One Day, Rasta Man

One Day, Rasta Man (This chapter was originally came after Chapter 13—Living History.)

Before the Revolution, there were no roads leading into Baracoa and there was no electricity lighting the way for those who lived out on this remote eastern tip of Cuba, on this island within an island. Until the 1960s, there was only the sea and the sand and the 450-plus years of isolation, which Baracoans have been trying to make up for ever since.

As our bus wound its way through jungle and river valley heading down La Farola, the steep, tortuous road built in the 1960s to connect Baracoa with the rest of Cuba, people emerged from the trees like a tropical welcoming committee for our bus. Women with babies and small men with indigenous features ran towards us, leaving a forest of flapping palm leaves in their wake, waving at us with oranges and bushels of bananas and some sort of cone-shaped confection that I’d never seen before.

Our driver stopped the bus on a cliff overlooking the sea, and the Baracoans crowded together beneath our windows to hawk their goods. For three pesos, I bought a cucurucho, one of the cone candies made of dried banana leaves stuffed with orange, guava, and coconut. It filled me up after just a few bites, the perfect mixture of substance and sweetness.

As our bus backed up, I watched our friends recede into the jungle behind us, leaving La Farola silent and deserted once more. We scaled a final curve and then descended into Baracoa with its faded, sun-stained sidewalks and peach and rose-colored cement houses, the air smelling of jasmine and sea.

We caught a ride from the bus station to our casa particular with a chatty taxi driver nicknamed El Prematuro.

“My real name’s Raúl, but I was born three weeks premature,” he explained as we sat down in his immaculate state-sanctioned red Mitsubishi, which was newer and cleaner than any car I’d seen in Havana.

“Tremendo perol,” Alfredo said as he ran his hand delicately across the car’s velvety upholstery.

“My shift is over once I drop you off,” El Prematuro said. “If you’d like, we could go get a drink and I could take you for a spin around town, show you around Baracoa in style.”

“Vamonos,” Alfredo said excitedly, but after nearly five hours in the bus, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of more driving or of whiling away the afternoon in some dark, overly air conditioned bar.

“I don’t know,” I said hesitantly. “I really need to stretch out my legs and get some fresh air.”

Amy nodded, and Alfredo looked down, discouraged.

“But you can still go,” I said.

“Really? Are you sure?” he asked, surprised as he always was by my implication of independence, so counter to the Cuban concept of a relationship.

But this time he conceded quickly, his eyes animated as he asked, “Could you just photograph me in the driver’s seat before you go?”

Once we unloaded our bags at the casa particular, Alfredo jumped back into the car, and I took a side profile of him, his hands gripping the wheel as he stared straight ahead, a determined and steadfast driver, navigating an invisible highway in an idling car.

After the shoot, El Prematuro reclaimed his seat, and the two of them took off down a narrow side street, leaving Amy and me to investigate Baracoa on our own. Despite our torn-out guidebook maps, it only took us a few minutes to get lost in our new surroundings. Maps, unfortunately, are no help if you forget to note the name of the street you start out on.

“Maybe we can just describe the house to someone on our way back,” Amy said when we realized our oversight. “Do you remember what the house looked like?”

I glanced around at the rows of pastel houses, one indistinguishable from the next save for the degree of peeling paint.

“Maybe someone will know the owner,” I suggested.

“But I don’t remember her name,” Amy said. “Do you?”

“It began with an L, but I don’t remember the rest of it.”

I was forever forgetting Cuban names, which, for the most part, were entirely unlike those I’d encountered in other Latin American countries. While there were still a few Miguels and Marías on the island, most Cuban names were a mishmash of Russian and Spanish and African words. They were a random sampling of characters from Brazilian telenovelas, a laundry list of mispronounced and misspelled American movie star names, such as Charlo in honor of Sharon Stone.

