Living for the future

20170218_191609It is 5 weeks since marrying my Cuban partner here in Havana and I just said goodbye to my second group of travellers since going back to work. They wished me well and at least one of them said ‘I wish you lots of luck, you’re going to need it’.

This makes me chuckle. I don’t know if they meant the fact of getting married, or marrying a Cuban, or marrying a Cuban and living here. Or all of this! Of course, like any newly-wed, I imagine, I feel it isn’t luck we’ll need, but just more of what we have – great communication, shared values and sense of humour, and a strong mutual attraction and plenty of love. However, living here already is testing, and committing myself to living here..well, yes, I do have some of sense of trepidation. The bureaucracy here does sometimes remind me of those old American cars they keep going after so many years, but one without wheels that you need to move anyway. You push and push but ultimately another skill is required, a way around the problem, a little bit of charm, making friends, thinking outside the box, resilience and patience. My husband has all these skills in quantity, myself not so much. Still, I am learning and feel a better person for the education
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Of course, we have the option to move together to another country if it all gets too much, but his life is here, and with a little money life here is pretty good. There are shortages of goods, lines to make for the simplest of things, plenty of things that don’t work, changes in regulations and the law from one moment to the next, a lack of the shops and commodities I have always been used to, very limited internet, I could go on. BUT things are improving, and the reopening of US-Cuban relations has definitely helped. I feel optimistic, it is a country that has also achieved great things, and could achieve so much more. What’s needed then? An end of the US embargo against the island, for sure (and no, that hasn’t happened just because the US and Cuba have relations again), and a relax of the controls placed by the government over its people, stifling opportunities and economic growth. Cubans are hard workers if you let them work and earn decent money. The economy needs to work and then people would stay. The revolution isn’t over, but it needs an update. Hopefully, with my new husband by my side, my patience will last long enough to see it all happen. The Cuban people deserve it.

Cuba welcomes you my friends

LETTER TO MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY ARRIVING IN HAVANA FOR MY WEDDING NEXT WEEK

Dearest friends

Very soon you’ll be coming to Cuba,, most of you for the first, and I hope not the last, time.

It’s quite a conundrum, Cuba, and living here presents lots of challenges – shortages of goods, a bureaucracy to make you tear your hair out, lines for the simplest of things, little decent shopping (!), no foreign media, slow and not widely available internet, lack of decent information such as what’s on listings or news about openings and closures.
Now, I started with the bad, but the good is..very little crime, no drugs, guns, gangs and little serious violence, wonderfully inventive, creative and decent-minded people who do not put money and status and the value of time before community, solidarity and looking after each other. The Havana architecture, while falling to ruin, is spectacular, the art and culture is a highlight, and the ever-present influence of the sea, the Atlantic ocean washing across the Malecon, and the glorious beaches just out of town, gives this island capital a wonderful edge. Not to mention the heroic Cuban joie-de-vivre and sense of humour (while no one opinions too loudly in public, humour tells a thousand tales).

So, when you find no water available to buy in the airport or they only have mayonnaise to serve with your toast in the morning, which occasionally happens, or half the things on the menu in your restaurant are unavailable, please bear the following in mind. Just over twenty years ago, after the fall of the Soviet bloc, Cuba was plunged from the good times of trading with its communist partners into a ‘special period’ of severe shortages where nothing got imported, Soviet subsidies disappeared overnight, Cubans lined up for food and found nothing available, cats and dogs began disappearing from the streets, you get the idea. It was harsh and Cubans don’t like talking about it. There was no petrol/diesel, blackouts to save energy lasted for hours and hours (imagine non-working fridges and air-con in a tropical country) and people biked miles and miles to school or work or waited hours for a bus that might appear, and then did the same again to get home. In the mid-90s, the dollar was legalised and the government began encouraging tourism, which now is the major income generator in the country. That and the revenue from the ever-growing diaspora of 2 million Cubans living abroad, many in Miami.

Cuba depends on tourism but doesn’t have the resources to improve the infrastructure that the ever-increasing tourism demands, especially now Americans find it easier to come and visitor numbers are increasing at a crazy rate. (So are hotel prices because there aren’t the rooms available in the limited number of hotels in existence so prices have sky-rocketed this year – thanks Obama! His visit and moves to improve relations have created even greater interest in the island, among curious and adventurous Americans, and the rest of the world keen to see the place ‘before the Americans arrive’. It is too late, my friend!

