Tag Archives: television

Sensing Havana

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Travel anywhere can be magical for many reasons, but as a writer what inspires me most is the shift in perspective – seeing new things, which is as trite as it is true of course – but also seeing old things in a new way. Have you ever noticed how returning home after a big trip even the mundane snaps into focus, like putting on a new pair of glasses? How obviously a tree trunk in the yard resembles a thumb and forefinger though you’d never once noted it or the regularity with which that dun colored bird comes to visit each morning?

I’ve lived in Havana the past nine years and what snapped to my attention and popped into focus when I first got here I rarely notice now (see note 1). Mustachioed women and muffin tops for instance or the fastidiousness with which people sweep the sidewalk and grass strips in front of their homes. I lament no longer seeing my adopted city with a “child’s eyes” – that precious curiosity and wonder we tend to lose as adults – but tell myself it’s justified. Change is happening so fast here (for here), how could I focus on the constants?

 It used to be for instance, that the only Mercedes’ you’d see were taxis lined up at the Hotel Nacional or zooming down 5ta Avenida transporting heads of state. Back in the day, a couple of superstars had them too: Once I saw the unmistakable salsero Pedrito Calvo behind the wheel of his Mercedes, but it was missing a hubcap and had dents around the wheel well. Today, there are all kinds of shiny new cars cruising Havana’s cratered streets – BMWs and Audi’s, but also at least one Bentley, Hummer, and mini Cooper. All sport yellow license plates (indicating private ownership), not black (embassy) or blue (state).

 Today, Havana is in flux. Accumulation of wealth and inequalities are becoming inevitably more pronounced and the political future is…uncertain. There’s a lot of anxiety and low level stress judging by what I’m hearing in the streets and hallways (and the difficulty I’m having scheduling a slot with my new therapist – but that’s another post).

 Some days, like today, I prefer to retreat from all the politics and angst, uncertainty and yes, sadness to some degree, and see Havana like I once did all those years ago – with fresh eyes.

Elaborate topiary & saucy garden gnomes: Tacky and suburban to my sensibilities, most of my Cuban friends appreciate and admire the artistry of a well-trimmed bush and the kitschy-cute gnomes that dot front lawns from Vedado to Boyeros. There are even buxom female gnomes (gnomettes? gnomas?) squeezing their bosoms like ripe fruit in yards across the city. Brightly-painted cement mushrooms often complete the scene.

Public zit popping: This habit is part sport, hobby, and time killer for Cuban couples. On park benches and at bus stops or waiting on the bread line, lovers are popping each other’s zits and squeezing out blackheads with glee. Does someone need to point out to them that acne and food never mix? Apparently, someone does.

Dogs doing their thing:  Innumerable are the times we’ve had to stop the car for a couple of canines fucking in the middle of the street as if they were ensconced in their own private posada. Nonplussed, the bitch regards us with a feral smile as she’s humped away by some mangy stray. They refuse to be rushed: No coitus interruptus for these puppies. The same goes for middle-of-the-street shitting. She squats, watching and taunting us to inch forward with a toothy snarl. It can be a laborious stand off – almost all Cuban dogs are constipated.

Pure breds: While we’re talking dogs, I noticed from the start that certain perros de raza are all the rage here. It used to be cocker spaniels (still the go-to dog for sniffing out lethal and illicit substances at the airport), followed by Dalmatians. This isn’t unique to Havana: certain pets the world over become fads and status symbols (see: Nemo and chihuahuas). But what’s hard to square here is the craze for chow chows, who walk the streets with heat-ravaged fur and black tongues hanging as low as an old man’s balls and Siberian Huskies. Pobrecitos. Dogs die of heat exhaustion too.

Gold teeth: Like pure-bred dogs, the gold teeth fad swept across Havana some years ago like the flu making the rounds now. From 10-year old kids to aging cabaret dancers, everyone was chasing the dental bling. There were even TV shows and news coverage about it. Oral ore seems to be on the decline, but whether it’s just a fad that’s fizzled or a sign of the economic times, I cannot say.

