august 20, 11pm
I'm sitting on the beautiful terrace on the second floor of our house, ornate moldings, arches, and street views. I want to write down what I can remember of this whirlwind of a day. Leaving Miami, the airport, then the flight to Havana, the Havana airport, the drive to our house, meetings and dinner, then our first night out on the malecón. Right now the workers in the house downstairs are listening to some telenovela, and there's lots of screaming going on.
After what seemed like a very short sleep, we left the hotel and arrived shortly at the Miami airport. From there Matilde gave us the packet of very important materials...Visa, special charter flight information, a health card to fill out, another card to fill out (both handed over in Havana to make sure we're not bringing in weapons and aren't sick with something)...maybe something else I'm forgetting. Lots of docs.
The airport was filled with folks getting on the same charter flight. We had to check in with the charter company (called marazul, but the airline was Taca which is really big in latin america). First a few of us decided to wrap our bags in plastic wrap ($12 but worth it since I didn't have a lock). We saw most of the other folks doing it. And most had huge trollies with 4 or 10 bags of stuff, all wrapped in plastic. Must've been an expensive trip (we get 44 lbs and extra is like 2.50 a lb). We had the stressful weighing of the bags. We were all hoping they wouldn't weigh our carry on because that was what we put all our heavy stuff in, in order to make the weight limit for our checked bag. Had a nervous moment where I thought the guy was going to weigh my carry on (he just put a sticker on instead). After that waited around, got some directions from Matilde, then ate some lunch (and drank fresh squeezed orange juice, I think out of fear of not having any for a while) before going through security. Lots of waiting, but we were all nervously excited and made it through smoothly. I bought vogue and automobile magazines while we were waiting. It was the september issue, and why not have some beach-viewing material. Automobile because I used to get it all the time and I just gravitated towards it when I saw it, maybe for old time's sake.
Our plane was big, comfy, and freezing! The stewardesses were all gorgeous, with this cute red ribbon tied around their necks and lots of eye makeup. I got the window seat. Next to me were Michelle and Hannah. Good plane buddies. Basically we went up, and then went down. So fast! About 40 minutes total. Announcements first in spanish, then in English. My first time flying over the ocean, my first time flying outside the United States! Such an exciting feeling. Great to see Miami beach from above, but the ocean from above was really breathtaking. My first thought when Cuba appeared in my window was, "wait, is that really Cuba I'm seeing?" I stupidly wondered if this was some Island I had never heard of, because it resembled Miami and not what I had expected Cuba to look like. Same red roofs, a few blue pools in backyards. Not quite as remote looking as I expected. Pretty soon I spotted some cars, but they didn't look old either. But as soon as we got close to the ground, everyone commented on how lush the landscape looks. Tropical trees, very very green everywhere. We de-plained (ok now there is some serious domestic violence going on in that tv show and it sounds AWFUL. Hopefully not every night) the guys outside the plain checked one of the first sudent's passports and then motioned us all to pass. This happened a few other times. The officials seemed very flexible.
Getting inside the airport, we noticed it was dim (as Matilde had warned us, but there were no masks as she had also mentioned). I had to pee really bad and luckily there was a bathroom in the entrance area. The attendant directed me to the men's room and handed me a wad of toilet paper. Bathroom was tiny, two stalls, no toilet seat, no hot water in the tap. But the longest pee of my life. Next step was to make it through immigration, which was a long string of little booths that we lined up for. This was kind of our first nerve-racking spanish interaction, but I was reassured because I wasn't the first and so she was prepared for the american students. Gave her my passport and she asked in spanish why I was here (para estudiar) and what was I going to study (la música y el baile), to which she responded with a smile "la cultura." Then sent me on my way by buzzing the door to the rest of the airport. Next were the metal detectors and carry on bag screening just like every airport. It was shorter (no long table with everyone putting things in tubs). Just a short conveyor belt that we put our carry on and bag (in a tub). Didn't have to take shoes off. Got frisked like everyone with a metal detector wand. Change in my pocket set it off. No big deal. I was surprised they didn't have any trouble with my carry on since I put some weird looking electronic stuff in it to save weight on my checked bag. Next was the most chaotic part of the experience. The baggage claim was just one big room, crowded with people, their carts, and the little conveyor belt that everyone crowded around. We waited, and waited, and waited looking for our luggage. Everyone helped each other out, telling each other the name of their bag and then looking out for it. Felt very communal, and reassuring. But also stressful because it took forever for me and my friend's bags to show up. Lots of weird shaped objects, including a set of four tires and a wheelchair. Finally we all got our stuff, my plastic was partially ripped off, but still mostly intact and didn't look vandalized. I learned after that most of the trouble happens when you go through Mexico to get here. That's when its important to wrap (I forgot to mention that the wrap included some sort of guarantee of compensation for lost materials...although I don't know how reliable that could be).
Leaving the airport was the most striking thing so far. We got whisked through customs taxes after they realized we were americans and didn't have to pay anything. I can't imagine how much the people who brought tons of stuff had to pay. Must be kind of pricey. Then there was a short little tunnel with some uniformed guys hanging out. Two more uniformed men opened the double doors for me, which felt very official and strange. But as soon as I realized what lay before me, I got incredibly emotional. There were probably a hundred people, cordoned off behind some rope, eagerly staring at me, waiting for their family to return. I remember feeling a mixture of awkward and awed by the attention. Maybe the closest I'll ever feel to being a celebrity and having a crowd of people watching me walk down the red carpet. But there was definitely no red carpet here. Just a bunch of cubans, a swath of people. In the back row my eyes immediately found a middle aged drag queen, looking impatient, chewing gum or something. We wound our way down a dirt path out of the crowd, luggage in tow. I was following Jane, and immediately some guys noticed her and one reached out and touched her and said something I didn't understand. There were more people behind the crowd, and we crossed a little road to get to the parking lot. RIght before I crossed, there was this big black cadillac that rumbled by. I think I started cracking up right there as I crossed the street and met up with my friends. The short walk through the small-ish parking lot was so surreal. Seeing those cars up close just made me tear up again. I was really overwhelmed by the whole scene. I think I started laughing to myself, not able to handle the pleasure at where I had just found myself.
