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Trending, Cuba, April 2013

Young/old, foreign/Cuban, gay/straight (and variations in between), black/white (and shades in between) – the crew gracing my living room lately is varied and invigorating. They’re a veritable cross section of Havana in evolution, the friends stopping by, sipping coffee, and smoking Criollos in my crib.

I’m indebted to them, my network of family and friends who help keep me dreaming and steady the ground beneath my feet so those dreams can be seeded, sown, and reaped into reality. This has always been a place of shifting sands and I marvel at the Cuban capacity to maintain balance and mirth in the face of it.

Even under normal circumstances, steady ground is as scarce around here as spare change in a junkie’s pocket. These days however, terra firma is still harder to locate as Havana lurches along its path of economic reform, testing the capitalistic waters about which there is much phobia. And with good reason: capitalism is inequitable at its core, which contradicts many principles and practices for which Cuba has long been admired.

Truth be told, it’s a bit scary these changes we’re experiencing, and not just for their tenor, but also their pace – glacial or breakneck, depending on your perspective. Regardless, all the transformations happening in this corner of the world (see note 1) mean it’s trickier than ever to maintain our balance as we crawl, walk, and run in the nascent Cuban rat race.

As a barometer of what’s afoot here in Havana, I thought I’d invite readers into my living room to eavesdrop on some recent conversations.

“I want to start my own company, but can’t” – This came from my friend Fidel (see note 2) who dreams of having his own software development firm. As a bright, young graduate of the UCI (Cuba’s IT university, churning out brilliant computer wonks for over a decade), he’s got the chops to do it, but contends he can’t. I should mention here that I’m in “can’t” recovery: by age 13 or so, I was using the word regularly until an adult I admired upbraided me about the weakness and defeat the word embodies. She was right, of course, even Obama proved that, so when Fidel says he can’t, I bristle and parry.

‘But that’s one of the permissible businesses under the economic reforms. The licensing is easy. Get a few friends together and make it happen,’ I tell him.

He almost snickered, detailing connectivity nightmares, difficulty in accessing the latest programs, lack of marketing and publicity tools, etc, etc. Valid points all, but my recovering ‘can’t persona’ kicked in.

‘I hear you, but you’re talking to someone who wants it all. I know that’s not possible, no one can have it all, but if I get just half…’ He looked at me as if to say: ‘that and a token will get me on the subway,’ as we used to say back in the day.

“Collateral damage from the Special Period” – This observation can be applied to much of Cuban reality today – breakups, emigration, encasing homes in iron bars – but I hardly expected it in reply to my question: ‘how did you get carpal tunnel?’ It was difficult to imagine how a family doctor could suffer from such a condition unless he was a computer solitaire addict or moonlighted as a guitar player (neither, in this case) and I would have never guessed it was somehow related to the dire economic times known as the Special Period in Time of Peace. Turns out he got carpal tunnel after so many years riding a bicycle between home, work, play, and errands – seems the hand brakes worked a number on his wrists for which he’s now being operated.

We laughed (because if you don’t, you’ll cry), and it was funny, in a tragic sort of way. Some categorize the Special Period as a heinous blip on the Cuban psyche, but that economic crash that befell the country when the Socialist Bloc fell is still deeply felt, and those that contend otherwise are either in denial or haven’t been paying attention. Meanwhile, my people are talking a lot about it lately.

Some of the conversation turns on Chavez’ death since the agreements with Venezuela and other ALBA member countries signed in the early naughts, were the first light at the end of the economic-strapped tunnel. Now, with Venezuelan presidential succession hanging in the balance, folks here fear a return to those dire times could be in the cards. In my estimation, Cubans are praying more for Maduro’s victory than during both Popes’ visits combined.

“Tía, what’s vaginoplasty?” – From the Special Period to (re)constructed vaginas: this is what we call in Cuba “hablando como los locos,” and my living room does see its share of crazy folks, I’ll admit. The question is: how exactly do you explain vaginoplasty to a 12-year old? When she’s Cuban, you stick to the science. And when she asks why someone would need it, you stick to accidents and physical deformities, leaving the transsexual conversation for a later date.

I mention this living room chatter because what was most interesting to me what that the topic was broached twice, by different people, in the span of a few days. What are the odds? Pretty good, I guess, here in Havana anyway.

“Don’t tell me he’s a metrosexual!” – In case you haven’t been here in a while, this is the latest fad (and I do hope it’s a fad because unlike transsexuals, metrosexuals actually choose this state of being) among young Cuban guys. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s essentially an androgynous look adopted by urban males to what advantage I’m not sure. And these aren’t men who have sex with men in large part, but het boys adopting a super meticulously primped style that requires shaving/waxing/lasering their entire bodies to a hairless sheen, including their eyebrows. Just the maintenance required chafes (really – isn’t there something better you could be doing with your time and money?) and I personally find it a real turnoff.

So when a swarthy friend admitted his 18-year old son was a metrosexual, I offered my condolences. We both chalked it up to “youth today,” that tired refrain of all older generations everywhere, but I find it intriguing that in such a macho society, this particular global trend should catch on. Is it a statement against the patriarchal construct? I’d like to think so, but what if young women did the same and started going all KD Lang androgynous? Would parents have the same “they’ll grow out of it/youth today” attitude? I’m not so sure. If you have any insight on metrosexuality in Cuba or general, bring it on.

(And you thought this post was going to be all about Yoani and Bey-Jay.)

