Cat show

Patience you must have, my young padawan

When I came to work in Cuba in 2012, my son was six years old and spoke no Spanish whatsoever. Despite everyone telling me that “children are sponges, much more flexible than adults” and that it was the ideal moment to make such a move, it was still something I worried about obsessively. With practically everything else in his life uprooted, the one stable thing I could offer besides myself was his beloved cat, so despite a fairly costly and lengthy bureaucratic process (in the US, not Cuba) we brought him along. When I told a friend, she exclaimed, “I can’t believe you’re doing that! Everyone will see that he’s a pampered American cat!”

She was partly right. At least one of the Cubans who met us at the airport barely bothered to conceal her disdain.  (It was an omen for the beginning of a relationship that would only continue to deteriorate.) For the most part, everyone else was quite a bit more accommodating. True, as far as pets are concerned, Cubans prefer dogs to cats. It’s not true though that they are hunted for food. Well maybe in the Special Period. I wasn’t here for that. Anyone who suggests nowadays though, that a scarcity of cats in Cuba is some kind of morose indicator, ought to pay more attention at night. The dimly lit street where we live is a virtual glittering cat fiesta after dark.

There’s even an annual cat show in Havana. Like many events here, your chances of finding out about it in advance are fairly low and random but this year I happened to switch on the idiot box just in time to hear it mentioned, and we headed off to Habana Vieja to see for ourselves.

The photo below is of an exclusively Cuban breed, a lovely little gray shorthair called the Cuban Blue or Havana Blue or something like that. It resembles the Russian Blues, but slimmer. I’m a firm believer in animal adoption but even so, I’ve always longed for one.

Vets are available and affordable here, even on Cuban salaries, though the remedies offered are not always effective, and the biggest problem is the hassle of getting there during working hours with pet in tow. The state also has a few clinics charging in hard currency (CUC), offering x-rays and a greater range of supplies. One day my son brought home a very sick abandoned kitten and I’ve never been convinced that our cat didn’t catch Feline Respiratory Virus from it. It was the one vaccination I failed to purchase before we left the US and when I asked the CUC vet about obtaining it, she said that vaccinations like that hadn’t entered the country “for years.” Think about that for a second. Another foreigner I know who was a vet before she moved to Cuba told me that practically all the street cats here have FRV.

Nevertheless, at least one vet is adamant that it is not a virus, but an allergy, and so our “pampered American cat” continues to sneeze, while we try – not very effectively – to control his environment.

The allergies seem only to expand. About a year ago he developed an intolerance for fish. This is a real problem here because there’s no such thing as processed food for pets at any price. You have to make it yourself and fish is the easiest and cheapest. Even so, easy is relative. Not often, but sometimes, there’s no fish at the fishmonger’s. Remember the circle of scarcity, and how the more you need something the less likely you are to find it.

Sometimes there are only gigantic frozen claria – the invasive species that resemble catfish and are now commercially harvested. I dislike claria intensely because it has slippery skin like an eel, and an ammoniac odor. Cats love it though. A friend insists that it’s not that bad to eat. “I know some people don’t like it because they’re freaked out by the fact that it lives on land as well as water and eats rats,” she told me. “What do you mean it lives on land?” I said, stunned. “Does it have legs?” No, she admitted, but there was no convincing her that the lack of limbs would be any hindrance when it came to maneuvering on soil. And catching rats, supposedly.

Cat litter? No such thing. The best we’ve come up with so far is wood shavings. Sand would be better but it’s illegal to remove it from the beach. I also understand now my Cuban friend’s reasoning when we adopted the cat in the first place and he told me that cats were the household pet he liked least. When I asked why, he said, “Well, you know…the box.” I didn’t, but now I do.

The latest challenge: fleas. I’m surprised it took this long. Our cat is an indoor cat mostly but very sociable and he loves to be outside, with other animals. So maybe it was only a matter of time. Many things in Cuba are diminutive in size – consider the “bee hummingbird” and if you think about it, many Cubans themselves. The flea is no exception. It took quite awhile and a number of failed vet visits, with a continual insistence on new allergies previously unknown, before I finally discovered a flea, so tiny, and so quick to leap and vanish into thin air that I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it. When the telltale bites started showing up on my own ankles though, I knew.

