Tuesday, August 23, 2011

10 Things I learned this summer. "A small square of capitalist heaven"

I dropped my neighbor's kid off at school today. So I guess that means it's time for a summer wrap-up. My summer was overstimulating. So here is what I've learned since June.

1. Socialism sucks. Yeah, from the weird Chinese/Cuban/NPR/Cable access programming on Cuban TV,  the ten phone calls it takes to find a decent meal in Havana, to the constant "I'm sorry we have to meet in a more discreet place because I don't want to have to explain why I'm talking to Americans." excuses. Don't even get me started about the red-tape.

2. I thought it was a "good" break-up, wrong.  Found out that an ex that I thought was a friend, was spreading a rumor that I had "ballooned" up to 350lbs. Several people in the Safety  Harbor area were surprised at my "miraculous weight loss."  Asshole. 

3. Cheap peelers work best. Yes, when peeling mangoes, cheaper is better. I peeled over 150 mangoes for the handing of over of the secret family mango chutney recipe. "You want chutney? Start peeling".

4. High School reunions are best when you maintain a constant, blood alcohol level of 0.06–0.09.

5. Your in-laws won't notice you if you have their grandson with you.  With kids around, you become about as interesting as a spinster aunt at the family reunion.

6. People think you're an asshole if you show up in a red BMW convertible. I just have to learn to accept that. To quote my brother: "you're the only beemer owner I know who's not an asshole."

7. Take toilet paper on any visit to Cuba. It's like a little piece of America wiping away the contraband meat of communism. I took a big bag of baby-wipes....sigh, a little square of capitalist heaven.

8. Cuban airplanes have escape ropes. (WTF?)

9. Don't trust airlines that only take cash and have no tail markings.

10. America is pretty great place and I have new respect for "invisible hand" of capitalism.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Oh the Cubanity!!!!(Part 7) Havana Heartbreak

When you look at a map of the Americas, right smack in the middle are two large bodies of water, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. In the middle of those are Cuba.  Havana is as close to the center of the Americas as you can get.  When I saw Havana for the first time, I understood its significance.  500 hundred years as the center of the giant Spanish Empire in the Americas. The imposing structures, fortresses, government buildings dot the city. Havana is not just some third world capital, it's one of the great capital cities of the world. The heartbreak is that 500 years of architecture from Colonial, Victorian, Art Moderne, Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern is all slowly crumbling to ruin. 

History stops in Havana in 1959.  From that point on technology, architecture, and culture froze.  Tens of thousands of U.S. made vehicles from 1945 to 1959 dot the highways, its a time warp. The government acts like the 1959 revolution was last Thursday. You can see that after'59 Havana as a  center of trade, culture and influence loses relevance behind the Soviet Iron Curtain.  Coincidentally, a sleepy southern resort city a few hundred miles away begins it's ascent as a major shipping, banking and center of confluence for the Americas. Fidel Castro can take a lot of credit for making Miami a global powerhouse.

I'm sure each new generation of Cubans read the tea-leaves or "caracoles" and see the hope of a brighter, freer, more prosperous Miami.  People grasp at the smallest signs that things on the island will get better on a large scale. Small things like cell phones, a Democratic administration in the U.S., less travel restrictions all add to the hope that somehow the government will open up and give Cubans the dignity and freedom they crave.

There were several instances where family members couldn't meet us at their homes because they were afraid of "being seen with Americans."  When my spouse's brother found out he had to take us to the "American" terminal he had to find a car that did not have "ministry" plates on them for fear of being reported to his superiors. There is a special terminal for flights to the U.S. The shock registered on his face when he saw that there were over 20 flights a day to Miami and New York. More flights than arrive at the domestic or international terminals combined. 

Ahh, but the beauty of Havana. The restored areas are precious. Beautiful architecture from so many eras, elegant mansions, town houses, palaces are everywhere. The Malecon and the Prado are long pedestrian walkways that are the lifeblood of the city. The nearby beaches with powdery sand and crystal clear water. Cubans are the same as in Miami, loud and boisterous and the city is alive with loud music, shouted voices and the desire by all Cubans to win the conversation.  Shy people don't have a chance in Cuba. Are they friendly? Not particularly, but either are Miamians or New Yorkers. City life is hard work, no more so than in Havana with it's shortages, red tape, lines and crowds. 

