After a quick visit with my sister and her family in Ft. Myers, I rented a car and headed across the peninsula, through the everglades to Miami. After grabbing a quick breakfast with an old college buddy in Ft. Lauderdale, I made a quick stop in the Little Havana district of Miami. I wanted to first see the house on NW 2ndStreet where Elian lived with his family during his 5 months in the US.
The house was even smaller than I had imagined. Just a couple of years ago, it was still occupied by his uncle, Delfin Gonzalez. He had kept everything exactly the way it was in Elian’s room the night he was removed by federal agents at the direction of then Attorney General Janet Reno, who is actually from Dade County Florida. Apparently, up until his recent death, Delfin would gives tours of the house for “donations”. Now, it appears to be empty and serves as a surreal reminder of this international story.
I boarded my flight and landed in Havana just about an hour after taking off. Cuba was a familiar sight as I made my descent down to the tarmac for the third time in 3 years. My friend Yuniel had agreed to pick me up in his family’s 1953 Dodge Coronet and drive me to my Airbnb in the heart of Old Havana. I started getting nervous when, after 45 minutes, Yuniel was still nowhere to be found. He was always punctual.
Then I remembered that Havana had two airports. With no cell or data service and no Wi-Fi, I began to panic a little. I finally convinced a man to let me use his cell phone. Fortunately I was able to locate Yuniel’s cell phone number through WhatsApp. Once I made contact, we discovered that he was at the other airport and would be there to pick me up momentarily.
In a few minutes, I spotted the green coronet slowly making its way to the pickup point. He got out of the car, smiled, and we embraced for a few seconds. It was good to see my friend again. I hopped in the front bench seat and immediately noticed a few upgrades to the car. After commenting that the window was no longer broken and that the car had received a new paint job, Yuniel smiled and said that the car had been out of commission for nearly 6 months while his brother made it “brand new again”. Parts and supplies are so scarce that wait times can be long in Cuba. We both laughed and then started catching up on family, work, and of course, politics.
In about 40 minutes, Yuniel dropped me off at my apartment. He carried my luggage up the narrow concrete staircase and I handed him the massive canister of protein powder he had asked me to bring him. I decided it best to put it in my backpack and send him on his way with it neatly disguised. We embraced again. We set our meeting time and location up for the next day and I got settled into my new digs.
I was on the second floor overlooking Calle Obispo in Havana Vieja. It was perfect! I was within walking distance of everything I wanted to see and do. That evening I went out for dinner and Cuban rum and fell asleep to a strong and steady rain that set in for the night. The next morning, I dressed and walked outside. The humidity hit me like a ton of bricks. It was hard to forget that I was in the tropics in the middle of August!
I had the next two days to myself before heading to Varadero to meet Elian. The trip had already been extended once because Elian could not meet on the original date that we had set. I was beginning to get nervous that I might come home empty-handed if Elian decided to back out. Nevertheless, I spent the day hitting up all the sights, having lunch with Yuniel and his family at their home, and ending the night over wine talking to an Italian couple I met at the pizza restaurant.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling in Latin America is to hang out at the markets there. So, the next day I spent time at the Mercado [a well known market] where hundreds of Cubans set up booths everyday to sell their wares to tourists. Then I walked some of the residential areas outside of the tourist zone, where I rummaged through a couple of markets for locals. The crowded area, set up like a tiny flea market, sells everything from processed snacks, beauty products, clothing and footwear to appliances. The sounds and smells, along with low lighting, high humidity, and no air circulation could easily throw the faint of heart into sensory overload.
Yuniel picked me up early the next day so that we could make it to Varadero before lunch to meet Elian. It was a 2.5 hour trip in a classic car and we wanted to be able to stop and take in a few sights along the way. We stopped at an overlook boasting a good view of the highest and longest bridge in Cuba. Yuniel was excited to take pictures there, so we stopped for a while, I bought us some Cuban coffee, and we got some good photos. He always had to look at my phone to make sure he looked good in each picture.
When we arrived in Varadero, Yuniel had made arrangements to meet with Elian at a public park. We got out of the car and started looking around. In a few seconds, I saw Elian walking towards us with his fiancée. I recognized him instantly from his Facebook photos. It was an awkward meeting. I didn’t know any Spanish and Elian didn’t know any English. I depended on Yuniel to do all of the talking. The language barrier was going to be even worse than I imagined.
Elian was much shorter than I expected and was dressed rather slouchy with long shorts, some minimal sneakers that looked like Vans, and a plain orange t-shirt with aviators. We decided to find a quieter location for the interview and so after a brief introduction and a handshake, we got in our separate cars and headed to a small coffee shop, Casa del Cafe Cubita, near the beach.
Elian seemed introverted and quiet as I started to set up my camera and voice recorder. I offered to get everyone some lunch, but Elian turned down my offer. His fiancée and I ordered a coffee and we got started. The restaurant featured only about 8 or 10 booths as I recall and seemed rather empty when we arrived. The waiters were all young men with clean-cut hairstyles, wearing crisp white shirts with bow ties and wearing black aprons. When our waiter came by, he recognized Elian and gave him a handshake and a greeting. Ilianet, Elian’s fiancée, had remained almost silent to this point. She was wearing a cute pink shirt with trendy sunglasses and some gold jewelry. She did not speak English and played on her phone for the entire 1.5-hour interview.
Once he began speaking, I could tell, without understanding Spanish, that he was quite the talker and storyteller. He seemed to be rather rehearsed on some responses and more off the cuff on others. He showed almost no facial expression during the interview. At the end, I asked for the check and they said it was taken care of. Elian approached the cash register and had a quiet conversation with the waiter and then walked back. He signed my copy of Time Magazine from 2000 with his face on the cover and agreed to take a few photos. We shook hands and I hugged Ilianet, who kissed meon the cheek and with that, they were on their way.
Stay tuned for Part III where I go into the details of the interview…