Gaggles of fifteen-, sixteen- and seventeen-year olds hang around on different corners of the park according to our year groups. Our clothes betray our mission: we are just about to embark on our work experience. For some of us it will be the first time we will be away from home for so long. Forty-five days officially. Although the veterans (those who went last year) claim it is never that long. You usually come back after thirty-five or thirty-six days, they say. Boys and girls are dressed alike: ugly brown shirts and khaki trousers. On my feet a pair of Russian boots makes their debut. Commonly known as “canberras” in the Cuban argot, this is the type of shoewear that any self-respecting rocker must be seen in nowadays. My shirt is two sizes bigger; my trousers have been adapted to resemble the skinny jeans seen on the likes of Bonjovi, Poison and Mötley Crüe, my musical diet these days. I usually watch clips of these bands at Cynthia’s, a girl from my Year 11 class who claims to be a close cousin of Tico Torres’, Bonjovi’s drummer.
Lined up on the road are about half a dozen coaches, their drivers puffing lazily on their Populares ciggies. Coaches? I am being benevolent. Our mode of transport is widely known as aspirinas (aspirins) because they are apparently good at ridding people of headaches despite the fact that they also cause them. I never did find out about the former, just the latter. The aspirinas are small minibuses in which you pile an endless amount of children, youngsters and adults with more extra space seeming to magic itself out of thin air.
Trepidation takes over me. This is my first time at the “escuela al campo”. The idea behind the project is noble but the delivery is flawed. You take a group of students to the countryside once a year in the coldest month in the Cuban winter calendar. You start them off at 12 years old, when they have just begun their Year 7 in secondary school. They first go for thirty days. Visits from parents are allowed but only weekly. They have to learn how to live independently. They will hopefully find out where food comes from, what nature provides us with, especially “city boys” like me. You sit back and hope your plan works. It does, but not in the way you think.
In reality twelve-year-olds are mixed with fourteen-year-olds. Bullying ensues almost as soon as the students climb on board the aspirinas. There is a lot of drinking and smoking. Sex is everywhere, consensual or not. Some male teachers zero in on vulnerable girls and...
I have heard enough about la escuela al campo from other people, but I want to build my own edifice of memories. Inside my mind there is a gallimaufry of feelings, yet one towers above all the others: joy. I feel unbridled joy. In about an hour I will be leaving Havana in the company of classmates who have become friends over the last twelve months. Together we will bunk off work, swim in rivers, get drunk and lose our voices whilst a guitar that’s seen better days is played (“assaulted” would be a better word) incessantly by a wannabe Silvio Rodriguez or Bob Dylan. My joy is not of the rational type, the kind we manufacture out of special moments. It is the other type of joy. It is the unintentional one which you don’t expect. It will arrive in the arms of a girlfriend, a deep, philosophical conversation with one of my mates, or the sight of a breath-taking sunset as I stand outside the public showers and wonder whether to put myself at the mercy of the cold water in the chilly, pinareño winter or wait until tomorrow. Again.
The joy I feel on this day comes from changing my urban landscape for a rural one I have yet to discover but which, on this early morning, I am looking forward to experiencing.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 7th July at 10am (GMT)