Surviving Cuba with FE*

(*Familia en el Exterior)

I used to tell people when I’d be traveling—give them a head’s up in case they needed something from a fuera. That was when I first got here, green and eager. It took just a few trips hauling back motherboards, tires, cologne and all manner of sordid (vibrators/lube) and sundry (Dremels/extension cords) cargo to learn to keep my travel plans private. The responsibility became a burden, literally and figuratively, my luggage loaded down with encargos.

Everyone wanted something. But not everyone needed something. It took me awhile and hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned to distinguish between the two.

Some people talk a really good, sweet game. Others take straight up advantage. Often, priorities and similar levels of need compete. Triage is hard—especially in disaster times. The night before I left our tent camp after weeks of living with the Henry Reeve Brigade in post-quake Pakistan, I offered to mule gifts to the doctors’ families back in Cuba. Within a few hours, I had tank tops and underwear, flip flops, dolls, razors, makeup, toy cars and soap—an entire extra bag accompanying me on the long trip home.

As I’m sure/hope you’ve heard, we are squarely in disaster times on the island right now. It’s heartbreaking (Alfredo making chicken foot soup; Elena fashioning her own soap) and there’s blame to lay, but what substantive, long-term good does that do? Not enough, I’m afraid. Does it ease our aching hearts? It does not, I am proof. So this time I’m bringing back as much as my skinny arms, wallet and airline will allow. But I’ve had to set—and stick to—a strict prioritization method.

For me, like most people (most of my people anyway), it’s always family first. I’m talking beyond blood: I’m talking Family, capital F. Cuban-type, capital F type Family, which is broader, more blended, sometimes even including mistresses, bastard children and ex-husbands. Have I been burned? You betcha. Swindled. Double crossed and tricked, by people I thought were family. What a crappy feeling that is, eh? These days I’m studiously careful about whom I consider Family. Because these days, more than most days, all Cubans need FE to survive. And I can’t be a surrogate FE for all these people in need.  

The need is great indeed. Everyone is suffering from the COVID-induced paralysis of disastrous proportions, the reunification of the currency and attendant runaway inflation, plus the US blockade which is right now at its most Draconian since its imposition 60 years ago. So for this (unplanned and bittersweet) trip, I told no one but my Family—this includes my closest neighbors, the Cuba Libro team of course, and my MEDICC Review colleagues. But you know what happens once la bola está en la calle: word starts getting around.

It fast became evident I would need a solidarity hierarchy to complement my regular prioritization mechanism:

  • Family: Within this category I prioritize the sick, elderly, children and new moms. Our pets are also Family (there is so much need for veterinary meds and supplies). Among the items I’ll be bringing back: a cane, shoes, razors, wheels for angle grinders, printer cartridges, a couple of cell phones, bras, toothpaste and brushes, shoes and seeds for home gardens…Just last night my sister-in-law fairly begged for seeds and spices. I’ve got her covered.
  • Medicine: Certain non-family folks jump to the front due to health problems, like the 3-month old with leukemia who lives next door to an old friend and a colleague’s mom who recently had a cerebral hemorrhage. Medications I’ll be bringing back for them, family and friends: children’s cough syrup, Omega 3, glaucoma eye drops, multi-vitamins, B complex, blood pressure, cholesterol, anti-anxiety and Parkinson’s meds, antihistamines. burn cream and lidocaine patches.  
  • Food: You’ve seen how skinny I am? It’s not an eating disorder: that’s stress and food scarcity pure and simple. Smoking doesn’t help and I surely have parasites glomming off my gut, but I love to eat. So much so my Cuban friends dubbed me La Yuma Jamaliche.  But this whole COVID thing combined with the teetering Cuban economy means there ain’t enough to go around. Me and almost everyone else is not getting enough to eat, period. It was annoying enough when every last person was saying how flaca I’d become but it was downright alarming when one of my scientific, vaccine expert colleagues told me the same thing, advising me to eat more (as if it were that easy in Havana, Spring 2021).  I always chow down hard when I’m in the States, aiming to gain 10 pounds, but this trip I’m going for a baker’s dozen (only 2 pounds to go!) by the time I return. And you know I’ll be returning with a valise full of food including: industrial amounts of cumin, cinnamon and garlic powder, nuts and grains of various types, energy bars, rice, pasta, dried fruit, parmesan cheese, tuna and more (RAMEN is my savior!).
  • Gifts, fun and ephemera: A well-known food and social justice activist taught me an important lesson: for years, she was rabidly opposed to any cut flowers, arguing that this and all fertile land should be dedicated to food production. Bouquet flowers were frivolous, ephemeral and perishable—and criminal when people were starving. Then one fine day, someone pointed out to her that flowers feed the soul.

And our soul needs feeding. More than ever these days. Soul burn out is real and lethal. This is especially true for those of us fighting the good fight and dedicating ourselves to helping others. And while cut flowers are still kind of iffy in my mind (better to plant your own), the point is, we all need fun, pretty stuff in our lives. This isn’t an easy lesson for me. My epigenetic code yells Suffer! Deny comfort! Work hard! Form follows function! Not a lot of wriggle room for pretty things within my particular neurosis, but I’m learning and this trip I’ll be going back with: scented candles, two of mom’s ceramic bowls from my childhood, a psychedelic spinning thing for my balcony, all kinds of chocolate/cool magnets/earrings for my family and friends, and a bit of makeup for me ‘cuz you know: I’m getting old and burnt out and it’s beginning to show.

