Tag Archives: cuban slang

Inside a Cuban Posada

Brothels, bordellos, madams and the prostitution profession in general have long intrigued me. Even prior to writing about Heidi Fleiss (the Hollywood Madam), one of my first paid gigs as a scribe, I was a proponent of legalizing and regulating prostitution. For my money this is the best way to protect the health and safety of the providers and to bring the world’s oldest profession out of the shadows. It can never be eradicated – hooking, transactional sex, play for pay, whatever you call it – and if it can’t be wiped out, wouldn’t it be better for all involved if the violence and drug addiction, unsafe and underage sex, human trafficking and other related dangers could be addressed in a systematic way, applying legal and public health frameworks? I know some countries have taken certain steps towards this with mixed results – legal houses in Amsterdam; Sweden penalizes johns instead of prostitutes – and there are no easy answers. I certainly don’t have any, though I’ve thought about this quite a bit.

Prostitution in Cuba doesn’t interest me all that much. Or rather, sex tourism doesn’t interest me, but Cubans paying for sex does: it flows so freely here, it seems like money poorly (or desperately) spent. Some of this carnal action happens in what are known as ‘posadas,’ where rooms are rented by the hour. These fill a very specific need here since homes are overcrowded, while privacy is a luxury reserved for the very privileged. So it’s not all putas and johns that rent rooms by the hour, but also couples who just need a place to screw. Posadas are easy to identify. You know those little blue symbols on Cuban homes which signify that they rent to foreigners? There’s another, identical sign, but in red, which means the house rents rooms to Cubans only, in pesos cubanos. I’ve always wanted to rent a posada room for an hour or two, just to see what it’s all about until a friend said: ‘are you nuts?! All those rooms have holes for peeping or filming.’ That turned me right off to this new Cuban experience I sought.

Fast forward to last week and where do I find myself? In a posada in Santa Clara. My friend José and I went to the city of Che/city gay to celebrate International Day Against Homo/Transphobia, but we had no accommodation lined up. Our budget was tight, we were tired, and José offered to hunt down a house. He found something affordable, a bit outside the city center, but we had transport. The only catch was we had to be out by 10:30 the next morning – “seems like they’ve got a ‘palo programado’ (a scheduled screw).” I was too exhausted to ask. When we entered the room – no window, no toilet paper, no hot water, one pillow, one towel and an Igloo cooler on the floor filled with ice – I collapsed on the double bed, but sleep was elusive. The stench of cheap air freshener permeated everything – the sheets, my hair, our clothes, even the stale air stank. We slept with the door open to provide a shred of relief from the olfactory assault. Luckily the room faced a brick wall – to keep out prying eyes.

We awoke fairly rejuvenated in spite of it all and I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of the pair who had a standing date each Friday morning (escaping from work and/or spouses with a handy excuse I would have loved to hear but there are some things you just don’t ask). At 10:30am sharp, a cherry red Dodge with blacked out windows rolled into the interior patio and out stepped a bleached blonde temba (a woman of my age more or less) in platform heels and a puss on her face. A lover’s spat, perhaps? Her companion looked more upbeat (don’t they always?!), having already doffed his shirt in the mid-morning heat. We rode away and I was ready to get as far from the stench of chemical flowers as fast as possible. Too bad it still stuck to my skin.

Two days later, we got caught in a mountaintop rainstorm, quickly scrapping the idea of camping. Instead, we headed to the closest big town to look for a room. We rolled in to Cumanayagua at about 9pm, wet and tired after an all-day hike and were directed to a corner on the outskirts of this bustling rural berg. The sign said: Hostal, 24 hrs, AC, hot water TV and DVD. José walked through the big steel sliding door which I’m learning is typical of posadas (so cars can enter and the lovers can rent their room without being seen) to talk to the proprietress. Standing on the sidewalk, the smell of urine stinging my eyes, I heard her ask: “you want the room for the whole night?! It’s $4.” Suddenly I knew what we were dealing with, but I didn’t know what we were in for. We rented the ground-floor room and once again were assaulted by the cloying stench of cheap air freshener. Was there some lucrative business selling this shit by the gallon to posadas, I wondered?

The bed was flanked by golden gilded mirrors and even tackier curtains without a purpose; a TV on a retractable arm like they have in hospitals pointed towards said bed. There was a DVD player with a disc in it. I would have bet my life that it was some kind of B-grade porn; if I had, I would be dead. It was actually 172 minutes of C-grade music videos. While I surveyed our $4 surroundings, I overheard the señora say: “Who knows? Her ID card says it’s her, but I have no idea.” As if I would be in the middle of nowhere passing a fake ID at a flophouse that reeks of faux flowers and piss…

We hung our wet shirts and pants and socks on a clothesline we strung across the room and took a cold beer and cola from the fridge. That’s when I saw the first cockroach skitter along the wall – a Lower East Side-type sucker, the size of a Bic lighter. I decided it was time for a shower. My flip flops firmly on my feet, opting for our soap rather than the complimentary – used – cake on the sink, black hairs and all, I tried scrubbing the road grit and posada perfume from my body. I succeeded in ridding myself of the former, the latter not so much. When the soap slipped from my hand and skidded across the shower floor, it picked up a few black hairs in the process. Before getting into bed, I wondered who would actually use the comb provided for guests – obviously someone had.

