#3 :: Cuban initiation

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November 12, 2012 by vivalafiona

Listening to Led Zeppelin whilst writing to you from Cuba seems a little mad but I do have a smile on my face. Would love to have a very loud sound system to be able to share it with my neighbours. This just might make a welcome change from the reggaton we are usually exposed to.

I survived a Cuban initiation test 2 days ago. Went fishing for 6 hours with a bunch of Cuban men, in a mangrove swamp. To reach said swamp involved a half hour walk in hot sun followed by navigating mud flats full of crabs and broken tree limbs and I hate to think what else might have resided there. (Fortunately Cuba is malaria free). Due to the large amount of rain this provence/state experienced this year I soon found myself not only knee deep in water sliding around in the mud, as I had been warned, but up to my neck in it. Eventually we found ourselves swimming in quite deep water, fishing gear in sacks and plastic bags tied around our necks, to reach the edge of the lagoon where we set up camp in the mangrove trees. One of the Cubans kindly cut away some branches with his machete so I could sit on the limb of a tree for the entire afternoon until the light faded attempting to catch fish with worms and frogs for bait.

I did in fact manage to catch 2 small fish which we later used as more bait. The others successfully pulled 6 large very ugly and angry cat fish from the lagoon, a mixture of rain and sea water. We all frequently found crabs on the end of our lines. The crabs also happen to live in the trees so they could virtually be caught by hand if you felt so inclined. I didn’t. A bottle of rum helped stave off the cold that eventuated from sitting in wet clothes in a tree, with feet dangling in the water, for hours and hours. Who’d of thought I would feel cold in Cuba. I have since learned that cat fish can live for up to 24 hours out of water and happily exist in mud. Those we caught were still well and truly alive and kicking when we got back home after dark.

Met an Irishman who has been living in Cuba for ten years now. He has a gorgeous little blonde blue eyed 2 year old boy who speaks Spanish, not English/Irish. He runs a casa particular, has a jeep and is a member of the Party, so a very good person to be friends with. Full of great advice on how to exist here and believes I should have no trouble finding people who want to learn English which is encouraging.

My Spanish is improving to the point that I can now converse comfortably with the guards who work at the television tower on the hill I climb up to most mornings. They have grown accustomed to me now and know not to waste their breath offering their services as tourist guide. Even the guard dog, Negrita, wags her tail when she sees me coming. The cows and horses that graze on the hillside no longer stare at me in horror or surprise. Unfortunately the local drunks that hang out at the bottom of the hill do not recognise me and I am still subjected to their slurred questions about my nationality.

The other day I watched the local steam train wind its way through the valley, tooting its horn as it approached small villages, from the roof top of the guards office. There is also an old American steam train for tourists that leaves at 9.30 most mornings to visit Maneca, a former sugar cane plantation about an hour away by steam train, half an hour by car. Cuba was the second country after the US to introduce steam trains. There are unused tracks all over the countryside and a wonderful train cemetery in Havana.

I went to the local farmers/produce market yesterday. As with most markets you need to get there early to get the pick of the offerings. We arrived just as the truck with all the seafood was unloading. Much excitement resulted as Cuban’s like their fish. No lobster on board as this is for tourists and export only. Other stalls sold seasonal vegetables, eggs, cakes, spices, gavua paste, ground peanuts, peanut toffee, household utensils, pet fish, fresh meat and my favourite discovery – 44 gallon drums full of pasta sauce. Cubans queued with their plastic bottles, buckets, and bags to buy the sauce in bulk.

In recent years pasta has been added to the libretta – the ration book that all cubans are issued with for themselves and their children. Each month the government provides them with a portion of rice, coffee, sugar, cooking oil, kerosene, soap, chicken, and a daily portion of bread. Children also receive some red meat each month and milk every day. Pasta and pizza is much loved here and tomato sauce/salsa is also served with prawns, chicken, pork and vegetables etc.

It has become a bit of a joke with some of my friends that I have become very fond of the rationed bread – bread of Fidel. It is made from wholemeal flower and in my opinion much healthier than the white bread rolls and loafs currently available from private bakers which are preferred by many Cubans now. Evidently the bread of Fidel was once made from quite stale flour, during the special period. Only wholemeal flour seems to be available in the shops, which is fine by me because it makes great pizza dough. Sadly bicarb of soda is not and so my banana bread making has come to an end. Every attempt so far an abject failure.

I am slowly being introduced to other Cuban families and just love getting an opportunity to see inside their houses. Due to the heat most people have their front doors or their floor to ceiling windows wide open. The windows come with wrought iron bars or wooden shutters for security, and it is often possible to peak inside as you walk along the street. Frequently you are treated to a glimpse of a large internal patio full of plants and cast iron furniture, rooms full of nineteenth century style furnishings, beautiful tiled floors and enormously high ceilings with pollyanna style chandeliers dangling from the beams wooden beams above. Rocking chairs are mandatory and elderly family members are often seen gently swaying in the breeze provided by an open window, watching the world pass by and chatting to neighbours.

The Cubans are very good to their grandparents and the younger generations, not only sons and daughers but grandchildren, nieces and nephews live with and take care of them. I think there is a dual benefit to this as housing is in short supply and inheritance is the only way most Cubans will ever get their own home. The state does provide a home for abuelo’s (grandparents) and in Trinidad they regularly put on concerts for them in the Plaza Mayor. A friend of mine who sings and plays traditional music often performs for the abuelo’s and from time to time to the not so dangerous inmates in the state prison an hour away.

Another cultural revolution is taking place in Cuba. The old Russian fridges and washing machines, which use a lot of power, are slowly being replaced by new Chinese models. The government assists by selling them on a hire purchase type system. This also applies to fans, rice cookers, pressure cookers, washing machines and I suspect microwaves which are now becoming popular. I discovered microwave popcorn in a shop recently, made in the US, but probably imported from Venezuela.

Chinese cars are replacing Russian ones and the lycra shorts are a thing of the past as Cuban women now don embroidered jeans and shorts, made in China. So too the heavy old Russian bicycles are being cast aside for Chinese made versions. The Cuban kitchen is being transformed by the availability of Chinese made white and electical goods: mix masters, food processors, microwaves, sandwich makers, electric coffee percolators, freezers and gas and electric ovens. Up until recently Cubans cooked with kerosene stoves, electric rice cookers, electric blenders for juice and soup, aluminium expresso coffee pots and stove top pressure cookers. Ovens are/were a rare kitchen appliance. Pizza is cooked in a fry pan on a hot plate.

I am very frustrated at the lack of access to wifi so was very amused to discover a group of young people standing in the street opposite the local hotel accessing it’s wifi with their smart phones and other devices (gifts from expat family and friends and tourists) last and apparently every night. There is always a work around. Fortunately for me the staff at the internet cafe do not keep an eye on the clock and the half an hour I have paid for frequently slides into an hour. So keep the emails coming.

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