Tag Archives: yuma

‘To Don’t List’ for Emigrating Cubans

Amaya; Otto; Giulietta; Jonas; Alejandro El Mesero, Alejandro El Informático: all these friends (and more) have left these shores in the past six months in search of something bigger, better, brighter or simply different.

We always send friends and family off with well wishes and congratulations (yes: getting a coveted work visa or bewitching a foreign spouse is still celebrated here the way I imagine prisoners celebrate an Early Release Date), but it’s sad too, despairing even. Tears are shed – in private or at the airport, before during or after. Yet once they dry, Cubans face leave-taking the way they face bureaucratic absurdities, violent hurricanes, chronic shortages and all-day blackouts (yes: we still have them. We’re in the thick of one as I write this, in fact, beads of sweat pooling between breasts). Mal tiempo, buena cara.

Living in Cuba is a lesson in constants: constant contradictions, constant challenges, constant rupture. And I’m still learning. I mourn the loss of my friends who, once they leave, get sucked into a dimension of fast food and FaceBook, big box stores and demanding bosses. It’s wonderful for them to have experiences they’ve only dreamt of and deserve, but it still feels like abandonment to me. Cubans seems to be less ‘trágica’ about it. I guess they have to be. It makes sense – intellectually. I know (too) many Cubans who’ve flown the coop, so to speak; the nostalgia and longing can be crippling, painfully so. As an immigrant myself, I know this feeing intimately. Mal tiempo, buena cara.

But emotionally? It sucks to have your social structure stirred up like a stamped on ant hill. Then there’s brain drain, the negative birth rate (many émigrés are women of child-bearing age), dearth of eligible bachelors, and all the other practical implications of immigration.

Rather than wallow however, I try to be of service. It helps me work through the missing. Not ready for my medicine? Tough luck.

For all my Cuban friends considering or in the process of leaving, I offer this check list of things you’re used to doing in Cuba that you cannot do once you arrive at your foreign destination of choice or default. This should be especially helpful for those moving to La Yuma.

launch snot rockets (AKA the Farmer Hanky)
– pop your lover’s zits in public
– have an open container in a car
– toss cans and other garbage out of a moving car/bus/train
– tssst tssst to get the waiter’s attention
– shoot birds with a sling shot
– pick your neighbors flowers or poison your neighbor’s dog (yes: this is pretty common here)
– saunter away from a steaming pile of your dog’s shit on the sidewalk
– flaunt your mistresses
– smoke cigarettes – anywhere (unless you enjoy pariah status)
– believe everything you read on the Internet
– steal the toilet paper
– throw soiled toilet paper in the garbage
masturbate in movie theaters
– use cooking oil as sexual lubricant
– wear stilettos to the beach
– wear shorts so short your ass cheeks hang out
– forget to write. We miss you!


Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, 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

Things I Don’t Miss about the U.S.A.

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Most Cubans get a queer, screwed up look on their face when they learn I’m from the States but choose to live here. It’s logical: for so many people the world over, the USA is the land of milk and honey, of unfettered freedom and opportunity. I can only think that these folks know nothing from taxes and $200 pap smears, the Patriot Act or hate crimes.

But I know what shade the grass is on the other side; Considerable is the time I spend trying to explain this to my Cuban friends, colleagues, and strangers on the street (see note 1). This is like trying to explain the color of beets to a blind man or the importance of Les Paul to someone who doesn’t play the guitar (see note 2). Too much just doesn’t compute.

 Needless to say, I’ve had 7 long years to think about life over there, about what I miss and what I don’t. Here’s a snapshot about those things I’m happy to live without:

 – Panhandlers

– From MJ to Ms Schiavo, unrelenting media coverage of dead and dying famous (and not so) people

– TV commercials (see note 3)

– Antibacterial everything

– Scented toilet paper

– Telemarketing

 – Road rage

 – Anti-smoking Fascists

 – All that dog eat dog

– Hidden (and not so) cameras and the nonstop surveillance that comes with “modern” life

– $400 mammograms and $200 pap smears (see note 4)

– Pro-war people


– Shoveling snow & raking leaves

– Mormons

– Sirens

– Children who can’t entertain themselves

– People texting and tweeting in the middle of conversations

– Epidemic obesity

– Electric flushing toilets (especially the hair trigger kind that are flushing before you’re finished)

– And the latest discovery on my trip back “home”: advertising on plane tray tables.


 1. Apparently being a blondish haired, blue eyed, be-freckled Yuma gives every Tomás, Ricardo, and Enrico here the green light to talk me up. The Cuban-foreigner dynamic is insanely complicated and something beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say that every time I step out my door there’s someone invading my personal space with their personal questions.

 2. I was very saddened to learn of Les Paul’s recent death. He holds a special place in my heart and I know was an inspiration to many generations of guitar players.

 3. One great upside to government-controlled media is that there are zero TV commercials. This means when I’m watching The Reader or The Sopranos, I get it all uninterrupted (and mostly) uncut.   

4. Is it just me or is it totally sick that someone should have to pay such an outrageous amount of money for preventative medicine? You can bet if it were the men of the world with boobs and vaginas it wouldn’t be so.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad