Sunday, December 13, 2015

Thanks for Reading

Within the next few days I will leave Cuba. My time here will end until an undetermined date. (I pray this will be the last internet card I will ever have to buy). 

These blog posts are more philosophical, rant-like, and opinionated than I anticipated they would be. Truthfully, I had no desire to describe the sights and sounds of the city, or the specific events that occurred here. It seemed all too redundant. Today, narrative depictions of our surroundings are reserved for tourist websites, Facebook pages, and Google advertisements--all of which are usually accompanied by many pictures. I do admit, uploading a few pictures to this blog wouldn’t have hurt (especially since Google hasn’t had the chance to take their camera cars around the island). However, considering that the connection in most places around the city is usually not stable enough to upload pictures, and that it’s also costly to sit and wait for those pictures to be posted--I decided to let it be.  

Instead, I wrote of my thoughts of this country and of the world that developed in my time here. If through this blog you were able to imagine the environment that led to the bud of those thoughts, then you’ve seen more of Cuba through my perspective than if I had described it as the setting of a fiction novel; or a better example yet (since I might get a something for writing this blog), than if I had described it as Columbus richly depicted the “New World” to his foreign benefactors. 

If this blog only made you more confused about Cuba, well that’s great too, because if you were like me (someone who didn’t think to ask let alone know what questions to ask) at least now you have a few questions to start with. Call me for lunch or coffee and I’d be happy to work out the confusion together. 

Perhaps I will continue to add to this blog for the first few weeks upon my return to include any post reflection that I may have, but for now this is it. Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


One of the only expectations I had in coming to Cuba was to gain more confidence in my Spanish. That hasn’t happened. I don’t actually think I’ve improved my Spanish but I did learn Cuban Spanish. 

When I first got here I was shocked at how my cuban brother would talk to his grandmother. He addresses her frequently as coño or asere, the former being about the equivalent to calling your grandma güey. I thought he was just a rude brat but then I realized everyone talks to everyone that way. Forget using mande, Cubans say Dime. Dime. DIME. When getting a phone call you won’t ever get a polite Bueno or Buenos dias, or even an Hola, como esta. You get Oigo. Dime. without fail. Now I’m used to it and now I have a different idea of what’s considered rude; although, I can’t bring myself to call my grandma coño.

I feel more comfortable here. I walk the streets knowing where to go, where to get the things I need, and when exactly is the best time to j-walk. I know where to get my internet cards, the best people to change my money for me on the street, exactly what kind of rice to pick up from the market and from which venders, etc. I feel comfortable getting a maquina and exploring other neighboring cities. As I walk to the university, I am now surprised that I pass and greet many people that I’ve met along the way. 

As part of my study abroad program, I helped a group of American students here for a month long class. I was one of the only other Americans in my group that helped these students get around. 

I think these are all signs that I’ve learned what I can and that I am ready to move-on. Although I don’t feel more comfortable with my Spanish, I do feel more capable of taking on the world. 


My grandma told me a story the other day of when she was younger. I don’t know how much younger but she said she used to be really good at biking. 

She told me how to used to be illegal to be in possession of American dollars. People would hide wads of it in the legs of furniture or they would wrap it in nylon and put it in the toilet tank. 

I asked her if it was illegal to have then why would people want to have American money? I figured there would be no market to buy anything with it. 

She told me there used to be special markets for foreigners and tourists that Cubans were not allowed to make purchases in. The markets would sell foreign goods, nothing fancy maybe pasta, and would have Cuban police guarding the entryway from other Cubans. People would wait on the street outside these markets and when the guards weren’t aware, they would have tourists make purchases for them with their stashed away American cash. 

One day my grandma and her cousin biked to the market and had a foreigner buy them some goods. A Cuban police officer got suspicious of their presence outside the market place and asked them to move to the corner of the block. Just after they finished a transaction on the corner with a foreigner, the police officer met them and asked them to open their backpacks. My grandma’s cousin had a second hidden zipper she put her goods in but my grandma refused to give over her backpack. She told the officer, sorry you can look at her bag but I will not give you mine (she had spaghetti inside). She then gave the cue to her cousin to get on the bike and go. They biked as fast as they could over the bridge because that was the next town over. My grandma knew if she got held in custody in the next town, her husband, Luis, would have jurisdiction and would be able to help her. Once they got to the bridge, they collapsed on the side of the road from exhaustion. The police officer said he was taking them to the station for suspicious activity and for evasion. My grandmother complied and knew Luis’s work was on the way to the station. As they passed-by his work, my grandma asked if she could let her husband know where she would be. The officer agreed and she yelled Luis’s name until he came outside. Luis pulled out his military ID and said, you’re not taking my wife anywhere.