Our hostess warned us that we had to be out by 8am (another early morning ‘palo programado’) and we were beat besides. We woke to the familiar smell of piss and air ‘freshener’ and packed quickly. Another cockroach sighting later and we were out of there. But as we did our final check around the room, the fan mixed with a breeze and flipped up a corner of the sheet, under which was a condom wrapper. At least they’re practicing safe sex, I thought. Ciao Cumanayagua, it’s been real.

I’ve now had my Cuban posada experience – twice in five days. Believe me, it was plenty.

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I need to add a little postscript to this post which has nothing to do with posadas but everything to do with how Cuba continues to puzzle. Besides, I need to exorcise the images swimming around in my head. In the five days we were tooling around the Escambray, I learned of a disturbing fact of local life. My friend José told me of a fellow he knows in the tiny town of Cordobonal who is clinically insane. And his family, rather than commit him, keeps him in a cage. I asked my friend not to share information like this with me; as a writer, I was visualizing his whole miserable existence (and that of his family). Later that night, sitting with José’s family in a similarly tiny town, I learned that his cousin’s wife has a nephew who went insane at the age of 14. For the past 17 years, this young man has been living in a cage as well. I think the worst part of it all is that my friend’s cousin was asked to build that cage – and he did. If I’m having trouble with the image of people living in cages, what about the person who builds them? I shudder to think. What makes it even more difficult for me to process is that Cuba has a national network of psychiatric hospitals – all free. Sure, conditions can be pretty scary, the food is scarce and terrible but is this worse than spending your life in a cage? I was talking to another friend about this yesterday and he told me about another one in the center of Vedado that he can see clearly from his balcony. And last night, I was watching Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (a documentary that has gone viral here) and I was left positively speechless when I learned that L Ron Hubbard kidnapped his young daughter as revenge against his wife in the 1950s, took her to Cuba and left her with a mentally disabled Cuban woman – who kept the young Hubbard girl in a cage. WTF people?! This boggles my mind, but it’s got me thinking I should make my own documentary…

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

I’ve got my knickers in a twist and if you know me, you know how ugly I can get when my ass is chapped.

Today’s topic? Ethical, responsible, and sustainable travel to Cuba.

For those who don’t know me (let alone my knickers), a bit of background: I’ve written some 20 or so guidebooks – almost entirely to Latin America and Hawai’i. That is, contexts where vulnerable communities and environments depend on critical tourist dollars. And it’s not always pretty. Importantly, I’ve also borne witness to the continuum of change in Cuba, from my first month-long volunteer stint in 1993 to right now, after nearly 14 years in residence. So I know intimately the ‘bueno, malo y regular’ that tourism can heap upon a place. I also know painfully well the challenges facing Cuba as it navigates a tumultuous domestic reform process, while facing the oncoming tourist ‘tsunami’.

When I launched Cuba Libro in 2013, I designed it as an ethically- and socially-responsible business – relevant and responsive to local communities’ needs, which would also serve as a cool, cultural space for visitors to dig below the surface of this increasingly complex society. I also wanted it to shine as an example of how the private sector can (and must if there’s any hope for the Cuba we know and love) support and strengthen the public sector.

I recently participated in a Temas panel and debate dedicated to sustainable and responsible tourism. If you’re unfamiliar with Temas, it is the intellectual publication of reference here and its Director, Rafael Hernández – regularly published and quoted in the western press – can often be found on speaking tours abroad. In short, Temas is a heavyweight when it comes to critical debate in Cuba.

So despite feeling like shit with what turned out to be the onset of dengue, I made my way with some 50 colleagues to the lovely Parque La Güira in Pinar del Río to learn about what’s happening around sustainable tourism in Cuba.

I should have stayed home. While the panelists were informed, experienced, eloquent, and educated, there was a general pall over the proceedings. Despite a formal invitation, no one from the Ministry of Tourism showed up. Nor were there any representatives from the Ministries of Health or the Environment. So much for intersectoriality. What’s more, various presentations and exchanges revealed there is no national strategy, no community voice or participation, not even a consensus on what constitutes sustainable and responsible tourism and therefore no evidence base upon which to measure progress. I wasn’t sure if it was the dengue or lack of policy/political will making me shudder, but I (and others I spoke with) came away from that panel depressed.

Why? Because responsible and ethical tourism is a two-way street. Recipient countries have rights and obligations and it’s unclear what Cuba is doing about it. The emphasis on golf course and resort development (did you know Cuba is in a crippling drought? We certainly do: it’s on the news and in the papers all the time) and cruise ship tourism (I was hoping someone on the panel would provide cost-benefit analysis on this issue. File under: Wishful Thinking), are troubling. Even more troubling is this trip report from a frequent traveler to the Oriente, and this report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which while long, lacks substance.

But individual travelers also have rights and obligations and since I can’t do much in the short term about the government’s role, I wanted to write about what you can do to help Cuba while you explore this fascinating country.

