FALL 2016 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST
Forgotten names, death, Volkswagen Kombis, fried yucca, American dollars, social debt, Artemisa, open palms & Cuban glassware.
W e head west out of Havana in the early afternoon, my husband, Kevin, behind the wheel of our circa 1990 rented Geely sedan. The air feels like the inside of a mouth, and even though third gear sounds like an opera singer warming up and the stereo doesn’t work, we’re grateful for air conditioning. The highway winds through coastal Artemisa, a tranquil, verdant province of farmland and gleaming seascapes. Exquisite scenery. But I have an ulterior motive for returning.
I’ve come to settle an old debt.
I last saw the man I seek thirteen years ago, in 2002, as I rode away from the town of Bahía Honda in a Kombi crammed with agricultural workers. He raised one hand in an open-palmed goodbye. The truck rounded a corner and I lost sight of him. There’s no reason to think he’s still in Bahía Honda in 2015, except that it’s the kind of town where people live from birth until death. A place where no one is a stranger.
Except me. I was a stranger.
I have forgotten this man’s name in the intervening years. I remember a one-room shack with a dirt floor and an outdoor kitchen, no plumbing. The exterior may have been robin’s-egg blue. He didn’t have a telephone, much less email, and I never wrote down the home address.
For the longest time, I had a picture of him and his wife sitting on a plank bench, staring into the camera with frank, unsmiling expressions. Her hand rested casually on his knee. I’d planned to use the snapshot to ask around in town like they do in movies—Have you seen this man?—but though I ransacked my house before leaving California, the photo seemed to have vanished.
In the distance, mogotes—gigantic limestone mounds shaped like bread loaves—rise from the steaming jungle.
So I’m looking for a memory, a wispy one. I have two specific details: he is unusually tall, and he used to play volleyball for the Cuban national team.
“You know your chances of finding this guy are basically nil, right?” Kevin says.
“If it doesn’t work, we’ll move on.”
I figure I can count on an hour of Kevin’s patience if we catch a lead, or half an hour if we don’t.
Out here in the boonies, we share the road with horse-drawn carts, tractors, dirt bikes wobbling under three or four people, stray livestock and potholes the size of open graves. The much abused Why did the chicken cross the road? joke takes on new life as one would-be suicidal chicken after another darts perilously in front of the car. Kevin swerves around dozens, gripping the wheel, his red pharaoh beard jutting forward with concentration.
We travel with an endless rotation of hitchhikers in the backseat: mothers with small children, students returning from school, laborers heading home from work. Some ride for hours, others for a couple minutes. On an island where few people own cars, this is public transportation. Locals are expected—sometimes legally required—to stop for hitchhikers. Tourists aren’t obligated, but if your car isn’t at capacity at all times, you’re basically a jerk. Besides, the road maps are so lousy that driving anywhere besides the Carretera Central, you need directions.
And we are way off the map.
When a passenger mentions she’s from near Bahía Honda, my ears perk. “I’m looking for someone I used to know,” I say in Spanish. “I don’t remember his name, but he’s super tall.”
She shrugs, shaking her head.
Kevin’s right: it’s a long shot.
The kiosk is a crumbling cinder-block store, shelves bare save for a meager selection of knockoff sodas and beer, doughy street pizza and botulism sandwiches. Clearly a hangout.
At a sharp curve in the highway the vista unfolds, revealing the slingshot-shaped bay from which the town draws its name, a deep-teal inlet framed in steep green hills. In the distance, mogotes—gigantic limestone mounds shaped like bread loaves—rise from the steaming jungle.
We let the woman out at her driveway and soon pick up a medical student in his early twenties. He’s from Bahía Honda itself, and has a thick rural accent. When I describe the man, he says, “Like really, really tall? That has to be El Saez.”
“El Saez… That’s his name?”
“It’s what everyone calls him. Like a handle. If you’re looking for the tallest guy in town, it has to be him.”
Kevin’s Spanish is limited, so I translate. “He knows him,” I beam.
“You’re kidding me.”
“El Saez hangs out at the kiosk,” the kid says. “I’ll show you.”
My stomach jitters as we enter Bahía Honda. What will I say? I realize I hadn’t really expected to find him.
The kiosk is a crumbling cinder-block store, shelves bare save for a meager selection of knockoff sodas and beer, doughy street pizza and botulism sandwiches. Clearly a hangout. Men drape themselves languidly on the front steps or stand in loose groups. Laughing, smoking, holding up the walls.
When we exit the Geely, people pause to give us the once-over. Kevin and I are both pale redheads; my long red curls match his beard. We’re obviously foreign.
The walls of the student house seemed to tighten around me, its wooden slat blinds like the bars of a cell. Sweat streamed down my face and back. Outside, Havana pounded.
