Friday, September 16, 2016

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.