In retrospect, we were probably screwed from the moment we arrived in town.
My husband, Geoff, and I spent a week in Havana in early December and we really wanted a glimpse of the amazing Cuban baseball players not available to the rest of the world. Industriales, the team from the capital that dominates Serie Nacional, was on the road for the first week of the season, but the Cazadores were at home in Artemisa, a small town an hour’s drive from Havana. We hired a taxi, and our driver, Melquiades, turned out to be a friendly guy who knew a little English and a lot of beisbol. When we arrived in Artemisa, we walked a couple of blocks to buy bottles of water and quickly realized the town never sees tourists. People turned in the street or hung over their balconies to gawk, and kids lined a schoolyard fence to stare and holler.
The stadium was small, maybe 4,000 seats, but visually fantastic. Huge portraits of Artemisa players in their Cuban national team uniforms stared down from metal towers surrounding the outfield and propaganda slogans like “Sport gives glory and honour to the country” were painted on the concrete walls. Admission was one peso in the local currency—about four cents Canadian. We chose seats along the third-base line, trying to ignore the stares, and Melquiades pointed out players we should keep an eye on. Cuban baseball teams are drawn from the provinces they represent, so rural teams like Artemisa are usually weak, but in this game they faced the Sancti Spiritus Gallos and the league’s best player, Yulieski Gourriel. Some scouts consider the 28-year-old the most talented infielder not playing in the major leagues. In 2006, there were reports he tried to defect through Colombia, but he has denied it and professes loyalty to his homeland.
The game was a sedate 1–0 affair—Gourriel scored the only run in the eighth, coming home on a sacrifice fly—but the theatre in the bleachers was outstanding. The fans gestured crazily, lunging across benches and screaming at each other whenever they disagreed on a play—a real, live telenovela.
Things wrapped up around 4 p.m., and just as our cab left the stadium gates, a cop on a motorcycle pulled us over. Melquiades spoke with him rapidly, then the cop motioned for me and Geoff to get out and demanded to see our passports, which were locked in the safe back at the B & B. I showed him a scan of the documents I’d stored on my phone, but he just shook his head, grim and sneering. Melquiades motioned for us to get back in the cab and I figured we were headed back to Havana. But it soon became clear we were following the cop back to the police station, and my stomach lurched.
When we arrived, another cab driver was there with two men, one of whom was obviously a tourist. Dozens of Cubans in military and police uniforms milled around. The building was an ancient, depressing little bunker—a portrait of Fidel on the wall, a few benches and two desks behind a fancy little turquoise-painted balustrade at odds with the harsh surroundings. Geoff and I stood there awkwardly while the motorcycle cop examined Melquiades’s permits and scribbled down some notes. It suddenly occurred to me that they might ask about our professions, and that I probably shouldn’t admit I’m a journalist, given that the Cuban government keeps close tabs on my kind. Geoff and I debated this quietly for a few frantic seconds, but then an older police officer with a sweet, pleading face motioned us toward the benches.
We took the only seats left, next to a pair of bathrooms that reeked like open sewers. After chugging bottles of water during the game, we both needed to use the washroom, but for some reason I thought it would make things better if we sat absolutely still and stayed quiet, as though we were hiding from a predator in the woods. When half an hour had gone by and no one acknowledged us, we grew desperate and ventured in. Back on the bench, we were still clueless about why we’d been hauled in or what hoops we’d have to jump through to get out; none of the cops would speak to us. Melquiades told us he couldn’t talk about it there, but would explain later. It was clear the police wouldn’t let him leave either. He wandered in and out of the station, chatting with the other cab driver, but his nonchalance looked put on to me. Geoff suggested we ask the other tourist if he knew what was going on, but I’d seen him holding a photocopy of an American passport and muttered that there was no way I wanted to look friendly with him—there’s my neighbourly spirit when my hide is on the line.
An hour ticked by, the sun started to go down and the uncertainty and anxiety chewed at us. I texted a Canadian journalist friend living in Havana, asking for advice in what I hoped was a non-panicked tone, but the message wouldn’t go through. Geoff and I tried to play “I Spy” to stay calm, but we couldn’t remember the rules, so we flipped through our guidebook, taking note of the Canadian embassy’s phone number.
The action around us only made our situation more stressful. Two young women were escorted down a back hallway and emerged 15 minutes later, sobbing. One officer asked another what time a movie was playing that night, making us fear they’d shut down for the day and leave us—where? A line of baby-faced men in military uniforms filed past, turning one by one to stare at us like it was a precision manoeuvre. As I became more nervous, I flipped into reporter mode, hissing to Geoff about the trampling of our rights and composing angry tweets in my head. The scariest part was that we couldn’t figure out what was the worst-case scenario—if you’ve run afoul of some arbitrary, invisible rule, how do you know how to fix it or what the punishment will be if you can’t?
Finally, after two hours, a young woman in a military uniform motioned for us to follow her down a hallway. Just then, Melquiades appeared and said, “Let’s go.” Flummoxed, Geoff and I pointed to the woman, but our cab driver barked, “Let’s GO,” and marched out the door. We scurried after him and into the cab, which was idling at the curb.
We didn’t look back as we hit the road to Havana, and the first deep breaths in two hours felt damn good. After a couple of minutes, Melquiades said, “Remember I told you about Gourriel and how the major leagues want him?” We remembered. “They thought you were scouts,” he said, deadpan. He had to repeat it three times before we absorbed it: We’d just spent two hours detained by Cuban police because they thought we were there to poach their star player. All three of us laughed almost to the point of tears. The whole thing was insane and ridiculous and terrifying—and, really, kind of awesome. “At least now we know how seriously Cubans take baseball,” Geoff said when he composed himself.
While we were sweating it out at the station, the police had called the place we were staying to ask about “the Americans,” but the staff managed to convince them we were Canadian, describing our appearance and offering the passport information they had on file. We never figured out who alerted authorities we were at the game, but looking back, everything we’d done in Artemisa made us look suspicious. Choosing a game in the obscure town where Gourriel and the Gallos happened to be on the road was the first problem. Then there was the fact that we were sitting right next to third base and I spent the game taking photos using a big zoom lens, paying special attention to the best player on the field. We might as well have cast fishing lines dangling American dollar bills over Gourriel’s head.
By the time we got back to what Melquiades announced as “Havana, sweet Havana!” and had cold cervezas in our hands on a patio, Geoff and I decided that the two hours of terror we endured were worth it to have our Best Travel Story Ever. But if Gourriel ever does defect from Cuba and ends up in a big-league uniform, please don’t look at us.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.