Posted March 13, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
Havana—The full moon rose over Havana Bay like a fat orange.
It was my last night in Cuba. So I had decided to eat dinner at a nice rooftop restaurant.
Below, an orchestra played the classic Cuban ballad Solamente Una Vez. The streets of Habana Vieja, the historic and rambunctious Old Havana, were uncharacteristically empty.
It was cold. I was alone.
Not a person in the place.
My head swam with images of friends and family. All those ghosts I had met along the way.
Suddenly, the jukebox blared to life. The syrupy sound of Air Supply shooed all the spirits away.
One of the employees must have figured the crazy American eating dinner alone in the cold would want to hear something familiar.
It wasn’t the first time I had been taken for a foreigner in my native country. It felt frustrating, almost insulting.
But that’s the reality.
Yes, I was born in Cuba. But I’ve lived the two-car garage, TV-in-every-room American life. I haven’t had to endure the indignity of hitchhiking everywhere, as most Cubans do. Haven’t had to exist on the contents of la libreta, the little ration book that gives each Cuban food staples for a month, including five eggs, half a pound of chicken. Six pounds of sugar. Some rice, legumes, coffee and, when it’s available, a bar of soap and a small bottle of cooking oil.
And yet, despite my cultural ambiguity, despite my privileged status as a foreigner, Cubans treated me as a brother.
The Cuban people are hungry for contact. Impatient to embrace American culture. Eager to welcome los Cubano-Americanos. Past ready to earn dollars.
Walk around Havana and you can feel change in the air.
“This is the monument they built during Elián,” a driver said as we passed a large concrete plaza.
At one end of the long, narrow plaza stood a large statue of national hero Jose Martí, the father of the country. He’s holding a little boy in his arms and pointing an admonishing finger toward the U.S. Special Interests Section, the de-facto American embassy, at the other end of the plaza.
“People say,” the driver continued, “that Martí is pointing in that direction because he’s saying, `That’s where you go to get your visas.’”
You sense change by the jokes, and by the fact people are willing to tell them.
That atmosphere of change is also in financial transactions.
One day I went to a small bakery frequented mostly by locals. Even there, they wouldn’t take pesos. Only dollars. And yet, almost all Cubans are paid in pesos.
People used to go to jail for having a dollar. Today, it’s the currency of the national library.
Havana’s notorious La Cabaña prison—site of the paredon, where so many of Castro’s enemies were executed—now offers tours.
I went to Cuba imagining I would be traveling back into 1962.
Sure, there were the 1950s Chevys on the road. But Internet cafes are hot. Cell phones are status symbols. And some people get satellite TV.
I even saw a couple of ATMs in Havana, although they won’t work with American bank cards.
That’s because of El Bloqueo. The blockade, or embargo.
In Cuba, every roadblock or difficulty can be attributed to El Bloqueo.
You have to hitchhike? El Bloqueo.
Not enough food? El Bloqueo.
The story of Cuba, like my family’s 70-year saga, is of loved ones being split apart and lost opportunities.
The failure to lift El Bloqueo is the latest one.
The embargo is about punishing past transgressions, focusing on yesterday’s suspicions and fears, rather than tomorrow’s possibilities.
Visit the island and you quickly realize the Cuban exile community doesn’t have the market cornered on pain and injury. All Cubans, on both sides of the Florida Straits, have been injured during the past 40 years.
We can no longer afford to be afraid or suspicious of each other.
Can’t be afraid of asking ourselves some tough questions. And of leaving some equally tough ones unasked.
Can’t be afraid to touch and be touched.
Can’t be afraid of tears.
While I was in line at the airport, nervously waiting to clear immigration and customs, I was surprised when our old nanny, Tita, shuffled up.
She hugged me. Then she gave me an old rubber Donald Duck, in swimming position, his back broad and scooped-out. Perfect for holding a bar of soap.
“This was your ducky,” she said. “And before that, it was your sister Carmen’s. And before that, your sister Purita’s. After you left, my sons used it.
“I’m giving it back to you.”
Through tears, she kissed the old, discolored duck over and over, and gently placed the faded memory in my hands.
Then she had to go because she was feeling faint. Tita has poor circulation, a bad heart and high blood pressure. And doesn’t have the necessary medicine.
And so there I stood, in the middle of Jose Martí Airport, holding a rubber duck. I felt silly, yet touched. Not so much by this keepsake from my childhood, but by Tita.
Handing over that duck seemed like the fulfillment of an obligation. As if she had been holding onto my childhood and, finally, was able to give it back.
My duck and I climbed aboard the American Eagle turbo-prop and prepared to head back to the place I knew. Back to good roads and my little American-made car.
The plane took off and banked toward the north. We traveled across the same water that my parents and I had crossed in a rickety little boat 40 years ago.
None of us could have ever imagined that returning would be so hard, or have taken so long. That the next time I traveled that route, I would be a father and a journalist. That I’d be looking for a grandfather who had died 25 years before I was born.
Or that I would have to go back before I’d ever feel at home anyplace else.
Going back was exhilarating, but it was also painful.
It’s hard to enjoy your homeland when you know your countrymen aren’t allowed the same freedoms you enjoy. That they can’t go into, much less stay in, the hotel where you’re staying. Can’t even rent a car.
I doubt that what you’re reading here, you’d be able to read in a Cuban newspaper.
Forty years of distance and confrontation haven’t changed that. Maybe more visits, more contact, eventually will.
Before the flight attendant was able to serve drinks, we were over the Florida Keys. Another few minutes and the spectacular abundance of Miami came into view.
We touched down at the Miami airport, and passengers clapped and cheered.
I cleared customs, and my pace quickening almost to a run, rushed into the waiting arms of my wife and my children.
Into my comfortable, stable life.
“What was Cuba like, Daddy?”
Well, it was exciting, I said. I met people who I didn’t know, but who had loved me for years. I did a lot of hugging and some crying.
I went to my old house. The little blue swing that was there when I was a little boy is still on the front porch.
“Did you swing in it?”
I’m a little too big now.
“Was it like you remembered?”
Son, nothing is ever quite like you remembered.
But I did find out what my grandfather was like, and went to the town where he had lived. People there called him El Juez because he was a judge.
“What happened to him?”
He and my grandma and two aunts were killed in a hurricane a long time ago. So, I dropped flowers into the water near where they died. It almost felt as if they were watching me. I just wish my grandfather could have met you guys.
I think he’d be proud.
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