Category Archives: environment

Mi Tocayo

There’s this magical, hard-to-reach place I’ve dreamt of seeing for years. Atop my ‘to visit’ list, I tacked Technicolor postcards of this glorious spot on my office wall and gazed upon its grandeur whenever writer’s block or boredom hit. Admittedly, a visit there takes considerable preparation and determination, not to mention luck – when the weather turns for the worse, my dream destination becomes inaccessible.

I’m talking about Waimanu Valley, the Big Island, Hawai’i.

Waimanu is so birthing-the-earth beautiful, so seductively tropical, tears have sprung to my eyes simply gazing upon that aforementioned postcard. This mana-packed valley (see note 1) is also sacred to native Hawaiians and is occasionally still visited by ghosts of gods in the night. Truly a godly place (no matter what that means to you), Waimanu’s towering falls and steeply sculpted walls beckoned me.

There are certain places on the planet that are rightfully hard(er) to reach. This is their protection, helping maintain their natural and cultural integrity to an extent. The Galapagos for instance, or Bhutan. Cuba, too, is in this harder-to-reach category (for Americans at least) keeping that island from the north’s greedy grasp – somewhat anyway, for now anyhow.

There are only three ways to reach Waimanu Valley: by foot, kayak, or on a helicopter tour.

The last was never an option since helicopter tours run at least $200 on the Big Island, and so are way beyond my means (see note 2). More importantly, watching these grand waterfalls (or flowing lava for that matter) from behind glass seems too much like porn and masturbation to me. I wanted to taste, touch, and smell the valley. I wanted to earn the climax.

Kayaking into this part of the Big Island’s windward coast, meanwhile, is a complex proposition. The changeable weather, combined with the fierce, surgey ocean with its rips and undertow, advises against paddling in. Conditions need to be just right and although I’d sea kayaked 18 miles of the inimitable Na Pali coast on Kauai, local kayakers told me this wasn’t really practical for Waimanu Valley.

That left the hike. It’s not long – just under eight miles one way – but compensates with difficulty what it lacks in length (see note 3). And with no foreplay: the first mile is 1200 feet straight up. It’s a knee shaking, thigh quaking ascent from legendary Waipi’o Valley and not even the azure sea pounding the black sand beach below makes ‘The Z’ trail enjoyable. My hiking buddy rated The Z (so named for the precipitous switchbacks that carve that letter into the valley’s emerald cliffs) a B, for Brutal. Once you crest the switchbacks, sweaty and panting, there are a dozen gulches to maneuver through, making for a foot-propelled roller coaster ride.

It was hard. It was hot. At times it felt interminable. But the final descent into Waimanu Valley: therein lies the rub. It’s just .9 miles, but it’s an ‘okele kicker (see note 4). Slippery even when not wet, and as narrow as Sarah Palin’s mind, this is a seriously steep and treacherous stretch of trail. With a tent, sleeping bag, and four days of provisions strapped on my back, I had my work cut out for me. One slip and I’d go tumbling 1200 feet into verdant valley.


We managed the descent and I wasn’t surprised the valley was more glorious than the postcard tacked up in my office back in Havana. The black sand beach fed by a freshwater stream teeming with fish and prawns; the deeply-carved, rice paddy green of the valley walls; and the forest full of wild guava and coffee, breadfruit and feral pigs – it was beautiful. But most captivating of all was Wai’ilikahi Falls – a 1100-foot high set of double falls tumbling over the valley cliffs into an idyllic pool frequented by few.

Following a day of rest and play, I set out to tackle the (officially closed, but fairly clearly marked) trail to the falls. I considered turning back after crossing paths with a feral sow and her piglet. I’d been treed once by a pack of peccaries in the Costa Rican jungle; I know not to mess with wild swine. I almost turned back a second time too – where an ugly invasive choked off the ‘trail,’ obscuring my way for a while.

But I kept on. After an hour or so, the trail began meandering along a rock-strewn stream. I could hear the waterfall clearly now and feel it’s windy swoosh. The trail dipped suddenly and I was dumped at the base of Wai’ilikahi Falls, a pool the size of a helipad at its base.

I threw my arms heavenward, praising its beauty and feeling like a goddess – so blessed was I to be there, living my dream. I was struck dumb by its natural beauty. I swiped a tear dropping from the corner of my eye when I heard a rustling from the trail. It wasn’t a feral pig as I’d imagined, but a young couple, tattooed and tie-dyed, emerging from the wood. I had only been in my dreamscape for five minutes. I was surprised I hadn’t heard them on the trail, that’s how closely on my heels they followed. More surprisingly still, I wasn’t disappointed to have my solitude broken, to have to share this special place with strangers.