“¿Dónde anda El Saez?” the medical student asks the group. “Éstos yanquis lo buscan.”
A confused chorus of “Yankees looking for El Saez? Why?”
“Yo sé donde está,” one guy booms, sauntering over. “I always know what he’s up to. I’m his best friend.”
I explain that I knew El Saez thirteen years ago and want to see him.
“¿En serio?” He climbs into the Geely’s backseat without waiting for an invitation. “Vámonos.”
Our new passenger wears a baseball cap with the brim flipped up, plastic sandals and a loose tank top. His arm muscles bulge under blue-black skin. He introduces himself as Tabaco.
“You must smoke a lot,” I laugh.
“Only when I was a little kid,” he grins. Before the day ends, Kevin and I will watch Tabaco burn through three packs of cigarettes.
He guides us through town to a manicured park with rows of giant banyan trees, their large rubbery leaves clacking in the breeze. He hollers out the window: “¡Oye, El Saez!”
A man stands from a white marble bench. He is indeed tall, maybe 6’5″, dressed entirely in white. His skin and eyes are a rich chestnut brown, and his hair is starting to gray. He wears a quizzical expression.
In my memory, the guy was lanky, more of a string bean; this man has a bit of a paunch. I’d expected to recognize him, but now I feel uncertain. It’s been too long.
I plunge ahead anyway, hoping I won’t make us both feel foolish. “I was here a long time ago,” I say. “I stayed in your home. Remember that?”
His face is impassive. He regards me for what feels like a long time, betraying no recognition.
Then he says, very quietly, “I never thought you’d come back.”
W hen I first met Misael Saez (aka El Saez), I’d been living in Cuba for nearly a year, studying sociology at the University of Havana as part of the first wave of American exchange students since the Revolution. Though I was supposed to return to the U.S. upon completing the program, I planned to head for Colombia or Brazil instead. I had fallen out of love with my home country and madly in love with travel.
One phone call flipped my life upside down. My mom rang the student house on a Friday afternoon to tell me that her hepatitis C had taken a turn for the worse. She’d been putting off treatment for years, but now her viral count was spiking into the millions; she was careening toward liver failure. Her only option, she explained, was an experimental chemotherapy cocktail. She’d have to commit to a year-long drug trial in Los Angeles, during which she’d be virtually bedridden—as much from medication side effects as the illness itself. With only a forty percent success rate, the prognosis wasn’t good, but it was her only shot.
My mom had no savings, no other immediate family. Just me. I’d have to drop out of school and move to Los Angeles—a city I disliked. The walls of the student house seemed to tighten around me, its wooden slat blinds like the bars of a cell. Sweat streamed down my face and back. Outside, Havana pounded. A smoggy vortex of desire and need and too much time on people’s hands. I had to find somewhere quiet, somewhere I could think.
I didn’t even pack a bag. I left the house in the clothes I was wearing, walked to 5ta Avenida and started hitchhiking out of the city, toward the rural western provinces. Later, I knew I’d return to Havana and coordinate my travel plans. I would do the right thing. But I needed time to shake the panic.
I brought only the cash in my pocket—a fistful of moneda nacional, the cheap Cuban currency of the day, and US$10. Not even enough for one night in a state-authorized casa particular, but I didn’t care. All I could think of was escape.
My mom might die on me. I tried to picture a world without her presence. It felt like a violation of natural law.
If it moves, it’s transportation was a popular quip in Cuba, and on that day, I hitched rides on tractors, motorcycles, truck beds and an empty livestock hold with manure in one corner. There were hours standing by the roadside, swatting flies, waiting for someone to stop. Sunset found me squeezed into a claustrophobic Volkswagen Kombi with two dozen commuters returning to the provinces after the workweek in Havana. The truck snaked high into jungle-thick mountains, potholes knocking people against each other. A foreign woman hitchhiking alone sparked curiosity, and I could feel people ogling, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk. I watched the road recede out the back of the truck through a lattice of arms braced against the ceiling.
In Los Angeles, everyone would have cars. Cell phones, new clothes, fake nails, bleached teeth. I imagined spending days in a windowless cubicle, despite having promised myself I’d never be an office drone again. How else would I support two of us? I didn’t know what nursing someone through chemo entailed. Would I have to mop up vomit? Give injections? Did I have what it took to be a good nurse? What if I became resentful?
Over everything loomed the unimaginable: my mom might die on me. I tried to picture a world without her presence. It felt like a violation of natural law.
A soft voice interrupted my silence. “Te ves infeliz,” said a man sitting beside me. “Estás bien?” You look unhappy. Are you okay?
