Travelogue: Returning To A Country Left Behind


During this holiday week, is bringing you travelogues from destinations around the world that have a Latino flair. We’ll take you on journeys to Spain, Colombia, Peru, and Cuba to give you a respite from this busy time of year and to encourage you to start making travel plans for 2013.
Today CTLatinoNews columnist Bessy Reyna writes about her return to her native Cuba after 56 years.
By Bessy Reyna
Rafael Campo, a Cuban-American poet and practicing physician, once wrote “To cure myself of wanting Cuban songs/ I wrote a Cuban song…” I often remember his poem when I get nostalgic for the country I left in 1956. A country, which, like my parents who died before fulfilling the dream of a family reunion, I was sure I would never see again.
An invitation to participate in the International Poetry Festival in Havana in May 2012 was the irresistible force that prompted me to go. The idea of reading my poems in the country that taught me to love poetry as a child, and to share my work with Cuban poets and poets from all over the world, was a powerful incentive to find a way to make the trip.
Cuban born citizens, regardless of having been naturalized as citizens of any other country, can request visas to go to Cuba. However, since this was my first trip back, it was important for me to share that experience with my USA-born spouse. As luck would have it, we found out about a trip to Cuba sponsored by a university in Connecticut. We both enrolled in a class through Continuing Education and packed our bags.
When we landed, I didn’t know what to expect, or how to feel. Joy and sadness were mixing inside of me as if I had thrown my feelings into a blender. Joy: because I could finally embrace family members left behind, and meet those born since I left. Sadness: because I know the difficulties Cubans have to face to survive on a daily basis, from lack of available products we take for granted here, to the opportunity to buy even an umbrella, or a car.
Taxis queue in Havana.
We know that USA-made cars from the 50’s are found all over Cuba, but seeing them circulating and parked one next to the other really enhances the feeling of being back in time.
I didn’t expect Habana Vieja, the old section of the city, to be such a beautiful place. Many of the buildings have been renovated since UNESCO declared this area to be a World Heritage Site. In contrast, many buildings in need of repair appear like open wounds. Beauty and despair travel from one building to the next. There is a sad elegance surrounding most of the buildings.
As I admired one building in particular, I thought about Blanche Dubois, the character in Tennessee Williams’ play “Streetcar Named Desire.” Havana, like Blanche, refuses to give up the illusion of her beauty and continues to rely on the kindness of strangers for her survival.
The biggest surprise for me was not in the architecture, or seeing horse-drawn carriages, but in how the people responded to us. I did not expect to find the level of warmth and friendship they offered to us.  I thought they would blame those of us visiting from the USA, for their deprivation. I was wrong. From the workers at the hotel, to the people we met while sitting at a café, or a restaurant, or simply walking one of the narrow streets, we didn’t met one person who was cynical or unfriendly.
When people asked me “When did you leave Cuba?” I replied “1956″, a magic number that set me apart from the exiles. Because, I left “antes de, antes de…”  Before the Revolution.”
In my poems, I often refer to the clouds in the tropics. Cuban clouds are sensual, intricate and changing in color and density from one moment to the next. For the first time, I could admire something I remembered so vividly from my childhood, and it was hard to decide which to pay attention to, the clouds spread like a magical tent over a colonial plaza, or the buildings’ seductive voices whispering “look at me.”
One special moment happened for me while strolling in the Paseo de Marti, the elegant boulevard, which used to be known as Paseo del Prado. It was completed in the 1830s to rival the best of the promenades in Europe. While smiling at the families playing with their children, and admiring the artists displaying and selling their paintings and jewelry, I approached a group of women sitting in a circle. The group leader, an elderly woman, explained to me that they were making “Encaje con bolillo.” bobbin lace, which is made with small wood pieces. A very old form of weaving, which she was now teaching other women. She told me that she was having a problem because one of the wood pieces had broken.
On my second day in Cuba, I soon learned that the people I talked to, or bought souvenirs from, were very appreciative when I offered them a pen. I had bought a box of pens to exchange with poets at the festival. Instead, these pens ended up in the hands of many different people, including the one I offered to the lace weaver, to be used as a replacement of the broken bolillo.
Happiness is just as hard to describe as sadness. It is hard for me to put into words what it meant to see her face beaming because the gift of a simple pen had solved her problem. I found a new meaning for the old adage “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Meeting My Family And Hurricane Beryl
I had no idea that my cousin Ibrahim Aput, who lives in Havana, and is an announcer at Radio Reloj, was so famous, but everywhere we went, people greeted him, and, even asked for his autograph. Politics and finances made contact with family in Cuba difficult and infrequent once my parents, my brother and I left. While most of my father’s relatives left Cuba in the early 60s, very few on my mother’s side ever left.
The cousins I had hoped to see lived in Holguin, several hours by car from Havana. Luckily the tour I joined had a scheduled stop at Trinidad, a city closer to Holguin. My cousins and I made arrangements to meet at the hotel where we were staying. We did not count on Hurricane Beryl, joining us.
Unbeknown to us, the rainfall had flooded roads, created mudslides and made travelling almost impossible. To make matters worse, the phone lines worked intermittently, and I didn’t know if my cousins had been able to travel at all. As if this was not bad enough, when they called the hotel to check if I had arrived, they were told that “a group from a University in Connecticut was there, but my name was not on the list.”
What is the probability that two different student groups from two niversities in Connecticut would be at the same hotel in Trinidad on the same day? The clerk had looked at the other school’s list and my name was not found.
After many hours of attempting to get a call through, we gave up and went in to dinner. Moments later, the desk clerk came in to say:  “Your family is here!!” They had driven for over five hours with only one wiper working. I don’t know how they made it, but there we were hugging and crying and laughing. My cousin and I had e-mailed each other over the years, but until that night I hadn’t met Yohanka and her husband, or seen her father, my childhood playmate Pachucho, since I left Cuba. As soon as we sat down to eat, the “Do you remember” started.
People who grow up surrounded by family have no idea how disconnected those of us who don’t can feel. It is as if our family is like a house abandoned in mid-construction. That night, as we talked about the relatives, where they live, what they do, I felt as if slowly the missing walls were being erected. The next morning, we had breakfast together and hugged each other tightly, hoping this would be the first and not the last time we would see each other.
Each day in Cuba, I searched for fragments of my past, of the child who loved roller-skating in the park, or watching the waves crash against the walls of the Malecon.
Throughout my life Cuban music has been my connection to my past, my parents and my identity. I grew up listening to the danzones my parents danced to and the boleros that are so popular in our culture. While having lunch at the Hotel Florida, in Havana, I was sitting across from the piano player and asked him if he knew the song “Noche Cubana” by Portillo de la Luz. It is a beautiful tribute to the Cuban night and its sensual landscape. The pianist smiled sweetly at me, as if comprehending that all my feelings and longing for Cuba were encapsulated in that song. He played a tender and sensual rendition of this beautiful love poem where the Cuban night beckons you to become its lover.
“…Negra bonita de ojos de estrellas en tus brazos morenos/quiere vivir un romance mi alma bohemia.”
Photos (c) Bessy Reyna