Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cuba, Part 8

There was no avoiding him, now.

The big man moved toward us, at a leisurely pace. The other three guys were left rubbing their hands over the oil drum fire and watching.

Danielle and I let go of our suitcase handles, and stopped, wondering what the guy would say to us. I was more than a bit concerned. I noted, for the umpteenth time, that absolutely no one was around, as he got nearer to us. If these guys weren't friendly we were going to have to make a run for it. This thought didn't fill me with joy because I realized that I could outrun them, but Danielle probably couldn't. I very much doubted that any of those guys could catch me, but if Danielle weren't fast enough, that would render the point completely mute.

"Are you guys lost?" he asked us, almost with a laugh, stopping just arm's length away. He said it a bit hesitantly, though, as if he weren't quite sure what language we spoke.

"We were looking for a hotel down the road," I answered, pointing ahead of us, into the darkness.

"It's a little late to be looking for a hotel, isn't it?" he chuckled once again. Then he looked back at his friends and bellowed, "They are looking for a hotel in the middle of the night, during a blackout, what luck, eh?!!"

This was, of course, followed by peels of laughter from the peanut gallery around the oil drum. One of them even slapped his knee as if it were the funniest thing in the entire world.

"Is there a hotel down there?" Danielle asked impatiently. At this point, we were definitely a little pissed, not to mention tired and hungry. And we both knew there was absolutely no way we were getting any food for hours.

"Where are you from?" the big man asked Danielle, completely ignoring her question.

"Canada," she replied casually, as if she had lived there her entire life. Good job! We had discussed this before, and we were prepared.

"You don't sound Canadian," the man remarked thoughtfully. It was becoming clear to me that everyone in the world spoke at least two languages, except, of course, Americans.

"We live on the border, in Vancouver, there's not much of an accent in that city," she explained to him.

Danielle was cool as a cucumber under pressure, I had to hand it to her. If she had succeeded in fooling him, all the sudden we were just regular world travelers. Possibly without a cent in our pockets. But had he pegged us for Americans, he would have known instantly that we were packing a wad of greenbacks.

The man leaned back to address his friends again, "They're Canadian! We love Canadians, don't we guys?!!"

The guys started hooting and hollering like it was the Fourth of July. They must have been pretty lit up. I noticed all the empty beer bottles around the oil drum. Quite a lot of bottles, in fact.

"I still can't believe you came to Cuba in the middle of the night during a blackout! That's not the safest timing, is it? I think maybe me and my friends should walk you to the hotel. We wouldn't want anything to happen to you!" and he motioned for his three friends to come over and join us.

Now, I was definitely nervous. I didn't like the comment about the safety of our timing at all. I studied Danielle's face which seemed to say, 'It's a little dicey, but I think it will be alright.'

"C'mon," the leader said once the three men walked over, still drinking their bottles. "We'll show you where it is."

The five of us walked down the road, hopefully toward lodging...


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cuba, Part 7

The humid air covered us like a blanket in the night. We could see a decent amount of stars in the sky courtesy of the blackout. It was considerably cooler now, so the humidity was not bothersome. Danielle and I stood there for a second, suitcases at the ready, amazed at our arrival. We were in Havana, alone at last, ready for an adventure. And quite possibly sooner than we would have liked.

I looked at my watch. It was 2:00 in the morning. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, (the only light coming from a three-quarter's moon), I looked, again, down the long, gravel road with low slung storefronts all along the right side. On the left, I saw mostly crumbling edifices of varying heights. I was willing to bet that there were squatters in all of them. The buildings were falling apart while the people were living in them. The residents of the top floors probably had to watch for holes in the flooring. That would make for a very dangerous trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night, indeed.

I reached down with my left hand and felt the outside edge of my pocket to reassure myself that the two bulges were still there. A rubber-banded roll of hundreds and one roll of twenties, each totaling one thousand U.S. dollars. Thus, one bulge was quite a bit bigger than the other. That meant that my left pocket represented about 97 percent of my life savings at that point, and I was feeling a bit protective of it. The bank of The Hollywood Machine. I should have hung a sign on my pocket that read, "Apply within for micro loans!"

