Friday, 30 August 2013

Back in Canada

After 210 days in Cuba, Katherine and I are once again back in Canada. Yesterday Katherine, Dania and I landed at Pearson after an early flight. I was shocked at the movies available to watch on the plane. Clearly I've missed many a good film and have some catching up to do. Dania (pictured below with Kat and I) works at FLACSO (la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales – The Latin American Social Science Faculty). 

Kat and I have been periodically meeting with Dania, Amilkar, Yudlema and Reynaldo to talk about the work we've been doing on the organopónico. Dania is coming out to spend four months in Halifax so if we're ever homesick for Cuba we can always spend some time with her.
 After going through baggage claim and saying goodbye to Katherine as she went off to catch her connecting flight I was met at the airport by my parents. I can't full explain how I feel, it's a combination of heartbreak for leaving Lily, Chino and Dacio, happiness for being home with my family and friends, excitement to get back out to the east coast again, and of course I feel strange to be without Katherine who I've lived, travelled, and worked with for the past 8 months.
Looking back on the past 8 months there are many people I have to thank. Marian and Dr. Cameron at Dalhousie University for all their work preparing Katherine and I for the internship, and for providing support whenever we needed it. I'd also like to thank Dania, Amilkar, Yudlema and Reynaldo at FLACSO for meeting and talking with us throughout the summer.
Words cannot express how much love and gratitude I have for Lily, Chino and Dacio. They truly made us feel at home, feel safe and feel like family.  I can't imagine Cuba without them, and know I will constantly miss them until I'm back in Cuba.

At the organopónico, I have to thank Medardo for organizing us, and for providing us with direction, and answers to our questions. Miguel and Isis Salcines (pictured below) I have to thank for their consistent concern for our happiness, and Isis, I can't wait to see you when you come to Toronto!

We met too many wonderful people for me to thank individually on the organopónico, but I do have to say that I have never before worked with more helpful, kind, or entertaining people. Below are some of the photos we took on our last day of work. I don't know when I'm going back to Cuba, but one thing is for sure, when I do go back, the organopónico will be one of the first stops on my list. Below are a couple photos from our last day of work.

Last but most certainly not least, I have to thank Katherine for putting up with all my craziness for the past 8 months. I know there are very few people I could have done this trip with. I think most weeks we were apart for a maximum of 12 hours. We lived in the same room, ate more or less every meal together, worked together, traveled together, and miraculously, at the end of all that, I still adore her. Kat, it's going to be a weird 5 days not seeing you, but at least this means we'll have new stories to tell when we next see each other. My darling friend, thank you for everything.

I'm not sure when my next post will, so this blog will in all likelihood be quiet for a while. Posting under the title "A Canadian in Cuba" does seem a little disingenuous anyway as I am now "A Canadian in Canada". Disingenuous as it may be, I will post an update or two when Katherine and I do our public engagement activity with the three SFD interns that were in Uganda.
Lastly, I have to thank you, whoever you are, for reading this blog and taking an interest in what Kat and I have been doing. I'll miss you too.
Hasta luego,
Sarah Cole. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Photo Summary

As this week is our "Resumen" or our summary week I don't have a new department to talk about. So, instead of posting any redundant information, this post will just be a photo summary of our time here. A week or two ago Katherine and I wandered around the farm taking photos, below are a couple of the ones I took. 

It's unbelievable that a week from now we'll be on a Toronto-bound flight, but I'll leave the departure talk and reminiscing for later. Anyway, enjoy the photos, my next post will be from Canada!

