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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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.)