Waiting….

Today, it’s all about waiting.

Waiting to start the 2017 addition of the Helsinki Midnight Run. (My start time is 21.25, Helsinki time.)

Waiting to hear how prepared and where are family and friends in Florida are hunkered down and hopefully safe from Irma’s approach. (Last forecast has her hitting the Florida Keys early Sunday morning local time, Sunday afternoon our time.)

And, waiting to learn the fate of those who are currently riding out Irma’s wrath across Cuba.

I hate waiting. For anything. But, waiting on all of this on the same day has me unbelievably restless and anxious and fidgety. And, the weather here appears to reflect my mood rather well — rainy, windy and generally miserable and unsettled.

There’s absolutely nothing we can do from here for those in Florida and Cuba currently either experiencing what I image to be hollowing winds and lashing rain, deafening and terrifying at once. I can’t help but worry about those we’ve met who live far too close to the water’s edge. I can’t help but think of the waves currently crashing over the Malecón, which will likely grow and intensify as Irma follows Cuba’s coast. And, I hope against hope that not too much is washed away.

And, I can’t help but wonder what will remain tomorrow and the day after.

And, then comes Florida, likely to take on the full force or Irma’s terror.

As I sit or pace or try to work and take my mind off Irma’, the faces of those I love flash before my eyes, whether in Cuba or Florida.

And the word that comes to mind is simply, ‘¡cuidate!’

Be safe.

 

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In the storm’s path

Watching hopelessly from afar as disaster strikes is never easy. When it hits places once called home or where we’ve left pieces of ourselves and our hearts, there’s a certain pain that accompanies the helplessness and sense of loss. It’s akin to grief really.

Harvey affected far too many people, many of whom I love and places I frequented with my beloved grandmother and great aunt as a child. I can’t shake the feeling that a house on Prairie Dr in Eagle Lake, Texas sat sadly inundated with water, thus washing away some of my fondest and happiest of memories with family. The house no longer belongs to us; those memories, however, persist. And, perhaps that’s more important. Still, I love that  house and hope it remains standing and dry.

Miraculously perhaps, all those I love in that part of the world, whilst affected, are not themselves lost. They remain safe. They can and are rebuilding, and that alone comforts me as I sit so very far from them.

Now, scarcely two weeks later, here we are again, watching as yet another monster storm tracks towards two places inhabited by family and friends alike, one of which has become a home I long for and fear for. Either Hurricane Irma will hit South Florida, where many of my very much loved and missed in-laws now reside. Or, she will inundate Cuba, that crazy, singular island inhabited by far too many friends and family I’d rather not see forced to endure yet further mayhem.

I can’t imagine the destruction accompanying a storm like Irma on a place I know intimately now, a place which persists on the darkest days here in Helsinki and carries me through the toughest of times. I cannot remove the images of pieces of the Malecón scattered across the roadway after a strong cold front brings ginormous waves for a day or two. Those waves now seem like mere ripples compared to the storm surge of a category 5 hurricane.

How much of that seawall will remain if a storm like Irma strikes? How many of those charming yet crumbling buildings along the Malecón or other parts of the Cuban coast will remain in her wake?

Like those in her potential path, we wait. Please, be merciful, Irma. You’re fucking with the lives of too many people I love.

Malecon_25 Jan 2017

A crazy gorgeous sunset show, featuring roadway-closing waves along the Malecón. 25 January 2017.

Santy Shack_Jan 2017

A shack next to one of the best restaurants (Restaurante Santy Pescador) we’ve been to in Cuba. Many of the shacks along this waterway seem precarious as Irma approaches. Havana, 28 January 2017

 

 

On ‘For All of Us, One Today’

For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's JourneyFor All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey by Richard Blanco

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A good friend of mine (and poet himself) attended a reading by Richard Blanco and had him sign a copy of this little gem of a story for my husband (a Cuban) and I. It was a lovely surprise to receive in the mail. And, one made all the more meaningful for the various connections and parallels with my own little part of the world.

As an immigrant to another country myself, married to a one-time immigrant to the US, there is so much that resonates with me in this particular journey and story. Blanco’s poems are lovely and meaningful. And, I can see now why he was chosen as the inaugural poet.

Aside from the poems and process of being inaugural poet, the more inspiring bit is his devotion and inspiration to making poetry more relevant and visible in contemporary American life in the wake of his experience. Rather than boasting about being selected as inaugural poet, he desires to do good with that voice gained as a result. And, to give voice to all those whom he influenced and inspired with his poem.

