Tag Archives: dichos

El Paquete: Opiate of the Cuban Masses

I’m not a particularly heavy consumer of the “package” (love the typically Cuban double entendre) but I know what I want, my ‘Paquete’ guy knows what I want, and I stray only for research and on recommendation. Samantha Bee; Transparent; Lie to Me (swoon, swoon Tim Roth); The Lobster; Sully; Captain Fantastic – here, we get any series you’re watching for $1 a season. Another buck gets me six or seven films playing in a theater near you.

What first turned me on to The Paquete in a hot and heavy way was when I discovered it also contains all manner of professional sports. My Paquete guy, Yuri, knows: any Knicks or Golden State game and all pro tennis, bring it on! I’ll take a Redskins game or any old Monday Night Football once in a while, too. I’m a life-long sports fan and active participant, still, and if you ask me, sports transcend. Watching and playing sports – the most democratic and unequivocal of all human pursuits – thrills me. I know some of you don’t get it and actively reject organized athletics. That’s cool, but I do think it’s your loss.

Enjoying sports via The Paquete however, has its quirks and downsides. Lots of it comes from ESPN en español, so none of the sportcasters are familiar, they’re using Spanish sports slang I’m still learning, and they can be terrible chismosos. Listen, I don’t want to hear about Carmelo Anthony’s new car – just call the game asere! Another downside is when you’re fast forwarding through the commercials, the total length of the program is indicated on the menu bar. So if Team X or Player Y is getting walloped, the length of the menu bar serves as spoiler and at a certain point it becomes obvious that a mid-game rally or late match come-from-behind is impossible. Knowing which side will reign victorious before or mid-way through the game takes a lot of the fun out of it. But ‘del lobo un pelo’ as we say here: something’s better than nothing.

For a fairly new phenomenon (within the past 8 years or so), The Paquete is making a huge impact. When I moved to Havana in 2002, most neighborhoods had a person – young, old, home-bound – with an impressive VHS (remember those?!) collection who made a few extra bucks renting them out. Their bread and butter was mostly Hollywood blockbusters several years out of date and the latest soap operas from Brazil and Mexico. The more technologically savvy and those with more financial resources eventually transitioned to DVDs and soon thereafter, businesses cropped up where the movies or series or soaps you wanted were copied directly on to a memory stick (‘pingüitas’ in Conner slang, for their form and propensity to catch viruses). The soaps and flicks were then re-copied and re-copied as you shared them with friends. The final stage of this digital evolution is The Paquete.

In the simplest terms, The Paquete is one terabyte of media downloaded (mostly via a super speedy connection provided by the State and motivation a-plenty for some people to hang on to their low-salaried State jobs) every Monday and then shared the length and breadth of the island via private businesses dedicated to just that. I’m fairly certain this is a ‘grey market’ activity, but according to ABC News, The Paquete is the #1 employer in Cuba today.

Accessing The Paquete is easy: within a 5-block radius of Cuba Libro, for instance, there are no fewer than half a dozen private businesses – usually in the entryway to a residential home or building rented out for this purpose – where you can go every Monday to download the entire terabyte of new offerings on an external hard drive. Or you can pick and choose what you like. Different distributors organize their offerings differently and prices and quality vary. Some folks I know price by the gig – 8 gigs for 10CUP (about 35 cents) is one of the cheapest I’ve found – others, by the number of movies or episodes you want. Some movies have been hand-filmed in cinemas (where you can hear audiences laughing at the funny bits and get a glimpse of the guy returning from the concession stand with his popcorn), while others are BluRay or high definition. There is also home delivery service of The Paquete where the distributor arrives at your door and copies directly on to your computer whatever you request (free anti-virus included).

It’s worth mentioning that The Paquete contains more than just sports and Hollywood movies and series – the funny (and not so) tapes from Havana’s police cameras; digital magazines produced in Cuba (of which there are many, Vistar being the most high-profile); erotica (AKA soft porn); La Voz; music videos; computer games and more. Super events like the Stones concert in Havana and the Chanel show are also popular and usually available in days following the actual extravaganza. Recently, Zoológico, a Cuban-produced soap opera deemed unfit for broadcasting on state-run TV has been a popular Paquete request.

