Tag Archives: lonely planet blog sherpa

The Cuban Love Doctor Is In

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

Why do Cuban men cheat?

Are Cuban women faithful?

Steer clear of Cuban men?

Someone save me from my Cuban husband!

People look to me as some kind of authority when it comes to their Cuban lovers – although I’ve only written once on the Cuban fidelity question and never directly about love, lust or the like. Still, Those Faithful Cubans is one of my all-time most popular posts and people search daily for information on the issue as the above – actual search terms from the last week – illustrate.

Honestly, I do try to extend the benefit of the doubt in this regard, but one thing I’ve learned in my job as a health journalist here is to be experiential- and evidenced-based (see note 1). And what the evidence reveals on this topic likely won’t be welcome news for those of you with Cuban lovers or spouses.

Lest you think I’m about to malign an entire country and culture, let me clarify: there are exceptions to the rule – always – and if you’re in a relationship with a Cuban and reading this, you may be one of those lucky few. But in general…

They’ve all got someone on the side. Often, as one reader pointed out, this is a complicit arrangement – more up front and out in the open than on the side. I know men who have been married 20 years (or longer) and have kept the same mistress all the while. Polygamy without the papers I like to call it. In many cases, there’s little care taken to hide it – friends, family, colleagues are all hip to the scenario.

Upon first analysis, it seems logical to say: if everyone’s ok with it, what’s the problem? And trust me, this question has forced me to examine if my own moral code – faithful to a fault – is clouding my appreciation of the issue. But after turning the critical eye to my own beliefs and how they “cuadrar” (or not) with my adopted culture, I’ve concluded there is a problem with these arrangements for two fundamental, fucked up reasons: health and machismo.

Here in Havana, the latter is real, prevalent, and extraordinarily complicated – if you think otherwise, you’re not paying attention. When you hear the word ‘macho,’ the image that pops to mind is likely a hirsute brute in a wife beater, feet up on the coffee table, shouting kitchen-ward for another Coors and a nacho refill. Let me tell you: machismo here is as far from that as a Miami Cuban sandwich is from its Havana counterpart.

Cuban machismo is more subtle (and therefore potentially more dangerous, since you’re not always quite sure what you’re dealing with). It has to be – Cuban women are too empowered, strong-willed, and educated to put up with that shit. The economic dynamic here also plays a part since 57% of all technical and professional jobs are held by women, which doesn’t lend itself to the financial domination men lord over women elsewhere.

This isn’t to say that Cuban women are free from blame. Each time they shoo their sons from the kitchen telling them to play soccer with the other boys and every Saturday they make their daughters help clean house instead of suggesting they help dad fix the bike, they’re part of the traditional gender construct problem. In short, many of the fairer sex here replicate damaging stereotypes and patterns which prop up the macho paradigm (see note 2).

Tolerating mistresses validates machismo for a simple reason: it is not a two-way street. Try taking and maintaining a lover just like your male partner and watch the mierda hit the fan. The message is clearly ‘I can, but you can’t,’ coupled with ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ It’s a pitiable slice of paternalistic hypocrisy that chaps my ass. Can you tell?

And the one-way street runs into carnal endeavors as well: while he may be hot for a threesome with another chick, cuidado if it occurs to you to suggest the same with another man. While this surely is not unique to Cuban machismo, it involves factors specific to culture and place, especially Afro-Cuban religions which, on the whole are absurdly homophobic and macho (see note 3).

(I offer this as partial answer to the reader who searched on: Why don’t Cuban men like their bums touched?)

 The health-fidelity convergence is, at first blush, more straightforward. When a man or woman takes another partner (or several), they are potentially exposing their spouse to everything from HPV to HIV. Sure, there are protective measures everyone can and should take, but condoms, which cost pennies apiece and are sold everywhere, are as popular here as turds at the beach. And let’s face it: there are many ways to swap fluids without penetration, when a condom does you no good.

Machismo also muddies the health picture since some married Cuban men like to get out and savor their own flavor. And this can increase risk of HIV infection for wives since machismo-cum-homophobia is a condom-adverse state of mind. Indeed, here, the term ‘men who have sex with men’ is favored over ‘homosexual’ since only a small portion of men into guy-on-guy action self-identify as gay. I always laugh a sigh when I tell a Cuban friend someone is setting off my Gaydar and they respond: ‘But he’s married!’ Were I to say instead, that man has a mistress, the response would be along the lines of: ‘of course! Who doesn’t?’

