Tag Archives: evil eye

Cuba: The Eternal Education

Some of you may remember my catharsis about know-it-all Cubans, a semi-measured rant dissecting the Cuban ardor for being right – even when they’re talking out their ass.

Not surprisingly, there’s a similar breed of foreigner, an expert on Cuba after two weeks, two years or tenure (see note 1). Maybe you’ve overheard them at the next table at one or another of Havana’s overhyped paladares prattling on about how to unify the currencies or make Cubans more efficient (the most vulnerable rarely have a seat at this table, literally and figuratively). Perhaps you read a blog written by an absentee/wannabe Cubanologist or transient traveler who proclaims to be an authority on political bell weathers or sexual proclivities here.

No matter the source: those claiming to have Cuba pegged are usually off base or worse – not even in the ballpark. Whereas it used to be difficult to understand things on the ground from afar, today it is near impossible since economic reforms are changing the landscape here fast. For us living it, we’re learning something new every day, the details and mechanisms of which cannot be fully known from wherever you are reading this.

Although the economic changes are injecting a level of uncertainty and accelerating individualism (here in Havana at least) that trouble me, I still give daily thanks – or try to – that I live in a time and place that continually teaches me new things. After all, learning something new every day is one of the key ingredients in the ajiaco of life – another reason why I love Cuba. Judging by the experience of certain friends, I’m confident the eternal education Cuba provides is a constant regardless of outside forces or how long you’ve been here.

Take my friends Ann and Alicia. North Americans both, they’ve lived here full-time for a collective 55 years and are still learning. Recently they separately admitted to having just learned that the red ribbon hanging from the undercarriage of 6 out of 10 cars here is to ward off the evil eye. And they both own cars! Such discoveries after so much time in residence encourage me to keep observing, keep meeting and talking to new people, having new experiences, and writing about this complex place where there’s always something new to be learned. In the past several weeks alone, my Cuban education has schooled me thus:

El Torniquete: The observant among you have likely noticed women and young girls chancleteando through the streets of Centro Habana or La Vibora with empty rolls of toilet paper spooled tightly around their tresses and piled atop their heads. This is knows as the ‘tourniquet’ and is a simple, free way to produce a fancy, going out ‘do. Although I’ve long marveled at the ingenuity, I never knew this technique had a name until a friend helping to gussy me up showed me how it’s done. For those wondering, I’ve only been partially successful in my gambit to improve my “look” due to my rabid aversion to shopping and my preference for substance over style. Furthermore, with only 24 hours in a day, other pursuits (e.g. cooking; bike polo; visitas) take priority of personal primping. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn from my impeccably turned out Cubana counterparts.

4/4 Time Dies Hard: I’ve recently taken up salsa lessons which have been measurably more successful than my half-hearted attempts at honing my fashion chops and style. I have an amazing dance teacher – talented, patient, encouraging, and easy on the eyes – which is a large part of the equation. Last class he admitted: ‘I thought it was going to be much harder to teach you’ and after just a few lessons, we’re both impressed that I’m already spinning around the dance floor without spinning off beat. But a lifetime 4/4 habit is a bitch to break, I’m learning, and I still tend to misstep, especially when in the arms of a taller, drunker, or clumsier partner than my teacher.

El Baile de Perchero: Along with salsa, I’ve recently become privy to another dance form known as the Hanger Dance. Surely a Cuban invention, this is when a couple dances themselves out of their clothes and on to more carnal endeavors and pleasures. It’s a testament to Cuban propriety that the name of the dance involves hangers: my clothes usually end up on the floor.

Vestido de Iwayó: Admittedly I know very little about Afro-Cuban religions – Yoruba, Palo Monte, Abakua, et al. But I, like many readers I assume, can’t fail to notice initiates walking around in these parts wearing head-to-toe white clothing. Even accessories – headbands and hand bags, hats and umbrellas – must be white for those haciendo santo and formally entering the religious ranks. It’s one of the most obvious outward manifestations of Afro Cuban religions here, but I’ve only recently learned that it’s called dressed as/for iwayó.