We chatted, basking in the falls’ beauty. We voiced our appreciation for this sacred place, so remote and hard-earned. As the young woman washed their clothes in the pool (see note 5), I ‘talked story’ (that most Hawaiian of pastimes) with her husband: Where are you from? First time on the Big Island? Where have you been? The usual travel patter. They were young and adventurous and had been whirling the world for over two years. I took a quick shine to them – especially the guy.

After a brief silence, the falls’ chill misting us softly, I stuck out my hand.

“It’s nice to meet you way out here in this beautiful place. What’s your name?”

He took my hand and smiled. “Connor.”

I was stunned silent, literally struck dumb for the second time in ten minutes. Here I was, in the middle of nowhere and the center of everywhere, at the heart of my Hawaiian dream and who should emerge from the wood without warning but my tcayo (see note 6).

Very funny place, this big island.


1 In Hawai’i, mana is the island’s life force, the spiritual mojo that pulsates within the volcano, the sea, and deep in waterfall-cleaved valleys like Waimanu. If you’ve been here, you’ve likely felt it, that’s how palpable it is.

2. Even though I’m on the Big Island updating a Lonely Planet guidebook, the payment structure, combined with the company’s policy that we can’t take anything for free in exchange for positive coverage, puts most of these activities beyond my reach.

3. There are four emergency helipads strung along this hike to give you an idea of the difficulty.

4. This, my third time on the Big Island, I’m making a conscious effort to learn more Hawaiian; ‘okele (if you’d hadn’t already guessed) means butt.

5. Note to the valley gods and goddesses: forgive her, she knows not what she did.

6. Like descampar (to stop raining) and buen provecho (have a good meal), tocayo is one of those Spanish expressions with no real equivalent in English. It means to share the same name. Except for my goddaughter Conner, who (although a spectacular and special kid) doesn’t really count since she was named with me in mind, I’ve never had the opportunity to hang out with my tocayo. And certainly not in such a spectacular spot as Wai’ilikahi Falls.


Filed under Cuban phrases, environment, Hawaii, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Writerly stuff

Wild Camping in Cuba Part II

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I dared say it but the shocker was our Río Hondo campsite proved to be perfect. Or quite nearly so, which for Cuba (that land of many problems and the tendency to exaggerate the possibilities, +/o progress of the solutions), is close enough.

By day, we fished and snorkeled to the throwback sounds of horse carriages clip clopping across the bridge overhead. By night, we made Godzilla-sized shadow puppets to candlelight on the underside of that same bridge. It was especially marvelous at night, that beneath-the-bridge spot: as shiny cars sped turistas (see note 1) to Trinidad and pre-Cold War trucks rumbled towards Cienfuegos, their headlights picked out the arches of the cement span’s railing. Each individual arch illuminating and darkening in quick succession made it look like zippers of light revealing and concealing celestial secrets too fast for us mere mortals to grasp. It was a rapture of sorts.

Our food situation, on the other hand, was nothing short of dire. This area of Cuba, like others, is experiencing severe drought (see note 2). Even under the best of circumstances the only things that grow around here are mamoncillo, anon, and maribú (see note 3). What’s more, in spite of having all the right equipment and being the most enthusiastic fisherman to ever draw breath, my better half can’t fish for shit. Fit for bait was all he caught after days and nights of determined fishing. Pobrecito.

Luckily, we were saved by a combination of Cuban solidarity, which is de rigueur, and honesty, which is anything but. The first came in the form of chilindrón de chivo brought to us in a pint-sized ice cream container by our neighbors. The hubby had been fishing with them a couple of mornings already so they knew what we were up against. It wasn’t until we were licking the sauce from our fingers that my guy clued me in: we were eating that goat thanks to a bus that had brought the poor fella to its untimely (and hopefully swift) end earlier that day. A tip o’ the hat to the cook (and the driver) – that was hands down the most succulent goat I’ve had since Morocco and the tastiest road kill ever.

Cubans are, how shall I put it? Infamous for their honesty. It’s a complicated issue; way beyond the scope of this dashed off post about our little camping escapade, but let’s just say that my husband – he of the rough and tumble Pogolotti neighborhood – was skeptical at the prospect of abandoning camp in search of food.

‘The propane tank is going to get vicked. We have to camouflage it.’

