I wrote these poems during my trip to Cuba in September, 2016: a generous gift from my in-laws and a wonderful adventure with family. I had intended to enter them in poetry contests or submit them for a chapbook. I have decided to offer them freely here, with the hope that if you enjoy them, if even one line speaks to you, that you make a donation to Australia for Dolphins.

On our flight to Cuba, we bought a tourist sightseeing package for our family group. It included a catamaran trip to an island for lunch and swimming with the dolphins. I had made the assumption that, like in Hawaii, it’s an if-we-happen-to-see-them, we’ll-get-to-swim-with-them kind of understanding.

I felt sick to my stomach to discover these beautiful, loving, smart beings were confined to a dank pen in the middle of the water. Trapped for the entertainment of tourists and the sole and soul-less purpose of making a buck at the expense of their health and freedom.

I stood in the line of tourists, each of them awaiting a gentle kiss on the cheek from the dolphin. And the dolphin, scars on his head, complied. A gentle dolphin ‘kiss’ on each tourist’s cheek.

Not mine, though. He hammered me in the jaw. I stepped back in pain. But the trainer was determined to provide a dolphin kiss for each tourist and instructed the dolphin to try again. Again he walloped me in the jaw, as if to say, Do something! I see you see me. Do something!

When I returned from Cuba, I wrote an email to SunWing, asking them to stop selling the dolphin excursion. I received no reply. I donated to Australia for Dolphins, who are actively and tirelessly working to free dolphins in captivity, particularly abused, ill and injured dolphins.

Cuba was a paradox to me. Every turn revealed contradictory elements that somehow created that which is Cuba. Equal parts beauty and suffering. It was a fascinating time that I am grateful to have experienced. I offer these poems that they may both honour the special place that is Cuba, and inspire you to add your energy, via voice or dollars, to ensure no living being is forced to endure life inside those dank pens.

In gratitude,

Stephanie

Thank you to Vivian Hansen for your editing expertise.

Donate to Australia for Dolphins today.

La Playa

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2 in a canoe
2 snorklers
I wish I’d learned the language
¿Relaxed?
Not me, not yet.
Not the white tourists in hats and sunscreen
The locals playing
beach tennis
beach volleyball
Was that a dragonfly that flew by?
Well-tanned
Pink string bikini
Music, salsa, as alive as the ocean,
on the breeze
She misses and falls.
Her partner laughs and yells
¡Flaquita!
Cubano
She throws sand at him
¡Joder!
Mucho conversation
I wish I’d learned the language.
Mucho laughter – universal language
Tourists read.
Locals play.
That is a dragonfly!
Play pauses
My husband taps my leg.

A hummingbird
Pulls at the net
Fodder for her nest
They wait for her.
¡Bonita! ¡Esta volao!
She tugs and tugs,
takes her leave.

Play resumes
On the playa.

Borrowed Spirit

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Yoga on the beach
Latin beats
Open bar
Many would say
This is not Cuba.

Those who write about people
Tell the stories on the faces
of locals.

In the peeling paint and crumbling stone
I am not that storyteller.

I come for her
YHI, proclaims the sign above the spa door:
the spirit of the land,
Goddess of light and creation
Though she comes from another
Australian
Not Cuban
But it’s here that I meet her
Her breath across the water
relieves the heat of the sun

2 pelicans
a sand crab
The rhythm of waves on shore
Listen
Feel her
She is here
In the clouds
Stories-high.
In the land
under cultivated beaches
She is singing
Can you hear her?
Under the Africando beats
Under the chatter of tourists
Listen
Let her know you are listening
For her
She will respond
On the wave
On the breeze

Send a pelican
Or 2
She came before the faces
She will be here
After.

Revolution Square

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“Communists were hanged from the trees by barbed wire. How could a country once like that become communist?” said the man in the khaki pants and white running shoes in Revolution Square.

Before I could even think of what he’d just said, the answer darted through my mind;

They became what they feared the most.

Ghost Busters. Classic scene. Clear your minds. Don’t think of anything. And then: the Stay-Puffed Marshmallow Man attacks.

I wake early, missing too many meditation mornings. Get up.
I slip on the guest housecoat in the hotel room closet and quietly slide open the balcony door.
I sit on the chair, face the coming morning sun and close my eyes.

