Where did my fellow travelers go? Except for an artist selling bright paintings and musicians strumming guitars under a portico, I'm all alone in front of Havana's Catedral San Cristóbal. How did this happen? I just stepped over to an art gallery, and when I turned around, I didn't see anyone I knew. It's only my second day as one of nine people on the Writers' Journey to Cuba. We're gearing up to meet authors around the island, but this morning we followed our government tourist guide through Havana Vieja, the city's recently restored Spanish colonial neighborhood. What am I going to do? My foreign language skills are questionable, my eyesight limited and I don't even have a map. No time to panic. Breathe. Make a plan.
My father always said, "You're never lost if you can find your way back to where you started."
Guess I'll try to retrace my steps. I know the bus dropped us off at the Plaza Armas. It's lined with booksellers and populated by Afro-Cuban women posing for pictures in ruffled dresses and striped headscarves. The historic square should stand out. All over the cobblestones streets, teens in school uniforms and hawkers selling peanuts stream past me. There's a man riding a bike with a dog on his shoulders. I see a lot of smiles so I try my high school Spanish, asking "Dónde está plaza de los libros?"
I hope I'm saying, "Where is the plaza with the books?" It must make some sense to the friendly strangers who point me left, right and straight ahead. I know I'm making progress when I notice the aroma emanating from the Café el Escorial. This intoxicating caffeine den is close at hand. We bought fresh roasted coffee beans earlier. The café overlooks the wide Plaza Vieja where youngsters compete in a foot race.
No luck finding the Plaza San Francisco. Was that where the Pope was welcomed last month? Finally, I spot a tourist information booth, and a young woman tells me I'm just two blocks from my goal.
I sashay a subtle happy dance when I spy the statue of a revolutionary hero encircled by bookstalls. But my joy is short lived. Just past the vehicle-restraining barriers, the buses big and small with identical logos are lined up. Sigh, none of them are my bus, number 3388. Our driver, Candida, is nowhere in sight either. I contemplate pulling out the address of my hotel across town, so I can find a cab. That might solve my problem, but my mobile phone doesn't work here. How can I let my group's organizer, Aysha Griffin, know I'm okay?
While I waffle on the horns of this dilemma, a dark-haired young man, neatly dressed in a white shirt and black slacks, is headed my way. Though he is striding purposefully toward the streets I just navigated, he stops to help. It takes a few minutes as I repeat "Mi autobus no está aqui", but when he understands my predicament, we hustle across a wide boulevard to his bus. Picking up the transmitter on his CB radio, he tries to contact my driver. For minutes that keep stretching longer, he repeats, "Tres, tres, ocho, ocho" - my bus' call numbers. Each time he pauses, the silence between transmissions seems to get longer.
At last, he shrugs his shoulders in surrender. I try to ask him to call my hotel, but if his English is sparse, my Spanish is worse. We exchange gestures and written notes while he patiently urges me to return to where I ate lunch an hour ago. He indicates that it's not far from here to the rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, a place best known as Ernest Hemingway's old hangout. At the moment, it looks like my best option. I'm fresh out of ideas, so we nod agreement. After dodging back across the traffic, he offers to set me on the street that leads to the hotel.
We are minutes from parting. I'm deeply grateful for his time and his kindness. How do I express my gratitude? Giving him money feels disrespectful. I go with basic good manners.
Summoning my sophomore vocabulary skill set, I reach out my hand and introduce myself. "Mi llamó Barbara."
Feeling safe, I ask for his name. "Como se llama?"
Now he extends his hand and tells me his name. Rolling the first syllable into a Spanish sounding "hey” and concluding with "soos," he says, "Jesús."
"Ah," I laugh returning to English, "Jesus always helps me!"
He chuckles, too, so I think he understands the joke.
I wave goodbye and walk to the hotel where I find my friends waiting for me. I guess there was a bit of divine intervention, but it's the generosity of one of the first Cubans I met that shows me I'm at the beginning of a miraculous journey.
Story by Barbara Wysocki: With footsteps on every continent, Barbara Wysocki loves exploring. She says, “I was in the presence of giants” when she meet Cuban writers.
Illustrations by Jan Baross: Artist/writer Jan Baross drew the colorful people of Havana Vieja for her upcoming sketchbook on Cuba.