Tag Archives: coffee

In the Mix: Café Cubano

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Alicia Alonso. Santería offerings. Sunday supper. There are some people and things you just don’t mess with in Cuba. This includes coffee. More than a simple stimulant or mere morning habit, coffee here is history, tradition, and ritual rolled into one.

All manner of human affairs are conducted over teeny cups of the black, sweet elixir: friendships are forged, pacts made, and lovers wooed (or booted or double crossed) while sipping the stereotypically strong brew. Indeed, every proper visita to a neighbor or friend’s begins with coffee and even meetings – from the most ad hoc to high level ministerial pow wows – include café. No matter how powerful or poor, behind schedule or the eight ball, in Cuba, coffee is an ice breaker and friend maker. As iconic as rum, as ubiquitous as cigars.

But as I’ve said before, changes are afoot. Whereas any move by Cuba in the past 50-plus years had to be analyzed through a kaleidoscopic prism of political cause and effect, changes today are undertaken and evaluated according to economic cost and benefit (see note 1). The recent announcement of the resurrection of café mezclado is an illustrative example of this ‘new normal.’ And it’s got Cuba’s collective panties in a twist.

On May 3, it was announced that coffee distributed to all Cubans on the ration card would once again be “blended.” This is an old concept known to poor java junkies the world over: by mixing ground coffee with something else (e.g. chicory), you stretch your resources and enjoy more, albeit weaker, coffee. Cuban campesinos have long had a tradition of blending coffee with chícharo (see note 2) and the state adopted this approach throughout all these lean economic years.

There was the euphoric, dare-to-dream moment during Chavez’ halcyon days when oil money flowed throughout the Global South and Cuba was able to upgrade from café mezclado to café puro. This meant that 11 million Cubans were receiving near-free, pure coffee via state-provided rations guaranteed to all citizens (see note 3).

But reality is upon us anew and our cupboards once again harbor coffee blended with chícharo. But this time is different. Tolerance for ‘suck it up just a little longer’ is ebbing and indeed may be at an all time low (except among those reaping the rewards of the new economic regulations, of course). This is compounded by the fact that Fidel isn’t at the helm, which has had various ripple effects – not monolithically good or bad, not all visible – which are felt acutely when it comes to morale boosting during such ‘suck it up’ special periods.

Then there’s the blend itself.

Pre-petrol dollars gracias a Chavez, the blend distributed on the ration card (see note 4) was 40% coffee and 60% chícharo. It had a particular, not bad flavor and I enjoyed plenty of it with my little old lady cabal. Today’s blend, however, splits the difference right down the middle – 50% coffee and 50% chícharo.

More coffee, less chícharo. An improvement one would think.

But this is Cuba, where digging deeper, reading between the lines, and parsing the details are essential for truth finding. And so it is with café mezclado. Whereas the old 40/60 blend contained less actual coffee, it was superior Arabica, recognized worldwide as the best tasting, today’s mix uses hardier and more caffeinated but less toothsome, Robusta. And therein lies the rub.

“It’s bitter, acidic and muy fuerte.”

“If you ask me there’s more than 50% chícharo in there.”

This is what folks around here are saying about the new blend. And even as analysts and quality-control specialists go on TV to explain in excruciating detail the cost, taste, and agronomic differences between Robusta and Arabica, people remain skeptical and critical.

And scared. Fear isn’t a trait I typically associate with Cubans, who are amongst the most courageous people you’ll ever meet. However, this café mezclado is rocking our world and not just for its shitty flavor, but rather something much more sinister: the blend makes coffee pots blow up.

According to those aforementioned analysts and quality-control gurus, instances of exploding cafeteras (the stovetop espresso pots used by 99% of us) have been documented. The new blend is to blame. They assure us that all should be fine if we follow the brewing instructions on the package – necessary no doubt, thanks to the coffee bombs created by café mezclado. I mean: what Cuban needs a lesson in how to brew coffee?!

So we suck it up, follow the instructions on the package, and trust Them when They say the blending strategy will be evaluated and tweaked over time – dependent on economic feasibility, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more episodes of exploding cafeteras and a limp economy conspire to strike coffee from the ration card altogether.

Buckle up babies: it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Notes

1. The complete absence of political discourse/orientation in the new and revolutionary lineamientos is of great concern and wide comment on this side of the Straits. The other issue which people are anxious about – and the single most debated point in the lineamientos – is the eventual reduction or elimination of rations. Stay tuned.

