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What have you done to my heart, torn in so many directions but always aching for 23° 7′ 55″ North, 82° 21′ 51″ West? And my soul? Of, by, and for New York from birth, but now reconfigured into an alma cubana that whispers mysteries in Spanish I’m still unable to cipher.
I’m not sure when this happened – feeling betwixt there and between here – though I know it’s common to long-term expats. Hell, I’ve even parsed some of this awkward, never complete transition over the years, crafting a sort of road map to the cultural, linguistic, and romantic bumps in my road.
Despite my musings and analysis, I entered some unknown territory on my most recent trip off-island: in a nutshell, I did not want to leave. Maybe I’ve been hanging out too much with Moises and Rina, two friends who had to travel to the United States recently, but neither of whom had the ganas to do so. It wasn’t due to fear – both have traveled several times for work – nor was it because they’d traveled so extensively that trips abroad had become old hat and rote (see note 1). They just didn’t want to leave the island and these days, nor do I. It feels wrong and a bit scary, like kissing a cousin or sibling.
It makes me sad because I know the lengths so many Cubans take just for a chance to see what lies beyond all that water crashing against the Malecón. And it’s confusing, because on every previous trip, I too felt the need to ‘saca el plug’ (pull the plug) and ‘desconectar’ from the drama-rama that is Cuba. Trips out used to be exciting, emotional, and necessary.
But not this time. I didn’t want to cut whatever cord hooks fast into those of us crazy for Cuba, making us spend money we don’t have, go against our better judgment, and jeopardize job, health, and relationships to get back to the island. In an effort to untangle that cord (or loosen the noose, depending on your POV), I offer all these reasons why I love Cuba (see note 2).
The $1 lunch – Whether it’s a cajita across from the CUJAE or a knife and fork sit down at El Ranchón (one of my all-time favorites), Cuba has some kick ass $1 lunch with all the fixings. Even at the airport: on my recent trip off-island, I filled up at the cafeteria outside Terminal 2 (clearly one of the greatest benefits of the new economic regulations) with a plate overflowing with pork, congris, yucca, salad, and chips. It was so tasty a fellow diner said: ‘my congratulations to the cook – he must be from Pinar del Río!’ (see note 3).
Touching, hugging, and general closeness – Latinos have a different concept of personal space and Cubans, as is their wont, take it to an extreme. Men embrace and greet each other with kisses on the cheek, female friends walk hand in hand, and my best salsa partners have been girlfriends. All of this is to say that Cubans aren’t afraid to touch – your leg when telling a story, your back as they try to pass you in the hall, your shoulder as they ask: ‘how is your family?’ Cubans fill elevators to its maximum capacity and I always delight in watching a mixed Cuban-foreigner crowd boarding them for the mutual awkwardness that ensues. Up in the States, the awkwardness is mine every time I step into a nearly full elevator, encroaching somehow, though there is always room for one more. That weird, reactionary, and let’s be frank, harmful rule that teachers can’t hug students in the USA? My Cuban friends can’t even grasp the concept when I try to explain it.
The hello/goodbye kiss – Related to touching is the traditional Cuban greeting – one kiss on the right cheek no matter if you know each other or not. Even taking leave of big groups results in blowing a kiss to the crowd. I think we should start this trend up north. Our world couldn’t be any worse off with more kisses, could it? On my visit to the States recently, I leaned in towards my host and said: ‘you were wonderful tonight,’ touching his knee as I spoke. Did he misread my Cuban-ness? Interpret it as something more?, I wondered later as he slid his hand down my back to cup my ass. This doesn’t happen in Cuba unless the signal is an unequivocal green (ie the ass grab is mutual).
Fun in the sun – I was born and bred in northern climes, but I’m a winter wimp through and through. Sure I loved tobogganing and ice skating and snowball fights as a kid – still do in fact – but the bulky clothing, the cold that turns wet once the fun is done, and the squeak of day old snow that sounds like someone is packing Styrofoam in your ear isn’t my bag. I like loose clothing, walking in the sun, and smelling gardenias or fresh cut grass in December. Summer clothing is sexier I think we can all agree, and as white as I am, when my freckles fuse into a pseudo tan, I work those scanty, loose-fitting clothes to full effect.
Drink, smoke, & be merry – The 8am Bucanero; the post-feast cigarette; the incessant regguetón: Cubans milk the ‘party hearty, the rest of you be damned’ approach to its fullest. Believe me, I know. And should it slip my mind, my neighbors are quick to bust out their state-of-the-art karaoke machine and warble drunken, sappy ballads until the wee hours.
And the smoking, dios mío. I remember going for my first pap smear at my local doctor’s office here in Havana…hoisting my feet into the stirrups, I watched aghast as the doctor took one last drag of her filter-less cigarette and with a deft flick of her gloved hand sent it flying out the window before diving between my legs (see note 4). If you’re a non-drinker, non-smoker, or not into music appreciation, you’ll probably find Havana offensive. But for those who like an after dinner cigar, enjoy (or need) some hair of the dog once in a while, or are usually the first on the dance floor at parties and functions, I bet Cuba will float your boat.
It’s safer than where you live – Okay, that’s a broad stroke, I know: after all, I don’t know where you live, much less the crime rates. But I can tell you that the absence of crack cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, and guns means a generally safer city. I’m not saying drugs, prostitution, violence, and rackets don’t exist in Havana. They do. But as a longtime traveler and writer of guidebooks to some of Latin America’s most violent cities (Caracas, Guatemala City, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa) and an eyewitness to NYC’s crack attack in the 80s, I can tell you that Havana is a gated community comparatively. Kids play unsupervised in the street here and I walk home alone at night frequently. (Truth be told, I took a short hiatus of walking home alone after a tall guy grabbed me from behind and thrust both hands between my legs one night in Vedado, but I conquered whatever uncertainty the event planted within me). Most of the crime here is of the opportunistic/snatch and grab variety and tends to peak between October and December when people are trying to rally resources for Christmas and New Years’ celebrations.
These are some of the reasons why I love Havana and if you’ve been thinking about coming here, let me leave you with one piece of advice: don’t put it off any longer. The only certain thing in life is that life is uncertain.
1. Yes, there are Cubans who get tired of traveling they do it so much: politicians, organizers, academics, musicians, and artists, typically.
2. For those interested in earlier thoughts on this subject, see my earlier post Things I Love about Cuba.
3. Country cooking like they do in Pinar del Río is unrivaled – trust me on this one and seek out a campesino lunch next time you’re in that wonderful province.
4. For new readers to Here is Havana, let me reiterate that all the stories found throughout these pages are entirely true, though some names have been changed to protect the guilty.