Tag Archives: termites

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.


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…


Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad

Cuba is Bugging Me – Part I

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And I don’t mean my phone. I leave that to the State Department [see note 1], which I’m quite sure was listening in last week as I regaled my sister with tales of the turtle project and other juicy tidbits.

No, I’m talking about critters, creepy crawlies, insects – what we collectively refer to as bichos. In general, bugs don’t bother me much. I’m a hike-in-the-jungle, camping kind of girl. I’ve seen tarantulas, been attacked by fire ants, and have encountered too many scorpions to count. Pitching a tent on the beaches of Cuba has taught me to withstand vicious mosquitoes and nasty, swarming clouds of sand fleas. I’ve caught scabies in San Francisco (who hasn’t?!) and laid down with bed bugs in Guatemala. But none of this prepared me for Havana’s day in, day out infestations.

Let’s start with the ants crawling out of the walls, across countertops, and from inside my computer. This last is episodic but makes me damn nervous. I have enough technological challenges as it is. They attack any stray crumb of food and swarm around, up, and over our thermos – thankfully our daily dose of espresso is hermetically sealed against their attempts to mainline pure Cuban caffeine. Sometimes I feel them on me, crawling around my ear lobes and along my neck. Creepy? Sure. Annoying? Abso-fuckin-lutely. Once or twice I’ve found a few stragglers in our bed and more times than I wish to admit I’ve taken a swig from my water glass on the bedside table only to discover – too late – it’s swimming with ants. Gross, I know [see note 2].

But wait, it gets worse.

Our old building – one of those Soviet-style cinderblock numbers – was completely infested with termites from Elvis’ ground floor apartment to Chino’s five flights up. One day, I put my thumb through our front door, it was so soft from their constant feeding and our ply board bed had to be propped on concrete blocks the wood was so damaged. More than once the hubby and I were doing that voodoo that we do so well and a corner board went weak, sending the bed crashing to the floor. Talk about anticlimactic!

I don’t know much about termite behavior up north, but down here we actually only see them once a year, when they magically sprout wings to pour from their hiding places and fly all around the apartment. They’re unconfident flyers and we’d bob and weave to avoid getting them in our hair until they dropped dead in bunches, their iridescent wings littering the tiled floor. Until they performed their annual death dance, the only termite interface we had was cleaning up piles of their droppings and fingering soft spots in the doorframes and windows [see note 3].

When we moved into our new place 18 months ago, I was happy to swap termites for ants. No more of their pebbly droppings on the soles of my feet. No more threat of the bed collapsing while we did the wild thing (although it did present a titillating element of the unexpected). Then one fine Sunday cleaning house, I found myself sweeping up their shit – again – and cursing our luck. But even the infestations of years past could not prepare us for the horror that awaited: while flipping our mattress – an occasional necessity since Cuban mattresses are crappy and lumpy and poke you where the springs have pushed through – we found termites had made a buffet of our bed, burrowing holes all over and through it. Even writing this makes my skin crawl and if I describe what termites eating a mattress looks like I won’t be able to sleep tonight. Suffice to say, it’s nasty. It’s downright fucking nasty and I wish I hadn’t even thought of telling you about it because now it’s imprinted on my mind’s eye.

So ants in my ears and termites in our bed. Looking on the bright side, we don’t have roaches, although our car was strangely infested a while back.[see note 4] At night, these little buggers the Cubans call cucarachas alemanes would come skittering out of the door panels, the dashboard, and the air vents. It was fairly gross and totally embarrassing when these ‘German roaches’ did a cameo for friends, family, and hitchhikers.

On the whole, Cubans are not bug tolerant and toxic chemicals are readily available for rapid annihilation purposes. We took the car in for one good, strong fumigation and we haven’t seen a cucaracha alemana since. Meanwhile, the ‘dollar stores’ [see note 5] are stocked with tall green cans of poisonous spray called I Killed It!, featuring illustrations of mosquitoes, scorpions, ants, and spiders (alas, termites don’t figure in). I take divine pleasure in dowsing the marching columns every so often with a healthy dose of I Killed It, but there’s no keeping those Cuban ants down.

I’ve tried every hokey folk remedy I know: boric acid, black pepper, and cinnamon don’t really work. It keeps them at bay for a while, but cordoning off my computer with a cinnamon blockade gets messy. One memorable day they attacked from multiple fronts, coming from the bathroom tiles, out the kitchen cabinets, and amazingly, from where the wall meets the ceiling in my office. ‘Basta, coño,’ I thought. ‘I’ll show them what opposable thumbs are good for.’ Four legs good, two legs bad my ass. Time to bust out the duct tape (another item I import in my luggage alongside the nuts and grains and Parmesan cheese.)

I shut off their exits mercilessly, trapping them like innocent club goers in a fly-by-night disco. It was almost too easy (and oh so satisfying) to slap a piece of the thick tape over the holes from which they poured. I was on a mission and even devised a way to shut off their hole in the 12-foot high ceiling, perching a swatch of tape on the end of a broom handle and jamming it up there ’til it stuck. They found other ways in eventually, obviously, but I left the tape up there as testament to my small triumph over nature. Besides, for 5 convertible pesos (that’s 6 USD in the real world), I can pay a professional fumigator to fill every single nook and cranny with his precious poison. By leaving the tape up, I’m making his job easier.

Next Up: Mosquitoes


1. This may sound like paranoia pure and simple, but I’ve been told numerous times that my “file” was first opened in 1993 when I came here (legally) on a volunteer program with the Quakers. I, and other Yuma living here in Havana assume are conversations are being monitored by Uncle Sam. For all I know, the Cubans are listening in too, yawning as they hear me go on about my husband’s high cholesterol and how to cook okra.

2. But not as gross as the time I was sipping coffee with my Mom in Kailua-Kona and drawing the mug away from my lips, I realized there was a roach in my mouth. Needless to say, this place did not make it into the guidebook!
3. Only years later did I discover that the bastards had pitched camp on a treasured watercolor by my oldest brother. The folks at the frame shop refused to repair it because of the threat the termites posed to their wood stock. Can’t really blame them…

4. I should clarify: when I say “our car,” what I mean is my husband’s work car, which is available to us nights and weekends only.

5. If you haven’t heard, Cuba operates on what’s called a double economy where Cuban pesos (worth 20 to a dollar) circulate alongside Convertible pesos (worth 80 cents to a dollar). Ironically, this hard currency is called a “convertible” peso even though you can’t change or spend them anywhere in the world but here. It’s also terribly funny (read: agonizing), that the artificial rate set by the Cuban central bank means they’re “stronger” than the dollar. That means when I go in with 100 greenbacks, I come out with 80 bills of this funny money. Many products – cooking oil, shampoo, butter, bug spray – are only sold in this hard currency. You can see the problems this causes for people without access to convertible pesos, but that’s another story.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad