Five Important Things

Graham Sowa

Water containers are one of five very important items for us students.

One of my favorite parts of moving to new places is changing the everyday items I use and how I use them.  Material culture has played an increasing role in the lives of human beings ever since we started inventing, making, and using what pretty much amount to a wide variety of tools.

Reflecting on the tools we encounter and use often lets us see the opportunities they create and problems they cause in our lives.  And if we pay special attention to these things we add to our knowledge of what constitutes our culture.

In other words, to be able to rationalize why we value the things we have.  On that thought, I have given some thought to the five items I use every day that many people might not suspect to be part of the life of a 25 year old guy from the United States.

1.     An extension cord

I live in a room that is 6 meters by 6 meters (18 feet by 18 feet).  I live in this room with 11 other guys and we have two electrical outlets, one on each side of the room.  We also all have laptops, kettles to boil water, phone charges, and other things that require electricity.  But with 9 feet between the bed and electrical outlet the extension cord is a hot piece of property.

2.     My identification card

In Cuba all citizens, temporary residents, and permanent residents have a national identification card, or carné. The card is a laminated piece of paper with a small photo, our right thumb print, and hand written details.  The whole thing feels and looks very 1950’s.

These cards frequently become delaminated so we keep them together with super glue, tape or just let them deteriorate.  No matter the state of the card, it is the necessary form of identification to pick up our government supplied toiletries every month, to leave and return to the school, to use the bank, to eat in the cafeteria and to pay in Cuban Pesos rather than Convertible Pesos (hard currency) for some services and items; among other things.  Unlike Cubans, the police do not periodically demand to see our identification cards on the street; unless of course a student looks Cuban.

3.     A combination lock

For this one I could have put combination lock or locker, since I only use the lock to get into the space where I keep all of my possessions.  Combination locks are better because I don’t like to worry about losing keys.  Of course, I brought mine from the United States.  The only locks I found in Cuba were either very old and expensive or new and expense.  I could not find a combination lock anywhere, including the expensive Convertible Peso hardware stores.  But this doesn’t mean you can’t buy a combination lock in Cuba, I just wasn’t lucky or wasn’t looking in the right place.  As for the lockers, we keep everything in there; from school books, to clothes, to soap.  Every time I need any of my possessions I have to use my combination lock.

4.     The 55 gallon drum

You might have read about the continuing water shortages in Cuba, especially in and around the capital.  In the school we usually have water two or three times a day, morning, noon, and night, for about an hour each time.  Sometimes there is no water, but then other times we will have water all day.

Pretty much everything leaks, from the overhead pipes, to the toilets to the faucets; so we hear the water when it is turned on.  To accommodate the reality of the water supply the school has supplied us with three 55 gallon drums to fill up when we have water.  We fill these up in the showers and then move them against the wall to use later to bathe or flush toilets (only the most hung-over students will venture to drink from here).

5.     Bunk bed

This is not the first time I’ve used a bunk bed.  I used to have one when I was 10 years old.  Now I’m 25 and sleeping on the top bunk.  Bellow me is one of my roommates from Honduras.  The beds are nice, but obviously built for a younger, shorter demographic.  In our room we have 6 beds.  The best real estate is a bed next to a window or a bottom bunk.  I chose the top next to a window for the breeze that is almost always blowing off of the Caribbean.  Also, being on the top bunk is a great excuse not to answer our communal telephone, which rings about every 15 minutes.

As a foreigner in Cuba I can see from the things I use often reflect my want to accommodate my lifestyle from the United States to the resources I have in Cuba.  I want to guard my possessions, power my electronics, and have water all the time.  When I came here I really wanted to realize a lifestyle and material culture similar to what my Cuban peers have.  Obviously, I’m continuing to value those things I brought with me over my desire to change how I live and what I use.  As is often said about life in Cuba, “it’s not easy.”

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Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

Graham has 89 posts and counting. See all posts by Graham

5 thoughts on “Five Important Things

  • Water problems in the third world is nothing new, and has nothing to do with the political spectrum of the government. In the Dominican Republic, a very capitalist society, water shortages are common, and people have the same 55 gallon drums to store water for when it is not available. Some neighborhoods get more water than others, but just about all neighborhoods do not have water 24 hours per day. It seems the Dominicans have not been able to solve their water problem either.

  • Incidentally are you Graham the article writer?
    if so, I am glad that you can read us and post back answers.

  • Graham, it seems very obvious that there is not a culture of solving problems and not listening to the people there. These problems have been problems and will remain as problems without a solution as long as the current inept leaders stay in power.

    I think it does have a lot to do with social system. In a society that is more competitive, politically speaking where political parties make promises that they have to keep or they will be boot out of power there is a greater incentive to do the work that needs to be done.

    There is this tendency to justify everything by blaming someone else.
    I am sure you have listen already to the tirades about the American embargo and so on. Honestly most of the problems in Cuba have nothing to do with embargo. More with laziness, ineptitude and incapacity of those directing.

  • well, i think that there is water, so it is not always seen as a “problem” i mean, when you have at least one generation growing up the water situation becomes normal. it’s more of a problem to those of us with different expectations about water. and water problems are rarely solved by economic ideaologies…i think this problem could be solved in a lot of economic contexts given the resources and will

  • The water situation was the same when I studied at Havana University and stayed at the 12th St. and Malecon building.
    Exactly as you describe. That is more that 25 years ago. You will think they would have had time to solve the problem but no solution yet.
    I bet one year or less in real capitalism would have taken care of the problem.

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