Category Archives: Writerly stuff

Your Man vs Mine

It’s confession time. I confess I really didn’t like living in San Francisco – loved the access to nature, but the striving, wannabe, hipster attitude? Not so much (besides, I’ll take a hippie over a hipster ANY day). However, my 6+ years in residence in that burg did deliver a gift for life: I met my best friend and go-getter writer and adventurer, Alexandra D’Italia. Over two decades later, we continue to constitute and grow our mutual admiration society, driving each other to live, love, and create to the fullest.

And I have another confession to make: on my recent quick trip to LA (to spend time with Alexandra living, loving and creating to the fullest, among other things), I actually started thinking about spending a chunk of time in the USA; this thought had never crossed my mind in any meaningful way since moving to Cuba in 2002. I know it sounds a bit crazy given the complete insanity going on this election cycle, but the nature, the intellectual stimulation, my gift for humor in English, the fast internet and Trader Joe’s – it got under my skin, rang my bell, got my Kappa key a-jangling. Writing alongside award-winning Alexandra (who is now accepting a select number of creative clients so that you, too, can be inspired by her) was a big part of this ‘ah-ha’ moment and as we walked home one evening among the adobe-style bungalows, their gardens perfumed by datura, a writing challenge presented itself…

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My First Daddy Issue
Alexandra D’Italia

I was not a girl who could just watch TV without the parental okay—Three’s Company? Too much jiggling. Laverne & Shirley? The characters were morons.

M*A*S*H was the exception. Mom loved B.J. Hunnicutt. If they had those allowable cheat lists back in the seventies, he would have made my mother’s list after Remington Steele.

I was planning on becoming Laurie Partridge and marrying Keith Partridge —fictional incest didn’t matter much to me back then. After all, I was pre-preteen and sex didn’t matter.

Then Hawkeye became the IT man of my life.

My parents would roll their eyes: “Alan Alda directed this episode, it’s going to be overwrought.” But damn, did I disagree. Any episode he directed melted into my psyche. In a dream, Hawkeye is limbless and unable to save a child with a belly wound. My parents’ stories of war protests didn’t have meaning until Hawkeye. He put the picture in my brain. He made me a dove.

And he had all that brown hair I wanted to touch. When he smiled, I smiled. You could tell he lit up a room. I wanted to be in that room!

Empathetic yet sarcastic, irreverent yet responsible —he was always right. He not only lit up the room, he was the smartest one in the room. No rule couldn’t be broken. No authority couldn’t be challenged. Get the job done and get me my martini. He was my dream personality.

Then there was his soft side. That man could give a good hug. Didn’t you see when he hugged Hotlips? Her stiff veneer broken by his warmth?

That Hawkeye was a Ladies’ Man only added to his allure. I wanted Ken, Jeff, Andrew, Chris, and Peter to follow me around the way the nurses followed him. [This never happened.]

Hawkeye even looked like my dad—handsome and lanky, brown hair parted on the side, piercing eyes that saw things you didn’t want to be seen. They both had that aura of dashing.

But he seemed much more approachable than Dad at the time who in a Buzzfeed quiz—What M*A*S*H character are you?—would have gotten Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. At the time, Hawkeye was easier to hug.

Then Hawkeye got real. My mother called Alan Alda a feminist. Oh glory be! This during the last gasps of the Equal Rights Amendment. Say what you want about the power of parents over a first child, but swoon did I! Snarky, smart . . . and a feminist? Dreamy.

So was it the man or the character? The man. My favorite Woody Allen films? Mr. Alda is in them. When I discovered he was in the Broadway production of my favorite play, Art, I wept that I missed him in it.

And finally, this man made me love a republican.

What?

No, not Trump. Not Reagan. Not Bush, HW or W. His conservative Senator Arnold Vinick on The West Wing, every liberal’s political porn.

Now that’s a first love. Or at least a first daddy issue.

