A Very Cuban Lesson in Kindness by Ruth Colmer

‘I taught myself English, by candlelight, in the Jungle. In the Jungle!’ He repeats the last phrase with delight as if freshly astounded by the unlikeliness of his tale. This is only the second thing that Roberto has ever said to us, the first being the obligatory ‘Where are you from?’

We are stood outside a grocery shop in the outskirts of Cienfuegos, gulping desperately from a bottle of agua mineral. Despite having been in Cuba for two weeks we still haven’t gauged just how much we need to drink in order to survive the midday sun.

‘Do you speak Spanish?’ he asks. I think I detect a hint of American in his accent. He looks healthy, buff, as if he’d just been plucked off a Miami beach and ended up 500 kilometres away still wearing his blue surfer shorts and a string of shells around his neck. My husband and I shake our heads in shame.

‘But why? It is easy.’

‘The English are lazy’, we say in weak retort. His face breaks into a Hollywood smile, teeth as white as a child’s. He talks on in statements, barely pausing for breath, the way one would if they had mastered another language but had no one to share it with. When the next question comes we are unprepared.

‘I would like to have coffee with you. Can we?’

His street is an architect’s playground with no two buildings alike. The houses are painted the colours of a nursery, faded mints, pinks and yellows strategically coating balconies, doors and shutters. Maximum effect with minimal resource. Just one car, a Soviet Lada in once cream, is parked jauntily on the kerb. I don’t think there is a viewpoint in Cuba from which you cannot spot a Lada. We stop outside a narrow, pink house, its front no wider than a kiosk.  

‘I will tell Mama and Papa that you are here’, he says, vanishing through the open doorway.

We have only a few seconds to reflect on the rudeness of our unexpected arrival before Roberto reappears. It is only when he is fully outside that we realise his parents have followed, their tiny frames obscured until the last second when they spring out from behind him. Papa is shirtless revealing small sinewy arms and a near washboard stomach. He laughs, throwing his head back in delight, pats us on the shoulder and starts performing an exercise routine, bending his legs to a low squat with such ease and balance that even a yoga teacher would be proud.

Ochenta y cuatro’, he says, prodding his chest, ‘y ochenta’, he continues now pointing to Mama.  

Ochenta’, she says, grinning and prodding her own chest to reinforce the message. Mama wears a nightie-like dress, thin, white and covered in a delicate pink flower print with large buttons leading up to the frilly, coral trimmed neckline. She has wide, watery green eyes and a ballerina-like posture, her arms slender and taut as if she has not changed size through all her 80 years.

Roberto brings out a stack of metal framed chairs, the kind that you might find in the middle classrooms of a primary school. He carefully positions our chairs to fit the only available rectangle of tree shade and urges us to sit. I do so briefly but Papa’s boundless energy causes me to stand again. It doesn’t seem right to be more sedentary than an octogenarian. He dips into the doorway again and bounds out wielding a huge mango. He hands it to me. We all laugh.

‘It is mango season’, Roberto tells me, ‘you will not get a better mango than this.’

Though hugely grateful I am unsure how to show my appreciation of its quality. I move it up and down like a nurse assessing a baby’s weight, surprised by how heavy it is. Papa smiles, nods, and gives one of his laughs. He’d laugh a whole lot more if he saw what passes for a mango in England.

We all watch as my husband tries to cut the mango. Papa advises in Spanish. I laugh, point, and take photos. The mango is delicious but eating it is a graceless activity. Papa’s eyes actually begin to water when he sees how much of the juicy flesh is smeared across my face. He even detects a bit in my eyebrow.

Shortly after, Mama brings the coffee, short, black and syrupy with sugar. Roberto explains that they moved to the city from the jungle due to Mama and Papa’s advancing years.

‘We need to be near the hospitals now’, he says, although looking at his parents it is hard to imagine them ever succumbing to the common illnesses and ailments associated with old age.

‘Tell us more about your excellent English speaking skills’, I say.

‘My brother got a job as a driver for the Russians’, Roberto explains. ‘They gave him a radio and he gave it to me. I would sit up at night tuning into the American stations, and by candlelight I would write down the sounds and practise. That’s what I did. That’s how I learned.

Our conversation is interrupted by a shout from across the road. We turn to see a neon clad woman sat on a door step bellowing and waving her arms about. She sounds as if she is angry but then everyone begins to laugh.

‘She is after one of Mama’s coffees’, Roberto tells us. ‘There are houses here much bigger than this but it doesn’t matter’, he says, ‘everyone wants Mama’s coffee.’

Bolstered by caffeine and sugar I try out some of my appalling Spanish.  Mama and I have facilitated conversation about children. She tells me that of the 8 she has given birth to, only one was born in a hospital and, of all the births, 6 survived. There is no self-pity in her tone. I imagine these must be favourable survival statistics for childbirth far away from medical support or supplies.

Mama smiles continuously. She holds my hand and, every now and then, hugs me and kisses me on the cheek. Buena, she says nodding at my husband. No wonder everyone wants to hang out with Mama.

