The impossibility of the hummingbird

I love hummingbirds.

Impossibly small and yet so completely resilient and strong. The first time I caught a glimpse of one flying about and feeding I was mesmerized and enraptured. That child-like delight has never left me upon seeing one of these tiny creatures. My heart always skips a beat when I stumble across a hummingbird seemingly floating in air on its silent and speedy little wings.

Each time we visit Cuba, the best days feature a hummingbird sighting. Spending sufficient time in one spot, we come to know their schedules. One of our best days ever we walked out the front door to find three flitting about and feeding upon the same bush.

This past trip, our hosts’ yard featured multiple hummingbirds, although I was hard-pressed to distinguish between the individual beauties. Witnessing a hummingbird fight for the first time left me utterly speechless and rather more in awe of these fierce, tiny little warriors.

Pancho, as our hosts named him, visited the same flowers each afternoon around 15.00. One day, I was fortunate to have caught these images. As I sat near this particular bush and tried to not move despite my excitement, I heard the whirring of air and wings colliding. Perhaps even more than seeing a hummingbird, being near enough to hear one’s wings was somehow perfect. But, watching one sit idly on a nearby branch in between feeds was even more impressive. I somehow never imaged a hummingbird sitting still.

My patience was rewarded that afternoon. I give you Pancho, the Cuban Emerald.

Pancho - in flight (2)Pancho feeding

Until then…

We are nearly off. And, I cannot tell you just how much we both desperately need a nice long, luxurious kip for about a week.

I’m not sure when I’ll post here again — it may be later this week or sometime next year. As we’ve prepared for our annual escape to the sun and the land in which we unplug and unwind, I’ve had a bit of time to also reflect upon this past year.

What. A. Year. I can’t say that I’ll really miss it.

Rather than look back, though, I’m looking forward. 2017 has proved more than a little challenging, and more than infuriatingly frustrating at times. But, it’s also been a whiplash-inducing mixed bag. My year has been stellar professionally (if not utterly exhausting) and personally rewarding. Yet, 2017 was horribly marred by politics and current events. Unfortunately, those politics inevitably bleed into my own life, partially given my political junkie tendencies, but also because of the reality in which I reside as an American expat (member of the diaspora?) married to a Cuban living in Europe.

I have no idea what 2018 will bring. But, I’m ready. All I really know is that I can continue to work on this corner — this tiny seemingly insignificant part of the world I inhabit. I can do my best to ensure that it is fair. That it is compassionate. That it is just. And, I can work towards increasing the ripples of that world ever-outward, hopefully extending that fairness, compassion and justice if not by my own deeds at least by my own example.

So, dear reader,until we, meet again in either a few days, weeks or two months’ time, here is my wish for you:

May your holiday season be filled with boundless joy and delight, and may the New Year bring you peace, prosperity and better days. 

 

2017-2018

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.

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’.

Chicken!

Cuban idioms

No comas de lo que pica el pollo [Don’t eat what chickens peck]

Al cantío de un gallo [next to the rooster crowing or not that far away]

Otro gallo cantaría [if true, another rooster would sing]

A gallina vieja dale candela [give fire to an old chicken or give it time and it’ll work

Gallina vieja da buen caldo [an old chicken yields good broth or older women are better than young chicks]

I still don’t understand why. But, chickens feature prominently in Cuban life. Even within the heart of Havana, you’ll either hear a distant rooster, often confused, crowing at any time other than dawn or see a few hens pecking away for whatever crumbs they can find. It never fails when we’re fresh off the trans-Atlantic flight and losing our battles with jet lag and surrealism, some crazy rooster will signal morning in the dead of night. Cuban chickens — they are entirely odd to me. And, yet, I love them.

During our last trip, we sat at a cafe in the old botanical gardens in Varadero, which supposedly featured ‘the best piña coladas in Cuba’ [they were not; and anything that is ‘the best’ is typically crap]. As we sat sipping our overly boozed-up cocktails, made somewhat more palatable because of the amount of rum in them, an older gentleman sat down at a nearby table. Out of nowhere, a herd of chickens flocked to this man. He had brought the magical bag of stale bread and the chickens could not have been happier.

Amongst these happy hens, the cockiest rooster I’ve ever seen strut about and occasionally pecked up the treats on offer ignored by his brood of hens. This rooster though — he was a thing of beauty, almost too gorgeous to be hidden behind walls and at the end of a bit of a winding driveway away from the rest of the peninsula. As long as the bread lasted, he was all about the puffing up of his chest and strutting his stuff for an audience of six.

But, chickens. What is it about chickens in particular that they feature so prominently in Cuban life? For every idiom my husband attempts to translate for me, there is some relation to a rooster or old hen or chick in some way shape or form. For whatever situation we are discussing, be it political, social or economic, chickens provide the answer or punchline. The early bird may get the worm, but the chicken spotted that worm long ago and decided it was too skinny. Or something like that. [NB: This is not a Cuban idiom to my knowledge, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.]

Perhaps if all chickens were this lovely, I’d get it. But, many of the chickens scratching about in Cuba look rather…unappetising. But, this guy… Cock-a-doodle-doo, indeed.

Cock-a-doodle-doo 2

Rowdy rooster at a cafe in Varadero, December 2016

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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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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