National Heroes

Reflecting on something we’d just seen on Cuban tv the other night about Jose Marti, my husband turned to me and asked who Canada’s national hero was. He caught me off guard, and I asked him if it was obligatory (like national flowers, or birds) that every nation even have a single designated national hero. He paused and said he guessed not, but that he just figured that, like Cuba, we had one. Since we don’t have the luxury of instant Google answers to all of life’s most perplexing questions from home in Havana, I logged into the Kiwix (offline Wikipedia) app on my cell phone. It’s in Spanish, so when I looked up “heroe”, part of the definition suggested that a hero’s qualities or features might include having lived in exile or been a martyr, among other things. Hmm, that didn’t really sound too Canadian to me. Not finding anything whatsoever about Canadian national heroes in my phone app (and suspecting maybe it was because I don’t have the á symbol on my cell phone to even properly spell Canadá en español), I told him I really didn’t know. Canada’s a relatively young country, unlike Cuba (unless, of course, you divide Cuba’s existence into colonial pre-Revolution and independent post-1959 Revolutionary terms, I suppose). I explained that we have the Order of Canada, which distinguishes citizens for their positive contributions to society in different spheres. “Established in 1967 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Order of Canada is the cornerstone of the Canadian Honours System, and recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.” But I highly doubted that any Order of Canada recipients had been singled out with “National Hero” status, such as Jose Marti has been in Cuba. As it turns out, The Order of Canada, established on the 100th anniversary of Canada’s creation, does indeed represent the highest level of distinction in our National Honors system. It can (God forbid) even be revoked, as has been the case just 7 times since its institution. When I told him our first Prime Minister was a bit of a drunk, that got the biggest laugh of the night.

I thought of people like Terry Fox, then flashed back to elementary school history classes with Mr. McAleer and historic figures like Louis Riel or Nellie McClung. Could they be the people Abel was asking me about? Pierre Trudeau was one of our most popular Primer Ministers for a long time. We have environmentalists like David Suzuki, the astronaut Chris Hatfield, Rick Hansen who championed causes for the disabled, there was Lester B. Pearson, cultural icons like Stompin’ Tom Conners, Margaret Atwood, Buffy Saint Marie, Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion or Gordon Lightfoot. Canadian comedians John Candy and Jim Carrey certainly achieved great international status in their careers. And who can forget Bob & Doug MacKenzie (just kidding). We have Wayne Gretzky, and he would have come high on the list for many of my contemporaries, exemplary in his sportsmanship. Nowadays there’s even Mike Holmes, a champion of consumer advocacy and proponent of quality workmanship in construction, a hero of the common Canadian laborer and consumer. There are many Canadians that my fellow compatriots can feel proud to count among our country’s distinguished citizens, even if not all even have obtained the Order of Canada to recognize them as such.

I suppose my Cuban husband was asking me about Canada’s national hero because presumably that should be someone who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, and noble qualities; and is someone who has made significant positive contributions to society’s development and growth, and represents the nation. He was looking to see what we as Canadians hold as our greatest values, compared to Cuba. To know our heroes is to know our collective values, history, and what makes our country great. Acknowledging our nation’s heroes is equivalent to the national identity – its history, heritage, and culture. So viva national heroes, be they just one or a multitude of diverse people who rise up, make us proud of our countries and inspire us to be better world citizens.

Wrapping up my musings for today, here’s a little Bob ‘n Doug-style Canadian humor for you based on current events, and shared from @MeanwhileinCanada1:
“Dear Neighbours,
We have kidnapped your bird. He’ll be safely returned to you on impeachment day. We believe this is in everyone’s best interest.
With love, Canada”


The Black Box

Cuba has been making advances over the past few years with free public access to digital television. I recall several years ago now when they first began selling the digital tv decoders in Cuban stores, swarms of locals rushed to the local TRD (Tiendas de Recaudacion de Divisa, where they charge in CUC for all merchandise) to get theirs before the stock ran out. I can’t blame them. With no legal cable television for the population, the local options are limited. Sure, there are still illegal shared satellite connections around and there’s the bootlegged “paquete” with all kinds of weekly digital entertainment for a fraction of what it costs Netflix users. But for $44.95 if there’s an option out there to get access to local/international news, movies, soap operas, and a host of other locally-offered programming for no monthly fee, with the option to pause it and view it in (hold your breath) High Definition, why wouldn’t you jump on that bandwagon?
We have always had pretty bad reception on 3 of the 4 channels we received at home, despite trying a multitude of different antennas and positions. Having largely turned into workaholics of late, only being able to watch Buenos Dias (the morning news magazine) and Multivision for an hour’s worth of entertainment after work was not really a big issue for us. But friends & family kept planting the bug in our ear about the improved reception and features of the digital decoder box so we figured that after several years on that market, what the heck. While running errands a couple of Saturdays ago we decided to drop in to the mini shopping center at 5ta & 42 in Havana. Lo and behold, they had the cajitas in stock; several other places we’d asked over the previous weeks didn’t. But there was a lineup. And no air conditioning. In August. My husband & I looked at each other and shrugged. Both of us know the rule: if it’s in stock and not astronomically priced and you need it, buy it and don’t wait until later. You never know if they will be in stock when you return. Alright, might as well do it, we’re committing to the lineup. ?El ultimo? we asked. ?Y detras de quien vas? Because you don’t want to get caught screwing up the lineup. And then we settled in for a long wait. The lineup itself was my entertainment so you get to hear about it (as it’s much more exciting than work these days).

Being workaholics and living in Cuba where there’s always something we need/can’t find, we took turns holding our place in the lineup while the other would check out the adjacent mini supermarket, hardware store, or housewares to see if we could cross anything else off our list and make the best use of our time. They guy who marked his place behind us struck up a conversation with me, asking if the box had HD capability. I told him yes, but in order to view television in high definition you first have to have a high definition television, and then the programming has to be recorded in high definition. If all those requisites are met, then in my experience watching tv in high definition compared to what we’ve had until now is a huge difference. You can see every flaw and detail in an actor’s complexion if your screen is big enough. He wasn’t sure if his mother in law (who he was buying the box for) had an HD tv, but there was no way he was leaving the line. Another dude came into the store who had a lot of information to share about the decoders. He targeted the same guy in the line behind me and started telling him the white box was better than the black box, and all kinds of other information before I realized he was a re-seller trying to recruit customers. My husband returned and I told him if somebody tried to do that in Canada they’d be escorted off the premises. In Cuba, most of the people (and the guy behind me who had also caught on by then) just tried to ignore him. He lost any potential fish he might have had the hook for his unit, but he told everyone in the line (in a typically loud Cuban voice) that he was an electronico, an electronics specialist, and his box was the best box, why were they wasting all that time in the lineup, blah blah blah. So then, still having no bites, he left. People wait in the lineup because they get the store guarantee (which is a heck of a lot more complicated than an exchange at Walmart, I can tell you that, but it’s something).

More people came into the store. “El ultimo?” they asked, marking their place in line, and then “Pa’ que es la cola?” because if there’s a line there must be something worth buying, right? In walks a pretty young Cuban woman and she approaches me asking what the line’s for. Well, it’s either the automatic washing machines or the decoder. That’s what people are after today. She asks if they’re on sale. No, $44.95 is the regular price. “What are all the reduced price tickets for?” she asks. “Merma”, I answered. Stock that’s either broken or so freaking out of date that the Cuban retailers have to reduce the price to see if they can move it off their shelves. She’s looking for a rice cooker though. So, being a foxy Cuban, she approaches one of the male store attendants who looks her up from head to toe (front & back) and tells her she doesn’t need to wait in the line for that, go see the third counter attendant (by that time lunch was over, so all 3 were back behind the counter). She waited about 10 minutes while he was attending to another customer, only to be told when it was her “turn” that the rice cookers were defective. Merma. See? I told you so, but nobody wants to believe the blue eyed, blonde haired foreigner as you figure she doesn’t know what a CDR or a libreta is, right?!