2. The international press – which jumped on this story like an old Italian on a lithe mulatta – translates chícharo as pea. While you may be thinking ‘sugar snap’ or Jolly Green Giant style, this is the dried legume and looks more like a small garbanzo.

3. Currently the coffee ration is 115 grams and costs 15 cents. The other change is that Cubans aged 0-6 no longer receive this ration.

4. In hard currency stores you can buy 100% pure café cubano, whole bean or ground. The most popular brands are Cubita or (in my opinion), superior Serrano. This is the coffee served in bars and restaurants, hotels and clubs and what the overwhelming majority of visitors are drinking. Only in someone’s home (not a casa particular – there’s a world of difference) or in a private peso cubano cafeteria are you likely to get a taste of café mezclado.

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Filed under Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life

Es Cuba Mi Amiga*

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I love Latin America. I’ve been traveling there as tourist, scholar, reporter, and guidebook writer for 30 years. I dedicated my absurdly expensive stint with higher education to its history and politics. I’ve visited almost every country and know many intimately. Each is different and captivating in its way, it goes without saying. But of all the countries south of ‘El Norte,’ none compares to Cuba.

I should know, I’ve been living here since 2002.

I speak Cuban and know the best scams. (You won’t learn ‘¡¿cuál es la mecánica asere?!‘ studying Spanish in Antigua, homestay or no). My family has a ration book and I commute to meetings in ’56 Buicks. I know where to buy condoms for a penny and procure black market gas. Like anywhere, such practicalities can be learned over time. But the charm of a place, the underlying magic that makes here thrum at a higher frequency than there, dwells within the people.

—–

Bright and early Monday morning, I make my way in a tinny old Lada to the travel agency. Like everywhere in Latin America, errands are best run in the morning lest the lights go, the building springs a leak, or the workers take a 6-hour siesta. I’m not surprised to find the agency next to the Artificial Rain Augmentation office. Es Cuba, after all.

At 8:45 the small, windowless room is already packed – there are four times more people than chairs. As usual, it’s sweltering and the air conditioning is broken.

A bleach blond with two young girls in tow is ceded one of the coveted seats. Her daughters play tope, tope, tope while she chats with the agent. Purchasing a simple plane ticket here is a slow, inefficient process. There’s not a computer in sight, just a single phone, and tickets are written out by hand. Transactions are in cash, meaning at this moment there are of thousands of dollars secreted in bras, stuffed into envelopes, and tucked inside jackets all around me.

To pass the time, we talk about the weather, where to buy rice, and the new soap opera. Those keeping mum are either not Cuban or have been gone so long they’ve lost their local chops – talking to strangers while waiting is both hobby and sport here.

The dyed-blond mom isn’t having much luck today. Each time Inés María tries to ring the central office – where the computers live assumedly – the line is busy. She replaces the handset and asks Blondie what grade the girls are in. With each new client’s arrival, the office grows hotter. A woman wearing the agency’s colors enters at half past nine, proffering a tiny cup of sweet dark coffee to Ines María who immediately offers Blondie a sip.

‘It is so hot in here,’ Inés María says to everyone and no one. She picks up the phone, determined to resolve the problem.

‘Hola amor. This is your colleague in the sauna calling. Can you come check on this AC? It’s so hot I’m ready to take my clothes off in front of all these clients and it’s gonna go porno. It won’t be pretty!’

She signs off with kisses for Mr Fix It’s family and wishes his grandmother a quick recovery.

Blondie’s girls are getting restless. The older one says she has to go to the bathroom.

‘It’s right down the hall, sweetie,’ Inés María tells her.

Typically – for Cuba – the 8- and 6-year old leave without adult accompaniment to find the public bathroom. We resume talking about the weather. Suddenly the younger girl is back.

‘Mom, she needs toilet paper,’ she announces to the now overflowing office. ‘She has to poop.’

Needing a personal, portable supply of toilet paper; talking openly about bowel movements; sharing conversation and coffee with strangers while waiting a couple of hours to purchase a plane ticket: this is normal. This is Cuba.

*This post will appear in the forthcoming ebook anthology of top Latin American bloggers being edited and published by Steven Roll of travelojos. If you’d like to be notified when it’s released, drop me a line.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Coño, It’s Hot

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‘Going native’ is a slow, oftentimes imperceptible process. You might not even notice the subtle adjustments – those natural-for-the-context changes that living in a foreign culture forces over time.

