I was seeing a psychiatrist in 1998, when I decided that the time had finally 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 friends about it before leaving. Fortunately, I mentioned to Doctor X that I might talk to others 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 also 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 (and only) 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.
“Senor!!” the voice repeated. “Come here!”
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.