#1: Respect the laws of Cuba – If you are a reporter, blogger or freelance writer or filmmaker and enter Cuba on a tourist visa with the intention of writing about or filming here, you’re breaking the law. If you participate in sex tourism, you’re breaking the law (and if you have to pay for sex, you’re a loser). If you couch surf, you’re breaking the law. If you drive drunk or with an open container in your car, you’re breaking the law. If you put up the money for a business or house with a Cuban on the paperwork, you’re breaking the law. Do people do these things all the time? Yes, every day. But people OD on heroin every day, too – that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do it, right? I know, I sound like someone’s curmudgeonly mother.

#2: Reduce water usage
– The drought is so dramatic it’s affecting our fresh food supply (although upwards of 70% of food is imported, none of it is of the fresh fruit or veggie variety). Plus, there are millions of Cubans, even right here in Havana, who do not have running water every day. Can you let a faucet drip or run knowing that? Would you do it at home given the same circumstances? Californians know full well what I’m talking about.

#3: Reduce plastic waste – During our team meeting at Cuba Libro yesterday, one member opined that we should sell bottled water (even though we give out gallons of purified water for free every day), because ‘tourists don’t trust boiled water.’ And he’s right – some folks don’t believe boiled water is safe for drinking. But they’re wrong: check the scientific evidence. And the plastic waste 3 million (and counting) tourists create when they drink countless plastic bottles of water during their stay is doing damage. This is an island ecology, where use is outstripping recycling and we don’t have landfill enough for all the plastic waste you leave behind once you return home. So what can you do? If you’re in a casa particular, boil or otherwise treat (drops, chlorine, iodine, filters) water and use a refillable bottle. At the very least, buy the 5 liter jugs of water and refill with that. When all else fails, switch to beer – anything to avoid the half liter bottles overfilling our landfill.

#4: Adapt – My Cuban friends make fun of me I’m so anti-pingüino. ‘The penguin’ is local slang for air conditioning. But it has been unbearably, record-breaking hot this summer, and I’ve had to resort to sleeping some nights with my Russian tank of an AC on ϹИᴧЬНО (that’s ‘high’ in Cyrillic, I think!). So, it’s hot, I get it. But the all-too-common tourist practice of leaving the AC on all day long while at the beach or out sightseeing so the hotel or casa particular room is ‘a lo pingüino’ upon return is totally irresponsible – not only does it sap the local electrical grid and damage the environment, but it contributes to global climate change as well. Besides, in AC-challenged Cuba, adapting is a much more practical survival strategy (just yesterday a US tourist said to me: ‘quite frankly, I’m used to my US comforts, like AC’). In short: suck it up and use your AC judiciously.

#5: Do not, ever, request Guantanamera, Lagrimas Negras, or Chan Chan
– Already Cuban musicians and artists are dumbing down their magnificent repertoire to cater to perceived tourist tastes. Respecting the patrimony of Cuba includes letting these musicians rip on compositions they haven’t played a thousand times for a thousand tourists. Your travel memories will be richer for this expanded listening experience. And don’t forget to tip.

#6: Learn some Spanish (or even better: Cuban) phrases
– No matter where you travel, having a couple of local phrases and vernacular up your sleeve opens doors, minds, and hearts. Get a phrasebook or app. Use it. Trying to communicate, even in the simplest way, in the language of your host country is a sign of respect. It’s not easy, I know this in the marrow of my bones. But it’s also not terribly hard once you start and is immeasurably rewarding. Do it!

#7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
– Speaking of which: visitors, especially from the USA (who Cubans love for cultural-historical reasons, but also for being big tippers), have to tame their egos. This doesn’t apply to everyone, obviously, but there’s a tendency for some US folks to push the “America [sic] is the greatest/most democratic country in the world” point of view, combined with a cringe-inducing perspective about “how to fix Cuba.” This happened just yesterday at Cuba Libro and got Douglas’ Irish up in a major way – and he has not a drop of the Emerald Isle in his blood. Travelers, from everywhere, frankly, should be conscious that they are visiting a highly-educated, cultured, and professional context, which is no way intellectually ‘frozen in time’ and that Cubans have spent a long time analyzing and living with their problems. No matter how erudite you are in your own life and field – and I include myself here – you don’t know as much as people living here day-to-day, who have spent a lifetime in this complex country. Can you enrich the dialog and provide perspective? Definitely. Can you solve Cuba’s problems after a ten-day or two-month trip? Definitely not. Show respect for your hosts’ intelligence, triumphs, and challenges by listening and learning. No one likes a dogmatic pontificator.

Lest I am accused of being a hypocrite, I will sign off here. If you have something to add about responsible/ethical/sustainable tourism, please write in; I’m starting to put together evidence, documents, and experiences related to what works and what doesn’t regarding this issue with an eye towards action.

Happy travels!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, environment, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

‘To Don’t List’ for Emigrating Cubans

Amaya; Otto; Giulietta; Jonas; Alejandro El Mesero, Alejandro El Informático: all these friends (and more) have left these shores in the past six months in search of something bigger, better, brighter or simply different.

We always send friends and family off with well wishes and congratulations (yes: getting a coveted work visa or bewitching a foreign spouse is still celebrated here the way I imagine prisoners celebrate an Early Release Date), but it’s sad too, despairing even. Tears are shed – in private or at the airport, before during or after. Yet once they dry, Cubans face leave-taking the way they face bureaucratic absurdities, violent hurricanes, chronic shortages and all-day blackouts (yes: we still have them. We’re in the thick of one as I write this, in fact, beads of sweat pooling between breasts). Mal tiempo, buena cara.