Notes

1. Periodically (like now) I hasten to remind readers that when I say “this corner of the world,” I’m referring to Havana only. I don’t get out of the city nearly often enough to have a bead on what’s going on in the rest of the country. And Havana is a world unto itself. I think it’s dangerous to generalize or draw conclusions about Cuba as a whole from what’s happening and being said in the capital.

2. Like all names at Here is Havana, this is not his real name. In this case, however, it’s close.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad

Havana Vice: Titimanía

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I’m what’s known in these parts as a ‘temba.’ The term generally applies to anyone, male or female, over 40. It’s not a hard and fast rule – a younger person who looks older may be called a temba – nor does it infer, like other terms such as ‘tía’ and ‘pura,’ that the person is over the hill sexually, physically or otherwise. Temba is not derogatory; it’s simply a category of Cuban, used here to describe a state of being, similar to our use of descriptive terms like negro, chino, flaca, santero or maricón (see note 1).

One thing I love about Cuba is its integrated, inter-generational nature. This facilitates friendships with Cubans aged 12 to 84 – something I cherish and which is harder to achieve in the United States. Naturally, however, many of my colleagues and consortes are other tembas. Over years of observation and recently a more in-depth investigation into Cuban sexual practices and mores for a larger piece I’m writing, a couple of tendencies keep cropping up: flexible fidelity is one, titimanía is the other.

Simply put, titimanía is the compulsion temba men have to date impractically young women. This is not limited to Cuba, of course, but by parsing how universal behaviors play out here, I hope to provide insight into the particularities and peculiarities of the Cuban character – for all our sakes (see note 2).

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I’m no stranger to the attractions of older men: at 16, my first serious boyfriend was 26, an arrangement for which he could have been prosecuted in our hometown of New York. While I think statutory rape laws are ridiculous in cases where everyone consents to getting it on, I admit there is something creepier when the ages are more advanced and the age differences greater.

Take my friend Carlos. When I met him a decade ago, he was 40 and his live-in girlfriend was 18. Jenny was gorgeous, of course, but a child – intellectually, developmentally, and practically. Just out of high school, she’d never had to pay a bill, work, or worry about a leaking faucet or roof. After four years together, the relationship ended disastrously, with Jenny hightailing it to Miami taking Carlos’ expensive gifts – jewelry, clothes, electronics – with her. Pre-ordained, perhaps, but that didn’t faze Carlos.

He quickly “recovered” (I’ve noticed men, Cuban and otherwise, tend to rebound fast – but incompletely – from ravaged relationships) and before long had Tania living with him. Prettier than Jenny, smarter, and worldlier, Tania was 22. After a few years, that relationship also ended badly, worse even than the one previous. Tania and Carlos barely speak today, which is uncommon in Cuba where circumstances and reasons too complex to elaborate here fairly obligate exes to remain on good terms. Uncommon and sad: their kids from previous relationships had become siblings and when they split it signaled an end to their blended family to the detriment of everyone involved, even if they don’t realize it.

Today, Carlos is 50 and has recently taken a 20-year old wife. I haven’t yet met her but have heard through radio bemba (our grapevine) that she’s hot and terribly boring, limiting dinner conversations to her new shoes, so-so manicure, and how the sushi she tried last week ‘totally grossed her out’ (see note 3).

Not all 20-somethings are that vapid and clearly, I better understand what’s in it for the women. Older men tend to be better than their younger counterparts in bed (if less athletic and enduring); have more status and economic possibilities; and generally have a clearer idea of what they want in life and are already well on their way to getting it (or should be).

However, once men hit that temba threshold, what they want are girls young enough to be their daughters. My 48-year old friend Elena is finding this out the hard way: after 15 years of marriage, she’s divorced and dating. Elena’s not looking for a new husband or live-in (the two are synonymous here); far from it. She just wants a healthy, available guy for a good time. You’d think this would be easy in libidinous, gregarious Cuba. Not so for Elena. ‘No niños for me,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t want to teach them the art of the orgasm or have to finance our affair. I’ve got my own kids, I don’t need another.’

Elena is looking for someone age appropriate and therein lies the rub: every man her friends try and fix her up with is interested in women her daughter’s age. They are, in short, suffering from acute titimanía. She has actually been told to her face: ‘you’re too old.’ And although they always put it in the nicest way possible, it’s getting her down. Once you rule out the married, infantile (of which there are many), gay, and titimaniacal tembas, Elena’s roster of eligible men is as short as Fidel’s speeches were long. And she’s discouraged, pobrecita.

The titimanía phenomenon came up the other day while I was talking to our mutual friend Alejandro. Clever and fit, with a comely face that belies his 50 years, Alejandro is one of the guys posited – and rejected – as a possible hook up for Elena; he likes them younger. Cubans are very frank about such things, which is efficient at least: while men here might date fat, unemployed, gold-digging, or gap-toothed women, age is not negotiable and they don’t waste time saying flat out ‘you’re too old’ (in the nicest way possible).

Alejandro could tell I was irked by his titimanía and its inequitability. “What chance is there for Elena and her ilk, when you guys are chasing skirts just out of high school?”

Mira, mi amiga,” he said smiling, his eyes crinkling around the corners they way they do with happy people, “from the age of 15, girls try to look older and do all kinds of things to enhance their beauty and heighten their self-worth – fake nails, fake boobs, dyed hair, high heels, the works. Old guys like me don’t do any of that. Instead, we pump up our egos by dating young women.”

