Kali Persall’s Blogs

The garbage revolution

By Kali Persall

The warm water, palm trees and crystal-white sand of the Santa Maria beach were everything I pictured when I used to think of Cuba, a picturesque island in the Caribbean. However over the past four days, my rosy tourist perspective has disintegrated as my eyes increasingly open to the real Cuba, a very different picture than travel agencies sell to Americans.

The beaches do glitter with the promised tropical, soft white sand, but they’re also littered with garbage. Beer and soda cans bob on the balmy waves and children play with glass bottles like toy boats in the surf. Candy wrappers and diapers poke out of the sand and I worry more about stepping on broken glass than sea life.

While garbage may seem to be a side effect of such a populated destination point as the beach, the ocean isn’t the only thing impacted by Cuban waste. Litter lines the concrete Malecon, the seawall that separates the city from the ocean, and in rural towns outside the city of Havana, trash propagates almost abundantly as vegetation. Potholes on the sidewalks of the city function like makeshift garbage receptacles and soda cans cap the ends of tree branches that shade the sidewalks.

As progressive as Cubans are in some aspects, when it comes to their waste, they lack in environmental consciousness.

It seems like their actions are in response to their poor living conditions, void of luxury and personal autonomy; most of their day-to-day lives are controlled by the state. Government rations are sparse and Cubans can’t own their own property. They are paid around 30CUC per month, equivalent to $30 in the U.S.

Today in Old Havana, I dropped 1CUC on the ground and had to step on it to stop three different kids from taking it, they swooped down so quickly. Our tour guide confirmed that in Havana, entire families live in crumbling, dilapidated buildings that once belonged to Cuba’s elite, who vacated during the revolution. They are passed down from generation to generation and would be deemed uninhabitable in the U.S.

Cuba is impoverished, but poverty does not guarantee squalor. I believe that Cuban’s attitude toward managing their waste speaks volumes about way they view themselves, their culture and their leaders. Perhaps they are simply uninformed about things like carbon footprints, however I believe that their lackadaisical attitude regarding waste is intentional.

In a Communist country where food is rationed and property is owned by the government, blatantly not adhering to minimal state policies could be interpreted as a subtle act of defiance, a way to regain control of their autonomy.

In America we have litter and landfills—entire islands of floating trash—however I believe U.S. waste is largely due to a mixture of carelessness, privilege and luxury. With a system of Capitalism, we have too many goods and a disposable “if you break it, buy a new one,” mentality. In Cuba, their waste disposal hints at an undercurrent of repression and poverty.

While Cuba is advertised as a tourist’s paradise, the residents of the city know a different Cuba. A paradox exists, symbolically portrayed by Cuba’s picturesque beaches, marred by the ugly aftermath of gluttony and ignorance.

Cuba debatably progressed in numerous ways under Fidel Castro, however there are many things about the lifestyle that make visitors like myself, who are used to a more luxurious lifestyle, uncomfortable. When we finally realize that the true Cuba doesn’t quite stack up to the Cuba of our dreams, we can simply leave and choose not to see the ugly truth lurking just below the surface.

But Cubans will wake up tomorrow and the candy wrappers, used condoms and beer bottles will still be there. And they will keep adding and adding to the piles because nobody’s organizing any beach cleanups anytime soon.

A woman’s place [in Cuba]
My favorite monument in Havana lives in the courtyard of the Plaza Vieja. A voluptuous woman wielding a fork rides a giant rooster that stands poised on one leg. There’s no plaque and no explanation of the meaning behind the statue but it’s intriguing and strangely empowering.

The woman is unabashedly naked except for her shoes, and seems to have tamed the masculine chicken. It’s unique and also symbolic of the progress that women have made toward equal rights in Cuba.

In the workforce, women are doctors, engineers and small business owners. CENESEX and the FMC, two major organizations that were established by Raul Castro’s wife Vilma and carried on by daughter Mariela, are devoted to preserving and enhancing this movement.

