Next Year in Havana Page 2

When I die, take me back to Cuba. Spread my ashes over the land I love. You’ll know where.

And now sitting on the plane somewhere between Mexico City and Havana, armed with a notebook filled with scribbled street names and places to visit, a guidebook I purchased off the Internet, I have no clue where to lay her to rest.

They read my grandmother’s will six months ago, thirty family members seated in a conference room in our attorney’s office on Brickell. Her sisters were there—Beatriz and Maria. Isabel passed away the year before. Their children came with their spouses and their children, the next generations paying their respects. Then there was my father—her only child—my two sisters, and me.

The main parts of her will were fairly straightforward, no major surprises to be expected. My grandfather had died over two decades earlier and turned the family sugar business over to my father to run. There was the house in Palm Beach, which went to my sister Daniela. The farm in Wellington and the horses were left to my sister Lucia, the middle child. And I ended up with the house in Coral Gables, the site of so many imaginary trips to Cuba.

There were monetary bequests, and artwork, lists upon lists of items read by the attorney in a matter-of-fact tone, his announcements met with the occasional tear or exclamation of gratitude. And then there was her final wish—

Grandparents aren’t supposed to play favorites, but my grandmother never played by anyone else’s rules. Maybe it was the fact that I came into the world two months before my mother caught my father in bed with a rubber heiress. Lucia and Daniela had years of family unity before the Great Divorce, and after that, they had a bond with my mother I never quite achieved. My early years were logged between strategy sessions at the lawyers’ offices, shuttled back and forth between homes, until finally my mother washed her hands of it all and went back to Spain, leaving me under the care of my grandmother. So perhaps because I was the daughter she never had, yet raised as her own, it made sense that she charged me with this—

No one in the family questioned it.

From her sisters, I received a list of addresses—including the Perez estate in Havana and the beach house no one had seen in over fifty years. They put me in contact with Ana Rodriguez, my grandmother’s childhood best friend. Despite the passage of time, she’d been gracious enough to offer to host me for the week I’d be in Cuba. Perhaps she could shed some light on my grandmother’s final resting place.

You always wanted to see Cuba, and it’s my greatest regret that we were unable to do so in my lifetime. I am consoled, at least, by the image of you strolling along the Malecón, the spray of salt water on your face. I imagine you kneeling in the pews of the Cathedral of Havana, sitting at a table at the Tropicana. Did I ever tell you about the night we snuck out and went to the club?

I always dreamed Fidel would die before me, that I would return home. But now my dream is a different one. I am an old woman, and I have come to accept that I will never see Cuba again. But you will.

To be in exile is to have the things you love most in the world—the air you breathe, the earth you walk upon—taken from you. They exist on the other side of a wall—there and not—unaltered by time and circumstance, preserved in a perfect memory in a land of dreams.

My Cuba is gone, the Cuba I gave to you over the years swept away by the winds of revolution. It’s time for you to discover your own Cuba.

I slip the letter back into my purse, the words blurring together. It’s been six months, and yet the ache is still there, intensified by the moments when I feel her loss most acutely, when she should be beside me and is not.

The sight of the merenguitos she would make me on special occasions, their sugary taste dissolving on my tongue in a cloud of white powder, the sound of my childhood—our musical icons: Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, and the Buena Vista Social Club—and now this, the wheels of the airplane touching down on Cuban soil.

I miss my grandmother.

Tears spill onto my cheeks. It’s not merely the absence of her; it’s this feeling of connection as the airplane taxis down the same runway that carried her away from Cuba nearly sixty years ago.

I stare out the window, treated to my first glimpse of José Martí International Airport. At first glance, it looks like the countless Caribbean airports I’ve flown through on vacations in my life. But underneath it all there’s a sense of recognition and a thrill that runs through me. A sigh that escapes my body as though I’ve been holding my breath and can finally exhale.

It’s that sensation of being away for a long time and returning to your house, the sight of it greeting you—both familiar and changed—stepping through the doorway, dropping your bags on the ground next to you with a sense of completion, your journey over, and taking in your surroundings, surveying all you left behind, and thinking—

I am home.

Chapter two

I step off the plane, heading through the airport, my bags clutched in hand. All my life Cuba has been this mythical entity, at times tangible, at others an ephemeral presence removed from my grasp. But now it’s real, and while there’s nothing romantic or glamorous about the arrival hall, excitement fills me.