My husband is back with something from the hardware store and we’ve moved up considerably in the lineup. The couple in front of us is pointing to a dvd player in the merma section and the store attendant kindly tells them that although it’s his job to sell merchandise, he wouldn’t recommend investing their hard-earned money into a technology that’s outdated and probably won’t even read all the codecs that are out there nowadays. Being from Remanga la Tuerca (Cuban for Timbuctu), they insisted they needed a DVD. The poor souls, I thought, they probably don’t realize that if you get the paquete on a flash drive you can just watch that on the (cheaper) decoder. But let the salesperson do his job, it’s not the customer’s job to interfere. Not being able to convince them otherwise, he finally told them that if they had to have a DVD, to go to La Puntilla (another department store) where they had more modern versions available that might read more codecs than the model at 5ta & 42. So off they went, having waited 1.5 hours in the rotten lineup instead of first asking the question. Finally, it was our turn and I told my husband I was buying 4 units. “4 UNITS?!?!” he retorted. “You’re darned right, 4 units”. If we have 4 tv’s and I’ve waited this long you can be sure that I’m not doing this again. I smiled at the clerk and told him 4 units, 2 people buying them, and he had to agree to that, so the paperwork began. They have 3 clerks working just on the task of selling the boxes as one person takes it out of the box to get all the serial #s and plug it in to a power source to prove it’s working before you take it from the store. Another accepts your money. And a third fills out the store guarantee along with your identity card so if it blows up before the 3 months expire, at least you might have a chance of getting it fixed or replaced. This is not the Walmart mentality, remember, where time is money. As we’re working on that, another couple walks into the store and the woman is excited that there are decoders in stock. But it seems to me that her husband a) doesn’t want to wait in the line or b) spend the money on the box because he’s poo-pooing everything she says. Oh yeah? But they’re the black box and everyone knows the WHITE one is the best. The store clerk says, no, these Konka ones are actually the latest technology. They’re the same as the white ones, just a different color. Oh yeah? But it doesn’t have Alta Definicion he tells his wife. She asks me, “Tiene alta definicion?”. Mmm, hmmm. See the HDMI cable? Her husband retorts: “Sure, but does it have HDMI 1 and 2?” I didn’t bother answering that as by that time I was onto his game. He wasn’t buying it, wasn’t doing the lineup, either that or he was just a complete imbecile and that’s OK too.

On our way home I was telling my husband a few stories about the line and he told me that in Cuba people don’t know that HD = Alta Definition because it’s an English term. Yeah, I know. I should be more understanding right? Sometimes these macho men can be a little infuriating. And I know too that many have never experienced high definition tv or movies before, heck I’ve only seen it while visiting family & friends in Canada. But it is pretty amazing. So back at home once we got everything put away, the dog fed, and supper heated I was stoked to connect up our box and see if this little black box was going to really make a difference in our Saturday night movie viewing pleasure. But my husband wanted to eat first. So I plugged in everything except the HDMI cable. I didn’t see a plug for that on the side of the tv (which, as in most Cuban households, is placed not at eye level while you’re sitting, but higher up on the wall). Momentarily confused and recalling something about having previously hooked up my laptop to the tv with a monitor cable, I asked my husband if our tv had HD. “CLARO” he retorted, as if I were born yesterday. So I patiently waited for him to finish his dinner and then (being taller than me) he deftly hooked the HDMI cable up to the back of the tv. He sits down on the bed and takes possession of the 2 remote controls and then pauses for a moment to say, “But what I don’t remember is if this tv has High Definition”. OMG!!!!!! After our conversation in the car, I couldn’t believe he actually said that. I’m not sure if he was pulling my leg, or if he really did clue out for a second. But the little thing works like a charm. We now even get Cubavision International. Radio Stations. Can pause/record our tv programs and everything. Pretty luxe compared to 1 clear channel and 3 fuzzy ones.

So what are we watching? The latest and most talked-about show on Cuban tv this season is a Cuban singing talent show called Sonando en Cuba. They have 3 judges who are giants on the Cuban salsa scene: Paulito FG, Haila and Mayito (formerly of los Van Van). There’s a great amount of talent on the show, but way too much talk. And for some reason I find it particularly annoying that a show that’s obviously conceived to promote Cuban culture has all of the contestants calling their mentors (the three aforementioned artists are each assigned different talents to train) their “Coach”. Like a knock-off version (and poor relative of) The Voice. Come ON already! And then I saw Haila on another show the other night where, after she admits she’s on a diet as he no longer boasts a svelte figure, she states that there are two things in life she loves: the kitchen and shoes. Haila is a self-proclaimed Cuban Diva who actually got a sign made for her car that said Diva. Who does that?! A friend who’s been on tour with another famous Cuban orchestra in Europe was once in the same hotel as her and told me a story about her shoe fetish. Always wanting to give her beloved public the impression that she’s wildly successful economically, she had been bragging in the hotel elevator about how much money she’d just spent on a pair of jeans. My friend, who earns a much more modest income as a musician touring with someone else’s orchestra (and possibly could make even more money being an impersonator or a comedian), says that he later spied her at a discount store not only shopping for shoes, but diving into the discount box after them. I’m not sure what’s more entertaining in the end, watching Cuban tv or listening to Cubans tell stories. I’m strongly inclined to say the latter, however.

Last weekend we had to drive my brother to Varadero for a flight. On the way back I asked my husband to stop at the TRD in Santa Cruz. Being a smaller town, they often have stock that other stores don’t. Are you guessing where I’m going with this? Yup, you’re right. 3 employees in the store. No customers. As we walked in the man was holding a newly-arrived black Konka box in his hand and all 3 workers were wondering about it. OMG!!! I just waited 1.5 hours in Havana last weekend to buy that very same unit!!! Apparently they’re bringing in 1000 units a time into 5ta & 42 from the warehouse, and they can’t keep them on the shelves. No kidding, they said. Is it any good? Marvellous. What a difference. That’s the way life goes here. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Summer Heat, Music & Tramites in Cuba: My Canadian Perspective

If I had my way, I’d spend the entire summer in my home province of Prince Edward Island, Canada. This Cuban heat is insufferable! But due to an unusual set of circumstances entirely beyond my control, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. So I usually limit myself to a month or a little more of life in the developed world every spring/early summer, surrounded by family and my oldest friends. This year’s highlights were booting around Charlottetown on a Toba electric bike (fun, fast, and affordable), hanging with and catching up with my oldest girlfriends (and especially my hula-hooping/kite-flying bff), Canada Day escapades on her daughters’ electric scooters that we “borrowed” including a perch at the Grand Holman penthouse suite to view the fireworks, and being invited into the delivery room to see my sister give birth to her second daughter. Not having procreated myself, my girlfriends all urged me to accept her invitation, conditional on my not planning on actually ever going through that experience myself. It was worth it, very amazing indeed. The lowlights were watching my parents age before my eyes while my siblings and I struggle with issues of how to manage the next stage of their lives while providing them with all the independence and dignity they deserve. That part makes me tear up a little just thinking about it, maybe because I don’t live or deal with their issues on a daily basis which, admittedly, can be frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in Cuba for so long that I’ve resolved that we should not resort to moving either of them into a care facility until the situation is unmanageable. But I almost went over the edge when my sister suggested a nursing home might be the best thing for my mother. My Cuban sister in law was the one that helped me deal with that blow, also agreeing that between all of us we’ll find a way to manage things for as long as we can. Between the four siblings and our families, and thanks in no small part to my sister, we’ve managed so far but two of us, including my brother and his family who live beside my father in PEI, spend the entire winter in Cuba. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to acquire a property facing our house here in Havana which we’ve been plugging away at turning into the “Old Folks Home” where we hope to be able to provide our elderly family members with a supervised place to stay close to their children, independent to a large extent, but with a support network nearby. That construction project and another one in Old Havana destined for a cooperative my husband has proposed, have been occupying a lot of our time and most of our personal resources over the last year. But more on those in a future post.

