“When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters: one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”– President John F. Kennedy, on the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to a google answer I copied
I arrived in Cuba in January of 2018 on an entrepreneurship visa allowed under the Obama administration and then denied under the Trump administration a year later. I was lucky that year; though I lost another pocket knife at the airport, because I had grown up flying before 9/11 and had an old habit of carrying knives on planes. Old habits die hard.
I took a private taxi to downtown Havanna and paid the driver in cash, and I gave him a tip and an extra small red handkerchief that he seemed he could use, but I hopped out before I saw his reaction. I was able to move quickly in and out of his old convertible converted into a private cab, because I only had a small backpack as carryon baggage and a smaller “personal item” allowed on the plane, and my personal item was simply a pair of inexpensive scuba fins and a dive mask and snorkel tied together with 550 parachute chord.
The mask fit better than any rental I had ever tried, and few dive shops carry fins that fit my big feet; I wear a size 14 wide, despite only being about 5’11” tall on a good morning; closer to 5’10-1/2′ on other mornings due to shrinkage on long flights with little sleep or repose. I had heard the snorkeling and diving in Cuba was world-class, and I didn’t want to go all that way and not find a pair of fins that fit me.
Inside the backpack were a few changes of clothes, two books, an empty Nalgene bottle, redundant forms of identification and payment options in case I lost what was in my pockets, and a size 14 pair of rock climbing shoes and a light and packable harness I had had made. I had read in a guide book that the rock climbing in Cuba was also world-class, though it was still illegal because it was deemed too risky under their national healthcare plan. But, I had read online that a few burgeoning guide services were being established, and that they would have ropes and helmets to rent; but, like with my fins, I wanted to bring a pair of shoes that fit me. The harness was simply a safety precaution; I rarely trust other people’s climbing gear.
I stopped at a privately owned kiosk and bought a simple knife and a screwdriver and a pair of pliers – they didn’t have a multitool – and an internet card. Feeling more natural, I walked around downtown Havana and moved my arms in slow circular motions to lubricate my shoulder joints and stretched my aching neck and back to relieve tension. I eventually found a plaza where the kiosk vendor had told me there would probably be internet reception. I pulled out the card and typed in the code and waited as the antiquated system logged me in, and then I checked my messages and sent a quick note to the people I loved, telling them I was safe and that reception was practically negligible outside of two spots in Havanna, and that I would be offline for two to three weeks. For almost thirty years, I had been lucky enough to take sabbaticals to different countries and immerse into each culture, and people who loved me knew that I would be fine and that I was available for emergencies. Before that, I was on America’s quick reaction force, and had frequently disappeared for months at a time without being in contact, so the people close to me had been used to my lifestyle ever since I was 17 years old. It was, like carring a knife onto an airplane, and old habit that we had adapted to. I turned off my phone and tucked it into a shock and water resistant container with a solar charger along with my emergency satellite based system, and walked around until I heard horn instruments playing a jazzy beat, and I walked in for a beer.
The next day, I left for the western shore of Cuba, to the tall limestone rocks surrounding tobacco fields of Vinales, and I began that year’s sabbatical.
Approximately two weeks later, I returned to Havana and walked from my rented room in a private house that accepted cash to that same bar, and I enjoyed a beer and nursed my sore hand and shoulder to the rhythm of the band. I had two weeks of beard growth and I was much more tanned that time, and people who had seen me two weeks before may not have recognized me. I was glad about that, especially because I didn’t feel like being questioned about how my trip had gone; nothing remarkable had happened, but I discourage probing questions and appreciate autonomy when I’m relaxing and nursing sore joints. I sat silently and rubbed my muscles and sipped a beer, and if you had been there and seen me, rubbing my arm and twisting my back, you may have assumed I was dancing to the funky jazz beat instead of rubbing sore joints. In a way, you’d be right, because I was multitasking. I felt fine, and it had been a good trip, and sore joints is just a part of getting older and clinging to a former lifestyle.
My hands were empty this time in Havanna. I had, per etiquette, left the climbing gear with a budding guide and gear agency. I still had the knife and tools, though the screwdriver was rusty from using it to shuck oysters and the knife was pitted from cutting acidic citrus for rum cocktails. I still had the fins and mask and snorkel, but they rested by my big feet and my hands were free. I was looking forward to a few days of relaxation before the two hour bus ride to Giridon. I had always wanted to see the Bay of Pigs, and it was conveniently near shore reefs with old scuba shops Castro, who was an avid diver, had set up. I’d shave when I needed to wear the dive mask. I just wanted to listen to music and have other people shuck oysters and make cocktails for me and relax a bit.