Living in Cuba is a lesson in constants: constant contradictions, constant challenges, constant rupture. And I’m still learning. I mourn the loss of my friends who, once they leave, get sucked into a dimension of fast food and FaceBook, big box stores and demanding bosses. It’s wonderful for them to have experiences they’ve only dreamt of and deserve, but it still feels like abandonment to me. Cubans seems to be less ‘trágica’ about it. I guess they have to be. It makes sense – intellectually. I know (too) many Cubans who’ve flown the coop, so to speak; the nostalgia and longing can be crippling, painfully so. As an immigrant myself, I know this feeing intimately. Mal tiempo, buena cara.

But emotionally? It sucks to have your social structure stirred up like a stamped on ant hill. Then there’s brain drain, the negative birth rate (many émigrés are women of child-bearing age), dearth of eligible bachelors, and all the other practical implications of immigration.

Rather than wallow however, I try to be of service. It helps me work through the missing. Not ready for my medicine? Tough luck.

For all my Cuban friends considering or in the process of leaving, I offer this check list of things you’re used to doing in Cuba that you cannot do once you arrive at your foreign destination of choice or default. This should be especially helpful for those moving to La Yuma.

DO NOT:
launch snot rockets (AKA the Farmer Hanky)
– pop your lover’s zits in public
– have an open container in a car
– toss cans and other garbage out of a moving car/bus/train
– tssst tssst to get the waiter’s attention
– shoot birds with a sling shot
– pick your neighbors flowers or poison your neighbor’s dog (yes: this is pretty common here)
– saunter away from a steaming pile of your dog’s shit on the sidewalk
– flaunt your mistresses
– smoke cigarettes – anywhere (unless you enjoy pariah status)
– believe everything you read on the Internet
– steal the toilet paper
– throw soiled toilet paper in the garbage
masturbate in movie theaters
– use cooking oil as sexual lubricant
– wear stilettos to the beach
– wear shorts so short your ass cheeks hang out
– forget to write. We miss you!

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

Getting Screwed in Cuba’s New Economy

It will take a bit for me to create the physical time and psychic space to write a long form piece on private businesses here – but trust, me: I’ve got plenty to say on the subject. In the meantime, I’ll channel my cathartic necessities through the relating of my washing machine saga, AKA “The Yoyi Affair.”

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I am extraordinarily fortunate to own a washing machine. Anyone who has hand washed a queen-sized sheet, scrubbed towels on a washboard (common to Cuban laundry sinks), or tried to wring out a pair of skinny jeans (and pray for sun because otherwise those clothes are going to smell funkier than a frat boy’s laundry bag) knows what I’m talking about. I lived years here drowning in that routine and now I can’t glimpse a clothesline heavy with recently-scrubbed laundry without wanting to knock on the door and offer the lady of the house a glass of something cool and a rocking chair. It’s terrifically hard work keeping a Cuban household running (forget about smoothly); as you may imagine, laundry is a sticky bitch in the equation.

Luckily, a few savvy Havana entrepreneurs have pinned their cuenta propista hopes on privately-operated Laundromats, where dirty duds are returned to you clean as a whistle, for just a couple of CUCs a kilo. I hear the one in Miramar is making bank, but their folding lacks attention to detail. There are (dark, uninviting) state places too, with cute names like Little Laundry or no name at all. You just have to know they exist and where they are. These are cheaper than the private outfits, but with unreliable hours and workers who filch your soap. I’ve been down that road and while it’s a more sane solution than trying to wring out your Levis by hand, taking my place in line at 6am for a service which takes two days is not my idea of a good time. So when my mom bought her blushing-bride-of-a-daughter a fully automatic LG washing machine as a wedding gift, it was pure euphoria.

That was almost a dozen years and what seems a lifetime ago, but it has worked beautifully and without complaint since. Ah! To wash sheets at the touch of a button! To have jeans nearly extracted dry! I loved that machine even after it developed a high-pitched squeal like a Christmas pig having its throat cut. It was so loud and piercing, callers often asked: ‘what’s that sound in the background? Are you keeping pigs?!’ ‘No, just the rinse cycle,’ I’d explain. I could live with the squeal – after all, I didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to fix it. I had bigger problems – like deadlines and ant infestations and inspectors. And I was tired: we’re working 60 hours a week, easy, at Cuba Libro, where we go through a dozen individual hand towels a day. And more than the pile of dirty laundry, these towels are the sticky bitch in my equation. ‘Whatcha doing tonight, boss? Washing little towels?! Heh, heh, heh,’ is a common conversation starter among our staff. (Note to self: dock pay for every snarky Saturday night towel comment. Just kidding!) It’s sad, but true however: I spend many an evening listening to my querida machine squeal little towels around as I wait for the dial-up internet to hop to. It only makes me weep on occasion.

