There's another saying in Cuba ...." Late for sure. " and Yovany and his brother never arrived at my place at 6 a.m, they got here at 9.30. Yet again, I had to laugh.
Patience has never been a virtue of mine and Cuba is beating it into me like a strict headmistress...on time.
Previous to our arrangement I'd asked Yovany if they'd be coming around in the car. He'd said yes. But when they showed up at my place, there was no car. When I asked Yovany where was the car, he said that the driver was waiting next to Parque Central with his father Hendry because they couldn't pull up outside my house to load the car and it was more convenient that way. There's another saying in Cuba,..."Uncertain for sure."
So, from my place we walked four blocks carrying our bags and instruments. They also told me that I could only take my guitar and not my Tres as well, because there was no room. It was already a very hot day and by the time we reached the car I was sweating.
The driver who's name was Ruen, a tall young handsome white man was waiting with Hendry, the dad, a beautiful, kind and gentle man. We started loading my stuff into the car and when they began to load the instruments onto the roof wrack, I was dismayed. I piped up and said that that was a bad idea, and that after 2 and a half hours under the searing heat of the Cuban sun the instruments would literally explode in their cases. I couldn't believe that Yovany didn't think of that. I told him that there's no way I'll put my guitar up there. It's the boot, or nothing. So we reorganised the boot, making room for the three instruments, ( my guitar and their 2 Treses ) with the other bags on the wrack.
We finally got out of old Havana at 10.00. Three quarters of an hour later we were on the eastern highway, driving through countryside and although its winter in Cuba now, in my head I started humming that old Cliff Richards song,
" We're all going on a summer holiday ".
No sooner had we hit the open road when suddenly there was a loud bang and Ruen, the driver had to control our now, swerving old Audi sedan. Yep...we'd blown our back left tyre.
Ruen's very words were, " Oh yeah, and now the fun begins". He pulled over to the side of the road. We all got out and then Ruen amazed me. With antique tools from the 50s he hoisted the back of the car and changed that dirty old tyre in less than it took me to take 3 swigs from my water bottle and take a piss. We were back on the road with me hoping that we don't blow another one before repairing the old one that had just blown.
Along the way we stopped for a pee break and a snack at a roadside thingo where they sold ham sandwiches, beer, soft drinks and had a toilet. I bought a large slab of Mani ( peanuts ) mixed with caramelised condensed milk, a kind that I had not come across in old Havana...yummy. I should've bought a few.
All in all, and with Ruen basically doing 100kms/ hour all the way, we finally reached a sleepy, little Pueblo called Lajas, on the outskirts of Cienfuegos at 2.30 pm. the drive had taken 4 hours, not 2 and a half.
We arrived at the house of Yovany's mother Luciana, a little place at the very end of a dirt track on the ultimate outskirts, in the poorest part of Lajas, next to a creek, not a river as envisioned. Yovany had told me it was a river, that I could swim in. Music blared and preparations for the following night's New Year's Eve celebrations were already underway.
Luciana came out to greet us and when I stepped into the house there were about 7 children gathered around the TV Playing XBOX football video games. Yovany had told me that it was a big house with 3 bedrooms. In this " big " house Luciana lived with her wonderful mother Rosa and her cute and wicked grandmother Theresa and her other handsome and charismatic son Yordalis and his wife Adeles and their one year old son Anthony and now about 15 or so extra assorted, extended family members that had come to stay for a week or so, and the four of us. As you can see size is relative. The more relatives, less is the size.
They were as poor as the dirt floor in the bedroom that they had generously and wholeheartedly assigned to just me, as my very own. They told me that if I wanted I could have the front room to myself for sleeping if I wanted. That room had a tiled floor. But it had two beds which were supposed to sleep 4 or five to a bed. I said, " it's fine, thank you, I'll take the room with the dirt floor. Secretly, in my own thoughts I knew I could not sleep there. It was a small, dark, hot and dingy room with no air and a large bucket of pig swill fermenting in the middle of the room. The bathroom and toilet in this shanty hovel had no running water. After a pee or a crap one had to pour water from a bucket into the toilet bowl to flush. In order to bathe, water had first to be heated over an open fire and then placed into buckets and mixed with cold water and carried to the shower recess and then with a cup poured over oneself to wash.
The house did have electricity though. How else would you play Xbox?
The kitchen was big, with a fridge, but all cooking took place out the back on several smallish open fires.
To put it mildly, I was in shock. What was I expecting? "Dynasty"? "Bonanza"? "Little House on the Prairie "?