We are a country of immigrants, some newer and some far removed from their ancestors who first stepped foot on North American soil. But, the majority of us are from elsewhere. Embracing that unique mixture and shared reality and history is what makes us truly great to my mind. What a fitting way to acknowledge that diversity and shared history through the selection of Blanco as inaugural poet.

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The Keys to Cuba

I must warn you. This will be a rambling rant of sorts. As with all things Cuba, it’s complicated. And, working through various issues requires a long roundabout detour replete with potholes the size of Texas and an old ’57 Chevy with a Mercedes-Benz engine. [If you’ve never ridden in an Almendrón, none of that will make sense. So bare with me.]

The day I’ve been dreading and awaiting equally has arrived: later today, President Trump will finally announce his policy plans for Cuba. I can’t say that I look forward to this announcement. Waiting, yes. But, certainly not with any sense of hope or excitement.

I don’t know what the ‘best’ policy is towards Cuba. But, I do know that closing off diplomatic relations and taking a hard-line approach hasn’t work and won’t do anything to change the way things are in Cuba today or tomorrow.

I have seen change, however.

My first trip to Cuba in 2008 was eye-opening for a multitude of reasons, primarily because I was finally able to begin assembling my husband’s life into some sort of concrete reality, one only possible after seeing those faraway places and meeting those faces populating his narrative. His life before we met became tangible rather than imagined, if you will. And, I learned so, so much about Cuba and my own country’s role in her history. It is a troubled history, filled with injustice and absurdity and hypocrisy.

I am not a Fidel apologist. Far from it. But, to understand Cuba is to understand the place of Fidel and his merry band of revolutionaries and what they offered all Cubans. Fidel—another complicated personality with a contradictory and odd record—granted many rights to all Cubans which Americans still hope to one day gain. Equitable education to all, resulting in one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America the world. Universal healthcare with an incredible track record for standard of care, resulting in incredibly low infant and maternal mortality rates given the country’s GDP and high life expectancies for both men and women. All of these statistics surpass those in the US by quite some measure. In addition, running water, electricity in every home, a home were granted as rights for all Cubans. These things may seem like idealistic socialist notions, largely because they are. But, prior to the Cuban Revolution that ousted US-backed Batista and installed Fidel, his brother Raúl (now El Presidente until 2018), Che and Camilo and their band of revolutionary heroes at the helm, all of these basic human needs were available only to the rich and powerful.

None of this means that life is perfect in Cuba. Far from it. The obvious human rights issues continue to trouble anyone who gives a toss about humans in general let alone Cubans in particular. But, this is where what we know abroad and what the current situation in Cuba become less clear.

Demonstrations, however insignificant and small, are increasingly visible. Several years ago during one of our visits, a friend went to an event put on by several actors in the underground art scene. A portion of that agenda was openly mocking of Fidel and the Cuban government. Local police raided the event, arresting and carting off those in attendance to the political prison, a place feared by all and in which unspeakable things do occur. Yet, those law enforcement officers most concerned with any voices of opposition at all were completely uninterested in why all these individuals had been hauled in. In fact, their reaction was, ‘Why are you all here? You shouldn’t be!’ Thus, everyone was let go. Anti-Fidel or Anti-Raúl graffiti now pepper walls with ever-increasing frequency in Havana. It’s shocking to see, even for an outsider, particularly alongside the prolific pro-revolution and socialist propaganda throughout Cuba. But, it’s also a sign that Cuba is relaxing its attitude towards dissent however incremental that change may be.

Obviously, Cuba has a long way to go before she will see anything like the sort of resistance-to-Trump marches taking place in the US these days. But, we’ve had several hundred years to get our shit together. Cubans are relatively new to this. And, tentative first steps are still initial steps, however impatient others may be to see ‘real’ change, whatever that means, in Cuba. It isn’t up to us from other lands to set the pace.

More than anything, here’s my take on Cuba: We—the US—need to back off. Lift sanctions. Lift the embargo and allow travel between our countries. Freely and openly. Why? Because it allows our two people to interact and exchange ideas, and learn from one another. We understand and become more compassionate once we talk, and we realise that fundamentally we are just people. What our governments do is one thing; but what we want for ourselves and those we love is fundamentally the same. A roof over a heads and a place to call home. Enough in our cupboard and bank account to sustain us and possibly afford a treat when appropriate. And, essentially, we want the ability to life our lives to the best of our abilities given various other variables.

