Top ten – week one

By Claire Williams, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

I’ve decided that while I’m in Cuba, I’m going to write lists – the ten things I learned today, every day. Monday night was a good start, because I was still exhausted from travel and didn’t get into bed to write until almost two – when I was expected downstairs and ready at nine thirty! I stuck to my resolution, however, and wrote a list of things cultural and political, serious and joking, about Cuba, about the people with whom I am traveling, and about myself. I hope to compile a week’s worth of “Top Tens” into a weekly “Top Ten,” which covers the highlights of what I’ve seen and hopefully elaborates somewhat on the context and importance of my sleepy scribbling.

For week one, the top ten things I learned in Cuba are:

1. Everything in Cuba is late. If it is on time, it is either an accident or a miracle. Either way, it won’t happen again. The Spanish verb “esperar” means both “to wait” and “to hope for” for a reason. The only thing that ever goes fast in Cuba are the cars, which will not stop for pedestrians or even other cars. The reason why driving remains an exception to “Cuban time” is still a mystery to me.

2. It is not extremely warm in Cuba, but it is humid and sticky. To that end, showers are not just for morning or night. They are not a once-a-day thing. Showers are for morning, mid-morning, noon, afternoon, teatime, after teatime, evening, and late evening. They are basically for anytime you find yourself near one, because your clothes will always be sticky and you will always feel so sweaty.

3. Casa de las Américas, where we are taking classes and which has kindly provided us with a lobby in which we can get internet during the day, is an amazing cultural center and has art from all over the Spanish-speaking Americas, not just from Cuba. Their collection is amazingly diverse – there is currently an exhibition up about the “new figuration,” and pieces range from pop art to enormous oil canvases to an intricately carved tree of life that weighs two tons. Casa is also a tremendous community of artists and thinkers, and overall a beautiful place to work. They also serve coffee saturated with sugar every morning. This is your lifeblood as a Cuban student.

4. Havana as a city was founded under a ceiba tree. The tree itself was eventually chopped down and replaced with a monument. Now, the closest ceiba tree is revered by Cubans as having magical powers. You can tell it your three deepest desires, the ones you can’t tell anyone else, and they will be granted. Suggested ways to connect with the tree include walking around the tree’s circumference, putting the hand closest to your heart on the tree, or embracing it. As long as you focus on your desires and leave a little money at the tree’s base, the outcome will be in your favor.

5. There are two forms of money in Cuba: the C.U.C. (the convertible peso) and the moneda nacional (the Cuban peso). The conversion is about 24 Cuban pesos per C.U.C. You need to carry both forms of currency at all times, because some things can only be paid with one or the other. Generally, if you can pay with moneda nacional, what you are buying will be cheaper, since this is the currency most Cubans use everyday.

6. Flirting is huge here. It ranges from men on the street, who will make kissing noises at you and call out compliments to you, to the casual flattery between friends. Flirting occurs regardless of age, sex, gender preferences, relationship status, or anything else. It is not a romantic flirting and it does not really have aims, it is simply the language in which you communicate with others and get things done. It’s also not bad for the ego when you get four marriage proposals within a block of walking.

7. The embargo means that almost every American product cannot be found here. Occasionally, food products will surface (5 Hour Energy, Red Bull, Nestle candy bars and ice cream, and Coca Cola through Mexico), but there is really nothing else recognizable as American here, at least not from the present day. Almost all of the cars you find are old American models that have been constantly repaired since the 50’s, lending the entire country a sort of timeless, placeless feel. You can forget very easily here that you’re less than 100 miles from America.

8. Some Cubans have never met a U.S. American before, even those that work at four-star all-inclusive resorts. They are extremely excited to meet you, though, and will talk all about how they love American movies. The man I met, Ernesto, also made me promise to tell all of the other girls in our group that we were prettier than any Americans he has seen in the movies. While the compliment was a first, the enthusiasm to meet Americans seems pretty commonplace. Everyone I’ve talked to wants to know what it is like to live in America and how things are different from what they’ve been told by their media and American media. The fascination goes both ways.

9. There is a tremendous artistic community here. In America, it’s extremely difficult to make it as an artist or a writer, but in Cuba, it seems like that is as normal an occupation as “shopkeeper” or “secretary.” I’m sure that this attitude contributes to the incredible diversity of art and expression that we have seen, from music (jazz, salsa, hip-hop, classical) to performance art to poetry readings to abstract installations made of found objects. I have never been in a place with so much vibrance and creativity.

10. No complaining, no excuses, and no apologies. I’ve learned to realize that I am in a new place, having an experience that is so rare and unique that I will never be able to replicate it. I need to feel free to ask and answer questions fearlessly, without considering how good my Spanish is or if I’m embarrassing myself. This is my time to be exactly what I am and to discover what I can be and that – not the painted houses or the friendly people or even the savory Cuban food – is what I find most beautiful of all.