Tag Archives: afro cuban religions

Conner’s Letra del Año

I’m back in the swing of things here in Havana and if I’m reading the signs/between the lines correctly, it promises to be a memorable year. Already some unpredictable ($200,000 cars?!) and unexpected (Fidel rolling up at Romerillo?!) things have happened, about which I promise to post at a later date.

‘Surprising’ and ‘fast-paced’ are the catch phrases for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell. Indeed, 2014 has proven illuminating and educational, adrenaline-rushed and not a little bit hectic – and we’re only a few weeks in.

It’s exciting – I’m excited – but I get the feeling that this year is going to obligate us to work, HARD, to maintain balance; we will have to be master jugglers these next 12 months. It will be tricky keeping all our professional, personal, and spiritual balls in the air, but if we stay focused and true to course, I think the payoff will be well worth it.

In an effort to measure the tenor of our times and steer a tentative course through the exotic, but potentially choppy, waters of 2014, I offer you my Letra del Año. For those readers unfamiliar with this annual declaration, it’s a collaborative document issued each new year by the major Afro Cuban religious associations. It contains everything from conjugal advice and health warnings to what foods and saints should be offered and attended.

While I’m not an adherent, I, like innumerable others on the island, pay attention to each year’s Letra. When I read 2014’s, I was a bit shocked (and encouraged – maybe I’m on the right track!) to learn that one of the sacramental foods this year is the pomegranate. Not only is this extraordinarily rare in Cuba (so an odd sacrament, for any year), I’d bought one and shared it with a friend on New Year’s Eve before this year’s Letra was published.

And will my Letra del Año be prophetic? Maybe not at all or possibly in part, only time will tell, but here’s my take on 2014 and what we might expect:

Love is in the air:
I’ve known Alejandra since I moved here. She’s both family and friend and a helluva woman. She lives with her aging parents, works in a thankless job for 20 bucks a month and has struggled with mental health issues over the years. For the first decade I knew her, she was completely alone – ‘pobrecita,’ they said. I don’t remember her ever going on a date, even. Then, a year ago, Alejandra met Evaristo, a good and good looking guy, who helped around the house, got along with the parents, and had a decent job. And for whatever reason known only to them (or not even – love, after all, is one of life’s great and wonderful mysteries), they clicked and swooned and grooved.

Last weekend, they tied the knot in a beautifully simple ceremony in Alejandra’s front yard. The look on their faces, on that of their parents, siblings and every last guest was pure bliss. You could feel the love before the first teardrops of joy fell. I have another amiga getting married next month and a dear friend of mine for whom the seeds of love have been slowly, carefully sown over the last year or so and are about to bloom. Another few couples are marrying over the summer and well, all you need is love, right? I say: let’s spread it and do our part to silence the bitter and hateful.

Healthier habits and routines:
Whether or not related to love and matters of the heart, I foresee folks around me (and myself included, hopefully, but unlikely), adopting healthier habits. Smoking and drinking less, sleeping longer and more soundly, eating healthier and doing some exercise will be in the mix. Watching less TV (no matter how classic or well-made) and reading more and better literature fall under this rubric, as does consuming less “news”, which just serves to make us more anxious and at the same time apathetic if you ask me.

Globetrotting:
This will be a year of travel, people. Already my trip calendar is filling up fast, with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ohio, Hawaii and Ireland on my itinerary. Cuban friends are also planning to travel (some ‘definitively’, as we say here, leaving us holding our aching hearts) to the usual places – Mexico, Miami, Madrid – but also to Canada, Germany, Amsterdam, and Thailand. Seems like everyone took a turn around the block with their luggage this December 31st, one of our year-end traditions/superstitions.

Consolidating creativity: I and many people I know put (too) many wheels in motion in 2013 – work projects and personal relationships, new businesses and novel challenges. Last year saw lots of this and now the time has come to focus, buckle down, and channel all this creativity into attainable goals. It’s important to emphasize attainable, since the majority of mi gente are overachievers and tend to set themselves up for defeat with all the complex, long-term (some life-long!) goals they set for themselves. We have the energy, we have the intelligence, we’re motivated and we’ve set 2014 up for success – let’s make it happen, one milestone at a time.

Time management challenges: Doesn’t it seem like everyone’s overworked, over-scheduled and just rushed overall? In my world, it looks and feels that way. Keeping everything together, tying up loose ends, leaving time for the people and things we love – this is going to be difficult in 2014. This is especially true in Havana and New York, the two places where I pitch my tent so to speak and where the rhythm of life is different and more hectic (increasingly so in Cuba) than other latitudes. Managing time, while still living in the moment and being present, will be even more difficult. Slowing down to smell the roses, sing to babies, and ask after our neighbors will be important this year. Please remind me when I forget.

