The Door to a Stranger  *also published on Medium as “Oh Santeria!” The Stranger of Death

El Hombre Cubano part 3

“We should walk to the club to make reservations for you and your friends tonight for my show!” Leonardo said with his hand gestures and our Span-glish way of communicating. My Latin stranger, that I had met on the streets of Havana only 30 mins before. My ‘stranger danger’ alarm buzzed again and I quickly hit snooze and kept walking with my stranger, El hombre Cubano su nombre Leonardo.

Knowing I had to get back to our Air B&B to check on my sick friend, I kept one eye on the time and the other eye on an adventure in Cuba, Leonardo was going to take me to the famous Buena Vista Social Club. It was a beautiful hot afternoon in Havana approximately around 2pm and about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with very little shade as the sun was directly overhead and not a tree in sight, so any shade was coming from the small shadow off of the buildings. Now remember, I was just returning from my percussion class, so I hadn’t yet had time to lather my pale white Irish skin with sunblock. I had intended to do that when I got back to the house, because I despise sunblock since I have had to wear it all my life and by mid-day I feel completely dirty and gritty from the blocked pours and greasy hands. So I opted to wait to apply, and I thought today would be a good day to wear my sandals because it was hot and since I wouldn’t be doing a ton of walking by myself, while the rest of the Potato Mafia was off on their beach adventure, yes the Potato Mafia we are getting there, but not today that story has to wait. So yes, I thought I could come home after class, check on my sick friend and hopefully she would be ready to go out, change my sandals, and apply my sunblock. It seemed logical, but Andrés, our tour guide from Out in Cuba explained to us the first day we arrived in Cuba, ‘if it is logical —than it is not Cuban and if it is Cuban it is not logical!’ Forgive my paraphrasing, as I do not have the exact Spanish translation.

Feeling the scorching hot sun hit my feet, I knew I was in trouble. I have about a 20 minute window in the full sun before my skin begins to burn like a candy apple. “Leonardo, I have to go home and put sunblock on, I am going to burn my feet and face!” Although while in Cuba and after years of bad burns, I don’t even attempt to tan any more, I will wear clothes that are sheer and cool, but cover my body from the sun. No matter who you are, if you have pale white Irish skin, the best shade of tan you can get is a reddish yellow, so please stop encouraging us to get a tan, we lack that special melanin that you tan folk have. Leonardo had a beautiful bronze tan, a little weathered on his face from years of the Cuban sun, but he admitted that he covers his skin, and that he can’t go outside without the sunblock on and he commented that it is very expensive here, so he also dresses smartly for the sun, wearing all white clothing to keep cool.

Photo by Kim Nicholais of NicholaisPhotography.com

He replied, “It is only around the corner.” Please note here, that if anyone says this phrase to you in Havana, you must triple the amount of time and distance of how long it takes you to get there. I did note that we were walking further away from our Air B&B, yet I knew the direction that I needed to head back, always feeling my beacon calling me home. The streets are mostly paved in Havana, which I was surprised by and so are you reading this. So much so that you will probably go back through some of the street pictures I have posted to see for yourself that they are paved. Havana leaves an impression of dirt roads and open doorways with bright colors and rich textures, this translates directly from the walls to the people. So much character here and it stems from the people and their tenacity to survive no matter what cards the government has dealt them through the centuries. I am so fascinated by the Cuban people and their history, that I have begun to research their heritage, to try to understand the conflict that happened with the United States. I have found a wonderful documentary series on @netflix that is worth watching if you are interested in learning more about Cuba and their people, it is called “The Cuba Libre Story.”

Havana has a feel of an an Old Wild West movie where the sun and dust has washed over the buildings and the people. So here I am in the middle of my Wild West movie walking with a stranger through the streets of Havana. Leonardo pointed out a small shack like building with a big picture of Fidel Castro painted on the wall, “This is where Fidel first spoke!” A tiny little hole in the wall of a place, that originally hosted the leader of the Revolution that freed Cuba, it probably fit about 25 people standing. I wanted to know more about this little place as I totally related to him having to grow his movement, much like I am trying to grow our Soulful Rock band Sweet Little Bloodhound, feel free to listen to explore our music when you have time. I am always inspired at how movements are started and how an individual can garner the support of a whole group of people, let along a whole nation to follow them. However, this was not the time to explore this tiny place, we were on a mission to get our reservations to see Leonardo’s show tonight at the Buena Vista Social Club. So we continued and I realized that Leonardo had become my tour guide, pointing out historical things and places as we walked. “This is a cigar factory!” The factory was closed. I actually wanted to know more about this factory because one of the Potato Mafia ladies had been on a quest for real cigars the day before because she believed we had purchased ‘fake cigars,’ more on the Cigar Saga later.

