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If you’re keeping up, you’ll recall my lament over the termites eating through our mattress (see note 1). But as nauseating as microscopic, gluttonous bugs munching on our love nest may be, nothing truly disrupts life in here in Havana like mosquitoes. The upside is that Cuban skeeters are slow, clumsy flyers – easy to kill and not much bother. The downside is that in most tropical climes – including this one – mosquitoes mean dengue.
Evil, evil dengue.
It doesn’t kill you, ‘breakbone fever.’ At least not the first bout. But the second go with dengue has a good chance of developing into the hemorrhagic variety (see note 2) and then it’s curtains. There’s no treatment, vaccine, or cure. Cubans are serious about health in general and as serious as a heart attack when it comes to dengue. This isn’t run of the mill hubris since health is something Cubans do quite well – even better, one could argue, than their big, bad neighbor to the north. Maintaining these health standards is a point of national pride and dengue is public enemy #1. Controlling it is imperative.
This means that once a week, an inspector from ‘Team Aedes Aegypti’ comes to the door to check around my house for standing water, inquire about any ‘spiritual waters’ (see note 3), and make sure I’m draining the water from the fridge on a regular basis (see note 4). Sometimes he’ll test for larvae and sprinkle some poisonous powder into the offending water. Then he (they’re always men for some reason and rarely the same one twice), notes his findings on a chart pinned to a clipboard.
“Your little piece of paper?” he then asks, looking for the mosquito monitoring slip every Cuban home keeps somewhere near the front door, if not tacked right to it. He notes the date and his initials, even the time of day he inspected.
Being from NY, you can imagine my reticence to let a big strapping man into my house one week and a somnolent or shifty looking youth the next. But you get used to it, despite occasional tales of ne’er-do-wells sporting the Team Aedes Aegypti uniform entering homes on the pretext of inspection only to knock old ladies senseless and steal their TVs.
So it goes, regular inspections week after week, until dengue rears its ugly head. If memory serves, this has happened each of the eight years I’ve lived here. And when dengue comes down, it’s war. Cubans bring all arms to bear against the disease-carrying skeeters and the big gun in their arsenal is the ‘bazooka’ – a handheld mini-canon that spews toxic smoke of what cancer causing components I’ve never been able to ascertain.
When there’s an outbreak, they no longer simply come to check for standing water where mosquitoes breed, it means total fumigation of your house. So now when Team AA (dengue Twelve Step, anyone?) comes to the door, they’ve got the deafening bazooka fired up and walk slowly through each room waving it to and fro, noxious smoke pouring forth. Then they back out of the apartment, giving the living room a good strafing and shut the door. As I wait the requisite 30 to 45 minutes before re-entering, I can see the heavy, chemical smoke streaming from under doors and windows the length of our block. The neighbors are sprinkled along the street, gossiping while they wait it out, their dogs on leashes and pet turtles in little tubs by their side.
Back home, the poisonous smoke hovers and I have to hold my breath while running around the apartment throwing open windows. It’s acrid and toxic and unpleasant all around. It’s also mandatory by law I just discovered. It seems some folks in Playa aren’t being as cooperative as they might – especially once they learned Team AA was going to fumigate every day for the next 30. My friend tracked down the legal statute about obligatory cooperation in health because she’d come to loggerheads with a recalcitrant neighbor who refused to fumigate. I was surprised to see in black and white the penalties I could face should I too refuse (see note 5). When Gaby went on to tell me about last week’s scene, replete with cops rolling up to the neighbors’ door to compel them to fumigate, I realized it was no joke. Indeed, excuses don’t fly with the health authorities and their enforcers. If everyone who lives in the house works, you’re expected to leave the key with a neighbor so fumigation can proceed. If there’s a child with asthma or a house-bound elderly person in your family, you have to procure written medical permission to forgo fumigation.
In outbreak areas like where we live, big, rumbling trucks also troll the streets, blanketing the entire block with the thick, cloying smoke. You never know when the truck will roll through, but you’ll smell the smoke before it comes seeping in. Then it’s a mad dash to shut all the windows and secrete the fruit bowl. I remember one time….
Oh! They’re knocking. Time to fumigate (or not).
1. In case your compassion for my bug plight is waning, I’d like you to know that aside from spraying the Cuban insecticide I Killed It! straight into the holes in the bottom of the mattress, there’s not much we can do to resolve this problemita (buying a new mattress, alas, is not in the financial cards). So, right now, in the instant when you come to this upcoming comma, I could be sleeping atop a seething nest of termites. Think Princess and the Pea but with bugs crawling around down there to disrupt my beauty sleep, instead of a small, round legume.
2. The Merck Manual says this about it: “Some people develop bleeding from the nose, mouth, and digestive tract.” Nice, huh?
3. The first time Team AA came to my door and asked me if I had any “spiritual waters” I couldn’t fathom what they were talking about, though I was quite sure I didn’t have any. I subsequently discovered that Cubans traditionally leave a glass of water in front of portraits of their dearly departed so they shouldn’t be thirsty in the hereafter. Turns out, if you don’t change the water daily, these glasses of spiritual waters become mosquito breeding grounds.
4. Every January, Cuba’s revolutionary government appoints a theme for the upcoming 12 months. So, 1969 was Year of the Decisive Struggle’, 1977 was ‘Year of Institutionalization’ (yowza), and 2006 was ‘Year of the Energy Revolution.’ Indeed, it was revolutionary. Teams of social workers went house to house nationwide surveying how many incandescent light bulbs you had, then showed up some weeks later with the same amount of those squiggly energy efficient bulbs. They spirited away your incandescents in return for the energy efficient models.
They also replaced energy inefficient pressure cookers, rice cookers (both are Cuban kitchen staples), electric tea kettles, hot plates, and refrigerators with energy efficient models. If you didn’t have these items, they provided them. And yes, I know Cubans who live without refrigerators. On the whole, the program worked, but there were problems of course. One is just coming to light with the Chinese fridges they distributed, called “lloronas” because they cry on the inside, dripping water down the interior walls which collects in a tray in the back. Let the water sit for a few days and it becomes a mosquito breeding fest. They’re great units otherwise (we were very thankful to be rid of our Russian clunker with its Cyrillic defrosting instructions and cardboard freezer door), and while I can’t tell you how many they distributed – a million? half that? – it was on a massive scale. Unfortunately, now they’re presenting this massive problem.
5. I always cooperate with Cuban health authorities. This runs the gamut from providing HIV results in order to secure residency to taking a blood test for certain infectious diseases when arriving from endemic areas abroad (also mandatory by law and punishable by a $500 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. Did I mention Cubans are serious about health?!). But my husband and I also like to live as chemically-free as possible. And when a medical student recently commented to me: ‘I always get as far away from those fumigators as possible. I still want children!’ I started thinking twice about opening our home to the noxious treatments.