Last but not least: have a fabulous and healthy 2014 everyone.

Let life be peachy.

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Cuba: The Eternal Education

Some of you may remember my catharsis about know-it-all Cubans, a semi-measured rant dissecting the Cuban ardor for being right – even when they’re talking out their ass.

Not surprisingly, there’s a similar breed of foreigner, an expert on Cuba after two weeks, two years or tenure (see note 1). Maybe you’ve overheard them at the next table at one or another of Havana’s overhyped paladares prattling on about how to unify the currencies or make Cubans more efficient (the most vulnerable rarely have a seat at this table, literally and figuratively). Perhaps you read a blog written by an absentee/wannabe Cubanologist or transient traveler who proclaims to be an authority on political bell weathers or sexual proclivities here.

No matter the source: those claiming to have Cuba pegged are usually off base or worse – not even in the ballpark. Whereas it used to be difficult to understand things on the ground from afar, today it is near impossible since economic reforms are changing the landscape here fast. For us living it, we’re learning something new every day, the details and mechanisms of which cannot be fully known from wherever you are reading this.

Although the economic changes are injecting a level of uncertainty and accelerating individualism (here in Havana at least) that trouble me, I still give daily thanks – or try to – that I live in a time and place that continually teaches me new things. After all, learning something new every day is one of the key ingredients in the ajiaco of life – another reason why I love Cuba. Judging by the experience of certain friends, I’m confident the eternal education Cuba provides is a constant regardless of outside forces or how long you’ve been here.

Take my friends Ann and Alicia. North Americans both, they’ve lived here full-time for a collective 55 years and are still learning. Recently they separately admitted to having just learned that the red ribbon hanging from the undercarriage of 6 out of 10 cars here is to ward off the evil eye. And they both own cars! Such discoveries after so much time in residence encourage me to keep observing, keep meeting and talking to new people, having new experiences, and writing about this complex place where there’s always something new to be learned. In the past several weeks alone, my Cuban education has schooled me thus:

El Torniquete: The observant among you have likely noticed women and young girls chancleteando through the streets of Centro Habana or La Vibora with empty rolls of toilet paper spooled tightly around their tresses and piled atop their heads. This is knows as the ‘tourniquet’ and is a simple, free way to produce a fancy, going out ‘do. Although I’ve long marveled at the ingenuity, I never knew this technique had a name until a friend helping to gussy me up showed me how it’s done. For those wondering, I’ve only been partially successful in my gambit to improve my “look” due to my rabid aversion to shopping and my preference for substance over style. Furthermore, with only 24 hours in a day, other pursuits (e.g. cooking; bike polo; visitas) take priority of personal primping. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn from my impeccably turned out Cubana counterparts.

4/4 Time Dies Hard: I’ve recently taken up salsa lessons which have been measurably more successful than my half-hearted attempts at honing my fashion chops and style. I have an amazing dance teacher – talented, patient, encouraging, and easy on the eyes – which is a large part of the equation. Last class he admitted: ‘I thought it was going to be much harder to teach you’ and after just a few lessons, we’re both impressed that I’m already spinning around the dance floor without spinning off beat. But a lifetime 4/4 habit is a bitch to break, I’m learning, and I still tend to misstep, especially when in the arms of a taller, drunker, or clumsier partner than my teacher.

El Baile de Perchero: Along with salsa, I’ve recently become privy to another dance form known as the Hanger Dance. Surely a Cuban invention, this is when a couple dances themselves out of their clothes and on to more carnal endeavors and pleasures. It’s a testament to Cuban propriety that the name of the dance involves hangers: my clothes usually end up on the floor.

Vestido de Iwayó: Admittedly I know very little about Afro-Cuban religions – Yoruba, Palo Monte, Abakua, et al. But I, like many readers I assume, can’t fail to notice initiates walking around in these parts wearing head-to-toe white clothing. Even accessories – headbands and hand bags, hats and umbrellas – must be white for those haciendo santo and formally entering the religious ranks. It’s one of the most obvious outward manifestations of Afro Cuban religions here, but I’ve only recently learned that it’s called dressed as/for iwayó.

Life on the Inside: Given my insatiable craving for learning about new Cuban customs and culture, I’m very grateful to a friend who admitted he spent five years in a maximum security prison here. For my/our purposes, it matters not the crime for which he did time (though it was non-violent), so I won’t go there. What is important is the crash course he gave me about life inside a Cuban jail. He graciously endured and answered hours of my questions on everything from food and escape attempts to rape and overcrowding. Suffice to say that what I learned was so fascinating, I’m writing an article about the cultural dark side here entitled Havana Black & Blue. Any interested editors reading this are heartily encouraged to contact me as I look for an outlet for this piece.