Yet more common than Charlo were Fefe and Yosvany and multi-syllabic mouthfuls like Marisleidis and Aliuska. For the most part, though, Cubans seemed to have something against repeating names. Of all the people I’d met in Havana and in our travels, I could think of very few whose names had overlapped, and even for children, there didn’t appear to be any names of the year.

When I asked Alfredo about the Latino tradition of naming children after their

parents, he told me matter-of-factly, “That time has passed.”

“I have the same name as my father, but I was on the tail end of that trend,” he said. “But something like that wouldn’t happen now. Those are remnants of the patriarchal, pre-Revolution times when sons were always named after fathers but the daughters were hardly ever named after their mothers.”

“How do people choose names today?”

“Most names are made up now, some combination of both the parents’ names. My aunt and uncle Maite and Rene had a baby last year and they named her Mairen,” Alfredo said. “They came up with that themselves but if you can’t figure out a name that sounds good, you can always go ask una viejita. There are a lot of older women who’ve lived through several generations of names, and they keep lists for newborns.”

For all the variety of names that existed in Cuba, the only one I had never come across was Fidel. In Havana, I had met men who bore Revolutionary names such as Antonio of Antonio Maceo or Ernesto of Ernesto Che Guevara, but I had yet to meet a Fidelito or a Fidela.

Perhaps, I thought, the difference was that these men were martyrs, and maybe in Cuba there was a taboo against naming places or people after living icons. Or maybe since Fidel was the most legendary of all the Revolutionaries, it was simply considered disrespectful to name an ordinary child after him.

When I shared these thoughts with Alfredo, he quickly disabused me of such notions.

“When I was in grade school, there was a boy named Fidelito in my classroom,” he said. “I know there were others too, but that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Alfredo paused as he considered a way to explain to me the change in his country’s naming. Failing to come up with anything original, he reverted to repeating what he had already said as he told me, with a solemn smile, “That time has also passed.”

Now, as much as I racked my brain, standing in the middle of Ciro Frias Street in Baracoa, I couldn’t come up with the name of the owner of our casa particular. It wasn’t Liudmila or Leyma or any of the other strange L names that I was now so familiar with.

“Well, we’ll come up with something,” I said to Amy. Remember, in Cuba there’s always a way.

Amy laughed and we walked down the center of the street, past a man riding a donkey and a group of schoolgirls playing hopscotch in the unpaved space where the milky gray asphalt, like a receding wave, approached but didn’t quite meet up with the sidewalk.

When we reached Baracoa’s Malecón, a miniature, step stool version of Havana’s seawall, we walked along it, the sea smooth and lazy with the late afternoon heat. On the far end of the Malecón, there was a statue of Columbus, a large cross dangling from his neck. This was the first conquistador I’d seen memorialized in Cuba, but I also knew that Baracoans had a special relationship with Columbus whose contested 1492 landing in the New World had essentially put Baracoa on the map.

Columbus said he was drawn ashore by the sight of a flat-topped mountain, which Baracoans claim is El Yunque, a rectangular rise that towers above the city’s bay.

Next to Columbus’ statue was the entrance to Fuerte Matachín, a stone fortress built in 1802 to guard against pirates. Amy and I walked through the cavernous museum inside and read up on the history of Cuba’s first city, located in the province of Guantánamo, home to the still inaccessible Guantánamo U.S. Naval Base.

Amy and I had talked about visiting the base until we learned that we needed special permission from the U.S. Navy and that, even then, the only way for us to enter would be via a military flight from Norfolk, Virginia.

Even though there is an actual city in Cuba called Guantánamo, which is entirely independent from the base, the word Guantánamo, like the word Vietnam, has come to represent an event more than an actual place. In the case of Guantánamo, the event was the U.S.’s 1903 seizure of 45 square miles of Cuban land which, according to the Platt Amendment, were taken to help protect Cuba from invaders who might try to steal its independence.

