Tag Archives: expat in Cuba

Cuban Marriage Counseling

Not a few consider me an odd bird for putting down stakes in Cuba. Indeed, I’m often asked what it is about this place that has kept me engaged all these years. It’s a fair question and one prudence and sanity obligate me to consider every so often.

Several readers have noticed that my posts have been somewhat bleak of late. I won’t deny or defend it, but instead will resort to metaphor: imagine yourself 13 years deep into a marriage with all the passionate delirium, grief and troubles, challenges and negotiating such a commitment commands. You’re both sagging, energy is flagging and while others would have thrown in the towel already, you remain steadfast, perhaps impractically so. Determined, to put a good spin on it. Dedicated. To make this veteran partnership work in its unlucky 13th year, you mix things up, change routine, get creative. And it helps evolve, even resolve, (if things go well), the situation.

In my effort to shake things up and goose my situation into evolution, I recently spent six weeks off-island – my longest hiatus since my last Lonely Planet assignment in 2008. It was a month and a half of memorable adventures in both space and time and spirit. I played a lot. I learned more. And wrote very little. It was, (to take the metaphor too far), my Cuban marriage counseling.

Lo and behold, my time a fuera was not for naught because it snapped some things into sharp focus about how this place intoxicates and charms. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, granted, and even some of my dearest loved ones on the other side have confessed to not understanding the attraction. For them, but most importantly for me and you, here are some of the reasons I’ve been toughing it out here all this time. These aren’t the big picture principles – humanism, solidarity, romance, equity – that brought me here, but rather snapshots of why I like this place better than most others on a day-to-day basis.

Drunkenness here is laughter & dance, not morose & violent – I know more than a little about alcoholism; when I moved here way back when, I was convinced I’d encounter a fair amount of rum-fueled violence. It was a valid assumption given my boozy (but not floozy, eh?!) background and the drunken squabbles and brawls I’d witnessed up North. But like many assumptions (especially where Cuba is concerned), this has been disproven by direct experience. Sloppiness, raised voices and lowered inhibitions – all these are markers here. But violence? Not so much; crimes of passion, which are definitely part of the Cuban script, excepted. On the whole, drinking is a happy affair here, accompanied by music and dance, which is much groovier than the stress, angst and escapism I see among my drunk friends and family in New York.

Sexuality is celebrated rather than castigated or repressed – You see it in the clothing styles, hear it in the piropos, and fairly feel it in the air. How else can I explain that my all-time most popular post is The Cuban Love Doctor and that there are entire websites dedicated to Cuban amor? Just hours back from my six week hiatus, I witnessed this exchange at my local agropecuario:

– Hey chula! You’re looking real good! Ven acá, chica. ¡Ven acá! I know you like black guys, but give me a chance. You won’t regret it!

The young woman in question smiled and demurred, but that this kind of come-on would be brandished in public, for everyone in the market to hear, and that the woman would be amused, even flattered, says a lot about the Cuban approach to sexuality (and interracial relations, as well, it should be noted). Also, that the guy who sells boniato knows your preference in partners speaks volumes about the tightly-knit nature of Cuban neighborhoods.

After such a long (for me) stint in the US, I realized one of the things I don’t cotton to is the hypocritical Puritanism. Men who regularly consume porn but are prudish in their own beds; women who deny their own pleasure by adhering to oppressive societal paradigms and expectations; and the application of sexual dogma generally, have created a country (or at least several generations) of sexual neurotics. Sex is supposed to be fun and playful and shame-free, if you ask me and as long as you’re not hurting anyone, what’s the problem?

Bawdy, unabashed gab – Cubans’ capacity to discuss bodily functions openly and clinically is tangentially related to the abovementioned point on sexuality. In the past week, I’ve talked to male friends about their urinary tract infections; pre-mature ejaculation; and constipation. Female friends, meanwhile, have offered opinions on big breastedness vs. flat-chestedness; faking vs multiple orgasms; and menstrual flow.

Irreverent humor – I’ve written previously about how I appreciate Cubans’ sense of humor. It’s a George Carlin or Chris Rock approach: no one here is off limits and the humor tends towards social commentary and catharsis. Just a few days ago, I was waiting for my order at Havana’s version of Kentucky Fried Chicken (yes, times are a-changin’!) when I overheard the following:

– ‘I’m not sure what I want,’ said the customer. ‘What’s on the Cuban sandwich?’

– ‘It’s a baguette, with slices of pork loin,’ began the waiter…

– ‘Alternated with slices of Fidel, Raúl, and Antonio Mella,’ chimed in another.

This elicited a guffaw on the part of the jokester and nervous, but enthusiastic laughter by those within ear shot. Whether or not you find it funny, it illustrates how there are no sacred cows in Cuba – except actual cows, which is another story (and common joke).

Reusing, repurposing and resourcefulness – Sure, my life would be a helluva lot easier were it filled with Swiffers and paper towels, Windex, Tupperware, and Home Depot. But a broom is a functional, age-old tool; linen napkins and cloth cleaning rags are more environmentally-friendly;  vinegar and newspaper clean glass well; and a plate-covered bowl or cajita is as good as a plastic container with a lid (and probably healthier in the long run). If I had a Home Depot, I would have never met Eduardo the carpenter or Carlos who sells screws and light switches por la izquierda. Nor would I have occasion to call up Laura and Roly to lend me their ladder. Just today, a friendly fellow entered the bookshop selling rose bushes. We struck up a conversation, I bought a gorgeous yellow number for $3 CUC; he gave me pest-control advice. So the Cuban reality is not only more economical and ecological, it’s also more social. I point this out only to point up that easier does not necessarily mean better – something I have to remind myself of now and then. Just like I have to remind myself that Cuba is still a great place to be and grow. For now, anyway.

 

 

LINKS:

Cuban Love Doctor – https://hereishavana.com/2012/07/10/the-cuban-love-doctor-is-in/

Clothing styles – http://www.amazon.com/Havana-Street-Style-Intellect-Books/dp/178320317X

Bookshop: https://m.facebook.com/cubalibroHAV

 

Advertisements

13 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad

Havana Mantras

Cubans like their dichos. For just about any hairball situation life coughs up, they’ve got a palliative or folksy saying.

As you may imagine, the general difficulties of modern existence are fertile fodder. To cite just a few:

Al mal tiempo, buena cara.
(When times are bad, put on a good face).

To the question ‘how ya doin’? or ‘what have you been up to?’, Cubans invariably answer:

En la luchita.
(Struggling a little/lot).

And then there’s the ubiquitous:

No es fácil.
(It’s not easy).

It’s not easy can apply to anything – caring for aging parents with Alzheimer’s; pending paperwork and attendant bureaucracy; the quality of bodega rice; even the weather.

These sayings and many more like them have become mantras of sorts. Short, pithy and to the point, they help people fortify themselves and cope with the aging/bureaucracy/vagaries life never tires of throwing our way.

Recently several friends confided that they invoke their own original mantras when faced with challenging situations. They make me smile (the mantras, not the challenging situations) – in mal timepo, when things are especially difícil, and when it feels like the luchita might triumph once and for all. They’re funny in their way, these mantras, but also weighty since they reveal the resilience and resolve with which Cubans confront obstacles. And I have a feeling such resilience, not to mention resolve, will become increasingly – urgently – important in times to come.

_____

If you follow Cuba news, you know that we’ve been under a wet, windy cold front for the past several days. It looks like it’s finally moving on and none too soon: over 100 buildings collapsed completely or in part in Havana due to these torrential, biblical rains, reminding me of 2005’s Hurricane Wilma. Rain like this is problematic here, not only because it sends buildings tumbling – it also floods homes, damages worldly goods and grinds transport, sectors of the economy and much of the bureaucracy to a halt.

But it’s not just the wet: the cold is a problem too since so few of us have hot water in our homes. To be blunt: showering in this weather without hot water is a bitch. Sure, we heat up pots on the stove, decant it into a bucket, mix it with some cold and scoop it over us as fast as possible. It’s workable, but in those few seconds between scoops, you freeze your butt off. Ocassionally, it’s not practical to heat water – there’s no time, no gas for the stove, whatever. End result? We take a lot of cold showers around here, even in winter, even during the chilliest fronts.

As I was talking to my friend Julio Pedro about this, he told me he has a ritual – a mantra, mejor dicho – which he invokes before stepping into a cold shower. Bracing himself, he repeats over and over again, before and during the cold blast:

Soy un macho de pinga. Soy un macho de pinga.
(I’m the fucking man. I am the fucking MAN).

If you knew JP, you’d laugh, like we did, imagining this wisp of a guy incanting his cold shower mantra.

_____

The mantra topic came up again as another friend and I were planning a night out recently. We were headed to one of Havana’s largest theaters to see one of the country’s hottest acts. Neither of us had tickets and it was doubtful we could procure affordable (see note 1) entry the day of the show. I told her we’d only need one ticket since over the past decade, my foreign press pass has gained me entrance into even the most over-sold events, from Pablo Milanes to the Royal Ballet. My friend, who works for Prensa Latina, said she would use her work badge, a yellow and curling card encased in foggy plastic that says ‘Prensa’ in red letters.

‘Isn’t is expired?’ I asked her.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But it has yet to fail me.’
‘Nice.’ I said.
Then she confessed: ‘but every time I use it, I think is it going to work? So just in case, I invoke my mantra:’

Soy la reina de la Habana. Soy la reina de la Habana.
(I’m the queen of Havana).

I’m not sure if it was the badge, the mantra or her killer smile, but the queen and I got into the concert.

_____

At this point, you’re probably wondering about my mantras. I’ve got mine, of course. Like everyone else, I’ve had to develop and hone my resilience and coping mechanisms over the years here. One I’ve known for a long time, but really started invoking it during my month-long stint covering the Cuban medical/disaster relief team in Haiti after the earthquake. Now, whenever I’m faced with particularly trying circumstances beyond my control, I tell myself:

No coge lucha. No coge lucha.
(Pay it no mind/Don’t fight it).

I’ve added another mantra lately which helps me with the haters and naysayers who for time immemorial have tried to keep down the dreamers and lovers and doers:

Que lástima odias tu vida.
(What a pity you hate your life).  

And a pity it surely is, but you know what? It’s not my problem so I’m not going to coger lucha.

Notes
1. Ticket scalping is a common and lucrative practice in Cuba’s double economy.

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Apretando Mi Corazón: Cuban Emigration

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

All my friends are talkin’ about leavin’, about leavin’

So goes the little pop ditty in heavy rotation on one of the satellite radio stations I favor. I’d bet my life Cuba never crossed the songwriter’s mind, but it so easily could have been written by my friend Alma, my prima Anabel, or my colleague Jorge.

Or me.

The song is entitled Ghosts and we’re surrounded by them here as certainly as the water which hems us in, as omnipresent and nebulous as the bureaucracy that hobbles Cuban greatness.

