Outsider In Cuba: Lessons from Havana in 24h

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

I’m in the taxi from the airport. My extremely accommodating driver is my first Cuban voice into the Cuba of today and the changes the island is going through. His words are accompanied by dark, damp urban views affording me a frustratingly low-key visual entry into the country: I glimpse palm trees, squat blocks of houses, a few other cars.

He explains that now having internet access, and the opportunity of meeting more tourists and speaking with Cubans who travel, have given him a newly positive view of his country. The free education and healthcare, so frequently cited, for example. Now that private enterprise is allowed there’s also generally a lot more hope. Being enterprising seems to be in the Cuban nature. He tells me that he taught himself English from scratch, and driving tourists to and from the airport every day is how he practises. He works seven days a week and has taken just eight or nine days off this year. His English is excellent.

Reaching Old Havana, we pull up in a back street. In the drizzle and low lighting, everything is a picture in sepia until I step inside my casa. This first casa particular, akin to a bed and breakfast, is quite something: marble staircases, furniture from 19th to mid last century, highly decorative tiles all worth taking pictures of (so I do), and ceilings three times the height of an average person. This house also happens to be chock full of religious (Catholic) paraphernalia.

I don’t ask too many questions of my hosts; my Spanish is frazzled, as am I. My low key start to Cuba continues in the same vein with bed calling. The spectacular, I hope, will start tomorrow.

***

Morning one and it’s pissing it down with rain. Biblical levels of rain. Most of the streets have turned into small rivers. Spectacular scenes, yes, but not quite what I was hoping for. Committed to a walking tour of Old Havana that I am already on, we find ourselves taking shelter in a warehouse type building that happens to be hosting a jiu jitsu and taekwondo competition for children and teens. I notice that there are some blind and partially sighted participants as we watch the warm ups and tumbling exercises across the multi-coloured mats.

Waterfalls are cascading in through the windows, doorways and holes in the roof. Small lakes spread across the concrete floor threatening the activity but the Cubans are unfazed.

A judo instructor befriends me and gives me some tips on where I can find salsa clubs to go dancing. He doesn’t ask me for anything untoward in exchange but perhaps a donation towards the martial arts centre. He doesn’t insist, though, and is quite happy just to chat and then leave me be.

Sheltering in the martial arts warehouse turns out to be the best insight into Cuban life of the day, as the rest of it is spent… surrounded by tourists. The centre of Old Havana seems strangely quiet save for the sheer masses of guided walking tours. I find myself mostly observing other tourists in horrified fascination. Being part of the mass of tourist numbers doing guided tourist things was, ignorantly, and arrogantly perhaps, an experience I wasn’t expecting.

One sight I had been expecting, and am not disappointed by, are the promised classic cars – American, from the 50s and 60s, mostly Chevrolets and 80s Russian Ladas. At the airport, my taxi driver had pointed out a car that used to have the honour of being a security vehicle for Fidel Castro. Russian built, bullet-proof, apparently. Now it carts tourists around.

By the end of the day I am having my first in depth chat with a young Cuban. Denis is 28, Afro-Cuban. Very quickly going past the pleasantries, he is telling me about living conditions and his views on Cuba. With so few jobs around, he feels young Cubans have become unmotivated, and just do what they can to get a fast buck. He tells me that he is opposed to the government, describing it as a dictatorship. Despite having trained as a nurse, he no longer works in the profession and, instead, goes house to house selling bleach. He makes more money this way. It also means he’s not working for the state.

We talk about housing conditions. In fact, it was in catching me taking a picture of his house that our conversation started. I saw a photo opportunity in the dilapidation. He, along with many others crammed into the space, has to live in the dilapidation. I don’t go inside but through the glassless barred windows I can see that the state of reparation is appalling. In fact, driving back out of the city, past more and more buildings, it strikes me that never before have I been somewhere where such a great proportion of the buildings are in such dismal condition.

Eventually Denis and I come to be discussing the dream many young Cuban men have – escape from the island via a foreign woman. Marriage to a foreigner is the best passport for leaving the country to a more economically secure and democratically free life. It seems that love is an unnecessary bonus for the Cuban men who salsa their way into the beds and hearts of these women but for him, he tells me, it must be the basis of any relationship. However, when five minutes’ later he’s telling me that he may be falling in love at this very moment on the street, I decide it’s time to bring our conversation to a close.

So from love, to food, which actually is a love for me. Unfortunately, it is currently only remarkable in that I’ve eaten virtually the same bloody thing for every meal since touchdown: sandwiches. My midnight snack on arrival at the casa was a reconstituted ham toastie.  Breakfast included a roll with egg.  Lunch was a tuna sandwich.  My afternoon snack, a round hot crunchy bread with sweet tomato sauce and cheese, masquerading as a pizza but folded into a sloppy sandwich.  And dinner? Cheese and ham toastie. Lesson learnt – when you have the choice don’t go for a sandwich because there are probably many occasions when it will be the only thing available to eat!

***

Looking back, I can see that, in under 24 hours, I had stumbled across some of the main themes that were to recur throughout the trip, onto which I would build a bigger picture of Cuba today. The positive and negative aspects of the revolution in evidence: good health, socialist practices and education; disenfranchised youth, but a hope for the future; the important feature of tourists to this isolated country, offering a means of escape from poverty or a literal escape from the island. The friendliness and willingness of Cubans to talk and share, and to praise and criticise Cuba – and flirt! – in equal measure. And the former glory, the faded grandeur peeking through crumbling facades and infrastructure…

I was determined that the food situation was going to get better, though. I wasn’t eating just sandwiches for the next three weeks!

Outsider In Ecuador: Living in a farming community

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

As with every Sunday, we squeeze in to the back of the community milk truck with grannies, children, a dog, urns full of hand-drawn fresh milk, and anything/one else needing transporting to the village.  For the locals, Sunday in Cuellaje was The Main Social Event of the week; for us it was a chance to write home.  Hard to believe the place had internet – when we’d first arrived before moving to the even more remote farm that became our home, we were astounded the village even had electricity!

We bump down the hilly mud paths, giggles and shouts as things and people bounce around and nearly out. Despite the moist and muddy setting, everyone looks at their best, defying the six other days of the week where it’s impossible to be anything but filthy, us included – we spend most of our time running, jumping, climbing trees with the kids from the school I’ve been teaching at and of our host family.

The family we live with are a young cattle farming couple and their two daughters, 8 and 10, doing well for themselves compared to neighbouring farming families struggling to get by with up to 9 children.  The six of us – the family, my travel buddy and I – squeeze into their two bedroom bungalow  which sits at the side of the mud road.  It’s made of breeze block with mostly concrete flooring inside, and a kind of shed attached at the back with a mud floor where food is kept for the animals (and us) and a cooking fire occasionally is occasionally lit.  Normally, though, they use the gas burner in the kitchen – cum dining area cum entrance to the house.

There can only be three other farmhouses within 1km but we can’t see them; just beautiful hilly surroundings.  We are in a bubble of our family, the school, and the odd passerby, dog, visitor.  The only gringo we see is when we tramp the kilometre or so up to the farm owned by Ned, the only native English inhabitant who settled as a farmer and then started the volunteer and eco-toursim project here.  Almost total immersion then, and very much a different way and pace of life…

Daily life

That week I had mostly been:

– dirty. Yes.

– wearing wellies – because of the mud, of course, and rain..

– ..getting rained on – being in a cloud forest means that it’s a pretty wet and humid place and we arrived at the tail end of the wet season.

– riding to school in the mornings on the back of a motorbike with the engine switched off to save petrol as it’s all downhill. Other modes of travel have included the milk truck – of course – or a cattle wagon, for long journeys to the village, horse, mule, quad bike, or just our legs.

– getting up at 6am and going to bed before 9pm. As farmers, our host parents get up at 5am to milk the cows, and get all their work in before it gets dark at 6pm-ish. Being on the equator, these hours of light and dark are the same year round.

– sleeping in a fleece, down jacket and socks. Partly because it was a bit cold but mostly to stop the damn ‘no see-ems’ munching my feet and ankles and arms – tiny little bastard flies that bite A LOT but you NEVER catch them in the act!

– trying to keep out the millions of actual visible flying insects that want to get into the bedroom at night, including a moth the size of a sparrow – not a joke.

– spotting tiny bright black grasshoppers. Hundreds of them, everywhere (except in our bedroom – the only insects that aren’t!). They don’t seem to have the common grass or mud-coloured variety here.

– watching animated barbie films over and over and over… Thanks to living with an 8 and a 10 year old. It’s helping our Spanish though, so..

– ..getting a bit better in Spanish – yay!

– doing the washing up with a child’s sock. It being the preferred implement is somewhat representative of the kitchen situation as a whole – not a sterile aesthetic environment, but one that prioritises the storage and preparation of food, a proportion of which comes from the immediate environment. To be blunt, my old food tech teacher would have kittens over the dirt and grime! We won’t dwell on that side of things, rather, let’s talk about…

..Food

Things I’m getting used to:

– Eating shedloads of rice.

– Eating shedloads of rice and potatoes – now a totally normal combination on a plate. Or rice with any of a seemingly infinite variety of tuber/root/potato vegetable they have here. Still can’t get my head round pasta and potatoes though.

– Using corn for feeding everyone and everything in more ways than my imagination had ever previously stretched to: dry and crunched up with hot milk; ground up into a paste and cooked in its own leaves to make a sweet or savoury cake; toasted and salted; rubbed and boiled so it inflates twice the size; boiled and eaten with fresh cheese; used to feed the pigs; used to feed the chickens…  tons and tons of it.

– Eating fruit that we don’t even have names for.

– Drinking hot fresh milk.

– The new, quieter cockerel as we ate the one that used to wake us up! Bit of shocker when the mum told us he was in the soup we had one evening. I think he was getting on a bit, though. And he really was very noisy.

– Drinking boiled water that tastes like the pot we boil it in. As for the water situation, then…

Personal hygiene

There’s no hot water. None. Not a drop. Water to the house is sourced from the nearby river, and there is no system to heat it so it is Mountain Fresh. I might be going on a bit about the dirt thing but we really are chuffing mucky. Because, of course, it’s not fun having cold showers.  I realise that a warm shower is such a pleasurable thing, and being able to have one every day and be clean, such a privilege. Probably, if only cold water existed in the world, we wouldn’t waste so much of it as the bathing rate would dwindle from every day to every other (or three or four!) days.  Going on from this…

I’ve seen that cleanliness and hygiene, do not – of course! -, have a universal standard. When you work outside in the mud or dust and you get dirty just by stepping out of the shower, and when washing clothes is hand-grinding time-consuming work, what’s the point in making yourself clean too often?  Here, walking down the road you get dirty; sitting down, eating, picking up a bag, you get dirty; boiling a pot of water, YOU GET DIRTY. You may as well keep your clothes on for a few days running, including sleeping in them, and have a shower for special occasions, like Sundays, when you go into the village.

So this is where we find ourselves. Everyone trying to up their Sunday best appearance as we cling to the sides of the milk truck, rattling, rolling and windswept past farms and lush, hilly fields

I’m looking forward to having Cuellaje’s concrete under my feet for a little while, a home-made fruit ice cream, and writing home about all this different wonderfulness.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.