A day in Cuba - Eerik Wissenz

I wake up. The air is still.

It is that odd morning hiatus where the wind shifts the night of the sea and the land breeze of the day. It is that uncomfortable time when the warming air from the sun’s rise mixes with the intense humidity of the Caribbean Sea. Without wind the dense air builds and thickens upon the surface. To add weight to my murky mind, I have been sleeping in a standard Canadian military issue bivouac bag—an tough air tight bag just large enough for a person to sleep in—which protects me from the elements, but as a consequence protects the elements from me, trapping any moisture my body may perspire in the night. By morning I am slightly damp, but not nearly as damp as outside the bag. The dew is so thick that it pools into small puddles all over the deck and bewteen all the wrinkles on my bag.

I am instantly reminded that the stuffiness of the bag is a small sacrifice for protection not only from dew but also from rain, wind, mosquitoes and other creatures. I peek over the gunwales and gaze at the ocean—there is a railing and various lines that prevent me from falling off. Without a breeze there are no waves. To my dismay, all is still: it is the gentle rocking that makes living on the deck of a boat worth while. Like sleeping in one giant rocking chair.

But nevermind I say. An albatross flies above me. The water is so calm you could walk into the sky. I lay back._ Should I try to go back to sleep, to dreams of increasingly confused hot stuffy swamps, as the rising sun slowly heats my precious bag? Or should I get out of the bag and lie in this sun?

I retreat into the sanctuary of inaction and I delegate all these decisions to time. I was a soldier in another life. My brain is used to dealing with the morning funk of camping out; it is instinctual, requiring no spoken thought. The soldier has perfected ignoring the funk on any higher level of consciousness and is quite able to enjoy the simple pleasure of not being ordered to get up not quite as loudly as you are when in barracks. The air is heavy and slightly sulfurous from a refinery ... somewhere. It adds a sad weight to my funk. Dude, you’re in Cuba. How, why, for what purpose. I have no idea.

I am abruptly plunged into funky. And yet … a whimsical funky. After strange disjointed dreams, trying to understand where I am exactly and how exactly I got here brings about a sort of acute sense of absurd apprehension. I am in a ridiculous situation brought about by wanderings into the unknown, a confluence of destinies, and meeting ridiculously sane people. Mel’s a pretty good example.

“Can we … um … you see …er would it be possible uh … Can we sleep on the deck of your boat?”


“Alright. Sweet. Thanks.” Problem solved.

Recalling this and other crucial, unpredictable moments, I am filled with a sort of strange, tepid mirth. And yet … there is also this nearly fearful suspense. How stable is this situation? Will today present some seemingly unlovable problem that would require some even more uncomfortable solution? Will we run out our welcome? Run afoul of the law? Fall ill? Will this fragile world we have somehow strode into shatter down around us? Perhaps. But where would that leave us? And what would we do?

The impossible we can do right away, miracles take a little longer. The words of Rick, a skipper who moored at these docks a few days ago, drift through my head. I mull his saying slowly over in my mind’s eye. It is like a giant protozoa gently tumbling through the calm waters of my dull morning thought. I repeat the saying for prosperity. It gives me confidence. It is good to know there is at least a saying we can say when we meet whatever doom that is no doubt in store for us. Our reckless folly has brought us comfort where it should have brought us strife. A small trail, where it should have brought us a whole. A way out, maybe, where we should be beaten down and held fast by the skepticism of society.

The protozoa lingers for a moment before slowly joining up with the words of my co-conspirator, who I check and see is still asleep in his bag just aft of myself, “I like the fact that we’re invincible. You know, in the Consolation of Philosophy sense. Failure here would simply make our lives more interesting.”

So my apprehension gives way to a sort of happy anxiousness. If our project fails here—as in, the Cuban government asks us to leave, or everything we think is true is false, or something we cannot even begin to imagine occurs, none of which so far seems likely—we’ll hitchhike down the archipelago from boat to boat, island to island and someday make it to the South American mainland. We’ll winde our way through Venezuela, Brazil, Peru then maybe east toward Africa or west toward Indonesia and India or perhaps back north to Mexico, who knows. I’m comforted by the idea that our mission would not even die with us. The seeds would be planted ... I hope.

Ah, but I am in Cuba. It is that conundrum of space and time once again. I can only ever see what I am seeing, and so as far as I can tell my position never changes. Yet had we not gotten up and gone we would still be back in Canada. A place that is now so far away I cannot even comprehend how far away it is.