The embargo hurts Cubans, average Cubans, far more than it hurts the government. Fidel is dead. I won’t say thankfully, but I can’t really shed a tear either. He wasn’t my leader. But, if we’re looking for a win against him, that battle was lost last November. He outlived the embargo and nine US presidential administrations. Raúl is stepping down next year. So, if the embargo remains in place until then, ultimately it will have done nothing to oust the individuals it was intended to usurp. Who wins? No one, other than two leaders we in the US wanted to replace. Who loses? Cubans. Mostly Cubans. The people I love desperately and who would give me their last cup of coffee if such a thing were conceivable. The people who have made me weep with their kindness and sense of equity which should shame anyone from elsewhere obsessed with the latest and shiniest and best model gadget de jour. The people who, despite language and cultural barriers, have welcomed me as a fellow member of their tribe simply because I married a Cuban and came to visit. The people who I love and only want to let live so that they may simply, finally live.

I felt immense hope in Cuba in 2014 when President Obama announced an opening up of diplomatic relations with Cuba. That hope exploded in 2015 with the announcement that President Obama would visit Cuba. Both of those announcements coincided with our visits to my second home, and I was immensely proud of my country and my adopted second home. President Obama’s visit proved to be an incredible moment for all Cubans, many of whom still spoke of it when we were there last Christmas.

November 2016, however, brought grief and uncertainty, first with the election of President Trump in the US and then with the death of Fidel.

Channeling my inner Moulder, I want to believe that things will be alright for Cuba, that enigmatic country I’ve come to love so, so much. But, today, we shall see. I hope for Cubans that reason and rationality prevail. The keys to Cuba’s future should be left to her people. We, as Americans, should allow those keys to turn and perhaps supply a little WD-40 to help loosen long-idle and unused openings. If I’ve learned anything from my 12 years with one particular Cuban, that which binds us is far greater than whatever differences we may possess.

¡Viva Cuba libre!

The Keys to Cuba_Dec 2016

I have no idea what the title of this piece is, but it was incredible. Hundreds of keys arranged in the shape of Cuba. Investigating it are Pedro the Philosopher and Martica the Marvellous. On display at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, December 2016.

I love running

I love running. I do. I’m slow, and I have yet to go very far. But, I love running. And, I suspect it loves me. It’s at least good for me.

Last summer after years of stifling the little black dog that barks and growls and nips at my heels and mind from time to time, I made a series of slight adjustments in my behaviour and routines. I’d sunk so low that breathing hurt. Changes were necessary and long overdue.

One of those changes involved recommitting to running regularly. Whilst various forms of exercise obviously carry benefits to one’s mental and physical health, running has always helped me empty my head, meditate on whatever shit floats around up there. Somewhere during those runs, I let go of the garbage that wears me down, both real and imagined. As August turned into September, and September gave way to October and November, regardless of how busy I was or how much I felt unmotivated to lace up and hit the trails, I did. And, it helped. The fog that had clouded my everyday existence slowly dissipated and lifted entirely, and I felt infinitely better as the weeks and months passed.

Running wasn’t so much simply physically beneficial; it was a mental health necessity.

After injuring myself in January whilst running the Malecón in Havana, I was forced to take four painful months off. My ankle healed by late March / early April, but then the flu season hit and, then, I fell and hurt my knees, running to catch a bus of all things. Fast forward to May — four months after my initial injury — and I’m finally getting back into my routine. A few days shy of four weeks back into my running rituals and again the fog is lifting.

This. This is why I run. And, this is why I love running.

I don’t really care how fast I get through a particular route — each run feels like a battle won and conquered at this point. I don’t have any long-term ambitions other than to continue running three or four times a week for as long as my legs will hold up, and hopefully taking part in the Helsinki Midnight Run come September. I won’t win races, but I will stay in the ultimate race — that crazy race called life. Undoubtedly, depression and my little black dog will come barking again from time to time. Whatever I can do to tame him quickly and without too damage to myself or those who love me most, I’ll do. And, I firmly believe that as long as I continue to add miles to my running logs, those visits from the canine beast that haunts me will become fewer and further apart.

I read a story several years ago about an incredibly young 92-year-old woman finishing a marathon. Harriette Thompson, that same woman, just surpassed another milestone by becoming the oldest woman at 94 to complete a half marathon. I won’t break any records, other than those I set for myself. But, I will keep running. For me.

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The Devil’s Brew

Ask me what I’d rather give up—coffee or breathing—and I’d have to think about it. I suppose it’s a good thing that breathing occurs unconsciously because coffee is always on my mind.

