In the time it took a glass to fall from a balcony on a dimly lit street in Havana, my life changed forever.
It was the summer of 1998, and I was starting my career in journalism with my dream assignment: working for CNN’s Havana bureau.
I heard stories about Cuba throughout my childhood. My grandfather, an intrepid traveler and fly fisherman, had visited the island frequently in the 1950s. According to family legend, he once returned home to Ohio with a Cuban fighting rooster that woke the whole neighborhood each morning with its loud crowing. My grandfather was in Havana on New Year’s Eve in 1958 when Fidel Castro took power.
That would be his last trip to Cuba. After the U.S. and Cuba broke off diplomatic relations, travel to the island by Americans became virtually impossible.
The Cuba I discovered nearly 40 years later was much a starker place than the one my grandfather vividly described. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the island stranded and the economy had all but ground to a halt. Cuba was so broke it couldn’t even afford to continue printing the main newspaper on a mass scale, so copies of the Communist Party daily, Granma, were posted in empty storefront windows for people to read.
Gasoline and cars were a luxury, and I got around as most Cubans did — on a single-gear Flying Pigeon bicycle, one of thousands donated by China.
When I pulled out my CNN-issued cellphone, a prohibited item in those days, locals looked at me as if I had traveled from the future.
One night, I was invited to have dinner with a group of visiting college students from one of the first U.S. universities to set up a study abroad program on the island.
We ate at La Guarida, a privately owned restaurant that the government had only recently given permission to operate. Called paladares, the restaurants were the first capitalist ventures allowed by the government after decades of the state’s control over every facet of the economy.
Paladares could only serve 12 people at a time and, since all the tables were full, we waited on the balcony, drinking mojitos. That’s when I met Alexandra, who was there with the university group and had a close connection to Cuba. Her mother had been born in Havana but had left after the revolution.
Alexandra grew up in Panama and, like me, had spent her childhood enchanted by stories about Cuba. We immediately hit it off, discussing our family histories and the daily dose of surrealism that was life in Cuba. As we left the restaurant, the owner’s wife was picking up our glasses from the balcony when one slipped through her fingers.
The glass fell three stories before smashing onto Alexandra’s head. Her scalp was bleeding and I helped her into the back of a beat-up 1950s Buick, holding her hand as we rushed through the darkened streets to the closest hospital.
Thankfully, aside from some scrapes, she wasn’t badly hurt. I would never forget the night I met my wife.
Even though we left Cuba a few months later, the island and her people, who are forever struggling through hard times, stayed with us.
Over the next decade, I climbed the ladder at CNN, eventually becoming a reporter, covering hurricanes, the oil spill in the Gulf, and the rescue of 33 trapped miners in Chile.
Alexandra and I always talked about one day returning to Cuba. Then, shortly after the birth of our first child while I was based in Seattle, the call came. CNN was offering me the correspondent job in Havana.
I was thrilled — this was the opportunity I had dreamed about for years — but was also wary. For good reason, Cubans’ daily mantra is no es facil — “it ain’t easy.”
The challenges of life in Cuba hit me almost as soon as I stepped off of the plane.
Life is difficult in a communist-run, state-controlled island that has endured five decades of U.S. sanctions, even for foreigners like us who have infinitely more resources than the citizens.
But we learned to adapt.
We found a beautiful, dilapidated house to fix up only four blocks from the home Alexandra’s mother had grown up in, the same house that the government had confiscated after her family left.
Even the sluggish Internet and frequent shortages became bearable. We learned to laugh at the crazy — such as the time our baby daughter turned a George Hamilton hue of orange after devouring too much pumpkin squash, one of the few items we could find that she would eat. Or when I brought an engine block back to Cuba in a suitcase to get the office car running again.
When I first told colleagues I was moving to Cuba, many warned me that life moved at a slower pace than I was used to.
One long-time foreign journalist in Havana bragged that she had time enough to read the entire “Game of Thrones” series.
But things picked up when the news broke early the morning of December 17th, 2014. President Obama and Raul Castro traded prisoners in a secret deal and announced they would seek to reverse decades of Cold War animosity.
Suddenly, I was covering historic events on a near daily basis. The U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the island in nearly 90 years, and travel restrictions were loosened on Americans who began to come to Cuba in numbers not seen since my grandfather’s days.
Pope Francis journeyed to Cuba, as did the Rolling Stones. The Stones threw a free concert attended by hundreds of thousands of Cubans, many of whom had been banned from listening to rock and roll during the early years of the revolution.
And then, one night, I found myself driving faster than I ever have in my life down Havana’s seaside Malecón boulevard, racing to get to the CNN Havana bureau to report on the death of Fidel Castro.
During our time here, we also tracked down and met some of Alexandra’s long-lost Cuban relatives. Our kids — we now have four — learned Spanish with a Cuban accent as their first language.
Alexandra started a small store that sells the work of independent Cuban artisans, helping them improve and market their products.
Even after five years, we continue to be amazed by the resilience and strength of the Cuban people, ever hopeful that a better future is close at hand.
Next year, Raul Castro says he will step down as president, which could mark the beginning of the post-Castro era in Cuba.
As always, no one can really predict what will happen here. But despite what the skeptics say, Cuba is changing. And for us it already has.
Cuba is now our home.