Abonos department where we spent our first week
The lovely ladies of the Casa de posturas

Katherine, Isis and I
Anita from the ornamentales department
From left to right: Pedro, me and Alexi
The beginnings of the line for Merinda 
The Boys
The hortilizas department and I

Ramon & Roche (the basil behind Ramon's ears is used to repel mosquitos)

Roche and the medicinales department

Spraying natural pesticides/fertilizers  

Koral and Mariuska in the agroindustria department

Harvesting time.
Last but not least, from left to right: Katherine, Medardo, and I. Medardo has been our go to guy at the organopónico for the past four months, and I can't thank him enough for everything he's done for us.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Casa de Cultivo Protegido

This week, we've been learning about the "Casa de cultivo protegido" or the protected houses at the organopónico. There are four covered houses that are cared for and worked in by Emil, and David (Pictured below). Emil has been working at the organopónico for 13 years, and David for 6. These two friendly guys can talk for ages. Today in one conversation we talked about plane and bus crashes (lovely), life in Cuba, the environment, the economy in Cuba vs the economy in the US, immigration and emigration, apartheid, extensively about Canadian weather, and of course about agriculture. 
Emil on the left and David on the right, standing outside one of the smaller houses. (Tomatoes inside)

The houses are protected by a special nylon that keeps out both harmful sun rays and water, effectively protecting the plants completely. It is important to note however that simply because the nylon drastically reduces the strength of the sun it does not mean that these houses are by any means cool. They are in fact sweltering. Emil and David have to be careful when they turn on the irrigation system as if it were turned on in the heat of the day, the water would simply evaporate and cause the house to become far too humid for the plants. The irrigation is therefore turned on only once a day, either early in the morning, or late in the afternoon. The nylon also protects the plants from the wind and pests, however this means that if you're working inside you won't be cooled down by any lovely summer breezes.
The largest of the four houses where they are currently growing lettuce.
In these hot houses, Emil and David can grow plants in the summer, which would ordinarily wilt in the summer sun. Tomatoes for instance, which can grow in Cuba in the winter, whither if they're exposed directly to the Cuban summer sun. Two of the smaller houses are being used at the moment to grow Tomatoes. Since they are out of season during the summer, the organopónico can sell them for 10 pesos per pound instead of the 8 pesos per pound that they are normally sold for in the winter. The third, and largest house is currently being used to grow lettuce. Lettuce is often grown in the houses between batches of cucumber or peppers to clean the soil of nematodes. Certain nematodes, as I believe I mentioned before, enter the roots of a plant and block the plant from receiving sufficient nutrients. Emil and David use a crop of lettuce to draw the nematodes out of the soil, and once the lettuce is harvested and removed from the casa, the nematodes are removed as well.

One of the other houses, which was recently growing peppers, is now being cleaned out after being harvested. Every six months, the houses are cleaned out entirely and the soil is replenished with fresh compost from the Abonos department. The photo below shows David cleaning out one of the houses. Which must be absolutely exhausting since just standing in one of the houses is sweaty work.
David cleaning out one of the houses.

Another advantage the houses provide the plants is protection from pests. This advantage unfortunately is short lived if any pest does mange to find it's way in. This can happen a number of ways. Pests can enter on the clothes of a worker, sneak in while the door's open, or find a small crack near the door. Once inside, a pest can thrive. That's why a small container of "cal" or calcium powder is kept at the door of the big house. The powder is used as a disinfectant by those who enter the house. Calcium powder is used in various places on the organopónico including in the hortilizas department where it coats the outside of the raised garden beds as a natural pesticide. 
Calcium powder in the entrance of the big house. Not sure why the spoon is there.

Other photos:
Lettuce in the big house & irrigation tubes
Rows of tomato plants

An old photo of a worker harvesting cucumbers in the big house.
It's about time for me to describe the incredible family that Katherine and I have been living with since January. Lily, Chino and Dacio live in a wonderful home in Centro Havana that they open up to students and tourists alike. Since January Katherine and I have lived with many amazing people in this house, as at full capacity it can house 8 travelers. Right now however, we are only three; Katherine, myself and Muro who is here studying Spanish. Katherine and I are living in the upstairs room that could hold three, but right now my suitcase/mess occupies the top bunk of the bunk bed. Muro lives in one of the single rooms, while two other single rooms and one double room are at the moment unoccupied. It still feels strange to walk by Alicia's old room on the way to breakfast, or to see Jen and Amber's room empty. Life in this house has been nothing short of beautiful and I can't imagine Cuba without Lily, Chino and Dacio. Pictured below are the three of them together. Leaving them will be heartbreaking, especially since it's impossible to keep from crying once Lily starts to cry, but I know we'll see them again.

