I was still taking my siesta when I heard Greg using the phone next to my bed. The guy was getting fanatical about our search for Nancy Jimenez. And I couldn’t blame him. How cool would it be for him to actually find Diego’s cousin, who he hadn’t seen in 50 years, and deliver the letter that Diego had passed on to him as well as about a 10 year supply of vitamins?
I quickly rousted myself, splashed some water on my face, and grabbed my video camera. By the time I got back into the room, Greg had already been on the phone for several minutes. While he was waiting for whoever he was talking with to come back on the line, he filled me in on what I’d missed. This Nancy Jimenez was 54 (a little younger than Diego figured, but it was still within the range), and had a cousin nicknamed Chuey who lived somewhere in L.A. She said she had not heard from her cousin in over ten years.
“I’m pretty sure this is her,” Greg whispered, his hand over the phone.
When the woman came back on he asked her a few more questions. Had she gone to university here in Havana? Yes. Had she taught there? No. Had she taught anywhere in Havana. No, she said, she was not a teacher or a professor. When Greg heard this, I could see all the air go out of him. He wanted so bad for this to be the Nancy Jimenez that he pressured her for a few more minutes, looking for ways to explain why Diego may have thought she was a professor if she wasn’t, but the longer he talked to the woman, the clearer it became that she was not the Nancy Jimenez we were looking for.
We’d come to the end of the line.
Tomorrow morning at 4:30 we would be on the bus headed for Jucaro. We’d be on the boat fishing for the next week. When we came back to Havana a week later, we’d have little time to explore other avenues for finding Nancy Jimenez. Still, Greg would not give up.
“There’s got to be a way to find her,” he said.
I didn’t know what it was and he didn’t either. But we were both going to think about it some more. Maybe a solution would become apparent once we were away from Havana. The search was over for the time being. But not for good. One way or the other we were going to solve the mystery of what happened to Nancy Jimenez.
The minute we got back to our hotel, the Parque Central, we hurried over to the bellman’s desk and asked him if he had a Cuba phone book. He looked up the name Nancy Jimenez for us and said there were about 15 listings. But only three of them were actually in or near Havana. Greg could not contain his excitement.
“So how do I call Nancy Jimenez?” he asked the bellman. Without answering, the bellman picked up the phone and dialed the first number. That was pretty much a bust. The Nancy Jimenez he spoke do did have a relative in the U.S., but not in California. And she was in her thirties—too young to be our Nancy Jimenez. Nobody picked up the phone for the second listing so Greg wrote that number down and figured we’d try again later in the afternoon.
Then there was the third phone call. The bellman talked to a young woman who answered the phone. She said that, yes, there was a Nancy Jimenez there and, yes, she was in her mid-50s. Did she have a relative in the United States? Yes, said the woman, a cousin who lived in California. When Greg heard this he was ecstatic. He told the bellman to ask her if this Nancy Jimenez was a professor.
A professor? repeated the woman. No, I don’t think so, she said, laughing. Was she certain? Listen, said the woman on the other end of the line, I pretty sure Nancy never went to university let alone taught there.
But how could she know for certain? Could we talk to Nancy?
It would be very difficult, said the woman.
Because she is down in the basement where she has been drinking rum since this morning. This is what she does every day. Maybe she is awake and maybe she isn’t, but she won’t be able to talk on the phone. She won’t even be able to get up the stairs.
Well, that was the end of that. Our only hope now was that Diego’s cousin might be the Nancy Jimenez who hadn’t answered the phone. We decided we’d go have lunch and then take a little siesta in the afternoon and when we woke up from our nap, we would see if we couldn’t get ahold of the last of our three Nancy Jimenez’s. It was our only hope.
So Greg was yelling at whoever was inside the house and I was yelling and after awhile, even our taxi driver, Manuel, got out of his taxi to see if he could get somebody to come down to the gate. But all of our yelling was fruitless. I figured what we needed was a local in the neighborhood. Maybe they could tell us if Nancy lived there. So I started walking down the street until I came to a house a few doors down where I could see several people sitting on a balcony of the second floor of a house. It looked like they were having a mid-day meal.
Now if you stop and think about what you’re doing—a middle-aged white guy who speaks terrible Spanish is standing in the middle of the street, yelling at strangers in a house, asking them if they know a woman named Nancy Jimenez—you’d never do it. It’s just too crazy. Which is why I didn’t stop and think about it. I just did it.
