WRITING IN SANTIAGO:
It is Sunday morning. Now in Santiago. Writing through a blastingly loud conversation assaulting my ears from two rooms away.
GUARAPO: Back to Pinar del Rio. On the way back from Bailen Beach, we stop at a roadside guarapo stand and wait a long time in line to be served. A lot of waiting in Cuban. I take a photograph through a crack on the wall and hope it comes out. It didn't. Guarapo is the juice of pressed sugarcane stalks. When the guarapo comes, it has a slight tinge of the taste of kerosene to it. Even so, it is still delicious. I have three glasses. I have been, and continue to be, ravenously thirsty.
CANANDONGA: We stop at the reported one and only canandonga tree in the region. The tree has fruit and the owner is happy to have us take them all. No one eats this fruit: it smells like feet. They feed it to the pigs. Of course, Ivan climbs the tree easily and throws down the long longed-for fruit cherished from my childhood. We pack the 25 or so fruit and we're off.
This couple, Ivan and Delia, are local teachers in an agricultural trade school. Their current and former students like them and greet them friendlily everywhere we stop. Their students are everywhere we go: at the beach, at the crab house, at the guarapo stand, at the canandonga tree.
PRUDENCIO: Back home and we unhusk the corn.
Now I'll tell about the famous Prudencio. He is my cousin Zoila's merchant marine husband: a skinny, drunken, black man with an intense greedy-needy gaze out of big bug eyes. Even though Delia is not his daughter, he has raised her as if she were. Prudencio and Delia love one another sweetly. It is a joy to watch. Prudencio has been severely drunk since I first saw him back in La Habana. I forgot to mention him, but he arrived this morning in Pinar del Rio. In the repetitive style of Cuban patter, he tells the story of how he got here from La Habana and how he got lost looking for the house. The three-hour journey took from 11pm to six am, taking whatever transportation was available. To ease the transportation problem, state trucks are required to stop for people needing to travel. In this way Prudencio has gotten here. Now he and Ivan insist on my drinking with them. Just a few minutes of experiencing Prudencio's blathering, insistent, out of control and nonsensical talking entrenches me into my non-drinking stance. I do not drink. Drunks want to share their addiction. They want to level the playing field. They don't want to feel judged. I do not drink. Prudencio is so blind drunk that he's wasting a lot of the kernels on the ears he's peeling. He's hacking them rather than scraping them. I ask him to let me do it a while, knowing that it would be impolite for him to refuse me. I think this is a Cuban custom. Once we finish stripping the ears, we grind the corn.
CUBAN INVENTIVENESS: Later, Ivan and I put in an electrical extension so a light bulb can hang from a window so that the patio can be illuminated. This is done in case my mother or I have to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night. Electrical connections are secured with 'Cuban tape,' which is made by making strips of polystyrene shopping bags and winding these around the live wires. Ivan, like his father Miguel, prides himself on the inventiveness of Cubans. I think this inventiveness is best exemplified by Ivan's own. For example, he had fashioned the plastic cap and neck of a bottle of deodorant into an off and on switch. If only you could see the house he has built, you too would have no doubt of his ingenuity.
WATER: I know most of my readers would be horrified to drink water dispensed in the manner water was dispensed at Ivan's house. I know I was. A length of pipe connected to a tank is stoppered by a piece of wood where a gelatinous moss has grown. Uncorking the hose brings to mind that this water is in contact with that stopper. Fortunately, so far, eight days into this trip, we have not gotten sick.
In most houses we visited, drinking water was kept in the bathroom. The same grimy pot or pail that was used to flush the toilet was used to put in jars to refrigerate it or cook with it. So far each household we've visited has had a refrigerator. Each house has had drinking containers with the same kind of black stain, brown or black, but not both, around the mouth of the container. No es facil.
DELIA'S COOKING, WATCHING TV, THE A.D.D. KID: Unseasoned, over seasoned, salty, insipid, greaseless, over greased. Such is the food available tonight. The fault lies partly with the cook, partly with the lack of spices.
We watch a Cuban comic and I find him funny; though I can't remember any of the jokes. He tells jokes about transportation, mother-in-law jokes, that sort of thing. Ivan proudly shows me the diary he's kept since the day he married. This is a legacy he wants to leave to his son.
