No Island is an Island: Chapter 4: Trumpeting Hardship

From March 2013

The rooftop bar on the 4th floor of Hotel L'Union overlooks a street, the same street I saw from the window of our brief trip through the hotel room earlier.

I looked down and saw people walking by in pairs and alone under bright nightlights that lined the street. 

Over there was the church, there is that school, there is the bell -- hear it? -- and over there, see? -- there is another hotel.

 Look that way, there is the bay.

I couldn't see the bay in the inky night, so it could have been a sea of dark land, unlit lit New Orleans after Katrina.

I loved it. I loved it all. Every bit of what I could see, smell, hear and taste was was delicious.

Up there, on the 4th floor under the crystal starred sky it really hit me.

I was in Cuba.

Seriously. I was in Cuba.

Cuba has been a shadow companion my entire life. Cuba was the subject of my writing, my dissertation, my general interest in life.  In 1998 I finished my dissertation on Cuban Bankers with an epilogue excitedly discussing Pope John Paul's historic visit to Cuba that year, but I didn't write a word about going to Cuba myself.

I knew better than to think or wish to go to Cuba, at least not until there were sweeping changes of possibility and attitude.

 Bernardo Benes, Cuban American philanthropist and banker, successfully negotiated with Cuba for the 1980 release of a planeload of prisoners from the Bay of Pigs fiasco who were flown to Miami and renunited with their families.  Castro-hating extremists bombed Benes's bank (the first Cuban-American owned bank in the US, for the record), threatened his family and made him a social pariah. 

My Abuela left Cuba in 1961 and never saw it again before she jumped into the sky in 2007. Cuba is a place not to be visited, not to be wished for, and often a Sore Topic.  The Revolution cost my grandparents' their store, their livelihood.  For Abuelo, for Abuela, for many Cuban-Americans, this hate of Castro is personal and understandable.

After a few more (very small) glasses of red wine our evening wraps up and Mom and I hug our Cuban family good night head back down to our hotel room.

Out of habit, I try to check my email and texts on my iPhone.

Seriously, seriously, seriously. It doesn't work in Cuba, not as a phone or internet connector, not on AT&T at least.  I was ready for this, but it still feels like sudden withdrawal and I'm not sure I'm really ready to be this disconnected from Twitter and TextsFromLastNight and other chatter that fills my hands and idle mind.

Part of me wonders how I'll know the temperature or the weather without my awesome iPhone but I let that go out of my head and dissolve into the amazingly high ceiling of the room.

I get up and turn on the TV, hoping for some crazy Sabado Gigante-like variety show but expecting the worst which I guess would be no TV shows at all.

The first channel that comes on is CNN in English.

I've been out of Florida for less than 5 hours and already I miss the US so much I'm giddy with delight to feel connected to quickly and easily.

 It's Piers Morgan interviewing Bill Maher, who is talking about religion. A true addict, I grab my iPhone and take a picture of the TV screen.

Then I change the channel and look for Univision.  Nothing.  Here I was having my biggest Saturday night ever, off across the Iron Curtain that separated Cuba and the US and nothing good to watch on TV.

Mom was ready to turn the TV off anyway, so I took a Tylenol PM and turned my iPhone into a White Noise machine to cover the growing swell of voices and music from the bar below our window.

Around 2:30 I woke up to a trumpeter (drunk?) playing outside in the street.

I notice the quiet behind it.

No ambulances, no police sirens, no guns, no yelling.

 Just a trumpet playing disconnected notes, loudly.

I lay quietly in bed and laughingly endure my first real hardship since landing in Cuba.

NO PICTURES

A tangle of cars back up behind where he has parked his, and if this were South Florida, there would be horns honking. It's Tallahassee so people are muttering and smiling and blessing each others hearts. 

He jumps out of his car to where I am standing and I unceremoniously hand him a Target bag that has a new tablet and a few gift cards.  He says thanks and I then I fall back into my phone. Another student from another class is meeting us here too in this rainy tangled Christmas shopping mess, and she needs a bit more directions. There she is. She jumps out and hands off a scooter, we all hug and then as he's about to load his car I shout NO PICTURES.

His face falls.

 He's doing a great thing by coordinating these gifts and he wants to say thank you by showing pictures of the gifts and pictures of the kids opening the gifts.    I feel a little sad bossing him around because he's a great guy who used to wear a uniform and normally he's in charge of things but the universe sent him into my arena for this part of the journey.


No, please no. If you take them and send them to me, I'll have to post them,I will, I'd say I wouldn't but I would and then I'd be tormented because it isn't what I want to teach. I want to teach detachment. You give quietly, let the blessing go off into the universe and make room for new blessings.



5 Days in Cuba: Friday - Smuggler's Blues

 (From March, 2013 Cienfuegos)
 -------------------------------------------------------------------
Friday begins just like the rest of the days -- Mom and I wake up to my iPhone alarm playing the theme from The Godfather, get dressed, and slip down for breakfast. Again we order eggs -- hers are scrambled with ham, mine are fried.

