I’d like to go to Cuba.
After a fitful nights’ sleep, partly due to concern about the next day’s activities and partly due to the air conditioning shutting off for two hours because of a power outage, Cecilia woke at 8 am. She walked next door to the Icoa cafe, staffed mostly by Australians, and ordered a big breakfast and two pots of steaming coffee. Bolstered by this hearty meal, Cecilia decided to take the hotel shuttle back to the airport early to ensure there was no problem with her seat on the Cayman Airways’ flight to Cuba.
The plane was sitting on the tarmac when she arrived at the airport at 11 am. She checked in with the airport staff, and got her seat assignment. Precisely at 1:45 pm, the Twin Otter plane taxied out to the runway, revved the engines and took off heading north. Approximately an hour and ten minutes later, the plane was taxiing to a stop at Jose Marti Airport. The plane had been full, so all thirty passengers took their luggage from where the crew had placed them on the tarmac and walked into the doorway of Terminal 3. The terminal itself was fairly modern, but there was an old photograph hung above the entrance way with the name “Rancho Boyeros”. Cecilia thought that must have been the airport’s name pre-revolution. But now she needed to concentrate on keeping calm, and reciting the story Manuel had suggested to her when she faced the border officials.
Armed with her passport and tourist card, Cecilia was the fourth passenger in line for inspection. The border guard took her card, placed it on the stack, and said “that will be 15 Euros or 460 Cuban pesos. Cecilia handed him a $20 bill and the agent put the money in the drawer beneath the counter. Then he opened her passport and looked at her name and picture.
He began to speak, saying “I’m sorry, miss, but..” when Cecilia hastily cut him off.
“I am here to work with Doctor Felix Moncada, the turtle biologist. I am from the University of Miami, and I work with the green turtle farm on Cayman, and Dr. Moncada is very interested in my research on the problems with the green turtles.” Cecilia hoped that keeping her statement simple and dropping names would help.
The border agent said “you are aware that no new visas are being issued until we find another bank that is not afraid to stand up to the Yanquis and process the visa fees?”
Cecilia replied that yes, she was indeed aware of the prohibition, but was also informed that researchers were exempt from it. She added that she’d brought cash to avoid the processing fee issue. At this, the customs man frowned, and tucked in his chin, not sure whether this was straight talk or a thinly veiled attempt at a bribe (which he was sorely tempted to take).
The customs agent cleared his throat loudly, and said “I was not aware of this exemption”, then more softly as if to himself, “why don’t they keep us informed of these changes? We are just the ones that have to enforce them! Ay, Dios mio..” Finally, the agent said “Well, I am aware of this Moncada fellow trying to keep the turtles from dying out..and if you are trying to help, then that’s good, but I still need to confirm that this is where you are going. That is standard procedure. Please write down Dr. Moncada’s telephone number so I can confirm your destination.”
Cecilia was on the verge of panic, but forced herself to stay calm. She took the card back and wrote down the telephone number, grateful that she’d remembered to find it from a paper he’d written two years ago. Then she said, “Dr. Moncada is returning from a conference in Canada..I expect he will be here tomorrow. I am sure he will vouch for me upon his return.” Cecilia knew this was completely false, but assumed she’d have long since returned to Miami if the agent were that dutiful as to call. The border agent still looked dubious, but there were 26 passengers in line behind Cecilia that were getting restless.
Without any more discussion, he handed Cecilia her passport without the entry stamp, nodded to her and said “Enjoy your time here in Cuba. Good luck with the turtles.”
Cecilia went to the next step of having her backpack and luggage examined for contraband. It was a very quick look, ostensibly because of the backlog of passengers, and without further delay Cecilia was on her way. She stepped outside into the hot sun and the airport road. There were a few buses and taxis standing outside at the curb. The first taxi in line was a 1957 Dodge with huge fins and upholstery that had clearly seen a better day. The cab driver smiled at her, took her bag and backpack and put them in the trunk.
He asked her “¿a donde va?”
Cecilia replied “Do you speak English?”
“Yes, very very well!” enthusiastically replied the cabbie. “I learned English in elementary school…you are Cuban and you don’t speak Spanish?”
Wondering how the cabbie knew of her heritage, she replied “I know just enough Spanish to be dangerous.”
At this the driver chuckled, and said, “Where would you like to go?”
Cecilia then realized she had no idea where she wanted to go. She said “I am here to try to get some information about my grandfather – in fact, to get a copy of his birth certificate. Where would I go to get this document?”