Fidel attempted to ignore the U.S.’s uninvited presence in Guantánamo by not cashing their annual $2,000 rent checks. And the U.S., in turn, refused to be ignored and has continued sending its checks to this day.

I didn’t know what the checks had been used for during the 50 plus years that they had been accepted, but conditions in the Guantánamo province, and Baracoa in particular, had only improved since they stopped being cashed. In addition to electricity and roads leading out of the city, a glass-boxed display lining the gray walls of Fuerte Matachín showed post-Revolution improvements in the lives of Baracoa’s 65,000 residents, revealing that the number of doctors had increased from four to 289, the nurses from four to 454. And there were now 25 sports centers and 17 cultural centers, up from one and none, respectively, in 1959.

From Fuerte Matachín, Amy and I cut inland, passing by a statue of Hatuey, the Taino chief who had refused the Spaniards’ offer to be baptized before being burned at the stake. We walked along a nameless avenue that seemed to be heading back in the direction we’d come from, but each intersection revealed only unfamiliar street names. Finally, we found Ciro Frias Street again, but nothing stood out to us there either.

Two men on bikes, sweat beading from their foreheads and open-beaked, gawking chickens dangling from one of their handlebars, passed us and then circled back.

“Do you need help?” one of them asked, scraping his foot against the dusty asphalt to brake. He readjusted his grip on his chicken’s dry, poky toes, sandwiched between his hand and the handlebar.

“You look lost,” he said.

I nodded, recounting our story.

“No te preocupes,” the other man said as his chicken gave a listless, futile flap of its wings before resigning itself to its stationary, upside down position. “We can help.”

Amy and I ran behind the two men as they circled the streets of Baracoa, yelling “Oye,” into people’s windows, asking if anyone knew of a woman whose name began with an “L” and who rented out rooms to foreigners.

Most people shook their heads, asked where we were from, and invited us in for a fruit shake, by which time the two men were usually on to the next house and calling out to us to repeat the small details we could remember about L and her casa particular. With each house, we thought of a few more descriptions—several steps leading up to the front door, L’s curly-haired bob cut, the photo she’d shown us of her son who had married a foreigner and now lived in Italy. The men seemed encouraged by this final clue.

“That’s a good one,” the man whose chicken had tried to fly away said. “I think that might just do the trick.”

And, sure enough, at our next house, the woman who popped her head out the window said that she knew a woman named Lenora with steps leading to her house and a son who lived in Italy.

“If you’d like, I can take you to her house,” the woman said excitedly.

Within minutes she was downstairs and out the front door, but we bumped into Lenora on the next block and she wasn’t our L woman.

“Dunia, you know I don’t rent out rooms,” Lenora said to her friend.

“I know, but I thought…,” Dunia paused, lowering her voice to almost a whisper. “Maybe it was your negocio.

“Oh, I see,” Lenora said. “Yes, well, that would be helpful.”

“But your son does live in italia, right?” Dunia asked hopefully.

“No, hungaria,” Lenora said.

Dunia looked away, embarrassed.

“But my friend Liyi rents out rooms, and her son lives in Rome,” Lenora said.

After leading us to our casa particular, the search party broke up, and as we said our goodbyes to the two men, I tried not to look down at the chickens with their helpless, deflated bodies and crazed eyes.

Before the men mounted their bikes, they wrote down their addresses for us, an open invitation to stop by for a tour of the town. And then they were off, leaving me to wonder where they were heading and where, if anywhere, they’d been on their way to when we had met.

Baracoa was like that—an aimless, dusty place, an eastern seafront town that had an untamed, rickety, old western feel to it, as if anything, or nothing at all, could happen.

We had arrived at the start of the weeklong Carnaval celebrations, which filled the air with the scent of salt and singed pig skin. During the day people set up stands by the Malecón, each one selling the same small potpourri of popcorn and peanut candies and roasted pigs on the stake. Baracoans wandered listlessly around the identical booths until the midday heat got the best of them, forcing them to go inside or to retreat to the beach at the end of the Malecón, hiding out in the shade of a palm. But soon after sunset, when the night cloaked the town in a temperature that wasn’t exactly cool but that could, in comparison with the unbearable heat of the day, when the occasional breeze swept by, almost be called comfortable, then the true Carnaval festivities began.

