La reina de la cocina Cubana

- “Electric pressure cooker: The Queen of the Cuban Kitchen”

Those of you who have been keeping up with the recipes these past few weeks have undoubtedly by now wondered how electric pressure cookers came to be so popular in Cuban kitchens that they are practically a necessary element in Cuban cooking, while a foreign concept to most US cooks.  In many ways, this can be attributed to the difference in food culture in Cuba, where families do not have cereal or stop at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for breakfast, pack lunchmeat sandwiches or go to Subway at lunchtime and order pizza or Chinese takeout for dinner.  (I am in no way suggesting that the US population in general follows this pattern, but rather pointing out that these are options that do exist in our daily lives.)  In Cuba, however, due to financial realities and values surrounding the family meal, as well as the perceived importance of a hot meal in general, most meals for average Cubans are prepared, and often eaten, in the home.

Compact, clean, quick and convenient, the electric pressure cooker, or reina, is truly the queen of the Cuban kitchen.  But “la reina de la cocina Cubana” has affected more than Cuban kitchens; it has changed the lives of Cuban women and Cuban society in general…while also having positive health, safety and environmental implications.  I talked to four cubanas, professional, working women who are also mothers, wives and housekeepers, on the value of the reina in their daily life and society.  They also shared their advice to busy working women everywhere who often find themselves without a spare moment in the day between working, taking care of a household, making sure your children have their homework done, spending time with your spouse and being sure your family has three balanced, healthy and delicious meals a day.

The Basics of the Reina

In appearance, the electric pressure cooker does not look very different from the rice cooker.  The cooking bowls for each are non-stick and hold similar quantities of food.  Additionally, Coralia Hernandez, 53-year-old licensed Professor of Psychology and mother from Palmo Soriano in Santiago de Cuba explains that the designs of the reina and rice cooker make them both practical kitchen utensils and fit for display in the household, calling the reina, “an object that is both useful and decorative.” The key difference between the electric pressure cooker and the rice cooker is in the tight seal made by the lid of the reina that allows the food to cook for a time specified by the timer in its own vapors, along with any desired seasonings, sauce or oils.  The devices come in large and small sizes, with models with 25, 45 and 90-minute timers.  At the end of the cooking process, you release a valve that emits hot steam for several minutes before releasing the seal.  Because of this airtight seal preventing the escape of heat or steam, Cuban women cooking with a reina are able to prepare meals in a fraction of the time.

Many of the benefits of this method of food preparation are obvious, saving the cook time, mess and gas use…and also enabling people who are not incredibly talented cooks, or who are preparing meals using new types of meats or vegetables, to make a tasty meal.  But cooking in the reina has health and safety benefits also. As opposed to the methods of the past which required cooking over open flame, using charcoal, kerosene or similar cooking lubricant, or gas flame, the risk of fires and inhaling excessive gasses and soot are eliminated when cooking with the electric pressure cooker.  Concerning the additional health benefits of the reina: as you do not need to use as much butter or oil in your cooking as you would when using a frying pan, and the tenderness of the meats comes from its own natural and flavorful juices and liquids that are not lost in the cooking process, your meals have more flavor and less added saturated fats.  In addition, you are inclined to prepare and eat more vegetables on a daily basis if all you have to do for potato or squash, for example, is chop them up and plop them in the pot and wait 20 or 30 minutes and serve your meal, complete with veggies.)  Carmen Mariño, 49-year-old economist and mother from Yara in Granma, commented “You don’t have to add even a drop of water or [oil].  With nothing more than the seasoning and a little bit of vinegar or vino seco or sauce, that’s it!  You top it and in 30 minutes you have a chicken…or any type of meat that is really tender.”

While stovetop pressure cookers have been a staple in Cuban kitchens for generations, electric pressure cookers became the prized possession of Cuban cooks only about 6 years ago during the Electricity Campaign.  In this campaign, the Cuban government announced the Energy Revolution, in which Cuban households and businesses would transition from gas and old energy-inefficient appliances to energy-efficient electric appliances.  This included the promotion of reinas, electric rice cookers and electric ranges in the kitchen along with the use of energy-efficient light bulbs and televised campaigns to warn against wasting energy and electricity by leaving lights on or leaving refrigerators open.

