Photo: TravnikovStudio/Shutterstock

Free Sex Changes and Other Surprises I Encountered in Cuba

Cuba Adventure Center: Travelers-in-Residence
by Jules Torti Oct 23, 2012
Jules Torti stocks up on rum and backup pork rinds before Tropical Storm Isaac makes landfall.
1. “Guantanamera” was the subject of a Supreme Court case.

“Guantanamera” is the unofficial anthem of the island (Celine Dion is runner-up with “My Heart Will Go On”). The song is easily heard five times a day, pumped out of every bar and restaurant, and it’s on every live band’s playlist. I initially thought the lyrics were about a girl from Montana, but that might have been the rum listening.

The song originated as a catchy melody first used on Jose Fernandez Diaz’s radio program as background music to deliver the daily news. Over time, artists put lyrics to it, but there are differing accounts of the original composer. Both Fernandez Diaz and Herminio “El Diablo” Garcia Wilson claimed the song; in 1993, the Supreme Court of Cuba concluded that Diaz was the composer.

Scroll through YouTube and you’ll find impassioned covers by Julio Iglesias, Wyclef Jean, and Pete Seeger (who recorded the first modern version).

2. Tortillas and tostadas may deceive you.

In Cuba, tortilla means “omelette” and tostada means “toast.” If you’re expecting spicy Mexican fare loaded with salsa and guacamole, you’ll be disappointed.

3. There’s a connection between Havana’s ice cream and Cuba’s history at the Oscars.

Fresa y Chocolat snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994 — Cuba’s first. The plot turns around the politically turbulent Havana of 1979 and two headstrong and passionate men: a gay artist named Diego and a stiff and twitchy Communist named David.

Based on a short story by Senel Paz and directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, the definitive scenes take place in Coppelia Park, home to Havana’s wildly popular ice cream shop (in business since 1966). The film’s title (“Strawberry and Chocolate”) refers to ice cream flavours, and it’s in Coppelia Park that Diego tries to seduce David over fresa y chocolat.

In the Jetsons-like structure on Calles 23 and L in Vedado, the state-run Coppelia claims to be the world’s largest parlour, serving up to 30,000 customers a day.

4. Hurricane party for six, please.

As Tropical Storm Isaac moved towards us, I noticed that our Adventure Center guide Leo was relaxed. “The storms are no big deal for us, we are used to them. They happen all the time. As long as we have party supplies, we are okay,” he said, eyeballing the rum in the lobby bar.

When hurricane warnings are issued, Leo told me, Cubans rush to their nearest bodega to stock up on rum and pork and begin barbequing, imbibing, feasting, dancing, and singing with the assumption that the power is going to be knocked out for a couple of days.

As ominous clouds clotted the sky, I bought extra pork rinds and a back-up carton of rum at the bodega across the street.

5. Bathroom attendants supply their own paper.

I’ve always been a little annoyed at having to leave a tip for using toilets, but my feelings changed after Leo told us that bathroom attendants in Cuba buy soap and toilet paper with their own money to stock the facilities. I wondered about other countries I’d visited where attendants rattled coins in tin cups as a reminder to contribute. Do those in Uganda, Panama, or Egypt buy their own, too?

6. Buy a bar of soap, win a house.

In Santiago de Cuba there are several houses with a signature lock and key image on the facade of the home. They’re known as the Villas Jabon Candado (literally, “padlock soap”).

Crusellas Sopa, founded by brothers Juan and Jose Crusellas, was famous for its soap and hair tonic in pre-Castro Cuba. In 1929, the enterprising brothers hopped on a joint venture with Colgate-Palmolive to manufacture and market American products on the island, resulting in the Jabon Candado contest. In a marketing ploy similar to Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, random bars of soap were packaged with vouchers for prizes — including free houses. Soon, Jabon Candado laundry detergent was the best selling brand in Cuba.

7. Rum flows like water, sometimes.

A few sips into your mojito, the bartender will often come to the table with a bottle of Havana Club to top you up if necessary. No extra charge. Though we weren’t the recipients of free rum top-ups at every bar, it was a frequent and welcome offer.

8. Watch for roadside fumigations.

On our way from Camaguey in Central Cuba to Trinidad in the west, I groggily woke up when our van driver slammed on the brakes. There was a vehicle on the side of the road with smoke billowing out the windows and from below the door panels. As we got closer, our driver told us to get out of the vehicle. The truck wasn’t on fire, it was being fumigated. As we clamored to exit, big plumes of mystery smoke seeped into our van.

Dengue (break-bone) fever is a mosquito-borne viral infection found throughout the Caribbean. After an outbreak in Havana in 2001-2002 (more than 3,000 recorded cases), the government practically eradicated dengue from the island. The classic dengue triad is fever, rash, and headache. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine and only symptomatic treatment.

I presumed that if the mosquitoes didn’t get us, the long-term affects of inhaling pesticides would.

9. Naming a hurricane is a complicated business.

There are six rotating lists of 21 names (26 letters in the alphabet, minus Q, U, X, Y, and Z) used for storms in the Atlantic. In the event that more than 21 tropical storms occur in a season, the World Meteorological Organization Tropical Cyclone Programme begins using the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and so on.

In the Atlantic basin, severe storms with numerous fatalities result in the removal of the storm’s name from future lists. In 2005, “Katrina” was retired due to the costly devastation and sensitivity associated with the name.

10. Cuba offers free sex change operations.

After Cuba’s revolution in 1959, gay Cubans were still being fired, imprisoned, or sent to “re-education camps.” President Fidel Castro’s niece Mariela (Raul Castro’s daughter), in her role as director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, has been advocating for a shift in attitude and policy since the 1990s.

In June 2008, as part of a pilot program, the Cuban government passed a law permitting free sex change operations to qualified citizens. Wendy Iriepa was one of the first to partake in the program after being clinically ‘diagnosed’ as a transsexual in 1990. She married Ignacio Estrada in 2011.

Since 2008, 15 sex change operations have been performed. Financing and medical specialists come from Belgium, a country that has had a long-standing partnership with the Cuban healthcare system. If the pilot program is successful, Cuba is entertaining the thought of opening access to foreigners in the future.

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