Tag Archives: travel to Cuba

Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

I’ve got my knickers in a twist and if you know me, you know how ugly I can get when my ass is chapped.

Today’s topic? Ethical, responsible, and sustainable travel to Cuba.

For those who don’t know me (let alone my knickers), a bit of background: I’ve written some 20 or so guidebooks – almost entirely to Latin America and Hawai’i. That is, contexts where vulnerable communities and environments depend on critical tourist dollars. And it’s not always pretty. Importantly, I’ve also borne witness to the continuum of change in Cuba, from my first month-long volunteer stint in 1993 to right now, after nearly 14 years in residence. So I know intimately the ‘bueno, malo y regular’ that tourism can heap upon a place. I also know painfully well the challenges facing Cuba as it navigates a tumultuous domestic reform process, while facing the oncoming tourist ‘tsunami’.

When I launched Cuba Libro in 2013, I designed it as an ethically- and socially-responsible business – relevant and responsive to local communities’ needs, which would also serve as a cool, cultural space for visitors to dig below the surface of this increasingly complex society. I also wanted it to shine as an example of how the private sector can (and must if there’s any hope for the Cuba we know and love) support and strengthen the public sector.

I recently participated in a Temas panel and debate dedicated to sustainable and responsible tourism. If you’re unfamiliar with Temas, it is the intellectual publication of reference here and its Director, Rafael Hernández – regularly published and quoted in the western press – can often be found on speaking tours abroad. In short, Temas is a heavyweight when it comes to critical debate in Cuba.

So despite feeling like shit with what turned out to be the onset of dengue, I made my way with some 50 colleagues to the lovely Parque La Güira in Pinar del Río to learn about what’s happening around sustainable tourism in Cuba.

I should have stayed home. While the panelists were informed, experienced, eloquent, and educated, there was a general pall over the proceedings. Despite a formal invitation, no one from the Ministry of Tourism showed up. Nor were there any representatives from the Ministries of Health or the Environment. So much for intersectoriality. What’s more, various presentations and exchanges revealed there is no national strategy, no community voice or participation, not even a consensus on what constitutes sustainable and responsible tourism and therefore no evidence base upon which to measure progress. I wasn’t sure if it was the dengue or lack of policy/political will making me shudder, but I (and others I spoke with) came away from that panel depressed.

Why? Because responsible and ethical tourism is a two-way street. Recipient countries have rights and obligations and it’s unclear what Cuba is doing about it. The emphasis on golf course and resort development (did you know Cuba is in a crippling drought? We certainly do: it’s on the news and in the papers all the time) and cruise ship tourism (I was hoping someone on the panel would provide cost-benefit analysis on this issue. File under: Wishful Thinking), are troubling. Even more troubling is this trip report from a frequent traveler to the Oriente, and this report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which while long, lacks substance.

But individual travelers also have rights and obligations and since I can’t do much in the short term about the government’s role, I wanted to write about what you can do to help Cuba while you explore this fascinating country.

#1: Respect the laws of Cuba – If you are a reporter, blogger or freelance writer or filmmaker and enter Cuba on a tourist visa with the intention of writing about or filming here, you’re breaking the law. If you participate in sex tourism, you’re breaking the law (and if you have to pay for sex, you’re a loser). If you couch surf, you’re breaking the law. If you drive drunk or with an open container in your car, you’re breaking the law. If you put up the money for a business or house with a Cuban on the paperwork, you’re breaking the law. Do people do these things all the time? Yes, every day. But people OD on heroin every day, too – that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do it, right? I know, I sound like someone’s curmudgeonly mother.

#2: Reduce water usage
– The drought is so dramatic it’s affecting our fresh food supply (although upwards of 70% of food is imported, none of it is of the fresh fruit or veggie variety). Plus, there are millions of Cubans, even right here in Havana, who do not have running water every day. Can you let a faucet drip or run knowing that? Would you do it at home given the same circumstances? Californians know full well what I’m talking about.

#3: Reduce plastic waste – During our team meeting at Cuba Libro yesterday, one member opined that we should sell bottled water (even though we give out gallons of purified water for free every day), because ‘tourists don’t trust boiled water.’ And he’s right – some folks don’t believe boiled water is safe for drinking. But they’re wrong: check the scientific evidence. And the plastic waste 3 million (and counting) tourists create when they drink countless plastic bottles of water during their stay is doing damage. This is an island ecology, where use is outstripping recycling and we don’t have landfill enough for all the plastic waste you leave behind once you return home. So what can you do? If you’re in a casa particular, boil or otherwise treat (drops, chlorine, iodine, filters) water and use a refillable bottle. At the very least, buy the 5 liter jugs of water and refill with that. When all else fails, switch to beer – anything to avoid the half liter bottles overfilling our landfill.

