We do not have the right, in the name of social justice, to bore people to death.
black panther in exile
I insert the latch into the metal buckle, pull the strap low and tight across my lap, and am scribbling notes on a slightly waxy barf bag when two white guys approach down the aisle. One is a collared priest and the other, big-bellied and teetering on the last rungs of middle age, carries a blue gym bag emblazoned with cia in gold letters. They plunk themselves down on either side of me.
Flanked by paradox.
The Cubana Airlines Yak-42, a Soviet-built plane bound for Havana, looks as if it got left in for a few extra tumble cycles. The plane’s interior is a chamber of chaos: broken seat belts and floppy chairs. Disconcerting smokelike vapors billow around my feet.
The threadbare burgundy fabric itches. I shift and try to look demure. Why would a priest be on a flight to one of the last communist (as in, aggressively secular) strongholds in this part of the world? And why would anyone sling a CIA gym bag?
The Spy turns to me and offers intelligence. “Don’t worry. The vapor is normal. These old Russkie air conditioners aren’t what they used to be.”
“Oh . . . okay.” I respond with a half-smile, leaving only an infinitesimal crack in the door of airplane social etiquette. The Spy slams his foot in the door and is off: “First time? Traveling without your husband?” The only thing I fear more than sitting next to the CIA when trying to sneak into a country and avoid getting busted for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act (which holds a penalty of up to ten years in prison) is sitting next to a lonely person on an airplane. I have no problem with loners. I just don’t like being pinned between one of them and . . . God. Don’t know whether I’d burn faster in Langley or Hell, but I’ve challenged their respective moral codes enough to ignite on contact.
“Reagan gave me this gym bag in 1985,” the Spy rattles on, “and I’ve been to a cocktail party or two with Castro,” he adds casually. Sounds like an oxymoronic social gathering to me.
Luckily, the Spy is mostly interested in hearing himself talk, so there is no pressure to explain my own presence on this flight. Just as well. With no visa and six thousand dollars in cash strapped to my body, I might raise suspicion. My hand brushes over the important bulges: cash and passport. Ordinarily I list these as the only two essentials for a journey, but this time the list has lengthened considerably to include two cinematographers, a load of 16mm film, a sound person, and—my mother. A hurricane delayed us in Cancún but eventually we made it onto this flight, where we are now scattered about the plane in single seats. We are finally on our way to film the pilot episode for Adventure Divas. I wonder if my colleagues are as nervous as I am.
We tried to go legally. Really we did.
For months we begged and pleaded and touted our professional stripes, but no one would grant us the journalist credentials we were after. We had not foreseen the antipathy, or, in some cases, simple apathy, of the U.S. government and the Cuban Interests Section (Cuba’s officiate in lieu of an embassy).
Fruitless pandering to bureaucrats left us desperate and defiant. “We’ve got to go guerrilla, through Mexico,” I eventually concluded to Jeannie.
“Yep. No choice,” she’d agreed.
Deciding to go on the sly raised a new set of anxieties. Would we piss off our hard-won investors? (Would we tell them?) Would we get sent upriver or fined into bankruptcy? Would our film get confiscated on our return to the United States?
A host of stressors have replaced the damn-the-torpedoes hubris that accompanied the early, blushing days of our endeavor. I jot “Can adventure really be institutionalized?” onto the barf bag.
Now and then, throughout the Spy’s monologue and my internal mantra of worry, I turn to God, not as my savior, but because I cannot believe he has poured himself a tumbler of Johnnie Walker Red from his shoulder bag and is settling in to the latest issue of Vanity Fair.
Three aisles ahead are two men I recognize from the Cancún airport, where we waited out the hurricane. When I saw the long fishing rods wedged among their luggage at the airport, I began to eavesdrop: “Yeah, you won’t believe it. They’re plentiful and beautiful,” the guy with the comb-over said to his friend in the Rangers cap. “A girl so hot she wouldn’t look twice at you in the States is all over you like a fly on shit in Cuba.”
Fly on shit, indeed. These guys are not going to Cuba to angle for fish, but for women who, for access to dollars and excitement, hook up with foreign men.
The in-flight purgatory thankfully ends when the Yak, rattling like a crateful of kindling, hits the tarmac at José Martí Airport. I walk down a rickety metal gangway that leads into the grays and blacks of night. The tinny taste of fear spreads through my mouth and catapults me behind several iron curtains, and four decades back in time. Outlines of soulless post-Stalinist buildings stretch out ahead. I feel like I just drank a whole pot of coffee.
I drift along a wave of muted, slurry Spanish, into a customs line. All five of us—the crew—are scattered about in different lines, warily making eye contact. My line moves and I shuffle forward, repeating to myself the six most important words of the shoot: No estampa mi pasaporte por favor. Three months of intensive Spanish back in Seattle and these are the only words that matter now. A Cuban stamp would raise the ire of U.S. customs officials on reentry to the United States, and the entire game might be up.
Scenes from Midnight Express flit through my consciousness as I step up to the counter. The forbidden is seductive from afar, but when you get right down to it, it’s spooky.
“No estampa mi pasaporte por favor,” I say, tentatively, to the customs official, whose downcast face is in the shadow of harsh fluorescent lights. He has dark hair and the moody, bored look hardwired into the DNA of customs guys the world over.
His brown eyes flick to meet mine, and he stifles a little laugh.
I can’t tell if it’s my bad Spanish or just a friendly duh-you-have-an-American-passport-so-of-course-I won’t-stamp-it chuckle. Either way, I glide through customs unscathed and unstamped, and quickly pass my duffle through a boxy gray X-ray machine that looks old enough to have been used by Lenin himself.
I walk out of the José Martí terminal into the humid, windy evening, high on the razor-sharp awareness that there is no safety net. One by one my colleagues clear customs and meet me on the other side. Seasoned Cubaphile Pam Yates, later dubbed “Encyclopedia Pam” for her vast knowledge of this country, unshoulders her sound equipment bag and flips her long, dark hair into a ponytail. New York–based cinematographer Cheryl Dunn steps up wearing a smile and a charcoal-colored retro raincoat and has her hand-crank Beaulieu camera tucked under her arm. Seattle-based cameraman Paul Mailman, low-key and talented, gently sets down a giant silver equipment box and runs his hand through a thick crop of what could be Latin hair. Jeannie comes through last, the thrill of having made it over this first hurdle evident in the bounce in her sneakered step. Excitement has won over fatigue and we revel in our success, and in that scary, wonderful state of no return. We are smoke jumpers behind the fire lines; Sally Ride breaching the atmosphere; a teenager who just got laid.
Just then a five-foot six-inch gringa with blue eyes, brownish-blond hair, and a personality I’d come to identify as Woodstock warmth and Harvard brains walks up to us. I know immediately that it is Catherine Murphy.
“Buenas, como están?” she says with the lilt of a compañera. “It’s so nice to meet you in person.”
Catherine is the rare American who has lived in Cuba for years, and is, as of this moment, our new best friend. We met her through Global Exchange, an organization that fosters cross-cultural communication and leads tours from the United States to other countries—especially those with whom the United States has “complicated” relationships. Catherine has provided a font of information throughout a series of crackling international calls routed through Mexico City (U.S. phone companies cannot do business with Cuba).
When making a TV show abroad, it is imperative to join forces with someone fluent in the language, as well as in the business of getting things done. Negotiator. Point person. Translator. Person who knows what restaurant serves after midnight, what palms might need greasing, and how to find unfindable people. These are just some of the roles of this critical crew member called, in television’s to-the-point vernacular, a “fixer.” Catherine, our fixer, is relaxed and moves fluidly in her loose cotton pants and long-sleeved blue shirt. She was raised by her Cuban grandmother in Northern California, and has been living in Cuba for the past several years studying the country’s world-renowned organic farming program.
“Over here,” says Catherine, who has arranged for a rattling blue ’58 Chevy to take us to our hotel. “We’ll have to avoid certain streets because of the flooding,” she says. The storm that grounded us in Cancún hit Havana with a vengeance. We drive down the Avenida de Rancho Boyeros, alive this warm blustery night with shadowy American autos from the forties and fifties, and with East German motorcycles, but mostly with bicycles. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its chief economic sponsor in 1989, gas became a rare commodity. With that, Castro led the Cuban people in a reverse technological revolution by importing 200,000 bicycles from China: thus, the “bicycle revolution.”