I cannot recommend staying here enough. They welcome you into their home like family, after a while you really do become family, and of course, the food is beyond compare. 

Here's their contact info:
website: (I've been having trouble getting this to load on my computer, but that may just be the Cuban internet)
From left to right: Chino, Lily, and Dacio

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Back in Frutales!

Before I get to talking about what we've been up to on the organopónico this week, I need to say Happy birthday Dad!! I'm sorry I'm not home to celebrate with you, but I'll see you soon! (Also you should be proud, I fought off a giant spider and two small scorpions today - details to follow)
Dad and I in Viñales
This week, Kat and I have returned to the Frutales department where we've been working with Jesús (who was on vacation last time we were in Frutales). Jesús, who has worked at the organopónico for 8 years after a 33-year career working in the Cuban rice industry, now works in the frutales department and has been teaching us all about the different methods they use to reproduce the trees at faster rates. Naturally, a mango tree or avacado tree would take 5 to 6 years before it would begin to produce fruit. At the organopónico, two different methods are used to produce fruit bearing trees in half the time. The first method uses esquejes or clippings which are small sections of the plants cut from the patrón or father plant then planted directly in the ground where roots develop. Different plants do this easier than others however, and some not at all. Mangoes and avocados for example have to be reproduced though the other process that Jesús called "cuña injerto" or wedge grafting. Seeds are sewn and after about three months when the seedlings are large enough, a cutting from a mature tree is placed into a "V" cut into the seedling, or attached to an open cut on the side of the stem (see photos below). The cuttings are then bound and kept water tight. This process effectively halves the time it takes the plant to begin to produce fruit. What I found most intriguing however, was when Jesús told us that not only is it better to do the grafting in the colder months of the year, but that there are also phases of the moon which are more conducive to plant growth. During the full moon and waning moon, water and nutrients flow easier through the plants and the grafts have higher success rates. I knew the effect the moon had on tides, but had never considered it would also affect plant growth.

A "V" cut into the seedling, and in Jesús's hand is the clipping from the older plant.
The clipping is placed in the V and secured in place with plastic.
An example of a finished graft
Here you can easily see the different between the two plants, and the old "V" cut.
Jesús and his plants
Today was especially interesting as while Katherine and I were emptying used soil from old bags and refilling them with nutrient rich soil; we encountered two unnecessarily large spiders, and two unbelievably tiny scorpions. I didn’t get photos of either of the spiders as I chased them away with a very large stick (It’s amazing how much safer you feel with a good stick), but I did manage to get a picture of the first scorpion (see below). Jesús killed both of the scorpions after I poked them out into the open with the wonderful stick. He told us that 12 years ago he was stung by a scorpion on the inside of his upper arm and has never forgotten how painful it was. Thankfully, the scorpions on the farm aren’t capable of killing you with their sting. They are however capable of causing excruciating pain so hopefully we don't encounter too many more. 

Here is the somewhat blurry photo of the little scorpion hanging out right where I would normally grab the bag.
In other news, two representatives from the Canadian embassy came by the organopónico on Wednesday and were joined by workers from the Cuban ministry of agriculture and a few representatives from ACTAF (Asociación Cubana de Técnicos Agrícolas y Forestales - Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians). Katherine and I sat in on their meeting with the head of the organopónico, Manuel Salcines as they talked about a recycling program that the Canadian government and ACTAF have helped to implement at the organopónico. As I understand it, the program aims to take in organic waste from the surrounding community, and use it in their creation of compost and organic fertilizers.  The blurry photo below shows everyone gathered at the beginning of the day before it started pouring rain. We ended the day with an amazing lunch together, and as a nice reprieve from the crowded bus, Kat and I caught a ride home with the Canadians. It's certainly been an interesting week.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Santiago & Plagas

Kat and I are still working in the Plagas department, and there seems to be no end to the new information that Norma is passionately teaching us. Among many things, we've learned how the micorrizas (fungi which aid plant growth) are cultivated on the farm, and how Norma ferments and disperses different plant extracts at different times of the day to increase their efficiency. However, one of the things which has interested me most over the past few days was talking to Norma and learning about her first few years at the organopónico. The organopónico was founded in January 1997 and two years later in 1999 Norma joined the small work force. Then, the farm was much smaller and only occupied the space of the medicinal plants department (pictured below). 