R  a  a  a  a  w  w  w  n  g

What sounds like a crop-duster skims the resort roofs. I see a trail off the wings. No. He couldn’t be spraying.
It must be dust.
Condensation. I inhale and choke
on what tastes like petroleum mixed with bug spray.

I rush inside the room, securing the deck door. They’re spraying for mosquitos and who knows what else.

I remember hearing the small plane yesterday morning.
I had remained in bed.
I strip off my robe and fetch my bathing suit from the hook
on the bathroom wall.
I grab my cover-up, pants and beach towel, and step into my flip-flops.
I head for the beach. The wide-open ocean. I’ll find room there for solitude.
As I walk under the treed canopy, another pass of the plane overhead. The tropical tent shields me from the spray. I emerge on the sand and set my things in the nearest beach chair. I sit, facing the now-rising sun. I close my eyes.

R  a  a  a  a  w  w  w  n  g

He’s coming right for me. Directly at me. Do I run for the ocean? Back into the trees?
That’s silly, I tell myself. You’re fine.
I sit.
The plane passes, pissing poison on me.
I feel a rain on my right arm and again choke on the spray.
Horrified, I run for the water. I scrub my arms and spit acrid saliva into the ocean.
I begin to cry.
What the hell?! Can’t we live in fresh air?
With fresh water and food?
Can’t we stop poisoning nature, each other and the earth?
What the fuck, Angels?!
I walk, waist-deep in the ocean, tear-blurred gaze fixed on the sandy bottom, defeated.
And then I remember the man in khaki pants and white runners in Revolution Square. And I remember the words in my head. And I know this is a peace I must make. A fear I must face. So I return to my practice.
I return to Green Tara.
I call on her.
In the midst of the horror I call her name.
And the sand bars in my head-hanged view give way to a new sight.
Green light reflects on ocean floor.
Through each wave, each ripple, each breath of water. Green light.
I bathe myself in it.
I offer it to Cuba.

Polarizing Paradise

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Cuba makes me want
to make more of my life.
To learn and teach.
To try, even if I fail, again and again.
Cuba makes me want
to take advantage of every opportunity
I’ve ever been given
or can make for myself.
And Cuba also makes me want
to forget about all that and live simply. Grateful for what I have.
Live off less stuff.
More time with family. Playing.
Cuba makes me want
to succeed.
Cuba makes me want
to rest.
Cuba makes me want
to learn something new. Something different and out-there
and boundary-pushing. Advance a cause. Advance the species!
Cuba makes me want
to stop trying. Stop striving.
Cuba makes me want
to make a difference.

make a blanket fort
start a revolution
start a game of checkers
play an instrument
play a game of cards
lay down the plans for a new venture
lay in the sun
build a community
build a friendship
cook like a chef
cook with a child
go back to school
go back home.

Becoming Cuba

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My lungs burn,
raw
from the cigarettes I smoked last night,
second-hand,
from the Spanish girl next to me at the pool.
Castellano.
The man behind me
the Londoner
from dinner in the Japanese restaurant
asked her to extinguish it.

The man cleaning the pool calls us over.
He has a cabana by the pool,
¿A secret?

His towels and cigarettes hold it
but he moves them quickly and places our towels on the bed.
My husband gives him 2 CUCs.
The man moves to clean the other side of the pool.

Flowers painted on pink toenails
I lounge on the bed between the swim-up bar and spa.

My lungs burn,
raw
from the cigars I smoked last night
second-hand,
walking to dinner along the narrow promenade
filled with tables
drinkers of rum
cigar smokers,
under cover from the tropical evening rain.

White, sheer curtains of my cabana blow in the ocean breeze.
Varadero
Lover and tormenter.

Chinese tourists chat in the pool.
Salsa on the stereo.
The only way to find silence is to become the sounds.

Salud

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Hemingway wrote here.
They’ll give you a pen
to sign your name.
I wonder what he’d have thought
of this place, this attention.
Hemmingway.

He’d have written about it.
Or not.
Raised a glass to it.

Time traveller

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People wait on the roadside,
everywhere
for buses
Russian trucks
taxis.
They walk
or travel by horse and wagon.

If you have a bike here,
you have a car,
says our guide.
If you have a car,
you have an airplane.

An airplane is a time machine here.
You come to Cuba,
you travel back in time.
You leave Cuba,
you travel into the future.

