Tag Archive for 'havana'

Regarding the blurry boundary between Free Love and Transactional Sex in Cuba

the malecon

the malecón photo by Isaac Holeman.


The other day I passed part of the afternoon walking alone along the malecón, the seawall pictured above. Built in 1901 by the U.S. during one of their occupations of Cuba, it covers most of Havana’s sea shore and is a hub of people watching and sea sprayed dallying for locals and tourists alike. On one particularly popular stretch I walked past a fairly attractive young woman wearing a modest tank top and long skirt. She was sitting with one hip and a hand on the broad seawall, and I happened to look over right as a gust of wind blew her skirt almost up to her waist. She saw my embarrassed smile and called me back, “hey amigo”.

She was friendly and more forthcoming than most Cuban women I’ve met, particularly after she discovered I’m from the US. Before long she asked me if I had a girlfriend (American women are always asked by Cuban men “do you have a boyfriend?” If yes, “do you have a Cuban boyfriend?” The question is slightly less common from women). No I said, and she smiled and said she was single too, so we could start dating if I liked. She knew I only had 3 weeks left in Cuba, but said we could pasar un buen tiempo (have a good time). I was more than a little stymied, fearing to respond in case I had misunderstood, though I was certain I hadn’t. It got worse when she said, as if to clarify, “quieres quedar conmigo?” The word quedar has various meanings, some of them specific to Cuba, so she might have been asking if I wanted to stop and sit on the seawall with her, if I wanted to start dating her, or if I wanted to sleep with her. After consulting Cuban friends, the last interpretation wouldn’t have been literally accurate but possible as an innuendo, and the second was the most likely, but I had no idea at the time. She then told me about a nice bed and breakfast (casa particular) by the national hotel that would rent a room for $20, did I have 20 dollars? she asked. This is significantly more money than non-famous Cubans my age have for leisure spending in a month, or even a year. As I drifted away, feeling rather odd, I tried to stammer something about not knowing her very well – it almost came out in English.

Here’s a list of my general perceptions about the conversation, including the nonverbal cues.

  • She was interested in having sex with me, pronto.
  • This would have been part of engaging in a relationship, not just a one night stand (one afternoon, in this case).
  • My nationality and her associated expectation of my relative wealthiness played a significant role in her interest.
  • If I had pursued this relationship, she would have expected me to spend money, take her places, and buy her things that were not otherwise available to her.
  • If I had agreed to the relationship but later refused to spend money on her, she would very likely have ended the relationship, but wouldn’t have argued that I had incurred a debt that needed to be paid.
  • She did not consider the proposal a transaction or a purchase.

Again, this is the way it looked from my perspective, they are not indisputable truths about the situation. I am quite confident that she was not a jinetera (prostitute), but I definitely got a bad vibe that felt more sinister than promiscuous and forward behavior alone. This experience left me with more questions than answers. Here are some of the questions.

  • If there were a spectrum of behavior with transactional sex on one end and free love on the other, where the heck would this encounter register?
  • Could I have ethically pursued a romantic relationship with her (not necesarily including sex), knowing that she was probably as interested in my economic status as in me?
  • In this specific instance, would it have felt empowering to her that she could use her attractiveness to satisfy her physical desires AND have material benefits, or would she have felt that this use of her body was an unfortunate only option? Basically, was she going against her morals?
  • Was my impulse to get away from her rooted in an unfair gender bias – an expectation that Cuban women should act more prudently than Cuban men?
  • Did my response to this situation result from an unfair bias regarding her nationality and my assumptions about her economic status?

The second to last question needs more explanation. Young Cuban men are constantly intimating to my female American friends that they would like to have a sex with them. This can be frustrating but it’s “normal” here. My female friends are really put off by this dynamic (I would be too), but it doesn’t cause them to reject every person outright; if they did they wouldn’t have any friends. They just deal with it and remember that they need to be careful about initiating relationships on their own terms.

If this woman had been a man and I a woman, her actions would have been relatively very forward, but not to the extent that they would merit immediately viewing her as much less appealing than any other random stranger. While she definitely did say some things that made it clear she was in the market for a sugar daddy, it’s hard for me to dissect how her nonconformity with the typical gender role might have cauesed me to (in the spur of the moment) focus on the financially motivated comments (creepy) more than any genuine interest in casual sex (not my thing, but not as repulsive as sex for money). It’s probably pertinent that she must have been more aware of Cuba’s gender biases than I, and her words were probably intended to honestly convey all of the things she was interested in. Nonetheless, I don’t like the idea of applying this gender bias when I make decisions. This is one of the dilemmas of being in an environment where I feel like the only norms I can use to interpret the social significance of various interactions are those of a culture that I can’t participate in fully enough to challenge.

As for the last question. There are a lot of gold diggers in the states too. I’m definitely not a fan of them, but I tend to think of it as shallow rather than borderline transactional sex. I don’t think this girl was looking to me to help her meet basic material necessities. At the same time, if she is like most Cubans she probably has almost zero material pleasures beyond those necessities, and very little chance of improving her situation through her own labor (there just aren’t economic opportunities in Cuba). While intertwining sex and material gain may not exactly be driven by desperation in this case, it likewise doesn’t seem quite the same as a person in the US who has access to economic opportunities and is choosing not to pursue them because it’s easier to seduce a rich person.

