A Cuban Bedtime Story

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Sometimes being here feels like a punishment. I know that sounds harsh, hypocritical even – after all, being here is a choice. But since hypocrites are as tolerable as scabies in my book, I’ll chalk it up to sleep deprivation instead (see note 1).

Not being able to sleep even (or especially) when exhausted and content or simply post-orgasmic spent, is hitchhiking-in-the-rain frustrating. This is the state of affairs around here recently. It’s not insomnia como tal. We head to bed, make wild love, and sleep – for a bit. But after a while, the trifecta of mosquitoes (see note 2), heat, and our mattress de mierda conspires to rob us of the sweet opiate of sleep (see note 3). Since the heat, mosquitoes, and the changes afoot are largely beyond my control, I present you, dear readers, with a diatribe against the Cuban “mattress.”

——

Everyone I know is sleeping on a mattress at least 20 years old. That’s a lie: my friend Angela told me the other day she’s due a new one – hers is 17 years and counting. My sister-in-law, meanwhile, sleeps on the same mattress on which she was conceived…37 years ago. The mattress at our first apartment didn’t seem that long in the tooth – it sagged just slightly and rarely did we roll over onto a spring un-sprung. When we moved to our new place a couple of years ago, the bed seemed fine – at least it didn’t collapse unexpectedly, dramatically at anticlimactic moments and the lumps were tolerably spaced. The first time we flipped it, however, we discovered it was tunneled through with termites; as long as I didn’t think of that visual, I slept fine.

My husband, unfortunately, had more than termites needling him – a discovery I made one night when he was out of town. Turns out his side of the bed was hecha mierda: crappy, wrecked, a god awful mess. Not only did it tilt to port, it featured a fist-sized spring poking into the small of his back. He never complained (he’s an atypical Cuban!), easing into sleep each night stoically. I discovered our inequitable mattress situation when I slept on his side once when he was out of town. No flipping or rotating resolved the problem (besides, I didn’t want to see those burrowing termites again, ever) and eventually, inevitably, the time came to do something about it.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘just go out and buy a damn mattress already!’ But here in Havana, it’s not that simple (what is?!). There’s the cost of course (see note 4), but that’s the least of it: I’d beg, borrow or steal the CUCs I’d need to assure a good night’s sleep for me and my loved one. Unfortunately, here, one thing you learn fast is that there are some things no manner of money can buy. From tortillas to tofu, Rolling Stone to the NY Times, certain things are simply not available ever.

Mattresses fall into this category. There are no mattress stores here, no Bed, Bath & Beyonds or 1-800-Mattres. But I wondered: what do the hotels do for instance or famous folks like Chucho and Silvio? Certainly they aren’t sleeping on 20-year old, termite-infested numbers? I researched cargo from Mexico but that’s over-the-top expensive, as is using the services of crafty Cubans who make a business of shipping over beds, flat screen TVs, fine wines, and other exotic wares from Panama and ports beyond.

So we – or I should say, my husband – sucked it up. Then one miraculous day, mattresses started appearing in stores. Everything from basic twins to not-quite-pillow-top-but-close-enough kings we’re suddenly on sale. The prices were astronomical it goes without saying – the just better than standard double we were ogling ran about $375; box spring excluded of course. We got excited. We started amassing the cash.

But then the reports started rolling in from friends who had already taken the plunge and our fears about these made in Cuba mattresses were confirmed: big sags developing in the middle after a few weeks and couples waking up crashed against one another (and not in a good way). Typical Cuban manufacturing is kind of like French cars and Italian toasters: looks good, works like shit (see note 5). So we soured on the idea even before we had the money together.

——

We continued sucking it up. By this point, my husband’s sleep-us interrupt-us was waking me at ungodly hours. Too often we were irritable by day and frustrated at night. We decided to go to Plan B: mattress reconstruction. For almost every Cuban (including those aforementioned friends sleeping on 20-year old units), this is their only option. It’s kind of a hard concept to get your head around. Think of it like a refurbished computer, only it’s your bed. Mattress reconstruction is one of those well-established local private enterprises – like knife sharpening, manicures, and gardening – that are studiously ignored right, left and center. Seems they don’t square with anyone’s concept of Cuba’s state controlled economies. These businesses have been around a long time and the mattress builders, at least, have been getting rich off it, steadily and quietly, for years.

