¡Chanchullo!

Below is the third dispatch from our recent holiday in Cuba, written shortly after leaving the relative isolation and ‘comfort’ of our idleness experienced during our stay at a resort in Varadero. (The first two pieces from our trip can be found here and here.)

Spending time with friends and family and in an everyday, typical Cuban home and various neighbourhoods long the way were probably the best elements of our journey.  As we return to our exceedingly quiet and work-filled lives back in Helsinki, all of the various images and sensations this post conjures but which were not captured on film are missed immensely.

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Cuba, particularly compared with life in Finland, is loud and unpredictable. As a place, she is vibrant and somewhat akin to organised chaos to put it exceedingly simply. At moments, I find it completely overwhelming, and following everything happening around me can be nearly impossible, especially since my Spanish is virtually non-existent. In spite of my need for solitude most mornings and at various times throughout the day as well as my obsessive-compulsiveness about well-laid out plans and agendas, the go-with-the-flow reality of life in Cuba exhilarates and thrills me. In a very odd way and more so than most other places I’ve visited, Cuba also refreshes me.

There is a word for this seemingly difficult-to-capture ever-present state in Cuba which is part chaos, part angst, part unpredictability: chanchullo.

Trapped here without access to the internet (since I’m writing this sat in my cousin’s flat in Alamar), I’m desperate to look up various words to add to my expanding Cuban-Spanish lexicon, many words I forget as quickly as I become cognizant of them. This word, however, will stick. It’s perfect for all the sounds and movements around me.

Image a scene in a house filled with constantly busy hands; non-stop chitchat about what to buy, what needs to be fixed, how to organise transport to get from Artemisa to Altahabana, and who needs/wants coffee or pan del Comandante (El Comandante’s bread, which is what most Cubans use to refer to the bread ration received) with or without mantequilla (butter). On the street just outside, the most recent vendor (from the endless stream of them who make an appearance throughout the day) strolls through the street whistling and yelling, ‘¡Panadero!‘, indicating that he has bread (which may or may not be fresh). In a nearby flat, a mother and daughter may also be heard arguing with one another about whatever with an increasing intensity and volume, as all of the neighbours listen.

This sums up chanchullo. The important component is that everyone understands and is aware of all elements at once.

I love this. More so, I love that I’m beginning to understand an increasing amount of the chaos. My family—delighting in my understanding and affection for the term after introducing me to this fabulous word—now revels in labelling me a chanchullera, as far as I can determine a lover or bringer of chaos, which, I must admit, fits to a certain extent. A verb form of chanchullo also exists, which will be one of the first verbs I learn as I begin the journey towards fluency in Cuban-Spanish, something I’m also desperately committed to realising.

I still steal a few moments of solitude each day. But, those moments are fewer and further between, and their form has altered considerably as the weeks have passed. Mostly, in my desire to keep up and pay attention, I need those few moments to catch my breath. Then, I can dive back in to chanchullo and enjoy the beauty that is Cuba and her people.

As a footnote, one of the first things my husband introduced me to upon our return to the land of 24/7-internet access was the song and entire album dedicated to chanchullo from one of my favourite Cuban musicians Ruben Gonzalez. If I’ve learned anything from the Cubans in my life, it’s this: sometimes, it’s just easier to embrace the chanchullo. You may just find that you like it.

Third time’s charm

For those not in ‘the know’, my husband and I spent six glorious weeks on holiday in Cuba, visiting family, finally enjoying a long-overdue bit of rest and relaxation (first time in five years!) and catching up with friends. This was our third journey to the island together. But, it was by far the most amazing experience of the three and perhaps of any other trip I’ve taken. The following represents a few reflections I wrote about a week or so before we left.

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This trip.

Summing it up in a single word is impossible; describing it all seems just as unlikely.

From its length to its particulars, the journey has not altered too significantly from previous visits. As it draws to a close, I’m longing to extend it. Not so much to escape our real lives in Finland longer, but because I am enjoying this trip so, so thoroughly.