Being tied up financially and time-wise, we don’t have a lot going on in our social schedule these days. But we have managed to take in a few memorable activities nonetheless. One was a day trip to visit friends who rent a house with a pool every summer for their family mountain vacation in Soroa. When we got there our host took one look at me and told me “No te hagas la extranjera” (Don’t play the foreigner). Yes, it’s been that long that they even want to strip that away from me. We ended up having to go back a couple of days later with the trailer in tow to rescue a friend’s motorcycle that broke down on his return in La Moka. That ended up being a full-day adventure in itself with a broken wheel bearing in my husband’s car. Light on tools for once in his life, we ended up being incredibly fortunate when we pulled over close to some Pinareños who were prepared for just about anything. And who said that Pinareños were fools?! Several couples in 2 cars and an old truck had intended to spend the day at leisure in Las Terrazas but they arrived late and the visitor capacity was already full, so they just camped out roadside, opened up their cooler, turned up the music and fixed a spread of roast pork and tamales right out of the trunk of their ´57 Chev in the middle of nowhere. Luckily it was in the shade. The inner part of the bearing was stuck on the axle and after much tooling around and more than 2 hours, and several trips by myself and the other girl in our car to ask for one tool or another while my husband and his friend tried every experiment they could think of to loosen the inner part of the bearing, the Pinareño men finally wrenched themselves away from their girlfriends and hammered the old bearing to pieces so we could install the new one and get back on the road. Thank heavens for those resourceful Cubans. They had more tools in the back of their truck than most hardware stores stock in Cuba.

Since we live outside of town we don´t often take in evening cultural performances, but we have indulged a few times this summer. My favorite was visiting the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.) the night William Vivanco was playing. We arrived on a Saturday just before 8 pm when they open and checked out the various exhibitions of architecture, fashion, and visual art on 2 levels, snacked on octopus, and sipped iced tea while we chatted with friends on the upstairs deck. X Alfonso’s mom was even working helping to set up the upstairs bar when we arrived. She and her husband, from the Cuban group Synthesis, are probably considered among Cuba’s cultural royalty, but as with most Cuban personalities, they take all of that in stride. It’s funny how relatively respectful Cubans are of some of their best-known personalities compared to how celebrities outside of Cuba are often bombarded in public spaces. We stayed long enough to catch just a few songs by one of my favorite Cuban troubadors downstairs before we skipped out to get home at a decent hour. Although it’s open until 4 a.m., we left at around 11:30 and by then the lineup already extended around the corner. This is one fabulous space for adults of various ages.

Less culturally fulfilling for me, but perhaps more amusing in a sense was our first-ever visit to the Maxim Rock theater. A Cuban rock group associated with a motorcycle club my husband is in recently auditioned and were approved by the commission, and was making their professional debut. We sat with a photographer friend of ours who’s also in the club. While I love rock & roll, listening to most Cubans singing it with a Spanish accent and often bad pronunciation is just not my cup of tea. We are da champions my frens. You know. Our friends had (for the first time ever) invited another group to open for them. And the lead singer was actually pretty impressive. Not only because he didn’t massacre the lyrics for me, but because he was also a one-armed guitar player. I’ve never seen anything like that before. His left arm was amputated below the elbow and he had a strap-on pick to strum with. The female backup singers had decent voices, but their English pronunciation was driving me up the wall, so I headed out for a bathroom break before my shoulders adhered to my ears as I listened to them killing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”. The Cubans don’t know the difference and seemed to love it, so why ruin it for my husband. Grin & bear it. On the way back in I almost got whipped in the face by one of the dreadlock headbangers. His dreads reached his knees and he was swinging them around in a circle (too close to the door) as I awaited my chance to skip by him. I felt like I was on Frogger waiting for the right moment to step between the buses and cars before getting run over. It wasn’t even a heavy song. But Cuban rock & roll lovers are over the top when it comes to their preferred genre. I wanted to take a picture of all the long-haired people in front of the stage as their locks rose into the air along with the beat, but as soon as I stepped cautiously onto my plastic chair with my camera to get an elevated view, I was promptly extended a hand by the gracious security staff, caught breaking the no standing on the chairs rule. Darn! So I just kept ogling the costumes and funny dancers. Skinny jeans with an oversized belt buckle tucked into cowboy boots on a man. Just Don’t Do It. Guys overindulging in whisky dancing all by themselves like no one was watching in the middle of the room. Me thinking that this is a time warp, but even in the ‘80s when this music was popular people in Canada didn’t dress with that much leather, much less in the year 2014. And our dear photographer friend turned out to be a regular rock & roll encyclopedia. While in high school, I was the only girl in a rock band and at the time I thought those guys (all older than me) knew all kinds of rock history, but they pale in comparison to Jorge the Rock Dictionary. The bass player of a group I used to dabble with here once told me that since when he was growing up they didn’t play rock & roll on the radio in Cuba the only time they could listen to it would be on certain radio frequencies when weather would carry the transmissions from southern Florida to Cuba. As Jorge was rattling off facts to us about different musicians and groups, I was thinking to myself that being deprived of rock & roll at some point in their youth probably only served to fuel his passion. You always want what you don’t have. And I’m glad you’re sitting beside my husband, not me, because I’m trying to take in these videos I haven’t seen since the days of the Canadian show Video Hits.

How’s the weather this summer? Freaking hot. 30 degrees before the sun comes up practically. And when it rains, it pours. Some sections of town quickly flood due to clogged drains. I purchased a filter for collecting rainwater at our house for the garden (little Ms. Ecological me) but we still haven’t gotten around to finding the right materials to custom-build the gutters since no store here sells pre-fabricated gutters. But I am committed to completing that project before the next rainy season rolls around. I’m really looking forward to the cooler fall weather. We generally avoid the beach in the peak part of the Cuban summer. Too many people, too much noise, too much rum. But at least there’s some wind today which makes life a bit more bearable. And I am completely aware and ever-thankful for a/c in our bedroom and main vehicle. Last year we purchased an a/c unit for our main living area but only rarely turn it on for a short while in the morning to refresh the temperature in the house if it’s especially stuffy, then turn on the fans, open all windows and let the breeze blow through. We’re hoping to take at least 4 or 5 days off in September to get away and explore a bit. There are some great new boutique properties that have opened in Camaguey which I’m eager to see with my own eyes, and checking out a few hostels and restaurants in Cienfuegos is also on my list of things to do. Diving will definitely be tossed in there – my Cuban husband has his navigation authorization all signed/stamped by the Cuban Coast Guard so we’re ready to take the plunge back into the underwater world.

