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Cuban Marriage Counseling

Not a few consider me an odd bird for putting down stakes in Cuba. Indeed, I’m often asked what it is about this place that has kept me engaged all these years. It’s a fair question and one prudence and sanity obligate me to consider every so often.

Several readers have noticed that my posts have been somewhat bleak of late. I won’t deny or defend it, but instead will resort to metaphor: imagine yourself 13 years deep into a marriage with all the passionate delirium, grief and troubles, challenges and negotiating such a commitment commands. You’re both sagging, energy is flagging and while others would have thrown in the towel already, you remain steadfast, perhaps impractically so. Determined, to put a good spin on it. Dedicated. To make this veteran partnership work in its unlucky 13th year, you mix things up, change routine, get creative. And it helps evolve, even resolve, (if things go well), the situation.

In my effort to shake things up and goose my situation into evolution, I recently spent six weeks off-island – my longest hiatus since my last Lonely Planet assignment in 2008. It was a month and a half of memorable adventures in both space and time and spirit. I played a lot. I learned more. And wrote very little. It was, (to take the metaphor too far), my Cuban marriage counseling.

Lo and behold, my time a fuera was not for naught because it snapped some things into sharp focus about how this place intoxicates and charms. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, granted, and even some of my dearest loved ones on the other side have confessed to not understanding the attraction. For them, but most importantly for me and you, here are some of the reasons I’ve been toughing it out here all this time. These aren’t the big picture principles – humanism, solidarity, romance, equity – that brought me here, but rather snapshots of why I like this place better than most others on a day-to-day basis.

Drunkenness here is laughter & dance, not morose & violent – I know more than a little about alcoholism; when I moved here way back when, I was convinced I’d encounter a fair amount of rum-fueled violence. It was a valid assumption given my boozy (but not floozy, eh?!) background and the drunken squabbles and brawls I’d witnessed up North. But like many assumptions (especially where Cuba is concerned), this has been disproven by direct experience. Sloppiness, raised voices and lowered inhibitions – all these are markers here. But violence? Not so much; crimes of passion, which are definitely part of the Cuban script, excepted. On the whole, drinking is a happy affair here, accompanied by music and dance, which is much groovier than the stress, angst and escapism I see among my drunk friends and family in New York.

Sexuality is celebrated rather than castigated or repressed – You see it in the clothing styles, hear it in the piropos, and fairly feel it in the air. How else can I explain that my all-time most popular post is The Cuban Love Doctor and that there are entire websites dedicated to Cuban amor? Just hours back from my six week hiatus, I witnessed this exchange at my local agropecuario:

– Hey chula! You’re looking real good! Ven acá, chica. ¡Ven acá! I know you like black guys, but give me a chance. You won’t regret it!

The young woman in question smiled and demurred, but that this kind of come-on would be brandished in public, for everyone in the market to hear, and that the woman would be amused, even flattered, says a lot about the Cuban approach to sexuality (and interracial relations, as well, it should be noted). Also, that the guy who sells boniato knows your preference in partners speaks volumes about the tightly-knit nature of Cuban neighborhoods.

After such a long (for me) stint in the US, I realized one of the things I don’t cotton to is the hypocritical Puritanism. Men who regularly consume porn but are prudish in their own beds; women who deny their own pleasure by adhering to oppressive societal paradigms and expectations; and the application of sexual dogma generally, have created a country (or at least several generations) of sexual neurotics. Sex is supposed to be fun and playful and shame-free, if you ask me and as long as you’re not hurting anyone, what’s the problem?

Bawdy, unabashed gab – Cubans’ capacity to discuss bodily functions openly and clinically is tangentially related to the abovementioned point on sexuality. In the past week, I’ve talked to male friends about their urinary tract infections; pre-mature ejaculation; and constipation. Female friends, meanwhile, have offered opinions on big breastedness vs. flat-chestedness; faking vs multiple orgasms; and menstrual flow.

Irreverent humor – I’ve written previously about how I appreciate Cubans’ sense of humor. It’s a George Carlin or Chris Rock approach: no one here is off limits and the humor tends towards social commentary and catharsis. Just a few days ago, I was waiting for my order at Havana’s version of Kentucky Fried Chicken (yes, times are a-changin’!) when I overheard the following:

– ‘I’m not sure what I want,’ said the customer. ‘What’s on the Cuban sandwich?’

