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La India

By Paton

When you get to the end of Calle Santa Teresita in the city of Matanzas, just before you get to the small footbridge over the Yumurí river, there is a tiny zoological garden, Parque Watkins. Entrance is free, and you can spend a little time looking at the specimens. Don't expect to stay there too long: once you've seen the two alligators, the baboon, the two Jamaican eagles, the two pink flamingoes, and a couple of other, less exotic, barnyard animals, you're pretty much done ... You get what you pay for, I suppose. At least now, as opposed to during the "special period" immediately after the collapse of the USSR, there are animals left in the zoos, and dogs in the streets too ...

If you're lucky, you might see a few Cuban kids fishing out of a hole in the asphalt! (Try to look surprised when you see them pulling a catfish from a hole in the street, now that I've spoiled the surprise for you ...) There is a small underground pipe that links the flamingoes' basin with the Yumurí across the street, and many fish seem to have figured out there's a free lunch to be had at Parque Watkins' flamingo basin, not thinking for a second that they may become a free lunch themselves on the way there!

Other than fishing from a hole in the street, the corner of Santa Teresita and Jesus Maria streets is also a popular spot for washing vehicles. The same hole in the street allows those who value a clean car to toss a few buckets of dirty water onto their set of wheels.

Once you have witnessed/experienced the open-air sewer system in Matanzas you might wonder whether their cars truly are "cleaner" after such a treatment ... Small culverts carved in the side of each street collect used water from each house. Not toilet water soiled with urine and excrement, for which there seems to be a separate underground sewer, but pretty much all other used waters wind up in the streets: showers, laundry, dishwashing, etc. On this side of the city, gravity ensures that the Yumurí is pretty much where all the raw sewage winds up, and the end of Calle Santa Teresita is at the bottom of a gentle slope ...

The footbridge across the Yumurí is well worth the detour. The river is very wide at this spot, and there is a splendid view of the valley, flanked on both sides by imposing cliffs. Depending on the time of day, you're also likely to see Cuban fishermen wading in water up to their hips, dragging their nets across the bottom of the river, or young children racing their rowboats against the current.

I had done most of those things one fine afternoon in Matanzas, before making my way up Calle Jesus Maria towards the Alturas de Simpson. Just West of Parque Watkins, the street becomes a series of staircases for the length of the rather steep climb.

Once you catch your breath after climbing the stairs, if you keep going for a little while, you'll encounter a "cultural center" with intriguing iron sculptures in front, dedicated to ... Abraham Lincoln! One cannot help but wonder if the many ironies of place names (eg Parque La Libertad, etc.) are lost on Cubans ...

After walking around the Alturas for a while, it is time for me to make my way back to the casa for a few cervezas before supper.

As I am walking back down the stairs of Calle Jesus Maria, an old lady standing on her porch calls me over.

Uh oh, I think, as the first thing I notice is the CDR logo painted on her door. CDR stands for Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

Now with my camera belt, pasty white skin, and blue eyes, it's plainly obvious that I'm not a local. What is less obvious is what a tourist would be doing in such a definitely non-touristy place. On top of it, my entry into Cuba may or may not have been completely kosher, since I went straight to a Casa Particular from the airport, without giving El Barbudo a chance to take his cut of my foreign currency by staying the required couple of nights in a state-owned all-inclusive resort ...

So it is with a little apprehension that I acknowledge the old lady's invitation. She starts with the perennial question Cubans ask us yumas*: where am I from? Where am I staying? I am a tad more evasive on this second one, as I don't want to land the owner of my casa in trouble.

As the questions continue, it seems less and less like a police interrogation, and more and more like a genuine conversation. Sure enough, the lady invites me into her home ...

Once inside the house, the lady invites me to come and take a look at some sculptures that are for sale… Remembering the CDR logo on the door, I wonder whether entrapment is legal under the Cuban judicial system… If it is, she might be about to book me on two charges: engaging in communication with local Cubans, and outrageously capitalist art smuggling!

Nonetheless, and although I am at best an aficionado when it comes to fine arts, I reckon that the wood sculptures she has to offer are very nice. I have seen some similar in size and quality selling for three-figure prices in convertible pesos in the lobby of the all-inclusive resort I visited on a previous trip.

Two of the sculptures attract my attention, one depicts a nude woman with a bountiful bosom and a buxom bottom, and the other is a stylized dolphin with intricate motifs carved through the general shape.

In any case, I tell the lady that I'll think about buying one of her sculptures and will come back another day if I choose to buy one, since I did not take money with me for my excursion that day.

One or two days later, I decide in favour of trying my hand at international art buying. I march back up Jesus Maria, and knock at the door. A tall, thin, young man opens the door and lets me in. I try, in my mangled Spanish, to make him understand that I'm here to see the old lady who offered me to buy her sculptures. I understand he's telling me she's not well, and that he'll go get her.

As I sit in the living room, I hear the lady, whose bedroom is right next to where I am, coughing and wheezing, and generally having a hard time getting up. After a rather long wait, she does finally emerge from the room and greets me.

Almost at the same moment, the young man returns as well, holding the statue of the nude woman, which is now sporting a fresh coat of varnish. My poor mastery of the Spanish language has created a few mix-ups. First, I was actually fonder of the dolphin statue, but I failed to make that clear to the old lady. As a result, the dolphin hasn't been varnished, and I'll have to be content with the nude woman if I wish to buy a statue that day. Second, contrary to what I thought, the artist is not the old lady, but the young man.

Nonetheless, a long discussion ensues about the sculpture (titled La India, hence the title of the article. The features of her face are unmistakably aboriginal, and she is carrying a traditional native food pot with one arm), art in general, and other topics.

At the end of it all, I am the owner of a magnificent original piece of art, for which I paid the princely sum of… 20 pesos convertibles!

On top of it all, I make one more friend in Cuba. A few nights later, I see him walking down the street where my casa is, carrying a few slabs of marble stone. I explain to the young man that my home region is renowned for the craftsmanship of granite and other sculpture stones. I tell him about the Serbian family who emigrated during the war in ex-Yugoslavia, befriended my parents, and on the strength of the father's skills as a stoneworker has now set up a successful business crafting stone monuments and architectural embellishments weighing several tons apiece. Curious, he leaves me his address, and asks that I send him pictures of the work they do ...

*Yumas = Foreigner

















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