Tag Archives: periodo especial

How to Cope Like A Cuban

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]I’ve got a friend – I’ll call her Lucia. Life has been a bitch for Lucia in that special Cuban kind of way with family torn asunder by bi-lateralpolar politics; dramatic affairs of the heart and all the ardor and betrayal that implies; and the exhaustion inherent in raising three kids – the oldest two during those hard, indelible times known as the Periodo Especial, when stomachs growled and cramped with hunger and entire days were spent in blackout. The Special Period was also when mobs of people cast their fate to the wind, water, and sharks on slap-dash rafts with a 50/50 chance of making it across the Straits.

Many of those poor souls failed in their attempt to escape, dying outright en route or otherwise kept from stumbling into the open arms of Uncle Sam (see note 1). With a forced smile exemplifying the Cuban dicho ‘mal tiempo, buena cara,’ Lucia waved goodbye to friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances as they emigrated north. Due to circumstances financial and otherwise, many of Lucia’s people – including her only sister and two childhood friends – can’t return to visit Cuba. Like so many people I know, Lucia dreams of sharing a Cristal wet with sweat in the honeyed Havana light with her loved ones.

Paddling away on a raft or zipping off in a lancha (regular weekly departures for $10,000 a head) is the most dramatic and dangerous means of escape, but there are others: marrying a foreigner is perennially popular, as is the slower (but somehow less tedious) application for the bombo (see note 2); securing a Spanish passport if your family descends from those parts; or quedándose on a trip abroad. That is: going overseas for work or as a tourist (yes, some Cubans do travel for shopping pleasure) and neglecting to get on the plane back. To give you an idea of how profoundly the emigration question touches Cubans, consider ‘La Visa,’ the latest schoolyard game whereby a ball is thrown in the air and a country shouted out – Yuma! Mexico! España! The kid who catches the ball ‘gets’ the corresponding visa.

But contrary to what the world has been led to believe, there are more Cubans who don’t want to leave than do. Like Lucia. Like my husband and his family. Like many of my co-workers. But just because they aren’t scheming their great escape doesn’t mean they don’t feel trapped now and again. Hemmed in by water, but also bureaucracy, Third World economics, politics and other factors quite beyond one’s control – who wouldn’t be? It’s trying at times and requires figurative escapes – coping mechanisms to mollify the madness and loosen the psychological pretzel island living engenders.

In no particular order:

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll: The Cuban penchant (and talent) for sex is legendary and sexual freedom in the form of multiple partners and the pursuit and conquest of same is part and parcel of our daily landscape. Not only is hooking up freeing in the personal sovereignty sense in that it affirms (however hollowly), one’s individual choice and control, but it’s also free entertainment. The flirting and dancing and piropos (pick up lines and compliments) and foreplay help keep boredom (however temporarily) at bay and serve as an escape from all those factors beyond our control.

Drugs – illicit or not – serve the same purpose and despite Granma’s assertion that drogas aren’t a health problem here, 10 years of living in Havana paints a different picture. I know more than a handful of hardcore drunks for example, and prescription pills are in such high demand family doctors have been trained how to handle patients angling for scripts. Marijuana and cocaine can be had at no small risk and price (see note 3) and I’ve heard about Cuban acid trips and X adventures. Rock ‘n roll (coupled with rolls in the hay) is my personal drug of choice and in this, I’m largely up shit’s creek here since Cuba has crappy rock, though regular gigs by accomplished cover bands like Los Kents provide certain succor.

The Novela: Soap operas are addicting, which you well know if you’ve spent any amount of time in Cuba, where ‘round about nine o’clock the city quietly retreats inside to catch the next installment. Brazilian, Argentine, Cuban – it doesn’t matter the origin, as long as the cast is beautiful, the food abundant and the tragedia delicious. These fantasy worlds provide needed escape for islanders of all stripes, from housewives to priests, cowboys to convicts. On December 31st, a hallowed night spent with family here, the clan licked pork fat from their fingers and waited to pop the cider that stands in for champagne here when all the women mysteriously melted away. ‘La novela,’ someone said when I asked after them. Even Fidel has interrupted one of his televised speeches to assure viewers he wouldn’t run over into the soap opera. If you think I’m kidding about soaps as serious escape, consider that two TV households aren’t uncommon here: one for those who want to watch the novela, another for watching pelota. Homes with just one set become divided and bicker-ridden when the soaps and baseball are simulcast.

