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: 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…

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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: But we won’t get scurvy

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For every farmer and back-to-lander there ever was, especially the Sunnyside Community Garden folk. 

Listen (a seven minute commitment):

& read:

prologue

Hi, Mom.

We’re all well and things are good. We have eggs! Long story—I’ll tell you about it when I get back.

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I am not starving your grandchildren, but meat protein continues to be a bit of a challenge. We bought some inedible sausage the other day—I felt so bad about wasting it, but I had to throw it out. But the dumpster cats enjoyed it.

I found a butcher who’d sell to me—in most of the butcher shops near here, the meat is only available on the ration card, to Cubans—but it was pork hanging out in the full sun for god-knows how long, and it made me think about Islamic and Jewish prohibitions against eating pork… and you know what? There’s probably something in them. So we’re mostly eating chicken.

No first world whine—the chicken’s just fine.

Last Sunday, the supermarket was mobbed by a crowd before opening time, so I joined the line in case they were delivering something good—and it turned out to be chicken breasts—that kept us going for a full week. This week, there were chicken legs and thighs—imported from Brazil, and, judging by the Arabic writing on the packaging, destined for Algeria.

Still, between the eggs and the ice cream, we’re doing pretty good. J

M.

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I.

Cinder: “We’re not eating a lot of vegetables while we’re here, are we?”

Dammit. If he—who tries to convince me that ketchup and salsa are vegetables back home—is noticing this, we really must be vegetable deficient.

Jane: “I’ll go to the Agro when I go to pick up the matches. Anyone want to come with me?”

Cinder: “Nope.”

Flora: “Not really.”

Jane: “Really? No one? I’m pretty sure I get better prices when you guys are with me.”

Ender: “I’ll go with you. But only if you buy me ice cream after.”

Blackmailer.

Jane: “Deal.”

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II.

I pay $2 pesos (CUP, or moneda nacional) for a box of matches—which seems to be excessive, because a street cigar also costs $2 local pesos, and a cone of ice cream $3, so, $2 pesos? Really? The unshaven man wearing unmatched shoes is insistent, and I need matches, so I fork over another coin—but don’t buy cigars from him.

$2 CUP, as far as I figure it, is $0.08 CUC (but don’t take my word for it, my Cuban math sucks), which is a perfectly reasonable price to pay for a box of matches… it’s just that shouldn’t a box of matches—especially of matches that don’t work that well—cost significantly less than a cigar?

(I find out later that $2 pesos is the standard street price for matches. Who knew?)

Matches in one hand and Ender’s sticky hand in the other, I hike over to the Agro… which is empty. Closed. Fuck. It’s Monday. Of course.

Vendor: “Hey, woman who hates my tomatoes—you want to buy some fruit?”

It’s one of the vendors from whom I’ve bought beans, bananas and carrots—from whom I refused to buy tomatoes—and whose brother asked me if I wanted to buy lobster. Which he was lugging around in a backpack.

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I didn’t buy it.

Jane: “Yes… but I see you’re closed.”

Vendor: “That’s not a problem. Come in.”

I follow him through the gate—his father (genes, they be powerful things) blows me a kiss and makes a face at Ender—into a back room full of crates and agro workers, who are allegedly sorting… but mostly chilling and smoking.

Vendor: “We have everything, everything. What do you want? We have bananas, mangoes, guava, papaya…”

Jane: “Tomatoes?”

Vendor: “I remember you hate my tomatoes, but today we have beautiful tomatoes.”

He’s right. They’re gorgeous—by which I mean neither rotting nor green. The bananas, alas, are falling apart, and so are the mangoes. I’m regretful—I’ve been dying to try one of the giant Cuban mangoes, but it’s between seasons, so they’re all rotten.

He finds me a bunch of bananas that are still more yellow than brown—ripe, lusciously sweet, but not yet liquid. Another bunch that he says I must eat today. I don’t want to take it but it’s too late—it’s in my bag.

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Vendor: “What else?”

What else? I look around.

Jane: “Cucumbers. Not limp ones like last time.”

Jesus. I can’t believe I said that. Everyone in the room starts howling while I turn red, and I pretend I don’t understand what he says next.

Vendor: “Casava?”

Jane: “No.”

Vendor: “Still haven’t learned how to cook it?”

Yeah. Not a clue what to do with it. Cut it? Bake it? Shred it?

Jane: “Carrots?”

Vendor: “Um… no carrots. Oranges?”

