“One last ride in a vintage Cuban taxi for tres pesos and we were back at the ‘Puerto de Casa’. I did my usual fumbling around in my purse for the house keys, which, was different this time when I noticed the absence of my leather wallet…”
I must admit that Cuba was never on my bucket list for must-see places in the world. Not for any particular reason but for the fact that while growing up in the UK during my younger years, it wasn’t a well-advertised destination. This may be due to the politics surrounding the relationship between Cuba and the US, and the UK, as a sister country, adhering to the policies set in the US. Or it may just be due to the theory that other “closer” destinations, such as, North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were more popular at the time and earning more revenue for travel companies. Whatever it may be, I never really considered Cuba at the top of my list.
I had connected with a friend a few years back, who was also Black British and living in Miami, and after relatively little time, we became sisters. We traveled to China together in 2017 and Bahamas later in the same year. For 2018, we planned to go out with a bang as she was returning to the UK for some time. Cuba was the spot! Once I pushed aside my reservations and re-uncovered the open-minded traveler within me, we went ahead and booked.
We chose to travel in January. This would be our last trip for a while before she would abandon me to become a hermit once again. Alas, we enjoy each other’s company regardless of the location, so we knew we would have a blast. Making it through customs within minutes after the hours of preparation we had was almost hilarious (we heard about the difficulties of getting into Cuba as US residents) but, we were grateful. Landing in Cuba and the days following were nothing short of amazing. There were stunning natural wonders, great people, great deals, awesome Mojitos, and a wealth of learning experiences all packed into the pocket of a few days which seemed to blur into one another.
On the last day, we reconnected with some of the friends we made during the trip and relived the last few hours as Cubans before departing. Leandro and Riccardo met us for lunch at a quant local spot nearby our accommodations, as most Cubans couldn’t afford the tourist-centered restaurants we considered extremely inexpensive. They escorted us back to our “Casa Particulares” after visiting one more sight of the ‘Che Guevara’ sculpture in ‘Revolution Square’! One last ride in a vintage Cuban taxi for tres pesos and we were back at the ‘Puerto de Casa’. I did my usual fumbling around in my purse for the house keys, which, was different this time when I noticed the absence of my leather wallet…
Losing my wallet has never been a big deal to me as much as it is an inconvenience but this time, it was different as my green card was inside. Flashbacks of my aunt constantly reminding me to take my green card out and put it somewhere safe clouded my mind as feelings of regret and panic churned throughout my stomach. Scurrying around in my luggage upstairs hoping to somehow find the green card there, left me hopeless and stuck for what to do. Our new friends, being typical Cubans, didn’t leave our side and accompanied us on retracing our steps. We walked to the restaurant, back to ‘Revolution Square’, and thought of ways to find the taxi driver, which we had no way of contacting. Eventually we gave up and decided to try our luck at the airport.
The journey to the airport with our usual taxi driver, Albertico (our next door neighbor), was silent as we all sat in thought. However, it was incomprehensibly peaceful. I’ve always found that in times where I am shrouded in dismay, God is never far and never fails to give me a sense of peace to let me know that things will work out. In my recent years, I’ve learned to take this peace and attempt to leave my problems in the hands of the most high. Nonetheless, I’m someone who worries when I don’t know what is to come.
Squeezing my hand, I see my sister peering at me in my peripheral as I gaze out of the car window wondering if I will make this same journey back in a couple of hours. The journey, although only lasting about 20 minutes, seemed as though we were encapsulated in a time vortex that had then been brought back to reality upon arrival at the airport. We lifted our luggage out of the trunk of the car, effortlessly, with strength gained from adrenaline and proceeded to the JetBlue information desk. A JetBlue rep, Jose, meets us at the counter and listens as we tell him of the occurrences. His look of disdain failed to comfort me throughout the conversation and when I had finished he was lost for words. He advised reaching out to the US Consulate, applying for an ESTA (visitor’s visa for UK citizens), and visiting the US and British Embassies since I still had my British passport with me. He also stated that it was very unlikely I would fly that day.