Misael Saez. Even seated, his height was intimidating. The long fingers and knobby shoulders. But his voice was calm and gentle, his expression open. Before I knew it, I was telling him about my mom, and with the words came tears.
Most Cubans I knew, especially men, were boisterous, loud, opinionated, fond of drama. Misael seemed different. He looked solemnly at his hands while I aired my fears. “My mom died last year,” he said quietly. “Breast cancer.”
I gleaned from his tone that he missed her, that the wound was still fresh. I wondered dizzily if this would be me in a year or two. I didn’t believe in fate, and yet meeting Misael felt fateful, like I had fled the student house specifically to find him. A man who had already survived the unthinkable.
When Misael debarked the Kombi in the town of Bahía Honda, I followed him.
He asked where I was staying. “No plans,” I said, trying to act casual.
“If you want, you can come with me. We don’t have anything, but my wife is a good cook.”
There were many things we didn’t discuss. Like the fact that it was illegal to house a tourist without a license from the state, and he was putting himself at risk. Or that a night in someone’s home usually cost US$20, which I didn’t have on me.
Misael shared a humble home with his wife, Yadira, and her two children. One room with a dirt floor, two small beds and an outdoor kitchen and latrine. Yadira seemed understandably concerned about her husband bringing home a stray American. But he explained the situation and she made me welcome, preparing an extraordinary meal of diablo shrimp with black beans, rice and fried yucca.
I was exhausted from being worked over. Tired of being followed, catcalled, asked for help, offered help and sold bicycles, cigars, informal tours, salsa lessons and love. Nothing came for free in the city—not even friendship.
After dinner, the kids slipped behind a curtain and took turns bathing with a bucket of water and a ladle. Feeling like an intruder, I excused myself for a walk. Misael trailed me out of the house. A paranoid voice in my mind told me to be on guard, that he might make a pass. But he didn’t, and I soon understood that he was watching out for me. I felt safer than I had in a long time. The town was dark, the moon not yet risen. We walked side by side under a great heap of stars, not talking, listening to crying insects and night birds.
That night, I shared a single bed with Yadira’s two kids. Even though I was twenty-three, I felt like a child. We slept feet to head, three of us smashed together, surrounded by a gauzy mosquito net.
I awoke before dawn, disoriented, and turned to see brown feet on the pillow beside my face. Light snores rose and fell through the room. My mind was churning.
In Havana, everyone hustled. The average income in 2002 was around US$10 per month. Free education, healthcare and basic foodstuffs were provided by the government—but not enough to survive. The nicest people, including those I considered real friends, constantly angled for foreign money. It was nothing personal, a matter of necessity. But after several months in Havana, I was exhausted from being worked over. Tired of being followed, catcalled, asked for help, offered help and sold bicycles, cigars, informal tours, salsa lessons and love. Nothing came for free in the city—not even friendship.
What would be expected of me in return for food and lodging?
I thought about the US$10 folded in the pocket of my jeans across the room. This family seemed poor even by Cuban standards. What I had wasn’t much, but it could only help.
Then another thought tangled with that one. Would talk of money poison the waters? I wondered if Misael would take offense if I offered him cash—as if his kindness had monetary value. I wanted our friendship to remain friendship, not part of a transaction. I decided to slip the bill under a pillow, where someone would find it after I’d left, but I couldn’t reach my jeans without waking my bedmates. Then, once everyone was up, there seemed no way to do it subtly.
Misael walked me to the main road and waited with me for a Kombi out of town. I kept fretting over money. Was he waiting for me to offer him something for the family? Should I pull out the bill and see if he would accept?
In the end, I froze. When the truck came, I climbed aboard and waved goodbye.
I have stewed over this for years. Though no one asked for money—so unusual in Cuba—my US$10 might have eased their way a little. It would’ve been a small kindness in return for a large kindness. But I hesitated and clung to my dumb American money.
In the photograph I snapped of Misael and Yadira, their faces looked gaunt. Yadira had prepared a special meal that night, probably spending more on ingredients than usual, and I had brought nothing to the table but my problems.
This moment has stayed with me. A concentration of beauty and shame, a treasured memory that I don’t like to think about. The time when I felt most in love with humanity and least in love with myself.
Now, thirteen years later, face to face with Misael Saez again, I find myself rambling, talking too much under his gaze. I feel awkward and staged. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that maybe I don’t deserve to tie up this loose end. Every traveler makes mistakes, but all most people get to do is pay it forward, try to be more thoughtful toward others in the future.
“I can’t believe you came here,” he says, still staring like he’s seen a ghost. “I thought you forgot me.”
“You helped me out when I was having a hard time,” I say, “and I wasn’t in…the right state of mind to thank you properly.”