For me here in Havana, the first manifestations were in my wardrobe: hemlines got shorter, heels got higher, and everything got tighter and scandalously more scanty. Gradually, I came to grasp the necessity of the visita (see note 1) and found the natural rhythm of Cuban time (15 to 30 minutes late as a general rule. Such tardiness differs from the Cuban no-show which is a surprisingly common trait to which I have yet to warm). It took me longer to get used to discussing menstruation and death with acquaintances and even strangers, but eventually I did.

But I resist some. I’ve always said aloud and to myself that the moment Cuba and its peculiarities compel me to lie, I’m outta here. And I’ve never cottoned to the homophobic slant and slang which is still horrifyingly acceptable here. Yes, Virginia, maricón is a dirty word.

Some cultural tendencies however can’t be resisted indefinitely. They creep in and over you, like moss enveloping a stone, until one day you realize, ‘I’m doing it.’

Last year, after seven summers, I started complaining about the heat.

‘!Dios mio. Que calor!

and

‘!Que calor, cojone!’

and

‘It’s really hot, isn’t it?’ I’d start asking in that Cuban way that awaits no response.

It’s probably not surprising that I first perceived the change in my demeanor last summer: August 2009 was the hottest in 40 years. We’re talking triple digits in the shade. What my friend Ian calls a 24-hour Bikram yoga class. This might not sound bad to you. Maybe you’re reading this in an AC’d office or riverside on your iPhone. Perhaps you’re in cool Buenos Aires or at altitude somewhere in the Alps or Andes. If so, count your blessings.

At 9am here, the mercury is already past 90°F and the soupy air is a challenge to breathe. Even moving at a pace I call Cuban summer slow, rivulets of sweat cleave my chest and hair is plastered to my neck. It makes people, myself included, a little loco this heat. Tempers tend to flare as temperatures rise and drivers act stupid. I don’t know why, but as a rule, the hotter it is, the worse people here drive. And at ridiculous speeds. The only thing I can figure is that they’re trying to get as much wind entering their vehicle as possible since few cars here have AC (see note 2).

It melts gum and trashes elastic this Havana heat. All my bra straps are buckled and my husband returns home from work with salty white Rorschach stains on his Angela Davis t-shirt. Upper lips are forever beaded and hand fans work furiously during these dog days of summer. Chocolate, needless to say, doesn’t fare well.

Cold showers don’t help – I’m sweating even as I towel off. Besides, ‘cold’ is a misnomer since here in Havana, most water tanks are on the roof, beholden to the sun’s brutal rays. What comes from the shower pipe in July is too hot to handle. Ironic: in the winter I can’t get a hot shower and in the summer I’m jonesing for a cold one.

Things that usually come easy to me – sleeping, thinking, fucking (not in that order, obviously) – are nearly impossible in this heat. Cooking is also a bitch and I often wonder why gazpacho and ice coffee haven’t caught on here. These are the things that expose Cuba’s isolation. Our lumbering Russian AC, circa height of the Cold War, helps only a little. Maybe I’ve got the Cyrillic knobs and levers figured wrong?

Summer in Cuba, it must be said, is a hot, gnarly bitch. But you take the good with the bad and I think I’ll do just that: the hubby and I have an after-work date to get wet at the local swimming hole on Havana’s western shore.

Stay cool!

Notes

1. The ‘visita’ is a key cultural concept here and a major factor in contemporary daily life – it’s one of the few things that can’t be politicized, legislated, or blamed on the embargo. At its most basic, visiting is a friendly ritual that keeps people connected and informed (or at least gossiping). It’s rarely scheduled, but is rather a spontaneous drop in on friends and loved ones to chat and catch up while drinking dollhouse-sized cups of sweet dark coffee. Some of my favorite people to visit are Teresita and Carmita.

2. But some unexpected ones do: I was stunned silent the other day as I climbed into a collective taxi on my way home from a meeting. It was a ’56 Buick with all leather interior and kicking AC the driver had rigged himself. Those clever Cubans!

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Cuba’s Secret Weapon: Little Old Ladies

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Up and moving to a foreign country is like tiptoeing across a tightrope without a net. It takes balls (or ovaries, as we say on this side of the Straits), but can be stupid, reckless, and if all goes horribly wrong, detrimental to breathing.