And that’s how my grandma bought spaghetti with American money. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

What are you crazy?

A few weeks ago, my aunt asked me what I do in Cuba. Specifically she asked me if I go shopping. I thought, What are you crazy?  

Capitalism, socialism, communism, we can analyze how theoretically different they are from each other but in practicum the governments that construct themselves adhering to any one political-philosophy function in a similar fashion. To legitimize their power they claim it was given to them by the people; to support themselves and their mandates they collect taxes; to govern they pass laws; to maintain order they create a military and police force. The differences don’t lie in the government but in the reality formed from history, circumstance, and present action. 

The markets are lavish in the US. You go to the market to buy sugar and there is white sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, fake sugar, calorie free sugar, calorie free “natural” sugar, foreign sugar, best sugar, and worst sugar. In this country you buy a bag of sugar, when you only need a cup, to return to the market for another because you were unhappy with your first choice.

Economists like to separate money from the hand, from the person who makes the transaction, from human thought and motive that initiates the purchase (because that’s the reserved for marketing and Google, of course). But it is impossible to separate the market from the people because without the people there is no market. Monetary transactions are not simply an exchange of amounts and numbers, they are a tell of a society, an attitude, a way of life. 

To borrow a Marxist concept--the people construct the markets and at the same time the markets are constructing them. The markets influence the culture and the daily lives of the people, all the while, the people decide what they want and what they need to be sold in those markets. Governments get in the way of this symbiotic development. Not just the government of the country in which the markets physically reside but all of the governments. El bloque does not only affect Cuba but the entire world. 

The markets are empty in Cuba. You go to the market to buy sugar and there is no sugar. In the country where sugar was, for centuries, and still is synonymous with money, you can go to the next market and the next market and the next market to eventually give-up and call a neighbor for a cup of sugar.

There is no shopping culture in Cuba because there is nothing to shop and no money to buy even if there were. In 1959, the people chose la Revolución over the purchasing power of capitalism to buy them a nice new pair of Nikes. Now what do the people do? Stop wanting Nikes? No. Instead, those who want them bad enough, make a dinky little raft, find some friends, and throw themselves into el mar from el malcón in hopes of reaching Miami. Those who aren’t willing to travel those dangerous 90 miles wait until a family member who is, or was at some point in ancestral time, willing to do so to send them a pair. 

Yes, Americans will never be happy with the cup of sugar that they choose and yes, it is very sad. Then once a year, we have a day when we pretend that we are, in fact, happy with our choice of sugar. That day is Thanksgiving; the very day that our government-sponsored elementary education taught us that the colonists befriended the indians and that Columbus was a good man. Either way, I’d rather have the opportunity to buy a million types of sugar then not be able to buy sugar when I want it most. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Cuban Laugh

I do not like this country but I admire its resilience. The Cuban people do not warm my heart but they have my respect. Cubans laugh at their problems. Not the way a Mexican would; after a long disastrous day con algunos tragos de tequila. Cubans laugh because there is nothing else that can be done. They laugh because they are strong, like someone who chooses to laugh at the pain of an injury rather than shed a tear. 

Cuba is an isolated country. For it’s geographical position, the island has been historically referred to as the Key of the Gulf. In reality, it’s treated like a hunk of rusted metal that ships avoid as they pass by. Cubans blame their isolation on the US. They call el bloqueo el genocidio más largo del mundo but it take an entire world to isolate, to turn a blind eye to suffering. 

Tourists love to take pictures of los almendrones, old cars whose outer shells are from a different time. What tourists don’t see, is the profession it takes to maintain these cars. The parts that have to be reused, revived, reconstructed to keep the machine running por 10 pesos cubanos cada vuelta. They keep these cars alive because they know they won’t be getting any other ones soon--if ever. 

A mid-western man asked us American students how we can put-up with this internet connection for an entire semester. In our brief conversation at the hotel, el Presidente--one of the few places in Habana where there is internet access--not once did he ask how Cubans live with the miserable connection. Let alone how they afford the $2-3 USD hourly fee. 

I went to the Western Union today to send money out of the country. The lady at the desk told me there is no way to send money out of the country (legally of course); she added, the world assumes there isn’t enough money to send so money can only be received. 

I laughed because there was nothing else I could do. We both laughed. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Emotional Pessimism

The world needs more emotional pessimists. 

It always surprises me when someone tells me they sleep well at night. I only stopped to ask myself why the other day when a Cuban taxi driver told me he never has nightmares, never has worries, and never has problems falling asleep at night. 

