Fourteen years have passed since I visited Cuba, baked in the island heat, choked down air cloudy with diesel emissions.
Cuba was crumbling, splattered with pops of color flashing by on a ’47 Chevrolet, ketchup red and mustard yellow. Colors hung like prayer flags, cords strung between windows and balconies, orange shirts and blue dresses, the color of the sea, flanking a pair of cotton pants black as soot.
My first trip down, I stayed in a colonial house on a street of colonial houses. Each house looks as if it abuts the next, and in a way they do, a long wall with doors and windows. Behind the walls with their distinctive doors are courtyards, places for doing laundry---or if the tenants were fortunate---to house a couple of chickens or a pig.
I was the guest of a widow and her daughter. The younger of the two had the chore of translating, which took much effort at first, but quickly became second nature as the days passed.
For two weeks I ate from a gourd. Its slender shape leaned against the refrigerator like a broom handle. Each day the handle diminished as it was chopped away, finding its place in the mid-day soup.
One day, a withered man wearing rags and a baseball cap rolled his cart down the street outside the glassless windows barking for takers. His wooden cart, a wheelbarrow really, had two wheels instead of one. The cart wasn’t really necessary for his few tamarinds sitting in its dust. I suppose the cart held him in way that I only understand in hindsight. He gripped the handles as he moved forward, God’s provision when he could’ve remained stuck in the quicksand of circumstances out of his control.
The benches around a gazebo filled with people meeting at the end of a Saturday afternoon, wandering in from the narrow streets as if summoned by the call of a whippoorwill. A brass ensemble pressed their lips to their instruments as the day let go of its unrelenting heat.
Sitting among new friends and strangers, my attention focused on a building I was sure was once the joyful hue of lime sherbet. I noticed pocked marks on its face, bullet holes. Its walls once smooth from the trowel cast a long shadow at dusk, a monument to history. Like so much of Cuba, its vibrancy was faded, resigned to time and pressing needs, the scars no longer noticed among the sitters.
Like sand that inevitably comes home with me after a visit to the beach, every place I have visited has come back with me, small pieces of the places and people have stuck to me, changed how I see God’s world and how I see the place where He has placed me to live, to love and fulfill his purposes.
Only the lens of time can put the surreal into focus, give meaning to the places, the people, the experiences of time and place that make up a life.
This is particularly true concerning my trips to Cuba. I wrote this poem recently as I reflected by on my life here and my time there. I miss my friends, but I will always have them with me in my memories.
Remembering Poverty and Hope
There are doors with no handles.
Move toward them and they open---wide;
what is on the other side is evident.
Faith is not a key for opening
doors with searching eyes, whose mouths,
like sideshow carnies, beg the wandering poiemas---
Come to me, spend your wages
on what will not satisfy, gather fodder
for next year’s garage sale.
Once I walked a street of ancient doors
beneath a beacon palm, rapped
my knuckles, crackled the blue paint---paint
seared in the heat of a thousand red suns.
Grace let me in. Behind the door,
Poverty and Hope welcomed me to sit.
There was no garage; there will be no sale.
The plumber could only say the faucet
is broken. The part to fix it sits upon a shelf
behind a door with a black eye, searching---
Dipping from the bucket, I wash my sin,
naked, exposed. I am baptized
by my own hand, water from a plastic cup.
Ninety miles of sharks
separate Poverty and Hope from Plenty.
On a grey morning,
this wandering poiema rises,
stumbles over toilets that flush
even when the water is yellow,
tagging fodder gathered last year,
a small offering for the weekend sale
so a widow can grieve beside the ocean.
Poverty and Hope will look her way,
sit on the dusty sidewalk of contentment,
underneath the beacon palm,
shadowed by the Almighty
wondering whatever happened to Plenty.