Friday, 4 September 2015

The Soul Loves to Sing - my nearly winning travel piece from 2015

The music floated from the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and over Mother Theresa’s head to where I sat in the garden.  It was exquisite.  The voices of the violins, the cellos, the basses and the violas sang of every human emotion with deep understanding.  Joy, love, sorrow, grief, fear … I felt them wrap around me and mingle with my own.  Outside the garden, Havana’s Chevys and Buicks spluttered on their way to the Malecón.  Inside, Mother Theresa and I sat statuesque and silent, listening.

Havana was thick and sultry.  We’d arrived the night before, and I’d felt like a bird searching for a roost after dark.  Rubble blockades turned the taxi back again and again as it circled around Compostella looking for our Casa, and figures, looming giants in the headlights, pointed us in yet another direction.  I felt unwelcome, far from home, wondered why I thought a city half way round the world might help me grasp losing my sister, grasp being an only child with a very sick mother and yet grasp my own life again.  But it was when, finally, we stepped out of the air-conditioned taxi that it hit me.  And then it curled around me and squeezed like a boa.  There was no air to breathe.

The young woman at the Casa had given our room to someone else.  She showed us to another, ‘just for tonight’, clean and adequate, but close and brooding.  I felt my panic notch up and with it, her lack of understanding.  ‘We’ve been without mains water for weeks,’ she kept saying, as if that explained something.  ‘I will be without my sister for the rest of my life and I can’t breathe,’ I kept thinking, because that explained everything.  We sat the night out with the balcony doors thrown wide open.  Only when the birds began to sing, in the glimmer of dawn, did I calm down.

Daylight revealed a crumbling, but beautiful city, as well as the failing mains water system.  In the streets of Old Havana the old cast iron pipes were being ripped out.  The city was indeed without water in many places.  Soon we would grow accustomed to the lumbering 1950s water tankers that spewed black diesel fumes into the air as they struggled through the narrow, dug-up streets.  Only hospitals, schools and expensive hotels were guaranteed a delivery.  Everyone else had to go begging or bribing.

That people could make music so sublime in this ground down city caught hold of me. My focus began to shift.  I admired how Cubans are resilient and resourceful.  I watched how they picked their way through the rubble on the way to work, keeping their shiny shoes clean.  Saw them rush out to the tankers with every recycled water bottle discarded by a visitor that they could find.  Noticed too how the tension ratcheted up at the Casa when the water delivery, begged for, bribed for, was late. Our en-suite room was always first to run out.  We were water canaries, signalling impending drought.  When they came, the tankers arrived after dark, honking their horns in what we liked to think was celebration.  Relief flooded through the Casa as the water was pumped, deafeningly, into the storage tanks. 

I opened my heart to this fighting Havana, but the mistrust of that first night lingered. 

One afternoon, Armando, the regular pianist in the bar over the street, is murdering ‘Stardust.’  I am oblivious to this but not my husband.  It was the signature tune of his grandfather’s accordion band.  Armando can’t get it right.  Unable to listen any longer, Andrew goes off on a mission.  Amongst the many things he has brought to Cuba is the music for ‘Stardust’.

When he returns, an hour later, Armando is playing ‘Stardust’ as badly as ever but he is over the moon.  He has found a different, jubilant home for all of the music, classical and popular, that he has schlepped here:  the young woman who owns the Casa.  She not only keeps the water flowing, just about, with bribes, she is a professional violinist.  She has invited us to a concert.

Mother Theresa is sitting in the garden when the music begins.  I am sitting in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi.  The voices of the violins, the cellos, the basses and the violas sing again of every human emotion with deep understanding:  of joy, love, sorrow, grief and fear.  Of how the first two prevail because, despite tragedy and hardship, the soul is resilient and it loves to sing.

When the music ends, the young woman from the Casa, the violinist, looks over to me.  We share a smile.

Kelly Holman

Awarded a Special Mention in the Bradt /Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2015.
The brief was to write a piece of between 600 - 800 words in the first person and on the theme of 'Serendipity'.

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