Tag Archives: changes in Cuba

Havana Mantras

Cubans like their dichos. For just about any hairball situation life coughs up, they’ve got a palliative or folksy saying.

As you may imagine, the general difficulties of modern existence are fertile fodder. To cite just a few:

Al mal tiempo, buena cara.
(When times are bad, put on a good face).

To the question ‘how ya doin’? or ‘what have you been up to?’, Cubans invariably answer:

En la luchita.
(Struggling a little/lot).

And then there’s the ubiquitous:

No es fácil.
(It’s not easy).

It’s not easy can apply to anything – caring for aging parents with Alzheimer’s; pending paperwork and attendant bureaucracy; the quality of bodega rice; even the weather.

These sayings and many more like them have become mantras of sorts. Short, pithy and to the point, they help people fortify themselves and cope with the aging/bureaucracy/vagaries life never tires of throwing our way.

Recently several friends confided that they invoke their own original mantras when faced with challenging situations. They make me smile (the mantras, not the challenging situations) – in mal timepo, when things are especially difícil, and when it feels like the luchita might triumph once and for all. They’re funny in their way, these mantras, but also weighty since they reveal the resilience and resolve with which Cubans confront obstacles. And I have a feeling such resilience, not to mention resolve, will become increasingly – urgently – important in times to come.

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If you follow Cuba news, you know that we’ve been under a wet, windy cold front for the past several days. It looks like it’s finally moving on and none too soon: over 100 buildings collapsed completely or in part in Havana due to these torrential, biblical rains, reminding me of 2005’s Hurricane Wilma. Rain like this is problematic here, not only because it sends buildings tumbling – it also floods homes, damages worldly goods and grinds transport, sectors of the economy and much of the bureaucracy to a halt.

But it’s not just the wet: the cold is a problem too since so few of us have hot water in our homes. To be blunt: showering in this weather without hot water is a bitch. Sure, we heat up pots on the stove, decant it into a bucket, mix it with some cold and scoop it over us as fast as possible. It’s workable, but in those few seconds between scoops, you freeze your butt off. Ocassionally, it’s not practical to heat water – there’s no time, no gas for the stove, whatever. End result? We take a lot of cold showers around here, even in winter, even during the chilliest fronts.

As I was talking to my friend Julio Pedro about this, he told me he has a ritual – a mantra, mejor dicho – which he invokes before stepping into a cold shower. Bracing himself, he repeats over and over again, before and during the cold blast:

Soy un macho de pinga. Soy un macho de pinga.
(I’m the fucking man. I am the fucking MAN).

If you knew JP, you’d laugh, like we did, imagining this wisp of a guy incanting his cold shower mantra.

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The mantra topic came up again as another friend and I were planning a night out recently. We were headed to one of Havana’s largest theaters to see one of the country’s hottest acts. Neither of us had tickets and it was doubtful we could procure affordable (see note 1) entry the day of the show. I told her we’d only need one ticket since over the past decade, my foreign press pass has gained me entrance into even the most over-sold events, from Pablo Milanes to the Royal Ballet. My friend, who works for Prensa Latina, said she would use her work badge, a yellow and curling card encased in foggy plastic that says ‘Prensa’ in red letters.

‘Isn’t is expired?’ I asked her.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But it has yet to fail me.’
‘Nice.’ I said.
Then she confessed: ‘but every time I use it, I think is it going to work? So just in case, I invoke my mantra:’

Soy la reina de la Habana. Soy la reina de la Habana.
(I’m the queen of Havana).

I’m not sure if it was the badge, the mantra or her killer smile, but the queen and I got into the concert.

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At this point, you’re probably wondering about my mantras. I’ve got mine, of course. Like everyone else, I’ve had to develop and hone my resilience and coping mechanisms over the years here. One I’ve known for a long time, but really started invoking it during my month-long stint covering the Cuban medical/disaster relief team in Haiti after the earthquake. Now, whenever I’m faced with particularly trying circumstances beyond my control, I tell myself:

No coge lucha. No coge lucha.
(Pay it no mind/Don’t fight it).

I’ve added another mantra lately which helps me with the haters and naysayers who for time immemorial have tried to keep down the dreamers and lovers and doers:

Que lástima odias tu vida.
(What a pity you hate your life).  

And a pity it surely is, but you know what? It’s not my problem so I’m not going to coger lucha.

Notes
1. Ticket scalping is a common and lucrative practice in Cuba’s double economy.

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Today’s Cuba Reveal: Cuenta Propismo

I know more than a little about ‘cuento propismo,’ which in Cuba means freelancing (see note 1). I’ve been a cuenta propista writer since my grad school thesis was published and while writing is qualitatively different from slinging soggy pizzas from a Centro Habana tenement, many of the same principles apply. Tax burden and penalties; supply and demand; competitive advantage; 7-day work weeks and phantom vacations; plus a good dose of self-discipline, accountability and responsibility all come in to play when you’re your own boss. You also need to hone or have a knack for selling your product.

