On the Road: The Journey In
Cancun – Havana
No expectations. It’s the best way to travel and often insurmountably difficult to attain. Too often you enter a country with a preconception of what it will be, if you will like it, what it will look like or feel like. Inevitably these expectations shape your experience and alter your view of the place. Yet like a movie, the most honest and pleasurable evaluation always comes when no prior knowledge is held and there is no ideal to be met. Sitting on her Air Cubana flight, her little yellow shoes dangling two feet from the ground, the Cuban man to her right scrunching his face in consternation as to how this doll carried her carryon onboard and why he is stuck in the middle when she is only two inches wide, Gatito definitively has this luxury. No expectations, no knowledge, nothing. It helps that her head it packed with light stuffing and not grey matter to be sure, but so to as an American she has no real access to information about the country short of government propaganda and angry memories of Cuban exiles. The embargo keeps physical goods out of and information in to this day.
Gatito is getting frustrated. She sits for 75 minutes before the captain comes over the loud speaker “we are sorry for any inconvenience, two of our passengers are having some difficulty clearing security. If they do not get the problem resolved in the next 20 minutes, we will let you all out of the plane to wait in the terminal.” Seriously she thinks!? A whole plane is waiting for over an hour for two people who were unprepared for their flight and if it’s not figured out WE have to wait longer!? Chalk this one up to the misappropriation of responsibilities in a communist state she ruminates. Impatient she gets up to mill around and is stunned to find a first class section on her Communist State-owned airline. Cubans and foreigners alike with big gold watches and meals in front of them fill the seats. Bizarre. Maybe not so much with this whole communism thing after all she thinks.
Two hours later she touches down in Havana, the airport is modern and big. Hundreds of planes form various international carriers dot the runway, no corrugated steel shed and makeshift stairs here, just a big, proper, red jet way identical to the twenty others on this bank of terminal five. Gatito walks along the jet way peering out at Cuba. Palm trees sway in the distance; the sun warms the luscious green earth in an orange glow. The gentlemen at customs are lovely. One Cuban man is nice enough to lift her to the counter, and the border patrol agent smiles broadly and greets her in broken English, he welcomes her to Cuba in a confident, excited tone to which she will become much accustomed. “You are from America; I love America, welcome to my country, Viva Cuba!” “Viva Cuba!” She replies politely.
People bustle at the airport exit, friends, family, tour guides and taxi drivers clamor around the retention railing with big signs. People shout and embrace. The cars that line the street are a mix of hulking 1950’s Americana, little old Soviet era Lada’s and a smattering of small modern cars, mostly Chinese with a few Hyundai’s and Kia’s thrown into the mix. The weather is surprisingly temperate. A cool ocean breeze blows her .15kg body sideways, the temperature is in the upper 70s, she is so happy to have left the low 100’s of Mexico behind and hopes this is not an aberration.
She hops in an old Lada and pays a not insubstantial 25 CUCs (about $30 US) for the twenty-minute ride into Havana. As they drive down the beachfront boulevard, a tropical Lake Shore Drive, buildings rise out of the ocean in the distance. It’s shocking, robust, engulfing, conflicting. Buildings rise and buildings crumble, colors splash out from the city streets, people are energized yet the city is still. It’s an exercise in contradictions, intoxicating and confusing but absolutely gripping.
Gatito arrives at her Casa Particular, an institution permitted by the Cuban government in 1997 during the first set of economic reforms, when homeowners were permitted to use their homes under government business license to host tourists. Walking in Gatito is dumfounded. Soaring ceilings, marble pillars, velvet couches, gold leaf and beautiful woodwork. The rooms have large King sized beds, air conditioning, refrigerators, in-floor safes, chandeliers and crystal wall sconces. It is purely decadent, completely belling the unassuming white and blue walls of the building’s exterior, which are flanked by the crumbling walls of two old buildings. This particular home is that of Ana and Surama, a mother daughter duo of 60+ and 40+. They are kind and beautiful, feisty, opinionated and loud, passionate Latin women.
Gatito is lost, confused. How to make sense out the enigma that is Cuba? The first class airline seats, the crumbling infrastructure, the decedent guest house, the old American cars, the smiles of the people on the street, the plentifully vacant storefronts, the complete lack of signage, advertising or cult-of-personality propaganda, the fashionable locals and their infectious music and rum. It all seems so conflicting, so contradictory, so incongruous. How do all these things fit together? How do they reflect history? How do they mesh with a communist system? She pulls out a Cuban cigar twice her height, lights it up, pours a mojito whose glass she could fit in, and sits overlooking the crumbling yet intractable city. Tomorrow, she will wander, explore, converse, learn, and try not to get stepped on. Tomorrow, Cuba.