Beautiful. Cheap. Fascinating. In my younger days, say pre-thirty-three or so, I’d use those three words to describe myself to some lucky lady at the bar before asking her to buy me a drink. Honestly, fellas, in my world it didn’t work as well as you think it would. In fact, it was easier getting in and out of Cuba as an American than it was making that line work.
And even that is no small feat. For most Americans to enter Communist Cuba independently, one needs either special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department or has to surrepticiously fly into Havana from a different country. I chose the latter. As I mentioned before, stepping off the plane in Cuba is like stepping back in time. As I started working my way backwards through the years, I bumped into an immigration official, looking official only by his official-looking walkie-talkie. Flipping through my passport, U.S.A. printed in classy, faux gold across the cover, he asked, “Why don’t you have a visa to enter the country?” Good question, now that I think about it. My first frantic thought was, “Umm… I’m not allowed a visa. You’re the one in ‘Immigration’, so surely you know more about this than I do. All I did was google ‘getting into Cuba’ and the internet told me that we could work this out, you would let me in, and everything would be just fine. Hasn’t anyone told you about this?” I took a deep breath and I did what Momz always taught me to do in adverse situations: Stay calm. Be polite. Act dumb.
And so began a two hour routine of calmly posturing through questions, shifting answers, improvising truths, and following my inquisitor’s lead. No, I’m not here to take pictures of government installations. No, I don’t intend to engage in subversive behavior. Yes, I like baseball and Cuban food. No, I wasn’t aware that Jay-Z is also here without permission. Politely, I was deftly maneuvered through a rotation of official partners, all leading with similar questions, me trailing with similar answers – same steps, different tempo – the Clave Rhythm of the Powers That Be. Occasionally, like maracas, the official-looking walkie-talkies squawked independent to our bureaucratic swing as lunch orders were relayed through official channels. In mid-shimmy, I gave up dumbly acting like this administrative Salsa had anything to do with me. They were following their own music, marking time to their own beat, and I happened to step onto their stage. But before making an exit, before allowing the next partner to cut in, their expressions would change. Faces animated in smile, they would shake my hand, look me in the eye and say, “Welcome to my country. It truly is a pleasure to have you. From here, I hope you’ll have a wonderful time.” And I did.
But before stamping my new tourist card, the final immigration officer began her litany of questions and I couldn’t help but think: all this dancing makes the world go around. Much of the time we’re just following steps in someone else’s masquerade. So, when we get the chance, we may as well try to follow the beat of our own drum, twirl, pirouette and gyrate to our own groove.
“What brings you here?” the agent asked. Officially?
Three little words. Beautiful. Cheap. Fascinating. I’m here to dance, girl.
She looked up at me with a smirk that, in my world, became a smile. A smile that said, “I just might buy you a drink.”