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Havana’s Happy Ending Massage

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Next to a full-blown orgasm, there’s nothing more relaxing than a full-body massage in my book. A good massage even beats out great masturbation if you ask me, and while I’ve had massages in places as far flung as Hawaii and the Bronx, Guatemala and the Yucatán, I’ve been reticent to explore such carnal (albeit platonic) pleasures in Havana. It’s not a question of cost – a full one-hour massage is as little as $10 here – but rather the 1-2 combo of Cubans’ notoriously lascivious nature and a rabidly jealous Scorpion husband (see note 1). Who knew what would go down on that table, yours truly lying there nude, a strange man’s hands roaming all about?

But recently, a different 1-2 combo struck, sending me to that table: first, the need for release and relaxation was too pressing to ignore and then a friend opened a full-service spa. Permissible under Cuba’s new consumer capitalism regime, this privately-owned spa is in a privileged corner of an upscale neighborhood and offers everything from spinning classes and yoga to Brazilian wax jobs and microabrasions.

It seemed like the golden opportunity to invite the strong, well-oiled hands of an unknown Cuban macho to get acquainted with my body…

But before getting down to the nitty gritty, I wonder what you imagine when you hear the word ‘spa?’ Is it some oasis serving cucumber water and salmon/watercress baguettes on Little Palm Island? Or a strip mall in the Valley specializing in waxing, wrapping, threading, and peeling? Whatever images the word ‘spa’ conjures in your corner of the world, I bet it’s nothing like what we have in Havana.

All of the spas I know here (see note 2), are mansions or grand homes at least, with living rooms converted to fully-equipped gyms, bedrooms repurposed for Pilates, and closets retrofitted as saunas. My friend’s spa falls under this rubric, though as educated, well-traveled and cultured as she is, her spa is mucho más allá, offering nutrition consultations, medicinal plants for sale on the landscaped patio, and self-defense classes for women.

Bright, clean and spacious, the spa was welcoming but exuded the contradictory energy typical to Cuba at today’s crossroads: phones rang, appointments were made and administrators made sure it hopped with the hustle and bustle of a profit-making/seeking enterprise, while employees sat around picking their nails and contemplating their navels.

I was shown to a Swiss-clean room with AC, professional massage table, and linens monogrammed with the spa’s logo. In the gleaming, marble bathroom, I was instructed to change into the robe provided. Just then, the masseur appeared. I’ll call him Henry. He was big not wide, which was good, and had the sculpted muscles of a gym rat, nicely displayed in a skin-tight wife beater. Except for his braces (adult orthodontia is big here), he was easy on the eyes, which is neither here nor there since my baby blues would be closed, but like having an unattractive or downright ugly gynecologist, it never hurts. Henry had the smooth, lustrous skin privy to youth and would be considered a hottie by anyone’s standards.

Expectations for popping my Cuba massage cherry were high…

I assumed the position face down on the table and Henry spoke the only words he’d utter to me over the next hour: “would you like your gluteus and breasts massaged as well?”

Wait, what?! I was sure I’d heard right, but was struck dumb for a second as yells of “you can do it señora! Feel the burn!!!” bellowed through the thin walls from the spinning class next door. My mind flew into high gear, considering his query:

– Is a tit massage standard procedure?
– Had I ever even been asked this before by a professional masseur?
– Do boobs even have muscles to massage?
– If the answer to the above questions is no, was there a hidden subtext?
– If I answer yes to the tit kneading, does it open the possibilities for a “happy ending” which, considering the cut of Henry’s jib, wouldn’t be the most unpleasant thing to happen to me today?

“Just the gluteus,” I told him when I’d regained my senses. He got busy.

Things started off suavecito, suavecito and my first thought was ‘Is this a massage or foreplay?’ It was too light and fluttery, nothing that would route out my many sore muscles and overworked tendons. ‘Maybe he’s just warming up,’ I reasoned.” But he kept on killing me softly, even on both feet, committing that all-too-common infraction: neglecting the feet in massage quality and quantity.

When it became clear Mr. Muscle wasn’t going to apply himself, I sucked up the string of drool crawling across my cheek and said: “please: do it a lot harder.” And I think he tried – for half a calf at least, but then lapsed back into the massage mode I call “How to Relax Housewives and Pleasure Slackers.” I imagined him learning the techniques at an intensive weekend workshop somewhere bucolic like Las Terrazas or Viñales. Needless to say, this masajito was doing nothing for the knots tucked deep beneath my shoulders and my related stiff neck. Henry’s approach released no toxins and alleviated stress for about as long as takes you to finish reading this sentence.