One of the best things that happened to me here all summer so far was the speed of re-registering a vehicle. I normally wake up in the wee hours of the morning to go get in the lineup of cars at motor vehicles when the registration is set to expire each August. Last year I sat for hours with a friend who was on his fourth visit/attempt, and he finally gave up around noon when the system still hadn’t come up. This year when I stopped in mid-morning to verify the amount of stamps I’d require for the renewal they asked why I didn’t just come back before 1 pm and get it over with the same day. Excited at that prospect, I immediately hot-tailed it to the nearest bank to buy the stamps. When I got there I realized it wasn’t my day. The old age pensioners were collecting that day, so the single lineup to get into the bank was at least 2 hours long by my estimation. I marked my place in the line anyway, but decided to check out another branch. The branch by the Tropical had 2 lineups, one for credit applications and another for the counter. I figured the lineup for the counter there would be just about 1 hour, so I marked my place in the line, found out who was in front of the lady before me, called my husband and told him to bring in the work car that I had to have registered since as long as it was there before 1 pm they’d promised same-day service. And then I hauled my trusty abanico (fan) out of my purse and pulled up some shade. The conversation in the lineup focused a lot on complaints about how they talk about all the problems in Cuba on local tv, but nobody gets around to solving them. When the bank staff member assigned to crowd control at the door stepped out for a few minutes to buy snacks, more than a few people snuck in to try their luck at sweetening up somebody in side to make the line shorter. That incenses sweating and elderly Cubans to no end. When you are finally lucky enough to get your foot in the door, it’s to take one of the 20 seats and wait your turn. But at least there’s air conditioning in there. People inside are even smiling and joking around. Until the lady at the door tells all the pensioners in there that she hoped they’d read the sign on the door indicating that they were only doling out pensions of up to 200 Cuban pesos that day. Anyone with a pension larger than that was assigned a different day to collect their money. Uproar by the elderly. What?!?! All this time waiting and NOW you tell us?!?! One man walked out, but came back a few minutes later when he realized he’s misunderstood what she said. None of them had a pension in excess of 200 Cuban pesos, so they were all good to go. One lady with amputated legs was carried to a waiting car (driven presumably a family member) to return home. My husband used to have an authorization to charge his grandmother’s pension on her behalf, but not all of the elderly have/trust someone to do that for them. I don’t know why they don’t just do it by direct deposit, but that might be too easy. In Cuba they like their bureaucracy. There was a big kerfuffle when one grandmother who was surely over 90 fainted outside in the lineup. Everyone inside started yelling for the woman who guarded the door to unlock it, the bank manager came out to tell everyone to quiet down while they seated the abuela inside in the a/c to wait her turn, but in more comfortable conditions. It was a bit of a circus. After 90 minutes I had my $40 in stamps and made a beeline back to the car registry office where I emerged an hour later, good to go for yet another year. This year it took longer to buy the stamps than to get the car’s specs printed by the authorities, have its serial #s and lights inspected, photos of the motor/plates taken, paperwork signed, stamped & verified in the system, and registration issued. It appears that most vehicle owners have already had the new white license plates issued and for the first time ever this tramite was super easy. There are some things to give thanks for, and this is one of them. That’s how it should work every year. But I’m glad that for once in two decades I had a positive experience registering a vehicle here. I even took a picture of the empty waiting room because I’ve never, ever seen it like that before.

Enough rambling for today though. Over and out probably until after we get to actually take a few days of well-earned vacation for ourselves.

Cuban Generosity

Have you ever noticed that the less people have, the more generous and less materialistic they are? I can think of a host of adjectives for the Cubans in my social circle such as gregarious, innovative, hard-working, family-oriented, and selfless. But more often than not it’s their generous solidarity that strikes me as one of the most commendable traits of their culture.

I first noticed this phenomenon over 2 decades ago when I was traveling alone on a bus in eastern Cuba. I was the only foreigner on the bus. It being my first season living here, I was still very unfamiliar with the local national monetary system and when the bus stopped and everyone got off to purchase local refreshments, I just stayed on board since I had almost non-existent language skills and no local currency with me, which it seemed that everyone was using. As the Cubans were re-boarding the bus a young mother traveling with her toddler must have noticed that I didn’t get off like everyone else and as she passed my seat she handed me a cold Cuban malt and continued on back to her seat. She expected nothing in return, she was only being kind. I was astounded that a total stranger whose resources were surely so much more limited than mine would be so generous and thoughtful.

Since then I’ve had countless opportunities where I’ve been on the receiving end of Cuban generosity and each time I think that it’s one of the best things that’s come out of this socialist revolution. I sometimes need to remind myself to be more generous and understanding, like my Cuban friends.

A lot of people consider it their duty to pick up hitchhikers here. Those who drive state vehicles are often in the obligation to do so. My husband is occasionally asked by friends and neighbors to drive them to the airport (which is over an hour from our house) and he always happily obliges. Sometimes my ugly selfish self comes out and asks him why he would do that for the sister of someone he knows (not even a family member) when there are other alternatives, such as our entrepreneurial neighbor who operates his own taxi. He knows that most of the people who ask him to do this have very limited incomes, can’t afford a taxi and probably would have to take several buses or hours out of their day if he didn’t offer to help out with the transportation. There have been a few occasions where I’m pretty sure a couple of people have taken advantage of my husband’s generous nature, but he still doesn’t let that stop him. Once when he was unable to help out due to other obligations, he offered to give a man who lives on the street behind us money to take our other neighbor’s taxi to drive a family member to a medical appointment, but then the taxi-driving neighbor wouldn’t accept the money and did the favor for free anyway. It sometimes miffs me when the same people call my husband up twice in a week to ask for drives here or there, when it’s clear to me that they could have taken the bus instead of inconveniencing us. But it doesn’t seem to bother him too much, so I usually let it ride.

Yesterday while visiting a friend outside of Havana I was talking to his 80+ year old mother and her sister who recently had a fall and fractured her hip. They are both widows, and the sister has no children. She said she was very lucky that a former neighbor and friend of hers who now lives in Miami found out about her condition and forwarded a care package and money which helped her through a very difficult period. The huge majority of the elderly in Cuba are looked after by family members until their death, despite the fact that this duty sometimes comes at a great economic sacrifice. Most Cubans I know consider sending their elderly family members to nursing homes to be akin to abandonment. Only in extreme cases would they consider a nursing home in lieu of home care for an elderly family member. Before we left our friend’s house, we couldn’t get away without a bag full of avocadoes from their tree that they insisted we accept. We stopped at the Casa del Pintor, a paladar we like in Bauta, for dinner on the way home. As the meal was ending our friend ducked into the bathroom for a moment, and I advised my husband that he should quickly settle the tab with our server since I knew our friend would try to pick it up if we didn’t first. The two of them ended up trying to shove money at each other, fighting over who was going to pick up the $23 CUC bill for our shrimp/lobster/beef dinners and drinks as I laughed my way out of the restaurant. While our friend is very lucky and has a well-paying job I don’t like taking advantage of his generosity, hard as it sometimes is to convince him otherwise. I joked on the way out that he could pick up the tab the next time, when we pick a more expensive restaurant for dinner.

Cuba sent almost 400,000 soldiers to fight apartheid in Angola and will always hold a special place in history, right alongside Nelson Mandela, for being on the right side of that battle. I was watching the July 26th speeches in Santiago de Cuba today, a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the battle that began the Cuban Revolution. My father in law was one of the young guerrilla fighters from that failed attack on the Moncada Garrison who was amazingly lucky to come out of the hospital from where he was stationed to fight alive, and his just-off-the-press book “El Unico Sobreviviente” about his epic escape journey back home is being launched during the festivities. As I watched all of the foreign leaders deliver moving speeches about solidarity and contemplated just how many countries had come here to express their sincere thanks for Cuba’s selfless support, despite all of the economic obstacles this country faces, I was touched by the fraternal spirit of the current Latin American leaders and their struggle to empower the middle class. Many are trying to follow Cuba’s lead in free education and health care for all. The thousands of Cuban doctors who have been sent to the rescue during some of the most serious crises in this and other parts of the world is simply unprecedented. One leader said that while Cuba may not have money, it has people and the very fact that they are so willing to share their precious human resources so freely with other nations in need is commendable.

The generosity of those less fortunate should be an example that each and every one of us follows. It’s definitely humbling when someone much poorer than you opens their home, wallet, or shares their meager possessions. So pay it forward as often as you can. It’s a hard thing to remember sometimes but the more you do it, the better a place this world will be.