Lo Siento, Cuba

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I am sorry
for my part.
50% of your tourism
comes from my country, my home.
So I am partly to blame
for the dolphins in the dingy pen
dancing for dollars
sentenced to confinement.

For the staggering amount of plastic:
water bottles, poolside and oceanside,
snack trays on catamarans
plastic-wrapped crackers and chips
single-use cups
single-use snorkels.

For this morning’s chemical cocktail served by plane,
by golf cart,
covering beach,
palm trees,
pools and people
to kill the mosquitos.
But where were the bees?
I saw one dead
and one alive.

For the layer of sunscreen
that dances with bug spray
an ugly salsa
on the waves of the ocean.

For the Afro-Cuban beats
belching from speakers
on the beach,
at the pools,
on the boats.

For the mountain of lobster
dragged from the ocean
served up for dinner
to the demands of
more!

Write Like Water

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Ocean does not plan the location
of each shell on the beach.
She simply heaves it all upon the shore
for others to sift through
and decide which are treasures.

Poolside

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Lightning fast
tail curled
exposing bright green
still
poised on the grass, alert.
A man comes
places a cushion on my deck chair
tucks my beach towel around
Where you from?
Canada
Canadian,
I can’t tell by his tone if that’s good or bad to him
Indifferent.

I’ve lost sight of her.
Not on the grass
Now atop the rock
so still
what does she think of this island of giants?
She bobs her head twice
signals another I cannot see.

Flanked by foliage
orange and pink flowers
a bird, hidden, calls
bobbing her head
faster now.

What we see is grand.
Opulent life
palm trees
luxurious lounge chairs, poolside.
Fountains and ocean.
There is much we miss –
a hidden world,
an island life.

Tail is no longer curled.
Bites on my legs from something I could not see.
Small red welts.
Look closely
she is still on the rock.

Home

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Come, visit me in my home,
said the East Indian fellow to his new friend on the beach.
That’s my home,
and he pointed to the ocean.
Alright,
replied his friend in a thick Jamaican accent,
I’ll rent a room in a while.

Home Run

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Hit it with your arm.
The ball is soft
toss it up yourself.
2 bases plus home
Salsa music on the speaker
run bases in sand
¡Aye!
He’s out
1st baseman dances to the music
¡Out! ¡Out! ¡Out!
A big hit
dive
sand spray
safe at 1st
ball on la playa.

A Blessing for Cuba

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To the kitten with the big eyes
and tiny tummy,
ribs under fur,
purring under my fingers
outside the paladar.
I leave you my portion of fish.

To the man in the wheelchair
with no legs,
in the heat of Havana,
near the shop where my husband bought Monte Cristos,
the one near Old Square.
I leave you my Ciego Montero water.

To the beautiful brown-eyed dog
in the hallway,
who came running, tail-wagging
and lay at my feet
again, in the morning, playful paws
hopeful gaze, scratching fleas,
sunrise walk on the beach.
To you I leave the loving care of a family.

To the dolphins,
enclosed,
enslaved
in a dank pen in the ocean
for the pleasure of tourists,
most of whom were not pleased
with your captivity.
I leave you freedom.

To the people of Cuba,
warm and welcoming,
under the thumb of one
yet oppressed by none.
The spirit of Cuba
lives in you.
Simple and complicated,
a long past in a short time.
Heritage and history,
lost,
found,
lost again.
To you I leave Tara, a benevolent guide.

To the island,
trees and sunsets,
storms and sandbars,
vultures and geckos,
breeze and beach,
pelican, low, wings wide.
Keeper of secrets,
bearer of beauty,
endurer of Killings,
witness of war,
object of obsessions,
patient mother.
To you I leave my gratitude and my hope for your future.

Cuba’s Plea

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To those coming
arriving by plane
or making their plans
I leave these instructions:
Demand the freedom of the dolphins!
Don’t feed their captivity with your dollars.

Consume gently
coax sustainability
invite environmental responsibility
care for me;
my people
my animals
my island.
Walk softly
love fiercely
look and listen closely,
and I just may show you my hidden world.
Be still, even for a moment
be quiet, if only for a day
turn off the music
put down the drink
avoid the distractions
open yourself to me.

I believe in you, my friend.

Donate to Australia for Dolphins today.

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