T IS A STRANGE thing being an American in Cuba, strange for its easiness, its novelty. No one expects us. The question, when I begin to speak my foreigners Spanish, is always the same: De donde es? Where are you from? Guess, I say, and no one ever does. It is impossible, of course, in the United States, to draw any realistic impressions of what life might be like here, but I have been a foreigner in many places, and this is different.
Everyone talks to us, curious, amused, interested. People are faintly surprised at our questions and then greatly concerned that we understand their answers. We make blunt, ignorant inquiries about everything we can think of: religion, family, government, money. We walk into businesses and factories and talk to the workers, we talk to strangers on the street. People oblige us unselfconsciously, with elaborate examples, personal anecdotes, the ubiquitous Cuban axiom. They ask us what we think about Cuba, rocking forward slightly, heads cocked. There is, in each exchange, surprise and relief, as at a reconciliation of the estranged, and an urgency, as though time were short. Our bus drivers lean over and explain things to us, shouting above the engine, as we drive along.
On the morning we leave the campamento, Manolo calls my name after breakfast. Some of us have gotten replies to the e-mails we sent. But there is no printer, and Manolo has copied the messages down by hand, letter for letter, in his notebook. I stand in a light drizzle and read, in a careful script, my boyfriends account of driving home from Georgia late at night, in the midsummer heat, in his underwear.
E ARE HEADING to Matanzas, a port city on the north side of the island, 75 kilometers east of Havana, to paint a special-education elementary school. Matanzas is segmented lengthwise by two rivers, which empty into the Bay of Matanzas. Matanzas means killings; the city got its name when a shipload of Spaniards was sunk in the middle of the bay. The school we are working at is a 20-minute walk from the church dormitory where we are staying, across one of the rivers. The closest pedestrian crossing is at the mouth of the river, over an old railroad bridge which once rotated to allow ships in from the bay. Now rusted in place, the bridge has sizable gaps in the wooden spacers, through which the sun gleams off the green water twenty feet below. It is the only route across the river at this end of town, and there is always steady foot traffic in both directions. People cross slowly but unconcernedly, those on the more solid parts giving a hand to those crossing loose or vacant sections. I hold onto the side and take a womans hand as she is passed to me by her boyfriend. I am glad to see that we are both laughing in mild disbelief.
There is little in Cuba that is where it was originally meant to be. Used clothes are spread out on counters in old pharmacies, fruit and canned milk line the hardwood shelves of old department stores. The school we are working at, Franco Gomez, is in what was obviously a grand old home, with an enormous center courtyard and rooms in a horseshoe around it. There are marks in the floor of the courtyard where fountains used to be. The rooms have 20-foot ceilings and bright, intricately tiled floors. We inquire about a ladder, and the teachers exchange glances. While sugar cane is still Cubas largest industry, tourism is being groomed to replace it, and construction supplies of all kinds, reserved for the burgeoning smokeless industry, are in painfully short supply, forbidden for personal purchase. Plaster is falling in large chunks from the walls in many of these rooms. There are a few lights and fans, turned on by live wires touched together.
There is money in Cuba, but it is elusive and undependable, a watered-down fuel on which only a few engines run. Commerce is far more complicated, less certain than we are used to, and it takes us a long time to translate from our native capitalism. We have sent money ahead of time to buy paint for the school, but we arrive on our first morning with none anywhere to be found. One of the church administrators, we are told, has driven to a town an hour and a half away to buy some. He returns with a few small cans, enough for one or two doors. One of our group goes to a store with a couple of our hosts; here there is paint, but though it is only 4:30 p.m., the proprietor is closing the store and refuses to sell it to us. Otoniel tells us, If you gave me $100 [an enormous sum] I couldnt find paint in one day in Cuba. Time does not equal money; time doesnt equal anything except time. In a government-controlled economy, the profit from a can of paint wont change a store-owners wage, and hed rather just go home.
In fact, with a triple economy, money doesnt even equal money: There are three active currencies in Cuba: the old peso, worth about a nickel, the American dollar, and the new peso, recently minted, equal to an American dollar. As the strongest of the three, American dollars hold the most power. Our hosts tell us that only about a fifth of the population make their money in dollars, through tourism-related jobs and other contact with foreigners. Though most incomes are still in pesos, more and more stores are opening that take only dollars, a situation which is creating the beginnings of class divisions. Sodas at these places are 50 cents or so; we pile off the bus in the midday heat and buy two dozen, and people stand outside and watch us. Its at one of these dollar stores that we resolve the paint problem, buying huge bucketsful from a sparkling new construction supply store, at American prices. We also buy electrical supplies. Otoniel and another man in our group, Jim, are electricians, and have been eyeing the ratted wiring with a hungry look.
