I am with my grandfather and father in a little Korean-made car, hurtling down the crumbling central highway on the way to Santa Clara, Cuba, my grandfather’s birthplace. He has not visited this home in almost 60 years, although the actual house he was raised in still stands. In his half-century of absence, his grandparents, parents, and sisters have passed away. We are going to this place so that my grandfather can finally pay his respects. We are going to meet family that I have always had, but never knew. We are going so that my father and I can finally realize our own history. We are going to find something for ourselves.
Endless fields of sugarcane and tobacco sway like calm oceans, gentle waves lapping up to the acacia- and palm-lined banks of the forests. In brilliant reds and yellows, flamboyant trees rise like islands in the midst of these green seas while cattle escape the late-morning heat and humidity by dozing in the shade. Farmers’ hovels dot the landscape. They look almost comical, with grass roofs and wooden planks that have been warped and animated by passing time, the elemental cycles of rains and droughts, highs and lows. Ancient sand dunes create natural levies along the coast, while truer mountains rise cautiously to misty heights further inland. This place is gorgeous. The old Cuban tune “Chan Chan” strums slowly away on the radio as we wind our way to my grandfather’s long-lost home.
Entering Santa Clara is like driving through a living museum. The battle of Santa Clara, the last major guerilla offensive during the Cuban revolution and the battle that made Che Guevara famous, seems written on every surface. Memorials, statues, and murals greet visitors at every corner. Bullet holes from the battle are still visible in certain areas, especially at the Santa Clara Libre hotel, where a major skirmish took place. If one didn’t know better, they might think that the revolution happened just yesterday. It’s a proud and also desperate attempt to hold on to history. The world is moving into the future; Cuba (in more ways than one) seems to be holding blindly to those early years of revolution. —Mario Machado
Driving out of Cuba’s capital city, La Havana, one immediately encounters the chaotic bustle of a developing country. Having just come from living in Paraguay for 8 months, I was much less shocked by the people and landscape than my father and grandfather seemed to be. Still, Cuba hardly fits the mold; it is a country like none other on Earth. As many Cubans will tell you, through hushed whispers and barely parted lips, this is the land of contradictions.
For those still preoccupied with Fidel Castro, I would like to offer this bit of solace, though it comes perhaps 50 years too late: Cuba is not Fidel’s island. Cuba is growing up and finding itself full of a younger generation that doesn’t remember the communist revolution of 1959. This generation is becoming increasingly tired of the intellectual and social restrictions imposed by the very state that has given them an education that is equaled by few countries in the Americas. (Cuba’s literacy rate is higher than that of even the United States.) Dissent is brewing, fueled by the regime that it will one day topple or otherwise transform deeply. Castro represents the old, tired, and variably successful politicians of communist Cuba. He and his numbers are aging, soon to be replaced by an unknown future. There is still one potent symbol for this next generation, however, and especially at this time in Cuban history, it seems both extremely appropriate but also quite ironic: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Driving around Cuba, one thing is almost immediately evident: Che is the symbol and the martyr of the Cuban revolution. He was memorialized idealistically, like a delicate flower in amber, at a time when the guerillas were still young, progressive, and shaking up the modern world. On every available surface on the island—on the walls of aging, Soviet-era factories, on streets and dumpsters, in homes and on tourist souvenirs—the face of Che appears in defiant, immortal glory. The man whom Jean-Paul Sartre once described as “the most complete human being of our era” reigns over an island that is sauntering into an uncertain future.
It is curious to wonder what the revolutionary would think of modern day Cuba, were he alive today. As members of this young generation flex their well-educated minds (which, according to Cuban communist philosophy, are actually the property of the state), the old regime trembles. And yet, the world continues to move on. —Mario Machado
I recently took time off from work in Paraguay and spent 10 days on the island of Cuba with my father and grandfather. It was a very intense, if also brief, trip that took these three generations of my family back through our personal history—my grandfather was born in Cuba—as well as through the maze that is Cuba’s political, economical, and cultural reality. My next several posts will represent an honest, though inadequate, attempt to put that story and my experience into words.
The humidity feels like a blanket. At the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, basset hounds make up the K-9 unit. The whole situation is like organized chaos: “locura con orden” (madness with order), as my grandfather says. The inside of the terminal looks like a makeshift import-export business with hoards of expatriate Cubans running neon-plastic-wrapped bundles of goods past ambivalent customs agents. In quantity, it would alarm and enrage those remaining stubborn proponents of the United States embargo. In principle, it makes all too much sense. Economics is simply running its course.
The great Cuban experiment, which has played out on this small island just 90 miles off the U.S. coast since the revolution of 1959, is as tangible as ever. Low, sea-swept clouds play games with the tropical sunlight as we drive across rickety roads. In typical developing-world fashion, horse-drawn carts and hopeful hitchhikers crowd the shoulders, sometimes wandering between the lanes of a sparsely traveled and sluggish freeway.
