Saturday, April 28, 2007


"Nike." That's all the Cuban teenager said as he walked past me on the cobblestoned streets of Trinidad de Cuba, a colonial-era mountain village and UNESCO World Heritage Site near Cuba's south coast. I had fallen behind the other members of my research delegation, staring in awe at the quaint beauty of this pristine village.

I knew he was referring to the grey Nike trail running shoes with bright orange Nike swooshes I had on. Several times while wearing them back in Havana and elsewhere on the island, I noticed young Cuban men casting pensive glances at my feet. Little things like that are constant reminders of a half-century U.S. embargo keeping so many brands and products we take for granted out of bounds for the people of this long, skinny island.

I decided I didn't want this young man to get away so easily, since he was the first to actually say something about my shoes, as opposed to just staring at them. I caught up to him and asked, "Que tipo de zapatos tienes tu?" ["What type of shoes do you have?"] I had to repeat it twice before he understood me. 'Zapatos,' like 'dificil' remains one of the hardest words in Spanish for me to pronounce smoothly.

He said his were jogging shoes. They were some Chinese brand and featured even more bright orange (my favorite color) than mine. The next word out of his mouth was 'cambio,' and before long we were trading our shoes. We lined our left feet up next to each other to ensure a decent fit, then sat on the sidewalk to take off and trade our shoes.

As we walked to where my delegation was meeting for its next tour, I got to to know a little bit about this young man. His name was Miguel Alejandro, seventeen years old, finishing school and training to work as a chef. His favorite sports: snorkelling and track and field, especially long distance running. He said he lived in a small house down the block with his mom and sister (so many young Cubans I met had no fathers at home; many said their fathers were living in the United States; I imagine some fathers were serving time among Cuba's large prison population.)

I asked Miguel Alejandro how he liked life in the small town of Trinidad de Cuba, and in Cuba in general. He told me it was great. Before parting, we exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to keep in touch. Of course, like most Cubans, he didn't have an e-mail address or a computer to access the Internet, but he had a friend with both and said he would reach me that way.

We waved goodbye, and as he rounded the cobblestoned corner to his home, I imagined this young man someday making Cuba proud in a future Olympics or Pan American Games.