I am dedicating this story to my niece, Anna Claire. Who sparked my imagination. And what a spark she is.
We began our journey so very fast.
Sometimes, you have to.
She grabbed onto my shoulders and we swam. As far we could.
Her mom gave me a look that said, “I love you. I believe in you. You can go…”
Which was unusual, given the circumstances. But I knew that look. I felt deeply that she trusted me.
We swam until the mirage of hot sand and high-rise condos left our view. And she’s quite good at swimming. She’s been taking lessons all summer. I thought she’d be scared. Being so far away and with me, who she sees maybe three times a year, at best.
But she kept saying, “Come on, Uncle Josh! Let’s go!”
I worried I would get tired. That my arms might melt away into the warm Gulf. But they kept going. We would swim along the occasional pod of dolphins, who kindly let us grab ahold and drift with them miles at a time. The babies would blow wet air into our faces every so often to fend off the heat, but mostly, because she would laugh every time they did.
We would fall asleep. I would worry. What if this was a bad idea? I quickly hide the look on my face as she points forward, into the horizon. A brilliant fiery sun, slowly falling down behind a field of sugar cane.
“Just a little bit longer to go!” I would say.
As we came ashore, we sat down. I could tell she was beginning to feel the distance in those little bones of hers.
I got really scared.
“What did I do? What did I do? What was I thinking!?”
As I took my head out of my hands, I saw her standing, feet still buried in the wet sand, waving back on that Alabama coastline. And when she turned around, she ran.
Screaming and laughing and doing half cart wheels.
I laughed, with wet eyes because her strength and fire encouraged me. What was so foreign, became an adventure.
We found a pile of used sugar cane and sat down. I explained to her that we were in a different place. That the food was spicier and that there wouldn’t be a McDonald’s or a Sonic or Chik-Fil-A, but that I would do my best to find her something good. I told her a little about what happened here, long ago. And why the streets and buildings and cars look so old.
I told her of a doctor named Che who rode his motorcycle, helping the sick and the poor.
That his love for people took him to places far beyond his reach, and that some things are difficult. Sometimes we get caught in something bigger than ourselves and it changes us.
I didn’t tell her what happened to Che. But someday, she’ll know.
“Like Papa’s motorcycle?” she responds. “Yeah…but not nearly as nice.”
Down the way, we see a fire and hear loud music.
Anna, before I can even lift my head, is running toward it. I get nervous, but I realize I can see her. And that she’s okay.
I see the group around the fire startle a bit, mostly because this little girl is blonde and sassy and has a southern twang like you’ve never heard. They think it’s English, but they aren’t sure.
This was after I had tried explaining to her how to say ‘Cuba’. “kii-yooo-buh?”, she would say. “Eh, more like, ‘koo-buh’, I think.”
The people around the fire had some fish and potatoes. They warmly offered us a place by the fire. Which was nice, because even though it was so hot, the breeze made our wet clothes cold.
Anna didn’t seem very hungry. She was more interested in the dancing. The loud thump of the stereo. The colors.
It was a song I’ve heard before. Ibrahim Ferrer and Buena Vista Social Club singing “Ay Candela”.
The man sitting next to me, leaned in and in broken English said, “This is my favorite part”, as he turned it up even louder. My niece couldn’t resist and went to dance with the group. They put on her bright scarves and a big straw hat that covered her eyes.
The lyrics to this one part said something along the lines of, “The way she moves her hips, she’ll make you understand..”
Me and the man laughed, and clinked together our Cristal beers. Cold and refreshing. Understanding some things are universal.
The food was amazing. Simple fish with vegetables. Food does taste better when your toes are in the sand.
We fell asleep and awoke to warm embers. We made our way into Havana, one of the most beautiful and run down cities of the world. But I’m sure the people who live here see it differently. The colors are bright and change from house to house.
Anna, in her little southern drawl says, “My house don’t look like that!” I laugh and agree.
I pick her up some fried doughnuts, because somehow, the folks we met the night before left us with a little money. Enough for breakfast and a phone call.
I, on the other hand, see a woman lowering down sandwiches from her flat two stories up. I rush over and lift up some money. And down comes a hot sandwich. Drenched in mustard and stuffed with ham and cheese and pickles. It is a thing dreams are made of. I let it settle with some espresso, while Anna downs a cool glass of juice.
We make our phone call, to let everyone know we are okay. We make arrangements, and wait on the shore for our transportation. (Which we all know in real life wouldn’t be this easy. But in this moment, it isn’t the case.)
We wave goodbye to this land that played such a good host to us.
It was a place and journey that made both of us feel brave and strong.
We danced and we laughed.
We got sad and then had to dance again.
And as we made it back to the Alabama coast, we were met with hugs and crazy looks.
Something had changed in that little girl.
Something had changed in me.
“Uncle Josh, we swam so far didn’t we!?”