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Sensing Havana

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Travel anywhere can be magical for many reasons, but as a writer what inspires me most is the shift in perspective – seeing new things, which is as trite as it is true of course – but also seeing old things in a new way. Have you ever noticed how returning home after a big trip even the mundane snaps into focus, like putting on a new pair of glasses? How obviously a tree trunk in the yard resembles a thumb and forefinger though you’d never once noted it or the regularity with which that dun colored bird comes to visit each morning?

I’ve lived in Havana the past nine years and what snapped to my attention and popped into focus when I first got here I rarely notice now (see note 1). Mustachioed women and muffin tops for instance or the fastidiousness with which people sweep the sidewalk and grass strips in front of their homes. I lament no longer seeing my adopted city with a “child’s eyes” – that precious curiosity and wonder we tend to lose as adults – but tell myself it’s justified. Change is happening so fast here (for here), how could I focus on the constants?

 It used to be for instance, that the only Mercedes’ you’d see were taxis lined up at the Hotel Nacional or zooming down 5ta Avenida transporting heads of state. Back in the day, a couple of superstars had them too: Once I saw the unmistakable salsero Pedrito Calvo behind the wheel of his Mercedes, but it was missing a hubcap and had dents around the wheel well. Today, there are all kinds of shiny new cars cruising Havana’s cratered streets – BMWs and Audi’s, but also at least one Bentley, Hummer, and mini Cooper. All sport yellow license plates (indicating private ownership), not black (embassy) or blue (state).

 Today, Havana is in flux. Accumulation of wealth and inequalities are becoming inevitably more pronounced and the political future is…uncertain. There’s a lot of anxiety and low level stress judging by what I’m hearing in the streets and hallways (and the difficulty I’m having scheduling a slot with my new therapist – but that’s another post).

 Some days, like today, I prefer to retreat from all the politics and angst, uncertainty and yes, sadness to some degree, and see Havana like I once did all those years ago – with fresh eyes.

Elaborate topiary & saucy garden gnomes: Tacky and suburban to my sensibilities, most of my Cuban friends appreciate and admire the artistry of a well-trimmed bush and the kitschy-cute gnomes that dot front lawns from Vedado to Boyeros. There are even buxom female gnomes (gnomettes? gnomas?) squeezing their bosoms like ripe fruit in yards across the city. Brightly-painted cement mushrooms often complete the scene.

Public zit popping: This habit is part sport, hobby, and time killer for Cuban couples. On park benches and at bus stops or waiting on the bread line, lovers are popping each other’s zits and squeezing out blackheads with glee. Does someone need to point out to them that acne and food never mix? Apparently, someone does.

Dogs doing their thing:  Innumerable are the times we’ve had to stop the car for a couple of canines fucking in the middle of the street as if they were ensconced in their own private posada. Nonplussed, the bitch regards us with a feral smile as she’s humped away by some mangy stray. They refuse to be rushed: No coitus interruptus for these puppies. The same goes for middle-of-the-street shitting. She squats, watching and taunting us to inch forward with a toothy snarl. It can be a laborious stand off – almost all Cuban dogs are constipated.

Pure breds: While we’re talking dogs, I noticed from the start that certain perros de raza are all the rage here. It used to be cocker spaniels (still the go-to dog for sniffing out lethal and illicit substances at the airport), followed by Dalmatians. This isn’t unique to Havana: certain pets the world over become fads and status symbols (see: Nemo and chihuahuas). But what’s hard to square here is the craze for chow chows, who walk the streets with heat-ravaged fur and black tongues hanging as low as an old man’s balls and Siberian Huskies. Pobrecitos. Dogs die of heat exhaustion too.

Gold teeth: Like pure-bred dogs, the gold teeth fad swept across Havana some years ago like the flu making the rounds now. From 10-year old kids to aging cabaret dancers, everyone was chasing the dental bling. There were even TV shows and news coverage about it. Oral ore seems to be on the decline, but whether it’s just a fad that’s fizzled or a sign of the economic times, I cannot say.

Come hither weatherwomen: When Leticia, the master degree-holding weatherwoman popped on the nightly news screen in gold lamé, I laughed and wondered if the wardrobe captain had taken a vacation or fast boat to Miami. A few days later, she informed us about the advancing frente frío wearing a black lace-up corset and sheer drape. Does she sidle into the next studio after the 5-day forecast to film the novela, I wondered? (see note 2). But nothing topped learning temperatures would drop over the next couple of days from a woman on national television sporting a camel toe.

Cuba: you never cease to restore my sense of awe. And that’s a good thing.

Notes

1. This is the reasoning some guidebook companies use for not employing locally-based authors – they’re too inured to place. It has occasionally worked against me, but I can see their point. The ideal scenario, I think, is for individual guides to be written by a combination of local and non-local authors. This is our arrangement on Lonely Planet Hawai’i and it works well.

2. Even among scientists, Fredrick’s of Hollywood stands to make a fortune here once/if the embargo is lifted.

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