Life on the Inside: Given my insatiable craving for learning about new Cuban customs and culture, I’m very grateful to a friend who admitted he spent five years in a maximum security prison here. For my/our purposes, it matters not the crime for which he did time (though it was non-violent), so I won’t go there. What is important is the crash course he gave me about life inside a Cuban jail. He graciously endured and answered hours of my questions on everything from food and escape attempts to rape and overcrowding. Suffice to say that what I learned was so fascinating, I’m writing an article about the cultural dark side here entitled Havana Black & Blue. Any interested editors reading this are heartily encouraged to contact me as I look for an outlet for this piece.

Of course, the one thing everyone here – visitor and resident alike, whether they like it or not – is always learning, is how to maintain patience and good humor in this sometimes frustrating, but never dull island….

Notes
1. The so-called ‘Cubanologists’ who sit in their ivory tower offices in developed world academies of higher learning (or their cubicles in think tanks), espousing how it is in Cuba (where they visit once a year, perhaps), especially chap my ass.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

The Newborn, The Survivor, & The Runner-Up

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It’s hot. I’m tired. I’m working mucho and earning poco. I miss my familia. And I still haven’t had a vacation since Haiti. I worry. For Cuba. For Guatemala. For Haiti. For the turtles caught in the oil spill.(see note 1)

I, for one, (and maybe you too), could use some levity right about now. So here you go, three little stories – all recent, all true – brought to you by your friends here in Havana.

1. It’s a girl!

It took her a little longer than the usual 40 weeks to join our world but my niece Isabella finally made it here on May 27th, right around cocktail hour. Thatta girl! She weighed in at 7 lbs, 6 oz and is long like a string bean and as pink and soft as a baby should be.

It’s fitting that her first breath was taken at the Hospital Maternidad Obrera in the heart of Marianao where numerous cousins, aunts, uncles and more distant relatives of hers were also born. I got the shooting-up-of-eyebrows response from more than one Cuban when I mentioned the hospital attending my sister-in-law. I had heard stories and Marianao does have a certain rep (not entirely unjustified). I knew a couple of the other hospitals in the barrio (El Militar and Juan Manuel Marquez, a pediatric hospital which I never, ever want to see the inside of again. Not due to the conditions, but rather the trauma and sadness that haunt those halls) and they definitely have their shortcomings. Isabella, however, was my first birth, and I wasn’t acquainted with this maternity hospital.

The parents-to-be actually chose Maternidad Obrera, which was a surprise to me, until I learned it’s one of the few Havana hospitals where the father is allowed to be in the delivery room.

I was encouraged.

The expectant couple was also taking birthing classes at the hospital administered by a real pro – one of those buxom, loving nurses with a brood of her own and decades of experience helping mothers-to-be enjoy safe, fearless births.

“You have to be able to anticipate and interpret your baby’s needs,” she told her class. “He won’t pop from your womb saying ‘hey ma! give me a buck for a pacifier!'”

Each class ended with breathing and yoga exercises. Nurse Betty encouraged fathers to attend. And they did: with jeans slung low enough to flash their knock-off Hilfiger briefs and bloodshot eyes hidden behind absurdly large, white plastic sun glasses, Marianao’s machos came to learn birthing techniques alongside their jevas.

I was encouraged.

When we got word the caesarian was underway, we charged towards Maternidad Obrera. Architecturally it’s fascinating, with curves like those the women inside had lost long ago and stone benches built into the walls of the waiting room. It had received a recent face lift, including a new paint job (baby blue – machismo, as a rule, still rules…) and was, I have to say, spiffy. There was a pair of moms to each small, clean room sharing an en suite bath. Each baby had a crib pushed up against the wall at the foot of her mom’s bed, alongside a couple of chairs for feeding and visitor time.

It was still muy Cubano of course: stray dogs wandered into the lobby at will and visitors – even expectant moms – smoked strong black tobacco cigarettes inside the hospital. The bathrooms often had no water, but you guessed that already, right? Men with cameras slung around their necks peddled portrait services room to room ($1 for standard snaps; $2 for Photoshopped shots, including one that pasted your baby into the arms of Jesus) and the baby blue halls echoed with the click, click, click of female visitors arriving in their come-fuck-me-shoes.

My favorite folkloric moment though, was when a leathery guy came into the room displaying scores of azabache on a hangar. $1 a piece for these small, safety pin charms that get fastened to the back of newborns’ shirts to ward off the evil eye. The hospital itself also offers on-site ear piercing which is either charming and handy or disturbing and invasive, depending on your perspective. Isabella’s parents went for it, though for me she was just as beautiful as could be before those gold studs got punched into her little lobes.

2. Two – always better than one

Not too long ago we hosted a small, lively dinner party. There was me, my husband, our friend Camilo the taxi driver, Yusleidy the actress, and Miriam the veterinarian and cancer survivor. Our conversation ranged far and wide over the terrain of contemporary Cuba. Camilo and the hubby tussled over the music scene (my guy: “it’s vapid.” Camilo: “you’re too nostalgic.”); Mirima lamented the disappearance of black market yogurt; and we all agreed the national volleyball team has a hard season facing them.

In a quiet moment, Yusleidy launched into a tirade about the state of Cuban television. She knows of what she speaks: with that universally winning trifecta of youth, beauty, and talent, “Yusy” is an actress who’s known success on Cuban stage and screen. But her three current projects have been shelved for lack of funds and the one that did get the
green light got away. She let loose her frustration over my Chicken Marsala.

“He gave the part to Fulana de Tal. She can’t act! The only thing she has going for her are those huge tits!”

“Two! Two tits!” interjects Miriam, she of the recent mastectomy. “Tremendous advantage!”

The table erupts into howls of laughter that continue as Miriam regales us with another breast-related tale.

One night during her second round of chemo, Miriam went out with friends to a trendy bar. It was precisely for these types of occasions that she donned the red wig that trailed halfway down her back (children’s birthday parties were another – ‘don’t want the bald lady scaring the wee ones,’ she tells us). Leaving the trendy bar to hop to another, a strapping fellow leaning against a lamp post apprised my friend.

“Come with me baby and I’ll give you a big surprise.”

Miriam imagined getting him alone and stripping off her wig and whipping out her falsie.

“My man, the surprise I’d give you would be bigger, much bigger!”

3. And the winner is…

I have a friend I call 007. He’s one of those cool, super mellow fellows that gains entry into the best parties, rarely gets ruffled, and never misses a beat. He may or may not actually be a spy.

So it was totally par for the course that he would attend the Miss Africa Beauty Contest held last week in Havana. Most of the contestants were students from the Latin American Medical School (see note 2) hailing from countries such as Namibia, Nigeria, Guinea Conakry and other hard-to-locate countries. The contest was hosted at the Meliá Cohiba, one of Havana’s few five star hotels.

“Swanky,” I say to 007.

“Terrific spread. Plus all the red, white or rosé you could drink,” he responds.

I was intrigued.

“What were you doing there? Aside from drinking your fill?”

“My friend was a contestant.”

Why was I not surprised?

“Did she win?”

“Second place.”

This also was not a surprise. 007 knows a lot of beautiful women. Second place netted his friend a BlackBerry. The winner took home a laptop and third place, an iPod Shuffle. Not bad for being beautiful.

“There was a question and answer session too,” 007 tells me.

“What did they ask?”

“Idiotic stuff about Africa like who is hosting the World Cup and what was the only western hemisphere country to send troops to Africa in the 70s.”

But just in case these African beauties didn’t know South Africa is soccer central these days or that Cuba helped liberate Angola, they were given a little help: when 007 went to 2nd place’s home afterwards to celebrate, he spied her pageant materials on the kitchen table, including the list of questions and answers she’d face after parading about in a swimsuit.

In case you had any doubt, Havana is full of beautiful females these days.

Notes
1. Is it me or is it feeling more and more like end of days here on our one and only planet? Oh, those Mayans have me worried with their December 2012 hocus pocus.

2. The Latin American Medical School (ELAM) was founded in Havana in 1998 to provide six year medical school scholarships to poor kids from around the world. To date, nearly 10,000 doctors have graduated from this school completely debt-free. They are expected to practice in remote and underserved communities once they finish. If you’re interested, I’ve written extensively on this socially responsible medical school for my day job.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, health system, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad