A different pace

NB: In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be uploading and posting various missives and random musings from our most recent misadventures in Cuba. Two previous posts [here and here] made to this little blog in late December and early January were both posted from Cuba. The following was written sometime during our first week in Havana, so sometime around 17 December 2015. Enjoy, and thanks for reading! 

Life in Cuba slows way, way down for me. Despite being in the capitol city, the day-to-day pace is completely different. I don’t mind this at all.

I’ve noticed on previous trips here that each day comes with its own particular goal. Monday, our first full day in Cuba during this year’s escape to the sun, focused on moving from one relative’s house to another’s. Mind, we hadn’t unpacked (we rarely do in Cuba), and we weren’t going particularly far (perhaps a 30-minute car ride from point A to point B). But, still, the process can be tedious and patience is necessary. Yesterday, we started off with two objectives — convert € to CUC (Cuban Universal Currency, one of two currencies accepted in Cuba) and move kitties from one relative’s house to another’s flat. Again, neither objective may appear particularly tedious or difficult. However, given cat carriers are not readily available and you can’t simply hop on a bus, logistics become important. Due to a set of circumstances which are not necessarily important or entirely clear to me, kitty transport day is now the objective for today.

Yesterday, we successfully exchanged money and did some grocery shopping. That’s a day well-spent and productive, even considered rather successful despite not finding everything on our shopping list. [NB: We did get the kitties moved eventually on this particular day, although we arrived home a bit later than I thought we would and it was anything but a smooth process.]

It’s a bit of a shock to go from a to-do list two- or three-pages long to a list that consists of two items. Still, that is where we are. Think small. Think realistically.

Shortly before we left Helsinki, a friend posted an article about the disease of being ‘busy‘. It resonated with me, primarily because I am a self-described workaholic. Anyone who knows me well knows when I work, I work and do little else. I enjoy my work, especially over the last several years, and strive to do my best at all times. However, during various moments in the past, I’ve pushed myself to extreme limits, at times working at an inhumane pace. During the view times in my life when I’ve been unemployed, I’ve lamented that I’d rather be busy than bored. Being idle often leaves me so bloody bored and depressed I’m hunting for things to do to fill the time. As a consequence, when given the opportunity and particularly now that I have a job I absolutely love, I often dive into work head-first and scarcely look up. I’m not sure if that’s a disease or just my personality. But, it does carry consequences from time to time.

In Cuba, though, life slows down for me. Way, way down. And, I regain that ability to enjoy the simple pleasures and beauty of simplicity. Life here is at once simpler and yet more complicated. As I struggle to improve my Spanish and what I now call ‘Cubañol’ and focus on understanding a bit more about how things work in this country in flux, time and the significance we attach to it in Finland become less important. That idleness I despise elsewhere is welcome in Cuba, and the seeming simplicity of life’s goals each day provide an odd and unexpected reprieve.

Daily life isn’t necessarily easier in Cuba, particularly not for Cubans, nor is it free of the stress or busy-ness for those not on holiday. It’s simply different.

For instance, finding coffee for our day-to-day consumption requires multiple trips to supermarkets and shops. This isn’t to say that coffee isn’t available in Cuba—it is; we are just picky and want something beyond cafe del Comandante, the ration coffee given to all Cubans that is more chicory than actual coffee and tastes bloody awful. Attachments such as these come at a price, paid primarily through inconvenience and rewarded through persistence. This year, we exhausted all of the supermarkets near our cousin’s flat in Alamar and opted for a trip to a shop in Old Havana to get our brew. In another example, our cousin needed to pay for various utilities or housing fees at the bank. This would normally consist of one trip to the local bank’s branch office. However, several trips were required since the bank’s internal network wasn’t functioning or accessible for several days. Without access to that internal network, there was no way to access her specific records. So, one simple task became more complicated for her. One trip turns into three.

This is life in Cuba. Busy-ness is trumped by persistence or patience. Perhaps the larger lesson Cuba provides me is to Keep it Simple. Persistence and patience are normally rewarded, even if in small seemingly insignificant ways. And, simplicity reigns. It’s a welcome pace, and one I’ll relish whilst I can.