Here in Havana, where small businesses are sprouting like zits on a teenager, the learning curve is steep. Marketing is largely limited to twinkly lights, decals, and flyers and it’s not uncommon to see half a dozen or more cafeterias selling the same greasy grub on a single block. To date, over 400,000 people have solicited licenses to run or work at private businesses (tellingly, statistics released by the government fail to mention how many of these businesses have closed or failed since the licenses became available), the majority for food sales, preparation and services. It’s an experiment in market capitalism unfolding as I write this and it’s changing the face and feel of the city.

Some of the transformations are good, others are bad, and a few are ambiguous – for now anyway. Like a ‘sleeping shrimp,’ I’ve been swept along, but Havana is starting to feel vastly different for both individual and societal reasons and whenever I get this ‘oh shit, the roller coaster is about to dip and bank’ foreboding, I know it’s time to write about it.

Because I’m consciously, doggedly trying to emphasize the positive, I’ll start out with the good changes first.

The Good

More choice – For too long, Cubans have had to settle for what was available, when and if it was available. This is a result of severe scarcity on a national scale, for reasons well known (see note 2), coupled with centralized control of every sector of the economy. Today, you can choose from where you buy (state or private) and from whom – a friend, neighbor, family member, the muchacha you have a crush on, or the little old man trying to make ends meet. Both purveyors and consumers are still learning about how competition combines with supply and demand to drive choice, but at least now there is a choice – for those who can afford it (more on this under ‘The Bad,’ later).

Higher quality goods and services – The quick learners fast realized that they needed to provide quality products and services if they were going to survive. The savviest of Havana’s new small business owners – many from the Diaspora returning to the island to get a jump on the post-socialist Gold Rush – provide guarantees for their services and inculcate in their staff the philosophy that the customer is always right (not an easy feat in the Independent Republic of Saben lo Todo). On the consumer end, Cubans are starting to appreciate the value of paying more for higher quality – in other words, ‘you get what you pay for’ is starting to take hold.

Greater control and room to breathe/dream – One of the benefits to all this private enterprise – as intangible and unquantifiable as it may be – is that people working in the cuenta propista sector feel they have a modicum of control over their lives and destinies. This isn’t very practical in the state sector where the rule of thumb is ‘we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us (a pittance),’ and decisions can be made without explanation and seem absurdly arbitrary as a result. Striking out on your own, meanwhile, takes courage, fortitude, and a semblance of vision; how you dream your future can’t be arbitrary. It’s particularly nebulous, this ‘dare to dream’ benefit of the new economy, but I think it’s one of the critical changes we’re undergoing here. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of 20-somethings lately and this craving to ‘create your own reality’ is especially relevant to them. Working in the private sector puts money in their pocket – decent money, often for the first time – and habilitates dreams of how to spend it, teaches them to budget and save, and plants the seed that if you work hard, you’ll have the means to make bigger dreams a reality (see note 3).

Now The Bad…

Haves vs Have Nots – All those choices and quality goods, not to mention that entrepreneurial get-up-and-go? It’s only available to those already with the means. Sure, the government has started providing small business loans, but what’s really driving the new economy is that part of the population with the money to buy what’s on offer, invest in a great idea, or renovate a killer location for their new venture. Examples abound: fancy private gyms and spas; lounges a la London or New York serving $25 highballs; multi-bay car washes; and dog boutiques (yes, you read that right). And on the consumer end, we have ‘tweens with the latest iPhones, packed 3-D movie theaters, even paintball at $10 a pop. It’s the classic burgeoning middle class, but for every giddy kid with a new tattoo he’ll surely regret (I know of what I speak!), there’s a sad-eyed child wanting one of the fancy pastries in the window and an angry youth playing soccer barefoot. While I hardly register the flashy moneyed folks, each grim-faced granny and struggling single mother sticks with me. And I’m seeing more and more of them these days.

Life on fast forward – It’s amazing how slow, lethargic Havana has picked up speed of late. New cars hightail it through residential backstreets as if kids weren’t playing there; cafeteria patrons drum the counter top saying ‘I’m in a rush, hustle it up’; and ‘time is money’ is taking root as an economic/life concept. The digital boom fuels this and while I’ll be the first to champion faster internet, I worry the day will come (for some it’s already here), when we no longer make the time to spend time with the ones we love. I have to admit I’ve been guilty of this from time to time.