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‘Tween Spank Bank
Conner Gorry

‘Tween Spank Bank
I’ve long been an avid masturbator and am not afraid to admit it. In the States, you don’t talk about these things in polite company. But here in Cuba? Stories are enthusiastically shared and notes compared. After 14 years in residence on this beguiling isle, I’ve heard enough to fill pages. One day I’ll reveal the cream of the crop (pun intended), but rather than shock and appall – and some of these tales are truly shocking, if not appalling; the masturbating dog (true story) being the least of it – I’m going to stick to the topic at hand: my early days of getting off.

Although I’m generally known for my moxie and grit, this isn’t a topic I’ve considered exploring previously. However, on a recent memorable, transformative trip to my native land, my best friend, (a woman I respect for myriad reasons, including the notches on her lipstick case), confessed to a detail which demanded a response. It was one of those moments to which you wish you weren’t witness; when someone presents an image you wish you could un-see – like my Cuban co-worker talking about how he looks in his leopard print g-string (another true story). My friend told me her ideal man growing up, the one she dreamed about, swooned over, and who filled her fantasies, was Alan Alda, Hawkeye, of M*A*S*H fame. Don’t know WTF I’m talking about? Click away; you’re not my ideal reader.

“Alan Alda?! Estás loca? Yuck.”

She took umbrage; defended her man – ethical, responsible, funny, a great father figure. These are all terrific qualities, we can agree. But to jack off? No, mi hermana.

“So who was the man of your wet dreams?” she asked me, throwing down the gauntlet.

“Mine? He was virile. Strong. Cut. And in command.” The One. The Only. Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk, Starship Enterprise.

Looking back, it’s cliché, I admit. The uniform. The take-charge attitude by a blond-haired, blue-eyed Adonis who motivates men, makes women weak in the knees, and saves the day – most of the time. Kirk was the stereotypical ‘mangón’ as we say in Cuba. Now that I think about it, it’s no wonder I go gaga over Cuban men – I was weaned on the machismo, bossy, and egotistical Captain Kirk, who says crap like ‘Mr Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That’s the only planet in the galaxy that can make that claim.’ Drilling down further, I see now that Kirk was kind of a douchebag – especially in the relationship realm. He was a product of his time, I guess, but so am I; as I grew older and up, my taste has skewed aggressively towards people who are ahead of their time.

Reflecting on my preferences for getting off, both then and now, I realize my friend – once again – is both ahead of her time and much more intelligent than I. In the short run, for a night or three, Captain Kirk is your man. But for the long haul, what every woman wants is Hawkeye.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Expat life, Relationships, Writerly stuff

Backstage at Carlos Varela (& Other Religious Experiences)

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Hi folks. Remember me? It has been a while and I’ve missed writing for the pure joy and fun of it. But between meeting deadlines for MEDICC Review and A Contemporary Cuba Reader, working on the coffee table book Harlistas Cubanos with photographer Max Cucchi, contributing my monthly column to Insight Cuba, and other (marginally) paying gigs, I haven’t had a moment to muse or grumble.

I’ve also had to make time to start salsa lessons (apply axiom: ‘better late than never’) and check out some new places for inclusion in the app; arrange some badly-needed donations; give presentations to students on study abroad programs here; and get my game on in our weekly bike polo matches.

dancing

So Here is Havana has languished. And for the three readers anxiously awaiting news from my world, this post won’t help much since what follows wasn’t written by me – although I was integral in germinating the idea, playing momentary muse to the writer in question.

Dedicated readers (I’m assuming there are some, along with the aforementioned trio?!), will recognize this guest post for the anomaly that it is, a first, in fact, since I started Here is Havana in 2009. I have nothing against giving space and platform to other writers; indeed, it would take some of the pressure off me to continually produce original, interesting content. The thing is, I don’t often come across writing compelling or thought-provoking enough to include. About travel or love or politics in general? Sure, but not about Cuba. As you may have noticed, a lot of writing about this place is either didactic or dogmatic (‘preachy and screechy’ in Conner-speak), or simply too light – in detail, truth, analysis or characterization (see note 1) – and downright skewed. Sometimes I stumble across good writing and insight (e.g. Fernando Ravsberg), but about topics I’ve already covered (e.g. Cubans and their dogs; questionable fashion; the local penchant for piropos) or that requires laborious translating/editing.