Anyway, the relationship with the US very much defines the island, since the Spanish-American war of 1898, through the 1930s and 40s and 50s when Havana became an exotic playground for Americans gamblers, tourists and the mafia. Meanwhile, many rural Cubans lived illiterate and desperate lives with little education and opportunities to improve their lot.

The ‘triumph of the revolution’, which is the noun for revolution here, changed all that. Within a few years, Cuba had achieved one of the world’s highest literacy rates, built schools all across the island, with free education for all up to masters levels, and introduced a free universal health system, which led to great achievements. But 50+ years in power with the same government is too long, and things have stagnated, the infrastructure has crumbled, and the US embargo against the island has made and continues to make things very difficult. Foreign businesses are prevented from doing business with the island for fear of angering the Americans and losing business interests in the US. But remember the great stuff – comradeship, community, friendly locals, wonderful music, safe walking in the streets late at night, gorgeous beaches with the 2nd largest coral reef in the world to its north, it is unique and feels like stepping back in time. But..useful to always take the good with the bad.

Safe journey!

DIY in Cuba

It’s pretty exhausting buying and setting up a home in Cuba. Also it is very expensive. Now that we have family coming to stay for our wedding next month, it has also become quite stressful. This large apartment was vacated and cleaned by the previous owners, with whom we have become good friends, but the couple that owned the place with them took everything out when they left – gas water heater, light fittings, light bulbs, shelves. Now the rush is on to replace those items, and furnish and fix up, in a country where even sourcing a mattress, new water heater or white paint, for example, is a huge challenge.

We saw an advert in Revolico online today, the Cuban version of Craig’s List or Gumtree., where locals sell their gwe ood online, many imported from Panama at very low cost (only permanent residents, or Cubans can do this though, and they need to get a visa first. Appointments for visa applications are available by booking on the telephone between 2 and 4 on Thursdays. The line is always busy.) Thank heavens wifi is so much more available than before – without Revolico, we could buy very little. What we need just doesn’t exist in government stores, and when it does, it’s astounding how much things cost. Cheapest Chinese oven $700 cucs/dollars/£610, washing machine $600/£525, fridge $750, 32 inch TV $600 and up, single bed frame $500. So instead, we drive around Havana on our electric scooter and look for things we need in four or five government stores, and we may come home with something – washing up liquid, a floor mop, a bucket, batteries, glasses or a salad bowl. I dream of finding all those things in the same shop but it’s highly unlikely. We find out who’s selling what by word of mouth among friends, what they call Radio Bemba (radio lips). Remember there’s no advertising here, so no commercials or publicity to alert one to where things are. This week a lady advertised so many things on revolico I can only assume she was moving…fridge, sofa, beds and mattresses, TV, dining room set, washing machine, writing desk..and the infamous water heater! By the time we saw the week-old ad, there was nothing left but a couple of armchairs. Yet all these things could be available in the same megastore in the UK, or just one website in fact, and today was a harsh reminder of how wonderful that would be here.

Of course, finding a fridge on sale on Revolico in some distant suburb of Havana then requires thought as to how the bring the item home, finding a truck that can handle it, or a taxi for smaller items, or in my arms on the scooter if we can get away with it. Also, a significant amount of cash as very few of these items are payable by credit card. Here, cash is king, we even bought our apartment worth quite a few thousand dollars in cash. Stored in a suitcase until the sale was ready to go through. It has really been quite an eventful year!

Now, I really must go. ….we have go across the city to pick up a 40 inch flat screen and bring it back on the moped.

The Malecon

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It’s the first cold front of the New Year and the wind howls at our window every night. The view from where we live is spectualar, ten floors up and a view of the sea and part of the seafront boulevard Malecon, the so-called ‘sofa of Havana’, but now I understand why so many people close in their balconies, especially at this height. The wind is whipping the Atlantic over the Malecon wall, some of the nearby streets are flooded, and the traffic is heavier than usual in surrounding streets, as the police close the expressway of the Malecon to cars. The salty water does so much damage to the usually pretty ancient cars anyway that it’s wise not to subject them to other than optimal conditions.

Last night L and I walked a while in the middle of the closed-off Malecon, a wonderful feeling when you know that usually you risk being knocked down just trying to cross this fast-moving avenue of traffic that sweeps from the tunnel exit of the Miramar neighbourhood (this goes under the Almendares river as it empties out into the sea) all the way along the Vedado and Central Havana neighbourhoods to Old Havana. We are just lucky to live so close to this famous boulevard, so integral to the image of Havana, and referred to in so much Cuban music.