My project in Cuba focused on women’s rights. I interviewed various women from different walks of life to get a sense of what life is like for women in Cuba and gained an entirely new perspective. The leader of an all-women band shared that they have to work twice as hard as men to establish themselves in the music industry. They practice six days a week and play five; all of the women can play multiple instruments and sing as well.

A social psychologist-turned-nail salon owner switched to the beauty industry because she couldn’t find a job that paid well enough in her field. She employs one other girl and paints nails in the front room of her house. She charged me only 3 CUC’s or $3 to paint and file my nails.

A professor of women’s studies at the University of Havana shared that there are limited organizations and resources to help women who are victims of domestic violence, a frequent occurrence in Cuba. While organizations like the FMC and CENESEX supposedly devote themselves to women’s rights, the interests of the revolution come first.

In theory, this was all very fascinating for my project, yet it wasn’t until the last night of my trip that I witnessed firsthand what life is like for many women in Cuba.

Two of my classmates and I were walking back from dinner when a women ran by us down the sidewalk. Chasing her, a man suddenly yanked her backwards by the hair and started hitting her in the face. All three of us exchanged a look, wide-eyed and frozen; terrified to do something and terrified to not.

The couple continued to scuffle. The woman hit back and he subdued her and delivered a punishing blow until she strode away. Then he followed her, they’d argue and the cycle continued for what seemed like an eternity, though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes.

People walking nearby didn’t even stop to look. My classmate approached a man, dressed professionally and likely walking home from work. The man ignored my friend’s pleas to help and waved him away. We next approached a couple and were told not to do anything and that getting involved would only make matters worse. In all likelihood, the woman would end up defending her man and somehow placing the blame on us, we were told. “This is the way things are here.” Eventually we persuaded them to call the police, but the only thing it really did was make us feel like we did something progressive about the situation.

The experience was sobering but also eye opening. Behind the monuments and icons of women’s empowerment, there’s a dark face of the women’s movement; one that I hope to bring to light through my photos and article.

The Cuban dining game
You can tell a lot about a culture by observing how it ritualizes mealtimes. In America, convenience and efficiency are prioritized over quality of both food and togetherness. In Cuba, the process is much slower and more laborious. Drive-thru’s don’t exist and you’re forced to take a more active role in dining, which means either tracking down your own waiter or standing at a table or bar to eat because there aren’t enough chairs. Among these, there are some other unspoken rules I’ve discovered when eating out in Cuba.

Claim your own table as quickly as possible.
When someone gets up from a table that you’re waiting for, you have to beeline there as fast as possible. In some situations a host will seat you, but more often it’s up to you to secure your own table. If there’s an empty seat, someone will fill it if you’re not quick enough.

Expect each meal to take about an hour.
You have to have patience and don’t expect a quick trip in and out like in America. Mealtime is a bonding opportunity and a slow process. Hosts don’t incessantly check up on you and your food will take longer than expected to arrive. While servers are quicker to clear off empty plates and glasses than in the United States, you usually have to ask for the check.

Nothing is guaranteed.
Due to rations and limited food supply, you might order a pizza and sandwich at a café one day and return the next to find them completely out of bread. Dishes at restaurants also change according to what’s available that day. For example, a few classmates ordered the same dish on two separate occasions and received a slightly different meal. The other day, I stood in line at a small, state-owned market down the street for 30 minutes to buy water, only to find out halfway through the line that they had none. I’ve been told over and over that in Cuba, you need a Plan B, C and D, because things don’t always work out how you expect them to, and I can verify that from experience.

Being a tourist doesn’t work in your favor.
While state-run restaurants have fixed prices for food, if you’re not versed in food charges you may end up paying extra because you’re a tourist and they can get away with it. While many restaurants add a 10 percent service charge to the bill, my interpreter informed me that there should never be a tax charge on top of that.

More than a meal
Mealtimes are about more than sustenance. They provide an opportunity to bond and spend time with one another. In Cuba that sense of community and togetherness is much stronger than in America. Eating out in this country has taught me patience, humility and has encouraged me to both be assertive and to keep an open mind.