A few days ago, we visited Cojímar, the fishing village which served to inspire The Old Man and the Sea, and then visited Hemingway’s villa Finca Vigía in what was once the countryside surrounding Havana. Having recently reread that incredibly epic fishing tale and The Sun Also Rises a few weeks previously, I felt as if I was walking amongst ghosts, both of the fisherman Santiago and Hemingway himself.

Cojímar is quiet, tranquil and carved by the sea, situated not far to the east of Havana. On the day of our visit, the seas were angry in the wake of a cold front the night before. Ocean spray coated us as we walked along the streets nearest the water, with water crashing into the rocky, coral-laden coastline. A tour bus made its way carefully and slowly through incredibly narrow and pothole-filled streets whisking other tourists away with it, while the locals ambled through the village in groups of varying ages. We strolled through the village with no real destination in mind, waving to and chatting with inhabitants, buying various products from the local produce vendors, having a laugh with just about everyone we met and enjoying the calmness and normality of it all. I can see why Hemingway was inspired — Cojímar and most of Cuba inspire me.

The next day, we visited Hemingway’s Cuban estate, Finca Vigía, which has been kept in the same state in which he left it more than 50 years ago. We (my husband, our three cousins with whom we spent the day and I) flagged down an almendrón, one of the old 1940 and 1950-era American cars which have carted Cubans to and fro for decades now and which everyone associates with contemporary Cuba. Our driver, Ernesto, ended up being another element of surprise and delight, one of many from this trip.

As we made our way to Hemingway’s home, one of the overwhelming realities hit us head-on. Much of the area surrounding his estate sprang up long after he left the island for the last time. Now nestled within a poorer barrio, houses are clustered close together and most appear barely finished, or rarely tended or repaired. Extreme poverty prevails in this part of Havana, and crumbling structures represent the norm. Most of the houses we passed, which were clearly inhabited, would probably blow away in even the weakest of storms. Amongst this, Hemingway’s house and the surrounding estate appear as if an oasis or mirage and seem horribly incongruous with just about everything around it. The contrast was stark and somewhat artificial and arbitrary.

The Finca Vigía grounds must have provided solace and serenity — the place is incredible and unbelievably beautiful. Much like Cojímar, it is peaceful and tranquil. Compared to the chaos and noise of Havana and the area in the estate’s immediate vicinity, it seems somewhat unreal. Anyone would be able to write there. With a stunning view of Old Havana in the distance, particularly spectacular from his writing altar nestled in a panoramic tower skimming the treetops, I imagine he must have been completely and happily at ease. Honestly, I’d love nothing better than spending a week or two there myself, let alone a few years or a lifetime. Indeed, many of the photos of him at Finca Vigía show a completely content man.

As we were leaving, a hummingbird fluttered about and landed in its nest just above the steps leading up to his front door. What a perfect parting image to have in mind as we left. At least that’s what I thought at the time.

However, we ended up driving out of the estate the wrong way and again passed a few of the poorest houses along our route and surrounding his estate. The difference between Finca Vigía and the area around it is starker after spending a bit of time there — think of the most opulent luxury and then compare that to something akin to the worst sort of lesser-developed slums. It felt like traveling from a palace to a favela in an instant. Anyway, as we left the gates of his estate and passed along these poorer homes, one woman, who now as then seemed ageless, was walking out onto her front stoop looking as beaten and downtrodden as anyone I’ve ever seen. My husband and I made eye contact with her and waved as we drove by. The transformation of her face took our breath away as she waved back at us. I’ve never seen a face as electrified and brightened so quickly and easily with a smile that dazzled as brilliantly as the clearest of diamonds. I don’t know that I ever will again. But, it touched me beyond words. It still does.

