A Havana Welcome

English: Fishing at the Malecon at sunset. At ...
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(Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, From Mountain Road to Easy Street, a novel or a memoir, still not sure. This is a first draft so I hope you can overlook any typos or imperfections. The action being described by the narrator corresponds to events that happened on a day like today thirty-three years ago. The previous installment can be found HERE. Thanks for reading).

“The next day we flew to Havana and the crew on the flight was the most serious crew of stewardesses I had ever seen. Attentive, but serious, like they didn’t care if you ever flew their airline again.

But when we landed and they opened the cabin door and I started walking down the steps and the Caribbean breeze hit my face and the smell of Cuba hit my nostrils like the aroma of an attic full of memories that you haven’t visited in a decade, I found myself crying and the emotion I felt wasn’t one of sadness or joy either, it was a mixture of the two, almost in equal proportion.  I looked around and I saw tears rolling down my father’s face and the other passengers were no different and I saw a black stewardess pretending that she had something caught in her eye but I suspected that, forgetting the instructions she had received, she was caught in the enormity of the moment for a group of returning members of a dysfunctional family searching for meaning, and connections and some peace under the blue of tropical sky.

“The same tension we had felt in Mexico followed us through customs. The fact that most people we came in contact with wore the olive green of the Cuban law enforcement apparatus –- which had not been the case in Merida -– was a stark reminder that we were back, voluntarily, in the island-prison everyone had fought hard to escape. I noticed how the older members of our traveling party grew more apprehensive, especially when it was time to open up the bags to be inspected before proceeding. Again, the demeanor of those responsible for examining the contents was striking in its seriousness. Not a smile, not a word, except the very necessary, not even a look into our eyes as if we were all dangerously contagious and a friendly exchange of any sort would be fatal.

“We were escorted to waiting buses outside the Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Marti for the trip to the hotel in Havana. I saw regular Cubans for the first time outside the airport and I saw smiles for the first time and the looks of curiosity that I had never experienced. Traveling into Havana on Russian-made buses the group seemed to relax for the first time since touching down on Cuban soil. The bus driver was friendlier than anyone else we had encountered and, since no other government representative was on board, his sincere smile and spontaneous welcoming words put everyone at ease. The ‘us versus them’ line was blurred for the first time. American music was streaming from the speakers on the bus, and Brick House by the Commodores was playing and a twelve year old girl that was in our tour was singing out loud, for all the passengers in the bus:

She’s a Brick-house,

She’s mighty mighty,

Just lettin’ it all hang out.

Yea she’s a brick-house,

That lady’s stacked,

And that’s a fact…

“It was a surreal scene: a bunch of expats riding on a Russian bus in the streets of Havana listening to American music. Very odd. Once we got to the hotel, representatives of the Cuban Office of Tourism, would read us the general rules we had to follow during our stay and for the first time we would meet our relatives. Some in our group would be traveling to other points in Cuba, but they still had to register, and pay for, this hotel in Havana. That was the rule. Even if you had family in Havana and were planning to stay with them, as was our case, the hotel stay was non-negotiable. Economics trumped common sense. We heard the welcome statement from the big shot from Tourism while we munched on appetizers and drank beers and French sodas. Some of the elders in the group remembered the famous, pre-revolution variety acts that had played in that hotel ballroom. These old timers had danced there in a previous happier time before the Revolution had seized power and the music, the words and the thoughts, according to them, were free. They spoke in hushed tones not wanting to offend, or get in trouble with, any of our hosts dressed in olive green fatigues milling about the large room.

“After my father had settled his account at the hotel and he had signed other papers, we were allowed to go out into Havana to see –- in the words of the big honcho that spoke at the hotel– to see for ourselves the accomplishments of the Revolution over the past twenty years and to finally meet our relatives. This was the country we had fled from, looking over our shoulders until the minute we boarded the plane and now we were back, voluntarily I should add, dealing with the same people that had made my parents lives, and mine by extension, a hell. This was a reality that I was sure my Dad understood and I knew that he had accepted any fallout over our trip as the price he was willing to pay in order to see his mother alive one more time.

“Outside the hotel, the warmth of the Cuban night welcomed and embraced us. But the instant that I reached the street, it was like coming face to face with the thirteen year old boy that had stayed behind when I had boarded a plane on my way to ‘The North,’ via Spain. I recognized the inquisitive gaze behind the shyness developed as a defense against the onslaught of intolerance and repression suffered while growing up. I remembered him but he had no idea who I had grown up to be.

“There was a large group gathered outside the hotel, the friends and relatives of us travelers that had come to verify what had appeared impossible just a few months back. Then I saw my cousin Alain, amongst the smiling inquisitive Cuban faces. His exuberant smile, floating in the middle of his extended arms, was moving towards my father and me through the crowd. He lifted me up in the air and he then embraced my father. He grabbed one of our bags and swung it over his shoulders and asked us to follow him out of the confusion. His father Danilo was waiting in their car a couple of blocks away because there was no place to park anywhere. The immediate area surrounding the hotel had been closed to traffic for a few hours. “You guys must be important if the government is closing streets for you,” Alain told us. I had to move fast not to loose him in the crowd.

“We found Danilo standing by his Lada, the Russian-made, government-issued car, smoking his pipe and wearing the same thick-rimmed glasses I remembered him wearing the last I had seen him. Danilo was married to my Aunt Eloisa, my mother’s sister. They lived in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.