Whatever hotel supposedly resided 'only three blocks down' according to our new friend Melanie, I didn't see any people in front of it. I glanced in the direction that our friends had just gone with the car. I didn't see or hear another car in the vicinity.

Danielle smiled widely at me, pulling at her suitcase to suggest movement, content as a meadowlark. You'd think we weren't in a place we knew nothing about, who's denizens may or may not detest Americans, in the middle of the night, during a blackout, with no native currency on our persons, whatsoever. It was as if she were taking a stroll on a lovely, spring day down the wide and convivial Champs-Élysées, twirling a parisol, en route to a trendy boutique! Life couldn't have been more wonderful or serene! Mais oui, le bon temps, n'est-ce pas?!

I grabbed the handle of my suitcase and it made a loud noise as it telescoped out with a snap, and Danielle and I rolled our suitcases, side by side, over the gravel, making approximately as much noise as a stadium-held Monster Truck Rally. For some reason, the sound echoed between the two sides of the street, amplifying it, and it pierced the otherwise silent night quite forcefully.

As we rolled along, Danielle pointed to the dilapidated, crumbling apartment buildings on the left side of the street and remarked on their faded beauty, and the imposing prominence of their arched entrances which tended to be a couple of stories high, at least. It was mostly the tops of the buildings that were in bad shape. That, and the fact that all the glass from the windows was long gone. It was just open-air, with clothes lines drying out the day's laundry in front of some of them. Trying to keep bugs and insects out of the living spaces was an unthinkable luxury.

Danielle continued to expound, quite loudly, upon the architecture, and the raw beauty of everything around her as her hands gestured and mirrored her passion for the various discoveries.

"Look at the entrances!! They're so incredibly huge and GRAND! It's amazing here!!"

I tried to reply, delicately. I didn't want to dampen her enthusiasm.

"Danielle, can we keep it down just a bit? I'm excited, too, but this may not be the very best time to attract a bunch of attention." I suggested, pointed at the bulge inside my left pocket.

The truth of the matter was: we had no idea where we were, and it was almost too dark to even read a map.

"Oh come on! We didn't travel to Cuba to be timid and worry about everything. You've really got to lighten up a little!" she laughed.

I was, again, surprised and impressed with her insouciance to the utterly unknown. Perhaps I was being unreasonable, but I really didn't think so. I genuinely felt that the situation warranted at least a little bit of caution.

"Alright, I'll try, but maybe we'll talk low just to humor the gringo."

"I'm so glad we came!" she exclaimed.

"Me too!" I agreed.

And I was. I felt like an animal in the wild. My hearing seemed to improve three-fold. My pupils widened like saucers to absorb more light. In short, my entire system was on high alert.

Danielle was right. I did tend to worry too much. I told myself to relax a little. I tried to imagine the tension from my body collectively draining out thru my feet and into the gravel and soil beneath it. To some degree, I succeeded, and began to enjoy the scenery more...even though, there really wasn't that much to see.

We walked three blocks and there was no hotel there. I can't say that it surprised me one bit. Dammit! I had a feeling that Melanie didn't know what she was talking about it. Just dropping us off, in the middle of nowhere to fend for ourselves. I stewed about it for a minute, then dismissed it. We kept walking.

"That's pretty much what I thought would happen," I said to Danielle, evenly.

"It must be close by," she muttered. She was a bit annoyed, also.

We walked another three blocks. Good thing we both owned good suitcases with tough wheels. There were some restaurants and some boarded-up houses or businesses. Some were (perhaps clothing?) shops with heavy iron girders behind the glass. Every shop that had a window, had a set of large iron bars behind it. It didn't seem like a particularly good part of town.

Then, I heard voices, and turned my head away from the nearest shop window.