When I landed in Cuba to live full time – without a net – in April 2002, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for (see note 1). But imagining 6-hour blackouts and bucket showers is one thing. Cooking, eating, reading and lovemaking by candlelight followed by a military shower is something (uncomfortably, unsustainably) else.

Little by little, things improved. Gradually, I adjusted. I sprang for a $15 electric shower unit (known as widow makers in some countries) and we kept a list of debate topics on hand for the next blackout. Over time, I grew accustomed to my neighbors dropping by unannounced for coffee and a chat and I no longer started at the good-natured yelling Cubans indulge in. Poco a poco my wardrobe got shorter and tighter, I perfected the use of a pressure cooker, and grew used to the idea that gladiolas aren’t just for dead people (see note 2).

But clothing, cooking, even floral tendencies, are differences you expect in foreign countries. In Pakistan I had to cover my head. In Guatemala I (happily) forsook bread for tortillas. Here in Havana however, I was blindsided by something else entirely, something wholly unexpected: I’m surrounded by old people.

It’s not simply that Cubans have a longer life expectancy than you (see note 3) or that the country has 1,488 centenarians and counting. Sure, the island is a willing poster child for the 120 Club (see note 4), but the ubiquity of the elderly here has more to do with the culture of aging than health indicators.

In Cuba, great pains are taken to keep the ‘senior zits’ and ‘blue hairs’ (as my mother calls them, even though – technically – she forms part of their ranks) actively involved in society. Active aging they call it. Every day, from Pinar del Río to Guantánamo, you’ll see seniors doing knee bends and loosening their rotator cuffs in free, outdoor exercise classes; raisin-like men mixing up the dominos at seniors’ centers; and great grandmothers wheeling their sweet potatoes and yucca away from the Tulipán vegetable market.

As end of days approach, it is the rare Cuban that gets parked in a nursing home. Here, people prefer to take care of their own, at home – even hospice happens at home, in your own bed. Up north, meanwhile, we tend to shutter people away once they reach a certain age. Where I’m from, growing old and dying at home is the rare exception. I get that nursing homes are handy. Who wants to change their mother’s diaper or go unrecognized by their own father as he battles demons known only to Alzheimer’s patients? But, the incontinent and impenetrable aside, I think the Cubans are on to something with their family-based aging in place.

Teresita was my first clue. Wide-hipped and curmudgeonly, with hair dyed the color of bread crusts, Teresita is my 86-year old neighbor. She’s the archetypical despotic Cuban matriarch, heading up four generations of females squeezed into a 2-bedroom apartment. Though able-bodied, Teresita never leaves the apartment. Despite her cranky, iron-fisted disposition, we call her “Terry” with affection.

Times are hard for Terry and her girls. She had to share her rubber-sheeted bed with her 56-year old daughter Lila until the latter emigrated to Tampa. It happened exactly like most leave-takings here in Cuba: here one day, gone the next. The space opened up in Terry’s bed couldn’t compensate for the sorrow it planted in her heart. With the high drama that grips so many Cuban women, Terry comes to me after Lila has left to say the only thing she has to look forward to now is the grave.

While her granddaughter is out earning her daily bread and her great granddaughter is at school learning her times tables, Terry is left alone. All day, every day. She’s locked in, but far from shut-in: perched at her window observing all the comings and goings, Terry is The Gossip. From her I learn a trio of young thugs are posing as public health inspectors, finessing their way into the homes of little old ladies, and robbing them blind. It’s Terry who tells me that Omara from upstairs in going to Spain and Yusi downstairs is dating a new guy.

“He’s black,” she whispers to me, passing a couple of fingers along her forearm – the classic Cuban sign for a person of color.

Like many white ladies of an age, Terry is a little bit racist, which is akin to being a little pregnant in my book, but I let it slide. She’s got over eight decades of memories and experience and I find myself heading across the hall to “talk story” as we say in Hawaii. I find reasons to knock on her door – bringing her the reading material she so desperately craves and dropping by for coffee and a turn in her broken cane rocker. Over tiny cups of sweet and musky bodega coffee (see note 5), she tells me about her brutal, pre-revolution childhood.

Rocking and sipping, she tells me how her father’s second wife, a wicked substitute for Terry’s dead mother, forced her to work beginning at an absurdly early age. There were the customary cooking and cleaning chores that every household has, but young Terry was also forced to take outside work, washing and ironing the neighbors’ guyaberas, slacks, and skirts. If she protested, she met the business end of a belt. She’s less forthcoming about her husband, who gave her one daughter and a whole lot of headaches. Of course, our conversation always detours to the terrain of her various ailments: stiff joints, failing eyes, and a chronic, inexplicable throbbing in her thigh. If I let her roam, we’ll get lost in the badlands of her aches and pains.