As if a silent starting shot had gone off, drummers appeared out of nowhere and families emerged from the murky glow of their houses, nearly disappearing into the unlit streets where they danced salsa until sundown, until the drum beat surrendered to the sea, receding into the crash of the Caribbean.

Alfredo and Amy and I danced our way through the dark, bumping up against the Malecón and fellow Carnaval-goers so many times that I was afraid someone might end up with a serious injury. But the scene was so magical and addictive that we kept coming back, night after night.

Unlike festivals I’d seen in Havana, there were hardly any police present at Carnaval. And I didn’t hear any shouts of “¡Socialismo o muerte!” or “¡Bloqueo no, cuba sí!” as had been proclaimed at every other gathering of this size that I’d attended in Havana.

With its statues of Columbus and Hatuey, Baracoa felt patriotic in a different way than Havana or Santiago, its pride less Fidelista and more ancient.

Although Fidel was, as always, still present. In the evenings, walking home from Carnaval, we passed Plaza Martí’s communal television, which remained in a locked box during the day, and I heard Fidel’s familiar, plaintive voice discussing his favorite topics—Elían, social justice and the threat of imperialism—as the sounds of Carnaval faded in the distance behind him.

One night we took a break from Carnaval and went to El Ranchón, a thatched, open-air cabaret where we drank Hatuey beers and talked with a man named Madonna , a transvestite with flaming red hair and fingernails so long they curled under. Amy, who had taken gender studies courses in college, was fascinated with Madonna and had endless questions about his life and the treatment of gays in Cuba. I, too, was interested in Madonna’s story, but I was distracted by Alfredo’s constant sighs and small grunts of discontent throughout our conversation. When Madonna left our table, I heard Alfredo mutter, under his breath, “maricón.

On our walk back down the steep hill that led to El Ranchón, I launched into a lecture on homophobia and the importance of accepting differences, but Alfredo insisted that Madonna was acting in a way contrary to nature. Finally, in a last ditch effort, I told Alfredo that he was acting like a racist.

He looked at me with his forehead wrinkled, his jaw dropped open in shock.

“How can I be racist? Mira,” he said, pulling down on the flesh beneath his eye as Cubans always did when they wanted to explain something. “I’m black,” he said. “It would be impossible for me to be a racist.”

“No, it’s the same thing,” I told him.

The next night, after seeing a French film about an immigrant family of Algerians living in southern France and struggling to get by, Alfredo said, “It’s nothing racist but French films are just too depressing.”

“I like depressing films,” I said and Amy chimed in that she did too.

“Life is depressing enough,” Alfredo said. “When I go to the movies, I want to escape that.”

I had my mouth open in protest before Alfredo spoke but as I listened to his simple, obvious explanation, I felt embarrassed by how elitist my taste in films must have appeared to him.

“Tienes razón,” I told him. You have a point.

“Finally,” he said, squeezing my hand. “Finally I have said something true that the American agrees with.”

Yet, there was still so much I didn’t agree with or perhaps, more simply, couldn’t understand about Alfredo. Nearly every day, we seemed to argue about something.

“Lea, it’s in the past,” Alfredo would say when I’d wake the next morning with a new take on our disagreements. “Let it go.”

But somehow I couldn’t let it go. Because of their recurring nature, our arguments never really felt like something from the past. Rather, there seemed always to be something more going on than I was able to get at, so close that I could almost see its chameleon coloring, nearly feel its slippery surface as it slid through my fingers each time we argued.

Against my will, even after late night arguments with Alfredo, I woke early every morning in Baracoa. First came the neighborhood rooster’s cock-a-doodle-doo and then came our housemate Ralph’s bedridden cry of “Te mato, gallo.” I’m going to kill you rooster.