#4: Adapt – My Cuban friends make fun of me I’m so anti-pingüino. ‘The penguin’ is local slang for air conditioning. But it has been unbearably, record-breaking hot this summer, and I’ve had to resort to sleeping some nights with my Russian tank of an AC on ϹИᴧЬНО (that’s ‘high’ in Cyrillic, I think!). So, it’s hot, I get it. But the all-too-common tourist practice of leaving the AC on all day long while at the beach or out sightseeing so the hotel or casa particular room is ‘a lo pingüino’ upon return is totally irresponsible – not only does it sap the local electrical grid and damage the environment, but it contributes to global climate change as well. Besides, in AC-challenged Cuba, adapting is a much more practical survival strategy (just yesterday a US tourist said to me: ‘quite frankly, I’m used to my US comforts, like AC’). In short: suck it up and use your AC judiciously.

#5: Do not, ever, request Guantanamera, Lagrimas Negras, or Chan Chan
– Already Cuban musicians and artists are dumbing down their magnificent repertoire to cater to perceived tourist tastes. Respecting the patrimony of Cuba includes letting these musicians rip on compositions they haven’t played a thousand times for a thousand tourists. Your travel memories will be richer for this expanded listening experience. And don’t forget to tip.

#6: Learn some Spanish (or even better: Cuban) phrases
– No matter where you travel, having a couple of local phrases and vernacular up your sleeve opens doors, minds, and hearts. Get a phrasebook or app. Use it. Trying to communicate, even in the simplest way, in the language of your host country is a sign of respect. It’s not easy, I know this in the marrow of my bones. But it’s also not terribly hard once you start and is immeasurably rewarding. Do it!

#7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
– Speaking of which: visitors, especially from the USA (who Cubans love for cultural-historical reasons, but also for being big tippers), have to tame their egos. This doesn’t apply to everyone, obviously, but there’s a tendency for some US folks to push the “America [sic] is the greatest/most democratic country in the world” point of view, combined with a cringe-inducing perspective about “how to fix Cuba.” This happened just yesterday at Cuba Libro and got Douglas’ Irish up in a major way – and he has not a drop of the Emerald Isle in his blood. Travelers, from everywhere, frankly, should be conscious that they are visiting a highly-educated, cultured, and professional context, which is no way intellectually ‘frozen in time’ and that Cubans have spent a long time analyzing and living with their problems. No matter how erudite you are in your own life and field – and I include myself here – you don’t know as much as people living here day-to-day, who have spent a lifetime in this complex country. Can you enrich the dialog and provide perspective? Definitely. Can you solve Cuba’s problems after a ten-day or two-month trip? Definitely not. Show respect for your hosts’ intelligence, triumphs, and challenges by listening and learning. No one likes a dogmatic pontificator.

Lest I am accused of being a hypocrite, I will sign off here. If you have something to add about responsible/ethical/sustainable tourism, please write in; I’m starting to put together evidence, documents, and experiences related to what works and what doesn’t regarding this issue with an eye towards action.

Happy travels!

Advertisements

61 Comments

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

Cubans are Cockroaches

Cuba – Cubans – defy odds. The longest, harshest embargo in modern history. Back-to-back-to-back hurricanes. The Special Period (very special as the joke goes here). The dearth of feminine products. Their tenacity and resiliency make them the cockroaches of the human race: they will out-survive us all.

I’ve had the privilege of living among this tenacity and resiliency for over 13 years. It’s an ‘I can do this, this can be done’ perspective, as opposed to a defeatist, ‘can’t be done’ perspective. The former is superior. Even if it leads to failure at least you’ve tried (fuck you, Yoda).

And then there are times when ‘this can be done’ leads to legacy. From the 16 staffed and equipped field hospitals Cuba sent to post-quake Pakistan to the biker who smuggled six vintage Harleys to Miami piece by piece. There’s the Fabrica de Arte. La Farola. Cuban drag queens.

