Havana Days

05/28/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016
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Four months into my stay in Havana, I woke up to find three enormous boxes of potatoes in the kitchen. I had never seen a potato in Cuba. Apparently, a friend brought them because, "Here, when you see potatoes in the market, you buy them for you and everyone you know." For a week, potatoes were all anyone would talk about, and lines lasted for hours. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, the potatoes were gone.

It's like that in Cuba. Nothing makes sense. Markets run out of things for no reason. Last year the pharmacies ran out of birth control for a few months -- a bit more worrisome than the potatoes.

People often say the more you learn about Cuba, the less you know. Cuba is enthralling and infectious and confounding. Its people, government and culture coexist and collide like a fiery Latin science experiment, unfolding on the streets of beautiful, crumbling Havana.

Many things work in Cuba. Education and health care are free, cultural events abound. Though my host parents lived day to day, they got by. There was enough food, they had a TV, microwave, and cell phones. And more than that Cubans are very real about their situations -- Cubans describe themselves as "realists."

The longer I was there, the more I understood the struggle of daily life. One time, the rubberband from our coffee maker broke and there was not a rubberband in all of Havana. Another time, my host dad walked 2 miles to buy a nail. Everyday requires a valiant effort to ensure basic needs are met. Originally, I thought that Cubans were "content". That was the wrong word. They know something better could exist, but they don't spend all their time getting worked up about life's difficulties. Cubans always answer questions with "No sé, es así" ("I don't know, it's just how things are.") So now I would say that Cubans aren't discontented.

I learned a lot in Havana, mostly from observation. Here are a few anecdotes to describe the everyday.

At a university festival, a student-made video was presented called "Alicia en Algún Lugar" ("Alice in Someland," a play on Alice in Wonderland). In the video, "Someland" is Cuba and "Wonderland" the United States. In Wonderland, there is money, clothes, food -- it is the "yuma" (a colloquial word for hot Americans). The cat highlights bad things about Someland. "Impossible fly" "Impossible survive on the monthly ration of milk," etc. Alicia points out some good things about Someland: the people, the culture, the education and health systems. There is a spirit who can be alive and dead at the same time who is supposedly Fidel. Obama is the "mulattico" who is trying to change Wonderland's rules. Ultimately, Alicia decides to stay in Cuba/Someland. At the end, she asks, "And now, you guys, what do you want? To stay or to go?" The video was shown to thousands of students.

About Cuban race: everyone is everything and lines are blurry and undefined. Race isn't a definitive category in Cuba. Cubans don't even use the word "race"; they say color of skin. I was once talking to a friend about the dogs in Cuba, how "they are such a mix! You can never tell what kind of dog they are or where they even came from." And she responded, "Yeah, like us."

One Sunday, our neighbor had a Santeria (a popular Afro-Cuban religion) ritual in which two chickens and a goat were sacrificed. I unfortunately saw it all. Every few weeks after a sacred day in Santeria, dead chickens cover Havana's streets.

A tourist once brought a bottle of ketchup to our house. It was a special kind of Heinz, "100% for kids", with cartoons all over it. It was the same as regular ketchup though. My host mom took one look at it and said, " propaganda."

Cubans survive by doing favors for one another. The microwave breaks? Roberto's cousin can do that. Someone needs a ride somewhere? Andres has a car. If you need an emergency doctor's appointment, you need a friend at the hospital. These people are called "palancas" in Spanish. "Palanca" means lever, but it describes anyone who helps you get a leg up within the system. You need a palanca to get anything done.

I saw everyday sights, which never failed to surprise me. There were roosters and horses roaming the streets, black smoke spewing from the old American cars, young boys on rollerblades holding on to buses and flying down main streets. There were kids playing baseball with sticks and bottle caps, girls listening to Taylor Swift's latest song, old men playing dominos, buses packed with passengers blasting reggaeton, people sitting and talking, standing and talking, sitting and watching....Shouting, yelling, singing, whistling, "tss-ing", and laughing.

I heard everyday sayings, which never failed to enthrall me. When the markets run out of eggs for no reason: "La vida es así" (That's just life.) When your cell phone service is cut off because of the astronomical cost of texts: "La vida no es fácil" (Life isn't easy). When Cubans describe their dreams to travel, and their inability to do so: "Hay que reír porque, ¿qué vamos a hacer? ¿Llorar?" (We have to laugh because what are we going to do? Cry?)