We go back to the hotel room to carefully pack.  I have a bunch of zippered and snapping compartments on my luggage so I take my time and separate things nicely. Just like last time, Mom and I seem to be leaving with 200 pounds less than we arrived with. No problem. The best part is that Mom has her necklace from Abuela, and I have this awesome art nouveau frame.  That's more than we came here hoping to get -- although I have to admit I did come here hoping to find a treasure trove of birth certificates and baptismal certificates and pieces of history that would point me towards finding my family in Spain. No luck.



After checking out of La Union, Mom and I caught a cab to take us three blocks to TiaLourdes house.  Once we arrived, it hit me that this was it, I was leaving Cuba and might never see any of this again.  Mom rings the doorbell and a man answers the door. He says he's Olgita's uncle (or cousin? brother?) and that she's out buying things for lunch. OK, we weren't planning on having lunch here, but OK.



After entering, I turn around and take this picture for you. Those doors are big enough to let clydesdales through, and I'd say the cieling is 20 feet tall.  Judging by the pace this city was developed, I'm pretty sure this building was made in the late colonial period -- 1860s to 1880s.


We walk the long front hall to where TiaLourdes sits. Mila is there,  wearing red, and so is another lady whose name I can't remember.  Many people come through TiaLourdes house because of where it is in the street; if they're out shopping or whatever, this is a good place to stop, have a sip of water, freshen up. You get my drift.

We  kiss kiss kiss and hug TiaLourdes, then tell her all about Charo and the necklace from Abuela.  Now that she sees it, TiaLourdes remembers it, yes, yes, she remembers Abuelo giving it to Abuela the day that she was born.

I blurt out (as I'm apt to do) Was Abuelo happy to get a girl? Or did he really want a boy?

TiaLourdes said that he as BESIDES himself with happiness and so in love with Abuela. That's nice. I'm glad I asked.
























They talk, and I slip off to take more pictures. 

Here is the trophy my Great-Grandfather won, and was inordinately proud of.





Here, again, is the chandelier my Great-Great Grandmother brought from Spain to the Casa de Leones. 


At this point I rejoin the group and find that Mila is quite upset.  Machete was supposed to pick us up and take us to the airport, but he's broken his hand.  She's calling other people to pick us up, and yes, ok, now we can relax because there's a man coming to get us that I practically know already.  It was his daughter the doctor and granddaughter the historian that surprised us at the hotel on Tuesday night.

I wasn't worried -- I figured anyone with a few bucks could get a ride -- I took the cue to act appropriately relieved and also thankful.

It was about thirty minutes before the driver was due when Olgita returned with bread for lunch. No, no, we aren't hungry, we tell her, and she takes this OK.

A look crosses her face, come with me. Come come.

I look at mom, needing permission. After being separated at the airport on Monday I can't stand being away from her, but OK. Olgita is family. Even if no one else will say so, I will.

She takes me out of the house and to the neighbors house.  Bang bang on the door.  The lady, a blonde with a pretty bob and brightly colored clothes, welcomes us in.  She explains that she rents rooms, and has updated the house.

Like every house I've been in, this one is filled with colonial antiques that haven't left the island to the world trade thanks to the ban on taking Cuba's art and antiquities from the island.  Unlike everything I've seen, this house feels like HGTV did a mini-makeover with paint and curtains and a freshness in the air.

  If you're ever travelling to Cienfuegos and want to rent a room instead of staying at a hotel, this would be a good idea. She encouraged me to take pictures, so here they are.









I started to get the feeling the taxi was at TiaLourdes' house, waiting on me, so I said my thank you's and goodbye's and took some of her business cards, which I keep in my wallet next to the fake emerald brought to me the night before.  Here is a picture shot from TiaLourde's door towards her neighbor's house. 






Olgita did NOT want to take a picture with me, but I love her, so I tricked her, and here it is. 



Standing outside of TiaLoudes door I couldn't help but see Mila, sitting in TiaLourdes window -- the colonial, barred kind, with no glass or screen -- looking for the Taxi.  I knew it was wrong to take a picture of myself "free" on the street and Mila "behind bars" but I couldn't help myself. The metaphor was too loud to ignore. She looked so sad, so wanting to leave Cuba with us and go off to the wonderful world we live in that there might as well have been that song "The Arms of the Angels" playing in the background.









When I got back, Mom was still talking to TiaLourdes, and Ileana, the Doctor, was there.  I had seen her on Tuesday to give her and her family gifts (her husband is a physician who also visits TiaLourdes and her daughter is a delightful teenager).

Now she was waiting for me.  Before I could tell her where I'd been and everything I'd seen she says, "Here, here, this is for you" and hands me a bottle of water.  I look confused. She adds that it's blessed water, that I had said there wasn't holy water in the obispado or the cathedral, so here, have some holy water.   

For the life of me I can't figure out who must have told her all of this, but again, I'm in Cuba, it's a different world.  I take the water, graciously, knowing that I can't bring liquids on the plane and thinking I should pour it over my head but that would ruin my hair.

She accepts my gratitude, then her face gets all serious. "You wrote a book about yoga."