For those with a mind to history, a certain feeling is quickly evident—the smell of saltwater and fumes from ancient automobiles (running on aviation fuel) fill the lungs with it. It is the need to figure it all out. The island seems to echo, enveloping one’s mind with this great imperative to understand the reality of the forbidden country of the Americas before it crumbles under the weight of time and economic inevitability.
I have family on this island—great aunts and uncles, their children and grandchildren, who have waited 60 years for my grandfather to come home. They have heard stories about me, seen my pictures, and heard about my life and the life of my family. And though we are connected by blood, we are separated by worlds of politics and culture and economics. Just 90 miles away, but somehow, our lives could not be more different. Where in the world am I? —Mario Machado
In preparation for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, Paraguayan families prepare gratuitous amounts of chipá, a traditional Paraguayan food I described in a previous post. Such a quantity of chipá is necessary because, in addition to the fact that it is consumed all week, it is also the exclusive food eaten on Good Friday—a Paraguayan version of fasting.
On the Wednesday before Easter, the chipá bonanza begins. It starts by firing up the tatakuaa, a large igloo-shaped mud-brick oven used for baking chipá and only chipá.
Next, the chipá batter must be mixed. Several kilograms of pig fat (both solid and liquid) are put into a large wooden tub and stirred into a soupy blend. Dozens of eggs are mixed with the batter while cheese is crumbled in as well. Then, several packets of anise are added. I had never seen or used this spice before coming to Paraguay, but here it is extremely common in almost all types of bread.
Next come fresh milk and almidón, flour made from cassava roots. Ground corn is the last addition before the mixture’s moisture content is adjusted slightly with more milk. Family members—kids included—work the pasty, speckled dough into shapes, usually circles or loaves, but also into birds or crosses or other such shapes with religious symbolism in reference to the coming Easter. The dough is baked and in 20 minutes the chipá is ready.
The first bite of chipá is delicious, I discovered during this year’s observation of Holy Week. It is warm and gooey on the inside, crispy and crunchy on the outside, and very filling. After two or three pieces, however, things go downhill quickly. Chipá is heavy on the carbohydrates and fat (pig fat, to be more precise). Therefore, eating it in huge quantities feels (to me at least) like eating a comparable number of McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I learned to draw my limit at one or two, knowing that each family I visited would insist that I try some of their chipá (despite the fact once you have tried one, you really have tried them all). I spent the week after Easter recovering from the food shock my body had experienced. —Mario Machado
A group of kids from my community, Guido Almada, has made a habit of joining me when I play my guitar. I try to teach them a few notes and chords, but they much prefer to just strum away or yell along with whatever it is I am playing. It’s all part of integrating. —Mario Machado
When I first arrived in Guido Almada, my host family had experienced a death on the evening of my arrival. The older couple with whom I was to live for my first 3 months in the community with was suddenly cleaved when Don Zaccarias lost his wife of more than 50 years. I moved into a household consisting of Don Zaccarias and his daughter and her family, who had moved from Guarambare to help with the transition.
There were two dogs in the household—Tony, the Don’s dog, and Lobo, who had belonged to his wife. It was quickly evident that Lobo (the name means “wolf” in Spanish) was grieving along with the rest of the family. He was quiet and dejected, passing his days moping around the house as if he were a person who had lost his way home.
After I moved into my own house, a small brick building next door (less than 20 feet from Don Zaccarias’s house, in fact), a relationship began to build between Lobo and me. Within a month, Lobo began to follow me to the bus stop in the morning when I was heading into the city. More than once he had to be turned away sadly by the bus driver at the door. When I visited neighbors, he would follow me at a distance and wait for me at the gate, making sure not to enter so as to avoid upsetting neighboring dogs. This past weekend, when I went for a 10-kilometer hike into barely penetrable marsh, trudging through knee-deep mud, wading through water to my chest, and even swimming some parts, Lobo followed me the entire way, braving the cold and the obstacles despite his clear and vocalized protests at points.
Every morning now, I wake up to find him curled up under the table on my patio, nestled in a little depression where the concrete has broken away and only dust remains. We drink our coffee together and he gets a sausage or two from my breakfast. He waits at my house when I am gone to the city or to teach a class and his tail is always wagging on my return. In the evenings, we listen to music, drink wine, and smoke a cigar together…or at least I do those things while he lies under my hammock. At night, he is the vigilant, if not comically undersized, guardian of my house.
Make no mistake: Lobo is the mangiest, dirtiest dog I have ever met. His fur is matted and dreadlocked and falling out in places. He smells pretty bad, although this usually goes away after a big storm (this is the best Paraguay can do for giving dogs a bath). Still, I cannot deny that in him, I have found a best friend, an unquestionably and unwaveringly loyal companion. He asks nothing more from me than food scraps, a scratch on the belly, and friendship. Lobo is just another way, another immensely special and irreplaceable way, that this strange foreign country is beginning to feel much more like home. —Mario Machado
The week between Palm Sunday and Easter is one of the most important holidays in Paraguay. In this predominantly Catholic country (reputedly between 80 and 90 percent of the population), the celebration of Semana Santa or Holy Week occupies a position of utmost importance for families. Like all Paraguayan parties and festivals (including Christmas; quinceañeras, the coming-of-age celebrations of 15-year-old girls; and festivals of patron saints), the drill is mostly the same: large gatherings of family and friends, huge amounts of traditional Paraguayan food, singing and dancing to Paraguayan polkas, and drinking in circles as a designated server refills and passes the cup.
