This story first appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review. In October 2009 it won a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers.
The Revolution is
On November 25, 1956, Fidel Castro and eighty-two revolutionaries crammed aboard a small yacht, slipped out of the Mexican port of Pozca Rica, and steered for Cuba. The yacht, called the Granma, is all white paint and leisure, a decadent vessel. It now resides in a glass cage at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, where it is guarded by bored soldiers. Perhaps it is the glass, or the flash of tourist cameras, but the Granma looks less like a rebel blockade-runner than the S.S. Minnow—the boat from Gilligan’s Island.
So it seems natural that, after a week at sea during which the overloaded yacht nearly sank, the revolutionaries ran it aground off Cuba’s southern tip. They were forced to wade into history, dragging revolution along with soaked guns and sand-coated supplies.
Fifty years later a walkway leads through a stinking mangrove swamp to a small concrete monument where the rebels stumbled ashore. You can stand with your back to the sea and consider their path—no walkway in 1956—through the labyrinth of slick trees and deep, standing muck. Crabs shuttling beneath the roots, flies biting. A few miles away another bit of concrete marks the spot where Christopher Columbus landed. Scattered across the landscape near the monuments are piles of rubble, the ruins of houses smashed by a hurricane in 2005. Violent change enters Cuba through here.
Just after Fidel and his comrades reached dry ground they were ambushed and routed by troops of the American-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The survivors, including Ché Guevara and Raul Castro, fled into the forests. Fidel and two others hid in a sugar cane field while the army hunted them. The men lay still for five days, praying the soldiers, known for torturing rebels, would not find them. Fidel was confident. He whispered plans for the new Cuba to his companions. We will win! he was saying. We’re fucked, they thought. And Fidel is mad! Bellies pressed to the dirt, search planes whining overhead, sucking cane juice for sustenance, they hoped just to survive.
At that moment, it must have seemed another disaster, like Fidel’s first botched attempt at revolution in Santiago, three years earlier. But he survived. He has always survived. The vagaries of fate, the suggestion of miracles—cornerstones in the temple of his reputation. Eventually the three got up and ran into the mountains. After days of desperate wandering, they regrouped with eighteen other survivors. Soon they began winning. Two years later the country was theirs.
Today, in a cemetery by the sea, several miles from Fidel’s cane field, the old dead lie in snow-white vaults above the hard brown earth. Beside the graves, living men slump in shade beside stacks of luggage. It seems they have been waiting forever. I’ve been walking this road for an hour and seen no cars, few people. In Cuba only the dead do not have to wait.
I’d been told to take a left at the cemetery and go up. An old man heading the opposite way looks me over and asks what I am doing.
“You wouldn’t rather go straight, to Santiago?”
“No. I’m following Fidel’s route into the mountains.”