Tag Archives: lonely planet blog sherpa

Queer Cuba

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
I’m what’s known in the vernacular as a ‘fag hag.’ It was not choice, calling or custom that threw me into the gay orbit at an early age, but rather a fortuitous convergence of nature and nurture. My family is peppered with homosexuals and my oldest brother loved to tell us of his escapades with The Eagle Scout, The Priest, and The ‘Straight’ Guy. As a tween, I was already accustomed to seeing men kiss and knew about the dark and personal horrors of the closet (from the likes of The Priest and Eagle Scout, not my brother who was loud, proud, and occasionally obnoxiously, gay; see note 1).

I’ve been to leather bars, bear bars, piano bars and clubs where the dress code is naked and go-go boys dance in cages. I remember one of our tribe – the hottest, most coveted among them – telling me he wished he was straight so he could get with me. I love the humor and the hubris, honesty and fashion/design sense of my gay friends. I go to them for sex tips and appreciate having escorts who won’t try to grope me. They throw the best parties and usually have kismet with the downtrodden, being an oppressed group themselves.

By way of context, I’m talking about pre-AIDS New York City, when there were still dungeon clubs and working “girls” in the offal-slicked streets of the Meatpacking District (see note 2). Back then, bath houses called on gloomy days and condoms were for breeders. But most relevant to this post: straight girls like me were part of the gang.

This wasn’t the case in San Francisco where I lived for seven years after NYC. The queer scene there, to me, felt hyper segmented, with gay men, women, and everyone everywhere along the sexual diversity spectrum siloed in their individual worlds. It smacked suspiciously of tolerance, a weak and non-sustainable stand-in for the unity and community I’d known in New York.

Back here on this island, I’m happy to report that years of tireless, often unappreciated and highly criticized, work by CENESEX (headed by Mariela Castro), the HIV-STI Prevention Center, El Mejunje, advocacy groups like GPSIDA, MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), and the straight allies who support them, is gaining traction.

sorry girls Im gayteeny

Nowadays, men hold hands in public (in Havana anyway), transgendered folks go shopping, clubbing, and to work as their real selves and there are more and more places for the community to convene (see note 3). And every year, Cuba’s International Day Against Homo/Transphobia grows bigger, more fabulous, and better focused. Last night, I attended the World AIDS Day gala which was as sexy, saucy, and talented as you’d expect of this place and the theater was SRO with the entire rainbow representing. I hesitate to say it’s a movement which is a bit of a dirty word here, but I’m heartened to see my queer friends and compatriots finding their stride. It feels like pride, but that’s another questionably good concept in the Cuban context since it implies superiority of one group over another and replicates hegemonic constructs they’re trying to break down and through.

But there’s rhetoric and there’s reality and as the wave of sexual diversity rolls towards a crest, I’m asking myself: will it manifest like NY, SF, or something altogether different? The evidence is conflicting, the analysis complex, and even after talking to lots of friends – gay, straight, and in between – from here and away, I’m still not sure where all this is going. But here are some factors at play in gay Cuba:

The Machismo Hydra – Once again, the scepter of male dominance and perceived superiority rears its ugly head (no pun intended) and underscores human relations here. I’m fairly certain this is part of the reason gay men have more visibility, mobility, and are more tolerated (there’s that sticky wicket again) here than gay women. Just yesterday I overheard this exchange between four friends hanging around their Lada slinging back Bucaneros: “who care if there are fags there? Deep down we’re all fags” (see note 4). The underlying meaning? Men-on-men action is not only within the realm of possibility – no matter how subconscious – but could even be desirable. Is it the power two men together represent, the simple carnality of it? Is it a way to neutralize machismo in an effort to liberate mind and body somehow? Once again, I’m not sure, but while a Cuban guy can say ‘deep down we’re all fags,’ chances are high that same fellow would say of a lesbian: ‘she just hasn’t had the right macho’ (and immediately propose himself as the one to convert her). Almost to a one, lesbians here, foreign and Cuban, have confirmed my impression that a) it never occurs to most men here that a woman can only be into women and b) once they know, it’s simply a question of ‘having the right macho’ to show them what they’re missing. What’s more, lesbian friends often mention the discrimination, including derogatory terms, leveled at them by gay men. This is troubling.

