POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: sketchy

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For Nancy. From whom Cinder adopted “sketchy.”

Listen:

& read:

I.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Jane: “What?”

Cinder: “If I had to describe Cuba in one word: sketchy. The cars are sketchy. The buildings—not all of them, but too many—are sketchy. The food is sketchy. The buses are sketchy. The playgrounds… sketchy.

We are at a playground. At which I just told Ender to get off the swing, because, um, I saw the screw in the bracket that’s supposed to hold it attached to the upper pole wiggle and wiggle and wiggle…

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Well.

Cinder: “I’m going to ask Flora what she thinks. Hey. If you were going to describe Cuba in one word, what would it be?”

Flora: “Mildly traumatizing.”

Jane: “Is it because of all the dead bird parts in the Metropolitan Parque?”

Flora: “And the run down cemetery you made us walk through. Again.”

Cinder: “That’s two words. One word.”

Flora: “Run-down.”

Jane: “But the experience of a lifetime, right?”

Cinder: “Just keep telling yourself that, Mom.”

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II.

We’re walking this crazy loop through a section of our hood where we don’t normally go, and we get lost—mostly on purpose—and end up by the Havana Zoo.

Jane: “No.”

Ender: “But…”

Jane: “Absolutely not. Think about the Aquarium. Quite apart from the fact that the admission price is extortionate, it will make Flora suicidal.”

Flora’s already mildly traumatized, because we went through the Bosque—Havana forest and the Havana Metropolitan Park Natural area—which were wild and beautiful and utterly unkept up and full of garbage and also bird carcasses, what the fuck—and I can’t figure it out until we accidentally interrupt a Santeria ceremony and they’re not sacrificing any chickens, but suddenly, all the feathers and corpses make me think maybe it’s not just cats and vultures and words come out of my mouth, and Flora hates humans.

Flora: “If your stupid religion requires a sacrifice, it should only ever be a human sacrifice, goddammit.”

Jane: “So you’re cool with what the Aztecs were doing then?”

Flora: “Yes. Except for all the llama killing.”

Instead of going into the zoo, I offer to buy them some KFC-style fried chicken. We’re clever now. I order a single serving. “My kids are picky,” I tell the server. “If they like this, I’ll order more.”

Flora: “It’s edible.”

Cinder: “It’s not good.”

Ender: “I don’t think it’s meat.”

Jane: “Is it because you’re thinking about all the bird corpses?”

Cinder: “Well, I wasn’t, but thanks, Mom.”

Jane: “Just drink your Fanta and chew.”

They elect to drink their Fanta and be hungry. I take a bite.

I don’t think it’s meat either. Although—that’s definitely a bone.

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III.

Santeria crash course: Santeria is what happens when Yoruba and other African tribal beliefs meet colonialism and Roman Catholicism. Santeria is the name the Spanish plopped onto the practices they noted among the slaves in the Caribbean. Regla de Ochá or La Regla de Ifá are alternate names for the religion that occurs everywhere in Carribean where colonizers and slaves collided.

Cuba’s version of Santeria is, like everything else about Cuba, uniquely Cuban.

As Vice’s Phil Hill Clarke puts its, “In its earliest days Santeria was an exclusive slave practice — a rejection of the masters’ Catholic saints and the colonial Christian God.”

One of the centers of Santeria in Cuba is the Havana suburb of Regla, but I don’t manage to drag the kids there.

Next time.

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IV.

The colonial period from the standpoint of African slaves may be defined as a time of perseverance. Their world quickly changed. Tribal kings and their families, politicians, business and community leaders all were enslaved and taken to a foreign region of the world. Religious leaders, their relatives and their followers were now slaves. Colonial laws criminalized their religion. They were forced to become baptized and worship a god their ancestors had not known who was surrounded by a pantheon of saints. The early concerns during this period seem to have necessitated a need for individual survival under harsh plantation conditions. A sense of hope was sustaining the internal essence of what today is called Santería, a misnomer (and former pejorative) for the indigenous religion of the Lukumi people of Nigeria. In the heart of their homeland, they had a complex political and social order. They were a sedentary hoe farming cultural group with specialized labor. Their religion, based on the worship of nature, was renamed and documented by their masters. Santería, a pejorative term that characterizes deviant Catholic forms of worshiping saints, has become a common name for the religion. The term santero(a) is used to describe a priest or priestess replacing the traditional term Olorisha as an extension of the deities. The orishas became known as the saints in image of the Catholic pantheon.

— Ernesto Pichardo, CLBA,
Santería in Contemporary Cuba: The individual life and condition of the priesthood

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V.

Our loop takes us past the Ho Chi Minh monument—which is his bust, bronze and conventional, on a marble block—again, conventional. Around it are red poles, roughly shaped into a tent. Part of the monument or a separate public art sculpture?

Cinder: “I don’t get it.”

I explain Ho Chi Minh to them briefly.

Cinder: “No, I mean, the theme of this park. Look, there are all these road signs, right?”

I notice them for the first time, but he’s right—here’s a stop sign, and here’s a yield, and here’s children crossing and…

Cinder: “And the path is painted like a road—see the separating line? So it’s like for kids to bike around in, and learn street signs.”

I nod.

Cinder: “And then… there are the stairs…”

So there are. In the middle of the road.

Cinder: “Sketchy. In a word: sketchy.”

I prefer… not well-thought out.

Like socialism Cubano.

Perhaps socialism itself.

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VI.

Segue: it briefly occurs to me that the problem with socialism is that Karl Marx formulated it at a time when the Industrial Revolution had totally and completely perverted the concept of work, worker… life.

He saw what was happening… and tried to think of a way to make it better.

But he didn’t think… maybe that’s not the way it ought to be at all.

VII.

Old school Castro and the Communists didn’t approve of Santeria or Catholicism or any religion. Religion, you may remember, is the opium of the people and all that.

Perhaps now recognizing that the people need their opium, new school Castro and the post-Communists have stopped actively repressing religion in Cuba. Well, mostly.

As a result, Santeria has undergone a massive renaissance. The BBC reports that it’s Cuba’s most popular religion, and judging by the number of iyabos (initiates), easily recognizable by their all-white costumes, head coverings and beads, the BBC is right.

If you’d like to find out more about Santeria, the aboutsanteria.com site and blog are a good starting point.

Short-hand: there’s more to Santeria than animal sacrifice.

But, that, too.

And the evidence of animal sacrifice causes Flora as much angst as roadkill.

I explain Santeria to the children, in rough outlines.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Flora: “Very traumatizing. But then, so is much of this trip.”

What? Really? Why?

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VIII.

Barely a hop and a skip away from the Ho Chi Minh monument is a cemetery. Could it be the Chinese cemetery I’ve read about? I think I see Kanji…

Flora: “Seriously, Mom?”

Jane: “How can we not go in? It’s right here.”

Also, I fucking love cemeteries. All those silent stories…

Flora: “Dear Moxy. I have now been in every single cemetery in Havana. I’m sad to report each is full of decrepit graves, and possibly corpses, although most of the crypts look empty. Mom says the removed bodies have been probably removed by officials and not grave robbers.”

Jane: “Aw. You listen to me when I talk.”

It’s the Chinese cemetery. It. Is. So. Cool.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

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Ingrates.

Jane: “Experience of a lifetime.”

Cinder: “Humour her. Quick. Before she decides to drag us to another animal sacrifice park.”

Flora: “Experience of a lifetime, Mom.”

That’s better.

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*

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: facts of life (and death)

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For Jorge. Who most definitely does not have fleas.

You’ll be able to listen soon. Audio production on this postcard went sideways, but I didn’t want to delay sending the text out any longer. I hate breaking my own deadlines. 🙂

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In the meantime… read:

I.

On the way to Market 70—they say, the best stocked supermarket in Havana—we step over a…

Flora: “What is that?”

Jane: “Um, I dunno. A dead something or other.”

Cinder: “It’s a chicken. Well, half a chicken. Look, it’s still got its feathers on.”

Flora: “That’s terrible! That’s awful!”

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Friend to and lover of all animals, even the gross ones, Flora’s been extra-sensitive since the dead cat incident of the previous week (don’t ask) and I see her teetering on the edge of tears, and so…

Jane: “Sweetheart, you know all the chickens we eat were once people…”

…ok, that came out wrong…

Flora: “What?”

Cinder: “You mean we’re cannibals after all?”

Ender: “Chickens are people?”

So what I meant to say is…

…but they know…

…and the point is…

Flora: “I think we’re going to be vegetarian for the rest of our stay in Cuba.”

Cinder: “What, you’ve got something against eating meat that used to be people?”

I’ve always wanted them to eat more lentils.

I just didn’t think it would happen in such a traumatic way.

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II.

Cuba’s stray cats and dogs—and the occasional free range chicken—cause Flora constant angst.

Firstly, “Because they are so cute!” and I won’t let her touch them… or bring them home.

Jane: “Look, ooh, aaah, all you like, but don’t touch them.”

Flora: “But why not?”

Jane: “Because I don’t want you to get fleas. Or lice. Or mange.”

Flora: “Mange?”

On cue, a mangy dog runs up to us.

Jane: “Mange.”

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Secondly, because stray cats and the occasional free range chicken do not co-exist peacefully, and there are the feathers, and the not-fully consumed corpses…

Flora: “Why can’t they just live in peace?”

Cinder: “Don’t think of it as a dead chicken, Flora. Think of it as well-fed cat.”

Jane: “Not helping.”

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Thirdly, because they keep on wandering into traffic…

Flora: “Mom, there’s a dog just running down the street—look, he’s running in-between the cars, there is so much traffic, he will die, we have to call someone!”

I try to convince her that Havana dogs know how to safely cross streets. They clearly don’t—but the drivers don’t seem to speed up and aim for them the way they seem to do for pedestrians, so their chances of survival are good. Plus…

Jane: “We haven’t seen a single carcass, right, honey? So you know they must be all right?”

Why, why did I say that?

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III.

So. Since you’ve asked.

The dead cat incident .

We see a carcass.

Cat, I think.

Not fresh. Been there for days.

Right outside a nearby hotel. Well, not right outside. On the other side of the street. I suspect if it was on the hotel side of the street, it would get cleaned up. As is, it’s far enough away that the hotel disavows responsibility.

Flora freaks.

We avoid the place for days. When we come back…

Cinder: “Cat’s still there. I guess Havana doesn’t have a road kill department.”

Jane: “You’d think the vultures would take care of it.”

Flora: “You are so mean! I can’t believe I’m related to you!”

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IV.

Our landlord has two little dogs, and a beautiful sleek cat that roams the neighbourhood during the day and sleeps in his bed at night.

Ender: “Do you think Jorge has fleas?”

Jane: “Um… probably not.”

Cinder: “Mom? You know how if we die in Cuba in a horrible taxi accident, Dad will never forgive you?”

Jane: “Yes?”

Cinder: “If I get fleas, lice or mange in Cuba, I will never forgive you.”

