Many kids from Havana came to Caimanera with the same hope of leaving Cuba. Many died.
My mom reminds us, “You had to know the ocean. That there was a pattern to the channel. And if you didn’t know that, if you were caught in the current when the water was too strong, you would be washed out to the sea with no chance of making it back. You had to be from Caimanera like your father.”
Being from Caimanera gave my father the inside knowledge of knowing these things, like a birth rite of sorts. He knew the channel, the tide, the moon, and that the Coast Guard was watching. He also knew that on that specific night two of the Coast Guard boats were broken. Less guards were on duty, less eyes to find you.
“You had to know the area,” my father says simply.
When the time came, my father and his companions, lifted the floor boards of the house and one by one dropped themselves into the water like quiet, sinking rocks.
Was he scared? Did he know he’d make it? Did he even have time to think about these things?
They bobbed in the water for a moment before beginning their 4 mile journey. They had to be smart. When do we swim? When do we float? And when I say float, I don’t mean on a noodle or even on your back, relaxed. In this case, the purpose of floating was only to breathe, keeping only your face above water. Everything else quietly working underwater, like a duck – steady and still up top and legs paddling like an engine below. Minimal movement. No sounds.
Just thinking about it requires a deep breath. I barely like floating in a pool, let alone in the middle of a bay on a dark night. And by barely, I mean not at all.
With guards patrolling, once they were “floating” in open water with only their face to the moon, they couldn’t look around or call out to each other. They had to assume they were together. Everyone had to keep quiet and calm and, I imagine, have faith in each other to not cause a scene or call attention. If any one of them was overtaken by fear and started yelling, they would all be sunk.
It was four miles in total and there was no turning back. He couldn’t very well call the Coast Guard to save him. For two miles he floated in the eerily quiet bay, not sure if the others had turned back, made it, or drown. And he still had to swim the rest of the way.
His neck started to cramp, “Floating with only your neck above the water for two miles is a lot harder than you think,” my dad says in his still present accent. “Your neck starts to cramp. It was much harder than swimming.”
I remember harping on that detail. Floating, up until now, was something people did to relax. There was no struggle in floating. My best friend and I went to Aruba once, rented rafts and anchors (so we didn’t have to swim back to shore every couple of minutes) and called ourselves “professional floaters.” But this was something different entirely; this was survival.
So I guess you consider the alternative…
TO BE CONTINUED…
P.S. Part 1: The Beginning and Part 2: The Wait