With only five workers employed the first year, outputs were obviously lower than they are now but residents from the surrounding area would still flock to the organopónico to see what was for sale. For a while, seeds were sewn in old beer cans collected from the community and without a car to move any equipment everything was done from the seat of a bicycle. Bit by bit the organopónico grew to what it is today. There was considerable aid from a German agricultural program named German Agro Action (Welthungerhilfe:, which helped add to the infrastructure of the farm. Norma has an old photo of the organopónico which hopefully we'll be able to see and compare to our version of the organopónico. Everything seems so established now in a unique rhythm making it difficult to imagine that is was ever anything different. 

In other news, Kat and I were in Santiago last weekend to check out the east coast of the country, see the carnaval, the moncada barracks, and visit two other Canadian students working on SFD internships. Matt and Elaine are engineering students (Elaine just graduated) from the University of New Brunswick who have been living in Santiago for two months working at the university focusing on medical imaging technology. I know very little about both engineering and medicine so I can't explain in any detail what they are doing, but it was fantastic to meet up with some other Canadian interns and to talk about everything that's been happening over the past few months. Pictured below the four of us are in a tiny book/photo/record store in Santiago, which conveniently had a Canadian flag on the wall. 

Kat, Matt, Elaine and I in Santiago

We didn't see too much of the carnaval, but what we did see was a giant street party. There were trucks stationed at various spots along the carnaval route which were really just giant kegs filled with beer. Vendors walked around selling hats, and cups for beer from the truck-kegs while small amusement park rides were located just up side streets entertaining the kids. The four of us also walked around the Moncada barracks where 60 years ago Fidel Castro and 138 others staged their first revolutionary attack. However, while the revolutionaries were outnumbered and quickly defeated, the attack did give Fidel his pedestal to deliver his famous speech "History Will Absolve Me" and is seen as the beginning of the revolution.

While in Santiago Katherine and I had to frantically look for a place to stay when our reservations at a casa fell through. We ended up wandering around Santiago knocking on doors that had the casa particular sign (Casa particulars are a bit like B&B's). However, due to the carnaval and celebrations for the 26th of July everywhere seemed to be full and it was getting late. Luckily for us however, we were rescued by the kindness of a woman who would not let us leave her casa (which was already full with tourists) until she had called all of her friends and had found us a place to stay. We then stayed with Tatica (pictured below) one night, and Marbelis (pictured below) the second night. These two women were some of the sweetest women I have met yet in Cuba. Marbelis even called our Cuban Madre, Lily, back in Havana to tell her when we were on our bus, and when we were expected in Havana. If you're ever going to be staying in Santiago send me a message and I'll send you the contact info. 

Kat and Tatica
Tatica and I
Marbelis and Kat
Marbelis and I
In the end it was a fantastic adventure and it has left me looking forward to this Sunday when Elaine comes to visit us in Havana!

More Photos:

Ladybug containers which specify the amount of larvae and adults in each. (Larger storage containers in background) 
One of the many painted wooden blocks that decorate the department showing the various types of ladybugs, and other beneficial insects. 
Pure plant extracts (Nim tree, Tobacco etc) that are diluted and used as pesticides.
From left to right: Roxana, Kat, Norma, and I
Norma showing us how she samples Nematode levels in the fields.  
One sample from a field. (Small samples are taken at 5m intervals diagonally across a field then mixed and analyzed. The fields are tested once a year.)