Understanding the basics of Cuban body language
Travelling across the world and having lived in a number of countries which are not my own, I have learned that it is essential to learn at least the basics of communication in different cultures. I am not talking about speaking a foreign language, that is easy enough, but about learning the codes of behaviour, the body language, the facial expressions that help you get by and that might keep you out of trouble. I wonder if this is my own personal talent or, more simply, something everyone does out of necessity. Just as I do not expect to find amazing pizza and spaghetti outside of Italy (yeah, the good old stereotype), I do not expect people to behave like we do here.
I have learned that British people do like to keep a certain body-distance when speaking – something I have learned to appreciate: I call it “my own personal space”. I have learned that any sales assistant in the USA says hello to customers but that won’t mean they will be right at your side while you shop. I have learned that French people love it if you make the extra effort of saying a few words in French, even if just to say that you do not speak French. And so on.
But for as much as I could, I did not learn to appreciate communication in Cuba. At first, I just ignored the many “jineteros” who insistently asked if I needed a taxi when I walked by (and at times, right after they saw me getting off a taxi!). I ignored the men sending me kisses in the street to catch my attention, or calling me “hola chica, hola linda, hola guapa” and what not. I ignored the women who followed me around asking “hola, paladar” or “hola espanola? hola italiana?”.
I then realised that sending kisses across the street is a way of communication in Cuba, which is used to catch anybody’s attention, or to say hello to people they know who walk by. I understood that anybody in Cuba is constantly looking for customers/jobs. Or better, they are not looking for a job, they are waiting for the job to walk by. I tried to ignore the calls of men offering company, asking to sleep with me (yes, they are that straightforward!), to dance with me, and what not. The times I told them “dejame en paz” (leave me alone) as they kept following me I was either told “we’ll deal with this later” or “I am waiting for you”. They seemed unable to take no for an answer.
Same at the casas particulares. There is no way that you can make your own arrangements for your next stop – there is no such thing as privacy. You can bet almost any landlord will want to send you to his friend’s house, and will politely yet insistently point out that your are absolutely free to do whatever you prefer, but that their friend’s casa is a very good one – and will do their best to make you feel guilty if you refuse the service or do not want to reveal where you are going to stay next.
As I said, I did try to ignore most of the comments I heard in the street. But at times, the sun and heat got the best of me and I would literally explode and scream “no, no necesito un taxi!” or “ya he comido,” “ya tengo habitacion” and what not. And this would of course make the men even more persistent, as they then had a chance to make fun of a poor young petite woman who could not take their insistence any longer. A few times I replied in Italian or Sardinian to comments on my physical appearance, saying the equivalent of “you dirty old man” with such a smile on my face that sent the men happily away. However, I was this close to stopping and telling the men sending me kisses across the streets that to me, and to any traveller, really, that was not acceptable, that was not working, that was not the way to conquer me. After all, I thought, they have so much tourism here that they should know something about communicating with the tourists, right? And they all speak a few words of English, Italian and what not, so why not also learn the body language and attitude?
In the end, I gave up. I was the traveller, I was the guest, I had to live with the system and accept it – as long as I did not feel threatened I was ok, only a bit annoyed.
But when I had a chance, I told a taxi driver I talked to that European women do not care about machism and that to us it is fundamental that we are beautiful in the eyes of our man, our one man, and not to the entire male community of the country. He told me women in Cuba like being called in the streets, that it makes them proud and makes them feel beautiful (whether they are or not, that is a different story). He explained that women in Cuba like their man to show that they are macho. I observed that being a macho, to us, is not equivalent to being a man or manly or powerful, and that hardly any woman in Europe really appreciates machism. He did not seem to get the difference between a macho and a man, but nevermind.
After all, I am back home and I don’t have to deal with men sending me kisses in the streets.
If you would like to know more about my Cuban adventures, click here.