Cuba: A Dry Run

North of Havana is a fantasy world of mangrove-lined cays and green water flashing with tropical fish—perfect sea-kayaking country. But the line between what's permissible and what's not in Castro's kingdom falls in a gray area, and comings and goings by water always mean trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

ADAM AND I HEAVE THE KAYAKS into the dark baggage car and are waved inside by a thin old man in a striped shirt holding a flashlight. He makes his way past piles of luggage to a crate desk in the corner, where he sits stiffly and pulls several ledgers out of a stack. He opens one to a tattered table of figures but with the rocking of the car has trouble keeping it in the circle of light. I hold the flashlight, and he shakily reads down the columns with the point of his pencil and makes mysterious calculations on the back of a receipt. Then he pulls out another ledger. He multiplies and adds. After ten minutes he looks up and tells us that we owe 13 pesos—about 70 cents—in overweight baggage. I pull out a 20-peso note, and he says he doesn't have change, we can pay him in Santa Clara. I say, "Keep the change." He waves his hand: No, no.

Adam and I walk unsteadily to our seats. The coach clatters and sways, lights dimmed, most of the passengers asleep. When I press my face against the glass I can see Orion hanging sideways in the sky, shooting his arrow upward to heaven, and the cut-out shadow of royal palms. The man in the seat across the aisle leans over and asks me where we're headed. He says he's from Australia, name's Heath, and pulls a footlong Corona Double A cigar out of his satchel. He offers me one.

I tell him we're trying to get permission to go paddling, and he twitches his mouth into a pained smile and jerks his head toward the beautiful green-eyed mulatto woman curled against him.

"I've been trying to get permission from the government to marry her for nine months. Full-time job. Best of luck."

We smoke and talk and I think how lovely it is to be enjoying these fine cigars as we jostle through some of the world's richest tobacco country. Soon there's murmuring in the seats up front. Heath's fiancée sits up and clucks loudly. She says that the Cubans are complaining about us: They wish the obnoxious tourists would pipe down. She says this in Spanish, and loud enough that the whole car can hear. Busted.

The people up front start to laugh. Cubans are nothing if not good humored. I think it's funny, too, and I laugh a little like Tom Hulce's Mozart in Amadeus. The car erupts. The woman conductor seated up front shakes her head and abruptly leaves for the next carriage. Then the door bangs open and she's back, hurrying down the aisle, followed by two policemen who ask some of the Cubans for their papers. There's no sound now but for train wheels and couplers. Palpable fear. The cops examine the documents and begin to write out citations. The offense: telling foreigners to shut up.

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