 

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Home again

NB: In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be uploading and posting various missives and random musings from our most recent misadventures in Cuba. The two previous posts made to this little blog in late December and early January were both posted from Cuba, a first for me and exceptionally thrilling in a very odd way. The following was my first piece of writing after we arrived in Havana. I believe I wrote it on 15 December 2015. Enjoy, and thanks for reading! 

I am home.

The two-day trip from Helsinki to Havana provided more than ample time to anticipate and ponder what this fourth journey to that fabulously foreign and familiar island would bring. Excitement. Joy. Trepidation. Fear. Anxiety. Uncontainable happiness. All of these varied emotions swirled uncontrollably, and seemed to intensify as we drew nearer to José Martí International Airport. Somewhere over the Atlantic and mid-way through the nine-hour flight, I was overwhelmed with a sense of returning home.

Writing this on my second morning in Havana, I am bursting with relief and contentment. The pace and rhythm of Cuban life has changed very little in the past 11 months here. Yet, the slight shift in the atmosphere is palpable. There is ‘something’ different. The medians along roadsides seem less untidy. The streets seem less pothole-infested. I feel less like I’m looking through a sepia lens. It’s still the Havana I know and adore. But, it’s different in ways I can’t quite grasp just yet.

Our first example of this shifting reality in today’s Cuba greeted us at the airport. Immigration and passport control in the past have proved daunting. Not because of any issues related to nationality; simply, the process itself fills us with dread and can be a little intimidating. (Previously, each passport control booth was enclosed in this rather odd wooden box, with doors on both sides allowing you in and then out. Two agents would greet you (unsmilingly) as they checked your documents, took a picture of you and then welcomed you into Cuba. On our second trip here in 2009, I went through passport control first per The Cuban’s instructions, only to be immediately approached once on the other side of passport control booth door. We had evidently been flagged for a full search of all of our belongings coming in, a process which took several hours and was quite thorough, and left my husband miffed and feeling less than welcomed to his own home.) This year, it took all of two minutes for both of us to navigate passport control, and the wooden boxes have been replaced by open-air counters looking much more inviting and much less Soviet for lack of a better comparison.

By the time we reached baggage claim, we’d been off the plane for maybe 10 minutes total. In our sleep-deprived jet-lagged states, we looked at one another as if to say, ‘Did we get on the right plane? Are we actually in the right airport?’

The Cuba we know and love to poke fun at then mocked and welcomed us at once. On our first trip here together in 2008, the ceiling in baggage claim was half-exposed, about half of the lights worked throughout the hall, and it was utter chaos trying to get our luggage. My bag didn’t make the connecting flight in Madrid evidently, although it did show up the next day. But, I clearly remember that trip and arrival as chaos. The ‘bags’ fellow passengers were pulling from the carousel included huge plasma tvs and boxes big enough to fit small families.

Baggage claim today is much more polished. Aside from watching two airport officials point in opposite directions when asked upon which carousel our luggage would arrive, baggage claim now appears well-organised and maintained. That is, until luggage begins arriving. The process took ages. One bag would arrive, followed by a lengthy pause. Then another, followed by another lengthy pause. And, so on. We most likely only waited a total of 30 to 40 minutes for our bags. But, that surreal post-flight fog made it seem like infinitely longer, and most of our fellow travellers looked just as perplexed as we felt. Alas, this is Cuba and all you can really do is smile, shake your head, and wait. Nothing happens when now how you expect it to.

Once we had our luggage in hand, off we went through the green channel at customs to find a taxi home. And, home we are.

Having finally slept and as we begin begin to feel a little less airport-weary and more in-tune with the world around us, we’ll begin to really see what’s what in Cuba today. At the moment, though, there is a sense that something is afoot. Last night, we learned that President Obama hopes to travel to Cuba in his last year in office.* That is huge news, and perhaps a stronger indication than all previous announcements that times and relationships between my two homes are indeed changing.

It’s about bloody time.