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That’s fair.

Jane: “Then don’t touch any dogs or cats.”

Ender: “Or Jorge?”

Um…

Jane: “Just wash your hands a lot.”

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 *

If you’re new to the Postcards from Cuba project, catch up here: POSTCARDS FROM CUBA.

If you’re a returning guest…

A $5 donation makes a difference and helps pay my rent, feed ma’ kids, and keep on writing, and reduces my dependence on American multinational conglomerate corporations:

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: a riff on race

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For my Marie.

Today’s postcard is brought to you indirectly by an American multinational conglomerate corporation incorporated in New York, and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, which doesn’t exactly know what it is it is funding when it signs my cheques. And… written in February 2016, it seems horribly, horribly relevant today.

Listen:

And read:

I.

There is no class system or racism in Cuba. Read all about it: Castro fixed it all in 1959—a brotherhood and sisterhood of man and all that.

But my landlord is of Spanish descent, and the woman who cleans his house—my house—is Afro-Cuban.

II.

“the absence of the debate on the racial problem already threatens {…} the revolution’s social project”

Esteban Morales Domínguez
the University of Havana

III.

Cinder: “What the hell are you doing, Mom?”

Jane: “The housekeeper is coming tomorrow. I’m cleaning.”

Jorge’s much-too-beautiful housekeeper spends four and a half hours every Saturday cleaning this three-bedroom apartment top to bottom. She’s breathing hard and sweating by the time she’s done. It’s the kind of clean that I promise myself I will give my house every spring… and haven’t done for the past three years. You know? Windows thrown open and polished, every piece of furniture wiped down, every corner dusted…

She does it every week. And on Thursdays, she comes and wipes down the furniture on the verandah, and washes that floors, and the outside stairs.

I love it.

It shames me.

There are some things I won’t let her do.

I make sure the kids clean up their rooms and put everything away, so that all she has to do is change the sheets and mop the floor.

I clean the kitchen counters—so that all she has to do is mop the floor.

I take out the garbage. Because—well, you know, if it was just kitchen garbage? Maybe I’d leave it. But remember—I can’t put toilet paper in the toilet here. And nobody ought to have to take out my poopy bathroom garbage while my legs and arms work.

What would you call that, Fidel? Bourgeoisie guilt?

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IV.

A disproportionate number of the female hustlers—of sex and other things—seem to be Afro-Cuban as well, and almost all of the heterosexual male prostitutes—they wouldn’t call themselves that, but boys, that be the word—are black.

Beautiful, of course.

Escorting aging white women.

Jane: “No, thank you. I’m trying not to be a total cliché.”

When I stumble across the gay section of Playas del’Este, I see that the majority of gay male prostitutes are Latino.

Which in Cuba means white.

All of their customers, of course, are aging white men. Do they think they’re fucking white boys or does Latino for them mean not-white?

Aging fat white men. Jesus.

Flora: “Wow. Speedos. Just never a good idea, hey, Mom?”

Jane: “Yeah. Never.”

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V.

“[T]here is an unstated threat, blacks in Cuba know that whenever you raise race in Cuba, you go to jail.”

Carlos Moore, Miami Herald

VI.

In all the Cuba guide books, phrase books, jintera is translated as a prostitute and jintero as a hustler.

Does this bother you? It really bothers me.

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VII.

Also… if I meet one more tourist who tells me how wonderful it is that the Cubans are colour-blind—that race does not exist to them—I will scream, “Are you fucking blind?” at the top of my lungs.

VIII.

“The term that was used by the police force to refer to citizens who weren’t white was ciudadano con caracteristicas — citizen with characteristics.”

Alexis Romay, a mixed-race Cuban writer

(This statement is from one of the most insightful pieces on Cuba’s non-existent (ha!) racism in an article on the Al Jazeera website.)

IX.

Felicite is done and the house sparkles. I think it takes us about 10 minutes to mess it back up again.

But I know it’s clean under the mess.

Jane: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Felicite: “It is my pleasure.”

But it’s not. It’s her job. A hard, thankless job.

When I tip her, she gets offended. But is also grateful.

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X.

In Canada, my Marie works nights as a janitor, cleaning banks, clinics and what not. When I go to visit her, I help her out so that we have more time to play.

It’s exhausting work. Also, boring. And, kind of thankless, because you know, the next day, you have to do it all over again.

And also… taking out other people’s garbage? Tells you waaay too much about them. And sometimes, makes you hate them.

Jane: “These people are disgusting pigs.”

Marie: “Yup. I think it’s because they hate their jobs.”

Hate their jobs, hate their lives.

And yet, feel mild contempt for the people who clean up after them, at Marie and me. Don’t hide it. I find it fascinating… educational and demeaning (and therefore, so educational).

They’re so much better than we are, don’t you know—because we’re taking out their garbage.

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XI.

There is no class system in Canada. Just look at the surveys. We’re all middle-class—lower-middle, aspiring-middle, upper-middle. Rich, poor, in-between, doesn’t matter: something like 99% of the population self-identifies as middle-class.*

Because there is no class system in Canada.

Except that there is.

xoxo

“Jane”

Bonus Depressing Reading: The Tragedy of Cuban Racism, by Carlos Cabrera Perez, Havana Times (February 9, 2015)**

*I exaggerate, a little.

**Consider the source, always. But. Still.

The audio track for fragment of a love letter of a letter is now up. Wanna listen to it while you read the donation request?

*

If you’re new to the Postcards from Cuba project, catch up here: POSTCARDS FROM CUBA.

If you’re a returning guest…

A $5 donation makes a difference and helps pay my rent, feed ma’ kids, and keep on writing, and reduces my dependence on American multinational conglomerate corporations:

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& no, you don’t have to have a PayPal account to use the button. Thank you!

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: ghost

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For Mark. Thank you! That was the loveliest, most generous of surprises.

Listen:

& read:

Today, I am a ghost.

I move through the streets of Havana, but I touch nothing and nothing touches me. I am apart—I’m not really here. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that I grip the rusted steel bars of a fence to check whether I’m still corporeal.

I am.

And yet. I’m not really touching them. This cracked sidewalk under my feet isn’t really under my feet.

Two men pass by me and I am sure that if they were closer to me, they would pass through me—and while I move out of the way for the elderly woman burdened with groceries… I think… I don’t have to.

She looks at me and she sees me, but the way she looks at me reinforces that I am not real.

I am a ghost.

Ephemeral, passing through. Here today…

…gone tomorrow.

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They all know this: the people queuing at the Cadeca, the grocery story, the bakery. The people crossing the street, the people crowding around me on the bus, the people selling me bread, milk, vegetables.

I’m here—but I’m not. I will be gone tomorrow.

I can be gone anytime I want to.

I am in my fifth week in Havana now. Were it my fifth month, my fifth year, it would not matter—I am not rooted to this place. I am not chained to it, and so not of it.

Lazaro, the doctor-turned-farmer-turned-taxi-driver, tells me that his greatest worry for Cuba is that too many of the people “worth anything” want to leave.

“That is all they dream of doing,” he says. “What will happen to Cuba if they are all gone?”

I understand his concern, quite acutely and practically. I’m a child of Eastern Europe, which for near 50 years bled its best to the West—I am a child of those who left.

Here, in this struggling country, hammered by history and “geopolitical reality” (“I don’t know how to say that in Spanish,” I tell Lazaro, but I don’t have to; he understands) I am a ghost.

Because I can leave any time I want to—they can’t—I choose to be here—they cannot make that choice…

I have been doing an assortment of things to not live like a tourist. Laundry by hand and flapping in the wind to dry instead of carted to the lavanderia, guaguas and long walks instead of taxis, groceries instead of restaurants.

But it doesn’t matter, none of it matters.

I can be gone tomorrow—I can leave any time I want to. They can’t.

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This meditation on choice, will, volition—will you let me use the word freedom?— has been haunting me as I’m haunting Havana today. I choose to be here—he doesn’t, not really, and she’d be gone tomorrow if she could, “not a single fucking regret,” she says. And even the people who are content to stay—if leaving is not an option, then is staying really a choice?

I realize, suddenly, that I live in a country—and more specifically a city—where virtually everyone makes a conscious choice to come—stay—leave—be.

If I wanted to—I could be gone tomorrow. And so could you.

We choose to stay.

It is not an unconstrained choice that’s equally available to each Canadian, Calgarian. Political freedoms are always constrained by economic realities, and no matter what your political system of choice is, it fucks over the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, always. Look to New Orleans before you get too self-righteous about the failures of Fidelismo.

But me… my family… my neighbours… we are where we are, we live where we live, because we choose to stay.

I find the thought… intoxicating.

So intoxicating, it is as overwhelming and overpowering as my earlier loss of corporality. I get dizzy and I’d sit down for a moment, but the owners of this particular villa do not want passers-by to use their fence as a bench and have lined it with spikes.

I lean my forehead against the stone post of the fence, paint peeling.

We choose to stay.

The most powerful… the most powerful, fascinating, growing places, cities in the world are places where most of the population chooses to come, chooses to stay.

I need to follow this thought places.

Stranger: “Lady? Are you all right?”

Jane: “I’m fine. I’m just thinking.”

Stranger: “About what?”

Well. Choice. Freedom. What life has handed me on a silver platter really, and what it stubbornly refuses you.

Jane: “How beautiful Cuba is. And how kind its people are. And how I hope…”

My Spanish is not good enough to express what is swelling in me, but “Ojala” in Spanish and in Cuban Spanish in particular stands alone.

Stranger: “I hope too.”

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I still feel… unrooted and unreal. In this place. But suddenly, so physically rooted an connected to the home I haven’t been missing, thinking about at all, I think I feel your heart beating inside my chest.

We choose to leave. We choose to stay.

This is intoxicating, an act of such volition, an expression of such freedom…

Do you understand?

*

Series 2 of Postcards from Cuba is brought to you by my creative and chaotic approach to financial planning, my bank’s poor judgement in issuing me a line of credit, and the occasional generous donation by fellow readers. Won’t you contribute as well? A $5 donation makes a difference and helps pay my rent, feed ma’ kids, and keep on writing freely:

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& no, you don’t have to have a PayPal account to use the button. Thank you!

“Jane”

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: outtakes from the journal

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For Helen. Just because you’ve been on my mind lately.

You asked, “So is this how you wrote all of them? In your journals?”

No. Not exactly. The journals were full of content like this:

Listen (for a just a minute):

& read:

One can’t really write a good /original/ poem about longing. It’s all been done before, said before, cannot really be improved upon, because nothing has changed…

Today, I wrote a piece about exploring Havana as a ghost… which morphed into a meditation on freedom-choice… and then, “fidelismo”… What has happened to this country is so tragic and yet… they are so fucking lucky, and they don’t know it. At all. They don’t see it—they don’t see the other turns their history could have taken, and that as far as suffering goes… there are significantly worse repressions. But…it is too easy to pontificate as an outsider.

So I won’t.

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*

Today’s postcardette is all a teaser for the next feature: GHOST. Stay tuned.

*

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: rip off

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For Janine. Who loves to haggle.

As always, listen:

& read:

My first day in Old Havana, a street vendor sells me for $5CUC what a local would think expensive at $5 local pesos (that is, $0.20CUC). She’s a damn clever hustler: she gives Ender a bite of it to taste and he thinks it’s heaven, and she knows I won’t say no—she crams a paper full of chikitos into his hands.

Jane: “How much?”

Vendor: “$5CUC.”

Jane: “Seriously?”

Ender is already eating—but I’m staring at her so incredulously, she presses a second envelope in Flora’s hand.

Vendor: “Two for $5CUC.”

Jane: “That’s still extortionate.”

But, the deal’s done—now Flora’s eating, and I’ve got to get away from the witch before she presses a third package into Cinder’s hands and tells me that one is $5CUC all but itself.

Flora: “Why are you so mad, Mom? Is $5CUC a lot of money?”

So. Here’s the thing. It is and it isn’t, right? At the current conversion rate, $5CUC is about $8 Canadian dollars.

It won’t break me today—and it’s made her day.

But…

OK, the thing is—not even in Paris, Tokyo or Hong Kong, what she sold me would cost $5CUC.

I’m kind of pissed about it for three days before I move. Confirm the price always before reaching for something. Generally practice the act of asking locals from whom I’m not trying to buy something—hey, how much should that cost?

Occasionally, I’ll overpay. Make someone’s day.

For the first couple of weeks, anyway.

By month two? I don’t care about making anyone’s day.

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The street vendors around Parque Fraternidad cater to both Cubans and tourists, and the one with the cart full of cookies and “pastels”—sweets—zeroes in on me and Ender immediately as an easy mark—Ender saying “I’m hungry!” and pulling on my bag being a dead give away.

Vendor: “Treats? Treats? Really delicious. Do you want to try these, sweetie?”

He presses two colourful little bags full of coloured marshmallow like candy into Ender’s hand, and the six-year-old starts to rip them open.

Jane: “Stop!”

I put my hand on the bags—engage in a tug-of-war with Ender—win—put them back.

Jane: “How much?”

Vendor: “One peso.”

Cool. I take out a peso in moneda nacional.

Vendor: “No, no, no–$1CUC.”

Jane: “You’re fucking kidding me.”

Vendor: “What?”

Jane: “I don’t know how to say that in Spanish. You’re fucking kidding me. No fucking way.”

Vendor: “In CUP, $10 per one.”

A CUC is 25 CUP, so he’s not exactly cutting me the real deal here.

Jane: “Here’s $5 CUP. For two. And that’s still extortionate.”

He scowls. Takes the money. Gives me one packet of dime store candy.

Jane: “One?”

Vendor: “For $5CUP? One.”

Jane: “Fine. Thank you.”

Ender grabs the bag from me and tears into it, elated.

Vendor (in Spanish): “Cheap whore.”

Jane (in English): “Motherfucking cocksucker.”

We glower at each other. Not with respect, mind you, just with anger and resentment.

I can hear what he’s thinking. “It’s one fucking dollar to you. Would it kill you to give me one fucking dollar?”

He can’t hear what I’m thinking. Which is, “I am so fucking tired of being ripped off. And yes. It would kill me to give you one fucking dollar. At this point, I think none of you, no one should ever be given anything. It rots and corrupts and I. AM. SO. SICK. OF. ALL. OF. YOU. THINKING. I’M. YOUR. CASH COW!”

Flora: “Mom? Can you please stop staring at him? I’m getting scared.”

We move on, through Parque Central, towards Zuleta. Through a crowd of people trying to sell me tours, taxi rides, and directions to “a great family restaurant.” Through a chorus of “Do you speak English?”

Jane: “Nie, przepraszam, przepraszam. Ani slowa—ani po angielsku, ani po hiszpansku.”

It backfires only once.

Dude: “Russian? You speak Russian?”

But the look I give him in response makes him take two steps back, so it’s all good.

Flora: “Mom? You’re being really rude to all the people today.”

Jane: “I know, sweetheart. I just don’t have any more ‘No, thank you’ left in me today.”

Ok, except maybe for him, wow, eye candy, happiness.

Jane: “No, thank you. And there’s four of us. We wouldn’t fit.”

Bici-cab driver: “My love, you and your beautiful children, I will drive around for free. They’ll fit in the back and you can sit on my lap.”

Jane: “No, thank you. We’re almost where we’re going.”

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We’re going to the Museum of the Revolution. Like most tourist attractions in Cuba, it has two prices—a CUP price for Cubans, which makes it almost free, and a CUC price for tourists. Which is extortionate.

No, really.

Paris and London prices for cut-rate attractions. The equivalent of $15 Canadian to look at a frying pan stolen from a Battista camp and used by the revolutionaries in one of their camps in 1959?

I shamelessly lie about Cinder’s age.

Jane: “Slouch.”

Cinder: “What?”

Jane: “Slouch. I am not paying $8CUC for you. You are 12 and Flora’s 10.”

Cinder: “You are a terrible, terrible role model. We are going to grow up to be morally bankrupt.”

Jane: “Shut up and look short.”

The teller charges me for him anyway. “You need to pay for the eldest if he’s 12,” she says. I nod, fork over $16CUC. Feel ripped off before even going in.

I’ve been to the Museum of the Revolution before, so I know what I’m going to see—and I want to show it to my children. Debrief them a little, but not too much—mostly, this is an experience I want them to have that, at some point in the future, maybe we will go back to. “Remember when we were at the Museum of the Revolution and you saw…” As we move through the rooms, I explain a little about Battista. Castro. Che Guevara. Flora’s already a little in love with ole’ baby face, and who can blame her?

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Cinder loves the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Missile Crisis stories.

We spend a great deal of time looking at four hideous caricatures of Battista, Reagan, and the Bushes in what is officially called—I kid you not—the Cretin’s Corner.

“Thank you, cretin, for causing our revolution,” says the caption under Battista. Regan and Bush the First get, “Thank you, cretin, for helping to strengthen our revolution” and “for helping consolidate our revolution.” Ole W. apparently made the revolution inevitable…

It’s important to be here. I’m willing to pay to be here. And I think it is fair that here—and at every other cultural attraction—I pay more than the Cubans. That’s fair. Absolutely.

But the prices I’m being charged are outrageous. They are a grotesque money grab, and they make me angry.

And I’m sort of a socialist.

I’m not sure I will be a socialist by the end of this trip. It’s wearing on me.

We come out of the Museum with me desperately needing an antidote to propaganda. The Museum of Fine Arts, the Cuban section is literally next door. We walk over—“Taxi?” “No, thank you,” “Restaurant?” “No, thanks,” “Mom, I’m hungry, can we go to a restaurant?” “Baby, we can’t afford to eat in any of the restaurants these guys would take us to.”

We go look at art.

Two things happen. First, the entry to the art museum is $5CUC—which isn’t that much less than $8CUC, is it? Yet, psychologically, that three makes all the difference. I’m perfectly willing to pay $7.50 Canadian to look at art; in fact, I think it’s a great deal. Second, the cashier doesn’t charge me for “12 year old” Cinder. “You don’t have to pay for him,” she says. Adds, “It’s so good of you to bring your children here.”

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The art museum is structurally stunning—modern, bright, beautiful—and we all react to it expansively. Cinder, who doesn’t care much for paintings or sculpture, but who loves buildings, looks at the walls, the ramp, the courtyard. He opts to spend all his time outside. Flora and I move through the galleries in tandem, occasionally losing each other—always drawn back together by Ender. Who’s kind of bored…and then interested: “That is one creepy painting!” I love the mix of… social realism grafted onto pre-revolutionary European aesthetic combined with Afro-Caribbean imagery—and, hey, I bet my favourite Havana graffiti artist, I bet he was influenced by that artist over there, “Flora, come look!”

There’s some revolutionary propaganda art too. We study it in silence.

We all have to pee, but Flora refuses to use the first toilets, on the second floor, we go into. They have no toilet seats, she reports, the door doesn’t lock, and there’s no toilet paper. “I’ll hold it,” she declares, “You know I’m a camel.” Her mother and brothers are not, and I finally convince her to give the ground floor washrooms a try. “There are toilet seats,” I cajole; she succumbs.

The ground floor museum toilet, like most public toilets in Cuba, is operated by a toilet lady. This is a Communist invention, although I understand they can sometimes be found in Paris as well. Whenever I see one, I am 14 years old again and in Communist Poland, shocked to find an elderly woman sitting inside every washroom—doling out a square of toilet paper—and then expecting to be paid for the task.

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Interlude:

It’s 1988. The Berlin Wall hasn’t fallen yet, and using a public toilet in Communist Poland is no easy task for a Canadian child. My eleven-year-old brother spends 20 minutes outside a public toilet trying to figure out whether it is the circle or the triangle that defines the male. Decides to wait to see who goes in or out of which toilet, but as a long-haired headbanger—heavy metal is very big in 1980s Poland—comes into one and out the other—he’s still at a loss. Decides to try the triangle—at 11, he’s already figured out women are curvier than men. Opens the door… comes to face with an old woman… freezes… is about to turn back… when she says:

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Are you shitting or pissing?”

My 11 year-old brother: “What?”

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Are you shitting or pissing?”

M11YOB: “I don’t think that’s any of your business!”

He takes her words as an indication that he is indeed in the right men’s toilet (“If it was the women’s she’d tell me to get out, right?” he explains when he tells the story later) and goes into a stall.

Does his thing.

Gropes around for…

M11YOB: “Hey! There’s no toilet paper here!”

Guardian of the Pissoir: “I asked, are you shitting or pissing, didn’t I?”

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Back to our story:

Cinder looks at the two doors. They’re both unmarked, but he sees a urinal within one, makes for it boldly. The toilet lady yells something after him.

Cinder: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. I really have to pee. That’s my Mom.”

I smile. “Mujeres?” I ask.

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Wait, wait, someone just used it, I will get it ready. For two?”

I look at Flora. She flushes. I nod. Two minutes later, she beckons us into the washroom. Hands each of us a napkin folded into a triangle. I send Flora into the first stall. “I’ll guard you,” I promise. “It locks!” she announces, elated. “And there’s a toilet seat!”

The toilet lady points to the other stall. “That one’s ready too,” she says. I go in. Pee. Use my toilet paper. Try to flush. No, of course not—“getting the stall ready” means that this toilet lady needs to fill a bucket with water and manually flush the toilet. Yes, it does.

Ugh.

“I couldn’t flush the toilet,” Flora whispers, and I reassure her that it’s ok, the toilets don’t flush—the attendant will do it. Her eyes go big and round. “That’s disgusting,” she says.

The sink doesn’t work either. The attendant points us to the soap, and then pours water from a bottle over our hands. Dispenses another napkin.

