We arrive at the school under the cover of night: a makeshift, concrete block and sheet metal roof top shack on a dark, narrow, winding street in the barrios. Surrounded by towering palms. Sprawling Ferns. Everything is so still and quiet in the dark, tropical Santiago de Cuba night.
The Toronto Friendship School: An orphan of the night. Born of quiet desperation. I open the door to find everybody waiting in the dark classroom. Quiet whispers. Hushed anticipation. For much needed supplies: used clothing, old textbooks, medicine, simple toiletries. First world cast offs worth -a kings ransom here. They sit on the floor in two bulging black suitcases from Canada, a world far removed.
Nothing illegal. Nothing is being sold here. But the Santiago night has half million pair of eyes and everybody wants a share. Born of economic necessity. Broken dreams. Quick! Let's get rid of this stuff quick! We will divide it among the students and staff. Drat blackout! Fortunately somebody resourceful has rigged some flickering lights. I look about at the familiar faces peering from the classroom shadows. Smiling brightly. Like little children on Christmas Day!
Willy the principal. Matilde, a teacher. Ramon. The other helpers. "Como estas tu/ How are you? Si! Si! I see! I'm so sorry, si! ...."
Much hugs and kisses. Warm embraces. Teary smiles. Tinny salsa music pulsates from an old battered radio for a few hours washing the nightmares away. Hips sway. Everybody laughs, in the face of such adversity as I hope to never suffer.
Willy compulsively counts the school supplies. Meticulously adding everything up with the new calculator I brought him. Once the supplies are gone? Maybe nada/ nothing. The school and his family depend upon simple donations for their very survival. He eyes everyone with suspicion. A good hombre. His noble aspirations perhaps twisted through desperation into a great distrust that eats away at him from within. "Nothing must be wasted!!!"
"Si, Willy! Relax and have a beer!"
Ramon sits skinny arm around his fiance's tiny shoulders. Two sunken faces. A strained smile. Tomorrow they line up for extra food rations which never arrive. She will go to far away Holguin province. A deathwatch over her dying grandmother; for grandma, for the house. If nobody is living there when she dies the government will take it. Someday her and Ramon hope to live there. Raise a big Cuban family. Help each other out. Their only hope. Only chance. Already a broken dream?
Matilde leafs through my Time magazine. Ohhhh! The new cars! The pretty clothes! Someday she will come to Canada. A broken dream? Her family says no. Good communistas. They say no more working at the English school. You don't need to learn English to live in Cuba. Stay here. Marry a good Cuban man. Raise a good Cuban family. Live your life with us in Cuba. But she suffers severe headaches. Stomach pains. No medicine is available. She's still young. Wants so much more. Like food to eat. Decent quarters. So they sent her to Habana to teach mathematics. The few dollars in her pocket, she spent on a cheap pair of Chinese shoes. A pretty cotton dress. A ticket back to the Toronto Friendship School. For how long? She tosses back her long black hair. A look of quiet desperation on her face. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.
I hand out the clothing, toiletries and supplies. Ask Ramon to go get the car to head back out into Cuba and the night. Mission accomplished for tonight. Still, it breaks my heart. I feel like a first world Faustus. Look into my eyes, a window to another world, where all your wildest dreams can come true. A brief glance. A little much needed help. But maybe it will cost you your soul. You can never go back to accepting the old ways without question again. Really, your only choice?
I don't mean harm. Don't want your soul. I only want to help. By crossing this impossible divide! To let you know that there are others in our world who care! And yet and yet. I head back out with a heart breaking from under the weight of all the broken dreams into Cuba and the night.
To be Continued .......
More on the history of the Cuban School Project @ Here!
Part 1 of story below, also more info links .....