Cuba’s Tarara Summer Camp

Martin Guevara

HAVANA TIMES — That summer, we’d been told that one way of spending a fabulous, paid vacation – and earning a bit of money on top of that – was to get a job as guide at the primary school summer camp in Tarara, the same place where, years before, shortly after arriving from Argentina, my brother and I had spent some time recovering from our asthma.

They told us you could spend the entire morning at the beach or practicing sports, that you could eat whatever and as much as one wanted and that, at night, after the kids had been put to bed, the teachers and guides threw parties. We didn’t think twice and filled out a series of forms. A week later, they called us to tell us they had hired us as guides.

Naturally, we hadn’t the slightest idea of what was expected of us there (nor, at 17, did we have any experience in the field), but, the duties they described to us seemed easy enough – one only had to be willing to take a group of fifteen 10 to 12-year-old kids from the lodge to the cafeteria, to the beach, the theater and cinema and plan the occasional nightly entertainment. That was enough to ace any evaluation by our superiors.

The summer camp had changed a lot since 1973, when I had stayed there to try and alleviate my asthma. It was an immense camp ground with a highly tasteful design, aimed at housing primary school kids from around the country year-round (chiefly during school breaks).

The lodges were pretty little two-story houses with a front and backyard garden. The rooms with the bunk beds were on the ground floor, as was a kitchen equipped with a fridge and several bathrooms. Upstairs, there were two bedrooms for the teachers or guides. There were cafeterias, courts for different sports, swimming pools and even theaters and cinemas every several houses. All of this was next to the white-sand, warm-water beaches of Tarara, where coconut trees had replaced the pines of yesteryear.

My first day of work, I selected a student monitor to help in leadership and organizational work. We went to have breakfast, then to the beach and then to have lunch. In the afternoon, we didn’t go out anywhere (I stayed in and had a nap). We had dinner in the evening and, at night, I organized a chess tournament (which was really only to the liking of four of the kids, as most were domino players). I took the kids to have breakfast the next day and told the monitor to take them to the beach a while. I went for a swim and, later, we all had lunch together.

In the afternoon, we had met two of the guides assigned to the girls. We decided to meet up at the beach, so I left Israel, the monitor, with instructions to look after the troop, without giving the other kids reason to become irritated. Israel was short, but he was something of a daredevil and he was feared by the other kids.

The next day, the kids asked me if I would take them to the movies and I said I would. After we had lunch, I again left them under Israel’s supervision and went for a swim at the beach and to play some sport. When I returned, my buddy Nene told me there was trouble with the kids, that they wanted to go to the head office and say I wasn’t taking them anywhere after going to the beach in the morning.

After we had supper, I threw together a boxing match. This was a mistake, because things were tense and more than one kid vented his frustration in the improvised ring. My fling came to pick me up with Nene’s girlfriend and we headed off to a guides party. I again asked Israel to watch over the tribe. He warned me that the kids were becoming unruly. I told him to tell them that we’d go to the movies and the theater the next day.

At the party, we had drinks, danced and told stories. I went back to my room with my Tarara girlfriend with a bottle of banana liqueur – a thick, sweet, syrupy drink that was impossible to knock back without some ice, but which contained some rum.

We slept like logs and, the next morning, a very loud knock at the door startled me out of bed. I opened one eye and noticed the girl had vanished. I looked at the clock and saw it was already eleven. I got up, opened the door and was almost hit in the face by a flying stone.

Israel came up the steps and told me he’d been unable to control them, that they had all taken to the street and had randomly began to take the yogurt bottles they left at the foot of our doors every morning, including other people’s yogurts. He told me some had gone to the beach, others had begun to knock down almonds with stones and others to hurl the almonds and the occasional stone at Nene’s door and my own (which is when I had woken up).

When I went out to get the situation under control, I realized just how much of a mess they had made. I called Nene, we went to look for the kids that were missing and we took everyone to the cafeteria. We then went to the cinema. I spoke with the projectionist and they screened two movies for us. When we got back to the lodge to get some rest, the administration was waiting for us – to let us know our work as guides had come to an end. Israel was the only one who timidly spoke in our favor when the administrator asked the kids if they were happy with us.

We got our chattels together and only then, when they saw us gradually disappear from view, did the kids say goodbye to us – in a polite rather than affectionate way. The camp administrator assured us the incident would go on our permanent school record. Nene took the whole thing more seriously than me – he was still studying and wasn’t Che Guevara’s nephew. Even so, we couldn’t stop laughing on our trip back, remembering how angry those kids had been that morning.

An elderly gentleman who was sitting in front of us on the bus, as well as some other people, asked me rather haughtily to put out the cigarette without filter I was smoking. I cracked open the window to let the smoke out, to please the man, and asked him to chill out. I’d had enough for one day.