I couldn’t wait to set foot on Forbidden Land.
Even through the blackness of night, I was going to see Cuba!
The first thing I saw were uniformed guards.
Right off the pages of textbook American-View-of-Cuba 101.
The uniforms were brown, not olive green as I expected. And there were no AK’s being pointed at us just to remind us we were in communist Cuba. But the airport guards’ facial expressions were deadly serious, semi-threatening, wholly intimidating – sin duda (without doubt).
It made me feel like being really, really careful.
I smiled at a couple of the guards, but was met with intimidating stares that made me feel like a grinning idiot. The customs official behind the big glass window also wore an intimidating expression. She stared at me aggressively, impudently, contemptuously – or was I reading more into her unwelcoming eyes?
Were U.S. customs officials this intimidating? I tried to remember, but couldn’t. Was it that Cuban guards weren’t allowed to smile? Were they required to look intimidating?
Was this a communist decree?
But I thought I could see something else behind the cold stares. Something human. Or human-like. Even in the eyes of the customs official behind the big glass window.
So, I smiled at her.
She lifted her lip, and snarled.
Okay, I’ve snarled at people before. Even thought about lifting my leg, and spraying the worst assholes. But I wasn’t being an asshole to that customs official. I was just smiling. Is that asshole-y in communist Cuba?
Or was it my American passport that brought out the beast in her? After all, my president is enforcing a strangulating embargo against her daily life.
Then, for some reason, I launched into the worst Spanish I’ve ever spoken. Which made her smirk. Her eyes softened as I earnestly tripped and stumbled over irregular verbs and conjugations, and she actually engaged in willing conversation with me. She even offered not to stamp my passport to keep me from “getting into trouble” with American customs officials when I returned home.
Feeling much braver, I smiled at the next customs official as he deadpanned me, and rifled through my luggage, flinging my neatly packed clothing over his shoulder. I managed to engage him in conversation, too – which eventually had him smiling, and helpfully assisting me with Spanish verb tenses.
It was a beautiful thing, and went far in making me feel less paranoid about being in this U.S.-declared terrorist-sponsoring nation.
Our travel group was met at the luggage carousel by one of the American group leaders and Armando, our Cuban ‘facilitator’ who would be our direct link to all things Cuban, our pathway into the Cuban mind.
We were led to a big, yellow bus a la grade school (minus the shock absorbers), where we hoisted up our heavy luggage ourselves – no baggage handlers here.
Then off we bumped into the night.
Our driver’s name was Jando. He took my breath away when I saw him because he’s an ebonized replica of my dad. Same knowing, penetrating eyes, easy smile, and aged-Herculean physique. I spent more than the polite glance staring at his deeply-lined face, graying hair, and amazon stature. I stared so long that I hope he doesn’t think I’m a rude, insulated American who’s never seen a foreigner before.
As we lurched along the dark road, the first thing that hit me was a familiar smell. I remember it from my first trips to Haiti & Madagascar. It’s the thick, smoky-pungent smell of third world countries. It wafted in on the night air thru the open bus windows, reminding me that I’m no longer in America, that things are going to be very different now.
I love that smell.
It’s a smell that reminds me of just how big the world is, how filled with different cultures, how far from the homogeneity of the U.S. I have ventured. It’s a smell that brings my feet directly in touch with the ground and keeps them there because there is no safety net, no flitting off toward the many luxuries I’m used to in America.
It’s a smell that opens my mind.
I sat in a squat on my seat, so I could see out of the upper, open portion of the window; they were those windows that pull only halfway down from the top.
My face in the hot wind, I could make out the silhouettes of palm trees against the black night, and the shadowy ripples of an ocean I knew was there from the marine smell and momentary reflections of occasional twinkling lights.
Basking in the humid night air, engulfed in that scent I love, watching the black palms go by, I didn’t even mind that I couldn’t actually see Cuba yet.
And I wondered what I would see when I finally could…
After about a 40 min. ride from the airport, we pulled up in front of a dark building & parked. We all debajo-ed (disembark) the bus, hefted our own luggage again (note to self: pack less!), and herded down a narrow, outdoor corridor.
The Cuban facilitator, Armando, told us that this building is an NGO which receives most of its donation $$ from Europe. It’s a big building with a church (huh?!) annex, and as we filed past the church we all peered into the windows curiously because isn’t religion not supposed to be allowed in Cuba? Isn’t that one of the human rights violations of which our government accuses Castro?
The corridor opened into a wide, cement courtyard with artful graffiti decorating one huge wall of another annexed building which houses bathroom stalls (with no toilet tissue or soap, we discovered – ah, foreign bathrooms 🙂 ).
The graffiti mural was royally colorful, creative, and beautiful: peace signs, faces, stanzas of poems by Cuba’s father of independence Jose Martí, and quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And there was a caption of sorts beneath it all: “Romper el Bloqueo” (Stop the Blockade; i.e. the U.S. embargo against Cuba).
This was my first evidence of how Cubans here feel about our embargo against them. Made me feel guilty. Because, even though I’m against the embargo too, I belong to the country who is implementing it. Worse, I am one of the citizens who remains silent about the injustice of it.
Leaving our luggage there in the dark courtyard, we were shuffled into a dining hall where we sat at long wooden tables covered with plastic tablecloths, and served a midnight snack just after midnight.
Bread, guava, bananas, and succulent green oranges. I have never seen green oranges before, but now that I’ve devoured, like, 4 of them, I don’t see how I’ll ever be able to settle for the far less succulent neon oranges back in the states again.
The fruit here is fresh & tart in that way that fruit is only in tropical countries. It’s one of the things I always miss like crazy after returning home from the tropics. And from the trying-to-be-mannerly-but-not-even-close-to-succeeding slurping sounds around the tables, I wasn’t the only one enamored of tropical fruit.
There was a ‘safe’ water cooler against one wall, and we were instructed to fill our water bottles from this cooler for clean drinking water. Those who didn’t bring a water bottle from the states would have to make do with small plastic cups in their rooms until going to town. Was relieved I never leave for any trip without my Camelbak bladder, and a backup Nalgene bottle in my pack.
“Where’s the cheese?” somebody asked.
“Yeah, there’s bread but no cheese,” someone else piped up.
“Or wine,” another person added.
The American group leaders shrugged, and appeared to be pressing back smiles as they answered, “No, there’s no cheese. Sorry. And you can pretty much forget about wine with dinner unless we hit the tourist circuit.”
I was having a fine time with the tropical fruit, thinking that if this was any indication of meals to come, we were in for ambrosial feasts of the palate.
“Diary of An American Girl’s Journeys to the Forbidden Land.”