Ahead of us, in the distance, there was a group of men huddled around a fire in what looked like an old, oil drum. I heard the distinctive clink of beer bottles and hearty laughter. It seemed strange that they were huddled around a fire, until I remembered that might be the only source of light for many blocks in every direction. Plus, perhaps it was slightly chilly. Danielle and I just hadn't noticed because we were walking and lugging our heavy suitcases down the road.

We kept walking toward them, Danielle still pointing to architectural wonders and almost yelling their valuable idiosyncrasies to me in bullet point fashion. I was discreetly eyeing the men, then, eyeballing the next several blocks down the road. There was no one.

Now we were fairly close, about a city-sized block, and all the men stopped talking at once. The two men with their backs toward us, turned. They were now staring at us, almost in disbelief, it seemed.

Danielle hardly noticed them, being fixated on the left side of the street like she was.

I thought to myself: "Really? You don't notice four guys drinking and laughing around a fire made inside an oildrum with no one else around for miles, in the middle of the night, but you notice that the window sills are more prominent and ornate, here?"

Even after all this time, Danielle still surprised and fascinated me. We were very different in certain fundamental ways.

Rolling, and continuing to be noisier than hell breaking loose, we were almost upon the four gentleman who now issued a few whispers amongst themselves, and were all still staring at us. Danielle finally noticed them and her architecture/urban planning 101 lesson dropped off quickly.

I smiled at them, self consciously, and then regretted doing so. I probably even would have tipped my hat at them, if I'd been wearing one, as if we were in the old West on the way to a saloon with those high-waisted swinging doors. I should have just kept walking and ignored them completely, but that wouldn't have been right, either. Not one of them smiled back in response. Their bearded, tanned faces barely moved, inscrutable. The crackle of the fire was suddenly very loud as we walked by. It smelled like gasoline.

For a moment, it looked as if we'd just pass by them without incident, but then the largest one started walking toward us.

I found the continued whispering of the other three men around the fire extremely annoying. What the hell need was there to whisper? No one was even around for Chrissakes!


Friday, September 18, 2009

Cuba, Part 6

I stood there, at the edge of the hotel lobby, watching the old men play chess. A few minutes passed, and neither of them so much as glanced in my direction. The old man closer to me, hunched over on the stool, disembarked and headed around the corner, presumably to the bathroom.

The concierge guy, who bore a striking resemblance to Castro, picked up his glass of whisky and took a sip, fully savoring his libation. He then held the glass near his waist and stroked his beard in contemplation of the unknown, still not paying any attention to me.

I was fascinated by the level of customer service, but I decided not to let it bother me.

As I stood before him, his look indicated that my presence was an unthinkable intrusion on his privacy. I decided to proceed in English and save us both the hassle of my broken Spanish. This grand old hotel was expensive for Cuba (about a hundred-plus bucks per night), and I sensed that English was spoken here frequently.

"Excuse me, do you have any rooms available for the night?" I asked the old curmudgeon.

He glared at me for a few moments before answering.

"Look at you! I haven't even put my glass down yet! (and he swirled the whisky in his glass for emphasis) You Americans! I want to give you some advise about Cuba, if you will permit me...."

"Sure," I agreed. I liked how he was about to go off on a tirade, but he used the phrase, 'if you will permit me', like he'd become British for just 1.5 seconds. It was hard to be mad at the old man for some reason. He had that tough guy charm.

"While in Cuba, never start a conversation with a request or a demand. Try something like: 'Good Evening, how are you?' In life, there is always time to be polite. It's very American to start out asking for this or that, and it is not an attractive quality."

"Well, it's a good point. I'll remember that," I conceded with a smile. His advice was not bad, one had to admit.

"Now, what can I do for you?" he asked with genuine concern.

"I'd like to know if you have any rooms available tonight, please."

He thumbed thru some pages of a large, yellowed book next to the chess board.

"We do not have anything tonight or tomorrow night, but we have some available after that. Would you like to reserve a room?"

