85 Days in Cuba: A True Story about Friendship and Struggle
Brandon Valentine (Jamaica 2000–04, Panamá 2006–09)
$17.96 (paperback); $3.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Bob Arias (Colombia 1964-66)
I was asked to read this book by the author in 2009 . . . and I did not. Bummer, the message was clear then as it is now! Friendship and loyalty to those around you are essential to who we are . . . as Brandon tells us in his “trip” to the island nation of Cuba . . . or was this trip just to be with his best friend, Carlos and his family in Cuba? Quien sabe! Brandon had spent three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica from 2000 to 2004 in a very poor section of Kingston teaching . . . and his neighbor was Carlos from Cuba.
(An interesting note, Walt and Linda are Brandon’s parents, and they were Volunteers in Honduras for three years 1973–1976, and his younger brother Dagen was a Volunteer in Armenia 2005–2008, also for three years. Brandon the author had assistance in writing this book from his RPCV parents . . . this has to be a first!)
Cuba was what Brandon expected of a Dictatorship, strict and not very friendly to Gringos, especially former Peace Corps Volunteers I assume . . . Fidel has never cared for the Peace Corps and cannot understand why China and Nicaragua have Volunteers and Vietnam is on the waiting list. Yet what Brandon found in Cuba was the beauty of the island, the warm friendship of the Cubans especially the really poor, and the great food and cafecitos. In the book he even gives us two excellent recipes: Cuban cafecito — lots of sugar and very strong coffee served in a demitasse; and if that isn’t enough, “coconut drops” of fresh coconut and lots of sugar on a banana leaf, Yummy! I tried them both! As Carlos explained, even the poorest will share with you because it always feels better to give and share.
Brandon went to Cuba with the hopes of staying six months with Carlos and his family and learning Spanish. I can’t see Brandon not speaking Spanish, but that was before Cuba and Panamá. Brandon tells us that Peace Corps taught him to take advantage of any opportunity to delve deep into a culture, so Carlos introduces him to beautiful and friendly Carmen. His Spanish improves and he is in love. In Jamaican he thinks to himself . . . “Mi ah eh di luckiest man inna di worl.” He mastered Jamaican, Spanish is next!
Though he was from rural Nebraska, he always wanted to be “a citizen of the world!” And the Cubans found a certain warmth and pride in Brandon and his attempts to learn Spanish. And when Cubans talk about Fidel, they never mention his name. Instead they stroke their chin twice as a sign for Fidel. The real criminal in Cuba is Fidel, forcing Cubans to wear a mask to the outside world, and throwing former friends and supporters into prison because they offer honest criticism. Brandon is sensitive to this and defends his new Cuban family and friends.
85 Days in Cuba is true Peace Corps, drumming the Third Goal from the beginning, with Carlos telling Brandon, “you are now part of our family!” I learned to respect and admire my friend Brandon . . . and I felt his presence as I read and turned each page. I am proud of you Brandon . . . you “are” Peace Corps!
Brandon passed away on December 21, 2013, leaving behind a beautiful Panamanian wife — Enereida, a young son, Brandon . . . and on February 14, 2014, Valentine’s Day . . . his daughter Linda Evangelina Valentine is born at 5:12 AM, at 5 lbs. 16oz., Mom and daughter are doing fine. A Valentine born on Valentines Day . . . you had something to do with this Brandon, didn’t you? We, your friends will look after your wife and children as best we can my friend!
“No watch, no face . . . I’ll see you when I see you!”
Volunteers and Friends left a Video to remember Brandon:
Bob Arias “FlacoBob” is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer (Panamá 2009–10, Paraguay 2010–11, Colombia 2011–13, and currently Panamá 2013–14). He served as a Rural Community Development Volunteer in Sevilla, Valle, Colombia 1964–1966. Worked at the Peace Corps Training in Puerto Rico, 1966–68. Served as Peace Corps/Colombia Staff 1968–73, and Country Director for Uruguay and Argentina 1993–95. He retired from Los Angeles County as the Compliance Officer. From 2001–03, he served on the staff of the Peace Corps Director after 9/11 to create the Safety and Security Office.