Reparación de colchones!” they yell as they stroll the streets of Playa, Marianao, and Centro Habana.

Once they catch a client, they set up a pair of sawhorses on the sidewalk, roof or back patio onto which your tattered old mattress is heaved. They rip off the cover with strong, deft strokes of a 6-inch knife and start tearing out the stuffing by the handful, carefully picking out the fluff stuck to the springs. After all the stuffing is out and the springs laid bare, they go to work recoiling those gone astray and clip away the pointy parts that have been wrecking your beauty sleep. Once the springs are more or less tamed, they re-stuff the mattress with “new” materials brought for this purpose, envelop it with a new cover, and sew it up with a long, strong needle that would make a good weapon to commit a crime of passion. They finish it off by sewing divots in strategic points like poking holes in a pie being readied for the oven.

Reparación de colchones!” came the cry one recent overcast Saturday. My husband and I went to the window. Already two neighbors had lined up their lumpy beds for repair. There was a knock at the door. My husband opened it to Julio, a big, black bear of a man with illegible tattoos smudged into his neck. I kept to the back of the house – just seeing my foreigner face would jack the price. He quoted his compadre $60 to fix our mattress.

Outrageous! I mouthed to my husband when he came to the back telling me the price. “That’s highway robbery. Besides, we can’t afford it.”

After a call to friends confirmed a mattress refurbishing costs around $50 or so in their rough and tumble ‘hood, negotiations continued. When my husband finally shut the door saying we couldn’t afford it right now, he had bargained Julio down to $40.

“We should have done it!” I admonished my husband once he reported back. “That bed is en llama. We probably won’t get another 40 dollar chance.”

By this time clouds were gathering, the 4-member refurbishing team had three clients still to go and our window of opportunity had closed.

The next day there was an unexpected knock at the door.

“$35. That’s our final offer,” Julio told me.

“Done,” I said leading him and his helper to our bedroom.

Once the mattress was on the sawhorses on the sidewalk below, I stood by fascinated, watching as they tore off the cover and discovered…a layer of cardboard. Old Haier refrigerator boxes mostly, with a couple of corrugated swatches filling it out.

!Miro esto! they exclaimed as they strew it aside and started ripping away the stuffing. They worked quickly, wielding the knife with authority. I noticed more tattoos on the other men’s necks and knuckles – words to live by like ‘Mets’ and ‘Mami.’ The guys were friendly and funny and their boss was a whip cracker of a woman – one of those sturdy country types who doesn’t suffer fools.

“Would you like a blue or beige cover, amor?” she asked me after we’d talked a bit about her business.

“Beige, I guess.”

“I like the beige myself. It’s classier. The blue is mostly for bed wetters – the dark color hides the stains better.”

I watched the men stuff and sew up our “new” mattress. The whole process took about an hour and when they were done they hauled the thing up three flights of stairs and plopped it on our bed.

Things haven’t been the same since.

I don’t know if it’s the absence of the protective cardboard layer or the “new” stuffing of questionable origin or a corner cut here or there to accommodate the $35 nice price, but since that day, neither my husband nor I has had a decent night’s sleep.

It’s getting tiresome.

Notes

1. This type of justification-cum-absolution is one sure sign I’ve gone native.

2. Few Cuban homes have actual windows. Instead, they have wooden slats which cantilever open. These are great for air circulation and more secure than panes during hurricanes, but give free passage from outdoors in to every mosquito, frog, bug, and bicho.

3. Of course, anxiety can’t be ruled out as a co-factor – hearts and minds are racing these days down this way, what with 500,000 layoffs and more in the offing. There are big changes afoot and people are feeling it – not at all positively.

4. Hello?! What’s up with the worldwide mattress mafia? Can someone explain to me why they’re so fucking expensive? It’s a racket I tell you.

