In 1994, when I was working in a hospital in Cuba, I got the opportunity to travel to Jamaica. At that time, people in Cuba were trying to run away. They would go in anything, by boat, anyhow. They were trying to leave because of America and the embargo.
I wasn’t trying to leave, but a lady found me and offered to take me to Jamaica. Safely, with a plane ticket! It was something amazing. In less than 20 days I had all my stuff ready. Passport, permission, letter of invitation, everything.
I said goodbye to my family and friends. Things were hard because, at 22, I had never said goodbye to my family. What was I getting into? What was Jamaica like? I didn’t know. My friend did tell me a bit about Jamaica, but with my little English in Jamaica, I won’t have anyone to speak Spanish with, not even a word.
I love my family a lot: my parents, sisters, cousins. We are very close. Every last Sunday of the month, we have a family meeting. Grandpa is the head. Each member of the family brings the news of the month to Grandpa. If I have misbehaved at school, Grandpa will know. Grandpa gives counsel; he has the final say. The rest of the family would encourage me to do better in school. Leaving traditions like this was very hard.
No-one from my family came to the airport to say goodbye. At the airport, if a Cuban is leaving, everyone cries, as if it was a funeral. Because you don’t know when you will see your family again, if ever. We have that warm feeling about family. We love each other.
At the airport, there was a lady from Jamaica. I tried to talk with her. I asked if she knew the address I was going to in Jamaica. My host was in Michigan, and because of a misunderstanding about the dates, I knew she would not be in Jamaica to meet me. I hoped this lady at the airport would help me, but she got the impression that I was a Cuban trying to manipulate her, so she did not pay too much attention to me.
But when we reached Jamaica, she looked at me, surprised. She came to me and said, “I’m having some problems with my eyes, could you help me fill out the immigration forms?” When we had done that, we went outside, and she asked me where I was going. I told her: “I’m going to St Elizabeth. I would like to find out where I can find a bus.”
She said: “You can’t take a bus, it’s two hours from here and you have to change buses twice. And I’m sure you can’t handle the culture changes yet, you’ve only just arrived. Look, let me get someone who can help you.”
She went inside and came back with a lady dressed in a white blouse and white hat. On the hat I could read SALVATION ARMY. She asked if I had any money. “No,” I said, “because the lady that brought me here paid for all my expenses in Jamaica.” “It’s all right, don’t worry,” she said. “Do you have a phone number?” I had my host’s number, and she called it. The helper answered the phone and said there were car problems, so she couldn’t come and meet me. I heard the lady from the Salvation Army say, “Don’t worry about that. She looks very nice to me. I will keep her with me, even if you don’t come today, next year, whatever. She comes from Cuba, and I just like these people. So don’t worry.”
I was happy in a sense, but I was afraid too. Even though she was trying to help me, she was a stranger. I didn’t know why she wanted to take me with her, or what her plans were. She didn’t know me: how could she say she could keep me for a year?
She offered me a seat and brought me a bun and cheese. I began to listen to people talking around me. I thought: someone made a big mistake, they said they speak English in Jamaica, but they speak some other language that I don’t get. A guy came up to me: it was the first time I had seen a “dread”. He had such long thick hair, almost as if the hair was joining in one. I was a little afraid of him because I was not sure if it was his real hair, it looked like roots or something. He looked at me and said, “Wah go on sah, you look good you know!” I said: “Eh?” I didn’t understand what he was saying. The Salvation Army lady told him to leave.
I had arrived in Jamaica at 9 a.m. At around 4 p.m. I saw a lady running towards me with a picture in her hand, saying with excitement, “Are you Rosa?” “Yes, I’m Rosa,” I said. “How did you know who I was?” She showed me the picture. It was the picture I had given to the lady who brought me to Jamaica. She introduced herself as the lady’s helper, and said that she had found a bus to take us home.
She took me to lunch in a restaurant before we left. “Rosa, do you like rice and peas?” I said, “Yes.” “Chicken?” “Yes.” When the rice and chicken came, it looked very good. I began to eat the salad, then I tasted the chicken. I felt something hot. I couldn’t speak, tears ran down my cheeks, I closed my eyes. She looked at me and said, “My dear!” She called to people at the nearby tables, and said: “That’s why I love Cubans, you know. See how she is crying because she is thinking about her family, how the family in Cuba is without chicken, without food! I’m sorry, Rosa, you don’t have to cry so, because you will eat chicken like this again.”
I said, “God, more chicken like this? I can’t deal with it, it’s too hot.” It was jerk chicken. She tried to calm me by offering me some juice.
When the juice came, the bottle looked like tamarind juice, which I love because it’s sour. I took a long drink. The tears rolled down my cheeks again. The helper said, “Rosa, no, no, no! You can’t go on like this.” I couldn’t explain that she had given me ginger beer and it was too hot. For me that was the end. She said, “If you don’t dry your tears, I will try to send you back next week, because you will get sick from grief!” The thought of going back to Cuba dried out my tear ducts.
I stayed in Jamaica for three and a half years.
When I put one foot again on Cuban soil, I could not understand the joy I felt. I love Cuba. In spite of the limitations, I would resume my way of life, with the family meetings and my friends. Cuba is beautiful.
But I have found out there is a world outside. Cuba is not the only place; there is a world out there.
Now I am 25. And I am a bit frustrated. Because I do not feel I have accomplished enough.