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A Life in Three Acts: Havana Pipe Dreams

It was a March evening in Havana and still hot at 6 pm. I was on my way to my apartment in the central neighborhood of Vedado on a street called Zapata. This area is a stone´s throw from the Plaza de la Revolución, where for decades Fidel Castro delivered monumental speeches to the masses. That era had long passed by the time I arrived in Cuba in 2006. That was the year that the Commander and Chief delegated power to his younger brother Raul.

The ride home was steamy in the grimy passenger seat of a dilapidated, red Moskvitch. This oven-like 1989 Russian hatch-back provided me with most of my transportation. The car’s driver was awkwardly both friend and employee. He drove slowly even though I was in a hurry and the emissions fumes had me a little nauseated. As we coasted up the broad Calle Paseo with no fan or air conditioning, I did my best to ignore how the sweat stood in unsavory beads on his stubby forearm.

It was enough to deal with the sticky dampness I was feeling at the back of my own thighs. Usually heat and humidity made me come alive, like on a summer night bar-hopping in New York City, or when pounding out classical Indian dance steps in Madras. But now the thought of my healthy fluids mixing with filthy crumbling upholstery was putting me off. And there was also the fact that I had ridden 30 minutes across town in this rat-trap vehicle just so that I could take a shower.

I was in the middle of desperate circumstances. The Cuban boyfriend and I were on day six of almost no water in our cramped apartment. In part this was due to a general state of affairs. Little rain had fallen in the last couple of years and Havana was under siege by drought. It was not long after the advent of 2011 when the municipal government announced rationing in several neighborhoods. We had fallen into a zone which was to receive water from the main line every other day for a few hours in the morning. As such we should have been able to fill buckets and the two tanks which sat high up above the kitchen stove. But the water was not entering with pressure and rising up through the pipes to the level of the tanks was impossible. As a result, I was getting up before sunrise and filling a few buckets with a plastic cup from the weak stream that we managed to get in the bathroom sink.

Some of the water I carted from the bathroom over to the kitchen. There I resourcefully attempted to wash the previous night’s dishes and the present day’s vegetables. This task was well under way by the time the Cuban boyfriend lowered himself down the rickety ladder from the cement slab loft we called “el segundo piso” (the second floor). He was supportive of my hydraulic labors but took no more initiative than he did in other domestic routines. I didn’t mind this as much as I resented the fact that throughout the course of the day it was he who used most of the water I painstakingly collected.

Be that as it may, the water situation had worsened recently. The weak stream in the bathroom was now only a trickle and we began to fear that our conditions were the result of local factors rather than city-wide policies. The pipe which connected the building to the main water line had a history of clogging. The last episode was under two months ago. The clerk at the local water utility office remained unmoved in spite days of pleading tenants. After a pack of smokes was produced on the scene, a crew was dispatched.

The workers arrived two days later and opened the metal plate through which they accessed the water line under the sidewalk. I was at home at the time and went out and watched for a while. There were some heavy tools and some plastic bags mobilized before they packed up in their little white van. As they pulled away from the curb, the employee driving winked and blew me a kiss through the windshield.

About a month later the low-pressure conditions had returned. The pipe was again clogged. A major factor which compounded matters was the fact that separate units in the building were not directly connected to the main supply. Water entered the premises and journeyed all the way around the building before arriving at the front apartments. This ad hoc arrangement was not surprising given that the property had never been outfitted with plumbing for residential use. Its original function was as a pharmacy in the years before the Revolution in 1959.

To make matters more complicated, we suspected that neighbors at the back of the building had a large cistern. This installation sucked disproportionate quantities of water when filling, thereby preventing any from reaching the front apartments. But amending the neighbors’ resource management agenda was, quite literally, a pipe dream.

There was nothing to do but launch a new round of entreaties with the water utility office. A valiant family placed a special work order to obtain a direct connection to the street line for the front units. But in a sea of needs, limited resources, and inertia, more pressing priorities submerged their request. Their most recent inquiries were met with the response that until the upcoming meeting of the Communist Party in mid-April, no repairs could be done near the Plaza de la Revolución, an area of important government buildings.

This seemed reasonable. In November 2010 Raul Castro had announced that this was to be the last party congress to include the participation of the Revolution’s historic leadership. A series of economic adjustments were to be discussed, along with an official announcement of who would assume the role of party leader. These events would commence on April 16 with a parade of civic organizations and military up the Paseo to the Plaza.  This was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of vanquishing Yankee imperial aggression at Playa Girón, or the Bay of Pigs.  It was also to mark fifty years since the declaration of socialism.

There was no way our water woes could compete with the security mandate in the area. We would have to wait it out. But without water our little apartment soon surrendered its few charms to an invading scourge of used dishes, soiled laundry, and various waste products. Our attempts to keep ourselves above the dirt and disorder only served to drive us crazy.

So I did the only thing I could think to do: I joined Club Havana, an exclusive recreational facility on a private beach. There were three gleaming swimming pools, a well-equipped gym, tennis courts, two restaurants and, most significantly, clean bathrooms with hot running water. I hadn’t had a shower in Havana in months – even in the best of times it was strictly bucket baths in the apartment and never hot water. What was absent from the club’s facilities was also valuable. There was no reggaeton music and no MC offering inane commentary on a pool side microphone.

I wasn’t thrilled about having to join a club. The North American liberal academic in me was embarrassed by the extreme privilege such access implied. Only foreign residents in Cuba were allowed to become members and fees were steep at around $1,570 for the year and $280 for a monthly pass. Many of the colleagues and students I’ve known over the years would have blasted me for abandoning the causes of “the people” in a country where the average person’s official salary was around $20. Of course none of these bourgeois-busters I knew had ever lived in circumstances like mine at present. Furthermore, they might have been surprised by the number of Cubans on site at any time. Even I was struck by how many locals were able to fork over the daily rates of $12 during the week and $17 on the weekends. I noticed that most of them came and went in vehicles which left my rusting red Moskvitch in the dust.

The car frequently broke down and had done so that day en route back to the waterless hell from the Club. Fortunately, it sprung to life after some quick jiggling under the hood. When we finally pulled up to the apartment, I hopped out and quickly headed to the door. I was eager to get inside and turn on the television to one of the four available channels. Today former US President Jimmy Carter was in town and I had heard a rumor that his press conference would be broadcast. I figured that my writing about the elder statesman’s visit would be a productive distraction from the disagreeable ambiance in my apartment. As I turned the key I could hear the TV blaring in the second room. The Cuban boyfriend was at home and with one remote control between us, I had to hope he shared my media priorities.



“A Life in Three Acts” is a series of meditations by a woman who lives in her own private “Bermuda Triangle” between Havana, New York City and South India. Through ethnographic detail and humor, she explores shifting relationships and identities and questions assumptions about the nature of belonging.

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