Opening Statement



Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Cuba + The Night Part 1: Arrival!

"Cuba and the Night" was originally published on the ENO [Education Network of Ontario] in spring 1996.


"Dos patria tengo yo: Cuba y la noche/ 
Two fatherlands have I: Cuba and the night." 
*Jose Marti*[1]



Flying into Santiago de Cuba through the dark of night; Cuba y la noche/ Cuba and the night. The towering Sierra Maestrae mountains a dark backdrop, highlighting the few sparse city lights lost among the pitch black night. Another blackout? Santiago is a city of 500,0000. Life goes on against all odds. But for how much longer? God only knows! Each time I'm here I think it can't get any worse. But Cuba is plunging deeper and deeper into the dark abyss of the economic boycott. Cuba: dead in the water! Lost in time! A land of ambiguity! Of waiting!

We land between the foothill runway lights at Antonio Maceo airport over looking a black hole where the city should be. Are greeted by a faded mural of Che, 37 years after the revolution, painted on a hanger wall. Faded and peeling. Lit up only by the aircraft lights darting about randomly on the darkened tarmac. Hello third world. We've arrived!

I've got 140 extra pounds of much needed clothing, toiletries and supplies for the Toronto Friendship School. A short line up snakes through customs. Few visitors even though it is March break.

The Custom man wears a home made khaki uniform. Crudely cut red felt stars on his shoulders. A bored look on his face. A pretty sad state of affairs. Cuba, the last battle ground of the now forgotten Cold War. A desperate little island where revolutionary flags still wave and hips sway. He stamps my passport. No problems. So it might seem. 

"Are these for you?" An officer at the exit gate points at my extra big, black suitcases. 

"Er, yup ....."

"Open them please." Soon all my careful packing is sprawled out on the counter.

"School supplies? So many clothes ... what's this? Baby clothes!" Looking up, he pauses. Eyes me queerly,  "And a dress....?" 

"Ummm. Huh. Yes." Oh, for Christ's sake. A dress? Could be tense. I hope not.

Looking me over with bleary eyes, he gives me a devious wink. "Lissen senior .... I can help you out."

"I bet you can."

With a sad nod he explains, "There's a 100% tax on all non personal items entering the country, but for you? $20. That's all. For you, from Canada, its not much..." [2]

"What? Now listen my friend that's...."

"Ah senior, whats this?!?" Pulls out a copy of Time magazine from the side of my carry-on bag. Damned subscription card! Order now and get a free pocket camera? Right. The magazine flips open. Surprise! What luck! We gaze at a cartoon of Cuban President Fidel Castro on the next page. The headline? "Why We Shot Them Down" The picture? Fidel in khaki green. 2 Cessna aircraft buzz around his head. Pesky mosquito's on a hot Caribbean night. He holds up 2 fingers and is smiling. The other officers glance over. Start to gather around. Look at the picture. Look back at me. Their poker faces tell all. Prohibido/ This is not allowed! Shit! [3]

"Amigo, no problem. Canada and Cuba are friends. I am sorry." 

They watch me glumly in stone silence, "My Spanish is not so good. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding. $20 you say?"

"Si. $20." 

"Here. Here is your $20."

"Si. Sign here." 

I try scribbling down my name. Wouldn't you know it. His pen doesn't work. Cheap commie pen. Ha. Fish around in bags. Use a school pen.

A travel rep saunters over, "Sir, which hotel are you staying at?"

"Er ... Yours!"

"Well, we are all waiting outside for you on the hotel bus."

"OK. OK. Here amigo. Please, let me give you my pen. With so many problems in your country, its the least I can do!" 

I hand the pen to the customs officer, "Well then, I better be off." 

Sweating buckets, I close my bags, "Better catch my bus to the hotel. Yup. Can't keep everybody waiting!"

Nonchalantly pick up my magazine slipping it back in my bag too. Hand my new friend of sorts an extra pen, bidding him farewell.

Whew! Outside the arrival gate, my car from the school waits. 

"Quick guys! El pronto! Let's get out of here quick!"

From the rear window I can see the tour rep waving frantically, "Senior! Senior! Your bus! Your bus to the hotel!"

The police lean against the railing. Bored. Listless. Look up. God knows they need something to do! Always another dollar to be made! But we are out of here! Nobody any the wiser. Without pause, calmly driving off into Cuba and the night.... 

So begins another Cuban adventure!

RELATED READING:

The Cuban School Project Story @ CSP

Santiago de Cuba: Faded Glory Lost in Time @ Here

Christmas in Cuba: The Complete Series [1996] @ Here!

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Poemas de Jose Marti: "Dos Patrias" 1:1

[2] I will go to the Ministry of Education in Habana to complain about the tax and duties on donations in a later story, "A La Habana". 

[3] It was a complicated news story that nixed one of a number of earlier efforts to normalize US Cuba relations. The Cessna aircraft had been flying through flight paths over Habana air dropping propaganda flyers. The cartoon seems to have long disappeared from view, but I will see if I can still find it. Time magazine wants $$$$ but you can see links to the article and issue @ Time [March 11 1996]


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