The following is the final chapter of my memoire, “The Kid Who Got Away.” Some readers may recognize some it from my Facebook posts while I was in Cuba.
She is the soil of my ancestors, the home I’ve never slept in, the mother that never birthed me yet who’s spirit courses through my veins. She is an enigma wrapped inside a mambo, a sidewalk dominoes game, a sensuous peek at a nylon-clad thigh, a toothless grin holding a huge cigar, a unique patois of Spanish that I’ve heard since my birth. She is someone I have never met and have always known. Just like New Orleans, she struts her stuff as she dances by, always with a wink and a sly smile hinting at the possibilities.
The spiritual rumblings began about two weeks before departing my home in San Miguel de Allende. I would awaken as always to the purrs of my two feline alarm clocks, Tofu and Boudin. As I lie there staring at the ceiling listening to the sounds of Colonia Guadalupe awakening, I wandered down the streets of Old Havana, the sights and sounds filling my mind’s eye. Something would stir inside me. The tears would flow down my cheeks as I imagined walking those Habana Vieja streets. I would force myself to heed the advice my friend Ruben gave me, “Calmate Jesse!” (Calm down Jesse!) That was not easy once I actually landed there.
I was overwhelmed by emotion and could barely speak as I disembarked the Interjet flight, the humid air filling my lungs. The sour-faced woman at Customs asked me if I had traveled to Africa. I heard her as if through a fog and couldn’t answer. She said it again and when I told her I hadn’t and said, “Next.”
Visas to Cuba are easy to get from Mexico. The Cubans don’t stamp your passport. They give it to you on a separate piece of paper and stamp that as you enter. That way the jankee government won’t hassle you when you re-enter the U.S. They stamped my visa and I entered Cuba.
I leaned on a wall to steady myself. Several older women were sitting nearby at a table that looked only semi-official. They wore no uniforms. Each reminded me in some way of my sweet little grandmother, Evelina. They could sense my distress and asked if I were ok. I told them I am a Cubano but have never been here. They lit up and welcomed me home. They appeared to be genuinely happy. I cannot express the feeling of joy I felt being welcomed by these three sweet old ladies.
The adventure began as soon as I exited customs.
I was supposed to be greeted by a taxi driver holding a sign emblazoned with my name. Upon greeting me, he would whisk me off to the my new apartment in Old Havana. Never happened.
After two hours, I gave up and asked a woman at the hotel desk if she knew of a room I might rent for the night. It was getting late and I was wondering if I might spend my evening sleeping under an overpass somewhere. She helped me out and I wound up at a reasonably priced apartment building. It was there that I first learned that the hustle is full on in Havana. I was hustled for Cuban cigars, women, etc. I told them thanks but I would find my own women and cigars.
I had to get out of there before anyone else knocked at my door. I showered, dressed and hit the streets. There I met Jorge.
Jorge was straight out of Buena Vista Social Club. He had that old, old Cuban accent that made him sound as if he had a ping-pong ball in his mouth. A character straight out of Hemingway, he had me laughing the entire time
After a somewhat hair-raising ride in Jorge’s ancient taxi, we sped across the bay through a tunnel, winding up at El Cañonazo, an old Spanish fort overlooking the bay. His exhaust system, like most in Havana, emptied out into the cab of the car. I ate at a restaurant with the same name, El Cañonazo. Great food and a GREAT band, also named Cañonazo. The female singer brought me to tears.
My waitress spoke fluent English. We had a long conversation about what it’s like to live in Cuba. She told me, “You have to learn how to live without.” She said that the thing to do is buy a house. In order to do that, you must marry a Cubana so that it can be bought in her name. The hard part is finding someone you can trust. Hmmm…
I asked her why all the Cubanos I’d met thus far, including herself, seemed so happy. She said that Cubans must be happy, with all the difficulties they’ve had to bear in their long history. “Under these conditions, one must be very sad or happy. We choose to make music, dance, sing and laugh.”
Be excellent to each other and remember: Think twice before hitting “Send.”