Tag Archives: garlic millionaires

Blogging from Cuba: Keeping Connected

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Blogging is a funny business. For most of us it’s bad business – even when we learn to adapt, monetize, and optimize. These were some of the conclusions drawn at TBEX ’10, the Travel Bloggers Exchange hosted in NYC this summer. I couldn’t attend, unfortunately, but Here is Havana was (thrillingly!) featured in the keynote.

I’m a notoriously bad capitalist (see note 1), so it’s par for the course that I should be dedicating hours to an endeavor that costs me money instead of accruing it (see note 2). Not surprisingly, writing has always been a difficult means for me to make ends meet. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a pretty tough negotiator when it comes to contracts and I don’t (usually) work for less than the market can bear, but somehow I never figured blogging into my revenue stream.

But after many conversations with friends up north and a spate of articles about the slow, but inevitable decline of traditional publishing – like some kind of chronic disease of the printed word that can be managed but not cured – I realize I must adapt or die.

I like to think that at least a few readers have felt motivated to buy my guidebooks or iapp after landing here, but truth be told, I’m not in this for the sales or to funnel traffic to my website. Here is Havana isn’t even about bagging a book deal (see note 3). I blog because it keeps me writing and because I harbor hopes that what I write here reveals a slice of life unimagined or a side of Cuba many folks don’t – or won’t – see.

Blogging also keeps me connected. Friends and family tell me they read HIH because it helps them stay abreast of my daily doings. Meanwhile, people I’ve never met have told me that HIH contains some of the best writing on Cuba they’ve come across. I don’t know about that, but I do know that for me, blogging is about writing as I see it and occasionally illuminating a dark corner or two.

A lot of you I know either personally or virtually. Some of you I work with, share blood with, or chat with on various travel sites and fora. But strangers wind up here too. And how they do is often odd, sometimes funny, and once in a while enlightening. Combing through the search terms people use to reach Here is Havana is brilliant procrastination of course, but it also helps me keep my finger on the pulse. What is it really, that people want to know about this enigmatic place? Sometimes what people search on to find me leaves me with a furrowed brow and comic book question mark above my head. (I’m quite sure, for instance, that I’ve never written on Cuban porn or heroin. Maybe they meant Cuban pork and heroines?)

What’s important, of course, is not how you found me but that you did. Sometimes sitting here in my stifling office with the neighbor cooking so close I can just about reach into her pots, I feel the sugarcane curtain descend. The isolation; the 56k dial up; the US chokehold which is as brutal and failed as a loveless marriage.

So I dedicate this post to you, dear readers. For finding me and keeping me connected and giving me lots of food for thought with search terms and phrases like these:

*Oatmeal Survival – Been there, done that. Decades later, I still can’t touch the stuff.

*Do you find nipples on chicharrones? – Indeed you do, I learned recently and it’s damn disconcerting.

*Pasta de oca – This is a surprisingly popular search term for a seriously unpopular foodstuff.

*Jesus, You Rock My World – Glad to see believers are lurking in our neck of the woods, although I’m quite sure they didn’t find whatever it was they were looking for here. (Punctuation points to this reader!)

*Cuban funerals – This is sad all the way around, but remains one of the all time top searches for random lands at HIH.

*Embalm in Cuba – Oh, the irony! The double entendre!

*Can I bring methadone through Cuban customs? – Did this reader find out the hard way, I wonder?

*Pizza cheese condom Cuba – Clearly that last word is superfluous…

*Garlic millionaires – Yup! We got them (and with the new economic changes afoot, we’ll soon have tomato and onion and rice millionaires too).

*Cuba iPhone porn – You wish.

*Drugs to make fisting easy – Ditto. (Just as an aside, I have never seen ‘fisting’ and ‘easy’ in the same sentence before or since, so mark a point for originality).

*Characteristics of a Cuban boyfriend – We should talk.

*Is August in Havana too hot? – That’s rhetorical, right?

