Archive | May, 2014

Oh the charming incongruity of it all

30 May

One of the most incongruous “vintage-meets-VH1” experiences in Cuba is taking a ride in the maquinas, or collective taxis. For 10-to-20 Cuban pesos a ride, you hop in an old Chevy and rumble through the streets of Havana on pre-determined routes to a soundtrack of today’s reggaeton hits and last week’s American pop.

I always feel like "that girl" when I take pictures of the old cars in Cuba.

I always feel like “that girl” when I take pictures of the old cars in Cuba.


I’m a beast at getting around in maquinas, at least in Vedado, Habana Vieja/Centro, Playa, and Miramar neighborhoods in Havana. I don’t let the cab drivers get away with anything—I know exactly how much the fare is, and if they try to cheat me out of my change, I give them a “Don’t F*** with me” face.

Riding in a maquina is always a rich experience. I took one where the driver was bouncing through the streets at breakneck speed, hollering at people on the streets.

Imagine going fast through these streets. Yes, there are a lot of potholes.

Imagine going fast through these streets. Yes, there are a lot of potholes.

“FAIL!!!!” He shouted at a group of kids playing baseball with a broom handle and ball of trash on the side of the street.

“QUE LINDA MAMI!” He wolf-whistled to a pretty girl dressed in all Spandex on the side of the street.

Oye asere…A donde vamos?.” He pulled over to the side of the street to make evening plans with a passing amigo.

I was simultaneously amused and slightly fearful for my life. Something about the combination of poor suspension, 50-year-old brakes, and drivers hopped up on Cuban coffee makes for a heart-racing experience. I think they intentionally don’t put the “How’s My Driving…Call [whatever number]” stickers on the maquinas because if they did, a lot of people would be out of their jobs.

Sometimes this happens though. In the middle of the street.

Sometimes this happens though. In the middle of the street.

As far as I know, there’s not a “Top 40 Countdown” radio program in Cuba, but riding in maquinas will usually suffice if you want to know the month’s hits. Most maquinas are equipped with pretty nice sound systems—I’ve seen DVD players, LED lights, and speakers that get LOUD. There’s something so entertaining about sliding around on the leather-covered seats and listening to some BUMPING reggaeton. I got exposed to a few new jams during my rides a few weeks ago, as well as an entertaining musical revue of the Backstreet Boys. My favorite new songs: “El Taxi” and “Hablo Pokito Espanol.”

Are maquinas efficient? Absolutely not. Are they affordable for the average Cuban? Not really. Are they on their way out? Who knows?

Either way, I’ll continue to use them to get around Havana. Because otherwise, how will I stay caught up on my reggaeton?


Is There a Doctor in the House?

20 May

I’ve had some pretty interesting experiences in the health and beauty department in Cuba. I’ve had my hair cut in four different places, including sitting on gym equipment on a rooftop and the back room of a house, had my nails done in a government institution, gone to a woman’s apartment at night for a wax, and can now add getting a massage in a privately owned salon to my list of adventures.


            The massage was nice, but what it demonstrated to me was how much more lucrative the private service industry is for the average Cuban—more so than any other profession including being a doctor or a lawyer.


            Oscarito, a lawyer who is the son of the couple that I’m renting a room from during my stay, owns the salon I visited, located on the first floor of a beautiful early 20th century mansion in the Vedado neighborhood. He repainted the walls and trim in the high-ceilinged rooms and it has an airy front porch with white wrought iron rocking chairs where you can sit while waiting for your appointment. His wife cuts hair and the salon also offers pedicures, manicures, facial waxing, weight loss wraps, massages, and facials.


            During a break in the tour schedule, I took two of the ladies to the salon and while they got their nails done ($0.50 for a manicure, $1.00 for a pedicure) I went for a massage, figuring that since it was only $10 CUC (which is basically $10 or $12 USD) I had nothing to lose. I was introduced to the masseuse, Yane a brunette dressed head-to-toe in fire engine red spandex, a la a Cuban Olympiad. We were already off to a great start.

            She led me into the massage room, a small space that had a massage table covered in a white sheet and a “Cuba” bath towel. She had the most professional manner of anyone I have met in Cuba, except for maybe one of the Cuba guides that I worked with last year who spoke English with a British accent (and maybe I only thought him professional because of that). She was courteous, telling me to get comfortable and leaving me to disrobe and hop on the table. When she came back in, I told her that I wanted a full body massage and she set up a playlist on her iPad mini and got to work.


