Sancti Spiritus city, in Sancti Spiritus province, in Cuba, is not a tourist destination. It is a hot, poor, landlocked town. The streets are dusty, and most residents ride in horse-drawn carriages, or they walk.
After checking into our hotel, my husband and I walked along an alleyway lined with merchants’ tables. Some sold food, some toys, and some practical household items. Idly, we asked the men who sat before tables of gear shafts, gaskets, and stove-top coffee makers if they had a shovel. Neither of us speaks Spanish, so we asked the question by miming the act of digging. No one had a shovel to sell.
Now is probably the time to explain what we were doing.
My mother was one of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s students, and at his cremation in Vermont, I met my guru, a student of Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the former head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Shortly before he passed away in 1991, Khyentse Rinpoche filled and consecrated 6,000 peace vases. They needed to be buried in the earth, or thrown into the ocean, in places where there had been war or strife. My guru inherited the project. He asked several of his students to carry it out. They formed the Peace Vase Project; so far they have buried 2,500 vases.
My husband and I were already going to Cuba, and so I asked the project leaders how we could help. In a couple of days, I had 3 peace vases, a customs letter, and a list of 12 places in Cuba where I could bury the vases. We had buried two before we reached Sancti Spiritus.
To bury a peace vase in water, you must first set it in concrete. I had tried, in Havana, to find concrete. I began by asking my hotel concierge, who spoke perfect English. I showed him the peace vase and explained to him that I needed some concrete.
He said, “Well, if you are interested in local witchcraft, there is a museum two blocks to the left.”
I explained a second time, that I needed to throw my small yellow plastic vessel tied with red fabric into the ocean, but first I had to set it in concrete. “Where can I get concrete?” I asked.
He gestured for a bellboy. I told the bellboy I needed concrete. The bellboy told me about the witchcraft museum, and I said “Never mind!” and stormed out onto the Havana sidewalk. I walked for a block, then realized that I still didn’t know how to do it. I went back up to the hotel room, and my husband and I buried the vase in the ground outside of central Havana, in Guanabacoa.
We buried the second peace vase in Santa Clara, where Che Guevara, his arm in a sling, led 300 troops to a decisive victory against Batista’s regime in December 1958.
Now we were in Sancti Spiritus with our last vase, and we still had not bought a shovel. We had also contracted cholera. We didn’t know that yet. (There is an epidemic in Cuba, but it is underreported.) I believed I had food poisoning and incontinence, and my husband, whose symptoms were milder, believed he had eaten too much hot food.
Cuba has many different kinds of stores. There are counters in garages, with one sign listing the price per kilo of milk, skim milk, soy milk. There are bakeries where workers mark ration books, and wheelbarrows on the streets full of produce and flowers. There are grocery stores with aisles, and stores that defy description. We went into all of the stores in Sancti Spiritus, looking for a shovel.
At one, a U-shaped glass counter separated customers from the female staff. Shoes, guitars, tools, and equipment hung on the wall behind the women. Inside the glass counters were toiletries, cotton underwear, and other basics. In the middle of the showroom, upholstered day beds marked “10” were piled shoulder-high.
My husband said, “This is a pawn shop.” He approached one of the women, said, “Tienes,” and pretended to dig. I too pretended to dig.
“Pala?” the woman said.
“Si, pala. Tienes una pala?” my husband asked.
“No,” she said. My husband asked her with gestures where we could find one, and she told us we couldn’t.
I pointed to an iron fence post behind the woman’s right shoulder. She passed it across to us, and my husband and I contemplated digging a two-foot hole with it.
I said, “Well, we have the option. We know it’s there.”
The sun was scorching, so we decided to walk to the hotel and rest for a while. Just off the main square, I glanced into an open door and saw the gutted interior of a 400-year-old colonial mansion. A very short, shirtless Cuban Spalding Gray in rolled trousers caught my eye.
I said, “Buenos dias.”
He stepped forward.
I said, “Tienes una pala?”
“Si, pala.” My husband and I both mimed shoveling dirt.
The tiny Cuban Spalding Gray went to a hole in the ceiling and shouted up. A shovel dropped. He darted out of its way, then gave it to us. My husband gave Spalding Gray five dollars. He took the money, but then worried that he had sold us the shovel. We tried to say no, but he didn’t understand.
“Religioso,” my husband said. “Religioso.”
I was hot and tired and took the peace vase out of my bag. I gestured to indicate putting it in the ground and said, “Mi padre.”
Completely confused, the man asked, through gesture, if he would get the shovel back. We nodded wildly. “Tres horas,” my husband said.
We couldn’t find grass, so we asked a driver to take us to the edge of town. We did the shoveling gesture.
At a park in sight of the oldest bridge in Cuba, built by slaves, my husband and our driver dug a hole. Citizens of Sancti Spiritus watched from horse-drawn carts. I had gotten through two pages of Riwo Sangchöd when the shovel’s handle cracked, leaving us with a spade and a two-foot pole. We put the peace vase into the ground, buried it, and said a vague prayer for Cuban prosperity and peace.
Back at the gutted colonial mansion, tiny Cuban Spalding Gray was gone. In his place was the homeowner. He was tall and muscular. He wore mirrored sunglasses. My husband gave him the shovel spade and handle. I pressed my hand to my chest and said, “Yo. Yo.” The homeowner smiled and said to me in perfect English, “Yes, yes. You broke my shovel.”
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