"No thanks, I have to get to back to my friends waiting outside in the car. Have a great night!"

"Good luck, and enjoy your stay in Cuba!" he exclaimed just as his friend reappeared from around the corner and made his way back to the stool.

'Interesting,' I thought to myself as I walked across the lobby toward the door. I turned around for one last look to see them both concentrating on the board, again, like nothing had happened. I liked the old coot.

I ran down the hill, back to the car, and got in.

"Well?" Danielle asked me once I was seated.

"Nothing available. Any advise, Melanie?"

Melanie thought for a moment.

"I know. We'll drop you off at a place where there are a bunch of hotels, not far from old town Havana. One of them will have a room for sure."

"Sounds good," Danielle replied.

It took us about ten minutes of driving to get to the place that Melanie was talking about.

I looked outside the car window.

"Why is it so dark out there?" I asked her.

"There was probably a power outage," she replied as if it were no big deal.

"It's almost pitch black out there, are you sure it's going to be safe?" I probed further.

"Definitely. The hotel is only a few blocks down on the right. You will be fine." she replied.

I looked over at Danielle. She seemed completely unconcerned. I regarded that as a good sign.

"Well, thank you all. We really appreciate the ride!"

Melanie translated for us and her boyfriend and the driver smiled at us, saying something in Spanish that I could not understand. Probably something to do with us having a good trip.

Everyone got out of the car, the boys helped us get our luggage out of the trunk and we said our final goodbyes with hugs all around. And, of course, we got Melanie's contact information to meet up later in the week for a little dancing.

The car took off and we were left on a pitch black gravel road with no one in sight.

Now that I was outside, and I could see that it was pitch black for a mile in every direction, and I didn't see anyone else at all, and I had approximately two thousand US dollars in my left pocket...I didn't feel so good about this situation. A terrible feeling crept up on me and was making its way to my brainstem.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Cuba, Part 5

Danielle and I waited until the two lovebirds disengaged, before we approached them.

Melanie introduced us to her boyfriend, Reydel. He couldn't take his eyes off of Melanie. He was quite excited!

"Welcome to Cuba," Reydel said softly, with decent pronunciation.

"Should we go?" Melanie asked him.

"Yes. My friend is coming," he replied. He stumbled a bit, but he wasn't bad.

The four of us went outside, in front of Jose Marti airport and I felt a wall of humidity, much greater than Cancun's, hit us. My suitcase even felt heavier. I looked at my watch. It was midnight.

We stood outside, in the middle of a moving crowd, and Reydel looked for his friend's car. He didn't see anything and that made me nervous. Danielle and I didn't have a hotel.

"Maybe Danielle and I should take a cab," I suggested to Melanie.

Reydel understood what I was saying and replied.

"No, it is expensive!" he said, raising his voice above a whisper for the first time.

I wasn't sure if I should insist. I didn't want to be rude. I looked at Danielle for some input.

"We should go with them," she said to me, "we don't even know where we're going, anyways!"

She had a point. We did have a guidebook with addresses, but still. Maybe midnight was not the time to figure out the lay of the land for two Americans by themselves. The sky was an inky dark blue with the outline of a few clouds barely visible, and the blanket of humidity pressed down.

Cars pulled up nearby, and it was a thrill to see the '50s American automobiles working perfectly. Truly, it was like a time warp. I had almost forgotten that cars used to look like that. Spacious and sprawling with those big, angular fins for taillights. Much friendlier than they look these days, but, still with purpose and vigor.

We waited about half an hour before Reydel's friend pulled up to the curb in front of us, and got out of the car.

Another round of introductions had me shaking hands with Manuel, the driver, who it appeared spoke no English at all.

As I got into the car, I noticed a wire clothes hangar protruding from the back, near the rear window, that was functioning as an antennae. It was a symbolic reminder of the embargo. There would be no re-ordering of car parts from the U.S. Everything had to be makeshift from here on out. I suddenly realized that there must be a lot of good mechanics in Cuba.