Jane: “No, I don’t like the oranges.”

Vendor 2: “These are incredible, delicious, oranges.”

Jane: “I haven’t had good oranges in Cuba yet. They’re all sour.”

Vendor 2: “No, no, these are delicious, so sweet. Hold on, I’ll peel one for you.”

Ender starts dancing—he’s my orange-loving Orange Boy—and he’s missed oranges, and resented my refusal to buy them (after the first few purchases of inedible green balls of sour juice-less-ness). To my surprise, the orange is actually orange inside and juicy and delicious.

Vendor: 2: “Yeah?”

Jane: “Yeah.”

Vendor 3: “How about guava? Do you like guava?”

Jane: “I love guava, but this is too…”

I can’t remember the word for rotten—that would be rude anyway—and I’m afraid to say soft.

Vendor 4: “Here, this one is perfect. No charge.”

I hand over $5CUC for a pound or two of tomatoes, two cucumbers, three pounds of bananas, and a bag of oranges I can barely lift. “Oh, I see limes, give me a lime,” I add. They give me a lime. And change. I give it back. “For the service.” “No, no.” They shake their heads.

Put more limes in my bag.

Jane: “Enough, enough!”

2-2-emptysupermarket-nbtb

III.

Flora: “Did you get any meat?”

Jane: “Um. No.”

Flora: “What did you get?”

I empty the bags onto the kitchen counter.

Cinder: “Wow, are you worried we’re going to get scurvy?”

Jane: “Maybe a little.”

Cinder: “You shouldn’t be. What about all that orange pop we’re drinking?”

Right. Fortified with Vitamin C?

Maybe?

12-supermarkethaul

*

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!

*

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 week,

“Jane”

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: the playgrounds kill me

Playgrounds Banner

For Sara, Valli, Lilia, Charlotte, Lachlan, Meredith, Nova, Faeryn, Indigo et al. Who would have fun there anyway.

The playgrounds kill me. Each time I see one, rusted through, abandoned, virtually destroyed, I am hit by a wave of suffering so intense, I almost vomit. I do not feel this badly when I walk past the shoeless drunk curled into the doorway of a building owned by the government that’s supposed to provide for him. Nor when I walk past a mansion that was a thing of beauty in 1858, 1959, and is now a heap of rubble.

But the playgrounds—empty, rusting, so fucking unsafe… they kill me.

Do you understand why?

My children don’t mind. They find the places that work, and have so much fun:

Yes, my children don’t mind at all…

Do Cuban children?

So many of the playgrounds are… empty. So empty. Because they are—well, not just depressing but dangerous.

Playgrounds10

And sometimes… they are put to different, more practical use:

Playground5 Laundry

I try to see beauty and purpose in that.

Playground4 Laundry

I see it as the most powerful indictment of Castro’s revolution.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

…and wait until I show you what the schools look like…

*

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

Playground5 Laundry

(This is one of my favourite photos from the trip/project)

 

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: 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: flora, fauna + waiting

24-reallyweirdpicture

For–no, not Flora, come on, how obvious would that be?–Monika. Who once had one of those jobs.

Today’s post is brought to you by Janine Morigeau‘s almost-soundproof basement, Harold Cardona’s Snowball mike, and Sean Lindsay‘s prowess with Adobe Audition. Thank you, my beautiful friends.

Listen:

… and read:

I.

We’re in Havana’s Natural History Museum, which isn’t nearly as depressing as Havana’s National Aquarium—chiefly because all the animals are stuffed, so one might feel sorry that they’re dead but one does not feel sickened by the awful life they’re leading.

Ender is totally completely enthralled.

24-Enderinfrontofdino

Flora’s mildly interested.

Cinder is bored out of his mind.

Me… I’m fascinated by all the wrong things.

Like so many things in Havana, the museum is a time-piece, an anachronism… and also, an embodiment of the tension and lunacy that result from the attempt to insert political education into everything. The mix of 19-century shackles carried into the 20th century—the good intentions handicapped by strapped resources—the desire to educate but only in the right way—the inclusion of Russian scientists nobody else has heard of in the gallery of the giants of science…

Jane: “This is so weird…”

Cinder: “Are you talking about how few indigenous mammals there are in Cuba? It’s not weird at all—it’s an island, and…”

Unschooling for the win. I didn’t even notice that, but yes. The paucity of the local fauna is actually quite astounding. A result of the Spanish conquest, or predating it? Large mammals don’t thrive on islands, of course. Were there more mammals, more birds before the Spaniards and their guns arrived? Must find out…

Now that Cinder points it out, there are virtually no reptiles—except for the sexy sea turtles—in the museum either. And we keep on seeing geckos and little lizards everywhere. Is it because they are common as prairie dogs back home and only tourists give a fuck?

Also… as far as this museum is concerned, Cuba has no flora at all…

Flora: “Are you talking about me?”

Jane: “Not exactly…”

But what I really think is weird is how massively overstaffed the museum is… and how none of the staff is actually doing anything.

Guide 1: “No running!”

Guide 2: “No touching!”

Apologies. There’s that.

The museum is spread over two floors, and the exhibits sort of flow into one another, but there are archways and open doorways, and at each of these divisions, there are two women—white shirts, beige skirts—sitting in plastic lawn chairs.

Guide 3: “No running!”

Guide 4: “No touching!”

At the moment, in addition to us, there are three other families in the museum (it’s small enough and so designed that from almost any vantage point, at least on the second floor, I can see the entire space). The guides outnumber us—especially if you count the clump of four at the front, by the cash register and the mandatory bag check.

Cinder sits down in a chair by a table on which are three books about Cuba’s most important naturalist. (I didn’t write down his name, so you don’t get to find out who he was, precisely.)

Guide 5 comes up to him immediately.

Cinder: “What did she say?”

Jane: “This table is just for sitting at to read these books. So I guess… either pick up a book and pretend to read, or go sit on the stairs?”

Cinder: “This place is so lame!”

24-Fish Medley

Ender doesn’t think so…

Guide 6: “No touching!”

…but then he neither understands nor probably hears any of the prohibitions. He sticks his fingers into the grooves of a blue whale mandible.

Ender: “This is so cool!”

Guide 7: “No…”

Jane: “I know, I know! No touching!”

Flora: “But why do they just put things on the floor and tables like that if they don’t want little kids to touch them?”

Cinder: “I guess so that all these people have jobs?”

He looks at the guides for the first time with vague interests.

Cinder: “They clearly don’t know how to do anything else. And if Ender wasn’t here touching stuff… they’d just sit in those chairs all day.”

Flora: “What are you saying?”

Cinder: “Tag! You’re it!”

24-weirdcollage2

II.

In Poland, during the post-World War II socialist experiment—Poles call it the 50-year Soviet occupation, by the way, and consider it more ruinous to the country than the six year war that preceded it, killed more than 20 per cent of Poland’s population, and left Warsaw with barely a building standing—the revenge of the occupied was pretty simple:

“We pretend to work. They pretend to pay us.”

III.

My cab driver today is a philosopher-entrepreneur-artist as well as tourist hustler. As we drive up La Rampa, thick with people on both sides—people walking, people sitting, people waiting—for what?—he says,

“There are always, always people here. Whenever I drive up this way, I wonder, ‘Why are all these people here? Doesn’t anybody in Cuba work?’”

Oh good. It’s not just me asking that question.

“So?” I ask. “Don’t they?”

He pauses.

“It’s difficult,” he says finally.

Implication: you wouldn’t understand.

But I do.

See, when you can’t buy bread (never mind eggs) on your way before work or after work, because it’s only ready at 1:30 p.m., and by 3:30 p.m. it will all be gone… you leave your job in the middle of the day for two hours to do your shopping. Or to spend two hours waiting in the queue at the post office to send a package, receive a package, get a money order. And everyone else you work with does the same thing. You all take turns at NOT working. You just do. You have to do that to feed your family today.

Everything else, work included, can wait.

Meanwhile… you wait.

Incessantly.

For everything.

You wait… for the grocery store to open. For the meat to be delivered to the grocery store. For the bank machine to get fixed. For the bus to come. You wait-wait-wait-wait…

That line –up there, I know, is for the famous Coppelia ice cream, but that one?

Jane: “Why are all those people waiting there?”

Driver: “The bank probably ran out of money.”

I believe it.

So. They wait…

Communism collapsed because people who have to wait in massive queues for life’s essentials DO NOT WORK, do not produce.

IV.

I am, at heart, more socialist than capitalist, but more than either, I am a creator and if I have a credo, it’s tied up in the belief that a meaningful life is productive life—define productive as you will.

Those young women at the Natural History Museum, who spend six hours a day sitting on their asses in chairs saying “No running! No touching!” offend me.

They offend me because I know that their job—what they do every day for a salary so miniscule it might as well not be paid—rots them.

They are essentially being paid to do nothing. They go to work… and they create, produce, contribute NOTHING.

24-reallyweirdpicture

V.

As we leave the museum, three women argue which one of them has to get out of her chair to return my bag to me. I don’t tip her.

Cinder: “Just to clarify, Mom, are you pissed off with us for playing tag in the museum?”

Jane: “No.”

I’m pissed off at a political-economic system that dismantles each of its ideals as it implements them. And also, the Americans. Always, the Americans. Just, you know, because. (Sure, the Russians too, why not.)

Cinder: “Good. That was fun. And now we know all we need to know about Cuban wildlife.”

Jane: “And what’s that?”

Cinder: “It consists mostly of stray cats and dogs, and the occasional free range chicken.”

True, dat.

24-Penis

*

With gratitude to all the people who make my work possible. Today’s post is brought to you by Janine Morigeau‘s almost-soundproof basement, Harold Cardona’s Snowball mike, and Sean Lindsay’s prowess with Adobe Audition. Thank you, my beautiful friends.

*

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: Lazaro’s farm

22-Lazaros Farm Banner

For Lazaro, Nidia and Melissa, with all the loves there be.

I think this is probably the most important of the postcards that I’m going to send you. I hope you enjoy it. I’m thrilled to be sending it to you on Sean and mine’s 16th wedding anniversary, because—well, you will see—and I’m thrilled to welcome Kris and Tamara of Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farm as its sponsors. Blue Mountain is an amazing farm near Calgary, which operates as a CSA (community supported agriculture) and which has been providing “hen crafted” eggs to my little piece of urban paradise for years. Check them out–because growing food sustainably? It’s super important. Just ask my friend Lazaro…

Listen:

 

… and read:

I.

I fall in love with Lazaro in about three, maybe four minutes, even though in those first three, four minutes he calls my boys girls and then, while explaining the reason for his assumption—usually boys have short hair and girls have long hair, that’s the Cuban way—assures me, “You’re beautiful even though you have short hair.” He also tells me I act like a child, not like a lady and a mother—but that’s at the end of our first day’s acquaintance, a full 15-minute cab ride later.

It doesn’t matter. I love him, I trust him, I am happy. My self relaxes and drops all her defences.

My children notice immediately.

Cinder: “Look, Mom finally made a friend here.”

Flora: “Thank god. Maybe she’ll stop giving me lectures on Communism now.”

22-Roses

II.

In a rather bizarre book of pop psychology-self help-quasi history called How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Every Day Life, Australian-British lifestyle philosopher Roman Krznaric attempts to introduce his modern day Western reading public to the six types of love practiced by the ancient Greeks:

  • eros, the passionate love that drives you mad and makes you wanna get naked with the other
  • philia, the love between family members, venture partners, battlefield comrades, friends
  • ludus, the playful affection between children, casual lovers (dance partners? serial flirters, maybe?)
  • pragma, the mature love and deep understanding that evolves between people (married couples, others) over time, characterized by support, patience, tolerance, compromise and reciprocity
  • agape, a selfless love “extended altruistically to all human beings… offered without obligation or expectation of return—a transcendent love based on human solidarity”; and,
  • philautia—essentially, self-love… both in its good, self-affirming and in its negative, Narcissistic forms.

Got that? There might a quiz at the end…

How We Should Live is not a great book, by the way. Krznaric is an inconsistent writer, and he’s pretty conventional, really. He tries to be provocative, but he stays pretty firmly inside the box in which most of the Western middle class is trapped. Still. Every once in a while, he says something insightful.

Which, I think, is all we can hope for when we write…

An extended quote:

One of the universal questions of emotional life has always been, “What is love?” I believe that this is a misleading question, and one which has caught us in futile knots of confusion in an attempt to identify some definitive essence of “true love.” The lesson from ancient Greece is that we must instead ask ourselves, “How can I cultivate the different varieties of love in my life?” That is the ultimate question of love that we face today. But if we wish to nurture these varieties, we must first dispel the potent myth of romantic love which stands in the way.

Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live

But myths have their uses, do they not? Love at first sight. It’s a thing.

III.

What?

OK, fine.

You know I don’t believe in love at first sight any more than I believe in the Easter Bunny or Zeus’s throne on Mount Olympus, and yet, with each of my enduring loves, I fell in love in that first moment, during that first gaze. Don’t contradict, my love, it is true for you too—I loved you the first time I saw you. I know you had seen me, known me, wanted to connect with me before—but I was not able to lift up my eyes from my navel just then. The first time they rose and met yours—yes. There it was. That is how we begun.

The first time I meet Lazaro’s eyes, I already know he is a good person, because he is stepping in to rescue me from an awkward, potentially volatile situation—offering to drive me home for a fair market price in defiance of an aggressive colleague who is attempting to bully and intimidate me. He sees my children are exhausted, and I’m barely standing—it has been a long day of going to all the places, doing all the things—and he has the means to help us and so he does.

I am too tired to really talk, and after reassuring him that two of my girls are boys, I sink back into the car seat—the car is a 1950s something or other—this matters a great deal to Lazaro, the something or other that the car is, but so little to me that the name—and it can only be one of two, three names, right? Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet?—slides in one ear and out the other—doesn’t even slide into one ear, but floats over it—but I do hear, “It could have been my grandfather’s car,” Lazaro says with pride, and that “could have been”—not “was”—is so intriguing, it captures my attention, wakes me up. “My mother in law just hated it, hates it,” Lazaro is saying. “When I bought it, she just wouldn’t stop saying, I hate that car, why did you buy that car? And I kept on saying, “Mama, why do you keep on saying that? I don’t care if you hate this car, I bought it for me, and I like it.”

“She is difficult person,” he confides, “my mother-in-law.”

“Are they not always,” I laugh. But his father-in-law, his father-in-law is more a father to him than his own has been.

By the time Lazaro tells me about the farm, I have in the periphery of my imagination outlines of the people who live on it, work it—his wife, her parents. The fourteen year-old-daughter who, on the days her father cannot drive her, hitchhikes eight kilometres to get to school. “Transportation is a challenge in Cuba,” he tells me very seriously as we pass three buses bursting at the seams with people—and stopping to pick up more. “But my daughter, she is very diligent, devoted. She is never late. She always finds a way to do it.”

I see these people in my head, and so I need to see them in life. So I ask to see the farm.

“Why?” Lazaro asks. “There is nothing interesting to see there. It’s just an old house. And some land.”

“Everything here is very interesting to me,” I say. And I can’t quite explain—he has painted a picture with words that now exists in my head, and I don’t want the picture in my head to be fake. I want to see what it really looks like.

That’s when he tells me I’m a child. I shrug. He looks at me, perplexed.

“Are you sure?”

I’m sure. And so the next day, at ten minutes to 10, he is waiting outside the gate to my castle—and is relieved when I run down the stairs, children behind me.

“Are you sure?” he asks again. “I told my wife you wanted to come and see it, and she thought maybe I misunderstood you. There is nothing interesting there. It is just where we live.”

22-Birdcage

IV.

By the way—do you do this too?—one of my most frequent typos is to write “love” instead of “live.” As in, “It is just where we love.” I love that.

V.

Before we get in the car and take off, Lazaro goes to check out the local supermarket and bodega. He is hunting for spaghetti—which has been plentiful in this neighbourhood the whole time I’ve been here—but which makes its way to his village shop very inconsistently.

“My wife needs it to make the lunches,” he explains. His wife, Nidia, is—was—a nurse. The former regional head of a rather important health program—I’m fudging some details here, love, because I’m not sure how identifiable I want to make these beautiful people, because, well, totalitarian regimes make me paranoid—as they should, because that is, after all, their intention. That government job paid her the equivalent of about $30 American dollars a month.

Lazaro is—was—a doctor. His state salary was about the same. I promise not to digress into another math lesson here, only consider this: the day that he drove me home from Old Havana for $10CUC, in that 15 minutes, he made one third of his monthly salary as a fucking life saving physician.

22-Verandah with birds

VI.

After the revolution, Cuba abolished private enterprise and private property on a scale unrivalled in the European Communist world. Poland, for example, always retained some private enterprise. Taxed and regulated to death, thankless, arduous it was—but there were slivers of it here and there. Cuba killed it all. Not, by the way, for ideological reasons, not really. This is really, really important to understand: Fidel Castro was not a socialist. He was—I will not deny this—a patriot. He was also a power-hungry psychopath, and state control of the means of production—the ownership of property—was not so much about giving power to the people as it was about giving power to Fidel.

In 2008, Raoul Castro loosened the restrictions and allowed small-scale ownership of property. People could buy land—and cultivate it.

Dr. Lazaro, the near-famine of the Special Period still vivid in his memory, jumped at the chance.

“The best way to ensure you will have food is to grow your food,” he tells me. There is a pause and a tension in his voice. His grandfather died during the Special Period. He was 95—a good full life. But he died hungry.

“He died hungry.”

So now, the doctor and the nurse own a farm.

22-Stripping the roses 2

VII.

When we get to the farm, Nidia is cleaning up the outdoor kitchen, with the help of her mother and a hired maid, after preparing the midday meal for several dozen farm labourers. These lunches are one of the family’s critical income streams—as critical as the tourist taxi dollars Lazaro gathers on weekends.

Another consists in renting a refrigeration unit to a nearby rose farmer.

“We are very lucky here—we have good water and we have reliable electricity,” Lazaro explains. The rose farmer doesn’t—he stores his harvested flowers here until it is time to deliver them to vendors.

I have to tell you—every time I see someone selling, buying, carrying flowers in Havana—and I see it a lot—my heart lifts, and I think—this is good. When people have the capacity to love and have something as frivolous, non-utilitarian as flowers—this is good.

(Yes, that means you should buy me flowers more often. I’ll do the same for you.)

Shortly after we arrive, the rose farmers arrive to do a pick up. Ender helps them peel the bloom protectors off. The little mesh things—I call them flower condoms, but there is probably a technically proper name for them—are slipped over the rose buds as soon as they appear on the plants, and keep the blooms tight, extending their lives. In Canada, they would be a disposable item. In Cuba, imported from Brazil—a cause of hassle each time they come across the border—they are precious, and the rose farmers, Lazaro, and Ender carefully remove each one before the roses are ready to be taken away—naked—to the resellers.

22-Coconut

VII.

After the rose farmers leave, a neighbour and her children arrive, and Lazaro’s father-in-law gets all the children coconuts.

The coconuts are one of the farm’s weed crops, as are the banana palms, always producing, near indestructible. The avocado and mango trees are more seasonal and require more care. Lazaro also grows squash and pumpkin, beans, peppers. This year’s late and intense rains cost him a pepper crop.

“It is frustrating,” he understates. Shows me a shriveled up pepper.

The land on which he farms used to be part of a government-owned orange plantation, destroyed by a foul blight more than a decade ago. The first thing he had to do when he got the land was uproot and destroy the dead orange trees.

The land he farms surrounds the 100-year-old house where he lives with his wife, their daughter—and his wife’s parents. It used to belong to his wife’s grandparents.

So did some of the land Lazaro has been buying back from the government.

Viva la revolucion.

22-Living Wall

IX.

I love the house. Lazaro is a little worried about managing my expectations, because he sees where I’m living in Havana—and it’s a palace by Cuban standards, and, frankly, by mine. “It’s, like, three times as big as my house in Calgary,” I tell him. “I am not a princess.”

“We like our house,” he assures me. He does not want to look insecure. “It is a good house. But it is just an ordinary, old house.”

Ordinary, simple—efficient. Cement blocks forming thick walls. Glassless windows covered with thick shutters. Designed as perfectly, for the climate, as a Spanish villa. The day is hot, but the temperature inside is perfect.

Outside, two of the house’s four walls are covered with a creeping plant.

“It’s a living wall!” I exclaim.

“It’s my air-conditioning,” Lazaro says with pride.

Inside is a large comfortable living room, a well-organized kitchen, three bedrooms, a bathroom. Outside—a huge outdoor kitchen. A verandah filled with bird cages.

The farmyard. The kids go crazy over the poultry. Chickens, of course, but also ducks, geese and a young turkey. A dog to guard them all—and, three young pigs.

“They’re so cute!” Flora exclaims.

“They’re for eating,” Lazaro whispers to me. “But maybe don’t tell her.”

I laugh. Do you see why I love him? He already knows her.

22-piglets

X.

The children explore, and we eat coconut, guava, and talk. Nidia makes me coffee cut with chicory—Cubans like it like that, Lazaro says, a hint of irony in his voice, which is fortunate, because most of the coffee produced in the country is intended for export, and every time the government decides it wants more coffee for export, there’s more chicory in the coffee left available for Cubans.

Nidia tells me her nursing work was a vocation. She misses it. “But….” I nod. I understand.

