Dear friends and family,
In 2009, when I first pitched my Big Dissertation Idea to my lab, my advisor Steve concluded the discussion by saying, “I think Cuba is in your future.” He was far more prescient than I was. After three years of receiving lip service, the notion of traveling there gradually became a reality over this past year. On Wednesday I board a flight to Havana and will spend the next two months in southwest Cuba chasing blackbirds.
Because I don’t expect to have internet (more on that later), I’m writing this post as a stand-in message before going offline. It covers why I’m going; how my contacts and I got this thing in motion; and what I know about my living conditions so far. I’ll say upfront that I’ve never kicked off a field season knowing so little about what’s on the other side, so there’s a fair amount of speculation about that last part.
What I’m doing in Cuba
I’m going so I can sample two of the five blackbird species I study. Basically, I need to know how much they cheat (ahem, “engage in extra-pair mating”) relative to the other three species. I collect blood samples from Mom, Dad and the kids, then run DNA paternity analyses to see which of the kids weren’t fathered by Dad.
[Aside: If you're interested, here is a video of me giving a five-slide research talk in early April. The fourth slide shows the distribution of my five species and explains why I go where I go each summer. My segment starts at 07:40 and is followed by fascinating talks from fellow grads who have all summed up years of their lives in five minutes.]
For multiple reasons, I predicted that the three species in the Caribbean—the one I sampled last year in Puerto Rico, and these two Cuban species—would cheat less often than the two continental North American species. Initially, I was going to sample just the Puerto Rico birds, then extrapolate their behavior to the Cuban birds.
To my surprise, I found that the Puerto Rico blackbirds basically cheated as much as one of the continental species. Out went my ability to infer the Cuban birds’ behavior. And in came the excited responses after I presented my findings at a conference last summer. In describing my project to a roomful of witnesses, I inadvertently made it official that I was going to discover what those Cuban birds were up to.
Still, it wasn’t clear that Cuba would even allow samples to be exported for genetic analyses. The country is a signatory of a biodiversity convention adhering to rules stricter than anything the U.S. belongs to. And, like Brazil, there is a measure of commercial protection of its natural resources. I was initially told that taking out blood samples would be out of the question.
But to my great good luck, I recognized a contact early one morning, at the conference 5K, who has since become one of my life-lines. (Kids, this is why Google-stalking is an important life skill.) I’ll call him F here. F traveled to Cuba last fall to talk with officials about his own projects and to ask the current policy on exporting blood samples. Back in 2001, he had received a yes. With the Bush years, that answer turned to no. I got the phone call in late October where he told me they were saying yes again. Full speed ahead!
Where I’ll be
I land in Havana, spend a few days sorting out paperwork, and then…somehow…will travel 80 miles southeast to that lovely green peninsula inside the blue box. Also: I cannot believe how close Cuba is to Florida.
The green spot is Zapata Peninsula, home to Zapata Swamp National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the largest tract of preserved wetland in the Antilles. It’s home to almost 200 species of birds, as well as a staggering amount of peat moss and all three genera of a rodent called a hutia. (Wikipedia: “They are hunted for food in Cuba, where they are often cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey.”)
Alas, I may not get to see the hutias. Because of unknown political stuff going on at the Ministry of Science, I was ultimately not given access to the park. I was told I’d have to get so-and-so permits from so-and-so agencies, and that previous U.S. ornithologists were similarly denied entrance to the park’s protected areas.
Before the bad news broke, F had connected me with a colleague (I’ll call him R) in the Ministry of Agriculture who manages a reserve just to the east of the national park. After the bad news, it suddenly became my only option, as well as the first of many times F would save my ass.
If you click on the map, you’ll have a better view of the little lake east of the green area. That’s where I’ll be, near a town called Guamá. Apparently it is home to a recreated Taíno village and a crocodile farm. (Rough Guide: “On a tour round the swamp you can witness a mock capture of an exhausted-looking baby crocodile and are then invited to eat one at the Croco Bar.”)