Then there’s Carmita, my 82-year old friend from Regla (see note 6). She’s more affectionate and sharp-witted than Teresita, but is a similarly iron-willed matriarch with a long gone husband. ‘Good riddance!’ she exclaims with a devlish smile. ‘That one was born unfaithful.’ Laying a liver-spotted hand on my leg she cracks jokes about macho men and criticizes complicit women in that spirited, pre-curve feminist way of hers.

Sipping the same sweet, musky coffee from the same teeny cups everyone has here, Carmita spins tales of teaching hicks from the sticks to read during the 1961 literacy campaign. With her eyes closed softly, she recreates the Bay of Pigs attack, reliving those tense days. Carmita can be mercurial, fluctuating between placcid and resigned, spunky and spent. Like Teresita – like everyone I’m realizing – her life has been peppered with profound pain and loss.

Carmita has her health problems too – arthritis forced her to abandon her sewing business some years ago and the diabetes is under control. For now. While she fries up some plantains for her handsome grandson, Carmita relates last night’s dream with that munificent smile of hers. In the dream, her recently deceased daughter has been revived, the cancer expunged, her lifeblood back.

“Give me a hug Mom.”

“It won’t hurt?”

“No, Mom. I’m good. I’m healthy.”

Her words hung in the small, dark kitchen.

“And then you woke up, though you never wanted to,” I say with finality.

“It was horrible muchacha.”

I can’t imagine.

Old Cuba likewise comes alive sitting on Evarina’s porch in Miramar. Homebound and 80-something, Evarina’s a bulldog of a dame. She’s from the Oriente originally, (which means something if you know the island), and once upon a time was a daily cigar smoker like myself. Her diabetes is having its way with her and there’s some concern she might lose her foot. While she tries to “resolve” a course of the Cuban wonder drug for diabetic foot, she passes her time burning up the phone lines gossiping about her sister’s new cleaning lady and the Braves’ acquisition of her favorite ball player.

Then there’s Mary and Esther. Debra and Julia. When I step back and look at the landscape of my life here in Havana, I’m shocked to realize that the people I like best, that are the most interesting and engaging, are, on average, 79 years old. Old women, the lot of them. Why, I ask myself, are there so many viejitas in my midst? Could this even happen in the States?

Gotta run. Carmita’s expecting me in Regla and has promised to tell me about when Hemingway was sweet on her, dropping by her work to flirt and conquer.

Notes

1. I had been here several times before, first as a volunteer in 1993 during the Special Period (which was very, very “special” according to the Cuban joke,) and most recently in 2000.

2. There are a couple of Cuban characteristics I will never get used to. Topping the list is the national penchant for spoiling movie endings. If you have Cuban friends, you know what I’m talking about. The other is eating pizza with a knife and fork.

3. Cubans’ life expectancy is 78.3 – just surpassing the US figure of 78. Meanwhile, 16% percent of the island’s population is over 60; this will shoot up to 25% by 2025. Cuba’s recently concluded national centenarian study is fascinating.

4. Fidel Castro is the Club’s most famous member.

5. The “bodega” is where Cubans receive their monthly rations – food and other staples provided almost free by the State. As I type this, the ration card is being phased out in one of the most radical departures for the Cuban government in recent memory (I’d hate to be the person who had to convince Fidel that cutting rations is a good idea). Last week, potatoes and dried peas were dropped from the ration card. Bread and coffee are next but won’t go as gently into that good night as papas and chicharro, I’m afraid. In Cuba, bread and coffee mean breakfast. Making people buy these staples is going to be tricky – especially coffee, which, like everywhere, is very expensive: we make one espresso pot a day, spending around $15 a month. Being that the average salary is $12 a month, we’ll soon be facing a national java jones unless other provisions are made.

6. Regla is known as the “Little Sierra Maestra” it’s that revolutionary. It’s also home to the Black Virgin of Regla (Havana Bay’s patron saint and closely linked with Yemayá) and many secrets great and small. You can drive to Regla in 10 minutes from downtown Havana, but cross the bay via ferry for a picturesque, enjoyable journey to what could be a small town in the island’s interior, with all the friendly faces and simple fun that implies.

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Excerpt – Here is Havana, Chapter 2

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My friend’s grandmother Anita, a hunched woman with broad hips and hair dyed the color of bread crusts, is sweeping tiles as faded as her hummed refrain. Her left eye, clouded by cataract, betrays nothing, but her right sparkles with a distant memory that ebbs and flows with each pass of her broom. She shuffles and flicks her way to the front patio clucking disapproval as the green plastic bristles trail strands of long, raven hair.

I lift my feet, reaching carefully for the tiny teacup with the broken handle Carmen proffers on a plastic tray. I smile, sipping gingerly at the sweet liquid that catches at the back of my throat. Like the smell rippling off the Río Almendares at dusk, Cuban ration card coffee is earthy and sharp, more chaff than bean and cut liberally with sugar. Carmen shoots me a wink and confides, “Grammy doesn’t like me combing my hair in the sala. She hates sweeping it up.”

Out of earshot now, Anita works around the heavy wooden rockers the handsome compañero neighbor carefully arranged against the front wall. Strains of her melody reach the street as she tries for the upper register. The noonday sun burns high and hot beyond the Ionic columns of her stately home. It’s really too torrid to be out here, even in the patio’s deep shade, but Anita is determined to fight the dirt that blows off 23rd Street, covering her crotons and ferns with what looks like human cremains. She sweeps more urgently, wishing she were rocking in one of those chairs right this minute, sipping a lemonade swimming with mint.

¡Oye Mima!” shouts Yanesi, her neighbor from two doors down. She’s the pretty one with the santero husband who read the divining shells for Anita after the doctor found the lump in her breast. The priest’s divination had proven spot on so she consulted him again when her daughter got in on the bombo, the lottery for a visa to emigrate to Miami. The Santería holy man had heard the orishas right: Nelly didn’t get the visa. What he failed to hear – or what the saints failed to convey – was that she would leave on a raft six months later.

“You shouldn’t be working in this heat abuelita. How are you feeling?” Yanesi asks the old lady after pecking her on the cheek and taking her hand, roughened and deeply lined on the palm side but buttery soft on top.

“Still here, thank God. I don’t like this heat, but it’s better than that horrible cold when el mono está chiflando. Last week my arthritis was…” she trails off with a whistle through false teeth.

“God was it cold! My aunt Lydia, my dad’s sister – you know the one, with the son on the volleyball team? – she has terrible asthma. How she suffers! ”

No es fácil.”

“No it isn’t easy. Here, take some oranges,” Yanesi insists, reaching into her bag, the plastic wrinkled from being washed and line dried so many times. “They’re sweet,” she says of the greenish fruits.

“Gracias, my child,” the old lady says taking them and laying them on the windowsill. She picks up her broom and her forgotten melody, wondering why they’re called oranges when they’re green.

To read more, go to www.connergorry.com.hereishavana.html

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Dying in Cuba – Part 1

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Dear readers: As the title of this entry suggests, today’s offering is a an account of death, Cuban-style. Not everyone’s cup of tea, admittedly. If you’re feeling down or blue, my advice is click through.

In Cuba, that most particular of places, I’ve been thrust into the most universal depths.

Children here for instance, are buried in white coffins. I shouldn’t know this. Some information is best reserved for those who can handle it. My question is: if the woman whose husband dies is a widow and the child whose parents die is an orphan, what do you call the mother whose child dies? Besides heartbroken?

But here, survivors don’t only bury, they unbury as well.

In Havana, you have to disinter your loved one from their tomb in cemetery Colón after a certain number of years. The city’s main cemetery, Colón is a massive metropolis laid out in a sprawling grid, but despite its vastness, it can’t keep up with so many generations of dead. By digging up their dearly departed and depositing them in a mausoleum, families make room for the next in line.

Uncommonly dark is the day when the funeral you’re attending coincides with multiple disinterments, like happened to me recently…

Walking to the grave site, we had to pick our way among disintegrated coffins spilling dead flowers like stuffing from a busted chair. The exhumed detritus littered the tree-lined road where cemetery workers in coveralls rested on a shady tomb. Sidestepping a moldy bouquet and the ghosts of other people’s grief, I vowed – once again – not to go underground in a box: disinterment day at Cementerio Colón makes one hell of a convincing argument for cremation.

