For months we begged and pleaded and touted our professional stripes, but no one would grant us the journalist credentials we were after. We had not foreseen the antipathy, or, in some cases, simple apathy, of the U.S. government and the Cuban Interests Section (Cuba's officiate in lieu of an embassy).
Fruitless pandering to bureaucrats left us desperate and defiant. "We've got to go guerrilla, through Mexico," I eventually concluded to Jeannie.
"Yep. No choice," she'd agreed.
Deciding to go on the sly raised a new set of anxieties. Would we piss off our hard-won investors? (Would we tell them?) Would we get sent upriver or fined into bankruptcy? Would our film get confiscated on our return to the United States?
A host of stressors have replaced the damn-the-torpedoes hubris that accompanied the early, blushing days of our endeavor. I jot "Can adventure really be institutionalized?" onto the barf bag.
Now and then, throughout the Spy's monologue and my internal mantra of worry, I turn to God, not as my savior, but because I cannot believe he has poured himself a tumbler of Johnnie Walker Red from his shoulder bag and is settling in to the latest issue of Vanity Fair.
Three aisles ahead are two men I recognize from the Cancún airport, where we waited out the hurricane. When I saw the long fishing rods wedged among their luggage at the airport, I began to eavesdrop: "Yeah, you won't believe it. They're plentiful and beautiful," the guy with the comb-over said to his friend in the Rangers cap. "A girl so hot she wouldn't look twice at you in the States is all over you like a fly on shit in Cuba."
Fly on shit, indeed. These guys are not going to Cuba to angle for fish, but for women who, for access to dollars and excitement, hook up with foreign men.
The in-flight purgatory thankfully ends when the Yak, rattling like a crateful of kindling, hits the tarmac at José Martí Airport. I walk down a rickety metal gangway that leads into the grays and blacks of night. The tinny taste of fear spreads through my mouth and catapults me behind several iron curtains, and four decades back in time. Outlines of soulless post-Stalinist buildings stretch out ahead. I feel like I just drank a whole pot of coffee.
I drift along a wave of muted, slurry Spanish, into a customs line. All five of us-- the crew-- are scattered about in different lines, warily making eye contact. My line moves and I shuffle forward, repeating to myself the six most important words of the shoot: No estampa mi pasaporte por favor. Three months of intensive Spanish back in Seattle and these are the only words that matter now. A Cuban stamp would raise the ire of U.S. customs officials on reentry to the United States, and the entire game might be up.
Scenes from Midnight Express flit through my consciousness as I step up to the counter. The forbidden is seductive from afar, but when you get right down to it, it's spooky.
"No estampa mi pasaporte por favor," I say, tentatively, to the customs official, whose downcast face is in the shadow of harsh fluorescent lights. He has dark hair and the moody, bored look hardwired into the DNA of customs guys the world over.
His brown eyes flick to meet mine, and he stifles a little laugh.