I look confused.  Well, no? Maybe? A yoga frog?

She repeats herself in perfect Spanish. I know what she's saying but maybe she doesn't think I do. You wrote a book about yoga!

I explain I wrote a book about a student, but that doesn't make her happy so I fall into an impressive bending stretchy pose and she likes it. 

She wants to write a book about yoga and medicine, would I help her?

Of course I'll help you, send  it to me.

As a PDF? 

No, no, not a PDF, I try to explain in my awful Spanish that I'd need to format the margins and all that. I made up the verb "FORMATER" (if it's a real word it didn't exist when  I took Spanish in the 80s) and she seems to understand what I'm saying. 

The taxi has arrived, so we take this picture and she promises to write me. 



Kiss, kiss, hug, and it's an easy goodbye.

Mom sits in the front seat, I sit in the back with Mila.  As we drive through the city I keep looking for women drivers (I see none) and for interesting architecture (I see so much it makes my stomach do backflips). We are moving too quickly for me take picture for you.

In the car, Mom asks me where I packed the frame Charo gave me.  I tell her I know where (although, at this second, I can't exactly remember).  I know what she's getting at.  We really might should not ought to be taking an antiquity out.

I'm not scared. Last trip when we were packing someone brought a special gift for us to bring back -- it was the tin cup and plate from my uncle who spent almost 20 years in Cuban prison for anti-revolutionary activity.  Delightful artist carving all over the cheap cup and plate indicated they were the possession of a beloved doctor. Nice.   I put these clear indications that I was tied to someone who had been against Castro right in my luggage and skipped happy back to the US, no problemo. That was last time; I had no reason to believe this time would be any different.

We get to the airport and kiss kiss hug hug the driver, and send our love to his daughter and granddaughter. He tells us to come back to Cuba, and we don't exactly say yes, but we don't say no. One thing at a time, right?

Mila follows us into the airport and stands in line with us.  First there's a line to change cash into cuban money, then another line to use Cuban money to pay a $25 fee for just being a person flying out of this airport.  Maybe that fee could be paid by the airline? Or added to the tickets? I don't know, but it felt like a relic of Eastern European Soviet beaurcracy --- stand in this line, then the other, then after that the line for getting your seats on the plane then after that the line to actual customs.

While we were standing there, I took this picture for you.

 Note the creative spelling of "foreign"







While were standing in line, I dug into my bag and pulled out my eyelash curler. I'd promised it to Mayulis but since I bailed on her yesterday I didn't want to also back out on this.

 Mila took it, then kept asking questions she'd brought up before, mostly circling around When did we think she might come visit the US? 

Mom's main answer was after the project she had coming up, and after she sells Abuelo's house, then she can look at flights. Sit tight.  I'm not sure that was enough for Mila, like a yes in words wasn't the same as a yes in action.

Soon enough we get through three different lines and it's time to go through the opaque locking doors for customs interviews.  At that we hugged Mila goodbye and looked at each other with a little fear.  I didn't want to lose my Mom behind that door, I didn't want something to go wrong, not this close to going home.  But no, they sent us separately. I swallow hard and remember that Cuba doesn't want to keep me, they have no place for me, they can't afford a single additional person to feed, and they want me to get out and get going with my life.  That gave me courage.

The woman who interviewed me sat on a chair that leaned far back. I peered at her through the plexiglass that separated her, watching her look at something on the computer that came up where she typed my visa or passport in.  

Where did you stay? She asks, and I tell her in Spanish, then English.

She nods and then stamp, stamp, stamps things and slides them to me. If this were the US she would be the bank teller you didn't want to get, but had no actual reason to fear. 

I pop out the other door, right where departing passengers put their baggage for screening. 

Mom is two people ahead of me, and before I can get my bags on the convey belt where they slide through the screening machines, she takes her bags off the other end and is safely in the waiting area.

I walk along the line, following my luggage, and as I reach to pick up the pink polka-dotted duffel bag the man behind the counter says NO and gives me a stiff arm with his hand up, looking like  a cop stopping traffic in an old movie. 

He picks my bag up and brings it to a table a few steps away.  I follow him. Mom is behind me, separated by a short metal gate, and offers to stay close to me but is sent away by the uniformed people standing around. I agree with them. She goes off to get us a table near the snack bar. Even across the room we can see and hear each other. 

An older lady follows her luggage, unhappy to be separated from her husband.  What are you looking for? She's speaking English, and they answer her with hand gestures that say "be quiet" and "calm down lady." Doesn't like it and turns towards me. What are they doing, she asks, then shakes her head, like she realized I might not speak English. 

I speak English, I tell her, in English, and she smiles. 

I think they're looking for metal, for weapons, stuff like that.  

She nods and says to them that she has no weapons and that she had no problem getting into Cuba, why is she having trouble getting out?

I smile and shrug.  The man going through my luggage has put on gloves and is taking each piece of my clothing -- clean and dirty -- out of the duffel bag. Now he is holding up my panties, so high they are higher than eye level, almost a trophy. I want to kick him, but I cross my arms and smile. Whatever.  Please don't find the frame, please let me bring my frame, I think silently, then push the frame out of my head and try to think about nothing. 

