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Habana Brats

Okay, people. I know I (semi) committed to writing about Cubans’ belligerent resistance to healthy/sane/considerate cologne application. If you haven’t been to Havana, trust me when I tell you the problem is generalized, acute, and worsening. When you can taste the chemicals wafting off a shaved metrosexual half a block away and instead of his taut ass in tight jeans all you see is that icon of stink Pepé Le Pew, you know the issue is serious.

But that’s going to have to wait because there’s another little drama happening over here which has my panties in a twist – I’m talking my underthings are in a massive, up-the-crack bunch thanks to what I call Habana Brats.

These cubanitos are chapping my ass. I need to write about them. It will help me move on. Hopefully. The stinky Cuban diatribe will have to wait.

They’ve always existed, these better-off, entitled, vacuous kids (e.g., certain military/political offspring who rolled up at high school during the Special Period in their own Ladas), but the phenomenon is spreading like an outbreak of VD in a freshman dorm around here lately.

First of all, these kids are clueless, which is annoying enough (see note 1). They don’t know what it means to pay an electricity bill – much less what’s involved when there’s no money to pay said bill. Nor do they know the exhaustion that comes from working a double, (let alone a triple), shift. They don’t know how to food shop or menu plan, some don’t even know how to make a pot of rice. They’ll need these life skills. Most of them anyway – the really rich ones will just hire help to do their grunt work and trust me, you don’t want me to start ranting about that. At the very least, knowing how to manage money, cook, and perform other mundane, but necessary, tasks of adulthood will make them more attractive mates. I pity them. As mom always says: ‘pity: it’s the basest coin in the realm.’

This new generation is a whole lot of hedonism, which is fun, to be sure, but unproductive – both for them as individuals and society as a whole. Unproductive and detrimental. I repeat: for them personally and us as a collective. They spend their days walking their pure-bred dogs, primping at private salons, and shopping (not for the evening meal, obviously). Nights are dedicated to bar hopping from one wannabe “lounge” to another, spending two weeks’ of a teacher’s salary on cheesy cocktails like Blue Hawaiians and Appletinis. I feel like telling them to grow a pair and graduate to vodka on the rocks (see note 2). They get giddy smoking cherry-flavored tobacco from hookahs (Havana’s new fad) and pursuing deep (insert ironic cough) conversations about where to buy designer clothes and pirated iapps (including mine).

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I don’t know where they get the money to pursue this lifestyle, but young friends of mine (the thinking kind, thank you), posit that it probably comes from their parents +/o Miami. So shame on them too for enabling their brats. I’m sure these kids are the envy of their peers – equally worrisome if you ask me.

Returning to the point about this generation being vacuous: in my (thankfully) passing experience with this class of kid, the most demanding thought to skip across their minds is what to wear to the Ernesto Blanco concert or the superior photographic capabilities of the iPhone 4s (the iPhone 5 has yet to be seen in the hands of a Cuban in these parts). You may not find this problematic, but if you don’t find it boring, you’re probably one of them.

But what really rankles, the trend that makes me want to grab these brats and shake them like a chequere, is how they talk, loudly, obnoxiously, about their first-world problems (i.e. bullshit), throughout an entire set of music. Cuban musicians are globally-renowned for a reason: They are fuck-all talented and are products of a long tradition of formal musical education (and informal: Benny Moré was an autodidact, as was Arsenio Rodriguez). Many are prodigies and/or award winners – Montreaux, Grammys. We’re talking giants of music. Moreover, they’re playing their hearts out for peanuts. And these little ingrates are chattering away ad nauseam, drowning out greatness with their banal drone.

I first noticed it during a double set at the Café Miramar by Aldo López-Gávilan – one of the country’s most talented young pianists. An intimate club with good audio (see note 3), this is one of the popular spots on the new Miramar bar circuit favored by these nouveau rich kids. As Aldito and his conjunto ripped through one tune after another, these chamas couldn’t be bothered to listen. I actually had to move right alongside the piano to be able to hear the music over their din.

Aldito en el Cafe Miramar

Disgraceful and disrespectful a la vez.

