Rafters

Balseros and their makeshift rafts have become as much a symbol of Cuban culture as lechon, arroz con frijoles, and the Havana spleef

"I had never even sat in one of these rafts before even to fish in a ditch," says Tomas. "When we got in the raft and we were rowing and all I see is sea and sea and sea, it was as if I was drunk. I was vomiting and vomiting until I thought I was going to die. So I threw myself down and started rowing and it calmed down a bit." Like Selis and de Jongh, the rafters ran into rough seas, and after nightfall it began to rain. "All we could do was go up one side of the waves and down the other they were so big," Tomas continues. "They looked like the size of a house to us."

Despite the bad weather, they dozed fitfully. Morning brought an unexpected surprise. "When we fell asleep, we had left Cuba completely. We couldn't see anything but ocean," recalls Rafael Fiallo Echevarria. "Well, when we wake up, there's all of Havana in front of us. The storm took us right back where we started."

They rowed away from the coast once more, now minus an oar. For two days they battled delirium, teetering atop the tubes when bull sharks passed by. "It was all kinds of visions. We were completely dehydrated from drinking salt water, but we had nothing to drink, nothing to eat," says Tomas, peeling back his lower lip to reveal white scars from salt burns inside his mouth. "We were going crazy. For sure we thought this was the end."

But on May 30, about 9:30 a.m., the rafters were spotted by a pleasure craft, about 60 miles south of Miami. Severely dehydrated, they had managed to survive for nearly four days on seawater. One inner tube was almost completely deflated. "We were all dead and we came back to life," says Tomas. "No one was more surprised than us that we lived.

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