My heart sunk along with my body as I crouched down into a squat, unknowing of what to do and the discussions around me turning into murmurs as I became lost in thought. I arose, after telling myself that sobbing would get me nowhere, and took up his offer to use his computer where I then reached out to the US Consulate and applied for an ESTA . Knowing full-well that as a permanent resident I would not be eligible for an ESTA, I was willing to try anything at this point hoping for a fluke in the system. Throughout the process, I pushed for my friend to continue on without me as we both had work to get back to, but, she continually rejected my proposal and if not for the solemnity of the situation we probably would have laughed at the movie-like scenario. Soon after the gate closed and in an effort to remedy any feelings of lost hope, Jose offered to transfer us to the flight for the next day free of charge, which, we took feeling defeated.
This being the last day we planned to be in the country, our funds were exhausted and due to being residents of the US, were unable to take out money with any of our bank cards. Calling my father was our only hope and thankfully he had agreed to transfer enough to get us through the next day via Western Union. For those who don’t know, foreigners aren’t permitted to receive money through Western Union in Cuba and so my father had to send the funds to one of our new found Cuban friends, who collected the monies for us without any issues. We headed back to the same “Casa Particulares”, where the owners had offered to house us for an additional night, and after a restless attempt at sleep, we gathered our belongings in the morning and set off on the road once more.
On the way to the airport, we stopped at a Wi-Fi spot in town to see the outcome of the ESTA application, only to find that it was indeed declined before heading to the US Embassy in hopes of unlikely help. To our dismay, the building was deserted with nothing more than a security guard to inform us of his inability to be of any assistance. Stuck for what to do next, we travelled to the airport once more with Albertico as our guardian. Upon arrival for the second day in a row, we met with Jose once more and informed him of our efforts, which, ended in him suggesting he call the US Consulate in hopes that they would grant me permission to reenter the US. Along with this suggestion, came words of preparation for the worst case scenario. This included purchasing a ticket to Mexico, paying $600 to file for permission to reenter after losing a green card, waiting the probable time of at least a few days for the answer and if successful, paying for a ticket back to the US and paying an additional $600 for a new green card. Hope dwindled more than I thought possible after hearing all of this, but, we decided to bank on the suggestion seeing as it was our only option.
We spent, what seemed like hours, watching the route Jose took to the main office in waiting for his return. My stomach couldn’t take the anxiety halfway through and I ran off to the bathroom for relief. On my way back to the waiting area, I notice Jose standing over my seated friend in conversation and as I get a little closer I hear him stating that he got the opportunity to speak to someone who seemed nice enough to tell him to wait for an answer via email. It sounded promising, but, he then went on to say that it had never ended well when he encountered them before. We thanked him for his efforts and he returned to his desk while we waited another 30 minutes, nearing the time for the gate to close.
I had found myself praying harder than ever before and was accompanied by both my friend and her family’s prayers, which, I am extremely grateful for. Lifting my head out of prayer, I noticed Jose exiting from behind his desk with a sheet of paper and a blank expression on his face while my heart thundered within my chest. As he closed in on us he handed me the paper and smiled before iterating that in all his years, the US Consulate had not once agreed to the request and proclaimed that our prayers had worked! The joy I felt at that moment was unlike any other as I jumped up and danced around remiss of who was watching. We quickly gathered our things and had Jose offer to escort us from check-in the entire way to sitting on the plane. We bid him farewell with blessings and offered him money, for which, he rejected with a smile. The blatant racism we experienced on the flight home nor the additional steps I encountered through customs back in the US could remove the feelings of elation I had becoming “unstuck”.
The series of unfortunate events were both physically and spiritually life-changing and humbled me in so many ways. On being back in the US, many have asked if I would return or given me the “I told you so” speech. My answer has remained the same since. I would absolutely return in a heartbeat, of course being more prepared! Cuba possesses qualities that many places I have travelled to have not. I could have been stuck absolutely anywhere in the world, but, thank God that, due to the hearts of the people we encountered, it was in Cuba.
– Anita J. Francois, La Vie Femme Noire
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