The same thing happened at a packed Casa de las Americas gig recently. The concert, billed as Drums La Habana, was particularly unique in that it showcased Cuba’s most accomplished young drummers – Oliver Valdés and Rodney Barreto. To call these guys talented is like calling an anorexic lithe. These two are monstruos as we say here, producing percussive feats that your mind, eyes, and ears are hard-pressed to process.

The concert was unbelievable – the musicians were in the zone, Cheshire Cat grins plastered across their faces as they pounded their kits and poured their hearts out. Unfortunately, this virtuosity was accompanied by a low, constant thrum emanating from the back of the historic Che Guevara auditorium. I’m pretty sure I saw sax player Carlos Miyares grimace in their general direction at one point and I wonder how many artists are bothered by these bad manners and lack of listening skills? People around town have criticized Santiago Feliú for walking off stage recently two tunes into a set because he couldn’t be heard over the chatter. For those who don’t get it: have you ever performed live for an audience who thought their conversation was more important than the music you were making? It’s degrading. Creating art in front of a live audience is a brave act. Cubans used to respect that. Many still do, but they tend to be over 40.

I know a lot of what I’ve written here applies to youth the world over. But Cubans have distinguished themselves by being different. And this is getting lost and eroded little by little, day by day. Sometimes I wish all these kids would just emigrate and join their homogenized, opiated tribe up there and leave the island to those who are still interested in forging new paths, exploring frontiers, and listening, quietly, with appreciation, to some of the world’s best music.

Notes
1. If you’re new here, let me repeat: what I write at Here is Havana does not apply to all Cubans. I’m not implicating an entire pueblo, of this I’m very conscious, so save your comment for some other blinder-wearing blog. On a related note: although I’ve been based here since 2002, there’s a reason this blog is called Here is Havana: what I write applies only to what I know, that is to say, only to the capital. I really have no idea what happens in the provinces.

2. A new Russian bar, Tovarishch, is about to open up on Calle 20 and 5ta. I hope the bartender laughs openly at every kid who orders any pastel-colored or fruity vodka drink. I know that sounds mean, but I’ve had one too many run-ins lately with the annoying chamas. I promise to return to my upbeat self as soon as you arrive at the end of this sentence. OK, I lied. These kids have bad taste, to boot. 

3. Except behind the two wide pillars in the middle of the room; come early for a table with clean sight lines and clear sound.

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

Conner’s Cuba Rules Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] About six months ago I wrote Conner’s Cuba Rules, a super popular post that raised the ire of some readers. Rereading my musings six months later, I better understand some of the dissent offered by commenters. Given that much has changed here in Havana since then and I’ve had several opportunities to travel outside of the capital thanks to my day job, I’ve compiled a new, hopefully more positive, set of rules to complement the first ones.

The Revolution will be televised: I’ve met a lot of visitors (and even some foreign residents) who have never seen Televisión Cubana. Granted, there are only five channels here, but you’re missing out on a big chunk of Cuban culture if you don’t surf those five at least occassionally. For the intersection of politics and journalism, check out the Mesa Redonda (see note 1) and the prime time news. The latter is important in and of itself for the weather report; pay special attention if Dr José Rubiera is forecasting. Meanwhile, a good baseball game can rivet entire households, the novela even more so. Only if you watch TV here will you understand what Cubans mean when they say: “it was like the Saturday night movie” (see note 2). Meanwhile, the music shown down here – videos, documentaries, concerts and jam sessions – can be as moving as the live thing. I’ve seen Chucho Valdés, Clapton and Queen, the Festival of Modern Drumming and some guy from Uzbekistan singing Talk Boom, a riveting song I’m still trying to track down – all in a single night on Televisión Cubana. Watch it; you’ll like it (or at least get a good laugh or song lead).

