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?

 

Introduction to Living in Cuba

Downtown Habana during the day is alive with energy,

History

In 1492, Christopher Columbus called Cuba, “the most beautiful land that human eyes have seen.” [1] Indeed, the island-nation located just 90-miles from US shores offers some of the most breathtaking landscapes, incredible architecture and unique sites in the world.  As the tourism billboards state as you exit the airport in Havana “Welcome to Cuba, where past meets present.”  This slogan accurately summarizes the experience of life in Cuba, where you enjoy natural beauty and experience daily life with 21st century world issues simultaneously while riding in 1950’s automobiles and walking past buildings dating to the 18th century.

A little information on the island itself: the 16 provinces of Cuba cover an area of 42,827 square miles and is 776 miles long. (As a point of reference, Cuba could fit into the state of Minnesota 2.5 times).  The island has 3 mountain groups and the highest point, Pico Real de Turquino, reaches 1974 meters (almost 40 laps of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.)  The country has an average annual rainfall of 54 inches and an average temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the island is home to a number of unique indigenous plant and animal species, has topography ranging from farmland to mountains, and, as an island, has an abundance of breathtaking beaches.[2]

Each province in Cuba, while maintaining a strong sense of national pride and dedication to the patria, also enjoys strong and unique regional traditions and popular culture based on their individual role in the islands history and basic demographic and geographic differences.   Cuba and its history involves much more than the small area surrounding the capital in Habana. It is therefore important to understand the cultural and social differences of the other provinces in order to fully understand Cuba and Cubans today.

Blog Topics

In “Living in Cuba” I will discuss some of the pros and cons of daily life in Cuba today from my perspective as a young North American, unique aspects of daily survival that I find unique and think we should study and learn from, and the historic significance of some of the the different provinces, cities, geography and landscapes as they pertain to the formation of Cuban culture.

Author’s Objectives

If this category seems to be a bit more “miscellaneous” in focus, that was my intention.  While many other categories have very specific foci, I wanted a forum to explore basic aspects of daily life here that I observe that are not easily defined yet still serve an important function in Cuban life and popular culture.  If I am able to better-define this category and these observations as time goes on I will gladly do so.

A 2-hour drive and a world away from the nation's capital, Viñales in Pinar del Rio offers tranquil beauty and a different pace in daily life.

Suggestions

To my readers:  Having read the introduction for this blog category, if you have a relevant topic or event that you would like to learn more about, please mention it in the ‘COMMENTS’ section of this page.  (Even if it is not in Habana, I am happy to travel to the other provinces for a good story!) I will do my best to research and write on all suggested topics.

Notes:

[1] Puig Pernas, Yareira, Me gusta hablar Español, (la habana, CENDA, 2008),

28.

[2] ibid.

“Wow, I’m in Cuba” Part II: Differences Between Traveling Abroad Alone And Traveling With a Group

Welcome to Part II of my “Wow, I’m in Cuba” series for travelers!  As I mentioned previously, this 5-part series will cover:

 

-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

-Physically adapting to a new environment 

 

In this post, I will compare a trip I took to Cuba in June of this year with a Witness for Peace delegation to my current experiences as a single traveler, highlighting the primary differences and challenges for those considering traveling abroad solo.

 

 

If you are planning to travel abroad with a tour group, a student group, or simply as a large family vacation, you can expect less responsibility for daily activities and details.  With tour groups or delegations, needs including housing, food, events, transportation and translators will likely be pre-arranged and included in your package price.  Similarly, with a student group you will be among peers, housing and food will be included, and you will have access to host families and academic institutions to facilitate your language course studies.  While traveling with family you have the benefit and comfort of traveling with loved ones and can share the responsibilities for planning excursions, hotel choices and meal plans.  All of this changes dramatically when traveling alone.

 

1)    Access & Planning

     Traveling with a tour group eliminates the hassle of having to plan excursions, wasting precious hours of your travel days waiting in lines for tickets, and hoping you are not missing out on some other event or location that you did not know about.  However, these group excursions will likely be pre-arranged and mandatory, denying you opportunities to go off exploring on your own if that is your thing.  I remember resenting this in June, cursing the fact that I was stuck in group activity when I wanted to go and explore the city, see the old buildings, walk through the Plaza de Armas, see some of the beaches, talk to random strangers…anything but sitting around talking to a bunch of Americans…after all, if that was what I wanted, I would have stayed home!