After El Prematuro, who now came honking in front of our casa particular at 8:30 every morning, wanting to know if he could take us anywhere, Ralph was Alfredo’s closest friend in Baracoa. An Israeli-born New York taxi driver who introduced himself soon after we arrived by announcing, “We’ll be sharing the bathroom,” Ralph was small but striking with his black, red-starred Che beret and his pungent, smoldering cigar. He told us he’d come to Cuba on a whim, cutting short his two-week Jamaican vacation because someone told him there was “good ganja” in Cuba.

“I don’t think Cuba is known for its marijuana,” I said, laughing. I hadn’t had any after that first night with Alfredo and as I thought about it now, I hadn’t seen or even heard it discussed at any party or social gathering since.

Ralph raised his eyebrows at me, surprised. “It’s not?” he asked

In this moment, Alfredo emerged from the bathroom, and Ralph’s eyes lit up as

he saw his dreadlocks.

“Rasta man,” Ralph said smiling. “¿Sabes ganja?”

It soon became obvious that Ralph spoke only as much Spanish as Alfredo did English, but this didn’t deter either of them, who bonded over being the only two men in our casa particular, from embarking on lengthy conversations that were a mix of charades and broken Spanglish.

Most of their exchanges took place in Ralph’s room where he had been in bed cursing about his upset stomach since the day after we first met. After waking each morning and threatening to murder the rooster, Ralph would stomp across his room, yank open the screechy bathroom door, and let out a loud groan as he relieved himself.

Generally, I abandoned the idea of sleep about five minutes into Ralph’s bathing. At this point, a streak of scalding water would shoot out of the showerhead, followed by a stream of ice cold. Ralph responded with a shriek of “¡Pinga!” one of the many Cuban curse words Alfredo had taught him.

Perhaps because Alfredo was a city boy, bred on late-night streetside conversations and early morning salsa music, he slept soundly, save a small stirring at the sound of his familiar curse words.

Our days in Baracoa passed in a tropical, heat-induced stupor, the only escape being to get out of town into the wet, jungly wonders of the surrounding wilderness, which reminded me of something I had nearly forgotten since my arrival in Cuba.

Baracoa’s lushness reminded me that geography was about more than just politics, that Cuba was not just an interactive museum of socialism but also a tropical, Caribbean island. The city was situated on the warm-water Bay of Honey, but even inland we had our pick of refreshing swimming holes. Baracoa had more rainfall than anywhere else in Cuba, so its four rivers gushed through the valley, fast and furious well into the dry summer months.

El Prematuro had recommended that we visit the Yumurí River, the lifeline of a small fishing village that was famous for its polymites, yellow and black snails, which, like fingerprints or snowflakes, each had different patterns on their shells. El Prematuro drove us in his fancy new car, which Alfredo was so enamored with that he asked me to take one more photo of him in it just in case the first one didn’t come out.

“I’m going to tell my socios at work that we rented this car and I drove it all the way to Baracoa,” Alfredo said, laughing.

Alfredo had been talking about his life in Havana a lot lately, and he had used the final two dollars of his trip money on a four-minute phone conversation with his grandmother. We had been traveling for 11 days, which was the most continuous time Alfredo had ever spent away from his family and friends. I knew he was looking forward to the small role reversal this would allow him on his return. Like the musicians at his theater with their envied travel stories, Alfredo would now have his own set of adventures to share.

Even though El Prematuro’s car was new, his air-conditioning kept stuttering to a stop so that, by the time we arrived in Yumurí we were more than ready to jump into the nearest body of water. We stripped down to our bathing suits and submerged ourselves in the cool calm of the river. We floated on our backs and we swam by a family that was wading in the river and washing out their clothes with such attentiveness and care that I felt invasive, as though just by being there we were interrupting a private ritual.