– ‘It’s a baguette, with slices of pork loin,’ began the waiter…

– ‘Alternated with slices of Fidel, Raúl, and Antonio Mella,’ chimed in another.

This elicited a guffaw on the part of the jokester and nervous, but enthusiastic laughter by those within ear shot. Whether or not you find it funny, it illustrates how there are no sacred cows in Cuba – except actual cows, which is another story (and common joke).

Reusing, repurposing and resourcefulness – Sure, my life would be a helluva lot easier were it filled with Swiffers and paper towels, Windex, Tupperware, and Home Depot. But a broom is a functional, age-old tool; linen napkins and cloth cleaning rags are more environmentally-friendly;  vinegar and newspaper clean glass well; and a plate-covered bowl or cajita is as good as a plastic container with a lid (and probably healthier in the long run). If I had a Home Depot, I would have never met Eduardo the carpenter or Carlos who sells screws and light switches por la izquierda. Nor would I have occasion to call up Laura and Roly to lend me their ladder. Just today, a friendly fellow entered the bookshop selling rose bushes. We struck up a conversation, I bought a gorgeous yellow number for $3 CUC; he gave me pest-control advice. So the Cuban reality is not only more economical and ecological, it’s also more social. I point this out only to point up that easier does not necessarily mean better – something I have to remind myself of now and then. Just like I have to remind myself that Cuba is still a great place to be and grow. For now, anyway.

 

 

LINKS:

Cuban Love Doctor – https://hereishavana.com/2012/07/10/the-cuban-love-doctor-is-in/

Clothing styles – http://www.amazon.com/Havana-Street-Style-Intellect-Books/dp/178320317X

Bookshop: https://m.facebook.com/cubalibroHAV

 

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad

Adventures of the Cuban Virgins: Part I

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Honeyed, late-afternoon rays streak down Línea illuminating two men, each carrying a conga in one hand, a cajón in the other. An old Dodge, Ford, then Buick rumble past a tattooed youth helping a blind woman across the street and the smell of baking bread lifts even the darkest mood.

“Can I stay here forever?” the bassist asks so soon after arriving I haven’t yet learned his name.

“Slow down, caballero. You haven’t even been here a night and day. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

I am anxious about this visit: somehow, I’d convinced eight complete strangers to come to Cuba and I’m not sure how they’ll handle it (not everyone can). I know Will in passing – the raison d’être for this descent of California talent upon Havana for the jazz fest – but at this point, the rest are simply the guitar player, the drummer, the bassist, the girlfriend, and the parents. Months in the making, this visit is a dream realized for me: ever since my first trip here in 1993 when Cubans across the island begged me for Kenny G cassettes, I’d felt a moral obligation to share with them higher quality sounds from my patria. This was my chance, but I’d never been involved in a music festival beyond being in the audience – enthusiastically, deliriously, but still.

What was I thinking?!

I didn’t grow up in a musical home and don’t play an instrument. While I’d love to learn to play guitar, until now, I’ve only collected guitarists. I envy the universality, the pure luxury, of music: as a writer, I’m limited to (mostly) one language, but ripping through a riff or pounding out a rhythm needs no translation to move your audience. Despite my vicarious relation to the craft, I’m convinced music holds some key to happiness. When a friend took me to see an act he manages in San Francisco, that key met tumblers and things started to click. With a surfeit of talent and energy and plenty of solos to go around, the Will Magid Four (see note 1) created a transformative, happy conversation between musicians and audience. I knew these guys had to play Cuba.

Will Magid: doing that voodoo that he does so well.

Will Magid: doing that voodoo that he does so well.

This I how I find myself waiting for eight strangers at Terminal 3. I had worked hard to square away details for their participation in Jazz Plaza 2012 – probably doubly so since I’ve never been on the organizational end of music before and this is Havana after all, where things are often needlessly, maddeningly difficult. To boot, only two of the eight had ever set foot in Cuba prior. The potential for disaster is high. Even as they do their first sound check, I’m still not sure it will come off – there are technical and electrical problems, the guitar player is laid flat by explosive diarrhea, and organizers are quietly voicing anxiety about the upcoming show to no one in particular.

