It was about five in the afternoon of what had been a hot, dry day. People were just now beginning to emerge from their houses to greet the cooler temperatures. I was staying in a casa particular located in a dusty alley in Trinidad, Cuba. One side of the alley was comprised of a row of pastel colored houses, blues, greens, and yellows. The yellow one was my casa. There was a cracked sidewalk in front of the houses that stepped down onto the unpaved alley street. The opposite side of the alley was marked by a rusty chain link fence that partially surrounded a collapsing warehouse reduced to a concrete foundation covered in broken glass and twisted, rusting beams. The far end of the alley was closed off by a three strand barbed wire fence with a gap in the middle used as a gate into an open field that served as the local dump. The fourth side faced a busy cross street which bustled with every kind of traffic imaginable from pedal taxis to giant trucks. The traffic produced a constant roar of engines and tooting car horns, as well as giving the entire street a distinct aroma of exhaust.
I was on the stoop of my casa talking to the owner while his teenage daughter Maritza listened. He was a nighttime security guard at a local factory and was just about to leave for work. In the mean time we talked about the rolling blackouts, one of which had just happened while I was in the shower. He departed, and his daughter and I were left alone on the stoop watching some kids play baseball in the alley. We talked a bit, but we were not really making any headway. There are some people that are really easy to talk to in a foreign language, and there are some that just aren’t. Maritza was not. She finally suggested we go see a boy sitting on the dusty curb of the corner watching the traffic pass.
Clad in a faded yellow t-shirt and jorts, he looked perfectly at home sitting in the dirt, his back leaning against a sign post. We took seats next to him on the dusty curb. He introduced himself, stuck out his hand and said
“Me llamo Jamon”
At least that’s what I heard. In Spanish jamon means “ham”. I thought that was a rather unusual name, so I said “¿Como un sandwich?”-“Like a sandwich?”
Maritza laughed and Jamon said his name again, and spelled it out in the air. His name was really Ramon; it was just hidden by his accent. We laughed for a bit, and took turns chucking pebbles at an empty soda can lying in the alley as we talked. Ramon and I were the same age, and although we came from completely different backgrounds we got along really well.
Ramon had just finished compulsory basic training in the Cuban army and was home for a week on vacation before his next posting. He had gotten lucky though; while all his buddies were being sent to guard warehouses in backwater Matanzas, Ramon was being deployed to teach chemistry to Cuba’s best and brightest. He himself was a former Chemistry Olympian, and had been Cuba’s sole representative at the 2010 games in Japan. Ramon was the sole cubano I met in three weeks who had ever left the country and not come back a veteran. Ramon also had an insatiable curiosity about the world outside of Cuba, and our conversation ranged from mortgages (a foreign concept in Cuba where the government owns the houses) to heavy metal bands. Ramon spoke a smattering of English, and between the two of us we could muddle our way through most anything. Maritza sat and listened.
We talked for quite a while, until a ball of string covered in tape rolled by us. It was the baseball, but it looked more like a brown, misshapen rock. It didn’t roll straight, but with an awkward jumping motion. It continued its awkward bouncing across the street and came to rest in the far gutter. Ramon hopped up and retrieved it, all the while dodging the camiones and motorcycles whizzing by. He walked back, playing with the ball, and asked Maritza and I if we wanted to join, indicating the small gang of kids waiting for their ball back. They were led by the biggest kid who happened to be Ramon’s brother. All were barefoot.
Ramon, Maritza and I formed our own team and were given the bat. The field was laid out in the alley, with home plate closest to the busy street, so that we would bat towards the trash strewn field.
I had heard about the formidable reputation of Cuban baseball players, and it occurred to me I might be a tad out of my league. The opposition was composed of six or seven kids ranging in age from seven to twelve, or thereabout. They were all wearing dusty hand me downs; t-shirts too small or too big, and sweat pants cut off at the knees to make shorts were the norm. They talked really quickly, and I didn’t understand half of what they said. There were two mitts between the whole team. I got the impression that they were curious about how good I was. Looking back now, it was probably odd to find an American playing pick-up baseball in a dirty alley in Cuba with the local kids, but at the time it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
As the foreigner, I had the honor of batting first. I kicked off my sandals, rolled up my jeans and stepped up to the broken brick which marked home. The bat was a derelict piece of aluminum pipe salvaged from somewhere. Ramon’s brother was pitching and as he got ready the outfield jabbered in rapid Spanish. The batting team supplied the catcher, in this case Ramon. The ball was thrown, and whether by luck or skill, it connected with the bat and went flying down centerfield towards the barbed wire fence.
I took off running towards where I saw the first baseman standing and calling “pelota, pelota” as he gesture for the ball. I rounded first and began to look for second. There was no second baseman I could see, so I ran to where I thought second should be, searching for a base. Ramon’s brother now had the ball in hand and was running my way, but I still couldn’t find second. There were slabs of rock and plastic bags on the field, anyone of which could have been second. Ramon was now yelling at me in Spanish, and gesturing. I saw this out of the corner of my eye, but paid no attention. Ramon’s brother was getting closer than I wanted. I figured that I had been to the general area, and that was good enough in a pinch. I ran to third and then home. Ramon’s brother chased me the whole way cheered on by his team mates. Fortunately I was faster. Ramon congratulated me on my home run, but I was more concerned about the mysterious second base. I asked him where second was, and he smiled and explained that that took too many people, and so they played three base baseball. My introduction to international sport ended in a successful, if silly looking, point for my team.
Ramon was up next, and Maritza became the catcher. He hit the ball through a gap in the chain link fence and into the old warehouse. Play stopped as everybody went to find the ball. We entered the old warehouse by going through the gate in the barbed wire fence, following a dirt path out into the dump, and circling back to a small gap in the chain link fence. You could not smell the dump from the alley, but it was pretty ripe when you walked through it. Everybody poured through the fence and began scouring the concrete foundation for the ball. Nobody was wearing shoes, and there were plenty of cries of “vidrio” as people pointed out the piles of broken glass that littered the ground. We had to hop from one clear area to the next, and I bet we looked pretty funny, ten people all hopping around and staring at the ground. We found the ball without injury and returned to the game.
The game continued in this fashion, broken only by pauses to find the ball or allow cars to pull into the alley to pick up or disgorge passengers. I would like to say my team won, but nobody kept score because nobody cared. The traffic had slowed down on the street, now it was mostly motociletas and the occasional car rushing off to its destination. Almost everybody had returned home for the evening, and we had a small audience gathered on various stoops chatting and watching us play. The rumblings of many conversations, all in Spanish, as well as the aroma of meals being prepared filled the night.
Eventually, the sun sank too low to continue the game so we decided to called it a night. Most of the younger players retired across the street leaving Ramon, his brother, Maritza and I. We retire to our corner curb and talked with a lonely old man who sat just inside his open doorway, watching the street. It was a beautiful night, warm with a soft breeze of the ocean, star studded, and filled with the sounds of people. I stayed with my newfound friends until dinner called them away.
Copyright © 2011 Kyle Uhlmann