As I hunt furiously for a way to return, people continue to write me asking to bring: belt drives, nutritional yeast, cell phone cases, mouse pads, and more. The need never ends. There’s never enough room or money or time. I’m learning to say no when all I want to say is: ‘hell yes!’ Now if only I could get my body and bags on a plane headed to Havana…

NB: The term FE (Familia en el Exterior) was copped from Peter, my brother from another mother.

Also: These travel gymnastics and luggage nightmares would be fewer and far between if Biden would get OFF HIS ASS and restart the normalization process.

And: For those who got all the way to the end of this post and are left wondering…yes. I mule in money for every family, friend or colleague who asks.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

31 responses to “Surviving Cuba with FE*

  1. Christine Cushing

    Oh, sister, I feel your pain… how little space our own personal stuff goes into every suitcase. After we had to get a dump truck to pick us up from the airport (no way we could fit everything even into several taxis), this mule really changed…

    • Yup. imagine me getting picked up on the 1946 Harley with all that damn luggage. Luckily, my guy built a trailer which earns him some money and makes for an adventurous airport transfer

  2. No hay Rosas sin Espinosa ??? We’re just learning a bit of Spanish; unfortunately, our professora is from Madrid. I’ll send a hurry-up to Biden.

  3. Conner,

    Sounds like you may be in Maine. I have a presentation in Augusta this evening at 5:15. Any chance I could bring you something? Money? Like $100? And, buy you something pretty and a cup of your favorite (fattening) beverage?

    Let me know if by any chance our paths could cross!


  4. El lobo del mar

    It’s always difficult to know what to fit in to those 22kg of luggage. Underwear, shoes, caramelos, those fold up water carriers used for camping, electric torches, sewing kits, boxes of face masks (currently). My Cuban compañero recently took his son over some rubber moulds for filling with concrete and making balustrades – his business is going very nicely!

    As for taking things over for other Cubans here in Europe, the strict rule is money, photos and letters only. Otherwise, as you rightly say, they turn up with things like armchairs or bicycles wrapped in plastic which they want you to mule over.

    One compañero did however kindly take over an old people’s walking frame for the mother-in-law and dodged the weight restrictions by pushing it along himself at the airport whilst limping heavily.

    Many Cubans going home also transport quantities of clothing by wearing it all for the entire 9 hour plane journey and presumably an extremely sweaty journey to the casa from the airport. Six pairs of trousers, ten shirts, as many pairs of socks as will still allow them to get their shoes on, three coats and of course, hat gloves and handbag. They look like the Michelin Man.

    Finally, yes please Biden. Come on and do something man. Have you no blood in your veins?

    • Hahaha!! You are so right on. And I love the walking with the walker and limp! Brilliant. I might do that with my mother-in-laws cane this trip!

      The clothing layered on clothing is an old old trick. On my first ever flight to Havana in 1993, the other dozen passengers had hats on top of hats on top of hats, three watches creeping up their forearms, and indeed looked like Michelin Men!

      Biden needs some freaking cojones. Watching from outside the Beltway and with my Cuban aplatan’a knowledge, it looks like the Florida Cubans are just PLAYING him like a hot jinetero plays a 65-year old Yuma divorce…..

  5. Jenny Cressman

    You’re so right about doing gift triage! I continue to struggle with divining the difference between needs and wants, and fighting the urge to reflexively respond with a yes.

    • It’s a tough tough call. Especially when folks peg you/me/someone as an empath, with mucha solidaridad. In my case, coming from a childhood marked by food insecurity and mom having to choose between keeping the phone or heat or water on, compounds the dilemma. Being poor and going without sucks! So I try to help as much as I can. but then a bloodsucker will shnooker me and it just feels crappy, as I said. Still, not being true to myself and denying help when I can also feels crappy so….just gotta be as discerning as possible and keep on reminding myself the power of NO.

      But then when you do say yes and your other Cuban friends start to judge, question and lecture? Por dios! And of course, the airlines and aduana take their slice of the pie as well and it ends up being very very expensive. All of this. I know so many readers can relate!

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Jenny Cressman

        Absolutely to all that and more! The judgemental looks and comments are very frustrating. Maybe I will never learn but, on the other hand, maybe I’d just rather err on the side of generosity.

        One of these years, I will see you in Havana and enjoy some Cuba Libro coffee!

      • Yes: erring on the side of generosity

        And yes: coffee on the corner of calle 24 & 19

      • Earl L. Kerr

        Food, Shelter, Clothing, Transportation and Security are the Basic Needs of the Humane Entity; However, when Power goes Out—— So, Decentralized Energy is a base that can be had with Solar Energy. If possible have a flexible Solar Panel under your shirt when you travel to Cuba, a little wire around you ankle, then rig this to your battery. No battery ? Learn to build one.” Cada cavesa es un Mundo”—- learn from one another.

