THE AMERICAN REFUGEE
On November 13, 2008 twenty of us left Houston on a church mission trip to Havana Cuba. We planned six months in advance, navigating the substantial bureaucracy in the United States, Mexico, and Cuba to obtain the necessary permits.
Then, it was not a simple task for a US citizen to travel to Cuba.
Communication back to the states would be difficult since email and cell phones wouldn’t work and land line calls were prohibitively expensive, if not monitored.
We were all thrilled and felt a little daring to go on this special adventure. First Presbyterian Church of Havana would host our visit. We would stay on church property. They had a large dormitory which prior to the revolution housed what was generally known as the best privately run boarding school in the country, if not all of Latin America…until Castro shut down churches and affiliated schools in 1962.
We were limited to one suitcase. Each of us thoughtfully packed items that we knew we would not return home with. Many over the counter medications and vitamins we take for granted were hard for the locals to obtain and highly appreciated. Same with clothing since the average salary in Cuba was less than $20 per month. So we fully intended to donate everything but one change of clothing to wear on the return trip home. In my case, I had purchased several hundred dollars worth of medical supplies and clothing to leave behind.
Of course, direct flights to Cuba were prohibited due to the US Boycott. So mid-morning we routed on a Continental flight to Cancun, Mexico. There we languished away the afternoon at the airport terminal, waiting for a late evening Mexicana Airlines connection to Havana. It was unseasonably muggy in Cancun. Inside the terminal, the air conditioning struggled. The air hung stale and the aroma of spilled beer, cigarette and cigar smoke, and pre-prepared fried foods past their prime lingered in the atmosphere. Fortunately, we had been briefed ahead of time to wear comfortable fitting clothing for a marathon day of travel.
Our Air Mexicana flight left Cancun late. Of course there were no explanations for the delay. So, we casually concluded that the terminal simply needed some extra dinero from tourists.
We finally arrived at the Havana airport close to midnight. Again of course, no air-conditioning. Over ripe and sweaty from day one’s long adventure, we funneled into a large, sterile gray colored receiving area with all exits barred. No one was there to process us! Could we be spending the night here?
After an indeterminably long wait, airport officials and armed guards, feigning inconvenience at the late hour, came to greet and herd us through customs. Welcome Gringo to Cuba. They were clearly in no rush. We were the last flight of the day and very tardy.
Gradually our group claimed their single suitcases and proceeded hesitantly through the process of inspection, detection, and possibly rejection. But wait, one was a no show! My suitcase was nowhere to be found. I immediately and perhaps unfairly suspected foul play.
Apprehensively, the rest of the group waited on the bus for me. They wondered whether one of us in the first hour and a half after landing in Cuba had earned a trip to jail, or worse yet a Spanish Inquisition?
Finally, customs released me, either out of boredom or their own tiredness. Maybe they thought I had cavalierly decided to travel light for a week’s stay. Or, better yet claim asylum. Crazy Gringo!
A full day passed while Pastor Hector of First Havana Presbyterian Church hounded the airport authorities for the status of my lost luggage. Nowhere to be found. Resigned to the fact it wasn’t going to show up and no easy way to buy replacement goods, I considered aborting my trip. First Havana Church staff and my fellow travelers rallied, saying you have a destiny to fulfill here.
My male companions, all larger framed than me, begin loaning me the shirts off their backs and other essentials…shared tooth brushes, combs, and shaving equipment. Frocked in a t-shirt hanging almost to my knees, I stepped forth to meet the Cuban people.
They were all polite, clean and proudly dressed, even if of limited means…eager and curious to exchange conversations with Americans. They all looked healthy because Cuba possesses an abundance of talented doctors and nurses. Medical care is free. And the country even sends doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil. Now that’s a commodity trade!
Rather quickly, the friendly locals laughingly started calling me the “American Refugee”. What irony!
Out of sympathy, Pastor Hector presented me with a brand new pair of “Fruit of the Loom” underwear. How appropriate for a tropical climate! He had purchased these for himself during an infrequent but recent trip outside the country. Knowing how hard it was for him to leave Cuba and the scarcity of good underwear, I declined. He insisted.
Hand washing and rinsing the few garments in my possession proved a shocking experience. The showerhead in the dorm was heated electrically and some of the wires exposed. Touch it wrong and zap…just like the electrical fence on my Uncle’s farm to contain cattle. Government orchestrated power outages every day limited our washing routine.
I never regretted making this memorable trip to Havana eight years ago. It gave me the rare opportunity to reflect on what it must really be like as a refugee, dependent on others’ charity, with just the clothing you have on your back…not unlike the onslaught of people now fleeing Syria.
Five days after I arrived in Cuba, my wife, unaware of the situation, got a call from a Continental baggage agent in Montreal, Canada. While looking for someone else’s suitcase, this Good Samaritan noted the identification on my bag.
Apparently, our Air Mexicana flight routed onward to Canada. I am sure the call initially shocked and surprised her. Didn’t her husband head south of the border? The agent kindly offered to express the suitcase back to Cuba. Perhaps sensing it might disappear into another black hole, my wife wisely asked him to forward it back to Houston. Hanging up, she left guessing and worried about the status of the owner!
Last into Cuba last out. It was only fitting that when my group returned to the US I was the last person to gain entry. Because of my haggard appearance, US customs suspiciously pulled me aside for a special grilling…one more thorough than Cuba. Let me tell you it’s no fun going from temporary American Refugee to temporary Cuban Refugee!!!
A few weeks after my arrival home, Continental called to say they now had my suitcase at Bush International Airport. For a modest handling fee for such a long trip, I could retrieve it. None of the contents were missing. I felt sheepish for mentally abusing the Cuban handlers. Since there was no way I could send the contents to First Havana without accompanying the suitcase, this left us with what seemed like an endless supply of Ibuprofen, Imodium, Vitamins, Antibiotic Cream, Benadryl, tooth paste, and Hemorrhoid Ointment.
About three years later, Pastor Hector came to Houston to meet our church members and talk about life in Cuba. He was one of the initial handful of ministers who at some personal risk persuaded Castro to allow freedom of religion. At a small gathering, I presented him with a gift…a new package of “Fruit of the Loom” and a short sleeve Polo shirt. I hope they fit.
The American Refugee
June 27, 2016
April 9, 2017 4:47 PM EDTJim,
Don't you dare stop writing. You have a gift and you must share it with others!
April 12, 2017 5:41 PM EDTWith your experience as a "refugee" in Cuba, no wonder you can identify with the experience of all refugees fleeing the turmoil in Syria and the Middle East. Great writing!