prime Habana Vieja location. Seeing the images of books and magazines in English, with some of the same artists adorning the walls, my blood boiled and my brain roiled. We’re still gathering intel on this place but I wanted to put the word out that there is no relation or link whatsoever between us (the “real” Cuba Libro) and these Habana Vieja poseurs. Stay tuned…
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And one last thing by way of update for those diehard fans who have stuck this long with my ramblings: remember my post Stupid Shit People Ask Me about Cuba? Incredibly, those examples were surpassed this week at our little oasis. Before the big reveal of what our Kitchen Captain and Donations Coordinator called ‘the stupidest thing I’ve heard yet,’ let me be fair and say that Cubans ask me some stupid questions as well.

From this week’s annals: since we are in the midst of the very palatable, but very short strawberry season, we’ve been offering an elixir of all-natural strawberry and pineapple juice for $1.25 and made a sign to advertise this and our strawberry fruit smoothies ($1.75). If you’ve been to Cuba, I’d wager a month’s salary that you didn’t see a fresh strawberry during your stay – they’re that rare (if you did, don’t get excited: my monthly salary wouldn’t buy a bushel of strawberries where you live!). As two neighborhood women studied the sign, I asked if they had any questions and invited them into the cafe.

“Are those prices in pesos cubanos or CUC?”

Absurd: that would make our exotic (for Cuba) juice four cents. We’re fair, not crazy.

Now to the pollo of the arroz con pollo: A young woman doing a Master’s thesis on Cuba (topic still undefined) came in and offered to pay me to answer her many and varied questions.

“Make yourself at home and I’ll be happy to answer whatever I’m able. And you don’t have to pay me.”

“Oh. I thought that’s how things are done down here.”

“Not at Cuba Libro they’re not.”

The first question from this post-graduate, non-Spanish speaking “researcher” who has been walking up to people on the street and in parks (very scientific, her methodology) asking them varied, vague questions, which should have raised red flags. But really, nothing prepared me for what was coming:

“Cubans tell me the reason crime is so low here is because people are afraid to go to jail. Is that true?”

Not knowing where to begin, I offered her a copy of Crime and Punishment on the house.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: Part IV

It’s dark, a bit damp, the birds aren’t awake or even singing, let alone my neighbors. I rush to make coffee and walk Toby before the horizon lightens over Vedado way. It’s 5am – too early for me, except on May Day when I shuffle to the Plaza de la Revolución with 500,000 or so others in the pre-dawn calm. But today isn’t May 1st. Today I’m returning to the Combinado to visit Miguel.

I’ve been to Havana’s biggest prison several times with Miguel’s wife Esther, but today is different: today, we’re taking their 7-year old nephew. It will be the first glimpse the kid gets of his uncle since he was put behind bars over a year and a half ago.
Today is different too because it isn’t February 12, 2014, but it feels like it. That was the day my sister was moved from the ICU to the “step down” unit. A happy, relief of a day, when she could sense release from the oppressive whoosh of machines keeping people alive, the perfunctory and invasive rounds by strange doctors and students, the tests and needle jabs and jabbering nurses. She could smell freedom but couldn’t have it – not yet. Today feels similar because after 18 months in prison, Miguel has been transferred to his own step down unit, Area Zero or el campamento, as it’s known in Cuban prison-speak.

Two days after his 34th birthday he got word. He was bullied into quickly gathering his personal effects – other convicts immediately called dibs on anything left behind, snatching at them. Suddenly, Miguel couldn’t find his flip flops or lighter, undershirts or extra pens. ‘Hurry up man! You’re going home!’ As if drinking parasite-infested water in minimum security, bent double hacking grass with a machete, torpid day after torpid day held any semblance of home. But it was closer than the hard timers would ever get and besides, the more Miguel rushed, the more he was likely to forget, which would be divvied up faster than you can say ‘life sentence.’

When he called with his ‘step down’ news, we immediately began to see flashes of the old Miguel – a discernible familiarity we’d been missing. He had much more phone time for starters, and was as loquacious as ever, talking to everyone at Cuba Libro for such long periods he would ask us to hold on while he greeted prisoner friends walking by. Now, we were the ones who said we had to go rather than in his maximum security days when he’d hang up with a brusque, heavy click followed by a hollow silence. In classic Miguel style, he was also complaining: the sun was brutal; he had open, nearly oozing sores on his machete hand; and other prisoners got five day passes – he was only due to get three, sometime in November. Coño mi hermano, we said: three whole days on the outside, sleeping in his own bed, in his wife’s arms, pissing in a bathroom with a door. It was like talking to the Miguel we knew and loved, defects and all.
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So here I am on visiting day, up before dawn making coffee for me and Miguel and walking Toby. I dress appropriately (no shorts or tank tops) and head to Esther’s house to pick her up, 7-year old Junior in tow. He’s got ants in his pants, anxious to see Miguel. He’s chipper, flashing his gap-toothed smile at the sleepy adults. It’s the same long drive to the verdant outskirts of the jail, followed by two hours waiting while they check our IDs and go through the sack of sardines, hot dogs, crackers, puffed wheat and more, item by item.