“Oh, es no abierto hoy? It’s not open today?” I commented to Leonardo with my broken Spanish.

“No, para Primero de Mayo!” The first of May is a big celebration in Cuba, where Cubans celebrate their independence, so many businesses were closed for the long weekend. We continued on our walk and in one quick moment he swept me into a home and he said, “Oh come meet my friend, she just had a big party yesterday!” I didn’t really have time to think, as he swept me into this home, my ‘stranger danger’ alarm sounded again, the door was open, so I could quickly get out and as in most homes in Havana, the front door of the home opens to the street and there is a courtyard area in the back of the home, so I could see right through the home as we walked through the door. He introduced me to Marisol!

Cuban Women: Tradition Cuban dress, not Marisol. Photo by Kim Nicholais of www.nicholaisphotography.com

Marisol wore a traditional wrapped headdress, she had on eye glasses, and she was wearing the beautiful bright colors and traditional Spanish Caribbean dress that you see in the photos of Cuban women. At first I missed her name as I took in the room. We were not in any ordinary home. Leonardo had whisked me into a home of Santeria, Santeria is a Spanish word that means the “worship of saints,” generally to communicate with the dead with an animal sacrifice.

Remember that woman survival mode, that I wrote about in part one of the story, it quickly kicked back in as I surveyed my surroundings. I was in the middle of what looked to be a small den just off of the kitchen, there was a TV in one corner, an elderly woman sat in a chair to my right, who was probably about 95 years of age or greater, she had the gaunt cheeks and few teeth, if any and quite thin. Marisol was in front of us and Leonardo was beside me on my left and the two of them chatted in Spanish as I took in my surroundings. Along the floor to my left was a fresh goat’s head and several bowls of dark fluid, that I presumed to be blood with a few flowers scattered around the bowls. This is when it clicked that we were not in any ordinary home. I looked to my right and just beside the TV, which I guessed was from the early 1980s with the round screen and dial knobs, there was another goat or sheep’s head with several small bowls of blood surrounding it and maybe a chicken’s head, but I am unclear, I know I needed to flee immediately, what had I just walked into? Am I next? Will I be cursed? What is happening? ‘Stranger danger’ alarm sounding at full volume. I think they must have sensed my surprise as Leonardo again re-introduced me to Marisol, whose name again I missed as I was focused on the dead animals surrounding me when I heard “bah baaah,” at this moment I felt like I had walked into a horror movie and the goats head was “baahing.” I looked back quickly to find the door, then I heard the “bah, baaaa,” again. I was in full panic mode. I looked at both Leonardo and Marisol and pointed to the goat’s head and said, ‘baahh baa?” The whole room began to roar with laughter, including the ancient woman in the corner. They understood me with my brief gesture at the goat’s head and “baaahing.”

No, the dead goat’s head was not haunted. Marisol pointed out back and I understood that to mean that there were more live goats out back. I was immediately relieved as the “baahh” came again. I tried to discribe to them how I was getting nervous. “Ooo yo soy muy nervosa!” and gestured to split out the door. The room again echoed with laughter and the “baaahing” goat out back. Smiles all around as we made our way back to the front door, Leonardo handed me a maraca out of a dish and he said, “oh shake this for good luck!” I did what he asked, but with a slight hesitation, ‘stranger danger’ high alert, is this a trick? Anxious to get out of there, I shook the maraca and headed for the door. After the laughter subsided and we were outside of her door, I felt that this was a good time for me to request a picture, so the 3 of us posed in the doorway, Leonardo, Marisol, and myself. The stranger, the santeria, and the gringa, as we still heard the ancient woman inside laughing. It was at this moment, that I officially heard the woman’s name, Marisol! I also knew I had to get this picture as proof to the Potato Mafia, that this actually happened. I still have a hard time believing it wasn’t a movie.

Me living in the movie in my mind, photo by Susan Reid of the Potato Mafia in Havana Cuba, Casa Vieja

The picture of the 3 of us, is one of my fabulous Cuban adventure pictures, that will forever be in grained in my head, but lost with my other Cuban memories on my Iphone that is somewhere in Havana, just waiting for the right taxi driver and the right tour guide to connect once again to return it to a New York City girl, still day dreaming about her Cuban adventures. The neighboring picture perfectly captures how my mind and apparently my body will just wander into real and fake movie sets.

Leonardo and I continued our journey and according to him we were not far away now… so they all say! More tomorrow…

(a 30-day Cuban Adventure on Medium by Devlin Miles https://medium.com/@DevlinMiles/oh-santeria-the-stranger-of-death-97de2ed7f221)

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