A Cuban Idyll

In the island's countryside the land is lovely, the people are humble, and life is unforgiving

Lucinda and I reached the Santiago bus terminal at about six o'clock Sunday morning, December 17, San Lazaro's Day. The predawn darkness was moist and warm. We had walked the few miles from Lucinda's half-brother's house, wending our way downhill through narrow streets. At that still hour some store windows, bedecked with multicolor Christmas lights but displaying meager wares, glowed surreal amid the nearby dark façades. Like much of urban Cuba, Santiago's picturesque downtown seems frozen in the Fifties, its disintegrating colonial and Deco-style buildings dignified by darkness. We moved sleepily past the cafetería El Iris and a coffee/rum counter on a corner, through the pillared courtyards of Veterans Park, stepping around taxis and horse-drawn carriages, and finally through the open doorway of the terminal. The cavernous room was filling up, and murmurs of sleepy people mingled with the muted sales pitches of maní (peanut and candy) vendors. Other, sharper, voices reverberated off the dingy walls and dull masonry floor.

Waiting for us, seated side by side on one of the rows of wooden pews, were seven more members of my boyfriend Simon's family, which has become my family (Lucinda is his oldest sister). Simon was back in Miami, suffering the worst stages of homesickness. As a newly arrived immigrant to the United States who hasn't yet received his residency, he isn't permitted to travel outside the country.

Only a few hours earlier we had been dancing outside a little wooden house on a rocky hillside, where a bembé was in progress, one of hundreds, or thousands, throughout Cuba that night in honor of San Lazaro, or -- as he is known in the Santería tradition -- Babalu Aye. This santo once had been much like a typical Cuban male: a wanton womanizer and party animal. Until, that is, Elegguá tired of Babalu Aye's dissolution and afflicted him with leprosy and other deadly ills. This humbled him, and he became a great santo. Last night one montada (a person who is "mounted," or momentarily possessed, by a spirit) was whirling round and round, and when someone gave her a bottle of aguardiente, she took huge mouthfuls and sprayed the liquor out over us as the drummers drummed and we chanted and danced. Then the montada, a large woman in a simple hand-sewn white dress, thrust streams of aguardiente directly from the bottle in all directions as she whirled. Big drops landed on my forehead and chest.

We had slept for a while, but in the morning we had to catch the earliest bus to Chivirico and then to La Magdalena, a coastal settlement about 220 kilometers west of Santiago. There we'd gather at the house of the family's 75-year-old patriarch, Benjamin. (His name and all others in this story have been changed.) We would celebrate the holiday, and my visit, with a roast pig, rum, singing, and dancing.

Paulo, Simon's brother-in-law, a tall man in his midthirties with thick, straight black hair and a heavy mustache, shambled over to a counter along one wall of the terminal. He paid an attendant fifteen pesos to fill two empty plastic bottles with clear homemade aguardiente. Returning to our group, he took a swig from one bottle and handed it to his wife, Zulema. The other bottle he suggested I stash in my large shoulder bag. Zulema, one of Simon's three sisters, looks imperious and stern when her mouth is closed -- and lascivious and daring when she smiles or laughs. "Don't forget," she warned me with a playful grin. "It looks like water, but it's not. We're going to need it later, you know."

The bus for Chivirico was announced, and we joined a fast-moving line out a door next to the aguardiente counter. We boarded early enough to find seats; by the time the bus pulled out of the terminal, the aisle was crammed with passengers who would ride standing up for the next twenty miles or more. The highway, paved and narrow with occasional potholes, ran along Cuba's southern coast. Through curtains of sea grapes and lleraguana, we could glimpse a deep blue sea, waves breaking into massive rocks and rolling on to bands of dark sand. On the other side of the road, to the north, were rolling green fields where cattle grazed and goats gamboled, and where white busts of José Martí stood on pedestals before metal-roofed wooden cottages. Beyond the fields, on the lower slopes of the distant Sierra Maestra, white rocks formed messages to the masses, such as "Happy new millennium" and "Onward with the Revolution in 2001." White rocks marked graves, too, in the humble cemeteries we passed. Along this highway, locals informed me, lie at least fifteen such graveyards, hastily plotted during the revolution to bury those who died -- government loyalists as well as rebel soldiers and supporters -- in the heavy fighting in this region. Simon's best friend's grandfather, who hid Che Guevara for months at his farm, also rests in one of those cemeteries.

We arrived at the seaside town of Chivirico at about 9:30. There we boarded a camioneta, a jitney of sorts, for La Plata, some 90 kilometers to the west. Camionetas are outfitted with roofs, usually of tarp, and rows of narrow metal grids that provide seating of a quality similar to a storm grating. Most of us were forced to stand anyway for the first ten kilometers, clinging to rebars while the truck bounced and lurched along, spewing great clouds of diesel smoke. It's always hot inside a camioneta. When we stepped down from the truck into a dusty courtyard at La Plata, it was 11:30, the sun was high, and I was tired, hungry, and craving water.

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