Tag Archives: malecon

Inside a Cuban Prison

Maybe you read my recent post Inside a Cuban Posada, where I sneak a peek (cockroaches and combs included) into the island’s love hotel business. This post follows in that same vein – providing readers a first-hand, behind the scenes look into things wild and weirdly Cuban – though this one doesn’t contain photos for reasons too obvious to state.

To be clear: I’ve never been arrested, in any country (knock on wood). Rather, pulling back this veil on Cuban jail is possible due to some very unfortunate events that unfolded like this:

My friend – let’s call him ‘Miguelito’ – was hanging out on the Malecón one torpid Thursday night. A fight broke out nearby having nothing to do with, nor involving, Miguelito and his piquete, who were just sharing a bottle of rum on Havana’s seawall. But when the cops arrived to break it up, they detained everyone in the vicinity and patted them down. Miguelito froze like a deer in the proverbial headlights and remained paralyzed while six or so of his friends were searched, each one anxiously, surreptitiously tossing anything incriminating over the wall and into the bay. But not Miguelito. The police found a blister of Ritalin in one pocket and $7CUC in the other. Ritalin, known as ‘titi’ among the Cuban pill popping crowd, is produced domestically and taken by prescription, but also recreationally. Maybe it’s a popular rave/party drug were you live too. I wouldn’t know. I left the States even before the Special K craze and the strongest pills I take are ibuprofen. Anyway: major problem for Miguelito.

He was taken to the police station in Havana Vieja for booking. Word hit the street the next day. His girlfriend – let’s call her ‘Esther’ – and those in his inner circle tried to keep his imprisonment on the Q.T., but Miguelito is a super social guy, with lots of friends of different ages, from different neighborhoods. And besides, this type of information – Miguelito’s in jail! – fuels Cubans’ vice for gossip and drama. Miguelito is a close friend of mine and I bristle at random people hitting me up for the skinny. They don’t care how Miguelito and Esther are doing, they just want a piece of hot gossip. One of Migue’s supposed friends – one of those who was there went it all went down – had the chutzpah to say to me: ‘he’s an idiot. He should have ditched the pills. He had the chance.’ Passing 20-20 hindsight judgement on your buddy who is now sweating his balls off in an overcrowded jail while you’re drinking a Bucanero at noon and sweet-talking a foreigner? Classy, dude. Similar conversations and scenarios unfolded in the ensuing weeks while we collected money to contract a lawyer and tried to keep Esther from falling over a psychological or emotional cliff. Working full-time, navigating the penal and judicial systems, separated suddenly from her partner of four years – she lost weight, grew pale, took up smoking and got increasingly pissed at Miguelito’s so-called friends. ‘Not one of them! Not a single one has called me to ask how he’s doing. Let alone me. The shitheads!’

Esther is one feisty muchacha.

She kept us informed: ‘he was transferred to the Combinado del Este.’ This was bad news. About a 30-minute drive from Habana Vieja, it’s a bitch to get there and is known as the roughest prison around. ‘They cut off all his hair.’ This was expected news, but it was a shock, still. Miguelito had beautiful tresses down to his ass. I used to let out a small squeal every time he came into the café with his hair loose. In this heat, it wasn’t that often that we got to see Miguelito’s mane. Esther fought to keep his hair. ‘It’s totally against regulations,’ they told her. She fought on. They said ‘No’. She kept fighting and they finally relented, bunching it into a ball and shoving it into a plastic bag. When Esther got home, it stank, having been stuffed, damp, into a bag. She untangled it the best she could and saved some for when he’s released. Who knows why, but I would have done the same. The rest she sold – to someone who wanted long hair for their ‘Santería Barbie.’ This is not a Real Barbie, but a doll used in Afro-Cuban religions. They gave her $10CUC. ‘I could have gotten $40 for extensions from my hairdresser if it hadn’t been so tangled and smelly,’ she told me. We learned that Miguelito wouldn’t give up the name of the person who sold him the pills – the guy’s no rat. We also learned that he hadn’t been sentenced yet, but the worst case scenario was eight years. Miguelito won’t last eight days in prison, I thought, my heart dropping. He’s a smart, articulate guy, a nerd who’s prone to wax eloquent about the new Samsung phone and The Big Bang Theory.

About this time, he started showing up in my dreams. Nothing untoward mind you, he just began making cameos with all his hair, in all its glory.