Can you hear me sighing? Crying? Thankfully not, but somewhere out there, not too far from where you read and where I write, there’s a Cuban pining for the friends that have left or for those they’ve left behind.

Or not.

Emigration is a little like death: everyone has their own way of grieving and no one has the right to judge – least of all me with the relative freedom of movement I enjoy. Some people block out departed loved ones as soon as that exit permit is stamped or the fast boat slips silently from shore. Until they’re due back for a visit, in which case copious gifts are expected. And they always do. Return, because the pull of this patria is too strong to resist indefinitely and bear gifts because the guilt – self-imposed and otherwise – of leaving is heavy. Besides, what better way to prove the grass is indeed greener than to come loaded with loot? (see note 1)

Where will her roots grow? Photo by Caitlin Gorry.

What it amounts to is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ It’s a wholly common coping mechanism here, in fact. Or rather than a way to cope, it’s simply part of the cultural sofrito. After all, many a liaison – and even marriages – (mal)function due to ‘out of sight out of mind,’ and the related ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you.’ Until you do, but that’s another story.

Some Cubans, meanwhile, go to the other extreme: they pine and fret and share each morsel of news with every person they meet. Iraida got her driver’s license; Alain saw his first St Patrick’s Day parade; Yoselvis likes Burger King, McDonald’s not so much. This is my approach for keeping close everyone I left behind in my own émigré drama. Willingly taking leave of a lifetime of friendships – most Cubans don’t realize we share this in common.

Emigration is a knotty business, muddled by politics vs. agency, needs vs. desires, illusions and disenchantment, resignation, empowerment, circumstance and happenstance. And I’ve faced a lot of loss and separation on this end. Many of my Cuban friends and family – relationships I’ve fed and nurtured over the past 10 years with all the creativity and passion my heart allows – are leaving. Invariably, I’m tipped off when they suddenly start speaking English and going to every doctor they can, even the dentist.

The details of leaving vary, but the reasons rarely do. Frustrated and fed up, my friends want meaningful work at a dignified salary; yearn to improve their families’ station; and itch to experience something beyond their block, barrio, or province. A leave-taker myself, and with what I know beyond this city, island, and hemisphere, our emigration conversations have been in-depth and interesting.

My 20-something friends ache for independence – from mom and the state – though many are clearly unprepared for the reality fleeing the nest and flying solo imply. My 40-something friends, meanwhile, are tired. Tired of only having water un día sí, un día no; tired of waiting on the bus, permissions, and promises that may never materialize; tired of hunger and boredom and heat without respite, tired of the shortages and struggle and slogans – the endless luchita that erodes the will to go on blackout by blackout.

Just today, after a rash of events that included death of the family dog, a trip to the pediatric hospital and stint at the police station (neither resulting in prolonged care or detention por suerte), a friend reached the end of her rope: “I’m a revolutionary, but there are limits to what a person can take. I can’t take any more. I’m ready to get on any lancha or plane to get me out of here.”

I relate to both groups: fiercely independent, I began working at 13 and left home four years later, so I get my young friends’ anti-dependence stance. What trips me up and out, though, is how they replicate the precise behavior they condemn: they don’t participate in any community endeavors like the block association, because they say the block association doesn’t get anything done. In turn, the association blames ineffectual municipal authorities, who blame overworked and gridlocked provincial authorities and on and on goes the blame game up the hierarchy in a cycle of non-action.

I ask if a renovation or re-thinking of these mechanisms is possible (obviously it’s desirable), but they give me ten reasons why it isn’t practical. When I suggest that they volunteer or campaign for those positions in local government where they might affect change, I get the same response. It’s a vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy a la vez: things won’t get better because the people charged with improvements are ineffective and/or shackled so why even deign to try to fix what’s broken or work towards positive change? So they cross their arms and give in to the inertia – while eating grandma’s home cooking with provisions provided by her and the state, in clothes washed by mom, after which they shower in a bathroom they’ve probably never scrubbed themselves. They are resigned, leisurely.

Out of sight, out of mind? Photo by Conner Gorry.

I know that sounds harsh and as if I’ve written them off. But I feel for this generation. They did get the fuzzy end of the revolutionary lollipop after all. They were born into the hardship of the Special Period, just missing the halcyon Eastern Bloc boom, when you could take your honey out for dinner and dancing on the average salary. The emotional, exuberant revolutionary hey day when the entire country put their backs and minds into creating a more just, equitable society was also before their time. To boot, their lives were proscribed by all kinds of dubious innovations like ‘emerging teachers’, the camello, and reggaetón (see note 2).

But there have been positive changes in their lifetimes, too, and when I ask them about the relaxation of restrictions on private property and enterprise or the very public push for full integration of LGBT Cubans into society for instance, they say ‘too little, too late’ or cite non-causal factors for such strides. Many didn’t participate in the national debates that generated these changes, nor have they read or heard Raul’s speeches specifically dealing with these issues – and even thornier ones like travel and the meager salary problem.

When I point out that not all change is good and ask if they’re prepared to take the good with the bad, they say yes – reflexively. Change for the sake of change is their position. And it leaves me wondering what they believe in; I’m coming to think that even if they know, they aren’t prepared to fight for it.

On the whole, my 40-something friends are nostalgic for the late 80s and agree much has changed since then – for good and not so. Back then, you couldn’t even dream of procuring an exit permit to travel abroad (a restriction the majority believes should be lifted, though this involves complexities not everyone is willing or able to recognize). And they praise recent changes, though often such praise isn’t forthcoming without prompting. It makes their resignation doubly troubling – they have the historical context of how great this country was and the maturity to take the longer view (see note 3) but still they want out. When I ask these friends what they would change, they mention freedom to travel (something my own country doesn’t extend its own citizens – another thing we share in common) and less bureaucracy. Some say they want Liberty, capital L.

