Chivalry is not an act, but a way of being
Some time ago, back when I had a normal job, I had the great pleasure of being offered a paid leave of absence of 4 months to be able to write. I spent a good part of that time walking and exploring.
Part of my time was spent in Cuba. Fidel was still alive and still in power. But things were changing. I had heard that Fidel was an avid scuba diver. The result was UNESCO protection for much of the coral reef system around Cuba. With the low level of industry on the island, pollution and contamination were also low. I was curious to see what the diving would be like. Fidel’s boat was available for charter, an 8 cabin, crewed, luxury diving yacht. Now, wouldn’t that be a holiday to remember?
I booked a flight from Havana to the Isla de la Juventud. The flight departed from the airport, but we were bussed to a corner of the airport, about 15 of us, and left to board a tiny aircraft, called an Antonov. I believe it was an old Antonov 38, or something similar, the shape is quite similar. This was a twin-propeller plane, but it was very unusual in that it had what looked like reinforced tin siding as the fuselage. It was boxy and looked a bit like a piece of farm equipment.
Inside, there were benches that lined each wall, wooden slat seating much like you find in parks around the world. There were metal separators, which also served as arm rests. We all fit, but I could imagine an obese person would have struggled. There was a “bench” like this down each side of the plane. They ran a single seat belt the length of the bench, looping it under the arm rests and over the legs of each passenger.
All of our suitcases were placed down the middle of the aircraft, perhaps for balance. There was a little space left for our feet. All the cases were tied in place with a long piece of rope running through the handles. Did anyone say death trap?
Opposite me was an attractive woman, buxom, pretty, perhaps 30 or so. Next to her was an old campesino. His face was creased and lined from the sun and life, but they were happy lines, not the furrows of sadness. He wore a straw hat and guayabera—the elegant and practical 4 pocket shirt from Cuba that you also find worn in Mexico’s Yucatan. I do not remember any of the other travellers, though they were all local.
The inside of the plane had no insulation—the tin siding was the same on the inside as on the outside. Indeed, there were places that light showed through. I should like to think that we rumbled down the runway, but it was more like a trundling motion accompanied by a clattering sound. I couldn’t help but think this was a flying lawnmower. I worried that we might not take off. The plane did shake and shiver as we gathered speed, but in an elegant way—no jerks and starts, just a sort of languorous bouncing. The movements of an elegant lady who had done this many times before.
As impossible as it seemed, and after what seemed an endless acceleration, we lifted off, gaining altitude at the pace of a slug. Thankfully the area around the airport is flat. The noise in the cabin filled every open space. The steward was not there to serve. Instead, he sat, Buddha-like, on one of the suitcases. Indeed, he was the only person without a seatbelt on, and was a plain-clothes police officer, not a steward. He studied all of us with an eye of someone who did so for a living.
This trip was my first trip in life where I wore only women’s clothes. Today I wore navy capri pants, espadrilles, and a light and loose, plain white blouse. I too, had a straw hat, a loose and flappy one suited for the beach. I was impossibly slim, very tanned, and feeling free and liberated.
I was travelling very light, having left my main suitcase at the airport with the Cuban authorities. I had a tiny travel bag with just the essentials—bikini bottoms, a change of shirt and pants, panties, and toiletries. I was getting used to the bemused and perplexed stares of customs officials, and was learning things that have stead me well when smuggling.
Our cruising altitude, judging by the view through one of the cracks in the fuselage, was about 200 metres. It was a pity that there were no windows, as I imagine the view during the short hop over the water, would have been beautiful to behold.
I had booked a hotel at a former prison. This was part of the new kinder and gentler Cuba, working to put a positive face to tourists. It was becoming a popular destination for Europeans and Canadians. US citizens could travel to Cuba—the Cubans didn’t care—but risked arrest or a permanent black mark on their return should they get caught.
I had no idea about the diving. As with all things on the trip, I would find out when I arrived.
The trip was not so bumpy once we were airborne, but the lovely woman across from me was not feeling so well. Her lovely skin had turned pallid, and she was fanning herself. It was suffocatingly hot in the plane, and with the noise, it was not surprising that someone should feel nauseous. She began to retch. It was a dry retch, that convulsive peristalsis that begins in the belly and snakes up the body like a whip in slow motion. She covered her mouth with her hands lest anything should come out.
The campesino sitting next to her took off his hat and handed it to her, and she promptly used it to hide her face, and she calmly continued to retch into his hat. He looked on with gentle concern. The rest of us were beginning to feel queasy too.
It was a short flight, and as we descended, she seemed to feel a bit better. Mercifully, in the end, she did not get sick, but she kept her face buried in the hat until we came to a stop. She handed the hat back to the man, and he smiled at her. The engines stopped and we clambered out, blinking, into the Caribbean sun. The farmer put his hat back on without a care in the world.
As he did that simple thing, putting his hat on, and did so without judgement or distaste, I was filled with admiration for him. To offer his hat was such a humble and genuine act of care to a stranger humbled me. I was touched deeply by it. When one thinks of a classy person one might conjure all kinds of images, but here it was as plain as day right in front of me. Would I be capable of the same? What does it take to be so effortless and natural in one’s care for others.
Chivalry is not dead. You can find it in the most beautiful places.