I felt like a spoilt, little middle class bourgeois punce. How could I survive here without a clean bed or room. Without fresh, pure water to drink? ( Lucky I'd bought a gallon of pure water before I arrived ). I kept my cool and graciously tried to absorb my new and temporary reality. I tried to tell myself that I could endure it because the love and hospitality I already felt coming to me from Luciana, Rosa, Theresa, their brothers, Uncles, sons and daughters and in- laws was beyond overwhelming. I'd never experience anything like it in my life. People who had nothing, offering me so much of what little they possessed turned me inside out. They were literally dirt poor. But they were richer than kings and queens and happier than any millionaire I'd ever met because of their collective hearts and souls and spirit. They did not have a shower that worked but the showered me with care and laughter and singing and dancing and jokes and playing and drumming....and food. Luciana and Rosa cooked from morning till night and tried to make sure that I was as comfortable and sated as possible. From the moment I arrived they told me and insisted that I was now part of their family and that I should not be embarrassed to ask for anything.
After arriving and putting my stuff away I couldn't find one of my bags. I was looking for it, slightly concerned and confused as to why I couldn't find it because I remembered having placed it with everything else on the bed. While I searched, a beautiful girl of about 18, I've forgotten her name, walked into the room and asked me if I wanted to see the album of photos that she had taken by a professional photographer.
"Of course." I said.
She handed me the album with pride. In these photos she was dressed like a princess,she WAS a princess, in many different ball gowns of various styles and colours, with her hair up, with her hair down, some with tiaras, all in full makeup. Some photos were done as faux fashion magazine shots with her on the cover of popular magazines. For her, this collection of photos represented all her teenage hopes and dreams and fantasies. I poured through the gorgeous array and praised her beauty and grace. She smiled and said thank you. I congratulated her and thanked her for the honour of sharing this with me. Luciana and her mother Rosa then walked into the room and I asked them if they knew where my bag was. They helped me search. Luciana told me not to worry and " that no one ever loses anything here." And then the old " Abuelita "( grandmother ) Theresa walked in, overheard us and located it for me straight away. She had placed it in one of the cupboards. I thanked her.
When I first stepped into there backyard which was basically jungle, I was alerted by Yordalis and Alexis to the fact that I should get my camera out so as I could film the slaughter of the pig that I'd been told about, the giant pig we would all later eat, for the rest of the week. I asked Yordalis, when exactly would this take place he said " ahorita " which means "shortly". I said Yordalis, I want to do a couple of things first. He said, " look Georgito we'll wait for you, we won't kill it without you here".
I pulled Yavany aside and tried to be as polite as possible and asked him to please understand that this is not an insult to his beautiful and gracious family but that I didn't think I could sleep in that room and if it was possible to try and find me a cheap room in the centre of town, close to his house, that had a shower, flushing toilet, bed etc where I could have my own space and come and go as I please. Again he insisted that I could have the front room, the room that slept 8 people or more, the one with the two beds, all to myself. And again I said that I couldn't do that to his family. He agreed to come with me and look for one. I told Yordalis that I'd be back in an hour and to wait for me for the slaughter.
During this whole time Ruen, the driver had waited patiently for Yovany because he also needed assistance in finding a place to repair his punctured tyre and so we decided to kill two birds and drove firstly to fix the tyre and then to look for a room.
We got the tyre fixed easily enough while Ruen and I got to know each other a little. I lectured him on Australia's weather, wildlife and women and he was keen to learn a little more English as well. He asked me about Kangaroos and I told him that I had a kangaroo right here, between my legs. He decided that as far as he was concerned, my new nickname would be " Kangaroo " and that he would also call his penis
" Kanagaroo " and that whenever he heard the word Kangaroo, he would think of me.
I asked him if that meant that whenever he looked at or touched his penis, he'd think of me too? He laughed his head off.
We then drove to a couple of places to enquire about a room for me but none of them were any good and the people running these places were a bit of a pain the ass regarding rules and regulations. The word to describe this kind of person in Cuba is " Un Igado " ( literally.. " A liver " ).
So it looked like that for this night at least I would have to stay at Luciana's house, in the room that I knew I would not handle.
We briefly drove through the main street of Lajas.
Lajas is quaint and elegant and its main claim to fame is that it's the birthplace of the late and great, Cuban singer Benny Morre. And the humble and proud family I was staying with IS The Morre family.
Everywhere, all over town there were tributes to him, THE BENNY MORRE CAFETERIA, THE BENNY MORRE CENTRAL PARK, photos of him in every cafe and shop, statues, bronze plaques and paintings of and dedicated to him all over the place.