The cabbie scratched his head and replied “I suppose at the Hall of Records across the street from the Malecon. They have all the records there, like birth and death certificates, work permits, social security – everything.”
Cecilia replied, “Then that’s where I need to go.”
“OK, lady, you got it – let’s go!” The cabbie jumped in the driver’s seat and carefully inched into the traffic on the circular airport road.
He said “That will be 23 pesos” – or about a dollar.
Cecilia handed him a five dollar bill and said “Keep the change.”
The man smiled broadly, and said “Say, after you’re finished here, how about I come pick you up and take you where you need to go next?”
Cecilia smiled indulgently and said “I’m hoping this will just take a few minutes, and then I’ll be on my way back to the airport.”
The driver nodded, and said OK, I’ll wait a few minutes and if I get a fare, I’ll come back for you. OK?”
Cecilia nodded and said “Thanks – and OK!” As the driver turned back around in his seat, Cecilia said “Uh, I need my luggage.”
The driver replied, “But no, I’ll just wait for you here – why do you need your stuff?”
Cecilia felt the moment turn awkward. She replied, “Because there is information in both bags that I need in order to get my grandfather’s birth certificate.”
The driver turned back, and said “So, you don’t trust me – OK, I understand. I’ll get your stuff.” He retreated to the back of the vehicle and retrieved both bags.
Cecilia took them and said “This won’t take too long, so I’ll be right back.”
The driver nodded and returned to the front seat, turning on the radio and immediately began to sway to the music coming from the dashboard. “Good luck!” He said, and picked up a magazine lying on the bench seat next to him.
Cecilia entered the building and walked to the front desk.
An attendant said, “Puedo ayudarle?”
Cecilia asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Naturally,” the attendant replied. “May I help you?”
Cecilia said “I need to get a copy of a birth certificate – where can I go for that?”
The attendant pointed at the stairs and said “Second floor, turn right and through the doors.”
“Gracias,” Cecilia said.
The attendant smiled, and said slowly “Day..na..da” as though Cecilia were a not-very-bright child. Cecilia just shook her head, again experiencing what she perceived as native Cubans’ disdain for “Americanized” descendants of Cubans. She picked up her bag and backpack, and went up the stairs. She saw the kiosk with a sign “Certificado de naciamiento” which she thought translated as birth certificates. She went up to the counter, and was met by a middle-aged man with a thin mustache and a tired look around his eyes, who vaguely reminded her of John Waters.
Cecilia said “I need to get a copy of a birth certificate for my abuelo.”
The man behind the counter shoved a form on a clipboard over to her. “Fill this out and bring it back to me. If your “abuelo” is older than 90 years of age, I cannot help you. A fire in 1963 of suspicious origin destroyed records for people born in 1924 or earlier.”
Cecilia said “My grandfather is 82 years of age.” Cecilia found his facial features fascinating, and mentally began to call him “moustache man”.
“Then just fill out the form,” moustache man said and pointed at the piece of paper on the clipboard with the old ball point pen attached with a chain – as though she would be tempted to keep it!
Cecilia went over to a seat, dragging her suitcase along and filled out the form. Nombre (name): Javier Vasquez. Fecha de nacimiento (Date of Birth): July 20, 1931. Lugar de nacimiento (place of birth): Camaguey, Cuba. Within five minutes she returned to the clerk, who repeated that all records for individuals older than 90 years were unavailable due to a fire of suspicious origin.
“Yes, I recall you telling me that,” said Cecilia, who was having a hard time concealing her exasperation with “moustache man”.
He carefully removed the form from the clipboard and said “I will check our records to see if this document is available.” If it is available, the cost is 23 pesos.
Cecilia wondered, “Does everything in Cuba cost 23 pesos?”
In ten minutes, he returned and handed the form back to her. “I am sorry, miss, but there is no record of any living person with that name having been born on that date in that location. Perhaps he is dead and I could locate his death certificate?”
Cecilia assured “moustache man” that as of yesterday her grandfather was very much alive. She asked “Could you check again, please?”
Moustache man drew himself up and replied, “I am very thorough at my job, señorita.” He emphasized the ‘señorita’ when he pointedly looked at Cecilia’s left hand that was ringless. “If your grandfather’s birth certificate were here, I would have found it. It is not here, so I cannot help you. Buenas tardes.” With that, moustache man turned on his heel and walked away to rifle through a stack of cards on his desk.
Cecilia was on the verge of tears. She’d come all this way and endured so much just to come up empty. She picked up her belongings, and returned to the taxicab. To her surprise, the cabbie was still there waiting for her. She put her bags in the cab and said “They didn’t have what I needed.” Tears began to form, and finally the wall of emotion she’d been holding back for days broke forth.
“Whoa, whoa, lady, please! Please don’t cry.” The cabbie looked truly distraught as Cecilia lifted her chin and saw his face through eyes awash in tears.
“But I’ve been through so much to get here – and I don’t know what to do next!” With that she clenched her jaw and took a tissue from her pocket to dab at her eyes, frustrated with herself for losing control in front of this strange man.
The cabbie said “Wait here a minute – maybe I can help,” and he bounded out of the front seat and ran into the building. No more than five minutes later, he returned with an older woman. He beamed, pointing at the woman and saying “this is my tia Consuela. She works in social security, but she knows everything about records in Cuba!” He looked at his aunt with great pride.
The aunt slid into the seat next to Cecilia and gave her a pat on her knee. “I can see you are very upset, and I don’t blame you for feeling that way. But there are other options you can try.”
“Other options?” Cecilia asked her, behaving as the child Tia Consuela perceived her to be.
“Si, uh yes, there are options. But it requires some additional travel on your part. Can you manage that?”
Cecilia nodded dumbly, saying she could manage some additional travel.
“OK, this is what you need to do. Where was your grandfather born?”
Cecilia replied “Camaguey.”
Tia Consuela replied “OK. You must travel to Camaguey and go to the Hall of Records. I know the staff there – they are very good. If there is a birth certificate for your grandfather, I’m sure they can locate it. But if there is not – and you know, record keeping after the revolution wasn’t always so good – then there is still another option that I can practically guarantee will get you what you’re looking for.” Tia Consuela smiled broadly at Cecilia.
Cecilia asked “Yes? What is this other option?”
Consuela replied “For several years after the revolution, because of fear of the American invasion, the Catholic church was given many records for safe keeping. Fidel thought even the Yanquis wouldn’t bomb a Catholic church, si, uh yes?”
At this Cecilia had to laugh.
Consuela continued. “My cousin is from Camaguey, so I know the priests there – they can help you find the records. I’m sure of it!” With that, Tia Consuela gave Cecilia a little hug, and left the cab. She patted the cabbie, and said “You should come to my house for dinner soon…you are too thin!”
The cabbie smiled broadly, saying “Gracias, Tia Consuela. Consuela walked back into the building, and the cabbie looked at Cecilia. “You can pay me to drive you there, or you can take a bus that leaves in the morning – it is your choice.”
“How much would it be for you to drive me?” Cecilia asked.
The cabbie replied “Well, Camaguey is over 300 miles. That would take me a whole day to get there and a day to get back. Of course, the bus trip would take 18 hours each way because of the frequency of stops…” The cabbie watched Cecilia groan at the thought of an 18 hour bus trip over roads that were likely questionable at best. This emboldened him to think he might have a well-paying fare on the immediate horizon. After deep thought, the cabbie replied, “I will take you there and bring you back for 2300 pesos.” The way he quoted the number it was clear that he thought there wasn’t that amount of money in the world, and was likely two months’ wages for him. Cecilia quickly figured that 2300 pesos was the equivalent of $100 dollars. She’d paid that to go from the San Francisco airport to the university the last time she’d been in California for a conference, and that was a distance of 19 miles and only one way! This was a round-trip, 600 mile journey!
Cecilia hesitated for a moment, then said “You’ve got a deal.” The cabbie looked pleased with his clever negotiation. Cecilia was relieved to avoid the bus trip, and saw no point in haggling over the fare.
She said “Shall we start?”
The cabbie looked aghast, and said, “But miss, it’s already 4:30 in the afternoon. There is no way we can go until tomorrow. May I suggest a small tourist hotel for your overnight stay?”
Cecilia nodded. She was exhausted and needed a shower and to call her mother and Mirabel. “OK. You can take me to the hotel. But if we’re going to be spending all this time together, I suppose you should tell me your name.”
The driver bowed, and said “Ánibal Flores, at your service.” He jumped back into the front seat, threw the Dodge into gear, and took off into traffic. This adventure would continue and she needed a decent night’s sleep to gird herself up for it.