Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cuba Diaries: Day 7 - Reflections After One Week in Cuba

Here's the eighth installment on my trip to Cuba to study their urban & suburban agriculture and agroecology. I will be posting these daily for the next several days so please check in regularly to hear about the entire trip.

On Day 7 of the trip, we began our conference, a Pan-American agroecology conference held at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (where we were staying). I woke up on time and popped my head into the conference in time for the opening ceremonies and the first few speakers, but the lighting gave me a migraine and the translation was poor. Given the fact that I wasn't understanding much of anything the speakers said, I decided to leave and skip the whole thing. Instead I spent my time sitting on the hotel patio, just outside the conference room, chatting with conference attendees from around Cuba and Latin America, reading Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel, and drinking as much Cuban coffee as I could get my hands on.

For today's diary, I want to share something I wrote after a week in Cuba. I've got a few more diaries planned. Day 9 was a spectacular trip to 3 sites within Havana. Day 11 was our last day there, but we got up early to sneak in a trip to the "agromercado" (farmers' market) before going to the airport. I've also got a diary's worth of pictures from Old Havana as well as some neat pics from our hotel. Then there's a diary I'd like to do about a few of the folks we met at the conference. And last, a diary about Cancun, where I spent a few days after leaving Cuba. If I can, I'll also ask a few other folks from the trip to write a diary or two, either about places in Cuba or about their own work, which they presented at the conference.

What I wrote after one week in Cuba:
I’ve now been here for a week, with no news. A few others have purchased newspapers or visited internet cafes and braved the slow connections. I have heard that Obama nominated somebody (a woman?) to the Supreme Court and that the U.K. has a new conservative prime minister. I can’t remember the last time I was this out of touch with the news. It’s probably a healthy break, but it’s strange. And I can’t fathom living like this – living in a pre-internet country in an internet-dependent world. Several Cuban friends exchanged email addresses with me, telling me they check their email once a week. Using email in Cuba is both expensive and frustrating so I don’t blame them for not being more wired.

Typical meal at a restaurant in Cuba: LOTS of pork, some peeled, boiled potatoes, and a mix of white rice and black beans.

I’ve settled into a daily diet consisting of mostly pineapple, supplemented with pancakes without syrup and the occasional egg or crepe for breakfast, as much Cuban coffee as I can obtain, and vegetarian paella and/or pizza for dinner. Lunches are more varied, and quite often I’ve eaten meat because the vegetarian option looked either unhealthy or unappetizing or both. Cubans love white rice (and white bread), which I never eat in the U.S., and they certainly aren’t known for their innovative vegetable dishes. The one exception is the Cuban vegetarian chef Tito Nuñez, who we met here, but his restaurant is located in an eco-community about an hour from Havana. Thus, I’ve now eaten chicken twice and pork and beef once each. (My stomach turned when, after the fact, I learned that the meat probably came from the U.S. There’s a one-way trade between the U.S. and Cuba for certain agricultural products.) One day, I accepted a lunch of cabbage, cassava, rice, and black beans that also included an enormous hunk of pork. I ate the vegetables and gave the pork to a nearby (very happy) dog.

We're spending this week in a Latin American agroecology conference held in our hotel, and I’ve attended roughly none of it because the translation is a little bit hit or miss and because the projected slides and the lights in the room give me headaches. Instead I’ve sat outside of the conference on the hotel’s patio, reading Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved while enjoying the ocean view and the breeze, supplemented by the occasional cry of a peacock. (The hotel has at least one peacock as well as a small flock of guineas wandering around the grounds.)

The patio of the hotel combines the elegant grandeur of old world Europe with Cuba’s tropical Caribbean setting. In the case of the hotel, however, beauty is only skin deep. My roommate and I spend at least 30 minutes a day having our room keys fixed because the keycard system that works so well in U.S. hotels is not so foolproof here. It may be because her iPhone and our other electronics interfere with the cards, but it also may be the tropical climate. Once a maid “fixed” my broken card by blowing a hairdryer into the door’s lock to dry it out. The elevators typically function, but they can’t be relied upon to go to the floor you pressed. Usually after an extra trip or two up or down you’ll find your way to the correct floor. I tried to use the internet once, but the wireless is broken – indefinitely. And I learned almost immediately that we should not take baths here – when I drained the water, it came up through another drain in the bathroom floor, flooding the entire bathroom. But at least, at the Hotel Nacional, the showers are for more than decoration. They actually work. In one hotel we stayed in, that wasn’t the case. I don’t think that the problem is that the Cubans misunderstand the needs of tourists or that they don’t care. It’s just not that easy to fix things here like it is elsewhere in the world.
It's funny what else I didn't even realize I was missing at that point until I went to Cancun and got it back. There was no way to use a credit card in Cuba, although if you have a Canadian bank account, you can use Cuban ATMs. (Note to self for next time...) My phone couldn't even find enough reception in Cuba to tell me the time, and since I didn't bring a watch, I never knew what time it was. Several places sold commonly needed toiletries, but there weren't many options (few brands and a small range of products). Towards the end of the trip, several people needed nail clippers and nobody could find a place to purchase any. Fortunately someone on the trip brought some and let the rest of us use them. When I got to Cancun, the Marriott I stayed in had a little store that sold food, souvenirs, and - wouldn't you know it? - nail clippers.

For tourists in Cuba, there's really not a lot to buy. They've got some T-shirts, postcards, shot glasses, mugs, LOTS of maracas, and arts and crafts. On the whole, though, they really just don't have that much. I don't know if this is because they are unable to manufacture or import more things to sell or if they are just so used to having so little that they cannot fathom that tourists would want to waste their money on all of the silly trinkets that tourists waste their money on.

What was also interesting is how tuned in the Cubans were to the international news. Without the internet, I was practically paralyzed, but the Cubans still read the newspaper for their news, or maybe they watch TV. Fancy that!

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