A fews guys in the bar and I chatted about wreck diving in Girodon Bay. They asked what I was doing in Cuba, and I told them, truthfully, that I was rock climbing and diving with a group of journalists writing articles about Cuba and American relations, and the budding interest in eco-tourism between the two countries. I wouldn’t lie, especially when using a rare visa to visit their country, and I said the article would focus on sea kayaking, to the best of my knowledge, I told them. I just like climbing, I said, when they asked why we went to Vinales. I try to never repeat rumors so I tried it out and can say that Vinale is definitely the best limestone I had climbed on in the Americas. It was illegal – Cuba’s free health care puts restrictions on dangerous activities – but I wouldn’t lie about having done it. As for diving in Girdon Bay, I was on my way there next, which is why I was carrying snorkel gear. Fidel had been an avid diver, and had set up dive shops all around the island and it was considered a safe sport. And yes, I agreed that my feet were, indeed, big for my height. I said the only thing I had been looking forward to more than climbing and diving was listening to some live Carribean funky jazz, like they played in New Orleans, where I’m from.
But, I lied: I’m from Baton Rouge, an hour upriver of New Orleans, but most people don’t know where Baton Rouge is, and it’s also a French word for “Red Stick,” which can be confusing to people who don’t speak English fluently or have never been to Louisiana; and, most people associate New Orleans with funky jazz. Given the situation, I doubt many people would judge that as deceiving anyone. Besides, I was trying to give social cues to them and politely imply that I wanted to listen to the band; I had even told them that I stopped by the bar just to hear that band again, and I had danced a bit, as best I could, to a sound that was played remarkably well. I had said that people in New Orleans would pay to listen to this, if they could.
Too bad there’s no WiFi or streaming service, I thought, and I looked at my solar Sieko dive watch; in one hour of average daytime sunlight in Cuba, it stores enough juice to last six months, and I had had it for almost twenty years without needing to wind it or change the battery. But, it couldn’t call home, and the only reception I knew of was in a nearby park with dozens of people sitting around on their phones.
I checked my messages, and that’s when I stopped having fun. My mom, Wendy, had left a cryptic voice mail. The words she said were less relevant than the tone, and I replayed it a few times, trying to read between the lines. She had mentioned something about ensuring her will was in order, but she had been saying that since before I bought the Seiko. Her voice was sad, I felt, and she paused longer than usual between sentences. It was barely noticeable, and I only noticed because all my life she’d pause before admitting something, and I’d have to coax it out over a few hours and most likely a homecooked meal, which meant me flying to Baton Rouge.
I called and called over the next few days, and I left a message on her cell phone and her land line, and I sent an email. I emailed her former boyfriend, Mike, and asked him to check on her. He did, and said she seemed the same; but I didn’t know what that meant for him. He said I should keep trying, that we both knew she had poor reception in Saint Francisville, and that she was forgetful; and we both knew that was a euphemism for a bit buzzed or drunk every day. I sent one or two more emails, and felt that was the best I could do; Cristi didn’t know her at all, and wouldn’t be able to read between the lines and would just repeat the words Wendy said.
I figured that was all I could do, and I met up with the journalists after they researched their article on kayaking in Cuba, and then we went wreck diving in The Bay of Pigs. I left my fins and snorkel with a tourist who had feet too big for the rental fins in Castro’s old dive shop – he was an avid diver, and set up shops all around the islant – and we rented a private car, one of the 1950’s classics Cuba is known for preserving after the Kennedy embargo, and he put the top down and we rode all the way to Havanna with his radio playing some funky tunes and the wind blowing through the younger guy’s hair. I rubbed my head and told them that they, too, would one day be like me.
“Como yo esta, Tue esta’ tambian.” I knew it would have been proper to say “es” and “era,” but I hoped they’d get the joke. In English, I smiled broadly and angled my bald spot towards them and said, “Hair today, gone tomorrow.” All three groaned with an exaggerated groan, and the driver never stopped grinning or tapping his fingers against the steering wheel to that funky beat. It was a fine ride in classic convertible car.
Suddenly, the driver laughed as if he just got the joke, and he took off his ubiquitous Havana hipster hat that protected his bald spot from the tropical sun, and he rubbed his similar, receding grey hair, and he boomed out, “De acquerdo! Oye, jovens! ‘Hare today, gone manana!” We laughed and he turned up the jazz and we listened to it while the wind blew by.
I arrived in Havanna and went straight to the park with all the people on their phones and I tried a few different ways to reach Wendy or have someone reach her, but I exceeded my limit and there was nothing more I could do for her, so I decided to have fun again. If I had met the same guys in that bar, I would have said that yes, the diving was among the best I had seen in the Carribbean. But, I didn’t feel like talking, and I was lost in thought. Instead of going to that bar, I walked around until I heard another that sounded fine, and when I saw that they had several horns and a stand-up bass, I sat down and ordered a beer and rubbed another muscle group and moved a bit to the music and, gradually, I slipped into the groove and remerged into my Cuban sabbatical.