I was seeing a psychiatrist when I finally decided that the time had come to smuggle $50,000 of my own money into Cuba, and it’s a good thing I was seeing him, because I’d almost decided to talk to some other folks about it before leaving. Fortunately, I mentioned to Doctor X that I intended to talk about the main purpose of my trip, and he suggested that I shut up completely about my smuggling plan, forthwith.
Not that I thought any of my family or friends were untrustworthy. But I was considering informing the travel organization I was going with to Cuba about carrying concealed cash on the trip. But for Doctor X, I might have blabbed; and the travel organization might have scotched my going with them; and I might have lost the resolution to do the deed.
So mum it was, and My Trip to Cuba in 1998 was by far the most wonderful trip of my life. Some day I hope to describe more of it in detail. Here, however, I’ll just describe a humorous event – virtually a trope – that occurred to me going through Cancun customs; and an epiphany I experienced at the Havana airport; and an encounter I had with an old boxer I met in Santiago.
Leaving America for Cancun, Mexico, and entering Cuba from Cancun, Mexico was no sweat in 1998. But entering Cancun from America was another matter. If the Mexican authorities discovered you were carrying 50 long to anywhere, without declaring it, you’d lose the money and likely spend time in jail. And it was the first time I’d ever smuggled anything across an international border. Consequently, I was in a state of suspended frenzy when my turn came to approach the counter and talk to the inspector I’d been compulsively eyeing while standing in line.
Suddenly I was fumbling at everything, including my laughing attempt to converse in Spanish. Nonetheless, after a minute the guy told me to pass on through. I probably flashed something like a smile of appreciation, as I gathered my stuff together and passed on through. Then wave after wave of relief started coursing through me, and I regained consciousness of my moving legs, and of the fact that I was holding my little bag over my shoulder and pulling my big bag on it’s little trolley wheels. Then I became conscious of something else, a voice, not yelling but saying loudly and forcefully, “Senor!!, Senor!!” Yeah, it was directed at ME. At MY back. At me and my life-long dream of smuggling as much money as I could afford to Cuba - para La Gente Cubana, Fidel, y Che.
I turned, a broken shell of a man, and staring at the floor retraced my steps from the counter. Yes, the shouting official was the man who had just allowed me to pass on through. And I wasn’t even focusing on the man’s face when I heard him say, “So Sorry, Senor! You left your passport here on the desk.”
The epiphany occurred more than 12 hours later, in Cuba.
I cleared Mexican customs about 9 AM but my flight to Cuba didn’t leave until midnight. Those nine hours passed like so many minutes. The rest of the group gradually showed up around the Aero Cubana section of the airport, and we greeted and got to know each other. Some of them were sort of self-consciously wondering if those Mexican guys over there, or any of the strangers hanging around, were observing our growing group waiting to line up at the Aero Cubana counter. But my priority status of place and obviously happy self-confidence reassured them. Finally, the plane started loading, with all of us, and with a very varied lot of other passengers. And our little four-engine propjet took off into the darkness.
The flight over the unseen ocean blackness was exhilarating and mysterious, and time itself seemed suspended, as they say. I simply do not remember any conversations I had with my fellow passengers, although I remember talking as well as looking and spacing out in wonderment. I remember seeing clouds below, but no lights were visible until we broke through over Havana itself. God, it was beautiful. And just as suddenly, someone gave a cheer and everyone in the plane seemed to be chattering and laughing while looking around and fastening their seat-belts. And the joy didn’t dissipate; in fact, everyone was getting MORE ramped up, as the airport runways emerged below. The plane set down bumpily, taxied for a short time, and stopped in front of the main building.
My epiphany occurred upon reading the words, still scrawled on the airport’s main building: “Patria es Humanidad”.
The tour group’s itinerary was to spend a day in Havana; then to fly to Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island and spend a couple of days in Santiago and its environs (including the Rio de Plata); then to drive back to Havana by bus, over two or three days, and spend several days in Havana before flying back to Cancun.