The reina was introduced into Cuban society when Fidel Castro, then president of Cuba, made a televised announcement to the women of Cuba that he believed electric pressure cookers could be the answer to a number of problems for Cuban woman and society, as well as to limit gas use and benefit the environment.  He implemented a program in which most Cuban families were given a credit towards the purchase of a reina in any of the Cuban stores, making them affordable for everyone.    Coralia recalled:

When the electricity campaign started for saving energy was when we received [the reinas] from all the CDR’s[1]… I think it was Fidel himself that gave her the name reina.  Because he said— when he presented her (because no one had one or had heard of one)— he said: ‘And here is the queen.  The queen because it will do everything.’   He told us all of her advantages for the Cuban woman in her work; guaranteeing her time to do her work in society as well as her work in the home.

This was a much-needed break for the women of Cuba.  After the triumph of the revolution in 1959, Cuban women had embraced opportunities to improve and advance themselves through study and entering the workforce as professionals in any field they chose; but this new life as professional women or students did not remove their responsibilities in the home or towards their families.  Many women during these early years sacrificed personal time and social activities as they pursued lives as full-time professionals as well as full-time housewives.  Over the years, these cubanas learned to juggle their responsibilities and used their famous Cuban innovations to make daily life more manageable, with all its problems.  Yet Davis Rodriguez Tus, 46-year-old clinical lab technician and mother from Punto de Maisi in Oriente, insists that now, “[the reina] has resolved the problems of the Cuban women.  It is really effective, really efficient, really fantastic…Fidel had a great vision wanting to give every Cuban woman a reina.”  Carmen added,  “It is the best gift they could have given Cuban society.  For the Cuban woman it is incredible.” Six years later, there is least one reina (and sometimes several) in most Cuban kitchens.

Value in Daily Life and Society

The primary value of the reina in the lives of most women is the time it saves them throughout their incredibly busy days.  Though born in the campo, Davis now lives in Habana.  She insists that the reina is especially helpful in places like the capital city, with a faster pace and higher level of stress:  “Life especially here in la Habana is really busy and sometimes crazy, and we can use all the help we can get making life easier.  With the reina, we have time to sit and rest.” Carmen agrees, adding, “It is the best…because we can work and leave her cooking.  We can do all other housework and she is cooking.  We can leave to buy something from one of the stores and leave her cooking and when we get home everything is ready.” This is a feature that is vital throughout the entire day since, as previously mentioned, cooking duties of Cuban women are often not simply preparing dinner, but also breakfast for the family and often lunch as well.

The time cubanas save in using an electric pressure cooker is not limited to cooking time, but also cleanup time, as you normally only need to wash the bowl of the reina and the cutting boards and utensils used for prep and serving.  Maria Josefa Marino, 53-year-old Chemical Engineer and mother (and older sister of Carmen), raved about the value of the reina in relation to cooking and cleanup time:

We have work and we have many responsibilities with our work and chores and it was really inconvenient when we got home after all that work, tired, to have to start working on cooking with all the utensils that we had…and in addition we had to get our hands dirty.  And now, in present day, everything is much quicker and cleaner, and we are happy.

Ultimately, the reina has saved Cuban women hours of their time every week, leaving them free to pursue other activities, complete other obligations, or simply sit and enjoy some much-deserved relaxation.

Additionally, among the benefits listed by Fidel Castro in his announcement on the incorporation of the reina in Cuban society were the environmental benefits of the electric gadget.  Cuban women have taken equal notice in the lack of smoke emissions and reduced gas use that occurred as they transitioned to the electric pressure cooker.  Carmen says, “It doesn’t emit any smoke, doesn’t contaminate the environment…it is everything cooked in its own steam so it doesn’t do anything against the environment.” Similarly, Davis told me, “There are Cuban homes that still cook with kerosene or with gas, and this results in a lot of contamination.  Not [when you cook] with electricity.” Maria adds that it does not even use excessive electricity, stating, “since it is automatic, she uses electricity only when necessary, alternating between cooking with steam, and then shuts herself off.”  Not only does the reina save the women time and stress, it also helps them Go Green in their kitchens.