We ask Roberto about the whereabouts of his brothers and sisters. He waves his hand dismissively.

‘They have moved away’, he says, ‘but I stay to look after Mama and Papa.’

Papa prances past, moving fawn-like across the road to deliver a coffee to the shouting lady. He comes back and hugs us each in turn chuckling away as he does so. Then he puts his arm around Mama.

Ochenta y cuatro, y ochenta’, he whispers, ‘Ochenta y cuatro, y ochenta.’

_____________________________________________

Ruth Colmer lives in Brighton, UK, and is the author of the vegetarian food blog Figs & Fennel. She has travelled widely, her work in the charity sector having taken her to various destinations including Ethiopia, India and Bangladesh. She is a freelance researcher, evaluator, teacher and writer.


Judge's Comment: In this neatly structured story we meet Cuban generosity at its best through a chance encounter between the writer and a lively elderly couple. I fell in love with Papa, the man with the 'near washboard stomach'. What pride in his 'fawn-like' gait, what openness, what love, what joie de vivre. I want to be like Papa when I'm eighty-four.

Comments

  1. I can feel the heat and taste the mango! It takes a good writer to create a picture, but it takes an even better one to place you right inside it. Thank you, Ruth, for sharing such an unforgettable and spontaneous moment, and bringing it back to life so eloquently and warmly. I smiled all the way through.

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  2. I now feel like I've experienced a little bit of Cuba myself :) A lovely story to read, very well done!

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  3. A joy to read. I feel as though I have shared these moments with these wonderful warm people myself.

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  4. Makes me want to jump in a taxi, head to the airport and get the next flight to Cuba!

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  5. What a delightful story! Beautifully captured Ruth. It's brought a little piece of Cuba to life on a chilly, grey day.

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  6. A beautifully structured piece, I'm off to get some coffee and mango!

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  7. A very evocative and atmospheric piece where you felt not only the physical warmth of the place but the authentic friendliness of Mama and Papa and the genuine feeling of happiness Ruth and her husband gained from the meeting. It was charming and made me smile

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  8. Lovely characters and great details...now where's my passport?

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  9. I really enjoyed this slice of Cuban life. The warmth in spirit and temperature beautifully captured. Having visited Cuba a few years ago this reminder of the colour and generosity there made me smile.

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  10. A wonderfully evocative piece.

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  11. You brought the characters to life beautifully, such a joy to read.

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  12. Gorgeous writing. I have just been transported to Cuba on my dull commute home! Would love to read more by this author.

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  13. Really enjoyed reading this passage, well crafted writing and descriptions of the people and interaction.

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  14. I'd like to taste that coffee and meet the family! Thank you Ruth for sharing this wonderful travel memory:)

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  15. Cuban people are the best!

    Reminds me so much of my holiday there, many years ago. Glad the warmth and friendliness of people hasn't changed.

    Thanks Ruth for taking me back there.

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  16. I've never even considered Cuba as a destination before, but this story made me feel all warm and 'glowy' inside

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  17. A beautifully written piece. Oh to be unrestricted by supposed civilities of polite British society, wouldn't life be more pleasant if we could all strike up these kind of interactions with total strangers.

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  18. Loved reading this very uplifting story. Very well written. I felt fully transported into a little suburb of Cuba!

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  19. A lovely read and beautifully written, so visual and evocative. It makes me want to travel :-).

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  20. The piece evokes the energy and openness of Cuban people whose generous approach to people is typical of rural life in Cuba. I was transported back there by means of your vivid portrayal of this lovely incident.

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  21. Lovely. A great read on an overcast UK day. Certainly now on the list of places I'd love to visit.Thank you.

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  22. What a delightful bite of Cuban life - a simple and sincere scene

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  23. Fantastic read, brilliantly written. Really brings out the fantastic warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people. This really makes me want to go to Cuba, thank you for writing this.

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  24. This story brought back some wonderful memories of our own trip to Cuba, the people are just amazing, as is this story, so true to the life of the Cuban people.

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  25. A beautiful encounter, lovely characters and a real sense of warmth throughout the piece.

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  26. What a lovely story to bring back from your travels and so beautifully and evocatively written. I hope we meet such wonderful people on our travels to Cuba next week.

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  27. Loved this. My favourite sentence was: 'The mango is delicious but eating it is a graceless activity'

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  28. Wonderfully charming. I felt immediately transported to a little pocket of Cuba and the great warmth of your unexpected hosts! You have captured the essence and beauty of the human spirit perfectly. What a lovely experience to share.

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  29. I've been wrapped up in work so much recently that I haven't taken the time to smell the coffee (I just chuck the fuel down my throat to keep going) Thanks for your story it's helped me remember what's really important, those natural flowing human interactions that only seem to happen when on my travels, life is at a slower pace and I have the time and inclination to go with the flow rather than fighting to swim upstream not having the time or energy to take in the view. It's great when you meet such lovely people it restores faith in humanity. Great story I felt if I was in Cuba with you and I could almost smell that coffee! I finish work this week and I'm really looking forward to my travels now I wonder who I'll meet on the way?

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