Prices are outrageous – Since the free(ish) market is brand new, charging ‘what the market will bear’ is being taken to absurd new heights. Agricultural cooperatives charge 10 pesos for four plantains (just a year or two ago these cost half this or less), while young men with bad hair charge 10 CUC for fixing a cell phone on the fritz; total labor: 15 minutes, meaning they make in a quarter hour what many make in a month. Service-based businesses are especially guilty and often don’t post prices, preying on the desperation of the customer who needs their phone fixed/car washed/business cards printed. I actually had this happen recently and when I took the guy to task, he said: ‘next time I’ll tell you the price beforehand’ (see note 4). I let him know there wouldn’t be a next time because I would be taking my business to the (more transparent) competition.

Key items go missing – When products suddenly disappear from store shelves here, we say they’re perdidos – lost or missing. And many things are missing of late since private restaurants and the general population shop at the same stores. This is a real point of contention for cuenta propistas who (rightfully) complain that they have to buy all their materials at retail prices, heavily compromising their profit margin. For the rest of us, certain items are increasingly hard to find – coffee, butter, cheese, toilet paper – as they get snatched up by restaurateurs stocking their larders. This creates even more societal friction and deepens the rift between the haves and have nots.

I don’t know how The Good and The Bad will eventually shake out, but I think we’d all be wise to buckle up because I predict The Bad is bound to get Worse. On the positive tip, there are a whole lot of creative, resourceful, intelligent and determined forces being released and connected right now which I admire. Whatever happens, you can bet I’ll be writing about it. Until then…

Notes

1. The literal translation is ‘by one’s account’ and in today’s changing Cuba refers to all small businesses from grannies selling bras and barrettes to Olympic stars running chic, expensive bars. These small business endeavors are permissible under what’s known in English as the Economic and Social Policy Development Guidelines, which began to take effect about two years ago.

2. Namely, the US blockade, the collapse of the Socialist bloc and ensuing Special Period, scarce resources in general and mismanagement.

3. As I write this, an email arrives in my inbox with this bit: “follow your dreams is sometimes a bit of a load of crap since your dreams don’t always pay the rent”. So far, so (pretty) good following my dreams, but point taken.

4. My bad for not asking the price ahead of time, but I needed the service provided desperately.

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Cuba’s ‘New Normal’

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Things are pretty tense around here. And it doesn’t help that Hurricane Irene is heading towards Port-au-Prince as I write this. When it’s threatening this close, we swing into action (see note 1). 2011 is a particularly harrowing hurricane season because we’ve escaped major damage for 2 years running (toca madera/knock on wood). Like an unfaithful spouse who spends too many Saturdays ‘at the office’ or ‘runs errands’ at odd hours, you just know the luck is going to run out one of these days. But I digress.

Followers of Here is Havana know that I’ve been covering the changes in Cuba (however sporadically and anecdotally; see note 2). And now – as marriages fail; savvy metrosexuals return from exile to launch private businesses; and the bourgeoisie distract themselves with whiskey and Facebook – seems like a good time for an update.

This installment focuses on ground level detail and how Cuba’s newest capitalist forays are affecting us, the hoi polloi. I’m talking about viejitas selling knick knacks and caps from their crumbling porticos and gentrification of neighborhoods which for generations have been mixed. Meanwhile, rainbow umbrellas signposting private cafeterias sprout like mushrooms in cow shit and ever-more-evident class divisions, combined with a certain impatience and market madness, weigh heavy on my mind.

Hanging on for dear life: I don’t have a car, which is an anomaly for most foreigners here and has drawbacks, clearly, but is also advantageous since it obligates me to navigate the public transportation system. In practice, this means I have no problem getting a bus from the Capitolio to Marianao or the Cine Chaplin to La Copa (see note 3).

Since I make much more than the average Cuban (but much less than the average resident foreigner – a hard concept for most Cubans), I also take the 40 cent fixed route/collective taxis that ply Havana’s streets. However, a significant change in the law regulating these taxis is putting our lives at risk: whereas it used to be only the owner of the almendrones (those pre-1959 hulks tourists go gaga over) could drive it for fares, now they can subcontract driving duties.

This small change on paper has meant big changes on Havana’s streets. Drivers are now young, restless, and reckless; it’s plain some of them have never even driven before (and are unlicensed, if one of my insider sources is to be believed). Others are so blatantly young even Cuban law would prosecute me were I to bed one down.

The result? Tank-like Dodges, Buicks, and Fords caroming along major arteries like Línea and 23, Calzada del Cerro and Calle 51 at high speeds, only to peel out of traffic with a hard turn of the wheel and screech up to the curb to snatch another 10 peso fare. I’m not the only one who lets these wild child choferes continue on their way, opting to wait for an older, more seasoned driver who cares at least for his car, if not his clients.