5. I know this is a wild generalization but Cubans tend to favor form over function.
As long as it looks good…

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25 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad

25 responses to “A Cuban Bedtime Story

  1. Ole

    Hey Conner- LOL! I’ll post a longer note later(you know me), but just wanted to say you are 100% correct here. The mattress problem in Cuba is intense, and I don’t know why-it shouldn’t cost much more to do one that lasts longer than 2 weeks without developing Grand Canyon type depressions in the middle. I think it is the “we’ve always done it this way, so what could You possibly know?” mentality that exists.
    And if I were living in Cuba I know what my business would be-screens for windows. Why this seems to be a non-existant item in Cuba I can’t figure out. Lack of screening I imagine, but last trip I saw rolls of it in the stores. You would think the Gov’t. would be doing it for free what with the Dengue fever concerns.
    Ay, Cuba!
    Ole

    • yeah, screens. we imported a couple of meters of the stuff, but with the cantilevered windows, if you live on the 3rd floor, you can only put them on the INSIDE. which then means you can’t open the windows fully. it’s a lio. Luckily, Ive killed a bunch of the suckers recently and they don’t have the striped legs indicative of aedes aegypti (the skeeters that cause dengue)

      thanks for reading! (HIH now arriving in your in box ok?)

  2. Ole

    Yeah. this one came right through. Thanks.

    Ole

    PS- A Dengue outbreak in Cayo Hueso appears to have one in ten infected. The dreaded “break bone” fever!

  3. Tomas de Hialeah

    Asi mismo es . That happened to me too. I used to sleep on the same mattress (it was an American mattress)from my 7’s to my 40’s. And it got a reparation (for worst)around 1986. When we left Cuba in 1997, the mattress was like a bathtub. I think that would be really awful for a “fakir” to sleep on it.
    By the way, any update on the “Media Luna connection”? Be free to contact to me by my e-mail.
    Saludos.

    • Oh boy. so then my question is: does anyone out there have a GOOD Cuban repaired mattress story??

      Due a visita to the family for a couple of weeks already. im swamped with work, so we haven’t had a “hueqiuto” to make it happen which is really a shame. they live only about 1/2 kilometer as the tocororo flies. But no te preocupes – I’ll keep you posted. thanks (again!) for reading.

  4. Ay Dios mio, I would have daily panic attacks w/o a good mattress. Pobrecita!!! I hope you can get a new one soon. 😦

  5. christine

    i remember when i stayed in centro, near asli, and the family had given me their best mattress… which, i kid you not, was stuffed with some kind of dirt (smelled earthy and composty) and actually mountainous- it came to a summit in the center. i feel for you!

  6. I am in awe of your story! What a nightmare. I’ve had my bed-struggles in all the various countries I’ve lived, sleeping on coconut husk affairs, kapok stuffed things, a cement slab from China, a Turkish wonder, and of course one housing a universe of bed bugs. Also mosquitoes and rats as nightly visitors.

    Your story is so much worse because there seems to be no solution. In the US there are now blow-up matresses of excellent quality that fold up in a not-very-big box that could be easily transported. We slept on one for months before we got around to getting a “proper” mattress after we moved to the US after having lived all over the place for years. It was really very good, and we are not the best of sleepers generally.

    They’re about $100. Is there no way someone can get you one?

    • AERO BEDS!! Thanks for reminding me Miss F. Great food for thought…..After shipping (has to be hand carried by someone traveling to cuba so counts as a checked bag) and tax (from miami to havana on the charter flights, you only get 44 pounds of luggage; every pound over costs 1 bucks, including carry on!!), that $100 unit could be $200 easy. Not cheap, but still something to ponder.

      Rats? Yikes! Ill stick with my skeeters and termites!!

      • galia

        I do not think an aero bed is good for Cuba. It is too hot there and se va a despegar. Also las cucarachas will probably start eating it (I lost a few pairs of shoes to them and un abrigo de piel sintetica). Do you get presents from your family in US for Christmas? My husband bought for his mother a new cocina de gas y una lavadora on http://www.mallhabana.com They also sell colchones. It seems expensive, but maybe they are better quality. Anyway, just a suggestion. I know it is impossible to afford this stuff on your own.

        P.S. How about an article about cucarachas. It was a huge issue for me when I lived in Cuba.

      • great ideas!! My family doesn’t do Xmas but bdays, sí. This year I got some kitchen towels and a scratch off lottery ticket (a loser, of course!). Don’t think a mattress is in my future, but that mallhabana is a very good resource for buying stuff for people here.

        We have never had a problem with cockroaches. Wait, not true: about four years ago the car my husband has for work was infested with cucarachas alemanes – the really teeny tiny ones. they would come out of the air vents, the dash, the doors. Quite embarrassing when we were giving hitchhikers botellas (rides)!!

        where did you live – above a bodega maybe?

  7. Mark

    Conner – I wonder if those guys ever come across a mattress stuffed with something more valuable than old refrigerator boxes…. 😮

    • Good question! Given the political history here (in 1959 many Cubans left abruptly and temporarily, figuring the revolution would fail in a month or two. now 50 years later….those folks left behind EVERYTHING including mattresses, so uncovering treasures in one of these old beds isn’t beyond the realm of possibility) and the aversion to banks (even though Cuba has jumped forward in banking so that there are now ATMs and you can bill pay through them, the overwhelming majority of people keep their dough stuffed in a drawer or somehow secreted in the house – I recently heard a story about a guy who stashed his cash in his garbage, which is taking things a bit far IMO) I wonder too….

      wow. you caught me at a verbose moment. Back to work now. Cheers!

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  10. Hi, there from The Netherlands! I just read Miss Footloose’s post recommending a couple of expat blogs and reading that you’re in Cuba made me curious.
    I would never have thought that a routine thing like, shopping for a new mattress, would be such a nightmare! And the idea of having door-to-door “colchoneros” sounds just surreal…
    I definitely want to read more, so I’ll be back!
    Cheers!

    • A surreal nightmare or a relative dream: it all depends on how you look at it (and to some extent, what day it is). Thanks for stopping by!

      • Indeed! All that magic realism you read in Allende and García Marquez doesn’t sound so unreal when you live in Cuba or Argentina, for that matter! 😀

  11. Adora

    Hi, I also came here via Footloose. Very interesting: I’m a Euro mutt currently living it up in the USA. I’ll come back to read more!

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  13. Saw the link to this in your latest post and had to read it. Quite a few years ago we decided to replace our old lumpy & sagging mattress so went to Carlos III to buy one in the store. Outside, the vendors with their little photo albums of furniture offered us a new one for slightly less $ and we bit. They dropped it off at the house, encased in plastic, and totally unaware that we’d been scammed, we slept on it for a couple of years. It was decidedly hard though and I soon was complaining about back pain again. My sister-in-law’s mother was having a couch recovered and I spoke to the woman doing the work who just happened to have some extra “guata” (sp?) to stuff our mattress with. As they disarmed the mattress which we thought was constructed of original material up until that point, the woman explained how the scam artists who sold these things made it worth their while. While the mattresses looked original on the outside, instead of being filled with foam, they stuffed them with any material they could find. Grass, horsehair, in your case cardboard. Ours was filled with over 100 flour sacks. No freaking wonder we were in pain every morning! Everytime somebody goes by our house singing, “Vendo colchones” I think about that damned mattress. And how I’ll never be sucked in by those guys again! We ended up subsequently getting two pretty good mattresses in the Dita store but are now planning on getting a deluxe king size model shipped in. Oh yeah. I’ll be the sleep diva of Havana then.

    • First, let me say: OH! to be Canadian! That means friends and family can visit you here, mattresses can be shipped in, and you don’t have an embarrassingly amoral foreign policy following you around! I am officially jealous, Sleep Diva!

      The cardboard wasn’t a problem as much as the unsprung springs. What I like about the folks who troll my neighborhood (at least) reparando colochones is that they do the work right on the sidewalk out front, so you can see exactly what they’re doing. Key in Cuba.

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