I’m there until late June, and then I spend my last week in Havana getting my affairs in order until returning to the States. I come home on the Fourth of July.
Also, check out the inlet between the park and the lake. That’s the Bay of Pigs.
This has been a long and painful process. On the U.S. side, I have travel and import permits from three federal agencies plus Duke. On the Cuban side, I have…no visa, no site permits, and no export permits.
At minimum, I needed a visa even to board the charter plane in Miami. Ideally it would have been a work visa, issued from the agency overseeing the field site, that would allow me to work for 70-odd days. Things were looking good, until my Agriculture contact R disappeared from email. As my flight date approached and no visa appeared, my travel agent and I switched to Plan B: Fly in with a 30-day tourist visa, buy myself a month to meet with Agriculture people, and lobby for the work visa once I’m on the ground.
[Travel agent: So, I will book you a round-trip ticket with the 30-day tourist visa. Once you're approved for an extended stay, then you can buy a one-way ticket for July.
Me: Wait, why can't I book two one-way tickets, one for April and one for July?
Travel agent: As a U.S. citizen, it's illegal for you to book a one-way ticket to Cuba.
Me: Right. Yes. Got it. Very good.]
Tomorrow I receive the round-trip ticket in the mail. Major thanks to my advisor for footing the bill for this unwieldy itinerary.
There’s a happy epilogue (so far): R’s brother, with whom he shares an email address, wrote and gave me R’s cell phone. He added, “The sound is really low, so you’ll have to speak loudly.” So there I was, in my lab with the door closed last week, shouting to R how much I looked forward to coordinating the work visa.
Bottom line, I’m boarding that damn plane on Wednesday.
Okay, now for some stuff about living conditions.
Internet in Havana is of the 56-Kbps, five-minutes-to-load-a-webpage, $8-an-hour kind. Internet at my field site is probably non-existent. So, while I may be able to send little email telegrams at the beginning and end of my trip, I’m going dark in May and June. It’s the longest time I’ll be without internet since acquiring the internet.
As for phone, the 2009 lifting of the telecommunications ban means my phone could work in Cuba. But after getting slammed with roaming costs in the Bahamas for checking one voicemail, I’ll save way more by renting/buying one in Cuba. I’m not sure whether that, or payphones with phone cards, is the better bet. Either way, phone calls to the U.S. are more than $2 a minute, so goodbye to heart-to-hearts for now.
I’m also not sure how the communications cut-off will turn out. I think it will be good for me to run around experiencing a life untethered by email. But, you’ll have to indulge my two-month-old version of the world when I return. (“Guys, did you hear the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage/gene patenting/baby Veronica?!” “Yes.” “Oh.”)
Plus, high probability of seeing unusual things + inability to share = Irene writing pages and pages of observations to herself. Every time I see something breathtaking in the field, I’m reminded of this line from Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family, a story that begins with a solitary hunter:
“One winter night, as he looked at the stars that, blazing coldly, made the belt and the sword of the hunter Orion, a great green meteor went slowly across the sky. The hunter’s heart leaped, he cried: ‘Look, look!’ But there was no one to look.”
Expect a huge blog blast when I’m back, so we can look together :-)
You can’t get Cuban money outside of Cuba, so everyone must bring in currency to convert to pesos. There’s a 10% fee for the conversion. If the currency you bring in is USD, you get charged an additional 10% fee. So last week, my friend Matt accompanied me to Wells Fargo, where I picked up a giant f-ing order of Canadian money. ATMs are rare, and no U.S.-issued credit cards are accepted. I am traveling with all the money I have.
Cuba has a double economy to accommodate the vastly different financial situations of tourists vs. Cuban nationals. Tourists pay with convertible pesos (CUCs; I’ll call them “tourist pesos” here). Until 2004, the tourist peso was pegged to the dollar, but the consecutive conversion fees obviously elevate its value.
In contrast, Cuban nationals, whose salaries rose to $19 last summer, use a subsidized currency of national pesos. The conversion fee is 1 tourist peso to 25 national pesos. Each of their pesos is literally pennies for me.