I could see that Alfredo felt uncomfortable too, and afterwards, as we lay on the black sand riverbank to dry off, he said, “I can’t believe we’re in the year 2000 and there are still people who have to wash their clothes in the river.” He paused for a moment as he glanced over at the mother holding onto the arms of a shirt and gently tapping its body as if to encourage it to go under water, like the trembling torso of a child just learning to swim.

“¡Qué descarado es Fidel!” Alfredo said. What a disgrace.

I thought about a new billboard that had gone up in Havana right before we left, which read, “Two million children sleep in the streets each night. Not one of them is Cuban.” What would Alfredo think, I wondered, of a country where those who didn’t have access to running water for laundry also didn’t have houses?

I soon drifted off to sleep along the smooth shore of the riverbank, lulled by the rhythmic rush of the current. But then, one by one, I could hear footsteps approaching and children’s laughter mixing in with the river’s song. Like a scene from Gulliver’s Travels, I woke surrounded by little people. A group of girls, some wearing shorts and tank tops and others with brightly colored mumus circled around us, extending their hands to reveal palms full of the tiny, bumble bee-colored polymites.

“Señorita,” one of them said to me. “Coge, es buena suerte.” Take it. It’s good luck.

Amy and I accepted the polymites and the long, dangly seashell and seed necklaces that came next, but Alfredo refused everything. I couldn’t tell if he was simply distracted, still immersed in his thoughts about the family we’d seen or if there was something else on his mind.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Alfredo lowered his voice so that the girls, who were now chatting up Amy, couldn’t hear. “If you pay attention to them, they’ll never leave us alone. First they give you free things, then they start asking for money,” he said. “They think that foreigners won’t know any better, and here you are falling right into their trap.”

“Alfredo, we’ve been here for less than half an hour,” I said. “How is it that you already know how everything works here?”

“Lea, I know because I’m Cuban,” he said, softening his voice and placing his hand on my shoulder. “Do what you want, but I’m just trying to help you.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said, “but for me part of traveling is talking to people in the places I go so I can’t just shut them out like that.”

“Suit yourself,” Alfredo said, shaking his head. He walked over to El Prematuro who was sitting in the sand by his car. Its slick, polished red exterior appeared like an alien entity in this landscape of bamboo thatch houses and cliffs and cracked coconut shells. Alfredo said something to El Prematuro and then the two of them approached a nearby fisherman. A few minutes later they returned to the car and Alfredo motioned for Amy and me. As we walked over, I could feel the black sand, hot as summer asphalt beneath my bare feet.

“El Prematuro knows that fisherman,” Alfredo said. “And he said he can take us down the river to a trail along these cliffs where the Taino Indians used to live.”

“That sounds great,” Amy said, and I nodded. I still wanted to talk to the girls, but this seemed like a reasonable enough compromise. Via our guide, I could still get to know a local.

“I got him down to two dollars for the trip,” Alfredo said. “That’s not so bad, huh?”

Amy and I each pulled out a dollar from our wallets, and as we put the money in Alfredo’s outstretched hand so that he could give it to the guide, out of the corner of my eye, I caught Amy rolling her eyes at me.

It was another instance of what she and I had taken to calling, amongst ourselves, The Steering Wheel Syndrome, feeling that our former third wheel, as Alfredo had described himself at the bus station in Bayamo, had silently morphed into the steering wheel of our adventures.

As Alfredo had swiftly taken over all our negocios, from bargaining with the taxi drivers to haggling with the vendors at the farmers’ markets, his insistence on doing for us everything that we did ourselves in Havana had begun to feel less like help and more like machismo.

“We’ll never learn what we should pay for things if Alfredo always sets the prices with people,” Amy had said to me.

