Archive | August, 2012

Back room barbershop

12 Aug


Many people have a “thing” when they travel: maybe collecting sports team paraphernalia from the countries and cities they visit; checking out the local breweries and taprooms of whatever locale they find themselves in; taking photos at famous points of interest. My “thing” when I travel is getting my hair cut.

Last summer, I found myself in a salon in Mexico, having all of my hair lopped off (“No como Justin Bieber por favor!”) and dyed (unbeknownst to me, eyebrows were included in that deal). A few months ago, on a rooftop in Santa Clara, Cuba, I sat on an exercise bench (used for bench-pressing) while the owner of the hostel cut my hair, praying that I didn’t get MRSA from  the pleather cushion.

Last week, I decided it was time to clean up the shaggy mess that my hair had become and pay a visit to a peluqueria. One of my friends is a peluquero and said he would love to cut my hair, so on a sweltering afternoon, my boyfriend, one of his friends and myself hopped into a maquina and set off for the La Lisa neighborhood of Havana to have Andres cut our hair.

When we reached the neighborhood, we disembarked and found the street that Andres had told us his salon was on. We wandered through a residential neighborhood, and I kept my eyes peeled for some sign of a beauty salon. We passed a clinic and asked the nurses (taking their smoke break) if there was a peluqueria nearby. They pointed to the house next door and told us to ask for Marta.

We opened the gate, walked up the path, and, in typical Cuban fashion, hollered for Marta. No response. Another shout “Oye…Marta!”. Still nothing. Tentatively, we knocked on the door. A curly headed blond opened the door, letting out the amped-up sounds of Rihanna’s wailing. We asked for Marta, and she pointed to the pathway on the side of the house and told us to go around the back.

Behind the house was a covered patio with a black plastic sink, a folding chair, and a half dozen bottles of professional-grade shampoo. We were in the right place. We poked our head in the door and saw the back room-turned-salon, where Marta was busy snipping away at a longhaired blonde’s mane.

Andres was nowhere to be seen. Apparently he had come in to work in the morning, but either forgot about our ‘appointment’ today (or just didn’t care) and decided it was a better day to go to the beach than cut hair. (Side note: Cubans take their summer vacations very seriously, and it seems to me that during the summer, they might or might not go to work, depending on their mood or what the day’s Olympic events are).

Marta told us to wait for her to finish with the blonde and the other boy and girl who were sitting quietly to the side, and we took a seat, little knowing that we would be in those seats for the next two hours, watching Marta work to a soundtrack of her endless commentary and her daughter’s blaring “Best of Rihanna” playlist.

Marta finished cutting, blowing out and flat-ironing the blonde’s hair while simultaneously going back and forth between dyeing the other girl’s waist-length mane and putting a mess of foul-smelling chemicals in the boy’s dark hair to create the infamous and ubiquitous jonky.

My nose wrinkled as the smell of burnt tires filled the air and Marta lathered something that looked like tar onto the boy’s tuft of hair, telling him to let her know if it started to burn. She set a timer for 15 minutes and called me up to the chair vacated by the blonde.

“What are we doing today?” she asked me, and I turned to my Cuban friends, not sure how to say “trim” in Spanish. Camilo explained what I wanted done—the same style, just shorter.

She begin to work, gently cutting off about a millimeter of hair. The phone rang.

“Pick it up” she told Camilo, and he politely answered her phone, playing receptionist for a few minutes. He told her that it was so-and-so who wanted an appointment for tomorrow.

“Tell him/her to come in the morning” she said, and went back to snipping off microscopic pieces of my hair.

The timer went off and she went to attend to the jonky, taking him to the back patio to rinse out the toxic sludge.

“You want more than that cut off, right?” Camilo asked me, “Tell her!”

When Marta came back, I timidly asked her to cut a little bit more off.

“Oohh you really like short hair, don’t you? I do too. I think it’s mas sexy, though my husband doesn’t agree. He’s always asking me to grow my hair out,” she told me, indicating her stylish cut, boyishly short in the back but longer and hugging her face in the front, “I won’t do it though. It’s too hot.”

“Most Cuban men don’t like short hair,” she informed me, “Your friends are just different.” She turned to the jonky and his girlfriend (the one with waist-length hair). “You like long hair better, right?”


Marta had been quiet when she first began cutting my hair, but once she began her tirade on the merits of short hair versus long hair and it’s cultural acceptance (or lack thereof), we were suddenly treated to an ADD stream of consciousness, mostly one-sided conversation with Marta that did. Not. Stop.

“We’re going to make you look more like Dido,” she told me. I was wondering why that was the short-haired icon that Marta deemed necessary to imitate, especially considering her daughter’s penchant for the usually pixied Rihanna.

