Four months passed since my Awofakan. I had proudly called Oyugbon and told him, “hey, you’re not gonna believe it. I have a path to Ifa! Hah…of all the unexpected things…”. He was pleased. My music work continued unabated and I proceeded to organize the funds I had left in savings. Call it coincidence or call it destiny, but I had exactly what I needed for the trip left….roughly $15,000 (the cost would be $12,000 for my coronation of Shango and initiation into Ifa, plus $650 for the plane trip and an extra $500 for living costs after my ceremonial days). January 7th came and we began our journey to Cuba via Cancun. I had mentally prepared myself for the eventuality that we’d have problems on our return with U.S. Customs and had rehearsed excuses. We traveled with the money divided among both of us and with my Guerreros and other needed items inside my suitcase. In Cancun, my bag was searched and the perplexed Mexican customs workers pulled out my Eshu (I knew he’d be determined to cause me some playful trouble). They peered into the weird conch shell, with its protruding nails and began to give me the regular excuse, “um sir, you’re not going to be able to travel with this”. After some courteous back and forth about how these were religious items that I had to carry, a supervisor came along. I quickly noticed he had a green-yellow Idde on his left hand. “What’s the problem?….ohhh….ok. Yes, you can let him pass…I know what those are….don’t worry, he’s fine”. I smiled and thanked the supervisor and asked him, “is there a lot of Santeros in Mexico?” “oh yeah…it’s actually growing…lots of Cubans are coming this way…Venezuelans too…have a nice day!”
With that, we were off to the terminal area. With about 40 min to spare, my padrino decided he wanted to eat something before going to Cuba. As I watched him eat and the time kept passing, I was worried we’d be late. We had 10 minutes left. “Padrino, let’s go….we’re gonna miss the flight”. He finally finished and we started walking down to the Cubana airline gate headed off to Havana. As we approached, I noticed the gate seemed empty….I began to worry. A heavy-set Mexican worker in a thick accent said, “are you guys, XXXX and YYYY?” We nodded, “chin@@ su madre…you guys almost missed your flight…we called you guys like 5 times! Run…go down that door, and run down to the tarmac…the plane is waiting.” All I could keep thinking is, “thanks Padrino…you almost made us miss our flight!” We stepped out from the air-conditioned gate and onto the sun-drenched tarmac at Cancun International. A plane was waiting at the end of the ramp. It was the first time I had ever walked onto a plane using stairs…I was accustomed to the American luxury of walking down a tunnel right into a plane. We entered the plane and found our seats. Padrino was uncomfortable…the seats were very tight and he was a tall guy. We smiled at each other and he said to me, “you wanted to visit the Revolution? Here’s your revolution…que viva la revolucion!, as he pressed his legs up uncomfortably.” I laughed…I understood what he was saying…but I wasn’t concerned with temporary discomforts. I couldn’t wait to land on Havana.
We arrived around 4:00 P.M. From the air, I could see the capital as we arrived. I hadn’t been this giddy in arriving to a country since my first trips to Puerto Rico. I couldn’t wait to see what Cuba was like. We disembarked and started walking through Cuban customs. I was surprised to see it wasn’t as “backwards” as I would have imagined it. Looked very much like Puerto Rico’s own airport…except for the monitors…they seemed like TVs from the early 1990s. I passed through customs smoothly and waited outside the baggage claim doors in a public lobby. Regular Cubans were greeting family members carrying HUGE plastic bags filled with clothes or large boxes with big screen TVs. “hmmm….must be Miami relatives bringing U.S. goods to their relatives…”, I thought to myself. Cubans had a very funky fashion sense….tight jeans and tube-top style shirts with flashy words graffiti painted on their shirts. That, or they were very modest dressed. I still was trying to adjust…
I could see my padrino at the end of a line still within the baggage claim area. Then I noticed two airport officials were speaking to him and pulled him aside. I had remembered that the entire week before our trip, he had been anxious in finding a rooster. I had helped him find a local farm where we lived that sold it…and he had seemed relieved when he had sacrificed it to Eshu. “I had to do Ebbo…I read myself before leaving and it came out that I would have problems with the law associated with this trip…I hope we don’t get stopped by U.S. Customs”. Turns out, the problem with “the law” would occur in Havana, in the airport. I waited 3 full hours while they inspected his items, two long white boards which he described as “surfing boards” to those who asked, a metal container, and his baggage. When he came out, three Cuban men from the lobby approached him and then they realized I was the initiate and called me over. We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and then moved out with our bags to the parking lot.
On the way to the car, Baba Eyiogbe (the babalawo who would direct all the ceremonial affairs) asked my Padrino what had kept him. “asere, these dumbasses at the airport. They opened up my Olofin!” “they what! But…did you tell them what it was?” “Yes, I told them that it was a very important religious object that shouldn’t be open except by babalawos…but they wanted to inspect it. I wasn’t about to argue with them, so I nicely asked that if they were going to open it, that they please do it in a room without women present. Then one of the Cuban ladies got all uppity and said, ‘how come women cannot see this. I want to see it.’ So, from that moment on, I had to let them do what they wanted to do”. The babalawos in the car were not happy, but after an awkward, quiet moment, they responded, “well, asere…let Odu take care of it…you warned her…”. Padrino responded, “oh yeah…I told her…when they came back, one of the guys was like, oluwo, we’re sorry we had to go through this, etc…and I was like, hey, I’m not worried. I warned you guys not to open up Olofin. Whatever occurs as a result is on you guys.” The babalawos seemed in agreement and we kept driving from the airport to Marianao.
It was dark and while there were street lights, parts of neighborhoods did not have enough light. I tried to take in as much as possible…looking at the Cubans walking the streets at night. We were hungry so we stopped at a paladar. I ordered a sandwich and a chocolate milk shake. The shake tasted good…but strange. They must have had their own blend of milk/chocolate….to my fast-food conditioned mouth, it was definitely not the same type of shake that one gets in the States. We proceeded through a totally darkened neighborhood; the bodies of Cubans embracing other Cubans passing us by as we shone our car lights on them. The young everywhere love to stay out at night. We arrived at an address and got out. Baba Eyiogbe entered a patio and began to enter a regular Cuban house. A man as slender as my padrino but as tall and dark as Mr. Carolina was sitting on a flattened couch; his longs legs dangling from the edge of the couch as he sat and watched a DVD movie on his HD flat screen TV. The entire sight seemed weird….wasn’t this a poor country? How does this guy have a flat screen TV and a DVD player? Baba Eyiogbe spoke, “Good evening, Oluwo, aboru…I have a problem. We have to do an Ifa and we were going to do it at Bernando Rojas old house at the corner of the street, but I just found out that they’re doing an Ifa there this week. Do you have any space here to do it?” The forty-something year old man didn’t move his body, but scanned us with his eyes and asked, “cuanto tienen?” Eyiogbe responded, “500 CUC”. The man re-adjusted his body on the couch and got up. “500 CUC….we can work with that…we can definitely work with”. He smiled and said, “right this way….come and see the room”. He proceeded to take us into a room that apparently had been part of the original wooden house. The remainder of the house seemed like a concrete addition to the original house. The wooden room was pretty spacious and had its own fan, light, and refrigerator. “This is where we do Santo and Ifa ceremonies. He would have his own refrigerator”. It was comical to me that as a “selling point” he’d point out the refrigerator, but then I remembered that what I was witnessing was probably an unusual highlight in many Cuban homes. Many may not have one refrigerator, let alone two…and here, they also had a washing machine. The owner of the home was clearly a babalawo used to hosting religious ceremonies from foreign initiates. He was getting his CUCs (the Cuban currency that was directly convertible to foreign currencies) from somewhere…I imagine it was his religious work.
We were invited to a tambor de fundamento occurring in Havana. We left our belongings in the Cuarto de Santo where we’d stay for the next 13 days and headed out in the Russian Lada car that Ogbe Sa owned (another babalawo). We arrived at an apartment complex and in its basement/public area, there were Orishas and candles all over the floor, as well as fruit offerings. Inside, Eyiogbe’s tamboreros were already performing. We squeezed into an room with other Cubans. I could feel the eyes on me as my clothes were clearly American in origin. It didn’t help that I was a light-skinned Puerto Rican in a room filled with Afro-Cuban people. But…it was an enjoyable evening. Eyiogbe sat me down on the okonkolo and I played various toques with the group. I held my own…though I was afraid they’d start playing a toque I wasn’t aware of. I still was a beginner on batas and I didn’t know all of the Oru Seco yet. At the end of the evening, we had to find our own ride back to the house. Ogbe Sa had left to be with his wife. Outside on the street, we walked out of the tambor with fundamento batas in postal mail sacks. We walked darkened Havana streets looking for a ride. We noticed a man working on a truck and one of the babalawos offered him 5 CUCs if he’d take us back to Marianao. For most Cubans, getting their hands on CUC was an impossibility. Unless they worked in some sort of work where they could receive payment from foreigners (such as working Santeria, or being a musician, or working at the hotels or tourist restaurants), it was virtually impossible for them to get paid in CUC. One CUC was equal to 21 “moneda nacional” Cuban pesos. To get an idea of how much it was worth…one moneda nacional Peso was all it cost to share a ride on a Cuban local taxi van with other Cubans. 5 CUCs for a measly ride 20 minutes away was a good night for the regular Cuban. For me, it was virtually $5.00 U.S. Well worth the taxi ride. The man did not hesitate, closed the hood of the car, and took us to the home we were staying at.
We arrived at the home late at night, were greeted by the owner of the home, who had prepared a twin-sized mattress for the both of us. The mattress was the ugliest, grey-colored, stained thing you could have ever imagined. It looked like it had been submerged in a local river, left there for a week, then taken out, dried, and left like that. It was covered in a mattress cover, but its ugly sides gave its secret away. Padrino and I were ready to rough it, so we didn’t complain. I was the first to try the mattress. I attempted to sit on it. As soon as I placed my buttocks on it, the mattress bent and heaved and flattened under my weight. It felt like a half-filled air-mattress. I laid on top of it as best as I could. “so…it’s nice, right? That’s our best bed.” The sincerity and goodwill behind the owner of the home’s statement was breaking my heart. I responded, “it’s perfect…thank you. After such a long day, it’s the perfect thing.” The man smiled, let us know that he was upstairs if we needed anything, and left us to our own devices. When he left the room, I looked at my padrino, and we both burst out laughing as quietly as possible. “Padrino, esto…esta…cabron….(Padrino, this is really %&#ed up….). “Well, tipo, you wanted the Revolution…here’s your revolution…que viva la revolucion”, he responded, in his mocking of the Revolution. Padrino’s political thoughts were similar to mine…but he was no dummy (nor was I). We were aware of the material shortfalls in Cuba and the failures of the Revolution. We had a balanced perspective…though we still respected Cubans a lot for taking a stand to rule their own affairs. Padrino was also an independentista, like I was (a believer in independence for Puerto Rico)…but, we were not necessarily in favor of having an independencia where people’s best beds were a gray, stained, dying mattress! We settled our things, laid opposite each other on the small mattress and made the best of it. I kept thinking, “man, I’m lucky to have a padrino willing to leave his comfortable, affluent home with his comfortable bed, and his wife and his two children….to come rough it out with me on this disgusting mattress just so I can get my Ifa”.
That thought warmed my heart and I fell asleep.
Awó Ogbe Ate