The Human Connection in Cuba

I was awakened by the roar of the diesel engine, ushering me from my dreams, as blue-green water slapped gently against the hull. The peacefulness of a boat under sail is a sharp contrast to the annoying grind of a boat under power.

It was cold below decks. Although my skin was sweating uncomfortably under the sweater, I didn't feel like taking it off when I stumbled into my bunk after the two-hour watch. I marveled at our location, somewhere in the Gulf Stream between Key West and Havana. What were we doing?

Cuba, only an overnight sail from Key West, had always intrigued me.

Bathed by the Gulf Stream, revered in Ernest Hemmingway's tales, it was an island cut off from the prevailing winds of American commercialism for nearly four decades. Time had stood still in Cuba, I was told.

United States government restrictions on Americans traveling to the once forbidden island had been gradually relaxed, although a boat was one of the only means by which you could get there directly. My wife and I had found a ride on a sailboat headed south. In an age of jet travel, 4 knots an hour seemed antiquated.

"Hey Jeff! Are you awake down there?" The garbled voice pulled me from my wandering thoughts back to the rocking boat in the Gulf Stream. "Hey Jeff, I'm going to need some translation!"

I twisted my body out of the bunk, hitting my head after an ill-timed lurch. My queasiness immediately returned as I dug around for my foul-weather gear. I staggered into the gray light of early dawn, disapproving of the rain.

The owner of the boat was furling the headsail, while murmuring garbled commands.

"There's a Cuban fishing boat out here. They shouldn't be here. We're 10 miles off shore. Grab that line and pull, while I release the sheet."

The statements didn't make much sense. The sea was a blue gray, hardly the deep blue I had dreamed about while tracing my finger over a map of the Caribbean. It wasn't supposed to be cold, cloudy, and raining. As I heaved on the wet line, my eyes struggled to focus, finally picking out the small skiff bobbing among the Gulf Stream swells. Initially, the situation didn't seem so absurd. But as I scanned the horizon, I realized the endlessness of the encompassing waves and clouds. I had to glance at the compass to get my bearings. The wind had clocked to the southeast. I couldn't see Havana, but I could smell it. The indescribable odor of exhaust, people, and poverty.

We pulled up to the fishing boat to be greeted by two Cubans in rudimentary ponchos or pieces of plastic, flapping in the wind. I tried to concentrate on their voices as they shouted out commands or questions, along with an ample supply of hand gestures and animated expressions. The captain, or the one driving the boat, was a burly guy, with a thick mustache. He kept shrugging his shoulders and pointing at various imaginary locations scattered beyond the horizon. The guy in front was slight, his face flashing through a series of animated gestures depending on what aspect of the story the guy in back related.

Everyone looked at me as though I would understand, and I grappled with the reality of the situation. Somehow, from a spoken aloud daydream back in Florida, it all had materialized into standing in the rain, bobbing around on a boat, and speaking with a couple of guys waving their hands around.

"Donde el sur?! Donde el sur?" (Which way is south?) Their ranting suddenly made sense. Here they were, a couple of fisherman plying their trade on a leaky 14-foot skiff, when the wind had shifted, clouds descended, and they were no longer within sight of land or the glow of Havana. Compasses, radio, charts, global positioning satellites - all that was beyond their lives as Cuban fishermen. Then suddenly a 41-foot teak pleasure yacht appears on the scene with three gringos waving their hands around. Had they crossed the line into the Florida Straits, separating life between harsh scarcity and crushing materialism?

I smiled and explained that we were headed for Havana, Marina Hemmingway in particular, and that they could follow us until they sighted land. They responded with more animated hand gestures, kisses to the heavens, hands placed on their hearts, and the story and gestures were repeated all over again. We all laughed - although I'm not sure why - maybe because between our disparate realities we had identified one commonality: south. And south we headed.

The owner of our boat mulled over the situation, disappeared below decks, and reappeared with an old compass. "I'll give this to them. I never use it anyway." As he reached across the water, the boats converged, a luxury yacht and a leaking skiff. The small animated Cuban balanced on the bow among the swells, and as a wave crashed over into the skiff, he managed to grab the gift and head for the aft part of the boat. They looked with distrust at their new possession. I shouted "Un regallo, un regallo" (a gift), laughing as I thought how we had just extended the range of the Cuban fishing fleet.

The hours merged. Every 15 minutes, my wife kept asking how many more miles to go, as I checked the navigation equipment: 9.5 miles, 8.5 miles.... Finally, Havana emerged on the horizon - two prominent skyscrapers and a blur of buildings. The glowing white city with emerald mountains forming the backdrop was only in my imagination.

Reality was still a depressing gray. We had made it to the forbidden island. How many others had enjoyed a misplaced hallucination looking south while reading the signs painted on the sea wall in Key West: "Cuba - 90 miles."

How many others had looked north, thinking of cousins and sisters and brothers; somewhere north they had made it to Miami, to Cincinnati, or to New Jersey. Streets paved with gold. Looking north or south, we all were preoccupied with something infinitely more enticing - dreams.

The Havana of my dreams was not the reality I observed. Overcast skies dimmed what must be the brilliant blue water, and the decay of what must have once been an enchanting city was depressingly obvious. Stripped of its natural jewels of light and blue, Havana lacked appeal. But after several days of walking the streets, speaking with various families, sitting on their porches sipping sweet drinks, we were amazed by the vibrancy of the Cubans in the face of adversity.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the US-led embargo, and Cuban economic policies had defined current life in Cuba as one of scarcity. Soap, clothes, and toothbrushes were not taken for granted. One of the mothers we met thanked me with moist eyes for the toothbrushes I gave to her family. And I was moved at the generosity of human spirit and of life.

I lay on my bed in a local hotel, resting after an illuminating and exhausting day of conversing with Cubans on issues ranging from politics to pop culture, and whether I could mail some letters to their family members in the US. I stared up at the wires protruding from the empty light socket, consumed by my own thoughts and dreams, as Latin voices prepared for the end of year dinner.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote: "Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each others eyes for an instant."

And I wished we all could see each others dreams. Then, maybe then, the whole world wouldn't seem so complex.

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