It’s about 3 a.m., and Marta Amaro is home with her family and friends. She’s been drinking; she’s anxious.
Everyone is overwhelmed with fear and sadness but gritting their teeth to smile the way Cubans often do in hard times. They pose for pictures, hug, make jokes — only her sister cries when she hugs her goodbye, holding on tightly and not letting her go, sobbing.
Amaro, 52, is about to leave Cuba for the first time in her life. She’ll fly to Guyana with her friend Liset Barrios, 24. They hope to make it to the United States somehow, but they have no plans or contacts.
The date is May 13, 2016. The next day, they cross by land into Brazil in what will be the first of many international border crossings on a journey that will last nearly two months.
Amaro and Barrios turn out to be among the last to make it to the U.S. before former President Barack Obama ended an immigration policy known as “wet foot, dry foot” on Jan 12. The policy, which began in the 1990s, gave Cubans who reached U.S. territory the unique ability to stay and ask for political asylum.
After the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States began in 2014, Cubans left the island in record numbers, fearing their special immigration status would soon be revoked.
Amaro and Barrios decided to join that exodus.
The neighborhood friends from the Marianao suburb in Havana take off from the José Martí International Airport. After a brief stopover in Panama, their trip begins in Guyana, the closest country allowing Cubans to enter without visas, and a jumping-off point for thousands of other Cubans making the same voyage.
On the plane, they meet a group of Cubans who have a contact for a local smuggler. They stick with the group, shuffle into a van at the Georgetown airport and are taken to a local motel.
Most of the trip goes in much the same way. They go from one place to the next, finding contacts through other Cubans along the trail, all making their way to the same place. The trip is laced with apprehension about what’s to come. There are prolonged pauses on the journey, waiting, boredom.
From Brazil, they travel south to Peru, heading toward the easiest border crossings. Venezuela is too dangerous, and migrants are getting turned back in northern Brazil. In Peru, they ride buses for nearly 40 hours trying to make it to Ecuador before being stopped by immigration officials.
Barrios, who is paying for the trip with money from her boyfriend in the U.S., a man she has only recently met, finds herself talking her way out of scrapes with everyone — from smugglers known as coyotes to cops. This situation is no different. In Peru, she convinces an immigration official to let her go, and he does, even dropping her and Amaro off with a local coyote who ushers them into Ecuador and across the Colombian border.
From Ecuador to Colombia they cross on horseback, through rivers, and up a steep mountain. They travel with migrant families from Haiti. The group is greeted at the end of a long climb by Colombian military officials. Again, Barrios convinces them to let her and Amaro go.
They wait in a chicken restaurant for the next connection to come along and later climb into a potato truck for 14 hours to Cali. From Cali, they go to Medellín and wait another week for a way out, holed up in a tiny hotel.
The women find ways to laugh at what is happening, trying to enjoy themselves when they can to forget the fear that will come over them if they think about it for too long. They find internet whenever possible and call home, craving connection to family.
A few months before leaving Cuba, borders that once passed Cubans through routinely had begun closing. Just two weeks before they left Cuba, Panama closed its border, forcing Cubans to take the longer route through the notorious swath of jungle known as the Darién Gap, long used by narco-traffickers.
Barrios wears her red Jordans and Amaro her green dress on the six-day hike through the roadless stretch of jungle connecting Colombia and Panama. They travel with Bangladeshis, Nepalis, other Cubans and Somalis, all hoping to make it to the United States. On their final day, the women walk for 14 hours with no food or water, migrants clamoring over each other, fearful of being left behind.
It has become a fight for survival.
In Costa Rica, Barrios and Amaro split up after a fight over money. Barrios can no longer afford to continue to pay Amaro’s way. The two women scream at each other, almost coming to blows.
In Nicaragua, Barrios goes on with another group of migrants. Because local military is cracking down on illegal migration, the group is held in hiding for days, with little food and no water.
After Nicaragua, Barrios makes it through Honduras and the rest of her trip with other Cubans, mostly on buses and flying from southern Mexico to Matamoros in the north. On July 2, 2016, she crosses the border into Brownsville, Texas.
Amaro, meanwhile, also continues the journey with a separate group of Cubans and crosses into Nuevo Laredo, Texas, 12 days later.
Since their entry into the U.S., Barrios has moved from Chicago (where she briefly reunited with the boyfriend who paid for her trip) to Miami; Las Vegas; Portland, Oregon; and recently back to Las Vegas. Amaro has settled in Miami with her son and is looking for a steady job.
The two have reconciled and are taking care of the paperwork, vaccinations and medical visits necessary to obtain permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act after they’ve been in the United States for one year and a day.
They both miss Cuba.
Lisette Poole is a Cuban-American photojournalist based in Havana who is in the process of publishing a book funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
For more information, visit lisettepoole.com.