I give her a CUC, don’t question it. I’m not making her day—I’m paying for work I am appalled that a human has to do in 2016.

She was our sink, and she has to flush our urine, my blood, down Havana’s ill-working plumbing.

We make our way back to the Parque Fraternidad area, where we will catch our bus home, in silence. Ender’s tired, Cinder’s hungry, Flora’s processing I’m not sure what. We pass by the candy vendor who’s day I didn’t make.

Vendor: “Hey, sweetie, would you like… oh. It’s you.”

Jane: “Still feel ripped off.”

Vendor: “Bitch.”

Jane: “Hustler.”

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Get on the bus (less than a $1 CUP—I’m overpaying at $0.10 CUC—for the four of us). Go “home” to our non-tourist area, where I buy the children ice cream for $3 CUP a cone, and four mini cheese pizzas for $1.40 CUC.

Pizza girl: “I’m so glad you like these.”

Jane: “This is my favourite place to feed the kids. They love these pizzas. I think it’s your sauce.”

I make her day.

*

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First time here? Visit the landing page for the Postcards from Cuba project.

Next week, there will be… ghosts…

“Jane”

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

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For the great-grandfather I never knew.

Yesterday, I felt… heavy.

Today… well. Listen:

 

& read:

I.

My great-grandfather Victor was an idealist and a card-carrying member of the Polish Communist Party. He ripped up his party membership card in 1945—the year, incidentally, that Americans and Western Europeans celebrate as the end of World War II, and Poles also mark as the first year of the 44-year Soviet occupation that followed our “liberation.”

While Americans were popping firecrackers and getting ready to pop out oodles of babies, Poland—much of the war ravaged Eastern and Central Europe—was struggling with food shortages, created as much by the state at that point as by the consequences of the war.

Everything was rationed.

And Party members got more.

My great-grandfather found himself in a queue at a bakery, behind a young mother who asked for a loaf of bread, and got refused

“What’s going on?” he demanded, flashing his Party ID.

“She’s already got her allotment for the week. Today, it’s extra bread, only for party members, sir,” the little man at the bakery window replied.

My great-grandfather ripped up his party ID card on the spot. (My mother, incidentally, and two of her four siblings inherited that impetuousness and temper.)

“That is not Communism,” he told the stogey. “Now sell me two loaves of bread.”

The little man sold him the bread—which my great-grandfather handed to the woman who was just refused food… because she did not belong to the Communist Party.

My father was, for several years, a card-carrying member of the Polish Communist Party too. His father made him sign up. “You’ll never get anywhere as an engineer if you’re not a party member,” he counseled. By then, it was the 1970s, and there were no idealist Communists left in the party, only opportunists.

More than 40 years later, my mother—who resisted every attempt to enlist her in the party, even though for a medical professional membership was mandatory—brings up this act when she’s fighting with my father and wants to play dirty.

My parents emigrated from Poland to Canada in 1984, mostly as economic/merit immigrants on the point system, with a subtext of “we’re seeking political asylum” in their application.

“We don’t want to raise our children under the Communist system,” my father wrote in response to the question “Why do you want to immigrate to Canada?”

In the 1980s, that was all you had to do to claim political asylum in the Western World if you were white and your government was Communist.

Since the Cuban revolution—and this is a quote from The Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act

“the United States is extra willing to accept Cuban citizens who are politically opposed to the Cuban government.”

All Cubans, who made it onto American soil via a barge across the straights of Miami—or an international flight from Bogota or Mexico City—had to do to claim political asylum in the US was touch American soil. The green card was virtually guaranteed a year later… although, it sure as hell helped if you were white. Or at least, you know, very pale mocha.

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II.

At first, I think Cuba killed its experiment with socialism when it introduced the CUC, when it started actively chasing tourists—when it showed its people, “OK, this way of living is good enough for you, but Western tourists, they have higher standards—they need air conditioning and a never-ending buffet table. Flush toilets. Modern buses.

Then I realize—no, it happened earlier, much earlier than that. It happened the first time Fidel Castro decided to keep an expropriated colonial house for himself—or for one of his friends.

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III.

One day, I get lost in the west-end of Havana, a suburb that looks at first like Miami… and then a New Orleans slum.

Suddenly, I’m facing a chain link fence and a swimming pool and tidy little buildings.

“What’s this?” I ask a security guard.

“Vacation houses,” he answers.

“For whom?”

On the left, for the workers of such and such union, and on the right, for the workers of two other unions.

It’s sort of a nice concept, right?

Except… ok, see, another day, walking along the shoreline where Miramar slowly morphs into neighbourhoods tourists never visit, we accidentally “break in” to a recreational complex, reserved for the workers of another union. It’s on a stretch of beach that, pre-1959, used to be dominated by private clubs, casinos.

I’m not sure that “exclusively for United Widget Painters of Havana, Factory 17” is that much of an improvement, really.

But today, I am not a socialist.

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IV.

There’s an old joke one of my uncles told me, back in the 1980s. I can’t remember which post-Stalinist Soviet leader it was about—Khrushchev, maybe, or Andropov? Let’s say it was Khrushchev—he’s the leader most on my mind in Cuba. So. The joke goes: After Khrushchev gets appointed to be the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he goes in a state-owned, of course, limo to pick up his mother. And he shows her his office, and his private car, and his other private car, and his apartment, and his vacation dacha. She looks at everything very intently, and her eyes get rounder and rounder, and she looks more and more fearful.

He gets pissed.

“What, Mama, don’t you like it?”

“I like it, Nikitka, I like it,” she assures him. “But what are you going to do when they come back?”

“When who comes back?” Khrushchev asks.

“The Communists.”

Ta-da-dum.

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V.

When Lazaro tells me that the nice, new buildings on the right are newly built for members of the army—and points out Raul Castro’s house, “one of his houses”—he does so with resentment that sizzles.

I guess, like me, he’s thinking about the shacks we just saw in which migrants from The Oriente live.

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VI.

“Religion is the opium of the people. … Yes, and music is the opium of the people. … And now economics is the opium of the people; along with patriotism the opium of the people in Italy and Germany. What about sexual intercourse; was that an opium of the people? Of some of the people. Of some of the best of the people. But drink was a sovereign opium of the people, oh, an excellent opium. Although some prefer the radio, another opium of the people, … Along with these went gambling, an opium of the people if there ever was one, one of the oldest. Ambition was another, an opium of the people, along with a belief in any new form of government…

But what was the real one? What was the real, the actual, opium of the people? He knew it very well. It was gone just a little way around the corner in that well-lighted part of his mind that was there after two or more drinks in the evening; that he knew was there (it was not really there of course). What was it? He knew very well. What was it? Of course; bread was the opium of the people.

Bread is the opium of the people.

Ernest Hemingway, “The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio”

Mercado2VII.

I read Hemingway’s “The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio” for the first time here, now, in Havana, in An Anthology of Famous American Stories, put together by the Literature Department of the School of Modern Languages in the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Havana in 1953.

1953.

Hemingway is still alive. Living in Cuba, which is ruled by the American-supported dictator Battista.

The edition I’m reading is a second edition, issued in 1975.

I wish I could compare it against the original 1953 edition, because… well, this 1975 edition has the following introduction:

“This anthology of American stories has been edited in our country as teaching material for literature course that are taught at our universities.

The study of each story in those courses includes a profound critical analysis of the historical conditions, class position of the author, and the ideological aspects reflected in the work, in addition to the purely stylistical study of the same.”

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VIII.

I did not expect see so many parallels between Cuba now and the Poland I barely remember from the 1980s.

But they hit me, hammer me constantly.

I am my great-grandfather’s descendant, and I want to do violence to the betrayers of the revolution.

The Castros, first and foremost.

IX.

The security guard at the recreational complex of the United Widget Painters of Havana walks me and the kids off its filthy beach, past the decaying, empty playground and around the beach volleyball court with no net. There’s a line of string demarking the top of the net—blue—and the bottom—yellow.

“There are many good, fun things to do here,” he says. He shows me a cafeteria and an indoor games room.

Then gives me directions to Havana’s “Coney Island.” The beach there, he says, is public.

As I say thank you and wave goodbye, he’s moving slowly towards the complex’s main lobby, the centerpiece of which is a television that’s playing American music videos.

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V.

“Revolution…is no opium. Revolution is a catharsis; an ecstasy which can only be prolonged by tyranny. The opiums are for before and after.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio

*

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First time here? Visit the landing page for the Postcards from Cuba project.

You: “I’m here for that unschooling talk?”

Me. “Right. Go here & then roam through Undogmatic Unschoolers while you’re at it.”

See you next week.

“Jane”

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: heavy

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in-between the essays, there are messy journal entries. Such as this one:

listen:

& read:

Today, the tar from the cigar sits heavy in my lungs. The night is heavy—the air has been heavy all day, and my body feels heavy too—leaden—my mind, my heart as well.

I am suddenly aware of the weight of my… toes—the weight of the life the old man from whom I bought the cigar leads. The weight of the cigar, grasped between two fingers seems immense, and so does the weight of every word I write.

28.i.2016

*

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This month’s Postcards from Cuba are brought to you by my creative and illogical approach to finance. You can help! Be my patron, won’t you? Support Postcards from Cuba and Nothing By The Book. Buy me a coffee? A $5 donation is delicious:

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& no, you don’t have to have a PayPal account to use the button. Thank you!

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First time here? Visit the landing page for the Postcards from Cuba project.

You: “I’m here for that unschooling talk?”

Me. “Right. Go here & maybe roam through Undogmatic Unschoolers while you’re at it.”

See you next tomorrow, for this week’s feature postcard:

Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

“Jane”

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: in bed with Jane Austen in Cuba, thinking of you (end, series 1)

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For… you, of course. Always.

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I.

I am in Cuba, and I am in bed with Jane Austen, reading Sense and Sensibility, a book I have read perhaps a thousand times over the years. No. Wait. Ridiculous exaggeration. And I can do the math, quickly. I first read it 20 years ago, precisely. This month, in fact, exactly. And I’ve re-read it, the entire Austen oeuvre, at least three times a year, sometimes five or six, since. Let’s keep it to three. So. I’ve read each Austen book at least 60 times.

I’m in bed with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for the sixty first time, and she’s still surprising me.

Today, what catches my attention is this brutal portrait of John Dashwood, the older step-brother of the book’s heroines, and the inheritor of all the family wealth (because, patriarchy):

“He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties.”

But wait. There was hope for John. In his wife:

“Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was:–he might even have been amiable himself. …

But, alas, it was not to be. His wife:

“…was a strong caricature of himself;–more narrow-minded and selfish.”

God, I love me my Jane.

I am struggling—have been for the past two years, almost three, more, possibly—with the discharge of some of my ordinary duties. You know what I mean. Christmas cards, birthday presents, polite conversation… those social niceties that the Dashwoods, cold, selfish, unfeeling but oh-so-proper excel at and use as the yardstick to measure the quality of others.

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II.