alejandra

The DINK Phenomenon – DINK stands for Double Income No Kids and savvy marketers have long carved out a niche among gay men who on the whole have more disposable cash and fewer familial responsibilities than straight and lesbian couples. So it’s no surprise that many of the loveliest, most successful new bars and restaurants here are owned and operated by gay men – out and not, it’s worth noting. This is great – the boys are cute, the décor classy (or camp), and the food and drink of high standard. I’ve had memorable times at several gay-owned establishments. At a few however, the vibe is decidedly cold shoulder, reminding me of San Francisco, i.e. you’re not one of us, but we’re running a business so we’ll put up with you. Again: troubling.

The Generation Gap – The older I get, the more I understand how age affects human relations, which is one of the reasons I so energetically nurture relationships with people of all ages. Queer relations in Cuba are no different. Talk to a gay men of 60 here and you’ll get a very different perspective from that provided by the 20-something set. The younger generation generally, has a much more open and organic take on sexual diversity – regardless of gender. I remember one night at the Cine Club Diferente film debate here when an elder gay icon stood up and expressed his opinion on the gay politics reflected in the film and its relevance to Cuba. He was followed by a young university student who said he respected the older gent’s opinion and experience, but didn’t share them. And then he told the story of arriving at his dorm the first day of school and telling his roommate: ‘I want you to know I’m gay and if you have a problem with that, we’ll have to make a change.’ The other fellow had no problem with it, they became roommates, and remain so a couple of years on. Meanwhile, young women are increasingly experimenting with other women and although a friend assures me this is just a fad, I have to ask: And? Even if it is a fad – one of those ‘yeah, there was that one night with a friend in college’ type things – doesn’t it open people’s minds, expand their horizons, and break down bias?

Of course, all of this has to be couched in the Cuban context, where there’s a housing crisis, with its attendant lack of privacy (keeping many folks in the closet); salaries are absurdly low (affecting entertainment options, autonomy, and a whole host of other issues related to mental health); and sexually diverse people have experienced very real discrimination. And while friends from the States tell me all of this (i.e. the discrimination, alienation, confusing orientation with preference, etc) sounds familiar, I do think it’s substantively – at least legislatively – different here. Voters in Villa Clara have just elected their first transsexual public official for example, gender reassignment surgery is provided free for those who qualify, and same sex unions will soon be legal nationally.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I love gay culture and sensibilities and while I don’t know where we’re going, I hope to continue to be a part of it. Remember: though we may be straight, that doesn’t mean we’re narrow.

Notes

1. Is that politically incorrect? You let me know, but those who knew Bruce know he could be obnoxious – charmingly so, but obnoxious all the same.

2. R.I.P. My last Giuliani/Bloomberg nerve snapped when I dared to venture down to my old stomping grounds around Little West 12th Street last year. I never thought I’d see New York go generic, but there it was; it could have been Any City U.S.A. (Yes, I’m bitter about “progress” in Manhattan).

3. My Havana Good Time app has a dedicated LGBT category if you’re interested.

4. As with all things, conversations, and events related at Here is Havana, this is 100% true.

Advertisements

21 Comments

Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, health system, lonely planet guidebooks, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

La Bola en la Calle: Crime in Cuba

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

“He killed it! And I love this venue,” the young Cuban American says leaving the Jardines de la Tropical where Carlos Varela has just played a rare Havana concert.

“Yeah, way better than when we saw him in Miami,” his friend responds.

“Totally. And it’s so obvious we’re in Cuba: look at all the rejas.”

Gems like these are why I’m such an avid eavesdropper: whatever differences there are between here and there, the one warranting comment is the Cuban mania for throwing up gates and bars around their homes.

If you’ve been to Havana, Santiago de Cuba or anywhere in between, you’ve seen this obsession Cubans have with enclosing their homes with iron bars. They’re cages, literally and figuratively, and are poignantly ironic as a result – so many people carp on about ‘freedom’ here, while locking themselves away in jails of their own construction.

Home robberies do occur, there’s no doubt, and the Puentes Grandes section of town where Varela played fairly beckons ne’er-do-wells: it’s dark, isolated, and provides many easy escape routes. But the disconnect between the real and perceived threat is aggravated by various factors including press coverage (there is none); the Cuban penchant for, and reliance upon, gossip for information (loosely related to the first factor); and our human tendency to place an inordinate amount of importance on Stuff.

Our first home here – a charmless microbrigada box in the industrial outskirts of town – had a small balcony, for which I was thankful, except it was enclosed in a cage. For me, there was no stronger metaphor for a bird with clipped wings and will than looking out from that barred balcony. I tried not to think about it too often, but ended up not using the balcony much at all. That cage mitigated any levity my soul derived from the semi-outdoor space it provided.

But after a decade of watching people struggle to amass money to put up bars (see note 1) and as much time puzzling over the rich and contradictory Cuban psyche, I feel driven to write about theft, safety, paranoia, and protection of stuff here and why I think the Cuban perception is skewed.

There’s no evidence: Have you ever seen crime statistics for Cuba? Me neither. I’m sure they’re collected – after all, the data-laden ONE (Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas) amasses stats on everything from new HIV cases and teacher:student ratios, tomato harvests and tourist visits – but crime is neither reported on nor published. Is crime up? Maybe, if you believe the bola en la calle, AKA what’s being said in the street. But then you’d be violating one of my top Cuba rules: if you haven’t seen or experienced something here firsthand, it’s best to assume it’s false or fabricated (or at the very least exaggerated) until proven otherwise. Indeed, if I believed everything I heard here, I’d be writing about cooking oil made from cremated bodies; JFK’s bastard Cuban son; condom cheese; and the government’s plan to spend nearly $400,000 converting all license plates from American- to European-style. Rumors, nada más, which will remain so until evidence confirms or disproves them.

What my experience tells me is that house theft is not nearly as common as Cubans believe. In over a decade here, I know three people who’ve had their homes robbed. In each instance, no one was hurt, thankfully, though all were home at the time. In only one of these cases was the perpetrator caught; in none of the cases was property recovered. Three robberies in 10 years hardly argue for a generalized wave of house break-ins (see note 2) requiring enclosing your home in bars.

Paranoia, it’s epidemic: In reply to my query about government policies regarding this and that, a dear friend explained: “half of the paranoia is based on experiences of concrete, unrelenting and strategic attacks on the country from without and within. The other half is straight up paranoia.” The Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines paranoia as ‘a tendency on the part of an individual or group towards excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others.’

Based on my experience with everything here from bureaucracy to busy body neighbors, I’m on board with my friend’s assessment: there are some very real, tangible threats to protect against and there are the imagined ones. Something else my experience tells me is that paranoia is contagious. From day one, all of my neighbors, both in the aforementioned barrio on Havana’s outskirts and now in Playa, have urged me to padlock my front door gate, locking myself inside, especially at night while I’m sleeping.

But I’ve never done it: in my mind, the way Cubans smoke, fire is a much bigger threat than robbery (see note 3), and I’d rather be burgled than trapped inside a blazing building. Recently, a friend slept over after a party and locked up the house after I’d gone to bed. I was amused, but not surprised, to find upon waking that he’d padlocked the front door. What wasn’t funny (and gave me great pause) was, the following night, for the first time in a decade, I padlocked that gate, thinking ‘an ounce of prevention….’ Yet, when that prevention is based on rumor and paranoia, is it really worth it? And how about when the preventive measure generates another danger, in this case rendering my house a fire trap? Needless to say, that was the first and last time I padlocked my front door but it taught me an important lesson: paranoia is a disease, easy to catch.

Friends impose this same paranoia regarding my preferred mode of transport: constantly, I’m urged to be extremely careful on my bike, to the point of not riding at night, ever, because I risk being jumped and the bike ripped from between my legs. While I recognize that someone desperate (or stupid; see next point) enough might attempt this, I’ve never heard of this happening here. Have you? The more people tell me this, the more I think it’s an apocryphal holdover from the Special Period.

I’m was born and raised in New York: My friends from Centro Habana scoff when I tell them this, rejecting it out of hand as any kind of mitigating factor vis-à-vis crime against my person or property. ‘This is Havana, it’s different,’ they invariably say. My first inclination is to say: ‘hell yeah, it’s different!’ and then explain the armor and mechanisms one is forced to develop waiting for a New York City subway on an abandoned platform deep underground circa 1986 when wild-eyed crack hos, male and female, roamed and robbed violently, desperate for money for more rock cocaine.

You needed mad city skills in my New York of yore, I want to explain, but refrain. I don’t tell my Centro Habana friends about walking in the street – never on the sidewalk – in dark, decrepit neighborhoods to improve your visibility and sightlines and lessen the possibility of being jumped or cornered, nor about turning rings inward or forsaking jewelry altogether to decrease your chances of being marked. Although I don’t offer tips like ‘never leave a backpack in a locked car,’ sometimes I wish I had: my stepson made this rookie mistake in Madrid last week and was robbed blind of his laptop, passport, plane ticket and more. Likewise, I don’t explain the very real difference between walking streets where you know people are armed with guns and those where someone may have a knife – but probably not.

I also don’t share my experience of 18 months of self-defense classes where I learned tactics for what to do when jumped, pinned or attacked, at gun or knife-point, or with bare hands. With their belief in la bola, combined with paranoia and lack of firsthand knowledge of what constitutes real and constant threats, what would be the point? Besides, it reeks of mala brujería to talk about it: I don’t want to jinx myself and have to put those skills to the test.

¿Conclusión?

Cubans have an unrealistic measure of what crime looks like outside their door, down the block, across town and overseas (see note 4). The question is: does it really matter? Isn’t this just a chronicle of life in contemporary Cuba? Possibly, except I’m worried about what relying on la bola about crime will mean as we move forward with current economic reforms. As inequalities deepen – and they are, as I type this – and crime begins to climb, as it tends to do when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, won’t it be helpful for citizens to know exactly what their playing field looks like?

Notes

1. Even more than renovated kitchens and bathrooms, the first home improvement Cubans make is erecting rejas on windows and doors.

2. Ojo: Note that here I am referring only to home robberies and how they correlate with barred windows and doors, not opportunistic theft of bicycles, chain and purse snatching, etc.

3. One friend of mine has fallen asleep not once, but twice, while smoking, torching his mattress in the process. Despite having escaped unscathed, he continues to smoke and nod off; I have the burnt furniture to prove it.

4. This intrigues me even more still since part of the reason for this skewed perception is lack of press coverage of crime here. But you see the same exact fear and paranoia in the US due to too much press coverage and the generalized media strategy of ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’

53 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

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

Do You Have the Cojones?

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
If I had a peso for every email I get from someone saying they want to live in Cuba, I could take the six month sabbatical I need to finish my book. Hard as it may be for some of you to believe (or stomach), people do indeed write me all the time professing that they want to live here. These wannabe transplants mention the music usually, the slower, easier pace sometimes, the social safety net often, but Cubans and their idiosyncrasies always. It’s the Cuban ser – their way of being and living – that is so infectious, they tell me. As if I didn’t know. After a decade living here, believe me, I know. And it’s not always pretty or fun. So before you do something rash or costly or dumb, ask yourself this:

Can you be passably nice to people you can’t stand; have betrayed you; or are inept?
Sure, things are changing fast down here with unprecedented economic reforms having sparked a capitalistic furor and all the multi-tasking, efficiencies, and work ethic the best of such furor engenders. But really, it’s the same dog with new fleas. Bureaucratic habits and vice; the cradle-to-grave airbag of state support (i.e. a not always effective, and often painful savior); and the absurdist criteria for job security are die-hard tendencies everyone has to navigate.

Such tendencies, coupled with Havana’s small size and an ingrained system of sociolismo – whereby who you know helps keep you afloat – force us to deal daily with perfidious lovers, mentally challenged office drones, and crabby clerks. Getting all New York uppity or asserting that ‘the customer is always right’ will backfire (trust me) and just make everything harder in any and all future dealings with the aforementioned lovers, drones, and clerks.

Which is more important: sex or drugs?
You’re shit out of luck if it’s the latter. Cuba’s zero-tolerance policy and strict interdiction laws mean jail time for a joint, limiting recreational options to island-produced vice: rum and prescription speed, sedatives, and the like.

If it’s the former, than c’mon down because sex of all types and stripes is better on the island. While I’m still parsing the reasons why, I can say with certainty that it’s related to the lack of shame Cubans have about natural, bodily functions; the absence of Puritanical underpinnings found in other societies (you know who you are!); and the prowess of Cubans en sí. Even if you were to relocate with your spouse or partner, I predict my findings would be confirmed.

Can you tell/enjoy a good joke – especially when you’re the butt of it?One thing that chaps my ass are all these Cuba wonks (including locals – yes, Yoani Sánchez, I refer to you) who write about island life, history, politics and even travel and fail – utterly – to reflect the wicked sense of Cuban humor. This is a funny people, people. No matter who you are or where you’re from, Cuban friends, family, and colleagues will constantly darte chucho y cuero. Loosely translated, this means you will be the butt of many jokes. You are expected to laugh along and what’s more, reciprocate.

To take an example from the weekend-long International Harley Rally I participated in recently….

I rode on a 1953 hog driven by compañero Vladimir (Note: name has been changed to protect the guilty). Like most Cubans, he took the 3-hour ride as an opportunity to flirt and shower me with compliments – the scripted Cuban prologue to getting into a girl’s pants. Not a chance did Vlad have, but that never stops an island guy from trying. I was clear on this point, as were the other 100 or so Harlistas and their backseat Bettys, but poor Vlad tried his damnedest regardless. On the last night, there was a big fiesta, the booze flowed, Vlad got stupid drunk, and ended crying in a corner. His friends rallied, rousted him, and escorted him safely to bed. Upon their return, they passed me this note:
[
(Coni I love you. You betrayed me. I never thought you’d do that to me. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I love you. A kiss)

Uproarious laughter ensued – we all knew Vlad’s blubbering had nothing to do with me and everything to do with dropping his bike in a drunken mishap. Lips pursed and blowing kisses, I snatched the forged note from Rodolfo’s hands, preventing him from making good on his threat to post it on Facebook.

Which is more important: food or sleep?
Automatic fail if you answered either because you’ll will go without both at some juncture here. Obnoxious reggaetón at 5am; pre-dawn Revolutionary Square rallies; and all-night parties will rob you of the latter, while shitty/non-existent restaurant service; midnight munchies with nowhere to sate them; and food just not worth ingesting, will rob you of the former.

Do you have personal space issues?
If ‘yes’ even crosses your mind, cross Cuba off your list: chronic housing and transportation shortages mean you’ll share rooms and beds, seats, sweat and oxygen with friends and even strangers at one point or another. Culturally, Cubans have a completely different approach to personal space – kissing, touching and rubbing up against each other is de rigueur, regardless of relation or circumstance. Even in the dog days of summer, folks greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, leaving behind a wet slick of sweat, a reality I’m still not sure how to deal with: do I let it ride and dry or swipe it away with a perdóname smile?

Are you more of a tits or ass person?
Cuban preference falls squarely on the latter which is a boon for bosom-challenged me, though I’m sorry to report that implants are making major inroads here, tweaking the standard of beauty towards the bust.

How do you feel about second-hand smoke?
Personally, I’m tired of tourists giving me dirty looks as I enjoy my habitual cigar. More than sex, rum, salsa, and solidarity, Cuba is known for its world-class tobacco. If you’re going to be here for any length of time, you’ll have to accept the fact that at one time or another, in places appropriate and not (e.g. windowless clubs, in hospitals, on buses), you’ll be breathing in the piquant, cancer-causing smoke of uncut black tobacco cigarettes and one peso cheroots.

Are you a hygiene freak?
If you’re one of those folks who has a trial-sized Purell bottle clipped to your bag, this isn’t the place for you. From stepping in street juice and gutter detritus to tolerating bugs or hair in your food (or as part of your food, as often happens with chicharrones), you’re going to experience it here. What’s more, every Cuban observes the five second rule: food dropped on the floor is entirely edible, as long as you retrieve it within five seconds. To wit: a couple of days ago I went to the panaderia for my daily ration of bread. As a nice neighbor helped me deposit the rolls in my sack, two fell to the sidewalk. Without pause the baker said: ‘give me those; I’ll replace them.’ He did, but only after placing those two tainted rolls back on the rack alongside the rest to be sold. Whomever came after me got those fallen rolls, none the wiser, poor soul. This happens all the time, and you will eat food that has kissed the ground, whether you know it or not.

Can you go without toilet paper/tampons/Internet/butter/speaking your native language for indeterminate and sometimes extensive, amounts of time?
We all go without these items down here, since to be in Cuba requires an adaptability many visitors I know simply don’t have but which Cubans possess in spades. No toilet paper? No problem – we use water like billions of other people around the world or the Communist daily cut into handy-sized squares. A diehard Tampax user before my move, I switched to pads a decade ago and many Cuban women still use swaths of cotton. Baking notwithstanding, oil is a good enough substitute for butter and while there is no substitute for Internet, being disconnected has its advantages – like actually interacting with real human beings.

On the language front, I’m embarrassed for expats who move to foreign countries and ensconce themselves in enclaves of their native tongue. These folks also like to foist that tongue on locals by talking REALLY LOUD or s-l-o-w-l-y in the odd, delusionary, and insulting belief that these strategies will result in success. If you’re going to live here, you need to speak Cuban, coño, which as any Spanish-speaking visitor knows, is an entirely different ball of wax from straight up Castellano.

Do you wither in the heat?
If so, don’t come here: you won’t be able to take it and frankly, you griping about it bums us out. We, on the other hand, can complain about it long, hard, and better than you – a right earned through innumerable August blackouts with no fan, AC, or ice water.

How is your tolerance for contradictions?
Every society has them and if you think otherwise, you’re not paying close enough attention. But the Cuban flavor of contradiction is particularly special. Married men, for instance, can keep multiple lovers (sometimes of both sexes). Married women? Not so much. Meanwhile, government laws promote private business but the bureaucrats charged with upholding those laws squelch incentive and drive; sex is the national pastime but making carnal noises the neighbors can hear and nude (even topless) sunbathing are taboo; artists keep profits from their work abroad but athletes don’t see a cent; and a taxi driver/tour guide/waitress/hairdresser earns more than a neurosurgeon. The media bears much guilt as well: you’ll very rarely hear trova legend Pablo Milanés crooning his immensely popular songs of love on the radio or TV, but sleazy reggaetón by the likes of Osmany García who beseeches chicas to suck his pinga gets airtime. Some of these contradictions are trying to work themselves out, but are proving as hard to cure as bed bugs and herpes.

Finally, do have untapped stores of inner strength (i.e. cojones)?
I hope so because to live here, you’re going to need them.

68 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, cigars, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Crystal Balling Cuba

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
Get your mind out of the gutter: this isn’t a pornographic post – which I know will be a great disappointment to some of you (I see every naughty and downright nasty search term used to find Here is Havana, you know). Rather, in this post I bring decades of capitalistic serfdom and 10 years of Cuban residence and observation to bear on Havana’s not-too-distant future. Making predictions is a dicey proposition and I will do it just this once, so pay attention. Here’s what I expect to unfold:

1. Bicycles are going to make a roaring comeback.
I mentioned this recently to a pair of Cuban journalists who fairly scoffed, decrying the idea as incredibly naïve and ill-informed. The hangover from the Special Period was too potent, they proclaimed in that annoying, know-it-all way, and the bike as a means of conveyance? Largely dead (and unlikely to be revived), it’s association with hard times, hunger, forced weight loss, and transport of last resort too fresh and caustic still.

I offered no rebuttal since Cuban journalists are not typically known for their insight or analytical chops (see note 1) and I was sure my theory on the resurgence of cycling would have been lost on, or worse, appropriated as their own.

What I didn’t say then but will now: as more people – young people especially – enter the private sector as wait staff, bartenders, hairdressers, parking attendants and in scores of other decent wage-earning jobs, they’re going to have to be at work on time. And public transportation is too unreliable. ‘La guagua no llegó’ was viable enough excuse when they toiled in a state cafeteria or the post office, but ‘the bus never arrived’ isn’t going to cut muster with their boss at the paladar or private spa. These gainfully employed folks will also have the resources to buy a bicycle. Moreover, I know intimately how efficient riding a bike to work or play can be. And if there’s one thing capitalism hammers into adherents early and often it’s find efficiencies or perish.

My Havana ride: Frances

A secondary and complimentary reason why bikes are going to come back into fashion is that Cuban women are beginning to feel the pressure to shape up. This isn’t a health craze, far from it. Instead, the pear/guitar-shaped figure that has always driven Cuban men mad is being supplanted by standards of developed world beauty. This super skinny/no hips archetype is problematic for a culture bred and bothered on fat asses and love handles – for centuries the ideal Cuban woman was one who had something you could grab onto. But slowly, surely, Cuba is headed for Barbie land – because buying into what they’re selling is what the “free” market does best. It makes me sad; one of the joys of this place for me is its proud nonconformity to dominant paradigms.

2. Pull back on car sales/private taxis.
Day by day, Havana’s streets become more dangerous, traffic-jammed, and accident-prone. This isn’t surprising considering the number of vehicles – new and rebuilt – that have been injected in a short period of time into a city laid out centuries ago. This is thanks to the relative ease with which cars can be bought and sold now, but there are other, less obvious, reasons why our streets are more perilous for motorists and pedestrians alike.

First, a small, but important change was made recently affecting the fixed taxi almendrones that ply main avenues around town: beginning last year, owners of those cars were permitted to subcontract out the vehicle to other drivers. Whereas previously only the owner could hack his car, now he can hire a driver to do the drudge work, freeing said owner to claim his spot at the domino table, slug back rum, and rake in cash. And the driving “skills” of some of these hired drivers are downright scary: they barrel down heavily-traveled thoroughfares at breakneck speeds; learn their routes – even how to drive – on the job; fight with unstable steering columns; and fiddle with the regguetón videos on their dashboard-mounted screens (thereafter becoming engrossed in the soft porn therein).

So bad drivers, in cars they know less intimately than some of their fares, is only part of the problem. The other part is that for the first time, SUVs are on the scene and in the hands of Cubans. This has a two-fold effect: first, these behemoths limit the sight lines of other drivers – I dare you to try and drive a Polski behind a Land Rover and test my assertion – and second, they give drivers an (increased) sense of invincibility.

Itty bitty Polski, photo by Caitlin Gorry

So I predict pullback. The market itself will play its part since the number of Cubans who can afford cars is finite (and prices are insane right now: $8000 or so for a used Lada or one of the aforementioned Polskis). Furthermore, the state will also be motivated to cap the number of cars on the road since accidents are among the top five causes of death here. And there have been a lot of accidents in my neck of the woods lately.

3. People will tire of the 50 cent pepper and the 5 dollar shot.
While outsiders and the foreign press, farmers and their middlemen praise recent economic changes allowing for direct food sales, ag cooperatives, and prices based on what the market will bear, my opinion is decidedly…measured.

I’m not as gaga over these developments for the simple reason that I subscribe to Mandela’s sage observation that ‘where you stand depends on where you sit.’ And if you’re sitting on mountains (or even molehills) of disposable cash, the reforms affecting food production and sales are deliciously welcome. Tomatoes in July, avocadoes in October, exotic crops like broccoli, cauliflower – the diversity and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 19-year love affair with Cuba. But if you’re struggling to make ends meet – if you’re sitting with the Cuban 99% – all of this is moot because you can’t afford any of it.

Green peppers, onions, and beans (staples all) are so astronomically priced these days, going to the agro can feel like a museum experience for many of us – except going to a museum feeds the soul, while food out of your financial reach just feeds your hunger and a simmering rancor (see note 2). In the veggie markets charging what they can (as opposed to state markets where prices are capped), produce is at least double the price. The guys wheeling carretillas from street to street, carts heavily-laden with bounty bought from those subsidized state markets, resell at triple the price.

Those who can afford exotic and not so produce at whatever price are largely oblivious to this I’ve noticed. They shop happily at the ‘diplo-agros’ (ie affordable only to the foreign diplomatic corps and other 1%-ers) for carrots, bok choy, white onions, parsley and lettuce – none of which are available, at any price, at the state markets where the rest of us shop.

Price distortions and places for “us” and others for “them,” are dangerous to the social fabric, especially because the gap isn’t only widening, it’s deepening. Translation: the types of goods and services available to only a select portion of the population is growing, while those locked out of those options is also growing.

I went to a “private” bar last weekend where cocktails started at $5 (see note 3) and topped out at $25 for a highball of Johnnie Walker Blue. Seems to me we’re on a bad course when my neighbors exist on rice and lentils; you can get laid by a working gal for $10; and too many people can’t afford toilet paper, but you can sidle up to a bar in your knock-off Blahniks and drop the average monthly Cuban salary on a glass of whiskey. It’s not only gastronomic that has gone astronomic: some state concert venues have doubled, and in some cases quadrupled, ticket prices, putting culture out of reach of many, as well (see note 4).

Don’t get me wrong: part of this distortion is due to decades of over-subsidizing and preferential pricing. But price spikes without concomitant salary increases is not only dangerous, it’s cruel: those punished are disproportionately poor or those doggedly dedicated to the revolutionary project who’ve tried to do good; do gooders never get rich, this much we know.

The price/salary disconnect is a hot topic around here these days and I predict backlash – a rash of failed restaurants which won’t make it selling $10 pasta and $15 pork; a rejection of easy and exotic, but expensive, options for procuring raw foods like from the uncapped markets and carretillas; and a growing gap and related aggravation between the haves and have nots.

4. Major changes in leadership.
Got your attention now, don’t I? But this is far from news: Raúl and the historic leadership are facing biological inevitabilities, plus, that same leadership recently instituted term limits of two consecutive five-year terms. So this is more affirmation than prediction, and while it remains to be seen who will walk the halls of power and policy in the coming years, I know there are some good and fair, wickedly smart, and hard working people to choose from. For their future and ours, I predict: no es fácil, pero tampoco imposible (it’s not easy, but neither is it impossible).

Notes
1. There are some notable exceptions of course: I worked with the fabulous Fabiola López while in Haiti after the earthquake; Julia Osendi, who covers sports for Televisión Cubana, has more guara than most; and Rolando Segura, who has been covering Africa and the Middle East lately, does a bang up job.

2. For this same reason I reject sidewalk cafes – you need only walk by such a place, once, your stomach knotted with hunger and no means to quell it, and smell a juicy burger to know the inherent cruelty in taunting hungry people with a meal close enough to touch, but out of reach. People, I beg you: take meals inside if there’s any chance a hungry soul will happen by (eg in big cities and on busy streets).

3. A non-drinker for years, I stuck to the $1.50 Tu Kola.

4. Just today I received a note about a new disco charging a $10 cover.

23 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro

Loco Libs: The Cuban Party Game

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
When I was a kid (and later, when boredom and the bobería of teenage existence gave rise to silly drinking games), we used to play something called Mad Libs. If you’re reading this up north in Los Estamos Jodidos (note 1) you are probably familiar with this simple, yet hilarious, game of fill-in-the-blank. If you’re elsewhere – but especially if you’re accessing Here is Havana from anything ending in .cu (and I hope you are, amigos!) – you may never have heard of it.

As simple as the Cuban mating dance, Mad/Loco Libs is easy, fun and funny and I encourage you to play with friends (preferably accompanied by ice cold mojitos) and post your efforts here. It works like this: one person plays emcee, reading aloud only the part of speech requested to fill in the blank and another player – or more; multiply the fun with group play! – supplies the answers. Once all the blanks are filled, the emcee reads the narrative aloud and (hopefully), laughter ensues. Give it a shot with the following:

A Very Cuban Encounter

¡Asere! You’ll never guess who I ran into last night!

Who?

__________________ (famous Cuban)

¡No jodas! Where?

__________________ (famous Cuban spot/landmark)

It was __________________ (adjective). I couldn’t believe it. Right there, he/she and his/her little group of friends were rubbing __________________ (plural noun) with us. But it gets better: they came with a __________________ (noun), which we thought was __________________ (adjective), until we realized they were there to __________________ (verb).

¿¡En serio?!

Seriously. With tremenda pena, I went up to them – I had to! – and asked for a __________________ (noun).

Estás acabando…..What did they say?

__________________ (famous quote).

I didn’t know whether to __________________ (verb) or __________________ (verb). It was straight out of the novela! It made me feel __________________ (adjective). I can’t wait to get the photos up on Facebook!

Notes
1. Loosely translated as “we’re screwed,” this is a play on los Estados Unidos (the United States), courtesy of my friend Patricio.

4 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad

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