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February 23, 1999

Cuba: Troubled Waters

(In November the author of this article and several other Mobilians visited Cuba on a trip arranged by the Mobile-Havana Sister City organization. A US government embargo prohibits most travel to and other relations with Cuba by American citizens. This is the third episode. Further tales of the journey will follow. Click here for the previous episode.)

by David Underhill

Brave fools mount motorcycles without helmets or enter court masquerading as their own lawyers. I went to sea without Dramamine--in my tummy. It was in my pocket.

I'd paddled a canoe and ridden a ferry or two free of nausea (from the Greek word for ship). For the ninety miles of ocean to Cuba I would be my own lab rat to prove whether I am really immune to seasickness. If yes, I'd have saved myself from the self-dosing blandishments of the huckster-pharmaceutical complex. If no, the fool would bravely puke his innards out.

The flat, inky waters of Key West harbor parted for our ship's smooth departure by night. She felt large and stable enough to command the elements: sixty feet long, twenty wide, dual diesels chugging confidently in the hold. On board were many big boxes of medical supplies to be sprinkled thinly across millions of embargoed Cubans, about a dozen passengers, and a crew of three. Other Mobilians were flying to the island.

The whole menagerie (apart from two officially aloof TV reporters and camera caddies) contained four somewhat overlapping species.

These impressions weren't formulated at first. I'd gathered only the sketchy skeleton of them when more pressing matters grabbed me.

As all the old seafaring sagas relate, the ocean is a desert of water. The rising sun exposed us as alone in that waste. No land, ship, or other feature marred the blank, circular uniformity of the sea. No horizon marked its bounds; somewhere in the blurred distance sky and ocean melded to seal us in this ring. Inside it stood nothing to impede the wind from doing its will, which was to trouble the water.

Our boat had been bounding merrily along, dashing the ripples in its way to spray that danced around the bow. Then wind-thrashed peaks rose against us, and the ship became a wood chip rearing, diving, rolling, swiveling through a universe of attacking waves.

As if to prove evolution, I responded in sympathetic vibration with the ocean, from which we supposedly came. It was in turmoil, and I soon was too. Like an ailing animal I slunk out of sight below deck and left my breakfast in a sink -- also the previous two or three meals, it felt. But an empty stomach isn't truly empty. It can still clench violently and squeeze out a greenish slimy substance at intervals, I discovered.

Pan in hand for future convulsions, I staggered across the pitching floor to a sofa and collapsed. For hours that seemed like forever the ship heaved, I heaved. "Why me? Why me!" you want to wail during spells like these. But I knew the answer. The others either were sailing veterans inured against seasickness or they'd popped their pills at the start. It was too late for me. The mere thought of swallowing anything now made me retch.

Curious, concerned faces passed through my fevered field of vision from time to time. Nothing they could do would help. But maybe they were eyeball measuring me for a sea-burial shroud. This was one of those passages where you feel so wretched, so helplessly, hopelessly awful that you begin to fear you won't die.

After a lifetime of yearning for a look at revolutionary Cuba, when murmurs of a dark smudge on the horizon reached my ears I could think only that this must mean calmer waters ahead. It soon did.

I dragged myself woozily up to the main deck and saw, with huge relief, something solid off the bow: the Cuban coast. It gradually resolved into colors and shapes -- the unmistakable skyline of a city -- Havana! Individual buildings came into focus, then a gap that had to be the harbor mouth.

On a promontory to the left loomed an immense Spanish-colonial-style fort, still impressive but more of a target than a defense in an era of smart bombs and rockets. On the right were glimpses of old Spanish Havana's ornate columned and arched stone structures. Far behind some 20th century steel and glass boxes thrust up.

Then the short entrance channel opened into the harbor. Flat water! I'd finally arrived at the capital of Castro's defiant thumb in the eye of bullying Uncle Sam, and I wasn't seized with curiosity, anticipation, or adventure. My main sensation was that my stomach had ceased churning for the first time in eight hours.

My next observation was how empty the harbor looked. This is by far the country's largest city; about a fifth of all Cubans live here. Where were the ocean-going cargo ships, the container cranes, the tugs and barges, the bulk materials docks, the ship construction and repair yards that line the harbor of even a medium American port like Mobile? Either these activities must be elsewhere for some reason, or the embargo must indeed have chased normal commerce away.

Only a few small boats and a couple of modest ferries came in sight. And they were ramshackle by American standards: patched, grimy, rusty, belching smoke. The familiar creates expectations. Encounter something different and a mental reflex says, "This is wrong."

So it would be throughout the visit. I had to stay on guard against the impulse to regard anything strange as somehow faulty, incorrect, backward, ignorant, careless, corrupt, or perverse. Failure to enforce this stricture on yourself will turn you into the Ugly American -- or the ugly anybody who secretly believes that since his way of life is right, therefore anything otherwise is wrong and should be altered or spurned. But apply this caution too thoroughly and you become a gaga apologist for everything. Such are the puzzles of venturing outside your accustomed rut.

Among the ingrained expectations that Americans trundle to Cuba in their brains is that it's a totalitarian police-state dictatorship. Every major mechanism of instruction has taught this for decades. The faint, infrequent spurts of contrary opinion are derided as commie propaganda or the wishful thinking of squishy liberal dupes. Try as you might to insulate yourself from this indoctrination, it still seeps in.

So where were the Cuban air force planes shadowing us far at sea? Where were the navy ships intercepting us for interrogations and searches? Where were the harbor police patrol boats or the glowering, automatic-rifle-toting troops on shore? Nowhere, that's where.

The captain had made this run before and knew where he was going. He steered unchallenged and unescorted into the core of the port and nestled against a particular dock. Down in my sick bay I'd missed any radio announcements he might have made about our approach, but the few hands there appeared surprised at the arrival of this load of gringos and their medical supplies.

In his version of workable Spanish the captain solicited help tying the boat up. Then somebody strolled away to try finding others with the authority to admit us to the country. Whoever that might be, they didn't come racing with sirens blaring and insignia gleaming. We waited...and waited...

If this was a totalitarian police-state dictatorship, it certainly wasn't a very efficient and menacing one. Or else it operated by methods so complete and covert that untrained eyes like mine could not detect them at all.

(to be continued)

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