“The campamento is different, mi amor,” the guard says to Esther. “You don’t need all this food and really: you should be eating it yourself.” Esther is still woefully thin – her hip bones push sharply through her dress and as a fellow flaca, I know how grating these well-intended comments from strangers can be.

“You also shouldn’t bring it in the huge rice sack. It’s almost a kilometer to the visiting area.”

Esther looks at me and I know we’ll be sweating and flushed once they herd us onto the blazing hot road, the heavy sack sagging between us. Junior is jittery and asks us when we’re going to see Miguel as we wait in the last holding area before the long walk. There are more kids than on visiting days for the max unit, several babies in arms and a couple of very pregnant women. I assume their bulging bellies are the product of the monthly conjugal visits granted well- behaved prisoners. One mother nurses, another changes a diaper, her infant son cradled on her lap and many people chuff on filterless cigarettes. I offer my seat to an elderly woman here with multiple sons – the genetic lineage is so clear, I’m sure I’ll recognize their prisoner when we enter the visiting area. Suddenly there’s movement and everyone is crowding around the single door leading to the outside, wondering why they don’t open both.

‘TIC,’ I think. ‘This is Cuba,’ where things are often harder than they need be.

After a few hundred meters under the ferocious sun, it’s obvious we can’t carry the sack, the other big bag packed with lunch for the four of us, our purses and hold Junior’s hand all at the same time. To our relief, a stalwart visitor with a wrestler’s physique offers to carry the sack. He hefts it on his shoulder, we wipe our brows and Junior wants to know if we’re almost there. We’re not…
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Junior is doing the too-hot, too-tired two step as we approach a pavilion with a roof, crowded with prisoners lingering outside in street clothes hugging their loved ones, cuddling their babies and squinting against the sun to see if their people are making their way towards the anticipated union. And there’s Miguel, just like the old days on the outside; he’s wearing brick red Bermuda shorts, a white t-shirt and grey Vans. The only difference (besides the mental/spiritual one; more on that later) is both his head and face are shaved close – gone is his ass-length mane and goatee. Miguel was the first Havana hipster, sporting a man bun and facial hair before it was all the rage, before he was busted.

We hug fiercely (I always give Esther first dibs, of course) and Junior is wearing that blank look of non-recognition – the same face I wore when I first saw Miguel behind bars.

“It’s me Junior! It’s me!”

The kid looked up at him like, ‘you can’t fool me cowboy. You aren’t Miguel.’

But after a few more words of cariño and a full-on laugh that was unmistakably Miguel, Junior’s face lit up with that million dollar gap-toothed smile.

The street clothes make an incredible difference –here is the Miguel we know and love! I don’t know who that other guy was I visited repeatedly in his prison greys, but I was glad to be sitting across from my old friend again. As Esther dished out congrís and fried pork steaks, I took in the scene. The pavilion was open on two sides, the palm trees and some pines providing green relief and I could see straight into the prisoners’ dormitory – two long lines of bunk beds, two tiers tall. Towels and flip flops, shirts and shorts are draped and strewn about; it reminded me of summer camp. There are no guards here, only prisoners serving as guards and they too, are in street clothes. In the campamento visiting area, men and women are allowed to sit next to each other, caressing, gently cavorting. I catch more than one couple out from the corner of my eye making out, the prisoners slipping hands under skirts.

We dig into our lunch with plastic forks (another bonus of Area Zero: prisoners are allowed real cutlery, something we didn’t know that until this visit) while Miguel catches us up. He has more friends from the outside, here in the campamento – three who are serving a year sentence for having a joint. While the bathroom has a door, it’s always propped open. The food is the same (ie: shitty) but there’s more of it thanks to the prisoners here working in the kitchen. Medical care is still sporadic and getting medicines to prisoners not systematized.

Miguel is on grounds detail, meaning he wields a machete a few hours a day, beaten tired by the sun and exertion. He’s a machete virgin and has never done manual labor before. He shows us a quarter-sized patch of raw skin between his thumb and forefinger. Despite the large straw hat we’d given him the week before, he is now the technical definition of a redneck, with freckles splashed across his cheeks. He complains about the beastly sun after having been deprived of it for a year and a half. He’s upbeat and laughing, hugging and cuddling and kissing Esther and I revel being in their aura of love. More than once I avert my gaze and am ashamed to admit I didn’t leave the table and take a stroll outside; I’m sure they would have appreciated the semblance of privacy. Prison etiquette isn’t my strong suit, but I’m learning.

I do a double take at the elderly prisoner trailing a three-month old puppy doing that adorable trot-cum-dance they do. Street clothes; metal utensils; a bathroom door; a puppy – semblances of real, outside life. It was intoxicating.