He nods and I cringe inwardly. Had he noticed when I left without a gesture of gratitude, without leaving him anything to give his wife for her trouble? Had they argued about it after I was gone? Now I have American money burning a proverbial hole in my pocket. I’m not going to miss the chance to make this right. “Do you have time for a drink?” I ask.
“Está bién,” he says. “Un roncito.” A little rum.
We pile into the rental car. Tabaco guides us to a bar at the edge of town—a tin trailer with a single outdoor table and umbrella in the middle of a paved lot. Kevin buys a bottle of Havana Club Añejo Especial and a round of beers. We’re shy on glasses, so Tabaco uses a knife to saw an empty beer can in half and pours a shot into the makeshift cup.
“Cuban glassware,” he says. Everyone laughs.
Though Kevin and Tabaco don’t speak the same language, they’re both so animated that they manage to entertain each other while Misael and I catch up.
“I can’t believe you came back,” he says again and again, touching his fist to his heart. “This is incredible.”
I’m sorry to learn that he and Yadira have divorced and that their marriage ended bitterly, but glad to hear that he’s coaching a high school volleyball team, a job he loves.
Misael tells me that he’s often wondered what became of my life. This surprises me, though it shouldn’t. Why should our brief friendship have mattered only to me?
“You were very depressed when we met,” he says. “You cried all the time.” He runs his fingers over his face, miming tears. “Your mom was sick. What happened to her?”
I beam. This is where I get to tell him that she’s alright. That I nursed her through twelve hard months of chemo, and that it worked. Thirteen years later, she’s doing well.
“People talk,” he says, making a yapping mouth with his fingers. “People say all kinds of things. But as soon as you’re out of sight, they forget. Not you.”
We both get misty. Misael takes my hand and squeezes.
One bottle becomes two. Tabaco grows increasingly rambunctious, commandeering the trailer’s tinny sound system and starting a small dance party in the paved lot. He yells to everyone who passes on foot, vehicle or horse: “These crazy Americans came to find El Saez after thirteen years! Can you believe that? El Saez, my negro!”
Tabaco obviously relishes the attention he’s getting from hanging out with foreigners in this untouristed town. Meanwhile, Misael remains steady and thoughtful, speaking only when he has something to say. They are a study in opposites, but their friendship also makes sense. A man of few words doesn’t have to talk much with Tabaco around.
People come and go through the afternoon, including Misael’s brother and nephew, who pull up on a horse-drawn cart. We rent a room for the night, and in the evening, Tabaco invites everyone to an open-air bar on a muddy beach crowded with locals. There’s eating and dancing and an unreasonable amount of rum.
I stay beside Misael all night, and we talk quietly while the party swirls around us. Even drunk, he is the eye of a hurricane, and it’s so clear why I clung to him, why his company grounded me when I felt dislodged from my life.
“People talk,” he says, making a yapping mouth with his fingers. “People say all kinds of things. But as soon as you’re out of sight, they forget. Not you.”
This makes me feel so full.
I’d thought of this trip as my chance to settle a debt that was bothering my conscience. Like removing an old splinter. It was, in a way, a selfish agenda. I didn’t expected this to mean so much to Misael. Money didn’t seem like the right currency back then, and it still doesn’t. What matters more is that I can show Misael the impact of his quiet generosity on one person’s life.
As a traveler, I often frame relationships in terms of gratitude. For hospitality, lessons learned, paths opened. But the exchange is reciprocal. To the people who stay put—especially in a place like Cuba, where it’s difficult for locals to leave—travelers are the outside world coming to town. We will not be forgotten, and our gestures and attitudes will be keenly observed by the people we meet. It’s a huge responsibility.
On my way out of town the next day, I lay US$40 on Misael. The money isn’t necessary—I’m sure of that now—but I imagine it will come in handy anyway. The moment is a little awkward, but not as bad as I fear.
“I’d like to give you this,” I say. “You helped me back then. Now I can help you a little.”
He protests mildly, but tucks the folded bills into his pocket with a shrug and a smile.
I leave understanding that what we’ve exchanged has nothing to do with cash; it’s the shared certainty that neither will forget the other. Even if our paths never intersect again, we will always be friends.
Kevin climbs behind the wheel. I look back as we drive away. Misael Saez is standing in the road, one hand raised high over his head, palm open.
Alia Volz’s work has been chosen for The Best American Essays 2017 and Golden State 2017: Best New Writing from California. Past publications include The New York Times, Tin House, Threepenny Review, Utne Reader, The New England Review and the 2016 anthology Dig If You Will the Picture: Writers Reflect on Prince. SF Weekly named her among “Best Writers Without a Book in San Francisco.” To make up for that, she’s currently working on a book.
Lead image: Aristos Iatrou