“When the Special Period disappears we mustn’t abandon this wonderful custom,” Castro told his people, using the spin-doctored term for the post-Soviet era. The evaporation of the Soviets’ annual six billion dollars of support and the continuing U.S. economic embargo has created a vicious economic double whammy for the people of Cuba.
There are few streetlights this late at night in Havana and vehicles appear as silhouettes, dodging into and out of recognition. We pass by the Plaza de la Revolución and a five-story metal image of Che Guevara—beret tipped, chin jutted—is ablaze on the side of the Ministry of the Interior building.
“Because of the energy crisis,” Catherine says, nodding toward the monument, “it’s only lit up on Saturday nights.”
I look at Che, the Jack Kerouac of Marxists. “It’s really important that we get the real story, not the party line,” I say to Catherine, anticipating the interviews in the days to come and revealing my strange mix of compassion and wariness about Cuba.
For most of my life, Cuba has been an enigmatic pinko blip on my radar, and Fidel an aging revolutionary stuck in a fatigued fashion rut. But stories of a country with a spirit far from the dour lockstep reality one might expect from a communist outpost were seeping out, and captured my attention. The economic embargo had become a de facto information embargo and it seemed time to explore what lay behind one of the last tinfoil curtains. Witnessing revolution in action (and Cuba’s—in theory, anyway—is still going on) spoke to the Adventure Divas ethos. A major goal of Castro’s socialist revolution was to liberate the poor and uneducated from the dire conditions created by U.S.-backed dictator. And to liberate the poor and uneducated is to transform women’s lives. “Cuba’s perfect. It’s political and sexy—good for TV, right? And it’s only ninety miles away, so flights will be cheap,” I had said, lobbying Jeannie some months ago. “Yeah, ninety miles of political minefields,” Jeannie had responded, correctly anticipating our battles to come.
The stakes had been raised, and a sense of urgency created, when we decided to make the pilot without the support of a broadcaster—all of whom had warned us away from Cuba. Now we have no choice but to get the story right, and my comments to Catherine reflect my slightly paranoid determination to do so.
“You know,” Catherine responds calmly, gently setting me straight, the light of Che now just a dull flicker behind us, “some Americans think that if you come to Cuba and Cubans complain, that is the real story, and if Cubans don’t complain, then that’s the party line. Neither is fair. Life in Cuba is a very complex reality with hardship and with a lot of really beautiful, inspiring aspects as well.”
Certainly the hardship is evident. Havana looks war-torn, but here it is decay, rather than violence, that is the nemesis. Much of Havana was built with armadas of money that flowed through the city from the Americas in the 1600s and 1700s. Havana’s access to transient cash continued through the 1940s and ’50s, often controlled by the American Mafia. At the time, Cuba was a playground for Americans with a penchant for dancing girls and casinos. Wealthy Cubans, along with their money, began to flee Cuba in 1959, when Castro’s nationalist revolution prevailed, and the exodus quickened over the next handful of years as Castro began to show his communist colors.
I try to lean out the window of the car for my first, forbidden glimpses of Havana, but I’m jabbed by the dozen wads of twenty-dollar bills that are strapped with duct tape all over my body. We are officially not here, so we can’t exactly write a traveler’s check or whip out a Gold Card. I look arthritic and feel like a coke dealer.
Twenty minutes later we are at the front desk of a modest deco hotel in La Habana Vieja. I pull two twenty-dollar bills from our finite cache, and hand them to the concierge. “Doesn’t feel like trading with the enemy,” I whisper to Jeannie, as he smiles warmly at me and hands over three skeleton keys attached to pieces of chestnut wood bearing numbers.
“No going back now,” she says. “This is it.”
Paul yawns big, and we can all relate to his exhaustion.
A rooster’s optimistic crow quickly followed by a belligerent truck muffler rouse me at seven the next morning. I am fully clothed, spread-eagled on the center of a concave bed, my open mouth pressed flush against the pilled, off-white cotton bedspread. My feet and a thousand dollars in cash are in my still-laced Georgia boots.