Wednesday, December 24, 2014

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)