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve limited this diatribe to the bio-medical effects this putería/mariconería has on health. But what of the mental, emotional, and spiritual toll long-term mistresses (and masters) have on health? Better I save that for a different post.

 I don’t have the answers, but to the reader who searched: when your boyfriend goes to Cuba for a month, I say: assume he’s gone rogue and use a condom until you know otherwise.

Notes

1. This is sound advice for everyone from Cuban newbies to vets: take everything with a grain of salt unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

2. Metrosexuals – a fairly recent phenomenon here – are bucking this trend. I just wonder how they keep so hairless given our lack of resources here?!

3. Admittedly, I’m not an expert in this field and if anyone is willing and able to share knowledge about the beliefs and codes of conduct vis-à-vis male/female relations and power structures in these religions, bring it on.

Advertisements

185 Comments

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

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.

26 Comments

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

Havana Es Un Pañuelo

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

Have you heard of a postage stamp yard? Well Havana is a postage stamp city – a pañuelo as we say here. Don’t misunderstand: this place has always felt like a small pond to the New Yorker in me (in a good way – not in that inferiority complex-San Francisco kind of way), but lately it has become all too clear how this diminutive status affects human relations in the land of sociolismo.

It’s not simply the size of the population that makes it feel small, but also its static closeness. Therein lies the city’s incestuousness de verdad.

Until very recently, for example, moving to another neighborhood was a pipe dream for most, a torturous, time consuming affair for a select few. What this means in practice is that the people around you have been up in your grill – all up in your business – your entire life. They know your histories and dramas, betrayals and tendencies. The same can be said for your workplace, love life, organizaciones de masa and other extracurricular circles. (If your unfamiliar with Cubans, I should point out that all these circles are also moving the grist of the gossip mill but good, making things worse).

And not only do your neighbors, co-workers, and lovers know all the details and penas of your life, they’ve been amassing favors and calculating debts with you through each and every one of those penas, trading upon all those embarrassing and unfortunate details. I’m not passing judgment. On the contrary; I’m gaining a better, intimate understanding of my acculturation trajectory – because although I haven’t started doing it myself, I’ve started to accept and roll with it.

Does it scare me? Sure, a little. Especially since in the zero sum expat game, such insight into my adopted culture directly corresponds to me understanding my birth culture that much less.

My last trip back to the US was disturbingly jarring in this regard. I’ve had trouble putting it into words (the kiss of death for a writer!), but at its most simple, it has to do with what people up there value and how they behave themselves in pursuit of those values.

And you know the most curious thing? The different value system and how it manifests itself is precisely what bewitched me when I first came to Cuba in 1993.

I’ll keep this in mind the next time I’m faced with the other side of the small town coin: when I once again have to deal with my chismoso neighbor who takes pleasure in reporting me to the housing police (without cause of course); when I’m forced to work with someone who has dogged or betrayed me; and when I find myself in the same small space as someone who’s pursuing my man.

Es Cuba, mis amigos.

4 Comments

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

The Gift of Aché Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Arriving into Miami from Havana is always a bit nerve wracking, even for someone as experienced and legal as me – more so when you’re trailing a huge crate with unknown contents. As always, I chose my immigration line carefully, studiously avoiding women, Latinos, and people of color (who are more likely to harbor Cuba-based bias or carry chips on their shoulder as a result of their lowly status in the US socio-economic food chain). 

I breezed through immigration with three magic words (‘I’m a journalist’) and headed straight to the bay marked oversized baggage. In flawless Cuban Spanish (that always touches officials in Miami, the overwhelming majority of whom hail from the island), I asked after my crate; within minutes it was on a cart and I was on my way towards US Customs.

“What’s that?” they asked.

“A piece of art. Do I need to declare it?”

“How much did it cost?”

“Nothing, it was a gift,” I said, pulling out another magic answer at just the perfect moment.

“You don’t need to declare it or pay duty.”

(ACHÉ #5).

“But you do need to have it inspected. Proceed to Area 15.”

As I wheeled my way to Area 15 (naturally – or perhaps dyslexically – I was thinking of aliens and top secret shenanigans), my confidence grew that everything was going to work out. Just one more step and I will have fulfilled my obligation.

I entered the large, brightly-lit section known as Area 15; several Customs agents milled about and there was a giant X-ray machine. A strapping Latino officer approached. He circled the crate, asking me what was inside.

“A piece of art. It was my friend’s who died and I’m bringing it to her brother.”

Delivered in my Cuban Spanish, I knew this would tug at the heart strings since every Cuban with family divided has experienced the problem of wills and politically-complicated property transfer.

He nodded non-committally. “It lacks the proper paperwork. It hasn’t been fumigated.”

‘Fumigated?!’ I thought, missing a few beats. Of course fumigation is a logical and necessary factor in this globalized, bug-infested world – but a factor I hadn’t accounted for.

I smiled. “I hadn’t even thought of that.” I didn’t add that had I thought of it, Adam and I would have invented some kind of fumigation markings for the crate, a lo cubano, back in Havana.

The Strapping Agent went to get the jefe.

I started to fret (and sweat).

The jefe arrived, the situation explained. He was short and made me nervous: a pint-sized Latino jefe is ripe combination for a Napoleon complex. I added that Angela’s brother was waiting for me and Yemayá just on the other side of those glass doors. He took a turn around the crate, pried a corner ajar and peeked inside.

He paused, took a step back, and waved me through.

Yemaya, safe and sound in Miami

I wheeled my precious, unwieldy cargo through the doors and out of the terminal. There was Angela’s brother, in a big yellow rental truck, idling at the curb.  

(ACHÉ #6).

As I write this, Triunfo de Yemayá hangs in David’s house, testament to our collective aché.

12 Comments

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

The Gift of Aché Part I

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Folks who know me (or who are paying close enough attention) are aware of my recent rough go of it. Illness, death and dying – that up close and personal, at-the-bedside type of illness and dying – have defined my past 12 months. To put it bluntly, this past year has been a bitch, with moments, days worth of long moments, when my surrender seemed certain.

One of the harshest blows was the death of my friend Angela (known in these parts for her inimitable Cuban Thanksgiving). It was cancer, she was too young, and too loved. To boot, hospice was what hospice always is: well-intentioned and the best compromise given the situation, but sad and painful and a little bit cruel for everyone involved.

I loved Angela and the loss I felt when she finally died – peacefully, surrounded by family and friends in the closest approximation of agape I’ve so far seen – was profound. The grief was shared amongst many and in that there is some solace, but I wasn’t sure that would suffice to carry me through the next steps: I was asked to help clean out her house in Havana and distribute her worldly goods.

The task was entrusted to a five-person team of her nearest and dearest on this side of the Straits and we undertook the task as Angela would have: with a weighty combination of duty and respect, love and courage. She was meticulous in her wishes and armed with a detailed list of who got what, we tackled the job with sorrow-tinged stoicism.

The work went quickly because this is the way of Cubans with a task before them; her computer equipment and kitchenware, jewelry and electronics were distributed as per her written instructions, her love letters and professional correspondence kept confidential. But one wish remained problematic to honor: she asked that Triunfo de Yemayá be transferred to her older brother in South Florida.     

This intricately carved and painted headboard was homage to the Afro-Cuban goddess of the sea and motherhood; surrounded by the magical elements of her domain and influence, the piece was made especially for Angela because she was muse to many, inspiring love and dedication and creativity. Anyone who had been invited into her home over the decades will remember that big, beautiful work of art, stirring memories of good food and friends and the positive energy so engendered.

My problem was Triunfo de Yemayá was as bulky as it was heavy, with fragile protruding bits, and the practical challenges inherent in delivering it to her brother in Miami were many. And my responsibility alone. Not surprisingly, the piece leaned against my office wall for months while I grieved and tried to figure out how to get it across the Straits.    

Triunfo de Yemaya, sitting in my office

The first stumbling block was the crate. This can be a challenge anywhere, but especially in Cuba where resources are scarce and fudging on details, craftsmanship, and follow-through rife. I talked to artist friends and curators to try and find someone to do a proper job of it (see note 1) with little luck. For months no wood was available and the expertise to build a proper crate apparently lacking. To make matters worse, prices carried a Yuma tax, which still rankles, even after 10 years in residence. Triunfo de Yemayá remained an emotional and psychological brick, shoring up my office wall.

And then I met Adam.

(ACHÉ #1)

A babalawo from Centro Habana, Adam is one of those Cubans who can find, fix or resolve anything. In retrospect, it was entirely fitting that a babalawo should step into the picture given the tenor and title of the piece. Within two days, Adam built a beautiful, close-to-MOMA quality crate cheap which would protect Yemayá on her trip across the Straits. Procuring the necessary export papers (see note 2) was the next step and so seamless it felt positively First World.

Packed nicely and with the paperwork squared away, I felt lighter and brighter – I was finally seeing through Angela’s last wishes.

Then I got to the airport.

For those who have never been here, taking big luggage out of Cuba is an anomaly and just a little bit crazy, if you ask me. Even so, lowering the crate from the roof of the Lada felt good and approaching final. How misplaced our feelings can sometimes be.

Yemaya: pre-crate, en route to get export papers

“I know you from somewhere, but can’t place your face,” I remarked to a guy standing nearby as I angled Yemayá on to a luggage cart.

“I processed your export papers at the patrimony office. Let me call ahead to our transport specialist so he can smooth your way; he’s on the tarmac now.”

(ACHÉ #2)

As he made the call, I made my way into line, eliciting murmurs and stares as I wheeled my unwieldy luggage towards check-in.

“Are you exporting a TV?” a tourist entirely unclear on the Cuba concept asked.

I laughed. “No. TVs come in to Cuba, they don’t get taken out,” I said, before explaining the story behind the voyage of Yemayá.

As I checked in, the charter representative told me I was 60 pounds over my weight limit and the crate, while lovely, would not fit through the X-ray. Somehow I hadn’t accounted for these factors.

“How can we resolve this, mi amor?” (see note 3) I asked with a smile, taking the opportunity to explain the favor and duty I was doing and the duty I felt to transport the piece.

A $40 “tip” took care of the weight limit issue and the chief cargo officer was summoned to escort Yemayá to that area of the airport where there was an extra grande X-ray machine for oversized luggage. But there was just an hour until the flight and a truck couldn’t be located to get the piece over to cargo. Just then, the aforementioned transport specialist from the National Registry appeared at my side.

(ACHÉ #3)

They decided to go to Plan B.

Wielding the hammer I’d brought for the purpose, the crate was opened and inspected by the Registry’s transport specialist, the chief cargo officer, a customs agent and a couple other rubberneckers.

“My saint is also Yemayá,” someone said, their proclamation hanging in the tiny, crowded office as a final word of sorts.

Working together, we got her repacked right for the next leg of her trip.

“Now what?” I asked, looking at the clock and wondering if 35 minutes would be enough to complete this part of my mission.

“We’re done here. Now we wheel it on to the tarmac and put it on the plane.”

(ACHÉ #4).

As I bid my crew adieu with a hug and the customary right cheek kiss, I heard someone say: “now let’s see what happens in Miami.”

Stay tuned to learn the fate of Triunfo de Yemayá!

(For those wondering, aché means “«the force», not in the sense of violence, but as a vital energy which creates a multiplicity of process and determines everything from physical and moral integrity to luck.”)

Notes

1. In this I have some experience since I lived with an art handler/installer my last four years in the States and precisely how fine art should be transported and handled.

2. To export patrimony +/o art of a certain caliber from cuba requires easy to procure paperwork and 10 CUC; my experience at the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales in Vedado was one of the most efficient and friendly I’ve ever experienced here.

3. While compañero and compañera may be waning as preferred terms of address, mi amor never will.

8 Comments

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

Piropos Cubanos: Sí or No?

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

Cubans are famous for many things: cigars, salsa, and rum jump to mind, with world class athletes not far behind. But that’s amateur hour; after a little more experience and exposure, outsiders (and all non-Cubans are considered so at some time, to some degree) will appreciate less commercial, but equally celebrated traits like Cubans’ sense of humor and solidarity and their art for artifice.

Those who walk the walk and talk the talk know there’s another especially Cuban art and craft – that of come-on lines, known in local lingo as piropos. Whispered your way as you walk by or shouted from a bustling corner, every pretty, average, and ‘butter face’ Cubana has received her share of flowers from the mouths of appreciative men.

If you cook like you walk, I’ll scrape the bottom of your pan,” (note 1) is probably the country’s most popular piropo and anyone with a little swing to their hips has heard it. And while the sentiment sets the imagination awhirl, not a few foreign women have complained to me about how this and other come-on lines tossed their way. In short, they find them offensive.

My friend Juan Carlos argued famously on this precise point with a US feminist poet of note while she was living in Cuba. At that time, she was (and probably still is) vehement in her position that piropos are an affront to women. She’s not alone: similar views were shared here when I mentioned the piropos I receive as I ride this city’s streets on my beloved new bike (see note 2).

To be clear, I’m not talking about groseros – rude, crude lines reinforcing a patriarchal power structure. These are something else entirely and should be rebuked as so. Nor am I referring to the ubiquitous tssssss, tssssss, tssssss that’s used to catch the attention of women countrywide (and which I’m terrified I’ll let slip while beckoning a New York City waitress resulting in bodily harm). No, what I’m concerned with here are those delightfully cunning lines which show appreciation for the female form; I, like my friend Juan Carlos, don’t see the problem.

By way of disclaimer: I was raised by a feminist (by nature, not indoctrination) and I pride myself on being a non-biased, all-inclusive kind of gal who doesn’t give a damn about the color of your skin, to what gender you ascribe, before which god you kneel, or who you choose to screw. Everyone is equal in my heart and mind (until they prove otherwise through moral/ethical digressions). But since so many foreign women have complained to me about piropos, I have to wonder: am I missing something?

And further: what of my impulse to toss out my own piropos to some delicious specimen – a mangón of such magnitude I can’t let him pass without voicing appreciation? Does that make me a failed feminist or a femachista – a term coined by my friend Rigo for those women who talk a good feminist game but reinforce the machismo that is so rampant and damaging here?

After ten years living and working in this wild, incomparable place, I think not. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that the well-crafted come-on line does no harm. In essence, good piropos are funny, imaginative fare designed to make the recipient pause long enough to laugh; and laughter, along with a sharp mind, is the best aphrodisiac I’ve found – two characteristics which the best piropos embody. This struck me squarely the other day when a guy said to me: “your name must be Alice because looking at you sends me to Wonderland.” I laughed out loud and responded: “good one, brother!” And he laughed too.

I have to ask, then: two strangers laughing out loud at a line cleverly crafted. What’s so wrong with that?

Many foreigners don’t always get this. Furthermore, their attempts at piropos usually pale in comparison. To wit, my old friend Mountain was infamous for cooing “oh to be a bicycle seat” to any pretty girl who rode by.

But to every rule, there’s an exception, like the handsome Swiss stranger who leaned in to tell me: “you must be from heaven, because you have the scapula of an angel.”

Personally, I say ¡! to piropos cubanos.

Notes

1. “Si cocinas como caminas, me comiera hasta la raspa’ sounds a lot better in Spanish.

2. Curiously, the quantity and quality of piropos I get while on two wheels differ considerably from those I get on two feet.

47 Comments

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

Cuban Harley Culture

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

In the introduction to my forthcoming book (see note 1), I muse briefly on how similar Havana (my adopted city) is to New York (my birth city): the garbage and grit; taxi drivers with higher degrees; the self-contained neighborhoods – it all feels very familiar. Another characteristic both cities share is they teem with subcultures worthy of an urban anthropologist. Poets and punks, gym rats and drunks, shylocks, gamblers, sluts and thieves: here, like there, we’ve got the full spectrum of human passions, vice and interest crashing together like waves on the Malecón.

This past weekend, I was (gratefully, willingly) thrust into one of Cuba’s most prismatic and emblematic subcultures and scenes: I rode along on the country’s first Harley rally. For the record: the trip from Havana to Varadero was only the third time I’ve been on a Harley in my life. The first was a joy ride in what was clearly foreplay and a bid to get something more corporeal between my legs than a thundering motor (in this the fella failed, for which I’m thankful: at that destructively drunken point in my life, the last thing I needed was to hook up with a biker bartender). The second was a thoroughly platonic and enjoyable ride home from the year-end party in Habana campo hosted by the Latin American Motorcycle Association (LAMA) and the third time was this past weekend, when over 50 riders made their way to Varadero on pre-1960 bikes from as far as Pinar del Río and Camagüey for three days in hog heaven.

As you may imagine, my muse was working overtime in this new and captivating environment, populated by cool people with their own language and subtext. Since everything I know about biker culture I learned from Easy Rider and Altamont, I was keen to experience the 1ro Encuentro Nacional de Harlistas Cubanos firsthand.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Al contrario: I was inspired and surprised. Because although as a group these folks cultivate and maintain an identity wholly dedicated to, nay obsessed with, Harley Davidson, they remain, al fondo, 100% Cubano.

If you know Cuba from the inside, you know this subculture phenomenon – be it goth, gay, or black – hasn’t always fit in well or properly with the macro unity concept that is the glue for us here in one of the world’s last bastions of socialism. Of course, when there’s USAID or other sovereignty-compromising dollars in the middle, peor todavía. Worse still with reason since I believe all human relations should be driven by mutual respect, regardless if it’s in the realm of sex, economics, culture or politics. In short: you don’t tell me how to live, work or play and I’ll return the favor.

What was even more striking still was that on the whole, these Cuban bikers are more closely connected to their global counterparts and importantly, their US brethren, than any other community I’ve encountered here (see note 2). As a group, they speak (almost) as much English as the slickest jineteros and what’s more, the main biker groups here – LAMA and Harlistas Cubanos – have foreign membership, long timers like me who live here and love bikes. And the mix works seamlessly because beyond the bikes, gear, and foreign presence, what grounds and unites these folks is their Cubanilla, with all the idiosyncrasies good and bad that implies.

Even before we rumbled out of Guanabacoa towards Varadero, the gossip was flying. And believe me: these Harley folks are more chismoso than a kitchenful of bored housewives. I learned all about Antonio’s marital strife; the petty divisions and squabbles among different riders and groups; and how Vladimir got his hog and Oscar lost his. Thanks to the gossip mill, I was privy to the anonymous alcoholic’s struggles and how much Fulano paid for the silicon tits and ass of his funny, sexy, back seat Betty. The grapevine was heavy with juicy fruit, but what impressed me the most was the handful of folks who didn’t gossip. Those are the ones to ponder further, I figure – above all because I abhor gossip as an entirely negative pursuit. With the anti-chismosos, I’d found my people (see note 3).

What also struck me as totally Cubano was the fury for everything with the Harley Davidson logo. I know brand loyalty is common to riders the world over, but Cubans can go overboard like nobody’s business – especially when it comes to logos and bling. And this was no different: there were boots, belts, shirts, jackets and vests, jewelry, headbands, bandanas, flags, stickers, and business cards all emblazoned with the Harley label. Boy, did I ever look out of place with my Hawaii-kine style, particularly when everyone was throwing devil horns and I’m waving the shaka. But while I may have looked out of place, not for a moment did I feel out of place – another sign you’re hanging with Cubans.

If you know this place and manage well in Spanish, you know that there is no one who can make and appreciate a good joke like Cubans – especially when the joke’s on you. And these bikers are tremendous jokers – jodedores constantly dando cuero. No one is spared, least of all me, and these Harlistas ribbed me good-naturedly at every opportunity: about how I leaned into curves (not that well, apparently; ¡que pena!); about my addiction to roasted pork (see note 4); and my penchant for hopping on the back of anyone’s motorcycle, anytime. I’m sure they have words in biker parlance for promiscuous back seat bitches like I was this weekend, but in my case, it ended with a forged love note that had everyone busting a gut. But at least I fared better than another foreigner who had his gold chain vicked by a muchacha ‘fren’ giving him a massage; he never heard the end of it.

But what most drove home the Cubanilla for me was that bedrock Cuban principle driving relations on-island and off which these folks have in spades: what matters above all else is family. Blood, extended, new and departed. And it wasn’t only the adorable kids along for the ride (many in mini Harley gear), but how you know your back is covered when someone falls ill or that someone will lend a hand when you need a new part, mechanic, or lover and an ear when you’re down. As a group, the Harlistas Cubanos function as one big, complicated – dysfunctional at times, but happy all the same – family. United by their love for their bikes, the road, and their patria.

It’s a weekend I’m sure I’ll never forget. If you’re in Havana and want to experience what I’m talking about, stop by their weekly event at La Piragua (Malecón and Calle O, in the shadow of the Hotel Nacional), held every Saturday at 5pm. You just might get lucky and spot me in some colorful get up on the back of a hog, throwing a shaka to my new friends-cum-family.

Notes

1. A perennial work in progress that’s like a so good, but so bad lover you know you should finish with but somehow can’t (or won’t), I’m determined to get this sucker published in 2012.

2. Granted, I don’t hang out with dissidents who are all up in that foreigner action – and not in a good, healthy way like this bunch.

3. Also a sign of my people: so many Harlistas smoke cigars and give them away like candy, I smoked none of my own stash the whole weekend and returned to Havana with healthy stores thanks to their generosity.

4. And let me tell you: the three puercos asados they laid out for the farewell lunch were the tastiest I’ve had in 10 years here, trumping memorable pigs eaten in a bohio in Pinar del Río, on a secluded beach in Las Tunas, and during carnival in Holguín.

35 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba