He had a smile that was so infectious that doctors prescribed him as a treatment for depression. As laughs go, he was Pavarotti. His humor was as addictive as the world's best potato chips. One moment with him left you always wanting more time. I only got to hang out with Jorge the few times that I was in Cuba, but each time he was as much of a national attraction as the great rum, world class cigars and spectacular photography.
Jorge Gavilondo, passed away on January 14, 2021, at the age of 71. He will be missed by everyone who was privileged to have had any contact with him. Those who disagree should be ignored since they are obviously lacking a funny bone or the laugh center in their brains has been excised.
l met Jorge in November of 2013, the first time I was in Cuba. I was there as part of a photography trip through the Santa Fe School of Photography. Jorge was our Cuban guide. I have been back to Cuba several times and have had the pleasure to spend much more time with him.
When you first met him, you’d notice both his great moustache and quickly realize that while he might pretend to be serious, in truth he was a very funny man. It took additional time to learn more about him, such as that he was and also an amazing photographer and a world class scientist. I knew he was accomplished, but it wasn't until I researched this post that I learned how truly accomplished he was.
Jorge was a brilliant cancer researcher and a member of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. He created the first monoclonal antibodies in Cuba, including a drug that currently successfully treats critically-ill patients with COVID-19. In 1986, when the Havana Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology was founded, Jorge was made the head of the Immunotechnology and Diagnosis Division. He lectured all over the world, was the holder of numerous patents for the treatment of cancer and published 150 scientific articles.
Interestingly, though, it is not these tremendous accomplishments for which I best remember him. Rather, it is the way that he enriched my visits and made each one a happier event than it would have been otherwise. He was like the Kobe Bryant of Cuban guides; making everybody around him happier.
Of all the times that I have been with Jorge in Cuba, the one that shines the brightest was the trip for 2015 Cuban May Day celebration. Before I get into the trip I need to define some terms. In Cuba, people will often tell you that "it's complicated." It does not mean the same thing that it does here. In Cubanese, “it's complicated” means "it's all fucked up." And, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, this trip was very complicated. But we had a secret weapon that made the trip not only amazing but one of the best times I've ever had with my socks on. If you haven't guessed, the secret weapon was Jorge.
Rain, Rain Go Away
When I arrived in Havana Airport, I was greeted by Jorge and a gigantic rainstorm. Not cats and dogs, but tigers and mastiffs.
After saying hello to Jorge, we met up with the group leader, Jennifer Spelman, and the four other group members. Jorge then explained that the rains had created a complication. The apartment building that we were supposed to stay at had its basement flooded and he wasn't sure that we could stay there. So we were going to the National Hotel, where before the revolution the mobsters hung out, to have lunch and wait to see what was happening.
After a few hours, Jorge and Jen came with the newsflash. The complication was that the rain had shorted out the power for the elevator and our rooms were on the eighth floor of an apartment building. But Jorge with a broad smile and the assurance that we were stuck in a foreign country with no other alternatives, told us not to worry: He and Jen would make it all better.
Jorge had found two different locations for us. The three men would stay at one place and the two women at the other. The rooms would be ready in four to five hours. So we went to the bar to look at photographs of mobsters and get to know each other.
Soon, Jorge and Jen came over and asked if I could talk to them. This is never a good sign. One little digression. On every trip there is always one person who is, well, nuts. On our trip, her name was Harriet, and she was nuts enough to supply snacks for every bar in New York. Harriet decided that she did not want to sleep at the same place with the other woman because she didn’t feel safe and was afraid of what may happen if they were assaulted. She needed a man to make sure she was safe. Jorge, with that famous smile, and a little giggle, asked if I would be that man. I couldn't say no. He did add an enticement by giving us the location along the May Day Parade route where we had to meet at 6:00 a.m. the next morning.
Harriet and I met up with everyone at 6:00 the next morning and discovered that Jorge and Jen's evening was also more complicated than I knew. It seems that after the other three were dropped off, Jen went back to talk to them. She couldn't find them in the room and started to panic. There is an ironclad rule at the Workshops that she wasn't allowed to lose people. One could be excused as an oversight or perhaps even a miscount, but three was a problem.
Jen next did what was necessary in such a complicated situation. She called Jorge, who jumped in his car and drove to Jen so that the two of them could scour Havana. As luck would have it, they eventually found the three lost souls. They were fast asleep in their beds where they had been all night. Jen just missed them and Jorge, being the kind man that he was, took it all in stride. Although Jorge led the proper, appropriate and merciless teasing of Jen and her fine-tuned observational skills.
I Could Have Danced All Night
The next day Jorge told us that he had a surprise. Jorge had arranged for us to photograph two beautiful ballerina/models at a mansion in Havana. There is one additional thing you should know about Jorge; he really appreciated pretty women, although pretty was not nearly accurate enough to describe the beauty and poise of Patricia and Monique.
Jorge was his usual helpful self assisting in the photograph session, with him grabbing a photograph or two of his own on the side. We were there for a few hours, taking some great photographs, when he told it that it was time to go. He knew that we wanted to stay and take more photographs but he began to usher us out with the skill of someone who was used to herding feral cats. The truth was that he didn't want to leave until he got his pictures, and with his sad puppy dog face, it was impossible for us to say no.
What Jorge really wanted was photographs of him with Monique and Patricia. And since they were ballerinas, why shouldn't it be the three of them dancing? Jorge was a man of many talents, but ballet was not one of them. That did not slow him down as he stood between the ballerinas and performed the easiest ballet move known to Jorge.
Patricia, Jorge, Monique
His inability to properly perform the movement was only surpassed by the measure of how much he did not care. He was between two beautiful women and he was showing off. Who cared about the dancing or that his legs, when compared to Patricia and Monique, almost shattered my camera lens? He was having fun and we were rolling on the floor laughing.
There are so many other stories that could be told about this trip and others. When I think of future trips, I sadly realize that there will not be any new Jorge stories to tell. Undoubtedly, we are all diminished by Jorge's passing.
When thinking about his funeral, I realized that it would have been much better if he was there. His smile and laugh would have made us all a little more able to deal with the loss, a little more able to understand that even with death life goes on and little more able to recognize that we need to enjoy ourselves while we can.
I did not know Jorge that well, and I only saw him for a limited time, but that does not matter. Others may have different stories and memories of him. Mine are of a warm and giving man who made the people around him happier just by his presence. He was a man who was eager to help, even if it meant getting out of bed in the middle of the night and driving across Havana to track down three people who were sleeping in their beds.
Good bye, Jorge, and thank you.