By Janelle Clausen & Julio Avila
The day started early…real early, well after midnight. The crew wanted one last glimpse of historic Old Havana before departing Cuba the next day…later, actually (It felt like the day before).
Most of us (Janelle went to bed– “I’m lame,” she admitted as I wrote this part) decided to go, hoping to get into a bar or two. Maybe there’d even be salsa dancing!
Breathing in that Old Havana air and walking on its cobblestone paths, there was a different aura. We crossed Paseo Marti, across the Parque Central (Central Park in English, but nowhere near the size of the real Central Park) and strolled down that aforementioned cobblestone narrow path, Obispo (The streets in Havana have no accompanied street abbreviation). It was dotted with potholes and crowded with private residences featuring paladares and workshops.
There was nothing out of the ordinary with closed shops. People were walking– both tourists and locals alike. But there was no vibrant morning crowd, leaving just night’s umbra. Only bars and a few shops remained open.
Then there was an unexpected guest: a local medium-sized caramel-colored dog that quickly followed us. The girls shrieked in awe and their hearts melted beholding this pooch. They named the dog “Perro” (Spanish for “dog”).
Perro followed us all around Old Havana. We walked down to the Plaza de Armas, down another another street, turning right onto Muralla, a dark wet street. It was not like Obispo. This street was, for lack of better terms, sketchy.
But the locals are friendly at night too. There was the occasional “Que Bonita…Hola Linda…Sexy” and “Que Bonita”– How Beautiful.
“Welcome to Cuba,” they said afterwards in English– A bit late for the greeting, I thought. While the girls received most of the attention, I had a moment of glory from a local lady. “Que fuerte,” she said– How strong.
Emerging from Dragones, the latter portion of Muralla, we were back onto Paseo de Marti. The Cuban Capital building was adjacent to the road, its dome and spire under renovation. The building was fenced off with notices of the renovation.
Some of the girls strayed back into Old Havana, perhaps to a bar, while some of us returned to the Hotel. Nevertheless, Perro wandered off, becoming distant and keepsake memory. It was already 2 a.m.
Later in the day (that morning) Emily and Janelle were taking bets on the weather. It was totally going to be sunny, they concluded, just to mock us. It’d be the final sting to a bittersweet departure from Cuba. Some wanted to go. But plenty declared they were going to miss this little island nation, both for its novelty and its cast of characters.
Technically, that wasn’t wrong. The sun sometimes broke through the clouds, reminding us how beautiful the Cuban sky can be.
But we were inside for most of that. Half of the team went to try finishing their stories (or so we imagine), while others went to a lecture by Marc Frank, the longest serving foreign correspondent in Cuba. He summarized all we had learned on this adventure. We got an interview on camera about Cuba’s future, too.
Upon returning to the Ingleterra and readying our stuff, Janelle and I ran out to do a stand-up about American-Cuban relations. We jumped about the Parque Centrale, hunting for the best place to shoot. The background was often over-exposed, as if heaven was descending upon us (Cuba’s close to heaven, but not quite there).
Then came the rain. Lots and lots of rain.
“Protect the camera!” we declared, taking shelter underneath the trees. We shielded the equipment with the camera bag and our torsos, discussing how to tackle this problem. The rain worsened. Still, we tried doing a stand-up.
“Julio, we can’t possibly do this right now,” Janelle concluded. She was right…
Until we fetched umbrellas from the bus, that is.
We got my umbrella and then Renier, the kindest bus driver ever, offered his so we’d both have one. Eventually, with the rain randomly worsening and lightening, we got it done and took off to finish Janelle’s story about soccer’s rising popularity.
We spoke to a taxi biker, an older gentleman, Afro-Cuban, and even a man who’d been to the Rafael Trejo boxing gym. This was a cast of characters you could only find in Havana, and that was just surrounding the hotel.
We then rushed back to the bus, hoping to get back in time for a 1:30 return deadline. We ended up being amongst the first. The final person didn’t come back until 1:47 (hooray for running on Cuban time!)
The rain probably hid the tears as we bid Rei, Chris, and Eva farewell when arriving at José Marti Internationale. The line of people checking their bags spiraled around and around. There was confusion, too, about where the New York people would go. For a long time there was only a line for Miami and Fort Lauderdale, apparently.
I wouldn’t have minded those places. But ultimately, that got corrected. Once we were through with that, we went through customs and somehow– SOMEHOW– I managed to get a bottle of rum through.
Try doing that in the United States.
We wisely avoided airport food, sustaining ourselves on Twix bars, Coca-Cola and patience. Julio and Professor Ricioppo both bought some Cuban Rum at the “duty-free” shops that were placed in sealed plastic bags with a red border around it, reading “do not open.”
There was one horror story of how a group with a morning flight had been delayed several times, before they could actually board. Considering it looked like a hurricane outside, some thought that’d be us. We’d be stuck in Havana forever.
The display monitors mocked us. It said our fight was “on time,” but that was a lie. It was like the Long Island Rail Road, where a train is still considered “on-time,” despite being a few minutes delayed. Perhaps a flight is still considered “on time” even if it’s under an hour late? I digress.
The group passed the time conversing among themselves and reading. At one point, they each shared their seat numbers. The guys got the biggest surprise. Professor Ricoppo, Julio and Professor Howell sat in the same row, in that order.
“Why couldn’t I get a skinny person sitting next to me,” Ricioppo joked.
But after a roughly hour-long delay, we were called. As we’d done in the beginning, we slowly moved up to board a bus. Considering our plane was probably just a good 200 feet away, we wondered aloud why this was even necessary. Janelle and company seemed ready to sprint through the rain, even if it meant risking getting hit by said bus (people don’t have the right of way here).
We inhaled our last dose of Cuban air before boarding. Some went to sleep, while the seasoned travellers took to their books and forms. It would only be a three hour flight. We couldn’t see Havana from the window, but envisioning it wasn’t hard. It was the place that changed our lives.
Our plane, a JetBlue Airbus A320, just got the last few bags into its luggage compartment and slowly taxied onto the runway. The plane ceased moving for a few minutes. I could see the headlights of an approaching plane coming closer and closer until finally landing. It was a minute-sized plane, perhaps a military jet.
The plane moved, accelerated and lifted off the runway. The plane soon ascended through the storm clouds, the turbulence heavy for a few moments. We then saw a calm sunset over the blanket of clouds. “This is what heaven must be like,” Julio said.
The flight attendants were offering jetBlue’s “Eat-Up boxes,” and at $7 a pop, Professor Ricioppo bought two and Professor Howell bought one. I took advantage of the complimentary snacks and drinks– and some well-missed Dunkin Donuts coffee.
The flight was nothing unusual. Speckles and streams of streetlights and buildings could be seen later on, back in American airspace.
When we entered JFK Airport, Janelle couldn’t stop going on about how shiny and fast everything was. She joked about it with the staff. She kept saying how the speed of the baggage claim gave her an adrenaline rush. Everything was a roller coaster!
That didn’t mean she, like the rest of the crew, didn’t enjoy being on Cuban time. Janelle wouldn’t stop talking about it with her parents and grandma later. There were so many adventures, like trekking through the mud, interviewing all sorts of diplomats and journalists, enjoying pollution-light air, and talking with some of the kindest people she’d ever met– and that’s just scratching the surface.
Random stories are going to keep coming out for weeks, if not months to come.