Horse drawn carriages combed the streets carrying hay, boxes of fruit, people. The main centre of town was busy with the townsfolk preparing for New Year's eve celebrations, buying food, eating, drinking, chatting, working. Then Ruen drove us back to the house.
The second I stepped foot into the backyard Yordalis said " ok grab your camera, we're ready". They'd let the pig out of its cage to run around free for a bit before it's execution. I ran inside, got my camera, ran back outside and they had already grabbed the pig and brought it to the ground. I swear, it was squealing like a pig. Alexis, another nephew and Yordalis held it down, some of the children gathered around like an audience in Ancient Rome. A large caldron with boiling water was already in place on an open fire of burning coal.
Then the gentle and kind and suave and noble Yordalis stuck a knife into it's heart. The pig kicked and fought and screamed and grunted and kicked with the two men. Salsa music blared, dogs barked and children giggled in the background, providing an ironic ambiance to the whole butchering. Blood squirted all over the two men, flies and mosquitoes buzzed around and I captured it all on film.
After about 5 minutes of frantic and useless struggle and death throws, the pig stopped moving and twitching. Ding dong the pig was dead,....or so we thought. It suddenly jumped up, scratching and wheezing and gasping for another morsel of life, tripping over itself and up again a few times over until Yordalis and Alexis grabbed it one more time, held it down and stabbed deeply into it's heart once again. And then, once and for all, it stopped breathing. It was now definitely, very relaxed.
They poured boiling water onto it to loosen the pores of it's skin thus allowing them to scrape off all it's hair with a large sharpe knife with relative ease. Then they slit it down the middle with an axe, pulled out all it's innards, ( to eat of course ), because not one part of the pig is waisted, because nothing is waisted here in Cuba. They even scooped all the blood out of it's carcass to use for cooking and to flavour the meat with.
For me, it was an incredibly visceral ordeal to witness and it ended just as nonchalantly as it had begun. The pig was unceremoniously stuck on a hook and hung from an old and withered tree close by. Everybody went on partying.
The cage was now empty.
The pig was chopped up into manageable bits to cook and to put away into the fridge for later.
And then the instruments were brought out and we played and sang and danced and laughed while Luciana, Rosa and Adeles prepared the pig's parts with garlic, lemon, salt and onions and then placed them into pots to cook. Because the rice contained minuscule grains of stone it first had to be sifted, by hand, stone by tiny stone. This had already been done with loads of patience by the women and so now it was put to boil as were the beans (Frijoles). Intermittently they would break away from their cooking to sing and dance as well .
And this is how the Cubans drink their rum ( Ron ) here in the countryside. Who ever has a bottle or cup or glass of the stuff passes it around and shares it. Bottle after bottle after bottle is passed around time after time after time. And let me tell you something ; These Cubans, both men and women alike can drink any Australian, including the biggest brute of a Rugby player, any time, under 15 freaking tables and still keep themselves together and even dance a straight line. That Ron is strong.
No one got ugly, there were no arguments or fights or biffs or altercations or people throwing up or any disenchanting incidents or inappropriate behaviour. Everybody just sang louder, laughed harder, danced and talked more freely and ate and drank more and more. No one sat around staring into space, saying nothing, no one got bored. Everyone was constantly up, up, up.
And bit by bit, the pig slowly disappeared into our stomachs and on to another world.
I was hugged and kissed so many times that night by every member of the family. And it wasn't even New Year's Eve yet.
Rainel, one of the teenagers there, a thoughtful and handsome kid of about 15 was so cool. He could dance and sing and play the fish ( guallo ) like an animal. He watched me intently, laughed at my jokes and stories and really took a shining to me as I to him. He'd come up to me every now and then and shake my hand and sit next to me.
I made friends with another little boy of about 5. His name was Michael. He was strapping and smart as well. One of his front teeth was missing. He kept on getting into trouble with his grandmother. He loved looking at the photos and video that I took of him on my iphone.
He actually taught me how to play the guallo. That kid had music in his blood and was already a groovy little percussionist at the age of 5. He kept on laughing at me because I couldn't play the thing and kept on falling out of time. He'd grab the gourd and stick from me every time I made a mistake and he'd laugh and say " that's not how you do it, this is how you do it Georgito.."
Yordalis sang a kind of improvised Cuban "guagiro" rap which he dedicated to me. It was pure crazy and inspired poetry.
Yovany's father Hendry reminded me of Buddha himself. A man with such humility and patience and pride and soulful talent. He also sang some beautiful old Cuban boleros from the 50s.
