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Caribbean

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Read Cash Money in Havana  — Part One.

The Malecón lines the northern shore of Havana, holding back the waters of the Florida Straits about as effectively as it holds back dreamers from taking to those waters in rickety vessels bound for the Sunshine State. Before night falls, families with children, elderly couples, and tourists stroll the promenade under the tropical sun. After dark, lovers—clandestine or otherwise—promise each other eternity or just one night in the shadows between each wave.

I wandered down into the sticky, salty air of the Malecón needing $60 to change my plane ticket and, as a writer, open to considering any and all possibilities. Amid the scores of lusty young men looking for release, I met a slim, sinewy, dark-skinned brother just a bit taller than me and wearing a black tank top and khaki shorts. We exchanged smiles and lingering eye contact, inching closer to one another with pleasantries in Spanish. But as the space between us narrowed, we both noticed a tall, pinkish older man with receding blond hair and swollen muscles squeezed into a tight German soccer jersey. He was looking at both of us with pointed interest, his nod conveying an unequivocal proposal of transactional sex. This was the standard arrangement between most foreigners and Cubans on the Malecón at night. I say most, because that was not the implied arrangement between the slim, sinewy, dark-skinned brother and me.

He looked at me with questioning eyebrows and a forward posture indicating that I should accompany him over to the pinkish German. I thought about the $60, the brother’s smile (and privates), the epic story that the scenario would make, and potentially great sex; the German wasn’t exactly bad-looking, just sunburned. In the end, though, my ingrained American prudery won out, and I slowly shook my head no. “Vayas, tú.”

“Okey,” he said, “gracias.” He put his hand around my waist and pulled me closer, his lips brushing against my neck just below the ear. He slowly, slowly dragged his hand across my lower back as we unfurled, then winked and smiled before walking over to the German. I turned back towards town and my casa particular, knowing that I needed to wake up early if I hoped to sell anything for cash down at the souvenir market.

 

Image by truebacarlos via Flickr.

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Once, I ran out of money in Cuba. It was 2009, and I had returned to Havana after two previous trips with the purpose of experiencing the place before Fidel Castro officially kicked the bucket and KFC brought in theirs. Alas, I had miscalculated my finances, as friends and family can attest that I am wont to do, but decided to go on the trip anyway, as I am also wont to do.

Five days into my eleven-day sojourn in Cuba’s crumbling, captivating capital city, I found myself with less than $10 and no way to borrow money from the U.S., with the embargo and all. I had paid up for the next few nights at my casa particular, so I at least had lodging for a couple of days, and my Cuban friends would make sure I was properly fed and had some floor space somewhere, should it come down to that. I knew that, in Cuba of all places, I’d be all right. But I would still need cash.

I went to the Cubana office to talk with a ticket agent about taking an earlier flight back to Bogotá, where I was living at the time. The agent said it would cost me $60: a $50 change fee and a $10 typing fee. I was not mad at her hustle in the least; in fact, I appreciated her directness.

The task, then, was to figure out how I could earn the money. Previously, I’d brought basic goods—tube socks, deodorant, toothpaste, cans of chunk light tuna, packets of hair weave—to barter in exchange for Cuban souvenirs. This time, I only had the clothes I brought with me to wear, a clunky digital camera, my early-model laptop, and zero interest in or need for specially carved maracas or a linen guayabera.

I only had two places to find cash money in Havana: the souvenir market near the cruise ship terminal during the day, and the seafront promenade called the Malecón at night.

To be continued…

 

Read about my previous experiences in Cuba here.
Image by helenedancer via Flickr.

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As fall turns to winter in the Northern Hemisphere, travelers have always looked to the Caribbean for a little warmth. But it wasn’t just exotic beaches that were advertised; the region’s exoticized black bodies have always been a part of its allure. I’ve got mixed feelings about some of these. What do you think?

