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Issue 19, Prosa | September 2016

     

The Backpack

“But we’re old enough to be your mothers,” I warned the two young Cuban guys flirting with us fifty-somethings at the hotel pool on a hill overlooking the sea east of Havana. At their request—they claimed to be broke like everyone else in Cuba (although somehow they had managed to scrape up the ten dollars to use the pool)—we had just bought a second round of mojitos and were dancing an awkward gringa salsa to the music blaring from their boom box.

“We don’t care about your age. You are both lovely and young-looking. And so strong, too,” declared the older, better-looking fellow who had paired himself with Mary, flexing his well-defined biceps to illustrate, not his, but our strength. They kept offering us these piropos, trying to win us over…but to what? The music, the sun, the rum, and the flattery were going to our heads. But we still had enough sense to realize how unwise it was to continue this game; they knew their roles and rules better than Mary and I knew ours.

“Cuba is sure great for our self-esteem,” I remarked as we made our getaway after they asked for a third round of drinks and hinted how much they would love for us to take them back to the US. We saved face by promising to meet them at the hotel disco later that night, but hid in our hotel room instead, trying to relax despite the bass vibrating beneath us.

We congratulated each other on managing to arrange this trip. In 2004, it was illegal for an American to visit Cuba (and actually still is in 2016) unless the traveler’s purpose fit one of the official categories, such as academic exchange. We had obtained a special visa to attend and present at an international conference on education. “Maybe they should make ‘Aging Women Needing Ego Boost’ another visa category,” I joked.

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I had always wanted to visit Cuba—ever since the 1970s when, as a social worker, I was assigned to help Cuban refugees by the county welfare department and given a healthy budget of federal funds to do so. My Cuban clients told me about the street celebrations, the gorgeous beaches, and the giant mangos, but also about the shortages of food and medicine, the long lines just to get a pound of rice, and neighbors who spied on them for the government. I wanted to learn more about this country of contradictions, the last communist country in the western hemisphere.

Now not only was I going to Cuba with Mary, my friend and favorite colleague, but I would also continue the tradition of “the mule”—that traveler who carries desired items to Latin Americans from their friends and relatives in the US. Two Spanish teachers from my university who were Cuban refugees found out about my impending trip and needed my help: Ana wanted me to transport copies of her recent book on Cuban culture to her librarian friends in Havana. Juan asked if I would take a backpack full of clothing and medicine to his sister and nieces; he would have preferred to give them the backpack himself, but he was a dissident intellectual who had left the country illegally and couldn’t return. Assuming the role of mula, I figured I would be doing something, albeit small, toward reducing the tensions plaguing US and Cuba relations ever since the rise of Fidel (as the Cubans call him) and the US invasion of the Bay of Pigs. In fact, it was the punitive US embargo and blockade against Cuba that was preventing Cubans from accessing the very over-the-counter pain reducers I would be carrying in that backpack.

Juan prepared me for my visit; he drew me maps, recommended places of interest, and conversed with me in rapid Spanish. In our last meeting before the trip, he gave me money for his sister and handed me a good quality backpack made of leather and canvas, filled with goods. I would be putting it in my suitcase.

“Inside the mochila are shoes and clothes for my nieces and some medicines. If the customs officials ask you for more money to bring it into Cuba, don’t give it to them,” he instructed. “Two hours after you arrive at your hotel, my sister and my aunt will come get the mochila.”

I waited to get home to check the backpack’s contents, not wanting to suggest to Juan that I didn’t trust him. After all, I had only known him a month and feared the same consequences faced by other mulas—those who carried illegal drugs, knowingly or not. But just as he said, inside the mochila were two pairs of pink and white running shoes, two pink and white Minnie Mouse T-shirts, and two huge plastic bottles of Ibuprofen and Tylenol.

At the Continental Airlines departure gate in Miami, my suitcase, loaded up with the mochila and Ana’s books, was over the weight limit, so Mary transferred the books to her luggage. The Cuban officials paged through them, probably understanding little of the academic language, and the books passed inspection. To my surprise, so did the mochila, which they didn’t even bother to unzip. But the biggest shock was that Mary herself was not allowed to fly with us. For some reason that the Estrella de Cuba travel agents could or would not explain, Mary’s name and those of four other conference participants did not appear on Continental’s passenger list. Instead, they had to fly in an American Airlines plane, empty except for them, even though there were more than five open seats on the Continental flight. Were extra planes needed in Havana? If so, why? I was worried because Mary didn’t have much experience with Spanish or Latin America; her languages were German and Dutch and her travel destinations European. But when we arrived in Havana, there she was waiting for us at the gate with the four others.