“So tembas like you have the mentality of a teenage girl?” I wanted to say, but didn’t.

Laying my indignation aside, I could see his point. It’s about the self-esteem boost for everyone involved. But where does this leave Elena? Alejandro couldn’t provide an answer beyond: “I don’t know, but she’s too temba for my taste.”

Notes

1. This last term, meaning ‘fag’ or ‘queer’ is used in Cuba to denote male homosexuals. And while it’s inherently homophobic – which is why I don’t use it – many highly-educated and cultured people use maricón to classify gay men (or derisively with their straight friends). I employ it here by way of illustration only.

2. Equally as interesting are behaviors which don’t manifest here. For example, the reverse – a young Cuban buck getting jiggy with a cougar or MILF hasn’t caught on here like in the United States (the 13-year old who couldn’t peel his eyes from my temba friend Lucia’s cleavage, declaring her ‘hot and chesty,’ notwithstanding). But I’ll leave this for another post.                                                                                                                                                             

3. While I predict this marriage will be short-lived, I have friends who have been in one of these May-December relationships for ten years. They’re healthy and happy and while it remains to be seen what that relationship will look like when she’s 35 and he’s 63, so far so good. More power to them.

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How to Cope Like A Cuban

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]I’ve got a friend – I’ll call her Lucia. Life has been a bitch for Lucia in that special Cuban kind of way with family torn asunder by bi-lateralpolar politics; dramatic affairs of the heart and all the ardor and betrayal that implies; and the exhaustion inherent in raising three kids – the oldest two during those hard, indelible times known as the Periodo Especial, when stomachs growled and cramped with hunger and entire days were spent in blackout. The Special Period was also when mobs of people cast their fate to the wind, water, and sharks on slap-dash rafts with a 50/50 chance of making it across the Straits.

Many of those poor souls failed in their attempt to escape, dying outright en route or otherwise kept from stumbling into the open arms of Uncle Sam (see note 1). With a forced smile exemplifying the Cuban dicho ‘mal tiempo, buena cara,’ Lucia waved goodbye to friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances as they emigrated north. Due to circumstances financial and otherwise, many of Lucia’s people – including her only sister and two childhood friends – can’t return to visit Cuba. Like so many people I know, Lucia dreams of sharing a Cristal wet with sweat in the honeyed Havana light with her loved ones.

Paddling away on a raft or zipping off in a lancha (regular weekly departures for $10,000 a head) is the most dramatic and dangerous means of escape, but there are others: marrying a foreigner is perennially popular, as is the slower (but somehow less tedious) application for the bombo (see note 2); securing a Spanish passport if your family descends from those parts; or quedándose on a trip abroad. That is: going overseas for work or as a tourist (yes, some Cubans do travel for shopping pleasure) and neglecting to get on the plane back. To give you an idea of how profoundly the emigration question touches Cubans, consider ‘La Visa,’ the latest schoolyard game whereby a ball is thrown in the air and a country shouted out – Yuma! Mexico! España! The kid who catches the ball ‘gets’ the corresponding visa.

But contrary to what the world has been led to believe, there are more Cubans who don’t want to leave than do. Like Lucia. Like my husband and his family. Like many of my co-workers. But just because they aren’t scheming their great escape doesn’t mean they don’t feel trapped now and again. Hemmed in by water, but also bureaucracy, Third World economics, politics and other factors quite beyond one’s control – who wouldn’t be? It’s trying at times and requires figurative escapes – coping mechanisms to mollify the madness and loosen the psychological pretzel island living engenders.

In no particular order:

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll: The Cuban penchant (and talent) for sex is legendary and sexual freedom in the form of multiple partners and the pursuit and conquest of same is part and parcel of our daily landscape. Not only is hooking up freeing in the personal sovereignty sense in that it affirms (however hollowly), one’s individual choice and control, but it’s also free entertainment. The flirting and dancing and piropos (pick up lines and compliments) and foreplay help keep boredom (however temporarily) at bay and serve as an escape from all those factors beyond our control.

Drugs – illicit or not – serve the same purpose and despite Granma’s assertion that drogas aren’t a health problem here, 10 years of living in Havana paints a different picture. I know more than a handful of hardcore drunks for example, and prescription pills are in such high demand family doctors have been trained how to handle patients angling for scripts. Marijuana and cocaine can be had at no small risk and price (see note 3) and I’ve heard about Cuban acid trips and X adventures. Rock ‘n roll (coupled with rolls in the hay) is my personal drug of choice and in this, I’m largely up shit’s creek here since Cuba has crappy rock, though regular gigs by accomplished cover bands like Los Kents provide certain succor.

The Novela: Soap operas are addicting, which you well know if you’ve spent any amount of time in Cuba, where ‘round about nine o’clock the city quietly retreats inside to catch the next installment. Brazilian, Argentine, Cuban – it doesn’t matter the origin, as long as the cast is beautiful, the food abundant and the tragedia delicious. These fantasy worlds provide needed escape for islanders of all stripes, from housewives to priests, cowboys to convicts. On December 31st, a hallowed night spent with family here, the clan licked pork fat from their fingers and waited to pop the cider that stands in for champagne here when all the women mysteriously melted away. ‘La novela,’ someone said when I asked after them. Even Fidel has interrupted one of his televised speeches to assure viewers he wouldn’t run over into the soap opera. If you think I’m kidding about soaps as serious escape, consider that two TV households aren’t uncommon here: one for those who want to watch the novela, another for watching pelota. Homes with just one set become divided and bicker-ridden when the soaps and baseball are simulcast.