Cuban Lost & Found

Cubans are known for their friendliness. And, in many rural areas, for their honest and hard-working natures. These aren’t always a given, however in the Capital, where, as in any large urban centers in a third world country, there are a certain amount of opportunists out there waiting for you to slip up. Growing up in Prince Edward Island Canada, I lost my wallet countless times at a certain bar I frequented with friends while in university. I’d sheepishly show up there on Monday morning, and time after time they turned it over to me with my $20 weekend outing fund fully intact. When I was younger my father once lost his daily cash box off the back of his truck on the drive home. An Island man found it and turned it in, and my father was so surprised that he called the man’s employer to tell him how lucky he was to have such an honest man working for him. Coming from that kind of idyllic place (where we didn’t even have a key to our house growing up), Havana’s been a bit of adjustment in learning how to carry my purse, where not to leave it, and about being aware of my surroundings.

An older woman called Encarnacion was the maid assigned to my rental apartment in my early years in Havana and she was a shining example of socialist morals. She faithfully delivered our daily quota of soap and toilet paper without ever thinking about keeping the surplus for her own family, since we rarely used the amount that was assigned to us. Maybe not as sensitive as I should have been back then, I would sometimes take the extras with me when we visited rural areas on tour and donate them to families there instead of turning them back into my honest chambermaid for her own use. As time went on we often shared stories, and I found out that she had once found a considerable sum of cash that had fallen behind a bed’s headboard when making up the room. The owner had believed the cash had been misplaced, and Encarnacion turned it in to her superiors who were able to track down the woman and return the money. The honest deed was even reported in the newspaper. Only after she retired and was replaced by someone who was more opportunistic with the supply chain did I fully realize what a gem she was.

My sister and I were once the victims of a daytime robbery/assault scam a couple of months before New Years when they crime rate purportedly goes up in Cuba. Although neither of us were hurt, the experience has made me much more wary and careful about how I operate. The police ended up catching the culprits, but the law here requires that they pay back the sum they stole in national money at a rate of 1:1. That was a bit of a surprise, but they did get time for their crime, so hopefully that would be enough of a deterrent for them not to consider trying it again on someone else.

I’ve had clients with varying degrees of luck over the years with lost & found items. I’ve had someone leave their winter coat behind in a hotel, only to have housekeeping claim that they didn’t find anything in the room when cleaned it. Particularly maddening since a winter coat is not of much use in this climate. Another client left a pair of expensive Oakley prescription sunglasses in the Havana airport upon her international departure. She was insulted when I advised her to put the incident behind her, that she should forget about them being turned in to lost & found. She threw up such a fuss about it that I indulged her and was able to personally speak to the airport’s lost & found department. Which confirmed it was holding only one winter scarf among their lost items. I’m quite sure a lot more than that gets misplaced by visitors to the Havana international airport, but that’s all that ended up being officially registered in their lost & found department. Not a big surprise to me.

Upon returning from Cayo Largo once with my husband, we caught a cab from Old Havana to our home. Immediately after taking my suitcase upstairs I realized that my cell phone was still in the cab. Despite having all the phone numbers for the cab company and immediately contacting their dispatch office to report the loss, I never did get that phone back because it’s basically my word against the driver’s and back then a Motorola Razr phone was worth $100 on the street in Cuba, a considerable sum and easy money. If you call your cell number and it’s turned off or out of service, you can be sure someone’s already thrown out your sim card and is trying to hawk the phone somewhere.

My husband once found a tourist’s cell phone in the airport and he left it turned on until they called, then he personally delivered it to a tour guide who was in Havana to be returned to its owner who was vacationing in Varadero. Until today I thought he was the only person left in Havana who was that honest. We were visiting my niece and while we were there she realized she had lost her expensive new Iphone 4. We figured it had been when she got out of her car in front of her house, so we began calling her cellular number to see if we could hear the phone ringing. No such luck. But the faint hope we had was that the phone was still ringing when we called the number. It was intermittently giving the message that it was turned off or out of the service area, dashing our hopes that a nice person had found it. After awhile we gave up, and my husband & I left for home. When we arrived we received a message from her with great news. A blind man had stumbled upon her phone with his cane, picked it up and brought it home. Since he couldn’t see to know how to receive the incoming calls we were making, he waited for his wife to arrive, and she was able to answer and return the phone to my anxious niece.

Honesty’s the best policy. Karma. Pay it forward. I just wish sometimes that this were a universal policy. You never know when you’ll be on the receiving end of a good deed, so why not treat others as you’d like to be treated every single day.

Cross Your Legs, and Roll Your Eyes

As loyal as a faithful dog, I’d never consider betraying my Cuban husband. So it irks me sometimes when he likes to give his input on how I dress when we leave the house. Here we are in the middle of a stifling hot Havana summer, and on Saturday I put on a sundress, the hem of which ended about mid-thigh. Hardly indecent considering the shockingly short hemlines of some Cuban damsels I know. When my husband caught an eyeful of me walking out of the closet he demanded, “Is THAT how you’re planning on leaving the house?” I retorted, “Well, yes, it was exactly how I was planning on leaving he house since we’re traveling by car and not motorcycle today, and it’s freaking hot out there!” He reminded me that there was a fair wind blowing and I would surely be showing my bloomers to half of Havana’s Carnival-goers at the Piragua where we were heading to meet friends. Without another word he headed outside to talk to the bricklayers in the back yard. And I turned on my heel, back to the closet to put on a pair of trusty lycra shorts under my outfit. Once outside I made sure noone else was in sight and I flashed my husband so he could see that I’d compromised just to make him happy. As I laughed up a storm, sadly he didn’t think it was as funny as I did. He didn’t even smile. Undeterred, I took up my post sitting on a cinderblock in the garage to watch the work progress, carefully tucking my skirt between my legs before I sat down. As I caught a dirty look from my ever-watchful husband I incredulously asked, “What now??? I have on shorts under this dress you know!” He pretended not to know what I was talking about, apparently not wanting the workers to know about the intimacies of our little spat. But I definitely knew I had seen the evil eye.

Once we left the house I took up the issue once again. His position was that 99.99% of Cuban men are cave men and if you give them an opportunity to catch a glance of a thigh, a piece of your rear end, or anything else in that general vicinity of a woman’s anatomy they will seize it. And talk about it later amongst themselves. And he doesn’t want me to be the object of anyone else’s lusty conversations. If a Cuban man is not looking at a woman, then he’s most likely gay. It’s not the first time I’d had to learn a lesson like this by embarrassment. Many years ago a neighbor commented to my husband that I was sitting with my knees too far apart while wearing shorts. Cripes, I’d never had to deal with this before in my Canadian circle of friends. We’re a pretty relaxed bunch and if you’re a girl and you sit down with your knees apart it just doesn’t have the same connotation in Canada as it does here in Cuba. We had a couple of friends visit for the weekend, and I asked their opinion, and discovered that they pretty much concurred 100%. The man’s opinion so perfectly matched that of my husband, it was as if it were a recording. The woman said it’s not attractive to sit with your knees apart. And that Cuban men tend to be overly jealous, but it’s because they know how other Cuban men think all too well. She says sometimes when she’s riding on the back of her husband’s motorcycle and they stop at a red light, she’ll catch him looking all around just to ensure noone’s staring at her. But she also reports having been subjected to bold Cuban males sticking their lascivious tongues out at her while he’s not looking. To maintain your dignity here as a woman you’re just supposed to ignore them, pretend you can’t hear the catcalls, and basically act like you’re deaf and/or blind when presented with acts of lewdness by a Cuban man.

