Postcard From a Journey (2) / Regina Coyula

Five hours of traveling to Santiago de Cuba. It’s still early but it’s already hot. I love Santiago. I realize that it is a city with its own personality and pulse. Music plays loudly, the women seem to wear a smaller size than they need, no one is in a hurry, everyone knows each other, or so it seems, by the familiarity of the way they treat each other which I don’t escape.

I wonder if at any moment this city isn’t going to go up or down, I don’t see even a single street that isn’t on an incline. I talk with everyone, in Santiago it’s the easiest thing in the world; people complain about prices, or the shortages that are seen everywhere, but it doesn’t reach the level of criticism I see in Havana, although clearly, my view is superficial.

This hot Habanera looks for any pretext to get into an airconditioned place. Lunch at El Baluarte, a restaurant that trades in national currency. The portions are small, but my last impression of the State food service in Havana is horrendous, this doesn’t seem as bad to me. I continue to go up and down the streets, commenting to my host that Santiago is a city that lives with its back to the sea, and he says I’m right, but takes me to a place known as Velazquez’s Balcony, with a spectacular view of the bay.

One peculiarity of the alternative transport in Santiago is the motorbikes. They have no license to carry passengers, but everyone uses them and they take you where you want to go. I talk with my driver who brought his bike from the former GDR where he was qualified to work in the Celia Sanchez textile factory. When they closed the business, he appealed for his bike and said they’d have to kill him to take it from him.

I asked him about the number of houses I saw under construction. Almost all are victims of hurricane Sandy,he told me, and I didn’t comment, but it’s clear that in the urgency to build technical standards have been overlooked and those thin boards portend future problems.

I remember my cousin Mayito Coyula with his observation that when you’re going to be operated on you always want the best surgeon and yet building houses is left in the hands of the equivalent of the orderlies.

Dinner is at a “paladar” (privately run restaurant) on Enramada Street; the prices are like those in Havana and the customers are all foreigners except my table. The best food and the best service of the whole trip. I go to Santiago without being able to eat a mango sponge cake.

1 July 2014

Postcard From a Journey (1) / Regina Coyula

Like Silvio, I think the people are screwed; unlike him, however, it didn’t take me so much time to realize it, but traveling outside Havana let me see it first hand.

The domestic terminal at Jose Marti Airport is the original airport building. After checking your luggage you have to go up an escalator.  “It’s almost always broken,” a regular traveler told me. Upstairs you  get in another line to pass through a little door in groups of five. Behind this is the x-ray control and then you enter a large area of souvenir shops, closed at five in the morning, with a snack bar at the end where there’s nobody, all of which leads to a large waiting room.

Neither the poster of Santa Lucia beach looking like paradise, nor the other two that you sit against, managed to overcome my claustrophobic impression of that room without even one window.

I discover another snack bar which, unlike the one at the entrance, sells in national currency. Bread with mayonnaise and mortadella or a hot dog (served cold), soft drinks on tap or in cans, and coffee.

I head to the bathroom which, although clean, smells dirty.

I return to the waiting room and, luckily, to divert your attention from such an ugly place, there are several televisions. I concentrate on an Animal Planet program until they call my flight.

Another little line between a plasterboard half wall facing an open door, but the employee still makes us wait fifteen minutes until we go through; we have to go down a staircase to the final boarding pass check and then, finally, walk to the plane.

A trouble-free trip and the Holguin airport, much more agreeable than Havana’s. At the exit of the building we’re accosted by many drivers, all trying to “fight” for fares to the city. So many options facilitates price haggling.

I’ve heard so much talk of Holguin as “the city of parks” that I assume from its name the Garden City neighborhood will be a garden. Mistake. It’s a suburb of little houses constructed by people’s own efforts with whatever resources they could come by. There are better and worse, but the architects didn’t come here; there are no sidewalks, well, there are barely streets, and there are no trees. This explains why men and women protect themselves from the sun with umbrellas.

