I am probably the worst anthropologist ever. Maybe all anthropologists doing fieldwork think this about themselves, but in my case it’s true.
Here’s why: I get tired of meeting new people. I try to change things I don’t like rather than respect them as expressions of a fully formed and equally legitimate culture not my own. I yell. I whine. I have actually thrown punches at Cubans. You know, I’ve read a lot about my anthropological forebears in graduate school, and I’m pretty sure that Margaret Mead never hit any of those Samoans she worked with.
This afternoon my “work” consisted of my walking in circles in Parque Central until someone stopped me to talk (sloppy methodology is another one of my shortcomings). I met a man who stopped my circling with a compliment to my dog, then congratulated me when, in response to his question, I said I was American. I will call this first man Eduardo. Eduardo pretty quickly told me he should be working but came to the park to rest a bit because it’s hot and he’s recovering from surgery. (He lifted the front of his shirt to show me a scar on his lower abdomen.) He had broken several bones and ruptured his spleen in a car accident in December. Because he works for himself, he earns pretty well ($5 a day), but his work is physically demanding, and he’s not sure he can do it anymore. I suggested he find an assistant, a young person who could do the physical labor while he contributes the contacts and expertise. “But it’s complicated, you know, we aren’t allowed to hire employees,” he explained. I had forgotten. I asked him about the care he had received in the hospital, and he looked around nervously before saying, “The state means well, and the doctors work hard, but the hospitals are not in good condition. Not in good condition, and they do not give very good care.” Eduardo believes most Cubans feel like he feels today: depressed, frustrated, closely watched, and afraid.
But then there’s Manuel. Today Manuel slides into the seat opposite mine at the open-air cafe where I like to take my late-afternoon cheese pizza and CokeTM. Manuel looks to be about 60 but is dressed like he’s 16: baggy jeans, an ersatz Tommy HilfigerTM tank-top, mirrored wrap-around shades, and a NikeTM cap. And I think he’s mackin’ on me. He’s telling me about his brother in Miami, and he’s tickling my dog, and he’s writing down his address in my notebook (his idea) and looking forward to seeing me again when maybe we can share the soda. Manuel is not depressed. He is doin’ allllll-right in Cuba. Though, on second thought, today he’s using his good vibrations to try to bag me, which he has to believe would lead to a plane ride north.
Manuel hasn’t got a chance with me because my heart already belongs to another sixtysomething man in my barrio, the one who fixed my laptop’s electrical cord. Fixed, as in the cord was severed in two, and he brought the two parts together as one so that electricity flows into my computer. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the inside of a laptop’s electrical cord (go ahead, cut yours in half, I’ll wait) but it’s no simple affair. But he did it. He usually fixes radios, blenders, and fans (the most common electrical appliances in Cuba), but he took a gamble on high-tech repair, and here I am because of it. Where in the United States can you get someone to fix a cord, or a fan, or a blender, for that matter? We’re really missing out because not only are we making landfill out of perfectly good stuff, there’s great pleasure in using something that has been brought back from the dead. This evening I stood with my fix-it hero and his wife on the corner, me gushing about the cord while a little boy ran their Doberman up and down the street. We discussed strategies for further cord repair should this latest fix—it’s a patch job really, he needs more time—not hold. He said he had never seen a cord like mine; I blushed. His wife grew tired of all our nonsense and eventually left to join the other ladies sitting in kitchen chairs on the sidewalk under the streetlight. But me, I could have danced all night!