Unfortunately, the romance of the moment is dimmed by the tedium of time. Minutes pass, nearly an hour going by before I near the front of the immigration line. I take note of the number of immigration officers sitting behind counters, the ease with which the tourists in front of me are processed. Officially, I’m here on a journalist’s visa, writing an article for the online travel magazine I freelance for in Miami—an article on tourism in Cuba now that restrictions have eased. I pitched it to my editor as a multi-part series focusing on introducing Americans to Cuba and sealed the deal with my offer to finance my own travel. Unofficially, of course, my grandmother’s ashes are in my suitcase.

There’s a process for returning an exile to Cuba for burial, but after speaking to family friends who faced the same challenges—denials, red tape, and government intervention—this seemed like the easiest route, one undertaken by many Cubans each year. As I smuggle my grandmother back into the country, I swear I can feel her looking down on me and smiling, thoroughly delighted to slip something past the regime she loathed.

All my paperwork is together, visa in hand, as I shuffle forward in the immigration queue, praying my makeshift urn makes it through without any issues.

I present my documents to the official, my heart pounding as I answer his questions in Spanish, in the language I’ve spoken my entire life. There’s a strange divide here, the sense that we are connected—countrymen—and yet, not. Despite the Spanish American mother, I’ve always considered myself more Cuban than anything else, and in Miami it’s never been an issue. My grandparents are Cuban, my father Cuban, therefore I am Cuban. But will it matter here that my skin is lighter than many of the country’s citizens, that my blood is not fully Cuban? Am I an outsider here or is the ancestry I claim enough?

He waves me on, and I head through with my bags, nerves filling me as I slide my carry-on and my grandmother’s ashes through the X-ray machine while the Cuban officials ensure I’m not smuggling contraband into the country. The belt heaves and sighs as my bag sails through. I hold my breath—

I make my way through the X-ray machine and wait, sure this will be the moment when they flag my bag, images of being led to a windowless interrogation room tucked away in the airport flashing before me. The sheer fact that tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited for Americans hammers home the unpredictability of this situation, the reality that I am venturing into murky waters and uncharted territory.

While no one questioned my grandmother’s wishes to have her ashes spread in Cuba or her decision to entrust me with the task, my trip has been met with caution within the family, especially those who had firsthand experience with the regime.

Never forget where you are, Beatriz warned me. The rights you enjoy here will vanish once you land in Havana. Never take that for granted.

My great-aunt Maria sent me daily emails filled with news articles and travel information from the State Department in the weeks leading up to my departure, the State Department’s words emboldened in my mind . . . may detain anyone at any time . . . if you violate local laws even unknowingly . . . arrested . . . imprisoned . . .

Nothing like the potential of capricious imprisonment to instill fear inside you. I don’t doubt Cuba is different from any place I’ve traveled before, but at the same time, I can’t quite reconcile the images I’ve seen on TV and in the news over the years—brightly colored antique cars, crashing waves, and romantic architecture—with the stark portrayal my great-aunts warn of.

My great-aunts are protective of me and my cousins, but when they speak of Cuba there’s another level of fear present, one that hints at unspoken horrors whose impact has not lessened with time. I’ve tried to explain to them that things are different now, that it’s not 1959, that the revolution is over, the U.S. Embassy reopened in Havana, and we’ve entered a new dawn in Cuban-American relations.

Nothing I said lessened the worry in their eyes, and when Maria insisted I carry her rosary tucked away in my bag, given the risk I’m taking with the ashes, I didn’t protest. I can likely use the extra luck.

I shuffle forward in the line of travelers.

Just let me get my grandmother through, and I promise I’ll stay out of trouble for the remainder of my trip.

My gaze is riveted to the X-ray machine.

Another officer gives me a cursory nod, and I grab my bag from the belt once it has sailed through, a chorus of hallelujahs filling me as I make my way through the airport.

I pick up the rest of my luggage from the baggage area and make my way through customs, the nerves subsiding with each step I take, my unease making way for excitement akin to the night before Christmas. I’ve waited my whole life for this moment.

I exit the airport and get my first true glimpse of Havana, take my first breath of Cuban air. There’s a slight breeze in the air, but beneath it the humidity hits me full force, my hair beginning to stick to the back of my neck. January in Havana feels a lot like January in Miami. I reach into my bag and pull my sunglasses out, sliding them onto my face.

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