Hodgkin’s, heart failure, an accident, or AIDS – whatever the cause, once death descends, Cubans act fast. From autopsy to crypt might take only 8 hours. No deep freeze storage or sit downs with morticians for los Cubanos. Until last night, I thought this was a cultural question, a simple desire to mourn quickly and move on to the real pain and loss. But last night, when Cuban television started showing Six Feet Under reruns, I realized fast funerals are practical: have you seen what tropical heat does to a corpse? And if butter and toilet paper can go missing in Havana, what of wound putty and cadaver makeup?

The funeral home and all that goes with it – embalming, coffin, mortician, hearse, and yes, cadaver makeup – is paid for by the state. Which is what they mean by cradle to grave. Only the flowers and tips for the tomb guys are the family’s responsibility.

The tomb guys can’t be called grave diggers since they don’t actually dig anything. Instead, using wooden poles as levers, they jimmy the lid off the tomb, guide the coffin down into the vault with canvas straps, and slide the lid back into place. Even when the concrete slab slips making mourners gasp, these manual laborers carry themselves with a quiet dignity. Once the lid is secured and people begin drifting away, a wad of pesos are pressed into the sweaty, callused palms of these men. I wonder if they get tipped to unbury too?

Where you lived is where you’re mourned: each neighborhood has its funeral home, where there may be several wakes going at once. Havana’s funeral homes are 24-hours and more in-your-face than what I’m used to. At some, the hearse rolls right up to the front door from the morgue. With mourners milling about, the coffin is lowered onto a dolly and wheeled into the embalming room; this part is concealed, thankfully, though sometimes by a simple scrim.

Each funeral home is a bit different, but every one has a desolate cafeteria where workers bearing sympathetic smiles sell coffee and cigars to the bereaved. I don’t know how they withstand all the sorrow. Especially on white coffin days. If you come to Cuba looking for heroes, head to the nearest funeral home cafeteria.

To be continued….</e

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Excerpt: Here is Havana, Chapter 1

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Hola readers. Today I’m posting an excerpt from my work in progress Here is Havana. If you like this short clip, check out the real deal here. Welcoming comments….

I. Time

‘Dura Como Merengue en la Puerta de la Escuela’

The clock has little relevance in Havana. Even newspaper weather reports carry no forecast, just today’s conditions. Timepieces are superfluous and lateness a vague concept: you’ll still be seated as Giselle fingers the royal hem mid-act; you can step into Tai Chi class during the sixth movement; and though the coffee may have grown cold, a demitasse of the sweet, black nectar forever awaits you. Here, whole weeks and months fall between the cracks of comfortable yesterdays and uncertain tomorrows; even years can slip by unnoticed, like a stealthy teenager tiptoeing in past curfew.

Hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait and wait and wait: the city paces itself at a parabolic tempo that’s like the hurricane watch, with everyone anticipating the hit and then weathering the blow, gathering themselves up and moving on. Beholden to such meteorological maybes and other uncertainties – brothers disappearing to Miami or Madrid, perfidious lovers and periodic light failures – Cubans are conditioned to live in the moment. Who knows if the bus will come? If it comes, will it stop? If it stops, will there be room for more passengers? If it stops and there’s room, will I be lucky enough to squeeze on? In Havana, living means waiting and we might as well tell some jokes, throw back some rum and drink in the sensuous scenery of the meantime – whether we’re waiting for a bus or something más allá. 

            This city, this system, demands superhuman discipline and tolerance, which is shot to hell once the moment of truth arrives – as the box office opens or when the bus finally pulls to the curb, the doors unfolding with a screech. Then everyone breaks into a run or at the very least a trot and the race is on. “¡Dale! ¡Dale! ¡Corre! ¡Corre!”  The staccato commands to ‘step on it!’ bounce from the granite stairwells of Vedado to the greasy, hot alleys of Chinatown. If you don’t laugh here, you’ll cry and if you don’t hustle when it counts you’ll languish, molder, miss out or be stranded. Timid Cubans, I imagine, must suffer especially.

            The more months I pass here, the more I realize that Havana time is not only a parabola, it’s also a helix, doubling back upon itself, causing motion sickness, confusion and ultimately entropy. Cubans maintain their balance by living for right now: eating fast, fucking faster and devouring the latest gossip as a nearby phone rings itself hoarse. Appetizers, ice cream, carnal moments, secrets and other juicy goods here ‘dura como merengue en la puerta de la escuela’ (last as long as candy at the school door) and tough luck if you don’t run and get yours.

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