Lazaro talks about things I don’t understand—irrigation, quality of the soil. Things he is learning about as systematically as he once learned medicine—from books, from more experienced neighbours. He is dreaming of an irrigation system that delivers controlled quantities of water to individual plants. Also a greenhouse. He met a German woman a few months ago who was interested in investing in the farm, providing him with the funds to get a greenhouse. (After I leave, he writes me, elated, he has met with her again: the plan is a go, he will get his greenhouse, and he is closer to his irrigation system—he is happy, and I am so happy for him. If I am ever not destitute, I will buy him a tractor, I tell him. He laughs. The one man in the neighbourhood who owns a tractor makes a good living lending its power from farm to farm. “It might be a complicated gift,” he says. “That tractor breaks all the time. At least it is not my problem to fix it!”)

The kids get bored. It’s time to head back… Before we go, do I want to drive around the area, Lazaro asks.

Of course, of course.

And, we go… and…

Fuck, I wish I hadn’t.

22-Exploring

XI.

It’s not true, of course. I’m glad I have. It’s important to know. To see.

Right. You don’t know what I saw.

I can’t show you. I didn’t take pictures.

I’m afraid to draw them for you with my words.

I don’t know where to start. Because you need to know about the palestinos and L’Oriente first.

L’Oriente means the East—and L’Oriente used to be the name of the Easternmost province of Cuba. In 1976, it was split into five administrative provinces. But this is not important. This is: L’Oriente was importing slaves into the late 1800s—slavery wasn’t abolished in Cuba until 1886. When Cuba finally gained independence from Spain in 1899, L’Oriente was a mess and continued to be a mess into the 20th century. And the 21st. It should be rich, producing agricultural land—it used to be coveted for its sugar and coffee crops. It is now one of Cuba’s poorest regions. After the revolution, tens of thousands of impoverished people from L’Oriente flocked into Havana. They did so again during the Special Period. And again, now.

They are mostly Afro-Cubans. Habaneros call them palestinos. It is not a term of endearment.

“This is where, how they live,” Lazaro says. The houses are cobbled together from whatever. Boards, palm trunks, leaves. Tarps. Sheet metal.

Not that far away—brand new apartment buildings. Erected for the army.

In the middle of it all—a very beautiful, freshly painted house.

“He’s done ok,” Lazaro says as we drive by. “He works for the government. He’s had the chance to steal a lot.”

His voice is interesting. A twinge of contempt. Also, jealousy. Also, understanding.

Another house barely fit for human habitation.

“It is difficult,” Lazaro says. “And I look at it, and I think, how can you live like this, are you animals? And then I think—what must they be leaving behind, running from, if they are willing to live like this?”

Yeah.

XII.

I can’t talk for the rest of the ride home; I kind of lay curled up in the front seat of the car, my head pounding. We pass, on the way, a couple of beautiful houses surrounded by lush trees—and very tall fences.

They belong to the Castros.

It’s cute how Fidel wore that green army uniform all the time, and not Armani suits.

But in the end, I think he had more in common with Battista than with Che Guavara.

“Are you okay?” Lazaro asks me. I shake my head.

“Tell me a beautiful story,” I ask. “I need something beautiful.”

So he tells me how, twenty three years ago, he fell in love with his wife. She came in with an injured leg, to the hospital in which he was doing his residency. “And she wore this incredible tight dress,” he says, “I was with another patient, and my head just snapped, like this!” I laugh. “And I left my patient and followed her. I took the clipboard with her chart and information on it, and I looked at it, and I looked at her, and I said, ‘I’m going to be keeping an eye on you.’ And she said, ‘And who are you?’ And I said, ‘Your future husband.’”

“Love at first sight?” I ask.

“And love twenty three years later,” he says. “She is such a good person, my wife. Her face—she has such a sweet face. And her heart—she reminds me of her grandmother. A good, good person. You know, in Cuba these days, people don’t stay together very long. They get together for a few years, maybe have a child, maybe not—split up. Me, I’m going to stay with my wife.”

I smile at him and reach out to put my hand on his. The capacity to love. That is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

“Is that a good story?” Lazaro asks.

“That is the best story,” I say.

Eros. Philia. Ludus. Pragma. Agape. And—yes–philautia.

Do you see why I fell in love with him?

22-Lazaros Farm Banner

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Thank you thank you thank you to Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farm for sponsoring this post. Please take some time to check out their website, and think about how you get your food–from whom–and why…

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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 making a contribution:

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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”

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