The day I saw a hole open up in the sky I was walking down Calles des los Cines in the city of Camaguey, Cuba. The sun was fierce and bleached the street of its colours. Dazzled, we zigzagged the street searching for shade and found it in a doorway where two old men stood with their hands cupped around their eyes, looking up. When the darkness came one of them looked at me and pointed. In English, he said “look”.
I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish to the extent that I didn’t know that Calles des los Cines, the street we were on, means Cinema Street. I noticed the cinemas. One of them had giant pictures of old movie stars outside – faces –you couldn’t miss those, but I did miss other landmarks. The hair salon, La Ciudad de las Mujeres, the Café La Dolce Vita and the Nuevo Mundo cultural complex, formerly Cuba’s first sala-video.
Sala-videos are VHS screening rooms that appeared in the mid-Eighties during Cuba’s “Special Period” of severe deprivation. At the same time that I was hosting VHS screenings of Mars Attacks, Beetlejuice and The Crow for a younger brother I resented having to babysit, Cubans on this street, maybe even these two old men in the doorway, were in this sala-video enjoying a little escapism of their own. I like this idea.
But I didn’t know about the sala-video then. I didn’t know about Cuba’s “Special Period” and had no real knowledge of the Cuban Revolution. I didn’t know, but would have supposed, that Cuba was a Spanish colony. I didn’t, and still don’t, understand exactly what happened at the Bay of Pigs. I could have written all of the things I knew about Cuba on the blank inside cover of a travel guide and had space for a scribbled map on which I could only guess at the location of Havana.
From Manchester, my boyfriend and I arrived at Frank Pais Airport and when everyone else turned left and boarded unglamorous coaches to the beach resorts of Guardalavaca, we turned right and joined the taxi queue to Holguin City. It was not out of character, for either of us, to turn away from a crowd and go our own way but in Cuba it felt like we had a point to prove, I just didn’t know what it was.
This was only a few years ago and Cuba was practically pre-digital. You dropped your travel armour at your departing airport and moved through Cuba lightly, no Google Maps, booking.com or Trip Advisor to weigh you down. If desperate, you could look for one of the public parks that became Wi-Fi hotspots at night. Hundreds of people gathered there to talk into glitchy phone screens that lit up their faces like a swarm of fireflies making the parks very easy to find, but the Wi-Fi signal almost impossible.
Drinking a Bucanero beer in one of these parks on a warm night and watching people bent over an infinite Facebook scroll, I felt like telling them not to bother. Traveling without the internet was frustrating at times but mostly it was liberating. No recommendations to consider, no ratings, or reviews, or blog posts against which to judge the success of your trip. No photo gallery made sparse by places you didn’t go and things you didn’t do. There’s a reason you find an endless supply of barefoot Europeans who’ve stayed in one small town in Thailand or Indonesia for years, telling you how much they love this place and couldn’t bear to leave. Disconnection feels a little bit like freedom.
Finding liberation in letting go might sound religious coming out of someone else’s mouth. Give it all away, material goods, comfort, luxury, convenience, security, and you can take the first step on a spiritual path. But there’s a big difference between giving things away that you can pick up again at any time and having never had those things in the first place. Disconnection is only freedom when it’s voluntary. Another thing I didn’t know then.
For me, Cuba was a compromise, a short, sharp escape from one life before starting the next. We were on our way from the UK to Canada where we would live for the next two years, leaving a door open to forever. An apartment, jobs, social security numbers, winter clothes, all of these things we would acquire when we arrived. Until then, I wanted to disconnect. And – while I have been accused of taking things too literally before – I thought going to an island I knew nothing about and where I couldn’t access the internet was the best way to do it.
Camaguey is the perfect Cuban city in which to lose yourself. The city was settled in its current location in the early 16th century then burnt to the ground by English buccaneer Henry Morgan in the 17th. Captain Morgan spent his best years marauding around the Caribbean then settled down to run a sugar plantation and drink himself to death on the rum that is now synonymous with his name. The people rebuilt their destroyed city. But where other Cuban cities were drawn on graph paper in grids and squares, the new Camaguey grew organically. Crowded buildings sprouted from the ground in patches, like mushrooms. The streets are narrow and unpredictable, guiding non-locals into spirals and dead ends. You can pass by an open kitchen window on these streets and smell what’s for dinner. You can pass by a bedroom window and see, through a still net curtain, that someone is sleeping. You can reach your destination without knowing and keep walking, thirsty in the sun.
There’s only one road into Camaguey and, it follows, only one road out. This was useful in the 17th century for trapping lost buccaneers. But buccaneers were always lost, in a sense, when they left the sea they knew like the back of their hands and set foot on unknown land. The same can be said of tourists.
We followed the man’s pointed finger and saw a huge black circle; a hole punched out of the sky. The hole was edged by a circle of rainbow and pierced at the centre by a tiny white cigarette burn, the sun.
It got dark. Most people on the street stood still and looked up at the hole through their sunglasses. A few older women continued about their business with their heads down until they felt the hush and the chill and looked up too. Several restaurant workers came and stood outside.
The word “eclipse” comes from the ancient Greek ekleípō, meaning to forsaken, abandon, vanish. The Ancient Greeks believed that when the sun grew dark, as if covered by a great disc, the gods had abandoned them. A great disaster must follow.
We’re still suspicious of the things we can’t explain. I’ve seen a number of solar eclipses in my life and this wasn’t one of them. I didn’t know what it was. Like I didn’t know any Spanish, didn’t know anything about Cuba, and didn’t know what my life would be like in Canada. In an intensified present I was as oblivious as a child.
I considered that the hole in the sky might be beginning of the end of times. Why not? All anyone could do was look around and wait for something else to happen and it made me think about a time on a plane once. Everyone has a story like this. You hit a patch of bad turbulence and all the passengers, even the frequent fliers, are white knuckled as you feel the plane drop in the air. We all know planes can crash and do crash probably more often than we realise, and we wonder if that’s what’s happening right now.
You make eye contact with someone, maybe the person next to you or across the aisle, and they don’t do anything overtly encouraging, they don’t smile or anything like that, but seeing their face and the simple fact of them being there with you changes the whole thing. The future falls away and with it the horror of what might happen there and all you’re left with is the intensified present. And it’s fine.
We looked up into hole alongside two old men who were also looking up into the hole and held hands. We said nothing. My mind was as blank as it is possible to be as I stood with my face lifted up to the skies and waited to see what came next. Everything was fine.
Calles de los Cines doesn’t wait in wonder for long and conversations soon rose up like the chatter of birds. This wasn’t the apocalypse we decided, and people stepped out of their doorway sanctuaries back into the street. Everything was shaded now so there was no need for sunglasses and no need to keep looking up at the hole in the sky. The street went back to normal. Noisy, busy, everyone with somewhere to go.
We kept holding hands and walked to an outdoor café that was empty and sat on hard metal chairs under a parasol. There could be no news bulletins, no government alerts, no Twitter. What could we do but order coffee and watch people walking by? I glanced up at the hole from time to time and took photographs, partly to show myself that was I was seeing was actually there. A waiter brought me my coffee and I said “thank you” then pointed up at the sky and lifted my chin like “huh?”. He looked at the hole, shrugged his shoulders and went back inside.
The darkness lifted gradually, as though the sun was emerging a sliver at a time from behind a passing cloud. It happened so slowly I didn’t notice the change and by the time I had finished my cup of coffee the hole was gone.
Months later, when I was living in Toronto, I send a friend who’s into astronomy a photo of the hole.
“Cool halo,” she replied, too quickly.
Happens around the sun when
light shines through ice in clouds
Isn’t it the most incredible
thing you’ve ever seen!
I thought it was the end of the world.
But it happens all the time.
Toni Marie Ford is a writer from Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. Toni has an MA in Modern and Contemporary Culture from Newcastle University and lives for travel, cinema and literature. She has been published in Litro Mag and Roads and Kingdoms.