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Do You Have the Cojones?

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If I had a peso for every email I get from someone saying they want to live in Cuba, I could take the six month sabbatical I need to finish my book. Hard as it may be for some of you to believe (or stomach), people do indeed write me all the time professing that they want to live here. These wannabe transplants mention the music usually, the slower, easier pace sometimes, the social safety net often, but Cubans and their idiosyncrasies always. It’s the Cuban ser – their way of being and living – that is so infectious, they tell me. As if I didn’t know. After a decade living here, believe me, I know. And it’s not always pretty or fun. So before you do something rash or costly or dumb, ask yourself this:

Can you be passably nice to people you can’t stand; have betrayed you; or are inept?
Sure, things are changing fast down here with unprecedented economic reforms having sparked a capitalistic furor and all the multi-tasking, efficiencies, and work ethic the best of such furor engenders. But really, it’s the same dog with new fleas. Bureaucratic habits and vice; the cradle-to-grave airbag of state support (i.e. a not always effective, and often painful savior); and the absurdist criteria for job security are die-hard tendencies everyone has to navigate.

Such tendencies, coupled with Havana’s small size and an ingrained system of sociolismo – whereby who you know helps keep you afloat – force us to deal daily with perfidious lovers, mentally challenged office drones, and crabby clerks. Getting all New York uppity or asserting that ‘the customer is always right’ will backfire (trust me) and just make everything harder in any and all future dealings with the aforementioned lovers, drones, and clerks.

Which is more important: sex or drugs?
You’re shit out of luck if it’s the latter. Cuba’s zero-tolerance policy and strict interdiction laws mean jail time for a joint, limiting recreational options to island-produced vice: rum and prescription speed, sedatives, and the like.

If it’s the former, than c’mon down because sex of all types and stripes is better on the island. While I’m still parsing the reasons why, I can say with certainty that it’s related to the lack of shame Cubans have about natural, bodily functions; the absence of Puritanical underpinnings found in other societies (you know who you are!); and the prowess of Cubans en sí. Even if you were to relocate with your spouse or partner, I predict my findings would be confirmed.

Can you tell/enjoy a good joke – especially when you’re the butt of it?One thing that chaps my ass are all these Cuba wonks (including locals – yes, Yoani Sánchez, I refer to you) who write about island life, history, politics and even travel and fail – utterly – to reflect the wicked sense of Cuban humor. This is a funny people, people. No matter who you are or where you’re from, Cuban friends, family, and colleagues will constantly darte chucho y cuero. Loosely translated, this means you will be the butt of many jokes. You are expected to laugh along and what’s more, reciprocate.

To take an example from the weekend-long International Harley Rally I participated in recently….

I rode on a 1953 hog driven by compañero Vladimir (Note: name has been changed to protect the guilty). Like most Cubans, he took the 3-hour ride as an opportunity to flirt and shower me with compliments – the scripted Cuban prologue to getting into a girl’s pants. Not a chance did Vlad have, but that never stops an island guy from trying. I was clear on this point, as were the other 100 or so Harlistas and their backseat Bettys, but poor Vlad tried his damnedest regardless. On the last night, there was a big fiesta, the booze flowed, Vlad got stupid drunk, and ended crying in a corner. His friends rallied, rousted him, and escorted him safely to bed. Upon their return, they passed me this note:
[
(Coni I love you. You betrayed me. I never thought you’d do that to me. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I love you. A kiss)

Uproarious laughter ensued – we all knew Vlad’s blubbering had nothing to do with me and everything to do with dropping his bike in a drunken mishap. Lips pursed and blowing kisses, I snatched the forged note from Rodolfo’s hands, preventing him from making good on his threat to post it on Facebook.

Which is more important: food or sleep?
Automatic fail if you answered either because you’ll will go without both at some juncture here. Obnoxious reggaetón at 5am; pre-dawn Revolutionary Square rallies; and all-night parties will rob you of the latter, while shitty/non-existent restaurant service; midnight munchies with nowhere to sate them; and food just not worth ingesting, will rob you of the former.

