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’.


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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Water, water everywhere; not a drop to drink or use…

Not long ago, I was musing about how fortunate and privileged we are in our comfortable life here in the uber-developed North. Today, I’m realising just how incredibly privileged we are and how a mere 8-hour disruption is, well, disruptive to our normal routine and cushioned life.

First-world fortunate, indeed.

The story:

A few months ago, some maintenance men with clipboards and tape measures traipsed through our flat looking at the pipes in our kitchen and bathroom to determine how sound they were. They went to each and every flat in the building and we knew they would be carrying out this inspection well in advance. After the inspection, the decision was taken to replace the building’s entire plumbing and drainage system. Thus, the next few months will see loads of renovations taking place throughout our normally quiet and convenient life. All of the pipes and plumbing fixtures in our four-story, four-entrance apartment block will be replaced with shiny new pipes and fixtures. It all appears to be very well organised and orchestrated. And, we are given updates through our mail slots of impending disruptions and what to expect with plenty of notice.

Rather impressive, really.

The problem is that occasionally over the next several months, we will have no water nor drainage in our flat. Given that both my husband and I work from home, logistically, this is not quite ideal. A bloody nuisance when you think about all the various ‘functions’ which require drainage or running water.

Today — the first of those several days  — I’m truly astounded by how many tasks and ‘things’ require water and/or drains. And, I am so, so, so happy that it is for only 8 hours.

This also has me thinking about those who have no running water. And, those who have no drainage systems or modern plumbing.

UNICEF’s US-based website lists the following in relation to world wide stats on safe water and sanitation:

Water is life. Yet 768 million people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water, and 2.5 billion people live without proper sanitation. When water is unsafe and sanitation non-existent, water can kill.

Across the globe, nearly 4,000 children die each day from unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation facilities.

That’s quite staggering to me. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) lists diarrhoea as the leading cause of illness and death. Furthermore, 88% of diarrhoeal deaths are due to inadequate access to sanitation facilities, together with the inadequate availability of water for hygiene and unsafe drinking water.

Water is life, indeed.

To understand the importance of having clean and safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and just how much water we use along with how easily available it is to us in the developed North, take a day to make note of your daily water use. It’s eye-opening to say the least.

All the various, seemingly meaningless tasks which at some point require running (or at least clean) water and functioning drains add up and add up quickly.

We stocked up on bottles and buckets of water yesterday evening and also put out a few refuse buckets for the kitchen and bathroom sinks, mostly to remind us not to use the drains. Despite having spent a fair amount of time either traveling in places where water was a luxury or inconsistently available, numerous camping expeditions when it was all about humping water in and out in my backpack, and the completely unpredictable water cut-offs in Moscow and on holiday in Cuba, I’m still struggling with this inconvenience. Because, honestly, for us in our relatively posh life in Finland, this 8-hour disruption is a mere inconvenience rather than a daily fact of life.

And, I am extremely grateful!

UN Water estimates that each person—each individual human living on this giant rock racing through the universe—needs 20-50 litres of water each day to meet their basic needs for drinking cooking, and cleaning. Here in Finland, particularly in Helsinki, those 20-50 litres can be accessed quite easily by opening up any number of water taps in our flat.

From brushing our teeth, to using the toilet, washing our hands, making coffee, rinsing our coffee cups or spoons to get the bits of grounds off of them, drinking water because we’re simply thirsty, to showering, and all of the various things we do throughout the day which mean opening up the water tap, water most definitely is life.

And, I’m looking forward to opening up those lovely, luscious water taps at 16.00 (or in an hour and 40 minutes).

Image from Save the Children Australia

Image from Save the Children Australia