     However, the people and locations we had access to as a part of a group affiliated with a well-known and respected Cuban institution proved to be invaluable!  We were able to meet with the Minister of Education, attend private music and dance workshops, have tours of the Museum of the Literacy Campaign and the Latin American School of Medicine, visit a daycare in Pinar del Rio, and a school for children with special needs and an elementary school in Habana.  Also, since our delegation was through the Martin Luther King Center in Marianao (a neighborhood in Habana), and both our group leader and translator were Cubans, we had the benefit of learning about Cuba from Cubans.

     Being here now by myself I realize how difficult it is to arrange these things on your own.  I had few personal contacts in Habana before my arrival, and it has been an exhausting process making arrangements for different types of research visas, learning where different libraries and archives are, and finally finding the Jose Marti National Library only to discover that they are closed for renovations until October.  Yet as frustrating and exhausting as the process continues to be as I try to integrate myself into the history/research circuit here, it has also made the process more authentic and helped me to learn how things work and what the “pace” is in Habana. 

     On the positive side of having to plan for yourself, it allows for spontaneity and activities to fit your personal tastes.  I finally got to go to a beach (with minimal sunburn for a change), I can wander aimlessly through markets, I woke up one morning and decided to go for a walk on the Malecon and ended up in Habana Vieja, making the round trip from Vedado in about 4 hours… and I have explored the cultural life of the city, attending a concert, the theater, the National Ballet and an art exhibit.  If you like planning for yourself, it can be a very rewarding experience.

 

2)    Companionship

     Having lived alone for several years in Texas and North Carolina, I did not expect to have a problem being by myself in Cuba.  I fancy myself an independent woman and I have a good sense of my surroundings, so I rarely worry about my physical safety.  That being said, you cannot “be an island” while living on an island.  Being alone in a foreign country can be oppressively lonesome, and getting over initial social hesitations and making friends can be a challenge for some. 

     When traveling with a group or family, this issue is less urgent, as you have built-in companionship.  Yet I urge those traveling with a group to not limit themselves to communicating only with the group.  Remember, if you wanted to talk to Americans you could have stayed home, right?

     As I mentioned in Part I, it is important to take advantage of the opportunity to learn about a new culture, language and society.  The BEST way to learn about a country is through its people.  Talk to as many people as you can…cab drivers, street vendors, people at the bus stop, your waiter, anyone!!  The more people you talk to the more you will start to learn about the country.

   Also, you will start to feel like less of a “foreigner” as you start to make friends.  For example, as I head to school in the mornings I exit my building and wave at the man who handles the street parking outside our door.  Monday through Friday before classes, I walk to the same “cafeteria” for my coffee and chat with the nice old man about my classes and the weather (post on this upcoming, as these cafeterias are not like the southern cafeterias in the US), after class I either go to the Institute of History, where I am slowly getting to know all the employees, or head home, stopping on the way at another coffee stand where I chat with another nice old Cuban man.  Compare this to my first few days where I went straight to school, came straight home, worked on my research and homework and sat in my room and watched movies because I was uncomfortable wandering alone, and you can see the value of human interaction.

     So to all travelers, I urge you to talk to at least 5 strangers every day (totally arbitrary number selection), and remember that the best insight into a country is the people. 

 

3)    Daily Needs

     Back home, daily needs and activities such as groceries, eating out and housing needs are part of our routine…If you need groceries you go to Jewel (or HEB or Harris Teeter or Kroger depending on where my readers are logging on from).   If you do not feel like cooking you can go out to Panera or Ruths Chris, depending on your budget.  If you are thirsty and lucky enough to live in the Chicagoland area where our Lake Michigan water is mighty delicious, you just walk over to the faucet.  If you need a new apartment or home you talk to your friends or go on rent.com or call a realtor.  In the world you know and are comfortable in, all these things are relatively simple.  When traveling with a group, many of these things are taken care of by the organizer, or you can be sure someone can point you in the right direction. Yet these simple needs of daily life can be a struggle while transitioning in a new country by yourself.