Cuban Innovation and the Reina          

I am consistently awed by the ability of all Cubans to get by with flying colors when things go wrong.  As I have mentioned in previous articles, the standard Cuban phrase is “no es facil” (its not easy)… a blunt admission of the difficulties of daily life in a nation that has been under an economic blockade for over a half a century.  Yet they do not say “no es facil” and resign themselves to a life without. Instead, Cubans go out and make things work.

This is true also with the reina, as Cuban women have learned to use the electric pressure cooker as their saving grace in a kitchen without ovens or grills and sometimes without a gas range (a sad truth for my household in the past 2 weeks, as our tank is empty and the man who goes to get us the new one is lost…or hiding…or on vacation….anywhere but here bringing us gas so we can use our stove!)  Since the death of my gas range, and since we do not have an electric range in our house, I have used the reina for things I would have never imagined…And every time I try to sing my own praises to my neighbors or Cuba family about the crazy concoction I used the reina for last night they just shrug their shoulders and say, “no es facil.”

I discussed this phenomenon of Cuban innovations in the kitchen with Davis during our interview.  She explained, “When we lose electricity due to hurricanes or other problems, how are we supposed to cook when we don’t have electricity then?  We have to cook with gas.”  Similarly, when they do not have gas for whatever reason, they prepare everything in the reina or rice cooker.  According to Davis, this includes scrambling eggs, placing the stovetop coffee pot in the basin of the reina and leaving it to prepare your coffee, heating the water for your shower or tea, or anything else you can think of!

“The 3-valve pressure cooker, used in most Cuban kitchens until 2006”

Cuban Kitchens Over Time

Cuban kitchens, like so many aspects of Cuban life and culture, have endured hardships over the years, followed by periods of progress and sometimes stagnation.  The cubanas I interviewed, all four originally from the country, described the progression of Cuban cooking throughout the generations, beginning with cooking using charcoal of wood stoves, followed by a period using kerosene or similar lubricants and then gas and finally, the electric appliances in today’s Cuban kitchens.  Coralia listed the difficulties of these older methods; she explained that cooking using charcoal emitted a lot of smoke and a distinct smell that affected the taste of the food, lingered in your home and was dangerous for those with allergies or asthma.  Similarly, kerosene or other lubricants were difficult to find, emitted an even more noxious odor, had increased risk of fire and accidents and produced a great deal of soot, making cleanup difficult.  With gas, getting the new tanks to your home often proved difficult as most Cubans do not have cars, and the mess on the bottom of the pots continued.  Cooking with electricity, each of these problems has been resolved.

The pressure cooker has been a vital part of Cuban cooking for decades, starting with the use of the original, single-valve stove-top pressure cooker used by the mothers of the four cubanas interviewed for this article.  Davis mentioned, “We are from the country, but in my house there was ALWAYS a pressure cooker,” adding later that, “the old pressure cookers were good, but they took longer and you had to watch them more.” Coralia explained in detail the problems with the old one and three-valve pressure cookers:

The old ones did not regulate the internal liquid, so if they dried up they exploded.  The Cuban woman had to be constantly attentive with the old pressure cookers.  We had to stay there, a slave to her, the whole time she was cooking.  Now [the reina] does the work for us.  That is why we call her the queen.

Also from the Oriente, Carmen and Maria reminisced about their mother’s kitchen and her old-fashioned pressure cooker.  Carmen recalled, “There was always a pressure cooker in our house.  But reinas did not exist for my mother, the poor thing.”  She went on to describe life before pressure cookers:

It was really different in the kitchen.  Everything took a long time.  It took a really long time to prepare meals because cooking without pressure delays you a lot.  At times [women of the older generations] were in the kitchen all day to prepare a lunch or a meal for the whole family.  But not now, now in 30 minutes we can make an entire meal.