Since I was a kid I remember having issues falling asleep. A racing mind with the tasks I have to do tomorrow, a fixation on the light flashing outside my window or the noise of the cars passing by, a nightmare that abruptly wakes me and leaves me drenched in sweat; nights when I don’t sleep at all, because I can’t close my eyes without seeing the problems that the light of day will bring. 

I’m an emotional person. When I cry, I cry; When I’m angry, I’m angry; When I’m happy--I’m really happy. My emotions consume me. I live in moments the positive emotions bring and burn them until they are gone. The negative emotions bring storms that twirl around in my head and demand an immediate response. I treat them as a problem that needs to be fixed and nothing else matters until they are resolved. This approach has got me into trouble time and time again. Fights that didn’t need to be started, words that didn’t need to be said. I’m learning sometimes it is best to weather the storm until it dies out before sending in the National Guard. 

I’ve had people tell me throughout my life that my deep feelings are a sign of immaturity. I think I can always find better ways of handling my emotions just as anyone else can find ways of developing themself as a person, but my attitude towards life couldn’t be farther from needing to be changed. We all have different outlooks on life and our own ways of approaching life’s obstacles. Some people are more logical, some people are more emotional. Some people are more optimistic, some people are more pessimistic. 

A more logical person calculates: what’s best for me; what’s the easiest way of doing this; what make more sense to do in this situation. Decisions are calculated by lists, by weighing the positive and negative outcomes (which may or may not include the feelings of others). Very structured and less messy. 

A more emotional person asks themselves: what feels right; what will make me happier; what is the right thing to do. 
Decisions are likewise calculated but emotions being the scale and positive ones holding the most weight. Not an exact science and very personal. 

This dichotomy briefly explains how these logically or emotionally dominate people make decisions, however, it doesn’t explain their perspective on life. Depending on if we view life more optimistically or more pessimistically will dictate the things we make decisions on in the first place. An optimist isn’t going to look for the problems in or surrounding his or her life to address (whether in a logical or emotional manner); a true pessimist, on the other hand, already sees every possible problem surrounding them and every possible problem that COULD surround them before most see any potential issues at all. 

What I am is an emotional pessimist. I worry about everything there is to possibly worry about. If I were more logical my life would be much easier. All the negative possible outcomes of life decisions could be viewed with some sense of rationality but, instead, they surge a rush of preoccupied emotions that mud the mind. I’ve tried to rewire my brain to at least be more optimistic. There always seems to be a lot of bullshit on the web filled with mantras saying how positivity can change your life--that viewing things optimistically will bring you true happiness. Now I don’t think that idea is wrong; however, there seems to be the condition that negative thoughts must be avoided at all costs. What I’ve noticed from people who preach and try to practice this outlook on life is that they would rather blow a bubble of ignorance around their glowingly optimistic faces then face any hard realities of the world. 

...I just can’t do it. 

I like to look for everything that could be wrong or could go wrong. I like to study what’s wrong with the world because how else could I make it better if I didn’t? For me it’s not enough to “imagine all the people [finish quote].” Because that’s not real and it will never be real. I’m a dreamer but my dreams are of making the dirt more fertile not of building a castle in the clouds. 

The world needs more people who can’t sleep at night. People to worry about the shit no one else even bothered to think about. To worry, because if we were logical, our drive to do something about the problems of our life and the lives of others wouldn’t burn hot enough to keep us going and to inspire action. The world needs more people who understand that the lotus will only grow out of the mud. The world needs more emotional pessimists. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Other Americans

The girl in my Spanish class belongs to the group that I like to refer to as “The Other Americans.” The majority go to U. Penn or Harvard and they share an apartment en Línea y F. The girl in my class is sweet but after a few conversations I realize we both make that distinction of membership. I suggested we grad something to eat after class one day because I thought it would be nice to make some new friends. As usual, as we walk out the door she switches to speaking in English. Now she’s a little more accustomed to addressing me and the people in my program in Spanish, but she still pushes the English whenever possible. 

She’s been talking about this hot waiter at her favorite café since I remember--so we went there. Someone waits at the entrance of the café to open the door for customers; the AC shocks your hot skin as you enter. I look around to find foreigners at every occupied table and I feel as though I’ve left Havana. 

We get to small talking and she asks “So does your program have a rule or something about speaking in Spanish?” 

“Well, no, not really, but it is promoted.” 

“Oh....yah. I think our program is more focused on cultural immersion than Spanish speaking.”

I let her keep her comment. 

I’d like to think I’m a little better or at least less defensive about my Americaness. Yes, I am a yuma, I am a yankee and I’m not going to pretend I’m not--unless of course I’m trying to get a Cuban price for a máquina to La Habana. 

I can still be a privileged American and not think I’m better than the Cuban selling maní en la calle. Maybe the other Americans feel the same, but they sure as hell think they are better than me.