Cubans relax on the famed Malecon or seawall at dusk.

Everything in the Toliet

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April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After a fitful night of sleeping and waking intermittently to listen for Cuba security skulking outside the house, I wake up before the maid and driver arrive at Ed’s house.

The gated fence to enter the compound of Ed's house and school across the street where Cuban "spooks" watch the house and all who enter.

The gated fence to enter the compound of Ed’s house and school across the street where Cuban “spooks” watch.

Walking through the empty house I look in the kitchen for a glass to drink some water. Sure enough, near the cabinets where the glasses are kept is the bulky water treatment tank where the potable water for the household is purified. Ed had already warned me not to drink untreated water anywhere in Cuba, so I carefully pour myself a glass of water from their large purified water dispenser.

In the 1950s, the Cuban middle class enjoyed all the civilized comforts of modern conveniences, including a then-modern plumbing system.

Havana was also a popular travel destination. My mother had told me stories how she and my dad had honeymooned by taking the ferry from Key West to Havana to visit Cuba in the very early days of the revolution. You can watch a short clip of the ferry docking in Havana here – the dresses and purses the women wear in the video brought back memories of my mother’s closet.

After 50-plus years of infrastructure neglect, Cuba’s plumbing and sewer systems are as cracked as the lines on the sun scarred face of a campesino farmer toiling on a Viñales tobacco farm. With every flush of a toilet, wastewater leaks and contaminates the country’s supply of drinking water.

Drink untreated water and you’ll get a hefty dose of cholera. An infectious and often fatal bacterial disease of the small intestine, it’s not the souvenir from a trip to Cuba anyone would want.

Despite the house’s distinction as the official residence of the U.S. Coast Guard liaison, it is a modest family home, with ample kitchen, dining, and living rooms, a family T.V. room, and several bedrooms branching off from the one story’s main living areas.

A bathroom in the central part of the house is quarantined from use. Barricading the entire door is cardboard and multiple strips of masking tape crisscrossing the door with a hand written, bilingual explanation.

“Do not use. No usa.”

Today’s mission is sightseeing followed by securing a rental car for my drive across Cuba starting tomorrow. I plan to drive from northwestern Cuba where Havana is located to Trinidad in the south central part of the country. At just under 200 miles I figure I should be able to make the drive in an afternoon.

I will not see Ed and meet his wife and daughters until I return from Trinidad. As I am looking in the refrigerator for the makings of a breakfast, David and Maria (I’ve changed her name) arrive.

Maria is a youthful looking tall, lean woman in her late 30s or early 40s. She introduces herself with a slight smile and asks me quickly if I’d like some scrambled eggs for breakfast, pulling out a skillet before I can answer.

David and I were mapping out our route for the day. After visiting two or three landmarks, we would dedicate the remainder of the afternoon to finding a rental car.

What would normally take a simple click of an online reservation requires serious resources not available to most Cubans. It takes mobility, an available working car, and for this American unable to use a U.S. credit card, lots of tourist currency cash.

Sitting in the kitchen, the two make no bones about sizing me up as we talk about my plans for the day. Before I finish my meal and first cup of coffee, they are already arguing about how exactly to categorize me.

Pero no entiendo ni papa,” I told David when I asked why we couldn’t go to one reservation agency and have them check the company’s inventory. “I don’t understand, not even potatoes.”

Yes, I know, a weird Cuban saying, but one my mother used constantly. That triggered the first argument of the day.

“You don’t understand because you’re not a Cuban, living under our conditions resolviendo, trying to resolve things practically every minute of the day,” Maria shot back to me.

Resolver, or “to resolve” is using one’s intricate network of personnel connections, often trading favors, to resolve and obtain the basic necessities of life in Cuba.

“Wait, she’s Cuban, everyone in her family is Cuban, listen to how she talks, she even uses our dichos (sayings),” David defended me.

“Bah, that means nothing,” Maria said as she turned her back, focused on the sink suddenly. “If she’s so Cuban, why is she here alone? Why isn’t she visiting family?”

After telling her my cover story—I’m on a regional Cuban cookbook research trip—she launches into another discurso, or speech.

“When I was growing up we ate Cuban food, real Cuban food,” she said. “My father used to make garbanzos fritos that were exquisite, full of chorizo [Spanish sausage] and ham.

Y ahora? And now? It’s only a memory. Good luck finding anything that even resembles meat.”

[For how to make what are basically Cuban “refried beans” try this delicious and easy recipe for Cuban chickpeas in red sauce.]

