It is day 2 of my adventure and I am in Cuba. Seriously, can you believe it?!?! J Most of the day was spent getting to the airport, getting my ticket and waiting to board the plane. Everything took forever, and due to the unusual-ness of my situation, everything had a covert feel about it. The other violin maker, Martin, had arranged for my ticket and none of the rules seemed to apply….instead, I stood in my own line, had a certain person I had to work with and was greeted by name, even though I had not even produced my passport yet! Oscar, the ticket agent was ready for me and treated me wonderfully, so covert operation or not, I was in. While waiting for my ticket, one of the young men who worked for the airline asked if I had ever flown to Cuba before. When I said no, he smiled kindly and said, “Don’t be scared”. I grinned and said, “Who, me? I am not scared!” But I did wonder what he meant by that……
When we finally walked out to the plane, for the first time in this whole process, I had some serious misgivings. Now, I know what he meant by that.
I am pretty sure that the plane was about 135 years old. Seriously….peeling paint, bald tires…the whole bit. Geeesh….I don’t like to fly anyway, but this was really pushing it! When I got on, it turned out that I didn’t have a seat assignment, but the flight attendant waved her hand and said “Sit anywhere…the plane is empty!”. Well, the plane seated 48 and was half empty…..but it took me three tries to find a seat that worked! The first one actually laid down flat into the seat behind it!! J Well, I snuck a quick peek at my phone to make sure that there were no, “Get off the plane, I have a bad feeling about this!!” messages from anyone that I knew, and seeing that there were none, I figured I was ok. J
I spent the flight writing in my journal and only looked up when the flight attendant passed out meals. This is a two hour flight and they served a meal! Who does that anymore?! And THEN….she offered me the beverage of my choice…coke, water, fresca, orange soda, wine or a Cuba libre!! For those of you that have not seen the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, that is a rum and coke! Who does THAT on a plane!!? No charge…just welcome to Cuba. J Needless to say, I was all in. That was followed by a shot of Cuban coffee, very strong and very sweet. What more could a girl ask for? It also goes without saying that on this flight, there was none of that ‘switch languages in the middle of the flight’ moments. However, they did try and repeat some of the announcements in English, which I am certain, were solely for my benefit. I know that tourists go to Cuba, and the people on my flight might not have been Cuban nationals, but they were all definitely Latin. Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore…..
When we finally touched down everyone was craning to see out of the windows (none of that silly ‘keep your seat belts fastened’ on this flight!) and there was a smattering of applause. I got all bubbly and teary…I am in Cuba!!! Then the nerves settled in. All I have been hearing from Martin is that Cuban customs is a nightmare. They held him for over three hours last time and as of two days ago; I did not have the appropriate paperwork to enter the country. Mom and I joked about me being like Tom Hanks in that movie where he got stuck in the airport, but once I entered the…ahem…terminal, I knew that spending the week here would be no joke. A large, yellow metal room with nothing in it. Except a drug dog sniffing everyone’s luggage and a whole lot of scary looking people in uniform. I eyed the rows of doors nervously…..supposedly, that is where they take everyone to question you. “Be nice”, Martin has been imploring me for the last month. “Just be nice…be patient and don’t argue”.
First, the guard steered me towards an immigration booth that said VIP and the guy behind the glass eyed me suspiciously and kept saying something in Spanish that I did not understand. I finally figured out that he was telling me to stop piling all of my paperwork on his counter. As he asked questions, I stammered through an attempt at explaining why I was here. In Spanish. Note to self….the next time you fly to a Communist country, learn how to say why you are there in Spanish!!! However, after several minutes of my stumbling over my words and him glaring at me, he sighed and handed me my paperwork. “Adios”, he said as he pushed the buzzer to unlock the door. I made a quick escape, thanking God for the millionth time for the ‘yes’ face that I have been blessed with. J
After that, I picked up my luggage and headed for the customs guy. I was not looking forward to trying to explain horse hair, super glue and chisels to these guys in Spanish. I started to dig out my paperwork that says why I am here and why they should let me in and that I am harmless. I opened my mouth to say “Hola” and he opened the door and said, “Buenos tardes. Have a nice day”. I was so surprised that I almost forgot to move!! But then I did. I grinned and headed out that door before he could change his mind and search my bags.
15 minutes start to finish….it has to be a record for Cuban immigration!! J J
A tall, handsome young man walked up and said, “Are you Anna?” Merlin, my new Cuban friend and guide for the week, was here and life is officially grand. He helped me to a car driven by his friend Carlos, a fiat copy that is literally falling apart. Carlos explains that to have a car in Cuba is very rare and that his car is his priceless, prized possession. To me, it was wonderful. After a quick blur of Spanish, Merlin asked if I liked beer and the car veered into a gas station. The next thing I know, we are rolling through downtown Santiago, windows rolled down, salsa music playing loudly, sipping beers and laughing. (Carlos, our driver was, of course, NOT sipping any beer!) J Seriously…does it get any better than this?!
Santiago is…well, it is just something else. I have to pinch myself to see if I am really here! You know how everyone says that in Cuba it is still 1955? Well, that is totally true. But you have to imagine that everything stopped then, but that time kept going. So all of the buildings are falling apart, and paint is peeling everywhere. Yet, it is beautiful! It is very, very clean and the age of the buildings doesn’t keep the original pastels from glowing in the sunset. It is obvious that there is a lot of poverty, but it has an order about it that is very interesting. There are cars going every which way, and the occasional donkey-drawn cart ambling down the road. It is a little chaotic, but still comfortable, and by far the calmest Latin city I have visited to date. J There are people walking arm in arm up and down the streets, while others congregate on corners and in doorways. You get the idea that they are enjoying the twilight and the relief from the oppressive heat. Lights are starting to turn on and more and more music is playing as we drive through the neighborhoods.
As we drive, Merlin tells me about his work repairing instruments and performing with the symphony. He is a bass player too, and when I told him that I played also, he said that we have to play together. He has a duet transcription of the Eccles Sonata and declares that tomorrow we will play it. “You do read music?” he asks worriedly. After assuring him that I do, it was settled. After quite a bit of driving around to get my money changed, and a quick stop at the house that I am staying at, Merlin took me to his apartment. He spent the whole day patching and painting the walls and took a lot of pride in it. We hung out with Carlos for a while and were soon joined by a friend of Merlin’s that is a saxophone player. Merlin’s mother sent over some dinner and we ate around a small table under the light of a hanging lamp. His apartment is small and peaceful and I am touched to see how proud he is of it. He is 27 years old, but I get the idea that 27 here is more like 19 in America. He and his friends are all single and have a youthfulness about them that reminds me of the students I taught in Haiti. I feel completely at home with them, even though I can’t understand most of what they are saying. J
After catching me yawning, Merlin took me for a quick visit to meet his family, which live three doors down. I was able to give them the giant bag of M&Ms that I had brought for them and they smiled and passed them around before I said goodnight. We had one more quick stop….a nearby apartment where I can pay $1 for a half hour of internet use. Well, it took 20 minutes to find a way to email mom and dad and tell them that I am safe. Between the dial up speed and the fact that Cuba doesn’t seem to like AOL or Yahoo, I was finally able to log onto Gmail and was able to send a quick message home saying that I am in one piece and that life is great. Now I am back at the house and am eyeing the bed. The mosquitoes are voracious, (as they were in Santo Domingo) and if I can get my bites to stop itching, I might just get some sleep before Merlin is back to get me at 8 tomorrow morning.