*How do you avoid sand fleas in Cuba?The question is: how do you survive sand fleas in Cuba? Avoidance is clearly not an option.

*Honey is back and she’s in the streets – I, for one, would like to meet this street walking Honey. Sounds like a hooker with a heart of gold.


1. One of the reasons why I always felt Cuba would be a better fit for me. Little did I know that Cubans are some of the savviest, most savage capitalists around!

2. See Merriam Webster’s entry for ‘guidebook writer.’

3. OK, maybe just a little!


Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Living Abroad, Writerly stuff

Re-Entry’s A Bitch

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Faithful readers will have noted my prolonged absence from the great (and not so) blogosphere. It’s not that Cuba has driven me to slit my wrists (see note 1), but rather a quick trip to the singular city and state of mind that is New York which has kept me and my pen quiet for a piece (see note 2). No doubt these infrequent escapes “home” serve to temper any suicidal tendencies, but they also trip up my psyche, stirring up stressful emotions of otherness: I’m no longer from there, and will never be from here, but am caught turbulently in between. It’s making me a little loopy.

Back in the Big Apple, my compatriots were fretting about baseball and Bloomberg. The Yankees were in the World Series (again, imagine that!) and a collective breath was held to see if The Best Team Ever could bring the big win back to the new stadium. Mayor Bloomberg, meanwhile, wasn’t taking any chances: to assure his election day triumph, he abolished term limits (see note 3) and spent like a drunken sailor during Fleet Week on his re-election bid – we’re talking over $100 million dollars. The foregone conclusion was reached reluctantly – he beat out his closest competitor by less than 5%, and that guy spent a mere $8 million on his campaign.

Baseball and politics are similarly hot topics on this side of the Straits, albeit more complex. More complex and also more disheartening: to start, Cuban baseball is in crisis. Or close to it. I’m not one of those fanatics who parses the sports page (yes, it’s just one page, but the entire paper is only 8, so that’s a pretty good percentage) and eavesdrops on the ball debates raging daily in Parque Central (see note 4). But I know poor play when I see it and Cuba’s lackluster showing in recent international competitions is cause for serious concern and perhaps (gasp!) some sports reform.

Here’s the scorecard. First, several high profile defections in 2008 and 2009,coupled with the many (non-superstar but still solid) players leaving the country every year is having an impact on Cuban ball. In short, even when you’re playing against the country’s best, that quality is relative. But it’s not just emigration taking its toll. The Cuban system, remember, is pulling from a population the size of Ohio. And while that system is phenomenal at scouting, training, and supporting its talent…Do I think a Cuban team today could beat a US major league club like happened in 1999 against the Orioles? No, I do not.

Then there’s the no trade policy. In Cuba, you play for the club where you were born (relocation is rarely, if ever, an option), meaning good players may never make it to great. Especially when their local team sucks. If you’ve ever played a sport, you know you tend to “play up” – performing better against superior opponents. If you’re the best player on a bad team here, you’re kind of doomed to the middle ground.

The state of Cuban baseball has a lot of people pissed around here. The exorcism of baseball from the Olympics – the island’s greatest international sports stage – has even more people more pissed. I think if there’s one facet of daily life that could unite the masses against the powers that be, it may just well be Cuban baseball’s slow decline. The disappearance of onions is another (see note 5).

But I digress (she says trying to sideline the politics portion of our programming).

From where I’m sitting, things seem…restive. My Cuban friends tell me this is a permanent state of shifting ground, not much different from other unquiet times. They’ve got me cornered with that argument since I arrived in 2002, so I don’t know how it was before. Or before before (see note 6).

But for those who claim these times are igual or casi casi, let’s review. In the past few years alone, Fidel has retired to the dugout; three hurricanes ripped across the island in a month, taking $10 billion worth of food and goods with them; a global economic crisis began sinking its teeth into every country big and small; and there have been some highly charged and wholly unexpected political layoffs that took intelligent and experienced young Cubans out of the game. What’s more, 2009 imports are down 36% (an incredible 80% of that is food, exacerbating my psychological hunger); tourist arrivals have increased, but the same can’t be said for corresponding revenues, which have dropped; nickel prices are down; and there’s talk of axing the ration book. I can’t imagine Cubans paying for sugar. In fact, add purchasing sugar to the list of agitating factors alongside bad baseball and AWOL onions.

So anxiety is high for me here in Havana. As it was up north, sitting around with my friends talking about the state of their lives and nation. All are still employed and housed, so we give thanks for that. But I kept hearing the same stress-ridden refrains, regardless if it was my hipster high school teacher friend, my small business owning sister, or my like-a-brother bartender talking:

‘If I get sick, I’m fucked.’

‘I pay into social security, but I’m sure it won’t be there for me when I need it.’

‘The taxes are killing us (so we decided to get married).’

‘I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m old and retired, so I have to work like a dog now while I can.’

‘I’ve consolidated my loans so they wouldn’t garnish my wages; now I’ll be paying for another 20 years.’ (This from yours truly).

What’s comically tragic is that we’re all in the same boat. Except I’m over here, with a whole other set of factors contributing to the stress pie (the least of which, let’s be frank, is baseball-related). I had hoped my two weeks away would have changed something, but they’re still fumigating house to house against dengue, the electric hot water unit continues to shower us in sparks meaning we’ve regressed to the bucket shower, and there’s nary an (affordable) onion to be found.

“Cheer up!” a Cuban friend tells me.

“You can’t go on like this,” says another. “What are you gonna do? Put a bullet in your head?”

I ponder this.

“The problem is there are no guns.”

In the meantime, I continue to tread water here in the small pond.


1. I would be neither the first nor the last: Cuba, both pre- and post-revolution, has one of the world’s highest suicide rates. An intriguing construct, made more so by the determination it takes to pull it off – the sheer lack of garages, guns, and ovens makes it a mean feat. If you’re interested in the complex reasons of the why and the creativity of the how, see Louis Perez’ comprehensive tome (we’re talking 480 pages on Cubans killing themselves!) To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society.

2. Yes, I still write with pen and paper.

3. Funny how US politicians condemn others for lesser measures (eg, Chavez who extended his stay via popular referendum and Zelaya who simply suggested a vote on the idea even though it wouldn’t have applied to him) but barrel ahead with dictatorial policies when it suits. This double standard pragmatism is a deeply troubling pattern in US foreign policy. Global warming? We caused most of it, but you deal with it you dirty developing countries. Nuclear proliferation? We’ve got our arms, but you best not go there Israel. Whoops. I mean Iran.

4. Known as La Esquina Caliente (The Hot Corner), these open air baseball debates occur in parks around the country and have been called the most democratic spaces in Cuba. If you’re ever in Havana, especially during the season (October-April, which makes it exactly the reverse of the big leagues, meaning Cuban players could, in theory, play both here and there, but that’s best left for someone else to tackle), head to Parque Central for an earful.

5. For about 6 weeks and counting here in Havana, it has been extraordinarily difficult to find onions – one of the single most important ingredients in the Cuba kitchen. Difficult, but not impossible: those who can afford $1 a pound for onions have them. As you may imagine, these people are in the great minority in a country where the average monthly salary is $20. The onion farmers, meanwhile, are dancing a jig of joy since they’re getting rich. This has precedent: in the brutal days of the economic crisis known as the Special Period, fortunes were made by garlic farmers who kept the capital city in its preferred herb. This earned them the moniker “garlic millionaires.”

6. This is only partially true: I first washed up on these shores in 1993, the heart of the harshest part of the Special Period when 8-hour blackouts were de rigueur and people lit bonfires in the streets to pass the dark nights. But it’s one thing to pass a month volunteering and another to live it day in, day out, like I’ve been doing since 2002.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad