I’m Conner Gorry, journalist, freelance writer and cultural interpreter. I moved to Havana Cuba, April 2002, for love and other complex reasons.
What challenges did I face during the move? If you’ve never been to Cuba you really can’t imagine. I hate it when people say blanket things like that, but in this case, it’s too true.
I had to bring almost everything here – squirreled away in my luggage – since there is no commercial cargo between the US and Cuba. There was the time a bottle of olive oil exploded inside my luggage with all my office supplies. Over the years, all my computer supplies had to be hand carried in (including a printer!). For the first couple of years, our apartment had no phone (and the neighborhood was a “dead zone” so not possible to install one). I’m sure it will be hard for your readers to imagine living somewhere with no phone or Internet access. One personal hardship is living without hot water – we went about six years without.I had to learn the bus system since we lived about 20 minutes outside the city center – this was when the camello buses (“camels” because of their two humps in the middle) still existed here and whoa! Was that a trip getting squeezed into one of those every day with 400 Cubans!
Can you tell us something about your property?
Not really. I’m not a property owner – foreigners can’t own property here under Cuban law. I have lived in two apartments in the past 9 years, both are “microbrigadas.” These are cookie cutter apartment blocks that you build with your own hands and then retain title. My husband, who is Cuban, arranged our housing. Any foreigner wishing to live here should be aware of the crippling housing crisis and how difficult +/o expensive it is to resolve a suitable living situation here.
What is the property market like at the moment?
There is none. Cubans own their homes but are not permitted to buy or sell. They can only trade. It’s a wild system that is partly broken because there aren’t enough homes to go around. For foreigners, golf resorts are being planned which will offer 99 year leases on condos. Still, not sure this will be open to US citizens and residents until embargo is lifted.
Are you employed or self-employed? What challenges did you face in either finding employment or running your own business?
Both. I have a “day” job as a health journalist here (this allows me to be here “legally” in the eyes of the US government). I am accredited at the International Press Center which is key to being a journalist here. I’m also a freelance writer – I have a blog and write guidebooks and essays. I also have a memoir in progress.
The challenge every day is connectivity. I blog and submit all my writing on 50k dial up. Dial up! There is only WiFi in a select handful of Havana hotels and it costs between $8-10/hour. Right now I’m finishing the Big Island guide for Lonely Planet and I had to go to a hotel two days in a row, spend over $50 and huddle over my laptop as I uploaded the files. I still haven’t finished. It’s very stressful – especially on deadline!
Office supplies are almost nearly impossible to get here. I have to carry reams of paper, print cartridges, index cards and myriad other products in my luggage every time I go off island.
As far as content goes, I’ve had a really hard time getting my writing about Cuba (outside of health) published. Since I’ve made my living as a writer since 1998, I doubt it’s because I’m not good at what I do. Rather, I think it has to do with my point of view which doesn’t vilify the government they way that all the rich and famous Cuban dissident bloggers do.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Very, very few. And since foreigners can’t own property, there aren’t the expat hangouts you find in Guatemala or Goa say. So there’s nothing like the community of expats common to other countries.
Most of my network is made up of Cubans, with some US and Latin American folks too. I find I go whole weeks without speaking English and this is frustrating – especially for a writer!
What is your relationship like with the locals?
I am very integrated into Cuban society – some would say too integrated! I speak “Cuban” (oh so different from plain old Spanish!) fluently, am married to a Cuban, have been to funerals, weddings, births, asked to be a godparent – you name it, in the 9 years I’ve lived here, I’ve probably done it. Though I’m still a crappy salsa dancer – one of my few regrets.
What do you like about life where you are?
I’ve actually posted on this exact topic: Things I Love about Cuba. Some things include: 5 cent cigars. I smoke two a day so having these decent, affordable smokes available makes life nicer! The music, of course, is simply heart stopping and Cuban musicians are very very accessible. It’s easy to meet your idols here – even the super famous mix and mingle in Havana. I also like how people share, help each other, respect older folks and how (relatively) safe it is here. Come to think of it, its a wonderful place to retire (if it weren’t for all that bureaucracy!). A counterpoint to this is my post Things I Don't Miss about the USA
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I’ve posted on this topic too, talking about my loss of anonymity, the sport of gossip, littering, shouting, giardia, and cold showers. Did I mention lack of connectivity?! The other thing is communication – a phone call to NY (my original home town) or anywhere else in the States costs around $2 a minute. Prohibitively expensive and not being able to pick up the phone affects my personal and professional life.
Also, due to the US embargo of Cuba, certain Internet sites are blocked from the US end including PayPal, iTunes, and Java. On this end, not much is blocked, but Skype is which is a huge hurdle. Read my full post, Things I Don't Love about Cuba
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Following in my footsteps to Havana? The short answer is don’t. It’s hard, it’s hot, Cubans are strong willed and generally xenophobic when it comes to living amongst foreigners, it’s expensive, the bureaucracy and inefficiency is maddening and the rules for living here are labyrinthine. However, if you’re hell bent on it I would say: research, research, research. Learn from those who have done it, know before you go what you’ll be getting into and know that it will be harder (sometimes much!) than you think.
Learning the language is very important, as is making 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.
It’s important to continue to administer your life back home: how will you pay taxes? renew your passport? Don’t let that (or your drivers license) lapse like I did! How will you pay bills, deal with jury duty, receive mail etc? These are all things you should work out before you go.
What are your plans for the future?
Try to get my book published about my life in Cuba. Contact me if you’re interested!