The women on the balcony looked at me with concern and kept asking me what I wanted. I told them I was looking for Nancy Jimenez. What? they kept asking. What?
“Nancy Jimenez. Do you know her?”
Eventually a guy came down and opened the gate just an inch or two. I called for Greg, whose Spanish is better than mine, to come over and explain to the guy what we were doing yelling at him from the middle of the street. The guy’s look of concern quickly changed to one of comprehension. “We are looking for the relative of a friend,” we told him. “It’s his cousin, Nancy Jimenez. Her aunt died and we’re trying to tell her this. Do you know if she lives in the house next door?”
The guy said he knew a guy named Leonardo who lived next door. “But maybe it is his wife,” he said. “Come with me.” So we followed him back over to the house with the blue metal fence. He started yelling at Leonardo to come down to the gate and sure enough, a buff, shirtless man eventually came down to the street. The neighbor, who spoke some English, explained to Leonardo that we were looking for a woman named Nancy Jimenez. Did he know her?
Leonardo said, Yes, he’d known Nancy. But she moved from here fourteen years ago, he told us. And then she moved again. Now, he had no idea where she was or if she was even still alive. There was no way of knowing.
In a way it felt like we’d gotten very close to finding Nancy Jimenez. After all, it had taken us several hours to find her old house, but we had found it. And we’d also talked with the guy who lived there now who remembered her. However, she’d moved 14 years ago. We’d reached a dead end.
But that didn’t mean we were giving up. On the drive back into Havana, Greg and I talked about what else we could do. If she was a professor at the university, I suggested, certainly there would be records. Maybe she was even still teaching there. We could go to the university and ask. Greg thought this was a good idea and asked the taxi driver to take us there.
“Which university?” he asked.
Greg shrugged. “Is there more than one?”
“There are many, many universities in Havana,” said Manuel. “More than a dozen.”
Well that was a little daunting. I couldn’t really see us going from university to university trying to figure out how to find out if a Nancy Jimenez still taught there or if they knew where she was. Such a task would take days, maybe weeks, and we just didn’t have that much time.
Then Greg came up with another idea. He asked Manuel if Havana had phone books. Of course, said Manuel. “But there will be many, many people named Nancy Jimenez. It is a very common name.”
No matter. Certainly it would be a lot easier to call every single Nancy Jimenez in the phone book then to drive around to god knows how many universities in Havana looking for her. We decided that as soon as we got back to the hotel, we would look for a phone book and begin making the calls.
Yesterday afternoon while the Fletchers and McLains went to the Museo de la Revolución, which is one of the saddest and most disappointing museums documenting a country’s political past you’ll ever see, Greg and I hired Manuel, a taxi driver, and went off in search of Nancy Jimenez. Two years ago when Greg and I were here, we searched for the childhood home of a friend of his named Diego. The story was that Diego’s dad and uncle fought on the wrong side of the Bay of Pigs invasion, whose inglorious 50th anniversary happens to be this month, and were imprisoned by Fidel for several years until they were part of a U.S. swap of Cuban spies and ended up in exile in the U.S. Diego was just a young kid, six or seven years old, when his family had to quickly flee Havana. They packed a few things and locked up the house, thinking that sooner or later Castro would be overthrown and they could return to the island, but, of course, that never happened.
The story goes that Diego’s entire family was on some bad-ass list kept by Fidel and if anyone, including Diego, ever tried to go back to Cuba, they’d be imprisoned. Still, Diego had vivid memories of his family’s house in Havana and members of their extended family, including Nancy who was his cousin. Anyway, two years ago, Greg made a heroic effort to find Diego’s house, relying on 50 year old memories, and, just hours before his plane was to take off back to Mexico, found it. If you’re interested in that story, you can read about it here.
But the story did not end there. In January, Diego’s mother passed away having never seen her home or family in Cuba again. This really disturbed Diego. He at least wanted his cousin Nancy, who was his mother’s niece, to know that her aunt had passed. So when he heard that Greg was going back to Cuba this year, he asked him if he could try and find Nancy and tell her the news. Seems like a relatively simple thing, right? Except that the last time Diego had communicated with his cousin was almost 15 years ago. All he knew was that she was a woman who should be 57 or 58 if she were still alive and had once been a professor in Havana. Oh, and he had her address from 15 years ago. One other thing: The last time Diego had been in contact with his cousin, he’d asked her if there was anything she needed and she said vitamins. At the Cancun airport, Greg had found a pharmacy and bought a hundred dollars worth of multi-vitamins to bring to her.