Do you have personal space issues?
If ‘yes’ even crosses your mind, cross Cuba off your list: chronic housing and transportation shortages mean you’ll share rooms and beds, seats, sweat and oxygen with friends and even strangers at one point or another. Culturally, Cubans have a completely different approach to personal space – kissing, touching and rubbing up against each other is de rigueur, regardless of relation or circumstance. Even in the dog days of summer, folks greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, leaving behind a wet slick of sweat, a reality I’m still not sure how to deal with: do I let it ride and dry or swipe it away with a perdóname smile?

Are you more of a tits or ass person?
Cuban preference falls squarely on the latter which is a boon for bosom-challenged me, though I’m sorry to report that implants are making major inroads here, tweaking the standard of beauty towards the bust.

How do you feel about second-hand smoke?
Personally, I’m tired of tourists giving me dirty looks as I enjoy my habitual cigar. More than sex, rum, salsa, and solidarity, Cuba is known for its world-class tobacco. If you’re going to be here for any length of time, you’ll have to accept the fact that at one time or another, in places appropriate and not (e.g. windowless clubs, in hospitals, on buses), you’ll be breathing in the piquant, cancer-causing smoke of uncut black tobacco cigarettes and one peso cheroots.

Are you a hygiene freak?
If you’re one of those folks who has a trial-sized Purell bottle clipped to your bag, this isn’t the place for you. From stepping in street juice and gutter detritus to tolerating bugs or hair in your food (or as part of your food, as often happens with chicharrones), you’re going to experience it here. What’s more, every Cuban observes the five second rule: food dropped on the floor is entirely edible, as long as you retrieve it within five seconds. To wit: a couple of days ago I went to the panaderia for my daily ration of bread. As a nice neighbor helped me deposit the rolls in my sack, two fell to the sidewalk. Without pause the baker said: ‘give me those; I’ll replace them.’ He did, but only after placing those two tainted rolls back on the rack alongside the rest to be sold. Whomever came after me got those fallen rolls, none the wiser, poor soul. This happens all the time, and you will eat food that has kissed the ground, whether you know it or not.

Can you go without toilet paper/tampons/Internet/butter/speaking your native language for indeterminate and sometimes extensive, amounts of time?
We all go without these items down here, since to be in Cuba requires an adaptability many visitors I know simply don’t have but which Cubans possess in spades. No toilet paper? No problem – we use water like billions of other people around the world or the Communist daily cut into handy-sized squares. A diehard Tampax user before my move, I switched to pads a decade ago and many Cuban women still use swaths of cotton. Baking notwithstanding, oil is a good enough substitute for butter and while there is no substitute for Internet, being disconnected has its advantages – like actually interacting with real human beings.

On the language front, I’m embarrassed for expats who move to foreign countries and ensconce themselves in enclaves of their native tongue. These folks also like to foist that tongue on locals by talking REALLY LOUD or s-l-o-w-l-y in the odd, delusionary, and insulting belief that these strategies will result in success. If you’re going to live here, you need to speak Cuban, coño, which as any Spanish-speaking visitor knows, is an entirely different ball of wax from straight up Castellano.

Do you wither in the heat?
If so, don’t come here: you won’t be able to take it and frankly, you griping about it bums us out. We, on the other hand, can complain about it long, hard, and better than you – a right earned through innumerable August blackouts with no fan, AC, or ice water.

How is your tolerance for contradictions?
Every society has them and if you think otherwise, you’re not paying close enough attention. But the Cuban flavor of contradiction is particularly special. Married men, for instance, can keep multiple lovers (sometimes of both sexes). Married women? Not so much. Meanwhile, government laws promote private business but the bureaucrats charged with upholding those laws squelch incentive and drive; sex is the national pastime but making carnal noises the neighbors can hear and nude (even topless) sunbathing are taboo; artists keep profits from their work abroad but athletes don’t see a cent; and a taxi driver/tour guide/waitress/hairdresser earns more than a neurosurgeon. The media bears much guilt as well: you’ll very rarely hear trova legend Pablo Milanés crooning his immensely popular songs of love on the radio or TV, but sleazy reggaetón by the likes of Osmany García who beseeches chicas to suck his pinga gets airtime. Some of these contradictions are trying to work themselves out, but are proving as hard to cure as bed bugs and herpes.

Finally, do have untapped stores of inner strength (i.e. cojones)?
I hope so because to live here, you’re going to need them.

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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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5 Bodegas & 8 Cafeterias Later…I’m Worried

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I recently shared with readers my top five reasons for the frayed Cuban psyche circa February 1, 2010. To recap, this psychic static is being caused by (in no particular order):

– the embargo
– bureaucracy
– economic hardship
– housing
– exhaustion

The domestic economy and crushing bureaucracy is a double whammy that’s hitting home, every Cuban home, including mine, and I’m worried.

The problem? Apparently, distribution of cigars for domestic consumption is in some kind of trouble. What kind of trouble, I can’t be sure, but that’s what the last bodeguero I talked to posited. How deep that trouble is, I can only guess and gossip (the technique used 24/7/365 by 11 million Cubans trying to figure out everything from when/if the ration book will be cut to the whereabouts of a beloved film star). But whatever the reason, it doesn’t look good for your cigar smoking Havana correspondent: after hoofing between five bodegas and eight cafeterias (see note 1) to procure the five cent cheroots I’ve been smoking for the past eight years – nada.

I’m getting a little desperate.

One of my last hopes is the funeral parlor. Every Cuban funeral parlor has a cafeteria attached where, heretofore without fail, I’ve been able to buy cigars from the upbeat (surprisingly) and underpaid (not surprisingly) staff. Getting my fix from the folks babysitting stiffs and their loved ones is only a little morbid when measured against my cigar-less disposition. Death is one thing, murder quite another.

If the funeral parlor doesn’t bear fruit, I’m afraid I’ll have to resort to my back channels (see note 2). Thankfully, since arriving those many years ago, I’ve opened several such channels. But these things take time – it’s not like picking up the phone and ordering a pizza/burrito/pad thai like where you are – and my stores are running dangerously low. True, my family and friends are always looking out for me, flipping me quite good cigars de vez en cuando, but I can’t count on ‘every once in a while’ when my stores are running dangerously low. Have I mentioned my stores, those that currently run dangerously low?

Of course, I could, in theory, resolve my stogie problems in hard currency – the dreaded CUC which circulates alongside the weak-like-an-ugly-man’s-chin Cuban peso. Unfortunately, our family economy won’t support another hard currency habit, I’m afraid (see note 3). Besides, I find the five cent cigars just as smokeable as their brand name counterparts, plus I appreciate the low level commitment of these ‘dirt sticks’ – 25 minutes and out. To be honest, I don’t like Cohibas much (see note 4). I mean, when they come my way, I’m grateful and enjoy their long, spicy smoke, but it’s not my famous cigar of choice (see note 5). In short, the time and money commitment required by really good Cuban cigars – what most people think of when someone says ‘Cuban cigars’ – isn’t practical for the modern Habanera like myself.

My bodeguero tells me he doesn’t know what’s up with February’s cigar delivery. Like so much here in Havana, it’s making me sweat.

Notes

1. The bodega is where all Cuban families (at the time of writing!) receive their monthly food and staples rations. It is also where you (yes you!) can buy 100% black tobacco Cuban cigarettes and tasty, smokeable Cuban cigars for $1 per 20, plus rot gut rum sold by the liter (bring your own empty for this service). Whatever gets you through the night and all that!

2. If I or you ever think, ‘she’s not THAT cubanizada,’ dig the subtext here (which is pretty much the Cuban economy in a nutshell): ‘state drops the ball on X good/service forcing otherwise upstanding citizen to resort to the black market’ (or as we sometimes say here: the ‘informal economy’ which is a wonderful euphemism).

3. My husband has a $2.50 cigarette habit. There’s no way I could tack on another $5 or so dollars a day.

4. The Robusto hoarded away in my drawer-cum-humidor that my father-in-law recently gifted me notwithstanding.

5. For those wondering how to make my day, do it with a Romeo y Julieta Churchill (or Monte Cristo #2).

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