Later, as we left Ernesto, our trusty driver for the day, who also immensely enjoyed Hemingway’s house, we were again touched by the generosity and kindness of individuals who struggle daily to just get by. Despite knowing that we are the ‘wealthy’ foreigners, he demanded that we phone him to drive us to the airport when we leave Cuba to return to Finland. It wasn’t so much that he wanted the 30 or so CUCs (roughly US$30) he’d make from the fare, a sum of money that most Cubans struggle to make each month. In fact, he said he’d refuse payment of any kind from us. He just wanted to drive us for our last ride before returning to the frozen North.

It’s experiences like these that provide a different flavour to our journey this time. It’s not so much that we haven’t met lovely people before. We do every time we visit Cuba. It’s just that this trip has been somewhat less filtered. Whilst we have done touristy things, we have done them more like Cubans would and experienced them with those who live within that embargoed land every day. We’ve spent less time isolated from the every day Cuba, I guess. And, it is a far, far richer place than I’d ever imagined possible for a place that is desperately poor.

I’m fortunate to have an incredibly kind and witty family with whom we can share these experiences. Not at all surprising I’m sure to anyone who has met and knows my husband. But, kindness and wittiness surround us in the most unlikely places, from the folks we pass and talk to randomly on the streets to the mad almendrón drivers who’ve carted us around.

We can only hope that we return that kindness as effortlessly as it has been given.

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Fevered pitch

A view of a monument to Cuban hero and poet José Martí and Revolution Square at dusk. Havana, Cuba, January 2015

All things change. Just as football (the European / Latin American variety) usurps baseball as the collective national preferred sport amongst Cubans, at one point in the not-so-distant future the Castro brothers’ reign over Cuba will come to an end. What will follow is truly anyone’s guess, and largely depends on who takes over as much as US policy at the time. But, you can feel the impending shift and anticipation just about everywhere in today’s Cuba.

Our most recent trip to that most enigmatic island nation coincided with a seismic shift in the relationship between my country and my husband’s — about damn time, too. Alongside the shifting relations and perhaps more widely heralded in Cuba, this news accompanied the release of the notorious Cuban Five. Yet, that most enduring figure of communism in Cuba, so hated by most American presidents over the past 50 years—known affectionately (or not) as Fidel or El Comandante to Cubans—has remained silent.

No editorials. No public appearances. No statements released. At all.

For a guy known to give passionate speeches lasting more than three or four hours in full military fatigues at the height of the sweltering, balmy, sauna-like summer sun and heat of Cuba, this defies belief.

His silence has inevitably lead to widespread speculation and a vast array of rumours about his death, some stemming out of hope, some simply voicing questions regarding how he can possibly remain silent for so long about something so hugely important for his country, let alone the Cuban Five’s release, something he personally promised to accomplish.

But, whispers of Fidel’s (imminent) death predated the biggest news story of late last year. He has not been seen in public for more than a year, something somewhat unprecedented for a man who featured prominently almost daily in the news and public eye at one time. A year ago during that rare pubic appearance, he looked frail and rather, well, old.

Alongside this bit of trivia on the Fidel Watch Parade and perhaps a bit more alarming comes the revelation that his once prolific musings published in Cuba’s most-read newspaper have also been lacking. His last article published in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Revolution, appearing in print on 13 October 2014, predating the biggest news regarding US-Cuban relations perhaps since the Bay of Pigs.

Any sane, logically thinking person would raise a few eyebrows given these observations, let alone ask a few questions regarding where Fidel is at the moment.

My first experience understanding the absurdity of Cuban state news came when announcements ran across the bottom of the TV screen that Maradona (the infamous Hand of God Argentine football player) received a letter from his friend Fidel, in which Fidel declared that he is ‘indeed still alive’. A letter? Really? To a football player with somewhat questionable ethics? M’okay. (Let’s ignore for the moment that this was typed and most likely signed with an auto-pen, and, more importantly, made no mention at all of recent events.) It wasn’t just that news of receipt of this letter was a headline, top-of-the-news programme item. That the tagline referred to dispelling the rumours of Fidel’s death left all of us witnessing it in bewildered hysterics. (By all of us, I mean my husband and his family, with whom we were visiting when the news broke.)