DVDs: Even before the explosion of private entrepreneurs selling pirated DVDs descended upon us, Cubans habitually rented and copied movies (or entire seasons of their favorite soap), on VHS and now on DVD and in digital formats. Last week as I looked to buy a 5 movie combo from my neighborhood pirate, the saleswoman nodded knowingly when I told her I was looking for something to ‘desconectarme,’ to ‘saca el plug.’ Whether at home or in the theater, cinematic escape is familiar to all Cubans and the saleswoman had no trouble plucking a DVD from the rack with Moneyball, New Year’s Eve, and three other recent releases.

Sports: Technically (and for all the old timers), baseball may be the national sport, but football/soccer is making a play for the title. Every day in the park near my house, local kids field two full teams and kick up the dirt in bare feet as they drive towards the goal. When Barça or Real Madrid play, the bars are packed with fans wearing their colors who unleash a fury once reserved for the Industriales baseball club and national volleyball team. I’m not surprised that booting a little black and white ball about for millions of dollars while having all the super models, fast cars, and sprawling properties your heart desires is the escape-cum-dream package for so many Cubans.

And that’s what it’s all about, friends: the dream. Not the American one or the European one. Nor the dream of fame and fortune those places symbolize (but rarely actualize) for so many from points south. Just the dream, in and of itself regardless of time, space or place. This is what’s essential. We all have them. We all have the right to them. I encourage everyone, everywhere to embrace, as I have, my mom’s sage advice: ‘live your dreams.’ No matter what they are or where they may take you.

In the words of Blondie: “I’ll build a road in gold just to have some dreaming. Dreaming is free.”

Notes

1. The USA has an extra special immigration policy for Cubans known as ‘wet foot/dry foot’ whereby any Cubano who is able to touch toe to hallowed US ground is granted automatic residency in the Land o’ the Free. This ‘advance to Go, collect $200’ dangled before Cubans (and only Cubans) means would-be immigrants from this island are even more reckless than their nothing-left-to-lose brethren from other latitudes, risking life and limb to reach the USA. Again and again, it has proven fatal (Elián González ring a bell?).

2. Other extra special Cuban immigration rules coming from the USA include this emigration visa, 20,000 of which are pledged under current accords (Obama re-instated this old policy suspended by Bush Hijo).

3. I strongly advise everyone reading this against trying to procure illicit drugs here; see Locked Up Abroad.

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Cuba’s Secret Weapon: Little Old Ladies

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Up and moving to a foreign country is like tiptoeing across a tightrope without a net. It takes balls (or ovaries, as we say on this side of the Straits), but can be stupid, reckless, and if all goes horribly wrong, detrimental to breathing.

When I landed in Cuba to live full time – without a net – in April 2002, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for (see note 1). But imagining 6-hour blackouts and bucket showers is one thing. Cooking, eating, reading and lovemaking by candlelight followed by a military shower is something (uncomfortably, unsustainably) else.

Little by little, things improved. Gradually, I adjusted. I sprang for a $15 electric shower unit (known as widow makers in some countries) and we kept a list of debate topics on hand for the next blackout. Over time, I grew accustomed to my neighbors dropping by unannounced for coffee and a chat and I no longer started at the good-natured yelling Cubans indulge in. Poco a poco my wardrobe got shorter and tighter, I perfected the use of a pressure cooker, and grew used to the idea that gladiolas aren’t just for dead people (see note 2).

But clothing, cooking, even floral tendencies, are differences you expect in foreign countries. In Pakistan I had to cover my head. In Guatemala I (happily) forsook bread for tortillas. Here in Havana however, I was blindsided by something else entirely, something wholly unexpected: I’m surrounded by old people.

It’s not simply that Cubans have a longer life expectancy than you (see note 3) or that the country has 1,488 centenarians and counting. Sure, the island is a willing poster child for the 120 Club (see note 4), but the ubiquity of the elderly here has more to do with the culture of aging than health indicators.

In Cuba, great pains are taken to keep the ‘senior zits’ and ‘blue hairs’ (as my mother calls them, even though – technically – she forms part of their ranks) actively involved in society. Active aging they call it. Every day, from Pinar del Río to Guantánamo, you’ll see seniors doing knee bends and loosening their rotator cuffs in free, outdoor exercise classes; raisin-like men mixing up the dominos at seniors’ centers; and great grandmothers wheeling their sweet potatoes and yucca away from the Tulipán vegetable market.

