Tag Archives: cubans

Things I Don’t Miss about the U.S.A.

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Most Cubans get a queer, screwed up look on their face when they learn I’m from the States but choose to live here. It’s logical: for so many people the world over, the USA is the land of milk and honey, of unfettered freedom and opportunity. I can only think that these folks know nothing from taxes and $200 pap smears, the Patriot Act or hate crimes.

But I know what shade the grass is on the other side; Considerable is the time I spend trying to explain this to my Cuban friends, colleagues, and strangers on the street (see note 1). This is like trying to explain the color of beets to a blind man or the importance of Les Paul to someone who doesn’t play the guitar (see note 2). Too much just doesn’t compute.

 Needless to say, I’ve had 7 long years to think about life over there, about what I miss and what I don’t. Here’s a snapshot about those things I’m happy to live without:

 – Panhandlers

– From MJ to Ms Schiavo, unrelenting media coverage of dead and dying famous (and not so) people

– TV commercials (see note 3)

– Antibacterial everything

– Scented toilet paper

– Telemarketing

 – Road rage

 – Anti-smoking Fascists

 – All that dog eat dog

– Hidden (and not so) cameras and the nonstop surveillance that comes with “modern” life

– $400 mammograms and $200 pap smears (see note 4)

– Pro-war people

– CNN

– Shoveling snow & raking leaves

– Mormons

– Sirens

– Children who can’t entertain themselves

– People texting and tweeting in the middle of conversations

– Epidemic obesity

– Electric flushing toilets (especially the hair trigger kind that are flushing before you’re finished)

– And the latest discovery on my trip back “home”: advertising on plane tray tables.

Notes

 1. Apparently being a blondish haired, blue eyed, be-freckled Yuma gives every Tomás, Ricardo, and Enrico here the green light to talk me up. The Cuban-foreigner dynamic is insanely complicated and something beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say that every time I step out my door there’s someone invading my personal space with their personal questions.

 2. I was very saddened to learn of Les Paul’s recent death. He holds a special place in my heart and I know was an inspiration to many generations of guitar players.

 3. One great upside to government-controlled media is that there are zero TV commercials. This means when I’m watching The Reader or The Sopranos, I get it all uninterrupted (and mostly) uncut.   

4. Is it just me or is it totally sick that someone should have to pay such an outrageous amount of money for preventative medicine? You can bet if it were the men of the world with boobs and vaginas it wouldn’t be so.


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Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad

Dying in Cuba – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….</e

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