The travel brochure promised happiness and a trip I’d never forget. That promise was more than fulfilled in August 1959 when my Grandmother asked me to join her on a ten-day cruise to Nassau in the Bahamas and Havana, Cuba. It was her graduation and birthday present to me as I had recently completed eighth grade and had turned 14.
We departed New York City on the S.S. Nassau cruise liner which, in 1959, had the “world’s largest Lido deck.” By today’s Carnival Line standards, the Nassau was just a fancy tugboat. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be going on my first ocean voyage with my dear Grandma. As far as I could see, I was the only passenger under the age of 50. I was a young teen surrounded by doting old fogies and I loved it!
Nassau at that time had almost no natural resources except those furnished by the sea and by tourism. We travelled the island in a surrey with, yes, the fringe on top, drawn by a horse wearing a straw hat adorned with a garland of flowers. We saw a unique and remarkable spectacle at the Botanical Gardens. Trained flamingos marched in unison in a military style parade responding briskly to their commander-in-chief.
On the eve before our arrival in Havana, the passengers were all atwitter with excitement and anticipation. Dinner conversation focused on Fidel Castro because, as we were cruising around the Caribbean, he was overthrowing the Cuban government of Bautista. It would soon be a new day with a new government for the Cuban people and the S.S. Nassau just got in under the revolutionary wire. We were the last cruise ship allowed to visit Cuba.
Our two day stay in Havana was highlighted by tours of a cigar manufacturing facility, a shopping stop at Rosie’s Alligator Goods Emporium, and free drinks at the Trocadero Rhum factory. An evening was spent at “the world’s most fabulous night club and casino,” The Tropicana. We sat outdoors under the stars enjoying a sumptuous feast while dancers and musicians regaled us with their flamboyant performances.
As we headed back to the ship, I felt some sadness knowing that this wonderful trip with my beloved Grandma would soon end, for tomorrow we would depart for New York. Once back on board, Grandma retired to the lounge to play cards with her new found friends. She asked me to go to our cabin, three flights below, to get her glasses.
As I descended the stairs, I had a sense I was being followed but I saw no one behind me. I arrived at my cabin door and it was then that I knew my intuition was correct. I felt an enormous presence pushing against my back. I turned around slowly to confront my pursuer. I was 5’7” but this huge man was well over 6 feet. He wore an Army green uniform. Sewn over his left pocket, in big black letters, was his name: CASTRO. This was Raul, Fidel’s brother. I recognized his face from the many newspapers on board that were detailing the revolution.
He must have found my looks arresting and alluring, not to mention virginal and ripe for the taking. There I stood in a bouffant dress accented with a necklace of pop pearls, rhinestone studded glasses, long wavy brown tresses, white pumps, and my clutch bag. He flashed a toothy smile and told me in his broken English to open the door and give him my address. My intuition told me that if I did what he asked, I’d be in some kind of physical trouble.
I was a very naive teenager. I still hadn’t grasped the concept of human reproduction. Mom told me that God puts a seed inside a woman and it grows into a baby. I thought how would God get the seed into the woman? He’d hide it, of course, but where? For years, I never ate mashed potatoes.
I opened my clutch bag and pretended to look for the key. Then I told him I didn’t have it; I must have left it upstairs. But I was sure the cabin steward could let us in. Castro followed me down the hall where the steward was standing by his coffee, towel and ice station. I said to him, “This man is bothering me. Please make him go away.” The steward and Castro had an exchange in Spanish and Castro disappeared up the stairs. I retrieved Grandma’s glasses and returned to the lounge. We played cards until midnight. Grandma never knew how I outfoxed Raul Castro.
No vacation is complete without souvenirs and I had some doozies, bongos for myself, Cuban cigars for Dad. But the rest of my souvenirs were intangible: the knowledge to always listen to your intuition, your emotional and intellectual immune system, and the realization that a girl’s best self-defenses are a keen wit and self-assurance.