But when the eight of them pile all their gear, luggage and laughter into the mini-van from the airport Cuban clown-car-style, I know my misgivings are misplaced. Grossly so: by the end of that first night, I’m marveling at how these folks roll with the Cuban flavor. When I lay out possibilities and options, they choose cajitas over paladars; 10 peso maquinas over hard currency taxis; Serrano over Cubita in the never-ending flow of espresso, and forgo sleep for fiestas. When Adam (AKA “Bass Face;” see note 2) sits down with cardboard, scissors, and glue to fashion sleeves for his CDs he’s giving away, I wonder what strange twist of fate dosed these folks with Cuban blood. It’s not only me: highballs of Havana Club in hand, they fill my apartment with such sweet sounds, my 8-year old neighbor sits rapt throughout the rehearsal whispering to me: ‘Conner! We don’t have music like this in Cuba!’ When I ask if he likes it he replies ‘Yesssssss!’ with a swivel of his hips.

Rehearsal in my living room, Will Magid 4, Havana

Rehearsal in my living room, Will Magid 4, Havana

“I love this city,” Josue would say randomly and repeatedly over the course of his stay. He spoke for himself, me, the group and probably you, if you’re still reading this.

_____

On the day of the first gig, we’re one credential short and every member of the group has spent their pre-dawn, post-party hours sprinting to the baño with crippling diarrhea, fever, and sleep-robbing nausea. Julie projectile vomited a couple of times and Ethan isn’t going anywhere. While this would be enough to sour the experience for most, I’m hunting down another credential, we’re taking Ethan’s guitar to sound check, and those still standing pop some ‘cork you up’ pills courtesy of my neighbor. The rest we tuck in with chamomile tea and crackers, hoping they’ll rally by nightfall. I counsel them to slow down a notch, go easy on the rum, and to eschew 5am batidos from now on. ‘No one can party ‘til pre-dawn for five days straight,’ I tell them (in this, I am proven quite wrong). With nothing left to do, we set out for the sound check.

We flag a maquina, load in the gear, and arrive at the Casa de Cultura a lo cubano. After some questions and clever resolving on the part of the venue’s crew – few here know how to hook up and mix a sequencer and Macbook with live players – the sound check goes off without a hitch. In the middle, Ruben, the artistic director, sidles up beside me and says ‘these guys are amazing.’ I agree, pointing out that not only are they stellar musicians but humans as well: Adam is donating his Fender Jazz Bass once the Festival is over and the group brought an entire suitcase of medicines and hard-to-get items to leave behind.

Patti, Adam, Larry, Julie, Josue & El Loco - faces alight post-WM4 set.

Patti, Adam, Larry, Julie, Josue & El Loco – faces alight post-WM4 set.

It doesn’t matter that the huge screen behind the stage says ‘Will Magio 4’ or that the crowd is thinner than expected. Terry would like a few more minutes to get his gig head on before getting behind his kit and I imagine Ethan is willing his sphincter into submission. In spite of it all, they exuded an equáname – a Cuban kind of go-with-the-flow – I very rarely see in North American visitors. Will leads the band in this and every sense, deftly maneuvering from sequencer to laptop to trumpet with magisterial ease and intent. Although their set is absurdly short, they win hearts and minds with their infectious energy and earnest words – in Spanish – for this opportunity to play in Cuba.

L-R: Terry, double fisting the double economy, Mayabe in one hand, Havana Club in the other; Will, fetchingly pensive; Julie, her smile says it all; and Ethan, seeing the light after a knock-down, drag-out fight with the porcelain god.

R-L: Terry, double fisting the double economy, Mayabe in one hand, Havana Club in the other; Will, fetchingly pensive; Julie, her smile says it all; and Ethan, seeing the light after winning a knock-down, drag-out fight with the porcelain god.

Bottle of Havana Club in hand (with a splash for los santos first), they join the crowd after their set to dance and swing to Wil Campa, the night’s headliner. I have never heard of this Pinar del Río artist and his Cuban music extravaganza, but from the looks of his late-model BMW, he is well known beyond these shores.

Already the WM4 rhythm section is making time with the ladies and a smiling Will is passing out discs. We dance and drink and soak up the Cubanía in a mutual love fest, while ‘El Loco,’ a friend from bike polo, gets it all on video. I feel my musical sixth sense being validated: I didn’t know why these cats had to come play Cuba, but knew magic might happen if they did.