Looking at the Cuban kitchen over time, it is clear that the advent of pressure cookers in general, and later the reina, truly have been “a miracle in the daily life of Cuban women,” as Maria told me at the outset of our conversation.

While reinas were distributed by the government via the CDR’s throughout the majority of municipalities throughout the island beginning in early 2006, many neighborhoods that still receive gas from the street were not given the credit to purchase a reina.  While many in these areas chose to go out and buy one with their own funds, for others, this is not a financial possibility.  Coralia told me:

For example, I visited a friend on Saturday who does not have a reina.  She told me that there are times when her supply of gas from the street is limited because everyone is trying to use if at once.  So she has to prepare her meals early when the gas is strong using her old-fashioned equipment…For the people who have received [reinas], we really enjoy the advantages she offers us.

Juxtaposing the lives of the cubanas living with and without reinas in the same city, the benefits of the reina in the lives of these women and their families are undeniable.

The words of these women in support of the pressure cookers, speaking on their value in their homes and society, cannot begin to capture their level of enthusiasm they all shared during our interviews.  As these women have witnessed societal and technological advancements and changes over the years, they are uniquely qualified to comment on exactly how a single gadget can change the cultural course of a country.  Myself having used the reina only for 2 months now, I can understand and echo their enthusiasm, as I can not imagine the added stress to my day if, in addition to keeping my house clean for visitors (which is a daily if not hourly occurrence here in my neighborhood in the outskirts of Habana), re-researching my thesis, conducting interviews and looking into every part of Cuban culture I think my katieincuba readers might be interested in for my articles, I also had to prepare from scratch practically all of the meals during the week and still have time to sleep.  I am quite convinced it would be impossible.  Yet cubanas with careers families did it for decades, and for that I am even more in awe of their resolve and spirit.

Meals Prepared in the Reina

After two weeks of katieincuba Cuban recipes, I am sure you have all noticed the variety of meals— desserts included— that can be prepared in the reina.  I spoke a bit with these women about their favorite things to prepare in the reina, and whether there are things they may still prefer to prepare the old-fashioned way:

Carmen, a pure carnivore (and woman after my own heart), responded immediately to my query about her favorite thing to prepare in the reina, practically shouting “los carrrrrrnes” with a big, hungry grin.  However, as she went on and on about the things she enjoys preparing in the reina, practically rejecting the very suggestion that things can be prepared any other way, it appears to me that she enjoys preparing everything edible in the reina!  (And may I add, this woman is one of the most incredible cooks I have ever known.  Everything I have eaten that she has prepared is superb and I have yet to duplicate a single recipe in my own kitchen.  She is a Cuban culinary genius!)

Maria agrees that the reina is perfect for practically anything, adding that, “it preserves the flavors and scents of the food, resulting in dishes of the best quality.” However, I will speculate that her favorite things to prepare in the electric pressure cooker are sweets, as every time I visit she is offering me a new concoction with coconut or papaya or guava and raving about how it was just the fruit and some sugar in the reina without adding a drop of water!  Yet unlike her sister Carmen who currently lives only with her husband, Maria lives with her husband and two daughters and frequently has dinner guests including her daughter’s boyfriend or me and my boyfriend (who happens to be her nephew…).  Due to the high headcount at some of these dinners, Maria often does not have the ability to reject all kitchen gadgets besides the reina, and will sometimes be seen in her kitchen in the evening hours with a living room full of people with both the reina and rice cooker going while the old 3-valve pressure cooker and an additional frying pan are going on the electric ranges…all the while looking fabulous and keeping up with the conversation in the other room!

Coralia, who had her reina cooking potaje while we sat in her living room doing her interview, says she cooks all of her food now using one of the electric appliances from the energy campaign.  However, though she will use the reina or rice cooker to prepare arroz con pollo, she says she still prefers to cook most chicken recipes using the electric range and a frying pan.  While the reina makes pork so tender you can cut it with a fork, Coralia explains that it tends to make chicken too tender.  As for the potaje she was preparing for her family’s dinner that evening, she raved that in the past potaje, “which is what Cubans eat most”, took forever because you had to soak and prepare the beans first and then everything together.  But now, you can do it all in the reina in under 2 hours.