It’s a wonderful place to go for a walk or a run, or to go in the evening and enjoy the street life, where many go in lieu of spending money on an entrance to some club. Couples sit and canoodle, dreamers sit and gaze across the Florida straits towards Miami where no doubt they have some family living there now. Popcorn and drink sellers ply their trade to the friends and family hanging out on a Saturday night, others bring rum and guitars and make a party for anyone who wants to join – foreigners bringing rum will feel especially welcome!

This was one of my first experiences here six years ago, and the openness, warmth and strength of spirit of the Cuban people has still never ceased to amaze me. When choosing where to live in this city of 2 million people, I was very fortunate to be able to choose to live so close to this focal point of my Havana life.

A New Year in Havana..

A new year in Cuba and I said goodbye to my last tour group of 2016 (and first of 2017). I always feel a bit flat at this time, after so many days of wonderful company and conversation with interesting, intellectual and fun Americans. And suddenly they are gone. At such a turbulent time in American politics, it’s been nice to be able to discuss such issues with people directly affected, although it won’t just be the US that suffers the fallout of this presidential election decision. The rapprochement between the US and Cuba really hangs in the balance right now, and nobody knows which way Donald Trump will go. Still, Cubans are nervous. For decades, they’ve enjoyed a unique immigration status in the US, needing only to land on US shores to be able to claim the right to live, work and stay in the US. This is the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy. You land on shore and your foot stays dry, you made it, congratulations – in one year, you’ll have a green card. You get caught by coastguards in the Florida straits, your foot still wet, and they send you back to Cuba. It’s not that Cuba is such a terrible place, but when you are a young professional, educated, half your family is in the US, and the only work you can find is as a taxi driver, it’s tempting to want to try your fortune abroad. This is an island too, sometimes just the very fact of being from an island leaves you with a desire to cross the water and see what’s out there – I know that, coming from Britain.

Suddenly, they are gone. It’s a chance though to now focus on projects at hand – fitting out and furnishing 2 properties which L and I plan to live in and also rent out, and also prepare for our wedding on 18 February, here in Havana!

Kindly folks keep asking if we are getting far with the wedding planning…I would say no! But we have a wedding planner here (who apparently organised Madonna’s recent birthday here) and the dresses, suit and rings are bought. And venue booked.. That’s something. Weddings here are often smaller affairs, due to restrained budgets, and many couples don’t marry just to avoid the costs. This wedding will be cheaper than one in the UK or USA, no doubt, but still more expensive than an average Cuban to Cuban wedding, I imagine.

Saying goodbye to Fidel

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Today L and I woke to the news of the passing away of Fidel Castro. This was to L like the passing away of a beloved grandfather. Though it was expected, and he did well to survive so long, despite so many attempts on his life, the news came as a shock none the less. We are sad to be away from Cuba in this moment, visiting my family and friends in the UK together for the first time.

It’s a new era for humanity, says L, and a new era for Cuba. Yes, I know half of Miami is rejoicing, and views are mixed on Fidel’s legacy. In our time together, L has always praised the achievements of the revolution, yet been willing to discuss its failings. Neither are easy to ignore. Free health care, education, accessible culture, sport, a pride amongst Cubans that did not exist among all Cubans before. However, living there, l see many (highly educated) people leaving the island, with few opportunities for young people, and way too much government control, and shortages of products, or over-inflated prices for products available. I could go on….

But I also know many Cubans of L’s age (50s), who wouldn’t have had the opportunities they had were it not for the revolution, especially for black families like L’s, where racism would have likely left them cutting sugar cane or shining shoes. L says the revolution gave him the possibility to study what he wanted, get his education and follow his dreams, his health and the chance to raise his two wonderful healthy girls, with a health system designed to support and protect them if they need, a philosophy of life which puts loving one another at its core.

Just two weeks ago, I was leading a group of American alumni around Cuba, together with a brilliant Cuban-American professor of history at UCLA, and we met with a lady who went out in Cuba’s Year of Education in 1961 and taught people to read and write. In the literacy campaign of that year, 700,000 Cubans learnt to read and write, and the rate of literacy rose to 96%, one of the highest in the world. When the UCLA professor began to sing with her the ‘hymn of the literacy ‘, sang proudly by the nation in those times of exciting change and hope for the future, she welled up with tears. Being part of such an important revolutionary movement, and affecting such important change in another human being, at the tender age of 14, changed her life forever, and gave her the pride and dignity and path in life that so many young people in the world are not lucky enough to receive.

In the words of Che Guevara, ‘Hasta la victoria siempre, Comandante Fidel’.

