A Cuban memory trick


Some of the older people do have memories, for big events. Those old enough remember the revolution or, much later,  the Russians leaving, but everyday life, everyday people, they are past or gone, unless they stick around or return. Tony remembers, he clearly remembers me, but he could not remember Yamilia, José or Paul. He says I am family, that I can stay in his house anytime, but I don’t think he remembers why; I don’t think he remembers any of the stuff we got up to all those years before, he just knows there was something, that I keep coming back, that there is something there.


Lucia (my nurse) didn’t remember when I went to see her. She remembered me, the face, but when I mentioned Yamilia, to whom she was close, there was a complete blank. No memory of her. No memory of the flat, of the eighteen or so months we were intermittently together, of José or anybody else. I wish I spoke Spanish. I have tried. I have a good memory; I remember loads of words and their meaning, I can make myself understood, but I can never get the hang of putting all the words together. I don’t understand how they link. I’m hopeless; being able to learn a language is a gift – I don’t have it.


If I could speak Spanish (I will continue to try), I could talk to people, learn more about what happens here. I’ve learned a lot because I am curious; I know a great deal about Cuba, but I want to know more, before it disappears. I think it will disappear, not as quickly as many people think, but it will go, and here will be the same as everywhere else.


Yuri remembers our meeting and many of the events since. But we have stayed in constant touch; I have been part of her life for seven years. If I had disappeared after meeting her in 2006, I don’t think she would remember me. At the Ambos Mundos, where I used to stay before I met Yuri, the staff there remember me from 1998, my first visit, but in between I’m sure they don’t remember me at all. Perhaps that is typical, to a certain extent I think it is; my memory is very good, perhaps I assume that everybody has the same faculty.


There is something unique about Cuban memory. Joel James Figarola believes that Cubans live in ‘a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die’. I think this explains Cuban life quite well; they live very much in the moment – what has just passed has gone, the future does not matter, all that matters is now – this moment.


It is a good way to live. It requires that everyone else lives that way too, but it is a good way to be. Stuff still gets done, in a way that is sometimes mystifying. For ages nothing seems to happen, then suddenly there is a new building or a new cafe or restaurant. The pace of life is slow, but that is partly the weather – who wants to hurry in 30˚ of heat? Bureaucracy can be painfully slow, but that can happen anywhere. It is a hangover from the Soviet influence. I think it will change, slowly, but things will always take longer here.


Whatever the answers are, life in Cuba is unique. It has its faults (as does everywhere), but there is nothing like here, the way it is now. I love it. I leave the final words with Andrei Codrescu (not a fan of modern Cuba):

‘The best quality of an observer is empathy, which has to come with your worldview. No amount of immersion or adventure can take the place of empathy. If you look with love, you get back love. Ditto anger, indignation, or indifference. The Cubans are full of warmth, a vast reservoir of affection.’


Holiday for God

I lived in Cuba from 2000 to 2002, and have visited maybe twenty times since then, sometimes spending three or four months of the year there. I lived most of the time with Yamilia; José was a constant friend, as was his girlfriend Celia. Tony was a business partner; he later became more than that, when I ran out of money, but that is another story. Manolo was a translator, Tony’s acquaintance.

Manolo spoke the best English.  He was word perfect, never slipped up, read books in English, could talk about anything.  I didn’t like him much.  He was bitchy and often depressed, unique in Cuba, and he looked down on people.  He was scornful of Yamilia, the ‘she devil’ and considered her stupid.  Lots of people felt the same way.  They thought she was wasting the opportunities she had by being with me. 

‘Why doesn’t she study something?’

‘Why doesn’t she learn to drive?’

‘Your woman is not clever, she wastes everything.’ 

I disagreed, particularly about the driving.  If Yamilia ever got a license no one was safe.  José had good English.  He was educated, could approach the tourists and communicate.  But, in my time in Cuba, I didn’t notice his English improve.  He often mumbled, repeated the same mistakes.  Tony spoke no English.  Celia spoke well, but never in company.  I had good conversations with her, one to one, but in company she always deferred, she observed rather that took part in life.  That was fine, he didn’t need it.  He was top of his tree.  Why should he learn English?  I couldn’t learn Spanish; I could make myself understood, but with so many English speakers around me, I just didn’t progress beyond a pidgin style, although I did understand more than they thought.