Unlike other holidays, however, Holy Week continues for almost 5 days (culminating in Easter Sunday, or Domingo de Pascua in Spanish). In a country of farmers and laborers, Holy Week represents the only real time off for people who work seven days a week, every week, toiling in the fields or working around the house. Another important aspect of this holiday, which sets it apart from others, is chipá, the traditional Paraguayan cheese-flavored bread that can be delicious if consumed in moderation, but if consumed in excessive amounts can feel like a slow death.
The entire family (usually not including the males, unfortunately) enters chipá-preparation mode weeks before the holiday arrives. Tens or even hundreds of pounds of materials need to be saved up to produce the massive amounts of chipá necessary for an entire week of parties. For a month before Holy Week, I could not find cheese for sale within a 5-kilometer radius of my house. Usually, the matriarch of a household prepares several pounds of fresh cheese after milking the cows each morning. Prior to Holy Week, however, this supply is not sold but instead guarded jealously. Those people lacking milk cows, such as myself, remain cheeseless for weeks on end. —Mario Machado
As we move into autumn in the southern hemisphere and the weather turns colder (yesterday peaking around the mid 60s, today starting out in the low 40s), my outdoor shower without hot water has become a bit of challenge. It takes a certain frame of mind to motivate oneself to bathe in 50ºF weather when the water in the lines is no warmer. There is nothing like the feeling of being nice and clean, but this fall and winter, that feeling is going to come at a price.
I always told myself that losing my hygiene would be the first step toward losing my sanity. Therefore, I promised myself to maintain both while serving in the Peace Corps. It seems that this commitment will not be easily fulfilled, especially while living in a brick house without a heating system or insulation and with a thin wooden door.
This morning, with the temperatures so low, it is once again raining in my house. The warm, moist earth seems surprised at the sudden cold and leaks its condensation over every possible leaf and blade of grass. My tin roof acts like a greenhouse in the morning sunlight and thousands of small droplets of dew trickle down my walls. In a way it is beautiful, so long as I am properly bundled and tucked away in some dry corner of my house (hard to come by when you are living in a brick box that measures 10 feet by 15 feet). It is crazy to think that just 2 months ago, I felt as if the heat might kill me. I can’t say which extreme I like more, but give me a few more months of the cold and I will be sure to let you know. —Mario Machado
It’s raining inside my little brick hovel. Two days ago, the biggest storm I have yet experienced in Paraguay charged across the rolling hills during the course of a long day and an even longer night. My tin roof, which I had previously attempted to fix several times, leaked like a sieve. This inevitably led to what I imagine would have been a comical scene to any onlookers: a wildly cursing, laughing Peace Corps volunteer running his bed and furniture between the house and a covered patio in response to the arbitrary leakage patterns, which seemed to change as frequently as the strong winds. By the end of the storm, my house had been turned inside out.
By 9 or so in the evening, I realized I hadn’t eaten all day. During the confusion of the storm and my frantic attempts to stay dry, the water lines had been shut off. This meant that I was without both drinking water (meaning without coffee as well—possibly the greatest crisis of all) and a means to wash food or dishes. That night was cold and wet, but certainly one I will not forget. These are the kinds of experiences that one gets in the Peace Corps.
The weather took a splendid turn yesterday, however, as the Antarctic winds have begun their surge northwards, heralding fall (and eventually winter) here in the southern hemisphere. The sun broke through yesterday around noon, giving way to what I could only compare to perfect autumn weather in the northeastern United States. The only things missing were leaves changing colors and apple cider. It was a perfect day—not too hot, not too cold; just right. The ample midday sunshine dried all my clothes and sheets. Last night I slept snug as a bug. —Mario Machado
I woke up this morning to what might possibly be the most hellish sound on the planet: that of a pig being slaughtered. The death of a pig is of no more or less consequence than that of any other animal, but the drama of hearing a pig scream and squeal its last living breath away weighs heavy on the heart. Pigs don’t die quietly, that is for sure. At least I know that I won’t be eating any more pork when I get home to the States.
This is life in the country, though—your food is walking around one day, eating scraps from the table and rummaging through your garden, and is served up for dinner the next. It is quite a strange experience to eat an animal’s meat on the same day I have seen it living and breathing. Sometimes it is easy to remove yourself from the equation, but a wake-up call at six in the morning in the form of a weeping and wailing pig does help to keep it all in perspective. —Mario Machado