In the summer of 2018 I traveled from North Carolina, where I’d been living for the past five years, to Cuba with my parents and daughter. The trip was an intensely emotional one. It was my first time returning to my ancestral home after a 16-year hiatus, my first time visiting as an adult, and my first time as a mother, this time with my child in tow. As we traversed the island, our experience lodging with extended family was at once deeply moving and often uncomfortable. Running water was rationed, access to food at markets was extremely limited and what we did find was often not well-kept, air conditioning was an impossible luxury and so the only respite from the suffocating tropical heat were a few ancient/barely functioning fans that did almost nothing to circulate the air, and rolling brown-outs were commonplace. We all got some degree of traveler’s diarrhea, which is rather distressing under the best of circumstances, but is escalated to straight-up harrowing when public restrooms are either cramped, sweltering, mosquito-filled and missing an actual toilet seat, or entirely non-existent. We were quite swiftly and thoroughly immersed in the bleak reality of Cuba's economic and philosophical poverty, borne of decades of failed international policy and profoundly dysfunctional internal mismanagement.
It was also my father’s first time returning to his childhood home in nearly 40 years. My father was born in 1952 in the tiny farming town of Colombia, located in the eastern province of Las Tunas. He and his siblings, an older sister and two younger brothers, grew up on a 600+ acre cattle and sugar cane farm in the oppressive heat of the tropical lowland Cuban plains. There was electricity only on the rare occasion when there was enough money to buy oil for the generator, and never for more than an hour. He cut sugar cane with a machete, butchered animals and rode a horse bareback to school – a real country boy. His life was adventurous, hard-working and full of simple pleasures. Then came the Communist Revolution led by Fidel Castro. Scores of people were arrested and detained indefinitely and without due process in prison facilities with horrendous conditions or altogether disappeared for refusing to pledge allegiance to the regime, for being openly LGBT, for being religious, for being educated/intellectual, even for daring to grow or harvest food on their own property instead of handing it over to the government for redistribution. Eventually my grandfather was forced to forfeit the title and control of his beloved farm, for which he had spent years of back breaking labor building and cultivating. Devastated but not defeated, he put into action a plan to pack up the family and leave the country for the promise of opportunity in America. It was 1968, and tensions between the two nations were rising rapidly. My grandfather knew there was little time to act. Just as he prepared his family to abscond, word came of a new edict: men of military age (15-45) were now prohibited from leaving the country and were compelled to participate in 3 years of military service. My dad was 16. After days of agonizing, my grandfather shared his decision with the family: my grandmother and the younger kids would go to Florida to find work and begin a new life, and he and my dad would stay behind, hoping against hope that they’d find a way to make it out and meet them later. My dad, fearing for his mother and siblings’ safety in a foreign nation where they knew no one and couldn’t speak the language, refused. That fateful decision to voluntarily stay behind alone led to the tragedy of being separated from his family for 11 years, when, through a series of incredibly improbable interventions, he was given permission to leave. Sadly, the family he returned to was forever fractured by the loss.
We started our journey in the gorgeous, complex, layered and decaying capital of Havana, exploring the city with my father’s cousin, Luis, and his grandson, Pepe. Luis is only a few years older than my father, but aged as though decades older. A lifetime of abject poverty and loss took a toll on his health: he had lost most of his teeth and wore ill-fitting dentures and relied on a cane to walk. He was a sweet, silly and loving host, and though somewhat physically frail, full of spirit. He seemed buoyed by the joy of reconnecting with family lost and reveled in incessantly sharing endless family lore with us. Pepe, on the other hand, was the tragic embodiment of the unfathomable heartbreak and demoralization suffered by all those who experience the human hunger for a better life but can never actualize their dreams, no matter the passion or effort. Right before we bade farewell, with tears spilling down his cheeks, he confessed to me that he was so utterly desperate for opportunity that he was making plans to build a raft and had resigned himself to trying his odds against the merciless ocean waters with hopes to make it to Florida. He’d rather die than continue to live imprisoned in a perpetually aimless life, he said.
After a few days in the city we hopped in a disconcertingly shaky rental car, crossed our fingers, and made our way West from Havana to the breathtakingly beautiful, lush and placid valley of Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Luis accompanied us the entire trip, serving as loquacious companion and copilot to my father. We gorged ourselves on perfectly ripe, impossibly succulent tropical fruit, hiked through fertile tobacco fields dotted with soaring limestone karst mogotes, and explored the magnificent caves below. It was pure magic, a quixotic beauty unlike anything I'd ever seen.
