I was holding my dad’s hand as our plane descended into Havana, Cuba. How many times had we sat like this when I was a kid and he told me how, in November of 1961, he and his family had to escape this very country? Too many to count. The enormity of this week long trip to my father’s childhood home was not lost on either of us and so we held onto each other for support.
The youngest son of wealthy Cuban parents, my father was born in Havana in 1950. Only 11 years later, his homeland became unrecognizable and unlivable due to Castro. “Things had gotten so bad,” he would tell me as a kid on our front porch where he would smoke a cigar and relive the nightmare, “assets and businesses were being seized, people were committing suicide or being shot in the street. There was no choice but to leave.” My dad’s family barely made it, by plane and with my dad hidden in an equipment container, to Key West Florida and eventually to Hartford, Connecticut.
They became American citizens and made a new home never knowing if they would return to their old one. Unfortunately, by the time my father was allowed to return, he was the only family member left.
Presently Americans cannot travel to Cuba as tourists but can secure a visa for a variety of reasons including a sporting event. Luckily for my dad, competing in the Havana Triathlon seemed like a dream come true for me.
I pictured myself running down the famous Malecón, my chest emblazoned with TEAM USA and being cheered to the finish by my entire family, including my husband, sons, brother, nieces and nephews. Unfortunately for me, that dream would never become a reality.
After being in Cuba for three days, I woke up on race day almost unable to stand. My head was severely congested, and pain reverberated across my face and deep into my ears, plunging down my neck. When I tried to get out of bed, my vision wouldn’t correct, and the room tilted and swayed before me, refusing to stay still.
I could barely walk, let alone swim, bike and run. After returning home, I was diagnosed with a sinus infection which led to vertigo and nausea, but that morning, all I knew was I couldn’t race.
Despite the crushing disappointment of not realizing my triathlon dreams in Havana, we discovered so much of my father’s past. We reunited with 10 of his family members and learned more about his homeland and the Cuban people than we ever thought possible.
My father’s old home is now the Norwegian Embassy. His elementary school (La Luz) seemed frozen in time and exactly as he remembered it. We were treated to a daily parade of brightly colored classic cars, colorful people, music and architecture. It was incredible.
We left with our stomachs full of Cuban kitchen classics like Ropa Vieja, seven different versions of pollo (chicken), rice and beans, ham and cheese sandwiches, churros, fruita bomba (papaya), and, of course, Cohiba cigars and Havana Club rum.
The country definitely has a long way to go toward building a secure infrastructure, making advances in technology and simply rebuilding the hundreds of abandoned or wrecked hotels and buildings that are long overdue for renovation.
Our family is so fortunate to return to Cuba with my dad, to see his face as he recognized his childhood home and watched other kids play on the playground where he and his brother once did. I can only hope we live to see the Cuba my father remembers and that the people who remain get their justice.
The only way to find out is to keep going back.