TÍMÁR László - It Appeared to be Julio
Mi kéne, Havanna?
 

Direct flights link Vienna and other European cities to Varadero, Cubaís ocean front tourist paradise. European travel agency brochures recommend this city like vacation spots in the rest of the world. On photographs, mulatto women can be seen running along the beach. Sunshine, palm trees. The tourist gets off the plane and is driven to the four star hotel on the beach, he drinks a beer or two at the bar, then walks down to the playa. The next morning, he goes down again, puts his beer belly under a beach umbrella, and so it goes for ten to fourteen days. Possibly, he buys himself a girl who lies with him at night and tans herself with him during the day. When time expires, they say goodbye, the tourist boards the plane, and before fixing his eyes on the television screen where the newest American film will be projected shortly, he looks through the oval window and waves goodbye to the dwindling exotic island country.
     There is no playa in Havana. Those who long for bathing on sandy shores must go to Playa Del Esté, fifteen kilometers outside of the city. I ask one of the people lounging at the taxi stand next to the Hotel Nacional how one gets to the playa. He is around thirty, puny, mustachioed, wearing somewhat worn canvas pants and a short-sleeved t-shirt. His shoulder length hair is combed back carefully. You can only get there by car, he answers, and makes an offer: for fifteen dollars, he will take us out, wait there, and bring us back when we so desire. He has to go get his car, he says, itís here, not far away on one of the side streets, in the meantime we should go down to the Press Center, turn right and wait for him at the first intersection. The guy runs off, while we head for the agreed location.
     We wait a quarter of an hour but the taxi doesnít arrive, weíre beginning to think he changed his mind. On the other side of the street stands a gigantic concrete structure, sort of a building without walls or stories. Tall columns support the roof and stairs lead up high, where we see about a dozen television screens built into walls and a few pedestals for displaying statues or artworks. We pass by the structure almost every day, but I cannot deduce the purpose it might serve. The taxi arrives, finally. The driver introduces himself, his name is Raul. Then we get into the dark green Moskvics. Why this conspiratorial solution, I ask, why didnít we go get the car together? He doesnít have a private carrier license, he says, and if the police were to see him leave and get into the car with two foreigners, he could be arrested and fined. Afterwards, during the approximately one hour route, he is garrulous, telling us the many trials he has gone through in recent years. He interrupts his narrative only when the police stop him. Raul gets out. From inside the car, I can only see that he hands his papers to the policeman, they exchange a few words, then one of the policemen hands him a little slip of paper. They fined him ten pesos for running a red light. He would continue his story, but I ask him to repeat the whole thing instead, from the beginning, as we are journalists, and would like to record him using a dictaphone. Raul agrees, and when we arrive, we buy a few beers, then sit down in an out of the way spot in the shade of palm trees.

 
 
