Godot, I have decided, is the name of my Cuban email provider. AOL, being so obviously American, does not have an exchange node in Cuba. Ignoring this fact and connecting via Florida carries the penalty of giddying phone bills, not to mention undue curiosity in Cuba, as I know to my cost!
I had taken my computer along to Cuba – in the hope of communicating with my office and dearest and nearest in the rest of the world. Once inside Cuba, however, the world outside seemed so much bigger and so much more distant.
So far so good! My laptop seemed to like the 110 V it was fed with, and never even dreamt
Like everything else on this island, all is well so long as your endeavours do not stray beyond the confines of this country. Try to jump and link up with anyone else in the world, and matters get very fraught and frustrating, indeed.
Mercedes, my dear friend and fixer, it turned out, was not only a spiritual person but also a complete and utter computer addict. Time being an amorphous concept in Cuba in any case, she sat down with visible glee in front of anybody’s screen, and started working her wondrous ways, trying to coax something or someone into action behind or beyond the screen until Kingdom come.
So my little local difficulty with not being able to connect with the wider world via my laptop, which for the purposes of this account shall remain nameless, although I have called it many names in its time, especially in Cuba, was a source of creative delight to merciful Mercedita. Alas, her own computer was currently paying the price of being overworked and underpaid-for, or, at any rate, over-experimented with, and was languishing in some fixing friend’s workshop. It was to have a drastic operation – a ‘heart transplant’ (chip) as she had worked the old heart into early enfeeblement.
This, in anybody’s computer book, would be a source of unmitigated regret. Not so with Mercedes. It was a wonderful opportunity to work with anyone else’s computer, creating a little havoc here and a larger harum-scarum there. She was a dab hand at many keyboards, storing in her otherwise spiritual memory many idiosyncrasies of the different machines she worked with, the odd keyboard shortcut on this, more complex macros on that. In view of her many friends, the situation was complicated enough to warrant a database – and, indeed, she was creating one of Cuban artists for someone else in Microsoft Access (a heretic undertaking for a Cuban, even more so for a Quaker), taking great delight in re-fashioning it with increasing frequency the nearer she got to a commercial result, even though her reward was tied up with completing it.
Well, we all know it was good old Goethe who proclaimed that we all have ‘zwei Seelen in unserer Brust’ - ‘two souls in our chest’, or make that ‘one soul per breast’ in her case. That this should be so with Mercedes, a particularly spiritual person, should come as no surprise and only be a source of re-doubled joy.
So it was that late one fine day in Havana, as close and sticky as all the rest, we were to repair to yet another of Mercedes’ friends possessing a ‘computadora’ – note the fickle, female gender! We had already exhausted the resources, both technical and emotional, of many other friends and their machines, and it had given me a wonderful insight and entrée into many people’s homes and lives. Have non-functioning computer, will travel - and meet many good people in the process.
I forgot to say, of course, that it was clearly the fault of my own computer, a twitchy race-horse by comparison with anyone else’s, that was at fault for not being able to say so much as ‘hello’ to anyone back home across the Big Pond, let alone keep an eye on office activities.
But I digress. With wild abandon, a good friend of Mercedes’ by the name of Vicky - to you and me Victoria, wilfully Americanised - had flung open her, by local standards, uncommonly commodious house to me, as all of them much taller than wide, with the overwhelming welcome ‘My (c)house is your (c)house’, to let me use her computer – and we had, indeed, been able to create a fresh email address for me in Yahoo. Yoohoo! Hurray! Another American provider! Perhaps it was just the word ‘American’ in AOL that offended so much that no-one, but no-one, in Cuba seemed prepared to contemplate doing the obvious thing, and connect me via my erstwhile interlocutor, even though I had succeeded in doing so via Miami in a previous incarnation.
In waving her magic wand, miracle-making Mercedes derived much pleasure in, incongruously, entering Cuban ‘chat rooms’ (if there is one country that does not need them, it must be Cuba, such is general communicativeness and seriously physical backslapping at the slightest provocation) to possibly garner a small but invaluable nugget of ‘yo no sé qué’, only to be rewarded with the Spanish variety of infantile replies from a multi-coloured palette of computer nerds laughing merlin-like ‘jejejejejejeje’ via the ether, instead of providing remotely helping hints – remotely.
