One of the harshest blows was the death of my friend Angela (known in these parts for her inimitable Cuban Thanksgiving). It was cancer, she was too young, and too loved. To boot, hospice was what hospice always is: well-intentioned and the best compromise given the situation, but sad and painful and a little bit cruel for everyone involved.
I loved Angela and the loss I felt when she finally died – peacefully, surrounded by family and friends in the closest approximation of agape I’ve so far seen – was profound. The grief was shared amongst many and in that there is some solace, but I wasn’t sure that would suffice to carry me through the next steps: I was asked to help clean out her house in Havana and distribute her worldly goods.
The task was entrusted to a five-person team of her nearest and dearest on this side of the Straits and we undertook the task as Angela would have: with a weighty combination of duty and respect, love and courage. She was meticulous in her wishes and armed with a detailed list of who got what, we tackled the job with sorrow-tinged stoicism.
The work went quickly because this is the way of Cubans with a task before them; her computer equipment and kitchenware, jewelry and electronics were distributed as per her written instructions, her love letters and professional correspondence kept confidential. But one wish remained problematic to honor: she asked that Triunfo de Yemayá be transferred to her older brother in South Florida.
This intricately carved and painted headboard was homage to the Afro-Cuban goddess of the sea and motherhood; surrounded by the magical elements of her domain and influence, the piece was made especially for Angela because she was muse to many, inspiring love and dedication and creativity. Anyone who had been invited into her home over the decades will remember that big, beautiful work of art, stirring memories of good food and friends and the positive energy so engendered.
My problem was Triunfo de Yemayá was as bulky as it was heavy, with fragile protruding bits, and the practical challenges inherent in delivering it to her brother in Miami were many. And my responsibility alone. Not surprisingly, the piece leaned against my office wall for months while I grieved and tried to figure out how to get it across the Straits.
The first stumbling block was the crate. This can be a challenge anywhere, but especially in Cuba where resources are scarce and fudging on details, craftsmanship, and follow-through rife. I talked to artist friends and curators to try and find someone to do a proper job of it (see note 1) with little luck. For months no wood was available and the expertise to build a proper crate apparently lacking. To make matters worse, prices carried a Yuma tax, which still rankles, even after 10 years in residence. Triunfo de Yemayá remained an emotional and psychological brick, shoring up my office wall.
And then I met Adam.
A babalawo from Centro Habana, Adam is one of those Cubans who can find, fix or resolve anything. In retrospect, it was entirely fitting that a babalawo should step into the picture given the tenor and title of the piece. Within two days, Adam built a beautiful, close-to-MOMA quality crate cheap which would protect Yemayá on her trip across the Straits. Procuring the necessary export papers (see note 2) was the next step and so seamless it felt positively First World.
Packed nicely and with the paperwork squared away, I felt lighter and brighter – I was finally seeing through Angela’s last wishes.
Then I got to the airport.
For those who have never been here, taking big luggage out of Cuba is an anomaly and just a little bit crazy, if you ask me. Even so, lowering the crate from the roof of the Lada felt good and approaching final. How misplaced our feelings can sometimes be.
“I know you from somewhere, but can’t place your face,” I remarked to a guy standing nearby as I angled Yemayá on to a luggage cart.
“I processed your export papers at the patrimony office. Let me call ahead to our transport specialist so he can smooth your way; he’s on the tarmac now.”
As he made the call, I made my way into line, eliciting murmurs and stares as I wheeled my unwieldy luggage towards check-in.
“Are you exporting a TV?” a tourist entirely unclear on the Cuba concept asked.
I laughed. “No. TVs come in to Cuba, they don’t get taken out,” I said, before explaining the story behind the voyage of Yemayá.
As I checked in, the charter representative told me I was 60 pounds over my weight limit and the crate, while lovely, would not fit through the X-ray. Somehow I hadn’t accounted for these factors.
“How can we resolve this, mi amor?” (see note 3) I asked with a smile, taking the opportunity to explain the favor and duty I was doing and the duty I felt to transport the piece.
A $40 “tip” took care of the weight limit issue and the chief cargo officer was summoned to escort Yemayá to that area of the airport where there was an extra grande X-ray machine for oversized luggage. But there was just an hour until the flight and a truck couldn’t be located to get the piece over to cargo. Just then, the aforementioned transport specialist from the National Registry appeared at my side.
They decided to go to Plan B.
Wielding the hammer I’d brought for the purpose, the crate was opened and inspected by the Registry’s transport specialist, the chief cargo officer, a customs agent and a couple other rubberneckers.
“My saint is also Yemayá,” someone said, their proclamation hanging in the tiny, crowded office as a final word of sorts.
Working together, we got her repacked right for the next leg of her trip.
“Now what?” I asked, looking at the clock and wondering if 35 minutes would be enough to complete this part of my mission.
“We’re done here. Now we wheel it on to the tarmac and put it on the plane.”
As I bid my crew adieu with a hug and the customary right cheek kiss, I heard someone say: “now let’s see what happens in Miami.”
Stay tuned to learn the fate of Triunfo de Yemayá!
(For those wondering, aché means “«the force», not in the sense of violence, but as a vital energy which creates a multiplicity of process and determines everything from physical and moral integrity to luck.”)
1. In this I have some experience since I lived with an art handler/installer my last four years in the States and precisely how fine art should be transported and handled.
2. To export patrimony +/o art of a certain caliber from cuba requires easy to procure paperwork and 10 CUC; my experience at the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales in Vedado was one of the most efficient and friendly I’ve ever experienced here.
3. While compañero and compañera may be waning as preferred terms of address, mi amor never will.