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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.