Every country seems to have its own sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that are woven into its fabric, that say, “you are in this particular place.” I begin experiencing uniquely-Cuban sights as soon as I step outside the arrivals terminal at Jose Marti Airport: the incredible number and variety of classic American cars waiting to transport people into Havana. Instead of commercial advertisements, billboards featuring various revolutionary proclamations and visages of Fidel Castro. Schoolchildren wearing uniform white shirts and colored pants or skirts indicating their grade levels. The iconic image of Che Guevara on every conceivable surface. Cigars. And dominoes.
I recall playing dominoes as a child, but for most of my life the word has meant a place to buy takeout pizza. In Spanish the singular noun dominó is used; I learn from Professor Elda Stanco Downey at Roanoke Spanish that it is a play on the verb dominar, to dominate. To Cubans dominó is the equivalent of a video game addiction. It is part of their culture and I see it being played everywhere: on a hot, sunny day on the Paseo del Prado, after dark in a dimly-lit street in Habana Vieja, during a raucous wedding party, outside a store in Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island, and here, in the shade of a tropical tree.
It is played by adults in this country – usually men – sometimes for hours on end and frequently accompanied by cigars and cheap rum. Working in two-person teams, players lay tiles on the table by matching them to one with an equal number of spots that has already been played, “knocking” on the table to pass if unable to make a play. In some games the first team to use all of their tiles wins, in others a score of the value of tiles played is kept to determine the winning team. At first glance it may seem to be a quiet, passive game, and showing emotion during the game is discouraged in some quarters, since by words or actions a player could show his hand to his partner or to the opposing team. But as are most things in Cuba, here it is done with intensity, passion, and enthusiasm.
I find a game underway one placid, Saturday afternoon on a residential street just off the busy Avenida de la Independencia. As I approach, the players notice me and my camera and a conversation begins in the usual way:
CUBAN: De dónde eres? (Where are you from?)
ME: Los Estados Unidos. (The United States.)
CUBAN: ¡Me encanta los Estados Unidos! (I love the United States, accompanied by the usual peace or victory sign, I have never been able to figure out which sentiment is being expressed.)
ME: Bueno, me encanta tu país también. (Well, I love your country also.)
From there the conversation segues into their cousins who live in Miami. I am granted permission to photograph their game, and chat amiably with three of the players. But the fourth will have nothing to do with me. I do not sense hostility from him, rather that he is simply serious about the game and does not want to be distracted. Head down and cigar firmly clenched in his teeth, he grumbles to his compadres, likely admonishing them in Spanish too rapid for me to understand to stop talking and play. Perhaps to signal his frustration, he passes by rapping the flimsy table so vigorously that the tiles become momentarily airborne. A quiet and passive game indeed!