So I guess am glad I went. I accomplished what I set out to do. I met my in-laws (a non-event, because I took the grandson to them they didn't even notice me.) and it went well. I saw Cuba and got a better understanding of it as a place, which helped me to better understand my many Cuban friends, colleagues, and family.  I am reassured that my distaste for Fidel Castro and communism is not just because my government told me its bad, but because it is truly a stupid exercise in suppressing human endeavor and spirit. Finally it made me truly appreciate what we have here in America, a land without fear, which allows us to be all and anything we want to be.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Oh the Cubanity!!! Part 6. Just a travelogue.

I guess I should tell you a bit more about my trip and some of the "highlights" once I arrived. I'll do it in chronological order so you can skip over the boring parts.

Day One: There was the whole nightmare scenario of dealing with Sky King Airlines, the four hours it to took them to check us in, weigh our bags, steal our cash (it's a cash only airline, no credit cards.) Hand out fake vouchers to top restaurants in Havana and Santiago. (Nobody in Cuba recognized the vouchers)  Maylady(pronounced my-LAD-ee) did take care of a lot, after forking out additional cash.   It was basically a training ground for dealings in Cuba.

There were several very fabulous male flight attendants who were quite shaken by the turbulent crossing. I was thinking I would die in an unmarked watery grave in an unmarked white 737. Yes, Sky King Airlines is just a white plane, no markings. It was probably bought on 36th street at one of the used car lots where "everyone drives out with a vehicle."

We arrive in Cuba only to be detained by immigration. As the only two passengers traveling on U.S. passports we were questioned why we (My son and I)were traveling on U.S. passports and not on our "real" nationalities. I was born in Central America, he in Russia. They tried to separate us, but I refused to leave him. We sat for about 45 minutes being interrogated by a very cute Cuban was the only thing that made our delay bearable.  The whole time I was thinking: this is my vacation?

We arrive at last.We were "released" to the family.  Hugs, kisses and sighs of relief that we were not sent back on the Sky King plane which had still not left for its return flight. Joy and songs and dancing that we had arrived. 

Day two: Sightseeing in Santiago. Santiago is a small Spanish colonial city on the Eastern side of Cuba. The weather is HOT. The men are HOTTER.  I would suggest to any woman who wants a man to go there. It seems there is a surplus of men, of all races (yes there is such a thing as Cuban-Chinese) who are buff, shirtless and eager to help tourists for a few CUCs (CUCs are Cuban Hard Pesos, because Soft Pesos don't get you anywhere). Lots of people dancing in the parks playing live Cuban music. Just about everywhere we went there was singing and dancing....because that's just what socialists do. 

Day three: Socialist Wedding. We went to a socialist wedding wearing our newly purchased Paul Smith shirts, not Guayaberas (See previous posts).  I liked the ceremony, it lasted all of five minutes, just a signature in a book and exchange of rings. Everyone was a cousin. Then rum, dancing, more dancing, more dancing. More rum, beer, dancing. Bad food.

Day four: Sightseeing in the Countryside. Lovely, green, green, mountains, shirtless men working in the fields being tilled with donkeys. This is the triumph of socialism?  Went to a Catholic Shrine, saw a little doll that supposedly washed up after a storm as spoke to three boys. The doll was like Barbie fabulous. It was a bit of a stretch for me. We ate at a restaurant on a lookout about 5,000 feet above a prison. You could hear the congas emanating from the prison.  

Day five: Cubana de Aviacion to Havana.  I have to mention the Cubana flight, It was a Soviet Tupolev 334. The weird thing about this flight was the fog. Apparently this model is famous in Cuba for producing fog....from the moment you board, there is a thick fog being pumped out of the air vents. At first it's just around your feet. As we headed along the taxiway the fog was at my waist. In mid flight the fog was at my neck. It was like a weird movie where all you could see were the disembodied heads of the passengers. The plane had an escape rope. (WTF?)

