From New York to Cuba: Here is Havana
Hola! Im Conner Gorry, a native New Yorker and resident of Havana since 2002.
1. Why did you move abroad?
For love and other complex reasons - including September 11th. My family was directly affected by the 9-11 attacks, so in addition to falling in love with my husband, it felt like a good time to hightail it the hell out of there.
2. How do you make a living (working? Tell us about your experience)?
I'm employed as a health journalist (this allows me to be here "legally" in the eyes of the US government) and am accredited at the International Press Center which is key to being a journalist here. This has been a life altering experience. I've lived with Cuban disaster doctors in post quake Pakistan and Haiti, reported on Cuban doctors working in Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezeula, and of course, have been up close and personal with the Cuban health system.
I'm also a freelance writer - in addition to the blog, I write guidebooks (Guatemala, Hawaii) and essays. My piece "Elvis has Entered the Casa" was just published in Best Women's Travel Writing 2011 (Traveler's Tales).
Havana Good Time is an iapp to the city written and updated entirely by me. Its fresh and innovative since its the only app written from Havana, but is selling really really slowly, unfortunately. Slow and steady wins the race maybe? One of my hurdles with this project (aside from constructing the app entirely on 50K dial up!) is that half of all iDevice owners are in the United States, and as most of your readers probably know, the US government prevents its citizens and residents from traveling freely to Cuba, so it's an interesting challenge.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
For me, communication is the most difficult thing about living in Cuba. We have no international service on our phone and besides, calls are nearly $2/minute so I couldn't afford it anyway. Cell phones can recieve intl calls free, but the actual service charges to have a phone here are beyond our means. There's no skype. We're on dial up, so there's no posting family videos on YouTube for instance. This has been very difficult for me. I have to wait for my family to call me, rely on email, and snail mail, which I love: I've had a PO box here since 2004 and nothing puts a skip in my step like seeing something in that little box waiting for me. I recommend this for expats: that way you can receive your Good Magazine and Cooks Illustrated.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Cuba?
I'll have to get back to you on that one....
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Cuba?
This is a really tough, complex question which I've thought and written a lot about - specifically being a foreigner in Cuba. One difficulty which I face all the time is the assumption that since Im foreign, I have money - people don't realize that I support my Cuban family here (my husband earns the regular average Cuban salary of $20/month), pay nearly 1/3 of my salary in US taxes, and am carrying tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. All Cubans see is "an ATM with legs" as we say down here. This doesn't mean only that people are trying to rip me off constantly (and w/ 9 years here, I know the scams so they never get away with it!) but that when something needs to be bought - wine for a party, a replacement part for a refrigerator, new shoes, medicine, whatever - people turn to me. It's tricky because Im essentially a square peg and most Cubans have only ever known round holes.
6. What do you miss most?
Jon Stewart, NBA, tofu (and a million other foods like trail mix, artichokes, cheese, ginger ale, sushi, Indian food, bagels), WiFi/broadband. This last is really quite frustrating. Do your readers even remember what dial up is/feels like? I fold the laundry while waiting for my homepage to load!
7. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
Hmmm. This gets harder and harder to answer the longer I'm here because I've adopted a lot of them myself over the past 9 years so they no longer seem strange. Annoying and frustrating? You betcha. Contradictory? Sure. But strange? I guess I'd have to say public zit popping: a disgusting and very, very commonplace sport here - couples on park benches, waiting at bus stops, wherever, Cubans are getting their rocks off popping each other's zits. You can read about this gross habit here: http://hereishavana.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/sensing-havana/.
8. What is a myth about your adopted country?
You can take your pick: there are the enduring right-wing loco myths like Cubans eat their children and tanks patrol the streets. That this is a police state. That tourists can't use pesos cubanos (one of the two currencies which circulate here). That there's no internet and/or censorship of internet is commonplace. That the Obama Administration is making comprehensive changes to US policy towards Cuba. These are myths I consistently try to debunk, but it's an uphill battle!
9. What advice would you give other expats?
Doing as much research as possible before you take the leap is important. Talk to people from there, people who have moved there and folks who know the place well. There's no reason to re-invent the wheel.
The second piece of advice is learn the language and make local friends. Why go live in a foreign country and only hang out with people who speak your language and have common experiences? That to me seems to defeat the purpose of living abroad.
Lastly, figure out how you're going to administer your life back home. Despite loud, shrill claims to the contrary, the whole world is not digitized and connected. How will you renew your passport and drivers license for instance? Pay taxes? Deal w/ jury duty? I think someone with a bit of entrepreneurial spark could do a raging business attending to expat administrative stuff like this.
10. When and why did you start your blog?
May 2009; I know only a very few expats here, so my aim wasn't to connect with the small (and dare I say largely exclusive) group here but rather to better process what was happening to me: the confusion, the acculturation, the contradictions. And that was after living here for 7 years! I've had people write in to my blog about how they've lived abroad for 20, even 30 years, and how they never quite fit in. Its a weird, but common dynamic I think, among expats - especially the more foreign the culture. The post I think best explains my take on this and why I so needed a cathartic outlet like a blog is: Always the Outsider Inside Cuba.
My blog isn't monetized at all (although I have advertisers coming to me), so there is zero financial gain. I have to get on that, I know! I have arranged a few donations - some quite large - to kids and old folks in Havana with people who reached out to me through the blog, so that has been motivational and inspirational.
Despite not putting bread on our table, as a writer, Here is Havana has been very important because quite simply, it keeps me writing. And the feedback I've received - from Cubans, from people who love Cuba, people who are curious about the place, or really know very little - has inspired me to keep writing about my experiences and push ahead with Here is Havana The Book. All of this, I hope, is helping to get out a different slice of Cuba, those wild and wonderful things you don't read about in the mainstream and/or dissident press.
I've also met some great people virtually, building my digital community and all that.
Conner's blog, Here is Havana