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After a devastating earthquake one year ago, the first colony in the hemisphere to throw off the yoke of slavery – a place that has forever been punished for that courageous act – is still in major need of financial and physical assistance. I have asked two of my fellow bloggers, native Floridians, and all around Fly Sistas (Dr. Brandi Reddick, The Green Pharmacist, and Frenchie of Black in Cairo) who have intimate contact with the country to recommend legitimate organizations that are worthy of your help:

The NEGES Foundation, a small non-profit, environmentally-focused organization with which Dr. Reddick worked back in 2009 (remember, grass-roots organizations need help, too).

Volunteers for Peace, a coordinating organization that arranges placements for volunteers interested in doing work on the ground.

Partners in Health, a medical NGO with a long reach and proven results.

Oxfam International, a highly-regarded development-focused NGO.

Prayers and peace to the millions of Haitians and their families who have suffered in the wake of the earthquake, as well as to the thousands of foreigners working to help make Haiti a sustainable nation (big ups to Brazil for its role in assisting Haiti).


Just this week, I had begun the preliminary planning for two weeks of volunteering this summer at an environment-focused work camp run by the NEGES Foundation in Léogâne, Haiti. Just yesterday, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked the country, its epicenter only a few miles away from Léogâne, just west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. With communication lines down and innumerable casualties, this has been the worst earthquake to hit the disaster-plagued and poverty-stricken country in 200 years. According to press accounts, hospitals and other traditional disaster relief locations have been destroyed.

The NEGES Foundation, with the help of my friend Dr. Brandi Reddick of The Green Pharmacist, had been planning a summer camp for kids that focused on environmental awareness and green living, in addition to the foundation’s normal projects, which include planting trees and operating a school, community center, and Internet cafe in the town. One of the organizers, Ms. Marie Yoleine Gateau, had just spoken with me Monday about coming down to work this summer. As of now, she has still been unable to reach her family and friends in Léogâne from her current residence in New York.

The pictures in this post are from Dr. Reddick’s trip to Haiti last summer, when she first volunteered with the work camp. Her enthusiasm in describing her experience inspired me to go myself this year. When I spoke to her today, she said that most people have this abstract image of “those poor people in Haiti already suffering,” and while the poverty is real, the people still lead as normal lives as they can; most were finishing up the work-day, getting dinner started, or out playing soccer.

While I’m unsure as to the status of my trip to Haiti, I still plan on at least volunteering my voice to raise consciousness about this tragedy, and to solicit help and support beyond the brief period of newsworthiness afforded to the people of Haiti this week.

To volunteer funds, clothing, medical supplies, and/or time to the NEGES Foundation, please contact Ms. Gateau via email: p y o 1 [a t] a o l [d o t] c o m.





They say Caracas es Caracas, lo resto es montes y culebras—Caracas is Caracas, the rest is just shrubs and snakes. With serpentine highways jack-knifing, double-backing, and clinging to mountainsides before plunging through tunnels that connect the country with the Valley of Caracas, that statement is beautifully obvious. The capital of Venezuela, at once cosmopolitan and ghetto, sits at the northern edge of South America, separated from the Caribbean Sea by the looming green wall of Avila Mountain and ringed by red-bricked, ever-expanding shanties that drape the hillsides.

As the principal city of the largest oil-exporting country outside the Middle East, Caracas combined the flavor and openness of the tropics with the verve and sophistication of a cosmopolis; in the 70s, Air France even ran the Concorde regularly between Caracas and Paris. Its glory days clearly over, I was last in Caracas in 2005, when Hugo Chavez still seemed harmless and funny, with his “Bush, joo are a donkay,” and the comfortable controlled chaos typical of large Latin American cities still seemed intact.

Within the conglomeration of 4.5 million people, freeways course through the valley bordered by countless billboards and high-rises sprout indiscriminately like a real-live version of Sim City. Boisterous, loud, dirty, crowded, and hot, Caracas ain’t pretty. But it’s sexy. And what struck me most about the place was the swift friendliness (and attractiveness…hotties everywhere) of the people; how you can go up to random folks on the street doing random things, and they take you into their world for a few hours, showing you their hobbies and houses, introducing you to their friends and trying to get you drunk, their diverse interests and tastes spanning place and time. One of my friends does flatland x-treme biking while listening to Lou Rawls on MP3!

