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Occasionally people ask me how I do it – how I can afford to travel without having a “real job” (and I’m unsure if freelance writing, no matter how lucrative, will ever be considered “real”). Even more to the immediate point, people wonder how I can afford to live in Cuba given our hand-to-mouth subsistence existence. In my mind, there is no puzzle. The answer is obvious, simple even. Keep your overhead low. If you control expenses and practice thrift, there’s likely to be more left over to play with.

This strategy isn’t for everyone. It helps to not be attracted by things, I suppose, to not be predisposed to accumulating gadgets, jewelry, or art let’s say (see note 1). Not being a clothes horse helps, as does not drinking; the hooch can add up – just ask my husband or my good friend 007. In my case, it helps immeasurably that Cuba is a low overhead kind of place. Paradoxically however, so much obligatory, by-default low overhead has created an insatiable desire in Cubans to (over)consume. And it matters little what: life-sized plaster Dalmatians, karaoke systems, plastic flowers, gold chains, shoes, sugar.

To get by and get the stuff they want or need, Cubans are en la lucha. Technically this means to be ‘in the struggle’ or ‘fighting,’ but the short phrase contains a universe of problems and difficulties, entire galaxies of uncertainty, frustration, and doubt. But being en la lucha also implies a certain pro-active approach, an intrinsic motivation to ease those troubles and doubt. And not only yours, but those of your family, friends, and neighbors as well. It means you have to inventar, another concept which, coupled with la lucha, encapsulates modern Havana (see note 2). I suppose it’s what outsiders call resourceful. The bottom line is that having so few resources forces you to rely on what’s available.

Here in Havana, relying on what’s available means depending on local suppliers, talent, and ingenuity. The precise elements that have helped create Cuba’s biotech sector, software development capabilities, and organic agriculture model. We are, in short, a slow people, living in a slow town. It’s everywhere: keep your eyes peeled, your nose poised, and your ears open on your next visit and you’ll slip easily into this local world.

From yogurt to honey, bookshelves to shoes, industrious Habaneros provide. Eat locally? We do (and must). Support local businesses? Each and every day. Know your supplier? We invite her in for coffee and a chat. I love this about Havana. I love that it disproves all the neo-liberal vitriol about Cuba not having private industry and small businesses. The place is crawling with entrepreneurs and private concerns. You just have to know what to look for and where to listen for them.

A high pitched, not entirely unmelodious whistle announces the knife sharpener, reminding me of my childhood. Rolling up on his bike and parking in the chiffonade shade of a palm, he sharpens our knives, cleavers, and scissors. By peddling the whet stone around until it gains enough speed to throw off sparks, he deftly angles the blades this way and that until they’re so sharp you have to take care dicing onions and aji cachucha for the bean pot. While he sharpens, we chat. About baseball, the weather, and how’s business?

The same can be said for yogurt. Made fresh in small batches, we ring the doorbell of our yogurt connection whenever we need to re-up. Within moments he lowers a basket on a rope from his third floor balcony. We put 20 pesos (see note 3) and an empty 1-1/2 liter soda bottle in the basket and give the rope a little tug. Up goes the basket to the third floor. When it’s lowered once again, it holds 1-1/2 liters of the thick, rich, organic yogurt that has my chicken Marsala and cucumber raita fast gaining fame in these parts (see note 4).

Once my imported granola runs out, honey-laced yogurt is my go-to breakfast. Happily, our honey is also produced on a small scale by local beekeepers. Sold in recycled Havana Club bottles for 25 pesos, the amber liquid comes rimmed with a dark band of honeycomb flakes and other natural detritus like the odd bee’s wing. The best honey moves sluggishly when the bottle’s inverted, slowed by its viscosity. Marketing fuels sales; one guy sings of his honey’s Ciénaga origins, another’s bees are sustained solely on chamomile blossoms, supposedly giving the golden elixir subtle floral undertones, though I’ve yet to detect them. Organic, from-the-source food procurement happens daily here: I regularly fry fish caught by my neighbor and eat mangoes from my boss’s backyard tree. Five blocks from my house there’s a friendly old fella who sells homemade wine and vinegar while nearby a wrinkled veteran peddles roasted peanuts from a metal box with a brazier burning live coals on the bottom.