So that was our mission: Find Nancy Jimenez and tell her that her aunt had died in January.
Our driver, Manuel, knew the neighborhood we were looking for which was west of Havana, not far from the neighborhood where, they say, Fidel is holed up. We easily found the street we were looking for, 26th, but there was no number 11, the house address. In fact, everything on the block was in the high 500s. At first it seemed like we’d run out of luck, but Manuel had an idea. Maybe 26th continued on the other side of the boulevard. So he twisted his way around the neighborhood, looking for a continuation of 26th, but couldn’t find anything. He stopped the taxi next to a couple of women chatting on the sidewalk and asked them for number 11 on 26th Street. There was no such number, they told us.
We drove around a bit more and eventually stopped an old man pushing a cart up the middle of the street. He said that 26th actually split into a Y across the boulevard several blocks up. We drove around until we found the Y and took first one street and then the other but, again, there was no number 11. Then we stopped in at a gas station and talked to a few more people. A woman told us that there were actually several 26th Streets in the neighborhood. They were short little blocks, not more than a hundred meters long, that ran parallel to each other and were known as 26th A, 26th B, and so on. Only in Cuba, right?
We began with 26th A but it wasn’t until we got to 26th D that we found what we were looking for: Number 11. It was a modest house, mostly hidden from the street by a turquoise-colored metal fence. “This has to be it,” Greg said. “It looks like a house a professor would live in, doesn’t it?”
So while Manual sat in the idling taxi, we walked over to the metal fence and began banging on it. “Hola, hola,” Greg shouted through a small opening in the fence. “Estamos buscando a Nancy Jiménez. ¿Está aquí?”
We could tell that someone was in the house but we were getting only silence in response to our shouts.
Chicharones vendor in old Havana. Photo by David Lansing.
Big happenings over the weekend. Raul convened the first Cuban Congress in 14 years. Says things need to change in Cuba, particularly with the economy which needs to be loosened up to allow for a more entrepreneurial style and less involvement by the government. You won’t find anyone in Cuba arguing against that, but the locals I talked with all seemed to think that it was all much ado about nothing.
“The thing is,” Antonio told me, “is that they allow us now to open a little shop, but they do not allow you to buy the things you need to run a business. So what good does it do to open a car repair shop for instance if you can’t get mufflers or spark plugs? There are more tiendes, yes, but they only sell things that Cubans can make themselves, like wooden toys, or things they grow. There is no source to buy anything else.”
Walking around old Havana this weekend, I’d say Antonio was spot on. There definitely are more little shops then there were even two years ago, but almost everything in them is handmade and the quality is often pretty marginal at best. The little shop with baby clothes, for instance, had only a dozen or so hand-knitted booties and sweaters. The music shop had a few homemade instruments—the wooden sticks, called claves, that are played by striking them against one another; a primitive-looking güiro, which is nothing more than a hollowed-out gourd, and a well-worn bongo. It’s almost impossible to go into any bar or restaurant in Cuba and not come across a live band, but you have to wonder where the musicians find their guitars and trumpets and the like. My guess is that mostly they are family heirlooms, like many of the old cars, passed down from father to son for the last 50 years.
Still, the Cuban people are nothing if not enterprising. Antonio introduced us to a friend of his who was walking the streets selling chicharones, those addictive fried pork rinds that go so well with a really cold beer. The guy was selling a paper cone full of the fried pork rinds for one peso. Antonio told me that the guy was an apprentice for a butcher and was paid in scraps of meat. The few odd bits and pieces of a pig that the butcher couldn’t sell, like the skin, was given to the apprentice. The guy then traded a few cuts of meat—maybe a pig head, for example—to a guy who worked in a paper factory. In return, the guy at the paper factory stole small rolls of thin paper that he gave to the apprentice. Then the apprentice had his mother cook up the pork skin in its own grease, cut the thin paper into cones, and went out on the street to sell his chicharones. On a good day, he might sell 20 or 25 bags of fried pork skin. And net as much as the average Cuban in a single month. This is the way the real economy in Cuba works.