Now he his unfolding my long dress, the one I lazily packed inside out, to remember to wash it.  Again he's holding it up, way high, shaking it out like weapons might come out of it. 

Now, my bra. High in the air. Fantastic. Then he feels it up for metal. Great. He puts it down. 

 Now, my blue dress. It looks sad, like he woke it up from a deep sleep. 

Next, a shirt. Then shoes. Then my makeup bag.

I change my attitude and wonder how the hell this man is going to repack the duffel after I stuffed it so full?  

Now he's taking out my book that I wrote about Cuba, the last copy I had with me. 

He opens the book and slowly flips through the pages then  turns it upside down and shakes it out.  I imagine the stories from my last trip falling out, tumbling over the counter.  He can't see them. 

The man going through the other lady's luggage finds her manicure scissors and a pair of tiny toenail clippers.  He gets a special key and locks them in a special box. 

She and I giggle. The world is safer now that you don't have that toenail clipper, I offer and she exhales loudly.  

The man zips her bag up and hands it to her.  She enters the waiting room, leaving me by the exam tables, alone. 

The man runs his hand around the inside of the main area of the duffel bag then, not finding any weapons of mass destructions and or instruments of mini-pedicures, folds and returns my clothes to the bag. 

There, he says in English, and pushes it towards me.

Thank you, I tell him, in English.

He didn't even notice the pink polka-dotted flap that conceals the zipper to the pocket where the large art nouveau frame was. And he didn't ask me to help him find it, so as far as I'm concerned, I win this round. 

I join Mom at the table and tell her that he found nothing, there were no problems. 

Then I blurt out, I'm not sure I need to come back to Cuba. I might've seen all I need to see.

She nods. She might've seen everything, too. 

Maybe we will be back, but right now, it was enough, we aren't leaving feeling unfulfilled.  Mission accomplished. 

Mom leaves me to order a ham sandwich from the lunch counter for us to split.  It is buttery and toasted and hot and it's better than the paella.  We consider coming back to Cuba, just for this sandwich. Then I get a better idea. Let's just order another sandwich. 


After we finish eating, I leave Mom to watch our bags and work my way through the gift shop.  I don't know what to really get -- do people need woven owls? bead bracelets? carved coconuts? -- and leave discouraged.

Mom goes shopping next and comes back with some gifts.

She's inspired me, and I go back and buy what I really want to buy from the range of local alcohol and tobacco products. I figure if they sell it at the airport it must be legal to bring the US, right?

The plane that comes to drop off people and pick us up comes early to the only gate.  The only window on this side of the building faces the landing strip, so we watch the arrivals come down the stairs and cross the tarmac where they enter through a door we can't see and go off into their own Cuba adventures.







 Our flight home is uneventful. We are sitting in a row that is three people across and the lady who sits next to Mom talks to her the entire flight home.  I stare out the window, thankful for the quiet.

We get through the slow winding lines of customs with no problems, trained by years of waiting in line at Orlando themeparks.  No one asks me if I have any Cuban art. No one asks if I have anything from the giftshop at the Cienfuegos airport, so I don't offer it.

And that's all I have to say about that, to quote Forrest Gump.

By the time Dad found us, loaded the car and hit the highway it was the middle of Miami  Friday rush hour. I'd thought we could get Versailles, but no, it's probably too crowded.  So he takes us home hoping we can see Abuelo tonight. My flight from Fort Lauderdale to Tallahassee is at 6am, so if I don't see him now, I might not see him for months.

Fine.  Dad takes us home and offers me cartons of his leftovers from Maggianos.  I'm in heaven, or at least the closest to heaven I can get without having their fried zucchini.

Mom and I hustle to the car and go straight to Abuelo's apartment.  I can't believe I'm getting to see and to hug but him and his sister on the same day. The world is changing. He agrees with me, but more than that he wants to see pictures, to hear our stories.

Before I can pull out my iPhone and go through the trip, Mom shows him the gold necklace and Abuelo's face lights up. Yes, he remembers giving it to Abuela, yes, yes it's beautiful.  We all get teary eyed.

I pull out my iPhone and show him pictures of this, of that, of what we saw and what I thought of it.

It was a lot to take in, all at once, so I promised him I would write it all up, into a story that makes sense so he can savor it and enjoy it and maybe even share it with his friends.

And with that, I finish the first draft of this book, and I'm ready to go back and fill in the parts that are missing and publish it.

( last chapter of Treasure from Heaven)



Mom, are you going to forget to go shopping for Christmas?

My son walks slowly into the living room and exhales with a heaviness too old for his years. The winter solstice has come and there is not a single present under the tree.  

This is no big deal. I still have time. PLENTY of time.  I'm not worried.  

Mom, are you going to forget to go shopping for Christmas?

Nope. I'm not going to forget. 

I'm just not going to do it.

 I'm going to wrap empty boxes and we you can open them and tell me  what you WISH I'd gotten you.

Then we'll share one bag of M&M's. 

Plain M&M's not even the cool ones.