This paradigm was shattered when poet, producer, and political animal Juan Pin Vilar read me his piece Backstage at Carlos Varela. He calls it a poem, but to me it’s more of a short story, complete with narrator, plot arc, conflict, and resolution (of a sort). This distinction sparked a writerly conversation about craft; what’s harder to write – short story or novel; and what characterizes each, to the visible boredom of the non-scribes in the room. I adore these kinds of exchanges since they make me feel part of a community of writers, something I longed for horribly, achingly for years here.

Compañero Vilar et al help fill this void and if more writing like Backstage at Carlos Varela, comes my way (especially from writers like Juan Pin who have no internet access), I’ll be happy to publish it. Already I can hear him yelling at me in his loud, but loving Cubano way: ‘CONNER! Deja la muela, vieja!’

The floor is yours, poeta (English translation follows original Spanish):

Backstage at Carlos Varela
Por Juan Pin Vilar
for Ernán and Wendy

La religión y yo nunca hemos tenido lo que se llama un romance, ni siquiera nos relacionamos como vecinos que intercambian tazas de azúcar. Sencillamente, nos queremos. Anoche, de algún modo, entramos en contacto sin tocarnos. Frecuentamos miradas, frases cortas y guiños, siempre manteniendo la distancia generacional. La religión es infalible como el tiempo, es el tiempo mismo si se quiere, pero yo represento la escupida de Dios. Con él intercambio ideas en momentos triviales, instantes en que nada trascendental ocurre. Extraño los espacios diversos y me detengo en la cima de la montaña rusa de Busch Gardens para pedirle que no me entregue. Que lo impida todo. Como aquella tarde, en Baltimore, cuando dejé olvidada mi chaqueta Levi´s sobre el promontorio blanco de Edgar Allan Poe.

La religión suele ponerse complicada mientras gotea como víctima. Es abstemia y la cultivan bebedores de sombras. Ahora que no bebo lo comprendo. La religión está en los labios de Yanina: en el silencio triste de su Patria. Quizás por eso, y por suerte, no nos debemos nada. Avanza por un camino diferente al mío, y aunque los dos conducen a La Habana, no puedo decir que coincidamos. La religión tiene todo el tiempo del mundo para memorizar. Tiene células de elefante. Pronto comenzará a olvidárseme el presente y todo será recuerdo.

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Religion and I never had what you’d call a romance; we weren’t even neighborly, borrowing the occasional cup of sugar. We simply needed each other.
Last night we connected in some way, without touching. Over and over again we exchanged looks, repartee and winks, forever maintaining generations of distance. Religion is as infallible as time; it’s time itself if you like, while I’m just God’s spit. With him I swap ideas, in trivial moments, flashes of time where nothing transcendental happens. I miss those varied spaces and stop at the top of the roller coaster at Busch Gardens to plead with him not to take me. That he stop it all. Like that Baltimore afternoon when I forgot my Levi’s jacket on Edgar Allen Poe’s memorial.

Religion itself is habitually complicated while dripping like a victim. It is abstinence bred by drinkers of shadows. Now that I don’t drink, I understand. Religion is in Yanina’s lips: it’s in the sad silence of her Fatherland. Maybe this is why, luckily, we owe each other nothing. It follows a path separate from mine and though both lead to Havana, I can’t say we agree. Religion has all the time in the world to memorize it. It has elephant cells. Soon it will begin to forget today and it will all be a memory (see note 2).

Notes

1. Many readers write in to tell me they like Here is Havana precisely for its lack of preach and screech.

2. I am an extraordinarily reluctant translator and only endeavor to do it – especially when the words in question are from other writers – when there’s no other choice. I welcome readers to submit a better translation…

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Expat life, Living Abroad, Writerly stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Here is Haiti, Relationships, Writerly stuff

Best Cuba Posts Evah! (Sorta)

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Hola & Happy July 26th!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAG! Now, you’re it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensing Havana

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Travel anywhere can be magical for many reasons, but as a writer what inspires me most is the shift in perspective – seeing new things, which is as trite as it is true of course – but also seeing old things in a new way. Have you ever noticed how returning home after a big trip even the mundane snaps into focus, like putting on a new pair of glasses? How obviously a tree trunk in the yard resembles a thumb and forefinger though you’d never once noted it or the regularity with which that dun colored bird comes to visit each morning?