His hands were big and strong and my mind’s eye saw them kneading whiter skin than he had probably ever touched. ‘Litro de leche’ Cubans often call my skin tone – not always in a good way. When it came time for me to turn my lily white self over, the draping acrobatics commenced. Since I’d declined the boob massage, he had to flip me while keeping both my genitals and chest strategically covered. He was fairly deft at it, though somewhat mechanical, and I imagined a full third of that weekend workshop in Viñales dedicated to ‘How to Drape Your Client without Exposing Popular Erogenous Zones.’

I asked him once again to put more oomph into it, but he didn’t. I resigned myself to the fact that my mind and body were not going to attain any bliss today. Just then there was a knock on the door; a muchacha entered asking if she could leave her bag in the massage room. Busting in on a naked (albeit draped) me didn’t really rankle: I was used to people barging in here – during couples’ therapy, on the toilet, in the throes. Privacy in Cuba is one of the island’s enduring oxymorons and one you have to cope with if you fancy spending large amounts of time here.

My faux/flojo massage was almost over and I realized the only happy ending was for Henry, when I left him a nice tip – just for trying.

Notes
1. In 10 years here, most of those covering the health system (where almost all massage therapists train and work at some time), I’ve never met a female therapist – something which I predict is going to change fast as more foreigners drop into Havana’s day spas.

2. Watch for my upcoming article on Havana’s spas and their inclusion in the next update of my Havana Good Time iapp. It’s worth pointing out that there are both state-run and privately-owned spas here now.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

La Bola en la Calle: Crime in Cuba

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“He killed it! And I love this venue,” the young Cuban American says leaving the Jardines de la Tropical where Carlos Varela has just played a rare Havana concert.

“Yeah, way better than when we saw him in Miami,” his friend responds.

“Totally. And it’s so obvious we’re in Cuba: look at all the rejas.”

Gems like these are why I’m such an avid eavesdropper: whatever differences there are between here and there, the one warranting comment is the Cuban mania for throwing up gates and bars around their homes.

If you’ve been to Havana, Santiago de Cuba or anywhere in between, you’ve seen this obsession Cubans have with enclosing their homes with iron bars. They’re cages, literally and figuratively, and are poignantly ironic as a result – so many people carp on about ‘freedom’ here, while locking themselves away in jails of their own construction.

Home robberies do occur, there’s no doubt, and the Puentes Grandes section of town where Varela played fairly beckons ne’er-do-wells: it’s dark, isolated, and provides many easy escape routes. But the disconnect between the real and perceived threat is aggravated by various factors including press coverage (there is none); the Cuban penchant for, and reliance upon, gossip for information (loosely related to the first factor); and our human tendency to place an inordinate amount of importance on Stuff.

Our first home here – a charmless microbrigada box in the industrial outskirts of town – had a small balcony, for which I was thankful, except it was enclosed in a cage. For me, there was no stronger metaphor for a bird with clipped wings and will than looking out from that barred balcony. I tried not to think about it too often, but ended up not using the balcony much at all. That cage mitigated any levity my soul derived from the semi-outdoor space it provided.

But after a decade of watching people struggle to amass money to put up bars (see note 1) and as much time puzzling over the rich and contradictory Cuban psyche, I feel driven to write about theft, safety, paranoia, and protection of stuff here and why I think the Cuban perception is skewed.

There’s no evidence: Have you ever seen crime statistics for Cuba? Me neither. I’m sure they’re collected – after all, the data-laden ONE (Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas) amasses stats on everything from new HIV cases and teacher:student ratios, tomato harvests and tourist visits – but crime is neither reported on nor published. Is crime up? Maybe, if you believe the bola en la calle, AKA what’s being said in the street. But then you’d be violating one of my top Cuba rules: if you haven’t seen or experienced something here firsthand, it’s best to assume it’s false or fabricated (or at the very least exaggerated) until proven otherwise. Indeed, if I believed everything I heard here, I’d be writing about cooking oil made from cremated bodies; JFK’s bastard Cuban son; condom cheese; and the government’s plan to spend nearly $400,000 converting all license plates from American- to European-style. Rumors, nada más, which will remain so until evidence confirms or disproves them.

What my experience tells me is that house theft is not nearly as common as Cubans believe. In over a decade here, I know three people who’ve had their homes robbed. In each instance, no one was hurt, thankfully, though all were home at the time. In only one of these cases was the perpetrator caught; in none of the cases was property recovered. Three robberies in 10 years hardly argue for a generalized wave of house break-ins (see note 2) requiring enclosing your home in bars.

