The Old Man and the Seas

Prologue: It’s a small story – perhaps worth telling – a piece of truth wrapped in fiction… as much about the contrast between hardships and the search for happiness and might go something like this:

The Malecon curves away from Vieja and around the Hotel Nacional in the distant haze. Here, the sun pins the crumbling birds egg blue or bleached yellow facades of Havana’s once glorious sea front between the crashing surf and deep blue sky. Taxis and buses dodge one another, cheekily honking horns as much in anticipation as of any marked route.

Donald Reginald McReary was born several thousand miles away over 80 years ago. As an  Albino, in those days, he knew he wouldn’t be able to support a family early on with his limited vision, so he never married – but nevertheless he was determined to make a go of it. In Hamilton, Ontario, he left school at 13 just after the Second World War, and took any job he could find. 

Sitting in Veradero Airport’s smoking lounge Don looks like a man at the Legion with his quilted, plaid coat with the red lining on this cool morning – his white cane sitting folded up on the small table, waiting for his flight back to Canada. Remarkably he has been visiting Cuba for over 25 years and has made many friends throughout his adventures.

One of the first things Don tells you from behind thick glasses is that you don’t need a lot of things in your life to find happiness and he should know. He was abandoned as a child by parents who, out of poverty, couldn’t take care of his needs. He lived in a boarding house of sorts paying money from paper routes to the household keep. He earned enough to manage five dollars a month which, as he tells it, was never raised for  the next 12 years until he moved out at 21. By this time he had mapped out paper routes all  over Hamilton delivering several editions at the same time. 

The tourist resort economy in Cuba began to hit it’s stride in the late 90’s. On the streets of Vieja – the old quarter of Havana – you can buy a paper sleeve of peanuts for as little as 10 cents. For us, the hawkers are a reminder that Cuba is developing and extreme poverty exists. It’s otherworldly everywhere you turn. Service is poor in restaurants though the food is quite good. Bike taxis are everywhere and you have to keep your head down at cobble stone intersections to avoid the constant barrage of requests to be spirited away on three wheels, usually from a Cuban the age of an out of school Don McReary.

Like many born into difficult circumstance, Don was filled with ambition. His was to make something of himself and land on his own two feet. Years later at the Veradero Airport he tells  of walking through the mountains near Trinidad on the South coast of Cuba where he had taken a bus. The sun was low and affected his limited vision. He slipped and fell – breaking his arm. As he says, he lay there for 20 minutes before a taxi happened by and helped him get to his billet in the town. He knew the countryside as well as the city and named off several small communities and some of their hotels. He has problems with his right arm ever since and uses his left hand to support his right when he shakes yours.

High up above the Malecon the Hotel Nacional perches like a great peacock proud of itself. Tourists sit leisurely in the oversized outdoor rattan furniture protected from the pedlars by the Malecon below and an army of blue suited security at the front door. The view of the ocean is spectacular in itself however two treasures are found on the grounds. The first, two massive rusty canons remain installed since the Spanish American war when they shelled unsuspecting ships. More interesting however are the trenches dug during the 13 day standoff with the United States over nuclear  missiles based on the island in what is universally known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Everywhere you go in Cuba you are reminded by one billboard or another that the Cuban people are a proud people, at least that is what the official propaganda instills in the unsuspecting tourists – reminders that this is still a nation under siege, reminders that politically at least, state control is apparent. In the late 1980’s Cuban’s experienced a more quiet revolution of sorts, around about the the time Don McReary started visiting. His story is that while the Cuban’s are proud, they nevertheless extend courtesy to strangers and are warm and giving – in sharp contrast to the tourist experience in Havana at least.

Don gestures to his empty plastic glass on the table and reminds us that Cubans love to dance. He earned the nickname “non-stop” he says of his dancing in those early years. He’d start the night with just one drink of rum and by the wee hours in the morning he’d still have a quarter left because he had danced with one young Cuban lady after another, not allowing time for indulging in heavy drinking. They would be lined up waiting to dance with him.

The quiet revolution is as much a social revolution as political.  Cuba relied heavily on oil from the former Soviet Union and fashioned large scale production of food much the same way as North America. This investment in high priced agriculture was no longer sustainable after the collapse of the Eastern Block and Cuba turned to methods which are innovative and internationally applauded. In many ways, diversity has been reinstated and traditional farming re-introduced.

Cuban’s have a different approach to life under adversity. This is the Cuba Don speaks off. It’s not too much of a stretch that with his limited advancement during his formative years he has discovered something far away from the tourist spots and, over the years has become familiar with the Cuba of the people that you don’t see on billboards. Don is here in Cuba because he is proud of the Cuban people, their resilience matches his, their history and culture are rich, and their persistence in the face of adversity is incomparable. Don Reginald McReary is one of them and he is happy being so.

Epilogue: Truth is, we never got Don’s real name. Strangers passing in an airport with just enough time to share a story or two…maybe three. One thing I do know, the old man we met will be back soon.

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