Havana, ready to receive us

It was 11:00 am when my name was called. There were a great many of us, hundreds of men; of all heights, ages, colors…. Only family men, students, average men, inmates. I was just a little man who barely knew what he was doing or how he got there. I had just turned 16 and was about to board a yacht headed to an unknown destination: Miami.

It was May 15, 1980, the farewell date; a sad episode that has gone down in history as the “Mariel exodus.” It was the day I left Cuba, my country.

Today is May 2, 2017. I remember the day I describe before for two reasons: it is May, and I am returning to Cuba – my country – by sea. Not on board a yacht belonging to an unknown, not like a “Marielito,” not only with men. I’m returning as a passenger in the Norwegian Sky cruise accompanied by more than 2,000 passengers, 2,000 passengers eager to get to know my country!

While I walk through the corridors of the ship, en route to Havana, I feel enthusiastic, nervous; I notice an overflowing of curiosity. Many don’t have the slightest idea about who I am, they are alien to my story. They know or have heard of the Cuban Revolution, of Fidel, of the Missile Crisis…but they have no idea about the reality of Cuba and its people…. I want to interrupt, lecture them, give them my experience; but I say nothing, I know that will change in a few hours.

5:30 in the morning. I open the door of my balcony to view the city lights. I’m not the only one; many are taking a peek. There’s Havana, yawning, opening up, wide, long, beautiful, ready to receive us.

I could feel a knot in my throat and my eyes misted up. It seems I’m not the only one, I can hear sobs: “Look José, look darling, Havana,” a woman from a nearby balcony says. She says it in Spanish, with a very Cuban accent. And she continues: “I really would have liked mom to be here, that she would have had the opportunity of returning before she died,” I hear her cry. “She is here darling”…says the man, “she’s waiting for you there, at the port.”

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