The road dead-ended at someone’s home, and we asked a frail looking old man if we could cross the property to get up the hill. His skin hung from him like loose leather, and he was missing his front teeth, but his canines were frighteningly long and looked like they’d been filed into sharp points. He guided us around the back of the house, under a barbed wire fence, and took us up to the top. On the way down we stopped at the house, and a woman who was too young to be his wife or sister served us coffee. There must’ve been half a dozen kids living there, and the old man refused Andre’s request to peek inside.
The coffee was sweet and strong, and we drank it in what I guess passed for the backyard. A half-feral dog barked at us from a tree it was chained to, and when Andre tried to pet it, it cowered from his hand and seemed as terrified as it did ferocious.
We gave them man two CUCs (Cuban currency) for his hospitality and he gave it to the woman. She was embarrassed, gestured for us to wait, and returned with an armload of tiny mangos. We felt awkward about taking their food, but accepted one each to not be rude. She also gave the old man a shopping list, a voucher booklet, and some plastic shopping bags. Andre was interested in the voucher booklet and excited that it reminded him of the Ukraine growing up. He tried explaining this to the old man and the woman, and they seemed to understand.
After many awkward thanks and good-byes, we began to wander back down the road with the old man. Andre stopped to bum a light from a man dressed all in white, but the man wouldn’t hand him the lighter directly. He was Latino but explained that his religion was Afro-Cubano, and that he wasn’t allowed to give anything to or accept anything from someone else. He placed the lighter on the porch of a house for Andre to pick up, and that’s how Andre had to return it. I passed on Andre’s offer of a smoke because I was light-headed and my stomach was in knots. I wondered if the coffee or the water had anything to do with how I felt, or if it was just my hangover and the heat.
The old man led us deeper into the slum. I thought we were following him to the store to see how Communists did groceries, but then he led us to another apartment. It was a dingy space with concrete floors that seemed better suited for a storage space or workshop. He showed us several small shrines in different rooms and told us that he was an Afro-Cubano priest. There was one shrine in the corner by the door with a bowl of dirty razor blades in front of it, and the old man used the scars on his forearms to explain what they for. Then he insisted that we each take a hand-carved idol before we leave. Dima asked to take a picture, and panic filled the room. Andre said “No!” as quickly and urgently as the old man. Getting trigger-happy in voodoo country with a device believed to steal souls was something that we figured could kill us a lot more slowly and painfully than an angry mob that just wanted our shoes.
I was still dizzy and my limbs were beginning to tingle, and learning that that I’d been enjoying the hospitality of a witch doctor brought all kinds of weird and unsettling questions to mind: Had there been something in the coffee? Had we been poisoned or drugged, and had he brought us here to perform some dark ritual? Or was I just feeling that way because of the heat and liver damage I’d caused myself after several days? And what about that idol I’d just accepted? Did it have bad mojo? Would it only turn on me if I ever tried to get rid of it? Or was it really just an innocent gift that spooked me because, deep down, I’m a paranoid and superstitious gringo who’s lived a sheltered life?
My instincts were telling me to run, but I didn’t like the odds of offending someone with a possible direct line to mysterious powers. They say that stuff like voodoo doesn’t work unless you believe in it, but even to admit that much is to profess a kind of suppressed belief in the nefarious unknown.
In any case, we got out of there just fine, but my symptoms had plunged me into a fit of superstitious paranoia. I kept having to tell myself that we’d never been in any danger and that this was just a nice old man who wanted to show us what we came to see: a different side of the Cuban people. Who knows? Maybe he’d read it in our thoughts or it’d come to him in a dream.
Our next stop was at some “cathedral” in a large cinderblock shanty about a block away. The priest there was an awkward, chubby man, and he seemed to like the witch doctor enough to let him show up unannounced with a few strangers. Somehow, he managed to explain that he led his congregation in the worship of some saint I’d never heard of, and there was an altar with a three-foot high doll of that saint in a glass box. There were also two tall bongos carved out of tree trunks on each side of the altar, and the priest told us that they’d been made in 1852, the year the church had been founded. He also didn’t have any problem with Dima snapping as many photos as he liked, which made me feel a little more at ease, but crummy for having stereotyped the old man. For all I knew, he’d brought us here to show us he was tolerant and accepting of other faiths, too.
Kris Romaniuk is a writer of truth and lies, and has little use for the facts in between. He is the author of the satirical travel memoir, Rum Socialism: A Travel Diary of Communist Cuba (published in October 2011), and is currently working on his first novel, The Family Carr. Kris lives in Montreal with his demons and delusions of grandeur. He enjoys drunk walks on the beach, smoking in the boys room, and the smile of a beautiful woman. Read more of his work at krisromaniuk.com.