On a warm, breezy morning in January of 2005, Steve arrived in Cuba (via Mexico) with a pair of nurse’s shoes and a necklace for Gardenia, a watch and some T-shirts for her husband Livon, two backpacks and two dolls for Arletis and Arelis and, for himself, “a hopeful gleam” in his eyes.
“I went to Cuba hoping that, by getting to know Gardenia and her family, I could also get to know Cuba,” Steve says. “Cuba is such a mystery for Americans.”
But when Steve caught a taxi from Havana for the two-and-a-half-hour ride to Pinar del Rio, he discovered that he was as much of a mystery to the family as their country was to him.
“I think everyone was just in shock,” Steve says.
Photo by Lea Aschkenas
With all the neighborhood kids staring on in utter amazement, Steve introduced himself as Tio Esteban and began distributing his presents, stumbling over his Spanish all the while.
“It was a little awkward,” he admits. “When I’d written Gardenia that I was going to visit, I’d asked if I could bring some gifts for the family, and she’d suggested a few things. But she’s very proud, and she also made sure to mention that, without my initiating it, she never would have asked for anything.”
In lieu of presents, the family invited Steve to see their now famous Bunnahabhain bottle. Surrounded by Steve’s letters and photos he’d sent of himself and of Rick, the display looked strikingly like a shrine in the middle of the family’s bare-bones bedroom where the four of them slept in two military-style beds.
There was no telephone in the house, and the television set, which had broken several years ago, now served as a decoration. In the yard, the family’s pig let out a contented oink as he rolled over in the mud.
“Their house was long and skinny, like an agricultural outbuilding that had been converted, and I thought it might have been appropriated in the Revolution,” Steve says. “But I didn’t ask about that then, and the family didn’t say too much because, frankly, I was still a stranger to them then.”
The out-of-towners hit Havana
Three days later, from his home base of Havana, Steve sent a taxi to pick up the family at their house and take them on their first ever trip to the Cuban capital.
“We all kind of stumbled around together,” Steve says. “We were all tourists in the big city. We caught taxis, and we walked and talked and looked at the statues, and ate ice cream. We went to Parque Lenin, and the girls got to go on their first carousel ride.”
Too young to comprehend the story behind Steve’s visit, five-year-old Arelis spent their time together believing that he was a distant uncle from the capital. But Arletis, with her eight-year-old wisdom, soon began to grasp the connection between the bottle she’d found on her birthday beach trip and this stranger who had arrived at her front doorstep the other day.
“At some point during that day in Havana, I could feel her opening up,” Steve says. “And then, there was this moment when we were walking around a park and Arletis came up and took my hand. The family knew I had come from a long way, and I think they all wanted me to feel welcome.”
By the end of their long, full day together, Steve could see that everyone was exhausted.
“They weren’t used to all the cars and the noise,” Steve says. “I think that they were really happy to get back to the dormitory where they were staying. I was excited to go somewhere quiet too, and that was where we actually got to talk, to move beyond small talk.”
In the dormitory, the family asked Steve about his family in the U.S. They asked if he had a telephone, and how much rent he paid for the slip where he lived. They asked how much money someone might earn in a month in the U.S.
“I told them that there are many wealthy people where I live, but that the cost of an apartment is more per month than I could earn,” Steve says. “I tried to explain to them the concept of a poverty level, and also that the way I lived was my choice, that I would rather buy a plane ticket to travel than own a car.” Steve pauses as though trying to summon the scene once more, to return to that now distant night in Havana—the palm trees swaying outside the dormitory window, the tropical breeze blowing in, the soft Spanish words floating around him. “I told them that, yes, in Cuba, I was a rich man,” he continues. “But I said that, back in the U.S., I would be poor again.”
A Bigger World
“I think what most impressed me about Cuba during my two weeks there was how things weren’t wasted, and how resourceful the people were,” Steve says. “It made me feel as if I were part Cuban because I live that way here.”
Yet, even with the connection Steve felt with the Cubans’ simpler style of life, in the five years since his visit to the island, he has begun to acquire some choice material objects. After eighteen years without a car, Steve purchased a well-worn but still-working 1987 Honda Civic.
“It gets me where I need to go,” he says, referring to his biweekly, hour-long drives to Palo Alto where his ninety-three-year-old mother lives.
“When I was in Cuba, the family had so many questions about my family,” Steve says. “So when I got home, I sent photos of my mother and my daughter and my granddaughter, and they seemed very relieved to see them, to know that, yes, I do come from women.”
Despite his Luddite tendencies, Steve also purchased a computer after his trip to Cuba.
“The family has a neighbor with a computer, so now we can write more regularly,” Steve says. “Now Arletis writes me too. And in my letters, I ask about her friends, her teachers, what subjects she likes best. You know,” he says, a contented casualness in his voice, “the type of questions an uncle would ask.”
Steve stops, smiling thoughtfully before continuing. “This connection with the family, with the girls, this is the best thing I’ve done in my life. I want to stay in touch with them so that their world will keep growing bigger through their crazy gringo uncle, Tio Esteban.”
Steve ends his sentence with a simple nod of his head, although the gleam in his eyes—the same one he brought down to Havana with him—makes it obvious that it’s not only the girls’ worlds that have grown bigger.
Lea Aschkenas is the author of Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island, which has been translated into Polish but not Spanish. She has twice visited Arletis and her family in Cuba and is seeking a publisher for her children’s picture book, Arletis, Tio Esteban, and the Message-in-a-Bottle. When not traveling, Lea works as a public librarian and teaches poetry-writing with the California Poets in the Schools program in Northern California. Visit her website at www.leaaschkenas.com.
All photos by the author except where indicated.
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