Pack a sense of humor: It always amazes me when I read something that disregards, overlooks, or otherwise fails to recognize the Cuban sense of humor, which ranges from the side splitting to the sublime. The writer can be someone who knows and loves Cuba long time or a visitor who has parachuted in and out on vacation. No matter the source, the frequency with which folks miss the funny stuff here is alarming. It’s true, a lot depends on speaking Spanish (or a crackerjack translator), but however you resolve the language question, if you’re comparing Cuba to China, Vietnam, or the defunct USSR, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients in the Cuban character. These folks love to share stories, jokes, and the occassional tall tale, and use their verbal prowess to enliven, laugh, and woo; it is what has enabled these people to resist so much for so long. Even without Spanish skills or a translator, if you’re not laughing a lot on a visit here, you’re doing something wrong in my personal and professional opinion (see note 3).

Use pesos cubanos: If you know even a little about Cuba, you know we operate on a dual currency system with pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles circulating side by side. Since one of my goals of Here is Havana is to bust myths, I always take the opportunity to debunk one of the most pervasive: that foreigners cannot use pesos cubanos (AKA Moneda Nacional, MN), but only pesos convertibles (AKA divisa, chavitos, CUC). This is 100% false. Anyone can use either currency. It’s what each can buy where the difference lies. Certain goods and services, for example, are only available in CUC including cooking oil and butter, hotel rooms and the internet. But fruits and veggies, surprisingly pleasant cigars, fixed route taxis, movie tickets and lots of other stuff are sold in pesos cubanos – if you know where to look. My advice? Change some CUCs into MN (1:24) to experience firsthand how much pesos cubanos can buy and how the double economy works.

So as to avoid confusion +/o more myths: you can always pay for goods and services priced in pesos cubanos with hard currency pesos convertibles but never the other way around. And some services (interprovincial buses, concert and ballet tickets) are sold in pesos cubanos to Cubans and residents, but in hard currency to visitors.

Bring your own reading material: Rarely a week goes by when someone isn’t griping to me about the lack of English-language books and magazines here. What is available is largely limited to historical and political titles and they are very expensive (and make for dull beach reading besides). The Kindle can be handy in this regard, but the bonus to bringing print publications is that you can pass them along to some avid English reader (like me!) upon departure. Drop me a line if you have some good (ie no romance novels or sci fi pulp) English-language reading material to donate to the cause.

Hightail it out of Havana: This may seem contradictory, given that I have an iApp to the city and I recommend in my guidebooks and elsewhere that visitors consider basing their entire trip in Havana. But things are changing fast here and though I’m a city girl by birth and breeding, I’m back peddling a bit on that advice. Havana, with its dirt, garbage, and graft, noise and air pollution, and materialistic ways (I did call Habaneros ‘logo whores’ after all) is distorting Cuba’s image. In short, Havana is not Cuba, which can be said of every major city around the world from New York to Manila, Managua to Dakar. But since visitors often request recommendations for “authentic” experiences and how to discover the “real” Cuba, I now find it prudent to advise getting out of Havana and exploring farther afield. With more flights, both charter and commercial, to provincial capitals like Holguín, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba, this is also a more practical proposition than ever.

Above all, have fun and keep your head about you!

Notes

1. The Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a nightly “debate” show which discusses a topic (US aggression overseas; Latin American intregration) on which all four guests and the modeator agree.There are many jokes in these parts about the program; the shortest and sweetest calls it the Mesa Cuadrada, meaning ‘Square Table’ in literal Spanish, but meaning something more along the lines of ‘Dogmatic Table’ in Cuban.

2. The Saturday night movie here is prefaced by a parental warning, the most common of which alerts viewers that the Hollywood action shlock about to be shown contains Nudity, Violence, & Foul Language. To wit: the old, slow, over-crowded camello buses (of which I took many), were always called ‘the Saturday night movie.’ [NB: did it annoy you to have to scroll down to read this note? Yeah, me too, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to hyperlink notes within posts; if someone has a solution, please get in touch].

3. Trying to connect to and use the internet excepted. Even casual visitors know that connectivity is no laughing matter here. Indeed, I flirted with the ledge and sharp knives today as I frittered away several hours trying to connect. Once I “succeeded,” it topped out at 9.6kbps – not nearly fast enough to load even a simple web page before timing out.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba

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.

POSTSCRIPT

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.

Notes

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.

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