The boy's behaviour has gotten increasingly out of hand. Any refusal from the father produces a paroxysm of rebelliousness. The boy's what I call a clinical pain in the ass. The father gets increasingly frustrated. I sense tension between Ivan and his wife and wonder what's going on, but don't find out.
GRUBBY POOL AND KIDS: On the way to the beach we had stopped at a swimming pool. This pool was very special for Ivan. He thought this pool and its surroundings was a uniquely beautiful place. It was filled with sweet memories for him. We were not allowed in, but Ivan insisted they let us in. The local steering committee for the 26th of July celebration was having a private party. We managed to crash it. Boy, was that awkward. The swimming pool was grimy with algae and Ivan still thought it was beautiful. It was, if looked through the yes of a poor man who has not traveled outside of Cuba. It was not, if seen through my eyes. I have seen the pools at Hearst. Some grubby kids also had been barred admittance. They looked unhappily at Ivan's son who had managed a dip in the pool.
IVAN'S VERSION OF CUBA'S GOVERNMENT: Now it is late and Ivan and I settle to talk on the porch. I smoke and listen and see the soul of a man in love with this mad experiment gone so awry. A man who concedes that things have not worked out but had. His school years were happy ones, the happiest. He shows me pictures of his college days, of his friends, of the easy playfulness they shared, treasured warm memories of youth. He shows me his diploma. He shows me love notes to and from his wife. He shows me a fantastic wardrobe he handmade for their first anniversary. Their initials are carved on the handles of the two drawers. He sits on a homemade rocking chair painted happy sky blue. I gaze in easy inebriation at male beauty rocking back and forth before my adoring eyes.
During our late night conversation, Ivan told me his version of Castro's role as a ruler. I'll paraphrase. Fidel Castro is an extremely strong, charismatic leader and his word counts for a lot. The people who have risen to be in the cabinet, or the innermost circles of power in Cuba, respect him. Castro has a strong personality. His force of conviction, and the force of his character, may drown out voices less adept at imposing their will over decision-making in Cuba. Ivan insists that Fidel Castro is only one of a group of people who make the country's decisions. He makes a case for Fidel being one of a group of elected officials... I point out that I think Fidel Castro is not an elected official because they don't have free elections. Well, he says, Fidel was elected, but he doesn't have to go through all that election business anyway. He can sit among those in our government who are elected by the people's assemblies as the father of the nation. Fidel's hard work for the success of his country counts. His personal history gives him a right to rule, with the aid of his comrades, the country he helped build. Castro, Ivan tells me, is not the ruler of Cuba, anyway. His office has, in fact, less equivalent power than the US president's. He tells me that there is someone in the Cuban government who has a higher position than Castro. Fidel Castro is respected by his peers. Fidel is a very skilled debater, of course his opinion counts, and it counts all the more because he has charisma and the power of eloquence. And above all, he can be more than persuasive because he is deeply respected. It is respect that guides people siding with him on issues he favors. As an example of his voice only being one of many, Ivan tells me that Castro was opposed to legalizing the dollar as currency in Cuba. Other views prevailed. He tells me again that Castro's power lies mainly in his being respected. Here I interject gently and without affront that what motivates the party's people to agree with Fidel Castro could be understood to be fear. When I disagreed with other people about political issues, they became very angry, one even shook with a sort of apoplectic fury. I couldn't tell whether Ivan had just told me a fable he himself did not believe or whether I had crushed him. I couldn't tell. I did feel like a killer, like I was wielding a weapon. I persisted. I suggested that perhaps it wasn't respect, but fear, that makes his co-governnants respect his positions. Ivan's outer demeanor appeared calm at my summation of his reasoned understanding of how power is applied in Cuban politics. He smiled. Now I think it was a smile of defeat. He could not sway me. His version of Cuban affairs had such a sweetness to it, if only I was not cynical... We moved on to other topics. We departed cordially.
SLEEP AND WAKING: Time for sleep. I have not slept well for a week. I can't engage sleep and when I do it leaves me soon enough
I get out of bed as soon as the sun comes out. I'm glad to wake early since I got here, I look forward to these days.