Much ado about birthdays

Posted on 26 March 2019

You can try and hide, but passports don’t lie ‘Aha!’ said the policeman, shining his torch at my passport. That didn’t sound good.

When a Cuban policeman who doesn’t speak English has pulled you over on a dirt track somewhere in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains, not a million miles away from Guantanamo Bay, and is examining your papers by torchlight with a suspicious expression on his face – the kind of expression armed officials in Latin-American dictatorships reserve for shifty-looking foreigners who may or may not be plotting intrigue against the Glorious Revolution – ‘Aha!’ is not what you want to hear.

What had he found? When I passed through Arrivals, had the guy behind the counter made some subtle mark in my passport, a coded message to any authorities I may encounter, meaning ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this one. I would cavity-search him but I’m about to take my rum break. You might want to take him in and beat the truth out of him.’

If this policeman did decide to take me to a room decorated with a naked, dangling light bulb, a knocked-over chair and a length of well-used piano wire, no one in the world would know where I was. Every year in April I take off somewhere by myself, as far away as I can get. I’ve never actually spent an April solo-hiking the jungly Amazon or crossing Antarctica alone, but that’s only because I’m too cowardly, not because the thought doesn’t appeal to me.

That April, I went to Cuba. I spent some days in Havana then rented a car – not, unfortunately, a ’57 Dodge Coronet with tail fins, but a hatchback Hyundai – and hit the potholed road south-east, past the Bay of Pigs towards Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba.

My best friend was very annoyed with me. ‘I’m about to give birth,’ she’d yelled, ‘and you’re going AWOL in the Caribbean? This is your godchild!’

‘Birthdays aren’t important,’ I said.

‘Don’t start that again,’ she said.

‘They’re not. People make too much fuss about birthdays.’

It’s hard to stay in touch in the Cuban wilds. There’s no free Wi-Fi in coffee shops. There are no coffee shops. The reception on my phone came and went, depending on the wind or the state of Raoul Castro’s health. It suited me – I could lose myself in the high guerilla country where Fidel and Che once gathered their forces, solitary and unharrassed. I lost track of the time and date until one afternoon when the wind turned and my phone suddenly beeped with the message: ‘Your god-daughter has been born!’

I jumped into my Hyundai and raced off towards the nearest town to find a reliable phone. Night was falling and Cuban roads are more a guess than actual infrastructure. By the time it was dark, I was somewhere high on a mountainside, leaning forward with my nose pressed against the windscreen, trying to peer beyond the reach of my headlights. An hour later, I accidentally drove into a military base, exited again very fast, and the Cuban policeman chased me and pulled me over.

‘I’m lost,’ I tried to explain.

He was impassive.

‘My best friend just had her baby.’

He didn’t understand or care.

‘I have spent too much time in my life, too many Aprils running away from significant dates instead of celebrating them with the people I love,’ I offered, ‘and I am beginning to realise how foolish that is, because now instead of sharing an important moment, here I am, being arrested by you.’

He flipped through the passport then stopped with that alarming ‘Aha!’ and looked up at me sharply.

‘It is your birthday,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I sighed. ‘I always leave town on my birthday. I think I need to stop.’

His stern look turned into a smile. ‘Feliz cumpleaños!’ he said, and pointed me in the right direction.

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