I was walking down an unlit Havana street at half past midnight when two guys materialized on either side of me. I had just spent the evening filming a Cuban jazz concert and was loaded down with expensive gear. I wasn’t about to give in without a fight, so I started looking for a way to defend myself. I picked up my pace, forcing the two men to do the same, but it was still three blocks before I found the perfect weapon.
Second-floor Havana apartments almost always have balconies so that people can sit out and catch the breeze - and keep an eye on things. The one I stopped under had a granny in it, wearing nothing but a nightgown and slippers.
By now the men had gotten quite aggressive. One reached out to tug on a camera strap, while the other said ominously, “you have so many cameras, why don’t you just give us one of them?” I pulled away and parried verbally for another thirty seconds. Then I looked up and said in my best little girl’s voice, “Abuela, ayudeme.” Grandmother, help me.
The old woman slowly pulled herself half out of her seat, glared down at the three of us, and started screaming at the two men in a voice loud enough to wake the dead. I’m not sure exactly what she said – she didn’t have her teeth in – but those two guys disappeared so fast I thought I had imagined them. The granny then pointed at me, jerked her thumb skyward, and said, “Come up.”
She was blind - but she’d heard me and figured out exactly what kind of trouble I was in. Her name was Marta and she’d lived on that block for 72 years. She knew every birth and death and every secret worth telling.
We shared a bowl of rice and beans and become friends. I went back to see her almost every week. I got some of my best stories from her.