     As with many places in the world, the idea of a massive one-stop-shop like Walmart does not exist in Cuba.  I go to one place for my eggs, another for produce, another for miscellaneous, and know that some things can be at one place one day and another (or nowhere) the next. (And if you are looking for tomatoes out of season people look at you like you are insane!)  I am just not starting to learn where each of these places are located, but there are no big signs for these stores in many instances so, like everything else, it has been a process. 

     As far as eating out, I just today had my first experience getting food at a cafeteria by myself!!!  (A very proud moment for me!)  As I am budgeting for a year, the restaurants are prohibitively expensive and I will likely go only on special occasions.  Luckily, the streets of Habana are loaded with delicious street food from sandwiches to croquetas to pizza for incredibly cheap prices!  However, you rarely see foreigners at these places by themselves, and it took me a while to get up the courage to stop at a cafeteria for lunch.  (**Notice this was not the case for coffee…I could sooner live without food than coffee, and since I have not yet learned to make Cuban coffee I started stopping in to coffee places during my very first week.)

     Luckily for me, housing was not an issue during my trip as I was referred to a wonderful woman with a casa particular in el Vedado by one of my professors.  However, several of my classmates ended up having to stay in hotels for the first week or so—a significant expense— while searching for housing.  In Cuba, licensed casa particulares are available for foreigners who prefer not to stay in a hotel.  My best description of most is that they can range anywhere from a hostel-type setting to a host family to a shared or individual apartment, depending on the area and your budget.  These are the best option for those on a budget or staying for an extended time, but can be difficult to research or contact from the US for reasons I will not get into.  (If you are interested in researching casas in Habana, look into Conner Gorry’s APP “Havana Good Time”, which includes a list of casa particulares along with their prices, locations and contact information.)

       Like everything else, you can adapt to these changes in daily life with time and patience!

 

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     Making the decision to travel alone or with a group ultimately depends entirely on your personality and comfort level.  Since my trip is very lengthy, the time I have lost to “figuring things out”, waiting in line and getting helplessly lost TWICE near the capitolio is not going to take away from my overall experience.  However, if you are traveling for only 1 or 2 weeks I recommend a group or some form of travel agency to help you with your planning so you can make the most of every day.

Music in Cuba: Bridging a Cultural Divide

A young Cuban working on his muscal skills along Habana harbor.

Thursday afternoon as I sat in the Travel Clinic trying to ignore the FOUR immunuzation needles waiting for me on the counter, I initiated a conversation with the nurse to distract myself.  (I assure you, I went to the clinic to appease my mother…I hate shots and sincerely doubt that Typhoid was in the cards for me this year…but anything to help my family rest easier.)  But back to the clinic!  As soon as the nurse learned I was heading to Cuba, her face lit up and she said, “Oh, I love their music!”  Similarly, last night while saying goodbye to the family of one of my very best friends, her father went on and on about Cuban music and how lucky I was to be living there for a whole year.  Two comments on music in 2 days???  This demands a blog post!

Music permeates Cuban life, culture and history.  I will undoubtedly elaborate on the many unique types of music, common instruments and common topics in contemporary Cuban music in upcoming posts.  But for the purpose of this first post on music, suffice it to say that Cuban music is more than Ricky Ricardo singing Babalou.  Depending on your particular tastes or mood, there is something for everyone!

Our first night in la Habana back in June, a group of  teachers from the United States sat at a café in Habana Vieja enjoying mojitos and singing “Dos Gardenias” with the band.  This Buena Vista Social Club hit became the theme song of our delegation, being essentially Cuban and representing the romantic element of our trip.  1600 miles away, my 14-year-old nephew spent a good portion of his summer playing “BonBon” by Pitbull on his smartphone.  While I have no doubt he will one day be an excellent Spanish-speaker, my nephew did not understand the lyrics of the song.  Indeed, the fascination with Reggaeton in today’s US youth culture transcends language barriers.  (As a side note, many Raggaeton artists popular in the US such as Daddy Yankee are Puerto Rican, but for the purposes of this posting my focus is on the blending and sharing of culture among nations.)

My personal introduction to Cuban music occurred during my “Re-Imagining Cuba” course with Dr Frank Guridy at the University of Texas in 2007.  The keyword of this course was “Transnational”, focusing on the concept of culture and ideas that transcend borders and time.  (Homework Assignment for my undergrad and IB readers: Go read Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson!)  Not surprisingly, music was a common theme throughout the course.  Dr Guridy encouraged students to bring in examples of Cuban music for extra credit to be played before class, and we spent several periods discussing Cuban jazz artists like Machito.  (For more, see “Machito: A Latin Jazz Legacy”, a 1987 documentary by Carlo Ortiz)  Dr Guridy also introduced me to one of my favorite groups, Los Orishas.  Check out the video for their song “537 Cuba”, a great tribute to la Habana with beautiful shots of the city.  Music was a very powerful teaching tool throughout this course, one I plan to borrow in the future.

One could certainly follow the history of Cuba, or even the history of our two nations, through music.  It is a powerful, emotional product of life and culture that can in some way have an impact on every individual.  Indeed, la Habana today has its own living soundtrack, one that shares the story of its residents and the rich history of the island nation with all those who listen.

One of the leading ladies of Buena Vista Social Club

Things my teachers taught me…..

visit to an elementary school in la habana


I am going to take advantage of these final days in the States to provide some more foundational information on myself, my academic background and my interest and experiences in Cuba.  I am compelled to start this process with a post on my most memorable teachers, as I anticipate I will refer to them often throughout this blog.  In no particular hierarchical order, here I go:

“Be passionate about what you do”
Linda Janus, William Fremd High School

I think it is a safe assumption that most adults in general, but certainly most academics, have one specific teacher from their childhood they remember fondly, who made a lasting impression in some way.  Linda Janus, my junior year US History teacher, was mine.  I was in her classroom when our principal came on the PA to announce the 9/11 attacks, and the only time I ever saw a room full of teenagers actually INTERESTED in history.  Mrs Janus certainly had a gift as a teacher, her spirit was contagious and she was widely liked, but none could doubt her true passion for the subject as she referred to President Lincoln as “Abey Baby” and prattled on and on with stories and facts about our nation’s history.  Back then, I was set on my life path to become a lawyer and take on the world, but I remember thinking how lucky she was to be doing something she so clearly loved! Four years later as I stayed up nights debating whether I should be filling out applications for Law School or graduate school for history, my mind drifted often to the days in her classroom.

”Never underestimate the power of storytelling”
Professor Jonathan Brown, University of Texas at Austin

I hope not to offend Professor Brown that this is the lesson I chose to include for him.  After all, he and Dr Frank Guridy are the men responsible for my Cuba obsession and the subsequent destruction of all my life plans involving law school.  I kid, of course, as I could not be happier with my career choice and LOVE what I do!!  But I digress…

Besides his fantastic wit and dynamic teaching style, my fondest memories of the courses I took with Dr Brown while at UT were the stories he told, particularly in his Cuban Revolution course.  Nearly 5 years later I still vividly remember most, and “borrow” them often in my own lectures.  I have noticed how quickly you can regain the attention of an audience by simply shifting from “lecture” to anecdote. It has been a highly effective tool for teaching, and I am personally grateful for the wealth of details I learned from these stories.

”Keep an open mind”
Dr Chris Bell, University of Texas at Austin

I would honestly be surprised if Chris even remembers me… but I also doubt any of his students could so easily forget him.  I took one Geology course with Dr Bell my junior year of undergrad.  While I had a difficult time masquerading as a scientist, I found Geology incredibly fascinating.  Yet many things I learned from Chris were not particularly science-based.  (As I side note, I find it difficult to this day to refer to professors by their first names, yet Dr Bell insisted on the first day of class that we call him Chris.)  As extra credit questions on our Geology exams, he would include US geography map quizzes, remarking on how limited the geographic knowledge of most US students is, a theory strengthened at mid-term when one UT student correctly identified the state in which he attended school but labeled it “Texis”.  It was clear, however, that Chris did not feel confined by his discipline, and allowed any variety of topics to be discussed and debated throughout the course.  I particularly remember a lecture in which he discussed “collectors bias”, a geological idea referring to the fact that samples analyzed are inherently biased as they are samples from one geographic location as opposed to another, depending on where the specific geologist took his or her sample that day.  In the spirit of cross-disciplinary cooperation, I frequently use the term in referring to gathering evidence or researching in my own field.

