Clusterf*ck in Cuba, part 4 + bonus photos

Days 4-11

So began the process to get me out of Cuba. I spent the rest of my truncated time emailing a LOT of people, changing my return flights, writing the official proposal, visiting my (I hope) future site, and coordinating the California field season. By great good luck, the California birds are in a lull between breeding cycles, and there’s still time to sample them.

I just want to say here that the lousiest part of this ordeal has been the amount of work I created for others. I feel humbled and embarrassed by all the costly fires my lab and family had to put out for me — amending permits, buying a new Miami-D.C. plane ticket. It royally sucked to learn that the international health insurance coverage, paid for by my advisor, was nonrefundable.

And while I was in Cuba, things were exacerbated by the unusually limited connectivity. I would have been completely screwed if my landlady didn’t have email and the generosity to share her account. My field site and R’s town have even less access. Out in the countryside, it is rustic. While being offline was romantic in theory, the past week made it clear I need to find a reliable way to stay in touch, should I go back next year.

Speaking of next year: Currently, the plan is to do so. Despite the absurdity of coming all the way out here just to learn about the requirements, now we know what they are. And the face-to-face contact was helpful beyond measure. But I am not going without written proof from the Cuban side that I’ve complied with 100% of their latest requirements. I’m not putting my family and lab through another rescue mission. And I’m getting a Ph.D. in biology, not in bureaucracy.

Day 12

Fittingly, my last day was just as insane. With the clock ticking, I had to explain at check-in that I needed to hang on to a bag so I could re-pack my confiscated materials. Then I was immediately stopped at Immigrations because of a note someone had written on my tourist visa. I had to explain the situation twice before anyone got moving. (Mentally: “I am leaving without working, like I’m supposed to be doing! Why is this taking so long? Please let me gooooo.”)

Once I got to Customs, I was interviewed in a tiny room with a long table and fluorescent lights. Luckily, it was with another agent who’d been friendly to me on my first day. He mainly wanted to make sure I really hadn’t done any work while in Cuba. And here I learned another lesson: Even in the most rigid of hierarchies, people soften when you talk to them about your science. They want to know what you study. Their eyes light up when you mention wild animals. I pulled out the magical handwritten proposal, and before he’d even finished reading the cover letter, we were flipping through “The Birds of Cuba” together.

Finally, another agent came in with my bag of science equipment. Amazing! I mentally hugged my mist nets and Potter traps, packed them away, and got them checked in.

The flight out of Havana was delayed, I just made my D.C. flight, and then, after 16 hours of traveling, it was over. Twelve days in Cuba. An experience as vexing, contradictory, unpredictable, surreal and humorous as the country itself.


After particularly discouraging days in Maine 2006, my mentor Brent used to tell us field techs: “There’s no such thing as frustration in the field.” I’ve always loved the validation in that sentence, and it’s come in seriously handy these past two weeks. Somehow, politics and insufficient information combined to make me outrageously ill-prepared for the Cuban weed-whacker of bureaucracy. Yet through this whole ordeal, I’ve been a lot more okay than I thought I would be.

My time there was not wasted. The Duke officials pointed out there was literally no other way for me to have found out about the regulations on the Cuban side. So I went and I did. And most encouragingly, the biologists I talked with were always enthusiastic about my project. If this collaboration overcomes the political hurdles, we are still looking at an exciting exchange of skills and ideas.

I’ll end with a few photos of interesting things I saw while running my errands. I wish I could convey the car fumes, the cigar(ette) smoke, the roosters, the honking, the conversations, the music, the people. But I hope these hint at the voice of the city, and the backdrop against which my story unfolded.




Julio Antonio Mella (founder of the Cuban Communist Party), Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos (revolutionary whose wire portrait is mounted across Che’s in the Plaza de la Revolución)



“Playa Girón” is Cuba’s name for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.


“Long live [International] Workers’ Day”


“The powerful and victorious revolution continues”


Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) are grassroots community organizations. Or, depending on how you look at them, neighborhood snitches enforcing good citizen behavior.



I’m all for recycling, but perhaps not with vigilantes.


“Guilty: The U.S. government shelters terrorism”

The man on the right is Luis Posada Carriles, “Cuban-born Venezuelan anti-communist extremist” (Wikipedia).


“We can triumph and we will triumph”
“Never will we renounce our independence”
“The wealth of the cities lies in its heroes—they will return”
“Resolved to triumph or die”
“Ideas are our weapons”


“With our feet and our ears on the ground, we will triumph”


“Towards victory always” (commonly associated with Che)



The field site! Which looks just like Pennsylvania! God, I hope I can go back next year.

Those trails in the marsh are from wild cattle (pronounced BOOF-a-lo). I’m glad they leave you alone, because they are HUGE.


Ox-drawn plows in a corn field. I could not stop watching.


A tawny-shouldered blackbird. Actually, this was back in Havana. Within five minutes of my spotting them, the male copulated with the female, and the female started picking up nesting material. Bastards.


Parque John Lennon, near the travel agency. But where are his glasses?


Turns out they were nicked so often by souvenir hunters that they’re provided only when the guard on duty sees someone taking a photo.


“You may say I’m a dreamer…”


An agromercado, looking much better than the grim warehouse next door where people received their rationed eggs, rice and oil.


People waiting in line for entrance to Coppelia, the block-long ice cream parlor. Across the street was the Yara movie theater, showing “Life of Pi.”


The embassy of North Korea. Wow.



This was one of the only times I saw U.S. products: Sprite, Pringles and Fanta. Want some Tukola?


People also use Microsoft and Windows.


I’m so confused.


“For what, if not for peace among men, must advances in science be?”  —the ultra-quotable José Martí, Cuban giant of the Latin-American independence movement

P.S. That’s my casa to the left of the flagpole. I typed up my proposal sitting in the open, third-floor balcony.


Statue of José Martí at the Plaza Anti-Imperialista. The plaque beneath contains a quote from Simón Bolívar: “The United States, which appear destined by Providence to plague the Americas with misery in the name of liberty.”

He has a point. We were huge pricks to Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is why I bristle at immigration policy hardliners. It feels ironic that we helped destabilized Latin America but now deny the chance for recovery to those who endured the civil wars and dictatorships. It’s bad enough to perceive immigrants as dangerous scum but even worse not to realize that the U.S. was a major contributor to the economic disparity.

Soapbox over.

Sentimental graffiti

Why yes, I am a sap.



“Invisible woman seeks transparent man to do the never-before-seen.”

Okay, not exactly sentimental.


“One can love without being happy. One can be happy without loving. But to love and to be happy is something wonderful.” Oh, Bubu. I hope you were also not arrested.


Tucked away in a little Old Havana alley: “While the city sleeps, I think of you.”
I really, really loved finding this one.



Hasta luego, Cuba. Onward to California. Here we go, take two.

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