I’ve given up trying to ride a bike to Holguin. I will have
to take a bus, but not today. But I wait until almost 5pm when it should be
cooler, to retrieve a bike. I’m disappointed to see that the bike stand has
closed, just when the heat is subsiding slightly. Grrrrr
I decide to walk – small throngs of people are walking down
the street, away from the hotel. It is 5:01pm. I follow everyone toward the bus
stop and then I turn off to see what lies in the opposite direction.
I pass many horse and buggies, drivers calling out in
English and Spanish, offering me a ride, actually trying to sell me a ride and
I’m put in mind immediately of New York City and the horses and buggies around
Central Park that my mother would never rent for us to ride in no matter how much
I begged. But these horses are smaller and the buggies are certainly much more
simple. There are also a couple of taxis – all driven by Cuban (of course) men,
but no womyn. If I had seen a womon, I probably would have hired her.
There are a surprising number of folks on bicycles! Men of
course, although I do see one bicycle where a womon is sitting sidesaddle on
the bar while her male companion pedals.
I walk up a little hill, pass a huge piece of barren land on
my right that is surrounded by a chain link fence about 6 feet high that runs
in front of several acres of old asphalt spread haphazardly before dense trees
and bushes arise, blocking any view beyond the dead asphalt. I can’t imagine
what is behind the fence but the sidewalk comes very close to the guard shack
where a beautiful middle aged womon lounges in a short-sleeved uniform. I ask
her in Spanish “Que es esto lugar” which I think is “What is this place” and
she tells me it is the very back of a very wealthy huge hotel!
“Ah terible” I say, and she smiles broadly.
I walk on. The road splits, one part continuing left toward
a small grassy overpass, the other bearing right on flat ground. I choose the
flat ground direction and I see that I’m approaching a small village perched
slightly up a hill. I stop a bicyclist who has crossed the street and lifted
his bike onto the sidewalk where he’s riding towards me. I ask him about the
little town over there and he tells me that is where he lives. I ask if he
thinks it is okay for me to visit and he assures me I should.
I cross the road and climb up the rough dirt loose stone road
into the town. At the bottom of the hill and the beginning of the town, there
are a couple of houses with “rooms for rent” signs and one restaurant. I
continue past and suddenly an older womon enthusiastically approaches me, we
speak briefly, then she hugs and kisses me, and asks me to come into her home.
I am delighted, of course.
She is Josefa. She has dyed black hair twisted loosely and
clamped at the top back of her head. Her tiny nose is scared and deformed. The
teeth she has are few, yellow and black, and look painful. She smiles without
shame and welcomes me into her humble home.
All the houses in this little village are painted bright
colors and are constructed of either cinder blocks or cement covered with maybe
adobe or just beautiful bright paint. Her home is probably 10 feet deep by 6
feet wide. It is so simple and so clean – I see not one of her very few
possessions out of place.
She leads me through her open doorway and in one and a half
steps we’ve reached the two chairs that sit facing each other just this side of
her bed. She points out that she doesn’t have much but her home is clean. And
it is true and it is.
Her bed is narrow and short, and butts up against the far
wall, a thin faded blue blanket with a couple parallel bands of dim hues
testifying to years of washing stretch with military tautness over the top of
this small bed. There are no shoes or slippers peeking out on the floor, no
pillow, no lamp, no newspaper or book languishing on a night stand in evidence.
The back wall sports a ‘window’: a wide and long opening where a piece of
crumpled rust colored maybe tin hangs from the upper right corner as it
struggles to provide meager covering.
She urges me to sit in the larger of the two chairs she
owns, the unpainted grey wooden one with arms and slatted back and seat. I
think the chair is collapsing under me as I gingerly sit, while she perches on
the opposite straight-backed armless painted wooden chair but then I realize it
is a rocking chair!
She points out the window covering and tells me she has no
money to replace it. Then she points to her ceiling and tells me she gets
rained on frequently.
I look up and see a thatched roof that appears to extend
over the entire row of homes in her small block, granting space between the
adjacent neighbors’ walls and the outside walls of her home. I can see
pinpoints of brilliant sun and hear her neighbor on the left singing as grease is popping from her pan.
On my right is a small cleared table and high above that on
the outer wall she has two cups, one plastic and one tin hanging from a row
hooks that also hold three or four long-handled utensils: one large stirring
spoon, one ladle, one strainer. Under that she has one large plate, one small
plate, and one bowl leaning in a little shelf.
I am trying not to stare at everything as I try to inventory
her simple belongings. She is telling me how poor she is, how she has two sons,
one that is sick, the other lives far away and has many children, so neither of
them can help her out.