The sinking feeling blanketing my first breakfast in Cuba is the one telling me my Cuban aunt was right. The same aunt who warned me not to visit Cuba had scoffed at my idea for a regional cookbook.

“¡Que locura! Madness!” she had practically screamed into the phone. “Good luck finding any food in Cuba to write about.”

My defender David waits while I grab my map, camera, and notebook. Before I walk outside toward the Prius, Maria hands me a new roll of toilet paper.

“You’re going to need this,” she tells me. “Have it with you everywhere you go.”

“¿De verdad? Really?” I said, stuffing the roll into my camera bag.

“Yes, really,” Maria said, going back into the kitchen.

We set off first for the Chocolate Museum since it’s Monday and most other museums are closed.

As David drives in the restored parts of Havana, I notice there are no parking meters anywhere. The government requires that everyone work, so the 100 percent employment rate manifests itself in interesting ways.

After we park diagonally near the Chocolate Museum, an old man comes to the car, chats briefly with David, then leaves to join a group of more weathered men talking nearby. With a surplus of males needing (and not necessarily wanting) employment, parking is handled by a man wearing a red or yellow vest who typically collects your parking fare when you leave. It is left to your discretion what to pay, anywhere from 10 cents to 25 cents.

David at the Chocolate Museum

David at the Chocolate Museum.

We enjoy a wonderfully thick cup of hot chocolate and I read about Cuba’s history of producing it for the U.S. market. There’s even the ghost town of Hersey, Cuba, where the chocolate company created its model town in 1916 about 30 miles outside Havana.

Outside the 500-year old colonial town of Trinidad, the Hersey railroad still runs in nearby Valle de los Ingenios where sugar used to be produced and shipped.

But after drinking water and hot chocolate, I need to use the restroom.

The woman behind the counter in the museum’s chocolate café looks skeptically as I ask the location of the bathroom. She cautions me that it is a public toilet and points around the corner to a door that opens to an interior courtyard. I find a closet-sized room with a battered sign on the door that reads “toilette.”

“Toliet” is open to interpretation. The 1950s era bathroom only has the toilet bowl base and a badly stained, cracked sink. The toliet seat and cover, toilet tank cover, toliet paper, paper towels, and soap are all long gone.

My thighs get a workout and I gratefully dig into my camera bag for toilet paper. The barely trickling flow of chlorea-laden water leaks out of the faucet  basting my hands with the contaminated cocktail until I remember this is the untreated water I was supposed to avoid. Digging antiseptic wipes out from my camera bag I rejoin David.

The excavated foundation of the city's original walls built in the 17th century next to a building undergoing renovation in the old part of Havana.

The excavated foundation of the city’s original walls built in the 17th century next to a building undergoing renovation in the old part of Havana.

I’ve only been in the county for 24 hours and everything in the toilette, on both the small and grander scale, reflect the reality that is Cuba’s crumbling infrastructure.

Featured image shows Cubans relaxing on the famed Malecon or seawall at dusk. Photo taken by Iris Gonzalez.

Did you miss my first post in the Cuban travelogue series? You can read it here.

2 thoughts on “Everything in the Toliet

  1. Iris… this post couldn’t be more timely. The reality you so clearly illustrate is that everything must be maintained or it deteriorates. As a born and raised San Antonian I often marvel at just how GOOD we have it in our city. The infrastructure predicament you describe is exactly why we need to invest in and appreciate that infrastructure that we have. That we can safely open the tap and drink clean, safe water and flush our toilet without worrying about contamination or an open river of sewage somewhere is because of investments in our system. But here is the catch… we only know what we know. When our lives have not been exposed to how bad it can be elsewhere we assume this way of life is a God Given RIGHT, that it shouldn’t cost much or anything at all to maintain our infrastructure. Even the slightest interruption and inconvenience is seen as a major offense but how many people in the world, even in other communities in the US, live without reliable and safe water and wastewater infrastructure? I’ve seen similar problems in cities in Mexico and Europe… when infrastructure (water, wastewater, roads, etc.) are not a priority everything does end up in the toilet. Thanks for sharing. Loving your series.

    • Iris Gonzalez

      Lilliana, thanks for your thoughtful comment. You are so right– those things we assume as baseline living conditions such as safe water, working infrastructure, heck, toliet paper– are not so common outside the U.S.

      Cuba is much, much more than the Instagram-ready historic facades of Old Havana. I hope you’ll continue to read my series in which I write about what is behind that facade, the reality of being a Cuban in today’s Cuba.

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