This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
In Cuba, sex is everywhere. From the moment you arrive at the airport, it feels like you were just transported to a parallel universe of good-looking, tanned salsa dancers. Walking the streets, there is no doubt you will walk past boxes of Vigor King Size condoms stacked up in chemists' window displays, while in bars of a more sketchy variety, you can buy a Momentos condom with one Cuban peso.
The Cuban regime has banned porn, but weirdly you can watch it on TV in some bars, where patrons will glance at it with the kind of nonchalance that can make it seem like a football game is on, instead of a couple ploughing the fields of love. Sexual prowess is highly valued, but spending time here you'll notice that although sex is engrained in Cuban society, there are also a lot of stories, myths, and superstitions surrounding it. One of them is "the Pearl"—a sort of penis talisman I first heard of from Julia, a Spanish friend of mine who lives in Cuba.
Julia had been living in Austria before she came to Cuba in 2008 to work as an assistant for an artist. "The three years I spent in Vienna had been one long dry spell. Everything seemed cold and complicated there, and I wasn't really interested in anyone. When I arrived here, I immediately realized Cuba would be a different story."
In the weeks before her job started, she met a guy called Nelson. "He was the only man I met during those weeks who didn't show any sexual interest right away—though I later learned that was just a strategy. But I didn't really know anyone in Cuba and I was ready to end my Viennese drought. After our third meeting, I brought him to my place. We made out, which naturally led me to touch his dick. There I felt something hard—not just his state, but, like, a marble under the skin of his penis. I looked down, and that's when I saw the pearl."
According to Arianna Villafaña, a Cuban doctor at the Móstoles University Hospital, the pearl is a small ball, often made of plastic, that's placed under the skin of the penis through a small incision. The surgery is usually performed at home, without any proper sanitary precautions. "The goal is to enhance sexual performance," says Arianna. "The Cuban myth claims that women who feel the pearl will go mad with pleasure."
Dr. Almudena López, a sex therapist and a colleague of Arianna at Móstoles University Hospital, says there is no basis in human anatomy for the pearl to be that successful. "For it to really stimulate the clitoris, the pearl should be placed at the very base of the penis, which never happens. As for the G-spot, that's something you can easily reach with a finger, but it's much more complicated to reach directly with the penis. Of course eroticism is for a big part a psychological affair, and given that the famous pearl has some mysteries to it, it might actually tickle the brain more than any other part of the body."
"I don't remember feeling anything special with the pearl," says Julia. "Or maybe I did, I don't know. But I think my excitement had more to do with the fact that my Viennese dry spell was over. Nelson told me he had it done during his military service without any kind of anesthesia, and that it was quite a nuisance at first, because his skin was too tight. But he was so proud of it, because he considered the procedure to be some kind of virility ritual."
Dr. Arianna Villafañe insists that the pearl can have a devastating effect on the health of the owner. During her years working at the Hospital Provincial Saturnino Lora at Santiago de Cuba, she saw cases of tetanus, balanitis, and gangrene as a result of getting the pearl. "I personally only saw a case of balanitis that resulted the surgical removal of the pearl, but I have heard about cases in which part of the penis had to be removed because it had been severely affected by gangrene."
Usually guys who have one or more pearls in their penis are young men in military service, convicts, or sailors—not just from Cuba, but all over the world. The trend is said to have reached Cuba thanks to merchant seamen in the 1960s, who returned from Asia and apparently brought along some techniques of sexual organ modification. In fact, the tradition is said to have originated among imprisoned members of the yakuza, one pearl for each year they spend in jail. But the procedure was also prevalent in the Philippines, while Chinese traders used to go a little further: they'd insert a rattle in their penis to give any sexual encounter the festive soundtrack it deserves.
Through some friends, I get in touch with Manuel, who has a pearl in his penis. Because at this point I had already returned to Spain, we text through Telegram, one of the few chat apps that work in Cuba. Manuel is 35, has four children from three different women, and makes a living buying and selling imported foods from Miami. He first heard about the pearl when he was still a child, but after entering in the military service, he finally encountered some. "When we were showering or getting dressed, I noticed that some guys' dicks had round lumps on them," says Manuel, "I asked them about it, and they explained. A couple of weeks later I had the procedure myself. There was one guy in the barracks who used to always do it to everyone who wanted it, and he did mine too. But I made the pearl myself."
He followed his friend's advice, stole a domino game piece, broke it into pieces, chose the best bit and started polishing it until it was round and the proper size. "It should be thoroughly polished, which means that at the end of the process, you have to keep the pearl in your mouth all day long and suck on it like it's a piece of candy, have it roll around your teeth until it's a smooth little ball. I even trained with the pearl in my mouth. When I was ready, I went to the guy who would do the procedure. I had to lay my penis on a flat surface, and he tore a piece of my skin off with the sharpened lower part of a toothbrush. That's where he made the cut. The pain was terrible, but I knew it would be worth it, because all the jevitas go mad over it. You get a bandage on your dick, so you can't wash yourself or masturbate for a few days."
I asked him whether he was scared he'd get infections or lose his virility, but he said that the pain and the risks are all worth it. "The pearl stimulates the clitoris about 20 times more than if you have sex without it. When I was in the military, people used to tell the story about a guy who fucked a slightly delicate jevita, and she actually had a heart attack. She almost literally burst with pleasure. If you want to seduce a viejita, you just need your pearl, and you have her. It is the best."
The only bursting I can truly see happening is penises bursting with chancres and gangrene, but Manuel is adamant. The next message I get on Telegram reads: "If I was in Europe, you'd try the pearl, girl."