My sister has been flashed here a couple of times. The first time she was shocked, but the second time she was prepared for it and did a banshee scream and ran at the man who promptly disappeared. She’s also had some Cuban man actually touch her butt as she bicycled across a bridge in Guanabacoa. Scared the bejeezus out of her, actually. I remember flying up to Toronto to meet her right after 9/11. We ended up getting stuck there together for several days since Cuban planes were temporarily restricted from flying over U.S. airspace. We took advantage of the extra time in the big city and went shopping. I remember as we walked past a group of construction workers who were buying snacks from a truck, noone said a word. They looked, but didn’t dare comment. After we passed them I burst out laughing because it was such a contrast to the behavior of the men I’d mostly become accustomed to in Cuba. Civilized Canadian construction workers. What a refreshing change.

The other day as we were walking on the beach I made my way up close to a dune to collect some beach glass that had caught my eye. As my eyes were mostly downcast as I searched for treasures in the sand, I didn’t notice the Cuban man lurking in the sand dunes. When I caught up to my husband who had his eagle eyes focused on the guy, he told me I’d almost bumped into a tirador/pervertido, a guy who gets his thrills from watching women and will publically masturbate. Gross.

I once had a client who was indignant about a lifeguard at the Ancon beach who she perceived had been coming on to her. She reported that he repeatedly manhandled his package right in front of her. While I didn’t want to tell her that I doubted her version of the events, in reality I figure he was just adjusting it. The Canadian woman was not used to seeing a man so unabashedly and unashamedly scratching or moving his male parts around in public. Kind of like the nose-picking thing here. The first time I saw a Cuban woman happily picking boogers out of her nose in my office, my jaw dropped. When she noted my reaction she apologized, but this was clearly a cultural misunderstanding. What’s acceptable and “normal” here may be a totally different story in another country. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but the best thing you can do is bite your tongue and just roll with it.

Consumerism in Cuba: Paradox or not?

Although the main reason was to provide our family with winter work, I’m sure that one of the other reasons my father shipped his kids off to Cuba in the early ‘90s was so that we wouldn’t become victims of North American consumerism. Like most of my friends in high school, wearing the right clothes was all-important, and I remember taking a girls-only “Shop ‘til you Drop” trip across the border with family/friends and thinking I was the hottest thing since Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” strutting through the Bangor shopping mall in my new leather jacket and silver-tipped high heeled shoes. I also remember Dad’s Mark Twain quote ringing in my ears: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

My first winter in Cuba was a true test of my character. Dad, in his infinite wisdom, had instructed me to pack all my “extra” clothes (that didn’t fit in the stuffed suitcases I was planning on bringing down), into bags that would go into a container-load of equipment we would be importing to support our bicycle tour operation. So out came the garbage bags and I promptly pretty much emptied my closet of anything I remotely thought I might use while I was in Cuba. Did I really need that many jackets? Or long pants? Or that many pairs of shoes? Well, you just never know and it’s better to be safe than sorry, and as long as I wasn’t paying overweight baggage charges, then why not load it up, right? Wrong. I’m sure it was unintentional on Dad’s part, but in our early ignorance of how the importation system works in Cuba, as it turned out we weren’t allowed to include any undeclared personal items in the contents of the container since our partners in Cuba had no authority to act on our behalf to extract those goods from the port. And being stuck in a remote corner of Cuba with no internet or fax, and only intermittent telephone service from a rotary dial phone, I had to make several complicated and frustrating trips to Havana that year just to try and salvage the commercial goods and begin to expand our winter bicycle tour business in Cuba. The fact that the sales rep from our Cuban partner’s  office who had been assisting us defected while on a scholarship at La Sorbonne that year didn’t make things any easier. After several months, the truck with our goods finally showed up in Marea del Portillo, minus ALL my clothes (sob, sob). By the end of that season I was very sick of wearing the navy blue Canada sweatshirt I’d brought down, a small selection of t-shirts, and my best friend’s favorite pair of cutoff denim shorts that she’d loaned me for the winter (they were so well worn by the end of 6 months that I never did have the heart to return them). If you’ve never been to this area in Cuba, then I’ll tell you that shopping for clothes there was simply nonexistent. I had to make due with what I had, or borrow the rest. It was a humbling experience, and for a girl in her early ‘20’s who had invested in little much in life besides her wardrobe at that point, I had to swallow a big, big pill when the port authorities informed me that my personal effects had been donated to Cuban charitable organizations. I even spotted someone wearing a pair of my pants in my neighborhood in Havana several  years later. I’m sure they were mine.

After that I learned that I really didn’t need that many clothes. So the next year I took down food supplies and kitchenware so that I could start cooking some of my own meals, Canadian-style. Can you believe that I even took down brown sugar? In Cuba, a country that produces sugar, I didn’t know where the heck you could get the stuff, so I just brought my own. Those that have tried my chocolate chip oatmeal cookies will know why I needed it, but I’ve since discovered that the stuff is available here (of course) in national money. Most people here still get it as part of their monthly rations. So strike that off my list of must-have items in my suitcase too. Until very recently the only people with electric cooktops, microwaves and toaster ovens had purchased them on the black market, I figure alot of them snuck in by Cuban sailors.  Unless you’re living in a Cuban household, you probably won’t know where to get things like propane for cooking fuel (again, that’s black market unless you have the “libreta”). I won’t tell you how we did it but my brother & I were able to acquire a microwave and a small toaster oven which we used to cook everything from cookies, to banana bread and even quiche. If the pans were too big to fit in it, then we bent up the edges and it worked quite well. In fact, it’s still operating. Amazing.  If you didn’t have one of the Russian air-conditioning units that were available to the general population during the Soviet Union days in Cuba, then until relatively recently in Cuba’s commercial history, the only way to get one was on the black market. When I moved out of my state apartment and in with my husband, we sweated it out for awhile with a couple of fans and a mosquito net in our bedroom in his house in Havana.

For those of you who have been to Cuba, you’ll agree that it’s no commercial paradise. There’s no Costco, or Superstore, or Walmart, or Canadian Tire. Supply & demand is very irregular, there are many goods that aren’t available in the stores, and you usually need to go to many places to get everything you need, and even then only if you´re lucky and have low expectations. “No hay” (there isn’t any) is a common response from store clerks or restaurant workers. Worst of all, especially for those without a significant source of income, is that the state puts a minimum 200% markup on most goods. What?!?! you ask?  Yes, you read correctly. You will see electronics and some foodstuffs (in CUC) here at ridiculously high prices in the stores. Who pays $80 CUC for a plastic shoe rack? Well, not me, that’s for sure. A lot of more affordable goods that end up on the black market in Cuba nowadays are imported by mules who travel from Ecuador or Panama and then resell their purchases in Cuba (under the table) to a public that’s anxious to have the latest cellular or flatscreen technology, or bling clothing. But if you see something you need, the general rule is to buy it on the spot because later it might just not be there. It’s not about waiting until a sale goes on (that rarely happens), it’s about getting it while it’s available. I stock up on toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, and even a few of my favorite food items and never let my stockpile dwindle. My stepdaughter is studying university here and my husband gives her a monthly stipend to buy her necessities. She recently learned this lesson for herself when there was a temporary toothpaste shortage in Cuba. You don’t wait until the tube is empty to buy the next one. Otherwise, you might be brushing your teeth with soap.

Recently there have been quite a few changes in Cuban policy and for the first time since I’ve been living here, just the other day I saw a king size mattress for sale at a store in Havana. To me, that’s a signal that Cuba’s really changing. Gone are the days where everyone strove to be modest and lived relatively like nuns or priests with only the minimum comforts in their abode. The younger generation especially is very much caught up in consumerism nowadays. Tomorrow the new housing law comes into effect and many expect a new wave of home improvements. The stores are ready for kitchen remodels with new low-end (quality wise, if not price-wise) cabinetry units on display in many Cuban stores. There’s a new shopping center open in Havana which used to be only for wholesale buyers. It’s now for the general public, and it’s as close to Walmart as we’ve got in Cuba, with various aisles of housewares, hardware, a beauty section, and groceries. It’s pretty much the same stuff you’ll see in all the other Havana CUC shops but all concentrated into one big store.