DVDs: Even before the explosion of private entrepreneurs selling pirated DVDs descended upon us, Cubans habitually rented and copied movies (or entire seasons of their favorite soap), on VHS and now on DVD and in digital formats. Last week as I looked to buy a 5 movie combo from my neighborhood pirate, the saleswoman nodded knowingly when I told her I was looking for something to ‘desconectarme,’ to ‘saca el plug.’ Whether at home or in the theater, cinematic escape is familiar to all Cubans and the saleswoman had no trouble plucking a DVD from the rack with Moneyball, New Year’s Eve, and three other recent releases.

Sports: Technically (and for all the old timers), baseball may be the national sport, but football/soccer is making a play for the title. Every day in the park near my house, local kids field two full teams and kick up the dirt in bare feet as they drive towards the goal. When Barça or Real Madrid play, the bars are packed with fans wearing their colors who unleash a fury once reserved for the Industriales baseball club and national volleyball team. I’m not surprised that booting a little black and white ball about for millions of dollars while having all the super models, fast cars, and sprawling properties your heart desires is the escape-cum-dream package for so many Cubans.

And that’s what it’s all about, friends: the dream. Not the American one or the European one. Nor the dream of fame and fortune those places symbolize (but rarely actualize) for so many from points south. Just the dream, in and of itself regardless of time, space or place. This is what’s essential. We all have them. We all have the right to them. I encourage everyone, everywhere to embrace, as I have, my mom’s sage advice: ‘live your dreams.’ No matter what they are or where they may take you.

In the words of Blondie: “I’ll build a road in gold just to have some dreaming. Dreaming is free.”

Notes

1. The USA has an extra special immigration policy for Cubans known as ‘wet foot/dry foot’ whereby any Cubano who is able to touch toe to hallowed US ground is granted automatic residency in the Land o’ the Free. This ‘advance to Go, collect $200’ dangled before Cubans (and only Cubans) means would-be immigrants from this island are even more reckless than their nothing-left-to-lose brethren from other latitudes, risking life and limb to reach the USA. Again and again, it has proven fatal (Elián González ring a bell?).

2. Other extra special Cuban immigration rules coming from the USA include this emigration visa, 20,000 of which are pledged under current accords (Obama re-instated this old policy suspended by Bush Hijo).

3. I strongly advise everyone reading this against trying to procure illicit drugs here; see Locked Up Abroad.

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Cuba: Going to the Dogs?

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In my forthcoming article for NY Magazine, I write a bit about Havana’s newly-moneyed. Whether it comes from remittances, self-employed work, or working over tourists is irrelevant. What piques my interest (and hopefully retains yours, dear readers), is how wealth – relative as it may be – manifests itself here, how it changes behavior and tweaks norms heretofore adhered to.

Faithful followers of Here is Havana will remember my thinly-veiled diatribe against Cuban marca mania – if I’m not mistaken, I actually called my compatriots ‘logo whores.’ I repeat: not all Cubans, everywhere, but there does seem to be an inordinate amount of importance placed on logos and bling here. I understand why Cubans are attracted to shiny, pretty things, but at the same time I’m biased: one of my abiding principles holds that nothing you can buy builds character (except maybe psychotherapy). The whole status symbol compulsion and keeping up the Joneses – is it inherently bad? I don’t know, but I do know I’m hard pressed to find anything good about it.

These days status symbols are displayed with as much pride as cadres display their photo with Fidel (see note 1). Gold teeth and braces, anything Mac (even if it’s just the iconic white apple sticker), cell phones (working or not), and pure-bred dogs. It stands to reason that Cubans are drawn to perros de raza since they’re a walking (shitting and barking) status symbol.

Now, those of you of my personal acquaintance know I’m not a pet person. A tortoise, perhaps, or a crafty cat that can paw open the door and hunt down a bird when it’s hungry, I’m down with. But a dog? They’re dependent, they shed, they smell, fleas like them, and often they age poorly – farting as they lumber about on rickety bones and bump into furniture with their cataracts. Plus, they hamper travel. Sorry to Sam, Sadie, Paka, Bob, and all the other great dogs I’ve known, but when it comes to canines, I subscribe to my Dad’s axiom: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus.’

But let’s put this dog question into context: I’m sure the average Cuban doesn’t give much thought to any of this. A dog here – whether in the city or campo – means added security. Dogs keep vermin of all types at bay and sound the alarm. In Havana, I’m sure you’ve noticed, folks are very concerned about the safety of their stuff and enclose entire houses – balconies, doors, windows, all – in rejas (iron bars and gates). Even taillights on motorcycles have their rejitas; check it out next time you’re in town.

So a dog is an added source of protection. I get it. But it’s also another mouth to feed and represents all manner of unanticipated expenses like when they get parasites (and they all do) or when the heat wreaks havoc on their fur (hairless perritas chinas excepted of course). They also need to be walked, adding another task to already overworked Cuban women, who, if my observations are accurate, do most of the dog care. In practical terms therefore, I’m not convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs of keeping a dog here. But what I simply can’t get my mind around is Havana’s new status symbol: Siberian Huskies.