As end of days approach, it is the rare Cuban that gets parked in a nursing home. Here, people prefer to take care of their own, at home – even hospice happens at home, in your own bed. Up north, meanwhile, we tend to shutter people away once they reach a certain age. Where I’m from, growing old and dying at home is the rare exception. I get that nursing homes are handy. Who wants to change their mother’s diaper or go unrecognized by their own father as he battles demons known only to Alzheimer’s patients? But, the incontinent and impenetrable aside, I think the Cubans are on to something with their family-based aging in place.

Teresita was my first clue. Wide-hipped and curmudgeonly, with hair dyed the color of bread crusts, Teresita is my 86-year old neighbor. She’s the archetypical despotic Cuban matriarch, heading up four generations of females squeezed into a 2-bedroom apartment. Though able-bodied, Teresita never leaves the apartment. Despite her cranky, iron-fisted disposition, we call her “Terry” with affection.

Times are hard for Terry and her girls. She had to share her rubber-sheeted bed with her 56-year old daughter Lila until the latter emigrated to Tampa. It happened exactly like most leave-takings here in Cuba: here one day, gone the next. The space opened up in Terry’s bed couldn’t compensate for the sorrow it planted in her heart. With the high drama that grips so many Cuban women, Terry comes to me after Lila has left to say the only thing she has to look forward to now is the grave.

While her granddaughter is out earning her daily bread and her great granddaughter is at school learning her times tables, Terry is left alone. All day, every day. She’s locked in, but far from shut-in: perched at her window observing all the comings and goings, Terry is The Gossip. From her I learn a trio of young thugs are posing as public health inspectors, finessing their way into the homes of little old ladies, and robbing them blind. It’s Terry who tells me that Omara from upstairs in going to Spain and Yusi downstairs is dating a new guy.

“He’s black,” she whispers to me, passing a couple of fingers along her forearm – the classic Cuban sign for a person of color.

Like many white ladies of an age, Terry is a little bit racist, which is akin to being a little pregnant in my book, but I let it slide. She’s got over eight decades of memories and experience and I find myself heading across the hall to “talk story” as we say in Hawaii. I find reasons to knock on her door – bringing her the reading material she so desperately craves and dropping by for coffee and a turn in her broken cane rocker. Over tiny cups of sweet and musky bodega coffee (see note 5), she tells me about her brutal, pre-revolution childhood.

Rocking and sipping, she tells me how her father’s second wife, a wicked substitute for Terry’s dead mother, forced her to work beginning at an absurdly early age. There were the customary cooking and cleaning chores that every household has, but young Terry was also forced to take outside work, washing and ironing the neighbors’ guyaberas, slacks, and skirts. If she protested, she met the business end of a belt. She’s less forthcoming about her husband, who gave her one daughter and a whole lot of headaches. Of course, our conversation always detours to the terrain of her various ailments: stiff joints, failing eyes, and a chronic, inexplicable throbbing in her thigh. If I let her roam, we’ll get lost in the badlands of her aches and pains.

Then there’s Carmita, my 82-year old friend from Regla (see note 6). She’s more affectionate and sharp-witted than Teresita, but is a similarly iron-willed matriarch with a long gone husband. ‘Good riddance!’ she exclaims with a devlish smile. ‘That one was born unfaithful.’ Laying a liver-spotted hand on my leg she cracks jokes about macho men and criticizes complicit women in that spirited, pre-curve feminist way of hers.

Sipping the same sweet, musky coffee from the same teeny cups everyone has here, Carmita spins tales of teaching hicks from the sticks to read during the 1961 literacy campaign. With her eyes closed softly, she recreates the Bay of Pigs attack, reliving those tense days. Carmita can be mercurial, fluctuating between placcid and resigned, spunky and spent. Like Teresita – like everyone I’m realizing – her life has been peppered with profound pain and loss.

Carmita has her health problems too – arthritis forced her to abandon her sewing business some years ago and the diabetes is under control. For now. While she fries up some plantains for her handsome grandson, Carmita relates last night’s dream with that munificent smile of hers. In the dream, her recently deceased daughter has been revived, the cancer expunged, her lifeblood back.

“Give me a hug Mom.”

“It won’t hurt?”

“No, Mom. I’m good. I’m healthy.”

Her words hung in the small, dark kitchen.

“And then you woke up, though you never wanted to,” I say with finality.

“It was horrible muchacha.”

I can’t imagine.