*NB: The news in Cuba we heard was a bit different. We were told that he announced a definitive visit, although no date was given other than sometime in 2016. The news alone created quite a buzz for several days, perhaps for obvious reasons.

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WiFi ‘cafes’ in Havana

20151230_175159__720pWhen we plan our trips to Cuba, one of the things we both look forward to and dread in equal measure is the inability to instantly and consistently access Google, Reddit and various other groovy interweb sites. From anywhere else in the world (mostly) and thanks to 3G, we’re typically always connected in one way or another. We may miss our wicked fast home network in Helsinki. But, in Cuba, such luxuries (or banalities) are virtually non-existent (pun intended). Our stopover this year in Amsterdam featured great WiFi access both at Schiphol and in the funkiest hotel ever, CitizenM. Yet, no more than two minutes after sitting in our seats on KLM’s Airbus 330 to Havana, we found ourselves already missing Google and 24 / 7 / 365 connections. (Some random song is now stuck in both of our heads and we are desperate to know the words to the song. Ah…the internet.)

Cuba allows us to reset a bit. She also affords us that most needed opportunity to fully escape the rest of the world and recover from a year of hard work in particular. During our first trip here in 2008, I vividly recall visiting the ‘internet cafe’ at our hotel and feeling completely overwhelmed watching emails flood the screen for several minutes as the inbox’s new message counter climbed into the triple digits. That was the last time I hopped online in Cuba.

After suffering through a decade and a half of cold, dark and snowy winters, we’ve said for years that as soon as the internet arrives in Cuba, we’ll gladly work from here for three months in winter and live the remainder of the year in Finland. This may become reality sooner than we’d imagined.

Shortly after our arrival this year, we learned that WiFi hotspots now exist in various parks throughout Havana. This is huge news. As whacky as sitting in a park to access decent connection speeds may sound, it beats no internet at all. Somehow, this also seems not quite as whacky given the Cuban context.

By way of comparison, The Cuban, called to duty shortly after we arrived, needed to send a bit of work to his colleagues in the United States during out first week on holiday. Using a dial-up connection that harkens back to our early days in Russia, he had to send his file (a whopping 1 MB in size) in five parts. It wasn’t until the next day that he learned all five parts landed in the proper inbox on the other side of the connection, and everything had worked out alright. But, had that option not succeeded, we would have made our way to the nearest WiFi hotspot in Havana.

How is this possible? How does it work? And, what does it mean for the country and, most importantly, her citizens?

Roughly five months ago, the country’s only telecommunications provider, state-owned ETECSA, opened up several WiFi hotspots across Havana, which now exist in other cities as well. (During a brief visit to the city of Artemisa, a farming hub to the west of Havana, we discovered this small hamlet also boasts its own WiFi park, something I certainly never imagined possible!) These WiFi (or, as Cubans refer to them, ‘WeeFee’) hotspots are situated in outdoor parks or squares, surrounded by a series of Chinese-made routers and well-lit areas to allow for 24-hour use. Individuals create an account at an ETECSA office, receive a user ID and password to login, and add money to their account. To create an account, they fork over CUC2.00, and then pay an hourly rate to login and use the service, which is another CUC2.00 / hour. As far as we know, how much bandwidth you use is unimportant; it’s all about how much time you spend there.

(For all of you thinking that this is an easy process, please note that ETECSA is perhaps more loathed than Comcast. The process of setting up an account might appear easy. But, it’s not. At all. Our last run-in with ETECSA was at a Cuban internet cafe in 2009, during which we never actually successfully opened a single page in the 30-minutes of online time for which we paid. This year, we borrowed an account from a relative rather than revisit ETECSA. Never mind the headache this would cause as ‘foreigners’.)

Enterprising Cubans have naturally learned how to make accessing the internet at a WiFi park into a business opportunity of their own. If you don’t have your own account, no problem. You simply find someone at one of these WiFi hotspots who will allow you to connect through their connection / device for CUC3.00 / hour. We’ve seen one enterprising young soul provide the connection as well as electricity to fellow surfers. Undoubtedly, the use of an electrical current costs additional moolah. But, at least you don’t have to worry about running out of battery power!