 Encouraged by my response he says yippee and tap dances backwards out of the room muttering something about Grand Theft Auto (again).

No Island is an Island: Chapter 25: The Stories We Tell* Pirates of the Caribbean

Mom and I read and translate the gold tablet in the dim light.


 I follow the story carefully and then mentally lay other stories I know on top of it, like layers of overhead map transparencies revealing the topography of a story. 


People, families, cities, nations all become the stories they tell about themselves, the stories they distill and delete and crop into a good story, a story with a point, a story worth remembering.


Cienfuegos tells itself a story about a delightful mestizo virgin named Marilope that goes something like this.


Around 1530 in the region of Cienfuegos a beautiful mestizo girl was born to a very agreeable Spaniard and his Indian wife who of course loved him and he loved her.


 History has forgotten the mother's name, but father's last name was Lope. I suspect she was really named Maria de something Lope and perhaps even had "Isabel" thrown in for respectfulness and history shortened her name down to Marilope.


It is said that Marilope was the most beautiful kind and gentle girl, inheriting the very best features and disposition from her father (Spain) and mother (Cuba). 


It is also said that, like her father and other devout conquistadoring Catholic men of his generation she admired, Marilope loved God fiercely and decided to dedicate her life to serving God.


 She did not imagine for herself a life of wifehood, of compromises, of service. She didn't wish for children. She just wanted to live free, on her bay, facing the wind, delighting in the presence of God. 


Then the pirates showed up. 


The Caribbean technically had been given to Spain by the Pope in the Treaty of Tordesillas. However, after Britain's break from the Catholic Church and the subsequent  the failure of the Spanish Armada, Spain saw her military power falter in the Americas.  To encourage Spain's decline, Britain authorized "privateers" (pirates) to sack and pillage Spanish outposts.


What history knows is that a pirate sneaking around the coast of Cuba came up on the Bay of Jagua where Marilope lead a charmed and protected and enchanted life.


The pirate's name was Jean (or he could have been John or even Ian), sometimes remembered as Jean the Fearless, other times as Jean the Daredevil and Jean the Brave.


The arrival of his boat pirate must have struck terror in some hearts. Perhaps they raced to the makeshift church and prayed. 


Perhaps the people around Marilope fought back. But from how the story unfolds it doesn't sound like there was a big battle. So scrap that theory.


I imagine that the pirates spied the tiny town and docked far away. Two pirates wandered into town. Not a threat. No problem.


 Then four more arrive a few days later.  


Then ten more. Over the course of a few more days the rest slip in and join them, and after a week the they outnumbered the Spanish 3:1 and knew where the rum was. 


I imagine the pirates were delighted by the sun, by the wind, by the view, by the rum.


The story says that Jean the Fearless was enchanted by Marilope, and that she was at first naively shy to him.   




Legend says that the pirate, the lonely drunk daredevil woman-starved pirate with a brash reputation, falls in love with Marilope at first sight. 


He had never met a woman who had so much abundance to give, such riches of laughter and delight, who enjoyed every day to its fullest from dawn until the moon glowed over the bay.


Legend says that at first she was nice to him, then she was frustrated with him, and then she started to get scared when he didn't understand that she really didn't want him to touch her or look at her that way.


He wanted her. Legend says he wanted to take her and keep her and bring her away with him, but I'm also thinking he wanted her in a more immediate and carnal and stereotypically pirating kind of way.


She refused him, reminding him she loved no one more than God. 


He told he she didn't have to choose between him and God, that she could have both. And he would give her jewels and slaves and take her all over the world. 


She told him no, she already belonged to God, please please just let her be and stop touching her like that and step back a little.


 I'm not sure whether this conversation went on in Spanish, Spanglish, or sign language, but I can't imagine that he took it well at all.


When Marilope refused to agreeably go away forever with the pirate, he became violently irate.


She ran.


He chased her.  


She was winning and then Jean's men popped out of a turn and were about to grab her.


That's when God stepped in and  protected Marilope by sending miraculous cactus shoot up between Marilope and the marauding pirates of the Caribbean. They couldn't reach her. 


She was also stunned and stood there a minute too long, just long enough for Jean to catch up.


Unable to tolerate being scorned by a beautiful virginal mestizo Catholic woman, Jean shot the object of his desire in the chest.


Marilope immediately disappeared and a white dove flew into the sky. 


Where her body fell a vine of bright yellow flowers grew. 


Those bright yellow flowers, pure, dignified and laughing at the sun, have become known as Marilope, the flower of Cienfuegos as a memory of the mestizo girl who would not surrender her love of God.


When we finish reading and translating the story I am suddenly overwhelmingly sleepy. Now I can rest, now I understand that the symbolized flowers I had been seeing all day in the architecture, that's what they were.  Marilope flowers, a statement of city faith, of pride.  I knew what they were, I knew what they meant.


But I wasn't through. It didn't make sense.


"Mom, he was a drunk pirate and she was a naked virgin. Did he really want her on the ship? Aren't women on ships unlucky? And anyway, if he wanted her, I'm not sure there would have been a lengthy negotiation. I think she was raped. They cut that part out."


