By Briceyda Landaverde
Last night, I could not sleep. This coming morning I was about to embark on a trip to a place where most Americans are forbidden to visit, even today few have seen.
Briana and I arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport five hours before the flight, scheduled to depart at 12:00 p.m., and two hours before our meet time. Our excitement and anxieties propelled us to arrive as the sun was rising.
While we waited for the rest of our group to arrive we debated if we should check in our luggage, we decided to get on line. When we reached the counter I confidently said we were there to check-in our luggage for our flight to Havana, Cuba. The flight attendant at the desk said we were in the wrong area and to head downstairs. We took it as a sign to wait patiently for the rest of our group.
Shortly after, we received a text from Alexa, she had arrived at JFK, as she walked our way she swayed her body in joy. Following her, Kayla arrived with her parents and before we knew it, we were only missing the final four – Ivana, Julio, Professor Ricioppo and Professor Howell.
All together, we headed downstairs to check-into to our trip: Journalism Without Walls to Cuba.
Check-in with Cuba Travel Services went by smoothly, for the most part. As we all weighed our luggage, some of us realized that we were over the 44-pound limit, including myself. Emily realized the size of her luggage was the size of Ivana’s carry-on, everyone has different understandings of “packing lightly,” and we all fell into laughter.
Having checked-in our luggage, we headed feeling a little lighter to Gate 24. Before boarding on flight 8801, some of us enjoyed our last American beverage, fruit smoothies.
Just a few minutes before noon, the plane was headed for departure and we were more ready than ever, our phones on airplane mode, carry-ons in the overhead and our seatbelts buckled. To our surprise, the plane appeared to be an average size — we were worried what the design of a charter plane entailed.
A little over three hours later and we touched down in Havana. Many passengers clapped in delight, while Alexa, who sat next to met, started silently chanting, “We’re in Cuba.”
Ivana, who utilized Verizon as her cell phone carrier, turned her phone off airplane mode, and realized she was connected to the Cellular Telephone Company of Cuba, CUBACEL. She was able to receive text from the United States. Students who did not have Verizon were unable to connect to CUBACEL.
After waiting for what seemed an eternity, we felt the warm weather hit us when we got off the plane. We went through security fairly quickly but didn’t know what awaited us.
By 3:30 p.m. we were all gathered together and prepared to pick up our luggage. While we waited, we took turns going to the bathroom as others watched our belongings. In the airport bathroom, we discovered there were no toilet seats, and scarce supply of toilet paper, something that is common in Cuba. Then a blackout occurred, something that is also very common in Cuba. We hopelessly sat on the floor of the airport feeling tired and hungry but our thrill did not go away.
After two hours of waiting for luggage, we were ready to step out and discover Cuba, we were greeted by Chris and Eva, our tour guides. With each other, we headed to our designated bus for the week, bus number 3631, and met Renier, the bus driver.
I immediately noticed the cars — it was like we had traveled back in time.
Our first stop of the trip was the Plaza de la Revolucion, one of Havana’s most active public squares. Before leaving the plaza, Professor Howell noticed he did not have his Nikon camera on him. Unable to find his camera, Professor Howell took a taxi to the airport.
We checked in to the Hotel Capri, located in the Vedado neighborhood, and were immediately greeted with a welcome beverage, it was a mixture of orange and blue and it was a bit warm. After sipping our drinks, we headed to our rooms, where we only had thirty minutes to prepare for our dinner reservations at Paladar Rio Mar located at La Puntilla in Miramar.
At the paladar, we separated into two tables overlooking the water. Professor Howell met us back at the dinner with his camera. Our welcome drink was a mojito; the first of what would be many during our trip. We were served appetizers including a tray of meat and cheese. For our entree we received either fish or lamb, served with white rice and beans. To end the night we had flan as dessert. As the dinner came to an end, some students were ready to call it a night.
It was time to catch up on missed sleep from the night before.
At the hotel, it was only a matter of seconds before we were all off to our own corners. As I lay on my bed, I thought of all the stimulating and insightful events ahead of us. I was prepared to conquer Cuba.