The indefatigable and beautiful Luciana would come up to me almost every half hour smiling. She'd grab me by the shoulders. Concerned, and with a mouth shining full of radiant whiter than white teeth, she'd ask me if all was good with me, telling me that if I needed or wanted anything, just to ask. She said that when I wanted to bathe, just tell her and Yovany or one of her sons would go and fetch buckets of hot water from one of the neighbours for me. I'd keep telling her that I'd probably bathe later that night.
And I'll never forget Titi, a tiny pretty woman of about 40 years of age. She only had one big buck tooth on top but more teethe on her lower jaw. The younger people there would make fun of her. She had no husband, no boyfriend, no children and the others joked that I should marry her because she liked me. But when she sang everybody stood still and listened in wonder. It was like hearing a beautiful angel / bird. She was note perfect and her voice was the highest voice I've heard in my life. She sang like a child with perfect pitch. And she would laugh like a crazy person. I filmed her and showed her and she kissed and hugged me and laughed herself stupid.
It was now about midnight. We'd already eaten so much and the festivities, the playing and singing, the songs and dancing just kept on coming. They were never going to stop. I'd been up since 6 a.m. I was beat but everybody else were just getting their second wind. Again I pulled Yovany aside and said that I couldn't sleep in that room and that I'd sleep out on the front patio on a small "camita" ( a little bed ) which they had near the glassless open window in the lounge room. He laughed and insisted yet again that I sleep in that room. He just couldn't dig me. He didn't get it.
I then spoke to Luciana and told her the same. She too was confounded and told me that I'd catch a cold out there. But I insisted. The little bed was arranged outside for me. I asked them to just take the little mattress off the iron frame and put it on the ground outside with a pillow and a sheet to cover myself with.
And so, I went and laid out there on it and tried to fall asleep with the music and dancing and laughing and yelling and all the cacophony around me. Impossible, but I tried. About half an hour later I got up and danced some more, this time with the lady of the house Luciana. Everybody was so glad that I was up again and they all clapped and commented on how well I danced. I asked them if they were just joking with me. But they were being sincere. They really thought I danced well.
I guess that I'd just picked it by instinct, over the time I've been here, like osmosis.
After an hour of furious salsa and rhumba I went back to my camita and fell asleep...for a while.
When I awoke I was itching like crazy. Little ants and mosquitoes had ganged up on me while I'd slept and now I was scratching like a rabid dog. I got up and sprayed myself with Tropical strength " OFF Skintastic " repellant that I'd brought from Australia but I was still itching and sweaty and feeling really filthy and uncomfortable. So I approached Luciana at 2.30 a.m and asked if I could now bathe. All was arranged for me and after they brought the buckets of warm water into the bathroom I washed my self using a big cup that I scooped the water out with, pour over myself, lather up with soap and then pour more water to clean off all the soap. I emerged from the bathroom a new man, feeling as fresh as butterfly.
When I walked back out to the patio, Alexis had already worked out that it was better to place the small mattress on it's steel frame so that at least the tiny vicious ants couldn't get to me. He'd already arranged it all. He then took my repellent and sprayed it all around the perimeter of the bed. I sprayed more all over myself and went back to bed. I think I may have slept for an hour at most. Disjointed and delirious dreams sneaked stealthily into my subconscious. I was in some weird limbo. Inevitably, I tossed and turned in my uncomfortable and torturous attempts at sleep. I thought to myself, what have I gotten myself into? Tomorrow I'll just have to find myself a "casa particular" close by. I can't go without sleep for 4 days. If I can't find a room, I'll have to go back to L'habana early and how will I explain that to Yovany, Luciana and her loving family without causing them great insult?
I awoke at about 4 a.m blanketed in a thick tropical mist which permeated the entire neighbourhood and made everything damp. From my bed I could barely make out the tiny concrete bridge which spanned the creek at the cul de sac next to our house.
Everything was quiet now. Everyone was asleep.
I got up with the sheet wrapped around me and walked into the lounge room. All the large rocking chairs were now empty. All the bedrooms were now full of family members. The front room with the 2 beds had 8 people in there. The middle room next to the bathroom now slept 4 people. And the room which I'd originally been offered slept 5 kids.
At the back of the lounge room, on the floor, under thin sheets, slept Luciana and her two sons, Yovany and his brother Juan Carlos.
I sat myself in one of the rocking chairs, with my feet up on another in front of me. With the sheet snugly wrapped around me, I gently and finally rocked myself to sleep.
And all this happened the night before New Year's Eve. All this was just a practice run, a taste of what was to come.... Just a flavoursome entree.
To be continued...
Alexis, Pig and Yordalis...
little five year old Michael with Hendry in background holding baby Anthony