The sun was breaking as I stood on the bow of my boat, Semper Fi and gazed south at what looked like ominous clouds. The last thing I needed was a storm off the Cuban Coast.
It was January of 2002, just a few months after 9/11, and I was headed to Havana from Key West. I was born and raised in Miami and grew up in the fifties and sixties. In Miami we also lived the overthrow of Batista, the Missile Crisis and The Trade Embargo. My school did drills in which we climbed under our desks to protect from Nuclear Attack. My dad worked on construction crews building missile bases in South Florida. I watched thousands of troops heading south on US 1 to be deployed behind sandbags. Now I was closing in on the island that had created so much emotion in my young life.
As I looked at the clouds again I could see the skyline of Havana and I knew that the clouds were actually mountains in the backdrop. I can remember feeling deceived as I looked at Havana with it’s towering buildings and sprawl, a city that was bigger than I had ever imagined and majestic as well. I had considered myself a well traveled person on that day I first saw Cuba but I was completely unprepared for what was in front of me. This was a city that was a major thriving place before Miami was even a trading post. I fought anger as I could not remember any education in grade school regarding Cuba. No history, no geography, mostly just the fear.
As I got closer I could smell the island. The richness of soil and the activities of life all have their own smells and that smell is the fingerprint of every land mass in the world. The North Coast of Cuba is distinctive and I realized that it was the last thing many would experience as they fled north to the US in rafts, boats and inner tubes. To me it was a perfume that I had dreamed of for decades.
For ten days I took in everything Cuban I could, the people, the land, the life. As I cleared Customs to start back home, I was asked by a Cuban official about the boat name “Semper Fi”, the Marine Corps motto that translates to “Always Faithful”. I tried to explain but thought it best to say that it was “Siempre Fidelis” or as the official took it “Always Fidel”. We both shook hands somberly and I cast off the lines to head home.
Today I sit on Semper Fi unable to take my boat to Cuba because of “new” rules for travel. I study the framed picture of Semper Fi with my Cuban guide standing at the cabin door as I steer. We are entering Havana Harbor and passing El Morro and it is all clear in my head again. I can almost smell it.