Come hither weatherwomen: When Leticia, the master degree-holding weatherwoman popped on the nightly news screen in gold lamé, I laughed and wondered if the wardrobe captain had taken a vacation or fast boat to Miami. A few days later, she informed us about the advancing frente frío wearing a black lace-up corset and sheer drape. Does she sidle into the next studio after the 5-day forecast to film the novela, I wondered? (see note 2). But nothing topped learning temperatures would drop over the next couple of days from a woman on national television sporting a camel toe.

Cuba: you never cease to restore my sense of awe. And that’s a good thing.

Notes

1. This is the reasoning some guidebook companies use for not employing locally-based authors – they’re too inured to place. It has occasionally worked against me, but I can see their point. The ideal scenario, I think, is for individual guides to be written by a combination of local and non-local authors. This is our arrangement on Lonely Planet Hawai’i and it works well.

2. Even among scientists, Fredrick’s of Hollywood stands to make a fortune here once/if the embargo is lifted.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban Revolution, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba, Writerly stuff

The Newborn, The Survivor, & The Runner-Up

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It’s hot. I’m tired. I’m working mucho and earning poco. I miss my familia. And I still haven’t had a vacation since Haiti. I worry. For Cuba. For Guatemala. For Haiti. For the turtles caught in the oil spill.(see note 1)

I, for one, (and maybe you too), could use some levity right about now. So here you go, three little stories – all recent, all true – brought to you by your friends here in Havana.

1. It’s a girl!

It took her a little longer than the usual 40 weeks to join our world but my niece Isabella finally made it here on May 27th, right around cocktail hour. Thatta girl! She weighed in at 7 lbs, 6 oz and is long like a string bean and as pink and soft as a baby should be.

It’s fitting that her first breath was taken at the Hospital Maternidad Obrera in the heart of Marianao where numerous cousins, aunts, uncles and more distant relatives of hers were also born. I got the shooting-up-of-eyebrows response from more than one Cuban when I mentioned the hospital attending my sister-in-law. I had heard stories and Marianao does have a certain rep (not entirely unjustified). I knew a couple of the other hospitals in the barrio (El Militar and Juan Manuel Marquez, a pediatric hospital which I never, ever want to see the inside of again. Not due to the conditions, but rather the trauma and sadness that haunt those halls) and they definitely have their shortcomings. Isabella, however, was my first birth, and I wasn’t acquainted with this maternity hospital.

The parents-to-be actually chose Maternidad Obrera, which was a surprise to me, until I learned it’s one of the few Havana hospitals where the father is allowed to be in the delivery room.

I was encouraged.

The expectant couple was also taking birthing classes at the hospital administered by a real pro – one of those buxom, loving nurses with a brood of her own and decades of experience helping mothers-to-be enjoy safe, fearless births.

“You have to be able to anticipate and interpret your baby’s needs,” she told her class. “He won’t pop from your womb saying ‘hey ma! give me a buck for a pacifier!'”

Each class ended with breathing and yoga exercises. Nurse Betty encouraged fathers to attend. And they did: with jeans slung low enough to flash their knock-off Hilfiger briefs and bloodshot eyes hidden behind absurdly large, white plastic sun glasses, Marianao’s machos came to learn birthing techniques alongside their jevas.

I was encouraged.

When we got word the caesarian was underway, we charged towards Maternidad Obrera. Architecturally it’s fascinating, with curves like those the women inside had lost long ago and stone benches built into the walls of the waiting room. It had received a recent face lift, including a new paint job (baby blue – machismo, as a rule, still rules…) and was, I have to say, spiffy. There was a pair of moms to each small, clean room sharing an en suite bath. Each baby had a crib pushed up against the wall at the foot of her mom’s bed, alongside a couple of chairs for feeding and visitor time.

It was still muy Cubano of course: stray dogs wandered into the lobby at will and visitors – even expectant moms – smoked strong black tobacco cigarettes inside the hospital. The bathrooms often had no water, but you guessed that already, right? Men with cameras slung around their necks peddled portrait services room to room ($1 for standard snaps; $2 for Photoshopped shots, including one that pasted your baby into the arms of Jesus) and the baby blue halls echoed with the click, click, click of female visitors arriving in their come-fuck-me-shoes.

