Top ten – week two

By Claire Williams, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

We’re now about to start our third week in Cuba. I can’t believe how quickly my experience here is passing by – I want to savor every moment while I can! This blog entry might not be as scintillating as planned because this week, our group was struck by a mystery ailment that committed all of us except about three to bed for at least a day or two. While three of our party had to visit the hospital, thankfully, everyone is feeling much better now! With that in mind, here are the top ten things I learned in Cuba this week, hopefully chosen to be both educational and amusing:

  1. Writing top ten lists is infinitely less appealing when you’re busy dragging your aching body to the bathroom to throw up again. There will never be a time where you miss more the comfort foods and people of home.
  2. There is a genre called “free-hop.” There is also a genre called “flamenco-hop.” I learned about these new currents in music when we attended an underground hip-hop concert with our program director Adrian. The show took place outside the main city and the artists performed in a small garage while the rest of us gathered in the street, dancing along, occasionally scattering for a passing car or motorbike. The lyrics were synced with photographs and illustrations shone onto the sheet that served as a backdrop. It was an amazing experience and definitely not something that Cuban tourists usually get to appreciate – I’m so glad we were able to go! The Cuban artistic community is both incredibly diverse and incredibly rich – we’ve seen so many different talents and this was a new and exciting addition.
  3. A “cerrajero” is a locksmith. Like many Cuban businesses, he is not open on Sundays. This is inconvenient when your bedroom door decides to stop accepting your key. It is helpful, therefore, that your landlady seems to be quite skilled at lock picking and can jimmy the door open. She is also handy at elevator mechanics, and can open the door into the shaft to look for the car. This is not recommended to amateur gringas, but does help you ascertain if the primary elevator has stopped again and you’ll be taking thirteen flights of stairs. Stairs are the other option, of course, because when one elevator stops working, the other follows suit, like a pair of obstinate twins.
  4. Class differences do exist in Cuba. They are not as glaring as in the United States, but you can see them. They are differences like who showers with a bucket versus who has running water, whose plumbing flushes and whose has to be flushed by pouring water in, who can go out and have a drink at a club which charges admission in C.U.C. and who sits on their steps with a beer. It’s interesting to start picking up on these differences and the emerging new Cuban middle class, which can afford some of the luxuries formerly reserved for tourists.
  5. Havana was actually a British colony for eleven months after the Battle of Havana, between 1762 and 1763. It was returned to Spain in the Treaty of Paris in exchange for Florida and Minorca.
  6. It is interesting how language shapes the way we think of historical events and their aftereffects. Here in Cuba, the Civil War is literally called “The War of the Secession.” The American Revolution is called “The War of the Thirteen Colonies,” though the French and Haitian revolutions are called revolutions. I wonder what these differences in terms mean for attitudes towards these historical events on both sides.
  7. The camera obscura is unbelievably cool. For only two C.U.C., it inverts the city of Havana on a basin and you can see everything – churches, autos jostling each other for position, a boy on a roof alone watching the laundry blow – in real time. Despite its technical skill, it is also a masterpiece in reflecting not only the image, but the profundity and variety of experiences in this amazing city.
  8. The Special Period in Cuba was a time of economic distress that began after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which had been sending massive amounts of financial aid to the government. Under it, the government could no longer pay teachers a living salary. They responded by beginning to quit their jobs and find work as taxi drivers, cooks selling meals out of their home, or basically any other position that was more lucrative. Without trained teachers or the funds to re-hire them, the government instituted a program in which high school students returned to teach elementary school. They were supposed to control the kids and get them to watch pre-recorded lectures, but instead often put on telenovelas or cartoons. Frustrated parents who wanted their children to actually learn something would re-hire the old teachers to tutor their children in the afternoon, effectively privatizing what had once been one of the best public school systems in Latin America.
  9. American men could take some tips on pick-up lines from Cubans. While not particularly effective, they can be funny, a little dramatic, and definitely memorable. Some of my favorites from the last two days include: “Hi. You need me,” “I can be your boyfriend. I can be friend. I can be partner?” and, of course, “Lady, I will die if you don’t listen to me!” At last sighting, he was still alive, though confounded by the failure of this declaration.
  10. Nothing is quite as amazing as a Cuban sunset. It takes its time (like everything else here), but descends calmly, surrounded by delicate colors, over the endless sea. Watching it from a balcony far above the city streets, it looks like hope – a promise that tomorrow will be just as challenging, rewarding, and beautiful as today.