Every once in a while you are presented with an opportunity you just can't pass up. No matter how busy your life seems to be, you make time for it. This was one of those opportunities.
Its illegal to go there. Talking to people in my parents generation, it feels illegal to even talk about it. Never have I ever experienced a national taboo quite like this. The more I talked about it the more ignorant I felt. I am not a dedicated student of history or politics and it showed in my face anytime someone tried to talk to me about communism, capitalism, the missile crisis or Fidel. My personal experience consisted of I love Lucy and a sandwich.
Everyone had so many questions for me and I felt like such a ham not having any answers for them. Some people were excited for me and told me in hushed voices how they have wanted to go there their whole lives. Some people were outright shocked and disapproving. They told me horror stories of when they were kids hiding under desks waiting for Castro to drop the bomb on them. In some ways I wondered if it was really fair of me to go when so many other people knew so much more than myself. Fuck it. I'm going, I thought. This would probably be the only time I would ever be able to do something like this anyway.
Preparation for travel to Cuba was a bit of a mixed bag. I was infused with excitement, anticipation, and plain old fear. I sat in meetings where one minute we would talk about the project we were working on, the people we would be working with and then suddenly we were talking the logistics of being singled out at the airport. We were warned that absolutely one of us would be stopped and heavily questioned. Don't wear bright colors, don't smile too much, don't frown too much, be aware of your surroundings, don't look suspicious, don't tell them this, absolutely don't tell them that. The anxiety of the intimidation game was building in my tiny little body and I thought I might actually explode from the pressure. After 45 minute sessions of Do's and Don'ts we were reassured that it would all work out fine and soon we would have a Bucanero in our hands. What is a Bucanero?
I woke at 3am and was ready to roll out the door at 4am. For days before my body had been positively humming from the excitement. I could actually feel the vibration of my veins and arteries and hear my heart in my ears. Somehow I managed to sleep on the hour long van ride to the airport. When we arrived we checked in for our domestic connection, weighed our precious cargo, and left our bags with the airline. It had been ages since I had checked baggage and as I walked away from my bag with all my clothes and the parts of the project we had already worked so hard on I suddenly felt very naked and exposed. Ok, this just got real, I thought.
The plane to Miami was positively freezing and I woke up shivering. Through my bleary eyes I looked out the plane's window to see the most spectacular sunrise. The clouds below gave off a texture of freshly clotted cream and the pinks, purples, and oranges of the sunrise almost brought tears to my eyes. I stared at the sight for several minutes wondering if it was a sign that everything was going to work out just fine.
Another 45 minutes and we walked off the freezing cold plane into the freezing cold meat locker that is Miami International Airport. The line to check-in for the chartered flights nothing short of chaos. There are no signs telling you which flight is which. You could easily spend an hour standing in the wrong line and be none the wiser. Everyone has carts and carts of luggage wrapped in green clingwrap. Families carting TV's, lamps, and crutches are scattered everywhere in no particular order. An old woman came to me to ask me in Spanish if this was the line she needed. I could only smile and say No espanol. Now I wish I had taken Spanish instead of the two other languages I took in high school and college. Somehow our group managed to get to the counter and checked in. Our bags were weighed and checked again. There was a brief awkward moment when we all had to tell the airline representative our individual weights. No secrets now.
The terminal for Cuba flights is the most dismal terminal I have ever been in. Its like a graveyard of forgotten restaurant chains. The Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and Nathan's Hot Dog stand area all empty, cold, and covered with dust. There is no book shop, just a lone cafe serving empenadas and fried plantains.
Waiting is always the worst part of any large endeavor. I can handle any stressful situation when its actually happening, but when forced to wait I imagine the worse of all possible outcomes. What if this happens, or that, or Oh God, what about THIS?!? When I was a kid, I used to believe that I would die before big events happened because I just couldn't fathom how it would be. This seems to be a consistent theme in my life. Please refer to my thesis (once its finished). So just sitting in that empty terminal for hours upon hours waiting was like torture.
Finally, we got on the plane. Wedged lovingly between two good friends, I sat in the middle seat, bouncing with anticipation. I watched as Miami grew smaller and smaller and soon I saw nothing but ocean. The flight was the shortest and longest of my life. I watched the island grow bigger and bigger in the distance. We flew over beaches and fields. After a lifetime of waiting the plane landed on the tarmac. Suddenly, the plane erupted in a sea of cheers and clapping. Why is everyone clapping? My friends and I seemed to be the only ones not celebrating our safe arrival. We all joined the chorus though we weren't sure why.