Mercurial, that liberty thing. Do they realize tyranny comes in many flavors? And that consumer capitalism, powered by its ‘save yourself if you can’ underpinnings, is among the most bitter?  And if you can’t save yourself? Tough luck.

For many, the choice is reduced to resignation or emigration. Neither of which will deliver the liberty or change they so desire, I’m afraid. To be clear: I wholeheartedly support my friends working towards leaving; after all, I did it myself, I left my country and I can leave this one too when I want to. But I miss them something awful once they’re gone.

To the resigned, I say – if you’re going to stick around, stick up for what you believe in. A better Cuba.

Notes

1. OK, so maybe that’s a little crass. Cubans know better than anyone how hard life is here and generally have a genuine desire to help out those back home. Still, doubt creeps in when I learn about the rent-a-bling businesses in southern Florida which lease chunky gold-plated watches, chains thick enough to moor a boat, and rings for every finger to Cubans returning to the island. These doubts are reinforced when I turn sad watching family ruptures at the airport and friends say: ‘that’s all a show, muchacha. Take it with a grain of salt.’

2. This program trained massive amounts of teachers in the minimum amount of time. The idea was to improve the teacher to student ratio, which took a nosedive as older, more experienced teachers retired – often to offer private, complimentary classes to those students who could afford them. More often than not, these emerging teachers weren’t much older than their charges and depended on videotapes and other teaching aides to compensate for their lack of experience. By all accounts, it wasn’t a good approach. Camellos were double-humped hulks pulled by big rig cabs that held over 300 passengers when packed. You still see them in the provinces, but they’ve been phased out in Havana. If you don’t know what reggaetón is, I envy you.

3. Difficulty in taking the long view is not just limited to Cuban youth, I’ve found.

50 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Uncategorized

Calling the Cuban Fashion Police, Urgente!

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

Along with the fidelity conundrum, questionable Cuban fashion has proven rich and popular fodder at Here is Havana. Lamentably, the fury of dubious style has only quickened with new access to knock-offs, bling, and cheese funneled from places like Hollywood and Hialeah. And don’t even get me started on the mania for saline/silicone tits/ass that everyone is chasing here…(see note 1).

But what’s piquing my interest lately is the non-surgical – namely bad haircuts, tacky accessories, and unsuitable footwear and clothing. Part of the problem, explains my 24-year old friend Omar, is that Cuban “fashion” appropriates, rather than innovates.

“There are no personajes,” he says. “We’re not used to creating our own style or seeing anything unique. I mean, people look at me funny when I wear my red pants. Red pants! The other day, I was out with my friend Rodolfo who had on a kilt – an authentic Scottish kilt (see note 2). Imagine the shit he took! Everyone was staring and pointing at him when a guy walked by and said: ‘you’re wearing a salla!’ Then he looked Rodolfo square in the eye and said: ‘but, brother, you’re in talla.” (You’re in a skirt, but man, you’re rockin’ it!). Needless to say, Skirt Boy is the exception to the rule.

But as original as this may seem here, even this is appropriated (and dated – Angus Young, anyone?) One factor, certainly, is the unquestioning, indiscriminate glamour many Cubans ascribe to anything foreign. For example, a compliment like ‘Nice necklace/shoes/dress’ is invariably answered with: ‘es desde a fuera’ (it comes from abroad) – as if this were explanation enough for its quality or style (see note 3).

If you’ve been to Cuba, you’ve surely marveled/recoiled at some of the national fashion. Skin tight jeans bedazzled with Playboy bunnies; spinning $ and pot leaf belt buckles as big as my hand; and couples in matchy-matchy outfits are de rigueur, as are back fat, camel toes, and muffin tops (what I term ‘congris belly’). More than passing trends, these unfortunate looks hang around here like scabies on a hippy. I’m afraid these may never go out of style and I wonder about the up and coming looks Cubans are sporting. Are they too, destined to become part of the uniform?

(A brief caveat: the last time I wrote on this topic, some readers accused me of being harsh and judgmental. I get that much of the clothing and accessories people wear here is directly related to economic possibilities, but there is no excuse for bad taste – even class or wealth. Furthermore, once you see a chick in Lucite heels trying to negotiate the white sands of Playa Santa María, clutching her macho to remain upright, I think you’d agree. If not, you’ll probably not cotton to this post much…)

Fake Hair – Remember when I wrote about Cubans taking the disposable part out of the disposable diaper equation? This behavior is a result of wanting the new thing (i.e. disposable rather than cloth diapers) but not having the money or access for the upkeep). Well imagine a ‘fall’ of synthetic hair a decade beyond its expiration date and you get an idea of some of the nasty rat’s nests women attach to their real hair here. No matter if it’s color correct or not, although to their credit, muchachas and matrons who favor fake hair generally try to match it as closely to their natural color as possible. Recently I snapped a photo of a mom attending her daughter’s graduation – a big, dress up kind of day, as you may imagine – with one of these hair pieces. In this case it was a swirl rather than a fall, but I’m fairly certain this was simply the same dog with new fleas: an old hair piece cut and fixed up one last time before it’s relegated to wherever synthetic, flammable accessories go to die.