Davis, a culinary experimenter like myself, prides herself on her concoctions in the kitchen.  With ZERO Indian influence (Indians from India, Jane) in Cuban culture, her signature dish is chicken with curry and cream sauce.  This is something all but unheard of in Cuba, where the majority of the food prepared by cubanas is at the very least reminiscent of a traditional dish.  Also a garlic lover, Davis shared with me her garlic philosophy that contradicts the very basic preparation element of each Cuban meat dish: the sofrito.  As you have all read by now, the sofrito is a combination of garlic, onion and sweet pepper that you sauté or flash fry at the outset of most meals.   Davis insists, however, that the garlic loses its strong flavor with this method, and that you should instead add it raw after you have added all the other ingredients to the dish and before putting on the lid of the reina in order to preserve its flavor.  Yet with all of her progressive cooking theories, Davis remains a reina enthusiast.  (For example, one evening in my house she saw that I was boiling beets on the stove with the lonely, unused reina sitting in the corner, and actually scolded me for not preparing my remolacha in the reina.)

Bringing the Pressure Cookers to US Kitchens?

Speaking from my own experience as a US cook, there is a sort of pride (or arrogance) shared by many of us that may lead to the initial rejection of the idea of buying an electric pressure cooker.  For example, I have taken pride for years in the fact that my traditional Italian sausage and roasted Roma tomato lasagna is a 2 or 3-day process.  I have listened since I was a child to my father’s stories of his little Sicilian grandmother spending all day in the kitchen preparing meals for the entire family, at times recruiting him and my Uncle John to help her stuff Cannoli or drape pasta.  I watched my mother (one of those freaks of nature who was able to work a full day and then come home and make a gourmet meal and still look like a supermodel) simmer soups from sunup until suppertime, insisting that the flavors only truly come together if it is cooked loooooong and loooooow.  In the meanwhile, we have astronomical gas and electric bills, a disaster in our kitchens with piles of dirty dishes and marinara sauce on the kitchen walls (and sometimes ceiling), not to mention the key fact that many women do not have the luxury my great grandmother did of being in the home all day without other responsibilities outside of the family.

To respond to the doubts of many on food taste and quality, I will say right now as a snobby foodie that Cuban food prepared in the reina can be JUST AS DELICIOUS.  Ok…. you can not bake cupcakes in the pressure cooker, or slow roast a tenderloin, or get a nice charcoal grill sear on your chicken breast…but you can sure do a whole lot in a lot less time!!!  And we all have those days where 24 hours is not quite enough time to get all of our stuff taken care of, so for those days there is the reina.

I asked the Cuban women I spoke with if they had any advice to give US women in reference to adopting the reina for use in US pressure cookers, and they unanimously agreed that once you try one, you will not want to use anything else!

One should maybe know more about cultures of other countries.  For example, I would love to learn more about the culture of [the United States] because I do not understand what you use to prepare your meals [and have time for work].  If it is with gas or electricity?…A working woman, like you and I, can resolve many problems with a reina!

-Davis

Anyone who likes meats and rice and wants them to maintain their flavor and everything should use one because in addition it is much quicker and you can spend this saved time on other activities…There are American women who come to Cuba [on delegations] and are so excited about the reina that they buy them and bring them back to their country.

-Maria

Try [the reina] and use it to see that it is really a marvelous thing!  When they try it they will not want to cook with anything else…Those who do not have one or have not tried one, go buy one because it will be the best thing you have done for your kitchen.

-Carmen

[The reina is] a way to not serve pre-prepared food that maybe has chemicals in the food or things that may be harmful [to your health] as opposed to natural food.  [It is] one way to make time.  Since you are not in your homes for a lot of the time during the day, but the advantages of home-made food are clear, even though you have to maybe take care of other household responsibilities in addition to all the other work you have… one way to make more use of this short time [at home] is the reina.