Urban transport doesn’t seem bad, there are also a lot of biketaxis and carts pulled by horses. Unlike Havana, the “almendrones” (1950s American cars in use as shared taxis) are prohibitively expensive.

The center is more amicable, there are the parks that give the city its nickname, there’s a boulevard full of life, and at a local concentration businesses run by the self-employed I find the replacement part for my mixer that I’ve been seeking for months. When the seller tells me the price is 180 pesos I ask him if the mixer is included.

Instead, we eat at an air-conditioned restaurant with a decent menu, which costs a lot less than the part for the mixer. I ask my friend if satin is made there, because it’s the fabric of choice in the decor. Missing no details, the restaurant has red satin tablecloths and curtains, and the seats are white with red bows. After that Christmas decor, I enjoy the beer we have at “The Cave,” a local tribute to the Beatles.

The interprovincial bus terminal is a dark and dirty place. The loudspeaker voice is incomprehensible. I know the announcement is for my trip because there aren’t any others at that time.

Holguin reserved this ugly surprise as a goodbye; I prefer to think of the good impression made by all the people I had the chance to meet.

30 June 2014

The Deluded / Regina Coyula

There are those who walk without watching who walks behind, if they seem mysterious speaking on the phone it is for the purpose of mortifying a little the listening elves, they take for granted that some neighbor(s) take(s) note of their movements and visits, but it does not interest them. They live with the decision to behave as free beings without allowing the government’s barriers, within which all that is not expressly authorized is prohibited, to constrain them in the least.

Others prefer a stealthy attitude, they communicate with signals, they have designed an alternative vocabulary and they live under the conspiracy theory in the category of major players.  They sleep with one eye open, they see ulterior motives in everything.

Not many of the first group are free, nor are many of those controlled by paranoia watched.

Translated by mlk.

18 June 2014

A Chronicle Owed / Regina Coyula

To Carlos and my traveling companions

To Carlos Ríos and Juan Carlos Linares, my entertaining and courteous travel companions, and to the people of Piura.

When someone asks me what I thought of Lima, I amswer that I was not in Lima but in Miraflores, an area of the city located along the seacoast where the green spaces are impeccable, and the traffic-filled streets are clean and crowded with the Toyotas and Kias. Even the dogs and cats are looked after by the local government. There are tall buildings, enormous stores and restaurants. That’s Miraflores, a district of Lima where anyone would enjoying living, even in spite of high walls and electrical fences.

I was invited by the Institute for Freedom to participate in a seminar on digital journalism and communication technology. These were luxurious conferences, attended by people highly-qualified in their fields. I went to learn and I learned a lot. I also had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. It felt strange to be treated so cordially in the markets, restaurants, stores and when asking for directions on the street.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne sees a different Lima in Gamarra, an impressive commercial perimeter whose counterpart — if there is one — might only be found in some Asian megalopolis. In Gamarra you can hear money growing. This pedestrian-oriented rectangle produces more wealth than many countries. All the activity can make you feel dizzy. Not far from here I can see a hill encrusted with little houses, which arouses my curiosity. It is a poor area where the police do not dare enter, where the recipe for material success goes unfulfilled. We have to leave Gamarra before nightfall.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I would have liked to check out the bar frequented by Zavalita and Ambrosio in Conversation in the Cathedral, or to walk through the University of San Marcos and see if there is a bust, at least a plaque, commemorating Vallejo’s time there.* I had to settle for a bridge and the Chabuca Granda shopping mall in Barranco — a beautiful old area — and a delicious ride on a double-decker tour bus to the city center.

We Cubans always end up talking about food, but to go to Peru and not talk about its food would be a crime. The seviche — which is also spelled with a c and a b — in the food market is unforgettable, as are the huancaína fries and the enormous sweet corn kernels.

mirafloresI must admit that I never dreamt that in a such busy week I would make new friends who will forever stay with me. And there was the city itself, which I pretended to recognize even when Miraflores did not resemble the opulent and modern residential area of Vargas Llosa’s novels.