My Mom nods in agreement and we leave it just there, out there, like a question and an answer as we climb the white stairs up to our room  for our last night in Cuba. 

5 Days in Cuba; Thursday Evening - Besame Mucho

The cab drive to Hotel Jagua is short, just straight up the Paseo del Prado towards Punta Gorda and the neighborhood Mom used to live in at Playa Allegre. On our ride our driver asked how long we might be and if he should stay -- we didn't have an answer, so he took that as a sign to leave us.  Se asked the cabdriver how we could go home and he said we should have the hotel staff flag down a Cubataxi.  Sounded easy enough.

 He asked where we were going and why, and the best we could explain was that I needed to see the sunset on the water. He understood.  I told him we might want to go to Palacio Valle after the sun set on the water, maybe and he looked very stern.  That isn't the right place for you two, not at night.

We took his advice, put in our purses and kept talking.

I asked if there were any women drivers in Cuba because I hadn't seen any yet. He took my question very serious. He said yes there were, and that he could name two.

  Wow, two, I said and nodded seriously. By then we were almost there.






The band is playing and Mom wants me to make a video. I want to make one too, but suddenly the fresh air and the water and the whole day have made me giddy and I can't get the right camera switched on.



We order wine and before it comes I keep getting video. There are more people in the band than the audience; the only other people are an older couple. The wife is dancing with a very dark man with a thin tshirt and low slung jeans who no doubt would answer to "flaco."

They are in a different Cuba than we are.





The band plays another song, then another, and then we are the only people there.   The singer comes to our table to offer to dance with my Mom, then with me.

No. Really, thanks, but no. We are polite but it's clear, we aren't here for THAT.


 He stays and talks and we take this picture.


Soon enough my Mom is telling him she's from here, and he talks about wanting to come to the US and he's giving her his agent's contact info.

I'm distracted by some people who are walking by, and I can't tell you how our conversation started, but I'm sure she started it.

A sunburned woman wearing khaki shorts on top of a one piece bathing suit is talking to me. She introduces her husband, a tall portly man with a huge camera slung around his neck.  She speaks English and she's from American and they're here with something about the National Trust.  I tell her I'm not on tour, I'm in a different Cuba, one with relatives and obligations and stories that are unfolding still.

She half whispers that she wants to get Cuban cigars but that they'd been warned there was like an $800 fine for each one they brought to the US.

I shake my head. They sell cigars in the gift shop at the airport, I tell her, on the  side you wait in after passing through Cuban customs on your way off of the island.  She winces at the idea and I tell her it's not that big of a deal. She gives me her email and asks me to send her cigars if I manage to get any home.

The sun is setting quickly. The band moves so that they aren't facing the glare. One more picture and we move tables.



The table we move under sits near a tall flowering tree. Mom is enchanted and gets up to pick a fluffy pink flower.  I've seen it before in a photo that lives on Abuelo's wall.  She explains that their house in Playa Allegre was built around one of these trees.  "

It was a rare specimen tree, known as Bella Carolina in Cuba, and English it was known as the "Shaving Brush."

 I imagine a sweaty Englishman visiting Cuba on a botanical expedition and coming across this flower. Clad in trousers, suspenders and a sweat stained undershirt he proclaims that the flower of this tree looks like  shaving brush. Yes, practical, obvious. He soon leaves the island and spends the rest of his short life drinking rum in cold parlors and boring second cousins with stories that roll in circles and fade to non-ending.

My imagination continues, as it is apt to do, and envisions another man, a Latin man of arts and sciences, seeing the flower and thinking it is so beautiful, it reminds him of his lover, Carolina. He brings the bloom to her and tells her it's Bella Carolina.  She blushes and accepts it and the camera fades to black.

Mom and I take pictures with Bella Carolina. These are for Abuela, who can't see them but she can see us, she can feel us laughing here, finding this.  These are for Abuelo, so he can know that some of the things he left haven't disappeared.







It's my idea to take the flower with us across the patio deck and towards the water.

All the sudden the sun was setting.  Mom holds up the flower and I take this picture.


I can't believe how beautiful the air is, how clear the water is, how perfect every color is.  

We are only a few dozen yards from Cienfuegos Yacht Club so I know this is the view my grandparents saw hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.  

Being here and just feeling it brought closure to an invisible circle that needed sealing and healing.  

The wind is blowing and I'm laughing and Mom grabs my phone and takes this picture.


Then I take this one. 



And then I take this last one, moments after the sun sinks into the sea, leaving the sky to turn itself indigo.



In a matter of minutes a darkness falls and Mom and start getting ourselves ready to return to our hotel. 

I go to the bathroom and (forgive me, again for taking a picture when it's not appropriate, but I did it for you, so that has to count for something) there is someone in a stall shouting and it goes something like this. 

"Whaaaat?"
"Whaaaaat?"
"I'm in CUUUUUUUBA!"
"WHAAAT????"
"I SAID I'M IN CUUUUBBAAAA"
"YES THAT IS POSSIBLE"
"WHAAAT??/?"