I crawl out of my bag, pull the opening shut and fold it under, as not to be thwarted by a chance rain. I lay on the deck, cover my face with my arms, and wait for my fellow adventurer to rise.

He rises. We say few words to each other as we go about our short morning routine of gathering the various objects from our various closets (as in bags strapped to the deck) and packing our daypacks.

“Shall we go?”

We grab our packs and we go. Out the marina, over a road, through a field, across the old abandoned tarmac, and into another field. We walk down a path lined with garbage, as horses graze and children play baseball in the grass to our left and oil wells slowly turn to our right.

The beauty of the field and the grossness of the garbage, the sustainability of walking down a path and the unsustainability of the oil wells, the intelligence in a horses face and the absurd sprawling of this suburban landscape, the joy of the children and the sadness of the earth. You are one degree away from everything here, the good and the bad in this world. The slowly silent contemplation breaks suddenly upon calm shores of thoughts.

“The more pervasive dependence becomes, the less likely a person is to become independent in mind. If a person is not presented with alternate positions they are not as likely to reject their dependence in forming decisions,” my comrade interjects, continuing our ongoing discussion about independence of mind.

We walk on in thought. I slowly form a reply: “Or is it more likely that the more pervasive dependence of mind becomes, the harder it is to be dependent? For if we were all dependent, then I would come to you to make a decision, but you would have to go to somebody else to decide what to tell me, and they would have to go again elsewhere, and elsewhere and elsewhere ad infinitum. Would not the absurdity quickly build up until someone gets fed up, makes a decision without consulting further, and sends it down the line?

“But even so ..." I continue to slowly, in order to make it clear I have no idea what I’m talking about, "I am not convinced the social environment affects the level of independence of mind at all. How can independence of mind be dependent on anything?”

The sun crests over the downtrodden soviet era apartment buildings. We pass between a few buildings. We both know the drill: to the market for some pizza, there is no time to cook food at our friend Rafael’s house. We have things to accomplish today.

We weave through the devious labyrinth of unmarked streets that took us a couple of weeks to figure out. A turn here, a zig there, down a path, through a hole in the wall, and into the market. We eye some bananas as we make our way across the market to the pizza stand. We pick up some pizzas, and we pick up the bananas on our way out. Down another path.

We arrive at our workshop tucked away in the narrow streets. It’s also a scrap yard, a basketball court, and a goat pen. We shake hands with rocks-for-hands, the owner of the establishment, and his handymen. We call him rocks-for-hands because he’s got rocks for hands. They fix things and they make things, they make things by refixing them and they fix things by remaking them. We’re making use of some of their workspace and tools because we met a guy who knows a guy who knows this guy, who’s interested enough in seeing our crazy project come about.

“Hola ?Que onda?” Hello, what’s the vibe?

“Bueno ?Como estas?” Good, how’s it going?

“No sez. Vamos a ver como fue nuestro experimento. Ojala que todo esta bien. Si tuvimos exito, in dos dias voy a hacer te desayuno” I don’t know. We’ll see how our experiment went. I hope it went well. If we were successful I’ll cook you breakfast in a couple of days.”

“Que bien, me gusta huevos revueltos. Bueno suerte.” Good, I like my eggs scrambled. Good luck.

We briefly discuss methods and material, and then they return to their work of building a freezer from scratch, and we get down to why we have come to Cuba: solar concentrators.

It is estimated that 2.4 billion people rely on biomass to cook (World Energy Outlook 2002. OECD/IEA. Paris.)—a limited, gradually depleting supply, that costs energy to gather and causes respiratory problems. It is estimated that 1.6 million people die a year from such pollution (same source).

There is an alternative: to effectively harness the sun’s energy. Around one thousand trillion kilowatt-hours hit the earth each day [our own calculation, we shall try to get an official figure]. With 270 mirrors just so you can boil a liter of water in five minutes without any fuel cost. However, if all the mirrors are just a few degrees off, the machine is essentially useless. It is a simple matter of getting the correct angles as simply and with the least amount of labour as possible. A configuration of wood and screws allows us to achieve a tenth of a degree of accuracy in our master compound mirror, which we then use to make a mold which we then use to make copies of the compound mirror.

We have built the frame for our concentrator, and the little metal bits that attach and aim our compound mirror at the target. Yesterday we set our first nine mirrors on our first mold and glued them together. We take the finished compound mirror off it’s mold and eye the mirrors for errors … we find no error! and so place it on the frame and adjust it to hit the target. The focal point is a tight box. It works! Our craftsmanship and improvised Cuban solutions have functioned! We celebrate with a victory hack. After kicking around the hacky sack for a few minutes we descend the ladder to set the concrete for the rest of our compound mirror molds.

We must wait for Danilo, the cement man to return. Not only does he have the cement, he knows in what proportions to mix it. He will return en la noche. We work on getting some minor welding done that we have procrastinated doing. Our welding done, we head over to the market to get a few groceries, and from there, to our friend Rafeal’s house to hang out, fix ourselves some mash and maybe clock some reading and writing. He’s not home but there is a secret key.

“But then how does one person become independent in their thinking and another not?”

I consider his words. “Well, it can’t be controlled through exterior forces, or it wouldn’t be independence. The only other explanation as far as I can see is what, for lack of better words, I call a ‘pure act of will’.”

I furrow my brow. Is the will describable? Can it be talked about? Is it as Kant says? That it cannot be described or observed, but that we must assume it is there. I continue on the chance I am talking about what I am trying to talk about, “I do not think this is so evasive a theory, so unsatisfactory an explanation. Mustn’t there be a prime mover within the mind? Is it not the will? And if it is the will wouldn’t the will be responsible for our decisions?”

We rinse some beans and peal some malanga, a root that is slimy on the inside but ends up like potato, we huck them into the pressure cooker with some onion, garlic and water, and get down to some reading and writing. After thirty minutes or so we rinse and throw in some rice, onions, carrots, cabbage and another cup of water.

“But if someone is dependent in mind then they are dependent on exterior forces to make decisions… how could they then decide to make decisions independently without that which they are dependent upon?”

It seems that they can’t, if they are dependent in mind. But as I peer into the depths of my contemplation I do not sense this fault is a paradox in the argument. It is our words that are imprecise as far as I can tell. “I think we were mistaken in talking about independence and dependence of mind as absolute states of being: that you either are or you aren’t. It is decisions that can be dependent or independent. I can will myself to think something through and diligently consider all the information and advice at my disposal in one thing, and in the next moment I may not will myself to think anymore, and I just do what is expected, suggested, educated or indoctrinated. Dependence and independence I think are descriptions of decisions people make not people themselves. People themselves always decide between the path of least resistance and trying to figure out what is actually reasonable, else it would be as you say: no one dependent in thought could ever think independently.”

Twenty minutes pass and our food is done. We dine to an explosion of bland. It’s all the body needs but we cannot lie and say it hasn’t worn on our morale. We’ll have to find some new dishes one of these days, or learn the secrets of the Cuban congris.

The sun eventually sets and we make it back to the workshop. Danilo is back (he lives across the street). We prep the master mirrors and Danilo mixes the cement and pours it in. In about a day we’ll be left with solid rocks. We leave them to dry, say our farewells, and head back to the marina.

We sit under an over hang that has some lights and some chairs. We discuss various schemes. Perhaps because we are in a marina surrounded by boats, our conversation quickly turns towards our ploy to acquire a sailboat. If we start seeing diminishing returns on our labour here, we’ll keep going around the Caribbean and South America building the concentrators with anyone who’s interested and leaving them in pueblos and villages. Hopefully we’ll become self-propagating somehow and just keep gong. However, in maybe a year, if we’re not advancing at full speed, we might hitch hike back up to Canada, do some tree planting for a season, which involves pretty good pay with little living expenses, and buy a sail boat. With a boat we could carry our tools with us, as well as a working models of the concentrators—there are three models for various energy levels and purposes—not to mention we would have a place to sleep.

Our biggest limiting factors are that when we show up to a new place we only have our assurance that the concentrators are as powerful and convenient as a stove and oven, as well as then having to track down some of the less common tools. With a boat there would be none of those small hang-ups and we could progress the project as fast as the wind takes us. In our wake we’d leave concentrators, mirror molds, and blue prints. We’d then cut across the Atlantic to Africa and just keep going.

As the night wore on, my eyes, my mind and my breast began to sink. I did some stretches and some pushups and then I hit the sack. After maneuvering my sheets and my blanket around in my bag, my roof, my closet, my home, I eventually settled into an acceptable arrangement. A pleasant breeze blew, the boat rocked upon the sea, and no mosquito flew. I gazed up at the swaying sky, at cirrocumulus and altostratus ebb and flowed across the moon. I studied once more the Big Dipper, and traced Polaris true. I looked out upon the water, and recalled the Ancient Mariner.

‘He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things, both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us;
He made and loveth all.’

The mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.’