 

Translator’s note: A reference to a novel, Conversation in the Cathedral, by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. The plot revolves around the lives of Santiago Zavala and Ambrosio — one the son of a government minister, the other his chauffeur. A chance meeting leads to a conversation between the two at a bar known as the Cathedral. Zavala is a student activist at the National University of San Marcos who opposes the Peruvian dictatorship of the 1950s.

13 June 2014

Brief Inventory of Personal Fears / Regina Coyula

As with almost everyone, as a girl darkness was a problem. I loved playing hide and seek, crouching in the bushes, but when evening came, the shadows became something dangerous, boogeymen coming to take me away, and I would run to the safety of adults and the light.

Another of my major fears at that time was that I would get sick on vacation, With chronic throat problems, tonsillitis threatened to rob me of the beach; and I had reasons to fear the colds all around me or a certain burning when I swallowed, or too strong a fan overnight.

Those fears gave way to others, trivial or important, but no less for this: the fear of failing an exam, losing a boyfriend, getting fat, of not sounding too combative in an era of ideological definitions given my petty bourgeois ballast.

Ultimately, the beach lost its charms for me years ago, because of the sun that pursues us everywhere on this little Caribbean island; I now had boyfriends and all it would take was for me to look at something to get fat. Coming from the bourgeoisie haunted me like a ghost in my youth, I couldn’t compete with those who maintained the discourse of the barricade, but they lived in the old houses and according to the manner of the overthrown bourgeoisie.

I continued to be a scaredy-cat, just my fears changes. I had a panic attack they day they did a caesarean to get my son out. I remember dressing in white and walking with a gladiolus in my hand to honor Orlando Zapata Tamayo on the anniversary of this death, and when a car stopped to ask directions I almost had a heart attack. Last December 10 (Human Rights Day) was another good occasion to be afraid.

Very recently, happy on returning from a seminar on citizen journalism and social networks in Lima, Peru, I was taken to the “little room” by customs officials. My luggage wasn’t overweight, there was nothing illegal, but they did a detailed search of my luggage, and retained for “customs inspection” SCAN0000, a laptop with charger and mouse, a camcorder with two tripods and four memory cards, two external drives, all new in their original box, in addition to my camera, my tablet, a USB drive and my phone, the latter not even having a charger; articles that on leaving Cuba didn’t need to be declared for personal use.

The other suspicious articles were four books written by my husband, which also left with me, a book about social networks I was given, and the folder with the conference agenda and my handwritten notes.

I spoke to you of far. All these valuable articles often upsetting the balance of saving money, how not to feel a punch in the gut to see them disappear into a sack, no matter how much you’ve got all the right paperwork. At that time it came to mind the cases of theft in customs. But that wasn’t the greatest fear.

With my hands crossed over my knees so as not to show my nervousness, I saw how a piece of my privacy was handled with impunity. The little I said was to make clear the arbitrariness of which I was the object. I didn’t waste energy, because those officials face other officials; the political police who ordered the measure.

Then a strange fear is provoked, because I gave no thought to abandoning my openly critical stance towards the government. The fear that set my adrenaline flowing, confirmed for me the nefariousness of a regime which, far from serving its citizens, is allowed to ride roughshod over them, over their sovereignty.

It’s time to recover this sovereignty.

4 June 2014

Prosperous and Sustainable (2) / Regina Coyula

My troubles did not end with the molars. Thinking myself clever, a month ago I bought a combined ceiling fan and light fixture at the Plaza Carlos III shopping mall. From an initial price of 120.00 CUCs, it had been reduced to 35 because it was missing its shade. I did not think twice because the phallic bulbs they have been selling since the “energy revolution” will not fit inside any shade anyway. But to paraphrase a popular saying, when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I should have thought twice and walked away.

The electrician installing the new appliance pointed out that the screws used to attach the blades were not original. There was also evidence it had been repainted, indicating that the fan had been installed and for some reason uninstalled. He recommended that I return it.