“Danilo had been a member of the Cuban Communist Party since before I was born, and before being a communist in Cuba was something that was expected of all Cubans. He had lived in exile in New York City in the fifties, when the Batistianos where taking the law into their own hands to silence any opposition to their rule, and his life was in danger. Danilo Rodriguez was an economist who had enough credibility within the government to speak his mind and big enough cojones to have a relationship with my parents even when it became politically sensitive to fraternize with those of us that had applied for an exit visa. His warm affection for my Dad was present that night when they saw each other for the first time in a decade. He never discussed politics with my father and Dad never brought it up either. They limited their conversation to baseball, boxing, Russian car repairs –- my Dad had owned a Sinclair station at the entrance to our hometown in the Pinar del Rio province and he had a good grasp for car mechanics –- and the difficulties of being married to the prettiest most neurotic sisters of the daughters of Sebastiano Sebastian. Danilo, Aunt Eloisa and Alain lived in a house on a street directly across from the tallest hotel in the capital, once called the Havana Hilton, and renamed Habana Libre after the nationalizing fury that consumed all private property in Cuba in the nineteen sixties.

“What was most striking to me about my aunt Eloisa’s house was that full bookcases covered almost all of the walls in the small, modern apartment. Even some of the closets were used to store the overflow of volumes on every topic under the sun. As a kid, reared in the countryside, I always felt when visiting their house that I had entered a sophisticated space where knowledge and information had a primal place. Each time I walked into their living room, I remembered the aroma was identical to the small one-room library in my hometown where I would be lost for hours on books that were too mature for my young age.

“On our first night in Cuba, my father made it clear that he wanted to spend the night with his Mom. He would be staying at his sister’s, my Aunt Maria Rebeca, with whom my Grandmother was living since my Grandfather had passed away. My Aunt lived in the old section of Havana, near the Cathedral. Because of space constraints there, I was going to stay with my cousin Alain. As we drove through the streets of Havana on our way to drop off my father, sitting together on the back seat, Alain told me that he had made plans to go out dancing later that night to celebrate my visit. He thought we could go to one of the nightclubs that were reserved exclusively for tourists and important Cuban government figures. I could bring him in– and the two dates he had asked to accompany us — as a guest, since I qualified as a tourist.

“Dad overheard our conversation and he turned around to remind me that I better not get into any kind of trouble because we were not in Union City, that the consequences of any misstep here were profound and that we were being watched all of the time. Alain reassured Dad that we would not be getting into trouble and Danilo promised to drive us, to and from, the hotel. Dad relaxed. He mentioned that he could not believe that he was in Havana and that he was finally going to see his Mom.

“You never know how you’ll react when you people that you haven’t seen in a bunch of years, how they’ll look or what you’ll say. Seeing my Grandmother on that first night in Cuba was very difficult for me, mostly because she looked more frail than I expected she would be. Judging by his inability to say much when he first walked into his sister’s home, Dad was also overwhelmed by his emotions. He kept touching my Grandma’s hair and she was holding him close to her face, kissing him in the forehead. And my Aunt Maria Rebeca was crying looking at the two of them, holding my hand, telling me how much I’d grown as she dried her eyes over and over with the sleeve of her blouse. And my father turning to me, signaling to come closer to Grandma Rosa’s place in the rocking chair — she tried getting up when we first entered but her legs didn’t obey — and finally all of us crying at the same time, my little cousins looking at the sad scene evolving in their living room not knowing what to do and my aunt reassuring them that all our crying was a joyous crying and over the whole scene, a picture of my Grandfather Lino, who had missed, by a few years, seeing in the flesh the son who had moved to a strange country in search of political freedom and economic opportunity for himself and his family.

“My Aunt Maria Rebeca explained that my Uncle Heriberto and my Aunt Blanca Rosa, my Dad’s older brother and younger sister, were sorry they could not make it to her house to welcome us on that evening. They both had work and family responsibilities that had prevented them from showing up. Besides, no one knew our time of arrival; it was not announced due to security concerns. Uncle Heriberto would be by early in the morning to go to the cemetery to visit Grandpa’s tomb before we traveled west to Pinar del Rio to visit my Mom’s family. Danilo and Aunt Eloisa were driving us in the Lada to San Juan to see my Grandparent’s on my mother’s side and the rest of her family, over fifty uncles and aunts, cousins and their husbands and wives. Dad turned to me and he asked me to make it an early night with my cousin because he wanted me to accompany him and my Uncle to the cemetery. When I left they had just made some espresso for my Dad and he was sitting next to Grandma Rosa, telling her all about our lives in the North. When my Aunt walked me out to the car, she told me that she had never seen her mother so happy.

“The nightclub at the National Hotel was in full swing when we arrived a little past nine, a lively cabaret act had just taken the stage to loud applause from the mostly European crowd. My cousin Alain showed an ease in dealing with the staff that was surprising to me. It appeared, from the confident way he conducted himself, as if he had had plenty of practice and knew the ins and outs of the way nightlife in Havana was supposed to be managed and enjoyed. If you didn’t know that the experience of a dinner and drinks and a live show was only available to tourists and the Government bigwigs, making the experience foreign to must Cubans, the quality of the food, the booze and the music could lead one to believe that the scene I witnessed that first night in Havana was no different than a club in New York or Miami or Madrid.

“I remembered ordering a drink in English, the way our table mates, Canadians from Ontario, had done. I wanted to impress the young woman, a friend of his girlfriend that my cousin Alain had invited to join us for the evening. I don’t know why I thought that she would find English a turn on. It’s not like it’s French, you know?

“Funny thing, I don’t remember her name. I remember the name of the rum we were drinking, though. Havana Club. By the time we left the party, we were all pretty lit. I barely remember making out, somewhere, while we waited for our ride back to the house. And I remember walking up to the house, Alain and I holding on to each other, the way two drunks usually are depicted in the movies, singing a song horribly out of tune, neighbors complaining out of windows as we walked, happy without being really present, then falling unconscious on the bed and waking in the morning still wearing the same clothes and unable to remember the source of the joy of the previous night.

(Continued HERE).

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