Depending on whether their clientele is predominantly tourists or Cuban citizens, different places use different currencies. In theory, I’m supposed to stick to tourist pesos, but I know I’ll inevitably receive national pesos in change. Those I can use to buy food and drink from places accepting national pesos. This will be the fastest way to cut costs.
Tourism is Cuba’s cash cow, with salaries in that sector way higher than in others like medicine. As a result, it’s not a very cheap place to travel, with daily costs around $75-100 per day in Havana. Since I’m neither in Havana nor doing “normal” tourist things, I anticipate spending far less. Mostly my expenses will be in lodging, food and transportation (including taking the driver to lunch).
Health and safety
Fortunately Cuba has a reputation for being a safe place, especially compared to other Latin-American countries. But I’m aware that I stand out in this part of the world, so I’m taking the necessary precautions. Crime in Havana is higher because of all the tourism. I don’t know about the situation at my field site, which is part small-town and part tourist attraction.
The mosquitoes are supposedly horrendous. Hello bug shirt (haven’t seen you since Maine 2006!), 98% DEET that will melt paint, and permethrin on my sleeping bag liner. Anything to avoid dengue fever, an underreported tropical disease for which there is no vaccine. Everything else (Hep A/B, typhoid), I’ve gotten shots for.
Drinking water straight from the tap isn’t recommended, nor is the usual eating raw or peeled food. Please don’t let me get firehose diarrhea.
Lodging and transportation
In Havana, the alternative to a more expensive hotel is to stay in a casa particular, a kind of bed-and-bath where Cuban citizens are licensed to accept either other citizens or tourists as guests, but not both. (Keeps the currencies separate.) I have a place in Havana, recommended to me by a fellow Duke grad.
Beyond that…eugh? Most likely I will rent a bedroom from someone at my field site.
Since it’s way too expensive to rent a car for two months, I will be working with local drivers to pick me up and drop me off at the reserve each day. I probably won’t get to drive…but just in case, over the weekend I re-learned stick shift with Steve.
Also a wild card. Rations are in place for Cuban citizens (for example, only children under 7 can receive milk), so it sounds as though supplies are hurting from the embargo. I anticipate eating a lot of rice and beans. Also, because I really can’t give up PBJs as energy food for 12-hour days…
Behold, 11-and-a-quarter pounds of lunch.
A neighbor’s friend reports that the Bay of Pigs has great snorkeling. This statement is bizarre and wonderful in so many ways. I’ll report back.
The bee hummingbird, endemic to Cuba, is the smallest bird in the world. It weighs TWO GRAMS (just over a paper clip) and its eggs are AS TINY AS PEAS. Its Spanish name is “zunzuncito.” This is the best word.
The worst-case scenarios are still out there. I could be kicked out of the country in 30 days (I really think this is unlikely). All my money could get stolen. The Ministry of Science could change its mind about genetic samples and completely deny my export permit. But at this point, I think I’ve done everything to at least ensure a smooth arrival.
This entry is way too long and I totally have to get back to packing, but before I leave, some thanks are in order.
To those of you who listened to six months of developments; to those who called me “brave” and “strong” these last few days (know that I feel the same way back!); to those seasoned travelers who assured me that things are infinitely easier face-to-face; to my committee members who agree that even if everything goes down the toilet this summer, I still have enough for a dissertation…
Thank you. I hope you know how much those comments have meant to me. It hasn’t been easy dealing with the uncertainty, especially considering the value of this trip to my research. But your confidence in me has been contagious. So here we go: I’m going to Cuba, I’m going to do science, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it when I’m back.
Tell the cicadas I said hello.
Some recent articles on Cuba:
Raúl Castro to step down as Cuba’s president in 2018 (NYT, 24 Feb. 2013)
How capitalist are the Cubans? (NYT, 1 Dec. 2012)
Where is Cuba going? (NYT Magazine, 20 Sept. 2012)