Language barrier
As I sit in the front seat of a 1960s Chevrolet taxi headed to Old Havana, conversation swirls around me, but I can only understand fragments of sentences, enough to give me a gist of the connections taking place without me. I’m powerless to reply because I can’t speak Spanish, the dominant language here in Cuba. Even with my yellow pocket dictionary in my bag, I simply don’t have the words.

Living in Havana for the past week has been a culture shock in many aspects, but perhaps the most irritating and unexpected one is the language barrier. Although I knew Spanish was the dominant language before I came, truth be told, I expected more people to speak English.

Although before this trip, I thought myself understanding of diversity, I realized that my assumption is indicative of inferential white privilege.

I’ve progressed through different stages in how I feel about speaking a minority language here. I started off with an eagerness to learn, followed by deference and respect for my Spanish-speaking friends. Now its frustration at my incompetencies.

In order to get around here, I either have to put my broken Spanish to work alongside ambiguous, lunatic gestures and hope it somehow makes sense, or beg one of our translators or my Spanish-speaking friends to come out with me. I feel like I’m missing out on making connections and talking freely with the local people and my ability to communicate is stifled and strained in a way I can’t control, which I’ve never experienced before. It makes me feel stupid.

As a white woman who grew up where English is the dominant language, I’ve never had to know what it’s like to go to the store, post office or hospital and be unable to communicate.

There’s an ethnocentric belief that in America everyone should learn English or that non-English speakers are less intelligent because they don’t know the dominant language. President Donald Trump’s tone-deaf immigration-centered speeches, which include calling Mexicans “bad hombres” and blocking Muslims from entering the U.S, certainly haven’t helped to promote diversity.

There’s a pervasive narrow-mindedness in the U.S. that keeps us safe in our English-speaking bubble by convincing us that we don’t need to learn other languages, that instead everyone else should learn ours. In America, you are mocked for your broken English or your thick accent. Here in Cuba, people appreciate it if you try.

It’s uncomfortable being a minority here in Cuba and the other day I felt so discouraged that for a moment I had the urge to cry and bury myself within the confines of my bed with my safe English thoughts. But I know that in the long run it’s humbling and motivating for me to feel this way, and that’s healthy. Your life begins where your comfort zone ends. Wish me luck.

The Bare Essentials
Outside the Hotel Presidente, people sit on the dirty sidewalk and balance on tree branches to check their emails and surf the web. Wifi in Havana isn’t accessible everywhere and it isn’t free.

This area is one of a series of wifi hot spots around the city. Here at the hotel, you pay 2 CUC (CUC’s are paired to the U.S. dollar) for an hour of use. According to my translator, locals can buy it for 1.50 CUC elsewhere but on the street, people sometimes sell it to desperate, uninformed tourists for as much as 5 CUC.

It’s a luxury we take for granted in the United States. While health care and education are free, luxury items like wifi, which are relatively new to Cuban society, are not.

It’s hard to imagine being so stifled in America. Miraculously,  Facebook and Instagram work here in Havana, however  Snapchat does not. The Internet, while available, is still heavily censored and not widely accessible, but I don’t think this is necessarily a negative thing.

It seems that in Cuba people need less to be happy and the basic necessities are enough. Thanks to Capitalism, America is a consumer society; we’re constantly being bombarded with products and items that we don’t need, and being told to spend money that we don’t have.

We place too much value on physical goods and fool ourselves into thinking our quality of life, our social status and our happiness depends on it.

A few days ago I visited the mall down the street. Rogue split peas free from their packages littered the sparse shelves. There were three choices of shampoo and laundry detergent. Some of the freezers were completely empty. It was a far cry from U.S. stores, packed to the brim with microwave dinners and processed frozen food.

The other day in Casa Blanca, I witnessed young boys playing on makeshift skateboards, made of wooden boards with wheels. Children hit a can back and forth with sticks and it hit me that the Cuban people seem happier than people in the U.S. who have too much of the things that don’t matter. I continue to be impressed by the strong sense of community here. You don’t need wifi, Snapchat or toys. All you truly need are the bare essentials.