It was also exhausting. At one point Miguel says: ‘let’s slow the roll on this conversation. All the information overwhelms me a little.’ It’s true we’ve covered a lot of ground – details of the penal and sentencing systems; proposed constitutional reforms; and plans for his first weekend pass in November. I change the subject.

“Hey! Let me see your tattoo!”

When Esther told me he got his body inked for the first time, I fairly gasped. It wasn’t so much the design that worried me – prison tats can be decent and besides, we know several kick ass ink artists who could resolve any bad tattoo. What worried me were the health and hygiene implications. I especially wanted to know what they used for ink. It wasn’t pretty: Miguel’s tattoo (and many others happening right now, as I type this) was done with the melted plastic handles of blue disposable razors, the plastic burnt to liquid onto a piece of paper, scraped up and mixed to the right consistency with I don’t remember what; I stopped listening at ‘melted plastic.’ He raises his arm, palm up to show me his inner bicep. It was surprisingly well-lettered, spaced and placed. I stare at it a beat longer than normal.

“Is it right?”

YOU HAVE ONLY ONE LIFE TO LIVE. DON’T LET THEM BREACK YOU.

I loved the message, but the writer in me cringed. Or as my friend Peter says: it made my eyes bleed.

My gift to Miguel on his weekend pass? A trip to Zenit Tattoo.

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Hogs & Dogs: Extreme Camping in Cuba

Our summer vacation plans were simple and cheap: strap the camping gear onto the 1946 Harley-Davidson and plunge deep into the mountains of Pinar del Río, getting as far from hot, hectic Havana as we could without a visa. We were broke and stressed; our souls needed to sigh a bit among the pines and pure air.

 

This sounds nuts, I know. Who in their right mind vacations where there is no plumbing and more livestock than people? To boot, our transportation is a 72-year old motorcycle held together by string (literally; more on that later) and we’d be camping in a place where, incidentally, camping isn’t a thing. Add to this the general state of Cuban roads, the crippling August heat, and dearth of gas stations, stores, and food, and you begin to understand why the whole idea had family and friends from near and far expressing concern for our sanity.

lastunasbaches

But this wasn’t our first rodeo. Last summer we traveled nearly 2000 kilometers between Havana and Granma on that same Harley as research fodder for my new book. Yet this was something altogether different.

first rodeo

This time we were considering taking the dog.

 

Our decision wasn’t snap or capricious; we’d deliberated and debated – conversations which left me more comfortable with the idea of canine accompaniment but not entirely convinced. And being the youngest of four from a poor household (i.e. too self-centered than my station or accomplishments warrant), I wondered: how does bringing Toby benefit me? Unless I sold the story to The Sun or New Yorker, it seemed like a lot of work for negligible reward…

 

The evidence base, if you can call it that, was slim and partial for how Toby might comport himself on our odyssey. We’d spent a sublime weekend camping at seaside Canasí where he romped in the woods, lounged by the campfire swollen with tinned meat, and ran, tail between legs, from the surf. And there was no question the little guy loves to ride: every day, paws on the handlebars, ass pressing against José as we bank turns, we commute to Cuba Libro on the Harley. But what we were proposing wasn’t just a weekend within striking distance of the capital or a five-minute jaunt between home and work. This longer, more remote trip promised to be more intense. Way more intense.

commuting

The idea was a week-long back country camping trip covering over 600 kilometers through the mountains of Pinar del Río, towing a trailer with our gear and Toby in his cage. Never mind that Toby, a dog rescued from Havana’s mean streets, had never before been in a cage.

 

Both José and I have extensive riding and camping experience – he more of the former, me better-versed in the latter – but as a team we were motivated and adept. In short, we had the chops to make it happen, dog and all. Toby? I wasn’t at all sure how he’d react.

 

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For those not familiar with Cuba, let me explain why this plan sparked a second round of concerned emails, which now expressed fears for our sanity and Toby’s safety. First of all, there are no Harley-Davidson dealerships or parts sellers in Cuba. Should we break down in the middle of nowhere – if a cable or gear shaft or belt should go – we were on our own. Luckily, my pilot José is a crackerjack machinist, electrician, and inventor (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also easy on the eyes!) Plus, the Harley is made from real steel that can take a beating. Second, in Havana, you can’t just pop into a Petco for a doggie cage or AutoZone for a trailer. All this had to be built from scratch and scrap – on a limited budget. These weren’t hurdles we could throw money at. Complicating matters is the fact that there is nowhere to officially camp on the island – we’d have to be tremendously resourceful and somewhat careful to find practical, pleasant places to camp (last year we pitched camp too close to the naval base in Guantánamo). And one more detail troubled me: dog food isn’t sold in Cuba. We were used to cooking for him daily at home, but on the road? It’s not like we had a camp stove or anything.

chariot

The one-wheel trailer, hitch and cage were designed and built by José using salvaged wood and wire, supplemented by re-purposed refrigerator racks and dorm room crates dating back decades to my NYU days. The cage door was held in place with a bungie cord – release the cord and the door swung open. The cage (or “chariot” as my friend Chris prefers to call it), sat atop a suitcase containing our camping, cooking and snorkeling gear, plus our clothing, food and my reading/writing materials. The suitcase nestled perfectly in the trailer’s bed and elevated Toby and chariot above the exhaust pipe. Even with all this killer design and forethought, I wasn’t at all sure how Toby would handle it. José told me not to worry. Like that ever works.