El Loco and Terry, his 'brother from another mother'

El Loco and Terry, his ‘brother from another mother’

When we stop to care, it’s 1am – time to move on to the next fiesta. Little by little we move equipment, band, and ‘frens’ (see note 3) to the sidewalk and talk about where to go and what to do. Adam is the last to saunter out, his Bass Face, traded long ago in for his Cuban perma-grin.

“We ready?” he asks looking from face to beaming face, lingering on the torpid eyes of the mulata by his side.

Vamos!” we sing out.

“Where’s your bass?” someone asks.

He looks around expectantly. The group looks around hopefully, but I know. In the euphoria of their debut set, combined with the sassy, brassy salsa of Wil Campa, and the dancing frenzy fueled by 7-year old rum, ladrones had struck: some cheeky Cuban walked with that fretless Fender bass. I watch the Festival come to a screeching halt for the Will Magid 4.

“I don’t know where to get a bass on such short notice,” I say when someone suggests it.

“You’re not going to see that bass again,” one of the Insta-Groupies adds unhelpfully.

Feo, feo, feo,” one of the Cuban musicians says shaking his head.

Ugly indeed and I feel completely responsible. I could and should have warned them of certain dangers and risks.

“Well, I made the donation,” Adam says, taking the theft in elegant stride. “And at least I know it will get to a musician who needs it.”

Just then, a chic woman appears speaking perfect English, asking what happened. At her elbow is a good-looking blond guy with ojos claros nodding along with the growing crowd of musicians as she explains Cuban realities and how robberies spike at the end of the year. Feeling responsible for the mierda that has gone down and remiss for not warning them, I wonder aloud how they’ll play their next gigs.

“I’ll loan you a bass,” ojos claros says with authority.

“This is Wil Campa. I’m his wife Tony,” the chic woman explains. “Here’s my cell – call when you’re ready to sound check tomorrow and we’ll bring it by.”

My heart swells and I swoon – once again – for this island where one minute you’re the victim of a robbery and the next the recipient of generosity and solidarity unparalled.

The show (and party) would indeed go on…

Stay tuned for Adventures of the Cuban Virgins Part II.

Notes
1. The line up stateside is actually the Will Magid Trio, but grew to four, plus four, for the trip south proving the Cuban mantra: the more the merrier.

2. By the end of the trip, most everyone, (again, getting their Cuban on), had a nickname: Terry is “Fancy LA,” Josue is the “Dairy Fairy,” Adam is “Bass Face/Rubiocito,” Ethan is “Emerson,” and Julie is….in solidarity with my rock ‘n roll sistah, I will not reveal the nickname pinned on her the last night.

3. A good band always attracts hangers-on and it doesn’t surprise me that within 48 hours, these handsome/talented/foreign musicians are surrounded by pretty/charming/bored Cubanas.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Apretando Mi Corazón: Cuban Emigration

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All my friends are talkin’ about leavin’, about leavin’

So goes the little pop ditty in heavy rotation on one of the satellite radio stations I favor. I’d bet my life Cuba never crossed the songwriter’s mind, but it so easily could have been written by my friend Alma, my prima Anabel, or my colleague Jorge.

Or me.

The song is entitled Ghosts and we’re surrounded by them here as certainly as the water which hems us in, as omnipresent and nebulous as the bureaucracy that hobbles Cuban greatness.

Can you hear me sighing? Crying? Thankfully not, but somewhere out there, not too far from where you read and where I write, there’s a Cuban pining for the friends that have left or for those they’ve left behind.

Or not.

Emigration is a little like death: everyone has their own way of grieving and no one has the right to judge – least of all me with the relative freedom of movement I enjoy. Some people block out departed loved ones as soon as that exit permit is stamped or the fast boat slips silently from shore. Until they’re due back for a visit, in which case copious gifts are expected. And they always do. Return, because the pull of this patria is too strong to resist indefinitely and bear gifts because the guilt – self-imposed and otherwise – of leaving is heavy. Besides, what better way to prove the grass is indeed greener than to come loaded with loot? (see note 1)

Where will her roots grow? Photo by Caitlin Gorry.

What it amounts to is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ It’s a wholly common coping mechanism here, in fact. Or rather than a way to cope, it’s simply part of the cultural sofrito. After all, many a liaison – and even marriages – (mal)function due to ‘out of sight out of mind,’ and the related ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you.’ Until you do, but that’s another story.