I hated to point out that we could easily replace that standard tank on the underground market in Pogolotti or any number of Havana barrios just like it. Meanwhile, our killer Sierra Designs tent (over a decade old and still going strong) was quite another matter. Not to mention the ThermaRest mattresses, the snorkel sets, and Stew Leonard´s cooler which may be better traveled than you.

But hunger called, which was how we came to walk away from our temporary home, its entire contents free for the vicking.

We waited until the sun headed towards the horizon, when families 15-strong started carrying their giant iron pots crusty with chivo and congris, domino table and chairs, inflatable toys, and sleeping babies off the beach. Despite our growing anxiety at leaving camp, it was fun bearing witness to these end-of-day operations. I watched as one drunk grandpa had to be hefted onto to his son’s broad back from where he lay passed out on the sand. The old sot hung there slack as a grade school backpack as his son picked his way up the vertical rusted ladder that connected the bridge to the beach.

As the sky shot pink and purple through the fading blue, we made our move. Jumping in the car, we drove a handful of kilometers up the road, to the seaside hamlet of Yuagananbo. There, high above the road built into the side of a mountain of rock, is a casa particular with rooms for $6 a night and meals for two.

My husband was as nervous as a guajira touching down at MIA, her packet of ‘definitive exit’ papers in trembling hand, the farther we got from Río Hondo.

‘Should we go back?’ he asked.

And eat what?

‘Let’s get the food to go,’ he said.

We’re already here. If they’re gonna steal stuff, they’re probably already at it. Let’s enjoy ourselves.

Which is exactly what we did: gorging on pork chops and rice, salad and plantains, washed down with provincial tap water that would undoubtedly reacquaint me with my old friend giardia (see note 4). I didn’t care. We were gone about an hour and a half. Upon our return we peeked around the pylons. It reminded me of that feeling you get when you bound down the stairs and through the door in New York or San Francisco to find your bicycle no longer chained to the pole where you left it. We held our breath briefly, unconsciously before realizing not one tent pole or pot holder in our camp had been touched.

The next day, we took it a step further. We had to. This time we left early in the morning and made our way 20 kilometers down the road to Trinidad and the promise of a market. It was a dicey proposition not only for the length of time we’d be gone, but more so since it was Sunday. Markets close early on Sunday. Worse, every single Cuban that is able to get to the beach on any given summer Sunday does. Río Hondo would be mobbed. Already the ’56 Chevy’s and loaded down horse carts were disgorging baseball team-sized families near our camp. But we are, when all is said and done, people of faith (which can probably be said for the majority of people who choose to remain in Cuba -although they might not call it that). So we left.

Trinidad was good to us – which isn’t always the case. In spite of being a gorgeous colonial town and World Heritage Site with white sand beaches within easy cycling distance, it has a rep. Women hold infants begging for milk (in spite of state rations until age 7 and a nationwide breastfeeding program with WHO-certified hospitals for teaching same), children plead for pens and candy, and spousal-hunting is a recreational sport – in Trinidad, they’re on you like white on rice. T plates or no. But we laid in a slab of pork and some okra, a couple of avocadoes, onions, string beans, and limes with nary a ‘hey fren! Where you from?’ to be heard. A few stares gripped me as I wolfed down a paper cone of chicharrones, (my guilty pleasure), and a strapping dude offered my husband a private room as he sucked down a cold Bucanero, but that was it. We even visited my old friend who’s living large since I listed her house in the edition of the Lonely Planet guide I wrote.

But after four hours, it was time to head back to camp. When we got there the beach was in full summer swing with folks launching themselves off the bridge into ‘Deep River’ and couples necking in the shallows between pulls on a plastic bottle of cheap rum. Hubby’s foot was heavy on the pedal as we neared. I laid a hand on his thigh.

‘Don’t worry.’

Famous last words, which in this case turned out to be true: our camp, once again, was undisturbed though scores of people frolicked about. My guy prepared a tasty pork chop feast and as I dug in watching the lightening storm on the horizon, I was happy that the human race could surprise me like that and happy still, that I live in Cuba. Now had we been camped 20 kilometers from Havana…


1. In Cuba, rental cars brand tourists via telltale scarlet letter ‘T’ plates. There is no “passing” with one of these babies, though I often wonder what happens to Cuban Americans who roll up with T plates. Do they get the same hustle and show as the rest of us? The same offerings of lobster dinner, private rooms, and pretty young girls from ‘frens‘ trotting alongside the moving car in bad Ed Hardy knock offs? More interesting still, what happens to Cuban Cubans – those who live here – who pull up in a T job? It’s only fairly recently that these folks have been allowed to rent cars and I wonder whether it’s splintering the social hierarchy even further? And if so, is this is a move towards normalcy or away?