 

Once everything was strapped down and secured, we placed Tobito gently in his cage. He was more enthusiastic hitched to the Harley than when we tested it in the living room. So enthusiastic, in fact, he started barking as soon as we hooked the bungie cord into place and didn’t stop until we unhooked the door (every couple of hours once we were on the road). It was 600 kilometers of non-stop, on-the-road barking – maddening for us, but he was a happy camper. He wagged his tail wildly, caught the wind of the open road upon his face, and sniffed eagerly at the goats, cows, and pines as we passed. He often had an erection. By the time we got home, he was hoarse from so much barking and we were aurally traumatized. But he was a trooper and a champ, never messing his cage, protecting our camp at night and hopping gleefully in and out of his chariot by trip’s end.

toby in LR

tobyin chariot w LR

 

We’d pre-cooked five days of meals for Toby, freezing it and storing it in a little Styrofoam cube. It kept well for four days and the last meal we fed to an emaciated country dog who devoured the almost-turned liver and rice. Once the precooked meals ran out, we fed him hot dogs and canned meat balls cooked over the campfire.

 

When we caught bad weather (repeatedly), we would quickly pull over and bivouac under sheets of plastic. Together with trailer, Harley, chariot, and gear, Toby, José and I would huddle under a plastic teepee and prepare our little cafetera to enjoy some sweet, hot, dark espresso as we waited for the skies to clear. We had no camp stove, but lo and behold! At our first rest stop, José whipped out a ‘revelberro’ – a one-burner wonder made of two steel pieces: the base which gets filled with luz brillante and the burner, which is placed on top. In Cuba, you learn something new every day and though I’ve camped the length and the breadth of the island – from Granma to Guanahacabibes, above and below waterfalls, on the beach and in the bush – I had never seen one of these nifty units before. It’s not only great for camping, but also blackouts, hurricanes or when you forget to pay your gas bill. Note to self: see if José’s sister will sell me her revelberro. Toby didn’t partake of the rich and delicious café Cubano, but we granted him tent access during thunderstorms and rain. Hot dogs and meatballs, tent privileges and unparalleled adventure: this is one lucky doggie.

 

We crawled out of the tent after one of these summer storms broke and found a horse grazing under a double rainbow. On the far west coast, when the clouds shipped out after a nighttime tempest over Guanahacabibes National Park, we wished on shooting stars. We shared crack-of-dawn coffee facing the caves from where Che commanded troops during the Bay of Pigs with the site’s historians one day and sipped the best espresso (served in little coconut shell cups) with a campesino family in their dirt floor home the next.

tobes rainbow

No cell phone service, no showers or tour buses or air conditioning: camping in Cuba is not for the fastidious or faint of heart. The lazy or timid also need not apply. But if you’re looking for a unique adventure – natural, cultural, logistical – consider this alternative. Even if you don’t have a car or bicycle (or Harley!), a similar trip to ours is possible. Parts of it you won’t want to replicate, like when one of the seat springs (about the size of a small peach), busted in two on a remote road cleaving between mountains. Suddenly I was leaning dramatically to starboard. José cut the motor and set to bending and re-threading the spring to make it shorter, but strong, reinforcing it with several lengths of twine.

 

If you’re game for this type of trip, it helps if you speak Spanish and can build a decent cooking fire, but with gumption, a phrase book, and healthy stash of protein nuggets and nuts, you can camp here way off the grid and without leaving a trace. If you’ve dreamt of this kind of vacation, you may find these tips helpful, honed over 15 years of camping on the island:

 

  • For reasons related to Cuba’s wonky supply chain and environmental stewardship, do not depend on bottled water. Pack a filter or purification tablets to ward off thirst and protect your gut flora. Cuban pharmacies and almost every home also stock hipoclorito de sodio; add two drops to every liter for potable water.

 

  • Food can be an issue in Cuba (now there’s an understatement!). Even if you’re on the fanciest organized tour, you will probably go hungry at some point in your trip. Bringing packaged soups, pastas, and dehydrated meals from home, supplemented by vacuum packed tuna, Spam, and the like, is a great strategy. Also, high-protein, lightweight anything (beef jerky, Clif bars, trail mix) will be a life saver at some point. You can round this out with peanuts and other on-the-ground snacks; our little sack of chicharrones kept all three of us happy during our recent odyssey. Fruits and veggies can be procured en route, but availability and variety depend largely on the season. Fresh pork is sold everywhere – looked for ‘ahumado’, smoked cuts, which keep beautifully. Eggs are also widely available; keeping them from cracking is the tricky bit, but an experienced camper/packer will figure it out. Hard boiling them for a roadside picnic is another option. Canned goods are sold in tiendas; those at gas stations, like the one where we stocked up in Sandino, can be gold mines.