Overall, it was a pretty strange experience, one that I wouldn’t have been capable of understanding (linguistically or culturally) a few months ago. It’s nice to feel that my Spanish and understanding of Cuban society have improved that much, but at the same time I feel like gaining some insight has left me with more unanswered questions than I had before. Please post a comment if you have ideas about any of my questions.

Important note: Although I have read that sex tourism is often less formal in Cuba than in other places, I have not thoroughly researched the topic. This post is meant to describe some individual responses to economic and social differences. Please do not think I am claiming that everyone who comes from or visits Cuba responds the same way.

Exploring Authencity, or Choosing not to

Two Strangers on the Malecon by Isaac Holeman.

My Mom once told me about a short story written by a couple that had been budget traveling around Cuba and had some minor fiasco on the street. I think one of of their bag’s broke and some important papers flew into the wind and onto the street. A nice Cuban couple helped them pick up their things, struck up a friendly conversation, and eventually invited them to come to their home for dinner a few days later. After a wonderful dinner and some very interesting conversation, the Cuban couple asked if they traveling couple might help pay for the dinner, Cubans don’t have much money they said. This seemed reasonable, except that the price the Cubans were asking was significantly more than a reasonable restaurant would have charged for the fare. This seemed a little bizarre and unfair to the travelers, but they felt indebted for the hospitality they had received, and it was clear that despite their tight traveling budget, they certainly had more worldly goods to call their own than this Cuban family. They paid what the Cubans asked for the food.

Later, after more witty and exotic conversation, the Cubans began repeatedly mentioning things that other foreigner friends had gifted to them. A stereo from a Canadian family, a TV from England, a load of school supplies for their darling child. Before long it was clear that this traveling couple was also being asked to give great gifts. There was never any real fear involved, not a thought of danger. Just guilt, how foul is that? These Cubans were just being really friendly and then rubbing it in that respective social/economic systems leave people with drastically different access to commodities, often with place of birth being the greatest distinguishing characteristic of the individuals involved. How rude of them to ask for all kinds of things they don’t need, just because they were charismatic enough to very quickly become friends with people who do have those things. Or, how right, perhaps. How is it that people like me develop such a great sense of ownership that we feel indignant when others ask that we, of our own will and expense, put them on an equal playground.

I say people like me because I speak from experience, sort of, maybe. The other night coming home from dinner, one of our friends was waylaid by the classically Cuban conversation starter “wha cantri you fram?” Their child was breathtakingly cute, dancing wildly to the regatton blasting in the distance. The couple were so engaging, we talked politics, religion, and music there on the street while the ladies from our group danced, chased, and hugged their little girl. They also talked about foreigner friends, and ended up showing us the shirt and backpack their Canadian friends had bought for their daughter. I got a bad vibe early and remembered the story above, but my friends were enamored. Before we left they had invited us all for dinner and dancing in their home, told us to bring as many people as we could. They would call to remind us and then would pick us up at the hotel, even though they lived so far away they would need to take hours of bus rides to get to our hotel. When they called to remind us, my friend sensed something very creepy and as of about half an hour ago, we decided not to go have dinner with them. I was sort of expecting to get scammed, but the word scam really doesn’t describe the sick twistyness of it. I still wanted to go, even if to repeat the heinously awkward circumstances of the other traveling couple. Anyhow, I admit relief at not having to risk saying no, or yes, to friends.

ps For those of you who aren’t very familiar with Cuban culture, this set of experiences is no more representative of all Cubans than thieves, pranksters, and neoliberals are representative of all US residents.

Libre in Cuba: My arrival in Havana

The Color in Habana Vieja by Isaac Holeman.

As some of you may know, I now write from Havana, Cuba. Smiley face X !!! to the power of * is how much I like it here, so far. Yes, I know that’s an impressive number. I’m on the honeymoon with this country.

On the way from the US I stopped for one night in Cancun because standard airlines may not fly directly from the US to Cuba (don’t forget the economic/political blockade our tax dollars have built up around Cuba). I met the other twenty six students and my professor at the hotel and various airports along the way. This group of people is great and I am overjoyed to be here with them.

Cancun itself is horrid. It boasts a reeking blend of the frivolity of Vegas (in it’s reputation, I’ve never actually been to Vegas), the numbing commerciality of WallMart, and a truly impressive concentration of embarrassingly drunk and ostentatious tourists from the US. An advertisement for Señor Frogs, a popular club/disco, summed it up will with the slogan where nobody knows your name. Cuba is rather different.

To begin with, shops and restaurants put up signs, but there are no further advertisements (a particular shock after Cancun). Instead, the streets of this country are marked by mural sized quotations of famous activists, leaders, and poets.

The Old City, Habana Vieja, recalls a very humid, crumbly, grandiose city in Eastern Europe. I makes me wonder what parts of Budapest might look if it’s most noble neighborhoods were also its most decrepit. You might click on the picture to see the rest of an album from la Habana. Today I discovered that the Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba features the same bearded man wearing a starred hat that I photographed in the picture with a lady in a pink dress.

Havana already begins to feel like home. I just came back to its familiar places after a ten day tour of the southern and eastern parts of Cuba, but more on that later.

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