They are all the rage: from the grimy streets of inner Habana Vieja to the bourgeoisie boulevard of 5ta Avenida, you’ll see people trying to walk, train, and tame these über Alpha dogs. And what about the heat? Have you been here in August? Just being in your own skin is a sauna – imagine if you had a pelt adapted for permafrost. It disturbs me inordinately, so I’ve started asking around…

According to my dog trainer friend Yamel, these dogs make challenging pets under the best circumstances. They’re a bitch to train because they’re bred for dominance and it’s difficult to establish supremacy. Even Yamel – who works his magic with rowdy shepherds, disobedient Dalmatians and other maladjusted dogs – says he’d never have one for this reason.

My neighbor is case in point with her trio of Huskies. They pull their leashes taut, dragging her behind, paying her no never mind. Recently, I’ve seen her working with a trainer (another expense) in the park nearby. I’m sure she watches Cesar Milan – prime time TV fodder here – religiously. Then there’s the heat. Yamel tells me they adjust, but I’m dubious: I know of at least one retriever who died of heat exhaustion here.

I was completely taken aback on a recent visit to my dear friend Carmita to see she had acquired a Husky pup. This is an unlikely pet for an unfortunate household. She’s an 84-year old pensioner living with her college-age grandson. They get a little economic help from Miami and other points north and are church-going, so have some support, once in a while, from the congregation. But Iker – named for the Real Madrid goalkeeper – is no black market Husky; he’s the real deal. Offspring of Massimo Zar de la India and Bella Bon (I’m not making this up!), Iker was purchased at one of the periodical dog shows here (see note 2) for the exorbitant price of $200. Despite my prejudices, I put a good spin on it to Carmita.

“That’s great! Now you have company while Maykel’s in class.”

She makes that smacking, sucking sound which in Cuban means ‘bullshit.’

“He’s a pain in the ass and makes a mess of everything.”

Gotta love Carmita.

We don’t mention how much his food and care must cost. Why bother?

To be fair, the vet school here has services available in both pesos cubanos (24 to the dollar) and CUCs (one to the dollar), so are technically accessible cost-wise. The CUC section of the school is sparkling, there’s no line to wait in, and medicines are available. Meanwhile, the peso cubano section swelters with people and pets waiting their turn and the pharmacy may or may not have what your dog needs that day.

But the differences don’t end there: In the waiting room of the CUC services, snappy, pretty posters extol the benefits of pure breeds; above all, the posters underscore the beauty of these dogs. Shuffle over to the peso cubano waiting room and the script is different. Here, the posters are yellow and curling and don’t celebrate poodles, spaniels, and Afghans, but instead list the virtues of mutts, pointing up their strength, resilience, and force of character.

Pure breed or mutt? Pesos convertibles or pesos cubanos? Welcome to today’s Havana: suelta sin vacunar (on the loose, without her shots).

Notes

1. Every visit with The Comandante is documented by a state photographer. A few days after the meeting, a 6×8 matte photograph of you and Fidel arrives at your door.

2. While not Westminster, dog shows are serious business here, with breeders showing their stuff and buyers perusing their pups like johns trolling for ‘company.’ When purchased, Iker’s name was Kritop D’Spiritu Libre.

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Those Faithful Cubans

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Back in the 1850s, when everyone from priests to sugar barons were fighting for their piece of the pie (and their piece of mulatta ass, let’s be frank), this island was known as “la siempre fidelísima Isla de Cuba.” The forever faithful island of Cuba.

As a yuma married to a Cuban for going on nine years now, I can tell you this fidelity question has nagged me long and hard. And I’ve finally reached the tipping point. It took some time, though.

I remember when I was a tenderfoot on these shores – all bright-eyed and basking like a well-fed turtle, not bothered by termites in my bed or even reggaeton (see note 1) – and how much I still had to learn. On one of those fine sunny days way back when, I was seaside with some friends (a pair of ex-pat Europeans who bailed long ago) having a few cold drinks and taking the ocean air.

‘But don’t you wonder where he was?’ my friend asked. She’s one of those naturally beautiful, smart women who always seems to get what she wants even when she’s not entirely sure what that is.

‘Nah.’ I said. ‘I trust him implicitly.’ Did I really just say that? More to the point, do I really believe it? Me, who has only trusted implicitly five people my whole life, four of whom share my last name? It slipped out, but it was true. At least I wanted to think it was true.

The distinguished gent across from me, a rich well-traveled Turk who was living in Cuba on a lark, raised his eyebrow and his glass. ‘I wouldn’t trust anyone here implicitly, querida,’ he said sipping his Bucanero.
_____

It was my first summer here – 2002. I’d never even seen a spit-roasted pig or the inside of a hospital (see note 2) and my husband and I were spending August camping around the island. I was blissfully unaware of the depth of my ignorance about Cuba – had I known then what I know now and I had known how confused I’d still be all these years later, I may have run away and quit before my Cuban odyssey ever really started.

The car packed high with tent and stove, kitchen kit and several gallons of water, we went way off the beaten path. Making our way across the country we’d just pick a place on the map and go. This is how we found ourselves kicking up dirt on a deserted road heading towards Punta Covarrubias in god forsaken Las Tunas (see note 3). We saw nothing for miles – no birds stirred the air, nary a lizard snuck out his tongue. Not one car or person appeared in the 90 minutes we were on that rutted road. Finally the sea grew into view and with it came gales of laughter.