Before stumbling upon one ourselves, friends and family described scores of Cubans congregating in a WiFi park with various connectible gadgets. Laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc. abound. Families crowd around various devices facetiming or skyping with their families and friends abroad. Individuals also set up ‘desks’ and effectively work in the parks. They may not be granted much privacy for intimate conversations, but this seems to bother Cubans very little if at all.

We finally came across a WiFi park rather surprisingly just outside one of our friend’s flats. When we first visited her during this year’s adventure, the park across from her building was lit up like we’d never seen, featuring sparkling new park benches and lovely new artwork throughout, tell-tale signs that something was afoot. Honestly, it was the best looking park I’d seen in Cuba. Rumours circulated that this particular park, situated in Vedado, was slated to become a WiFi hotspot. Yet, no news or announcements were forthcoming. One afternoon, we left her place to sort out a few other details for our trip, only to return a few hours later to find loads of folks on devices of all sorts happily accessing and using the internet. To understand just how significant this was, our friend danced around for the next 30 minutes gleefully singing the WiFi access song. (Really, she was just delighted to access the internet across from her house as well as from one room in her flat.) And, all who visited her flat that evening were equally enthralled with the prospect of accessing the internet from the comfort of her flat.

Over the next several days, we watched the park fill up at all hours with people accessing the WiFi hotspot, cars parking all around the park to use the internet, and various groups congregating along the sidewalk, in the grass, on the curb, and just about anywhere else they could. My favourite character featured a young woman sat on a bench with an umbrella to shade herself as she worked on her laptop.

The internet has come to Cuba. As with most things, the format may be uniquely odd and sensationally Cuban. These are not bad things at all, although they remain far from perfect or ideal. What this means for Cubans remains to be seen. For us, it means we’re a little less likely to fully disconnect whilst here. We’re not sure if that’s good or bad. But, it is certainly a great thing for Cubans. Happy surfing, Cuba, and, welcome to the interwebs!

(Addendum: Whilst attempting to post this, we had a connection time-out and had to relogin after failing to upload a photo of a 200 kb in size.)

Spatial Memory

Note: This is one of multiple pieces I’ve written during our trip to Cuba this year. This is not the first in the series, but it’s one which seems most appropriate and perhaps the most meaningful for me. Thanks to recent changes, which I’ll update y’all on later, the internet has finally (sort of) come to Cuba! Happy New Year from both of us, and I hope you enjoy this particular musing. 

Many places in Cuba conjure up specific memories and moments from our trips here. Mostly, each of these spaces remind me of meeting various people for the first or most recent time, or stolen moments in which these amazing individuals accepted me into their fold in one way or another. I’m hard-pressed to pick a favourite space, since each person and place signifies a significant relationship both to The Cuban and now to me. But, one place in particular makes me weep with longing once we return to Finland.

This particular flat belongs to Miriam, The Cuban’s best friend and sister from another mister. The two of them are so stinking lovely together it’s a sight to behold. They’ve watched their now adult offspring grow up, but well remember the tiny children they once were. In this building. Once neighbours and now best friends, they are family despite distance and years.

Miriam’s flat is an oasis of peace and solitude, as well as a meeting point and at times akin to party central when the full crew descend. On our first trip here, I met Miriam for the first time in a bus station, and then again at the beach one weekend. I immediately loved her. We then later came to visit her over a few evenings with several other of Pablo’s friends before returning to Finland. Laughter, love, warmth and kindness, and music. I may still struggle to keep up with the rapid-fire flow of Cubañol conversation and kidding, but more than anything, it’s clear that Miriam and all who surround her carry more laughter, love, warmth and kindness than most people experience in a lifetime. Perhaps this is why her space in Vedado persists in my memory when we are far, far away.

The room in which I now sit is simple. Polished granite floors in a speckled off-white, dark grey and black pattern. Despite a crack running across the middle of the floor, they shine like no floors we’ve seen in Cuba. Plants line three of the room’s four walls, several of which are my absolute favourite species and would never thrive in Finland. A huge hammock spans the width of the room just to one side of the clothesline and it takes all of my limited willpower to not immediately stretch out and stay there all day long. The room is rather cavernous with it’s four-metre-high ceilings, yet it is anything but cold. This is a room meant for conversing and sharing. Living and loving.