Paranoia, it’s epidemic: In reply to my query about government policies regarding this and that, a dear friend explained: “half of the paranoia is based on experiences of concrete, unrelenting and strategic attacks on the country from without and within. The other half is straight up paranoia.” The Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines paranoia as ‘a tendency on the part of an individual or group towards excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others.’

Based on my experience with everything here from bureaucracy to busy body neighbors, I’m on board with my friend’s assessment: there are some very real, tangible threats to protect against and there are the imagined ones. Something else my experience tells me is that paranoia is contagious. From day one, all of my neighbors, both in the aforementioned barrio on Havana’s outskirts and now in Playa, have urged me to padlock my front door gate, locking myself inside, especially at night while I’m sleeping.

But I’ve never done it: in my mind, the way Cubans smoke, fire is a much bigger threat than robbery (see note 3), and I’d rather be burgled than trapped inside a blazing building. Recently, a friend slept over after a party and locked up the house after I’d gone to bed. I was amused, but not surprised, to find upon waking that he’d padlocked the front door. What wasn’t funny (and gave me great pause) was, the following night, for the first time in a decade, I padlocked that gate, thinking ‘an ounce of prevention….’ Yet, when that prevention is based on rumor and paranoia, is it really worth it? And how about when the preventive measure generates another danger, in this case rendering my house a fire trap? Needless to say, that was the first and last time I padlocked my front door but it taught me an important lesson: paranoia is a disease, easy to catch.

Friends impose this same paranoia regarding my preferred mode of transport: constantly, I’m urged to be extremely careful on my bike, to the point of not riding at night, ever, because I risk being jumped and the bike ripped from between my legs. While I recognize that someone desperate (or stupid; see next point) enough might attempt this, I’ve never heard of this happening here. Have you? The more people tell me this, the more I think it’s an apocryphal holdover from the Special Period.

I’m was born and raised in New York: My friends from Centro Habana scoff when I tell them this, rejecting it out of hand as any kind of mitigating factor vis-à-vis crime against my person or property. ‘This is Havana, it’s different,’ they invariably say. My first inclination is to say: ‘hell yeah, it’s different!’ and then explain the armor and mechanisms one is forced to develop waiting for a New York City subway on an abandoned platform deep underground circa 1986 when wild-eyed crack hos, male and female, roamed and robbed violently, desperate for money for more rock cocaine.

You needed mad city skills in my New York of yore, I want to explain, but refrain. I don’t tell my Centro Habana friends about walking in the street – never on the sidewalk – in dark, decrepit neighborhoods to improve your visibility and sightlines and lessen the possibility of being jumped or cornered, nor about turning rings inward or forsaking jewelry altogether to decrease your chances of being marked. Although I don’t offer tips like ‘never leave a backpack in a locked car,’ sometimes I wish I had: my stepson made this rookie mistake in Madrid last week and was robbed blind of his laptop, passport, plane ticket and more. Likewise, I don’t explain the very real difference between walking streets where you know people are armed with guns and those where someone may have a knife – but probably not.

I also don’t share my experience of 18 months of self-defense classes where I learned tactics for what to do when jumped, pinned or attacked, at gun or knife-point, or with bare hands. With their belief in la bola, combined with paranoia and lack of firsthand knowledge of what constitutes real and constant threats, what would be the point? Besides, it reeks of mala brujería to talk about it: I don’t want to jinx myself and have to put those skills to the test.

¿Conclusión?

Cubans have an unrealistic measure of what crime looks like outside their door, down the block, across town and overseas (see note 4). The question is: does it really matter? Isn’t this just a chronicle of life in contemporary Cuba? Possibly, except I’m worried about what relying on la bola about crime will mean as we move forward with current economic reforms. As inequalities deepen – and they are, as I type this – and crime begins to climb, as it tends to do when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, won’t it be helpful for citizens to know exactly what their playing field looks like?

Notes

1. Even more than renovated kitchens and bathrooms, the first home improvement Cubans make is erecting rejas on windows and doors.

2. Ojo: Note that here I am referring only to home robberies and how they correlate with barred windows and doors, not opportunistic theft of bicycles, chain and purse snatching, etc.

3. One friend of mine has fallen asleep not once, but twice, while smoking, torching his mattress in the process. Despite having escaped unscathed, he continues to smoke and nod off; I have the burnt furniture to prove it.

4. This intrigues me even more still since part of the reason for this skewed perception is lack of press coverage of crime here. But you see the same exact fear and paranoia in the US due to too much press coverage and the generalized media strategy of ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’

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