Her eyes are brilliant black and sparkle, contradicting her
words of misery. She pushes wild strands of hair off her forehead with fingers
swelled with arthritis sporting fungus-ridden nails neatly trimmed and recently
painted with greenish gold polish – her friend and neighbor having fun, she
says, when I point them out.
She tells me she gets very little money from the government,
she owns her house and her belongings and looks incredulous when I ask her if
she’s worried about losing her home. Of course not, why would she, she asks me.
I tell her what happens in the United States and she stares in disbelief. I ask
her if anyone in her village does not have a home and she looks like I’ve asked
her if stars come out at night in her part of the world.
Everyone has a home but some are bigger and better than hers
– hers is amongst the very worst, I think she tells me.
She points out her teeth and opens her mouth wider so I can
count maybe 7 teeth left. I think she tells me she could go to the
International Clinic and get false teeth for 20 dollars. I try to figure out if
that is what she really tells me – I tell her I thought health care is free in
Cuba. She says health care is free but to buy teeth cost 20 dollars. I can’t
believe that is true – her teeth look so bad, unless she’s talking pulling all
her teeth and getting dentures.
Three gleeful, immaculate children come running to the doorway, her
grandchildren. She tells the two girls to say hello to me and they both come
over, smiling broadly, giving me a kiss and slight hug. One is the chubbiest
two year old I’ve seen thus far and the other a tall skinny 6 year old. There
is a shy boy with them who hangs back in the doorway and who they explain is
their cousin. He then slowly and quietly comes over and rubs cheeks with me as
he plants a kiss.
Duty done, the children race out, giggling and jumping
excitedly. Josefa proceeds to show me her shoes, worn dusty pink flip-flops,
the left one held together by rubber bands where the piece between the toes has
broken off. She turns them over and shows me the bottoms, unevenly worn so thin
in spots I can almost see light shining thru the sole just like the ceiling.
She struggles to understand my Spanish, as I also struggle
to understand. I ask her what she would do with money if she had it. she stands
turning to face her front door and to the left is a doorless cupboard where is
see she has various kitchen items on each of the four shelves. She grabs a
small empty plastic bottle that had vegetable oil in it I think and tells me
“aciete” oil; she has what appear to be small yogurt containers opening each
one, showing me the bottoms: one has a few teaspoons of salt, another maybe
floor, another half full of beans.
She would buy food, she tells me. It seems to be what most
people say, although no one I meet looks like the skinny of starvation,
although few are heavy or fat, everyone I see looks healthy.
I ask her what it is like to live so close to tourists and I
wonder if she’s lived here all her life. She tells me she is the oldest of 10
children and that her mother was very sick. I think she is pantomiming a heart
attack but I can’t really tell. Whatever it is, her mother fell wildly back,
arms spinning like windmills, eyes wide frightened saucers. She tells me she
had to quit school in order to take care of her younger siblings – two of whom
are now dead – when she was very young, maybe 12 years old. All but two other
siblings still live in the village.
We go outside, she closes the planked wooden door painted
sky blue, and she points out all the plants she has in her yard, which is
probably half the size of her home. I recognize the small papaya tree growing
towards the front left side which she is extraordinarily proud of and shares
visions of the sweetest fruit she anticipates eating soon. The other plants I
do not recognize and appear to be simply decorative, not edible: some
overflowing plastic pots, others springing up directly from the ground.
She has a low wooden gate and fence across the front of the
yard and tall wooden posts supporting the thatched roof overhanging her garden,
marking the side boundaries of her land.
Another womon, much younger, approaches us and claims to be
the grandmother of one of Josefa’s granddaughters. She explains her daughter
married Josefa’s son. Where Josefa looks 65, she looks maybe 45. She has
also lived here all her life. I wonder if there are only two families in this
We walk out of the village up the road so Josefa can show
me the one tienda – it is really a tiny liquor, make-up, and some food gas
station. The most impressive thing is a huge freezer stuffed full of frigidly
frozen small chickens encased in thick white plastic with red lettering,
similar to how we buy turkeys. I try to read the writing on them but I can’t
make out the symbols. And the clerk was not happy with the freezer being
opened, I’m sure.
As we walk back towards her village, Josefa points out the
banana and coconut trees and asks me if I like coco. Of course I do and I
haven’t yet had any – one of the fruits the restaurant doesn’t seem to serve.
She gets excited, gesturing toward the far hills, and tells me one of her
brothers grows many coco trees. She invites me to her home in two days time to
drink and eat from the coconut. Tomorrow she will go to her brother’s home and
get us some coconut.
I agree to come back in the afternoon two days from now. We
part, she returning to her village, I to the hotel.