Last week, Esther, another close friend and I had the chance to visit Miguelito. He’s allowed three visitors maximum, every 15 days; names of visitors have to be submitted at least a week before his authorized visiting day. We contracted a rickety Dodge to take us out there for $10CUC (that Barbie money came in handy). We would have to make our own way back. Exiting the tunnel under a summer sherbet sunrise, we followed signs to the beaches – Playas del Este and Varadero. But we weren’t going to the beach. The long, tree-lined drive to the entrance was more like a lead in to a botanical garden or country club than Havana’s notorious hoosegow. But we weren’t going to a garden; we weren’t going to the club. The framboyans were afire with orange blooms and the grass neatly clipped (not surprising giving the surfeit of manual labor on hand). We helped Esther drag out everything she’d brought for Miguelito: his lunch; a small duffel stuffed with razors, soap, a towel, washcloths, and other personal items; a five gallon jug of purified water; and a giant white sack in which Cuba imports rice (from Brazil or Vietnam). Every visitor had a sack like this, cinched with a piece of rope, and crammed with toilet paper, powdered fruit drink, crackers, cookies, bags of puffed wheat, hot dogs, and lots and lots of cigarettes – a valuable coin in the incarcerated realm. Each pack had to be stripped of its plastic casing, the silver foil removed. Menthol Hollywoods are the most coveted, but there were also Populares, H Upmanns, and Criollos, the uncut black tobacco cigarettes which taste sweet, like cancer candy. People in the breezy waiting room unwrapped cigarette packs furiously as we waited for Miguelito’s name to be called.

The grim looking guy on a raised platform at the front of the room was barking into his microphone. We didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but once in a while he’d shout sternly: ‘sit down! Wait for the name to be called!!’ He wore olive green and owned his authority. ‘MIGUEL ÁLVAREZ!’ We rushed to the platform. He checked our ID cards against Miguelito’s approved visitor list. When he saw my ID, he paused. I held my breath. Everyone said that foreigners can visit prisoners, but like much in Cuba, I wouldn’t believe it until I actually saw it, until it actually happened. ‘When you get to the next checkpoint, tell the officer that Peña Blanca said you can enter. He’s probably never seen one of these ID cards before.’ I exhaled. First hurdle cleared. We waited to pass to the next checkpoint and I looked around at all the women and children – they outnumbered adult male visitors four to one – coming to see their husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, and sons – it dawned on me that this was the first time in 15 years that not one Cuban here cared that I was Yuma. There must have been 150 people waiting for their person’s name to be called and I received not one double take, nary a sidelong glance or raised eyebrow silently saying ‘yuma?! What is she doing here?’ It was a revelation – I’m so used to being a sore thumb, an odd combination of welcomed and singled out, accepted, but different. In short, I’m accustomed to being constantly reminded of my otherness, my non-Cuban-ness. But not here. People couldn’t care less – they had more pressing issues. If only the reality outside these four walls could be as natural and laidback. Oh, the irony.

We passed in groups of 15 to the next checkpoint where all the duffels and sacks, satchels and purses passed through an X-ray machine. We walked through the metal detector to the next checkpoint where each bag, bundle and Tupperware was individually searched. The white rice sacks were opened and their contents inspected. Esther had brought olives, whole wheat crackers, chocolate, cookies and a ton of other stuff which looked more like a Parque Almendares picnic than a prison visit. Once receiving the green light, the sacks were sealed with a bright blue zip tie and stacked behind the inspection counter. The visitor receives a numbered claim tag (a ‘chapita’ in Cuban Spanish) corresponding to their loved one’s sack which they give to the prisoner during the visit, the convict claiming their sack once the truck transports them to the cell blocks.

It was now going on 11am – we’d arrived just shy of eight. Those with experience brought full lunches to share during the visit. There were pork steaks and sweet potato, congris and avocadoes. I watched as guards dug to the bottom of tubs of rice and beans, stabbing to the bottom with a fork, looking for hidden contraband. The avocadoes were cut in half. Afterwards I learn that avocados, bananas, and guava can be injected with a syringe, with what I don’t know. Can you smoke a banana? Snort an avocado? Someone brought a sheet cake, decorated with electric blue icing. Cuban cake can leave a lot to be desired, but this one would be appreciated, horded, traded piece by treacly piece, I was sure. We passed through one last checkpoint where we handed over our ID cards, got a chapita to claim our cards upon leaving and headed to what’s called the ‘sterile area’ to wait for the long walk to the visitors block. The view through the breeze blocks was spectacular, a panacea – rolling green hills and towering palms, flowering trees hosting songbirds who darted in and out of the waiting room. Finally the door was unlocked and we walked about a half kilometer, outside, to pass through two giant steel gates to the visitor room.