If you look under the stall you'll see a single shoe of the person making that urgent toilet-call.



Mom settles the bill and we leave the Hotel Jagua and expect to see a line of taxis or something outside the hotel. 

Nothing. 

It is dark and silent. 

I'm used to the streetlights and the parking lot lights of the modern world.  In the back of my head I hear a warning bell that this isn't the place to be -- no one knows where we are and to look for us. 

Mom and I cross the street to a shiny post-WW2 modern Jetsons-looking restaurant, Covadongas.  Legend has it that Castro and his junta ate here on their way to Havana. Since Cienfuegos fell to the Revolution in September 1957, long before the full 1/1/1959 Revolution, I wouldn't be surprised if Castro had been here. 

 A picture of Castro hugging Maria Covadonga is on the wall. 


 He looks young and happy and hungry; his fatigues look clean and shiny and starched.

 She looks like he's been flirting with her, and she likes him more than she fears him, even though she can't quite figure out what might happen to restaurants in the tidal wave of Revolution that Castro tells her he will be bringing. 


No one is in the restaurant, and the man who is standing behind the bar (and who had been furiously cleaning it, for the record) welcomes us.  

 Mom tells him that she's Cuban and she has her daughter here from America, the history professor, and she's showing me so many things, but now it's dark and we need to get back to the hotel. Can he help?

He tucks his rag into his back pocket and springs into action.  Follow me, he says in Spanish and then in broken English that he takes pride in practicing. 

 He walks out of the place and stands in the darkness almost exactly where Mom and I had been standing, and waves into the abyss.

Out of nowhere a green car that looks right out of 1955 pulls up.  

Our friend from Covadongas walks to the driver and proclaims that we are his FRIENDS and could he PLEASE do the favor of driving us?  The driver hops out and greets us. 

 I'm pretty sure Mom gave the nice man a $5 when she said goodbye and thank you and hug kiss kiss to him.

The driver apologizes before he lets us into his car.  He has his girlfriend with him, and his grandson. The grandson seems to be a solid three years old, just at that point where he's stretching and thinking and wanting to have deep conversations.  We tell him of course, of course this is no problem.  Mom gets into the front seat and I hop into the back and off we go into the darkness. No one has seat belts, and the child is sitting on the woman's lap.  She's young and pretty and I'd say she can't be older than 25.  He looks to be in his late 50s. They seem happy. 

The ride is quick. He's glad to meet Americans, and we all agree that Obama has brought good changes between the US and Cuba.  At that, the ride is over and he parks in front of Hotel La Union. As we left the pre-Castro car we kiss kiss kissed the taxi driver, then kiss kiss kissed the taxi driver's wife and the toddler she held on her lap.  Wtthout coordinating a bit or consulting with each other, my Mom tipped the driver $10 for a 2 mile  $3 ride while I was slipping a $5 bill into the toddler's pockets. 

Then Mom and I walked under the starless dark sky and into the hotel entry. 

Before we could walk the ten yards past classical bronze statues of nude women reclining this way and that with their perpetually youthful bodies exposed by draping clothes that always seem to be falling off, someone called my name. Loudly.

I didn't think I heard right, and then I heard it  again, "Melissa Soldani!"

It was the woman behind the desk, the one with gorgeous tortoiseshell glasses and blonde hair.  

I look at her with a frown.

I think I'm in trouble; I always do. it's my first instinct.

 And after what happened at the airport on Monday and what almost happened in Havana on Wednesday I had a pretty good reason to  expect the worst.

Maybe they read my book about my trip to Cienfuegos last year and read the part where I put a tiny piece of a palace down my bra, hoping to bring it home, water it and grow a new palace.

 I knew I shouldn't have left that book up there on the book rack, among the approved communist literature.  Now I'm going to have to face the music. 

 That's probably it, I'm probably going to rot in a Cuban jail for years to pay for one second of ebullient love for this city and it's history.

I worry if there is clean water in prison, if I'd be cold or hot or have to sleep on stone.

A voice in my head is mocking me, reminding me I should never have come to Cuba and now I won't be able to sleep in a bed every again and I won't have toothpaste or Spanx or cute wedges to wear and I'll never see Kitchen Nightmares or any shows on HBO ever again. And of course there isn't lipgloss and hair conditioner or even blowdryers in Cuban jails, so this is it, my life ends here.

 Another thought pushed through my mind to join the rest of the chatter,  reminding me that  I just bought my iPhone 5 less than a week ago; I have 2 years left on the contract and I won't get to hang out with it ever again.

Siri, help me, I thought silently, knowing that Siri is powerless without the internet.

 I think to run back out of the hotel, back past the statues of frozen nudes and into the darkness but despite the weight of my stomach down in my knees I smiled broadly with pretend coolness and confidence and went straight to the desk.

She said my name, again, perfectly and loudly. I wasn't imagining this.

Melissa Soldani, THIS is for you.

I look at my Mom quizzically asking her with my eyes if she knew anything about this at all and she shook her head just a tiny bit.