Personally I’m not too surprised by this fake hair folly: after all, the mullet can still be seen here. Very unfortunate indeed. Which brings us to the next fashion foible:

Bad Hair – There has been a pandemic of bad hair around here as of late, with some styles taking the offense to new heights – both literally and figuratively. Here I’m talking about the yonki. Like me, you may be tempted to pronounce this like those tasty little potato dumplings from Italy, but do so and you’ve pooched any chance of passing for a Cuban: in these parts this hair style is actually pronounced like a strung out heroin addict. Intrigued simply for its rabid popularity, I started investigating why Cuban youth are raging for MC Hammer-era fades known as ‘junkies’ when I discovered the term actually comes from the regguetón star El Yonki.

These hairdos are, quite simply, ridiculous – particularly the 3” high version. Just as popular (and ridiculous if you ask me and if you’re still reading, I assume you do) are the ‘faux hawks’ kids are favoring these days. Guys: do you not have the cojones for a real mohawk? Now that school’s out, you have no excuse (see note 4).

Absurd Footwear – I have some basic rules about shoes. #1: If they’re broken in and still hurt when you walk, they’re defeating the purpose. #2: Ditto if you’re unable to walk in your shoes or they’re inappropriate for the context (eg stilettos on cobblestone streets/in church; come-fuck-me shoes on sand). These rules conform in some way or another to my cardinal rule for fashion, friends, and lovers: form follows function. So you won’t be surprised to learn that I frown upon Uggs worn with Daisy Dukes – something that is also catching on here, though the boots are knock off pleather (that’s Conner-speak for plastic leather) numbers made by Chinese child labor.

Then there are knee-high Converse sneakers and these weird bondage/Xena Warrior Princess-type sandals with leather ankle cuffs. Not only are these fashions entirely too hot for a Havana summer, they’re fugly (more Conner-speak meaning fuckin’ ugly). To be fair, visitors tell me the same thing when I wear jeans (the hot part, not the fugly part). While researching this post, my fashion consultant, who is here on a long overdue visit (for familial, not fashion reasons), assured me that most of these trends, plus scoop belly overalls – perfect for flaunting that congris paunch! – and bubble dresses (known as bombaches) are still in style only in the Mississippi backwoods and Kansas trailer parks.
[

That’s the bad news. The good news is Cubanas work these lamentable trends more beautifully than anyone else. Cuba remains a country of gorgeousness any way you cut it, no matter the cut of your jib.

Notes
1. A top plastic surgeon here assures me Cuban men are just as amped to go under the knife as their cubana counterparts. As you may imagine, the men go in for love handle removal and chest/muscle amplification. I guess good old fashioned exercise is just too taxing?

2. Rodolfo was wearing underwear; I confirmed, so not 100% authentic.

3. Another common response to such a comment is: ‘it’s yours,’ followed by the person taking it off and handing it to you or says ‘borrow it whenever you like.’

4. Cuban kids from kindergarten through high school wear uniforms and have to conform to hair regulations as well – although they’ve been relaxed a little bit as of late, wild hair is still cause for demerits in many schools.

48 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Let Me Count the Ways…

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
Ay Cuba.

What have you done to my heart, torn in so many directions but always aching for 23° 7′ 55″ North, 82° 21′ 51″ West? And my soul? Of, by, and for New York from birth, but now reconfigured into an alma cubana that whispers mysteries in Spanish I’m still unable to cipher.

I’m not sure when this happened – feeling betwixt there and between here – though I know it’s common to long-term expats. Hell, I’ve even parsed some of this awkward, never complete transition over the years, crafting a sort of road map to the cultural, linguistic, and romantic bumps in my road.

Despite my musings and analysis, I entered some unknown territory on my most recent trip off-island: in a nutshell, I did not want to leave. Maybe I’ve been hanging out too much with Moises and Rina, two friends who had to travel to the United States recently, but neither of whom had the ganas to do so. It wasn’t due to fear – both have traveled several times for work – nor was it because they’d traveled so extensively that trips abroad had become old hat and rote (see note 1). They just didn’t want to leave the island and these days, nor do I. It feels wrong and a bit scary, like kissing a cousin or sibling.

It makes me sad because I know the lengths so many Cubans take just for a chance to see what lies beyond all that water crashing against the Malecón. And it’s confusing, because on every previous trip, I too felt the need to ‘saca el plug’ (pull the plug) and ‘desconectar’ from the drama-rama that is Cuba. Trips out used to be exciting, emotional, and necessary.

But not this time. I didn’t want to cut whatever cord hooks fast into those of us crazy for Cuba, making us spend money we don’t have, go against our better judgment, and jeopardize job, health, and relationships to get back to the island. In an effort to untangle that cord (or loosen the noose, depending on your POV), I offer all these reasons why I love Cuba (see note 2).

The $1 lunch – Whether it’s a cajita across from the CUJAE or a knife and fork sit down at El Ranchón (one of my all-time favorites), Cuba has some kick ass $1 lunch with all the fixings. Even at the airport: on my recent trip off-island, I filled up at the cafeteria outside Terminal 2 (clearly one of the greatest benefits of the new economic regulations) with a plate overflowing with pork, congris, yucca, salad, and chips. It was so tasty a fellow diner said: ‘my congratulations to the cook – he must be from Pinar del Río!’ (see note 3).