            I’ve met some pretty forcible Cubans (like my ballet and yoga teachers) but she was gentle, almost too gentle, lightly rubbing honey-scented massage oil across my back. I didn’t want to be a diva American and demand more pressure, so I just went with it. I was too distracted anyway by what seemed to be piano instrumental versions of all of the hits from the 40s through the 80s coming from her iPad to say too much. I mentally sang along with “I will always love you,” Lionel Richie, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” some upbeat renditions of a few Beatles songs, and I’m pretty sure “42nd Street” made an appearance.

            She picked up the pressure some on my arms and legs, and spent a solid amount of time massaging my face and head, which was unexpected but delightful.

            At the end of the hour, during which I almost fell asleep, she gently woke me up and told me to take my time coming back out.

            After the massage, I talked to Maira, Oscarito’s mother, curious how long Yane had been working as a masseuse.

           “She used to be a doctor. General medicine and really good. But she has a daughter and spent too much time taking care of her and this is better money anyways.”

            I was completely shocked. A doctor turned masseuse? Not to follow a long held dream of relieving muscular tension, but because the money is better. As crazy as it sounds, unfortunately stories like that aren’t uncommon. Like anyone working in a government job, doctors in Cuba don’t make much, somewhere in the neighborhood of the average $20 or $40 a month salary, so of course Yane would work as a masseuse where she could clear her doctor’s salary in just one day of work. Though the other beauticians saw a mixture of locals and tourists, Yane mostly works with tourists because few Cubans are going to pay $10 CUC for a massage since $10 CUC used correctly can probably feed a family for a week here.

            I spend that much money on one or two cocktails in Charleston and think nothing of it, and felt a little bit ashamed that $10 is such an easy amount of money for me to spend. To relieve my guilty conscience, I tipped Yane $5 and thanked her profusely. I didn’t ask about any of the other girls in the salon, but I wonder if the esthetician that does facials used to be a chemical engineer…


A Place Which We Call The Twilight Zone…

14 May

I’ve been in Havana for a week and one of my most pressing goals for this trip was to see my old ballet teacher, Daniel. Some of you may remember my other posts about him—I’m not sure if I mentioned this or not, but once Daniel realized he would never make me cry in his class, we became great friends, and I couldn’t wait to see him and catch up.Image

I went by the ballet school yesterday and was directed to find him in the main Ballet Nacional building, where I asked the gap-toothed lady at the front desk where he was. She looked at me like I was crazy and carrying some kind of communicable disease.

“You know…Daniel? He teaches the international students?”

I tried every combination of words I could think of to get the message across, but she kept giving me a very terrified look and adamantly insisting she had no idea who I was talking about. I understand the terrified look accompanying talking about Daniel, but since she didn’t seem to know him, I was a little confused.

I felt a bit deflated, so I decided to just sit outside of the building and wait for him to come out. A minute later, my former landlady, Jessie, a gorgeous principal dancer in the Ballet Nacional ran out, gave me a huge hug and kiss and I asked her where he was. She kindly led me through the crowds of dancers stretching and talking in the breezy courtyard and pointed me upstairs. I stole a peek at the dancers rehearsing a scene from the upcoming performance of “Coppelia” and made my way to the back studio, a narrow pink hallway of a room that seemed to have plywood for floors. Daniel was sitting in a chair at the front yelling at his only student for the day, a Colombian guy who was doing a complicated series of petite allegro.

I stood for a minute and he turned and looked at me. He took ten seconds to process that it was me and smiled.

“No kidding!” he wrapped me up in a huge hug and then pointed to the stairwell. “Sit. We have to talk.”

I took a seat and watched him put the boy through his paces.

“Mejor!” he shouted at the Colombian, “When you first came, I thought you were a disaster and I wanted to kill myself, but you’ve gotten better.”

I suppressed a laugh and watched the last 15 minutes of class. At one point, Daniel was explaining the physics of a pirouette and was telling the boy to not wind up too much with his arms. To prove his point, he stood up, prepped the turn, and proceeded to execute an octo-pirouette, turning eight times before neatly finishing the turn.

Show off.

The class finished soon thereafter and Daniel turned his attention to me. I gave him the Reader’s Digest version of my life right now and then asked about his.

“ I am so happy now!” he exclaimed, “I have made many changes in my life to be much happier.”

“Such as?”

“I am separated from my wife!” he announced triumphantly, with the type of smile that usually accompanies an announcement like “I won the lottery” or “My favorite team won the playoffs,” not “I’m getting divorced.”

“But it’s not an official divorce yet. It’s very difficult to get divorced here in Cuba.”

I called bullshit on that. I’ve heard that it costs something like 90 Cuban pesos to get married and 45 to get divorced and that it’s just a matter of getting some papers signed or something.