My favorite folkloric moment though, was when a leathery guy came into the room displaying scores of azabache on a hangar. $1 a piece for these small, safety pin charms that get fastened to the back of newborns’ shirts to ward off the evil eye. The hospital itself also offers on-site ear piercing which is either charming and handy or disturbing and invasive, depending on your perspective. Isabella’s parents went for it, though for me she was just as beautiful as could be before those gold studs got punched into her little lobes.

2. Two – always better than one

Not too long ago we hosted a small, lively dinner party. There was me, my husband, our friend Camilo the taxi driver, Yusleidy the actress, and Miriam the veterinarian and cancer survivor. Our conversation ranged far and wide over the terrain of contemporary Cuba. Camilo and the hubby tussled over the music scene (my guy: “it’s vapid.” Camilo: “you’re too nostalgic.”); Mirima lamented the disappearance of black market yogurt; and we all agreed the national volleyball team has a hard season facing them.

In a quiet moment, Yusleidy launched into a tirade about the state of Cuban television. She knows of what she speaks: with that universally winning trifecta of youth, beauty, and talent, “Yusy” is an actress who’s known success on Cuban stage and screen. But her three current projects have been shelved for lack of funds and the one that did get the
green light got away. She let loose her frustration over my Chicken Marsala.

“He gave the part to Fulana de Tal. She can’t act! The only thing she has going for her are those huge tits!”

“Two! Two tits!” interjects Miriam, she of the recent mastectomy. “Tremendous advantage!”

The table erupts into howls of laughter that continue as Miriam regales us with another breast-related tale.

One night during her second round of chemo, Miriam went out with friends to a trendy bar. It was precisely for these types of occasions that she donned the red wig that trailed halfway down her back (children’s birthday parties were another – ‘don’t want the bald lady scaring the wee ones,’ she tells us). Leaving the trendy bar to hop to another, a strapping fellow leaning against a lamp post apprised my friend.

“Come with me baby and I’ll give you a big surprise.”

Miriam imagined getting him alone and stripping off her wig and whipping out her falsie.

“My man, the surprise I’d give you would be bigger, much bigger!”

3. And the winner is…

I have a friend I call 007. He’s one of those cool, super mellow fellows that gains entry into the best parties, rarely gets ruffled, and never misses a beat. He may or may not actually be a spy.

So it was totally par for the course that he would attend the Miss Africa Beauty Contest held last week in Havana. Most of the contestants were students from the Latin American Medical School (see note 2) hailing from countries such as Namibia, Nigeria, Guinea Conakry and other hard-to-locate countries. The contest was hosted at the Meliá Cohiba, one of Havana’s few five star hotels.

“Swanky,” I say to 007.

“Terrific spread. Plus all the red, white or rosé you could drink,” he responds.

I was intrigued.

“What were you doing there? Aside from drinking your fill?”

“My friend was a contestant.”

Why was I not surprised?

“Did she win?”

“Second place.”

This also was not a surprise. 007 knows a lot of beautiful women. Second place netted his friend a BlackBerry. The winner took home a laptop and third place, an iPod Shuffle. Not bad for being beautiful.

“There was a question and answer session too,” 007 tells me.

“What did they ask?”

“Idiotic stuff about Africa like who is hosting the World Cup and what was the only western hemisphere country to send troops to Africa in the 70s.”

But just in case these African beauties didn’t know South Africa is soccer central these days or that Cuba helped liberate Angola, they were given a little help: when 007 went to 2nd place’s home afterwards to celebrate, he spied her pageant materials on the kitchen table, including the list of questions and answers she’d face after parading about in a swimsuit.

In case you had any doubt, Havana is full of beautiful females these days.

Notes
1. Is it me or is it feeling more and more like end of days here on our one and only planet? Oh, those Mayans have me worried with their December 2012 hocus pocus.

2. The Latin American Medical School (ELAM) was founded in Havana in 1998 to provide six year medical school scholarships to poor kids from around the world. To date, nearly 10,000 doctors have graduated from this school completely debt-free. They are expected to practice in remote and underserved communities once they finish. If you’re interested, I’ve written extensively on this socially responsible medical school for my day job.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, health system, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad