Back when I was 7kgs lighter and just starting out on my career, I was assigned to a project in Honduras. For a myriad of mundane reasons like visas, I ended up having to spend a night on transit in Cuba.
Look, the furthest solo trip I’ve ever taken was from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan – a mere three-hour flight. I’d step out of the arrival hall into my parents’ car. So the prospect of traveling alone to the other side of the world turned my blood to ice. But of course I swaggered around the office beaming and agreeing with my colleagues on how lucky I was.
So, after hours in the air and stomach-churning airplane food, the plane bumped gently on the tarmac in Havana. I was staring at the immigration card the air stewardess had distributed earlier. Birthday was spelled as ‘bird day’.
I followed the stream of passengers to immigration (where the lady officer stared at me for a few long minutes with narrowed eyes as though she was waiting for me to confess to a crime) and to baggage collection. Huge military men were stalking around with black dogs on leashes. As soon as I grabbed my bag, I hurried to the exit and desperately scanned the waiting mob for a placard of my name. Nothing! I kept going back and forth reading every name while every face in the crowd started looking more and more thuggish (to my eyes). Belatedly remembering I could call my company assigned driver, I tried but the phone went on ringing forever. Tears were burning the backs of my eyes.
Resigned to my fate, I got a taxi. As we traveled in the pitch dark in silence (I spoke no Spanish and the taxi driver spoke no English), I was thinking of only one thing. If I was raped and murdered, would anyone know where to find my body? The taxi slowing down in the middle of nowhere made me stiffen and my mouth went dry. I could make out a man’s silhouette on the roadside on the fringes of the taxi’s headlights.
A sudden memory of watching Spanish soap operas with my university housemates bursts in my mind. “Que??”
I caught the word amigo from the taxi driver.
I slumped back into my seat, breathing again when the taxi sped up, passing the man.
Soon we were entering the city and I almost shed tears of relief when I began to see lights. When the taxi dropped me off at the hotel (a very sturdy highrise), it was past two in the morning. In four hours I had to be at the airport again. My limbs were so heavy and my stomach was growling but I pulled back the covers of the bed, ready to collapse. I lurched back. A smattering of transparent insect wings adorned the white sheet. My skin crawled. Somehow I managed to swallow my revulsion, brush the offending things off the bed and knock out.
In a few hours, grainy-eyed, I caught another taxi to the airport. In the watery morning light, I was shocked to see the deep blue sea shimmering endlessly. We passed through stout colonial buildings to a long stretch of road lined with walls on both sides. I got a brief introduction on communist propaganda from the bold graffitis. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the traffic got heavier. My eyes steadily widened with every car that chugged past us. I felt like Doc Brown’s DeLorean had zipped me back to the 1960s.
Weeks later when I returned home and was telling my friends about my adventures, all the girls had similar reactions. Oh my God! So scary! The guys were less sympathetic. You didn’t even try a single Cuban cigar? Mojito? No? Useless!