Games of Thrones, The Walking Dead, West World: visitors are often shocked at how plugged in and current Cubans are. Me? I’m still shocked at the pervasiveness of the ‘Cuba frozen in time/stuck in amber’ myth. There’s now Wifi the entire length of the Malecón (to give you an idea of the type of tourist here nowadays, I actually had someone ask me last week what the Malecón was. Dios mío) and in parks from Mariano to Nueva Gerona, Quivicán to Guantánamo. A pilot project will install broadband in 2,000 Habana Vieja homes soon and Cubans will begin receiving data on their mobile phones this year. Every medical professional has full internet access via Infomed and those accounts are often “shared,” multiplying users two- or three-fold. In universities, the national network of Joven Clubes, at work: Cubans are way more connected than you ever imagined.

I know a lot of readers may have expected and wanted my new post to be about Fidel’s death and I’m sorry to disappoint. Rest assured, I’ll get around to it (once I’ve further wrapped my head around it). But I will provide you with this bit of intel straight from my friends who work distributing The Paquete: during the 9-day national mourning period, these folks made money hand over fist, working double time, until midnight most nights, copying movies and series and sports for Cubans anxious to watch anything besides the ‘round-the-clock Fidel documentaries being shown on State TV.

I gotta go.There’s a hot Murray-Djokovic match I’m in the middle of watching.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

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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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Relationships

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 Contradictory

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]While other bloggers are making their end-of-year lists, I’m just waiting for this year to end. Loss and sorrow is what 2011 has meant for me and while a turn of the calendar page won’t cure what ails me, you, or the world, it can provide a dose of hope – false and fleeting as it may be – to help us keep on stepping. Like a car with an empty gas tank, the warning light red and taunting, we know we’re running on fumes, but moving forward nonetheless; ‘bound to cover just a little more ground,’ as the song goes.

Havana circa December 2011 feels similar: we may be running on fumes, but at least we’re still running.

But that’s today. Other days, Havana hops with energy and enthusiasm and drive, where the theme song is instead ‘How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more’ – more millennial and hip, more sophisticated and noteworthy. This fuel injection comes from new economic regulations permitting private businesses, the buying and selling of cars and homes, and relaxed travel rules by Obama for Cubans in the USA wanting to visit family on the island (see note 1).

So how Havana feels largely depends on the day you measure her. And your outlook, what you see and experience, and who you talk to. Just like anywhere else, I suppose (if you’re paying close enough attention), except this place is like nowhere else. The contradictions are starker, more frequent, funnier.

Here are some that have caught my attention recently:

The Limousine/Ox-Drawn Cart

When Cubans of a certain means and bent get married, the bride and groom tour around town in a convertible festooned with satin bows, the novia perched atop the back seat waving to passersby while the driver lays on the horn (some honk out the wedding march, others the Godfather theme). But a few days ago, I crossed paths with the newest fad of the nouveau riche: the black tinted stretch limo (there’s only one) rented from Rex Autos covered in the same satin bows. There was no horn honking, however, and no visible bride – defeating entirely the purpose of showing off to plebes and passersby. I guess the thrill of a limo ride is reward enough for some and it did turn heads, including mine.

A short time later, I waited as two oxen were maneuvered with coos and stick by their expert handler. They carted behind them the water tank (known as the pipa in these parts), that makes the rounds of neighborhoods without municipal water. The pipa is the savior of all those homes and families which only have water un día sí, un día no (or even more infrequently).

Stretch limos and oxen carts; conspicuous consumption and water shortages: Es Cuba, my friends.

