The Pothole Patrol

The Pothole Patrol (This section was cut from the bottom of the first page of Chapter 3—Revolution Lessons, and tells the story of what I and my fellow travelers did while we waited for Lisset, our tardy but still excellent Spanish teacher, to show up.)

Lisset was always late or absent, and while we waited for her or a last-minute substitute to come teach us, we invented our own routines. Some days we danced salsa on the lawn of the José Martí Language Institute. On others we sat beneath a royal palm, Cuba’s national tree, taking in the sun, our hair blowing in the occasional breeze. We stared down the sleepy streets of Miramar, looking at nothing in particular, learning to be content with the quiet.

Sometimes I chatted with an older woman whose name I did not know, a small, cheerful woman who sang while she cleaned the language school’s smelly bathroom every morning, dumping buckets of water down the toilet to make it flush. She’d pinch her nose and shoo us away with her hand if we attempted to enter before she’d cleaned up.

When our hunger got the best of us, we’d go searching for food at a farmers’ market a few blocks away. Here I’d buy mameys, fruits which were covered with the brown fuzz of a kiwi but, once cut open, revealed a neon pink flesh that tasted like caramel candy. Outside the market, a man served up frituras, fried balls of cebolla and malanga. The greasy onion and root vegetable concoctions weren’t terribly tasty, but I didn’t care. I was eating for sustenance, not satisfaction. For something to snack on later, I would buy a mani molido, a bar of crushed peanuts. They were wrapped in wax paper and tasted like the inside of a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

On the walk back to school from the market, my stomach full for the moment, I would study the scenery. The great thing about walking in Havana was that there was so much to look at—a child dancing in the street, an older man selling flowers every color of the rainbow, the buildings tilting and worn yet somehow still beautiful. The only problem was that the more you looked up and out at your surroundings, the greater the risk became of falling down and into one of the deep, dark, lurking holes that lined the sidewalks of Havana.

Every major city has its dangers, the accounts of which are passed on like urban rumors from one traveler to the next. I remember that in the mid-90s there was a story circulating about people in Las Vegas who slipped sleeping pills into casino drinks and then stole their victims’ kidneys. In Rome, I’d heard about street children who hid behind newspapers, surrounding unsuspecting tourists and picking them penniless before they realized what had hit their pockets. In Mexico City, I’d been told that the land, built on a lakebed, was sinking and swallowing several inhabitants each year.

In Havana I heard about the holes on my very first day. They had already claimed one person in my program, a blind American dancer named Denise who, against her doctor’s orders, had returned to Cuba for salsa classes just three months after breaking her foot on a side street in Havana. Denise had been walking with some friends who were distracted by the street life and neglected to notice an approaching hole. Actually, Denise told me that first day, “hole” was an understatement. (To read more about Denise, click here.) The chunks cut out of Havana’s sidewalk were more like gaping wounds, abandoned sites for some sort of underground project. Probably the money had run out. Perhaps the government still thought it might finish up some day and, consequently, had decided it wasn’t worth the effort to seal up the sidewalks. Either way, habaneros, as the capital’s residents were called, had used their trademark resourcefulness to transform the cavities into much needed trashcans.

This final detail about the holes was not something I discovered until my second week in Havana when I witnessed a classmate being pulled out of one with trash still clinging to her body. It was one of Lisset’s late mornings, and I was walking to the farmers’ market with Christina, a Swiss woman from my class. We were talking and I was staring at a billboard, which read, “La Pobreza Pasa, La Deshonora No.” Poverty passes but dishonor doesn’t. Like so many other such billboards in Cuba, the U.S. was an unspoken presence here, the implied pronoun. Its embargo, the proverb seemed to suggest, was the cause of Cuba’s poverty, and the island’s decision to hold out for sovereignty was Cuba’s source of honor.

In the middle of my billboard reflections, I heard Christina yell out, and the next thing I knew, she had been swallowed up to her shoulders by a hole in the sidewalk. Christina tried to pull herself out, but she was too far down. Before I could even bend over to help her, two young men appeared out of nowhere, like an impromptu pothole patrol. One knelt down on each side of Christina and whisked her out of the hole. They wrapped their arms around her back and insisted on taking her to the pharmacy.

“No, no,” Christina protested. “I’m okay.”

Her right arm was bleeding, both her legs were fairly scratched up, and the men would have none of her objections.

“You could get an infection,” one of them warned her.

“You’re in a foreign country. There might be bacteria here you’re not used to,” the other said.

Finally Christina conceded.

“We’ll take care of her,” the first man told me, patting me on the back as though I’d had some part in their heroic rescue mission.

The next day when Christina showed up to class with her leg bandaged and her arm in a sling, Lisset used her story as a segue into a discussion of the situation in Cuba—the medical care, the urban decay, the sense of hope that people still harbored.

Although the course curriculum at José Martí Language Institute was simply described as language and grammar intensive, the classes, like the name of the institute in which they were taught, like everything else in Cuba, were political in nature.

And as a teacher at the institute, Lisset adeptly wove the politics of Cuba’s long, complex history into our daily lessons, linking linguistics with cultural changes. She was a wonderful teacher despite her frequent tardiness.