It’s good to see that Cubans can now register cell phones, buy electrical appliances, stay in hotels, and buy/sell cars and homes amongst themselves. I’m sure a lot of money will make its way out of mattresses and secret caches over the next while for new acquisitions. I’m not sure that the anticipated gentrification will be as widespread as many foreign newspapers are predicting since Cubans have been inventive despite restrictions for a long time, and I believe that those that had the funds to relocate have probably already done so for the most part. But for me, as a long-time resident, the changes are everywhere. Everybody & their dog has opened up a private business selling this or that from their doorstep. And there are more private restaurants out there than the market will support. To answer my own question: So can you shop ’til you drop in Cuba? Yes, of course, you might literally drop while you’re shopping in Cuba, either from weariness in trying to find what you need, or from fright at some of the state’s prices. These are interesting times, no doubt about it.

The Ups & Downs of Sex Tourism in Cuba

I’ve already told you that my native Prince Edward Island in Canada is not the right place to look for paid sex while on a holiday. And by no means am I condoning paying for sexual favors, much less taking advantage of the poorer economy of this Latin American nation to satisfy your lust while here. But over the weekend we had a conversation over dinner with an Italian/Cuban couple and the Italian man’s well-traveled Italian cousin and her husband that included the new wave of “jineteras” in Cuba and I figure that now’s as good a time as any to address this phenomenon.

As someone who is fascinated by linguistics and what the development of language says about a culture, until recently I didn’t quite connect where the term jinetera actually came from. Literally, it means jockey, and I always wondered why – was it because the girls “rode” their customers? It turns out that before the dual currency system was introduced in Cuba, and before international tourism became as prevalent as it is today, the profession was largely looked upon negatively by Cuban society. A hooker was just a lowly prostitute, una prostituta, una cualquiera, a whore. Today the few girls that serve Cuban nationals are known as “luchadoras”, since they must struggle much more than the girls who are serving the international clientele to make a living. My husband pointed one out to me once. She was standing below a tree on the highway waiting for horny truckers is all I can figure. It wasn’t a pretty sight. When tourism began to open up and a lot of Spanish businessmen began opening foreign firms in Cuba, the girls who chased after them were first known as “Las Mambisitas”. During Cuba’s historical struggle for independence, when they were fighting against Spanish rule the Cubans armed with machetes who chased after the Spaniards on their horses were known as Mambises. The popular Cuban cartoon character Elpidio Valdes is one of these. Well I guess they didn’t really want the Cuban “Superman” associated with workers of the sex profession so the term was changed to Jinetera (for females) and Jinetero (for males, who typically are associated more with being street hustlers rather than sex workers). A lot of the public opinion on girls who traded sex for money (or cigarettes, rum, bling, or a night out on the town) started to be less derisive and more accepting of their choice as a practical one, the clever Cuban girl taking advantage of the foreigner to get the things she wanted.

I recall being flabberghasted when (a long time ago) I read this quotation by Fidel: “Cuba has the cleanest and most educated prostitutes in the world.” At the time, internet use wasn’t as prevalent as it was today and the source of the quotation didn’t elaborate any further on its meaning. It seemed to me that that kind of comment would promote sex tourism, not at all the objective of the government of the Cuba I knew. But having spent almost a couple of decades here I’ve seen prostitution rise & fall, ebb & flow. Until relatively recently Cubans that weren’t legally married to their foreign partner couldn’t even register at a state hotel as their guest. But it didn’t mean that there was no hanky panky going on between the hotel sheets. A lot of security guards made extra $ by sneaking girls into hotel rooms late at night, and then whisking them out at 4 or 5 a.m. This very law was one of the factors which made my Cuban husband and I make a very quick decision to tie the legal knot (we only knew each other for 3 months when we were married, but I’d already been living and working in Cuba for over 5 years by then so thankfully had decent insights into Cuban society). We wanted to live together, and we were counseled that if that were the case then the only legal option we had was to marry. A bit drastic, but thankfully in my case it ended up being the right decision.

When the Pope visited Cuba there was a low point in the sex trade here. A lot of known jineteras were rounded up and jailed. A lot were sent back to their native provinces. Discos were closed down. Prostitution apparently became more of an underground thing, flourishing at private parties and such. This lasted for around 5 years. But little by little, they started appearing and discos were opened, and even certain areas in Cuba’s major tourism poles would be known as pickup spots. If you’ve been to Cuba before you’ll know that Cuban women dress somewhat provocatively so it’s confusing to some first-time visitors to know who’s a hooker, and who’s not. I had a very well-educated multilingual Cuban friend who worked as a representative for a Canadian tour company and when we’d go to the beach together in Santiago de Cuba she was often propositioned by elderly German and Italian men. She was indignant that they should think all Cuban women would want money for sex. I was driving a couple of French clients of mine to their hotel once and they mistakenly thought a Cuban girl who was hitchhiking (asking me for a lift) was a hooker. I explained that no, not every girl in Cuba is a hooker despite what they might have heard before coming here.

When Fidel stepped down and Raul took over the leadership of the country, meetings were held in many communities and workplaces and Cubans had a voice in proposing changes to existing laws, one of which was to once again allow all Cubans to lodge in state hotels. As you can imagine, that has once again provided somewhat of a stimulus for prostitution. Since the hotel regulations were changed several years ago, we’ve heard rumors that discos in certain areas (namely, Santa Lucia) have been closed to Cubans altogether, as well as hotels stays there, but can’t personally verify whether that’s truly a matter of government policy, or simply the arbitrary choice of local hotel management. I’ve also heard that Cubans in that area can’t lodge twice in a 6-month period in a Cuban hotel with a different foreigner. The registration records are examined by the government and immigration officials.

Over the weekend my friends were recounting their visit to a local open air nightclub in Havana. My husband and I hardly ever go to late night performances – we go for the early ones that are over by 10 pm (my wild party days ended with university!) so we’re sometimes totally in the dark about what’s really going on out there nowadays in the adult entertainment scene. Our friends say that men were outnumbered there by about 3 to 1. The girls had to lower their skirts to an acceptable hem length before they’d be let in the door, but once they were in the skirts were hiked right back up. Apparently there is a reserved seating area, and another line behind which all the unaccompanied girls must stand. So that they’re not actively propositioning any visitors who have paid to see the show, they are not permitted to cross that line unless they are specifically invited by someone to sit at their table. Our friends say there was all kinds of security there to keep order in the place, including one fellow who at one point starting pointing all around like he was a traffic cop, directing the girls here and there. The girls don’t seem to be put off by the fact that a foreigner is traveling with his wife or girlfriend.

I still insisted to them that Cuba’s reputation will be sullied if the government continues to permit this to happen, but they gave me a dose of reality. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. The state is not going to be able to stop it. In Cuba the government’s laws forbid it, and Cuba’s stance towards child prostitution is particularly intolerant. You don’t see girls in Cuba standing on the street selling their sexual wares as you do in many other places in the world. They cited some of their travel experiences in Thailand, Africa, and even in certain European countries where prostitution is prevalent. Johns who have catalogues of sex professionals, underage children, any ethnic background you want. You pick the person and they’ll deliver them to your hotel room. Girls who, in sub-zero temperatures, stand on street corners in skimpy coats and open them to show you their naked bodies. You just don’t see these kinds of things in Cuba.