 

  • Mountain regions and (some) beach areas are the best bets for finding practical, beautiful places to camp. For mountains and valleys, I suggest: the Escambray, Sierra de los Órganos (Pinar del Río), Valle de Yumurí (Matanzas), Sierra de Cristal (Holguín) and the region around Baracoa (excluding Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, which is off-limits to casual campers). For beach camping, good opportunities abound in Guanahacabibes and the adjacent coast of Pinar del Río, Playa Larga (Matanzas), the beaches between Cienfuegos and Trinidad, the Las Tunas coast and beaches around Yumurí (access from Baracoa). Canasí is ever popular and there will likely be Cubans camping there when you turn up.

 

  • If you can’t find an appropriate camping spot, try one of the scores of ‘campismos’ around the country. Technically these are not for tent camping and only a handful rent the concrete cabins to foreigners, but with a bit of conversation and cash, you’ll likely be able to convince administrators to let you pitch your tent. These are always located in beautiful settings, from mountain to sea, along rivers and tucked into valleys.

 

  • Cuba is, overall, quite safe. Locals tend to be more curious and protective of campers than any sort of threat and they’ll surely want to chat you up, which is part and parcel of the charm of this sort of trip. Offering a slug of coffee or swill of rum to people happening upon your camp will result in lively conversation, unsolicited advice and maybe even new friendships!

 

  • Pack biodegradable toilet paper. Be sure to pee and poop off the beaten trail and bury the latter, please!

 

no-trace-before.jpg

Guanahacabibes campsite in full swing

No Trace Camping

Guanahacabibes campsite, 12 hours later upon leaving

  • Burn all paper garbage, bury the biodegradable, and pack out the rest. At several points during our most recent trip we cruised the mountain roads with a plastic bag filled with tin cans tied to the motorcycle seat. While this elicited strange looks from passersby and the cans rattled annoyingly, disposing of them properly in the first available garbage provided great satisfaction.

 

  • The May-October rainy season is hot, sticky, buggy and wet. Usually these are afternoon thundershowers, but we’ve been rudely awakened at 3am by water dropping on us through the mesh tent roof. If you break camp early and move on to your next destination, setting up before the thunderclouds roll in, you can beat the worst of it – most of the time. Ponchos are an important tool at this time of year. Not only will they keep you dry, you can use them to cover campfire wood so you’re not eating raw and cold once the clouds move out.

 

 

I wasn’t sure about taking Toby at the outset and even mid-trip, when José declared he’d go camping with Toby again in a heartbeat, I wavered. But once I saw Toby leaping into his chariot with a mini-erection somewhere around Valle de San Juan, barking like mad, I was already planning our next adventure to Pan de Guajaibón.

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Inside a Cuban Orphanage

If you know me, you know I get terribly bored (and sometimes in trouble) if I’m not learning anything new. If you know my writing, you know that one of the things I love about Cuba is that I’m learning new things all the time. It’s stimulating, humbling – an eternal education, vaya. A recent experience was particularly educational when Cuba Libro, together with our family of Harlistas Cubanos, paid a visit to the Guanabacoa orphanage.

orphanage

Here’s what I learned:

1) In Cuba, orphanages are not called orfanatos like in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Here, they’re called casas de niños sin amparo filial (literally children without family protection; more proof that Cubans are masters of euphemism. This is something I knew from my days volunteering here during the ‘Special Period in A Time of Peace,’ – how Cubans refer to total economic catastrophe);

2) In Cuba, these children aren’t called orphans. They’re called niños de la patria (how’s that for euphemism?);

3) There are some very dedicated, loving and compassionate people working in this sector (all are women at this particular orphanage, something I suspect is par for the course across the country);

orphanage5

4) I knew before this visit that there are few orphanages in Cuba (thanks to a variety of factors, including free, safe abortions), but I learned this weekend that the most common reasons children end up here are: neglect, their parents are in jail or addicted to drugs or they’re abandoned outright;

5) Orphanages in Cuba are divided by age – there are orphanages for infants who are still breast feeding, others for children from 1-1/2 to 11 years old; and others for kids 12 to 18;

6) Some children arrive at orphanages having never seen a doctor – despite Cuba’s free, universal health system. A 5-year old boy at the Guanabacoa orphanage, for example, arrived with an undiagnosed degenerative childhood disease. His muscles will atrophy until he dies, before reaching adulthood. He’s now receiving appropriate medical attention, but his is a bleak diagnosis. In addition to full medical care, the government provides these children with food, clothing, beds and linens, soap and toothpaste (a bar and tube, respectively, for each child every month), school uniforms, and a monthly stipend;

orphanage4

7) Every opportunity to place orphans with foster or adoptive families is investigated and made. Although the process is incredibly long and arduous, requiring all kinds of background checks, character testimonies, home visits, and documentation, several of the 20 children at the orphanage we visited were with their foster families for the weekend. Additionally, one 4 year-old girl was with her adoptive family which was finalizing her adoption;

8) The chance to visit the Guanabacoa orphanage and learn how all of this works in Cuba was possible thanks to a donation initiative by Havana Harley-Davidson riders and Cuba Libro. Most Here is Havana readers already know about Cuba Libro’s robust, targeted donation programs but this was our first donation to an orphanage. We’re incredibly thankful to have friends and family among these generous bikers who provided the opportunity to learn what orphanages most need in Cuba:
– infant and boys’ and girls’ clothes;
– sneakers and shoes;
– washcloths and shower scrubbies (caretakers are prohibited from having skin-to-skin contact with the children); and
– white knee socks – part of the official school uniform.
Thanks to this initial donation (organized by our Donation Coordinator, Yenlismara), Cuba Libro will be continuing to support the wonderful staff and children at this orphanage. If you would like to participate in this or other donation programs administered by Cuba Libro, please drop us a line;

orphanage2

9) The last thing I learned was the provenance of this house – a mansion really, with multiple gardens, a pool and Jacuzzi, three-car garage and so many bedrooms I lost count. Several years ago, an official police video made the rounds (you can get the new fuzz reels every week from any little storefront business selling the paquete) about a massive bust in Guanabacoa. The video showed all manner of ill-gotten goods – including eight cars, gold and jewels, appliances, electronics, the works. They even found bricks of cocaine stashed around – it was really some Cops Miami type shit. The culprit? A half-assed Cuban rapper wanted in the United States for a giant Medicare scam which fleeced boatloads of money from the federal program. I had never heard of Gilbert Man before I saw the video, nor after – until we were preparing the kids’ donations. Turns out that after he was caught, charged, sentenced to 17 years and imprisoned, the Cuban government converted his house into this orphanage. Upon visiting and beholding the f-ugly furniture, gold and brown brocade drapes, god awful porcelain vases and gilded mirrors, I learned that Gilber Man may have been (temporarily) rich, but had perennially bad taste.

I also learned that wonderful things can be sown from nefarious seeds and soil.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: Part III

I was sitting in my usual corner in the cafe when he walked in. It took me a second to recognize him out of context and with a good 25 extra pounds on his frame but his smile was unmistakeable. Miguel!! We were one of his first stops on his first weekend pass from prison. I smelled cafe brewing and I was excited to invite him to his first cortadito after a year behind bars.

“Amor. Time to get up,” my husband jostled me gently.

I opened my eyes and realized it was all a dream – the coffee was brewing in my kitchen, not Cuba Libro.

Before my friend Miguel was picked up for carrying 20 or so tabs of Ritalin, I had absolutely zero experience with the Cuban penal and justice systems. Now I know how to smuggle in instant coffee (just the fact that coffee, a staple of Cuban culture and diet is a prohibited item in jail seems punishment enough, especially for Miguel who is a tremendous ‘cafetera’) and know that inside, nine packs of Criollo cigarettes procures a homemade electrical coil to heat that illicit cafe. I know, too, that Miguel’s haircut cost five packs of Criollos and later learned that in the Cuban clink, different types of cigarettes carry differing values. In ascending order: uncut Criollos (forget bringing Titans or Populares to your loved ones inside – even there, people are loathe to smoke them); H Upmann; Hollywood white, red, green, and the highly sought after black. Seems no one is trafficking imported Lucky Strikes or Dunhills, which cost upwards of $3CUC on the outside.

Since my first visits some nine months ago, I’ve learned that I can leave my cell phone with the parking lot attendant for $1CUC for the duration of the visit and that Miguel and Esther can procure a coveted overnight conjugal visit for $50CUC – what she makes in a week working at a fancy Air B&B. Some families have had success securing their loved ones’ release for $500 to $1000CUC (a small fortune here), but not Miguel; there’s zero tolerance for drug offenses here as of late.

During this most recent visit, Miguel was considerably, visibly depressed. He was resigned, bordering on hopeless.

“Screw the appeal. Four years, six years, it doesn’t matter,” was the tenor of our conversation. His appeal was denied I found out this week: his sentence of six years stands.

His outlook was the opposite of what I expected. I thought Miguel was going to fall apart when first incarcerated. And that as he grew accustomed to his new surroundings and adapted to the criminal element inside, he would settle in for the duration. But it played out in the reverse. He was strong at first, worn down as the months passed. Since his arrest in May 2017, Miguel has been beaten up, contracted giardia and had a tooth pulled – medical conditions for which he was given a total of two pills, neither of which resolved the problem or pain – was put in quarantine during a mumps outbreak, and has suffered daily bullying.

“Amor. Please don’t bring my food in pink Tupperware,” he said to his wife Esther during one visit.

He wasn’t being picky – he was verbally abused every time another inmate got a glimpse of his “maricón” storage containers. In the same visit, he asked our friend Raul to sneak in a pair of shorts (along with coffee, bringing in shorts is verboten). Though the most comfortable option, sleeping in boxers is another cause for bullying and the prison-issued shorts are so hot as to make sleep elusive. Esther just popped in to remind Raul about wearing the shorts under his pants and passing them to Miguel clandestinely in the bathroom during the next visit. This is when I learned that the grey uniforms worn by convicts, of which I’ve written previously for their fairly fashionable cut, is made from the same material used to line caskets here (and I know a bit about caskets in Cuba). This is why inmates are known as the walking dead in these parts. Another fun Cuba fact brought to you by Here is Havana.

The news pertaining to Miguel’s situation is pretty grim. His rejected appeal, for starters. Truth be told, his lawyer is a bit weak. Esther thinks the state law firm appointed their bottom feeder to the case, (this happens frequently with drug convictions since they’re considered lost causes). What’s more, they’ve started moving inmates to the provinces to do agricultural labor. A contingent from Miguel’s unit was shipped off to Pinar del Río recently and word on the cell block is that he could be transferred to Camagüey to cut marabú soon. This isn’t all bad. He’ll be outside for a good part of each day and the living conditions should be a bit better. On the downside, he’ll be far – too far, about seven hours in a good vehicle – from visiting friends and of course, his wife. But even this has its benefits: prisoners moved outside their home province to do agricultural labor are usually rewarded with a reduced sentence.

When Esther came by for a coffee today (another community service provided by Cuba Libro: she drinks free until Miguel is released, a policy she tries to ignore, but we don’t let her get away with it), she had some encouraging news: if all goes as planned, Miguel should be downgraded from the Combinado del Este (Havana’s largest prison), to a campamento in September. This means more personal living space and fresh air, plus more relaxed visits. Then if all goes well, two months later he should receive his first weekend pass. Maybe my dream was prescient after all. I can’t wait to prepare his cortadito.

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Patrulla 122: Protecting, Serving, Discriminating?!

I’m just back from another visit with my friend Miguel, who has been in Havana’s biggest prison for almost a year now. I started writing the update (many readers have reached out to me regarding Miguel and Esther’s plight since my two first posts) but that will have to wait; recent events – still unfolding – obligate me to write about my friend Pedro and what befell him on March 6…

At about 3am on the Tuesday in question, Pedro (not his real name) was leaving a get together with his best friend Gretyl (not her real name). Both of them were with their partners. As they kissed their respective lovers goodbye for the night, they heard a squeal of tires and the ‘woot! woot!’ which strikes fear into the hearts of every person of color in today’s Amerika. But this is Cuba, the couples no estaban en nada, as we say and so they were unconcerned. The cop car, Patrulla 122, rolled up to the two couples and requested the ID cards of the four young Cubans. After calling central dispatch and ascertaining that none of them had any priors, the cops turned to Pedro.

“You’re a disgrace. You need to do that somewhere no one can see you.”

While Pedro stood thunderstruck, smarting from the comments, Gretyl and her partner looked on, bystanders now, of no interest to the police.

By now you’ve probably guessed that Pedro is gay and he was kissing his boyfriend goodbye. Two couples. The same PDA. Two completely different experiences.

If you’ve followed my writing at all, you know that I only transmit first-hand or verifiable experiences. In Cuba, it’s important to consider your source, always, and know how to filter out the chisme (gossip), la bola (rumors), and run run (hearsay). These tendencies distort everything from policy making to ‘who’s zooming who.’ Just so we’re clear: this tale came directly from Pedro, as I read the letter he sent to Police Public Affairs and the Provincial Police Authorities.

Moreover, many of you have read about my involvement with the Cuban LGBTQI community. Maybe you’ve seen with your own eyes everything we do to support the queer community at Cuba Libro, including hosting documentary and debate nights, maintaining and promoting our cafe as a safe space, and distributing free condoms – nearly 14,000 since we opened in 2013. I was at the first Cuban conga against homophobia in 2007 and nearly every one thereafter (including with Toby. Unfortunately he got too excited being amongst all his sexually diverse friends; he stayed home this year).

IDAHO, Cuba-style (2017)

So Pablo’s letter, which he was about to deliver to the legal department of CENESEX which deals with these issues, really upset me. CENESEX is quite aware of the problem – citing same sex couples for public indecency (what Pablo and his boyfriend were cited for) – and has been running workshops to educate the police force about citizen rights and the letter of the law, for years now. In short, it’s 100% illegal to cite anyone for kissing, hugging, walking hand-in-hand and the like, let alone detain or arrest someone based on their sexual orientation. Knowing Pedro as we do, we wondered if it was more than just a kiss goodnight. It wasn’t. We asked.

The fact that the straight couple was not fined or defamed (despite partaking of the same behavior), suggests that this is a clear cut case of discrimination based on sexual orientation. The verbal shaming and threat of going to the station – it’s all pretty ugly.