Ration cuts: Slowly but surely, the monthly rations (really fortnightly rations since they only last that long, and only then for the thriftiest and most creative cooks) are being cut. Not everyone needs them, let’s be frank, but for the millions that do, this is a problem. In Cuba, libreta rations aren’t free, but almost; since they’re so highly subsidized, payment is a token gesture. But hard times call for hard cuts and some rations – beans, most notably – have been reduced, while others (soap, toothpaste, laundry detergent, cigarettes), have been eliminated entirely. This can be crippling for old folks especially, but also working class families and other vulnerable groups.

But that’s not the only effect of this new policy. Take the cut in the salt ration for instance. Once upon a time, each household received a kilo of salt every three months. That ration has now been halved and may be discontinued altogether, meaning when you run short, salt has to be purchased at ‘parallel markets’ in pesos cubanos or hard currency “dollar stores,” (I suppose people peddle the white crystals on the black market, but I’ve little energy for that particular hassle and hustle). Either way, salt is now a pricey commodity.

The subsidy slash, combined with the cost of salt outside the libreta, make it virtually impossible for those unfortunate enough not to have access to hard currency to augment their salt stores. No salt means blander food, of course, but it also means we no longer knock on our neighbors’ door asking for a bit of salt – not at the new prices. Borrowing sugar, lending salt: these are diehard habits in Cuba and are among the daily threads which give the mantle of solidarity heft on the island. Let’s see how it holds up moving forward.

Cafeterias ad nauseam: One of the most immediate and visible effects of the new regulations has been the veritable explosion of private cafeterias and snack shacks across Havana (see note 4). No matter that each of them has an identical menu of fruit shakes, egg sandwiches and cajitas (to be fair, the ones that are good tend to be great – at least at the outset anyway). And no matter that some of them are churning out such poor quality fare I’ve actually seen people dumping food into the closest trash bin.

That said, some families are really making a go of it. However, just as the taxi sub-contracting policy and striking salt from the ration card are having unintended side effects, I suspect this cafeteria mania is too: I fear it’s making people sick. Sure, there’s always an uptick of stomach viruses in the summer, but this season, I know a lot more people with explosive diarrhea, fever, and projectile vomiting – usually all at once. While I have zero proof, poor food preparation and storage, plus sketchy hygiene, can mean food-borne illnesses. And since the government doesn’t have the inspectors necessary to inspect and monitor all these new cafeterias…Indeed, e coli warnings have begun appearing – a first for me in 9+ years of living here.

Marketing learning curve: The operative word here is steep – very, very steep. Forget that every cafeteria is making the same sandwich and that the same pirate DVDs are sold everywhere, from Vedado thoroughfares to dark entryways in Centro Habana. Lack of product differentiation is only one of the problems with the emerging capitalist experiment. The real question is: how do you distinguish your pan con jamón from the next gal’s or make your Jackie Chan ‘combo’ stand out from the rest?

This isn’t a query occurring to most entrepreneurs here, if the twinkly Christmas lights and hand-lettered signs around town are any indication. But some folks – whether they’re returned exiles, have advice coming in from Miami, or are just putting Cuban ingenuity to a new test – are on it. At major intersections and big grocery stores for example, hot, young Cubans pass out flyers advertising the newest paladares, some of which I’ve had the pleasure to try thanks to this publicity (the best are included in the newest version of Havana Good Time, out next week).

But one mode of advertising which has recently appeared in my neighborhood and is insoportable wherever it’s found are mobile megaphone announcements. Loud, obnoxious, and largely unintelligible (I still haven’t been able to divine a single good or service advertised by these noise polluters), these ads are delivered by enthusiastic barkers via bicycle, motorcycle or car-mounted megaphones. This is annoying enough, but I fear these ads may be the death knell for the sing-song call of the pregoneros – hawkers who pound the pavement advertising their wares in a melodic, iconic incantation. These were effective – it’s how I got my new mattress, after all.

Stay tuned for more on-the-ground impressions of evolving Cuba.

Notes
1. For the curious: I’ve passed so many hurricanes in Havana I’ve lost count and Cuban preparedness and response is efficient, effective, and a wonder to behold. Lives are very rarely lost – even in the most heinous, category 5 cyclones – which underscores the absurd tragedy that is adverse weather events in the USA à la Katrina or the recent Missouri River floods.

2. Dedicated fans will be happy to learn Here is Havana The Book is finally receiving some overdue attention; I hope to have it out by this time next year. Stay tuned!

3. Bus travel in Havana is generally a bitch, but for visitors who speak Spanish, I suggest taking at least one to eavesdrop: there is probably no more effective way to take the pulse of the population than to listen to a busload of Habaneros quibble and kvetch.

4. As of April 2011, 20% of the nearly 222,000 permits issued to private businesses have been for food service. The government estimates 80% of these start ups will fail in the first year.

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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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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