Of course, the one thing everyone here – visitor and resident alike, whether they like it or not – is always learning, is how to maintain patience and good humor in this sometimes frustrating, but never dull island….

Notes
1. The so-called ‘Cubanologists’ who sit in their ivory tower offices in developed world academies of higher learning (or their cubicles in think tanks), espousing how it is in Cuba (where they visit once a year, perhaps), especially chap my ass.

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The Gift of Aché Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Arriving into Miami from Havana is always a bit nerve wracking, even for someone as experienced and legal as me – more so when you’re trailing a huge crate with unknown contents. As always, I chose my immigration line carefully, studiously avoiding women, Latinos, and people of color (who are more likely to harbor Cuba-based bias or carry chips on their shoulder as a result of their lowly status in the US socio-economic food chain). 

I breezed through immigration with three magic words (‘I’m a journalist’) and headed straight to the bay marked oversized baggage. In flawless Cuban Spanish (that always touches officials in Miami, the overwhelming majority of whom hail from the island), I asked after my crate; within minutes it was on a cart and I was on my way towards US Customs.

“What’s that?” they asked.

“A piece of art. Do I need to declare it?”

“How much did it cost?”

“Nothing, it was a gift,” I said, pulling out another magic answer at just the perfect moment.

“You don’t need to declare it or pay duty.”

(ACHÉ #5).

“But you do need to have it inspected. Proceed to Area 15.”

As I wheeled my way to Area 15 (naturally – or perhaps dyslexically – I was thinking of aliens and top secret shenanigans), my confidence grew that everything was going to work out. Just one more step and I will have fulfilled my obligation.

I entered the large, brightly-lit section known as Area 15; several Customs agents milled about and there was a giant X-ray machine. A strapping Latino officer approached. He circled the crate, asking me what was inside.

“A piece of art. It was my friend’s who died and I’m bringing it to her brother.”

Delivered in my Cuban Spanish, I knew this would tug at the heart strings since every Cuban with family divided has experienced the problem of wills and politically-complicated property transfer.

He nodded non-committally. “It lacks the proper paperwork. It hasn’t been fumigated.”

‘Fumigated?!’ I thought, missing a few beats. Of course fumigation is a logical and necessary factor in this globalized, bug-infested world – but a factor I hadn’t accounted for.

I smiled. “I hadn’t even thought of that.” I didn’t add that had I thought of it, Adam and I would have invented some kind of fumigation markings for the crate, a lo cubano, back in Havana.

The Strapping Agent went to get the jefe.

I started to fret (and sweat).

The jefe arrived, the situation explained. He was short and made me nervous: a pint-sized Latino jefe is ripe combination for a Napoleon complex. I added that Angela’s brother was waiting for me and Yemayá just on the other side of those glass doors. He took a turn around the crate, pried a corner ajar and peeked inside.

He paused, took a step back, and waved me through.

Yemaya, safe and sound in Miami

I wheeled my precious, unwieldy cargo through the doors and out of the terminal. There was Angela’s brother, in a big yellow rental truck, idling at the curb.  

(ACHÉ #6).

As I write this, Triunfo de Yemayá hangs in David’s house, testament to our collective aché.

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The Gift of Aché Part I

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Folks who know me (or who are paying close enough attention) are aware of my recent rough go of it. Illness, death and dying – that up close and personal, at-the-bedside type of illness and dying – have defined my past 12 months. To put it bluntly, this past year has been a bitch, with moments, days worth of long moments, when my surrender seemed certain.

One of the harshest blows was the death of my friend Angela (known in these parts for her inimitable Cuban Thanksgiving). It was cancer, she was too young, and too loved. To boot, hospice was what hospice always is: well-intentioned and the best compromise given the situation, but sad and painful and a little bit cruel for everyone involved.

I loved Angela and the loss I felt when she finally died – peacefully, surrounded by family and friends in the closest approximation of agape I’ve so far seen – was profound. The grief was shared amongst many and in that there is some solace, but I wasn’t sure that would suffice to carry me through the next steps: I was asked to help clean out her house in Havana and distribute her worldly goods.

The task was entrusted to a five-person team of her nearest and dearest on this side of the Straits and we undertook the task as Angela would have: with a weighty combination of duty and respect, love and courage. She was meticulous in her wishes and armed with a detailed list of who got what, we tackled the job with sorrow-tinged stoicism.

The work went quickly because this is the way of Cubans with a task before them; her computer equipment and kitchenware, jewelry and electronics were distributed as per her written instructions, her love letters and professional correspondence kept confidential. But one wish remained problematic to honor: she asked that Triunfo de Yemayá be transferred to her older brother in South Florida.     