Once, flying down Boyeros from the airport, I saw a handicapped dude in an electric wheelchair giving a rope tow to his buddy – also in an electric wheelchair. If that’s not the epitome of a can-do attitude, I don’t know what is. Although, as I write this, I remember another graphic example of that same attitude: one night I walked in to my friend’s kitchen to find Noche, the cat, mounting Lola, the dog. I’ve seen gay canine sex in Cuba. I’ve seen furry threesomes. But interspecies? Cuban pets can (and do!) do it! Then there was the time Dina – the dog up the street – was in heat. She’s epileptic, so her owner had to keep her sequestered behind a fence; were she to screw, she’d likely die. This didn’t stop Toby from licking her red, swollen privates through the fence everyday. ¡si, se puede!

Seduce and woo a foreigner for a couple, three years to get a fiancé visa and then split upon arriving abroad? It can be (and has been) done. Throw a 105mph fastball? Aroldis Chapman can do it! There are those old cars (and more “modern” Ladas, too) converted to run on propane tanks – the same kind of little tank you have hooked to your BBQ in the backyard. Tucked away in the trunk, drivers can switch, with the flick of a switch on the steering column, between propane and actual gas. There’s the literacy campaign which taught the entire country to read and write. There are bike brakes held together with string. No brakes? No problem! When you hit a downhill, just brake with the heel of your tenis (this has happened to me).

There’s the mojito. I always empathize with the poor bartender staring down that 10 mojito ticket, crushing mint until their wrists hurt. I know at that moment when they’re swishing around yet another sprig, they’re thinking: ‘couldn’t we have a less labor-intensive national drink?!’ (Pro tip: get on your barman’s good side by ordering a Cuba Libre). But they do it – crank out a dozen mojitos at a time (and look damned good while doing it).

And the best part of the ‘I can do it perspective?’ It rubs off.

There’s a dark side to this, too (isn’t there always?). From people taking to dangerous seas in unworthy vessels to reusing disposable diapers. Unfortunately, in too many cases, it’s the chronic scarcity here that obligates Cubans to this tenacity, resiliency, and ingenuity. But that’s a different discussion and besides – I think Cuba’s recent history with all the scarcity and want, and importantly, the humanity there sown, bodes well for what lies ahead. This back story puts Cuba – and Cubans – in an advantageous position to figure out the economic piece of their present story, in a sane way.

Have doubts? We all do. The question is: Are you a cockroach?

Comments Off on Cubans are Cockroaches

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Guaguas, Blackouts, and Ham Sandwiches: Making Music in Havana

After all these years here, I never tire of the constant education. Meeting new people, learning, creating, connecting – Cuba es así. These past 10 days were a potent distillation: immersed in an international ajiaco (thanks Roy Hargrove/Crisol) of musicians and artists, brains and beauties, I learned many things and shined new light.

I learned that no matter where you are in the world or what type of music you play (in this case Renaissance and Baroque), you’re leaving the gig with 14 people and a half a dozen big instruments crammed into a mini van.

I learned that whether in Hialeah or Havana, the band may have to leave the gig running for the bus. And dinner was the cheapest, quickest thing around – in our case, the ubiquitous ham sandwich.

I learned – or re-learned – that magical things can happen when you combine musicians and blackouts (get your mind out of the gutter: I’m talking musically).

trio4

I heard a baroque guitar in a small ensemble for the first time and man, is that a hot little instrument. I know everyone’s gaga for the ukulele, but I tell ya…

I learned more viscerally that bass and tenor viola da gamba are powerful, communicative instruments. The treble? It still makes my ears twitch like an adorable terrier hearing above our range.

I had affirmed – once again – that music and movement, creativity and goodwill can transcend all language and cultural barriers.

I understood the profound human capacity for better communication, better conflict resolution, more fluid ways of being and wider ways of thinking.

I learned that the recorder sounds pretty damn good when not in the hands of a 3rd grader.

I learned that a cheese grater and a knife make a mean percussion instrument in the hands of a Cuban.

I realized that no matter how green the Yuma or how little traveled, how poorly they speak Spanish or how deeply-seeded the disinformation about Cuba, with an open mind and open heart, Cubans will touch both, ignite both, profoundly.

???????????????????????????????

And I was taught, once again, that the support and love of one’s community (however defined), is priceless and irreplaceable.

5 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

How to Cope Like A Cuban

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]I’ve got a friend – I’ll call her Lucia. Life has been a bitch for Lucia in that special Cuban kind of way with family torn asunder by bi-lateralpolar politics; dramatic affairs of the heart and all the ardor and betrayal that implies; and the exhaustion inherent in raising three kids – the oldest two during those hard, indelible times known as the Periodo Especial, when stomachs growled and cramped with hunger and entire days were spent in blackout. The Special Period was also when mobs of people cast their fate to the wind, water, and sharks on slap-dash rafts with a 50/50 chance of making it across the Straits.

