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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 22 page 21

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Production statistics were an integral part of the Tour, despite translations being a problem. For a start, the four delegates from Quebec spoke only French. Among the rest of our party, barely one in three spoke Spanish, and even fewer of us spoke it fluently. When I say “us”, I don’t include myself: even now, Otra cerveza por favor is about my limit.

Translations were tackled by the five grades of translators accompanying us. The numero uno translator, Pedro, who spoke fluent American, was clearly head honcho. He gave rapid instructions to his minions, and talked to nobody much except Jean-Paul, our delegation leader. Each of the other translators looked after three or four of us at a time, the more fluent translators attached to those of us seen as most sympathetic to the official vision of the Cuban regime. Jorge, the most junior translator, was a plump, friendly lad whose English did not extend far beyond the greeting, “It is a nice day, is it not?” If you made the right noises you could be promoted from one translator to the next — or relegated if you stepped out of line. It was a constant game of linguistic Snakes and Ladders. A lot of the time I ended up with Jorge.

This was despite me really admiring Cuba’s strides in education and health policy, and how impressed I was by the Cubans’ pride in the Revolution — I was on their side. My problem was that I’ve always had a bad habit of asking awkward questions. That kept landing me on Snakes.

But I was not in trouble all the time. The World Student Chess Competition turned out to be a real Ladder. The competitors were housed with our delegation in the Havana Libre Hotel, a tower block completed shortly before the Revolution and originally called the Havana Hilton. If you can imagine the Holiday Inn Winnipeg-South run by the Seventh-Day Adventists but with a drinks license, you’ll get some feel of what it was like. But the 11th Floor double bedrooms were cool and airy. Milton and I sat on our balcony in the evenings, looking across the city at its densely-packed clusters of colonial villas and little houses. One evening there was a skirl of military jeeps outside and a surge of heavily-armed security men through the corridors: we didn’t see him but word had it that Fidel himself was visiting someone in the building.

The hotel was scrupulously clean. In the dining room, our delegation was fed up-market meals that far exceeded the usual mundane student fare: exotic tropical fruits, the freshest seafood, richly flavoured chicken and pork. Our hosts filled the large, somewhat empty, public spaces on the ground floor, together with any gaps in our schedule, with receptions and speeches fuelled by lethal quantities of white rum lime daiquiris — which, for the non-drinkers among you, taste like a slightly sharper lemon slushy until you suddenly notice that to keep your balance you are having to hold onto pillars, the furniture, or other delegates.

Sober, I have enough trouble communicating in English, but after a few daiquiris, I was happily chatting away with the visiting chess-players in French, their lingua franca due to most of them coming from post-colonial territories in Africa. My enthusiastic, multi-cultural and possibly boisterous engagement with them must have been noticed, because next day on the bus I was promoted to sit with Diego, the number four translator. Then, two days later, I made it to Translator Numero Tres, in recognition that despite a long day of factory visits and production statistics I had been one of the few in our delegation who made it to that evening’s engagement.

That engagement was a cultural visit to the Cabaret Copacabana, a venue strong on lighting effects, costumes, and Caribbean jazz, plus tall beautiful women wearing lots of feathers, high heels, but not a lot else. This was all laid on free for the tour party by the Cuban government, including yet more lime daiquiris. It called for a considerable effort on my part to participate: it’s a hard life, but somebody had to do it.

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