How to get deported from Cuba: A love letter

While perusing twitter yesterday, I read that it was the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens on May 18th 1980, which gave me all the feels as I recalled a trip with my mom and my brother back in 1990-something, when we flew into San Fran, rented a mustang convertible, and cruised up the west coast all the way to Seattle, stopping at every notable lighthouse and redwood tree along the way, snapping and savouring every Kodak moment. For the youngins reading this, Kodak is/was a film company, back when photographers used film, and a “Kodak moment” was what we said when something was truly photo worthy. Back then, we didn’t have 128 GB of storage wasting in our palms, we just had a roll of film and 30 shots, and each one had to count. One of our highlight stops along the way, was Mt. Saint Helens after passing through Portland, Oregon. Sadly, it was too foggy to see much of the mountain herself, but we visited the gift shop and watched an imax documentary about the volcano. It was a memorable trip overall, with one small flaw. The pacific coast highway winds along the rocky mountain coast. The views were breathtaking, the car was fast, and my brother and I were nauseous the entire way. But reading about Mt. Saint Helens yesterday got me thinking about all the adventures my mom took us on over the years. And there is one in particular that really stands out;

The time my brother and I were deported from Cuba.

It was the summer after grade 10. I was 16. My brother Hart was 14. The previous summer, my mom had taken us to a Club Med in Huatulco, Mexico, and we had an amazing time, so she planned another late summer trip to a destination she had always wanted to visit, Cuba. Club Med had a resort on Varadero Beach, and we were pumped to hop on the flying trapeze.

I remember exactly what I was wearing that day. I had a sweet new pair of Nike tear aways, with a yellow stripe down the sides, and a matching yellow tank top from J-crew. I had my blue disc man CD player (with No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom cued up), and my mountain co-op fanny pack (which at the time, was a staple accessory for any self-respecting Jewish Princess). We checked in for our Air Transat flight, and everything was smooth sailing. In those days, there were no TVs built into the airplane headrests, no wifi, and no ipads. You had to actually read on the plane or talk to your family. My brother and I played the game we invented together and played on every flight we took for most of our lives. We called it The Tank Game and it involved a sketchpad and a dose of cunning creativity. Whoever started drew a tank, and their mission was survival. The next person would have to draw something that could stop or destroy the tank; a moat full of crocs, a heat-seeking missile, or perhaps a simple banana peel. Then it would be player one’s turn again to draw something to usurp the attack. It would go back and forth indefinitely, as the sketch pad filled up with doodles and explosions and laughter. By the end, you could barely make out much of the action, but the result was a nuanced chaotic masterpiece reminiscent of a Basquiat painting. And before we knew it, we had arrived.

This is when things got interesting. It was about 9 pm when we landed. We made our way to customs and immigration, and my mom handed over all of our documents. The agent only spoke Spanish. She was taking her time with our papers, and she didn’t look nice. She spoke very fast, and very assertive, and we didn’t understand any of it. She waved over one of her associates. Something wasn’t right. They spoke to each other for a minute back and forth, and then her colleague explained that Hart and I could not enter Cuba without passports. It was 1998 and in those days, minors didn’t necessarily require passports to travel. We went to the US regularly without issue. Our travel agent had advised my mom to bring our birth certificates, and a notarized letter with our photographs signed by our father, giving her permission to take us out of the country. They motioned us to follow them into another secluded waiting area, where we waited and waited for what seemed like hours. By now my mom was holding us and sobbing inconsolably, and we sat terrified with no idea what was going to happen next.

I had been holding my pee since we got off the plane, thinking I would have a chance to use the bathroom before we got to baggage claim. Eventually, I couldn’t hold it any longer, so I hesitantly asked one of the uniformed guards if there was a bathroom I could use. She led me down the hall, and for a split second I enjoyed that soothing feeling of near-relief, before I turned the corner to find a row of 3 derelict stalls without doors waiting for me. In each stall, only the raw end of a pipe protruded from the floor, where a toilet would be connected. The floor was wet and covered in feces, and there was no toilet paper in sight (not because it had run out, because there wasn’t even a rod). The guard stood there holding her rifle, watching me process my surroundings in fear and disbelief. I’ll be honest, I’ve often experienced ‘stage fright’ and have trouble peeing when my husband or someone is around. It just won’t start. What can I say, my bladder is shy. But this was next level stage fright, because I had a scary military chick pointing a huge and probably automatic weapon at me, and I decided to just hold it in a little longer. Worst case, I’d pee in my pants (I didn’t, btw).

And after basically holding us like prisoners in hot airport purgatory, not even technically in Cuba, someone who spoke English finally broke the news that all flights back to Toronto were booked solid, but lucky for us, there were two jump seats available (that’s a fold-out seat intended only for air crew) on the next flight home… inside the cockpit. Again, this was the 90’s and before 9-11 when aviation security really ramped up. They wanted to send me and Hart home immediately, and my Mom would be sent onward to the resort alone, because she did have a valid passport, and the next available flight to Toronto wasn’t for 3 days. We had a minute to say our goodbyes. We were all hysterical. It was heart wrenching and surreal.

The jump seats hang off the cockpit wall like a harness with a fold out bench (very much like the baby change tables in public bathrooms). We sat elevated directly behind the pilots, so we could actually see over their shoulders all the instruments and buttons and lights. We didn’t have tray tables, so there would be no Tank Game this time around. We had to be quiet and minimize distractions. My brother actually has his pilots license now, and is an avid aircraft enthusiast who even dabbled in aerospace engineering. So our traumatizing experience finally had it’s silver lining. It was a rare and insanely cool turn of events. Like tour guides in the sky, the pilots pointed out when we flew over Disney World in Orlando, and Hurricane Bonnie, which looked like a giant spiralling cotton ball had swallowed North Carolina. It was actually incredible.

As we neared the Canadian border, the pilot radioed the tower at Pearson airport. I’ll never forget what he said in his pilots voice, “Pearson, this is Captain so and so on Air Transat flight number whatever it was. We’re preparing to make our final approach into the Toronto area and I’ve got two unaccompanied minors on board. I’m gonna need you to get in contact with their father, Mr. Howard Honickman, and let him know that we’ve got his children and he’ll need to arrange to meet them at arrivals”. Roger that Captain.

By the time we got home, the sun was rising. Later that day, my dad stormed into the travel agency at Bayview Village shopping mall, and demanded they get my mom home ASAP and reimburse her for everything, on account of providing misinformation of colossal proportions (and the damages that ensued). And they did. My mom had to spend 3 nights alone at Club Med, miserable and full of remorse, hoping that one day maybe we would all laugh about it. And remember, back then we didn’t have cell phones, so she had to wait, agonizing until morning just to find out that we made it home safe and sound. And while she tried to make the most of being trapped in this awful paradise paradox without her babies, she was drawn to a painting by a local artist who was selling their work on the beach. A vibrant burst of colour and two Latin lovers fiercely facing off on the dance floor that caught her eye. A 12 x 12 stretched canvas that hangs in my house to this day, the only souvenir or remnant of the family vacation that never was. And every time I glance over at it, I think fondly of our wild and irreplaceable adventures, like cruising up the pacific coast in a mustang, hiking through canyons and white water rafting, and especially, that time I was deported from Cuba.

deported from cuba