Some Cubans, meanwhile, go to the other extreme: they pine and fret and share each morsel of news with every person they meet. Iraida got her driver’s license; Alain saw his first St Patrick’s Day parade; Yoselvis likes Burger King, McDonald’s not so much. This is my approach for keeping close everyone I left behind in my own émigré drama. Willingly taking leave of a lifetime of friendships – most Cubans don’t realize we share this in common.

Emigration is a knotty business, muddled by politics vs. agency, needs vs. desires, illusions and disenchantment, resignation, empowerment, circumstance and happenstance. And I’ve faced a lot of loss and separation on this end. Many of my Cuban friends and family – relationships I’ve fed and nurtured over the past 10 years with all the creativity and passion my heart allows – are leaving. Invariably, I’m tipped off when they suddenly start speaking English and going to every doctor they can, even the dentist.

The details of leaving vary, but the reasons rarely do. Frustrated and fed up, my friends want meaningful work at a dignified salary; yearn to improve their families’ station; and itch to experience something beyond their block, barrio, or province. A leave-taker myself, and with what I know beyond this city, island, and hemisphere, our emigration conversations have been in-depth and interesting.

My 20-something friends ache for independence – from mom and the state – though many are clearly unprepared for the reality fleeing the nest and flying solo imply. My 40-something friends, meanwhile, are tired. Tired of only having water un día sí, un día no; tired of waiting on the bus, permissions, and promises that may never materialize; tired of hunger and boredom and heat without respite, tired of the shortages and struggle and slogans – the endless luchita that erodes the will to go on blackout by blackout.

Just today, after a rash of events that included death of the family dog, a trip to the pediatric hospital and stint at the police station (neither resulting in prolonged care or detention por suerte), a friend reached the end of her rope: “I’m a revolutionary, but there are limits to what a person can take. I can’t take any more. I’m ready to get on any lancha or plane to get me out of here.”

I relate to both groups: fiercely independent, I began working at 13 and left home four years later, so I get my young friends’ anti-dependence stance. What trips me up and out, though, is how they replicate the precise behavior they condemn: they don’t participate in any community endeavors like the block association, because they say the block association doesn’t get anything done. In turn, the association blames ineffectual municipal authorities, who blame overworked and gridlocked provincial authorities and on and on goes the blame game up the hierarchy in a cycle of non-action.

I ask if a renovation or re-thinking of these mechanisms is possible (obviously it’s desirable), but they give me ten reasons why it isn’t practical. When I suggest that they volunteer or campaign for those positions in local government where they might affect change, I get the same response. It’s a vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy a la vez: things won’t get better because the people charged with improvements are ineffective and/or shackled so why even deign to try to fix what’s broken or work towards positive change? So they cross their arms and give in to the inertia – while eating grandma’s home cooking with provisions provided by her and the state, in clothes washed by mom, after which they shower in a bathroom they’ve probably never scrubbed themselves. They are resigned, leisurely.

Out of sight, out of mind? Photo by Conner Gorry.

I know that sounds harsh and as if I’ve written them off. But I feel for this generation. They did get the fuzzy end of the revolutionary lollipop after all. They were born into the hardship of the Special Period, just missing the halcyon Eastern Bloc boom, when you could take your honey out for dinner and dancing on the average salary. The emotional, exuberant revolutionary hey day when the entire country put their backs and minds into creating a more just, equitable society was also before their time. To boot, their lives were proscribed by all kinds of dubious innovations like ‘emerging teachers’, the camello, and reggaetón (see note 2).

But there have been positive changes in their lifetimes, too, and when I ask them about the relaxation of restrictions on private property and enterprise or the very public push for full integration of LGBT Cubans into society for instance, they say ‘too little, too late’ or cite non-causal factors for such strides. Many didn’t participate in the national debates that generated these changes, nor have they read or heard Raul’s speeches specifically dealing with these issues – and even thornier ones like travel and the meager salary problem.

When I point out that not all change is good and ask if they’re prepared to take the good with the bad, they say yes – reflexively. Change for the sake of change is their position. And it leaves me wondering what they believe in; I’m coming to think that even if they know, they aren’t prepared to fight for it.