One of those occasions was when the machine ceased, definitively, to have a spin cycle. Of course, it happened during an insanely busy week: long-time, well-loved staff departing for foreign latitudes; training newbies; hosting groups; friends’ birthdays; multiple deadlines; and my trip to New York. Have you ever traveled with a suitcase of soiled clothes? Not pretty, but a nice little ‘gotcha!’ for the folks rifling through luggage on this side of the Straits and Homeland Security on that one. For reasons more important than this, however, my immediate priority was Getting My Washing Machine Fixed.

I put it off, but the second time I was forced to look into that towel and soap soup, and rinse and wring out each toallita individually, I knew procrastination was no longer advisable. True, I was drowning in work, bureaucratic bullshit and administrative tedium. In short: I didn’t have one atom of extra energy to confront the jodedera of getting a major appliance fixed in today’s Havana. And then I met Yoyi. He was an affable guy with gold teeth, cafe au lait skin, and an efficient, confident air. His workshop is in a garage a couple of blocks from Cuba Libro, the driveway choked with washing machines in various stages of decay, disrepair and death. When I explained to him the problem, he boiled it down to one of three parts. ‘Let’s go to your house. I’ll assess the problem and if you agree, I’ll bring the machine here to the workshop, fix it and you’ll have it back in 24 hours.’ Transport, parts, labor and a one-year guarantee included. Efficient, professional and good looking private enterprise? Hell yeah, bring it on!

Flash forward to my apartment where two strange men are shimmying the machine away from the wall and peering into its nether regions. “It’s the clutch,” Yoyi tells me. Of course it’s the clutch, the most expensive part, for which Yoyi quoted me $150CUC. This is a total rip off, I’m fully aware. Yoyi was showing me what’s known in Cuba as ‘cara dura’. I was getting the Screw-The-Yuma price (and female to boot! Cha ching!) and I knew it, but I needed that machine in working order like, yesterday. I’m used to Cubans fucking me for my non-Cuban status in terms of pricing, but fucking me up the ass in terms of pricing? This is something else. ‘$150 CUC. That’s rough. You can come down a bit, surely,’ I told Yoyi with a smile.

We settled on $130CUC and away he went with my machine. The next day I went to his garage storefront at the appointed hour where I, along with his employees (who couldn’t reach him on his cell), waited until it grew dark. Yoyi finally rattled up in an old Lada, wedged the machine in the trunk and off we set for my apartment. After he and his pierced, tattooed helper lugged it up to the third floor, they plugged the old girl in and ran it through the spin cycle. Success! There were smiles, handshakes and goodbye kisses all around. I was impressed: within 24 hours, I had a working washing machine installed in my house, plus a one-year guarantee from Yoyi and his guys.

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The next day, I loaded up the machine, turned on the water, added detergent and pushed the magic button. I was answering yet another email from a clueless journalist here on assignment with no Spanish, no contacts, no guidebook or map even, and only a vague idea of what to write about when the machine started beeping. This wasn’t the steady ‘wash is done!’ beep but the frenetic ‘spin cycle won’t kick in!’ beep – the exact same annoying beep that drove me to Yoyi in the first place. Beads of frustration sweat popped to my brow as I went to inspect. It had worked yesterday. Why not today? I tried to restart it, trick it into going through different cycles, and taking out some clothes to lighten the load. Nada. When I looked closely, I noticed Yoyi had switched out my drum for a smaller, inferior one. De pinga.

I returned to his appliance workshop one, two, three days in a row. The place was shut tighter than the doors of the US-Cuba negotiations. Yoyi and crew were gozando with my $130 CUC no doubt. My mind went to a dark, destructive place: I was ready to open a can of NYC whup ass on the dude. On Day 4, I went with a gaggle of Cuban friends to back me up (what a motley bunch of muscle we made: a fellow so skinny his nickname is Periodo Especial; a too-good looking gay friend hitting on the too-good looking mulatto friend, a quiet pacifist, a philosopher…). When we rolled up on Yoyi, he admitted to not having tested the spin cycle with actual water. Duh. And he fessed up to switching out the drum. He promised to return to my house, retrieve the machine and fix it properly. I was peeved, but encouraged – his one-year guarantee had some validity, it seemed.

Then I went to NY. My mighty Cuban muscle paid several visits to Yoyi, but he was as scarce as butter and cheese in Havana circa 2015. That is to say: nowhere to be found. Then Havana got flooded. The pictures were frightening from where I was sitting stateside, but I knew the reality was much more horrifying: collapsing buildings; ruined keepsakes, furniture, electronics; stranded seniors. And I doubted there was hope for returning to a working washing machine.

Two days before arriving back in Havana, I got word: Yoyi fixed the machine, it was back at my house and ready to roll. I sent silent (none have email, alas) thanks and praise to my Cuban muscle and didn’t bother wasting my precious family and friend time in NY washing clothes; I’d do that in Havana and serve up another gotcha! to all airport personnel who deigned to inspect the contents of my luggage.

You see where this is going?

I got home, hugged the dog, and unpacked a small – teeny, really, so as not to overwhelm her – load of dirty laundry into the machine. As it did its thing, I began extracting from my luggage all the teas, spices, shoes, small electronics, feminine products, vitamins and the rest of the pacotilla with which I always travel: every trip Cuban friends and family give me a list of things they need but can’t get here (currently I’m procuring: baby bottles; children’s NyQuil; a lint brush; a motherboard; lubricant and coin wrappers). And guess what?! The machine worked! No frantic beeps! A proper rinse cycle! It was extraordinarily satisfying – $130 CUC satisfying, I’d say.

