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Cuban translators know their verbs, learn their spuds

HAVANA -- Meet Tayli Mayans, who stands at the nexus of trade between North Dakota potato farmers and buyers for the Cuban import agency, through which all deals are made.

HAVANA -- Meet Tayli Mayans, who stands at the nexus of trade between North Dakota potato farmers and buyers for the Cuban import agency, through which all deals are made.

She's a 20-year-old, third-year student at the University of Havana, one of several translators hired by the North Dakota delegation at the U.S. food fair here.

Translators are a vital intermediary in transacting business at the expo between American sellers and Cuban buyers.

It's been an education for Mayans, who plans to work as a tour guide after she graduates in three years. She's been getting a crash course in the crop varieties grown in North Dakota, among other things.

"I learn about wheat, potatoes, beans -- about the farms, the harvest, all kinds of things," she said Monday, the final day of the five-day expo, the first of its kind since the U.S. imposed its trade embargo on Cuba 40 years ago.


As the U.S. exhibitors have found, Mayans has learned it sometimes takes a long time to put a deal together. As of 4 p.m. Friday, two hours before the scheduled close of the fair, at least three North Dakota food companies still were waiting to hear if they'd reached a deal.

A group of six or seven suppliers belonging to the North Dakota Dry Pea and Lentil Association signed a deal last week to supply between 5,300 and 8,000 metric tons of dried peas. At 5,300 metric tons, the deal is valued at $678,000; if the firms can supply all 8,000 tons, the deal would be worth more than $1 million.

"You come here and show your products, maybe three or four months later you have a contract," Mayans said.

She's also gotten a firsthand geography lesson on North Dakota to augment the sketchy image she had of the state before she found herself working in the North Dakota booth at the expo.

"I just know where North Dakota is in the map, but I don't think I even think about North Dakota before," she said. "Just knew it's cold, because it's awfully close to Canada."

Mayans' strongest impression in her dealings with the Norte Americanos, however, is they are much warmer than the frigid Northern Plains climate might suggest. Her preconceptions about Americans have melted.

"I didn't expect that Americans were so kind, so good," she said. "They're really special people. They spend the whole day joking -- I thought they would be more serious. I thought they would think they were better than us. I used to think they thought they were the best in the whole world. It's not like that -- they're just like us."

As with many Cubans, Mayans is a big fan of American movies. She enjoys action films, and lists the "Lethal Action" movies -- "I love Mel Gibson," she gushes -- and "Gladiator" among her favorites.


Still, despite the idealized version of America Hollywood often portrays, Mayans' view of the United States is tempered by skepticism and a sense of proportion.

"They show some things on TV that we know is not true," she said. "We know not everyone lives in a beautiful house. Not everyone is rich. Maybe not everyone has a car. Not everyone can go to another country for a vacation."

Nonetheless, many young Cubans want to emulate the fashions and mannerisms of the stars they see on television and in movies. American music, culture and dress are popular here. She listed Bon Jovi, Pink Floyd, Bryan Adams and Guns N' Roses as her favorite rock groups.

"We like to see how they get dressed to imitate them," said Mayans, who grew up on a dairy cooperative about four miles from Pabexpo hall in West Havana.

"Sometimes it's difficult, but we try. Sometimes in films they do crazy things. Sometimes we try to do that, too."

She listed figure skating as an example. Not surprisingly in tropical Havana, that's not an option. Roller skating, however, is available.

Mayans, who is studying German in addition to English, plans to be a tour guide, as do many of her fellow language students at the University of Havana. Tour guides, taxi drivers and others in the hospitality trade have access to the dollar economy and earn much higher salaries than professionals like doctors and lawyers.

Also, she said, "I'd really like to learn about my country."


Most Cubans can't afford to stay in hotels, so find themselves limited to tourist destinations that are within a day's drive, or where they have relatives they can stay with, she said.

Meanwhile, during her five days at the food fair, Mayans has helped guide commerce and has impressed the potato vendors she has worked with at the North Dakota booth.

The translators have learned their lessons about grains and spuds well; Mayans ticks off a litany of varieties: hard red spring wheat, winter wheat and durum wheat; Atlantic, Red Pontiac, Shepodi and russet Burbank in the potato family.

"She's learned all that -- it's amazing," said Robert Dunnigan, president of RMD Potato Sales in Walhalla, N.D. "Like Scotty said" -- Scott Hepper of RDO Foods of Grand Forks, N.D. -- "My God, they don't even need us in these booths any more. It's true."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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