 

Busy busy busy

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It’s the low season in Cuba, with the worse month for hurricanes and tropical storms about to end. Next month, the weather gets cooler and the high season starts again. My free time is about to end, and Lazaro’s lack of footfall passing his bar/restaurant also too hopefully.

This is the time for getting errands done, something that can take an age in Cuba. For example, today, we got up early because a professional translator was dropping off a document that he’d translated for L’s interview with the British embassy later in the morning. I want L to come for Christmas to the UK to meet everyone before the wedding. The translator had no printer at home so he brought his laptop and we popped the doc on a USB stick and they both went off on the scooter to find a place to print. Meanwhile, I prepared the various supporting documents I had photocopied for said interview – passports, flight tickets, proof of his job and home ownership (the lovely apartment we just moved into, proof of my income/bank balance and address in the UK, as L’s sponsor.

We rode the scooter to the British embassy in Miramar, a posh suburb of Havana, and while L had his interview, I went vegetable shopping at a local market (better vegetables in this neighbourhood, and the first lettuce I’ve seen so far this autumn).

We went to a nearby hotel after for a coffee and a debrief and to make a plan of action for the day. We do this quite a lot!

Today we visited our last potential wedding venue, a bit out of Havana but worth the ride, and we passed many stores on the way selling furniture, electrodomestic goods, tiles, kitchen utensils, electrical products, fans, etc. We are looking for all of these!

I fell in love straight away with the venue and our decision to get wed there takes a big strain off, with so many other things we are doing now too. We’ll check out the Ts and Cs and then get moving on the deposit etc.  On the way home we picked up a water filter, so we never run out of water at home (it still needs boiling before use though), and rode back with the great big box on the bike.

Next stop – lunch at home with newly acquired veg, collect medical results of tests we have to do pre-marriage/residency, ride to Old Havana  to see a friend and check out her sister’s furniture catalogue (she’s just gone freelance in her furniture making business). Then back home for a lovely dinner and watching the X Factor, one of our favourites, downloaded in the weekly ‘package’ – the Cuban alternative to the internet and satellite TV.

Tomorrow we have to go to immigration before L starts work – I need to register for a partner visa so I can legally live with Lazaro in his (our) house. I’ll need to repeat this process every time I come back into the country until we are married and I get resident status. Cubans are not allowed to have people stay with them who are not family, unless they are officially renting out rooms, in which case they pay a monthly tax.

This is just a small sample of the daily tasks that face us, many of which I wouldn’t know how to deal with or have the patience to, were it not for the experienced guidance of someone who has lived it all his life and has the patience of a saint!

Hot in the city

For the first year since arriving in Cuba five or so years ago, I have spent the whole of August here. It isn’t easy, and I can think of places I would rather be, with this extreme heat and humidity, afternoon rainstorms, and general feeling of exhaustion. I’ve given up trying to run in the morning (it’s already too hot by 8am and I’m not an early riser) and I grab every chance I can to swim, ideally in the sea, as hotel pools here this time of year are full of smoking and drinking Cubans and probably peeing children. On more than one occasion I’ve had itchy skin after swimming in certain pools, so one needs to be careful!

Another source of my exhaustion is the constant need to be looking for things that should just be easy to find. Bottled water for instance. Toilet paper for another. I went to four government shops today to look for a litre of water, two had no water, the third had only small bottles but not cold, despite them coming out of the fridge. I should mention that all three stores had stifling temperatures inside and maybe the workers drank all the water, I know I would. The fourth store had water, and decent refrigeration, but a line of 8 people ahead of me and no assistant in sight. When finally help appeared I bought 2 litre bottles of water at the official price of 70 cents (worth US$0.70 or 50p). In the 15 minutes I stood there, 3 different people ahead of me bought cheap rum in little cartons with straws, like the ones usually containing orange juice. It was before midday. It occurred to me that spending your life hunting for basic necessities could drive you to that, especially as cheap rum, beer and cigarettes are all easier to find than water, toilet paper, milk or soft drinks, all of which I consider more important basics (of course, it’s all a matter of perspective).

L and I bought an electric motorbike in large part to make this side of life easier, hunting for groceries or toiletries or places to top-up our mobile phones (expensive), and running errands. Now we bought ourselves an apartment and need to hunt for furniture, the fun will really begin! We’ll ride around the city looking for what we need and then when we find it, one of us will bike home and the other take a taxi with said item of household good or furniture. I’m not sure yet what we’ll do yet with the larger pieces, home delivery isn’t so much available here, and our mattress, the only large piece we bought so far, we wheeled home t0 blocks through a busy street on the back of a trolley! When we moved it to our new apartment last week, we found a taxi big enough to squeeze it into, but God only knows how we’ll manage with a fridge, oven or a sofa.