Many of those poor souls failed in their attempt to escape, dying outright en route or otherwise kept from stumbling into the open arms of Uncle Sam (see note 1). With a forced smile exemplifying the Cuban dicho ‘mal tiempo, buena cara,’ Lucia waved goodbye to friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances as they emigrated north. Due to circumstances financial and otherwise, many of Lucia’s people – including her only sister and two childhood friends – can’t return to visit Cuba. Like so many people I know, Lucia dreams of sharing a Cristal wet with sweat in the honeyed Havana light with her loved ones.

Paddling away on a raft or zipping off in a lancha (regular weekly departures for $10,000 a head) is the most dramatic and dangerous means of escape, but there are others: marrying a foreigner is perennially popular, as is the slower (but somehow less tedious) application for the bombo (see note 2); securing a Spanish passport if your family descends from those parts; or quedándose on a trip abroad. That is: going overseas for work or as a tourist (yes, some Cubans do travel for shopping pleasure) and neglecting to get on the plane back. To give you an idea of how profoundly the emigration question touches Cubans, consider ‘La Visa,’ the latest schoolyard game whereby a ball is thrown in the air and a country shouted out – Yuma! Mexico! España! The kid who catches the ball ‘gets’ the corresponding visa.

But contrary to what the world has been led to believe, there are more Cubans who don’t want to leave than do. Like Lucia. Like my husband and his family. Like many of my co-workers. But just because they aren’t scheming their great escape doesn’t mean they don’t feel trapped now and again. Hemmed in by water, but also bureaucracy, Third World economics, politics and other factors quite beyond one’s control – who wouldn’t be? It’s trying at times and requires figurative escapes – coping mechanisms to mollify the madness and loosen the psychological pretzel island living engenders.

In no particular order:

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll: The Cuban penchant (and talent) for sex is legendary and sexual freedom in the form of multiple partners and the pursuit and conquest of same is part and parcel of our daily landscape. Not only is hooking up freeing in the personal sovereignty sense in that it affirms (however hollowly), one’s individual choice and control, but it’s also free entertainment. The flirting and dancing and piropos (pick up lines and compliments) and foreplay help keep boredom (however temporarily) at bay and serve as an escape from all those factors beyond our control.

Drugs – illicit or not – serve the same purpose and despite Granma’s assertion that drogas aren’t a health problem here, 10 years of living in Havana paints a different picture. I know more than a handful of hardcore drunks for example, and prescription pills are in such high demand family doctors have been trained how to handle patients angling for scripts. Marijuana and cocaine can be had at no small risk and price (see note 3) and I’ve heard about Cuban acid trips and X adventures. Rock ‘n roll (coupled with rolls in the hay) is my personal drug of choice and in this, I’m largely up shit’s creek here since Cuba has crappy rock, though regular gigs by accomplished cover bands like Los Kents provide certain succor.

The Novela: Soap operas are addicting, which you well know if you’ve spent any amount of time in Cuba, where ‘round about nine o’clock the city quietly retreats inside to catch the next installment. Brazilian, Argentine, Cuban – it doesn’t matter the origin, as long as the cast is beautiful, the food abundant and the tragedia delicious. These fantasy worlds provide needed escape for islanders of all stripes, from housewives to priests, cowboys to convicts. On December 31st, a hallowed night spent with family here, the clan licked pork fat from their fingers and waited to pop the cider that stands in for champagne here when all the women mysteriously melted away. ‘La novela,’ someone said when I asked after them. Even Fidel has interrupted one of his televised speeches to assure viewers he wouldn’t run over into the soap opera. If you think I’m kidding about soaps as serious escape, consider that two TV households aren’t uncommon here: one for those who want to watch the novela, another for watching pelota. Homes with just one set become divided and bicker-ridden when the soaps and baseball are simulcast.

DVDs: Even before the explosion of private entrepreneurs selling pirated DVDs descended upon us, Cubans habitually rented and copied movies (or entire seasons of their favorite soap), on VHS and now on DVD and in digital formats. Last week as I looked to buy a 5 movie combo from my neighborhood pirate, the saleswoman nodded knowingly when I told her I was looking for something to ‘desconectarme,’ to ‘saca el plug.’ Whether at home or in the theater, cinematic escape is familiar to all Cubans and the saleswoman had no trouble plucking a DVD from the rack with Moneyball, New Year’s Eve, and three other recent releases.