        Sent from my iPad


      • Nneka C Okeke

        So are y’all in the Special Period #2? That breaks my heart

      • As the saying goes in Asia: “same, same, but different.”

  6. Robert

    I am So Glad to read your the same as many of us, We & The Family in Cuba, Their Needs are much & Real From Canada

  7. Brenda

    Thank you for keeping us up to date on what is going on in Havana, Conner. I always look forward to what you can tell us about the situation, as difficult as it is. My privilege is my shame as I realize how helpless I actually am in the face of the real need of the Cuban people. Take care.

    • I know that helpless feeling. Especially when my “home” country is doing all it can to push innocent people (and not only in Cuba) to the brink. The good news is that bright, driven, energetic people around the world are pulling together to say: ENOUGH! and every action, conversation, participation and “granito de arena” is helping push to the tipping point. Let’s hope so anyway. thanks for reading and writing in

  8. Conner, I met you at Cuba Libre in August of 2017, I brought some humble supplies of batteries, school stuff, etc. I am devastated by your reports and have been tracking the news from Cuba. I have so much compassion for you. Can you take Zelle or Pay Pal? I think I ran across a
    go fund me page, but concerned if you don’t meet your goal you wont receive my donation. I am very worried about my friends there.
    I tried to reply to your blog and that email bounced. I’m on your list, you have my contact.

    • Hola Linda. First, thanks once again for your donation. These make a big difference since they go directly to people in most need according to our donation principles and practices.

      We are blocked from Paypal, Zelle, Kickstarter and other financial tools due to the US embargo….Our 501(c)3 registered in the US, Friends of Cuba Libro can receive donations from within the USA (all donations tax deductible). Unfortunately, the host–Guidestar/Network for Good, does not permit intl donations,

      If you are within the US, you can donate here (until further notice. donations go towards maintaining rent on the space, minimum salaries for the team and keeping their phones connected):

      Weird that the email bounced; we can always be reached on Facebook and Instagram for folks on the socials. Take care and ever forward!

  9. Mario

    Tienes Un gran corazón ¡

    • Demasiado grande, me dicen….

      • Earl L. Kerr

        Flexible solar panels can be worn between shirts. DC electricity can charge phones and batteries. Tell me how I may help.

        Sent from Earl’s iPhone


      • Hey Earl. While I love the idea of solar (and am designing a LARGE family roof garden since food is so freaking scarce and solar would work great there), I absolutely will not entertain the idea of traveling between USA and Cuba with anything under my clothing.

  10. John

    Hello Conner , So glad to get the latest on the situation there , heartbreaking as it is . I have been able to communicate with friends in Cuba on Facebook regularly the last while which is quite an improvement over years past . I take nothing for granted in my daily life and marvel at the ability of Cubans to cope with so many hardships . I’m so disappointed in the U.S. and Canadian governments for not returning to warmer relations with Cuba . It almost seems like Trump did the dirty work for them and now they are just waiting to see how the wind blows .

    • Hi John. Yes! Thankfully, technology allows us to keep in touch and send sorely needed food. I implore everyone in the USA and Canada especially to contact their elected representatives to demand changes in the cruel policies exacerbating difficulties on the island….and in the middle of a PANDEMIC. These policies violate rights to self determination, sovereignty, and peaceful and sustainable development. Disgraceful IMO.

      • Earl L. Kerr

        I feel so impotent with reference to Cuba’s having to undergo this dilemma for such a long time. Writing to the Biden administration seems to be the only tool I have. Any suggestions ???

        Sent from my iPad


      • Biden is turning out to be a real disappointment on Cuba. Even voted against the world in today’s UN General Assembly vote to condemn the embargo. Writing your local and state representatives is another strategy. There are many international solidarity groups organizing different events and actions (every voice counts!) and there is currently a worldwide campaign to send sorely needed 30 million syringes to Cuba so they can vaccinate their entire population. They’ve developed the vaccines (Abdala is 92% effective AND against virulent variants) but the embargo makes it very difficult to procure syringes. A $50 donation means 500 Cubans get vaccinated. You can use this link

  11. Dixie Inocencio

    Hi Conner,
    It’s Dixie here. After doing a bit of virtual catch up, I see we are both now stuck stateside so I thought I’d just send a private message to you here. My return flights have been canceled three times now and what I has hoped would be a fairly short one month away from Havana is now going to be more like six… or even longer if this next “ticket” gets the boot as well.

    I did have a bit of a laugh at all the necessary things needed by everyone. My list includes, of all things, Silpats and edible gold dust for a dulcero friend, a pasta making machine (who knows why, what with the scarcity of flour and eggs, oil and, maybe by now, salt) for my neighbor, and under the category of Class Clown: enough upholstery foam to make an actual sofa!

    Anyway, just wanted to wish you all the best of luck as you try to return to Havana. It’s certainly going to be trippier than usual when we finally manage to get home.

    • Hey Dixie. I can’t even. Ive had several flights cancelled already. And then there’s that really disappointing UN vote today. Depressing….hang in there!!


    You’re in our hearts, you’re in our minds.
    You know the melody of the soul. Let your love flow like a mountain stream.

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