Introduction to Cuba


Cuba.  I am in Cuba sitting on a bizarrely large bed made up of two double beds pushed together (thanking whoever the room gods are that I don’t have a roommate) in a room that overlooks the city skyline of Havana.  The air outside is humid, and while I know I should be tucked in, putting myself to sleep, contagious Latino excitement fills the air.  Today is a national holiday for Cubans, and the streets are lined with people sitting alongside the ocean.  The jazz club across the street exudes waves of blue and green lights, and the mojitos here slide down a little too easily.  Sleep eludes me.

This morning—which feels a lifetime ago—I started out in Miami.  After a late night of couch talk with my old high school friend, I awoke this morning and strolled down to an Argentinian bakery and sat outside eating croissants and drinking fresh squeezed orange juice reminiscent of Mexico.  When I arrived at the airport, I found myself in a terminal that did not compare to any my other flight experiences.  Men resembling Oompah Loompas in their black outfits with neon green stripes around their midsection canvassed the terminal, convincing passengers to excessively wrap their luggage in neon green plastic wrap.  English was barely heard anywhere, and the counters were barely labeled with small signs of airlines I have never heard of.  Police officers rode through the hallways on mountain bikes.  When I looked out the window, it was obvious we were in a very remote area of the Miami International Airport.

I walked around a bit and finally found my airline—Sky King.  (Really.)  And then I found the rest of my delegation—a diverse group of mostly university professors from around the country (except dear Rebecca, who made a very long trip from Uganda).  They stood in a group to the left of a long, snaking line full of Cubans with carts stacked unimaginably high with neon green packages—TVs, fans, tires, and bags and bags of who-knows-what-kind-of-stuff.  We got our boarding passes and checked our luggage.  Apparently, you can fly out of Miami directly to Cuba.  Who knew? Everything appeared to be normal, until the attendant came around with a pad of paper and publicly took down everybody’s body weight.  It was definitely an icebreaking moment of unexpected group intimacy, but I was suddenly a bit nervous about the possibility of a delicately balanced airplane.

We then received notice that our flight was delayed by 3 hours, so settled into a hotel lobby to meet.  Quick introductions indicated that we have a group of all women who, while committed to research and literacy, are truly part of this delegation because of the desire to visit Cuba.  Adventurists at heart, we will find excellent companionship among one another, I think.

Security and the flight were surprisingly uneventful.  The plane was large, and the landing was one of the smoothest and most relaxing I have experienced.  We caught sight of Havana outside our window, and then swooped over the lush, green countryside skimming the landscape for some time—so low we could see the details of palm trees and cars on the highway.  Perhaps this was a piece of propaganda to show us the beauty of the land? I appreciated it.

Inside the Havana airport my picture was taken in Customs and I was made aware that intricately designed fishnet stockings are the current trend for the women workers at the airport.  We waited for some time for our luggage and then left the interior.  A large crowd awaited their families’ arrival outside—it looked like a Beatles concert—people reaching over the gate, cheering when a recognized face emerged.

We got a brief taste of the gorgeous scenery and old cars that await our cameras over the next few days and met our personal tour guide—Sarah Daisy—an articulate, honest, engaging Cuban.  “Ask me a question, and tell me what kind of answer you want,” she cheerfully told us.  “The official answer, or the regular citizen answer.”  She is honest in the struggles of Cuba, but also revels in its successes.  She is a wealth of knowledge and tells interesting stories.  She asks that we cast no judgment on her country until we’ve examined it closely.  I’m looking forward to spending the week with her.  Our hotel is a 5 star hotel that sits alongside the Carribean and my room is on the 13th floor, on which the elevator does not appear to want to stop.

Dinner was served in Old Havana—a maze of cobblestone streets and old, brick austerity.  Cats meander across the architecture 20 feet in the air.  Dogs laze around in the square.  Families play with their kids.  Women with baskets of fruit on their head, smoking cigars ask for money.  Mojitos are served with meals and the fish is simply to die for.  The heat does not break.

I exchanged US dollars for CUCs at the hotel and went across the street to a small market where I had to spend $8.40 CUCs for a 12 pack of bottled water (approximately $9 USD).  But I am supposed to run tomorrow, and already feel dehydrated.  I cannot figure out how to log on to the Internet, for which I also had to pay, but will attempt that in the morning.  The walls are thin; I can hear the mopeds zooming by on the streets and the couple next door engaged in a lively conversation.  Propaganda about America and Castro line the downstairs lobby hallway.  They clearly know who their audience is.

Tomorrow we begin our explorations.  I am anxious to start thinking about literacy rates, healthcare, and the desire for socialism.  My readings have reinforced the importance that I cannot look at the culture through my American lense.  There are two sides to every story, and this story, I believe will be an interwoven one full of the complexities of humanity, struggle, and justice.

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