I knew she was right but I had been hesitant to bring up this issue with Alfredo because, for this final leg of our trip, I was trying to choose my battles, and I hadn’t yet determined whether this one was worth the explosion that a prematurely formed accusation might cause. I wondered whether Alfredo’s taking charge of every transaction was his way of being helpful since he couldn’t actually pay for anything. Or was he simply doing what he believed a man should do when traveling with two women—drawing on Latin America’s storied history of machismo when uncertain of how to behave in a new situation? I suspected the answer lay in some combination of both these thoughts, a little top heavy in the machismo department and with a dash of some obscure Cuban neuroses I couldn’t quite understand because, as Alfredo was always quick to point out, I wasn’t Cuban.

Whatever the reason, I felt buoyed now by Amy’s irritation with Alfredo’s machista money dealings.

“We need to say something to him before we go back to town,” Amy told me now as we walked over to the fisherman.

“Okay,” I said. “After the river tour.”

The girls, accompanied by their mothers, followed us to the raft, pleading to come along.

Alfredo ignored them while Amy and I apologized that there wasn’t enough space. Undeterred as we boarded the raft, the girls and their mothers waded into the water and then, to my amazement, plunged under with their clothes still on. They swam quietly alongside us for a good twenty minutes until we docked at a trailhead alongside the river.

Alfredo jumped out of the raft and, in his rush to get away from our pursuers, slipped and sunk one of his feet into the mud.

“¡Mierda!” he cursed as he lifted his foot out of the swampy river bottom, revealing a soiled docksider. He angrily yanked the shoe off and thrust it into the river to clean it.

The girls and their mothers followed us along the trail, telling Amy and me their sad life stories. One woman with a long, thick black braid trailing halfway down her back told me that they were a family of women, abandoned by their husbands and fathers.

“Do you have any extra clothes that we could wear?” she asked. “A shirt? A pair of shorts? Some soap?”

I told her I had with me only the clothes on my back, but Amy had an extra shirt, which she gave to the woman who smiled as she held it up proudly for everyone to see before slipping it on over her wet tank top.

“Gracias,” she said. And then she was off, the other mothers and daughters following her to the water line where I could hear their soft splashing as they reentered the river, treading water towards home.

All this time, Alfredo had been walking swiftly ahead, staring silently into the jungle, but now he spun around to face me and angrily announced, “I have been in situations like those women are in, but never have I been so uncreative as to stoop to begging. Before I got my job at the theater, things were really difficult for me, and I only had one pair of shoes.”

I looked down at his soggy docksiders, but Alfredo shook his head.

“No, you’ve never seen them,” he said. “I don’t have them anymore. They were Adidas and so old that they had holes all over. I’ve never been as embarrassed as I was on April 10, 1999. That was when my theater re-opened. An arsonist burnt it down in the 70s, and it took more than 20 years to get it rebuilt. Fidel came to give a speech that day, and everyone was dressed in their best clothes. I was wearing a nice pair of pants and a black shirt and those holey Adidas, and I felt just like a peacock.”

“A peacock?”

“It’s probably a Cuban expression,” Alfredo said. “You know how when a peacock wants to show off, it spreads its wings to reveal all its bright, beautiful feathers?”

I nodded.

“But then it looks down and it deflates in embarrassment because its feet are still as ugly as ever.”

“Oh, now I get it,” I said, trying to suppress my laughter at the thought of this vain peacock. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Alfredo said. “But my point was that even when things were that bad, I dealt with them myself. I didn’t go running up to foreigners along the Malecón, asking them to give me new shoes. And for sure, if I was a foreigner, I wouldn’t be giving out gifts to people like that.”

Alfredo remained moody for the rest of our afternoon in Yumurí, which in turn made me cranky so that by the time El Prematuro dropped us off in front of Liyi’s house, I was not in the best state of mind to tactfully discuss Alfredo’s steering wheel syndrome.

Alfredo and El Prematuro negotiated in rapid Spanish and then Alfredo turned around and, putting his hand out for the money, announced, “Twenty dollars.”

“Alfredo, I think we can hand it to El Prematuro ourselves,” I said.

“And we speak Spanish too,” Amy added. “We can also discuss price.”

El Prematuro laughed nervously as we gave him the money, and Alfredo stepped out of the car without speaking and walked quickly into the house.

“That didn’t go over too well,” Amy said as we stood outside.

“Maybe I should just try to talk to him on my own,” I said. “So he doesn’t feel ganged up on.”

“Okay,” Amy said, taking her seed necklace off and slipping it over my head. “Buena suerte.”

I found Alfredo upstairs, sitting in bed reading over the notebook we’d been using for our English lessons, acting as if nothing had happened. But when I sat down next to him, he looked up at me with an expression so wounded and bitter that I stood right back up.

“I don’t know who you think I am,” he said. “You spend the morning hanging out with those jineteras at the river who were only interested in you because of your money and then you accuse me, your boyfriend who loves you and has no interest in your money, of being a jinetero.

“Alfredo, this has nothing to do with jineteros,” I said. “It’s about respecting Amy and me and not being such a stereotypical machista man and always trying to take charge.”

Alfredo looked at me with his eyebrows raised, as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard me correctly.

“Lea, no soy machista,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to help you, not because I’m a man but because I’m a Cuban. If I talk to someone about prices, they know I’m Cuban and they’re going to give me a better deal. That’s just how it is. But if you and Amy want to try, fine.” Alfredo looked away from me and down at his English notebook as he lowered his voice and added, “It’s your money after all.”

“And why did you think I was calling you a jinetero?” I asked.

Alfredo continued to avoid eye contact. “I thought you thought I was making a deal with everyone,” he said. “Telling you one price but only paying the people part of that and then taking a commission for myself.”

“Wow, I don’t think I would have ever been able to come up with such an involved scenario,” I said. “That’s not at all what I was thinking.”

“Not even a little?”

“No, I thought jineteros did their dealings directly. I never would have guessed that they worked as middle men too.”

“Oh, well, they do,” Alfredo said.



“So what?”

“I don’t know what to say now.”

“Me neither,” I said, sitting down next to him on the bed. We leaned back against the baseboard, and Alfredo rested his head on my shoulder. I ran my hand over his hair, tugging at a blondish strand of my own hair that clung to Alfredo’s head. My hair was always shedding, and by now I was used to Alfredo pulling it off his clothes, an amused expression on his face as he held it up to the light and announced, “un Leaita,” a little Lea.

But this piece of hair was different. Over time, without either of us realizing it, it had woven itself into one of Alfredo’s dreadlocks, as distinct as a thread of tinsel frozen in the night sky. And now it held tight, refusing to be pulled out and, at the same time, refusing to merge completely.

“As soon as I get better, I’m catching the first plane out of this two-bit, ganja-less country,” Ralph announced at breakfast the next morning. He had managed to hobble out of bed to grace us with his complaints, which were so plentiful that I’d begun to believe that, sick or not, Ralph was just one of those perpetually unsatisfied people.

I rolled my eyes at Amy, but Alfredo laughed. With Ralph, he had become skilled at laughing at things he didn’t understand if Ralph’s tone implied that they were funny. It was a survival tactic for life in a foreign language, a ploy I knew well from early on in my travels in Spanish-speaking countries. Although I tried now to only laugh, as I did in English, when I truly got the humor of a moment, there were still times in Cuba when I found myself so lost that I reverted to laughing because everyone else was. Now it made me feel so sad to see Alfredo laughing at something that he clearly could not have understood that I translated Ralph’s complaint for him.

“Oh,” Alfredo said, absorbed in thought for a moment. “Well, at least he has the freedom to leave if he wants to.”

I translated once more for Ralph who nodded solemnly and extended his fist to collide knuckles-on with Alfredo’s, a Caribbean greeting used by many a dreadlocked Cuban we’d met in Baracoa.

“One day things will change here,” Ralph said. “One day, Rasta man.”