Sniggering aside and many space-crackling sign-on attempts later (Mercedes seemed to enjoy the narcoleptic noise and turned up the volume to maximum), the one thing that kept eluding us was a serious, mature exchange with anyone outside Cuba. Ah well, there was probably something wrong with that computer, too. Waiting for Cuba’s Godot easily rivalled the longueurs of Samuel Beckett’s play.
So we made our way to Roberto Alvarez, at the intriguing address ‘Animas y Concordia’ (souls and concord). Why not? It was worth a try, even if just to find out what lay behind the name.
We got to a small gap between houses in Calle Aramburu, a particularly run-down quarter of Havana’s impoverished humanity. It was effectively closed with a tall, locked iron gate. Behind it, there were two black dog puppies of unidentifiable extraction and of the smallest, most economic size I have ever seen. Trying to wag their tails, they ended up shivering their whole bodies from side to side in impotently speechless, friendly commotion that seemed to overtake them at the sight of any mere visitor, an amicable affliction almost symptomatic for Cuba’s isolation.
A young lady in a T-shirt and wide boxer shorts over spindly legs, with clumpy unlaced trainers on her feet and thin gold-rimmed glasses on her Mexican-brown face, came to our aid. She unlocked the gate for us. We had been expected, it seemed.
Past heaps of builder’s sand, a scrawny cat, and past an open room with a teenage mulatta girl reading a comic, idly sprawling on her room-filling bed right next to the door-less opening; a few steps further, round the corner of her one-room existence, we entered, through an open, buckled sheet-metal garage door, the residence of Roberto Alvarez. ‘Please sit’, we were told: a brief conversation ensued, to the effect that the lady of the house in the heavy trainers, barely 25 as she seemed to me, was a highly respected surgeon as well as mortician at the local hospital and associated morgue. She was very girlish and a little shy and looked far too friendly to wield a kitchen knife let alone a scalpel on any person, dead or alive.
Then her husband appeared, a tall lively man of yellow-brown complexion and frizzy, dappled looking, yellow-brown hair. I am ashamed to say, he rather looked like a black man who had been accidentally dropped into a bleaching vat and had re-emerged somewhat mottled, as well as uncommonly energised by the experience.
Indeed, he was a live-wire, hardly able to sit or stand still, and walked with small mincing steps. He got up rapidly many times in mid-flow of conversation, just to show me something to exemplify his point. By comparison, I felt welded into my seat and like a lump of lead, trying to follow Roberto’s movements and trying to understand his rapid Spanish, much too rapid and with even fewer consonants hinted at than is the usual Cuban lisp. Then, equally suddenly, he and Mercedes disappeared somewhere behind a wall, giving me my first opportunity to take in the surroundings I found myself in.
Animas y Concordia was an airy place, with a lofty feel to it. This was, I discovered, because the walls dividing the rooms of this ‘residencia’ ended at their proper ceiling height, but without carrying a ceiling of any kind. Instead, with the walls standing up like lost, crossed stumps of the Berlin wall, the space above soared to at least three times the height of the walls, ending at the far-distant top with corrugated sheeting as a roof, with leafy tropical trees from outside intruding into the space below it. Real house plants, indeed! There was so much light in this place! Sure enough, the whole dwelling seemed to be supported on three sides only, with the fourth side permanently open to the world at large.
I now realised that the open side overlooked a tumble of ramshackle cabins made of prefabricated concrete slabs, heavily decorated with children’s paintings and the usual slogans such as ‘Hasta Victoria Siempre’ or the felicitously chosen ‘Fidelidad!’ (luckily, no unfortunate wordplays on Castro’s surname, worse still, frivolous attempts at conjugation!). It looked like a jumbled-up primary school after an earthquake, yet, so Juan had explained to me professorially, Havana did not lie on any fault-line, other than human, so perhaps these shacks were simply abandoned, and not removed. It was like a large adventure playground.
While befriending the scenery, I increasingly became aware of the happy-go-lucky noises of some computer game across the dividing wall, which now felt more like a partition in a lofty open-plan dwelling, though whether there was any concerted plan to it, I could not gauge. Just as the cadence of computer noises was intruding into my conscious mind, I was called ‘next-door’, as it were, to one of the other sides of the partition wall. It was a little like revolving theatre scenery, as I now found myself in the Alvarez’ private bedroom, private at least in the horizontal plane.
