Fidel Castro at long last fell victim to the assassin America could never send, time. To Cubans of all ages, it’s a time of trepidation and hope. Will Raul Castro finally implement the change needed to bring freedom and prosperity back to Cuba, now that he’s shackled? It’s really too soon to tell. But I will say this, the Cuban people are resilient and proud. They will rise, and my love for them will never cease. Hola! Como estas Mi Amor?
I love my friend BohemianHedonist (@MzPatchouli Twitter). She is, hands down, a superior writer compared to my small skills: lyrical, delightful, elegant. We discussed passion the other day, and BH asked me to write about Cuba, when I snuck in and visited 15 years ago. “You can write about passion, and it not be sexual.” She’s right, and I owe her a Cuba story.
My husband John’s leukemia, working 60 hours a week, and being his sole caregiver damn near ended me in the Spring of 2001. At dinner with friends, near our shanty in Key West, they noticed I was yanking on my last nerve. I was pale, exhausted and withdrawn. John talked with another man at the table about fishing the Caribbean, and I that he’d never left the U.S. At that point, he probably never would. After dinner on the patio of Louie’s Backyard, our friends pulled me aside.
“Can you get two days in a row off in the next two weeks?” They were glancing side to side looking for eavesdropping.
“Sure. What’s up with the paranoia? We robbing a bank?”
They both grinned. “Nope, but it’s illegal as fuck. Wanna take John to Havana for a day trip?”
“The hell you say. I’m not interested in jail.” Clearly, the mojitos at Louie’s were seeping into their brains.
“Its not like it’s difficult. All you need is about $500 for spending money, $100 goes to the dock master as a bribe, the rest for fun. As long as we act Canadian, we’re fine.” Their shit eating grins were only getting bigger. “We haven’t been in a year, and John needs to at least say he’s left the country, even if it’s only 50 miles.”
These two had gone to glazed eyed drunk, no talking them out of it now. John deserved this too. So fine, we went.
Early May, 2001, at the ass crack of dawn, the fishing boat was loaded with beer, burgers, and us. The water between Key West and Havana was flat azure glass, the boat wake being the only chop. John was locked down in his wheelchair under a canopy, double fisting beers. At least if he was sloppy drunk, I thought, I’ll have him under control. The big shock was we saw nothing of the Coast Guard, ours or Cuba’s. We were alone on the planet for all the boats we didn’t see. About 40-50 minutes later, land sighted.
Rickety fishing boats, out doing their business, paid us no need. Our captain friend steered to a small set of surprisingly well maintained, modern docks. The fucking mess I was, I shook as the dock master came to see to us. He glanced around quickly, spoke a few quiet furtive words to our friends, and took the envelope and left. That was it, no passports, not even a driver’s license was asked for. I asked our friends what was said. My friends just grinned.
“He just asked if John was ok, and that the local hospital knew him, to use his name as reference if it was needed. He also said his mama’s cafe was open for breakfast, and if we needed any help getting John off the boat.”
“Yep, that’s it. Oh, and have a good time.”
I thought I had a grasp of Cubans. I knew and loved many of them in Key West, expatriates all, most of whom had escaped on whatever could float. My perception before I got off the boat was these people couldn’t possibly be as sweet natured and kind as my Cayo Hueso friends. Breakfast at the Dock Masters mama’s “cafe” was her kitchen. Scrambled eggs, Cafe Con Leche and rapid fire Spanish lasted an hour until the shops opened. It felt like a surreal dream of walking out of a Tardis and dropping into a well maintained 1950’s movie. The Spanish Colonial buildings were run down, but painted the pink, yellow, and blue neon pastels of the Caribbean. Classic cars, long relegated to collector’s items in the States, ran like brand new on the cobblestone.
Oh, and the people. Despite the Communists, Cuba knows no strangers. The shop owners and passersby greeted us in a tidal wave of warmth. John, bald, painfully thin and pale, kept getting concerned glances. In the locals, there was no fear in speaking with us. We were always met with the customary greeting of Cuba, “HOLA, COMO ESTAS MI AMOR?” They asked us, loud and graciously: Hello, how are my loves? Especially to John, obviously critically ill, they came over to shake his hand. With our friends translating, they’d ask, all concern, “Is he well, can we help?” John was always all smiles, no matter what, so soon he was getting kisses on the forehead and fresh fruit from the ladies. When we told them we were Canadian, they’d wink and say of course. It was a private, inside joke between the people and us.
We only stayed until mid afternoon, wandering around the city. The heat and exertion began to take it’s toll on John, so after listening to some street musicians with lunch, we headed back to the boat. The dock master had a few local workers ready to help us get John on board, and had nothing but smiles as we glided out to sea. John slept the entire way home, and much of the next day. We never spoke of this to anyone outside our small group of friends. It was our special day. I still believe that trip renewed John, helping to extend his life a while longer. He made it until Sept. 2002, finally succumbing to Leukemia at 53. And I, 15 years later, plan to take my son to see a free Cuba in the future.