Penthouse Too Big/House Too Small

Estrella lives in a propiedad horizontal – a floor-through apartment. And it’s a penthouse no less. These huge, luxurious flats are found throughout Vedado high-rises and are more reminiscent of Manhattan than Havana. They usually feature phenomenal city and sea views but are also a pain in the ass – hard to clean and maintain, they’re also a real liability during hurricanes when their height, exposure, and plate glass windows put them in direct path and danger of the elements. For these reasons, Estrella is looking to permutar her penthouse for something closer to the ground, a more manageable home in short.

Contrast this with my friend Gloria – 68 and a spitfire who has dedicated her life’s work to helping the revolution work, she shares a bedroom with her 6-year old grandson and 10-year old granddaughter. If you know Cuba and the housing crisis we’re in, you know multi-generational sleeping arrangements are common. Except in Gloria’s case, she not only shares the room with her grandkids, but a double bed with the boy to boot. Sadly, this is also not terribly uncommon.

Both Estrella and Gloria are equally revolutionary and politically committed; this too, is Cuba, dear readers.

Chocolate-filled Churros/Pallid Pizza

As the new economic regulations gel, Cubans are figuring ways to live with the Gordian Knot that is capitalism. Folks with money to invest and a head for business are differentiating their products and services – and making money hand over fist as a result. The full-service car wash that everyone is talking about is one example of entrepreneurial pluck and vision, as is the nearby scuba school. Since I have no car and don’t dive, these are simply a curiosity for me. Not so the cafeteria selling chocolate-filled churros; jamaliche that I am, this development piqued my interest. Using a machine imported from Ecuador, these folks crank out a fried, filled sweet treat that drives Cubans gaga – and all for the nice price of 3 pesos (less than 15 cents). Also taking the city by storm is the burger and pizza joint with one of those inflatable playhouses kids love so much in the yard. While the kids jump and play, their parents nosh and drink, dropping a bundle in the process. According to my sources, this cafeteria is netting 1500 pesos a day (around $62 – not bad for a startup here).

Meanwhile, block upon block of new cafeterias sell the same forgettable hot dogs and egg sandwiches, bread spread with cloying mayo or croquettes. Some of these places serve terrible food – tasteless or cold, on day old bread or presented to customers just after the flies have been swatted away. Last week, I stopped by a new cafeteria in my neighborhood selling the smallest, palest, saddest pizza I’ve ever seen. With cheese congealing (despite being placed beneath an office lamp), the pathetic pizza sold at Rapidos around town look delectable in comparison. No wonder the government estimates 80% of these new businesses will fail within a year.

The contradictions abound caballeros. Every human and society has them. But we’ve recently had many complexities introduced into our reality here on the island which are deepening these contradictions. It’s a confusing time – anxiety-ridden once you scratch the surface – but it seems these complexities have also sparked a new line of critical thinking and reflection.

Over several visits with different friends and families over the past week, discussions have turned on the theory and opinion that what we’re experiencing today can largely be chalked up to the Special Period – that time in the 90s when the Cuban economy crashed and burned, threatening to take the Revolution with it. So that wouldn’t come to pass, people tightened their belts, took a hold of their bootstraps, and sallied forth. But at a cost. These conversations didn’t focus on what the new economy is or isn’t doing for our present, but rather the hard times of the past and how they eroded values, placed the pursuit of things over relationships, and planted the seeds of individual survival over the collective.

“We used to live here so naturally.”

“People changed overnight.”

“It was 180° turn, fast and dizzying.”

These are some of the comments made to me recently about those trying years, but in relation to our current situation. Interesting food for thought and worth recalling, 20 years hence, as we contemplate the changes in Cuba circa 2011.

Notes

1. You should see what folks are bringing in from abroad to start their families’ businesses here – everything from car parts and coolers to snorkel masks and jungle gyms. Permissions for Cuban families from the USA to travel here is being threatened by political (but powerful, ojo) dinosaurs in Congress. Although it seems Obama isn’t going to let this happen, I encourage all Here is Havana readers to keep the pressure on to lift both the travel ban and the blockade.

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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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