-Coralia

If nothing else, I hope this has answered your questions as to how the electric pressure cooker came to be so popular in Cuban kitchens.  But is any of my readers do make the leap and add a pressure cooker to their kitchen gadgetry, please be sure to let me know!  I am sure my interviewees will be excited to learn that their prized kitchen gadget has made its way to la Yuma.

- “Old-fashioned, stove-top pressure cooker used by the mothers of my interviewees”

[Footnotes]

           

  1. For the sake of simplicity I will define the CDR’s (or Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) as a type of neighborhood watch / voice of the people/ representative group.  Implemented by current president of Cuba Raúl Castro in September 1960, these groups exist throughout the island, representing neighborhoods, streets, or apartment buildings, depending on their size.

 [Interviews]

*All interviews used in katieincuba are conducted and recorded in person by the author, or using distributed questionnaires filled out by Cuban interviewees.  Translations from Spanish done by author after interviews.

  •  Ana del Carmen Mariño Pi, 49 –year-old economist from Yara, Granma.

Interview Date: 13 November 2011.

  • Maria Josefa Mariño Pi, 53-year-old chemical engineer from Yara, Granma.

Interview Date: 15 November 2011.

  • Davis Hernández Tus, 46-year-old Clinical Lab Tech from Punto de Maisi.

Interview Date:  15 November 2011.

  • Coralia Hernández Estrada, 53-year-old Licenced Professor of Psychology

from Palma Soriano in Santiago de Cuba.

Interview Date:  19 November 2011.

[Interview Questions]

  1.  How many children do you have?
  2. How many people live in your household?
  3. When did you buy or receive your first electric pressure cooker?
  4. What value or role does the reina have in your daily life?
  5. What importance does the reina have in Cuban life?
  6. What environmental value does the reina have?
  7. What is your favorite recipe using the reina?
  8. What kind of people need a reina in their kitchen?
  9. Did your mother have a pressure cooker when you were growing up?
  10. Do you know how the pressure cooker changed the Cuban kitchen?
  11. Are there things you still prefer to cook without a pressure cooker?

 

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“Recipe: Cuban Milkshake”

My personal favorite, batido de guayaba

Street-side cafeterias are a common sight as you walk around Havana today.  Vendors sell everything from pizza to hamburgers, hotdogs and ham and cheese sandwiches.   These food stands offer a variety of drinks that range from home-made refresco (usually orange-flavored, these are often water mixed with flavoring, though
sometimes carbonated), fresh juices, guarapo (the juice of the sugar cane….there are no words for how yummy this is on a hot day!) and finally…batido!

Batidos are Cuban milkshakes that are made using any number of tropical fruits
including guayaba, piña, mamey, mango, frutabomba, plátano and níspero.  While popular in Habana, these are best in the Oriente region, where access to cow;s milk (as opposed to powdered milk) enables a richer, creamier drink, using all milk instead of milk and water.

 “Batido”

Tools:

  • Knife (sppropriate size for cutting fruit)
  • Good Blender
  • Cold glasses

Ingredients:

  • Ice
  • Whole Milk
  • Coarse Sugar
  • Fruit (One listed above)
  • COLD Water

Preparation:

  • Peel and core fruits as necessary.  (As a trick, put the fruit in the freecer an hour or so before making the batido, this will make it wasier to handle and
    will make the drink colder.)
  • Add to blender appx 2 cups ice
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • Fruit (2-3 of guava or banana, 1-2 Mango, ½ papaya or pineapple)
  • Blend on high until ice is completely blended.
  • Depending on the sweetness and water content of the fruits used, you may have to play a little adding more sugar (to taste) and some cold water if the texture is too thick.

Sides/Accompaniments:

Garnish with fruit if desired.  Serve in chilled glass.