I’m in Cuba. In bed with Jane Austen. I’ve been binging on Hemingway—because, Cuba—but I am overdosed on maleness and testosterone and terse sentences. Give me semicolons, em-dashes and affairs of the heart told from the point of a view of the women to whom they are everything.

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III.

Cuba. Jane Austen. Affairs of the heart. Writing.

What I love about Sense and Sensibility is… well, everything, actually. All the men—especially the libertine Willoughby. I could love every one of them, although Edward Ferrars would bore me after six weeks, Willoughby and I would make each other miserable within two years, and I’d break Colonel Brandon’s heart. The one I’d really like to take on, though, is Mr. Palmer. Charlotte Palmer’s rude husband? Yeah. He has potential.

I love the women too. I love Mrs. Dashwood as a mother—the vulgarity of Mrs. Jennings. Lucy Steele is an absolutely brilliant creation. And Elinor and Marianne are me. And you. Don’t you think? Each so exaggerated, each of us carries both within ourselves. I am both. I love Marianne more—I know it’s safer to be Elinor—but Elinor will only lead a half-life.

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IV.

Writing. Half-life. Bed. Austen. Caricature. Ordinary duties.

Do you ever wonder what Jane Austen would have written like if she’d had children? I do, by the time I get to the end of each of her novels—especially Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. I think, holy fuck, what insight, what wit, what perception, what talent.

And yet. So much she doesn’t know, suspect—cannot imagine because it cannot be imagined.

You: “Or she wouldn’t have written at all because she had children.”

No. Impossible. You know she would have. And it all would have been better.

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V.

Duties. Children. Excuses.

Cuba.

Alone in Cuba with three children, 24/7.

Writing.

Status report, five weeks in: 16,000 words on major pet project. 30-odd essays, vignettes, sketches. Six experiments no one will ever see, but oh, I’m so happy I wrote them.

She wouldn’t have written because she had children?

Ha.

Not my Jane. Nor yours.

And baby—you know I’m writing this for you, right? In bed, with Jane Austen, I am, as always, thinking of you. Dearest. No excuses. No half-life. And if you need to ditch “propriety in the discharge of [your] ordinary duties” … do it.

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*

It’s almost time to leave Havana, and Postcards from Cuba is taking a break for the summer while I scour for the funding I need to bring you the second and third parts of the project. You are invited to help any way you can:

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… and the rest of the postcards will start flowing your way in September.

If today’s your first time here, and you want to catch up on the Postcards from Cuba project, visit the ANNOTATED table of contents.

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*

Although #postcardsfromcuba is taking a break, Nothing By The Book is not. The theme for the summer is “practice and play.”

Expect a new post most Wednesdays.

You: “Practice and play?”

Jane: “Practice and play. You’ll see. And maybe join. Because—no half-life, no excuses, love. Ordinary duties be damned.”

xoxo

“Jane”

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: homesick

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For Saeed. Who understands “homesick” … and the trouble with defining “home” when one is in motion.

Listen:

and read:

I.

I am exploring Havana at the pace of three children, and for this, I am very grateful. Left to myself, I would binge and get drunk on this city, make myself sick with too much experience crammed into (always) too little time. The children force me to move slower—to pace myself and so to look carefully, to reflect… to digest.

They also force me to pay attention to the mundane. I could not eat—today, tomorrow—or eat badly. They must be fed and fed well, every day, and so in the act of feeding them, I experience the Havana a Cuban mother would, at least a little. Imperfectly, I know. After all, I can waltz into any of the tiendas panmericanas and buy anything—pay with credit card at Mercado 70—and even as I say, “Holy fuck that’s expensive”—expensive for me does not hold the same meaning as expensive does to the woman who lives next door, the woman who cleans the house where I live or the woman—her face so beautiful and so tired—jostling next to me on the overcrowded bus.

“Are they all yours, all three?” she asks. I nod.

“A big family,” she says. “We don’t have big families here, now.”

I nod…

I think I understand.

I probably don’t—I can’t, can I? But, on the bus to and from the market, an exhausted six-year-old asleep in my arms, an equally exhausted eleven-year-old who refuses the proffered seat (“I think that old lady needed it more than I did”), and a claustrophobic/probably ochlophobic thirteen-year-old agitating to get off now and walk the rest of the way home, I come closer than I would if I were moving through Havana alone.

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II.

Home.

What is “home,” when you’re travelling?

III.

Cinder is unhappy, homesick.

I knew, always, this adventure would be most difficult for him. He is, always has been, my most “stay at home” child. His perfect day consists of… nothing much. His familiar routine—what I know is his immensely rich inner life, best experienced in the safety, tranquility, predictability of home.

He and I are both consciously trying to create routine, stability, tranquility here—but Havana exhausts him. And when we are out, not matter how cool the experience, he most looks forward to getting back “home,” to our casa, our home base here—and this eagerness, if anything, is my proof that I’ve done something right, that I’ve managed to create “home” for him here, a little.

Today, mid-day, he crashes hard. We’ve planned to be out—we know we need to be out until 2 p.m. because today’s the mega-cleaning day for Jorge and his housekeeper—and we have been. We’ve taken a new bus, walked a new part of the Malecon, ended up at Coppellia Park for ice cream—and still ended up “home” too early. She wasn’t done—I grabbed towels and swim suits, and shepherded us over to a nearby hotel’s swimming pool.

We planned to do that anyway, later. But in the meantime, Cinder planned to be home—to recharge.

So.

Crash.

I miss its onset, and only see the result—his siblings jump in the pool and he refuses, goes off into the hotel’s garden courtyard, walks a lap, and when he comes back, it takes me one look to see, feel that he is unwell. Sick? Sunstroke? As I start to form the words, “Are you all right?” he snarls-growls at me and storms off.

I give him a minute or two. Follow.

He evades me in the courtyard, changing directions.

Jane: “Cinder, my love, you don’t have to tell me anything, but I need to hold you and hug you.”

He lets me.

Cinder: “I want to go home, I want to go home.”

We both know he doesn’t mean our casa particular.

Jane: “I know.”

I stand there, holding him, saying nothing.

This is the hardest thing I can do.

I am holding him, loving him, and reminding myself: he does not want to be here. I am not having this experience for him. I am having it for me, and I am dragging him along. When I started planning this trip, his position, from the outset, was that he wanted to stay at home with Sean. (My position, of course, was that thirteen was way too young to spend 10+ hours a day in total solitude while his daddy was at work. Cinder’s position—and my thirteen year old self peeks over my shoulder, empathizes, agrees—was that that would be kind of heaven…)

Holding him, I tell him this—that I know. That I know he doesn’t want to be here, didn’t choose to be here. That I understand, accept his feelings.

Cinder: “I really, really want to go home.”

Jane: “I know.”

IV.

After he shows me his home, Lazaro asks me, “Are you homesick? Do you miss your home?” And is shocked when I say, I don’t. Doesn’t believe me. “You must miss home,” he says, and the children pipe up, “We do!” And it’s true. It’s worst for Cinder, but it hits the other two as well. They’re homesick. For their dad, their dog, their friends, their beds and their routines—in roughly that order.

Me? I’ll be happy to get back to toilets that flush and grocery stores stacked to the ceiling with everything I might want and more than anyone should ever need, but right now…

“I’m so interested in, stimulated by everything here,” I try to put it into words for Lazaro. “And I have such a short time here…” And, of course, my children are here with me, and they’re what I would most miss about home, and so…

Do I miss home?

As you’re reading that, are you thinking, “Do you miss me?” Because frankly, love… yes, at those moments at night, and in the morning, sometimes, and every once in a while when I see something beautiful or think something so strange that won’t feel real until I tell you about it—yes, at those moments, I miss you. Madly. But most of the time? Not so much. I’m here, you see, and I know I’ll be back, and I’m here for such a short time, and I need to be here so fucking completely and fully, and I can barely manage it, being here, being present in the intensity of here is exhausting, and it would be so easy to retreat to missing and longing—so no.

I don’t miss home.

I will be glad to be back, of course. And I will be so glad to see you again.

But I am so happy to be here, right now.

Cinder isn’t.

Homesick2

V.

When we finally get “home” that day, I make everyone—especially Cinder—comfort food. I fry up the cheese balls we bought from a newly discovered merchant, and make grilled tuna sandwiches. We watch Horrible Histories together, and as I watch Cinder regroup, I change the week’s plans. Tomorrow’s Sunday, and the plan, all week, was to go to Old Havana and into Salvador’s Alley, and listen to music and experience the chaos and intensity of Havana on a Sunday.

Jane: “Stay at home chill day tomorrow, what do you think, dudes?”

The little ones don’t care. Cinder knows this is for him.

Cinder: “But you really want to go to Salvador’s Alley.”

Jane: “We’ll go next week. Tomorrow, we stay home.”

He nods. A few minutes later, hugs me from behind, suddenly. “Thank you, Mom,” he whispers in my ear. I kiss his. “I’d like to wash my clothes tomorrow, too.”

Sounds like a plan.

Homesick4

VI.

“You really don’t miss home?” Lazaro asks again, and I’m starting to feel a really defensive. I know my sense of “home” is not… He lives in the house his wife’s great-grandfather built. I had, what, seven, eight different “homes” before I was 10, and then three within the first year of coming to Canada, and then…

“Home” was people, my family.

My kids are here. Their daddy will be here in a few days. Suddenly, I miss him, you, her so badly my belly hurts.

“I miss my people,” I tell Lazaro.

And for a few minutes, I do… And then…

Jane: “What the hell is that?”

I’m looking at something strange-beautiful-amazing, I’m in Havana, at a key historical moment in Cuba’s continuing Revolution-Evolution, and I’m just here, and I’m not thinking about you at all.

VII.

But in the evening, at “home,” on the verandah that is my writing room, in the quiet of a noisy Havana night–I’m thinking about you. Yes, now, right now, I’m thinking about you. There are so many things I want to tell you about. I’m worried that when I get back home, though, the intensity of what I thought, felt will be gone, replaced by the record of iPhone photos and a fading memory. Will I be able to really tell you what effect this city, this country had on me?

Probably not.

So. I write it down. Messily. Urgently. Before the intensity of “here, now” is diluted, habituated.

I write:

“I am exploring Havana at the pace of three children, and for this, I am very grateful. Left to myself, I would binge and get drunk on this city, make myself sick with too much experience crammed into (always) too little time. The children force me to move more slowly—to pace myself and so to look carefully, to reflect… to digest.”

Homesick1

VIII.

And then, I go to bed, not with Jose Marti or Carlos Pintado, but with Rumi:

Soul comes wearing a shape,
with fragrance,
with the new green,
with a trembling hand,
with generosity.

No, that implies a being apart.
Companion and confessor at once,
red and yellow,
you join me in the gathering,
and you stay away.

You come late.
You are the source of two lovings,
fire one day,
ice another.

– Rumi

catch up: ANNOTATED table of contents for #postcardsfromcuba project

*

Trio on benches at laundry park3

Admit it–you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts. If you enjoy the Postcards project, please express your delight and support by making a donation via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: “But how much should I give?”

Jane: “I get $1 each time a sell a traditionally published book, so my bar’s set really low, love. Want to buy me a cup of coffee? That’s $4.75 if you’ll spring for a mocha or latte. If you’re feeling extra-generous–let’s split a bottle of $25 wine, shall we?”

If you’d like to make a contribution but have PayPal issues, email me at nothingbythebook@ gmail.com and we’ll work something out.

Or, ya know. Just hang out with us and enjoy. That be cool too.

xoxo

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

*

LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And if you like what you read/hear/see, please consider expressing your delight by becoming a patron of this project via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts.

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

Cigar Smoke Selfie Modified

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: altered doorways, three

Altered Doorways Banner

For Golriz. I don’t know why. Do you?

Doorways3-Paper and Metal

The de facto sponsor for this week’s art postcards is Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking. You know why, right?

This was last week’s listening postcard, and it’s worth listening to: if Nikita Khrushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba although Lazaro’s Farm is still my favourite, and if it’s your first time here, it’s best to start with blame it on Hemingway.

*

LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And if you like what you read/hear/see, please consider expressing your delight by becoming a patron of this project via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.

You: How much?

Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a counterfeit Cuban cigar.

You: That’s all?

Jane: My avarice is happy to match your affluence. But I get $1 in royalties for each copy my other self sells of a traditionally published book. It is impossible to disappoint me.

If you would like to make a contribution, but have PayPal issues (I get it), please email me at nothingbythebook at gmail.com, and we’ll work something out.

Thank you!

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

Altered Doorways Banner

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: altered doorways, two

Altered Doorways Banner

For Sean. Who loves peeking into open windows and doors.

Doorways2-Paper and Metal

The de facto sponsor for this week’s art postcards is Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking. You know why, right?

This was last week’s listening postcard, and it’s worth listening to: if Nikita Khrushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba although Lazaro’s Farm is still my favourite, and if it’s your first time here, it’s best to start with blame it on Hemingway.

*

LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And if you like what you read/hear/see, please consider expressing your delight by becoming a patron of this project via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.

You: How much?

Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a counterfeit Cuban cigar.

You: That’s all?

Jane: My avarice is happy to match your affluence. But I get $1 in royalties for each copy my other self sells of a traditionally published book. It is impossible to disappoint me.

If you would like to make a contribution, but have PayPal issues (I get it), please email me at nothingbythebook at gmail.com, and we’ll work something out.

Thank you!

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

Altered Doorways Banner

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: altered doorways, one

Altered Doorways Banner

For Nick. Who has a thing about photographing people in doorways.

Doorways1-Paper and Metal

The de facto sponsor for this week’s art postcards is Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking. You know why, right?

This was last week’s listening postcard, and it’s worth listening to: if Nikita Khrushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba although Lazaro’s Farm is still my favourite, and if it’s your first time here, it’s best to start with blame it on Hemingway.

*

LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And if you like what you read/hear/see, please consider expressing your delight by becoming a patron of this project via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.

You: How much?

Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a counterfeit Cuban cigar.

You: That’s all?

Jane: My avarice is happy to match your affluence. But I get $1 in royalties for each copy my other self sells of a traditionally published book. It is impossible to disappoint me.

If you would like to make a contribution, but have PayPal issues (I get it), please email me at nothingbythebook at gmail.com, and we’ll work something out.

Thank you!

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

Altered Doorways Banner

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: my favourite Havana #graffiti artist

Graffiti Artist Banner

For Jenn. Who would have helped me track him down.

The effective sponsor for this week’s art postcards is Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking.

FavouriteGraffitiArtist

His work is all over Havana, and I think I found him in an art gallery once–and one day, someone told me his name AND his address, and I wrote it down on a sunscreened forearm, and then lost it…

This was last week’s listening postcard, and it’s worth listening to: if Nikita Khrushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba

catch up: ANNOTATED table of contents for the POSTCARDS FROM CUBA project

*

Did you listen to that Amanda Palmer Ted Talk? Yeah?

Trio on benches at laundry park3

If you enjoy the Postcards project, please express your delight and support by making a donation via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: “But how much should I give?”

Jane: “I get $1 each time a sell a traditionally published book, so my bar’s set really low, love. Want to buy me a cup of coffee? That’s $4.75 if you’ll spring for a mocha or latte.”

If you’d like to make a contribution but have PayPal issues, email me at nothingbythebook@ gmail.com and we’ll work something out.

Or, ya know. Just hang out with us and enjoy. That be cool too.

xoxo

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

*

LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And… would you?

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts.

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: if Nikita Khrushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba…

Nikita Banner

For Janine. Who understands how important it is to care for one’s delicates.

Today’s post is brought to you by the wifi on the Red Arrow bus that traverses Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton and Sean Lindsay‘s ability to edit audio while moving at 120 km an hour.

Listen:

 

and, of course, read:

I.

Jorge now refers to the villa’s front salon as “my writing room,” and every time he says it, I feel at home… even though I haven’t written a word there.

II.

The kids want me to make jello.

Jane: “Ok, ok. But first I have to go to the store and buy yoghurt.”

You might be mystified. They understand. I’ve been making them jello in the plastic cups we’ve saved from the extortionate, imported-from-Spain single-serving yoghurt I bought them a couple of weeks ago. ($0.90CUC, so more than a Canadian dollar, per miniscule single serving). But yesterday, I used one of the cups as a candle holder. Not because there was a black out, by the way, but because I was running out of matches—I’ve already told you that story, right? Point: we only have two yoghurt containers, and there are three children, and so… I need to buy more yoghurt.

Cinder: “Can you buy more cream cheese while you’re there?”

Jane: “Sure.”

Except, I can’t. The tubs of cream cheese have been replaced by slabs of white cheese. Mozarellish? Maybe? “Queso blanco,” Yaskiel, the clerk behind the cheese-and-butter counter, says. I as him when there might be cream cheese again. He shrugs.

I buy some queso blanco, made locally, and the second last chunk of gouda, imported from Europe via Brazil.

The elderly woman behind me taps me on the shoulder. Would I mind taking the bigger chunk so she can have the little one? It’s a difference of $0.75CUC in price. A dollar and change to me. Significant to her.

“Of course.”

The strawberry yoghurt I bought here last time has been replaced by plain yoghurt, which will not be celebrated by the children, and no-fat peach, aspartame-sweetened yoghurt, which I will not let them eat. But—oh—chocolate pudding in absolutely perfect jello-making cups—much better than the yoghurt cups, which are, really, too thin and tall to house jello properly.

Bonus: the pudding is $0.50CUC a cup, making it almost half the price of the yoghurt.

Vanya, the clerk who’s been on check-out most often when I’ve been at the store, is manning the meat station.

“Hey, amor, you were asking about chicken—there are still chicken breasts,” he calls to me, and points, and sure enough, there they are, behind him, rapidly defrosting in the freezer bin. Delivered Sunday, yesterday, he says. They do their best to keep them cold, but the freezer bins have no tops, you see, so you’ve really got to buy them Sunday if you want them to be fully frozen. But it’s Monday morning. They’re still pretty solid.

I grab a pack. Chicken juice (don’t think about it) drips down my hands. Vanya gives me a damp rag to dry off. “They’re still pretty frozen,” he says. I decide to believe him.

(On the way home, I decide I should, in fact, run back for another pack, because there is no guarantee they will deliver them again next Sunday, or, ever again, is there?)

Vanya’s name, of course, is a legacy of Cuba’s relationship with Soviet Russia. There are quite a few Vanyas, Vladimirs, Yuris, Olgas, Valentinas, and Yevgenies around. Most of them are in their 50s—born in the first years after the revolution.

I haven’t met any Josephs, though… Nor a Nikita.

Nikita1

 

III.

“No matter how much imperialist reaction, headed by the United States, tries to stop or check the great revolutionary process of liberation of mankind, it is powerless to do so. People fighting for their freedom and independence are strong enough to defend their gains with the backing of all the forces of peace and socialism. This was convincingly demonstrated by what took place in the Caribbean towards the end of last year.”

That’s Nikita Khrushchev addressing a mixed audience of Cubans and Russians on May 23, 1963, speaking about the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war in October 1962, when Khrushchev headed the Soviet Union and JFK was the President of the United States of America.

“The Caribbean crisis was one of the sharpest clashes between the forces of socialism and imperialism, the forces of peace and war in the entire post-war period. When they prepared their invasion of Cuba, the American belligerents thought that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries would not be able to render effective aid to the Cuban Republic.

The imperialists reckoned on the geographical remoteness of Cuba from the socialist countries allowing them to utilise their overwhelming military superiority in this area and attack the Cuban people and wipe out their revolutionary gains. As everyone is aware the American imperialists are no greenhorns when it comes to suppressing the liberation struggle in Latin America and other areas of the world.”

“The imperialists’ plans to strangle the Cuban revolution came to grief thanks to the firm stand of the Cuban Government headed by Comrade Fidel Castro, the fighting solidarity of the Cubans, the military might of the Soviet Union and the powerful political and moral support of the socialist countries and all the peace-loving forces which joined the united front to defend the heroic Island of Freedom.”

Go on. Gag. I am…

…but if I quoted you the propaganda the Americans were spewing at the same time—even now— you’d gag too. Or you ought to, anyway.

(You can download the whole speech here, courtesy of the Luxembourg-based Centre Virtuel de la Connaissance sur l’Europe.)

IV.

Cinder: “Did you get yoghurt?

Jane: “No, chocolate pudding. But look: chicken breasts!”

The kids do a little dance of joy.

Ender: “Will you make jello now?”

Jane: “Right away. You have to eat the pudding, and I just have to finish washing my bras.”

Um. Yeah. So, between the tub, bathroom sink, kitchen sink, and two laundry tubs, I have five places where I could do laundry. Not one of them comes with a plug. I try to solve this issue the First World Way by, you know, trying to buy a plug.

This is not possible.

There is apparently a nation-wide plug shortage in Cuba.

Laundry2

OK.

I create make-shift plugs out of plastic wrap and rocks, and they do ok, but they’re none of them a perfect fit, and the water keeps on draining, and I can’t give anything a proper soak.

So. I use our pots.

Cinder: “Rinse it really well. Because when we washed my socks and then you made pasta, it kind of tasted like detergent.”

Flora: “What are you going to do when Daddy comes to visit? Are you going to tell him what you use the pots for when you’re not using them for cooking?”

Jane: “Hush. Do you want jello or not?”

In deference to the fact that they are their father’s children—and that he would probably have a stroke or at the very least a mild anxiety attack if he knew I was feeding his children jello made in a pot in which, a few minutes earlier, I was washing my lingerie—I pour boiling water over the pot before repurposing it.

True story.

Laundry1

V.

This is also a true story: November 18, 1956. Three years after the death of Stalin, and two years and forty-three days before Fidel Castro and co. unseated the US-backed and profoundly undemocratic government of Fulgencio Battista, Khrushchev is talking to Western ambassadors at the Polish Embassy in Moscow—I’m telling you the story at least in part because it happened at the Polish Embassy, of course—so he’s talking to Western ambassadors, and he says:

“About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations, and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!”*

Nikita died in 1971; the Soviet Union itself… well, the mortal wound was delivered on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. The patient was declared legally dead on December 26, 1991.

Nikita2

VI.

Cuba lives.

Cuba lives.

It is so… very, very much alive.

VII.

Ender: “Is the jello ready?”

Jane: “Let’s go check.”

We do. It’s ready. It’s orange. It tastes mostly like sugar and artificial colouring, and only a little bit like harsh detergent.

The children are ecstatic. After they eat, they carefully wash the pudding cups-cum-jello cups so that we can use them again.

I walk into “my writing room,” then past it, onto the verandah, meditating on the meaning of the word “freedom.” Also, “independent.” And… when he was dying… did Nikita have an inkling of what the future would hold?

Does Castro?

Down below me, the street—Cuba—lives, and I wish I had a crystal ball that would assure me… you know? I just don’t want to think…

But I know nothing, nothing. Except for this—Fidel will die, as Nikita did. So will Raoul.

Cuba—will live.

##

*In the years to come, he couldn’t quite decide how he meant it… Check out the Wikipedia entry on the phrase “We will bury you” for subsequent interpretations of what Khrushchev meant. 

bonus:

*

LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And if you like what you read/hear/see, please consider expressing your delight by becoming a patron of this project via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.

You: How much?

Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a counterfeit Cuban cigar.

You: That’s all?

Jane: My avarice is happy to match your affluence. But I get $1 in royalties for each copy my other self sells of a traditionally published book. It is impossible to disappoint me.

If you would like to make a contribution, but have PayPal issues (I get it), please email me at nothingbythebook at gmail.com, and we’ll work something out.

Thank you!

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

24-reallyweirdpicture

 

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: skating on the Malecon

Skating on the Malecon banner

For Carey. Look, there be skating in Cuba, even without ice and ice rinks… 

 

Caption: Actually, you know what? I’m not going to give you more words. I trust you to figure it out…

 

*

Trio on benches at laundry park3

The best things in life and on the Internet are free, but content creators need to pay for groceries with money. If you enjoy the Postcards project, please express your delight and support by making a donation via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: “But how much should I give?”

Jane: “I get $1 each time a sell a traditionally published book, so my bar’s set really low, love. Want to buy me a cup of coffee? That’s $4.75 if you’ll spring for a mocha or latte. Bottle of wine? My palate’s unsophisticated: $19.95 will more than cover it.”

If you’d like to make a contribution but have PayPal issues, email me at nothingbythebook@ gmail.com and we’ll work something out.

Or, ya know. Just hang out with us and enjoy. That be cool too.

xoxo

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

*

catch up

I was in Cuba before Obama. And I want to tell you all about it… in pictures… in words… through sound.

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And … would you?

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts.

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: the best stocked supermarket in Havana

MercadoBanner

For Valerie, who knows where to buy happy pigs and who understands the joy of having half a cow in the freezer.

Mercado2

Caption: the meat would be here. I think?

Mercado1

Caption: The pig is always here.

Mercado3

Caption: But we don’t starve.

*

riff

MERCADO 70

The best stocked supermarket in Havana.
There are always olives; twice, jam.
Nobody ever buys the pig; frostbitten,
I think it is only there for show.

Coming next: I don’t want to spoil it, but there might be skating involved.

*

like what you see?

The best things in life and on the Internet are free, but that frost-bitten pig costs money! If you enjoy the Postcards project, please express your delight and support by making a donation via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: “But how much should I give?”

Jane: “I get $1 each time a sell a traditionally published book, so my bar’s set really low, love. This week, I think you should buy me … a pork chop. No? $4.99 a pound, reports the local Safeway flyer.”

If you’d like to make a contribution but have PayPal issues, email me at nothingbythebook@ gmail.com and we’ll work something out.

Or, ya know. Just hang out with us and enjoy. That be cool too.

xoxo

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

*

LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And … would you?

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.

 

 

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: and again with Hemingway

Marina Banner

This one is for Sean. For saving me from daily self-destruction, among other things.

Listen:

 

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…and, of course, read:

I.

Jane: “We’re almost there. He said five minutes.”

Cinder: “Mom, you’ve said you have a hard time understanding their Spanish. Are you sure he didn’t say five miles?”

Jane: “I’m sure.”

I’m not, actually, I’m in utter despair—I’m as exhausted as the children, and I want to collapse in the middle of the sidewalk and cry—and why is there never one of those 24-hour convenience stores that sells rum in juice boxes when you need one—but the kids already want to turn around, and we’ve gone so far… you know we have to get there, right?

Flora: “This is a really long five minutes.”

It is the longest five minutes ever. A three-mile five minutes, actually…

Cinder: “Maybe he thought we were driving, because nobody’s stupid enough to walk there.”

Maybe…

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II.

Our destination is the Marina Hemingway, on the outskirts of Havana. Built in 1953 as Marina Barlovento, it was of course nationalized in 1959—and rechristened the Marina Hemingway.

It makes total sense. If I were setting up a Soviet-aligned socialist dictatorship, I would name things after an American author… especially one with a thing for Cuba.

Hemingway, who first visited Cuba in 1928, and then just couldn’t stay away, spent most of 1939 to 1960 living in and creating in Cuba, his base a house in the town of San Francisco de Paula, effectively a Havana exburb. Hemingway called his house Finca Vigia—which translates best, I think, as The Look Out. That’s where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.

The Marina Hemingway is nowhere near Finca Vigia.

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III.

Flora: “Why are we going to this marina, again?”

Jane: “Because it’s there.”

Flora: “Is it because it’s named after Ernest Hemingway?”

Jane: “Maybe.”

Flora: “You know you’ve just made us hate him, forever.”

Jane: “I know. Did I tell you that four of his favourite dogs are buried in Cuba too?”

Flora: “Oh. Now that, I’d be interested in seeing…”

IV.

Hemingway’s on my mind this trip, yeah, he is. Not so much because of Havana’s Hemingway Cult. I’m not pilgrimaging to its assorted Meccas. I don’t think I’m going to make it to the Hemingway Museum at Finca Vigia, even if Flora convinces her brothers that the graves of the writer’s dogs are worth a pilgrimage—what would I get out of looking at a dead man’s moldering papers that I haven’t gotten from his published words? There’s no way the children will let me visit either of his favourite bars, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, both in Old Havana… but I’m okay with that. Lame, overpriced tourist traps both—Hemingway’s “stool” in La Floridita is, guidebooks report, roped off “to keep the tourists at bay.” No, thanks–give me cheap rum from the mercadito and cigars from the old men on the street instead, all while I read Papa’s short stories… and his interview in The Paris Review.

Which is fucking brilliant. I mean… Listen:

“Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.”

In. Your. Face. Yes. Thank you, Papa.

Or, this:

“Interviewer: Could you say something about the process of turning a real-life character into a fictional one?

Hemingway: If I explained how that is sometimes done, it would be a handbook for libel lawyers.”

Or, this:

“Interviewer: How do you name your characters?

Hemingway: The best I can.”

I guess people interview writers about writing… and then write about it… because people like me read about it, want to read about it. Here I am, devouring it, aren’t I? Are you? But so much of what non-writers or would-be writers want to know about the process is so… I don’t know. “What was it that had you stumped?” “Getting the words right.” Yes. Because—what else is there?

But now, here’s something that gives me pause:

“Interviewer: You once wrote in the Transatlantic Review that the only reason for writing journalism was to be well paid. You said, “And when you destroy the valuable things you have by writing about them, you want to get big money for it.” Do you think of writing as a type of self-destruction?

Hemingway: I do not remember ever writing that. But it sounds silly and violent enough for me to have said it to avoid having to bite on the nail and make a sensible statement. I certainly do not think of writing as a type of self-destruction, though journalism, after a point has been reached, can be a daily self-destruction for a serious creative writer.”

Daily self-destruction…

Ender: “Are we there yet?”

Jane: “Not yet. But those people said it’s just past the bridge.”

Cinder: “You’re sure they didn’t say it’s past five bridges?”

Jane: “Just drink some water. And walk. Walk!”

Hemingway left his politics fuzzy. His much-quoted farewell comment to Cuba as he departed (fled?) the island in 1960:

“Vamos a ganar. Nosotros los cubanos vamos a ganar. I’m not a Yankee, you know.”

(“We’re going to win. We Cubans are going to win.”)

is open to many interpretations, don’t you think?

This next one… less so:

“The Cubans… double-cross each other. They sell each other out. They got what they deserve. The hell with their revolutions.”

E.H., Islands in the Stream

Anyway. Hemingway on my mind. But this is not a pilgrimage.

The Hemingway Marina, by the way, has no connection at all with Hemingway. He never wrestled marlin here or moored a yacht. He just lends it his name.

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V.

Cinder: “Is this it?”

Yup.

It’s… huge.

I mean… fucking enormous.

It’s not at all what I expected.

A handful of security guards swarm us, although politely. Can they help us? I smile, shrug. We just want to explore? Is that all right? Of course, of course, enjoy—come ask us if there’s anything you need. One offers himself as a guide, but I manage to wave him off.

We explore. A restaurant in which we can’t afford to eat. A “clubhouse” that looks like something out of a Hollywood movie. And boats, boats, boats. Sailboats. Yachts.

And what is that monstrosity?

Cinder: “I think that one is bigger than our house.”

Flora: “I think that one is bigger than our house, and Babi and Dziadzia’s house, and possibly their neighbour’s house combined.”

It’s a behemoth. Beyond a behemoth. Christ…

This part of the marina is quite well up-kept and reeks of money. And I’m thrust into my recurring Cuban paradox. How was this, ever, justified? I actually understand why Fidel let Havana fall into ruin, why the public places were allowed to deteriorate. The people were fed and educated… during the Special Period, not fed… everything else was icing…

But this…

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Flora: “So is visiting the Hemingway marina making you a better writer, Mom?”

Jane: “It doesn’t work like that, you know.”

Flora: “Then why did we come here again?”

Ender: “Fish! Fish!”

The marina’s carved into a coral reef, and life perseveres, fights, continues, among the boats of excess.

The further in we go, the less maintained the buildings, the grounds. There’s a derelict playground, a run-down bowling alley.

A ruin of a hotel, at the peninsula’s tip—stunning views, the building thoroughly battered by the sea and its winds, falling apart—although, the scaffolding indicates, under renovations.

The kids taste the spray of the ocean. Search for life on the rocky beach.

Find garbage.

Cinder: “Can we go now?”

OK.

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VI.

I ask the security guards about buses. We’re actually at the Marina because I thought it was near Mercado 70—the best stocked supermarket in Havana—but judging by the death march I took the children on, we’re 10 k away, maybe more—and even if the children were willing to walk…

Cinder: “We’re not, we have made that clear, right?”

Jane: “Abundantly.”

…I don’t think I am.

While one security guard explains to me how to get to the bus stop and which bus to take—and that then, I’ll have to switch—I know this, that’s fine—another listens, incredulous.

Guard: “Are you crazy? I’ll get you a taxi.”

Jane: “I don’t mind taking the bus. It’s cheap.”

Guard: “I’ll get you a cheap taxi.”

Cinder: “Mom? Taxi. Please.”

I did just make them march almost 10 kilometres in 28 degree heat.

OK.

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VII.

The taxi is a 1957… something or other. I’m not so good with cars. It’s a beautiful shining red on the outside… and virtually naked on the inside.

Jane: “She’s beautiful.”

Cab driver: “Do you want to buy him? I’m not quite sure what’s holding him together anymore.”

(D’ya see what happened to the pronouns there? Translation…)

When Hemingway left Cuba, he left behind a red-and-white 1955 Chrysler New Yorker—willed to his doctor. It disappeared, reports Christopher P. Baker, author of Moon’s Havana, to be found in 2011 in “near derelict” condition. Actor/director David Soul (of Starsky & Hutch fame) is restoring the beast, and Barker and Soul are plotting a movie about the restoration process.

How’s “near derelict” different from derelict, exactly, I wonder? Does “near derelict” mean savable… and “derelict” spells the end?

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VIII.

Cinder: “O-M-G, we’re home, we made it, and you didn’t make us take the bus from the supermarket, I love you, Mom!”

I do know how far I can push them. Also, riding the #179 bus at off-work rush hour with $90CUC worth of groceries including two five-liter water bottles… I’m cheap and crazy, but not that crazy.

This taxi’s a Fiat, and the driver wants $7CUC to drive me to Kohly.

Jane: “Last time it was five.”

Driver: “Really?”

I’m totally lying. I’ve never taken a cab from the market to Kohly. It seems to me it ought to be five.

Jane: “Mmm-hmmm.”

There’s five guys behind him, and they all stand up. If he won’t take me for five, any of them will. (Workers of the world, unite!)

Driver: “Ok, ok.”

I give him six. I’d have given him seven, because he carried my bags, walked Flora across the street, and didn’t mow down any pedestrians while driving us, except that when I was taking the groceries out of the trunk of the cab, the wooden stick holding up the hatch slipped and the hatch hit me on the head while the stick poked me in the ribs.

Driver: “This is very bad service by me.”

Jane: “It might be karma.”

Driver: “What?”

Jane: “Never mind. No harm done.”

After I unpack the groceries and hydrate the children, I take Papa, rum and a cigar to the verandah.

“Interviewer: What would you consider the best intellectual training for a writer?”

Hemingway: Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of his hanging to commence with.”

True story: I suddenly want to edit Hemingway. Strike out that “commence.” Replace it with “begin.”

IX.

In the morning… actually, you know what? I’m going to let Hemingway tell this part. He did it better, and I don’t want to edit it at all:

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.  You read what you have written and,  as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.

You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next
and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.
When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling,  as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again.

It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

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For more on Hemingway and Cuba:

The Atlantic: Hemingway in Cuba— 2016 reprint of a 1965 article reflecting on a 1954 interview with Ernest Hemingway

The Smithsonian: Hemingway’s Cuba—August 2007, a look back at the writer’s final years in Cuba by his last personal secretary (and post-humous daughter-in-law)

The Telegraph: Ernest Hemingway House in Cuba to be Preserved with US Money–June 2015  piece that highlights the perverse US-Cuban financial-cultural relationship…

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BONUS: Retro 1970s Style Slideshow

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Trio on benches at laundry park3

The best things in life and on the Internet are free. Feeding and sheltering three children, whether in Cuba or Canada, is not. If you enjoy the Postcards project, please express your delight and support by making a donation via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: “But how much should I give?”

Jane: “I get $1 each time a sell a traditionally published book, so my bar’s set really low, love. Want to buy me a cup of coffee? That’s $4.75 if you’ll spring for a mocha or latte. Bottle of wine? My palate’s unsophisticated: $19.95 will more than cover it.”

If you’d like to make a contribution but have PayPal issues, email me at nothingbythebook@ gmail.com and we’ll work something out.

Or, ya know. Just hang out with us and enjoy. That be cool too.

xoxo

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

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catch up

I was in Cuba before Obama. And I want to tell you all about it… in pictures… in words… through sound:

PfC: introduction

So, I introduce the project, and then…
…I shower you with pictures:

PfC: I haven’t found a post office yet… (image)
PfC: what are you looking at? (image)
PfC: Acuario Nacional de Cuba (image)
PfC: zombie Fiat (image)
PfC: sharp edges & powerlines (image)

Then (drum roll, please) release the first listening postcard:

PfC: blame it on Hemingway (post + photographs + podcast)

It’s not really about Hemingway, but you know, #hemingway is a good hashtag.

Next I show you:

PfC: the ugliest building in Havana (image)

& then I teach you some

PfC: Cuban math (post + photographs + podcast) & I also pick up / get picked up by a 25 year old Cuban boy. Seriously. Check it out, and then check out

PfC: this is also Havana (image)

& find out why I’m going to hell:

PfC: Necropolis (images + riffs)

after which you can watch how the entire country of Cuba is trying to prevent me from buying eggs:

PfC: egg hunt (post + photographs + podcast)

then try to figure out what this photo’s all about:

PfC: the view from here (image)

& then pray for me. Just pray:

PfC: we will survive (post + photographs + podcast)

Thank you. Now come with me to a beach. No, not that kind of the beach. The kind of beach that isn’t kept pristine for tourists:

PfC: but you’re not going to make us swim there, are you? (image)

& now you’ve got to meet Jack Gilbert, and understand what having children (in Cuba, anywhere) really means:

PfC: and she asks, is being childless good for a poet (post + photographs + podcast)

Now, have a look at a haunted house:

PfC: haunted house (image)

& then cringe as I explain to Flora the relationship between poverty and crime:

PfC: but is it safe? (post + photographs + podcast)

Then meditate on this photo

PfC: through bent bars (image)

& listen to me try to buy matches:

PfC: matches (post + totally unrelated photographs + podcast)

then take on a hustler:

PfC: get out of my dreams get into my car & pay me 2.5X the going rate pls (images + riff)

& then fall in love:

PfC: Lazaro’s farm (post + photographs + podcast)

and then decompress with:

PfC: a splash of orange, three versions (images)

Now get ready to get all political and cultural with:

PfC: flora, fauna + waiting (post+ images + podcast)

then look at pretty things:

PfC: behind closed eyelids (images)

& take a ride…

PfC: on the bus (short podcast + post + images)

to explore a castle: PfC: castillo means castle (slideshow + postcard images)

& consider PfC: a boat is not a boat (image)

And how you’re caught up.

Until next week.

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: a boat is not a boat

27-OnTheFerryCollageFinal

For Peter. Do you still remember that ferry ride from hell? I do…

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That’s Ender on the Havana ferry dock, looking in awe at the cruise ship that dwarfs the city and the harbour… and asking… “Is that our boat?”

No, son, no it isn’t.

Flora: “The Havana ferry was basically a board with an engine.”

It wasn’t quite that bad. There was a roof.

Also… it was $0.20 centavos (moneda nacional) a person.

Non-sequiteur: The sight of that cruise ship in the Havana harbour was obscene. I have no other word for it–its size, compared to the size of the dock, the harbour, the city… obscene. Wrong. If you ever have a chance to take a cruise ship to Havana–don’t. OK? Please?

Coming next: the boat theme continues with listening postcard from  Marina Hemingway.

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LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And if you like what you read/hear/see, please consider expressing your delight by becoming a patron of this project via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.

You: How much?

Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a Cuban cigar.

You: That’s all?

Jane: My avarice is happy to match your affluence. But I get $1 in royalties for each copy my other self sells of a traditionally published book. It is impossible to disappoint me.

If you would like to make a contribution, but have PayPal issues (I get it), please email me at nothingbythebook at gmail.com, and we’ll work something out.

Thank you!

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

 

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: castillo means castle

27-Castle All

For Valentino, who said, “It is forbidden, but…”

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Or, this way:

27-Castle All

short guide to Havana’s castles

In Old Havana:

La Punta, or Castillo San Salvador de la Punta: boooring. You’ll probably walk past it as you meander the Malecon, but don’t make a special trip. What? Fine. Go. Then tell me I’m right.

El Castillo de la Real Fuerza: in the heart of Havana Vieja, next to all sorts of other touristy things, this is the one you will probably visit. It’s old. It’s ok. It’s not as good as what’s across the bay.

On the other side of the Harbour:

Castillo de los Tres Reyes Del Morro: Everyone just calls it Morro. Amazing views! Usually hosts a featured artist & art exhibit in one of its chambers–don’t miss that! You’re not supposed to climb into the lighthouse but it can probably be arranged, wink, wink. Nobody cares if you climb on the roof and cannons or into the moat.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña: Fucking huge. I mean–ENORMOUS. It just doesn’t end. Much less exciting than the smaller Morro… unless you accidentally climb onto the roof. Which might happen, because there are no signs. And no one will stop you. Also, make sure you find your way underground–highlight of the adventure for the kids. Biggest mystery: why and from where did they get the giant pink tongue slide AND WHAT WHERE THEY THINKING?

How to get there: $5-6CUC taxi ride from Old Havana OR catch a bus going across the Harbour from Parque Fraternidad–ask which bus will take you to El Morro, a kind stranger will show you–OR (best choice) take the little so-cheap-it’s-free ferry from Old Havana to Casablanca, climb up the stairs from Casablanca into the park that abuts that giant Casablanca Christ statue (Christo de la Habana), peek into (or not) Che Guavarra’s house, and then follow the road first to  Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña and then Castillo de los Tres Reyes Del Morro. It is walkable–even with three children–if you run out of steam, a taxi, a horse-drawn buggy, or a local with a car will inevitably offer you a ride. My recommended way of doing the circuit: take a taxi to El Morro, and then walk your way towards the ferry, and take the ferry home. It’s nice to end the day with a boat ride.

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Trio on benches at laundry park3

The best things in life and on the Internet are free, but content creators need to pay for groceries with money. If you enjoy the Postcards project, please express your delight and support by making a donation via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: “But how much should I give?”

Jane: “I get $1 each time a sell a traditionally published book, so my bar’s set really low, love. Want to buy me a cup of coffee? That’s $4.75 if you’ll spring for a mocha or latte. Bottle of wine? My palate’s unsophisticated: $19.95 will more than cover it.”

If you’d like to make a contribution but have PayPal issues, email me at nothingbythebook@ gmail.com and we’ll work something out.

Or, ya know. Just hang out with us and enjoy. That be cool too.

xoxo

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

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LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.