Pa’l Oriente pt.1: Trouble from the start

Ticket to Guatanamo
Ticket to Guatanamo

19 October

Down the dusty highway toward aeropuerto José Marti, the afueras of Ciudad de la Habana raced past us so quickly that I scarcely saw any people, just the hot morning sun reflecting off a sea of tin roofs. After being delayed by someone who forgot that a passport is needed in order to fly, we arrived at the small orange and blue domestic terminal of the airport. Waiting in the terminal for our forgetful companion, I was slightly nervous about getting checked in to the flight on time, and slightly more concerned about putting my faith in a Cuban airplane.

But my worries were misplaced (well, at least the former).

I had forgotten that in Cuba there is no rushing for us, for the schedule here tends to favor the tardy. The slow-moving, cigar-smoking extranjero who can’t be pried from his afternoon mojito in the sun is more than at home here, where promptness is not an exalted virtue. Not because everything starts late or is pushed back an hour, but because the feeling that there will be time enough for everything permeates the air.

Unfortunately (and maybe predictably) our flight was delayed 90 minutes, but when it came we were herded from the waiting area, to the line, and then to the sun-bathed blacktop where our plane sat, waiting to take us to Guantánamo. Upon seeing the plane (which I was told was new), my heart was a little more at ease than it had been when I first thought about the prospect of flying Cubana Air. But as I was to learn, a new plane does not mean a good plane.

After bilingual safety instructions and quiet prayers, we took off towards el Oriente (the East). From my window seat, the flat Cuban landscape seemed to extend forever. Tall palm trees speckled the island below, rising high above the other tropical vegetation, and reminding me of some place in between a Dr. Seuss novel and a prehistoric Earth. I’ve never seen so many types of verde. Occasionally dirt roads and red soil cut through the many kilometers and kilometers of green earth, and made the sight just familiar enough not to inspire amazement, but strange enough to captivate my attention.

That is until the flight attendant loudly announced that we would be reaching an altitude of 33,000 ft. And we were well on our way, rising above the hovering clouds, towards the never ending blue canvas above. And then, THUMP, and a sudden decrease in speed tore my gaze away from the window and toward my fellow passengers. I didn’t have to look at many other eyes to see that I wasn’t the only one who felt the strange sensation. Only a few minutes of semi-silent confusion had to pass before the flight crew informed us that we would be returning to aeropuerto José Marti due to technical problems (at least that’s what was announced in English; in Spanish she offered a little more: there had apparently been a small mechanical fire in a probably important part of the plane).

The bumpy return and less than reassuring landing brought a sense of flight anxiety that I haven’t felt for about 11 years. Behind all the jokes we’d made about flying in Cuba there had never been any real apprehension, until now. Karma, I guess.

When we did disembark from José Marti again, two and a half hours later, my rapidly beating heart and sunken stomach secretly betrayed the calm demeanor I allowed to the world. Even after a successful take-off and quick ascent to those 33,000 promised feet, my skepticism would not permit a second’s rest for my mind, which chose to be lucidly aware of any strange sensation that might signal more problems for the plane.

And I can only imagine the thoughts that must have been racing through the heads of the 3 cubanas accompanying us on our week-long trip, whose first experience in a plane had ended in mechanical failure.

Somewhere above eastern Cuba
Somewhere above eastern Cuba

But as we climbed into the clouds for a second time, the slow-moving earth below and sight of a not-so-distant crystalline Caribbean ocean helped to soothe my worries (that and a couple minutes of deep breaths). Whether in an underdeveloped country or not, the marvel of flying miles over our precious Earth has never ceased to inject awe and wanderlust into my blood. This feeling only increased at the sight of the approaching jungle-green mountains, whose ridges cut through the previously smooth land below, and whose peaks pierced the increasingly thick clouds. Maybe the feeling was a byproduct of reading the magical realism of García Marquez while waiting for our plane to be fixed, but I couldn’t help but think that this island gets more and more fantastical every day.

But,

Despite the spectacular view outside, the landscape could no longer hold my attention once I smelled the Cuban coffee coming down the aisle.

Tired but alive at the Guatánamo airport.
Tired but alive at the Guatánamo airport.
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