To further fuel speculation and the ever-expanding rumour mill, the next day, another top news story declared that Fidel’s nephew said, ‘Fidel is alive and healthy’. This particular item doesn’t appear to have made international press. Little wonder why.

Rather than quiet the whispers, talk became much louder and more frequent as news of Fidel’s letter to Maradona spread and his nephew’s statement left most laughing (and questioning) harder still.

Things do change and Fidel’s lengthy absence from Cuba’s public eye indicate something. Just what remains to be seen. The last time such speculation reached this fevered of a pitch, Fidel stepped down as president and his younger brother Raúl took on the role, another event which seemed exceptionally unlikely just weeks before it actually happened.

Since our last visit to Cuba ending in early 2010, things have changed considerably in some ways. Private traders and small businesses have sprung up everywhere. [This statement requires a very large asterisk, and deserves a post all on its own. The Cuban government published a very, very lengthy list of what types of businesses private, self-employed individuals are allowed to engage in. Almost no profession that requires advanced training (think doctors, engineers, computer programmers and the like), made this list.] Much restoration to Habana Vieja has transformed sections of the oldest parts of the city, a mammoth task funded largely by foreign development aid budgets. But, there is still much work to be done.

For all the good the Castro brothers and the 26th of July Movement accomplished in equalising opportunities for education and access to healthcare for all, the currently poor living conditions and low wages amongst just about everyone in the country leave much to be desired. Yes, goods and services are largely cheap. Yes, every citizen theoretically is given ‘access’ to basic living goods vis-à-vis the ration cards which everyone receives in Cuba and which includes things like coffee, sugar, bread, cooking oil, etc., but doesn’t provide enough to live on.

Wages, however, remain exceptionally abysmal (~US$15-25 / month). If goods and services were even slightly more expensive, no one except those earning supplemental income from the wide array of ‘grey’ or semi-black market-like activities would be able to afford them. Buildings are still crumbling whilst their inhabitants watch from within, and roads are so scarred by potholes that they often resemble obstacle courses rather than routes from Point A to Point B and may require extensive refurbishment to suspension systems if taken on at speeds to high. Trash is seldom picked up from bins in the poorest neighbourhoods, left to overflow onto the surrounding streets and picked up only partially after strewn about and becoming too unwieldy.  One friend lamented this reality in his own neighbourhood, explaining that the trash is only removed after it becomes so plentiful that it takes a backhoe to pick up and then destroys any bit of grass that hasn’t already been spoiled.

So, what comes next?

Raúl, in his most recent re-election to a five-year term as President, declared that he would step aside in 2018. That is soon. Exceptionally soon when you think about the decades-long rule the Castro brothers have enjoyed. Difficult times likely lie ahead for Cuba and her people. It breaks my heart in all honesty — she and her people have endured so much already. I’d like the transition to be as benign as humanly possible. Yet, I (and my husband especially) fear the path will prove bumpier than ever.

As to Fidel, based on discussions with friends and family in Cuba, some think that he may have already died and no one knows quite how to announce it. More probable and highly plausible is a scenario which has rendered Fidel completely incapacitated in a persistent vegetative state hooked up to life support with no one willing to pull the plug. Consensus suggests that such a cognitive state made it possible for the thawing of relationships between our two countries, and those at the highest political levels in Cuba felt it was better to create a healthy relationship with its largest and nearest foe before news of Fidel’s demise is announced, whether it be his death or something near-death.

Like all good conspiracies, this makes sense. But, Fidel has defied odds on multiple occasions before. Personally, I’m not holding my breath, just as I’m sure others are reluctant to do. Who knows what’s up with or where Fidel is. One thing is for sure though — someone will replace Fidel and Raúl in three years’ time.

Until then, let the rumours continue.