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For: My 20-Something Friends, Love: Your 40-Something Tía

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] Sometimes I bore myself with all this Cuba talk and expat navel gazing; granted, there’s a lot to say on the subject (see note 1), so I’m not beating a dead horse per se, but it does make me feel like a wordsmith one trick pony. So very occasionally (e.g. when I was in Haiti and occupied Wall Street), I muse on things which have nothing to do with the beguiling isle.

But this post is a complete departure for me since in addition to being not at all Cuba-related, it’s also the first time I’m writing for a particular readership (see note 2). Inspired by my cohort of young friends on both sides of the Straits (who are remarkably similar in their youthful optimism and doubt, impatience and drive), I wanted to share a bit of wisdom to help ‘abrir caminos’ as we say here (see note 3).

I’m guessing most Here is Havana readers are – like me – “older,” but surely you have some young friends and family who might benefit from my blather. Or perhaps you’ve hit your fourth or fifth decade and have pondered the passage of time and its relation to the parable of life in ways discussed below. Regardless, I’m hoping said blather will resonate, no matter your biological age.

Party hard while you can – Partying until dawn at 40 is an entirely different undertaking from that at 20-something. At your age, you suck it up after a big night out and snag a couple of hours of sleep before going to class or work or both. But when you crawl in at daybreak at my age, you’re looking at a 24 hour recovery period. In short, the day after is totally lost, a write-off, while you drag ass, rest, maybe have a little hair of the dog, followed by more resting. My advice? Party hard while you can because that in itself gets harder as you age.

Shape up now – Your mind, depth of experience, and perspective grow as you grow up (if not, you’re doing something wrong), but your body? Hell in a handbasket, my friends, and you’ll eventually reach the point of sagging muscles and tone loss, slackening skin accompanied by its evil twin wrinkles, and gravity working its black magic on your boobs, balls, and god knows what all. My advice? Eat healthy, exercise, and don’t smoke or drink to best hedge your bets (says the woman suggesting you party hard while you can). I largely ignored this advice at your age, so I’m not throwing stones here, but rather signposting the road of life for my young friends. (I should admit here that I’m also a wee bit nostalgic for the taut, hard body I had at 20.) My advice? Enjoy it while you’ve got it, but know that maintenance is essential if you want to remain fit and bed-able at 40. This is particularly true for young XX readers, since women are saddled with an unjust and inequitable standard of youth and beauty as compared to men.

Get jiggy now– You might not think much of it at the moment, but once you’ve passed 40 or 50 springs on this earth, Viagra will become tantamount. For males, it’s a modern miracle. For us women, it sucks 16 ways from Tuesday. First, there’s straight up anger. They get Viagra and we get menopause?! Where’s my Viagra coño?! Second, those little miracle pills trick men into thinking they’re unjustifiably hot, omnipotent, and virile (some are dupes in this sense regardless, but that’s another story). On the upside, we ladies usually hit our sexual stride much later than guys – i.e. when most age-appropriate males can’t keep up without the help of Big Pharma. My advice? Enjoy yourself (safely!) now and entertain the cougar cruisers when your time comes.  

Some things don’t fix themselves – In addition to penile erectile dysfunction (see above!), other problems in life like clogged drains, yeast infections, back taxes, and bad tattoos (see below!) don’t get better on their own. This can also be said of HIV infection and I feel a little sorry for my 20-something friends who have only lived in the post-HIV world. My advice? Embrace latex and call a professional – whether it’s a sexual health expert, plumber, gynecoloigist, accountant, or laser wizard – when things go awry.    

Resist brand tyranny – Whether it’s Apple or Converse, Mercedes or Harvard, I urge you to resist marketing mania and associated pressure to buy and flaunt labels. Hilfiger or Louboutin, Ed Hardy or Kate Spade: no matter the brand, wearing it will not make you smarter, better looking, or more kind. True, I’m a fashion disaster, but in these matters, I defer to my favorite billionaire who observed: why shell out $10,000 for a Rolex when my $15 Timex keeps the hour just as well? My advice? Think twice before buying into the brand.

Love stinks – Sorry to break it to you, but even at my age you probably won’t have the love thing figured out. Sure, you may be with someone, engaged, married, or in love even, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. On the contrary, love makes everything more complex and in that complexity lies the problem. My advice? Tellingly, I have none; please let me know if you’ve had any revelations on the relationship front.