More old-timey American cars passed by, and I had the strong urge for a vanilla milkshake. Any reference to the 50's always made me thinks of diners, milkshakes, and roller rinks.

We all got seated in the car, with Reydel in the passenger seat, and Melanie, Danielle and I in the back. The stuffing was coming out to the vinyl seats and there was junk all over the floor. The roof liner was also coming down around our heads a little bit, but I couldn't have been more comfortable. I was glad to be with people we knew.

Reydel turned back to address me.

"Where?" he said, pointing to the guidebook in my hand.

"La Fortuna, por favor," and I gave him the address of the hotel which was on the outskirts of old town Havana.

Reydel repeated the address to Manuel and we were off. Danielle and Melanie started talking and my mind drifted off somewhere. As we hit the road and got away from the airport, I noticed two things that surprised me, while looking out of my window. The first was that Havana had one hell of a lot of billboards. Just like the United States, but more so.

The difference was that ALL the billboards were government propaganda. They would say things like "Cuba, Si!!" in huge red graphic letters, as if the emphatic support of the Cuban government on a billboard would brainwash an entire population. Which it sort of did, actually. The second thing was that Havana had their stoplights positioned sideways. They looked cooler that way, I thought.

It took us about twenty minutes to arrive at the hotel, which I could not even see from the car window.

Manuel came to a stop at the base of a very steep hill. The grounds were well manicured, with lots of trees and shrubbery of uniform height. Concrete steps ascended to the hotel, which looked like a mansion, yet small in comparison to all the landscaping surrounding it.

I asked Reydel if it would be possible to wait while I checked on the availability.

"Sure," he said.

But Melanie fidgeted with her hands in a way that made me nervous. She really wanted to go home.

"OK. I'll be right back."

I walked briskly up the oversize, concrete steps which had small, wrought-iron lamps every twenty feet or so, casting a small circle of light. It would have been pitch black without them. I looked at my watch. It was just after 1 a.m.

The entrance to La Fortuna featured a very tall and massive wooden door with a brass handle. I pulled it open with my body weight and proceeded into the lobby. It was so stunning in its antiquity and stillness that I paused to take it all in. There were black and white marble floors throughout, large, intricately carved wooden cabinets and tables, and, about fifty feet in front of me was the concierge area where an old man, (who didn't look completely unlike Fidel Castro), stroked his beard and considered his next move on the chess board in front of him. He took a puff of his cigar and adjusted his cap, concentrating.

His opponent was perched on the edge of his stool, hovering over the board, engrossed in the game as well. Neither of them even so much as looked up from the board when I came in. It's not that they didn't hear me. They had to have heard me, it was silent as a tomb for chrissakes! They just simply didn't care that someone had come in. They both had rocks glasses of alcohol in front of them, (presumably whisky), that had created large, wet rings around them from the condensation, which shone from the overhead light above the board.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Mom, still here. Prevents me from finishing Cuba Story.

Mom still here.

Asking me question such as:

"Why is your computer screen so LARGE? Is that really necessary? Is that good for your EYES?!!! Jesus Christ, that thing is ENORMOUS! What THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU KIDS THESE DAYS!!?"

or more personal questions such as:

"Why do you own so many pairs of green underwear? Did you purchase those in Buenos Aires? Is that what YOU DO WHEN YOU GO DOWN THERE??"


"Why is your freezer filled with chipwiches? Chipwiches do not count as dinner!"

But I am taking her to the airport, shortly.

I'm going to miss having Mom around, I can tell. Moms are cool. For one thing, you never have to do the dishes! I haven't done one g*dam*** dish in two weeks.

Regular posting, including the next part of the Cuba story, to resume shortly.

Perhaps I should cut down on the green underwear.

And, for the record: I did purchase them in Buenos Aires.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Mom is here.

Y'all will have to excuse my semi-regular posting this week.

The typing noise keeps my Mom awake, (who has super-human hearing), and then I feel guilty so I type really slowly, and then it takes me two hours to type four sentences.

