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Best Cuba Posts Evah! (Sorta)

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Hola & Happy July 26th!

Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus – ‘recharging the batteries’ as we say on this side of the Straits – and more importantly, trying to get my act in gear to write, to bite off the rest of my forthcoming book. Aiming to strike while the iron’s hot and all that.

In the meantime, some bloggers way more sophisticated than your humble, slogging-through-dial up protagonist, have invented this clever game of virtual tag whereby they tag Here is Havana making me “it,” inviting me to excavate oldie, but goodie posts that warrant reading.

These are not just pedestrian travel bloggers looking for free junkets and working the ad sense angle, but fabulously well-traveled women who have lived in Chile (in the case of Margaret over at Cachando Chile) and Moldova (in the case of Miss Footloose over at Life in the Expat Lane). What’s more, these chicks can write! I highly recommend checking them out. Also a big shout out to Camden of The Brink of Something Else for nominating Here is Havana (check out the killer shot of Havana taken from Regla – tagged as TBSE’s most beautiful post).

The categories were selected by whomever invented the game and include the “most beautiful,” “most controversial,” and “most overlooked” posts, among others, crafted over the two years of Here is Havana’s life. Have a click around, share with friends, spread the word…

Most beautiful: This was intended to be Chapter 1 of my book Here is Havana, but life has taken a left turn (as tends to happen here) and the book now has a life of its own (i.e. more a chronicle and a memoir than E.B. White’s Here is New York – my original inspiration). Any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated!

Most popular: My most popular post is actually my ‘About’ page but since that’s kind of flojo as we say in my neck of the woods, I suggest also checking out my second-most popular post about the wacky way Cubans speak.

Most controversial: The reaction to this post about Cuban fashion really surprised me – people came out with their elbows sharpened! Despite some of the wide-of-the-mark pop psychology, some of the comments are intriguing. See what you think…

Most helpful: This is a weird kind of category because what may be helpful to you, isn’t necessarily helpful to someone else, and what readers find most useful probably wasn’t the most useful to me (for those interested: the most helpful posts to me are those that help tease out the niggly snarls of cross cultural living, like this one about a visit to the USA and how it messes with my head and this one about always being on the outside looking in. These are closely followed by those posts trying to help me understand evolving Cuban reality, like the capitalist changes underway at present).

Clearly, though, tips for travelers to Havana and how to form a line in Cuba are among my most helpful posts for the general reading public.

Surprisingly successful post: Hands down, this is my post on dying in Cuba, Part I & Part II. There’s a real sadness to this ‘success’ – judging from search terms and other analytics, the folks that are searching on this term are family members living outside of Cuba who lost loved ones inside Cuba and are trying to figure out how to deal with the practicalities of that loss.

Post that didn’t get attention it deserved: At the beginning of 2010, as the wheels of change lurched along their inevitable track, I wrote about what Cubans were thinking, feeling and experiencing and how all these confusing emotions and intellectual gymnastics were affecting behavior. Worth a revisit – especially for those in faraway lands wondering: what the hell are they thinking over there?!

Post I’m most proud of: On the last day of February, 2010, I landed in Port-au-Prince with members of Cuba’s Henry Reeve Emergency Medical Contingent for a stint covering their earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti. For a month, I lived in a tent in their central camp in Port-au-Prince, with no running water, electricity only a handful of hours a day, crippling heat, and an internet connection 1,000 times more frustrating than my dial-up in Havana. Talk about learning experience….

TAG! Now, you’re it:

Bacon is Magic: HIH readers know I’m a chicharrones addict, so simply the name of this blog enamors, but Ayngelina also calls Guatemala “the most underrated country” after only a week. Sharp girl!

Fevered Mutterings, The Art of Unfortunate Travel: Funny, pull-no-punches mutterings by Mike Sowden.

Modern Gonzo: Robin Esrock has lots of companies sponsoring him, his own TV show, and is so well-traveled, he could be one of those ‘been there, done that’ assholes, but in fact is a totally cool, accessible, and down-to-earth guy.

Roving Gastronome: Mexico, Morocco, Queens, Cuba – Zora O’Neill, travel writer, cookbook author, and dinner party hostess-with-the mostest, takes you there and makes sure you eat well.

This Cat’s Abroad: Not updated nearly often enough for the talent and chutzpah exibited, this blog delivers a unique perspective by a woman living in Iraq (and now Kurdistan).

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Writerly stuff

I Got the Cuba in Me

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Coming back to the States for a visit is always odd. It’s an out-of-place feeling common to most expats I suspect – awkward yet surreal, like watching a movie you know by heart dubbed in Thai or Tagalog.

For years I’ve carried my ‘Cuban-ness’ back with me and it freaks people out. I touch people while in conversation, call strangers “sweetie” or “honey” (our closest equivalent to “mi amor”) and crowd everyone’s personal space. Solidarity flows from within me for the downtrodden and I chat in Cubano with every bus boy, street sweeper, and young thug I can.

But something about this trip is different. I’ve brought more than my touchy-feely Latino tendencies and finely honed español back to New York this time. Suddenly, I’m seeing how much the Big Apple (my birth home) resembles Havana (my adopted home). And not in a good way.

The similarities are disconcerting in no small measure because they represent an entirely new perspective. For years, I’ve parsed the differences between my old and new homes. On those rare occasions when I did examine commonalities, I focused on how Havana resembled Manhattan, not the other way around. But my perception has flip flopped this trip. Have I crossed some imaginary frontier? Is this what happens when birth home cedes incrementally, but irreversibly to new home? Have I gone native?

Looking back, I realize it started as soon as I deplaned in Miami (see note 1). Approaching the escalator to baggage claim and customs, I noticed a white haired woman – old, but in no way frail – hesitating at the edge of the moving stairway.

“Would you like some help?” I asked her in Spanish. She took my arm gratefully and we maneuvered down towards customs together.

“I’m missing a contact lens. It’s hard to navigate the escalator,” she explained though I didn’t ask. Thinking about it now, it seems more likely that she had never before been on a moving staircase – you can count the escalators in Havana on one hand. Besides, she was from Varadero.

Mirta told me she was visiting her son who had left Cuba a dozen years ago. It was her first time in Miami. I told her I’ve lived in Cuba for 9 years, though she didn’t ask.

“I’ve lived there for 74,” she responded proudly.

Once we got shuttled to the customs green line (see note 2), Mirta explained that she had to call her son and tell him where she was.

“He’s too tacaño to park and come find me,” she said touching the point of her elbow – the Cuban symbol for cheap.

I liked Mirta’s spunk (see note 3) and was kind of appalled at her inconsiderate son, but I didn’t have a cell phone. Less than 30 minutes on US soil and already I was a stranger in a strange land. Even so, I couldn’t just ditch Mirta in the middle of MIA like a Cubana would her brand new husband she’d used to emigrate. I felt an obligation to ‘resolver’ the situation.

I spied a guy with a phone hooked to his belt and asked if he would lend it to us for a quick local call. He apologized saying his phone was broken. The second guy I approached was totally embarrassed, explaining that he had no money on his. Strike one and two a lo Cubano: cell phone as fashion accessory and no cash in the account. Luckily, the next guy not only had a phone and spoke Spanish, but was an MIA employee and had a soft spot for little old ladies. Mirta went from my care to his, but not before planting a farewell kiss on my cheek.

Mirta was lovely and I enjoy making deposits in my travel karma account, but I shrugged off the episode: it was Miami after all, with Cubans acting like Cubans down to non-functioning phones. But New York looking like the other side of the Straits gave me pause. And it’s not because Havana is evolving, my friends. Rather, I was seeing that shit happens, things break down, and systems fail, even in all mighty Manhattan.
_____

It had been a long night, but I had places to be. I rolled off my friend’s couch, inhaled some good, strong coffee and hustled off to the PATH train. When I got there, all the MetroCard machines were broken. And there was no attendant in the booth. Hola? Is this Havana? I braced my arms on either side of the turnstile and prepared to hop. It’s not my fault I can’t pay, I figured in that particularly Cuban way.

“The cameras will catch you,” a woman behind me said. “Allow me.” And with one fluid motion, she swiped her card through my turnstile.

I ran to catch the train, ‘thank you!’ streaming down the corridor like a boat’s wake.

As my train shuttled past chop shops and strip clubs, I thought about how weird it was for something as necessary as ticket machines to be broken here. Weirder still was a stranger coughing up a couple of bucks to bail me out.

When I got to Newark, I had time for a bite before my next train. Eating: it’s an all-consuming pursuit of mine, especially since many of my favorite foods are as rare in Cuba as multi-tasking and fidelity. When stateside I’m a junky for Thai food, sushi, tofu, cheese of all types, bagels, pizza worthy of the name, mussels, crème brûlée, asparagus, artichokes, and something known in these parts as an almond horn.

Saliva pooled on my tongue as I approached the case packed with Black & Whites, croissants, crullers, and turnovers. There were macaroons, brownies, blondies, carrot cake, cheese cake and muffins. Danish jammed against bagels, while the bialys yearned to be noticed. But nary an almond horn in sight. Mysterious absence of normal foodstuffs: this felt familiar.

As I tried to contain my disappointment and choose from the (too) many choices, an announcement boomed throughout the station. ATTENTION PASSENGERS: DUE TO A POWER OUTAGE, THERE WILL BE NO TRAINS RUNNING UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

A blackout? Of indeterminate duration? Here? The similarities were getting increasingly eerie – and frequent. Later that day, choosing something simple off the diner menu (faced with too many choices again), the gum snapping waiter informed me they’d run out of that dish. This is de rigueur in Havana where you eschew the menu entirely, instead cutting to the chase by inquiring, ‘what’s available?’ But here, in the land of plenty? Things run out? Since when?

Then there’s the ban on incandescent light bulbs. From the “news” coverage I’ve been able to stomach, I gather this is chapping a helluva lot of asses around here. Seems the USA is compelling people (sort of, in a way, only those willing) to swap out energy-draining incandescent bulbs for more efficient compact models. In Cuba, we did this in 2006 (“Year of the Energy Revolution”), when brigades of young folks across the island went door-to-door removing incandescent bulbs and replacing each and every one with the energy efficient curlicues (note 4).

And the potholes. I can’t remember a time when there were so many giant holes pocking New York City’s streets. Everyone is blaming it on the bad winter, but these craters are Diez de Octubre worthy, forcing drivers to swerve and veer in an effort to avoid them, exactly as we do in Havana. On some NY roads, there’s no avoiding them, they all bleed together to form one giant hueco. Is this all the fault of a harsher than usual winter? Regardless, invoking something as nebulous as the weather to justify the crumbling streets seems so….Cuban.

It’s sad – I don’t want my hometown to fall apart – but at the same time, it’s reassuring in a way. Maybe we’re all in the same hand basket, headed hell-ward, no matter if the point of departure is Santos Suarez or SoHo. Or maybe it’s simply that I’ve crossed that imaginary frontier, where my ‘otherness’ is finding its (dis)equilibrium between here and there. Either way, NY no longer feels like home.

Notes
1. As a journalist, I’m legally permitted by the US government to travel to Cuba on the 45-minute, $400 charter flights between Miami and Havana.
2. As we all know: green means go. Once I ended up on the evil red line where a buxom agent threatened to liberate me from my 5 cent cigars. The yellow line is only marginally better (and perhaps worse for all its ambiguity).
3. Dedicated HIH readers know my fondness for viejitas.
4. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I refused to swap out our bedroom light (no way I’m fucking to fluorescents) and snuck in some incandescents in my suitcase.

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

Things I Miss about the U.S.A.

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I like living abroad for so many reasons – being obligated to become bilingual, the different values, and the required self-reliance among them. But Havana is wholly unique, entirely distinct from other Third World capitals like Guatemala City or Bamako. Here, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, there are simply things you cannot buy. Toilet paper today, butter and flour tomorrow, but other items are unattainable any day like print cartridges, razor blades, high speed Internet. The big, bad Bloqueo strikes again.

But living in Cuba isn’t just living abroad, it’s living in exile – for us Americans anyway. We have no access to our bank accounts for example and getting back on US soil is an expensive, hoop-jumping production with lots of paperwork (thanks to Congress, not the Castros). And that’s without any swine flu or other wrench in the works. To give you an idea, my upcoming flight to NY (home once, but not for many years now and feeling less so each infrequent visit I make) will be a 13 hour affair with a couple of plane changes. This, mind you, for what is a 3-1/2 hour flight as the crow flies. And the price for the privilege?1 We’re talking in the $750 range for a distance that’s like flying New York to New Orleans. To put it in traveler’s perspective, with that same $750 it will take me to travel from one island “home” to another, I could go from New York to Tokyo. Welcome to my world…

I’ve adapted as foreigners must if they’re to survive here. I remember when I first arrived, a Cuban American guy who has lived on Long Island for decades told me, ‘only New Yorkers can live in Cuba – they already know how hard life can be.’ Of course, not all five of us living here are from New York, but I do think we share cravings and miss some of the stuff that makes the USA great in its way.

In no particular order, here is a list of Things I Miss; stay tuned for another list of Things I Don’t in a future post.

 Bathtubs
 Jon Stewart
 Mushrooms, artichokes, and tofu
 Anonymity
 English (especially my extensive repertoire of curse words and the phrase ‘I don’t know’2)
 Wireless
 Being able to pick up the phone and call my best friend, or any friend
 NBA & USTA
 Ginger ale
 Magazines
 Netflix
 Rock ‘n roll (hoochie koo, thankfully, is not a problem)
 Mail delivery
 Gay bars, parades, and queer PDAs
 Cafés
 Seasons
 Indian, Thai, sushi, and good Chinese
 Central Park
 Hiking
 Customer service
 People who can multitask
 Toilet seats
 Garlic cloves of a reasonable size3

Notes

1. In another weird twist of antiquated Cold War policy on the part of the United States, traveling to Cuba is a privilege, not a right for that country’s citizens.

2. While Latin Americans throughout the hemisphere are famous for not uttering ‘yo no sé’, Cubans are over-the-top anti I-don’t-know. I have several theories why this may be so, but the bottom line? It’s a country of know-it-alls. Compulsory education will do that…

3. In Cuba, garlic cloves are the size of a child’s fingernail and cause for anxiety, if not outright insanity. The Hero/ine of any household is the person that peels garlic. In my case, that would be me (although the man of the house is a fabulous and enthusiastic cook).

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