“Wow, I’m in Cuba” Part V: Physically Adapting to Your New Environment

“Stay Hydrated! (I suggest water…)”

 

Welcome to the final installment of my 5-part travel series for katieincuba.  In previous posts I discussed the following:

 

-Mental preparation for travel abroad

-Differences between traveling alone and traveling with a group

-Language and cultural differences

-Navigating your way through a new city

 

Here, I will cover the process of physically adapting to your new environment.  While I am NOT a doctor and have no intimate knowledge of the medical profession, in this post I will discuss some of the physical manifestations of moving or traveling abroad based on my personal experiences. 

 

**********************************************************************************

 

This topic is important because both during my visit in June and at several points throughout the last few weeks I became convinced that I was gravely ill because I had problems ranging from headaches to muscle aches to zero hunger to digestive problems to burning eyes and a variety of other physical issues.  The majority of these issues, however, were the result of my body adjusting to a foreign environment, new food and a new routine.  Dramatic changes in the following areas can quickly and dramatically affect your health or physical condition as your body adapts to your new environment.

 

1)    Climate & Environment

     This will obviously be less of an issue for someone moving from Maine to London, where the climate change would be less of a shock to the system.  But if someone were, for example, moving from Chicago to Cuba, the climate variances are at times shocking.  The environmental differences between countries are not restricted to differences in weather, but can extend to differences in air quality, including pollution level and altitude.

     We have hot days in Chicago, but the really hot ones are few-and-far-between and often sandwiched by days with more moderate temperatures.  I certainly survived weeks of oppressive heat and humidity during my time in Texas and North Carolina, but a nice quiet room or car with air conditioning and ice cold lemonade were always just a skip away.  This is not the case in Cuba, where the sun and humidity from 9 am until sundown are brutal, and an open window or abanico are often all that stands between you and heat stroke.  Physical issues resulting from this can range from sunburn to heat exhaustion to heat stroke to headaches.  Try your best to ALWAYS wear sunscreen, bring a handkerchief or small towel to ‘politely dab’ the buckets of sweat that will be constantly dripping down your face, and walk in the shade whenever possible.

     A change in air quality can be very difficult to adapt to as well, especially if you are very active or a non-smoker or have respiratory problems.  If you are moving from an area with non-smoking laws and low pollution levels to somewhere like Habana or Seoul, your lungs and eyes and skin will need to adapt.  As a distance runner, this transition has been particularly difficult for me.  As a result of the combination of car exhaust (the cars in Cuba are the antique US models running on any variety of fashioned engines, gas, oil, what-have-you) and the crowding and traffic and smoking and industry in Habana streets, the pollution level is higher than I am accustomed to.  It has been difficult transitioning and trying to run with the different air quality as my lungs are used to running in a cleaner environment.  In addition, if you have sensitive eyes or skin, high pollution levels can result in stinging and irritation for the first several days until your body adjusts. 

     Unfortunately, there is little you can do to change the air quality of your new environment.  If you are near an ocean, you can take a walk on the beach to relieve your lungs with fresh sea air.  Also, drink tons of water all throughout the day to replace the fluids lost through sweat and to flush the toxins out of your body and skin.

 

2)    Diet

     If you are one of those people who plans to reach your destination and immediately look for the nearest McDonalds or pizza place because you do not want to try the local food, please skip on to the next section…this part is not for you!

     For those of you who are like me, and will try anything at least once, this is my warning to you to take it easy as your body adjusts to its new environment, and try things in moderation.  My personal struggles with Cuban cuisine have involved high salt and oil content, and I have to always be aware of how much of each I am consuming on a given day.  While new foods can be delicious and exciting, the last thing you want to do on your trip is get sick! 

     Besides monitoring intake of things like salt and oil that you usually do not eat much of at home, also follow basic rules of making sure produce is washed well and using your best judgment when buying street food.  (I have had no problems with this so far in Cuba, but know of a few examples in Mexico of several miserable days in the bathroom following a midnight run to the taco stand.)  Also be aware of main aspects of your normal diet that may be absent in your vacation food, such as protein, dairy and fiber, and try to replace them in any way possible with supplements or food.  (Suggestion: Emergen-C packets and Fiber-One bars are portable and a good way to get your nutrients while traveling.)