On the whole, my 40-something friends are nostalgic for the late 80s and agree much has changed since then – for good and not so. Back then, you couldn’t even dream of procuring an exit permit to travel abroad (a restriction the majority believes should be lifted, though this involves complexities not everyone is willing or able to recognize). And they praise recent changes, though often such praise isn’t forthcoming without prompting. It makes their resignation doubly troubling – they have the historical context of how great this country was and the maturity to take the longer view (see note 3) but still they want out. When I ask these friends what they would change, they mention freedom to travel (something my own country doesn’t extend its own citizens – another thing we share in common) and less bureaucracy. Some say they want Liberty, capital L.

Mercurial, that liberty thing. Do they realize tyranny comes in many flavors? And that consumer capitalism, powered by its ‘save yourself if you can’ underpinnings, is among the most bitter?  And if you can’t save yourself? Tough luck.

For many, the choice is reduced to resignation or emigration. Neither of which will deliver the liberty or change they so desire, I’m afraid. To be clear: I wholeheartedly support my friends working towards leaving; after all, I did it myself, I left my country and I can leave this one too when I want to. But I miss them something awful once they’re gone.

To the resigned, I say – if you’re going to stick around, stick up for what you believe in. A better Cuba.

Notes

1. OK, so maybe that’s a little crass. Cubans know better than anyone how hard life is here and generally have a genuine desire to help out those back home. Still, doubt creeps in when I learn about the rent-a-bling businesses in southern Florida which lease chunky gold-plated watches, chains thick enough to moor a boat, and rings for every finger to Cubans returning to the island. These doubts are reinforced when I turn sad watching family ruptures at the airport and friends say: ‘that’s all a show, muchacha. Take it with a grain of salt.’

2. This program trained massive amounts of teachers in the minimum amount of time. The idea was to improve the teacher to student ratio, which took a nosedive as older, more experienced teachers retired – often to offer private, complimentary classes to those students who could afford them. More often than not, these emerging teachers weren’t much older than their charges and depended on videotapes and other teaching aides to compensate for their lack of experience. By all accounts, it wasn’t a good approach. Camellos were double-humped hulks pulled by big rig cabs that held over 300 passengers when packed. You still see them in the provinces, but they’ve been phased out in Havana. If you don’t know what reggaetón is, I envy you.

3. Difficulty in taking the long view is not just limited to Cuban youth, I’ve found.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Uncategorized

Conner’s Cuba Rules Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] About six months ago I wrote Conner’s Cuba Rules, a super popular post that raised the ire of some readers. Rereading my musings six months later, I better understand some of the dissent offered by commenters. Given that much has changed here in Havana since then and I’ve had several opportunities to travel outside of the capital thanks to my day job, I’ve compiled a new, hopefully more positive, set of rules to complement the first ones.

The Revolution will be televised: I’ve met a lot of visitors (and even some foreign residents) who have never seen Televisión Cubana. Granted, there are only five channels here, but you’re missing out on a big chunk of Cuban culture if you don’t surf those five at least occassionally. For the intersection of politics and journalism, check out the Mesa Redonda (see note 1) and the prime time news. The latter is important in and of itself for the weather report; pay special attention if Dr José Rubiera is forecasting. Meanwhile, a good baseball game can rivet entire households, the novela even more so. Only if you watch TV here will you understand what Cubans mean when they say: “it was like the Saturday night movie” (see note 2). Meanwhile, the music shown down here – videos, documentaries, concerts and jam sessions – can be as moving as the live thing. I’ve seen Chucho Valdés, Clapton and Queen, the Festival of Modern Drumming and some guy from Uzbekistan singing Talk Boom, a riveting song I’m still trying to track down – all in a single night on Televisión Cubana. Watch it; you’ll like it (or at least get a good laugh or song lead).

Pack a sense of humor: It always amazes me when I read something that disregards, overlooks, or otherwise fails to recognize the Cuban sense of humor, which ranges from the side splitting to the sublime. The writer can be someone who knows and loves Cuba long time or a visitor who has parachuted in and out on vacation. No matter the source, the frequency with which folks miss the funny stuff here is alarming. It’s true, a lot depends on speaking Spanish (or a crackerjack translator), but however you resolve the language question, if you’re comparing Cuba to China, Vietnam, or the defunct USSR, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients in the Cuban character. These folks love to share stories, jokes, and the occassional tall tale, and use their verbal prowess to enliven, laugh, and woo; it is what has enabled these people to resist so much for so long. Even without Spanish skills or a translator, if you’re not laughing a lot on a visit here, you’re doing something wrong in my personal and professional opinion (see note 3).