So, in the meantime I shall be dealing with a huge ant infestation in my apartment (which has probably only ever had five bugs in it, total, in the four years that I have lived here). I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the interminable string of 95 degree-plus days we've had in Los Angeles, recently.

Spraying white vinegar was the google recommendation by the way.

The only problem is...

My apartment smells like a giant salad.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Cuba, Part 4

We landed at Jose Marti airport, in Havana, deplaned, and we were all funneled into the customs area by a long series of corridors.

Customs was already filled with people. Apparently, another plane had arrived recently. The ceiling lamps, (that were not defunct), cast a yellowish-green fluorescent light upon us and buzzed hypnotically.

Ahead, lay the roped-off area to the booths where the customs officials were all stationed in a row. The booths were numbered one through eight. Danielle and Melanie got in line 4 and I got in line 5. I figured we couldn't put all our eggs in one customs official, er...basket.

The line moved slowly. The officials would chat with tourists while they leisurely perused their passports. Other times, they'd finish smoking their cigarettes while talking amongst themselves, and carefully stamp them out in the ashtray before calling the next person in line. Time, it seemed, did stand still in Cuba.

Then, it was my turn.

As I approached the official, I observed that he didn't look too friendly. The thick, wiry mustache, pursed lips, and dark brown eyes dared me to do anything out of line. I looked back at Danielle with an expression that said, "Well...whatever happens, happens!"

I got to the booth and stood in front of the guy. We were separated by the standard, thick piece of glass with a little semicircle cut out of the bottom to slide the passport thru. He lit up a new cigarette, puffed a few times, and a miasma of fumes filled the tiny, yellowed booth.

He eyed me up and down, silently. He was evaluating something, but I'll be damned if I knew what it was.

"Pasaporte, por favor," he asked perfunctorily.

I paused, sounding it out one last time in my head. Then, the words came out of my mouth.

"Soy americano. No estampe por favor mi pasaporte," I pleaded, holding myself as confidently as possible and sliding the passport thru the open space in the glass partition. I remembered that I had twenty U.S. dollars in my left pocket. But would I have the guts to bribe him if it came down to it? How much trouble could that get me in? Bribing a customs official in a country where I wasn't supposed to be? I shook it off, mentally.

He grabbed the passport, or maybe his mustache grabbed it, and he was still staring me down while he did so. He waited a few extra seconds before he looked at the cover of the passport that has "United States of America" written across it. Then, he actually whistled. One of those long whistles that authoritative figures sometimes make when taking a subordinate to task, and then he proceeded to leaf thru it and examine each page carefully. At some point, he must have noticed that all of my facial muscles sank in unison because, then, he started laughing. Not exactly a belly laugh, but it was uncomfortable for me, the gringo.

"Don't worry, man," he said, his face lighting up with a mischievous glee, "I'm not gonna stamp your passport. I knew you were American before you even came up to the window."

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. A long exhale.

He took out a small piece of paper, with the Cuban flag on it, from underneath the counter, stamped it, and tucked it inside my passport before handing it back to me. I turned completely around to booth four, but it was Melanie at the booth. Danielle was still behind her.

"Have a nice trip in Cuba! I hope you enjoy your stay!" he said to me with perfect English.

"Thank you very much...I will!" I replied overeagerly, and rolled my suitcase to the other side of customs, and, officially, into Cuba!

I watched Danielle go through without a hitch. Her customs guy went through the exact same process and, finally, wished her a pleasant journey.

These guys weren't trying to get one extra penny out of us! And God knows, we would have been happy to give it to them. They must have been under strict orders not to take any bribes. Imagine how much extra money they could make! But I guess it wasn't kosher with Fidel. So, therefore, no one did it.

Danielle came up next to me, rolling her large, black suitcase which looked almost identical to mine. As she did so, we saw Melanie running to greet her Cuban boyfriend. He was shorter than I had pictured, but handsome enough. The two embraced and kissed and I had to turn away. The passion of the re-union was almost blinding in a way. were we gonna get to our hotel...oh, wait, we didn't even have a hotel!