Politically speaking, I haven’t seen any of the so-called reforms Chavez has put into action to nationalize major corporations and entire industries, fight labor groups (who should be his natural allies), and essentially destroy the middle class, but from what I hear from my friends in the country, things are not going well. I had intended to return over Spring Break to compare the changes I saw, but logistics made that impossible. As much as I love Cuba, I do not believe changing Venezuela into the 2.0 Beta version is the right way to achieve social equality.

Caracas is straight hood, and besides Rio de Janeiro, it’s the only city where I actually felt nervous about my safety; stray bullets are common and crime has exploded. The city, it pains me to say, is on the type of downward slant that takes a place decades to rectify. But on the flip side, you got tan chulos in wifebeaters rolling through the city blasting the latest reggaeton or hip-hop in heavy ’83 Chevy Malibus with their brick-house chicas smacking gum in the passenger seat. The nightspots go crazy with house or salsa til sun-up. There’s ice skating on top of Avila Mountain (outdoor ice skating in the Caribbean!) and baseball outshines soccer as the nation’s pastime. Afro-Latino syncretic religion is strong, as is the obvious African cultural element to the city, from the swagger and slang of Venezuelan Spanish to the proliferation of brown faces on the streets. It’s like Harlem in the early 80s or DC in the 90s, not just ghetto, but also fabulous. There’s something appealing about having your name engraved on your belt buckle when everyone else has, too.

I think the cosmos saved me from a great life disappointment by not allowing me to find a suitable job in the city when I was searching back in 2004. I do love Caracas and would have hated to be forced out of the country when Chavez siezes all foreign-held bank accounts.

To catch some of the true rawness of CCS, look at the first few scenes from the crime drama, Secuestro Express; very much in the vein of New Jack City and City of God. Any time I see images of the city, I remember the rush of being on the edge of anarchy. And I like it, at least in short doses.

And here’s an excellent, admittedly anti-Chavez blog about the goings-on in Caracas.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

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Recently screened at the Havana Film Festival New York, the 12-minute short film, Hispaniola, tackles Haitian-Dominican relations on the Caribbean’s second-largest island.

Director Freddy Vargas shows us how childhood friendships can be marred by issues of race, class, and nationality as we watch a rich, light-skinned Dominican kid befriend the son of Haitian migrant workers living illegally across the street. The opening sequence underscores the misinformation taught to Dominicans about their historical ties with Haiti (the Haitians freed the entire island from European colonial rule and liberated the slaves on both the French and Spanish sides), and alludes to the legacy of former U.S.-backed Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ensured that education in the country minimized any references to African heritage.

My only criticism of the film would be that the obvious phenotypic differences between the characters in the movie don’t speak to the complexities that arise when Dominicans of my own skin color (or darker) behave with the same rancor and hatred toward Haitians (or even very dark-skinned Dominicans). And believe me, I love my Dominicanos, but when it comes to the race issue, sometimes I be havin to let ’em know.

Best line comes from the little rich kid when he goes over to see his friend in spite of his jackass dad and tells him, “We’re still friends and we’re going to play baseball, okay?” with all the verve of a knowing Caribbean uncle. A mi mencant’el acento’minicano, sabeh?

HISPANIOLA from Freddy Vargas on Vimeo.

This month, the brief but insightful CNN program “My City My Life” follows brotherman and ballet phenom, Carlos Acosta, around his beloved Havana. Having been forced into ballet by his father as a way to keep him out of trouble, Acosta wound up being the first black principal dancer in the London Royal Ballet, followed by a starring role at the Bolshoi. In this short clip from the special, he intones the musicality and flow of the everyday Cuban’s walk, labeled esoterically by Cuban novelist Antonio Benítez-Rojo as “a certain kind of way.”

See full video here. (I love the group of men arguing about sports and politics in the park around 3:00; from the barbershop to the park to the church picnic…there we are.)

Click here to learn more about Fly Brother Carlos Acosta, “My City My Life”, and the beautiful Caribbean queen, Havana.