Tomorrow: Havana and the last installment of the Oh the Cubanity. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Oh the Cubanity !!!!(Part 5) Meat as Crime.

I've always suspected Cubans were always easily distracted. Anything turn the heads away from the task at hand, a phone call, a smell, or more commonly another Cuban yelling at them. Which of course is quite common because Cubans only travel in groups basically yelling at each other, quite passionately.  Your true power is your ability to modulate a certain tone that will draw attention to oneself. Loudness is helpful, but easy to tune out, there has to be a forceful assertiveness needed to get your way, accented by hand gestures, standing on ones toes and when all else fails a hug, handshake or kiss.  The point is to get noticed, hence get your message across and then ultimately get your way through force of will. Clearly this force of will has filled both houses of Congress with Cuban-Americans and undoubtedly the White House someday as well.

Force of will is required for survival in the island. Those who choose to remain in Cuba spend the greater part of each day trying to get simple things done: fix a tire, get gas, get basic food.  Life is a constant struggle of searching and red tape. Cubans rely on  huge networks of friends and acquaintances to make life bearable in the island. With few consumer goods, television, computers or diversions to hold an individual's attention all that's left is yelling at each other.  Which is funny because Cubans still prefer to yell into a house or building than just texting "hey I'm outside".  Cell phones are ubiquitous like everywhere else, but the preferred method of communication is still a raised voice.  You could put Cuba on the list of "loud countries" like Italy and the Middle East. 

An uncle of my spouse said "Cuba is best country in the world, if you're rich."  Actually, anyplace is better if you're rich. My mom's wealthy husband promised her a Blackglama mink coat if she moved to Logan, Utah. All that money didn't make Logan any warmer or greener in the winter.  Money can't buy you happiness in Cuba, nor can it buy you orange juice, fresh milk, fast internet connections, onions, and countless other staples that are not in short supply, they are in no supply. It is illegal to have beef. Meat as crime? I'd like to see the Cuba CSI investigate why cows in Cuba have so many "accidents".

There are countless stories of deprivation in Cuba. The giant ruin that has become of Havana. The weird propaganda, Fidel's face on every wall, billboard, book, pamphlet, flag, window. The chronic mismanagement of everything. Why should having beef be criminal? There is small hope in the changes that Raul Castro is proposing, however, Cuba has such a long road to take  to get to the 21st century.....because it hasn't even made it through the 1960's yet. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Oh the Cubanity !!!!(Part 4) Talk to Maylady

Any trip to Cuba by a Miamian is filled with anxiety and ambivalence. No other people have endured the amount of whacked out cold war propaganda that people of this city have. Only here does calling someone a Communist get a bigger rise than insulting someone's mother.  But I believe as a fourth generation Miamian, that you can't really know Miami, unless you go to Cuba.  You can't really understand the "lost dream" of the Cuban exile until you go there yourself.  How can I, as an Anglo, possibly understand the heartbreak,  Tia Nona's packed suitcases(for 25 years until her death), the dysthymia that affects the exile community unless I go there myself. Anyone who has spent any time here hears the stories of loss, the courage of escape and endless hope of someday returning to reclaim what might be one's birthright.  I'm going to meet my Cuban family, the one I married into, and by extension much of the pain and heartbreak that affects the exiles that live in my beloved Miami. 

But first, I need to get out of Miami.  I am traveling on Sky King Airways, which I remember as a child was some guy who flew around in a twin-engine Cessna herding cattle with Penny and Clipper. Yeah, he herded cattle in a plane, a very small one. I'm regretting remembering that show, and hoping I'm not the "cattle" that's going to be herded.  Prior to last Thursday, I had no idea that "Sky King" had grown into an international airline with daily flights herding cattle from Miami to Havana. When I get to the airport, I need to go to find Maylady, which I had to have the name repeated and spelled out several times to me. The Spanish pronunciation for Maylady is Mee-LAD-ee, which of course is obvious to anyone who speaks Cuban but not me. Maylady is a third cousin and will be handling everything. Everyone keeps saying "No preocupe Maylady cuidarĂ¡ de todo." So I won't worry because Maylady will take care of everything. 

There are very strict guidelines. The night before its recommended I take a Xanax "to take the edge off".  I  must show up to the airport at least four hours before the flight. I must weigh-in myself and my bags.  I must not exceed 60 pounds in weight. Last minute requests are still coming in: Baby bottles, a guitar stand, Yankees Caps and Rum. Rum? My husband has asked for an air conditioner too if possible....he hasn't felt any since last week. Friends recommend I take toilet paper and wet wipes, I asked why, "trust us" is the reply. Besides how much can toilet paper possible weigh? I am indulging a friend's recommendation to go to the "botanica" on 17th and do the following: " Chango loves rum, Obatala prefers white doves and Ochun will accept honey and borachitos. get thee to the Botanica and pay homage. 17 ave and 17 street has a great one...this consultation is free. "

Ok, so this local boy, is going there to pay homage to Chango, Obatala Ochun, and other deities, not for my fascination with Cuba, but for my love of Miami.  Wish me luck. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Oh the Cubanity!!! (Part 3 - Understated Sheets and Colgate)

Supposedly I am going to a "worker's paradise" a land free of commercialism, annoying ads and ubiquitous "Enjoy Coca-Cola" signs.  A pre-capitalist haven where "each gives according to his ability and receives according to his needs."  A true nanny-state which coddles the worker.  An Obamacare fantasy as imagined by Michael Moore. A place where the intrusive messages of commerce haven't created desires for styles and brands where we all know GENERIC is just as good. 

So, then why is my Cuba shopping list so brand specific?   I was told to buy no less 300 thread count sheets with an "understated design" because that's what they like in Cuba.  Don't get me started on thread count...because as a good capitalist I shoot for 600.  However what is an "understated design" and what do Cubans know about it? I mean really, what's more understated than a white sheet? Perhaps overstated means red hammer and sickles with a Che logo?  They can't buy them there so they should be happy if I give them a very nice Smurf pattern that I saw marked down at Target. Understated....really!?!

The second item on my list was Colgate toothpaste "because they don't have any toothpaste."  You know my Grandpappy brushed with baking soda during the depression and died with all his teeth.  I am not a brand loyalist when it comes to toothpaste, whatever is on sale is fine with me. I do like the smooth texture of Crest and Aqua-Fresh has a perky aftertaste.  I find the bouquet Arm & Hammer baking soda nice, but it has a granular quality.  Premium brands are nice, but a two-buck chuck is fine. The worst of course is airline toothpaste or Chinese toothpaste. So why Colgate?  I am not a fan of Colgate. Perhaps it's the red box, strong aroma or the bitter flavor....kinda like communism, so there is some logic there. 

What killed me is that they suggested I could find all these items at Valsan or Marshall's (capitalist much?). Never heard of Valsan? Well Valsan is a special wearhouse store for people going to Cuba (7 Miami locations to serve you). Stocked with all the items most in demand by those on the island.  Surveyed by the 250,000 Cuban exiles that travel to Cuba every year, Valsan stocks special suitcases, vacuum bags (for the pillows I'm taking), Colgate, brand name shoes, jewelry and every necessity for those on the island. A one stop shopping paradise for those who claim to be for the Cuban Embargo. 

The reason for this trip is for a Traditional Cuban Wedding. What do I usually wear to a Traditional Cuban wedding? A Guayabera shirt.  I was just informed that I could not wear a Guayabera to the wedding because I would be confused with a Communist Party Official.  Now my Grandfather used to shoot Communists in the banana fields of Honduras.....all he wore were Guayaberas. I was told to leave my Guayabera at home, which was purchased at La Casa De Las Guayaberas and is probably one of the most expensive shirts I own. I was also informed that Cubans don't wear shorts....fuck it...I'm not adhering to a dress code from a bunch of communists who tell me to shop at Marshall's....I'm sorry but I need to go to Nordstrom's for shopping therapy.