Just as we departed Viñales for the next stop, our rental car died for the first time. The valley is quite remote and hilly, so cell service was tenuous and calling for help out of the question. Miraculously, after a few minutes of strategizing with the engine off the car started again and we drove, albeit shuddering rather violently, from gas station to gas station, asking around and looking for a rental car office (all of which are operated by the government). Finally, we found the office and after much pleading and persuasion were able convince the extremely grumpy and reluctant employees to give us a replacement car. We crashed for the night and early the next morning we began our trek East.
We left Viñales after a quick Cuban breakfast - exceptionally strong and sweetened whipped espresso and bread - and made our first fuel stop, where we discovered that that the fuel pumps in Cuba lack something we later learned was called a Venturi tube. My father and Luis hopped out to top off and check the oil while we three ladies stayed in the back seat, expecting a it to be a routinely brief wait. We were chatting excitedly about our next stop when we all simultaneously smelled and heard the trickle of the overflow. The tank had filled and instead of automatically shutting off (that's where the Venturi tube mechanism comes in) continued to pump, rapidly spilling gallons of fuel into the compartment below the back seat where the tank sat and onto the pavement below. Fortunately, the seat was comprised of one removable, hard-backed cushion (oh, also there were no working seatbelts), so we were able to clean up the mess using old newspapers we found behind the gas station and continue on our now-gasoline-scented journey fairly quickly, only slightly concerned that we’d meet our fiery end every time we started the engine.
From there the drive to Trinidad should have taken at most 4 hours, but a few hours in the car sputtered to a halt again as we crested a hill, this time in the middle of nowhere. My mother, daughter and I found a place to shelter under the unforgiving high-noon tropical sun and waited while my father and Luis set off on foot to find help. They found a tiny, one-street-one-phone town down the road. The owner, like most Cubans we met, was incredibly warm and generous and graciously invited them in, offered them fruit and water, and allowed them use of the phone to call the rental company. Hours passed, and finally a gentleman mechanic with a tow truck arrived to rescue us.
We made it to Trinidad, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, around sunset. It’s an exceptionally stunning colonial town on the southern coast of the Caribbean Sea, a maze of cobblestone streets perched on gently rolling coastal hills with live music wafting around every corner, rainbow colored houses and pristine white-sand beaches, a scene of grandeur so picturesque it seemed like it couldn’t possibly be real. We spent a day wandering the town, swimming in the azure, pool-temp waters, and chatting with the amazingly kind and hospitable locals. One night after dinner, I made friends with a group of international travelers who told me about a discotheque they’d read about and followed them out of the town center up a hill and into the darkness. After about 15 minutes of walking by moonlight we arrived at the nondescript entrance to Disco Alaya, a nightclub accessed by descending down a seemingly interminable narrow, curving staircase cut into the rock opening rather abruptly to a spectacular cave 100+ feet below ground. It was absolutely EPIC. A surreal and otherworldly scene – salsa, son and reggaeton reverberating, hypnotic laser shows synched to the beat briefly illuminating the cathedral of massive stalactites above, mojitos flowing, crowd splash-dancing in inches of cave water with wild abandon. I emerged just as dawn broke completely soaked, utterly exhausted, and totally overjoyed.
Fully recovered from our automotive hardships and rejuvenated by our time in spectacular Trinidad, we detoured through the mangrove swampland of the Bay of Pigs towards Camagüey, where we stayed with another of my father's cousins and also where I first experienced the humbling horror of public emergency diarrhea. My gastrointestinal integrity had been steadily degrading since we arrived in Cuba, but still I was unprepared for the novelty of the misery to come. I had already spent a lot of time in the bathroom that fateful day, growing alarmed at the steady increase in urgency, but was determined to tough it out. We (my parents, Luis, my daughter and another of my father’s cousins) set out for a stroll right before the sun began to set. Golden hour light in Cuba is unbelievably beautiful – something about the humidity and latitude cranks the dial all the way up to heavenly – and yet all I could think of was the churning in my gut. I registered that I was in trouble when I looked from my parents to my daughter and realized that I was the only one absolutely drenched in sweat. We were miles from home and headed towards a packed public square – the only place where locals can access the newly implemented state-sponsored 3G internet – when it hit me. I knew I had but seconds to assess my options, and upon scanning the immediate vicinity realized with horror that I would either have to drop trou in plain view of the square or shit my pants. Mercifully, I (as was every other poor soul in near proximity) was spared the shame of having to poo directly on the sidewalk when I saw a small hedge encircling a tree. I ran over to it, tearing at my pants, jammed my back end straight into the thorny brush, closed my eyes and was transported to another dimension of pain that I still think might have been hell, my unfortunate father standing guard as I held on to him for balance and dear life.
Hundreds of miles and countless emergency roadside-poo-stops later, after passing through endless sugar cane fields, we finally arrived in Colombia. Our first stop was my father’s primary school, a tiny cluster of single-story cinder-block buildings arranged in neat rows.