”Question everything”
Professor Louis A Pérez, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

After finishing my graduate program, I think that the old adage “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear,” should be abolished.  It is my philosophy, as I shared just yesterday with my godsister as she sat reading her AP Colonial US History textbook, that you must question EVERYTHING.

In addition to Professors Brown and Guridy at UT, Dr Pérez at UNC is responsible for my fascination with Cuban history and all things Cuban.  In all likelihood, there is not a Cuba scholar in the country who is not familiar with his work.  I consider myself very fortunate to have studied under him while in North Carolina.  These courses had the most intense/aggressive/intimidating syllabi I have seen to this day, and I lost many nights of sleep attempting to complete the reading assignments and papers, only to go to class and leave thinking I had done everything wrong!  I would develop clever approaches to the material and try to come up with critical theories and angles only to have him immediately pose a hypothetical question that knocked it right down.  This was even more true when reading sources that seemed clear and straightforward to me, as Dr Pérez insisted that if you are reading something and believe it is an unbiased author, that only means that you and the author share the same biases and therefore you need to question it more and force yourself to recognize your own personal biases.  While incredibly frustrating at first, I also find it refreshing as a historian to be able to say that no matter how many times you have examined a source, an idea, a time period, there is always something you have not considered.  There is always a way to look at what you thought was right and tear it to shreds.  (Quite possibly I am making this into a positive to avoid breaking down in tears every time I take on a new project and realize it is futile to try to cross every t, dot every i, because I will always miss something…and I pray Dr Pérez never reviews one of my books…..)

”Always strive to improve your writing”
Professor Nancy Mitchell, North Carolina State University

There were several times throughout my MA Thesis draft process that I wondered what I was thinking when I asked Dr Mitchell to be on my committee.  After 2 years and as many US Foreign Policy seminars with her at NCSU I knew her greatest academic passions- besides Vance and Brzezinski- were Cold War policy and PERFECT writing.  I will reluctantly share my experience from a Halloween party two years ago where I spent half the evening on the verge of tears or borderline hysteria over a paper re-write: I wrote what I believed was a good draft of an article on President Carter and the exile community in Miami and sent it to Dr Mitchell for review.  The track changes that came back in the Word document overwhelmed the body of the paper itself.  I felt so defeated I began to question whether I even belonged in academia, as I was clearly a poor excuse for a writer (an integral element in the life of a historian).  Yet, once I calmed down and really looked over her comments I was able to make the appropriate changes and submitted a great paper! (if I do say so myself…)  It later became my first published article and my writing sample for PhD applications.  This learning process did not exempt me from similar instances as I submitted draft after draft of thesis chapters the following year, but again, the end result was worth the sleepless nights.

There are times I feel the world would be better-suited if we had more high school English teachers… as the basic writing skills of the average undergrad are abysmal, to put it mildly.  One of the first lectures I ever prepared was a 1-hour workshop on proper historical writing and the benefits of being able to formulate a coherent sentence.  Thanks to Dr Mitchell, I will always be conscious of my writing and strive for perfection.

(As a side note, I am clearly not submitting polished works of academic mastery in this blog, I will save my energy for the book….)

”Teachers can be our friends!”
Professor Richard Slatta, North Carolina State University

As a student, the things I learned from Dr Slatta are innumerable.  However, for the sake of this post I will mention that this Professor not only chaired my thesis committee, served as my academic advisor and consistently offered constructive criticisms and advice pertaining to life as a graduate student as well as my later career as a professor, but also became a valued mentor and good friend.  I am afraid I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude to Rich for his help over the years.  However, as a professor I will strive to follow his example with my own students, always keeping an open door and an open ear.

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Of course, there are dozens more whose names I will never forget, who have made a lasting impression on my throughout my academic career, who have helped me learn to form opinions, challenge ideas, and never be afraid to think outside the box.  To all of you I am “eternally” grateful.

Message of the Day: Thank your teachers!!!

What are the chances of me finding a Longhorns fan in Centro Habana?