Fast forward two days. Another night spent alone washing little towels. As I was counting my blessings, the evil beeps started. The rinse cycle didn’t. I was peering again into little towel-soap soup. My knees and resolve to work with this guy weakened: I just don’t have the energy to interface with Yoyi again – in spite of the year guarantee. But when I do, I’m not going to bring him my machine for a third time. Instead, I’m going to bring all my NY Irish to bear and open that can-of-whup-ass all over him and his private sector business. Stay tuned.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Havana Vice: Titimanía

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

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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Adventures of the Cuban Virgins: Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

We last left our protagonists – American musicians on the island for the first time – as they were figuratively deflowered by the temptress that is Cuba and literally robbed by her inhabitants.

With only 48 hours in country, they were already acquainted with water-borne bichos and explosive diarrhea; frolicked (and perhaps even fornicated) along the Malecón; and acquired groupies. In short, they were partying late, sleeping little, creating music, and making very merry.

The theft of the Fender bass after the Will Magid 4’s first Jazz Festival gig did little to dampen their spirits or enthusiasm for this place. On the contrary: the kind, well-equipped stranger who offered to loan us a bass for the next gigs only reinforced their admiration for Cubans and their ways.

Before you can say ‘pass the planchao, asere,’ it was Friday, hours before the gig that had everyone hot and bothered. It wasn’t a festival event, the crowd would be small by design (we had to keep it quiet in the interest of crowd control), and we weren’t sure how the band would fit in the performance space. But after another rehearsal in my living room, all we could talk about was the Guagua Loca.

Box o rum, at the nice price!

Box o rum, at the nice price!

It’s not really called the ‘Crazy Bus,’ (see note 1); that’s my name for it because it is a little loco (and muy cool) this gutted bus packed with Havana’s best DJs making music and fun on its midnight tour of the city. To date, the Guagua Loca had only made one voyage; my guys were excited to be the first foreigners invited to play this innovative mobile music party.

Clearly, a jazz quartet has no place on the Guagua Loca. But while the Will Magid 4 was here to play Jazz Fest, they aren’t really a jazz combo at all, but an amalgam of funk and groove, sampling and swing drawing on musical roots from New Orleans to Ghana. This is music to boogie and have revelations by and after just one gig, Cubans were already gaga for their delicious mix of live and electronic music. And after meeting Iliam and Alexis, (collectively known as I.A. Electronica, the brain trust behind the Bus), the feeling was mutual. Hopes were high for Friday night’s adventure.

As the sun set and excitement swelled as big as the almost-full moon, the Will Magid 4 + 4 dribbled in from their day’s explorations. I waited until all were assembled to give them the news: the Guagua Loca was off. For reasons beyond our control or comprehension, it had been cancelled by The Deciders. I was at pains to explain it – maybe it was a little too loco for this place and time? Regardless, everyone – the Will Magid 4, the other DJs, and fans – was saddened by this turn of events. So we turned to rum for succor and set our sights on Saturday night’s Jazz Festival gig.

_____

We were running late for the sound check and I was tasting the bane of all music managers: organizing musicians is like wrangling cats in heat. When my phone rang at 4 on the dot and it was Wil Campa asking “Where are you? We’ve got the bass and are waiting at the theater,” I started to fret for real. The bass was locked in, but now we were missing the bass player.

At the beginning of this trip, if I’d had to bet who would go missing, show up late, or somehow leave us hanging, my money would have been on the drummer. To my surprise, Terry turned out to be the only one at our early morning meeting after partying all night and was settled behind his kit on time, every time, earning him a new nickname: Mr Professional. Adam, meanwhile, had taken to Cuba like a drunk to an open bar (despite the theft of his bass), and he was out mixing and mingling somewhere when we had a sound check and a Cuban musician of international renown waiting on us.

Smile on his face and jaba in hand, Adam sauntered up at about 4:05 and we rushed to pack ourselves into an almendrón to the Bertol Brecht Theater. True to his word, Wil Campa and his wife Tony awaited us there with a beautiful six string Rickenbacker they were loaning Adam for the night.

Tony, Adamm & Wil Campa, post-gig

Tony, Adamm & Wil Campa, post-gig

“Please, please, please don’t let this bass out of your sight,” Tony implored.

Slipping the case on to his back, Adam said: “don’t worry, I won’t.”

After kisses and hugs all around, our saviors sped away in their late-model BMW to shoot a music video in the setting sun.
_____

The room was big and a few of our tribe were still suffering from bouts of explosive diarrhea forcing them into a step we’d dubbed ‘the clench and scurry.’ If you’ve ever been to a theater anywhere in Havana, you know how apocalyptic/toxic/disgusting the bathrooms can be. But everyone took this in (scurrying) stride, as they did all their Cuban experiences, from cockroaches in the bedroom to stolen instruments and cancelled gigs.