Then there was Yamilia.  Everybody, including Yamilia, considered her English poor, basic pidgin, that’s all.  She’d lived in France for a year, spoke some French and often mixed it up together with her Spanish and English.  She wasn’t sneaky.  Some people thought she understood much more than she let on.  She didn’t.  She did have an uncanny ability to pluck complete English sentences out of the air, though.  Often expressing sly humour, big ideas, home spun wisdom or insults.  Whenever she did speak English she pronounced the words clearly, spoke very well when she strung whole sentences together.  She naturally possessed an imperious, melodic, often mocking tone, and this added to the effect.


Once at Tony’s house, Tony, Manolo, Jose and I had been drinking, talking politics and generally putting the world to rights.  Yamilia had no interest.  She would listen to music, do her nails, hair or just fall asleep on the sofa.  On this occasion she swanned past us on her way to the kitchen singing, at the top of her voice:

‘We are the world, we are the people,’

She sang in such mocking tones that I stopped and watched her.  She gave me a sly smile.  She would have been around ten years old when a bunch of American multi-millionaire egomaniacs got together and made that record, so as not to be outdone by Bob Geldof’s Live Aid extravaganza.  All the sugary, sentimental, self-righteous hypocrisy of that record came across in her mocking tones.  It was the perfect put down of our self-important conversation, and she just plucked it out of the air.  How?  I thought she possessed a natural wisdom and the courage and sense of fun to puncture pomposity wherever she sensed it.  Cubans wouldn’t notice; it was too subtle.  I’m sure it was unconscious on her part.  I sometimes thought Manolo picked up on it, but he was far too against her to give her any credit.  I never even tried to talk about it to her.  She would have had no idea what I was talking about.  It was just there, sometimes, and it amazed me. 


During the longest day we were sitting in Cathedral Square, my favourite place at the time. Very touristy but beautiful and peaceful, no matter what the time of day, no matter if there was music playing, tables full of tourists or just quiet, mostly in the lull between the afternoon trade and the evening pick up when everyone began thinking differently. We would spend hours, sometimes all day there, watching the world go by.  I was in philosophical mood, thinking about the longest day in Cuba, the tropics; not as long as the longest English day, but the longest all the same.  The summer solstice, the day the sun is said to pause.  I liked the idea, something typically Cuban about it, as though the universe paused, took a day off work.  I said as much to Yamilia, explained the summer solstice to her.

            ‘How can the longest day be a holiday for God?’ she said.

She pointed to her head,

 ‘You have problem here.’


Exasperated, she turned away and went back to watching the tourists. I hadn’t mentioned God, or holidays.


YamiliaPicI thought of this story recently. Yamilia is gone. Permanently? I don’t know. I haven’t seen her for four years, although I am in fairly regular contact. She’s in Ecuador. I’m not sure why. And I’m with someone else, Yuri, as different from Yamilia as it’s possible to be. I will be in Cuba for the whole of August. I remember the days with Yamilia with affection but they are in the past; I am sure I will see her again but the three years we were together are a memory now: unforgettable, amazing but gone. During the month I spend in Havana I will write the second part of the memoir started in 1999. It will include Yamilia and bring the story up to, perhaps, 2010. Although I can never repeat the times of 1999 to 2002 (I not sure I’d want to), the next chapter awaits.


Chris is the author of Caliente, a memoir of escape, love and trouble. Lots of trouble.

‘Yamilia waits in Havana. She is astonishingly beautiful and of volatile temperament. Her enemies, and even some of her friends, think she is unstable, even dangerous. José, Hilton’s closest friend in Havana, agrees, ‘She is a bad woman. Do not stay with her,’ he pleads. Hilton disagrees; he’s in love, he doesn’t see her that way – Yamilia is natural, honest, a force of nature. Like a hurricane. He will create a new life with her in Cuba. What could possibly go wrong?’