At first, all I see is an infinite extension of blue. The dozen hues of the Caribbean—sapphire, cobalt, indigo… Azul.
The crocodile-shaped contour of the island appears below the gossamer clouds. Ten minutes later I spot tiny buildings that remind me of my first Chinese dollhouse. And then, the roads. The absence of cars. Bienvenida a Cuba, a flight attendant says.
The plane lands. Uff. After an unexplainable two-hour delay in Monterrey, Mexico, we are finally at the Havana International Airport José Martí.
A few people clap upon landing, but most of us are too tired to stir. This is the Tijuana-Havana night fly that has just a (supposedly) brief stop in Monterrey. We should have arrived at three a.m. It is now twenty after five.
A glorious dawn begins outside, but inside the airport building there is a permanent, fluorescent twilight. I hear fragments of conversations as we walk through the corridors. Some are in English:
“Remember to ask the Customs officer not to stamp your passport.”
“What if he insists?”
“Offer him fifty bucks.”
”Won’t I be arrested for attempting to bribe a communist officer?”
Others are in Spanish—clear, loud Cuban Spanish:
“Mami, you pick up three suitcases. I will handle the other four.”
“Will they let us take everything in?”
“Ojalá. Hope they are in a good mood this morning. But we are in Cuba, vieja. And you know how it is.”
They. It. The code words. They meant the Customs officers, but in a broader sense, the authorities, the police, the vigilance committees… It was a term used only by those who didn’t like the government. Its supporters said “la revolución.”
I left because I didn’t like it. In 1996 I married an American and moved to the United States. This is my first time back and I am already afraid of—it.
Since I only have a small carry-on suitcase, I walk straight to Customs. I feel a mix of fear and anticipation. In half an hour (if everything goes well) I will be in our apartment, in that Carlos III Avenue building with a permanent smell of gas in the staircase.
My bedroom. A green, dusty quilt. The desk with the Underwood, twenty years my senior, that my mother bought me when I turned fifteen. (A declared nerd, I wouldn’t hear of having a quinceañera party.) The vinyl-covered sofa in the living room…
And the family. Mi familia. My grandma, now ninety years old. I remember her as a lively old woman, impertinent and funny. But she now barely mumbles when we talk on the phone. My mother, ay. Mi madre. Though her acidic temper isn’t precisely a source of nostalgia, I hope that this time, maybe, she will be sweeter. Or at least less sour. We will see.
That can explain the excitement. The fear component has to do with the Cuban passport I am carrying, instead of my recently-issued American one. I am entering the island as a Cuban citizen. What if they don’t allow me to leave again?
The Cuban passport is an official requirement. All Cubans who left the country after 1970, regardless of their present nationality, must carry it to reenter Cuba. Yet I have paid, at the Taíno Tours travel agency, in Tijuana, two hundred dollars for a visa.
I am a traveling puzzle. I have a visa, hence I am a tourist. But I carry a Cuban passport. I must still be a Cuban citizen. Or not?
There are two people (both real tourists) ahead of me in the Customs queue. I look around. Everything in the airport seems oddly small. The conveyor belt, the halls, even the employees… I feel like Alice after drinking from the bottle in the White Rabbit’s house.
A teenage-looking Customs officer greets me, looks at the passport, examines my entry visa (in Cuba, there is also an exit visa, or white card) and says Bienvenida a La Habana.
Relieved, I let out a second uff.
Now I hurry to the exit door. Dr. Aguirre will be waiting outside in his battered blue Lada. I adore him. He was my pediatrician. He would say to my mother, “The girl is fine. She is naturally thin, but isn’t starving,” when she complained that I looked like a rumba-dancing skeleton.
Now retired, Dr. Aguirre makes a few dollars by working as a clandestine taxi driver. He charges twenty dollars for picking my mother up, taking her to airport, waiting for me and driving both of us back to Centro Habana. Panataxis and Touristaxis, the dollar-only cabs, charge forty dollars for the ride from the airport to Centro Habana.
There is no waiting room as such in the Havana airport, but an area called la pecera, the aquarium, where only foreigners and Cubans with entry or exit visas are allowed the stay. I cross it fast and meet my mother outside.
“Coño, I’ve been standing here for three hours!” she greets me. “Where were you?”
“Lost in the clouds,” I said.
“What a lack of consideration, mija!”
Some things never change. Bienvenida a La Habana. Or better, welcome home.
After a perfunctory hug, I ask about Dr. Aguirre. He can’t park near the airport because his business is illegal. He keeps circling around until the passengers arrive. But he isn’t here today. His car was stolen, my mother says.
“I came by camel,” she goes on. Camels are the eighteen-wheel tractor-trailers welded together and joined by two humps that have replaced regular buses. “We can walk to the Rancho Boyeros Avenue and stop an almendrón. If you offer the driver ten dollars, he won’t mind to take a detour.”
Almendrones are private taxis, or sort of. They are supposed to charge only pesos and have a fixed route. Most of them are ‘50 Fords and Plymouths, more or less preserved. They are a new addition to the Cuban transportation system. But I am not going to leave the airport area hauling a suitcase and looking like a tourist.
“No way,” I said. “Ni loca. We’ll take a Panataxi here.”
“Here you go, pissing money away,” she croaks. “As usual.”
Our Panataxi driver is a forty-year old, balding man who wears a heavy gold chain and a Yankees cap. Over the rearview mirror there is an image of the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba. Three more stickers are glued to the board—a very young Britney Spears, Pope John Paul II and Che Guevara.
When we take Rancho Boyeros Avenue, a camel passes by our side spitting a cloud of black smoke. It isn’t seven a.m. yet, but the vehicle is so crowded that several people are hanging outside from the doors.
I am too sleepy to talk and my mother is too busy rummaging through my modest luggage. But the driver chats breezily and I start dissecting his speech. Not that I am interested in linguistics at this time of the morning, but his choice of words is so unusual that I can’t help but pay attention.
He calls the cars coches instead of carros, the most common term in Cuba. Camels are autobuses. A motorcyclist that cuts in front of us is a gilipollas, not a comemierda—a shiteater, as I call him under my breath.
I am baffled. Have the Habanero dialect changed so much in a decade? Only when the driver uses the vosotros form (Castilian Spanish for you guys) instead of ustedes, and ask if we like Havana, I realize that he has mistaken us for Spaniards.
“Hope you rejoice in Cuba,” he says as my mother and I get off the car.
Rejoice? Alice is back again. What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where you come from?
Before he leaves, the driver hands me a card. “If you need another ride, señorita, just call me. I will give you a better price. I’m also a private driver.”
In Panataxi time and with Panataxi gas, I assume.
My mother opens the building door. A smell of gas welcomes us. Bienvenida a casa, I say to myself, and we come in.
Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana, Cuba. She is the author of A Girl Like Che Guevara (Soho Press, April 2004) and Posesas de La Habana (PurePlay Press, July 2004). Inspired by New Mexican traditions, she wrote the play La hija de La Llorona (The Wailing Woman’s daughter), staged by Aguijon Theater in Chicago in 2006. Her novel Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana) was a runner-up for the prestigious Herralde Award and published by Anagrama in Spain in November 2006. Her articles and short stories have appeared in Rosebud, Hispanic Magazine, Latina Style, Latino Today, Puerto del Sol, El Nuevo Herald, Caribe and Revista Baquiana. Her website is http://www.dovalpage.com