Still, I continue to have my magic moments here, riding from one place to another on Havana’s pot-holed streets on a bicycle taxi, a two-seater vehicle useful here for quick journeys while carrying lots of bags, or my own birthday cake, which happened earlier this month (the delicious cake, made by a master baker friend of L’s, made it to our house party, with only some of the icing ending up on me en route. The guests then all sang me happy birthday at midnight of the eve of my birthday and dinner and then the cake was duly served – beautiful).

But the magic is when I sit in the bicycle taxi, feeling the breeze, listening to Havana’s streets and watching life go by, the way I did when I first arrived, and still feeling that sense of romance, intrigue, sadness, wonder and bewitchment.

Havana may not be for everyone, but it is for me.

Cuban summer

After a busy month seeing family, and working in France, where things were wonderfully French as always, but so dreadfully sad, I am back in Cuba. It’s hot! I’m not the only one who thinks so….I hear the words “Que calor, por Dios’ ‘No suporto este calor’ all around, including from my fiancé, who wishes it were winter all the time. Winter here involves the use of scarves and jeans and jackets, and people love it as they can dress up a little and accessorise. Right now, you want to wear as little as possible, and have to apologise when going it for the customary kiss on the cheek greeting, by explaining ‘Estoy sudado’ (I’m all sweaty).

This time last year, Havana was pretty quiet, the Cubans were enjoying the pools and beaches and open spaces, but European and North American visitors were thin on the ground. Not this year! From my balcony, I just watched another coach arrive and private home owners come out to greet more tourists just landed, and take them to their rooms to rent nearby. L and I are hoping to be doing the same within the next few months, and L makes a breakfast that would make any house guest happy! Also, the bar where he works still looks like a Bacardi advert when I walk in there to meet him towards the end of the night – people dancing, all the tables taken, bartenders busy carrying cocktails, and happy punters hopefully tipping well. Everyone depends on tips to live here.

I think the thawing of relations between Cuba and the US has created a sense of urgency for people to visit the island ‘before it changes’, and change it already has, but nothing in comparison to what could happen should or rather when the American embargo against Cuba is lifted. That’s right, people, the embargo IS still in place, so not so much has changed as one might hope. Congress needs to approve removing the embargo, and until they do, Cuba still struggles to import the goods it needs, and the government here makes no progress in change. And Cubans are still leaving the island for abroad. For some, change will not come soon enough.

It is busy here then, and this month is a social month, with a friend coming to stay, other friends who came to stay now leaving, my birthday, and my step-daughter’s 15th birthday, for which the whole extended family is coming from the provinces to Havana to celebrate. Turning 15 here is a big deal, bigger than getting married I’d say. Her father has been feverishly preparing for nearly a year! Big party, photoshoot, food, rum, organising places to stay….

And talking of somewhere to stay, L and I bought an apartment! We move later this month and hope to enjoy a bit of renovation and lots of dinners and relaxing on the balcony with a view of the sea. More posting on the whole house purchase thing in a later post. For now, I have to go, I hear thunder and just know, in typical summer Caribbean style, the late afternoon is bringing a storm and I need to head to a nearby hotel to send this post.

Adios!

Following my Cuban compass

I quite often feel so fortunate to have found myseld in this position in my life..and maybe everything I did thus far was to prepare for this. I am living in a beautiful, fascinating yet complicated and frustrating country which has an uncertain future, with a man with whom I am deeply in love. I learnt Spanish years ago and now live and breathe and dream that language, I fell in love with salsa on my earlier travels and now am engaged to a salsa musician, and stepmother to his two beautiful girls. I gave up the chance to settle down and an interesting and secure salaried job to become freelance and follow my passions – travel and music and language – and have now been leading tours for over a decade, a job I adore and which led me to Cuba and this life I love. I work hard and have long hours but when I am off I get to go swimming in the ocean or scuba diving in the Caribbean or spend a couple of romantic nights in a gorgeous hotel away from Havana. Or walk by the sea at sunset or take a class in Cuban dance or read a book on our balcony. Or simply hang out in Old Havana and watch my partner’s band while sipping a mojito and waiting to walk home together later along the Malecon. Life is good and though I deeply miss my family and friends, I have never been happier and this has all reaffirmed for me the importance of listening to your heart, being a little brave, living life to the full and trusting in the universe even when the path ahead seems overgrown with weeds. Somewhere further along there is a clearing, a cool breeze and patch of sun and your place in the world.