I’ve lived in Havana the past nine years and what snapped to my attention and popped into focus when I first got here I rarely notice now (see note 1). Mustachioed women and muffin tops for instance or the fastidiousness with which people sweep the sidewalk and grass strips in front of their homes. I lament no longer seeing my adopted city with a “child’s eyes” – that precious curiosity and wonder we tend to lose as adults – but tell myself it’s justified. Change is happening so fast here (for here), how could I focus on the constants?

 It used to be for instance, that the only Mercedes’ you’d see were taxis lined up at the Hotel Nacional or zooming down 5ta Avenida transporting heads of state. Back in the day, a couple of superstars had them too: Once I saw the unmistakable salsero Pedrito Calvo behind the wheel of his Mercedes, but it was missing a hubcap and had dents around the wheel well. Today, there are all kinds of shiny new cars cruising Havana’s cratered streets – BMWs and Audi’s, but also at least one Bentley, Hummer, and mini Cooper. All sport yellow license plates (indicating private ownership), not black (embassy) or blue (state).

 Today, Havana is in flux. Accumulation of wealth and inequalities are becoming inevitably more pronounced and the political future is…uncertain. There’s a lot of anxiety and low level stress judging by what I’m hearing in the streets and hallways (and the difficulty I’m having scheduling a slot with my new therapist – but that’s another post).

 Some days, like today, I prefer to retreat from all the politics and angst, uncertainty and yes, sadness to some degree, and see Havana like I once did all those years ago – with fresh eyes.

Elaborate topiary & saucy garden gnomes: Tacky and suburban to my sensibilities, most of my Cuban friends appreciate and admire the artistry of a well-trimmed bush and the kitschy-cute gnomes that dot front lawns from Vedado to Boyeros. There are even buxom female gnomes (gnomettes? gnomas?) squeezing their bosoms like ripe fruit in yards across the city. Brightly-painted cement mushrooms often complete the scene.

Public zit popping: This habit is part sport, hobby, and time killer for Cuban couples. On park benches and at bus stops or waiting on the bread line, lovers are popping each other’s zits and squeezing out blackheads with glee. Does someone need to point out to them that acne and food never mix? Apparently, someone does.

Dogs doing their thing:  Innumerable are the times we’ve had to stop the car for a couple of canines fucking in the middle of the street as if they were ensconced in their own private posada. Nonplussed, the bitch regards us with a feral smile as she’s humped away by some mangy stray. They refuse to be rushed: No coitus interruptus for these puppies. The same goes for middle-of-the-street shitting. She squats, watching and taunting us to inch forward with a toothy snarl. It can be a laborious stand off – almost all Cuban dogs are constipated.

Pure breds: While we’re talking dogs, I noticed from the start that certain perros de raza are all the rage here. It used to be cocker spaniels (still the go-to dog for sniffing out lethal and illicit substances at the airport), followed by Dalmatians. This isn’t unique to Havana: certain pets the world over become fads and status symbols (see: Nemo and chihuahuas). But what’s hard to square here is the craze for chow chows, who walk the streets with heat-ravaged fur and black tongues hanging as low as an old man’s balls and Siberian Huskies. Pobrecitos. Dogs die of heat exhaustion too.

Gold teeth: Like pure-bred dogs, the gold teeth fad swept across Havana some years ago like the flu making the rounds now. From 10-year old kids to aging cabaret dancers, everyone was chasing the dental bling. There were even TV shows and news coverage about it. Oral ore seems to be on the decline, but whether it’s just a fad that’s fizzled or a sign of the economic times, I cannot say.

Come hither weatherwomen: When Leticia, the master degree-holding weatherwoman popped on the nightly news screen in gold lamé, I laughed and wondered if the wardrobe captain had taken a vacation or fast boat to Miami. A few days later, she informed us about the advancing frente frío wearing a black lace-up corset and sheer drape. Does she sidle into the next studio after the 5-day forecast to film the novela, I wondered? (see note 2). But nothing topped learning temperatures would drop over the next couple of days from a woman on national television sporting a camel toe.

Cuba: you never cease to restore my sense of awe. And that’s a good thing.

Notes

1. This is the reasoning some guidebook companies use for not employing locally-based authors – they’re too inured to place. It has occasionally worked against me, but I can see their point. The ideal scenario, I think, is for individual guides to be written by a combination of local and non-local authors. This is our arrangement on Lonely Planet Hawai’i and it works well.

2. Even among scientists, Fredrick’s of Hollywood stands to make a fortune here once/if the embargo is lifted.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban Revolution, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba, Writerly stuff

Mi Tocayo

There’s this magical, hard-to-reach place I’ve dreamt of seeing for years. Atop my ‘to visit’ list, I tacked Technicolor postcards of this glorious spot on my office wall and gazed upon its grandeur whenever writer’s block or boredom hit. Admittedly, a visit there takes considerable preparation and determination, not to mention luck – when the weather turns for the worse, my dream destination becomes inaccessible.

I’m talking about Waimanu Valley, the Big Island, Hawai’i.

Waimanu is so birthing-the-earth beautiful, so seductively tropical, tears have sprung to my eyes simply gazing upon that aforementioned postcard. This mana-packed valley (see note 1) is also sacred to native Hawaiians and is occasionally still visited by ghosts of gods in the night. Truly a godly place (no matter what that means to you), Waimanu’s towering falls and steeply sculpted walls beckoned me.

There are certain places on the planet that are rightfully hard(er) to reach. This is their protection, helping maintain their natural and cultural integrity to an extent. The Galapagos for instance, or Bhutan. Cuba, too, is in this harder-to-reach category (for Americans at least) keeping that island from the north’s greedy grasp – somewhat anyway, for now anyhow.

There are only three ways to reach Waimanu Valley: by foot, kayak, or on a helicopter tour.

The last was never an option since helicopter tours run at least $200 on the Big Island, and so are way beyond my means (see note 2). More importantly, watching these grand waterfalls (or flowing lava for that matter) from behind glass seems too much like porn and masturbation to me. I wanted to taste, touch, and smell the valley. I wanted to earn the climax.

Kayaking into this part of the Big Island’s windward coast, meanwhile, is a complex proposition. The changeable weather, combined with the fierce, surgey ocean with its rips and undertow, advises against paddling in. Conditions need to be just right and although I’d sea kayaked 18 miles of the inimitable Na Pali coast on Kauai, local kayakers told me this wasn’t really practical for Waimanu Valley.

That left the hike. It’s not long – just under eight miles one way – but compensates with difficulty what it lacks in length (see note 3). And with no foreplay: the first mile is 1200 feet straight up. It’s a knee shaking, thigh quaking ascent from legendary Waipi’o Valley and not even the azure sea pounding the black sand beach below makes ‘The Z’ trail enjoyable. My hiking buddy rated The Z (so named for the precipitous switchbacks that carve that letter into the valley’s emerald cliffs) a B, for Brutal. Once you crest the switchbacks, sweaty and panting, there are a dozen gulches to maneuver through, making for a foot-propelled roller coaster ride.

It was hard. It was hot. At times it felt interminable. But the final descent into Waimanu Valley: therein lies the rub. It’s just .9 miles, but it’s an ‘okele kicker (see note 4). Slippery even when not wet, and as narrow as Sarah Palin’s mind, this is a seriously steep and treacherous stretch of trail. With a tent, sleeping bag, and four days of provisions strapped on my back, I had my work cut out for me. One slip and I’d go tumbling 1200 feet into verdant valley.

—–

We managed the descent and I wasn’t surprised the valley was more glorious than the postcard tacked up in my office back in Havana. The black sand beach fed by a freshwater stream teeming with fish and prawns; the deeply-carved, rice paddy green of the valley walls; and the forest full of wild guava and coffee, breadfruit and feral pigs – it was beautiful. But most captivating of all was Wai’ilikahi Falls – a 1100-foot high set of double falls tumbling over the valley cliffs into an idyllic pool frequented by few.

Following a day of rest and play, I set out to tackle the (officially closed, but fairly clearly marked) trail to the falls. I considered turning back after crossing paths with a feral sow and her piglet. I’d been treed once by a pack of peccaries in the Costa Rican jungle; I know not to mess with wild swine. I almost turned back a second time too – where an ugly invasive choked off the ‘trail,’ obscuring my way for a while.

But I kept on. After an hour or so, the trail began meandering along a rock-strewn stream. I could hear the waterfall clearly now and feel it’s windy swoosh. The trail dipped suddenly and I was dumped at the base of Wai’ilikahi Falls, a pool the size of a helipad at its base.

I threw my arms heavenward, praising its beauty and feeling like a goddess – so blessed was I to be there, living my dream. I was struck dumb by its natural beauty. I swiped a tear dropping from the corner of my eye when I heard a rustling from the trail. It wasn’t a feral pig as I’d imagined, but a young couple, tattooed and tie-dyed, emerging from the wood. I had only been in my dreamscape for five minutes. I was surprised I hadn’t heard them on the trail, that’s how closely on my heels they followed. More surprisingly still, I wasn’t disappointed to have my solitude broken, to have to share this special place with strangers.

We chatted, basking in the falls’ beauty. We voiced our appreciation for this sacred place, so remote and hard-earned. As the young woman washed their clothes in the pool (see note 5), I ‘talked story’ (that most Hawaiian of pastimes) with her husband: Where are you from? First time on the Big Island? Where have you been? The usual travel patter. They were young and adventurous and had been whirling the world for over two years. I took a quick shine to them – especially the guy.

After a brief silence, the falls’ chill misting us softly, I stuck out my hand.

“It’s nice to meet you way out here in this beautiful place. What’s your name?”

He took my hand and smiled. “Connor.”

I was stunned silent, literally struck dumb for the second time in ten minutes. Here I was, in the middle of nowhere and the center of everywhere, at the heart of my Hawaiian dream and who should emerge from the wood without warning but my tcayo (see note 6).

Very funny place, this big island.

Notes

1 In Hawai’i, mana is the island’s life force, the spiritual mojo that pulsates within the volcano, the sea, and deep in waterfall-cleaved valleys like Waimanu. If you’ve been here, you’ve likely felt it, that’s how palpable it is.

2. Even though I’m on the Big Island updating a Lonely Planet guidebook, the payment structure, combined with the company’s policy that we can’t take anything for free in exchange for positive coverage, puts most of these activities beyond my reach.

3. There are four emergency helipads strung along this hike to give you an idea of the difficulty.

4. This, my third time on the Big Island, I’m making a conscious effort to learn more Hawaiian; ‘okele (if you’d hadn’t already guessed) means butt.

5. Note to the valley gods and goddesses: forgive her, she knows not what she did.

6. Like descampar (to stop raining) and buen provecho (have a good meal), tocayo is one of those Spanish expressions with no real equivalent in English. It means to share the same name. Except for my goddaughter Conner, who (although a spectacular and special kid) doesn’t really count since she was named with me in mind, I’ve never had the opportunity to hang out with my tocayo. And certainly not in such a spectacular spot as Wai’ilikahi Falls.

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Filed under Cuban phrases, environment, Hawaii, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Writerly stuff

Here is Havana in Stellar New eBook

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Hi folks and sorry for the absence. Ive been watching live lava and baby dolphins a-leapin’ and a-spinnin’ on another far away isle lately (post coming soon on these adventures!). In the meantime, I wanted to let you know that Stephen Roll of Travel Ojos has just published a fantastic eBook entitled Celebrating Latin America at Ground Level. There is some terrific writing in here, by people who are living the dream (and occasional nightmare!). Here is Havana represents with an entry entitled “La Gente.”

The best part? The book is free! just click: Celebrating Latin America at Ground Level.

Adventures at the DMV: The Finale coming soon. Stay tuned and thanks for all your support!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad, Uncategorized, Writerly stuff