Thursday, November 26, 2009

The domino theory

Mon, 27 Dec 2004

Where two or more Cubans are gathered, there will be dominoes. Dominoes has the ability to transcend national differences, pulling Anglos and Cubans together even when they don’t speak the same language.

Such was the case at Nicky and Mac’s Noche Buena party on Friday. Nicky’s dad, Diego, led the dominoes tournament with Marsha (Mac’s sister and Harpo’s sister in law), Harpo and Luke (Marsha and Tom’s son).

In my google search, I saw photos of people from all over the world playing dominoes. Maybe we should replace the UN with a big dominoes tournament.

Diego had cleverly stacked the deck in his favor by making a batch of very strong mojitos an hour before the game. When Luke had suggested adding more syrup, Diego waved him away. No water, but more rum.

Marsha and Luke had been imbibing, so they were not as alert as usual. Harpo, however, is a teetotaler, so Diego made sure that he and Harpo were partners against Marsha and Luke.

I have seen Diego in action before. He plays to win, showing no mercy, especially if he is playing with his Cuban compadres. “Blanquito!” he bellows, as he slams a blank tile on the table. Getting to slam tiles and bellow is a really good reason to play this game.

The game started when Nicky brought the dominoes to her dad as he, Luke, Harpo, Tom and I were swapping fishing stories. Well, the only swapping I was doing was the interpreting among the real fishermen – Diego, Luke and Tom.

Diego was a commercial fisherman in Havana back in the 50s before he got married. He and nine or ten other fishermen would spend a month at sea. They fished with lines 30 or 40 abrazas long. An abraza is the distance spanned by your open arms, about five feet. An abrazo is a hug. What a great etymology.

These lines were as thick as my little finger. They had three hooks and a sinker the size of a coke bottle. They were secured by the rocks used as ballast in the hold. The fishermen pulled them out of the water hand over hand. Some of the fish weighed 400 pounds. “Without gloves?” I asked.

“Sí,” Diego answered. “The capitan was watching. If you cannot get the line out that way, he does not need you.”

The fishermen split 30% of the catch after the expenses of the boat were covered – fuel, ice, and food. The captain took 10% and the owner took the rest.

It takes a lot to make fishermen stop talking about fishing, but dominoes did the trick. Nicky handed the box to her dad and the game began. The bystanders gathered immediately. They watched with great concentration, discussing the strategy among themselves and applauding particularly good moves. It was clear they had all played before.

When Luke had to step away to make another pitcher of mojitos, Kevin, Nicky’s eight-year-old son, stepped in. “Abuelo,” Kevin scolded Diego, “no quiero que me hables.” This after Diego told Kevin to quit cheating.

The two teams made it through three games before they were forced to quit. It was 9:30 – time to eat. Even then, they insisted on finishing their game before filling their plates with roasted pork, moros (black beans and rice), yuca with garlic sauce, turkey, sweet potatoes, salad, and about seven desserts, including cakes into which some small boys had stuck their fingers to sample the frosting.

If you ever have a chance to go to a Cuban Noche Buena party, go. You don’t need to take your own dominoes with you, but be ready to play. And be ready to eat. It’s the most fun you will ever have on Christmas Eve.

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