I took a deep breath as I stepped off the plane at Havana Airport. No matter how frequently I fly these days, immigration on arrival is never an easy affair. With the sheer number of us that flee the nest (myself included), Indians tend to be among the usual suspects being heavily screened at almost any airport in the world. Posible emigrante, we’re labelled– a familiar term for Cubans who’ve been scrutinised since their post-revolution exodus to the US. “De que pais?”, asked a young male officer no sooner than my colleague Sasha and I had taken five steps into the arrivals hall. “India”, I said. “Please take a seat”, he replied, adding our passports to his stack. I looked around at my fellow defendants awaiting trial – a couple from Turkey, a few North African students, two middle-Eastern bearded men….and us. We took a seat among the coloured brigade, and patiently watched the world’s other passport holders breeze through.
The minutes ticked nervously by and nobody appeared to be in a rush. Finally, our officer emerged from a little room across the hall. A lengthy interrogation in Spanish ensued, and after a small huddle with his comrades, he finally cracked a smile and asked, ‘’Tiene un amigo aqui en Cuba?’’ For decades since Castro’s revolution, Cubans have conjured up imaginative ways to leave the country in search of a better future – and finding a foreign ‘friend’ is a popular option. A few minutes and a few made up amigos later, we got a ‘Bienvenida en Cuba’ and were happily stamped into the country. It was only when I was leaving Havana that I flipped through my passport at the check-in desk, and found a little piece of paper on which was scribbled Ministry of Justice, a name and a mobile number. Had the officer hoped to be my amigo?
We rolled out of the airport lugging 5 heavy suitcases filled with all sorts of supplies, gifts and goodies that are hard to come by in Cuba. Besides stationery, chocolates and cookies, our stash included special requests from locals – mixed seeds and nuts for Alberto the artisanal baker, dry fruits for Norma who is battling cancer, a mosquito net for Miguel’s baby, sports tape and protein mix for the young boxers in training at Rafael Trejo gym, Nutella and sunscreen for my dear friend Yudith, whisky, Masala Chai, Indian sweets, old clothes, toiletries, old electronics and USBs to donate… the list goes on. And still there were things that we didn’t manage to bring, like needles to test blood for Yudith’s mum, who has diabetes. These were out of stock in Cuba’s state medical stores and unavailable in the ubiquitous black market. Piling our cases into his car, Gino our taxi driver asked how many months we planned to stay. “Three weeks”, I shrugged and hopped into his newly upholstered, freshly painted, blue Dodge.
We trundled down the familiar road towards our casa in Vedado, my favourite neighbourhood in Havana. This was my third trip to the island in 12 months. My Cuban experience began with Obama’s historic visit, and was peppered by Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau (paying last respects to Fidel, a good friend of his father Pierre). A week after Trudeau’s visit and 24 hours after my last departure from Havana, the momentous news about Fidel broke. El Comandante was dead.
On 20 March 2016, I watched Air Force One landing in Cuba. I was standing in front of a crackling TV screen at the Centro Havana police station – where I had already spent 5 hours filing a report about my stolen iPhone. That week, Old Havana became the camping ground for the world’s media as the 1000-strong US delegation descended upon the city. The President received a wet welcome, as ominous grey clouds swept the skies. Meanwhile, Habaneros were warned to keep off the streets and out of trouble. Yet, Hiram – a young Cuban expat (and founder of Revolico.com – Cuba’s Craigslist) ventured out with me. As Obama made his way to dinner that Sunday evening, so did we. Havana's Malecon was deserted. High waves crashed over the seawall, as we cruised along in his blue Lada – the only car on the avenue.
During that same trip, I had another surreal moment, when I found myself sitting in the living room of Diana Diaz, the daughter of Alberto Korda – the creator of that iconic 1960s portrait of Che Guevara. After Alberto’s death in 2001, Diana gave up her lifelong career in ballet, and dedicated herself to continuing her father’s legacy. In her gallery-home, she walked me through his earliest works. “My father loved two things deeply”, Diana said, “beautiful women, and the revolution”. Korda was one of Cuba’s top fashion photographers until 1959, when he became Fidel Castro’s personal photographer and trusted friend – best known for capturing human, playful moments of Fidel and Che off-duty.
As I held old negatives and flicked through her favourite albums, Diana transported me to the heyday – of the revolution and her own childhood – during this extraordinary time. Lesser known to the world, but closest to Korda’s heart, is his photograph of Paulita – a little peasant girl cradling a tree branch (a make-believe doll). She now hangs on my wall 10,000 miles away in Singapore – a special farewell gift from Diana.
One of the most profound gifts I received from Cuba, however, was finding power and beauty in my own identity. In my colour… in me. With 1.25 billion of us and the largest diaspora in the world (30 million!), Indians are far from exotic. But in Cuba, I struck a different chord. One of the first things Jorge, my smiling salsa teacher, said to me, putting his forearm next to mine was, “You’re Mulata, like me”. Mulata is a person of mixed ancestry (black and white, or dark skinned) – the product of centuries of colonial rule and slavery. And while the roots of racism and white privilege run deep on the island, their existence is denied. Yet, through my conversations, I found myself getting under the skin – unlocking doors, and hearts; above all, my own. The key, it appears… was being me.
Of all the people I connected with, the one who made an eternal impact is Yudith – a young, quirky contemporary art teacher, with short red hair. I met her last March at her favourite café in Vedado. In less than 20 minutes, we were onto the Beatles, Japanese erotic anime and cats – all related to art, of course! At 28, Yudith juggles 5 jobs to make ends meet. Her big dream, like that of many Cubans, is to travel abroad and find new opportunities to make a better living. She’s never left the country and in fact doesn’t have a passport – an expensive and difficult prospect for most Cubans.
We spent my last week in Havana joined at the hip – celebrating our friendship. Sisterhood really. We visited her family in her hometown, drank mojitos, danced Salsa and made big plans to reunite in the new year. On the morning of my flight home, we waltzed out of La Marca – Havana’s only tattoo salon – inked and bonded for life. Yudith saw me into my cab that night, and we hugged goodbye through our tears. The truth is, I have no idea when I’ll see her again. In a few months, she plans to marry her lovely boyfriend Alejandro and hopefully move to Canada or Spain. We pictured a honeymoon in India – which I’d crash, of course. If only she can get her hands on that precious passport…