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Cuba, Part 3

Danielle and I paid for the tickets to Havana and headed over to the airport bar. There was a large window looking out onto the tarmac. It looked as if it were about to rain, and there were no airplanes in sight. Just a set of metal stairs sitting in the middle of the runway, leading to the clouds. It made for a great picture.

We sat down and waited for someone to come over and take our order. The bar was pretty much full. I wondered if all these people were going to Cuba.

"Can you believe she said that?" I asked Danielle, referring to the ticket lady's comment that Cuban planes might land 'whenever they felt like it.'

"It did seem a bit on the casual side," Danielle laughed.

"It's a good thing we're not in a hurry," Danielle added.

"That's true." I agreed.

The waitress came over and we ordered a couple of margaritas with salt.

While we were chatting, a girl sat down at the table next to us. She looked to be about 21. I guessed that she was a student.

"Hi, I'm Melanie," she said, introducing herself. She probably felt she had to do that because the tables were so close together.

"Hello! I'm Scott, and this is Danielle. Join us for a margarita! We heard it could be a while."

"Oh, it will," Melanie affirmed.

Danielle and I looked at each other and she spoke first.

"Were we the only ones not to get the memo on Cuban planes always being late?"

"It's a well known problem," Melanie remarked.

Well known to whom? I thought to myself. She was just a kid!

"What else do we have to watch out for?" I asked her.

"You guys are going illegally, aren't you?" she asked.


"I don't know much about that because I've always gone legally. I'm doing research for school, so I can get special permission from the government. And...(and here she actually blushed a little bit), my boyfriend lives in Havana."

"You've been to Cuba before?" Danielle asked, surprised.

"This is my third time."

"Wow." I said.

Melanie talked about her boyfriend for a while, and shared the story of how they'd met, and she gave us some advice on places to see in Havana, and before we all knew it, four hours had passed and we were all sauced from the rounds of margaritas. The sky was getting darker through the window as we waited. A storm was brewing. Our plane was already two hours late, as advertised, so we made the best of it and continued chatting. Melanie was good company.

Finally, six hours after we had sat down, a small Soviet plane rolled slowly onto the tarmac with the Cubana Airlines logo painted on the side. It was an old wartime prop plane. It almost looked like a toy out there with nothing else around it. Our flight number was called over the loudspeaker, and I started to get a little nervous. it was really happening! We were going to Cuba!

About twenty of us filtered thru the door and walked across the tarmac to the little plane, rolling our suitcases. Two men pushed the flight of stairs I had seen earlier, up against the plane so that everyone could board.

As we entered the aircraft and prepared to sit down, I had the distinct feeling that this metal rat trap was held together with chewing gum and clothes hangers. I never get nervous boarding planes. I simply don't have any fear of them. But this time, I did. This thing was old and rickety!

Danielle and I sat next to each other, of course, and I studied her face for any sign of nervousness, but there wasn't a trace of concern. Perhaps I didn't know her as well as I thought. One of the passengers probably could have jumped into the aisle with a machine gun, threatening to take over the plane, and Danielle would have calmly gotten out of her seat and dispatched him with a karate chop or two, and thrown him thru the hatch and onto the runway, wiping her hands together a few times for added aplomb.

After everyone was settled, the captain announced Havana as our destination, and the plane took off, a little skittishly, the propeller blaring, window glass vibrating madly against the plastic framework, but everything held together and it seemed as if we'd make it without landing in the drink.

Throughout the flight, I kept practicing the phrase "I'm American. Please don't stamp my passport!" in Spanish. It was only a few words, but I had a lot riding on that sentence. If the customs official in Havana stamped my passport it would be game over. But I made myself relax and forget about all that. After all, I didn't go on this vacation to worry about what could go wrong the whole time.

I pushed my seat back further, and prepared for the unknown...