Alden Jones’s memoir, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, was hailed by Shelf Awareness as “a mesmerizing travelogue” and by The Rumpus as “a witty and daring chronicle.” In one chapter, Alden writes of her friendship with Cuban tour guide Darwin, the “tourist Apartheid” in Cuba, and Darwin’s past as a soldier in the civil war in Angola. You can read the original essay in The Smart Set, or an excerpt below.
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THE ANSWER WAS NO
Victor wanted to flee Cuba, but the only place he’d been was the battlefields of Angola.
BY ALDEN JONES
It was around the time I met Victor that he started actively trying
to get out of Cuba. He worked in tourism, illegally, and between jobs
he fought for the paperwork to move to Spain. We worked together for a
summer, then I went back to the States, and he was still where I left
him when I came back to Cuba the following summer to work again. I was
employed by a program for American high school students that combined
educational travel with casual coursework. For me, being in Cuba,
though my job occupied me around the clock, was like a holiday.
When I saw Victor again he didn’t look well. His body, as before,
was solid: he was shorter than I was, which is to say below the height
of the average American woman, and his arms and back were sturdy and
masculine and muscled, his trunk square and solid. He was not lacking a
slight paunch. A wild head of curly, unruly hair that fell almost to
his shoulders gave Victor an animal virility. But his complexion was
different from the last time I’d seen him. His sun-darkened, freckled
skin was ashen, glossed with a sheen of sweat. He hacked a constant
cough. His facial expressions betrayed the status of the invisible
aspects of his health: He frequently had the fixed, pinched expression
of a man withstanding something.
“It’s my stomach,” he said. “The doctors are saying no more caffeine.”
That was horrible news. When Victor and I had time to relax, it was always over espressos at the hotel bar.
“Or cigarettes, or alcohol, and many kinds of food, especially greasy food.”
But the program we worked for was such that food was available in
abundance — though, in Cuba, even wealthy Americans had limited menu
choices, and most of the time these foods we ate were greasy, fried
chicken and pizza without tomato sauce and spaghetti served in a
shallow puddle of oil, and Victor ate what we ate. It was understood
that when we weren’t there, Victor, like most Cubans, was not precisely
sure where his next meal would come from. You didn’t turn down a
month’s worth of free food. You ate what you were served.
“The stress is not helping my situation,” Victor said. Every time he
went to Migración to check on his paperwork, the officials smirked at
him and told him the man he needed to see wasn’t in. The officials knew
who he was, knew that he worked illegally, knew that he lived in an
illegal apartment. They had no desire to help him get out of Cuba. Even
his relatives were deliberately making things difficult. One aunt in
particular had it in for Victor, had ratted on him when the officials
stopped by her house to ask if Victor resided in the house where he was
registered. Victor felt ganged up on, straitjacketed. He had a quick
temper, but exploding in Migración wasn’t going to get him anywhere.