2. Ironically enough, three of the 10 (or 12 or 16, depending on your source) golf courses underpinning Cuba’s new tourism strategy are strung along the coastal stretch of which I write.

3. The last is a nasty, invasive, thorn-studded mess that reaches tree proportions and blankets huge swaths of the island’s arable land. Anón (which tempts me to make a writerly joke about unattributable fruits or nameless queers) is something you can find in your exotic fruit section but for which the name in English escapes me. Readers? Mamoncillo, on the other hand, I have only seen in Cuba. It’s a cherry-sized fruit encased in a thin green shell; its slimy texture and unremarkable flavor is reminiscent of a lychee nut. In the summer, Cubans of all sizes and stripe walk the beaches and streets clutching leafy branches heavy with the fruit; they peel and suck (mamoncillo literally means ‘little sucker’) the flesh around the pits which they spit out wherever.

4. I’ve had giardia twice already in eight years here. To be fair, once I caught it in a Pakistani tea shop while covering the Cuban docs working there post-quake so that doesn’t count, but this nasty microbe does like our water. Most Cubans I know have had it. So my traveling friends: don’t drink the water unless it’s treated, boiled or bottled.


Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, cuban cooking, environment, Travel to Cuba

Wild Camping in Cuba – Part I

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The last time I planted tent poles, it was within pistol shot of the crumpled Presidential Palace, Port-au-Prince, March 2010. At 33 nights, it was the longest I’d spent in a tent. Given the wretched situation and endless cavalcade of sick and hungry Haitians seeking succor from the Cuban medical brigade I was covering, it was, (it goes without saying), the most taxing tent time of my life.

But a few months on, I was ready for the swelter of the carpa and clouds of (malaria-free) mosquitoes. Even the dicey baño scenarios didn’t deter. Besides, a camping vacation was the only kind our budget could handle.

Our target was the Bay of Pigs (see note 1). The snorkeling was good, the fishing promising, and the beaches we found on our 2003 island-wide adventure, camper-friendly. But in one of those travel mystery moments, as vague and insistent as a nostalgic scent or voice carried on a breeze that you can’t be sure isn’t just the wind in the leaves, we changed course. Which is how we ended up under a bridge.


As sick as it sounds (and probably is), the plastic tarp and stick structures huddled under the bridges reminded me of Port-au-Prince. The more fortunate had two-person tents and a thatch-screened area for pissing and more demanding duties. Families 15-strong cordoned off their slice of beneath-the-bridge beach using old rope, freshly-cut palm fronds and whatever else was on hand. Their dogs prowled the periphery, their bunches of plátano hung out of reach. Side by side like cubes in an ice tray, kids tucked into mosquito net cubicles rigged by red eyed fathers in knee-high gumboots. As the little ones slept, bonfires blazed and chispa burned throats. Cooking, bathing, dishwashing and other necessities of life were carried out in broad daylight. Children frolicked. Women worked. Men played dominoes. It felt awfully familiar.

We kept exploring. Every few kilometers there was another river carving its path onto the beach and feeding into the sea. Each river was spanned by a bridge. They had evocative, indigenous names that filled my mouth with marbles: Yaguanabo, Cabagan, Guanayara. Then we pulled down into Río Hondo. Claims had been clearly staked at the far side of the beach nearest the deep, green river and by the looks of it, the campamento there was hosting a family reunion of forty. Already I could feel the reggaetón and general bulla rattling my bones and grating my nerves.

We kept on exploring.

Our pocket was tucked away at the other end of Río Hondo’s sandy expanse, where the bridge curved over and away like a mulatta out of your league. Almond and seagrape trees provided shade for weathering Cuba’s brutal summer sun and we could easily improvise bathroom facilities where they thickened back from the beach; the tumble of sea stones that made up the shore gave way to a sandy, shaded patch for our tent; and our closest neighbors were 300 meters down the beach.

The site was, I dare say, perfect.

To be continued…..


1. You almost never hear ‘Bahia de Cochinos’ in Cuba, which just goes to show you how far apart the thinking is between here and there. Forget coming to terms on human rights issues, immigration, or sovereign state concepts: the two sides of the Straits are even at etymological odds, having different terms for the embargo (know as the bloqueo here and occasionally as genocidio, which I have a small conceptual problem with), the Spanish American War (called the Guerra Hispano-Cubano-Americano here which makes eminent sense: the Cubans, after all, played a pivotal, indispensable part), and the Bay of Pigs (here referred to as Playa Girón).


Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, environment, Here is Haiti, Travel to Cuba


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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

The Greening of Cuba?!

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My knickers are in a bit of a twist over here and it’s not due to the chronic butter shortage or colossal heat (both of which are cause for loud complaint, believe me). What’s got me riled up these days is more macro. Regular readers know that I (try to) let most of what Cuba hands down roll off my back. But I could go to the mat on this one.


Cuba recently confirmed what rumor had held for a couple of years already: moving forward, the cornerstone of the country’s tourism strategy will be to develop 10 golf courses across the island. This grand plan was revealed by tourism Minister Manuel Marrero at FIT – Cuba’s international tourism fair (see note 1). I had hoped it wasn’t true. (I also hope to win the Pulitzer and earn the Cuban Medal of Friendship someday. Don’t mean it’s gonna happen). But this golf scheme seems particularly hair brained to me.

Let’s review the facts, shall we?

A conventional 18-hole golf course requires 312,000 gallons of water a day (that’s 1,181,048 liters for my more advanced readers) to keep it green. I knew they were resource-suckers these playgrounds for the rich, but 312,000 gallons a day?!

Meanwhile, back on our little island…

“a [Cuban] government report released in mid-April said large areas of Cuba have been suffering the effects of a prolonged drought that began in November 2008. The shortage of rain has led to a significant drop in water levels in the country’s reservoirs and has hurt the availability of groundwater, affecting water supplies for more than 500,000 people…The Meteorology Institute’s Climate Centre, said that the overall scarcity of rainfall from April 2009 to March 2010 ‘has affected 68 percent of the national territory’…while 2009 had the fourth lowest rainfall total in 109 years, according to official sources” (see note 2).

An 18-hole course requires between 140 and 200 acres (57 to 80 hectares) of land – half of this is maintained turf. Multiply that by 10 courses and you’ve got a healthy chunk of Cuba’s territory. Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t that land be put to better use raising cattle or homes?

Keeping those greens green requires about 30 different types of pesticides. These poisons have the potential to contaminate ground water while destroying wetlands, mangroves, and other habitat. And they’re seriously bad for us bipeds too: a scientific study found golf groundskeepers have higher mortality rates than the general population for lung, prostate, large intestine, and brain cancers, with some non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma thrown in for good measure (see note 3). Meanwhile, a study has yet to be conducted on golfers, who are also regularly exposed to these toxins.

The pesticide question scares me – have you ever seen them fumigate for mosquitoes here? Clouds of chemicals shot from a “bazooka” into each room of a closed home without a scrap of protective clothing or gear in sight. Worrisome, this pesticide-dependent “sport” called golf.

From the Bahamas to the Philippines, environmentalists and land reformers are saying NO! to golf courses (sometimes violently). Given global trends, Cuba is appearing pretty backwards with this golf strategy (see note 4). I’m a golf dissident, I admit, but given the few facts I’ve presented here, shouldn’t we all be? Maybe if there was more information available about this strategy, it would temper my position: where will these courses be located? Who’s designing them? Will alternative methods be employed?

Alas and alack.

Golf is a multi-billion dollar business and Cuba needs revenue. I get it. But so that we might be as forward thinking in our backwardness, I’d like to offer you, Mr. Minister, the following policy recommendations:

– Employ alternative designs that use fewer chemicals
– Consider going organic – Cuba wouldn’t be the first
– Use only drought-tolerant grasses and native plants
– Irrigate with grey water
– Conduct independent feasibility and environmental impact studies for each proposed site (and be prepared to follow recommendations, including scrapping plans for sites that threaten habitat, migratory flyways, etc)

I repeat: I think the Cuban golf strategy is folly. Who’s going to play Pinar del Río when there’s Pebble Beach? Or Holguín instead of Augusta? Some, I’m sure (including those people of color and Jewish-ness denied access to US links). But enough to sustain and make profitable ten courses?

And is this what we really want? Throngs of sorta sporty men in pastel plaids and unfortunate loafers laying claim to thousands of Cuba’s green acres for their individual pleasure? The whole plan just seems too extreme, too contradictory.

Leading up to the Cuban tourism fair, Spanish golfer Álvaro Quiros gushed: “golf could become a new attraction for tourists visiting Cuba because of…the magnificent climatic conditions on the island all year round” (see note 5). Excuse me, Álvaro? Have you heard of a hurricane? How about drought?

Extreme, contradictory and…hair brained.

And while I’ve got your ear, Mr. Minister, would you please consider putting an end to the capture and use of dolphins for those swim with dolphin programs? Or haven’t you seen The Cove?


1. The week-long affair was themed ‘Authentic Cuba,’ which is hilarious for so many reasons. And ironic: how, exactly, is golf (and yacht clubs which also figure in the grand plan) ‘authentically Cuban?’ But as always, truth is stranger than fiction and the irony of the ‘Cuba auténtica’ press junket/dog and pony show was summed up by a Colombian journalist who whispered dramatically to a reporter friend of mine: ‘do you want to sit in on this interview? I’ve got a guy who’ll talk about the bad things in Cuba for 10 bucks. You pay five and I’ll pay five.’ On second thought, this is probably the most authentic Cuban thing that happened during this journalist’s island jaunt.

2. For full article, see Drought Looming again in Cuba

3. For more see

4. Ditto the blind acceptance of Styrofoam. Until a handful of years ago, I never saw one piece of Styrofoam here. Now it’s everywhere and will be for generations to come. There are advantages to a one-party system. You can integrate health and education efforts for example and you can ban bad shit like Styrofoam with the stroke of a pen. Whatever criticisms you may have of Cuba, who can argue with the wisdom of keeping this evil out of our midst – especially on an island? What, after all, has Styrofoam ever done to improve our lives?

5. This, along with the golfer’s other assertion, that “golf helps to improve the health of practitioners, encourages personal relationships and caring for the environment” qualifies, in my opinion, as some of the stupidest shit ever uttered by a professional athlete. No small feat.


Filed under environment, Uncategorized

Cuba is Bugging Me – Part II

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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.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban Revolution, environment, Uncategorized

Things I Don’t Love about Cuba

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Just back from a week camping on a remote beach as part of the Cuban sea turtle monitoring project, I’ve got nothing to complain about. That’s a lie – lend me your ear and I’ll complain long and hard about the heinous mosquito and sand flea bites blanketing my body (the giant beach roach in my hair was also fodder for a gripe or three).

We saw it all on that white sand beach flanked by woods and cliffs under a fat, full moon: sharks, iguanas, deer, a croc cruising an inland lake, fat jutia perfect for the spit (see note 1), wild pigs and cows, translucent frogs, snakes, bats, and birds too numerous to mention. What we didn’t see, unfortunately, were turtles; seems this is a slow year in Guanahacabibes, the wild peninsula at Cuba’s western extreme. Instead we had to live vicariously through the project’s director and her tales of seasons past when scores of green and loggerhead turtles rumbled up on the beaches here to bury their eggs in the sand. Despite the no-shows, I relish being able to make dreams of mine like this come true here.

You may remember a while back I wrote about Things I Love about Cuba and Things I Miss about the USA. Today, as I try not to melt down in another unbearably hot summer afternoon here in Havana, I thought it time to get some stuff of my chest – things particular to this place that take some getting used to (and others that I’ll probably never quite groove to).

– Weekly public health inspections of your home, combined with obligatory in-home fumigations (see note 2)

– A daily newspaper only 6 pages long (and even fewer diverging opinions!)

– Incessant, sometimes inflammatory, gossip

– Being a big (or at least medium) fish in a small pond (see note 3)

– Really fat ladies in Lycra, rivaled by rolls of back fat

– Lack of public bathrooms at beaches leading to (you guessed it!) water-borne turds

– Good-natured shouting – anytime, anywhere

– Going regularly without toilet paper (see note 4)

– Smoking in hospitals

– Men and women of all ages speaking openly about menstrual cycles, maxi pads, Tampax, and flow

– Reggaeton and other intolerable music (see note 5)

– Amoebas in the water and the occasional bout with giardia

– Electric showers that surprise you with a nasty shock every once in a while (in other latitudes these showerhead-mounted apparatus are known as ‘widow makers’)



 1. The jutia is what can safely be called Cuba’s RUS (rodent of unusual size – these suckers can reach up to 15 pounds!). They’re cute, but make good eating; at least one upscale private restaurant in Havana serves up a nice jutia in almond sauce. 

 2. Although these can be a royal nuisance, they are largely what helps keep dengue at bay here.

 3. Being a native New Yorker, I’m infinitely more comfortable with the small fish, big pond arrangement.

 4. I’ve become quite used to this actually thanks to three experience-honed strategies: carry a few spare squares; water rinse; and snatches of above mentioned 6-page newspaper.

 5. Reggaeton – love it or hate it


Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, environment, Living Abroad