This intricately carved and painted headboard was homage to the Afro-Cuban goddess of the sea and motherhood; surrounded by the magical elements of her domain and influence, the piece was made especially for Angela because she was muse to many, inspiring love and dedication and creativity. Anyone who had been invited into her home over the decades will remember that big, beautiful work of art, stirring memories of good food and friends and the positive energy so engendered.

My problem was Triunfo de Yemayá was as bulky as it was heavy, with fragile protruding bits, and the practical challenges inherent in delivering it to her brother in Miami were many. And my responsibility alone. Not surprisingly, the piece leaned against my office wall for months while I grieved and tried to figure out how to get it across the Straits.    

Triunfo de Yemaya, sitting in my office

The first stumbling block was the crate. This can be a challenge anywhere, but especially in Cuba where resources are scarce and fudging on details, craftsmanship, and follow-through rife. I talked to artist friends and curators to try and find someone to do a proper job of it (see note 1) with little luck. For months no wood was available and the expertise to build a proper crate apparently lacking. To make matters worse, prices carried a Yuma tax, which still rankles, even after 10 years in residence. Triunfo de Yemayá remained an emotional and psychological brick, shoring up my office wall.

And then I met Adam.

(ACHÉ #1)

A babalawo from Centro Habana, Adam is one of those Cubans who can find, fix or resolve anything. In retrospect, it was entirely fitting that a babalawo should step into the picture given the tenor and title of the piece. Within two days, Adam built a beautiful, close-to-MOMA quality crate cheap which would protect Yemayá on her trip across the Straits. Procuring the necessary export papers (see note 2) was the next step and so seamless it felt positively First World.

Packed nicely and with the paperwork squared away, I felt lighter and brighter – I was finally seeing through Angela’s last wishes.

Then I got to the airport.

For those who have never been here, taking big luggage out of Cuba is an anomaly and just a little bit crazy, if you ask me. Even so, lowering the crate from the roof of the Lada felt good and approaching final. How misplaced our feelings can sometimes be.

Yemaya: pre-crate, en route to get export papers

“I know you from somewhere, but can’t place your face,” I remarked to a guy standing nearby as I angled Yemayá on to a luggage cart.

“I processed your export papers at the patrimony office. Let me call ahead to our transport specialist so he can smooth your way; he’s on the tarmac now.”

(ACHÉ #2)

As he made the call, I made my way into line, eliciting murmurs and stares as I wheeled my unwieldy luggage towards check-in.

“Are you exporting a TV?” a tourist entirely unclear on the Cuba concept asked.

I laughed. “No. TVs come in to Cuba, they don’t get taken out,” I said, before explaining the story behind the voyage of Yemayá.

As I checked in, the charter representative told me I was 60 pounds over my weight limit and the crate, while lovely, would not fit through the X-ray. Somehow I hadn’t accounted for these factors.

“How can we resolve this, mi amor?” (see note 3) I asked with a smile, taking the opportunity to explain the favor and duty I was doing and the duty I felt to transport the piece.

A $40 “tip” took care of the weight limit issue and the chief cargo officer was summoned to escort Yemayá to that area of the airport where there was an extra grande X-ray machine for oversized luggage. But there was just an hour until the flight and a truck couldn’t be located to get the piece over to cargo. Just then, the aforementioned transport specialist from the National Registry appeared at my side.

(ACHÉ #3)

They decided to go to Plan B.

Wielding the hammer I’d brought for the purpose, the crate was opened and inspected by the Registry’s transport specialist, the chief cargo officer, a customs agent and a couple other rubberneckers.

“My saint is also Yemayá,” someone said, their proclamation hanging in the tiny, crowded office as a final word of sorts.

Working together, we got her repacked right for the next leg of her trip.

“Now what?” I asked, looking at the clock and wondering if 35 minutes would be enough to complete this part of my mission.

“We’re done here. Now we wheel it on to the tarmac and put it on the plane.”

(ACHÉ #4).

As I bid my crew adieu with a hug and the customary right cheek kiss, I heard someone say: “now let’s see what happens in Miami.”

Stay tuned to learn the fate of Triunfo de Yemayá!

(For those wondering, aché means “«the force», not in the sense of violence, but as a vital energy which creates a multiplicity of process and determines everything from physical and moral integrity to luck.”)

Notes

1. In this I have some experience since I lived with an art handler/installer my last four years in the States and precisely how fine art should be transported and handled.

2. To export patrimony +/o art of a certain caliber from cuba requires easy to procure paperwork and 10 CUC; my experience at the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales in Vedado was one of the most efficient and friendly I’ve ever experienced here.

3. While compañero and compañera may be waning as preferred terms of address, mi amor never will.

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