Use pesos cubanos: If you know even a little about Cuba, you know we operate on a dual currency system with pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles circulating side by side. Since one of my goals of Here is Havana is to bust myths, I always take the opportunity to debunk one of the most pervasive: that foreigners cannot use pesos cubanos (AKA Moneda Nacional, MN), but only pesos convertibles (AKA divisa, chavitos, CUC). This is 100% false. Anyone can use either currency. It’s what each can buy where the difference lies. Certain goods and services, for example, are only available in CUC including cooking oil and butter, hotel rooms and the internet. But fruits and veggies, surprisingly pleasant cigars, fixed route taxis, movie tickets and lots of other stuff are sold in pesos cubanos – if you know where to look. My advice? Change some CUCs into MN (1:24) to experience firsthand how much pesos cubanos can buy and how the double economy works.

So as to avoid confusion +/o more myths: you can always pay for goods and services priced in pesos cubanos with hard currency pesos convertibles but never the other way around. And some services (interprovincial buses, concert and ballet tickets) are sold in pesos cubanos to Cubans and residents, but in hard currency to visitors.

Bring your own reading material: Rarely a week goes by when someone isn’t griping to me about the lack of English-language books and magazines here. What is available is largely limited to historical and political titles and they are very expensive (and make for dull beach reading besides). The Kindle can be handy in this regard, but the bonus to bringing print publications is that you can pass them along to some avid English reader (like me!) upon departure. Drop me a line if you have some good (ie no romance novels or sci fi pulp) English-language reading material to donate to the cause.

Hightail it out of Havana: This may seem contradictory, given that I have an iApp to the city and I recommend in my guidebooks and elsewhere that visitors consider basing their entire trip in Havana. But things are changing fast here and though I’m a city girl by birth and breeding, I’m back peddling a bit on that advice. Havana, with its dirt, garbage, and graft, noise and air pollution, and materialistic ways (I did call Habaneros ‘logo whores’ after all) is distorting Cuba’s image. In short, Havana is not Cuba, which can be said of every major city around the world from New York to Manila, Managua to Dakar. But since visitors often request recommendations for “authentic” experiences and how to discover the “real” Cuba, I now find it prudent to advise getting out of Havana and exploring farther afield. With more flights, both charter and commercial, to provincial capitals like Holguín, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba, this is also a more practical proposition than ever.

Above all, have fun and keep your head about you!

Notes

1. The Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a nightly “debate” show which discusses a topic (US aggression overseas; Latin American intregration) on which all four guests and the modeator agree.There are many jokes in these parts about the program; the shortest and sweetest calls it the Mesa Cuadrada, meaning ‘Square Table’ in literal Spanish, but meaning something more along the lines of ‘Dogmatic Table’ in Cuban.

2. The Saturday night movie here is prefaced by a parental warning, the most common of which alerts viewers that the Hollywood action shlock about to be shown contains Nudity, Violence, & Foul Language. To wit: the old, slow, over-crowded camello buses (of which I took many), were always called ‘the Saturday night movie.’ [NB: did it annoy you to have to scroll down to read this note? Yeah, me too, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to hyperlink notes within posts; if someone has a solution, please get in touch].

3. Trying to connect to and use the internet excepted. Even casual visitors know that connectivity is no laughing matter here. Indeed, I flirted with the ledge and sharp knives today as I frittered away several hours trying to connect. Once I “succeeded,” it topped out at 9.6kbps – not nearly fast enough to load even a simple web page before timing out.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba

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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Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad, Writerly stuff

Things I Miss about the U.S.A.

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I like living abroad for so many reasons – being obligated to become bilingual, the different values, and the required self-reliance among them. But Havana is wholly unique, entirely distinct from other Third World capitals like Guatemala City or Bamako. Here, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, there are simply things you cannot buy. Toilet paper today, butter and flour tomorrow, but other items are unattainable any day like print cartridges, razor blades, high speed Internet. The big, bad Bloqueo strikes again.