Image courtesy Havana Cultura

So you want to get in on the Carnival action but don’t know where to start?

Find out when.
First, you need to get the dates cornered before embarking on any pre-Lenten debauchery. True Carnivals – be they in Brazil, Italy, Spain, the Caribbean, or any other Catholic-leaning society – occur simultaneously, which means ix-nay on a year-round party binge (unless, of course, you count New York’s West Indian Day parade, Calle Ocho in Miami, the Notting Hill joint, or innumerable other Carnival-esque activities that are not True Carnivals and can happen on any random date); you can only choose one event per year. Also, just like Easter, which is always forty days after Fat Tuesday, Carnival jumps around the calender every year: for 2010, the main events run from February 13th through the 16th, with celebrations kicking off a few days beforehand in spots like Salvador.

Find out where.
Besides the biggies (Rio, New Orleans, Venice), you’ve got the Carnivals featured here on Fly Brother (Salvador, Barranquilla, Trinidad), plus parties in Panama, Santo Domingo, the Canary Islands, Florence, Cologne, Sydney, Port-au-Prince, Goa, Buenos Aires, and Mobile, so language-barriers and dislike of long flights serve as week excuses for not going buck-wild at somebody’s fête-a-tête-tête.

Find out who.
You could choose to hit Carnival solo, which is always a good way to meet new people on the road. Still, heading down with an established group is the best way to maximize your enjoyment and minimize hassles. You may think of yourself as an independent person, but you can always break away from the group for some alone time while still taking advantage of discounted airfares and accommodations, and the knowledge of local tour guides or experienced travelers. Each year, in addition to traditional travel agencies, educational institutions and individuals arrange group packages with which anyone can become affiliated: Dr. Jan DeCosmo of Florida A&M University organizes inexpensive packages to Trinidad and Salvador under the banner of “Friends of the Caribbean” (email her at k d e c o s m o [a t] h o t m a i l [d o t] c o m for more information) while Atlanta-based dancer Jazz Baptiste has established a Meetup group for next year’s do in Rio at only $5 a day. And the closer it gets to the blessed event, impromptu travel groups spring up on websites like Virtual Tourist, BootsnAll, and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum.

Find out more.
English-language websites for Carnival in Barranquilla, Salvador, and Trinidad.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Part 3 of a 3-part series on lesser-known, but no-less-hot, Carnival celebrations.

On the tiny Caribbean island of Trinidad, four-hundred years of recorded history under various European flags and immigration from the four corners of the globe have shaped and molded the look and feel of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival into one of the most distinctive and flavorful events in the English-speaking world. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, TnT Carnival stems from French colonization (though Spain held title over the place back then) and has incorporated elements from Africa, Europe, Venezuela, India, and North America; these elements, in turn, were exported throughout the West Indies and overseas, including London’s famous Notting Hill Carnival.

Besides the obvious visual stimulation of a scrumdiddlyumptious backside winin’ to some soca, TnT Carnival is an ocular feast of traditional costumed characters that make the Disney Main Street Parade look like an elementary school Christmas pageant. Observe:

The Fancy Indian (based on traditional Plains Indian dress from the modern-day US and Canada):
Photo by caribbeanfreephoto

The Moko Jumbie (derived from the Congolese tradition of village protectors who could see trouble before it arrived…basically, security guards):
Photo by Withthejameses

The Midnight Robber (inspired by the traditional African storyteller, the griot, who tells tall tales about his exploits, adventures, and prowess…lookin like a piyimp):

Photo by izatrini_com

Dame Lorraine (a playful version of a typical French aristocratic lady, with her big-booty self):
Photo by longdistancelady

Jabs (French patois for “diable” – devil – these firestarters come in various shades and manifestations – wings and sharp teeth and such; as you can see, they start young, the little hellions):
Photo by dexout

Cow Folk (based on, well, cows):
Photo by shawnking99

*The word “mas” is short for “masquerade” and is used to denote the various costumed bands of revelers during TnT Carnival.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)