The day began with a first-time experience that would become a regular part of my travels: someone came to my room to pick up my suitcase and carry it to the bus for me. The group travel exercise got major points on that one...mostly because it was wonderful not to have to carry the bag myself and partly because time and time again I got to prove that I packed lighter than almost everyone on the trip. Even with four pairs of shoes.
I did not, however, get my suitcase slimed. The Miami airport offered a feature I've never seen before: bright green plastic wrap to entirely consume luggage of any shape and size. The machine ate bicycles, televisions, purses....all surrounded by Shrek-like protection before it was loaded onto the plane.
We had plenty of time to watch the Suitcase Slime, too, because the charter flight process was unlike anything I've ever seen in an airport. There were lines, of course, and at one point a male ticket checker asked me "How much does your body weigh?" A funny question that got even funnier when I discovered none of the men on my flight were asked the same question.
Once everyone had checked their bags they joined a large mass of humanity that was more like a mosh pit than an airport line. Cultures blended and families merged into one large group as everyone crowded around the next desk. Two overly-empowered men would call a name and the lucky individual/family would push through the crowd to claim the final paper they needed to board the plane. There was no logic to it, no way to predict when your name would be called or if you would even be able to understand it when it was - pronunciation was not always a strong point of the two with the power. The entire scene was like a cheap reenactment of the Hunger Games, and it took all my willpower not to shout "I volunteer as tribute!" every time they called someone else's name. Airport officials don't seem to have a sense of humor about these things.
Finally my name was called (and pronounced perfectly, for the record), I was through the gate and ready to board. After one more long line to buy a stale muffin, I joined my group on the gate E21 path to paradise.
The charter plane was packed with Cuban-Americans returning for a visit, and it was the first delightful opportunity I'd had to listen in on the Super Spanish spoken so fast it's indecipherable even to some with basic Spanish language skills. After watching an actual argument between a flight attendant and a passenger about whether cell phones really needed to be turned off, and noticing that the male flight attendant looked very much like a muscular Ricky Martin, I settled in for the 50 minute flight.
I had no idea what to expect of Cuba from the air so as we readied for landing I had the first of many chances to have my breath taken away: it is beautiful. Most places are green to this Arizona girl, but this...this was paradise.
The Jose Marti International Airport in Havana was the gateway to the fifty-year-old past. It was my first chance to use a toilet with no seats, and to watch a Communist police dog in action - it was a black and white cocker spaniel who kept escaping his keepers and rushing over to get adoring pats from the Americans.
The female security agents got some attention from the Americans, as well. Their uniforms perfectly fit their trim frames, except that someone left off the bottom two-thirds of their skirts. Under the short skirts were the most exquisite combinations of patterned fishnet stockings I've ever seen. And yet somehow, in that outfit that sounds more like a Madonna music video than a police uniform, they managed to look put together and classy. You go, girls.
On the other side of the Havana airport large crowds gathered against the fence surrounding the exit, and once I figured out their purpose it brought tears to my eyes. These were families awaiting the arrival of those who are permitted to visit from Miami, bringing supplies such as flat-screen televisions, toiletries and trinkets not available to Cubans. The noise was deafening as their eyes fell on each person exiting the airport, then moved on hopefully to the next in line.
Isn't it ironic that the Havana airport looks just like an IKEA?
The first car I saw was a police car. It was old but did not fit the Cuban "look" portrayed in photographs - it looked like a 30-year-old white Toyota in semi-decent condition and communicated a police department's willingness to stretch resources rather than desire to show off a classic. I'll write much more on Cuban cars later...for now, I'll share my first sights of Havana.
I snapped a picture of our tour guide, Erik, and bus driver, Tilón, as we left the airport...I've never been on a tour so at that moment was unaware of how much a part of our lives those two wonderful men would become.
Tilón's reflected in the mirror.
First stop: Plaza de la Revolución.
The Plaza is a huge expanse of space (72,000 meters, for those who want to calculate that into square feet) designed to accomodate the bodies but not the comfort of those who gathered to hear Fidel speak and for other rallies or events - people camped out to get a space there when the Pope did mass in Havana on that spot. When I stepped off the bus here, I will admit that I shed a few tears because this was the place it really sunk in that I was finally, finally in Cuba. While those who know me understand that I'm obsessed with all travel, this was the place I've wanted to see for almost 15 years. A few tears of joy were deserved and, I'll admit, they reappeared frequently throughout the rest of the trip.