So here we are again. Cuba does a lot of things to make the world a better place and has many public campaigns against promiscuity and awareness about AIDS. But, like anywhere, not everyone who lives in Cuba is of strong moral character. And the draw of quick money, commercial desires and the “easy” life proves irresistible to many young women. Hopefully for those of you who take the time to read this blog, you’re of superior moral fiber and visit Cuba for the right reasons. I hate to see society corrupted by tourism. Tread lightly, folks!

Calling a Spade a Spade

Cultural differences between Cubans and Canadians are many. Many Cubans openly pick their noses. In fact, I think that’s exactly why most Cuban men grow their pinky finger nail extra long; all the better to probe their nostrils with, my dear! The sultry way Cuban women walk, no matter what size or shape their body comes in. The long-winded way they have of explaining something that would require infinitely fewer words in English. And the direct, even blunt comments they make on your appearance. If you’re black, then there’s no pussyfooting around it or looking for the latest politically correct term for your race. You’re just black. Or white, or mulatto, or chino… Easy. And nobody takes offense when you call them what they are.

In my early years working in Cuba, before I married Abel, I used to divide my time between Canada and Cuba. I was very active since I was riding my bicycle most days along with our bicycle tour guests and didn’t own a vehicle. When I’d return to Cuba in the fall, without fail my maid would comment on my weight. She thought she was being nice telling me I’d plumped up a bit over the summer since it meant that I was living well, with access to an abundant food supply. But a single Canadian girl in her 20’s doesn’t want to hear that kind of thing. A married Canadian woman in her 50’s wouldn’t want to hear it either. Unless you’ve been taking pounds off (in which case it’s perfectly acceptable to pass on a compliment), then in Canada it’s an unwritten rule that you don’t comment to your friends when they’re starting to bulge out of their clothes. My husband, thankfully, is very much aware of this rule and never comments on any fluctuation in my weight. And he knows that if any of his friends make the mistake of telling me I’m fatter than the last time they saw me, I might be smiling on the outside and agreeing that I’ve been eating too many carbs lately but on the inside I’m cursing them out and daggers might just shoot out of my eyes if they don’t change the subject soon.

When I returned to PEI a couple of days ago my niece was playing hide & seek with her sister and another friend. My niece Alexandra is 6 years old and has lived her whole life divided between Cuba & Canada. Her friend came tearing through my apartment looking for a place to hide, and then Alexa came running in after her. She said, “Kristen, did you see Paige come through here? She’s a little fat girl.” Immediately I gently corrected her in Spanish and told her that she should be more careful about talking about her friend’s weight when she was within earshot, that if she heard Alexa calling her fat that she might get a complex about it. Alexa said, “Well did you SEE her?” She doesn’t understand yet why you can’t call a spade a spade in Canada while in Cuba it’s perfectly acceptable to talk that way and nobody will get mad at you. I was telling my sister about it and she said she hopes our niece learns the lesson fast or she’ll end up with no friends at her school here in PEI!

Climbing the Cuban Social Ladder

Some people who’ve never been to Cuba and don’t know how things work here assume that everyone earns the same paltry salary and that there is no class distinction. Au contraire! But how much you earn doesn’t necessarily make you esteemed in everyone’s eyes in Cuba. Due mainly to the circulation of two currencies and hard economic times, Cuba’s scale or pyramid of economic earnings has been inverted for some time now and the bellboy (who earns tips in foreign currency) is often at the top, with the brain surgeon (who slaves away for a salary in national money) often at or close to the bottom. So it makes for a strange social ladder which many people visiting here for the first (or second, or third…) time can’t seem to grasp.

Some of those who most blatently stand out in terms of the pay scale are artists. Artists officially linked to the Ministry of Culture often have special benefits and considerations that most everyday Cubans don’t qualify for. Authors’ rights allow them to declare salaries and receive earnings that most regular Cubans don’t even dare to dream about. Some time ago a short-lived bill allowed many Cubans, especially artists who had the opportunity to travel abroad, to purchase and import vehicles, paying the import tax in national currency. No justification of the funds or earnings one would assume would be required to make the purchase was necessary, as was the case with all previous car purchases by those who had worked abroad for the requisite amount of time to be permitted this privilege by the Cuban government. So you’ll often so a relative nobody driving around in a car which stands out from all the old beaters, and maybe it’s because he or she somehow managed to earn it. Or maybe it was simply because somebody else (a family member abroad?) financed it. Certain artists can be seen driving around Havana driving the latest Audi convertibles, or Mercedes Benz cars, or even souped-up utility vehicles.

A friend of mine sings in a rather famous Cuban orchestra. Sometimes I think he would be more economically solvent if he’d chosen to be a comedian, but I do digress. The world these artists live in is often called the “farandula” in Cuba. Once he was relating a story about a European tour he was on where another very well-known Cuban singer who calls herself the “Diva” was also touring along with them. He said that on the tour bus she was bragging about how much money she spends on her wardrobe, that she wouldn’t dream of buying the same cheap crap as regular Cubans when she traveled, oh no. She only pays $100 or more for her denims, and only the best and most expensive shoes will be found on her feet. My friend is more down to earth than her, or more likely just doesn’t make the same claims since his pay is relatively low as a hired musician. Most Cubans are bargain hunters when they get the chance to travel. So one day he was in the hotel elevator with one of his bandmates and the bandmate was telling him that the “Diva” was full of it. That the previous day he’d been out shopping at a bargain basement place, and not only did he spot Miss Fancy Pants there who claimed she wouldn’t be caught dead in cheap clothes, but she was actually INSIDE the $2 box of reduced clearout shoes hunting for the best deals!!! When they got to the ground floor, the Diva was there and he just said “El Cajon” (The Box) when they walked past her. She didn’t know she’d been spotted buying cheap shoes, so couldn’t figure out what the reference was all about. They just left it at that.  

The fad nowadays is to have a cell phone. If you’re a young person and you don’t have a cell phone, well you’re just behind the times. Not that many young people in Cuba or students actually earn enough to be able to pay their own bills. But it’s a status symbol. A matter of wants trumping needs. And the younger generation is fixated on brand names too. If you don’t buy Adidas or Nike shoes, then your peers will probably not look very favorably upon you. It’s sad really, since the generation that preceded them was of a much higher moral caliber.

Cubans have always been well-dressed, proud of their appearance and very clean in terms of personal hygiene. If they can’t afford to buy new clothes in the “shopping” then they hunt around for used ones that are fashionable, well-fitting and in line with their budget. Or have a seamstress make their clothes. And they are ever so conscious of the quality of footwear. I remember a guide friend of mine once commenting that one of my clients must be very poor. The client was a university professor, very well-spoken and on a relatively expensive holiday so I asked him why he thought that. He asked me if I’d not seen the old beat-up sneakers he was wearing riding his bike all week. Ha! It’s funny where a society places its priorities and how someone else’s eyes may judge you. A Cuban may live in a tiny house in a bad neighborhood, but he will be presentable when he walks in public.

Maybe some of the young people in Cuba today have been influenced by their traveling family from Miami. Some of them have very poor living conditions in the USA, but wouldn’t dream of letting their families in Cuba know that the American dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. So they rent thick gold chains and spend gobs of money renting upscale Audis or Mercedes Benz cars on their 1-week holiday in Cuba and the impression they create is that they’re living the high life. Meanwhile, they might be struggling to make ends meet, working 3 part time jobs and living in a rented room somewhere back in the States.

A lot of parents in Cuba nowadays are struggling to instill good old fashioned values in their children. Work hard, study, be modest, live within your means. It’s a tough job to convince them that the future will eventually turn around since the values of their generation have been corrupted. But I commend their efforts. The 40-somethings of Cuba lived in very different times than today’s youth. I hope that they are successful in imparting the same moral lessons they learned to their offspring.