The guard barked Miguelito’s name. I didn’t recognize him when he emerged. Shaved close to the skull and without his signature goatee, he looked edgier, angrier, and without his easy smile. He had a dimple on his chin I’d never seen all the years I’d known him. The room had a couple of dozen concrete tables arranged in two rows, with enough bench space for four people. Men had to sit on one side, women on another. It was prohibited to mix genders, so Miguelito and Esther had to reach across the table to hold hands. Everyone was chain smoking – including Esther. She updated him on progress made by the lawyer – none. She updated him on permission for conjugal visits – she was still waiting for the paperwork on her obligatory HIV test. We shared plastic cups of orange soda and crackers smeared with mayonnaise Esther had packed. We couldn’t stretch our legs; the concrete extended from tabletop to floor, to prohibit any footsie or passing items below. We gave Miguelito the books and magazines we’d brought. ‘Conner, this is hell. Every move, every conversation is cause for ribbing and abuse. I told Esther not to bring the pink Tupperware,’ he said motioning to the container with his dessert. ‘I’m going to take a lot of shit for it.’ He was tormented, worried about Esther (‘please don’t smoke, amor. It’s bad for you’), worried about his sentencing, worried about his sanity. He had to fit in enough to not get the beat down, but was terrified of acculturating. ‘I can feel myself changing,’ he told us. ‘Using slang I’ve never used before and swearing like a sailor’ (or a criminal, I thought). He was having problems in his cell block, which housed 50 bunks. His bottom bunk mate wet his bed every night. The other prisoners taunted the guy, and sometimes hit him. Miguelito defended him once – he’s that kind of guy. Then the abusers turned on Miguelito. He put in for a bunk transfer that had yet to come through. He described the bathroom scene – 16 urinals, 16 sinks and a couple of stalls. There was no room to maneuver between them without making physical contact. He applied for a job in the accounting department but was afraid to get it – jail isn’t a good place to be the Smart Guy.

All the prisoners wore grey vests, white t-shirts and grey pants. They were surprisingly fashionable like cargo pants without the pockets, but the vests were fitted, showing off the muscles of some, the sinewy wrinkled arms of the old timers. Miguelito had fast figured out the hierarchy – he’d been inside a little over a month at this point – and had some budding alliances with the over 60 crowd. They had prison cred for time served and were decent at holding up their end of a conversation. Esther and Miguelito talked about his case; me and my other friend fell silent. We wanted to be upbeat. We tried. We successfully stemmed tears. I didn’t mention the collection we took up to defray legal costs – some lawyers, including Miguelito’s, are now private sector workers for hire. I encouraged him to put pen to paper; he had a bookful of experiences now. He told us how he traded two cartons of cigarettes and a bag of crackers for a pair of boots; a pair of socks set him back 13 packs of Hollywood menthol. If socks cost just 13 packs, the boot guy must have been jonesing something fierce.

The guard blew his whistle and started shouting. Visiting hour was over. We hugged hard and promised to come back soon.

Miguelito still shows up in my dreams and the lawyer still hasn’t done shit, but Esther and Miguelito have a conjugal visit in the ‘Pabellón’ next week. We’re sending condoms. And all our good thoughts. Miguelito still hasn’t been sentenced, but we hope he’ll be out soon.

UPDATE #1: I saw Esther last night. She looks skinnier, more stressed, and a bit run down. And she is a beautiful young woman. The update is not good news: the lawyer whom we’d raised funds to contract and which Esther is working her ass off to pay, split the country, taking the money. He had done NOTHING regarding Miguelito’s case: he just strung her along, told her he had done A, B, and C and kept taking money. He had several cases which he was handling and did the same to the rest of his clients. Please, let karma rain down hard on this DB.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track

The Cuba No One’s Writing About

Early adopters of my blog may remember my post (many moons ago) where I listed the reasons why I love Cuba. Considering I’ve opted to make this crazy place my home for the past 13+ years, this is a question I get fairly often. For several reasons – the superficial fluff being published about Cuba with frightening frequency, the tsunami of clueless tourists, the stress Cuba’s new economy is generating – I think it’s time to revisit why Cuba rocks. This is the Cuba no one is writing about – the deep, below-the-surface substance that makes this place so special. Let’s dive in:

Our diet is largely chemical- and preservative-free.
Sure, you can spend $5 on a can of Pringles or $3 on a can of Red Bull, but when you can whip up fresh plantain chips for mere cents and buy fresh-pressed guarapo for pennies, aside from the novelty, why would you?

The country is popping with wonderful eye/soul candy. Human, architectural, artistic, natural – this place is a visual and spiritual feast.

There is music everywhere
. Literally (and whether you like it or not).

Havana’s tactile nights.
Once you catch that savory-sweet wind laced with gardenias, plumeria and sea salt, moonlight glancing off the waves crashing into the Malecón? No tiene nombre as we say here.

Solidarity.
Foreigners ask me pretty often if Cubans’ willingness to share, lend a hand, empathize, and the like is real. It is. I think this is one of those things – if we can retain it (dare I say strengthen?) – will go a good way toward saving what’s really admirable about this society whatever the next few years may bring.

Abortion, free and on demand.
Ever wonder why it’s so hard to find an orphanage in Cuba? This is it: almost 100% of children born in Cuba is a wanted child.

Cubans are shame-free when it comes to bodily functions. Got diarrhea? Your period? Hemorrhoids? Feel free to share (over-sharing and TMI are concepts which don’t translate here); seek advice and resources; vent. Interestingly, this is one of the few areas of discussion and interface which is completely free from gender considerations. Just today I was talking with a Cubano friend about finger probing prostate exams, while another guy lent a kind ear to a friend waxing cathartic about her crippling hot flashes.

Embracing bodily (mis)functions is something I came to appreciate very early on: one of my earliest memories after moving here occurred at a family barbeque at Playa Larga. A couple of hours after meeting everybody, one of the teen girls emerged from the ocean and appealed to men and women alike: ‘does anyone have a maxipad? I just got my period.’ (Yes: there was blood running down her leg. Did I mention that TMI doesn’t apply here?!). And she felt no shame because of it. Why would she? She got her period unexpectedly – one of the most natural things in the world (and what keeps the human race going, incidentally) – and it was entirely not her fault. It’s like how Cubans view disabilities: it’s not that person’s fault, so it’s just downright cruel to shun or otherwise judge someone for a condition or circumstance which is completely out of their control.

But I digress.

Back to how Cubans view bodily functions and how this perspective implicitly rejects Puritanism and gender paradigms. I’ve been in conversations with friends – male and female – about: being a man-whore; circumcision; boob jobs (for both aesthetic and medical reasons); to what size the cervix must dilate to pass a baby; bowel movements – lots and lots of shit talk (frequency, consistency, color, remedies for, causes of); hemorrhoid operations; and penis operations (thankfully not related and not on the same person).

And then there was this recent exchange between some (platonic) friends as we headed out one night:
Her: Shit. I don’t have another Tampax (pronounced in Cuban: Tampac).
Him: I’ll go get one from my sister.
Me: =)

Cuba: it makes you laugh. It makes you cry. But it never leaves anyone indifferent. And this is the #1 reason I love this crazy place: it arouses passion.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Excerpt: Here is Havana, Chapter 3

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Hola Readers. In anticipation of Saturday’s big May Day celebration (always a hoot), I’m posting this second excerpt from my work-in-progress Here is Havana. If you’re interested in reading more, I’ve got several bits up on my website.

You’ll no doubt notice that this excerpt is dated in its way; this section was written in reference to the event that took place on May 14, 2004. Workers of the world unite!

—–

The buses start rolling up at around five. Birds are already chirping though night’s darkness has yet to lift, and I can smell my neighbor’s coffee brewing. Honking horns and gleeful singsong reach us from the street as an interminable line of trucks rumbles past, their flatbeds a sea of straw hats. They’ve been pouring into Havana for the big show since before three this morning. Sleep, needless to say, is elusive.

The night sky has already bled purple, then pink and orange into dawn by the time we’re on the street angling for a bus. All my neighbors look different from their workaday selves: Grandma Sylvia is sporty in her sneakers and jeans and even Tania – famous for her spiked heels and micro-minis courtesy of one Italian lover or another – wears sensible shoes and a sun hat. The street teems with groups of factory workers in matching t-shirts, moms with babies strapped to their chests, and young boys excited to be sprung from school for the rally.

Lanky, whistle-blowing cops usher dangerously-crowded buses to the curb, convinced that a few more people can still squeeze on. Today, few private cars ply the main highway leading to Havana, now choked with trucks and buses packed with the boisterous faithful, making their way towards Vedado. It is after six and already the morning heat is steaming off the pavement when we finally get on a bus. The bumper to bumper traffic goes from a crawl to a standstill and the stagnant air inside the bus hangs heavy with cheap cologne. My neighbor works her fan, wafting ripples of perfumed soap my way.

After twenty minutes we’ve only gone three blocks; our tolerance eroded a block ago. No one can remember the last time Havana saw this type of traffic and the bus chatter quickly turns to marches past. Tens of thousands for Elian and the Pope, many more to protest the Helms-Burton legislation. Cubans mobilize proudly, enthusiastically: 45 years protesting US policies designed to choke or change you will do that. Still, each rally feels different from those that came before and it’s especially true today since George W Bush is viewed as even more cruel than his father.

Nearly an hour later and only a mile or so along, we decide to get off and walk, even though it will add two miles to an already laboriously long parade route. We wade into an ocean of people heading north and west to the Malecón. The pulsating crowd waves small Cuban flags on wooden sticks or big placards depicting Bush as a Nazi, complete with an em dash moustache and SS uniform. We grab flags from a man handing them out in the middle of the street, the current of people flowing around him, and stop for one peso coffee shots on a street corner.

“Hey Chino!” I call out, catching sight of our neighbor leaning against a chipped pillar.

“How’s it going?” he asks, kissing my cheek and clapping my husband on the back.

“It’s hot, eh?!” I comment in that Cuban way that says ‘Damn! I love this infernal place.’

We take pulls of icy fruit drink from Chino’s thermos before melting away into the burgeoning crowd. All around us people are dancing to coronet blasts fattened by a cajón backbeat and laughing despite the heat, long walk, and little sleep the night before. It’s just past 8 o’clock when we’re near enough to the Malecón to smell the sea. Helicopters whoop overhead, drawing our collective gaze to a black man joyously two-stepping on a rooftop overlooking the millions.

The sun is already punishing the crowd by the time we push as close to the parade route as possible, alongside the fancy ice cream parlor facing the Malecón. Mothers console their children with rationed sips of water from old plastic soda bottles wrapped in newspapers to keep it coldish. “Hang in there,” they tell the kids as they hop from swollen foot to swollen foot. More people are arriving all the time, packing us in to a tight, motionless mass.

We can’t see anything beyond the backs and heads in front of us and that nauseating flutter of claustrophobia threatens. I look around to shake the trapped feeling. Fat beads of sweat tremble on the neck folds of the woman to my left. Just in front of her a devilishly handsome young man with hazel eyes and café con leche skin rearranges his arms around his girlfriend. His thinning red t-shirt from marches past reads ‘En Defensa del Socialismo,’ but the only thing he’s defending right now is his girlfriend’s ass from the feral stares of men in the growing, surging crowd. Reedy but round in the right places, with hip bones poking out between low rider jeans and a tight pink camisole, she might be a model somewhere else. She’s laughing in her boyfriend’s ear, showing bright, white teeth. The sweat bead finally drops into the folds of the woman’s neck nearby. I fight the urge to look at her watch or mine. The wait feels interminable.

Nearly three hours have passed since we staked our claim in front of the ice cream parlor and we’re no closer to the official parade route. It’s as if a million of us showed up at the DMV together. My gaze wanders to a shrinking old lady on my right and I almost burst out laughing, punch drunk from the wait, heat, and hunger. She’s wearing cushy orthopedic shoes and a polyester wash ’n wear housecoat – the uniform for women of a certain age here. But what’s so funny is her vintage Diane Von Furstenberg headscarf, tastefully festooned with mauve grapes and muted green leaves. Surreal and odd is the little old lady in classic couture waiting for Fidel. She is looking faint as her husband guides her crepe-y elbow to the curb. When she sits, a pissy smell rises from the gutter. My nose is wrinkling when the loudspeakers boom,

“¡¡Compañeros! y Compañeras!!”

The crowd falls silent. The Diane Von Furstenberg lady stands to attention and the girlfriend breaks from her lover’s embrace. Rapt faces point towards the voice, half a mile off at the “Protestódromo,” but coming in loud and clear over the monitors at our corner.

It is a rousing speech, reverberating with that ardent conviction I’d only heard about, despite having witnessed hours of Fidelista discourse over the years. Styled as an open letter to President Bush, the personalized rhetoric is enormously persuasive – much more so in its way than the laundry list of statistics that usually issue forth. The atmosphere is electric, the crowd around me conducting the energy in silent exaltation.

In less than 45 minutes, the legendary orator transforms an impossibly bored multitude into a riveted crowd, going wild in its condemnation of US policy. When he tells Bush “you cannot mention the word democracy…everyone knows you became President of the United States through fraud,” a roar rises from the crowd, along with a million little Cuban flags. The Malecón is transformed into a rippling sea of red, white and blue. Chants of “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” erupt when he bellows, “Cuba fights on the side of life in the world; you fight on the side of death.” Then he brings down the hammer, giving me a glimpse of those heady days in the early 60’s: “Since you have decided that the die is cast, I have the pleasure of saying farewell like the Roman gladiators poised to fight in the arena: Hail Caesar! Those who are about to die salute you!” The cheers are deafening and the crowd waves their flags ecstatically as the municipal band strikes up. In these parts, Bush is still known as Caesar.

Suddenly, after more than four hours, we’re moving towards the Malecón. It only takes a few minutes for our small crowd of thousands to feed into the tens of thousands streaming along the waterfront. The breeze tempers the unrelenting sun as we pass the Hotel Nacional and the turreted mansions that were once the seaside refuges of the rich. Finally, our goal is in sight: concrete and sterile, the US Interests Section looks like a high security prison, incongruous among the dowdy, chipped paint abodes of today’s rank and file. Members of the Young (and Not So) Communists line this part of the route, keeping the crowd compacted for full visual effect, encouraging us to wave our flags high. On the Malecón wall, the international press angles for that elusive best shot: the crowd is so enormous, undulating several miles from Vedado to Havana Vieja, it’s hard to capture. A helicopter buzzes the seawall and journalists hanging out the door-less maw capture the spectacle for world viewing, should any network choose to air it.

The crowd is spreading out and breaking up, heading home for a nap or to a cafeteria for cheap, watery beer and burning shots of rum. There is always a fiesta somewhere after rallies, when people get together to tell jokes, analyze events, share a meal, and get shitfaced.

“Do you want to go to Caridad’s party?” I ask my husband as we pass the famous billboard: ‘Señor Imperialists: We are Fearless!’

“Sure,” he responds.

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Cuban Thanksgiving Starring Pavo Butterball

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That Saturday we spent our customary three hours food shopping. Like multi-tasking, live streaming and other modern marvels, one-stop shopping doesn’t compute in Cuba. After years of it, I try to find the fun in shuttling between vegetable markets for the salad fixings and fruit we’ll need for the week, then on to the bakery, the honey man’s house, and the juice bar where they fill your liter-and-a-half bottles with fresh squeezed OJ or pineapple juice for 7 pesos (a whopping 35 or so cents). Then comes the dreaded dollar stores – dreaded because they’re absurdly expensive, they get mobbed on weekends, and they never have everything (and sometimes nearly nothing) you need.

While it may sound romantic in a Parisian/Manhattan, shopping-the-neighborhood kind of way, in reality it’s a crowded, expensive exercise in frustration where you stand on long lines to buy whatever’s available.

The Saturday in question, however, opened a new chapter in shopping distress: cruising the aisles of one of Havana’s biggest and best stocked grocery stores (see note 1), looking for two items we desperately needed (see note 2), we were brought up short in front of a freezer piled high with Butterball turkeys. My first reaction was ‘how many gringos work in that Interests Section anyway?’ (see note 3). Then I thought, ‘Cubans aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving and they definitely aren’t paying…Holy shit! $30 for a 10-pound turkey?!’ I know it has come a long way (figuratively speaking) and it looks plump and juicy wrapped seductively in it’s blue and yellow Butterball wrapper, but thirty bucks? Yowza. With that price tag, our idea of hosting a Thanksgiving feast for our Cuban and Yuma friends fizzled.

As we fielded calls from American strays wanting to know if our feast was on, my friend Angela – another of those lovely women-over-65 I’m so fond of here – called us to invite us to her house for Thanksgiving. An American who has lived here twice as long as me, Angela is a fabulous cook and great hostess. It looked like all was not lost for Cuban turkey day.

Angela lives in the heart of it. She can walk to half a dozen theaters and as many bars. She takes her dog down the block to the Malecón. She’s also steps from my favorite paladar (see note 4) and on Raul’s commute route. Her building is an architectural prize-winner and the two-bedroom apartments are highly livable. Which is why a bunch of notable intellectuals, poets, and athletes also reside there. It’s not quite Fama y Aplauso, but it’s close (see note 5).

Given the status of Angela’s neighbors, I shouldn’t have been surprised when we arrived at her building and encountered a young Cuban woman with a striking grey-eyed, caramel-coated Siberian Husky. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a dog quite like this, and certainly not here in Havana (if you ask me, such northern breeds should be outlawed in these tropical climes). We stopped to pet the dog and ask about him, which is obligatory when running into Cubans in the street with their kids or pets in tow.

“He’s 8 months old,” his owner told us.

“And a big mouth to feed, eh?” my husband averred with that food security subtext that laces many casual conversations here.

“The problem is, we can’t get him to eat anything. He’s so fussy he won’t even eat steak!” said the young woman who had fed her dog something 11 million Cubans only dream of.

After picking my jaw off the ground I thought: ‘Terry is living on rice and lentils and this woman is feeding beef to her pure bred.’ I smiled weakly. ‘I bet I could buy five Butterballs with what she paid for that pup on the black market.’ Cuban contradictions: they just keep on coming.

The aromas drifting from Angela’s kitchen, through the living room, to the balcony and Malecón beyond were pure home: golden crispy turkey, herby stuffing, fresh-baked pie, drippings, and gravy. As we took it all in, Angela presented us to the other guests: Inés, a very proper black woman who is an urban planner; César, her multi-lingual, globe-trotting husband who is an ecological agriculture expert and set off my Gaydar immediately (see note 6); and Moisés, an accomplished professor and set designer – no Gaydar required.

Everyone had brought something to the party and the sideboard was heavily laden. There was a green salad, an eggplant dish, a squash dish, stuffing (which is a hard concept to explain to Cubans, who, even as they’re eating it, can’t believe stale bread could taste so good), sweet potato pie, and gravy. But the jewel in the menu’s crown was the cranberry sauce.

I believe the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who eat “cranberry sauce” from a can and those who don’t (and won’t). You can imagine which camp the Cook’s Illustrated-subscribing, Epicurious-browsing Angela falls into. So rather than import a can of that…whatever it is, she made one of those clever culinary punts Havana requires: she re-hydrated her Trader Joe’s dried cranberries, chopped in some orange and zest and I don’t know what else and let it stew overnight. It was delicious, and a delicious first, for the majority of the guests.

Meanwhile, the perfectly plucked and tucked turkey sat in all its crispy, golden glory on the kitchen counter. Angela and I chatted as she finished the gravy. Her beloved next door neighbors (so beloved they share custody of her dog and recently surprised her after one of her off-island trips by painting her entire apartment) always partake in the feast, she told me, but never with the other guests. Instead, they take the casserole dishes and salad bowl, gravy boat, and platter of meat down the hall to eat in the comfort of their own home. I was glad Angela gave me the head’s up – otherwise I might have blurted out something off-the-wall inappropriate when a long-haired Cuban loped into the kitchen, scooped the turkey off the counter, and spirited it out the front door. For once, I kept my mouth shut and the turkey arrived 20 minutes later all carved and artfully arranged on two platters: one for light meat, one for dark. Mysteriously, there was no skin on those platters and for a second I wondered if Angela’s neighbors were part of the Husky lady’s clan. Perhaps they were saving the best part not for the dog, but for themselves, I reasoned, though that would go against what I know about (most) Cubans and these folks in particular (see note 7).

Finally it was time to dig in and the two Yuma and four Cubans did what millions around the United States and expats around the world were doing this fourth Thursday in November: we ate, drank, and made merry. And when we couldn’t pack in another bite, the longhaired neighbor with a junkie’s slope shuffled in and carried off the moveable feast. At least another six people were going to sup on that pavo Butterball and try cranberries for the first time.

Inés dozed in the rocker. Angela passed coffees around, while my husband and César swapped Poland travel stories. With the ¡buen provechos! still echoing around the apartment, I realized this was my first Thanksgiving in Cuba that really felt like it. And it had more to do with Angela and César, Inés, Moisés, and my husband than Butterball. For these old and new friends, I’m thankful.

Notes

1. These stores used to be called “diplotiendas” in the 90s because only diplomats and foreigners were allowed to shop there. This was back when dollars were illegal for Cubans to hold. I was surprised when I rocked up to one of these stores in 1993 (at Calle 70 & 3ra, the store in this post coincidentally) and I had to show my passport to gain entry. In another of those innumerable instances here where there’s a rule and 20 ways to break it, my Cuban friends followed close on my heels and we got all giddy and went weak in the knees ogling the bright, shiny products displayed aisle after aisle.

2. For weeks we’ve been trying to get dishwashing soap. Now, coffee has gone missing: we’ve been to 7 stores in the past 3 days searching for coffee. Needless to say, my jones has already kicked in. As I write this, our house has neither dishwashing soap nor coffee – a situation we’ll have to resolve somehow, fast.

3. Until 1977, the two countries had no diplomatic representatives in their respective capitals. That year, US and Cuba opened what are called Interests Sections instead of consulates or full blown embassies in Havana and Washington. Also, in the writing of this post, I learned there are just 51 US citizens employed at the US Interests Section in Havana. They can’t all be buying turkeys can they?!

4. Paladares are privately-owned and operated restaurants found in most cities across the island. You read right: privately owned and operated, and these, along with other legal private enterprises in Cuba (renting out rooms, taxis, cafeterias) are making some Cubans very rich. So when you read about everything in Cuba being owned and run by the state and all Cubans being poor, think again.

5. Fama y Aplauso is a 20-story high rise on the corner of Infanta & Manglar in a nondescript pocket of Havana near the Estadio Latinoamericano. Some of Cuba’s most famous musicians, athletes, and policy wonks live here, in lovely 2- or 3-bedroom apartments with expansive views over the city. The residents’ star power is why the building is nicknamed Fame and Applause.

6. In Cuba, homosexuals are one thing, while men who have sex with men (MSM) are in a category all their own. Machismo – that complex ingrained, learned, and replicated construct that has effects on everything here from household chores to condom use – means few men identify as homosexuals, even as they fiddle the flesh flute of their extramarital boy toys. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Cuban men to have a wife and kids and male lovers. I know several.

7. I’ve just learned from my husband that it’s a cultural thing: eating bird skin just doesn’t appeal (and it is weird if you think about it). Still, that doesn’t keep Cubans from sharpening their elbows when it comes to apportioning the glistening, saffron-hued skin of a freshly roasted pig.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Living Abroad, Raul Castro

Things I Love about Cuba

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I have the tendency to wallow. I know it’s counterproductive. I know it’s no fun to be around. I know it produces ulcers and zits, but all these years, try as I might, I’m still a focus-on-the-bad-shit kinda gal. So I’d like to take this opportunity to look on the bright side and be a positive force for once.

There is much to love about this island. Here are some of my favorite things.

 The way the palm trees smell after it rains

 5 cent cigars

 No McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, or Mormons

 Drinking little cups of sweet, black coffee around the kitchen table with friends

 Yucca with mojo

 The music – from Pancho Amat to Pancho Terry, Los Van Van to Los López-Nussas.1

 How anything under the sun can be fixed and rendered functional

 Young men helping little old ladies off the bus and other helpful gestures among strangers

 The Malecón (of course)

 Going to the stadium and watching the Industriales lose!2

 Summer thunderstorms

 How it can’t be considered a party unless people are singing and dancing

 Cucuruchos3

 Almost anything grows (artichokes and asparagus notwithstanding)

 Having turquoise water and white sand beaches 20 minutes away

 Free health care – what’s better than that?!

 How affectionate men are with each other

 Recycling every single thing

 Rocking chairs

 Organic veggie markets

 Telling the US to put it where the monkey put the shilling for 50 years – something no other country has had the ability (not to mention the cojones) to do.

Notes
1. Pancho Amat just sends me. A virtuoso tres player and musicologist, this guy is a must see/hear. I’d hyperlink to YouTube or something for easy listening, but my dial up can’t handle it.

Pancho Terry is formally trained as a violinst, but rose to greatness as director of the orchestra Maravilla de Florida and later as a chequere player. Recognized as the world’s best, he’s played with the inimitable Tata Güines, Changuito, and Bebo & Cigala.

Los Van Van are a super star salsa group known as the “Rolling Stones of Cuba,” they’re that great. I’ve seen tons of free concerts by these folks over the years; you might get lucky the next time you’re in town.

Los López-Nussas are an entire family of musical prodigies. Ernán López Nussa is a jazz pianist, while his brother Ruy López-Nussa is a jazz drummer. In turn, Ruy’s son Harold López-Nussa is a classical/jazz/rock pianist who won Montreaux at the absurdly young age of 22 and his brother, Ruy Adrián is a virtuoso drummer.

2. The Industriales are the NY Yankees of Cuban baseball. Either you love ’em or you love to hate ’em.

3. Cucuruchos are cones of sweetened coconut sold along the highway en route to Baracoa in Guantánamo Province.

This is dedicated to the one I love…..

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Havana – !Vamos Pa’lla!

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Here is Havana – A blog written by the gringa next door, conspires to give you a dose of what life is really like across the Straits.

Partly out of boredom (that blue meanie for all sorts of odd motivations here), and partly because I’m fed up with all the self-serving, politically-motivated, misinformed, or just plain stupid mierda being written about Cuba, I’ve decided to start a blog. It’s a reluctant undertaking for so many reasons…

Here is Havana is navel-gazing, cathartic venting at its best and worst. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to kiss on the Malecón, go to the doctor for free, smoke tasty 5 cent cigars,  or forgoe toilet paper for months (I promised I wouldn’t reveal this well-kept secret, but we are in a very Special TP Period over here; more on toilet paper in another post), welcome to Havana.

Other passions and perturbances of life here you’ll read about include baseball, my fledgling garden, machismo, the Cuban kitchen, my favorite little old ladies (who have more spunk than your average 22-year old from Omaha), rock ‘n roll withdrawl, the “wireless network found” icon that harasses me as I’m connected via 50k dial up, and other ironies.   

On a slow day, you might even read about those old cars that make visitors wet and dewey-eyed, but for us are simply a way to get from point A to point B.

What you read here is 100% my opinion and experience after 7 years (and counting) working as an American journalist in Havana. I have no agenda. I aim to sway no one. In Cuban, this translates as ella no está en na’. A high compliment, rarely paid.

For all you rabid extremists out there who will slam what I say, no matter what or how I say it, repeat after me: ella no está en na’. And please, take a chill pill or three while you’re at it.

Here is Havana – like you never dreamed.

PS – For the meaning behind the title of this blog, plus more musings, see my work in progress, Here is Havana.

PPS – Coming to Cuba? Check out my kicking iApp to the city Havana Good Time. C’mon, you know you want it. Only $2.99!! (the cost of 3 Bucaneros!)

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