And it’s not only food. Without leaving my living room, I get offers (sang up from the street) to reupholster my sofa and restore my mattress. Need a coffee table or TV stand? No problem. Just dig out that business card the neighborhood carpenter slipped under the door the other day. A favorite sundress can be repaired or replicated by the seamstress two doors down and a pair of sexy, strappy sandals procured from the family of renowned cobblers who pass through every now and then.

And so it goes. Our coveted Bic lighters are refilled at the market in that ingenious Cuban way, our aprons are made by friends of friends, even car parts are fashioned by machinists pounding them out in their garage-cum-workshop down the street. I love living here and living slow.

It’s funny though. As the ‘developed’ world moves snail-like towards this model, Cuba is fast moving away from it. Inevitable? Probably. Lamentable? Definitely.


1. Art is a different ballgame, actually. I would buy pieces that really move me – and living in Cuba, believe me, I’ve been moved, repeatedly – if I could afford it.

2. I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating: what I know intimately is Havana, a reality which in many ways can’t be extrapolated to the rest of Cuba. Just like New York isn’t the United States and Port-au-Prince isn’t Haiti (especially these days), Havana can’t be considered representative of Cuba. Nevertheless, after hanging out with doctors from Holguín who own a cow or two to provide milk for their family and naweys from Guantánamo who earn their living initiating foreigners into Santería, I suspect that la lucha and inventing are fundamental in those far flung places too.

3. About 85 cents USD.

4. This is one of the six or so dishes on my private restaurant menu. Known as a paladar in Cuba, my husband and I fantasize about opening a low-key, high-standard private restaurant serving a selection of my top tried and true dishes. In addition to this Indian delight, other candidates include tea-smoked chicken, snapper Veracruz and veggie lasagne, plus desserts like dulce de leche cheesecake and blondies a la mode. We could even spin off the ex-pat cookbook! Interested in investing? Contact me.


Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, environment, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Slowtown

  1. Ole

    Ay, Conner! You have made me very homesick for Cuba. The constant social contacts give Habana such a small town feeling that exists nowhere here in la Yuma, and I miss it passionately at times. After too long a stay in Cuba I get a little weary of the constant activity, and need privacy, but I sure do miss it when I’m not there. Great writing! Keep up the good work, only more of it. Hasta entonces.

    • thanks ole, for reading, commenting and encouraging me to write more. Wish I had the time….
      Privacy – god, what a commodity in short supply across the straits! As a native nyer, makes me a bit loca sometimes but over the years, Ive (kind of) become used to it. I also greatly appreciate the social contact. It is definitely something that’s missing in most of the modern world. I love my neighbors while most people I know up north can’t even tell me their neighbors’ names.

      Privacy and lack thereof – good fodder for a post!

  2. 007

    hey! mija, funciona el PO
    Apdo 6464
    Habana 6
    Habana CUBA

  3. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    I am a British mother of three small Guatemalan British children and possibly moving to Cuba in 1 year. I have started to investigate life there through blogs but I am new to the game!

    One of my worries is getting hold of food for my children who have been living in the garden of Guatemala …… your blog is helpful! I love the idea of getting locally produced yoghurt and honey ………..a great way to deal with any allergies.

    What would you say will be the hardest thing for me living there as a mother and what will be the best?! I will enter the world of the cultural elite through my husband but the reality of day to day life will be what I will be dealing with as a mother.

    I would like to go back to study but not sure what state the universities are in these days in Cuba. I am told that the state schools have dropped their standards and we were really hoping that we could send them to local schools ……… have you any opinions on the state of the once famous education system?

    any comments welcome! I went to Cuba for a week 5 years ago with a 6 month old baby so my snapshot of Habana is very limited.


  4. hi there Jo! You have put your thumb on two of my favorite places – Cuba & Guatemala (check out my guide: Great Destinations Guatemala…my debtors will thank you!).