With the item still under warranty, I went back to Carlos III to ask for a refund. The same employee who had sold me the fan told me that, although it was Wednesday, the day they handle returns, I would first have to go to the studio several blocks away where they would give me the paperwork authorizing the return.

The box the fan came in was bulky and quite heavy. As everyone knows, I am a certified expert in public transport, so I had the foresight to call to my brother, who owns a car, to help with the transaction.

It exhausts me just thinking about all the neurons I wasted trying to explain this to the employee, more neurons than she ever had. Fearing I would have a heart attack, a young man, clearly someone of importance in the chain of command there, came to my assistance. He understood and simplified the issue:

“I don’t know why they told you to come here,” he said, “because the problem is with the store, not with us.”

Back again to Carlos III. The same employee reiterated that this was not her problem, pointing to a faintly printed piece paper on the wall behind the counter. Even with perfect vision a customer could still only guess that it had something to do with the store’s return policy. But I had my own plan. I put the fan in the middle of the counter and asked to speak to the floor manager. Since this was preventing her from attending to the other “users” — at this point you will have noticed that being a customer in Cuba is highly unusual and no doubt considered unpatriotic — the employee told a young man to go get Alain. Upon hearing my explanation, Alain told the employee, “Give her a refund.”

And with money in hand I could not help but blurt out a well-worn phrase:

“That is why this thing must fail.”

At a minimum I enjoyed the gestures and words of affirmation from the line of people behind me.

11 May 2014

Prosperous and Sustainable (1) / Regina Coyula

My adolescence coincided with the era in which almost all Cuba’s dentists left the country. When I finally saw one, the most expeditious course of treatment was to remove two of my molars that in other circumstances would have been saved. But those battle-hardened dentists could not be bothered with such details as a teenager’s smile, no matter how cheerful it may have been. So as soon as I could, I had a permanent bridge made. My little bridge allowed me laugh without embarrassment until two years ago when old age began to move things around. Every time the bridge came loose, I — more stubborn than it — put it back in place. But by the end of last year it finally gave out.

In the judgement of the prosthetist a new permanent bridge was required because neither removable bridges nor dental implants were suitable in my case due to the shallowness of the occlusion. These bridges are metal but the clinic did not make them, which meant I would have to go to the School of Dentistry.

So off I went to see a Doctor Lorenzo, the only person authorized to treat patients at the school. I went on a Wednesday but Lorenzo only sees patients on Mondays. Come early, I was warned.

The following Monday I arrived at seven in the morning. At eight the doctor’s secretary appeared at the doorway and announced that the doctor had to deal with a personal matter and would not be coming to work. The following Monday I was unable to go and the Monday after that I found out, also at eight, that Lorenzo would not be seeing patients since the school was closed for a week-long break.

Last Monday the orbital paths of Dr. Lorenzo’s and myself were finally in alignment but it was for naught. Sitting behind his desk, Dr. Lorenzo was seeing patients while on auto-pilot. In my case that meant there was nothing that could be done since the metal fabricating machine had been broken since November.

Caramba! Considering how easy it is to post a little announcement, a note could have saved me three trips here.”

Whenever I asked Lorenzo where I could have the work done, he responded with the mantra, “Go to your healthcare provider.”

“But my healthcare provider told me to come here!” I said.

“Go to your healthcare provider.”

“And you can’t tell me where else to go?” I asked.

“Go to your healthcare provider.”

I went to my healthcare provider, the national reference center, and in my conversation with the prosthetist she described the conditions of her workplace. There had been no equipment in place since 2011, visitors spill out into the hallway and no journalist had looked into it.

She mentioned other places where it was possible to have the work done but I would have to go on a personal basis since the clinic only referred cases to the School of Dentistry. She did not say it but “on a personal basis” sounded to me like, for the right amount, I would be able to laugh out loud without any molars missing.

9 May 2014