Many people have asked me, why do you like Cuba? - By Emma O'Brien
Why would you want to live in a socialist country with no food on the grocery shelves, humid and hot weather, cockroaches the size of small ponies, and an overabundance of macho latino men?
Sometimes I find myself asking the same question. I am nearing nine months of living in Havana and somehow my love for this place persists and has deepened, although my patience has certainly been tested. To be realistic, there are good and bad things about every place in the world.
It is important to have the good outweigh the negative, and in my personal opinion, it is helpful have the place keep you interested and make you feel alive.
I’ll be honest, after having no running water for the third time this week and showering with a water bottle, I crave the luxuries of the outside world. Doing my laundry by hand does not make me feel connected to the olden days. It is tiring and hard. I am glad that I know a Cuban family who offers to help me with laundry in their laundry machine every few weeks, but in the meantime I get to experience life without the convenience of technology. When I get to use the washing machine I feel like I could kiss it, it is such a wonderful invention.
Going to the stadium in the evenings and playing a pick-up soccer game with an odd mix of foreign students and Cuban kids from the neighbourhood is a moment of true happiness. Spending the day on the beach with friends is paradise with warm water to swim in and palm trees to provide shade.
The evenings where the electricity goes off for hours for no reason are frustrating and unbearably hot with no electricity for fans or air conditioning, but the moments the entire neighbourhood cheers when it comes back on is a reason to smile.
I love that every party always ends in a dance party. Havana runs out of eggs for weeks, and I have to buy eggs off the black market. All anyone can talk about are eggs, and I have to hide my carton of eggs on my walk home as not to cause a riot for groceries. I had a nice conversation with the egg man and now he gives me a giant hug every time I pass by. I find it entertaining that he works at the egg and dairy store with no t-shirt on. I have a hard time imagining that being accepted in any supermarket in the United States.
Cheese is an elusive item, and I dream of brie and smoked gouda at night. The man who has a fruit cart at the end of my street gifts me free mangos, bananas, and guyaba on my way home from school. The other day, a waiter in a restaurant saw me walk by and got the urge to talk to me. He walked out of the restaurant in the middle of serving tables with his apron still on and accompanied me down the street chatting. He was gone from work for almost twenty minutes and didn’t seem the slightest bit phased.
I love the old ladies who lean and chat from balcony to balcony about the latest neighbourhood gossip. I love my Cuban house mom who shouts “oh my god” after she sneezes and when her favourite songs come on. I love the street dogs who trot around and navigate traffic better than people.
Watching the security guards at the Cuban wedding I was invited to was an amazing example of Cuban work ethic. They began the evening very serious and intimidating. The first dance was to a Rhianna song which was an odd choice because the song was about terrible heart break, but nobody spoke much English so the irony was lost on them. The music turned on and within one minute, the security guards’ legs began to wiggle. Another minute passed, and one security guard burst into full dance. He couldn’t help himself and had to grab a lady and swing her around on the dance floor. By the end of the song, the security team was in the middle of the party having a great time. I managed to dodge the bouquet being thrown and cat-calls flying through the air.
Understanding the term “machismo” and its significance in Cuban and Latin culture can be helpful in understanding why many Cuban men interact and actuate in the way they do. Machismo plays a major role in creating the identity of men in Latin America. It is instilled in boys from an early age. Young boys begin to cat-call, following the examples of their older brothers, uncles and fathers. Cat-calling is a form of proving manhood to others. Cuban women have told me that they are accustomed to the interactions with men in the street, and although not all women love it, they actually begin to wonder what is wrong with them physically if the streets are too quiet.
If a Cuban is interested in talking to you, they will not hesitate to come straight up to you. They stare deeply into your eyes as you walk by.
Friends tell you if you have gained weight. If you try to disagree, they pinch your cheeks, arms and stomach to show you just exactly where you’ve gotten fatter. They look concerned and tell you you’ve lost weight and hand you something to eat. This type of directness is not delivered with negative intentions, but it often shows glaring differences between cultural notions of what might be appropriate to say to another person. Commenting on someone else’s weight is the ultimate taboo in North American and European cultures, who hold great sensitivity around body image.
There is a different reality in Cuban culture. People seem to have less issues with body image and confidence. In fact, it is inspiring the amount of body confidence Cubans have, regardless of size or age. There is no age or weight limit for women in spandex leggings and sparkly t-shirts.
Sex tourism can be blatant, and it is not uncommon to see old foreign men walking around with one hand on their cane and the other wrapped around a young Cuban girl’s waist. There are many middle aged and older foreign women walking around in hot pants and short skirts with young Cuban men toting their purses for them. In fact, there is an entire section of the Cuban population that make a living or subsist from dating foreigners. The reality of the economic situation in Cuba is that anyone who has access to the tourist economy has a major economic advantage over those who rely on state wages, and many Cubans search for foreign partners to better their lives.
‘Alone time’ is a lost concept in my life, and I have adjusted my attitude towards privacy. I lived with a Cuban grandmother who would open the door while I was showering, even though there was no shower curtain, to chat with me about prices of sandals and methods for making the best congris, a very typical Cuban dish of rice and black beans. She would shuffle around my room at all times of the day and night, sighing “Ayy Emmita.” When she was feeling especially pleased with me, she would spray me with her favourite perfume, and I would walk around for the rest of the day smelling like a sugar cookie.
Going to the bank takes an entire day. My friends studying medicine smoke more cigarettes than anyone else I know. An old man leading ladies doing high kicks in an exercise class held in the corner of the university stadium is more nimble than I was when I was twelve. It is a good day when I don’t run into public masturbation.
Watching sports television with Cuban friends is a theatrical event with emotional reactions and passionate shouting that reaches all corners of the neighbourhood. I know every word to the theme song of my Cuban house mom’s favourite telenovela. Internet is difficult to find, and my friends and family at home wonder if I am still alive. Social opportunities are abundant and early mornings are a thing of my past. I wake up to reggaeton blasting from my neighbour’s stereo system and the smell of coffee on the stove, and Havana bustles on. Pope Francis in Cuba Vatican