HAVANA TIMES — That time, someone had actually knocked at the door of my fifth-floor apartment. It wasn’t like I imagined it happening every morning, when I woke up, took a trip to the bathroom and returned to bed.
I walked across the dark living room towards the door and again heard the sound of knuckles rapping on wood. I stood still, motionless, almost without breathing. It seemed like an eternity before I finally saw a bit of paper be slipped beneath the door and the stealthy shadow of the person behind it disappear from the beam of light cast across the floor.
I waited a moment and, after looking out the window and seeing that the person who had knocked at my door was getting into a Lada car, went to the door and picked up the slip of paper. It was an official summons instructing me to meet with those responsible for my case at the Council of State.
It was 1987. It had been a few months since I’d been fired from Ediciones Cubanas (the publishing house I had worked in), and, since everything we had discussed about what I’d do after returning to Havana hadn’t exactly worked out to their liking, Sonia had told me that, if I didn’t find another job right away, I would have to leave the country immediately. In Cuba, you couldn’t simply look for a job in the classifieds – someone had to get that job for you.
That was when Froilan, a close friend of the family, tore me from the claws of the Youth Work Brigades (EJC), where they wanted to send me, a place where, without a doubt, I would have perished from the abrupt onslaught of tons of sweat or pierced through by the MIG-17 mosquitos they were training in the cane plantations there. Froilan intervened so that they would send me to Santiago de Cuba instead, to the Baconao Turquino project.
Ivan, a young engineer from Havana, met me at the airport and told me he would be my guide for a few days, until I had my meeting with General Robertico and we discussed what my job there would be. He picked me up in his Lada 1500 and took me to the “guest house” where I was to live for a few days, a beautiful mansion with many rooms for the general’s guests.
Ivan showed me two rooms and told me to pick whichever one I liked. I chose one that opened to a flowery garden and was very spacious for one person alone. Ivan informed me they had cooks and housemaids who would clean the room, that I didn’t have to cook anything. He took me to the pantry and fridges to show me they had all kinds of meats, cold cuts and cheeses I could eat whenever I wanted, as well as plenty of beer and rum.
The rooms were air-conditioned and equipped with very comfortable individual bathrooms, where the towels were changed every day. The following morning, we went for a ride though the Baconao Turquino park. Ivan explained to me they were developing a tourist complex there that would make Varadero seem like child’s play – when it was completed, that is, for it would take years to build.
They had offered him a job there and given him complete freedom to develop his engineering ideas to their fullest potential. He told me he was doing precisely that and took me to the facilities they had built. They were truly quite unusual.
At one stretch of beach where the waves crashed noisily against the shore, Ivan had had a series of thick bamboo canes of different heights installed. They formed a gigantic sikus, and every time the waves crashed against the surf, they would produce a melody that appeared to be issuing from the sea. It was quite beautiful and it broke with the socialist scheme of only building practical things, of avoiding anything that was purely aesthetic or hedonistic.
He had also designed a valley fraught with life size dinosaur statues and a gigantic prehistoric man holding a club in his hands, each foot at either side of the road. You had to walk beneath him to enter a miniatures museum a Swiss person had built.
Odd things for revolutionary Cuba, and he had built them in only a couple of years. He was proud and full of energy, eager to do things that weren’t necessarily useful in the traditional sense of the word, things that embellished the place some and gave it a personal touch, something that would set it apart from summer resorts plain and simple.
We had a few beers by the shore and they put the bill on the project’s tab. The same thing happened at two other hotels we went to. Ivan told me that, in addition to having unlimited credit under the Baconao plan, our position was considered a major privilege throughout Santiago de Cuba and that we could go anywhere – restaurants, cabarets, marinas, sports clubs – and get in free by simply mentioning where we worked and under whose orders.
Ivan told me General Robertico had asked him to spend a few days with me and to take me with him to work, so that I could start thinking about what I would like to do.
When we got back to the guest house, I jumped into bed and laid there, with my arms outstretched, looking at the ceiling. I felt better than I would have had I gone over there to claim an award. I had gone expecting they would give me job to straighten me out, a kind of punishment. Every new step of the way, however, they would show me something better – it all felt like one of those hidden-camera pranks. And they still hadn’t told me where it was I would work.
After touring the different sites of the project next to Ivan and seeing quite clearly I would enjoy working at any of them, I was summoned by Robertico to his guest house. They picked me up in a jeep and we had an informal conversation, in which the general, of course, expressed his admiration for my uncle, Che Guevara. I felt a little intimidated by the spaciousness of the place, the many bottles of whisky and the guards or subordinates eating ham sandwiches and lobster. It was marvelous. My punishment was something like being sent to a “hell” of nymphomaniacs and revelry.
He told me he had to leave on a helicopter immediately, that he was supervising the work at the plan’s construction sites, and that he had a surprise in store for me – that, the next day, they would take me to my place of work (my new boss would come see me in the morning).
I said goodbye and thanked him, drinking two glasses of whiskey before leaving. I headed to the guest house a bit worried about where they would take me the next day. The way the general had treated me, however, gave me a good feeling. What’s more, he had said to me that, if I didn’t like the place, I need only say it and they would find me something else to do.
When I got back, Ivan was waiting for me in his car to take me to dinner and have a few beers with me. He knew I would be leaving the guest house the next day. He also knew where I’d be going, but he told me he wasn’t allowed to say anything. He assured me I would like the place, that, from what I’d said and what he’d seen during the week, he was sure I would like it. And he insisted that, if I didn’t like it, that I should tell him so that he could inform Robertico. He said I had made a good impression on the general and that he’d said I should be put to work where I wanted.
The following day, a short, strong-voiced and vivacious man showed up at the guest house. He looked like a toy robot. I shook my hand and forced a smile. He introduced himself as “Lazaro” and told me he was in charge of developing a fleet of scuba divers who would scout sunken vessels (wreckages) for tourist activities and extract black coral across the island’s shores to help finance the project. He asked me if I would like to live on a yacht and whether I knew how to scuba dive. I told him I only know how to do it holding my breath, and he replied:
“No problem. We’ll make an expert diver out of you!”
When we got on the yacht at the port, he set me up in an incredibly comfortable cabin with English-styled wallpaper. All of my things fit in the wardrobe. The cabin had a bedside table and two, very comfortable beds, as well as an air conditioning unit. After I had gotten settled, he introduced me to the rest of the crew: his nephew Omar, a thin and athletic diver in his thirties, Albertico, a thicker, fortyish diver, the cook, his son (named Ivan, like the engineer), and Sarita, the ship biologist. They took out some ham and beers and said we had to make a toast.
They gave me a welcome that made me feel as though I was in a fairy-tale. They told me I would make a good scuba diver, that I shouldn’t worry, that I would learn next to them, that Albertico was one of the best scuba divers in Cuba (Albertico said it wasn’t so, that Lazaro was the best). He told me he had lead an offensive that had thwarted an assassination plot against Raul Castro, that the operation was famous because it had inspired a successful film titled Operacion Patty Candela. Lazaro had also been one of the divers who put on the show of looking for the corpse of Camilo Cienfuegos and his light plane, which was allegedly lost at sea.
When I was left alone on deck with my beer, looking towards the province of Granma from the middle of the Santiago de Cuba bay, the sun setting behind me, I didn’t feel particularly well. I needed another beer.