The Frustrations and Joys of Cuba

Tuesday, 17 February 2015–Havana

This morning I woke up late, almost 9 am, having shut off my alarm as soon as it sounded, because last night just after midnight a dog in the yard behind our house began to bark. Loudly and stridently. Over and over. And over. And over. You get the idea. It woke me from a sound sleep. After several minutes of lying there, I got up and yelled out the window for the dog to shut up, which was a mark of my level of exasperation, rather than any real hopes that it would help. And of course it didn’t. I have no idea how long the damn thing kept barking, nor when I went back to sleep. At least the rooster wasn’t yet crowing. And February isn’t one of the truly hot months.

(back row, left  to right) Uva de Aragón, María Elena Llana, Nancy Alonso, Aida Bahr (front row) Nancy Morejón, Georgina Herrera, Sara E. Cooper, Mirta Yáñez

(back row, left to right) Uva de Aragón, María Elena Llana, Nancy Alonso, Aida Bahr (front row) Nancy Morejón, Georgina Herrera, Sara E. Cooper, Mirta Yáñez

The first thing I heard when I dragged myself out of my mosquito net-swathed, hard and lumpy single bed is that almost a week into my trip the books for the Book Fair still haven’t been released. That is an entirely different story and the subject of the next blog entry–keep your eyes out because it’s a doozy.

These are some of my frustrations, along with mosquitoes, the challenges of finding/buying/preparing food, the 56 speed dial-up modem at the house, and the sheer volume of street noise—even in this tiny almost rural town by the sea made famous by Hemingway (Cojimar).

It’s that in Cuba, people live in the streets. Imagine the most friendly neighborhood you have seen, with folks out on their front porch swings, waving at everyone who goes by. Then multiply that by ten, and you will have a slight idea of the amount of regular interaction here, starting by 7 am and lasting until 11 or 12 at night on weekdays, and we are talking about a small town rather than the city, because in the city folks are out in droves until 2 or later.

But here, to start with, you have the ambulatory vendors who literally call out up and down each street all day to hawk their wares. Also, people do not have glass windows in Cojimar, just wooden shutters (and iron railing) that do not block noise, and this in no way makes people shy to play their preferred music at the highest setting whenever they wish.

Of course nobody has air conditioning here (ok, a few have it, in one room), so many times
the most comfortable place to be is outside in the shade or anywhere the breeze blows. The number one place to be in the evenings is along the seawall running alongside Havana, called the Malecon. You can’t get away from ten kinds of music, frivolous or serious flirtation, gossip, drunken hilarity, and the occasional fistfight.

Havana's Malecon (seawall)

Havana’s Malecon (seawall)

Then you have the fact that almost nobody has a car, so getting anywhere involves a lot of walking and a lot of waiting for busses. And if you walk down a street where someone you
know lives, then you call out to them as you pass their house, so that if they are home you can exchange a few words through the chain-link fence that provides security from the increasing minor crime. Also, everyone in a 4-block range belongs to the block squadron, or committee, and so there is constant interaction among the folks who share this mini-version of a neighborhood. Everyone watches out for each other, and watches each other, and shares gossip about each other, on such a regular basis that you might as well all live in the same house anyway.

Which brings me back to the shopping factor. There is no Target, no Walmart, no Raleys or Safeway or Costco or fill in the blank. There are a million little stands with vegetables and fruits (whatever happens to be around, no regular inventory you can count on), and
another million tiny bodegas with their small freezer and refrigeration sections and dry goods (same question with the inventory), and a few large “shoppings” where you can buy luxury products like tomato sauce, mayonnaise, liquor, and red meat for the equivalent of
foreign currency (the booze is always available but everything else is subject to the whims of import/export/production). This means a lot of running out to this or that stand or store when you hear through the grapevine that they have powdered milk or beets or chicken or hot dogs.  That last item, by the by, was bought up by the Book Fair vendors, so

Food kiosks at the 2015 Book Fair

Food kiosks at the 2015 Book Fair

that for two weeks hot dogs disappeared from the shelves. Nonetheless, this all means more stopping to chat and informing others (after you have bought what YOU want) of the current availability of merchandise where you were. Finally, few people have a phone, so those who do are always in demand for the “little favor” of letting the entire neighborhood place their calls.

Mirta really works at being a curmudgeon and limiting how much people bother her, so she can write, and still all day long people yell out below her window, call on the phone,
interrupting. Although they no longer ask her to use her phone, for fear of a severe tongue-lashing.

Privacy? Quiet? Just more commodities that are scarce on the island.

However, in truth the constant interaction is also a joy, because here the priority are people, relationships, connections, intimacy. This is refreshing in contrast to our culture in the US, where you barely know your neighbors, and building friendships is so difficult, and isolation is a killer. In this part of the world, isolation is just not an option, as much as you might try or wish to retire from human contact.

This also means that people pull together in times of need. In our neighborhood, a couple families have taken to saving their dinner leftovers for the 90 year-old woman who lives on the corner. Mirta gives her supplies for the many dogs she has rescued over the years. Our next door neighbor found a place to stash my enormous suitcases until Mirta got home from a conference session. She and Mirta make it a habit to tell each other when the water has come back on, so they can fill up their cisterns. Need to move something heavy? Just walk out your front door and ask whomever is standing around and talking.

José Martí bust at the Cojímar town square

José Martí bust at the Cojímar town square

This is something I desperately need, a break from the frantic pace of life, the focus on productivity. My own “achiever” mentality (a strength, I am told). Here I have to slow down. It isn’t an option, which is good. Given the option, I’d rather get something done.

So in the balance, what comes out as the more prevalent emotion? Joy?Frustration? Well, that is another thing about Cuba, the inevitability of ambiguity, of apparent paradoxes. It’s really impossible to say which of the two might outweigh the other. It’s complicated (a phrase often heard in those constant conversations at the office, the Malecón, or the neighborhood bus stops).

Rather, both states of mind exist, all the time. It’s just called life in Cuba.

About cubanabooks

Cubanabooks is a small independent press devoted to bringing first-class literature from Cuban women to a United States audience as well as to a global English and Spanish-speaking public. Publishing select literary gems in English or in bilingual English/Spanish volumes, Cubanabooks aims to correct the current U.S. unavailability of excellent literature from Cubans living in Cuba. At this time we prioritize the dissemination of works by living female writers who reside on the island. The founder and senior editor is Dr. Sara E. Cooper (Ph.D. University of Texas, Austin 1999), Professor of Spanish at California State University, Chico.
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