I went out the other night. Saturday, it was. Saturday night. Where I live, there also reside a father and son from Nicaragua, within the hostel/apartment building in which the three of us – the two Nicas and I – rent rooms. I struck up a friendship with the son, who is half-Cuban on his mother’s side, as the father did indeed marry a Cubana. Both my friend Edgar and his father are opticians. According to the two characters, who are truly ‘characters’ – in all senses of the word, they had a successful private clinic in Nicaragua yet tragically, after the political turmoil a few years ago (if one recalls correctly), they lost it and thus ended up seeking employment abroad.
Through different life circumstances, we have all ended up in central San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras. The Caribbean sector.
They are a good couple of fellas. Buenos muchachones…
I, personally, went through a terrible month back in May where I quite literally had no money due to the hideous debacle that some poor choices had left me in. I say poor choices in a humble bid to be ‘fair’. Another inner voice, less amiable than the first, tells me to state how I was “fucked over by a spiteful young woman” – and in fact, it also tells me to trade ‘woman’ for a string of other certain words…
Anyhow, I have not come here to bore **Havana Times readers with my previous perilous ways and callous carry-on. No. The point of having mentioned that terrible month of May, was to touch on how the two Nicaraguans obviously saw me struggling and took it upon themselves to look out for the malnourished, overworked chelito all by himself – for instance, they began to leave me cooked dinners every night. Something I most appreciated.
The kindness of the Latin American, dear readers.
Something, I have spoken of on countless occasions.
Going back to last Saturday night. Being three men who like a drink and a good meal, we went out to a nearby restaurant which specialises in meats. It is most to our liking. From the oriental fish tanks to the wooden panelled balconies one sits upon with thick vines growing here and there, and the upbeat Latin music/agreeable prices, we have, so far, entertained two outings to this establishment. The first time I went, it was because Edgar had recommended the place. A couple of hours later, and I left a very happy man indeed, for Edgar had surpassed himself in managing to situate me in a place that contained what one classifies as the “Big Boy’s Combo”. Ribs, rum and mixed-race women. Costillas, ron y mulatas.
Jum… Those barbecued, fat-ridden, drizzling ribs tasted all the more succulent as an attractive, early twenties mixed-race girl, kneeled up on her seat at the opposite table and purposely ‘adjusted’ her skirt… It was quite obvious that Edgar and I were watching after all. To then wash all that down with some seven-year-old rum, it did me the world of good.
Anyhow, we returned with Edgar’s father.
At one point during the evening, we were talking about something Nicaragua-related and as a throw-away comment, I simply said something like “that must have been during the same time as the civil war there”…
Edgar’s father, who is normally quite reserved and only speaks when he truly has something to say, suddenly became animated. “He went off on one”… as is said where I grew up. The following half an hour was a grand, gritty session of storytelling, whose content I shan’t ever forget.
His battle-hardened face, weary and life-beaten, speaks volumes as do his deep eyes, which on occasion glisten as he produces unexpected, brief and amiable smiles. Despite the marks and lines around those dark-brown eyes, his head bears not a single grey hair, for Edgar’s father has maintained thick, jet black strands, which he strokes back with a liberal dose of hair-gel and a firm comb.
“I spent two years in the mountains, Benjamin… two years… haha. Motherfuck it. When the war started, the soldiers used to kidnap young men off the streets and forcefully enlist you. I was grabbed up twice but escaped each time. Then I spent my days hiding away in my mother’s house. I decided though, that this wasn’t a life. To hide away day after day… I said to my mother, I’m going out – and if they get me – they get me. She pleaded for me to stay put. Yet I couldn’t hide anymore, so I went out. They got me… hahaha. I thought, if I ever make it home then good, and if I don’t… well, may it be what it will be”.
“They made me a radio boy. I had to learn the codes and carry a whole load of shit from the fucking rifle and ammunition belt to the huge radio and communication equipment we used on my back. You can’t even imagine how much all that shit weighed. I was only eighteen as well… a young boy. Two years in the mountains… a fucking hell, it was. We had to march at night, so as to evade the Contras, the enemy. Those mountains, those forests at night were pitch black. Huge, huge trees, hundreds of years old – maybe some five hundred – were everywhere. You couldn’t see a fucking thing. We would march single file, with all that shit on our front and backs and of course – nobody could see anything. So what did you do? You had to grab the next man’s shoulder and leave your hand resting upon it. The guy behind you put his left hand on your shoulder and you put yours on the guy in front…”
“Do you have any idea what it’s like watching that guy in front of you suddenly step on a mine? A terrible, terrible explosion followed by terrible screams and all his blood and bones all over you. You can’t imagine the screaming… And then what about when you just miss the mine yourself and the poor fucker behind you steps on it? Then you had the attacks. Those grenades were sons of bitches. I lost my hearing in one ear, those grenades fucked my hearing up a lot. I still can barely hear out of my left ear. They make the most awful explosions, haaa… and the fucking machine gun fire. The noise kills you. Luckily, I never stepped on a mine, but that grenade fucked me up hahaha…”
Somehow, he was able to laugh a lot of it off… What else, I guess?
“We ate monkeys, cobras, raw fruits, whatever the fuck there was at times”.
I myself had to ask at that point, “Christ, how do you eat a monkey?”
Edgar and his father broke into laughter before the old boy became deadly serious.
“That’s what you say now… but you’d be begging me for that monkey’s hand or tail after a few weeks of starving in those mountains”.
Surely, I would.
“Well… I survived the war. The army got me a scholarship to go and study in Cuba afterwards. It was either there or Russia. I wasn’t going as far as Russia, no way. So I went to Santiago and La Isla de Juventud. That’s where I met his mother of course (nodding his head at Edgar) – in Cuba”.
She now lives in Nicaragua, alongside Edgar’s younger sister.
As I looked into the man’s wearied face and absorbed his impassioned words, I said to myself, “imagine just walking into his place of work and having the old boy examine your eyes or something… you’d never think that he’d been through such terrors as a younger man”.
And so in conclusion, to make a fairly random yet revealing comparison, I shall state that there are many men of his age over in England, those of my father’s generation, who still complain to this day about Margaret Thatcher and that – for instance, “we had to go on the bloody dole” (government benefits). Not quite the night-march through a mine-laden wilderness, is it?
There is an inner strength and humility to the Latin American, which is simply unknown to or by other cultures.
** This article was originally intended for the publication Havana Times.