Our first challenge was a group photo. After assuring an inquiring police officer that his "Chamber Connections" sign was a tour guide tool and not intended to inspire a new revolución, Erik organized his thirty new children in front of the Jose Marti memorial.
This was the only time on the trip they willingly accepted all of our cameras.
Camilo Cienfuegos' image (and yes, everyone agrees it looks like Christ) was added in 2009 on the 50th anniversary of his death. Along with Che and the Castro bros, Cienfuegos was a leader in the Revolution. He is also the namesake of the city in which I will someday live, but now I'm getting ahead of myself. The slogan means "You're doing fine, Fidel" - the famous response he gave Fidel during a moment in the 1959 Revolution rally.
A major benefit of traveling with friends: built-in photographers to prove I really was there! The Che memorial is on the building where he once worked, and was added in 1995. You'll hear much more about Che in future posts, whether you like it or not.
Jose Marti is a national hero in a way I've never seen before and he's viewed as the brain child behind Cuban independence from Spain. His bust is in momuments, schools, parks, even front yards of homes. Cubans quote his sayings as a part of daily conversation. The tower of this museum is a 358-foot star, and the design and construction became a battle between Fidel and Batista as the Revolution unfolded. The statue of Jose Marti in front is 59 feet tall.
Then it was time to pile back on the bus for a tribute to another Cuban tradition: food. Our first meal was at Don Cangrejo, in the beautiful part of Havana that used to house the middle-class and government leaders.
As if to testify of the fresh seafood we were about to eat, this nice man let us take a picture of his fishing success:
Prepare yourself for a lengthy discussion of Cubans' food later...for now, I'll just say that this supply of fish is about three times the fish he's given by the government every two weeks.
Our first welcome drink and my first ever mojito...the rum-free kind tastes delicious and is like a very upscale version of a Sonic limeade.
And though I often make fun of people who talk about what they ate, I'm going to be one of them...partly because I want to disprove every tour book that said Cuba had bad food and partly because this is my blog and I can recapture Cuba however I want.
We enjoyed live music with every meal, and it quickly became one of my favorite things about the trip. This time it was Tres con Tres, and they were delightful. The first meal was the only time every member of our group was actually happy to hear Guantanamera...a little goes a long way.
After lunch, our Revolutionary studies continued at the Museo de la Revolución.
This amazing building housed Cuban Presidents until the Revolution. The interior was designed by Tiffany & Co, and it's gorgeous. Marble covers every surface, from the floors to the walls, and the ceilings boast both paintings and exquisite carvings.
The worst way to ever visit a museum is when you’re with a group. In addition to annoying everyone around you, there is always a friendly face (or, if you’re short like me, the body attached to the friendly face) blocking exactly the exhibit you wanted to see. Despite the overcrowded, half-step-at-a-time approach, however, my time inside the Museo de la Revolucion was enjoyable. I especially enjoyed the rooms that still resembled the President’s Palace, where Batista ruled. The bullet holes from students’ attempted attack on Batista’s life in 1957 are still in the marble walls. The secret door Batista reportedly used to escape is a little worse for the wear, but still provides the mystery of the moment. The room provide for meetings of the Council of Ministers looked very much like a meeting room at Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee: ill-lit, with old pictures of Cuba’s leaders in cheap frames on the wall. The floor-to-ceiling windows open to let in fresh air and the sound from the streets below was a welcome addition, as was the shiny Cuban flag against the wall. No flag-burning debate in Cuba: Erik assured us that he could go to jail for disrespecting the Cuban flag. We already love Erik so we all tiptoed carefully around the flag to avoid any accidental contact that would signal disrespect.
If you're patient enough to look at more than 90 photos of my trek through the Museo, click here.
Then came the experience that was most unlike what the average Cuban experiences: checking into the Habana Libre hotel. I would love to experience real day-to-day Cuban living on my next visit but for now, this was amazing. All thoughts of heavy bags and travel woes were forgotten when I walked into my room on the fifteenth floor of the Melia Habana Libre. Words couldn’t ever describe it so here you go:
If your response was anything along the lines of unfinished sentences, multiple uses of exclamation points, or jaw-dropping silence, then I completely agree.