Back to the vet – this time the hard currency one. He whipped out his electric razor and swiftly eliminated the fur where the cat was suffering most; around the head and neck, while the fleas began to run and jump for their miniature lives.  Basically, that’s how we started calling him Yoda.

Armchair diagnostics

Fidelito, Raúl, Fidel

Any suicide is an intensely sorrowful affair, and somehow the search for explanations is accepted as a natural response, but perhaps it’s worth thinking of it as an outdated habit overdue for correction.

For instance, in the case of the untimely death of Fidel Castro’s eldest son, Fidel Angel Castro Diaz-Balart (Fidelito), we might start with some recognition of how depression really functions, rather than banal armchair analysis of the pressures he faced as the son of a larger than life father, or the product of a bitter divorce, or why his death did not make the front page of Granma, the Cuban newspaper of record. Continue reading “Armchair diagnostics”

Occam’s razor

Macraea laricifolia (Romerillo)

Pretty much every year, the males in my household come down with a cold. I am less often afflicted; men are after all, the weaker sex. The last cold I remember having several years ago, left me with a stopped up ear that lasted so long I began to wonder whether I’d ever recover. (I did.)

The Cuban remedy is “inhalaciones” – you bring a pot of water to boil on the stove, remove it, and then breathe in as much of the steam as you can tolerate. Five minutes are ideal, several times a day. I find even a minute intolerable and have always viewed the remedy skeptically. So I felt somewhat vindicated several weeks ago when some Cuban nurses visiting from Spain pointed out that “inhalaciones” are no longer recommended. Cubans still do not agree, however. They say that this claim is nothing more than a first world plot to hawk cold medicines. Which could also be true. Continue reading “Occam’s razor”

Vicious circles

Watch out for the dogs / don’t enter without calling / don’t call either

The circle of scarcity:

1. The less available something is, the more you want it.

2. The more urgently you want something, the less available it becomes.

So many egg-laying hens were killed by Hurricane Irma that eggs have become nearly as scarce here as the non-existent teeth in their mothers’ mouths. Eggs are a staple of the regular ration system that has existed in Cuba ever since its first and hardest “Special Period” in the early 1960s when Che Guevara traveled the world as the head of Cuba’s national bank and returned to report that thanks to US pressure, all trade doors had closed. The economic blockade had begun. Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union followed.

Before Irma, extra eggs also frequently appeared outside the ration card, at low prices, and at the same stores where the rice, beans, sugar and other rationed items are processed in bulk. Also sometimes at little state kiosks designed to process overflow. Since Irma there are barely enough eggs to meet the guaranteed rations. Continue reading “Vicious circles”

Conspiracy theories

That a reporter doing “what professional journalists are supposed to do” is so unusual that it falls in the category of “news,” is a sad comment on the current state of affairs, but here we are. Thanks to the reader who sent in this piece by Robert Parry, published yesterday at Consortium News.

Man Bites Dog: NYT Does Journalism

By Robert Parry

I often criticize The New York Times, Washington Post and other major mainstream media outlets for a very simple reason: they deserve it – especially for their propagandistic, unprofessional and reckless coverage of foreign crises.

But there are occasional moments when some reporter at an MSM outlet behaves responsibly and in those instances should be noted at least under the classic definition of “news” – something that is unexpected – or as the old saying goes, “dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is news.” Continue reading “Conspiracy theories”

Idiot box

It must be awfully difficult for US editors to fact check stories they receive about Cuba, given that their own knowledge of the country is so slim. It might also be too much bother to find, or pay, a Cuban in Cuba to do it, although there are plenty of Cubans who could. My 11 year old son, for example, who as I read an article published by Harper’s this summer about Cuban television, was reading over my shoulder and chuckled at the claim that iPhones are illegal here. “That’s not true,” he smirked. Continue reading “Idiot box”

Loose cannons

One of the cannons at the Calixto García memorial on the Malecon, ripped from its platform by Irma

The media field day surrounding the State Department’s destructive break with Cuba continues. In addition to taking the State Department’s word about the alleged attacks, CNN is fueling the fire with gossip about strange sounds “the diplomats compared to loud insects or metal dragging across the floor.”  Now that conjecture is considered an acceptable substitute for factual reporting, I present for your consideration some FACTS and ANALYSIS from ground zero. Continue reading “Loose cannons”