Like many writers, I keep a running list of things about which I want to write – ideas that are especially interesting (at least to me) because they’re especially Cuban, capturing the inimitable specificity of this place.
One thing on that list, a writing idea I had about six months ago, was about The Heat. That suffocating, certain noose of weather that induces apathy, discomfort, and an ineluctable urge in all Cubans to complain about just how hot it is. Whereas six months ago, I was going to write about threads of sweat weaving between breasts, now I’m compelled to write about erect nipples thanks to our recent spell of witch’s tit kind of cold.
First and foremost, bathing is a bitch. Most people I know (myself included, dear reader) don’t have running hot water at home. Everything is accomplished with cold water or with water heated on the stove. (Talk about Old Skool. I swear, Cuba [too] often feels like that Pioneer House reality show). This includes bathing. Pull back the shower curtain in any Cuban home and you’re bound to see a plastic bucket. When it’s ‘bath time,’ water heated on the stove is mixed together with its cold counterpart to the bather’s preferred temperature in the bucket. This brew is then poured over the body using another, much smaller, plastic bucket, or more commonly, an oversized tin cup known universally as the ‘jarrito.’
To all those people who have ever said to me, ‘why do you need hot water in Cuba anyway?!’: I invite you to my house today, where the thermometer struggles to reach 50°F, to try bathing with the little/big bucket system.
I’m particularly fond of hot water, I’ll admit. Esalen, Fuentes Georginas, Puna’s hot pond – I’ve lounged and lingered in them all and I’ve yet to meet a (clean) hot tub I didn’t like. Bathing with the bucket method cold day in, cold day out? This is my hell.
You would think that 8 years on I’d be used to it, or at least have a viable strategy. But I’m still trying to dope out the best method: Do I pour many little jarritos of hot water over my entire body head to toe in quick succession and then proceed to suds and rinse all at once? Or do I go about it piecemeal, wetting my legs, soaping them up, and rinsing them off before working north to my hips, waist, and beyond? Even on still days, the air is colder than the water and neither strategy keeps me from freezing my ass off. (Hair washing is clearly out of the question.) It’s like entering a chilly pool, I suppose. Creep deeper inch by inch or dive right in head first? Tough call.
So how cold is it, really? Well for starters, the weather folks on Cuban television (see note 1) are using phrases I’ve never heard here before like ‘exceptionally cold’ and ‘be sure to bundle up.’ For once, this isn’t Cuban hyperbole. Record lows have been recorded throughout the country this January: last week it was 33°F in Gran Piedra and a couple of days ago it was just a few degrees warmer in Colón. Average lows here in Havana hover around 48° (or colder in the microclimates). I could make a fortune selling fuzzy socks and cozy pants on a random Habana Vieja corner. According to our venerated weather people, it’s going to be close to, or record breaking, for the number of cold fronts passing through Cuba in a single January. Already it has been 30 years since the last time it was this cold – some nine cold fronts in the month.
It’s affecting everything. Outdoor concerts are being cancelled and patio dining is at an all-time low. Even baseball is feeling the effects, with hard to hold bats flying towards the infield and sportscasters breaking in after the count to exclaim, ‘I am FREEZING and for what?’ Then there’s the Cuban cold weather wardrobe: Dogs are combing the streets in jury-rigged hand towels, while musty, long-abandoned coats are hauled out of closets from Guanahacabibes to Punto Maisí. If you’ve been to Cuba recently, you’ll have noticed there’s an unhealthy predilection for denim jackets. Unfortunately, these are often paired with jeans, meaning Cubans of all types and stripes are violating the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not wear jeans with jeans jacket.’ (see note 2)
Friends here assume I’m not bothered by this relative cold since I hail from ‘up there.’ But they’re wrong: I hate this state of weather in between. This not hot, but not really cold either. I hated it for 7 or so years in San Francisco and I’m hating it still. It’s just too wishy washy for me. It’s like the suburbs. Give me urban like New York or rural like Pinar del Río, but I’ll skip Scarsdale in all its über suburban-ness, thank you very much. Likewise, give me hot like Havana (normally is) or cold like Montreal. Northern California’s pseudo-heat? I’ll pass.
For now, I’ll just have to suck it up dirty hair and all and brew some more tea. Giselle just announced another cold front is on its way.
1. I must take this opportunity to say something about Cuban weather forecasters, since they are so different from those pretty little thangs that dominate TV weather up north. Living in the hurricane belt confers upon Cuban weatherpeople a notoriety, visibility, and responsibility beyond detailing five days worth of sunshine and rain. We depend on them to keep us informed about any heavy weather heading our way, lest we have to tape windows and put up water, lay in candles or evacuate to a shelter. These folks are experts and have the higher degrees to prove it – everyone reporting weather on Cuban TV has a master’s degree or higher – and are accorded the reverence we usually reserve for professors or doctors in the USA. Another difference between here and there is the weather wardrobe: the night weather woman Giselle appeared wearing a black lace teddy type number during prime time, I was reminded of my dearly departed brother who watched the Weather Channel like it was porn. And when her colleague Odalys reported the weather right through her eighth month of pregnancy, I realized this was a whole different ballgame. I mean, when was the last time you saw a very pregnant woman delivering the weather forecast where you live?
2. The 11th Commandment was coined by my dear old friend Neil S. Since he clued me in to just how cheesy and profane the pairing is a couple of decades ago, I’ve ceased to be a sinner (at least in this regard).