Gospel & Universe

Caritas

This page explores privilege and charity by contrasting a comfortable tourist in Cuba with a hard-working boy in a Lagos slum.

Caritas - Avenida de los Presidentes - The Hotel Nacional - Makoko - Guilt on an Oversized Sofa - Currents

Caritas
 

We should help each other the best we can
For it's a very short and very confusing journey
From cradle to grave

There are so many signs that tell us what we are
Where we come from
And where we're going
Yet they swirl
And change direction every decade
Until at last we come full circle
In diapers and in tears
Not knowing what we are

We should help each other the best we can
For it's a very short and very confusing journey
From cradle to grave

 

Avenida de los Presidentes, 2014

Vedado: 1. Past participle of Sp. vedar, to prohibit.

2. Closed grounds for hunting or nature reserve.

3. District in Western Havana.

Yesterday I sat on high, looking down on the ragged masses of Vedado. From my lofty perch in the Café Presidente, I saw through the giant clean windows, which were like spectacles for my giant eyes. The bright red awnings were my eyelids, heavy from godlike thoughts. Outside in the smoggy street, the cars and crowded buses flowed toward me, down Avenida de los Presidentes. Groups of humans walked by in flip-flops and ragged t-shirts. From time to time, they tilted their craniums and looked upward at the moneyed gods.

The average wage in this section of the Earth is twenty-one dollars a month. And yet in some places, like the Café Presidente, you can spend a month's wage on a dinner. Sitting on my throne above the huddled masses, I was struck by how much the café resembled a fancy Parisian café, like Le Gribouille on Rue de Rivoli, long after they chopped off the heads of the kings and queens.

 

The Hotel Nacional

I'm now sitting on a giant sofa on the veranda of the Hotel Nacional, an enormous cohiba planted between my fat capitalist lips. The waiters are in starched white suits. Before me are palm trees framed by enormous Greek columns. Beyond that, the Caribbean Sea.

If I really were a god, I could see across the Florida Strait to the Bahamas.

If my godlike vision bent with the roundness of the Earth, I could see all the way to the Azores and Spain.

I could see through time itself, to the Santa María, the Niña, and the Pinta, setting out from the Azores on their mission to find a passage to the Far East.

I could see their white sails, as well as the tiny viruses inside the cells of the Europeans. Microscopic killers even more efficient than the lead fire that spat from the round barrels of the conquistadors. The ships multiply, the Spanish treasure fleets, with their mule train from Acapulco to Vera Cruz. The infamous triangle of ships, laden with trinkets, slaves, and sugar cane.

 

Makoko

Before coming to Cuba, I watched a documentary on a Lagos district called Makoko, where people live in shacks on poles in filthy water, scrounging for any sort of work. The cameraman showed life there from the perspective of a dugout floating from one part of the city to the next.

Clip from Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung's photo in the banner at the top of this page (Wikipedia Commons)

Clip from Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung's photo in the banner at the top of this page (Wikipedia Commons)

Photo credited to CEE-HOPE NIGERIA, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credited to CEE-HOPE NIGERIA, Wikimedia Commons

The cameraman went up into a cramped school room, where students paid before each class. If they couldn't pay they were turned away. One small boy slowly drifted by, offering to sell yams to the people on the boards and porches above him. In the interviews, people explained how difficult it was to earn a living. Many said they were afraid of the criminals, and also of the police.

I thought, There but for the grace of...

But why would God stick anybody in that place?

But who knows the designs of the Almighty? If there is an Almighty, He keeps his own accounts. His own tabulations of karma and samsara. Good deeds and a sofa on the veranda of the Hotel Nacional; bad deeds and a dugout in the grey waters of Makoko. If there's no Almighty, life sucks.  

There's something poignant in the idea that the hard-working little boy peddling yams may, in the next life, be a Water Master coursing through the violet straits of the Candy Nebulae. That he will stop in each of its verdant counties to receive the bounty he couldn't imagine on Earth.

If, in such an afterlife, he were to commandeer his old dugout, he would be a Yoruba Charon, ferrying stingy tourists to a dismal end.

Where does that leave those of us who haven't floated through Makoko with a stethoscope or a bag-full of vaccines -- or at least a camera to open the eyes of the world?

Who, instead, fly into Varadero and heap our plates at the lobster bar. Who complain that the music's too loud on the talcum-powder beach.

Who take a cab to Vedado, rent several rooms, and take Spanish lessons from a smiling dance instructor?

Who, instead of navigating the watery streets of Makoko, take a ferry ride from the old town of Havana to la Cabaña, with its forts and its lobster restaurant facing the stars and sea. And who, instead of poling like Charon through crooked stilts, snap a photo of a smiling girl from the side of the ferry.

 

Guilt on an Oversized Sofa

To worry about these things from a presidential perch, or while smoking a cohiba in an oversized sofa under the columns of the Hotel Nacional, is a penance and a privilege. In my case, a penance and a privilege to be repeated every ten years. Here I am back in 2004 in much the same position:

If we believed without scruple that people got what they deserved -- whether this be the cosmic justice of karma or the hard reality of the Market -- penance would be unnecessary. It would be like putting on a hairshirt when we ought to put on a crisp, turquoise Lacoste. If, on the other hand, we're doubtful about cosmic justice -- and bothered by the sight of a six year old boy in a dugout, desperate to sell his sack of yams -- it’s both a privilege and a duty.

It’s a privilege because we can, in comfort and security, contemplate the complexity of the world. Like so many things to understand -- cancer, the infinite stretches of space, the Third Reich, the entomology of cockroaches -- it may not be comforting. But it is fascinating. And it is the real world, by which I mean the world unmediated by any system calibrated to make it all seem OK, integrated, or just. It's a privilege to have the time, the education, and the exposure to think about the world not as one would have it be, but as it is. The world unadorned, full of mysteries to be uncovered, truths to be grasped, problems to be grappled with. The boy in the dugout cannot even dream of such an understanding or such a challenge. To put it metaphorically, we are all outside the Garden of Eden, but it's only the privileged who have the luxury to think like gods.

While I was joking about my self-inflated hauteur -- the golden tourist perching on his throne and lounging in his deep sofa -- still tourist money allows the privilege of a distant perspective. As well as the privilege of thinking about the difference between the wealthy and the poor.

Yet it's also a duty because with knowledge of a place like Makoko comes compassion, unless we’re convinced of the justice of the boy's plight, or unless we’re in some way sociopathic. This duty might be seen as a type of penance for our privilege. For if we understand how tough life is for that boy in the dugout, we can't help but feel some form of guilt as we draw on the cohiba or on the straw that delves into the depth of our cuba libre.

God's hand, like the invisible hand of Adam Smith's Market, may or may not be guiding us. In the vacuum created by the doubt about such hands, we are obliged to do something.

Yet this something conflicts with a very primal human desire to make ourselves comfortable, to amass all the wonderful things of the world around us. To forget the troubles of the world because we have enough of our own. Herein, for many of us, lies the rub.

Everyone with this type of conscience tries to find their own way to do something. An activist once said to me, do anything rather than nothing. For myself, I can accomplish this anything by donating to people -- in Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International -- who are clearly doing something. I also try to teach my students about these things. I figure that this is something, sort of. 

 

Currents

Several weeks ago I had a dream that made me wonder if I should get down from my perch, get down to the docks and put my little boat into the water. If I should enter the current of this world, and make my way through Makoko, that precarious city on stilts.

In the dream, I was chopping away at a gigantic mushroom root, a clear gold-brown stream flowing around my knees. Then around my hips. I looked over to my right, and saw the clear gold-brown water stretch for 10, 30, 60 meters. It was a mighty river, a surge that was more than a river. The water around the root was part of this powerful river, although I hadn't been aware of that until I saw it, felt it heading slightly downward, curving around a house, which seemed to be my house, although I had never seen it before. The current seemed to come up against something, so it turned to the right, lifting slightly, and then vanishing behind the house, falling into some abyss, or continuing into some jungle, or into some other world. What struck me most was the earlier shift in perception -- from the stream to the river to the enormous power of the current. It wasn't so much that it would sweep me away, as that it could.

The giant current could be any number of things: a flow of souls, the dangerous force of tidal waves, an astral conduit, the infamous worm hole of sci fi -- who knows? It may simply be a bizarre scenario that my brain dreamed up or glued together from images stored in my mind. I have, for instance, been spending a fair amount of time next to the Frazer River, seeing its wide expanse from the flower-rimmed promenade that stretches southeastward from the quay.

Roger Clark frazer 1.jpg

Yet as impressive as the Frazer is, my dream made more of an impression. It presented me with a depth of feeling that I can’t shake. It seemed to me like a universal current, one that could take me into an afterlife, up to a heaven or down to a hell, or into some other world, some other form of existence. 

My dream of the gold and copper current leads me to two series of questions. The first series is abstract: Am I willing to enter into the current, like Chuang Tzu's famous sage, and let the Tao take me where it will? Can I let go of myself? Do I really believe there is a Tao? Do I have a choice about letting myself go, given the fact that sometime in the next fifty years I will most certainly die?

The second question is more concrete: Am I ready to join the flow of humanity? Am I ready to come down from my perch, stroll out of the Hotel Nacional and into the streets? Can I get into that dugout with that boy from Makoko? Will we make our way together through the shanty stilts to the open water?

Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Wikipedia Commons)

Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Wikipedia Commons)

Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Wikipedia Commons)

Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Wikipedia Commons)