With the windows open throughout the flat, a breeze carries our conversations out, as well as allows others’ bantering to drift in and intermingle with ours.

I love this space. Much as I love most of our friends’ and family’s spaces here, as well as to the people inhabiting them. Each expresses perfectly the individual personalities of those we love. And, to a certain degree, we carry these spatial memories with us when we return to our own. As much as we bring with us on these trips, we inevitably leave with tiny pieces of these homes. Perhaps, it’s simply that we take little pieces of each of these people with us.

Regardless, this. This space. It persists in my memory, and I don’t mind at all.

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I am grateful.

Indeed.

Indeed.

I am grateful. This thought, more than anything at the moment, occupies my mind.

As many things as there are in this world that drive me batty and leave me constantly questioning our humanity, how we as a species got here and how we may ever hope to advance, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that my life is pretty damn good.

Is it perfect? Hell no. But, it is perfect for me.

I’m insanely fortunate to have married the one person on this planet with whom I don’t mind spending 24 / 7 / 365. Good thing, too, because we do spend an inordinate amount of time together given that we both work from home. As odd as it may sound, I’m looking forward to our holiday so we can spend more quality time together without distractions such as email and the 24-hour news cycle.

I know love, both from my families and from friends literally all over this crazy, big world, even if I don’t see many of the people I love as often as I’d like.

And, I have a job I absolutely love, amongst colleagues who are incredibly talented and in the midst of students who challenge me to do better and work harder, a challenge I gladly accept. It isn’t a particularly high prestige job, it doesn’t involve travel to exotic locations any longer and it doesn’t break the bank, but I am grateful every day to have found this job at this time in my life. There are no ‘bad’ days at the office; but, even the less than perfect days leave me smiling.

More than these things, I know peace and comfort and security, which are merely reflections of where and to whom I was born rather than any sort of accomplishment on my part. These are not small, insignificant things although they are intangible. I see them as extreme privileges many only dream of attaining, and I am grateful.

I also know that I drive many around me nuts, bitching about what’s wrong in and with this world, never mind my persistent moaning about the endless Finnish winter. I may not be able to do much about the weather or climate much to my chagrin, but, as naïve as it may be, I’d like everyone to enjoy the fortunes I’ve been afforded and enjoyed merely as consequence of my nationality if not heritage.

I’d like the poor to know the joy of guilty pleasures without sacrificing food or heat or a place to rest. I’d like those who live in conflict zones to find themselves unable to sleep from the safe silence that envelops them as they lay down at night. I’d like the persecuted to be surrounded in a sea of acceptance and love. And, I’d like those left hopeless to find themselves blinded by possibility and opportunity.

I am grateful. And, I want a better world for all. I don’t see these statements as inherently contradictory. I see them as complimentary and representing possibilities to give something back for all that I have been granted.

‘Please, be kind’.

As with most of the world, Paris has been on my mind. Not merely because of the tragic and senseless loss of life and, along with it, our collective loss of naïvety and innocence (once again). But, mostly because of our indefatigable ability to dichotomise one another.

Us versus them. Black versus white. West versus East. Developed versus undeveloped. Peace versus war. Trust versus suspicion. Right versus  wrong. Christian versus Muslim. Ad nauseum.

What happened in Paris obviously horrified me, just as it did everyone else. But, what I found particularly difficult to process was not the events themselves, but our collective inability to find any sort of empathy or understanding of how our words affect one another. The way in which we talked about terrorism and those who seek to terrorise left me nauseous. The words we chose and to whom we directed them horrified me more in some ways.

I watched as individuals I trusted and respected very quickly spewed the worst sort of hate speech and condemned entire groups of individuals, casting the term ‘them’ cavalierly, thus rendering specific groups entirely unworthy of trust or dignity. Unworthy of a chance. Or unworthy of a better life.

