In central Cuba, just north of the colonial town of Trinidad, lie the Escambray mountains. The people who call the area home live in pretty poor conditions, surviving on the merger rations doled out to them by the Castro regime. Children under six are allocated one litre of milk per month.
I learned this from Johandra, a young mother living in the foothills just outside Trinidad with her children and her elderly mother.
I met Johandra early one morning when I had decided to go for a wander that turned into an 18km hike (if I’d known that, I might have brought more sunscreen – ouch). Johandra’s mother and daughter were sitting in the sunshine laughing and I stopped to ask if I could take their picture. I soon learned the best routes to take to get ‘mas alto’ for ‘vista bueno’.
Johandra’s house, though humble, was impeccably maintained and clean as a whistle. She has a little wall at the front of her home where she sits to watch the sunset. She says it’s the best sunset in Cuba.
I complimented her home and she complimented my clothes. Her own were worn and ragged. She owns one t-shirt. I suddenly felt ashamed of the camera hanging around my neck that could feed and educate her children for the next year. I discreetly slipped it into my backpack.
The mountains were a tough climb and I am far from a hiker. I hadn’t expected that climbing ‘mas alto’ would be quite so alto. The terrain was arid and stoney, but I wanted to see the ‘vista bueno’ that Johandra had promised so I kept going, water bottle in hand.
Further up the mountain, I took my camera back out, shame now cast aside for a photo taken through a first world lens.
But all day, even after I returned to my Casa, after I had showered in hot water and had chosen clothes to wear from the unnecessarily wide selection in my backpack, I couldn’t stop thinking about Johandra and her family.
My Irish guilt had kicked in. I upturned my backpack and rifled through all my belongings. I judged Johandra to be a reasonable similar shape and size to me. I had shorts I had not worn, more dresses than I needed and t-shirts to last a lifetime. I had once considered them all neccessities. I packed my little backpack with a selection of each and changed dinner plans with friends I had planned to meet. I trotted back up into the hills and found my way back to Johandra’s house.
The sunset wasn’t as beautiful as she had promised, but that didn’t matter. I watched it with her anyway and she enjoyed every moment of it, new clothes clutched tight to her chest. I wished I had done more. I watched her sons and their friends build a kite out of recycled rubbish bags, more precious than any toy in the home of any children I have ever known. I watched her daughter draw pictures in the dust at the front of their house and laugh loudly.
Sitting with Johandra and her family, I decided to park my guilt and for just a moment, I watched the sun set and let myself enjoy the simplest of pleasures.