Cuba Abré!

Will it always be this complicated?

My journey from Dallas to Havana took 24 hours. No, the year was not 1925, or even 1975. It was July of 2015. Passage from the U.S. to Cuba is no longer about physical distance but metaphysical space, a transforming journey to another universe.

I left Dallas on a Sunday afternoon, happy to escape the searing heat for an exotic, tropical adventure. The flight to Miami was simple enough, but my trip ended there for the day. The thirty minute flight to Havana would have to wait until tomorrow, after my Person-to-Person group had assembled from across the country.

The liminal space of waiting, in airports, train stations, and hotels can be disorienting. Time is out of sorts. Liberated from my typically tight schedule, where I strive for productive efficiency, I suddenly have nothing to do. Yet the sensation of doing nothing is more foreign than the florescent haze of a distant airport or the sultry climes of a Miami hotel. Seeking to smother my sense of time, I must fill it with something. So I swim, eat, call my kids, sketch, and try not to keep watching the clock until bedtime.

In the early hours of the morning, as the sunrise sent its first yellow spears of light into my hotel room, I awoke to a strange dizzying sensation. I was lying absolutely still, yet the room seemed to be moving–spinning. I closed my eyes, but the disembodied sensation of movement remained. The word vertigo emerged, a malady I had never experienced before. I slowly sat up, walked about, got a drink of water, and imagined my adventure ruined by this crazy spinning sensation. It seemed that there was unpleasant pressure in my right ear, and so I decided to treat it like swimmers ear. I laid back down with a towel between my head and the pillow, hoping to warm my internal ear. My husband slept soundly, but his comforting arm found its way to my shoulder. We had more than two hours before the wake-up call, so I drifted off to sleep. When it was time to get up, I felt much better. Hoping for the best, we prepared for the next phase of the trip.

We gathered that morning for a simple breakfast in a generic hotel meeting room. We were eighteen teachers and two group leaders from ACIS, the student travel company I have been partnered with for many years. None of us, including the leaders, had ever been to Cuba. So we sipped coffee and nibbled on cantaloupe with eager anticipation. At last, a cheerful young man arrived—a genuine Cuban—to deliver the coveted visas and explain how we would be admitted to his country.

In the end it was a simple process. We were issued a two part ticket, numbered, with our name handwritten on it. These were to be presented with our passports when boarding the flight in Miami, getting off the flight, and at passport control in Havana. The same would be true when we left at the end of the week.

visa 3

Enrique joked: “If you lose it, you don’t get on the plane. And if you lose it on the plane, you don’t get off the plane. If you lose it in the airport, you sleep in the airport.” There were a few uncomfortable chuckles. “And if you lose it in Cuba, you stay in Cuba. But it’s okay. We have 100% employment, so we will find a job for you.” Enrique’s sparkling smile carried the joke this time, but it still hit home. We, the teachers, had to keep up with this tiny document or the consequences would be enormous as well as embarrassing.

Our flight information was reviewed, as well as the upcoming activities for the day. Someone wanted to know about Enrique’s job, as his repeated travel between Cuba and Miami is indeed a rarity. The unasked question was, “Don’t you want to just declare amnesty and stay in the utopia of America?” But Enrique said he was happy with his job. His coal black hair and olive skin spoke of his ancestry; his blue jeans and travel company polo shirt were entirely contemporary. “The pay is good, and I have family here and in Havana, so it a good arrangement.”

After a reminder not to drink the water, we gathered our luggage and headed out to the airport, and towards the forbidden fruit of Cuba.