With Only the Ocean Between Us

Growing up in Key West and knowing that you can’t just climb aboard a neighbors’ boat to go explore Cuba, as we explored the various other islands that dot the Atlantic, is an odd feeling. Knowing that you are closer to an island that you can’t visit than the continental U.S. always made me feel isolated, like there was a twin somewhere in the distance that I’d never met and would never get the chance to. Somewhere out there beyond the waves were the people whose customs my island had stolen over the years. As their rafts washed on to our shore, it wasn’t long before their culture was nearly inseparable from our own.

I spent my young life, gazing at a slight ripple of the Atlantic Ocean where it met the grainy yellow sand on a tiny island, the only home I’d ever known. I could spend hours pondering what was beyond the horizon. My body would change color from brown to red, a patchwork quilt of freckles, tan lines and sunburns. I lazed on a pink blow-up raft, pretending it was my vessel. When on a windy day if I paddled out to far, my friends would shout from the shore, “Be careful or you’ll end up in Cuba.” I never could tell if those threats were ominous or promising. Stranded at the bottom of a very long state on an island with no shopping malls and very few chain restaurants, it seemed exciting that if a storm rolled in from the North, my pink raft would have to travel only 90 miles before arriving on foreign soil. As a child, I pondered many questions. Where did the ocean stop and Cuba begin? Is it true that my gym teacher could see the glow of lights from Cuba on a particularly dark and clear night? If I did swim there, would it just be another boring island bobbing in the middle of the ocean, like a buoy, longing to be connected to the mainland? Were there Cubans standing at the other side of that body of water, wondering about me? Did they look at the blue ocean and think about their family that had emigrated to the U.S., and wonder whether their fantasies of the American dream had come true?

On those days that I blinked hard against the sun to see if there was a raft or a light in the distance, both things that would have been a welcome beacon of life, a UFO of hope for a claustrophobic island child, there were many things that I already knew about Cuba.

I knew my mom had moved there as a girl and while her memories are vague about her time spent there, I liked to imagine her floating on a pink raft at a white sand Cuban beach, wondering what’s beyond the horizon. I knew that Ropa Vieja (a stewed Cuban beef dish) was my favorite food because the name translated to “old clothes” and on top of my mom’s yellow rice, it was comfort in a bowl. I knew that every single parent, even if their lives began somewhere innocuously enough like the suburbs of Boston or the Midwest, soon felt compelled to serve Cuban roast pork with rice, beans and plantains on Sunday after church.

I knew that Cuban art was full of bright colors and a cultural complexity, that even as a child, I envied. I learned how to roll my R’s early on and I knew that Cuban music was fast and confusing, but I couldn’t help dancing in a circle with my friends when I heard it blasting from the corner stores. I knew that somewhere in Miami, a Cuban kid existed named Elian whose picture appeared nightly in the warm glow of my living room while I read my school books. I knew that tourists loved Key West for many reasons but most of all because they couldn’t visit Cuba and it was the closest they could come to reaching something that as Americans they weren’t supposed to touch.

I knew I wanted to touch “it” too. The mystique of Cuba is undeniable. For most Americans, Cuba is the forbidden fruit, the last frontier of travel and that sense is heightened when you grow up in the Florida Keys.

How most children know they want to be astronauts or teachers when they grow up, I’ve always known that someday, I wanted to go to Cuba. I would travel there and try to imagine my mother, as an 8 year old girl in a frilly white church dress and black patent leather shoes, walking up and down the Malecon, the wind whipping her charcoal hair. I wanted to drink the real café con leche that the men at the laundromat in Key West spoke so wistfully about.

That dream of Cuba travel has led me to work at the offices of insightCuba in New York. I, along with my colleagues, have an intense desire to not only travel there ourselves, but also to send other fellow Americans to Cuba legally. It’s funny that I’m closer now to visiting Cuba than ever before, yet I’m so much further away from that mysterious island that exists only 90 miles away from where I grew up. Every day, I anxiously await the mail, hoping that it will contain the little white envelope from the Office of Foreign Asset Control, which will authorize insightCuba to give Americans the opportunity to legally travel to Cuba for the first time in my adult life. The date we receive our license to travel to Cuba might still be uncertain, but I do know one thing for sure; Once my feet touch that island and I shake the hand of the first Cuban I meet, together we will peer back out into the ocean, beyond the horizon at the only home I’ve ever known and I will delight in telling my new Cuban friends how many children in pink rafts can’t wait to finally meet them.