When we finally get the paint, we work all day. The sun moves into the courtyard, whitens it, and it becomes achingly hot. The day takes on a feverish intensity. Unexpectedly, happily, someone delivers a ladder, a solid-steel behemoth that takes two men to carry it. The teachers, who have been watching us sweetly and amusedly, mostly trying to keep the children out of our way, begin to think something might actually get done.
We paint the walls in the courtyard, the walls in the largest classroom. Otoniel and Jim begin to screw switchplates onto the bare ends of wires. Rolando takes a can of red oil paint and climbs up the ladder to paint the gutters. We paint latex on the walls. We thin the oil paint with gasoline from a soda bottle. We sluice water through the courtyard to keep the paint from drying on the tiles, and splash around in our bare feet. The gutter in front of the school runs white with our water. There are enough brushes to go around; teachers are up on tables in the classrooms. We are spattered with paint. I work on a door with a teacher with a fine net of white in her perfectly done hair. One teacher pulls out the busts of José Martí, Cubas most famous poet and educator, and darling of the classroom, and gives them a fresh coat. Otoniel and I replace the fading José Martí quote under the Cuban flag at the end of the courtyard. We crowd into one of the classrooms for a demonstration of the new light switch.
Rolando finishes the gutters and begins to edge the roofing. He is in his bare feet on the roof. When he comes down, Otoniel tends to his pants with a rag dipped in gasoline. He has gotten a long streak of red on his one pair of jeans. Hold out your arms, Otoniel tells me, and he scrubs me down, stinging, with the rag.
We have painted the entire school, the classrooms, the courtyard, the doors, the trim, the front entrance. The courtyard, at midday, is blinding. By pure coincidence, we have finished in time for the schools end-of-the-year party, and the courtyard fills up with children and their parents, who look at us with a mixture of pride and bewilderment as the children perform loud, enthusiastic dances in front of doors still wet with paint. We are feted as the heroes of the project, an unfair accolade.
Along with the peso, work has been devalued in Cuba we see scores of healthy young men lounging on corners wherever we go. For less than a dollar a day in wages, in the new economic climate, much work isnt worth it. Our bus drivers worked like men possessed. Rolando only came down the ladder, reluctantly, when the can of paint was dry. Everyone worked hard, for nothing, and as much as they were helping us take care of the job, I see they might also have been taking care of themselves, and of their country.
What amazes me about Cuba is its long patience. Not one person we meet speaks bitterly about the times when it has been unrelentingly hard. In a country plastered with images of Ché Guevara, the sweetheart of the revolution, dead some twenty years, there is among the population a distinct unwillingness to be martyred. I look for what might be the secret, how people go through the routines of regular living: stubborn, persistent, amused, earnest. Early in the morning, I watch a man pull up on a motorbike, a woman perched in front of him. When she gets off, I see she is very pregnant. She is laughing and trying to leave, and he is holding her arm and smiling at her. He kisses her six or seven times, short, rapid-fire kisses on the cheek, and looks at her. He kisses her again.
At the end of our stay, we arrange to travel to Havana a day before our plane leaves. As our time has run out, so have our supplies and our money, and weve accomplished, as well as anyone can tell, at least some version of what we came to do. There are no activities planned for our last day in Matanzas, and I spend it wandering through the city in a narrowing spiral, bounded by the rivers, an open-air market, and the bay. Late in the evening I am taking a walk with one of our hosts from the church when we meet a friend of his in the street. We exchange greetings. The friend shakes my hand gravely. He is walking home from work, he explains. He wears a nametag from one of the new dollar stores. Would he like to walk with us? He would. We make a slow, leisurely progress up the quiet street. West Side Story is showing on the islands one television station, and the songs flicker out of living rooms up and down the block. A man on the sidewalk passes us, carrying a white plastic bag. He is selling rolls on the black market. Women in housedresses come to their doors and talk with him in low tones as we stroll past. The two men I am with make gracious conversation with each other in quiet, easy voices. They talk about the weather. They talk about their children.
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