When the police told the young men to ‘get in the car, we’re going to the police station,’ Pedro paled – his parents don’t know he’s gay. And who do you call when you’re 19 and thrown in the clink? He confessed he was still in the closet and asked the police to not take him downtown. So they fined him and his boyfriend instead, 50 pesos cubanos ($2CUC).

I’m finding it hard to put into words how sad and angry all this makes me – a young man living in a (mostly) homophobic society who can’t or won’t come out to his parents and a police force which (too often) doesn’t understand the law and to boot, harbors a deep, ingrained, fucked up homophobia which they inflict on their fellow citizens…

The only thing I can say is we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. Sign me up.

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Who the Hell Am I? A Confession

A Californian passing through Cuba Libro recently asked me if I felt more American or Cuban after 16 years in residence. The question, though common, sort of blindsided me; these types of existential/identity inquiries are interesting, but of little use when you’re a journalist on deadline, finishing two books and keeping a small business afloat. I hadn’t thought about my identity in these terms in a long time.

That was my first clue about how distanced I’ve become from my birth culture: people on that side of the Straits are spending way too much (misdirected) time and energy on identity politics.

But because I have the nagging sense that I’m at some kind of turning point (or point of no return – like if I don’t rein in this Cuban-ness, I soon won’t recognize myself at all), I eked out a moment from my chaotic work schedule to consider her question.

Maybe this is why I didn’t bristle and correct her when she asked if I felt more Cuban or American. Before, I would have quickly observed (with a nearly audible sneer, I confess), that every one of us, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, are ‘Americans’ but I let it slide. Before, I would have delivered one of my pat answers – ‘depends on which day you ask’ or ‘a decent mix of both.’ But when she asked, I stopped to consider her question carefully because I realized I’m feeling pretty confused lately.

How the hell, after 16 years here can I still be confused? If you know something about Cuba, you probably understand.

I think it’s due in part to the recent historic elections here, in which I was invited to vote. It turned out to be a bureaucratic mix-up (I have no right to vote) but it stopped me short. Wait. Elections? Cuba? Electoral college? Veneer of democracy? Where am I? Who am I? Am I experiencing a shift in my core values?

After so much time here, I talk with my mouth full and have zero problem conversing about menstruation in mixed company. The first is an embarrassment and really poor form, I know, but the latter makes me proud. Just today I heard a piece on NPR about birth control and how some US women aren’t comfortable telling their doctors that their birth control is killing their sex drive. This is absurd, counter-productive and one of the many ways in which women are complicit in the misogynist construct: having body shame about completely natural parts and functions (menstruation, vaginas, uteri, orgasms, etc) does us all damage. This type of neurosis I definitely left behind in the US and am glad I did – especially once I had my first pap smear in Cuba. The lovely doctor took a long drag on a filter-less cigarette clamped between her gloved fingertips, flicked the butt expertly out the window and said ‘ok, honey! Feet in the stirrups.’ Sex toys, condom use, hemorrhoids, HIV – it’s all part of the conversation here.

SHOUTING! Through closed doors, from the balcony, across the hall, down the block, over impossibly loud music – Cubans are very loud and I’ve totally adopted the habit. Make no mistake: I arrived here half deaf from too much rock n roll, plus I’m the product of a boisterous NY family where to be heard or get a word in edgewise, interrupting and volume give you an advantage. But there’s loud for practical strategy and there’s loud as rude; I fear I’m entering into Cuban-loud (ie rude) territory.

I’m not talking about when we’re shouting at each other for sport and play, that kind of intellectual sparring and sharing of dubiously sourced facts which is far from fighting here. No, I’m talking rude loud as in shouting across a room to get someone’s attention rather than walking over to them or carrying on a conversation at full volume when someone nearby is trying to study, nap or meditate. Note to self: tone it down.

Time management and punctuality are two US characteristics to which I cling desperately, but try not to inflict on others. Cubans are chronically late and it’s useless to get your knickers in a twist over it. Most Cubans arrive between 15 and 30 minutes late to whatever meeting, event or appointment. Plan accordingly and avoid the frustration. I made the mistake recently of criticizing my hubby for his shitty time management. We had a calm, measured and adult conversation about it. Still, hours later, I was venting to a Catalan friend of mine with many years of Havana living under his belt. “Darling, you can’t get mad at a Cuban for being Cuban. You knew shitty time management came with the package when you bought in.” Note to self: focus on the things you can change.

Sometimes Cuba and Cubans make me want to pull my hair out and I start wandering that dark, dangerous path wondering: “why do I stay here? This isn’t my lucha. These aren’t my people.” And then something like Parkland happens. And a 12-year old from Connecticut visiting Cuba Libro tells me his friend told him to buy a bullet proof vest for his Cuba trip because “they shoot people down there.” And then I realize, why yes, this is indeed my place and Cubans – loud, rude, late and unfaithful – are my people. And no one has a gun. I feel I have to share this information with the misinformed tweens of the world.

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