The Will Magid 4 set up – live electric bass and guitar, drums (with some sort of electronic component I never did grok), trumpet, MacBook, and sequencer – was presenting problems during the sound check. There weren’t enough outlets and we didn’t have the right adapters. We were short a few cables and there was a false contact somewhere between the amp and bass obligating Adam into his own dance and scurry. Little by little we worked together to get it together, but everything was running late and the 25-piece college ensemble following us fiddled with their instruments, anxious to get their sound check rolling. After a few false starts, things were finally set and I took a seat alongside Will’s parents. The first notes erupted from Will’s trumpet and I started to relax when suddenly everything went dark and silent.

Blackout.

Dios mío. Would Cuba pull any punches for these guys?

I followed Emilio, the laid back runner-of-things at the Brecht, onstage. In trembling sotto voce I asked: had the group’s rig blown the circuit?

“Some cables are down,” he explained. (Whew). “The electric company is on their way. Chill out for an hour or so with some beers and I’ll call you when we’re back online.”

Will packed up his Mac, Adam shouldered “his” bass, and we stowed the rest for safe keeping. After a couple of lagers and lively conversation with some Cuban musicians who told me there are only 8 or so fretless Fender Jazz basses in all of Havana (I will find you cabrón, whoever you are) and that both Carlos Varela and Liuba María Hevia had both suffered thefts of their guitars (the WM4 was in good company), Emilio’s call came through: llegó la luz; haul your asses back.

Once there, the sound check went quickly, I bought Emilio a Bucanero, and we cut loose until showtime. In spite of all the mishaps and low level stress (mine, not theirs), energy and hopes were high for this gig. It was indoors, so the sound would be better that at the previous show and we’d done a lot of publicity to get a good crowd. I’d set up two interviews for Will and invitations had already been extended for their return to Cuba.

_____

The Will Magid 4 went on after the talented Jorge Aragón Trio and though the crowd was thinner than we’d hoped, the potential was palpable. I prayed to whomever listens to me – that is, no one in particular – for good sound and functioning equipment. I knew the rest would be superbly attended by the four guys on stage.

WM 4 ADsmall

By the end of their first number, feet were tapping and heads bobbing as the audience got into it. The last notes of Cuban Swing were winding around and down when suddenly everything went dark and silent.

Blackout. (‘Shit!, again?!’)

“Thank you all and good night,” Ethan said into his mic, unplugging his guitar.

“¡Qué lástima!” Terry exclaimed, using his new favorite phrase.

Once again I followed Emilio onstage.

“Leave your rig and gear hooked up. We’re checking on the problem and you guys’ll continue once it’s solved.”

Will looked at the band, lit by the beam from Terry’s iPhone.

“I saw a stand up bass backstage,” Adam ventured.

“St James Infirmary. Acoustic. Let’s do it,” Will said.

And there in that dark theater, the quartet – now a trio as Ethan held the iPhone up high for light – gathered in close. Will began teasing out the first notes of what turned out to be the most soulful and novel version of that jazz-blues standard ever heard on these shores. The Cubans in the audience sat stunned and smiling. Emilio caught my eye with his big thumbs up and nothing could keep my goose bumps down. The notes from Will’s trumpet trembled and leapt through the dark in a visceral eulogy to life’s lost love. The rhythm section paced our emotion, carrying us through one of those impossible to plan and hard to forget only-in-Cuba moments.

It was musical alchemy. The band knew it. The audience felt it and we had the talent and solidarity, dreams, hard work and dedication of so many people, strangers and friends alike, to thanks. It was magic not unlike Cuba itself.

As the last stanzas enveloped us, the band was suddenly, glaringly, bathed in light.

Llegó la luz.

“Can’t we have a little more blackout?” someone in the audience asked.

They finished their impromptu number, Adam traded the stand up for the Rickenbacker, Ethan plugged in and the Will Magid 4 played out their set to a dancing crowd – small, but exultant.

2013? I’m chasing more musical alchemy. Won’t you join me?

My deepest thanks and respect to Will, Adam, Terry, Ethan, Larry, Patti, Julie, Josue, Wil Campa, Tony Massolin, I.A. Electronica, and all the organizers of Festival Jazz Plaza 2012 for helping make my dream of bringing US musicians to Cuba come true.

Notes
1. It’s real name is the ElectroBus; look for it.

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Havana Bad Time (see note 1)

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Times are exceedingly complex and anxiety-ridden on this side of the Straits. This is part of the reason I’ve chosen to accentuate the positive lately – both personally and generally. No one needs me griping about the small things and adding to the angst, I figure. Besides, here, like everywhere, you take the good with the bad, which is my stock answer for those who don’t believe (or cotton to) my choice to be in Cuba. And for me, the good has heavily outweighed the bad for 10+ years.

But these days, my life has gone a bit pear-shaped (see note 2), sending me to my surest, safest refuge: pen and paper (see note 3). Indulge me this one post and we’ll return to issues of more import, (not to mention fun), soon. Te prometo.

¡Apagones cojones! – Once upon a time, I was one of the 11 million here who withstood 10 hour black outs. Years later (before we’d hooked up with Hugo), the apagones were shorter – a couple, three hours – but still a fact of life. And in hurricanes, the electricity is cut when winds reach 40 miles per hour – one of the reasons Cuba suffers minimum loss of life compared to other places since many storm-related deaths are due to downed live wires. So I’ve known my share of blackouts.