    First, on the food tip: no tortillas. O sea, what we call tortillas here are actually eggs instead of the tortillas you know and love. Having said that, there will be some adjusting (only seasonal fruits and veggies) but things seem to be improving slowly but surely now that land has been redistributed and the wonders of shade cloth have been discovered (ie we have *almost* year round tomatoes). If you have a reasonable household budget, you and the ninos should be fine. There will be adjustments and you need to know where to shop. Youll have a car Im guessing?

    On the hardest thing about being a mom here: you don’t say how old the kids are, but Im not the best source for this info as I don’t have little ones of my own. Since they speak spanish you can take advantage of all the kids theater, movies, puppet shows and the like but staving off boredom might be a challenge.

    the best thing is hands down the safety kids enjoy here. they can play in the streets without fear (well, they should be fearful of some of the drivers!) but on the whole, Havana is a very safe place for kids. They will make friends easily too.

    Again, on the school, it all depends: on their age, your neighborhood, their teachers (most of all this last). Im not sure about foreigners enrolling kids in cuban schools – I have a couple of spanish friends with kids in cuban schools but how they “resolved” this I don’t know. The experience has been very positive for them however and my advice is if you can get them into the local schools, it would be a rewarding experience. There has been a lot of criticism about education lately, but also steps to address it so…..

    best of luck with your move!!

    • Jo Wilkie de Rosal

      thanks for your reply! we will be entitled to local schools and both my husband and I are really hoping to send them to a local school so we will do everything to find a good one. (my two bilingual boys will be 5 and 6 when we will arrive and my baby girl 1)

      it seems as though matters to do with food are improving and thanks for reassuring me about the tomatoes! being central american means we have the best tomatoes and make beautiful salsa every week. we will miss tortillas but we can live with tortillas de harina!

      I am looking forward to the safety of Cuba after Guatemala which is now totally run by Narcos and almost lawless. I am tall and blonde so I stand out a lot in the latin world …… I love my yearly trips to London where nobody notices me.

      we live in Antigua at the moment and it is beautiful but very conservative small town attitudes pervade … so I am looking forward to the pleasures of being in a city again and enjoying all the cultural activities.

      I cannot tell you yet why we are coming as it is a secret but for my husband it is a very exciting international job and I want to make sure that I have enough stimulation for me and the children as he will be very busy and involved.

      I will let you know when we are coming to visit next just in case you are around and thanks for responding to this ´virgin´ blogger ……..

      • Jo – you sound like you will fit right in here! there really is a lot happening in havana, you just have to know where to look, get on the listservs for concerts, follow the local news etc. Kids, as Im sure you and many traveling mamas y papas know, open lots of doors in latin america and I dare say, nowhere like Cuba. Oh, how we love our kids here!!

        on the tall blond thing: this is one of the very tough adjustments here. It aint like Guatemala – you WILL stick out and people WILL make a big deal about it (no matter how well you speak Spanish). Every day. I, too, relish my trips home to NY where no one gives me a second glance.

        A very exciting international job related to cultura you say? Im intrigued! stay in touch.

  5. Jason Schumer

    Hey Connor!

    Jason from Patey’s Place here. You’ve earned another subscriber to this wonderful blog. This piece made me hungry for some of that honey you mentioned. I stopped to think of my tortilla lady, my hidden choco-banano spot and a knife sharpener that used to stop by my place in the exact way you mentioned.

    I’ve given Matador a good looking-over. I’m intrigued. What have you heard of I’d love to talk to you about it if you have a minute or two to spare.

    • Aloha Jason!!

      Im going to be in your neck of the woods like…in an hour. Ill pop in over the weekend. And when my email comes back (grrrrr. provider has gone walkabout) Ill drop you a line. Matador U just won some kind of Natl Geo award and Matador won first place Lowell thomas Travel Writing Awards so…good stuff!!

      Thanks for reading

      PS – for the uninitiated: choco bananas are a guatemalan delight that are chocolate covered bananas. Que rico!

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