At Jose Martí Airport, Cubatur agents informed us that we would not be staying at the hotel where we had reservations, directly across the street from the conference site. Instead we would be staying 10 kilometers to the east in Playas del Este, Beaches of the East. We received no explanation for that change either. As we headed by taxi along a pot-holed coastal highway in a tropical downpour, we suddenly realized—“Oh no!”— that Juan’s sister Irene, who had asked for a day off from work, and their aunt were at that moment on their way to the first hotel to pick up the mochila. When we arrived at the second hotel, we called her to explain that we were at the mercy of Cubatur and apologized for causing her such an inconvenience. We arranged to meet the next day in Old Havana to deliver the backpack. Cubatur was taking us there for free to compensate for booking us at a hotel so far away from the conference.

We later found out that the hotel across from the conference site was moldy and roach-ridden and lacked running water and air conditioning. In contrast, our new hotel out in Playas del Este featured not only the ocean and the pool where we danced with our would-be gigolos, but also numerous frogs and lizards, much to the delight of Mary, an animal enthusiast. I could have done without the wildlife in the bathroom, but like her, I’m a swimmer, and we luxuriated, floating in the sea with its gentle waves, and then stroking back and forth in the salt-water pool with our suitors looking on admiringly.

The next day, gazing out the windows of the air-conditioned bus on our way to Old Havana, we noticed scores of hitchhikers waiting in the hot sun to get picked up by one of the old jalopies ubiquitous in Cuba. One of the hitchhikers was wearing a huge, unwieldy backpack.

“Yikes, Mary, the backpack! We forgot the backpack. We didn’t even bring it to breakfast. It’s my fault. Swimming and flirting instead of thinking of the backpack and Irene. Now what are we going to do? What are we going to tell her this time?”

We would have to call her so she didn’t take even more time off work to make yet another futile trip, but how? Was there a public telephone in Old Havana?

“Forget it,” announced the European conference participants with travel experience in Cuba (they could visit legally), almost gleefully. “The phones and the phone cards never work here.”

But when we arrived in Old Havana, I easily purchased a phone card for five dollars from a woman in a telephone kiosk. She showed me how to use it, and it worked! Again, I asked Irene for forgiveness, and we arranged to meet after the conference. She didn’t seem upset, maybe because Cubans are used to being disappointed?

We successfully delivered Ana’s books to her librarian friends—another surprise—although the national library, surrounded by billboards with revolutionary slogans, had such a complicated security system, both electronic and human, that made it seem more like we were delivering arms. Maybe politically incorrect books were considered contraband.

The more time we spent in Old Havana, with its street rubble, deteriorating colonial buildings, and unlabeled storefronts, including what turned out to be a grocery store whose clerks demanded that we surrender our purses before shopping (we refused and left), the worse we felt about forgetting the backpack. A parade of Cubans followed us up and down the streets with such strange and varied requests that we couldn’t distinguish the genuine from the fake. Some said they wanted money for their children, who gave us kisses and flowers in exchange for our dollars. Some begged for our “extra clothes.”

“Please, señoras, we need shirts, pants, and skirts. We have only the clothes on our backs,” pleaded two young women who, unlike us, were short. They were dressed in tank tops, tight spandex pants, and sandals like other Cuban women we saw, and the fabric did not seem threadbare. “Can we come back to your hotel with you so you can give us the clothes in your suitcases?”

“But we need those clothes to wear while we are here. Besides, our clothes won’t fit you. Look at how big we are and how small you are,” I added, pointing to the obvious differences in our size.

“We don’t care about the size. Please let us come with you.” We placated them with the bars of soap we brought from the US, which had satisfied other petitioners, and they left us alone. Did they intend to sell our clothes to bigger Cubans? Would they make two skirts out of one of ours? Were they hoping we would buy them a hotel meal? Did they want to rob us?

The stories and pitches grew more creative. A young man told a complicated tale to Mary in German, sometimes translating parts of it for my benefit, but into Italian. He said that he needed a special book to study for an exam so he could work in a hotel which would give him access to dollars. He and five other students had collected all the money except for two dollars, which Mary gave him, praising him for the uniqueness of his story. At the Plaza de la Catedral, another man, who told us he invented underwater chess and had been interviewed by CNN, wanted to sell us a grubby pamphlet of his poetry, which after negotiating, we bought for half his original asking price. Other solicitors tried to get us to buy useless items: knock-off cigars, bone collars, old license plates. When we opened up our wallets to give a couple of dollars to some musicians dressed like jesters and parading on stilts, we noticed that the line of petitioners had doubled—it was if we were wearing a sign: “Naïve Americans Who Believe Anything.” Yet even if some or most of them were liars, they were obviously not rich. Didn’t they at least deserve something for their efforts?