Old Cuba likewise comes alive sitting on Evarina’s porch in Miramar. Homebound and 80-something, Evarina’s a bulldog of a dame. She’s from the Oriente originally, (which means something if you know the island), and once upon a time was a daily cigar smoker like myself. Her diabetes is having its way with her and there’s some concern she might lose her foot. While she tries to “resolve” a course of the Cuban wonder drug for diabetic foot, she passes her time burning up the phone lines gossiping about her sister’s new cleaning lady and the Braves’ acquisition of her favorite ball player.

Then there’s Mary and Esther. Debra and Julia. When I step back and look at the landscape of my life here in Havana, I’m shocked to realize that the people I like best, that are the most interesting and engaging, are, on average, 79 years old. Old women, the lot of them. Why, I ask myself, are there so many viejitas in my midst? Could this even happen in the States?

Gotta run. Carmita’s expecting me in Regla and has promised to tell me about when Hemingway was sweet on her, dropping by her work to flirt and conquer.

Notes

1. I had been here several times before, first as a volunteer in 1993 during the Special Period (which was very, very “special” according to the Cuban joke,) and most recently in 2000.

2. There are a couple of Cuban characteristics I will never get used to. Topping the list is the national penchant for spoiling movie endings. If you have Cuban friends, you know what I’m talking about. The other is eating pizza with a knife and fork.

3. Cubans’ life expectancy is 78.3 – just surpassing the US figure of 78. Meanwhile, 16% percent of the island’s population is over 60; this will shoot up to 25% by 2025. Cuba’s recently concluded national centenarian study is fascinating.

4. Fidel Castro is the Club’s most famous member.

5. The “bodega” is where Cubans receive their monthly rations – food and other staples provided almost free by the State. As I type this, the ration card is being phased out in one of the most radical departures for the Cuban government in recent memory (I’d hate to be the person who had to convince Fidel that cutting rations is a good idea). Last week, potatoes and dried peas were dropped from the ration card. Bread and coffee are next but won’t go as gently into that good night as papas and chicharro, I’m afraid. In Cuba, bread and coffee mean breakfast. Making people buy these staples is going to be tricky – especially coffee, which, like everywhere, is very expensive: we make one espresso pot a day, spending around $15 a month. Being that the average salary is $12 a month, we’ll soon be facing a national java jones unless other provisions are made.

6. Regla is known as the “Little Sierra Maestra” it’s that revolutionary. It’s also home to the Black Virgin of Regla (Havana Bay’s patron saint and closely linked with Yemayá) and many secrets great and small. You can drive to Regla in 10 minutes from downtown Havana, but cross the bay via ferry for a picturesque, enjoyable journey to what could be a small town in the island’s interior, with all the friendly faces and simple fun that implies.

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Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part II

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The best preparation for living in Cuba is having known hard times. To paraphrase that paragon of faith and insight Frei Betto: “The rich can handle Cuba for a week, the middle class for two, but the poor can live there forever” (see note 1). Poor folks know what it means to have no lights or water or phone and just how costly a bounced check can become (see note 2). And most poor folk have known, if temporarily, what it means to go hungry.

Cubans know many things – salsa, art, history, sports, poetry, rum, rumors. Cubans also know hunger. In the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’ adult Cubans lost 15 pounds on average. During these lean times, kids would be fed and sent to bed while their parents laid awake, stomachs empty, fighting off painful pangs of hunger. These were those notorious times when flour “meatballs” were what was for dinner and ‘pasta de oca’ was a staple (see note 3). Thankfully, tales of banana peel hamburgers and shredded condoms standing in for pizza cheese seem to be apocryphal. Except for the condom cheese, I can attest to the veracity of these stories – I first came here in 1993 during the worst of the Special Period and witnessed the privation first hand.

Though some things have improved some, the Periodo Especial endures in ways. My brilliant friend Fernando summed it up like this: we don’t suffer from physical hunger so much anymore. What we suffer from is psychological hunger. That is, it’s the lingering scepter of hunger that haunts us. This explains a lot, from obesity rates in Miami to the savagery that possesses Cubans at buffets and Coppelia (see note 4). Bells started ringing with Fernando’s “psychological hunger” dictum – this is precisely the condition from which I suffer. Sown during the oatmeal years and now in full bloom, I get like a nervous flyer on a haul to Honolulu without my Xanax when food stores are low. Hunger may make the best sauce as the old saying goes, but take cover when it overtakes me.

