13 May, 2006

These are the black flags put up earlier this year by the Cuban government in tribute to the more than three thousand people killed in violent acts against Cuba since the revolution. But they also serve to block the scrolling sign put up by the U.S. mission which had been making some comments about human rights in Cuba.

On the way to the airport, one last look at a broken down old car.

Billboards that aren't selling sneakers.

A local bus for local people.

That sign could almost be speaking to the passing car.

One last look at Che.

A pleasant thought to leave with.

The airport - not exactly bustling.

A look inside Terminal 2 at the airport.

An odd sight - the American Airlines jet taxis up towards the terminal.

As storm clouds gather, it's goodbye to Havana.

And the luxury of Miami soon becomes visible.

My prized passport stamp that will no doubt cause me delays in the future.

13 May, 2006

Once again my internal clock woke me up before the mechanical ones did. Also, the birds helped. There are some loud-ass birds in this country. Sometimes you hear them as you're walking down a street, squawking like they're being strangled. Birds with those kind of vocal chords deserve to be six feet tall. But near our room it was more a flock of loudmouth normal sized birds who started the chattering at the first hint of dawn and didn't do much else until after sunset. So I was already up and ready to go by the time our cell phone alarms went off. Not that I got very much sleep. With me, getting up is never a problem but it's often impossible to get to sleep in the first place if I know I have to be up again in a little while. But I would survive, no doubt with the help of some coffee, Cuban or otherwise.

We settled up with the hotel for a couple of phone calls and the two bottles of water we used from the mini-refrigerator. Every day we had pretty much gone through the same routine of buying a 500ml bottle of water for $1 somewhere, sticking it in our refrigerator, and having ice cold water later on. It doesn't sound like much but even a brief walk through the streets would leave you dehydrated and having access to (presumably) fresh bottled water was a real lifesaver.

Our taxi came and we headed to the airport. I took a whole bunch of pictures as we were driving through the city, feeling like a typical tourist. We were afraid we'd be a little late and apparently there were some road issues as our driver kept trying to go up streets that had police and/or military roadblocks. He muttered all sorts of epithets and we wound up going down a lot of side streets. But eventually we got onto a highway and all was clear. Again, I was amazed at how there were no ads by the highway, only billboards praising the revolution, Fidel, Che, workers, etc. and even a couple that said some nasty things about Bush.

We arrived at the airport, only ten minutes after they had told us to be there. Check-in hadn't even started yet so we were fine. We were in Terminal 2 which was the lesser used terminal. There were four flights today, all to Miami. It was actually more than I expected. We checked in easily enough, noting that every line on our boarding pass was filled out wrong. We were flying out of the time of day, our names were our seat numbers, and the gate, destination, and our actual names were nowhere to be found. Not what I was used to.

So we milled around in the lobby for a while until we figured it was time to go through security. We witnessed a number of tearful goodbyes as Miami relatives headed back to the States. Not having any emotional farewells to deal with, we just had to figure out what to do and when. We had to first pay a $25 exit tax which completely depleted our remaining pesos (except for the $3 notes we kept - those were just too cool to let go). Then we each went to a window where a clerk took our passport, looked up some stuff on a monitor, did a lot of scribbling, and stamped our tourist cards (which they kept) and boarding passes. I asked the lady behind the glass if she would stamp my passport as well. She was very surprised that I wanted this but I assured her I did. The Cuban authorities make a point of not stamping the passports of Americans so that they won't get hassled every time they enter the United States (or at least that's the reason that makes the most sense). But I don't like to hide things like what I believe, who I'm friends with, or where I've been. If I'm going to be persecuted because I dared to go to a country my government doesn't like, I'm not about to legitimize their tactics by hiding the truth. I'm willing to explain to them each and every time why I went and what I was doing there. Plus it's a really neat thing to have in your passport.

Next there was the security check which seemed identical to the U.S. version except that the machines were a bit older. The same basic stuff was done with the exception of not having to remove your shoes or take out your laptop.