Suddenly, Marta began singing loudly and off-key.

“When I’m working a long day, I go a little crazy and just start singing,” she said, belting out her heart’s song, “I really know music. God just didn’t bless me with a good voice.”

The entrance of a friend or neighbor, a salt-and-pepper-haired man carrying a plastic bag mercifully interrupted her singing.

“Do you want some cremitas?” Marta turned saleswoman. “They’re made in Matanzas, with the milk fresh from the cows. Six pesos each, but if you buy five or more, they’re only four pesos each.”

We declined and she finished thinning my hair, alternately mussing it up and fixing it until she was satisfied, still yammering on: about her husband’s ability to sing a complicated Mexican ranchero song, an apology for fixing jonkies (“usually my place is filled with young people with beautiful hair”), a stop to answer her own phone and catch up on some piece of gossip.

Munequita manga,” she said proudly, which loosely translates to cute little Japanese anime doll.

My hair looked fantastic (a combination of Dido and Sailor Moon) and it only cost 20 national pesos (less than a dollar). One day, when my Spanish is better, I want to come back and visit Marta. I would love to know her opinion on everything, if she would be quiet long enough for me to ask her a question…


Let the games begin

8 Aug


Excitement is in the air in Havana—it’s Carnaval season (read: yet another excuse for Cubans to get drunk and party), you can buy Nestle’s seasonal mango sorbet in stores, and the entire country is glued to their television sets cheering their compatriots on in the London 2012 Olympic Games.

When I say that the entire country is glued to their t.v. screens, I’m not saying they’re glued with Elmer’s non-toxic school kid paste—they’ve pulled out the Gorilla Glue and have used it to firmly stick themselves to the 24 hour Olympic coverage on Tele Rebelde.

It had never occurred to me until I started watching the Olympics in Cuba that I had actually never seen a Cuban competing on the Olympics before. Granted, I’ve never watched the Olympics particularly religiously, but in the past games I remember seeing competitors from the U.S., China, Russia, Brazil, Jamaica, and a handful of African countries, but never any representatives from our neighbor to the south. (note: Again, I’ve never paid close attention to the games or watched very many of them, so I’m not saying that U.S. coverage completely edits Cuba out, I just personally don’t ever remember seeing Cubans in any of the events I actually watched).

In Cuba though, there is no choice but to watch the Olympics with a religious fervor, idolizing and cheering for the Cuban competitors like they’re your own brothers and sisters, and discuss this year’s events with all of your friends and family, whoever is fixing your batido, or maybe whoever is driving your cab.

You can watch the Olympics live on Tele Rebelde, or, if you didn’t skip work to watch the day’s events, you can watch the replays later in the evening (or the middle of the night). The coverage is literally non-stop, and some Cubans will wake up at four or five in the morning to start watching it.

The footage of the games is interspersed with interviews and footage of the players, their families, their fans and men on the street, as well as round-table commentaries about this year’s competition. And trust me, everyone has an opinion about the games. During Olympic season, all other topics of conversation take a back seat. Run into a friend you haven’t seen in a while? After the cursory “Hola, que vola?” all you will talk about is how many medals Cuba has won so far, whether or not you saw a Cuban perform during a particular event, and a play-by-play rehash of how he/she did.

The Cuban competitors are national celebrities and a source of great pride to the Cubans. They’re trained in the national sports academies and are the darlings of the entire nation. Where I only know a handful of the notable U.S. Olympians, most Cubans know the name, approximate age, and resume of most of the competitors, from female pole vaulter Yarelis Barrios to male sharpshooter Leuris Pupo (I couldn’t name the U.S. female pole vaulter or a U.S. male sharpshooter if old Leuris held a gun to my head).

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed, inspired, and a little bit jealous about how unifying the Olympic games are for Cubans. Sure, I know that there are plenty of people in the U.S. who are equally obsessed with the Olympics and are cheering on all of our athletes, but unlike Cuba, those fans aren’t almost every person in the country.

Cubans are proud of their country and proud of their citizens and it especially shows during the Olympics. Maybe because of socialism, every medal won by a Cuban is a personal victory, not just for the athlete who won it, but also for everyone in the country.

The Olympics fall at a perfect time for Cubans to drop everything and spend two-and-a-half weeks watching them. It’s soul-crushingly hot outside right now, and posting up out of the sun and in front of a fan to watch someone else exert themselves is a much more attractive option than braving the Caribbean summer.

Don’t worry, once the Olympics ends Tele Rebelde won’t be out of riveting coverage— baseball caps are being brushed off in preparation for the Baseball World Classic and soccer jerseys are already being readied for the World Cup. Cubans love sports and don’t just wait once every four years to show it.