Think before you ink – I’m speaking from experience here guys: the tattoo that seems daring, romantic, or artistic at 20 can become a real problem at my age. Trust me – the choice between cover-up and removal isn’t pretty (or cheap) no matter how you cut it. My advice? Think long and hard about the statement you want to make and if it needs to be permanently emblazoned on your body and where.  

Older doesn’t necessarily mean smarter – Which is my way of saying: you don’t always have to listen to people older than you. Authority figures sometimes get off on that alone – i.e. the authority of age and position – and that can be dangerous for reasons too convoluted to go into here. My advice? Question authority, as much for your own benefit as for those wielding that authority because once they go unquestioned, they can do anything. And we definitely don’t want that.

Take the long view – I have a young friend who lost her zest for college two-thirds of the way through and she’s thinking about dropping/copping out. I say copping out because the lion’s share of the work is done and she just needs to suck it up a little longer to successfully attain her degree. Three semesters seems like forever to her at 21, but that ain’t nothing in the scheme of things, baby! I beg those of you close to completing school, a project, or a dream to persevere even though it feels like it will be forever until you reach your goal. My advice? You can do it – just go easy and take it slow when your patience runs thin.  

Keep your finger on the pulse – I’ve learned in the two decades since I was in your shoes that it’s important to befriend, mentor, and seek out and the opinion of, people younger than you. My advice? Whether you’re 20, my age, or double that and your next step is death, nurture relationships with people younger than you to keep your horizons expanding.

Live your dreams – As so many have said, life isn’t a dress rehearsal; it’s the only shot you’ve got. My advice? Make the most of it.

This post was motivated by the friendship of many 20-somethings in Cuba and beyond, including Caitlin, Benji, Joelito, Jenny, and Pablo. I dedicate it to you!


1. Which is why I’m writing a book (some would call it a memoir, a word that makes me cringe for several reasons) on the topic.

2. If you’ve landed here because you’re interested in Cuba-specific reading, I suggest trolling past posts and checking back in a few weeks – I’m preparing something juicy on the Pope.

3. For the curious: ever since I was 16, I knew I didn’t want to have kids and at 42, I remain exhileratingly child-free (and I’m not alone: check out this group Green Inclinations, No Kids or GINKs). But I adore being an aunt – tía in Spanish, which is a double entendre in Cuban since it loosely means ‘a woman of a certain age no longer considered sexy or eligible for seduction.’ I remember the first time a young Cuban buck called me tía – it smarted, yes it did!


Filed under Americans in cuba, Here is Haiti, Relationships, Writerly stuff

Cuban Juju: New Year’s & Beyond

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Havana is a place that holds dear its superstitions and traditions. Where the former leaves off and the latter begins is a tough and tangled business, thanks in part to the very serious and more relevant and prevalent than you might imagine AfroCuban juju floating about the island. While slaves were being forced over here from the Congo and the Gambia, Senegal and Nigeria, bringing their rich and powerful belief systems with them, the Spanish colonists and Catholic Church (the Imperialist 1% digamos) were also in the mix, inventing Cuban traditions.

This wasn’t an entirely innocent affair, I learned recently from Fernando Martínez Heredia (among the country’s most knowledgeable and respected historians), as he worked the rocker in my living room and regaled me with the whole ignoble story about the arrival of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre on these shores. According to the legend, Cuba’s patron saint floated into the Bay of Nipe 400 years ago to save three local fisherman adrift in their skiff. With the seas threatening to capsize and surely kill the two mulatto hermanos and young slave aboard, a beautiful, diminutive black virgin floated towards the pobres, the raft on which she rode inscribed with the message: “I am the Virgin of Charity.” With her appearance, the sea instantly and magically calmed, becoming flat as a plate, as we say here.

A legend so pat and serendipitous begs certain questions: Exactly what would they be fishing for in that inland bay? ‘There are no fish worth the time in Nipe,’ Fernando observes. And what of the message, carried by the trio back to the folks living in the area? ‘How convenient that those guys could read – unheard of at the time for people of their station – and Spanish no less,’ my favorite historian continues. But what’s truly intriguing, says Fernando (and I agree), is the appearance, at this precise time, of similar virgins elsewhere in Latin America – the Virgen del Cobre, the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico, St Rose of Lima. Turns out there was nothing coincidental or mystical about this plethora of virgins: secular and clerical big wigs determined that consolidating power over their far flung New World colonies required a spiritual component beyond the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So they created her (see note 1).

