When I was thrown into a Cuban prison for flying my drone, I thought I’d never see my family again

When I was thrown into a Cuban prison for flying my drone, I thought I’d never see my family again

The author, on one of his many trips. The author, on one of his many trips.
 

I’m a wanderer. In the past year, I’ve visited more than a dozen countries, including Portugal, Panama and Egypt. I seldom book return flights, research my trips or even bring a cellphone. My wife, Grace, doesn’t love my travel habits—she has to look after our three kids while I’m gone—but she knew what she was signing up for when we got married. I also run a creative agency, and, when I’m not travelling, I’m working.

In late September, on a whim, I flew to Havana. One day, I was flying my drone, a $2,000 DJI Phantom, over Revolution Square. Before it had been in the air for five minutes, a dozen armed officers surrounded me. They questioned me for an hour, then took me to the police station. I figured they’d write me a ticket, maybe confiscate my drone and send me on my way.

It was mid-afternoon when I arrived at the station, which looked like something out of a dystopian thriller—all crumbling walls and broken windows. For the next 12 hours, a rotating cast of police, immigration officials and military personnel moved me from one room to another, asking the same questions over and over again. They wanted the addresses of every place I’d stayed in Cuba. They asked when I had last visited “Barack Obama’s house.” They treated me like an American spy. It must have been 
2 a.m. when they finally put me in a car and drove me to a small gated building with green metal bars over the windows. I was going to prison.

Inside, they ordered me to strip, bend over and cough for a cavity search. Then they returned my clothes—with two sheets, a pillow, a towel, half a bar of soap, some toothpaste and two pairs of underwear—and took me to a room the size of a walk-in closet. The only furniture was a rusty metal bed with a worn mattress. A pipe sticking out of the wall sprayed ice-cold water for a shower. In lieu of a toilet, there was a hole the size of a roll of duct tape. Exhausted and disoriented, I fell asleep.

When I woke up several hours later, I asked a guard if I could use the phone. “Mañana,” he responded—an answer I’d hear often during my stay. I spent virtually every hour of that day, and the days that followed, in that cell. I pictured my six-year-old son’s big brown eyes tearing up the way they do every time I return from vacation. I had nightmares of getting home only to find my children grown up. Stuck in that cell, I confronted my own shortcomings as a husband and father. I love my family, but I’d always put work and travel before them. I kept dreaming about simple moments with my kids that I’d taken for granted—bike rides in the park, playing basketball, fishing at the cottage. I vowed to make more time for them if I ever returned home.

Over the next five days, despite my persistent pleas for information, I learned nothing new about my predicament. I distracted myself by reading the toothpaste label and messages carved into the cell walls (“Satan will love you”) more times than I can remember. I played basketball with a rolled-up sock and a garbage can, and moved my mattress from the bottom bunk to the top just to move it back. I ate my three daily meals—white rice, stale bread, the occasional piece of grey chicken—as slowly as I could.

A nurse checked my vitals every day, and I came to crave the human interaction of those visits. During one of them, I noticed she was using a plastic water bottle as an ashtray. I’d been cupping my hands under the shower pipe to drink water, so I asked if I could have it. She obliged. I cleaned out the cigarette butts and used it as a cup.

I’m not religious, but, by day five, I was praying. That day, whether by divine providence 
or coincidence, a woman from the Canadian embassy came to see me. She told me my wife had contacted the government, and they’d found out where I was. The embassy was trying to get me home, but Cuban bureaucracy was notoriously slow. “How slow?” I asked. She wasn’t sure, but said my family might not see me for many years. My whole body tightened. My nightmares were becoming reality.

On day 11, I begged a guard to let me outside. To my surprise, he relented and took me to a small caged yard. I stripped to my underwear and let my skin bake in the sun. Suddenly, I heard a guard 
yell my name. He led me into a room where a man 
told me they’d analyzed my drone footage. There was no evidence of wrongdoing, and I was free to go. “My country is your country,” he added. “You’re welcome back anytime.”

It took two days before I could get out of Cuba. I was forced 
to remain in my cell while they signed all the paperwork. On October 13, after two weeks in jail, two officers escorted me onto a plane. When I landed at Pearson, I spotted my wife, daughter and younger son. Grace hadn’t told them what had happened—
they thought their dad was on vacation, like usual. I wrapped my arms around them and cried.

Rather than head home from the airport, we drove to my eldest son’s school, where he was running in a track meet. I walked up behind him to surprise him, placed my hand on his shoulder and told him I loved him.

Over the next few weeks, my adventure became a hazy, surreal memory—almost like it had happened to someone else. But I brought home a souvenir. That plastic water bottle now sits in a glass case in my living room, so I’ll never forget.

Chris A. Hughes is the founder and CEO of A Nerd’s World creative agency.
Email submissions to memoir@torontolife.com