When we pulled up between pines as thin as a Cuban campesino, we saw a panel truck and a party in full swing. The beach and lone hotel were deserted – closed for the season or some other confounding Cuban reason – but these folks had come to let their hair down and hot dog!, roast a pig.

My husband busted out a bottle of rum and we took turns rotating the pig. Dominos materialized of course. We got to know our hosts in that way Cubans have of making fast friends. They were lovely people, country folk who worked hard and had the calluses to prove it. With the sun dipping low, we swapped addresses (none of us had phones in our homes) and I promised to send Eliades the photos we’d taken.

“On no! Don’t send them to me. My wife will kill me if she finds out!”

And here I’d thought the buxom brunette with the sunburned collarbone he’d been fondling all day was his wife. Silly me.
_____

Not long thereafter, I was on the 100 bus going to a meeting. It was one of those oppressive Havana days when tempers are short, the sun’s rays are long and you’re sweating as soon as you step from the shower. In sum, a typical July day in these parts. The 100 bus, I should mention, ‘tiene sus cosas‘ as we say here – it has it’s thing going on.

This bus runs through Marianao – a very working class, very black neighborhood run thick with bling and babalawos – from where it descends to the seashore in Miramar. In summer, this bus is an asses to elbows, hips to groin crush of humanity desperate to get to the “beach” (no sand, just a nasty species of shoreline rock known as diente de perro). At these times, boys ride the 100 shirtless and the girls are more scandalously clad than usual (if that’s possible). It’s so crowded daredevils hang from the windows, hitching a ride from the outside.

On this day, I was all up in it inside the bus. There was no choice but to squash up against the strangers squeezing in around me. I tried to angle away from any erogenous zones – theirs and mine. As we crossed Calle 51, the crowd crushed in tighter and I felt a warm rush of air on my face.

“Come to the beach with me baby,” a young, chiseled guy chuffed in my ear. I turned away, making sure to steer clear of his bulge.

“I don’t think my husband would approve,” I snapped.

“You’re married? So what?” the kid responded, pressing in tighter against me.
_____

Some years ago, I was let in on a secret. It wasn’t really a secret (a concept which is completely foreign to most Cubans) but rather one of those things that people know about but no one mentions: the two family phenomenon. I had drawn breath 32 years before I’d ever known that there were men who keep two families. Not Big Love style, but two secret families – one on one side of town, the younger on the other.

I have one friend, the poor soul, who discovered the ignoble injustice as her dearly beloved lay on his deathbed. On that day, she had brought him his breakfast and coffee just like every day since he had been hospitalized. She kissed him goodbye and turned to leave just as a second woman came in, breakfast and coffee thermos in hand, trailing two kids. The Other Wife with The Other Children who had no idea they had a half-brother and -sister on the other side of town. The bastard died not long thereafter. My friend and I don’t talk about it.

The same thing befell another friend, Josue. As an adult, he discovered his father had kept another family secreted away, also with kids – two brothers Josue spent a whole life not knowing.

I wonder about men who are so weak and insecure they need two women, two sets of kids, two lives. I imagine it must be extraordinarily stressful and hard to keep straight. I wonder how they look themselves in the mirror.
_____

Don’t believe for a second it’s only the men. Rosario is a perky (natural) blond with the hips of a mulatta and the ass of a negress. Her husband Julian is not only hot, he’s a talented, super successful musician to boot. They have a beautiful son together. One morning Julian woke up to an empty house. Turns out Rosario had married a Mexican on the side to leave the country and took the boy with her. She ditched the Mexican as soon as possible of course; she and the boy now live in Miami.

And what I’ve seen during my work abroad, covering the Cuban medical missions? Por favor. These folks serving two years in godforsaken places are like sailors on shore leave the way they hook up with one another. And the longer and harder the posting, like Haiti or Pakistan? Let’s just say it’s far from ‘la siempre fidelísima Isla de Cuba.’

For someone like me, faithful as a damn dog, this is all pretty disturbing. What does ‘faithful’ mean here, I wonder? Does it even translate? Does giving head count as cheating? Getting it? How about a mercy fuck? I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know, now that I’ve learned a little about Cuba, is that I wouldn’t necessarily say implicitly…

Notes
1. For the record, I have always been bothered by cold water showers and turds at the beach.

2. Since then I’ve been regularly employed as a journalist (take that OFAC!) by MEDICC Review which has thrust me inside all sorts of Cuban hospitals – from pediatric to post-disaster.

3. Very near here is one of the points of highest illegal immigration to the United States in all of Cuba. So common and scheduled are the super fast speed boats that pick up Cubans to zip them across the Straits to Florida they’re called ‘Yutongs’ – our equivalent of a Greyhound.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, Cuban phrases, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Relationships

Cubans Do it Better: Adventures at the DMV Part I

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I’ve never been a fan of the DMV. There’s the bureaucracy of course – a paradigm of grouchy inefficiency with which I’m sure you’re familiar – but it’s more than that. It’s too many hoops to jump through and rules and the petty (but potent) power wielded by the cogs in the department of motor vehicles machine that chap my ass.

So when my US driver’s license expired, my gut seized up and more hairs grayed as I imagined the horror of the Cuban DMV (see note 1). The adventure started when I tried to get a copy of Ley #60 – Cuban rules of the road – to study up. The DMV didn’t have any and after a brief consultation, the nice lady cop suggested I check across town at the driving school.