The lady at the desk held out something small  towards me  and I instinctively opened my hand for her to put whatever it was in my palm

Oh my God. Oh, oh, wow, I said, staring at a huge flat emerald cut diamond that miraculous silently and effortlessly stalked me and found its way to me.

I told her thank you, numbly, without asking what events transpired to bring this diamond to me.

 I wanted to ask who was behind it and why but instead it clasped it tightly in my hand like this was completely normal and walked slowly away, challenging every bit of what  I'd seen and knew about Cuba.

Sometime during the day on Tuesday while we were out walking the streets of Cienfuegos, vising Tialourdes' house and the Casa de Leones and the Liceo, this fell off my sandals.  When I realized that late on Tuesday I shrugged it off.  They were from a discount big-box store, no big deal. 

But it is a big deal.  

Someone was following me, someone noticed, someone picked up this piece and was moved to get it back to me. 

In the United States if you were to stalk me down and say "here's a piece of faux jewelry from your cheap sandals" I would consider a restraining order. 

Here in Cuba, it's something else.  It's a sign.  That's what I take it to be.  I could think this means that someone's following me, but I let that go and let it be something else. 

It's a sign that the universe is an awesome place where nothing is lost, not for long, not forever.

I tuck it  the jewel into my pocket and we go upstairs to have our much awaited paella. It isn't as good as it was the night before, and the waiter explains there's a different chef.  

Still, it's good, and we devour it and soak in every bit of starlight on our last night in Cuba. 











Welcome to Cuba; Now LEAVE


I thought I would write and write while I was in Cuba, but instead I took a thousand pictures and found answers to questions I would never have thought to ask. In those pictures  I found a clue and a hint to a piece of history that tracked down mercilessly like the Da Vinci code, and until  found the answer -- or  rather, the answer found me.
Now that I know the answer and can promise you this story makes a perfect circle (which maybe translates to “round trip” - “ida y vuelta”) I can tuck your arm under mine and pull you close so I can escort you Cuban style down through my recollection of three short days there. 
*****
On the day that my Mom and I leave for Cienfuegos, the flight is delayed enough that we make long tales of small talk with other travellers.
The conversation started at Cafe Versailles, where I shamelessly told on my father for trying to order the dessert “cascas (shells) de guayaba” and instead ordering “cacas (yes, that’s right, turds) de guayaba.” 
My new friend offers that when she first came the US from Spain she tried to order something at a drive-thru, and when they asked what she’d like to drink, my friend answered, “Please give me a Coke.”  
They asked her to repeat herself, so she did.
And they laughed at her, and she didn’t know why, but she was hungry and thirsty and she wanted her freaking drink so she said it again and again, “GIVE ME A COKE. I WANT A COKE!
Only, the way she was saying “Coke” didn’t sound very American because the word coming from her mouth rhymed perfectly with “rock” and “dock.” 
 I have no story about myself to offer, but still we fill the time with stories in and about Spanglish, waiting for our flight to Cienfuegos. 
The flight itself on a chartered 737 was unremarkable. 
Finally when we arrived in Cienfuegos my Mom guarded me closely, making sure I had my papers out and ready.  The nice man stamped my papers and buzzer went off and I pushed a door and it was official. I was in Cuba. 

 I stand mute and still transfixed by the site of the staff at the Cienfuegos airport. The female wand-waving security attendants wore khaki uniforms that included short skirts and rose-patterned black fishnet stockings and heels. 
I can’t stop staring, I think I might be in a bad movie. 

My mom nudges me and without my asking she says, “That’s their uniforms, now put your bag here....”

 I follow my mom through the metal-detector thing and am pulled to the side by an authoritative figure despite her rose-patterned-fishnet-stocking. 
She runs the wand over me and tells me something about a “vuelta” which brings tears to my eyes as words race through my less-than-bilingual mind. 
“Ida y Vuelta” means round-trip.

“Vuelta” means return.  
She’s telling me to get back on my plane and leave for America.

I'm sure I've been rejected by the Cubans in record time and a little bit if me wonders if I shouldn't have worn a cute dress and strappy heels instead of the plain jeans and flats my mom encouraged me to wear.
I step back and look for where to exit Cuba, the country I hardly got to see. 
Three sets of hands seize me and now I’m scared.
I realize I’m not leaving Cuba, I’m going to jail in Cuba.
 My great-uncle spent 17 years in Cuban jails. 

He told me they beat him all the time and all they had to eat was egg shells. 
Egg shells and beatings and wearing flat shoes. This sucks. 
I hear a thousand political voices in my head popping  saying, “I told you so! I told you not to go to Cuba! I knew something would happen! You're not in the US so you're not safe!
Then my Mom says loudly and in plain English, “Turn around so the lady can wand you and we can get out of of this airport!
Oh. I guess “vuelta” means “turn around.”   

Yes, yes of course it does. 
And if I hadn’t been listening and had just done what I do in the US -- and what everyone else was doing in Cuba -- my mascara wouldn’t be running. 
Nevermind,  I act all cool and let her wand me and then off I go, into Cuba, a little turned around, and with the first of a hundred new stories to tell.