Touching, hugging, and general closeness – Latinos have a different concept of personal space and Cubans, as is their wont, take it to an extreme. Men embrace and greet each other with kisses on the cheek, female friends walk hand in hand, and my best salsa partners have been girlfriends. All of this is to say that Cubans aren’t afraid to touch – your leg when telling a story, your back as they try to pass you in the hall, your shoulder as they ask: ‘how is your family?’ Cubans fill elevators to its maximum capacity and I always delight in watching a mixed Cuban-foreigner crowd boarding them for the mutual awkwardness that ensues. Up in the States, the awkwardness is mine every time I step into a nearly full elevator, encroaching somehow, though there is always room for one more. That weird, reactionary, and let’s be frank, harmful rule that teachers can’t hug students in the USA? My Cuban friends can’t even grasp the concept when I try to explain it.

The hello/goodbye kiss – Related to touching is the traditional Cuban greeting – one kiss on the right cheek no matter if you know each other or not. Even taking leave of big groups results in blowing a kiss to the crowd. I think we should start this trend up north. Our world couldn’t be any worse off with more kisses, could it? On my visit to the States recently, I leaned in towards my host and said: ‘you were wonderful tonight,’ touching his knee as I spoke. Did he misread my Cuban-ness? Interpret it as something more?, I wondered later as he slid his hand down my back to cup my ass. This doesn’t happen in Cuba unless the signal is an unequivocal green (ie the ass grab is mutual).

Fun in the sun – I was born and bred in northern climes, but I’m a winter wimp through and through. Sure I loved tobogganing and ice skating and snowball fights as a kid – still do in fact – but the bulky clothing, the cold that turns wet once the fun is done, and the squeak of day old snow that sounds like someone is packing Styrofoam in your ear isn’t my bag. I like loose clothing, walking in the sun, and smelling gardenias or fresh cut grass in December. Summer clothing is sexier I think we can all agree, and as white as I am, when my freckles fuse into a pseudo tan, I work those scanty, loose-fitting clothes to full effect.

Drink, smoke, & be merry – The 8am Bucanero; the post-feast cigarette; the incessant regguetón: Cubans milk the ‘party hearty, the rest of you be damned’ approach to its fullest. Believe me, I know. And should it slip my mind, my neighbors are quick to bust out their state-of-the-art karaoke machine and warble drunken, sappy ballads until the wee hours.

And the smoking, dios mío. I remember going for my first pap smear at my local doctor’s office here in Havana…hoisting my feet into the stirrups, I watched aghast as the doctor took one last drag of her filter-less cigarette and with a deft flick of her gloved hand sent it flying out the window before diving between my legs (see note 4). If you’re a non-drinker, non-smoker, or not into music appreciation, you’ll probably find Havana offensive. But for those who like an after dinner cigar, enjoy (or need) some hair of the dog once in a while, or are usually the first on the dance floor at parties and functions, I bet Cuba will float your boat.

It’s safer than where you live – Okay, that’s a broad stroke, I know: after all, I don’t know where you live, much less the crime rates. But I can tell you that the absence of crack cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, and guns means a generally safer city. I’m not saying drugs, prostitution, violence, and rackets don’t exist in Havana. They do. But as a longtime traveler and writer of guidebooks to some of Latin America’s most violent cities (Caracas, Guatemala City, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa) and an eyewitness to NYC’s crack attack in the 80s, I can tell you that Havana is a gated community comparatively. Kids play unsupervised in the street here and I walk home alone at night frequently. (Truth be told, I took a short hiatus of walking home alone after a tall guy grabbed me from behind and thrust both hands between my legs one night in Vedado, but I conquered whatever uncertainty the event planted within me). Most of the crime here is of the opportunistic/snatch and grab variety and tends to peak between October and December when people are trying to rally resources for Christmas and New Years’ celebrations.

These are some of the reasons why I love Havana and if you’ve been thinking about coming here, let me leave you with one piece of advice: don’t put it off any longer. The only certain thing in life is that life is uncertain.

Notes
1. Yes, there are Cubans who get tired of traveling they do it so much: politicians, organizers, academics, musicians, and artists, typically.

2. For those interested in earlier thoughts on this subject, see my earlier post Things I Love about Cuba.

3. Country cooking like they do in Pinar del Río is unrivaled – trust me on this one and seek out a campesino lunch next time you’re in that wonderful province.

4. For new readers to Here is Havana, let me reiterate that all the stories found throughout these pages are entirely true, though some names have been changed to protect the guilty.

20 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Relationships, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

I Got the Cuba in Me

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

Coming back to the States for a visit is always odd. It’s an out-of-place feeling common to most expats I suspect – awkward yet surreal, like watching a movie you know by heart dubbed in Thai or Tagalog.

For years I’ve carried my ‘Cuban-ness’ back with me and it freaks people out. I touch people while in conversation, call strangers “sweetie” or “honey” (our closest equivalent to “mi amor”) and crowd everyone’s personal space. Solidarity flows from within me for the downtrodden and I chat in Cubano with every bus boy, street sweeper, and young thug I can.

But something about this trip is different. I’ve brought more than my touchy-feely Latino tendencies and finely honed español back to New York this time. Suddenly, I’m seeing how much the Big Apple (my birth home) resembles Havana (my adopted home). And not in a good way.

The similarities are disconcerting in no small measure because they represent an entirely new perspective. For years, I’ve parsed the differences between my old and new homes. On those rare occasions when I did examine commonalities, I focused on how Havana resembled Manhattan, not the other way around. But my perception has flip flopped this trip. Have I crossed some imaginary frontier? Is this what happens when birth home cedes incrementally, but irreversibly to new home? Have I gone native?

Looking back, I realize it started as soon as I deplaned in Miami (see note 1). Approaching the escalator to baggage claim and customs, I noticed a white haired woman – old, but in no way frail – hesitating at the edge of the moving stairway.

“Would you like some help?” I asked her in Spanish. She took my arm gratefully and we maneuvered down towards customs together.

“I’m missing a contact lens. It’s hard to navigate the escalator,” she explained though I didn’t ask. Thinking about it now, it seems more likely that she had never before been on a moving staircase – you can count the escalators in Havana on one hand. Besides, she was from Varadero.

Mirta told me she was visiting her son who had left Cuba a dozen years ago. It was her first time in Miami. I told her I’ve lived in Cuba for 9 years, though she didn’t ask.

“I’ve lived there for 74,” she responded proudly.

Once we got shuttled to the customs green line (see note 2), Mirta explained that she had to call her son and tell him where she was.

“He’s too tacaño to park and come find me,” she said touching the point of her elbow – the Cuban symbol for cheap.

I liked Mirta’s spunk (see note 3) and was kind of appalled at her inconsiderate son, but I didn’t have a cell phone. Less than 30 minutes on US soil and already I was a stranger in a strange land. Even so, I couldn’t just ditch Mirta in the middle of MIA like a Cubana would her brand new husband she’d used to emigrate. I felt an obligation to ‘resolver’ the situation.

I spied a guy with a phone hooked to his belt and asked if he would lend it to us for a quick local call. He apologized saying his phone was broken. The second guy I approached was totally embarrassed, explaining that he had no money on his. Strike one and two a lo Cubano: cell phone as fashion accessory and no cash in the account. Luckily, the next guy not only had a phone and spoke Spanish, but was an MIA employee and had a soft spot for little old ladies. Mirta went from my care to his, but not before planting a farewell kiss on my cheek.

Mirta was lovely and I enjoy making deposits in my travel karma account, but I shrugged off the episode: it was Miami after all, with Cubans acting like Cubans down to non-functioning phones. But New York looking like the other side of the Straits gave me pause. And it’s not because Havana is evolving, my friends. Rather, I was seeing that shit happens, things break down, and systems fail, even in all mighty Manhattan.
_____

It had been a long night, but I had places to be. I rolled off my friend’s couch, inhaled some good, strong coffee and hustled off to the PATH train. When I got there, all the MetroCard machines were broken. And there was no attendant in the booth. Hola? Is this Havana? I braced my arms on either side of the turnstile and prepared to hop. It’s not my fault I can’t pay, I figured in that particularly Cuban way.

“The cameras will catch you,” a woman behind me said. “Allow me.” And with one fluid motion, she swiped her card through my turnstile.

I ran to catch the train, ‘thank you!’ streaming down the corridor like a boat’s wake.

As my train shuttled past chop shops and strip clubs, I thought about how weird it was for something as necessary as ticket machines to be broken here. Weirder still was a stranger coughing up a couple of bucks to bail me out.

When I got to Newark, I had time for a bite before my next train. Eating: it’s an all-consuming pursuit of mine, especially since many of my favorite foods are as rare in Cuba as multi-tasking and fidelity. When stateside I’m a junky for Thai food, sushi, tofu, cheese of all types, bagels, pizza worthy of the name, mussels, crème brûlée, asparagus, artichokes, and something known in these parts as an almond horn.

Saliva pooled on my tongue as I approached the case packed with Black & Whites, croissants, crullers, and turnovers. There were macaroons, brownies, blondies, carrot cake, cheese cake and muffins. Danish jammed against bagels, while the bialys yearned to be noticed. But nary an almond horn in sight. Mysterious absence of normal foodstuffs: this felt familiar.

As I tried to contain my disappointment and choose from the (too) many choices, an announcement boomed throughout the station. ATTENTION PASSENGERS: DUE TO A POWER OUTAGE, THERE WILL BE NO TRAINS RUNNING UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

A blackout? Of indeterminate duration? Here? The similarities were getting increasingly eerie – and frequent. Later that day, choosing something simple off the diner menu (faced with too many choices again), the gum snapping waiter informed me they’d run out of that dish. This is de rigueur in Havana where you eschew the menu entirely, instead cutting to the chase by inquiring, ‘what’s available?’ But here, in the land of plenty? Things run out? Since when?

Then there’s the ban on incandescent light bulbs. From the “news” coverage I’ve been able to stomach, I gather this is chapping a helluva lot of asses around here. Seems the USA is compelling people (sort of, in a way, only those willing) to swap out energy-draining incandescent bulbs for more efficient compact models. In Cuba, we did this in 2006 (“Year of the Energy Revolution”), when brigades of young folks across the island went door-to-door removing incandescent bulbs and replacing each and every one with the energy efficient curlicues (note 4).

And the potholes. I can’t remember a time when there were so many giant holes pocking New York City’s streets. Everyone is blaming it on the bad winter, but these craters are Diez de Octubre worthy, forcing drivers to swerve and veer in an effort to avoid them, exactly as we do in Havana. On some NY roads, there’s no avoiding them, they all bleed together to form one giant hueco. Is this all the fault of a harsher than usual winter? Regardless, invoking something as nebulous as the weather to justify the crumbling streets seems so….Cuban.

It’s sad – I don’t want my hometown to fall apart – but at the same time, it’s reassuring in a way. Maybe we’re all in the same hand basket, headed hell-ward, no matter if the point of departure is Santos Suarez or SoHo. Or maybe it’s simply that I’ve crossed that imaginary frontier, where my ‘otherness’ is finding its (dis)equilibrium between here and there. Either way, NY no longer feels like home.

Notes
1. As a journalist, I’m legally permitted by the US government to travel to Cuba on the 45-minute, $400 charter flights between Miami and Havana.
2. As we all know: green means go. Once I ended up on the evil red line where a buxom agent threatened to liberate me from my 5 cent cigars. The yellow line is only marginally better (and perhaps worse for all its ambiguity).
3. Dedicated HIH readers know my fondness for viejitas.
4. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I refused to swap out our bedroom light (no way I’m fucking to fluorescents) and snuck in some incandescents in my suitcase.

24 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, Cuban customs, Expat life, Living Abroad

The Road Test: Adventures at the DMV Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

So I passed the written – a test my friend Pilar called “easy” but which took me a couple of tries (while my ego took a beating) to master. In the end, I’d triumphed. I’d passed; the hard part was over. I had my Cuban driving permit. I wasn’t a bit worried about the road test – I’d been driving for years before my US license expired, including in Havana. It was just a formality.

Famous last words, as Mom would say.

Countdown: 16 Days to Go

Our friend Camilo stopped by for a visita on the eve of the road test. This was serendipitous. Camilo is a professional taxi driver and an old hand at Cuban rules of the road.

“You’ll be fine – just be careful how and where you park. They like to get tricky with that.”

This gave me pause.

“How about the car I’m using? Does it matter that I’m taking it in kind of a clunker?” It wasn’t one of those Meyer Lansky-era jobs mind you, but a car with sus problemitas nonetheless.

“As long as it’s manual – you can’t take it in an automatic. And make sure the emergency brake works. They won’t let you test if it doesn’t.”

The emergency brake, of course, was the car’s major problemita. It was totally flojo, flaccid. Stopping that car with the emergency brake was like trying to shoot pool with a piece of rope.

Sleep was elusive that night. I could blame the refurbished mattress, but my tossing and turning and anxious sighs were caused by images of loose emergency brakes and personal failure followed by financial ruin.

We arrived bright and early the next morning at the police precinct parking lot where the road test began. My stomach was in knots and my eyes had the itch and irritation of insomnia – allegories for my mental and emotional state. It wasn’t yet 8:00 am and already three were three testees, plus their representantes – those folks who drove us to the test and would perform the car inspection before setting out. I took el último. We chatted to pass the time. My hyperkinetic, chain smoking husband did little to allay my nerves.

My heart was beating faster than is normal or healthy when Oswaldo, our examiner (or inquisitor, depending on how you look at it) strode up. He gathered us around and explained the exam. He reviewed common mistakes and what skills he’d be looking for.

“Any questions?”

“If we fail today, how soon can we come back to retake the test?” I asked. My clock was ticking faster than a childless 40-year-old with maternal tendencies and I needed to know exactly where I stood.

“You have to wait a week and can only take it three times. If you fail all three times, you have to wait a year before taking it again and then you start from zero, with the written.”

He asked for all the candidates to step forward with their documents. I was the lone foreigner. There were some younger folks with their bling and blasé attitude, plus an army guy (see note 1), a truck driver, and a tall dreadlocked dude with an extranjera girlfriend so butt ugly she could have cracked a mirror (see note 2).

Oswaldo asked each representante to take the wheel of the cars we’d be testing in to verify that the blinkers, brake lights, and emergency brake were in working order. My husband tossed his smoking cigarette aside and got in the car.

“Accelerate and pull the break,” he was instructed.

He did so. Oswaldo looked at me.

“Back up and do it again. Without stepping on the brakes this time.”

The love of my life did as he was told and coasted to a stop too many yards away.

Oswaldo shook his head. “You can’t take the test in this car. Can you find another?” I told him we would.

My husband called his office and they sent over an even older car that rattled when it rolled. Now I had sweaty palms to go with my irregular heartbeat. This car, not surprisingly, also failed the pre-test inspection. I was starting to get seriously worried. My Plan B – tossing a buddy of mine a “Benjamin” every week for use of his jalopy truck during my assignment abroad – was tenuous at best and I there was no Plan C. I walked home steamed.

After raging against my husband’s shitty work vehicles to our empty living room, I gave my good friend Angela (she of the Cuban Thanksgiving) a call. She had a nearly new Korean jobbie – small and simple – that I was sure she would lend me. She’s solidaria like that. Not only did she agree, she came over later that afternoon so I could give it a test drive.

“Does your car have a name?” I asked her once I was behind the wheel.

She looked at me as if I’d asked her to join me on a stroll of the Malecón with an ‘abajo el socialismo‘ sign.

“It’s just that I know a lot of people who name their cars: Bruce, Chico, Rocinante. That way you can talk to them – maybe cajole them into behaving better. Kind of like plants or kids.”

I took Angela’s no name car for a spin and it felt like I always did behind the wheel: like an experienced driver. We agreed to meet the next morning in the police lot.

Stay tuned for Part III of Conner’s Adventures at the DMV.

Notes

1. I steered clear of any chit chat with this fellow for his sake: all members of the Cuban armed forces who come in contact with a foreigner – even inadvertently – must file some ridiculous paperwork about the encounter. I learned this one day as I sat on my friend’s couch when her nephew dropped by. He was in uniform and tried to hightail it out of there before he was compromised, but too late. This regulation of contact with foreigners is why folks in uniform looking for a botella (hitchhiking – common throughout Cuba) won’t get in your car if you offer them a ride.

2. It’s not my style to notice – much less comment – on someone’s physical appearance (beauty is on the inside after all) but this woman was extraordinarily, exceptionally ugly making me think other factors were likely at play in this Cuban-foreigner hook up.

9 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Living Abroad