“Havana Honeymoon” by Jean Colonomos

Jean Colonomos is a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and a former freelance dance journalist who wrote for publications such as Dance Magazine and The Village Voice.  Her award-winning play, Black Dawn, is based on psychogenic blindness many Cambodian women suffered in the wake of Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide.  

In January, 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the American-supported Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and installed a Marxist government. At this time President Eisenhower still maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba.

When my then finance and I planned our Cuban honeymoon, my great aunt Mary, who lived in Havana, told us life was proceeding as usual under Castro. At that point, he was still setting up his new government.

It’s early July, 1959 and we are a ridiculously happy honeymoon couple strolling down the seafront gem, the Malecon. This “we” consists of a nineteen-and-a-half-year-old ex-ballerina who’s a French major going into her junior year at Hofstra, a commuter college on Long Island, and a twenty-two-year-old Colombian who just graduated Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as an electrical engineer. We are insanely proud of having withstood a three-and-a-half year courtship when for a time my parents wouldn’t let me see my beloved. They thought we were sleeping together and it took time to convince them we weren’t. Even though we were. And they never wanted me to marry so young. Two reasons that made me want to escape my house. 

We’re honeymooning in Havana, courtesy of my Cuban Aunt Elvira’s mother, Great Aunt Mary, who lives here most of the year except for the brutally humid summers when she visits her daughter in Roslyn, Long Island. The Havana apartment comes with a housekeeper who’s been taking care of the family for years and who my Bogotano husband jabbers with incessantly. He asks Modesta what she thinks about the new Cuba; she answers it’s too soon to tell.

Our first few days, despite the steaming heat, we’re intrepid tourists pounding the streets, hopping on buses, shopping in open markets and eating new foods. The Cubans we meet on the bus want to adopt my Colombian husband: they adore his pristine accent – and me, his gringa sidekick. Sweating non-stop by noon, we return to the humid apartment with a ceiling fan to cool us off. It doesn’t. When we turn on the television, Fidel Castro, who’s been in power five months, rants twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. How does he do it, we wonder? What about sleep?

My husband and I abandon sightseeing. We escape to the air-conditioned Hotel Nacional that’s now empty since dictator Batista fled. They say these big hotels were run by the Mafia, who’ve been kicked out. Though outside it’s burning daylight, inside the Nacional it’s an enveloping, black-velvet night. The days we visit we notice three men gambling. One white-haired gentleman at the blackjack table looks as if rigor mortis has set in.

My darling marido and I flee to Varadero, a pristine, white-sand beach on the Caribbean. We’re finally in honeymoon heaven. Our hotel is simple and clean, we can walk out the door and step into the gentle, bathtub ocean water so clear we can see the veins in our feet. Our meals consist mostly of fresh fish, rice, beans and plantains. The cooked bananas are new for me and I love their sweet bite. At night after we make love, we fall asleep to the men playing dominos below our balcony. The sounds of them tapping the domino twice against the table before playing it soothes us.  

After five blissful days, we return to Havana and what happens next dictates our departure. Re-entering the city, we notice rebel soldiers we haven’t seen before, stopping cars at gunpoint to collect contributions to Castro’s Reforma Agraria. The soldier who points his rifle into our car is barely fifteen, I’d guess by the sparse hairs on his baby-face skin. It’s the first time we feel the oppression of Fidel’s regime up close. We donate and get out of there.

At the apartment my husband tells Modesta we’re going to Mexico City the day after tomorrow. My husband’s parents are there, so our honeymoon is now a family affair. I like his parents but they’re skeptical about me. They’re Holocaust survivors who’d hoped their son would return to Bogota, but he sees his future in America. At least I’m Jewish, which is a plus in their eyes. And I’ll take care of their son, the tall husband next to me with a lilting foreign accent, whom I love.