     My name is Raul. I am twenty-nine years old. Until spring of this year, I was a truck-driver, but they laid me off because the company had no money for gas or spare parts, and for this reason most of the trucks had to be taken out of circulation. When I started working, I was just an escort, then I got a license to drive by myself. I regularly took merchandise to Santiago, Camagüey, Pinar del Rió, but at one time or another I got around to almost every point on the island. My monthly pay was one-hundred-seventy-seven pesos. In addition to this, they gave me seventeen pesos per diem, which was not enough. They should have given me more, because out of this seventeen pesos I was not able to eat and pay for lodging. When they laid me off, they said they were only letting me go temporarily, but they were not able to tell me when I could go back to work. Now I earn my living driving a taxi, for tourists. I rent the car from an acquaintance. This 1988 Moskvics costs one hundred dollars a month. This is my first month, I started only two weeks ago, but I still havenít made back the twenty dollars the owner asked for as an advance. I have to help my family out with money too, my mother is still alive, but she doesnít work anymore because she has heart disease.
     Last year on September 28th, on the day they celebrated the CDRs, I decided to build a raft and leave the country illegally. I made the raft out of the inner tube of the truck I was then using. There were already four or five patches on it, but I couldnít find anything better. I went out to Playa Del Esté, at Guanabo, where the Barca restaurant is. I took the raft down to the water and cast off. I calculated that I needed to travel nine or ten nautical miles, and that the trip would take eight to ten days. I was very scared the first day, but then I realized fear could be overcome. I kept thinking to myself: I need to row and progress to reach my goal, that is, to get to the opposite shore. I had no other choice. Once I was out there at sea, alone, I had nothing to lose anymore. There was a danger the Cuban Coast Guard would catch me, but fortunately they didnít find me. I took four bottles of water and toast crackers, but the water was gone soon, because the toast made me very thirsty. The third day, when I no longer had anything to eat or drink, a yacht passed me and tossed three bottles of water over my way. This all happened very fast, I couldnít see the people standing on the yacht very well, but it appeared to be Julio Iglesias, the great Spanish singer, with two beautiful women. Iím not certain it was him, because I couldnít see well from my raft. They threw the bottles into the water and kept going. I didnít call out to them, because I was afraid they would turn me over to the Cuban authorities. I navigated for seventy-two hours, but then I had to turn back, because the inner tube started to leak from one of the patches.
     According to the Cuban authorities, the rafters violated the law, they were illegal border crossers. Despite this, many people left, and many succeeded in getting across. But many were lost at sea, and they caught many half-way across. I donít understand how I avoided the Coast Guard, but the truth is, they are short of gas, and nowdays they only go out to sea if foreigners violate the countryís territorial waters.
     In January, before my birthday, I thought I would be happiest if I could celebrate my twenty-ninth birthday on the other side, so I decided I would try it again. The second time, I prepared for the voyage better, utilizing the experience from my first attempt. I took more water with me and I also got hold of a compass. I bought a waterproof digital watch. The compass was inside the watch. As soon as I out at sea, it stopped working, probably the battery was dead. I knew I couldnít sleep even an hour, because if I fell asleep and stopped rowing, the current would take me south rather than north and I would find myself back on the beach. In January, however, neither the weather nor the current was favorable. I rowed for two days, but then I had to turn back, the weather was so bad. I think I left on a Friday and got back Sunday night around seven or eight. I touched ground twenty or thirty kilometers further east, at Santa Cruz. I left the raft there and went to get my truck. When I arrived, my only thought was to go home and comfort my mother, because I left without telling her. Had she known I wanted to leave the country illegally on an inner tube, she surely would have worried herself to death.
     I wanted to leave primarily because of the conditions my mother and my family lived in, and because my own situation was also completely hopeless. I thought once things were going a little better for me, I could help the others. Many people who think differently than I do say this is treason, this is weakness, but I am neither weak nor a traitor, because I never wanted to leave this country. When I did decide to leave, it was only because I wanted to help my mother and my sister financially.
     My parents were divorced while I was still a child. My father fought in the illegal resistance, he fought with Fidel in the revolution, later he got work with the State Security Service. A few years ago he had an operation and was pensioned. He became a department head at the same company that employed me. My father was a believer in the system his whole life, he worked for this system, but they pushed him aside. I can understand him, he felt he didnít have the same rights as before, and he was hurt. Still, I was more than a little surprised when he asked me to get inner tubes for him last August. With a head of gray hair, having nurtured and served this system for more than thirty years, he had reached the point of wanting to emigrate to the United States. I didnít want to believe him, but on August thirtieth, the day Bill Clinton declared he didnít want to see anymore Cuban rafters, my father set off with a few former colleagues. Had I known, I would have left with him, but he left without telling anyone, he didnít say goodbye to me or to my mother.
     Since then, we have received a few letters from him, in which he related that they were caught at sea by the Americans and taken to the base at Guantanamo. Because he had family members living in the United States, they allowed him to go to Texas. Since he had been a communist all his life, he never bothered about his relatives living abroad, but when he arrived in Texas, he asked them for help. His aunt, the mayor of a small town, found some work for him. Supposedly he already sent money once with someone who came to Cuba, but we were not able to get in touch with that person. In one letter, he even sent a picture of himself, sitting on the beach with a stranger. He wrote that everything was fine, and that he never would have thought people lived the way they do there. Itís true that life isnít easy there either, you have to work hard for your money. He gets five hundred dollars a month for his disability, plus his pay. He works in a furniture factory. In one letter, he wrote that if he saves up enough money, he will arrange for us all to go out legally. He even wrote that once we were out, he would buy a truck so I can ship freight with it.
     We are now waiting to join my father, but the truth is, if the situation were to change here, if we could again live the way we did in the seventies and eighties when we depended on the socialist bloc, I would reconsider wanting to leave the country. My father never wanted to leave either. He was pushed into the decision only because of the economic conditions of recent years and the consciousness that he had been relegated to the background. I will be honest: I am not an educated person, I do not understand politics or economics, but on the basis of conversations Iíve witnessed, I can say that as long as the systemís policy stays the same, it will be difficult to change anything here. This country has almost twelve million inhabitants, we therefore have to find some kind of solution, some kind of agreement must be reached. Thought should be given to the people, too, not just to principles and to the glory of the revolution. The future should be thought of too, not just the past. What kind of future stands before me, for example? None. And those who come after me, what kind of principles, morals will they have, what will their future be like? What will we come to with all this?
     In one of his speeches, Fidel said he wouldnít shave his beard until at least Latin America and the people of the Caribbean were liberated from colonialism, free from exploitation, racism and poverty. He kept his word, he hasnít been to the barber since. I, however, have reached the decision that until the situation in Cuba changes, I will not cut my hair. I will keep it neat, so that it doesnít look bad, but I will not cut it. I think I will have real long hair, assuming my mother or stepfather donít interfere and tell me to cut it, because I was raised to obey them always. They raised me, I can thank them for having reached the point I am at now.


     Whenever we need a cab, we always look for Raul first, and generally succeed in finding him, near the Press Center. He takes us out to Playa Del Este the next time we go, but it starts to rain in the afternoon. The rain doesnít want to let up, so we head back into the city earlier. Raul offers to take us to Cojimar, a fishing village next to Havana. Itís on the way. At the time of the great wave of escapes, many people cast off from Cojimar because of the favourable setting of the village.
     We enter the city and turn onto a street marked "Do Not Enter". The road leads to a huge iron gate bordered with barbed wire. Beside the gate stands a small guard tower, but we donít see anyone inside. Beyond the fence and leafy boughs of trees stands a villa. According to Raul, it is one of Fidel Castroís vacation homes. We canít see from here, he says, but on the other side of the yard there is a channel on which the Commandante sails out to sea. We drive back up the street and down to the beach, where we glimpse a small bay. A few docked fishing boats sway on the water. On the shore lie four or five moldering boats the verge of collapse. We descend to the bay, where an old man putters among the wrecks. Raul calls him over, tells him we are Hungarian journalists who would like to know something about the previous yearís wave of refugees. The old man takes our measure and silently continues his work; pulling rusty nails out of a decaying plank. We just stand there, mutely, not knowing what to do, watching the old fisherman, watching the drizzling rain beating little circles into the water of the ocean. We are on the verge of leaving when the old man suddenly speaks.
      
     There was a girl who came out here to the port for weeks and learned to surf. She was here every day, I saw her every day at dawn, when I went fishing. Finally we even greeted each other and exchanged a few words. I saw her improving day by day. Then once, when she felt she was skilled enough, she went out to sea and didnít come back again. Later, we found out she had surfed across to the other shore. She became a famous person, thatís what they say. Everyone calls her La Morena del Caribe because she was completely burned by the sun during the long voyage. They also say she has loads of money, she is doing very well. She gives surfing lessons to tourists in Miami.
      
     There are hardly any usable fishing boats left, he says after a pause. They took them all, these are the only ones left, he says, indicating the few wrecks laying there. His son left with his friends on the old manís own boat, theyíre over there now. Almost every man in the village escaped. For years now, the greatest number of people leave from here. The old man falls silent, throws the plank aside and pulls out a new one from the pile behind him. We say goodbye to him and go back up to the village. Raul takes us to a house where old acquaintances of his live. A pretty young girl sits on the porch. We get out, Raul starts talking to the girl while we wait in front of the house. When we get back into the Moskvics, he explains he was once deeply in love with the girl. They worked at the same place. But she didnít return his feelings. Even women are denied to us, Raul says, my girlfriend left me two weeks ago, she took up with a fifty year old Mexican businessman who has some kind of a company in Los Angeles.
     On the day of our departure, Raul takes us to the airport. He seems a little sad, sorry we are leaving, he made a lot of money with us. He tells us two days ago while he was driving two Italians in the city, the police caught him and fined him one-thousand-five-hundred pesos. When we get to the airport, in farewell he tells us that if we write something about him, we should feel free to use his full name, so the whole world can come to know how he, Raul Ramon Jiménez thinks, and what kind of life he lives there, in Cuba.

 

  Pictures made in Cuba

Translated by REICH Péter

 
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