But living in Cuba isn’t just living abroad, it’s living in exile – for us Americans anyway. We have no access to our bank accounts for example and getting back on US soil is an expensive, hoop-jumping production with lots of paperwork (thanks to Congress, not the Castros). And that’s without any swine flu or other wrench in the works. To give you an idea, my upcoming flight to NY (home once, but not for many years now and feeling less so each infrequent visit I make) will be a 13 hour affair with a couple of plane changes. This, mind you, for what is a 3-1/2 hour flight as the crow flies. And the price for the privilege?1 We’re talking in the $750 range for a distance that’s like flying New York to New Orleans. To put it in traveler’s perspective, with that same $750 it will take me to travel from one island “home” to another, I could go from New York to Tokyo. Welcome to my world…

I’ve adapted as foreigners must if they’re to survive here. I remember when I first arrived, a Cuban American guy who has lived on Long Island for decades told me, ‘only New Yorkers can live in Cuba – they already know how hard life can be.’ Of course, not all five of us living here are from New York, but I do think we share cravings and miss some of the stuff that makes the USA great in its way.

In no particular order, here is a list of Things I Miss; stay tuned for another list of Things I Don’t in a future post.

 Bathtubs
 Jon Stewart
 Mushrooms, artichokes, and tofu
 Anonymity
 English (especially my extensive repertoire of curse words and the phrase ‘I don’t know’2)
 Wireless
 Being able to pick up the phone and call my best friend, or any friend
 NBA & USTA
 Ginger ale
 Magazines
 Netflix
 Rock ‘n roll (hoochie koo, thankfully, is not a problem)
 Mail delivery
 Gay bars, parades, and queer PDAs
 Cafés
 Seasons
 Indian, Thai, sushi, and good Chinese
 Central Park
 Hiking
 Customer service
 People who can multitask
 Toilet seats
 Garlic cloves of a reasonable size3

Notes

1. In another weird twist of antiquated Cold War policy on the part of the United States, traveling to Cuba is a privilege, not a right for that country’s citizens.

2. While Latin Americans throughout the hemisphere are famous for not uttering ‘yo no sé’, Cubans are over-the-top anti I-don’t-know. I have several theories why this may be so, but the bottom line? It’s a country of know-it-alls. Compulsory education will do that…

3. In Cuba, garlic cloves are the size of a child’s fingernail and cause for anxiety, if not outright insanity. The Hero/ine of any household is the person that peels garlic. In my case, that would be me (although the man of the house is a fabulous and enthusiastic cook).

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Havana – !Vamos Pa’lla!

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Here is Havana – A blog written by the gringa next door, conspires to give you a dose of what life is really like across the Straits.

Partly out of boredom (that blue meanie for all sorts of odd motivations here), and partly because I’m fed up with all the self-serving, politically-motivated, misinformed, or just plain stupid mierda being written about Cuba, I’ve decided to start a blog. It’s a reluctant undertaking for so many reasons…

Here is Havana is navel-gazing, cathartic venting at its best and worst. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to kiss on the Malecón, go to the doctor for free, smoke tasty 5 cent cigars,  or forgoe toilet paper for months (I promised I wouldn’t reveal this well-kept secret, but we are in a very Special TP Period over here; more on toilet paper in another post), welcome to Havana.

Other passions and perturbances of life here you’ll read about include baseball, my fledgling garden, machismo, the Cuban kitchen, my favorite little old ladies (who have more spunk than your average 22-year old from Omaha), rock ‘n roll withdrawl, the “wireless network found” icon that harasses me as I’m connected via 50k dial up, and other ironies.   

On a slow day, you might even read about those old cars that make visitors wet and dewey-eyed, but for us are simply a way to get from point A to point B.

What you read here is 100% my opinion and experience after 7 years (and counting) working as an American journalist in Havana. I have no agenda. I aim to sway no one. In Cuban, this translates as ella no está en na’. A high compliment, rarely paid.

For all you rabid extremists out there who will slam what I say, no matter what or how I say it, repeat after me: ella no está en na’. And please, take a chill pill or three while you’re at it.

Here is Havana – like you never dreamed.

PS – For the meaning behind the title of this blog, plus more musings, see my work in progress, Here is Havana.

PPS – Coming to Cuba? Check out my kicking iApp to the city Havana Good Time. C’mon, you know you want it. Only $2.99!! (the cost of 3 Bucaneros!)

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