Isaac Taylor – As I sit here in the Jose Marti International airport in Havana waiting to go back to the States, I’m reflecting back to our first day – a mere two days ago – when we made our voyage from Miami to Havana. I say a “mere” two days ago because it seems as if we’ve been in the gorgeous country of Cuba for at least a week. My fellow Wallies agree.
We had a long wait in the Miami airport before we were allowed to go through TSA security, during which we patiently waited for Debbie, our travel agent from Common Ground, to collect our passports and various papers so she could go through initial check-in for us. We all were antsy from standing for so long, so Dr. Hollander led us to a small Cuban food stall where he purchased a bit of Cuban coffee for us to share. Cubans enjoy their coffee in a much different fashion than we norteamericanos. The amount a person drinks at once is only a couple ounces because it is extremely strong and sweet. When I downed the coffee shot, it wasn’t long until I was alert and somewhat jittery. But it was so good and I knew I had to find some once the opportunity arose in Cuba.
The flight to Cuba was less than an hour. Upon touchdown, we simply went down the steps that were rolled up to the plane and stepped out onto the tarmac. The warm, wet air, palm trees, and bright orange and blue colors of the airport immediately made me feel as if I’d travelled to a different planet. Smiling was irresistible, and I sighed with happiness.
I’ll only gloss over security and immigration because it was a breeze. They checked my papers in a booth and then I went through a metal detector – much easier than in the States. The most exciting part of leaving the airport was when we went outside and there were hundreds of Cubans waiting on their friends and families to arrive. (We still felt like rock stars by pretending it was for us, though.) In a minute or two we spotted William Burrowes, our guide for the trip. Within a few sentences, I could tell that he was going to be an amazing man who would show us more than we could find on our own in the beautiful city of Havana. William is 62, a native Cuban with no intent on leaving, and a staunch defender of the Revolution of 1959. By the end of the day, it became clear that he could provide a perspective that no American textbook ever could. Perspective is everything.
We were supposed to take a bus tour of the city en route to our hotel, but since our flight was delayed, we only had time to go straight to the Hotel Plaza in Old Habana, the eastern section of Havana. Hotel Plaza was built in 1909. The wealth and decadence of that time shone through in its architecture. We had to quickly check-in and drop off our bags because it was time to enjoy our first meal in Havana.
El Tiempo is a restaurant in Old Habana where, like so many Cuban restaurants, a good number of the tables are outdoors. We had the privilege of eating at these particular tables, situated near the street but covered by tent-like awnings. The cool evening air drifted through, contributing more authenticity to the atmosphere. Our meal was fresh red snapper, and I indulged in a mojito and a Bucaneer beer, authentic Cuban cerveza. (I am 21, not that it particularly matters in Cuba…)
We hopped on our private bus and went back to the hotel. A few of us got together and decided to explore it. We went up to the top of the hotel on the roof where breakfast would be served the following morning, but found out that there was much more to the roof than that area. In the dark, with only the city lights from below reflecting off the buildings around us, we navigated the rest of the roof and ended up above the entrance to the hotel, which was at the corner of two streets. We could look out and see El Capitolio Nacional, the capitol building of Havana, among numerous other buildings in Old Habana, including the old Bacardi building, which looks quite like a Bacardi bottle of rum. Patrick Bryant ’16 noted how the city was relatively quiet, even though roughly one million people live there. Refreshed doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt.
Next Kalp Juthani ‘15 told us that he poked around enough and found an employee-only elevator in the back part of the hotel. At first, the rest of us didn’t want to use it, but after a bit of convincing, we piled in. Once we reached the bottom, we stepped out and found ourselves in the back hallways of the hotel staff. Kalp led us to our door and then all of a sudden we were back in the lobby, where we rejoined with the rest of our group. Education in proper cigar smoking followed, as Bailey mentioned in his post.
The surprises I encountered that first day are many, but the most important realization was the near universal friendly and accommodating nature of the Cuban people. Sure, they like tourists for our money, but I think that even if it wasn’t for our money, they would still be amiable, curious, loving, and bursting with culture. Cuba would be nothing without the genuine beauty of its people. Hopefully the embargo will be lifted soon that every person in the States can have the chance to go to Cuba and meet its fabulous inhabitants and enjoy their culture.