This was now a major weight off my mind. Mike wasn't worried but I was convinced I'd be questioned again as to the purpose of my visit. Sure, I was on the way out this time but I didn't know what could happen if they thought I was acting as a journalist without the proper papers. Maybe they would go through all of my notes, audio, video, and still pictures. Maybe I would be detained. Or maybe I would get a stern lecture and be forbidden from returning. But as it turned out, nothing at all unpleasant happened. We were at the gate and the next stop was the plane back home.

It was extremely odd looking out over the somewhat empty airfield and seeing a single American Airlines jet taxiing up to our gate. And I guess for legal reasons it was actually a charter flight and not really American Airlines. But it still seemed out of place here and was probably the most American object in the country at the moment. Even the cans of Coke came from Mexico, after all.

Unlike back home, nobody got upset when people took pictures, both inside and outside the terminal. I was happy to see that this time our plane was a 737 and not another prop plane. I guessed there would be less vomiting on this journey. And maybe we'd even make it back faster. There was another plane next to ours run by Frontier Airlines, also heading to Miami. This one WAS a prop and an even smaller one than what we had arrived in. I guess that works for some people but after a week of broken down cars and overheated streets, I wanted the large air-conditioned jet.

After waiting around for a while, we all headed out to the tarmac and boarded the plane using one of those staircase trucks. I prefer boarding planes like this and exiting by going all the way down to ground level and walking to the terminal, like we did when we got here. Sure, people occasionally get sucked into a jet engine or have an appendage lobbed off by an over-enthusiastic propeller. But it's so much more down to earth and real.

The moment we got on board it was as if we had immediately left Cuba. I actually wondered if we were technically on American soil now. Suddenly people were speaking English, the inside of the plane was air conditioned and nicely carpeted, and the mood just seemed less frenzied. Much as I enjoyed my time in Cuba, I was ready to come home.

The plane left on time and quickly made its way over to Florida. Total flight time was around 45 minutes. But now of course the real fun was about to begin. What do you suppose happens when you brazenly come back to the United States on a direct flight from a country that you're specifically forbidden from traveling to? Well, we could only guess. It didn't much matter that we had done this all legally. It was the perception that was enough to condemn you these days and I figured we'd be spending the four hours between flights under bright lights answering a lot of questions.

Of course, I was looking forward to this. I wasn't trying to get away with anything and I knew this was going to be a part of the trip from the outset. In a way it was a relief because all of the people I had known who traveled to Cuba did so by going through a third country such as Mexico or Canada. So they had to decide upon entering the United States whether or not to lie to the customs agents when asked what countries they had visited. And even if we had gone as journalists from those places (which sometimes can be quicker), that temptation would have still been there since listing Cuba would also draw a lot of attention at those border crossings, perhaps from guards who were less familiar with the actual policy. But here there was no choice, no temptation. Here we are, we just came from Cuba, do with us as you will.

The Passport Control guy was easy enough as always. He just took our immigration cards and stamped them. Then we moved on to another guy in a uniform whose sole job was to check to make sure we had immigration cards. (It really wasn't even possible to arrive here without one.) And then it was downstairs to a very long line of people waiting to go through customs. A uniformed woman was offering to give immigration cards to anyone who didn't have one. Just how incompetent did they think these poor people were? Or, for that matter, how skilled in somehow passing two card checkpoints without having a card? Weird.

So after waiting quite a while, we both got to the customs agent who would react one way or another upon seeing that four letter C word on our cards. Actually, Mike and I wound up going to different agents. Mine took one look at my card and said, "Oh, Cuba. Follow the yellow line." Here we go. I followed a yellow dotted line wondering what would be on the other end. Lo and behold, x-ray machines just like the ones that greeted us on our arrival in Cuba. I figured this was only the beginning so I put my bags onto the belt and walked to the other side to collect them. There was no metal detector for me to walk through, unlike in Cuba. There were also a couple of big dogs hanging out and sniffing for things we weren't supposed to have. I wondered if I was seeing my first cigar dogs.