But none of this explains why I came home last week after sol-to-sol meetings to a dead answering machine in my sala and defrosted pork parts in my freezer. Did my neighbors have lights? Yes. Had I paid my bill? Yes (see note 4).

‘Tis a puzzlement as the King once said and not in an intriguing, brain teaser kind of way, but rather in that ‘how am I going to cook dinner and keep cool?’ kind of way. The head scratching intensified once I located my meter amongst 18 others downstairs and found it in working order. Next, I went to the circuit breaker inside my house and found it in the ‘off’ position. I switched it to ‘on.’ A light sputtered to life, but I didn’t even have time to yell “Yay!” before it threw the breaker again.

I waited a bit before switching it again to ‘on.’ The light flickered and held. No electrician has been able to explain the mystery – I have no new appliances or anything additional plugged in – but I dare not turn on my old Russian AC. Send help if you don’t hear from me by August.

The concert that wasn’t – One of the undeniably greatest things about living here is the quantity of quality music happening almost always. So was the case last Saturday night when X Alfonso, Raúl Paz, Kelvis Ochoa, and Decemer Bueno were all playing at different, fabulous venues across the city.

How to choose?

For me, it was easier than most since I’ve seen them all perform multiple times and Decemer’s concert promised something special: invited guests included Israel Rojas from blockbuster group Buena Fe, plus Xiomara Laugart – an exile making her return to the Cuban stage. 

I highlighted his concert on my Facebook page. I invited friends and family and pedaled over some time after 10. I took my time: Cuba isn’t a particularly punctual place and these cats less so. I cruised up and ran into friends on an inaugural date, thrilled they’d chosen this concert over the others…

Once the clock reached 11:15 and the doors still hadn’t opened, my friends bailed. I hung in there and was relieved when they (finally!) started letting people in at midnight. I grabbed a Tu Kola at the swinging bar and headed into the theater where a full house waited. And waited. And waited and waited. At 1 in the morning, I bailed myself, my night of getting down, gone down – in flames (see note 5).

Yes You Can!=No You Can’t! – I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: my life changed when I got a bike several months ago. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s practical and represents independence and freedom – coveted states no matter where you live. But I still nursed a hangover from my first Cuban bike in 2002, when I had been stranded one time too many with nowhere to park my chivo.

Bike parking lots were as ubiquitous here during the Special Period as wannabe iMac users are today, but most car lots circa 2012 are reticent to accept bikes and those specifically for bicycles are few and far between. But so far, I’ve only had one run in – with a too-cool-for-school parqueador more concerned about his dwindling keratin supply than the vehicles he was paid to guard. Then I rolled up to the car/moto/bike lot adjacent to Coppelia. Here things took a fast turn for the douche absurd.

ME: Buenas tardes, compañera. I’d like to park my bike.

HER: Sure, put it right there in the rack. (She ties a chapita to the frame and hands me a matching metal ‘ticket,’ which I pocket).

ME: Great. Just need to lock it up.

HER: Oh no! You can’t lock it.

ME: ?!?!

HER: No, no. No locks.

ME: Compañera. I don’t understand. This lock provides added security for both of us.

HER: No. You can’t use a lock here. If you want to use a lock, do it on the street.

ME: But that’s illogical. Why wouldn’t you want more protection for me and you?

HER: Because we’ve had ‘situations.’

ME: What kind of ‘situations?’

HER: People have abandoned their locked up bikes here.

ME: ?!?!

So I wheeled Frances three feet away, on the other side of the rope from the official parking area, locked him to a tree and headed off for ice cream. Your 5 peso loss, lady.

Doggin’ me – This last was really the icing on the cake, the ill effects of which I’m still suffering. Last Sunday afternoon, like those before it, I was making my way to play bike polo. But this time I was escorting a friend, which is good news: our league suffers from a chronic shortage of bicycles. We had just made it around Havana’s hairiest rotunda at Ciudad Deportiva and turned onto the access road to our court. I glanced behind me to make sure my friend had made it through the rotary and when I turned around, there was a stray, mangy dog directly in front of my tire. 

I had no time to react – no swerve or brake or little hop was happening. I ran squarely  over him, passing with a thud over his flan-colored midsection, first with the front tire, then the back. He yelped. I fell. Folks nearby gasped. The dog ran off, leaving me with a badly sprained ankle and a serious hitch in my giddy up. If I wasn’t a dog person before…

Notes

1. This post was suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) by Havana Good Time user Annabelle P after a visit here. Thanks chica!

2. And what follows is only what Politics, legal considerations, and my personal ethical code permit me to air publically.

3. For all two of you who were wondering: I still do all my first drafts the old fashioned way – by putting pen to paper.

4. The electric and phone company here are merciless when it comes to non-payment, cutting service one day past due. I experienced my share of cold nights and interrupted phone service growing up due to unpaid bills, but I don’t ever remember ConEd or AT&T being that cut throat. Ironic, eh?

5. Turns out they took the stage at 1:30am, having had to wait for the sound guy who was working one of the other concerts which also ran late. To boot, there was a short in Decemer’s mic, so he was getting shocked through his six song set before calling it quits. Friends tell me they’re going to make it up to their pissed public with a free concert soon.

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