Sports: Technically (and for all the old timers), baseball may be the national sport, but football/soccer is making a play for the title. Every day in the park near my house, local kids field two full teams and kick up the dirt in bare feet as they drive towards the goal. When Barça or Real Madrid play, the bars are packed with fans wearing their colors who unleash a fury once reserved for the Industriales baseball club and national volleyball team. I’m not surprised that booting a little black and white ball about for millions of dollars while having all the super models, fast cars, and sprawling properties your heart desires is the escape-cum-dream package for so many Cubans.

And that’s what it’s all about, friends: the dream. Not the American one or the European one. Nor the dream of fame and fortune those places symbolize (but rarely actualize) for so many from points south. Just the dream, in and of itself regardless of time, space or place. This is what’s essential. We all have them. We all have the right to them. I encourage everyone, everywhere to embrace, as I have, my mom’s sage advice: ‘live your dreams.’ No matter what they are or where they may take you.

In the words of Blondie: “I’ll build a road in gold just to have some dreaming. Dreaming is free.”

Notes

1. The USA has an extra special immigration policy for Cubans known as ‘wet foot/dry foot’ whereby any Cubano who is able to touch toe to hallowed US ground is granted automatic residency in the Land o’ the Free. This ‘advance to Go, collect $200’ dangled before Cubans (and only Cubans) means would-be immigrants from this island are even more reckless than their nothing-left-to-lose brethren from other latitudes, risking life and limb to reach the USA. Again and again, it has proven fatal (Elián González ring a bell?).

2. Other extra special Cuban immigration rules coming from the USA include this emigration visa, 20,000 of which are pledged under current accords (Obama re-instated this old policy suspended by Bush Hijo).

3. I strongly advise everyone reading this against trying to procure illicit drugs here; see Locked Up Abroad.

20 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Why are Cubans so Damn Good?!

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

December is always an interesting time in Havana – cool in temperature and temperament, but also cruel in many ways. Hurricane season has officially ended, so this is when we breathe easier (if Mother Nature has been benevolent) or tighten our belts one notch further (if she hasn’t). Christmas and New Year’s are bearing down, which means feasts of pork and yucca and the season’s first lettuce; dancing to Van Van in the Protestódromo (see note 1); and having a few days of well-deserved rest.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, certainly, but ‘tis also the season to be on your guard: there are few guarantees in Cuba, but a spike in robberies leading up to Christmas when the desire to provide gifts, food, and drink for the family trumps ethics and the law is one of them (a dramatic increase in water- and food-borne infections during the hot summer months is another).

Nevertheless, the prospect of being jacked is nothing compared to the heartache and nostalgia that afflict family and friends whose most ardent desire is to be in Cuba during fin de año – trust me, I know. The food and mood is superlative, of course, as is the camaraderie, but December in these parts is also Festival Time.

The Havana Film Festival is now well underway, and hot on its heels is the Jazz Festival, which showcases some of the world’s top jazz musicians in intimate (and cheap!) venues. This isn’t Cannes or Hollywood, Montreux or Manhattan: here the stars are in the seats and streets and whole days and nights are consumed hopping from theater to conference to club, followed by stellar after parties and sizzling jam sessions.

The depth and breadth of Cuban artistic output is (dare I say it?) unsurpassed by any other country its size and many much bigger (sorry my Commonwealth friends, but Australia and to a lesser degree, Canada, come to mind). With so many amazingly talented Cubans strutting their stuff these festival-filled days, I’ve begun to think seriously about Cuban culture and talent.

In short, is this surfeit of greatness thanks to Nature or Nurture?

O sea: is it 50 years of free education (including in all the arts) and the abundance of dirt cheap and even free cultural offerings that have nurtured such success? That’s part of it surely, but doesn’t explain all the Cuban cultural phenoms who predate the Revolution (Desi Arnaz notwithstanding) like Bola de Nieve, Ernesto Lecuona, and Benny Moré.

Maybe it’s in the genes then? This nature theory would explain a lot, like the prevalence of both dynastic families and cultural autodidacts, of which Cuba, as a country of only 11 million, has a disproportionate amount.