This time of year, my coffee vehicle of choice becomes cold brew, that luscious, dark nectar that provides the quickest of caffeine jolts. With the long-awaited arrival of spring / summer in Helsinki, my precious elixir of life has been sitting and steeping for two days now, all ready to slowly filter (twice) and then sip and savour and enjoy. I’ve been waiting for this process for what seems like years.

Alas, something was slightly amiss when I opened the fridge this morning and reached for the pitcher of black loveliness.

Saatana coffee

To me, cold brew is the elixir of life; to The Cuban, cold brew is ‘The Devil’s brew’. (NB: Saatana in Finnish is Satan.)

My husband, The Joker.

He understands and accepts my love affair with coffee, just as much as he accepts my obsession with office supplies, books, yarn and Roger Federer. But, cold brew evidently is where he draws the line.

To Cubans, coffee is delivered in tiny little cups that resemble those itty bitty china tea sets for children’s make-believe tea parties. Those cups, which are so cute, simply don’t provide more than a sip or a gulp. In other words, it’s a coffee fairytale. The first time someone handed me a ‘cup’ of coffee in Cuba, I thought they were joking. ‘Where’s the rest of it?’, I asked The Cuban. He quickly explained that Cubans drink tiny cups throughout the day rather than opting for my giant bowl with a handle vessel. [NB: I now know to ask for a double every single time I ask for coffee in Cuba. It’s just easier and less disappointing that way.] Shortly thereafter, The Cuban developed the ‘Vanessa drinks coffee this way…’ explanation. I’m fairly certain our friends and family all think I’m certifiable or so wired that my heart will leap out of my chest at any moment. But, I will have my proper dosage of caffeine.

cafe cubano wink

Two cups from a friend’s flat in Havana. Each cup featured a different face. As cute as they are, they’re fall too small for this girl’s coffee.

Despite the Cuban climate being insanely hot and humid especially when compared to Finland, cafe cubano is always served hot and just off the stove, typically with sugar. To my mind, cold brew is perfect for those sultry, sticky days and nights. I am so wrong, it would appear. My husband’s reaction upon introduction to cold brew went something like this:

‘Cold brew?! What is this evilness you are making? You’re ruining the coffee! Have I taught you nothing?!’… as if this girl ever needed lessons on making or drinking coffee.

So, this morning’s little message, one of a million tiny quickly scribbled notes scattered across our 12 years together, once again made me laugh silently and smile adoringly. To my darling husband, cold brew is indeed ‘The Devil’.

He may have embraced a more reasonable measuring cup by which to drink his own coffee. You know, a proper cup of coffee (still far too small for me, but progress is progress). And, I may have accepted the joke that is a Cuban thimble of coffee. But, just as I’ve had to draw the line at a respectable size for that all-important cup of coffee in the morning, The Cuban evidently drew his own line at cold brew.

Something tells me my summer caffeine jolt will now and forever be known as ‘The Devil’s Brew’.

La vida en Cuba no es facil

[NB: We’re still recovering from the transition back to reality and life in Finland. So, uploading and posting various missives and random musings from our most recent misadventures in Cuba is taking more time than I’d like. I began writing the following missive around Christmas day, which is sort of celebrated in Cuba, albeit with a healthy dose of kitsch and relatively little reference to the birth of Christ or obscene gift-giving commonplace in the US and other countries. I’ve revised and reworked this missive based on our experiences during the weeks that followed. Enjoy, and thanks for reading!] 

Our trips here are nothing if not idyllic. Primarily we use them as an escape to sunshine and warmth, generated both by the sun itself as well as from the Cubans we know and meet during each visit. Yet, as idyllic it is for us, we cannot ignore the facts of daily life in Cuba lived by everyone we know and love.

When President Obama announced a year ago that the relationship between the United States and Cuba would open up and improve, he used the phraseno es facil, which delighted and humoured Cubans in equal measure. A phrase I now understand and hear dozens of times a day, it captures (perhaps historically) life in Cuba. Quite simply, it translates to ‘it is not easy’.

Indeed.

The Cuban and I are fully cognisant that, as temporary visitors, we arrive in Cuba possessing both an end date and the precious documents we need to leave (e.g., passport, exit visa, ticket, residence permits elsewhere, etc.). These documents are perhaps more meaningful and precious to The Cuban. But, undoubtedly, this makes any inconvenience we experience a bit more palatable and somehow less annoying.

As idyllic as Cuba proves to us, it is not an easy place to live. To the casual tourist staying in one of the posh five-star hotels on offer, many of the difficulties faced by the average Cuban every single day remain deeply hidden. As I write this 11 days into our seven-week stay, this is what we’ve experienced in our family’s flat in Alamar, a rather poor, working-class neighbourhood to the east of Havana: power cuts = 2 (one each at night and during the day, lasting less than an hour each time); number of days without water = 4+, albeit not consecutively. (As our time in Cuba progressed, the number of days our relatives survived without water in the flat increased rather alarmingly. It almost seemed more normal to be without water than to have it.)