“Well, it would be easy, but I have to get a piece of paper first that proves I was married. And the problem is that I can’t get the paper because the office is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 to 12:30, and that’s when I have to work.”

It was such a typical Cuban problem—offices being open during erratic and inconvenient hours and a pile of bureaucracy that prevents him from sending an emissary to pick up one piece of paper.

“People will ask me ‘How long have you been married?’ and I will say ‘Fifty years,’ and they’ll say ‘Oh that’s great’ and I’ll say ‘Yes, but I haven’t seen my wife in forty years,’” Daniel said and began cackling.

I knew he was a writer as well and asked him about his work. He’s written five novels, has a few of them published, and is working on another one. He proceeded to explain the premise of his books and I swear they are a Cuban version of “The Twilight Zone.”

In his books, people live in “The City,” and have supernatural abilities or find strange things happening to them. “The City” is a character in itself and is a metaphor for God or the Universe (OR THE TWILIGHT ZONE!). It’s neither good nor bad, but everywhere, and functions according to certain rules. He spent a good 15 minutes explaining the premise of one of his stories wherein a man discovers that he is a character in a novel and can hear the voice of the author writing out his story. The character goes to the tundra and leaves behind his world to go to “reality” and find the author of his story. When the character find the author, the author tells the character that reality is just what you make it to be, and that the author is a character himself in someone else’s story.

It was all very meta and Twilight Zone-y. After talking for an hour, I told Daniel to wait a minute while I went to grab my friend Grace, a fellow American ballet student. When we came back upstairs to the studio, Daniel was shirtless in front of the mirror doing Tai Chi to Madonna music.

“I always wanted to be a ninja. But I got stuck with ballet,” he said while gracefully moving through a Tai Chi sequence. “Also Madonna is very good for Tai Chi.”

Grace and I couldn’t handle Daniel anymore, so we bid him adios and went on our way for lunch, until, a few drinks later, we called Daniel and convinced him to come to lunch with us. It started raining and we were stuck in a bar with Daniel for a few hours talking about his relationships, but that’s a story for another post…


Radio Talk: Salsa Date

1 May

Last night, I was invited to be a guest on “Love Bent and Adventure Bound,” a weekly radio show hosted by Ben-Jamin Toy and his co-hosts, Sparkle and Eric. The show’s main focus is adventure dating, and Ben asked me to talk about Salsa dancing and if Salsa makes for a good date.


I had to think about it before I went on the show. Personally, I would not use going to Salsa as a date and have pretty strong opinions about dating within your hometown Salsa scene (but I won’t get into that here). Also, I wouldn’t bring a guy that I’m just starting to date to Salsa, especially if he didn’t really dance (“Hey honey, sit down and watch me dance for three hours). However, I recognize that it’s different for me as an instructor and Salsa addict than it is for someone who has maybe never danced before.

So that caveat aside, yes, I do think that taking Salsa classes and then going out dancing socially would be an excellent date.

Probably not a first date, but if you’ve been going out with someone for a few weeks or months and are ready to mix it up a little bit, taking Salsa classes together would be great. You would be bonding over the shared experience of learning a new skill, have an opportunity to take your burgeoning (or established) relationship out of the one-on-one date realm, and be introduced to a whole world of passion and excitement that I think can sometimes be difficult to tap into (My buddy Richie discussed the passion that Salsa awakens in people here).

However, I would caution people who are taking classes as a couple to avoid falling into the trap of just dancing with your guy or girl.

For non-dancers, one of the most difficult parts of social dancing can be when your significant other (or date) is dancing with other people. But trust me ladies and gentleman, it’s for everyone’s own good.

You will never improve as a dancer if you don’t test yourself and dance with other people—if you get too used to dancing with just one guy, you won’t actually learn how to follow, you’ll just memorize your guy’s moves and it will get boring really fast. The same thing applies to leads—you’ll think you’re a great lead because your girl has memorized your moves, not because you’re actually leading them well.

So, if you’re planning to take Salsa classes with your significant other or someone you’re tryna holler at, be prepared to dance with lots of other people. For some, it requires a degree of trust that can be uncomfortable if you’re a jealous type of person, but when you realize that a dance can just be dance, it frees you up to enjoy dances with other people. Then, when you dance with your significant other or date, you can change the attitude and make it a little bit more sensual, flirtatious, silly, sexy—whatever your chemistry and style dictates.

I probably didn’t articulate any of what I’ve written here during the interview, but I did impart some wisdom that I think is invaluable to all Salsa dancers, whether on a date or not:

Ladies, test drive your skirts before you take them out dancing. Salsa wardrobe malfunctions are the kind of malfunctions.