My first glimpse of this was provided by my friend, singer-songwriter Santiago Felíu. A high school dropout with a well of the maniacal genius bubbling deep within him, Santí taught himself to play guitar (better than any of his contemporaries mind you), as well as piano. If you know anything about Cuban music, the name Felíu will ring a bell: his older brother Vicente was a co-founder of the Nueva Trova musical movement and Vicente’s daughter, Aurora de los Andes, is a formidable singer and actress in her own right.

Not surprisingly, it was the Family Felíu that first aroused my interest in Cuba’s cultural autodidacts and dynasties. Like a spouse who suspects infidelity, once I started paying attention, I saw the connections everywhere – not just in music, but also theater, dance, art and of course, politics.

______

In honor of the Film Festival, I’ll start with the ‘7th Art.’ If you haven’t yet heard of Habanastation, you will: it’s an Oscar contender and was a blockbuster hit when it opened in Cuba this past July, captivating audiences with its dissection of class divisions in Havana and their effect on values. It was made by filmmaker Ian Padrón, son of Juan Padrón, creator of both Elpidio Valdés and the classic Vampiros en la Habana movies, both of which remain staples in the island’s canon. A young, budding dynasty, perhaps, but an impressive start nonetheless.

The Crematas, meanwhile, are another dynastic artistic family, with brothers Carlos Alberto and Juan Carlos making their marks as director of the Colmenita and director of films respectively.  

In dance, the Carreño tribe leaps to mind: Jose Manuel, Yoel, and Alihaydee, continue to nurture their legacy as some of the most accomplished ballet dancers around, as evidenced by their principal status in top companies. If you can make it in the American Ballet Theater and the Royal Ballet,you can make it anywhere, right? In theater, the Revueltas (Vicente, Raquel) are renowned for their work on stages near and far.

But nowhere is the dynasty dynamic as tangible as it is in music. The Familia Romeu (orchestral director Antonio María, pianist Armando, and Camerata Romeu director, Zenaida) is a good example, as are the López-Nussas – Ernán and Harold on piano, Ruy and son Ruy on drums – and the López-Gavilán Clan (Aldo plays piano, his father Guido is a classical composer and conductor, mother Teresita Junco was also a composer and brother Ilmar is a violinist). I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the Alfonsos here: father Carlos and mother Eve Valdes founded the group Síntesis over 35 years ago (think the Partridge Family funkified), in which their musical children Eme (M) and Equis (X) cut their teeth, both of whom have healthy solo careers today (see note 2).

Controversial as he is of late, mention must be made of trova great Pablo Milanés, who also heads up a musical dynasty, with three daughters – Lynne, Haydée, and Suylen – nurturing successful singing careers of their own. Even Silvio Rodríguez, world famous and (almost) universally revered, is the head of a dynasty of sort: his son ‘Sivito El Libre’ is part of the highly polemic rap group Los Aldeanos. Salsa is another genre where families shine, as epitomized by Los Van Van founder Juan Formell and his drummer son Samuel.

 Apart from the dynasties, autodidacts also swell the ranks of Cuba’s über talented. In art, Yanluis Bergareche is an exciting emerging artist who is entirely self-taught. Is it not simply astounding that a young man could teach himself to paint canvasses such as these? In addition to the aforementioned Santiago Felíu and inimitable El Benny, self-taught musicians include up-and-coming rapper/chanteuse Danay Suárez and the blind tres player Arsenio Rodríguez – one of my all-time favorites.

 With artistic giants such as these, the ascendancy of regguetón – defined by simplistic rhythms and misogynistic vulgarity (see note 3) – is doubly shameful. Moreover, it obviously disproves the powers of both Nature and Nurture.

 Do you have a favorite Cuban autodidact or dynasty? Let me know!

  Notes

 1. Each New Year’s, the ‘Rolling Stones of Cuba’ play a free concert in the parade grounds directly in front of the US Interests Section (the pseudo embassy here). Inaugurated to protest the sequestration of Elián González in Miami, this space is officially named the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, but is known as the Protestódromo in local lingo.

 2. X Alfonso is one of the most innovative musicians in Cuba today and works with artists and musicians in many diverse genres; try to catch a concert when you’re here.

 3. In one recent regguetón-related fracas, Osmany Garcia’s “song” Chupi Chupi was taken to task in the national media for its disgusting, degrading lyrics telling a woman to “come suck my cock, you know you’ll like it; open your little mouth and swallow it sweetheart.”

14 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Living Abroad

Let Me Count the Ways…

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
Ay Cuba.

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.

Notes
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.

20 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Relationships, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized