ABC News’ Alex Perez reports: “Toda mi vida yo he estado esperando este momento. Toda mi vida.”
Those were the first words out of my Uncle Rafa’s mouth. He didn’t know me, but his eyes pierced right through me with adoration, like the eyes of a parent seeing their newborn for the first time.
Uncle Rafa had studied English, but when emotions get the best of him, his native Spanish is all that comes out. “All of my life, I’ve waited for this moment,” is what he said, “all of my life.”
I could hear the buzz of the hundreds of people around us, and the honking of those old, heavy, tank-like cars – but nothing could distract me.
I, too, had waited my entire life for this moment.
“Yo tambien – me too,” I said. Through my nerves, and the millions of thoughts whizzing through my mind, those were the only words I could muster up right then and there.
We were standing outside the arrivals terminal at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. A few seconds before that long-awaited exchange, Uncle Rafa and my mother – his sister – spotted each other in the middle of the crowd, sprinted towards each other, and hugged.
Tighter than I’ve ever seen any two people hug each other. The kind of hug you would give a dead loved one if you got a chance to see them in the flesh one more time. It was the first time my mother and her brother had seen one another in 46 years.
As they silently held each other, the tears streamed down their cheeks. They were trying to make up for almost five decades of lost time.
For years, it seemed, this trip – my mom’s first time back to Cuba since she left the island in 1966, and my first ever – would never happen. But the stars finally aligned, feuding political parties finally compromised, and families once torn apart have now been legally reuniting for several months.
As soon as I stepped off the plane, I felt as if I had stepped into a time warp. I remember asking myself: Am I 90 miles from Key West or 9 million? It’s a shock, and adjusting takes time.
My uncle saved his hard-earned pesos and arranged for his neighbor to use his 1960′s station wagon to pick us up from the airport. Having a car is a luxury there, even if that car is more than 40 years old and falling apart.
Within an hour, I was standing in a crowded, tiny room with tons of aunts, uncles, cousins, and many others I had never met. At first, they all felt like strangers, but within half an hour, I felt as if I had known them my entire life.
For the first time, I saw pictures of my deceased grandmother and great-grandmother. I saw the first-ever picture of my own mother as a child. I heard stories. I tried to talk to everyone. I analyzed every conversation. I savored every moment. By the end of the first night, I had answers to questions that had loomed over my head since I was a kid.
Most importantly, I had a clearer understanding of who I was. I learned my great-great-grandparents emigrated from Kingston, Jamaica, to Cuba and settled in Ciego de Avila. I learned my grandmother spoke several languages and worked as an international phone operator. I learned this passion for storytelling and writing that I have is a trait I share with several of my cousins, even though we had never met before. I also learned we all make the same annoying throat-scratching sound when we wake up in the morning.
My family in Havana has few material things. Like most people there, my uncle earns about $25 a month. A pair of shoes can easily cost double that. Most need to split pennies to make ends meet.
But even given the challenges, they had one goal in mind during our stay: make sure my mother and I had an amazing trip. I can’t begin to count the number of selfless acts: they gave up their home-made beds, refused to let us fetch our own water from the well, and made sure every day we had three home-cooked meals.
It took me just a few hours to realize there is a saying that is repeated over and over in Cuba. It’s a phrase that creeps up into just about every conversation: “No es facil.” Literally, it translates to “it’s not easy.” After a few days you come to understand that little phrase, those three words, mean so much more than one would think. It’s a shared understanding, a profound acknowledgement, and a way of coping.
My conscience and my heart forced me to leave practically everything I arrived with behind. Clothes, medicine, electronics, watch, even my shoes. My cousin happens to have a big foot like I do; the difference is I can easily find and afford shoes that will fit me.
I’m looking forward to continuing and fostering the relationship with my family – and, of course, helping them in whatever way I can.
Unlike other getaways, this one included no fancy spas, no poolside drinks, and no expensive dinners. Guess those things aren’t as important as I thought they were.