 

3)    Activity

     Similar to the food issue, be sure you are not dramatically changing your daily pattern with exercise.  If you normally work all day in an office and then go home and relax with your family in front of the television and use your weekends to relax and catch up on sleep, do not expect to go on vacation and be able to “go, go, go” from sun-up to sun-down every day.  If you are planning a trip that will involve a lot of walking and activity, start adjusting your daily routine at home before you leave to integrate more activity so you are physically able to participate in the activities during your vacation without getting ill or injured. 

     On the other hand, if you are someone who runs or goes to the gym six days a week and walks to work every day, be careful not to plan a two week vacation of just sitting around on a beach or taking tour busses everywhere.  While the prospect of a break from your workout routing and enjoying your vacation may sound appealing, the sudden sedentary lifestyle will have physical and mental implications that will negatively impact your experiences on the trip.

     That being said, I recommend to all travelers everywhere that you try to see as much as you can, not only the hotel bar and the beach.  Go exploring, practice the language, try local food, go on excursions, and ask a local what they do for fun.  EXPERIENCE the culture of a new country, do not just go out and do the same things you would do back home.

 

4)    Nightlife

     Here is a special message to all spring-breakers…but basically for everyone who plans to go out dancing or drinking or to shows and parties every night during your vacation.  In the US we are very good at “burning the candle at both ends.”  I cannot begin to count the all-nighters I pulled trying to finish my thesis, only to do it all over the next day, all while trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.  During our normal, daily lives, this is something we have adapted to.

     However, during your first few days in a new country, I urge you to take it easy and ensure your body gets the rest it needs as it attempts to heal and adapt to the new environment.  If you are only going for 5 days or a week, suck it up and have a blast, you can pay for it when you get home!  But for an extended trip or study abroad try to take it easy at first.  When your body feels back to normal then you can get back to your “all-nighters”, but give yourself time to rest and adjust first.

 

5)    Drink Water!

     There is no need to get into detail on this one.  In my opinion, most of the world’s problems could be solved if everyone drank more water.  It is good for the skin and hydration and general health and well-being, and can help your body as you adapt to every one of these changes while you travel.  There is no excuse for not getting at least 8 glasses a day.  If the country or city you are in does not treat their water you can boil it or buy bottled.  Hook your Nalgene to your purse of backpack, wear a Camelback, and buy a bottle at the corner store, Just Drink Water!

 

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I will share a story from my trip to Cuba in June to point out what can happen when all of the aforementioned factors combine in a short time period.

            I arrived in Cuba with one of the worst sunburns of my life thanks to an irresponsible day in the Miami sun the day before my departure.  Unwilling to let a little sunburn slow me down on the most exciting trip of my life, I went about my daily life in Cuba, eating the Cuban food (that is not without a generous portion of salt), loading myself to the point of explosion on Cuban coffee, spending most of our day sitting on the bus or in rooms where we had meetings and events with various representatives of the education system, and going out until all hours with my new friends enjoying a mojito or two.  On day 3 as we arrived at a center in Habana for children without families I felt a strange sensation in my legs and looked down to see that both of my ankles and feet were swollen to at least double their normal size.  A member of our delegation was a doctor and she informed me that I had edema, a common occurrence among pregnant women that can occur from a sudden change in diet, excessive salt, caffeine or alcohol intake, or a change in physical activity.  Check, Check and Check!  Luckily, a very nice old man at the King Center eventually suggested I try caicimón, a large green leaf with anti-inflammatory properties used by Cubans for ages to treat inflammation.  Within a day my ankles were back to normal size, but it was a scary and frustrating and AVOIDABLE experience.

While none of the physical issues resulting from the change in environment and lifestyle are particularly enjoyable (I know I did not love my week with ‘cankles’), you do not need to rush immediately to the hospital, convinced that you are gravely ill.  Instead, control the rate at which your body is exposed to these different elements where you can.  Limit sun exposure, stay active, monitor your diet, and drink TONS of water.

“The perils of too much sun, sitting, salt, coffee and mojitos and not enough water…”