There were other people being more carefully searched but so far nobody had said anything to me. In front of me was a door with an exit sign above it. Not wanting to appear too eager, I ambled on over to it, fully expecting to hear someone call me back. But they didn't. I walked through the door. No questions. No searches. No hassle at all.

And as it turns out, Mike had it even easier. His agent hadn't even told him to follow the yellow dots. He was free to leave with all of the people who hadn't been to Cuba! This was really unexpected. Here we were, back home, after flying from Cuba and nobody had even asked us why we went! This must be what freedom feels like.

We figured we didn't want to hang out at Miami for the next four hours so we started to see if we could get ourselves onto an earlier flight. I would have preferred not flying into LaGuardia as our return flight was scheduled to do. Of the three New York metro airports, that's the one that's the biggest pain in the ass, although you don't get ripped off on the Airtrain. But there's also the water issue - LaGuardia runways seem to go right up to the water. Not all that great if you need a little more space. Over the years, a few planes have wound up taking a dip.

We went to one of the automated check-in machines which had an option to change your flight and go stand-by at another time. This was what we wanted but the only flights seemed to also go to LaGuardia. We decided to deal with a human to see if there were more options. Unfortunately this human acted exactly like the computer in all ways and so we wound up getting what we would have gotten from the machine. The only difference was that Mike got four S's on his boarding pass. For the first time, it wasn't me who was getting the extra scrutiny! But there was also an opportunity here for a little experiment. Would Mike be able to swap his boarding pass for one that didn't have the mark of the beast? We went back to the machine and clicked on the section for people who had lost their boarding passes. Sure, it may have seemed a bit odd to lose one's boarding pass so soon after receiving it. But we had to know if this was an easy way around the system. And as it turned out, it wasn't. The machine said that it couldn't print another boarding pass and to please see an agent. We opted not to, although I've heard success stories of getting humans to issue new boarding passes without the marks, either unwittingly or on purpose.

So I went through the normal screening while Mike went through the same expanded screening we had both already gone through before boarding our flight to Havana. At this point we had gone through these procedures so many different times that it started to become rather dull. We managed to get two seats on a full plane that left two hours earlier so it worked out about as well as it could have. Soon we would be back in New York.

And we were. In fact, our plane arrived 20 minutes early. And then spent the next 25 minutes waiting for a gate to open up.

There always has to be some last hassle that shouldn't have ever happened and in my case it was tied to our arrival at LaGuardia. All I wanted to do was connect with public transportation so I could get to the Long Island Railroad. But there's only one place in LaGuardia that sells Metrocards for the buses and subways. And today that place was sold out. They offered to sell me a weekly pass for $24. No thanks, I've been conned enough for one week. You see, the problem with not being able to buy a regular Metrocard was that it made transferring to the subway impossible without having to pay a second time. I'm not sure why it's set up that way but it is. So I made it my mission to get to the LIRR without being ripped off and that involved walking a couple of miles in Queens. I actually didn't mind (even when it started to rain) but the end result with that and the abysmal LIRR schedule was that it took me more time to get home from the airport than it did to get to New York from Florida. But at least I was starting to feel a distinct chill in the air.

I found Cuba to be a really fascinating place but in all honesty I was happy to leave. Life there is difficult and too many people have to put up with a substandard way of living. It can get a bit depressing seeing this reinforced so much and it does get a little frustrating when just finding decent food turns out to be such a challenge. But this is what makes the people there strong and resilient. It's just that they deserve better. And we should certainly be treating them a lot better. The embargo clearly hasn't worked and it's only turned a tough situation into a nearly impossible one. A mere look at the prosperity of China, a country with a human rights record far worse than Cuba's, is enough to show what can happen if doors are open rather than closed. I think there's a chance for real change in China. But the policy we have towards Cuba seems to only be geared towards slow strangulation. That is both cruel to the good people living there and ultimately doomed to failure as Cubans have shown they can overcome just about anything.

I look forward to the day when Americans can visit Cuba as well as when Cubans can freely travel to places like New York. I hope to be able to show them the same hospitality they extended to me. Especially Rafael.