Tag Archives: hurricanes

Havana Bad Time (see note 1)

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Times are exceedingly complex and anxiety-ridden on this side of the Straits. This is part of the reason I’ve chosen to accentuate the positive lately – both personally and generally. No one needs me griping about the small things and adding to the angst, I figure. Besides, here, like everywhere, you take the good with the bad, which is my stock answer for those who don’t believe (or cotton to) my choice to be in Cuba. And for me, the good has heavily outweighed the bad for 10+ years.

But these days, my life has gone a bit pear-shaped (see note 2), sending me to my surest, safest refuge: pen and paper (see note 3). Indulge me this one post and we’ll return to issues of more import, (not to mention fun), soon. Te prometo.

¡Apagones cojones! – Once upon a time, I was one of the 11 million here who withstood 10 hour black outs. Years later (before we’d hooked up with Hugo), the apagones were shorter – a couple, three hours – but still a fact of life. And in hurricanes, the electricity is cut when winds reach 40 miles per hour – one of the reasons Cuba suffers minimum loss of life compared to other places since many storm-related deaths are due to downed live wires. So I’ve known my share of blackouts.

But none of this explains why I came home last week after sol-to-sol meetings to a dead answering machine in my sala and defrosted pork parts in my freezer. Did my neighbors have lights? Yes. Had I paid my bill? Yes (see note 4).

‘Tis a puzzlement as the King once said and not in an intriguing, brain teaser kind of way, but rather in that ‘how am I going to cook dinner and keep cool?’ kind of way. The head scratching intensified once I located my meter amongst 18 others downstairs and found it in working order. Next, I went to the circuit breaker inside my house and found it in the ‘off’ position. I switched it to ‘on.’ A light sputtered to life, but I didn’t even have time to yell “Yay!” before it threw the breaker again.

I waited a bit before switching it again to ‘on.’ The light flickered and held. No electrician has been able to explain the mystery – I have no new appliances or anything additional plugged in – but I dare not turn on my old Russian AC. Send help if you don’t hear from me by August.

The concert that wasn’t – One of the undeniably greatest things about living here is the quantity of quality music happening almost always. So was the case last Saturday night when X Alfonso, Raúl Paz, Kelvis Ochoa, and Decemer Bueno were all playing at different, fabulous venues across the city.

How to choose?

For me, it was easier than most since I’ve seen them all perform multiple times and Decemer’s concert promised something special: invited guests included Israel Rojas from blockbuster group Buena Fe, plus Xiomara Laugart – an exile making her return to the Cuban stage. 

I highlighted his concert on my Facebook page. I invited friends and family and pedaled over some time after 10. I took my time: Cuba isn’t a particularly punctual place and these cats less so. I cruised up and ran into friends on an inaugural date, thrilled they’d chosen this concert over the others…

Once the clock reached 11:15 and the doors still hadn’t opened, my friends bailed. I hung in there and was relieved when they (finally!) started letting people in at midnight. I grabbed a Tu Kola at the swinging bar and headed into the theater where a full house waited. And waited. And waited and waited. At 1 in the morning, I bailed myself, my night of getting down, gone down – in flames (see note 5).

Yes You Can!=No You Can’t! – I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: my life changed when I got a bike several months ago. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s practical and represents independence and freedom – coveted states no matter where you live. But I still nursed a hangover from my first Cuban bike in 2002, when I had been stranded one time too many with nowhere to park my chivo.

Bike parking lots were as ubiquitous here during the Special Period as wannabe iMac users are today, but most car lots circa 2012 are reticent to accept bikes and those specifically for bicycles are few and far between. But so far, I’ve only had one run in – with a too-cool-for-school parqueador more concerned about his dwindling keratin supply than the vehicles he was paid to guard. Then I rolled up to the car/moto/bike lot adjacent to Coppelia. Here things took a fast turn for the douche absurd.

ME: Buenas tardes, compañera. I’d like to park my bike.

HER: Sure, put it right there in the rack. (She ties a chapita to the frame and hands me a matching metal ‘ticket,’ which I pocket).

ME: Great. Just need to lock it up.

HER: Oh no! You can’t lock it.

ME: ?!?!

HER: No, no. No locks.

ME: Compañera. I don’t understand. This lock provides added security for both of us.

HER: No. You can’t use a lock here. If you want to use a lock, do it on the street.

ME: But that’s illogical. Why wouldn’t you want more protection for me and you?

HER: Because we’ve had ‘situations.’

ME: What kind of ‘situations?’

HER: People have abandoned their locked up bikes here.

ME: ?!?!

So I wheeled Frances three feet away, on the other side of the rope from the official parking area, locked him to a tree and headed off for ice cream. Your 5 peso loss, lady.

Doggin’ me – This last was really the icing on the cake, the ill effects of which I’m still suffering. Last Sunday afternoon, like those before it, I was making my way to play bike polo. But this time I was escorting a friend, which is good news: our league suffers from a chronic shortage of bicycles. We had just made it around Havana’s hairiest rotunda at Ciudad Deportiva and turned onto the access road to our court. I glanced behind me to make sure my friend had made it through the rotary and when I turned around, there was a stray, mangy dog directly in front of my tire. 

I had no time to react – no swerve or brake or little hop was happening. I ran squarely  over him, passing with a thud over his flan-colored midsection, first with the front tire, then the back. He yelped. I fell. Folks nearby gasped. The dog ran off, leaving me with a badly sprained ankle and a serious hitch in my giddy up. If I wasn’t a dog person before…

Notes

1. This post was suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) by Havana Good Time user Annabelle P after a visit here. Thanks chica!

2. And what follows is only what Politics, legal considerations, and my personal ethical code permit me to air publically.

3. For all two of you who were wondering: I still do all my first drafts the old fashioned way – by putting pen to paper.

4. The electric and phone company here are merciless when it comes to non-payment, cutting service one day past due. I experienced my share of cold nights and interrupted phone service growing up due to unpaid bills, but I don’t ever remember ConEd or AT&T being that cut throat. Ironic, eh?

5. Turns out they took the stage at 1:30am, having had to wait for the sound guy who was working one of the other concerts which also ran late. To boot, there was a short in Decemer’s mic, so he was getting shocked through his six song set before calling it quits. Friends tell me they’re going to make it up to their pissed public with a free concert soon.

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Keeping in Line, Cuban-Style

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It was Sunday and it seemed like the whole neighborhood was out getting their coffee and Times. When we entered the bagel store – a cubby hole joint so Jewish it’s closed on Saturdays – a scrum of hungry New Yorkers clustered around the display case of smears. They may have had sleep in their eyes, but these natives had sharp elbows; both safety and common courtesy required we not cut in front of anyone. But where was the front? Where was the “line?”

“We have to start implementing el último here,” my sister said as we loitered awkwardly on the fringe of the amorphous mass.

“Who’s last in line?!” I boomed to everyone, no one and someone – exactly who, I wasn’t sure. Once I had my answer and we knew where we stood, I dedicated myself to studying which of the 57 juices for sale struck my fancy.

—–

El último is an institution and key survival skill on this side of the Straits. It’s one of those inventive measures that is at once simple and brilliant – in short, pure Cuban.

I don’t need to tell you that lines here can be long. It’s an enduring cliché of the one party state and waiting on those lines is a daily reality for me and my neighbors. Mastering el último, therefore, is obligatory.

Here’s how it works: when you come upon the scrum at the bank/bus stop/ice cream parlor/bakery, the first thing you ask is ‘¿quien es el último?’ Who’s last in line?

We accomplish a lot with these four words. Everyone knows immediately the line’s sequence which instills instant order to an inherently disorderly affair, plus it allows us to abandon the line concept altogether. Once you know who you follow by taking the último, and once someone shows up to take the último from you, there’s no need to actually stand in line. The system gives us the freedom to disperse and loiter, catch some shade or take a load off.

Taking and giving el último was one of my very first lessons Here in Havana (the other was never, ever trust the guy weighing your produce). I loved its elegant simplicity and how it allowed me to slip seamlessly into local practice.

It took me a bit to get the second part of el último – the part where you ask ‘¿detrás quien va?‘ Who are you behind? This follow-up phrase to who’s last in line? is every bit as important as ascertaining who you follow in the first place. Consider what happens if I take el último from you, but suddenly your lover putters up in a Polski or you get fed up and decide to walk (as if! but let’s just suppose). Your disappearing means I now have no idea who I’m behind. Your exit leaves me in the lurch, poised to screw up the heretofore well-ordered procession.

It’s common courtesy (admittedly in shorter and shorter supply these days it seems) when you’re ducking out of line to let the person behind you know. As in: ‘I’m outta here. You’re now behind the compañero in the Yankees cap.’

There are those who ignore lines here entirely. Typically they fall into two categories: Cubanos descaraos (ingrates) and pushy foreigners. Both boil down to feeling superior, like their time is more important than yours and so they’re entitled to jump the line. I know people like this. Their attitude is: ‘fuck it. I’m not waiting in line.’ I find their behavior distasteful – especially as I blow 20 minutes waiting to change money.

There are others who are just line spastic. These folks typically show up and wait patiently, but without ever taking or ceding the último, throwing a wrench into the works. My husband falls into this category (another major motivation for me to master the system as quickly as possible once I landed on these shores).

Clueless foreigners also form part of the line spastic phylum. They just don’t know, poor dears, and so screw up the system with their ignorance. With that mix of pity and paternalism with which many Cubans view foreigners (as if we are all just big inexperienced kids; as if we’ve collectively just fallen off the turnip truck), they usually just let them pass to the front of the line. They do it in good humor mostly, chalking it up to ingenuousness and our general non-Cuban state of being.

Then there are those who don’t have to take el último. These folks go straight to the front of the line like an entitled or unknowing foreigner. Women with babies and blind folk usually fall into this category and pregnant women always do. Or so I thought…

—–

It was September 2008 and Cuba had just been walloped by a duet of hurricanes. The aftermath was dramatic, the future uncertain: 10% of the nation’s GDP had been swiped away by the 193 kilometer an hour winds and it was unclear how well the country was going to pull through. It felt like that moment when the ref is standing over the boxer, sweat and blood pooling on the mat, and the crowd is holding its breath as the count goes to 3, 4, 5. Was there any fight left?

Fresh food was nowhere to be found in Havana. The agros were empty, the stalls streaked with the mud of long gone squashes and string beans, cukes and yucca. When some produce finally started dribbling into the city it was rationed: 2 pounds of plátano macho per person for instance or one calabaza a head. Lines were as long as I’d ever seen them, anywhere, anytime.

We took the último in two lines (another benefit to the system: by marking your place in this manner, you can do double duty, waiting in two lines at once, even though you need not be present in either once you give ‘el último‘) to buy our coveted one head of cabbage. Both lines crept forward. After 45 minutes, we began to wonder if the supply would hold out until our turn. We stood on tiptoes to see how many cabbages were left. We could wait all day if need be – we couldn’t remember the last time we had a fresh vegetable. ‘Will they run out?’ people were commenting around us. The line grew restless as the mound of white-green globes grew smaller.

¿¡El último?!‘ someone shouted from behind.

¿Última persona?‘ they repeated.

¡YO!‘ shouted a broad-chested guy dressed head to toe in white.

¿Detrás quien va?’

‘Her,’ he responded, pointing to an elderly lady with hair dyed that same purple they use to stamp meat in the States.

People on that line were quiet, too quiet. They weren’t making conversation to pass the time like nromal. It was unusually tense.

‘Seventeen people to go,’ the woman behind me whispered, counting heads with a crooked finger.

We stood there like cattle watching the cabbage mound dwindle. Some looked at their watches with the raised eyebrow and pursed lips that in Cuban means ‘Dios mío, carajo.’ The line grew tight all of the sudden, with some energetic shuffling up towards the front.

¡Embarazada!

¡EMBARAZADA!

‘Pregnant woman coming through!’ the lithe mulatta shouted as she walked to the front of the line. We looked at her. We looked at the cabbage. We could see loose leaves at the bottom of the container. The supply was dangerously low.

‘Pregnant?! My ass you’re pregnant!’ someone near me said.

He was right: she didn’t look en estado, but that’s often the case…initially. But by cutting the line, she’d crossed a line – that line dividing survival from just giving in and lying there on the mat while the ref counts 6, 7, 8…We’d been here over an hour and in strolls (supposed) mom-to-be claiming her right to forgo el último.

These Habaneros were having none of it.

¡La cola, la cola! someone shouted – did she need to be told there was a line as long as the Malecón?

‘How pregnant are you?’ another person asked – as if a woman who would lie about her gestational state wouldn’t lie about how far along she was.

‘Get to the back of the line!’ shouted another. ¡Estás collao!

While people argued with her, the cabbage ran out.

The crowd dispersed, heads hanging, plastic bags slack.

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Coño, It’s Cold

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Like many writers, I keep a running list of things about which I want to write – ideas that are especially interesting (at least to me) because they’re especially Cuban, capturing the inimitable specificity of this place.

One thing on that list, a writing idea I had about six months ago, was about The Heat. That suffocating, certain noose of weather that induces apathy, discomfort, and an ineluctable urge in all Cubans to complain about just how hot it is. Whereas six months ago, I was going to write about threads of sweat weaving between breasts, now I’m compelled to write about erect nipples thanks to our recent spell of witch’s tit kind of cold.

First and foremost, bathing is a bitch. Most people I know (myself included, dear reader) don’t have running hot water at home. Everything is accomplished with cold water or with water heated on the stove. (Talk about Old Skool. I swear, Cuba [too] often feels like that Pioneer House reality show). This includes bathing. Pull back the shower curtain in any Cuban home and you’re bound to see a plastic bucket. When it’s ‘bath time,’ water heated on the stove is mixed together with its cold counterpart to the bather’s preferred temperature in the bucket. This brew is then poured over the body using another, much smaller, plastic bucket, or more commonly, an oversized tin cup known universally as the ‘jarrito.’

To all those people who have ever said to me, ‘why do you need hot water in Cuba anyway?!’: I invite you to my house today, where the thermometer struggles to reach 50°F, to try bathing with the little/big bucket system.

I’m particularly fond of hot water, I’ll admit. Esalen, Fuentes Georginas, Puna’s hot pond – I’ve lounged and lingered in them all and I’ve yet to meet a (clean) hot tub I didn’t like. Bathing with the bucket method cold day in, cold day out? This is my hell.

You would think that 8 years on I’d be used to it, or at least have a viable strategy. But I’m still trying to dope out the best method: Do I pour many little jarritos of hot water over my entire body head to toe in quick succession and then proceed to suds and rinse all at once? Or do I go about it piecemeal, wetting my legs, soaping them up, and rinsing them off before working north to my hips, waist, and beyond? Even on still days, the air is colder than the water and neither strategy keeps me from freezing my ass off. (Hair washing is clearly out of the question.) It’s like entering a chilly pool, I suppose. Creep deeper inch by inch or dive right in head first? Tough call.
_____
So how cold is it, really? Well for starters, the weather folks on Cuban television (see note 1) are using phrases I’ve never heard here before like ‘exceptionally cold’ and ‘be sure to bundle up.’ For once, this isn’t Cuban hyperbole. Record lows have been recorded throughout the country this January: last week it was 33°F in Gran Piedra and a couple of days ago it was just a few degrees warmer in Colón. Average lows here in Havana hover around 48° (or colder in the microclimates). I could make a fortune selling fuzzy socks and cozy pants on a random Habana Vieja corner. According to our venerated weather people, it’s going to be close to, or record breaking, for the number of cold fronts passing through Cuba in a single January. Already it has been 30 years since the last time it was this cold – some nine cold fronts in the month.

It’s affecting everything. Outdoor concerts are being cancelled and patio dining is at an all-time low. Even baseball is feeling the effects, with hard to hold bats flying towards the infield and sportscasters breaking in after the count to exclaim, ‘I am FREEZING and for what?’ Then there’s the Cuban cold weather wardrobe: Dogs are combing the streets in jury-rigged hand towels, while musty, long-abandoned coats are hauled out of closets from Guanahacabibes to Punto Maisí. If you’ve been to Cuba recently, you’ll have noticed there’s an unhealthy predilection for denim jackets. Unfortunately, these are often paired with jeans, meaning Cubans of all types and stripes are violating the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not wear jeans with jeans jacket.’ (see note 2)

Friends here assume I’m not bothered by this relative cold since I hail from ‘up there.’ But they’re wrong: I hate this state of weather in between. This not hot, but not really cold either. I hated it for 7 or so years in San Francisco and I’m hating it still. It’s just too wishy washy for me. It’s like the suburbs. Give me urban like New York or rural like Pinar del Río, but I’ll skip Scarsdale in all its über suburban-ness, thank you very much. Likewise, give me hot like Havana (normally is) or cold like Montreal. Northern California’s pseudo-heat? I’ll pass.

For now, I’ll just have to suck it up dirty hair and all and brew some more tea. Giselle just announced another cold front is on its way.

Notes

1. I must take this opportunity to say something about Cuban weather forecasters, since they are so different from those pretty little thangs that dominate TV weather up north. Living in the hurricane belt confers upon Cuban weatherpeople a notoriety, visibility, and responsibility beyond detailing five days worth of sunshine and rain. We depend on them to keep us informed about any heavy weather heading our way, lest we have to tape windows and put up water, lay in candles or evacuate to a shelter. These folks are experts and have the higher degrees to prove it – everyone reporting weather on Cuban TV has a master’s degree or higher – and are accorded the reverence we usually reserve for professors or doctors in the USA. Another difference between here and there is the weather wardrobe: the night weather woman Giselle appeared wearing a black lace teddy type number during prime time, I was reminded of my dearly departed brother who watched the Weather Channel like it was porn. And when her colleague Odalys reported the weather right through her eighth month of pregnancy, I realized this was a whole different ballgame. I mean, when was the last time you saw a very pregnant woman delivering the weather forecast where you live?

2. The 11th Commandment was coined by my dear old friend Neil S. Since he clued me in to just how cheesy and profane the pairing is a couple of decades ago, I’ve ceased to be a sinner (at least in this regard).

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Excerpt: Here is Havana, Chapter 1

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Hola readers. Today I’m posting an excerpt from my work in progress Here is Havana. If you like this short clip, check out the real deal here. Welcoming comments….

I. Time

‘Dura Como Merengue en la Puerta de la Escuela’

The clock has little relevance in Havana. Even newspaper weather reports carry no forecast, just today’s conditions. Timepieces are superfluous and lateness a vague concept: you’ll still be seated as Giselle fingers the royal hem mid-act; you can step into Tai Chi class during the sixth movement; and though the coffee may have grown cold, a demitasse of the sweet, black nectar forever awaits you. Here, whole weeks and months fall between the cracks of comfortable yesterdays and uncertain tomorrows; even years can slip by unnoticed, like a stealthy teenager tiptoeing in past curfew.

Hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait and wait and wait: the city paces itself at a parabolic tempo that’s like the hurricane watch, with everyone anticipating the hit and then weathering the blow, gathering themselves up and moving on. Beholden to such meteorological maybes and other uncertainties – brothers disappearing to Miami or Madrid, perfidious lovers and periodic light failures – Cubans are conditioned to live in the moment. Who knows if the bus will come? If it comes, will it stop? If it stops, will there be room for more passengers? If it stops and there’s room, will I be lucky enough to squeeze on? In Havana, living means waiting and we might as well tell some jokes, throw back some rum and drink in the sensuous scenery of the meantime – whether we’re waiting for a bus or something más allá. 

            This city, this system, demands superhuman discipline and tolerance, which is shot to hell once the moment of truth arrives – as the box office opens or when the bus finally pulls to the curb, the doors unfolding with a screech. Then everyone breaks into a run or at the very least a trot and the race is on. “¡Dale! ¡Dale! ¡Corre! ¡Corre!”  The staccato commands to ‘step on it!’ bounce from the granite stairwells of Vedado to the greasy, hot alleys of Chinatown. If you don’t laugh here, you’ll cry and if you don’t hustle when it counts you’ll languish, molder, miss out or be stranded. Timid Cubans, I imagine, must suffer especially.

            The more months I pass here, the more I realize that Havana time is not only a parabola, it’s also a helix, doubling back upon itself, causing motion sickness, confusion and ultimately entropy. Cubans maintain their balance by living for right now: eating fast, fucking faster and devouring the latest gossip as a nearby phone rings itself hoarse. Appetizers, ice cream, carnal moments, secrets and other juicy goods here ‘dura como merengue en la puerta de la escuela’ (last as long as candy at the school door) and tough luck if you don’t run and get yours.

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