But the Spanish also introduced more benign customs, many of which mixed with those of African slaves of yore, more modern traditions and superstitions from around the globe, and others which are purely, wonderfully Cuban. In short, the traditions we observe here are an ajiaco, a stew of culture and influences that mirror Cuban society itself.

Need a karmic boost or extra dash of good luck? Visit El Caballero de Paris, frozen in midstride at the doorstep to the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís and give his bronze beard a stroke or two – already polished to a high sheen by untold masses who have thusly petitioned for luck before you. If things are such that more pro-active measures are required, drop a coin (the bigger, the better!) down the wishing well at the opulent entrance to the Hotel Nacional; utter your desire aloud and hopefully it will come true.

When you really need to invoke the city’s store of good luck, taking three turns around the sacred ceiba facing El Templete each November 16 is an age-old Cuban tradition (dating back to those Spaniards again) for improving one’s lot or luck. Don’t forget to lay some coins at the base of the tree for extra aché (folks in the know tell me it can be CUCs or pesos cubanos since the spirits also maneuver in the double economy). And speaking of age old traditions: who hasn’t seen the red ribbons flying from the undercarriage of every Lada and Buick, Mitsubishi, and Muscovich around here? De rigueur, this good luck charm for the open road.

Sometimes I think Cubans take all this superstition stuff a bit too far, like trying to ward off evil spirits with strong scents. Why else would someone burn incense in a bakery of all places or douse themselves so early and often with cheap, noxious perfume? More than once I’ve come home from clubs or alit from cars, my taste buds coated with someone’s idea of a come-hither scent. But I digress…

Where traditions and superstitions really gain traction here is on New Year’s Eve. There’s the costumbre of eating 12 grapes on the last day of the year – one for each month, a wish made with each fruit popped into your mouth. This comes from the Spanish I’m told, but I’ve yet to take a shine to this ritual: it seems greedy to make a dozen wishes (I’d be happy with just one or three), plus grapes cost $4/lb here, so it makes for a pricey gambit.

Maybe you’ve been unfortunate enough to be walking under a balcony or open window ‘round midnight on December 31st, in which case you were unexpectedly and unceremoniously drenched by falling waters (don’t worry: it’s clean). One of our endearing and enduring traditions here is to heave a bucket of water out the window at the stroke of midnight, the idea being that you’re chucking all the bad shit from the year previous. I don’t know where this tradition originated (neither do any of the Cubans I’ve been asking), but I was the first at our party with bucket at the ready once 2011 was over and done with.

By far, my favorite New Year’s tradition (aside from religiously observing it with family while stuffing myself silly with roast pork and yucca and smoking one of the amazing high quality cigars that always come my way this time of year) is the walk around the block with your suitcase – a tradition/superstition that improves your chances of traveling in the upcoming year.

On a balcony overlooking the Malecón this December 31st, I ducked falling waters while the cannons boomed across the Bay, couples kissed, and glasses clinked. A sultry wind blew and I waved with delight at all the folks streaming from their homes to wheel their luggage over buckling sidewalks and potholed streets.

To all of you wishing to travel or hoping to fall in love, entreating the spirits for good health or a prosperous 2012, I toast you and hope all your dreams come true. To Cuba and all my friends and family here, there, and elsewhere: I raise my glass with love and respect and hope we continue to reap what we sow.

2012: We’ve got high hopes, in spite of it all.

Feliz Año Nuevo everyone.


Ive been talking to folks here about their New Year’s traditions since writing this post and a few have mentioned burning all that’s bad from the previous year in curbside fires in Boyeros y mas alla (mentioned by Kristen in comments below), while in Artemisa they burn effigies made of old clothes and such. The dirty water  (and much less toilet water – mentioned by Yemaya in the comments below) doesn’t have any adherents I’ve asked, but we do agree that we won’t be drinking sugar water this year, in accordance with Ifa’s  letra del ano.


1. You may have heard about La Virgencita’s recent tour around the island. If not, you’ll definitely hear about her as 2012 unfolds since The Pope’s visit to Cuba has been confirmed for March 26-28; his trip kicks off in Santiago de Cuba and a pilgrimage to meet the Virgen.


Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Living Abroad

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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