This last dose of reality is rather difficult to grasp given our experiences in Finland, and a royal pain in the ass. Quite literally. But, it’s evidently become a regular occurrence for our relatives over the past year.

Like most of the rest of the world, the effects of climate change are hitting Cuba. This past year, temperatures soared, reaching highs of 38C in Havana, mercury readings previously never experienced in the capital city and more common for the eastern end of the island. With 100% humidity and precious little relief from the summer sun and heat, newsmen and women warned habaneros to drink plenty of water and stay out of the afternoon sun. Simultaneously, the rainy season brought drought conditions and precious little relief. Not exactly a great combination for a country with somewhat limited resources as it is. Even during our visit this year, it’s been hot and humid, much warmer than previous years.

Since the warmest months in Cuba, however, our cousins in Alamar have experienced water cuts at least once a week. Some days, the water is off for a few hours before returning, which we’ve experienced. On others, it remains off the entire day only returning the next morning. We’ve also experienced this. And, unlike those who live here permanently, we fled to another friend’s flat. It isn’t their entire neighbourhood; just their building. But, living elsewhere, where water flows consistently and cleanly, you forget what it’s like to go without. (Yes, we were missing Finland for a change.)

Most if not all Cubans are accustomed to water cuts, and well-prepared for them. Sadly, they are not rare, and nothing new. It’s more akin to life as it’s always been in Cuba. My father-in-law’s house in Altahabana, another suburb of Havana, features a rather sophisticated system to work around such realities. A motorised tank sits on top of his roof, which is kept constantly full and ready to take over when the city / neighbourhood water supply is cut. His sister’s house in Artemisa, a farming community about 90 miles to the west of Havana, also features such a system. Back in Alamar, our cousins have a large plastic barrel on one balcony just off the kitchen which they replenish after such water cuts. They also collect more water in various empty bottles ‘just in case’. Buckets help move water from the barrel to the bathroom or kitchen or wherever. A sufficient supply for flushing toilets and washing hands and for a splash bath is kept at the ready when needed for the two permanent occupants of the flat. But, that supply probably wouldn’t last more than a day given the 6 people currently living here.

As you can imagine, when the water is on, all of the laundry is done, everyone showers (and rapidly in case the water is cut once you’re all soaped up), and a frenzy of cleaning of all sorts ensues. Not just in our flat, but in all of the flats in that particular building. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief when a tap is tested for water first thing in the morning and the water flows freely.

At another friend’s flat, one which is in a better neighbourhood, water cuts happen as well. For example, The Cuban relayed a rather frustrating time when he lived in that same building before leaving Cuba. At one point, they went days without water. At the time, he lived on the top floor of the building. He would lug buckets and buckets of water up the stairs after walking down to a water spigot near the building. Given the heat and humidity of December we experienced this year, I cannot imagine that chore in the heat of the Cuban summer.

Aside from these cuts, however, there are many other daily nuisances for us which Cubans power through. All of the households we’ve been to thus far feature a large cooking pot on the stove covered in calcium deposits. Despite the varied interiors of these homes, each of these pots looks exactly the same. And, each morning and night, the pot is filled with tap water and then boiled to remove all impurities. (We tend to buy bottled water, but the habit amongst our friends and family run deep.) Depending upon the household, the boiled water may or may not be filtered or further purified with iodine tablets — that, as far as I can tell, depends on the wishes of the occupants. I find myself missing Helsinki tap water a little more each day.

Another facet of Cuban life we know well and tourists never see is the reality of showers in Cuban’s homes. Faucets outside the various hotels that cater to us foreigners rarely feature more than a single on/off tap. There’s no need for a hot or cold water tap—there is only one temperature for all water. But, those who can afford it invest in a hot water heater for use in the shower. I’ve only seen two types thus far, with the simpler one costing about CUC100 (~€100). Yet, this contraption always instills a very real fear of electrocution in me. Indeed, most times when flipping the on-switch, I feel a slight jolt. Among those without the resources to buy a simple hot water heater (and there are many), cold showers reign supreme.

As we forego our standard extended stay at a resort on the beach and choose to live amongst and as Cubans, that phrase — no es facil — rings true. Difficult, absolutely. And, beautifully complicated, exhausting and exasperating for those who live it every day.

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