I hoofed it over there in a McCarthy-era Dodge and walked a dozen long, hot blocks under a blazing Cuban summer sun only to have the dark, heavy-lidded compañera at the reception desk inform me that they didn’t have any. After almost nine years in Cuba, I know not to ask ‘why?’ But my disappointment must have showed, for the desultory lady livened up to say: “the new regulations are being implemented. The books are being printed up now.”

“and they’ll be ready?…”

The somnolent curtain descended again and she shrugged. After a moment she offered to transfer a digital version of the old road rules book onto a memory stick if I had one.

I didn’t.

So it was back to the drawing board, which meant I’d have to go about things ‘a lo cubano‘ or ‘por la izquierda‘ (see note 2). An Internet search brought up Ley #60 (all 67 pages of it) and friends supplied the same classes and practice quizzes given at the fancy, hard-currency driving school.

I set to studying.

Some of the Spanish tripped me up (I had never had cause to use the word contén and can anyone explain to me in plain English the difference between a remolque and semi remolque?!) but luckily, Cuba is a signatory to the 1949 UN Convention on Road Traffic, so most of the US road rules with which I’m familiar applied. I skimmed the rural transit section – surely I don’t need to know the tare weight of a tractor trailer or speed limits for horse carriages. I took the quizzes, did OK, and readied myself for the written exam (see note 3).

I arrived bright and early – a bit nervous, but excited. For no reason, it turns out: the computers were down. I’d have to come back the next day. “Or better yet in two,” said the cop with the boyish good looks and tender smile. He was easy on the eyes even as he delivered the bad news.

My time was running out you see and this unforeseen delay was deeply troubling. I was due to leave soon on assignment and I would have to cover a lot of ground, in a context where a car is compulsory – think LA or the French Riviera. I needed this gig. We needed the money. The debt I imported from my life “before” in the US continued to grow (see note 4) and my income wasn’t keeping pace. This was our money for most of 2011. I couldn’t blow it. I had to get that Cuban license.

Countdown: Four Weeks

I returned two days later to take the written. The system was still down. I asked the comely cop for a phone number (no, not his – faithful readers of Here is Havana know I’m hopelessly devoted to my husband) to call before trudging over again. I phoned the next day to see if thee system was up and running.

Game on.

The waiting room was archetypical Caribbean, sporting coral-colored walls and a phalanx of tropical plants leading to the balcony where new drivers awaited their laminated, holograph-imprinted licenses. That balcony was my goal. Poco a poco.

I waited to be called into the exam room. A nearly life-sized poster of Raúl loomed above me. He wore his poker face and olive greens, but somehow remained avuncular in a way that Fidel can be but isn’t often. The quote emblazoned in red below brother Raúl was new to me: “gossip is a divisive and counterrevolutionary act.” Here was a man after my own heart.

I was summoned into the exam room and let the AC wash over me. A dozen computer terminals occupied by wrinkled grandpas and young studs in bad Hugo Boss knock offs lined the room. This was much more high tech than I expected and more modern than I was used to. All around me I saw furrowed brows punctuated by nervous laughter. Men outnumbered women four to one.

I sat at terminal 3 and began the test. I knew most of the answers but not all. The Spanish was somewhat confusing and I second guessed myself. I got the question about tractor tare weights and failed by one wrong answer – just shy of the required 75 points to pass. Another setback. More stress, which grew when the proctor with a keen eye for cheaters (and there were several) told me I had to wait a week before I could take it again. No exceptions. No overrides of the computer system.

“Study up and come back next Friday at 11am when I start my shift.” Was that a wink or a nudge I saw when she said that? I certainly hoped so and planned to show up next week with a package of high quality, hard currency coffee for the affable cop proctor.

Countdown: Three Weeks

I read every word on each page of the 67-page long law. I highlighted tricky concepts and took copious notes. I checked terms with my husband I didn’t understand. One sign – described, but not pictured anywhere – was a complete mystery to everyone we consulted. It had something to do with railroad crossings, we got that much, but otherwise was a complete puzzlement. The written exam always had a ‘what does this sign mean?’ question, but what were the odds I’d get this one?

I returned the Friday following nervous, but more confident (the coffee weighing down my handbag helped). I hailed Raúl and his sage words for all the revolutionary chismosos and strode into the exam room. The nice proctor was nowhere in sight. I felt stood up and doubted the policewoman with dyed jet black hair and fire engine lipstick would be as kind.

‘Focus, Conner, focus,’ I admonished myself.

Elvira’s Cuban cousin left the room and the kid on my right with a marijuana leaf belt buckle as big as my palm began feeding answers to his socio on my left. Really? Cheating on the DMV permit test? That’s unethical and dangerous; I don’t want to share the road with the idiot that needs to cheat on the written. Should I tell Elvira, I wondered?

‘Focus, Conner, focus.’

Then came question 11. It was a red and white railroad sign with an inverted V below a red X. The mystery sign from the night before. I called Elvira over.

“Hi there. I’m a little confused. I’ve never seen this sign here. Does it even exist in Cuba?”

She laughed and leaned over my shoulder to check out the sign on the screen. “Well, some are international and correspond to the treaty to which Cuba is a signatory, but you don’t necessarily see them around.”

“Oh,” I nodded.

She leaned in again to consult my screen. “Don’t worry. You answered correctly.”