First cars I spot in the parking lot...a Lata, small, older Soviet car, very boxy, and I've seen them EVERYWHERE since. Then some of the classic looking chevy's from the fifties. Some fancier looking caddies or oldsmobiles maybe. But there were also some newer cars, I spotted a VW passat that was a couple years old. Lots of newish hyundai accents, too. There were two mercedes vans waiting for us, maybe from the nineties, not fancy but not too beat up. All of our luggage and all of us miraculously squished into them. Luckily I was one of the first to get in, and I was so squished that I had my arm out the window in order to be comfortable. This turned out to be a blessing, as we got moving and I started taking pictures obsessively out the window, sometimes with the van's windows in the shot. That drive was exhilarating, so much wind in my face, so many new sights; cars, the amazing billboards with revolutionary sayings (there was a good sign that I saw multiple times with a picture of George Bush and some statistic about the embargo, which I'll include). I think it was a long time before I stopped smiling uncontrollably. The drive was maybe 20-30 minutes, my sense of time was kind of blurred at that point. We passed through lots of traffic circles, saw lots of industrial vehicles, lots of little euro-type vans. I was totally surprised at the number of modern cars. They're mostly european models, like puegeot, fiat, other things I didn't recognize. Lots of hyundais. A couple fancier cars. One of these in the parking lot was tricked out, black with fancy rims. Just a hatchback, tinted windows. The ferrari sticker on the side above the wheels (just like on ferraris) gave me a chuckle.
Everything about what I saw was so new, so different, very beautiful, very raw. The smells of the cars, the motor bikes (there were lots, they're pretty oil-burning), the plants and trees. I can't understate how exciting that trip was. Wish I could do it over and over. We finally got to a neighborhood with big fancy houses, with gates, walls, beautiful architecture. Within five minutes we turned off the main highway and got to our hotelito, run by the ANAP (agricultural group) cooperative. The ladies who welcomed us in called me "amor" and kind of seemed to fawn over me and Tommy, the two boys. We got our key, and got shown our bedroom. The house has 15 or more foot ceilings and pretty much the same on the second floor in our bedroom. Pretty small, with two twin beds, refrigerator in the corner, a little nightstand, a little desk with chair, and closet with a second level that goes up to the ceiling. Luckily there are some hangers since I didn't bring them. There's air-conditioning!!!!! Total surprise. We have a room-airconditioner. The bathroom is attached, clean, with a big shower and a nice window at the top that swings open. Our floor is checkered black and white, old looking but not dirty, just very worn. I forgot, there is even a TV, mounted up and on the wall. Our window has shutters and opens out with no screen. Nice light but no view, just the house next door.
Our first meeting with the director of the house is in the bar. Also air-conditioned! The bar-tender is wearing a white shirt and black bow-tie. He had already begun preparing mojitos when I showed up. Mojitos, at our first meeting. I'm going to like this place. They were refreshing, and by the end of the meeting we're all a little bit tipsy. Before the meeting I managed to slip out back and meet the cook, Anna Maria, I think. Matt offered me his cell-phone and that was how I was the first person to call home. 1:57 seconds, and after calling dad's phone (thought he would pick up) I called mom's and luckily they were both there. Short but sweet. Connection was fine, once I got up on Matt's balcony where there is better reception.
As soon as our meeting was over, we headed to the "restaurante". Quite an elaborate meal for our first night. First course, cold things. Sliced cucumbers, very pretty looking, green beans, white bread that was pretty bad, butter, mango juice, very refreshing, some other things I'm blanking on. Second course, delicious bean soup, very rich, cooked yucca, also extremely buttery and delicious, plus rice. Then came out the turkey! El pavo was beautiful, and tasted great. After that was cuban coffee (really good and really strong, only drank a little bit since it's basically espresso) and dessert, delicious chocolate ice cream that was subtley different than I was expecting. Less sugary, more dark chocolate flavor. Still sweet, but less so. More to my taste.
Short break after dinner, then we headed out to the malecón which is only a fifteen minute or so walk from our house. The malecón is the walkway that is right on the ocean. You look down over the wall that you can sit on and the water is right there. Lots of young folks and old ones alike, all hanging out and relaxing. Matt brought us rum and coke, and we sat around and chatted for a while. I got a little restless after an hour or so and persuaded the group to go for a little walk. There was a crazy looking crowd and disco with lights and video screens, outside and across the street from where we were. They played some american songs I recognized. Had a nice little walk, and then ran into the kids from Tulane that we saw at the airport. They're only 5-6 people and we surprised them with how many of us there are (16 i think). Shortly after we decided to go back (it was only like 10:30 but we are all tired). And then I started writing!
Such a crazy day, and I think that coffee has kicked in. I feel such a need to get every little detail out. I wonder if anyone will actually read this in its entirety. I will definitely get more concise the more I do this. But there was so much today I had to get it all out of my tired brain before things start to slip away. I feel an overwhelming and comforting sense of community developing among us. Thank god that everyone is so wonderful. Maya, Matt, the people who work here. Very good sign that everything will go smoothly.
I think it's time for bed. Tommy has come out for three cigarettes in the time I've spent writing this (maybe an hour, geez). Shower, sleep, breakfast. Unpacking tomorrow.