Sunday, October 16, 2016

Our Last Trip to Cuba #6: Party of One - Here to Bring Castro Down

The nice lady walks me to a door, opens it, and waves me through to a tiny room. She hands my passport and papers to someone in another room who stands across from me, separated by a plexiglass partition.  On her side, there is a computer, a camera. On my side, I'm a criminal against a wall.

She looks at my passport, then at me, then back at my passport. In my picture I am blonder, I am rounder, I am wearing glasses. I stand silently, no reason to mention anything, right?  I didn't think about any of this before this moment, like someone would question whether I was me.  The idea that anyone else would ever want to be me is weird and I keep this all to myself why she stares at my passport. 

She is young, so young, I'm thinking she looks too young to  be a Publix cashier.  She asks me to push my hair behind my ears and I do. I think she takes a picture, and I think it probably looks as great as my Costco card picture, which I mentally file under "good enough or whatever."

She asks me if I am the leader of my group and at this point I'm flattered that Cuba has questions about my leadership and I have to restrain myself from saying YES I AM. I AM THE LEADER OF MELISSA, PARTY OF ONE, HERE TO BRING CASTRO DOWN but I don't.

She's too serious.

Less than two minutes later she pushes a button which unlocks the door separating me from Cuba.

I thank her and twist the doorknob open.

My mom is waiting on the other side, and we hug to celebrate our small step for Cuban-Americans, landing behind communist lines.  In less than the time it takes for us to giggle and hug we find ourselves surrounded by people.  A man in a red hat stands too close behind us, leaning almost between us, not just listening to us but breathing our air. I look him in the eye - his eyes are grey/green, watery, red - and my mom bumps me a little, reminding me that we are not among friends.

I look down, trying to shrink myself, trying to stand out less like the American who called out right after she stepped off the plane, and ---- in my head ---  this totally worked.

Our line moved slowly towards a single x-ray machine vthat examined, re-examined, then called some over to also examine, very piece of luggage we brought with us.   Over there, twenty feet away, I could see workers unplugging and spinning around another x-ray machine, talking about how it didn't work and then asking each other about what they had for lunch.

Last time my Mom and I travelled to Cuba we had a horrible time because *one* of us brought an old kitchen cordless phone in our bag. This phone caused a great furor among Cubans great and small and lead to what we will always call "The Big Scare."  This time, my Mom and I each brought one bag.

We prance past people who are in line to pay taxes for the flat screen TVs and car parts they are bringing in and fifteen feet later we push open the door that lands us outside the airport. A big burst of warm air hits us both and again we hug. Mom and I walk down the ramp towards the crowd of people that gathered for the twice-weekly arrival of a plane from Cuba.

No one would guess we are here on a sacred mission, a mission that we will later cry over. Right now we are fresh and happy and unburdened.

Our cousin-aunt-goddaughter-etc meets us at the airport and before we walk towards the taxi I turn back to the airport to see if anything has changed.

It has not. The airport is still covered in rows of barbed wire, more like a small town jail than an international airport.

Whatever change is going to come hasn't come. Not here, not yet.

Our cousin brings us to the taxi, and this time it isn't Machete (remember him from my other stories?). I liked Machete, and I loved that Machete had a Kia minivan with airconditioning.  This time we are in a tiny 1980s stripped car, the kind you see people crowded in if you google pictures of people in crowded 1980s cars in Cuba.

At this point I want to remind you car aficionados that YES there are beautiful cars in Cuba, but also I'm pretty sure the Revolution ended things like "insurance" and therefore people drive a little crazy here. And I'm OK with people driving cars a little crazy, but I notice at one point as we are working  our way in the unairconditioned (but kindly hosted) car we are passing more horse drawn carts than cars. I see a cool car here, then over there, but the 1890s transportation trumps the 1950s for most of our journey.  We pass a few tall tour busses and cross an intersection and then we are on a strip of road that looks very much like Canal Street in New Orleans which is no coincidence because Cienfuegos was started by investors from New Orleans.

One sharp turn and another we pull up in a lane that isn't really for stopping, but people do it anyway, knowing that the other people trapped on this island will get over it, forgive them, go around, and move on peaceably.

Our driver opens the one back door that opens (which isn't my door, so I have to do that scooting thing) and we all emerge in front of the door of the house where my 90-something Abuelo grew up, and where Lourdes, his younger 90-something sister still lives.

We knock, we are greeted by people whose names I didn't mention to the authorities in the airport (oops, right? I would *never* speak less than complete truth to authorities in Cuba. Never. Ever. Lol) and after hugs of quiet greeting, we follow Olguita and her sister to where Tia Lourdes is sprawled on a bed.

I have never seen her as anything less than steel, quiet strong steel. Now she is soft, round, tired.  I can't figure out whether to take pictures or keep my phone away but then I do take pictures, because she looks so tired and so small I think she is very very close to letting go of her life in Cuba and  jumping into the sky.