We visited palaces and museums of colonial splendor— their crystal lamps, sculpted furniture, and imported china accentuating the ruins of Havana’s buildings that UNESCO had promised to restore, and that endless stream of beggars and/or tricksters. Our European conference colleagues even regarded as con-men the talented musicians on every corner coaxing beautiful sounds out of their worn out instruments. “For heaven’s sake, don’t encourage them!” they scolded us as we stopped to listen with pleasure and dropped dollars in their open guitar cases. As if busking were an annoying habit like smoking or spitting.

The Old Havana scene suggested a burden, a debt the US owed the Cubans for imposing a blockade intending to punish Fidel, but instead penalizing the already poor Cubans, those without the resources to move to Miami. But this burden was unlike the liberal guilt of tourists from developed countries visiting developing ones, even other Latin American nations that had been invaded or infiltrated by the US. The enormous cloud of ambiguity made the load heavier. Were Cuba’s conditions solely the fault of the US? Our conference keynoter, a famous American leftist scholar and critic, certainly thought so. Even at the beach, he continued his anti-American discourse, blaming the US for Cuba’s woes.

“See all this garbage?” he yelled, waving food wrappers in the air. “It’s all because the US has taken away Cubans’ sense of self-esteem!” But I wasn’t so sure. Was the US responsible for those chicken bones left in the hotel pool area by the partying locals who took the place of our young suitors? Besides, a truck came by every morning to pick up that garbage from the beach. And streets all over Latin America are littered after festivals but are cleaned up soon after. Temporary garbage seemed to be more a matter of culture and custom than colonization and poor self-esteem.

With Mary as my sounding board, I continued to argue with the keynoter’s reasoning Wasn’t Fidel’s refusal to relax restrictions on economic freedom also responsible for Cuba’s poverty? How was it that the food shortages, which made visiting that grocery store more like shopping for precious jewels, relegated the Cubans and the conference participants to daily meals of rice, boiled potatoes, and raw cabbage, but at the final conference banquet, where it was rumored Fidel would appear, we were served prime rib, poached salmon, a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and fancy pastries. All these questions and contradictions weighed on us heavily.

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Backpack Delivery Day coincided with the day that the conference participants were visiting Cuban elementary schools. Mary and I chose a school close to the Hotel Inglaterra where we would meet Irene and her aunt. The night before, in big letters with a ball point pen, I wrote BACKPACK on one hand and MOCHILA on the other. Irene wisely called to remind us. This time we would not forget.

At the hotel, on the bus, in the school, I carried the backpack on my back—for seven hours. I never took it off. I wouldn’t let Mary carry it. I was the one who had forgotten it—and now I would make up for it by doing my penance. It was my guilt, my American burden. I carried it during the skits performed by the young pioneers, through the long Marxist speech by the principal, and up and down the stairs to visit classrooms with an unlikely combination of posters hanging on the walls—Fidel, Che, Mickey Mouse, the Little Mermaid, and Pocahontas. Even though my shoulders hurt and I was drenched with sweat, I didn’t take it off.

It was Mary who first saw Irene, her aunt, and her daughter at the entrance to the hotel. We greeted one another with kisses and hugs and entered the cool, dark lobby to finally deliver the backpack and the money from Juan. I invited them to eat at the hotel’s sidewalk café, but they asked the waiter only for sodas, and I was disappointed. I wanted to buy them lunch or dessert to make up for my forgetfulness and to celebrate our long-awaited meeting. Mary and I, indulging in espresso and ice cream, conversed with them about them about the dire Cuban economic situation and the deteriorating relationships between our countries due to President Bush’s punitive measures, but also the aspirations of Irene’s two daughters. The older one, who was at school and could not come along with them, wanted to be a model, the younger one, a doctor. When I described our experiences with the street beggars, Irene and her aunt laughed out loud and told us that they were spending our dollars on rum. No ambiguity there! Were they right? Had we really been conned over and over again?

At the table, they emptied out the backpack. Mary had added hotel-sized bars of soap and bottles of shampoo and a stuffed panther for the younger daughter who was so pleased with her gifts that she gave her a big hug. And she loved her new jogging shoes and Minnie Mouse shirt from Uncle Juan. But Irene and her aunt expressed little emotion. Could it be that they were uncomfortable with the idea that we might be comparing them, although favorably of course, with the beggars we were complaining about?

In retrospect, I realized I wanted to buy them lunch and show them largesse so they would express their gratitude to me and thereby help relieve me of my American burden. I realized I was motivated more by selfishness than generosity, an embarrassing self-discovery. After all, I had thought I was challenging, not displaying, gringo stereotypes. Finally delivering the backpack turned out to be a bittersweet encounter, an anti-climax, a let-down after all our attempts to meet. After we took some photos together to show Juan, we said our good-byes, my conscience, like my shoulders, a little lighter, but still aching.

The Backpack