Well, that first night, I was so nervous in the hotel in Havana with my $50,000 that I couldn’t sleep. So I hid the money in my room and went out walking around 4 AM -- to view the incredible Spanish colonial architecture and the occasional Cuban couple and the monument of the invasion party’s boat, The Granma, located several blocks from our hotel.
Four or fives hours later, while the rest of the tour group bussed to and visited the Museum of the Revolution, I took a taxi to the Cuban Institute that worked with my travel group, and delivered the cash to a very busy, and surprised, and grateful Cuban lady there. Then I re-joined the group for lunch. We saw sights in Havana the rest of the day. No one asked why I’d missed the morning bus, and I saw no call to tell anyone about what I’d done. The next day we flew to Santiago.
My pre-dawn sightseeing had worked out so perfectly in Havana that I got up and went out before dawn in Santiago. Santiago was a small town compared to Havana, and our hotel overlooked the main square, dominated by a great church to the hotel’s left. I walked down one of the small streets exiting the square. There were no Spanish colonial buildings and instead of deserted, the streets contained occasional workers going to work early, or leaving a bar late, but mainly it was very quiet. No one seemed to notice me; I carried nothing in my hands; and I had only a few pesos in my pocket. July in Cuba is warm, and I was in shirtsleeves.
Suddenly, a small figure accosted me with his hand out for money. I gave him some, and we talked, in broken Spanish and broken English. I can’t remember two words we said, but I discovered he’d been a featherweight in the 1950’s, and he’d persuaded two American promoters to take him to the states and fight. He said he only fought six times, in Florida, and returned to Cuba very disappointed. The American promoters were just crooks and con men. I sympathized, and then invited him to come to the hotel veranda that afternoon at 5PM sharp, and to drink a mojito with me. We parted most amicably.
Several hours later, the group took a morning tour-bus trip around Santiago, and we ate lunch on the road. Then we returned to the hotel, and everyone disembarked for naps and/or afternoon activities by ourselves before our scheduled evening tour-bus trip would leave, at 5:30PM sharp. I tried to nap and couldn’t, so I strolled around the hotel’s environs a while and then hit the veranda around 4 PM, in the shade like the Cubans in the square below. God it was bright and peaceful and beautiful. And my first mojito was incomparably delicious.
As I recall, I was on only my second one when I saw my boxer acquaintance on the street below, heading toward the steps up to the veranda. I greeted him warmly and with relief that he’d actually come. He sat down with relief from exertion in the hot afternoon sum, sweating profusely. I ordered two mojitos, and we continued our conversation about boxing in the United States in the 1950’s. I told him how my father had boxed in college in the 1930’s, and how he took me to see Golden Gloves fights in San Antonio when I was in high school in the 1950’s, and once, to see the great Willie Pep in the San Antonio Auditorium. When the old boxer heard me say Willie Pep’s name, he smiled and told me the American promoters had told him they could get him a fight with Willie Pep. He said his promoters never mentioned Pep’s name again, but just took advantage of him, and how he spent up the tiny purses he got paid, adding that he returned to Cuba totally broke. I commiserated again, and we began talking about living conditions in Cuba at the time, seven years after the “Special Period in Peacetime” of personal sacrifice began, after the USSR became Russia again. The old boxer was bitter about his monthly unemployment payment, and explained that its insufficiency explained his panhandling strangers in the early morning.
Then I noticed several other tour-group members on the veranda, and I realized the evening sightseeing was getting itself together. The old boxer and I continued talking about present-day Cuba, and I ordered two more mojitos. After the drinks came, the light-bulb finally went off.
I asked the boxer if he’d ever heard the funny way some American aficionados of boxing referred to the sport. He said no. “La deportiva dulce,” I told him (the sweet sport.) The word “dulce” was hardly out of my mouth before my companion erupted in a guffaw, the only time I’d heard him laugh. And he was still laughing and smiling as I got up from the table, tears in my eyes, and left to get organized with the group.