Another day on the job

June 5, 2012

By Desmond Boylan

Imagine a job that runs from Monday to Monday, starts at 5 am every day and does not end until 9 pm if all goes well and according to plan. No days off permitted.

The basic description is: A job to be filled by a person capable of performing a variety of skilled activities throughout the day starting at sunrise, a quick 3-mile hike each morning over rugged terrain, and several more long hikes each day under the hot Cuban sun, in pouring rain or any given meteorological conditions. The job involves collecting, packing, carrying and processing produce necessary for the proper development of the business assets. The pay is 500 Cuban pesos per month, around $20.

The person who was selected for this job 25 years ago is Bienvenido Castillo, nicknamed Lilly, a 74-year-old Cuban farmer, animal breeder, cow herder and tree climber. Whatever agriculture-related task you can imagine, he seems able to do it, easily.

I first saw Lilly a couple of years ago, on December 11, 2010. At a distance I spotted the frail figure of an old man carrying a machete and leading a herd of cows at a quick pace. I shot a few pictures of him with a telephoto lens, and then went on with what I was doing. Later on when I was editing pictures, the man caught my attention; I zoomed in on the picture in Photoshop, studied the figure and wondered.

Later on in 2011, I was chatting with a few farmers in the area and they said, “There goes Lilly with the milk train.”  He is one of those impossible subjects, evasive and difficult to tackle. But one day months later, after crossing paths several times, I saw him working in a corn field and decided to make a bold move. I made my way over to where he was walking through the tall plants and without a word before he spotted me I started shooting pictures of him, first with a wide angle from the hip. He was still shy and evasive but curious about this foreigner always carrying modern clicking machines wading through the fields and taking an interest in his activity. I never imagined then that some day I would have this collection of pictures of Lilly, and that we would become friends. I now feel proud and admire this man.

Lilly is up every day milking the cows by 5:20 am. At around 7 am he sets off with the cows which belong to farmers in the area who rely on him to look after them and take responsibility for their well being. Cows are the prime objective for rustlers in Cuba, and even though punishment for stealing a cow is a harsh 20 years to life in prison, rustlers are active and a constant problem. Twenty-four hour surveillance is needed. Lilly is always vigilant, and very suspicious of strangers. The milk from the cows is collected and brought to a state cooperative and then distributed to schools, old people’s homes and state rationing shops.

His day continues with the collecting of foliage, transporting it on a horse-drawn cart, and grinding it with a makeshift machine as food for calves that do not graze in the open yet. He is a true loner, very grumpy and very shy. He has no close family nearby and is always on the move, leaving people behind all the time. He knows every detail and every piece of information, good and bad, about every person, farm, vehicle, animal and plant in his domain, a remote set of hills 20 miles from Havana, but with difficult access and no cell phone network coverage. He’s a living manual on local agriculture. And he doesn’t open up to newcomers easily, acting brusque and evasive with strangers in his domain.

Lilly fell off an avocado tree years ago and suffered a serious injury. During his recovery doctors discovered a malignant tumor, and after two operations he ended up with a colostomy. He refused to have a third operation to correct his state and carried on with his work. He has no house of his own and receives a disability pension from the state. All his medicines and implements are provided for, plus he receives a special diet apart from the monthly rations allotted under the Cuban welfare system. Not only did he refuse to stop working, but he also refused to stop climbing trees.

Lilly is very proud of his piece of medical technology and jokes about it; occasionally in the middle of a conversation he will uncover his bag on his waist, wave it, and roar laughing.

To shoot pictures of Lilly is not an easy task. He was very aware of the cameras and it took a long time to get him comfortable with me close to him. I often faked photographing something else and then quickly turned towards him to take pictures of him before he noticed. I found the best way to get good pictures of him was hiding somewhere in the bush with long lenses and waiting for him to pass by.

On several occasions he looked up into the blue sky and said, “Today it is going to rain.”

“No way. Look at the blue sky,” I answered.

“Believe me, look in the distance, see those formations? In four or five hours it will be pouring.” And he was right, bang on. It poured.

Lilly’s vitality and energy is overwhelming. The last time I saw him and asked how he was, he answered, “I love life. It is spring time and mangoes are ripening, ” he said with a shine in his eyes. Lilly has expressed to me several times he has no intention of retiring and will keep working until he dies. He has no house of his own, and lives in a shack on the farm where he works.

Lilly’s relationship with modern technology are his colostomy and a 30-year-old Soviet Molnia pocket watch which he keeps in a leather pouch on his belt. Recently I was waiting for the right afternoon light with a camera and a 500mm lens mounted on a monopod to shoot some clean pictures of him as he walked up a lane. As he reached me he asked, “Are you going to hunt elephants today?”

He was curious with the size of the lens and asked me If he could look through it. I traded the camera and lens for his machete as he had a peek. It was a magical moment, I asked a friend beside me to take this picture for posterity.

Any candidates want to apply for the job? No Excel or Word skills are needed.




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Cuban photographer at work:
from the series, “See See Havana”.

Posted by hkrieger | Report as abusive

Thanks Desmond, brilliant as usual!!

Posted by yannis60 | Report as abusive

Thanks Desmond, brilliant as usual!!

Posted by yannis60 | Report as abusive

Beautiful pictures and amazing story Desmond, thank you for sharing your experiences, keep them coming.

Posted by CikaPera | Report as abusive

Nice story feeling like i know Lily personally

Posted by Pablo_Moses | Report as abusive

An eye opening story for those who have never been to Cuba, what a fascinating person is Lilly, amazing photos and great story. Thank you.

Posted by annemo | Report as abusive

what a beautiful ,moving story and photographs are exquisite…I love the potrait of Lilly,a face that has lived a hard but simple and fufilling life..

Posted by lililondon | Report as abusive