Coppelia notwithstanding, Cuba’s not the best place for the psychologically hungry. It’s not Sub-Saharan style granted, but it has its moments. Mondays for instance, when all fruit, vegetable, and meat markets are closed. Run out of fresh stuff on a Monday? Tough luck. Need an egg? Go to Plan B (see note 5). I don’t need Bob Geldof to tell me why I don’t like Mondays. Though open daily, regular stores selling pasta, butter, cheese, and other staples close at 6pm and even if you catch them open, there’s zero guarantee they’ll have what you want or need.

Then there are the seasons. Cuba imports 80% of its food supply – none of it fresh fruit or vegetables. That means if it ain’t the season, you ain’t eating it. No chips and salsa in July or mango chutney in October. Guacamole? You’ve got a three month window. And so it goes with everything from lettuce and parsley to scallions and spinach. Some produce (pears, plums, berries of any sort, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms) is just a dream on that 90-mile-away horizon. This probably sounds like a nightmare to most, but is mostly bearable until one breezy evening when the mouth-watering image of a BLT pops into my head. Agony ensues. It’s too late for tomatoes and nowhere near lettuce time. Ironically, I’ve got the bacon but by the time I can lay my hands on the L and the T, the B will be long gone (see note 6). Needless to say, in almost eight years living here, I’ve never had a BLT.

The seasons, the supply chain, and the complete unavailability of some items (not to mention the occasional hurricane and blight) force a cook to get and stay creative here in Havana. Such creativity sometimes results in radishes in your pasta primavera or squash in your stir fry. When I first got here I was unsettled by the frequency with which cooked cucumbers appeared in casseroles, chop sueys, and other concoctions. But now I’m unfazed by hot cucumbers and other inventions like Tandoori spaghetti.

To be continued…

Notes

1. For those of you unfamiliar with Frei Betto, the man is an inspiration to which this wiki doesn’t do justice. He was imprisoned for four years helping people flee dictatorial Brazil and has written 50 (FIFTY) books. His most famous is Fidel & Religion based on umpteen hours of interviews with you-know-who. This book holds some kind of weird record for selling out faster in Cuba than any other title in the nation’s history. I could explain why but that would entail a long and not terribly interesting (for the general reading public) explanation of religious history in revolutionary Cuba. Unfortunately, few of Betto’s books are available in English.

2. Living here for so long, I am woefully out of touch. Do people in the real world even use checks anymore?

3. Literally ‘goose paste,’ this is about as close to pâté as Alpo is to ground chuck. Since the 90s and the worst of the Special Period, the government ration system has relied fairly heavily on “enriched” products to inject protein into the national diet. The most infamous of these is “picadillo de soya enriquecido” or enriched soy pellets. Pasta de oca was along these lines – a gooey, flour-based paste to which microscopic amounts of ground up goose was added. Sounds appetizing right? The point is, pasta de oca wasn’t something to savor, but something to keep 11.2 million from death’s door. Amazingly, it did.

4. Coppelia is Cuba’s world famous ice cream parlor and one of my favorite spots here in Havana. Sure, the lines are beyond what most people reading this blog would ever endure, but put in your 45 minutes and you’ll be sitting down to 5 cent scoops of delicious ice cream surrounded by (real! live!) Cubans. Sure, there’s usually only one flavor available – two in the summer – but the ice cream is wicked and the atmosphere charged. Did I mention the nice price?

What you’ll notice after the monumental mod architecture (inspired by the cathedral in Brasilia) is the ferocious appetite Cubans have for ice cream. Chicks so gorgeous they’d be modeling elsewhere order 4 “ensaladas” without a second thought and tack on a piece of cake while they wait. When the 20 (TWENTY) scoops of ice cream arrive, they set to work. These Cubanas lindas aren’t alone: people all around the place are digging into their own score of scoops and if you’ve ever sat elbow to elbow digging in with them, you know I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.

And if you’re ever find yourself stuck between a Cuban and a buffet, run the other way, fast!

5. In the up north world, an egg is something easily resolved – just head over to the neighbors and see if they’ve got one to spot. Not so here, where eggs are nicknamed “salvavidas” (lifesavers) since they’re a major source of protein. While neighbors reliably loan sugar, salt, rice and other ration book staples, it’s seriously bad form to ask for a protein float.

6. Ironic because Cuba is awash in pigs and pork products – lard, feet, ribs, ears, sausage, and more are all easy to come by – but bacon? No, my brother. I’m not sure why. Any butchers out there who can educate me on this finer point of pork?

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