Open-plan as all the rest of the residence in an upward direction, it was taken up by a big double bed, bounded on one side along its length by an open-access rail of foundation family clothing, as well as a small bedside table with a telephone on it. The latter was the reason for our congregation in our guests’ bedroom – because, as so often before, we endeavoured to link up to the internet, via Godot, my Cuban internet provider. The maestro of the house had kindly offered us his telephone for use as data carrier. Before this could work, it seemed that some of the wire ends in the connection box had to be switched around – a task which Mercedes performed with consummate ease, shaking off a little electric shock she received like a dog shakes off excess water after a swim. Juan, as always in such technical situations, had sought comfort in smoking elsewhere in the great outdoors, out of computer earshot – probably in the adventure playground outside. His long-suffering patience was legendary, even by Cuban concepts of time, measured out, in his case, by packets of cigarettes smoked.
Roberto, with his rapid, sudden movements, swung a tall, intricately woodworked window shutter that once must have belonged to a majestic mansion, in front of us, placing it on our knees, and my ‘knee-top’ computer on top of it. Mercedes had completed her task of fiddling the telephone network, and we went into sign-on mode, waiting for, you guessed it, Godot!
The situation seemed grotesque. His wife, the clever surgeon-cum-mortician, even if the combination of her skills seemed to suggest failure, arranged herself as modestly as possible, given her amorphous apparel, on their matrimonial bed, still with her oversize trainers on, while Mercedes and I primly sat on the very edge of it, balancing our make-shift table arrangement on our respective two sets of knees. Hasta Victoria Siempre! We were ready and raring to go! A little ‘fidelidad’ would not come amiss, either. We were clearly going to practise the Cuban art of ‘resolviendo’, getting by creatively, by lateral thinking and politics.
Roberto meanwhile tripped around and about us, fussing a little about how to make us even more comfortable. We settled into the well-known routine of calling up the rest of the world. As before, the rest of the world did not want to acknowledge us or know about us, let alone communicate with us, but only tried to fob us off with ‘Please try again later’, resolutely denying us access or reporting all manner of fanciful faults my equipment was not even capable of. Having gone through this routine of frustration a few times before, I did not want to pour yet more, indefinite units of time down a black hole while a sizzling Caribbean sun outside set on fire the colourful street-life of metropolitan Havana, as it did every evening.
As politely as possible, I called a halt to the attempts – a series of multiple still-births. Roberto, once again, with the same solicitude as before, tripped into action, to release us from his ingenious, impromptu set-up, and I, for one, was glad to be able to stretch my legs and try out my knees again. Mercedes was not quite so lucky as she first had to return the telephone wires into their erstwhile arrangement to re-enable normal telephone operation.
Roberto, having waited for this moment of lull, now invited me over to the third side of this partition cross of walls, into his computer den, as it were. He had, like so many Cubans I had met over the previous week, an antediluvian computer of nameless brand running at a snail’s pace with a minute amount of information to work with. The one and only hard disk seemed to be 500 MB small: nevertheless, it carried Roberto’s horoscope program in pride of place; with great deftness of mouse movements, he called up different star patterns connected and bisected by various tramlines of only darkly divined significance. Having just extricated myself from the vagaries of real communication with this world, I felt distinctly unwilling to give myself up to unreal vagaries of communications with half-imagined next worlds further beyond. Roberto, quick on the uptake, sensed the narrow-mindedness of my existential discomfort, and closed down the brief demonstration with commendable aplomb, to return me to the ‘living room’ area, where we had begun our visit in-the-round, as it were. I now understood, we had turned full-circle in his theatrical residence ‘Animas y Concordia’.
To all intents and purposes, we had also completed our mission, mission unaccomplished, and there was nothing more to do than to thank our guests for their patience, hospitality and touching helpfulness, and take our leave past the shivering puppy dogs and the sultry, black teenage girl devouring comics on her open-air bedstead, waiting for her Godot.
Roberto, however, instinctively feeling that though we had come full-circle, our meeting had not completed its course, motioned us to settle into our chairs once more and began to ‘socialise’ with me – where I came from, what I did for a living, what I thought of Cuba, the usual gamut of things to run through. His English was pretty agile, too, and I took the chance of a break to compliment him on it.
That was the moment he must have been waiting for – just as with his horoscope software.
He now explained that, although being in charge of the tourist industry in Cuba virtually single-handedly (in which he did not seem to take the slightest interest) he was a passionate Esperanto specialist, convincingly underlining this fact by continuing to speak, in an effortless switch, in fluent Esperanto.
I did a mental somersault, as it were, to call my mind to order, and, uncannily, found myself understanding everything he said whilst I had floundered in the fast current of his, admittedly, Cuban cadenzas of lisped Spanish before. A very strange sensation, indeed! There I had been, struggling for a whole week to get to grips with the idiosyncrasies of Cuban Spanish, and all the time anybody could have spoken to me in Esperanto to engage my full attention and comprehension! For a linguist like me, this seemed too absurd for words. I had never heard or seen any Esperanto before in my life, though, perhaps, I should have done in my line of work.
Luckily, there was no need to reply to Roberto, because he was now in his element, keeping me in tongue-tied listening mode by saturating me with fluent ‘parlimoniousness’ in Esperanto. It was as if I had been prompted into making up for years of shameful neglect of this idiom, if such it was, to come up to the same level of comprehension skill, only to realise there seemed to be no skill involved in understanding it.
So why did we not all speak in Esperanto then, I asked in a faltering living language, when it was clearly the universal language to converse in?!
Roberto hardly paused before unleashing another torrent of impassioned Southern European mish-mash on me, which, once again, I understood perfectly, as if I had been born with it imprinted on my brains.
According to him, there was not the slightest reason why the whole motley multitude of living languages could not be replaced by Esperanto – at a stroke, even overnight, if need be. A chilling thought, given my livelihood, if not raison d’ etre! He was really enthusing now! After all, how many language experts like me, even if not in Spanish, from far-away Europe, the cradle of Esperanto, were ever likely to cross - first the gaping Atlantic, and then his narrow path, let alone become marooned in his open-top living room? My tiredness, brought on, as so often, by reluctant engagement with tediously square computer screens, was blown away immediately, incongruously it seemed, by a dead, invented language, which I had never learned yet understood at once, without even trying.
Roberto now became more purposeful in the subject-matter he chose to practise his Esperanto in on me. Did we need an Esperanto specialist in my translation company, he asked me with beguiling logic, and hopefully raised eye-brows under his bleached curls? Making excuses is difficult enough in any language, and truly excruciating in a foreign tongue not second-nature. To gain a little time to ponder my response, I tried a little inconsequential Esperanto myself, stringing together the toy words I had heard him use in such earnest. And why not? Roberto seemed to understand me perfectly, though his quick mind ran an unhesitating auto-correction line under my attempts of word assemblage.
Not wishing to end this unique encounter inconclusively, I tried to swiftly despatch his leading question with the explanation that we did, indeed, have one Esperantist on our books but could possibly do with another, to rapidly return a much more nagging question to him.
Why was he, Roberto Alvarez for all his sins, of Animas y Concordia as his exalted residence, why was he, living in the brave New World, surely dominated by Spanish, keen to spread Esperanto from the Old World – where, after all, it could serve more of a supra-national cause than here in decidedly infra-national Cuba? In Europe, at least, it might neatly side-step centuries of national rivalries and render pointless a bewildering array of languages? Might it even lead to everlasting victory in Cuba?, I ruminated to myself.
This, however, was one question he could not answer so deftly. Weighing it up carefully, he wobbled his head, in little still-born bursts of energy, several times, in the sheer agony of searching for a cogent answer, and then, in absurd reduction, came down on the side of the mountaineers’ motivation for climbing Everest: ‘Because it’s there’, adding ‘and because there is always hope!’
Was it an original thought, I wondered, however hard acquired, or was it suggested to him by the very word itself – esperar?
But what if it could mean ‘wait’, instead, as it does as well? Or was it the same thing, in any event?! Especially in Cuba.
Having become like-minded souls, ánimas, in our search for an absolute answer, Roberto and I had reached ‘concordia’ – or had we?
Content © R Reisenberger, 2000