Buoyed, I set to the remaining nine questions. When I’d finished, I started from the beginning, re-reading each question carefully, parsing the Spanish. I went through all 20 again and reviewed my work. I was just about to click ‘Finish and get results,’ when a film crew entered and started shooting. Elvira told the classroom to continue as if they weren’t there. It was the prime time program On the Road where the finer points of Cuban road rules are discussed for a half hour each week (see note 5). Seems yours truly was going to feature.

My hand was sweating. I hovered over ‘Finish and get results.’ I clicked. 95 out of 100, with just one incorrect response: question #11 with the mystery railroad sign. Gracias, Elvira.

Stay tuned for Part II of Cubans Do it Better: The Road Test
.

Notes

1. Officially called the Oficina de Licencia de Conducción, conveniently attached to the local police precinct.

2. Note to self: when a problem needs resolving, best to start “Cuban-style,” consulting with informal channels known literally as doing things “via the left.”

3. This process also included supplying $30 in official stamps, an eye exam (performed at my local polyclinic), a medical exam, and a couple of photos.

4. Note to all would-be expats: this is a really bad move. IRS, student loans, family floats – whatever the debt, try to clean it off your plate before moving abroad.

5. If all this attention to Cuban traffic law – new regulations, prime time TV shows, and the like – seems odd, it isn’t when you consider that the #5 cause of death in Cubans as a whole is accidents (it’s the #1 cause of death in Cubans aged 5-19); the overwhelming majority of these are traffic accidents.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, health system, Living Abroad

Slippery Okra & Sleeping Shrimp: Classic Cubanisms

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One thing I’ve learned my nearly eight years in Havana is that Cubans have a way with words. Many a lass for example (present company included) has been seduced by a poetry-reciting buck borrowing from the likes of Silvio Rodriguez and Cintio Vitier. And who isn’t hip to the oratory artfulness of Fidel, that hypnotist of crowds from New York to Durban?

In fact, Cuba is a country full of semantic artisans willing and able to sprout ‘flowers from their tongues’ as we say here. This oral aptitude is nothing new or novel. Since Martí and the Mambises, Cubans have honed their mesmerizing way with words. This extends to dichos, popular sayings that use metaphor, irony, and double entendre to encapsulate life’s promise, problems, and perversities. Learning a dicho or three in your armchair or actual travels is a simple way to peel away a layer of the Cuban psyche.

An all time classic that has particular relevance during the dog days of summer and other ‘special periods’ is “entre col y col, una lechuga.” Between all that cabbage, a little lettuce is akin to our ‘variety is the spice of life.’ It’s not surprising one of the most popular sayings uses a metaphor based on leafy greens and cruciferous veggies – Cuban psychological hunger runs deep.

Another food-related dicho that anyone who has been to Cuba has likely experienced is: “donde come uno, come dos (o tres),” which means to say: where there’s food for one, there’s food for two (or three). What can be likened to our ‘the more the merrier’ is in fact, the cornerstone of Cuban hospitality (see note 1).

But hands down, my favorite food-related saying here is “pasando gato por liebre.” While ‘passing off cat as rabbit’ may sound like a Chinatown food nightmare, this saying is applied to all sorts of Cuban chicanery, from serving $3 mojitos made with rock gut rum instead of Habana Club to selling Selectos as Cohibas (see note 2). Being agile to this kind of trickery is part and parcel of being Cuban, embodied in another of my preferred sayings: “camarón que se duerme, se la lleva la corriente.” Or ‘you snooze, you lose.’

But enough of all this food and fauna. Let’s talk about sex, another cornerstone of Cubanilla. While there are many dichos referencing carnal undertakings, (and I could dedicate an entire post to piropos, the ingenious and often hilarious come-ons Cubans invent for catching the ear and eye of the opposite sex), my favorite is “quimbombó que rebala, pa’la yuca seca.” Literally this translates as ‘for dry manioc, use slippery okra.’ Hardly the sensuous flowering phrase you’d expect from hot-blooded Cubanos y Cubanas itching to get their groove on. But anyone who’s familiar with okra knows how slippery, slimy it gets if prepared incorrectly. And yucca, from Havana to Asunción, is dry and unappetizing unless gussied up with mojito (see note 3). So while okra is slippery by nature and yucca is dry, get the two together (or more accurately, the body parts for which they serve metaphorically) for erotic results.

Gracias a dios I’ve got no problem where yucca and okra are concerned, but there is one dicho bien Cubano that I’ve yet to internalize. Maybe it’s because I’m a New Yorker or has something to do with being a Scorpio or perhaps it’s just the state of being Conner (god help us!), but I just haven’t been able to master ‘a mal tiempo, buena cara.’ Putting on a good face during bad times just doesn’t seem to be in my make up.

Seems I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Notes

1. According to the expert in everything (that would be my husband), this saying has roots in the Cuban countryside, where hospitality knows no bounds. But it can also be traced to the island’s Haitian community, which arrived on Cuban shores in the early 19th century. Seems Haitians of the time had the custom of setting an extra place at the table, Caribbean Elijah-style.

2. Selectos are the/my five cent cigar of choice, sold in bodegas (where Cubans procure their rations). Many a tourist has been duped into buying what are touted as Cohibas when really they’re just Selecto dirt sticks wearing the signature yellow and black bands of Cuba’s most famous cigar.

3. Visitors sometimes confuse mojito, the minty potent potable, with mojito the garlicky bitter orange-spiked sauce used to dress root vegetables that is as delicious as it is addictive. While plain old manioc yucca is pasty and not-so-tasty, yuca con mojo is irresistible.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad