Category Archives: 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

Rock, Meet Hard Place

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Excuse my absence from this space, dear readers, but to put it bluntly, things are pretty fucked up for me these days here across the Straits.

I won’t bore or burden you with the details. Suffice to say, I’m between a rock and a hard place with very little wiggle room. To boot, it’s my own fault. I alone am responsible. I don’t have to tell you this makes it worse. Much worse.

I’m trying to be Zen about it, but I’m not a Buddhist and I’ve never been a good believer (although I do have faith, but don’t ask me in what right now because frankly, I’m a mess), so it’s very difficult for me to “rest in the middle way.” My (present) inability to resolve this particular problem of my own doing is salt in my wound, lemon juice in my third eye.

For all the wonderful experiences I’ve lived and all the skills I’ve acquired in almost nine years here in Havana, sometimes living abroad sucks. For so many reasons. And while I don’t think I’ve glorified it per se, I’m not sure I’ve devoted enough keystrokes or analysis to all the factors that make it ulcer-producing. That erode my confidence, opening a sluice gate of self doubt and re-awakening insecurities I thought long conquered.

There’s the language for one (and after all this time, I still struggle) which, for someone who traffics in words is a toxic state of affairs. Then there’s what has been “left behind.” Even with the Internet, important emotional and practical pieces of my pre-Cuba life have broken off and fallen away like the façade of an Old Havana tenement. All but my closest relationships (which I work hard to maintain and grow from afar – no es fácil) sit idle, parked in a 9-year coma. My littlest niece is wearing bras and discovering rock ‘n roll, my friends have kids I’ve never met, and my mom grows older. My namesake and goddaughter, much like me at her age, is going through her parents’ break up and I’m missing all of it. I’m neither comfort nor counsel to these people I love.

The practical business of taxes and jury duty, student loans and passport renewal is a whole other ball of angst-enhancing wax (and if I do indeed have an ulcer, these administrative and fiscal obligations are to blame). Attending these boorish tasks, for different reasons, is often impossible from here. Given this state of affairs, some things slide. And I’ve let them. I’ve got no one to blame but myself for arriving between this rock and hard place.

I had planned on writing a triumphant post today about how I faced and conquered this particular problem, how I found my metaphorical paddle in this creek I’m up, but I failed. Twice now I’ve failed. And if first time failure is disheartening, the second time around is downright frightening.

So here I am, scared for our financial future which is riding on a writing gig I’m due to start next week. This project is huge and depends on me passing the Cuban road test. Twice I’ve failed. And I only have one more chance (see note).

I’ve always believed three is a charm. In this case, it damn well better be.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Conner’s Adventures with the Cuban DMV.

Note

I’ve driven (well, I might add) for years in contexts as demanding as LA, Mexico, and Manhattan, making Havana a piece of cake comparatively. I know these streets well, having driven at all hours of day and night, during black outs and fierce tropical storms. But that was before I let my US driver’s license expire. Stupid, stupid, stupid move. Hopefully by writing this someone, somewhere will learn from my ridiculous mistake.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Living Abroad, Writerly stuff

Blogging from Cuba: Keeping Connected

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Blogging is a funny business. For most of us it’s bad business – even when we learn to adapt, monetize, and optimize. These were some of the conclusions drawn at TBEX ’10, the Travel Bloggers Exchange hosted in NYC this summer. I couldn’t attend, unfortunately, but Here is Havana was (thrillingly!) featured in the keynote.

I’m a notoriously bad capitalist (see note 1), so it’s par for the course that I should be dedicating hours to an endeavor that costs me money instead of accruing it (see note 2). Not surprisingly, writing has always been a difficult means for me to make ends meet. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a pretty tough negotiator when it comes to contracts and I don’t (usually) work for less than the market can bear, but somehow I never figured blogging into my revenue stream.

But after many conversations with friends up north and a spate of articles about the slow, but inevitable decline of traditional publishing – like some kind of chronic disease of the printed word that can be managed but not cured – I realize I must adapt or die.

I like to think that at least a few readers have felt motivated to buy my guidebooks or iapp after landing here, but truth be told, I’m not in this for the sales or to funnel traffic to my website. Here is Havana isn’t even about bagging a book deal (see note 3). I blog because it keeps me writing and because I harbor hopes that what I write here reveals a slice of life unimagined or a side of Cuba many folks don’t – or won’t – see.

Blogging also keeps me connected. Friends and family tell me they read HIH because it helps them stay abreast of my daily doings. Meanwhile, people I’ve never met have told me that HIH contains some of the best writing on Cuba they’ve come across. I don’t know about that, but I do know that for me, blogging is about writing as I see it and occasionally illuminating a dark corner or two.

A lot of you I know either personally or virtually. Some of you I work with, share blood with, or chat with on various travel sites and fora. But strangers wind up here too. And how they do is often odd, sometimes funny, and once in a while enlightening. Combing through the search terms people use to reach Here is Havana is brilliant procrastination of course, but it also helps me keep my finger on the pulse. What is it really, that people want to know about this enigmatic place? Sometimes what people search on to find me leaves me with a furrowed brow and comic book question mark above my head. (I’m quite sure, for instance, that I’ve never written on Cuban porn or heroin. Maybe they meant Cuban pork and heroines?)

What’s important, of course, is not how you found me but that you did. Sometimes sitting here in my stifling office with the neighbor cooking so close I can just about reach into her pots, I feel the sugarcane curtain descend. The isolation; the 56k dial up; the US chokehold which is as brutal and failed as a loveless marriage.

So I dedicate this post to you, dear readers. For finding me and keeping me connected and giving me lots of food for thought with search terms and phrases like these:

*Oatmeal Survival – Been there, done that. Decades later, I still can’t touch the stuff.

*Do you find nipples on chicharrones? – Indeed you do, I learned recently and it’s damn disconcerting.

*Pasta de oca – This is a surprisingly popular search term for a seriously unpopular foodstuff.

*Jesus, You Rock My World – Glad to see believers are lurking in our neck of the woods, although I’m quite sure they didn’t find whatever it was they were looking for here. (Punctuation points to this reader!)

*Cuban funerals – This is sad all the way around, but remains one of the all time top searches for random lands at HIH.

*Embalm in Cuba – Oh, the irony! The double entendre!

*Can I bring methadone through Cuban customs? – Did this reader find out the hard way, I wonder?

*Pizza cheese condom Cuba – Clearly that last word is superfluous…

*Garlic millionaires – Yup! We got them (and with the new economic changes afoot, we’ll soon have tomato and onion and rice millionaires too).

*Cuba iPhone porn – You wish.

*Drugs to make fisting easy – Ditto. (Just as an aside, I have never seen ‘fisting’ and ‘easy’ in the same sentence before or since, so mark a point for originality).

*Characteristics of a Cuban boyfriend – We should talk.

*Is August in Havana too hot? – That’s rhetorical, right?

*How do you avoid sand fleas in Cuba?The question is: how do you survive sand fleas in Cuba? Avoidance is clearly not an option.

*Honey is back and she’s in the streets – I, for one, would like to meet this street walking Honey. Sounds like a hooker with a heart of gold.

Notes

1. One of the reasons why I always felt Cuba would be a better fit for me. Little did I know that Cubans are some of the savviest, most savage capitalists around!

2. See Merriam Webster’s entry for ‘guidebook writer.’

3. OK, maybe just a little!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Living Abroad, Writerly stuff

Coño, It’s Cold

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Like many writers, I keep a running list of things about which I want to write – ideas that are especially interesting (at least to me) because they’re especially Cuban, capturing the inimitable specificity of this place.

One thing on that list, a writing idea I had about six months ago, was about The Heat. That suffocating, certain noose of weather that induces apathy, discomfort, and an ineluctable urge in all Cubans to complain about just how hot it is. Whereas six months ago, I was going to write about threads of sweat weaving between breasts, now I’m compelled to write about erect nipples thanks to our recent spell of witch’s tit kind of cold.

First and foremost, bathing is a bitch. Most people I know (myself included, dear reader) don’t have running hot water at home. Everything is accomplished with cold water or with water heated on the stove. (Talk about Old Skool. I swear, Cuba [too] often feels like that Pioneer House reality show). This includes bathing. Pull back the shower curtain in any Cuban home and you’re bound to see a plastic bucket. When it’s ‘bath time,’ water heated on the stove is mixed together with its cold counterpart to the bather’s preferred temperature in the bucket. This brew is then poured over the body using another, much smaller, plastic bucket, or more commonly, an oversized tin cup known universally as the ‘jarrito.’

To all those people who have ever said to me, ‘why do you need hot water in Cuba anyway?!’: I invite you to my house today, where the thermometer struggles to reach 50°F, to try bathing with the little/big bucket system.

I’m particularly fond of hot water, I’ll admit. Esalen, Fuentes Georginas, Puna’s hot pond – I’ve lounged and lingered in them all and I’ve yet to meet a (clean) hot tub I didn’t like. Bathing with the bucket method cold day in, cold day out? This is my hell.

You would think that 8 years on I’d be used to it, or at least have a viable strategy. But I’m still trying to dope out the best method: Do I pour many little jarritos of hot water over my entire body head to toe in quick succession and then proceed to suds and rinse all at once? Or do I go about it piecemeal, wetting my legs, soaping them up, and rinsing them off before working north to my hips, waist, and beyond? Even on still days, the air is colder than the water and neither strategy keeps me from freezing my ass off. (Hair washing is clearly out of the question.) It’s like entering a chilly pool, I suppose. Creep deeper inch by inch or dive right in head first? Tough call.
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So how cold is it, really? Well for starters, the weather folks on Cuban television (see note 1) are using phrases I’ve never heard here before like ‘exceptionally cold’ and ‘be sure to bundle up.’ For once, this isn’t Cuban hyperbole. Record lows have been recorded throughout the country this January: last week it was 33°F in Gran Piedra and a couple of days ago it was just a few degrees warmer in Colón. Average lows here in Havana hover around 48° (or colder in the microclimates). I could make a fortune selling fuzzy socks and cozy pants on a random Habana Vieja corner. According to our venerated weather people, it’s going to be close to, or record breaking, for the number of cold fronts passing through Cuba in a single January. Already it has been 30 years since the last time it was this cold – some nine cold fronts in the month.

It’s affecting everything. Outdoor concerts are being cancelled and patio dining is at an all-time low. Even baseball is feeling the effects, with hard to hold bats flying towards the infield and sportscasters breaking in after the count to exclaim, ‘I am FREEZING and for what?’ Then there’s the Cuban cold weather wardrobe: Dogs are combing the streets in jury-rigged hand towels, while musty, long-abandoned coats are hauled out of closets from Guanahacabibes to Punto Maisí. If you’ve been to Cuba recently, you’ll have noticed there’s an unhealthy predilection for denim jackets. Unfortunately, these are often paired with jeans, meaning Cubans of all types and stripes are violating the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not wear jeans with jeans jacket.’ (see note 2)

Friends here assume I’m not bothered by this relative cold since I hail from ‘up there.’ But they’re wrong: I hate this state of weather in between. This not hot, but not really cold either. I hated it for 7 or so years in San Francisco and I’m hating it still. It’s just too wishy washy for me. It’s like the suburbs. Give me urban like New York or rural like Pinar del Río, but I’ll skip Scarsdale in all its über suburban-ness, thank you very much. Likewise, give me hot like Havana (normally is) or cold like Montreal. Northern California’s pseudo-heat? I’ll pass.

For now, I’ll just have to suck it up dirty hair and all and brew some more tea. Giselle just announced another cold front is on its way.

Notes

1. I must take this opportunity to say something about Cuban weather forecasters, since they are so different from those pretty little thangs that dominate TV weather up north. Living in the hurricane belt confers upon Cuban weatherpeople a notoriety, visibility, and responsibility beyond detailing five days worth of sunshine and rain. We depend on them to keep us informed about any heavy weather heading our way, lest we have to tape windows and put up water, lay in candles or evacuate to a shelter. These folks are experts and have the higher degrees to prove it – everyone reporting weather on Cuban TV has a master’s degree or higher – and are accorded the reverence we usually reserve for professors or doctors in the USA. Another difference between here and there is the weather wardrobe: the night weather woman Giselle appeared wearing a black lace teddy type number during prime time, I was reminded of my dearly departed brother who watched the Weather Channel like it was porn. And when her colleague Odalys reported the weather right through her eighth month of pregnancy, I realized this was a whole different ballgame. I mean, when was the last time you saw a very pregnant woman delivering the weather forecast where you live?

2. The 11th Commandment was coined by my dear old friend Neil S. Since he clued me in to just how cheesy and profane the pairing is a couple of decades ago, I’ve ceased to be a sinner (at least in this regard).

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Withdrawing from the Quote Bank

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I don’t know if it’s a writer thing or a girl thing or a human thing, but I can’t resist collecting and savoring juicy quotes. Maybe it’s my hidden hope that someday I’ll say something so profoundly witty or wise, poignant or ironic that it motivates someone, somewhere to write it down. Or perhaps I just need to procrastinate. That must be it – otherwise why this mango bajito post (see note 1) instead of something thoughtful about Cuban wakes or ham-in-cakes?

Maybe you’re procrastinating too, and I applaud you for landing here to peruse of some of my all time favorite quotes – each one of them coming my way by serendipity over the years: I’d just be poking along reading or listening to the radio when a nugget would jump out and snap me to attention. Nothing Googled here…

Mil pardons to all you readers craving something salient from over here in Havana today – even I have to step out of the Cuban vortex once in a while. But not to worry: posts on The Heat; Being Bilingual; and Baseball are coming soon. If you need a fix, why don’t you click over to my short novel forever-in-progress?

On Travel:

“Love is the food of life. But traveling is the dessert.”
– Singaporean saying

“The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait ’til that other is ready and it may be a long time before they get off.”
– Henry David Thoreau

On Wealth:

“If I can get a watch for $15 that keeps perfect time, what am I doing messing around with a Rolex?”
– Chuck Feeney (see note 2)

“In a way we could half envy you such fat, wasteful, thing-filled times.”
– Marge Piercy

On the Human Condition:

“What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?” (see note 3)
– Theodore Roethke

“If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy.”
– Alvin Toffler

“Being dumb doesn’t kill you, but it sure makes you sweat a lot.”
– Haitian proverb

“Get your head out of your ass and take a look around.”
– Judge D’Italia (Ret.)

“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe and it has a longer shelf life.” – Frank Zappa

On Writing:

“Ronnie?! Ronnie is a dear friend and brilliant. You’re going to love him…He used to be exactly like you: all potential and no product.” (see note 4)
– Laura Kightlinger in Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman

“The chief glory of a nation is its authors.”
– Inscription, Andrew Carnegie Library (see note 5)

“I write everday to keep my neuroses in check. That’s why the novel will never die – it’s treating American mental illness.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
– William Faulkner on E. Hemingway

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
– Ernest Hemingway on W. Faulkner

Notes

1. Cogiendo el mango bajito is a Cuban saying meaning ‘going for the low-hanging fruit’ – in this case, the low-hanging mango.

2. If you need a new hero in your life, check out Chuck Feeney: The Billionaire Who Wasn’t. This guy made more money than Cuba has seen since 1959 (I don’t know that this is true, but it might be, he has made that much moola in his 70-something years) and started giving it away a few decades ago through his big-hearted philanthropy. Anonymously. Over time, he and his super smart co-conspirators decided to spend down the fortune which has converted him (unwittingly!) into the guru of giving-while-living.

All you m/billionaires reading Here is Havana: why don’t you start giving some to worthy causes? Start with 5% and work your way up from there. It won’t hurt, I promise, and might even feel good. The world could use ‘two, three, many Chuck Feeneys.’

3. Cuba, in a nutshell.

4. Have I mentioned my work forever-in-progess?!

5. I do think that quotable quotes can be useful tools for writers – as prompts or leaping off points for free writing, as motivation, and yes, for procrastinating – the monkey on every writer’s back. (Ironically, Andrew Carnegie’s essay Wealth was one of Chuck Feeney’s inspirations for his giving-while-living model. But Feeney has given even more than the venerable Carnegie: according to his biographer, Feeney’s philanthropy had granted $4 billion at the time of writing as compared to $3 billion – in 2000 terms – by Carnegie). Another quote inscribed in the Carnegie Library may have guided Feeney: “the highest form of worship is service to man.”

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