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.
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.