I watched and read how we should divide ourselves further, even if we fundamentally agree with one another. ‘Let’s put larger, stronger fences whilst bombing others into the last millennium.’ Facts and statistics didn’t matter much. Only that there was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and these were completely categorical with no shades of grey nor replete with ambiguity.

Many posts and rants left me thinking, ‘the terrorists have won’. This is somehow more troubling than the events themselves. And, it’s this that has left me sleepless on more than one night.

I don’t have any answers regarding how we collectively address terrorism or prevent / foil another 9/11 or Paris or Beirut or how to make those ideological differences less divisive. But, I do know that hating someone simply because they are different from me isn’t going to help me feel safer. It’s certainly not going to do much to make my world safer. Partitioning my world to include only those who are right whilst excluding those who are wrong merely begs the question: who defines who’s right and who’s wrong? If our impulse is to cast doubt on those different to us, or assume that all members of group X are to blame for the actions of a few or are all somehow inferior to group [insert demographic here], we are doomed.

There will be no solutions and there will be no safety nor security. And, there will be many, many more Parises in the years to come. Hating is easy; acceptance and understanding are hard, but necessary.

This past summer, at the conclusion of a five-show run of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, drummer Mickey Hart implored us all to ‘please, be kind‘. Challenge accepted, Mickey. Those words have played over and over and over in my mind since July, and ever more increasingly in the wake of Paris.

‘Kill them with kindness’ shall remain my mantra and modus operandi, although I certainly hope no one dies. It costs nothing and may prove invaluable. Rather than engage in hatred or vehement disagreement, I shall choose respect and quiet contemplation. It may not make much difference. But, it beats the alternative. And, in my mind and heart, love will always conquer hatred.

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*NB: This post was inspired by a discussion with a close friend who lives far-too-far away. Thanks, Karen! x

Bringing a different perspective into focus

Lately, perhaps because of the darkness that descends upon Helsinki at this time of year or merely a reflection of the state of the world we inhabit and a year filled with equal measures of disappointments and delightful surprises, processing events and putting them into context has proved somewhat difficult. Perpetual whiplash and roller coasters could not be more fitting metaphors for my life — I have loved this past year and found it infuriatingly disappointing for entirely different reasons. Finding and holding on to bits of loveliness and hope remain elusive at best and altogether impossible at moments, yet there is an element of bipolarity given the innumerable moments of unbelievable joy I’ve experienced as well. It’s maddening.

My husband came up with an idea for a photography project, which I not only love but it piqued my interest not simply because of the characters he chose (more on that later). But, his idea got me thinking about ways to highlight the goodness that may remain hidden on the darkest of days. And, how I might find an alternative perspective allowing me to process the craziness and chaos that permeates life, or to at least ignore that craziness and enjoy the chaos just a little a bit.

Yaima the Llama

Yaima the Llama

I give you The Adventures of Yaima the Llama.

I honestly have no idea where this little project will go, or what sort of revelations if any it may provide. To be perfectly frank, the project itself remains a bit nebulous and free form to me still. (I suppose there’s nothing particularly wrong with organic planning, eh?) But, I do hope it allows me a bit of a different, alternative perspective on the world around me.

So, what is this project? Well, Yaima (pronounced ‘Yai-EE-mah’) is now my constant companion (along with a camera), tucked safely in one or another bag. Whenever I see something which intrigues me, delights me or perplexes me, she comes out, a picture is taken, and I’m reminded to stop and reflect.

I suppose I’m thinking of this project as an extension or addition to the idea behind Proekt 365.  I’m hoping that Yaima allows me to shift ever-so-slightly how I observe and interact with the world around me, places which inspire me and the individuals who ground me in one way or another. Ultimately, I’m hoping that I may focus more on what’s right rather than what’s wrong. But, also, I’m really hoping that Yaima serves as a reminder to slow down and take time out to truly enjoy those joyous occasions and be IN them more completely.

This is an incredibly perplexing world, particularly given recent and on-going events. Regardless of those tragedies which play out on the world’s stage, there are an infinite number of seemingly insignificant yet unimaginably lovely moments. So, here’s to focusing on those more. Onward…